Military History: What the 173rd Airborne Looked Like Two Centuries Ago


Historic reoccurrence is a controversial concept. However, events, especially in military history, often take place in similar sites. The reason for this phenomenon is simple. Throughout centuries logistics, weaponry and technology change, but terrain and strategic points continue to shape military campaigns.

Consequently, soldiers’ accounts share similarities in impressions, discomforts and adventures, even if they happen to belong to vastly different armies even separated by centuries. One intriguing example comes from Friedrich von Brühl, a Prussian serving in the Austrian cavalry who fought in the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte. In the fall of 1813 he wrote a lengthy letter home describing the city of Vicenza, Italy and the surrounding region of Veneto, an area known so well by many of today’s American soldiers and veterans. Vicenza, after all, is the home of a sizable U.S.Army garrison, with the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade and U.S. Army Africa.

Brühl’s letter comes from the enormous Buttlar-Venedien Family Archives recently deposited at the Prussian Privy State Archives in Berlin. The most significant find contained within these papers remains the complete intimate correspondence between the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and his wife Marie. Friedrich von Brühl, or “Fritz“as his family called him, was Madam von Clausewitz’s younger brother. As Marie’s preface of On War reveals, Fritz supported her in editing and publishing the seminal treatise after the military theorist’s untimely death in 1831.

In 1813–1814 the Austrian Army was heavily engaged fighting Napoleon. The real action occurred in Central Germany, at the Battle of Leipzig, where Napoleon personally led his troops in a costly and spectacular defeat at the hands of a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops. Fritz, however, was a junior cavalry officer in the Austrian Army in Italy. The Italian campaign against the French, who were led by Napoleon’s stepson and Viceroy in Italy Eugene de Beauharnais, was just a sideshow.

Fritz wrote a letter dated November 22, 1813 to his sister Marie informing her of his whereabouts and his first impressions of the Italian countryside. I have deciphered and partially translated the letter into English.  “[Italy] resembles a garden, and one [because of its] beauty, eventually, boring,” Fritz von Brühl stated, “Instead of grain fields you see nothing but vineyards and cornfields and paddies. Everywhere mulberry trees form an unwieldy line, adorned with vine as if [it were] a garland.” This beauty, though, was equally menacing for a cavalry squadron because “all of these surroundings offer the enemy, which has nothing but infantry, the best protection.”

In an attempt to hold off the enemy’s advance, Beauharnais had retreated to the Adige River. The Austrians aggressively sought the next major clash and rushed through northern Italy. This disappointed Fritz, for it left little time to appreciate the cities and landmarks in a country which even then was a popular tourist destination. Instead, the troops had to hurry “in many unpleasant marches during the most disagreeable weather.” It was only when the Austrians arrived in Vicenza that they took a break and waited for reinforcements from the north.

Rather than catch up on sleep, the young officer decided instead to tour the city. Fritz’s report that he “found there many sophisticated and upright people” eager to show him Vicenza would come as a surprise to modern-day visitors. Today the city’s landscape is marked by various monuments proudly celebrating its resistance to Austrian rule (1814–1866). During the Revolution of 1848, Vicenza’s picturesque hill Monte Berico was, for instance, the scene of a bloody battle. However, in the fall of 1813 the Italians warmly welcomed the newly arrived Austrian troops. Despite initiating long-sought reforms, Napoleon had put an end to the Venetian Republic, which Vicenza had been part of since 1404, burdened the city with high taxes, and enlisted in his army its young male population.

Situated between two famous historic cities, Venice and Verona, Vicenza has frequently been overlooked by travelers throughout the centuries, despite boasting some of the most famous buildings of Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance premier architect. “Although I know nothing about architecture, I was very pleased to see the big, so-called Olympic Theater,” Fritz wrote.  “[It] is the pride of [the city’s] educated class, that claims that not even in Rome such a building exists.”  Even today the Palladio’s indoor amphitheater is the first local landmark where Italians take newly arrived U.S. soldiers during their initial orientation classes.

From Vicenza, the Austrians marched further west, towards the French stronghold Verona. Fritz fought in the bloody Battle of Caldiero for the control of the Adige River (French and Austrian troops had also clashed there in 1796 and 1805). “Early on the 15th, with the sunrise, a heavy cannonade announced the advancement of the enemy,” Fritz reported. “It was the viceroy, who had gathered all of his disposable force to celebrate his name’s day,” the young officer wrote in jest. Just a sentence later his mood darkened as he recalled the fierce and numerous French assaults that drove the Austrians in the afternoon back on the road toward Vicenza. Fritz lost his beloved commanding officer, had to ford a frigid creek, and spent a night, cold, wet, and on horseback. “On the next day we buried [the major] in Montebello — and by this occasion some shed tears who otherwise do not cry so easily,” he wrote.

Today Caldiero and the nearby San Bonifacio and Soave, where the clashes continued, are peaceful little towns well known among U.S. soldiers and their families, with cozy trattorie, bucolic castles, and pleasant wineries. Fritz, overwhelmed and tired after the Battle of Caldiero, lost any interest in touring the countryside. In the temporary ceasefire his regiment took quarters in Soave. To this day, this little town has preserved its medieval castle and surrounding walls, while its wineries produce what is probably the best-known white wine in Italy. Yet the young cavalry officer only cared that he had been comfortably billeted with a local family.

Not surprisingly, Fritz actively (and ultimately unsuccessfully) pursued transfer to the main war theater in central Europe. For their part, Italian soldiers in the French army deserted en masse (“everyday officers with different ranks and [from different] regiments come to us”), but the Austrians had to fight the French battle-hardened veterans for “hills, roofs, and gardens.” Italy’s rugged terrain favors defenders, and indeed U.S. troops in WWII faced similarly bitter struggles, as Rick Atkins’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944 reveals. In fact, in 1813–1814, Beauharnais managed to hold off an army nearly twice the size of his own by skillfully exploiting factors of time and the local terrain. He surrendered only after Napoleon’s defeat.

While Fritz was far from a great writer, his letter brings forth knowledge about soldiers’ everyday life in the Napoleonic era beyond battles and campaigns. It also reminds us that, as much as technology has transformed war-fighting, little has changed in the way military men and women experience the world around them.

Read the Original Article at: War on the Rocks

Corbett vs. The Caliphate: What a Long Dead Naval Strategist Tells us about Combatting the Islamic State



Julian Corbett (1854-1922) has long been hidden in the shadow of Clausewitz and by the baneful glare of modern think tanks. Renowned as a naval thinker, Corbett was far more—and ever adept at pointing out how absolute theories collapse when faced with reality.

Of particular pertinence to the current befuddlement of U.S. policy toward the Islamic State and the general disorder of the Middle East is his study of the prelude to and first year of the Seven Years War. First, Corbett highlights the indecisiveness and nervousness of the Newcastle government, which led to a doomed attempt to calibrate a naval policy toward France that was not too cold, not too hot, but just right. The result was delayed and muddled orders to the fleet.

Second, Corbett notes the cost of those vague orders. Trained to believe that nothing was as important as closing with the enemy, commanding officers on remote stations precipitated actions whose diplomatic costs outweighed the strategic advantages. Others, such as the unfortunate Admiral Byng, interpreted their ill-conceived orders as justifying caution to a fault. The consequence of an indecisive government and an uncomprehending maritime service was a year of failures for Great Britain, the naval superpower of the day.

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks

The Battle of Salamis: Themistocles and the Birth of Strategy


The dichotomy of strategy and tactics in war did not solidify as a concept until the publication of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War in 1832. Since then the relationship between the two has been hotly debated, along with the subsequent interjection of the operational level of war. What is not debated are the concepts themselves. Tactics and strategy are related but they are not the same thing. Strategy, of course, comes from the word ancient Greeks used for their generals, strategos. Clausewitz’s ideas were intended to be applicable for all of military history so it can be instructive to look into the past — at the genesis of strategy itself.

A tactician would never abandon key terrain without a fight; it makes little tactical sense.

A strategos was not solely concerned with winning battles — the tactics. He was, in the later words of Clausewitz, concerned with the use of battle to further the political ends of his city. In other words, the strategos had to keep the long-term goal in mind and ensure that the tactics work to further that goal. A tactician would never abandon key terrain without a fight; it makes little tactical sense. But strategy may demand that very thing and tactics must be subordinated. This exact situation occurred during the Persian Wars in Fifth Century Greece. The first major Greek strategist, and perhaps the most gifted, was Themistocles.

If a strategist must have a gift for long-term planning, then Themistocles was a born strategist. As a child, he reportedly fostered friendships with well-born children despite rules against such liaisons in pre-democracy Athens. When Themistocles was born in 524 BC, there was little chance he would one day achieve political power or have any opportunity to make use of those friendships. Themistocles as a child could not have known exactly how such connections would benefit him.

Read the Remainder at Medium

Neglected Skills of the Civilian Operator


“Habit hardens the body for great exertions, strengthens the heart in great peril; Habit breeds that priceless quality: CALM, which passing from rifleman to commander, will lighten the task.”



In the CO’s quest to stay tactically prepared for any eventuality that may come down the pike, taking a realistic, no bullshit inventory of what skill-sets may have become neglected, for whatever reason, is a good ideal. As I have said many times before, when the CO decides to take charge of his own development and training as a warrior, Self-Delusion and Illusions of Grandeur have to be thrown out the window. HONESTY with one’s self is fundamental to be successful. Let’s face it: when it comes to “self-training”, all of us tend to focus more on the skills we are good at versus the ones we suck at, right? I mean none of us Alpha-Males will ever pass up the opportunity to pet our own ego’s when we can right? Word of advice: Stop thinking that your personal drill time is about creating opportunities to “pet your ego.” The sooner you realize that what you are doing is not a game or a round of “tactical golf”, but in essence a lifestyle, the sooner you will start becoming a warrior in the purest sense of the word.

A good friend suggested I do a “Top 3” or “Top 5” CO Neglected Skill Set list, but I soon realized that for this to be truly effective,  it is going to be up to the CO to be honest with themselves and develop  their own Top 5 or Top 10 “neglected skills” list. I did however, want to give you guys a guide to help steer you in the right direction, so I took a poll the other day with my students and came up with the following short list.


  • Endurance Training

So many students when you start talking about “neglected skills sets” automatically want to either pick up a gun or knife and go Rambo. Very few want to consider the very base  aspect that they are not in the most ideal shape physically to get into a fight. Bottom line, if you run out of steam 45 seconds into a fight, you are probably going to lose and/or die, so from my experiences, cardio and endurance training should be something you do every time you go to drill. Strength training is also important, but from what I have seen in my experiences, it has been a persons cardio/endurance and not just pure strength that has brought them through most “sideways situations.”

  • Small Unit Tactics

If a guerilla resistance is to be effective in combat, it has to be organized. The squad is the basic tactical building block of an armed force; conventional or un-conventional,  it is the primary war-fighting unit.  U.S. ground forces, principally the squad rifleman, have historically suffered nearly 80% of all wartime casualties since WW1. The difference between the training for a small, guerilla army and a larger, more conventional army is that the guerilla armies training revolves principally around the squad and maybe platoon strength, while a conventional army training revolves around much larger contingents of men, typically company strength and above.

I will be doing a series of articles on this topic as I carefully develop the HCS syllabus for fall courses. In the meantime, a great resource to give you the basics is the US Army Rangers Handbook (I have an older version as a .pdf file if anybody wants it; just email me) Since this is a vast and in-depth topic, it would be my suggestion to focus on two primary things to begin with: Patrol Procedures and Setting Ambushes. Once you have the squad where they are semi-cohesive and can follow simple orders, you can start training on breaking and initiating contact.

Just remember: a well-trained and highly motivated individual by themselves can accomplish very little in the big scheme of things tactically, but just like a hand with five individual fingers, when it is open, it is vulnerable and pretty much useless, but when that hand closes and becomes a fist, it becomes a viable and potent weapon that can make a serious impact.

  •  Medical Trauma Training

Most CO’s know basic first aid and CPR, but very few have actually taken the time to learn how to treat a traumatic injury, like a gunshot wound or a knife stabbing. Just like the solider on the battlefield, every CO needs to be trained in how to treat a gunshot wound. Sure, we all may carry a Quickclot pack in our car or in our Range Bag, but have we actually used one yet in a simulated incident? The US Military uses pig carcasses to teach TCCC (Tactical Combat Casualty Care), so it is not out of the realm of possibility for civilians to do the same. Of course for you less adventurous souls, you can shell out the greenbacks and take a serious course like the ones offered at Lone Star Medics if patching up pigs is not your thing.

So there it is, a short list to get you going. But as I said before, be REAL with yourself and start with the SKILLS you know you need to work on! Now, enough sitting around and jaw jacking, get off your ass and go train!

Stay Real, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!