Kuwait 1990-92 I

In the early morning hours of August 2 1990, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait in a dash to occupy the oil-rich state. The shocked residents of Kuwait were the first to find out. Jehan Rajab, a school administrator in Kuwait City, recalled: “At 6:00 A.M. on 2 August I got out of bed as usual, opened the window and looked outside. To my consternation I heard the sharp staccato sounds of gunfire, not a shot or two but sustained firing, which was being answered back. The sounds resonated off the walls of the mosque beside us and it immediately and horrifyingly became obvious what was happening. Kuwait was being invaded by Iraq.”

Telephones began to ring across the Arab capitals. King Fahd was awakened with the news at 5:00 A.M. Having just seen off the Iraqi and Kuwaiti negotiators in Jidda the night before, the Saudi king could scarcely believe that Iraqi troops had invaded Kuwait. He immediately tried to contact Saddam Hussein but could not reach him. His next call was to King Hussein of Jordan, who was known to be closest to the Iraqi leader.

An hour later, aides woke the Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak, to report that Iraqi troops had occupied the amir’s palace and key ministries in the Kuwaiti capital. The Arab leaders had to wait until mid-morning for the first explanation from Baghdad: “This is just part of Iraq returning to Iraq,” Saddam’s political envoy explained to the incredulous Arab heads of state.

The international community now faced the first crisis of the post–Cold War era. News of the invasion reached the White House at 9:00 P.M. on August 1; the Bush administration issued a robust condemnation of the Iraqi invasion that same night. The next morning it referred the matter to the UN Security Council, which swiftly passed Resolution 660, calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces.

Undaunted, Iraqi forces sped into the capital, Kuwait City, in a bid to seize Kuwait’s amir, Shaykh Jabar al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and his family. Had they successfully captured the ruling family, the Iraqis would have enjoyed far more control over the country, holding the amir and his family hostage to secure their objectives. However, the amir had been warned that the Iraqis were on the move and left with his family to take refuge in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The Kuwaiti crown prince, Shaykh Saad, returned from his Jidda meeting with the Iraqi vice president to learn that the invasion was already underway. He immediately called the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait and officially requested American military support to repel the Iraqi invasion, before joining the rest of the royal family in exile in Saudi Arabia. By these two simple acts—the request for American assistance, and taking exile—al-Sabah managed to foil Saddam’s invasion just as it was starting. Yet the Kuwaiti people would face seven months of horror before the ordeal of occupation would end.

Given the authoritarianism and political double-talk of the Ba’thist regime, the first days of the occupation seemed to emanate straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. The Iraqis preposterously claimed to have entered Kuwait on the invitation of a popular revolution to overthrow the ruling al-Sabah family. “God helped the free people from the pure ranks in Kuwait,” a communiqué issued by the Iraqi government explained. “They have swept away the old order and brought about a new order and have asked for the brotherly help of the great Iraqi people.” The Iraqi regime then installed what it called the Provisional Free Kuwait Government.

With no obvious Kuwaiti revolutionaries to support Iraq’s claims, however, Saddam Hussein’s government quickly abandoned the pretense of liberation and announced the annexation of Kuwait. On August 8 it was declared the nineteenth province of Iraq. The Iraqis went to work erasing Kuwait from the maps, and even redesignated the capital Kuwait City by a name of their own coining—Kazimah.

By October, new decrees were issued that required all Kuwaitis to change their identity papers, as well as the license plates on their cars, to standard Iraqi issue. The Iraqis tried to force compliance by denying services to Kuwaitis without Iraqi papers. Ration cards for basic foods like milk, sugar, rice, flour, and cooking oil were only issued to people with Iraqi papers. People had to present Iraqi identification to get medical service. Gas stations would only serve cars with Iraqi license plates. Yet the majority of Kuwaitis resisted these pressures and refused to take Iraqi citizenship, preferring to trade for essentials on the black market.

The invasion of Kuwait was accompanied by the wholesale looting of shops, offices, and residences by Iraqi forces, much of it for reshipment to Baghdad. Watching the truckloads of stolen goods depart for Baghdad, one Kuwaiti official questioned an Iraqi officer:

“If you are saying that this is part of Iraq, why are you taking everything away?” “Because no province can be better than the capital,” the officer replied.

The brutality of the occupation grew more intense with each passing day. Toward the end of August, Saddam Hussein appointed his notorious cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid, grimly nicknamed “Chemical Ali” for his use of gas warfare against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign, as military governor of Kuwait. “After the arrival in Kuwait of Ali Hassan Al Majeed,” Kuwait resident Jehan Rajab noted in her journal, “the reign of terror intensified, as did the rumours of possible chemical attacks.” Those who could, fled. “Escape was on everyone’s mind,” reflected Kuwaiti banker Mohammed al-Yahya. He described cars from Kuwait four abreast at the Saudi border, backed up for 30 kilometers (about 19 miles). Al-Yahya, however, chose to remain in Kuwait.

As the full repression of Iraq’s political system took root in Kuwait, its people rose up in nonviolent resistance. “Within the first week of the invasion,” Jehan Rajab wrote, “Kuwaiti women decided to demonstrate on the streets against what had happened.” The first demonstration was held on August 6, just four days after the invasion. “There was a feeling of tension and expectancy: it was almost as if the crowd subconsciously realized that even peaceful demonstrations would not be countenanced by the Iraqis.” As many as 300 people took part in the march, carrying banners, posters of the exiled amir and crown prince, and Kuwaiti flags.

The protesters combined chants in honor of Kuwait and the amir with condemnations of Saddam Hussein: “Death to Saddam” and, incongruously, “Saddam is a Zionist.” The first two demonstrations met with no Iraqi reaction, but by the third consecutive day of protests, the swelling mass came face to face with armed Iraqi soldiers who fired straight into the crowd. “Pandemonium broke out,” Rajab recorded. “Car engines roared as they tried to back wildly down the road, people screamed and the shooting continued.” Dead and wounded demonstrators littered the ground outside the police station in downtown Kuwait City. “That was the last of such marches in our district, and probably the last anywhere, for the Iraqis shot to kill or maim. Kuwaitis were beginning to understand just how ruthless the invaders were.”

Yet nonviolent resistance activities continued throughout the Iraqi occupation. The resistance movement changed tactics to avoid the risk of Iraqi gunfire. On September 2, the Kuwaitis marked the end of the first month of the occupation with a show of defiance. The plan spread by word of mouth for all residents of Kuwait City to climb to their roofs at midnight and cry out “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” At the appointed hour, thousands joined in a chorus of protest against the occupation. For Jehan Rajab, it was a shout of “defiance and fury at what had taken place—at the invasion, the brutality that had followed, the killings, and the torture centres that had been set up in various places around Kuwait.” Iraqi soldiers fired warning shots to the rooftops to silence to protest, but for one hour the people of Kuwait successfully defied the occupation. “Some say Kuwait was born anew that night,” the banker al-Yahya claimed.

Many Kuwaitis mounted armed resistance against the Iraqis as well, led by former police and soldiers who were trained in the use of firearms. They ambushed Iraqi troops and ammunition stores. The road that ran past Jehan Rajab’s school was a main thoroughfare for Iraqi military vehicles and became the focus of many resistance attacks. In late August, Rajab was shocked by an enormous explosion from the main road, followed by a random volley of rocket fire. She soon realized that the resistance had struck Iraqi ammunition trucks and detonated the ordinance they were carrying. She only dared to leave her apartment when the explosions died down. She found fire engines dousing the flaming wreckage of the Iraqi army trucks. “There was little left to be seen other than scattered and blackened skeletal remains,” she noted in her journal. “Anything human must have been blasted into infinity.”

The attacks placed the residents of her neighborhood at grave risk, both from the fallout of the attacks and from the retaliation of the Iraqis. “After this particular incident,” she noted, “in which a few houses had been hit and, worse, the Iraqis had threatened to kill everyone in the area if anything like it happened again, the Resistance tried to protect ordinary civilians by keeping its explosions further away from residential districts.”

The residents of Kuwait took Iraqi threats very seriously. The stench of death hung heavy over the occupied country. Death had literally come to the doorsteps of many Kuwaitis: one of the Iraqis’ tactics was to return a detainee to his home and gun him down before his family. To compound the horror, the authorities threatened to kill all members of the household if the body was moved. The dead were often left for two or three days in the heat of summer to serve as a grisly warning to others who dared to resist.

Yet in spite of Iraqi efforts to intimidate the Kuwaitis into submission, resistance continued unabated throughout the seven months of occupation. Jehan Rajab’s claims of “continued resistance during the long months” of the occupation are corroborated by Iraqi intelligence documents, seized after the liberation of Kuwait, that tracked resistance activities through the seven months of the occupation.

In the early days of the occupation, there was no reason to believe that Iraq would confine its ambitions to Kuwait. None of the Arab Gulf countries had sufficient military strength to repel an Iraqi invasion, and following the fall of Kuwait, both the Americans and the Saudis were concerned that Saddam Hussein might attempt to occupy nearby Saudi oil fields.

The Bush administration believed a large American presence to be the only deterrent against Saddam Hussein’s ambitions. It wanted base rights for U.S. troops in the event of military action to displace the Iraqis; however, the administration would need a formal request from the Saudi government for military support before any troops could be dispatched. King Fahd demurred, fearing a negative domestic public reaction. As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia has always been particularly uncomfortable with a non-Muslim presence on its soil. Furthermore, never having been subject to foreign imperial control, the Saudis guard their independence from the West jealously.

The prospect of American troops flooding into Saudi Arabia rallied the country’s Islamists to action. Saudi veterans of the Afghan conflict, flushed with their successes against the Soviets, were adamantly opposed to an American intervention in Kuwait. Osama bin Ladin had returned from the Afghan jihad and had been placed under house arrest by the Saudi government for his outspoken speeches, which were enjoying wide circulation by cassette recording.

When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, Bin Ladin wrote to the Saudi minister of interior, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, to suggest mobilizing the mujahidin network that he believed had been so effective in driving the Soviets from Afghanistan. “He claimed he could muster an army of 100,000 men,” recalled Abdul Bari Atwan, one of the few journalists to interview Bin Ladin in his hideout in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan. “This letter was ignored.”

On balance, the Saudis believed the Iraqis to pose the greater threat to their country’s stability, and opted for American protection in spite of domestic Saudi opposition. Bin Ladin denounced the move as a betrayal of Islam. “Bin Laden told me that the Saudi government’s decision to invite U.S. troops to defend the kingdom and liberate Kuwait was the biggest shock of his entire life,” Atwan recorded.

He could not believe that the House of Al Saud could welcome the deployment of “infidel” forces on Arabian Peninsula soil, within the proximity of the Holy Places [i.e., Mecca and Medina], for the first time since the inception of Islam. Bin Ladin also feared that by welcoming U.S. troops onto Arab land the Saudi government would be subjecting the country to foreign occupation—in an exact replay of the course of events in Afghanistan, when the Communist government in Kabul invited Russian troops into the country. Just as bin Laden had taken up arms to fight the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, he now decided to take up arms to confront U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula.

His passport confiscated by the Saudi authorities, Bin Ladin had to exploit his family’s close ties with the Saudi monarchy to secure travel documents and go into permanent exile. In 1996 he declared jihad against the United States and declared the Saudi monarchy “outside the religious community” for “acts against Islam.” Yet his alienation from the United States and the Saudi monarchy, his former allies in the Afghan jihad, dated to the events of August 1990.

The Kuwait crisis opened a new chapter of Soviet-American cooperation in international diplomacy. For the first time in its history, the Security Council was able to take decisive action without being undermined by Cold War politics. Over the four months following the swift passage of Resolution 660 on August 2, the Security Council passed a total of twelve resolutions as the crisis deepened without the risk of a veto. On August 6 it imposed trade and economic sanctions on Iraq and froze all Iraqi assets abroad (Res. 661); the UN tightened the sanction regime again on September 25 (Res. 670). On August 9 the Security Council declared the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait “null and void” (Res. 662). A number of resolutions condemned Iraqi violations of diplomatic immunity in Kuwait and upheld the rights of third-state nationals to leave Iraq and Kuwait. When on November 29 the Soviets joined with the Americans in passing Resolution 678, authorizing member states “to use all necessary means” against Iraq unless it withdrew fully from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, the Cold War in the Middle East came to a formal end.

What most surprised Arab statesmen—and the Iraqis in particular—was the Soviet position. “Many in the Arab world assumed that even if Moscow refused to help Iraq after the invasion it would at least remain neutral, and they were surprised when the Soviet Union helped the Americans to pass resolution after resolution through the UN Security Council,” Egyptian analyst Mohamed Heikal recalled. What the Arab world had not reckoned on was the weakened state of the Soviet Union and its concern to preserve good relations with Washington. Given America’s geostrategic interests in the Gulf, the Soviets knew they could either support the U.S. or confront it, but they could not deter it from action. With nothing to be gained from confrontation, the Soviets opted for cooperation with the United States and left their former Arab ally totally exposed.

The Arab world was slow to recognize the reorientation of Moscow’s policies in the post–Cold War age. As Iraq turned a deaf ear to the UN, and as the United States began to mobilize a war coalition, the Arab world still expected the Soviet Union to prevent the United States from taking military action against its ally Iraq. Instead, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze worked closely with U.S. secretary of state James Baker in drafting the very resolution that authorized military action. “To the amazement of Arab delegations,” Heikal claimed, “it became clear that Moscow would give Washington a license to act.”

Whereas the Americans and the Soviets enjoyed a moment of unprecedented cooperation over the Kuwait crisis, the Arab world had never been so fragmented. The invasion of one Arab state by another, and the threat of outside intervention, provoked deep divisions among Arab leaders.

Egypt, recently rehabilitated after a decade’s isolation for its peace treaty with Israel, took the lead in organizing an Arab response to the Kuwait crisis. President Mubarak convened a snap Arab summit, the first to be held in Cairo since the Camp David Accords, on August 10. The Iraqis and Kuwaitis faced each other for the first time since the invasion. It was a tense moment. The amir of Kuwait gave a conciliatory speech, trying to mollify the Iraqis and to advance a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. He hoped to return to where negotiations had left off in the August 1 meeting in Jidda. The Iraqis, however, took an intransigent line. When the amir finished his speech and sat down, the Iraqi delegate Taha Yassin Ramadan protested: “I don’t know on what basis the sheikh is addressing us. Kuwait does not exist any more.” The amir stormed out of the hall in protest.

 

Kuwait 1990-92 II

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For some Arab leaders, the threat of American intervention was more serious yet than the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. President Chadli Benjedid of Algeria admonished the assembly: “We have fought all our lives to get rid of imperialism and imperialist forces, but now we see that our endeavours are wasted and the Arab nation . . . is inviting foreigners to intervene.” The leaders of Libya, Sudan, Jordan, Yemen, and the PLO all shared Benjedid’s concerns, and they pressed for concerted Arab action to resolve the crisis. They hoped to negotiate an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait on terms that both sides could accept without further armed conflict or foreign intervention.

When it came to the vote on the final resolution of the Cairo summit, the divisions within the Arab world were most apparent. The resolution condemned the invasion, disavowed Iraq’s annexation, and called for an immediate withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It also endorsed Saudi Arabia’s request for Arab military support against Iraq’s threats to its territory. Mubarak curtailed the debate on the resolution after just two hours and put the text to a vote that split the Arab world into two deeply divided camps, with ten in favor and nine opposed to the final resolution. “It had taken just under two hours to create the deepest divisions the Arab world had ever seen,” Mohamed Heikal wrote. “The last slender chance for an Arab solution had been lost.”

The American government believed nothing short of a credible threat could force the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait. They had no confidence in Arab diplomacy and instead began to recruit Arab allies for military action. The first American forces had already landed in Saudi Arabia on August 8, where they were joined by Egyptian and Moroccan units. The Syrians, long-time enemies of Iraq and interested in rapprochement with the United States since the Soviets had withdrawn their support, were leaning toward joining the coalition and confirmed their participation on September 12. The other Gulf states—Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—also sided with the Saudis and offered troops and facilities to the American-led coalition.

Having split the Arab states into irreconcilable camps by his actions, Saddam Hussein next played to Arab public opinion to turn citizens against their governments in Arab states. He presented himself as a man of action who stood up to the Americans and the Israelis. He condemned the United States of double standards, of enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions on behalf of oil-rich Kuwait while turning a blind eye to Israel’s repeated violations of UN resolutions calling for withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. By his actions, Saddam Hussein put added pressure on Arab regimes by making them out to be lackeys of the Western powers who sacrificed Arab interests to preserve good relations with the United States. Hussein openly accused his fellow Arab leaders of playing by America’s rules in the new post–Cold War age. And the Arab masses rallied to the one leader who refused to bow to American pressure. Violent demonstrations broke out in Morocco, Egypt, and Syria in protest of their leaders’ decision to join the coalition. Massive rallies were held in Jordan and the Palestinian territories in support of the Iraqis—much to the chagrin of the exiled Kuwaitis, who for years had provided generous support to both the Hashemite monarchy and the PLO.

King Hussein of Jordan and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who had once enjoyed cordial relations with the Iraqi regime, now found themselves caught between Arab public opinion in support of Saddam Hussein and the international community’s demand that they side with the U.S.-led coalition against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Arafat openly threw in his lot with Saddam Hussein, whereas Jordan’s monarch limited himself to refusing to condemn the Iraqis as he pursued an increasingly unlikely “Arab solution” to the Kuwait crisis. For failing to condemn the Iraqis, King Hussein was accused by both the Bush administration and the Arab Gulf leaders of supporting the invasion of Kuwait. In the aftermath of the crisis, Jordan faced isolation from both the Arab Gulf states and the West. However, King Hussein retained the support of the Jordanian people, averting a crisis that could well have cost him his crown.

Ultimately, Saddam Hussein became a prisoner of his popularity with the Arab street. Once he had claimed the moral high ground on issues like the Israeli occupation of Palestine or withstanding American pressure, he left himself no room for compromise. Nor did arguments that generated Arab public support carry much weight with the American government. The Bush administration refused to broaden the discussion from the immediate context of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And Saddam Hussein could not afford to withdraw without some face-saving concession on the Palestine-Israel track that the Americans were unwilling to concede. Unwilling to play by America’s rules, Saddam Hussein grew increasingly fatalistic about the prospect of war.

By the time the January 15, 1991, deadline set by UN Security Council Resolution 678 had passed, the United States had mobilized a massive international coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait. American forces accounted for over two-thirds the total, with 650,000 soldiers. The Arab world contributed nearly 185,000 soldiers, with 100,000 Saudi troops reinforced by units from Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. Britain and France headed the European contribution to the coalition, though Italy and eight other European states also contributed. In all, some thirty-four countries from six continents combined to make a world war against Iraq.

The world held its breath as January 15 passed without incident. The next day, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm with a massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad and of Iraqi army positions in both Kuwait and Iraq. Saddam Hussein remained defiant, threatening his adversaries with the “mother of all battles.” The greatest uncertainty facing the coalition was if Iraq might use chemical or biological weapons, as it had done against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign. U.S. commanders hoped to beat Iraq from the air without exposing their infantry to the risk of gas warfare.

The Iraqis responded to the air war by firing long-range Scud missiles at Israel and against American positions in Saudi Arabia. Without warning, eight Scuds struck Haifa and Tel Aviv in the early morning hours of January 18, inflicting material damage but no fatalities. As sirens blared, Israeli radio stations advised citizens to don gas masks and take shelter in sealed rooms for fear that the Iraqis might deploy chemical warheads on the Scuds.

Yitzhak Shamir’s government met in emergency session to decide how to retaliate, but the Bush administration managed to persuade the Israelis to stay out of the war. Saddam Hussein clearly hoped to transform the war for Kuwait into a broader Arab-Israeli conflict that would confound the American-led coalition. Mohamed Heikal recounted how Iraq’s missile strikes against Israel confused the loyalties of Arab soldiers in the coalition. When a group of Egyptian and Syrian soldiers encamped in Saudi Arabia heard that Iraq had fired Scud missiles at Israel, they celebrated with shouts of Allahu Akbar—“only to remember an instant later that they were supposed to be against Iraq. Too late—seven Egyptians and several Syrians were disciplined.”

In all, some forty-two missiles were fired at Israel, some falling short and striking Jordan and the West Bank, others intercepted by Patriot missiles. The Scuds provoked more fear than casualties. Many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories cheered Saddam Hussein’s strikes against Israel. Frustrated by the stalemate of the Intifada and Israeli iron-fist policies to break the popular uprising, and now confined to home by a strict twenty-four-hour curfew, the Palestinians were glad to see the Israelis under attack for a change. When journalists filmed Palestinians dancing on their rooftops, cheering on the Scuds, Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh explained their reaction to a British newspaper: “If Palestinians are happy when they see a missile going from east to west, it is because, figuratively speaking, they have seen missiles going from west to east for the last 40 years.” Nusseibeh was to pay for his missile-spotting comments; a few days later he was arrested on the spurious grounds of helping the Iraqis guide their Scuds against Israeli targets, for which he was given three months in Ramle Prison.

The Iraqis fired forty-six Scuds against Saudi Arabia. Most were intercepted by Patriot missiles, though one Scud struck a warehouse in Dhahran used as a barracks for American soldiers, killing 28 and injuring over 100, the highest number of casualties sustained by American forces in any single incident in the war.

Analysis of missile wreckage reassured American commanders that the Iraqis were not using biological or chemical agents. The failure to deploy unconventional weapons emboldened coalition forces to take their war from the air to the ground, and on February 22, President George H. W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein a final ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait by noon the following day or face a ground war.

By February, Iraq and its army had suffered more than five weeks of unprecedented aerial bombardment, which dwarfed the impact of its crude Scuds on Israel and Saudi Arabia. Coalition aircraft sustained a rate of up to 1,000 sorties a day, deploying laser-guided precision weapons with high explosives and cruise missiles against Iraqi targets. Baghdad and the cities of southern Iraq endured extensive bombing raids that destroyed power stations, communications, roads and bridges, factories, and residential quarters.

Though there are no official statistics for civilian deaths in the Desert Storm Gulf War—estimates range from 5,000 to 200,000—there is no doubt that thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and wounded by the intense bombardment. In the worst single incident of the war, the U.S. Air Force dropped two 2,000-pound “smart bombs” on an air-raid shelter in the Amiriya district of Baghdad, killing over 400 civilians, most of them women and children taking refuge from the intense bombardment of the city. The Iraqi army too had suffered heavy casualties from the sustained bombardment, and morale was low by the third week of February.

Facing imminent eviction from Kuwait, the Iraqi government responded with acts of environmental warfare intended to punish Kuwait and the neighboring Gulf states. Already in late January, Iraqi forces deliberately pumped four million barrels of oil into the waters of the Persian Gulf, creating the world’s greatest oil slick, a lethal mass 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 kilometers long by 24 kilometers wide). Given the fragility of the Gulf as an ecosystem, and coming after years of damage inflicted by the Iran-Iraq War, the oil slick was an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scale.

On the eve of the ground war, the Iraqis detonated charges in 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, creating an inferno. Jehan Rajab witnessed the explosions from the roof of her home in Kuwait. “We can hear for ourselves that the Iraqis have been setting off more of the dynamite placed around the well heads,” she recorded in her journal. “The sky is a throbbing, burning red. Some of the flames rise and fall steadily, others shoot straight into the air to a great height and, I imagine, let out a mighty roar of theatrical proportions. Yet others are almost palpably alive: they spurt out in a swollen ball that pulsates steadily with evil intensity.” The next morning, the blue skies of Kuwait had been blotted out by the smoke of 700 burning oil wells. “The entire sky this morning was black. It blotted out the sun.”

The Iraqis’ environmental war added urgency to the ground campaign, which began in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 24, 1991. The ground war proved brief and brutally decisive. Coalition forces swept into Kuwait and forced a complete Iraqi withdrawal within 100 hours. The intense fighting was terrifying for the inhabitants of Kuwait and the Iraqi invaders alike. Jehan Rajab described massive explosions and heavy fires across Kuwait City, against the background noise of blazing oil wells and hundreds of aircraft crowding the skies. “What an unbelievable night!” she wrote on February 26, two days into the ground assault. “The barrage lit up the lower sky with a blinding white light and blood red flashes.”

The panicked Iraqi forces began a disorganized retreat. Soldiers sought rides on trucks and jeeps heading north to the Iraqi border, and commandeered whatever vehicles were still in running order (the Kuwaitis had sabotaged their own cars to deter theft). Many of those who found a ride out of Kuwait perished at Mutla Ridge, an exposed stretch of Highway 80 running from Kuwait north to the Iraqi border. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers in army trucks, buses, and stolen civilian vehicles caused a massive traffic jam on Highway 80. Coalition aircraft bombed the front and rear of the retreating column, trapping thousands of vehicles in between. Some 2,000 vehicles were destroyed in the ensuing carnage. It is not known how many Iraqis managed to flee their vehicles and how many were killed. Yet the images of the “Highway of Death” exposed the American-led coalition to accusations of using disproportionate force, even of war crimes. Concerned lest such atrocities jeopardize the international support they had built for their campaign, the Bush administration pressed for a complete cease-fire on February 28, bringing the Gulf War to an end.

Liberation came at a high price. The Kuwaitis expressed profound joy at the restoration of their independence, but their country had been utterly destroyed by the Iraqi invasion and the war. Hundreds of oil wells burned out of control, infrastructure had been shattered, and much of the country had to be rebuilt from scratch. The population of Kuwait was deeply traumatized by occupation and war, with thousands killed, displaced, or missing.

The wider Arab world also came out of the conflict divided and traumatized. Arab citizens strongly opposed their governments’ decision to side with the coalition and fight against a fellow Arab state. Those governments that joined the coalition ostracized those who did not. Jordan, Yemen, and the PLO were condemned for having been too supportive of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All three were heavily reliant on financial support from the Gulf, and they suffered economically for the stance they had taken. Many Arab analysts expressed deep mistrust for the United States and concerns for American intentions in the new unipolar world. America’s single-minded pursuit of a military solution, and perceived obstruction of efforts to secure a diplomatic resolution to the Gulf crisis, led many to believe that the United States used the war to establish its military presence in the Gulf and to dominate the region’s oil resources. The fact that thousands of American troops remained in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states years after the liberation of Kuwait only deepened these concerns.

Withdrawal from Kuwait brought no respite to Iraq. The Bush administration, believing it had destroyed Saddam Hussein’s prestige along with his military, encouraged the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow their dictator in early February, 1991. American radio stations broadcast messages into Iraq promising U.S. support for popular uprisings. Their message fell on receptive ears in both the Kurdish districts of northern Iraq and the Shiite regions of the south that had suffered most from Saddam Hussein’s rule. Uprisings broke out in both regions in early March 1991.

It was not the outcome the United States had hoped to achieve with its propaganda. The Americans wanted to see a military coup in Baghdad overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish and Shiite uprisings both threatened American interests. Turkey, which was an ally to the United States under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), had been combating a bitter separatist insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known by the Kurdish acronym, the PKK) since 1984 and opposed any measure that might give rise to an Iraqi Kurdish state on Turkey’s eastern frontier. The Americans for their part feared that a successful Shiite revolt would only strengthen the regional influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Americans offered no support to either the Shiites or Kurds, despite having encouraged the Iraqis to rise up. Instead, the Bush administration turned a blind eye while Saddam Hussein reassembled the remnants of his forces to suppress the rebellions with ruthless brutality. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites are believed to have been killed in the suppression of their revolt, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled Iraqi retaliation to take refuge in Turkey and Iran.

Faced with a massive humanitarian catastrophe of its own making, the United States responded by imposing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. U.S. and British aircraft patrolled the region north of the 36th Parallel to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces. Ironically, the no-fly zone created precisely the sort of autonomous Kurdish enclave that Turkey had most opposed. Elections to a regional assembly independent of Saddam Hussein’s state were held in May 1992, setting in motion the creation of what would become the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

Having failed to unseat Hussein by military means or domestic uprising, the Bush administration returned to the United Nations to secure a resolution stripping Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, establishing Iraq’s responsibility to pay wartime reparations, and reinforcing economic sanctions imposed by earlier resolutions. Saddam Hussein recognized that these measures were designed to provoke his overthrow, and he responded with defiance. He commissioned a mosaic portrait of George H. W. Bush in the entrance of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad so that all its customers would tread on the face of his adversary. In November 1992, Hussein celebrated Bush’s defeat in the presidential elections. Bush had fallen; Saddam was still in power.

The Americans could claim an outright military victory in the Gulf War, but only a partial political victory. The survival of Saddam Hussein meant Iraq remained a source of instability in a region of heightened volatility. And, much against the wishes of the Bush administration, Saddam set the agenda for regional politics after the Desert Storm Gulf War. By drawing parallels between Iraq’s position in Kuwait to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the Iraqi leader forced the international community to address some of the outstanding conflicts in the Middle East.

THE BATTLES OF PHILIPPI: OCTOBER 1-23, 42 B.C.

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The first battle of Philippi.

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By the spring of 42 B.C., Cassius had joined his army with that of Brutus in Macedonia. With twenty legions they encamped at Philippi, today’s Filippoi, stretching entrenchments between their hilltop camps, which straddled the Agnatian Way, and all the way to their supply base of Neapolis, modern Kavala, eight miles away on the coast.

In the summer, Antony and Octavian landed in Greece with their army. With Octavian ill, Antony advanced into Macedonia with nineteen legions, and in mid-September built two camps facing the Liberators’ Philippi positions. Octavian, too weak to walk, arrived ten days later, in time for his twentieth birthday. Antony built entrenchments toward the Liberators’ lines. Then, one day at the beginning of October, with the armies of both sides lined up on the plain in battle order, Antony led nine legions in an unexpected assault on the defenses below Cassius’s camp.

The 4th Legion, which had fought against Antony at Mutina, now fought for him, on his left wing. It was soon overwhelmed by Brutus’s right wing. Two of Brutus’s legions broke through and took Octavian’s camp. Octavian escaped with his life, having just previously left the camp. Antony, meanwhile, led a breakthrough on his right wing that took Cassius’s camp, forcing Cassius to flee to a hilltop. From the hill, Cassius could see nothing of the hectic battle below because it was obscured by a huge dust cloud raised by the feet of the 250,000 infantry and cavalry involved in the largest battle to that time between Roman armies. Seeing his camp taken, Cassius thought the battle lost. At Cassius’s command, his armor bearer Pindarus killed him.

In fact, the battle ended in a stalemate. Once the dust had literally cleared, Antony had taken Cassius’s camp and Brutus had Octavian’s camp. The Triumvirs had lost 16,000 men; the Liberators, 8,000. That same day, a convoy bringing 2,000 Praetorians and 2 legions, including the Martia, to Greece as reinforcements for the Triumvirs was intercepted on the Adriatic by Statius Murcus with 130 Liberator warships and was almost entirely destroyed. Of the two sides, that of the Liberators had fared the better on both land and sea. But Cassius was by far the better of the republican generals, and his loss was sorely felt by Brutus and his subordinates.

For close to three weeks both sides now faced off, with Brutus prepared to wait it out until the Triumvirs’ growing supply problems weakened them. But his officers urged him to attack, warning him that his confident troops might mutiny if he did not lead them against the enemy. Brutus gave in to his officers, and on October 21 led his legions out to do battle a second time. Octavian and Antony accepted the challenge and also drew up their legions.

Both sides charged simultaneously. The troops on Octavian’s wing eventually drove the opposing line back until it gave way. While Octavian’s troops surrounded Brutus’s camp, Antony chased Brutus and several legions to the mountains. There, Brutus and fourteen thousand surviving Liberator troops were surrounded.

After Brutus’s legionaries refused to execute his plan for a breakout, calling instead for surrender terms from Antony, Brutus said to his friends, “I am no use to my country any longer if this is the attitude even these men take.” He ordered Strato of Epirus to kill him, and as Brutus looked the other way, Strato reluctantly plunged a sword into Brutus’s side, near the left nipple, piercing his heart.

So died the leader of the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. He and Cassius were men of “unchallenged virtue,” according to Appian, although Plutarch did not believe Cassius to be Brutus’s equal “in proved virtue and honor.” In the summation of Velleius, “Cassius was the much better general, as Brutus was the better man. Of the two, I would rather have Brutus as a friend, but would stand more in fear of Cassius as an enemy.” Brutus, he said, had “kept his soul free from corruption until this day”—the Ides of March—when “the rashness of a single act” robbed him of his virtue. Mark Antony had Brutus’s body reverently cremated and his remains sent to his mother, Servilia.

A number of Caesar’s assassins fought at Philippi alongside Brutus and Cassius. Labeo also committed suicide following the defeat, as did Quintillius Varus, father of the general of the same name who would famously lose three legions to the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Other assassins, and leading supporters of the Liberators including Marcus Favonius, were taken prisoner. Most were immediately executed by Antony and Octavian, among them Quintus Hortensius; months before, after hearing of Cicero’s decapitation, Hortensius had executed Antony’s brother Gaius in reprisal.

Some Liberator supporters escaped and survived, including Cicero’s son Marcus, who, years later, was made a consul by Augustus. Of the men who had physically taken part in the assassination of Caesar, the last to die was another Cassius, Gaius Cassius Parmensis.

In the summer of 43 B.C., not long after Brutus fled Italy, his unhappy wife, Porcia, unable to bear separation from the husband she loved, had painfully committed suicide at Rome by swallowing hot coals. Junia Tertullia, Brutus’s sister and Cassius’s wife, lived at Rome for many more years, passing away in her eighties or nineties in A.D. 22. The emperor Tiberius permitted a funeral oration for her in the Forum and other honors, including a funeral procession in which the busts of twenty illustrious Romans were carried before the dead woman. But the busts of her famous husband and brother were banned. And for this very reason, said Tacitus, that day “Cassius and Brutus outshone them all, from the very fact that their likenesses were not to be seen.”

Gaius Asinius Pollio, who crossed the Rubicon at Caesar’s side and served under him faithfully until his death, also would claim that he did not approve of the Civil War. He said that he chose a side on which he had the least enemies, as an act of self-preservation, and was “forced along a path far from pleasing to myself” by Caesar.¹¹ In both these cases, the unspoken plea, the Caesar’s henchman plea, seems to have been one of “I know what Caesar did wasn’t right, but it was right for me at the time.”

Half a century after Caesar’s assassination, in August A.D. 14, his ultimate successor, Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus, also died, but from natural causes. As the day for Augustus’s funeral approached, his successor, Tiberius, issued a proclamation warning the Roman populace “not to indulge in that tumultuous enthusiasm which had distracted the funeral of the Divine Julius [Caesar].”

As leading Roman historian Tacitus, himself a closet republican, made it clear, half a century after Caesar’s murder the opinion of the people of Rome was split between those who thought his assassination justified and the assassins heroes, and those who reviled both the act and its perpetrators. Tacitus wrote, “On the day of the funeral [of Augustus], soldiers stood round as a guard, amid much ridicule from those who had either themselves witnessed or who had heard from their parents of the famous day when slavery [of Roman citizens] was still something fresh, and freedom had been resought in vain, when the slaying of Caesar, the Dictator, seemed to some the vilest, to others, the most glorious of deeds.”

There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power via a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.

Yet, despite the fact that he was a tyrant and the possibility that he might have been mentally ill, what did the murder of Caesar achieve? Cicero wrote glumly to Cassius the year following the assassination,

“We seem to be rid of nothing except our detestation for a vile being and indignation under tyranny, while the country lies still prostrate amid the troubles into which he plunged her.”

Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.

The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that in putting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be rid of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.

The Liberators were seasoned politicians, some were hardened generals, yet none properly thought through Caesar’s removal. Even if Brutus and Cassius had made more careful provision for the return to democracy, backed by the military—and it is astonishing that they thought the system would simply right itself once Caesar was removed—and even if they had murdered Antony at the same time, Caesar had shown that the legions were more powerful than the Constitution, that the man who commanded the loyalty of the legions could rule Rome.

All the evidence shows that Caesar precipitated his own violent death. Not only did he make some poorly calculated moves in the last weeks of his life, he also was a poor judge of character, trusting men who ultimately participated in his murder or who failed to warn him and allowed it to take place. Dolabella is said to have been aware of the assassination plot and done nothing to warn Caesar. It is possible that Antony likewise knew but did nothing, in hopes of himself taking power. Yet if that were the case, like Brutus and Cassius, Antony made no preparations to win the allegiance of the legions, as he must.

As Shakespeare was to write, Brutus was an honorable man. Brutus was also compassionate and well intentioned. Cassius was none of these things, and his brutal rule in the East during 43-42 B.C. suggests that had he and Brutus defeated Octavian and Antony, he may have rid himself of Brutus, taken sole power for himself, and been just as oppressive a ruler of Rome as Caesar, Antony, and Octavian.

In the end, Caesar’s murder achieved nothing more than opening the door to the next tyrant, Antony, and then the next, Octavian, and imperial rule. One hundred twenty years later, when the emperor Nero considered executing all potential claimants to his throne, Seneca dissuaded him with the reminder that a ruler can never kill his successor, for the line of successors waiting outside a tyrant’s door is endless.

The end of the Liberators spelled the end of the Republic. Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus jointly ruled the Roman Empire until 36 B.C., when Lepidus made a miscalculated grab for power. The legions deserted Lepidus, and Octavian exiled him to a remote Italian village for the rest of his days, permitting him to retain his post of pontiff maximus until he died in 13 or 12 B.C.

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Octavian and Antony fell out several years later, after Antony allied himself with Cleopatra and deserted Octavian’s sister Octavia, whom he had married to cement their alliance. They went to war in 31 B.C., with Octavian emerging victorious at the Battle of Actium. After Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C., Octavian ruled as Rome’s first emperor for the next forty-three years. Like Caesar, Octavian would be offered many honors by a compliant Senate after he became sole ruler, but unlike Caesar he wisely declined most of them. Most notably, he accepted the title of Augustus, or “revered,” rather than that of “king”; took the veto powers of the tribunes of the plebs for himself; and asserted the right to personally appoint all consuls.

Octavian’s rule and the end to hopes of restoring the Republic were inevitable. Julius Caesar had been grooming Octavian to be his successor, and it is not unlikely that had Caesar not been murdered in 44 B.C., Octavian would still have succeeded him, only some years later.

The Agony of Breslau

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Breslau WW II Wrocław (Breslau) 1945. City of ruins.

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NS-Gauleiter Karl Hanke (1903-1945). During the waning months of World War II, as the Soviet Red Army advanced into Silesia and encircled Breslau (Festung Breslau), Hanke was named by Hitler to be the city’s “Battle Commander” (Kampfkommandant). Hanke oversaw, with fanaticism, the futile and militarily useless defense of the city during the Battle of Breslau. Goebbels, dictating for his diary, repeatedly expressed his admiration of Hanke during the spring of 1945. During the 82-day siege, Soviet forces inflicted approximately 30,000 civilian and military casualties and took more than 40,000 prisoners, while suffering 60,000 total casualties. On 6 May, the day before Germany’s surrender, General Hermann Niehoff surrendered the besieged Breslau (the Soviet army already having reached Berlin). Hanke had flown out the previous day in a small Fieseler Storch plane kept in reserve for him. Breslau was the last major city in Germany to surrender. Due to the Soviet forces aerial and artillery bombardment of the city, along with the self-destruction by the SS and Nazi Party, “80 to 90 percent” of Breslau had been destroyed.

On 20 January 1945, the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, Karl Hanke, finally gave the order to evacuate his capital, Breslau, completing its transformation into a ‘fortress’. Ten-year-old Jürgen Illmer and his mother were lucky enough to find places on a train out of Breslau and reach the relative safety of Saxony. At Leipzig, they were helped through the chaotic crush on the platforms by groups of Hitler Youths and Red Cross nurses. Glancing across the tracks as he got off his train to take shelter from an air raid, Jürgen saw an open goods train filled with motionless, snow-covered figures in striped clothing. He wondered if they had frozen to death. As the air raid siren sounded and the Germans went down to the shelter under the great station hall, the conversation turned to the prisoners they had all seen. When someone suggested that they might be Jews, a woman replied coldly, ‘They weren’t Jews. They have all been shot in Poland already.’ She was wrong. One of the prisoners on the train may have been Thomas Gève. He too was left with memories of Leipzig; how the prisoners called out, begging for water from the German Red Cross nurses whose hospital train stood at the next platform. The nurses ignored them.

On 21 January Breslau’s aged prelate, Cardinal Bertram, departed for Jauernig in Moravian Silesia, while the most valuable items in the city’s churches were shipped out to Kamenz in Saxony. The wounded recovering in the city’s military hospitals were moved too, alongside the tax office, municipal administration, the radio station and the post, telegraph and rail authorities. Over 150,000 civilians remained. The next day Gauleiter Hanke called ‘on the men of Breslau to join the defence front of our Fortress Breslau’, vowing that ‘the Fortress will be defended to the end’. Its defenders consisted of 45,000 troops, ranging from raw recruits to battle-hardened paratroopers and Waffen SS veterans. To the west of the city, the Wehrmacht fought bitterly to drive the Soviets back across the Oder at Steinau for another two weeks. On 9–11 February, Kanth, Liegnitz and Haynau fell and on 15 February the Red Army captured the Sudeten mountain passes, cutting Breslau off from the west. The next day, the city came under siege, with the attacking Soviets swiftly occupying the outer suburbs before grinding to a halt as the defenders made them fight for every building and street crossing. From 15 February, the Luftwaffe began an airlift which lasted 76 days and some 2,000 flights, bringing in 1,670 tonnes of supplies – mainly ammunition – and evacuating 6,600 wounded.

Alfred Bauditz was one of the civilians who stayed in Breslau, equipped with a horse and cart and tasked with clearing buildings that interfered with the line of fire. In late January he used the cart to bring his wife, 14-year-old daughter Leonie and 9-year-old son Winfried out of the city to Malkwitz, where two of his brothers owned farms. On 9 February, Malkwitz was occupied and all the inhabitants were questioned one by one by a Soviet officer who spoke fluent German and took down their personal details. Despite the Germans’ fears of rape and murder, the Red Army men behaved correctly. Leonie’s ordeal began when the next armoured unit arrived. Most of the thirty Soviet soldiers were friendly, but two terrorised the women. Despite hiding in a barn at night and having her hair cut short and going about dressed as a boy by day, Leonie was discovered and raped multiple times. For a while a well-spoken Soviet lieutenant protected her and her mother, but when his unit left, the women and girls were drafted into a work brigade and sent out to thresh grain and shell peas on different farms – a seemingly inescapable routine of fieldwork, laundry, cooking duties and forced sex.

On 5 March General Hermann Niehoff was sent to the capital of Lower Silesia, Breslau, to renew the fighting spirit of the defenders. Niehoff deployed thousands of forced workers to turn the principal Kaiserstrasse into an alternative airstrip so that the Luftwaffe could continue to supply the inner city once the suburbs fell. They razed the churches and grand university buildings under continual strafing attacks by the Red Air Force, and the Luftwaffe continued its perilous daily flights into Breslau. The German armoured divisions in the city used Goliaths, the miniature remote-controlled tanks they had deployed to reconquer Warsaw, but this time to destroy buildings occupied by the advancing Soviets. While the less reliable and experienced German troops were held in reserve to plug gaps in the line, the elite units of paratroopers and Waffen SS continued to mount counter-attacks, halting the Red Army’s advance in the southern suburbs: a single apartment block on the corner of the Höfchenplatz and Opitzstrasse was fought over for eight days.

In Breslau itself, a delegation of Protestant and Catholic clergy called on General Niehoff on 4 May, asking him: ‘Is continuing the defence of Breslau something which you could justify to God?’ Niehoff took heed and quietly set about negotiating a ceasefire, despite the pressure from Dönitz to hold out – transmitted by both the new Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Schörner, and Gauleiter Hanke, the new head of the SS. In his proclamation to his troops on 5 May, Niehoff pointed out that ‘Hitler is dead, Berlin has fallen. The Allies of East and West have shaken hands in the heart of Germany. Thus the conditions for a continuation of the struggle for Breslau no longer exist. Every further sacrifice is a crime.’ With a gesture to Simonides’ epitaph to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, he concluded, ‘We have done our duty, as the law demanded.’ The next day, the Germans handed over their positions.

After taking the city of Breslau, Soviet soldiers deliberately set the buildings in the ancient town centre alight, burning to the ground the priceless book collection of the university library as well as the city museum and several churches. Both the robbery and the destruction would continue for many months, growing more sophisticated with time, eventually taking the official form of “reparations.”

Some were touched personally. Robert Bialek, one of the few active, underground communists in the then-German city of Breslau, arrived home after his first, celebratory encounter with the Soviet commandants who had occupied the city — as a communist, he wanted to offer them his help — to discover that his wife had been raped. This, for him, was the beginning of the end: “The brutish instincts of two common Russian soldiers had brought the world crashing down about my head, as no Nazi tortures nor the subtlest persuasion had ever done.” He wished, he wrote, “that I had been buried, like so many of my friends, under the ruins of the town.”

Eindecker E1 monoplane

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The life-and-death demands of war forced the pace of technological innovation. As the summer progressed, a new development emerged that was to alter the balance dramatically in the enemy’s favour. It ushered in a period of the air war that became known as the ‘Fokker menace’ and it began in an almost accidental fashion. Roland Garros was a French aerial trailblazer, the first man to fly the Mediterranean. In 1915 he and the designer Raymond Saulnier set about trying to solve the problem of how to fit a machine gun to an aeroplane that could be fired straight ahead without the gymnastics required to operate a wing-fixed weapon. The main difficulty seemed to be the obstacle presented by the whirring propeller, oscillating at 2,000 revolutions a minute. But the pair decided that, unlikely though it might seem, most of the bullets could pass through its arc without striking the twin blades. Those that did hit could be deflected without doing damage by fitting wedge-shaped metal plates.

On 1 April Garros tried out a prototype and promptly shot down a two-seater. In the next seventeen days he repeated the performance twice. The device was fitted to other aircraft and other pilots repeated his success. Then Garros was shot down. He was too late to set fire to his machine and the wonder gadget fell into German hands. The propeller was handed over to a Dutch aircraft designer, Anthony Fokker, who was working with the Germans. On examining it they were reminded of a pre-war patent – which almost incredibly had been overlooked – for a synchronized gun with an interrupter gear, which timed the stream of bullets so they passed through the spaces between the blades. They revived it and tested it. It worked. The deflector plates became instantly obsolete.

Fokker developed a new aeroplane, the Eindecker E1 monoplane, on which to mount the new weapon system. Now a pilot had only to point his machine in the direction of his enemy to threaten him. Fokker had developed what was, in effect, a flying gun – the first efficient fighter aeroplane. The first few Fokker Eindeckers or E1s began to appear in July 1915, operating in pairs as defensive escorts for patrol aircraft. It was a little while before the Germans realized their offensive capability. It was pilots, rather than commanders, who grasped their potential. They were led by Oswald Boelcke, who had worked with another soon-to-be famous airman Max Immelman, with Fokker on the development of the E1.

Historians later claimed that despite its reputation the Eindecker was nothing special. However, Ira Jones, a young Welsh mechanic who went on to fly with 56 (‘Tiger’) Squadron and was credited with shooting down forty enemy aircraft, saw it in action and had a due respect for its qualities. It was a ‘fast, good climbing, strong-structured, highly manoeuvrable aeroplane – all essential qualities of an efficient fighting machine. When flown by such masterly, determined pilots as Boelcke and Immelmann it was almost invincible.’ During the autumn British pilots came to fear these two names.

Max Immelman was born into a family of wealthy industrialists in Dresden. He perfected a manoeuvre of diving, climbing and flicking over, ready to attack again, which became known as the ‘Immelmann turn’. Oswald Boelcke was the son of a militaristic schoolmaster. He overcame childhood asthma to become an excellent sportsman. He was as diligent in the classroom as on the playing field, and most enjoyed mathematics. According to Johnny Johnson, one of the great British aces of the next conflict, he was ‘a splendid fighter pilot, an outstanding leader and a tactician of rare quality . . . his foes held him in high regard.’ Boelcke brought a scientific coolness to air fighting, codifying tactics in a book called the Dicta Boelcke. He laid down four basic principles: (1) the higher your aeroplane, the greater your advantage; (2) attack with the sun behind you, so you are invisible to your opponent; (3) use cloud to hide in; and (4) get in as close as possible. They sound simple, but in the sudden chaos that characterized fights, these rules were easily forgotten.

For all his professionalism he enjoyed the kill, as is apparent from his description of the downing of an unsuspecting Vickers ‘Gunbus’. Boelcke was flying at 3,500 feet when he saw the enemy aircraft fly over the lines at Arras and head for Cambrai. He crept in behind it unseen and followed for a while. His fingers were ‘itching to shoot’, but he controlled himself.

‘[I] withheld my fire until I was within 60 metres of him,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘I could plainly see the observer in the front seat peering out downward. Knack-knack-knack . . . went my gun. Fifty rounds, and then a long flame shot out of his engine. Another fifty rounds at the pilot. Now his fate was sealed. He went down in long spirals to land. Almost every bullet of my first series went home. Elevator, rudder, wings, engine, tank and control wires were shot up.’Surprisingly, both the pilot, Captain Charles Darley, and the observer, Lieutenant R. J. Slade, survived.

As the war entered a new year, it was vital to come up with a means of countering the German challenge if the British and French air forces were not to be cleared from the skies. Trenchard was determined that patrols should continue despite the threat. His solution was to provide a cluster of escorts for each reconnaissance flight. The method soaked up resources. On one flight, on 7 February 1916, a single BE2C from 12 Squadron took off, accompanied by twelve other aircraft. The approach was unsustainable.

Eventually Allied technology came up with an antidote to the Fokker and the menace subsided. In the spring of 1916 the trim French Nieuport 11, nicknamed the ‘Bébé’, began to arrive on British squadrons. Its Lewis gun was fixed on the top wing, but it was more agile than the E1 and good pilots could get the better of it. The ‘Bébé’ was joined by another French type, produced by the French firm SPAD, which carried a synchronized Vickers gun. The second-generation pusher types – the DH2s and robust FE2 ‘Fees’ also learned how to cope and even prevail, exploiting the fact that the gunner, perched in the front nacelle, had a wide field of fire and his weapon laid down a more rapid stream of bullets than the armament of the Fokker, which was slowed by the interrupter gear. It was a Fee that did for Max Immelmann, who was brought down by the fire of Corporal J. H. Waller, an observer with 25 Squadron, on 18 June 1916 over the village of Lentz, shortly after he had scored his seventeenth victory. The appearance of the excellent two-man Sopwith ‘1½ Strutter’, which combined a synchronized Vickers for the pilot and a Lewis for the observer, helped to turn the tide.

The Armies of 1066 I

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The predominating ethos of Dark Age societies was martial; the king functioned first and foremost as a war-leader and as the defender of his people, and the more effective he was in this capacity, the higher his standing with his own people and his enemies. It was King Alfred who, in his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, first defined what he called the tools of his kingship by separating them into what would be the traditional three classes, the praying men, the fighting men and the working men; but there was never any doubt about which of them formed the aristocracy. In England, as in Normandy, the ability to fight was the most important qualification for life, and the reputation of a renowned warrior the most eagerly sought.

It may seem rather contradictory, therefore, to make the point that major pitched battles, like Hastings, were on the whole avoided whenever possible, and the most successful rulers of the day were generally those who were most efficient in avoiding them. It has been pointed out that the only major battlefield on which William had appeared before Hastings was that of Val-ès-Dunes, when he was only nineteen and where the commander-in-chief was his overlord, the King of France. Over the next twenty years until Hastings, he contrived with considerable adroitness to achieve his objectives by more indirect methods such as siege-work, in which in his early years at least he appears to have been masterly. The battle of Mortemer, in which the Normans defeated the French under the French king and the Count of Anjou, was captained on the Norman side by William’s cousin, Robert of Eu, and the battle of Varaville against the same opponents, where William managed to catch the French army divided in two on either side of a ford, indicates patience and clever tactics but can hardly be compared with a battle of the scale of Hastings. Harold, in his warfare against the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, showed something of the same tendency. He pursued an extremely effective campaign of harassment against him, but the hands that eventually killed Gruffydd were Welsh, not English. On the whole he appears to have preferred negotiation to battle and to have resorted to force only when diplomacy failed. Edward, on the other hand, despite his saintly reputation, seems to have favoured warfare rather than diplomacy on the occasions for which we have evidence (for example, the exiling of the Godwin family in 1051 and the Northumbrian rebellion in 1065): a not uncommon example of the civilian who knew little at first hand of war contrasted with the soldier who knew all too much about it.

The reason is not difficult to find. Far too much must be hazarded on the outcome of a single pitched battle, and, unless the odds on one side were overwhelming (in which case the lesser side would if it could find a way to avoid battle, such as retreating), the eventual outcome was far too uncertain for the hazard to be worthwhile. The principle was summed up succinctly by Vegetius in his De Re Militari, the military bible of the Middle Ages, probably written about AD 390: battle should be the last resort, everything else should be tried first. ‘The main and principal point in war,’ he went on, ‘is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword.’lii The tactic of harrying and devastating the enemy’s territory (as Harold did in Wales and as William did when he landed in England) had the double advantage of damaging the enemy’s prestige and economy, and maintaining the invading army at no cost to the invader. As has been pointed out, one man’s foraging is another man’s ravaging. It was also a procedure much more popular with the individual soldier. In ravaging (or foraging), he not only looked after his own commissariat, he also had the chance of plunder. In battle, he was much more likely to be killed. It has been suggested that the harrying of Harold’s lands in Wessex was the most effective stratagem used by William to provoke Harold into confronting him at the earliest possible opportunity. And it was, of course, what the Viking raiders did in the ninth and tenth centuries. Apart from the five pitched battles of Edmund Ironside against Cnut and, of course, the battle of Maldon, there had been few major battles against the Vikings since Alfred’s conclusive victory at Edington. It follows that over the century before Hastings, the English defence capability had been geared more to combat guerrilla Viking invasions than to battles on the Stamford Bridge or Hastings scale, the one notable exception being Athelstan’s great victory in 937 at the battle of Brunanburh over the combined forces of the kings of Scotland and Ireland.

The myth of an Anglo-Saxon army primarily made up of peasants fighting with sticks and stones was exploded many years ago but dies very hard. Such an army could not have held back the Normans for half an hour, let alone a full day. Another myth, strenuously promoted in some circles in recent years, is that the victory of the Normans was that of a highly disciplined feudal force, composed in large part of well-trained cavalry, over some kind of home guard fighting on foot, enthusiastic but poorly equipped and largely untrained, called together in haste from the shires to meet the threat of invasion but hampered by obsolete organization in the face of the sophisticated opposition. In part, this is due to the retrospective effect of the outcome: the English army was defeated by the Norman army, therefore it must, ipso facto, have been inferior. This argument does not take account of the circumstances in which the battle was fought.

A good deal of research has been done on the composition of the two armies that met at Hastings, but in essentials there are several unknowable facts, the most important of which is our ignorance of the size of the two forces. Many efforts have been made to compute these, on the one side from the numbers of men and horses whose heads are shown above the gunwales in the Norman ships in the Bayeux Tapestry (and the belief that one can extrapolate from this a calculation based on the number of ships believed to have sailed), on the other on the assumed length of the English position and the probable depth of Harold’s deployment along it. Neither hypothesis can provide a reliable result. The depictions on the Tapestry are symbolic, not naturalistic, and we have no detailed knowledge of the types or sizes of the ships William built; and the topography of Harold’s original position has been changed so much by time and building work that it cannot support any reliable calculation. There is also the unreliability of the contemporary evidence. On the English side, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, corroborated by some later chroniclers, states that Harold fought before many of his troops had come up – contradicted by a different assertion, that in fact he had too many men for the position he occupied. On the Norman side, there are wildly unrealistic estimates of the size of the English army, designed in part, probably, to enhance the duke’s prestige in having beaten so colossal a force. As for the Norman army, William announced before the battle that if he had only 10,000 men rather than the 60,000 he had brought he would still fight Harold, but this was undoubtedly a rhetorical figure and 60,000 is not credible. The possibility of armies of 20,000 or more on each side has been suggested, but is unlikely. The best guesses of the best authorities, based on calculations of the size of the battlefield, the number of men it could accommodate and the space between them that would be necessary for them to fight effectively, are that the two armies were fairly evenly matched, at between 6,000 and 8,000 men on each side, and this is borne out by the length of the battle since one would not expect a battle where one side was demonstrably superior to the other to last so long. But they are no more than guesses.

Ironically, of the two forces we know far more about the obsolete English than the professional Norman, and what can be deduced from the written evidence available does not support the idea of an out-of-date amateur force, crushed by a highly trained professional army organized along feudal lines. This is not surprising, given the length of time over which the English system had evolved and the various Viking invasions to which it had been forced to react. There must always, from the earliest days and on both sides of the Channel, have been some arrangements, of varying degrees of formality, linking the defence of a country to the holding of land in that country, so that all free landholders had a responsibility to the king, or to some intermediary lord, to give armed service when required. Vestiges of such a system over the previous centuries can be found in many parts of Europe. England, by coincidence, provides more evidence of its development than Normandy.

Long before the advent of the Vikings, the rulers of the individual kingdoms of the Heptarchy had had occasion to call on their subjects for fighting men. It was as a result of the ninth-century raids that Alfred made the most far-reaching changes yet to the organization of that requirement. It was he who initiated the systematized construction of fortified towns or burhs (or boroughs, as they became) throughout his kingdom, to be permanently maintained in a state of readiness and defence; in theory no one was more than twenty miles away from a place of refuge in the event of Viking attack. The germ of this idea had been found earlier in Mercia, but it was Alfred who saw its relevance to the kind of hit and run raids to which so many parts of England had been subjected, though it was left to his son, Edward the Elder, to complete the scheme. Edward also produced the complicated Burghal Hidage document, which provided for the maintenance and defence of the burhs and has been described as a watershed in the history of Anglo-Saxon governance.liii The lack of castles in England has been seen as a sign of the general backwardness of the English in military matters, in comparison with the achievements of the castle-building Normans, and Orderic Vitalis ascribes the speed with which William was able to subdue the country after Hastings to the absence of English castles. But the virtue of castles lay chiefly in the part they could play in defending border territory (most of the few English castles that existed before 1066 were on the Welsh marches), or in holding down rebellious or conquered territory (the reason why William built so many of them) or in providing a focus for insurrection. In the centuries after the conquest, the many English castles held by rebellious nobles were to prove a mixed blessing to William’s successors. Alfred’s system of fortified burhs whose administration and upkeep were in the hands of their inhabitants, not of individual nobles, and into which country-dwellers could retreat for safety in time of danger represented a much nobler vision and proved an effective deterrent to Viking raiders.

It was Alfred, too, who solved the problem of raiders who could attack and disperse before the English shire levies could be called out; he arranged a rota, as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so that half the fighting force would always be on military duty while the other half remained at home for purposes of immediate local defence and maintaining the general affairs of the country. This produced what was, in effect, the first English standing army, and it worked. But in order for it to work, he had to tighten up the legislation that laid the duty on the land to produce the fighting men he needed. It is also Alfred who is credited with laying the foundations of the English navy when in 897 he commissioned the building of a fleet of longships to his own design, though in action these proved less successful than his other innovations, being too deep in the draught for the river work in which the shallower Viking ships excelled. None the less, his was the first recorded attempt to construct an official naval force for the defence of the nation, and his successors were to build on his achievements.

Naturally, there had been many changes in the detailed organization of the national defence between Alfred’s death in 899 and the mid-eleventh century. During the more peaceful years of the tenth century, the upkeep and manning of the burhs was not maintained with the same rigour as had originally been intended, and it was no longer necessary to keep a standing army in the field. As time went on, though the service due from landowners was strictly maintained, there was a move to allowing it to be commuted for a cash payment with which paid troops could be hired. The Danegeld or heregeld, in the reign of Æthelred, was not used exclusively for paying the Danes to go away; it often paid one lot of Danish troops to fight off another, as Æthelred paid the famous Viking Thorkell the Tall for many years. After Cnut’s introduction of the housecarls in 1018, and their development into the front-line troops of the English army, cash was needed to pay them. But the theoretical obligation of all free men to give military service remained, and could be and was called on. There were clearly enormous variations in detail in different parts of the country, but in general there seem to have been two different types of service: first, the system by which the king could call on a force of warriors for a particular purpose, based on the provision of a man for a certain unit of land; second, the responsibility of all free men to defend the country in an emergency such as an invasion. In the first case, the man was provided, armed, paid and provisioned by the lord, the abbey, the village, the hundred from which he was due, and was expected to serve anywhere needed, at home or abroad, for a certain period, usually sixty days. These would be the men who were normally referred to as the shire levies or the select fyrd. In the second, when all free men were expected to turn out for a national emergency, they were not normally expected to go beyond their own locality and had to be able to return to their own homes at night (there were exceptions on the Scottish and Welsh marches); this has been described as the general fyrd. When Byrhtnoth called together his force to meet the Danes at Maldon, he would have called out the shire levies and his own retainers, but he would almost certainly have regarded this as the sort of emergency in which all the local free men should come to the national defence. This might account for the presence of Dunhere, the ‘unorne ceorl’, the simple peasant, though he might just as easily have been there as part of the shire levies.

The provision of men for the shire levies was the most important part of the defensive system and was related to the tenure of land. The general basis (allowing for regional differences, for example in the Danelaw where the land was assessed in carucates, not hides) is set out fairly clearly in the account of Wallingford in the Domesday Book, and it was probably in accordance with this system that the summons would have been sent out in 1066:

If the king sent out an army anywhere only 1 thegn went out from 5 hides, and for his sustenance or pay 4s. for 2 months was given him from each hide. This money, however, was not sent to the king but given to the thegns. If anyone summoned on military service did not go he forfeited all his land to the king.liv

If the landowner went himself, he presumably paid himself from the profits of his land; if a man who was not a landholder (or held a unit of less than five hides) went, he would collect his pay or the balance of it from those who did own the land that he was representing. But there are indications throughout the Domesday Book that it was usually the same man who answered the call on any individual territory unless he was unavoidably prevented (perhaps by increasing age or by sickness), and that he went well armed and equipped, suggesting that he was a reasonably experienced fighter. The evidence of the Domesday Book indicates that in 1066 the summons was to the general fyrd, since it gives instances where more than one man had gone to the army for less than five hides; and in this case they cannot all have been able to return to their homes at night.

There is also evidence that in general, representatives from the same shire tended to fight together, and thus would have become accustomed to operating as a trained unit. Throughout the Chronicle there are reports that the men of this shire turned out on this occasion or the men of that shire repelled a landing on another or that an ealdorman opposed an enemy with the levies of such and such shires. Legend has it, for example, that the men of Kent traditionally had the honour of forming the vanguard in any campaign in which they fought and striking the first blow in any battle; the men of London traditionally fought around the king. It is tempting to see in these early arrangements the origins of the county regiments that mostly survived until the late twentieth century and were such a distinguished part of English military history. It was, on the whole, a remarkably efficient and sophisticated system. It could be abused, though there is little evidence that it was in pre-conquest days; the worst example is that of William Rufus who in 1094 summoned an army of 20,000 men and marched them to the coast where he demanded that each man gave him 10s. they were carrying out of the 20s. that they were due (they would have received the balance when they returned home), and then sent them home again, thus raising the enormous sum of £10,000. This is recorded by several chroniclers. The story does nothing for William Rufus’s reputation but it does indicate that if that number of men had set out each with the same sum of money, there must have been a fairly uniform system in operation and that it had outlasted the conquest. There is no reason to see why it should have produced a less efficient or well-trained force than any other. It has been well described by C. Warren Hollister:

The personnel of the select fyrd was heterogeneous because the obligation was based upon units of land rather than social rank. Throughout much of England, each five-hide unit was obliged to produce a warrior-representative. The miles who was produced was normally a thegn, but if no thegns were available he might be a man of lower status. He might be a member of one of the intermediate groups – a cniht, a radmannus, a sokeman. And he might, if necessary, be a well-armed and well-supported member of the ordinary peasantry. The important thing was that he represented an appreciable territorial unit which was obliged to give him generous financial support. As such, he belonged to an exclusive military group which can, in a sense, be considered a class in itself. And he may well have taken considerable pride in his connection with the select territorial army of Saxon England.lv

The Armies of 1066 II

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There is no reason to suppose that the shire levies were any less well equipped than the Norman infantry they would have encountered at Hastings. There is plenty of evidence that those who served were expected to present themselves with body armour and appropriate weapons. Perhaps the best evidence of this is found in the heriot or tax that was payable on the death of a thegn to his lord; this was, in origin at least, less a tax than a restitution of the arms and equipment with which he had been provided by his lord during his life and which presumably would be passed on to his successor. The word ‘heriot’ itself derives from the term here-geat or war gear. The rules of this are set out in, for example, Cnut’s second code of laws, and are well illustrated in the will of a fairly modest thegn named Ketel (one of the people who made their wills before undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome) in the years shortly before the conquest:

And I grant to Archbishop Stigand, my lord. . .as my heriot a helmet and a coat of mail, and a horse with harness, with a sword and a spear.lvi

This is clearly the average equipment that the shire levies would be expected to turn up with; a nobleman would have been expected to produce more: at least four horses, more armour and a cash payment as well. We cannot now confirm whether or not Stigand had provided Ketel’s equipment in the first place but it is perfectly possible that he did, and it is certain that in most cases it was the lord’s responsibility to ensure that the fighters he was responsible for were properly turned out. It is noticeable that, although the Bayeux Tapestry shows what may be unarmed peasants hurling missiles at the battle, there is no indication that most of the regular English troops were less well equipped than their opponents. If it were not for the lavish English moustaches shown by the embroiderers, and for the battle-axes that Normans did not use, it would frequently be difficult to distinguish one side from the other.

All the evidence suggests that the military duty that the shire levies had to provide included service at sea as well as on land, and there are many indications that the men who were summoned to the king’s standard were able to fight afloat and that their commanders were as experienced at sea as on land. During the wars against Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, Harold sailed with the English fleet into Cardigan Bay to attack from the sea while his brother Tostig invaded from Northumbria with land forces, and this was a tactic that had also been used by Athelstan in his campaigns against the Scots. In fact the English did not fight on sea often, and in 1062 Harold may have sailed into Cardigan Bay but then disembarked his men to fight on land. The occasions on which King Alfred tackled the Danes on the water were not his most glorious successes. Nevertheless, Harold was more experienced than Duke William in naval matters, and William of Poitiers emphasizes the fear of the Normans at the prospect of encountering Harold by sea:

They said. . .he had numerous ships in his fleet and men skilled in nautical arts and hardened in many dangers and sea-battles; and both in wealth and numbers of soldiers his kingdom was greatly superior to their own land. Who could hope that within the prescribed space of one year a fleet could be built, or that oarsmen could be found to man it when it was built?lvii

There were complicated regulations governing the provision of ships, but it was clearly a duty that, in an island nation, was laid on all landowners, secular or religious, though many of the great bishoprics and abbeys, especially the inland ones, appear to have commuted their obligations for cash payments with which the king could have ships built on the coast. The last recorded instance of a major ship-building exercise before the conquest is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) in 1009, when Æthelred gave orders for ships to be built all over England, one ship to every 300 hides of land, resulting in a fleet ‘greater than any that had ever been seen before in England in any king’s day’. He was clearly expecting a new invasion since he ordered them to be built quickly, but, according to the Chronicle, he got little benefit from the expenditure. He and his successors had also relied on mercenary ships, although Edward the Confessor paid off most of these to save money in 1051 and 1052.

Despite the supposedly highly organized feudal nature of pre-conquest Normandy, we know much less about how its armed forces were assembled. It is clear that William had no navy; all Norman accounts emphasize that his first action after taking his decision to invade was to order ships to be built, and it is fairly clear that he also hired and commandeered some. The so-called ship list, which gives details of the numbers of vessels to be contributed by his various nobles, indicates that he must have started pretty well from scratch, and we have to assume that the fleet eventually assembled was varied, some large ships, some small, some transports for stores and equipment, others presumably designed for carrying horses. According to the ship list, about a thousand ships were to be contributed by his nobles, apart from any he may have hired or commandeered, though many of the latter may have been transports; the probable total certainly casts some doubt on the figure of 696 that Wace gives in his Roman de Rou, which he tells us he got from his father who was an eyewitness, though Wace is probably nearer the truth than William of Jumièges’s 3,000. It may seem strange that a people so recently descended from sea-pirates should apparently have so completely lost touch with the sea, but by the mid-eleventh century Normandy was to all intents and purposes a French province, happy to accommodate the Viking raiders who visited her harbours with booty gained in England and elsewhere but preoccupied with threats from further inland. In this respect, Harold, as William’s nervous followers pointed out, had a decided advantage in the possession of a fleet manned by an amphibious force that was certainly more experienced than the Normans were in naval warfare.

Much has been written about the army William raised and its training but in fact little is known of the actual contractual arrangements that produced it. It has been too often supposed that to say that the Norman army was feudal and relied heavily on highly trained cavalry (the existence of the latter being regarded as proof of the former) was sufficient to account for their victory and their imposition of the feudal system on England after the conquest. In essence the feudal system meant that a man paid dues, which could be in services or in grain or some other kind of produce or goods, in return for the land with which he was enfeoffed by his lord, and in this sense the Anglo-Saxon system, as we have seen, was as feudal as the Norman. There would have been in Normandy, as in France generally at the time, the custom of arrière-ban by which a ruler could summon his vassals and their own feudatories to battle, but it is uncertain precisely what this meant in pre-conquest Normandy and what it would have produced. There certainly seems to have been some doubt whether it would have obliged vassals to fight overseas. In eleventh-century Normandy, and doubtless in other French provinces, there was a contract between a ruler and his tenants- in-chief by which they would undertake to supply him with a certain number of fighting men when required to do so, but the evidence, pre-1066, for the types of service a tenant was supposed to provide for the ‘feudom’ he held is extremely sparse, and surviving charters give a very varied and (in military terms) unsatisfactory view of the kind of service likely to be required. There is a dangerous tendency to extrapolate from the more formalized and better recorded systems after the conquest (which, in England at least, were much influenced by pre-conquest English customs) to arrangements in Normandy before 1066, which appear to have been vague and indefinite. In practical terms, as far as the battle of Hastings is concerned, the difference between the so-called Norman feudal system and the English five- hide system seems to have been minimal, and it may be fair to say that the average English and Norman men-at-arms at Hastings would probably not have detected much difference in their conditions of service, except that the Englishman might have been better paid. The difference is that, whereas it is possible to make a theoretical calculation from the hidal system of the maximum number of men an English king could have raised in an emergency, no such calculation is possible in Normandy. The development of the feudal system in England after the conquest owed as much to the pre-conquest English system as to the Norman, William and his immediate successors having found a lot in the English tradition that they did not wish to dispense with – as is indicated by the money-raising machinations of William Rufus already referred to.

The biggest difference between the two armies was the heavy Norman use of cavalry. Much has been made of the absence of English cavalry at Hastings, and of this as further proof of an outdated and obsolescent form of warfare. There was certainly no tradition of cavalry charges in the Anglo-Saxon army, though it is clear from the Chronicle that horses were used to get to the battlefield and to pursue the enemy off it, as at Stamford Bridge. It should be noted that Snorre Sturlason’s account of Stamford Bridge in Heimskringla says quite clearly that the English fought on horseback there. Snorre’s account, however, is so late and in many respects so unreliable that no confidence can be built on his report. Harold could hardly have covered the ground between London and Stamford Bridge as fast as he did if he had not had mounted troops (we have seen that Ketel and his colleagues, if Ketel was typical, were equipped with horses), but to what extent he used horses in the battle that followed is another matter and of that we have no firm evidence. Certainly the account of the struggle to take the bridge over the river implies a fight on foot; if the English had been fighting on horseback, they would surely have been able to have ridden down the lone warrior defending it. Byrhtnoth and his followers rode to the battle of Maldon; but when they got there, Byrhtnoth dismounted and commanded his men to drive away the horses and fight on foot, and this seems to have been the routine procedure. J. H. Clapham, in his essay, ‘The Horsing of the Danes’,lviii which gives an interesting summary of what can be gleaned of the extent to which mounted troops were used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, maintains that the fighting habits that remained so strong in the century before the conquest represent the racial tradition, unaltered to the end. It should be remembered that, for the past century, the enemies the English had usually had to meet in the battlefield were either Welsh (guerrilla foot fighters par excellence, often fighting in hilly country where cavalry would operate at a disadvantage) or Danish or Norwegian raiders who also had the tradition of fighting on foot and certainly did not normally bring warhorses with them, as the Normans did. They helped themselves when they got here when they needed to move fast, as J. H. Clapham points out. If the English had not developed the art of fighting on horseback by 1066, it was largely because they had never needed to.

It should be remembered that when Harold went on campaign with William’s troops in Normandy he would have fought on horseback, like his peers, and apparently acquitted himself with distinction. It was probably his first experience of cavalry in action, and it may have had considerable influence on his tactics at Hastings two years later. Even if, after his return to England, he had wanted to create a corps of cavalry to rival the Norman knights, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for him to do so in time for the invasion. The Norman knights rode stallions (the Bayeux Tapestry makes this unambiguously clear), specially bred over many years and specially trained for fighting; it is unlikely that many comparably suitable horses existed in England at that date, quite apart from the problems there would have been in training their riders in the time available. None the less, Harold’s first-hand knowledge of the cavalry tactics he knew he would have to face at Hastings may account in part at least for the defensive position he adopted there. Whatever contempt the Norman cavalry may initially have felt for the English infantry at Hastings, it did not last. In many of the most important battles that the Norman kings were to fight after 1066, they fought on foot – as Henry I did at Tinchebrai, as Stephen did at the battle of Lincoln (though with cavalry on the wings). The lesson of the English shield wall had been learned.

There were differences of approach between England and Normandy. All societies in Europe at this time were military to some extent (it was an aggressive and belligerent period) but not all were obsessed with fighting to the degree that the Normans were. It has been said that ‘If not all Norman knights in 1066 were men of substance, it is already true that all great men were knights’.lix The corollary is also true: all great men may have been knights, but all knights were certainly not great men nor men of substance. If ‘substance’ is to be defined here as ‘property’, most of those who enlisted in William’s army, particularly those who were not Norman, certainly weren’t. It was property they were signing up for. Many ‘knights’ were little more than mounted thugs. Precisely how to define the word ‘knight’ in 1066 is controversial – it was certainly not as formalized as it would be by the time of Malory or even Chaucer – but it did indicate a man who fought on horseback and had undergone a long and arduous training to do so. Whether he did so as a condition of the land he held or was a sword for hire was immaterial. Indeed, the very derivation of the word ‘knight’ is suggestive. There seems to have been no precise Norman-French equivalent for it other than the purely descriptive word ‘chevalier’, one who goes on horseback – who need not, of course, be a military man at all. In the Latin chronicles, which are what we have principally to rely on, a knight would frequently simply have been referred to as miles, a word with a wide range of possible applications (William of Poitiers uses miles and equites indifferently). The word ‘knight’, so redolent of chivalry and romance today, derives from the Old English cniht, a serving man or serving boy, possibly because that was how they were seen, post-conquest, by the English in their relationship to the lord who employed them.

Yet, for a people so obsessed by war, the overall picture regarding obligations for military service in Normandy before the conquest does seem to be obscure and messy, by comparison with England. The situation has been summarized by Marjorie Chibnall who, after describing the general arrangements as far as they can be deduced, points out that

there is no clear proof of any general system of military quotas imposed from above; or of an accepted norm for feudal services and obligations, legally enforceable on the initiative of either side in a superior ducal court – and this surely is a necessary corollary for any accepted general norm. It is at least arguable that the services owed were either relics of older, Carolingian obligations, or the outcome of individual life contracts between different lords and their vassals, and that their systematization was the result only of the intense military activity of the period of the conquest, and the very slow development of a common law in the century after it.lx

In other words, the feudal customs to which William’s victory has often been ascribed were the result, not the cause, of the conquest. This makes the calculation of what William might have been able to call on within his own duchy very difficult; that it was insufficient for the enterprise we know, since he advertised widely for mercenaries throughout Europe. It is hardly surprising if one compares the size of Normandy with the size of England: William, the vassal of the King of France, controlled an area only a little larger than the earldom of East Anglia held by Harold, the vassal of the King of England, before the death of his father and smaller than the earldom of Wessex he held after it, let alone the totality of the kingdom of England. In theory, since the size of territory had a direct effect on the number of men who could be expected from it, Harold should have been able to raise an army many times the size of anything William could bring against it from Normandy. In fact, the situation at Hastings was com- plicated by many other factors, as we shall see. One document does give a rough indication of the components of William’s army: this is the penitential code drawn up in 1070 by Bishop Ermenfrid, according to which the sins of those who fought in the Norman army were to be expiated. It distinguishes between those who William had armed, those who had armed themselves, those who owed him military service for the lands they held and those who fought for pay. There is no way now of establishing how many men fell into the various categories; the Bretons seem to have formed a large contingent, presumably fighting for pay, and it is notable that they continued to fight as mercenaries for William in his later career and for his sons.