Rome and the North Britons

Reconstruction of the Antonine Wall at Callendar Park, reproduced courtesy of Falkirk Museum and M. J. Moore DA FSA Scot

Consolidation of the Frontier

If the imperial authorities hoped that the Antonine Wall would bring a period of stability to Roman Britain, their optimism was dashed when trouble broke out among the northern tribes in 154 or 155. Which tribes were involved is a matter of debate, as is the question of how much disruption was caused. It is possible, for instance, that the unrest was confined to communities living north of Hadrian’s Wall, or that these were joined by neighbours in Dumfriesshire, or even that the main troublemakers lay further north in Caledonia. Whatever the location of the uprising it was put down by Julius Verus, governor of Britain, and special coins were minted to celebrate the restoration of order. In the next few years, however, a decision was taken to abandon the Antonine frontier and withdraw to Hadrian’s Wall. The presence of troublesome natives in the region between the two walls may have influenced the decision, but other factors, such as the strain on military resources, could have played a bigger role. When the withdrawal commenced in 158, it evacuated the Antonine line but stopped short of abandoning the region between the two walls. Some of the intervallate forts were even refurbished at this time. Buildings destroyed by fire at Birrens, known as Blatobulgium (‘The Flour Sack’) because of the distinctive shape of the nearby Burnswark Hill, were once thought to have succumbed to the native uprising of AD 154/5, but were more likely to have been demolished by the fort garrison during a makeover.

Before 160 the Antonine Wall was recommissioned and its soldiers came back to the forts, if only for a brief time. Their return to the Forth–Clyde isthmus was temporary and did not outlast the end of the decade. Trouble flared again in the early 160s, soon after the accession of Marcus Aurelius as emperor. A Roman general with the portentous name Calpurnius Agricola was ordered to quell it. The contemporary sources do not identify the culprits, who were either rebellious Britons on the northern frontier or Caledonian raiders from the lands beyond. Whoever these troublemakers were they were defeated and a semblance of stability returned. Roman sources describe another outbreak of hostilities in 169 when unidentified Britons caused trouble somewhere in the North. A war was seemingly averted by nipping the unrest in the bud, but, by 170, the Antonine Wall was again evacuated when Marcus Aurelius needed reinforcements for a campaign on the Danube. This time the troop withdrawals were intended to be permanent and many forts sustained deliberate demolition of buildings and defences. The turf frontier was abandoned, the Stirlingshire forts were left empty and the imperial boundary shrank back to Hadrian’s Wall. Some forts in the intervallate region remained in use, but these were engulfed in 181, during the reign of the emperor Commodus, when the Caledonii swept down from their Highland fastnesses to plunder the wealth of the Roman province. A high-ranking general marched out to meet the marauders, but he and his troops were slain. The ensuing wave of destruction left several forts along Hadrian’s Wall in ruins and spelled disaster for vulnerable outposts such as Newstead. Commodus, son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, dismissed the hapless governor of Britain and appointed a more effective replacement. The new governor, Ulpius Marcellus, defeated the Caledonii and restored control before following up his victory by making changes to troop dispositions in the interval-late region. Some forts were rebuilt and regarrisoned, but others, including Newstead, were condemned to dereliction. By the end of the second century, only a handful of outposts north of Hadrian’s Wall remained in use, their soldiers providing a token military presence in a region now regarded as a buffer-zone between the imperial province of Britannia and the badlands of Caledonia. The outposts lay in the south of the intervallate region, in lands nominally given over to native rule but under the watchful eye of Rome. Beyond them, in a broad band of territory encompassing Clydesdale and Lothian, the North Britons retained a measure of independence under the authority of their own leaders. It is likely that this arrangement was monitored by the Roman army during ceremonial events and tribal assemblies at specific sites called loci. The Latin word locus simply means ‘place’, but in the context of barbarian tribes bound in clientship to Rome these ‘places’ may have held administrative and diplomatic significance. Each of the four major groupings of North Britons had one or more loci within its territory, some being centred on sacred stones of immense antiquity which had long been used for ceremonial purposes. A public gathering at a locus would have given Rome an opportunity to remind the natives of their obligations to her Empire. How much autonomy was actually delegated to the intervallate Britons is unclear, but the surviving outpost forts were doubtless a constant reminder of imperial authority. At Birrens the Roman garrison used a native hillfort at nearby Burnswark for target practice by bombarding its decaying ramparts with catapults, an exercise which may have served the dual purpose of providing in-house artillery training as well as discouraging dissent among the North Britons. The latter thus approached the third century sandwiched between two implacably hostile forces: the Empire to the south and Caledonia to the north. Treaties forged in the aftermath of troop withdrawals from the Antonine Wall created an uneasy peace between the protagonists, but neither side, still less the Britons caught in the middle, expected it to last. It was little more than a temporary respite, a breathing-space, before a new round of raiding and retribution began.

Native communities in the land between the two Roman walls dwelt in the shadow of a conquering power. Their fellow-Britons living south of Hadrian’s Wall in what is now northern England were subjects of the Empire and, by the third century, had grudgingly or willingly accepted the situation. Earlier revolts by the Brigantes had been brutally crushed and were never to be repeated. Acceptance of subjugation was an easier option, even if it meant a loss of pride and a tax obligation to the imperial treasury. North of the Hadrianic frontier the Britons of the intervallate region remained nominally independent while acknowledging some measure of Roman authority. Unlike their Brigantian neighbours they continued to be ruled by their own leaders but these had presumably forged long-term treaties with Rome.

South of Hadrian’s Wall, the Brigantes and other conquered Britons experienced the full impact of the Roman occupation. The native upper classes, comprising the major landowning families, had watched their privileged status slip away after the conquest. Their lifestyles had collapsed as soon as Rome dismantled the old economic networks. Tithes of agricultural produce formerly rendered to local headmen were now collected by imperial tax-gatherers, while a strict prohibition of civilian military activity brought an end to tit-for-tat raids by predatory bands of Britons upon their neighbours. The resulting net loss of plunder severed the native upper class from its traditional methods of amassing surplus wealth through the acquisition of cattle and slaves. In such circumstances the neutered elites of Brigantia had little choice but to accept new roles delegated to them by the imperial administration. Some were probably allowed to retain a measure of authority in local contexts, as leaders nominated by Rome to oversee districts where their ancestors had once held substantial power. Such folk would have become more or less Romanised, maintaining their elevated status by exploiting opportunities for social advancement in the northern military zone. Some, no doubt, were allowed to remain on their ancestral estates and would have continued to receive tithes from tenant farmers.

A wholly new type of civilian settlement, the vicus, appeared in the wake of conquest. The typical vicus was a small village established outside the main gate of a Roman fort and along the primary access road. It tended to attract entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities at places where large numbers of military folk had disposable incomes. By definition, the vicus owed its existence to the presence of the fort and was wholly dependent on the patronage of soldiers. Its inhabitants, known as vicani, were generally a mixed bag of individuals drawn from local native communities and from places further afield. Some manufactured clothes, shoes or craft goods in small workshops, while others established taverns and hotels. Female vicani included wives and girlfriends of the garrison, their residence outside the fort initially being a requirement of the Army’s prohibition on married soldiers until Septimius Severus changed the law. In reality, even before the Severan reform, the authorities routinely turned a blind eye to liaisons between soldiers and native women, many of whom bore sons who eventually succeeded their fathers in the garrison.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, the much briefer occupation of Roman forts made the vici a fleeting addition to the landscape. Even when the Antonine Wall provided a temporary screen against Caledonian incursions, the intervallate region was not a place where civilians could put down roots outside a fort. Thus, while some vici south of Hadrian’s Wall thrived for two hundred years or more, in the lands further north a long period of habitation for vicani was out of the question. No fort north of today’s Anglo-Scottish border was permanently garrisoned after the end of the second century, a statistic which helps to explain why archaeologists have identified so few vici in Scotland. One of the few examples unearthed by excavation is a large village clustering outside the east gate of the fort at Inveresk near Musselburgh in East Lothian. Another has been discovered at Carriden, known to the Romans as Veluniate, a fort perched on the eastern extremity of the Antonine Wall overlooking the Forth estuary. The vicani at Carriden were a community of sufficient stability and cohesion to be granted a measure of self-government by the military authorities. However, neither of these settlements endured for long. They were wholly dependent on their forts and disappeared when these were abandoned.

Caledonii and Maeatae

Beyond the Antonine Wall lay the enemies of Rome: the Caledonii and their neighbours. During the northern campaigns of the second century, the Empire’s relationship with these barbarians was characterised by raid and counter-raid across the borderlands around the Firth of Forth. This region became a volatile conflict zone while Roman troops still garrisoned the Antonine forts, and likewise in the years following its final abandonment in the 160s. Hostilities continued until Rome forged treaties with the main barbarian groups at the end of the century, probably by paying them to stop raiding. At that time the Caledonii were still the main threat, but another people, the Maeatae, were recognised as an equally belligerent foe. Roman writers located the Maeatae immediately north of the Antonine Wall in what are now Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire. They may have been a fusion of smaller groups on the model of the Caledonian ‘confederacy’ further north. Some historians wonder if these political fusions may have occurred because an aggressive foreign power held sway south of the Forth–Clyde isthmus. They see Rome’s occupation of the southern part of Britain as a catalyst for political developments in the North. In this scenario the creation of large tribal confederacies is viewed as a logical progression arising from the proximity of large numbers of Roman troops. An alternative theory sees amalgamation as an outcome of conflict between neighbouring communities, rather than as a voluntary or co-operative response to the threat of Roman invasion. Indeed, Rome might even have been responsible for creating tensions by favouring some native groups while neglecting others. Thus, it is possible that the pro-Roman queen Cartimandua might not have been a ‘pan-Brigantian’ sovereign after all, but merely a local ruler who exploited imperial patronage to impose her will on other Pennine peoples. By applying this model further north, we might envisage the Caledonii not so much joining with their neighbours as subjugating them by force. Such a process may have placed the Caledonian leadership at the head of a large, powerful amalgamation of tribes in a region centred on the valley of the River Tay. If this is what happened, then the Maeatae may have similarly seized the initiative among their own weaker neighbours.

High on a shoulder of the Ochil Hills, commanding a wide vista across Stirlingshire and the Firth of Forth, stood the great oppidum or tribal centre of the ancestors of the Maeatae. This stronghold may already have been abandoned when the Maeatae themselves first came to Rome’s attention, but it remained an imposing feature in the landscape. Its ancient name is unrecorded, but the hill on which it stands is known today as Dumyat, a name deriving from Gaelic Dun Myat (‘The Fort of the Maeatae’). Five miles south-east, and a little to the south of the modern town of Clackmannan, stood an unshaped boulder venerated in pre-Christian times as a sacred stone. In the medieval period this monument became known as King Robert’s Stone after its role in a folktale about Robert the Bruce, but its original name was Clach Manonn (‘The Stone of Manau’). The stone’s proximity to the heartlands of the Maeatae suggests its adoption by their forefathers as a venue for sacred rites and public ceremonies. It now sits on top of a pillar beside the old tolbooth in Clackmannan and has given its name to the town.

The Maeatae make their first appearance in the historical record around the year 200. At that time, according to the Roman writer Cassius Dio, they overturned a treaty with Rome and mustered their forces for war. They chose the right moment, for substantial numbers of Roman troops had recently been withdrawn from Britain by Clodius Albinus, an ambitious governor who hoped to set himself up as emperor. Seeking to exploit the situation, the Maeatae crossed the abandoned Antonine Wall to rampage southward, wreaking havoc wherever they went. To make matters worse, the Caledonii were preparing to break their own treaty with the Empire by joining the assault. In a desperate bid to avert a major crisis the newly appointed governor of Roman Britain, Virius Lupus, tried to placate the Maeatae with a substantial payment. The offer was accepted: the raiders went home and released a small number of Roman prisoners. But peace did not last and a new spate of raiding began. This time, no bribe was forthcoming from the imperial treasury. What the barbarians received instead was a full-scale assault. In 208, the warlike emperor Septimius Severus arrived in Britain to deal personally with the situation on the northern frontier. With him came his sons, Geta and Caracalla, two young men rescued from the sleaze of Rome by a father who regarded the Forth borderlands as a somewhat more wholesome environment. Assembling a large army, Severus marched north to hammer the Maeatae into submission and to discourage the Caledonii from joining them. His strategy seemed to work: he received pledges of peace from the barbarians and returned to his base at York. In 210, however, the Maeatae again reverted to their old ways. They may have heard a rumour that Severus was sick and unable to leave his bed. He was indeed too ill to command a new campaign, but, despite his infirmity, he had no intention of letting the enemy run amok. Leadership of the counter-attack was delegated to Caracalla who unleashed upon the Maeatae a harsh retribution. He arrived in Stirlingshire with a clear instruction from his father to slaughter the natives and to leave none alive. Until this point, the Caledonii had merely observed from the sidelines, but new tales of Roman savagery towards their neighbours brought them swiftly into the fray. They had another incentive to confront the invader, for Severus intended to build a massive fortress at Carpow at the mouth of the River Earn on the southern edge of their heartlands. The new base was designed to accommodate an entire legion and, when completed, would have posed a major threat to native ambitions. A prolonged and bitter conflict seemed unavoidable until fate intervened to remove Severus from the equation. In February 211, at his military headquarters in York, he finally succumbed to illness. Caracalla became emperor, but no longer shared his father’s enthusiasm for the northern campaign. He saw little gain in resuming it: the fighting was hard, the short-term rewards were meagre and the prospect of a lasting solution looked increasingly remote. Moreover, the drain on military resources was becoming acute and difficult to justify at a time when other parts of the Empire demanded urgent attention. Foremost among Caracalla’s anxieties was a bitter rivalry with his younger brother, Geta, whose growing influence at the imperial court was an irritation. Caracalla therefore called a halt to the war, made peace with the Maeatae and Caledonii and relinquished any serious claim on their lands. He returned to Rome to assert his authority and, within a few months, masterminded his brother’s assassination. Meanwhile, in northern Britain, the forward bases occupied during the Severan campaign were evacuated. Construction at Carpow was halted and the soldiers withdrew. A token military presence lingered at Cramond on the Forth until it, too, was abandoned in the 220s. The imperial frontier again retreated to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving only four outpost forts in the lands beyond: Risingham and High Rochester in the east; Bewcastle and Netherby in the west. With this retreat the Roman adventure in the Highlands finally came to an end.

The Emperor, his sons and the military leadership wintered in York. Sadly for them however the terms which had so satisfied the Romans in AD 209 were not so agreeable to at least the Maeatae as in AD 210 they revolted again. The Caledonians predictably joined in, and Severus decided to go north again to settle matters once and for all. On this occasion he’d obviously had enough of the troublesome Britons, giving his famous order to kill all the natives his troops came across.

This second campaign re-enacted the AD 209 campaign exactly, though this time solely under Caracalla as Severus was too ill. It was even more brutal than the first as afterwards there was peace along the northern border for four generations afterwards, the longest in pre-modern times. Archaeological data is now emerging to show this was because of a major depopulation event, indicating something close to a genocide was committed by the Romans in the central and upper Midland Valley.


Some Roman writers poured scorn on Caracalla’s readiness to let the barbarians off the hook, but his treaties held firm and ultimately proved the doubters wrong. The third century passed in relative peace. No new outbreaks of trouble on the northern frontier are known from the surviving literary sources. Only in the century’s last decade did the situation once again grow volatile. In 297, the poet Eumenius referred to a people called Picti (‘Picts’), whom he named alongside the Irish as enemies of the Britons. He did not say where they came from, but they plainly lived outside the Empire. Their location was made clearer by an anonymous writer of the early fourth century who referred to ‘the woods and marshes of the Caledones and other Picts’. This clearly identifies the Caledonii of earlier times as a component of the Picti. It also shows that Perthshire, the ancient Caledonian heartland, must have lain within Pictish territory. Later in the fourth century, the historian and ex-soldier Ammianus Marcellinus regarded the Picts as a fusion of two distinct peoples, the Verturiones and Dicalydones. The latter name relates in some way to Caledonii and indicates that this ancient grouping still functioned as a political force three hundred years after the Agricolan invasion. The Verturiones are previously unknown, but their name connects them to Fortriu, an area of importance during the second half of the first millennium AD. In the nineteenth century, the Scottish antiquary William Forbes Skene equated Fortriu with the later earldom of Strathearn and Menteith. This identification remained largely unchallenged until 2006, when its weakness was highlighted in a groundbreaking paper. Fortriu is now regarded as a more northerly territory centred on Moray. In another recent development, some historians have adopted the adjective ‘Verturian’ when referring to the land and people of this region.

Picti means ‘Painted People’ or ‘People of the Designs’. When and why this name originated are questions to which several plausible answers can be offered. So far, no consensus has yet been achieved. The name may be derived from, or related to, a collective term used by the Picts of themselves, but it is equally possible that no such term existed until the Romans began to distinguish the peoples of northern Britain from one another. Sadly, the Pictish language vanished after c.900 and, as no Pictish writings have survived, there is now little hope of ascertaining whether or not a native precursor of Latin Picti ever existed. Historians are left instead to muse on the nature and purpose of the ‘designs’ that gave rise to the name. Did the Picts tattoo their skin, or did they merely daub their bodies with warpaint? Tattooing was regarded as archaic and primitive by the Romanised Britons living south of Hadrian’s Wall, but it possibly lingered as a custom further north. If so, its continuing use far beyond the frontier might explain why the poet Claudian, writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, referred to Roman soldiers observing the decorative body-art of slain Pictish warriors.

Whatever the origin of their name, the Picts posed a major threat to Roman Britain throughout the fourth century. They were a numerous people whose lands encompassed a broad swath of territory stretching from the Western Isles to Fife and from Shetland to the Ochil Hills. Within this large area many communities shared cultural traits we now regard as essentially ‘Pictish’. They shared a common language similar to, and no doubt once indistinguishable from, the language of the Britons. On a political level, however, the Picts were not a single entity but a patchwork of separate groups, each of which was probably ruled as a small kingdom. In early times, when they first came to Rome’s attention, their most frequent foes were likely to have been fellow-Picts rather than people living south of the Forth–Clyde isthmus. Much of the slave-raiding and cattle-reiving undertaken by Picts in Roman times was surely conducted within their own homelands. Ambitious leaders would have had little incentive to act in unison against an external power unless persuaded or coerced to do so. Thus, although the notion of pan-Pictish unity might have simplified matters for Roman chroniclers, we should not feel tempted to run too far with it. Temporary pooling of military forces in response to Roman aggression perhaps occurred from time to time, but the Picts were not a homogeneous group. Their default political framework was rooted in local allegiances rather than in abstract concepts of nationhood. Although this pattern began to change in the sixth century, with the emergence of one or more Pictish overkingships, the marauding bands of ‘Painted People’ who troubled Roman Britain in 297 were almost certainly not acting in unison.

What distinguished the Picts from other indigenous peoples of the British Isles? The simplest answer to this question is that Pictish culture must have been unique, distinctive and recognisable to outsiders. It was sufficiently distinct for Roman writers to differentiate the Picts from the Britons and the Irish. All three were part of a Celtic cultural zone, but, despite this shared heritage, they each exhibited certain traits that set them apart from one another. One important difference was language: the Picts and Britons spoke variants of a Brittonic language of the ‘P-Celtic’ group, while the Irish used Goidelic or Gaelic speech which modern linguists define as ‘Q-Celtic’. The Pictish and British varieties of Brittonic represented separate dialects which, although mutually intelligible, may have sounded quite distinct when spoken. The date at which the two diverged is unknown but their separation perhaps began in Roman times, when the influence of Latin south of Hadrian’s Wall might have made northern dialects seem barbarous and different. By 297, when the Picts emerged into recorded history, it is possible that their speech already sounded sufficiently different to set them apart.

In ethnic terms the Picts of the third and fourth centuries were simply the most northerly of the Britons. There is no doubt that they were a ‘Celtic’ people. Like their southern cousins they had been exposed to Celticisation during the first millennium BC when cultural influences from Continental Europe spread throughout the British Isles. Unsurprisingly, the Pictish landscape contains a number of ‘Celtic’ features, the most visible being hilltop fortresses defended by concentric walls of unmortared stone laced with timber. Certain other structures are not found elsewhere in the Celtic world, or are encountered only rarely, and seem to be indigenous to the Pictish zone. Of these, the best-known are the brochs, the enigmatic towers found all over the Pictish area, with a major concentration north and west of the Great Glen. Isolated examples in southward districts such as Lothian suggest that the design was not confined to what is usually regarded as the main Pictish zone. As previously noted, archaeological study has dated their main occupation phase to the period 500 BC to AD 100 which means that they had probably fallen out of use when Roman writers first mentioned the Picts. The northern concentration of brochs has led to their builders being seen as ‘proto-Pictish’ ancestors of the later raiding bands. A simpler explanation is that the brochs were built by ‘Britons’ whose descendants in the early centuries AD remained largely untouched by Romanisation.

The Picti were none other than the Caledonii, Verturiones and other indigenous peoples previously recorded as separate entities but now appearing under a new collective name. Aside from this ‘rebranding’ of Rome’s old enemies, the situation on the northern frontier remained largely unchanged for much of the fourth century, except perhaps for an increasing number of barbarian raids. Whether these incursions became as serious as those of the Severan era in the early 200s is unknown, but they caused sufficient anxiety to provoke a Roman response. In 305, the respected general Constantius Chlorus marched from his base at York to deal with the Picts. He presumably defeated them. Likewise, his son Constantine, whom the frontier army proclaimed emperor in 306, took a break from civil war in Europe to wage a Pictish war in 312. Hostilities with the Picts continued up to the middle years of the fourth century when the emperor Constans, son of Constantine, came to Britain to oversee the imperial response.

Helping the Western Front – Russian Front 1916

A posed photo showing an Austro-Hungarian bombing party cutting its way through enemy wire. The soldier on the right has wire cutters and, like the others, is carrying grenades in his belt. They are carrying the Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle, nicknamed the “Ruck-Zuck” (“right now” or “very quick”).

Pioneers crossing the Narotsch River in Belarussia. German army pioneers were regarded as a separate combat arm trained in construction and demolition of fortifications, but they were often used as emergency infantry. One battalion was assigned to each Corps.

General von Pflanzer-Baltin with his staff. In the autumn of 1914, when Romania appeared to be turning against the Central Powers, he was charged with the defence of Transylvania. When the Russians crossed the Carpathians, and there was immediate danger of their driving onto the plains of Hungary, Pflanzer-Baltin, with an improvised division conducted a defence by taking the offensive. After fighting with varying success in the southern part of Eastern Galicia and in the Bukovina, the VII. Army under his command, was driven back by the Brusilov offensive in June 1916, and he was relieved of his command.

A German map of the southern sector of the Russian front to show gains between December 1915 and January 1916.

A German map of the northern part of the Russian front in 1916.

‘Over Christmas 1915, Falkenhayn had submitted a memorandum on the state of the war and prospects for the coming year to the scrutiny of his All-Highest War-Lord. He was opposed to further offensive action on the blank plains of Russia.’ Falkenhayn expected the Russian state’s problems to cause it to collapse in the near future but Hindenburg was not so complacent. He knew the German extended line was inadequately held and needed more troops.

Pointing to the summer successes, Falkenhayn told Hindenburg and Ludendorff there would be no major initiatives on their front. He also denied them any reinforcements and withdrew all German troops from Galicia, leaving its defence to the Austrians who were more occupied ‘with defeating Serbia and planning an offensive against Italy’. For Falkenhayn the west was where the war could be won: Verdun was chosen as the place to bleed France to death. Stavka chose to break this complacency with a major attack in March.

Winter passed with only minor activity by both sides on the Northern Front. Each army now dug-in to strengthen their positions. The German trenches were ‘strongly built in concrete, equipped with light railways and often their own generating plants, they included bomb-proof shelters. Recreation areas had been established not far behind the lines’. On the other side of the wire, the Russians were producing trenches that were comfortable. Walls were planked and stoves provided heating. There were even opportunities for relaxation.

The object of the three-pronged Russian attack was to throw the German northern wing back to the Baltic coast. When the build-up of forces had been completed, the Russians were to have numerical manpower superiority of 5:1 supported by artillery on an unprecedented scale. Captured soldiers in peasant dress and observed troop concentrations led the Germans to conclude an attack was likely.

The spring thaw began the day before the start of the offensive. After an eight-hour bombardment, the Russians launched their attack. Everywhere it failed. The next day the attack was resumed and although the situation was critical at times the German lines held: ‘the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was hung with the corpses of Russian attackers as far as the eye could see’. The same happened the next day, but when winter returned during the night the Russians were able to advance through relatively unprotected swamps. Little progress was made on day five until early evening when the Germans were threatened with disaster.

As the temperature rose, so did the water level. Everywhere turned to mud. Leutnant Stegemann wrote home describing the sudden change in his sector on the Dvina. ‘The river suddenly rose during the night of April 2nd with overwhelming force and rapidity. The previous afternoon the water in the flooded meadows had already risen so considerably that I had to send rations to posts about a mile away…in a boat’. The men in the boat were caught in the flood and its accompanying ice floes. ‘The water rose five feet in an hour. The floating masses of ice…capsized the boat’. In the pitch-dark night his men had to vacate ‘seven block-houses in a twinkling’. His own dug-out disappeared under the water.

The men held onto the capsized boat while efforts were made to establish telephonic contact with troops in the rear. Eventually a boat was found but all the time the water was rising, making it more difficult to get to the men. Then it was realised that thirty men were trapped in houses near the river bank; fortunately a bigger boat had been called for as well. Frozen and done in, all Stegemann could do was wait. While doing so, he changed his clothes, and smoked a cigar while drinking five glasses of brandy in an attempt to warm himself up.

During the wait, the boat from the rear area had managed to pick up three of the men in the river. Frozen through, they were sent off to hospital. By first light all his men had been rescued, except a sixteen-year-old corporal whose body was never recovered. His company now had new positions overlooking a two-mile broad lake. Other units were not as lucky as Stegemann’s: many men were drowned by the flood.

The rising water level and the mud made movement difficult and the dense fogs caused units to lose contact. As the front turned into a lake, the Russians called off their attacks and withdrew troops. Any Russian success was short-lived. On 28 April, after a high explosive barrage followed by gas, against which the Russians were unprotected, the German infantry reclaimed their lost positions in just one day.

Much concern had been expressed about the loyalty of some of the ethnic groups that made up the Habsburg forces. While there was no concern over German troops deserting, many of the ethnic groups in the Russian Army were happy to cross over to the Germans. Oskar Greulich was serving near Świniuchy during the April thaw. As on the Western Front, there was some degree of live-and-let-live in the east and religious festivals were often observed. ‘For some time not a shot has been fired on either side, although everybody is calmly walking about on the top, and even taking an afternoon nap up there!’

Whilst wary, both sides felt it foolish to disturb each other by shooting. ‘When the Russian sentry goes on duty, he thinks it necessary to inform his vis-à-vis of the fact. “Morning, Auyoosht!” he calls across the lake.’ Initially they did not respond or just sent an occasional bullet across, which was met by cries of ‘Germanski damn! Shoot nix!’ Greulich and his men then realised that their opponents were Lithuanians and Poles: ‘It is a good thing that there is a lake between us,’ he wrote, ‘otherwise many of these men would certainly have deserted to us.’

Both sides were religious, especially Bavarian soldiers. ‘On Easter Eve they (the Russians) called out: “Germanski shoot nix. Tomorrow peace!”’ The Russians then treated the Germans to a concert with mandolins and violins, ‘as beautiful as any one could hear at Easter in Eichelburg. In the evening the male voice choir strikes up, and solemn chants – no doubt Easter hymns – ring out into the night in three parts and sung by very good voices.’

Across the front many units witnessed similar events but only in the front line. In the rear, headquarters staff kept on planning. At the Austrian HQ, the Italian problem was paramount. They were not expecting a Russian offensive, had become obsessed with Italy, and had dedicated most of their staff energies to planning a south Tyrol offensive. To give the offensive every chance of success, they moved six infantry divisions from Galicia. Unknown to them, Brusilov had four armies, ready to strike consecutive blows along a nineteen-mile front. Careful shepherding of reserves had given the Russians a superiority of 125,000 men. Fortunately for the Russians, their postponed attack coincided with the birthday of the Fourth Army commander, so many key officers were not in place when the attack came.

The offensive began on 4 June with a hurricane bombardment (using two weeks’ supply of ammunition) that destroyed, except for some deep bunkers, the first three lines of the Austrian positions in Galicia. Part of the success was due to the Russian use of aircraft equipped with radio to direct the gunfire accurately. ‘The barrage continued throughout the day and well into the night to prevent the enemy repairing his barbed wire under cover of darkness, but was temporarily halted between midnight and 2.30 a.m. so that scouts could inspect the damage.’

The Austrian Fourth Army front collapsed. Against minimal resistance, the Russians were able to push a wedge between Fourth Army and Böhm-Ermolli’s Army Group. By the following day 40,000 prisoners had been taken, a number that swelled as the offensive spread along the line.

As Fourth Army collapsed, its neighbour, Seventh Army, retreated south. In turn First Army withdrew, putting the whole Austro-Hungarian position in considerable danger. Whole units melted away with some joining the Russian forces. ‘By the third day of the offensive, the severity of the situation was plain for all to see. The Russians had torn open a sizeable hole 32Km (20 miles) wide in the Austro-Hungarian front. Hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian troops were prisoners of war or had simply fled from the battlefield.’

After four days of fighting Fourth Army had shrunk from 110,000 to just 18,000 men under arms. As many as sixty per cent of the casualties were actually deserters.

‘Only in the centre was there little progress. Here Sakharov’s Eleventh (Army) had met Bothmer’s German-Austrian South Army which repulsed all assaults upon it.’ However, even here there was success. On 15 July, warned by his intelligence about a forthcoming attack on 18 July by Südarmee, Sakharov launched his own pre-emptive assault which took 1,300 prisoners and captured much of the ammunition stockpiled for the German attack.

Even though some Russian commanders did not attack until the due date and the northern end of the South West Front was pinned down, the advance moved rapidly. ‘By 17 June Czernowitz was taken and, on the 21st, the entire province of Bukovina. By the 23rd, the Russians were in Kimpolung and once more threatened the Carpathian foothills.’

Austro-Hungarian units were in retreat on a 250 mile front from the Pripet marshes to the Carpathians. German help would be forthcoming but only with strings. The South Tyrol campaign was to be closed, and troops moved from that front to Russia were to be under German control.

However, the Russians did not have it all their own way. Falkenhayn was concerned about the Lutsk salient and managed to build up an eight division force (mixed Austrian and German units), without much opposition from the Russians. Commanded by General von der Marwitz, the force struck in the Kovel area. In four days of fierce fighting, they recovered a few miles of ground.

The Russian gains so far included 350,000 Austrian prisoners, 400 artillery pieces and 1,300 machine guns. Many defenders had been killed and wounded along a 200 mile-long front that had been penetrated, in places, to a depth of forty miles. On the Russian side, losses had also been heavy with over 300,000 casualties. Ammunition for the artillery was also very short. A great deal had been achieved by an offensive designed to pin down forces before the principal attack.

Brusilov’s men rested and waited for their supply columns. Without support from other armies the offensive would stall. None came, and, while the Russian commanders fought among themselves, the Germans moved four divisions from France and five from East Front reserves. The Austro-Hungarians also moved four divisions from the South Tyrol Front and the Turks sent troops to help.

No second Russian attack materialised. This gave the Germans time ‘to set up solid defensive lines, restore discipline and assume command of Austro-Hungarian units as small as companies’. The control by the German Army was confirmed when on 27 July, Hindenburg was made Supreme Commander of the Eastern Front with control of all military operations in the east. This was followed by the Kaiser becoming titular head of the United Supreme Command. The Habsburg army now had little say in its role.

The appointment of Hindenburg gave rise to great rejoicing among many of the troops, mainly because he had never lost a battle. Leutnant Stegemann described the men’s reactions: ‘I was quite astonished at my Hanseatickers, Mechlinburgers and Holsteiners, they were so wild with joy at the news.’ He was now the Company Commander and enjoying the responsibility.

Ordered to renew the offensive, Brusilov’s forces attacked on 27 July, routing the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian First Army. A pivotal point between Brusilov and Evert’s fronts was Kovel. With the offensive losing impetus, its capture became very important. The Tsar, as commander-in-chief, decided that this task should be undertaken by his Guards Army. The plan was for the infantry to break through and the cavalry to attack, routing the Germans. The attack was launched without artillery support and with insufficient preparation: the troops had to cut through the barbed wire before they could move. On the left the Russians were successful, taking 11,000 prisoners, forty-six guns and sixty-five machine guns, but losses were heavy.

They were especially heavy in some units of First Corps, whose commander felt that a flank attack was beneath his troops. He sent two of the finest Russian Regiments – the Preobrazhensky Guards and the Imperial Rifle Regiment – in a frontal attack along a causeway. Casualties were so heavy ‘many preferred to wade waist-deep through the bog’ even though their slow progress made them excellent targets for the German machine gunners and for the planes that bombed them. To make matters worse, their commander had forgotten to tell the artillery of the changed plan so they were shelled by their own side. With seventy per cent casualties, they took their objective, but the supporting cavalry withdrew and they were forced to abandon their gains.

A further attempt to take Kovel, as part of the re-opened offensive, appeared to be achieving results. Then the flanks failed and the impossible happened – the Guards withdrew. The reason was clear the next day. An army, classed by Major-General Knox as “‘physically the finest human animals in Europe” had lost 55,000 men. Throughout the army and the country there was an almost speechless fury at the whole catastrophic and futile episode’.

The advance continued. On 28 July Brody fell, Monstryska was occupied on 7 August, Nadworna fell on 12 August. Russian troops were across Südarmee’s lines of communication. There was no option but to pull back to the Zlota Lipa line to defend Lemberg.

As the offensive moved forward, it met German units that offered stiffer resistance. The advance slowed down and became costlier. Other fronts were stripped of men and equipment to keep up the pressure but this created bottlenecks and funnelled troops into positions where the Germans were at their strongest. Despite desperate attacks in August and September, the front eventually solidified.

It had been a bad period for the Central Powers. Between 4 June and mid-August, they had lost 400,000 men as prisoners and 15,000 square miles of territory. Their total losses were probably around 750,000 men. But many Russians had also been taken prisoner, sometimes gladly, as Adolf Stürmer, a law student who had volunteered in 1914, found out. He had volunteered for a patrol that was to blow up a bridge to slow down the Russian advance. Crossing the river they surprised a Russian post. There was no fight. The biggest Russian, immediately ‘made the sign of the cross and then put up his hands. Then they were all full of joy; kissed our hands and coats; tore the cockades out of their caps, and threw down their arms’.

It was a decisive victory, arguably the greatest achievement of the war but it had been won at a high cost. ‘Brusilov’s losses were 450,000 and his reserves reduced from 400,000 to 100,000. Total Russian war losses were now 5½ million. It had been a spectacular but Pyrrhic victory that weakened and destabilised the Romanov Empire, and gained little of strategic importance.’ All eyes then turned to Romania.

Romania’s entry into the war meant that Brusilov had to make a fresh effort in support of Russia’s new ally. On 29 August, Bothmer’s Südarmee was attacked at Brzezany and the town of Potutory taken. While the offensive failed in its main purpose of removing a German salient because of stubborn German resistance, Niziov on the Dniester fell and the Austrians were forced back to Halicz. Continued fighting brought the Russians some local successes, but the continual reinforcement of Bothmer’s men meant that there was no chance of a serious Russian success. And with the Romanians quickly needing help, the Russian focus moved further south.

The Romanian retreat after their defeat at Kronstadt meant a further change in Russian plans. Although twenty-seven Russian divisions moved to help, a further Romanian retreat meant that the Russian front had to be extended 400 kilometres. This new responsibility was paid for at the expense of Brusilov’s offensive.

Russian officers blamed the Romanians for their situation, but in truth, their offensive effort had been slacking because of a shortage of men and arms. They were now fighting against positions where reinforcements could be made available. The balance of strength had also shifted. ‘At the beginning of the battle 39 Russian infantry divisions opposed 37 Austrian and one German division. By 12 August, reinforcements from other fronts had increased the South West Front to 61, but they were opposed by 72 enemy divisions of which 24 were German – 18 having been sent from the west.’

Writing home on 3 September, Leutnant Stegemann described the fighting his company had been through. ‘Fierce but victorious battles. I have been through some ghastly times. On the 31st August the Company lost three officers and 50 men, mostly in hand-to-hand fighting…The Russians attack every day, but are always repulsed with terrific loss’. Three days later he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class by Excellenz Litzmann, Hindenburg’s second-in-command and a Stegemann family friend. Litzmann sent his greetings to the family and told him to ‘write this: I congratulate you on the success of your son, who, through his smartness and courage, with the assistance of his splendid Company, has by his counter-attacks driven back the already demoralized Russians, and by storming Hill 259 averted what was a grave menace to my army-group.’ Two weeks later he was killed in action. General Litzmann wrote to his parents when he heard the news. ‘I wish to express my deep sympathy with you and your wife. You may both feel proud of your son, and may say to yourselves that you have offered up a sacrifice to the Fatherland the influence of which will be of lasting value to the brave 165th Regiment. Our heroes do not die in vain and they live on for us through their shining example. Leutnant Stegemann, who held the recaptured Hill 259 for 5½ hours against overwhelming odds with the greatest gallantry, and only after the last cartridge had been fired fought his way, with his little handful of men, back through the Russian ranks, will never be forgotten.’

Brusilov had been ordered to stop the attacks but insisted on a few days longer. On 16-17 October fifteen divisions attacked towards Vladimir-Volhynskyi and its railway lines. German artillery caused heavy casualties among the attacking troops but without spotter planes the Russian artillery could do nothing to affect the outcome. After two days the Russians abandoned the battle. The last campaign of the Russian Army had been mounted on behalf of Italy and, the Russians believed, destroyed by Romania.

In Russia there were food and fuel shortages. The number of strikes was increasing and the dissatisfaction was spreading to the armed forces. Military rioters were shot as were soldiers who fired on the police during a strike at the Renault factory in Petrograd. There was discontent in the navy and merchant marine: during 1915 there had been mutinies aboard two ships. ‘Amidst these manifestations of unrest, the government remained paralysed by internal upheaval.’

Some realised that ‘the long-awaited revolution was moving closer’ and began to plan their programmes for when it arrived. Only one of the many plots and conspiracies hatched in the last month of the year came to fruition: Rasputin, a court favourite and confidant of the Tsarina, was murdered by a trio that included a Prince. One of his predictions would come true before the war ended. ‘If he died at the hands of any member of the royal family the dynasty would fall within a year, and that its principal members would suffer violent deaths.’

However, the discontent was in the rear. At the front the troops were outwardly untouched. Reinforcements had arrived and morale was good. Heavy artillery was arriving from Britain and supplies were at a high level, putting them on a parity with the Germans. Although fraternisation was not allowed, from the messages exchanged by both sides it was clear that the Austro-Germans were war-weary. The British naval blockade was working and they were hungry: at times they crossed the lines to beg for food from the Russians. They were also aware of the growing Russian strength, realised that there was no breakdown of authority among the front-line soldiers, and knew that they could not leave the Habsburgs to look after the front themselves.

When Allah met Odin I

At about the same time as Harald Bluetooth was erecting his great monument to Viking Christianity at Jelling, and the Wessex dynasty was completing the first unification of England with the expulsion of Harald’s brother-in-law Erik Bloodaxe from York, seafaring Vikings of the old-fashioned sort (Erik perhaps among them) were making, after an interval of almost a century, a second series of violent investigations of the territory and peoples of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain and Portugal), and the northern and western shores of Africa.

Muslim civilization had grown dramatically since the founding of the religion in Mecca in about 610 and Mohammed’s emigration to Medina in 622. The territorial and cultural expansion eastward and westward during the period of the Umayyad caliphs in the eighth century created an empire that extended from the borders of China to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Sahara to the Caspian Sea, from India to al-Andalus. With the rise to power of the Abbasid caliphs in the middle of the eighth century, the capital of the Islamic empire moved east, from Damascus to Baghdad. A dramatic rise in interest in Hellenistic and Persian culture followed, and the writing of local, Arab-nationalist literature that had characterized the Umayyad period was replaced by a universal literature. Much of it was scientific. As well as mathematics and cosmography, it reflected a vivid interest in the history and geography of the many peoples with whom the expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries had brought the Arabs into contact. The postal service of the Islamic empire assumed an important role in this trend, facilitating communication and knowledge of the routes and roads that bound the far-flung and disparate parts of the vast empire together; its head of staff was a leading political figure who was also chief of the security service. Books written initially for the purpose of describing the routes connecting the empire presently evolved into textbooks that nurtured an abstract interest in the history and geography of the peoples of the world, and most of what we know of the encounters between Vikings and Arabs in the territories bordering on the east and west of the Muslim empire is derived from books written in this spirit of enlightenment.

In the east, the Arab geographers and historians used the term ar-Rus for the Scandinavians they met in Russia and the surrounding regions; those in Spain and western Europe used the term al-madjus. The term al-madjus was not coined for the Vikings but was applied to them by Arab scholars in the belief that they were fire-worshippers, like the Persian Zoroastrians, whom they erroneously believed to practise cremation of the dead. ‘Their religion is that of the Magi,’ wrote the late thirteenth-century historian Al-Watwat, ‘and they burn their dead with fire.’ Ibn Said, a thirteenth-century geographer and traveller, offered a persuasive logic when he explained the worship of fire among northern peoples by the fact that ‘nothing seems more important to them than fire, for the cold in their lands is severe’. Al-madjus derives from Old Persian magush, which is also the etymological root of the Spanish word mago meaning ‘wizard’ or ‘astrologer’, and of the English word ‘magician’. It is familiar in Christian culture from the story of the three wise men, or magi, who travelled to Bethlehem to hail the birth of the infant Christ. The Vikings were also known as Lordomani and Lormanes in western Latin and Spanish sources. From the earliest times, Arab scholars were aware of the fact that they were dealing with the same people, whether they encountered them east of the Baltic, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, or in the Mediterranean: a geographical study written in 889 by al-Yaqubi refers to the Viking attack on Seville in 844 as ‘by the Magus, who are called the Rus’.

This raid on Seville is generally regarded as announcing the start of the Iberian Viking Age, although the Scandinavian arabist Arne Melvinger noted that Ibn al-Atir, the thirteenth-century historian, used the term al-madjus to identify a force that came to the aid of Alphonse II, king of Galicia, during his campaign against the Arabs in 795. Based on this, Melvinger went on to contemplate the possibility of a Viking presence on the peninsula a full half-century prior to this. He accordingly found it less easy than other commentators have done to dismiss, as poetic licence or simple factual error, Notker the Stammerer’s description of Charlemagne’s distress as the emperor sat at supper in an unnamed coastal town in Narbonensian Gaul and watched a small fleet of longships carrying out a raid on the harbour, for he was able to suggest a possible connection between Notker’s Vikings and the al-madjus who fought for Alphonse II in 795. The Arab military actions against Bayonne in 814, and in 823 and 825 in the Mundaka–Guernica fjord area of what is now Biscay, have all been related to the possible presence of al-madjus bases in these areas. These al-madjus can hardly have been Persian Zoroastrians, but the persistent use by Arab writers of the same term to denote both groups makes certain identification impossible. An objection to the argument for a Viking presence on the peninsula at such an early date is that they had almost certainly not yet established themselves sufficiently in either Ireland or western Francia, the natural staging-posts such bases would seem to require for the undertaking to be logistically credible. There is also the view of a school of Basque historians who posit a late conversion to Christianity in the Vascony area, and take all references to al-madjus in the Arab histories of raids and battles of the ninth and tenth centuries to be to Heathen Basques rather than Vikings.

As a development of the large-scale penetration by river of the northern territories of the Frankish empire, the first serious Viking attack on the Iberian peninsula in 844 came from a fleet that had navigated its way up the Garonne as far as Toulouse before retracing its route and heading south into the Bay of Biscay, following the coastline west past the tiny kingdoms of Asturia, Cantabria and Galicia that divided Christian Europe from Muslim Spain, raiding in Gijon and La Coruña on the way before being met and heavily defeated by Asturian forces under King Ramiro I. Many longships were lost in the attack and the fleet retreated to Aquitaine (or, if we allow the possibility, to a base in Bayonne).

A few months later a fleet of eighty longships, with square brown sails that ‘covered the sea like dark birds’, appeared off Lisbon, in the estuary of the Tagus, and over a thirteen-day period engaged in three sea-battles with local ships before heading further south. The harbour at Cadiz was occupied, and while one group made its way inland to Medina-Sidonia, the main body of the fleet sailed up the Guadalquivir into the very heartland of al-Andalus and established a base on an island not far from Seville. The city was taken, seemingly without resistance, for most of the inhabitants had fled to Carmona or up into the mountains north of Seville, and for some two weeks the city was in Viking hands. With the banks of the great river a noted centre for the breeding of horses they were able to range far and wide across the region in their plundering. As other ships arrived to join the occupying force, those occupants who had not managed to flee were massacred. Others – women and children – were taken captive. It seems the sheer unexpectedness of the raid on Seville astounded the authorities in the capital of Cordova, for it was some time before the emir Abd al-Rahman II thought to order the army out against them. With the help of catapult-machines the army drove the Vikings out of the city and some 500 of them were killed. Four Viking ships were captured intact.

In the middle of November the Vikings were again defeated, again with heavy loss of life. Thirty longships were burnt, and the corpses of Viking captives hung from the palm trees of Seville and Talyata. In symbolic triumph, the heads of the expedition leader and 200 of his men were sent to the Berber emir in Tangier. What remained of the fleet made its way back north up the coast. Abd al-Rahman II’s response to the dreadful novelty of these raids from the sea was to build a number of warships of his own and to establish a chain of lookout posts along the Atlantic coast. Seville was restored, its defences strengthened and an arsenal established.

There is no record of any further Viking activity in the region until the arrival in 859 of a second fleet of sixty Viking ships. Two that were sailing in advance were spotted and captured off the coast of the Algarve, complete with their cargo of booty and slaves. The rest sailed on, passing the Guadalquivir, which was now too well guarded to force, and making land at Algeciras, where they burnt down the mosque. Resuming their voyage, probably with the intention of entering the Straits of Gibraltar, they were driven by bad weather down the Atlantic coast of Morocco as far as Asilah. Making their way back to the Straits they entered the Mediterranean and followed the coast of North Africa as far as Nakur, a town identified as modern Nador, near what is now the small Spanish enclave of Melilla. Over the course of the next eight days they raided the beaches for slaves. This fleet was probably the same one that then went on to raid in the Balearic Islands of Formentera, Majorca and Minorca, landed at Rosellon near present-day Perpignan, plundered and burnt the monastery on the banks of the river Ter and even reached the north Italian city of Luna (now Lucca). Returning along the coast of al-Andalus, they attacked Pamplona and captured García, king of Navarra, whom they ransomed for 70,000 gold coins. A long and well-established Viking Age tradition holds that the leaders of this expedition were Hasting (aka Anstign, aka Hastein, aka Astignus) and Bjørn Ironside.

The attack on Luna was made, according to Dudo, because Hasting erroneously believed it to be Rome and was unable to resist the lure of an assault on the very heart of institutionalized Christianity. Feigning contrition for his evil ways, Hasting contacted local Christian leaders and allowed himself to be baptized. Returning to his men he outlined the plan: they were to pretend he had died and request permission for his body to receive a Christian burial within the city. Once inside the walls, it was a simple matter for him to leap from the coffin and lead his men in a massacre of the innocents of the city. Luna was certainly plundered; but the tactics used to gain entry to the city are less certain, and the ruse of ‘playing dead’ was a familiar example of Viking and Norman cunning that was also attributed to other heroes of the age, including the legendary Danish King Frodo, Robert Guiscard, the eleventh-century Norman duke of Apulia, and the eleventh-century king of Norway, Harald Hardrada.

As a postscript to this first round of ninth-century Viking raids on the Iberian peninsula and beyond, the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for 867 offer a dramatized account of the background to the Africa campaign which ingeniously relates it to the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in England, and again emphasizes the role of slave-taking and slave-trading in such enterprises:

At this time came the Aunites (that is, the Danes) with innumerable armies to York, and they sacked the city, and they overcame it; and that was the beginning of harassment and misfortunes for the Britons; for it was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of Albdan (Halfdan), king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father. So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkneys. Ragnall stayed there then, with his youngest son. The older sons, however, filled with arrogance and rashness, proceeded with a large army, having mustered that army from all quarters, to march against the Franks and Saxons. They thought that their father would return to Norway immediately after their departure.

Then their arrogance and their youthfulness incited them to voyage across the Cantabrian Ocean and they reached Spain, and they did many evil things in Spain, both destroying and plundering. After that they proceeded across the Gaditanean Straits, so that they reached Africa, and they waged war against the Mauritanians, and made a great slaughter of the Mauritanians. However, as they were going to this battle, one of the sons said to the other, ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘we are very foolish and mad to be killing ourselves going from country to country throughout the world, and not to be defending our own patrimony, and doing the will of our father, for he is alone now, sad and discouraged in a land not his own, since the other son whom we left along with him has been slain, as has been revealed to me.’ It would seem that that was revealed to him in a dream vision; and his other son was slain in battle; and moreover, the father himself barely escaped from that battle—which dream proved to be true.

While he was saying that, they saw the Mauritanian forces coming towards them, and when the son who spoke the above words saw that, he leaped suddenly into the battle, and attacked the king of the Mauritanians, and gave him a blow with a great sword and cut off his hand. There was hard fighting on both sides in this battle, and neither of them won the victory from the other in that battle. But all returned to camp, after many among them had been slain. However, they challenged each other to come to battle the next day. The king of the Mauritanians escaped from the camp and fled in the night after his hand had been cut off. When the morning came, the Norwegians seized their weapons and readied themselves firmly and bravely for the battle. The Mauritanians, however, when they noticed that their king had departed, fled after they had been terribly slain.

Thereupon the Norwegians swept across the country, and they devastated and burned the whole land. Then they brought a great host of them captive with them to Ireland. For Mauri is the same as nigri; ‘Mauritania’ is the same as nigritudo. Now those black men remained in Ireland for a long time.

The Arabic records that tell of the third series of Viking raids on the peninsula that began in June 966 sound a weary and frightened echo of the responses of Anglo-Saxon and Frankish chroniclers at their reappearance, and at the predictably violent nature of their errand. The experiences of previous encounters over 100 years earlier had etched itself on the communal memory. The thirteenth-century Moroccan scholar Ibn al-Idari wrote of the response to the sighting of a fleet of twenty-eight ships off the coast of what is now Alcacer do Sal, in the province of Alentejo, just south of Lisbon, ‘that the people of the region were very alarmed, because in former times al-magus had been in the habit of attacking al-Andalus’. Descriptions of the size of the fleets, their movements and doings have the same fearful precision of the western chroniclers, and their sentences are punctuated in the same way by outbursts of pious despair: ‘May Allah destroy them!’ Ibn al-Idari cries out, in the middle of a tale of how the caliph, al-Hakam, hit upon a plan of disguising some ships in his own fleet as longships, in the hope that they would function as decoys and lure the Vikings into the Guadalquivir harbour.

The nucleus of this Viking fleet was the large remainder of an army of Danish Vikings which had arrived in the duchy of Normandy early in the 960s at the request of Duke Richard I to give him military assistance in a regional conflict. Some returned home once the business was settled; some accepted Richard’s offer of land in return for baptism; the remainder set off raiding in Galicia and Leon in the north-west of Spain, even-handedly attacking both Christian and Muslim targets along the way. After encountering some resistance, they were joined in 968 by a fleet of 100 ships under a leader known to the Muslims as Gunderedo and threatened the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, by this time a place of pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Joseph (Jakob) and, as a result, a very wealthy town. They landed at the head of the Arousa inlet and, while the bishop of Compostela tried to organize resistance, spread terror through the region, burning down buildings, killing and thieving. When at length the bishop arrived at the head of an armed force they withdrew to a place called Fornelos. In a later engagement, the bishop was killed by an arrow and the demoralized Galician troops fled the field of battle and left the people to the mercies of the Vikings. For the next three years they remained a dominant and terrifying presence in the area. Why this dominance in Galicia did not translate into formal possession is not clear; but the last recorded raid in this particular series was an overland advance in June 972 to the Algarve by a Viking army.

A fourth and final wave of Viking attacks that lasted from 1008 to 1038 was notable for the involvement of Olav Haraldson, a future king of Norway, whose redemptive career as a crusader among his own people we shall consider later. The raids were concentrated in the south-west of Galicia. In the most notorious of them, the Vikings sailed up the Miño river to the town of Tui, which they burnt and destroyed. Bishop Don Alfonso was captured, along with a great number of other Christian officials, presumably for ransom, though the records do not say so. Olav’s court poets, Sigvat and Ottar the Black, both refer to their master’s adventures in Spain. The fact that Snorri does not do so in his Saga of St Olav may be a discretionary omission by a Christian author who was self-consciously writing a hagiography in which such details had no place. Twenty years later the Vikings were back in Galicia, briefly this time but apparently again successfully, for their commander made himself a name there and was remembered as ‘the Galician Wolf’.

When Allah met Odin II

Other records exist, left by Arab travellers who encountered the Vikings under less fraught circumstances than these and who were able to indulge their anthropological curiosity to leave us an elliptical view of Viking culture that is largely missing from the wounded accounts of Christian scribes in the British Isles and in mainland Europe. We have already met Ibn Fadlan, who closely observed, among other things, the funerary rituals of the travelling band of Rus traders he met on the Volga in 921, and the geographer Ibn Rustah, who travelled to Novgorod with the Rus at a slightly later date than his fellow Muslim and noted down his impressions of the people and their home. Ibn Fadlan’s descriptions veer dramatically from admiration at the physique of the Rus – ‘I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date-palms and ruddy-complexioned’ – to disgust at their failure to wash themselves after defecating, urinating and having sexual intercourse. The day began with a slave-girl who passed among the members of the group carrying a pitcher of water in which each washed his hands, face and hair and then cleared his nose and spat. The process was repeated until all had used the same water in the same fashion. With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group identity and strengthened its internal loyalty. Constantine Porphyrogenitos, in his description of Rus traders making their way down the Dneiper to trade in Constantinople, drew particular attention to the ‘one for all and all for one mentality’ that guided their behaviour. Ibn Rustah observed the same thing: ‘If one group of them is challenged to war, they all join forces. They stand firm as one man against their enemies until they have won the victory over them.’ His account is generally more sympathetic than Ibn Fadlan’s and is free from the latter’s occasional flourishes of disgust:

They keep their clothes clean and the men adorn themselves with armbands of gold. They treat their servants well and dress exquisitely because they are such keen traders. ( … ) They are generous to each other, honour their guests and treat well those who seek refuge with them, and all who come to visit them. They do not allow anyone to annoy or harm these. And whenever anyone dares to treat them unfairly they help and defend them.

Walrus tusks and furs were no doubt valuable and rare commodities to take to market in the Arab world, but Ibn Fadlan and Ibn Rustah both noted the importance of slave-trading:

They terrorize the Slavs, whom they reach by ship. They take prisoners there and transport them to Hazaran and Bulgar and sell them there. They do not own fields, but live entirely off what they bring from the land of the Slavs.

Ibn Fadlan observed that each Rus woman wore pinned to her breast a band of silver, copper or gold, its size determined by the wealth of her man, from which a knife hung. Around their necks the women wore gold and silver rings, each ring representing 10,000 dirham or Arabic coins. For much of the early Viking Age the status of the dirham was such that it was a universally accepted currency, in much the same way as the American dollar is today, and was widely copied or counterfeited. Some of the dirham from the Vårby hoard found near Stockholm have small Christian crosses added above the Islamic inscription, suggesting they may have been struck in a Christian area. Dirham make up a regular feature of the coin hoards unearthed across the Viking world, from Cuerdale in the north-west of England to Spilling’s Farm in the north-east of Gotland. The sheer volume of them is testimony to the extent of the trade relations that existed between Arabs and Vikings in the east, with Gotland and Birka as the main channels for conveying the coins westward; but as we noted earlier, for a Viking the value of the dirham remained its silver content, not its monetary value. Dirham were for daily use, and the fact that so many of them were buried underground by Vikings in their own territories suggests that they were so plentiful as to have attained the status of a surplus material.

It was inevitable that misunderstandings should arise as these Arab travellers tried to make sense of the ritual and mores of this alien culture. Ibn Rustah wrote that the friends of a dead warrior dig him a grave resembling a large house and place him in it, along with his clothes, his gold arm-bands, food, drink and coins, and that his favourite wife is buried alive with him before the grave is closed. There are no indications from any native Scandinavian source that the Vikings practised suttee. What is likely is that such travelling bands, be they Vikings, Rus or al-madjus, developed, as self-contained groups far from home do, their own set of rules and rituals that were unique to them. The degree to which the group observed by Ibn Fadlan was a self-sufficient unit is suggested by the presence among them of their very own priestess, the ‘Angel of Death’, whose functions included the ritual stabbing of the slave-girl who had ‘volunteered’ to accompany her dead master into the next world. Ibn Rustah likewise noted the terrifying power of the Rus priests:

They have their wizards, who decide on what they own as though they were their masters, and tell them to sacrifice to their creator whatever they decide of women, men and cattle. And once the wizards have made the decision, they are compelled to carry out their instructions. The wizard then takes the person or the animal from them, puts a rope around the neck and hangs them from a gallows until dead.

Ibn Fadlan’s group was rich enough to sacrifice an entire ship as a crematorium for its dead chieftain and his slave, but his informant told him that only the greatest chieftains warranted such ceremony. Rank-and-file members of the band were buried alone in small boats, while dead slaves were simply left to rot where they died. The cultural similarities between the Volga and Oseberg funerals include the use of ships as coffins and the provision of food, or perhaps companionship, for the dead in the form of freshly killed horses and dogs. The Volga funeral involved the sacrifice of a slave, and, as we noted earlier, one of the women in the Oseberg ship may have been sacrificed to accompany her mistress. But in terms of the imagined afterlife the differences are striking: the climax of the funeral on the Volga came with the burning of the ship, in which it resembles the ceremony carried out on the Île de Groix off the north-west coast of France, but is distinct from both the Oseberg and the Gokstad ship-funerals, where neither ships nor bodies were cremated.

Ibn Fadlan is the more sensationally inclined of these two great Arab observers and rounds off the Risala, or ‘little book’, as his account of his meetings with the Rus is known, by asserting that their king spent most of his time on an enormous throne studded with precious stones. Forty sexual slaves sat beside him, and whenever it pleased him to, he would take one in full view of his men. When he wished to mount his horse the animal was led to his throne, when he dismounted he did so directly on to his throne. Most striking of all, Ibn Fadlan claims that he did not even leave the throne to answer the call of nature but used a salver. This has the ring of a traveller’s tale to it, and lacks the obvious credibility of the account of the funeral and the events leading up to it. The main purpose of the embassy of which Ibn Fadlan was a part was to instruct the Bulgar kagan in the Islamic faith. Bearing in mind this religious goal, there is perhaps a point of contact between his reactions to the Rus and those of Alcuin, who was so clearly uneasy at the lack of physical modesty on the part of Heathens he had come across before Lindisfarne. There is an almost homoerotic quality to Ibn Fadlan’s description of the magnificence of the Rus as physical specimens, which he struggles to quell with disgusted descriptions of their lack of hygiene. Like the Christian Alcuin, Ibn was effortlessly convinced that, as a Muslim, he represented the higher culture. One exchange makes it clear that the Rus did not agree. Ibn Fadlan noticed his interpreter in conversation with one of the Rus and asked him what they had been talking about. The interpreter told him:

‘He said, “You Arabs are stupid!” So I said, “Why?” and he replied, “Because you take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and you bury them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms. We burn them in the fire, straightaway, and they enter paradise immediately.” Then he laughed loud and long. I asked him why and he said, “Because of the love which my god feels for him. He has sent the wind to take him away within an hour.” ’ Actually, it took scarcely an hour for the ship, the firewood, the slave-girl and her master to be burnt to a fine ash.

Among the Vikings, uniformity of procedure on socially significant occasions like births, marriages and deaths waited on the introduction of Christianity and the spread of the written word for its imposition. But in his cheerful arrogance, this particular Rus seems to have known that, in one respect at least, they had the future on their side.

Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other, anonymous, Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for ‘blinded eyes’, which may have been a form of eye-shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: ‘once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased’. Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its association with Heathendom and superstition, and Christian disapproval may account for the absence of any reference to tattoos in the descriptions of men and women in the sagas written down in the Christian era. Only a clutch of stray references, literary and archaeological, have survived to confirm that it was indeed practised. In the ‘Sigrdrífumál’, a gnomic poem on the deeds of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer collected in the Codex Regius, the hero wakes a Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa whom Odin has condemned to perpetual sleep for her disobedience, and compels her to reveal secrets to him. One verse ascribes a magical power to tattooing:

Ale-runes you will want       if another man’s wife

tries to betray your trust;

scratch them on your drinking horn,       the back of your hand

and the need-rune on your nail.

Another indicates that tattoos could have a medicinal function:

I’ll teach you lore for helping       women in labour,

runes to release the child;

write them on your palms       and clasp her wrists

invoking the disir’s aid.

Özti, the 5,000-year-old hunter whose body emerged from the melting permafrost in the Öztal Alps in 1991, had at least fifty-seven tattoos on various parts of his body. Many were concentrated in areas where the joints bore signs of being worn and painful, and researchers have speculated that they might have combined magic with a form of acupuncture. Tattooing may also have had a ritual significance. An unusual comb, with runic inscriptions dated to about 550–600, was found at Bømlo, in South Hordaland, in Norway, along with a number of bone pins, including one with an iron tip and a small, iron-dressed, hammer-like head. It is possible that in its entirety the find might have been equipment associated with a rite of passage initiating young girls into womanhood that involved tattooing and ritual decoration of the hair.

These encounters between Allah and Odin on the Iberian peninsula and along the coast of the Mediterranean left few lasting traces. Slavers routinely took the precaution of transporting their captives overseas to discourage escape attempts and slaves taken by al-madjus in the region were not offered for sale locally and did not lead to the development of local trade relations. The only known diplomatic contact to have arisen out of the raids is a mission, said to have taken place in about 845, to the court of the al-madjus king who had led the attack on Seville the year before, with the aim of establishing friendly ties with him. The Arab emissary was a renowned poet and ladies’ man known as al-Ghazal, or the Gazelle, a name given to him in his youth in tribute to his good looks. The wealth of detail in the account by the twelfth-century Spanish scholar Ibn Dihya includes a description of the land of this king of the al-madjus:

They came next to the royal residence. It was a large island in the ocean, with running water and gardens. Between it and the mainland is a journey of three days. Innumerable of the al-Magus live on this island. Close to it are many other islands, large and small. All the inhabitants are Magus. And the closest mainland also belongs to them, several days’ journey away. They were formerly Magus, but now follow the Christian religion, since they have abandoned the worship of fire and the religion they followed previously, and converted to Christianity, excepting the inhabitants of some of the islands belonging to them which are further out at sea. These continue to observe the old religion with the worship of fire, marriage with mother and sister and other abominations.

This sounds like Denmark, with the king’s hegemony over ‘the closest mainland’ a reference to Vik in south-eastern Norway and Skåne in southern Sweden, in which case al-Ghazal’s host would have been King Horik, who was baptized by Anskar and encouraged Christianity in Denmark, though without making it compulsory. Most of Ibn Dihya’s account is a literary entertainment describing the king’s wife’s infatuation for her Arabic visitor. Al-Ghazal visited her frequently and she showered him with gifts. He became her lover, and satisfied her curiosity about his people and their customs. He made verse in praise of her: ‘I am enchanted by a Magus woman, who will not let the sunlight of beauty dim, who lives in the most remote of Allah’s lands, where the traveller finds no tracks.’ His companions warned him to stop seeing her and accepting the gifts and al-Ghazal cut his visits down to one every second day. When the queen, who in al-Ghazal’s verse bears the non-Scandinavian name ‘Nud’, was told the reason for the change in his routine she laughingly reassured him that

Our ways are not like that, and there is no jealousy among us. Our women stay with their men of their own free will; a woman stays with her man as long as it pleases her, and leaves him when she wearies of their life together.

The independence of women from the Heathen north generally was a source of great surprise to Arab travellers. One noted that ‘among them women have the right to divorce. A woman can herself initiate divorce whenever she pleases.’ Ibn Dihya adds that, until the coming of Christianity, no woman was forbidden to any man, the exception being when a high-born woman chose a man of lower standing. This was held to shame her, and her family kept the lover away from her. Al-Ghazal, reassured by Queen Nud’s words, resumed his daily visits until his departure. The impression of a Danish society free from sexual jealousy is countered by Adam of Bremen, who states plainly that women who were unfaithful to their men were immediately sold.

No authoritative Arab historian of the time mentions this mission, nor do any of the biographers of al-Ghazal, and the great French arabist, Évariste Lévi-Provencal, judged the whole story to be a fictional improvisation based on a journey to Constantinople known to have been made by al-Ghazal in the winter of 839/840. This was the year in which the Rus turned up at the court of Louis the Pious in Ingelheim on their way back from Constantinople. Lévi-Provencal speculates that al-Ghazal may have met these Rus or heard talk of their land and their customs, with his report from this encounter forming the basis of Ibn Dihya’s later improvisation.

The sole Viking Age artefact to have emerged in Spain is a small cylindrical vessel made of deer horn, with a pattern of holes around it and a handle at one end. It is a rarity among such artefacts in that it was not found accidentally by the digging of archaeologists but had been in use in the Church of San Isidoro, in León, for several centuries until it was finally identified and installed as an exhibit in the town museum. All three of the dominant Borre, Jelling and Mammen styles of the second half of the tenth century have left identifiable traces on the design on the vessel, a gripping beast motif made up of as many as eight smaller beasts. The mingling of styles suggests a transitional phase between the Jelling and Mammen eras, and a tentative dating to the end of the tenth or beginnning of the eleventh century. The provenance of the vessel is obscure, but it may have been part of a large donation made to the church in León by King Fernando I (1037–1065) and his Queen Doña Sancha in 1063. How it came to be in their possession and what its original function may have been are unknown. Other traces of the Viking presence are slight. Generally speaking, it was too sporadic to leave a significant impact on the local language and place-names. In the province of León there is a village called Lordemanos, which may indicate a local settlement of Vikings, and near Coimbra, in Portugal, a village named Lordemão invites similar speculation, as do villages named Nordoman and Nortman. In Vascony, Vikings who settled in Bayonne may have taught the Basques how to hunt the whales that arrived in the Bay of Biscay every autumn. Predictably, the handful of loan-words from Old Norse into Basque, Spanish and French are connected with maritime and fishing activity. The fishermen of Bermeo, the most important fishing-port in the Basque country, use ‘estribor’, compounded of ‘styr’ and ‘bord’, to designate ‘starboard’, and ‘babor’, from ‘bak’ and ‘bord’, to mean ‘port’. Among place-names in the region with otherwise unknown origins, Mundaka, on the mouth of the river Oka, may derive from Old Norse ‘munnr’, meaning ‘mouth’.

The wave of raids between 966 and 971 marked the climax of the Viking Age in Galicia. Briefly, there was a danger that the province might turn into a Spanish Normandy. But it did not, and the raids on the Iberian peninsula and beyond had no lasting political or cultural significance. They were episodic and piratical, long and daring journeys undertaken in search of riches and adventure, and as such perhaps more authentically ‘Viking’ in spirit than the colonizations. There are no conversion stories here, no discourse with local aristocrats, no attempts on the part of the adventurers to establish large-scale settlements and farm the land. Yet we know enough by now to realize that there is no such thing as a typical Viking, and an enigmatic and unusually charming recollection of their presence is a tale told by one Arab chronicler of a certain group of al-madjus who got lost or separated from their companions in al-Andalus, somehow evaded execution, converted to Islam, and married local girls. They started a farm at Isla Menor, on the Mediterranean coast between Alicante and Cartagena, where they presently established a reputation as producers of what was reputed to be the best cheese in the region.

WWI Armoured Cars: 1 of 3 Parts


The Ministerio della Guerra commissioned an engineer, Guido Corni Ansaldo, to develop an armored vehicle based on the experiences during the first months of combat on the Western Front. Ansaldo presented a project inspired by the brilliant results attained by the Belgian Army Automitrailleuses Minerva in 1914 on the chassis of the Lanzia 1Z light truck from the Italian Army, Model 1912.

The prototype tests were conducted in April 1915, after which, the Capo di Stato Maggiore, proposed the acquisition of twenty units because there were not enough Maxim machine guns to arm more than this amount of vehicles. The petition was confirmed on May 7. The first two units were delivered on June 14th, another on July 8th, and the remainder in August. On January 6, 1916, the Chief of the Supreme Command, Generale Luigi Cardona, decided to split all available armored vehicles into five Squadriglie. The first Squadriglia, with six Aumomitragliatric was assigned to the 5th Armata, the 2nd and 3rd Squadriglia, also with six vehicles, to the 1st Armata. The 4th and 5th Squadriglia, with only four Aumomitragliatrice, were assigned to the 2nd and 4th Armata.

This was an armored vehicle, with nickel steel plates of 6.5 mm equipped with a conventional compartment for the engine and the fighting compartment. The vehicle was equipped with a circular turret provided with a gun carriage for two Maxim-Vickers machine guns. Some vehicles had another small turret with another gun. This arrangement gave it considerable fire- power for the time. It also had two steel rails on the front of the top of the vehicle to cut barbed wire and downed wires.

On March 11, 1917, Ansaldo signed a contract N.ª 979 for another 12 vehicles with two turrets but with the front fenders unshielded and armed with Maxim Mod. 1911 machine guns, and another five vehicles without the top turret but with a reinforced chassis.

With this second delivery, the 4th and 5th Squadriglie now had seven vehicles and the 6th and 7th were endowed with four vehicles, including the Aumomitragliatrice Bianchi Tipo 1914 and Pallanza. Five of the Squadriglie were assigned to the 2nd Divisione di Cavalleria and another to Gruppo Ayroldi of the Corpo d’Armata speciale of General Di Giorgio.

After the unexpected loss suffered by the Squadriglie during the unfortunate 12th Battle of the Isonzo and the subsequent retreat to Piave, only 28 Aumomitragliatrice Lanzia 1Z remained. This forced the Ministerio delle Munizioni to urge Ansaldo to construct another 65 Aumomitragliatrice and later was petitioned to raise the number to 100 copies on January 13, 1918. The construction of these vehicles, which was performed with plates that were 8mm thick, was not without problems, especially the lack of guns, so the 6.5 mm Maxim machine guns had to be replaced by 8mm Saint-Étienne Mod. 1907.

The first 17 units were delivered in April 1918. Ten deliveries continued into July, 18 in August, 10 in September, 10 in October, 10 in November and 16 in December. Bringing the number of vehicles to 101.

In anticipation of these new units, the Squadriglie number was reduced to four, the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th. In October 1918, the 1st Reggimento Artiglieria da Fortezza informed the Supreme Command that it had 88 new armored Ansaldo-Lanzia vehicles and that with 77 of them had endowed the Squadriglie numbers three through fifteen. Another ten went to the 1st Reggimento Marcia Mitraglieri de Mira and subsequently Squadriglie number 16, 17 and 18.

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto (October 23 to November 2, 1918) developed in northern Italy near the present border with Austria, led to the final defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In it, the Squadriglie participated in the persecution of the enemy and the occupation of Istria in Dalmatia.

In 1919, twenty-two of these vehicles were part of the troops of Gabriele D’Annunzio when he led Italian nationalists from Fiume, currently known as Rijeka in Croatia, who seized it and forced the withdrawal of American, French, and British troops who occupied it. They intended to annex Fiume to Italy again but the request was denied. After the war, the Lanzia IZ and IZM remained in service until World War II, both in Libya and Albania. One detachment was sent to Spain during the Civil War, forming part of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie.


We can say that light armored vehicles were built only in small quantities. With many imported parts, ultimately, adaptations of trucks and tractors to meet military needs and were used in a irregular manner for several reasons: lack of employment doctrine, ignorance of their capabilities, the military chiefs did not know of its existence or despised their use and, finally, their capabilities on the road and their shields weren’t actually suitable for military use in a scenario as complex as the East European front.

Construction of such vehicles began near the beginning of the war. The same day, August 17, 1914, General Suchomlinov, Minister of Military Affairs, and Colonel Dobrzanski called and ordered him to train and equip a “battery of guns on armored cars.” This task was carried out in record time and already on October 19, 1914, the First Auto-machine guns Vehicle Company at 2nd Army was sent.

The Russo-Baltique Wagon Automobile Co. was the only factory in Russia with heavy vehicle production capabilities, and it was consistent with the previous requirements for civilian production, and therefore their ability to adapt and new product orders was very slow, so that the number of vehicles produced was very low. The Chiefs decided to send a buying commission to France and England, under the direction of Colonel Siekrietev, Commander of the Motor Company, that would facilitate the purchase of the chassis.

The result was the construction of 48 armored chassis based on the Austin brand, 40 vehicles based on the Renault chassis, and only one Isotta Fraschini chassis. The material began arriving for assembly in December 1914 and soon after was already operating the first Austin auto-firing machine guns, which would be the backbone of the “Pulemetny Avtomobilny Vzvod” or PAW. Its use in operations soon exposed its insufficient 4mm of shielding armor which was replaced at the end of 1915, in Izorski factory, by another 7mm Russian. Also, experience in battle exposed the need for vehicle manufacturers to not only install auto-machine guns, but also auto-cannons.

To meet this need, in early 1915, work began on an American Armored Car called the Garford 4 ton in the Putilov factory. They were armed with 76 mm cannons and three machine guns. According to a new tactic distribution, each platoon of armored vehicles should be equipped with two armored tanks with machine guns and one cannon.

During the spring of 1915, the first transports of disassembled Renault armored vehicles began to arrive. These were equipped with a machine gun but lacked full armor and did not meet the requirements established by the Commission of Armored Vehicles.

Some of them were used in the supply of armored vehicles and the other 11 were taken to the Izorski factory in order to armor them, according to the design of Captain Mgiebrov. Finally, there were 16 armored cars according to Captain Mgiebrov.

Gradually, in the Izorski Factory, in Russo-Baltique Wagon Co. and in A. Bratolyubov workshops in St. Petersburg completed another 11 vehicles with chassis from Pierce-Arrow, Benz, Isotta Fraschini and Russo-Balt “E”. And then another 10 Russo-Balt and one Renault.

When assigned, four of them were considered unfit for service, six were armed with 37mm Hotchkiss cannons and were assigned to an armored rail- road platoon. While in the factory, Obukhowski had three cars that were being shielded under the direction of Captain Bylinski of Staff, two based on a Mercedes chassis (with engines 45 and 50 hp), and one in the Lloyd chassis.

At first they were designed for joint military action with cavalry units. The armored car Lloyd had two turrets with Maxim machine guns, and the Mercedes had one. The last two were also armed with a 37mm cannon in the lower rear of the hull. A unique feature of these vehicles was the use of light armor made  of chrome-nickel-vanadium and the then-new suspension system “Asteering” on the rear pair of wheels. With these vehicles, the 25th Platoon of auto-machine guns was formed.

During the remainder of 1915 and early 1916, 161 vehicles from Allied countries came to Russia. Of these, 60 were based on the chassis of the Second Series of Austin, 10 were Armstrong-Whitworth-Jarrot, 30 vehicles Armstrong-Whitworth-Fiat, 25 vehicles Sheffield-Simplex, and 35 vehicles from British Army factory of Engines and Trucks. However, only the Austin were really usable for military requirements.


The Belgian Army was the front-runner when it came to the use of armored vehicles in combat. They showed the other fighters how they could be used, anticipating the campaigns movements that would be frequent during World War II.

Although the automobile industry was already flourishing in 1914, the Belgian Army was devoid of vehicles. They were limited to eight courier bikes they acquired between 1910-1911 for the `Battalion des Carabiniers Cyclistes’. Four `Auto-Mixte’ were acquired in 1910 for `Compagnie Spéciale des Telégraphistes’ of the `Regiment du Genie Anvers’, designed to supply electricity to wireless telegraphy stations along with four Bovy trucks, four Pipe Trucks, and some Ambulances and Staff. As soon as the Germans invaded Belgium, the army was provisioned with vehicles requisitioning those of their fellow citizens.

As for the armored vehicles, there was not the slightest trace of them before 1914.

The first were given by Lieutenant Charles Henkart. He gave his unit two vehicles, a Pipe Truck and an Opel shielded by the Minerva factory in Antwerp with 4 mm thick plates from the naval arsenal in Cockerill Hoboken and armed with Lewis recovery guns.

The first two vehicles were followed soon by others with more elaborate armor and dual rear wheels to better support the extra weight imposed by the shield but retained the same general characteristics. In total, there were between 25 and 30 units built. In August 1914. The Minerva vehicles formed a `Groupe d’Auto Mitrailleuses’, which were distributed in Escuadrilles from the Headquarters and `Divisions d’Armée’ and the `Division of Cavalerie’.

But this period of movement did not last long, in October 1914 they began digging trenches in Yser, and at this point the Belgian Army stalled until 1918. The area was too wet and swampy for the armored vehicles to be used effectively. As a result, their activity decreased markedly and now they were merely used for protection of communication lines even though during the few weeks that they had been in action, they demonstrated the effectiveness of these types of vehicles for war movements. The Belgian example was copied directly by the British Royal Naval Air Service and the Germans also imitated them, leading them to their decision to manufacture their own armored cars.

While the Western Front became an impossible terrain for armored wheeled vehicles, the Belgian Army organized an expeditionary unit to operate in Russia against the Germans. This unit was organized in November 1914 at the initiative of Baron Pierre de Caters. The unit was composed of voluntary personnel known as `Corps d’Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses’ and was equipped and trained in Paris. It was organized by two `Batteries de Blindées’ (1st and 2nd) each provided with two Automitrailleuses on a Mors 20/30 HP chassis, armed with Hotchkiss 8mm machine guns and three Auto-canons as well as a Mors 40 HP chassis, armed with a rapid fire 37mm cannon from the French Marine, along with other cars and trucks. The third Battery of resupply was equipped with 26 trucks and cars. It was composed by a Section of 23 Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, some with sidecars. The 5th Battery (Russian) had four cars and two trucks.

In 1915, it was transferred to Russia under the name of `Corps Expéditionaire Belge des Auto- canons Mitrailleuses’ in Galicie. There, the Belgian vehicles rendered excellent services until the outbreak of the 1917 revolution and they were subsequently shipped back.

Back to the front of the Yser, in early 1915, the Belgian Army received some Lanchester armored vehicles provided by the RNAS, the Minerva’s already in service, and 2 or 3 armored Sheffield-Simplex vehicles acquired in Britain, it was enhanced `Groupe d’Auto Canons – Mitrailleuses’ which was assigned to the `Corps de Cavalerie’ on August 12, 1915.

On December 20, 1916, the `Groupe d’Autos Canons Mitrailleuses’ was dissolved. The Lanchester returned to the British Army and the remaining vehicles were divided between the Armored Divisions and `Divisions d’Armée Cavalerie’. Finally, in September 1917, each of the six `Divisions d’Armée’ of the Quartier Général disposed of two `Escuadrilles d’ Automitrailleuses’, while the Grand Quartier Général had four. Meanwhile, a `Groupe d’autosblindées’ was framed in the 1st `Division of Cavalerie’ with eight Automitrailleuses and three auto-canons. The 2nd `Division of Cavalerie’ only had a Automitrailleuses. The reorganization of the Army on January 24, 1918 abolished the 2nd `Division of Cavalerie’, but the other units actively participated in the Great Offensive of 1918.

Posted in AFV

Civitate 1053 – The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy

Battle of Civitate, 18 June 1053, in which the Norman conquerors of southern Italy, under the Count of Apulia, defeated an army twice their strength fighting on behalf of Pope Leo IX. The Papal army consisted of Swabian-German, Italian, and Lombard south Italian troops, led by Duke Gerard of Lorraine and Prince Rudolf of Benevento.

Initial dispositions: (A) Camp of Papal forces; (B) Pope Leo IX in town of Civitate; (C) Swabians in extended position on Papal right flank; (D) Italians and Lombard cavalry and infantry under Prince Rudolf, on Papal left flank; (E) Forces under Richard of Aversa on Norman right flank; (F) Forces under Count of Apulia in Norman centre; (G) Forces under Robert Guiscard, supported by ‘Slavic’ infantry, on Norman left.

Movements: (1) Normans under Richard of Aversa attack Italians and Lombards; (2) Normans under Count of Apulia clash with Swabians on top of small hill, and are forced back; (3) Italians and Lombards flee; (4) Normans under Robert Guiscard come to assist Humphrey of Hauteville; (5) Normans under Richard of Aversa strike Swabians in flank and rear, resulting in their defeat.

The Normans began arriving in southern Italy in 1017 to serve as mercenaries, both to protect coastal towns against Arab pirates, and also to help local Lombard princes in their continuing attempts to over- throw their Byzantine overlords.

Norman chroniclers put a positive spin on their arrival, claiming they had turned up as pilgrims the previous year at the shrine at Monte Gargano. As the story goes, during their stay the pilgrims learned of the Lombard princes’ need for experienced soldiers.

A far more likely course of events is that Pope Benedict VIII invited the Normans to the region to help him counter Byzantine power. 

The disparate accounts converge on one key point: the first mercenaries to arrive met with Melo of Bari, a Lombard rebel who had led a failed rebellion in 1009 in Apulia. Living in exile in Salerno, Melo still hoped the Lombards would supplant the Greeks as rulers of Apulia and Calabria – the Byzantine province known as the `Catepanate of Italy’.

Sandwiched between the vast Holy Roman Empire to the north and the far-flung Byzantine Empire to the east was a jumble of small Italo-Lombard states. The principalities of Salerno, Capua, and Benevento were all ruled by relatively weak Lombard princes.

A further complication was that the seaport republics of Amalfi, Gaeta, and Naples, once principalities that recognised the Byzantine Emperor as suzerain, had, by the early 11th century, achieved independence (though they retained strong commercial ties with the Byzantine Empire).


The Normans entered a power vacuum. The Byzantine grip on southern Italy was loosening as a result of more urgent military matters else- where. Few Byzantine military units remained in the Catepanate at the turn of the 11th century.

Thus, it fell to the Lombard population of southern Italy to raise militias for their own protection. The creation of these militias fuelled the fire in the belly of Lombard rebels seeking to throw off the Byzantine yoke and establish self-rule. Melo was the most prominent of these firebrands.

Realising what was at stake, the Greeks mustered sufficient military resources to crush a Norman-Lombard rebel army at Cannae in October 1018.

During the next three decades, Norman mercenaries poured into southern Italy, where they found employment, ironically, with both the Lombard princes and the Catapan (governor) of the Catepanate of Italy. Lombard princes and Apulian rebels hired Norman bands to sup- port their insurrections in Apulia; at the same time, the Catapan hired Normans to garrison Byzantine strongholds on the Apulian border.

The Normans were Europe’s premier feudal conquerors. King of Western Francia Charles III had signed a treaty in the early 10th century allowing Vikings to settle in Neustria if they furnished protection against further waves of Norsemen. The region along the English Channel north-west of Paris eventually became known as `Normandy’, a derivation from the Old French word for `northmen’.

Like their Norse ancestors, the Normans had good and bad traits. On the one hand, they were confident, ambitious, and quick-witted. On the other, they were selfish, cunning, and greedy.

They embraced the feudal system characteristic of north-western Europe by which a vassal paid homage to his lord. They excelled at mounted warfare, and they built castles in conquered territory to secure their conquests.


A new Pope assumed control of the Holy See in 1049. His intervention in the politics of southern Italy had a profound influence on the course of events in the region.

Appointed Pope by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, Bishop Bruno of Toul came from an aristocratic German family. He had military experience, having led an army during one of Conrad II’s military campaigns in Italy. He came to the Papacy at a time when the lower classes of the Lombard principalities were weary of the Normans’ unrestrained plundering of the countryside.

By the close of the 1040s, the Normans had established a secure foothold in southern Italy. They were striving – by means of the territories bestowed on them in return for service, and marriage into the Lombard aristocracy – to become legitimate feudal lords in the region.

Norman power was centred in three areas, each controlled by a gifted mercenary captain.

One was Richard Drengot. He had arrived in the region in 1046 with 40 mounted men. Richard was a nephew of Count Rainulf of Aversa, who had emerged as the first great captain of the Norman immigration. Prince Sergius of Naples had bestowed the Aversa fief on Rainulf in 1030 for services rendered. Appointed regent for Rainult’s infant son on the count’s death in 1048, Richard took over the fief on the infant’s mysterious death the following year.

Another leading Norman was Drogo de Hauteville, the second son of minor Norman baron Tancred de Hauteville. Three of Tancred’s sons by his first wife – William, Drogo, and Humphrey – had arrived in southern Italy in 1035 seeking their fortunes.

After his eldest brother William died in 1046, Drogo succeeded him as commander of a Norman band based at the Apennine stronghold of Melfi on the Apulian border. Emperor Henry III bestowed on Drogo the title of `Duke and Master of all Italy and Count of all the Normans of Apulia and Calabria’ in 1047. These areas were still controlled by the Greeks, so Drogo or his heirs would have to conquer them first.

The third Norman commander was Robert de Hauteville. He was the eldest of Tancred de Hauteville’s seven sons by his second wife. Robert arrived in the region in 1035. He eventually became known as Robert `Guiscard’, his surname being a derivation of the Old French word viscart, meaning `cunning’ or `resourceful’.

In 1049, Drogo appointed Robert to command a Norman band based in Calabria, a much poorer region than Apulia. Robert subsequently established his base at San Marco Argentano.


Following his selection by a great council held at Worms in 1048, Pope Leo IX was consecrated in Rome in January 1049. Later that year, he undertook a tour of southern Italy to assess the political situation first-hand.

The red-haired Alsatian, who looked as much soldier as future saint, heard nothing but bad things about the Normans from the local peoples of southern Italy. The new Pope was deeply disturbed by the Normans’ fondness for using strong-arm tactics against innocent people.

As routine practice, the Normans stole food and plough teams. They also destroyed vines and olive trees as a way of punishing those who resisted them. Leo travelled to Germany in the winter of 1050 to discuss with Emperor Henry III the possibility of war to exorcise the pest.

On his return, in early 1051, Leo visited the Principality of Benevento, which had tradition- ally been a papal fief, to meet Drogo. The Norman leader promised the Pope he would exercise greater control over his troops.

Drogo had little time to act on his promise, however, because he was assassinated by a Lombard on 10 August 1051. The Melfi-based Normans would eventually appoint Humphrey de Hauteville to lead them.

Leo, meantime, decided that he had no choice but to take up arms against the Normans in an effort to protect the people of Benevento. The Pope appealed to Henry III, but the Emperor declined to send troops. Leo then appealed to the princes and barons of southern Italy. He also received an offer of support from Argyrus, the Lombard Catapan of the Catepanate.

In the winter of 1052, Leo returned once more to Germany to request troops from Henry III. This time, Henry obliged, and an army began marching south. But one of the Emperor’s key advisers – a rival of the Pope’s, the Bavarian Bishop Gebhard of Eichstatt – persuaded him to recall the army before it had crossed the Alps.

Leo then appealed to his chancellor, Frederick of Lorraine, to ask his brother, Duke Gerard of Lorraine, to furnish troops. Frederick succeeded, and Gerard ordered 700 Swabian infantry to march to Rome.  The Pope also received troops from Apulia, Gaeta, Campania, and half a dozen other pro-papal regions in Italy.

Although some sources place the total strength of the papal army as high as 6,000 men, it may have been only 4,000. Nonetheless, it represented a wide anti-Norman alliance of various southern Italian states. The coming battle would pit the Normans against the rest.


The papal army assembled at Benevento the first week of June 1053. From there, it marched into northern Apulia via the Biferno Valley. Argyrus had proposed that it rendezvous with the smaller Byzantine army at Siponto near Monte Gargano.

To the Normans, it seemed that all of southern Italy was against them. In the face of such a massive threat, they temporarily put aside their internal differences and united to meet  the common threat. Humphrey de Hauteville saw the need to move quickly to prevent a union of papal and Greek armies. He sent word to Richard of Aversa and Robert Guiscard to join him at the Norman stronghold of Troia. Approximately 3,000 Normans and 500 Lombard militia gathered at the town, and Humphrey led them north  in search of Leo IX’s army.

The Normans took up a blocking position south of the Fortore River to await the arrival of the enemy host. The papal army crossed the river on 17 June and bivouacked on the south bank under the walls of Civitate. The Normans had misgivings about fighting soldiers in the service of the Pope, and they therefore sent envoys to ask Leo to enter into peace negotiations with them. Not only was the proposal rejected, but the Swabians surrounded the envoys and shouted insults at them.

Word soon spread through the Norman ranks that the Germans had mocked them.  This enraged them, and they vowed revenge. Because his army had no supplies and was in hostile country, Humphrey decided to attack the following day.


On the morning of 18 June, Duke Humphrey and his subordinates reconnoitred the papal deployment from a 50m-high hill that was the only high ground on the plain where the battle would be fought. While the reconnaissance was in progress, the Norman horsemen readied their mounts and took up their weapons.

Each of the army’s three divisions or `battles’ was nearly equal in size at approximately 1,000 cavalry. All of the Normans were superb warriors, as they were constantly in the saddle conducting small-scale operations against brig- ands or carrying out mercenary assignments for their Lombard or Greek employers.

Humphrey intended to fight in the centre. He instructed Count Richard to deploy his men on the right, and he told his half-brother, Robert, to deploy his men on the left, a short distance behind the main line. Humphrey told Robert that his division was to serve as the reserve. The 500-foot soldiers with the army were ordered to guard the Norman camp.

Leo IX watched the deployment of his army from the safety of the walls of Civitate. The papal army was divided into two wings. Rudolf, the captain of the Swabians, led the right wing, which included his troops, as well as other papal troops. Commanding the left wing, which was composed entirely of papal troops, were several Abruzzian counts: Trasmund III and Atto of Chieti, and Oderisius II of Sangro. Their experience was limited, and this was demonstrated by their inability to deploy their companies into a cohesive line of battle.


Richard’s mounted knights were the first to advance. `The Italians stood all crowded together on the other side because they neglected to draw up a battle line in the proper manner,’ wrote Norman chronicler William of Apulia.

The Norman cavalry easily penetrated the enemy’s left wing. The majority of the Italic-Lombard troops fled immediately. The Norman cavalry swirled around the few pockets that stood their ground. Those brave men were slaughtered.

Richard’s horsemen then chased the fleeing remnants of the papal left wing off the battlefield. This took Richard’s division out of the fight. Whether it would return quickly, or at all, before the battle was over was uncertain.

Next, Humphrey’s cavalry charged the Swabians, but these veteran soldiers stood their ground. The Swabians fought with round shields and long swords. Some of them cast aside their shields to wield their swords with both hands.

The Swabians repulsed several charges by Humphrey’s division. Each time the Normans regrouped and charged again; some threw javelins, while others charged with couched lance.

Once they had lost their lance, the Normans resorted to their swords. The fighting took on a gruesome character as the casualties mounted. `You could see human bodies split down the middle and horse and man lying dead together,’ wrote William of Apulia.

After the third or fourth charge, Robert Guiscard led his troops into battle to reinforce his half-brother Humphrey. Robert’s men easily shattered the less-experienced papal troops of the right wing, leaving the Swabians to fight alone against the combined weight of two Norman divisions.

Robert’s cavalry then wheeled and attacked the Swabians’ exposed right flank. In response, the Swabians formed a tightly packed square. They continued to beat back the Normans’ desperate mounted attacks.


Fortunately for the Hauteville brothers, Richard returned to the main battle with the bulk of his horsemen. His cavalry attacked the Swabians from behind. The two other divisions renewed their assaults in concert with Richard’s fresh attack.

Assailed from all sides, the Swabians could not withstand the numbers arrayed against them. When gaps opened in their ranks, the Normans rode among the Swabians, hacking and stabbing. With no place to retreat and no desire to surrender, the Swabians fought to the death.

Pope Leo IX watched the disaster unfold beneath his eyes from his perch inside Civitate. The Normans lost 500 cavalry and the papal army 1,500 men. After the battle, the townspeople turned the Pope over to the victorious Normans.

The Normans transferred the captive pontiff to Benevento, where he was kept under close guard for the next nine months. After he agreed to recognise their hereditary claims and accepted them as papal vassals, Leo was freed on 12 March 1054. Although he had been treated well in captivity, he died on 19 April.

The Norman lords continued slowly reducing the Catepanate of Italy well into the 1060s. When Humphrey died in 1057, Robert succeeded him as Duke of Apulia and Calabria. Pope Nicholas II confirmed Robert’s hereditary title and claim to these territories at the Council of Melfi two years later.

Robert, together with his younger brother Roger, spent the last part of his career in the subjugation of both Sicily and the Catepanate of Italy. Roger II, Roger I’s son, consolidated their territorial gains in the former into the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130.

The Normans had come to southern Italy seeking pay, booty, and land. Many were younger sons without an inheritance for whom the profession of arms was the only way to secure wealth and rank. Such was their prowess, and such eventually their numbers, that they became more powerful than their former employers. And when the minor states of southern Italy combined to overthrow them, it was the Normans who triumphed at Civitate, establishing their supremacy in the region, and creating a launch pad for the conquest of Sicily.

Medieval Warfare I.4

Theme: Mercenaries and mighty warlords – The Normans in the Mediterranean

  • Historical introduction – Sidney Dean, ‘The d’Hauteville brothers in Italy’.
  • The Source – Martijn Cissen, ‘Bohemond I of Antioch in the Alexiad’.
  • Theme – Will Stroock, ‘How to fight and win like a Norman’.
  • Theme – Nils Visser, ‘The use of Saracen mercenaries in Norman South Italy’.
  • Theme – Matthew Bennett, ‘Norman naval activities in the Mediterranean’.
  • Theme – Filippo Donvito, ‘The Battle of Civitate, 1053’.
  • Theme/The Siege – Vassilis Pergalias, ‘The Siege of Bari, 1068 – 1071’.


  • The Weapon – Peter Vemming, ‘Incendiary arrows in Bengedan’s Warbook’.
  • Special – Brian Burfield, ‘Treatment of wounds in the Middle Ages’.
  • The Battle – Jean-Claude Brunner, ‘Charles the Bold’s English Archers at the battle of Morat, 1476’.
  • Weapon Handling – Murray Dahm, ‘Hans Talhoffer’s instruction manual on weapon handling’.


Just as the Crimean crisis began to ebb, attention shifted to Ukraine’s south-east. The Crimean events provoked what is sometimes called the ‘Russian spring’, an outburst of Russian self-expression in Ukraine, but just like the ‘Arab Spring’, it soon turned into the deepest midwinter. On 1 March a 7,000-strong crowd gathered in the central square in Donetsk carrying Russian flags and the flag of a hitherto unknown organisation known as the ‘Donetsk Republic’. There were further demonstrations across cities in eastern Ukraine, warning against attack by radical nationalists from Kiev but more immediately fearing that their language and other rights would be abrogated. The movement was fired by alarmist reports in the Russian and regional media, which for weeks had been condemning the radicalisation of the Maidan. The protests, with justification, were suspected of being sponsored in part by Yanukovych, especially since his network of mayors and officialdom remained in place, yet it also had deep local roots. While the degree of separatist feeling in the region is contested, the rebellion gradually turned into a full-scale war. Ukraine’s domestic contradictions have been internationalised, with Russia supporting the insurgents on the one side, while the Western powers have lined up in support of the Ukrainian authorities. Instead of snatching Crimea and withdrawing to allow the storm to pass, Russia has been sucked into a new and far more intense conflict, drawing upon it the wrath of the West.


The ‘other’ Ukraine sought to be part of the dialogue about what it means to be Ukrainian. A poll by the Pew Research Center in May 2014 found that 70 per cent of eastern Ukrainians wanted to keep the country intact, including 58 per cent of Russian-speakers, although they expressed plenty of grievances against Kiev, including the over-centralised state that took all tax revenues before redistributing them to the regions. Both Donetsk and Lugansk were heavily subsidised by Kiev, receiving far more from the budget than they contributed, to keep the loss-making mines and mills working. Nevertheless, the Donbas represented the country’s economic powerhouse, accounting for 16 per cent of GDP and 27 per cent of industrial production.

Above all, some 60 per cent of Donetsk residents feared ‘Banderovtsy’ and 50 per cent dreaded the Kiev authorities, while 71 per cent of Donetsk and 60 per cent of Lugansk residents believed that the Maidan events represented an armed coup organised by the opposition and the West. Majorities in other regions in the south-east agreed that the protests were an uprising ‘against the corruption and tyranny of the Yanukovych dictatorship’. Gessen describes how one future rebel in the east was shocked to see how

young men in masks and the insignia of old Ukrainian fascist movements attacked riot police [in the Maidan] – some of them from the Donetsk area – with Molotov cocktails. He saw governors in the western provinces pulled out of their offices and roughed up by furious crowds. It seemed that the country was descending into chaos. When he heard a rumour that some of the young men from Maidan were headed for Donetsk, he believed it.

Any simplistic division of the country into a nationalistic west, a ‘pro-Russian’ east and a patriotic centre does not begin to capture the complex pattern of responses to the breakdown of Ukrainian statehood. What is clear is that a new relationship was required with the Donbas, but it was not forthcoming. The Ukrainian parliament’s attempt to remove Russian as a second regional language was blocked, but the damage was done. As one respondent noted: ‘Is there any other country on earth where a language understood by 100% of the population is not a language of state?’

A grass-roots protest movement welled up throughout March 2014, clearly enjoying popular support. Whereas the Maidan protesters were ‘middle class and nationalistic’, the anti-Maidan movement in the Donbas was ‘lower class and anti-oligarchic (and Russian nationalist)’. When the acting minister of the interior, Avakov, visited Donetsk in mid-March, ‘he met with civic leaders, but most of all he met with the football ultras, and demanded that they arm themselves and prepare for battle against the pro-Russian forces in the city’. The ultras are hard-core football fans whose far-right views and violent hooliganism were now turned in support of the Kiev regime, as was seen in Odessa on 2 May, and their terrace chant of ‘Putin khuilo!’ (‘Putin is a dickhead!’) was repeated on 14 June by the acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, when the Russian embassy in Kiev was besieged by an angry mob. Fighter jets flew low over the pro-Donbas protests, and it appeared that ‘from the very start, Kiev had been prepared to use force’. On 10 March the former governor of Kharkov, Mikhail Dobkin, was arrested on charges of leading a separatist movement. From 6 April insurgents occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Gorlovka and Kramatorsk. In Kharkov on 8 April some 70 anti-Maidan protesters were arrested and faced politically charged trials, and this was enough to pre-empt further action in Ukraine’s second city. In the Donbas, however, the insurgency continued to spread. These were not the professional ‘little green men’ seen earlier in Crimea, but ramshackle forces made up overwhelmingly in the first instance by local volunteers. However, on 12 April the administration, police and other buildings in Slavyansk were occupied by what appeared to be highly trained professional armed forces without insignia. As Gessen puts it: ‘At that moment, what had been a people’s uprising turned into an armed revolt, and some would say a covert invasion.’

One of the first acts of the insurgents was to take over regional television stations to restore the broadcast of Russian television, cut by order of the central authorities in many regions on 11 March. The insurgents set up checkpoints and established an armed presence in the major towns. Supporters of federalisation refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities and called on the government to allow referendums similar to the one in Crimea. In Donetsk protesters occupied the regional administration buildings and on 7 April proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and next door a Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) was formed on 27 April. The ‘people’s governor’ of Lugansk, Valery Bolotov, announced the formation of the Donetsk People’s Army, whose leader soon became Igor Girkin, whose nom de guerre is Strelkov (‘the shooter’). A former colonel in the Russian army (some accounts say he served in the main intelligence directorate, the GRU, of the General Staff), he fought in Chechnya, in Transnistria and with the Serbs in Bosnia, and was one of the leaders of the takeover in Crimea. He came to the Donbas in May with around two dozen men but soon built up one of the most formidable rebel units of some 2,000 men. He later claimed to have been ‘the one who pulled the trigger on this war’. The Donbas was in revolt, and on 24 May the two entities established a de jure union known as the ‘Novorossiya Republic’. They sought to capitalise on the emotional power of the concept.

Avakov accused Moscow and the ousted president Yanukovych of ‘ordering and paying for another wave of separatist turmoil in the country’s east’. Using his characteristic form of communication, his Facebook page, he insisted that ‘a firm approach will be used against all who attack government buildings, law enforcement officers and other citizens’. The storming of government offices in the west of the country in the final months of Yanukovych’s rule was considered something entirely different – part of the revolutionary surge in support of monist nationalism – whereas now the ‘anti-Maidan’ insurgency using the same tactics in support of pluralism was called a terrorist movement. In mid-April the Ukrainian security service (SBU) took control of what was called the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) – the constitution allows only this designation for an internal counter-insurgency operation, although that does not render the designation any less forbidding. Government forces re-established control over several major towns, including Mariupol, Kirovsk and Yampol, and the insurgency in the end was limited to parts of the Donbas.

The leadership of the insurgency was a motley crew. They included Denys Pushilin, one of the organisers of the MMM pyramid scheme in Donetsk in the 1990s, while Nikolai Solntsev, a technologist at a meat-processing plant, became the DPR’s ideology minister. Most leaders were blue-collar workers with limited outside experience. They drew on the experience of Crimea to plan their actions and were deeply imbued with Soviet values, looking to Russia to provide support for their alternative to Maidan-style Europeanism. This applied in particular to Girkin, who soon became one of the most effective rebel commanders in the Donbas. In mid-May he assumed command of all insurgent forces and called on Russia to intervene. It is far from clear how much direct control Moscow could exert over a man who described himself as a monarchist and condemned the USSR and the post-Communist Kremlin authorities. His hobby was dressing up in costume to re-enact historical battles, part of the Russian paramilitary subculture, and he now donned a real uniform and proved himself a ruthless and capable guerrilla leader until he ‘disappeared’ in August.

The OSCE had created a ‘special monitoring mission’ to the region in March, but on 25 April a group of seven foreign military monitors from the OSCE and five Ukrainian military observers were detained in Slavyansk. The ‘people’s mayor’ of the city offered to swap the observers in exchange for the release of his supporters detained by the Kiev authorities. Russia, as an OSCE member, condemned the capture, and soon after the observers were released. On 28 April the shooting of Gennady Kernes, the pro-Kiev mayor of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city, demonstrated how far events in the east were spiralling out of control. Kernes had opposed the Maidan, but he reversed his position following Yanukovych’s ouster, and he was wounded shortly afterwards.

The conflict became a struggle between west and east Ukraine, with endless shades between. The physical and rhetorical violence of the Maidan was generalised to the rest of the country. The language of the Kiev forces is quite shocking in its brutality. Already in March, in a conversation about Putin, probably recorded by Russian intelligence, Tymoshenko declared: ‘I’m willing to take a Kalashnikov and shoot the bastard in the head.’ The Orangist demonisation of Putin soon entered the bloodstream of discourse in the Western world, poisoning sensible discussion. Tymoshenko was equally bloodthirsty in her condemnation of the insurgency in the east and no less extreme in her evaluation of the larger geopolitical situation: ‘Putin is attempting to uproot the world’s security system, established as a result of


Second World War, and turn the global[…] order into chaos. Redrawing world maps by wars, mass murders and blood is becoming his Mein Kampf.’ The new Kiev authorities were fighting for their survival, but their ‘Orange’ vision of Ukraine was rejected by the insurgents in the Donbas and, in part, by Moscow. Anger and resentment would be laid down for generations.

The ferocity of the ATO can in part be explained by the view of many in western Ukraine that the people of the Donbas were not ‘real Ukrainians’, but Russians who had come to replace those who had died in the Holodomor and to staff the industrialisation of the region from the 1930s. They were often denigrated by monists as lacking intellect and ‘national identity’, and could thus be considered a Russian incubus that needed to be cut out to ensure the healthy development of the Ukrainian nation. When asked in a famous YouTube interview ‘What should we do now with the 8 million Russians that stayed in Ukraine? They are outcasts?’ Tymoshenko responded: ‘They must be killed with nuclear weapons.’ To which the man answered: ‘I won’t argue with you here because what happened is absolutely unacceptable.’ This reflected the restitutive model of Ukrainian statehood with a vengeance, the idea that there was some Platonic ideal statehood to which the country should return. Where the actual population differed from the ideal, it was to be subject to special measures to bring it into conformity with the ideologically appropriate format.

When Putin in his Direct Line session of 17 April brought up the notion of Novorossiya, it was not clear what he had in mind. His assessment of the situation was vivid and clear:

Regarding the question of what should come first: a constitutional referendum followed by elections, or elections first to stabilise the situation and then a referendum. The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the south-east of Ukraine. I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya [New Russia] back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potemkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiisk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained. Today, they live in Ukraine, and they should be full citizens of their country. That’s what this is all about.

Was this a reference to his comment to US President George W. Bush in Bucharest in 2008 that ‘Ukraine is not really a state’, and thus a call for the dismemberment of the country? Novorossiya was a special tsarist administrative arrangement for a broad swath of territory running along the Black Sea as far as Moldova, and its incorporation into the new Ukrainian SSR in 1922 was as controversial then as it has once again become now. Or was it simply an attempt to stress that Ukraine was made up of many traditions, and thus a call to give institutional form to pluralism, diversity and different identities? Either way, it galvanised those who sought to exploit Ukrainian state weakness for their own ends.

The extent of Moscow’s materiel and personnel support is far from clear. A welter of volunteers spilled across the border, drawn from the old opposition that had fought against Yeltsin in 1993, Cossack groups, Chechen militants, and a range of Russian nationalist and neo-Soviet imperialists. The danger, as with volunteer militants in Syria, is that these battle-hardened and radicalised fighters would gain experience and then ‘blow back’ into Russia, and potentially pose a threat to Putin himself if he failed to meet their expectations about supporting the rebellion in Ukraine. In his 17 April Direct Line programme he noted:

Refusing to see that something was badly wrong in the Ukrainian state and to start a dialogue, the government threatened to use military force and even sent tanks and aircraft against civilians. It was one more serious crime committed by the current Kiev rulers.

In this broadcast Putin acknowledged that the ‘green men’ in Crimea were in fact Russian forces.

Separatist aspirations were not supported by the majority of the population, and the insurgents rejected the ‘separatist’ label, while the mainstream Western view that the insurgency consisted of ‘terrorists’ backed by Moscow is equally false. A well-known survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) from 29 April to 11 May 2014 revealed that only 20–30 per cent of the population of the Donbas supported outright separatism, slightly fewer supported Kiev, while about half were in the middle. Various types of autonomy were supported by 54 per cent, but in the Donbas only 8 per cent favoured independence, 23 per cent supported joining Russia, while a further 23 per cent favoured greater autonomy within Ukraine. The majority of the insurgent leadership came from the Donbas, with some from other regions of Ukraine, including Crimea. This demonstrates that there was no overwhelming desire to leave Ukraine, but it also shows a high level of alienation. Serhiy Kudelia’s study confirms this finding, arguing that despite Western accusations that the insurgency was provoked and sponsored by Russia, it was in fact ‘primarily a homegrown phenomenon’: ‘political factors – state fragmentation, violent regime change, and the government’s low coercive capacity – combined with popular emotions specific to the region – resentment and fear – played a crucial role in launching the armed secessionist movement there’. It would take skilful political management to bring these people back into the fold of Ukrainian state-building. Instead, aspirations for federalism were considered tantamount to separatism, provoking military action and a devastating civil war.

The insurgents announced a referendum on the self-determination of the Donbas for 11 May. On 7 May Putin urged the referendums to be postponed, but they went ahead anyway with a very simple wording: ‘Do you support the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic?’ and a similar question in Lugansk. Turnout in both regions was reported to be 75 per cent, with 89 and 96 per cent, respectively, voting for independence. Neither Kiev nor the West recognised the ballot as legitimate, with Poroshenko resolutely condemning the vote, although Firtash on 12 May argued that federalisation was the only acceptable option and that Ukraine should be a neutral state, and he personally was ready to step in to act as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine. The vote can at best be taken as indicative of widespread ‘separatist’ sentiment at that time and should be tempered by the results of opinion surveys which, as noted, show a strong commitment to Ukrainian integrity. Nevertheless, the high level of dissatisfaction among the Blues is hardly surprising since for the second time in a decade a leadership that reflected their concerns was removed in contentious circumstances. On this occasion the interim administration formed after 22 February lacked representation from the Donbas and propounded a virulently monist ideology. This certainly does not justify armed rebellion, but helps explain the logic of developments.

The agreement between the DPR and the LPR establishing Novorossiya on 24 May was a propaganda move designed to rally support within Ukraine and volunteers from Russia proper. This was accompanied by accusations that Russia was massing a 40,000-strong army on its western border, ready for a possible invasion, and that Russian undercover operatives were fomenting the occupations and blockade. The troops were ordered back and forth to follow the various diplomatic contortions, while NATO and Western leaders repeatedly claimed that Russia had invaded or was on the verge of doing so, a crying of wolf that in the end rather discredited them. Instead, Russia trained and filtered in some genuine volunteers, as well as regular forces as ‘advisors’, a category well known from the early stages of US interventions, and only in August did Russian ‘volunteer’ paratroopers apparently take part in regular battles. The insurgents came to be dubbed ‘pro-Russian separatists’, and while this may be accurate for some of them, the rebellion reflected broader concern about the lack of constitutional and political defence for their way of life and historical economic and cultural links with Russia.

The pluralists in the Donbas and other Russophone regions seized the opportunity to institutionalise their long-term aspirations for Russian to be made a second state language and for genuine power-sharing of the regions in a more federal state. This was a quite legitimate democratic aspiration, and could have transformed the agenda of the Maidan into a genuinely national movement. The interim government in Kiev was resistant to such a broadening, given its deep roots in the monist tradition. At the same time, the pluralists in the Donbas and more widely in ‘Novorossiya’ lacked democratic and civil-society organisational capacity. The years of polarisation and corruption had deeply eroded the bases of civic activism. The PoR had become little more than a claque of the Yanukovych regime, and was deeply factionalised between the various oligarchs. It was discredited and in disarray following Yanukovych’s ouster. The CPU remained a bastion of neo-Soviet sentiment, winning some 13 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary election, but was largely discredited because of its failure to condemn Yanukovych’s excesses. All that was left were a few individual politicians who could give voice to pluralist sentiments, while oligarchs like Akhmetov hedged their bets. Firtash added his voice in support of the pluralists, but, isolated in Vienna, he was unable to bolster the cause of compromise.

Although it became axiomatic in much of the West that the insurgency was financed and sponsored by Russia, evidence of this before August is far from conclusive. The provenance of the insurgents who emerged in April 2014 to take over administrative buildings in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Donetsk is unclear, but they were certainly not the ‘little green men’ who had operated so effectively and clinically in taking over Crimea. The story of Artur Gasparyan, an Armenian from Spitak, is a moving tale of how he volunteered to fight for the resistance in Ukraine and was given assistance and training in Russia by shadowy organisations and then transferred to the Donbas. He was part of the chaotic attempt to take over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May. The fighters simply did not believe that the Ukrainian military would bomb the gleaming new terminal, built for the Euro 2012 football championship, and hence left their anti-aircraft missiles back at base. In their chaotic flight one of the trucks was destroyed by ‘friendly fire’. After several weeks Gasparyan was transferred back to Russia and home. Asked why he, an Armenian, volunteered, he stated: ‘I don’t consider Russia a foreign country. I have the mentality of a Soviet person. My grandfathers fought for the Soviet Union and I am fighting for it.’

There is no more controversial issue than the extent to which Russia was implicated in inciting and supporting the insurgency. What is incontrovertible is that two elements developed in parallel: a genuine regional revolt adopting the tactics of the Maidan against the ‘Ukrainising’ and anti-Russian policies pursued by the Kiev authorities; and the strategic political considerations of Moscow, which exploited the insurgency to exercise leverage against the Kiev government to achieve defined goals – above all a degree of regional devolution, initially called federalisation – as well as to ensure that the strategic neutrality of the country was maintained. These goals, as well as the establishment of Russian as a second state language, may well have been in the best interests of Ukraine itself, but the method was catastrophic for the region and the country. Russia may well have stirred the pot at the beginning, and thereafter held regular consultations with resistance leaders, but the scale of its initial materiel support was greatly exaggerated by the Kiev government and its Western supporters. Moscow did allow a stream of volunteers to join the resistance, and some military equipment found its way across the border. But a constant refrain of the resistance movement was the lack of supplies and support; they repeatedly called on Russia to be more assertive in its backing, including direct military intervention, although this would only ever be a desperate measure. Moscow had learned the lessons of Afghanistan and the West’s own ill-advised interventions in that country, Iraq and Libya. Nevertheless, already in April NATO foreign ministers announced that they would suspend practical cooperation and military ties with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine, while once again (as in August 2008) the NATO–Russia Council proved itself to be useless.


A meeting in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU on 17 April sought to start a process of ‘de-escalation’, the term used in this crisis to try to create an ‘off-ramp’ from the internationalised civil conflict. The brief joint statement by the countries involved called for ‘initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens’, and stipulated a number of measures:

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

The onus was placed on the Ukrainians to take the initiative, with the international community to assist in the implementation of the de-escalation measures. The signatories agreed that that all armed formations should be disbanded, but it was not clear who would be able to do this, or the scope of the provision – would it include the armed battalions spawned by the Maidan? While the Western powers held Russia responsible for controlling the insurgents in the east and getting them to leave occupied buildings and installations, as we have seen they were mostly not under the direct control of a single authority. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of eastern representation at Geneva. Moscow’s attempts to get the supporters for regional autonomy invited had been blocked by Kiev, but now the eastern insurgents were held responsible for fulfilling decisions in whose adoption they were not involved.

The Geneva deal was ignored by both sides, although its principles were to be at the core of all subsequent ceasefires. On 5 May, government forces attacked checkpoints around Slavyansk, with the two sides exchanging mortar fire, and the insurgents were able to down a helicopter using a hand-held air-defence system. On 9 May government forces using tanks and heavy weaponry retook the interior ministry building in Mariupol, in which at least seven ‘separatists’ were killed and 40 wounded. In another action in Mariupol on 16 May insurgents attacked a local military base. The insurgents had taken over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May, but in a ferocious counter-attack it was retaken by government forces, at great cost in lives and damage. On 28 May insurgents in Slavyansk shot down a military helicopter, killing all 14 servicemen on board, and on 14 June in Lugansk insurgents shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft, killing all 49 servicemen on board (of whom nine were crew). And so the fighting went on. Both sides were subject to international humanitarian law (the laws of war), and both sides egregiously disregarded them, above all in targeting civilian populations, using disproportionate force, not respecting the rights of journalists and abusing the rights of prisoners. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a signatory party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to try people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, so it would take a UN Security Council referral to activate an investigation.


Right Sector turned itself into a political party but retained its armed battalions, allied with the football ‘ultras’, and went to war in the south-east. In April the Donbas battalion was created, while the Aidar battalion was drawn from the mainstream Maidan self-defence units. The Azov battalion drew particular attention for the ferocity of its commitment, taking the Donetsk suburb of Marinka in late July and thereby opening the path for regular forces to attack the city. Azov flew the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) on the background of the Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on their banner. The battalion was founded by Andriy Biletsky, the head of the extremist Social–National Assembly, who argued: ‘The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival […] A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Their ideology harked back to the integral nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, aiming to create a ‘natsiokratiya’ (ethnocracy) based on syndicates representing the different classes of the population. They appealed to Ukraine’s European identity, but their Europe was one of corporatism and traditionalism: ‘We consider the present tendency of Europe leads to the destruction of civilisation, with no control of immigration, the destruction of the family, of religious identity and of everything that made Europe Europe.’ This was accompanied by an assertive foreign policy that included the nuclear rearmament of Ukraine. On 23 July Svoboda registered a motion with the Rada’s secretariat to restore Ukraine’s status as a nuclear power. Rather surprisingly, this evoked no response from the Atlantic security community. In the end some three dozen volunteer battalions were created, with the number of fighters swelling to around 8,000. While formally subordinate to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), they were in effect private armies. These proto-Freikorps forces attracted all sorts of malcontents and radicals from across Ukraine, and represented a substantial threat to Poroshenko’s ability to pursue an independent policy. He was constantly threatened by a ‘third Maidan’ when he suggested compromises, and these forces would take control if the government fell.

The fighting became increasingly vicious, with significant casualties on both sides, accompanied by the exodus of citizens who now became refugees if they crossed into Russia, or ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) if they moved elsewhere in Ukraine. Unleashed against the insurgency was a crew no less motley than the insurgents themselves. The new National Guard absorbed most of the Maidan militants, among whom, as we have seen, right-wing nationalists figured prominently, and their indiscipline and cruelty in the Donbas became infamous. The volunteer detachments organised by ‘warlords’ such as Kolomoisky added to the volatile mix, as did the worker detachments raised by regional oligarchs such as Akhmetov. There were also volunteer units created by politicians. The most famous of these was Oleg Lyashko, who led volunteer battalions to the region. In a famous incident in mid-May he was seen humiliating a captured insurgent and the self-proclaimed defence minister of the DPR, Igor Kakidzyanov, who appeared in his underwear and with his hands bound. The trademark signature of his black-clad paramilitaries was to strip captives to their underwear, put bags on their heads, and lecture them on camera for their treacherous behaviour. His popularity soared, turning him into a serious political force and winning him over 8 per cent of the vote in the presidential election. Only later did the regular army take the initiative and lead the offensive.

The armed forces had been starved of funds for two decades, and under Yanukovych their resources had been pillaged. As Parubiy, secretary of the NSDC, put it:

Unfortunately, we now realize that our defense forces were deliberately sabotaged and weakened by the previous government in Kiev, in collaboration with Moscow, to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s imperialist policies. We inherited a dilapidated army, a security and intelligence service awash with Russian agents, a demoralized law-enforcement system and corrupt courts and prosecutors.

The poor state of the Ukraine armed forces was soon exposed. Much of its weaponry and other materiel had been allowed to decay or been sold off, and there were not many more than 6,000 combat-ready troops in an army numbering some 80,000. The regular armed forces lacked training, intelligence equipment and geo-referencing systems. Once launched into combat, the army suffered from defections and desertions. Attempts by the Ukrainian military to dislodge the militants, including the use of air power and later Grad missile-launchers in civilian areas, did little more than harden local sentiment against Kiev. The creation of the National Guard, consisting largely of far right militants and others from the Maidan self-defence forces, had the advantage of removing these militants from the centre of Kiev and other western Ukrainian towns, but they often lacked discipline and treated south-east Ukraine as occupied territory, regularly committing atrocities against civilians and captured ‘terrorists’. In addition, the ‘third force’ of oligarch-sponsored irregular militias, notably those funded by Kolomoisky, added to the volatile mix.

In his speech at West Point on 28 May, Obama boasted of American success in isolating Russia. He dismissed those who suggest that ‘America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – [they] are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics’, and insisted that ‘America must always lead on the world stage’. As for the current crisis:

In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.

Soon after, Obama’s visit to Europe, including Poland, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, was once again used as an occasion to isolate Russia. The French president, François Hollande, however, took the opportunity to engineer a meeting between Putin and the newly elected Poroshenko, establishing what was to become a pragmatic period of interaction. In all of this, the EU as an institution was redundant and could not be taken as a serious, positive independent player in European – let alone world – politics.


On coming to office, Poroshenko outlined three main challenges: the preservation of a ‘unified Ukraine’, including stability in eastern Ukraine; the European choice for closer ties to the West; and the return of Crimea. The latter goal, he stressed, would be pursued through diplomatic methods and excluded the military option. As for maintaining the unity of Ukraine, this was obviously a priority and one that had a solid basis. Numerous opinion polls in early 2014 repeatedly showed sizeable majorities in the east and the south supporting Ukrainian unity and only small minorities in favour of secession or accession to Russia. In the event, Poroshenko was unable to build on what was clearly a strong sense of membership of the Ukrainian state, although favouring a pluralist interpretation. Instead, his initial comments were far from conciliatory: ‘The first steps of our entire team at the beginning of the presidency will concentrate on ending the war, ending the chaos, ending the disorder and bringing peace to Ukrainian soil, to a united, single Ukraine.’ His promise to wrap up the ATO ‘in a matter of hours’ entrenched the hardliners on both sides, and the irreconcilable tone was repeated in his inaugural speech on 7 June.

The insurgents in the south-east were characterised as ‘terrorists’, and thus their demands and concerns were rendered null and void. The resolution of the long-standing Ukrainian identity, it appeared, would be settled on the battlefield. The ATO was intensified, with the regular army reinforced by volunteers in the National Guard. On 5 June the Verkhovna Rada adopted changes to the law on terrorism, signed into law by the president on 18 June, giving greater powers to the security forces and legalising the use of the regular army in ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. Commanders gained the power ‘to temporarily restrict the rights of local populations’ as well as to ‘shut down business entities – fully or partially’. On the other side, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a resolution to the UN, but stressed that it would not include the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region, a demand repeatedly made by the rebels. A genuine peacekeeping force could only be introduced if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, otherwise it would be another term for occupation.

After several false starts, on 20 June Poroshenko announced a unilateral ceasefire to last a week, while outlining a 15-point peace plan. Building on the Geneva deal, he proposed an amnesty for rebel fighters who had not committed serious crimes, as well as safe passage for volunteers seeking to return to Russia. It also called for decentralisation that would allow a greater degree of self-rule in the east, the fundamental demand of the militants. The insurgents were to surrender and a 10-kilometre-wide security zone would be established along the border with Russia, while the decentralisation excluded federalisation or official status for the Russian language. On 23 June talks were held in Donetsk involving Poroshenko’s representative, the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and the militant leaders. Also in attendance was an OSCE representative, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk (on the US sanctions list for his part in the annexation of Crimea). The fact that he was trusted in Moscow rendered him suspicious to the new Ukrainian authorities. Following the meeting, the self-declared prime minister of DPR, Alexander Borodai, announced that the militants also agreed to the ceasefire. It was soon threatened when on 24 June the insurgents shot down the helicopter that was carrying equipment and specialists to monitor the ceasefire near Slavyansk, killing nine personnel.

On that day the Russian Federation Council revoked the ruling of 1 March, adopted before the annexation of Crimea, that authorised Russia to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, ‘in order to normalise and regulate the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, and due to the start of the three-way talks on the issue’, as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it. In 2009 the Russian president had been granted a ‘universal mandate’ allowing him to deploy troops abroad, so this act was meant to signal that Moscow was set on the path of conciliation. Throughout, Russian actions lacked consistency and even coherence. There was no response to the first wave of sanctions imposed in April, whereas retaliation in the form, for example, of stopping cooperation over Afghanistan and blocking the Northern Distribution Network, the rail route for the removal of American forces and materiel, or even withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), would have signalled Russia’s readiness for confrontation. Instead, the repeal signalled Russia’s openness for rapprochement and that the country would not intervene militarily, but this allowed the full force of the Ukrainian armed forces to be unleashed against the Donbas militants. Despite the virulence of the anti-Western campaign, Putin clearly did not want to burn all the bridges back to a normal relationship with the EU and the US. Nevertheless, the exploitation of unrest in the south-east to exercise leverage over the rest of Ukraine to achieve desired policy outcomes – notably federalisation and neutralisation – remained.

The insurgents had earlier insisted that there could be no talks until Ukraine withdrew its forces, but, after consultations in Moscow, Borodai (who is a Russian citizen) softened his stance. His security advisor was Sergei Kavtaradze, a military historian and an expert on the conduct of civil wars. This was another example of the eclectic character of the rebel leadership. Borodai compared the fighting in the Donbas with the Spanish Civil War, as it drew in volunteers (notably from Serbia) to join the new international brigades, now united around the ideology of anti-Americanism and geopolitical pluralism. The negotiations were also attended by Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok battalion (no connection with the body of the same name in the Chechen wars), and Valery Bolotov, the leader of the insurgent forces in Lugansk. Notably absent was Girkin, also a Russian citizen, who commanded the insurgent forces in Slavyansk. Speaking in Vienna on 24 June, Putin warned that a ceasefire and calling on the rebels to disarm without addressing their long-term political grievances would come to nothing. He qualified his support for Poroshenko’s plan by insisting:

It is important that this ceasefire open the way to a dialogue between all of the parties to the combat, so as to find solutions that will be acceptable to all sides, in order to ensure that people in south-east Ukraine have no doubt that they are an integral part of the country.

The talks gave no immediate breakthrough, and Poroshenko’s peace plan was condemned at a four-hour extended meeting with the hawkish NSDC on 30 June. Poroshenko’s proposal to extend the ceasefire was now dropped, and on 1 July he announced the resumption of hostilities: ‘We will attack and we will liberate our land. The end of the ceasefire is our response to terrorists, rebels, looters, all those who mock civilians, who paralyze the economy of the region.’ The ceasefire was perceived to have given the insurgents a chance to rearm and regroup. There was not a word here about reaching out to his citizens in the south-east; and, indeed, in the words of one Moscow Times journalist, the lack of compassion ‘by residents of both Moscow and Kiev over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the future of Ukraine as a whole ought to give us serious pause’. A hate-filled generation was being nurtured. Poroshenko had come under enormous pressure from the ‘war party’ in Kiev to continue the attack, with the NSDC urging him to take active measures. Lyashko reported that he had heard from the president ‘what he had wanted to hear from him’, and, satisfied, he returned to continue his vigilante activities on the eastern front.

There was also a ‘war party’ in Washington, although both US vice president Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry urged Kiev to exercise restraint. It was not clear that Kerry was able to control his subordinates. Equally, the relationship with Kiev assumed some classic Cold War features, in which the ‘client’ tail was able to wag the ‘patron’ dog. There was very little at stake for the US in renewed conflict, whereas the burden of the Ukraine crisis would be borne by Russia and its European partners. Although Poroshenko was responding to the demands for a military victory coming from radical nationalists, in the end his position was weakened by revulsion at the heavy death toll and the destruction of the Donbas. There were many cases in which Kiev’s forces refused orders to fire on their compatriots. In the end over 90 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces were deployed in the south-east, accompanied by successive waves of call-up reservists. The Ukrainian armed forces had learned to avoid infantry combat, and instead launched air strikes and long-range artillery bombardments against apartment blocks and villages. This rained down indiscriminate fire on heavily populated areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was justified by alleging that the rebels placed their own ordinance next to civilian objects. There are documented cases of this, although in heavily built areas almost any position would be next to a hospital or school; and, as the UN stressed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in July and August, the laws of war state that there is no excuse for killing civilians. It looked as if the tide of war was turning to Kiev’s advantage.

Stephen Cohen notes how on 2 May at the UN Security Council the US ambassador, Samantha Power, suspended

her revered ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, [and] gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their ‘remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint’, as Obama himself did after Odessa, she continued, ‘Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done.’

Cohen notes that on 26 June Kerry demanded that the Russian president ‘in the next few hours […] help disarm’ the resistance in the south-east, ‘as though they are not motivated by any of Ukraine’s indigenous conflicts but are merely Putin’s private militias’. In sum:

We may honourably disagree about the causes and resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, the worst US–Russian confrontation in decades, but not about the deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not already done so.

In early July an intensive round of diplomacy was led by the German and French foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius respectively. A hastily convened meeting in Berlin on 2 July brought them together with Lavrov and the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin. As far as the Russians were concerned, the absence of the Americans increased the chances of the peaceful regulation of the conflict. As Lavrov put it in a television interview on 28 June: ‘Peace within the warring country [Ukraine] is more likely if negotiations were left to Russia and Europe’, and he noted: ‘Our American colleagues still favour pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards confrontation.’ The hawks in Washington warned the Europeans against ‘craven surrender’ to Russian aggression (in the words of a Washington Post editorial on 2 July), but European leaders were beginning, surprisingly, to show some independent resolve. The provisional deal of 2 July was far-reaching, and included not only a ceasefire and further talks involving the OSCE but also strengthened control over the Russo-Ukrainian border, which would stop the supply of personnel and materiel to the insurgents. The Donbas resistance movement now turned into fierce critics of Putin, accusing him of betrayal and worse. Such nuances were lost on the hawks, with the Washington Post thundering: ‘A failure by the West to act following such explicit rhetoric would be a craven surrender that would provoke only more Russian aggression’.

On 5 July the insurgent forces under Girkin retreated from Slavyansk and regrouped in Donetsk. By that time over 100,000 refugees had fled the region. Clearly, no help was officially going to come from Russia, despite Girkin’s appeals for military aid. The rebels now faced almost certain defeat as the Ukrainian army advanced on all sides. As Pavel Gubarev, the former advertising executive and extreme Russian nationalist who became one of the founders of the DPR, put it on 9 July: ‘We are surrounded – we will defend our city to the end, there is no room to move back – we have a situation where we must win or die.’ The imposition of a new round of American sanctions on 16 July further narrowed Putin’s room for manoeuvre. What could have been the quiet withdrawal of support to groups who had never entirely been controllable proxies would now look like capitulation to hostile Western powers, and that was simply politically impossible in the febrile atmosphere in Russia that the regime had done so much to provoke. Intensified sanctions at this point were entirely counterproductive.

By July 2014 the combined interior-ministry forces, including the National Guard, had swelled to 35,000, including some from abroad, reinforcing the 77,000 regular troops. On 31 July the Ukrainian parliament authorised an additional $743 million for the army, to be financed by a mandatory ‘war tax’ of 1.5 per cent on all incomes. Already Ukraine was the second-worst-performing economy in the world, with the hryvnia losing 70 per cent of its value by September, when it was trading at 14 to the dollar, a deep recession that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) expected would see a 9 per cent year-on-year fall in GDP. Prices and unemployment were rising fast. The Donbas had provided a sixth of Ukrainian GDP, but war had removed much of that. Nevertheless, money could still be found to strengthen the frontier. The head of the NSDC, Parubiy, announced on 16 June that Ukraine planned to build a wall along its border with Russia to ‘avoid any future provocations from the Russian side’. On 5 September Yatsenyuk announced the plan to build what was later called the ‘European Rampart’ (Evropeisky val) along the border with Russia. In the first instance there would be a four-metre-wide and two-metre-deep ditch equipped with electronic systems. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there can be no better symbol of the failure of European politics in our era.

The conflict provoked a humanitarian catastrophe. The generation whose grandparents had suffered so much during collectivisation and World War II looked forward to living in peace in a Europe, ‘whole and free’, but once again they were visited by war. By June some 250 hotels, summer camps and other sites were converted into centres housing up to 30,000 refugees, while another 70,000 escaped across the border into Russia. By late August the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that at least 285,000 people had fled their homes because of the conflict, with some 190,000 IDPs in Ukraine and 17,000 in Crimea. In addition, 25,000 had gone to Belarus, 1,250 to Poland, and 207,000 to Russia, of whom 88,000 asked for temporary refuge and 119,000 applied either for temporary residence or citizenship. The authorities reported that over 800,000 Ukrainians had entered Russia without registering. In July Amnesty International issued a report detailing kidnapping and torture in eastern Ukraine, and in September a further report criticised the ‘non-selective’ shooting, as a result of which over 1,000 civilians died. The report condemned the lack of oversight over the volunteer units, condemning in particular the Aidar battalion for ‘abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion and possible executions’.

From the very beginning Russian policy was caught between bad and very bad options. It was clear that ‘Novorossiya’ was not Crimea, where there had long been a powerful irredentist movement calling for reunification with Russia. There was nothing of the sort in the Donbas, where the overwhelming majority sought a new settlement within Ukraine. Separatist aspirations only came later, after Yanukovych fled and the new authorities made several ill-judged moves in the absence of effective representation from the east, and then launched an all-out war against ‘terrorists’. The fragmented and questionable nature of the resistance, moreover, meant that Moscow lacked a credible interlocutor in Ukraine. The only serious politician who could have fulfilled this role was Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s former chief of staff, but he was unpopular and was associated with too many failed projects. Above all, the political programme advanced by Moscow lacked substantive popularity in Ukraine. Only 13 per cent, for example, supported the idea of federalisation. This helps explain Moscow’s more conciliatory approach, reinforced by the fear of ‘level-three’ sanctions that would be designed to blast whole sectors of the Russian economy. Russia and Europe sought to avoid moving to that stage, which would immeasurably damage both.

In his speech to diplomats on 1 July Putin adopted a regretful tone. He put the conflict in a broader context:

We need to understand clearly that the events provoked in Ukraine are the concentrated outcome of the notorious containment policy. As you know, its roots lie deep in history and it is clear that unfortunately this policy did not stop with the end of the Cold War. […] I would like to stress that what happened in Ukraine was the culmination of the negative tendencies in international affairs that had been building up for years. We have long been warning about this, and unfortunately, our predictions came true.

He outlined Russia’s main concerns:

What did our partners expect from us as the developments in Ukraine unfolded? We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants; we could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited; we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area. This would mean giving up practically everything that Russia had fought for since the times of Peter the Great, or maybe even earlier – historians should know.

As for the latest peace attempts, he stressed the active part played by Russian diplomats, but:

Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action, and we failed – when I say ‘we’, I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself – we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable and inviolable peace cannot lie through war. So far, Mr Poroshenko was not directly linked to the order to begin military action, and only now did he take full responsibility, and not only military, but political as well, which is much more important.

The four-party Berlin talks had offered a genuine chance of stopping the violence, but it appeared that the hawks preferred war rather than a deal in which Russia was involved. Putin had prevented the US from launching a bombing campaign in Syria in September 2013, and Washington sought at all costs to avoid Russia once again garnering the laurels of peace. The Ukrainian offensive breached several international treaties on the conduct of war, and in due course the Kiev regime would have to answer for its actions to international war crimes tribunals.

Putin was coming under enormous pressure to offer succour to the Donbas insurgents and to stop the killing of civilians. As Putin put it in his 1 July speech, he ‘would like to make clear’ that Moscow would be compelled to protect ‘Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine […] I am referring to people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.’ There had been a powerful upwelling of domestic support for the resistance movement in the Donbas, to which Putin’s fate now became effectively tied – a situation of dependency that he had devoted his whole presidency to avoiding. Already insurgent leaders, such as Girkin, were loudly accusing the Kremlin of betrayal in not providing adequate support. Radicals and nationalists, such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Kurginyan and Alexander Barkashov (head of the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity), were raising money, recruiting volunteers and using their extensive influence in Russia’s security establishment to provide support for the Donbas rebels.

There was much talk of Russia mimicking the West and imposing a no-fly zone over the Donbas, although in the end Russia appears to have decided to remove Ukraine’s control of the air by covertly supplying anti-aircraft missiles. There was increasing pressure for some sort of ‘humanitarian’ intervention to assist the suffering population, but which would also block Kiev’s military victory. There was a full-scale war and a massive humanitarian disaster on Russia’s doorstep, but a military intervention threatened to draw Russia into a direct conflict with Ukraine and its Western backers, a conflict that Russia could not hope to win. Like the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the outcome could in the end be the fall of the government in Moscow. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin faced powerful domestic pressures.

In his study of the Ukraine crisis, the well-known Russian publicist Nikolai Starikov argued that in 2013 Russia moved from its long-term defensive posture to a more activist diplomacy. In Syria, for example, ‘Russia did not allow Syrian statehood to be destroyed by the [United] States’; in Ukraine the EU’s ‘blitzkrieg’ was repulsed, and in general Russia found itself on the frontline against the aggressive world politics of the US. Starikov is only one of a vast ‘nationalist’ civil society that long pre-dates Putin, and towards which after 2012 Putin tacked (having lost the support of the liberal intelligentsia), but which was certainly far from satisfied with his characteristic caution. Indeed, disappointed nationalists began to compare him to Slobodan Milošević, who had fuelled intense Serbian nationalism against Croats and others, only to back down under Western pressure and betray the Serbian diaspora. Although Putin presides over an all-encompassing power system, there are domestic constraints that deprive him of the total ‘agency’ powers assumed by his critics.