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The amateur Colonel of Curupayty

Discussion in 'World History' started by Kafka2, May 30, 2005.

  1. Kafka2

    Kafka2 Whale-raping abomination

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    (For an account of the wider conflict involved in the War of the Triple Alliance please see the article by luiz at http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=119831)

    "Lions led by donkeys"- that's the traditional description of the British military. Heroic common soldiers and NCO's, led by some of the most incompetent officers in the world. Finding examples of truly stupendous idiocy in British officers is like finding flies on a wheelbarrow full of dung in a jungle. It's too easy. So here's the challenge- what if you took a British civilian with absolutely no military experience, and put him in charge of a vital strategic area in possibly the bloodiest war ever seen? Well the surreal bloodbath that was the War of the Triple Alliance threw up just such an example in the form of George Thompson.

    Thompson was an young engineer, in the Victorian sense. A man who designed and drove big enginering projects. His field was railways, and he arrived in Paraguay in 1857 at the age of 18 as junior assistant engineer. We'll never know if he would have been as brilliant an engineer as Brunel, but he was keen and showed potential. When it became clear that war was going to break out in 1864, Thompson was one of fifty British contractors who decided to remain in Paraguay. It appeared to be almost a whim, in Thompson's case- his journal recorded that he fancied "a change of air", so he decided to try war.

    The insane ruler of Paraguay, Francisco Lopez, made many catastrophic decisions in his life, but he made one inspired one. He put the young British engineer in charge of preparing fortifications at Curupayty- under the command of the eccentric General Diaz at Humaita. Thompson knew nothing at all about this subject- I can trace no evidence to suggest he'd ever even fired a gun in his life. However he wasn't one to be fazed. With a tremendous display of cool pragmatism, he bought a book on the subject by mail order and read it. He'd picked the best book on the subject- Macaulay's "Field Fortifications"- but then he sat down and started thinking.....

    **********************************

    It should have been easy. Paraguay's navy was a joke- they had nothing to match Brazil's ironclads. The mighty Brazilian fleet of fifteen ironclads, with 70lb Whitworth cannons, would simply power up the Rip Parana, destroy Humaita (just upstream of Curupayty) then smash up into Paraguay's innards. Indeed, it looked promising at first, though the Paraguayans certainly caused a nuisance (including the novel appearance of primitive torpedoes). However, just outside Curupayty, the fleet stopped dead. George Thompson had managed to get hold of a chain of 4-inch links (of the sort used in suspension bridges) and had stretched it across the river just below the waterline. The Brazilian advance was halted in its tracks.

    Delayed and frustrated, the Argentine infantry in the Allied forces decided to launch a full-scale attack on Curupayty acros the swamps. It should have been easy- so easy, in fact, that they took their saucepans with them in the expectation of dining in Curupayty that very night. They outnumbered the Paraguayan forces many times over, and there had been little time to prepare the fortress. Or so they thought....

    Thompson was an engineer. He made a living out of getting large numbers of people to do big things quickly. Around Curupayty he had put everything he learned from Macaulay into action, plus a number of additions of his own. The swamp had been transformed into an amazingly intricate set of interlocking trenches, breaches and enfilades- all planned and set out with pinpoint accuracy. Thompson had also rejected the standard military formulae for setting the berms of cannons, and calculated his own instead to take into account the poor quality weapons at his disposal.He had moved 200 cannons in from Humaita, and set every one of them himself, checking the angle of the berm to precise minutes of degrees. He had also strung concelead chain cables across the ground to trip the Argentine cavalry. There had never been a set of field defences like it- it was planned with obsessive and minute attention to every mathematical detail. When the Argentines charged, they were cut to pieces.

    In the battle for Curupayty, the Paraguayans fired 7,000 cannon rounds. They killed 9,000 Argentines- a staggering feat of accuracy for the times. They lost just 54 men, making it one of the greatest military upsets in history. It was a disaster for the Argentines, who quickly lost enthusiasm for the war and left it up to the Brazilians.

    The Brazilians fared little better. Curupayty stood for over a year, with Thompson's garrison hurling back all assaults. The Allied fleet still couldn't get past Thompson's chain either. The end came when unusually high water levels allowed the ironclads to sail over the chain and bypass Curupayty. Thompson's cannons blazed away at them as the passed, on their way to strike at Humaita 15 miles upstream. The Brazilians breathed a sigh of relief. Then, when they reached Humaita, they got the shock of their lives. Thompson's cannons were waiting for them.

    In an astonishing feat of organisation, Thompson had dismantled most of his artillery as soon as the fleet had passed Curupayty. He had then rushed it up the fifteen miles of jungle tracks and reset it before the Brazilian ironclads arrived. What's more, he'd been busy fortifying Humaita too. The Allied forces were suddenly right back to square one.

    Back at Curupayty, Thompson had left a small garrison beseiged by the Allied infantry. Being far too wary to attempt a fast assault, the Allies threw a massive artillery bombardment at the stronghold that lasted three days. Eventually they plucked up the nerve to charge- only to discover that Thompson's "garrison" was actually several dozen scarecrows. The Allies had wasted three days and countless rounds bombarding a stronghold that held not a single person in it.

    ***************************

    By the time Humaita was besieged, it was clear that the Paraguayans had no chance of winning the war. That didn't stop them, however- one can only marvel at the unhinged levels of courage and resilience they displayed. In his journals, Thompson noted that should a Paraguayan by blown apart by a shell, his friends would fall about laughing and consider it a great joke that the dead man would probably have loved. This lunatic courage was their greatest asset, and coupled with what the Allies now knew about Thompson, it made them very wary about tackling Humaita. When the Brazilian commander, Marques de Caxias finally did so with 12,000 men, it was practically a repeat of Curupayty as they ran into Thompson's fortifications. In just one hour, the Allies lost two thousand men, while the Paraguayans lost just forty-seven. To make matters worse, when they finally started running out of ammunition and food Thompson managed to sneak his 2500 men out of the seige from under the Allies' noses.

    After the fall of Humaita, it was the endgame of the war. Thompson wasn't finished yet, however. He managed to get 800 "men" (mainly young boys and mostly unarmed) to a strong redoubt at the Angostura Rapids, and once again he set to fortifying his position. They had ammunition for only a couple of hours of combat, and practically no food, but they managed to create a nearly-impregnable position. Marques de Caxia baulked at storming it- although he correctly predicted that they Paraguayans must have been critically low on ammo and food, he had seen two major assaults on Thompson's fortifications result in disasters. So he sent in and English messenger to negotiate a surrender, and Thompson finally agreed.

    After a brief imprisionment, Thompson was freed. He was very fond of his Paraguayan comrades, and his final meeting with Marques de Caxia saw him berate the Brazilian at great length about the brutality inflicted on the Paraguayan captives. Finally he left Paraguay, leaving the occupying Allied forces awestruck at what this young amateur had achieved. Thompson returned to England long enough to write up his adventures, before returning the Paraguay a year later. He married a Paraguayan and fathered several children while organising the rebuilding of Paraguay's railways. He died six years later in 1876, aged just 37.

    Had he been leading British troops, there would be statues of George Thompson across Britain. Instead he's practically unknown here. However he was a hero to Paraguay, and at his funeral his coffin was drawn by the President's own horses,- a small town was named "Thompson" in his honour. He had fought as an engineer, not an officer, and his painstaking preparations, attention to detail and visionary burst of genius forged a miracle in the defence of Paraguay.
     
  2. luiz

    luiz Trendy Revolutionary

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    :clap: :goodjob:

    Excellent article, Kafka.
    It's wonderful to know new details about the life of George Thompson, a truly amazing figure. It should be noted that he made very accurate predictions about the war in his diary - he predicted that the battle of Tuiti would be a disaster for Paraguay, for exemple. He was a civilian with a true military mind.
     
  3. mrtn

    mrtn Shaven not stirred

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    What luiz said. :)
     
  4. Dann

    Dann Green bug

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    Ditto.

    :worship:
     
  5. Knight-Dragon

    Knight-Dragon Unhidden Dragon Retired Moderator

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    Interesting. :goodjob:
     
  6. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's remarkable stuff. Just goes to show how much more interesting than fiction fact is!
     
  7. Zardnaar

    Zardnaar Chieftain

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    Brilliant. I was going to skip this thread until I saw the author.
     
  8. Keshik

    Keshik TJ's Daddy

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    Good work, as usual, Kafka2.

    Of course, I did expect to read of some kind of deviant sex due to the conditioning received from your prior articles.
     
  9. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    I know. What kind of historical filth is this? You're talking about someone who was competent and brave! Shocking slide in standards, etc.

    Where did you find out about this? It would be interesting to know how mainstream knowledge is of Thompson.
     
  10. Kafka2

    Kafka2 Whale-raping abomination

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    I'm a voracious reader of travel literature, largely because it can be a great source of obscure information on history in far-flung areas. This article was largely drawn from a fantastic example of the genre- "At the tomb of the inflatable pig" by Richard Gimlette. This book also provided a large chunk of my "Historical Filth" article on Paraguay- it carries my seal of approval as a great read.
     
  11. pawpaw

    pawpaw Now Farve-Proof

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    Never heard of him, very informative :goodjob:
     
  12. TheLastOne36

    TheLastOne36 Chieftain

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    Huge 8 year bump I know, but this was a great article by the OP and I am very glad to have read it.

    You mentioned at the end that Thompson wrote a book on his experiences and I would very much like to find it. Is this the book by any chance?


    Also I am shocked and disappointed that he has no English wikipedia page. I am somewhat motivated to translate the Spanish page into English. :)
     
  13. Gen.Mannerheim

    Gen.Mannerheim Grand Moff

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    For some reason, the War of the Triple Alliance feels to me like if all the New England states ganged up on Connecticut for being feisty.

    And LastOne, did you mean a wiki article for the War itself (because there is one) or on Thompson?
     
  14. TheLastOne36

    TheLastOne36 Chieftain

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    On Thompson. I have some experience writing wiki pages on various eastern european things, and since I am fluent in Spanish and I think Thompson deserves a page I might as well.
     
  15. Ashurdan

    Ashurdan Chieftain

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    Can't recommend that book highly enough
     
  16. Louis XXIV

    Louis XXIV Le Roi Soleil

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    I would say go for it. I, too, am glad this was bumped because this story is just too cool.
     

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