Following their humiliation in the First Afghan War (1839 to 1842), British prestige on the subcontinent 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, the bellicose arrogance of the Khalsa (the army of the Sikh Kingdom), and tensions between the Sikhs and the British East India Company led to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Sikh War.

This map of India in 1848 shows the political geography at the time of the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The Sikh kingdom is in the upper left, the northwest portion of the subcontinent. Below is a map of the operational area during the 1845-46 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 the British and Sikhs engaged in the first battle of the war; a confused and savage engagement at Mudki.  Eleven days later a second bloody battle  was fought at Ferozeshah (December 21-22, 1845) in which the combatants, like two punch-drunk prize fighters, stubbornly slugged it out all day. The battle was renewed the following day, with the Sikhs ultimately retreating.


After this nearly disastrous battle, Gough pulled back and rested his forces through the following weeks. The Khalsa, even more battered by the encounter, withdrew 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 the Khalsa commanders dispatched a force a few weeks later, in January 1846, of 7,000 men and 20 guns under Ranjodh Singh Majithia. Their mission was 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 very young 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 during the War of 1812, where he was horrified at the burning of Washington, DC: such wanton vandalism contrasted 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, and had won distinction at Mudki and Ferozeshah the previous month.

Smith’s task was to interpose his division between Ranjodh Singh’s advancing forces and Ludhiana. Moving rapidly, Smith force-marching his troops, collecting additional forces from outlying garrisons and detachments along the way. 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, managed to arrive 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. Smith’s command consisted of a division of cavalry, led by Brigadier-General Charles Robert Cureton and composed of two brigades supported by 3 batteries of horse guns; and an infantry division composed of four brigades, supported by 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. Only one regiment of cavalry and three of infantry 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.

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. [1]

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 had also been reinforced, including days earlier by the arrival of the highly-trained Avitabile Regiment [2], well-drilled in the most modern European military methods by Italian mercenary-adventurer, Paolo Avitabile [3]. The  formidable Sikh force awaiting Smith at Aliwal now numbered 20,000 men and 70 guns.

Sir Harry 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 six intervening miles, reaching the battlefield at 10 am; where the Khalsa was prepared and awaiting them. Throughout the march the troops maintained their formations and arrived in surprisingly good order.

Smith deployed his forces, while riding closer to the Sikh position with his staff for a personal reconnoiter. From a rooftop in a tiny hamlet between the opposing lines, he observed 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 and his cavalry echeloned back on either flank and to the rear of the infantry. His artillery was distributed in batteries across his front. To the so drums beating and bugles calling-out, the well-ordered lines of British and sepoy regiments began their advance.

The battle formally commenced 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 line 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 the fearsome 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 Gurkha’s; the latter wielding their terrifying kukris. Along with the village the British captured two heavy (large-caliber) guns.


In answer to this reverse on his left 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 (cavalry troopers) were deploying.  Cureton’s squadrons  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 ordered a general advance; with 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) and 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 British (“Her Majesties”) regiments in any Indian battle were in the minority, with most of their armies being composed largely of sepoys led by British (East India Company) officers; the casualties among British regiments tended to be higher. This is best explained in that the British tended to act as the vanguard and spearheaded most assaults; setting the all-important example of valor that inspired the Indian regiments.

In the face of the British general advance and the specific danger to his left, Ranjodh Singh now attempted to wheel back and reform his line, anchoring on the village of Bhundri at the far right of his line. At the same time, a force of Sikh cavalry swept out and deployed into the plain beyond Bhundri to threaten the British 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 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. After a fierce and bloody minute of melee, the lancers rode out the other side.

This was remarkable, in that conventional tactics of the day 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.


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

Meanwhile, the right-wing of the 16th, commanded by Major J. Rowland 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 big Sergeant named Harry Newsome. As they approached the Sikh triangular “square”, bristling with baynets, swords and shields, Smith spurred his mount on, shouting back to his comrades, “Hullo boys, here goes for death or a commission!”  Newsome’s mount leaped over the first, kneeling rank of Sikh infantry, and leaning from the saddle snatched an enemy standard.  But rushed from all sides he was killed, suffering 19 bayonet wounds. But his sacrifice did not go 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.


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; not unlike 18th century Scottish highlanders! These Sikh tulwar’s inflicted truly horrific wounds, severing limbs and heads and hamstringing cavalry mounts.

Image result for Sikh soldiers Anglo-Sikh War


In this charge many of the soldiers and officers became casualties; the 16th sustaining some 144 casualties (out of 300 men deployed). Major Smyth, who had charged through the Sikh’s with his squadrons, received a bayonet thrust in the back below the waist, and the bayonet had broken-off in the wound. Despite this, Smyth had remained in the saddle and even led his troopers charge back through the other side of the enemy formation. Smyth refused medical attention until all of his wounded had first been attended to. The Major recovered and returned to his regiment six weeks later; and lived to a ripe old age.

Harry Smith met the returning squadrons and called out, “Well done 16th”! In all, the lancers had beaten and scattered near ten-times their number. Though later eclipsed in the public perception by the (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 on his left; 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 Khalsa 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 salvos 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.


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 troops had shown a marked reluctance to engage with the feared Khalsa. 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 16th Lancers were an exception, suffering a disproportionate 50% casualties; the high price of glory. 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 raised by a grateful monarch and Parliament to the Peerage, given the title “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 the crown jewel in his exemplary military career was Aliwal, the perfect example of a well-conducted  battle by an exceptional officer.



  1. 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 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

2. In his memoir Harry Smith calls this reinforcement Avitabile’s “Corps”, 4,000 strong, with 12 guns and a strong force of cavalry.

3. 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.

4. 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

5. ibid

6. ibid

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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. For most of the century the British had 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. Ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and highly-warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was an unstable and ultimately intolerable situation for the colonial government in the Cape.

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.


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*), a squadron of the Imperial Mounted Infantry and of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles,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. Contrary to his own general instructions to all columns on the eve of the invasion, Chelmsford failed to order even elementary defenses around the camp. Instead, he sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming, and waited.

The Zulus were, indeed, 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 main-body 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 main-body 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 harass the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford  encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong, and his force 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 hastily-forming British line, formed firing line among the other native levies.


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.


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 wooden boxes  stored 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! The boxes were eventually broken open with rifle butts, but this along with the distance from the supply wagons in the camp to the firing line further down the slopes, delayed the troops getting vitally needed replenishment.

While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run low on ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire 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.

With his flanks collapsing and his main line low on 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. They 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.


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

As his died around him, the unfortunate Pulleine 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 its capture. 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 warrior in the neck but 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 custome, slit open the bellies of all the fallen; to allow the souls of the dead, which they believed dwelt 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: 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 trying to open the desperately needed ammunition crates.

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)



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 who were 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 3 pm word reached Rorke’s Drift of the unfolding disaster at Isandlwana, and that Zulu forces were likely on their way 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 a fortified position and more than sufficient ammunition readily available.

The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6 pm; 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 of these soldiers the Victoria Cross.

The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2 am. For the next two hours, until 4 am, 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 7 am 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 invasion of Zululand.

The war would go on. Though forced to a temporary 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 1879 Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the fallen. 

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


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 contrary to his own orders given at the start of the invasion, he utterly failed to erect any kind of field works or other defenses for his camp. 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 and the British drawing up their battle line so far down-slope from the their supply wagons, 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. If 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.

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.
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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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the twelfth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Eleven here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)


The earliest author from which we have any details on Arthur’s military career is Nennius; a 9th century Welsh monk. He states that Arthur fought twelve battles against his enemies before the climatic engagement at Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus). It is important to keep in mind that Nennius wrote three centuries after the events he purports to chronicle. He may have had available to him sources lost to us today; so shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor should we accept his account without skepticism. That said, as it is our purpose here to build a “working theory” on who Arthur may have been, and using what sources and artifacts that are left us we can take Nennius as a road map, however sketchy. We can attempt to place the location of his twelve battles, and so trace Arthur’s career and rise to supreme power amongst the Celtic kings of Britain.

We have already discussed the first of these twelve battles, the battle at the River Glein, in our last installment. The year is 507[1], and Arthur the Dux Bellorum (war leader) of Britain and his band of mounted Combrogi (“fellow-countrymen”, comrades-in-arms) range across Britain, responding to foreign threats and incursions. In this year they have come to Lindsey and defeated a band of Angle pirates at the mouth of the Glein. This was the first of Nennius’ twelve battles.

In his Historia Brittonum, Nennius writes that Arthur’s “second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis...”

1463965Roman Lindum (Lincoln), viewed from the southside of the Witham (Dubglas?) River

Linnius is most likely Lindsey, the area around Lincoln (then Roman Lindum). On the fringe of the Anglo-Saxon zone of occupation, this Roman city was largely deserted by the first decade of the Sixth Century. It may have still contained a Romano-British garrison, or even been the seat of an independent British chieftain. In the last installment we discussed the possibility that Lindum was an outpost of the British kingdom centered on York (Eburacum). This may have been the North Yorkshire kingdom of Elmet, or a minor petty-kingdom (or city-state) which scholars sometimes refer to as Ebrauc (or Cair Ebrauc). Alternately, it may have been incorporated into an early Anglo-Saxon petty kingdom in Lindsey.

But then what modern river can we identify as the “Dubglas” (which translates as “Black Water”) River, where Arthur’s battles were fought? Lincolnshire has many small muddy rivers, flowing off the peet moors of the Midlands into the Wash or directly into the North Sea. Some have identified the Trent as the possible candidate; and Arthur’s presence here might have been in response to an Angle incursion deep into the region, which threatened to cut the main road between the northern and southern British kingdoms.

In my opinion, though, the most likely candidate is another of the great rivers of Britain: the Witham. This flows in a great curve through Lindsey, past Lindum and then bending southeast, flowing eventually into The Wash. Its dark flow could easily be described as the “black water”.

1463972.jpgThe Withan River: could this be the Black Water?

It is no coincidence that many of Arthur’s battles take place at rivers. Rivers are naturally defensible obstacles, often forming the borders between peoples. Many of the battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons over the next century were fought at the fords of such boundary-rivers. The Angle settlements in Lindsey were likely near the coast, and the Witham/Dubglas may have separated them from a British outpost at Lindum. Another possible scenario is that the Angles of Lindsey decided to eliminate this British outpost, and Arthur came to break this siege.

Another question arises: Arthur fights his next four battles along the “Dubglas”. Why so many? It must be remembered that Nennius gives no time-frame for these next four battles. Were they fought in rapid succession; or over a period of years?

While we can never know for certain that the puzzle pieces, however well fitted, are correct a working hypothesis presents itself:

Once the thriving capital of the Roman province of Flavia Caesariensis, by the dawn of the 6th century Lindum had long been on the frontier-zone, and may have been deserted by its civilian populace. But its location was strategic, as two major Roman roads met here: Ermine Street, the main north-south artery in the east, connecting Londinium to Eburacum (York) and beyond to the foot of the Highlands; and the Fosse Way, the main cross-island highway connects Lindum and the Kingdom of Elmet with Arthur’s own home kingdom of Dumnonia[2].

It is very likely that the ruler of Elmet (who Castleden identifies as Gurgust Lethum, descendent of Cole Hen, born 490 AD; though others identify this monarch as already reigning in the 490s) maintained a beleaguered garrison here.

1463975Roman Britain, at the end of the Roman occupation. Though the adminstrative divisions of the island imposed by the Romans had disappeared by the 6th century, replaced by Sub-Roman Celtic successor kingdoms; the Roman road network was still in existence and vital to trade and the military unit of the British kingdoms.

It was perhaps the siege of this garrison, and the awareness of the threat an Angle-held Lindum would present to the integrity of Celtic Britain, that precipitated Arthur’s campaign against the Angles in Lindsey. Or this operation could have been a coordinated effort between Arthur and the forces of Gurgust to destroy Anglish Lindsay. In either case, Arthur was on his way to Lindum, moving north up the Fosse Way when he learns from local peasants about an Angle warband landing at the nearby mouth of the Glein . This first of Nennius’ twelve battles was but an unplanned meeting engagement; wiping out this chance incursion. (See Part Eleven)

These destroyed, Arthur now rides swiftly northward. It is only 40 some miles to Lindum from the Glein/Glen near modern Spalding. The following day Arthur suddenly appears unexpectedly in the rear of the Angle host besieging the fortress.

Surprise is the greatest of all assets in war. As the German Panzers showed during the blitzkrieg, and the Mongols demonstrated 700 years before them, rapidly moving mobile forces can outstrip news of their coming to achieve decisive strategic and even tactical surprise. In this fashion, Arthur and a small force of hard-hitting heavy cavalry could seem to appear out of nowhere, strike a blow, and then fade away; leaving terror and death in their wake.

1463993.jpg Late Roman reenactors: Arthur’s Combrogi might have looked very much like this!

Close beneath the southern walls of Lindum the Dubglas/Witham flows west to east before turning southeast toward the Wash. Perhaps in the meadows on the south bank of the river the British fought the second of Nennius’ battles, and the first in the series along the “Dubglas”. The outcome of the battle may have been a British defeat; or, if a victory, certainly not a decisive one. In either case, three more would be waged here.

Let us assume Arthur was victorious in driving the Angles from around Lindum. After feasting with his ally King Gurgust within the fortress walls, Arthur leads the combined forces deeper into Anglish Lindsey. Let us imagine that the Angle host has crossed the Dubglas/Witham down-river, camping now on the east bank, defending a ford. Here is fought the third of Nennius’ battles. The Britons arrive, and attempt to force the crossing. The Angles, holding the opposite bank, resist with their customary ferocity.

1463977.jpg A ford of the Witham River

This is an infantry fight: the ford restricts the frontage, and even the best cavalry cannot force their way frontally through a determined shieldwall. Besides, Lindey is wet, marshy land, far from ideal for cavalry operations. Arthur and his armored Combrogi dismount and join Gurgust’s household troops in the battle in the ford.

Though Nennius indicates that, as in all of these, Arthur was victorious, it is more likely the battle resulted in a stalemate, if not a downright British repulse.

Both sides withdraw to lick their wounds. It is late in the season. The belligerents return to their homes for the winter.


Britain did not exist in a vacuum, and events in Britain likely reverberated across the Channel. Arthur’s “word fame” had spread beyond Britain’s shores.

Warriors seek three things in life: A cause to fight for; comrades to fight beside; and an inspiring leader to follow. We can only imagine that individual warriors, “free lances” in search of employment, flocked to Arthur’s standard; swelling the ranks of the Combrogi of his Comitatus.

In 507, the fame of the “Dragon Lord” attracted a more substantial reinforcement.

That year, a decisive battle was fought in Gaul. Clovis, first King of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, defeated the Visigoths at Battle of Vouillé/Campus Vogladensis. The result was the end of Visigoth rule in Gaul, as the descendants of Alaric and Euric retreated back into their territories in Spain. Gaul was on its way to becoming France.


John Morris suggests that as a result a Visigoth noble named Theodoric, commanding the Visigoth naval squadron in the Bay of Biscay, arrived in Cornwall seeking sanctuary for himself and his forces [3]. The evidence supporting this theory is questionable, and much of Morris’ theory that follows is highly speculative. But it is an interesting one to contemplate.

We know a Theodoric ruled in Western Cornwall from about this time, into the middle of the century. During which time he repelled Irish incursions and settlements in Cornwall and south Wales. The theory that Theodoric was a Visigoth expatriate is mostly based upon his name; which is indeed Visigoth, and one not yet in usage by the Britons or Franks.

With the Franks driving the Visigoths from Gaul, could this Theodoric have brought a Visigoth fleet and band of warriors to join the Pendragon of Britain?

Cornwall (Kernow) was ruled by several petty king, all possibly vassals of the King of Dumnonia. It is highly unlikely that such a Visigoth settlement in Cornwall would have been tolerated had not the newcomers been accepted by the local authorities, and by Arthur; who while not yet accepted as High King of Britain, filled the role of Dux Bellorum, the de facto warlord of Britain.

If we allow that Theodoric may have been a Visigoth émigré, and that he was welcomed by Arthur and the Dumnonii, then we are left with the picture of a powerful naval lieutenant based near Lands End, at the tip of Cornwall. He is charged by Arthur with patrolling the southwestern coast; both warding against and eradicating Irish/Scotti settlements. This is the role Theodoric played faithfully for the next several decades. His loyalty and competency secured Britain and Arthur’s southwestern flank, allowing Arthur to concentrate on defeating his Anglo-Saxon enemies and recovering the “Lost Lands” of Lloegyr.


Continuing with our hypothetical scenario, the following spring Arthur returns to Lindsey to continue the war against the Angles under their chieftain, whom (following Geoffrey of Monmouth, for want of a better source) we will call Colgren. This time Arthur brings a force of infantry to augment the Elmet levy, perhaps even some of Theodoric’s Visigoth warriors. King Gurgust is waiting at Lindum with the forces  of his kingdom, stiffened by his own “Teulu” (household troops). The combined forces were likely not more than 2,000 and very likely under 1,000. Of these, the professional warriors of Arthur’s Combrogi numbered no more than 500, and likely closer to 300; Gurgust’s Teulu likely another 120 men. If Theodosius’ came with some of his Visigoths, perhaps these numbered as many as 300 more (more would have been a threat to the British themselves).

All or most of these professionals would have been cavalry. The rest, the militia of Elmet (perhaps including some of the town militia of Eburacum/York and Lindum/Lincoln), would have been infantry levies armed with spear and a small number of archers.

Once again the armies engage at the River Dubglas, in the fourth of Nennius’ Twelve Battles. We don’t know the outcome (Nennius states that Arthur was triumphant in this battle, but if so it was an indecisive victories). But a plausible scenario is this:

Colgren’s host, perhaps augmented by additional bands of Angles and Saxons as winter gave way to spring, would have mustered behind the Dubglas/Witham; perhaps near Bardney, a plausible location. They were prepared to oppose the Britons at the fords. With his cavalry advantage, Arthur would have had little trouble locating the enemy; the Anglo-Saxons, an infantry host, less so. On the day of battle, Arthur drew up the British infantry (likely led by Gurgust) at a ford opposite the Angles. Pushing across, the Britons engage the Anglish shieldwall in close combat.


Meanwhile, Arthur leads a flying column of cavalry and his lightest infantry across the river at a higher crossing place. Lindum is on the left-bank: perhaps Arthur set out before the rest of the host, taking the circuitous route along the marshy and heavily wooded left-bank. At the height of the fighting, he appears behind and on the right flank of the fully-engaged Anglish!

The Angles are brave warriors, and fight stubbornly. But their flank crumbles under the sudden assault. It is unlikely that the surprise was complete, and Colgren is able to withdraw the bulk of his forces to fight another day. Perhaps his doomed right flank buys the rest time to get away.

But the Britons are across the river, and now advance down the left (eastern) bank of the river. We don’t know where the main stronghold of this early Angle settlement was. But if it was near the mouth of the Witham (a logical place for a pirate stronghold: near the sea) than it makes sense that still another battle was fought beside this river (the 5th of Nennius’ battles, and the final along the “Dubglas”).

Pursuing the retreating Angles the British have the advantage of cavalry, allowing Arthur to harry the Angle rearguard as they attempt to withdraw south to their stronghold (near modern Boston?). This forces the Angle ceorls at the end of the column to stop and form shieldburg.

We know nothing of “Colgren”. But one didn’t become leader of a band of hardened Germanic warriors except through ability. The Germans followed proven leaders, men whose “word fame” was praised by bards and poets. We can assume that the Angle leader was neither cowardly nor incompetent. Colgren can abandon his rearguard to certain destruction while escaping with the bulk of his forces, or stop and fight. A courageous warrior, he chooses battle.

Again, we have no details of this battle in Nennius; but we can speculate that the Angles would have attempted to take up as strong a defensive position as possible. Perhaps they form their shieldburg in a loop of the river; both flanks securely resting on the bending river.

Arthur waits for the rest of the British forces, following as fast as they were able, to join him. The Britons draw up their Army opposite the Angle position. Arthur places his infantry in the center, his cavalry waiting on either flank. The Britons harass the Angles with arrows and javelins, in late Roman military practice; then close with spear. The Angles’ shieldwall repels the British assault, the levies no match for these hardened Germanic warriors. Then, as the Britons disengage, Colgren’s warriors go over to the offensive. They push hard against the shieldwall of the British infantry, which loses cohesion as it tries to back away; and tactical withdrawal threatens to become rout.

1463994 Hypothetical reconstruction of the Fourth Battle of Dubglas River (Nennius’ 5th Battle)

But as they advance past the safety of the river’s loop, the Anglish flanks are exposed. Horns blare, as Arthur orders both wings of heavy horse to charge! This is also the signal for the infantry to halt their retreat, and hold firm.

Both of the Angles’ flanks are crushed back onto their center by the British cavalry. The flanks crumble, the center soon follows, and the Angles break and flee for their lives.

In the ensuing pursuit, Arthur’s riders hunt-and-harry the fleeing Anglish, riding down the fugitives without mercy! Their blood lust is loosed, and British swords rise and fall like threshers at harvest. Few Angles survive to reach their stronghold; and those that do are too panicked to bar the gates against the close-pursuing Britons.

Colgren’s body is found the next day, drowned in the river while attempting to escape.

These Angles are broken utterly, the survivors surrendering at the discretion of the conquering Britons. Arthur takes the best of the prisoners into his service; the Germanic warriors bending their knee, swearing an oath to Wotan as well as the Christian God to serve Arthur faithfully. (The practice of taking prisoners of war into military service within a successful general’s bodyguard was common in the 5th and 6th century. The concept of nations or national loyalties did not exist in this age of ever-changing alliances, shifting tribal confederations, and ad hoc armies of military adventurers. The warrior class from Persia to Scotland was often quite willing to accept service with whatever successful leader would employ them.) The remaining Angle survivors are allowed to retain their farms as military settlers (foederati), in fealty to Arthur’s ally, the King of Elmet. They will protect this section of coast from their piratical cousins.



  1. Historically, if he existed at all, Arthur most likely occupies the period between the last quarter of the 5th century and the first half of the sixth. I have made the argument in earlier installments that Arthur’s career as Dux Bellorum (warlord of the Romano-British kingdoms) can best be placed in the first decades of the sixth; and his reign as Emperor (Amerawder) between 516 and 535.
  2. In exploring Arthur’s identity, we have explored the possibility that he held land in the south, in Dumnonia. While it is certain he was not the king of Dumnonia, he may have held lands in Triggshire as a vassal of that king. While it may seem strange that the war-leader (Dux Bellorum) of the Celtic British kingdoms might have been at the same time a vassal of one of these kings; such complicated and often contradictory allegiances and subordinations are not without example in history. The Plantagenet kings of England were equals and rivals to the kings of France; even while owing fealty and homage to the French crown for those lands they held in France.
  3. Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P. 127. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
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The War of 1812* was a mere sideshow for the British, desperately committed as they were to the titanic effort of defeating Napoleon in Europe. Most of the battles in America involved less than 2,000 combatants on either side; compared to those fought in Europe, where tens of thousands were engaged. But for Britain the American War was a nuisance that needed to be brought to a successful conclusion, and the American upstart put firmly in its place.

In 1814 Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of nations and “the Ogre”  (seemingly) safely sent into exile on the Island of Elba. The greater enemy behind them, the British now turned their full attention to finishing their war in America. Even while negotiations with the United States were underway in the Belgian city of Ghent, the British were transporting a new army of 15,000 men to America. About half of these were veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular War, commanded by the Iron Duke’s own brother-in-law and former division commander, Sir Edward Packenham.


The British operational plan called for the seizure of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This would stop the flow of commerce up-and-down the river.  As a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace talks, it would give the British excellent leverage. America had only recently acquired the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. With New Orleans in their grip the British would be in excellent position to claim these as spoils of war. The fledgling United States could then be cut off from the American west by British holdings, and its expansion across the continent curtailed.

The future of the fledgling United States hinged  upon the outcome of this campaign.

On December 14, 1814, the British fleet cleared the approach to the city in the Battle of Lake Borgne; and the morning of the 23rd the British vanguard  of 1,800  men landed on the bank of the Mississippi, at Lacoste’s Plantation just 9 miles south of New Orleans. This was Packenham’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by  the veteran General John Keane, who would later lead the British conquest of Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War. The veteran Irishman was within hours of seizing the undefended city, and accomplishing the campaign’s main strategic goal on Day One of the campaign. But Keane made the fateful decision to encamp for the day and organize his brigade, rather than push on.


Fortunately for the American cause, a small but well-led American force was rushing to the city’s succor: 1,000 regulars commanded by General Andrew Jackson. Known admiringly by his troops as “Old Hickory” (“tough as an old piece of hickory wood!”), Jackson and his men were fresh from victory in the Creek (“Red Stick”) War; and from driving the British out of their base at Pensacola, Florida.

“Old Hickory” had a very personal hatred for the British: In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, when Jackson was 13 years old, his home had been used as a billet for a British officer.  When Jackson angrily refused to clean the officer’s boots the Englishman sabered the youth, leaving him with scars on his left hand and head. He and his brother Robert spent a year imprisoned by the British, and Robert died in captivity of smallpox. For these and likely many other reasons Jackson was delighted to have the opportunity to lead an army against this hated enemy.


In all,  Jackson was a “fighting general”, whose fiercely indomitable spirit and will to win infused the troops under his command.

Upon his arrival Jackson took charge of New Orleans. The city was in a near panic, and some of the leading citizens advocated surrender in the face of what seemed an overwhelming threat. Jackson would entertain no talk of surrender, and instead placed the city under martial law. He arrested anyone who interfered or disagreed with his plans for defending the city, including a lawyer, a Louisiana legislator, a federal District Court Judge. “Old Hickory” was going to stop the British, and devil take whoever stood in his way!

The Buccaneer (1958):  Jackson (Charleton Heston) takes charge of New Orleans  

Learning of Keane’s presence at Lacoste’s Plantation, Jackson famously cried, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!” Gathering what troops he could find at hand (about two thousand men), Jackson raided Keane’ camp on the evening of December 21st. A vicious hand-to-hand skirmish ensued by the light of campfireThe British repulsed the brief attack, and Jackson withdrew. But Keane was unsettled by the sudden appearance of American forces. For the next few days, he did nothing, choosing to wait for Pakenham and the main force to come up. Combined with his decision not to advance immediately on the 23rd, this nighttime skirmish which convinced Keane to hold in place saved New Orleans.


Coffee’s Tennessee Militia attack the British camp at Lacoste’s Plantation on the night of the 21st December

Jackson used the respite to fortify a narrow position across the British line of advance to New Orleans, beside the river and behind the shallow Rodriguez Canal; about four miles south of the city at Chalmette Plantation. Jackson’s small force of “regulars” was swelled to some 4,700 with volunteers, drawn from local militia, woodsmen, and even a force of pirates under the famed French pirate and privateer, Jean Laffite. The pirates provided something even more important to Jackson’s cause: heavy guns and expert gunners from their ships and base at nearby Barataria. With these and other field pieces he was able to glean Jackson had at his disposal a sizable battery; which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounders, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders, and a 6-inch (150 mm) howitzer. This was a very formidable array, much more typical of the battery of a fortress than what would normally be found upon a battlefield of the day[1]. This very strong American defensive position was called “The Jackson Line”. Supporting this position was a 20 gun naval battery on the west bank of the river, commanded by a Commodore Daniel Patterson.

On Christmas Day, General Edward Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance of the American earthworks on the 28th. Unhappy with the prospect of attacking this position, that evening Pakenham held a command conference with General Keane and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the British naval forces. Pakenham suggested reembarking the land force, and outflanking Jackson’s position with a new landing north of New Orleans, utilizing the  Chef Menteur Road. The pugnacious Cochrane argued for an assault against Jackson’s makeshift position, underestimating the strength of the position and insisting that Pakenham’s veterans should be able to easily drive the Americans from their redoubt; and that if the army couldn’t do it, he (Cochrane) would land his sailors and see it accomplished!

Despite Sir Edward’s misgivings, the decision was made to attack Jackson at Chalmette.


On the dark, fog-shrouded morning of January 8 Sir Edward’s force of 8,000 men launched a two-pronged assault against Jackson’s line. With bagpipes, fifes and drums the red-coated ranks advance with measured tread across the boggy ground.  General Samuel Gibbs commanded the brigade tasked with the main thrust on the British right, spearheaded by the 1st Battalion of the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot, along with the 21st Reg of Foot, and the West India Regiment. General Keane commanded the left-hand prong, along the river, comprised of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders (who later gained fame as the “Thin Red Line” at Alma and Balaclava); and companies of the 43rd Foot. The whole British advance was screened by a 500-man “demi-battalion” of the elite 95th Rifles (the famous Green Jackets of “Sharp’s Rifles” fame).

A secondary attack would be made against Patterson’s battery on the west bank. This force of 780 men was comprised a battalion of 85th Regiment of Foot with detachments of sailors and Royal Marines, commanded by Colonel William Thornton. Their role was to overrun the American guns and turn them against the flank of Jackson’s line.

In all, as sound a plan as could be made under the circumstances.

From The Buccaneer (1958), The British attack begins 

Unfortunately for the British, the fog lifted just as the attack was crossing the open ground; and the British right-wing came under intensive and deadly artillery fire from the American parapet. Even so, Gibbs’ force pushed on, displaying the dauntless courage British regulars were famous for. But as they reached the American trench defending the parapet, the British plan began to unravel; as it was found that the 44th had inexplicably forgotten the ladders and fascines needed to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Confusion and carnage followed as the storm column, halted in place, was lacerated by point-blank grape shot and rifle fire from American marksmen. To make matters worse Gibbs was killed and Pakenham was wounded and unhorsed. The General was subsequently killed as he was helped off the field, his spine shattered by grapeshot.

pake-woundedPakenham is shot from his horse

On the British left, progress was made and the Highlanders stormed the American parapet. But seeing the disaster unfolding to his right, Keane left the detached companies of the 43rd to hold the ground taken, and took the Highlanders across the field to rally and support the main attack. As they crossed the field, the 93rd were raked by fire from the guns of the American center, and pinned down. Keane became the third senior officer to fall wounded.


The two main assaults having failed, a third attempt to storm the redoubt was made by Major Wilkinson of the 21st North British Fusilier Regiment. They were able to reach the entrenchments and attempted to scale them. Wilkinson scaled the parapet, reaching the top before falling wounded to American fire. Impressed with his courage, the defenders carried him behind the rampart.


With most of their senior officers dead or wounded, the British soldiers, including the 93rd Highlanders, having no orders to advance further or retreat, stood out in the open and were shot apart with grapeshot from the Jackson Line. The “immense bravery” shown by the 93rd under this maelstrom of fire was noted by Jackson biographer Paul Wellman:

To the very edge of the canal before the rampart the few that were left of the kilted regiment marched, then halted there. The men who had been detailed to bring scaling ladders and fascines had failed to come up. Unable to go forward, too proud to retreat, although the regiment behind them had all fallen back. At length a mere handful of what had been the magnificent regiment slowly retired, still in unbroken order, still turning to face the foe. From the ramparts the Americans cheered them wildly. All rifle fire ceased. [2]

Meanwhile, the progress gained on the left was halted as the American 7th Infantry came up and threw-back the British lodgement on the redoubt. Within 20 minutes, their ranks decimated and the attack in shambles, the British survivors were ordered to retreat by General John Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade.  Lambert, now the senior officer still standing, took command. He gave the order for his reserve to advance and cover the withdrawal of the army from the field.


The one British success that day was on the opposite side of the canal. Here, Thorton’s attack on the naval battery was successful, and were able to turn the guns to enfilade Jackson’s line across the canal. Unfortunately, this was too late to influence the battle, and Lambert ordered this force to abandon its gains and retreat as well. The irony of this is that when he learned the British held the opposite bank allowing enfilade fire upon his line, Jackson was prepared to withdraw the American forces if the British renewed the attack.


In all the British had suffered 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including both Generals Pakenham and and his second-in-command, Gibbs), 1,267 wounded (including General Keane and Major Wilkinson) and 484 captured or missing.[3]

Jackson’s men had suffered a mere 71 casualties: 13 dead; 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The news of victory, one man recalled, “came upon the country like a clap of thunder in the clear azure vault of the firmament, and traveled with electromagnetic velocity, throughout the confines of the land.” Jackson became a nation hero, receiving the Thanks of Congress as well as a Congressional Gold Medal. The fame he gained at New Orleans would sustain and propel Jackson into the White House.  Once Jackson was elected to the Presidency in  1829, the “8th of January” was celebrated as a national holiday until 1861 brought the American Civil War.

Actor Charleton Heston brought Andrew Jackson to the screen twice in his career. In 1958s The Buccaneer, and the first time in this film from 1953, “The President’s Lady”; which focused on the love affair with his wife, Rachel. In this clip, we see Jackson during his run for the Presidency, leading to the last scene, his Inaugural.

The irony of the Battle of New Orleans was that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, had been signed on December 24th. However, that doesn’t rob the American victory of significance. Had the British won the battle and seized New Orleans, they may well have leveraged such a victory to gain better terms; perhaps even taking the Louisiana Purchase territories from the United States.

The history of the United States and North America could have been very different, indeed.




*Known as The American War to the British and Canadians

  1. The largest guns in Napoleon’s “grande batterie” at Waterloo the following year were only 12 pounders, much smaller than the 32 and 24 pound naval guns Jackson had in place at Chalmette.
  2. Wellman, Paul, The House Divides: The Age of Jackson and Lincoln, From the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Foulsham Publishing
  3. The 44th suffered heavy casualties at New Orleans that January, 1814. Less than thirty years later, the same regiment would suffer annihilation in January of 1842 in the icy passes of Afghanistan during the Retreat from Kabul.
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Foolish political policies and dithering indecision lead to bloody disaster for the British in the First Afghan War!

In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US Army’s 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless, defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal warriors is very well-known in America thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.

What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British army just 34 years earlier, by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of eastern Afghanistan.

1461069.jpg Afghanistan was a pawn in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia and India. Seen here in a political cartoon of the day, Afghanistan is courted (and squeezed between) its two suitors, the Russian bear and the British lion.

The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence and ultimate control of Central Asia, between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the Honorable East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”). The vast sub-continent was garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, sipahi). These Sepoy regiments were supported by a core of British “Queen’s Regiments”, units of the British Army rotated into India from the United Kingdom.

1461037.jpg“John Company” Sepoy soldiers. Though brave, loyal, well-trained and equipped with the same weapons as their British counterparts (in “the Queen’s regiments”), the Bengali sepoys often lacked shoes or wore sandals; and suffered terribly in the Afghan winter

The great fear among Britain’s leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the “Jewel in the Crown” from Britain’s grasp.

To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar’s forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia’s ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion.

The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.

The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.


In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible, storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Muhammad of Ghazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.

1461080.jpgThe Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul’s Medieval fortress. The fugitive Dost Mohammed was soon captured and taken back to India as a “guest” of the British Raj.

With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and very lopsided British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the conquering forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.

1461081.jpgUnfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some four Brigades at Kabul were placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.

Known as “Elphy Bey” by the Sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot. By the time he was assigned to command the Kabul garrison, he was a Companion of the Bath and former aide-de-camp to King George IV. Sadly, he was also a doddering 60 years old; and by his own admission, not fit for command.

He was not only old, he was also perpetually ill. Beyond that, he was a man who seemed at every turn incapable of making a decision, and vacillated constantly between one option and another. To make matters even worse, he was peevish and jealous of his younger subordinates, refusing to delegate decisions.

It was a myopic appointment and the best argument against a strict seniority system: granting command of an army in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a dithering old man. The blame for what was to follow rests equally on the frail shoulders of Elphinstone and those in Calcutta who appointed him.

1461097.jpgA flattering portrait of Lord Elphinstone (“Elphy Bey” to his troops). At the time of his appointment to command the Kabul garrison, he was a doddering 60 years old; far to infirm to be placed in command of an army occupying one of the most warlike and volatile places on earth. His dithering indecisiveness allowed a series of minor provocations to go unchecked and ignite a general uprising.

The late historical fiction writer, George McDonald Frasier, through the mouth of his creation, that incomparable rascal Harry Paget Flashman, sums up Elphinstone’s contribution to what followed thus:

“Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth-century – Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan – I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment – in short, for the true talent for catastrophe – Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
“Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War (to spiral out of control) and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision; and managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, wrought out of order complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”[1]

An excellent assessment of the incompetent General Lord Elphinstone!

With the British occupation forces reduced, and with the Afghans becoming familiar with their occupiers (and with familiarity came contempt), trouble soon began.


It started with minor incidents in the distant hills, where tribesmen began sniping at isolated British garrisons and columns.

In Spring of 1841, despite these signs of simmering discontent among the hill tribes, and following the misguided advice of the British Emissary in Kabul, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (who as Lord Auckland’s senior aid had been the principal architect of Britain’s Afghan involvement), the Government in Calcutta further reduced not only the garrison strength of Elphinstone’s Army of Kabul from four to two brigades. At the same time it was decided to reduced the subsidies (i.e., bribes) paid to the tribes in the hills to keep open the vital passes connecting the British forces with their base in India.

1461100.jpgThe result was predictable. Taking insult, the tribes rose in rebellion, immediately closing the passes. Throughout the hill country that summer and into the autumn, British patrols found themselves engaged in running skirmishes with local tribesmen; and every remote outpost subject to desultory harassment. In November, one of the withdrawing Brigades, under the command of General Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Sale, in route though the passes back to India, found itself under attack; and had to cut a bloody path out of Afghanistan.

On the afternoon of November 2, a mob rose in Kabul and marched on the house of the British political agent in Kabul, the celebrated Sir Alexander “Sekunder” Burnes. Burnes had been warned by his Afghan servants that there was a stir in the city, and that, if he remained his life would be in danger. With a insouciance bordering on arrogant stupidity, Burnes dismissed these warnings. An “old hand” in the region and fluent in several of the Afghan languages and dialects, he was sure he had the measure of the local temperament, and that there was little danger from “the Kabul shopkeepers”.[2]

1615363.jpg Burnes in local garb. Fluent in the local languages, Burnes liked to go out among the population to “take the temperament” of the man on the street; and to fraternize with local Afghan girls. This latter activity earned him resentment which ultimately flamed to hatred.

When the mob attacked and set fire to the gate to his home, attempting to storm the compound, Burnes and those inside (his younger brother Charlie, his political assistant Major William Broadfoot[3], and a guard of 15 sepoys) fought back fiercely. Burnes was informed that help was on the way from Shah Sujah in the Bala Hissar. Burnes took to the roof, watching for relief; but none was forthcoming. For hours he waited in vain. When an Afghan offered to lead them safely out of the compound to the Bala Hissar, Burnes and his party disguised themselves in local garb. However, two blocks away the mob caught them in a garbage-strewn back-alley, and butchered all with knives and cleavers. The mutilated bodies of Burnes, his brother, and Broadfoot were hung from meat hooks in the city’s bazaar.

1615364 Murder of Burnes and his party.

Elphinstone, with an army only 1.5 miles outside the city, could decide on no course of action in response. For hours, while the Kabul mob besieged Burnes’ residence, the furious troops, ready to rush to the aid of their famous countryman, remained idle in their cantonment. When word came of Burnes’ death, the soldiers were eager to be led into the city to exact retribution. But, at Macnaghten’s urging, Elphinstone decided to take no action other than retrieving the remains of Burnes’ and the others; then retreating back into their camp. This humiliating failure to protect their own against a mob of “shop keepers”, or to seek revenge after the fact, was seen by the Afghans as evidence of British weakness, and only fanned the flames of revolt.

1461083.jpg The British cantonments outside of Kabul; seen here in an almost idyllic painting, before the rising of the tribes. In the far background is the city of Kabul; the Medieval walls of the Bala Hissar rising up the hill on the left. The Beymaroo Heights, from which Afghan snipers fired down upon the camp, can be seen on the right of the painting.

Afghan warriors began streaming down from the hills, to strike a blow against the hated ferengi[4] at Kabul. By mid-November, the British found themselves under virtual siege in their lightly defended camp; with Afghan snipers firing into the camp from the surrounding high ground. On November 23, a large force of Afghans occupied the Beymaroo Heights, overlooking the British cantonments; laying down a deadly fire with their jezails (the ubiquitous Afghan long-barreled rifle) and from a pair of guns.

Two attempts were made to drive the Afghans off the heights. The first time the Afghans retired, but returned soon after the British withdrew back into their cantonment. A second attempt was made ten days later, this one led by Elphinstone’s second-in-command, the equally incompetent Brigadier John Shelton; leading the single British regiment on scene, the 44th Regiment of Foot. The Brigadier had lost an arm earlier in his career, but despite this handicap was a pugnacious fighting leader. Stubbornly brave, he was unfortunately not blessed with an abundance of good judgement. Where angels feared to tread, Shelton bulled his way through. Taking the 44th up the sloops of Beymaroo, he occupied the heights, his command taking heavy casualties to long-range fire from the Afghan’s jezails. These out-ranged the British soldier’s smooth-bore Brown Bess Muskets, and the Afghans quickly learned exactly how close they could safely come to a British formation.

Once atop the crest of the heights, the British stood for hours while under sustained long-range fire from all around, to which they could not reply effectively. Compounding their dilemma, Shelton had the men form squares; a formation suitable for repelling cavalry attack, but which made the closely packed troops better targets for the Afghan skirmishers harassing them. One officer, Lieutenant (later Major General) Vincent Eyre, scathingly observed:

“All have heard of the British squares at Waterloo, which defied the repeated desperate onsets of Napoleon’s choicest cavalry. At Beymaroo we formed squares to resist the distant fire of infantry, thus presenting a solid mass against the aim of perhaps the best marksmen in the world, the said squares being securely perched on the summit of a steep and narrow ridge, up which no cavalry could charge with effect …” [5]

Captain Colin Mackenzie, wounded during the battle, wrote:

“The front ranks had been literally mowed away … Our ammunition was almost expended and by one pm the men were faint from fatigue and thirst. But no water was procurable and the number of killed and wounded was swelled every instant. I tried to persuade Shelton to effect a retreat only to be told: ‘Oh no, we will hold the hill some time longer.’ On Shelton’s refusal to retire, Colonel Oliver, who was a very stout man, remarked that the inevitable result would be a general flight to cantonments, and that, as he was too unwieldy to run, the sooner he got shot the better. He then exposed himself to the enemy’s fire and fell mortally wounded.[6]

For hours Shelton kept the 44th sitting on top of the barren heights, exposed to a destructive fire. Finally, the troops could take no more and Shelton (himself having sustained five wounds) attempted to withdraw back to camp. Carrying the numerous wounded was slow going, and as the British were still descending the slopes, Afghan cavalry, brandishing wickedly sharp talwars, swarmed up to and occupied the crest of the heights they had just abandoned. Stragglers, many of whom were wounded and unable to keep up with the main body of the regiment, were cut off and butchered. The horsemen then charged down upon the retreating 44th. The regiment responded with a massive volley of musketry. So old and inaccurate were their Brown Bess Muskets that when the smoke cleared, not a single Afghan appeared to have had been hit. Astonished and demoralized, the regiment broke, pursued back to the safety of the camp by whooping Afghan horsemen. George St. Patrick Lawrence, who had watched helplessly from his post in the cantonment during the battle, wrote of his horror at witnessing how “our flying troops [were] hotly pursued and mixed up with the enemy, who were slaughtering them on all sides: the scene was so fearful that I can never forget it.”[7]

As can be expected, this disastrous engagement had a terrible effect on the army’s morale. Shelton came under general opprobrium for his disgraceful lack of judgement. Captain Mackenzie (quoted above), who like most of the officers blamed the reverse on Shelton, wrote that the Brigadier’s incompetence “neutralized the heroism of the officers. Their spirit was gone and discipline had all but disappeared.” No less an observer than General Charles Napier, conqueror of Sind, later went so far as to blame Shelton for the debacle about to unfold, writing after the fact, “It seems to me that to Shelton may be traced the whole misfortune of this Army.” Napier went on to suggest that Shelton should have been shot as “the author of all ill”. While all this may be warranted, Elphinstone was the man in command of the Army of Kabul, and bears ultimate responsibility. It should be noted that Elphinstone showed not the least initiative, doing nothing to support his Second-in-Command in his (ineffectual) efforts on the Beymaroo Heights.

After this, no more effort was made to clear the heights of snipers. Shelton recommended an immediate withdrawal from Kabul back to India, before the tactical situation grew worse and the winter closed passes. Elphinstone however dithered, unable to come to a decision. Instead, he held daily “command meetings”, scornfully described by Eyre as “Jackdaw Parliaments”, during which Elphinstone seemed to be swayed by the argument of the last man speaking. By this time even the most junior officers held their commander in contempt, and spoke to him in a manner “most insubordinate and at times down right rude”.[8]

Time was running out for a decision to withdraw, yet still Elphinstone vacillated, unable to decide. He sent for reinforcements from Kandahar to the south, but the snows of winter had by now closed the southern passes. Sale’s Brigade, which had reached Jalalabad on November 12 after weeks of fighting; was unwilling to come back through the blood-stained passes they had just traversed. The decision made in the spring to reduce the size of the Kabul army (not to mention cutting of the subsidies paid to the hill tribes) must have, on reflection, seemed foolish in the extreme.

At this moment the situation worsened for Elphy Bey and the British at Kabul with the arrival on the scene of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s deceitful but charismatic and capable son. Possessed of great charm and some degree of military ability, Akbar Khan soon became the rallying point and leader for the anti-British/anti-Shuja forces.

1461101.jpg Akbar Khan

At the instigation of Akbar Khan, peace talks were initiated. Macnaghten and an escort of British officers met the young Afghan prince outside the cantonments. Arriving at the designated location, an open meadow beside the river, the British party found a carpet spread and Akbar waiting with a small band of warriors.

The British reined-up, but had no sooner dismounted to greet the Afghans than Sir William was seized and murdered; along with several of the officers of his escort. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career and life of William Hay Macnaghten, the man whose foolishness had done much to create the disaster unfolding at Kabul.

1461104 The seizure and murder of Macnaghten and his escort by Akbar Khan and his guards.

Again, as when Burnes was murdered, Elphinstone did nothing but dither.

Finally, in late December, negotiations were renewed. With troop morale in complete collapse, and his subordinate officers incapable of agreeing on a course of positive action, Elphinstone accepted Akbar Khan’s offer of safe-conduct for the British army out of Kabul, back to India.


The retreat from Kabul started on January 6, 1842. Snow was falling, and the temperatures were dropping rapidly. The mountains before them were already ice-capped, and the passes promised to be treacherous.

Elphinstone’s army at this point consisted of the one British infantry battalion, the 44th Regiment of Foot; three Sepoy regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry; one regiment of Afghans loyal to Shah Shujah (who was retreating out of Afghanistan along with his patrons); two regiments of Bengal Horse; and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery. In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. Including camp followers (mostly the families of the soldiers, British and Indian), 16,000 souls set out under the nominal leadership of Elphy Bey for Jalalabad, some 140 km away.

1461108.jpgBetween them and safety lay 85 miles of high mountains and icy cold, snow-bound passes.

With the 44th forming the vanguard, the column set off with some attempt at military order. The march started late, as arrangements between the British and Akbar concerning where the column was to camp that first night were still not complete. Despite Akbar Khan’s guarantees of safe passage, the rear guard of the column had not yet completely marched out of the cantonments when bands of Afghan horsemen descended upon the camp like jackals. The stores of supplies meant to feed the column on the march were lost, before the British had even gotten free of the cantonments. Stragglers were cut down by Afghan horsemen, who hovered at the rear and flanks of the column like packs of hungry wolves. The British wounded, left behind under pledges of protection, were butchered in their sick beds in the camp hospital.

1615374.jpg 1879 panoramic photo of the Bala Hissar

As they passed the grim battlements of the Bala Hissar, the British could even at this late moment have saved themselves by turning and occupying the fortress; which course many officers (and Shah Shujah) begged Elphinstone to take. The Bala Hissar was well-provisioned and situated for defense. From its safety the army could have held Kabul until spring opened the passes for a relief column to reach them.

Instead, the column trudged on fatefully towards the glowering mountains, and the shadowy passes winding their way through.

Though it was militarily necessary to push through the first of the great passes ahead, the looming Khord-Kabul Pass, on that first day; the column, encumbered by 12,000 cold and terrified camp followers and 2,000 camels and other animals loaded with stores and baggage, moved at a snail’s pace. Instead, Elphinstone chose to halt the march that first day at 2pm just 6 miles outside Kabul and stopping for the night make a cold camp. Without tents or food, the army shivered all night long in the snow.

1461109.jpg This pass, through some of the highest mountains in the world, was covered with snow and ice when Elphinstone’s column retreated through it those terrible day in January 1842

The next day was wasted in frequent halts while Elphinstone attempted negotiations with Akbar, who continued to promise food and firewood, as well as escort; none of which appeared. Instead, Afghan tribesmen sniped continuously from the heights above, which the British failed to picket in advance. Occasionally, bodies of Afghan horsemen would savage the column, cutting down the shivering and miserable fugitives.

Oddly, no attempt was made by Elphinstone or Shelton to send detachments to clear and picket the heights overlooking the passes. This was rudimentary tactics in mountain warfare, and by just such expedient Alexander the Great had moved through these same mountains unmolested. It was not as if such history was unknown to the educated British officers: Even Lady Sale, the formidable wife to Brigadier Robert Sale and among the non-combatants in the column, noted the lack of pickets and suggested (to no effect) that Elphinstone correct the situation.[9]

The British soldiers time-and-again sallied forth with bayonet to drive marauding Afghans from the way; or to protect women and children. But at every turn, their efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the terrain (in places the passes were only yards wide and the cliffs thousands of feet high); and by the throngs of terrified and stampeding non-combatants.

1461110.jpgThis was the pattern that would continue for the next five days, as the Army of Kabul slowly died in the snow. Each morning those strong enough to go on rose out of the snow that had covered them in the night, and trundled along on bloody and frozen feet. Like sheep, the non-combatants would at times break into panicked flight, as harassing Afghan cavalry galloped among them, slashing and killing with wicked sharp blades.

In the myriad of vicious little skirmishes over those terrible eleven days, Shelton found some measure of redemption. Responding to attacks up and down the column, Shelton led a small “fire brigade” in attempting to repulse the reivers. Captain Hugh Johnson wrote:

Nothing could exceed the bravery of Shelton. He was like a bulldog assaulted on all sides by a lot of curs trying to snap at his head, tail and sides. Shelton’s small band was attacked by horse and foot, and although the latter were fifty to one, not a man dared to come close.[10]

1461687.jpgAt one point, Akbar demanded that Elphinstone, Shelton, and the senior non-combatants such Lady Sale, be handed over to his “protection”; and to the shame of the British Army, Elphy Bey and his senior officers surrendered themselves while their troops pushed on without them. (To his credit, Shelton protested and demanded to be allowed to return to his men.)


The bottleneck passes of the Khord-Kabul, the Huft Kotul, the Tezeen, and the Jugdulluk were scenes of unspeakable nightmare; as women and children were butchered and left in piles. The Sepoys were particularly affected by the cold (many had no shoes); and in the end merely huddled like sheep, waiting for the butcher’s knife to put them out of their misery.

1461688.jpg Jugdulluk, seen in the spring 1842 when the British Army of Retribution returned through the pass. They found the way carpeted with the skeletal remains of the dead from Elphinstone’s column.

In this last pass, Jugdulluk, the Army of Kabul finally died. In this grim, mountain-shadowed place the Afghans blocked the way with logs of prickly holly-oak. The soldiers tore at the sharp spiny branches with bloody hands, to clear the way; all the while the Afghans poured deadly fire from the heights above. With scimitar in hand, tribesmen rushed down on the column, butchering the defenseless women and children. Finally, the few surviving men of the 44th fought through the blockage and gained the relative safety beyond. Of the 4,500 soldiers Elphinstone had departed Kabul with just 6 days earlier, only twenty officers and forty-five soldiers survived the Jugdulluk massacre.

1461115 (1).jpgThese surviving scarecrows reached the village of Gandamack on the 13th of January. At first the villagers came out to greet them and engaged in seemingly friendly conversation. But they soon attempted to seize the soldier’s muskets from their hands. Driving them fiercely away, the British sealed their doom.

They were surrounded on a hillock by gathering villagers. When called to surrender, one British sergeant gave the famous answer, “Not bloody likely!”

The last stand of the 44th at Gandamack

The Afghans swarmed about, shooting the soldiers down at their leisure; then rushed in with sword. Only a bare 6 men of Elphinstone’s army survived to be taken prisoner.

At Jalalabad, General Sale’s Brigade, ignorant of what was befalling their comrades in the passes, waited for the army to arrive. At last a lone horseman, an army surgeon named Dr. William Brydon, rode up to the gates. Asked where the Army of Kabul was, he replied: “I am the Army”!


Dr. Brydon rides into Jalalabad, the sole man of Elphinstone’s army to make it through the passes.



The First Afghan War didn’t end there. The British returned that summer and exacted bloody revenge on the populace of Kabul, destroying much of the city in the process. They relieved their remaining garrisons; and the hostages and prisoners were returned, including Shelton (who was subsequently court martialed) and Lady Sale. Elphinstone died in captivity, his last words reportedly being, “‘It really is too bad.”

Then, Britain’s policy having changed, they withdrew from the country altogether; returning Dost Mohammed once more on his throne with a treaty of friendship in place.
The disaster was forgotten by many in the years that followed. But it was not without lasting consequences.

Before Afghanistan, the British and John Company’s army had an almost mythical reputation, an aura of invincibility. After The Retreat, that myth was forever shattered. Following Kabul, the Sikhs of the Punjab, a strong military state, lost their fear of Britain’s displeasure. The bloody Anglo-Sikh Wars would follow just a few years after Kabul; and just a few years after these, the Great Mutiny would shake the Empire to its core.

Blame for the disaster must be placed squarely upon the foolish appointment of one frail, dithering old man to command an army on deadly ground. But a lesson from today can also be drawn here: In the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, where every tribal male was a marksman and a warrior; where tribes fight each other constantly, only uniting to eject foreigners; no effort to modernize and “nation build” by an outside power has any chance to succeed. The Afghans are best left to their own devices, a good buffer state but an impossible vassal.

DTCP_03_06_08_Afghan_Assault_25.jpg Modern British soldiers patrolling the fields of Afghanistan, where their red-coated ancestors once fought and bled; pawns in the “Great Game”.


1. Fraser, George MacDonald, Flashman; Barrie & Jenkins, 1969

2. Burnes was a famous explorer of the remote regions of India and central Asia in the 1820s and 30s. His 1834 book, “Travels into Bokhara”, was a bestseller in England. He spoke Persian fluently, as well as Pashtan and several other dialects of Central Asia. Burnes was particularly hated by the local Afghans in Kabul, not only as a visible symbol of British occupation; but because he was very active with the local Afghan women. Burnes was not alone in “fraternizing” with Afghan women, who at least in Kabul were more-than-willing to engage in relations with the foreign conquerors. However, in a land where women were and still are routinely killed in “honor killings” for the mere suspicion of engaging in extramarital sex, and which is seen as a slur against the manhood of their male family members, this activity fanned the flames of hatred against the British and Burnes in particular.

3. William Broadfoot was the brother of the more celebrated George Broadfoot ; who had gained a great reputation with the Afghans and was then serving with Sale’s Brigade at Jalalabad. George Broadfoot would himself die in battle 4 years later, in the First Sikh War.

4. Ferengi, the Arabic term for “foreigner”; deriving from the Persian word for “Franks”, or Europeans.

5. Eyre, Sir Vincent (1843). The Military Operations at Cabul: Which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842. With a Journal of Imprisonment in Affghanistan. John Murray. pp. 115–16.

6. Dalrymple, William (2013). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 332

7. Macrory, Patrick: The Fierce Pawns; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966; P. 208. The author is working off of the first-hand accounts of eye witnesses.

8. Eyre, p. 123

9. Dalrymple, p. 372

10. Dalrymple, p. 380

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An improbable and impromptu truce and gift exchange occurred between Allies and Germans on Christmas 1914. It was a bright moment in the grim, terrible war on the Western Front; one no participant ever forgot.

There can be honor and respect between enemies in war; even during one as terrible as the First World War.

Here is the trailer from the wonderful film  “Joyeux Noel” (2005):

This clip captures much of that amazing event:

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In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated  over eight days with the lighting of the ceremonial menorah: a unique nine-branched candelabrum. The origins of this festival, and the first Hanukkah, are found in the 2nd century BC, when the Jewish people were faced with one of the greatest threats to their religion, their cultural, and their very existence.


In 331 BC Alexander the Great marched through Philistia on his way to first Gaza and then Egypt; after defeating the Persians at Issus and capturing Phoenician Tyre in the two years previous. He likely visited Jerusalem while in the region, and would there have met with the Jewish temple authorities.[1]

Judea now became part of the growing Macedonian Empire, which at Alexander’s death eight years later stretched from the Danube to the Indus. As with most of the indigenous people within his empire, Alexander granted the Jews a measure of local autonomy; allowing them the right to practice their religion without interference.

However, following Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC his empire was convulsed in a series of wars between his friends and generals, fighting to carve out a piece of the realm for themselves (See Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones). When at last the Successor Wars ended a generation later, Judea became a province (“Coele-Syria“) of first the Kingdom of the Ptolemies; and then, after their victory at the Battle of Paneion in 200 BC, of the Empire of the Seleucids.

Throughout this period of Hellenistic control the Jews were left alone to conduct their religious affairs as they wished. However, in 175 BC a new king came to the Seleucid throne; one that would change the relationship between the King and his Jewish subjects, and of that between the Jews and Hellenism forever. It would lead to a seminal moment in Jewish history, when as a people they stood tall and defended their ancient religion. It would also give the Jews one of their greatest champions: Judah Maccabee, “the Hammer”.


Though often capable and even brilliant rulers and military commanders, a streak of eccentricity ran throughout the Seleucid royal family. But none of that illustrious line showed both faces, brilliant and eccentric, more clearly than the fourth Antiochus to sit the throne of Seleucus Nicator.

Second son of King Antiochus III (“The Great”), as a boy Antiochus IV was a political hostage in Rome. Following his father’s defeat at Magnesia and the subsequent Peace of Apamea in 188 BC, which limited Seleucid power in Anatolia and put strictures on their foreign policy, the Seleucid prince was handed over to the Romans as surety of his father’s good faith. In Rome Antiochus gained an appreciation for Roman Republican institutions and their incomparable fighting methods; the latter reflected in his reorganization of the Seleucid Army once he ascended to the throne (see Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids). After his release by the Romans following his father’s death, Antiochus spent time in Athens, imbibing the heady wine of Hellenism in this cultural center of Greek learning. Among the energetic and lively-minded Athenians he found himself perfectly at home, and was granted Athenian citizenship. Perhaps bemused at having a Seleucid prince in their midst, one eager to appear as simply one of the dêmos, the Athenians even elected him as one of their Archons for that year.

But when his older brother, the frugal and circumspect Seleucus IV Philopater, was assassinated by a powerful minister the prince decided to quit playing at being the heir to Demosthenes and instead to pick up the mantle of his ancestor Seleucus Nicator. Returning to Syria, the Graeco-Macedonian soldier-settlers that were the core of the royal army rallied to this scion of the House of Seleucus; and in 175 BC Antiochus was able to wrest the throne from the grasp of the usurper. Despite the fact that his nephew, Seleucus IV’s nine-year-old son Demetrius, who had taken his place as a hostage in Rome, was the most direct heir; Antiochus was proclaimed king. He adopted as his throne-name Epiphanes (“God Manifest”)[2].


Antiochus was unlike any king ever to sit the Seleucid throne before or after. His rule, like his personality, can best be described as erratic. Friendly and approachable one moment, brooding and sullen the next, he was alternately a whirlwind of cheerful action or a silent recluse. Today he might have been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. He was likely also a clinical narcissist (though a mundane narcissism is not unusual in rulers or politicians). His sojourn in Republican Rome and democratic Athens had left him with an odd taste for populous politics and a love for mingling with the hoi polloi. Occasionally he would don Roman toga and walk the teeming streets of his very-Greek capital, Antioch; “canvassing for votes” to republican Roman offices that did not exist in Syria: Curule Aedile, Praetor, Consul or Censor.[3] Or by day he might join the citizens in the great public baths, exchanging jokes with the common people as though merely one of the demos of Antioch instead of the emperor of a vast empire. At nights he would carouse through the streets of the great city[4] with a few chosen companions. A party of young men drinking late in some tavern or mansion might hear the approach of a new group of revelers, to be startled by the sudden appearance of the king and his cronies; who would join their party, drinking deep into the night. During festivals he would at times take to the stage, and like Nero perform for the populace; or join the dancers during festivals, leaping and whirling naked through the streets.

His eccentricities, his boyish enthusiasm and his good looks earned him a measure of popularity among the gregarious and volatile Antiochenes; so different from the sober, eastern  pomposity of his predecessors. However, his sudden mood swings and vindictiveness when crossed made men uneasy; and like a panther he could switch from languid relaxation to fierce and violent action in the beat of a heart.

Soon his enemies, foreign and domestic, began to refer to him not as Antiochus “Epiphanes“, but as Epimanes (“The Mad One”).


The kingdom this “mad” king inherited was a skeleton of its former, muscular self. Defeated by Rome, surrounded by foes and rivals, it was an empire ever threatened with dissolution. Once stretching from the Aegean Sea to the borders of India, the Seleucid Empire was now withering around the edges, drawing back upon its center in Syria. On all sides its enemies awaited, eager for the empire’s dismemberment.

In the west loomed the towering shadow of Rome. Suspicious of any resurgence of the once-great Seleucid power, the Roman Senate kept a watchful eye on Antiochus and his dealings with his fellow Hellenistic rulers. It was Roman policy that no Hellenistic king should grow stronger than his fellows, and so to one day pose a challenge to Rome. A weak and divided Hellenistic east was exactly to Rome’s liking; most especially the Seleucid Empire. To this end, the Roman Senate was ever meddling in Seleucid affairs, and Roman diplomacy was backed by the implied threat of the terrifyingly effective Roman legions.[5]

To the east, Seleucid control of Media (northern Iran) and the “Upper Satrapies” (those eastern Iranian provinces abutting Central Asia) was threatened by the emerging power of the Parthians, nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. There was also the question of Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan), a Seleucid province which was ever ready to break away from the empire, and which had at times been a strong independent Greek kingdom. Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had campaigned in the east to bring all of the lost provinces back into the fold. But in the troubled years since his defeat at Magnesia these territories had once again fallen away from the control of the Seleucid court.


But the most immediate threat to the empire was to the south, where the age-old rivalry with the Ptolemies threatened to burst once again into war over the question of Coele-Syria: Philistia, Judea, and southern Lebanon. The temper of the Alexandrian court was decidedly bellicose, and had never reconciled itself to the loss of this cross-roads border province between the two empires. This new Seleucid king, in their estimation, was untested and, if reports were to be believed, mentally unstable.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus began implementing a plan that would ultimately unite and strengthen the Seleucid realm, and make it a power capable of standing against any of these threats.

The king was convinced that the problem with so sprawling an empire was its diversity of cultures and religions. What was needed was a single unifying culture, one that would make all the disparate people of his empire: Syrians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes and Persians; one people loyal to their king. This culture must be Hellenism, the culture of the ruling Graeo-Macedonian class. This had been the dream of Alexander the Great, a unity of peoples under Hellenic civilization. It was a dream Antiochus now made his own. One people, one culture, one ruler: Antiochus.

To this end, the king’s focus was soon drawn south to Judea.

Though a relatively small community within the Empire, the Jews were an important one. First, their land sat upon the strategic crossroads between Syria and Egypt, the respective centers of gravity of the two greatest Hellenistic monarchies.[6] Secondly, Jews provided quality mercenaries to both empires. Fighting in the style known by Hellenistic military writers as thureophoroi, the Jews fought in loose-order with spear and javelin, and had earned a reputation for tenacity.

Previous Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers had left the Jews to run their own affairs. The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem was their de facto ruler. It was to the High Priest that the first the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid kings addressed their concerns. He was both the religious and secular head of the Jewish community.


However there was disunity within Judea, conflict between those who clung to “the old ways”, and those who embraced aspects of Hellenism, the culture of the Greeks. At the ascension of Antiochus IV, the High Priest in Jerusalem was Onias III. A member of the traditionalist (“faithful to the law”) faction, he was no friend of the Hellenists[7] or of Seleucid rule. He was opposed by his own brother, Jason, who was ironically the leader of the Hellenist-faction. At the death of the previous king, Seleucus IV, there had been rioting in Jerusalem between the two factions. Blood ran in the streets.

Upon taking the throne, Antiochus summoned Onias and Jason to Antioch for an accounting. Jason described the desire of himself and others to fully embrace and promote the mainstream culture of the Seleucid Empire, Hellenism. He offered to build in Jerusalem public symbols of Greek culture, such as a gymnasium and public baths; and to remake Jerusalem as a Greek polis, a self-governing city-state within the empire. He also offered the king’ advisers a considerable bribe to convince Antiochus to make him High Priest in his brother’s place, in order for him to enact these changes. Antiochus came away impressed that in Jason he had found a useful agent. Onias was deposed and Jason put in his place.

Plans were laid to implement this policy of Hellenizing the peoples of the empire, starting with the Jews. If this stiff-necked, “backward” people could be Hellenized, so could any in the empire.

But first, he had to secure his hold on Coele-Syria, the rule of which was once again being challenged by his rivals in Egypt.


In 171 war  broke out between Rome and Perseus, king of Macedon; who along with his father, Philip V, had for years been carefully preparing to throw off the shackles of Roman domination. With Rome so distracted, Antiochus decided the time was ripe to secure his southern border, and to settle with Egypt the issue of Coele-Syria once-and-for-all.

The Sixth Syrian War began in 170 BC with the “Mad King” marching south at the head of a large and well-supplied army. Crossing the northern Sinai desert, he met an equally large Ptolemaic force near Pelusium led by the chief ministers of the Ptolemaic kingdom, Eulaeus and Lenaeus; who were at that same moment on their way to invading Coele-Syria! Battle was joined, and the result was complete victory for Antiochus and the Seleucid army. As the routed Ptolemaic soldiers fled the battlefield, Antiochus rode at the head of his pursuing troops, sparing the enemy soldiers from slaughter. Most of the Ptolemaic troops were Graeco-Macedonians. Like their Seleucid opponents they were either descendants of Graeco-Macedonian soldiers settled in Egypt after Alexander’s death, or Greek mercenaries[8]. In either case, the ties of racial kindred and military professionalism combined with reasons of diplomacy to stay Antiochus’ hand. Encouraged by his mercy, many of the mercenaries went over to him, joining and bolstering his army.

The defeat at Pelusium threw the Ptolemaic court into a panic. Foolishly, the child-king, Ptolemy VI Philometer was put on-board a ship, to be spirited away to safety in Ptolemaic Cyprus. His ship, however, was overtaken by a Seleucid squadron and Ptolemy captured.

This was a good start for Antiochus. But mindful that to attempt to annex Egypt might trigger Roman intervention, Antiochus now decided to install the boy-king Ptolemy Philometor (who, due to a diplomatic marriage years before, was in any case his own sister’s son and thus his nephew) back upon his throne as a Seleucid puppet. First, however, Antiochus had to capture the fortress of Pelusium, the key to Egypt. Alexandria sent a naval squadron to supply the garrison, but this relief force was defeated at sea by the Seleucid fleet. Upon news of this reverse, the demoralized fortress surrendered to Antiochus. The way now open, the Seleucid army marched into Egypt with young Ptolemy in tow.

Meanwhile in Alexandria the citizens rose up and proclaimed the child-king’s even-younger brother as their king, under the name Ptolemy Euergetes II. Antiochus turned this event to his advantage, presenting himself as the champion of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. Throwing a bridge across the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, the Seleucid army soon overran lower Egypt, except Alexandria, which held for Euergetes.

Antiochus proceeded up-river to Memphis, the ancient pharaonic capital. There he established an alternate government in the name of the “legitimate” king, Philometer. From Memphis he was able to cut off food supplies downriver to Alexandria. Discomfited, the “war faction” in Alexandria was overthrown and emissaries were sent to Memphis to negotiate peace, offering to confirm Seleucid rule in Coele-Syria. But that issue was no longer Antiochus’ war-goal. Now the prospect loomed of an Egyptian vassal kingdom, something every Seleucid king since the first had at least dreamed of (if not outright conquest of Egypt).

Refusing the offer, Antiochus marched north and laid siege to Alexandria.

However, his small fleet was not sufficient to the task of cutting the city off from the sea, and thus starving Alexandria into submission was not possible. Storming so great a city was a ghastly prospect, as the ever-prickly Alexandrians would assuredly resist his soldiers from every rooftop and alley-way. So, at the end of 169, he withdrew with his army. He had the satisfaction of leaving Egypt divided between two warring brothers, his baggage train filled with looted treasure, and with Pelusium in his control. With this fortress in his grasp the gateway to Egypt remained unbolted against his later return.

However, the rival brothers soon quickly patched-up a peace between them. Agreeing to a joint monarchy, Philometer entered Alexandria and put an end to his role as a Seleucid puppet.

Antiochus reversed his progress home, and in 168 once again marched on Egypt. At the same time he sent his fleet with a force to occupy Ptolemaic Cyprus. As his army approached the Delta, envoys from the court at Alexandria arrived in his camp. They politely thanked him for returning Philometer to his throne, and inquired why he had returned. Antiochus replied that guarantees for the future security of his realm were needed: he demanded Cyprus and the formal hand-over of Pelusium (still occupied by his garrison).

When the Alexandrian court delayed giving him an answer, Antiochus continued his advance. Returning first to Memphis, he repeated his march down river of the previous year. But as he approached Alexandria this second time, envoys from Rome awaited him. At a place called Eleusis, they arrived in his camp; the embassy led by Popillius Laenas, a Roman Senator and friendly acquaintance from his days in Rome.

1452778.jpgSeleucid soldiers, circa 160 BC

Till now Rome had watched Antiochus’ successes in Egypt with unease. But the Republic had been too distracted by its war with Macedon to interfere. However, as Antiochus marched on Egypt the final chapter in the story of the last Antigonid king of Macedon had played out. Brought to battle at Pydna, Perseus had been utterly defeated by the Roman Proconsul, Aemilius Paullus. Macedon would be reduced to the status of Roman province, and its last king, Perseus, taken to Rome in chains.

Rome was now free to deal with the ambitions of the “Mad King”.




  1. The story of Alexander sacrificing to “God” on the Temple Mount are likely apocryphal.
  2. Hellenistic monarchies did not denote the difference between kings of the same name by numbering; but instead by adding an additional “throne-name”.
  3. Whether this bizarre mime was but a bit of eccentric play-acting or evidence of delusional behavior is, from the distance of two millennia, impossible to say.
  4. During the late Hellenistic period Antioch’s population reached its peak of of between 400,000 to 600,000 people, and was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The city was composed of four quarters, and was for this reason known as a tetrapolis. Lying along the Orontes River, the whole was about 4 miles quarter was added by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC); thenceforth Antioch was known as Tetrapolis. From west to east the whole was about 4 miles wide from east to west, and a bit less from north to south.
  5. See Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate
  6. The Seleucid Empire and the Kingdom of the Ptolemies.
  7. Those who had adopted the culture of the ruling Graeco-Macedonian and sought to spread and enforce it among their fellow Jews.
  8. See Armies of the Successor Kingdoms: The Ptolemies

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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