When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War

Larry Holzwarth - February 28, 2020

Nature is not affected by the laws of war, indifferent to the military efforts of mortal man. The laws of nature are more than capable of overriding the laws of war and have throughout history. Had it not been for soaking rains the day and night before the battle, Napoleon likely would have won at Waterloo. The opening days of the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 were marked by atrocious weather. Allied fighter-bombers and ground support aircraft were grounded. The weather gave the Germans a decided advantage throughout the first phase of that epic battle.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
The Russian winter combined with the Russian Army to destroy Napoleon’s domination of Europe. Wikimedia

It was a violent storm, more so than the British fleet, which wrecked the Spanish Armada in the 16th century. The Mongol invasion of Japan was stopped by storms which the Japanese attributed to the gods. They called the storms the Divine Wind. The Japanese expression entered the English language during World War II – kamikaze. Here are details of these and other examples of the weather and natural phenomena affecting the affairs of man in combat with his fellow man throughout history.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Heavy rains the preceding day and night delayed Napoleon’s attack at Waterloo for several critical hours. Wikimedia

1. Thunderstorms contributed to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo

Napoleon planned to strike his enemy at Waterloo early in the morning of June 18, 1815. The Emperor was well aware of the proximity of the Prussian forces and had dispatched a corps to deal with them. But he was also aware that reinforcements could come for Wellington from that direction. Driving the Anglo-Dutch army from the field early in the day ended that peril. But the heavy rains of the day and night before had turned the roads and fields into muddy quagmires. For Wellington, positioned on a ridge with little plans to maneuver, they were no problem. For Napoleon, they were nothing but.

Napoleon’s army relied on what he called flying artillery, which moved rapidly around the battlefield to positions where they were most effective. They often moved repeatedly during battle. At Waterloo, Wellington remarked admiringly on their ability to speedily redeploy. But they could not do it in the mud. Napoleon was forced to wait as the morning sun dried out the fields, allowing him to use his army to best effect. The exact time of the start of the battle is debated, but it was several hours later than Napoleon had originally intended, and by the time he did launch his attack in late morning, the Prussians were already on their way. They arrived just in time to help the hard-pressed Wellington.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
American infantrymen take cover in heavy snow during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge. US Army

2. The Battle of the Bulge began with a surprise attack in terrible weather

For several days preceding the launch of the 1944 German Winter Offensive in the Ardennes, bad weather prevailed. Poor visibility prevented Allied air reconnaissance. The buildup of supplies, artillery, tanks, and other vehicles had gone unnoticed by the Allied commanders, and when the attack was launched on December 16 it achieved complete surprise. The primary anti-tank weapons against the superior German tanks were airpower and artillery. Both were blunted by the weather, which was no accident. The Germans selected the time, date, and place of the assault with the weather in mind, knowing it gave them the advantage.

It was an advantage they retained for several days, as the Allies struggled to contain the German advance into Belgium. It was a struggle largely borne by American infantrymen and airborne troops (it was the largest battle ever fought by the US Army). As the weather cleared after Christmas, and Patton’s troops arrived in Bastogne to break the siege, anti-tank aircraft struck at the Germans’ armored columns. Airpower shielded the troops on the ground as they reduced the salient in Allied lines created by the weather-aided German assault. Had it not been for the weather, the German buildup prior to launching the attack would have likely been detected and destroyed from the air.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Although the English harassed the armada, including using fireships, it was the weather which destroyed the Spanish fleet. Wikimedia

3. The Spanish Armada suffered its greatest losses from storms

The Spanish fleet of 130 ships which sailed from Corunna was bound for the French port of Calais, where it was to meet with Dutch troops under the Duke of Parma. En route, it was attacked by English fireships and raiders. Several other engagements occurred between the smaller and faster English ships and the Spanish fleet. A major engagement was known as the Battle of Gravelines, where several Spanish ships were damaged, and five were lost, run aground in the shoal waters. Unable to rendezvous with Parma, the Spanish fleet was forced by contrary winds to sail north, hounded by the British ships. The British pursuit was called off due to low ammunition on most of the vessels.

The fleet sailed along the west coast of Scotland and north of Ireland, where it encountered violent storms, high seas, and predominantly westerly winds. Several of the damaged ships were driven ashore, wrecked. As the fleet attempted to round the north coast of Ireland more ships were lost. Only 67 ships returned to Spain, and less than 10 thousand men survived the expedition. Far more ships were lost to the weather than to English shots and fireships. The Armada had already failed in its mission when it turned for home and encountered the worst of the weather, defeated by the English ships. But it was the weather which destroyed it, preventing another attempt by the Spanish that year.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Kublai Khan’s invasion of Japan was broken up by a Divine Wind, though some believe the story to be ancient legend. Wikimedia

4. Two Mongol invasions of Japan were affected by the weather

The first Mongol invasion of Japan was in 1274. The Mongols defeated the Japanese and captured several islands, slaughtering much of the civilian population, before the Japanese turned the tide at the Battle of Torikai-Gata. The Japanese victory forced the Mongols to withdraw to their ships and return to the continent. During the voyage home, heavy winds and seas were encountered, most of the ships were sunk, and the bulk of the army was destroyed. Behind them, the chastened Japanese built stronger defenses in anticipation of their return. In 1281 the Mongols did return, or rather they attempted to.

The exact size of the second invasion, in terms of the number of men and ships involved, is debated. What is generally agreed is that the invasion was to be of overwhelming numbers. The Mongols landed at several locations, occupied some and were repulsed at others in the Koan Campaign. In August, with most of the Mongol army aboard their ships preparing for a concentrated attack on the much smaller army of defenders, a typhoon roared through the Sea of Japan. Most of the Mongol fleet was destroyed in the storm which remained in the area for a full two days. The Japanese attributed the storm to divine intervention and named it the Divine Wind – kamikaze.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Napoleon’s retreat from Russia actually began in Autumn, though the conditions were appalling. Wikimedia

5. Winter destroyed the Grand Armee on the plains of Russia

In 19th century warfare, the capture of an enemy’s capital city usually led to capitulation. As Napoleon conquered most of Europe it was the capture of enemy capitals, or an irresistible threat to them, which marked his campaigns as successful. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 his armies advanced across the steppes, defeated the Russians in a major battle at Borodino, as well as other smaller battles, and occupied Moscow. There he waited for the Tsar, Alexander I, to request terms. Napoleon entered Moscow to find it abandoned by the citizenry, and much of it was burned. More was burned during his brief occupation.

With inadequate shelter for his army and no surrender from Alexander, Napoleon was forced to withdraw, leaving Moscow in October as the snow was already beginning to fly. Retreating back the way he came he found little in the way of sustenance for his troops. Horses and men died in the bitter cold. Men froze to death sleeping in the snow. The withdrawal became a retreat, and then a rout. French soldiers wandered off, snow blind, to be killed by Cossacks or Russian peasants. About 380,000 soldiers of the Grande Armee died, most from the Russian weather, too weak from hunger for their bodies to generate heat. The weather destroyed Napoleon’s army, one of the largest in history.

Also Read: 6 Times the Weather Has Changed War History.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Contrary to American myth, the weather was relatively mild during the Valley Forge encampment. Wikimedia

6. The weather protected the American army at Valley Forge

Much of the story of the winter encampment at Valley Forge during the American Revolution is a myth. The weather during the winter of 1777-78, the season of the encampment, was relatively mild. Temperatures were normally above freezing during the daylight hours, snow was light, and there were few ice storms. In fact, though normally 18th century armies did not campaign in winter, conditions were such that Washington was constantly concerned that the British in Philadelphia would sortie to attack the encampment. His troops were weakened from disease and hunger, and they were ill-equipped, but nobody froze to death, as American myth presents.

The weather was such that the British could not sortie, not because it was too cold and snowy, but because it was too warm. The roads were muddy and nearly impassable for horses and drawn vehicles. Had the weather gone colder, troops would have moved on frozen roads, as Washington had during the Princeton campaign. Several winter encampments during the Revolutionary War featured more severe cold and heavier snows, including the Morristown winter camp in 1778-79. The following year was recorded as one of the worst winters, in terms of cold and precipitation, in the 18th century. Washington’s army emerged from Valley Forge as a disciplined, professional military unit.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Italian soldiers during World War I. Wikimedia

7. Avalanches killed thousands of Italian and Austrian soldiers during World War I

Italy entered the First World War in 1915, fighting mostly the troops of Austria-Hungary, with much of the fighting in the Alps. The conditions were brutal in the summer as well as the winter months, when the cold of the elevated areas froze unmittened hands to trigger guards, and bayonets were frozen solidly in their sheaths. In December 1916, heavy blizzards deepened the snows along the flanks of the Alps, as well as on the encampments and barracks of the troops beneath the steep slopes of the mountains. On December 13, 1916, the snow collapsed in an avalanche that roared down Mount Marmolada.

About 200,000 tons of snow, ice, uprooted trees, rocks, and other debris fell onto Austrian encampments, killing more than 300 men. Most of their bodies were never found. Throughout the month, several avalanches occurred. Whole brigades were buried by the descending snow. An estimated 10,000 Austrian and Italian troops were killed by the avalanches that month, and more followed after heavy snows in January. Some have postulated that the avalanches were deliberately caused by sappers and engineers on both sides, but little evidence to support the idea has surfaced.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Dutch ships in the frozen Zuider Zee fell prey to French cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Wikimedia

8. Cavalry captured an enemy fleet when it became frozen in ice

During the French Revolutionary Wars, the winters were usually harsh. It was during the last years of the period known as the Little Ice Age. In 1795 a Dutch fleet was in the waters known as the Zuider Zee, anchored near the small town of Den Helder. Though it was typical of ships to depart anchorages prone to icy conditions before the arrival of cold weather, the sudden onset of terrible cold caught the fleet unawares. Ice floes made the wisdom of departure questionable. By January the ice floes had become a solid block of ice, and the fleet was literally frozen into the anchorage. Over 100 ships, including the bulk of the Dutch fleet, were in the harbor, though not all of them close enough inshore to be frozen in.

French cavalry heard of the situation and upon arrival at Den Helder took stock of the opportunity. The ice was more than thick enough to support horses and men. In a surprise assault on January 23, 1795, a cavalry charge was launched across the ice to attack the Dutch ships. Fourteen ships of the line – the battleships of their day – were captured by the French cavalry. The event was so improbable that some historians question whether it truly happened, but several accounts written later by some who participated in the action are in agreement. The weather allowed cavalry to capture ships in 1795. Or so they say.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Washington’s retreat from Long Island was assisted by the weather in 1776. Wikimedia

9. Washington took advantage of a real fog of war

During the New York campaign of 1776 Washington’s Continental Army prepared to engage the British under Sir William Howe on Long Island. Howe relied on local Loyalists to guide his army through unguarded passes and outflank the Americans. Washington was badly beaten in his first major encounter with the British in the open field. He was also in serious trouble. He needed to get the remainder of his defeated army off Long Island, where the British had it trapped. Washington prepared defenses on the western end of Long Island while his Marblehead Regiment gathered the boats needed to evacuate the Continentals. There was no way they could counter the Royal Navy.

Both sides prepared for a siege. On the night of August 29, a heavy fog rolled in along the Hudson River. Washington had the wheels of gun carriages and wagons muffled with rags, and one by one, the companies of his army went to the riverbank, where they were picked up by the Marblehead Regiment under Colonel John Glover. They were transported under cover of fog to Manhattan. The entire army, including all of its equipment and supplies, were evacuated under the very noses of the British. When the fog lifted on the morning of August 30, the Americans were in positions across the river on Manhattan Island, having used the fog to cover their movement.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
The winds which saved Kokura ensured the devastation of Nagasaki in 1945. Wikimedia

10. Wind caused Nagasaki to be the target for the second atomic bomb during World War II

The primary target for the second atomic bomb was the ancient Japanese city of Kokura. It had been bombed earlier in the war, by B-29 bombers flying from China. The flight of B-29s which attacked on August 9, 1945 included two weather observation aircraft, which flew over both potential targets, Kokura and Nagasaki, ahead of the airplane carrying the bomb, Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Both weather observers reported favorable conditions over their respective targets. Sweeney headed for Kokura. He was under orders to drop the bomb after sighting the target visually, rather than relying on radar to identify the target. When he reached Kokura he found the target obscured, though cloud cover was moderate. The city was obscured by smoke.

A firebombing raid on Yahata the preceding day produced fires which still burned, and the smoke from the fires had been driven over Kokura by the prevailing wind. In addition, the earlier overflight by the weather observer had alerted the Japanese. The Yahata Steel Works burned coal tar in its mills, which created heavy, dark smoke which served as a screen. Kokura was totally obscured, and after three passes over the city, Sweeney flew on to Nagasaki. There he found the target partially obscured, but a break in the cloud cover allowed the bombardier to visually identify the target and release the first plutonium bomb used in warfare. Had it not been for the wind, Kokura would have joined Hiroshima as the two cities devastated by atomic weapons during World War II.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
An Isle of Man ferry founders after striking a mine while approaching Dunkirk, May 1940. Wikimedia

11. The “Miracle of Dunkirk’ owed much to adverse weather conditions

By late May, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force in France was defeated, driven to the French beaches around Dunkirk by their German adversaries. The War Cabinet decided to withdraw them to Britain, leaving the French to their fate. A necessity of the withdrawal led to the creation of the fleet known as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” and the evacuation of 330,000 Allied troops, using ships of the British, French, Polish, and Dutch Navies and Merchant Marines. The evacuation took nine days. During that time there was less than three full days when weather conditions allowed the Luftwaffe to fly. Thick cloud cover, fog, and occasional heavy rains kept the German fliers on the ground for most of the operation.

The question of how much the weather aided the retreat from Dunkirk is evident from looking at the casualties sustained during the operations. Although the Germans were unable to attack from the air for most of the operation, 243 of the 861 ships used to evacuate the troops were sunk, nearly all of them by the Luftwaffe. Had clear weather prevailed the losses would have been much heavier. Churchill, canny propagandist that he was, credited the Royal Navy and the small boats for the evacuation publicly, though privately he acknowledged the weather had stymied the Germans for much of the operation. The remaining British troops in France, outside of the Dunkirk pocket, were evacuated via Operation Ariel during the rest of June, 1940.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Suddenly dropping temperatures allowed Washington to maneuver out of a trap and into a victory at the Battle of Princeton. Library of Congress

12. George Washington’s New Jersey Campaign was saved by changing weather

George Washington’s daring strike at the Hessian outpost in Trenton, New Jersey was a masterstroke of surprise. It was only part of a plan which included other attacks in New Jersey, which failed to materialize on the night of December 25-26, 1776. Another force, under John Cadwalader, was to have struck a garrison at Bordentown, but it failed to get across the Delaware River. Sleet, snow, and ice floes in the river prevented his movement. Following Washington’s victory, the Americans withdrew into Pennsylvania. When Cadwalader moved into New Jersey at the end of the year, Washington moved south of Trenton to consolidate his position. Meanwhile, the weather moderated, and the roads turned to mud.

When British troops under Cornwallis arrived at Trenton, Washington was placed in a dangerous position. The British were confident their enemy was trapped, and planned to attack the next day, January 3, 1777. George Washington was a farmer, as such, he was an astute judge of the weather. His weather eye told him that the temperature would drop, freezing the roads and allowing his army to move. He was right and using roads unknown to the British, his army moved toward Princeton that night. When Cornwallis prepared to attack in the morning, the Americans were gone, their whereabouts unknown until they heard of the fighting at Princeton, another American victory. The freezing weather gave Washington the opportunity to deliver another humiliating defeat on the British.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
A romanticized depiction of the storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. Wikimedia

13. The weather contributed to the causes of the French Revolution

Hunger was one of the primary causes of the French Revolution, caused by a series of crop failures, as a result of fickle weather. During the period of French involvement in the American Revolution crops were generally good, harvests were plentiful, and bread was available cheaply in the shops. Following the Treaty of Paris, several years saw bad harvests, as heavy rains destroyed crops in the spring, or arid summers killed them in the fields. Prices for food fluctuated wildly, and the lower classes grumbled at the lack of food, while the nobility lived in flaunted luxury. The government was in crisis. There was little money available to spend on relief of the poor, and the priests of the church – many also members of the nobility – could do little to help.

In July, 1788 a series of hailstorms swept across France, devastating the crops in the fields. Hailstones were reported as large as cats. The harvest of 1788 was France’s worst in forty years. The government moved to ease the famine which followed, outlawed the export of grain, and attempted to import food. The ensuing winter was bitterly cold, canals and ports froze, and transport was severely restricted by the weather. Spring floods ensured another bad harvest to come. In Paris, food shortages reached a crisis in the spring. The government of Louis XVI appeared hapless. Bread shortages led to riots and demonstrations, which in turn led to the storming of the Bastille and the onset of the French Revolution, during which both the nobility, and for a time the Church, were abolished.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Heavy rain disrupted a plot to kidnap then Governor of Virginia James Monroe. Wikimedia

14. Heavy rains ended a slave rebellion before it began in 1800

Gabriel, sometimes erroneously referred to as Gabriel Prosser, was a slave believed to have been hired out as a blacksmith in Richmond, Virginia, in the late eighteenth century. Hiring-out slaves was a common practice in Virginia, the wages paid for the work were usually kept by their owner, though some allowed the slave to keep a small portion of what they earned. As a hired slave, Gabriel came into contact with other slaves as he traveled to different sites to perform his work. In 1800, Gabriel was alleged to have plotted a slave rebellion which included about two dozen slaves. They were to escape, gather at a predetermined site, and according to some kidnap James Monroe, then Governor of Virginia.

Monroe was to be held hostage against their receiving their freedom. Gabriel’s Rebellion failed when heavy rains and accompanying thunderstorms prevented the group from assembling. Gabriel escaped to a ship in the James River, where another slave recognized him and turned him in to Virginia authorities. Another slave warned Mosby Sheppard, his owner, of the plot and Sheppard, in turn, informed Monroe, who ordered the Virginia Militia to round up the conspirators. Gabriel and 25 other slaves were implicated in the plot, and all 26 were hanged for participating in the conspiracy in Richmond. Had the weather not intervened, American history may have been quite different.

Read More: What Daily Life for an Enslaved Person in Virginia was Like?

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
USS Langley taking heavy rolls as it rides out Typhoon Cobra in December, 1944. US Navy

15. Typhoon Cobra severely damaged the United States Pacific Fleet in December, 1944

On December 17, 1944, Admiral William F. Halsey steered the United States Pacific Fleet’s Task Force 38 into the eye of a typhoon. The ships had been operating in the Philippine Sea, conducting bombing and strafing raids on Japanese airfields in the Philippines in support of MacArthur’s operations in the islands. Task Force 38 consisted of seven large fleet carriers, six light carriers, 50 destroyers and destroyer-escorts, fifteen heavy and light cruisers, and eight battleships. There were also oilers, tankers, and support ships. The destroyers were attempting to refuel when the storm hit, and many of them were so low on fuel they rode high in the water. Seawater had to be taken aboard as ballast, an act many captains hesitated to order.

Three destroyers were sunk during the storm. Several aircraft carriers suffered damaging fires when airplanes broke loose from their restraints, collided with each other, and ignited. Others had aircraft lashed to the flight decks washed overboard. A total of 146 aircraft were lost in the storm. The light carrier Monterey was severely damaged by fire. The Officer of the Deck during the storm was Lt. Gerald Ford. He later reminisced he had nearly been washed overboard during the event. In addition to the three lost destroyers, nine other ships were damaged to the point they returned to port for repairs. Nearly all of the ships of Task Force 38 suffered damage from the typhoon, and 790 American sailors lost their lives to the storm.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
The weather contributed to the removal of Ambrose Burnside as Commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1863. Wikimedia

16. The Mud March of January, 1863

Major General Ambrose Burnside led the Union Army to a crushing and humiliating defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862. The bloody debacle prevented his army from crossing the Rappahannock River, and continuing down the peninsula to Richmond. The following month he determined to try again, seven miles south of Fredericksburg, supported by diversions north of the town. Lincoln intervened, ordering the Army to remain where it was. After days of political scheming and maneuvering, Burnside offered a revised plan to cross the river north of Fredericksburg with the main body of the Army. Lincoln ultimately approved, but then the weather intervened. Unusually mild temperatures and heavy rains swelled the river, and turned the roads to mire.

The river swelled to the point that the pontoon bridges were inadequate to cross it, and as engineers struggled to add more the army became, literally, stuck in the mud. Artillery pieces and caissons sank in mud up to their axles. Horses and mules struggled to free them until they dropped from exhaustion. Men found themselves stuck in sticky mud up to their knees. The rain continued. None of the Union Army units crossed the river, where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waited to annihilate them if they did. On the second day of the attempt, January 22, the weather was worse. Burnside gave up, ordered the Army to retire to winter quarters, and waited for his inevitable termination as Commander of the Army. It came on January 26.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Americans attempted to extend the monsoon season during the Vietnam War to disrupt enemy transportation. US Army

17. Operation Popeye was an American plan to lengthen the monsoon season

During the Vietnam War, the United States conducted a highly classified operation to manipulate the weather in Southeast Asia. Vietnam received heavy amounts of rainfall during the monsoon season, which occurs from spring to fall. During that period, US war planners and military observers recognized the decrease in traffic moving supplies to communist troops in South Vietnam. They reasoned extending the monsoon season would weaken the enemy. At the same time, creating even heavier rainfall would wash out roads and bridges, make streams unfordable, and damage crops. The United States government created Operation Popeye (though it had other names throughout its existence) to manipulate the Vietnamese weather.

Over the course of five years, Operation Popeye seeded clouds over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while the US Air Force, Army, and Central Intelligence Agency denied the program’s existence to Congress and the press. It was revealed to the public through newspapers and confirmed with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Its effectiveness was limited since the exact length of the monsoon season was variable by nature. When it was revealed in classified Congressional hearings in the 1970s, the legislators were more concerned with its cost than the results it obtained. Popeye led to international treaties – of which the United States was a signatory – which bans the manipulation of weather, as well as other “acts of God” as a weapon of war.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Sweden and Russia fought several wars over centuries, often in brutal weather conditions. Wikimedia

18. Russian Armies marched across the frozen sea during several wars

For over three centuries before the American Revolution, Sweden and Russia (called Muscovy in the early wars) fought a series of conflicts for sovereignty over the region of the Baltic. Denmark and Poland frequently allied themselves with the Russians, while Sweden received support from what became Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and others. The allied nations changed sides frequently, depending upon the causes of each individual conflict and its impact on their own political and territorial ambitions at the time. The bulk of the wars took place during the period of history known as the Little Ice Age. During the Little Ice Age winters were longer, colder, and featured more precipitation than the norm.

Several times during the wars between the Swedes, Russians, and their various allies, Russian Armies marched across bodies of water which froze solid during the winter months, taking with them their baggage, wagons, and heavy artillery pieces. The Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland were both used as open plains by the Russian Armies, which marched across them and attacked targets presumed safe by the Swedes. The last time the Russians crossed frozen seas on foot was during the Finnish War in 1809, an adjunct of the Napoleonic Wars.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
A sudden thaw forced the French to bridge the frigid Berezina before they could cross. Wikimedia

19. An unexpected thaw did as much damage to Napoleon’s Army as the frigid Russian winter

The retreat from Moscow is often depicted as Napoleon’s Army trudging through heavy snow, with men dying in deep drifts alongside dead horses and abandoned equipment. The depictions are accurate, but what is often forgotten is the damage done by an unusual thaw during the retreat. Napoleon expected a respite from the harassing Russian attacks when his army crossed the Berezina River, which was typically frozen at that time of year. When his army reached the Berezina, they found it in full flow, widened by the early thaw, and virtually impassable. Ice floes raced downstream in the swift current, making bridging operations extra hazardous. The Russian army had the French trapped.

French and Dutch engineers constructed a bridge 330 feet in length while troops of the Grande Armee held off the attacking Russians. The engineers worked in water so cold that death from hypothermia occurred in less than 30 minutes of exposure. Once the bridge was completed the French cavalry raced across, to establish defensive positions as the artillery and infantry began their withdrawal. The engineers immediately began work on a second bridge. By nightfall, most of the French Army had escaped, and the rear-guard units continued to hold off the Russians until they were ordered to surrender. The name Berezina became synonymous with disaster in French. As the remnants of Napoleon’s army headed into Poland, the river again froze over, allowing the Russians to rapidly pursue.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War

Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau, with the town in the distance. Wikimedia

20. Tactics at the Battle of Eylau were dictated by the weather

The Battle of Eylau was fought between the French and Russian armies on February 7-8, 1807. It was one of the bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars to that time, fought largely over possession of the town of Eylau, which both sides wanted to retain as a shelter for the soldiers of their armies. The battle occurred in subfreezing temperature, in a driving blizzard. There was no other nearby town of sufficient size to provide the soldiers’ shelter from the storm. Napoleon’s troops first attacked the town in the evening hours of February 7, fighting in the dark, and blinded by the driving snow. The French captured the town, which provided shelter for some of the troops, but it also dictated Napoleon’s position for the following day, if the Russians did not retreat.

The Russians stayed, and February 8 saw heavy fighting throughout the day. Eylau saw the massed charge of over 11,000 French Cavalry, led by Marshal Murat, one of the greatest in history to that time. It also saw heavy casualties sustained by both sides. The battle lines wavered throughout the day, and both the French and Russians were reinforced as the battle went on, the latter by a Prussian corps. That evening the sides were more or less in the same positions as they had been when fighting began that morning. The fighting continued well into the dark, finally coming to a halt around 10.00 PM. The Russians declined to remain on the field for a third day of fighting, and withdrew. Altogether there were about 75,000 casualties between the two armies, in a battle fought to seek shelter from a storm.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
British General Sir William Howe encountered rains so heavy his army was unable to move. Wikimedia

21. The Battle of the Clouds was aborted due to heavy rains

Following his defeat at Chadd’s Ford, known to history as the Battle of Brandywine Creek, Washington’s Continental Army withdrew to the area near Malvern, Pennsylvania. His army was resupplied from stores in Reading, and he positioned it to protect Philadelphia from Sir William Howe’s British and Hessian army, which remained on Brandywine Creek. When Howe learned of Washington’s whereabouts, he moved to again attack the Americans. Washington placed his troops into defensive positions, meaning to give battle. He sent a small force to harass the British advance, and skirmishing started early in the afternoon of September 16, 1777.

Then it began to rain, a heavy downpour which got worse as the day went on, reinforced with passing thunderstorms. The British march halted. The soldiers attempted to protect themselves from the rain, though their tents had been left behind at Chadd’s Ford. Cartridges carried by the troops on both sides were quickly ruined. The American skirmishers withdrew, though they took 34 Hessian prisoners with them. The storm continued through the night and the following day, rendering the roads impassable. Washington withdrew his troops beyond the Schuylkill River to allow their powder to dry. The Battle of the Clouds (also called the Battle of White Horse tavern) was in effect, canceled due to rain.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
Puebla changed hands between Mexicans and French several times during the French intervention in Mexico. Wikimedia

22. The Battle of Puebla was a Mexican victory aided by rain

The holiday Cinco de Mayo, which is more widely celebrated in the United States than it is in Mexico, notes the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. Mexican forces occupied two forts on hilltops north of Puebla, connected by a trench running between them. French forces attacked them from the north. The French launched their attacks at noon that day, with a heavy artillery bombardment preceding the infantry assault up the slopes. The Mexican defenders repulsed the first attack. French bombardment continued as the infantry regrouped for a second attack. It too was repulsed. The artillery ran out of ammunition as the French infantry prepared a third assault.

The third assault went forward without artillery support, and the Mexicans were encouraged to launch counterattacks in the open ground as the French advanced. Around three in the afternoon it began to rain heavily, an almost daily event known by the Mexicans, but not their French adversaries. The slopes of the hills became slippery quickly, and the booted French found the footing treacherous as they tried to move up the slopes. By late afternoon the French gave up and withdrew. They returned a year later and captured the city with a reinforced army, but the victory at Puebla, aided by the Mexican climate, became a point of pride in Mexico, and a declared national holiday.

When Mother Nature Decided to Get Involved in War
American troops successfully stormed redoubt Number 10, leading Cornwallis to attempt an escape from Yorktown. Wikimedia

23. The weather saved Washington’s campaign one more time at Yorktown

In October 1781, the British army under Lord Cornwallis was trapped in Yorktown, Virginia, outnumbered 2:1, and under continuous bombardment by American and French artillery. A small detachment of British troops occupied Gloucester Point opposite Yorktown on the York River. It was watched by a small detachment of American troops. Cornwallis decided to evacuate his army under cover of darkness to Gloucester, break through the American troops there, and march to the north, escaping Washington and Rochambeau’s entrenched forces and moving through eastern Virginia to Maryland. He believed a relief column could be dispatched from New York, moving southward to meet him.

On the evening of October 16, Cornwallis assembled his troops below Yorktown along the riverfront. Boats from Gloucester and Yorktown were filled with British troops and sent across the river. After delivering the troops to Gloucester the boats were returning for another load when a storm arose, abruptly and unexpectedly, with high winds and heavy rain turning the river into a raging torrent. The boats were widely scattered, few managed to make it back to Yorktown. At dawn, the movement was noted by the Americans and French, and guns were directed toward the river. Unable to escape, as Washington had at New York five years earlier, Cornwallis was forced to face reality and ask for surrender terms. Washington’s carefully laid siege at Yorktown was saved by the sudden storm of October 16, which led to the surrender three days later.


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