150 years on – The Battle of Königgrätz, 3 July 1866

Konnigratz
‘The Battery of the Dead’ by Carl Röchling (1855 – 1920). This picture shows the Prussian Guard overrunning Captain August von der Groeben’s so called ‘Battery of the Dead‘ at the Battle of Königgrätz, on the afternoon of 3 July 1866.

This week the military history world has been focused on the centenary commemorations for the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  Less well commemorated, or as well-known I suspect, is the fact that 3 July 2016 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), itself an important and significant event, and the culmination of the short Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a war that would have a crucial role in shaping the Europe we know today.

The Austro-Prussian War, which was also known as the Seven Weeks’ War, was fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Kingdom of Prussia with its own German allies.  At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the German states were grouped in a loose confederation known as the ‘Deutscher Bund‘ and operating under Austrian leadership.  As the nineteenth century progressed the conditions developed for a unification of the German states into a single Germany. Two different views emerged as to what that unification might look like. The first was a ‘Grossdeutschland’ or greater Germany that would see a multi-national empire including Austria. The alternative a ‘Kleindeutschland’ or lesser Germany would exclude Austria and as a result would be dominated by Prussia, the largest and most powerful of the German states, unsurprisingly the latter was the preferred option in Prussia.

Bismark
Otto Von Bismarck (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898) the architect of German Unification. This photograph was taken late in his life and had been beautifully colourised by Marina Amaral.

When Otto von Bismarck became Minister President of Prussia in 1862 he immediately began to develop a strategy for uniting Germany as a ‘Kleindeutschland’ under Prussian rule. He first raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join Prussia in the Second Schleswig War.  This swift and brutal conflict put the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein under joint Austrian and Prussian rule. But very quickly after the conclusion of that war Bismarck provoked a further conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces, which resulted in Austria declaring war on Prussia and calling on the armies of the minor German states to join them, in what was ostensibly action by the German Confederation against Prussia to restore Prussia’s obedience to the Confederation.

The main campaign of the war took place in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic).  The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, had decided that the key to success was to ignore the minor German states allied with Austria, and instead concentrate on decisively defeating Austria itself.  He planned the war in meticulous detail, rapidly mobilising the Prussian Army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia in June 1866 to confront the Austrian Army, which was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. Moving rapidly, the Prussian forces were divided into three armies: The Army of the Elbe under General Karl Eberhard Herwarth von Bittenfeld, the First Army under Prince Friedrich Karl, and the Second Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. All were under the nominal command of Prussia’s King Wilhelm I, but in reality operational command sat with von Moltke.  As the armies advanced, each on their own axis, they overcame Austrian attempts to stop them and by 2 July the main Austria Army had been sighted, encamped on high ground between the towns of Königgrätz and Sadowa.

Von Moltke immediately saw the opportunity to encircle the Austrians. He gave orders for Prince Friedrich Karl and the First Army to move forward and in conjunction with the Army of the Elbe to attack the Austrian positions across the Bistritz River the following day, 3 July 1866.  He also ordered the Second Army, at this time some way off to the North East, to move in support with the aim of surrounding the Austrian forces.  

KG Map Morning
The morning’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Moltke had intended the battle to be a textbook ‘pocket battle’ in which he would encircle and destroy the Austrian Army, but the weather on 3 July almost ruined his plans.  As the First Army and the Army of the Elbe approached they were caught in the heavy rain and arrived wet and exhausted. Meanwhile the Second Army did not reach the field until late afternoon. The Austria commander, Ludwig von Benedek, therefore had the advantage of numerical superiority for much of the day with his 240,000 troops actually only facing 135,000 Prussians. Unfortunately for Austria he did not exploit this advantage.

Bayonet Charge by Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa
An etching showing Prussian infantry charging Austrian troops at bayonet point.

The initial Prussian attacks came from the Army of the Elbe in the West and the First Army in the North West.  In the West the early attacks were successful and the Saxon Army Corps holding this portion of the Austrian defensive line were pushed back.  They withdrew to new defensive positions and once there started to pour heavy fire on the Prussians bringing them to a standstill.  Further north the Prussian forces started well and made good progress and an hour into the battle the town of Sadowa was taken, but soon afterwards the advance began to slow down under heavy Austrian fire. A considerable amount of this was coming from a wooded area called the Sweipwald in which Austrian troops were concealed.  The Prussians attacked and the wood was cleared.  The Austrians counter-attacked but their efforts were uncoordinated and confused allowing the Prussians to decimate the disorientated columns of Austrian infantry moving in and out of the wood.  The Austrian position was not helped by paralysis, indecision and confusion amongst the Austrian command. Benedek stopped an attempt by a subordinate (General Anton von Mollinary) to swing the Austrian Army’s right wing forward to encircle the two Prussian armies at Sadowa before the arrival of the third, losing a valuable opportunity and creating chaos in the field.

KG Map Afternoon
The afternoon’s actions at Königgrätz. Map taken from Gordon A. Craig’s excellent book ‘The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964.)

Aided by Benedek’s inaction, Moltke had time to wait for the arrival of the Prussian Second Army which he was finally able to commit late in the afternoon and it struck Benedek’s weak right flank.  With the assault now on all sides the Austrian Army began to disintegrate.  Gallant but futile rearguard actions took place to slow the Prussian advance.  One lone horse artillery battery, under the command of Captain August von der Groeben, tried to stem the Prussian advance. Its desperate salvos were answered with crippling Prussian fire from all sides and within five minutes Groeben, 53 men and 68 horses were all dead. This was followed by the Austrian cavalry which charged into the pursuing Prussians.  For half an hour the they succeeded in holding the Prussian cavalry and pushing their infantry back, which, combined with the continuing Austrian artillery fire, convinced Von Moltke that he may had underestimated Benedek.  With his reserves of infantry and cavalry stuck on muddy approach roads behind the lines, Moltke did not have the resources to complete the encirclement at Königgrätz and stopped the pursuit. The Austrian cavalry broke off at this point and the battle ended at 9pm.

Königgrätz - Hunten
‘Battle of Königgrätz 1866’ by Emil Hünten (1827-1902) The picture depicts King Wilhelm I awarding his son, the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Order Pour le Mérite after the Prussian victory under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who can be seen on the left side. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Most of Benedek’s army escaped across the Elbe in the night, but the Austrian losses were high – 44,000 men in the course of the day, compared with Prussian losses of just 9,000. The Austrian Army that retreated to Vienna was very weakened and the Austrian emperor had no option but to agree to an armistice on 22 July 1866, and three weeks later sued for peace. Bismarck used the victory to further his ambitions, abolishing the German Confederation and forming the North German Federation that excluded Austria and her allies in Germany. Its position as the dominant power in continental Europe was confirmed five years later with an emphatic victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting unification into a united Germany.

Today Königgrätz is a fascinating battlefield to visit.  Situated 125km to the East of Prague in the Czech Republic, it is about an hour and a half drive from the centre of the Czech capital.  The battlefield is relatively undeveloped and one can very quickly gain an understanding of the terrain and the flow of the battle. There is a small museum and visitor centre that provides useful orientation and an observation tower.  These are both located together just outside the village of Chlum, right at the heart of the battlefield and on its highest spot. The tower affords panoramic views of the area and from which one can appreciate the scale of the battle and the influence of the terrain.

Panorama Lookimh East
A panoramic view from the Chlum observation tower looking East.  In the foreground is the museum and visitor centre.  In the centre, on the right edge of the woods, is the memorial to the ‘Battery of the Dead‘.  The attack of the Prussian Second Army swept in from the left hand edge of this view.

The actions of many regiments and individuals are marked with memorials across the battlefield.  These include a monument erected at the location where Captain August von der Groeben and his ‘Battery of the Dead‘ conducted their heroic but doomed rearguard action.

Dead Memorial
The Battery of The Dead Memorial unveiled in October 1893. Captain von der Groeben and his horse battery of eight Groeben’s guns were placed North-West of Chlum facing the Sweipwald. In mid-afternoon of 3 July 1866 the battery tried to hold off a flanking attack by the Prussian guards before rapid and heavy fire silenced the guns. Groeben, 53 other officers and men, and 68 horses were killed. 

The Sweipwald is full of memorials to both sides, placed here both by regiments in memory of fallen comrades and families for loved one.  As one walks through the woods it is easy to envisage how this part of the field became a bloody killing ground as the combat ebbed and flowed. But today it is peaceful and serene, and judging by my experience very little visited, as we were the only people in the woods on a fine July afternoon last year!

Sweipwald Memorials
Some of the many monuments and memorials in the now tranquil Sweipwald.

The impact of this battle was felt long after it finished.  Bismarck’s vision of a dominant and imperial Germany of course came to fruition, and ultimately led to Germany’s role in helping to start the First World War, the legacy of which had a continuing impact throughout the subsequent history of the twentieth century.  It is perhaps worth reflecting on what might have happened had there been an Austrian victory on 3 July 1866.  Would it have resulted in a ‘Grossdeutschland’ that would have joined the German states in a less aggressive and less martial multi-national Empire, leading to a more peaceful Europe and avoiding the two world wars of the twentieth century?  This is of course speculation but what is very clear is how important this short war, and the little known battle of Königgrätz were in actually shaping the European history we know today.

The First World War on your doorstep

Machine Gun Corps Training
Troops of the Motor Machine Gun Corps training February 1916. ©IWM (Q 53896)

The First World War saw some 8.7 million men serve in the British Army at some point during the conflict.  Of those, 5.4 million served on the Western Front (France and Flanders), which is where I suspect most people think of these men spending their time.  But of course before they even got across the Channel a huge effort was necessary to recruit, mobilise and train such an army.  Today the British Army is heading for a regular strength of 80,000, a tiny proportion of that First World organisation, yet I suspect that we all know of a military barracks in our local area and are aware of military activity. Thus imagine a one-hundred fold increase to the number of men under arms and the impact on the country’s infrastructure and landscape.  Military camps and training areas grew up all over the country to cope with this expansion, and I will return to these shortly.

The First World War saw a step change in the manner in which war was conducted.  Many will argue that it was the first industrial war; I might counter that by suggesting that the roots of the industrialisation of warfare were planted some fifty years earlier with the American Civil War, but that is a different debate.  What is clear from the First World War is that many of the technologies that had been emerging over the previous fifty years came together with deadly efficiency during the conflict. The trench stalemate on the Western Front is usually put down to a combination of three things. First, the very effective defensive technology and techniques employed to create the trenches, and the use of barbed wire to make No Man’s Land impossible to cross safely. Second, the wholesale availability of tinned rations which meant that soldiers could occupy these defensive positions for weeks and month without having to forage off the land as they had in previous campaigns. And finally the rise of rapid firing weaponry making venturing into No Man’s Land a perilous activity. Crucial amongst this weaponry was the machine gun.

Maxim Plaque
A blue plaque at 57 Hatton Garden, London, where Hiram Maxim set up his workshops on his arrival in Britain in 1881, and where he designed his famous machine gun.

The first self-powered (recoil operated) machine gun had been invented in 1883 by Hiram Maxim (an American who moved to Britain in 1881).  He conducted practical demonstrations in 1884, and his Maxim Gun was used by the British Army on colonial operations from 1893.  In 1912 an improved version of his gun was produced by the Vickers  Company and adopted by the British Army.  It would remain in use through both World Wars finally being withdrawn from service in 1968.

Although having been around for some years, the machine gun really came to the fore in the First World War.  At the start of the War all British Army infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns and this was increased to four in February 1915, as a result of the experience of combat in the early battles. But this experience also highlighted the need for bespoke tactics and organisation in order to make the most effective use of the weapon. As a result, in November 1914 a Machine Gun School at established in Wisques in France to train officers and machine gunners. This served two immediate purposes.  First, to replace those personnel trained to use machine guns who had been killed or wounded, and second to increase the number of men with machine gun skills.

men-of-the-machine-gun-corps-at-drill1
Machine Gun Corps personnel undergoing training during the First World War.

In September 1915 the War Office considered a plan to create a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the machine guns and associated teams from the battalions, with the aim of fully exploiting this new technology. In order to give the battalions firepower they would be issued with the lighter and more portable Lewis machine gun. The plan was approved, the Machine Gun Corps was created in October 1915, and the companies formed in each brigade transferred into to the newly formed Corps. The reorganisation was rapid and was completed by the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.  By the end of the war a total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of whom 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing.

In order to train and prepare these troops a Base Depot for the Corps was established at Camiers in France and a Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire, and it is this latter location that I will now focus upon.

Belton Camp Aerial
An aerial view of Belton Park Camp during the First World War.

The camp at Belton Park came in to being shortly after the start of the First World War when the owner of Belton House, Earl Brownlow, offered the use of Belton Park to the War Office.  A camp was begun in September 1914, firstly tented but very soon purpose built wooden huts were erected.  

Belton Military Camp
A wartime picture of Belton Park Camp showing the wooden huts and rolling stock for the camp’s own railway line.

These burgeoned and the camp became a small town. It had some 840 wooden huts of which 500 were barrack rooms giving it a capacity of about 12,000 men and additional accommodation for officers, although some sources do suggest that the capacity could have been up to 20,000.  It had its own 670 bed military hospital, 5 church rooms, 3 YMCA huts for recreation, a post office, a cinema and its own railway line.  The map below gives an overview, but a more detailed sheet is available from the Belton House website

Belton Map
A map showing Belton Park Camp and giving an idea of its scale.

The camp was initially occupied by troops of the 11th (Northern) Division, then by Pals battalion from Liverpool and Manchester who were part of the 30th Division, before finally becoming the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre on 18 October 1915 when Brigadier General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill CB CMG took command of the camp.  By November he had 230 officers, 3,123 men, 163 guns, 4 wagons and 60 cooks on site. The camp remained in place throughout the war and was eventually dismantled in 1920.

img_0617
One of the three YMCA recreation huts in Belton Park Camp.

Today it is almost impossible to realise that such a huge encampment existed at Belton Park, unless you know about it.  With the dismantling of the camp the land returned to its original use as the deer park for Belton House, and in the ensuing one hundred years almost all evidence of the camp has disappeared. Over the last few years, particularly with the First World War Centenary upon us, some interest has been rekindled in the site. In 2012 Episode 259 of the Channel 4 series ‘Time Team’ conducted an investigation on the site.   The National Trust, today’s guardian of Belton Park, has also undertaken some investigative work to help interpret the scale and size of the camp.

Belton from Belmont Pano
The current view over the area occupied by Belton Park Camp.  The avenue of trees in the centre extends to Belton House and the open areas on either side would have been covered in wooden huts during the First World War.

I personally found out about this camp some years ago and have wandered over the landscape a number of times.  There are just the odd clues to the camp if one looks carefully.  The most obvious of these is a water tank, sited on top of the hill overlooking the camp site, and sitting alongside a much more prominent 18th Century folly.  Constructed as part of the infrastructure to support the camp this simple round tank is one of the last remaining pieces of physical evidence of the camp.

Belton Watertank
One of the few remaining pieces of Belton Park Camp, a water tank overlooking the park which, one hundred years ago, would have been covered on wooden huts and alive with the sound of military training.

As a result it is difficult these days, as one walks in the tranquil park land, to imagine the frenetic building that went on to construct the camp, and then the day to day noise and activity of thousands of soldiers undertaking training.  The sounds of vehicles, horses, the shouting of orders and the rattle of gunfire as hundreds of machine guns were fired on the ranges purposely built for the job, (the target butts for which now form part of the local golf course) must have been constant.

Slide1
Two memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  Left, a stone tablet on the Lion Gates entrance to Belton Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire.  Right, a modern memorial, based on the Machine Gun Corps cap badge, in Grantham’s Wyndham Park, erected in 2014.

With the dismantling of the camp the town of Grantham returned to peace and quiet, although it has become the home to a number of memorials to the Machine Gun Corps.  The parish church of St Wulfram houses a memorial plaque and book of remembrance, whilst there is a stone tablet commemorating all members of the Machine Gun Corps on Belton Park’s Lion Gates. Finally in 2014 a new memorial, based on the badge of the Machine Gun Corps, was unveiled in Grantham’s Wyndham Park.

Now this story is of course not just about Grantham and its experience of the First World War, nor is it solely about the Machine Gun Corps, there is a wider point here.  It wasn’t just Belton Park that experienced this phenomenon.  There were hundreds of establishments growing up all over the country to house the rapid and enormous expansion of the British Army that took place in the first year of the War, and to deal with the casualties as they returned home. From Salisbury Plain to Cannock Chase, and from Manchester’s Heaton Park to as far away as Stobs Camp outside Hawick in Scotland, military establishments grew up all over the country.  As I postulated at the start of this blog post, it is often easy to overlook the physical impact of the First World War at home, when the scale and horror of the Western Front (or the other theatres of war for that matter) dominate our First World War history and memory.  Thus in this period of centenary commemorations it is interesting, and appropriate, to reflect on how this huge military footprint stretched right across Britain and the impact it had on the local economy, population and landscape throughout the country.

Stow Maries: An evocative tribute to First World War aviation.

Aircraft Stow Maries
Aircraft on the ground and in the air at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome.

One hundred years ago a new threat to the United Kingdom was forcing the Government to introduce new measures to defend the country.  From early 1915 German airships had been attacking and, whilst the casualties were very low compared to those that would be experienced in the ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, this new form of warfare was causing alarm and fear amongst the population.  In response to this unrest, in late 1915, a number of new Home Defence Squadrons began to be formed with the aim of providing a dedicated force of aircraft to defend the country’s eastern approaches.  These squadrons, eleven in all, began to come into operation from January 1916.  One of these squadrons, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was formed in September 1916 with its headquarters at Woodham Mortimer and its three flights located at three separate, and newly built, aerodromes in Essex: Rochford, Stow Maries and Goldhanger.   Its mission was to provide air defence on the eastern approaches to London.

Air Raid Damage 1917
Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. © IWM (HO 77)

The aerodrome at Stow Maries, the home of 37 Squadron’s B Flight, was initially under the command of Lieutenant Claude Ridley who, at 19 years of age, was already a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order to his name. Under his command the first aircraft (rather inadequate BE12s) arrived at Stow Maries in October 1916 and the station became operational in May 1917. At its height the station was manned by 219 personnel of whom 16 were aircrew, with the rest supporting staff (of whom about 20 were female). During its operational period from May 1917 to May 1918, 81 operational sorties were flown from Stow Maries to intercept airships, Gotha and Giant bombers. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were being driven back on mainland Europe and were no longer able to threaten the United Kingdom from the air.  As a result Stow Maries, now a station belonging to the newly formed Royal Air Force, re-roled to provide a training and support function until 1919 when, as part of post-war rationalisation, the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill. At that point Stow Maries aerodrome went back to agricultural use, although very importantly the buildings constructed to house 37 Squadron remained.

The site operated as a farm for the next 70 years until one of those fortunate circumstances occurred.  It was put up for sale and by luck spotted by Russell Savory who was looking for somewhere as business premises.  Immediately seeing the potential to return the site to its Great War heyday, in 2009 he and his business partner bought it. He then encouraged the formation of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust (SMGWAT), which in 2013 purchased the site and began the difficult and mammoth job of its restoration and development as a heritage attraction telling the story of its days as a Great War aerodrome.

Stow Maries Museum 1
The museum houses tableaux showing the living and working conditions in wartime Stow Maries.

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the launch of a new flagship museum at Stow Maries.  Funded by monies given by the Government from the fines imposed on the banking sector, the museum was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and interestingly the local MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East) John Whittingdale. The museum marks the start of what augers to be a bright future for the site that will see its transformation from a set of derelict, and for years neglected, wartime buildings into a sympathetically restored homage to First World War aviation.

The museum, housed in the old workshop building, has been professionally designed, but has been constructed by some of the SMGWAT’s band of enthusiastic volunteers.  The result is an excellent scene-setter for anyone visiting the site.  On arrival one is met with a small shop and admissions area that are fresh and well-organised. The museum proper starts with an introduction to the air war conducted during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the air defence of London and its eastern approaches.  This sets the scene and explains the reason for Stow Maries existence. It clearly outlines the threat from the various types of airship and aircraft, and culminates in a tableau showing a life-sized section of a German Gotha, complete with crew, flying over London. The latter is supported by a very informative interactive that shows the location of various bombing raids on London and their impact.

Stow Maries Museum 4
Wartime Stow Maries had its own complement of WRAF personnel who are also represented in the museum’s displays.

In parallel to the ‘bigger picture’ story, the role played by Stow Maries is also told – how it was established, its personnel and their roles.  These include the aircrew, the ground crew and the female personnel.  There is also a section on aircraft design and construction that graphically illustrates just how flimsy and dangerous these fighters from the First World War were.  This is reinforced by the wartime casualty figures of 37 Squadron.  Of the ten aircrew killed during the Squadron’s operational period, eight died as a result of flying accidents!  In short the content of the museum tells a wonderful evocative story of Stow Maries and its contribution, set within the context of the air defence of the United Kingdom during the period.

Stow Maries Museum 2
The exhibition covers the problems and challenges of building and maintaining the rudimentary aircraft flown by the Royal Flying Corps and later the newly formed Royal Air Force.

Elsewhere on the site other buildings have, or are being, restored, in order to gradually bring the whole site to life.  The Airmen’s Mess is now resplendent in its wartime glory and serves refreshments for visitors.  The Squadron Offices tell the story of 37 Squadron and other buildings are in the process of being stabilised and restored, as and when finances are available.

The other big draw at Stow Maries are its flying days, when vintage and reproduction aircraft of the period fly over the aerodrome.  To support the opening event we were treated to a display of flying. Standing on the aircraft line with a whole array of period aircraft lined up on the ground, with another in the air, transported the audience back to Stow Maries’ Great War heyday. And it has, like so many heritage sites, that intangible but spine-tingling sense of place.  You can feel that you are standing in the ground where one hundred years ago young men, many still teenagers, got into aircraft that were made of wood and flimsy canvas, and flew them sometimes as high as 10,000 feet in order to engage and shoot down enemy airships and aircraft.  To stand beside reproductions of these aircraft today the prospect of doing so is terrifying, yet these men did this and ultimately contributed to the defence of the nation.

Aircraft Line
An impressive aircraft line up by the airfield at Stow Maries

The work being done at Stow Maries, like so many other projects of this nature, began as a mission to save decaying and unloved heritage from disappearing forever.  With that initial threat now removed the task for the SMGWAT is to restore and make this fascinating site even more accessible.  But also to continue to tell how Stow Maries played its small but important part in the bigger story of the development of the air defence of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the formation of the Royal Air Force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here to modernity: Technology in the American Civil War

The_Monitor_and_Merrimac
‘The Monitor and Merrimack: The First Fight Between Ironclads’ a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, produced by Louis Prang & Co. Boston

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 is often referred to as the ‘first modern war’. A whole range of reasons are cited to explain how and why this bloody internecine conflict demonstrated its modernity. In this blog I will briefly look at some of these reason before examining, in a little more detail, a couple of specific examples. The latter are both fascinating, and remnants of them remain in existence today for historians and interested visitors to explore.

The claims, and very strong they are in some cases, to the modernity of the American Civil War, principally focus on the emergent technology of the period.  In many cases this war did not see the first use of these technologies, but the wholesale manner in which many were adopted, and the impact they had, was in many in cases revolutionary.

The first and perhaps most obvious of these technologies was the railway, which allowed both the strategic and operational mobility of armies. In 1861 there were some 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States, of which 9,000 were in the newly formed Confederate States.  The military value of these was quickly realised by both sides. In January 1862 the US Congress gave the President sweeping powers to use any piece of railroad for military use by approving the Railways and Telegraph Act.  Shortly afterwards a department of the United States Army called the United States Military Railroads was formed to serve the Army’s needs.  In the South a Railroad Bureau was formed to perform the same function for the Confederacy. However, in line with the suspicion of central government that had created the Confederacy, no form of central control over the railroads was achieved until February 1865 when it was by and large too late to make any difference to the outcome of the War. But both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line railways proved to be a crucial and very modern enabler to military operations.

PUBLISHED by catsmob.com
The rail mounted siege mortar known as the ‘Dictator’, used at the siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War.

Communications also benefitted from modern technology. The use of the telegraph allowed better strategic command and control, although it might be argued that the main impact of the telegraph was to allow increased political interference in the conduct of the war! (To find out more about how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph I thoroughly recommend Tom Wheeler’s book, Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails, Harper Collins, 2008).

Other technological advances included rifled artillery providing greater range and accuracy of fire.  Combining the mobility offered by the railways and advances in artillery weaponry, siege mortars were mounted on rail flatbeds to give them tactical mobility. Repeating rifles produced increased rates of fire, and telescopic-sighted sniper rifles allowed marksmen to engage and eliminate high value enemy targets at a great distance.  The use of manned balloons was instigated to provide an airborne observation platform for over the horizon visibility. A US Army Balloon Corps was formed to operate them under the leadership of Professor Thaddeus Lowe who had the splendid job title of ‘Chief Aeronaut’. The list goes on and it is easy to see how it can be argued that the American Civil War had all the trappings of a modern industrialised conflict.

Tom Lovell Balloon
Professor Lowe’s Balloon by Tom Lovell

But one must not jump to conclusions, and whilst the technology in some areas of the American Civil War most definitely presaged the industrialised wars of the Twentieth century, there were many aspects of this war that were firmly anchored in the Nineteenth. For example the tactics generally employed would not have been a surprise to those fighting in the armies of Napoleon and Wellington some fifty years earlier – blocks of soldiers marching towards the enemy in choreographed precision, lines of infantry standing fifty paces apart firing muzzle loaded musket and mounted cavalry charges.  Tactical battlefield communications had progressed little since Napoleonic times too. Here the armies still relied on mounted messengers, or a signalling flag system, to pass instruction forward to the fighting troops. Again the list goes on.  At this point I will resist the temptation of straying deeper into a lengthy debate about whether the War was indeed the first modern war. Instead I would like to highlight two particularly interesting, and powerful, examples of the modern aspects of the American Civil War, both of which have anniversaries around this time.

First, 17 February 2016 was the 152nd anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate ship H.L. Hunley, the first manned combat submarine to sink another warship.  The H. L. Hunley, named after her inventor Horace Lawson Hunley, was launched in July 1863, but up until that day in February 1864, her career had been somewhat chequered.

Built in Mobile, Alabama the H.L Hunley was a 40 foot long submarine constructed from old steam boiler plate material.  In August 1863 she was transported by rail to Charleston, South Carolina.   On 29 August 1863, whilst on a training run, she sank killing five members of the crew.  Undaunted she was raised and re-floated only to sink again on 15 October 1863, once again during a training run.  This time all eight of the crew were lost including the submarine’s inventor Horace Hunley.   Determined to make operational use of this new invention she was raised a second time.

CSS Hunley by Mort Kunstler
Mort Kunstler’s picture ‘Final Mission’, showing H.L. Hunley preparing for what was to be its final voyage in Charleston Harbour on 17 February 1864.

On 17 February 1864 she attacked and sank the USS Housatonic whilst it was on blockade duty at the entrance to Charleston Harbour. However, even this success was tinged with tragedy as having successfully completed its mission the Hunley sank with all eight crew members perishing.  Falling to the bottom of sea the Hunley rested there until she was discovered in 1995.  In 2000, after much hard work, the Hunley was raised and is currently undergoing painstaking conservation work at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston.  Here she can be visited and looking inside this iron tube it is horrifying to contemplate both the cramped and claustrophobic working conditions of the crew, and to imagine the terror of sinking to a watery death at the bottom of Charleston Harbour.

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The H.L Hunley undergoing conservation (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

The second anniversary, on 25 February 2016, marks 154 years since the USS Monitor was commissioned. An ironclad warship, the US Navy ordered her in 1861 in direct response to the threat posed by the CSS Virginia, a casemate ironclad ship constructed by the Confederate States from the lower hull and engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack.

Designed by Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was new, and at the time, unique.  She sat low in the water and mounted a twin-gunned revolving turret on the centre of her flat deck.  This turret allowed her to overcome the problem facing warships of the time, which needed to manoeuvre alongside an enemy ship before being able to bring their guns to bear. Instead the Monitor could engage a target from any angle by rotating the turret. Completed in New York in early March 1862 she was immediately sailed to Hampton Roads arriving just in time to take on the CCS Virginia in the first ironclad versus ironclad duel.

This battle, known as the Battle of Hampton Road, took place on 9 March 1862.  The two ships met and traded shots for almost four hours at the end of which, neither side having inflicted fatal damage on each other, both ships returned to port to lick their wounds.  But as they did so they had changed the face of naval warfare forever. Both the offensive and defensive advantages of ironclads were proven.

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A photograph of the USS Monitor taken after the Battle of Hampton Roads, 9 March 1862, with the turret showing clear evidence of damage from the action.

Like the H.L Hunley, the Monitor ended her life at the bottom of the sea, sinking off North Carolina’s Outer Banks on 31 December 1862.  She lay undiscovered on the bottom of the Atlantic until 1973. Since then the wreck site has been extensively examined and some artefacts recovered.  The largest of which, the turret and its guns, were eventually raised in 2002.  Today these are undergoing conservation work in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, only a dozen miles from where the famous battle took place.  Considerable work has also been undertaken to preserve the range of smaller artefacts found on board, as well as to identify the crew members whose bodies were found in the wreck, allowing the story of the ship and her complement to be interpreted and explained.

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The USS Monitor’s turret and guns undergoing early stages of conservation.

Now the jury probably remains out on a definitive answer to whether the American Civil War was indeed the ‘first modern war’. What is clear is that many facets of the war, particularly regarding the technology used, had a modern aspect to them and many clearly signposted the future. Both the H. L. Hunley and the USS Monitor fall into this category.  Both were born out of necessity and both gave a clear indication of things to come.

The H.L. Hunley showed that the threat to warships, and other vessels, could now equally well come from below the ocean waves as from on top.  The one-off success of 1864 alarmingly foreshadowed the dark days of both of the Twentieth Century’s World Wars, when German U-Boat wolfpacks threatened to bring Great Britain to her knees.  Likewise the USS Monitor, and to a degree its rival the CSS Virginia, clearly pointed to a future where iron battleships would rule, indeed a future that was not far off.  Just over forty years after the launch of the USS Monitor, Britain and Germany were in a race to build huge, well-armed and heavily armoured dreadnoughts that would dwarf the USS Monitor. This Anglo-German naval arms race was one of the mosaic of contributing factors that caused the First World War, a war that was brutally modern in every aspect.