Erwin Rommel Part II: The Poison Chalice

Field-Marshal Rommel’s reputation for daring was undeniable but his ability as a Commander had been brought into question more than once. He had after all, never commanded large formations and had not served on the cauldron of the Eastern Front. He had also in the end failed to deliver victory in North Africa. Some suggested he’d had it easy and had been promoted beyond his capability. Yet he was to most Germans the ‘Desert Fox’ and their greatest living General and he returned to the country a national hero.

The fluid nature of the Desert War had provided opportunities for glory absent on other fronts and his exploits, a welcome distraction from the grim reality of the prolonged struggle to come, were propaganda gold.

As also was his oft-repeated maxim ‘war without hate’ and the apparent humanity with which he waged it. It had made him the ‘acceptable face of the Third Reich’ something that Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry sought to exploit to the maximum.

As such the need to protect his reputation was paramount, so much so that when with defeat looming he flew to Hitler’s Headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair to plead with him to withdraw the Afrika Korps to mainland Italy before it was too late, it was decided to withdraw him instead.

The Desert Fox he might be but he still wasn’t entirely trusted by the German High Command many of whom thought him rash, unpredictable and promoted ahead of those better qualified. He was also thought unsound by some within the Nazi hierarchy who aware that he he had never been a member of the party also resented his personal relationship with the Fuhrer.

Upon his return he was briefly considered for the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army but this was dismissed on the grounds he was a maverick and he was soon to find himself spending more time with his family than he might otherwise have expected.

He was then a hero without a role and there appeared little urgency on the part of his superiors to find him one.

Even so, the newsreels were rarely absent – the Desert Fox at home, the Desert Fox with the Fuhrer, the Desert Fox as Uncle Rommel with Magda Goebbels and her adorable children.

On 23 July 1943, he was appointed to command the army in Greece but was replaced just two days later, and in August was appointed Commander-in Chief in Italy but Hitler not liking his proposals for its defence soon replaced him with the Luftwaffe General Albert Kesselring, a long term critic of Rommel’s who also had the Fuhrer’s ear.

It was a deeply frustrating time and he complained bitterly to friends that he was being sidelined, that he was not being kept abreast of the military situation, and only learned of events from the newspapers.

In October 1943, he was visited at his home in Herlingen by his old friend Karl Strolin, the Mayor of Stuttgart, who informed him of the conditions in the Concentration Camps and the mass-killings of Jews. Like many others he refused to believe that such rumours could be true but with time on his hands it left him with much to ponder – were such unspeakable atrocities truly being committed in the name of the German Army? Could the Fuhrer possibly be aware of such things, perhaps even condone them?

With the war turning against Germany in the East and Allied intervention in the West imminent Rommel’s absence from command was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

This changed early in 1944, when he was given responsibility for overseeing the coastal fortifications of Western France, the place where any Allied Invasion Armada would be expected to land.

Portrayed as the first line of defence of the Third Reich and known as the Atlantic Wall, he soon discoverer it was no such thing.

Shocked by the neglect he found he threw himself into his new role with all the vigour and enthusiasm to be expected of Germany’s greatest General, though it was remarked by those who knew him well that he was a changed man. Not that the public would have guessed from the newsreels that relayed his frequent tours of inspection as the Desert Fox brimming with confidence and carrying his trademark Field Marshals baton became a familiar sight on German cinema screens.

Propaganda aside there was in truth much work to be done as he mined the beaches, ordered the construction of artillery emplacements, anti-tank traps, hundreds of concrete pill-boxes, and built concealed underwater obstacles.

But the Allies had gone to great lengths to mislead the German High Command into the location of the planned invasion convincing them that it would be the Pas-de-Calais, the shortest route across the Channel from England which was where much of the reconstruction work was concentrated – they would in fact come ashore further south, at Normandy.

Rommel was also at loggerheads with his immediate superior Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt over how best any defence should be conducted.

He believed that the invasion must be resisted at the point of contact on the beaches before the Allies could gain a foothold, and that the Panzer Divisions should be brought forward and prepared for an immediate counter-attack.

Von Rundstedt disagreed ordering the German Armour held in reserve for a defence in-depth.

At the same time as Rommel contemplated how best to resist the expected invasion when it came others were already seeking to end the war with the Western Powers by other means.

That there were those within the Officer Corps unhappy with Hitler’s conduct of the war was no secret, that some were seeking to remove him from power certainly was.

But who could be trusted and who could not was difficult and dangerous to ascertain, who might refuse to participate in the plot but also not betray them even more so.

Rommel’s personal relationship with Hitler made his support uncertain, but then he was also known to have had his differences with the Fuhrer.

Slowly he would be drawn into the plot but would not countenance Hitler’ murder. He must be brought before a Court of Law and stand trial for his crimes just like any other man. It was a clear indication of his political naivety.

He was to be disavowed of any such notion when he was subjected to one of the Fuhrer’s increasingly familiar paranoid, table-thumping tirades that saw him physically removed from his presence.

It wasn’t the first time that following a disagreement he had been ordered to leave but on previous occasions he had been invited back – not on this occasion.

Even now, Rommel was inclined to excuse the Fuhrer’s behaviour on the grounds that he was a man under great stress but in private with his confidence in Hitler already shaken by his sacrifice of the Afrika Korps and later the Sixth Army at Stalingrad he began to believe he was at the end of his tether, that he might even be losing his mind.

In private meetings he sounded out others regarding Hitler’s removal including Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt who despite his personal disdain for the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ remained uncommitted and refused to hear the details of any plot.

But then all German Officers had sworn an oath under God to serve not the State or the Constitution but the person of Adolf Hitler. It was an oath not easily broken moreover it was a treasonable act to do so and punishable by death.

The ‘July Plotters’, particularly those of the Kreisau Circle were mostly serving Officers of the old Prussian Aristocracy and retired or sidelined Senior Officers of the Wehrmacht and as an outsider Rommel was entirely trusted but he was the one man who all felt the people might willingly follow should Hitler be assassinated. Even so, any role for him in a post-Nazi regime remained vague.

In the meantime, he had a war to fight.

On 6 June 1944, the Allies came ashore at Normandy. In the days preceding the weather had been so inclement that the Germans had ruled out any immediate prospect of invasion and Rommel had returned home to be with his wife on her birthday. He returned at once only to find that the Atlantic Wall had proven unequal to the task and with the exception of hard fighting at Omaha Beach the Allies had met only token resistance and by nightfall with the beachheads secured 155,000 men with armoured support were already moving inland. They would be quickly reinforced.

Rommel again argued for the implementation of his plan to strike the Allies hard whilst they remained vulnerable. In a final heated exchange with Hitler at Margival in France on 17 June, the Fuhrer relented a little and released three Panzer Divisions to his command but without the total freedom to use them as he wished. It was in any case, too late.

The war in the West soon bogged down into a close-quarter infantry struggle that would not have been unfamiliar to veterans of the Great War just as Field Marshal von Rundstedt had predicted it would.

This was not the war of manoeuvre in which the Desert Fox excelled and denied the opportunity to use his Panzer’s as he wished due both to Allied air superiority and Hitler’s constant interference he became increasingly despondent. In such a struggle overwhelming Allied manpower and resources must inevitably prevail. He thought the war lost and more than once wrote to the Fuhrer declaring the army close to disintegration and pleading with him to bring the war in the West to an end – he received no reply.

On the evening of 17 July, not far from the ironically named town of St Foy de Montgomerie, Rommel’s staff car was strafed from the air by a marauding Spitfire and forced from the road; thrown from the car he sustained a fractured skull and shrapnel wounds to his body and face. In truth, he was lucky to be alive and after spending sometime in hospital he was sent home to recuperate.

Three days later on a visit to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair Headquarters in East Prussia, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase containing a bomb beneath the desk where Hitler was standing.

In such a windowless and confined space the impact of the explosion should have been devastating, that it wasn’t sealed the conspirator’s fate.

Although some were killed and others badly injured by a quirk of fate Hitler emerged badly shaken, his clothes torn, but otherwise unscathed. Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer had failed and over the following days those responsible would be hunted arrested and killed.

Rommel was not at first suspected of being involved in the plot but would soon be implicated by others among them General Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel who in custody repeatedly mumbled his name whilst delirious following a failed suicide attempt and Carl Goerdeler, the man nominated to replace Hitler as Chancellor who had drawn up a list of possible President’s of the new regime one of whom was Erwin Rommel.

It was Martin Bormann, the so-called ‘Brown Eminence’ who as Hitler’s personal secretary jealously guarded access to the Fuhrer who first brought Rommel’s involvement to his attention.

On scant evidence, Hitler was at first disinclined to believe him but with little support for Rommel from other quarters in particular Joseph Goebbels the man who had done more than any other to create the legend of the Desert Fox but had now abandoned him in fear of also becoming a victim of Bormann’s malicious intent, he was eventually persuaded.

Even so, he refused to believe that Rommel had been actively involved in the attempt to assassinate him but was willing to accept that he had been aware of the plot and had nothing to prevent it, and as such he was as guilty as those who had carried it out.

Recuperating at home with his family Rommel was unaware that he was already being tried in absentia by the Court of Military Honour (upon which sat both Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein) established to determine the guilt of serving Officers in the plot and whether or not they should face justice in the Peoples Court.

The prospect of the legendary Desert Fox being brought before the Peoples Court and its vituperative Chief Justice Roland Freisler was not only unpalatable to the Regime and the German High Command but the damage it might do to public morale was difficult to gauge. It needed to be avoided if at all possible.

On 14 October, as his house in Herlingen was being surrounded by a unit of SS a car drew up occupied by General Wilhelm Burgdorf and General Ernst Maisel along with a wreath a message of condolence attached signed, Adolf Hitler.

Burgdorf and Meisel, both of whom had been harsh critics of Rommel in the past, curtly but respectfully informed him that his complicity in the July Plot had already been proved and that he would face trial in the Peoples Court.

The Fuhrer however, cognisant of his devoted service to the Third Reich was willing to allow the Field Marshal the option available to an Officer and a gentleman, that is, to take his own life.

Rommel’s first instinct, as one might expect from a man whose career had been made from taking the fight to the enemy was to defend himself against his accusers. But it wasn’t that simple.

Were he convicted, as was certain then his family would be considered no less guilty than he and would suffer accordingly. Their property would be confiscated and they would face likely detention in a Concentration Camp.

Also, his staff guilty by association would be executed alongside him.

If he were to commit suicide and pre-empt the need for a trial then he would be accorded a State Funeral with full military honours. His rank, status, reputation, and pension would be assured, the safety of his family guaranteed on the word of the Fuhrer.

Regardless of the desire to clear his name the choice were obvious.

His son Manfred, then serving in an anti-aircraft battery (his father had earlier refused his request to enrol in the Waffen SS) described events:

At about twelve o’clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number plate stopped in front of our garden gate.

The only men in the house apart from my father, were his aide Captain Aldinger , a badly wounded war veteran, and myself.

Two generals, Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender, alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father’s permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room.

“So they are not going to arrest him,” I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. “Come outside with me,” he said in a tight voice. We went into my room.

“I have just had to tell your mother that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour. To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard but the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.

In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family. They will also leave my staff alone.”

“Do you believe it?” I interrupted. “Yes,” he replied. “I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.”
I tried again.

“Can’t we defend ourselves? He cut me off short.

“There’s no point,” he said.

“It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we’ve practically no ammunition.”

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, official statements declared, had died from complications resulting from injuries sustained whilst on active service.

His State Funeral which followed soon after, the centre-piece of which was a wreath sent by the Fuhrer, was filmed for propaganda purposes.

It was to be his final contribution to the regime he had served so loyally but latterly come to despair of and even hate.

Winston Churchill, the man who had so often been at the sharp end of the Desert Fox’s cunning was to pay his own and sincerely held tribute:

A splendid military gambler his ardour and daring inflicted grievous disasters upon us but he deserves the salute which I made him in the House of Commons in January 1942, when I said of him “we have a very daring and skillful opponent against us , and may I say across the havoc of war, a great General.”

He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant.

For this he paid the forfeit of his life.

Erwin Rommel Part One: The Desert Fox

By January 1942, the war in the Western Desert was not going well for the Allies, so much so that the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chastened by failure, felt compelled to address the House of Commons thus:

We have a very skilful and daring opponent against us, and may I say across the havoc of war, a very great General – what else matters than beating him?

It is unusual for an enemy to be praised in the midst of conflict but then Erwin Rommel was to be that rarity in war, a hero to both sides – but why?

As a soldier of audacity and daring he would fight as he put it a ‘war without hate’ who in a conflict of unparalleled brutality toward combatant and civilian alike that soon descended into one of murder and genocide victory on the battlefield remained his one and only priority.

Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was born in the town of Heidenheim in southern Germany on 15 November 1891, the son of a schoolteacher who though he had served in the army, which was compulsory) was not a military man; but in a Germany, which had only existed as a unified nation since 1871 and remained very much an extension of Prussia, a place that Voltaire had described as an army with a state, the military enjoyed an elevated status and so becoming a soldier was considered a good career move.

In 1909, aged 18, he enlisted in the 124th Infantry Regiment soon after enrolling For Officer Cadet Training School in Danzig.

Commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in January 1912, the young Rommel was excited to be a soldier and like many others greeted the declaration of war in August 1914 with enthusiasm. Here was the opportunity to put what he had learned into action, and of course it would all be over by Christmas.

The early months of the war on the Western Front were ones of mobility and manoeuvre where the opportunity to display initiative remained and Rommel, a Platoon Commander, took full advantage undertaking a series of daring flanking attacks which penetrating far beyond the enemy front-line brought him considerable success.

He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for his courage and belligerence in seeking out and attacking the enemy, something that would soon become his standard modus operandi often bewildering both enemy and ally alike.

In September 1914, the German plan to bring France quickly to heel was thwarted on the Marne and the Western Front quickly descended into stagnant trench warfare and Rommel, much to his relief, was transferred East where joining the Alpenkorps he continued to impress his superiors in the campaign against Rumania but it was to be in Italy on the Isonzo Front that he was to make his name.

On 24 October 1917, a combined German/Austro-Hungarian Force launched a massive assault on the Italian 2nd Army in and around the small town of Caporetto.

The Italians who had been relentlessly attacking the Austro-Hungarian positions on the River Isonzo for more than two years were taken completely by surprise, and though the flanks of their army held firm against the Austrians the centre of the line where the Germans spearheaded the attack simply collapsed.

Utilising recently developed infiltration tactics that saw specially trained Storm-trooper Units armed with grenades and flame throwers advance ahead of the main army the confusion they sowed was absolute and huge gaps in the line soon appeared as Italian resistance merely melted away.

Even without these new tactics the mere sight of Germans on the horizon was often enough to cause the Italians to panic, desert their posts, and surrender in droves. This was warfare to Rommel’s liking and as the Italian centre crumbled he took full advantage.

In a little over two days of fighting near Mount Matajur his company of just 150 men captured more than 9,000 Italians and 81 guns for the loss of just 6 men killed and 30 wounded; again, when he assaulted the town of Langarone he took a further 10,000 Italians prisoners with barely a shot being fired.

But such was the speed of the German advance (15 miles on the first day alone) they soon outstripped their lines of supply and communication and were further hampered by the vast amounts of materiel and prisoners taken, more 275,000 men in just a few weeks.

Reinforced by 11 French and British Divisions hastily despatched from the Western Front (some 100,000 men) the Italians after a long and humiliating retreat finally regrouped and established a new line on the River Piave, a mere 15 miles north of Venice.

The assault at Caporetto would eventually peter out but regardless of its failure, it had after all appeared likely at one point to knock Italy out of the war, Rommel, by now an ambitious career soldier was delighted with his personal contribution as also were his superiors who awarded him the Pour le Merite for his actions at Manjur.

He was also promoted to Captain, and transferred to the General Staff.

But his experiences at Caporetto left him with a life-long disdain for Italian soldiery, their willingness to surrender without a fight and then openly fraternise with their captors without any apparent sense of shame left him bewildered, even embarrassed.

In the Desert War to come his barely disguised contempt for the Italians who were now his ally would have serious consequences as he became over-reliant on the scant manpower and resources of the Afrika Korps.

Rommel, who had earlier married 17 year old Lucia Maria Mollin whilst on leave in Danzig despite having already fathered a child by another woman remained in the much reduced German Army at the end of the war where he shared in common with many of his fellow Officers bemusement that a conflict in which he had experienced only victory had ended in such abject defeat and a surrender that had seen Germany plunged into chaos and revolution.

By October 1920, he was in Stuttgart where as a Company Commander he helped quell civil unrest acting with moderation where others had been noted for their brutality. It was not work to his liking, he had never been interested in politics, and where some relished the opportunity to crush the ‘Reds’ he baulked somewhat at inflicting violence on his fellow Germans.

Promoted to Major, in 1929 he was appointed an instructor at the Military Academy in Dresden where with more time on his hands he wrote ‘Infantry Tactics’, the story of his experiences in the Great War and of the lessons learned with his strong advocacy of the offensive, of infiltration, of rapid deployment and swift and decisive action bringing him to the attention of another ex front-line soldier Adolf Hitler, who was impressed and possessed his own much-thumbed copy.

The admiration was mutual and Rommel was to display an almost child-like devotion to the person of the Fuhrer often writing in the most glowing terms to his wife Lucie of the man who had been sent by Providence to rescue Germany from the abyss:

He (Hitler) has been called by God to lead the German people up to the sun. He radiates a magnetic, hypnotic power.

When in January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor he wrote:

What a stroke of luck for Germany.

And in November 1938, following a failed assassination attempt:

It has only strengthened his will. It is a joy to see. The idea that it could have succeeded doesn’t bare thinking about.

Promoted to Colonel, Rommel was serving as Head of the Military Academy at Wiener when in October 1938, at Hitler’s personal request he was appointed to command the Fuhrer’s Escort Battalion.

To be charged with the protection of the Fuhrer, the man who had re-occupied the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, annexed the Sudentenland, had not just restored but expanded Germany’s pre-war borders, and would soon occupy Czechoslovakia, achievements that some were saying surpassed even those of Bismarck, was a very great honour indeed – now he was able to observe the great man close up.

But being responsible for the personal safety of the Fuhrer was to prove an impediment to ambition when in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Deeply frustrated by his inability to participate in the campaign he was determined not to miss out on the looming conflict in the West and he used his relationship with Hitler to lobby hard for the command of a Panzer Division.

He had no experience of armoured warfare and had never commanded beyond Battalion level and many of his colleagues were angered by his manipulation of the Fuhrer to secure a command over those who were better qualified to do so, particularly when he declined the opportunity to lead an Infantry Division.

His loyalty to the Fuhrer was to be rewarded however, and in February 1940 he was given command of the 7th Armoured Division.

The now General Erwin Rommel, whose last task had been to organise the victory parade through the streets of Warsaw now had command of an army, and a formidable army it was: 218 tanks, 2 Regiments of Infantry, a Motorcycle Battalion, a Battalion of Engineers, and an anti-Tank Regiment.

But could he lead it effectively?

On 10 May 1940, the German Army invaded the Low Countries but as the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force advanced into Belgium to meet the perceived threat the main thrust of the German attack, circumventing the Maginot Line defences, came through the heavily forested Ardennes Region of Eastern France.

Believing the Ardennes to be impassable to mechanised transport the French had subordinated it to a secondary front and left it weakly defended and so meeting little resistance the Armoured Divisions under the overall command of General Heinz Guderian made rapid progress and in the vanguard of the attack was Erwin Rommel and 7th Panzer.

Racing ahead at such breakneck speed that they were soon across the River Meuse and advancing on Sedan it was often difficult for his superiors to determine exactly where Rommel was and the 7th Panzer soon earned the nickname the Ghost Division – it was not necessarily a compliment.

Meeting little resistance on 17 May he took 10,000 prisoners for the loss of just 36 men – it was Caporetto all over again.

But Rommel worried his superiors as much as he impressed his subordinates. They believed his determination to maintain the momentum and not wait for infantry support left him vulnerable and that without proper reconnaissance he could be heading into a trap. Indeed, his haste could have contributed to Hitler’s notorious Halt Order of 24th May that provided the invaluable breathing space the British needed to evacuate its Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Rommel wasn’t permitted to resume his advance until 5 June and the implementation of Case Red, the second phase of the conquest of France.

Although resistance on the ground stiffened any fears of greater resolve amongst the French High Command were soon dispelled as the Panzers continued much as before cutting a swathe through the French countryside and often advancing as much as 50 miles a day.

By 10 June, 7th Panzer had reached the coast at Dieppe from where Rommel was ordered to advance of Cherbourg which surrendered just three days before the Armistice was signed on 22 June.

Yet again Rommel had enjoyed a good war and Hitler’s favourite General had proved himself worthy of the faith placed in him but not without criticism – it was said he was impatient, often more reckless than daring, did not always see the bigger picture, and had an ad hoc attitude to orders.

Some also considered his evident self-confidence to be little more than arrogance and often ill-founded and there would always be an element of mistrust even amongst those who were his admirers but his cavalier spirit would prove propaganda gold.

On 10 June 1940, to the cheers and wild enthusiasm of the thousands of his black shirted supporters gathered in the Square below Benito Mussolini, II Duce, declared war on Britain and France from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome:

People of Italy! To arms, show your spirit, your courage, your valour!

Italy had so far remained neutral in the conflict but believing Germany victory to be imminent he declared that he only needed a thousand Italian dead to be able to sit at the conference table and reap the spoils of war.

With much of central and western Europe already under German occupation Mussolini now eyed conquests of his own, namely the expansion of Italy’s Mediterranean and North African Empire.

Following the capitulation of France and with Britain apparently destined to do the same Mussolini hastily reinforced the Italian garrisons in Libya and Abyssinia in preparation for a two-pronged assault on British controlled Egypt.

The Italian Army in Abyssinia would soon become bogged down in an East African campaign that would result in its defeat and eventual surrender in April 1941, but regardless of events elsewhere the invasion of Egypt would go ahead.

On 9 September, 250,000 Italian troops in three great columns set off across Cyrenaica for Egypt making rapid progress as the 36,000 men of the British Western Desert Force confronting them had little choice but to beat a hasty retreat.

Despite huge numerical superiority the Italian Commander General Rodolfo Graziani, an ardent fascist who had earned the name ‘Butcher’ for his brutal suppression of rebellion in Libya doubted that his ill-equipped, half-trained, poorly motivated army could succeed and had already delayed the advance a number of weeks Yet unopposed in just four days they reached Sidi Barrani, 60 miles inside Egypt but still some 400 miles short of Cairo.

Here with his line of communications stretched and vulnerable to attack from the air he called a halt and ordered the building of numerous fortified camps where he waited allowing the British time to regroup and re-think their strategy.

In November 1940, under the command of General Richard O’Connor they counter-attacked.

The Italian camps had been built too far apart to offer each other any support and in the desert terrain it was easy for the British armour to go around and attack them from the rear.

This they did with startling success as what had been intended as little more than a reconnaissance in force with limited objectives turned into a full-scale offensive as out- manoeuvred and overrun the fortifications fell one-by-one with great rapidity and often little resistance in what resembled more mopping up operations than pitched battles.

By February 1941, with the Italians in full retreat the British had re- taken Sidi Barrani, Tobruk, Beda Fomme, Benghazi, and were advancing on Tripoli.

The Italian Tenth Army had been smashed in just three months of fighting with 5,700 troops killed and 133,298 taken prisoner along with 420 tanks and 845 guns.

At the cost of fewer than 2,000 casualties it seemed as if O’Connor was on the verge of chasing the Italians from North Africa altogether but Prime Minister Winston Churchill believing the war in the desert as good was won called off the offensive withdrawing troops and mechanised units for his planned campaign in Greece – a great triumph had become an opportunity lost.

Mussolini’s dream of Mare Nostrum, a great Italian Empire dominating the Mediterranean and a military victory to compare with any of his ally Adolf Hitler’s had been shattered and as he hastily reinforced what remained of the Tenth Army he pleaded with the Fuhrer to come to his support.

Hitler, who was unwilling to see his ally humiliated did indeed ride to his rescue and who was better equipped to fight a desert campaign than the master of mobile warfare, his favourite General, Erwin Rommel.

Rommel arrived in Tripoli on 12 February 1941, to take charge of the recently formed Panzer Armee Afrika, or Afrika Korps. He had not been the choice of the German High Command but Hitler’s alone, yet even with the Fuhrer’s endorsement it was intended that his freedom of action should be restricted and so he was made subordinate to Italian command, a decision which also went some way to restoring II Duce’s wounded pride.

But it was to prove less of an impediment than first thought in large part because he simply chose to ignore it.

Rommel’s Afrika Korps was by no means a large army, just two Divisions, some 45,000 men and 120 tanks, but then it was only intended that they should shore up the Italian Tenth Army and remain on the defensive.

There was little prospect of Rommel doing either and impatient as ever he was already planning for the campaign ahead ordering his tanks even as they were being unloaded onto the dockside to drive repeatedly around the block to deceive the prying eyes of British spies whilst instructing his Chief Engineer to build dozens of fake canvass tanks to fool aerial reconnaissance.

His Afrika Korps were already taking up position in the front-line even before their equipment had been fully disembarked and as ordered they made as much noise and kicked up as much dust as possible – British Intelligence reported large German formations heading east.

On 24 March, Rommel advanced into the Cyrenaican Desert totally wrong-footing the British who had not been expecting a major offensive for many months and stripped of three of their best Divisions for operations in Greece they were ill-equipped and even less prepared to meet one.

El-Agheila, Bardia, and Benghazi all quickly fell as mesmerised by the speed of the advance the British response was little less than shambolic. Desperately scrambling to avoid being surrounded and cut-off they abandoned not only vast quantities of supplies but any number of Senior Officers who were taken prisoner among them the now famous General O’Connor captured on 6 April by a Reconnaissance Group, or as German propaganda were to later claim, a Canteen Unit.

By the 11 April, when the British at last stabilised their line just beyond the Egyptian border only the port of Tobruk still held out.

A deep water port of strategic significance, Tobruk’s defences were formidable and its Australian garrison was able to repulse Rommel’s repeated attempts to storm it.

Although deeply frustrated by his failure to capture Tobruk, which nonetheless remained under siege, Rommel had achieved a victory beyond even his own expectations. In a little over three weeks he had recaptured all of the ground previously lost by the Italian Tenth Army.

It was a stunning success and the British were suitably stunned.

But Tobruk, now more than a hundred miles behind German lines and able to be re-supplied by sea posed a threat to Axis lines of communication that could not be ignored, neither could the so-called Desert Rats be dislodged, so Rommel had to commit much of his army to its continued investment which left him vulnerable elsewhere. Or, at least, it should have done.

The British Commander-in-Chief Middle East General Archibald Wavell certainly thought so and on 15 May launched Operation Brevity, a limited offensive designed to capture the strategically important Halfiya, soon to be renamed Hellfire, Pass.

After some initial success German counter-attacks soon recaptured all the ground lost and the offensive was cancelled after just one day.

Under pressure from the Government in London, Wavell was to try again.

Operation Battleaxe which began on 15 June was much more ambitious in its scope than its predecessor intended as it was to eject all Axis Forces from Eastern Cyrenaica thereby clearing a path to Tobruk and the relief of its garrison.

Believing they had numerical superiority, Churchill, if not Wavell, was confident of success but forewarned of the offensive Rommel had deployed his armour in advance.

Not for the last time a British campaign in the Western Desert was to be blighted by poor communication and coordination and this time it would be early failures that would undermine later success.

In response to the offensive Rommel adopted what would soon become a familiar tactic, as the British advanced his Panzer Mark IV’s would engage out of range their lightly armed Matilda and Crusader tanks which would race to close the distance. As they did so the Panzers retreated exposing the British armour to the full weight of his 88mm guns and heavy artillery whilst armoured cars and motorised Divisions moved to outflank the British position.

It was a tactic that Rommel used again and again and to great effect.

British and Allied troops often under fire it seemed from all directions and hampered by poor quality radios that were often barely audible if they worked at all, were often thrown into a state of confusion not knowing whether to advance, retreat, or simply remain where they were.

The fear of being out-flanked and surrounded was a constant and often led to unnecessary evacuation, premature flight, and the wasteful abandonment of equipment.

After three days of fighting Operation Battleaxe was called off having achieved none of its objectives, and it had been a costly failure. The British had lost over a thousand men and 96 tanks more than half of those deployed all of which were left abandoned where they lay.

The Germans, who lost only 12 tanks, retrieved those that could be repaired from the battlefield.

It was an example of the sloppiness that came to dominate British operations during the Desert War.
Churchill was bitterly disappointed by the failure of Operation Battleaxe, not only was it yet another morale sapping defeat but many of the tanks lost had been despatched from a Britain still under threat of invasion that they could ill-afford to lose.

General Wavell was fired as a result, and replaced with General Sir Claude Auchinleck.

The soon to be Desert Fox had twice been tested and had twice prevailed – but at least Tobruk still held out.

Following the fiasco of Operation Battleaxe there was a lull in the fighting as both sides reorganised for the coming campaign. Rommel flushed with success was eager to proceed with the capture of Tobruk but it was the British for whom re-supply was easier who struck first.

In August, Auchinleck appointed Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham to command the recently re-designated Eighth Army and prepare for a major offensive.

Operation Crusader which began on 18 November 1941 was intended to relieve Tobruk whilst also engaging and destroying the Axis armour.

It was felt that Rommel would commit his forces recklessly to maintain his stranglehold on Tobruk and so as the British engaged Axis forces elsewhere on the front and sought to outflank their defensive positions on the Egyptian border, 7th Armoured Division would clear a path and advance on the port.

Rommel took the bait and fought with his usual verve and determination but an operation that was intended to take full advantage of the element of surprise was once again bungled and soon became a confused and protracted struggle.

As the 7th Armoured Division closed in on Tobruk, Rommel attacked in force near Sidi Rezegh in what would be four days of the fiercest fighting seen anywhere during the Desert Campaign.

Making expert use of their 88mm guns the Afrika Korps took a terrible toll of the 22nd Armoured Brigade reducing it to the point where it ceased to be an effective fighting force yet despite being denuded of their armoured support the New Zealand Division and the 5th South African Brigade held their ground with the latter having to be quite literally overrun before its stubborn resistance was finally broken.

Yet again a British offensive appeared to have stalled and Cunningham displaying signs of losing his nerve repeatedly requested to be allowed to withdraw back to Egypt.

Auchinleck, despairing of his lack of resolve replaced him with Major-General Neil Ritchie.

Flushed with his success at Sidi Razegh, and perhaps again not seeing the bigger picture, Rommel now seized the opportunity to attack the British defences before Egypt in what became known as the ‘Dash for the Wire.’

Ritchie allowed the Axis forces to pass subjecting them to artillery bombardment and constant attack by the Desert Air Force whilst severing their lines of communication and supply. Frustrated by the delaying tactics, short of ammunition, and forced to abandon precious tanks for a lack of fuel Rommel had little choice but to order a general withdrawal.

The Desert Fox had over-reached himself and his reckless pursuit of outright victory resulted in the relief of Tobruk on 27 November and a retreat all the way back to his starting point at El-Agheila the previous March.

But despite his losses it had been an orderly withdrawal and his army remained intact.

Operation Crusader had succeeded where it had appeared destined to fail so it was a victory of sorts, and the relief of Tobruk was joyously received, but the Desert Campaign remained far from over.

On 21 January 1942, Rommel briefly counter-attacked recapturing Benghazi but there he halted.

Both Axis and Allied forces were exhausted and depleted of supplies but they both intended to resume the offensive as soon as possible – it was Rommel who struck first.

On 26 May, he assaulted the British positions in and around the town of Gazala in a diversionary attack whilst he mobilised the bulk of his army to turn the enemy’s left flank. The British response was confused and hesitant as they counter-attacked in some places whilst withdrawing in others allowing the ever elusive Rommel the opportunity to isolate British formations and destroy them piecemeal.

With no armoured reserve there were times when a British counter-attack appeared about to derail the German offensive but Rommel would not be deflected from his course of action and a lack of coordination and strategic purpose would see them come to nothing.

On 28 May, Rommel had to temporarily halt the offensive due to a shortage of oil and had to await re-supply but the British proved incapable of seizing back the initiative. Two days later he resumed the offensive and was soon besieging the fortress of Bir Hacheim on the far-left of the Allied line whilst sending forces to probe north in the direction of Tobruk.

The British fearing encirclement began to hastily withdraw.

Bir Hacheim was defended by Free French Forces many of them Foreign Legion and Colonial Troops from Equatorial Africa.

Out-numbered almost ten-to-one the French were expected to surrender but in fact held out for over a week not finally abandoning their positions until 10 June.

The stout defence at Bir Hacheim had provided invaluable breathing space to Auchinleck who had replaced Ritchie and taken personal command. He now retreated 100 miles to the Railway Halt at El Alamein, a withdrawal he was able to make in some semblance of good order.

On 21 June, Tobruk which had previously withstood a nine month siege and had become a symbol of British resistance during the dark days of the Blitz and military failure elsewhere fell in just 24 hours.

Although it had remained well-garrisoned its defences had been neglected and fallen into disrepair and there had also been some confusion as to whether the port should continue to be defended at all, but a humiliating capitulation had certainly not been the intention.

Despite some units managing to escape into the desert during the night some 36,000 prisoners were taken amongst them a third of South Africa’s entire army along with stores aplenty.

Despondency overwhelmed the Allied camp and Churchill who was in Washington for a meeting with President Roosevelt received the news with disbelief, and plunged into despair had to be comforted by the President as he bemoaned the incompetence of his Commanders and the fighting spirit of his troops – these were not the men of 1914.

The capture of Tobruk was the crowning moment of Rommel’s military career and the machinery of Joseph Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry whirred with excitement.

Stating that the capture of Tobruk was his personal gift to the Fuhrer the Desert Fox was flown to Germany where attending a ceremony in Berlin he was promoted and awarded his Field Marshal’s baton by Hitler in person as the cameras rolled and the images flashed around the world.

The legend of the Desert Fox was cemented in the popular imagination by his capture of Tobruk but it wasn’t just his success in time-and-again denying the odds to thwart and defeat a superior enemy but the manner in which he conducted the campaign so removed as it was from the brutality of the Eastern Front.

Atrocities if there were any were few and prisoners generally well-treated. Indeed, Rommel insisted they should receive the same rations as he and often visited their places of internment to check on conditions. He also refused to implement Hitler’s notorious Commando Order which demanded that they be shot if captured and similarly he would not execute captured Jewish soldiers or hand them over to the SS.

He would adhere to his dictum of ‘war without hate’ and too many who fought in the Desert Campaign it was the last honourable war, if indeed there can be such a thing.

It was not just his speed of thought and deed such as adapting the 88mm anti-aircraft gun for use against enemy armour making it the most feared weapon of the Desert War and deploying his mobile forces in such a way as to constantly confuse and confound an always superior opponent, his, some would say, inflated military genius, but his common decency that made him a hero to both sides something which German propaganda was eager to exploit and did so unremittingly and to great success – he was the acceptable face of the Third Reich.

His victories were also a welcome distraction from the increasingly intensive bombing of German cities, the grim reality of the Eastern Front, and a growing awareness that this was to be a prolonged struggle seemingly without end.

Churchill suspected that an admiration for Rommel had infected his own army which no longer had the sufficient will to resist him. It was not a groundless fear.

By the end of June the Axis positions were just 66 miles from Alexandria and Rommel, so often criticised for spending too much time at the front and treating every battle as if it was being fought in his own backyard now had a strategic vision of his own. If he could breakthrough at El Alamein then surely the Suez Canal would be taken, Egypt would fall, the oil fields of the Middle-East would be laid bare, and he could advance to link up with German forces in the Caucasus.

But it was not a vision shared by the Fuhrer who still saw the Desert Campaign as primarily a holding operation and he would not divert forces from the Eastern Front to the Afrika Korps despite often vague and unfulfilled promises to do so.

El Alamein stood at the apex of a bottleneck with the sea to a north and the Quattara Depression, a vast area of sand dunes and salt marshes impassable to motorised transport, to the south. It meant that the British defences could not be outflanked and that for Rommel to succeed he would have to force a way through.

Nonetheless, Mussolini believing victory imminent flew to Tripoli, his best uniform packed, determined to share the moment and no doubt claim the credit.

In the meantime, General Auchinleck issued a directive to his Senior Commanders stating that Rommel was neither a superman nor invincible, should not be thought of as such, and that this should be relayed to the men as soon as possible.

Rommel’s victory at Gazala had sent shock-waves through British Headquarters in Cairo where in an atmosphere of panic and fearing the Desert Fox’s imminent arrival confidential documents were burned and preparations made for a hasty withdrawal.

The narrowness of the front Auchinleck believed provided hi m with the opportunity to dictate the course of the battle by creating defensive boxes that would funnel the Axis armour into confined spaces where it could be destroyed.

He declared that he would halt Rommel at Alamein and even turn the tide of the campaign but it was not a view widely shared.

Rommel began his offensive on 1 July.

Yet again he was outnumbered almost 2 to 1 in both men and armour yet sensing the British were at breaking point he remained confident of victory but the terrain was not in his favour. Under clear blue skies and in open desert his columns were particularly vulnerable to attack from the Desert Air Force which despite frantic efforts to kick up dust and make smoke bombed and strafed incessantly taking a terrible toll.

Despite repeated attempts to cut the coast road, to isolate and destroy British positions, and tempt them by a series of feints to leave their defences, he could make little headway and having fought his army to the point of exhaustion was forced to withdraw.

Here was yet another opportunity for a British Commander to seize the initiative and claim a decisive victory but when the counter-attack came it once more foundered on poor coordination and muddled thinking.

Even so, the Rommel myth had been dented and Egypt saved.

Auchinleck’s victory at what would become known as the First Battle of El Alamein did not sufficiently restore his reputation enough to secure his job and in August he was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by General Sir Harold Alexander whilst the recently promoted Lieutenant-General William Gott was appointed to command Eighth Army. When Gott was killed in a plane crash a few days later General Bernard Law Montgomery was hastily summoned to replace him.

Montgomery, or Monty as he was soon to become known, had been a Battalion Commander on the Western Front in the Great War and had played a prominent role during the retreat to Dunkirk in May, 1940.

A prickly character who was often in dispute with his superiors he was nonetheless the consummate professional who may have lacked his German opponents daring but none of his self-confidence and firmly believed that given sufficient manpower and resources he could defeat Rommel, and he wasn’t shy in saying so:

Give me a fortnight and I can resist the German attack. Give me three weeks and I can defeat the Bosch. Give me a month and I will chase him out of Africa.

Indeed, such was his self-belief that even the often despondent Churchill was impressed.

He did not fear the Desert Fox he said, but he did respect him enough to have his photograph hanging in his trailer.

But he would not be rushed and nothing would be left to chance.

First he would restore the morale of the Eighth Army and retrain its soldiers for the fight to come; and with his distinctive high-pitched, cut-glass accent and trademark headwear he was to prove no less inspirational to his troops than Rommel was to his Afrika Korps.

Rommel, eager to test this new British Commander determined to turn the Allied left flank and then push onto the Suez Canal but informed of his intentions from Ultra decrypts Montgomery withdrew five miles and took up position on the more defensible Alam Halfa Ridge.

Here troops dug-in, mines were laid and he had his tanks buried up to their turrets in sand to be used as artillery only. This would be a defensive battle and Montgomery had ordered that there would be no withdrawal, and he remained no less determined that there would be no advance.

Rommel attacked on 30 August and maintained the offensive for a week but Montgomery would not be drawn and unable to dislodge the British and force a breakthrough he had little option but to withdraw to the Cauldron, a defensive position behind a dense minefield.

Despite his failure at Alam Halfa, Rommel remained confident that he had the measure of his opponent who had shown himself no less timid and cautious than his predecessors but for the first time in private he expressed doubts that he could ever achieve outright victory.

Montgomery was immediately put under pressure from both Churchill and Alexander to exploit his victory but refused to be diverted from preparations for his own planned offensive.

Leading a polyglot force of British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Free French, Polish, and Greek troops he understood well the limitations of a Citizen Army, those who had not been raised in an atmosphere of militarism or educated to belief in notions of racial superiority and a fanatical devotion to one man; nonetheless he believed that well-trained, adequately resourced, properly led, and made aware of the cause for which they were fighting they could still prevail.

Prior to the battle Monty addressed the troops:

The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history, it will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the whole world will be upon us anxiously watching which way the battle will swing? We can give them their answer at once – it will swing our way.

Montgomery had prepared well and had built up his forces enough to obtain a clear supremacy in manpower, armour, and in the air. He had 195,000 men under his command, 1,029 tanks, and a Desert Air Force recently reinforced by an additional 4 Squadrons of American Mitchell Bombers.

Rommel could call upon 105,000 men (55,000 of whom were Italian) and 547 tanks (fewer than half of which were Panzers) along with Luftwaffe support. Outnumbered though they may have been they were well dug-in behind reams of barbed wire and more than 500,000 land mines.

At 21.40 on 23 October 1942, 882 guns opened up on the Axis forward positions with a roar that shook the ground and lit up the dark desert sky.

Under the cover of a thunderous bombardment Operation Lightfoot began as thousands of Sappers moved forward in the gloom to clear a path through the minefields for the armour to follow.

As the greatest land battle of the Western Desert Campaign began Rommel was far away at home recuperating from exhaustion and a bout of ill-health.

On 24 October, whilst on an inspection of the front-line General Georg Stumme, in temporary charge of the Afrika Korps dropped dead of an apparent heart attack, when Rommel returned the following day he was furious with Stumme’s replacement General von Thoma for not having already ordered a counter-attack.

Quickly assessing the situation Rommel found that his Italian Divisions had been particularly badly mauled and his armour severely reduced by aerial bombardment. He could not therefore order a general offensive across the line but he would attack where he could.

A lack of fuel would ensure that his aggressive response would meet with only limited success but the British offensive would stall nonetheless.

In London Churchill despaired:

Do I even possess a General who can win a battle?

Montgomery certainly believed so and was determined that the fighting should not descend into a stalemate even so maintaining the momentum was proving difficult, but the odds remained firmly in his favour.

When on 28 October, two Panzer Divisions with infantry support attacked the centre and left of the Allied line they clashed with British armour resuming the offensive and a struggle ensued, that saw the Germans repulsed with heavy losses.

It was fighting that Rommel could ill-afford – he wrote to his wife:

For the first time in my life I did not know what to do.

With inevitable defeat looming Rommel contacted German Headquarters requesting permission to withdraw. The response he received left him bewildered – he was to remain where he was and fight to the last man. In disbelief, he asked for the order to be repeated. It was, and it had come direct from the Fuhrer.

The order made no military sense whatsoever yet for two days he dithered at great cost to his army as the fighting intensified before unwilling to sacrifice the Afrika Korps, and with just 35 tanks remaining, on 4 November he ordered a general retreat.

His faith in the Fuhrer had been severely shaken.

As the Afrika Korps retreated it commandeered much of the mechanised transport of its Italian allies literally kicking from the vehicles those who tried to hitch a lift.

Although their performance had improved under his command and some units had fought very well indeed their earlier humiliations were not easily forgotten either by themselves or by the Commander of the Afrika Korps who remained largely scornful of the Italian element of his army and their overall contribution.

Armed with inferior equipment, poorly led, and often denied fuel and supplies demoralisation was rife and remained a constant whether garnered by success or failure.

Yet these troops, who had borne much of the brunt of the attack at El Alamein, would be the ones now sacrificed – of the 35,000 Axis prisoners taken almost all were Italian.

Indeed, the disciplined withdrawal of the Afrika Korps contrasted sharply with the shambles of their ally and many Italian soldiers were to complain bitterly of the lack of leadership from their own Officers many of whom simply abandoned them as their retreat descended into chaos.

Assisted by poor weather which grounded much of the Allied Air Force, a series of well directed delaying actions, and Montgomery’s own caution the Afrika Korps was able to extricate itself intact avoiding the rout that had seemed inevitable, but the retreat was to be a long and painful one.

Informed by Alexander that the Afrika Korps was beaten and Rommel was in full-flight Churchill ordered that Church bells be rung throughout Britain. After three years of desperate struggle for the first and only time in the war a British Army had comprehensively defeated a German one on the field of battle.

On 10 November, Churchill addressed the House of Commons:

General Montgomery has gained a glorious and decisive victory . . . Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Two days earlier, as part of the American led Operation Torch, Allied troops landed in Vichy French held Morocco and Algeria and already pursued by the British in the East Rommel was now threatened by the Americans advancing from the West.

The end appeared to be in sight but the Allied advance was sluggish and poorly co-ordinated and despite a retreat of more than 2,000 miles and the hasty abandonment of Tripoli, Rommel was still able to win the race to Tunisia and thwart the Allied attempt to sever his line of retreat – and he wasn’t finished yet.

On 19 February 1943, he turned on his pursuers halting the United States II Corps at the Battle of Sidi-Zou-Bid before luring them into the Kassarine Pass where adopting the tactics that had worked so effectively against the British earlier in the campaign he drew the American armour onto his 88mm guns and destroyed it. Only a hasty and undignified retreat prevented a rout.

It was a harsh lesson in desert warfare for the tactically inept still raw and not yet battle-hardened Americans but one they quickly learned.

But without the resources to fully exploit his victory it also served as a lesson for Rommel too, that much like Napoleon Bonaparte more than a hundred years before no amount of battlefield genius can overcome overwhelming odds in a sustained campaign.

On 6 March, he turned his attention on the British but there were few tricks left in his locker that Montgomery wasn’t aware of and with the British remaining on the defensive the two day Battle of Medenine was yet another attritional struggle fought to no good purpose which the increasingly beleaguered Desert Fox could no longer afford.

In truth, Rommel knew that the Desert War was lost and repeatedly pleaded with Hitler to withdraw the Afrika Korps to mainland Italy before it was too late.

Ironically, it was only now on the cusp of defeat that Hitler began to take the conflict in North Africa seriously and begin to send the reinforcements that earlier in the campaign might have proved decisive for he now saw an opportunity to turn Tunisia into a fortress that would bog down the Americans in a long and bloody siege that would both sap their enthusiasm for the fight and prevent them from intervening elsewhere.

But Rommel would have no further role to play in the Fuhrer’s latest strategic master-plan and was ordered home on 9 March to be replaced by his subordinate General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim.

The Desert Fox would be spared the humiliation of defeat.

The fighting in Tunisia was to continue for a further two months but it unable to adequately supply such a large force across a Mediterranean swarming with Allied plane, surface vessels, and submarines it had become in effect little more than a giant self-imposed internment camp.

The formal surrender of all Axis Forces in North Africa was accepted on 12 May, 1943. In total, some 275,000 prisoners were taken of which 130,000 were German along with all their tanks, artillery, and war materiel.

It was a defeat greater in scale than that suffered by the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and Hitler’s decision to reinforce rather than withdraw his army in North Africa was one of the great strategic blunders of the war.

But the fact that Rommel was not present at the denouement only enhanced his reputation viewed as it was through the prism of his successors defeat.

Harris’s List: Prostitutes and Pimps of Old London Town

By the latter half of the eighteenth century London was the commercial and financial centre of the world, a city teeming with more than a million souls which lay at the heart of a burgeoning Empire. It was the place to be seen and to make one’s fame and fortune; but it was also Hogarth’s London, a cauldron of death and disease, of crumbling buildings and drunken licentiousness, a den of thievery and hucksterism. It was the London of Gin Lane and the Harlot’s Progress, of Mary Hackett, soon to be Moll Hackabout, the innocent country girl debauched by drink who sold her body contracted syphilis and was dead at 24.

But if money was its religion then sex provided its sin, and if the former could be hard to come by the latter was always readily available.

Men seeking sexual satisfaction outside of the marriage bed was nothing new and the world’s oldest profession provided the means to do so and perhaps as many as 25% of women in the city sold their bodies at one time or another to make ends meet, and there were at least 10,000 plying their trade at any one time.

Harris’s List, published between 1757 and 1795 was a Directory of supposedly ‘respectable prostitutes’ then, working in Covent Garden and the streets thereabout.

Covent Garden was the pleasure dome of London and a beehive to the wealthy young men of the city, and those of greater vintage but no less ambition, and its reputation for hedonism spread far and wide.

Giacomo Casanova, who knew a thing or two about such things, wrote of Covent Garden that it provided – a wonderful debauch.

James Boswell, the noted biographer of Dr Johnson, was impressed by the variety of entertainment on offer and indeed its value for money – from the splendid Madame at 50 guineas a night to the civil nymph who could be had for a pint of wine and a shilling.

A Directory of London’s prostitutes was not a new phenomenon – taking advantage of the demise of the Commonwealth and the return of dynastic politics in the figure of King Charles II, the so-called Merry Monarch, in 1660 The Wandering Whore was published but despite the fact it declared itself to be a warning not an incitement – the Exquisite Whore and the Pimping Hectors were to be avoided – the hostility of previously puritanical London saw it last only five editions.

Another forerunner of Harris’s List was ‘Kind Women, and Others of the Linen Lifting Tribe.’

Published in 1691, it was less reticent than its predecessor and described in detail those who were for sale:

Mary Holland is tall, graceful, and comely; shy of her favours but open to persuasion for a fee of around ten pounds.

This was indeed expensive and beyond the means of most and so the magazine went on to say that her sister Elizabeth was indifferent to money and a good supper and two shillings would suffice.

Harris’s List was to adopt a similar tone and format providing more than a simple directory of names but also helpful descriptions of the prostitutes themselves – how they looked, their personal merits, their specialities, and their price.

The List could be quite provocative in its prose and would prove pornographic in its use with a much-thumbed copy greatly sought after by those unable to enjoy the delicacies on offer but desirous of a similarly pleasurable effect:

The charms of Miss Conway of 50 Sloane Square were described thus:

She has so many enchanting graces, that they are quite irresistible. It is impossible to withstand the artillery of her eyes, as the winged lighting of her hair, her lips, her everything, are so transporting, charming, as to fill every beholder with rapture.

The 1788 entry for Mrs Dodd of 6 Hind Court, Fleet Street adopted a different approach:

Reared on two pillars of alabaster, the symmetry of its parts, its borders enriched with wavering tendris, its ruby portals, and the tufted grove that crowns the summit of the mount, all join to invite the guest to enter.

The same year Miss Davenport’s entry read:

Her teeth are remarkably fine, she is tall, and so well proportioned when you examine her full naked figure, which she will permit you to do.

Miss Chicamp of 2 York Street:

One of the finest fattest figures, as fully finished for fun and frolic as fertile fortune ever formed.

All sexual persuasions were catered for in Covent Garden and it was said that if a woman seemed unusually tall and wore too much makeup then the likelihood was they were a man, not that male prostitutes ever appeared in the List for sex between men remained the sin that dare not speak its name. It was not so for women, even if the later Victorians would refuse to formally acknowledge the existence of lesbianism it remained in the public imagination to be a higher form of love, and so it was in Harrison’s List:

Miss Wilson of Cavendish Square:

As a female bed-fellow can give more real joys for a woman than ever she experienced with the male part of the sex.

Anne Redshawe:

She will always provide a discreet service for those ‘women of the highest keeping.’

Harris’s List would often boast of Covent Garden’s high profile clients among them the leading Whig politician Charles James Fox, the author Horace Walpole, and nobility such as Augustus I of Hanover; and it would wax lyrical about such encounters as for example with this 1764 entry for the supposed visit to Miss Wilmot of King George III’s brother Edward, Duke of York:

He gazed upon her for a while with eyes of transport and fondness, and gave her a world of kisses, at the close of which in a pretended struggle, she contrived matters so artfully that the bed-clothes have fallen off her naked beauties lay exposed at full-length. The snowy orbs on her breasts by their frequent rising and falling by beat Cupid’s alarm drum to storm instantly, in case an immediate surrender should be refused. The coral-lipped mouth of love seemed with kind movements to invite, nay to provoke and attack, while her sighs, and eyes half-closed, denoted that no farther resistance was intended. What followed may be better imagined then described.

They did of course frequent the salons and parlours of women who considered themselves courtesans in the French model who sold more than sex satisfying the lustful nature of both mind and body.

Some would marry their clients, for example Harriet Powell wed the Earl of Seaforth whilst Kitty Fisher who married Sir John Norris was a favourite model of the Court painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and became somewhat of a celebrity.

Fetishes were also catered for:

The Miss Bryan and Smith Sisters, 7 Windmill Street:

Miss Bryan is tall and thin, her complexion is dark, her sister Miss Smith is plump and fair; the ladies have seen their thirtieth but are still agreeable pieces for the winter season to those not over nice about delicacy both being illiterate and dedicated to swearing; it is said they are both dexterous in the use of the birch and rod; the price of these lecherous girls varies very much, but half a guinea is always acceptable.

But not all entries were complimentary indicating that some had been shy of paying for the emollient words of a favourable biography:

Miss Berry was almost rotten and her breath cadaverous.

Miss Jenny Kirkbeard had a violent attachment to drinking.

Miss Dean exhibited great indifference whilst entertaining her client cracking nuts as he acted his joys.

The List also provided insight into the racial and religious diversity of the city.

Miss Wilkinson, 27 Litchfield Street:

The land of Jamaica is the native soil of this wanton Cyprian female, though she cannot boast a complexion delicately fair, yet it must be acknowledged her features are very pleasing.

Miss Lawrie, 6 Church Street

The religion of the Jews will not permit them to eat pork, or feast with Christians; how strictly this lady may adhere to these particulars in her articles of her faith we cannot positively tell; but this we can say for truth – she has not the least objection to Christian consipiscence, and will open her Synagogue of love even on the Sabbath.

The authors of Harris’ List remain somewhat vague and would become even more so over the almost forty years of its existence as the need to remain secret from the prying eyes of the moral guardians of society who, though fewer in number than later generations, were no less outraged.

Even in a city where corruption was endemic and infected the highest echelons of the social and political elite there was no immunity from prosecution.

The List itself is believed to have originated with John Harrison, a well-known and wealthy Covent Garden pimp who worked from the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern where he kept a detailed list of his prostitutes and their clients. These records he shared with a failed writer and Grub Street hack John Derrick who used them to produce Harris’s List.

It was published anonymously however, to avoid falling victim to the next surge of moral condemnation that was always just around the corner, and the clampdown that would inevitably follow.

Despite this little effort was made to restrict its distribution and it was openly sold by street vendors and in the taverns and shops in Covent Garden and along The Strand.

But then Harris’s List wasn’t intended for the common man and few of London’s many prostitutes ever appeared in it, the many ‘street whores’ forced to sell their bodies for a penny not a shilling or a pound merely to feed their families and make ends meet. Common men and women having sex was simply what happened and was best ignored. It was the corruption of wealth and decent society that concerned people.

The Proclamation Society was formed in the summer of 1787, following King George III’s call for the Encouragement  of Piety, Virtue, and the Punishment of Vice, Profuseness, and Immorality.

Such a formal proclamation had been long sought after by moral campaigners such as William Wilberforce to provide impetus to their determination to root out the sin and moral corruption in high places. It would later develop into a movement to improve the morals of the people in general. In this it would fail simply driving it further underground and in fact more pornography was sold and distributed in London during the Victorian era than at any time previous.

One of the first victims of the new moral broom sweeping London clean of vice was Harris’s List which following the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of a number of those found to be associated with its production ceased to be published.

The last edition came out in 1795 following a period of harassment that had seen the quality of writing diminish and its sales decline from its peak circulation of 8,000 four years earlier.

Further Extracts:

Miss Godfrey, 22 Upper Newman Street:

If parts can conquer great and small, sure, Miss Godfrey, must needs do all.

This lady is a kind of boatswain in her way, and when she speaks every word is uttered with a thunderous and vociferous tone. She is a fine lively little girl, about twenty-two, very fond of dancing, has dark hair and eyes, well shaped, and an exceedingly good bed-fellow, will take brandy with anyone, or drink and swear. This lady would be an extraordinary companion for an Officer in the army, for she would save him the effort of giving the word of command.

Miss Wells, 35 Newman Street:

Virtue is the surest guide.

She is a young genteel girl of the Welsh breed, and one of which she is not a little proud, and thinks she has the blood of the Tudors in her veins. She is as wild as a goat, of sandy colours, her features are small, and she is a light little piece.

Miss Waterson, 36 Well Street:

She lives elegant and is a great economist, is tall and genteel, about twenty-four years of age, rather dark complexioned, a little pitted with the smallpox, her price is one pound but will not refuse half-a-guinea.

Mrs Macartney, Great Titchfield Street:

There is nothing gives me so much pride than such amusement with a youth! To whip! To whip! His bold backside when he tells lies instead of truth.

Here a very genteel figure unites with a beautiful countenance, heightened with a lovely fair complexion, and very expressive blue eyes; this lady is about twenty-five years, appears conscious of her own consequence, charms and attractions, and often gives herself airs that were better left aside, for pride and haughtiness in the finest woman cannot fail to be disagreeable.

Mrs Harvey:

When drunk would often toss her sparkling bumper, and was not a little clever in the art of friction.

Mrs Russell:

Was particularly attractive to the young who are fond of beholding that mouth of the devil from whence all corruption issueth.











French Revolutionary Calendar

Revolutions are rarely as they first appear but merely the (often) violent overthrow of one regime and its replacement by another with the hopes and aspirations of those who took to the streets, waved the flags, carried the placards, and chanted the slogans speedily trampled underfoot by a new authority no less brutal in its determination to eliminate that which is contrary to the interests of those they now represent than had been the regime it replaced.

But what is a revolution if it is not the spinning of the wheel and in late eighteenth century France it turned again and again from moderation to co-operation, to intolerance, intransigence, and finally terror.

But if the essential nature of power remains the same then at least the trappings that adorn and lend it legitimacy can be changed utterly and what could be more transformative than the alteration of time itself, and the people’s perception and understanding of it.

The new calendar for the new age, like the new religion and the new morality, was designed to sweep away all vestiges of the Ancien Regime and is most closely associated with the mathematician and agronomist Gilbert Romme, who headed the Commission established to create it, and the flamboyant somewhat grandly named Philippe Francois Nazaire Fabre d’Eglantine, the failed playwright and recent convert to revolution who, along with the assistance of the ex-Royal gardener, would  provide the months with their new titles.

The creation of the new calendar, though it was dismissed by some as an irrelevance at a time of war and counter-revolution, was taken seriously and engaged many of the finest minds of the time including the astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the geographer Alexander Pingre, and the chemist Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau amongst others.

These men of science and philosophy dug deep into ancient history, studied the motion of the planets, and worked hard at the arithmetic whilst remaining within the framework of the Enlightenment and paying due respect to the legacy of the Roman Republic they so admired.

Their conclusion – time was to be decimalised:

A minute would now be 86.4 seconds, there were to be one hundred minutes to the hour, ten hours to the day, and thirty days to the month divided into three ten day weeks. There would still be twelve months to a year which now began the day the Autumnal Equinox occurred in Paris, the Revolution was always about Paris.

Any adjustments required, such as a leap year or to maintain regulatory would be made with reference to this decimal equation. Where the adjustment could not be made the day would simply disappear.

The names of the month were to be changed and would reflect the prevailing climate and what this meant for the agricultural cycle. Likewise, each day had a title. For example: 12 Vendemaire was Immortelle, or Strawflower; 15 Pluviose, Vache, or Cow; 11 Prairial, Fraise, or Strawberry; 19 Messidor, Cerisse, or Cherry.

And the days of the week were numbered in Latin from 1-Primordi to 10-Decadi.

However, unlike industry farming is not subject to the tyranny of the clock but rather when the sun rises and when it sets. Changing time, or at least the notional understanding of it, does not necessarily reflect reality or mean a great deal to the horny-handed son of the soil.

The new Calendar was presented to the Jacobin controlled National Convention by Gilbert Romme on 23 September 1793, and formally accepted the following month.  It had originally been intended to commemorate the fall of the Bastille and the Revolution of July 1789 but it was decided that to do so would be to acknowledge the previous regime and the fact that for three years they had sought an accommodation with it. So instead it was backdated to begin in September of 1792 following the fall of the Monarchy and the establishment of the Republic.

The Revolutionary Calendar had become the Republican Calendar.

Fabre d’Eglantine was to promote its virtues to both the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety.

France now had a new framework to live by, hourly, day-by-day, month-by-month but the calendars distributed were largely ignored and the clocks manufactured to reflect the new time remained unsold.

The British, who were then at war with France and would be except for a short break for the next fifteen years, found the Calendar a useful propaganda tool poking fun at the utopian fantasies of the revolution and satirising the months as –  Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Happy, Croppy, and Poppy. And that no amount of cheery names and pictures of pretty girls could disguise the hatred, division, and bloodshed that was Revolutionary France.

The French Revolution is often said to have ended with Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of 18 Brumaire, or 19 November 1799, but it wasn’t until 1 January 1806, almost two years after he had crowned himself Emperor, that he formally abolished the Republican Calendar.

Long before the Calendar they had created and sold to the French people ceased to be its two main protagonists had fallen victim to the Revolution they had so enthusiastically embraced.

On 5 April 1794, or 16 Germinal of the Year II, Fabre d’Eglantine was executed on the orders of the Committee of Public Safety for the crimes of corruption and malfeasance.

Having tried to blame everyone else for his predicament he was to bitterly complain of the injustice of it all so much so that on his way to the scaffold Danton who was also to be executed suggested that he cease carping about it and accept his fate.

On 17 June 1795, or 29 Prairial of the Year III, Gilbert Romme committed suicide on the steps of the Courthouse where he had just been sentence to death by stabbing himself repeatedly with a small knife he had concealed on his person.

Both men had died in the shadow of that other great symbol of the French Revolution – the Guillotine.

Vendemaire (Month of Grapes) 22 September – 21 October

Brumaire (Month of Mist) 22 October – 20 November

Frimaire (Month of Frost) 21 November -20 December

Nivose (Month of Snows) 21 December – 19 January

Pluviose (Month of Rains) 20 January – 18 February

Ventose (Month of Rains) 19 February -20 March

Germinal (Month of Germination) 21 March – 19 April

Floreal (Month of Flowers) 20 April – 19 May

Prairial (Month of Meadows) 20 April – 19 May

Messidor (Month of Harvest) 19 June – 18 July

Thermidor (Month of Heat) 19 July – 17 August

Fructidor (Month of Fruit) 18 August – 16 September
















Hitler as a Young Artist


Even as a child Adolf Hitler had an exalted opinion of himself, a self-regard that was both nurtured and encouraged by his adoring mother, Klara. His father, Alois, an ill-tempered man, was not so amenable to his son’s whims and had already determined that he should follow him into the Civil Service, or to be more precise become a Customs Officer like himself. But young Adolf wanted to be an artist, and not any old artist, but a great artist. As a result relations were strained and attempts by Alois to beat some sense into his son only made matters worse.

Although his grief was genuine enough his father’s death in January 1903 also came as a great relief for he could now pursue his ambition unrestrained; and it wasn’t as if he was without talent, his ability to draw had already earned praise and with practice, and a little imagination, he might have earned passage into the ranks of the artistic milieu he so desperately sought to be a part of, not that this alone would ever have been enough.

But then dedication wasn’t required – for a genius need not partake of hard work.

Supported by his mother who had been left financially secure by her recently deceased husband in 1906, Adolf went to live in Linz where he lived like the artistic gentleman of leisure he thought he was spending his time in idle musings, attending concerts, and visiting the opera where he made the acquaintance of the aspiring musician, August Kubizek.

Kubizek was to write of the time he spent in the company of the future Fuhrer in his 1955 book ‘The Young Hitler I Knew’ and the portrait he drew was a complicated one of neuroses,ambition, and an emerging megalomania – Hitler was a difficult young man to get along with, someone who even as a youth approached every problem with ‘a deadly earnestness.’

He was to describe Hitler’s personality as ‘violent and high strung’ but nonetheless it was a friendship he would never relinquish even in light of events.

Despite concern for his mother’s health which had taken a turn for the worse Adolf withdrew what remained of the inheritance left to him by his father and in the summer of 1907 went to live in Vienna where he applied for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts.

In October he was shocked to be told he had failed the entrance exam and demanded to know why?

The Academy informed him in no uncertain terms that he lacked talent as a painter but did have some technical ability which might be better suited to a career in architecture.

Much like the opera he so enjoyed, Hitler considered architecture to be art on a grand scale which suited well his mindset but even so the rejection was difficult to bear. Nonetheless, there was little time to dwell on the matter as his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health forced him to return home.

Surgery the previous January had failed to prevent the spread of breast cancer and despite the best efforts of Eduoard Bloch, the family’s Jewish doctor, Klara’s condition only worsened. Informed that his mother would not recover Hitler descended into depression.

Dr Bloch was to remark that upon receiving the news Hitler was ‘the saddest man I had ever seen.’

Adolf remained with his mother during her final months cooking for her, doing the household chores, and tending to her every need but her demise was only a matter of time.

On 21 December 1907, Klara Hitler died.

Adolf was distraught and Dr Bloch was to say that he had never seen anyone so overcome with grief. Later, when he visited Dr Bloch to pay the medical bill he told him – I shall be grateful too you forever – he was later to prove as good as his word.

Following his mother’s death he had no desire to remain in Linz and so in February 1908, he returned to Vienna, the city he considered the centre of European culture, to pursue once more his desire to be an artist.

Not long after his arrival he was reunited with August Kubizek whom he had asked to join him and clearly delighted greeted at the station with a handshake and a kiss.

In October he tried for a second time to enrol in the Academy of Fine Art but was denied permission even to sit the entrance exam and disappointment soon became a bitter resentment towards the Jewish Professors of the Academy he believed had thwarted his artistic ambitions.

Life had turned sour and his sense of victimisation was only made worse when Kubizek gained entry to the Vienna Conservatory. That November Kubizek returned to the apartment they shared to find that Hitler had moved out leaving no forwarding address.

Hitler’s life now proceeded on a downward spiral.

The money he had received as his inheritance had run out and by December 1909, he was eating at soup kitchens and living in a homeless shelter.

He would spend the cold days in libraries where he assiduously imbibed Nordic, Aryan, and anti-Semitic literature. On more clement days he would walk the streets sketching buildings and street scenes but it all felt very hollow and he had come to hate the city he had once so admired but had so brutally rejected him – a mongrel city, the capital of a mongrel Empire.

Ostensibly reliant upon hand-outs he did make a little money as a day labourer shovelling snow and carrying bags for commuters at the railway station but it rarely lasted more than a few hours; physical labour and working for another was abhorrent to him – but he could still draw.

He was persuaded by Reinhold Harmisch, a fellow resident at the Poor House where he was now living, to sketch the famous landmarks of Vienna which he would then hawk around the city on his behalf.

Hitler agreed, but they soon fell out and in August 1910, believing he was being swindled Hitler testified against Harmisch in a court case that saw him jailed.

In 1938, following the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler would order Harmisch’s murder.

Hitler did better selling his own drawings, which now included copies of postcards he offered to tourists, and paintings he sold through an acquaintance, Joseph Neumann, a Jew, who used his connections to sell them to mostly Jewish shopkeepers.

To avoid conscription into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he had come to despise in May 1913, he fled to Munich in Germany where he continued to sell his drawings though his life was barely any better than it had been in Vienna, even if he may have considered the air more pure.

His life remained aimless his day-to-day existence a drudge, so when war was declared on 1 August 1914, it came almost as a relief, now he would have a purpose.

He wrote in Mein Kampf:

“For me, as for every German, there now began the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence. Compared to the events of this gigantic struggle, everything past receded into shallow hollowness.”

Soon after mingling with the enthusiastic crowds in Munich Town Square he enlisted in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.

His career as an artist was at an end, that of a politician yet to begin.








Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England

Beyond the glittering Court of the Virgin Gloriana, Elizabethan England was a place of great hardship and harsh punishments which faced with a failing economy, threats from abroad, and the Catholic enemy within became increasingly paranoid until its internal governance resembled that of a police state.

At a time when the plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, the poetry of Edmund Spenser and John Donne, and the music of John Downland and William Byrd witnessed a flourishing of the arts in England as never before the axe was forever being sharpened and gibbets scarred the landscape.

The countryside was a place of violence and dread, the towns fulcrums of intrigue and disease and as the years passed a series of failed harvests and the threat posed from abroad by the Catholic Powers of Europe made poverty and paranoia a combustible mix, the flames of which were only doused by the unstinting toil of Sir Francis Walsingham and his network of spies (which included among their number Christopher Marlowe) and the inestimable charms of the formidable Queen herself. But it wasn’t always so.


Upon her succession to the throne in November 1558, the young Queen Elizabeth appeared to hold out the prospect of a kinder, gentler England following the brutal religious suppression of her half-sister Mary’s reign.

After all, hadn’t she said that she would not make windows into men’s souls?

Never as vindictive as Mary, nor as sanguine as her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth could nonetheless be unpredictable and capricious even if her anger reflected more her mood than her temperament, and she rarely wished to know of the punishments carried out in her name; even in acts of treason she wanted to hear no more of it once the axe had fallen. Often she would commute sentences of death for those of lesser account if she perceived that the bloodletting had gone too far.

But the personal whim of a Queen could not obstruct the implementation of the law and neither was it intended to do so even if the punishment would vary according to the social class of the miscreant.

The most heinous crime, as it had always been in the past and would be for centuries to come, was that of treason, for which there could be no mercy, and no punishment was too severe.

The convicted traitor would be led to their place of execution along cobbled streets and through baying crowds tied to a hurdle, or low-lying sled, often face down so that they could neither look upon the sky nor those who were abusing them.


Once upon the scaffold they would be hanged until they were half-dead before being taken down and having their bowels removed and burned before their eyes; then barely able to breathe and slowly bleeding to death their limbs would be severed the four-quarters of which along with the head would later be displayed at prominent places throughout the city as a warning to others.

Such was the horror of being hung, drawn, and quartered that many so condemned would try to leap from the scaffold once the noose had been placed over their head in the hope that the fall would break their neck.

Prominent clergy and those of the higher nobility would likely avoid such a fate it not being thought right or proper to so humiliate them, not so much an act of leniency on the part of the Monarch but a practical measure designed to preclude the setting of dangerous precedents – for them mere decapitation would suffice.

Once the head had been severed from the body it would be held up by the Executioner, not just for the benefit of the crowd but so the victim, it being believed that consciousness remained for some time after decapitation, could look upon their mangled corpse made be aware that death was imminent.

Those who were accused of treason would almost certainly be subjected to torture, though not permitted by law as a means of extracting a confession, it could only be used to elicit further information once a conviction had been secured, a law more honoured in the breach; and the Authorities possessed a fearful array of the instruments of torture required, among them:

The Iron Maiden, a large upright metal cabinet with a door the interior of which was covered with sharpened spikes that once closed with the victim inside would pierce the skin causing great pain.


The Scavenger’s Daughter, invented during the reign of Henry VIII by the Lieutenant of the Tower of London Leonard Skevington, with a little help from his wife Margaret, was an A Framed device upon which the victim would be bound before it was pulled tightly together forcing his head down and knees up thereby compressing the body causing him to bleed from both ears and nose.

The Iron Collar would see the victim chained upright in the centre of a room and have a collar with spikes placed around his neck. If he tried to move his head in any direction the spikes would penetrate the neck and throat and tear away the flesh.

The Rack was the most feared of all tortures the mere threat of which was often enough to make most people confess to almost anything. It was a mechanism of rollers and ratchets that turned by degrees would tear the ligaments, dislocate the joints, separate the bones, and eventually snap the spine of the victim.

It was the most excruciating agony often extended over many hours, sometimes days, which even if the victim were to survive the ordeal and be released would leave them paralysed or disabled for life.

There was also the usual array of whips, thumb screws and branding irons with the more elaborate forms of torture reserved for those accused of treason.

Possessed of the Royal Warrant local Justices of the Peace maintained law and order in the Shires dealing with common crimes such as burglary, purse cutting, dice-cogging (a gambling scam) witchcraft, physical assault, sexual misdemeanours, and highway robbery.


The latter carried the death penalty and travelling was considered so dangerous it was actively discouraged with a licence obtained from the local Bailiff required to do so. Even the Queen, who ran a peripatetic Court, never ventured to the north or west of the country it not being thought safe for her to do so.

Not only could travelling spread the plague but it was also a means whereby protest and discontent could be disseminated; the few roads available were infested with ne’er do wells, and the local taverns a den of thieves in which an overnight stay would almost certainly result in being stripped of one’s clothes and deprived of one’s goods.

A multitude of fears ensured that strangers were rarely welcomed’ and so it was with vagrants who moved from one parish to another to beg or look for work.

The administration of the Poor Law was the responsibility of the parish upon whom the burden and the cost fell and in line with the tone set by a Monarch for whom thrift was never far from her mind they were disinclined to support their own poor let alone those who came from elsewhere, as such vagabondage in the able-bodied was effectively criminalised.


Those found to be from elsewhere without work and homeless were locked up overnight before being bored through the ear and whipped from the parish. If they were not from the neighbouring parish the same would happen again, if they returned to either the likelihood was they would be hanged.

Murder was a capital offence, with the perpetrator first having his left hand severed before being taken to, or near, the scene of the crime where they would be hanged in chains and left to die. The Justice of the Peace who had passed sentence might order the convicted man garrotted first, to do so being considered an act of compassion.

Those who had caused death without malice aforethought were simply hanged.


Death sentences were also regularly passed for witchcraft, sodomy, and both robbery and poaching if committed at night, crimes perpetrated during the hours of darkness, the Devil’s Time, when man was at his most vulnerable were deemed particularly heinous.

Considered primarily a female crime and therefore deemed an act of acute malice a uniquely savage punishment was reserved for those convicted of poisoning – the perpetrator being lowered slowly into a vat of boiling water and scalded to death.

For petty offences the lash and the branding iron were common punishments with public whippings also a source of popular entertainment.

There were also many prisons in Elizabethan England which were so overcrowded and rife with disease that to be incarcerated in one could often be little short of a death sentence, but these were mainly for those who had broken the Civil rather than the Criminal Law, in particular debtors whom it was hoped would be able to pay for their stay, or at least their fines upon release.

In cases of anti-social behaviour the punishment would often be one of public humiliation:


The Stocks, a device with boards that would clamp down and lock-in the miscreant’s wrists and ankles were a common sight in most towns and villages. Here unable to move, exposed to the elements, and deprived of food and water the victim would be subject to the abuse of passers-by. Often crowds would gather to mock or throw sundry objects at a sitting target – it was not a wise move to be disliked.


The Drunkard’s Cloak was a barrel with holes for the arms and legs that a person whose liking for the bottle had made them a public nuisance would be made to parade around the town in.


The Gossip’s Bridle devised to silence a scolding or particularly mendacious, loud and abusive woman was an iron muzzle that enclosed the head and pushed down upon the tongue serving as an effective gag.

The Ducking Stool, usually reserved to prove the guilt or otherwise of a witch was a chair attached to a pole into which the accused would be tied and lowered beneath the water of a river or lake. If the accused drowned they would be declared innocent. If they survived the ducking then they were deemed to have rejected the baptism were found guilty of being a devil’s disciple and executed.


It was not easy to put oneself beyond the earthly power to punish, suicide for example was a sin against God and those who took their own life were denied a Christian service and buried in un-consecrated ground a stake driven though their heart.

But there could also be cases of special pleading.

A priest or someone of learning who professed to be A Man of the Book and was able to quote the appropriate verses from the Bible could claim Benefit of Clergy and request to be tried before an Ecclesiastical Court where the penalties for offenders were much lighter, sometimes little more than an act of penance or charity.

Nonetheless, they would be branded on the thumb as a mark of their offence – and there would be no second chances.

In criminal cases a pregnant woman could Plead Her Belly, it not being thought Christian to kill both the mother and her child, though sometimes this would only result in a suspension of sentence, the mother being executed once the child had been born.

William Powell Frith: A Victorian Chronicler

Arguably the most popular artist of the Victorian era William Powell Frith was born in the village of Aldfield in Yorkshire on 19 January 1819, the son of a Harrogate hotelier who encouraged his son to be a painter from an early age and he was to do little else throughout his entire life.

Having trained at the Royal Academy in London he was already earning commissions when barely out of his teenage years starting as a portrait painter (one of his subjects was to be the author Charles Dickens) and by depicting scenes from popular novels.

As a painter he was a traditionalist who believed art should reflect life as it was and no as it is imagined and he was scornful of those who thought otherwise frequently mocking and railing against the pretensions of the pre-Raphaelites and absurdities of the Aesthetes.

In the late 1830’s, along with his good friend Augustus Egg and Richard Dadd (the doyen of Fairy Painting who would later be convicted of murdering his father and confined to an Insane Asylum) he co-founded The Clique, a group of artists dedicated to resisting what they perceived to be the perversion of their trade.

Already a successful artist his breakthrough to becoming one of national renown was a painting that upon being exhibited received at best mixed reviews, not so much for its aesthetic qualities but its choice of subject matter.


Life at the Seaside (1854) his depiction of working people enjoying a day out with their families frolicking on the beach at Ramsgate Sands may seem uncontroversial today but at the time when the working class were either portrayed as toiling in the fields or destitute and queuing up for the Workhouse the image of them sober, behaving responsibly, and having fun in places that had previously been before the expansion of the railways been exclusive to the better-off were seen by many as positively vulgar and an incitement to others to do the same.


It was nonetheless exhibited at the Royal Academy and the criticism soon ceased when it received the endorsement of Queen Victoria, who with a fondness both for Ramsgate and portraits of her people happy, purchased it for the tidy sum of 1,000 guineas putting it on display at her home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Frith followed up the success of Life at The Seaside four years later with a painting that caused a sensation and is now widely considered to be his masterpiece – Derby Day.


The Epsom Derby attended by Royalty and the highest in the land was the highlight of the sporting calendar but Frith taking evident delight in his subject matter portrayed the other side of the event, the thousands of working people who massed on the hill far away from the grandstands to eat, drink, gamble, and roister the day away.


Accused of bringing a noble event into disrepute the outrage was even greater when upon closer inspection it was seen to depict thieves, con artists, and scenes of seduction.


It was a sensation and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy it required a rail to separate it from its over-enthusiastic audience and a police guard, only the second time this had ever happened (the other had been David Wilkie’s, ‘Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch’, 35 years earlier).

Frith now began to see himself as the new Hogarth for a modern age, the Chronicler of Victorian life, and like Hogarth and his Rake’s Progress he now also produced a series of paintings portraying man’s fall from grace in his Road to Ruin and Race to Wealth.

The juxtaposition of rich and poor in his paintings often highlighted the inequalities of the day much as the mocking tone he adopted towards many Victorian institutions sought to undermine the standards they professed to represent, not that he was a model of moral rectitude.

In fact, he was the living embodiment of Victorian hypocrisy for he shared his time between his wife Isabelle and their 12 children and his mistress Mary Alford and their seven children.

The fact that he maintained two seemingly respectable middle class families less than a mile down the road from one another and kept it a secret for so long was in itself a remarkable achievement.

When the scandal finally broke it became the subject of gossip the length and breadth of the country but even in a society that rarely shirked from condemnation it did little to dent his popularity.

William Powell Frith having lived throughout the reign of Queen Victoria, both before and beyond, died on 9 November, 1909, aged 90.















Battle of Omdurman: Blood in the Sand

On the morning of 26 January 1885, after 319 days of siege the city of Khartoum in the Sudan fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or Expected One, its Commander General George Gordon speared and hacked to death on the steps of the Governors Palace and his severed head carried off in triumph to the enemy camp where a displeased Mahdi, who had ordered that that the English Pasha be spared angrily remarked:

“What is this? What deeds are these, why do you disobey me, why have you mutilated him? What use is it?”


His apparent respect for his enemy did not extend to the dignified repose of his remains for his head he ordered hung between two trees to be pecked at by crows and looked upon with disdain by children.

His remains he had thrown down a well.

The Sudan, nominally under the control of Egypt, had been cleared of the Infidel but the Mahdi’s dream of spreading his Wahhabi influenced brand of fundamentalist Islam to the rest of the Muslim world would go unrealised for he too would die, suddenly and unexpectedly, just six months after the moment of his greatest triumph.


The Mahdi was succeeded by his long-time ally Abdullah ibn Muhammad, also known as Muhammad al-Taashi who took the title of Khalifa, but he was not the ‘Expected One’ neither was he entirely trusted being seen as a man of ambition and pride who wished to make himself a King.

His assumption of power did not go unopposed and he was to spend many years establishing his authority maintaining the strict Sharia law that had been imposed by his predecessor and a large army that kept the Sudan in constant preparedness for war. Indeed, he was to use war as a means of diverting criticism of his rule.

In 1887, he invaded neighbouring Ethiopia singling out the Christian population for particularly harsh treatment destroying Churches and massacring thousands but for all the brutality of the campaign and a series of victories that culminated in the death of the Emperor Yohannes IV at the Battle of Metemma, by 1889 he had withdrawn back to Khartoum.

If he had ever truly shared the Mahdi’s vision of imposing Wahhabism on the entire Islamic world, and many doubted his sincerity, then it had stalled in the desert wastes of the Sudan. Even so, al-Taashi’s belligerence and the fervent religious fundamentalism of the Ansar Movement he led posed a constant threat to Egypt and thereby Britain’s control of the Suez Canal its lifeline to the East; but it would not be the shifting sands of Islamic rivalry or the yearning to avenge Gordon that would see the wrath of the British Empire once more bear down upon the Sudan but the ambitions and frailties of its Imperial competitors in the Scramble for Africa.

But Africa was not just the geographical expression of Imperial aggrandisement but also a convenient place for the making of ersatz conflicts and the fighting of proxy wars, an opportunity for the bellicose flexing of muscles far away from the political tinderbox of Europe that could spark a far greater conflict as happened in 1914 with catastrophic consequences.

On 1 March 1896, an Italian attempt to annexe Ethiopia ended disastrously when its army was annihilated at the Battle of Adwa – national hubris had left to national humiliation – but worse it had shown to those seeking to do so that the Western Powers could be successfully resisted.

The Italian defeat had also left their possessions in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere vulnerable to incursion and attack and it was this coupled with French encroachment into the Upper reaches of the Nile Delta that now threatened British hegemony in Egypt.


Despite its bloody ejection from the Sudan more than a decade earlier Egypt had never renounced its claim to it and in this they retained the full support of the British Government but as long as William Gladstone and his Liberal Party continued to dominate domestic politics there could be no thought of intervention.

He had been reluctant to send the Relief Column that had narrowly failed to extricate General Gordon from Khartoum but despite the defeat in the Sudan being a dent to the pride of the British Empire which by its very nature thirsted for revenge, Gladstone had not been the man to provide it.

In March 1894 however, having failed for a second time to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland he resigned the Premiership and retired from front-line politics at the venerable age of 84.

The Liberal Party he left behind was defeated in the General Election the following year and the new Conservative Government under Lord Salisbury pro-actively Imperialist determined upon a show of force in the Sudan to be commanded by the senior British Officer in Egypt, General Kitchener.


Herbert Horatio Kitchener, an unsentimental man of whom it was said he had no soul, was a career soldier, self-confident, single-minded, short-tempered, and intolerant of fools who at 6’2” and ramrod straight cut an imposing figure.

Indeed, Sir Evelyn Baring who effectively governed Egypt on behalf of the British Empire though it was nominally ruled by the Khedive for the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople thought Kitchener – the finest soldier I have ever seen. Although he regularly heaped scorn upon praise as nothing but the viscous grease of politicians and newspapermen it was an opinion with which he likely agreed.

He had spent many years in Cairo training the Egyptian Army and in 1892 was appointed Sirdar, or its Commander-in-Chief, and four years later was promoted to the rank of Major-General in the British Army.

Kitchener was familiar with the terrain of the Sudan having participated in the campaign to relief Gordon in 1885 and was the obvious choice to lead the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force that crossed into the Sudan on 12 March 1896, and he was determined that the incursion should be more than a mere display of arms and a camel ride through the desert taking pot-shots at the natives but a campaign of substance and though his progress was slow he began building the infrastructure of a more permanent presence as railway tracks were laid, a water pipeline constructed, and fortified camps built to serve as storage depots and protect the supply lines.

For the most part, aware that the incursion had not yet become a campaign of conquest the Khalifa observed events from afar choosing to harass rather than confront the Sirdar’s army with the only serious clash occurring at Ferkeh when the Allies surprised and routed a sizeable but ill-prepared Dervish encampment.


But the presence of a British Army in the Sudan had once again revived the campaign to avenge Gordon.

The passage of time had done little to diminish his status in the public imagination as the quintessential Englishman, a Victorian hero who had given his life in the service of God and the British Empire, and as far as the people and the popular press were concerned the New Mahdi was the same as the Old Mahdi and they were both the Mad Mahdi indistinguishable in their savagery and barbarism.

Lord Salisbury’s Government needed little encouragement and in early March General Kitchener received orders for the re-conquest of the Sudan.


Although his army had been heavily reinforced in the meantime he could still only muster half or less the number of fighting men available to the Khalifa but his 8,200 British Regulars among them the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders along with 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops were well-trained and well-armed.

Four River Gunboats had been built in Britain and despatched to Egypt in pack form to be reconstructed upon arrival increasing his number of Steamers to ten armed with 36 cannon and 24 machine guns.

The British troops were armed with the new Lee-Metford bolt action magazine rifle and some units were provided with the recently developed hollowed out Dum Dum bullet designed to cause maximum damage to the internal organs that would be banned at the Hague Convention of 1899.

Although they had been trained and were led by British Officers the Egyptian troops along with their Sudanese allies were still not thought entirely reliable and so were armed with the old single-shot Martini-Henry rifle; but then they were expected to play a subordinate role, though this wouldn’t be the case at Omdurman.

There was also the Camel Corps and a sole Cavalry Regiment the 21st Lancers.


The 21st Lancers would achieve lasting fame at Omdurman and among their number would be the young Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars then stationed in India.

Churchill was desperate to see action and participate in the Sudan campaign but his attempts to obtain a transfer or secondment to the 21st Lancers despite frequent telegrams and intensive lobbying on his behalf by colleagues and friends were ignored by Kitchener who had little time for (jingo) Officers particularly those who considered themselves journalists wishing to write of their experiences (Churchill had just published his book The Malakand Field Force). The Sirdar was not impressed and turned a deaf ear and it was only when Sir Evelyn Wood, who had the authority to appoint Officers to the Regiment, overruled Kitchener that Churchill at last obtained the transfer he desired but even then he’d had to wait for a fellow Officer to signal his ability to participate due to ill-health.

Kitchener’s ire was increased further when just prior to his embarkation for the Sudan Churchill received the commission as War Correspondent for the Morning Post.

Despite his contempt for some of the Officers under his command with 25,000 men, 44 artillery pieces and 20 Maxim Machine Guns supported by Gunboats he was confident of ultimate success. It was after all, was the best equipped army ever to undertake a desert campaign.

The large Dervish Army, a seething mass of 60,000 fierce and experienced warrior tribesmen who had often tasted victory were armed with spear, sword, knife, and many firearms captured from their Egyptian enemy though they remained largely unskilled in their use.


Dressed in white tunics with black patches on their chest and accompanied by an array of flags in a multitude of colours, green, black, red, and many white banners embroidered with quotes from the Koran they made for an impressive sight the razor sharp tips of their swords and spears glinting in the desert sun.

It was for them Jihad, or Holy War, and fired by religious zeal they would fight and die for their God against the Infidel it being said that their desire for death was greater than their lust for life.


Adhering rigidly to the course of the Nile where he could be supplied and supported by his steamers and gunboats Kitchener’s progress was slow much to the frustration of the Government in Westminster which sought a swift conclusion to the campaign and their frustration increased even further when an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Atbara in early April did little to speed the momentum.


If Government Ministers were muttering dissatisfaction under their breath then Kitchener cared little for it, he knew that inconclusive victories become mere footnotes of history whereas defeats are rarely forgotten.

If it was not in the Sirdar’s character to act in haste then it was not in the Khalifa’s interests to compel him to do so.

He may have wished to lure Kitchener’s Army into the desert wilderness as alongside the Mahdi he had done to General Hicks at el-Obeid with catastrophic consequences for his Egyptian Army fifteen years earlier, but the Sirdar could not be tempted so his advance was closely monitored instead, his patrols were harassed and communications could be often seen flashing across the desert plain but the Sudan is vast in its expanse and there was no need to confront – time is less precious in a timeless place, and Allah would provide.

But the progress of the Sirdar and his Anglo-Egyptian Army, slow though it was, remained relentless nonetheless.


As August passed into September the Sirdar’s Army reached Kerreri just seven miles short of the Khalifa’s capital at Omdurman on the outskirts of Khartoum where they dug-in to await the inevitable attack.

Flying in the face of military convention which ordained it unsustainable as it precluded the prospect of withdrawal in-extremis, Kitchener entrenched his army with its backs to the River Nile so he could be supported by the gunboats thereby maximising his firepower.

There the army prepared for battle behind the Zariba, a series of shallow trenches protected by a thorn thicket fence with before them a wide open plain almost devoid of cover with hills either side that loomed large in the barren landscape and offered the opportunity for concealment.

Kitchener despatched his cavalry to reconnoitre the terrain and drive any Dervish from the nearby hills but the enemy were closer than at first thought and they soon withdrew back to the Zariba.


The Dervish Army was advancing fast, some 60,000 men many of them from the feared Haddendowa Tribe known to the British soldier as the Fuzzy-Wuzzy for their distinctive hair in five great columns on a front four miles long with a force so great it appeared to make the ground shake.

An attack seemed imminent as in the Zariba bugles sounded the call to arms but the Dervish stopped short of doing so and instead with a great roar that echoed off the hillsides made camp, their distant flags fluttering in the light breeze.

Battle would be delayed for the time being and as darkness descended searchlights from the steamers on the River Nile swept the desert plain making for an eerie sight as both camps settled down for a nervous if not quiet night.

In the meantime, Kitchener had sent gunboats down river to bombard Omdurman with their howitzers and silence its guns which after a short but ferocious exchange of artillery fire they succeeded in doing.

The Khalifa had intended to prevent the Sirdar from using his gunboats to such good effect by mining the approaches to both Omdurman and Khartoum but the experiment was abandoned when the Egyptian engineer who had been released from prison on condition that he assist in the defence, and the boat he was working from, blew itself up.


At 05.50 on 2 September 1898, with his men already at their posts, having ordered his cavalry back into the hills, and the gunboats to support the vulnerable flanks of his army, General Kitchener surrounded by his Staff Officers could hear the banging of drums, the blowing of horns, and the barely distinguishable cries of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, on the still, hot air – the Dervish Army was advancing.

The Khalifa’s plan was a simple one – he would overwhelm the inferior Infidel by the ferocity of the attack and weight of numbers sweeping them into the River Nile from where there could be no escape.


As such, he ordered his trusted subordinate Osman Azrek with two Corps, around 16,000 men, to advance across the open plain and assault the centre of the Allied line whilst simultaneous attacks would be made on both flanks.

In the meantime, he would wait in reserve with a similar number of men concealed behind hills and in the folds of the ground ready to exploit the gaps in the Allied line as the enemy crumbled before the Will of Allah.

Should the slaughter of the Infidel not prove to be the Will of Allah then he had an alternative plan in mind, but this had already been second-guessed by the Sirdar.

The Khalifa’s guns fired first but fell short of the Zariba kicking up dust but little else causing the Allied artillery to retaliate to far greater effect as opening fire at some 3,000 yards distance whilst the Dervish Army remained but dots in the desert the shells tore into their ranks reaping a terrible harvest long before they even came within range of rifle and machine gun fire.

But the Dervish were advancing fast particularly into the hills with the 21st Lancers forced to beat a hasty retreat back to the Zariba whilst the Camel Corps in the Kerreri Hills were forced to dismount and engage in hand-to-hand combat and were only saved from annihilation by supporting fire from the gunboats positioned on the right of the line.


In the centre the Dervish came on through the torrent of shot and shell and into a withering wall of fire that saw them disappear from view in a cloud of gun-smoke and dust. Few were to get within 350 yards of the Zariba with those armed with rifles lying down to exchange fire whilst others exhausted and terrified sat upon the ground and merely prayed. Unable to close with the Infidel they withdrew in disarray leaving behind more than 4,000 dead and wounded among them, Osman Azrek.

On either flank the Dervish attacks were likewise bloodily repulsed unable to sustain their momentum against the pounding of the howitzers and relentless rat-tat-tat of the Maxim guns coming from the boats.

A lull in the fighting followed the Dervish retreat, and the devastating impact of Allied firepower on their massed ranks now prompted Kitchener to take a bold decision – he would order his army to advance concerned that the Khalifa might withdraw to Omdurman or Khartoum and fight for them street by street, which he did indeed intend to do, and Kitchener did not wish to engage in a siege which would negate his superiority in arms and so he determined to place his army between the Khalifa and his capital forcing him to flee west into the desert.


His decision was opposed by many on his Staff who thought it premature arguing that the Dervish Army was still intact, indeed many had not yet even been engaged, and that to advance now would be to lose the support of the gunboats moored on the river and expose the army to possible encirclement. But Kitchener’s worst fears seemed realised when reports reached him that large numbers of Dervish had been seen marching in the direction of Omdurman.

The 21st Lancers were sent to reconnoitre the Jebel Surgham and locate the main body of the Khalifa’s Army, this they could not do but they did signal to confirm the earlier reports. A little later they received the order:

“Advance and clear the left flank and use every effort to prevent the enemy re-entering Omdurman.”

Commanding the 21st Lancers Lieutenant-Colonel Martin took the order to mean that he was to engage the enemy where he found them, something he was eager to do, so when he received the news that some 700 Dervishes had been observed sheltering in a Khor, or hollow in the ground, on the road to Omdurman he determined to attack them but whether they had been deliberately reinforced in the meantime or the initial report had been misleading the actual number of Dervishes present was nearer 2,500.

The Officers of the 21st Lancers were desperate to win the Regiment its first battle honours and Lt-Colonel Martin ordered them to do so in the grand style by dispersing the enemy in a classic cavalry charge with lances lowered and swords drawn.

Lt Winston Churchill, commanding a troop, sheathed his sword trusting instead to the Mauser pistol he had purchased in London prior to his departure for the Sudan.

Advancing slowly at first and wheeling left and right to avoid groups of Dervishes who stood in their path they began to pick up the pace as they neared their destination until at 250 yards distant the bugles were blown to sound the charge.


Whether Lt-Colonel Martin realised it or not he was leading his 350 men into an ambush and as they swept down the side of the Khor they did so into a solid mass of humanity as Dervish tribesmen seemed to appear from nowhere.

Churchill later described the scene:

“A deep crease in the ground – a dry watercourse, a khor – appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain, and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags rose as if by magic from the earth.”

Surrounded, with their horses speared and slashed with hands reaching up to pull them from the saddle, the Lancers maintained enough momentum to cut their way through but at a cost, 109 horses lost, 20 men killed, and a further 50 wounded. Had the charge stalled it would have ended in a massacre and free of the melee Lt-Colonel Martin wasn’t going to repeat the mistake, he ordered his men to dismount and engage the enemy using their carbines. Under fire and unable to respond the Dervishes simply melted away.


At 09.15 the Allied Army marching in line of column with the British Brigades in the vanguard moved out from the Zariba heading west towards the Jebel Surgham Ridge from where they hoped to sever the Khalifa’s line of retreat.

The advance was covered, though from some distance, by the gunboats on the Nile as they moved towards Omdurman whilst the artillery and Maxim guns had been distributed throughout the Column to provide added protection on the open plain.

Kitchener had guessed correctly that the Khalifa intended to withdraw to Omdurman and fight a defensive battle but by advancing when he did before being fully aware of the disposition of his enemy’s forces he had exposed his flanks to attack and left the rearguard vulnerable to being separated from the rest of the Column and systematically destroyed.

The Sirdar in his haste had provided the Khalifa with an opportunity he had not expected and it was one he was determined to seize.


Despite the bloody repulse of earlier in the day he still had some 40,000 men at his disposal, 20,000 in the Kerreri Hills to the east and rear of the Allied Column including fast-moving Baggara Horsemen and his own elite bodyguard the Black Flag concealed behind the Jebel Surgham – and it would be with these and God’s blessing that he would annihilate the Infidel.

As the advance units of the Column began to scale the Jebel Surgham they encountered the 21st Lancers still holding their position and tending to their wounded (many of whom had deep and disfiguring cuts to their legs, arms, and faces) who with the adrenaline still pumping through their veins were eager to make their report and talk of their exploits but General Kitchener remained unimpressed, disappointed that they had failed in their mission to locate the main body of the Dervish Army.


Bringing up the rear of the Column were the 3,500 men of Colonel Hector MacDonald’s mostly Sudanese Brigade who found themselves particularly vulnerable to attack from the tribesmen massed in the Kerreri Hills and so had been provided with 8 cannon and 3 Maxim guns as an extra precaution; they would prove an invaluable reinforcement as the Column became increasingly stretched, gaps appeared in the line, and their position became ever more exposed.


The Sudanese contingent of the Sirdar’s Army also drew the ire of their tribal brethren for whom they were not only traitors but apostates who had abandoned the One True Faith and so were primed for death.

As the Sirdar prepared to storm the Jebel Surgham Ridge and expel the Dervish there, MacDonald could already be seen deploying his troops for what he thought was the threat of imminent attack – he was right. Out from behind the Jebel Surgham stormed the 15,000 men of the Black Flag, the finest warriors in the Dervish Army led by Yakub, the Khalifa’s most trusted commander.

Sweeping past and beyond other Allied units on their flanks the Black Flag headed straight for MacDonald’s Brigade still deploying frantically to meet the threat. As they did so the Sirdar’s troops who had since captured the Jebel Surgham Ridge were ordered to fire down upon the Black Flag as they advanced forcing the Khalifa to divert men from the main thrust of the attack to try and re-take the heights. It was a forlorn task and charging uphill into a hail of gunfire they were cut to pieces.

The Black Flag fared little better in their attack upon the rearguards right flank for despite an effective range of only 400 yards and a maximum rate of fire of 12 rounds per minute, which few could achieve, the massed ranks of the Martini-Henry armed Sudanese and Egyptian troops of MacDonald’s Brigade took a terrible toll of the attacking Dervish who began to break up and fall away long before they could even get close to the hand-to-hand fighting they so desperately sought. But any respite for MacDonald’s men would be brief.


As the Black Flag began to flee the field Ali-Wad-Helu led his 20,000 tribesmen from the Kerreri Hills to attack from the rear as once again the experienced and capable MacDonald had to rapidly re-deploy amidst the chaos of battle and impose discipline on frightened men with parched throats and sweaty palms on the verge of panic.

It must have seemed as if he was being assailed from all directions but now reinforced by an Egyptian Brigade on his left and the Lincolnshire Regiment coming up on his right the Dervish were mown down like skittles.

Yet, had Ali-Wad-Helu co-ordinated his attack with that of the Black Flag MacDonald’s Brigade may well have been overwhelmed and the outcome of the Battle of Omdurman very different. Indeed, Winston Churchill was to express less admiration for the performance of the Sudanese Brigade than others claiming that they had been in a funk and firing wildly and indiscriminately and had only been saved from annihilation by the timely arrival and well-disciplined enfilading fire of the Lincolnshire Regiment; and a careful audit of ammunition expended did reveal that in the final assault each Sudanese and Egyptian trooper had fired on average sixty rounds, an extraordinary amount for a single-shot weapon. But such criticism seems churlish and it was not widely shared.

In a final tragic denouement 400 Baggara horsemen appeared and charged Macdonald’s line, all were shot down.


As the dust began to settle it became increasingly clear that the Dervish Army had been utterly destroyed in both manpower and spirit. They had lost more than 12,000 men killed, 13,000 wounded, with a further 5,000 taken prisoner.

Despite all the fury of the battle the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force lost just 47 men killed and 382 wounded, fewer casualties than they had suffered in the engagement at Atbara five months earlier.

It had been a great slaughter as one who had witnessed it later described:

“They could never get near yet they refused to hold back. It was not a battle but an execution. The bodies were not in heaps – bodies hardly ever are – but spread over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a pillow, some knelt cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces.”


No weapon had been more effective at Omdurman than the Maxim gun for which a terrain of flat earth and open spaces could not have been more ideal as they swept the landscape reaping a rich and deadly harvest.

In his book on the campaign in the Sudan, The River War, Winston Churchill described the impact of the Maxim gun:

“A dozen Dervishes are standing on a sandy knoll. All in a moment the dust began to jump in front of them, and then the clump of horsemen melts into a jumble on the ground, and a couple of scared survivors scurry for cover.”

The Battle of Omdurman also spawned the author Hilaire Belloc’s famous line:

“Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun and they have not.”

It was a sentiment echoed perhaps more profoundly by the philosopher Bertrand Russell who saw that courage and belief in one’s cause was no longer enough:

“Ironclads and Maxim guns must (in future) be the arbiters of metaphysical truth.”


With the Dervish threat eliminated Kitchener ordered his troops to advance with fixed bayonets to clear the field, force any remaining Dervish west into the desert, and despatch those wounded and unable to move of their own accord, and with the blade so as to save on ammunition.

The Khalifa had in the meantime fled to Omdurman where he ordered what remained of his army to join him and defend the city. The order was largely ignored and unable to fight on he later abandoned the city riding a donkey through an opened gate during the hours of darkness with a handful of die-hard loyalists following in his wake.

Shortly after the Khalifa’s hasty departure the Sirdar occupied Omdurman with barely a shot being fired in its defence, Khartoum soon followed.


When news of the victory at Omdurman reached Britain it was greeted with joy and no little satisfaction as the newspaper headlines screamed – Gordon Avenged! And General Kitchener became the great hero of the late-Victorian era. His reputation soared even further when not long after he thwarted a French incursion into the Upper–Nile in a bloodless confrontation that became known as the Fashoda Incident.

The public also revelled in the four Victoria Crosses that were awarded at Omdurman all to men who had fought with the 21st Lancers, the greatest cavalry charge since the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and as it transpired the last such in British military history. They were the heroes of the battle much to the chagrin of Kitchener who sought to heap praise on MacDonald’s Brigade and their gallant defence of the rearguard.

Whilst Kitchener received the thanks and plaudits of a grateful nation the Khalifa, who hiding out in the desert proved incapable of rallying his forces sufficiently or revive his Ansar Movement that had been so savagely mauled, was killed on 24 November 1899, when his much diminished army was routed at the Battle of Umm Diwaikarat.

The more brutal aspects of the Sudan campaign such as the killing of prisoners and the desecration of the Mahdi’s Tomb were overlooked, at least by the public who were little interested in the subsequent Inquiry into inappropriate conduct which failed to gain any traction and which ended without much fuss in Kitchener’s complete exoneration.


On 31 October 1898, General Kitchener became Baron Kitchener of Khartoum, Lord K of K, and was to be a surprisingly enlightened Governor of the Sudan given the brutality of its conquest. He was later to bring the Boer War to a successful conclusion and in August 1914 was appointed Minister of War lending his image to one of the world’s most iconic posters.


On 5 June 1916, he boarded the Cruiser HMS Hampshire on a diplomatic mission to Russia in what would prove to be his last campaign.

In gale force conditions just a few miles off the Orkney Islands HMS Hampshire struck a mine and sank with great loss of life.

The last great hero of the British Empire had drowned aged 65, the nation went into mourning but not all those who had opposed, known or worked with him for Lord Kitchener had been a difficult man, ruthless in his pursuit of victory and brutal in his treatment of others, but then perhaps these are the men upon whom Empires are built and prosper.

** Notables other than Winston Churchill who fought at Omdurman included Major Douglas Haig future Commander of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War and Lieutenant David Beatty future Admiral of the Grand Fleet and First Sea Lord who commanded one of the gunboats.

**See also Lord Kitchener: Your Country Needs You
Gordon of Khartoum

Flora MacDonald: The Reluctant Jacobite

She should have died in obscurity having lived a life unremarked upon in a place as remote from the public consciousness as it was by location from mainstream society but she was brought into the narrative of history having had fame thrust upon her and the page she wrote was to prove as indelible in myth as it was in fact.

Flora MacDonald was born in 1722, on the Island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides a daughter of the Highland Clans, the MacDonald’s of Clanranald.

The Islands off the northern coast of Scotland were a place of dread to some, barren and windswept, of jagged cliff and narrow inlet surrounded by a treacherous sea they stood majestic as if torn from the grasp of God against his Will; but though grim and of frightening aspect to outsiders they bore deep into the heart and soul of their inhabitants and Flora was no different. She was deeply attached to the place of her birth and when as a young girl she had the opportunity to leave when her mother re-married (her father had died when she was still an infant) she chose instead to remain immersing herself in the folklore of the place, reciting the poetry of the people, and becoming a fine singer of songs in her native Gaelic.

In September 1740, she was invited to stay with Lady Margaret MacDonald of Monkstadt in Edinburgh where she could continue her education. There remains some uncertainty as to whether or not Flora took up the invitation or how long she may have remained but by 1745 she was back in the Hebrides – it was to prove a significant year.


On 23 July 1745, the catholic Charles Edward Stuart landed at Eriskay with just seven companions and a small cache of arms to regain, he said, the throne of Britain for his father and the one true faith but he had little to offer, he told those present to greet him, other than a trust in God and the loyalty of his people.

News of the Princes arrival soon spread but was not greeted with anything like universal approval.

Clan Chief Ranald MacDonald, who resided on the Island of Benbecula, was less than enthusiastic and had declined to come out in support of the Stuart claimant – the Islanders isolated, vulnerable to assault from the sea and with no hills or hinterland to retreat to were disinclined to commit to adventures of uncertain outcome – but he was willing to let his son commit to the Prince if he wished and along with other branches of the Clan as many as 500 MacDonald men were to fight for the Stuart cause constituting a sizeable proportion of what would be the Jacobite Army.


Despite such unpromising beginnings a series of unexpected victories saw the Jacobites clear much of Scotland of Hanoverian forces and march south to within 80 miles of London, but it wasn’t to be, and just 8 months after formally raising his Standard at Glenfinnan the Princes cause lay in ruins shattered upon the desolate moors of Culloden and thereabouts.

Following his defeat rather than try and rally his surviving troops, many of whom had not been present at the slaughter of Drumrossie Moor, he abandoned the Clans that had supported him and fled north with a price upon his head and the shadow of the noose around his neck looming large.

Hiding out in caves and abandoned buildings accompanied by a small retinue of loyal supporters he became reliant upon strangers for his sustenance and safety.

Living in constant fear that he would be betrayed for the unprecedented reward of £30,000 that had been offered for information leading to his arrest he was in despair and drinking heavily. His love of the bottle had already been duly noted but now it seemed it was his only solace.

He was not just a hunted but a haunted man and it was feared that he would break under the strain.


By June the Prince and his entourage had escaped as far north as Benbecula where the 24 year old Flora was at the time resident.

Benbecula was under the control of the Hanoverians but with no troops present they were reliant upon a local Militia to impose authority many of whom had been sympathetic to the Jacobite cause which at least offered a little respite and a glimmer of hope but opinion on the Island was divided and the reward remained a great temptation.

The noose was tightening, a naval blockade was in force and who and who could not be trusted a constant source of uncertainty and trepidation.

One of the Princes companions was Captain Conn O’Neill, a distant relative of Flora’s who had met her on a number of occasions. She was considered calm and good natured and was well-considered by those who knew her. He thought her a woman they could trust.


When he took Flora to visit the Prince and asked for her help she was reluctant to become involved.

She had taken little interest in the rebellion and knew that to aid the fugitive would be an act of treason undertaken at the expense of her own life. It was only upon meeting the Prince despondent, disheveled, malnourished, and tipsy that she changed her mind out of a sense of common decency rather than any expression of political or dynastic affiliation.

The plan of escape would be Flora’s, she would organise it, and she would facilitate it.

They would charter a boat and row to the Isle of Skye where support for the Jacobite cause was strong with the Prince disguised as Flora’s Irish maid Betty Burke. Once upon Skye the Prince would go into hiding until the opportunity came to continue onto Raasay from where he could take ship for the Continent and safety.

The Commander of the local Militia just happened to be Flora’s step-father Hugh MacDonald, not a man in whom she could confide but one who would issue Flora with a pass to the mainland for herself, a manservant, a maid, and a crew of six boatmen with few questions asked.


The Prince, bonnie and slim-hipped though he may have been was also tall and ungainly and did not make for a convincing woman. It also made finding clothes to fit problematic but he did at least turn a few heads:

Oh! See that strange woman, her big wide steps! What a bold slattern she is! One of a giant race for sure.”

Indeed, with rouged cheeks and a twee bonnet his trying to keep his long dress from trailing in the mud whilst acting the part of an oversized and compliant Irish maid was the cause of much mirth.

The noble Charles Edward Stuart’s own thoughts went unrecorded.

Leaving on 27 June with the pass from her step-father on Flora’s person there was little need for secrecy and though the atmosphere was fraught with tension the journey was uneventful accept for a choppy sea that rendered some less than well-set and leaden bottomed.

Having reached the Isle of Skye the Prince was ushered into hiding whilst a network of support and safe houses was established.

He thanked Flora for her help and promised that she would be suitably rewarded upon his return.


But the Stuart presence would never again cast its shadow upon Scotland’s shores and though their farewell had been heartfelt and beset with tears of joy and relief she would neither see nor hear from him again.

It wasn’t to be until September that a French Frigate was at last despatched to pick the Prince up and complete the escape by which time it was more in the Hanoverian’s interests to see him gone than bring him to trial.

Returning to Benbecula, Flora was soon to be disobliged of any notion that she may have got away with it for the boatmen, if they had been sworn to secrecy soon broke their vow and spoke often and loudly of the unusual woman who had been present in their boat.

Flora was arrested on suspicion of having aided in the escape of the traitor Charles Edward Stuart and taken south and imprisoned along with other suspected Jacobites in the Tower of London.

But unlike her fellow captives who elicited little sympathy Flora was much spoken of and in her case a willingness to concede the benefit of the doubt prevailed.

She fascinated and intrigued as much through personality as deed and became something of a cause celebre.


Taken before the victor at Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, whose amiable demeanour belied a ruthlessness that was to earn him the well-deserved title ‘Butcher’ Cumberland Flora conducted herself with grace and good manners answering his questions with calm reassurance.

When he demanded to know why she had knowingly betrayed her Sovereign, she insisted that she had acted only out of Christian charity declaring:

“I should have done the same for you Your Royal Highness had you been in like need.”

The Duke was suitably impressed.

It was soon widely acknowledged that she had not acted out of malice and posed no threat to the Hanoverian State and so from time-to-time was permitted to live outside of the Tower of London under the watchful gaze of Lady Primrose in whose care she was left.

On 17 June 1747, she was released from captivity under the General Amnesty promulgated for those remaining Jacobites who had not been brought to trial and returned to Scotland.

If she thought it was to a quiet life she was mistaken for she was famous and unusual for any conflict a heroine to both sides – to the Jacobites for her courage and devotion to a lost cause; to the Hanoverians for her daring and humanity.


On 6 November 1750, she married Allan MacDonald, an Officer in the British Army to whom she bore seven children and for the next two decades lived the sober life of devoted wife and mother interrupted only by the curious who would gawp from afar pay or attendance upon her.

One such visitor in 1773 was Dr Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame who wrote of her:

“A woman of middle stature, soft features, gentle manners, kind soul, and elegant presence.”

In 1774, Flora and Allan left Scotland for North Carolina just in time for them to become involved in the American War of Independence where her husband serving in the British Army was taken prisoner leaving Flora to fend for, herself.

It was to prove a traumatic time particularly when her house was destroyed and her possessions stolen.

Flora yearned to return home to the place she loved but it wasn’t until 1779 when her husband was released from captivity that they were able to take ship for England but even then it was to prove anything but trouble free.

Attacked by pirates during the voyage Flora refused to hide below decks and was badly injured in the fighting.

Destitute but well-connected Flora lived with relatives until 1784 when she and her husband were once more able to move into the family estate of Kingsburgh on the Isle of Skye.

Even late in life she remained a celebrity and a figure of admiration and devotion.

Flora MacDonald, the reluctant Jacobite, died on 4 March, 1790, aged 68.

The words that adorn her memorial at Kingsburgh are also those penned by Dr Johnson:

“Flora MacDonald, Preserver of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Her name will be mentioned in history if courage and fidelity be virtues spoken of with honour.”

The Fox Sisters: A Victorian Deception

The 1840’s were a time of great uncertainty in the United States with immigration from Germany, Scandinavia, and in particular famine hit Ireland continuing apace leading to overcrowding in the cities of the north with diseases such as cholera and diphtheria reaching almost epidemic levels; but as the north industrialised the south remained stagnant both socially and economically impeded in its progress by the institution of slavery which burned deep into the American psyche branding a nation born in freedom with the stigma of bondage.

The wilderness of the west also remained as yet un-tamed and the call for Americans to go forth to conquer the continent and achieve their Manifest Destiny was heard by the many desperate to escape the filth and poverty of the city.

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With such uncertainty comes the longing for understanding and the birth pangs of the United States as a great nation corresponded with a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening as people were drawn in their hundreds of thousands to the Protestant Churches – Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian, Calvinist, Lutheran etc. More established religions such as Anglicanism and Catholicism also flourished as did religious sects such as the Shakers, Dunkers, and Mormons.

All benefited from the desire to find God in a world beset by the frailty of man.

None of this would have been of any interest to two young girls growing up in the town of Hydesville near New York but it had created the environment which would lend credence to their later claims.

They were Margaretta Fox aged 14 and her sister Catherine, aged 12.

They lived in a house that was already rumoured to be haunted.

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In early 1848, the family became increasingly disturbed by peculiar happenings – there were knocking sounds akin to ghostly footsteps, doors would suddenly slam shut or windows burst open, furniture had been moved.

The girl’s mother Margaret, was clearly upset concerned there was a malevolent spirit loose but her husband John, a blacksmith and a hands-on practical man merely scoffed at such nonsense declaring it to be the result of a loose floorboard or a poorly hinged window bracket.

But his wife’s mind was not so easily put at rest.

Events reached their apex when late at night on 31 March 1848 she was awoken from a deep sleep with a start – doors were slamming and curtains flapping as the wind howled through open windows. She rose from her bed and lighting a candle nervously began to search the house before finally arriving at her daughter’s bedroom.

She was clearly frightened but Kate was awake and told her mother that she was unafraid and if it was a spirit then she would confront it.

Mrs Fox was not so sure but Kate peering into the darkness challenged it that was making the knocking sounds to repeat them, and after a slight pause, it did. She then asked it to rap out the ages of both girls, again it did.

Whereas her mother had been terrified into silence Kate appeared to be enjoying herself and using an old name for the devil demanded in a loud voice:

“Mr Splitfoot, do as I do.”

She proceeded to stamp her feet a number of times and the noises were repeated from somewhere else in the house.

She snapped her fingers and again the sound was echoed, she clapped her hands four times and demanded the spirit do the same – it did.

It appeared that Kate had made contact with the spirit world but seeing her mother so afraid Kate took pity on her and tried to explain it away:

“Oh mother, it is April Fool Day tomorrow, it is just someone trying to deceive us.”

But her mother was no longer listening, she was convinced she was in communion with the dead and her courage appeared to return as she began to question the spirit herself – how many children had she borne? How many were still alive? How old were they? Each time the spirit answered with raps, and each time answered correctly.

She wanted to know who the spirit was and so Kate told her – it was a father of five children who had died two years previously.

Would the spirit return and make its presence known if she invited her neighbours the following evening? If so could it make two raps?

There was a long delay but as she turned to leave the two raps were heard, it would return.

The following night a curious crowd gathered at the Fox family home many of whom were sceptical at Mrs Fox’s more outlandish claims including her husband John but were intrigued enough to suspend their disbelief for the time being and so once the girls had been searched for any contraptions and devices the séance began.

But their initial scepticism was only reinforced by what they heard, a series of creaking floorboards and barely audible cracking sounds and it wasn’t until one of those present devised a code related to the alphabet whereby the spirit could respond to specific questions, and did, that some were willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

As the evening drew to its close the girls, who had warmed to their task provided their own explanation as to why the house was supposedly haunted. They had been in communion with a peddler named Charles Rosma, they said, who had been murdered in the house and his body buried in the cellar.

Their revelation had unfortunate consequences for one local resident who having refused to attend the séance found that suspicion for the murder fell upon him even though there had been no report of a crime having been committed and no one could remember ever meeting a Charles Rosma.

He was later ostracised from the community and forced to leave.

Although many left the house that night shaking their heads in bewilderment those who did believe did so with enthusiasm and the excitement generated was such that Kate and Maggie were for a time separated and sent to live with relatives.

Their notoriety soared when various religious groups among them the Quakers proved willing to validate their claims but fame does not always equate to acceptance or popularity and the girls soon came under the microscope and a great deal of criticism including from their own Minister who requested the family cease attending Methodist Chapel for reasons of behaving inappropriately and causing offence.

It is possible that both Kate and Maggie frightened by what they had done might have left it there but for the intervention of their elder sister, 33 year old Leah, who lived some miles away in Rochester and had learned of the events in Hydesville from the newspapers.

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Leah, who already had an interest in spiritualism having recently read a book that popularised the theories of the seventeenth century Scandinavian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg who believed that life mirrored the spirit world that ran parallel to it and that the real sphere of existence prevailed in the afterlife and would one day reveal itself.

Was this what was happening in Hydesville, were her sisters the heralds of a new revelation? She thought they might be and set off to find out.

Her disappointment when told by her sisters that it was in fact all a prank can be imagined but her interest in the afterlife had not diminished her grip on the present one and she soon saw in their notoriety a means to make money.

Death was an everyday occurrence in New York, a city where even the charismatic preachers of the Second Great Awakening had failed to make a significant impact but there remained a yearning for peace of mind and spiritualism offered solace where the mainstream religions had failed to do so.

Leah was to cajole, bully, and threaten her reluctant sisters into compliance with her plans telling them that should it ever be revealed that they had merely devised a game designed to amuse themselves, and frighten their mother then they would never be forgiven – it would have to remain a secret for the rest of their lives.

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She would be their guardian, protector and manager she told them. Do as I say and I will make us all very rich – the sisters then taught her their tricks, and she was to exploit both for all they were worth.

Leah was determined to create her own faith based upon her sister’s ability to communicate with the dead forming a bridge to the recently departed with no need for prayer and the burden religious observance.

On 14 November 1849, the sisters demonstrated their ability to communicate with the spirit world at Corinthians Hall in Rochester. It was the first time such an event had been held before a paying audience and it was to spawn a thousand imitators.

Many more performances would follow as it became apparent that people were willing to suspend their disbelief in the cause of hope and that even those who were not would pay for the opportunity to voice their scepticism.

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The performances stuck rigidly to a familiar and well-rehearsed format: the three sisters would sit around a table and there would be some speaking in tongues before they joined hands and a prayer was recited and a hymn sung.

Maggie and Kate would then go into a trance and the cracks, the rapping, and the eerie sounds would begin as Leah interpreted events and guided the audience through proceedings.

Most listened in silence entranced and enraptured but some would shout their scorn to which Leah would respond that the spirits were real and that the dead were always in contact with the living even if the living needed the Fox Sisters to be their conduit.

By the mid-1850’s they were regularly performing in theatres throughout the New York area where the great and good of society such as the author James Fenimore Cooper, the doyen of the abolitionist movement William Lloyd Garrison, and the great newspaper editor Horace Greely were often in attendance.

Some believed and some did not but the fee remained the same.

In 1857, the sisters entered a competition being held by the Boston Courier Newspaper to prove the existence or otherwise of paranormal activity.

Putting their reputation on the line in such a public way was high risk but the pressure on them to participate was intense and the $500 prize on offer simply too great to ignore.

Despite the experts being unconvinced and concluding that they were simply participants in an elaborate hoax it little tarnished the Fox Sisters prestige or impeded the growth of the spiritualist movement of which they remained at the forefront.

Spiritualism was given a further boost by the terrible bloodshed of the American Civil War and the deep trauma it caused. There had even been séances performed at the White House following the death of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s young son Willie, with the President even attending on one occasion though he was to leave disgruntled long before the end.

No one benefited more from the renewed interest in spiritualism than the Fox Sisters and they continued to perform before sell-out audiences and conduct private séances for wealthy clients as never before.

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And they were no longer simply the purveyors of unexplained sounds but having learned the tricks of the trade they could make objects move and perform acts of levitation. They would also take questions direct from the audience predicting the winning lottery ticket number, moves in the stock market, and the future husband of lovelorn young women.

They were in the entertainment business and the audiences lapped it up but the critics remained and committees continued to be formed to investigate the validity of their claims but just as the sisters could not prove their authenticity the experts could not with any certainty show them false.

The sisters of course knew the truth but whereas Kate was willing to buy into the fiction Maggie who was herself deeply religious and had recently converted to Roman Catholicism often felt ill-at-ease and struggled with her conscience.

Indeed, she was to become convinced that spiritualism was akin to dabbling in the occult and was increasingly frightened by her association with it.

Despite the great deal of money both sisters had made over the previous decades neither was rich and both blamed Leah’s financial mismanagement for this and so when a sceptical journalist offered them $1,500 to reveal what he called the artifices of their trade the temptation was to prove great.

For Maggie it was the opportunity to relieve, herself of the burden of guilt that so tormented her; Kate on the other hand doubted it was for the best but needed the money.

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On 21 October 1888, before an audience of 2,000 at the New York Academy of Music including a panel of experts who would validate their revelations Maggie with a nervous and unhappy Kate alongside her confessed all.

She was to describe how as children upon learning the house they were living in was supposedly haunted they decided to have some fun with it and how they did so but first there was a denunciation and an expression of regret:

“That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know. The greatest sorrow in my life is that this has been true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!

I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.

When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a piece of string moving the string up and down causing the apple to bump on the floor making a strange sound every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She could not understand it and did not think us capable of doing tricks being so young.”

She then described how their ruse became more sophisticated.

“My sister Kate was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practised until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear it is astonishing how easy it is done.”

She went onto explain how it was being able to make these loud raps with the finger and toe joints on demand that was the trick.

“A great many people when they heard the rapping thought the spirit was touching them. It’s pure imagination.”

Kate had also denounced spiritualism in the press prior to their public confession though she had done so in a manner that had left her words open to interpretation.

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Once Maggie had completed her address to the audience both sisters were examined by a panel of experts who sought proof that they could indeed make those mysterious rapping sounds merely by manipulating their fingers and toes with Kate who had become increasingly uneasy as the night had worn on only doing so reluctantly.

The Fox Sisters confession caused a sensation, the most famous mediums in the world who had spawned an entire movement had been propounding a decade’s long hoax – how could they!

In her written mea culpa ‘The Death Blow to Spiritualism’ Maggie stated:

“We could not confess the wrong without exacting very great anger on the part of those we had deceived. So we went right on.”

Maggie was to recant her confession the following year and along with Kate return to spiritualism as the means to make ends meet but the damage had been too great and their reputation could not be restored.

All three sisters had long been popular guests on the New York party circuit and had become heavy drinkers as a result. It had taken its toll.

Leah Fox, whose drunkenness had long been blamed for the squandering of their fortunes and with whom the other sisters were barely been on speaking terms died in 1890, aged 74.

Catherine Fox died on 1 July 1892, aged 56, from complications related to advanced alcoholism.

Margaretta Fox passed away on 8 March the following year, aged 59.

All three sisters had died in poverty the subjects of scorn and derision as the movement they had helped found continued to grow and go from strength to strength.