Iron and Empire: The Rise of Assyria



Iron was first utilized as a technology of war around 1300 bce by the Hittites. By the beginning of the first millennium bce, the secret of iron metallurgy and cold forging had spread to Palestine and Egypt by way of the nomadic invasions, and perhaps to Mesopotamia as well. Iron weapons were superior to bronze weapons because they were heated and hammered into shape rather than cast, making them stronger, less brittle and more reliable than their bronze counterparts. Within a few centuries the secret of tempering was discovered and diffused, and iron became the basic weapon material for all the armies of the period.

The invention and diffusion of iron smelting, cold forging and tempering created no less than a military revolution in the classical world. The importance of iron in the development of classical warfare lay not only in its strength and ability to hold an edge, but also in the widespread availability of iron ore. No longer were civilizations dependent on copper and tin deposits to make their bronze weapons. Five hundred times more prevalent in the earth’s surface than copper, iron was commonly and widely available almost everywhere. The plentiful supply of this strategic material allowed states to produce enormous quantities of reliable weapons cheaply. In fact, a democratization of warfare took place, with most members of an army now being issued iron weapons. Now almost any state could equip large armies with reliable weapons, with the result being a dramatic increase in both the size of battles and the frequency of war. The first people to take full advantage of the potential of the Iron Age were the Assyrians.

Assyrian monarchs had long understood the precarious strategic position of their state. Centred on the three major cities of Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur on the upper Tigris River, in what is now north-western Iraq, Assyria was cursed with a dearth of natural resources and few natural barriers to keep out enemy invasions. Assyria lacked wood for constructing forts, temples and dams, stone for building walls and castles, and iron ore deposits to forge weapons. Assyria also lacked the large steppes necessary to support large horse herds, essential for chariotry and cavalry. If Assyria was to survive, it needed to expand at the expense of its more advantaged neighbours. Beginning in the fourteenth century bce, the Assyrians successfully resisted Mitannian, Hittite and Babylonian expansion and subjugation to finally emerge as a regional power under Tiglath-pileser I (c.1115–1077 bce). The empire created by Tiglath-pileser did not long survive his passing, and a new phase of expansion began in the ninth century under the reign of Shalmaneser III (858–824 bce). By Tiglath-pileser III’s reign (744–727 bce), the Assyrians had expanded into Syria and Babylonia, securing their western and eastern frontiers.

The Assyrians quickly mastered iron metallurgy and applied this new technology to military equipment and tactics. By the eighth century bce, the Assyrians had used their large, iron-equipped armies to conquer much of the Fertile Crescent, and, for a short time in the seventh century, Egypt as well. The general size, logistical capabilities, and strategic and tactical mobility of the Assyrian army were indeed impressive, even by modern standards, with the lessons learned by the Assyrians being passed on to the Persians.

As early as 854 bce at the battle of Karkara (modern Tel Qarqur), Shalmaneser III was able to field a multinational army of over 70,000 men, made up of 65,000 infantrymen, 1,200 cavalrymen and 4,000 chariots. By the eighth century bce, the entire Assyrian armed forces consisted of at least 150,000 to 200,000 men and were the largest standing military force the Near East had ever witnessed. An Assyrian field army numbered approximately 50,000 men and was a combined-arms force consisting of various mixes of infantry, cavalry and chariots which, when arrayed for battle, had a frontage of 2,500 yards and a depth of 100 yards. Still, the Assyrian army, as large as it was, seemed small when compared to armies that appeared some three centuries later. For instance, by 500 bce, a Persian Great King could raise an army of around 300,000 men from his vast territories, and Alexander may have faced a Persian army at the battle of Gaugamela of perhaps 250,000 men, including 20,000 cavalrymen, 250 chariots and 50 elephants.

The Assyrians also recognized the need for increased specialization in weapon systems. With the exception of an elite royal bodyguard and foreign mercenaries, Assyrian kings relied on a farmer-militia raised by a levée en masse. But as these mobilizations increased in frequency, the Assyrians began to supplement their militia muster with an ever-growing cadre of specialized troops. By Sargon II’s time (r. 721–705 bce), the Assyrian army was a combined-arms fighting force of heavy and light infantry, cavalry, chariots and siege machinery supported by specialized units of scouts, engineers, spies and sappers.

Assyrian heavy infantry were armed with a long, double-bladed spear and a straight sword for shock combat, and were protected by a conical iron helmet, knee-length coat of lamellar armour (a shirt of laminated layers of leather sown or glued together, then fitted with iron plates) and a small iron shield. There is some evidence that can be gathered from the panoply depicted on stone bas-reliefs that the Assyrian royal guard was a professional corps of articulated heavy infantry who fought in a phalanx. In battle, these Assyrian heavy infantrymen were organized in a battle square with a ten-man front and files twenty men deep. But even if these troops were capable of offensive articulation, the financial resources, drill, discipline and esprit de corps necessary to field large numbers of these specialized troops was not a dominant part of the Near Eastern art of war, so if present, it was not the decisive tactical system that it would become under the Greeks. Instead, light infantry archers were probably the main offensive arm of the Assyrian army.

Assyrian archers wore a slightly shorter coat of mail armour and the same conical helm as their heavy infantry counterparts, and are often depicted with a shield-bearer carrying a large, rectangular shield made of densely matted reeds covered with oiled skins or metal, similar to a pavise of the medieval period. The shield was curved backward along its top edge to provide extra cover from long-distance arrow or stone attacks and against missiles fired from enemy walls. Archers came from many regions within the empire, so bow types differed, with the simpler self-bow in use as much as the composite bow. The Assyrians invented a quiver that could hold as many as fifty arrows, with some arrows fitted with special heads capable of launching combustible materials. Referred to as ‘the messengers of death’, these flame arrows were targeted at enemy homes or crops. Slingers constitute another type of light infantry employed by the Assyrians. They are often depicted on stone bas-reliefs standing behind archers.

Changes in technology also enabled Assyrian ironsmiths to design a stronger chariot, with builders emulating earlier Egyptian designs by moving the wheel axis from the centre to the rear of the carriage. The result was a highly manoeuvrable vehicle that reduced traction effort. Still, the chariot suffered from terrain restrictions, unable to exploit its impressive shock capabilities on anything but level ground. Perhaps the chariot remained the dominant weapon system into the early Iron Age because of the sociology and psychology of the forces the chariot led and faced. In the Bronze Age the chariot was the weapon of the aristocracy, ridden into parade and battle by a social class culturally ordained as superior to the common soldiers who gazed upon these often excessively decorated weapons. It is possible that the utility of cavalry was not fully tested by the Assyrians because of a carry-over preoccupation with the Bronze Age domination of the battlefield by chariots. For over 2,000 years chariots were free to scatter formations of poorly equipped and weakly motivated infantry. This preoccupation with a battlefield anachronism would continue with the Persians as well, until their final defeat in 331 bce at Gaugamela by a Macedonian army unburdened by chariots.

Most significantly, Assyria was the first civilization in the west to exploit the potential of the horse as a mount. The introduction of larger, sturdier horses from the Eurasian steppes gave the Assyrians a new weapon system, the cavalryman. The first Assyrian cavalry were probably nomadic cavalry, perhaps Median mercenaries from tributary states across the Zagros Mountains on the Eurasian steppes. But not wanting to rely on foreign horsemen, the Assyrians began to develop their own cavalry corps, specializing in both light and heavy tactical systems. Assyrian light infantry emulated their nomadic neighbours, riding smaller, faster steeds and firing arrows from composite bows on the fly. It is notable that writers of the Old Testament called these Assyrian cavalrymen ‘hurricanes on horseback’. Assyrian light cavalry faced all kinds of opponents, including camels used as platforms for Arab missiles, with mounted archers sitting behind the beasts’ jockeys back-to-back and firing at pursuing Assyrian infantry and cavalry.

Assyrian heavy cavalry was in a state of continuous evolution. The original mounted lancer modified the equipment of foot soldiers to meet the needs of shock combat. The armoured coat was reduced to waist length and the shield was made smaller. Heavy cavalry were armed with both sword and lance, but the absence of a stabilizing stirrup meant Assyrian lancers, like their other classical-age counterparts, thrust out and loosened their spear at their enemy as they passed instead of riding through their target using the synergy of horse and rider.

Over time, the Assyrians developed their own cavalry corps and their own horse recruitment, acquiring specialized ‘yoke’ horses for chariots and riding horses for cavalry from as far away as Nubia and Iran. It remains a mystery why this weapon system, far superior to the chariot in both strategic and tactical mobility, was never fully exploited by the Assyrians. Possibly the lack of the horseshoe made the use of cavalry in rough terrain too expensive in animals, or the Assyrians’ preoccupation with chariots precluded them from sustaining large forces of both chariots and cavalry.


Elizabeth towards War I


European matchlock musketeers of the Elizabethan period.

By the early 1570s the Puritans had grown significantly in numbers and in economic and political clout. They were not only unsatisfied, however, but increasingly discontented. At the same time that they were trying and failing to pressure the government into killing Mary Stuart, some of the more adventurous among them surreptitiously printed and distributed a First and then a Second Admonition to Parliament. These were bold, even treasonous complaints about how far the church had, under the Elizabethan settlement, departed from the gospel and from true religion. They reflected John Calvin’s absolute rejection of everything that the English reformers had retained from the time before Luther’s revolt, and they expressed the conviction that even the office of bishop was an abomination little less repulsive than the papacy itself. The authors of the Admonitions declared that in the pure first years of the Christian era the communities of the faithful had been led by deacons and elders, not by bishops, and that fidelity to Scripture and to Christ himself required a return to that aboriginal system. This was, in England, the genesis of Presbyterianism. Because it challenged the legitimacy of the church that Elizabeth had established upon becoming queen, it was taken as a challenge to Elizabeth herself. Her reaction should have surprised no one. Those responsible for publication of the Admonitions became hunted men, finally having to flee to the continent. They continued, from exile, to produce pamphlets condemning the Rome-ish corruptions of the Elizabethan church. That church became a dangerous environment for clergy of Calvinist-Presbyterian inclination, but their beliefs continued to spread.

Meanwhile the government’s program of killing Roman Catholicism through a slow process of discouragement, through harassment and disdain rather than murderous persecution, was not working out as hoped. The lifeblood of Catholic practice was the sacraments, and that loftiest of sacraments, the Eucharist, was not possible in the absence of a priest empowered to consecrate the bread and wine. Elizabeth and Cecil were not being foolish in expecting that, deprived of its priests, the Catholic community would atrophy, especially if at the same time it were punished in large ways and small and repeatedly accused of being disloyal to England and the queen. But eliminating the priesthood turned out to be considerably more difficult than it must at first have seemed. Among the Catholics purged from the English universities after Elizabeth ascended the throne was Oxford’s proctor William Allen, already well known as a scholar and administrator though not yet quite thirty years old. Like many of his academic coreligionists Allen drifted back and forth between England and the continent in the early 1560s, eventually deciding to become a priest and fixing his attention on the large numbers of onetime Oxford and Cambridge teachers and students who were now as adrift as he was. Many of these men had been drawn to the Catholic Low Countries, particularly to the universities at Louvain and Douai. It was at the latter that, in 1568, Allen found the financial support to start Douai College, a seminary where the faculty and all the candidates for the priesthood were English.

It is not clear that Allen began with the idea of developing a cadre of missionary priests to be sent back into England. His goal, rather, seems to have been to keep the intellectual life of the English Catholic community intact in preparation for a time when it would once again be welcome at home, and to engage the Protestant establishment in disputation while preparing a Catholic translation of the Bible. His college, in any case, attracted so many exiles that soon it was filled beyond capacity, and other seminaries were established elsewhere, most notably in Rome. As the students completed their studies and were ordained, some naturally yearned to return home and minister to the priest-starved Catholics of England. Such requests were granted, and the first of the young “seminary priests” slipped quietly across the Channel in 1574. As soon as the authorities became aware of their presence, the hunt was on. Inevitably the likes of Cecil and Dudley and Walsingham saw the products of Allen’s school as spies and instruments of subversion and wanted the queen to see them in the same way. Certainly the priests were a threat to the policy of trying to bleed English Catholicism dry with a thousand tiny cuts; almost from the moment of their arrival they infused fresh vitality into a community that was supposed to be dying. The first to be caught, Cuthbert Mayne, was a Devon farmer’s son who had taken two degrees at Oxford and become a Church of England chaplain before converting to Rome. He had then departed for Douai, where, in his early thirties, he enrolled in Allen’s seminary. Within months of his ordination he was back in the west of England and, under the patronage of a wealthy Catholic landowner, taking on the public role of steward in order to travel the countryside and deliver the sacraments. Captured inside his patron’s house by a posse of more than a hundred men, he was charged with six counts of treason, convicted, and offered a pardon in return for acknowledging the queen’s supremacy. Upon refusing, he was made an object lesson in how religion was once again a matter of life and death in England. He was hanged, cut down alive, and thrown to the ground so violently that one of his eyes was put out. He was then disemboweled, castrated, and quartered. By hanging him as a traitor rather than burning him as a heretic, the government was able to deny that it was returning to the Marian persecutions. In Mayne’s case as with the hundreds of priests who would follow him to the scaffold, the queen and her council maintained the fiction that they were killing Englishmen not for their beliefs but for seeking to deliver their homeland into the hands of foreign enemies.

As the suppression of Catholics entered a new, more desperate phase, so, too, and almost simultaneously, did the conflict with the Puritans. By the mid-1570s the queen had run out of patience with the practice known as “prophesying,” which was not a matter of making predictions but simply of preaching with a pronouncedly evangelical slant rather than staying within the boundaries prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Somewhat oddly for a Protestant of her time, Elizabeth throughout her reign displayed a strong distaste for preaching and a determination to retain many of the trappings—clerical vestments, for example, and crucifixes—that growing numbers of her subjects were coming to regard as insufferable carryovers from the age of superstition. Such issues generated more and more heat as the 1570s advanced, until finally Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended for refusing to suppress prophesyings as the queen ordered. Canterbury remained an unoccupied see for years, and at times it must have appeared that Elizabeth was the head of a church of which she herself was almost the sole completely faithful member. It was her good fortune to have two sets of adversaries, the Puritans on one side and the Catholics on the other, who feared and despised each other far too much ever to combine against her. (Grindal, for example, had pleaded with the queen to stiffen the penalties for attending mass.) It also continued to be her good fortune to have the Queen of Scots as her most likely successor. So long as Mary Stuart drew breath, not even the most radical Protestant could possibly wish Elizabeth harm. The church that had taken shape under her direction was a peculiar and even improbable concoction of rather uncertain identity, no more Lutheran than Calvinist or Catholic. For the time being it was able to hang in a state of suspension easily mistaken for stability between the other contending parties.


In order to sell the story that the priests coming into England were the agents of a foreign enemy, England needed to have such an enemy. Though the pope would always be the ideal all-purpose bogeyman, no one could take him seriously as a military threat. The same was true of the Holy Roman Empire now that it was detached from Spain, run by a separate branch of the Hapsburgs, and fully occupied by intractable internal problems and external enemies as potent as the Turks. That left France and Spain, and so many factors made Spain the more compelling choice that not even the memory of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre could neutralize them for long. After the massacre, the Valois regime nominally headed by Charles IX made an effort to capture the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle and, upon failing, sensibly gave up on anti-Protestantism as the cornerstone of its domestic policy. Like England, it turned its attention to the most significant thing then happening in northern Europe: the ongoing revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule, and Spain’s difficulty in bringing that revolt to an end. England and France alike were eager to contribute what they could to exacerbating Spain’s troubles. And England had a good story to tell in explaining its involvement: it could claim to be protecting the Dutch from the Roman Church (the Spanish Roman Church, specifically) and its Inquisition. England and France were also drawn together by the simple realization that it could be disastrous for either of them if the other became an ally of Spain’s. The 1574 death of King Charles at twenty-four did nothing to change the dynamics of the situation. He was succeeded by his nearest brother, the flamboyant Duke of Anjou, who as Henry II became the third of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to inherit the throne. There remained one more brother, the young Duke of Alençon, who now assumed the Anjou title but is usually referred to as Alençon to keep him distinct from his brother. There was resumed talk, not particularly serious on either side, of marrying the young duke, disfigured by smallpox and bent by a spinal deformation but nearly twenty years old now, to the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth. Each side played the game in the faint hope that the other might attach more importance to it than it deserved.

Philip, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into the quagmire created by his rebellious Dutch subjects, and England and France were being drawn in with him. Philip had received from his father Charles V, thanks to the fifteenth-century marriage of Charles’s Hapsburg grandfather to the only daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy, a region of seventeen provinces, much of it reclaimed tidal plain, known for obvious topographical reasons as the Low Countries or—what means the same thing—the Netherlands. The rebellion had started in response to Philip’s efforts to impose a Spanish-style autocracy on the northernmost provinces, an almost fantastically prosperous center of trade and manufacturing where the Reformation had taken a strong hold and provided particular reason for resentment of Spanish interference. It had then spread southward as a newly appointed governor, the Duke of Alba, clamped down not only with harsh new taxes but with a reign of terror in which thousands of people, Protestants and Catholics alike, were brutally put to death. Militarily Alba was successful, bringing all but two of the provinces under control in years of hard fighting, but the savagery of his methods made reconciliation impossible. His successor Requesens tried to negotiate with the leader of the rebels, William of Orange, but resumed military operations after his overtures were spurned. In spite of crippling financial problems—Philip’s government was essentially bankrupt—Requesens, too, began to have some success, but he died in 1576 with the job of reconquest still incomplete. Much of what he had achieved was thereupon undone when his troops, finding themselves unpaid, went on a rampage of looting and vandalism. Their targets, necessarily, were the only provinces accessible to them: the ones still loyal to, or at least under the control of, Spain. Thus even the most Catholic sectors of the Netherlands were given good reason to hate the outsiders.

At this juncture, with his position in the Low Countries seemingly almost lost, Philip was rescued by the fact that his father, the emperor, had, in the course of his long career, produced illegitimate branches of the Hapsburg family tree on which grew a pair of genuinely brilliant figures. First among them was Philip’s younger (and illegitimate) half-brother Juan, known to history as Don John of Austria, a charismatic, even heroic character who in his youth had run off to pursue a military career in spite of being steered toward the church by both Charles and Philip. When he became governor-general of the Netherlands in 1576, Don John was almost thirty and not only a seasoned veteran of the Turkish conflict but the victor of the great Battle of Lepanto. He didn’t want the Dutch assignment but accepted it with the thought that it might give rise to an opportunity to fulfill an old romantic fantasy: that of invading England and liberating Mary, Queen of Scots. The situation he found himself in was very nearly unmanageable, but after two years he was making such good progress that William of Orange, in desperate straits and without hope of getting assistance from England, invited the Duke of Alençon, still under consideration as a possible spouse for Elizabeth, to become leader of the rebellion and, by implication, ruler of the Netherlands. Alençon was utterly unqualified to take command of anything, but he was eager to make a place for himself in the world and attracted by the possibility of carving a kingdom out of the Netherlands. The Dutch of course had no real wish to accept such an unprepossessing specimen as their chief but as brother and heir to the king of France he carried with him the implicit promise of substantial help. He eagerly accepted Orange’s invitation, discovered that there was no serious chance of getting meaningful assistance from his brother the king, and leaped to the conclusion that nothing could satisfy his needs more quickly and completely than a successful courtship of the English queen. Discussion soon resumed through diplomatic channels, and when word came from England that Elizabeth would never consent to marry a man she had not seen, Alençon made preparations to cross the Channel.

Elizabeth towards War II


What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons.

Don John, though continuing to progress inch by painful inch closer toward the defeat of the rebellion, was physically and mentally exhausted by the struggle and chronically short of essential resources. When in October he contracted typhus and died, his loss must have seemed another lethal setback for the Spanish cause. But before expiring he had nominated as his successor yet another product of Charles V’s extramarital adventures. This was Alessandro Farnese, a son of Charles’s bastard daughter, great-grandson of his namesake Pope Paul III. Farnese was almost exactly Don John’s age, had been raised and educated with him as well as with King Philip’s son Don Carlos, and had been second in command both at Lepanto and in the Netherlands. Usually remembered as the Duke of Parma, a title he would not inherit from his father until ten years after becoming governor-general in the Netherlands, he was no less gifted a soldier than Don John and a canny diplomat as well. Building on what Don John had accomplished, he began to coax the southern and central provinces (which would remain Catholic and evolve long afterward into Belgium, Luxembourg, and France’s Nord-Pas-deCalais) back into the Spanish camp. The seven northern provinces—the future Holland—proved however to be too strong and too determined for Farnese to overpower them. And so the war went bitterly on, poisoning northern Europe.

Influential members of Elizabeth’s council, Robert Dudley among them, were not satisfied with merely assisting the Dutch rebels financially and leaving the military glory to Orange and his countrymen. Elizabeth, however, was still as wary of continental wars as she had been since the Le Havre debacle of a decade and a half before. She was sensitive to the costs of such wars and the unpredictability of the results. She had learned how difficult it was to manage seekers after glory, men convinced that where war was concerned it was absurd to take orders from any woman, even a queen. She sent money to Orange, but only in amounts calculated to keep him from putting himself completely under French domination. A strong French presence in the Low Countries, with their proximity to England across the narrowest part of the Channel, was less unattractive than Spanish dominance there, but not by a wide margin.

From this point forward the Dutch revolt, the religious divisions of France and England, and nagging uncertainty about the English succession all became impenetrably intertwined. The elfin little Duke of Alençon arrived in England, and to the amazement of her court, Elizabeth gave every appearance of being smitten with him. She was easily old enough to be his mother, and there was something pathetic in her infatuation with this youth whom she playfully called her “frog.” As it dawned on people that marriage was not out of the question, council and court separated into factions. Elizabeth meanwhile made clear that this time she regarded her choice of a husband as no one’s business but her own. When a loyal subject named John Stubbs published a statement of opposition to the much-talked-of marriage, both he and his printer had their right hands chopped off.

Robert Dudley was opposed, too, and probably for a multitude of reasons. He wanted to make war in the Netherlands, but he was sure that he and not the absurd Alençon should be the commander. To this wish were added his evangelical leanings, and a consequent dislike of the idea of a Catholic consort for the queen. But Dudley had kept his antipathy for Catholics within bounds when other possible husbands were under discussion, and this time more personal factors undoubtedly were in play. In 1578, after years of widowhood during which he had lived at the queen’s beck and call and lamented the fact that because neither he nor his brother Ambrose had children the Dudley line seemed doomed to end with them, he had impregnated the beautiful Lettice Knollys, daughter of the veteran privy councilor Sir Francis Knollys and widow of the Earl of Essex. The two were secretly married—secretly because Dudley knew what the queen’s reaction would be—and when Elizabeth learned she was angry and hurt. She arranged to complicate Dudley’s life financially by withdrawing certain remunerative favors, but he was allowed to remain at court and soon was restored to his old place as favorite. His bride, already the mother of several children by her first husband, gave birth to a son who was christened Robert. But she was forbidden to appear at court. (The boy, Lord Denbigh, would be the last child born legitimately into the Dudley family and would die at age three.) All this could well have injected an element of spite into Dudley’s reaction to the queen’s marriage plans.

By the early 1580s Elizabeth’s uncertainties, hesitations, and ambiguous policies had enmeshed her in a tangle of political, military, and religious conflict. In 1585 it all finally blossomed into a war that would consume the last eighteen years of what increasingly looked like an overlong reign. Much of the trouble grew out of the determination of the government’s most influential and militant Protestants—Cecil certainly, but even more his protégé Francis Walsingham—to make the queen believe that the survival of Catholicism in England posed a threat not only to domestic peace but to her very life. As early as 1581 Walsingham was asking Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin and one of the men to whom she had entrusted the management of the north after the revolt of the earls, to amend his reports so as to give a darker—and to the queen more alarming—appraisal of the loyalty of the region’s still-numerous Catholics. In that same year Parliament, with Cecil ennobled as Baron Burghley and dominating the House of Lords while continuing to control the Commons through his agents, passed bills making it high treason for a priest to say mass and condemning anyone attending mass to life imprisonment and confiscation of property.

This was more than Elizabeth was prepared to approve, and the penalty for “recusancy” was reduced to a fine of £20 per month—a sum so impossible for most subjects as to be no different from confiscation. The queen’s efforts to find a middle ground, to avoid being so soft on the old religion as to outrage the evangelicals or persecuting the Catholics so savagely as to leave them with nothing to lose, resulted in a policy that sometimes seemed incoherent. An innovation called “compounding,” which permitted Catholics to elude the statutory penalties by purchasing what amounted to a license to practice their faith, was soon followed by a royal proclamation declaring all the priests entering England to be traitors regardless of what they did or refrained from doing. Life became increasingly difficult for Catholics, but the Puritans complained that it was not being made nearly difficult enough. As the queen refused to approve the most draconian of Parliament’s anti-Catholic measures, the conflict between her church and her growing numbers of Puritan subjects became chronic and deeply bitter. When the archbishop of Canterbury whom she had suspended years earlier died in 1583, Elizabeth was able at last to appoint a primate, John Whitgift, whose views accorded with her own. He soon began a program aimed at purging the clergy of Puritans and suppressing Puritan practices. The Elizabethan church, therefore, was soon waging religious war in one direction while Elizabeth’s government did so in another.

And the fighting in the Netherlands dragged wearily on. Philip II’s financial problems had eased in 1580 when the king of Portugal died without an heir and he, as the son and onetime husband of Portuguese princesses, successfully laid claim to that crown. This gave him control of the Portuguese fleet and the vast overseas empire that went with it. The following year, when the so-called United Provinces under William of Orange formally repudiated Spanish rule, Philip had the wherewithal to respond by putting more resources into the capable hands of his governor-general and nephew Farnese. The result was a sequence of successes for the Spanish army and calamities for the rebellion, all of it deepening the difficulties of the English. The little Duke of Alençon, whose dalliance with England’s queen had advanced to the point where a betrothal was announced by both parties only to founder on the old religious obstacles (how could even the queen’s husband be allowed to hear mass at the Elizabethan court?), went off to try his hand as leader of the rebellion. He showed himself to be even more inept than his worst critics had expected, and died of a lung ailment not long after returning to France a thoroughly discredited figure.

In that same year, 1584, William of Orange was assassinated by an apprentice cabinetmaker eager to strike a blow for the Catholic faith, the Guises allied their Catholic League with Spain, Farnese took the city of Antwerp from the rebels, and English policy lay in ruins. Philip meanwhile was repeatedly being goaded by the raids of Francis Drake and other English pirates—if pirates is the right word for thieves who found financing at the English court and were welcomed as heroes when they returned from their raids—on ports and treasure fleets from the coast of Spain to the New World. Now he appeared to be near victory in the Low Countries, and if he achieved his aims there the English had given him an abundance of reasons to turn his army and navy on them. When Drake, on a 1585 West Indies voyage financed by Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and others, burned and looted Cartagena and Santo Domingo and other Spanish ports and brought his ships home loaded with booty, it was the last straw for Philip. He ordered work to begin on the assembly of a great fleet and the planning of an invasion of England.

For Elizabeth and her council it was a nightmare scenario, though undeniably they had brought it on themselves. They had provoked the Spanish king’s open enmity at last, and had done so in such a penny-pinching way as to leave their rebel clients virtually at his mercy. The prospect that Philip might soon subdue the Low Countries was, under these circumstances, vastly more frightening than it had been when the revolt began. And so at last there seemed no alternative except to do exactly what Elizabeth had never wanted to do: send troops. Robert Dudley was delighted, especially when he was ordered to take command. He was well into his fifties by now, however, and his experience of war was decades in the past and not really extensive. But his enthusiasm was such that he took on a ruinous load of personal debt to cover his expenses—Elizabeth was not going to pay a penny more than she was forced to—and once in the field he found that he was neither receiving satisfactory support from home nor able to outwit or outfight his seasoned Spanish adversaries. The arrival of English troops was sufficient to avert the collapse of the rebellion but not sufficient to produce victory; the result was the further prolongation, at greatly increased cost, of a conflict that offered vanishingly little hope of a truly satisfactory outcome. England’s intervention had persuaded Philip, meanwhile, that he could never recover his lost provinces—might never again know peace within his own domains—unless England was humbled. The invasion that he had in preparation began to seem not just feasible but imperative.

Overt war with Spain provided a new basis for portraying England’s Catholics as agents of a foreign enemy and therefore as traitors. Suppression, along with the hunting down and execution of missionary priests, intensified. Inevitably, persecution further eroded the number of practicing Catholics, but at the same time, it gave rise to a cadre of young fanatics desperate enough to plot against the queen’s life. This development—like Philip’s anger a direct outgrowth of the government’s actions—was the best possible news for Francis Walsingham with his network of spies, torturers, and agents provocateurs. It gave him new evidence to draw on in making Elizabeth believe that it was necessary to do more to exterminate the old religion. None of the most notorious and supposedly dangerous plots against Elizabeth had the slimmest chance of success, and Walsingham himself probably actively encouraged at least one of them in order to entrap gullible young true believers. He may even have concocted the last of the conspiracies (the so-called Babington Plot, which led to Mary Stuart’s confessing to planning an escape and being accused, but not really proved guilty, of assenting to Elizabeth’s assassination) in order to get a deeply reluctant Elizabeth to approve Mary’s execution. Historians have often argued that the need to eliminate the Queen of Scots is demonstrated by the fact that after she was beheaded in February 1587 there were no more plots against the queen’s life. But it is possible that, once Mary was dead, Cecil and Walsingham no longer saw any need to put such plots in motion, nurse along the ones that they discovered, or exploit their propaganda value when the time was ripe for exposure.

What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons. But it changed very little and settled nothing. It was less a culmination than a bright interlude, and it led only to the fifteen years of trouble and decline that would be the long final third of Elizabeth’s reign.

Turks and English



Battle of Lepanto, turning point for Chrisendom.

It is easy, in thinking about the international politics of the Tudor century, to overlook the fact that there was another major player besides the Hapsburgs, the kings and queens of France and England, and a papacy that at various times became involved as referee, cheerleader, or freelance utility infielder.

Easy, but a serious mistake. Because throughout the entire period a fourth force was at work, one more aggressive, more dangerous, and more powerful overall than any of the others. It was the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks, which at midcentury reached the zenith of its six-hundred-year history, controlled eastern Europe south of the Danube, and directly or indirectly was affecting the destinies of all the Christian powers. The fields of force that it projected, like some vast dark star at the edge of the universe of European nations, are a major reason why Elizabethan England was able to preserve its autonomy in spite of being smaller and weaker than France or Spain and potentially a pariah kingdom in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the old church. By sapping the strength of its principal rival, the Hapsburg empire, Ottoman Turkey contributed importantly to the survival of Protestantism across much of northern Europe.

When Elizabeth became queen, the Ottomans either ruled directly or controlled through puppet regimes not just Turkey but Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and much of Hungary. And that was only the European segment of their dominions, which also encompassed Egypt and Algeria and other strongholds in North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and some of the most important islands in the Mediterranean. They had been ferociously expansionist since their first emergence among the Turkic-Mongol peoples of Anatolia in the thirteenth century, and generation after generation they had consistently demonstrated their ability to outfight formidable adversaries on land and at sea. In 1453 they captured Constantinople, which had remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and of the Orthodox Church for centuries after Rome itself fell, turning it into the principal metropolis of the Islamic world. And because they were Muslims with entirely non-Western cultural roots, their success in pushing northward and across and even beyond the Balkans was seen, not without reason, as a mortal threat to European civilization itself.

The tenth and greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman I, was in the thirty-ninth year of his reign when Elizabeth began hers. To his subjects he was Suleiman the Lawgiver, having in the course of his awesomely fruitful career rewritten his empire’s entire legal code. Europe called him Suleiman the Magnificent, a title he richly deserved. Like his forebears, he was above all a soldier, having personally led campaigns that crushed a revolt in Damascus, captured Belgrade in Serbia and Buda in Hungary, taken much of the Middle East from the shah of Iran, expelled the Knights Hospitalers from the island of Rhodes, and twice laid siege to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. But he was also much more than a soldier: an accomplished poet and goldsmith, a lifelong student of philosophy with a particular devotion to Aristotle, the guiding patron of a remarkable efflorescence of Islamic art, literature, and architecture. Impressive and even admirable as he was, however, he should not be sentimentalized. At the heart of his regime—of the entire Ottoman enterprise—lay something worse than barbarism. Suleiman’s father, Selim I, himself a great conqueror who nearly tripled the size of the empire in only eight years as sultan, cleared the way for his favorite son to succeed him by killing his own brothers, his brothers’ seven sons, and all four of Suleiman’s brothers. Suleiman, decades later, would watch through a peephole as his eldest son and heir, a young man much honored for his prowess in war and skill as a governor, was strangled by court eunuchs to make way for a different, younger, and (as time would show) totally worthless son. Fratricide on a grand scale became standard Ottoman practice; each new sultan, upon taking the throne, would have all his brothers and half-brothers murdered and those members of his predecessor’s harem who happened to be pregnant bundled up in sacks and thrown into the sea. Conquered peoples were treated little better. Eventually the viciousness of the regime would lead the whole empire to shocking depths of cruelty and degeneracy and finally, in the First World War, to collapse. But through much of the sixteenth century, under Suleiman, it appeared to be almost invincible. The possibility that it might break through into central Europe, and continue onward from there, not only seemed but was terrifyingly real.

The threat fell first and most heavily on young Charles Hapsburg, who became the seventeen-year-old king of Spain in the same year that Cairo fell to the Turks. By the time he was elected Holy Roman emperor two years later, the Turks had taken Algiers from Spain, the trade routes of Venice and the other seafaring cities of the Italian peninsula were in danger of being cut off by Turkish raiders, and the southern Hapsburg kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were under direct threat. Francis I was king of France by then and Suleiman was about to become sultan, and for the next three decades they and Charles (the three had been born within six years of each other, and all came to power between 1515 and 1520) would be locked in an almost continuous, endlessly complicated struggle. Henry VIII, from his safe haven on the far shore of the English Channel, would join the fray and withdraw from it as the mood struck him and the state of his treasury dictated.

Despite the size of his empire, Charles V usually found himself on the defensive, with Francis repeatedly trying to pry away substantial chunks of Italy and Suleiman both pressing northward out of the Balkans and seeking to clear the Mediterranean of European ships. Charles’s successes were almost always limited and his defeats were occasionally serious, but when the number and strength of his adversaries are taken into account (Germany’s increasingly numerous Protestant states were soon joining forces to oppose him), he merits recognition as one of the great commanders of the age. When Francis launched an attack on Milan in 1525, Charles not only destroyed his army but took him prisoner. But just a year later, with Charles occupied elsewhere, Suleiman invaded northward, inflicted a ruinous defeat on the Hungarians, and seized territories that the Hapsburgs regarded as theirs by ancient right. Next came Suleiman’s 1529 siege of Vienna, which Charles and his brother Ferdinand were barely able to lift after both sides suffered heavy losses, followed by the sultan’s attempt to take the island of Malta from the same order of crusader knights from whom, some years earlier, he had taken Rhodes. Emboldened by his success in saving Malta and killing thirty thousand Ottoman troops in the process, Charles decided to carry the war into enemy territory. He crossed to North Africa and, at Tunis, succeeded in expelling Suleiman’s client regime and installing one of his own.

The contest seesawed back and forth year after year, as Charles and Suleiman traded blows along the Danube and in the Mediterranean but neither could gain a decisive advantage. For a time Henry of England joined with Charles against Francis, later switching sides and finally turning away from the continent to focus on Anne Boleyn and his conflict with the church. One development that shocked many Europeans, who saw in it a betrayal of all Christendom, was Francis’s entry, in 1536, into an alliance with Suleiman and the Turks. Once again he was grasping at Milan, though he like Charles was very nearly at the end of his financial resources. An important side effect was that Henry VIII was left alone and unthreatened as he completed his break with Rome and fattened on the wealth of the church. Under other circumstances a crusade against England’s schismatic king by the Catholic powers of the continent might have been at least possible. Under the circumstances actually prevailing in the mid-1530s, nothing of the kind could be seriously considered. Neither Charles nor Francis was in any position to make trouble for England. Either would have been grateful for Henry’s active friendship.

In 1538 Suleiman’s great admiral Khayr ad-Din, called Barbarossa by Westerners because of his red beard, defeated the Hapsburg navy in a battle so conclusive that it made the Turks dominant in the Mediterranean for the next thirty-three years. In 1541, as Charles tried and failed to restore Algiers to Spanish control, Suleiman resumed offensive operations in the north. He had sufficient success to impose a humiliating peace on the Hapsburgs: Archduke Ferdinand was obliged to renounce his claim to the throne of Hungary and to become a Turkish vassal, pledging to pay an annual tribute for the portion of Hungary he was permitted to retain. In 1542 Charles and Francis were once again at war, and when the French king asked Suleiman for assistance, the sultan cheerfully agreed. He dispatched a fleet of one hundred galleys, warships powered by oars, to France’s south coast, permitting them to pause along the way to pillage Charles’s kingdoms of Naples and Sicily and the city of Nice, also a Hapsburg possession. On all fronts, Suleiman appeared to be gaining in strength.

Fortunately for Europe, Suleiman like Charles had multiple enemies and more than the conflict between their two empires to deal with. By the late 1540s the shah of Iran had recovered much of the power that had been shattered by Suleiman’s father thirty years earlier, and was making himself troublesome. From 1548 to 1550 Suleiman waged war on the shah, and must have been taken aback to find himself making little headway. He settled in for a time at his sumptuous Topkapi Palace, indulging in the pleasures of the court and involving himself in domestic-dynastic intrigues. (It was during this interlude that he had his son Mustafa murdered, so that the son of the Russian slave girl he had made his wife could become heir.) In 1554 he returned with his army to Iran, finally securing a peace in which he received Iraq and eastern Anatolia but relinquished any claim to the Caucasus. By this time his old ally Francis, along with the distant Henry of England, had been dead for seven years. The emperor Charles, spiritually and physically exhausted, was beginning the process by which, over the next two years, he would give the crown of Spain to his son and that of the Holy Roman Empire to his brother and retire to a monastery. Suleiman alone—older than any of the others except Henry—remained vigorous and actively in command. His enemies were not free of him until 1566, when, at age seventy-two, he suddenly died. At the time, he was leading an army northward to Hungary, making ready to reopen the war there. We can only guess at what Europe may have been spared by his passing.

After Suleiman the Ottoman dynasty went into an abrupt decline. His successor, for whose sake the splendid young Mustafa had been eliminated, was a drunkard who reigned in a stupor for eight years before falling in his bath and fracturing his skull. His successor specialized in copulation, fathering 103 children in his twenty years as sultan, and every Ottoman ruler after him proved to be utterly incompetent or deeply degenerate or both. The empire, however, was slower to decay; its administrative machinery would wind down only gradually over the next three centuries. To the end of Elizabeth’s reign it would remain a formidable presence.

A major turn in Europe’s favor came just five years after Suleiman’s death. In 1571, off the western coast of Greece, the Ottoman navy met the forces of Christendom in what was, for the latter, a desperate last stand. On the Turkish side were 222 galleys supported by numerous smaller vessels and carrying some thirty-four thousand soldiers. Opposing them was a smaller fleet contributed by members of what called itself the Holy League: Venice, Spain, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Knights of Malta, the Papal States, and such places as Genoa and Savoy.

It was the last major battle ever fought entirely with ships powered by oarsmen, one of the biggest naval battles in history, and according to some historians the most important since Mark Antony lost the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and his rival Octavian became master of Rome as the emperor Augustus Caesar. When the Battle of Lepanto was over, all but forty of the Turkish galleys had been captured or destroyed, perhaps twenty-five thousand Turks had been killed or captured, and ten thousand Christian slaves had been freed. The league, by contrast, had lost only twenty galleys and thirteen thousand men. It was not the end of the Ottoman Empire, not even the end of the empire as a great power, but it did bring the empire’s mastery of the Mediterranean to a permanent close. The momentum of Turkish expansion was not yet entirely exhausted—the capture of Cyprus and recapture of Tunis still lay ahead—but the Ottomans would never again be quite the threat they had been in Suleiman’s time, and they had been deprived of the vast opportunities that a victory at Lepanto would have opened to them.

The commander of the Holy League fleet was the twenty-four-year-old Don John of Austria, Charles V’s illegitimate son by a Bavarian girl of common stock. Second in command, himself only twenty-six, was Alessandro Farnese, great-grandson and namesake of Pope Paul III, son of Charles V’s illegitimate daughter Margaret, future Duke of Parma. The two, though scarcely more than boys, had changed the course of history. We will encounter both in connection with another of the great conflicts that shaped the Tudor century.

Operation Desert Shield





After his disastrous and fruitless eight-year war with Iran, in the late 1980s President Saddam Hussein decided to distract public attention away from the economic and political failings of his regime by embarking on a new foreign adventure. He planned to reclaim Iraq’s lost province – oil-rich Kuwait. The catalyst for his invasion was a spurious row over oil production, but it served its purpose. The tension was rapidly cranked up to breaking point.

Saddam’s military build-up was swift. On 15 July 1990 a Republican Guard division of 10,000 men and 300 tanks moved just north of Kuwait. Four days later three divisions of 35,000 men deployed 16km from the border. By 27 July these forces had swelled to an overwhelming eight divisions numbering 100,000 troops. Many observers mistook this build-up for bellicose posturing, dismissing the idea that, after the exhausting decade-long conflict with Iran, Saddam would embark on yet another war so soon. They were quickly proved wrong.

Saddam’s Medina and Hammurabi Divisions, two powerful Republican Guard Corps armoured units, invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The following day the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division moved to secure Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia, sealing off the country from the outside world. Approximately 140,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,800 tanks poured into Kuwait. In the face of such military muscle there was no hope of the Kuwaitis defending themselves.

The Kuwaiti Army, not fully mobilized to its standing strength of just 16,000 men, was swiftly overwhelmed. Prior to the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait’s armoured holdings included 70 old British Vickers Mk1 tanks, 40 Centurions, 165 Chieftains and 6 Yugoslav M-84s. Some 224 examples of the latter, Soviet T-72s built under licence, were still on order and had they been delivered Saddam might have thought twice.

Only around the Emir’s palace in Kuwait City itself was there any extensive resistance, lasting about two hours. The small Kuwaiti Air Force briefly attacked the Iraqi armoured columns swarming over the country but its base was quickly overrun. The Iraqis seized 4 Kuwaiti Mirage jet fighters, 12 Hawk trainers, 5 A-4 Skyhawks, 4 C-130s, 2 DC-9s, 2 Gulfstream 111s and 43 helicopters. Kuwait found itself under Saddam’s control within the space of just twelve hours. The Arab states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the rest of the international community were aghast. The invasion of Kuwait seemed a precursor to a much wider war.

Saddam appointed Ali Hassan al-Majid as the de facto governor of Kuwait and Alaa Hussein Ali as the prime minister of the puppet provisional government of Free Kuwait. The former was known as ‘Chemical Ali’ after his extensive use of chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurds in the late 1980s, which culminated in the infamous attack on Halabja. His appointment caused great alarm amongst coalition intelligence circles for it seemed to confirm Saddam’s intention to use chemical weapons to defend Kuwait. Although al-Majid was recalled to Baghdad in November 1990, it was not before the troops under his command had systematically looted Kuwait of everything they could lay their hands on, and had driven out large numbers of the population.

On 28 August 1990 Kuwait was formally annexed and transformed into the Kuwait Governorate, Iraq’s 19th province. Alaa Hussein Ali disingenuously remarked, ‘Kuwait is now ours, but we might have refrained from taking such a decision if US troops were not massed in the region with the threat of invading us.’ Kuwait had been part of Basra province during the days of the ottoman Empire, and Saddam felt it only right that he take it back. The Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council declared: ‘The free provisional Kuwaiti government has decided to appeal to kinsfolk in Iraq, led by the knight of Arabs and the leader of their march, President Field Marshal Saddam Hussein, to agree that their sons should return to their large family, that Kuwait should return to the great Iraq – the mother homeland – and to achieve complete merger unity between Kuwait and Iraq.’

In the wake of the invasion, western and Arab states were quick to deploy forces to defend Saudi Arabia. Since the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, Saudi pre-eminence had increased, for while it lacked significant military manpower, it played a significant role in the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as the leading producer. Despite being a feudal society divided by Islamic dogmatism and liberalization, Saudi Arabia’s security remained (and remains) a priority for the West as it has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Kuwait was vital as a buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and its volatile neighbours to the north and east.

In the early 1980s the fear was that fundamentalist Shia Iran could easily overwhelm the combined Sunni Arab states of the GCC. Ironically the Saudis and Kuwaitis ‘loaned’ Saddam Hussein in excess of $50 billion for his war effort against Iran during the 1980s, and Saudi volunteers fought in the Iraqi armed forces. Now Saddam was threatening Saudi Arabia’s security and sending oil prices spiralling.

On 7 August 1990, in response to the invasion five days earlier, the United States Air Force’s (USAF) 1st Tactical Fighter Wing deployed with forty-eight F-15 jets from Langley Air Force Base (AFB) in Virginia to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Poised to fly defensive missions within hours of arriving, they commenced combat air patrols along the Iraqi frontier three days later. The enemy stayed out of the way until on 11 November 1990 an Iraqi MiG-25 brazenly crossed the Saudi border, but flew back before any action was taken. As hostilities had not officially commenced, it was felt prudent not to shoot it down.

On 11 September 1990 US President H.W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress:

In the early morning hours of 2 August, following negotiations and promises by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein not to use force, a powerful Iraqi army invaded its trusting and much weaker neighbour, Kuwait. Within three days 120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. It was then that I decided to act to check that aggression.

At this moment, our brave servicemen and women stand watch in that distant desert and on distant seas, side by side with the forces of more than twenty other nations….

Our objectives in the Persian Gulf are clear, our goals defined and familiar: Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately and without condition. Kuwait’s legitimate government must be restored. The security and stability of the Persian Gulf must be assured. And American citizens abroad must be protected. These goals are not ours alone. They have been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council five times in as many weeks. Most countries share our concern for principle. And many have a stake in the stability of the Persian Gulf. This is not, as Saddam Hussein would have it, the United States against Iraq; it is Iraq against the world.

President Bush then instigated Operation Desert Shield, a massive multi-national effort to defend Saudi Arabia. Major General Houston’s US 82nd and Major General James H.B. Peay III’s 101st Airborne Divisions arrived in August 1990. The US 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division, in the shape of its 1st and 2nd Brigades under Major General Barry McCaffrey, was the first heavy formation to deploy to the Gulf in September 1990. It was followed by Brigadier General John Tilelli’s US 1st Cavalry Division the following month and Major General Thomas Rhame’s US 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in December. All these units had come from America and, with the exception of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, were equipped with the M1 or IPM1 Abrams tank armed with a 105mm gun.

Due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the negligible threat posed by the USSR, Washington was also able to redeploy Major General Ronald Griffith’s 1st Armored and Major General Paul Funk’s 3rd Armored Divisions from Germany to bolster Desert Shield. These units were equipped with the newer improved M1A1 tank with a Rheinmetall 120mm M256 gun.

By late January 1991 there were well over half a million US personnel from all services in theatre. The number of US ground forces committed to Desert Shield and the subsequent operations (Desert Storm and Desert Sabre) under General H. Norman Schwarzkopf to liberate Kuwait was staggering: approximately 260,000 troops equipped with about 2,000 M1A1 tanks and 2,200 M2 and M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, supported by 500 artillery pieces plus 190 Apache and 150 Cobra attack helicopters. There were also 90,000 Marines with 200–300 M60 tanks, 250 light armoured vehicles, 430 amphibious assault vehicles and 160 aircraft.

Britain committed 35,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billière, including the 1st British Armoured Division under operation Granby. This comprised the 7th Armoured Brigade (the ‘Desert Rats’), with two regiments of FV4030 Challenger Mk 3s, and the 4th Armoured Brigade plus another regiment, totalling 160 tanks commanded by Major General Rupert Smith. The division’s three mechanized infantry battalions were each equipped with forty-five new FV510 Warrior mechanized combat vehicles. The two reconnaissance units were equipped with a range of vehicles based on the Scorpion.

France contributed 14,000 men, as part of Opération Daguet, under Lieutenant General Michel Roquejoffre, who commanded the French Rapid Reaction Force. The French force comprised Foreign Legion, Marine infantry, helicopter and armoured car units. The main formation was the 6th Light Armoured Division, with forty AMX-10C AFVs under Brigadier General Mouscardes. It should be noted that French divisions are smaller than their NATO counterparts and are typically reinforced brigades. However, the 6th Division was augmented with reinforcements that included the 4th Dragoon Regiment, a tank unit equipped with forty-four AMX-30B2 tanks, from the French 10th Armoured Division. Although the AMX-30B2 model was old and due to be replaced by the Leclerc, it was more than able to deal with most Iraqi tanks.

The Kuwaiti Army in exile consisted of three or four brigades, totalling 10–15,000 men, equipped with over sixty Chieftain and M-84 tanks. The principal armoured unit was the 38th Kuwaiti Armoured Brigade, dubbed the ‘Al Shadid’ or Martyrs. It had lost twenty-two of its eighty Chieftains during the Iraqi invasion. The 35th Kuwaiti Mechanized Brigade was equipped with M113 tracked APCs.

Saudi contributed two main forces: the regular Saudi Arabian Armed Forces (SAAF) and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). By 1991 the SAAF totalled 67,500 men, the army or Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) fielding 40,000 of them, organized into two armoured, four mechanized (including the 10th Armoured, and the 8th, 10th, 11th and 20th Mechanized Brigades), one infantry and one airborne brigade, equipped with 550 tanks (including 300 French AMX-30s and 250 American M60s) and 1,840 combat vehicles, APCs and armoured cars. SANG totalled 55,000 men with 35,000 active troops and 20,000 tribal levies, equipped with 1,100 American V-150 Commando APCs.

The largest Arab contingent, comprising some 47,000 troops, came from Egypt. It consisted of the 3rd Mechanized Division (with about 200 M60s, 300 M113 APCs and M109 self-propelled guns) and the 4th Armoured Division (with about 250 M60s and 250 M113s and M109s). Syria committed 19,000 men, consisting of one airborne brigade and the 9th Armoured Division (with 250 T-62 and T-72 tanks plus BMP IFVs). In return for its support Syria received $1 billion from Saudi Arabia. Both Egypt and Syria stated that their troops were only to be deployed to defend Saudi Arabia, though this attitude was to change. Qatar also provided an armoured battalion equipped with about twenty-four French-supplied AMX-30 tanks. In total the Coalition gathered half a million men from thirty-one countries armed with 3,400 tanks and 1,600 pieces of artillery, while the allied air forces included 1,736 combat aircraft and 750 support aircraft.

General Schwarzkopf was an experienced pair of hands. Commissioned in 1956, he had served as an adviser and then as a battalion commander during the Vietnam War and was highly decorated for his exploits. He was a divisional commander during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Five years later Schwarzkopf assumed command of US Central Command or CENTCOM based in Tampa, Florida, with responsibility for military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Supporting him were Lieutenant General John Yeosock, commanding the US Army forces deployed for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Vice Admiral Stan Arthur, commanding the US Navy forces in the Gulf, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, commanding the US Air Force in the Gulf, and Lieutenant General Walt Boomer, commanding the US Marines in the Gulf.

Despite the massed array of military hardware and repeated calls by the United Nations for Iraq to withdraw, Saddam Hussein refused to leave Kuwait. In the face of such obstinacy, the Coalition prepared its plans for a ground war, but first, under the guise of Operation Desert Storm, coalition fighter-bombers were to hunt down every piece of Iraqi military equipment they could find. What followed was a largely uncontested air war – some likened it to a turkey shoot.

Iraqi Army in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO)


Two Iraqi T-55 main battle tanks lie abandoned on the Basra-Kuwait Highway near Kuwait City after the release of Iraqi forces from the city during Operation Desert Storm.


A long line of vehicles, including destroyed Iraqi Army Russian-made T-62 tanks and trucks stand abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops on the outskirts of Kuwait City 01 March 1991 after the Allied troops liberated the capital of Kuwait. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 02 August 1990, ostensibly over violations of the Iraqi border, led to the Gulf War which began 16 January 1991. A U.S.-led multinational force expelled Iraq from Kuwait during the “Desert Storm” offensive and a cease-fire was signed 28 February 1991. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

By early January 1991 western intelligence reports suggested that Saddam’s forces deployed in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO), encompassing Kuwait and southern Iraq, numbered approximately 540,000 men, equipped with 4,000 tanks, 2,700 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and other armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), and 3,000 pieces of artillery. This force included the 120,000–150,000-strong elite Republican Guard Corps. These figures were based on the assessment that forty-three Iraqi divisions were in the KTO. On the face of it, this was a formidable fighting force that would not be easy to defeat.

To make matter worse, overall Saddam Hussein had almost a million men under arms, consisting of seven corps directing seven armoured/mechanized divisions plus forty-two infantry divisions, whilst the Republican Guard had four armoured/mechanized divisions and three infantry divisions. Despite its huge manpower and powerful armoured forces, closer inspection showed that the Iraqi Army’s fearsome reputation was based largely on myth. Its military reputation was not as great as it had been made out to be, and certainly its track record during the Iran–Iraq War was nothing to boast about. The Iraqi Army had not conquered great swathes of Iran and it had struggled to fight Iran’s massed human-wave attacks to a bloody standstill.

The Iraqis had considerable but somewhat mixed experiences of armoured warfare. In 1973 the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division had been committed in support of the Syrians, but performed fairly poorly, losing 140 tanks to the Israelis. This was followed by nine years of war with Iran between 1980 and 1989. However, tactical use of tanks on both sides was at best unimaginative. There had been no grand blitzkriegs across Iran or Iraq. Nonetheless, within the Iraqi armed forces Saddam’s Republican Guard Corps had gained a particularly tough reputation. While hardly comparable to Hitler’s Waffen-SS, during the Iran–Iraq conflict the Republican Guard had formed a strategic reserve, acting as a ‘fire-brigade’ that was sent to any front that was in need of bolstering. It fought on almost every front and in most of the major battles, expanding from a single armoured brigade in 1980 to one infantry, one commando and three armoured brigades by 1987. Four years later it was claimed that the corps consisted of seven whole divisions. Whenever the Republican Guard appeared, Iraqi morale was greatly improved, as was their combat performance. These observations were not lost on western planners.

Principal Iraqi Armoured units in the KTO:

Republican Guard Corps:

Hammurabi, Medina and Tawakalna Armoured Divisions

Iraqi Army:

3rd, 6th, 10th, 12th, 17th and 37th Armoured Divisions

1st, 5th, 14th and 51st Mechanized Divisions

26th Armoured Brigade

20th Mechanized Brigade

Despite the impressive numbers, the truth was that neither the Iraqi Army nor the Republican Guard had been given time to recover from the gruelling conflict with Iran. In 1990 Iraq was still equipped with the Brazilian, Chinese, Czech and Russian armour with which it had fought the Iran–Iraq War. Much of it was poorly serviced and in desperate need of spares. Saddam’s armoured forces were equipped with some 5,500 tanks comprising 2,500 Russian T-54/55s, 1,500 Chinese Type 59/69s, 1,000 Russian T-62s and 500 T-72s, as well as 8,100 APCs consisting of Russian BMP-1/2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, BTR-50/60/152 and MTLBs, Czech OT-62/63s, Chinese YW-531s, American M113s and Brazilian EE-11s. These were supported by no fewer than 500 Russian-supplied self-propelled guns of 122mm, 152mm and 155mm calibre, and 3,200 pieces of artillery and multiple rocket launchers.

The bulk of the Iraqi tank fleet consisted of the tried and tested Soviet-supplied T-54/55, T-62 and T-72 types, all of which were decidedly long in the tooth by 1990. The T-72 was the Iraqi Army’s most modern tank during Desert Storm, although it was a good ten years older than the US Abrams. A few Iraqi-upgraded Russian T-54/55s and Chinese Type-59/69 tanks with additional frontal arc armour (giving a greater degree of protection against high-explosive anti-tank rounds) were encountered by coalition tanks during the fighting. Some of the Iraqi T-62s were also modified in a number of areas (including the addition of covers to the turret-mounted searchlights). It was not known if any had been modified to fire laser-guided missiles via the 115mm gun. Egypt also supplied Iraq with 140 M-77s, a Romanian copy of the T-54 that was also known as the M1977 or TR-77.

The Americans had very good intelligence on the T-55/62 and even the T-72, in part due to the Arab–Israeli wars. The Israelis first fought the T-54/55 in 1967 and the T-62 in 1973. During the 1967 Six-Day War the Arabs lost 1,072 tanks and about another 2,000 in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and many were passed on to the US for exploitation. The guns of both types performed poorly in long-range exchanges (over 1,500m), and while the T-62’s 115mm U5-T smoothbore gun was effective, crew performance was hampered by cramped conditions. Likewise their excellent armour was compromised by the location of internal fuel and ammunition stores (adding greatly to the risk of internal detonation, even by a glancing hit). The Soviet-designed tanks also had a tendency to overheat in the desert, thereby aggravating the already severe problems of crew discomfort.

Combat experience had already shown that the 105mm/M68 tank gun firing armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) projectiles was capable of penetrating the frontal armour of early T-72s. The Abrams’ 120mm gun had the added advantage of firing the M829 APFSDS-T (T – tracer) round with a depleted uranium penetrator. This meant that the M1A1 Abrams and the 105mm-armed M60 could easily deal with the cream of the Iraqi armour. In fact the US Department of Defense was almost ecstatic over the Abrams’ performance in the Gulf. Likewise the British Challenger’s 120mm weapon could knock out enemy tanks at 2,500 yards and beyond, and with its excellent thermal sights it was just as effective at night. Its Chobham armour was also enhanced by the addition of extra armour packs on the front and sides.

The Soviet-designed 2S1 self-propelled howitzer entered service in the early 1970s and remained in production until around 1991. Iraq is believed to have imported about 140 of these and the 2S3 in the late 1980s, and several were subsequently captured during Desert Storm. The 2S3 self-propelled howitzer had also entered Soviet service in the early 1970s and some 10,000 examples of this type were built. Numbers of Iraqi 2S3s were overrun in 1991, their crews probably having fled in the face of overwhelming air attacks.

In 1989 the Iraqis displayed a BMP-1 Infantry Combat Vehicle with appliqué armour fitted to the sides of the hull for protection against 12.7 mm and 14.5 mm armour-piercing rounds. However, none was fitted to the turret or glacis plate. Holes were also cut into the hull armour package to allow the infantry to use their small arms from within the vehicle. It is not known whether this type entered service with the Iraqi Army in quantity. The Iraqis obtained a small number of BMD-1 Airborne Combat Vehicles, and a number in poor condition were later captured in Kuwait. They were presumably used in a fire support or reconnaissance role.

The Soviet-built MT-LB Multi-purpose Tracked Vehicle was used as an artillery tractor for 100mm and 122mm guns, as a command vehicle, as an artillery fire control vehicle, as a cargo carrier and as an APC. Iraq is believed to have imported up to 800 of them during the 1980s, and some were modified to carry an Egyptian-supplied 120mm mortar. Many of the MT-LBs came from Bulgaria, which built them under licence.

Iraq had acquired about 300 EE-9 Cascavel fast and well-armed Brazilian 6×6 armoured cars during the 1980s. A number were deployed with the Iraqi garrison in Kuwait City in 1990 and were subsequently caught by air strikes trying to flee north. The Iraqis also imported several hundred Brazilian EE-3 Jararaca scout cars and EE-11 Urutu 6×6 APCs.

The OT-62 Armoured Personnel Carrier jointly developed by Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1960s was largely a copy of the Soviet BTR-50. Iraq procured about 500 of these and the wheeled OT-64. The OT-64 Armoured Personnel Carrier 8×8 wheeled APC served the same function as the Soviet BTR-60 APC (although they are not physically the same). Production ceased in 1990, by which time 10,300 had been built for home and export markets.

The Chinese Type YW-531 tracked APC was developed in the late 1960s and saw combat in Angola, Iraq, Kuwait, Tanzania and Vietnam. From 1983 onwards Iraq received some 500 of these vehicles, a number of which were captured in 1991, including the Type YW-701 command post vehicle (based on the YW-531 and deployed by regimental and divisional commanders) and several Type YW-750 ambulances. This APC would first see action with the Iraqi Army at Khafji in Saudi Arabia.

All in all, Saddam’s forces in the KTO were not to be underestimated, and while western intelligence had a good idea how they might perform, it was certainly far from a foregone conclusion. Saddam and his generals were gambling on being able to inflict sufficient casualties on the coalition forces to compel the coalition commanders to accept a ceasefire brokered by the UN Security Council. The reality was that Saddam’s timing could not have been worse, especially as his key ally, the Soviet Union, was in the throes of disintegration and was in no position to influence events. Nor was it able to offer a massive re-supply operation as it had done with Egypt and Syria during the Arab–Israeli Wars. Saddam was on his own.



The warrior women of Dahomey, an ancient kingdom in West Africa and present-day Benin, first came to the attention of European travelers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A German book published in 1598, Vera Descriptio Regni Africani, describes an African royal court whose palace guard consisted of women, and similar royal formations occurred elsewhere in the world from ancient times, particularly in the East. The kings of ancient Persia had female bodyguards, as did a prince of Java.

As late as the nineteenth century, the king of Siam, now Thailand, was guarded by a battalion of four hundred women armed with spears. They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. Women in general were regarded as more loyal and trustworthy bodyguards than men, because they were less likely to be bribed or suborned; many rulers chose female bodyguards for this reason.

But the women of Dahomey outclassed them all. More than 250 years after the first reference, we catch sight of them again in the high summer of the British Empire when the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley, in a report on his successful campaign against the Ashanti (1873–74), compared his energetic and disciplined Fanti female porters to the king of Dahomey’s “corps of Amazons.”

Eighteenth-century accounts of Dahomey by European merchants and slave traders—slavery was the basis of the kingdom’s wealth—paint a picture of a colorful feudal world whose kings were surrounded by hundreds of serving girls and guarded by armed women. One of Dahomey’s kings, Bossa Ahadee, would march in ceremonial procession accompanied by several hundred wives, surrounded by female messengers and slaves, and escorted by a guard of 120 men armed with blunderbusses and 90 armed women.

The presence of the armed women was, at this stage in Dahomey’s history, more a symbol than a real threat to Dahomey’s neighbors. The tables were turned, however, when one of them, the king of Oyo, took to the field against the Dahomeans with a raiding party of eight hundred women to enforce a claim of female tribute he had leveled against King Adahoonzou. It was left to the all-male Dahomean army to defeat the Oyan Amazons.

By the time of King Ghezo (1818–58), Dahomey’s royal court consisted of some eight thousand people, the majority of them women, many of whom existed in a minutely graded pyramid of concubinage, at the top of which were the so-called Wives of the Leopard, the women who bore the ruler’s children. One of the functions of the armed female element of the court, all of whom were recruited in their early teenage years, seems to have been the capture and execution of women from rival tribes. All the “Amazons” carried giant folding razors, with blades over two feet long, which were apparently used to decapitate female enemies and castrate male foes.

From the late 1830s Ghezo seems to have used members of his predominantly female court in battle against neighboring tribes. It is possible that he deployed four thousand female warriors in an army totaling sixteen thousand. When in 1851 he laid siege to the city of Abeokuta, the siege was repulsed with losses of some three thousand, of whom two thirds were women. A French account of the engagement describes their officers standing in the front line, “recognisable by the riches of their dress” and carrying themselves with “a proud and resolute air.” Nevertheless, these women warriors occupied an inferior and ambivalent position in the hierarchy of the Dahomean court and, significantly, referred to themselves as men in their war cries and battle chants.

Far from discouraging Ghezo, this setback spurred him on to include more women in his army. They seem to have been divided into a regular corps of well-trained and highly disciplined “Amazons” armed with muskets and machete-like swords, who also formed an elite personal bodyguard, and a rather less satisfactory reserve, armed with cutlasses, clubs, and bows and arrows, who were more interested in rum than rigorous military discipline. In peacetime the “Amazon” corps was wholly segregated from men, and outside the confines of the royal palace its approach was signaled by the ringing of bells, upon which civilians had to turn their backs and males had to move away.

There were several practical reasons for Ghezo’s use of women in battle. Dahomey was exceptionally warlike, and lost many men on campaign, while simultaneously depending for its wealth on a slave trade that favored the disposal to slavers of a large proportion of its able-bodied male population. At its peak strength in the early 1860s, the Dahomean army was approximately fifty thousand strong—one-fifth the total population—of which the female element numbered ten thousand, a quarter of their number consisting of the “Amazons.”

It has been suggested that many of the women, as well as some of the men in the Dahomean army, went to war as camp followers, much in the manner of the soldaderas who marched with Mexican armies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who saw them in 1863, likewise poured derision on “the fighting Amazons.” “Mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” he ruminated with all the authority of the European white male, “the officers decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…they manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep.” But he also noted that this army, then some 2,500 strong, was well armed and effective in battle. Nor could all of them have been old and hideous, since all 2,500 were official wives of the king.

In spite of the dread in which they were held, the “Amazons” were no match for small but well-armed colonial armies. In a series of engagements in 1892, the male and female Dahomean warriors were defeated by a French army, and the kingdom became a colony of France. The victorious French commander commended the women warriors on their speed and boldness and installed a puppet ruler who was permitted a few token women in his bodyguard. A troupe of so-called Amazons from Dahomey formed part of a display at the recently erected Eiffel Tower, under which they danced and drilled.

Reference: Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, 1998.