March 6th 1779: Jomini born
On this day in 1779, the French general Antoine-Henri Jomini was born in Switzerland. He served in the French army during the Napoleonic Wars and later joined the Russian army. Jomini is famous for his military theory and extensive writings on strategy which continued to be used in military academies years after his death in 1869. Together with Carl von Clausewitz he is considered one of the leading figures in military theory.
October 21st 1805: Battle of Trafalgar
On this day in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars, a British naval fleet led by Lord Horatio Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated a French and Spanish fleet off the coast of Spain. The battle was a decisive turning point in the wars, ending French naval supremacy and turning the tide against Napoleon’s army. Lord Nelson was killed in the battle, and he and the battle are commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square which includes Nelson’s Column.
August 30th 1914: Battle of Tannenberg ends
On this day in 1914 during World War One, the Germans defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle devastated the Russian army, with them suffering 170,000 casualties to the Germans’ 12,000. The Germans used superior tactics, including large turning movements by train. The leading Russian general, Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide rather than report the loss to Tsar Nicholas II.
July 3rd 1863: Battle of Gettysburg ends
On this day in 1863 during the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The battle was a key turning point in the war with its decisive Union victory under George Meade which turned the tide in the Union’s favour. The Confederacy, led by Robert E. Lee, were defeated and thus Lee’s invasion of the North was ended. The last day of the battle also saw Pickett’s Charge, a Confederate cavalry charge which was repulsed by Union fire and thus led to many Confederate deaths. The battle was the bloodiest of the war, and President Lincoln famously honoured the fallen with his Gettysburg Address.
200 years ago - June 24th 1812: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia begins
On this day in 1812, 200 years ago, Napoleon’s Grand Armee crossed the Neman River, thus beginning his invasion of Russia. This ill-planned invasion was a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as France’s failure weakened Napoleon’s army and his reputation. Napoleon had failed to supply his army well, and the Russian scorched earth policy didn’t allow the French to ‘live off the land’ as they previously had. Thus, the Grand Armee was poorly supplied and this was exacerbated by the onset of Russian Winter; almost 400,000 French soldiers died. Napoleon abandoned the invasion and it ended in December 1812. This very significant event in European and world history occurred 200 years ago.
June 18th 1815: Battle of Waterloo
On this day in 1815, French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte were defeated by the seventh coalition led by British Duke of Wellington and Prussian von Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was then forced to abdicate the French throne for the second and last time, thus signalling the end of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars which had raged since 1792. The coalition was finally able to defeat him at Waterloo when the French (whose backup failed to arrive) were driven from the field by the numerically superior and better led allies. The battle was a major success and victory for the coalition forces, and became legendary. Despite his ultimate defeat, Napoleon is still considered one of the greatest generals of all time.
May 27th 1941: Bismarck sunk
On this day in 1941 during World War Two, the German battleship Bismarck was sunk in the North Atlantic. Of the 2,200-man crew, only 200 survived. The ship was named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the driving force behind German unification in 1871. Despite suffering heavy damage in the previous days, the cause of the ship’s sinking is disputed; some claim it was due to British torpedoes, others claim the crew deliberately sunk it. The wreck of the Bismarck was discovered in 1989 by Robert Ballard who, just four years earlier, had discovered the wreck of the Titanic.
October 25th 1854: Charge of the Light Brigade
On this day in 1854 during the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava, Lord Cardigan led a fatal British cavalry charge against the Russians. Almost 300 British men were killed or injured in the futile charge against Russian artillery. The event occurred due to a miscommunication between British commander Lord Raglan and Cardigan. It was the subject of the famous poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, and epitomises the incompetence of the British leadership during the Crimean War.
“When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!”
- Last stanza of Tennyson’s poem
October 13th 1943: Italy switches sides
On this day in 1943 during World War Two, the new government of Italy switches sides to the Allies from the Axis powers and declares war on Germany. Italy, when under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, had sided with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany (see picture). However, following the Allied invasion of Italy and the fall of Mussolini, the new leader General Pietro Badoglio joined the Allies to expel invading German forces from Italy.
August 23rd 1942: Battle of Stalingrad begins
On this day in 1942 the battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for the control of Stalingrad began. The Germans, despite having the initial advantage, struggled against the determined Soviet soldiers. Many Germans died following the onset of the Russian winter, as most lacked winter clothing. The Russians eventually defeated the remaining Germans in February 1943. The ordeal severely weakened the German army, and was a major factor in the Allies gaining the advantage which allowed them to win World War Two. The battle was one of the bloodiest in history, with around 1.5 million casualties.
July 1st 1916: Battle of the Somme begins
On this day in 1916 during World War One, the Battle of the Somme began. On the first day alone there were 60,000 British casualties, and there were over a million from all sides by the end of the battle in November. It was one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war, and is remembered for its attritional nature and seemingly fruitless losses.
June 22nd 1941: Operation Barbarossa begins
On this day in 1941 during the Second World War, the German invasion of Soviet Russia (codenamed Operation Barbarossa), began. Over three million Axis troops and 3,500 tanks crossed the border, which made it the largest invasion in the history of warfare. The operation, driven by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, was initially successful and the Germans conquered many areas of the USSR. Russia was initially unprepared for war, and lacked coherent leadership as Stalin was shocked by the invasion and had purged 2/3 of senior army officials during the 1930s. However the Soviets reorganised and the Germans began to lose, most famously at the Battle of Stalingrad where German soldiers froze in the sub-zero temperatures lacking winter clothing. Thus ultimately the Axis powers failed, and Allied victory was effectively secured. Barbarossa is remembered as a major turning point of the war but also as the largest military operation in history.
“When Barbarossa commences, the world will hold its breath and make no comment”
- Adolf Hitler
June 6th 1944: D-Day
On this day in 1944, the D-Day landings begin on the beaches of Normandy as part of the Allied ‘Operation Overlord’; this was the largest amphibious military operation in history. 155,000 Allied troops landed in France and quickly broke through the Atlantic Wall and pushed inland. In charge of the operation was General Dwight Eisenhower and leading the ground forces was General Bernard Montgomery. It was a decisive Allied victory and a key moment in the Second World War as the Allies gained some ground on the continent following the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940.
“You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.”
- Eisenhower’s message to the Allied Expeditionary Force
On this day in 1807, the future Confederate general Robert E Lee was born. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia; Lee’s father was a general and Governor of Virginia. He later attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled as an officer and engineer.
The tensions between the North and the South over the issue of slavery had been brewing for years, and in late 1860, South Carolina became the first state to declare its secession from the Union. Lee’s home state of Virginia followed in 1861. Despite Lee’s desire to preserve the Union and the offer of command of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln, Lee chose to fight for his home state, and the Confederacy. Lee has been praised for his leadership of the Confederate army as an excellent tactician and commander. However, his two invasions of the North exposed some strategic weaknesses, and caused the Battle of Gettysburg, which contributed to the Confederacy’s failure. The campaigns of Union general Ulysses S Grant inflicted heavy casualties on Lee’s army, but he was able to fight him back for a long time. However on April 9th 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
After the war, Lee supported the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson, but opposed giving the vote to freed slaves and taking the vote from ex-Confederates. Lee died on October 12th 1870, and remains an iconic figure both in the South and the North. In 1975, President Gerald Ford posthumously restored Lee’s US citizenship, which was automatically revoked when he joined the Confederacy.