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Sometimes warrior elites adapt and prevail, and sometimes they don’t.

Throughout history, certain peoples, armies or individuals have stood out for their martial talents or traditions. This issue of Military History has its share of them, sometimes fighting in their own element and sometimes having to adapt themselves to nontraditional circumstances, with varying results.

Among the more established martial reputations were those enjoyed by the armies of imperial Britain and Rome, Scottish Highlanders and the Filipino Muslims known as Moros. In 47 BC, however, it was a case of Roman versus Roman, as the followers of Gaius Julius Caesar and the late Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus carried their ongoing civil war to North African soil. Here, given equal discipline and training in strategy and tactics, the deciding factor lay in the leadership—a challenge to which Caesar was already well accustomed (story, P. 26). In 1719 the Highlanders facing the Hanoverian government forces at Glenshiel found themselves in over their heads in the midst of a Jacobite rebellion gone wrong from the beginning (story, P. 50). While the Moros’ ferocity and ingenious hill forts had held the Spanish at bay throughout the latter’s colonial occupation of the Philippines, they faced a more determined and formidable foe when the U.S. Army invaded their islands (story, P. 58).

The British got an unpleasant surprise of a different sort when they tried to squelch the budding career of a teenage French volunteer in the rebelling American Continental Army named Maj. Gen. Gilbert Motier, marquis de Lafayette, in May 1777 (story, P. 16). Equally sobering were their first skirmishes with a prickly group of Dutch and Huguenot settlers in South Africa who wanted only to be left alone but who, as their earlier Zulu adversaries could already have testified, were formidable fighters when aroused. Although the British eventually prevailed over the Boers in those largely forgotten first encounters in the 1840s (story, P. 42), they proved to be just the prelude to some bloodier embarrassments to come later in the century. Still later, when faced with an equipment crisis in the wake of the Crimean War, the British swallowed some pride and bought American-designed Sharps Model 1852 carbines for their cavalry, just in time to put them to use in the 1857 Indian Mutiny (story, P. 70).

As mentioned in last issue’s editorial, the American Indian has had to live with a warrior stereotype that is part flattering and part embarrassing. One outstanding warrior who showed his mettle in modern warfare is this issue’s “Personality,” Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., whose actions in the Korean War earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor (story, P. 24).

Red Cloud was hardly the first soldier who redefined himself in a different environment. At a time when the Swiss supplied some of the toughest companies of soldiers money could buy, Martin Schwartz found an exotic locale in which to fight when he sold his services to a cabal of English lords who refused to acknowledge that the Wars of the Roses were over. So it was that at Stoke Field on June 17, 1487, Schwartz led a 2,000-man force of Landsknechte—German mercenaries who were normally archrivals of the Swiss— as part of an army challenging King Henry VII’s claim to the crown on behalf of a 10-year-old pretender (in more than one sense of the word) (story, P. 10).

When a whole new breed of warrior comes into existence, he has to build a new tradition from scratch. Such was the case with Edward Shames and his fellow U.S. Army paratroopers, as they trained hard for their combat debut in World War II. This involved a new dimension of self-sufficiency beyond that of the standard light infantryman—of being vulnerable from the time they left their airplane, and of having to seize control of their fate from the instant their boots touched the ground. By the end of the war, Shames’ division, the 101st Airborne, had established its place among the military elite (interview, P. 34).


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