Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Shiloh - Railroads and Rivers (1862)

In the 1860s armies in the field were entirely dependent on the movement of men and material by rail or waterway. Following the loss of Kentucky and Mid Tennessee in February 1862 the Confederacy was obliged to protect the strategically important Mississippi valley and therefore amassed a force of 44,000 men under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnson at the major rail hub of Corinth.

Corinth Railroad Crossing
Corinth retains a 'time stands still' charm although nowadays
Highway 61 and the Natchez Trace have turned the place into something of a backwater. The rail intersection (North / South and East / West) is still the centre of the town though and every few minutes a freight train thunders through.

Freight Train - Corinth
In mid March, 22 miles northeast of Corinth, General Ulysses S. Grant disembarked his 40,000 strong force at Pittsburg Landing on the busy Tennessee River. Expecting the Confederates to hunker down in Corinth, Grant ordered his men to set up camps in the area around Shiloh Church. His instructions were to await reinforcements in the form Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio which was en-route overland from Nashville.

Pittsburg Landing - Then and Now
Johnston took full advantage of Grant's complacency in not fortifying the camps by launching a surprise attack. At dawn on the 6th April 1862 a tide of well armed, highly motivated Confederate troops swept through the Federal lines. Many of the units under Grant's command stubbornly contested the Confederate advance but over a period of six hours the defending troops were gradually pushed back towards the gullies surrounding the landing site. 

Picket Fence & Gun Battery at Shiloh

Both sides were using Napoleonic tactics and regiments fought in line two men deep. Accurate rifle fire and plentiful artillery wreaked havoc on the lines. In particular canister shot from amassed guns blew large gaps in the ranks of infantry. The casualty rate was truly horrific - amounting to 28% of those who fought once the final roll calls were taken at the end of the battle. One of the most poignant spots on the modern day battlefield is the Hornet's Nest where Union forces held on for several hours in the face of determined assaults by Confederate infantry supported by massed artillery (Ruggles' Grand Battery).
The southern face of the Hornet's Nest
Despite the determined assault, Grant showed his mettle by hanging onto the Pittsburg Landing bridgehead. As the Federal Army's line contracted so Grant was able to concentrate his fire more effectively. Suffering extreme fatigue and mounting losses the force of the attack began to diminish. With Buell's Brigades starting to arrive on the evening of 6th April the advantage began to swing to the Union side.

Confederate Battlefield Cemetery - Shiloh
The battlefield is a complex one to interpret so we enlisted the services of accredited guide Gary Millett. Gary did a great job in taking us through the sequence of events, enlivening his narrative with personal observations about some of the units and commanders involved. 

Gary Millett explaining how regiments fought 'in line'
On Day 2 - the 7th April 1862 'the spring decompressed' and the larger Union Force began to push back on the Confederate attackers. The Confederates had been further disadvantaged the previous day by the loss of their commander - General Albert Sidney Johnson. Johnson was mortally wounded whilst directing the final - successful - assault on the Peach Orchard. General P.G.T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate Army but the loss of Johnson - an inspirational figure - affected morale and impacted the strategic direction of the Confederate effort. 

In seeing Robert E. Lee's statue in New Orleans a few hours drive down Highway 61 I couldn't help reflecting on whether Johnson might have been given this honour had he survived Shiloh and gone on the fight further battles - after all Lee did not fight in the Western theatre.
Red Light for Robert E. Lee in New Orleans
On the morning of the 7th April, the Union force aided by 25,000 reinforcements unleashed a counter-offensive. Despite ragged command and control on account of Grant and Buell's failure to communicate with each other effectively, the attacking Brigades pushed the Confederate defenders back through the broken camps which had been the scene of such difficult fighting the previous day. 

Union Artillery at 'Bloody Pond'
After six hours of bitter fighting, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth. The exhausted Union force did not pursue the retreating Confederates - a criticism which has since been made. Corinth was abandoned by Beauregard three weeks later as Halleck's 100,000 strong Union Army began to threaten a decisive assault on the beleaguered town. Nowadays the Battlefield Park at Shiloh is a beautifully preserved site which is home to an abundance of wildlife including several large herds of deer.

Many of the Union dead are interred in a large cemetery at Pittsburg Landing in proximity to the modern day Visitor Centre. As for the Confederate dead, many are buried where they fell - in particular in five mass graves  around the battlefield. As is the case with so many American Civil War battlefields, the ground is marked by numerous memorials and the position of batteries is shown by the careful placement of guns.

Defeated Victory
One of the most impressive memorials was erected in 1917 by 'the United Daughters of the Confederacy'. Designed by Frederick Hibbard it is rich with imagery and meaning. The picture above shows a representation of the Confederate cavalry and endeavours to acknowledge the frustration experienced by horsemen at Shiloh who were unable to deploy effectively on ground covered in thick undergrowth and criss-crossed by deep gullies.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'My Father's Recollections of 1st July 1916' by Major Philip Wright OBE: Cambs Suffolks on the Somme

The first of July 1916 dawned with a light mist and all the signs of a glorious summer’s day. A thousand yards from the German line, my father’s battalion, the 11th Suffolk (about 900 men), spent the night in and around the small château in trench-riddled Bécourt Wood. From here, despite the unrelenting British bombardment, war seemed remote. Cuckoos called, nightingales sang, dogs barked at the guns; wild and garden flowers grew in profusion. At 4am on 1st July the soldiers breakfasted with the help of a dose of treacly army rum in their tea. At 5am, they filed into position and my father marched his platoon (about 40 men) out of the wood along the trenches. He, like everyone else, was carrying about sixty pounds of equipment. 

Andrew Wright of the Cambs Suffolks
                      The Battalion arrived in trenches to the rear of another unit from Grimsby. My father’s platoon, comprised largely of men from Cambridgeshire, was in the battalion’s third ‘wave’. At 7.20am, ten minutes to ‘zero hour’, every gun in the artillery accelerated to its maximum rate of fire in a hurricane bombardment. Then, with two minutes to go, the ground reeled. Across No Man’s Land and a little to my father’s left, the earth erupted thousands of feet into the air as the Lochnagar mine containing twenty-four tons of explosive ammonal was detonated under the enemy’s trenches. Clods of soil and chunks of chalk rained down as large as wheel barrows.

                            For the first time in a week all the guns stopped and long ranks of men rose from where they had been crouching on the ground. The skirl of bagpipes started up nearby. The British artillery lengthened its range and resumed its bombardment. My father waited for the Battalion’s second wave to leave. He checked his watch and at two and a half minutes after zero hour, blew his whistle and waved his platoon forward some hundred yards to the front line. There was a scramble for ladders and footholds over the parapets, to the tune of German machine guns very much alive to what was coming.

Lieutenant Andrew Wright and D Company - Ripon 1915

                     As soon as the barrage lifted from their front line, the Germans emerged from their deep dugouts hauling their machine guns with them. No Man’s Land was up to six hundred yards wide here but soldiers from the first three waves of the 11th Suffolk had begun to fall within the first one hundred. They went down ’just like corn in front of the farmer’s reaper’, one of my father’s men remembered. But the advance went on, somehow: men with heads bowed as if walking into a gale. At one point my father was advancing alone among small groups of survivors sheltering in shell holes. He got down until he saw a line of men going forward on his right and then continued up to the white lip of the newly blasted crater. With about two hundred men of all units, he remained in the crater until early evening, only leaving its sanctuary to attend to and give water to the wounded strewn in the waste land around.

Captured Enemy Dugout at La Boisselle, France

                     More than five hundred of the 11th Suffolk were wounded or killed. Of the sixteen officers, the Battalion had fielded, four had been killed, two more were never found and only my father emerged unhurt. Having done all he could for the wounded and dying, Captain James Fiddian, Medical Officer of 11th Suffolk, wrote to my father “Perhaps the most poignant memory of all is of the march next morning, when of some 800 who went in on 1st July about 125 mustered. I know that as I marched at the rear of the column I could not trust myself to speak, that my face was twitching in extraordinary ways and my mind was filled with the feeling that if the potentates themselves had to take part it the wars they made we should have no more of them.” 

                         Note: After the 1st July 1916, Andrew Wright went on to a distinguished career in the British Army and, later, the Diplomatic Service. Wright was awarded the MC for an action as Company Commander, 11th Suffolk during an attack on Hargicourt (Aisne) in August 1917. He was awarded a Bar to his MC during the 1918 Battle of the Lys where he showed outstanding leadership as the second in command of 11th Suffolk. Wright received further awards for active service in WW2 before being appointed Governor to the Gambia and later Governor of Cyprus. He ended his career as Sir Andrew Wright KCMG, CBE, MC.