The Canadian Corps successfully captured Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
Vimy Ridge was a 7km ridge that had been held by the Germans since the Race to the Sea in 1914. French forces had made numerous attempts to seize the ridge over the next two years at the cost of approximately 150,000 casualties. However, due to the need to move French troops to Verdun, in October 1916 the position was taken over by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.
By early 1917 the war had become one of attrition. Desperate to break the stalemate, French and British commanders planned a major offensive near the city of Arras to divert German forces from the main French offensive further south. The Canadians were tasked with seizing Vimy Ridge, which the Germans had heavily fortified.
The Canadian Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, and with the assistance of numerous British support units, carefully rehearsed their attack in the preceding weeks. They studied detailed maps and aerial photographs of the enemy lines, laid communication cables, dug a series of tunnels leading directly to the front lines, and stockpiled shells for the enormous artillery barrage that was to precede the assault.
Over 1 million shells were fired at the German lines for a week before the attack. Referred to by German troops as ‘the week of suffering’, the bombardment destroyed many of their defences and left them exhausted. At 5:30 am on 9 April the first wave of Canadian troops advanced behind a creeping artillery barrage through sleet and snow. They captured most of their objectives on the first day, and took control of the final target – a heavily fortified mound known as the Pimple – by nightfall on 12 April.
On the 2nd April 1982, the Falklands War began when Argentina launched an amphibious invasion of the Falkland Islands. The Argentine occupation ended 74 days later on the 14th June following a bitter conflict that killed over 900 people.
The Falkland Islands have long been the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Britain and Argentina. Argentina’s military government, led by General Galtieri, sought to use the country’s claim to the islands to boost patriotic feelings at home and draw attention away from criticisms of economic mismanagement and human rights abuses.
Despite increased tensions in the South Pacific following the raising of the Argentinian flag on the island of South Georgia two weeks earlier, Britain did not expect a military invasion of the Falkland Islands. The small garrison of British Marines were overwhelmed by the Argentine invasion on the 2nd April and the islands’ governor Rex Hunt surrendered. As the last Telex conversation from the Falklands to London stated at 4.30pm that day, “You can’t argue with thousands of troops plus enormous navy support when you are only 1800 strong.”
The next day the United Nations passed Resolution 502 which condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate withdrawal of all Argentine forces. However, on the 5th April the British Government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ordered a naval task force that numbered more than 100 ships to retake the islands.
Bitter fighting eventually led to the Argentinian surrender, an outcome that further undermined the military government. Argentina’s 1983 general election returned the country to civilian rule, while in Britain Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party secured a landslide election victory.
On the 29th March 1973, the last American troops withdrew from South Vietnam. Taking place two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed between the U.S., North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the final withdrawal ended eight years of direct American military involvement in Vietnam.
As the number of US troops sent to fight in Vietnam increased throughout the 1960s, opposition to the war similarly grew. By the spring of 1969 new President Richard Nixon, who had been elected the previous November, had begun to implement the Nixon Doctrine that is more commonly known as the policy of Vietnamization. This intended to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops.”
Pressure to quit Vietnam completely increased after news of the My Lai Massacre was broken on the 12th November. Troop withdrawals therefore continued, although the US began attacks on Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong and disrupt their supply lines. This coincided with the killing by National Guardsmen of four student protesters at Kent State University which turned yet more people against the war.
Throughout this period Henry Kissinger took part in secret talks with the leadership of North Vietnam. Despite a number of setbacks, they signed the Paris Peace Accords on the 27th January. The last American troops withdrew on the 29th March, but the last American civilians didn’t leave South Vietnam until they were evacuated in Operation Frequent Wind during the North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon two years later.
The last invasion of Britain by a hostile foreign force began when French troops under the command of the Irish-American Colonel William Tate landed near the Welsh town of Fishguard.
Britain joined the War of the First Coalition against Revolutionary France in 1793. Three years later the French General Lazare Hoche devised a plan to invade Britain in support of the Republican Society of United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone.
Two of the three intended invasion forces were stopped by poor weather, leaving only the 1,400 troops of La Legion Noire (The Black Legion) to launch their attack on Bristol. Since the professional French army was serving under Napoleon in Europe, La Legion Noire included 800 irregular soldiers ranging from republicans to recently-released Royalist prisoners. Well equipped, and dressed in dyed captured British uniforms that gave them their name, they arrived off the English coast in four warships. Unable to land in Bristol due to adverse weather, Colonel Tate instead anchored at Carregwastad Head near the Welsh town of Fishguard late on 22 February.
Soldiers and equipment were put ashore as darkness fell, faced only by a small force of volunteers under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox. When dawn came Knox realised that he was heavily outnumbered and retreated to meet up with reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor. By this time the undisciplined French troops had begun looting local settlements where they became increasingly drunk after finding wine from a recently-wrecked Portuguese vessel.
A number of locals soon joined the defence, including cobbler’s wife Jemima Nicholas who single-handedly rounded up 12 Frenchmen and locked them in a church. With his troops in disarray, Tate submitted to an unconditional surrender on 24 February.
Port Arthur was a fortified naval base in the south of Manchuria that had been leased to Russia since 1898. After crushing the Boxer Rebellion as part of an eight-nation coalition, Russia infuriated Japan, which claimed parts of Manchuria within its own sphere of influence, by refusing to remove its troops. Japan was willing to recognise Russian dominance in Manchuria in return for access to Korea, but an agreement could not be reached and Japan broke off diplomatic relations on 6 February 1904.
Three hours before the Russian government received the declaration of war on 8 February, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a pre-emptive strike. Japanese Admiral Tōgō sent ten destroyers to Port Arthur where their torpedoes damaged two of the Russian fleet’s most powerful battleships as well as a cruiser. Although none of the ships were sunk due to the effectiveness of torpedo nets in the port, the Russian fleet was seriously weakened as the ships that had been hit were put out of action. The attack was halted at around 2am the following morning after the Russians turned on their searchlights and began to return fire.
At around 8am Admiral Tōgō sent a reconnaissance mission through the morning mist to inspect Port Arthur. With his observers reporting that the Russian fleet had been crippled by the previous night’s attack, the Japanese fleet were ordered to launch an attack on the port. In reality the reconnaissance was wrong and the Russians were prepared for battle. The Battle of Port Arthur resulted in ships on both sides suffering damage before the Japanese fleet retreated.
On the 1st February 1968, American photojournalist Eddie Adams took a photograph of South Vietnamese National Police Chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém in Saigon. The photograph’s publication in the New York Times rallied US citizens to the anti-war movement and earned Adams a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969.
The Tet Offensive had begun on the 30th January, and saw over 80,000 communist troops carry out a series of surprise attacks against South Vietnamese forces and their allies. It’s reported that, two days later, in the early morning of the 1st February, Lém led a troop that attacked a South Vietnamese base and killed South Vietnamese National Police officers and their families. He was later captured near a mass grave containing 34 civilian bodies, and soon brought before General Loan in Saigon. While still handcuffed, Loan shot Lém with his Smith & Wesson revolver in front of photographer Eddie Adams and an NBC News television cameraman.
The photograph was printed in the New York Times, and appeared alongside a now-forgotten image of a child killed by the Viet Cong in an attempt to achieve balance. However, the immediacy of the image made an enormous impact in America where it became strongly associated with the anti-war movement. Adams later spoke out many times in defence of General Loan, declaring that the photograph does not present the whole story. He later visited Loan many times, and apologised in person for the effect the photo had on his life. On hearing of Loan’s death in 1998, Adams called him “a hero”.
The Second Boer War saw the British Empire fight against the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The early months of the war saw the Boers inflict successive defeats on the British. After they began a crippling siege against the British at Ladysmith, a plan was made to attack the Boers and relieve the garrison.
The Boers had established a defensive line along the Tugela River approximately 20 miles outside Ladysmith. The centre of their line was overlooked by a 430 metre high hill known as Spion Kop, which roughly translates as ‘Spy Hill’. The British planned to seize the hill under cover of darkness, and establish a commanding position over the Boer line and the route to Ladysmith.
General Sir Charles Warren selected Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft to lead the assault, which took place late on 23 January in thick mist. The British overwhelmed a small group of Boers on the hill and began to dig trenches on what they believed was the summit, though the rocky terrain on the hilltop meant they were very shallow and offered little protection.
When the mist began to lift the next morning the British were dismayed to find that they had only seized a plateau. They were surrounded on three sides by the Boers on higher terrain, and they began to bombard the British with ten shells every minute. Vicious fighting continued for the whole day but, shortly after nightfall, the Boers abandoned their positions on the summit. Thorneycroft was unaware that victory was in his grasp and ordered his own retreat. The Boers reoccupied the hilltop the following morning.
The Battle of Monte Cassino began when Allied forces launched the first of four attacks against the Gustav Line in Italy.
The Gustav Line, which together with the Bernhardt and Hitler lines formed a series of defences known as the Winter Line, had been established by the Germans and Italians to defend Rome from a northern advance by the Allies. The Allied forces had secured a foothold in Italy in Operation Avalanche the previous September, having first captured Sicily.
By early January 1944 the Allies had advanced a long way north, but their progress had been stopped by poor weather that forced them to approach Rome along Highway 6 that ran from Naples through the Liri valley. The southern entrance to the valley was dominated by the town of Cassino and overlooked by the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.
Although the German army did not position defensive units in the abbey itself, the natural topography gave them a notable advantage over the Allies. Combined with minefields that had been laid in advance, the strong German position withstood the first assault that lasted for two and a half weeks and involved troops under British, American and French command attacking the position from three sides.
German forces finally withdrew on 17 May, and the following morning soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The four assaults that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino had led to 55,000 Allied casualities and destroyed the ancient abbey. The treasures it contained had been evacuated to Rome in November 1943.
Dr William Brydon of the British East India Company Army was the only survivor of an army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers to reach safety at Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Although it later emerged that a further 115 British officers and soldiers, along with their wives and children, had survived as hostages Brydon was the only Briton to have escaped from Kabul without being captured.
Part of the First Anglo-Afghan War, British troops had maintained a garrison in Kabul since 1839 following the restoration of the British-supported Shuja Shah. On 2 November 1841 a group of locals, under the leadership of Akbar Khan, launched an uprising against the occupying forces. The British commander General William Elphinstone, who had been called “the most incompetent soldier who ever became general” by his contemporary General William Nott, did little to re-establish control and instead agreed to the British withdrawal to the garrison at Jalalabad.
Having handed over gunpowder, new muskets and canon to Akbar Khan in return for safe passage approximately 16,000 British soldiers and civilians left Kabul on 6 January 1842. They were soon set upon by Afghan tribes, and within three days 3,000 people had died while the column had only moved 25 miles. Freezing conditions and desertions further increased the losses so that by 11 January the army had been reduced to just 200 men. A final standoff at the Gandamak pass finished off much of the rest of the British army leaving only Brydon, who had earlier become separated from the remnants of the army, to make it to Jalalabad alone despite his own life-threatening injuries. On being asked what had happened to the rest of the army Brydon is said to have responded, “I am the army”.
On the 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade with an impassioned speech at the Council of Clermont. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had appealed to the Pope for support against invasion by the Seljuk Turks, and many historians argue that Urban II took advantage of the situation as a way to reunite Christendom under the papacy.
By the 11th Century, Christianity had secured a stable base across most of Europe. However the Byzantine Empire was on the very periphery and faced continuous threats from Muslim conquests. The city of Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands since 638, but ongoing wars between different Arab dynasties had resulted in it being captured by the Seljuks in 1076. When their army began threatening to attack Constantinople, Alexios appealed to the Pope for assistance.
There is no record of how many people responded to the Pope’s call, but estimates suggest anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 of which a large number were ordinary peasants. Exactly why so many people chose to “take the cross” is also a question subject to fierce debate. Certainly some nobles went in the hope of seizing riches along the way, but a large number of crusaders almost certainly did so out of piety.
Although Pope Urban had intended the Crusade to depart on the 15th August 1096, large numbers of peasants and low-ranking knights set off earlier on what became known as the People’s Crusade. Poorly disciplined and with little to no military training, these Crusaders killed thousands of Jews in the pogroms of 1096 before even leaving Europe.