THE AGE OF ARTHUR (PART THREE)

This is the third-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur! But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived. (Read Part Two here)

THE DEFENSE OF ROMAN BRITANNIA IN THE 4TH CENTURY

To understand the army of Arthur and the defenders of Britain in the 4th and 5th century, we need to briefly examine the structure and composition of the Roman army that defended Britannia before the Roman withdrawal. This was the model upon which Vortigern (and, ultimately, both Ambrosius and Arthur) based the defense of Britain.

Roman Britannia was divided into three military commands:

The first was the Dux Britanniarum (the “Duke of Britain”), head-quartered at Eburacum (York). His responsibility was the northern defenses; particularly the garrisons that supported Hadrian’s Wall. The second command, the Comes Litoris Saxonici (“Count of the Saxon Shore”), commanded the coastal fortresses fronting the English Channel and the North Sea. And, finally, the senior of the three: the Comes Britanniae (“Count of Britain”), commanding the province’s mobile field army (Comitatensis).

As in other parts of the Roman Empire, all Roman soldiers in Britain were divided into two rough classes: second-rate, hereditary garrison troops, called Limitanei; and the first-class fighting troops, called comitatenses (sometimes referred to as comitatus). Both classes contained units of cavalry and infantry, light and heavy troops. The Limitanie (garrisons of the Limes) were the descendants of the classical Roman legions and auxilia cohorts, stationed along the frontiers since at least the time of Hadrian, and in places even earlier.

Over the centuries, their size and quality had deteriorated. From the 3rd century on, the best were occasionally pulled back to the interior of the provinces, to make mobile field armies; capable of responding rapidly to any major breakthrough of the frontier perimeter. These, and new regiments raised by various emperors, comprised the comitatenses: the mobile field armies stationed in key frontier provinces.

The strategy of the Late Empire was for the limitani garrisons to deal with low-level threats, such as raids by war-parties or pirates. Major invasions by tribal armies were allowed to pass between the forts (the various “barbarian” races were never adept at siege work, and these border forts tended to get bypassed by invaders eager for easier plunder); leaving the limitani intact to sally-out later to harass stragglers or interdict the invader’s supply and reinforcements. It was the job of the comitatensis to intercept and defeat these larger invasions. Until the 5th century, the quality gap between limitani and comitatensis had been narrow. Limitani were capable of being pulled ad hoc out of their garrisons to augment the field armies on specific campaigns. (Limitani so elevated to field force duty were designated pseudocomitatensis.)

In the 5th century, as their corn rations from imperial granaries in North Africa dried up, these troops became part-time militia; living in their fortresses with their families, and farming the surrounding area. As the situation deteriorated in the Western Empire, these garrisoned fortresses became islands in sea of German-controlled territories….

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SCHLIEFFEN’S PLAN: A STUDY IN ECONOMY OF FORCE

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At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany and France were already preparing for the war that would break-out in 1914. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, these two Great Powers spent the intervening 44 years preparing for a Franco-Prussian War redux. But each had analyzed their first encounter, and drawn very different conclusions as to how best to fight the next one.

The problem for the potential combatants was one of space and magnitude of forces available to both sides. There was too little of one and too much of the other.

The Franco-German frontier was only 150 miles long; from Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, to the Swiss border in the south. Because of the conscription system developed and implemented by both countries in the years since 1870, both sides had greater masses available to fill this frontier zone than ever before; creating a virtual wall of divisions from north to south.

Prussia_WilhelmII_1914_01_fullThe Kaiser inspects his troops on the eve of the Great War. All the Great Powers  had instituted universal conscription, with much of the male population of Europe enlisted in either regular or reserve formations.  This created massive armies, on a scale unseen. The Schlieffen Plan gave the Kaiser’s General Staff confidence that they had the means of defeating the French Army rapidly on the Western Front; allowing them to then shift forces east to meet the Russians.

To make matters worse for any offensive-minded theorists, both countries had spent a great deal of effort and treasure in creating fortress belts on their side of the frontier. Any attack across the mutual border by either promised to be a very hard slog indeed!

For the Germans, the problem was also one of time: they were facing a potential two-front war; with the possibility of Tsarist Russia throwing-in with the French in the eventuality of war. But Russia was….

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART FIVE)

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(This is Part 5 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)

While he had begun the campaign with a masterful stroke at the junction between the Allied forces, Napoleon had failed to defeat either Wellington or Blücher’s army. Now, at Waterloo, he was preparing to break Wellington’s center with a massive assault by his one fresh force, D’Erlon’s Corps. But first he needed to mask or take the fortified farmhouse of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right.

HOUGOUMONT

The exact time that Waterloo began, with the attack on Hougoumont, is disputed. Most accounts say it began about 11:30am. However, according to Wellington’s dispatches [1], “at about ten o’clock (Napoleon) commenced a furious attack upon our post at Hougoumont”. It is curious that there is no certainty as to when so important a battle actually began. But considering how punctilious Wellington was in all matters, I am prone to take his word for it that the assault on Hougoumont commenced at 10 am.

This stronghold was held by a battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment, detachments of riflemen from the Hanoverian Brigade, and assorted companies of the British Guards regiments. The Guards were among the last to arrive at the Waterloo battlefield; and Wellington had placed them behind that part of the ridge warded by Hougoumont. They would have the crucial task of holding his right flank at all costs.

(Throughout that grueling day, Wellington was extraordinarily careful that his right not be turned. A successful French attack here risked cutting Wellington off from his line of retreat to the northwest; where lay Brussels and, beyond, the coastal ports. To prevent this, he stationed his best infantry (the Guards) behind Hougoumont; at further detached another much-needed 17,000 troops to Hal, to the northwest. Throughout the long day, even after it was certain Napoleon had no intention of attempting such a maneuver, Wellington refused to recall this final flank guard from Hal.)

Hougoumont consisted of a walled farmhouse, attendant outbuildings, and garden; surrounded by orchards (defended by two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the First Regiment of Foot Guards; who after the events of this day were re-designated as the Grenadier Guards).

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It has been asserted that Napoleon meant to draw troops from Wellington’s right into a bloody defense of the farmhouse, thinning Wellington’s reserves. However, to take so strong a place Napoleon committed his entire left wing, consisting of nearly all of Reille’s II Corps, and supported by Kellerman’s Corps of cavalry. All day the battle for the farmhouse would rage, and it can be argued that it had the reverse effect: tying up some 14,000 French troops, and most of the horse artillery of Kellerman’s Cavalry Corps (which would have serious consequences later in the battle).

Likewise, Wellington was forced to commit 12,000 troops and several much-needed batteries of artillery from….

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ARMIES OF THE SUCCESSOR STATES: THE SELEUCIDS

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Of the empires created from out of the Wars of the Diadochi, none started on firmer military footing than that founded by Seleucus Nicator (“the Victorious”; or, alternately, “the Conqueror”).

At the time of his murder in 281 BC, Seleucus command (arguably) mightiest army the world had yet seen. He had defeated, and then combined with own, the armies of his erstwhile rivals Antigonus Monophthalmus  (“One Eyed”) and Lysimachos. Put another way, of the four great Macedonian Successor armies fighting at Ipsus in 301 BC (twenty years earlier), all of the some 160,000 combatants now served Seleucus.

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Seleucus I Nicator

Within were men that had been junior rankers under Philip and Alexander; who had first conquered Greece and then laid  “the whole of Asia” (for that is how they thought of the Persian Empire they had subdued) beneath their spears . These were hard men who had marched across the Middle East and back; veterans of the greatest campaigns and most titanic battles of the age. This force represented the combined experience and victorious tradition that was the Macedonian military machine founded by Philip and perfected by Alexander.

Seleucus was assassinated by an estranged son of Ptolemy Soter, King of Egypt. A portion of his “Grande Armee” chose to serve the assassin, the freebooting prince Ptolemy Keraunos. Presumably these were the veterans of Lysimachus’ army, only newly enlisted in Seleucus’ service after their master’s death at the Battle of Corupedion, and with scant loyalty to the House of Seleucus. Ptolemy Keraunos  used them to seize the throne of Macedonia for himself. The rest of Seleucus’ army either dispersed or returned east; to be settled by his son, Antiochus Soter across the empire as “kleroi”, military colonists. These  formed the nucleus of the future army of the Seleucid Empire.Hellenistic_World_250BCE_map

Thus perhaps more than any of the other Successor Kingdoms the Seleucid Royal Army traced its lineage and maintained the traditions of the army of Alexander and his immediate Successors (many of which were great military leaders in their own rights). This, combined with the vast financial resources of what had been the Persian Empire at their disposal, made the Seleucid army the largest, the most lavishly equipped, and (arguably) the most effective of the armies of the Successor kingdoms…..

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THE VARANGIAN GUARD: ELITE WARRIORS OF BYZANTIUM

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The 10th century was the zenith of the Viking Age. The warriors of Scandinavia, renowned for their ferocity, cunning, and fighting prowess were feared throughout Europe.

In the East, the Scandinavian’s who settled in what became Russia were known as the Rus. In the 9th century, they had become the ruling military elite in Russia and northern Ukraine; founding principalities at such places as Novgorod, Smolensk, Ryazan, Chernigov, and Kiev. From the beginning, they developed close trading ties with the Byzantine Empire; and occasionally went to war against it. Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Scandinavian/Rus warriors took military service under the Byzantines; mostly serving as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions.

In 988, the Byzantine Empire was convulsed in one of its all-too-frequent civil wars. The Emperor, young Basil II, appealed to Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev for assistance. In return for the hand of Basil’s sister, Anna, in marriage the Rus sent 6,000 warriors to assist Basil against his enemies. At the battles of Chrysopolis and Abydos, Basil’s Varangians played a key role in defeating the rebel armies and guaranteeing Basil’s reign.

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Not trusting the traditional Byzantine guard units to keep his person safe, Basil retained these fierce warriors as his new bodyguard; quartering them at the Imperial Palace at Constantinople. Basil christened this new unit the Tágma tōn Varángōn, the “Varangian Guard”. (Though there is some dispute as to when this name actually came into use: the first written mention does not occur until 1034, some forty five years later).

Though the Byzantines used the word Varangian to indicate any Scandinavian/Rus warrior, the word likely derives from the Old Norse, ‘var’, meaning “pledge”. Thus the Varangians were the “pledged men” of the Emperor’s guard.

Thereafter, the Emperors of Byzantium maintained this Viking guard. They were particularly prized for three reasons: first, they were superb fighting men, tall and strong and intimidating in the extreme…

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THE CRUSADES: A POLITICALLY INCORRECT VIEW (PART TWO)

battleThis is the second part in Deadliest Blogger’s politically incorrect look at the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades*; with the politically correct blinders removed. In this part we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.

(To read Part One, Go HERE)

In Part One we exploded some of the most egregious myths and canards regarding the struggles between Islam and the West; beginning with the inception of Islam as a religion originating in the Arabian peninsula in the early 7th century, and continuing to this very day.

Following their disastrous defeat at Battle of Manzikert (in Armenia), the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus appealed to the Frankish West for help in turning back the Turkish invaders. This appeal, made to Pope Urban, led to the sermon at Clermont and the First Crusade.

The response in western Europe was far greater than either the Pope or Emperor expected. While Alexius requested military aid, in the form of fighting-men to be enlisted as mercenaries in Byzantine service, his request set in motion nothing less than a mass movement. Not only did many of the great lords of France and the Holy Roman Empire march east leading their own vassals and household warriors; a “People’s Crusade” of peasants and minor nobles, led by Peter the Hermit actually set out in April 1096, months ahead of departure of the great nobles. From the highest to the lowest, the men and women of western Europe were filled with Crusader zeal.

That First Crusade was not only about aiding Byzantium in its struggle with the Turks; and in fact the average Crusader didn’t see the Crusade in those terms. To most, this was about the maltreatment of Christian pilgrims by the Seljuks; and about regaining the Holy Land, occupied by Muslims since the 7th century, for “Christendom”. It was in this cause, and with promises of spiritual reward in the afterlife that Pope Urban excited the knights of Christendom to travel to the Holy Land and defend both pilgrims and the holy places:

“The Turks, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God…. has invaded the lands of Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”

Far from being an unprovoked act of aggression against the peaceful Muslim peoples and lands of the Middle East, as it is often portrayed, the First Crusade was both an answer to an appeal from the Byzantines for military aid; and a much-belated response to centuries of Islamic attacks and conquest of Christian lands. Lands which included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. It was also in response to Turkish banditry, to protect and keep open the pilgrim routes from Europe to the holy places.

In response to the sermon at Clermont, many of the leading princes of the day “took the cross”. They came, for the most part, inspired by religious duty. These were not penniless adventurers looking to enrich themselves. Many were the among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Western Europe; men who had much to loose on such a far-flung venture. Europe in the 11th century was a place of conflicting loyalties and allegiances, questionable borders, of old feuds and ancient grudges. Leaving one’s lands unattended invited rival claimants to seize them from the absentee. Only a deep belief in the righteousness of their cause, and a chance to be part of one of the great movements of history motivated the powerful princes of Europe to leave behind their domains and march east…..

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BOSWORTH FIELD: THE WAR OF THE ROSES REACHES ITS BLOODY END

Bosworth 1485 Última carga de Ricardo III

On 22 August 1485 the War of the Roses reached a bloody climax at Bosworth Field. Here, Richard III, England’s most controversial king, defended his crown against the Lancastrian champion, Henry Tudor.

The thirty-year long Wars of the Roses was a dynastic struggle between rival branches of the ruling royal family of England, the Plantagenet. These two Houses, cadet branches of the Plantagenet, were descended from sons of the prolific Edward III: the House of York, whose symbol was the white rose, and the House of Lancaster, represented by the red.

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After the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1461 and the subsequent execution of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, the war seemed to have come to close. The Yorkist leader  Edward IV was firmly in command of his kingdom; and would rule undisturbed till his death in 1483. However, Edward left as heir his son Edward, not yet thirteen years old. His younger brother, Richard of Gloucester was named as guardian for the young prince and Lord Protector of the Realm.

Throughout his brother’s reign (and the struggle for Yorkist victory that established it) Richard of Gloucester had always been the  capable, trusted, and loyal lieutenant.  As Warden of the North he had proven himself an able captain; successfully campaigning against the Scots, temporarily occupying Edinburgh and capturing the mighty fortress of Berwick in 1482. But as Lord Protector for his young nephew, King Edward V, Richard quickly found his authority challenged by his brother’s widow, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Woodville and her ambitious family.

In the brief struggle for power that followed, Richard outmaneuvered the Woodvilles and took custody of both the young king-to-be and his brother, Prince Richard. The two princes were lodged in the Tower of London; then still used as a royal residence as well as a prison for the most important of prisoners. Over the next month, the boys coronation was postponed; while rumors were circulated that the marriage of Edward IV to Elisabeth Woodville had been illegal. The prince was ultimately disinherited, and on 25 June, an assembly of Lords and Commons declared Richard to be the legitimate king; later confirmed by act of parliament.

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Thus began the reign of Richard III, perhaps England’s most controversial king……

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