Boudicca: Queen of the Iceni

An ancient historian tells us that this queen of the Iceni “possessed greater intelligence than often belongs to women”. Not only that, she was taller than most, had a piercing gaze, her voice was harsh, and her general aspect was scary, from her waist-length, flaming red her down to her gold torque and colourful clothing.

That she was not only intelligent but also an extraordinary woman is quite obvious from the events that formed the rebellion that she led against the Romans. Whether she was tall and scary we cannot confirm, it may well have been simple rhetoric on the part of the historian to show the “wild” nature of the woman, whose description made her seem more like a male warrior, and who faced the much more orderly Roman legions. The only reason, it is claimed, why she was able to gather and lead an army, and kill 80,000 Romans, was because of her “great intelligence”.

Boudicca (or Boudica), who was born around AD 25, was a member of the aristocracy, and although she was perhaps not a member of the Iceni (exogamy was common among the Celtic elite), she did marry Prasutagus between AD 43 and 45, who was king of the Iceni until his death in AD 60.

There were many reasons why the Iceni (from southern Britain, present-day Norfolk) decided to revolt against Roman rule. All had been relatively quiet since the emperor Claudius’ Roman invasion and conquest of Britain in AD 43. Prasutagus, whose tribe was not directly under Roman control, knew that things might change and that he and his tribe might lose their independence, so he made a treaty with the Romans, as client-king, that allowed him to continue ruling the Iceni (there was a brief uprising in AD 47 when Ostorius Scapula, a previous governor, ordered the Iceni to disarm, citing a law which prohibited the possession of weapons except for hunting or for self-defense when on a journey).

But discontent among British tribes began to build. One reason was the attitude of veterans settled at Camulodunum (now Colchester), who were evicting legitimate property owners as if they were defeated enemies, not friendly subjects, and confiscating their property. Another reason was a temple built there to the deified emperor Claudius (between AD 56 and 60) as part of the newly-introduced imperial cult. Non-Romans, that is, the Britons, saw it as a citadel to perpetual tyranny, and as a reminder of the destruction of their own culture. A third reason was the arbitrary conduct of Roman administrators, and a fourth was excessive taxation (the Britons bitterly resented that abuse as well).

It was not only the Iceni and the Trinovantes who were unhappy with the Romans. In fact, one of the first things that Suetonius, the new governor of Roman Britain, had to do when he arrived at his post was to take his troops to the Isle of Mona (now Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales). The place was not only a centre for anti-Roman activities and generally a refuge for disgruntled Britons, but also a stronghold of the druids, who in the past had led rebellions against the Romans.

The island fell, all the Britons there were slaughtered, and the religious groves were razed to the ground. But not before the Roman legionaries wasted some time standing in awe, staring at the druids who, hands uplifted, were invoking their deities with unintelligible (to the Romans, at least) words, and staring also at women running through the ranks of the Britons. Ancient historians describe them in similar terms to Boudicca: they were wild. And they carried flaming torches, like raging Furies.

But for Boudicca and the Iceni, the last straw was all that happened to their tribe at the death of Prasutagus. The very wealthy king had had enough foresight to make a will, hoping to keep his kingdom and his family safe. He had left his kingdom jointly to the emperor Nero and his two daughters. But things did not turn out as he had hoped.

His will was ignored, because according to Roman law, royal inheritance could not be passed down to daughters. Also, the Romans and their emperor would not accept joint ownership with women. So the Iceni tribe was now going to be ruled directly by the Romans. The nobility lost their ancestral properties to confiscation, and Prasutagus’ relatives were treated like slaves. In addition, Roman financiers demanded the repayment of loans that they had made when Claudius was emperor.

As if that had not been enough, Boudicca was publicly flogged, as if she were a right-less slave and not a free woman allied to the Romans. Then she was forced to watch the rape and torture of her two daughters, who were about 12 years old.

So, Roman laws and customs aside, Boudicca’s people, and later their allies, considered her to be their natural leader. Taking up arms in rebellion (in AD 60) was their next step. First the neighbours to the south, the Trinovantes, joined in, then other tribes, until the Britons numbered about 100,000. They may well have been inspired by the Germanic prince Arminius, of the Cherusci, who had driven the Romans back in AD 9 at the Teutoburg Forest, slaughtering 20,000 of their troops.

So then, armed and dressed to kill, Boudicca and her daughters got on her small, light chariot, which had wicker screens for protection on all sides. They set out for Camulodunum (Colchester), former capital of the Trinovantes, now capital of the province, where Claudius’ temple was located.

The Roman veterans, desperate because there weren’t enough defenders at the place, asked the Roman procurator, Catus Decianus, for reinforcements, but he could only spare 200 auxiliaries. Boudicca and her troops destroyed the city, and Decianus, fearing for his life, fled to the continent (Gaul).

Next, the rebels proceeded to the Roman city of Londinium (London), a newly-established trade centre. Suetonius had by now finished his grim task at Mona, and marched to Londinium. But then he realized that (like Camulodunum) there were not enough troops to defend the settlement. All he had was the XIV legion, a few detachments of the XX legion, and some cavalry. The inhabitants begged him to stay and help, to no avail. He sacrificed the city to save the province. All those who stayed behind were slaughtered by the rebels. Londinium was burnt down. Verulamium (St Albans), northwest of Londinium, suffered the same fate.

Ancient historians delight in describing the atrocities allegedly committed by the Iceni and their allies. They are generally described as bloodthirsty barbarians, indeed worse than wild beasts, who had no intention of taking prisoners. We read that in Londinium, the rebels rounded up the noblest and most distinguished women, and marched them off to a grove sacred to the Celtic goddess of war and victory, Andraste. There they hung them up naked and cut off their breasts, which they then sewed to their mouths, making it appear like they were eating them. Their bodies were then impaled on sharp skewers. All this was done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and generally wild behavior.

Since we don’t have the British side of the story, we must suppose that the rebels, fired up and ready for vengeance, committed the atrocities that were usual in ancient wars, although the cruel details offered by the ancient historian are suspect.

Suetonius, meanwhile, was gathering an army that amounted to 10,000 men. These were soldiers of the XIV legion, veterans of the XX legion, and a number of auxiliaries. He carefully chose a spot with good tactical advantages: it was one encircled with woods, with a narrow entrance, and protected in the back by a thick forest. There he could not be ambushed by the Britons. The enemy had no approach but from the front. To this date, experts are still uncertain as to the exact location of the battle that ensued, although it may have been fought at Mancetter, on Watling St in the west Midlands.

Boudicca brought an army of Briton rebels that may have numbered 100,000. One of the ancient historians tells us that they were so sure of winning that they had placed their families in wagons at the edge of the battlefield so that they could see the action. And in keeping with the intention of showing the Celts as savages, we read that there were many naked women running around frantically and screaming.

Although numerically far superior to the Roman forces, the Iceni and their allies did not have some of the advantages of the Romans, such as breastplates, greaves, and the short gladius. It appears that rebels only had a long slashing sword and a shield, and wore nothing except body paint and tattoos. In this kind of confrontation, that did not look good. As for Boudicca herself, we are told that, besides her spear, she had a shield and armour, but these were only “ornamental”. This is clearly not in keeping with her plans to lead her warriors by example.

When both sides were ready, and before the actual battle, each one of the leaders gave a speech to the troops. Boudicca, in her chariot, and with her daughters by her side, is said to have reminded the tribes about their lost freedom, and she made it clear that the Britons were superior to the Romans, if not in armour, then in bravery and hardiness.

Then Boudicca, who, as was common among the ancients, believed in divination, released a hare, which ran in a direction that was considered auspicious. She told the warriors that they would show the Romans that they were hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves. Then, raising her hands, she thanked Adraste for being on their side.

Next she reminded the Iceni and their allies that it was customary for them to be led into battle by women. But on this occasion she was not an aristocratic woman avenging her kingdom and her wealth. She was an ordinary woman, and a mother not only to her two children but also to the tribes under her command. She was out to avenge their lost freedom, and also the undeserved flogging she received at the hands of the Romans, as well as the violation of her daughters’ bodies.

She went on to say that they were fighting for a cause that was just both in the eyes of the Britons and of the deities, and that these were on their side. Further, she asked the rebels to look around and see for themselves that their numbers were superior to those of the Romans, which looked very encouraging. The Romans had certainly already realized their own small force. She finished by saying that she, as a woman, had already reached a decision: she would win, or else she would die. As for the men, she told them to make their own decision: if slavery suited them, it was their choice.

Map to indicate Boudicca’s movements against the Romans.

For his part, Suetonius told his men that he anticipated victory. He inspired them by saying that the Britons had more women than men fighting in their ranks (simple rhetoric intended to fire up the all-male Roman troops). Not only that, he added, they were savages, lacking discipline, and with no real weapons or training. So it should be easy to beat the rebels, despite the numerical disadvantage of the legions.

Then the battle began. The Romans attacked the approaching Boudicca and her Britons with volleys of javelins. As anticipated by Suetonius, their own position protected them well. Then the Romans advanced, and effectively used their shorter swords, perfect for stabbing in close-quarter combat; the Britons were crushed so close together that they could not use their longer swords (they were good for slashing, not stabbing). And in this setting, the chariots were completely useless.

The Britons who were not killed tried to flee. But the very wagons that they had placed at the edge of the battlefield, so that their families could see the action, obstructed their passage. Everyone was slaughtered; not even their cattle escaped. The numbers of British dead were 80,000. The Romans only lost 400 men, and more were wounded. However, in the three previous battles, at Camulodunum, Londinium, and, Verulamium, the Romans had lost 70,000 to 80,000, both citizens and allies.

As for Boudicca, she seems to have escaped and either killed herself with poison, or “died by sickness” (she was about 36). The historians cannot agree on what happened. If she did end her life, it was because she knew that a terrible fate awaited her. She may also have tried to avoid being chained and paraded in a triumph; after all, eighty years before, another queen, Cleopatra, also followed this route, and for the same reason. The Britons gave Boudicca a funeral worthy of a queen.

Unrest among the Britons continued, however, and Suetonius, with reinforcements from Germania, ravaged not only hostile tribes, but also some who had remained neutral. The emperor feared this might provoke further rebellion, so he replaced him with a governor who was more conciliatory, Publius Petronius Turpilianus.


Ada of Caria

Marble head, perhaps Ada of Caria. From Priene c.340 BC (Monopthalmos) by Monopthalmos.

Alexander the Great was not worried about what other people would think if he made a deal with a woman. It helped that the woman was very smart and knew how to benefit both sides by striking that deal. Ada of Caria negotiated with the Macedonian conqueror by making him her adoptive son and her heir. She got her power back and ruled for a total of nineteen years.

Ada came from a long line of rulers who included her grandfather, father, and four siblings. They were known as the House of Hecatomnus. She was born around 380 BC when her father, Hecatomnus of Mylasa, ruled Caria, a kingdom founded six centuries earlier in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). We do not know who her mother was. In 545 BC the Persians had invaded and turned Caria into a satrapy. This was an administrative unit that made it possible to rule the huge Achaemenid empire by having a local noble collect taxes, manage local politics, and deal with uprisings.

When Ada’s father died in 377 BC, her brother Mausolus married Artemisia, their sister, as was customary among the Carians. They became the next satraps, and greatly expanded the power of Caria. They were able to do that because the Persian kings were busy fighting wars elsewhere. Like their father before them, they were fascinated by Greek culture and also worked hard to Hellenize Caria.

They moved the capital from Mylasa to the city of Halicarnassus (which centuries before had been the capital), where they built fortified walls that could ward off catapult attacks (catapults had recently been developed). But they are perhaps best known for the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This was begun by Mausolus, who had amassed great wealth and spent it on the spectacular monument. When he died in 353 BC Artemisia finished it with the help of Greek architects and dedicated it to the memory of her husband and brother.

Artemisia continued ruling as sole sovereign of Caria for another two years and had to secure the power that she and Mausolus had acquired during the previous twenty years. She even became involved in military action against the people of Rhodes and, after conquering them in a brief engagement, she had a statue built to herself to commemorate the event. But in 351 BC she died, apparently of grief, after spending two years mixing Mausolus’ ashes in her daily drink. She was most probably buried with Mausolus.

Idrieus and Ada, brother and sister of Artemisia, succeeded as satraps, and also had to marry each other. During their joint rule they continued to increase Caria’s power and prestige. Together they signed official documents, including many decrees. They engaged in much building activity both in the capital of Halicarnassus and at Labranda. It is significant that several statues at shrines were dedicated to both Ada and Idrieus, since, at the time, portrait statues of women were rare, especially in that kind of setting.

In 344 BC, Idrieus died from some unspecified disease and Ada continued ruling on her own. But four years later, the youngest of the five siblings, Pixodarus, decided to overthrow Ada and become satrap. Ada left Halicarnassus and moved to the fortified Carian city of Alinda where she was well-liked and had many supporters.

During Pixodarus’ rule, the ancient world would change forever. Alexander the Great had just set out to follow up on his father’s expansion plans. One of the places that he wanted to conquer was the Persian empire, of which Caria was part.

Pixodarus only lasted five years as satrap, and he tried in vain to become an ally of Philip II of Macedon. On his death in 335 BC his son-in-law Orontobates received the satrapy of Caria from the Persian king Darius III. He may have been motivated by the fact that Orontobates was married to a daughter of Pixodarus. That meant that the Carians already knew him and the transition of power would be smooth.

This daughter of Pixodarus had almost married Alexander the Great. His father Philip II had initially agreed to make a marriage alliance between the Macedonians and the Carians by betrothing the girl to Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhidaeus, who had a mental disability. When Alexander’s mother found out, she managed to convince him that Philip II was trying to pass him over as heir to the throne in favour of Arrhidaeus. Alexander quickly sent a messenger to Caria, to offer Pixodarus a better deal: to have his daughter marry him. The satrap agreed, but Philip II talked sense into Alexander, and the marriage was off.

Not long after Orontobates became the Carian satrap, Alexander the Great arrived in Asia Minor, and captured Sardis and then Miletus. From there he planned to go to Caria (in 334 BC), and made the invasion of the city of Halicarnassus a top priority. It was there that the Persians were concentrating resources, and the satrap Orontobates was going to be assisted by Memnon, a commander appointed by Darius III.

Alexander planned to take Halicarnassus by siege, so he sent his equipment ahead of him, while he spent some time winning over the cities in Caria by treating them kindly. This was a golden opportunity for Ada, who asked to meet with Alexander.

Ada and Alexander the Great met at Labranda, the site of an important temple of Zeus, at which Alexander probably wanted to make offerings. She asked for his help in restoring her to her ancient position. In return, she would cooperate with him. Some parts of Caria were backing the Persians. Since these parts were held by her relatives, she would convince them to change sides. In addition, she gave him the fortified city of Alinda, where she had been living since being deposed. And last but not least, she adopted him as her son and made him her heir. That way, when she died, the government of Caria would pass to him with no difficulty.

Alexander the Great agreed to all of Ada’s terms. He became her adopted son, and he reappointed her as satrap. He accepted Alinda, but immediately returned it to her.

Ada set to work, and she easily got her relatives to stop backing the Persians and cooperate with the Macedonians instead. And since she was well liked by the people in the countryside, she won Alexander their loyalty.

Alexander the Great, followed shortly after by Ada, marched to Halicarnassus and besieged it. Mausolus’ walls were indeed strong, and Alexander’s catapults were not very effective at first. But after months of battering the walls, some parts were either weakened or fell down. The satrap Orontobates and the commander Memnon, who had been fighting the Macedonians and sending out sorties during the siege, which had lasted a year already, finally made a decision.

At midnight, they set fire to a wooden tower built to defend themselves against Alexander’s attacks. They also set fire to the sheds where they stored their weapons. It was a windy night, and the flames spread to nearby houses. Alexander stormed the city through the gaps in the wall and killed those who fought him and his men, but ordered that the people of Halicarnassus should be left alone.

So Halicarnassus was captured (and razed to the ground), but not the city’s acropolis. Knowing that Artemisia, Ada’s sister, had, during her rule as satrap, successfully engaged in military actions, he assigned the siege of the acropolis to Ada. She didn’t disappoint Alexander. In no time it was captured.

We know that Ada took her role as Alexander the Great’s mother seriously. At one point she started sending him choice cuts of meat and cakes. Then she offered to send him some of the best cooks and bakers. He refused, saying that he had better cooks, given to him by Leonidas, one of his tutors. For breakfast they served him “a night march,” and for supper they served “a light breakfast.” He had always boasted about his simple tastes.

Before setting out to the East in order to continue with his campaign, Alexander placed 3000 soldiers to guard Caria. Then he gave orders to make Ada queen of Caria. She ruled the whole country until her death in 326 BC. She had ruled three times: first as satrap with her husband (351 to 344 BC), then alone as satrap (344 to 340 BC), and finally as queen (334 to 326 BC).

Ada, like her brother Mausolus and her sister Artemisia before her, and unlike the satraps in other parts of the Persian empire, was always true to the ancient local cults. She never sacrificed to Ahura Mazda, the Persian supreme god, and, despite Greek influence in Asia Minor, never worshiped Greek gods.

Ada was buried in a royal tomb, although it was not as spectacular as her brother’s Mausoleum. She was buried in a rich garment decorated with gold and blue glass appliqués, and a gold myrtle wreath was placed on her head. Her sarcophagus was then placed within a burial chamber, and surrounded by much gold jewellery, including necklaces, rings, and earrings.

Alexander was quick to recognize a windfall, however unusual, and received her with respect. Through Ada, he could appear to the Carians as protector of their weaker local interests against Persia; support for a member of their hellenizing dynasty would fit with his liberation of the resident Greeks. His adoption was popular. Within days, nearby cities of Caria had sent him golden crowns; he ‘entrusted Ada with her fortesss of Alinda and did not disdain the name of son’: his new mother hurried home delighted, and ‘kept sending him meats and delicacies every day, finally offering him such cooks and bakers as were thought to be masters of their craft’. Alexander demurred politely: ‘he said that he needed none of them; for his breakfast, his preparation was a night march; for his lunch, a sparing breakfast’; it was a tactful evasion of Asian hospitality, and his mother countered by renaming her Carian fortress as an Alexandria, in honour of her lately adopted son.

Siege of Halicarnassus

Culinary matters were not Ada’s only concern. She confirmed the ominous news that Memnon and Persian fugitives from the Granicus had rallied again at Halicarnassus, the coastal capital of Caria; Memnon had been promoted by order of royal letter to the ‘leadership of lower Asia and the fleet’ and as a pledge of his loyalty, he had sent his children inland to Darius’s court. With ships, imperial soldiers and a strong hired garrison, he had blockaded Halicarnassus, trusting in the circling line of walls and the satrapal citadel which had been built by Ada’s eldest brother; Alexander, therefore, should expect a serious siege. The necessary equipment was carried by ship to the nearest open harbour and the king and his army marched south to meet it by the inland road.

The siege of Halicarnassus is a prelude to one of the major themes of Alexander’s achievement as a general. Nowadays, he is remembered for his pitched battles and for the extreme length of his march, but on his contemporaries, perhaps, it was as a stormer of walled cities that he left his most vigorous impression. Both before him and after him, the art was never mastered with such success. Philip had been persistent in siegecraft without being victorious and it is the plainest statement of the different qualities of father and son that whereas Philip failed doggedly, Alexander’s record as a besieger was unique in the ancient world. Though a siege involves men and machines, a complex interaction which soon comes to the fore in Alexander’s methods, it is also the severest test of a general’s personality. Alexander was imaginative, supremely undaunted and hence more likely to be lucky. At Halicarnassus, he did not rely on technical weaponry of any novelty and his stone-throwers, the one new feature, were used to repel enemy sallies rather than to breach the walls, probably because they had not yet been fitted with torsion springs of sinew. He was challenged by the strongest fortified city then known in Asia Minor, rising ‘like a theatre’ in semicircular tiers from its sheltered harbour, with an arsenal to provide its weapons and a jutting castle to shelter its governor. As the Persians held the seaward side with their fleet, Alexander was forced to attack from the north-east or the west where the outer walls, though solid stone, descended to a tolerably level stretch of ground. The challenge was unpromising, especially as the enemy were masters of the sea, and it is not easy to decide why he succeeded, even after doing justice to his personal flair.

Two descriptions of the siege survive and they match each other most interestingly; the one, written by Alexander’s officers, again minimizes his difficulties, confirmation of the way in which the myth of his invincibility was later developed by contemporaries; the other, probably based on soldiers’ reminiscences and Callisthenes’s published flatteries, rightly stresses the city’s resistance and notes that the defenders were led by two Athenian generals with the stirringly democratic names of Thrasybulus and Ephialtes, whose surrender Alexander had demanded in the previous autumn; though spared, they had crossed to Asia to resist the man who was supposed to be avenging their city’s past injustices. A third leader, it was agreed, was a Macedonian deserter, probably the son of one of the Lyncestians who had been killed at the accession; they made a strong team, but neither of the histories makes it plain that their main defence was to last for two months, including the heat of August.

At first, Alexander skirmished lightly, probably because his siege engines had not yet laboured their slow way by road from the harbour some six miles to the rear, the one port unoccupied by the Persians’ fleet. He encamped on level ground half a mile from the north-east sector of the wall and busied his men first with an unsuccessful night attempt to capture a sea-port some twelve miles west of the city which had falsely offered surrender, then with the filling of the ditch, 45 feet wide and 22 feet deep, which had made the north-east wall of Halicarnassus inaccessible to his wheeled siege towers. Diggers and fillers were sheltered by makeshift sheds until their ditch was levelled out and the siege-towers, newly arrived by road, could roll across it into position; thereupon catapults cleared the defenders, rams were lowered from the siege towers on to the walls, and soon two buttresses and an appreciable length of fortifications had been flattened. Undaunted, the defence sallied forth by night, led by the renegade Lyncestian; torches were hurled into the wooden siege engines and the Macedonian guards were unpleasantly surprised in the darkness before they had time to put on their body-armour. Having made their point, the defenders retired to repair the hole in their outer wall and build a semicircular blockade of brick on hilly ground. They also finished a sky-high tower of their own which bristled with arrow-catapults.

The next incident is unanimously ascribed to the heartening effect of drink. One night, two or more soldiers in Perdiccas’s battalion, flown with insolence and wine, urged on their fellows to a show of strength against the new semicircular wall. The ground was unfavourable, the defenders alert and amid a flurry of catapults, Memnon led such a counterattack that Alexander himself was forced to the rescue of his disorderly regiment. But though the defenders retired, they did so as they pleased: Alexander had to admit defeat and ask for the return of the Macedonian dead, the accepted sign that a battle had been lost. In his history, King Ptolemy recorded the start of this drunken sortie, knowing that it discredited Perdiccas, the rival with whom he had fought after Alexander’s death, but he suppressed the defeat which followed, unwilling to reveal a failure by his friend Alexander; it thus went unsaid that within the city, the Athenian exile Ephialtes had urged his fellow defenders not to return the enemy bodies, so fervent was his hatred of the Macedonians.

Anxious at this setback, Alexander battered and catapulted as furiously as ever. Again the Persians sallied, and again, covered by their fellows from higher ground, they came off well. That was only a prelude. A few days later, they planned their most cunning sortie, dividing themselves into three separate waves at Ephialtes’s bidding. The first wave was to hurl torches into Alexander’s siege-towers in the north-east sector; the second was to race out from a more westerly gate and take the Macedonian guards in the flank, while the third was to wait in reserve with Memnon and overwhelm the battle when a suitable number of opponents had been lured forward. According to the officers, these sorties were repelled ‘without difficulty’ at the west and north-east gates; in fact, the first two waves did their job splendidly and Alexander himself was compelled to bear the brunt of their onslaught. The entry of the third wave into the battle startled even Alexander, and only a famous shield-to-shield rally by a battalion of Philip’s most experienced veterans prevented the younger Macedonians from flinching and heading for camp. However, Ephialtes was killed, fighting gloriously at the head of his hired Greeks, and because the defenders shut their gates prematurely, many of his men were trapped outside at the mercy of the Macedonians. ‘The city came near to capture,’ wrote the officers, ‘had not Alexander recalled his army, still wishing to save Halicarnassus if its citizens would show a gesture of friendliness.’ Night had fallen and presumably Alexander’s men were in some disorder; if he had thought he could attack successfully, citizens or no citizens, as at Miletus, he would have done so.

That night the Persian leaders decided to abandon the outer city: the wall was broken, Ephialtes was dead, their losses were heavy and now that their garrison had dwindled, perhaps they feared betrayal by a party within the city. ‘In the second watch of the night’, about ten o’clock, they set fire to their siege-tower, their arsenals and all houses near to the walls, leaving the wind to do its worst. The satrap Orontobates decided to hold the two promontories at the entrance to the harbour, trusting in their walls and his mastery of the sea.

When the news reached Alexander’s camp, he hurred into the city, giving orders, said his officers, that any incendiaries should be killed, but that Halicarnassian citizens in their homes should be spared. When dawn showed him the extent of the damage, he ‘razed the city to the ground’, a detail recorded in both versions but evidently exaggerated as the city’s famous monuments remained unscathed. Probably, Alexander only cleared a space from which to besiege Orontobates’s two remaining strongholds, for some 3,000 troops were ordered to continue the siege and garrison the city. As Halicarnassus had been stubborn, there was no reason to give her a democracy or call her free. She was a Greek city, but she was not Ionian or Aeolian and had been promised nothing; her promontories were to hold out for another whole year and serve the Persian fleet as a base of supply. But Caria, at least, had fallen; mother Ada was named its satrap and given troops under a Macedonian commander to do any work that might prove too strenuous for an elderly woman. Thus, under a female eye, Alexander’s principle of a province split between a native satrap and a Macedonian general was introduced for the first time.

The siege of Halicarnassus leaves a mixed impression. Alexander had persevered, and personally he had fought with his usual courage, but his victory, and that only within its limits, was not due to bold ingenuity or mechanical subtlety so much as to outnumbering an enemy who had sallied repeatedly. None the less, an important point of supply for an Aegean fleet had been breached, if not wholly broken, and as autumn was far advanced, most generals could have been forgiven for relaxing. Typically, Alexander did nothing of the sort.

Before advancing, he gave orders that all Macedonians who had married ‘shortly before his Asian campaign’ should be sent back home to Macedonia to spend the coming winter with their wives. ‘Of all his actions, this earned Alexander popularity amongst his Macedonians’, besides helping their homeland’s birthrate and encouraging more reinforcements. Led by the husband of one of Parmenion’s daughters, the bridegrooms bustled homewards, and Alexander thinned out his forces, detailing Parmenion to take the supply wagons, the Greek allies and two squadrons of cavalry back by road to Sardis and thence to await him further east on the Royal Road. The siege equipment was despatched to Tralles, and ever inexhaustible, Alexander announced that he would head south to the coast of Lycia and Pamphylia ‘to hold the seaboard and render the enemy useless’.

Mongol Otrar Campaign 1219-20

Khwarezmid Empire (1190–1220), on the eve of the Mongol conquests

It is sometimes said that Genghis’s reponse to the Otrar atrocity was tardy and that two years went by before he made his move. In fact his riposte was remarkably rapid. While making elaborate plans for a grand rendezvous of the majority of his forces on the upper Irtysh, he ordered Jochi and Jebe, already in Qara Khitai, to take their 30,000 troops and begin the march west immediately. The idea was that when these two reached the Ferghana valley, ‘arrow messengers’ or fast-travelling couriers from the main force converging on Otrar would be in touch with the khan’s latest orders. The orders to set out at once committed Jebe and Jochi to a gruelling trek in winter over high mountain passes, but there was no gainsaying the khan’s commands. The barrier of the Altyn-Tagh range forced travellers to take a route either north of the T’ien Shan or south of the River Tarim through the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The rule of thumb was that trade caravans took the southerly route to avoid the worst mountain passes, but large groups of migrants, needing more water than the desert could provide, went north. With 30,000 men Jebe and Jochi had no choice but to go north, yet they do not seem to have followed the conventional route through Dzungaria; instead they veered slightly south-west and found a pass between the Pamirs and the T’ien Shan, most likely through the Altai range (the sources are anything but pellucid). It was probably the Terek-Dawan defile, an all-year pass at 13,000 feet, which later became the principal route from Qara Khitai and was used by Marco Polo.3 On the way to this pass the Mongols rode through snowstorms and snow 5–6 feet deep, their horses wrapped in yak-hides and the riders wearing double sheepskin coats. Shortage of food meant they often had to open the veins of their mounts, drink the blood then close the veins up again. Not surprisingly, many horses dropped dead from the snow, ice and blood letting; any that did were devoured instantly.

Finally the Mongols reached the fertile valley of Ferghana in spring 1219 after an exploit that easily rivals Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Turkestan was then the name given to the entire area stretching from modern China to the Caspian, so it is a high commendation to say that the Ferghana valley was the commercial jewel of the entire region. It produced gold, silver, turquoise, quicksilver, iron, copper, naphtha, bitumen, millstones, perfume, cloth, weapons, needles, scissors, pots, bows, quivers, dyed hides, cloaks, flax, cotton, had a vast acreage of rice fields, extensive orchards and vineyards and a thriving pastoral sector concentrating on goats, horses and mules. The Mongols could raid and seize all they needed in such a milk-and-honey land.

The news of a Mongol army in Ferghana seriously disconcerted the shah Muhammad II, who had thought that any army coming from the east would have to take a more northerly route, through the Dzungaria Gate. Here was confirmation of Jalal al-Din’s opinion that the Mongols should be opposed on the eastern frontier. But already defeatism was evident at Muhammad’s court. The majority wanted to abandon Transoxiana and retreat to Khorasan or the Ghazni area of Afghanistan and build an invincible stronghold against which the Mongol hordes would fling themselves in vain until fatally weakened. The shah provided no proper leadership but instead declared that Allah had told him to attack the Mongols; he ranted against Genghis as an idolater and complained to his entourage that the Mongols had ‘unfairly’ beaten him to the punch by invading China.6 Yet the provocation of learning that the Mongols were laying waste Ferghana was too much to bear. Muhammad assembled a large army and marched against them.

Jochi’s orders from his father were not to allow himself to be sucked into pitched battles with the shah; his role was as a diversion, to keep the Khwarezmians occupied while Genghis came through the Dzungaria Gate. The headstrong Jochi never liked obeying his father’s orders, and this occasion was no different. Jebe strongly urged that the Mongols should retreat, if necessary up into the foothills of the mountains, so as to lure the shah further away from Otrar, where Genghis intended to strike. Jochi took a perverse pleasure in overruling a superior general (Jebe), exercising his prerogative as a prince of the blood, saying that such a course of action would be arrant cowardice.

The sources differ in their accounts of the battle. One version is that the Mongols were in a poor state to receive the enemy after their exertions on the long trek and, instead of their usual guileful manoeuvres, simply charged the shah head on. Another is that the Mongols gave a textbook demonstration of their tactics – the light cavalry appearing to discharge their usual arrow cloud, with the heavy cavalry waiting to deliver the killer blow. It is even suggested that Muhammad came within an ace of being captured. At all events, night came down on a battle that was still indecisive, but with the heavily outnumbered Mongols (perhaps 25,000 to twice that number) having outpointed the enemy in every area: speed, mobility, imagination.

This was the second time Muhammad had taken a mauling, and it reinforced what was becoming an idée fixe with him – that it was always folly to engage the Mongols in open battle. Jebe and Jochi meanwhile followed the time-honoured tactic of withdrawing under cover of darkness, managing to take most of their cattle and horses with them. Muhammad’s failure to pursue has puzzled some analysts, but at least three major factors were responsible. He was unsure of the true strength of the Mongols and could not know for certain that the army he had fought was not just a vanguard, with the main army lying in ambush, waiting for him to pursue. Then, in order to campaign effectively, the shah had to raise taxes and this in turn led to open rebellion among some already disaffected towns; to deal with these insurrections Muhammad had to divert his army from pursuit of the Mongols. Thirdly, by late summer he learned that the vanguard of another Mongol army was already pouring through the Dzungaria Gate in the north. He now had his answer. The Jebe–Jochi force had been a classic diversion.

Genghis set off with the main army in May 1219, following the Orkhon and Tula Rivers. Angling south-west, he crossed the Khangai Mountains through passes ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 feet and reached the Altai Mountains by mid-July. There is much scholarly wrangling about the exact route he took thereafter (geography was not the medieval chroniclers’ strong point); he may have used the Dabistan-Daban Pass, though at least two other defiles in this area are open from May to September. He made camp on the upper Irtysh in summer 1219, to give his men and horses rest and recreation and await the advent of his allies to this rendezvous. While encamped there, the Mongols experienced a freak summer snowstorm.

To confuse the shah still further Genghis sent a small detachment (maybe 5,000 strong) on a circuitous route south to enter Turkestan by the famous Dzungaria Gate. This (on the modern China–Kazakhstan border) was already known in ancient times to Herodotus and Ptolemy and thought to be the home of Boreas, the North Wind, on account of the fierce and constant winds encountered there. Basically a small rift valley, the Dzungaria Gate is a six-mile-wide, 46-mile-long gap between the lakes Alakol and Ebi Nur, the most important mountain pass between China and Central Asia and the one gateway in a mountain wall that otherwise stretches 3,000 miles from Afghanistan to Manchuria. This is the route Muhammad would have expected Genghis to take, on the expectation that he would be marching west from a base in Qara Khitai.

Meanwhile on the upper Irtysh Genghis took stock of his position and reviewed his strategy. In his retinue were Qulan, his favourite wife, his sons Tolui, Chagatai and Ogodei, and all his important generals and advisers except for Jebe and Jochi, already engaged on the western front, and Muqali in China; the most important personality of all may have been Subedei, who acted as Genghis’s chief of staff and is usually credited with the brilliant strategy used against the shah. (The government of Mongolia had been left to Genghis’s brother Temuge.)

Quite how many troops Genghis led is a vexed question, as are all issues relating to numbers in Mongol history. Estimates range from the grotesquely impossible 800,000 to the absurdly low 80,000. The lunatic figure of 800,000 mentioned by some popular writers is implausible on a number of grounds, chiefly that this would imply also herds of 800,000 horses and 24 million sheep and goats all on the march. Much depends on what figure we assign to the total population of Mongolia, and here again estimates range from 700,000 to two million. Given that the pastoral economy of Mongolia is inelastic and therefore can support only a constant population, and given also that the population of Mongolia in 1967 was three million, there is every justification for accepting the higher figure of two million in the thirteenth century. This might give us a total military strength of 200,000 and take us close to some of the higher estimates. Yet we must remember that large numbers of troops were still waging war in China, and that some of the newly conquered regions in Genghis’s rear could not be totally counted on and needed garrisons to keep them loyal. All in all, counting allied contingents, Chinese sappers, engineers and siege experts, we might settle for a total force of 120,000 effectives, including the 30,000 under Jochi and Jebe.

The most alarming news that reached Genghis at his summer camp on the upper Irtysh was that the expected Tangut contingent would not be coming. At first the campaign of 1209–10 seemed to have borne ripe fruit, for to start with Hsi-Hsia stayed loyal. There was an open usurpation of the crown in 1211 when a new ruler, Shen-Tsung, a man in his late forties, secured the throne by a coup, but he confirmed the Mongol alliance and remained steadfast until 1217. But then he repudiated all his commitments, under the influence of the virulently anti-Mongol general Asa Gambu. Together ruler and general offered the Jin an anti-Mongol alliance to take advantage of Genghis’s absence in the west; Asa Gambu, moreover, was convinced the Mongols would lose the war against Khwarezmia.

The Jin refused, on the basis that both the Mongols and the Tangut were their sworn enemies. The Tangut had better luck with the Song, but the latter told Shenzong they could not formally commit to an alliance until 1220 at the earliest. When the Mongols officially protested at Hsi-Hsia’s perfidy, Asa Gambu replied with heavy irony that since Genghis Khan styled himself the Khan of Khans (though actually he never took this title), he scarcely needed the help of the Tangut, as Heaven was already on his side. When this reply was conveyed to Genghis, he is said by some sources to have become apoplectic with rage. He asked one of his secretaries to remind him at noon and dusk every day thenceforth that the treacherous Tangut realm still existed.

Siege of Otrar

Soon it was time to move on, to the first target, Otrar. Genghis ordered his commissariat to make the most careful and meticulous preparations for the march ahead, factoring in all known wells, waterholes and oases. Every ten horsemen had to carry three dried sheep, with the mutton salted and dried in the sun, and an iron cauldron in which to cook the meat; similar ‘slide-rule’ projections were formulated for all other food. Genghis’s itinerary next took him across the Irtysh, past Lake Zaysan, then, by way of the River Emil and the Tarbaghatai Mountains, and passing the eastern shore of Lake Balkhash, one of the world’s great inland seas, he came to an autumn rendezvous on the plain of Qayaliq south of the lake; here he was joined by Arslan of of the Qarluqs, Suqnaq-tigin the new ruler of Almaliq, and his great friend the idiqut Barchuq.

Ten thousand Uighurs, 6,000 Qarluqs and a contingent from Almaliq made a hefty reinforcement; Ongud, Khitans, Solons, Kirghiz and Kem Kemjiut are also mentioned among the recruits. The allies were all much impressed with the Chinese engineers and the heavy equipment they brought for siegecraft. At Qayaliq Genghis sent Chagatai ahead with the vanguard to build bridges to take them across the remaining rivers, making sure they could bear the weight of heavy transport wagons. Chagatai had many faults but he completed this task with supreme efficiency, building forty-eight timber bridges wide enough for two heavy carts to drive across side by side.

The army proceeded south-west, reached the Ili River and followed it down to Almaliq, the final significant stop before their destination. Passing to the north of the Lake Issyk Kul, they reached the River Chu (in today’s northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan), the last significant obstacle before Otrar itself. Genghis gave strict orders that from now on there should be no hunting, so as not to tire the horses; he made sure food supplies were adequate, then struck due west for Otrar. Once across the Chu they were in the realms of the shah.

In October 1219 the Mongols finally arrived outside Otrar on the banks of the Syr Darya, the mighty river known to the ancients as the Jaxartes. (Alexander the Great fought a famous battle on the Jaxartes in 329 bc and proclaimed it the northern limit of his empire.) Genghis had spent three months on the march, excluding stopovers on the Irtysh and elsewhere, and had covered over 2,500 miles. Now he decided to leave the siege of Otrar to Ogodei and Chagatai while he waited with a large reserve force in a pass at the top of the Arys valley, in the foothills of a nearby mountain range.

As always, his strategy was masterly. Knowing that the shah was based at Samarkand, he sent 5,000 men upstream along the Syr Darya to seize Banakat (near Tashkent), where the road from Samarkand reached the river and where any army coming from that direction would have to approach. He hoped to lure Muhammad into an expedition to relieve Otrar. If that happened, the 5,000 Mongols at Banakat were to leave and link up with Ogodei and Chagatai outside Otrar. Genghis’s plan was to tempt the shah to imagine that the besieging army at Otrar could be caught between two fires, between his army advancing from Samarkand and the powerful garrison in Otrar, which would then sortie and assail the Mongols in the rear as they turned round to face the new army. If that happened, Genghis hoped to destroy the Khwarezmian military power in one go, using his expertise in uniting far-flung detachments of his army with lightning speed. The shah was unaware that there was a second army in the north, lurking in the foothills, and had lost sight of Jochi. With Genghis appearing unexpectedly on the flank of the sallying garrison and Jochi in the rear of Muhammad’s army, the stage would be set for a victory that would echo down the centuries. It would be more complete than Gaugamela, Cannae, Zama or any of the great battles of history.

But the shah would not take the bait. He was confident that the huge force of defenders at Otrar could hold out, and he wanted to be able to locate Jochi and Jebe accurately before committing himself to a clear course of action. He dithered and procrastinated, a true martial Hamlet, while his son Jalal tore his hair out that his earlier advice – to oppose the Mongols at the Syr Darya – had been rejected. In fact merely by abandoning the Syr Darya to Genghis, Muhammad had lost the first round of the struggle.

There was some rationality in his decision not to endorse Jalal’s plan. Since all the cities on that river (including Otrar) were on the north bank, any army defending them would have the river at its back and nowhere to escape to if defeated. On the other hand, if he used the river as a defence, defying the Mongols to cross it in the face of strong forces on the south bank, he would have to abandon all his northern cities. Moreover, even if he was victorious on the north bank, the Mongols would retreat into the mountains, and it was too dangerous to follow such a foe into that kind of terrain. Muhammad’s strategy therefore was to place such an enormous garrison in Otrar that the Mongols, already weary after a long march, would tire themselves out trying to take it. When he deemed that the besiegers were sufficiently exhausted, Muhammad told his advisers that he would indeed order the march from Samarkand to Banakat. This, too, was not entirely irrational. The garrison at Otrar contained no fewer than 60,000 fighting men, with the cavalry and infantry stationed all round the walls.

Genghis waited patiently for two months while the siege of Otrar dragged on, but finally concluded that the shah would never be tempted into battle. He therefore left express instructions with Ogodei and Chagatai to press the siege with all their might, assisted by Barchuq and the Uighurs, and sent orders to Jochi to advance from Ferghana and conquer all cities along the north bank of the Syr Darya. Sadly for his own ambitions, Muhammad had imbibed the myth that the Mongols were hopeless at siegecraft, which his agents based on the lacklustre performance in the campaign against Hsi-Hsia in 1209–11. He had no idea that as a result of their war with the Jin the Mongols’ expertise had proceeded almost exponentially, and the well-defended fortress of Otrar held no terrors for them. Inalchuq, the governor responsible for the original atrocity, and general Qaracha, sent by the shah with 50,000 men to bolster the governor’s original 10,000 garrison, are said to have been caught completely off guard by the Mongol host appearing outside the walls, with the neighing of armoured horses and the braying of chain-armoured mules.35 Naturally, the Mongols used all kinds of tricks to exaggerate their numbers. Gradually they pounded the walls and cut off all supplies of food and water. By their fierce discipline the numerically inferior nomad army triumphed over an enemy who should have been able to resist.

Nonetheless, it took five bitter months of fighting before Otrar finally cracked, in February 1220. In January, Qaracha, foreseeing the inevitable end, tried to make his escape with a bodyguard but was captured and executed; Ogodei fully shared his father’s belief that a general should never abandon his master.37 After this debacle large numbers of the shah’s dreaded mercenaries deserted. Some civilians, tired of the privations of a five-month siege, opened a side gate and let the attackers in, but Inalchuq, after abandoning the city to the Mongols, withdrew into the citadel with 20,000 of his crack troops; many of them soon deserted and in the end he was left with just 6,000.38 It took another month for the Mongols to winkle them out. When the citadel fell Inalchuq and his diehard loyalists retreated into a central tower. The defenders fought bitterly and in the end, desperately short of firearms, were reduced to showering the attackers with tiles. The Mongols mined the tower and, when it collapsed, dug a still living Inalchuq out of the ruins. All the Turkish deserters and any other soldiers left alive were instantly slaughtered. Ogodei and Chagatai ordered the city razed to the ground; it was never rebuilt, and its ghostly ruins attested to the folly of opposing the greatest power on earth. Inalchuq was taken and held for Genghis’s pleasure whenever he should appear. He was of course executed, but the story that Genghis first tortured him by having molten silver poured into his eyes is apocryphal.

With the fall of Otrar there was now no obstacle to the systematic reduction of all the cities and towns along the Syr Darya. Jochi and Jebe decided they should split up, with Jebe striking south, intending to cross the River Zerafshan and bar any southern escape route from Samarkand whenever Genghis decided to assault it. Jebe had with him somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men, scarcely enough to engage a large army; nevertheless when he encountered a larger Khwarezmian force, he attacked it and put it to flight. It was a great exploit but Genghis was none too happy when he heard of it. He always tried to avoid heavy casualties and to win by mobility and other indirect means.


The Battle of Brunkeberg not only saved the nascent Swedish nation state from being submerged in a Danish-dominated Scandinavian Union but saw a modern, professional army defeated and routed by a committed and well-organized peasant militia.

In 1397 the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden – with the Grand Duchy of Finland – created a union, with Queen Margaret of Denmark (1353-1412) as head of state. Due to the mutual suspicion and antagonism of the Danes and Swedes the union functioned poorly and when Margaret died in 1412 the Swedes broke away. They chose their own ruler, Charles VIII (Karl) Knutsson Bonde (1408-70), as their king, but when in May 1470 he died after a series of disjointed reigns. King Christian I of Denmark (1426-81), the legitimate ruler of Sweden, saw his chance to wrest back his throne.

In Stockholm, however. King Charles VIII’s nephew, Sten Gustavsson Sture (1440-1503), was elected by the Swedish grandees as Riksfdrestdndare (Lord Protector or Regent); he was supported by the old king’s followers and his relatives, such as Nils Sture (1426-94). But Christian I was determined to assert his legitimate claim and during the early summer of 1471 set about mobilizing his army. He secured shipping to transport his force to Stockholm by making a deal with the Hanseatic League, which was granted a monopoly on trade with Sweden once it had been forced back into the union with Denmark.

The two armies were fundamentally different. Both militarily and economically, the Danes were the stronger of the two peoples, coming from a more prosperous, populous and fertile country. The king’s army consisted of 3000 Danish troops that varied from mounted knights to regular infantry and armed peasant levies – the latter contained a small Swedish contingent loyal to their legitimate ruler. In addition there were 2000 or so German infantry – hardened professional mercenaries. The Danish army liked to fight regular battles in the open field where their material preponderance, military experience and superior discipline could he used to best effect. If the Swedes faced the Danes and Germans in the open they would be, or so the Danes believed, cut to pieces and slaughtered wholesale.

By contrast Sten Sture’s Swedish army consisted of lightly armed yet mobile peasants in arms, some tough professionals, and a handful of mounted knights (about 400). The core of the army, nine-tenths of it, would be made up of peasant levies armed with swords, pikes, axes, crossbows and longbows. The favourite tactic among the Swedish peasants – put to good use in the wooded, hilly Swedish countryside – was the ambush, and at Brunkeberg, Sten Sture would use that peasant tactic, but on a far greater scale, to good effect.


In late July 1471 the Danish fleet of 76 ships with the army on board set sail from Copenhagen harbour heading east towards Stockholm. To reach the city the Danish fleet would have to navigate through the treacherous, shallow waters of the vast archipelago that blocked the entrance to the Swedish capital. The archipelago consisted of literally hundreds of low-lying islands and underwater rocks sitting just beneath the surface. This made the Stockholm archipelago a navigator’s nightmare but it says something for the Danish admiral’s skills that the entire fleet sailed safely into the harbour of Stockholm without losing a single ship. No doubt a well-paid Swedish pilot had been recruited!

The Danish fleet anchored between the islands of Kapplingeholm and the larger, wooded island of Vargo (Wolf’s Island), just across the water from Stockholm Castle. The city, located on an island, could not be stormed by a conventional army nor assaulted properly by a fleet. Its approaches from the easterly side, facing the Baltic, were protected by a strong wooden palisade that protruded out of the water and blocked off Stockholm from a naval assault. It could only be attacked by an invader on the landward side from either the north or south. Both approaches were blocked by powerful turreted drawbridges and fortified gates. In the north Stockholm Castle gave added protection should the Danes attack.

But Christian had no intention of subjecting this formidable fortress city to a regular siege. He wanted his enemy, Sten Sture, to come to the relief of Stockholm, where the king hoped to defeat the `rebel’ Swedes in a regular battle he was sure his modern and well-equipped army would easily win. The Danes began to land their troops on Kapplingeholm on 18 August and immediately began to build a fortified camp atop the southern end of Brunkeberg. They built earthen ramparts topped by earth filled wicker baskets, wooden palisades and a strong stockade. The Swedes were shocked at the speed of construction and the defences. At regular intervals were openings for cannon – a new form of weaponry that came as a unpleasant surprise to the Swedes. This Brunkeberg camp was pivotal to Danish strategy. Had King Christian kept on the defensive he might have secured a victory by attrition. Sten Sture would have had to relieve Stockholm and this would have forced him to attack if the Danes remained on the defensive.


Both sides were quietly confident that they would win. The Danes had skill, better weapons and a fortified camp to bolster their chances, the Swedes, however, were fighting on home ground and knew the terrain far better than their enemy. On the high, wooded and boulder-strewn ridge of Brunkeberg, knights in armour, artillery and regular infantry would not be in their element. Swedish chances of winning were heightened by Christian I’s dispositions. In the face of an enemy of unknown strength an army should be kept together and not divided up.

The king, however, split his far smaller army into three parts to defend vital strategic points on the battlefield. Should things go badly wrong for the Danish side then their retreat back to the fleet had to be secured by a detachment of cavalry and some infantry. Furthermore the Stockholm garrison had to be prevented from joining up with the Swedish field army – so Christian placed another detachment to defend the pivotal position around the convent of St Klara. The main part of his army remained in the Brunkeberg camp.

The Swedes and Danes agreed to a truce that was to last until late September in order to make crucial preparations for a battle that could prove decisive. While Sten Sture went south to recruit more peasant troops and provincial knights, his cousin. Nils Sture, went to central Sweden for the same purpose. If Sten Sture wanted to win against King Christian then he had to secure the support of the belligerent anti-Danish population of Darlecarlia and Bergslagen. It took Sten and Nils what remained of the month of August and the whole of September to recruit the vast host of armed peasants that would make up the Swedish army at Brunkeberg. But on 9 October their contingents were finally assembled and united into a single army at Järva, north of Stockholm. In total the Swedes numbered some 10,000 men, or twice the number that Christian had at his disposal. This numerical preponderance would prove crucial and more than make up for the enemy’s higher troop quality.

During the following day Sten Store’s army marched from Järva and took up position, under cover of darkness during the night of 9/10 October, just northwest of St Klara. On the morrow not only his but his entire country’s fate would hang in the balance, but he was sure that his strategy would work. Christian’s plan was to lure the Swedes into fighting in the open, to be annihilated by a modern European-style army. But Sten Sture had no intention of doing what the king wanted. Instead he would use a simple but shrewd plan to trap, overwhelm and defeat the Danes.

While his army attacked the Danes from the front against the slopes leading up to their camp and the St Klara convent. Nils Sture would take his Darlecarlians around the ridge to the north. Once they had crossed it and made their way east they would regroup on Ladugardslandet, where the inhabitants of the capital grazed their cattle. As quickly as possible. Nils would then attack the vulnerable rear of the Danish position from the east and hopefully overcome the Danes through a combination of surprise and sheer numbers.

To make doubly sure that this strategy would work, Sten Sture had ordered Knut Posse, the Commandant of Stockholm, to put his troops and armed Stockholm burghers into boats, row across the narrow canal separating the capital from the mainland and land on the opposite shore. Posse was to attack the Danes holding St Klara in the rear and give Christian a nasty surprise. Now if everything went according to Sten Sture’s plan the Danes would be attacked on three sides giving them two simple options: fight to the death where they stood or flee for their lives towards their anchored fleet. Only the unfolding battle the following day would show if Sten Sture’s clever plan would work.


By early morning the Swedes were in position. The battle began at 11.00 a. m. and would continue for four gruelling and bloody hours. The Swedes fired volley after volley of arrows at the Danish camp and positions. The Danes, better equipped and with modern weaponry, answered with cannon fire. Sten Sture launched his first attack that was met by the Danes. Seeing his exposed corps around St Klara threatened bv this second Swedish offensive, Christian committed his troops. They left the safety of the camp and counter-attacked in the open to save the St Klara position. Danish self-confidence soared as their flanking attack against the Swedes seemed to take effect. The battlefront was now one long chain of fighting men stretching for almost a kilometre (0.6 miles) through partially open fields and rocky woodland. It was close-quarters lighting, man against man with axes, pikes, swords, spears, cudgels and daggers. The continuing battle had distracted the Danes as Sten Sture’s strategy of encirclement began to take shape. Finally, by the afternoon. Nils Sture’s Darlecarlians were in position to the east while the Stockholm garrison rowed as silently as they could for the opposite shore.


Nils Sture signalled for his men to advance. ‘The Danish outposts were swiftly and brutally dealt with, then, when they reached the Danish camp the Darlecarlians, the most feared of the Swedes, launched themselves at the poorly defended ramparts facing east with a roar. Meanwhile, led by Posse and Trolle, the Stockholm troops had landed on the shore and regrouped rapidly for an attack towards the convent, where they hoped to surprise and overwhelm the Danish defenders. It worked. The Danes were taken completely by surprise by Posse’s attack. Here the training and superior arms of the king’s troops were of little avail as wave after wave of snarling Swedes poured in on them from all sides.

The Danes were no weaklings and as professional troops fought back with controlled ferocity and great skill. But there were too many of the enemy as the infantry fought a hand-to-hand battle while the mounted Danish knights were unhorsed one by one. As they came crashing down, the knights were bludgeoned or stabbed to death by the peasant soldiers they had held in such contempt at the beginning of the battle. Christian shared his knights’ contempt for the enemy and the usurper rebel Sten Sture, and had thus expected an easy triumph once the Swedes were committed to battle. Instead it was his army that had walked blindly into a trap. Now, as the horrified king saw his men dying and his proud army buckling under the enemy’s onslaught, the question was how much, if any, of his army could be saved?

The Swedes were not having everything their own way, however. Knut Posse – in contrast to Sten Sture – led his men from the front and paid a terrible price for his bravery. Danish crossbowmen hit him in the legs and then a Dane or a German infantryman hit him over the head with an axe. He was carried, dying from his wounds, back to Stockholm. Nevertheless, his demise did not dampen the resolve of the Swedes, who scented victory and redoubled their efforts to destroy the enemy. Christian had committed a series of blunders and he may have had his faults as a commander but cowardice was not one of them. He ordered his personal guard to join him at the very centre of the fighting to drive back the Swedes and rally his faltering men. Perhaps the king was courting death, preferring to meet an honourable end in battle rather than survive a defeat. His bravado ended abruptly as he was hit by a small cannonball, leaving him badly wounded. His place was taken by one of his toughest and bravest commanders. Count Strange Nielsen, who tried to rally the troops carrying the Dannebrog (the white and red Royal Danish flag). He was killed outright.

The Danes and Germans began to waver and break. A handful of fleeing men became a hundred and then the flow of retreating soldiery became a torrent of panic-stricken and terrified humanity with only one thought on their mind: to flee. There was now no pretence of a well ordered retreat – it was a rout and it ended in tragedy as the rickety bridge between the mainland and the island of Kapplingeholm collapsed under the enormous weight of fleeing men and horses. Danish boats, sent out from the fleet, rowed up to shore and picked up survivors. Once those that could be saved had been taken aboard, the fleet sailed back to Copenhagen. King Christian had lost half his men – some 900 had drowned, another 900 had capitulated to the triumphant Swedes at the camp and the rest lay dead on the battlefield.


Sten Sture had saved Sweden’s fledgling statehood and independence but it had been a dearly bought victory for the Swedes. For the next 250 years Denmark and Sweden fought a series of bloody wars against each other with all the hatred and ferocity showed at Brunkeberg.

Milan Commune (1097— c. 1240)

Foot Berrovieri

Company of the Carroccio


In the wake of the Patarine struggle, the various factions tried to develop a more inclusive government. The archbishop continued to be the nominal leader, but power gradually passed into the hands of laymen. The commune (commune civitatis), first mentioned in a document of 1097, consisted of a popular assembly and an executive council composed of consuls elected from the city’s three factions—capitanei, valvassores, and cives.

By the early twelfth century, political consolidation was accompanied by military and economic expansion. To gain access to central Italy and the Adriatic, Milan attacked Lodi and Cremona; to reach the Ligurian coast, it defeated Pavia; and to secure the Alpine passes, it destroyed Como. Milan’s expansion brought it into direct conflict with Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155-1190), who wished to reassert direct imperial rule over Italy. Twice, in 1158 and 1162, Frederick successfully besieged Milan. The second defeat was particularly severe: Frederick ordered the demolition of Milan’s walls, gates, and towers, and the palaces of his principal enemies; moreover, he expelled the entire population, forcing them to live for four years in the suburban areas. Milan’s isolation, however, was only temporary. Growing aversion to imperial rule among the communes of northern Italy soon led to the formation of the Lombard League, whose forces defeated an imperial army at Legnano (1176). By the Peace of Constance (1183) the Lombard communes secured their de facto autonomy from the empire, while still recognizing their de jure sovereignty.

Communal liberty did not, however, put an end to Milan’s social tension. In 1198, the city’s shopkeepers and artisans formed an association known as the credenza di Sant’Ambrogio to protect their political and economic interests. Opposing them was the motta, composed of lesser nobles, wealthy commoners, and merchants; die great nobles for their part remained closely tied to the archbishop. To maintain peace and achieve political reform the Milanese increasingly resorted to the one-man rule of a foreign magistrate, the podestà. The policies introduced by the podestà included protecting the citizenry from arbitrary confiscations by the government (1205); laying the groundwork for the general assessment of properties (catasto); making commoners as eligible for public office as nobles were (1214); codifying customary law (1216); and constructing a new communal palace, or Broletto nuovo (1228). The renewed confidence of the Milanese became evident in 1220 when they not only refused hospitality to Frederick II (r. 1215-1250) as he traveled from Germany to Rome for his imperial coronation, but also opposed his coronation as king of Italy. In 1226, a second Lombard League (strengthened by papal support) was formed against Frederick II. This time the empire prevailed, at the battle of Cortenuova (1237). Within the city, the commoners, fearing reprisals from the nobility who had sided with the emperor, elected a new official—known as the capitano del popolo—to rule alongside the podestà. The first such capitano was Pagano della Torre (1240), who was already prominent as leader of the Credenza di Sant’Ambrogio and a member of the anti-imperial and pro-papal faction known as the Guelfs.


The carroccio was the standard-bearing cart, usually drawn by oxen, of the northern Italian cities. It served as a symbolic focus of patriotism and a rallying point in battle. These carts were meant to unite the divergent social groups within the emerging city-states of Lombardy and Tuscany. Their use (at least as early as 1039) paralleled and coincided with the adoption of civic patron saints and the development of the commune and an independent popolo in many cities. The main purposes of the carts were to accompany a city’s troops on campaigns, to serve as a platform for patriotic or pious harangues and for celebrations of the mass before battle, and to provide a highly visible point of reference for troops during battle. To lose a cart to an enemy was shameful, and captured carts were often treated brutally.

The earliest known Milanese cart was that of Archbishop Aribert (1039). It consisted of “a high wooden pole like the mast of a ship which was fixed to a strong wagon; at the top was a gilded apple and from this descended two ribbons of dazzlingiy white cloth, and in the center a holy cross was painted with our Savior portrayed, his arms extended,” In the later twelfth century Saint Ambrose (the patron saint of Milan) replaced the crucifix, and later still the cloth was scarlet and a gold cross replaced the apple. Three pairs of oxen drew this carroccio, which clearly embodied both ecclesiastical and civic symbolic elements. Soldiers of Cremona and Parma captured the Milanese wagon in 1149, and in 1160 imperial troops killed the oxen, captured the banner, and overturned the cart. When Frederick I Barbarossa captured Milan the next year, he seized the carroccio and ninety-four civic banners as booty. At Legnano in 1176, however, Milanese troops rallied around the carroccio, warding off defeat at Frederick’s hands. When the Milanese invaded the area of Cremona in 1213, they lost both an important battle and their carroccio; and in 1237, at Cortenuova, the Milanese carroccio, after being stripped of its ornaments and reluctantly abandoned by the Milanese army, was taken by Frederick II and sent to Cremona and then Rome, where it was displayed in the Campidoglio.

The carrocci of other cities differed in ornamental detail, but all served the same functions. The wagons, masts, and banners were carefully tended in peacetime and were ritually blessed before use. Peacemaking between rivals within a single city often occurred around the carroccio, and carrocci were exchanged when Parma and Cremona ended their hostilities in 1281. In the 1230s Fra Giovanni preached civic peace and reconciliation from the carrocci of Padua, Brescia, Mantua, and Vicenza, and from that of Verona he declared himself podesta and duke of Verona. Often, legitimate podesta took their oaths of office from the city’s carroccio, and captured cities swore submission from the carroccio of the victor.

Despite their importance in peacetime, carrocci were above all meant to bring together for battle the often fractious elements of the city-state. Both nobles and commoners guarded the carroccio on campaigns, and both were expected to fight to the death to protect it in battle.

By the early fourteenth century, with the advent of professional armies and leaders, the carroccio fell into disuse, so that the historian Giovanni Villani (1275-1348) felt it necessary to describe in detail the Florentine cart which had been captured and burned by the Sienese at Montaperti eighty years before.

Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era I

In the years after the end of the First World War the RAF became deeply involved in a series of imperial campaigns as the British sought to impose their will on the sprawling regions of the globe they now controlled or for which they were responsible. During the interwar years air forces came to be identified as an ideal and cost-effective way of maintaining order and control in the face of rebellions and insurrections, and not just by the British government. With air campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in particular the RAF forged a role that rendered it a crucial tool in the fight to retain control of imperial possessions at relatively low cost at a time when London was desperately attempting to rein in spending. As is often the case, the received wisdom is at odds with the reality, but there is little doubt that for a period of years after the armistice of 1918 the RAF’s role in imperial policing was a vital component of its survival strategy in the face of efforts by the older services to break it up. It is also true, however, that the RAF developed other reasons to justify its existence in the 1920s and played a broader role than mere force in the maintenance of empire.

Yet, as the RAF began the process of being scaled back into a peacetime force it was far from clear exactly what role it would play and thus how it should be constituted. From its peak of 300,000 in 1918 the RAF was reduced by 1920 to some 30,000 personnel and from 180 operational squadrons down to a mere twenty, with only two based in the UK. Some 10,000 machines and 30,000 engines had been sold off by 1920 as the British endeavoured to realign both expenditure and force composition in the economically uncertain yet diplomatically stable post-war era.

Political machinations were to aid the RAF’s survival substantially during this delicate period, and the appointment of Churchill as Secretary of State for the Air, even though he simultaneously held the role of Minister for War too, proved vital. Churchill was a keen advocate of air power as well as a shrewd and combative politician. Perversely, his position was bolstered by the overly ambitious and unrealistic tone adopted by Air Vice Marshal Frederick Sykes, then the CAS. Sykes had replaced Trenchard in April 1918, but Sykes’s vision for the RAF in the post-war world was out of kilter with the tone of government, which was increasingly founded on fiscal pruning and retrenchment in a world with few perceived or plausible threats. Sykes lobbied for the creation of an imperial air force to help bind the empire together, but his estimate of 348 squadrons with 110,000 personnel was both wildly profligate and politically naïve. Churchill moved Sykes on and brought back the obdurate and more politically astute Trenchard as CAS.

Yet they clashed too, and Trenchard’s initial estimates were forced downwards by Churchill. The new CAS wanted an RAF of 124 squadrons costing some £23 million to £25 million; anything less would be useless, Trenchard argued. Churchill offered £13 million, and eventually they fixed on a sum of £15 million. Trenchard’s willingness to accept this compromise resulted in the Lloyd George government looking upon him favourably, but the Air Staff’s hope that the RAF would be recognized as the principal arm of imperial defence was dashed.

Trenchard set in motion a series of initiatives and policies that would lay the structural foundation of the post-war RAF, based on realism, a degree of opportunism, and political expediency. His famous memorandum of December 1919 set out a vision for the RAF much more in line with the prevailing economic and political climate, one based on limited initial and immediate capability but focused more heavily on training and long-term establishment. Trenchard was attempting to lay the foundations of a permanent service with deep roots, and the Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell and the RAF Staff College at Andover were established to underpin this long-term vision.

Trenchard was, however, astute enough to recognize that though he and many of his staff saw the RAF’s future as a truly independent force with a strategic role, this was neither appropriate nor marketable in the early 1920s. The only way in which this future might be realized would be if the RAF could first embed itself in the defence establishment more completely, and in 1921 this was far from certain. Indeed, if there was a period when the RAF’s future was in some doubt it was then, as the army and navy manoeuvred to partition the air force. Later squabbles over the RAF’s future were more intended to squeeze concessions and commitments out of the Air Staff and the break-up of the RAF was never likely, but in 1921 it was a distinct possibility; the Air Staff and Trenchard were too canny to allow this to happen, however, particularly compared to the War Office, and most obviously over the policy that became known as ‘Substitution’.

From 1919 onwards the British government developed a policy of substituting mechanized equipment, such as armoured vehicles or aircraft, for traditional conventional forces such as infantry and cavalry, particularly in matters of imperial policing and control. This, it was contended, would reduce costs and lead to modernization. It was the Air Staff who saw this as an opportunity, while the War Office hesitated. The Air Staff’s policy of stepping in to fulfil the role of imperial control and policing proved hugely successful for the RAF, ensuring its viability. The link between aerial policing and the RAF’s future was clear; in one RAF memo in 1920 Trenchard noted that he ultimately hoped that the RAF would become the dominant force in imperial defence, this being the first step to becoming ‘more and more the predominating factor in all types of warfare’.

Though it was the revolt in Iraq and its aftermath (1920–1) that gave the impetus to Trenchard’s vision for a formal air control policy, the RAF had already been involved in imperial control missions before then. In 1919 the RAF deployed aircraft with some success in helping to put down the rebellion known as the Third Afghan War. Initially RAF efforts were directed towards supporting friendly ground forces but this was dangerous due to the operating conditions and limited in effect due to the quality of the available aircraft. RAF officers lobbied for a more coordinated and focused bombing effort to be targeted against Afghan towns, cities, and large encampments. Beginning in May the campaign had significant effects. Afghan settlements were largely incapable of dealing with the raids and considerable damage appears to have been inflicted, both physically and on morale. By the end of May RAF bombers were dropping around a tonne of bombs per day, many on Jalalabad, but it was a symbolic raid on Kabul itself that had the most significance. Carried out by a four-engine Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber originally designed to bomb Berlin, the raid was later considered by General Charles Monro, commander-in-chief, India, to be ‘an important factor in producing a desire for peace at the headquarters of the Afghan Government’. King Amanullah, the leader of the Afghan rebellion, pointed out the hypocrisy of the British, however, for while the bombing of London by the Germans had been condemned in the UK as barbaric and uncivilized, it appeared to be acceptable when perpetrated against non-Westerners.

This was a pattern to be repeated throughout the era. The RAF was more freely deployed around the empire against non-white peoples, but also against more remote targets; plans to use air forces in major urban centres such as Cairo or Calcutta, though set out, were never employed due to the obvious human and political costs. And of course, the most significant rebellion against British rule in the period, in Ireland, saw very little military use of the RAF at all, a policy Trenchard strongly adhered to. Though aircraft flew reconnaissance and resupply operations in Ireland, there is very little evidence of them being used in more offensive duties, even though senior British leaders and commanders hotly debated the option. By March 1921, in the closing stages of the fighting, the use of aircraft in very specific, controlled, and limited offensive operations had been authorized by the British government. Yet, even then the RAF employed offensive weapons in only 3 per cent of their flying time and in all probability caused no casualties.

Though the RAF could point to the success of the Afghan War, which concluded in August 1919, the aftermath was less satisfying. A drawn-out series of actions stretching into 1920, supported by the RAF, were conducted against recalcitrant tribes along the North-West Frontier as the British sought to restore order in the wake of the Afghan uprising. In these endeavours, the RAF was less able to shape events, and though some tribes were brought to order by air action alone, some were not, and ground forces had to be deployed in considerable numbers. Senior army and air force officers consequently disagreed about the decisive factors, and not always along service lines.

The campaign that highlighted the RAF’s role in imperial policing was that conducted in Somaliland in 1920 against Mohammed bin Abdulla Hassan—a so-called ‘Mad Mullah’—and his Dervish forces. The Mullah had increased his influence across Somaliland, further aided by the Germans during the war, and by 1918 the British were determined to act to impose their will on the area. In 1919 the War Office stood back from serious involvement, allowing Trenchard to make the RAF’s case for reinstating British rule, at minimal cost; just one squadron and no increases in ground support beyond what was already station in Somaliland. In short order the RAF spearheaded the campaign in January 1920, surprising and then scattering the Mullah’s forces, which were then mopped up by the ground forces, supported by air actions. The RAF’s involvement lasted around a month at a cost of just £70,000, with just three aeroplanes lost and no combat deaths.

Yet even in this much lauded campaign, debate ensued as to the actual level of effectiveness of the RAF’s actions. While army officers conceded that air actions had been crucial, it was argued that ground forces had still been vital elements, that the Somali Camel Corps had been weakening the Mullah by persistent action for many years, and that a combined campaign from the start would have yielded even better results. It was also true that the Mullah’s popularity was already on the wane by 1920 due to his increasing recourse to brutal methods of imposing rule, so that when calamity came, his troops melted away. The Mullah also weakened his position by abandoning his forces’ preferred guerrilla tactics for occupation methods, based on permanent bases and forts. These provided obliging and highly vulnerable targets for air attack.

Nevertheless, the tone of RAF operations in an imperial policing role had been set. Further success in Sudan underlined Trenchard’s approach. In a land of few roads to support modern ground operations and huge distances to cover with only a sprinkling of friendly troops to rely upon, the RAF was called upon in December 1919 to aid operations against the Garjak Nuer tribe, which would not toe the line and stop raiding other communities. H Unit, as the RAF contingent of just two DH9A aeroplanes and under thirty men was called, found the going tough at first with awkward operating conditions and evasive Nuer tactics. When both RAF aircraft were put out of action a third was flown in from Egypt, a distance of over 1,800 miles and an early example of the long and flexible reach of air power.

The turning point in the campaign came when the British ground forces, aided by the RAF, switched tactics to targeting the Nuer villages rather than seeking battle. The human cost was severe with children and the elderly paying the price. Cattle were targeted, and when supplies began to run out the Nuer submitted. RAF operations were highlighted by the army as being crucial to the success of the campaign, and again there were no RAF casualties. Indeed, the army’s main issue had been the small numbers of aircraft available when more might have expedited victory.

Ultimately the implementation of a formalized RAF air control policy was to come in Iraq in 1922, but it took two years to get there. Early in 1920, in his role as Secretary of State for War, Churchill was seeking cuts in expenditure for the garrisoning of Iraq, then standing at £18 million for a force that included some 14,000 British troops, backed by Indian and other local elements. Churchill wanted this to be achieved in part through substituting mechanized equipment for conventional elements, but the War Office baulked at the idea. Churchill turned to the RAF for a plan with the incentive of a £5–6 million increase in the air force estimates. Trenchard and the Air Staff took the initiative, citing early examples of the RAF’s effectiveness in the imperial role. Though it was not entirely possible at that time for the RAF to meet the requirements of Churchill’s policy for Iraq, Trenchard was ambitious enough to claim that it could, and came up with a scheme based on aircraft and supporting ground forces to plug the gap. It would require one hundred aircraft with around 4,000 British personnel and 10,000 Indian troops, all supported by a small number of local forces. Churchill’s enthusiasm was not matched by the cabinet’s support, however, and they remained unconvinced that a few aeroplanes could replace 100,000 troops.

It took the anti-British revolt in Iraq to force matters. The rising in Iraq against British rule broke out in the spring of 1920 just as the cabinet in London was still debating the rights of wrongs of Churchill’s air control scheme. The political squabbles mattered little as the Arab rebels scored a series of successes despite the presence of thirty imperial infantry battalions and five cavalry regiments, supported by artillery batteries and two squadrons of the RAF. Many in Britain were already set against British involvement in the region, for a whole variety of reasons, and the revolt stirred up yet more considerable political discontent. The RAF contingent flew increasing numbers of missions against the insurgents, though operating and living conditions were harsh.

For the RAF the initial shortage of aircraft was a major problem and in May they had only eleven functioning aeroplanes, eight of which were ageing BE-8s, though these were subsequently replaced by Bristol F.2b fighters. By August the situation was so desperate that Churchill authorized the RAF to employ chemical weapons if necessary, even though there were no useable bombs available. The army only held tear gas shells, though stocks had to be requested from Egypt, and it is unclear as to whether these weapons, or indeed any lethal chemical devices, were ever employed in Iraq by the British.

Aircraft built for European conditions struggled in Mesopotamia, with sand and dust causing problems for engines and airframes alike, while hazards such as plagues of locust and whirlwinds added further to the RAF’s problems. The aircrew despaired of the conditions, living in decaying tents, suffering extremes of temperatures, and existing off tins of rancid meat and dry biscuits. On his first ten days’ duties in Iraq one officer recorded:

We were up on eight of them before dawn, off to Diwaniyah where we had to fill up [with fuel] ourselves—no joke on a BF [Bristol Fighter]—then bombing of the Diwaniyah–Samawah area, landed at Samawah, again filled up by ourselves, bombed by ourselves, left again, bombed the same area again and landed Diwaniyah to fill up and back to Baghdad.

Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era II

Flying boats on the Nile, 1930. Down route to the empire, Supermarine Southampton flying boats at buoys, probably on the River Nile c.1930. Long-range operations to Africa and the Far East were commonplace for flying boat crews for the two decades between the wars.

The reach of empire, 1928–39. Imperial air policing was advocated by the RAF in the interwar period as a cost-effective method of maintaining the British Empire. It paved the way for airline routes.

Initially called in on fire-fighting sorties, the RAF much preferred concentrated and focused raids and argued that these had a much more significant impact. Units also employed tactics whereby villages and civilians were targeted, often on the grounds of being reprisal raids, but with the general intention of degrading the support network for the insurgents.

By the autumn the revolt had been broken, but not until further resources had been pumped into the area, including yet more RAF aircraft from Europe. As some semblance of control and order was imposed, the scale of the effort to achieve success caused many in the UK to blanch. By December the British still had 17,000 of their own troops and 85,000 Indian soldiers based in Mesopotamia, at an estimated annual cost of some £30 million. General Haldane, commanding the imperial forces in Iraq, argued that he would in future need thirty-three infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments to maintain British rule; a wholly unrealistic figure both economically and politically in late 1920. The War Office suggested that a future commitment of one division would be able to hold Basra and the oil fields, but little else.

Trenchard’s views were already known on how Iraq could be policed and controlled principally through the efforts of the RAF, and his position was bolstered by the comments of Arnold Wilson, the chief British representative in Baghdad, who argued that aircraft had saved the day in the campaign in Iraq.

At a conference in Cairo in 1921 to resolve matters of administration and control of Britain’s overblown commitments across the Middle East, Churchill, by then the Colonial Secretary, started to push through the air control plan, backed by a range of other new measures.

Trenchard was well pleased with the outcome, but the War Office attempted to derail the plan, pushing for the break-up of the RAF; they argued that aeroplanes were auxiliary to troops and Air Staff policy was now working against this. The War Office’s initiative was swept aside by Lord Balfour and the Committee for Imperial Defence and Trenchard’s fully fledged air control scheme was given the green light by the autumn of 1921.

The adopted plan was for eight RAF squadrons, two British and two Indian infantry battalions, three companies of armoured cars, and other minor supporting forces to take on the task of delivering security and policing for Iraq. However, it was one thing for Trenchard and the Air Staff to offer up the new scheme; it was quite another to deliver it. Indeed, when the RAF, under the command of Air Vice Marshal John Salmond, took responsibility for security in Iraq in October 1922 the political situation was still in a state of flux. A bombing campaign in the north against insurgents under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud, supported by Turkish supplies and troops, yielded great success and included the first examples of the air evacuation and air insertion of troops, in both cases helping to swing the fighting in Britain’s favour. In the latter case Mahmud’s forces were threatening Kirkuk, secure in the knowledge that the roads from the south were impassable due to flooding. But 45 Squadron, under the command of one Arthur Harris, airlifted in 480 troops to secure the position and the threat evaporated.

A more coordinated effort in Kurdistan in 1923 again proved highly effective and the validity of the RAF’s policy for Iraq appeared to be vindicated. The success brought political benefit back in London too as it provided Trenchard with extra ammunition when facing the Salisbury Committee’s investigations into armed service relations, a battle the Air Ministry won relatively easily. Trenchard wrote to Salmond: ‘I cannot emphasize too much the value your successful command in Iraq has been to us.’

In 1922 the highly influential Royal United Services Institute published C. J. Mackay’s prize-winning essay, ‘The Influence in the Future of Aircraft Upon the Problems of Imperial Defence’, indicating the growing importance of the idea of air control and policing, while Wing Commander C. H. K. Edmonds, in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in 1923, stated: ‘First, we are all of us imperialists, and we wish to see the empire defended as securely as possible. Second, we are all taxpayers, so we want the defence to be as economical as possible.’

By 1925 the success of air control was clear; costs for the security of Iraq had been reduced from £20 million in 1921–2 to under £3.5 million three years later, and the north and Mosul in particular had been secured against the Turks. Leo Amery, the then Colonial Secretary, and Sam Hoare, Secretary of State for Air, both toured the region in 1925 and noted the impact of the RAF. Amery stated that ‘the Air Force has transformed the whole situation in Iraq. It is due to its ceaseless vigilance that the work of political reconstruction has gone so smoothly’, while Hoare commented that ‘I cannot imagine a more striking testimony to the efficacy and economy of the air as the key for exercising control in suitable areas of the Middle East.’ It was of course fundamental to the success of British efforts that suitable political initiatives were undertaken, notably the incorporation of a collaborative Sunni elite into the administration of Iraq, though this of course was to store up problems for the future.

Unsurprisingly the RAF’s policy of air control was viewed as a cost-cutting model for other parts of the empire and British mandates and protectorates, though not always with success. In Palestine, the RAF had assumed responsibility for the control and security of the region in 1922, and over the ensuing years costs had been reduced and ground forces pared back. Much of the RAF’s responsibility centred on policing Bedouin incursions into Palestine. In 1929 the RAF’s scant forces were found wanting when Arab resentment over an upturn in Jewish immigration raised the idea of a Jewish National Home and precipitated an outbreak of attacks on Jewish settlements in which some 200 people were killed. Despite playing a part in bringing the troubles to an end it was clear that air control had not been sufficient and extra ground forces were deployed in the aftermath, though the RAF remained in command. When a more serious outbreak of trouble erupted in 1936, the commander, Air Vice Marshal Richard Peirse, wanted to employ harsh measures to regain control, but opposition to his ideas of bombing, martial law, and forced labour caused London to intervene. Peirse was replaced with Lieutenant General Jack Dill and more ground troops were despatched to quell the rebellion. It is doubtful whether the army’s measures were any less destructive, but the shift in policy brought RAF air control to an end in Palestine, though the RAF continued to play a key role in the region through to 1948.

In Arabia, however, the RAF enjoyed greater success in helping to resist the efforts of the Imam of Yemen extending his zone of control further south towards the British-controlled port of Aden. In 1921 the RAF deployed aircraft to Aden to support friendly forces in the region, and in the following year Trenchard recommended scaling down ground forces in favour of RAF assets; two battalions were subsequently withdrawn or disbanded. In 1926 the Imam’s forces had further encroached upon British interests, but the costs of despatching a significant ground force to deal with the matter were rejected as prohibitively costly. Trenchard stepped in with a scheme based on the RAF squadron in Aden supported by three armoured cars and some local levies. This came into force in 1928, and within two years the regular infantry had gone. The scheme worked effectively, the Imam’s power was curtailed, and he was forced, under aerial duress, to restrain his ambitions. Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, wrote to Trenchard in 1928 extolling the virtues of air control policy: ‘This example [Aden] is a triumphant vindication of your theories.’

Elsewhere across Africa, the air control policy had less traction, despite the success in Somaliland in 1920. In Egypt the RAF played an important role in supporting British interests, but ground forces remained the main weapon in a densely populated nation, while in Somaliland, once order had been restored, the costs of developing a permanent air presence were considered too great compared to those of maintaining existing troops. In the Sudan in 1927–8, RAF aeroplanes had helped to put down a rebellion in the south of the country, though some grumbled that the air attacks had dispersed the rebels before they could be properly dealt with by ground forces. Nevertheless, the Air Staff continued to advance the idea of a full-blown air control scheme for East Africa, and it gained support from the local white settlers who were largely happy to see the disbandment of the East Africa Rifles. In 1934 a scheme was proposed in a joint army–air force report (authored in part by Air Vice Marshal Cyril Newall, a future CAS) to replace some ground forces with an RAF squadron and move to an air control model. The scheme foundered, however, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the previously stable situation was replaced by uncertainty.

In India, despite frontier successes, any broader RAF plans for a higher-profile role butted up against the peculiarities of the defence structures already in place and the position of the Indian Army. The value of air power was enhanced by the part played by the RAF in dealing with still-lingering troubles among Waziristan tribes in 1925, but as was often the case the air force and the army then differed on the real value of the air actions. A subsequent plan to expand RAF influence in the North-West Frontier came to nothing.

The RAF later played a role in the defence of Kabul in 1928–9, air-lifting civilians to safety, but a scheme in 1929 to expand air policing and control for the frontier failed because of the political consequences of putting Indian Army officers out of work. The great majority of available resources continued to be pumped into the Indian Army throughout the 1930s, leading to the stagnation of the air force, a matter largely unaddressed by the outbreak of the war in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

The RAF was also involved in more political and diplomatic imperial control and maintenance efforts in the interwar era. Long-distance flights from Cairo to the Cape were carried out by RAF aircraft, pioneering routes later developed by Imperial Airways. In addition, flying boats were to prove critically important in this wider global role in an age when few airstrips around the empire were capable of supporting large long-range land-based aircraft, or where other facilities were in short supply. Flying boats, which could utilize inland waters as bases, could patrol or reach regions more easily and help build or maintain the links the empire needed. If a support ship could be employed as well, the possibilities were significant. As early as 1919, long-range flying boat cruises were being trialled and by the mid-1920s flying boat expeditions were reaching out to Egypt and Malaya/Sarawak. In 1928–9 Supermarine Southampton flying boats conducted a fourteen-month world tour reaching Australia. RAF evaluations indicated the political elements of such tours, and that the cost was considerably less than that of sending a Royal Navy cruiser force. By the 1930s, the RAF’s view of specialized maritime air power had been largely focused on flying boats and seaplanes and this was to shape rearmament policy in the 1930s, and not entirely in a positive manner.

The issue of the RAF switching its maritime air power efforts towards flying boat development mirrored later debates about the impact air control and imperial policing had on the development of the RAF in Europe, particularly in terms of aircraft technology and notions of bombing. In the early 1920s the RAF had largely employed aircraft such as the Bristol Fighter and the DH9A in policing duties, but these aircraft had limitations and were phased out in favour of the Westland Wapiti and the Fairey IIIF. These aircraft were selected for their ruggedness rather than high performance.

There is little direct evidence, however, that the imperial policing role significantly shaped metropolitan RAF policies, procurement, and thinking in the 1930s. The tasks of air control were usually fulfilled by aircraft considered obsolescent by European standards, and governed by particular tactics and doctrine, developed specifically for each theatre. When air expansion was adopted in Britain in the 1930s, as a reaction to the emergence of German and Japanese threats, it was largely governed by its own inherent rationale.

Trenchard, in his final days as CAS in 1929, had offered a yet grander vision for air control in a paper entitled ‘The Fuller Employment of Air Power in Imperial Defence’, yet in truth the high point of the policy had already been reached, with political constraints and geographical limits hindering further expansion. As the 1930s progressed, the deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Far East brought other issues to the forefront and the RAF was to be drawn into a different strategic environment.

Yet, there is little doubt that air control and policing had, despite its limitations, played a significant role both in ensuring the survival of the RAF and more widely in British imperial policy in the interwar era. It was best suited to relatively light-touch environments in open terrain with dispersed populations; there was little stomach for the bombing of more significant urban centres. Restraint in the use of air control was pragmatic on both political and military levels, issues that would be exposed and shaped later in the extreme emergency of the Second World War.