We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Russ Navarre passes
29 June 2014, 12:58
Filed under: Navarre, Veterans | Tags: , ,

As a way to get out the word about my father’s passing, I’m posted an extended version of the eulogy that I’ll be giving tomorrow. Since I could write and speak about him for hours and some of this is more about me than it is about him, the spoken version is going to be considerably shorter. I also plan on adding to this as I write more, but wanted to get the main thrust of it out. He was a marvelous man and I already miss him. If anyone would like to attend, we’ll be convening at the Harry J Wills Funeral Home at 37000 Five Mile Road in Livonia. There’s a viewing from 3-5pm today, 29 June 2014, and another starting at 10am on Monday, 30 June 2014. Unity service at 11am. I’m unsure whether my remarks are at the service or at the luncheon that follows.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

My father was the kind of man who deserves that kind of epic speech.

My Dad grew up an orphan, having been dropped at the St Francis Home for Boys by his single mother. It couldn’t have been an easy childhood, but he didn’t think of it that way. He talked about playing the rafters and getting in trouble with the nuns. In 2011, a fire broke out in the building, which had spent twenty years as a Detroit public school. Eventually, they had to tear it down. I suspect that there were boys playing under that wooden roof, literally following in my father’s footsteps, making mischief.

Dad had a lot of stories. I’ll never know which of them were true, which had a grain of truth and which were invented out of whole cloth. He had a vivid imagination and he knew a good story when he had one. When we’d talk on the phone after I moved to Washington, we’d slip into a little game, talking like we were important men who knew the Presidents and would be asked for advice. Sometimes, I’m the same way. Heck, even some of my stories about my Dad never happened. For example, I’ve said for years, “My father always told me, if you can’t sing well, at least sing loud.” A few years ago, I let him know I’d been saying that. He laughed and told me I could keep doing it.

Probably the best speech I gave in my life was based on him. I was working on planning a volunteer project in DC and we were at that nervous, don’t know if we can pull this off stage. I remembered his old State Fair stand. It was a crazy, hand-made construction that never went together the same way twice. It took half a dozen men to put it together over several hours. The top of the stand was something like 15-18 feet high, with a sloped roof and you had to man-handle all these heavy parts into position. There were no plans and every year we’d go out there (once I was old enough to help) and he’d get everyone together to put it up. I embellished and I had him giving a speech every year at the start, to gird his crew for the huge task. He’d say, “We’ve done this fifteen times. Every time it’s different. Every time we have different parts left over when we finish. But every time we start, we finish. We can do this.” It was a good speech, and it really caught the flavor of my old man. I’ve given the speech a few times, at the request of friends who were there, so I know it had to be a little inspiring. When I gave the speech to him, he liked it too.

When he walked the fairgrounds, everyone was his friend. You’d see him greeting people and shaking hands and waving. He wasn’t a politician, but he was a man you couldn’t help but like. In my better moments, I am my father, relentlessly unafraid of people and gregarious. In other moments, I’m the shy boy who doesn’t talk to strangers and hates to use the phone.

There’s probably never been a man who didn’t want his father to be proud of him and I sure wanted my Dad to be proud of me. He coached my brother and I in baseball when I was new to the league and not very good. He didn’t see me play a lot of sports after that, but I kept at it. One year, he came to Washington and watched me play flag football. He told me I was pretty good and that meant a lot to me.

That reminds me of a crazy thing that happened when we were on that baseball team together. One of our guys rounded third, headed for home and was beaten by five steps. You’ve all seen Pete Rose bull through a catcher and you’d think he try that. He didn’t. He channeled Bruce Lee instead and planted both of his feet in the catcher’s chest. When the other coach complained, ours piped back, “We score half our runs that way!” I can’t say for sure it was my Dad saying it, but you can sure imagine him that way.

He had a great outlook on life, always seeing the bright side and always seeing the best in people. We used to help out sometimes at the fairs, and I met some of the most interesting people working for him. I’m not sure that all of the people who worked for him could hold a job any place else, but when Russ came into town for the State Fair or their county fair, these people came out of the woodwork for him. They busted their butts for him and earned every dollar they got. He had a soft heart and so he was helping them, but he made sure they helped him right back. I lucked out. I got the sunny disposition and the ability to always see the good in people. He taught me that when you expect good things of people and they know it, good things happen.

I loved working the State Fair stand. My brother Rob and I worked the Detroit Grand Prix one year with him, and he just couldn’t believe us. We busted our butts, but we were loud, outgoing and boisterous. Kind of a caricature of him and we loved it. I helped out at the Tulip Festival one year, and he had Darlene working her fingers to the bone there too. I think Russ was the first one who actually got paid to work for him. He’d thought he’d have free labor with three boys and a hard-working girl, but he did pay us.

I met my wife Melissa back in 2002 and the old man had told me he wasn’t going to keep working the State Fair any more. So, I came to town and brought Melissa with me. She’d told me she wanted to work the stand for a day, too. He wasn’t so sure, because it really is hard work. She was persistent and he let her work. He had a way about him, when he wanted to think. He’d stand there with his arms crossed and his chin in his hand. Late in the day, when Melissa had worked hard the whole time, loving every minute, he stood there like that. He nodded, surprised she’d done it and impressed with her. He let me know I’d gotten the right gal and he was proud of me.

My Dad was a fitness nut before there were fitness nuts. He used to run, sometimes at night and make my Mom follow him the car. In his 70s, he could still lift 180 pounds over his head. He’d earned his black belt in Judo and he used to do this thing with his hands, like Bruce Lee almost, getting himself into position, letting out a little “Hyaaah!” He’d do it to be funny and I always laughed with him. Now, he wasn’t Jack Lalane, but he kept fit. He grew out of the nutty part of it, of course, but he never stopped staying in shape.

This isn’t the first time an obituary ran in the paper. A number of years back, we were at one of the St Francis reunions, and someone shook his hand and said how glad they were that he was still alive. Another Russ Navarre had his obituary in the Detroit News and this old friend had called the orphanage to let them know. The way he told it, when the orphanage called the house to express their condolences, he answered the phone and, channeling Mark Twain, replied that “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

One year, a few weeks before Christmas, I was struggling to figure out what to get him. It came to me in flash. Here was a guy with a bunch of great stories and here I was, a guy who loved to write. So, for Christmas, my gift to him was that we’d sit down together and I’d write his life story. Well, we’d talk about his stories some times and I’d ask probing questions because I knew we’d do this some day. Well, we never had the long sessions we needed to get it done, but this weekend, I started writing this.

But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,—not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?—

—Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The funeral home obituary, which I think my sister Darlene wrote, has plenty of good photos.

Video of my eulogy:

When I read obituaries in the paper, my favorites are the ones after which I say to myself, “Gosh, I wish I’d known him.” One of my former co-workers, Eric, wrote “Now I miss him too.” I’m so happy to have been able to share the written and spoken versions of the eulogy and to have received compliments on them. I’m grateful that I got to speak to him on Father’s Day and tell him that I loved him, but sad that he had to tell me that he wished I’d call more often.



How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part IV: General Gage

Certainly the most important person in any counter-insurgency operation is the commander. In 1775, General Thomas Gage commanded all British troops in the colonies as well as serving as the Governor of the Massachusetts colony, giving him both the military and civilian leadership roles. Was he suited to the task? Did his actions increase or decrease the likelihood of success?

Thomas Gage was the second son in a noble family and attended a “public school”, the Westminster School, in London, rubbing elbows with other future leaders. Being a younger son, he had to find his own way in the world, and such connections would serve him well.

Military Career

He joined the Army as an ensign, then purchased a Lieutenant’s commission. He rose in rank over the years, serving in the War of Austrian Succession and the Second Jacobite Rising. He spent at least some of his time on staff, and was popular among the officer corps despite neither drinking nor gambling. While he did make some good political connections, it wasn’t enough to win him a seat in Parliament and he came to the colonies as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 44th Regiment of Foot in 1755.

There’s a mixed bag in the evaluation of his performance in Braddock’s expedition to capture Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. Gage led a 300-man advance group that fell back on Braddock’s main column after reeling from meeting the enemy. This apparently disorganized the entire 1300-man force and, while Braddock rallied his troops several times before he fell mortally wounded, led to terrific losses. One source gives Gage credit for maneuvering the artillery into action,the aftermath did not go well for him. Gage not only failed to get permanent command of his regiment on the death of his Colonel, but one officer also charged him with poor field tactics and blamed Gage for the defeat. On the other hand, a colonist accompanying the expedition as a volunteer officer, George Washington, thought enough of Gage to request a recommendation letter from him in 1758.

Gage served in a few aborted campaigns and then set about recruiting a light infantry regiment. Regular officers realized that the tactics employed by the French, the Indians and the colonial Rangers had some merit, but they felt that the Rangers were too highly paid and too undisciplined. While this may have also been an effort to gain a Colonelcy, it does represent some flexibility of mind and willingness to innovate. On the other hand, it also points out his disdain for colonial troops, which would come back to haunt him.

When General Abercrombie led his 16,000 men north to seize Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga), Gage’s light regiment (the 80th Regiment of Light-Armed Foot) served as skirmishers along with the Rangers leading the doomed attack. The British were soundly defeated by about a quarter of their number that was firmly entrenched, due to the uncoordinated nature of the assault and the General’s poor tactical decision to make a frontal assault without artillery preparation.

The following year, mostly through his brother’s political maneuverings, he received a promotion to Brigadier General. Sent to Oswego to begin a campaign into Canada, Gage chose not to advance against uncertain odds. In 1760, rather than being given the honor of leading the vanguard, he commanded the rear guard of General Amherst’s army. Nonetheless, the likeable Gage was appointed Governor, serving ably despite distrusting the French colonists.

Advanced again to Major General, he also was appointed as Colonel of the 22nd Regiment of Foot through more help from his enterprising older brother. Interestingly, the 22nd wasn’t in the colonies again until 1775, which couldn’t have given him much ability to manage his regiment.

General Amherst left him in charge of British troops in the colonies while he returned to England on a leave of absence that became permanent, allowing Gage to be appointed to the position rather than just serving as a temporary replacement. Having proven himself in Quebec, his able administration in this position is not surprising. In 1771, he would be promoted to Lieutenant General.

During this time, he ordered the arrest a Major Robert Rogers, who commanded Rogers’ Rangers that he’d had such disdain for the indiscipline of back during Braddock’s expedition. The charges of treasonous connections with the French was backed by flimsy evidence and Rogers was acquitted.

So, we’ve seen him rise in rank despite participating in disastrous military expeditions by means of political maneuverings. He’s demonstrated ambition and some adaptability, but also shown his disdain for colonial troops and that he had a vindictive side.

Governance through punitive measures

That vindictive side and disdain for the colonists really shows through when we examine his actions as an administrator between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the American Revolution.

During the French and Indian War, as Americans know it, or the Seven Years War as it is more commonly known, the British chose to take the offensive in North America, since they were outnumbered in Europe. Due to the costs of the war, the British needed to raise taxes. Since much of the cost was due to fighting in the colonies, the burden would also fall on the colonists. That wasn’t something Gage could control, but he certainly noticed the dissatisfaction and unrest it generated.

With combat action on the frontiers having died down with the end of the war and the unrest in response to the Stamp Act, Gage began pulling his troops back into the cities. He sent two regiments to Boston, including the 29th Regiment, which had a record of indiscipline and had come into conflict with civilians in Quebec. When coupled with the Quartering Act in 1765 (leading to the 3rd Amendment to our Constitution), the ingredients for an incident were all in place. In 1770, the tensions came to a head, resulting in the Boston Massacre. Thus began the road to violent rebellion.

While Gage was in England on leave, unrest continued to rise. He left in June and by December, Bostonians had had enough.

When resistance turned violent at the Boston Tea Party (1773), Gage was instrumental in shaping Parliament’s retaliatory Intolerable (Coercive) Acts (1774), by which the port of Boston was closed until the destroyed tea should be paid for. He was largely responsible for inclusion of the inflammatory provision for quartering of soldiers in private homes and of the Massachusetts Government Act, by which colonial democratic institutions were superseded by a British military government.

Since he worried about unrest, he brought troops into the cities. Whether by chance or conscious decision, a regiment that he knew was likely to tangle with civilians was placed where the unrest was the worst. The initial Quartering Act required the lodging of troops in inns, stables and barns, but the 1774 provisions extended that to private homes, further infuriating colonists. Further fanning the flames, Gage consolidated his troops from around North America into Boston. Thus, demand for housing for his troops spiked and unrest grew.

Suitability and Actions

So, Gage’s experience in combat was mostly in failed expeditions, with poor higher leadership and questions about his own tactical abilities. He was more than willing to use connections to gain advantage, so one has to wonder about whether he could have advanced in rank without them. As an administrator, he demonstrated good management, but also some vindictiveness. As such, one might have thought in the mid-1760s that he’d be a fine manager for the colonies, but that it was a good thing there was no longer a shooting war for him to carry out.

His actions when he encountered unrest indicate that such an evaluation wasn’t accurate. He mis-read the colonists, thinking a show of force would quench the flames. It did not. His actions fed the fire and pushed more colonists on the road to rebellion.

In summary, the man in charge of counter-insurgency in the colonies in 1775 was neither an understanding administrator who could smooth over grievances, nor was he a reputable warrior with a history of success. He was a political General with disdain for the locals and a tendency to make exactly the wrong choices. Is it any wonder that such leadership could generate the failure of an expedition to Concord?



Setting out the monuments, Normandy 2014

As the touring season starts, the battlefield guides in Normandy turn to one of the hardest tasks of the year, pulling the monuments out of winter storage and setting them back in place for the touring season.

The crew starting in the wee hours of the morning at Vierville

Each year in the fall, the guides and some volunteers painstakingly remove each of the monuments from the battlefield and place them in storage for the winter. Paul Woodadge related to me on our first visit, during the 65th anniversary in 2009, “In 2003, we’d forgotten to put the Walter Mitty Leadership Memorial into storage and it got all knackered up. The artist had passed away, so the Mayor of St-Nulle-Part-Terre-sur-mer sent it to China. What came back didn’t look quite the same.”

Chinese Peace Memorial

The Walter J. Mitty Leadership Memorial

Noted author Kevin Hymel spent the first hour of our work talking at great length about the storms that ravage Normandy in the winter. If you haven’t heard him play the roles of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Group Captain Stagg in telling the story of the invasion, you really haven’t had the full Normandy experience. Someone whispered to me that Stagg actually did not have a cockney accent, but no one ever stops Kevin, because it’s simply hilarious.

The day starts early, with groups meeting each sector of the battlefield for a long day’s work. Professor John McManus told me while he sipped his coffee this morning and rubbed his sore hands, “It really is one of the great unknown tasks performed by the guides. I’ve been coming for several years now, since the physical contact with monuments really brings home just how difficult the invasion was for these young men.”

Up and down the coast, as well as inland, crews are lugging, tugging, and sometimes carrying monuments back into place. At mid-morning, Dale Booth led the team at La Fiere, ably assisted by Russ Littel and his wife Kate Deyermond, plus my wife Melisssa. As he was wiggling the bas-relief back into place, he reminded me that “many hands make for light work.” Indeed, this year seems to have drawn the largest contingent of helpers in recent memory. All the hard work does come with some unforgettable moments, such as Bob Sabasteanski had the year he got to help Major Howard drag Pegasus Bridge back into place.

Dale Booth adjusting the map at La Fiere. I tried videotaping the movement of this from storage, but they needed my help carrying it.

We finished in mid-afternoon, so I was able to sit with Joe Muccia over a glass of Calvados and pen this little note to bring you all up to date on the project. Melissa is enjoying her Pommeau and our dear friend, Tom Soah has a wee dram that he’s nursing.

I got started in the monument re-placement business back in the 1990s, when Tom Desjardin called on volunteers from the Gettysburg Discussion Group to roll those monuments out of storage every April. Following their lead in Normandy, “Le Poisson d’Avril” as they call their group, trudges out in the night in the last few hours of March, to be ready for the 1st of April.

Many thanks for reading and may you enjoy your own “poisson d’avril” today….



Five Years, Four Fronts

BGEN Theodore Mataxis was asked to write a foreword for Georg Grossjohann’s “Five Years, Four Fronts” and nearly turned it down. He felt he’d have little in common with the Major. They hadn’t fought in the same battles and their careers hadn’t been similar.

However, because of my keen interest in and bias in favor of “eyeball accounts” by combat participants, I finally agreed to read the draft manuscript. At worst, I thought, it would confirm my doubts, and I would simply have to decline the opportunity to pen the requested foreword. The more I read, though, the more engrossed and intrigued I became. I found this was not just another war story of campaigns during WWII, but the author’s detailed account of his experience at small-unit level during peace, mobilization and war.

Mataxis truly enjoyed the book and his foreword becomes an enthusiastic endorsement of the work. Grossjohann rose from the enlisted ranks to Major while fighting in the aforementioned four fronts, including fighting in Operation Dragoon and the Colmar Pocket, finishing as a regimental commander in mid-January of 1945.

The more I read, the more I realized that I did, in fact, have much in common with Grossjohann, although not just from the war in which we shared only a common theater of operations. Later in my Army service, I served as executive officer for – and then commanded – an infantry regiment in the Korean War and served four tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Altogether, I spent about five years in combat, as did Grossjohann. Although I gradually recognized that we had a lot in common in other ways, it was in these combat tours that I acquired the “mindset” which I think is what most closely links George Grossjohann and me across space and time – the critical importance of “bonding” in combat, and the soldier’s warrior ethos. That is what transcends our different nationalities, causes and theaters of war. Neither of us had much time for fripperies or superficialities. The trappings of things militaristic or the transient fads of the moment – be they the transparent nonsense of National Socialism for Grossjohann, the trumped-up bodycount game of my Vietnam tourss, the “Zero Defects” philosophy of my last years of service, or the “Consideration for Others” claptrap of today’s Army, none of them held or would have held the slightest interest for either of us. Indeed, because such things often get in the way of more important endeavors (training, learning, fighting), we despised them and ignored them when we could. The author’s unconcealed loathing of equivocation, moral cowardice, professional vanity, and selfishness among some of his fellow officers – the same kind of things scorned by Anton Myrer’s archetype of the Good Office, Sam Damon in “Once an Eagle” – struck a sympathetic chord with me. Been there, seen that – far too much of it! Take the time to perceive the author’s unabashed esteem for those – of all ranks – who exhibited anything approaching the unspoken passion the author had for soldiering, and you’ll discover the frank admiration of a kindred soul. All good soldiers can identify with the warrior ethos that is the basic cornerstone of espirit and high morale.

He finished with truly high praise.

If I ever get around to writing my memoirs, although they will be mostly about other wars and other times, I hope I can tell my story with as much honesty, class, and plain truth as this one.

Unfortunately, the final seven years of his life after penning this foreword appear not to have allowed Mataxis time and energy to write those memoirs, but I suspect reading Grossjohann’s work will give us the sense of what it would have been like.



Showing leadership in the Ukraine

No, I don’t have any insights to share on the geo-politics, but I was incredibly impressed when I read CDR Salamander’s post on Ukrainian Colonel Yuli Mamchor. The Colonel commands Ukraine’s 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade assigned to the Belbek air base.

During World War II, the Russians built the airbase at Belbek while fighting the Germans. The 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment was based in Belbek and it’s pilots not only fought from there, but also went on to guard the Yalta Conference in 1945 (according to a good article in Time). While the brigade is stationed there, no more than a handful of it’s MiG-29 fighter jets and L-39 training jets are operational.

The Russians had surrounded Mamchor’s command at their barracks, insisting that they surrender their weapons. They set a deadline. That passed and they set another deadline, “surrender by 4:00 pm on Tuesday or the Russians would cut off the power and the gas lines to the base.” Mamchor called their bluff.

Colonel Mamchor saluting the Ukrainian flag

At their morning assembly, the Colonel told his men they would march to the base, unarmed and resume their duties. Knowing that some men had already deserted and that this might be a suicide mission, he called for volunteers. The response was apparently near unanimous, but he chose to leave about half of his command at the barracks and march the rest over to the base.

They took the Soviet-era flag of the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment. “Any soldier born in the Soviet Union would have heard the stories of its legendary pilots”, noted TIME. Then, they marched, unarmed on the base. The handful of guards appear to have been stunned at such a crowd. Two of them took aim at the column, but fired warning shots in the air while shouting for them to stop. COL Mamchor only halted his demi-brigade within a few yards of the guards – the guard detachment’s NCO or junior officer restrained his men and conferred with the Colonel.

Colonel Mamchor went in to negotiate with the Russian commander, while his men relaxed as they waited, someone pulling out a soccer ball for a little scrimmaging. The Russians set up machine guns and were joined by local pro-Russian militiamen, but no incident occurred. Mamchor was able to secure the right for 10 of his men to resume their posts guarding the base, armed with their Kalashnikovs. The Russians hadn’t left, but Mamchor secured a victory.



Dragoon-Colmar Commemoration 2014

In a big step, we’ve combined the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket Commemorations for 2014 into one event, to be held at the Sheraton Pentagon City, 30 July to 3 August, 2014.

In another big step, it has it’s own website – 6thArmyGroup.com

All scheduling information, contact info and updates will be posted there, with supportive posts here.



10 percent off D-Day Issue
5 February 2014, 18:07
Filed under: Band of Brothers, Magazines, Normandy, Veterans, WWII | Tags: ,

One of my favorite magazines, America in WWII, has offered 10% off their special D-Day issue if you order before February 10th. It’s a hundred pages of articles, photos, maps and other goodies to pique your interest. I’m thinking of buying several so I can give them as presents. You can go straight to the shopping cart, or read the blurb first, then put it in your cart. It will ship around March 6th, so you’ll have it in plenty of time for the 70th anniversary. If anyone is going to the sold out Band of Brothers Actors Reunion (which will also include WWII veterans) in Normandy and is willing to take one copy to get autographed for me personally (no, not for me to sell on Ebay), let me know and I’ll buy you your own as well as the one for autographs.



Closure for grandpa, 70 years later
24 January 2014, 17:32
Filed under: POWs, Veterans, WWII | Tags: , , , ,

Since my wife and I have an abiding love for France, I read a number of blogs about France. Sometimes, it’s just an entry or two in a blog about something else entirely, but mostly, it’s blogs by Americans or Brits who’ve transplanted themselves to France.

Among the blogs I follow is pépère the cat. It’s written by a young English woman with French boyfriend who spent some time living in Paris and also visited Normandy (ding, ding, that’s what brought me to her blog!) It’s mostly slice-of-life things, with some nice photos while she was in France. However, she posted the most interesting thing the other day, about her grandfather, who fought in WWII in the RAF.

On 21 January 1944, during a bombing raid on Berlin, his plane was hit and he was forced to bail out. Not all of the crew did so, and after spending a year in a German prisoner of war camp, not knowing what happened to his friends haunted him. I’d heartily recommend you go read her piece as it is well-written and contains details which we have only sampled here.

You might also check the story of the funeral, with video, on the RAF website or the one from The Daily Mail, which has some outstanding photos. Neither is as well written as his granddaughter’s, but they do help round out the story.



How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part III: The Battle of Concord

Over the holidays, I was able to visit Boston again. Since I’ve been working on this series, this time, Melissa and I ventured to Concord. We started with a nice lunch and then went over to the Old North Bridge.

Terrain

To borrow from Julius Ceasar, Concord est omnes divisa in tres partes. Though Concord was a small farming village, the Concord River and the Assabet River that flows into it, divide the town into three separate parts. To get from the main part of town to either north or western parts of Concord, you need to cross the Concord River using either the Old North Bridge or the South Bridge. Thus, if you wish to occupy the entire town, your troops will have great difficulty supporting each other. On the other hand, if you only want to occupy the center of town, you could post small contingents at each bridge and be able to send your main force to reinforce whichever gets threatened.

The west end of the Old North Bridge is on a flood plain and is dominated by a ridgeline directly north of the bridge. A battery on that ridge, supported by infantry would easily prevent any passage over the bridge. The range of the smooth bore musket would not cover the bridge, but with the flat and perhaps marshy ground leading up to a steep slope, no sensible officer would launch an attack over the bridge and at such a battery. That open ground was reportedly flooded at the time, keeping any advance to only the road. Without any artillery, it would still be a formidable position.

The Goal

As noted previously, this expedition was intended to seize weapon caches that colonist had gathered. Within Boston itself, General Gage had negotiated with town leaders to collect all personal firearms in lieu of some kind of forced confiscation. Out in the countryside, it wouldn’t be so simple. Not only had the colonists brought existing weapons to Concord (including cannons stolen from the Boston garrison!), but they had also started manufacturing firearms there as well. The British were aware of these preparations due to both loyalists and spies. They even had lists of what ought to be found where.

Interestingly, down in Virginia, the colonial Governor was able to quickly and quietly secure the weapons gathered in Williamsburg and blame it on concerns about a fictional slave revolt being planned.

Narrative

Having engaged in that brief exchange of fire that was the Battle of Lexington, British troops marched west to their goal. Colonial minutemen had been gathering at Concord for hours, due to the rapid spread of the alarm. Initially, they began to march on Lexington, but turned back once they learned that the British column outnumbered them.  The 250 militiamen turned and marched back to Concord, about 500 yards ahead of the 700 regulars. I was almost like leading a parade back into the village, drums rolling. The militia retired to the highest point in town, 289-foot high Punkatasset Hill, from which you might even see all the way to Boston.

LTC Smith divided his troops in order to seize the various weapons caches. He sent CPT Mundy Pole to the South Bridge with the grenadier company from the 10th Regiment. CPT Lawrence Parsons of the 10th Regiment was sent with 7 light infantry companies (about 100 men, reportedly) to both secure the Old North Bridge and raid colonial Colonel Barrett’s farm to seize cannon there. Parsons left half his force under the command of CPT Walter Laurie to guard that bridge and took 4 companies the 2 miles to the weapons cache.

Anyone in these regiments with less than 13 years of service would have likely never seen combat, since their last action would have been in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in the colonies), so Laurie may have been an inexperienced officer. He may even have allowed his troops at the bridge to seek food and drink at nearby houses. Nonetheless, he did post two of his companies on the high ground that directly overlooked the bridge.

Meanwhile, the grenadiers in the main force began searching in the main part of town for the hidden weapons, munitions and food. This included digging up 3 large cannons (24-pounders) and smashing their trunnions, rendering them unusable. When setting fire to a few gun carriages, they ended up setting the town’s meeting house on fire. Fortunately for the people of Concord, the troops did assist in putting out the fire.

CPT Laurie sent back for reinforcements as the militia swelled, perhaps over 400 men for his 3 small companies of light infantry. The militia was overlooking the Old North Bridge from that commanding height we noted above. Before any help could arrive, Colonel Barrett’s men began to advance on the bridge. The two companies posted on the hill fell back to the bridge, then Laurie pulled his entire command back beyond the bridge. One of his officers began pulling up planks from the bridge to prevent the militia from following them. The militiamen advanced in column up the road toward the bridge, with Major John Buttrick shouting for the regulars to stop destroying the bridge.

CPT Laurie ordered his men into a curious formation – forming for “street firing” – of basically matching the militia’s column with his own column. The wisdom of which was questioned by at least one officer,a Lieutenant Sutherland, who ordered flankers out from the rear of the formation. Like most officers assigned that day, he was unknown to most of the men, and only a couple of men followed his counter-order.

A shot rang out, and this time there is certainty from depositions taken from men on both sides afterwards that it came from the Army’s ranks. It was likely a warning shot fired by a panicked, exhausted British soldier from the 43rd, according to Laurie’s letter to his commander after the fight. Two other regulars then fired immediately after that, shots splashing in the river, and then the narrow group up front, possibly thinking the order to fire had been given, fired a ragged volley before Laurie could stop them. – from Wikipedia on the North Bridge

The exchange of fire that followed left a few men dead and wounded on each side, but lead to the rapid retreat of Laurie’s command. In their retreat, they were met by the reinforcing grenadier company Smith had sent, but all of them fell back on the main force together.

The British command did not take this incident as a sign to depart from Concord rapidly. CPT Parsons and his troops marched back to the bridge when they heard the firing, marching through the battlefield and past the militia, which had crossed the bridge but not advanced much beyond that.

Analysis

As this is mainly a review of the failure of the British command in the seizure of a weapons cache, we will analyze their performance.

Underestimating the enemy

I think that in each encounter during this mission, the British command underestimated the enemy. At Lexington, they had underestimated the defiance of the colonists, but at Concord, they grossly underestimated the numbers that might turn out to oppose them. As the numbers swelled, CPT Laurie seems to be the only one who recognized a problem, but even his response didn’t particularly help.

LTC Smith gathered his men, but then spent hours before setting out on his return trip. He did not take the fight at the Old North Bridge as a signal that the militia would attack the regulars. I cannot puzzle out why, given that fight, that he didn’t send a strong force to the bridge to ensure the safe return of CPT Parsons and his other four companies. Perhaps the fact that these companies passed the ‘scene of the crime’ without harassment fed Smith’s confidence that no serious fight could be expected. He and his men would pay the price for this miscalculation over the next several hours.

Dividing his forces

Since Smith knew that the weapons were dispersed, he divided his command to secure them. I would say that he did so in the interest of time, but his failure to depart quickly after being blooded acts as counter-point to that concept. Sending companies to secure each bridge seems prudent, but his underestimation of opposition numbers meant that he didn’t send sufficient force to hold those bridges. His main party proved too far away to support CPT Laurie and, when he did send reinforcements, he only sent a single company anyway.

Worse yet, CPT Parsons’ command was nearly cut off with the retreat of troops from the Old North Bridge. Imagine, Smith’s command was a fraction of the forces in Boston; the Old North Bridge force was a small fraction of that; Parsons’ companies were the isolated tip of the spear. Later in the day, let alone later in the war, all of his men would have been killed or captured due to Smith’s command decisions.

Control of troops

At Concord, as at Lexington, the ad hoc nature of the officer selection (and the inclusion of a variety of supernumerary officers along for the excitement) meant that neither the officers nor the men were familiar with each other. At the Old North Bridge, the contradiction of orders issued by a Captain and a Lieutenant was especially confusing to the men, as the officers were unfamiliar to them. It surely helped create the disarray that led to the accidental or, at least, undisciplined shot and the ragged volley that followed. The responding fire from the militiamen resulted in the fatal wounding of an officer, wounding of some sergeants and compounded the confusion. It would be interesting to find out how the retreat unfolded and what effect the reinforcing column had on the cohesion of those troops.

Rules of engagement

The final point to bring up in regards to Concord is one that concerns our troops in afield today. What are the rules of engagement?

It becomes apparent in reviewing this escapade that no rules of engagement had been formally discussed among the officers, let alone written down. Assuredly, no one communicated any rules that had been formulated to the troops.

The action at the Old North Bridge is symptomatic of this problem. CPT Laurie didn’t know how to handle the advancing armed militia, and one of his officers actually followed the orders of the militia’s Major – stopping the destruction of the bridge to protect their position. Then, CPT Parsons’ troops marched right past a few dead regulars, with everyone apparently uncertain what should be done.

Overall

From the instant I started looking at the Battles of Lexington and Concord from the British perspective, I was struck by the number of mistakes made. I do wonder how much of my compounding analysis is due to a preconceived notion, but I think the preponderance of evidence is that the failure was a failure of command. I will continue to investigate, as I am still a novice in this arena.

Of note on our visit

During our visit, we stopped in Reverend Emerson’s house, now known as the Old Manse. Concord’s minister, William Emerson, preached in favor of resistance to Parliament’s oppression of the colonists and remained faithful to the revolution until his war-time death from dysentery. On April the 19th, Reverend Emerson encouraged the gathering militia to attack once the British column entered Concord, remaining nearby to witness the fight. His grandson is the Emerson most of us think of, author Ralph Waldo Emerson. The important part of that visit was that I got a recommendation on a book about the fight at Concord. While I’m not sure there is a book that deals specifically with the tactics of the short fight (and the effect of terrain on those tactics!), but Robert Gross’ The Minutemen and Their World does a marvelous job of introducing all the Concord-based participants. It details their pasts, their motivations, their financial and social positions, as well as the eventual fate of each.



Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)




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