Archive for August, 2015

The 16 Year Old General

August 31, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

If you were to find yourself on the outskirts of the small village of Crecy, France, on August 26 1346, you would find a sight very strange to modern eyes. Thousands of Englishmen arrayed for battle against the French, and at the head of one of the English divisions, a 16 year old boy.

Edward Woodstock kneels before his father

His name was Edward, and he was the son of Edward III, the King of England. Today he is commonly known as the Black Prince. As the story goes, this was because he wore black armor, but this name seems to have been invented after his death. At the time, he was known as Edward Woodstock. He was only 13 when he was made the Prince of Wales. While that is a ceremonial title today, in the 14th century it involved actually governing the country of Wales. This was a large responsibility to place on a lad who was barely a teenager.

Edward was 16 by the time of the Battle of Crecy, and had a great responsibility placed upon him. The English army was organized into three divisions, or “battles” as they were called. One of them was given to the Prince of Wales. A boy of only 16 commanding about a third of the English army, around 5,000 soldiers. He did have experienced knights surrounding him, such as the earls of Warwick and Oxford, who doubtless gave him plenty of advice. However, it was still a position of great responsibility.

19th century illustration of Crecy

Although the chroniclers differ as to how the English army was positioned, it is likely that the three battles were lined up one in front of another, with the Prince of Wales in front. Whatever his position, it is clear at some point in the battle that his men came under heavy attack. The fighting was so fierce, that a messanger was sent to the King, who was overlooking the battle from a nearby windmill, to ask for succor. The knight said:

Sir, the earl of Warwick and the earl of Oxford, sir Raynold Cobham and other, such as be about the prince, your son, are fiercely fought withal and are sore handled; wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them; for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.1

King Edward answered:

‘Is my son dead or hurt or on the earth felled?’ ‘No, sir,’ quoth the knight, ‘but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.’ ‘Well’ said the king, ‘return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.’ Then the knight returned again to them and shewed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them, and [repined] in that they had sent to the king as they did.2

The Prince and the rest of the English fought well that day, and at last the French were defeated.

Edward Woodstock lived on to become one of most famous English knights in history. A decade later, in fact, he captured King John of France at the Battle of Poitiers. Although he was next in line to the throne for many years, he never became King of England. He died in 1376 at the age of 45, just one year before his father.

The Black Prince’s Tomb. Source.


1The Chronicles of Froissart, trans. John Bourchier, Lord Barnes (London: MacMillan and Co., 1904) p. 105.
2. Ibid.

Ed Bearss on the Western Theater of the Civil War

August 24, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War, Videos, Weekly Video by

Ed Bearss, the famous NPS historian, discusses the Union strategy in the West during the Civil War, including the Anaconda Plan, the Vicksburg Campaign, and Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Victory of the Union Now Available!

August 19, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in News by

Our latest video on the American Civil War, Victory of the Union, is now available! Purchase it now from our store.

Victory of the Union Product Image

After two years of bloody conflict, the American Civil War was still unresolved and some of the hardest fighting lay ahead. Join us in this seven part series as the South is crushed and the country is reunited. Travel with us to battlefields such as Gettysburg, with its huge number of casualties, Vicksburg where the South was cut in half, and Chickamauga, where the Union armies met defeat in the west. Hear from eminent historians about the campaigns of Grant, Sherman and Meade, and how Lee, Johnston and Bragg strove to hold them back. Watch the Confederacy crumble, see where the main surrenders took place, and step into the Reconstruction era, when the tattered South was readmitted into a very different Union.



Were the British “Lions Led by Donkeys?”

August 18, 2015 with 1 Comment and Posted in World War I by

Going ‘Over the Top’

One of the most famous sayings to come out of the First World War was that the British infantrymen on the Western Front were “lions led donkeys.” It is an easy position to take. A cursory view will show you that the Allies were attacking the German trenches again and again over the same ground, losing thousands upon thousands of men for just yards of ground. It is one of the great tragedies in military history. The blame is often placed upon the British commanders, who are accused of stupidly wasting their men in frontal attacks because they could think of nothing better to do. The reality is more complicated.

The Western Front problem was not a simple nut to crack. The war in the west quickly turned into a stalemate, with trenches stretching from neutral Switzerland, through France and Belgium all the way to the English Channel. They could not be flanked, and simple frontal charges were clearly useless against trenches, barbed wire, machine guns, and modern artillery bombardments. As the war dragged on and the casusalty bills lengthened, many Allied leaders were concerned it was the generals’ fault. David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, wrote:

The Cabinet must regard themselves as trustees for the fine fellows that constitute our army. They are willing to face any dangers, and they do so without complaint, but they trust to the leaders of the nation to see that their lives are not needlessly thrown away, and that they are not sacrificed on mere gambles which are resorted to merely because those who are directing the War can think of nothing better to do with the men under their command. … A mere gamble would be both a folly and a crime.1

It is easy to underestimate the challanges that the Allies faced on the Western Front. The generals had spent long careers in the military, fighting and training with certain presuppositions in mind. World War One smashed many of those in just weeks, and they were having to relearn tatics and strategy while fighting the war.

British Morse Code Exchange

The idea that the Allies were doing the same thing over and over again is a gross simplification. Their tactics to break through the German lines were constantly evolving. As the weeks and months stretched on, they were learning how to use air reconnaissance, how to use artillery effectively, eventually resulting in the creeping bombardment, developing tanks and breaking down the infantry into specializations to operate more effectively. Unfortunately, all these things could not be developed without bloody trial and error. Thousands of men fell, but lessons were learned which could be applied to give the next attack a chance of success. By the end of the war, an assault on trenches looked far different than only a few years before.

German Trench during the Battle of the Somme

Another important aspect is that the German lines that they were attacking in 1914 were not the same as those in 1918. They were constantly improving their works, digging them deeper, adding further lines behind them, and developing new plans to counter a breakthrough. One set of Allied tactics that was bloodily defeated may have won great success a few months before, when the German defenses were weaker. When the Allies planned to make an attack, it would take weeks or months to prepare for tens of thousands of men to go over the front. The Western Front became a technological and tactical race for whether the assaults could get good enough to beat the constantly improving defensive works.

For these reasons, it is inappropriate to say that the heroic British soldiers were slaughtered en-masse by inept commanders. While there certainly were examples of incompetence, the Allied generals worked hard to overcome the difficult and constantly changing challenges that they faced.

1The Great War, by Peter Hart p. 352

Canada’s Northumberland Fusiliers at Thiepval

Ulrich Zwingli’s Death at Kappel

August 11, 2015 with 1 Comment and Posted in Reformation by

Panorama of Zurich. Full Size.

Ulrich Zwingli is typically remembered as a reformer, leading the city of Zurich during the Protestant Reformation. However, he was also a soldier and a statesman. He worked for much of his life to try bring the Protestants together in political unity to stand against the Catholic forces, which he saw as trying to destroy them. It was this aspect of his life that would lead him astray, eventually resulting in his death at the Battle of Kappel.

At that time, the country of Switzerland was a collection of various cantons, or states, formed into a loose federal union. With the arrival of the Reformation, some of these cantons converted to Protestantism, while the rest remained Catholic. This soon became a point of political division within the country. In 1524 the five Catholic cantons of Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Zug formed an alliance called the Five States or the Five Cantons. With encouragement from Zwingli, the Protestant cantons reacted by forming their own Christian Civic Union, made up of Zurich, Constance, Berne, Basel, and other smaller cities. Tensions quickly escalated, and the Five Cantons formed an alliance with Catholic Austria. The Catholic states promised the death penalty to anyone who started a new sect not authorized by the church, and Austria promised to support them with the sword.


At this point Switzerland was tottering on the brink of religious division. In 1529 they almost resorted to fighting in the First Kappel War. Jacques Keyser, a pastor from just outside Zurich, was captured by the Catholics and burned alive for heresy. Zwingli urged for war to avenge his death, and to force the Catholics to allow the free preaching of the gospel. He wrote a pamphlet in which he said:

Let us be firm, and fear not to take up arms. This peace, which some desire so much, is not peace, but war: while the war that we call for is not war, but peace. We thirst for no man’s blood, but we will clip the wings of the oligarchy. If we shun it, the truth of the Gospel and the minsters’ lives will never be secure among us. … Undoubtedly, we must trust in God alone; but when He gives us a just cause, we must also know how to defend it, like Joshua and Gideon, shed blood in behalf of our country and our God.

The Catholics and Protestants both raised armies and marched towards each other, meeting at Kappel, on the border between the cantons of Zug and Zurich. But before a battle began, the Federal Diet was successful in negotiating peace. It was agreed that each city would decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant, and liberty of conscience, though not liberty of preaching, would be guaranteed everywhere. Zwingli protested that the agreement resolved little, and that it just gave the Catholics time to strengthen themselves to crush the Reformation. However, he was ignored, and the First Kappel War was concluded without bloodshed.

Ulrich Zwingli

Zwingli continued to be worried about the future of Protestantism. He saw powerful Catholic forces marshalling to destroy them. The Holy Roman Empire and other Catholic nations had far greater military resources than the scattered Protestant states in Germany and Switzerland. He believed that Charles, the Holy Roman Emporer, was both working to increase his power over the German nobility and crush the Reformation. He saw Charles as a tyrant, and believed that Christians had the responsibility to resist him. He wrote:

A single individual must not take it into his head to dethrone a tyrant; this would be a revolt, and the kingdom of God commands peace, righteousness and joy. But if a whole people with common accord, or if the majority at least reject him, without committing any excess, it is God himself who acts.

This doctrine of resisting tyranny was part of the Swiss Reformation theology, and it can be traced through Calvin’s Geneva, Knox’s Scotland and Cromwell’s England, to the establishment of the United States of America in our War for Independence.

Federal Diet of Switzerland in 1531

As Zwingli worked for unity, he began to compromise. At this time France was Catholic, and the same government persecuted Christians. However, they were enemies of Emperor Charles for political reasons, and Zwingli wrote to try to get them to unite with the Protestants. He was pragmatically looking for protection through the French military and resources, rather than maintaining Biblical principles of not uniting with non-Christians and trusting God for protection.

Tensions were still hot in Switzerland. Zwingli and the other Zurichers believed that action had to be taken about the Catholics before they strengthened their position. In a meeting on May 12th, 1531 they could not convince the other Protestants to resort to violence. Instead they decided to put a trade embargo on the Catholic cantons, and stop them from importing any food. They did not have the Biblical grounds to begin a just war, so they incited one by trying to starve the Catholics. This was the worst of both worlds. Unless the situations could be resolved with negotiating, they would be giving the Catholics a just cause to make war to feed their families, without having the advantage of being the first to strike.

Grossmuster in Zurich, Zwingli’s Church

Zwingli did not agree with this decision, and preached sermons in his church calling for greater action. But instead of calling people to repentance, he was urging them to begin an unjust war for pragmatically political reasons. This was not well received by the people of Zurich. The blockade was unpopular, and Zwingli was losing much of his influence. He told them:

I see that the most faithful warnings cannot save you; you will not punish the pensioners of the foreigner. [That is the Catholics, who unified with Austria] … A chain is prepared … it unrolls link after link, – soon will they bind me to it, and more than one pious Zuricher with me …. It is against me they are enraged! I am ready; I submit to the Lord’s will. But these people shall never be my masters…. As for thee, O Zurich, they will give thee thy reward; they will strike thee on the head. … But God will not the less preserve His World, and their haughtiness shall come to an end.

As the blockade took its effect, the Catholics began to feel the twangs of famine. With no food for their families, their men prepared for war. Their armies gathered at Lucerne, and the passes were guarded to prevent word from reaching Zurich. Some warnings did get through, but they were ignored.

Statue of Zwingli in Zurich. Notice that he is depicted holding a sword.

Finally on October 9th, with the soldiers of the Five Cantons already on the march, the council of Zurich realized their danger. With no time for troops from other cities to reinforce them, and with the city in disorder, they gathered what troops they could to resist the invasion. Some 2,000 men reached Kappel, where the Catholic army had camped. Zwingli marched at the back of the army as a chaplain, armed as was traditional with a sword and halberd. He believed that he was destined to die in the coming battle, and was prepared to meet his fate.

As the Catholics advanced towards the Protestant position on October 11, 1531, they began by sending out a formal declaration of war. The Zurichers’ position was weak. They were outnumbered and their position did not allow them to easily retreat. “It is now too late to retire with honor,” one said. “This day is in the hands of God. Let us suffer whatever He lays upon us.” They had adopted an unbiblical fatalistic view. They believed that God had ordained for them to be defeated, so they hastened to fight the battle without using wisdom to have a chance at victory. They should have retreated from the bad position at Kappel and tried to rally more of their men. There was a time to stand when the cause seemed hopeless, but that would be on the walls of Zurich, not on the border. This mistake sowed the seeds for their defeat.

At 1 pm an artillery barrage began. At the time cannons were not very effective, and the firing stretched out for most of the afternoon. This allowed more reinforcements to arrive from Zurich, including Zwingli himself. As they approached the field, he said:

How can we stay calmly upon these heights, while we hear the shots that are fired at our fellow-citizens? In the name of God I will march towards my brother warriors, prepared to die in order to save them.

As afternoon turned into evening, the Catholic commanders planned to make camp for the night without attacking the army of Zurich. However, John Jauch of Uri found a grove of beech trees that allowed his musketeers to approach close to the Protestant lines. His men opened fire with their Arquebuses and hit some of the Zurichers. The Protestants were ordered to charge. “Warriors!” Zwingli exhorted them, “Fear nothing. If we are this day to be defeated, still our cause is good. Commend yourselves to God!”

1548 depiction of the Battle of Kappel

The Protestants drove the Catholics out of the grove of trees, but the rest of the Catholic army took the opportunity to advance and catch the Protestants unawares. As the armies joined, word spread among the Zurichers that they were surrounded. No doubt this was assisted by the dour and fatalistic predictions that had been made that God had planned for their defeat. Fear spread through their ranks, and they began to flee from the field, crying that they were betrayed. The Zurichers suffered heavy losses, 561 were killed, including 7 members of the small city council, 19 members of the Council of Two Hundred, and 25 Protestant pastors.

Zwingli was one of those soldiers who was killed. As the story is recorded, he was bending down to console a dying soldier when he was struck on the head. Four times he tried to rise, and four times he was again wounded. “What matters this misfortune?” he murmured, as he lay dying under a pear tree, “They may indeed kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul!” With the battle won, some Catholics roamed the battlefield torturing the wounded to force them to call for help from the saints. By this time Zwingli was unable to speak, but he shook his head, refusing to confess to a priest. One Captain finally recognized him, and ran him through the throat with the cry of “Die obstinate heretic!” The Catholics later held a mock trial for heresy, found him guilty of treason, and quartered and burnt his body.

Death of Zwingli

Not long after the Battle of Kappel, peace was concluded between the two sections, with both left to practice their own religion. Much can be learned from this defeat. The Protestants did not have just cause for war, yet they incited conflict with the Catholics by cutting off their food. Christians are called to give the hungry food and protect the fatherless, but at that time they were taking food from their enemies for political reasons. When war finally came, they had a healthy view of the sovereignty of God, acknowledging that He would control the outcome of the battle. But they misunderstood their responsibility. Believing that they understood what God’s will would be, they adopted a self-fulfilling fatalism that led them to fight in a bad position with a weak army and nurtured the fear that spread through their forces, leading them to their final defeat.

Memorial at Kappel today. Source.

Further Reading
Much of the source material for this post comes from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné. 

Can You Decipher the Inscription on this Medieval Sword?

August 6, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

The Battle of Crecy and the Providence of God

August 4, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

When most historians today analyze why a battle was won or lost, they focus on military matters – differences in weapon technology, positioning of the troops, mistakes of the generals, morale of the soldiers, and many other factors. And while those issues are important, they leave out a major aspect. Older historians, especially those in the Middle Ages, attributed victories to the Providence of God – that God was working out His plans in the world by doling out victory or defeat.

Battle of Crecy

One example of this is from the Battle of Crecy on August 26, 1346. With very heavy fighting, the English army under King Edward III defeated a vastly larger French force under King Philip. Today we can attribute the victory to the poor leadership on the French side and their rash and disordered charge, along with the professionalism of the English soldiers, and their effective use of the longbow. At the time, both sides recognized this victory as coming from God’s hand. The French attributed their defeat as from the hand of God for their pride and vanity, their greed in seeking better terms in negotiating with the English, and for their failure to launch a Crusade as they had promised to do.

King Edward III

At this point, King Edward’s confessor and chaplain was Thomas Bradwardine. He was present at the Battle of Crecy, and not long thereafter he preached a sermon before the king giving thanks for the victory. In his message, he systematically tore apart every argument that could be made to attribute the English’s success to anything but God. As he said, “[T]he grace of God makes us to conquer, and to triumph over adversaries … not a star, not luck, not fortune, not an accident, not an omen, especially not ourselves, but the grace of God in us.”

At the time, the church in Europe was Catholic. True Christians in the tradition of the early church were few and far between. However, Thomas Bradwardine was one of those. He was a leading scientist and diplomat, but most importantly a theologian. He was an Augustinian, and wrote against the Pelegians, who hold that men can be saved by good works. In his book entitled De causa Dei, he argued that most of the Catholic church at that time believed in a form of Pelegianism. This theological tradition continues today in Arminianism, which is just a diluted form of Pelegianism.

Bradwardine’s book Geometria Speculativa

Bradwardine was eventually made Archbishop of Canturberry, but not long thereafter he died, a victim of the black plague. He was one of the few Christians at the time who could be said to have sound theology. He believed in predestination, holding that grace was necessary for salvation. He said that the church fathers were fallible, and that scripture was the perfect standard. With this theology, he was one of the forerunners of the Reformation. Not long thereafter, John Wycliffe arrived on the scene. Bradwardine’s writings were an influence on him, and with Wycliffe the Protestant Reformation began in England, eventually transforming the entire world.

Battlefield Photography in the Civil War

August 3, 2015 with No Comments and Posted in Videos, Weekly Video by

We have all seen some of the amazing pictures that were taken on the battlefield during the Civil War. Who were the men who took this historic images? We talk with Rob Gibson of Gibson’s Photographic Gallery in Gettysburg, PA to answer these questions.