This Week in History

The American revolution (17-23 April)

Unrest had been growing among the colonists for more than ten years, their resentment stirred up partly by the imposition of a series of taxes on the colonies and, more generally, by Britain’s imperial attitude toward North America. Protest organizations such as the ‘Sons of Liberty’ sprang up; taxed goods were boycotted; and serious riots ensued. In the ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770, British regulars fired on a mob and killed five. Tension continued to mount; hostility was open and mutual. After the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, Parliament introduced a series of Acts (known locally as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts) in an attempt to restore order, especially in Boston and Massachusetts, the epicentre of opposition. Matters worsened, and the militias began to prepare themselves for armed resistance, illicitly equipping themselves with weapons, ammunition and other supplies from the public arsenals.

On 18 April a strong but inexperienced British force of grenadiers and light infantry was sent from Boston to retrieve a large cache of weapons and gunpowder reported to be stored in Concord, 16 miles to the northwest. The next morning, after a chaotic crossing of the Charles River and a night march, they were confronted by a 70-strong company of militia blocking the road to Concord on Lexington Common. The militia had been alerted by Paul Revere on his famous ride. (See below for an account of this accidental, minor skirmish that started one of history’s most significant wars.) The colonials resisted more strongly around Concord later in the morning, and the British column, having found and destroyed some materiel, made a fighting withdrawal to Boston.

After several weeks of indecisive leadership on both sides, the British won a bloody victory on Breed’s Hill, the battle called after Bunker’s Hill, the strategic high ground adjacent to it. Surprised by the colonists’ show of force, British Commander-in-Chief, General Gage, soon to be replaced, wrote, ‘the tryals we have shew that the Rebels are not the despicable Rabble too many have supposed them to be’. The war was to end formally eight years later with the United States of America victorious and independent.

Further reading

The events of 1775 in and around Boston are recounted in Campaign 37: Boston 1775 – The shot heard around the world (extracts below). Subsequent major battles and campaigns are covered by Campaign 67: Saratoga 1777 – Turning Point of a Revolution , Campaign 109: Guilford Courthouse 1781 – Lord Cornwallis's Ruinous Victory and Campaign 47: Yorktown 1781 – The World Turned Upside Down.

Men-at-Arms 273: General Washington's Army (1) 1775-78 , Men-at-Arms 290: General Washington's Army (2) 1779-83, Men-at-Arms 285: King George's Army 1740-93 (1) Infantry, Men-at-Arms 289: King George's Army 1740-93 (2) and Men-at-Arms 292: King George's Army 1740-1793 (3) are detailed examinations of the uniforms, equipment, weapons, tactics and organisation, and also the personalities of the opposing armies. For a more personal insight into the lives and experiences of the British soldier in this era see Warrior 19: British Redcoat 1740–93 and Warrior 42: Redcoat Officer. Essential Histories 45: The American Revolution 1774–1783 (extract below) places the events of this week in 1775 in the full context of the war, viewed from political, strategic, tactical and individual perspectives.

An extract from Campaign 37: Boston 1775 – The shot heard around the world

Lexington Common

 

During the afternoon of 18 April, mounted British officers left to patrol the roads between Cambridge and Concord. Seeing one group, led by Major Mitchell (5th), pass through Menotomy, a Lexington ‘minuteman’, Sergeant William Munroe, organized a guard for the house in which Adams and Hancock were staying; but the patrol rode through Lexington and past Hartwell’s Tavern, before turning back, around 2030. By now, the only people ignorant of events were the regulars themselves.

At about 2200, the 700 men of Gage’s 21 flank companies were woken and led to the Common, where the boats were waiting. The lack of prop¬er planning was soon obvious: companies were late, their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith (10th) was among the last to arrive, and only the intervention of the 23rd’s adjutant prevented total chaos. After crossing the Back Bay to Lechemere Point, the men waded ashore (the boats were too heavily laden to be beached) and waited three hours while ammunition and food was distributed, before finally setting off at 0200.

Revere, having arranged the signal in the Old North church, rode towards Cambridge, but a patrol forced him to detour and he reached Lexington at midnight. There, he was joined by William Dawes, who had ridden across Boston Neck and through Roxbury and Cambridge — together with Dr Samuel Prescott, a Concord physician, they set off to rouse the countryside. Revere was captured by Mitchell’s patrol (which had already intercepted three other riders) three miles beyond Lexington, but Dawes and Prescott both escaped and continued their mission. Alarmed by Revere’s claim that every militia company for 50 miles was alerted, Mitchell returned to Lexington, where he released Revere (who went to help Adams and Hancock escape), and headed off to meet Smith, who, by 0300, had just passed through Menotomy.

The senior militia officer at Lexington, Captain John Parker, had sent four scouts to locate the regulars; three were captured, but the fourth returned, reporting that Smith was only half a mile away. Parker formed his men — most of whom had been in Buckman’s Tavern since 0100, hav¬ing first assembled when Revere arrived in a two-deep line across the Bedford road (along which Adams and Hancock had earlier fled). As they lined up, they could see the British advance guard, under Major Thomas Pitcairn of the Marines, approaching the common.

Pitcairn’s two leading companies (4th and 10th) were expecting trouble after Mitchell’s pessimistic report. They swung to the right of the Meeting House and deployed into line, while Pitcairn rode to the left, ordering the militia to lay down their arms and leave. Parker, realising the odds, told his men to disperse, but to keep their arms, and as they did so, a single shot rang out, then a volley from the regulars. A dozen militia tried to return the fire, but the troops (mostly inexperienced and with months - even years - of Bostonian provocation behind them) became uncontrollable. Ignoring their officers, they charged with the bayonet and Smith, arriving with the main body, had to find a drummer to beat the recall. When order was restored, eight of Parker’s men lay dead, and ten more were wounded — British casualties were one sergeant and Pitcairn’s horse both slightly wounded. The time was a little after 0500. At about the same time, two companies of Lincoln ‘minute men’ (whose commander had been roused by Dr Prescott) reached Concord, along with men from Groton and Bedford. When news of Lexington arrived, 150 men marched out to find the regulars and met them a mile from town. Seeing themselves outnumbered, the militia turned about and created a bizarre spectacle by leading the regulars into Concord, with the fifes and drums of both formations playing away.

 



An extract from Essential Histories 45: The American Revolution 1774–1783

The Build-up to War  

 

The Quebec Act of 1774 also played a role in fomenting discontent among rebellious colonists. In an attempt to resolve the future of the French settlements of Quebec, the British government passed an Act that has had repercussions up to the present day. The colony of Quebec was allowed to keep its French language, laws, customs, and Roman Catholic religion intact, with no interference from London. Furthermore, the boundaries of the colony were extended as far west as the Mississippi, encompassing land treaties made between the British government and Indian tribes following the end of the Seven Years’ War. The understanding was that the laws described in the Act would apply to this area, in recognition of the fact that many of the Indian tribes west of the mountains had been allied with France, and had thus been influenced by French customs and converted to the Catholic Church.

The Thirteen Colonies reacted strongly against the Quebec Act. Long-standing prejudice made them deeply distrustful of French Catholics, and many of the colonies resented this incursion into land west of the Appalachian Mountains, which they believed was theirs by right. They protested at being hemmed in by a Catholic colony and denied access to the rich lands to the west.

Many leading figures throughout the colonies felt that their liberties were gradually being worn away. Their dissatisfaction led to the First Continental Congress, formed in Philadelphia to discuss the Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act, and issues in Massachusetts. The First Continental Congress was convened by colonial leaders, including John Adams, George Washington, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, with the aim of organizing formal, legally recognized opposition to Parliament’s actions. The Congress issued a declaration condemning the Coercive Acts as unjust and unconstitutional, and rejected the appointment of General Gage as governor. The Congress additionally addressed issues of parliamentary control over the colonies, especially with regard to taxation. At this point the Congress was not interested in independence, merely the redress of perceived injustices.

It was not until 4 July 1776 – after the bloodletting of 1775 and early 1776 – that the Second Continental Congress, led by John Hancock, decided to declare independence from Great Britain. From this point, the Thirteen Colonies referred to themselves as “the United States of America”, but as this title was not officially recognized until after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, they will continue to be referred to throughout this work as the Thirteen Colonies.

It is significant that the British government failed to recognize that the formation of the Congress indicated not just a local Massachusetts or New England rebellion, but the beginnings of a large-scale insurrection. The military situation in North America began to worsen as 1774 drew to a close. British regulars were stationed in Boston. The Quartering Act came into effect once again, increasing tension between civilians and soldiers. The delegates of the First Congress, although they considered military action a last resort, did not help the situation by calling on colonial militia to strengthen and drill more frequently. Weapons of various sizes were seized by colonists and stored away. Royal government representatives were slowly being replaced by committees who supported the conclusions of the First Continental Congress. The colonies and the British government were moving towards all-out conflict.

 

Two Extracts from Campaign 37: Boston 1775 – The shot heard around the world

Two Questions  

 

 Who fired the first shot? Evidence suggests that it was not anyone on the Common; it may have been a tipsy straggler coming from Buckman’s Tavern, but the finger of suspicion points most strongly at someone acting on orders from Samuel Adams. Why else would Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian wars, line up his men in the open in such a tactically pointless and suicidal position, to face a column of regulars they themselves estimated at over 2000? Adams’ comment on hearing the news (‘Oh what a glorious morning!’) certainly begs the question as to whether Parker’s men were sacrificed for political ends.

What motivated the colonials to go to war? In 1775, few people wanted war and even fewer sought independence; that it happened was the result of mistakes and misconceptions on both sides and cynical manipulation by a small group with vested interests. Revolutionary myths still endure, but an interview in 1842 between the US historian, Mellen Chamberlain, and a survivor of the fight at Concord bridge, Captain Preston (then 91) is enlightening. It went as follows:
C: Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?
P: Oppressions? I didn’t feel them.
C: Were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?
P: I never saw one... certainly never paid a penny for one of them.
C: Well, what about the Tea Tax?
P: I never drank a drop of the stuff!
C: Then I suppose you had been reading about the eternal principles of liberty?
P: We read only the Bible, The Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.
C: Well then... what did you mean in going to the fight?
P: What we meant was this: we had always governed ourselves and we always meant to.

ANZAC Day (24 - 30 April)

In the autumn of 1914, the Allies realised that Turkey, crucial because of its control over routes of contact between Russia and the Allies in the west, was not going to remain neutral as had been hoped, and action would have to be taken.

Two days before the outbreak of war, Germany and Turkey had agreed on an alliance against Russia, although this did not commit Turkey to military action. Events in the next few months, however, including the British requisitioning of two battleships built for the Turkish Navy in Britain, meant that the entry of Turkey into the war seemed increasingly likely. By September 1914, German command had been extended to the Turkish Navy, and the Bosphorus waterway had been closed in contravention of international law. Turkey was now firmly in the German camp. Following an ultimatum to the Turkish government, hostilities officially began on 31 October 1914. By early 1915, it was obvious that the war would be protracted, and that Russia was stretched fighting on two fronts. Into this context was born the plan to attack the Dardanelles.

Simply, the original plan was the forcing of the Dardanelles by a squadron of battleships, which were considered expendable. This would open the waterway for Russian ships and hopefully cause the downfall of the Turkish government. This would be followed by landings on the peninsulas. Plans developed, and a large number of powerful ships, with a force of British, French, Australian and New Zealander divisions (ANZAC forces), were allocated for the campaign.

The naval attack started on 18 March, firstly neutralizing the forts guarding the entrance of the waterway. Although this was mainly successful, the existence of mines in the waterway provoked heavy losses on the British and French ships. It now seemed that a naval attack was unlikely to succeed, and on 22 March, the plan was changed from a naval to a military operation. With hindsight, it can be seen that this diminished the chances of success, particularly as it is very possible that a renewed naval assault could have achieved victory.

From the beginning, the landings were confused, due in large part to poor intelligence and planning. Also, the necessary reorganisation of the land forces led to a month-long gap between the naval attack and landings, which not only destroyed any advantage of surprise, but gave German commanders time to strengthen and rearrange the defenders of the Gallipoli peninsula.

At dawn on 25 April 1915, the ANZACs landed (see extracts below). Five of the six beaches were secured with huge losses, and the campaign was underway. Through the heat of summer, a series of futile attacks failed to take any sites. Disease was rife, and it became clear that the Turkish soldiers were not the easy opponent they had been thought to be. Still, the ANZACs fought gallantly, famously earning the title ‘diggers’ after their digging of trenches on the beaches whilst under fire. The last great British attack, on 21 August, failed amidst scenes of horror as the undergrowth ignited, cremating hundreds of wounded men. With no further offensive possible, and no reinforcements available, recommendation was made for evacuation, which occurred on 19 December 1915 and 8 January 1916. Of some 480,000 troops sent ashore, 252,000 were killed, wounded, captured or evacuated sick.

This campaign, involving naval forces and naval aviation, as well as military forces, was heroic – but an unmitigated failure. Had it succeeded, its effect on the war would have been immense; however, the execution of the plan was unfortunately beset with ineptitude. Although the gallantry of the troops became legendary, the conduct of the expedition was unworthy of the courage of the troops that it sacrificed.

Further reading

Campaign 8: Gallipoli 1915 – Frontal Assault on Turkey details the entire doomed campaign from the original plans through to the final decision to evacuate; whilst Essential Histories 23: The First World War (4) The Mediterranean Front 1914–1923(extract below) puts the campaign into the context of the whole war.

For details of the troops that took part, Men-at-Arms 81: The British army 1914–18 includes details of the British Force sent to Gallipoli; Men-at-Arms 123: The Australian Army at War (extract below) includes details of the army that was established to support the British in World War I, and the force that was sent to the Dardanelles. Men-at-Arms 269: The Ottoman Army 1914-18 describes the enemy that the landing force were fighting, and clearly shows them to be a force to be reckoned with, as the landing force quickly discovered.



An Extract from Essential Histories 23: The First World War (4) The Mediterranean Front 1914-1923

The landings

 

The landings took place on the morning of 25 April. The Anzacs went ashore at first light, but were landed a mile north of the intended beach due to a strong off-shore current. Instead of a gently sloping hinterland and open country all the way to the Narrows (only five miles away across the peninsula) they were confronted with steep slopes – up which they rushed. Their impetus carried them to the heights of the Sari Bair ridge, brushing aside the resistance of Turkish detachments covering the beach; but as they arrived on the summits, blown and disorganised, they met a furious counter-attack led by Mustafa Kemal, which swept them back to the edge of the ridge. There they grimly held on, to positions that became their front line for the rest of the campaign. That night, a despondent Birdwood signalled Hamilton, afloat in the battleship Queen Elizabeth, that the situation was so confused that re-embarkation was the only solution. Hamilton ordered him to stick it out and ‘Dig, dig, dig’, unwittingly creating a legend.

At Helles on the tip of the peninsula the commander of the 29th division, Major General Hunter-Weston, had chosen to land in broad daylight, a decision for which his troops paid dearly. Coming ashore under tow in ship’s boats, rowed for the last hundred yards by bluejackets, they came under devastating fire at ‘V’ beach from the defenders. A naval aviator flying overhead was appalled to see that the water for 50 yards out from the beach was red with blood. At ‘V’ beach the landing was augmented by a ‘Trojan Horse’. The collier River Clyde had been modified, with extra ports in its sides, to beach itself and disgorge two battalions down ramps and across a bridge of boats to the shore. These troops also met withering fire as they emerged from the ship and were pinned down with the others on the shore. At ‘W’ beach on the other side of Cape Helles, only a mile away, the first battalion ashore, the Lancashire Fusiliers, fought their way off the beach through dense barbed wire, winning six Victoria Crosses in the process. Elsewhere around the Helles area the landings met little resistance, but Hunter-Weston ignored this, concentrating on reinforcing the slaughter at ‘W’ and ‘V’. By last light the 29th Division was shattered and incapable of exploiting inland. The day’s final objective, the dominating high ground of Achi Baba, five miles from the landing beaches, was never taken during the campaign.

The French landings at Kum Kale stirred up a hornet’s nest and fierce fighting took place before the troops were ferried across the straits to join their British comrades at Helles.

 



An extract from Men-at-Arms 123: The Australian Army at War

The Anzacs at Gallipoli 

 

The Australian Imperial Force’s first major operation was the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The object was to take control of the Dardanelles, the narrow strait linking the Aegean Sea with the Black Sea. Command of the expedition was given to Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, who faced a daunting task. The Gallipoli peninsula has four sets of beaches – at Bulair at the neck, Suvla Bay, Ari Burnu and at the tip, Helles. Its mountainous spine is scarred with deep ravines and gullies.

The Australians and the New Zealanders were sent in to a dawn landing at Ari Burnu, but the first assault force, the Australian 3rd Brigade, was landed a mile too far north, at what was soon known as Anzac cove. A Turkish flare went up and soon a hail of bullets was spattering the shallows and striking sparks from stones on the beach. The boats grounded and the Australians jumped over the gunwales and splashed to the beach. Some were hit; others went in out of their depth and were dragged under by their heavy kit.

The troops faced almost perpendicular cliffs under which companies and platoons were jumbled in confusion. Junior officers quickly rallied the troops and within minutes a rough line of about six companies was clawing its way up the slopes. Some men moved far and fast. By 7am a young officer and two men had climbed three ridges and were looking down on the object of the whole operation, the Narrows, only three and a half miles away. Another party was halfway up Chunuk Bair, a dominating peak around which 50,000 men would be killed during the campaign.

As much furious fighting occurred on 25 April in the wild country around Anzac Cove as in any battle in history. No front line existed, and men landing later in the day were just as vulnerable to enemy bullets as men in the gullies inland.

Their first bayonet rush carried the Australians to a hill known as Baby 700, but incessant enemy fire made the position untenable. By nightfall the Anzacs held a position about two miles long by three-quarters of a mile deep. On Hamilton’s orders they burrowed, hacked and tunnelled into the seaward slopes of the ridges. For three days after the landing the fighting was savage, with wave after wave of Turks making frontal attacks on the Anzac lines.

By 1 May reinforcements were required. The only available forces were the Light Horse regiments in Egypt. Despite the value of the Light Horse in the defence of Egypt, the enthusiasm of the brigades to fight, even without their beloved horses, finally influenced Hamilton to employ the Light Horsemen in a dismounted role, but they served intact in their regimental and brigade groups.

The only grenades the Anzacs had were jam tins filled with explosive, nails, stones, pieces of glass and shell shards, so they became adept at catching the Turkish ‘cricket-ball’ grenades and throwing them back.

On the night of 18-19 May the Turks put 42,000 men into a massive attack on the Anzac position, where Gen. Birdwood had only 12,500 front line men. They killed thousands of Turks in the attack, and the first hour was sheer slaughter. At daybreak the Turkish officers gave up all efforts to lead, and drove their men into the Anzac fire. Australian reserves came pushing into the line, even offering to pay other men to make room for a place on the parapet. Later in the campaign Anzacs offered as much as £5 for the ‘privilege’ of getting an unofficial place in a bayonet charge. When the Turks broke off the action at midday they had lost 10,000 men; 5,000 of these, dead and wounded, lay in the open in No Man’s Land.

The Australians’ physical appearance impressed all visitors to Anzac. Compton Mackenzie, the novelist, then on HQ staff, wrote: ‘They were glorious young men. Their almost complete nudity, their tallness and majestic simplicity of line, their rose-brown flesh burnt by the sun and purged of all grossness by the ordeal through which they were passing, all these united to create something as near to absolute beauty as I shall hope ever to see in this world.’

But even ‘glorious young men’ are mortal. In fighting at Lone Pine, in August, six Australian battalions lost 80 officers and 2,197 men. Battalions of the 1st Brigade lost most heavily, and few witnesses of outstanding bravery remained. Consequently, of the seven Victoria Crosses awarded after this fight, four went to a reinforcing battalion, the 7th. In that fierce month two Light Horse units, the 8th and 10th, were practically wiped out.

Nowhere on the peninsula could the British and French make any significant progress; and eventually evacuation became inevitable. At Anzac Cove it was brilliantly planned by Lieut. Col. Brudenell White of the Anzac Staff. More than 83,000 men with horses, guns and some supplies were moved out in the period 10-19 December, with only two soldiers wounded in the final stages of the evacuation. The Australians left behind 7,594 killed; Gallipoli had cost them an additional 19,367 wounded.