Circumstance can make for strange military bedfellows.

Peacekeeping in the Balkans in the late fall of 2001 produced some funny feelings in me and some fellow officers and men of the 29th Infantry Division (Light). The older hands among us remembered—and in some cases had participated actively in—the Cold War. Here we were, though, working hand in hand alongside soldiers from Russia and its former Warsaw Pact allies. Here too, for that matter, were Finns and Russians, Hungarians and Romanians—even the British and French managing to get along. We were all working together toward a common goal, and in so doing, hoping to set an example for the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats whose internecine strife had brought us all there.

Odd mixings of troops and commands are nothing new. Britain’s longtime rivalry with France made the latter’s army a reliable haven for other enemies of the English crown, from Scottish Jacobites to exiled Irishmen. International cooperation could also work the other way, however. When French Maj. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Ottoman-ruled Palestine and laid siege to Acre in March 1799, he found its garrison under Bosnian-born Ahmed Djezzar Pasha augmented by 200 Royal Marines and sailors under Commodore William Sidney Smith, who together would ultimately force Bonaparte to withdraw on May 20.

When Russian moves against the Ottoman Empire threatened the balance of power in Europe in 1854, Britain allied with France to bolster the tottering Turks in the Crimean War. The next year, a cadre of British officers directed the stout Turkish garrison of Kars against a more powerful Russian army, while also battling the demoralizing corruption of the local Ottoman officer corps (story, P. 38).

Few military phenomena are as bizarre as a general taking the field against his own countrymen, but that, too, was far from uncommon. Among the many cases that have already appeared in Military History Magazine is that of Saxon Earl Tostig, who joined Norwegian King Harald II Hardraade against his brother, King Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066 (April 2003 issue). Another is Charles de Montpensier, duc de Bourbon, a 16thcentury French noble who led Imperial forces against his king, Francis I (February 2003). A special case is Prince François-Eugène of Savoy-Carignan. Denied a French army commission by King Louis XIV, Prince Eugene later made his sovereign regret it when he, like Charles de Bourbon, accepted an Imperial Hapsburg command and became one of the “great captains” of his age.

When it comes to turncoat commanders, none is more infuriating to the average American than the brigadier general who led the British into New London on September 6, 1781. The man was certainly capable—he had proven that on several occasions before, most notably at Quebec in 1775, at Balfour Island in 1776 and at Saratoga in 1777. At that time, however, he had been a major general in the Continental Army. Now Benedict Arnold was wearing a red coat, and as if his attempt to sell out his command at West Point in 1780, or his burning of Richmond, Va., early the following year wasn’t enough, his return to his home turf in Connecticut would seal his place in the American lexicon as a synonym for “traitor” (story, P. 54).

While Arnold would reach no reconciliation with the newborn nation he had betrayed, Britain eventually would. Ironically, one of the first steps toward rapprochement came 10 years after the subsequent War of 1812, when the captains of an American and a British warship worked together to deal with pirates operating from Cuba—and in accomplishing their common mission, laid the groundwork for American amity with the mother country that endures today (story, P. 66). Circumstance often makes for strange military bedfellows, but sometimes, as I observed in the Balkans, they can work out for the best.

 

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here