On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of the island under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history forever!

The Vikings first began raiding Ireland in the late 8th century.  As throughout western Europe, longships crammed with veteran warriors bent on rapine and plunder descended on the coastal settlements and raided deep into the countryside, bringing death and destruction to the unwary inhabitants.

These Vikings were perhaps the first iron-clad, mailed warriors the Irish had ever encountered: the defending Gaelic warriors “had nothing to defend their bodies… save only elegant tunics, shields, and finely wrought collars”; who fought as light infantry in loose-formation.  By contrast, the Vikings were often veteran warriors, who fought in close order, “a solid, skillful, and firm rampart of strong coats of mail like a thick, dark stronghold of black iron with a battle-wall of gleaming shields around their chiefs.” [1]

1520416 (1).jpgIreland was a divided land, made up of warring clans and kingdoms, ruled by some 150 different petty kings. Though there was a High King who, in theory, exercised a position as primus inter pares (first among equals) over the other petty kings; his authority depended solely on the strength of his personality and the number of swords whose loyalty he could command. In a land so divided a relatively small numbers of aggressive Vikings were able to work great mischief, taking advantage of the lack of central authority and playing one Irish ruler against another. Norse settlements and fortified bases (longphorts) soon dotted the coasts and major river-ways. Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin all began as Norse (or Danish) settlements. 

1520424.jpgThe Scandinavians came to Ireland not only as merciless Viking raiders, but as settlers; founding towns and trade centers along the coast and inland waterways. The greatest of these settlements, Dublin, is today Ireland’s national capital and greatest city.

Most of those who first raided Ireland were Norsemen (from Norway), who the Irish called the fionngaill (“fair strangers”), to distinguish them from the other nation of Vikings, the Danes or dubhgaill (“dark strangers”)*. The first great Viking lord in Ireland was Turgeis (Thorgis?). He arrived in 839, leading “a great sea-cast flood of foreigners into Eire, so that there was not a point (along the coast) thereof without a (Viking) fleet”. Turgeis raided deep into Ireland, attacking the chief religious center of the land, Armagh; where he drove out the Bishop, who fled with relics of St. Patrick. Turgeis established himself as lord of Dublin (the “Dark Pool”), previously a Christian ecclesiastical settlement but which now became a Norse military settlement. Dublin was perfectly situated at a ford of the River Liffey, and possessed of a fine harbor for trade and the anchorage of Viking longships.

Raging through the heart of Ireland, Turgeis took the monastery of Clonmacnoise; and placed his wife, Ota, in control. There she sat as a pagan priestess (völva or spækona), holding court and giving oracles from the high alter. Turgeis’ colorful career as Viking conquistador was short-lived, however. According to the Annals of Ulster he was captured in 845 by the Irish, and executed by drowning in Lough Owel.

However, his place as leader of the fionngaill in Ireland and king of Dublin was taken eight years later, in 853, by Olaf the White. Olaf shared the rule of Dublin and leadership of the Hiberno-Norse community with another Viking leader who arrived in Ireland around 870, Ímar (also rendered as Imhar in Irish sources).

This latter’s identity is a source of controversy, but some think him identical with the famed Ivar the Boneless, son of the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and sometime commander (along with his brothers) of the Great Heathen Army that invaded and overran much of England between 865 and 878. Mention of Ivar in England disappears from the record in 870, so it is theorized that he came to Ireland to take over leadership of Dublin.[2]

The connection between the Irish-Viking Ímar and Ivar the Boneless is not certain, but whoever he was Ímar/Ivar founded a royal line in Ireland: the Uí Ímair, or House of Ivar. This house ruled (at various times) much of the Irish Sea region, the Kingdom of Dublin, Munster, the western coast of Scotland, the Hebrides and some part of northern England (including York) from the mid 9th century till the 11th. 


In the shifting landscape of Irish politics these Hiberno-Norse soon became part of the regular fabric of intrigues and alliances; siding with one or another of the native petty kings in the island’s ceaseless internecine conflicts. So long as the Irish were divided, the presence of the “Lochlannach” would have to be tolerated till the arrival of a king strong enough to drive them out.

In the latter half of the 10th century, just such a warlord arose.


In 868 an obscure western Irish tribe, the Dál Cais, rose up under two brothers, Mahon and Brian mac Cennétig (sons of Kennedy) to oppose the Lochlannach in the western Irish kingdom of Munster. Fighting guerrilla war, the brothers defeated the powerful Viking lord of Limerick, Ivar (a descendant of the founder of the Uí Ímair) at the Battle of Selcoit. The brothers followed up their victory by sacking Limerick, wealthy stronghold of the Vikings on the River Shannon.

1520430.jpgIrish warriors traditionally wore little armor, in contrast to the Viking invaders.

Following this victory these two Dalcassian brothers spent the next eight years fighting rivals for the lordship of Munster. In 976 Mahon was captured and executed by a Gaelic rival.  Brian, who had been his brother’s commander, now took over the lordship of the Dal Cais. In two years, he avenged his brother’s murder at the Battle of Belach Lechta, in which his rival was slain and he assumed the title of King of Munster.


Thus began the career of Brian Boru (Bóruma), and his march along the path to greatness. For the next few years he extended his influence into the neighboring kingdoms of Leinster to the east and Connacht to the north. This brought him into conflict with Ireland’s most powerful lord,  Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (anglicized and referred to henceforth as Malachi), Ard Rí (High King) of Ireland and ruler of Meath.

From 982 to 997 these two powerful kings engaged in a war for primacy. During these campaigns, Brian proved a highly able strategist; utilizing both land and naval forces to achieve his ends. By 996 he had all-but conquered Leinster. The following year in 997, at a royal meeting near Clonfert, Malachi and  Brian made a truce.  The terms granted Brian rule over the southern half of Ireland, while Malachi retained the northern half and the title of High King.

The Leinstermen chaffed at being under the dominance of Munster, and within two years were in open revolt. Máel Mórda, king of the Uí Fáeláin of northern Leinster, joined forces with his  maternal uncle, Sitric Silkbeard, king of Dublin. First they turned upon and defeated Brian’s vassal,  Donnchad mac Domhnaill, the King of Leinster,  and imprisoned him in Dublin. Máel Mórda claimed his title. Dublin and Leinster now defied both Brian and Malachi of Meath. Brian and Malachi marched against the rebels, defeating them decisively at the bloody Battle of Glenmama on December 30, 999. As the rebel army fled the field many were slaughtered as Brian’s forces closely pursued. Máel Mórda allegedly survived the rout by hiding in a yew tree. To his enduring shame, he was dragged from its branches by Brian’s eldest son, the redoubtable Prince Murrogh (often rendered as Murchad), and taken captive. Sitric survived the battle and temporarily fled from Ireland. His brother, Harald Olafsson, was not so lucky, being one of some 7,000 to fall in the battle or the pursuit.

The following day, New Years Eve, 999, Brian’s army reached Dublin. They entered the undefended town, and on New Year’s Day, 1000 AD, Viking Dublin was sacked by Brian’s army. A great trading port, the plunder was rich indeed.

Brian stayed in Dublin for several months, settling affairs. Donnchad mac Domhnaill was freed and returned to the throne of Leinster (though he would be found an unsatisfactory client and would be deposed a few years later; and the ambitious Máel Mórda, swearing loyalty, was placed on the Leinster throne in his place). Sitric returned, after raiding in Wales, and was reinstated as king of Dublin. To seal the peace between he and his new overlord, Sitric was given Brian’s daughter Sláine to wife. King Brian, in turn, was wed to Sitric’s still-lovely and passionate mother, Gormlaith (called Kormlada in Icelandic sources). Sister to Máel Mórda, she had been married twice before: as a girl to Sitric’s father, the powerful Viking king of Dublin and YorkOlaf Cuaran; and, more recently, Brian’s erstwhile rival-turned-ally, Malachi of Meath. Divorced from the latter, she was now the bride of the most powerful warlord in Ireland.

The victory of Glenmama and capture of Dublin put Brian in an unprecedented seat. Never before had an Irish king been in the position of direct overlord of that city’s Viking king. In bestowing it upon Sitric (scion of the Uí Ímair, oft times rulers of Dublin since Ivar the Boneless) Brian had now set a precedent: that “the city’s Hiberno-Scandinavian ruler would hold his kingship from his Munster overlord” [3], a vassal and no longer independent. As for Brian Boru he was indisputably the strongest warlord in Ireland, eclipsing the power of his ally, Malachi of Meath, the High King.


In the following year, the arrangement between these two paramount kings and rivals broke down. His ambitions perhaps now goaded on by his new bride (Malachi’s ex-wife) Gormlaith, Brian marched against Malachi in the north. Despite setbacks, Brian was eventually successful. In 1002, Malachi surrendered his title of “Ard Rí“, High King,  to Brian. Unlike those who had held this title before him, Brian was unwilling to be merely “first among equals”; but instead to rule in fact as well as name. Continuing his military activities in the far north of the island, over the next nine years Brian systematically brought the proud  Uí Néill of Ulster to heal. By 1011, he was acknowledged by all the rulers of Ireland as their overlord.

Brian Boru was Ireland’s first true “king”. More, he was acknowledged by the highest religious authority in Ireland, the monastery of Armagh, as not just king, but Imperator Scottorum: “Emperor of the Irish”.[4]

But his position, so unique in Irish history, did not long go unchallenged.


Though he owed his throne to Brian, Máel Mórda of Leinster resented his brother-in-law’s dominance. His loyalty, tissue-thin to begin with, must have been further strained when Brian put off his sister Gormlaith as his wife. When his divorce from Gormlaith occurred is unknown; nor is the reason. But by 1011 she was back with her brother in Dublin, bitter towards her (ex?) husband. Her spite would play a key role in the events that led to the Battle of Clontarf.

While visiting Brian’s court at Kincora, Máel Mórda was observing a chess game between  Brian’s eldest son, Murrogh, and his cousin Conaing. The Leinster King advised the latter on a move. Prince Murrogh, tactlessly, reminded Máel Mórda that his advice before Glenmama had not been so sound; and further teased him about having been pulled from a tree after the battle. This insult was a goad no warrior would bear.

1520438.jpgA furious Máel Mórda stormed off, leaving the palace and riding for home without a word of leave to King Brian. Hearing of this, Brian sent a messenger to follow and bring Máel Mórda back. The Leinster king killed Brian’s messenger and rode on.

Retribution was now inevitable.

Back in own palace at Cill Chuilinn (modern Kilcullen) in Leinster, Máel Mórda might have reconsidered, given time to cool off, were it not for Gormlaith. Handing his sister the tunic he had worn at Kincora, he asked her to sew on a button that had fallen off.

Gormlaith took the tunic, and threw it into the fire. She then scornfully upbraided him, that he should take his kingship in vassalage of another (Brian); something their father and ancestors had never done! She reminded him that one day, perhaps soon, he would have to bend the knee to Brian’s son-and-heir, Murrogh: the very man who had so insulted him.

Máel Mórda now resolved to rebel. He went with Gormlaith to Dublin, where they incited her son Sitric Silkybeard to join them. The two joined forces for a second time, and spent 1013 raiding into Brian and Malachi’s territory. Brian responded by marching on Leinster and Dublin; Brian and Murrogh approaching by two different routes, ravaging their enemies territory as they advanced. In September, 1013, Brian’s army encamped at Kilmainham (now a suburb of Dublin), a mile from city; intending to blockade the land approaches to Dublin and starve the town into submission. But the attempt was unsuccessful, for the town could re-provision by sea. Brian’s army ran short of supplies first, and the High King was forced to withdraw before Christmas.

The rebels knew Brian would return again in the spring, and so undertook measures to strengthen their position. They sent to other disaffected princes, several of whom promised aid. But Dublin had been badly weakened by the defeat of Glenmama. To strengthen their numbers and aid their cause, they needed help from outside Ireland. Gormlaith convinced her son to take ship, and travel to the north of Scotland, where such help could be found.

1520451.jpgIn Orkney, Sitric met with the mightiest Viking warlord in the Western Islands, Sigurd the Stout, Jarl of the Orkneys. It was Yule, and Sitric joined the Orkney Jarl in feasting and celebration (recounted in Njals Saga). After which,  the two made a pact: For his aid, Sitric promised Sigurd lordship of Ireland, once they defeated Brian. More: his mother Gormlaith (despite her age, still a great beauty) would be given Sigurd for wife.

1521588 (2).jpgIt was in a Viking mead hall like this that Jarl Sigurd feasted king Sitric over Yule, 1013-1014

It should be remembered that events in Ireland did not exist in a vacuum. In neighboring England, Sveinn Forkbeard, King of Denmark,  had invaded with a large army and driven King Æthelred the Unready, descendant of Alfred the Great, from his throne. On Christmas Day 1013, while Sitric and Sigurd feasted in Orkney, Sveinn Forkbeard was crowned King of England as well as Denmark.

Across the north, Viking leaders like Sigurd took note: What such great Viking chieftains as Turgeis, Ivar the Boneless, and Olaf Cuaran had dreamed of seemed now, at last, within reach to any strong and bold enough to grasp it. Their star was in the ascendant: the day of the Northmen had come. What Sveinn Forkbeard had achieved in mighty England, could not Sigurd the Stout do in Ireland? Brian was an old man (chroniclers put his age at between 72 and 88 at Clontarf). Perhaps it was time to topple the “Emperor of the Irish” from this throne, and a Northman take his place.

Sigurd promised to be at Dublin with all his strength by Palm Sunday, 1014.

1520456.jpg Standing Stones at Orkney, stronghold of Jarl Sigurd the Stout.

With the Orkney Jarl’s pledge in hand, Sitric returned to Dublin. But when he conferred with his mother, Gormlaith, she was still not satisfied that he had sufficient allies to challenge Brian in battle. She told him that a fleet of 30 longships lay off the Island of Man. There he should seek the alliance of the two fierce Viking warlords who commanded this force, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.



* The Scandinavian element within Ireland in this period is sometimes referred to as Hiberno-Norse; or Hiberno-Scandinavian. Those of Dublin are referred to, alternately as Dublin-Norse, or Dublin-Danes. All of these are, to an extent, correct. There were both Danish and Norse settlers in Ireland; and the population of Dublin was very mixed. Though kingship changed hands from time-to-time in Dublin between various Viking leaders, the House of Ivar (Uí Ímair), which ruled Dublin for most of the Viking Age, may have descended from Ivar the Boneless; who was certainly a Dane. So Dublin-Dane is perhaps the most correct for the Vikings of Dublin. When referring to the  Scandinavian element in Ireland as a whole, whether Hiberno-Scandinavian settlers or “foreign” contingents, I shall herein use the catch-term “Viking”. Though not strictly correct (“Viking” means pirate or raider; and not all Scandinavian’s in Ireland at this time engaged in such activities), it will serve, for clarity’s sake.

  1.   Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with The Gaill
  2. Ivar perhaps took a portion of the Great Heathen Army to Ireland, strengthening the Scandinavian presence on that Ireland but weakening the Viking forces left to finish the conquest of England. That Wessex was able to withstand the GHA when Ivar’s brother Halfdan led it into that “last kingdom” of free English left in Britain may be a result of Ivar’s departure.
  3. Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin,  The Battle of Glenn Mama, Dublin and the High Kingship of Ireland: a Millennial Commemoration;  (Medieval Dublin, edited by Sean Duffy, 2001 pp53-64).
  4. “Scottorum” was the Latin term for the Irish.  Ireland was usually referred to in Latin as “Scotia Major”; while Scotland was referred to as “Scotia Minor”.


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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Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking and slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be a decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses was a 30 year-long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was a red one.

The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins and can be traced back to the overthrow of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V, the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.

 The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.

Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such madness. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.

Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of his Lancastrian cousin’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster, particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When Henry temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.

The battlefields of the War of the Roses

The fortunes of war shifted back and forth, the Yorkists gaining the advantage; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.

The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.

Edward IV’s “Sunne in Splendour” banner

Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)

Yorkist soldiers, the “Sunne in Splendour” banner behind

The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; while John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.

Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford was a bitter enemy of the House of York. He was thought to have personally killed Edward’s 17 year old younger brother Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield; and was called “the Butcher”.  Clifford killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a blow to the Lancastrians, who lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

The fight at Ferrybridge was a bloody prelude to what was to come at Towton

On March 29, Palm Sunday, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.

The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence that the soldiers came from all walks of life, were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall, and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements.

Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!

Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.

Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.

Battles were usually preceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.

The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle

The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the west side of the plateau. This flank also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops, ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.

The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.

View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s  Lancastrian forces were deployed.

Edward’s forces took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.

The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.

Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.

Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.

Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!

As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.

Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.

Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!

As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.

The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.

At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.

Now the bloodbath began in earnest.

Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge of human corpses, across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.

Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down attempting to cross.

Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.


From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.

Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre, and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle, at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward IV.

Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.


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In 1176 the Byzantine Empire seemed poised to reclaim its place as a superpower bestriding Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Then the Emperor Manuel I Komnenus launched an ambitious attack to drive the Seljuk Turks out of Anatolia forever. In a narrow pass through the hills at a place called Myriocephalon the fate of two empires was decided. 

Following the destruction of their army at Manzikert in 1071 the Byzantine Empire had its Anatolian heartland, the bread-basket of the empire and its best recruiting grounds, stripped away. Clans of Seljuk Turks moved into the area, taking advantage both of their victory and the subsequent Byzantine civil war that followed it. But under the very capable Komnenoi Dynasty that took power in the last decades of the century the fortunes of the empire slowly revived.

Under first Alexios I and then his son John II the finances, army, and territory of the empire grew and prospered. Much of  Anatolia lost to the Seljuk Turks after Manzikert was recaptured and the regional Muslim rulers put on the defensive. This Byzantine revival coincided with and was aided by both the break-up of the Great Seljuk Empire following the death of Malikshāh I in 1092; and by the coming of the Frankish army of the First Crusade. Passing through Anatolia on the way to the “Holy Land”, the Frankish Crusaders handed the Turks three defeats: first at Nicaea, then at  Dorylaeum, and finally before Antioch. Taking advantage of this weakening of their Turkish enemies, the Komnenoi emperors were able to advance Byzantine power throughout Anatolia and even make gains in northern Syria.

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In 1176 Manuel I, third of the Komnenoi emperors, set out from Constantinople at the head of the “grand armee” of the Byzantine Empire, the largest fielded by Roman arms since Manzikert: perhaps as many as 35,000 men. His ambitious goal was the capture of  Iconium, capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, successor state of the Great Seljuk Empire, in order to deal the Turks a crippling blow that would drive them out of Anatolia.

A flamboyant but erratic ruler, Manuel impressed his contemporaries and was considered  as among the greatest political figures of his age. During his reign he conducted alliances with the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire, and other world leaders (including Saladin).  Manuel carried on a cordial and regular diplomatic correspondence with Henry II Plantagenet, the most powerful ruler in western Europe; and many Englishman served in the famed Varangian Guard. During his reign the turbulent Balkans were subjugated, with both Serbia and Hungary becoming Byzantine vassal states. In 1151 Manuel reduced the Crusader Principality of Antioch to vassal status, forcing Prince Reynald to kneel for hours, abasing himself, before the Emperor would grant him forgiveness for his many transgressions.[1] 

With intent to to regain the lost Catepanate of Bari in southern Italy, Manuel  repaid Robert Guiscard’s invasion of Greece in 1081 with his own invasion of Apulia in 1155. Though initially wildly successful, his expedition ultimately failed.  In 1169 Byzantine forces participated in a joint naval expedition against Egypt with king Amalric I of Jerusalem; and in 1171 the Kingdom of Jerusalem became (for a time) a protectorate of the Byzantine Empire. This latter was a goal of both his father and grandfather before him, realized at last by Manuel Komnenus.

The Komnenoi star shone brightly in the firmament, indeed.

In 1176 the Empire seemed poised to regain all that had been lost after Manzikert. To this end, Manuel set out with the largest force gathered in a century to conquer the Seljuk Turkish capital of Iconium.



The Byzantine army had undergone many changes since the great days of Justinian and Heraclius. No longer was it comprised of professional horsemen and infantry steeped in the traditions of Roman military tradition. The provincial armies of the old themes and the elite tagmata regiments stationed in-or-around the capital had mostly perished at Manzikert or faded away in its aftermath. The army reconstructed by the Komnenian emperors was a very different force, comprised largely of mercenaries supported by a small force of imperial guards and native regiments.

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No accurate number exists as to the overall size of the Byzantine army of the Komnenian emperors. A reasonable estimate is some 50,000 men, half of which were static “garrison troops” of indifferent quality, holding the various towns, fortresses, and cities. The other 25,000 (or so) were part of the “field army”: the mobile forces available to an emperor or his commanders for campaigns[2], though only a small portion of that number were ever deployed on any one foreign venture. Constantinople itself had an estimated garrison of 10,000 troops, including the Varangian Guard, which at full strength numbered as much as 6,000 men.

Native Byzantine cavalry, once the pride and principal strike force of any field army, numbered perhaps 12,000 total for both the Asian and European forces in this period. These were divided into regiments 300-500 strong, called  allagion

Gone were the soldier-farmers who formed the regiments of the old  themata system. In the post-Manzikert army provinces were home to small professional regiments (possibly raised locally), called  tagma. Most prominent among these were the tagma of of Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly; the areas least affected by the Turkish advances in post-Manzikert Anatolia. By 1176, Byzantine recruiting of native cavalry in Asia had recovered enough over the previous century that Manuel was able to field Anatolian tagma to serve as part of a division of the army for his campaign to recapture Iconium, listed in the sources  “the eastern (alongside the western) tagmata.” [3]

Mercenaries hired for any particular campaign were a large part of any 12th century field force. In fact “regular” regiments composed entirely of foreign mercenaries were the core of the imperial field army: the basilika allagia (or taxeis). This force replaced and served the same function as the old Tagmata of elite native Byzantine units that had largely faded away after Manzikert. These mercenary regiments were the Varangians (already mentioned), the Vardariots, Skythikon, and Latinikon. The Varangians aside, the strength of these other regiments is unknown, and likely varied depending on the needs of each campaign. In time of peace they were unlikely to have number more than a single tagma of 300-500 men. But for any individual campaign might be increased to many times that size.

The Varangian Guard were the only one of these regiments that predated Manzikert. Originally comprised of Scandinavian or Russ warriors, its ranks were increasingly filled with Englishmen in the 12th century. This trend began after the Norman Conquest of England, as the Anglo-Saxon warrior class fled their homeland to find new homes and service under the Byzantine emperors. By the reign of Manuel this had become for the Norman and Angevin kings of England something of a pressure-release, a way of finding useful employment elsewhere for an otherwise troublesome under-class of warriors.

Armed in the traditional fashion of their homeland, the Varangians of the 12th century still fought as close-quarter heavy infantry, armed with a long-handled ax. In defending or assaulting a fortress or enemy camp they were invaluable (as at Eski Zagra in 1122, where with their long axes they hacked their way into the Pecheneg wagonburg). But in the open against either Frankish knights or Turkish horse archers, they were at a disadvantage. Against the former because infantry armed with axes are inherently worse off than those armed with a longer spear; and against the light cavalry Turkish horse archers because these could keep their distance while peppering the heavy infantry with their powerful composite bows.

Expecting to besiege and perhaps assault the walls of Iconium, Manuel took some or all of the Varangians with him on this campaign (they are mentioned as present at the battle in a letter from Manuel to King Henry II of England, thanking him for their service and valor), though they are not specifically mentioned in the fighting.

Of the other three “regular” mercenary (or foreign-born) regiments less is known.

The Vardarites were recruited from “Turks” (likely Magyars or Uzes) of the Vardar River valley in Macedonia, and were principally light cavalry horse archers. Likewise the Skythikon were horse archers, recruited from Pecheneg military settlers (originally prisoners of war) and later Cumans from off the Ukrainian steppes.

The Latinikon was recruited from Frankish cavalry (some of which would have been knights, the rest mounted sergeants-at-arms), and were heavily armored, lance-armed horsemen. The Byzantines appreciated the effectiveness of the charge of western knights, and began recruiting large numbers of western heavy cavalry during the 11th century; originally mostly from the Normans of Italy and Sicily. During the Manzikert campaign a large band of these was led by a Norman adventurer named Roussel de Bailleul. After the disastrous battle (where they were absent), these “Franks” attempted to take advantage of the chaos in central Anatolia by carving-out a short-lived Norman duchy in what had been the Byzantine heartland.

Despite the demonstrated risk of hiring these “land Vikings”, the Komnenian emperors knew their worth in battle and expanded their recruitment. The Frankish cavalry gained much prestige following their success against the Turks during the First Crusade, no doubt impressing the Byzantines even more.

By the 12th century the Byzantines were recruiting knights and sergeants from all over western Europe. Aside from the Latinikon, individuals and bands of Frankish mercenaries were hired as needed for whatever campaign might be pending, likely brigaded together with the Latinikon. Manuel, a Frankophile, came to rely increasingly on both Frankish cavalry and tactics; going so far as to arm many of his native regiments with the heavier western lances and even promoting jousting tournaments in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (in part, no doubt, to please his beautiful young Frankish empress, Maria of Antioch). The emperor himself at times tilted against opponents, and became an accomplished jouster. Manuel was deemed in the west to be a very “debonair” and “courteous” knight.

Aside from the native “regular” territorial regiments and these mercenary forces, the provincial landed magnates (dynatoi) could assist in regional defense or local campaigns with their own (sometimes substantial) numbers of troops raised and maintained at their own expense from among their retainers, relatives and tenants. The quality of these troops, however, tended to be inferior to the professional troops of the basilika allagia and the regular tagma of the provinces.

Finally, when personally on campaign the emperor would be accompanied by a household tagma comprised of members of the imperial family and closest retainers, called oikeioi (“those of the household”). These served as did “household knights” in western courts and were likely equipped as the heaviest of cavalry (kataphractoi). As well as being an elite bodyguard for the emperor, this group also functioned as a staff college for young officers who’d attracted the emperor’s favor. Their number would have fluctuated but likely they numbered no more than 300 men and probably less.

For the campaign of 1176 Manuel brought the tagma of both Europe and Anatolia; the four elite regiments of the  basilika allagia; an undetermined number of mercenaries raised for the campaign, as well as local dynatoi and their retinues of irregulars; and his own oikeioi guards. This, the largest Byzantine army to take the field since Manzikert, was augmented by allied contingents of horse archers from the vassal states of Hungary[4]  and Frankish heavy cavalry (knights and sergeants) both from vassal Crusader Antioch and mercenaries from the west (the latter, at least, likely brigaded together in the Latinikon regiment). In total some 35,000 men[5], supported by a supply train of 3,000 wagons, with an extensive siege train dismantled for transport.

Up to the Battle of Manzikert, Byzantine tactical practice against Turkish light cavalry horse archers was to form-up in two lines, one behind the other, a “bow shot” apart (approximately 300 yards). The first line was to advance against the swarming horse archers, employing their own bows and short, controlled charges to keep the Turks off-balance and eventually pin them against a physical barrier (such as a river or cliff-side). The second line, behind and parallel to the first, had merely to keep pace and maintain position, in readiness for the inevitable attempt by the Turks to sweep around the flanks of the first line and attack it from the rear. If this occurred, the second line would allow the Turks to get between the two lines, then charge and crush them in-between.

However, at Manzikert this formation had failed disastrously, mostly because the commander of the second line (Andronikos Doukas) deliberately betrayed his family’s rival, Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes. In the following years, a lack of disciplined troops who could be trusted to execute such a maneuver led to the development of an alternative tactical formation:  the parataxis. This was a defensive formation, a hollow square with the baggage in the center, infantry on the outside and cavalry in-between. The infantry armed with spear-and-shield and supported by foot archers could defend against Turkish archery, protecting the cavalry’s mounts from being killed by Turkish arrows. The horsemen, in turn, could charge out of the square if the opportunity presented itself. It was an effective counter  to the fluid swarming tactics of the Turkish horse archers. A similar formation was employed by Richard I of England (who may have learned this from the Byzantines) at the Battle of Arsuf .


The Turkish Sultanate of Rum (or Iconium) in central Anatolia was established by Alp Arslan in the years following Manzikert. The army of the Sultanate consisted of two elements: the ‘askar (army in Arabic) of the Sultan, which was a professional body of troops paid with cash or land-grants (called iqta’at) and comprised (paradoxically) of slave soldiers (ghulams or mamālīk); and the ‘askar of the provincial amirs. These slave soldiers were drawn from among prisoners of war and from older boys purchased from the slave market. They could be of any race, but most were Daylamis, Khorasanians, Georgians, Turkomans, and increasingly in the late 11th through the 13th century from former peoples of Byzantine Anatolia. (By a twist of fate the ghulam who captured the Emperor Romanus Diogenes at the Battle of Manzikert was himself a former Byzantine!)

During the reigns of Alp Arslan and his successor, Malik Shah, the royal ‘askar was as large as 46,000 cavalry. But with the break up of the Seljuk Empire, the wealth and power of the Sultans of Rum had declined and this force had shrunk to less than half that size. However, the armies of the provincial amirs could still be quite large. But these armies of the amirs were also semi-independent and could not always be relied upon to support the Sultan’s military campaigns.

To augment their ‘askar the Rumi Seljuks relied heavily upon Turkoman tribal auxiliaries. These were fierce if unreliable soldiers, and were the sinews of Seljuk military strength in this period. They fought under their own clan or tribal banners, commanded by their own chieftains. They were undisciplined and fought for plunder, and would only stay in the field if the prospects for such were good.

All Turks fought principally as light cavalry mounted archers, but were quite willing to dismount and fight on foot if necessary. The professional askari, while still principally light cavalry, wore  body armor of lamellar or mail, and used lances, maces, ax or sword in close-quarter combat. This was true too of the tribal nobility of the Turkomen clans.

The exact number of warriors the Sultan Killij Arslan had at his disposal for the 1176 campaign is unknown, but likely less than the 35,000 men Manuel was preparing against him.

The primary tactic of the Turks, as with all nomadic steppe horsemen, was to approach an enemy in a loose formation, harassing them with long range archery; while occasionally darting in-and-out to fire at closer range or use saber and mace to cut-up detached or isolated groups. The Turks tended to be patient, cautious warriors, and were content to let sun and fatigue work to weaken their enemy before closing with him in earnest. When the enemy was sufficiently “softened-up”, the the Turks would close for the kill. A small portion of every Turkish army was heavy cavalry, either armored ghulams or noblemen. These provided the shock troops that would break an already weakened enemy.

Unusually for nomadic horsemen, the Turks were also quite willing to dismount and take advantage of rough terrain when necessary. Using covering terrain, they were adept at ambush and surprise attack.


Manuel marshaled his forces at Lopadion, the great fortress in the Opsikion Theme of northwestern Anatolia built by his father, John II. This was the headquarters and main base of the Anatolian tagma and the mustering place for expeditions by the Komnenoi emperors against the Seljuks of Rum. The site was well watered by the Rhyndacus River and near-by Lake Apolloniatis. As his army set out, Manuel’s column stretched some 10 miles. A diversionary force under the emperor’s nephew, Andronikos Vatatzes,  was sent east to drive the Turks out of the northern Anatolian hills around Amasia in Pontia, while he led the main force in person to the campaigns main objective, Iconium. (The composition of this secondary force is unknown. But as there is no mention in the accounts of the coming battle of the Hungarian and Cuman allies, these were likely attached to Vatatzes’ diversionary force.)

The Emperor’s column headed south, staying within Byzantine territory. Three hundred and seventy miles later Manuel reached Laodicea on the Lycus, where the army turned east toward the Seljuk frontier. The column now marched through ancient Phrygia, where  Alexander the Great once passed in the early days of his conquest of the Persian Empire. This area, the themes of Thrakesion and Anatolikon, had been overrun by the Seljuks after Manzikert, but recovered by Manuel’s father and grandfather. Each night on the march, the Roman forces entrenched their camp each night in the ancient tradition of their forebears, dating back to the Roman Republic.

Light Turkish cavalry harassed the column as it moved ever closer to its objective, setting afire the grass and poisoning the wells ahead of the Byzantine line of march. There would be little forage for the Emperor’s horses or clean water for the army to drink. By the time they arrived at the ruined fortress of Myriocephalon, at the foot of the Tzivritze pass, through which the route to Iconium passed, the Byzantine forces were “grievously afflicted by a disease of the bowels which utterly ravaged the army”.

The Sultan Kilij Arslan had not sat idle as the Byzantine juggernaut drew ever nearer to his capital. He had summoned Turcoman warriors from throughout Anatolia and northern Syria to come defend Muslim lands from the “infidel”. Though likely smaller than the Imperial forces marching toward him, the Turkish army was swollen with new-arrived allies, and ready for battle. Nevertheless, the  Sultan sent envoys to the Emperor at Myriocephalon offering peace.

According to the historian Niketas Choniates, the Emperor was advised by the “old soldiers” of his army to accept the Sultan’s proposals, rather than risk all in battle. But the Emperor heeded instead  the counsel of his hot-headed younger relatives and in-laws who “had never heard the sound of the war trumpet” and were eager for the fight. The envoys were dismissed, Manuel saying he would only continue discussions once he had taken Iconium. The bellicosity of the emperor’s relatives aside returning to status quo ante bellum made little sense. The expense of such a grand campaign could only now be justified by victory.

While negotiations were still underway the Sultan’s army prepared for battle. Before the Emperor’s army lay the pass of Tzivritze. High bluffs and jutting cliffs overlooked the road as it cut through the high hills, a narrow defile that was a perfect place for an ambush.

“This place is a far-stretching defile with mountain passes that descend gently the steep northern slope to the hills below, opening up into broad ravines and then dropping down on the other side to jutting rocks and precipitous, beetling cliffs.” [6]

A forbidding place indeed through which to attempt to march an army.

The Turks began to move into ambush positions in the hills above, to await the Roman forces.

On the morning of the 17 of September 1176 Manuel’s army broke camp, and began to enter the pass. Strangely, against all precepts of established Roman practice, they failed to picket the heights or make any attempt to use their numerous light infantry to clear the pass before proceeding. In fact, throughout that day Manuel, who all his life had been a vigorous man and brave warrior, showed an unusual mental lethargy and even fatalism[7]. Even when warned by scouts that light Turkish infantry and cavalry were seen in the hills above the pass, still Manuel ordered the column forward.  Niketas records:

“It appears that Manuel took no precaution on behalf of the army when he set out… He neither lightened the loads of the pack animals nor did he put aside the wagons carrying the siege engines, nor did he attempt to rout the Turks in advance from the overgrown mountain passes with a company of his light troops, thus smoothing the way for the army.  After making his way over the open plains, he elected to be pressed in by this narrow defile, even though he had been forewarned.” [8] 

The Byzantine column advanced  in several divisions.  The vanguard was composed of the professional soldiers of the eastern and western Tagmatacommanded by the regimental commanders  John and Andronikus Angelos-Doukas (the latter father of the future emperors Isaac II and Alexios III), Constantine Makrodoukas, and Andronikos Lapardas. (The number of commanders suggests that the eastern and western Tagmata, on at least this occasion, consisted of four regiments.)  These were followed by the next division, the “right wing”, led Baldwin of Antioch, brother of the Empress Maria, and composed of the Latinikon and the allied Frankish contingent from Crusader Antioch.  Next came the army’s baggage, attended by the host of camp “menials”[9] , and the wagons carrying the dissembled siege equipment, vital to the success of the expedition. The baggage train was followed by the “left wing”, led by Theodore Mavrozomes and John Kantakouzenos. The emperor and his picked troops (oikeioi and perhaps the Varangians) came next. Finally came the rear guard, under Andronikos Kontostephanos, the composition of which is unknown.

All these officers were experienced captains of war, men who had served successfully in Manuel’s earlier wars and in some cases those of his father. Though most were related to the imperial family, these were not “royal favorites” serving in positions for which they were unsuited. All of which makes the decision to march through the pass without first clearing it of Turks all the more unfathomable.

The first division entered the defile, but not before taking the precaution of sending a force of light infantry into the flanking hills to drive the Turks back away from the road:

The troops (of the first division) passed through the rough terrain without injury, for the infantry, sent on ahead, startled the barbarians (Turks), dislodging them from the hills below the mountain where they had been posted to give battle, and sent them scurrying back to the steeper slopes for cover. [10]

The second division (the “Right Wing”), composed of Baldwin’s Franks, now entered the defile. According to Niketas, they had mistakenly allowed space between themselves and the rear of the first division, and by the time they were in the narrows the Turks had “scurried” back to the lower hills overlooking the path. Niketas also indicates the Franks were not marching in tight order, but were strung out. Seeing an opportunity, the Turks attacked.

Swarming down from the higher ground, they showered the column with arrow and javelin from above, while others charged down to hit the column in flank(s), where they were soon intermingled with the now disordered Frankish troops.

Perhaps the troops (the Franks of the second division) who followed would have passed safely through the Turkish melee also had they only closed ranks with the companies (of the first division) who preceded them and used their archers to repel the onslaughts of the Turks, but they neglected to maintain closed ranks, allowing the superior number of Turks swarming down from the hill sides from the higher ground to scatter the troops and engage them in a most reckless manner.[11]

Baldwin’s men, pressed from all sides and the enemy intermingled within their formations, were now in a dangerous plight. Gathering “certain of his knights”[12] the emperor’s brother-in-law tried to save by valor what his mismanagement had placed in peril. With this small cadre of armored horsemen he charged into the Turks, attempting to drive them back and give his men respite. But his small force, despite fighting with desperate courage and displaying “noble deeds”[13] of daring, was surrounded by the enemy and all were cut down.

Their commander dead, the Frankish division routed, attempting to flee the way they had come. With the Turks hot on their heels, cutting men down from behind, they threw the next division into confusion as well.

Elated by their success, the barbarians closed all avenues of escape to the Romans, who, pressed closely together, were unable to move through the mountain pass… in the narrow space (the Romans) fell over on another, unable to harm the enemy, and in blocking the way to those marching with them they made it impossible for them to defend themselves. Thus they were easily killed by their attackers, for there was no aid whatsoever from the troops in the rear or from the emperor, nor was their any possibility of retreating or breaking to either flank. [14]  

As has been seen on other occasions, such as at the twin debacles of Cannae and Adrianople, the Romans (and in this case their Frankish auxiliaries) found themselves pressed from all sides by the enemy and the terrain, so closely that the soldiers had no room to use their weapons nor even lift their shields to defend themselves from their tormentors. Retreat was blocked by the baggage train to their rear: Turkish arrows raining down from the heights above felled the oxen that served as draft animals and their drivers as well, rendering the wagons immobile. These now clogged the defile, preventing both retreat for the trapped second division and reinforcements from the next division (the “Left Wing”), commanded by Mavrozomes and Kantakouzenos, coming to their rescue.

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Niketas describes the carnage in the pass:

…horse and rider were cast down together. The hollows were filled with bodies. The groves were glutted with the fallen. The babbling, rushing streams flowed red with blood. Blood commingled with blood, human with that of pack animals. The horrors that took place there defy all description. Since they could neither advance nor retreat… the Romans, like cattle in their pens, were cut down in this gorge.[15]

At this point, with disaster looming and panic beginning to spread, the Sultan employed what is known in modern military parlance as PSYOPS (Psychological Operations). On the bluffs above the struggling masses in the defile, a lance was raised bearing upon it the severed head of the Emperor’s nephew, Andronikus Vatatzes; who had been commanding the diversionary force far to the north against Amasia. This expedition had also come to ruin a week earlier, and news of this was for the first time now  provided by the grizzly site of its commander’s severed head.

This sight, combined with the unfolding disaster before him, left Manuel (in the words of Niketas) despondent and stricken. For the remainder of the battle he was strangely detached as events unfolded. Today we would recognize him as having fallen into a state of psychological shock. Abandoning the role of commander-in-chief, he rashly pressed forward with his retinue (oikeioi) and the “Left Wing” division into the pass, further compounding the magnitude of the disaster by in effect throwing good money after bad.

Manuel exhorted his men to clear the way ahead, and many perished in the attempt. The wagons blocking their progress were overturned and their vital cargo cast into gullies on either side of the road. Though the army’s supplies and siege equipment was thus lost, the rear divisions of the army could press forward. Repeatedly the Romans attempted to clear the Turks from the high ground to either flank, but were repulsed at every attempt, the Turks having the tactical advantage of fighting from higher ground.

At some point Manuel commanded his men to “save themselves as best they could” [16]  and led his household in a desperate effort to cut their way through the Turkish ranks. Most of the men of his retinue, “the emperor’s most illustrious kinsmen”[17]  were slain in the fighting. Manuel did not spare himself from the thick of the fighting. Conspicuous in his gilded armor, purple tunic, and red boots (which only the Roman Emperor himself was allowed to wear) Manuel was targeted by the Turks for death or capture. By the end of the day  he has “suffered many wounds and bruises from sword and mace wielded by the Turks: his whole body was covered with injuries, his shield was pierced by some thirty arrows, and he was unable to set straight his (dented) helmet which had been knocked askew”[18]. No doubt Manuel wore the finest armor available, and this likely saved his life time-after-time that day.

The pathway forward was cut by seven “trench-like and contiguous valleys”[19], which the army must fight through, and the pass narrowed and widened at different stages. All these side valleys as well as the hills above teemed with Turkish bands; each of which had to be driven back. At some stage, late in the day, a violent sandstorm briefly swept through the pass, turning an already nightmare situation even worse. Men fought blindly, blowing sand stinging their eyes; sometimes killing friend instead of foe. The dead clogged the ravines and gullies, which became one mass grave for Romans and Turks, horses and pack mules alike.

In their near-panicked attempt to fight their way out of the trap, the Romans abandoned their wounded, who “stretched their hands in supplication with piteous gestures and voices… pleading with those nearby to come to their aid…”[20] but were left to death or capture.

At some point Manuel dismounted and  rested beside a wild pear tree. The emperor of the Romans was alone, his bodyguard and attendants dead or separated during the sandstorm that had now passed. His sword was gone, and he had only the broken shaft of his lance to defend himself. A cavalryman of “humble station” saw the emperor, and came to his aid. He offered to serve the emperor “to the utmost of his ability”, offering Manuel a drink of water from his bottle and even adjusted the emperor’s battered helmet which had slipped sideways on his head.

While the two men were so occupied, a Turk came along and attempted to steal the emperor’s horse, tethered to the tree. Manuel (apparently recovering himself) struck this miscreant a blow to the head with the broken piece of his lance, knocking the Turk to the ground. Other Turks, however, in search of captives, were drawn to the scene and beset the two Romans. Manuel took up his companion’s still intact lance, and as a Turk charged down upon him speared the man through the side and killed him. The trooper at his side  drew his sword and cut off the head of another. But the unequal contest could only have ended badly for both had not a troop of ten Roman cavalrymen arrived and drove off their tormentors.

Forming around the emperor, they proceeded up the pass, adding others to their band as they went. The Turks recognized Manuel, and a band of elite cavalry (likely the ghulams of some amir or the Sultan’s own guards) set upon them, intent to kill or capture the emperor.


“All were mounted on Arabian stallions, and in appearance they stood out from the many: they carried elegant weapons, and their horses were bedecked with splendid ornaments, in particular with adornments of tinkling bells suspended from the horsehair that reached far down (their mounts) neck.”[21]

But Manuel and this brave band fought their way through, driving off these assailants. Pressing on, they defeated all attempts to take the emperor. Along with other survivors of the column they were able to fight their way through and eventually win through to the end of the pass and the table land beyond. Here they were able to join the vanguard division, which had set up a camp. The vanguard’s commanders had long been anxious for the emperor’s safety, and now were overjoyed to see Manuel, won free of the trap.

Not all were so lucky. John Kantakouzenos, commander of the “Left Wing”, also found himself alone and beset by many Turkish opponents. Fighting bravely, he looked about for any who would rally to his side. But it was every man for himself, and he was cut down in sight of the emperor he served as Manuel and his band passed by.

As night fell, Andronikos Kontostephanos appeared with the rear guard, which had an easier time of it late in the day. Many of the Turkomen that had earlier blocked the pass or were posted in the heights above had filled their saddlebags with loot and scattered back into the hills, satisfied with a good day’s work.

The Battle of Myriocephalon was over.


Casualties in the battle are unknown, but were likely not less than 25% for the Romans. The Turks too had suffered, but nothing like that which had befell Manuel’s forces. Advancing on to the siege of Iconium was impossible, as all of the siege equipment had been lost with the baggage train in the defile. All that was left to the Romans was to find a way to extricate what was left of their army.

After some skirmishing outside the Roman camp the following day, the Sultan sent a representative to negotiate a truce. An agreement was reached, and the Roman army withdrew, with promises to turn over certain border fortresses in return for safe conduct unmolested back to Roman territory. However, as bands of Turkish ghazis (likely beyond the control of any authority, even the Sultan’s) harassed their withdrawal, ultimately the Romans reneged on their agreement to hand over the places in question. Hostilities broke out again, with the Turks raiding into Roman territory. However, this time it was they who fell into an ambush as they raided up the Meander River at Hyelion and Leimocheir, some scant repayment for Myriocephalon.

But the disaster in the pass signaled the end of Roman expansion and recovery in Anatolia. Never again would the Turkish grip on these lost territories be threatened. The loss of prestige was perhaps greater than the loss in manpower (much of which was provided by mercenaries, and could be replaced whenever coin was available). It has been said that Manuel began the battle perceived in the west as the mighty “Emperor of the Romans”. After Myriocephalon, he (and his successors) were merely seen as the “King of the Greeks”.

As with much of his ambitious foreign policy ventures, Manuel here overreached. Byzantium was no longer the powerful Eastern Roman Empire of even a century before, and had neither the financial or military resources to dominate its neighbors and regain its lost territories. His expansionist policies were ultimately unsustainable, and only served to make enemies on nearly every front.

Manuel sowed the wind. It was left to his successors to reap the whirlwind. In the next generation, the Venetians and Franks, alienated and turned against their former allies, sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.



  1. Manuel responded to repeated offenses against Byzantine interests by the ruthless and unscrupulous Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch.
  2. This represents perhaps the maximum number available for campaigns, and many field armies were considerably smaller.
  3. Niketas Choniates, History
  4. Niketas Choniatēs describes these as “Cumans from beyond the Danube”, but were almost certainly Magyar horsemen from Hungary. See Niketas, 178
  5. Birkenmeier, John W. (2002), The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081–1180; p. 131
  6. Niketas, 180
  7.  The life of an emperor, much of whose time was occupied with sedentary ceremonial duties and consuming rich foods cannot have been conducive to good health.  Though by all accounts a vigorous and active man, at 58 years of age Manuel’s lifestyle might at this most inopportune time have caught up with him.
  8. Niketas, 181
  9. Ibid, 180
  10. Ibid, 181. The Wikipedia entry on the battle states that the first division was composed of infantry, but based upon Niketas’ chronicle there is no reason to believe this to be the case. All the divisions except the baggage train were likely mixed infantry and cavalry, light and heavy.
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Niketas, 181, 182
  16. Ibid, 183
  17. Idid, 184
  18. Ibid, 183
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid 184
  21. Ibid 185
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“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!”
– Bettany Hughes, writer/historian.

(For Part Five, go here)


Signed in 421, the Peace of Nicias ended the first half of the Peloponnesian War. It came none too soon for the belligerents. Both sides were exhausted, and the leaders of the “war-faction” in each state, Brasidas and Cleon the Tanner, had fallen at Amphipolis.

For the Spartans, the war had seen the legend of her soldier’s invincibility in battle shaken; with Spartans surrendering (!) at Sphacteria Island, and Athens putting the 292 prisoners on display. Brasidas had partially retrieved Sparta’s reputation and fortunes with his brilliantly-conceived northern campaign (see Part 5). But this hero’s death at Amphipolis had taken the heart out of the city and deprived it of its greatest commander.

Athens had suffered as well in this decade of war against the Spartans and their allies. In 424, an Athenian attempt to knock Thebes out of the war ended in disastrous defeat at the Battle of Delium. This, combined with the effect Brasidas’ northern campaign and the loss of Amphipolis had on their position in the strategically vital northern Aegean, made peace as desirable for them as well. With the death of the bellicose demagogue Cleon the Tanner (also killed at Amphipolis) the way was cleared politically in Athens for a treaty to be signed.

Negotiated primarily by the Spartan king Pleistoanax and the Athenian statesman Nicias, under its terms both parties were prohibited from taking up arms against the other (or the other’s allies). Both would return nearly everything conquered during the war; though Athens would retain possession of the captured Megaran port of Nisaea; and Thebes would keep captured Plataea. Sparta offered to return Amphipolis, with the proviso that the inhabitants could leave the city with their possessions if they didn’t wish to be under Athenian rule. Additionally, the Athenians were prohibited from making war upon the Greek cities of the Chalcidice, freed by Brasidas, or forcing these to become “allies” of their empire; provided these cities of the former Delian League (an alliance of Aegean cities formed to help in the old war against Persia; which had morphed, under Pericles, into an Athenian Empire) paid the League tribute established in the time of Aristides. Of course, Amphipolis was an exception to this clause, being returned to Athens; with-or-without the inhabitants!

Perhaps most importantly for Sparta, Athens agreed to release the Spartans taken at Sphacteria. These had languished in humiliating captivity since 424, and included 120 true Spartiates.

Astonishing to Sparta’s anti-Athenian allies (particularly Corinth and Thebes), the treaty returned Sparta and Athens to the status of allies they had enjoyed during the Persian War. Each now pledged to come to the other’s aid if attacked.

Seventeen representatives from each side swore an oath to uphold the treaty, which was meant to last for fifty years. Among the Spartan representatives was Tellis, father of the fallen hero Brasidas.


The terms of the treaty pleased few of Sparta’s allies, who had gone to war with the intent of humbling Athens and breaking her power. The Athenian Empire was still strong, and left in possession of territories wanted by some of these enemies. Disillusioned with Sparta’s ineffectual conduct of the war and willingness to make peace (and alliance) without victory, many of these now turned away from Spartan leadership.

Corinth, Megara, Thebes, and Elis refused to accept the terms of the peace.

Sphacteria had shown that Sparta was not invincible. This emboldened these disaffected Peloponnesian states to align against her. Many of these were democratic and unsympathetic with Sparta’s traditional oligarchic stance. Others saw a chance, after a century of Spartan dominance, to assert their independence.


At the instigation of Corinth, these disaffected Spartan allied cities turned to Argos, Sparta’s traditional rival in the Peloponnese for leadership.

The Argives had always hated Sparta, and had suffered crushing defeat against them during the reign of Cleomenes I, before the Persian War. Since then Argos had remained quite, nursing her grudges and biding her time. She had remained neutral during the war, and thus her economy and strength were still sound.

The Argives now formed a secret anti-Spartan alliance of their own. Along with Corinth, the democratic states of Mantinea and Elis joined their fellow democratic Argos. Too weak to openly oppose both Sparta and Athens, this alliance remained secret for the time being.

Perhaps these anti-Spartan allies knew that the Peace of Nicias would never last. That once each had licked their wounds and recovered their strength, these two diametrically opposed cities would once again be at odds.

Athens was the first to violate the terms of the peace. Refusing to withdraw from its fortified base at Pylos, which they had garrisoned with liberated and armed helots; the Athenians demanded that Sparta bring her disaffected allies to heal, forcing them to accept peace with Athens. This could mean making war on its own allies, effectively destroying the Spartan Alliance. This Sparta would not do. To make matters worse from the Athenian perspective, the ephors renewed the alliance with Thebes; despite that city still being (technically) at war with Athens.

In Athens, the elder statesman Nicias found himself defending the peace that bore his name; as the volatile Athenians turned against it. Their expectations of a fully-restored Athenian Empire were unfulfilled. In the north, the people of Amphipolis refused to hand over their city as the Peace of Nicias outlined; and the other cities of the Chalcidice, freed by Brasidas, were still in arms against Athens. Under the terms of the peace, the Theban refusal to make peace should have evoked a Spartan attack; instead, Sparta renewed her Theban alliance. Anti-Spartan sentiment was again on the rise.

Nicias and “peace party” found themselves up against the machinations of a rising young star in the city’s politics: Alcibiades. A relative and former ward of the late Pericles, Alcibiades had wealth, wit, good looks and boundless ambition. He was also completely lacking in scruples, and was willing to do anything to advance his own fortunes.

1459018.jpg Statue of Alcibiades, by Thaddäus Ignatius Wiskotschill

Wrapping himself in the mantle of Pericles, Alcibiades became the leader of the aggressive imperialist and anti-Spartan faction in the city. In this capacity, Alcibiades now secretly entered into negotiations with Argos and her allies; all the while sabotaging every effort to repair relations between Sparta and his city.

In 420, Athens formed a defensive alliance with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis[1]. Though Corinth had instigated the anti-Spartan coalition, that city now hedged its bets and remained aloof. That same year the Eleans, on whose territory was Olympia, prevented the Spartans from taking part in the Olympic Games.

War broke out in 418 between Sparta and the Argive allies. In Athens, Alciabiades was not elected to the Board of Generals (the Athenian version of a General Staff); and as such had no official role. However, he was in Argos agitating the allies against Sparta.

By choosing to join the Peloponnesian democrats against its ally, Sparta, Athens decided to all but tear-up the Peace of Nicias. But the Athenians were unwilling to openly declare hostilities again, so soon after the ending the war. Therefore, they held back from committing their Army to this anti-Spartan alliance; only sending that token force of “volunteers”: enough to enrage Sparta, but not enough to ensure its defeat. Had the full Athenian army marched beside the Argives and other allies, the decision in the coming battle might have gone very differently.

1459001.jpg Two views of the Mantinea battlefield 1459002.jpg

The Argive army gathered at Mantinea, an excellent site for a hoplite battle; one that would see three such clashes over the next two centuries of Greek history. This would be the first such on this plain. The Argive and allied army included a token force (1,000 hoplites and 300 cavalry) of Athenian “volunteers”; this despite the fact that Athens and Sparta were not only at peace, but technically allied. With her leadership in the Peloponnese on the verge of collapse, the Spartan army marched north under King Agis II to meet the challenge.

Agis arrived with a Spartan army estimated at 18,000 strong[2]; the core of which was some 3,600 Spartiates (the “Equals”). Seldom did the full muster of Spartiates ever take the field together. Normal practice was for the Spartans to send no more than a few hundred of their excellent hoplites as a leavening, to bolster the fighting power and provide leadership for an expeditionary force of their allies. It is a sign of how dire were the circumstances that the full Spartan muster took the field for this campaign.

The Spartans found the Argive forces, slightly smaller in number, holding a very strong position on high ground. Advancing against them, the opposing phalanxes were within “a stone’s throw or javelin’s cast” of each other when a veteran Spartan called out to the King, warning him that he was making a mistake in engaging the enemy in such a strong position.[3] Seeing his error, Agis halted the advance, and the Spartans pulled back unmolested.

Now the problem was to draw the Argives down from their position, to the plain below. To achieve this goal, the Spartans began devastating the territory around Mantinea; even diverting a local river in order to flood the Mantinean plain! With their fields in danger of destruction, the Mantineans convinced the rest to come down and face the Spartans on the flat ground. Marching onto the plain, the Argives and their allies deployed for battle.

Perhaps expecting to catch the allies unready, the Spartan forces, coming out of a wood, were (according to Thucydides, a contemporary) astonished to find the enemy drawn up in line; standing to arms on the plain and prepared for battle. Thucydides states that never were the Spartans more “shocked” than they were at this sight[4]. Despite this, the perfectly drilled Spartan hoplites quickly and efficiently deployed from column into line of battle.

1459012 Spartan regiment (lochoi) deploying from column into phalanx.

The Spartan regiments (lochoi) took the center of the line; with the Hippias (the Spartan Royal Guard), in the center of these around King Agis. The Tegean and Arcadian allies were placed to their right. On the Spartan’s left were the Neodamodes and other veterans of Brasidas’ northern campaign (the “Brasidians“); and beyond these, holding the extreme left end of the line, as was customary, were the 600 Skiritae, elite light troops from the northern mountains of Laconia. In all, there were some 12,000 Peloponnesian hoplites, about 5,000 light-armed infantry, and about 500 cavalry on either flank.[5]

Across the field the allied army numbered approximately 11-12,000 hoplites, nearly as many as the Spartans. Opposite the Skiritae were 2,000 skilled Mantinean hoplites on the allied right. Beside these were an equal number of Arcadians. In the center of the allied line were the Argives. The right-most unit of these were 1,000 elite Argive “Epelektoi” (Picked) hoplites. The remaining Argive hoplites (5,000?) along with the Eleans and the contingents of other, smaller cities also occupied the center, staring across the field at the red-cloaked Spartans. The Argive left was held by the 1,000 Athenian hoplites and their small contingent of cavalry.


Agis noted that the enemy line extended beyond his left flank. Attempting to correct this, he ordered the Skiritae and the “Brasidans” to extend to their left, while ordering two units from his right to march behind the line and take station in the gap this move created in the Spartan line. Both commanders refused the order, the enemy being too close to contact (both were subsequently “cashiered” and exiled for disobeying orders). Because of this, a dangerous gap developed in the Spartan line.

The allied line advanced rapidly, shouting encouragements to each other and singing their battle paeans. Here, as at Pylos, they would teach the Spartans another lesson!

The Spartans, by contrast, tramped forward in eerie silence, to the trilling of pipes.

The Mantineans, Arcadians and the Argive “Epelektoi”, some of the best hoplite warriors in the world, smashed into the light-armed Skiritai and the Brasidians. Isolated from the Spartan center, these bore the full brunt of the enemy’s main effort. Unable to withstand this attack, they fell back toward the Spartan baggage camp.

The situation played out very differently in the center and on the Argive left. Here the scarlet-clad Spartans advanced with lowered spears and locked shields. The sight was one that instilled terror into the hearts of their opponents. Despite their loss of prestige following Sphacteria, the Spartans were still the most feared infantry in the world!


Without waiting to meet their onset, the Argives and their allies on the left broke ranks and ran; all their brash talk of a second Pylos forgotten! Thucydides states that they trampled each other in their haste to escape the Spartan spears. Not all were so lucky: the Athenian commander, Laches, was stabbed in the back while attempting to flee.

Agis, keeping his troops in hand, now wheeled his line hard to the left, cutting down fleeing Argives as they did. A lifetime of military drill and practice now showed its worth, as with machine-like precision the Spartan center and right turned 90 degrees to face the hitherto victorious Argive right-wing.

There the Mantineans, Arcadians and the Argive elites were fighting over the Spartan baggage, where they killed many of the older men left as guards. No doubt celebrating what seemed a striking victory, they had no idea their doom was wheeling toward them.


The Spartan line bore down upon their right flank, the shieldless side of any hoplite formation. The effect was devastating, the Spartan phalanx grinding into the flank of the allies and cutting them to bloody pieces. The Spartans showed no mercy, except for the Argive “Epelektoi”; who were allowed, for political reasons, to escape the battlefield. Sons of the aristocracy, these would return home to Argos to oppose the anti-Spartan democratic government.


Mantinea was a complete triumph for the Spartans. In one day’s fighting, in the largest hoplite battle of the Peloponnesian War, they had regained their lost reputation as Greece’s invincible warriors. Never again, in the course of the conflict, would any Greek army challenge them on land.

1459017.jpg Spartan hoplites resting after the battle. (Note the discarded Mantinean shield at their feet.)


[1] Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 BC, P 322

[2] Hanson, A War Like No Other, P.155

[3] Thucydides, Book V, 65

[4] Thucydides, Book V, 66

[5] Hanson, A War Like No Other, P. 155

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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 Thirteenth-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!

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


In the last few parts of our discussion we have attempted to create a hypothetical reconstruction of Arthur’s rise to power. In part we have based our hypothesis upon clues found in the narrative of Nennius, the 9th century Welsh monk chronicler. In the 56th chapter of his Historia Brittonum Nennius speaks of twelve battles fought and won by Arthur; whom he calls dux bellorum (war leader or warlord) of the Celtic British:

At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.

We have thus far constructed a working theory as to the locations and details of the first five of Nennius’ 12 battles of Arthur. We are now prepared to continue with Nennius’ sixth and seventh battle.

Following his victories in Lindsey over the Angles, Arthur and his combrogi likely returned to Eboracum (York), to feast and celebrate their victory over the Angles. Perhaps while here word came of rebellion in the north.


Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain or petty-king in north Strathclyde, had rebelled against Arthur’s authority. Caw is variously described in the Vitae Gildae as rex Scotiae (king of Scotia), rex Albaniae (king of Albania/Alba), and rex Pictorum (king of the Picts). It is unlikely he was the High King of the Picts of Alba/Albaniae (i.e., the Highlands). But he likely had Scot or Pictish roots. His power-base seems to have been in Renfrewshire west of Glasgow, with his principal stronghold on Mons Bannauc in the modern Cathkin Hills. Caw was the father of twenty-four sons, “strong warriors”, including the pirate Huail/Hueil ap Caw; and (more notably) the chronicler of this period in Britain, St. Gildas (“the Monk”). His daughter, Cwyllog, may have been the wife of Medrawt/Mordred, Arthur’s ultimate enemy and killer.[1]

Pictish warrior by deWitteillustration

Pictish Warrior (artist Matthew de Witte)

It has been noted previously that Gildas’ omission of Arthur from his history may stem from a personal antipathy toward Arthur, based upon Arthur’s execution of Gildas’ brother Hueil (see Ch. 9). But the bad-blood between them might have been a family feud dating back at least to 508 (approximately eight years before Gildas’ birth), if not even earlier.

In Welsh traditions Hueil is both an enemy of Arthur’s and a former member of his personal retinue. In the early Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen, Hueil (alongside his many brothers) is a knight of Arthur’s court and is described as having “never submitted to a lord’s hand.” The text refers to an incident in which Hueil stabbed Arthur’s nephew (or son?), Gwydre ap Llwydeu[2]. Another tale tells of a duel between the two men over a woman. In any case, there is thus reason to surmise that Hueil may have been one of Arthur’s early combrogi. (If Arthur was indeed raised or sired in the north, Hueil may have been a boyhood acquaintance and an early recruit to Arthur’s mounted comitatus.) But enmity grew between them, and Hueil likely returned to his father’s stronghold, nursing his grudges and carrying out a vendetta against his former lord.

Perhaps Caw and Hueil now took advantage of Arthur’s occupation in the Angle campaign to openly renounce Arthur’s authority as Dux Bellorum. In this they were but an example of the fierce resentment to any central authority ingrained in the character of these Celtic princes. It was a disunity that would, in the century following Arthur’s death, lead to the slow death of Celtic Britain. Alternately, Arthur may have taken this opportunity to pay back Hueil for the past wrongs noted above.

This leads us to Nennius’ sixth battle, on “the river called Bassas”. This battle of Nennius’ narrative has always perplexed Arthurian scholars attempting to place each of these battles geographically. A good case has been made, based upon etymology, for Cambuslang, now a suburb of Glasgow[3]. It is speculated that the River Calder which runs beside the town may have been called the Bassas in the early Dark Ages.

1477042.jpgThere are no details, but it seems Arthur was victorious and Caw’s power was broken. Caw abdicated his throne (if indeed he ever sat one) and spent the remainder of his life exiled to north Wales at Twrcelyn in Anglesey. Here he became an associate and patron of St. Cadog[4]; perhaps helping to found a monastery there. He lived there with some of his family at least till 515 (since Gildas wasn’t born till 516). We know that Hueil was executed by Arthur though this may have happened either directly after Arthur’s victory at the Bassas or sometime later. Tradition has it that he was executed for “piracy”; so he may have taken to the sea and continued his feud till eventually taken and put to death.

Nennius tells us that the “seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”. This location can almost certainly be identified as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland: Coed Celyddon. In Arthur’s day, this forest covered much of modern Scotland, extending as far south perhaps as the Solway. It is most likely that Arthur’s seventh battle was in that portion of the forest northeast of Glasgow, on the edge of the Pictish Highlands.

We don’t know who Arthur’s enemies in this battle were, but Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies them as the remnants of the forces Arthur broke at the Battle of Lincoln. (Geoffrey’s condensed version of Nennius’ four battles along the River Dubglas, identified in the last chapter as Arthur’s “Lindsey Campaign” near Lincoln). Geoffrey states that this force was a coalition of Saxons, Scots and Picts: a highly unlikely scenario. The Saxon lands were in the south of Britain, so at best Geoffrey must be confusing them with an early Angle settlement. As the Scots and Picts were inveterate enemies, battling each other for control of Alba, an alliance of these two peoples is also problematic.

What is far more likely to have occurred is that a force of Picts marched south from the Highlands, perhaps coming to the aid of the now defeated Caw (who, again, is described as of Pictish descent). Having dealt with Caw, Arthur turns now upon the Picts.

Pictish warriors

As with the earlier battle on the Bassas against Caw, there is no record of how this battle unfolded (just as, for that matter, there are no descriptions for the myriad of small skirmishes and battles that happened throughout this, the darkest night of the growing Dark Ages). But based on similar situations of which we have record, from very nearly this period, a conjectural battle can be described:

Moving quickly, Arthur rides north. He and his troops (the mounted combrogi of his comitatus, and perhaps local troops supplied by loyal warlords or petty-kings, more fearful of the presence of Pictish warriors on their soil than they are of Arthur’s assumption of authority) take up positions just inside the Caledonian Forest; hidden in ambush astride the Pict’s route of march.

The compact Pictish schiltrons stream down the forested path, long spears resting on their shoulders, in loose marching order. Battle is unexpected: news of Caw’s defeat has yet to reach them, nor of Arthur’s near presence. They are mostly young men, eager to experience war in all its violent splendor! Leading them is a leavening of older veteran warriors. These latter are more bored than ebullient as they trod sore-footed down the forest path. All are anticipating several days of easy looting, before their British foes can muster a force to oppose them.

Suddenly from either side in the brooding forest comes the shrill screeching of war-horns. The Pictish warriors freeze in their tracks, weapons tightly gripped. From out of the dark foliage to either side, javelins and arrows come flying, landing among the massed Highland warriors, sowing confusion and death. British war cries now sound all around, and from out of the trees Arthur and his warriors charge into the disordered and rapidly-panicking Picts.

1477050.jpgMen courageous and steadfast when prepared to face danger can lose their manhood when met with an threat unexpected. Though brave, the Picts are nevertheless unnerved by this abrupt onslaught. They put up a brief and frantic resistance before breaking and routing away, fleeing back the way they have come.

The Battle of Celidon Coit becomes a rout. The Picts flee up the road or scatter into the wood, Arthur’s horseman close on their heels, no doubt baying like hounds to the hunt. Veterans or chiefs who attempt to halt and rally their young warriors are cut down. The pursuit goes on for miles, the Combrogi spurring their horses bloody-sided till fading light makes further pursuit impossible. Thus have all Great Captains turned tactical success into decisive victory.


The Caledonian Forest has been turned into an abattoir, decorated with northern dead. The Picts have been taught a bloody lesson. They will not pose a major threat again in Arthur’s lifetime.


Arthur may have spent the rest of the year 509-510 AD in the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”), strengthening or creating relationships with the leading Gwyr y Gogledd (“Men of the North”). As has been previously suggested, Arthur may have had roots in the north. Perhaps this stay may have served as a chance to renew old friendships and visit with kin, as well as bring order to a troubled area.

The rulers here are the Coelings, kings and petty-kings descended from Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”), perhaps the last to hold the title Dux Britanniarum. This Roman officer commanded the northern garrisons of Roman Britain, and following the Roman withdrawal in the early 5th century Coel may have used his authority to create a power-base in the north. Upon his death, his many sons divided up the north between them.[5]

His descendants now ruled many of the petty-kingships; as well as the four paramount northern kingdoms: Elmet, perhaps ruled by Arthur’s ally in the Angle Campaign, Gurgust Lethum (though this ruler’s life is alternatively dated in the previous generation), with its capital at Eboracum (York). Rheged, ruled from Cair Ligualid (Carlisle) by King Merchiaun “the Lean”. Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde), whose stronghold was at Alt Clut, the Brythonic name for Dumbarton Rock, and ruled since 500 AD by Dyfnwal son of Ceretic.

1477268.jpgAlt Clut (Dumbarton Rock), ancient stronghold of Strathclyde kings

It bears notice that all of these kings came to power at about the same time as Arthur: it was a new age, with new rulers. If Arthur did indeed spend part or all of his childhood in the north, then some or all of these men may have been childhood acquaintances or even friends. Among them, Arthur was at the least primus inter pares, “first among equals”. As the hitherto successful Dux Bellorum, conqueror of the Angles and scourge of the Picts, his prestige outshone them all. He was well on the way to becoming High King, as had his predecessor, Ambrosius Aurelianus.

The strongest of the Hen Ogledd kingdoms, by far, was Gododdin. This was home to the warlike Votadini tribe, and its chief strongholds were on the formidable Traprain Law (Haddington, East Lothian), and at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). The volcanic plug known as Castle Rock, upon which currently sits Edinburgh Castle, has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. The post-Roman and Medieval fortress there was called “Maiden Castle” (or, “the Castell of Maidens”). It has legendary connection with Arthur’s fey sister, Morgan. Also located here, about a mile to the east of Edinburgh Castle, is the hill known (intriguingly) as Arthur’s Seat. An ancient Iron Age hill-fort occupied this imposing place, and there is evidence it was reoccupied in Arthur’s time.

Could this have been occupied during this time by Arthur and his entourage, as he “held court” in the north, entertained by friends and kin while he arranged affairs?


Arthur’s Seat, Edinburg, Scotland

The dynastic picture in Gododdin at this period is far from clear. In 475 AD, a Cyleddon “Wledic” ruled there; though the extent of his authority is unknown. In or around 500 AD, no less than three rulers are listed as alternate kings: Cyngar (or Cincar) son of Gorbon; his brother, Bran; and one Dyfnwal. This last name, the same as the neighboring ruler of Strathclyde, has led some scholars to suggest that civil-strife (perhaps dynastic civil war between the brothers, Cyngar and Bran) in Gododdin led to intervention by King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, who may have seized all or a portion of Gododdin.

At about this time, another ruler appears on the scene, here on the edge of the Hen Ogledd, one whose arrival would set in motion the future creation of the Kingdom of Scotland.

Fergus Mór mac Eirc, semi-legendary progenitor of the kings of Scotland, came from Dál Riata in northern Ireland; with his brothers, Loarn & Oengus and a band of followers. Landing on the Argyll Peninsula, Fergus establishing the infant Scottish Kingdom of Dal Riada. From their prime stronghold at the Iron Age hill-fort at Dunadd, the Scots would contend with the Picts for supremacy in the north in the coming centuries, eventually forming the Kingdom of Scotland.

1477271.jpgDunadd, power-center of the Dal Riata Scots Kings

While there is no evidence one-way-or-another, it is tempting to consider the possibility that while settling affairs in the north, Arthur met with Fergus. Perhaps on neutral ground, hosted by Dyfnwal at his stronghold on Dumbarton Rock. Considering the pains to which the British went throughout the 5th and 6th century to prevent Irish settlement in Britain, such a new colony so close to Dumbarton, power-center of the Strathclyde British, must have been countenanced by the Strathclyde ruler, or else been crushed. A friendly Irish/Scotti kingdom might have been considered a clever foil to Pictish power in the north; something to keep the Picts occupied and in check.

Good relations between the Dal Riada Scots and the Strathclyde British continued for generations. Wither accidental, or encouraged (even planned?) by Arthur, the Scots did prove a thorn in the side of Pictish Alba, and as such a benefit to the British kingdoms of Hen Ogledd.

Something has to be said about another, perhaps mythical, ruler of the north: King Lot of Lothian.

In the Arthurian Romances, Lot is husband to Arthur’s other sister, Morgause. He is alternately an enemy or subject of Arthur. His sons Gawain, Agravain, Gaharis, Gareth, and Modred are all Knights of the Round Table. The first and fourth are heroes; the last is the traitor who brings about his uncle’s ultimate destruction.

Lothian, an alternate (and later) name for most of the territory of Gododdin, is said by some to derive from Lot’s name (this is linguistically questionable). Could Lot have been a powerful sub-king in Gododdin during this troubled time in the kingdom? If so, perhaps his stronghold was at Traprain Law (below), a hill-fort in modern East Lothian; a very strong place indeed.


With recent civil/dynastic strife between rival claimants, could Arthur have used his time in the north to impose order, placing his sister’s husband in charge of the northern Gododdin? Castleden[6] makes the argument that Dyfnwal of Strathclyde was placed over southern Gododdin. Could this too have been Arthur’s handiwork?

In spring of 511 AD Arthur’s work in the north is complete, and satisfactory. The Picts are humbled, with an Irish/Scottish king friendly to the British in place in Argyll on their western flank. The too-powerful Gododdin are now broke-up into two more compliant realms: the northern portion ruled by his brother-in-law, the southern under the hand of his ally (and perhaps childhood friend), Dyfnwal of Strathclyde. And with the Angles of Lindsey broken, York/Elmet is secure as well (as any kingdom can be in this age of blood and iron).

News arrives that Arthur is once again required in the south. Cerdic the Saxon has crawled out from the coastal swamps of Hamptonshire with a warband, and is causing the local petty-king more trouble than he can easily deal with. Arthur departs the north no doubt with a light heart: the sun is at his back, all is as he wills it, and he rides forth once more to future glories!


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.


  1. Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008
  2. Ashley, Mike: The Mammoth Book of King Arthur
  3. Matthews and Stewart: Warriors of Arthur, p.104. Blandford Press Ltd, 1987
  4. St. Cadoc’s  hagiography is of importance in that it is one of seven saints’ lives that mention Arthur, independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
  5. Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P 54. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
  6. Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 102. Routledge, NY (2000).


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

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

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


Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna attempted to establish a benevolent dictatorship in Mexico in the 1430s. Originally a believer in republican governance, he came to believe that his fellow Mexicans were unready for self-government. After putting down revolts and consolidating his rule over Mexico, he turned his attention to the break-away province of Texas.

Following Santa Anna’s seizure of power and revocation of the Mexican Constitution of 1824 early in 1835, the English-Speaking (mostly American) majority of Texans (called “Texians“, to distinguish them from the Spanish-Speaking Tejanos) revolted in the face of his dictatorial policies. These American immigrants, originally invited by previous governments to settle in Texas as a counter to Comanche raids, were now the majority of the population; and brought with them the American distaste for tyranny. Expelling what few Mexican garrisons existed in the territory, the Texians began drafting a constitution for the new nation they envisioned, and began building an army in preparation of Mexican reprisals.

Near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio) was an 18th century Spanish Mission. Abandoned at the end of that century, it was briefly turned into a garrison for Spanish troops, who gave it the name, the “Alamo“. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the Alamo was held by a Mexican garrison till this force, commanded by Santa Anna’s own brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cos, was expelled by Texians under the famous knife-fighter James “Jim” Bowie, a land-owning resident of San Antonio, in December of 1835.

1492616.jpgBowie was at first ordered by the new Texian Army commander, Sam Houston, to dismantle the fort and retrieve the 19 cannons of various caliber left behind by the Mexicans. Instead, upon finding he had insufficient transport to effectively evacuate the guns, Bowie decided to improve the defenses (with the aid of engineer Green B. Jameson) and hold the Alamo. Bowie felt strongly that the Alamo could be a bastion defending Texas from Santa Anna’s coming attack. In a letter to Henry Smith, a leader of the Texas War or Independence Party, Bowie argued that “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar (San Antonio) out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march towards the Sabine.”

Bowie shared command of the mixed “regulars” and “volunteers” with Colonel James C. Neill. Neill sent to Houston and the provisional government for supplies and additional men. But at this stage both the Texas government and Houston’s incipient army were in disarray, and no help was sent to the Alamo.


James “Jim” Bowie, famous knife-fighter and local landowner, had ties to the Mexican “Tejano” community around San Antonio-Bexar; having married a Mexican bride and settled in San Antonio. Ordered by Houston to remove the garrison and cannons from the Alamo, Bowie instead chose to strengthen the defenses and hold the Alamo against Santa Anna. (Below) Bowie’s famous knife, the prototype for all future “Bowie Knives”.


On February 3, 1836 Lt. Colonel William Barret Travis arrived at the Alamo with 18 cavalrymen of the new Texan army to take over as Neill’s second-in-command. Travis was a young lawyer from Alabama, recently come to Texas to build a new life. Five days after Travis’ arrival another group of volunteers, these from Tennessee, also arrived at the Alamo. They were led the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman, David (“Davy”) Crockett. A man who was already a legend in his own time, Crockett was almost as famous for his skills as a story-teller as he was for his legendary abilities as a sharpshooter.

When on February 11th Neill had to absent himself from the Alamo because of family matters, he left Travis, the highest-ranking “Regular” army officer in command of the garrison. Bowie, who led a band of 30 “Volunteers”, would act as his co-commander. Bowie and Travis detested each other, and as they prepared the fort against eventual attack, tension between the two men was high. But all supposed that Santa Anna would not attempt a winter campaign, and long before he arrived in the spring Neill would have returned, likely with reinforcements.


William Barret Travis was an Alabama lawyer who like many Americans came to Texas to make his fortune. Commissioned as an officer in the new Texas army, he was appointed co-commander at the Alamo alongside Jim Bowie; till Bowie fell ill the second day of the siege. After this Travis was in sole command. 

However, Santa Anna, who fancied himself as “the Napoleon of the West”, was doing what all great generals attempt: the unexpected. In the dead of winter he marched north toward Texas, at the head of an army of 6,019 soldiers. This force had set out in December, even as Bowie was capturing the Alamo in the first place. Their progress was slow as the army worked its way over difficult and sometimes frozen terrain; encumbered by artillery, supply wagons, and numerous camp followers. Santa Anna had spent 1835 putting down rebellions and fighting battles in Mexico against well-armed local militias; and the core of his army was comprised of loyal veterans. However, many of the soldiers were newly recruited replacements, and their officers used the march north to train their men.

Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande on February 12th, undetected by the Texian defenders. There he linked up with his vanguard brigade commanded by Generals Cos (lately expelled from the Alamo) and Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma; composed of 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. On February 21 his vanguard was only 25 miles from San Antonio-Béxar. Still blissfully unaware of the approaching danger, the majority of the Alamo garrison joined the town’s residents at a fiesta. Learning of the planned celebration, Santa Anna ordered Sesma’s brigade to immediately seize the virtually undefended Alamo. The history of the Texas revolt would have been very different, and the defense of the Alamo stillborn, had not a sudden rain turned the roads into a muddy morass, preventing the night raid.

On the following morning, February 23, the skies now clear beneath a brilliant rising sun, Travis’ scouts reported the approach of Sesma’s 1,500 strong advance guard, just 1.5 miles outside of town.


Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar on February 23, 1836; and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Alamo. Here his entry is depicted in the very accurate 2004 film. 

While the surprised and unprepared Texians rushed into the Alamo, the Mexican army occupied San Antonio-Bexar. A parlay soon followed, in which Bowie sent his engineer, Green B. Jameson, to ask terms. According to Mexican sources, he was informed by Santa Anna’s aid, José Bartres, that El Presidente demanded unconditional surrender (“on discretion”):

… according to the order of His Excellency… the Mexican army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, than to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations.

This was in keeping with Santa Anna and the Mexican government’s official position toward the Texian rebels: In late December 1835, the Mexican Congress passed the Tornel Decree, declaring foreigners fighting in Texas against Mexico “pirates”, to be treated with summary justice. Santa Anna had in the previous year shown scant clemency to rebels in Mexico, and his reputation preceded him. Even had the Texian garrison within the Alamo been so inclined, they were under no illusions that they could expect mercy at the hands of Santa Anna.

Not that they were so inclined:

To this demand for unconditional surrender, Travis and Bowie answered with a blast from the fort’s 18 pounder cannon, signaling their defiance.

Clip from the 1960 film, “The Alamo”, in which Travis (herein portrayed by Lawrence Harvey) answers Santa Anna’s demand for unconditional surrender with a cannon shot.

In response, Santa Anna ordered the raising of a blood-red flag over the highest tower in the town, and the playing of the Degüello; a bugle call used by Spanish armies, signaling “no quarter” to their opponent. The name “Degüello” derives from the Spanish verb for the act of throat-slitting; and so the tune was also known as the “cut throat” song!

The coming battle would be to the knives.

“The Alamo” (2004): as the Mexican play the “Deguello”, Travis (Patrick Wilson) explains its meaning to Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). 


Over the next 12 days, as the Mexican army prepared and more troops marched into their camp, the defenders of the Alamo waited. Night after the night, Santa Anna subjected them to a desultory bombardment by cannon, meant to harass and deprive the garrison of sleep. For their part, the defenders responded with occasional sallies and sniping, in which they killed small numbers of besiegers. During this time, the long rifles of the Americans (most famously Davy Crockett) proved superior in fire-fights to the aging smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets of the Mexican troops.


The Mexican soldiers at the Alamo were armed with the venerable but inaccurate Brown Bess musket; the standard weapon of the British Army from 1722-1838. Like all muskets it was a smooth-bore; out-ranged and less accurate than the American Long Rifles used by many of the Alamo defenders.

On the second day, Bowie fell ill and Travis took over effective command. That same day, a company of Mexican soldiers occupied some abandoned huts near the walls. A two hour skirmish battle erupted, in which the Texians drove the Mexicans out, and fired the huts.

On February 24 Travis sent out a dispatch informing the Texas government and Sam Houston of his situation, and pleading for reinforcements and supplies. Travis addressed this stirring missive (the most famous of several he sent before the end) “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World”; writing:

As news of the Alamo’s plight spread, Texans gathered at Gonzales preparing to go to their aid. The nearest garrison of any strength was 90 miles away at Goliad, commanded by Colonel James Fannin. The men gathering at Gonzales waited impatiently for days for Fannin to march and join them in going to Travis’ succor. Fannin finally set out on February 26 with 320 men, four cannons, and several wagons filled with much needed supplies. However, only a mile out they returned to Goliad. Why Fannin failed to move is unknown. He blamed his officers, and they his indecision. Some 32 men from those in Gonzales, tired of waiting for Fannin to act, rode to the Alamo; where, after a brief skirmish with a Mexican cavalry patrol, they arrived at the Alamo on the night of the 27th. They were greeted with joy by the beleaguered garrison.


Unbeknownst to the men in the Alamo celebrating this small reinforcement, that same day Mexican General José de Urrea had defeated Texian Colonel Frank W. Johnson in a skirmish to the east. This engagement is referred to (rather grandiosely) as the Battle of San Patricio; in which 200 Mexicans defeated a force of less than 50 Texians. On March 3, three more battalions (some 1,000 Mexican troops) marched into San Antonio in parade uniforms. These newcomers brought with them news of the engagement at San Patricio, and the Mexicans (now at approximately 3,100 men) celebrated this minor victory throughout the night.

(Hearing this celebration, along with the parading soldiers that day in their splendid dress uniforms, led the defenders of the Alamo to believe this all heralded the arrival of Santa Anna; who had actually been in San Antonio since the first day. This mistaken impression, of Santa Anna arriving just days before the end with rest of his army, entered the vast store of myth and legend surrounding the Alamo, and was perpetuated in the 1960 film.)

Travis sent out Crockett and two others  to try and find Fannin’s much awaited reinforcements. Instead, they returned in the early hours of the 4th with some 50 men they had found camped 20 miles away, who’d left Fannin and were riding to the Alamo. This would be the last reinforcement of the garrison (others attempting to reach the Alamo were intercepted and driven off by Mexican patrols); which now numbered between 185 and 260 men.

1492660 David “Davy” Crockett was already a living legend when he arrived at the Alamo with a party of Tennessee volunteers. A former Congressman and famed sharp-shooter, he and his Tennesseans held the wooden palisade along the south side of the Alamo. Despite being the lowest and weakest section of the defenses, Crockett and his back-woods markesmen defended their wall longer than any others.

That same night Santa Anna presented his plan of assault to his senior staff. Several of his battalion commanders argued for a delay till March 7, to allow the Mexican heavy artillery (12 pounder “Napoleon Guns”) to arrive; at which time they could stand off and pound the fortifications into ruin. But an impatient Santa Anna had no wish for a “bloodless victory”, but instead demanded the fortress be stormed with bayonet. The date for the assault was set for the pre-dawn hours of March 6.

The plan of attack was for the assault force, in 4 columns of 1,800 men, to storm the fortress from as many directions. General Cos would lead one column consisting of the Aldama Battalion and three companies of the San Luis Battalion against the northwest corner of the Alamo. Colonel Francisco Duque would lead the Toluca Battalion and the remaining rifle companies of the San Luis Bn against the north wall; where a repaired breach seemed to present a weakness in the defenses. Colonel José María Romero commanded the third column, comprised of the rifle companies from the Matamoros and Jiménez Battalions, whose target was the east wall. The fourth column, to attack the low wooden parapet by the Chapel on the south side, was composed of the light companies of the Matamoros, Jiménez, and San Luis Battalions, and commanded by Colonel Juan Morales. Santa Anna himself would command the reserve force, 400 elite men of the grenadier companies from each of the battalions (and, presumably, the men of his elite Presidential Guard).

On March 5, according to the legend (disputed by many historians, but verified by one of the lone survivors, Susanna Dickenson, wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson) Travis held a meeting for all of the garrison. He informed them that help was unlikely to arrive in time to save them. Travis gave each the choice to leave the fortress by whatever means they chose (either throwing themselves on the mercy of Santa Anna or attempting to infiltrate  through the Mexican lines in the darkness); or to stay and likely die fighting. The legend has Travis drawing a line in the sand with his saber, asking those willing to die for the Texian cause to cross and stand alongside him. Alternatively, Susannah Dickinson recalled Travis announcing that any men who wished to escape should let it be known and step out of ranks. In either case, only one (according to legend, and that disputed) chose to leave the Alamo (a man named Moses Rose).

Clip from the 2004 film, “The Alamo”; in which Travis (Patrick Wilson) gives the garrison the option to leave or stay and die.


That night (5 March) the Mexican artillery was silent for the first time in 12 nights, and the sleep-deprived garrison in the Alamo slept soundly. Outside, at midnight, Santa Anna’s army began assembling for the pre-dawn assault. At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of March 6, the attacking troops advanced silently; their bayonets and the brass-work on their shakos glittered coldly in the frosty night. Finding a trio of advance pickets outside the walls fast asleep, these three men were quietly dispatched, giving the defenders no alarm. It was not until the heads of the Mexican columns were within musket range that the defenders were awakened by the (imprudent) shouts of “Viva Santa Anna!” and bugle calls that now sounded from all around as the storm columns surged toward the walls.

Leaping to their posts, the Texians began pouring fire into the dense masses outside their walls. The columns wavered under the withering fire, and whole files were mowed down by grape shot from the fort’s many guns. According to one Mexican officer, José Enrique de la Peña, “a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs (light infantry) from (Duque’s) Toluca battalion”, assaulting the north wall. Colonel Duque himself was struck a mortal wound in the hip, and fell beneath the feet of and was trampled by his onrushing soldiers. His command was taken over by Santa Anna’s aide-de-camp, General Manuel Fernández Castrillón.

The fire was so intense from the west wall and from the eastern side that the columns attacking those places veered away, moving to join instead the attack on the weak north wall. Here they followed the gallant example of General Juan Amador (allegedly the first to scale the 12′ wall) and carried the position, hoisting each other up and onto the parapet.

All along the walls, Texians leaned forward to fire into the ranks below. However, exposing themselves in the process, many were killed by fire from the massed musket fire of the attacking forces. Travis himself, on the gun platform defending the beleaguered north wall, leaned over to discharge a shotgun into the faces of attackers attepting to climb the walls. He was fatally shot in the process (though one version has him surviving long enough to kill a Mexican officer in a sword duel before succumbing to his wound).

1492690As the north wall was overrun, the Mexicans turned the captured Texian guns upon the defenders of the west and east walls; helping to clear these as the assault force advanced into the fortress. Along the south wall, where Crockett and his sharp-shooting back-woods Tennesseans held off all attack, the cry went up “Behind us! Their over the wall!!” Turning their guns about, they attempted to stem the tide. But this diversion of their fire only allowed Morales’ men, hitherto stalled, to at last breakthrough on the southwest corner of the fort and also gain entrance.

Crockett and others attempted to defend a hastily erected barricade in front of the chapel. But Morales’ men turned the captured 18 pounder on the southwest corner against them, blasting their barricade into splinters. The storm columns pressed forward with bayonet.  Crockett’s Tennesseans battled them in a desperate close-quarters struggle, using their rifles as clubs, or fighting with knives or hatchets. But they were unable to stem the glittering tide of steel, and fell back fighting towards the church.

Bowie was killed laying in his sick bed. A popular account grew up of how he died fighting, discharging a brace of pistols into the first Mexicans entering his room; then killing two more with his famous “Bowie Knife” before being bayoneted.

1492697.jpgOutside the fort, some survivors were intercepted by Mexican cavalry, attempting to flee into the darkness. Others were captured, to be taken before Santa Anna for final justice. Those laying on the ground or on the walls were shot or bayoneted repeatedly by Mexican soldiers, whose blood-lust was aroused by the terror of the assault.

Scenes from The Alamo (2004); including some (but not all) of the final storming.

By dawn the fighting at Alamo was over. All but a handful of the defenders were dead. One story, related by Mexican sources, states that Crockett was among the handful of prisoners; that he was spared by General Castrillón when his final band of Texians was overwhelmed in the chapel. Castrillón asked Santa Anna to pardon them and give them their lives, but Santa Anna refused. Crockett and the other prisoners were executed on the spot.

Only Susanna Dickenson, a handful of Tejano women from San Antonia, two negro slaves, and her daughter were allowed by Santa Anna to go free. He showed some gallantry, offering even to adopt her daughter and raise her in Mexico City. Susanna refused, and as she and the others departed the Alamo, Santa Anna paraded his army, ordering the troops to render arms and salute them as they passed.

The exact casualty count among Santa Anna’s assault force is disputed. But Mexican sources put it at over 300, and others as high as twice that number: full a third of the the assault force that attempted to storm the fortress in the pre-dawn darkness.


When news reached Houston of the Alamo’s fate, he ordered an immediate retreat eastward, away from Santa Anna’s victorious army. With him went the government of the new Texan state and many hundreds of Texian civilians, fearful of Mexican reprisals. As he marched eastward, he used his time to build an army. The words, “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry of all.

Pursued by Santa Anna, Houston finally stopped and turned on the Mexicans on April 21st at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 18 minutes, the Mexican camp was overrun and their army shattered. Santa Anna was captured the following day, dressed as a common soldier.

The “Napoleon of the West” had met his Waterloo.



The Alamo today
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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day. This multi-part series is neither an attempt to glorify or to condemn the Waffen SS; but to examine the military record of this elite organization as objectively as possible, and to present the facts in a balanced fashion.

(To read the previous installment, go here. To read Part One, go here.)

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

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

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

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

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

1597492.jpg A widely circulated propaganda postcard, showing Waffen-SS soldiers carrying a wounded comrade during actions in Belgium, 1940. This image shows the Waffen soldiers carrying a variety of weapons, including the obsolete MP-34.

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

1415638 SS Panzer Korps commander, Paul “Papa” Hausser (left) lost an eye in combat during Operation Barbarossa.

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

1415645.jpg Waffen-SS Tiger tank in action. In 1942, each division of the SS-Panzer Korps received a Heavy Company of Tigers.

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

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


On January 2, 1943, the Soviets forces in south Russia/Ukraine launched Operation Star and Operation Gallop, which over the next month broke German defenses. On 2 February, German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad. This freed-up large numbers of Soviet troops to join the offensive. The resulting drive shattered the German line, annihilating the Italian 8th Army in the process and surrounding German forces between the Don and Donets.

1415664.jpg Red Army troops on the attack. Here a T-34 Medium Tank leads an attack, supported by infantry.

In response, Hitler reorganized the German forces in south Russia. He created Army Group South out of the shattered remnants of the old Army Group A, B and Don, placing all under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most talented strategist.

1415666.jpg Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, Germany’s premiere strategist. Portrait by Virgilio Bettinaglio

Meanwhile, Hausser and the SS-Panzer Korp were sent into this cauldron of destruction to reinforce Manstein’s forces. Arriving on the front in late January 1943, the SS-Panzer Korps was thrown into the line defending Kharkov. They found themselves facing a deluge of hundreds of Soviet tanks of Mobile Group Popov, a Soviet Army sized formation spearheading the Soviet advance.

During the second week of February 1943, the LSSAH’s 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, and SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche‘s 1st SS Panzer Regiment fought a bitter delaying action near the town of Merefa, halting a major Soviet attack. LSSAH and its sister divisions in the SS-Panzer Korps conducted a series of fierce defensive battles over the next weeks, gradually being pushed back into the city of Kharkov itself.

1415673.jpg SS-Totenkopf soldiers, Kharkov 1943

While the Waffen divisions succeeded in throwing back every Soviet attack, their position became desperate as the Soviets maneuvered around the city, threatening to surround the SS force. On February 15, Hausser disobeyed Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs and withdrew his Corps from the city towards Krasnograd. Over the next week, the SS Panzer Korps fought a series or running battles against the advancing Soviet armored forces. In the process the SS formations showed great skill in the art of maneuver, destroying several Russian divisions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, annihilating Soviet Mobile Group Popov.

1415710.jpg Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers riding in Sd.Kfz. 251 half-tracks, advancing along the snow-covered tracks.

Meanwhile to their south the Soviet spearheads had driven deep into German-held territory, driving west across the wide steppes of the Ukraine. At one point, Soviet tanks were within gun range of Hitler himself, in conference with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. The German Führer asked whose tanks these were approaching, and was shocked when told they were Soviet!

Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein Hitler meeting with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. It was during this meeting that Hitler came close to being fired upon by Soviet tanks. This convinced the shaken Hitler that the crises in south Russia required extraordinary measures. Manstein was given permission to act without (the usual) interference by Hitler and his staff.

However great their gains, the Soviet forces had become overextended. To their south flank, Manstein prepared a large mobile force with which to counter-attack the southern flank of the Soviet bulge in the German lines. These forces included the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, and the SS Panzer Korps which was placed under the operational control of 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Herman Hoth.

Manstein’s Donets Campaign began on 19 February and lasted through 15 March, 1943. It caught the advancing Soviet forces “flat-footed”, with the German panzer forces rolling north and destroying Soviet formations piecemeal in a series of meeting engagements. Soviet spearheads in the west were cut off from their supply sources and eventually destroyed. In this offensive, the SS-Panzer Korps played a key role; advancing from the north and linking up with 4th Panzer Army thrusting from the south and “bagging” and destroying large and powerful Soviet armored forces.

The Russian formations suffered from exhaustion after weeks of continuous combat, having penetrated (in some cases) 500 hundred miles; and having outrun their supplies were short on fuel and ammunition. In the rapidly changing conditions of rolling tank battles on the steppes, the Russians were severely handicapped by a lack of radios in each tank; and by a rigid operational doctrine that did not encourage initiative among junior officers, or straying from original battle plans by senior officers, no matter how much the situation changed on the ground. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, and particularly that of the Waffen-SS which fully encouraged individual initiative and aggressiveness, and an informality between superiors and their subordinates. This is a feature found in all “Special Operations” units in modern history but is seldom found in “conventional” forces. (Time and again, Waffen-SS commanders defied orders and took what actions they saw necessary. It is telling that Hausser could defy Hitler himself at Kharkov and be spared even a reprimand. In the Red Army, attempt at such action would have been cut-short by a Kommissar’s bullet to the head!)

The SS-Panzer Korps prepares to advance and recapture Kharkov

By 5 March the SS-Panzer Korps had reached the outskirts of Kharkov again. Ordered to encircle the city to the north, Hausser instead chose to attack the city on 11 March, disobeying orders from both Hoth and Manstein. For the SS it was now a matter of pride that they recapture the city they had been forced to abandon just weeks earlier. A bloody and decisive struggle ensued, the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. LSSAH attacked from north, Das Reich from the west, and Totenkopf formed a protective screen along the north and northwestern flanks.

1415827Waffen panzergrenadiers advancing through the streets of Kharkov

For this operation LSSAH divided into flexible Kampfgruppe (“Battle Groups”), commanded by intrepid young commanders Fritz Witt, Theodor ‘Teddy’ Wisch, Max Wünsche, Joachim Peiper, and Kurt Meyer; under overall command of division commander Sepp Dietrich. The attacks were fiercely resisted by the Red Army. But the SS formations conducted a skilled and determined assault, sometimes fighting house-to-house, block by stubborn block. During the battle, Myer’s Kampfgruppe succeeded in capturing the entire command staff of a Soviet division. However, their rapid advance outpaced other supporting units, and Myer’s group found itself surrounded in the middle of the city. Despite fierce attack by much larger Soviet forces bent on annihilating his surrounded command, Meyer’s grenadiers held on until relieved by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe; Meyer’s small-unit leadership greatly contributing to his force’s success. By 14 March, Kharkov had fallen again and the German battle flag once more waved over Dzerzhinsky Square.

Waffen-SS “Young Guns”: (top row, left-to-right) Joachim Peiper, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer. Bottom row, left-to-right: Theodor Wisch and Max Wünsche

The spring thaw (rasputitsa) and the resulting muddy morass brought Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt none too soon for the Soviets. Army Group South’s Donets Campaign had cost the Red Army some 52 divisions, over 70,000–80,000 casualties, and these from their most mobile forces. The Germans had destroyed the Soviets west of the Donets, restoring the line and retaking Kharkov and Belgorod (captured on March 18). It was the last great victory of German arms in the eastern front.

Russland, Herausziehen eines AutosThe spring thaw turned the dirt roads of Russia into a muddy morass, bringing Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt, and setting the stage for the Battle of Kursk.

For the SS-Panzer Korps the cost had been high. Leibstandarte alone had suffered some 4,500 casualties, and losses within the other two SS divisions were as proportionately high. The founding commander of SS-Totenkopf, Theodor Eicke, had been killed on the 26 February while conducting an aerial reconnaissance over the battlefield, when his single-engine Fieseler Storch was shot down. (Eicke was succeeded by the very capable Hermann Priess.)

As was often the case during the war, the Waffen was again involved with an atrocity: after the recapture of Kharkov soldiers from LSSAH allegedly murdered several hundred wounded Soviet soldiers in the city’s military hospital. Such abominable actions blackened the name of what was an otherwise superb and admirable fighting force.


Standartenfuhrer Fritz Witt, commanding officer of 1st SS PG Regiment, conferring with Hauptsturmfuhrer Max Wünsche, commander of 1st Battalion/1st SS Panzer Regiment during the fighting around Kharkov.

The mud had brought the advance to a halt short of Kursk, and left a westward bulge remaining in German lines. Manstein wished to continue the northward drive and eliminate this dangerous salient as soon as the ground hardened.

Hitler agreed, but decided to make this operation the main German summer offensive on the Eastern Front. To this end plans were drawn-up at OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces”) for a grand offensive, a pincer move from the north and the south of this salient.

The stage was set for the Battle of Kursk.



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On February 13, 1258 a Mongol army entered the city of Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.  There followed a week of rapine and destruction, as the city was sacked. The Khan ordered the death of the last Caliph, Al-Musta’sim. It is an event that rocked the Muslim world, the repercussions of which are felt to this day.

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

The sack of Baghdad culminated the initial phase of the Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East; begun with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in 1221. A project abandoned after Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson took up the task, supported by perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled: by order of his brother, Great Khan Möngke, 20% of the empire’s fighting men were allocated to the task. Not less than 100,000 warriors formed Hulago’s horde, and likely many more than that.

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

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

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

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

Baghdad at its height in the 11th century had claim to being one of (if not the) largest cities in the world; boasting a population of between 1.2 million and 2 million souls. The city had a uniquely Persian design and flavor: unlike in Greek and Roman engineering tradition, where cites are laid out in a rectangular grid, the Persians built cities in a circular pattern, all streets radiating out from a central hub. At the center of Baghdad was the Golden Gate Palace; residence of the caliph and center of his administration. Surmounting the building was a 39 meter-high green dome; one of the largest in the world in its days (18 meters higher than Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock; though fully 15 meters less than the lofty dome of Hagia Sophia.

In the face of imminent Mongol invasion, the foolish Caliph Al-Musta’sim took no steps to call upon allies, raise additional troops, or strengthen his capital. Hulago’s massive army reached Baghdad on January 29th, defeating the inadequate Abbasid army outside the walls (breaking dykes to flood their position, drowning many of the Caliph’s army in the process). The siege was brief by the standards of the time. The Mongols wheeled up siege engines and catapults; and Baghdad was subjected to the “endless storm”, in which warriors attacked day-and-night, in shifts, till the walls were carried.

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By February 5 the Mongols controlled a stretch of the wall. The Caliph attempted too late to negotiate, but was refused. On February 10th the city surrendered. Three days later, the Mongols entered the city, and Baghdad was subject to a week of sack and pillage. Much of the burgeoning population was put to the sword, the gutters and canals of the city running red. Before they were done, the Mongols destroyed large sections of the city; gratuitously ruining canals and dykes forming the city’s irrigation system and water supply. Baghdad would never recover its former glory.

The last Caliph was put to death shortly after. Because many of Hulagu’s soldiers were themselves Muslims; and because to them it was sacrilege to shed the Caliph’s “holy” blood, Hulago had the Caliph wrapped in a Persian rug and thrown into the street. The Khan’s horsemen then rode over the rug, crushing the Caliph to pulp within.

An alternative story, relayed by Marco Polo, is that Hulagu Khan found the caliph’s great storeroom filled with treasure; which could have been spent on the defense of his realm. The Khan had Al-Musta’sim locked him in his treasure room without food or water, telling him “eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it.”

The fall of the Abbassid Calphate ended any central authority in Islam (though later Muslim leaders from time-to-time have claimed such authority; most notably the Ottoman Turkish Sultans). To this day, no such universally recognized central authority exists. In dealing with the Islamic world, we face this problem daily; as every Imam has the right to issue fatwas as his own conscience dictates, without reference or recourse to a higher authority.

It bears remembering that the stated goal of ISIS and Al Qaeda is to recreate the lost Caliphate; that jihad against the West can continue once again under a united Islamic world.


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In October of 1806, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decisively defeated the Prussians in a lightning campaign that culminated at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. This campaign was in response to Prussia joining Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain in the Fourth Coalition against France. This coalition was a response to Napoleon’s victory over Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which resulted in Austria withdrawing from the war.

Following Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon overran much of Prussia in a blitzkrieg-like advance, destroying the remnants of the Prussian army at the Battles of Prenzlau and Lübeck. On the 25th of October, the French captured Berlin.


With the Prussian forces scattered, only Russia still had an army in the field to oppose him. Napoleon continued the campaign; marching the Grande Armee (75,000 strong) into East Prussia. Here he sought to bring the Russians, under General Leonty Leontyevich, Count von Bennigsen, to decisive battle.

As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed, each Corps its own independent army. The overall movements of the Grande Armee were well coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by the talented Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier (the man who translated Napoleon’s strategic vision into coherent orders). With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this over and bag Bennigsen’s Russians.


Galloping couriers were sent to all Corps commanders, ordering them to concentrate against and envelop the Russians. However, one such courier in-route to Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps was captured by Russian Cossacks. Thus, warned that he was thrusting his head into a noose, Bennigsen began withdrawing away from the oncoming French. Napoleon pursued, and the Russians were brought to heal on the 7th of February, 1807, at the village of Eylau.

Napoleon had only four Corps on hand: Marshal Augereau’s VII Corps, Soult’s IV Corps (the men who had delivered the “one sharp blow” at Austerlitz, storming the Pratzen Heights), Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, and his own matchless Imperial Guard; in all, about 45,000 men and 200 guns. Bennigsen, on the other hand, had approximately 67,000 troops and 460 guns, with a further 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm von L’Estocq nearby. But Ney’s VI Corps was approaching the Russians from the northwest, and Davout’s III Corps was coming from the south; a total of 30,000 additional troops. Napoleon decided to pin the Russians in place with the forces he had on hand, allowing these late arriving corps to envelope Bennigsen’s army from both flanks. In essence, his plan was what General George Patton would later call “holding (the enemy) by the nose,” so that he could “kick them in the pants”.

1471413.jpgOpposing commanders: Count Von Bennigsen (L), commanded the Russian forces opposing the French at Eylau. Following the battle, he was decorated by the Czar, the only general thus far able to avoid defeat at the hands of “The Ogre”. Napoleon (R) in 1807 was a general in the full flower of his genius. At Eylau he suffered his first reverse.

Advanced Russian and French elements skirmished all day on the 7th over Eylau village, at the center of the battlefield. As darkness fell, the Russians withdrew back across a shallow valley and prepared for a general engagement the following morning. Both armies spent a miserable night on the frozen ground, snow flurries gusting sporadically. As they lay shivering in the night, Napoleon’s soldiers couldn’t know how the snow would be a source of both heartbreak and salvation for many of them on the following day.


With intermittent snow flurries threatening a coming blizzard, the battle began in earnest at 8AM on February 8 with a massive artillery duel. After 30 minutes, Napoleon ordered Marshal Soult’s Corp, on the French center-left, to advance and  began to “pin” the Russian right, under General Tutchkov. But Soult’s men were soon halted by intense fire, and fell back to their starting position around Windmill Hill, north of Eylau village.

Meanwhile, to the south, the vanguard of Marshal Davout’s III Corps, an infantry division commanded by General Louis Friant (the officer who would later command the Grenadiers of the Old Guard at Waterloo), began to arrive opposite the Russian left. To stop their progress, Bennigsen launched a cavalry attack from his left.

At 10:30AM, to relieve the pressure on Davout’s oncoming reinforcements and pin the Russian left in place, Napoleon ordered the 15,000 men of Marshal Augereau’s VII Corp, supported by St. Hilaire’s division of Soult’s Corps, to advance. Marching down into the shallow valley, the French soldiers were quickly lost from sight as the storm gusted up to blizzard level.


In what today we would call a “whiteout” Augereau’s men lost their way. Instead of moving against the Russian left they drifted northward toward the Russian center. This is easy to explain: most men are right-handed, and tend to stride more strongly with their right (dominant) leg. Thus it is easy to “drift” off course to one’s left, a common problem with hikers lost in the wilderness. At Eylau, in the blinding snow, the 15,000-strong ranks of Augereau’s Corps marched blindly into the “kill box” of the 70 massed guns of the Russian grand battery, arrayed across the center of Bennigsen’s line. Worse, the Russian batteries were still engaged in a fierce artillery duel against French guns around Eylau. Cannon balls flew back-and-forth across the valley. As they pushed up the slopes of the Russian side of the valley, Augereau’s doomed men drifted into this maelstrom of iron.

Caught in the crossfire, the carnage was sudden and total. Grapeshot from the Russian batteries raked their front, while round-shot from their own guns tore into their ranks from the rear. In minutes, Augereau’s VII Corps virtually ceased to exist. Of the two divisions totaling 15,000 men which comprised the Corps, only 3,000 returned to their starting position at the French side of the valley; amounting to a staggering 80% casualty rate. Of their senior officers, both of the two division commanders were mortally wounded, with Marshal Augereau himself wounded, though not fatally.

Before they could regain their own lines, worse was yet in store for Augereau’s shattered battalions. The Russians now launched an all out counter-attack with infantry and cavalry. The survivors of the VII Corps understandably broke and began fleeting back to their own side of the valley. All might have been cut down as they fled, but for the heroic stand of one regiment, the 14th Line; which instead formed square on a small hillock. As the pursuing Russian cavalry thundered down upon them, they held fast, repulsing the enemy and giving time for their fleeing comrades to escape.

Watching from Napoleon’s command post on the plateau above was Marcellin de Marbot , a gallant young officer of hussars serving that day as an Aide-de-Camp to the Emperor.  In his memoirs, which make for fascinating and rousing reading[1], Marbot recounts the events that followed:

The snow having stopped for a moment, one could see this gallant regiment almost completely surrounded by the enemy, waving its Eagle aloft to show that it still stood fast and needed help. The Emperor, touched by the devotion to duty of these brave men, decided to attempt their rescue; he told Marshal Augereau to send an officer with orders to them to quit the hillock, form a small square and withdraw towards us; while a brigade of cavalry would go to meet them and second their efforts.

…it was almost impossible to carry out the Emperor’s command because a swarm of Cossacks separated us from the 14th. It was clear that any officer sent towards the unfortunate regiment would be killed or captured before he got there. Nevertheless, an order is an order; and the Marshal had to obey.

The first two messengers sent to carry the Emperor’s instructions gave their lives in the attempt. Marbot himself was next selected to make a third attempt.

Well-mounted on his swift Arab mare, Lisset, Marbot raced down the slope and through the screen of swarming Cossacks:

…flying rather than galloping, rushed through space, leaping over the piled up bodies of men and horses, over ditches and the broken mountings of guns, as well as the half-extinguished bivouac fires. Thousands of Cossacks were scattered about the plain. The first ones to see me behaved like hunters who, having raised a hare, mark its presence by shouts of “Yours! Yours!” But none of them tried to stop me, firstly because I was going so fast, and also perhaps because each one thought I would be caught by his comrades who were further on. In this way I escaped from them all and arrived at the 14th without either I or my excellent mare having suffered a scratch.

Reaching the surrounded regiment, its position protected by a rampart of Russian dead, Marbot gave the battalion commander the Emperor’s orders. Down to a mere handful, and with battalions of Russian foot in line now bearing down upon them, their officer replied:

“I can see no way of saving the regiment. Return to the Emperor and give him the farewells of the 14e Régiment de Ligne which has faithfully carried out his orders, and take him the Eagle he gave which we can no longer defend; it would be too terrible to see it fall into enemy hands during our last moments.”

1471416.jpgTaking the Regimental Eagle, Marbot attempted to return to the French lines; only to have his horse collapse under him, the fall knocking him unconscious. Astonishingly, he awoke four hours later, wounded and stripped naked. (Marbot continued fighting on throughout Napoleon’s campaigns, eventually commanding a brigade of light horse at Waterloo, where he was wounded.)

Meanwhile, the Russian foot swarmed over the 14th, which fought on to the death. Moving onward across the valley floor, the Russian masses, bayonets glittering coldly, pushed on up the slopes toward Eylau and Napoleon’s command post.

For the first time since Marengo in 1800, Napoleon looked defeat in the eye.

With his center in danger of collapsing and the two flanking Corps of Marshals Ney and Davout still hours away from effective commitment, Napoleon’s battle plan appeared to be collapsing into ruin. His center  had ceased to exist; and nothing stood between the oncoming Russians and his own command post but his own Imperial Guards and Murat’s Cavalry Reserve.

1471418.jpgAt 11 am the Russian vanguard pushed into Eylau and to within 100 yards of Napoleon himself. Two battalions of the Imperial Guard rushed forward, battling the Russian grenadiers in the alleys and streets of the village. By 1130, the “grognards[2] had pushed the Russian vanguard out of the village. But the bulk of the Russian center was still advancing in rank-after-rank, unstoppably toward Napoleon’s position.

Napoleon now summoned Marshal Murat, his brother-in-law and the dashing commander of his Reserve Cavalry Corps. Pointing to the oncoming Russians, he asked, “Will you let those men devour us”?

“Will you let those men devour us??”

Murat immediately whirled about, galloping off to join his Corps, waiting to the rear. He hastily gathered them together, marshaling the regiments into one massive column. Each squadron drew-up behind the other, every trooper knee-to-knee. 10,700 superbly mounted cavalry: 4 regiments of armored cuirassiers to the front, followed by regiments of dragoons, hussars, and chasseurs.


Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, 10,700 strong, charges forward in a massive column, into the oncoming Russian infantry. Led by the iron-clad cuirassiers, they his the enemy like a battering ram!


As they formed up, Russian musket and cannon shot whistled among them. Seeing some of his men flinching, Colonel Louis Lepic of the Grenadiers à Cheval (Horse Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, known in the French army as “The Gods” on account of their lofty demeanor) called out with icy contempt: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!”


“The Gods”: the Grenadiers à Cheval (heavy cavalry) of the Imperial Guard. These were held in reserve, and charged to support the safe withdrawal of Murat’s column.

At 11:45, wielding only his riding-whip, Murat’s led his regiments forward, a massive battering ram of men and horses. Walk turned into trot, trot to canter, canter broke into furious gallop!

Cresting the edge of the plateau on the French side of the valley, the hitherto triumphant Russian infantry were greeted by the thunder of 42,800 hooves as a torrent of French cavalry bore down upon them. The cuirassiers, at the head of the column, smashed into the staggering Russian regiments. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard so eloquently observed, “the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane”!


Murat charges at the head of the lead squadrons of cuirassiers, armed only with his riding crop!

Unchecked, the French cavalry swept into the valley, cutting down the fleeing survivors and scattering the prowling Cossacks like chaff before a hurricane. Breaking into two columns, one part wheeled to the right, smashing into and routing the Russian cavalry harassing Friant’s advancing vanguard, before rejoining their comrades. The main thrust followed Murat up the slope to the Russian side of the valley. Bursting out of the blinding snow, they overran the Russian artillery batteries that had so punished Augereau’s Corps. Sabering the hapless gunners and spiking their guns, Murat’s cavaliers exacted a bloody vengeance!

1471429.jpgGalloping onward, the cavalry hit the unprepared ranks of infantry that comprised the Russian second line. As Marbot describes, “the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian center, upon which it charged with the sabre, and threw it into complete disorder.” Here, the swirling snow and poor visibility that had caused Augereau so much mischief worked in Murat’s favor. Many Russian regiments were surprised as the French appeared out of the blizzard, and were ridden down before they could form squares. In other cases, hastily forming squares were shattered before they could set themselves to repel the charge.

Murat’s cavalry now found itself in the heart of the Russian army. While they had torn through the first two lines, they were now in hazardous position: between the reforming survivors of their charge behind, and Bennigsen’s final reserves of cavalry and infantry to their front. These latter now began firing upon them with musketry and cannon. Murat’s horsemen were in an untenable position, with their path of retreat perilous.

Perhaps sensing their predicament, Napoleon committed his own Guard Cavalry under Marshal Bessières, to cover their withdraw.

Led by Lepic’s magnificent Grenadiers à Cheval, visually striking in their tall bearskin shakos, and followed by the Emperor’s Guard Light Cavalry, the  Chasseurs à Cheval (including the squadron of Egyptian Mameluks) these 2,000 elite cavalry plunged forward into the valley.  Furiously laying about them with sword, they opened a blood-stained passage through which Murat’s weary horsemen could safely travel.

1471430As Murat’s retreating riders streamed past the Guard cavalry formed a barrier between them and the Russian reserve. The Russians advanced cautiously; and as they approached the ranks of the Guards, a Russian officer called upon them to surrender.

“Look at these faces,” the redoubtable Lepic demanded, “and see if they mean to  surrender!” With that he and his men wheeled about, and cut their way back to freedom.

Seeing the wounded Lepic after the battle, Napoleon went to him and said: “I thought you had been captured, general Lepic. I was feeling deeply sorrowful about it.” Lepic replied: “Sire, you will only ever hear of my death.” That evening, Lepic received 50,000 francs, which he immediately distributed to his men. Five days later, he would be promoted to general. (He continue to serve with gallantry throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Retiring in 1814, Lepic was awarded by the returned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII with the title of Count.)


The charge of Murat’s cavalry at Eylau was not only a seminal moment in the battle; it was the finest moment in the history of Napoleon’s cavalry.

Napoleon had good cause to be grateful to his cavalry arm, which now came indisputably into its own as a finely tempered and practically irresistible battle weapon”.[3]

What had seemed just an hour earlier to be a Russian victory had now turned back in favor of the French. Bennigsen was stunned by the sudden reversal, and never regained the initiative.

Davout and Ney’s Corps arrived and stabilized the French line. That evening, the Russians withdrew, leaving Napoleo in possession of the corpse-strewn battlefield. The French remained at Eylau for another week, burying the dead and resting after their exertions. Eylau was the costliest battle for Napoleon’s Grande Armee to that date. 10,000–15,000 French and some 15,000 Russians had fallen (another 3,000 Russians were taken prisoner).

Napoleon wrote his wife, the Empress Josephine, on February 14:

“My Dear; I am still at Eylau. The country is covered with dead and wounded. It is the worst aspect of war. It is heartbreaking and my soul is oppressed at the site of so many victims.”

Though Napoleon held the field after the battle, Eylau can only be regarded as a bloody, miserable draw. Strategically, the Emperor had failed to gain his objective, the destruction of Bennigsen’s army. That would wait till the following summer, when both armies would meet again at Friedland.


On the blood-drenched snowy field of Eylau the Russians had shown Europe that, despite the victories of Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena-Auersted Napoleon and his Grande Armee were a dangerous enemy, but not invincible.


  1. Napoleon, who read Marbot’s book in exile on St. Helena, said that it was the “best book I have read for years”, and that it had “given me the greatest amount of pleasure”. Napoleon further expressed his admiration for Marbot: “I should have liked to show Marbot my appreciation by sending him a ring. If I ever return to active life, I will have him attached to me as an aide-de-camp. He’s an educated man, who expresses himself simply, well, and correctly in writing.”
  2. Grumblers: the term used for the emperor’s veteran soldiers, and particularly the men of the Old Guard.
  3. David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), p.554)
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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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