Tours, Blue Springs, Heartbreak and “Landing Day”

Most weeks this blog discusses births, deaths, and the occasional battle, but today battles in France, Tennessee and Korea will occupy us.  Decisive warfare, defined as an action that concludes a conflict, has been an elusive thing.  More common before national and industrial warfare, the subject was covered exhaustively by the late Russell Weigley in Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Battle brom Breitenfeld to Waterloo.

But Tours, our first battle from 10 October, 732, predates any battle in Weigley’s work by nearly a thousand years.  Also called Poitiers (which makes it confused with the 1356 battle between the English and the French by that name) and, by Arab sources, the Palace of the Martyrs, Tours was one of the actions covered by Victor Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.  After two centuries of incursions into former Roman provinces of Gaul, the Franks and Burgundians (proto-French) under Charles, Prince of the Franks, defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate under the command of Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Governor-General of al-Andalus, a province of modern Spain that then bordered Aquitaine.  Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.  The battle did stop further Umayyad incursions into “Christian” Europe, and formed the basis for the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne.  Three things are known for certain: Charles, the grandfather of Charlemagne, earned the nickname “Martellus, the Hammer” (Martel), Al Ghafiqi was killed in the fight, and the Franks fought the battle without horse cavalry. The location, thought to be at the junction of the Clain and Vienne rivers between Tours and Poitiers in north-central France, has been the site of several archeological digs with mixed results, other than to establish that at least two pre-industrial battles were fought there.

Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.

Much more recently, much more is known about a little-known 10 October, 1863 skirmish in Tennessee. Confederate forces under John S. Williams met a part of Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio. A Federal cavalry division under Samuel Carter at Bulls Gap on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad in Greene County clashed on 3 October, sparred for a week, and met in earnest a Blue Springs on 10 October. By then, the Federal horse soldiers had been reinforced by infantry. After a day of indecisive fighting, Edward Ferrero’s 1st Division of IX Corps attacked the Confederates, breaking their line just before dark.  The Confederates withdrew into Virginia.  Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar: East Tennessee was being cleared of Confederate troops.  Much less well known than Tours, the Civil War in East Tennessee has been graced with a good account by Earl Hess, The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennesseea few memoirs, and that’s about it.

Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar

On 10 October 1951, after a little more than a year of bloody and inconclusive fighting in Korea, a rather messy and prolonged fight over another mass of hills began.  This one was nearly seven miles long and about a mile north of Bloody Ridge, near Chorwon, and was called Heartbreak Ridge by the American forces, Bataille de Crèvecœur by the French, Wendengli by the Chinese (who also confuse it with Triangle Hill a year later). The fighting for Heartbreak started as early as 13 September, but the main UN attack began on 10 October.  The US 2nd Infantry Division and an attached French battalion were savaged in piecemeal fights over limited objectives by well-entrenched NKPA (North Korean) and PVA (Chinese) forces before a concerted armored thrust was mounted 11 October into the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy the communist supply dumps there. While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.  Eventually, forces from South Korea, the Netherlands and the Philippines joined the American and French in the battle.  While the United Nations forces “won” Heartbreak, senior planners were horrified at the cost (nearly 3,700 UN to over 25,000 Chinese and North Korean).  The cost of such attacks by the casualty-averse UN forces would be weighed against the “benefits” gained against opponents that disregarded losses.  Arned Hinshaw’s Heartbreak Ridge: Korea 1951 is a worthy effort, and the only known book-length treatment of Heartbreak, aside from a couple of novels (one of which was the basis for the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge that had absolutely nothing to do with Korea).  There is also an excellent description in T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War.

While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.

Today, the second Monday in October, 2016, is designated as “Landing Day,” a Federal holiday in the United States, that is intended to “honor” all the many discoverers of the New World by concluding that the all arrived on some floating day in October.  Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean on 12 October 1492.  From the 19th century up to the 1970s Columbus was regularly honored in the United States on 12 October, but since then the Italian explorer has become associated with slavery, oppression, disease, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of what are now North and South America.  Further, certain influential groups have determined that the “other discoverers” of the Americas, such as the Norse and Polynesians, should also be honored.  This gesture would have a great deal more meaning if, a) history had any idea who these discoverers were by name (Leif Erickson is thought to have led the Norse expedition that may have hung around Newfoundland briefly ca 1000 AD), and b) if there were any contemporary records of their “discoveries” that would have made them have some meaning.  As it is, the current reasoning only makes for an excuse to make another three-day weekend for banks and some Federal workers. While this correspondent doesn’t get a day off for it and doesn’t recall even the Active Army doing it, his wife does.

Eh, whatever.  Another excuse for pre-Christmas sales.




The End of the Monster

On 4 March 1953, the Soviet Union stood still, for its great driver was gone.  On that day, it was finally confirmed, Joseph Stalin was dead.

It took long enough.  He had probably had a stroke at least two days before he was found alone in his home near Moscow.  Even his closest aides were too afraid of his violent temper to check on him, since he hadn’t been heard from.  When one brave soul finally did, even his closest associates were afraid of a trap and refused to help.

Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvilli (or Jugashvil) on 18 December 1878 in the Russian province of Georgia, his life was one of more or less constant turmoil, conflict, revenge and frank paranoia.  A professional revolutionary from a young age when he took the name Stalin (which, depending on sources, means either “man of steel” from the Czech or “son of Lin,” the province where he was born), very little about his career relied on anything more than power, fear, and intimidation.  As one of the first of Lenin’s associates to reach Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II, Stalin took a prominent role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the November revolution in 1917, and even then his habits of first isolating then liquidating all opposition, rivals (including, it is said by some, Lenin), and any others that dared to even appear to oppose him or what he wanted.

From the forced collectivization of the 1920s and the liquidation of the “kulaks,” through the Terror of the 1930s, Stalin’s sole goal was the promotion of his personal program for the aggregation of power under his control.  For him, “revolution” was for his personal benefit even if he did everything “in the name of the Soviet people.”  Married twice, his first wife died after less than two years with him; her family was wiped out in the purges.  His second wife may or may not have been murdered.  His children hated him, mostly, but his grandson sued a newspaper for libel because it called Stalin a “bloodthirsty cannibal,” a suit he lost.  Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Germans in 1941; Stalin refused to exchange him for Friedrich Paulus, the unlucky commander at Stalingrad.

But it was Stalin’s iron will that held the Soviet Union in the war in 1941, even after appalling casualties completely wiped out his prewar army in the first seven months.  The forced collectivization paid for the factories that turned out more armor than the rest of the world combined.  The immense system of labor camps spent less time in price negotiations and more in mining iron and aluminum and digging canals, albeit at the cost of a million prisoners a quarter.

But eventually Stalin’s image of himself caught up with him, and in his fear he turned on even his closest friends, including his chief secret policeman, Laverenti Beria.  As he slowed down, his last meeting with his generals had to do with Korea, and the inability of the Chinese and their North Korean allies to either make a breakthrough on the fighting front or the diplomatic.  “Purge them all,” he is said to have replied, “then launch another offensive.  The Americans won’t fight much longer.”  Within three weeks of Stalin’s death a temporary accord had been reached, and three months later the war was over.

Russia At War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond contains an essay on the life of Stalin by John D. Beatty.  Available in hardback and Kindle at fine booksellers everywhere.

Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.