From the turn of the 19th century, land-hungry American settlers were driving westwards, into territory that would become Alabama and Mississippi. Native American peoples already living in this territory were seen as an impediment to western expansion and legal means were sought to displace them. President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, by which the government offered land west of the Mississippi to Indian tribes who agreed to give up their homelands. The resettlement areas were in unorganized territory in a band traversing present-day Texas, northwards to Iowa. There followed the almost entirely involuntary displacement to the West of Native Americans with homelands ‘east of the Mississippi River’, as the US government used persuasion, bribery, coercion and threats to remove the recalcitrant tribes. A few of the tribes went peacefully, but many resisted relocation.

    Jackson’s immediate targets were the ‘Five Civilized tribes’ (Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole). He sought a veneer of legality by securing treaties agreeing transfers with coteries within the affected tribes In the winter of 1831, under threat by the US army, the Choctaw became the first nation to be expelled from their homeland. They made the arduous journey to their new territory on foot, some bound in chains, and thousands of people died on this “trail of tears”. Expulsions escalated and by 1838 only the Cherokee remained on their ancestral lands (although a Seminole rearguard was fighting a guerrilla war against deportation). They were placed under military escort, grouped in parties of up to a thousand, completing the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) journey to the Okalahoma reservation by a variety of routes on foot or by barge. Some 13,000 were deported, of which c. 30 per cent died en route from disease, malnutrition, exposure and attacks from settlers.

    The Seminole of Florida had also resisted pressure from American settlers. When a handful of Seminole chiefs concluded the Treaty of Payne’s Landing (1832), by which they agreed to give up their Florida homelands for land in the West, there were many tribespeople who repudiated the agreement. Like many Seminole, Osceola was mixed race, son of a Welsh trader and a Creek mother. He led the opposition to the Treaty of Payne’s Landing and, on 28 December 1835, he ambushed and killed Wiley Thompson, the agent organizing the Seminole deportation. Meanwhile another war party ambushed a contingent of US troops in the ‘Dade Massacre’, events that triggered the Second Seminole War. The Seminole laid waste to plantations and besieged forts, repulsing the efforts of a succession of US generals to dislodge them. Osceola was taken captive in late 1837, and died soon afterwards, but the war continued under other leaders, such as John Horse, Halleck Tuskenuggee and Chakaika. At Okeechobee and Lockahatchee, the Seminole matched US army opposition.

    At war’s end (1842), Seminole diehards still held out in an informal reservation in in southwest Florida. Here they maintained an uneasy truce with the growing number of white settlers, limiting their contact with them as much as possible. But it was not to last; the Third Seminole War of 1855-58 led to further expulsions westward, leaving just a few hundreds Seminole living around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.


  • The Spanish-American War 1898

    Described by future US Secretary of State John Hay as a “splendid little war” the Spanish-American War ended Spain’s history as an imperial power in the western hemisphere, leaving it with only a scattered handful of overseas territories. Meanwhile the US to asserted its dominance as a colonial power in both the Caribbean and Pacific.

    Between 1895–98 Cuban revolutionaries fought to gain independence from colonial Spain. Despite Spanish attempts to suppress the uprising a guerrilla insurgency continued, threatening US business interests in Cuban tobacco and sugar. The US was opposed to European colonists operating in its sphere of interest and the American public was increasingly antagonized by Spain’s brutal repression of the insurgents. The USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbour to safeguard American citizens on the island and, in February 1898, it sank after a massive explosion. The cause has never been determined, but jingoistic journalism blamed the Spanish, provoking public outrage. President McKinley recognized the independence of Cuba and issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding their withdrawal from the island. The US immediately implemented a naval blockade of Cuba on 22 April and Spain declared war on the US; the US reciprocated three days later.

    On 1 May 1898, the US Asiatic squadron, led by Commodore Dewey, decimated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the first battle of the Spanish-American War. US Commodore Dewey was instructed to destroy the elderly Spanish Pacific fleet, stationed in the Spanish Philippines. Dewey attacked the unsuspecting Spanish at 5.40 am. After two hours of fire most of the Spanish fleet was destroyed, and went on to surrender at midday, despite several US ships withdrawing at 7.35 due to shortage of ammunition.

    Hostilities also occurred in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. On 10 June US troops landed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and between 22 and 24 June further troops landed near the port of Santiago. An American-Cuban force besieged the city, while the Spanish fleet was largely destroyed trying to escape its harbour. With Spain’s Philippines fleet also destroyed, and American forces wracked by yellow fever, both sides were ready for peace. On 13 August, the US again lay siege to Manila, this time by land. A near bloodless battle ensued, ending in a Spanish surrender.


    On 10 December the Spanish and Americans signed the Treaty of Paris (ratified by the US Senate on 6 February 1899). The independence of Cuba was guaranteed, and Spain ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the US. Spain also agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million. The Americans used the war as a pretext to annex the independent state of Hawaii, which was seen as a strategic base that would protect America’s growing interests in the Pacific.

    The war provoked heated debate within the US. Anti-imperialists argued that the war had been fought to free Cuba from colonial rule, not as a means of acquiring an American empire, and they were further incensed when Filipino rebels, under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, conducted a three-year insurrection against their colonial masters, costing 4,000 US lives. For many others the war marked the emergence of the US onto the world stage; for the first time the US saw itself as a defender of democracy, a role that it would embrace to dramatic effect in the following century.

  • The French Revolution

    The political and administrative structures of pre-revolutionary France were subject to the absolute rule of the monarch, with each region having its own historic and regional peculiarities. In the north, which operated on a system of unwritten feudal laws, many of the provincial capitals had either ‘Sovereign Councils’ or parliaments, modelled to resemble the Paris parliament. This was distinct from the south, which operated under shared Roman law. These bureaucracies had become venal and hereditary, with many positions filled by nobles who were granted tax exemptions and often did little work, alienating the middle classes, rural and urban poor.

    By 1789, Paris was the largest city in France and, on the eve of the Revolution of 1789, had a population of 600,000–650,000. In 1701, Louis XIV had relocated the royal court to Versailles, knocked down the city wall, replacing it with boulevards, introduced the faubourgs (suburbs) and began an extravagant building programme which included the Place Vendome. By 1789 Paris was famous for its buildings and its rich café culture but the French state was on the verge of bankruptcy, particularly after a series of failed harvests. Severe poverty was exacerbated by raised taxation and food shortages, creating tension between the urban (and rural) poor and nobility. The tension continued to increase and on 14 July 1789, a mob, looking for arms, stormed the Bastille, an armoury, fortress and jail near the Faubourg St Antoine. The storming of the Bastille led to the French Revolution.

    Confronted by an uprising of the peasants, the National Constituent Assembly declared the abolition of the feudal regime and promulgated the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming liberty, equality, the inviolability of property and the right to resist oppression. The lands of the Roman Catholic Church were nationalized and the chaotic administrative system of the ancien regime was set aside and replaced by a rational system of départements, cantons and communes. Revolutionary committees were placed in a series of towns, replacing or sharing power with town councils. It was proposed that legislative and executive powers were to be shared between the king and an assembly. Louis XVI was weak and vacillating, swayed by various advisers and fundamentally unwilling to share power. When he attempted to flee the country on 20–21 June 1791 he was captured and brought back to Paris.

    Initially, the European powers seemed content to spectate, with a mixture of horror and schadenfreude, as France succumbed to revolution. The seizure (and – on 21 January 1793 – the execution) of the French king Louis XVI transformed perceptions, spurred on by agitation from influential emigrés: this was now an existential threat to the status quo, which had to be eliminated. By 1793 there were tensions between the different revolutionary groups (the Girondins and Montagnards) and one of the architects of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, attempted to crush counter-revolutionary and Federalist activism by introducing ‘the Terror’, a series of mass guillotinings.

    Anticipating an attack from neighbours who were alarmed by the possible spread of revolutionary ideas or keen to take advantage of the chaos, France declared war on Austria and Prussia in spring 1792. They in turn invaded northern France, facing defeat at Valmy in September. The emboldened French armies overran the Austrian Netherlands and crossed the Rhine, capturing a series of German towns. In the wave of patriotic euphoria that followed, national conscription was introduced, organized by the revolutionary committees. The French now faced a massive coalition, including Britain and Spain, and their inexperienced armies suffered a series of defeats, notably at Neerwinden (1793). Rebellions broke out, including in Toulon, where a young Napoleon Bonaparte won plaudits for his brilliance in recapturing the city. The stage was set for Napoleon’s irrevocable rise to power, which would culminate in a coup d’etat in November 1799.

  • The Scramble for Africa

    Until the 1830s, the dominant purpose of European colonization in Africa was the slave trade. From 1808–34, the abolition movement progressively eliminated the European slave trade with North America, but the Islamic Sokoto caliphate did its best to compensate. Founded in 1804 by a Sufist rebellion, this confederation of emirates became one of Africa’s largest polities and second only to the American South in its slave population, exploiting the networks established by the defunct European traders. South America continued to be the main destination for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While Britain’s Cape Colony steadily expanded, and the French were establishing dominion in Algeria and Senegal, the continent’s greatest conqueror of the period was Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt, annexing Nubia, Sudan and Libya before waging war upon his Ottoman overlords.

    After the abolition of the slave trade, the cargo changed but economic exploitation remained the heart of the enterprise, reaching peak intensity during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ initiated by the Treaty of Berlin (1885). The record of Christian missions through this period is chequered. Many performed a valuable educational function, and took the trouble to learn native languages, even producing the first written versions of them. The Methodist Robert Moffat, for instance, worked tirelessly with the Botswana and Ndebele in southern Africa, translating both the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, but an Anglican successor tricked the Ndebele king into signing away his kingdom to Cecil Rhodes. Presbyterian Mary Slessor worked to eliminate twin infanticide in Nigeria. The Catholic White Fathers were culturally tolerant, with missions from Tunisia to Uganda; however, Catholic missions in the Belgian Congo (and Lutherans in German Southwest Africa) did little to stem colonial repression.

    Despite European inroads into Africa, European nations only controlled 10 percent of the African continent in the 1870s, and their territories were overwhelmingly coastal. At the instigation of Portugal, the Berlin Conference was convened by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, with 13 European powers and the United States represented. Its purpose was to establish a mutually agreed protocol for the colonization of Africa. The Conference reached an agreement regarding some existing conflicts between the participating powers. Resolutions passed were to end slavery on the continent, and assign the huge area of Congo Free State to Leopold II of Belgium. Most importantly, it established the ‘Principle of Effective Occupation’, with a colonizing power having to demonstrate some form of political and administrative control. This provision acted as an accelerant for the ‘Scramble for Africa’, which followed the conference, as colonial powers previously content with coastal trading bases rushed to claim dominion over vast territories in accordance with the Principle.

    Britain was the most ubiquitous colonial nation in Africa, with Cecil Rhodes (‘I would annex planets if I could’) carrying out a concerted land grab from the south, while a network of British protectorates in the north stretched from Egypt to Zanzibar. Zanzibar was also home to the clove plantations of its Sultan’s right-hand man, ivory and slave trader extraordinaire Tippu Tip, who met, and double-crossed, both Stanley and Livingstone, and fought (unsuccessfully) the Belgian occupation of the Congo (1892–94). Germany’s Bismarck, a new convert to colonialism, muscled in with fervour, garnering an approximation of modern Tanzania in return for recognizing British precedence in Uganda. Germany also staked a claim to Cameroon, while France, more active further north ushered in its ultimately vast equatorial colony with Gabon (1885). Straggling Italy was humiliatingly thrashed by Ethiopia at Adwa (1896) and had to content itself with Eritrea.

    Many African nations and peoples tried to resist the European takeover, including the Ashanti, Moroccans, Ethiopians, Dervishes and Zulus. Despite some successes, such as the resounding Zulu victory at Isandlwana (1879) and the Ethiopian defeat of Italy in 1896, the Europeans’ advanced weapons, for example, machine guns, enabled them to overwhelm African armies.

    Over 90 percent of Africa had been claimed by a colonial power by 1914, with only Ethiopia and Liberia free of European control. Of this land area, well over 90 percent was assigned to what would become the Allied Powers. Of the Central Powers, Austria-Hungary held no African territory, while German possessions, in Togoland, Cameroon, East Africa and Southwest Africa were widely dispersed, and thus difficult to defend. Egypt was a special case; nominally it was part of the Ottoman Empire, which would ally with the Central Powers, but effectively it operated as a British protectorate. It also hosted the Suez Canal, which probably constituted the most important strategic asset on the continent. Because of the frantic pace of colonization, imperial control was often tenuous. The war would see several rebellions in Africa, as inhabitants sought to exploit the distraction of the conflict to win their freedom.

  • The Treaty of Versailles

    In January 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson looked forward to the prospects of a peace treaty and outlined his Fourteen Points, which included free trade, disarmament, national self-determination, decolonization and the formation of a League of Nations that was dedicated to the maintenance of peace. His European allies were less disposed towards clemency, and the actual terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919–21 January 1920) were punitive, creating a powerful sense of victimhood that the Nazis were able to fully exploit.

    In all, 32 nations were represented at Versailles, but the peace talks were dominated by the US, France, Britain and – to a lesser extent Italy. Versailles was the centrepiece treaty, but there were four other treaties that dealt with eastern and southeastern Europe and Ottoman Turkey (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Trianon, Neuilly and Sèvres). Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine to France; Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia; West Prussia and Silesia to Poland; and Eupen-Malmédy to Belgium. The Rhineland was demilitarized and occupied, and Saarland placed under French control. Schleswig’s future allocation was made subject to plebiscites (the north would opt for Denmark, the South reverted to Germany), and all Germany’s colonies were parcelled out between the victorious allies. Germany’s navy and air force were slashed, its army capped at 100,000 and decapitated of its leadership, and its heavy industry hobbled. The final ignominy was Article 231, the “war-guilt” clause, which held Germany to be solely responsible for the war and imposed massive reparation payments.

    The impact on eastern Europe was especially drastic. The Treaty massively reduced the spheres of influence of two empires, German and Russian, and affected the dissolution of two more, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans. In the resultant Great Power vacuum, a welter of new nation-states sprang into being. Along the western borders of the nascent Soviet Union (USSR), a string of uprisings concluded in 1920–21 with the formal recognition of the independence of Finland and the Baltic states. Germany’s wartime ally, Austria Hungary, fared even worse than Germany as it ceased to exist by the end of the war on 11 November 1918. Increasing internal pressures from the various distinct ethnic groups within the empire, along with the Triple Entente’s realization that their victory was inevitable, led to the position of Emperor Charles I becoming gradually more untenable as the war progressed. A number of new states were formed from Austria-Hungary’s former territories. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia all resorted to armed conflict to further irredentist territorial claims.

    As the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, representatives of the southern Slavs convened a national council in Zagreb in 1918, but differences of view rapidly emerged. Both Croatia-Slavonia and Montenegro hankered after independence, fearing domination by Serbia (the sole pre-existing independent state, and on the victorious side in the war). However, both Dalmatia and Bosnia quickly allied with Serbia and Croatia-Slavonia, fearing punitive territorial claims from Italy, quickly caved in. The Kingdom of Croats, Slovenes and Serbs (KCSS) was born. Going into the Treaty of Versailles, KCSS had two key advantages; their troops were in possession of the territory they claimed and US President Woodrow Wilson was a fervent advocate of self-determination. At Versailles, and under four ensuing treaties, KCSS acquired Vojvodina, Prekomurje and Medjimurje from Hungary and four border enclaves from Bulgaria. However, at Rapallo, it ceded Zara and Lagosta to Italy.

    The Armistice of Mudros, marking the Ottoman Empire’s exit from World War I, was concluded between the British and Ottoman representatives on 30 October 1918 and the British, in tandem with the French, activated plans for the empire’s dismemberment. This was set out in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. With this template, Britain and France partitioned the Ottoman Middle East into protectorates under their control. Mudros ordered the demobilization of the Ottoman armed forces, placed their ports and railways at the Allies’ disposal, and granted them the right to armed intervention in Anatolia ‘in case of disorder’. In the following May, the Turkish War of Independence began.

    A particularly vicious war was fought between Greece and Turkey, with civilian massacres perpetrated by both sides. In 1919 Greek forces had been allowed to occupy Smyrna after citing fears that its Christian population was under threat and by 1920 had extended their occupation to western Anatolia. In the same year the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by the Ottoman Empire, which officially allocated territory to Greece. This was soon annulled by the Turkish revolutionaries, At the First Battle of Inonu on 9 January 1921, the Turkish achieved their first success, and from this point, momentum began to shift against the Greeks. The Turks gained the upper hand whilst European support for Greece dwindled.


    In 1915 the Allies were confronted with a dilemma: how could they maintain maritime supply lines to Russia when the Baltic Sea was blockaded by the German navy, while the Ottomans controlled the Black Sea? The solution was to send a Franco-British naval expedition to clear the Dardanelle Straits, the narrow passageway that gave access to both Constantinople and the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. The first order of business was to destroy the two Ottoman forts that guarded the mouth of the Dardanelles. As the Allies advanced into Ottoman waters on 18 March 1915 they became aware of the mines that were strung across the Straits and along the southern shore. When the fleet banked and turned it was struck by a minefield, losing three battleships and 700 casualties.

    The naval assault had proved unviable, so the Allies decided on a land attack to capture the straits. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) sailed from Alexandria on 22 March, accompanied by the Anzacs, a corps of Australian and New Zealand troops. By 25 April the MEF was dispersed at five main landing points around Cape Helles, which lay at the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, a long spur of land that formed the northern shore of the Dardanelles. Here they were subject to relentless bombardment and suffered by many casualties. The Anzacs landed further up the Aegean coast of the peninsula, where they found themselves hemmed in by cliffs. The situation soon consolidated into static trench warfare with the lines being drawn near the village of Krithia.

    By the summer of 1915 the situation was becoming desperate. The entrenched troops were suffering high casualties from enemy bombardment, but disease was also rife. A new assault was planned at Suvla Bay, to the north of Anzac Cove. The surprise landing was successful but the Anzacs were unable to break through from their positions and join up with the new arrivals, and an Ottoman counterattack forced them back. More reinforcements arrived, but a failed attempt to capture Scimitar Hill was the final straw. Allied High Command turned their attention to the European campaign and the situation in Gallipoli stagnated. Intense summer heat, flies, inadequate food supplies and diseases such as dysentery and tetanus all made the lives of the front line troops unendurable. The lack of planning by the Allied military authorities and their failure in their duty of care to their soldiers is a common theme in accounts of the Gallipoli campaign.

    Beaches X, S and Y on Cape Helles were lightly defended and it was here that the Allies had a chance to break through and overcome Ottoman defences. But instructions from High Command were unclear and the commander on the ground, Major General Hunter, vacillated, squandering a unique opportunity. Instead Allied troops dug in, facing a bitter war of attrition. Their three attempts to break through the Ottoman lines at the village of Krithia were repulsed with heavy casualties. Eventually, evacuation was ordered: in contrast to the assault the evacuation was carried out with great efficiency. When troops finally withdrew on the night of 8–9 January it was without loss of life.

    Australians have never forgotten the bitter legacy of Gallipoli, and the 8,000 men who never returned home – Anzac Day commemorates the disastrous campaign. The Ottomans’ victory saw the inspirational 33-year-old lieutenant colonel who commanded the 19th Division, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, rising to prominence. He eventually became the founding father of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

  • The Siege of Leningrad

    One of Hitler’s strategic goals under Operation Barbarossa was Leningrad, the symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution. As Army Group North (comprising 18th Army, 4th Panzer Army and 16th Army) advanced, the Russians formed the defensive Leningrad Front; further defence was created through the split of the northern Front to create the Karelian Front. Army Group North overcame heavy resistance to launch long-range artillery attacks on Leningrad. After severing ground communications, on 8 September they encircled the city and began a sustained and devastating blockade. In the north, the advancing Finnish Defence Forces stopped at the border and completed the encirclement. German tanks were just 16 km (10 miles) from the city. From here they launched a systematic bombardment, which disabled the power stations that supplied Leningrad with electricity. At the beginning of Leningrad’s notoriously hard winter this was a disaster.

    During the siege of Leningrad (8 September 1941–27 January 1944) the Germans engaged in a systematic bombardment of civilian and military infrastructure in an attempt to crush the morale of those trapped inside. By the end of 1941 the incendiary bombs and shells fired into the city had destroyed the wooden warehouses in the southern districts along with all the stockpiled food reserves. Under forced labour many civilians were made to build defensive fortifications within the city as a last line of defence should the Germans break through. Transport infrastructure and power was made unavailable for civilian use meaning that many thousands froze and starved to death in the bitter winter temperatures. The only way to generate heat was to burn wood, and citizens resorted to incinerating furniture and flooring in a futile attempt to keep warm. At the beginning of the siege, reserves of many food staples were only adequate for 35-40 days and people were soon getting only 10% of their daily calorific requirement. Pets were consumed, creative ways of bulking up bread with oats, cellulose and cottonseed, were devised. Dead bodies became sources of meat for the desperate – 1,500 Leningraders were arrested for cannibalism. The death toll continued to mount, and bodies piled up in mass graves.

    The only supply route into the city was across the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life’, which was opened in December 1941. Small amounts of supplies could be brought in and people could be evacuated via truck, but it was dangerous – 40 trucks broke through the ice and sank to the bottom of the lake in the first week of operation alone. Nevertheless some one million people – mainy children, the elderly and the sick – were evacuated by this route. The Soviets launched Operation Iskra on 12 January 1943 in an attempt to form a land bridge, whilst taking advantage of the relocation of German forces south. Following an aerial bombardment, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts pushed towards each other and eventually made contact on 18 January, forming a ‘Corridor of Death’ 8–10 km (5–6 miles) wide along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. A rail link was established to supply the city, however, it was highly treacherous as it was within easy striking distance of German artillery.

    In January 1944 Soviet forces broke the German line of defence recapturing hundreds of towns and villages, finally lifting the siege on 27 January 1944. "A task of historical importance has been completed," said General Govorov. "The city of Leningrad has been completely freed of the enemy blockade and of the barbaric artillery shelling." The siege had lasted 872 days and had claimed the lives of up to 1.5 million soldiers and civilians. The Soviet government awarded the Order of Lenin to the city, giving it the title of ‘Hero City’ for withstanding the siege. Immediately after the war, huge funds were allocated to the city to repair the devastated infrastructure and a museum was built to commemorate the siege.

  • Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941

    The Japanese aerial attack on US shipping at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, was launched at 7.55am on Sunday 7 December. Devastatingly efficient, and apparently unexpected, it was characterized by President Roosevelt as “the day that will live in infamy” and precipitated the US declaration of war on Japan.

    The attack was a preemptive strike, aimed at disabling the US Pacific Fleet, thereby weakening any resistance to Japanese territorial expansion. It was also a reaction to the deterioration in US-Japanese relations, a result of Japan’s aggressive campaign of conquest and exploitation in Southeast Asia. In January 1940 the US had allowed a long-standing commercial treaty with Japan to lapse, going on in the summer to embargo trade in scrap iron and aviation fuel. Japan was dependent on the US for both natural and industrial resources and was becoming increasingly alarmed. When Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, making it a formal member of the Axis, the US – officially neutral, but supportive of Britain – brought in further embargoes.

    When six Japanese aircraft carriers left Japan for Hawaii on 26 November 1941, laden with over 400 aircraft that would attack the naval base at Pearl Harbor in two waves, the US was staggeringly unprepared. Although US intelligence was able to decode Japanese communications, their findings were not adequately communicated and even when radar spotted incoming planes, they were discounted as a flight of B-17 bombers.

    The first wave of Japanese aircraft set about bombing US airfields and aircraft to cripple any defensive aerial threat. Heavy bombs and torpedoes were also dropped over the naval base, immediately causing heavy damage to the unsuspecting ships. The second wave of the Japanese attack began at around 08:50 and was met with a much more coordinated defensive response, but ultimately many American vessels were destroyed.

    Following the two attack waves, all of the US battleships in port were destroyed or heavily damaged, although five were refloated and eventually returned to service after being repaired, an outcome which probably would not have been possible had the ships been attacked in deeper waters. Despite temporarily crippling the US Pacific Fleet and inflicting over 2,400 deaths, the Japanese attack crucially spared the US Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, which were already deployed elsewhere.

    The attack on Pearl Harbor had the effect of galvanizing the American people and uniting them behind President Roosevelt and the war. Polls show that his declaration of war on Japan, which was made the day after the attack, was met with approval by 97 percent of the American public. US industrial and military capacity was mobilized, weapons and supplies were sent to Britain and Russia, Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. The ‘sleeping giant’ had awoken.


  • The Great Northern War and the Battle of Narva

    On 30 November 1700 Charles XII of Sweden won a famous victory at the Battle of Narva, an early encounter in the Great Northern War. Peter the Great of Russia sought access to the Baltic Sea, which was blocked by the Swedish occupation of Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, Finland and the isthmus of Karelia. Peter allied himself with Denmark and Poland, at the time ruled by Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony. The allies expected an easy victory, but they were underestimating the pugnacious brilliance of Charles XII (1682–1718), a teenager who had ascended the throne in 1697 and was in command of the most formidable army in Europe. Charles was a highly intelligent risk-taker, whom Voltaire dubbed ‘the Lion of the North’. His lightning strikes and unpredictable movements earned him the nickname ‘Swedish meteor’.

    In the summer of 1700, the Swedes attacked Copenhagen and soon secured a Danish capitulation. When Peter the Great declared war in August 1700, Charles made his way to Estonia, where the Russians were besieging the fort of Narva. Outnumbered 4:1, the Swedes attacked in a driving snowstorm. Charging headlong at the Russians, it took them just 30 minutes to drive the besieging army into a panic-stricken retreat across the Narva River. The Swedes inflicted 8,000 casualties, losing only 700 men.

    The writing was on the wall for the Russians, and the defeat at Narva forced Peter the Great to overhaul his army and turn it into a modern fighting force. Meanwhile, Charles XII rampaged through Poland, taking Warsaw and Cracow, and forcing Augustus to abdicate. The triumphs of the early 1700s came to an abrupt end in 1709 when Peter the Great crushed the Swedish army Poltava, dealing a deathblow to the Swedish Empire. An injured Charles XII took refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where he remained a semi-captive for four years, and the Russians embarked on a successful campaign against the Baltic fortresses. By the time the peace treaties were signed in 1719–21 Russia had acquired Sweden’s Baltic territories and had emerged as a great power.

    Charles meanwhile returned to northern Europe in 1714, this time to confront his old enemy, Denmark. He fell in battle in Danish-held Norway and died in December 1718, aged just 36.


    The Battle of the Somme (1 July–18 November 1915) was a joint British-French action to break the stalemate on the western front and achieve a decisive victory. Following a successful recruiting campaign in Britain, which resulted in the formation of many ‘Pals’ Battalions’ made up of groups of men who were friends, relations and colleagues drawn from the same community, the Battle of the Somme was the first major action of the Great War in which Britain’s new volunteer army took a leading role.

    A seven-day artillery bombardment, begun on 24 June, was the prelude to the battle, intended to devastate the German defenders on the upper reaches of the River Somme in northern France. However, the British artillery was too thinly spaced to create an impenetrable barrage of fire and many of the shells failed to explode. The first day of the Battle of Somme cost 57,520 British casualties, making it the bloodiest day in British military history. The British were bogged down, the French were still heavily engaged at Verdun, and a period of deadlock ensued, punctuated by attritional fighting, which sacrificed many lives for minimal gains.

    In mid-September, the British introduced the tank, a totally new weapon. Despite the alarm, these caused the Germans, the British advance stalled. The final act of the Somme offensive took place between 13–18 November. The British had inched forward to the River Ancre and used a combination of tanks, creeping artillery barrage and infantry to neutralize the Germans in their dugouts. The artillery barrage inched forward in small increments, every few minutes, with fire passing from one line to the next. This shielded the infantry who advanced 50 yards behind. The tanks were only being deployed for the second time and were used to ‘mop up’ after the infantry.

    In the final engagement of the campaign, the Canadian 1–3 Divisions, who had earlier been repeatedly repulsed in their efforts to take the Germans’ Regina Trench, surged forward to capture Desire Trench. The onset of winter called a close to the battle where an advance of 6 miles (10 km) incurred 650,000 Allied casualties and lost lives.

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