Category Archives: military

Killing Horses, Freeing Slaves at Yorktown, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1999-2026:

While Washington believed that a joint American-French assault on New York was the best option, Rochambeau was less than convinced. Their tenuous strategy sessions changed, however, in August when the French commander received a message from the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. In his letter de Grasse claimed that he was en route to Virginia with twenty-nine warships and over three thousand troops, but with hurricane season at hand and other pressing matters in the Caribbean, he could only remain until October. Time was now of the essence, and Washington and Rochambeau believed that if the Admiral de Grasse could blockade Chesapeake Bay with his fleet, Cornwallis could be trapped at his new operational headquarters of Yorktown. On August 19, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march to Virginia; it would be the first time that the American commander had been home in over six years.

By October 14, the scene that was playing out at Yorktown was the stuff of legend. The Admiral de Grasse had successfully blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the city itself was surrounded by almost nineteen thousand American and French soldiers. Like a great wall they fanned around Cornwallis’s forces, trapping them on all sides, and with de Grasse’s fleet in place the British were completely cut off from the outside world. For more than three weeks this had been the setting for General George Washington and the American rebels’ finest hour. It was also a welcome opportunity for the French to deliver a crushing blow courtesy of their world-famous brand of siege warfare.

Inside his headquarters in the besieged city, Cornwallis was growing desperate. His ramparts were being descended on at a rapid rate, and his food supply was running low. Clinton had sent reinforcements southward, but they would be unable to break the French blockade over the Chesapeake. To save vital stores for his men, Cornwallis had taken to extreme measures in a futile attempt to hold out for support. With supplies running low, the general ordered that all of the army’s horses be slaughtered at once and thrown into the York River. [Hessian Captain Johann] Ewald wrote that within days the tide brought the bloated carcasses back to shore, and his Germans were haunted by the somber and chilling sight. In the waning hours of what would be his last battle in North America, the British general took his desperate attempt to hold out a step further. After killing the camp’s livestock to save grain for his men, Cornwallis looked to further eliminate any usage of food that he considered unnecessary. His next demand though would trouble Ewald more than nearly any other experienced yet in America.

On October 15 the general ordered that all slaves, with no discrimination between men, women, or children, be expelled from the camp. In a wave of frenzy these people were thrust from behind British lines and abandoned in the no-man’s-land between Cornwallis and his besiegers. As the enslaved families scattered in the confused melee, Ewald could not sit back and watch. On his own initiative, the captain and his party of Jägers leapt from behind their defensive lines to drive the abandoned people to safety. Ewald recalled the event with great vigor and explained that he led a party of his men into the teeth of the firefight at their own risk. He continued by stating that in hindsight the order was far too dangerous to justify at the time, but he and his Germans could only think of the young families in harm’s way. They were overcome with the desire to usher them to safety.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1781, THE WHITE FLAG OF TRUCE FLEW OVER THE British position at Yorktown and Cornwallis had surrendered.

Today is the second anniversary of the sudden death of my closest brother, just one day short of his 64th birthday. He was a history professor who never got to finish his book on mercenaries (broadly defined) in Colonial America, including Capt. John Smith and Cmdr. John Paul Jones (who later fought for Russia against the Turks). My brother had many stories of mercenaries who proved more rational and humane than the citizen soldiers whose causes they were supporting. John Paul Jones, for instance, was horrified at Russian tactics against Turkish troops and civilians, and the Hessian captain Ewald in the passage above was as deeply disturbed by the barbaric tactics of the Iroquoian allies of the British as he was by Cornwallis’s decision to expel slaves from his besieged forces in Yorktown.

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Filed under Britain, food, military, slavery, U.S., war

British–German Army Rental Contracts, 1776

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 326-348:

By January 1776 the British Empire had drafted agreements with five separate German princes including the regional powerhouse of Hesse-Cassel and its sister state of Hesse-Hanau. Along with these treaties there were also signed agreements with Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Anspach-Beyreuth, and the Principality of Waldeck. Later in 1777 the empire would ultimately settle terms with the relatively minor state of Anhalt-Zerbst, bringing their final treaty count to six separate German entities. Although these states would all furnish armies to sail to America and fight George Washington’s Continental Army, like all things in the Holy Roman Empire not all were equal in their contribution. The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel Frederick II supplied the single largest armed force, 16,992 men, for a total sum of £2,959,800. The Duke of Brunswick provided 5,723 souls for £750,000, and Hesse-Hanau lent 2,422 men for £343,000. Margrave Karl Alexander of Anspach-Bayreuth sent 2,353 men, and signing over the least amount of soldiers were Prince Frederick of Waldeck at 1,225 and Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst at 1,160 for £109,120.

The treaties originally signed with the six individual German princes differed from each other in specifics, but all effectively offered the same general terms. The armies were “rented” for a term of six, seven, or eight years and the agreed-upon subsidy would go directly to the landgrave, duke, or margrave who ratified the treaty. The individual soldiers forced to serve in North America would receive none of those funds, but would be paid by the British Empire at roughly the same rate that they would pay their own regular soldiers. While the treaties were agreed upon in principle there were still small line items to be negotiated. One such point of contention was that some of the German princes demanded that London pay the soldiers’ salaries to the princes directly; British administrators balked at this assertion as they were almost certain that the dishonest German rulers would simply pocket the money for themselves. Another issue was the inevitable matter of wartime casualties, in which the British offered to reimburse the states for each man lost. Perhaps the most startling development, though, came from the inclusion of a contracted casualty reimbursement; for every man killed or wounded their prince would be additionally compensated in turn. The German soldier traveled to the New World knowing that he was, quite literally, worth more dead than alive.

By the winter of 1776 the British Empire had contracted nearly eighteen thousand German soldiers to travel to North America and suppress the growing revolt that was stirring in the Atlantic colonies. Of those men over half were provided by Hesse-Cassel, therefore the term “Hessian” would be generically applied to all German auxiliaries employed in the New World. For the unlucky soldier commanded by his feudal lord to travel across the sea and battle the American rebels there was little hope; they were doomed to fight a rebellion for which they stood to gain nothing.

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Europe’s Rent-an-Army Era after 1763

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 280-95:

The close of the Seven Years’ War saw a great reshuffling of Europe’s imperial hierarchy, and with each great power attempting to reestablish itself within the new geopolitical order. The 1763 Peace of Paris established the northern kingdom of Prussia as the supreme German state in the region and its ruler Frederick the Great proved to be a magnetic and respected enlightened politician. To the south Prussia was challenged for regional superiority only by the long-standing European power broker of Austria.

As Prussia and Austria gained prominence in central Europe in the wake of the postwar reorganization, the smaller polities began to do whatever was necessary to maintain relevance in an ever changing world. For those left out of the Austro-Prussian sphere of influence, there were few ways to remain competitive in the international arena. There were few natural resources to sell on the open market and because of their tiny territorial possessions, few found realistic opportunities to expand their wealth. While they lacked the commodities typically associated with increased revenue through wider economic pursuits, it seemed the only true domestic product that many of the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire had to offer were the people themselves. With a large population held in subjugation due to an adherence to a dying feudal system, many regional German rulers began exploring new ways to turn their otherwise shrinking revenue streams into hefty channels of profit. Their means of doing so became known as Soldatenhandel, or the soldier trade. Typically speaking, the small states of the German empire, like Hesse-Cassel, bolstered their army’s numbers through either conscription or hiring mercenaries themselves, but few ever considered actually renting their armies to outside powers. When it was discovered that there was a market for such an unusual practice as Soldatenhandel, the kings and lords of the German countryside began to dramatically increase their draft totals. By 1776 in the simplest terms the otherwise insignificant German states made themselves relevant to the great powers of Europe by offering their own citizens to the highest bidder.

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North Korean Career Hopes

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1455-1466:

You would expect between school friends a more honest conversation about our hopes for the future, and what we wanted to do with our lives, and that did happen, to an extent. But by the time we were ready to graduate, we had learned to trim our expectations in line with our songbun. Our choices fell within a certain range. In my class, the few of us with good songbun either took the university entrance exam or, if they were boys, went straight to military service. A few were able, through family connections, to land good jobs with the police or the Bowibu. More than half the students in my class were in the songbun ‘hostile’ category. A list of their names was sent to a government office in Hyesan, where officials assigned them to mines and farms. One girl from this group took the test to enter university, and passed, but was not permitted to go.

My good songbun meant I could plan. My dreams were private and modest. I wanted to be an accordionist. It’s a popular instrument in North Korea and a woman who could play it well had no difficulty making a living. That would be my official career, but, like my mother, I also wanted to trade, start an illicit business, and make money. I thought this would be exciting. I also knew that it would be the only way to ensure that my own family, when one day I had children of my own, would have enough to eat.

My mother fully supported the accordion career choice, and found a musician from the theatre in Hyesan to give me tuition. She said my father would have been pleased, as he’d always enjoyed accordion music. This made me cry.

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A Child’s First Execution

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1216-1239:

‘Look.’ In a voice full of wonder the teacher said: ‘Even the dragonflies are sad at the Great Leader’s death.’

She was being serious, and we took the comment uncritically.

After the mourning period, as I’d feared might happen, punishment awaited those who had shed too few tears. On the day classes resumed the entire student body gathered in front of the school to hurl criticism and abuse at a girl accused of faking her tears. The girl was terrified, and this time really crying. I felt sorry for her, but my main emotion was relief. As a fake crier myself, I was just glad no one had seen through my performance.

Many adults across the city were similarly accused and the Bowibu made a spate of arrests. It wasn’t long before notices began appearing, giving the time and place for clusters of public executions.

It is mandatory from elementary school to attend public executions. Often classes would be cancelled so students could go. Factories would send their workers, to ensure a large crowd. I always tried to avoid attending, but on one occasion that summer I made an exception, because I knew one of the men being killed. Many people in Hyesan knew him. You might think the execution of an acquaintance is the last thing you’d want to see. In fact, people made excuses not to go if they didn’t know the victim. But if they knew the victim, they felt obliged to go, as they would to a funeral.

He was in his twenties and always seemed to have money. He was popular with the girls, and had followers among the city’s hoodlums. His crime was helping people to escape to China and selling banned goods. But his real offence was to continue his illegal activity during the mourning period following Kim Il-sung’s death.

He was to be shot along with three others at Hyesan Airport, a common site for executions. The three men were brought out of a van before a large crowd waiting in the glaring heat. Immediately, people around me began to whisper. The popular guy had to be lifted up and dragged to the post by a group of police, with the tips of his feet scraping along in the dust. He seemed half dead already.

Each of the three had his head, chest and waist tied to a stake. His hands and feet were tied together behind the stake. A perfunctory people’s trial opened, in which the judge announced that the criminals had confessed their crimes. He asked if they had any last words. He wasn’t expecting a response, since all three had been gagged and had stones pushed into their mouths to stop them cursing the regime with their final breath.

Three uniformed marksmen then lined up opposite each of them, and took aim. The marksmen’s faces were flushed, I noticed. Executioners were known to drink alcohol beforehand. The noise of the reports ricocheted in the dry air – three shots, the first in the head; the second in the chest; the third in the stomach. When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist. His family had been forced to watch from the front row.

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Shanghai, 1937: Taking No Prisoners

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2993-3008:

The maltreatment of prisoners was mutual. Accounts of Japanese prisoners being kept for long by the Chinese were virtually non-existent. Frequently, this was due to circumstances at the front, whether in the urban areas or the surrounding countryside. Under confusing and dangerous battlefield conditions, there was simply nowhere to place captives. Officers saved themselves endless trouble by simply ordering prisoners killed. However, even when facilities were available, nothing was done to accommodate enemy POWs. Dutchman de Fremery never saw or heard about a single instance of any Japanese troops being among the 20,000 injured soldiers being treated at Chinese hospitals in the Shanghai area.

Especially at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, the treatment of Japanese prisoners at the hands of the Chinese “beggared belief” and marked a throw-back to a less-civilized past, according to the German war correspondent Lily Abegg. Often civilians took part in the maltreatment of captured Japanese. Abegg mentioned an example of two Japanese pilots who were shot down during a raid of Nanjing. They were “torn to pieces” by a furious mob, and when military police arrived they could not find a single trace of them remaining on the scene.

The killing of Japanese prisoners, often in a horrific fashion, was a source of concern for the Chinese command. It wanted to be able to show off well-treated prisoners for propaganda purposes, and doubtless, it also wanted to exploit the captives for their intelligence value. In the end, it offered a money prize for any Chinese, soldier or civilian, who was able to hand over a living Japanese prisoner to the authorities. However, this had little effect. “The soldier’s hatred toward the Japanese,” a Chinese general said a little later in the war, “is enormous. It’s impossible to have a prisoner delivered to headquarters although we pay from 50 to 100 yuan upon delivery, and there are severe punishments for not doing so. The soldiers say that the prisoners die along the way.”

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Qualities of Japanese Soldiers in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1427-1458:

Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

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