THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART 2 (2nd Edition)

1This is the second-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.

(Part One can be read here)

VORTIGERN’S STRUGGLE FOR POWER

From 429 to the 440s, nothing for certain is known about the events in Britain. It is tempting to say that Vortigern maintained a troubled hold on power, while concentrating his attention on settling the Votadini in north Wales as a buffer against the Irish/Scotti (see Part One); and further facilitated the foundation of his own kingdom in the west, Powys. We know that during this period, Viroconium (Wroxeter), the tribal captial of Vortigern’s own Cornovii, was the  fourth largest city in Britain. During this period it

Wroxeter6thC-1

enjoyed something revival; with new build projects launched and older buildings restored. It was also refortified at this time. All of this is consistent with the possibility that Vortigern used Viroconium as his principal stronghold.

But raids by the Picts and the Scotti continued unabated. In the440s the British (likely the anti-Vortigern faction) sent a letter to Flavius Aetius, the Roman Magister Militum (“Master  of Soldiers”) in Gaul and Stilicho’s successor as the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Aetius was campaigning to restore some measure of Roman authority in Gaul throughout this decade. At least some Britons, it would appear, longed for the security the Empire once represented.

The letter, called “Groans of the Britons”, told of their plight; beset by “barbarians” and begging for Roman help:

To Agitius (Aetius), thrice consul… the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means of death we are either killed or drowned.

This letter is often said to have been sent in response to the Saxon Terror; but the dates don’t match-up….

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NAPOLEON’S FINAL CAMPAIGN (PART FOUR)

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On June 16th, at the village of Ligny, Napoleon inflicted a sharp defeat on Marshal Blücher’s Prussian army. All day, the French had hammered the Prussians, who suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and lost 20 guns (as compared to a loss of only 6,000 French). Blücher himself was nearly killed or captured, when he was pinned under his horse and his position overrun by French cavalry.  It was only the force of his indomitable presence (and the skillful staff work of his Chief of Staff, Marshal Von Gneisenau) that held the Prussians together. Beaten but not defeated,  Blücher and his army escaped toward the northeast.

blucher_in_trouble

(This is Part 4 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)

To the west, Napoleon’s subordinate, Marshal Michel Ney failed to defeat the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces as they arrived piecemeal at Quatre Bras. Despite having a numerical advantage throughout most of the day (Wellington’s army suffered from atrocious staff work, and his dispersed forces had a great deal of trouble assembling in a timely fashion at Quatre Bras). Confusion as regards to the mission and disposition of d’Erlon‘s 1st Corps, which marched back-and-forth between the two battlefields without ever engaging in either of the battles of the 16th; contributed to neither Napoleon or Ney having sufficient forces at their disposal to achieve a decisive result. The arrival of these 19,000 men and  44 guns at either Ligny or Quatre Bras could certainly have overwhelmed the already strained Allied resources; ending the campaign for all intent and purpose that first day of fighting.  (For the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, go to Part 2 and 3.)

The allies had escaped destruction on the 16th. But on the morning of the 17th of June, 1815, both armies were still in deadly danger of annihilation.

the allies withdraw

That morning, Wellington was still in ignorance of the outcome at Ligny. The Duke had spent the night a few miles north, in an inn at Genappe; where he and his staff had enjoyed a late supper after the battle. At 11 PM their sleep was disturbed by the clatter of thousands of hooves, the jingle of steel scabbards, and the rumble of artillery carriages. The British and German Legion cavalry were finally arriving, and passed on south towards the battlefield. Wellington awoke at dawn, and dressed in his customary blue frock coat and matching cloak, rode with his staff to join his army.

His army woke to a ad-hoc breakfast, the kitchen wagons having not arrived at Quatre Bras from the various regimental depots. The soldiers ate what they carried in their knapsacks, or resorted to cooking hunks of horse flesh cut from the carcasses of the many dead animals littering the field. Meanwhile, thousands of wounded still lay where they had fallen the day before; and litter parties were organized and sent to scour the field for survivors.

At Quatre Bras he had some 46,000; only about a half of his army. The rest were scattered along roads to the west. The Duke had no knowledge yet of what had happened the day before at Ligny; or word from Blücher of his intentions. If the Prussians had triumphed, they would be expecting him to advance on their western flank. However, Ney still sat before him to the south; with as many men at hand as he had himself. If the Prussians were defeated, the Duke would be in a very precarious position: an army to his front (Ney’s), and Napoleon perhaps bearing down at that very moment with an even larger army to fall upon his left flank. Worse, the true nightmare scenario, another French corps could be crossing the border at Mons, where Wellington had all along expected them; and marching north role up his scattered detachments and cut off Wellington’s communications with the ports along the coast.

Before 7 AM, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon and a detachment of hussars were sent east, to find  Blücher and ascertain his plans. Meanwhile, the Duke…

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blucher-before-waterloo

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THE ANGLO-SAXON HUSCARLS: ELITE WARRIORS OF THE DARK AGES

Bayeux TapestryThis is the second part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. In the wake of the Danish conquest of England, the last kings of Anglo-Saxon England had at their service a fearsome band of disciplined warriors: the Huscarls!

Founded by Canute the Great, the Danish ruler of England in the early 11th century, the Huscarls were modeled upon the Jomsvikings; another elite Viking military society of the age. In fact the original Huscarls were built around a nucleus of Jomsvikings who had come to England years earlier under the famous Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall.

Canute established them as a permanent body of professional warriors, originally between 3,000 and 4,000 strong. They attended the king, and were maintained in 3 corps: two stationed around London, the third in the north near York. They were further divided into crews to man the 40 longships maintained from Canute onward, as a royal navy. Thus the Huscarls formed a nucleus for any English national force, both on land and sea.

The corps was maintained by a special tax, on each “hide” of land. In later days, individual Huscarls were granted land of their own, which they lived upon and oversaw. Feudalism was spreading to England from the continent; and had the Norman Conquest not interrupted their evolution, in time the Huscarls would likely have assumed most aspects of the feudal chivalry found elsewhere; becoming England’s version of the Feudal knight.

Huscarl 3

Each Huscarl was armed as an elite Viking warrior of the time: mail shirt, conical helmet (without horns!!!!), shield, sword, spear, and axe. Their sword hilts and axe blades were famously gilded with gold; a symbol of their elite status! Like the Jomsvikings, the Huscarls maintained a rigorous code of conduct; and kept strict discipline both in camp and in the field.

In battle, they usually fought around the king or earl’s banner…

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ARMIES OF THE MACEDONIAN SUCCESSOR STATES: THE ANTIGONIDS

tafoi2(This is the first part in a revised series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states; which grew out of the Wars of the Diadoci that followed the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century after his death, these kingdoms were defended by armies that represented the greatest fighting forces in the Hellenistic World. Each differed from the other in fascinating ways, as will be shown.)

Of all the Successors of Alexander the Great none came closer to reuniting his empire than Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One Eyed”) and his son Demetrius Poliorketes (“the Besieger”). For a brief time (circa 315 BC) Antigonas controlled all of Alexander’s Asian Empire. This led his rivals to unite against him: Ptolemy in Egypt; Lysimachos , Satrap of Thrace; Seleucus, who from Babylon took over the eastern Satrapies while Antigonus was occupied in the west; and Cassander, son of the late Antipater “the Regent”, who ruled Macedon.

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While Antigonas held his own in Asia, he dispatched Demetrius with an Army to Greece to establish control and to war against Cassander in Macedon and the Aegean. From Athens, where he was worshiped as a “Savior God” after reestablishing democratic governance, Demetius extended Antigonid control throughout central Greece. Using the excellent port of Piraeus as base for the large Antigonid fleet, he soon controlled all the Islands of the Aegean as well. Advancing into Thessaly in 302 BC, Demetrius was preparing for a final showdown with Cassander when he was recalled to Asia to support his father on the eve of the Ipsus Campaign. Demetrius left garrisons of mercenaries to hold the key fortresses. The bulk of his field army was brought to Asia to fight beside his father.

The Battle of Ipsus (301 BC) was the perhaps the greatest battle of the Successor Wars (we have no figures for the number of combatants who fought at Corupedion in 281 BC, but it is likely to have rivaled the earlier battle). In this fight, Demetrius commanded his father’s right-wing cavalry; meant to deliver the decisive charge that would break the coalition left-wing cavalry, and attack its phalanx from behind. Antigonus was undone when Demetrius, after routing and pursuing Lysimachus’ horsemen from the field, was prevented from returning to the battle by Seleucus’ elephants; which interposed themselves between Demetrius and the battle. (Diodorus claims that Seleucus brought 480 elephants of the 500 he supposedly received from Chandragupta in return for ceding the Punjab (1). Bar-Kochva argues persuasively for a number closer to 150 elephants (2). In either case, the coalition used their elephant force to decisive effect.) The elderly Antigonas was slain amidst his crumbling phalanx, while Demetrius retreated with some survivors to Ephesus.

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Tetradrachma of Demetrius I Poliorcetes

For the next 4 years Demetrius, reduced to a freebooter, relied upon the strength of his fleet. From Athens, he controlled nothing more than the islands of the Aegean. After Cassander’s death in 297 BC, however, Cassander’s sons fell out and civil war divided the Antipatrid family. Demetrius took advantage of the chaos by first supporting and then murdering one of the contenders; then making himself King of Macedon in 294 BC.

Over the next few years, Demetrius succeeded in making himself the dominant power in Greece, reestablishing strong garrisons at Corinth (the Acrokorinth, the mountain-top citadel towering over the city, was the strongest fortress in Greece); Chalcis on the Island of Euboea; and at his newly-built fortress in Thessaly, Demetrias (near modern Volos). These fortresses (which in the next generation came to be called “the fetters of Greece”) supported a network of lesser garrisons Demetrius established.

Acrokorinth

The Acrocorinth towers over the ruins of Ancient Corinth. In the Hellenistic era, it was the strongest fortress in Greece; and one of the key Macedonian garrisons during the early Antigonid period; one of the so-called “Fetters of Greece”.

Demetrius was an unpopular king with the Macedonians. Raised in Asia at the Imperial Court of his father, he was ill-equipped to deal with the prickly and plain-spoken Macedonians. In 288 BC a coalition of Pyrrhus of Epirus and Lysimachos of Thrace invaded the country; and the Macedonian soldiers deserted him. Demetrius fled, taking to the sea again for a time, raiding his enemy’s possessions. Then, while campaigning in Cilicia against the Seleucids he was captured (285 BC), and remained under “house arrest” until his death by natural causes three years later.

Demetrius left to his son, Antigonas Gonatas (possibly meaning either “Knock-Knees”, “Armored Knees”, or simply a man of Gonnoi in Thessaly) little more than a few loyal garrisons in Greece; his powerful fleet having deserted to Ptolemy in Egypt upon Demetrius’ capture. However, Antigonas proved an exceptionally patient and crafty statesman; exploiting every opportunity to his advantage. He had also learned his military lessons at the feet of his mighty grandfather and father, proving a very able general as well.(As a ruler and statesman, he perhaps owed even more to his mother, Phila, the wise daughter of Antipater; whom he resembled in both looks and farsightedness).

When the Celts invaded Macedon and Greece in 279 BC, they slew the Macedonian king, Ptolemy Keraunos (the murderer of Seleucus); leaving Macedon kingless and desperate. Antigonas led a force of mercenaries against the barbarians; ambushing and defeating a branch of the invading tribes at Lysimachia in Thrace (277 BC). After this victory, Antigonas was acclaimed king of Macedon; and held the throne against many threats and contenders for the next 38 years.

celtic-raid-into-greece

He found Macedon destitute and its manpower exhausted by losses and migration (Macedonian soldiers were highly sought-after mercenaries in the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms; and most who went abroad never returned, dying in service or settling down as kleruchs in their new homelands). Throughout his long reign Antigonas relied on mercenaries, allowing the Macedonian population a generation to replenish.

He maintained his hold on Greece by establishment of client-tyrants in the various cities; and by strong garrisons at Athens, Corinth, Chalcis, and Demetrias. He also painstakingly rebuilt the Antigonid fleet, with which he drove the Ptolemies out of the Aegean with the naval victories at Kos and Andros, 258-248 BC. (Tarn suggests that the famed Winged Victory of Samothrace was a dedication by Antigonas following one of these two victories).

Antigonas left his successors a strong, stable, modest kingdom. Unlike the other Successor states, the Antigonids never aspired to empire; instead content to hold the Macedonian homeland, and to dominate Greece and the Aegean. The army that they fielded was relatively small (only in its last days attaining a measure of the strength it had enjoyed in the days of Philip II and Alexander, prior to the Asian conquests); though its quality was highly respected in the Hellenistic world.

PHALANX

The Macedonian phalanx of the Antigonid Kingdom was famed throughout the ancient world; and while other Successor kingdoms had their own “Macedonians”, these were primarily kleruchs, military settlers, descendants of the Graeco-Macedonian veterans of Alexander and his Diodachii and their Asian/Egyptian wives. The ancient world put great stock in blood, and only Macedon could field true Macedonians of pure blood. (The Macedonians were larger and heartier than the average Greek, an important factor when it came to the “push of pike” that was a feature of phalanx warfare.) Until finally defeated by the Romans, the Macedonian phalangite was considered the premiere heavy infantryman in the world.

1 phalangite a

Phalangite of Philip II and  Alexander. Though his equipment differed in some particulars from the later Antigonid phalangites, the sarissa changed little over the ages except for length.

Unlike the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms (and of Alexander himself) in which cavalry and light troops comprised the majority of the army, the phalanx was the largest component of the Antigonid army. Against the Romans…..

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HISTORY BYTES: WHERE DEADLIEST BLOGGER PODCASTS!

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HISTORY BYTES
Where the tides of history crash into the shores of current events.
Podcasts reviewing history, famous personalities, and their impact on today’s world.
Host: Barry Jacobsen

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25 GREATEST COMMANDERS OF THE MIDDLE AGES

Great Commanders Middle Ages

(2nd Edition)
Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we take a stab at the Middle Ages, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary: The period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (5th century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). This is a VERY broad swath of history, and can be divided itself into the “Dark Ages” (from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Battle of Hastings in 1066); and the “High Middle Ages”, continuing to the 1453 (or, alternately, 1500). As one can infer, these dates and categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. But the fall of Constantinople, where previously impregnable ancient fortifications were brought down by cannons (and a postern gate left conveniently open) marks a turning point at least in the art of siege warfare; and is a harbinger of the a new age of gunpowder weapons. So here, for better or worse, is my list of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

25. Alfred the Great

Though often portrayed as a man of peace, more an administrator than a warrior, Alfred fought perhaps more battles with greater success than any other King in English history. For his entire reign, he battled intermittently against the Danish invaders for the survival of his native Wessex (the only one of the original four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to survive the Danish onslaught); and ultimately for the survival ofAlfred_le_Grand_à_Winchester Anglo-Saxon culture. He was the youngest of four royal brothers, and unlikely to come to the throne. For this reason, perhaps, he was given the education of a cleric. But by the time he was 16, his two eldest brothers had each (briefly) ascended the throne of Wessex and died of natural causes. He became chief aid and counselor to his surviving brother, King Æthelred I in 865; the same year the Great Heathen Army, led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, invaded England. Over the next two years, Northumbria and East Anglia were conquered by the Danes. In 868, Alfred was with King Æthelred in a fruitless campaign to drive Ivar the Boneless and the Danes from neighboring Mercia. In 870, the Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex. The Saxons were first defeated by the Army at Reading; but recovered and bested the Danes soon after at Ashdown, with Alfred leading his brother’s army to victory. The winter that followed became known as the Battle Winter; with Alfred and his increasingly ill brother fighting 6 more engagements. Æthelred died that winter, leaving an infant son. Alfred was crowned by the Witan (the counsel of nobles and clergy); and negotiated a temporary peace with the Danes, bribing them to leave Wessex. For the rest of Alfred’s 28 year reign, he fought the Danes; who held the rest of England north of the Thames. At times his cause seemed hopeless, and he was very nearly overthrown in the winter of 878 when the Danes (now under a king named Guthrum) made a sudden attack into Wessex. Alfred hid in the swamps, on the island of Athelney, till Spring. Then, rallying the Saxon fyrd (levy), he defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, and drove them from Wessex. From then till his death, he was successful in all of his campaigns; repelling periodic incursions by the Danes and strengthening his kingdom. His greatest contributions were the brief creation of a small but effective English fleet along the southern shores of Wessex; and the fortification of most of the Saxon villages and towns (burhs), making the land much less vulnerable to sudden Viking raids. He showed that the Danes were not invincible, and that with experience and good leadership the English could face them in battle. His efforts created a power-base from which his son and grandson would launch the eventual Saxon reconquista of England. He died in 899, the only king in English history to be called “Great”.

24. Baibars the Mamluk

A Circassian slave soldier, he was purchased in Syria by a Mamluk officer and sent to Egypt, where he became a member of the bodyguard regiment of the Ayyubid ruler, As-Salih. He rose rapidly, based upon his skills, both political and military. Baibars was a commander of the Mamluks in 1250, when they defeated the Seventh Crusade of Louis IX of France. He led the vanguard of the Egyptian army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, turning back the Mongol advance from Egypt. Upon returning to Egypt, he assassinated the Sultan and took the throne. From 1263 till his death in 1277 he Baybars campaigned relentlessly against the Crusader states of Syria; and against the Mongols. He proved particularly adept at siege craft; and took fortresses previously thought to be impregnable (such as the fabled Krak des Chevaliers, in 1271). In 1265 he captured Caesarea and Arsuf, the latter after a 40 day siege. He raised the town to the ground, a destruction from which it never recovered. In 1266 Baibars invaded the Christian lands of Cilician Armenia, an ally of the Mongols. Devastating the country, he then turned upon Christian Antioch and Tripoli. Antioch surrendered on 18 May, 1268. Though the populace were promised their lives, Baibars slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants and razed much of the city. The fall of Antioch led to the brief Ninth Crusade, which brought Prince Edward of England, the future Edward I Longshanks (see below). After making some progress, Baibars attempted to have him murdered by the Assassins. The attempt failed to kill the prince, but took him out of the fighting while a truce was concluded with the remaining Crusader state of Tripoli. In 1277 Baibars invaded the Seljuq Sultanate of Rûm, then dominated by the Mongols. He defeated a Mongol-led army at the Battle of Elbistan, and captured the city of Caesarea. However, he was forced to withdraw back into Syria; and died either of a wound or from poison in Damascus later that year. He is remembered as ruthless and determined enemy of the Crusader States and of the Mongols; helping to stop their advance westward. He was a great champion of Islam, second only to Saladin (see below) as the most successful Muslim leader of the Crusader Period.

23. Edward the Black Prince

The eldest son of Edward III (#16 on our list), he was in his day considered the S8-F53_01 foremost warrior in Europe. At age sixteen he commanded the right wing of the English forces at the Battle of Crecy. His wing bore the brunt of the French assault. When asked if reinforcements should be sent to his son’s aid, King Edward famously replied, “Let the boy earn his spurs!” Ten years later, in command of his own army, Edward decisively defeated a greatly superior French army under King Jean the Fearless at the Battle of Poiters; capturing the King in the process. He continued to campaign throughout France; and in 1367 intervened in a Castilian civil war, leading an army into Spain. At the Battle of Nájera he inflicted a crushing defeat on a numerically much superior Spanish army. His reputation benefited from dying fairly young, while still in his prime. While he lived, no warrior had a greater name or commander a more fearsome reputation.

 

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THE CRUSADES: A POLITICALLY INCORRECT VIEW

crusade4 Today a new generation in the West faces a resurgent and militant Islam, watching in horror as the “Arab Spring” devolves into a Fundamentalist winter. It is therefore an appropriate time to take a critical look at the seminal events that are presumed, by many, to have initiated the cycle of hatred and distrust between Islam and the West: “The Crusades“.

It began in 1095, at Clermont in France, when Pope Urban II called upon the warriors of “Christendom”  to take up arms and reclaim the “Holy Lands” of Palestine and the Levant from their Muslim occupiers.

I deliberately use the word “occupiers”, a term often used today by Palestinians and their supporters around the world. For if taking land through military conquest (or, in the case of Israel, while responding to attack) labels the victor an illegitimate “occupier”, than surely this definition must be fairly applied to the Arab-Muslim conquerors of the Middle East; whose conquest of Palestine (called the “Holy Land” by the Christians) triggered the belated reaction that became known as the Crusades.

As is so often the case when historical facts conflict with “political correctness”, facts are twisted to fit the dogma. So is the case with the Crusades. But I have never cared for what the PC Police deem “correct”. I will attempt to examine herein the Crusades with a clear eye, unraveling the PC dogmas that have come to surround this singular event in human history.

A RELIGION FOR WARRIORS

As is the case in most every inch of land in the world throughout history, the Muslim Arabs and Turks who ruled the Middle East at the close of the 11th century were foreign conquerors; not “indigenous peoples”. The Arabs came from the Arabian peninsula. The Turks originated on the Eurasian steppes, north of the Caspian and Aral Seas; where they had lived a harsh life of nomadic herdsmen.

After converting to Islam in the early 7th century, the Arab armies burst out of Arabia and overran the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and parts of the Indian Subcontinent in a veritable “blitzkrieg of conquest.  In the 10th century, the Turkish clan of Seljuk (or Seljuq) migrated into Persia, where they adopted Islam and a veneer of Persian culture. By the Crusader period, they had become a dominant force in both the Middle East and in Islamic politics.

Arabs

In both cases, neither of these two peoples were indigenous to the Holy Land. They were foreign conquerors; and had supplanted the Christian and Jewish authorities previously established there.

Islam itself was a late-comer among the world’s great religions…

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