Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Battle Of The Wilderness -- May 5th & 6th, 1864 "Lee To The Rear"

The great spring campaign of 1864 was about to get underway. For weeks Confederate General Robert E. Lee had watched the Union forces camped to the north of the Rapidan River grow in size and confidence. On May 2, 1864, he met with his senior officers atop Clark’s Mountain, a high point just south of the Rapidan River and the location of one of his best observation posts and signal stations. A staff officer, Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, later wrote that Lee had ‘concluded from the bustle in the Federal camps that an early movement was in contemplation.’ Hotchkiss also credited Lee with accurately predicting the exact points where Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac would cross the river. While Lee may have pinpointed the Federal crossings, little he did during the ensuing Battle of the Wilderness indicated he fully understood his enemy’s intentions.

The next day, May 3, Lee telegraphed his assessment of the situation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. After ticking off the reported movements of Union forces as close as Virginia and as far away as Florida, Lee cautioned Davis to ‘look to see them operating against Richmond, and make…preparations accordingly.’

During the night of May 3 Lee was disturbed by reports from Clark’s Mountain that the Union army had begun to move. A query to the signal station brought back word that it was too dark to determine the precise direction of the Yankee movement. The officer in charge was told to report the enemy’s direction as soon as it was light. Lee ordered Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s II Corps to be ready to march at dawn.

More information continued to arrive during the pre-dawn hours of May 4 as Lee pondered a critical question–which way was the Union army coming at him? Would the Federals feint to the east and then bring the weight of their strength against Lee’s western flank? Was it more probable that the Union host would shift to the east and either cross the Rapidan River near Chancellorsville or the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg? Detachments of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry were spread along the Rapidan at every major ford to spot any crossings and gather intelligence about the composition of the forces involved. Reports began trickling in throughout the early morning hours.

The weather was clear on May 4, and Lee’s spotting stations had no trouble gauging the direction of the enemy’s march. At 9:30 a.m. came word that the Federals seemed to be moving to the right and heading for Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford. Although Lee had correctly guessed the locations of the crossings and had been positively informed of the Northern march routes, it was not until midday that he became convinced the Union columns were definitely moving to his right. Only after making that determination did he allow his own various army corps to begin their marches.

Orders went out to Ewell (whose men had been standing ready since dawn) to move his 17,000 men east along the Orange Turnpike. At the same time, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was told to march his III Corps, some 22,000 strong, east from the Orange Court House area. Deciding to play it safe, Lee ordered Hill to leave one of his divisions, under Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, to watch the river–just in case the enemy tried to slip behind him.

Lee’s remaining infantry corps, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps, had been serving in the Western theater and had only returned in late April. Minus a division on detached duty, the I Corps numbered 10,000 men. It was camped around Gordonsville, 10 miles southwest of Orange Court House. Lee’s operative plan anticipated the three corps forming a continuous north-south line, and Longstreet’s route was designed to bring his men up on Hill’s right flank, even as Hill himself took station off Ewell’s right.

Not long after midday, Lee broke camp and rode eastward with his staff, finally stopping at New Verdiersville about 6 p.m. Soon after setting up his headquarters in a small woods near the house of a family named Rhodes, Lee sent off another note to Davis suggesting that he still had not figured out the enemy’s intentions. ‘You will already have learned that the army of Genl Meade is in motion, and is crossing the Rapidan on our right,’ Lee wrote, ‘whether with the intention of [turning toward us and] attacking, or moving [away from us] toward Fredericksburg, I am not able to say.’ It was the disposition of his own forces that commanded Lee’s immediate attention.

General Robert E. Lee -- Commanding General Army Of Northern Virginia

Ewell’s corps, which had started the day’s march closest to where the enemy was crossing the Rapidan and had a less winding road to follow, would make first contact. Lee called upon his assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. Walter Taylor, and briefed him about orders for Ewell. Taylor then set down Lee’s comments in a note he sent off to the II Corps commander at 8 p.m. ‘General Lee,’ Taylor told Ewell, ‘wishes you to be ready to move on early in the morning.’ If morning found the enemy moving toward Fredericksburg, Ewell was ‘to push on after him.’ If, on the other hand, the Yankees were there to fight and were moving toward Ewell’s men, Lee wanted Ewell to take up a defensive position along Mine Run–the same position they had successfully held against another Union movement the previous November.

Curiously, Lee omitted two obvious scenarios from his briefing, or perhaps Taylor simply neglected to include them. What if the Federals were taking up a defensive line of their own? What if they were moving south instead of east or west? By not mentioning what he wanted Ewell to do under those circumstances, Lee in effect limited Ewell to his general statement of purpose, which was ‘to bring [the enemy] to battle as soon now as possible.’ With this purposeful if vague phrasing, Lee opened the door to a series of events that would bring his forces to the brink of disaster the next day in the fast-developing Battle of the Wilderness.

Lee did not get much sleep that night. Each hour brought another courier with new bits of information that had to be weighed and evaluated. Lacking sufficient staff to handle the work, it fell to the army commander to process the confusing odds and ends. Around midnight a rider brought a message from Stuart stating the enemy’s main body lay near Wilderness Tavern. Lee realized by the early hours of May 5 that the Federals had marched into the Wilderness and suddenly stopped. He also knew that they were grouped into two large columns, one crossing by way of Germanna Ford, the other farther to the east via Ely’s Ford.

The numbers did not favor Lee. Counting the two divisions of Hill’s corps and the three in Ewell’s, there were five Confederate infantry divisions on hand to face perhaps four Federal corps. While Lee may have hoped to strike the enemy quickly, those aspirations were tempered by the knowledge that the earliest Longstreet’s corps could arrive on the scene would be late on May 5. Confrontation–not combat–became Lee’s watchword. A year earlier, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he had fixed the enemy in place with two divisions and crushed their flank with three others. To enact a similar plan against Meade’s troops, he had five divisions to locate and hold the Federals in place while Longstreet’s divisions were being hustled up to deliver the flanking blow.

While Lee finished his pre-dawn breakfast, the Confederate columns resumed their march, Ewell’s men following the Orange Turnpike, Hill’s sidling off to the Orange Plank Road. Lee saddled up his horse Traveller, and decided to join Hill’s column.

Lee’s decision to ride with Hill instead of Ewell likely stemmed from several reasons. One was Hill’s unpredictability. The veteran officer suffered from various real and imaginary ailments and could not always be counted upon to exercise firm control of his troops. Then, too, Lee expected Hill to link up with Longstreet’s turning force. The junction of the two corps was critical, and the commanding general could keep a closer eye on this union by traveling with Hill’s veterans.

When Hill’s soldiers reached the weathered but still serviceable earthworks that stretched north to south along the course of Mine Run, the files likely slowed in anticipation of taking up the positions. But no order to halt was given. Instead, the columns continued to press toward the east. Realizing Lee’s intention to strike the enemy, the men sent up a rolling cheer. Some were heard to call out, ‘Marse Bob is going for them this time.’

No solid contact with the Federals had occurred when, around 6:30 a.m., Ewell’s aide, Major Campbell Brown, reported to Lee that Ewell had met token resistance and intended (per his understanding of Lee’s instructions) to ‘push on until he found them in force.’ Lee now changed his mind. Suddenly worried that his two increasingly divergent infantry corps could not support each other, he did not want Ewell barreling into a fight.

Lee gave Brown fresh instructions that significantly modified those of the previous evening. Lee was emphatic that he ‘did not want a general engagement brought on until Longstreet could come up, which would hardly be before night.’ Furthermore, Lee wanted to be certain that Ewell did not ‘get his troops entangled so as to be unable to disengage them.’ Behind this decision was the fact that Lee was still unclear as to the location and purpose of the enemy.

Lee continued on with Hill, the two generals riding near the head of the column. At least a full brigade of infantry, plus cavalry squads, screened the command party. Two miles west of Parker’s Store the advance elements ran into a Union cavalry force aggressively probing toward Mine Run.

The first encounters with the Union cavalry took place between 6:30 and 7 a.m. The horsemen, though outnumbered, succeeded in delaying the approaching Rebel columns. After a time-consuming deployment, one of Hill’s brigades finally shoved the stubborn troopers back two miles to Parker’s Store, where the open ground made it impossible for the cavalrymen to make a stand. Lee reached Parker’s Store sometime after 8 a.m. There, the officers could hear a deeper rumble of continuous firing farther south, where one of Stuart’s brigades was covering the Catharpin Road, which led east to Todd’s Tavern.

At Parker’s Store, Hill’s men entered the outer limits of the Wilderness, a densely forested region choked with underbrush and stunted trees that encroached on both sides of the narrow road, further slowing down the column, which could move only as fast as its flanking parties. Another three hours passed before Hill’s cautiously advancing columns, still pushing the Yankee cavalry, overran another open area around a farm known locally as the Widow Tapp’s. Here Lee pondered his situation. His biggest worry at the moment was establishing a firm connection between Hill and Ewell.

The message that Ewell’s chief of staff, Lt. Col. Alexander ‘Sandie’ Pendleton, brought to Lee shortly after noon could not have been comforting to the commander. The II Corps was taking up a line of battle along what Ewell termed ‘a commanding ridge’ on the western side of an open area called Saunders’ Field. Ewell also reported that the Federal force confronting him was growing in size. To make matters worse, at about 11 a.m. he observed a column of Union troops heading south across the Orange Turnpike. This would put them on course to enter the gap that yawned between Ewell and Hill. Lee told Pendleton that he preferred that Ewell not bring on a general engagement before Longstreet came up.

After making a sweep of the Tapp farm area, Hill’s advance elements disappeared into the gloom of the Wilderness as they continued to press the Union troopers. Lee dismounted and sat with Hill under a shade tree to discuss the developing situation. Not long after they began talking, Stuart checked in with news about the fighting along the Catharpin Road. The officers were deeply engrossed in their discussion when, without warning, a line of Union skirmishers eased out of the woods, stepping into the sunlit fields not 200 yards away.

Stuart stood up and stared at the Federals, but Hill did not move. Lee walked without panic toward the Orange Plank Road, calling for a staff officer, Walter Taylor. He reached his horse and mounted, which seemed to be the signal for everyone else to climb onto their horses, (save Hill, who wasted little time scooting for cover on foot). Startled by the flurry of activity, the Federals hurriedly withdrew back into the dense woods.

Closer at hand, Hill’s slow progress down the Orange Plank Road had stopped. The stubborn Union cavalrymen had been replaced by infantry of the Federal VI Corps. To underscore the increasingly tense situation, Hill’s artillerymen began to set up battery positions on a north-south line along a rise in Widow Tapp’s clearing.

Another emissary from Ewell arrived, bringing news indicating no change in the tactical situation at Saunders’ Field. The message from Ewell also confirmed his intention to pull back to the Mine Run entrenchments and dig in if he was attacked. Lee did not like the sound of Ewell’s plans and realized Pendleton had not properly explained the new orders to his commander. Lee explained that the corps was to fall back to Mine Run only in the event it could not hold its position–an important clarification. Not long after the messenger disappeared, heavy firing was heard from Ewell’s direction.

Situation On May 5th, 1864

For the next hour and a half, there was little for Lee to do but listen to the sound of fighting on Ewell’s front and watch the slow deployment of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Hill’s corps in the woods along the eastern edge of Widow Tapp’s fields. Hasty, fragmentary reports from Ewell were difficult to piece into a coherent picture. Finally, with the firing showing no signs of letting up, Lee imposed himself on Hill to direct that his other available division, Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s, be shifted north to connect with Ewell. This took place between 2:30 and 3 p.m.

According to Wilcox, the move through the dense woods was slow for the first half-mile. Then his leading regiment surprised and captured an enemy party, included several officers. At the same time Wilcox was wedging his way northward through the shadows of the Wilderness, Lee decided that it would be wise for Heth’s men to possess the Brock Road crossing, which lay about a mile east of the Tapp farm. He sent a staff officer to Heth with instructions to occupy the intersection if it could be done without bringing on a general engagement. Heth in turn sent back word that the enemy was posted in strong force and he did not know if he could take the position. The nervous officer asked Lee for a pre-emptive command to advance, which Lee declined to provide.

Not long after 3 p.m., the firing on Ewell’s front subsided into sporadic shooting, indicating that he was holding his own. Given Lee’s desire to probe the enemy but not bring on a general engagement, that was good news. Lee was content to let Heth’s men settle into their positions across the Orange Plank Road without further provoking a response, but he had not counted on the Federals’ changing the picture. At approximately 4:30 p.m., Union troops violently attacked Heth’s lines. Lee was not expecting the Northern surge, and he immediately issued orders recalling Wilcox’s division.

The Federal attacks roaring westward along the Orange Plank Road consisted of elements of the II and VI corps, joined at the end of the day by portions of the V Corps, under the overall coordination of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Problems inherent in deploying so many men in the dense underbrush, along with the fierce defense mounted by Heth’s men, ended the Federal attack at dusk, just short of a decisive breakthrough. The fighting sputtered out around 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, Lee dictated two messages for Ewell. The first, at 6 p.m., noted that the ‘enemy have made no headway in their attack [against Hill].’ Lee had previously expected Longstreet’s arrival late on May 5, but now he told Ewell that he was hoping to have the I Corps on hand the following morning. Lee went on to sketch a plan that had echoes of the second day at Gettysburg. If Ewell believed there was no chance to operate against the enemy’s right flank, Lee proposed to crush their left, in which case the II Corps commander should be prepared to reinforce the Confederate right.

In a message following an hour later, Lee reiterated the previous note. ‘The enemy persist in their attack,’ said the dispatch, ‘and we hold our own as yet.’ The size of the enemy buildup against Hill gave Lee cause to hope that the Federals had weakened their right to reinforce their left. If such was the case, Ewell should advance and occupy the high ground near Wilderness Tavern in order to cut off the enemy from the river. If not, Lee repeated, ‘You [must] be ready to support our right.’

Ewell’s reply arrived about the time the firing ended. He had taken some hard knocks from two enemy corps, which, he was proud to proclaim, his men had bested. Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps ‘were very roughly handled’ and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI ‘repulsed…handsomely.’ His own losses were not large, and his men had entrenched the whole line and could hold it. ‘If I attack at daylight (on which point I ask your views),’ Ewell continued, hedging his bets, ‘I will attack Sedgwick.’

At 11 p.m., the Army of Northern Virginia commander sent a message to Secretary of War James Seddon in Richmond summarizing the day’s bloody events. ‘The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords,’ Lee wrote. ‘Two (2) corps of this army moved to oppose him. Ewell’s by the old turnpike, & Hill’s, by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners & four (4) pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon Genl Hill, who, with Heth’s & Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated & desperate assaults. A large force of cavalry & artillery on our right flank was driven back by [Brig. Gen. Thomas] Rosser’s Brigade. By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers & men.’

The message suggested that Lee believed Grant was actually shifting troops from one flank to another. That movement was taking place to a small degree, but most of the Federals who had fought Ewell throughout the day were still in place as night fell, while the bulk of those who had attacked Hill had been positioned on that flank all the time. No hint was given regarding Lee’s plans for May 6, likely in case the message was captured or intercepted, nor was there any mention of Longstreet.

In fact, Lee had been thinking often of Longstreet. Shortly before he sent off his 6 p.m. dispatch to Ewell, Lee changed Longstreet’s orders. Instead of swinging into line alongside Hill, the I Corps was to march in support of Hill. Lee chose his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Charles Venable, to deliver the important message, and the young officer dashed off to find Longstreet’s much-awaited soldiers. The fighting along the Brock Road was not entirely over when Venable returned. The aide reported that Longstreet had received the message and by way of reply had made it clear that his troops would be up in the morning when Lee needed them.

Lee apparently felt that Venable had failed to transmit a proper sense of urgency. He turned to Stuart, who promised that he would see to it that Longstreet was given a clear picture of the army’s perilous condition. Stuart delegated the task to his chief of staff, Major Henry B. McClellan, who set off at once.

When McClellan returned shortly after 10 p.m., it was not with the news that Lee wanted. McClellan had gone as far as Longstreet’s leading division and only spoken to its commander. The infantrymen were in bivouac, and the officer told McClellan that Longstreet’s orders (which he was not going to override on the unsupported word of a young cavalryman unknown to him) were to resume the march at 1 a.m.

Still not convinced that Longstreet fully appreciated how bad things were along the Orange Plank Road, Lee rustled up another courier, Catlett C. Taliaferro, and directed him to locate Longstreet ‘and urge him to use the utmost diligence in coming to his assistance.’ It was well past midnight before Taliaferro returned with a reply from Longstreet promising Lee that his men would ‘be with him at daylight and [ready to] do anything he wants done.’ Lee immediately sent the courier back to reiterate that Longstreet must’strain every nerve to reach our lines before day.’

The net result of all this was that Lee was only able to catnap sporadically throughout the night. He worked steadily past 11 p.m., assessing field returns and generating his report to Richmond. The next few hours witnessed constant interruptions as first McClellan and then Taliaferro shuttled messages to and from Longstreet. There was also a visit from Wilcox and sessions with Hill. All in all, it was a long, wearying night filled with work and tension. Lee had now gone several days without adequate rest. The general surely felt taxed and worn, and perhaps that helps explain Lee’s utter failure to ready and consolidate Hill’s spread-out divisions for what he must have suspected the morning would bring.

At 5 a.m., with pile-driver force, units from the Union II, V and VI corps smashed into Hill’s zigzag lines. Once again the weary, outnumbered Confederates were magnificent in defense, but it was a losing proposition. To their repeated calls for assistance, Lee sent back an urgent appeal that they hold on until Longstreet arrived.

Showing the strain of the situation and successive sleep-deprived nights, Lee untypically lost his composure. At one point he spotted Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan moving back with the sluggish ebb tide. He rode over and gave the brigadier what amounted to a tongue-lashing, comparing the condition of McGowan’s veteran regiments to ‘a flock of geese.’ Spurred by Lee’s anger, McGowan immediately began to reform his brigade. The batteries the Confederates had spread along the western edge of the Tapp fields as a last resort also began to open fire, belching canister rounds eastward.

When Wilcox showed up to report the sorry state of his command, Lee sent him off to find help. ‘Longstreet must be here,’ Lee exclaimed. ‘Go bring him up.’ Meanwhile, enemy bullets were beginning to spatter against the artillery pits where Lee was giving directions and assisting Hill in rallying and reforming his troops. Walter Taylor never forgot the sight of Lee ‘dashing among the fugitives, [and who] personally called upon the men to rally.’ A staff officer present heard Lee ask no one in particular, ‘Why does not Longstreet come?’ His question was answered as a tightly massed column of fresh troops appeared on the Orange Plank Road.

Although Longstreet had deployed most of his arriving brigades along the south side of the Orange Plank Road, it was the leading unit north of it that Lee initially spotted. Even though the troops of the Texas Brigade (which also included Arkansans) had fought with Lee in many previous battles, their commander, Brig. Gen. John Gregg, was unknown to him. ‘General,’ Lee called out to the unidentified officer, ‘what brigade is this?’ ‘The Texas brigade,’ came the reply.

Knowing that the men were heading into a maelstrom where only dash and courage would carry the day, Lee next provided a bit of theater and inspiration. ‘I am glad to see it,’ he called out loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear him. ‘When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.’ He continued:

‘The Texas brigade always has driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eye–I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.’ As the battle lines surged around and past him, Lee, in the grip of great emotion, cried out, ‘Texans always move them!’ A courier in the Texas ranks turned to a comrade and with tears coursing down his cheeks, exclaimed, ‘I would charge hell itself for that old man!’

Texans Always Move Them

As the 800 members of the Texas Brigade moved across the Widow Tapp’s fields, Lee rode with them. By the time the leading ranks had reached the middle of the clearing it became apparent that he intended to remain with them. ‘Go back, General Lee. Go back!’ came the cry. In the recollection of one onlooker, ‘Five or six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse’s reins, but he shook them off and moved forward.’ Venable, who was also present, recalled that the ‘gallant General Gregg… turning his horse toward General Lee remonstrated with him.’ Lee eventually took Gregg’s hint and began to fall back while, fired by Lee’s inspiration, Gregg’s 800 soldiers charged into a Union meat grinder that killed or wounded all but 250 of them. The Texans and Arkansans gave their bodies to slow the Northern onslaught. The Union troops broke their own momentum to stop and gun down Gregg’s men.

Coming up to support Gregg was Brig. Gen. Evander Law’s Alabama Brigade. One of Law’s men later recollected seeing Lee and thinking that he ‘appeared to be very much perturbed over his misfortune and [it was] the only time I ever saw him excited.’ Lee repeated the scene with the Texas Brigade when told who the new troops were, crying, ‘God bless the Alabamians. Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans.’ Once more Lee’s fabled charisma was working. ‘It was impossible not to feel that every man that passed him was, for the time being, a hero,’ wrote an officer on the scene. An unabashed Lee admirer in the Alabama ranks thought the general ‘looked as though he ought to have been and was the monarch of the world.’

Longstreet’s powerful counterattack began around 6 a.m. For the next two hours brutal fighting raged in the Wilderness, with neither side gaining an advantage, but the seemingly irresistible momentum of Hancock’s attack had been checked. There was more good news coming to Lee. Starting around 8 a.m., the first files of Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps began to arrive.

Recognizing that the principal action was taking place along the Orange Plank Road–now covered by the I Corps–Lee instructed Anderson to report to Longstreet for orders.

Lee seemed content to let Longstreet run the show. When word came from Hill that he needed one of Anderson’s brigades to help him stop an enemy effort to thrust between him and Ewell, Lee told the messenger, ‘Well, let’s see General Longstreet about it.’ Between 8 and 10 a.m., as the last spasms of fighting flared along the Orange Plank Road, Longstreet learned of an opportunity to use an unfinished railroad cut as a concealed avenue of approach to flank the enemy in front. He moved at once to take advantage of the opportunity.

By this time, Lee had recovered his customary composure and displayed none of the excitement he had exhibited when the enemy had broken through Hill’s lines. When a courier galloped up atop a hard-ridden, foam-flaked animal, Lee chastised the soldier, ‘Young man, you should have some feeling for your horse.’ When another of Hill’s officers appeared with a situation report, Lee quizzed him closely.

At least one bit of information seemed to bring Lee a certain peace of mind. Contact had been made by Hill’s men with Ewell’s, so for the first time in the engagement Lee had a continuous battleline running from the Orange Turnpike to the Orange Plank Road.

Lee’s decision to move Hill north of the Orange Plank Road kept him one step ahead of the Federals, who had tried and failed to exploit the gap with a portion of the IX Corps. With that hole plugged, the way was now clear for Longstreet to carry out his flank attack. That action, involving four brigades led by Longstreet’s assistant adjutant general, Lt. Col. G. Moxley Sorrel, got rolling about 11 a.m. It achieved the tactical surprise its organizers had hoped for and, in Hancock’s own words, began to roll up the Union battle lines like a wet blanket.

Once he was confident that the flank attack was well under way, Sorrel rode back along the Orange Plank Road to find Longstreet. Lee was with Longstreet as he passed around congratulations and, accompanied by staff and other officers, began riding toward the fighting. Lee intended to accompany the party but lingered behind to direct the clearing of the road to allow artillery to come forward. That delay was providential. In the swirling confusion of the battle, Longstreet’s group was mistaken for Federal cavalry and swiftly fired upon. Longstreet was felled by a serious wound in the neck.

Lee remained in place once the firing erupted. After a few minutes an ambulance rattled past and then returned bearing the stricken I Corps commander. An English observer, Francis Dawson, never forgot ‘the sadness in [Lee’s] face, and the almost despairing movement of his hands, when he was told that Longstreet had fallen.’

Sorrel came up next with his report for Lee. Before he had been put into the ambulance, Longstreet had instructed the staff officer to tell Maj. Gen. Charles Field, next in command, to resume the drive to the Brock Road as quickly as possible. Sorrel found Lee ‘greatly concerned by the wounding of Longstreet and his loss to the army. He was most minute in his inquiries and was pleased to praise the handling of the flank attack. Longstreet’s message was given, but the General was not in sufficient touch with the actual positions of the troops to proceed with it as our fallen chief would have been able to do; at least, I received that impression, because activity came to a stop for the moment.’

Field, who now labored to bring some order to the various brigades scrambled together along the Orange Plank Road, got help from Lee, who remained near him, giving verbal directions. There was no thought of assuming any defensive position. Lee remained fixed on his intention, stated earlier to Ewell, to crush the enemy’s left.

The regrouping of Longstreet’s tangled striking force took several hours. Fortunately for Lee, the Federals seemed in no condition to spoil things by counterattacking. In fact, all their energies were directed at improving a crude defensive line that had been scratched out along the Brock Road. During the lull, sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., Lee rode north to meet with Ewell.

The meeting sparked controversy after the war, stemming from the writings of one of Ewell’s subordinate officers, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon. Early in the day, the capable and aggressive Gordon had spotted a glaring weakness in the Federal position north of the Orange Turnpike–the right flank of the Union line was in the air and vulnerable to a turning movement. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon Gordon had tried without success to convince Ewell that great opportunity beckoned to hammer the Union right.

The II Corps commander, worried about other threats to his troops, was unreceptive to Gordon’s entreaties. According to Gordon, it wasn’t until Lee showed up and overrode Ewell by approving Gordon’s bold flanking plan that the enterprise was allowed to proceed.

It is not known exactly what Lee said to Ewell, but not long after the meeting the II Corps commander gave Gordon the approval to begin the attack he had been seeking. It took until nearly dusk, however, for the flank attack to begin. While initially successful, it inflicted no serious damage on the Union army. (After the war in a conversation with William Preston Johnston, Lee was quoted as saying that ‘Ewell showed vacillation [at the Wilderness] that prevented him from getting all out of his troops he might.’)

Well before 4 p.m., Lee was back near the Orange Plank Road, where the follow-up attack was at last ready. Nearly four hours had passed since Longstreet’s wounding, and in that time the enemy had been left relatively unchallenged. Nothing Lee had seen in the performance of the Federal troops in two days of fighting suggested that the soldiers were of poor caliber or that their leadership was inept. Yet for reasons never explained, Lee had no second thoughts about ordering the troops massed on either side of the Orange Plank Road to assault Hancock’s firmly entrenched line.

The Southern push along the Orange Plank Road began shortly before 5 p.m. and matched valiant offense against determined defense. The Federals, behind earthworks and backed by cannons, had the odds in their favor, and despite a few scary moments they held on. After the attack failed, Lee rode glumly back to his headquarters at the Tapp house.

Situation On My 6th, 1864

Upon reaching his tent, Lee immediately wrote a report of the day’s action. The message sent to Richmond was another masterful Lee exercise in terseness and positive spin: ‘Early this morning as the divisions of General Hill, engaged yesterday, were being relieved, the enemy advanced and created some confusion. The ground lost was recovered as soon as the fresh troops got into position and the enemy driven back to his original line.

Afterward we turned the left of his front line and drove it from the field, leaving a large number of dead and wounded in our hands….A subsequent attack forced the enemy into his entrenched lines on the Brock road….Every advance on his part, thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed. Our loss in killed is not large, but we have many wounded; most of them slightly, artillery being little used on either side. I grieve to announce that Lieutenant-General Longstreet was severely wounded.’

More by instinct than actual order, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia strengthened its lines during the night. The next time the enemy came at them, the Southern soldiers would be ready–those who were left standing, that is. As many as one out of six soldiers who marched into the Wilderness wearing gray was either wounded, killed or missing by nightfall on May 6–a staggering 8,000 men in all.

In the cold equations of warfare, the Battle of the Wilderness bore mixed results for the Confederacy. An enemy army, superior in numbers of men and artillery, had tried and failed to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay. Yet, while more than holding his own, Lee had not been able to turn Meade’s force from its course. The leadership exercised by Lee was also mixed. Other than giving direction to the full and partial corps that were struck by the enemy on May 5, Lee had little tactical control over the combat. Thanks to Ewell’s adroit shifting of resources and the nullifying effects of the Wilderness on Hancock’s late-afternoon attack against Hill, the Confederate army barely managed to survive a bad day.

The record for May 6 was not much better. Lee’s failure to better prepare Hill’s men for Hancock’s dawn attack nearly began the day with a disastrous rout. After Longstreet’s wounding, Lee’s insistence on a late-afternoon assault along the Orange Plank Road resulted in the loss of thousands of valuable men. The Wilderness had triumphed over Lee on those two days. In the gloomy, smoke-filled forests, not even Robert E. Lee had been able to pierce the fog of war.

Suggested Reading: 

The Wilderness Campaign By Gary W. Gallagher 

The Maps of the Wilderness: An Atlas of the Wilderness Campaign, May 2-7, 1864 By Bradley Gottfried 

The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 By Gordon C. Rhea 

Suggested Viewing: 

Dr. Mark DaPue -- From The Wilderness To Cold Harbor


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck -- March 20th, 1870 - March 9th, 1964 "The Lion Of Africa"

The contemporary view of World War I is of a protracted blood bath, with immense armies locked in stalemate from Switzerland to the English Channel. It is an image of tens of thousands of men sac­rificed in futile attacks by obtuse com­manders who seldom visited their own fronts. This view is essentially correct. Yet in peripheral theaters of war, far from general headquarters, opportunities ex­isted for bold, imaginative, winning tac­tics by charismatic commanders. Great results could be achieved with small loss of life. The most famous of these leaders was T.E. Lawrence. Another, almost for­gotten today, was Paul Emil von Lettow­-Vorbeck, who led a successful four-year guerrilla campaign against Britain, Bel­gium, and Portugal in East Africa.

The enormous territory that was once German East Africa is today the inde­pendent states of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. Bordered by the Belgian Congo and Rhodesia to the west at Lake Tan­ganyika and to the north and south by British and Portuguese East Africa, re­spectively, the land had become a Ger­man colony in 1889.

The Germans had thrown themselves into the development of their possession with all their customary energy. Admin­istrators, engineers, teachers, and settlers poured in. By the end of the 19th century, the colony was thriving. Towns, hospitals, and schools were built and staffed. Land was cultivated into banana, coffee, rice, and rubber plantations. Two fine harbors, at Tanga and Dar es Salaam, were improved and linked to the interior by rail. Besides police, the colony boasted a small military force, the Schutztruppe (Protective Force), of about 2,500 men, the majority being native infantry, or askaris (askar is the Arabic word for soldier). In January 1914, Lt. Col. Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in Dares Salaam to take command of the Schutztruppe.

Born in 1870 into a military family, Lettow-Vorbeck was destined for the army from childhood. After graduating from a military college, he was commis­sioned and served in China during the Boxer Rebellion, then in German South­ west Africa, where he was wounded dur­ing the Heraro uprisings.

Tall and spare, his air of command was softened by a natural courtesy and civility. Although he was a professional soldier and the son of a general, the strutting arrogance of the Junker class was no part of his make­ up. Given the time and place, he was to demonstrate surprisingly advanced views on race relations. En route to his new post, his ship stopped at Mombasa and, with his excellent English and man­ners, he charmed the British colony.

Once at Dar es Salaam, Lettow-Vorbeck wasted no time. He began a strenuous tour of the colony by train, motorcar, boat, and horseback, concentrating on the borders with Britain and Belgium. He met and listened to the settlers, many of whom were army and navy re­servists. Their backgrounds and knowl­edge of the terrain were soon to prove invaluable. Most of Lettow-Vorbeck’s en­ergies were devoted to correcting the de­ficiencies in his new command.

The basic unit of the Schutztruppe was the field company, 160 to two hundred askaris, 16 to 18 German of­ficers and NCOs, plus several hundred carriers. The units were self-sufficient, designed to live in the bush for long periods. The askari s were well disci­plined and dependable, but the force, having been trained to deal with native uprisings, was poorly prepared and equipped for 20th-century warfare. Per the German army’s table of organi­zation, each company possessed two 7.92mm Maxim machine guns, but used obsolete black-powder Mauser Ml871/84 rifles. Lettow-Vorbeck’s task was to rearm the force with modern Mauser Gewehr 98s and redirect their training. He began to recruit new field companies and integrate the police askari. He also recalled detachments scattered through­out the colony and concentrated them about Mount Kilimanjaro, near the British-German border.

 All this activity was impelled by Lettow-Vorbeck’s sense of an impending world war. In such an event, the colony would be completely isolated and its tiny force could not defend the German bor­ders. But, Lettow-Vorbeck reasoned, by being constantly on the attack he could draw off large numbers of enemy troops who might better be employed else­where, for instance in Europe. Concen­trating the bulk of the Schutztruppe near Mount Kilimanjaro, where only 50 miles of bush separated his forces from British East Africa’s strategic Uganda Railway, would facilitate attacks against the line at small cost to him, but require large numbers of British troops to defend its 440-mile length.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s reorganization and strategies, however, appalled the gover­nor of the colony, Dr. Heinrich Schnee. Although aware of the possibility of war, he believed that his protectorate should have no role in it-a view shared by his British counterpart. It would be un­seemly if natives saw white men fighting each other. He expressly forbade Lettow­-Vorbeck to continue his troop concen­trations or plan aggressive action. While Lettow-Vorbeck recognized that Schnee was his superior, he believed that he had a higher duty to his fatherland. He sim­ply ignored the man.

When war came, the British made the first move. Their plan called for a diver­sionary attack at Longido, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, with a major am­phibious landing at Tanga, the more im­portant of the two German harbors and the nearest to the British East African port of Mombasa. Eight thousand men were assembled at Bombay for the operation, which included a battalion of Regulars from the Loyal North Lan­cashire Regiment, and the Kashmiri Rifles, made up largely of Ghurkas.

The rest, the bulk of the force, were recruited from the Indian Princely States and were of the poorest quality. They were ill­ trained and ill-equipped, and unused to their officers and each other.

Designated Expeditionary Force B, the troops were loaded onto transports, but because the German fast cruiser SMS Konigsberg was known to be in the area, they remained in Bombay Harbor for up to two weeks until warships were avail­able for escort duty. There followed a hellish two-week voyage. Packed like sar­dines, the seasick sepoys were given unaccustomed food and no exercise. Even on arrival at Mombasa, no attempt was made to bring them ashore for condi­tioning. The force commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur Aitken, had exactly one staff member with knowledge of the African continent, Captain Richard Meinerzhagen. An intelligence officer who had served with the King’s African Rifles, Meinerzhagen was handsome, well edu­cated, and totally ruthless. He tried to warn Aitken that the Schutztruppe was a force with which to be reckoned. Aitken, however, brushed away the ad­vice, confidently predicting that “the In­dian army will make short work of a lot of niggers,” and the convoy, escorted by two cruisers, sailed for Tanga.

The landing was planned for Novem­ber 3, 1914, the same day as the Longido attack. From the outset, however, secu­rity was nonexistent. Everyone in both colonies knew of the impending landing. Among the better informed was Lettow­-Vorbeck, who had just inspected Tanga’s defenses and reinforced the garrison. Force B arrived off the Tanga coast on the morning of November 2. For the British there were long delays while the captain of the cruiser Fox called for a mine­ sweeper to clear the harbor (there were no mines) and Aitken and his staff pondered the best location for a landing.

They finally chose a promontory, Ras Kasone, about two miles from the town. Disembarking troops and supplies, a ma­neuver that the force had never practiced, proved exceedingly slow. Two battalions were finally landed about midnight. No probing patrols were sent out. Had they been, they would have found Tanga de­serted. The local German commander considered the town indefensible , had pulled his troops out, and was encamped a couple of miles away. The British could have simply walked in.

Lettow-Vorbeck, meanwhile, was 200 miles inland, at Moshi, the in­ land terminus of the colony’s Northern Railway. On receiving a telegram that the British had appeared off the coast, he, his staff, and a field company were entrained for Tanga within the hour, fol­lowed by more reinforcements.
Yet for all his quick reactions, Lettow­-Vorbeck would never have been in time except for massive British assistance.

Disembarkation proceeded at a leisurely pace, and as the entire force and its sup­plies were not ashore until the early evening of November 3, Aitken post­poned an attack until the next morning. Lettow-Vorbeck arrived at the Tanga terminus outside of town at 3 a.m. on No­vember 4. He and two of his officers rode through Tanga on bicycles nearly to the beach at Ras Kasone and stared at the transports and HMS Fox. No one chal­lenged them. Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Tanga, brought his entire force into town, and made his dispositions. All was silent.

The British advance didn’t begin until 3 in the afternoon. The troops blundered through completely unreconnoitered bush and plantations until they were within 600 yards of the German positions.

There they  met  intense rifle and machine-gun fire . Despite heavy losses, the staunch North Lanes and Kashmiri Rifles pressed forward and ac­tually gained the town. Fighting was severe, and they were forced back by two newly arrived field companies from Moshi. HMS Fox fired her six-inch guns, apparently without any spotting, hitting a German hospital and dropping shells onto her own troops. The situation was made more chaotic for both sides by in­furiated bees, which, driven from their nests by bullets, attacked Briton and German with complete impartiality. Fol­lowing a sustained machine-gun bar­ rage, the entire German line rose and charged. The Indian troops, pinned down from the start, immediately bolted toward the beach and were felled in droves by enfilading fire.

As darkness approached, the bush was full of parties of disorganized and disori­ented sepoys. Realizing that his own troops were exhausted, and worried about Fox’s guns, Lettow-Vorbeck withdrew his force from town. He then led a patrol back and encountered a patrol led by Meinerzhagen. Fire was exchanged without casualties. From his observa­tions, Lettow-Vorbeck was convinced that the enemy was soundly beaten.

This was confirmed the next morning when Meinerzhagen appeared under a flag of truce, bringing medical supplies. He was received with courtesy and arranged the release of wounded British officers on their oath that they would not fight against the Germans again. As it was obvious that the British were re­embarking, Lettow-Vorbeck promised not to  open fire as long as they were prompt. Meinerzhagen accompanied German officers to the beach to confirm the departure. For some reason, Aitken did not reload his supplies, leaving a tremendous amount of booty for Lettow­-Vorbeck–enough rifles and machine guns to arm three companies.

So ended the Battle of Tanga. Lettow­-Vorbeck had beaten a force eight times the size of his own. It was the making of his reputation. He was the hero of the hour, a winner, and all the naysayers and irresolutes in the colony swallowed their fears and backed him resolutely. Settlers and natives rushed to join his units. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his personal congratulations along with a promotion. General Aitken, mean­while, was sent home in disgrace, was reduced to half-pay as a colonel, and retired.
Lettow-Vorbeck was to fight one more traditional action before chang­ing his tactics. In December, the British had taken Jassin, a small fish­ing village and sisal plantation two miles inside German East Africa.

He personally led the counterattack, which was repulsed by Indian Regu­lars. Lettow-Vorbeck then laid siege, and the garrison surrendered after two days. But at Tanga and Jassin, the colonel had lost a large proportion of his best officers, with no hope of re­placements. He therefore decided to avoid pitched battles and conduct a purely guerrilla campaign, largely against the Uganda Railway. Small fighting patrols and demolition par­ties crossed bush and desert to blow up locomotives and tear up track in a very successful series of operations. The ubiquitous Captain Meinerzhagen kept some of the line safe by posting poison notices around wells and littering the periphery with the bodies of dead birds and animals.

Far to the southeast, meanwhile, the British had been waging a campaign to destroy Konigsberg. The ship was sometimes recalled at sea, rendezvousing with German supply ships, or in the vast delta of the Rufiji River, which had been surveyed by the Germans prior to the war. They had discovered several chan­nels that could accommodate a warship. Konigsberg was in one of these lairs on September 18, 1914, when her captain, Commander Max Loof, received word that a British cruiser, HMS Pegasus, had entered Zanzibar Harbor, a mere 100 miles to the north. He put to sea on the next favorable tide and, at full speed, entered the harbor at 5 a.m. Pegasus was undergoing extensive boiler repairs and immobile. Loof easily shot her to pieces, and the cruiser quickly sank.

On her return to the Rufiji, Konigs­berg developed her own boiler problems. Loof conned his ship back up the delta, anchored and elaborately camouflaged his vessel, and set up observation posts, interlocking fields of light artillery fire, and machine-gun nests to cover the channel. He then had the offending ma­chinery disassembled, brought ashore, and dragged by native labor one hundred miles to the machine shops at Dar es Salaam. The repairs and replacement parts were fabricated with alacrity and returned to the ship by the same method. On October 30, 1914, before the parts could be reinstalled, however, a lookout from the cruiser HMS Chatham who had climbed to the top of a palm tree spotted Konigsberg’s mast. Chatham signaled other warships and all possible exits were blocked.

An impasse developed. Konigsberg could not get out; the British could neither enter the delta channels nor bring their guns to bear without spot­ters. A seaplane had been brought in from South Africa and the pilot managed to locate and report Konigsberg’s posi­tion, but soon crashed and was captured. Both sides now settled into a long siege, with the bottled-in enemy cruiser tying down a significant proportion of British naval strength.

This deadlock was finally resolved when the British decided to send two monitors, originally intended for the Gallipoli front, to the Rufiji. Named Severn and Mersey, they were dreadful sea vessels, nearly unmanageable in poor weather, but their shallow drafts would allow them to navigate in the delta, and their 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns were more than a match for Konigsberg. Ac­cordingly, the monitors were towed from England to Malta, to Suez, down the canal to the Red Sea, then around the African coast to Mafia Island, on which the British had built an airstrip. The monitors were made battle-ready, and on July 5, 1915, they began their trip up the Rufiji.

The Germans, who had been made aware of British intentions, gave Severn and Mersey a hot reception as they passed upstream, but both ships man­aged the run without significant damage and anchored in a position where they were safe from shore guns. The moni­tors fired as circling aircraft gave them the range. Konigsberg had shore obser­vation posts and replied. The fire was quite accurate, and both Mersey and the German cruiser sustained hits. So as not to be stranded by a falling tide, the mon­itors returned to Mafia for rest and refit.

They were back on July 11. This time, there was no contest. Kdnigsberg’s re­turn fire was on target, but she began to receive heavy hit after heavy hit. Soon the ship was ablaze, the crew was evacu­ated, and the cruiser was scuttled, set­tling into the Rufiji mud.

During the siege, at Lettow-Vorbeck’s request, Commander Loaf had reluc­tantly released about a hundred sailors and marines to the Schutztruppe. The entire ship’s complement was eventually inducted into the land force under their own officers. By some happenstance, none of Kdnigsberg‘s main batteries had been damaged, and Lettow-Vorbeck had the 10 105mm and two 88mm guns re­moved and dragged to Dar es Salaam, where they were fitted with carriages and then distributed throughout the Schutztruppe. He now possessed the heaviest field artillery in Africa.

During the early part of 1915, Lettow­ Vorbeck had used the relatively quiet time after the Battle of Tanga to galva­nize German East Africa to vastly in­crease the production of foodstuff, cloth for uniforms, and leather for boots. The colony responded with a will and devel­oped a high degree of self-sufficiency, manufacturing its own motor oil, tires, and an effective anti-malarial drug in liq­uid form, dubbed “Lettow’s Schnapps.”

Lettow-Vorbeck set up a recruitment and training center at Tabora, in the colony’s interior , for Europeans and na­tives eager to join the Schutztruppe. At peak strength, the force totaled 3,000 Europeans and 11,000 askaris. In the interest of getting the best results from the best people, Lettow­-Vorbeck began integrating black askaris into white companies and whites into black units. His view was “black or white, the superior man will always outwit the inferior.” Soon the Schutztruppe was fully integrated. Whatever their original opinions, during sharp skirmishes and ambushes, the races learned to appreci­ate each others’ qualities. A mutual trust developed.

Led by competent officers and inspired by their charismatic com­mander, who lived with them and shared their hardships, the Schutztruppe devel­oped an esprit de corps that remained undiminished throughout the war.

Such a feeling of solidarity was absent in British East Africa. Since Tanga, hos­tility had existed between the settlers and the military. Particularly resented were British Indian officers, with their pukka hauteur. Everyone treated the se­poys like coolies. They, in turn, despised the King’s African Rifles. For the colony’s civil servants, life continued its leisurely prewar pace, with the governor spending his time fishing.

German attacks on the Uganda Rail­way, meanwhile, were unceasing. In a single two-month period, 38 locomotives were destroyed, as well as much rolling stock. Lettow-Vorbeck himself led a patrol of about eight men plus carriers that destroyed one locomo­tive. He later commented that while dy­namite was plentiful, the explosives he had been gifted at Tanga were far supe­rior. Encounters between British and German patrols were quite common. At the same time the opponents often had to deal with various factors besides each other, such as enraged rhinos and ag­gressive lions. One British officer ob­served, “It was like fighting in a zoo.”

British attempts to penetrate German territory in strength invariably failed. A particularly dismal affair was an opera­tion under Brigadier General Wilfred Malleson, who on February 12, 1916, led a force of 6,000 men well supported by field guns in an attack on a German-held hill near Salaita, just inside British East Africa. The Germans were led by Major Georg Kraut, one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s most experienced officers. Kraut, whose force included 1,300 askaris and Europeans, two field guns, and nu­merous machine guns, had first con­structed dummy trenches around the crest of the hill, and then deployed his men in concealed positions at its foot.

Prior to advancing, Malleson’s artillery plastered the dummy trenches with high explosives. His force then moved for­ward, with newly arrived and inexperi­enced South African troops at the fore. They were subjected to a withering fire from Kraut’s concealed guns, followed by an askari bayonet charge. The South Africans wavered, then scattered and ran for their lives. The situation was saved only by a Baluchi regiment that stoutly held the charge.

The unhappy state of British arms was about to change dramatically with the arrival of a new com­mander in chief, Jan Christian Smuts. Of Afrikaan stock, Smuts had been a Cambridge scholar prior to the Boer War. During that conflict, he became a Boer guerrilla leader. Smuts was mentored by Louis Botha, probably the best of the Boer generals. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1911, Botha be­came prime minister and Smuts a leading member of his cabinet.

In 1916, he was appointed a lieutenant general in the British army and sent to East Africa. Like Lettow-Vorbeck before him, Smuts wasted little time on welcoming receptions or official visits. He immedi­ately began a personal reconnaissance of the front around Mount Kilimanjaro. He approved a plan of encirclement devel­oped by one of his subordinates. Besides the British troops in place, Smuts had brought a force of 25,000 South Africans, aircraft, and a wealth of field guns. He had an overwhelming host and was a commander of intelligence, resource, and daring. Unfortunat ely, his opponent was a commander of genius.

On March 5, 1916, Smuts launched a two-column attack around the eastern and western slopes of Kilimnjaro. The objective was Moshi, and the intention was to trap Kraut’s force in a pincer. When the South Africans entered Moshi on the 13th no Germans were to be found. The only sign of the former occu­pants was the removal or destruction of anything of use to the invaders; even the railroad tracks had been carried away.

Smuts pressed eastward down the line, trying to trap Lettow-Vorbeck by enveloping him between columns. Each time, he was confronted with the Ger­man’s signature: an easily defensible po­sition well entrenched, with artillery registered on all approaches. The on ­coming British would be met with a hail of machine-gun and shell fire, suffering many casualties. After working around the flanks, they would find the German position deserted. This tactic would be repeated innumerable times.

Two weeks after Smuts commenced his campaign, the rainy season began, a two­ month deluge that flooded every river, destroyed every bridge, and turned every road and trail into a morass. In Smuts’ words, “I had read about it and heard more, but the reality surpassed the worst I had read or heard.”

His sup­ply system broke down, and his troops went on half rations or less. Their reduced resistance and exhaustion left them even more vulnerable to malaria and dysentery; tsetse flies killed baggage animals by the hundreds. Still Smuts pressed on remorselessly. When Tanga was captured in July, there was nothing left of value. In the west, meanwhile, the Belgians crossed Lake Tanganyika and pressed eastward against stub­born German resistance. In September they captured Ta­bora, Lettow-Vorbeck’s training center and the colony’s seat of government. Having seized an enormous and fertile territory the Belgians then ended operations and settled into a comfortable occupation.

On September 3, 1916, Dar es Salaam fell to Smuts’ force, reduced now to skeletons by starvation, blackwater fever, and parasites. The ratio of sickness to battle casualties was 34-to-1, and thousands had to be invalided home.

The Germans had fared better, by virtue of being more accustomed to the climate, being better fed, and wearing uniforms that left only the face and hands exposed. Nonetheless, they were not im­mune to casualties and sickness. Lettow­-Vorbeck himself suffered from malaria and parasites, but kept going. One of his officers commented on his stamina after seeing him return from a 12-hour tour in the bush: “He arrived dragging his horse behind him, both of them foot­ sore, and I am not sure which one more resembled a skeleton. One thing is cer­tain. The horse will not last the next 24 hours, but the colonel will.”

With the capture of Dar es Salaam, Smuts believed his mission was accom­plished. Most of the colony was in Allied hands, and  both  railroads and harbors were secured, although his troops were in no condition for any further advance. Declaring himself the winner, Smuts ap­pointed his most competent subordinate and fellow Afrikaner, Brigadier General Jaap Van Deventer, to command. Then Smuts embarked for England, leaving a finely tuned, disciplined, fearsome enemy force somewhere in the bush. To replace his wasted South Africans, Van Deventer began to receive fresh troops–a brigade from Nigeria, regiments from the Gold Coast and the West Indies. Increasingly, the campaign was one of black men fighting black men in a white man’s war. In September 1917 Van Deventer, having received ample supplies and rein­forcements, began a two-column south­ ward advance with the object of catching Lettow-Vorbeck.

 Promoted to major gen­eral in August, the German commander, meanwhile, had begun arranging his de­tachments in echelon. This made it difficult to ascertain the rear of his force and more likely that the British would encircle only a portion of his units, thus subjecting themselves to a cross-fire. The two sides fought many skirmishes and one fierce battle, at Mahiwa, in the southeastern part of the colony. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but Van Deven­ter could absorb his losses more easily than could the Germans.

Lettow-Vorbeck was now desperate for supplies and sought fresh fields and relief from the ever-advancing British. Portugal had declared war on Germany in 1916, and on November 25, 1917, the Schuz­truppe forded the Rovuma River and entered Mozam­bique. The invasion of Por­tuguese East Africa had begun. Obtaining food and ammu­nition were Lettow- Vorbeck’s priorities. While two German blockade runners had success­ fully brought in much-needed materiel, especially shells for Konigsberg’s salvaged guns, Lettow-Vorbeck had been obliged to rely on booty from captured stores.

Mozambique was to prove a rich hunting ground. The Germans’ Rovuma crossing had been challenged by a Portuguese column of one thousand troops, most of whom were killed in the subsequent fight. They had been well-equipped, and thus provided Lettow-Vorbeck with hun­dreds of new rifles and several machine guns, all with adequate supplies of am­ munition. Foodstuffs, medical supplies, and clothing were included in the haul. In Lettow-Vorbeck’s words, “It was a per­fect miracle that these troops should have arrived so opportunely as to make the capture of the place so profitable to us.” Mozambique was a very fertile area.

Corn, cereal, and fruit grew in abundance, and domestic animals and wild game were plentiful. The native population was friendly, regarding the Portuguese as cruel oppressors. They brought the Germans food and intelligence. For nearly a year, the Schutztruppe ram­paged through the countryside, destroy­ing forts, scattering or capturing garrisons, and living quite well off the land.

When British columns joined the Portuguese, the old pattern of endless skirmishes, rear-guard actions, and am­ bushes played on. As the pressure be­ came too great, Lettow-Vorbeck again crossed the Rovuma, re-entering Ger­man East Africa in September 1918. As always, his askaris marched to one side, their wives, children, and the carriers to the other. Lettow-Vorbeck next invaded Rhodesia, much to the dismay of British authorities and the horror of settlers, who had been educated in the beastli­ness of the Hun.

On November 13, 1918, as Lettow­-Vorbeck was planning yet another raid on a British supply depot, one of his officers brought him a captured dispatch stating that an armistice had been declared in Europe. As the general had received no news from home in many months, he assumed that Ger­many had won. He was quickly disabused of the notion in a letter from Van Deven­ter outlining the terms of the armistice and the arrangements for the surrender of the Schutztruppe. Lettow-Vorbeck’s thoughts may easily be imagined as he re­ceived more details: the abdication of the kaiser, the mutiny of the German fleet at Kiel, and the very real possibility of revo­lution. So it was finally over, in a manner that Lettow-Vorbeck had never dreamed of.

On November 25, he marched into Abercorn, Rhodesia, at the head of the Schutztruppe, now pared down to 1,400 men and, after a short for­mal ceremony, ordered his force to lay down their arms. Lettow-Vorbeck had fought brilliantly for four years and had tied down some 300,000 Allied troops in futile efforts to capture him. With a force never numbering more than 14,000 men, he repeatedly achieved his strategic and tactical goals. Now it was all over.

The admiration of the British for their former foe knew no bounds. Lettow­-Vorbeck and his officers were treated with extreme courtesy, and the German commander himself received a respect verging on veneration. On his arrival at Dar es Salaam, a car was put at his dis­posal, and with an accompanying British officer, he had the freedom of the town. The askaris of the Schutztruppe had fought with skill and bravery throughout the war and had maintained a steadfast loyalty to their commander.

They had re­ceived no pay since the beginning of hos­tilities, and Lettow-Vorbeck now made every effort to correct this omission. He telegraphed Berlin time and again, but received no response. An appeal to the British for a loan was politely refused. The only remaining option was to issue IOUs, to be redeemed at some future date. So great was Lettow-Vorbeck’s standing with his men that they accepted these chits without question. Fifty years would pass before any of them was honored.

Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany early in 1919. As the only undefeated German general, he received a hero’s welcome wherever he appeared. His name was a household word throughout the country, and his exploits were a balm to a proud and humiliated people.

Leaving the army, he married and raised a family, and later entered poli­tics, serving as a conservative member of the Reichstag. While intensely right­ wing, he distrusted the Nazis, and when Adolf Hitler offered him the ambas­sadorship to Great Britain he refused. World War II cost the lives of both of his sons, and in the war’s hungry aftermath, he survived by carving wooden statues and by receiving regular food parcels from his old adversaries, Jan Smuts and Richard Meinerzhagen.

Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964 at the age of 94 and was buried with full military honors. The German gov­ernment eventually voted to pay his askaris. Because few of them had kept a record of service, they were put through the German manual of arms, the suc­cessful completion of which resulted in a pension.

At the seafront in Dar es Salaam, peo­ple tend to meet at the Askari Monu­ment, the best-known landmark in the city. Erected by the German govern­ment, it depicts a heroically charging askari-a tribute to those brave men and their brilliant commander.

Suggested Reading: 

My Reminiscences of East Africa By Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck 

African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918 By Robert Gaudi 

When Elephants Clash - A Critical Analysis Of Major General Paul Emil Von Lettow-Vorbeck By Major Thomas A. Crowson 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Taskforce Drysdale Gets Mauled -- November 29th, 1950 - December 1st, 1950 "Stubborn British In North Korea"

Colonel Douglas Drysdale of 41 Commando

On the night of November 27, 1950, in 30-degree weather, more than 80,000 soldiers of the 9th Army Group of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked the American X Corps along a 35-mile stretch of road west and south of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir in Korea. By the morning of November 28, nearly the entire 1st Marine Division and the equivalent of a regiment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division were under siege in six separate enclaves.

Nearly two regiments of Marines and three artillery battalions were holding Yudam-ni. Fourteen miles to the south, at Hagaru-ri, the Marine division’s forward command post, two artillery batteries, the equivalent of a battalion of infantry and an odd collection of service and support units were holding out. At Koto-ri, 11 miles farther south along the X Corps’ main supply route (MSR), a Marine headquarters, rifle battalion and artillery battery also were holding out. On the east side of the reservoir, two 7th Infantry Division rifle battalions, two artillery batteries and a regimental headquarters manned three isolated, precarious positions. A Marine battalion at Chinhung-ni, 10 miles south of Koto-ri, was molested but not endangered.

Both X Corps and 1st Marine Division planners immediately saw that securing the one-lane MSR connecting all the embattled forces would be the key to preventing a collapse. The pressure being applied to Marine units at Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri and to U.S. Army units east of the reservoir was unremitting. Koto-ri was under less pressure and the MSR to the southerly Chinhung-ni was open.
Once the fog of war began lifting, all available combat units south of Chinhung-ni were ordered to Koto-ri.

By the afternoon of November 28, Koto-ri was a vast vehicle park for piled-up traffic moving up from the rear. Among the mixed bag of units in this assemblage, G (‘George’) Company, 1st Marine Regiment, on its way to rejoin its battalion at Hagaru-ri, had been stopped. So had the last convoy of trucks carrying the 1st Marine Division’s forward command post. Then too, B (‘Baker’) Company, 31st Infantry (Baker/31), a 7th Infantry Division unit plucked from duty elsewhere, arrived after dark, as did 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines, a 240-man British force attached to the 1st Marine Division to bolster its reconnaissance capability.

There were also scores of trucks brimming with Army headquarters and service troops and their equipment and baggage. No one really knew how many men there were within the confines of the Koto-ri perimeter. As many transients as possible were put into tents that night. Most had to feed themselves and many went hungry.

Colonel Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller ordered his 1st Marine Regiment headquarters to organize the transients into a convoy that would be able to break through to Hagaru-ri in the morning. As the senior combat officer among the transients, Lt. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale, commander of 41 Commando, was placed in overall charge of the mixed unit, though hardly any of his new subordinates were so informed. According to Army Captain Charles Peckham of Baker/31, Puller personally ordered him to break through the Chinese roadblocks and lead the convoy all the way to Hagaru-ri.

On the morning of November 29, Task Force Drysdale units followed up United Nations artillery and airstrikes by attacking two Chinese-held areas on the MSR and opening the way for the Drysdale convoy. Captain Bruce Clarke’s D (‘Dog’) Company, 1st Tank Battalion, arrived later from the south to find the convoy stalled at a third point. After the tanks were refueled, Clarke ordered 1st Lt. Paul Sanders’ five-tank platoon to support an assault on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR by 41 Commando and George/1st Marines. Sanders conferred briefly with Drysdale, who assigned him a common radio frequency and a small infantry support team. When Sanders’ five tanks moved up the road, they were able to fire down the ling axis of the enemy-held ridge.

The Royal Marines and George Company delivered a spirited attack with the aid of the tanks and close air support. The tanks seemed to account for several Chinese strongpoints. In time, however, Sanders lost radio contact with Drysdale and had to stop firing. When Sanders looked back to see how the convoy was faring, he was surprised to see that it had fallen far behind. Ahead, he could not even spot Baker/31, which had advanced out of range, beyond the tanks.

Sanders queried headquarters and was ordered to proceed slowly up the MSR with the remainder of his company: an attached tank platoon would follow in this tracks. As soon as the major PLA strongpoint on the ridge overlooking the MSR just north of Koto-ri had been cleared, the Marines moved down the roadway and climbed aboard trucks, while 41 Commando deployed between the roadway and the skyline to screen the first elements of the long column of vehicles. It was a misty day and snow flurries whipped into the faces of the troops each time they dismounted from their vehicles to return fire.

Marine Vought F4U-4 Corsairs were on station overhead, but the shifting mists and the closeness of the jumbled terrain forced many of the fighter-bombers to pull up before they could get close enough to their targets. Progress on the roadway was agonizingly slow. In the vanguard, Peckham maneuvered Baker/31 with great care. Behind, Captain Carl Sitter’s George Company maneuvered against numerous Chinese infantrymen who had been driven briefly to ground by Peckham’s company.

As Baker/31’s vanguard inched forward in the column lead, Drysdale’s native aggressiveness, according to many survivors, got the better of his judgment. Peckham may have been concluding an exemplary advance against serious odds, but he was too methodical for Drysdale. It was well past noon and Peckham was directing the loading of the lead platoon’s trucks following the reduction of yet another roadside strongpoint when a tank surged past him.

The next vehicle was a jeep bearing Drysdale, who yelled above the din, ‘Let’s move forward!’ Peckham demurred–he had wounded men on his hands and would not advance until they had been seen safely away. Drysdale responded with a smiling ‘Tally Ho!’ and took off, drawing 41 Commando, all the tanks and Captain Sitter’s George Company in his wake. It wasn’t long before the extensive column was slowed by a massive traffic jam, and many’soft’ vehicles were easy pickings for PLA mortars on the heights. The convoy was soon fragmented by stalled vehicles and the smoking remains of burning trucks and jeeps. Many men were killed or wounded.

Drysdale’s headlong rush also fragmented Baker/31. Unable to move back in the column, Peckham and the remnants of his lead platoon were pushed forward. At length, Baker/31’s lead platoon was stopped by a burning ammunition truck that sealed the roadway. American and British marines under Major John McLaughlin, the senior Marine X Corps liaison officer, were helping to clear the roadway of wounded men and stalled vehicles. Unable to proceed, Peckham deployed his troops in roadside ditches to return the Chinese fire from the heights.

The eventual destruction of every radio in the column assured a loss of control, and that resulted in crumbling discipline throughout that long, fire-swept afternoon. Unable to advance, numerous drivers turned their vehicles around in the vain hope of going back. For a time, ambulances filled to capacity were getting through, but even they were stopped as the roadway and verges were sealed.
Drysdale’s combat elements–most of 41 Commando, Dog/Tanks and George/1st Marines–were briefly stopped at Pusong-ni, on a narrow defile about five miles north of Koto-ri. That choke point was eventually forced, but the column’s progress was almost immediately stopped again by a demolished bridge.

Sanders, whose tank platoon was Drysdale’s vanguard, now was ordered to move aside and allow the rear tank platoon to bypass the blown bridge. The maneuver was accomplished with great difficulty, convincing all that, while tanks might get through, soft vehicles would be stopped. Drysdale sent his adjutant forward to have a look, but that officer was wounded. At the same time, sheets of gunfire from the heights wounded George Company’s machine gun officer and Drysdale himself. Command of the vanguard group passed to George Company’s Captain Sitter, who ordered everyone to deploy and return fire.

As the British and American troops jumped to the road to join the fight, a scream of ‘Grenade!’ sent many ducking for cover. Private First Class William Baugh smothered it with his body. He was mortally wounded, but he saved the men around him, for which he was bestowed a posthumous Medal of Honor.

By then it was dark, and Dog/Tanks was feeling its way along the fire-swept roadway toward the Marine roadblocks guarding besieged Hagaru-ri. One of the tanks was knocked out by an anti-tank grenade and had to be shoved into a ditch to clear the roadway. Sanders passed the friendly roadblock almost before he realized he was safe. Immediately his tank’s engine died–he had run out of fuel.
George Company finally passed through the friendly roadblock at about 8:15 p.m.–after 10 1/2 hours on the move. It was immediately ordered to help man the Hargaru-ri perimeter line.

The sudden, final lunge by the tanks and George Company, however, left the bulk of 41 Commando far behind. The Chinese quickly surrounded the 200-plus Royal Marines and proceeded to whittle away at them.

The last cohesive unit to enter Koto-ri from the south was Baker Company, 1st Tank Battalion, which arrived at 3 p.m., following many minor delays. The bulk of the company, including soft vehicles, then advanced three miles up the MSR through moderate fire to find the tail of the convoy.
When Baker/Tanks drew close to the main convoy after dark, the road ahead was totally blocked by wrecked and burning vehicles. There was no way for the tanks to bypass the carnage–and at that point heavy mortar fire began falling perilously close to the tank company’s fuel and ammunition trucks.

It was clear that advancing would only accomplish the destruction of Baker/Tanks. The armored unit, no longer on the move, was forced to defend itself through the night against massed Chinese infantry assaults. Several tankers were killed or injured and several soft vehicles were lost, but the company was destined to survive.

Of about 1,100 U.S. Army soldier and Marines and Royal Marines–plus a few South Koreans–who had started out from Koto-ri on the morning of November 29, only about 250 had arrived at Hagaru-ri by midnight. The rest were scattered along several miles of the road in at least six separate groupings, isolated by Chinese strongpoints and impassible snarls of wrecked and burning vehicles of every description.

The northernmost enclave was manned by about 200 Royal Marines under Drysdale. In spite of his painful wounds, Drysdale oversaw a spirited defense, forbidding the Chinese to fragment his bloodied unit. Casualties were very heavy, particularly among the officers, but the Royal Marines inched steadily along toward Hagaru-ri. The bulk of them, including many wounded, passed through the outer U.S. Marine roadblock a dew hours after midnight. When they counted noses, the Royal Marines found that fully one-half of their original complement of 250 was killed, wounded, or missing.

That left some 500 Americans, British and South Koreans trapped in five major trapped enclaves along several hundred yards of roadway running through the defile just south of Pusong-ni, about halfway between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri. The northernmost group in the ‘Hell Fire Valley’ was under the command of the 1st Marine Division’s logistics officer, Lt. Col. Arthur Chidester, until he was shot through both legs as he directed traffic in a vain attempt to turn back.

Command fell to Major John McLaughlin, who found that he had about 135 men under his direct command, including Peckham and the remnants of a Baker/31 platoon. McLaughlin also counted a U.S. Marine military police section under Warrant Officer Lloyd Dirst, a score of Royal Marines, assorted headquarters personnel and a growing contingent of wounded.

About 200 yards south of McLaughlin’s position, two understrength platoons of Baker/31 and several Marine stragglers were holed up in a roadside ditch. Thirty yards south of them were about 95 Marine staff officers, clerks and technicians under Captain Michael Capraro, a Marine public information officer.

A short distance south of Capraro’s force was a group of about 45 Marines under the 1st Marine Division motor transport officer, Major Henry ‘Pop’ Seeley. A fifth, very small group under the Marine division’s personnel officer, Colonel Harvey Walseth, turned itself around after dark and slowly fought its way toward Koto-ri. When Walseth’s vehicles were blocked by Baker/Tanks, which was stopped on the roadway, he and his troops dismounted and walked the rest of the way to Koto-ri.

Captain Peckham commanded the only viable infantry increment in the northernmost enclave, but he was not particularly enthused by the quality of the troops, many of them panic-stricken South Korean conscripts who used up the bulk of their ammunition firing at phantoms.

Dirst, the MP section leader, strode up and down the road, pipe in hand, barking curt commands, leaving steady, organized soldiers and Marines in his wake. When he heard troops firing too much precious ammunition, he gently admonished the offenders, telling them that they had only to fight through to daybreak to draw the awesome support of Marine warplanes and hopefully, ground reinforcements.

In the end, however, Dirst was shot through the head and had to be placed in a roadside ditch to await treatment.Another steady hand was McLaughlin, who left no doubt as to who was in command or how the defense was to be conducted. As ammunition supplies dwindled, McLaughlin personally collected rounds from the dead and wounded and distributed them to the men who seemed most composed. Sometime after midnight, the remnants of the two Baker/31 platoons that had been trapped south of the McLaughlin enclave managed to work their way into the larger perimeter, a welcome reinforcement despite the panicked condition of the troops and the limited supplies of ammunition they brought.

There was a brief lull for Capraro’s embattled force when voices from the dark called upon Capraro to surrender his men in return for good treatment. After a few insults had been exchanged, the Chinese mentioned that three PLA regiments were deployed on the heights and that continued resistance was pointless. Capraro roared back a curt ‘Hell no!’ and prepared to meet renewed assaults.

Peckham, in McLaughlin’s enclave, was reduced to handing out rifle bullets two and three at a time. Many of Peckham’s South Korean infantrymen had drifted away totally. In time, he counted less than a dozen effectives under his command.

A Chinese political officer who spoke good English asked a number of captives being held on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR if one of their number would act as an intermediary carrying a surrender offer. Sergeant Guillermo Tovar, an MP, asked Major James Eagen, the wounded 1st Marine Division assistant supply officer, if he should do so. Eagen assented and Tovar stood up to be led to the roadway.

The Chinese fire nearly ceased as Tovar passed through the American line and explained his mission to McLaughlin. The two climbed the railway embankment and met three Chinese who were standing on the tracks, ready to make a deal. If McLaughlin surrendered, the Chinese promised, the wounded would be returned to friendly lines. McLaughlin asked for time to discuss the offer with his officers, to which the Chinese agreed.

While McLaughlin was on the railway embankment, a PLA officer, accompanied by an American soldier who had been captured earlier, approached Peckham. The Chinese told Peckham that he would be well treated if he surrendered. Peckham gave the man a pack of cigarettes and suggested he take it to his superior–if the Chinese commander gave up, Peckham audaciously vowed, he would see that the PLA troops were fed and well treated.

McLaughlin returned to the roadside ditch to find the wounded Chidester. They discussed the Chinese terms, then Chidester reluctantly urged McLaughlin to accept them.While Chidester and McLaughlin were reaching their decision, the PLA officer who had taken Peckham’s cigarettes returned with a message from his superior: if the Americans did not lay down their arms within 15 minutes, a full regiment would mount an assault. Peckham asked for time to get word to all his troops, then set all hands at destroying their weapons.

The Chinese agreed to allow Tovar to carry a verbal message to ‘Pop’ Seeley. McLaughlin instructed Tovar to tell Seeley to stall for as long as he could; there was a chance that the entire force could be saved at daybreak, less than an hour hence.

Next, McLaughlin told the Chinese political officer, ‘We are not surrendering because you beat us. We are surrendering to get our wounded cared for. If we can’t get our wounded evacuated, we will fight on.’

Seeley, in the meantime, had assumed from the start that a relief expedition would be mounted from Hagaru-ri or Koto-ri at first light. For now, he thought the Chinese were being held back; the greatest threat seemed to come from the dank, subzero chill. Troop leaders constantly checked their subordinates and one another for signs of frostbite, and reminded all hands to keep their limbs in constant motion. The ammunition supply was another constant worry, for Seeley commanded mainly headquarters people who normally carried very few bullets.

When Seeley heard Tovar yelling his name in the dark, he ordered his troops to cease firing. Tovar approached and asked Seeley to accompany him into a field on the east side of the road. There he told the major what was going on and about McLaughlin’s desire to stall for as long as possible.

Farther on, the two Americans were met by two Chinese who spoke no English but nevertheless made it clear that Seeley was to have his troops put down their weapons and advance with their hands up. As the exchange was winding down, Major Eagen, who the Chinese had carried down from the heights, spoke out of the darkness and asked Seeley to come talk. Eagen, severely wounded in both legs, told Seeley everything he knew about McLaughlin’s situation and the PLA offer. He had seen the Chinese setting up heavy mortars on the roadway, so he urged Seeley to surrender. This was Seeley’s first inkling as to the size of the PLA force, but he still wanted to wait until dawn, which might bring relief.

Eagen was pleading the case of the many wounded when the Chinese interrupted the exchange. It was clear from their hand signs that they wanted a decision. Seeley asked Eagen to stall them, then walked back to his enclave by the river. He told Sergeant Tovar to ask McLaughlin to stall while he and his troops dug in more securely. He was not going to give in. By then, however, the Chinese were disarming McLaughlin’s people, only 40 of whom were capable of putting up further resistance.
Seeley was next approached by Warrant Officer Dee Yancey, who reported that he had reconnoitered the adjacent Changjin River and found that it was solid ice. There seemed to be no Chinese fire coming from the far shore, so Yancey suggested that the group break out. Seeley readily agreed.

The entire group, including the wounded, started west across the river toward a ridge that might provide good cover. Capraro’s force joined Seeley’s west of the river, and their men also came upon two seriously wounded Marines who had been lost on patrol three days earlier. Seeley’s group struggled up to the ridge, clambered over the top and turned south toward Koto-ri at an agonizingly slow pace.

Seeley’s group was out of sight of the Chinese on the MSR before sunrise, but Seeley heard voices and Chinese bugles approaching form the rear. Yancey, who had suffered painful shrapnel wounds in both legs and back, dropped behind as the first Chinese came over the ridge. A former Marine Corps rifle team shooter, Yancey quickly dropped two Chinese point men while the remainder of the American group scrambled down the slope. The Chinese patrol went to ground, and Yancey followed his countrymen, all of whom reached Koto-ri.

True to their word, the Chinese began assembling wounded captives, but only after they had disarmed the survivors and stolen every scrap of food they could winnow from the pockets and packs of the men facing an uncertain future in captivity–or in some cased, left behind in a hut. Most of the wounded were eventually returned to Koto-ri. Some, including Lloyd Dirst, succumbed to their wounds. Arthur Chidester and James Eagen were not repatriated with the other wounded, and no one ever saw either of them again. Several captives, including Guillermo Tovar, escaped while helping prepare the wounded for return to Koto-ri.

Of roughly 1,200 men involved in the tragedy on the MSR, 162 remain officially listed as killed or missing. Another 159 were wounded and repatriated. More than 300 American and British troops were marched off to prison camps. Of those, 18 Marines escaped the following spring. About two dozen Britons and several dozen American soldiers and Marines went to ground in the hills, cut off from friendly bases but determined to await rescue. Most of them were eventually saved. Of the 141 vehicles committed to the operation, 75 percent were destroyed.

If nothing else came of Task Force Drysdale’s disastrous run down the Chinese gauntlet, it strengthened a working bond between the U.S. and Royal marines that would serve both as they regrouped to fight their way out of the trap that was closing around them. The wounded Colonel Drysdale was among the survivors who made it to Hagaru-ri, but 41 Commando had suffered 61 casualties, which would increase to 93 before it and the bulk of the X Corps completed their ‘advance in another direction to reach the relative safety of Hungnam on the night of December 10, 1950.

After being evacuated to South Korea, 41 Commando was withdrawn to Japan to be reconstituted in January 1951. Before it departed, Colonel Drysdale’s report included some comments on his unit’s collaboration with the U.S. Marines: ‘This was the first time that the Marines of the two nations had fought side by side since the defense of the Peking Legations in 1900. Let it be said that the admiration of all ranks of 41 Commando for their brothers in arms was and is unbounded. They fought like tigers and their morale and esprit de corps is second to none’

As for the impression that the Royal Marines made on their American colleagues, one U.S. Marine spoke for most, if not all survivors of the ‘Frozen Chosin’: ‘I walked into Hagaru from Yudam-ni where I learned that the British had supplied us with a fighting force. Before that we laughed at the words `U.N. Forces’ because we had not seen the troops of any other nation except the Chinese. I was delighted to meet the British. When they came around you could stop looking for a fight, because they would be right in the middle of it….’

Suggested Reading: 

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War By David Halberstam 

In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953 By John Toland 

This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War By T.R. Fehrenbach