13 DAYS OF GLORY: THE ALAMO, 1836

There are times when a defeat can become a triumph. Just as the heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae gave courage to the rest of Greece; so the last stand of a handful of brave Texians in a fortified Mission became a rallying cry for Texas’ independence: Remember the Alamo!

 

IN the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the Mexican army of President and GeneralissimoAntonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo; slaying the defending Texan garrison to a man.

This battle, though neither final or decisive, was the seminal moment in the Texas War of Independence. It bloodied the Mexican army and lent the Texans both a band of martyred heroes and an immortal rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo”!

 

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END OF THE CALIPHATE: MONGOL SACK OF BAGHDAD

On February 10, 1258 a Mongol army sacked Baghdad, capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. Shortly after, the Khan ordered the death of the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim. Though hardly remembered, it was an event that rocked the Muslim world in its days; the repercussions of which are still felt today.

Hulagu Khan, commander of the Mongols in the Middle East and founder of the Persia-based Il-Khanate, was the grandson of Genghis Khan and brother to both China’s Kublai Khan, and to another Kha-Khan (“Great Khan”, the title carried by the overlord of the entire Mongol Empire), Khan Möngke. At its peak, the realm Hulago created included Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan; and parts of Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

The sack of Baghdad culminated the initial phase of the Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East; begun with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in 1221. A project abandoned after Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson took up the task; supported by perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled: by order of his brother, Great Khan Möngke, two-tenths of the empire’s fighting men were allocated to the task. Not less than 100,000 fighting men formed Hulago’s horde; and likely many more than that.

Hulago opened the campaign by attacking Alamut; the chief stronghold of the feared Asasiyun (Assassins) . This fortress citadel, thought at the time to be impregnable, lay in the mountains of Iran, about 60 miles from modern Tehran. Seeing the “handwriting on the wall”, the Assassins surrendered on condition their lives were spared. But Alamut was destroyed, and with it the power of the Assassin cult, which had terrorized the Middle East since the 11th century.

The ruins of lofty Alamut. From here, the “Old Man of the Mountain”, leader of the Assassin cult, directed an army of dedicated killers throughout the Middle East for almost two centuries. Hulagu Khan destroyed the citadel on his way to the sack of Baghdad.

Baghdad was then the ancient seat of the Abbasid Caliphate; a secular and religious authority within Islam that dated back to the 8th century. Established after the overthrow of the original Caliphate of the Umayyads in 750, the first Abbasid Caliph (which title means “Successor” to Mohammed) had built Baghdad as his new capital. For centuries, Baghdad was the power-center of Islam in the world. Though secular power had since the 11th century rested in the hands of Turkish Sultans; the Caliph was still the ultimate religious authority within Islam. Though schismatic Caliphates had contested Abbasid authority from time-to-time in Spain, Morocco and Egypt, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was the oldest and most recognized throughout the world.

Artist’s conception of the round city of Baghdad under the Abbasids.

Baghdad at its height in the 11th century had claim to being one of (if not the) largest cities in the world; boasting a population of between 1.2 million and 2 million souls. The city had a uniquely Persian design and flavor: unlike in Greek and Roman engineering tradition, where cites are laid out in a rectangular grid, the Persians built cities in a circular pattern, all streets radiating out from a central hub. At the center of Baghdad was the Golden Gate Palace; residence of the caliph and center of his administration. Surmounting the building was a 39 meter-high green dome; one of the largest in the world in its days (18 meters higher than Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock; though fully 15 meters less than the lofty dome of Hagia Sophia.In the face of imminent Mongol invasion, the foolish Caliph Al-Musta’sim took no steps to call upon allies, raise additional troops, or strengthen his capital. Hulago’s massive army reached Baghdad on January 29th….

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ELITE WARRIORS OF THE DARK AGES: THE BUCELLARII OF BELISARIUS

1441049This is the fifth part of our series on Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages. The Household Cavalry of one of history’s greatest generals helped to restore the lost western provinces of the Roman Empire. A multi-ethnic unit of armored cavalry, they were mobile fire-brigade of the Byzantine Empire.

From the 5th century on, Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) armies increasingly came to rely upon cavalry as the elite strike force of any field Army. Heralding the coming age of cavalry dominance, the wars of Justinian to reclaim the lost western provinces of Italy and North Africa in the 6th century were largely conducted by elite bodies of cavalry; supported by relatively poor quality infantry. Extraordinarily, the core of the Byzantine army of this Reconquista was the private military household of Justinian’s principal general, Belisarius; and later, that of his successor, the eunuch Narses.

Figure from contemporary mosaic in Ravenna, thought to be Belisarius

The Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even Constantine the Great. The old legions of sword-and-javelin armed infantry were long gone; or remained in name only, as poorly trained garrison troops stationed along the frontiers. Now Romans depended upon regiments of armored cavalry; armed either with bow or spear, or both.

Generals of the later Roman empire were allowed (and perhaps even encouraged, as a cost-saving measure to the Imperial treasury) to raise private regiments of bodyguard cavalry, paid out of their own purse. These troopers were called bucellarii.

This Latin term meant “Biscuit–Eaters”, though perhaps a better translation might be, “hardtack eaters”; referring to the soldier’s campaign rations of hard-baked biscuits (known later in history as “hardtack“). These private regiments could number as few as a single bandon (200-300 strong tactical unit of the late Roman and Byzantine armies), or (in rare cases) as large as a tourma/turma (a division in the Byzantine army, varying in size from 3,000-4,000 men). The largest and best known of these was the Bucellarii of Belisarius, in the mid-6th century; which numbered 7,000 at its peak.

The Bucellarii of Belisarius were the military elite of their day, fighting battles from the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains; and from the Sahara to the Alps. They began as a single 300 man bandon, formed by Belisarius as an experimental unit; this under the sanction of the Emperor Justin, while Belisarius was still a young, promising officer of the Guards in Constantinople. Unlike most Roman cavalry of the day, who were either lancers or horse-archers (Hippo-toxotai), Belisarius trained these men in both roles. Every trooper was armored as a heavy cavalryman of the day; with helmet, cuirass, greaves on their shins and vambraces protecting their lower arms. All were armed with lance and sword, for use in close-quarter combat. They were also equipped with the powerful Hunnish composite bow; and could use this deadly weapon on the gallop almost as well as the Huns themselves. Finally, they had a brace of lead-weighted throwing darts, called plumbatae, attached to the front of their saddle. These latter were deadly when thrown at close range; further augmenting the fire-power these horsemen could bring to bear in a melee.

Late Roman/early Byzantine bucellarius. Belisarius’ bucellarii would have looked very much like this figure

A composite warrior, this experimental unit became the nucleus of Belisarius’ household regiment of future fame; as well as the model for Byzantine cavalry for the next century.

Procopius, secretary on Belisarius’ staff through most of his campaigns, gives us some insight into the equipment and fighting-style of these elite troopers:

“(Cavalry) of the present time go into battle wearing corselets and fitted out with greaves which extend up to the knee. From the right side hang their arrows, from the other the sword. And there are some who have a spear also attached to them and, at the shoulders, a sort of small shield without a grip, such as to cover the region of the face and neck. They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corslet alike having no power to check its force.”

While there is no specific record as to how Belisarius trained these, earlier Roman writers on the subject provide some insight. Arrian, in the Tactica, recounts how a trained cavalryman could “leap onto his horse while it is running”. Vegetius tells us that new recruits began learning to mount their horse while fully armored and encumbered with their arms by training first on a wooden horse:

“…wooden horses for that purpose placed in winter under cover and in summer in the field. The young soldiers were taught to vault on them at first without arms, afterwards completely armed. And such was their attention to this exercise that they were accustomed to mount and dismount on either side indifferently, with their drawn swords or lances in their hands. By assiduous practice in the leisure of peace, their cavalry was brought to such perfection of discipline that they mounted their horses in an instant even amidst the confusion of sudden and unexpected alarms.”

The Strategikon of Maurice, written at the end of this period, tells us that much attention was paid to training the horsemen in close order drill, maneuvering over all kinds of terrain. The horsemen were also trained so that individual sub-units could detach from the main body, open up their order (“extended order”) and advance as skirmishers; darting forward to shower the enemy with arrows. The skirmishers were trained to do this rapidly and repeatedly, returning to the mainbody and into close order. This kind of drill created a body of horseman who were immensely flexible tactically; capable of fighting as either light cavalry scouts and skirmishers, or close-quarter heavy cavalry with lance and sword, and to switch roles repeatedly as the tactical situation dictated.

Cavalry training exercises

The equipment and provision for this Household regiment was provided, for the most part, by the general himself. Though initially given arms and equipment by his Imperial patron (and particularly through the favor of the Empress, Theodora) to arm his men, Belisarius was responsible for maintaining his bucellarii out of his own pocket. While this was true to some extent of the bucellarii of any general of the day, the normal practice was to pay the soldier’s a salary; from which they would equip themselves and replace lost or broken equipment. (As prisoners of war were added to the ranks of his household regiment, some of Belisarius’ men might have continued using their “native” equipment: armor was expensive; and it was unlikely a captured Persian or Vandal “knight”, serving now as one of Belisarius’ bucellarius, would have been required to discard the armor he wore when captured and purchase (or be supplied) a new one.)

However, Belisarius was famous for his generosity and the care with which he treated his men. When a horse was killed, or armor damaged or weapons broken, the general quickly replaced these at his own expense. He was also quick to reward acts of valor, and promote men of worth. Even those who failed in their missions were treated mildly, and always given a chance to redeem themselves. At the same time, however, discipline was strictly maintained; and men who robbed, looted, or raped or otherwise abused their power (particularly over the civilian populations in the lands where they campaigned) were punished severely, even with death. This care for his men and fairness in dealing with them went far to instilling the intense loyalty these rough soldiers showered upon their commander.

In 525, the young Belisarius* was given permission to take his experimental bandon across the Danube River; to raid the territory of the barbarian Gepids. This raid was so successful, that he was granted permission to greatly increase the size of this unit, to 1,500 strong ( five bandon, collectively a moira or droungos in later Byzantine terms); and to enroll these as his own bucellarii.

In the following years Belisarius was sent to the eastern frontier, where war had broken out against the Sassanid Persians. In the summer of 530, Belisarius led the Eastern Roman army to a stunning victory over a much larger Sassanid army in the Battle of Daras; the first won by Roman arms over the Persians in nearly two centuries. During the battle, he used his bucellarii as a central reserve; counter-attacking every Sassanid attempt to breach the Roman position. Combined with savage Hunnish foederati, these elite troops proved more than a match for the best of the Sassanid armored cavalry.

In battle or on campaign, Belisarius used his elite bucellarii as vanguard as well as reserve: Advancing on Carthage during the Vandalic War, the Roman invasion force of some 15,000-17,000 was led by a bandon of his Household . These collided with a large portion of the approaching Vandal army where the road entered a pass through the hills; and during the resulting Battle of Ad Decimum were ultimately successful in a fluid skirmish-battle that favored the flexible tactics and high-degree of command-and-control Belisarius and his subordinate officers exercised over their disciplined, professional troops. Here the bucellarii showed resilience and great initiative; responding to setbacks and counter-attacking when the opportunity arose. As would be seen in the later battles against the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Vandals were greatly hampered by their complete lack of bow-armed cavalry; which allowed the Byzantines to use their stand-off capability to kill the Vandal heavy cavalry at a distance, at little risk. At the same time, the bucellarii proved able to shatter and rout enemy formations so disordered by missile showers with a stiff charge with lance.

Modern reenactor practices late Roman horse archery. Though adept at close-quarter combat with lance, their expertise  with the powerful Hunnish composite bow gave the bucellarii the ability to destroy their spear or javelin-armed mounted enemies from a distance; at little harm to themselves. 

Later, during the Gothic War (535-554) against the Ostrogoths in Italy, the bucellarii time and again formed the vanguard or the whole of mobile columns that fanned-out to capture key points and towns. During the first Siege of Rome, the Romans inflicted numerous sharp defeats on Gothic detachments, as small bands of bucellarii and other Roman horse-archers sallied out to bait Goths into attacking. In each of these skirmishes, their long-range archery capability decimated and ultimately put to rout much larger forces.

In set-piece battles at Callinicum, Tricameron and before Rome their record was more mixed. While at Tricameron they were successful at disordering the Vandals with arrows before charging and routing them; at Callinicum and in the battle outside Rome their supporting troops (Arab allies in the former, and Roman infantry in Italy) were routed after a poor effort on their part, leading to near disasters for the army as a whole. This lack of reliable infantry during the Gothic War partially explains Belisarius’ reluctance to fight set-piece battles; but instead to engage in a war of skirmish and maneuver, where he could rely upon the skills of his superior cavalry, particularly his own household bucellarii.

Narses, in his later Italian Campaign, overcame this lack of steady infantry by dismounting his heavy Lombard lancers and using these as spearmen to hold his center at the Battle of Taginae; keeping his bucellarii (some of which were likely former members of Belisarius’ now disbanded household regiment) mounted in reserve behind each wing. When the Gothic charge was broken upon the spears of his center, and raked by archery from the flanks, his bucellarii completed their rout with a charge.

The bucellarius was a versatile warrior, quite capable of fighting on foot when necessary. During the Siege of Rome, Belisarius’ household troops manned the wall beside the Roman infantry; holding such strong points as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. During the vicious street fighting that characterized the Nika Riots in 532, Belisarius led his dismounted troopers in the streets against the rioting Blues and Greens. In the final confrontation inside the Hippodrome, the dismounted bucellarii of his household slaughtered thousands of rioters with bow and sword.

Goths attack the Mausoleum of Hadrian during the Siege of Rome. 

Belisarius is one of those rare individuals: a great and noble man, as well as a brilliant military commander. The men who formed his bucellarii were, in many respects, as extraordinary as their commander.

Belisarius’ original experimental bandon was recruited from men who had multiple skills and from diverse background; each of which brought something of value to the whole: Isaurian mountaineers (bold men, hardy and independent, invaluable as guides and scouts in broken terrain), ex-sailors (good with their hands and used to traveling to foreign lands and making friends with strangers), herdsmen of the plains (experienced horsemen and accustomed to skirmish fights on the open plains, as well as to the care and management of horses). All these contributed to the mix, and could learn from each other. What he refused were drafts from other units: old grumblers who thought they knew more than their officers, and would teach the new recruits their bad habits.

The armor and tunics of the bucellarii would have varied wildly after years on campaign and scavenging armor wherever possible; as men replaced broken pieces with armor captured or purchased locally. But his figure represents what Belisarius’ household bucellarii might have looked like in their early years, armed in typical (and uniform) fashion from arsenals in Constantinople. 

These were led by a cadre of young officers that Belisarius had known since his youth; and were devoted to their young leader and shared his vision.

As success followed upon success, Belisarius recruited men from the best of the Persian, Hunnic, Vandal and Gothic warriors taken prisoner in his campaigns. When asked by a Persian emissary why they served their former foe, the Romans; one of their number replied: “We do not serve the Romans; we seve Belisarius. He will make us perfect in the arts of war; and when we return to our people we will be great men.”

By the end of his career, his household bucellarii numbered 7,000 and was indisputably the best fighting force in the Western World.

Jealous of Belisarius popularity and suspicious of a potential rival, the Emperor Justinian retired Belisarius from active command and stripped him of his bucellarii. These were distributed out to other commanders. Here they contributed to the victories of Narses and other generals in the later years of Justinian’s reign. They no doubt taught what they had learned throughout the Roman/Byzantine army of the day. By the end of the 6th century, their equipment and tactics had become standardized in Byzantine manuals; most notably in the Strategikon, attributed to the Emperor Maurice (reigned 582–602). This would influence Byzantine military practice for centuries to come.

Belisarius in the center, pointing; two members of his bucellarii bodyguard stand behind him. The figure on the right appears to be a chieftain or high-status member of his Hun auxillaries; though many of his bucellarii were Huns and this may be one of these. 

In 559, Belisarius and some of the veterans of his bucellarii enjoyed one last hurrah, when a mounted army of Kutrigurs (described in the sources as Huns, but later part of the Bulgur people) under Khan Zabergan crossed the Danube River to invade Roman territory. The border garrisons had been stripped to provide for Justinian’s foreign wars; and the horde penetrated deep into Thrace; soon threatening Constantinople itself. A terrified and desperate Justinian recalled Belisarius to deal with the crises. The old general found that the only regular troops available, the Imperial Guards, had degenerated into “parade soldiers” and refused to take the field. Instead, he appealed to anyone in the city who had previously served in his household bucellarii, to rally to his standard.

Three hundred ageing soldiers joined their old commander; ironically the same amount as he had led on his first campaign against the Gepids, 39 years earlier. Along with a ragtag band of civilian volunteers, these marched out to meet the savage Kutrigurs.

At a wooded defile miles from the city, Belisarius hid his 300 veterans on either side of the road. The civilians had little in the way of arms; but Belisarius equipped them with pots and ladles; and concealed them higher in the hills surrounding the road. As the Kutrigurs rode into the defile, the old veterans assailed them with showers of arrows. At the same time, the civilians began beating the pots with their ladles, creating a cacophony of metallic clangor echoing through the hills. Fearing they were being beset upon by a much larger force, the Kutrigurs panicked and fled; pursued closely by Belisarius and his veterans. The Huns did not stop their flight till they had passed once again over the Danube.

This was Belisarius’ final triumph. After this, he was famously arrested, and ultimately blinded by an insanely jealous Justinian. According to the legend that grew up out of this, he briefly became a blind beggar in the streets of the city. This lasted but a brief time: when word reached his veterans of their commander’s plight, they all contributed to buying back his home. There he died in his bed, shortly after. Despite his terrible mistreatment by Justinian, he never broke his oath of loyalty, to raise the banner of revolt; a testament to his unimpeachable sense of honor.

Late 6th-early 7th century Byzantine elite cavalry: Fig. (1) is a Belisarian bucellarius. (2) Member of one of the elite “Epilektoi” regiments of Heraclius. (2a) is an officer.

Early in the following century the embattled soldier-Emperor Heraclius would form an elite unit called the “Bucellarii“; one of three so-called epilektoi (“picked”) regiments (the other two being the Optimates and the Feoderati). This may have been composed of the combined household troops of various magnates and generals (particularly those veterans of the disgraced and dismissed Priscus). This regiment and the other epilektoi spearheaded Heraclius’ victorious campaigns against the Persians in the 620s.

At the end of their service, they were settled in the newly created Opsikion Theme; along with their comrades of the Optimates regiment. A century later a new Bucellarian Theme was created, which along with the Optimatoi Theme was split off from the Opsikion when that elite Theme’s size and power was reduced for disloyalty to the Emperor Constantine V. In its name Bucellarian Theme kept alive the memory of the elite household guards of Belisarius.

Belisarius is unique among all the conquering generals of history. Never before or after did a single general accomplish so much with so little; virtually financing his meager expedition out of his own private purse. With never more than 20,000 men and often less (and most of these of indifferent quality) he recovered Africa and Sicily from the Vandals and Goths; and went far to recovering all Italy before his efforts were undermined by his jealous master. None of this would have been possible without the superb fighting instrument he created, his household regiment of bucellarii; progenitor of the Byzantine Kataphractos of the Dark Ages.

For more information, see Deadliest Blogger’s presentation of Belisarius at the Battle of Daras.

* Belisarius’ birth year is unknown; but is thought to have been between 500 and 505.

For more Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages series, see:

Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne

Jomsvikings: Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages

Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite

Varangian Guard: Elite Warriors of Byzantium

Norman Knight

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.www.ospreypublishing.com

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THE REDOUBTABLE HARRY SMITH FACES THE SAVAGE SIKHS AT ALIWAL!

battle-of-aliwal

THE TURNING POINT OF THE FIRST ANGLO-SIKH WAR COMES AT ALIWAL; AS SIR HARRY SMITH FIGHTS THE PERFECT BATTLE, AND THE 16th LANCERS RIDE TO GLORY.

Following humiliation in the First Afghan War (1839 to 1842), British prestige was badly eroded. In the Punjab, the independent and well-armed Sikhs were looking to take advantage of perceived British weakness to expand their kingdom into the Bengal. At the close of 1845, the growing instability of the Sikh government and tensions between they and the British East India Company led to the outbreak of war between Britain and the Sikh Kingdom (the First Anglo-Sikh War).

The Khalsa, the semi-independent professional army of the Sikh Kingdom (arguably the most “modern” and disciplined non-western army in the world at the time), began hostilities on December 10, 1845 by crossing the Sutlej River into British territory. The British forces near the frontier, under the command of General Sir Hugh “Paddy” Gough responded by marching the Army of the Sutlej west towards the river. On the evening of the 18 December, 1845 the British and Sikhs fought the first battle of the war, a confused and savage engagement at Mudki.  Eleven days later a bloody second battle  was fought at Ferozeshah (December 21-22, 1845); in which the two combatants, like two punch-drunk prize fighters, stubbornly slugged it out all day. The battle was renewed the next day, with the Sikhs finally retreating.

62nd-regiment.jpg

After this bloody and nearly disastrous battle, Gough pulled back and rested his forces through the following weeks. The Khalsa, even more battered by the encounter, also pulled back across the Sutlej. They left behind a strong garrison on the British side of the river at Sobraon, a bridgehead for their next invasion.

Encouraged by British inaction, in January 1846 the Khalsa high command dispatched a force of 7,000 men and 20 guns under Ranjodh Singh Majithia, to cross the Sutlej further east of Gough’s position and threaten his line of supply by capturing the British depot at Ludhiana. To thwart this move, Gough dispatched a division under the experienced and highly capable Sir Harry Smith.

Smith was a long-serving veteran of Britain’s 19th century wars. He first saw action as a Lieutenant in Britain’s invasion of the Rio de La Plata region of Argentina, where he won 220px-sir_harry_smithdistinction. Smith served throughout the Peninsula War in the famed 95th Rifles (the “Green Jackets”), and on the staff of the Light Division. As a 22 year old Captain he met the love of his life, a beautiful 14 year old Spanish girl of aristocratic birth, freshly out of the convent; who, along with her older sister, sought the protection of a British officer during the dreadful sack of Badajoz in 1810. Smith soon married Juana María de los Dolores de León, later known as Lady Smith, for whom the town of Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Wherever Harry Smith was later posted, the vivacious Juana was by his side, a true 19th century “power couple”. Smith went on to serve in America, where he was horrified at the burning of Washington, DC; such wanton vandalism contrasting badly with the humane way Wellington conducted his campaign in southern France in 1814. In 1815 the 28 year old Smith fought in the Battle of Waterloo, the seminal event for the British army in the 19th century. He went on to serve with distinction in campaigns in South Africa and India, being knighted following the Gwalior Campaign of 1843. Now, in 1846, Smith was given command of a division in Gough’s army, winning distinction at the earlier battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah the previous month.

Now he was tasked to interpose his division between Ranjodh Singh’s advancing forces and Ludhiana.

Smith moved rapidly, force-marching his troops to accomplish this task. Along the way he collected additional forces from outlaying garrisons and detachments. Smith maneuvered around Sikh blocking forces; and despite having to move across open country bisected with stream-beds and scrub, while his enemy had the use of the roads, arrived at Ludhiana in time to protect the depot.

Resting his exhausted command for a day, Smith was reinforced with an additional brigade under Sir Hugh Wheeler (who would die 11 eleven years later defending Cawnpore during the Great Mutiny). Marshaling his force of 12,000 men and 20 guns, Smith moved against Ranjodh’s army. His army was comprised of a division of cavalry, commanded by Brigadier-General Charles Robert Cureton, composed of two brigades and supported by 3 batteries of horse guns; and an infantry division comprised of four brigades, supported by 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. Only one of the cavalry regiments and three of the infantry regiments were British (“Queen’s Regiments“). The bulk of the army was comprised of Indian sepoys and sowars (cavalry troopers); along with two battalions of the vaunted Gurkhas [3].

The Order of Battle for Smith’s army at Aliwal was as follows:

Commander: General Sir Harry Smith.
Cavalry Division: Brigadier General Cureton –

  • Brigadier Macdowell’s brigade: HM 16th Queen’s Lancers, 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry and 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry.
  • Brigadier Stedman’s brigade: Governor General’s bodyguard, 1st Bengal Light Cavalry, 5th Bengal Light Cavalry and Shekawati Cavalry.
  • Horse Artillery: Major Laurenson, 3 batteries.

Infantry Division:

  • Colonel Hicks 1st Brigade:  HM 31st Foot, 24th and 47th Bengal Native Infantry.
  • Brigadier Wheeler’s 2nd Brigade: HM 50th Foot, 48th Bengal Native Infantry and Sirmoor Battalion of Gurkhas.
  • Brigadier Wilson’s 3rd Brigade: HM 53rd Foot and 30th Bengal Native Infantry.
  • Godby’s 4th Brigade: 36th Bengal Native Infantry and Nasiri Battalion of Gurkhas.
    Artillery: 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers.

The Sikhs had taken up a strong position just south of the Sutlej; their 4 mile-long line running along a low ridge and anchored on either flank by the villages of Bhundri (Bhoondree) and Aliwal. Ranjodh Singh’s army had also been reinforced days earlier by the arrival of the highly-trained Avitabile Regiment [1], trained in the most modern European methods by Italian mercenary-adventurer, Paolo Avitabile [2]. The formidable Khalsa forces awaiting Smith at Aliwal numbered 20,000 men and 70 guns.

Smith began his advance upon the Sikh position at daybreak on the 28th of January, 1846. His cavalry led the approach, in contiguous columns of regimental squadrons; closely supported by their horse artillery in the intervals. The infantry followed at some distance, also in contiguous columns of brigades with the foot artillery in the intervals. The British advanced over the 6 intervening miles, reaching the battlefield where the Sikhs were awaiting them at 10AM. Throughout the march the troops maintained their formations and arrived in good order.

Smith deployed his forces. As his army deployed, Smith rode closer to the Sikh position with his staff. From a rooftop in a tiny hamlet between the opposing lines, he observed that the enemy positions. Smith noted that though the river, running behind and parallel to their line protected the Sikh rear from direct attack; it also cramped their rear area, preventing the Sikh command from posting reserves behind their line or moving forces to reinforce endangered sections. In the event they were forced to give ground or make a general retreat, the river might prove a deadly obstacle.

Smith formed his army with his infantry in line, with the cavalry in echeloned back on either flank and to the rear of the infantry; and with the artillery massed on the right and center and left. With drums beating and bugles calling out, the well-ordered lines of British and sepoy regiments began their advance.

The battle began with the Sikh batteries opening fire at 600 yards.

There was no dust, the sun shone brightly. These maneuvers were performed with the celerity and precision of the most correct field day. The glistening of the bayonets and swords of this order of battle was most imposing; and the line advanced. Scarcely had it moved 150 yards, when, at ten o’clock, the enemy opened a fierce cannonade from his whole line. [4]

Though under fire, Smith briefly halted his line to decide the best course of action, now that he could see the enemy dispositions more clearly. He resolved that the key to unraveling the enemy position was to strike the enemy’s left at Aliwal; and then to roll-up their entire like from left-to-right.

As they drew closer to the enemy, Smith ordered his right-most brigades, that of Hicks 300px-bataille_de_mudki_1-323x220and Godby (the latter of these echeloned behind the right flank) to sweep to the right and assault Aliwal village. With bayonets glistening in the bright morning sun, the second-line regiments deployed and advanced: one British (HMs 31st Foot), three Bengali, and a battalion of Gurkhas. This detachment swept forward, conducting a “rapid and noble charge” [5]. Storming into the village, they overpowered and quickly drove out the garrison: in the 19th century, no fighting man in the world was more adept with the bayonet than the British “Tommy”, or more deadly at close-quarters than their Indian and Gurkha soldiers; the latter wielding their terrifying kukris. Along with the village the British captured two heavy (large caliber) guns.

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In answer to this reverse on his right flank, Ranjodh Singh ordered the Sikh cavalry massed on the high ground to the east of the village to attempt to outflank Smith’s right. Smith countered this move by ordering Cureton from the reserve to deploy half of his cavalry to support the right. Cureton led Stedman’s brigade of cavalry, reinforced with a squadron of the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry, to the east of Aliwal village, where the Sikh sowars were deploying.  Cureton’s squadrons now charged these with alacrity and skill, breaking-up and scattering the Sikh cavalry before them and earning great praise from Smith in the after-action dispatches.

With his right triumphant and secure, Smith now ordered a general advance; the force in captured Aliwal pressuring the now exposed Sikh left. The Sikh center was deployed on a slight ridge, behind a nullah (dry stream bed); supported by a myriad of guns. Smith, in his dispatch to Gough after the battle, described this stage of the battle, in which the Sikh left and center were driven back, thus:

“While these operations were going on upon the right, and the enemy’s left flank was thus driven back, I observed the brigade under Brigadier Wheeler (center right), an officer in whom I have the greatest confidence, charging and carrying guns and everything before it; again connecting his line, and moving on, in a manner which ably displayed the coolness of the Brigadier and the gallantry of his irresistible brigade (Her Majesty’s 50th Foot, the 48th Native Infantry, and the Sirmoor battalion); although the loss was, I regret to say, severe in the Queen’s 50th.” [6]

It should be pointed out that while the British regiments in any Indian battle were in the minority, most being comprised of Sepoys led by British (East India Company) officers; the casualties among British regiments tended to be higher. This because  the British tended to act as the vanguard and spearhead of most assaults; setting the all-important example of valor that inspired the Indian regiments.

Ranjodh Singh now attempted to wheel back and reform his line, anchoring on his right-most village of Bhundri. At the same time, a force of Sikh cavalry swept out and deployed into the plain beyond Bhundri to threaten the British and Bengali left flank. Smith’s cavalry commander, Cureton, responded by ordering Bere’s squadron of the 16th “The Queen’s” Lancers and the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry to drive this force back. The 16th, alone of British light cavalry regiments, wore red instead of blue tunics; along with the lancer’s jaunty Polish tschapka, the lancer helmet made famous by Napoleon’s Polish Lancers. For this reason the 16th was known as “The Scarlet’s“. Bere’s lancers charged the Sikh horsemen with great violence,breaking and driving them back to the bank of the Sutlej. By contrast, the 3rd Bengali failed to press home their attack, leaving the 16th to do the lion’s share of the labor.

Returning from their successful charge, Bere’s squadron encountered the European-trained Avatabile Regiment; which formed square to receive cavalry. (According to Sikh practice, this was actually either a triangle or trapezoidal formation, rather than a square.) Rather than veer off, the squadron charged home, in spite of receiving a devastating volley, and in a notable feat of arms broke through the Sikh square, and after a fierce and bloody minute of melee, rode out the other side. This was remarkable, in that conventional tactics held that a square formation was nearly impervious to cavalry assault, “rock” to the cavalry’s “scissors”. One explanation for the success of this feat was the 16th had been newly resupplied with fresh horses. The regiment had not had time to properly train their mounts for battle before the campaign. Standard training involved teaching the horse to veer-off when charging a square; but these new mounts had not been so (properly) trained. Spurred-on by their riders, the 16th’s gallant mounts plowed into and through the ordered ranks of the Sikh infantry.

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The second squadron of the left flank of the 16th Lancers, standing in reserve, now charged further battalions of the Avatabile Regiment, breaking them up as well. Two horse artillery guns acting in support of the wing unlimbered and opened fire on the remains of the Sikh regiment, completing the ruin.

Meanwhile the right wing of the 16th Lancers, commanded by Major Smyth, charged another battalion of Sikh infantry and a battery of guns. Smyth began this attack with three rousing cheers for the Queen. The charge began, and was led by a certain Sergeant Newsome; who shouted out “Hullo boys, here goes for death or a commission!” Newsome, reaching the Sikh square first, leapt his horse over the kneeling front rank of Sikh infantry and went to grab a Sikh colours. Rushed at from all sides, he was killed by 19 bayonet wounds. But his sacrifice in the search of personal glory was not for naught: It is reported that the squadron was aided in breaking into the Sikh square behind him because Newsome’s horse was so fiery that it went straight through the Sikh infantry, throwing their ranks into hopeless disarray in the process.

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Smith noted in his memoir that “The enemy fought with much resolution; they maintained frequent encounters with our cavalry hand to hand. In one charge, upon infantry, of H.M.’s 16th Lancers, they threw away their muskets and came on with their swords and targets against the lance.” Even though trained well with musket and bayonet, the Khalsa always showed a predilection to throw these aside and resort to their traditional weapon, the “Kirpan” (a razor-sharp tulwar) and targe. These inflicted truly horrific wounds, severing limbs and heads and hamstringing cavalry mounts.

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In this charge many of the soldiers and officers became casualties; the 16th sustaining some 144 casualties (out of 300 men deployed). Harry Smith met the squadrons fighting back through the Sikh line and called out “Well done 16th”! In all, the 16th lancers had beaten and scattered near ten-times their number. Though later eclipsed in the public perception by (disastrous) Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, for years after British school boys gloried in the heroic charge of the 16th Lancers at Aliwal.

Meanwhile, Smith ordered the cavalry from his right wing to join the survivors of the 16th, and the whole cavalry force delivered a last devastating charge, capturing the village of Bhundri and driving the garrison to the river bank.

His Majesty’s 53rd Foot now came up behind the cavalry and cleared Bhundri of the remaining determined pockets of Sikh defenders.

While this cavalry fight was raging on the Smith’s left flank, the British and Bengali infantry regiments all along the center, supported by artillery, pressed the Sikhs back to the Sutlej with musketry and bayonet. As the Sikh regiments took to the fords to escape across the river, a battery of 9 Sikh guns unlimbered on the river bank and attempted to cover their retreat. It succeeded in firing only one salvo before being overrun with bayonet by the rapidly pursuing British and Bengali troops. Ranjodh Singh attempted to bring some of his guns back across the river, but only two reached the far bank, two more being abandoned in the stream and a further two sunk irretrievably in quicksand.

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Bengal Horse Artillery in action

On the far bank Ranjodh Singh formed a new line; but these were quickly dispersed when Smith brought up artillery.

The battle ended with a complete British victory. It turned the tide of the war, giving the initiative back to the British. It also broke the fearful spell the Sikh legend of ferocity had cast upon the minds of the British sepoys and sowars. At Moodkee and Ferozeshah the Bengali sepoys and sowars showed a marked reluctance to engage with the feared Sikh soldiers. Aliwal changed this, the Bengalis in subsequent battles attacking the Sikhs with great élan.

Smith’s army suffered 589 casualties. The casualties were spread evenly through all the units, provoking the admiration of the Duke of Wellington for Smith’s use of combined arms in his tactics. The only exception was the 16th Lancers who suffered a disproportionate 50% casualties. The Sikhs admitted to 3,000 killed and lost all their 67 guns, camp and baggage. The actual toll may have been somewhat higher.

An elated Smith described it as “one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in India”. For his service and this victory, he was made by a grateful monarch and Parliament “Baron of Aliwal”.

Thirteen days later, Gough would bring the Sikhs to battle at bloody Sobraon, the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War.  Smith rejoined his commander-in-chief in time to lead his division in that triumphal engagement, which ended the first war between the British in India and their bellicose Sikh neighbors. Later that year, Smith was promoted to Major General for his services to the Queen and Empire.

A Second Sikh War would break out a few years later, but Sir Harry Smith (his lady by his side) was by then in Africa, appointed in 1847 Governor of the Cape Colony. There he led successful engagements against both the Boers and the  Xhosa tribesmen. But his greatest victory was behind  him: Aliwal, the perfect battle and the crowning jewel in an exemplary career.

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  1. In his memoir Harry Smith calls this reinforcement Avitabile’s “Corps”, 4,000 strong, with 12 guns and a strong force of cavalry.
  2. Avitabile was the Sikh appointed governor of the Peshawar, and as such controlled access to the Khyber Pass for the British the First Afghan War. Following Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul and the destruction of his army in the passes, Avitabile rendered the British both financial and logistical aid; allowing Pollock’s army to return and avenge Elphinstone’s defeat. He departed Sikh service on the eve of the First Anglo-Sikh War, in 1843, returning with a vast fortune to Naples.
  3. The exact composition of Smith’s army are as follows:

British Forces:
HM 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons (Lancers). This was one of the only cavalry regiments in the British army to wear scarlet tunics.
HM 31st Foot (East Surrey Regiment)
HM 50th Foot (later the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment)

HM 53rd Foot (later the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry)

Indian Forces (Army of the Bengal):
Governor General’s Bodyguard
1st Bengal Native Cavalry
3rd Bengal Native Cavalry
5th Bengal Native Cavalry
4th Irregular Cavalry
Shekawati Cavalry
3 Batteries of Horse Artillery
2 Field Batteries of Artillery

24th Bengal Native Infantry
36th Bengal Native Infantry
47th Bengal Native Infantry
48th Bengal Native Infantry
Nasiri Gurkha Battalion
Sirmoor Gurkha Battalion

  1. Smith,  Sir Henry (Harry) George Wakelyn: The autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej, G.C.B.; London: J. Murray, 1903; ch. 45
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
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ZULU: DEATH AND REDEMPTION IN THE AFRICAN SUN

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On 11 January 1879, a British Army crossed the Buffalo River, the boundary between the British Natal province and the independent native African kingdom of the Zulus. After the refusal by the Zulu king Cetshwayo of an insulting British ultimatum, a British army prepared to march on the Zulu capital, Ulindi; with the goal of defeating and annexing the Zulu kingdom.

 

The Zulu War of 1879 was not officially sanctioned by the government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was instead the work of an ambitious colonial official, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa. In an effort to compel the various states of South Africa into a British confederation (which would be comprised of British-run Cape Colony, Natal, and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), Frere had initiated a policy of annexation of local African tribal states. The British had for most of the century battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878. Frere now set his sights on the Zulu Kingdom.

 

Frere’s ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and highly-warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was in any case an unstable and ultimately intolerable situation.

Founded by the military savant Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old. Every Zulu male belonged to one of the regiments (amabutho) of the 35,000 strong Zulu Army (impi). These were settled across the land in regimental kraals (villages), ready to be called-up as needed. Young Zulu men were forbidden to marry until they had “washed their spears” in the blood of an enemy. Therefore the Zulus were a people ever at war with their neighbors. Such a bellicose nation dwelling on the defenseless border of their Natal and Transvaal territories was in impossible security risk for the British government.

CHELMSFORD INVADES

The British army that invaded Zululand consisted of 7,800 men, divided into 3 columns. Colonel (later Field Marshal) Sir Evelyn Wood of the 90th Light Infantry marched one column into the North of Zululand as a diversion. Colonel Sir Charles Pearson of the 3rd Foot (The Buffs) attacked from the southeast, nearest the coast. The main thrust, nearly 4,000 strong, was to be delivered by the “Center Column”, personally led by the British commander-in-chief, Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. This force was comprised of the 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment*), and units of the Natal Native Infantry, Natal irregular horse and Royal Artillery.

 

After crossing the Buffalo River at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Chelmsford’s column made slow progress. Nine days into the invasion the Center Column had pushed just 10 miles into Zululand; where on the 20th they reached the distinctive mound of Isandlwana (the “Crouching Lion”). There Chelmsford made camp on the gentle slopes; and sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming.

The Zulus, indeed, were coming.

Hearing of the British incursions into his realm, King Cetshwayo had dispatched an army of some 24,000 warriors, commanded by two Zulu royal princes (inDunas). His command to them was simple: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”

Undetected by Chelmsford’s scouts, the Zulus were closing in on Center Column at Isandlwana. On the 18th, 4,000 warriors were detached from the mainbody to attack Pearson’s column to the southeast. The remaining 20,000 moved closer to Chelmsford’s force.

On January 21, 1879, a British mounted detachment contacted a Zulu force to the east. Thinking this was the mainbody of the Zulu army, Lord Chelmsford made the decision to set out at dawn the following day in pursuit, with the intent of finding the Zulus and bringing them to battle. Little did he know that this was the detached force moving east to attack Pearson’s column; and that the main Zulu army was moving on his base camp at Isandlwana.

The battlefield at Isandlwana. It was here, on the gentle slopes below the rock formation called “The Crouching Lion” (center-left in the picture) that the British were camped and fought their desperate battle. The white stones scattered along the slope are memorial markers, denoting places on the field where fell the British defenders.

At dawn on the 22nd of January, Chelmsford left the camp at Isandlwana; taking with him the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, along with the Mounted Rifles and several guns. To defend his camp and his supplies, he left at Isandlwana approximately 1,400 men, including the 1st Battalion of the 24th and a detached company of the 2nd Battalion, along with a battery of field guns and an engineer company; under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine.

At 11 AM a troop of mounted rifles, led by Lt. Charles Raw, scouting to the north, spotted a few Zulu boys running away. Pursuing, they came to a valley beyond and found, standing to arms, the 20,000 warriors of the Zulu army!

 

Their presence detected, the Zulu’s immediately began a rapid advance on Isandlwana, pursuing Raw’s men. A battalion of Natal Native horse led by Lt.Colonel Anthony William Durnford rode out to aid Raw and fix the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford’s force encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong. Durnford began a fighting retreat back toward their camp, with the Zulus hot on their heels.

The Zulus were known for their ability to advance at a miles-chewing, loping run. Their endurance was such that they could maintain this pace for hours, eventually overtaking horsemen whose mounts could not sustain such a sustained pace. Durnford and his men succeeded in staying ahead of the pursuing Zulus, and arriving on the right of the main, hastily-forming British position, formed firing line among the other native levies.

 

TACTICS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

The Zulu attacked the British position at Isandlwana in their traditional “Horns of the Buffalo” formation: a center (the head) to fix the enemy, two wings (the horns) to envelope him, and a reserve (the loins) to reinforce where necessary.

———–———–———–As the diagram above shows, when contact was made with the enemy the head and horns advanced to meet him. In the second phase, the head gave way, luring the enemy forward. Its warriors reinforced the horns and formed the joints between these and the loins; who now engaged the enemy frontally. In the final phase, the horns envelope the enemy, who is now encircled and destroyed. These were very sophisticated tactics for a “tribal” army. By such methods Shaka had created the finest and most lethal native army in Africa.

Scene from 1986’s “Shaka Zulu”; depicting the young Shaka training his first cadre of followers in the new Zulu tactics.
 

As the Zulu impi neared the British camp, Paulleine saw first the right horn of the Zulu formation coming over a hill to his left. Estimating this force at 4,000 strong, and not yet seeing the rest of the oncoming Zulu’s, he sent word to Chelmsford (received by the general between 9am and 10am) that this force might be attempting to get into his rear. To prevent this, Paulliene sent out all companies of the 24th into extended firing line ahead of the camp; in effort to pin and engage the Zulus at distance with firepower.

The British infantryman in 1879 carried the breach-loading Martini-Henry rifle. An 8lbs, 49 inch weapon, it was a heavy caliber (.450) rifle, capable of delivering deadly and sustained fire out to 1,800 yards. If the enemy came to close quarters, it sported a socket-type spike bayonet, 20.4 inches in length. The Martini-Henry was the first non-muzzle loading weapon of the British army, and a trained soldier could fire off a round every 6 seconds. Recently brought into service, the British military establishment had very high expectations concerning its effectiveness.

 

“I am inclined to think that the first experience with the Martin-Henry’s will be such a surprise for the Zulus, that they will not be formidable after the first effort.”

The Zulus themselves despised firearms. Long acquainted with the muzzle-loading muskets of the whites, the Zulu were unimpressed with their lack of accuracy and relative slow rate of fire. The ethos of their warrior culture was philosophically at odds with firearms in any case: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack” [1]. A sentiment right out of the pages of Homer; but dangerously out of date in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Zulus were brave and capable proponents of this ancient military philosophy.

 

The primary weapon-system of the Zulu warrior was the iklwa (the shorter, heavier Zulu version of the Bantu light thrusting/throwing spear, the assegai) and a large oval shield made of cowhide. The tactics introduced by Shaka called for the Zulus to close with their enemy as rapidly as possible; and using their shield to hook and pull the enemy’s shield out of the way, to then thrust at the now-exposed armpit or left side of their opponent. While the British rifle-and-bayonet put them at a distinct disadvantage; the speed with which they were able to close the distance with the British would come as a shock to Chelmsford’s riflemen; and both sides learned to respect the tactics of the other, and adopted measures to deal with them. For their part, Zulus learned to lay low, and only rush forward where terrain masked the fire of British rifles. The British soon discovered that the best way of dealing with the rapid rush of Zulu impi lay in erecting fortified posts or fighting from behind barriers that slowed or stopped the Zulu advance, giving the riflemen time to mow them down.

But in this first encounter on January 22, 1879, below the looming rock formation of Isandlwana, neither side understood clearly the challenges their opponents offered. The Zulus were rushing headlong into the rapid fire of British riflemen, who could knock a warrior down at a thousand yards. While Paulliene’s red-coated companies moving forward into extended lines in open terrain had no reason to suppose that they could not keep the fast-moving Zulu masses at bay with aimed fire at that distance.

Both sides were in for a shock.


FOR WANT OF A SCREWDRIVER

As the morning drew on, the “head” and right “horn” of the Zulu army engaged the British defenders beneath the “Crouching Lion”. The fire from the red-coated British soldiers was so hot that for the first two hours the Zulus were indeed pinned down, their warriors forced to lie flat on their stomachs beneath the fusillade of hot lead. But the left horn of the Zulu formation was working its way around the British right, forcing Paulliene to pull his line back closer to the camp. Here, the 2 guns left in the camp joined the fire. Morale amongst the British remained high, as the Zulu advance seemed halted.

 

However, “Murphy” intervened at this crucial moment; for it is an immutable law that whatever can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment. In this case, it was the lack of a screwdriver (and an overly-officious, bureaucratic officer) that doomed the defenders of Isandlwana.

As ammunition supplies on the firing line began to run low (each soldier carried only 60 rounds in his ammunition pouch), runners were sent back from the platoons on the firing line; to the supply wagons further up the slope, at the back of the camp.

There, they found utter confusion.

Thousands of extra rounds of rifle ammunition were contained in heavy, very well constructed wooden boxes on the supply wagons. These had been sealed for transport with strong iron screws, rather than simple nails. Somehow, incredible as it seems in retrospect, the Quartermaster’s Corp had failed to bring the screwdrivers necessary to open these crates and issue the desperately needed ammunition.

Modern reenactors at Isandlwana: here a British rifle squad of the 24th Regiment of Foot fire Martini-Henry rifles. Firing lines such as this, drawn up in extended line across the slopes, succeeded for a time in pinning down the masses of the Zulu impi

When the runners came for ammunition resupply, they found frantic Quartermaster’s assistants desperately trying to break open these boxes. The situation was made worse by the bureaucratic fussiness of the Battalion Quartermaster; who demanded that the runners return to their companies on the line and obtain written authorization from their commanding officers for any ammunition distribution from his stores!

While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run out of ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire they’d been enduring, the Zulu warriors rose and surged forward. While the “head” kept the British line occupied before the camp, the left and right horns rushed to either side, sweeping against the British flanks.

 

Paulliene had entrusted the flanks to Native Natal irregulars, Africans trained-and-organized in European fashion. These were recruited mostly from men of the Xhosa tribe; whose fathers and grandfathers had been victims of Zulu aggression before becoming subjects of the British Cape Colony. They had grown-up on tales of Zulu battle prowess, and their fear of the Zulu went to the morrow of their bones. As the Zulu impi now bore down upon them, most broke and ran, deserting their positions in panicked flight. Durnford, fighting among his command, was cut down; his body later found lying near a wagon, surrounded by the bodies of his men.

His flanks collapsing and his main line out of ammunition, Paulliene’s position rapidly deteriorated. With the Zulus swarming around their flanks and into their rear, the men of the 24th hastily formed squad, platoon and company squares wherever they could. The fighting was desperate and ferocious, bayonet against raw-hide shield and iklwa stabbing spear. The men of the 24th were brave and well trained; and stood firmly, giving as good as they got. But numbers soon told, as islands of red-coated soldiers were swarmed over by the Zulu wave.

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Two images of the desperate last minutes at Isandlwana. The bottom from “Zulu Dawn” (1979)

As his command was collapsing around him, the unfortunate Pulleine reportedly gave orders to 36 year old Lieutenant Teignmouth Melville to flee with the Queen’s Colors (the country’s national flag trimmed with gold fabric, and with the regiment’s insignia placed in the center), to prevent the Zulus from capturing them. Retiring to his tent, Pulleine sat down to compose a letter; possibly to his family, or perhaps to sketch a report of the defeat for Chelmsford. Before he could finish, a Zulu warrior broke into the tent. Pulleine lifted his service revolver, and firing wounded the man in the neck and was himself fatally stabbed. He died having done little wrong by the conventions of the day; but he fell victim (as did his command) to a chain of misjudgments and the mistakes of others. It is worth noting that in battle what often leads to disaster is not what you don’t know: it is what you think you know, but which proves incorrect.

Melvill with the Queen’s Colors and another Lieutenant, Nevill Coghill, did temporarily escape the slaughter on horseback. Riding hard for the river, they were closely pursued by Zulus. There they were caught while attempting to cross, and both were killed [2]. The Colors washed down river, to be retrieved ten days later.

 

At around 2:29 that afternoon, a solar eclipse occurred, appropriately darkening the stricken field. Isandlwana was over, and 1,300 British and native soldiers lay slain on the field. The 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot had ceased to exist. The Zulus, as was their tradition, slit open the bellies of all the fallen. It was a Zulu religious custom, allowing the souls of the dead, which they believed dwelled within a man’s belly, to be freed to go on to the after-world; rather than to remain and haunt the battlefield.

 

This was the grisly site that greeted Chelmsford when in the late afternoon he returned to Isandlwana, having failed to find the 4,000 men now heading for Pearson’s column: his camp looted and destroyed, the disemboweled bodies of the men he’d left there scattered about the slopes. Their corpses lay in platoon and company sized clusters, where they had fallen; fighting to the end. At the supply wagons, bodies were found of soldiers stabbed in the back, killed while still trying to pry open the desperately needed ammunition crates with their bayonets.

It was the worst defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of native warriors since Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War, more than thirty years before.

Opening from the excellent “Zulu” (1964)

 

REDEMTION AT RORKE’S DRIFT

Before crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand, Chelmsford had established a supply depot at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. This depot was guarded by some 140 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th; including men left there at the makeshift hospital, too sick to continue the march with the main column. They were commanded by two Lieutenants: John Chard (an Engineer officer there to build a bridge across the river) and Gonville Bromhead; an aristocratic professional who was at the time nearly deaf! These two untried officers with a scratch force of red-coated soldiers would soon be engaged in one of Britain’s most celebrated battles.

By 3pm word reached Rorke’s Drift of the unfolding disaster at Isandlwana; and that Zulu forces were likely on their way there to finish off the garrison. Chard, the senior of the two officers, assumed command and quickly set about fortifying the otherwise defenseless position. Working quickly, a defensive perimeter and interior redoubts were constructed out of mealie bags, supply crates, and overturned wagons. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were made defensible as well, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

The approaching Zulu force of between 3,000-4,000 warriors was comprised of married men in their 30s and 40s, along with an ibutho of young unmarried men. None had engaged during the fighting at Isandlwana: having been assigned to the “loins” or reserve of the Zulu formation at Isandlwana, they were ordered to sweep around the British left flank. The Zulus reached Rorke’s Drift at 4:30 pm, having fast-marched some 20 miles from the morning encampment they had left around 8 am. For the next 11 hours they would engage the British in relentless assaults; in all a testament to the determination, stamina, and physical endurance of the Zulu warriors.

All the rest of that afternoon of January 22nd the Zulus launched probes and assaults against various points in the British position; supported by rifle fire from the heights above by warriors armed Martini-Henrys, taken from off of the dead at Isandlwana. Most of their attacks were directed against the northern side of the defenses, while rifle fire was directed against the defenders of the south wall.

Each assault was beaten back. Several penetrated into the perimeter, only to be met with flying squads from the reserve, meeting them with rifle fire and bayonet. With no place to run the British defenders fought with desperate courage and iron determination. Chard and Bromhead provided exemplary leadership; as did the cadre of regimental NCOs. (Both officers were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor.)

 

The nature of the defenses was such that the Zulus were never able to use their numbers to good effect, and swarm the defenders as they had at Isandlwana. And unlike the earlier, larger battle, here the British had more than sufficient ammunition readily available.

The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6pm; where a fierce fight developed beneath the blazing thatch roof. Those patients able to stand kept the Zulus at bay, while others broke holes through interior walls to allow evacuation. The heroic actions of two privates, Henry Hook and John Williams during this most desperate portion of the battle earned both the Victoria Cross.

The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2am. For the next two hours, until 4am, the British were subject to rifle fire from the Zulus in the hills above their position; using the light from the burning hospital building to illuminate their targets.

As dawn brightened the eastern sky, the defenders at Rorke’s Drift found that the Zulus had withdrawn. Parties were sent out to scout, collect weapons, and (when found) “finish off” the Zulu wounded. These activities were interrupted, and British given a great scare, when around 7am the Zulus suddenly reappeared in force on the crest of the hills above. The exhausted British rushed to man their positions once again, expecting another assault.

Riflemen defending an interior redoubt against Zulu assault.

 

But no attack materialized. After a brief time, the Zulus left; this time for good.[3] The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over.

The British lost a mere 17 dead; though virtually every man in the command had some kind of wound. All were exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours, and were running low on ammunition: of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained; the riflemen expending an astonishing 19,000 rounds in their successful effort to repel the Zulu attackers.

The number of Zulu dead is disputed. The official count was 351 men. But other witnesses put the dead (including those wounded Zulu “put out of their misery”) at as high as 600. The discrepancy in casualties between the British and their Zulu attackers is dramatic.

The heroism of the defenders resulted in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses for valor; the most ever received by one regiment in a single action. Another four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded. Oddly, Lord Chelmsford was critical of the number of awards given to veterans of the Rorke’s Drift defense. “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt and so fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save”. A sour reflection from a commander whose decisions had led to one Britain’s greatest defeats at the hands of native warriors; commenting upon men who had given their country its only reason to celebrate Chelmsford’s otherwise disastrous Zulu Campaign.

The Zulu War would go on. Though forced to retreat out of Zululand, the British would be resupplied and reinforced by May of that year; and return to ultimately defeat the Zulus and annex their kingdom. For his part in initiating the Zulu War and later laying the ground-work for the First Boer War, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was recalled and cashiered the following year (1880).

In May Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the dead.

But on January 22, 1879, the British suffered both a humiliating and costly defeat; and a heroic and redeeming victory.

LESSONS LEARNED

As with any battle and campaign, there are lessons to be learned.

At Isandlwana, Chelmsford made the fatal error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy. Without proper reconnaissance and unaware of the enemy’s dispositions or precise intentions, he took half of his command on “wild goose chase” away from his camp on the morning of the 22nd. He left a camp well-garrisoned; but utterly lacking in any kind of field works or other kind of defenses. All of these mistakes can be accounted for by the utter hubris of both Chelmsford and the British authorities in general; who underestimated their opponent and overestimated their own capabilities.

It is striking that this disaster at the hands of native forces came just 3 years on the heels of a similar defeat and for many of the same reasons in North America: Custer’s defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Zulus, by contrast, knew exactly where their enemies lay; and kept their forces concentrated. Using terrain and rapid movement to their advantage, they achieved strategic surprise by arriving within strike distance of the British camp undetected. When discovered by a British mounted detachment, they immediately went over to a well-coordinated and rapid assault; achieving tactical surprise as well.

All of these mistakes by the British and achievements by the Zulus might still have been negated by the superior firepower of the British riflemen; had not the incomprehensibly stupid lack of proper tools by the commissariat deprived the British soldiers of available ammunition resupply during the crises of the battle.

At Rorke’s Drift different lessons can be gleaned.

The first, one that the British would learn from and employ in their successful advance into Zululand later that year, was that Zulu mobility and mass was best met from behind a fortified position or good defensive terrain. That facing an enemy who could maneuver nearly as rapidly as cavalry in open ground was dicey at best.

The second was that given proper supply of ammunition, the steady fire of British riflemen armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle could deliver sufficient fire to devastate massed enemy warriors; given time to do so.

For posterity, Rorke’s Drift has given a lesson in the force-multiplier effect of desperation. Having no way of retreating or surrendering, the British were forced to fight with a much greater determination and courage than is normally found in even the best of fighting men facing hopeless odds. With a secure position, a plenitude of supplies, and confidence in both themselves and their officers, the men of the 24th forever secured their place in the annals of British arms.

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Scene from the terrific 1964 film, “Zulu”; depicting (erroneously) the final Zulu attack at dawn the 23rd. A great scene, and typical of what happened throughout the day; in truth the fighting ended at 2am the 23rd with the Zulu withdrawing.

 

* The regiment would be designated as “The South Wales Borderers” in 1881.

  1. Bourquin, S. Military History Journal, V.4, No.4, The Zulu Military Organization, South African Military History Society, Dec. 1978.
  2. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for this doomed attempt to save the colors. However, their action in leaving the battle did not go uncriticized. The premiere soldier of the day, General Sir Garnet Wolseley, commented: “I don’t like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are being killed.” In this Wolseley was, in my opinion, entirely correct.
  3. In the 1964 film “Zulu”, the Zulus return to salute the British for their bravery. But this is mere speculation on the part of the filmmaker.

 

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A “MOST SAVAGE BATTLE”: ABU KLEA, 1885

ln 1881, in the Sudan, a leader emerged from out of the sands of the desert. He was a man of the desert; a mystic and a man of God. His name was Muhammad Ahmad and claimed to be the “Expected One”, the true “Mahdi”. He soon gathered a force of followers from the desert tribes, and declared jihad.

The Mahdi’s Army grew and his revolt spread. The Dervishes (as they came to be known) captured towns and defeated small Egyptian forces sent to destroy them.

Then, in 1883, the Turkish governor of Egypt hired William “Billy” Hicks, a retired British Colonel and several British subordinates to lead a modern army into the Sudan and crush the Mahdi. Hicks Pasha had at his disposal 10,000 regular infantry armed with modern rifles, 1,000 irregular cavalry, 14 field pieces and 6 Nordenfelt multiple barrel machine guns.

The Mahdi (R), and as portrayed by Sir Lawrence Olivier (L) in the 1966 film, “Khartoum”

On paper it was an imposing force. But the infantry had been recruited from pardoned rebels and the cavalry were undisciplined bashibazouks. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”: unpaid, untrained, undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.

The Mahdi awaited them, with 40,000 spear and sword-armed tribesmen. They had few rifles and no field guns; but they had something perhaps even greater. The Mahdi promised them a miracle, and they believed him.

They also knew the desert.

Dervish weapons, shields, and a mail shirt

The Mahdi retreated, and Hicks pursed. Further and further the Mahdi drew his enemy, and Hicks followed; slowed by an immense train of 5,000 camels. The Egyptians withered in the blistering desert heat, their water supplies dwindling. Day after day, they marched on, the Dervishes always just beyond their reach.

Finally, his army spent, Hicks ordered a retreat back to El Obied. It was then the Mahdi stopped retreating, and turned on his enemy. The Egyptians were soon surrounded. For two days their square held, until it collapsed. Hicks and all of the European officers perished; and only 500 survivors returned to Egypt. They left in the Mahdi’s hands all of their equipment. If formidable with spear and sword, how dangerous would the Dervishes now be with modern weapons?

The harsh, forbidding Sudanese desert. It was in just such terrain that Hick’s column was destroyed by the Dervishes.

The loss of Hick’s army was a deep embarrassment to both Egypt and British government. While technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was effectively under the protection of the British Empire. Its army was trained and led by British officers. Pride aside, of more concern was the loss of more than 8,000 rifles and the 14 pieces of modern artillery. The government of Prime Minister William Gladstone was forced by an outraged public to take action.

In contrast to his arch political rival, Disraeli, Gladstone was a staunch anti-imperialist; and was loath to commit British forces to a war in the Sudan. However, to ease British public opinion, Gladstone appointed a retired national hero, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, as Governor-General of the Sudan. While most famous for having led the Chinese Imperial government’s “Ever Victorious Army” to final victory in the Taiping Rebellion; Gordon had served as Governor of the Sudan in the 1870s, where he had suppressed the slave trade. It was a popular appointment both in Britain and in the Sudan.

Charles “Chinese” Gordon (right), and Charleton Heston, who portrayed Gordon in the film “Khartoum” (1966)

But Gordon was not sent to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi. He had no troops at his disposal, and none were promised should he get himself into trouble. He was sent in hopes that his name alone would rally support to the government and against the Mahdi; and failing that, to organize the evacuation of all European personnel from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February, 1884. However, Gladstone had overestimated both the dampening effect Gordon’s arrival in the Sudan would have on the Mahdist revolt; and Gordon’s willingness to obey orders. Once ensconced in the Governor’s palace in Khartoum, Gordon began calling for Gladstone to send troops to help his beloved Sudanese in resisting the Dervishes. Meanwhile, he spent the year preparing Khartoum to stand siege till relief arrived.

As the Mahdist revolt spread, Gordon and Khartoum were increasingly isolated. A loose Dervish blockade of the city began on March 18, 1884, with the telegraph line to Cairo being cut and river traffic interdicted. Fearful for their hero’s life, the British press and public called for a relief expedition. A stubborn and incensed Gladstone resisted as long as was politically possible. Then, in August 1884 he ordered a British relief force to Gordon’s rescue.

Called the Khartoum Relief Expedition (or, more popularly in the press, the Gordon Relief Expedition), a force of 4,500 crack British regulars were placed under the command of Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, Britain’s most eminent general. Steaming from England to Alexandria, the expedition then set out from Egypt and up the Nile in two columns. The largest was led by Wolseley himself, and traveled south down the Nile by riverboats. The other, the elite Camel Corps, was commanded by Sir Herbert Stewart. These took the direct route from Wadi Halfa across the desert.

Stewart’s force, 1,400 strong, was composed of some of the best units in the British army:

1. The Heavy Camel Corps, comprised of the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers.

2. The Guards Camel Corps, comprising Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry.

3. The Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, drawn from the 1st Battalion the Sussex Regiment.

4. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade manning a Gardner machine gun completed the force.

The men of the Camel Corps, 1885

Contrary to what was portrayed in the 2002 film, The Four Feathers, the men of Stewarts command did not wear the traditional British redcoat. Instead, they wore grey tunics, cord breeches and pith helmets stained brown. The infantry of the Sussex Regiment wore khaki tunics. The British troops were all armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle, equipped with a 22 inch sword-bayonet. Both infantry and cavalry units were mounted on camels, except for the 19th Hussars. These retained their horses; and carried carbines and swords instead of rifles.

 

As Stewart’s column neared the oasis of Abu Klea on January 16, 1885, pickets of the 19th Hussars encountered parties of Dervishes. It could be seen that a large force was waiting at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some 43 miles before and were in need of replenishment. Nevertheless it was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The following morning, January 17 the British waited a Dervish attack behind a zereba (hedge) of thorn brush they had erected around their camp. Mounted parties were sent out to skirmish with the Dervishes, in hope of stinging them into a costly assault on the well-defended British camp. When the Mahdist failed to take the bait, Stewart broke camp. Forming up his command into a large, hollow square with the camels in the center, Stewart’s dismounted force advanced on the wells of Abu Klea.

 

Awaiting him was a 13,000 strong force of fierce Dervish warriors.

Mahdist/Dervish warriors

For Herbert Stewart and the British, the Battle of Abu Klea began with inauspiciously with mishap. At around 9:30am, as the British square wheeled to the right to move onto higher ground, the Dervishes emerged from the concealment of a nearby gully and charged the square. At this critical juncture, the British fire was hampered by the presence of their own skirmishers between them and the enemy. These had to be permitted to regain the square before volley fire could commence. The rapidly approaching Dervishes followed close on the retreating skirmishers, consequently coming to within 200 yards or less of the square before the first volleys could be delivered; depriving the British of long-range fire.

The Martini-Henry rifle with bayonet types

Near disaster loomed when, at this most inopportune moment, a potentially fatal gap opened in a corner of the square. This was partially due to the uneven nature of the ground, and to the inexperience of the Naval Brigade and the dismounted cavalry contingents, who were attempting to fight as infantry. The Dervish charge was delivered at the section of the square held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford of the Naval Brigade brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square and took it out through the Mounted Infantry line and opened fire on the charging warriors. But after firing just some 70 rounds, the Gardner gun jammed; something it had an unfortunate tendency to do. Before it could be cleared the Dervish spearmen swarmed over and overwhelmed the detachment; slaughtering all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, along with one of the junior men.

 

Despite this reverse, the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the 3 guns in their front repulsed the Mahdist charge; which coursed around the left face of the square to fall on the gap in the square, where the Heavy Cavalry Camel regiment was posted.

The troopers of this Regiment were defending themselves with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience in defending an infantry square. The result was perhaps predictable: Swarming forward, the Dervishes penetrated through the gap and into the square.

At this moment Colonel Frederick Burnaby of the Horse Guards rushed forward to stem the tide. A large man who famously loved a good fight, Burnaby waded into the oncoming horde. Fighting with sword from horseback, Burnaby fenced with onrushing warriors; till a thrusting spearman, coming from his flank, caught him in the throat, mortally wounding him.

 

Rushing past the dying Burnaby and on into the interior of the square, the Dervishes were balked by the mass of camels packed into the interior; preventing the Dervishes from smashing into the exposed rear ranks of the British troops on the opposing faces of the square. As the camels scampered out of the way, the rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front-face of the square, and the Foot Guards and Royal Marines on the right-face turned about, and opened a devastating fire on the blood-mad Dervish warriors. Their attack was soon broken, and thrown back.

The battle was only ten, frantic minutes long. It resulted in 76 dead and 82 wounded British soldiers. The Mahdists took approximately 1,500 casualties. By 4pm, the British had taken the wells and the Dervish force was in retreat. Winston Churchill, in his book “The River War” called the fight at Abu Klea “The most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Sudan by British troops…”

Two days later, Stewart was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a skirmish. The advance continued unabated. Concerned with Wolseley’s column approaching as well along the river, the Mahdi decided to order an assault on Khartoum, before the relief columns could arrive to break the siege. Despite his careful preparations, Gordon’s defenses crumbled and the city fell. Gordon died on the steps of his palace to a Dervish spear.

The death of Gordon

The Gordon Relief Expedition arrived at Khartoum two days later. Finding Gordon and the European nationals dead, the British withdrew; and the Mahdi took complete control of the Sudan.

Six months later, the Mahdi died of typhus. But the Dervish state continued on for another 14 years; till Britain sent a second army under Sir Herbert Kitchener to finish what Wolseley and Stewart had begun.

Scene from the 1966 film, Khartoum, depicting (inaccurately) the Battle of Abu Klea. Note the total lack of Dervish foot, among other flaws. (At least music is stirring!)

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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ELITE WARRIOR OF THE DARK AGES: NORMAN KNIGHT

In the 11th century, no warrior stood taller than the knights of Normandy. Esteemed as the most dangerous heavy cavalry in Europe, the Normans ventured forth from their northern French duchy to carve out realms from the Scottish Lowlands to the Euphrates River.

Either serving as prized mercenaries in foreign service or following the banners of their own intrepid leaders, the devastating charge of Norman cavalry gained victory on a myriad of battlefields.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 876 a Viking chieftain named Rollo arrived in northern France, raiding along the Seine Valley. The origins of this leader are disputed. He is claimed by both Denmark and by Norway. The most likely identity of Rollo is found in Norwegian and Icelandic sources, where he is called Ganger Hrolf (Hrolf, “the Walker”, so-named because he was reputedly too tall to ride a horse), a son of Rognvald Eysteinsson,  Earl of Møre in Western Norway.

These sources say that Rolf was forced to leave Norway by the new (first) king of that country, Harald Fairhair. Arriving in France, he spent decades campaigning with other Viking bands till, in 911, the French King Charles the Simple bought him off by ceded to him a domain situated around the town of Rouen; in return for Christian baptism and homage as a vassal of France. This grant of land became the germ of the Duchy of Normandy.

A story is told of the homage ceremony between Rolf (who took the baptismal name of Robert) and King Charles, that is illustrative of the future turbulent relationship between the Dukes of Normandy and their titular lords, the Kings of France. According to legend, the ceremony of homage required Rolf to kiss the foot of King Charles. Mounted on his horse, the king rode up to where Rolf stood and extended his foot. Rolf took the foot in hand and raised it to his mouth, in the process causing the king to tumble from his saddle onto the ground; much to the merriment of Rolf’s rough-humored Viking followers! (Another version of this story has the Frankish king seated on a chair, and Rollo having a follower kissing the foot of the king in his stead; up-ending Charles in the process.)

Rolf/Duke Robert expanded his domain in all directions; giving lands to his Viking followers in return for fealty in the process. These new lords of the land, who came to be known as “Normans”, adopted Carolingian feudalism wholesale. By the time he died in 932, the 86 year old Rolf/Rollo/Robert had created a strong feudal Duchy that stretched from Brittany to Flanders, and south to the borders of Maine. His heirs continued his policies, and by 1050 the Norman Duchy was militarily the strongest in France; independent in all but name.

Marrying local French wives, by the second generation French had become the language of the Normans. However, though these Norse and Danish newcomers gave up their language and their longships, they had lost little of their Viking spirit. Taking to horseback, they soon mastered the tactics of Frankish heavy cavalry; and perhaps improved upon them. Within a century, Norman adventurers were taking their swords to fight for pay in foreign armies, where their services were in high demand. They also became militant supporters of the Catholic Church; in Italy becoming the Popes greatest ally against the German Emperor.

The hallmark of this new Norman race was boundless energy, courage, cunning, a strong capacity for leadership, and ferocity in battle. As with their Viking ancestors, the Normans had a keen commercial sense as well; and wherever they planted their banner their domains prospered. The Normans also had a pragmatic tolerance for the customs of those they conquered. So long as taxes were paid and feudal obligations observed, the Normans were usually just and fair rulers; preferable in many cases to those they replaced.

The strong walls of Caen Castle, built by William the Conqueror. Though much of the castle was leveled by bombing and bombardment during the Second World War, the remaining battlements are still impressive.

Though Norman armies were a balanced fighting forces of cavalry, heavy infantry and archers (or crossbowmen); and Norman tactics (as we shall see) emphasized combined arms, it was the power of their heavy cavalry that made the 11th century the Norman Century.

The heart of the Norman cavalry was the Norman knights. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess and historian, wrote that the charge of a “Frankish knight” was so powerful they could “pierce the walls of Babylon”. Her reference was based upon Byzantine experience with the Normans (Byzantines and Saracens alike tended to call all western Europeans “Franks”, regardless of ethnicity); so she is clearly speaking of these formidable fighting men.

Sometime between the 10th and 11th century, two changes occurred in cavalry equipment among the Franks (and Normans) that greatly increased their effectiveness. The first had to do with the saddle, and the stirrup attached to it. During this period, the front and back of the saddle grew higher; providing the knight with more support upon impact when charging with his lance, and a more secure seat when being struck. The stirrups grew longer, allowing the knight to stand rather than sit in the saddle. This was particularly important when striking with a sword, particularly in a downward motion against infantry. These improvements in horse furniture encouraged the second innovation, this one a weapon’s technique that would revolutionize cavalry warfare.

 

Since ancient times, the cavalry lance had been a thrusting or throwing weapon. The horseman so equipped either hurled it at the enemy before impact; and then continued to fight with sword, mace or axe. Or he retained it in hand and used it as a thrusting spear; either under-handed or overhand (and sometimes even two-handed, sans shield).

However, sometime during this period the lance began to be couched under the arm, pressed firmly between arm and side. This is familiar to most today as the classic “jousting” technique. However, it was one that only became possible by the invention of the high-backed saddle and long stirrups. Since it first came into use during the “Norman Century”, it is tempting to suppose a correlation between the invention of this technique and appearance of the Norman knight. Perhaps the reason the Normans became the premiere heavy cavalry and dominated the battlefields of 11th century Europe was their pioneering of this effective technique. (Though it should be noted that even up till the Battle of Hastings in 1066 most Norman knights were still using an overhand thrusting or throwing technique; so the couched-lance method didn’t come to predominate until the 12th century.)

These miniatures show the two primary lance techniques used by the Norman knights. The three figures on the top row demonstrate the traditional, overhand method; using the lance as a thrusting or throwing weapon (the most common method used in the 11th century). The bottom row of figures are using the couched-lance technique, which came into common usage in the early 12th century; and may have been pioneered by the Normans.

As a secondary weapon, the knight carried a broadsword. When the lance had broken or been thrown, the knight drew this and used it to good effect. At Hastings, William’s troubadour-knight, Taillefer, rode ahead of the Norman first charge at Hastings; singing verses from the Song of Roland and tossing his sword into the air and catching it repeatedly; all at a cantor or gallop! An example of superb sword handling and juggling skills at the same time, not to mention horsemanship.

For defense the Norman knight wore a mail hauberk that covered his torso, extending to his knee; and covering at least his upper arms. Over the 11th century, the sleeves grew longer, and by the mid-12th century most well-armed knights had added mittens of mail and chausses (pants) of mail as well. For active defense, a kite-shaped shield covered his left side from shoulder to shin.

The equipement of a Norman knight in 1066

A horseman is only as good as his mount. The horses ridden by the Norman knights were fine animals, whose size and proportions can be judged by the Bayeux Tapestry and other depictions; as well as skeletal remains from this period. The animals stood between 15 and 16+ hands; and weighed approximately 1,500 lbs. These were not much different in size or weight than the heavy cavalry mounts used by British cavalry at the time of Waterloo. Unlike the great draft horse often depicted in films, the destrier of the Norman knight were no ponderous, clumsy beast.

These warhorses were used only in battle; smaller, more docile “palreys” being ridden for other occasions. The destrier was usually a stallion, fierce powerful and headstrong. Trained for war, these were just as dangerous to a foe as their rider; biting, kicking or trampling an enemy. The terrific impact of a charging Norman knight, as described so picturesquely by Anna Comnena, came from the combined weight of a 250lbs knight in mail hauberk, mounted upon 1,500lbs of galloping stallion; all the force of which was massed behind a tightly couched, 9 foot lance. Few warriors could withstand the charge of Norman knights in tight formation.

From an 11th century manuscript, depicting William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age. Note the high back and front of the saddle, the straight legs in the long stirrups, and the couched lance technique: all of which contributed to the effectiveness of the Norman knight in the charge.  

There seems to have been two status of knights: those who owed fealty and service in return for land; and those who fought for wages. The former, called milites, were considered to be in the more “honorable” arrangement, and therefore more prestigious than that of the paid stipendiarii. However, this distinction held slight social significance; and in fact early knighthood held less social status than it would come to hold in the later Middle Ages. Knights were the professional fighters of the Norman world, and the honor was conferred with little of the pomp and circumstance of later centuries.

Norman knights trained in small groups of 5 to 10 horsemen. These, in turn…

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