THE SPARTANS, ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE: PART ONE

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“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.

Sometime around 1000 B.C., a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas in the southern region of the Peloponnese called Laconia (or Lacedaemon), joined to form a single city-state (“polis”), called Sparta. In time, Sparta became the leading Dorian city in Greece. For a variety of reasons, by the 7th century B.C., Sparta had developed into a unique political entity, one entirely devoted to the arts of war.

THE SPARTAN CONSTITUTION

Under the constitution established by the legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos, all Spartan males were trained to one purpose: to become the best soldiers in the world. While others worked their land, every Spartan male had but one profession, the practice of arms.

This constitution, the “Great Rhetra”, was more than a set of laws or penal codes. It encompassed all aspects of the Spartan life. The Great Rhetra not only established the various branches of the Spartan government, and the enumerated the powers of each; it told the Spartan how to conduct their lives…

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART SIX

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This is the Sixth-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 Five here; or start from the beginning here!)

AMBROSIUS AURELIANUS

As the Saxon terror spread throughout the south of Britain, the first victims were the farmers and villa-owning Romanized gentry of the open country. Unlike town and city dwellers, these had no high, strong walls to shelter behind; nor civic militias to defend those walls. Farms and villas were pillaged, the inhabitants driven off or killed. Archeological finds show hoards of Roman coins from this period; hastily buried by the owners before fleeing, perhaps in anticipation of one day returning.

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As previously stated, many of these fled to Armorica (Brittany), founding a British colony that in time lent its name to the area. Many, but not all: some stayed and fought back. These were led by a Romano-British gentlemen said to have been descended from Roman aristocracy, and to have been a staunch opponent of Vortigern’s Saxon policy.

That man was Ambrosius Aurelianus.

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THE WAFFEN SS: HITLER’S WARTIME ELITE

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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, the Waffen SS, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.

Formed originally in 1933 as a 120 man “commando” under Sepp Dietrich, the Waffen (meaning “Armed”, or “Fighting”) was created as the armed wing of the Nazi Party‘s Schutzstaffel (Protective Squad). It rapidly grew during the Second World War; and at its largest was 38 divisions, along with some ancillary formations. During its 12 year existence, the Waffen SS gained a reputation for ferocity, imagination, resilience, and tenacity second to none in the Second World War. Though under the operational control of the Wehrmacht (the German Armed Forces) command during the war, the SS were autonomous in every other way.

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The Waffen SS began as the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) (SS Dispositional Troops); and this combat arm of the Nazi Party bore this name until August 1940, when Hitler in a speech gave the SS-VT its now name. Originally limited to Germans of impeccable “racial” background, by 1941 the Waffen SS had sold itself to young men across Western Europe as the tip-of-the-spear in the “crusade” against world-wide communism. Volunteers from all over Europe swelled its ranks; as idealistic (if misguided) young men enlisted to defend western civilizations from “the godless hordes of communism”.

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DARK AGES ELITE: THE CABALLARII OF CHARLEMAGNE

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This is the fourth part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. As Charles the Great, king of the Franks, created the first great European empire after the Fall of Rome, he surrounded himself with elite mounted warriors: in Latin, caballarii!

The Frankish Kingdom was the first to pick-up the pieces of the former Western Roman Empire; absorbing into itself several other Germanic states and tribes in the process. Under the Salian Frankish Merovingian dynasty, the Franks had driven the Visigoths out of Gaul, and created the strongest of the Germanic kingdoms. The Merovingians were replaced in the 8th century by the Carolingian Dynasty; the second king of which was Charles the Great, known to posterity as Charlemagne. This great warrior king expanded Frankish power into northern Spain, northern and eastern Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Italy and  the northern Balkans. In the process of these conquests, Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope, in 799, as Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”); heir to the Western Roman Imperium. This Carolingian Empire didn’t survive his grandsons, who divided it between them. But it became the basis for the later Holy Roman Empire.

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While the vast majority of Frankish troops of the Carolingian period were infantry spearmen (the Franks had long abandoned the use of their eponymous national weapon, the francisca throwing axe), an elite mounted component grew-up during this period around the palace of the king; and later around the great landed magnates as well. These mounted warriors were collectively called by the Vulgar Latin term for horseman, caballarius. (This is the source of the later French word chevalier and Spanish caballero; all meaning the same thing, horsemen.)

At the start of this period it was the obligation of all freeborn Franks to appear armed and ready for campaign when they received the Royal summons (bannum, or Heerbann, the army muster). But to respond to sudden, unexpected enemy incursions of Frankish lands, or to guard the person and support the authority of the king a ready body of professional warriors was necessary. This force was called the scara. These elite troops of caballarii also provided leaders for the less well trained members of the exercitus (army). Wither the scara fought mounted as true cavalry, or were mounted infantry who dismounted to fight on foot (like the later Anglo-Saxon Huscarls) is unknown. But accounts of later Carolingian and early Ottonian Frankish practice seems to indicate that these elite caballarii could do either: fight as true heavy cavalry, using shock tactics to break the enemy; or dismounting (some or all of their number) to fight on foot.

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The scara of Charlemagne were quartered near the king’s palace; and later in garrisons in key fortresses. The term scara is an imperfectly understood term; but seems to refer both to the elite mounted warriors (caballarii) who were the core of the Frankish army as a whole, and….

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART EIGHT)

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At 4 pm, with no reserves immediately available but his Imperial Guard, which he was unwilling to commit just yet, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to lead his large and formidable cavalry reserve to a massive but unsupported attack on Wellington’s center!

(To read Part Seven, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

Napoleon had been in a similar situation before, at Eylau in 1807. There, by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s; his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard (which he dared not commit). His response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges, they had shattered the first and second Russian line; and then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.

Here, at Waterloo, perhaps Napoleon saw himself in similar circumstances; and resorted to the same response. This task was given to Marshal Michel Ney, who before the Revolution had been a Sergeant Major in a Hussar regiment.

To accomplish the task of shattering Wellington’s center, Ney massed Milhaud’s IV Heavy Cavalry Corps; supported by Gen. Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ Imperial Guard Light Cavalry Division. Together, these numbering some 5,094 superb horsemen. Milhaud’s command was composed of two divisions of cuirassiers, each of two brigades or four regiments of horse: a total of nearly 3,000 of the French cavalry’s much feared “Gros Freres” (Big Brothers). To these should have been attached a dozen guns, 6lb cannon and 5.5″ howitzers; but earlier in the day these had been stripped away to support the attacks on Hougoumont; and not returned.

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Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division was composed three of the most celebrated cavalry regiments in Europe: the famed Chasseurs à Cheval, the men responsible for the Emperor’s personal safety when on the road or in the field; the 1st Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard (1er Régiment des chevaux-légers [polonais] de la Garde Impériale), the famed Polish Lancers; and the 2nd Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard (2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale), the striking “Red Lancers“. No finer light horsemen existed in Europe (and perhaps the world). Their role was to exploit the breakthrough achieved by their “Big Brothers”, the cuirassiers.

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Rank after rank set forth at a walk, then a canter, up the slopes toward the ridgeline and Wellington’s army waiting for them on the Mont-Saint-Jean plateau beyond. What neither Ney nor his master could see beyond the ridge, through the dense smoke that now swirled across the battlefield, was the Anglo-Dutch army, 18,000 infantry (in this sector), fronted by 56 guns and backed-up by as many cavalry as the French now approaching. The infantry was prepared to receive cavalry, deployed in some twenty large, regimental squares. Each square was four ranks of glittering bayonets, a veritable hedgehog of steel-tipped muskets.

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As Ney’s massed squadrons neared the crest of the ridge, Allied batteries opened fire; spewing canister at 100 yards. Nearly the entire front rank of Ney’s horsemen went down, including the Marshal himself (one of the many times the dauntless Ney would be unhorsed). The cavalry thundered on, over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The Allied gunners abandoned their guns (as ordered by Wellington), sprinting to the safety of the infantry squares beyond.

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The French cavalry, now in full gallop, flooded over the ridge and onto the plateau. Past the Allied batteries, they found themselves facing the impenetrable squares.

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DEADLIEST BLOGGER’S GREATEST QUOTES ON WAR 2

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If you loved the first list, here is Deadliest Blogger’s list of favorite military quotes, part two:

Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) – Julius Caesar, on the very brief campaign against the Pontians.

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“When the situation is obscure, attack” - General Heinz Guderian

“There is no substitute for victory.” – Douglas MacArthur

“Naipierw pobijemy, a potem policzemy!” (First we kill them, then, we count them)

“Few men are born brave. Many become so through training and force of discipline.” - Flavius Vegetius

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” – General Robert Edward Lee

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“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” –  Winston Churchill, when questioned during Operation Barbarossa how he, a life-long anti-communist, could call for support of Stalin.

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GREECE IS SAVED BY ITS “WOODEN WALLS”

49Just six weeks after the brazen shields of the 300 brave Spartans failed to stop Xerxes at the pass of Thermopylae, Greece found salvation behind the “wooden walls” of the Athenian navy!

IN 480 BC there occurred one of those turning points in history, where the trajectory of history and the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance. That event was the Persian invasion of Greece.

The roots of this conflict went back twenty years.

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of modern Turkey, then called Ionia, into his dominions. But in 500-499 B.C., the Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. The rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city”, Athens; and by the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived; but Persian memory was long.

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In 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary force to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but the ground force (fleet aside) was likely around 50,000 men; transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. Their army then embarked again and landed on the mainland, on the beach of Marathon; only 25 miles from Athens. After appealing in vain for Spartan aid, the So of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians with only their own 10,000 hoplites at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.

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Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition; Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire…..

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