THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART EIGHT

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This is the Eighth-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 Seven here)

BRITAIN STANDS ALONE

The last quarter of the 5th century was a grim time for those who looked to Rome, and the model of classical civilization it represented.

In 476, Romulus Augustulus, the teenage Western Roman Emperor, was forced to abdicate his throne by Odoacer; leader of barbarian feoderati in Italy. The Western Emperor had long been a figurehead, with true power residing with the Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”); a position held in the 5th century largely by one Romanized-Barbarian officer after another (Flavius Aëtius being the chief exception).

Romulus had himself been placed on the throne by his father, Orestes, one of these Romanized German commanders. Odoacer killed Orestes, and seized the Emperor in Ravenna.

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The boy-Emperor’s life was mercifully spared; Odoacer granted him an estate in Campania and a life-time pension. But Romulus was the last to hold the title of “Western Roman Emperor” (Belisarius, the great Byzantine commander in the next century, would be offered this diadem and title by the Ostrogoths). Odoacer went on to rule Italy thereafter as “King”; and as an autonomous vassal of the Eastern Empire.

Few in the West likely noticed, much less cared. By this time, the provinces that once comprised the western half of the Roman Empire had been for some time under the control of various “barbarian” powers. Gaul was divided between the Franks in the north, the Burgundians in the east, and the Visigoths in the south; with an ever-shrinking Roman successor state (ruled by Syagrius, a noble Romano-Gaul who still bore the title of Magister Militum per Gallias) in the north-central portion of the province; and the British territory of Armorica/Brittany. Spain was divided between this same Visigoth kingdom (centered still in Aquitaine), and the German Suevi. North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Western Empire, was now a militant and piratical Vandal kingdom; centered on the former provincial capital of Carthage.

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Of the former provinces, only Britain fought on, resisting Germanic occupation.

There are cogent reasons why of all the Western Imperial provinces Britain alone maintained its independence and identity….

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HENRY V’S MUDDY MIRACLE AT AGINCOURT 1415

 “

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We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in history. Though likely Shakespeare‘s invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited army; in desperate straights as it faces battle against a superior force. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number of the flower of French chivalry.

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Henry V (center), and as portrayed by Lawrence Oliver (L) and Kenneth Branagh

Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, casus belli of the Hundred Years War; now dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other….

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THE DEVIL’S GUARD: HITLER’S WAFFEN-SS (PART TWO)

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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.

(To read Part One, go here.)

From the start of the war in 1939 to the beginning of operations in 1943, the main formations of the Waffen-SS earned a reputation for bravery, audacity, and tactical innovation second to none in the German armed forces. However, they also developed a reputation for reckless courage and tenacity that led to a higher than necessary casualty rate. Worse, they reflected the darker, sinister side of the Nazi state; committing numerous atrocities that would later lead to the organization being declared a “criminal organization”; and many of its officers tried (and in most cases convicted) for war crimes.

Sepp Dietrich

SS-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, commander of LSSAH till ’43, then of the 1st SS-Panzer Korps. One of Hitler’s favorite soldiers, Dietrich was indicted and convicted at Nuremberg for culpability in war crimes committed by Waffen-SS units under his command. He was sentenced to 25 years, but only served 10.

Though not directly responsible for the implementation of Hitler’s genocidal policies towards Jews and various other ethnic or political groups, certain Waffen-SS formations were at times tasked with helping their komraden in the Allgemeine SS and in the SS-Totenkopfverbände (concentration camp guards) to carry out these vile acts of repression and murder. Efforts by apologists to absolve the Waffen of any culpability in these crimes rings as hollow today as it did during the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal hearings.

That said, the bulk of all Waffen-SS formations were involved with direct military actions through most of the war; fighting beside other formations of the Wehrmacht; and under the direct operational control of the German Army (Heer). In Part One of this series, we discussed the expansion of the Waffen-SS through 1939 to the end of 1942. During this period, the premiere Waffen-SS combat formations were originally organized as motorized infantry; and continuously upgraded, first to Panzergrenadier divisions, then to full Panzer division status. In all cases, Waffen formations were over-strengthened: a Waffen Panzergrenadier division had as many tanks as a regular German army Panzer division (a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion); and a Waffen Panzer division was stronger than any equivalent formation in the Wehrmacht.

By 1942, the Waffen was receiving the best and most modern equipment available (and, in some cases, captured Allied equipment, particularly Russian). This had not always been the case: at the start of the war, the Waffen formations were under-equipped and even using obsolete weapons discarded by the Heer. But by the mid-war only Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland had an equal priority to the best men and equipment.

1 SS_Ludwig_KepplingerA widely circulated propaganda postcard, showing Waffen-SS soldiers carrying a wounded comrade during actions in Belgium, 1940. This image shows the Waffen soldiers carrying a variety of weapons, including the obsolete MP-34.

After being pulled out of intense fighting in Russia in 1941 and early 1942, most of the main-line formations were pulled out to rest and refit in France. During this period, at the urging of and under the command of SS-General Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, three of the premiere combat formation were formed into an SS-Panzer Korps. This was comprised of 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich (DR), and the 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf (TK). As pointed out above, all three were over-strength, panzer divisions in all but name; and in fact stronger than a standard army panzer division.

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SS Panzer Korps commander, Paul “Papa” Hausser (left) lost an eye in combat during Operation Barbarossa.

While the authorized strength for a panzer division was 13,000–17,000, these Waffen divisions were about 19,000 strong. While most Panzer divisions were woefully understrength in tanks (only able to field 70-100 panzers at any given time during this period), the rested and reconstituted Waffen panzergrenadier divisions had about 150 tank, as well as a battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracks (as opposed to trucks) for all of their infantry. Further, each had been assigned a Heavy Tank (Schwere Panzer) Company of 9 Tiger tanks (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E); Germany’s new “super-tank”, very well armored and armed with the deadly 88mm gun, capable of killing even the best-armored Allied tanks.

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Waffen-SS Tiger tank in action. In 1942, each division of the SS-Panzer Korps received a Heavy Company of Tigers.

This newly-christened SS-Panzer Korps was a very potent formation, indeed.

In early 1943, crises on the Eastern Front called the Korps back to Russia, where it would fight in some of the greatest tank battles in history…..

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART NINE)

 

1024px-Prussian_Attack_Plancenoit_by_Adolf_Northern(To read Part Eight, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

At 6 p.m., Marshal Ney called off the fruitless cavalry assaults upon Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch regiments on Mont-Saint-Jean. His torn uniform covered with mud and his face blackened with gunpowder smoke, Ney was now ordered by Napoleon to capture La Haye Saint at all costs.

Forward of and warding Wellington’s center, the farm complex had been held all day by elements of the King’s German Legion. Thus far, it had held out against every French assault; and fire from its defenders had harried the flanks of every French assault on Wellington’s position that had been forced to bypass it.

Napoleon explained to Ney that the key to cracking Wellington’s position lay in taking La Haye Saint. With this gadfly and breakwater gone, the Emperor could advance his final reserve, the Imperial Guard, up the Charleroi Road and break Wellington’s decimated infantry; which he was certain could take no more punishment.

Meanwhile, however, a crises was developing on his right flank. Another battle was raging there, independent of that being conducted against Wellington’s position.

Blücher’s Prussians had arrived in strength, and were threatening to cut his line of retreat!

PLANCENOIT

All that long June day (only three days short of the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year) the Prussians had marched towards the sound of the guns. Leaving a single corps (Thielmann’s III Korps) to hold the river Crossing at Wavre against interference by the hapless Grouchy; Blücher and Gneisenau had come with every man, horse, and gun at their disposal. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow’s IV Korps, two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men….

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THE SPARTANS: ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE (PART 2)

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THE REAL STORY OF THE WARRIOR-HEROES OF ANCIENT GREECE!

“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.

(For Part One, go here)

THE PERSIAN WARS

Sparta’s finest hour came in the early 5th century B.C., when Persia, the greatest empire that the Ancient World had yet produced, launched two separate invasions of Greece and Europe.

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The Persian Empire had been founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th Century B.C. Under Cyrus and his successors, this empire had devoured all the other states of the Middle East. By the dawn of the 5th century, the Persian Empire covered an expanse of land that stretched from Libya in the west, to India in the east. Its northern borders rested on the edge of the vast Eurasian steppes; its southern on the Indian Ocean. In the west, the Persian Empire bordered on the Aegean Sea; across which it eyed the turbulent, independent city-states of Greece with suspicion and disdain.

In 546 B.C., the Cyrus the Great had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) into his empire. But in 500-499 B.C., these Greek cities of Ionia had rebelled against Persian rule. In this the rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city”, Athens; and the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived; but Persian memory was long….

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Thermopylae scene

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART SEVEN

1 fort under attack

This is the Seventh-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 civlization 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 Six here; or start from the beginning here!))

SHADOW IN THE EAST

Once we move past the events between 420-455 AD, we are forced, in many cases, into the realm of informed speculation. The campaigns of Ambrosius and the movements of the Anglo-Saxons are only given cursory treatment by the chroniclers of this era. None are contemporary. Gildas the Monk, who writes in the second quarter of the 6th century, is the nearest. He is terse in the extreme in describing events in the 5th century following the end of Vortigern’s reign.

That said, we can make educated guesses and, based on what both archeology and the sources provide, develop a working theory.

Between 465 and 475, Hengist and his Saxons burst out of their confinement on the Island of Thanet (see Part Five). Quickly, they overran much of Kent, likely as far as the Medway and perhaps to the Thames near Londinium. The majority of the British population had largely fled or died during the years of Saxon terror and occupation, and Saxon crofters had been quietly infiltrating into it for years. Now, Hengist formally retook possession of the lands once granted him by the late, unlamented Vortigern.

We don’t know how Ambrosius Aurelianus, leader of the Britons, responded. Kent was only one trouble spot. The Saxons were expanding all along the eastern coast of Britain. From the Isle of Wight to the mouth of the Humber, Anglo-Saxon incursions were a constant threat.

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To check these, Ambrosius established garrisons in strategic towns and forts all along the new frontier with the Saxons. These “burhs” ran roughly across the center of the island along a rough north-south access: The eastern portion of the island was largely written off as “the Lost Lands of Logres”.

A shadow had fallen over the eastern part of the Island, as the barbarian power grew and spread….

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DEADLIEST BLOGGER’S GREATEST QUOTES ON WAR 3

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(To Read Part Two, Go Here)

War is evil, but it is often the lesser evil. – George Orwell

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. – John Stuart Mill

Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense and there stand empires. – Napoleon

The Spartans ask not how many are the enemy; only where they are. – Plutarch

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