Rome’s Regal Armies I

CITIZEN-SOLDIER, CLASS I Servian class I citizen-soldiers fought essentially with hoplite panoply, each citizen equipping himself with helmet, two-piece corselet and greaves, all of bronze (though later linen and composite corselets would be usual). He also carried the clipeus, a bowl-shaped shield, approximately 90cm in diameter and clamped to the left arm. There is a superb example of a clipeus in the Museo Gregoriano at the Vatican. This shield, which probably comes from an Etruscan t o m b of the 4th century BC, has survived sufficiently intact to permit a complete reconstruction with a good deal of confidence (Connolly 1998: p. 53). Built on a wooden core, this shield was faced with an extremely thin layer of stressed bronze and backed by a leather lining. The core was usually crafted from flexible wood such as poplar or willow. Because of its great weight the shield was carried by an arrangement of t w o handles, with an armband in the centre, through which the left arm was passed up to the elbow and the handgrip at the rim (1). The rim itself was offset, which could rest on the shoulder to help with the weight, especially when at rest. Held across the chest, it covered the citizen from chin to knee. However, being clamped to the left arm, it only offered protection to his left-hand side, though it did protect the exposed right-hand side of the comrade to his immediate left. As in all military history, technology responded to the conflicts of the day and dictated what forms future battle would take, and with this new style of spear-and-shield warfare the weapon par excellence of our wealthy citizen was the long thrusting spear (Greek doru, Latin hasta). Our citizen also packs a sword. The introduction of the phalanx undermined the previous prestige of this weapon. Besides, in the crush and squeeze of a phalanx, a shorter weapon was preferable as it could be more easily handled. It may have required special skills to handle an antennae-type sword, but with a slashing-type sword it was almost impossible to miss in the cut and thrust of the tightly packed phalanx. One type was the Greek kopis (2), a strong, curved one-edged blade designed for slashing with an overhand stroke, not thrusting. The cutting edge was on the inside, like a Gurkha kukri, while the broad back of the blade curved forward in such a way to weight the weapon towards its tip, making it ‘point-heavy’. Whatever the pattern, Greek or Italic, the sword was now very much a secondary arm – a far cry from its former predominance in the epoch of clan warfare – to be used only when a warrior’s spear has failed him. It is worn suspended from a long baldric from right shoulder to left hip, the scabbard being fashioned of wood covered with leather, with the tip strengthened by a small metal cap, a chape, usually moulded to the scabbard.

The study of the Roman army during the Regal period is largely an exercise in frustration. This is not because of a lack of evidence or ancient literature on the subject, as is the case with the Greek ‘Dark Ages’, as we have a number of detailed explanations of Rome’s early military development preserved in the works of Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch and others. Nor is this frustration due to conflicts between these sources; indeed far from it as they are all generally in agreement on almost all of the major points. The primary issue which one faces when looking at the Roman army during this early period is that the ancient authors, who worked so laboriously to explain the structure of the early army, most likely had very little idea what they were talking about. This all relates back to the nature of Rome’s historical tradition.

Rome was traditionally thought to have been founded in the middle of the eighth century BC and seems to have grown gradually during its early years until, benefiting from its key location on the major trade routes running through Central Italy (and particularly those between Etruria in the north and the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia in the south), it blossomed in the late seventh and sixth centuries BC into a major trading hub and urban centre. Despite its burgeoning wealth and population, the city seems to have maintained a local focus and outlook and it was not until the middle of the fourth century BC that the city had come to dominate all of Central Italy. From this point on, however, a ‘critical mass’ seems to have been reached and Rome’s expansion picked up speed rapidly. By the early third century BC the city had defeated the army of Pyrrhus, showing that it was a major player in Mediterranean politics and warfare, and controlled almost the entire Italian peninsula. By the end of the third century BC Rome had defeated her greatest rival, Carthage, in the Second Punic War and found herself as the only real power left in the western Mediterranean. It was only at this point that the Romans decided to sit down and write the history of their city – more than 500 years after Rome’s traditional founding and after the city had become one of the most dominant powers in the known world – and this very late start for Roman historiography created quite a few problems.

The first Roman historians seem to have been driven by a desire, very similar to that expressed by the great Greek historian Polybius a generation or two later, to explain Rome’s rise to power – both to themselves and to their new subjects. As a result, when they looked back on the history of their city they did so with a reasonable amount of hindsight bias. They knew how the story ended, they knew what Rome would become, but they wanted to explain the journey – the keys to the city’s success. The main problem which these historians seem to have faced, however, is that the information and evidence with which they had to work was wholly inadequate for the task. The most important sources available to these first historians seem to have been a series of annalistic accounts, the most famous of which was that kept by the Pontifex Maximums or chief priest in Rome, which recorded important events in the life of the city each year. These annales were composed of entries which were initially written on tablets posted outside the house of the pontifex and, in the case of the records kept by the pontifex maximus, were later stored and traditionally compiled into a single volume by P. Mucius Scaevola in the late second century BC. However, the information which was contained in the Annales Maximi (as these particular records were known), and the other yearly records (for instance those kept by other priesthoods and sources like the consular and triumphal fasti) was not written down with a grand history in mind. Leaving aside basic issues of accuracy (and scholars still debate these rigorously), these annalistic sources would have provided at best a basic skeleton of events – including who held office, eclipses, famines, wars, etc. – but would not have included any narrative elements or the structural details of Rome’s early development. The bulk of this material must have come from Rome’s enigmatic and problematic oral tradition.

Rome’s oral tradition can best be described as ‘multifaceted’. Cato, writing in the second century BC, said that some aspects of early Roman history had been preserved in songs sung at banquets, although these seem to have fallen out of fashion by the late Republic. We also know that there were plays being performed from at least the fourth century BC which were set in early Rome, called fabulae, and likely focused on early Roman myths. Additionally, there were the oft-maligned family histories (which Cicero and other writers claimed were largely fabricated), which became most strongly associated with Roman funerary orations, where the deeds of ancestors were recalled each time a member of the family passed away. And there were likely a range of stories and myths which had been passed down through the generations through simple storytelling and ‘collective memory’. The reliability of this oral information, however, is highly suspect. As modern research on oral traditions has shown, while a surprising amount of information can be transmitted through the generations, it is usually adapted for each audience. As a result, while certain overarching themes and narratives from Rome’s early history were likely preserved, the oral tradition is not the best mechanism for preserving the detailed structural information which historians of early Rome (and particularly the early Roman army) crave. So when Rome’s first historians sat down to write histories of their city, working in a genre which had, by that point, a very long history in the Greek-speaking world with well-established rules, they were decidedly ill-equipped in terms of evidence. Rome’s first native historian, the aristocrat Fabius Pictor writing c. 200 BC, is likely to have had access to his own family history and those of a few other families, probably knew the main myths/stories about Rome’s early history (Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf, the Battle of the Champions, Brutus and Tarquin, etc.), and may have been able to go through some of the priestly records. But it is also likely he had to flesh the narrative out quite a bit using some common-sense and his own understanding of Roman society – and even so, his history of the early periods seems to have been rather short. Unfortunately Fabius Pictor’s history does not survive today, nor do the attempts of his contemporaries, although we can say that they all seemed to have been brief accounts. Cato the Elder’s history of Rome, for instance, consisted of seven books in total with the first three devoted to the origins and early history of Rome and the cities of Italy.

Once Fabius Pictor wrote his history, however, historical writing picked up very quickly in Rome and he was followed by a line of other writers who all wanted to add their own spin to the story. During the course of the second century BC, historical writing flourished in Rome and a number of new histories were written by authors who are now known as the Latin annalists, because of their progression through Roman history in a year-by-year fashion. Perhaps surprisingly though, despite the fact that these historians did not seem to have access to any more original evidence from early Rome than Fabius Pictor or the other early writers did, these new histories often included much more material for the earlier periods than those written before. The historian Cn. Gellius for instance, writing in the second half of the second century BC, did not reach the year 386 BC until book fifteen of his history, and he did not get to the year 216 BC until either book thirty or thirty-three. Although Cn. Gellius likely represents an extreme example, it has been argued that there was an overall ‘expansion’ in the history of early Rome during this period as each writer added his own details and explanations to the cryptic core of evidence. Indeed, it is likely that historians stopped consulting the original evidence altogether and often worked simply from the works of previous historians, adding their own extrapolations and interpretations to the inventions of those who came before.

The annalistic tradition came to an end in the late first century BC with Livy and his great work Ab Urbe Condita (‘From the Foundation of the City’), a 142-volume history of Rome from its earliest days down to the reign of Augustus – of which the first ten books are devoted to Rome’s history up to the year 292 BC. Livy’s work was so successful, and accomplished its goals so conclusively, that he effectively ended the annalistic movement and the creation of grand histories of Rome – although part of this may have also related to the change in political climate under Augustus and the later emperors. Writers like Tacitus continued to write histories under the Empire, but no one attempted the same all-encompassing history of Rome that Livy had written and indeed his work was so popular that it supplanted, and resulted in the loss of, those histories which came before. However, Livy’s account of early Rome, despite its success and the ten books he devoted to the subject, was still limited by the nature of the evidence which had been transmitted to the late Republic from the Archaic period – the authentic material in his history could not exceed that which was passed down from the Archaic period. As a result, although obviously engaging, well-written and very likely well-researched, there seems to have been no way for Livy to have known for sure many of the details he included. Unless there existed another resource or depository of information available to Livy or his predecessors which we know nothing about, much of Livy’s history must represent an historical invention/elaboration on his part, or on the part of one of his predecessors, which would place it’s origin at the earliest in the late third century BC. This is not to say that Livy, Fabius Pictor or the later Latin annalists were being deceitful and ‘fabricating history’ – something which a modern historian would likely be accused of if they tried something similar. Rather, it must be understood that ‘history’, as it existed in antiquity, was not so much about the ‘facts’ as it was about ‘teaching a lesson’. Recording true details, although seen as important, came second to the pedagogical and rhetorical aim of a work. As a result, while ancient historians clearly attempted to record, as accurately as possible, events from the past if they were known, where there were gaps or lacuna in the evidence, or where the evidence was mythic or a bit malleable, they had no qualms about adding to the narrative to make their point. This is a practice perhaps best seen in historical speeches which, apart from a few exceptions where we know they were written down and preserved, often represented an opportunity for the historian to present what he felt would have been said in a given situation.

When one looks at the history of early Rome then, if the reader will forgive an indulgent analogy, the situation resembles interpreting the night sky. Looking up on a clear night we are confronted with a few bright stars, which we can understand as the evidence from the annales and perhaps aspects of the oral tradition which were likely transmitted, one way or another, from the Archaic period. These bold, bright structural points have then been interpreted by ancient writers into constellations, or the sweeping and detailed narratives presented in their histories. Often these histories have but a passing relationship to the evidence, just as constellations often do to their constituent stars, but they link them together in a fashion which makes sense to the observer and helps to give order to the cosmos. However, different people looking at a collection of stars will often come up with different constellations – and the same is true with early Rome. As modern historians, we must see through the preconstructed constellations, the detailed narratives presented by Livy and others based on their view of how events occurred, and go back to the basic evidence which was likely transmitted and analyse it ourselves. We must identify the key bits of evidence used by the ancient authors in constructing their narratives, look a bit more closely and perhaps identify some other structural aspects which they included in the narrative but did not recognize the importance of, and ultimately construct our own interpretation based on our modern understanding of how societies work and develop. This is, perhaps, one of the great advantages which modern historians have over their ancient counterparts. Although Livy and Fabius Pictor may have had a better understanding of their own culture as it existed in the late Republic, they lacked the myriad comparative societies which we have at our disposal today to help fill in the gaps in the evidence.

But first, we must begin with what the Romans thought things looked like in the Regal period.

The Traditional Model

The traditional model of Roman military development (which can be found in the ‘standard textbooks’ on Roman history, available in most bookstores) is largely based on a few asides within the larger narratives of our surviving sources, where the author stops his story to explain a detailed structure or development. It begins, of course, with Rome’s founder – the quasi-mythical figure of Romulus – and his organization of Roman society into three tribes (the Ramnes, Tities and Luceres) and thirty curiae. The story goes, as relayed by Livy and Dionysius, that Romulus founded the city with a mixed group of followers which ranged from powerful clans to runaway slaves and asylum-seekers. In order to bring these disparate groups together into a single state and, perhaps more importantly, a single army, he created the two sets of divisions – the tribes and the curiae – which both seem to have had social, political, religious and military aspects. The relationship between the tribes and curiae, and indeed their fundamental character and make-up, are still a matter of some debate in modern scholarship (as will be discussed later). The ancient sources, however, are generally consistent on the matter, with Dionysius of Halicarnassus offering the most explicit account of their creation where he describes the curiae as mere subdivisions of the tribes, following the Greek model.

He [Romulus] divided all the people into three groups, and set over each as leader its most distinguished man. Then he subdivided each of these three groups into ten others, and appointed as many of the bravest men to be the leaders of these also. The larger divisions he called tribes and the smaller curiae, as they are still termed even in our day…. These curiae were again divided by him into ten parts, each commanded by its own leader, who was called decurio in the native language.

This system of tribes and curiae formed the basis for at least one political body, the curiate assembly, and offered a rough hierarchy for the army, although there are only vague hints given in either Livy or Dionysius regarding the details of the army during this period.

The standard size of the Roman legion (or levy, from whence the word is derived) during this period is often assumed to have been 3,000 infantry and 300 cavalry, based on both the structure of the tribes and curiae and assertions by both Livy and Dionysius about the initial contribution of each of the curiae (given as 100 infantry and ten cavalry). This figure is corroborated by the late Republican antiquarian Varro, who claimed that the early legion contained 3,000 men, with 1,000 coming from each tribe, and the historian Plutarch, who gives the same number in his life of Romulus, although he adds 300 cavalry. However, both Livy and Dionysius also seem to imply that this figure represented a minimum or a starting point, as opposed to a standard legion size, as Dionysius noted that when Romulus died Rome’s forces far outnumbered this – although it is possible that the thousands mentioned by Dionysius merely reflected Rome’s manpower reserves.

By these and other like measures he [Romulus] made the colony great from a small beginning, as the actual results showed; for the number of those who joined with him in founding Rome did not amount to more than three thousand foot nor quite to three hundred horse, whereas he left behind him when he disappeared from among men forty-six thousand foot and about a thousand horse.

As far as equipment and tactics are concerned, the literary sources offer us very little until the sixth century BC and the reforms of Rome’s sixth king Servius Tullius. The battle descriptions from the life of Romulus and the other early reges, if they can be considered even remotely factual, suggest that both massed combat and duels were common and support the idea that Rome’s army contained both infantry and cavalry. Unfortunately, military equipment finds from Rome itself are incredibly scarce for the Regal and early Republican periods, but what does exist for the eighth and seventh centuries BC – largely from graves in the forum Romanum – shows a mixture of swords and spears, along with a few pieces of bronze armour, which is generally supportive of this picture of mixed combat. This limited archaeological evidence is often bolstered with contemporary finds from elsewhere in Central Italy. Graves from other Latin sites dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BC have contained very similar finds to the graves in Rome, with swords, axes and spear points predominating, along with the occasional bronze helmet or breastplate. Graves from Etruria in the north, along with finds from Umbria and the Ager Faliscus, have contributed to the archaeological picture for this period as well with quite a few more helmets and elaborate circular shields – although whether these should be considered indicative of Roman equipment is still uncertain. Generally though, a very heroic and arguably Homeric style of combat comes through quite strongly in the available evidence.

After the army’s creation in the eighth century BC, the traditional narrative holds that the sixth century BC was the next real period of change – a period which also coincides with significant growth and urbanization within the community and the emergence of the so-called ‘Grand Rome of the Tarquins’. At the beginning of the sixth century BC, Rome’s cavalry was expanded by the Roman rex Tarquinius Priscus (trad. c. 615–580 BC), but the most significant change occurred under Servius Tullius (trad. c. 580–530 BC) who transformed the army, and indeed all of Roman society, via a wide-ranging series of reforms often dubbed ‘The Servian Constitution’ or the ‘Centuriate Reforms’. According to the narrative, Servius Tullius conducted Rome’s first official census and reformed Rome’s Archaic system of tribes by separating them from the curiae and basing them entirely on geography. These new tribes included four urban tribes and seventeen rural tribes – a number which was gradually expanded during the Republic to reach a total of thirty-one by 241 BC. This new tribal structure formed the basis of Rome’s new Tribal Assembly, which represented Rome’s burgeoning population and included both the urban inhabitants and an increasing number of powerful rural clans. Rome’s army, however, was separated from this structure and was recruited instead from a new set of socio-economic divisions based on the census. The entirety of Rome’s population was subdivided into seven socio-economic classes, each with a minimum level of wealth required for entry. At the top of this new system were the equites, which required 100,000 bronze asses (bronze coins weighing one Roman pound) along with a certain social position for entry, followed by the first class which required only the 100,000 asses, the second class 75,000 assess, etc. down though the fifth class and finally the capite censi, or ‘head count’ which was made up of the poor and did not contribute to the army. Each class was then further subdivided into centuries, with the equites containing eighteen, the first class eighty-two, the second class twenty, the third class twenty, the fourth class twenty, the fifth class thirty-two and the capite censi one.

The centuries of the Servian Constitution are incredibly problematic and have often been misinterpreted. One of the most glaring misunderstandings is that each century contained 100 men or was responsible for contributing 100 men to the army – neither of which seems to be the case. Dionysius in particular explicitly states that the centuries were merely administrative/recruiting units and did not contain 100 men each.

For instance, whenever [Servius Tullius] had occasion to raise ten thousand men, or, if it should so happen, twenty thousand, he would divide that number among the hundred and ninety-three centuries and then order each century to furnish the number of men that fell to its share.

Instead the name ‘century’ may have been derived from the number of divisions in the original census (the eighteen centuries of the equites plus the eighty-two of the first class together equalling 100), with the later classes/centuries being added later. Indeed, according to a passage attributed to Cato the Elder, as late as the second century BC the first class of the Servian system along with the equites were together known simply as the classis, with the lower classes carrying the designation infra classem. The centuries themselves seem to have had no tactical function and were largely administrative in nature as they formed the basis for Rome’s new Centuriate Assembly as well as representing the means by which Rome’s army was levied. Each class was also associated with a particular military panoply or set of equipment, which members would have been expected to supply themselves as part of being in the civic militia. The equites naturally constituted the cavalry while the first class was equipped with a helmet, round shield, greaves, mail, sword and spear. The second class was equipped with a helmet, oblong shield, greaves, sword and spear. The third class was equipped with only a helmet, oblong shield, sword and spear. The fourth class, according to Livy, was composed of light infantry equipped with a spear and javelin, while Dionysius suggests that this group also carried oblong shields and swords. The fifth class carried nothing but missile weapons, and the capite censi did not contribute to the army at all, presumably as they did not have enough wealth to equip themselves with the appropriate weaponry.

The standard interpretation of the Servian Constitution is that it represented a shift from an old family-based, tribal system of government to a new state-centred democratic/oligarchic system similar to that present in Greece at this time. On the military side of things, this shift is typically seen to represent the transition from a highly individual, heroic style of warfare to something resembling a community-based hoplite phalanx. And indeed the Romans themselves seem to have thought that they once fought in a hoplite phalanx, a tactic which they claimed that they acquired from the Etruscans at some point during the Archaic period. Although this can be seen in both Livy and Dionysius’ account, the best evidence can be found in the so-called Ineditum Vaticanum, which purports to give a speech by a Roman named Caeso (probably Caeso Fabius) to a Carthaginian envoy before the First Punic War, detailing Roman military development to that point and showing why they would be victorious in a war despite being woefully inexperienced at naval combat.

This is what we Romans are like … with those who make war on us we agree to fight on their terms, and when it comes to foreign practices we surpass those who have long used them. For the Tyrrhenians used to make war on us with bronze shields and fighting in phalanx formation, not in maniples; and we, changing our armament and replacing it with theirs, organized our forces against them, and contending thus against men who had long been accustomed to phalanx battles we were victorious. Similarly, the Samnite shield was not part of our national equipment, nor did we have javelins, but fought with round shields and spears; nor were we strong in cavalry, but all or nearly all of Rome’s strength lay in infantry. But when we found ourselves at war with the Samnites we armed ourselves with their oblong shields and javelins, and fought against them on horseback, and by copying foreign arms we became masters of those who thought so highly of themselves. Nor were we familiar, Carthaginians, with the art of siege craft; but we learned from the Greeks who were highly experienced in the field, and proved superior in siege craft to that accomplished race, and indeed to all mankind. Do not force the Romans to engage in affairs of the sea; for if we have need of naval forces we shall, in short time, equip more and better ships than you, and shall prove more effective in naval battles than people who have long practised seafaring.

More importantly than the question of whether or not the Servian reforms ushered in an era of hoplite warfare in Rome, the new constitution very clearly represented the shift to an entirely state-centred military force. While the previous tribal army seems to have been controlled by the state and was led by the Roman rex, the basic units and recruitment of the army were still based on a series of pre-existing family and clan-based connections, which presumably gave those entities a fair amount of power. The new Servian tribes and system of classes broke down these old connections and created new ones dictated entirely by the relationship to the community. According to the literary narrative then, the army which emerged from the Regal period was very different from the one created by Romulus. The army of Servius Tullius arguably represented the first truly ‘Roman’ army and could be viewed as the ancestor of Rome’s late Republican legions.

Rome’s Regal Armies II

CITIZEN-SOLDIER, CLASS III As each citizen was obliged to buy his own equipment, it seems clearly logical to assume that not all hoplites were identically equipped. The less well-off citizen would have had nothing so elaborate as the bronze or linen corselet that wealthier citizens wore, yet doubtless many of those members of this class w h o had the means actually supplied themselves with a small bronze breastplate, the old Italic round or rectangular models being still very much in circulation (1). The importance of armour to those w h o fight at close quarters can hardly be overstated. Apart from the obvious protection it offers, armour lends confidence to the wearer, and confidence in combat is always extremely important. Where metallic armour was not available or affordable, citizens probably made use of cuirbouilli or padded protection, and we can be certain that the individual citizen-soldier sought to protect himself with at least some form of body armour. The private provision of (expensive) war gear could accordingly reflect individual preference for different forms and styles (Greek, Graeco-Etruscan or Italic). For the most part, however, to compensate for any lack of body armour classes II and III used the oval scutum instead of the round clipeus. The scutum offered better protection to the torso and legs, it being the body shield c o m m o n in Italy and already known in Rome as it had been widely employed in its early days by its clan warriors. In shape and form, whatever may have been true of the period of the clan-based warband, the scutum would by this period have been very much like the thureos (‘door-like’) common to the soldiers called thureophoroi in later Hellenistic armies. With the scutum a soldier could be both defensive and offensive, parrying enemy blows with its board or rim and punching with its metallic boss-plate. The scutum, unlike the clipeus, was a relatively cheap piece of equipment.


Although a neat, tidy and internally consistent model, this traditional account, based on the explicit testimony of our two main literary sources, has always faced a bit of criticism – and particularly the Servian reforms of the mid-sixth century BC. From a very early date scholars have wondered whether a system as complex as the Servian Constitution could have been introduced in Rome in the sixth century BC. It was suggested that the political aspects of the reforms, and specifically the creation of two new assemblies, made no sense in a Rome which was still ruled by a rex. Indeed, neither of the Servian Constitution’s two new assemblies, the Tribal Assembly and the Centuriate Assembly, are recorded as performing any functions or duties until at least the fifth century BC. All of Rome’s political power seems to have remained with the rex, the senate and the old curiate assembly which continued to pass the law granting/confirming imperium. Additionally, questions have been raised about whether Rome would have needed (or even would have been able to field) the elaborate military system laid out in the reforms during this period, with the wide variety of troop types described (including engineers and trumpeters). One possible solution to this issue is that the Servian Constitution, as preserved in the accounts of Livy and Dionysius, represents the final version of something which was only started in the sixth century BC. As noted above, given the passages from Cato, Festus and others, it seems likely that only the first class and equites were really thought of as the classis.

Not all of those in the five classes are called the classici, but only the men of the first class whose census rating was 125,000 asses or more. Those who are called infra classem are the men who belonged to the second class as well as all the other classes, whose census ratings were below that of the first.

The term infra classem refers to those whose census rating is less than 120,000 asses.

These references, and others like them, have suggested to scholars that the Servian system of classes actually developed slowly over time, with the first class and equites being introduced first, and the later classes being slowly introduced at later dates – possibly as late as the fourth or third centuries BC. So the Servian constitution of the sixth century BC may have simply been a rationalization and reorganization of the existing tribal army based on economic and geographic criteria.

This still does not, however, explain the entire situation. Perhaps the most damning criticism of the Servian Constitution and the traditional model of Roman military development has come from increasingly careful analyses of the literary narrative itself. Outside of a few ‘structural passages’ in the literary tradition (essentially where the narrative stops and a bit of detailed information is given by the author on various aspects of early Roman military and political development), the literary narrative for early Rome seems to describe the Romans fighting wars and engaging in battles using a system which does not align with the precepts of the Servian model at all. Instead of fighting wars over land and control of territory, which would suit a community-based hoplite phalanx, during the late sixth and fifth centuries BC the Romans and their opponents seem to engage almost entirely in raiding for individual glory and wealth – a style of warfare for which a phalanx is decidedly ill-suited. Additionally, the few direct references to the Romans using a phalanx in an actual battle situation are surprisingly problematic. For instance, Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the Roman army fighting against the Sabines in a phalanx.

For their foes, despising them because their troops were new recruits, encamped over against them, and placing ambushes on the roads, cut off the provisions that were being brought to them and attacked them when they went out for forage; and whenever cavalry clashed with cavalry, infantry with infantry, and phalanx against phalanx, the Sabines always came off superior to the Romans, not a few of whom voluntarily played the coward in their encounters and not only disobeyed their officers but refused to come to grips with the foe.

However, he also describes the tribal Sabine people as fighting in a phalanx and the entire passage is placed in a context of irregular warfare. As a result, it could be argued that Dionysius is using the word ‘phalanx’ to simply mean a group of infantry. This type of interpretation is supported by passages like this one, from a later battle narrative.

Against the troops who were fighting in the middle of the phalanx, which was widely spaced and lax, those who were stationed here charged in a body and drove them from their position.

Additionally, as noted above, although Roman society was supposedly reformed with military and political power being handed to the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies, neither of these assemblies seems to be active until the middle of the fifth century BC at the earliest. Instead, Rome’s military and political systems seem to be dominated by a collection of powerful clans and individuals who seem to have had a fairly limited connection to the community. During the Regal period, the city of Rome and her citizen population often seems like more of a bystander than a major player in much of the warfare taking place. So, where did this standard model come from? Why did the Romans think they fought in a hoplite phalanx, if they did not? The answer may lie in the historical tradition itself. Intriguingly, the Roman army which the literary sources describe emerging from the Regal period mirrors, almost exactly, the military situation which Greek and Roman historians seem to have envisioned for Greece at the end of the sixth century BC – and particularly the emergence of the classic hoplite phalanx and the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens. Whether the ancient Greeks were correct in their view of their own history, and particularly their military development, is still quite a contentious issue in modern scholarship – with scholars like Han van Wees challenging the traditional models and suggesting that the classic hoplite phalanx and hoplite warfare which the sources seem to describe may have represented an idealized version of what was fundamentally a more often individual style of combat. However, the emergence of heavily armoured infantry in the sixth century BC, coupled with social and political reforms, would have made sense to someone familiar with this model. And when the Greeks started to write their histories of the Romans in the third century BC (it should be remembered that the first histories to mention Rome and discuss her origins were written by Greeks), after Rome’s emergence onto the Mediterranean stage with the war against Pyrrhus, and when the Romans settled down to write their own histories a couple generations later at the turn of the second century BC, they naturally looked at the strong historical precedent set in Greece and may have, either consciously or unconsciously, modelled their own narratives upon it.

Revised Literary Approach

Unfortunately, when it comes to looking outside the passages that form the basis for the traditional interpretation of the early Roman army, there is little solid evidence with which to work to create an alternative model. As a result, any attempts to assign concrete numbers, divisions or attributes to the early army will always represent guesswork (although perhaps educated guesswork) at best. The ideal complement of 3,300 men which the literary sources give for the curiate army of Romulus undoubtedly represents a rough estimate, based on what must have been a very muddled tradition, and it is clear that Romans did not envisage Rome’s later Regal army, as organized by the Servian Constitution, as ever having a set size. So it is probably best to consider Rome’s armed forces during this period as being flexible and reactionary, mobilized based on need and not necessarily on a set system or quota as in later periods. The rough proportion of infantry to cavalry in both the army of Romulus and Servius Tullius, effectively ten to one, may represent something like reality – as warfare would have been limited to those rich enough to afford their own equipment and the very rich (possibly the top ten per cent of the army) may very well have utilized horses, as we know these were present in the region. However, given the heavily forested nature of Latium during this period, in contrast to modern day Central Italy, it is questionable how effective cavalry would have been in actual combat – at least as anything resembling a unified force. So it is probably best to consider the number of various troop types and the distribution and use of equipment in the army of this period to be haphazard and largely based on personal choice and preference.

When considering how the army behaved in battle, although there are a number of battle descriptions preserved in the narrative, the vast majority are either so general or so mythologized and full of clearly anachronistic detail that it would be unwise to take them at anything resembling face value. Indeed, most scholars writing about the Roman army during the Regal period have, justifiably, often steered clear of using the more narrative passages in their analyses for these sorts of reasons. However, looking a little more closely, some broad themes do emerge which may shed some light on the situation. Perhaps the most obvious and consistent aspects of early Roman warfare seen in the literature are its open character and individual aspect. Warriors are regularly described engaging in duels and individual combat as part of a fluid battle where movement around the battlefield seems to be both possible and easy. This type of individual combat could (and often did) take the form of a formal duel, as seen with the ‘Battle of the Champions’ between the Horatii and Curiatii in the reign of Tullus Hostilius.

There happened to be in each of the armies a triplet of brothers, fairly matched in years and strength. It is generally agreed that they were called Horatii and Curiatii. Few incidents in antiquity have been more widely celebrated, yet in spite of its celebrity there is a discrepancy in the accounts as to which nation each belonged. There are authorities on both sides, but I find that the majority give the name of Horatii to the Romans, and my sympathies lead me to follow them. The kings suggested to them that they should each fight on behalf of their country, and where victory rested, there should be the sovereignty. They raised no objection; so the time and place were fixed. But before they engaged a treaty was concluded between the Romans and the Albans, providing that the nation whose representatives proved victorious should receive the peaceable submission of the other. This is the earliest treaty recorded, and as all treaties, however different the conditions they contain, are concluded with the same forms, I will describe the forms with which this one was concluded as handed down by tradition.

Alternatively, and far more commonly, there are numerous references to heroes confronting each other on the battlefield. Most notably there is Romulus defeating the king of the Caenina and winning the spolia opima for the first time.

Whilst they were scattered far and wide, pillaging and destroying, Romulus came upon them with an army, and after a brief encounter taught them that anger is futile without strength. He put them to a hasty flight, and following them up, killed their king and despoiled his body; then after slaying their leader took their city at the first assault.

Additionally, there are countless other instances where key figures in the narrative find themselves engaged in combat, as with Mettius Curtius and Hostius Hostilius in the war against the Sabines, or the combat between Brutus and Arruns Tarquin following the removal of Tarquinius Superbus.

Similarly the enemy’s cavalry was in front of his main body, Arruns Tarquin, the king’s son, in command; the king himself followed with the legionaries. Whilst still at a distance Arruns distinguished the consul by his escort of lictors; as they drew nearer he clearly recognised Brutus by his features, and in a transport of rage exclaimed, ‘That is the man who drove us from our country; see him proudly advancing, adorned with our insignia! Ye gods, avengers of kings, aid me!’ With these words, he dug spurs into his horse and rode straight at the consul. Brutus saw that he was making for him. It was a point of honour in those days for the leaders to engage in single combat, so he eagerly accepted the challenge, and they charged with such fury, neither of them thinking of protecting himself, if only he could wound his foe, that each drove his spear at the same moment through the other’s shield, and they fell dying from their horses, with the spears sticking in them.

Although these types of duels likely contain a strong mythic element, scholars (most notably Stephen Oakley) have convincingly argued, based on continued evidence for duelling throughout the Republic, that this type of single combat represented a regular aspect of war within the Roman military system and should not be discounted so quickly. The long tradition of the spolia opima in particular, which involves the Roman commander successfully defeating the enemy commander in single combat, hints that this type of interaction was not unheard of.

Another intriguing aspect which emerges is the importance of families and clans in warfare. This is something which will be discussed in the next chapter in detail, but it is important to recognize here that families and clans seem to play a much larger role in warfare than the state during this period. On the battlefield, family members are often depicted fighting alongside one another and family structures seem to have formed a viable mechanism for military recruitment, even after the traditional date for the Servian Constitution, as seen through Brutus’ recruitment of clan-based forces following the rape of Lucretia or, of course, the famous instance of the private war between the Fabii and Veii in the early Republic and various other similar instances.

Arguably the most interesting and noteworthy difference between the more structural descriptions of the army and the evidence which can be gleaned from the rest of the narrative, is that the bulk of Roman military activity during the Regal period was evidently not centred on state goals or conquest of land, but rather seems to have been largely concerned with raiding for portable wealth. Although all of Rome’s reges are described as expanding Roman territory militarily and conquering numerous settlements, and indeed the sources suggest that this type of activity was the usual goal of Roman military action, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these ‘conquests’ resulted in control of settlements or their territory. For instance, Rome’s famous victory over Alba Longa under Tullus Hostilius did not result in long-term Roman control over the region, or indeed the land in between the settlements. This ‘conquest’, like other victories after it during the Regal period, clearly had an immediate impact on the community in terms of loss of life and property but did not seem to result in the attestable creation of an extensive Roman ‘kingdom’ or ‘dominion’ over Latium.

This changing understanding of Roman warfare and the increasing absence of a grand strategic vision behind Roman military activity has also led scholars to challenge the literary sources’ interpretation of colonization. E.T. Salmon in his great work on the subject, Roman Colonization Under the Republic, published in 1970, followed the line of reasoning presented in Livy that Roman colonies planted during the Regal and early Republican periods were strategic in nature, used to secure territorial gains by the state. This approach has increasingly come under fire, however, in recent years as scholars have noted that Rome’s Regal colonies were actually never founded following victories and did not seem to maintain a strong political or military link to Rome – and indeed they often went into ‘revolt’. All this suggests that Regal colonization should probably not be interpreted as ‘Roman expansion’, as with the creation of citizen and veteran colonies in later periods, but rather as independent elite initiatives established for a range of other reasons.

Overall then, the narrative for early Roman warfare outside of the various authorial asides, which were likely added during the second and first centuries BC during the expansion of the historical narrative, paints a slightly different picture. Instead of having a grand strategy during this early period, Roman warfare seems to have been directed for shortterm gains by powerful warlords who relied heavily on the city’s (and region’s) clans for manpower. Battles themselves seem to have been a mixture of ambushes, raids and the occasional large scale engagements, but were generally open affairs with a significant amount of duelling and individual combat between aristocrats. The nature of warfare is therefore still extremely tribal and heroic where the state and community concerns seem to play a minimal role.

In many ways this situation actually mirrors what Livy and Dionysius suggest existed with Rome’s tribal army under Romulus, although they naturally seem to have envisaged a bit more state control following their expectations based on Rome’s late Republican system. Intriguingly though, there is no evidence in the narrative for any changes which might have resulted from the introduction of the Servian Constitution. During the reign of Servius Tullius and the final Tarquin we do not find the expected shift towards large group engagements or formations, state-centred military goals, the emergence of a hoplite ethos in battle, etc. The sources, despite the fact that they clearly envisaged Rome as a conquest-driven city-state, still describe a mode of warfare which was decidedly aristocratic in nature and driven by raiding/booty. Tarquinius Superbus, for instance, is reported as engaging in raiding against Ardea explicitly in order to acquire booty. The same can also be said of the actions of the young Sextus Tarquinius at Gabii and the vast majority of military actions in the early Republic.

Archaeology of Warfare in Archaic Rome

The archaeology for warfare in Latium during the Regal period is unfortunately limited and subject to a range of interpretations, but still provides an interesting parallel to the revised interpretation of the literature. The military equipment discovered in Central Italy dating to the period, largely from Etruria but also found near rich Latin communities like Praeneste, often seems to corroborate the picture of military development presented by Livy and Dionysius. Initial finds of swords, spears, axes and the occasional bits of bronze armour slowly seem to have given way to more complete bronze panoplies in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, often including large circular bronze shields and what appear to be hoplons. This sequence was clearly visible in Etruria, where identifiable hoplons – complete with the central porpax and antilabe grips, and in some instances with the wooden backing preserved – have been found. Despite the absence of similar evidence from Rome, it was often thought something similar must have been present there, given the strong Etruscan influence on the city during the sixth century BC under the Tarquins.

The key factor in the use of the archaeology to support the literary model was the interpretation of the hoplon and, albeit to a lesser extent, the heavy bronze armour. The mere presence of the Greek-style hoplon was often thought to necessitate densely-packed formations of heavy infantry, simply by virtue of its design. The large circular shield was believed to be too unwieldy for individual combat, while the use of the central porpax (a central metal band meant to carry the weight of the shield on the forearm) would have supposedly created an overlap to the left of the bearer which would have been ideally suited to a dense formation. Additionally, the heavy bronze armour which usually accompanied the shields, and particularly the ‘closed’ bronze helmet, was thought to have limited the sight and movement of a warrior to such a degree that the only practical means of fighting was as part of a dense formation where one only needed to see straight ahead and where movement was limited to a shoving match.

This interpretation of the hoplon and the associated heavy bronze armour has, however, undergone a massive revision in recent years. Led by Hans van Wees and his seminal work, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, a growing number of scholars have challenged the traditional view and pointed out that in Greece the hoplon and heavy bronze equipment actually grew out of a very individual form of combat prevalent in the Greek ‘Dark Ages’ (c. 1100–800 BC). Indeed, the closed helmet and full body armour would have arguably been redundant in a dense formation, where the formation itself would have provided the vast majority of the protection. This is something which can be seen during the Classical period of Greek warfare as various pieces of equipment are slowly dropped from the standard panoply until only the shield, spear and helmet are deemed essential in the Athenian phalanx by the mid-fourth century BC, with the minimal armour worn by the soldiers of the sarissa phalanx of Philip II and Alexander of Macedon possibly representing the culmination of development. This argument, although by no means universally accepted, would actually turn the interpretation of hoplon and bronze armour finds on its head, as it might suggest the presence of this equipment in fact indicates an individual approach to combat. It naturally does not rule out the use of a phalanx formation as well, but it suggests that the formation may have developed despite the heavy equipment instead of because of it, likely driven by social forces and not technological determinism.

The development of these models for early Greek warfare has naturally muddied the water quite a bit for early Roman warfare, as it has removed the most obvious reading of the limited finds we have and opened up an entire range of alternative interpretations. Thankfully though, it has also stopped the glossing-over of finds and evidence which did not fit neatly into a mode of warfare which utilized hoplite phalanxes. Most notably this included evidence for a range of different weapons, and particularly the widespread use of axes in military contexts, as axe heads have been found in the vast majority of graves containing other identifiable military equipment and reliefs featuring warriors from Central Italy. There are also a number of bronze shields which were interpreted as hoplons because of their circular shape, but which were clearly never meant to be used in combat as they lacked the wooden backing which provides the ultimate strength – instead the small central handle was attached directly to the bronze sheet which formed the front, creating a beautiful, but ultimately entirely decorative, piece of equipment.

Added to this diverse range of equipment finds are a series of artistic depictions of warriors, again (and unfortunately) almost always found in either burial or explicitly religious contexts, which may shed some additional light on the matter. These include the ubiquitous warrior figurines found in graves throughout Central Italy, tomb and sarcophagus paintings (largely found in Etruria), temple sculptures and vase paintings. All of these types of art defy a clear and detailed interpretation for a number of reasons. First, the artist who created the item may not have been attempting to depict local practice, or indeed anything practical, when creating the work. Archaeologists must assume that the finished piece had some sort of cultural resonance with the local community which ultimately incorporated it into their funerary or religious practice, but what that resonance was is uncertain. For instance, a figurine or vase painting may have depicted a local warrior, a mythic or heroic figure, a god, a Greek warrior, an interpretation of what a Greek warrior looked like, etc. Or it may have merely represented ‘wealth’. There are a few constants running through the artistic and iconographic corpus for Central Italy, however, which are consistent enough, and also align with the more concrete military equipment finds, which may be indicative of local norms. These include the regular use of heavy armour on the torso, including both bronze and linen cuirasses, an overall preference for more open helmets and the use of a wide range of weapons, including swords, spears and axes.

There also seems to have been a very strong connection between both military equipment and warrior depictions and elite status. This represents a very early trend in Archaic Central Italy, as seen in the finds from Osteria dell’Osa where weapon deposits in particular have been shown to align with high-status male graves. Although initially the depositions could be argued to represent merely ‘wealth’, based on the amount of metal and craftsmanship which went into each object (this may help to explain the military equipment found in a few female graves), the increasingly miniaturized and symbolic nature of the finds does suggest that warfare and military equipment had a direct connection to social and political authority. This correlation can also be seen in other graves from around Central Italy, most notably from Castel di Decima and Praeneste in Latium, and many sites, like Tarquinia, in southern Etruria. Warrior figurines and military equipment finds drop off substantially in Latium during the sixth century BC, but the few finds which have been excavated from the sixth and fifth centuries BC – for instance the famous Lanuvium warrior burial, dated to c. 500 BC – suggest a general continuation of practice.

Finally, when looking at the physical remains for warfare in Central Italy, one must also consider fortifications and city defences. For Central Italy, this evidence is puzzling as many communities, including Rome, did invest in fortifications during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, but they were usually simple affairs which only protected the easiest access routes. In Rome, some scholars have suggested that stone blocks found near the Palatine may represent the Archaic ‘Wall of Romulus’, although this is anything but certain. The first clearly identifiable fortifications at Rome are the agger and fossa (rampart and ditch) which cut across the Esquiline plateau, often dated to the sixth century BC based on pottery finds within the fill. Very similar to contemporary fortifications at other Latin sites, this agger and fossa took advantage of the natural topography of the community and protected the easiest route into the area from the east. The fortifications were extremely limited though and left large areas unprotected. This has led many scholars to suggest that these defences were designed to guard against raids and not as protection from sieges or major assaults. The first walls which were built at Rome which seem to have completely surrounded the city, the so-called ‘Servian Walls’, were only built in the fourth century BC.

So the final picture we have from the archaeological and artistic evidence for warfare during the Regal period seems to be one of aristocratic dominance. Military equipment and warrior iconography are only found associated with high status graves and adorn temples and tombs which were built by the aristocracy. This does not rule out participation in warfare by members of the lower class as well – but there is no evidence for it either. Additionally, there seemed to be something about military equipment and warrior iconography which resonated with the region’s elite as they, or in the case of a burial their family, chose these items and images to identify themselves with.

Conclusions and the power of the rex

The evidence for the Roman army during the Regal period is, ultimately then, contradictory. On the one hand we have the explicit testimony of the ancient sources which present a clear and coherent sequence of military development in a series of detailed asides, which envisaged a state-centred tribal army being created under Romulus and transformed into something resembling a civic militia, possibly based on a Greek-style hoplite phalanx, during the reign of Servius Tullius in the sixth century BC. Despite the change in the army’s structure and equipment during the sixth century BC, both armies seem to have functioned as an extension of the state’s (and rex’s) will, in much the same way as the Roman armies of the later Republic. Indeed, Rome’s Regal army, at least in these passages, is very clearly depicted as the point of origin and obvious ancestor for the later army and was seen to exhibit many of its key characteristics.

Outside of these few explanatory asides however, the literary evidence paints a picture of an army and a style of warfare that was much more aristocratic and heroic in nature. Far from being based on state-centred aims, warfare was conducted for booty and glory and short-term goals. Armies functioned not as an extension of the state and state policy, but as an extension of a powerful leader’s will. Military equipment was, and would remain, personal property and the type of equipment used in Archaic Central Italy is increasingly interpreted as being best suited for individual, and not group, action. Even the construction of fortifications is unlikely to have involved and included the full community.

The key issue, then, is the connection between the powerful clan leader, the army and the community – a power that the Roman’s associated with the grant of imperium.

The power of imperium is what bound a powerful clan leader, or warlord, to the community of Rome and to the army. Although we naturally have extremely limited and problematic information for this power in the Archaic period, as all of our evidence comes from later periods when imperium may have changed and evolved, it seems to have given an external leader the power to control, command and effectively integrate the members of the community into his own clan-based military model. A rex, via imperium, represented a powerful father figure to those in his army, with all of the power that a Roman paterfamilias would have wielded – including the power of life or death and the ability to judge those under his control.

This relationship clearly had power both ways, as the inclusion of community members in the army and retinue of a warlord would have changed the character of the power dynamic within. Additionally, the fact that imperium was granted by the community, with the comitia curiata effectively putting themselves under the warlord’s command and power, also suggests that they retained a certain amount of power and control in the relationship and could possibly remove themselves from it if needed. Fundamentally though, Rome’s army in the Regal period seems to have represented the result of an integration with a previously existing mode of aristocratic, clan-based warfare and military model, which actually continued to exist alongside the city’s armies well into the Republican period.

The Roman Army of the 5th Century BC

The Roman army of the fifth century BC obviously reflected the social and political changes occurring in Rome, although the development was evidently subtle. From an outsider’s perspective, very little would have changed in how the Roman army looked or was equipped from the Regal armies of the sixth century BC to the armies of the early Republic. Although military equipment disappears almost entirely from the archaeological record for the fifth century BC in Latium, what little evidence we do have (most notably the Lanuvium warrior burial, dated to c. 500 BC, some problematic sculptures from temple pediments and possible comparative evidence from Etruria) all suggests continuity rather than change. Roman and Latin warriors still seem to have equipped themselves in heavy bronze armour when they could, although there is some evidence for increased use of cheaper variations like the linen cuirass (linothorax). There are also gradual developments in helmet type, generally favouring cheaper options, although largely maintaining the previously existing style and function. This continuity makes sense as, for the most part, the soldiers making up the army seem to have been coming from the same groups as before and were likely using inherited equipment – although there are some hints that the pool for soldiers was gradually expanding during this period to include new members of the ‘upper middle class’ within the community (it is probably these new additions which favoured the cheaper options). The core of the army, however, remained the traditional forces of the gentes and they seem to have continued to use predominantly thrusting spears and the occasional sword in combat, which still seems to have been focused largely on individual duelling in close combat.

The real differences in the army, as discussed above, were in organization – although this would ultimately have a significant impact on how the army would have behaved in the field. The gradual transition from a fundamentally gentilicial or clan-based military structure, to one based on the community, seems to have resulted in a certain level of disorder in the ranks – as in the second half of the fifth century BC there are suddenly references to armies acting in a mutinous or disobedient fashion. Although this may represent a later literary embellishment, this type of behaviour does make some sense if the command structure, power dynamic and indeed the ultimate goals and aims of the army were changing – not to mention the inclusion of an increasing number of ‘new’ troops from the urban community of Rome. No longer were the goals and command structure necessarily aligned along long-standing and traditional clan-based lines, where the word and power of a paterfamilias reigned supreme – and again, this seems to have been the case even in Rome’s previous armies controlled via imperium – but instead everything was passing through the new (and still quite fluid) matrix of the community. Although this new system seems to have resulted in the possibility of slightly larger armies, it did not always result in more effective armies – and particularly not for the powerful, clan-based elite.

What If: ‘From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond’ I

The Great Allied Tank Offensive of 1917

Prologue: The Battle of Paardeberg, South Africa, February 1900

Major General Horace Smith-Dorrien could not believe what he was seeing. Throughout the scorching South African summer day the British infantry had been ordered into reckless frontal assaults against an entrenched Boer position. The task had been hopeless. The famous Afrikaner marksmen had gunned down the attackers time and again. The dusty veld was carpeted with khaki-clad bodies that revealed the futility of the British tactics. But now, yet another attack was being formed up in the early evening light.

Watching through binoculars, Smith-Dorrien looked on in dismay as the British line rose from cover with a roar and moved forward at the double. A crash of rifle fire burst from the Boer line in response. Officers leading the advance with swords drawn were prime targets and were swiftly picked off. The British line convulsed as bullets ripped through its ranks. Gaps appeared. Survivors bunched together, pushing forward, stepping over the fallen of earlier assaults. The Boers concentrated fire on these heroic pockets and mowed them down. Within minutes it was all over. The attack had simply been destroyed.

The attack left a deep impression on Smith-Dorrien. He remembered after the war: ‘It was a gallant charge, gallantly led, but the fact that not one of them got within 300 yards of the enemy is sufficient proof of its futility.’ No amount of heroism could overcome the effects of modern firepower. Surely there had to be a better way of making war?

The desire for a ‘better way’ would plant a seed in Smith-Dorrien’s mind that would finally bear fruit in the First World War – but first, the solution had to be devised.

Necessity is the Mother of All Invention

In December 1903 the visionary science fiction author H. G. Wells published his story ‘The Land Ironclads’ in the Strand magazine. The prescient tale took place during a thinly disguised reimagining of the Boer War, where an army representing the British became deadlocked by the trenches of their opponents. After a month of stalemate, a bold new weapon takes to the field – the land ironclads of the title, mechanical behemoths one hundred feet in length, studded with guns and guided by huge searchlights. The mechanical monsters prove invulnerable to the rifle fire of the enemy and crush the defences with ease. In years to come, Wells would look back with pride on his prediction of armoured warfare.

Unfortunately for the British Army, the technology described in the story still lay in the future. Working with the equipment that was available, a number of officers proposed the use of bulletproof, man-portable shields that could be carried or rolled across the ground. Numerous experiments took place in Britain and India. Disappointingly, all work with the shields proved unsatisfactory. The devices were heavy and unwieldy, and it was soon found that they were only mobile on firm, flat ground.

However, an unorthodox and intriguing design emerged in 1912. After several uncomfortable experiences driving trucks over rough terrain, Australian inventor Lancelot de Mole designed a caterpillar-tracked transporter that could carry heavy loads across battlefields. Although he envisaged a transport rather than a fighting vehicle, de Mole suggested that his machine would be capable of crossing trenches and sufficiently armoured to withstand enemy fire. De Mole forwarded his proposal to the British War Office. In a stroke of good fortune, the design was brought to the attention of General Sir Ian Hamilton. Earlier in his career Hamilton had favoured the use of super heavy artillery and had been intrigued by the idea of using steam traction engines to haul it into battle. Hamilton used his influence to attract interest in de Mole’s design, prompting the Royal Engineers to carry out a feasibility study on the vehicle. The resulting report was issued in early 1914 and drew a very favourable conclusion. Unfortunately, the scandal of the Curragh incident7 in March and command reshuffle that followed distracted the authorities and the report was largely forgotten.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 came with armoured technology still beyond reach. Instead, the British Expeditionary Force marched into battle relying on suppressing fire, use of cover, and extended formations to keep its infantry safe. These methods served well enough in the defensive battles of August 1914. But the casualties suffered attempting to storm the German trenches at the Battle of the Aisne in September gave a stark warning that the killing power of modern weapons now far exceeded those that had been used in the Boer War. Defenders occupying earthworks could inflict severe losses on any attacker whilst suffering comparatively few in return. This imbalance between attack and defence led to the trench deadlock that took hold of the Western Front at the end of 1914. The lines ran from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. There were no flanks to turn, no room for manoeuvre, and seemingly no way through the barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery fire of the defenders.

The British Army cast about for solutions to the impasse. Amongst the many officers drawing up proposals was the official war correspondent Ernest Swinton. An intelligent and imaginative man, Swinton remembered a conversation with a friend who had once suggested that civilian tractors running on caterpillar tracks might have some military application.8 In October, Swinton had passed his thoughts on to his friend Colonel Maurice Hankey, who was working as an assistant to the prime minister.

On 28 December 1914, Hankey issued a paper of military ideas known as the ‘Boxing Day Memorandum’. Amongst various suggestions for the conduct of the war there was a paragraph that spoke of the future. Hankey suggested the use of ‘Numbers of large heavy rollers, themselves bullet proof, propelled from behind by motor-engines, geared very low, the driving wheel fitted with a caterpillar driving gear to grip the ground, the driver’s seat armoured and a Maxim gun fitted. The object of this device would be to roll down the barbed wire by sheer weight, to give some cover to men creeping up behind and to support the advance with machine gun fire.’

This paragraph had an electrifying effect on Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, who immediately wrote to the prime minister urging that the proposal be pursued.10 The vehicle that would ultimately become known as the tank had a powerful supporter. Science fiction was about to become reality.


Armoured cars had served with some success in 1914 but the idea of creating a tracked fighting vehicle was a new concept within the British military. It was such a radical idea that it was not clear who should have authority over the design. Should it be developed by the navy, which had more experience with steel and engines, or by the army, who would actually use it in battle? Without a firm hand to guide the project, the proposals could easily have become lost amongst the papers of the overworked War Office and disappeared from view, or else have languished in forgotten obscurity on the cluttered desks of important figures.

Fortunately for the British the vehicle had two enthusiastic champions. Churchill had immediately seen the potential in the device and supported it throughout its creation, but his influenced waxed and waned with the fortunes of his political career. However, his enthusiasm was shared by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Douglas Haig. Haig had been promoted to the post of CIGS during the hasty command reshuffle that took place in the aftermath of the Curragh incident of early 1914. Although desperately disappointed to be denied a combat command, he overcame his frustration by absorbing himself with his work. He proved to be a determined and energetic CIGS. Convinced that the war could only be won by defeating Germany on the Western Front, Haig was an enthusiastic supporter of new technologies that promised to break the deadlock. His fascination with innovative weapons was sometimes to his detriment, and at one point he was even taken in by a charlatan who claimed to have invented a death ray. However, when it came to the development of armoured vehicles, Haig’s instincts were correct. He saw the tank as a decisive weapon and used the strength of his position to ensure that the work was fully funded and pursued with vigour.

The British had another major advantage in their early design work. Although it had been overlooked for the better part of a year, the feasibility study on the de Mole vehicle was suddenly remembered. The report gave the wartime designers a crucial head start. Driven by Churchill’s enthusiasm and Haig’s determination, work on an armoured vehicle began in early 1915 and the project progressed rapidly. Debate followed as to its ideal size, weight, armour, and armament. Numerous tests and rigorous trials took place. The process was further complicated by the need for absolute secrecy so that the Germans would have no time to develop countermeasures.

The first fully functional prototype was ready for trials in August 1915. It was a caterpillar-tracked, rhomboid-shaped vehicle with room for heavy weapons in side sponsons and machine guns in its central hull. It was a slow-moving and somewhat crude machine, but it was also a revolutionary weapon. Having passed its trials, the tank was demonstrated to senior government and military figures. Ernest Swinton remembered: ‘it was a striking scene when the signal was given and a species of gigantic cubist steel slug slid out of its lair.’ The display was impressive. One observer commented, ‘wire entanglements it goes through like a rhinoceros through a field of corn.’ There was one burning question that was raised by the army representatives: ‘How soon can we have them?’ The Ministry of Munitions thought it could have fifty tanks ready by early 1916 with more to follow.

Yet armoured innovators, including Swinton and Churchill, urged that the army should be patient and not launch a premature attack with a handful of machines. It would be better to build up the armoured branch until it was powerful enough to strike a decisive blow against the German line. Their views found favour with Field Marshal Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien had been promoted to full command of the British Army in France in mid-1915 and he had been searching for innovative ideas for breaking the deadlock ever since. The development of the tank had enormous promise. However, Smith-Dorrien knew that the matter could not be rushed. Earlier in the war he had criticised the hasty deployment of undertrained infantry. He would not see the same mistake made with the new armoured branch. Time was needed to train the crews and devise tactics for the vehicles. Although the temptation to deploy them immediately was very great, Smith-Dorrien made the bold decision to hold back the tanks until they were adjudged to be battle ready.

The vehicles were assigned their own organisation that could coordinate command, training, and operational planning. To maintain secrecy, the tanks were formed into the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. In the meantime designers, crews, and commanders worked feverishly on all aspects of the new arm. Tactics had to be devised entirely from scratch and crews had to be trained in the use of the new machine. The designers tested and refined the MK I tank, correcting problems, adding features, and producing improved versions. There was also some interchange of ideas with the French, who were working independently on their own tank designs.

In September 1916 an agreement was reached between the British and French armies: neither side would deploy their tanks until the other was ready, thus ensuring that their combat usage came as an unpleasant surprise to the Germans. The decision would have important consequences.

April 1917: Allied Plans

April 1917 was to be a critical month in the Allied war effort. The German retreat to the fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, although strategically sound, also revealed that the battles of 1916 had inflicted serious damage on the German Army. After a relative lull during the bitterly cold winter months, the dawning of the spring signalled that it was time for the British and French to renew the offensive and hurl the invader back to his own borders. To do this, they would deploy their carefully prepared secret weapon.

Tanks had been gathering behind Allied lines throughout late 1916. Officers had the chance to inspect them, and tank commanders had the opportunity to work with the infantry that they would be supporting in battle. Every effort was made to maintain secrecy during this assemblage. Tanks were concealed in aircraft hangars, in wooded areas and even in disused railway tunnels to keep them from the prying eyes of German reconnaissance aircraft. Despite the best efforts of the British, the Germans gathered some inkling of the new machines. Remarkably, this information had virtually no influence on their military planning. General Erich Ludendorff paid them no heed, prompting Churchill’s postwar assessment that when it came to tanks, ‘the ablest soldier in Germany was blind’. At the front line there were vague warnings that the Allies were preparing ‘land cruisers’ for their next offensive. However, what these machines looked like or were capable of remained a mystery, and the Germans were taken completely by surprise when the tanks finally attacked.

It was decided that April would be the month when the tanks were to be unleashed on the enemy. The French intended to deploy their own vehicles in support of their massive offensive against the Chemin des Dames. The British had agreed to play their own role in supporting this operation by attacking around Arras. There was an optimistic hope that if both British and French attacks broke through then they would drive onwards to link up deep in German-occupied territory, outflanking the Hindenburg Line at a stroke. More realistically, the British attack would draw in German reserves and distract attention from the heavy French assault.

The German position around Arras was anchored on the dominating heights of the Vimy Ridge to the north and on the sophisticated defences of the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt to the south. The trench lines were constructed in depth and the position stretched back some ten thousand yards. Faced with these strong defences, the British had assembled approximately five hundred battle-ready tanks. The majority of the vehicles were MK I and MK II tanks, little changed from the first prototype that had been demonstrated in September 1915. However, a significant proportion of the force consisted of the more sophisticated and reliable MK IVs which had only recently rolled off the production lines.

The Battle of Arras would be defined by surprise. Unlike earlier battles, which had been characterised by bombardments lasting a week or more, the Arras attack was to be preceded with a short but intense bombardment of no more than forty-eight hours. As soon as the barrage lifted, the tanks would lead the assault on the German line, crushing any unbroken wire beneath their tracks and making a path for the infantry. Surviving German strongpoints would be destroyed by the 6-pounder guns carried by the ‘male’ versions of the tanks, whilst the machine-gun-armed ‘females’ would mow down any German counterattacks. The British infantry would surge forward to consolidate the ground and continue the advance. The Battle of Arras represented a remarkably ambitious plan and its reliance on an entirely untried weapon was unprecedented in the history of warfare. The Heavy Branch was about to receive its baptism of fire.

First Blood

The British attack had originally been planned for 9 April but the assault was delayed for three days due to unusually poor weather. It was bitterly cold when the battle began on 12 April and many accounts recalled the sudden snow flurries that swept across the area.

As planned, the Royal Artillery had opened the fighting with an intense bombardment. After forty-eight hours of constant shelling the fire reached its crescendo, the gunners labouring feverishly to work their guns, with many stripped to the waist despite the unseasonable cold. As its final act, the artillery smothered the German position with a mixture of dense poison gas and choking black smoke, blinding the defenders to ensure that they would not see the approach of the tanks until it was too late.

Tanks were carefully concealed all along the British line and their commanders nervously counted down the minutes until zero hour. Although thoroughly trained, none of the crews had any real idea what to expect. Some crewmen had battle experience in other arms of service, but this was the first time any had seen actual combat from the inside of their vehicles. One veteran recalled a tank commanded by a young second lieutenant who had ‘never seen a shot fired in his life’ but who was determined to ‘attack Germany all on his own’ by ‘shooting at every living thing he saw’.

At zero hour the tanks lurched forward from the British trenches. The advance seemed painfully slow. Some tanks failed to move from their start positions due to engine failure or the driver ‘missing the gears’. Others lumbered forward a short distance before experiencing similar breakdown or else becoming stuck in soft ground. The ironclad line was ragged in places. The clouds that blinded the German defenders would not last forever. Infantrymen strained to get forward and ahead of the slow-moving machines, not wanting to be caught in no man’s land when the Germans recovered their wits.

Yet, although it was slow, the tank attack had a relentless quality. The vehicles clambered through shell holes and over battlefield detritus. Suddenly, they had reached the wire belts – already thoroughly mangled by the British bombardment – and crashed through the steel defences without pause. One crewman remembered the sound as his tank crushed the obstacle: ‘It screeched against the hull … snapping and scraping, snapping and grating, it eventually fizzled out and we had got ourselves through.’

Peering through the thick lenses of their gas masks, the German infantry in the front line witnessed an amazing – and appalling – sight. Dark, mechanical shapes were emerging from the smoke. The growl of their engines and the grinding of their tracks were audible even above the din of battle. As the machines approached, their hulls were suddenly lit with flashes as their numerous guns opened fire. The dreaded materialschlat – the ‘battle of equipment’ – had taken on a new and terrible form.

The defenders were stunned. A British officer recalled with quiet understatement: ‘The Germans … were too staggered at the sight of the tank to make much resistance.’ Many surrendered on the spot, and those who did not were powerless to resist the tanks and the infantry that followed close behind. The tanks rumbled over the trenches and beyond, leaving behind small parties of infantry to mop up in their wake.

Yet not all the defenders were numbed by the experience. Runners sprinted down communication trenches to warn the rear areas of the approaching metal monsters. Infantry officers snatched up field telephones, bellowing for immediate artillery support to stop the fabled ‘land cruisers’. At the other end of the line, the German gunners gritted their teeth against the brutal British counter-battery fire and responded with every gun they had.

The tanks pushed forward, moving even deeper into the German position. Shells began to burst around them. Shrapnel from near misses rattled against the hull. Direct hits proved fatal, igniting the vulnerable fuel tanks and reducing tanks to burning wrecks. German machine-gunners fired entire belts of ammunition at the tanks, hoping to find a weak point. Although most bullets bounced off the armour, these bursts of fire shattered vision periscopes, rendering the crew effectively blind. Even worse was the previously unknown effect of ‘splash’: bullet impacts on the exterior of the tank caused interior armour to flake, hurling tiny pieces of hot metal into faces of the crew. A tank commander remembered ‘a smash against my flap at the front caused splinters to come in and the blood to pour down my face. Another minute and my driver got the same.’ In places German infantry assaulted isolated tanks directly, attempting to tear open the crew hatches, thrusting bayonets through vision slits and jamming grenades between the tracks.

The attackers steadily lost vehicles, some knocked out by enemy action, others suffering breakdowns, or ditching in shell holes. But the remaining tanks ploughed forward, pressing ever deeper into the German defensive system. In the skies overhead Royal Flying Corps observation aircraft watched and reported on the advance. Vimy Ridge fell to the triumphant Canadians, whilst the Australians captured Bullecourt with the aid of dozens of tanks. With the flanks secure, the British attack drove deep into the central German position. The haul of prisoners was immense.

However, the attack gradually lost its momentum. Although the tanks could pass through German shelling to an extent, their supporting infantry and cavalry were not so fortunate. As a result leading tanks became isolated and were either forced to fall back or else be overrun by German attacks. As evening approached it was clear that the attack was petering out and it was decided to consolidate the gains and prepare for a renewed advance the following day.

The British Army had made the deepest advance against a German position since the dawn of trench warfare, with some spearheads reaching the very last of the defence lines before they were forced to stop. Key positions had been taken at a comparatively low cost in lives. Thousands of German prisoners had been captured. For the first time in the war, church bells were sounded across Britain to signify a great victory.

What If: ‘From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond’ II

But the battle was not over. The shock and surprise of the first day was fading and the Germans rushed in counterattack divisions to seal the breach. The British position was strung out and in many cases beyond the protective umbrella of its artillery. Furthermore, the Heavy Branch was exhausted. The Battle of Arras had been a brutal proving ground for men and machines. The crew compartment was atrociously hot in battle and the interior air was thick with carbon monoxide from the poorly ventilated engine. Surviving crewmen were left exhausted by the experience and many required at least thirty-six hours’ rest to recover. In other cases the crew no longer had a functioning tank to operate. The hours of darkness were filled with curses as crewmen tried to repair damaged vehicles or extract their machine from the mud. Few were successful before renewed fighting disrupted their work. Of some five hundred tanks committed to the fighting on 12 April, fewer than two hundred were reported as ready for action on the following day. The number continued to decline as the battle continued. The sound of church bells would prove to be premature.

The Battle of Arras is remembered as a flawed victory. The British renewed their attacks in the days that followed, hurling the remaining tanks into action once more. Local advances were made, but the momentum of that first day could not be recreated. As more and more tanks were disabled the fighting assumed the character of so many other First World War battles: a remorseless, attritional struggle over a muddy landscape swept with artillery. German counterattacks crashed into the British line and clawed back some of the lost ground. Both sides fought themselves to a standstill until the battle ended through mutual exhaustion. Elsewhere, the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames had similarly achieved a notable initial success with its armour, only to have the advance peter out amidst mud and shellfire. French casualties were high but all agreed that they would have been far worse without the advantage gained by the surprise use of tanks.

In the following weeks the Allies licked their wounds and pondered the future. Nowhere was this truer than the Heavy Branch. Its performance in battle had earned it the title of the Royal Tank Corps. Its official motto was ‘Fear Naught’, but it took pride in its unofficial saying of ‘From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond’. The latter slogan proved hugely popular with officers and men. The unofficial motto encapsulated the Tank Corps’ dogged outlook and reaffirmed its determination to smash through the German lines and reach the open country. Although there was disappointment and frustration in the aftermath of the Battle of Arras, there was also a learning process that would ultimately lead to a greater success.


Despite the heavy loss of tanks at Arras, the devastating opening attack had convinced even the most stubborn doubters in the War Office that the vehicles were much more than ironclad novelties. As a result vehicle design and production accelerated exponentially. Long-term champion Winston Churchill – now serving as minister of munitions – was delighted by the performance of the branch and used his authority to increase production of new vehicles. His optimistic message for the Tank Corps was: ‘the resources are available, the knowledge is available, the time is available, the result is certain’ and ‘we are standing by to put new weapons in their hands … let there be no misunderstanding therefore but only confidence and full steam ahead.’ Churchill planned to provide not only replacements for battlefield losses but also entirely new models of tanks.

Combat experience had revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the armoured branch. The lessons of the Battle of Arras would inform design and manufacture of the next generation of tanks. The old MK I and MK II models were found to be vulnerable to German SmK bullets – armour-piercing rounds used against the steel-covered loopholes favoured by snipers – but the more advanced MK IVs were effectively immune to infantry fire. Nevertheless, the numerous injuries suffered as a result of internal ‘splash’ necessitated the issue of chainmail masks and protective goggles for crewmen.

The majority of tanks had been disabled by mechanical breakdown or becoming stuck in shell holes. The necessity for an improved engine and transmission system was obvious. Fortunately, the solution was at hand in the form of a newly designed 150-hp engine that entered large-scale production in early 1917. This was a major improvement on the 105-hp engines used by the first generation of tanks. It would first be used in the MK V tank that began to reach the front in mid-1917. The British had also begun manufacture of a new class of tank – the Medium Mark A, better known as the ‘Whippet’. Smaller and faster than existing British vehicles, the Whippet was designed to exploit the breaches made by its heavier cousins and harry retreating German infantry. Herculean industrial and organisational effort was placed on the production of Allied armour, even at the expense of other war industries. By the latter part of 1917 the new machines were arriving in considerable numbers.

Whilst the Allies were improving their tanks, the Germans were instituting a crash programme of anti-tank weapons. Engineers inspected the wrecked and captured vehicles that had been abandoned at Arras. Fortunately for the Allies, the only intact machines that the Germans were able to capture were some of the older MK I models. Nevertheless, the Germans quickly devised short-term solutions. Provision of armour-piercing SmK bullets was increased and specialist anti-tank artillery units were formed. In parts of the line the trenches were widened to make it impossible for tanks to cross without falling in. The technological race between Allied tank design and German anti-tank measures would continue throughout the summer.

The tanks had caught the public imagination and were featured prominently in press stories and propaganda features. Having entered the war in the same month as the Battle of Arras, the United States Army took a special interest in armoured warfare. A US Tank Board was immediately founded and several ‘hell bent’ observers were rushed to the Western Front to gather information. As a result of their observations it was decided that the US would equip its fledgling tank branch with two thousand light French tanks and two hundred heavy British tanks. A thirty-two-year-old cavalry captain with a bright future – George S. Patton – was made head of the American Expeditionary Force’s Light Tank School.

Readying the Hammer

As the American forces mustered, the British and French were preparing their next hammer blow. The Tank Corps repaired its damaged machines, rested its weary crews, and received a steady stream of reinforcements. At headquarters there was very little time to rest. Smith-Dorrien had been sufficiently impressed with the performance of the tanks that he asked the Tank Corps to take a leading role in drafting plans for its next operation.

Much of the planning fell to Major J. F. C. Fuller, an erratic yet brilliant staff officer. Fuller understood that the biggest impediment to the tanks had been the muddy, shell-cratered landscape and offered an innovative solution: the usual pre-battle bombardment would be abandoned and tanks would attack without warning. The armour would smash the barbed-wire screens and allow the infantry to storm the German position. For this daring operation to work, speed, surprise, and good terrain were absolutely essential. Ultimately the plan was too radical even for the open-minded Smith-Dorrien, who approved the basic principles but insisted on incorporating artillery support. Fortunately, the Royal Artillery proposed a solution. The gunners had been perfecting new methods of ‘firing from the map’ which would allow them to call down a storm of accurate fire at a moment’s notice. Artillery support for the Tank Corps did not need to take the form of a preparatory bombardment that gave notice of the impending attack and devastated the landscape, but would instead be a sudden deluge of shells that fell without warning.

Confident in this knowledge, Fuller proposed an armoured assault against St Quentin, which lay in the centre of the Hindenburg Line. The defences here were formidable but the gently rolling slopes and flat valleys made it ideal tank country and a significant breakthrough would rupture the entire Hindenburg position. However, St Quentin marked the borderline between British and French sectors and any operation here would require direct cooperation. Fortunately, it was soon found that the French commander opposite St Quentin, Franchert d’Espery, was enthusiastic about the idea of an Anglo-French tank attack. With cooperation ensured, Fuller planned an armoured assault employing a combination of heavy and light tanks that aimed to shatter the Hindenburg Line in one dramatic blow.

Planning and preparation began immediately. The British were already involved in heavy fighting around Ypres that kept the Germans occupied. The French mounted subsidiary operations at various points along the Western Front to keep the Germans guessing. Great efforts were made to ensure secrecy on the St Quentin front. Allied aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to keep German reconnaissance flights away from concentration areas. Tanks were concealed under specially made camouflage netting and their tell-tale tracks were obscured with brushwood and straw. Artillery inched into position and infantry quietly assembled opposite the front. Certain innovative preparations were made, including the provision of supply tanks to carry fuel and ammunition to the fighting line once battle began, and the deployment of tanks carrying field telephones and wireless to provide battlefield communications. Other novel methods included the use of tank-carried fascines that could be dropped to fill in wide German trenches and allow them to be crossed with ease. Finally, a number of ‘dummy’ tanks, constructed of wood and fabric, were placed near the German front at Cambrai to give the false impression an attack was brewing here. The combination of secrecy and deception meant that the Allies achieved complete surprise when they finally attacked.

After a delay imposed by the wait for greater numbers of the new Whippet and light French Renault RT tanks, the Anglo-French force was ready for action on 30 September 1917.

Smashing the Hindenburg Line

The St Quentin position was truly formidable. The approach to the line was choked with dense barbed-wire belts and covered by numerous hidden machine-gun nests. The St Quentin canal had been incorporated into the defensive works. A handful of bridges were left intact to allow German forces access to the far bank, but each was heavily defended and rigged to be blown if threatened with capture. The centrepiece of the position was the six-thousand-yard-long Bellicourt tunnel, through which the canal ran. The German garrison slept inside the tunnel on specially converted canal boats. In the event of an attack the defenders would rush to their positions on the surface using strategically placed stairwells.

The Bellicourt tunnel was a marvel of engineering – but it was also a weak point in the face of a tank attack. The tunnel provided a natural bridge that a rapid assault could cross. This was important, as tanks were normally unable to cross canal lines until engineers had constructed a bridge. There was also a second weakness in the German position – the very strength of the defences had bred complacency. The position was thinly held by weak reserve divisions only considered capable of garrison duty. Compared to the battle zones at Ypres, Arras, and the Aisne, the sector had been quiet for months. Wild flowers bloomed in no man’s land and the barbed-wire belts were turning brown with rust.

The tranquillity was about to be shattered. The press would subsequently term the British assault force as ‘the thousand tank army’, but in reality there were 850 vehicles ready for action, with a similar number available to the French to the south. The Allies had learned the value of keeping a reserve of tanks and around 250 machines were held back for second-day operations. The attack would be supported by several corps of infantry and a cavalry corps, all covered by the guns of the Royal Artillery. The gunners had secretly ranged their weapons on the Hindenburg Line – a process greatly aided by the fortuitous capture of a complete German map of the position during a trench raid in August – and now awaited the signal to begin.

A cold mist blanketed no man’s land on the morning of the attack. The German defenders were going about their usual daily routine when they were struck by a ‘cyclone of fire’ from the concealed British artillery. A veteran remembered: ‘We had seen bombardments before, but this was something new in its intensity.’ Following close behind the shells was a steel horde of tanks, grinding across the open ground and crashing through the decaying barbed wire. Stunned German outposts barely had time to release their distress flares before they were overrun. Alarm bells rang throughout the Bellicourt tunnel, summoning the defenders to man their positions. Such was the accuracy of British artillery fire that some Germans emerged only to find smouldering craters where their machine-gun nests had once stood. Future panzer commander Heinz Guderian described the events that followed: ‘Suddenly indistinct black forms could be discerned. They were spitting fire and under their weight the strong and deep obstacle line was cracking like matchwood … the troops hastened to their machine guns and tried to put up a defence. It was all in vain! … The tanks appeared not one at a time but in whole lines kilometres in length!’

The British attack came on quickly. The ground was good and the tanks were not impeded by shell craters. An armoured wedge converged on the Bellicourt tunnel, driving upwards, guns thundering as the crews engaged their targets. One veteran remembered being ordered ‘to put all guns into action, to blaze our way forward. The noise was terrific; two 6-pounders going and our machine guns.’ The defenders fought back with armour-piercing bullets and hurled grenade bundles that were capable of tearing open tank hulls. In some places the Germans had dragged field artillery guns up to the front and used them as improvised but effective anti-tank weapons.

The battle for control of the ridge was ferocious, described as ‘like Dante’s Inferno’ by one crewman. But the tanks could not be stopped. Guderian recalled: ‘The German infantrymen were pinned down and unable to withstand the mighty material superiority of the British. The only alternatives were death or surrender … [nobody] could hope to survive under this fire.’ Advancing remorselessly, the tanks crushed German positions under their tracks. Stunned defenders were overrun or else they stumbled back in confused retreat. One German gunner recalled meeting a bloodied, retreating infantry officer who gasped out ‘Sturmwagen! It is terrible; we cannot do anything. The front is broken!’

The Bellicourt tunnel had been overwhelmed by mid-morning and the attackers drove deeper into the German position. The defenders were so surprised that the Allies were able to seize several intact canal bridges. Royal Engineers rushed forward to secure them and build additional crossing points to allow wider exploitation. Fierce fighting continued as the tanks assaulted the German second line. To the south, the French attack had met with similar success.

Pockets of German resistance stubbornly fought on but the momentum of the advance could not be stopped. As the main attack paused for consolidation, Whippet tanks and cavalry pressed forwards, ‘leap-frogging’ through the front line, past columns of prisoners and crowds of cheering British infantry. The assistance of light tanks meant that for the first time in the war ‘the cavalry went through’, causing chaos in the German rear areas and managing to capture an entire train loaded with reinforcements. By the end of the day the Allied victory was clear. The heart of the Hindenburg Line had been smashed in a single day and the linchpin of the German defences on the Western Front was compromised. The attack continued in the subsequent days, using the reserve tanks and widening the breach.

The Germans launched ferocious counterattacks to try and stem the Allied tide, but this had been expected. Tank battalions had been kept in reserve to be used as an armoured counter-punch against German advances. The relatively nimble Whippet tanks proved highly effective in this role, bursting from cover like ‘savage rabbits’ and smashing German infantry spearheads before they could gain ground. The battle see-sawed back and forth throughout October, but in contrast to the Battle of Arras, the Germans could not claw back the ground that they had lost. The best that they could manage was to slow Allied forward progress. However, rather than becoming involved in a fruitless war of attrition for which the tanks were ill-suited, the Allies consolidated their gains in the centre and instead launched fresh tank operations on the flanks, widening the breach in the German position. By the end of the year the Hindenburg Line was well and truly broken and the initiative lay firmly in Allied hands.

End Game

The Battle of St Quentin removed a cornerstone of German strategy. The General Staff had previously had complete confidence that the Hindenburg Line was unbreakable. That confidence was now shattered. Even though Russia had been defeated in late 1917, the prospects for 1918 suddenly looked bleak. The Germans could expect to face further tank attacks on the Western Front. The growing strength of Allied war industries meant there would be more vehicles of increasingly effective design. Furthermore they would be supported by the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force with its fresh divisions and newly formed armoured branch.

Even worse, morale amongst the German infantry was dangerously low. The front-line soldiers were exhausted by the intense fighting and dispirited by the clear evidence of Allied material superiority. By the end of 1917 insubordination, desertion, and localised mutiny had become common. With the Hindenburg defences broken and the army close to mutiny, the grim but realistic prediction of the General Staff was that Germany could only delay the Allied advance for a few months before a total breakthrough occurred. They recommended seeking a way out of the war with honour intact.

On the other side of the front, the Allies were in a bullish mood. Their strength was increasing with greater tank production and American reinforcements, and the front seemed ripe with possibilities for further attacks. A series of armoured hammer blows were planned for spring 1918, with the British organising an attack against Cambrai whilst the French and Americans planned to pinch out the St Mihiel salient. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was confident enough to publicly express belief that victory would occur before the end of the year.

Lloyd George would be proved correct. With the tanks at the forefront, a rain of blows fell on the German lines in early 1918. The Germans defended with desperation and the fighting was intense, but the end result was inevitable. Germany had no answer to the ever-growing numbers of Allied tanks, and, as the Battle of St Quentin had proved, even its strongest positions could be breached.

Epilogue: The Victory Parade, London, 1919

Alongside King George V and Prime Minister Lloyd George, Earl Smith-Dorrien watched with immense pride as the parade passed the viewing podium. Enormous crowds thronged the parade route, cheering every regiment that passed by.

The biggest cheer of the day signalled the arrival of the Royal Tank Corps. The tanks rumbled through, resplendent in fresh paint and a far cry from the battle-scarred beasts that had broken the Hindenburg Line. Hatches were thrown open and commanders proudly saluted their chief as they passed the podium.

Returning the salute, Smith-Dorrien let his mind drift back to the battle nineteen years earlier in South Africa. It had taken bitter experience and the loss of many lives, but the British had finally found a better way of making war in the form of the tank. The wonder weapon had proved its worth.

The Reality

This story takes its cue from Winston Churchill’s claim in The World Crisis that Britain could have had three thousand tanks in the field in early 1917 and so could have launched a major armoured offensive months before it actually did so at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Given the existing demands on British wartime industry the figure of three thousand tanks is a piece of classic Churchillian bombast. However, there were certainly opportunities for Britain to have accelerated the pace of armoured development.

In this scenario I have given the army a headstart through its early interest in Lancelot de Mole’s advanced proposals (which were sadly ignored in reality) thus placing armoured development several months ahead of its historical pace. However, a great problem for tank development was the novelty of the technology and the lack of a definite War Office champion in the early months of design. Historically, Douglas Haig was one of the greatest supporters of the tank but his position in France limited his influence on design and production. In this story I have made Haig Chief of the Imperial General Staff, placing him in a position where he can drive forward development.

The biggest change to the history is the decision to employ tanks en masse in early 1917. In reality, the decision to deploy a handful of tanks in September 1916 remains the source of much controversy. Contemporaries, including Swinton, Churchill, David Lloyd George, and J. F. C. Fuller, condemned the deployment as premature. The French had asked the British to wait until both sides could attack simultaneously with a mass of tanks, but this request was declined. Critics argue that it alerted the Germans to the existence of the weapon and achieved no great military advantage. By the time the Allies were ready to deploy massed armour in late 1917 the Germans had developed several anti-tank countermeasures. Defenders of the decision to commit the tanks early point out that combat experience was essential to provide a basis for crew training and vehicle design. However, whether these could have been developed with more thorough work at home remains a point of debate.

It is intriguing to consider what a mass of armour may have achieved in early 1917. The novelty of the weapon would have undoubtedly had a shock effect on the Germans, but the inexperience of the tank crews and lack of practice working alongside infantry would have been detrimental. However, an early and reasonably successful commitment of tanks would probably have provided fresh impetus to design and procurement. This is the basis for the latter half of the story, which sees advanced designs that historically debuted in 1918, such as the MK V and the Whippet, introduced much earlier in the war, and an Anglo-French tank attack taking place in late 1917. Historically, Fuller abandoned his plan to attack St Quentin as he could not secure cooperation from the French army, which was recovering from the mutinies of April 1917. In this scenario I have assumed that the surprise use of massed tanks turns the Chemin des Dames offensive into a relative success for the French, thus allowing them to launch renewed attacks in the autumn.

Historically, the tank was a valuable part of the Allied arsenal, particularly in the more mobile conditions of 1918, but it never became the decisive weapon that its champions had hoped. Technical limitations, political wrangling, and production problems delayed its appearance in numbers, whilst the novelty of the tank made devising tactics for it a problem.

Spencer Jones

Relearning Old Lessons: RAF in France 1940 Part I

Cockpit check-thumbs up-switches on-press the starter button. A few turns of the two-bladed airscrew, blue-grey smoke puffs from the exhausts and the Merlin roars into life … At take-off power the Hurricane needs a fair bit of right rudder, then, almost unexpectedly, she leaps eagerly off the grass and flies. Unconsciously moving the stick when reaching for the undercarriage lever, I immediately have to pick up the nose and port wing-God! but these controls are sensitive. But what a beautiful aeroplane-instant obedience to the controls, superb view, and what power. So much in fact that one’s leg aches holding her in a prolonged climb.- Graham Leggett, No 46 Squadron, 1940

For Air Component squadrons, the first ten days of the German offensive had been a harsh introduction to the realities of modern war. Losses had been heavy, but lessons had been learned and a more experienced and flexible force was beginning to emerge. Fighters were still flying in tight ‘vic’ formation, but they were beginning to fly in greater numbers. Some squadrons were beginning to use flights at higher altitude to cover those flying lower. The pilots in France were relearning the lessons of the First World War.

By the morning of 16 May, half of the 200 Hurricanes sent to France had been put out of action. Over fifty pilots had been killed, were wounded, or were missing. More reinforcements sent out on the 16th and 17th and the fighter squadrons operating from Britain and refuelling in France helped make up for these losses. There seemed to be some justification that basing more squadrons permanently in France would add to the confusion. There were some dangerously overcrowded airfields. On the 18th, bombers and strafing Bf 109s and Bf 110s destroyed seven Hurricanes from the six squadrons operating from Vitry. There was no shortage of space in the swathe of territory north of the breakthrough, but there was a reluctance to disperse the fighters and operate them from more basic airstrips.

The newly arrived pilots had to start learning the tactical skills their comrades in France had been acquiring. Often the Hurricanes they flew had no rear armour, and some still had fixed two-blade wooden airscrews. Even the twin-engine Bf 110 posed problems for the struggling Hurricane pilots. Five out of nine patrolling Hurricanes were shot down on the 18th in a clash with I/ZG 26; three of the casualties were newly arrived Canadians. Nevertheless, if they could avoid the Messerschmitts, the Hurricanes could still be very effective. On 17 May, No. 151 Squadron, operating from Abbeville for the day, shot down seven Ju 87s from III/StG 51. The Component Hurricanes were a very real presence; on the 19th, they managed around 250 fighter sorties. In particularly fierce clashes over Lille, KG 54 lost fourteen He 111s to Hurricanes. For those who had time to gain experience, the Bf 110 and even the Bf 109 were not posing quite the same degree of difficulty.

The Air Component was becoming more flexible. Despite the desperate shortage of fighters, reconnaissance Blenheim and Lysander sorties were now sometimes getting a close escort. If Hurricanes were going to accompany the Blenheim or Lysander anyway, there seemed to be a case for the fighter carrying out the mission. They were not equipped with cameras; the only information they could provide was what the untrained eye of the pilot might see, but that was often enough. On the morning of the 20th, it was Hurricanes sent out on reconnaissance missions that reported enemy columns were advancing towards Arras from Cambrai. These reports led to another step on the path towards a more versatile tactical air force. The Merville ground controllers, whose normal task was to direct the fighters towards bombers, instructed Hurricanes already on patrol to strafe these columns. Other Hurricanes were ordered into the air to join them. Squadrons on escort or fighter patrols began to use any ammunition they still had at the end of their mission on any suitable ground targets. After years of being frowned upon by Fighter Command, ground strafing had suddenly become an accepted part of the fighter’s role.

The fighter pilots were scarcely prepared for this new role. They flew ground-staffing sorties as they flew any other fighter mission—in tight formations. These proved as unsuitable for ground strafing as they did for air combat. Sqn Ldr Kayll of No. 615 Squadron led his twelve Hurricanes in four sections of three and lost three to ground fire. Of the fifty-odd ground-strafing sorties flown on the 20th, six were shot down by flak, with three pilots lost. In a day of intensive interception, escort, reconnaissance, and ground-attack missions, mostly in the Arras region, thirteen Hurricanes were lost, but forty enemy planes were claimed as destroyed or damaged and several enemy columns were shot up. In the heat of battle, the versatility the single-seater fighter had displayed in the First World War was being rediscovered.

It was not a versatility Dowding wanted rediscovered. Escort, reconnaissance, and ground strafing were not what his fighters were supposed to be doing. He did not even want them protecting the Army. On 16 May, he demanded to know how low the Air Staff was willing to let Britain’s fighter defences run down before turning off the ‘Hurricane tap’. Operations in France meant his remaining thirty-six home-based squadrons were already seriously understrength. Remarkably, Dowding was already contemplating French defeat; Britain had to look forward and consider how she could survive alone, he argued. As long as Fighter Command and the Royal Navy remained capable, defeat in France would not bring the defeat of Britain. If, however, Fighter Command was consumed in an effort to keep France in the war, ‘defeat in France [would] involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country’. The Army was not mentioned. Apparently, ground forces were not essential to Britain’s survival.

Newall agreed. The Chief of Air Staff could not see how a few more squadrons could make any difference in France. Newall presented these arguments, with Dowding’s note, to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. They in turn recommended that no more fighter squadrons should go to France. On 19 May, Churchill agreed. This was not good news for the troops fighting in France, and what followed was even worse. Panic set in.

Churchill was not contemplating pulling the Army or the RAF out of France at this point. On the 20th, he asked Newall to make preparations in case the RAF had to be pulled out, but that was all.8 He still envisaged the BEF breaking out to the southwest to rejoin the French Army, as Ironside wanted and Gamelin was planning. On the evening of the 19th, he dispatched Ironside and Slessor to France to make this clear to Gort. The BEF commander, however, was already planning to retreat northwards to Dunkirk. Indeed, Blount, with Gort’s approval, was already sending his Air Component reconnaissance squadrons back to Britain. It was Gort who set in motion the evacuation of the RAF from France, not the Air Ministry. As Slessor left Dover for France, retreating Air Component squadrons were already landing at airfields a few miles away. By the time Slessor reached Gort’s headquarters, all the Blenheim and Lysander squadrons—apart from one squadron and a flight of Lysander at Gort’s headquarters—had left.

Churchill’s decision that no more fighters should go to France was interpreted rather liberally by the Air Staff. Squadrons operating from Britain stopped using bases in France to refuel, and the half-squadron reinforcements sent on the 16th and 17th were also pulled back to Britain. This was perhaps not quite what Churchill meant. Slessor, however, took the policy a stage further by taking it upon himself to organise the withdrawal of all Air Component fighter squadrons. At 4 p.m. on 20 May, the Air Component flew its last fighter patrols from French bases. By the evening, the only RAF fighter squadrons in France were the three with the AASF south of the breakthrough.

There was an air of haste about the decision and panic about its implementation. Masses of equipment was abandoned, unserviceable aircraft were destroyed, and brand new aircraft suffered a similar fate if no pilots were around to fly them away. Hurricanes at storage parks were hauled into groups of three, nose-to-nose, and set alight. Others were lined up and destroyed by anti-aircraft guns. Elsewhere, transport planes were flying over to France to collect pilots with no planes to fly. If air transport was not available, RAF personnel were told to make their way back to Britain as best they could. Some fled as far as Cherbourg, nearly 250 miles behind the French front line, to find a boat back to Britain. On hearing that tanks were approaching, the staff of the Merville operations room clambered through the toilet window at the rear of the building and fled across the fields. The nearest German forces were over 20 miles away at the time, and they were not heading for Merville. The staff made their way to Boulogne and back to England. They were actually fleeing towards the German forces; Boulogne would fall into enemy hands several days before Merville.

The evacuation was premature to say the least. Over forty Allied divisions were north of the German breakthrough in a pocket that extended from Abbeville in France to the Scheldt estuary. There was scarcely a shortage of space to deploy an air force. Blount and the Air Ministry seemed to be in rather a hurry to get the RAF back to Britain and Gort did not seem to mind; indeed, he seemed to believe that the sooner the BEF followed them, the better. Between them, British Army and Air Force commanders had scattered the RAF far more effectively than the Luftwaffe.

The attitude of Pownall, Gort’s chief of staff, is particularly intriguing. He had spearheaded the pre-war Army drive to acquire more effective air support, but he seemed to raise no objections to the Air Component returning to Britain. Even if Gort’s preferred option was to retreat to the coast, his Army would still need air support. It may be that Pownall and Gort were persuaded that the RAF could operate just as effectively from airfields in Britain, or it might just have been a way of pre-empting any decision to keep the British Army on the continent.

Part of the problem was that neither Pownall nor Gort seemed to understand what was happening around them. To some extent, the BEF was in the eye of the storm. British troops were only facing German infantry; they had not yet experienced the full ferocity of the air/tank blitzkrieg combination. Pownall could not understand why Dutch, Belgian, and French forces were faring so badly. He was convinced the French in the south had collapsed in the face of a few small-scale raiding parties. He did not think the main German Army had even been committed yet; he was so consumed by contempt for Britain’s allies that he could not see that the way they were being defeated proved he had been right all along about the importance of air power.

While the Air Component fled northwards, the Army it was supposed to support was preparing to strike southwards. The last squadron of Lysanders departed on the morning of the 21st, leaving just a single flight. Having gone to so much trouble to design an army-cooperation plane that could operate from any convenient open space close to the front line, most of his Lysanders would now be operating from airfields on the other side of the English Channel. The transformation could not have been more striking. The previous day, the skies above Arras had been the scene of furious battles between the RAF and the Luftwaffe; now there was not an RAF plane in sight.

Gort was about to discover the limitations of air support from 100 miles away. The ‘Back Component’ (as the Air Component was renamed) was no longer solely an Army force—its Blenheims and Lysanders were now controlled jointly by the War Office and Air Ministry. The Hurricane squadrons went straight back to Fighter Command. From now on, they would be used as Dowding saw fit. The retreat of the Component was a disaster for the BEF.

Dowding, however, saw it as a disaster averted. Indeed, to reduce losses further, he wondered if the three remaining Hurricane squadrons with the AASF could also return to the UK. For Dowding, the problem was not how to protect the British Army; in fact, the problem was the British Army. He did not measure the success of his force by how effectively it enabled the Army to operate—he measured it by how many enemy planes were shot down, and he believed that his fighters could shoot down more bombers and suffer lower losses when operating over Britain. Fighters that crashed could be repaired, not abandoned; pilots who baled out would land in friendly territory; and, most importantly of all, radar could direct the fighters to the bombers. He was sure that the best place to fight the war was over Britain. However, this analysis ignored the fact that the war was being fought in France. Fighters might well be more efficient fighting a defensive war over friendly territory, but it was scarcely worth losing allies, abandoning armies, and taking your country to the brink of defeat to gain this tactical advantage.

Remarkably, Dowding’s greatest fear was that the Allied armies surrounded in the north might successfully counterattack and re-establish contact with the bulk of the Allied forces in the south. If this were to happen, they would inevitably start asking for fighters again. As he put it: ‘They will be unable to continue the battle without wrecking the Home Defence Units.’ As far as Dowding was concerned, the sooner the Allied armies in France were defeated, the better it would be. If losing France as an ally kept his Fighter Command intact, it was a price that he was willing to pay. It was the tunnel vision of a commander who could not see beyond his assigned mission of defending British airspace.

Dowding left Sinclair in no doubt about what was at stake:

I earnestly beg, therefore, that my commitments be limited as far as possible, unless it is the intention of the Government to surrender the country in the event of a decisive defeat in France.

For good measure, he also ‘earnestly recommended’ that Bomber Command be allowed to focus on oil plants and aircraft factories rather than wasting its time on communication targets that could be ‘very quickly repaired’. Dowding desperately needed the Luftwaffe to attack London. It was an interesting role reversal for Bomber Command; it had been set up to deter attack, but Dowding wanted to use it to encourage one.

Unfortunately, the German High Command was stubbornly refusing to comply with Dowding’s vision of how the war should be fought. In five nights, the RAF had launched around 250 sorties against oil installations, yet still the Luftwaffe showed no inclination to retaliate. There was so little news emerging from Germany about the bombing, Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, decided that the German authorities must be going to extraordinary lengths to ‘hush up’ the raids. Their single-minded determination not to be goaded into retaliating was impressive.

In fact, the Germans faced no such dilemma. The bombers used in the initial strike on 15–16 May might have delivered more bombs than were dropped on Rotterdam, but the results could not have been more different. The Rotterdam raid had shocked the world, whereas Bomber Command’s effort against the Ruhr merely sparked curiosity among the residents. The night of the 15th–16th had been no different to the previous four nights. A few bombs had fallen in built-up areas, but they were so scattered that it was impossible to work out what the intended targets might have been. There was speculation that the British raids were navigational training exercises flown by inexperienced crews, with a few bombs dropped randomly as an afterthought. On the first night of the strategic air offensive one person was killed and at least seven were wounded. It never occurred to the Germans that a full-scale air offensive had been launched. The need for retaliation was even further from their thoughts.

On the night of 17–18 May, the offensive was extended to oil targets outside the Ruhr. It was at least clear which towns were the targets. A fertiliser factory in Hamburg was gutted and 160 buildings damaged; thirty-four people were killed, and another thirteen died in Bremen. In terms of number of bombs landing in a built-up area, this was a more successful effort, but oil production was totally unaffected. The Germans were not even aware that oil plants were the target. The distress that the civilian casualties generated at a personal level did not affect a country enthralled by the staggering successes of its Army. To the Germans, Bomber Command’s best efforts appeared to be indiscriminate terror raids that were so poorly executed they did not merit retaliation. Dowding would have to wait.

While Dowding marshalled his resources for the air attack that would never come, Gort was trying to deal with a German offensive on land that showed no signs of relenting. On 20 May, General Weygand replaced Gamelin as overall Allied commander and began organising the Allied breakout. The British would attack south from the Arras region and the French from Douai towards Cambrai. Weygand hoped to have forces for the main push ready for the 26th; in the meantime, preliminary raids were to prepare the way and hopefully knock the Germans off-balance. Gort was already planning a counterattack as a defensive measure, to slow the German drive past Arras. This now became the first instalment of Weygand’s counterattack. Major-General Franklyn would command the British force, which would be spearheaded by two battalions of tanks, with seventy-four Matildas, led by Major-General Martel. Two battalions of infantry would accompany the tanks. This small force would need all the air support it could get.

It was unlikely to get any if Dowding and Portal got their way. Portal, however, was being forced to back-pedal. On the evening of the 19th, with the Air Ministry decision to cut back tactical air support still making its way to BAFF HQ, Barratt contacted Bomber Command about future bomber support. He was horrified to hear that there would not be any by day and only Blenheims by night. Furious, he immediately contacted Douglas; within hours, Newall’s deleted caveat, guaranteeing Barratt’s demands for direct support would be met, had been issued.

Georges was soon making it clear what he wanted. At midday on the 20th, the French requested maximum RAF effort by day and night to halt the tanks threatening Arras, with the focus in the Cambrai-Arras-Peronne triangle. General Dill, Ironside’s deputy, backed the French request. Barratt and the French made ‘tentative enquiries’ about using the Wellingtons and Hampdens by day. In their reply, the Air Ministry went out of their way to explain they could not use the aircraft unless they had an escort. It was a somewhat defensive explanation; the Wellington and Hampden were day bombers, and there was no reason why they could not have an escort—apart from the Air Staff’s firm conviction that this was a misuse of fighters.

Slessor was busy organising the evacuation of the Air Component from France, but even he could see the need for more bomber support, insisting that No. 2 Group return to day operations. Portal had no choice but to sanction the use of Blenheim by day, but they would now get a close escort. There would be no more talk of clearing the air ahead of the bombers or meeting the escorts over the target; the Blenheims would fly to the fighter airfield and wait for the escort, after which the whole formation would fly to France, with the fighters 1 mile behind and 1,000 feet higher. The Blenheims flew around seventy sorties on the 20th, mostly south and east of Arras, as Dill and Georges had requested, and no aircraft were lost. It was a remarkable reversal of fortune. Cynics in the Air Ministry pointed out that no enemy fighters had been encountered. Instead of taking satisfaction on a mission successfully completed, it was felt that the escorting fighters had simply wasted their time. Perhaps a more useful conclusion would have been that it was time for escorted Wellington and Hampden missions.

On the night of 20–21 May, the night before the British attack, Bomber Command was ordered to suspend the oil offensive and strike much further west, in the Cambrai-Hirson-Vervins region. French bombers would operate in the St Quentin-Bapaume-Arras triangle. The French did their best to fly as many sorties as possible, with some planes flying two missions during the short summer nights. Fifty-nine sorties were squeezed out of the thirty-seven available planes. In its assigned area, Bomber Command used just seventy ‘heavies’ out of an available 250; Portal insisted that any more was impossible in such a small area. Eighteen Blenheims, flying their first nocturnal missions, attacked targets west of Brussels. Thirty-eight Battles continued their nightly offensive against the Meuse crossing points. At such a crucial time, the Allies could not afford to spread their meagre resources so thinly.

For Martel’s counterattack, little if any reconnaissance had taken place since the Hurricane sorties the previous morning. Lysanders based in Britain were sent off to reconnoitre a swathe of territory between the coast and Arras to establish how far the German advance had reached. The flight of Lysanders left at St Omer flew eight missions along the southern flank of the BEF. Their reports include tanks spotted south of Boulogne, which suggests that these too were being used for strategic rather than tactical reconnaissance. There do not appear to have been any sorties in the Arras region. Gort believed the counterattack would be striking in the gap between the armoured spearheads and the supporting infantry; as it turned out, the British forces would run into elements of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division preparing to strike to the north-west of Arras.

On the morning of the 21st, the Air Ministry instructed Fighter Command to supply three Hurricane squadrons for escort duties and three for sweeps in the area Arras-Cambrai-Le Cateau. This was unnecessarily too far east for fighters that would struggle to patrol the Arras region for long from airfields in Britain. Again, the Blenheim escorts did their job—just two bombers being lost in fifty-eight sorties. The targets, however, were enemy columns advancing up the coast, towards Boulogne. As dangerous as these advances were, a choice had to be made between halting the advance in the rear or making it irrelevant by severing the German spearhead. Weygand had decided on the latter, but the RAF was attempting the former. The temporary disruption they caused might have been of more value south of Arras, where British troops could take advantage.

Relearning Old Lessons: RAF in France 1940 Part II

12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

The instruction to fly fighter sweeps in the Arras area does not appear to have been acted on. No. 151 Squadron had already been ordered to fly a morning patrol along the Arras front, but the nine fighters were flying at 20,000 feet and spotted nothing. More fighters flying at a lower altitude were needed to tackle the German observation planes that seemed to be permanently hovering above the battlefield. This, however, proved to be the last fighter patrol for some time at any altitude. Reports were coming in that the aerodromes at Calais and Boulogne were being bombed, so Park ordered his squadrons to try and include these areas in their patrols. Given that they were nearer to Fighter Command airfields, it is not surprising that it was here that British fighters were involved in combats. Pilots were not going to take their fighters to the edge of their endurance by flying another 60 miles inland when there were enemy planes to deal with nearer the coast. At 10.00 a.m., a frustrated Gort demanded an intensification of fighter activity in the Arras area, but no British fighters were in the region when the attack was launched at 2.30 p.m.

Initially, Martel’s force made good progress. The standard German anti-tank gun failed to make any impression on the heavily armoured Matildas, and the Germans were soon in retreat. Ominously, however, the advance was taking place under the watchful eye of Henschel HS 126 observation planes. After advancing for about 5 miles, the advance was brought to a halt by a combination of air attack and 88-mm anti-aircraft guns firing over open sites. The German Army had used the same emergency measure in the First World War to stop tanks. In 1918, the Tank Corps had been allocated army-cooperation planes specifically to spot the guns and fighter-bomber Camels to destroy them. In 1940, the tanks had neither. This did not bring any protest or complaint from Gort or Pownall; even Martel seemed to have forgotten such air support once existed. The textbook Army solution was to wait for the artillery to move up to support the next stage of the advance.

If the Air Component had still been in France, it might have been different. The ground controllers would have been able to direct fighters to the area to provide some protection from German bombing and keep the prying Henschel spotter planes away. It is even possible they would have ordered fighters to attack the German positions holding up the advance. Even without any air support, the counterattack startled the Germans. Rommel reported hundreds of tanks were striking his flank, and the German High Command temporarily halted the advance westwards. Just the day before, there had been enough air strength in France to ensure the attack would have made an even greater impression on the enemy.

Renewed requests for air cover brought no response until 6 p.m., when patrols from Nos 253, 229, 146, and 601 Squadrons were dispatched to the Arras area. It is not clear whether they actually reached their destination. A couple of He 111s were claimed over Calais, an Hs 126 was shot down near Abbeville, and another was claimed near Amiens. All these were 40–50 miles from the scene of the Arras counterattack. Meanwhile, Franklyn did not feel he could hold the gains made. As he pulled back, the Stukas provided a reminder of how lacking fighter cover had been and how valuable close air support could be. Given that so much was at stake, the 142 sorties flown by Fighter Command on all fronts that day was scarcely an adequate response.

As Martel pulled his forces back, 20 miles north of Arras, at the now abandoned Merville Airfield, the commander of the air forces that should have been supporting the counterattack was searching for a means of escape. Blount worked his way through the disabled aircraft scattered around until he found a Tiger Moth that had been missed. In the early hours of 22 May, the Air Chief Marshal set course for England. The commander of the Air Component could claim, like any good captain, that he had been the last to abandon ship. The next day, the RAF sheepishly returned to Merville. Ten aircraft fitters flew in to see if they could salvage any of the abandoned aircraft. It was not until a week later, with the Dunkirk evacuation in full swing, that the airfield fell into German hands.

On 22 May, it was be the turn of the French to attack southwards. As preparation, the French continued to use their worn-out Amiot 143s in the Arras–Cambrai area. Bomber Command, however, was back to attacking targets in Germany. If Portal could not attack oil targets, he would at least make sure that his bombs were falling on German soil. Bomber Command sent 124 Wellingtons, Hampdens, and Whitleys to the Aachen-Mönchengladbach region, more than 150 miles to the east of the French attack. Barratt switched his AASF squadrons from nocturnal attacks on the Meuse crossings to daylight armed reconnaissance missions in the Arras-Abbeville-Amiens region. This might help slow the German advance northwards, but it was too far west to help the French.

In the early hours of the 22nd, the Air Ministry warned Portal that escorted Blenheim missions would be required the following day to support the Allied armies. Dowding was told the protection of Calais and Boulogne was his priority. Where possible, however, fighter patrols should extend inland to support troops in the Arras-Cambrai area. A short while later, a revised, more strident message was passed on. Dowding was told that the future of the British armies in France depended on the success of the counterattack being prepared. German spotter planes were observing the Army all along the front, and troops were being exposed to fierce dive-bomber attacks. Dowding was informed that the Army was anxious to know what the Air Force could do about it. Newall was not demanding action, merely passing on the message.

Dowding ordered No. 11 Group to switch two fighter squadrons from the Calais-Boulogne area to Arras. It was hardly an all-out effort. It seems that most fighter sorties were still flown around the coast. In the afternoon and evening, flights from five squadrons were supposed to operate in the Arras-Cambrai region. The enemy planes the fighters claimed included seven of the troublesome Hs 126 observation planes, but it would seem none were lost around Cambrai. The Army continued to complain that the German observation planes were operating unhindered.

It was not easy for Fighter Command to do much about it. It was a very small sector of the front, a very long way from airfields in southern England, and patrols were likely to encounter enemy planes before they got anywhere near. Ironically, they had to fly over Merville and other abandoned airfields to reach their patrol lines. A much more focused effort would have been possible from airfields in France. With less than 200 sorties flown in the day, Fighter Command was still not committing sufficient resources either to protect the ports or defend the front line. For Dowding, this was not an oversight or misjudgement—it was policy.

The Blenheims were used throughout the day solely to slow down the German advance northwards along the Channel coast. Lysanders operating from Britain also attacked columns advancing towards Boulogne. This was perhaps the ultimate irony. The one plane the Air Ministry had designed to operate with the Army, under the control of the Army, was being used by the Air Ministry to supplement the efforts of Bomber Command. Twenty-four hours earlier, those Lysanders could have been supporting the Arras counterattack.

On the night before and day of the French counterattack, British bombers attacked nothing within 20 miles of Cambrai. There was little to support Peirse’s assurances to the British War cabinet that everything possible was being done by night and day to support the British and French counterattacks. Indeed, as Peirse spoke, Bomber Command was planning to reopen its offensive on oil targets by dispatching thirty-six Hampdens over 250 miles inside German territory to bomb the oil refinery at Merseburg, near Leipzig.

At 9 a.m. on 22 May, French tanks supported by motorised infantry began advancing towards Cambrai. The Germans were taken by surprise again, and their light defences were brushed aside. Anti-aircraft guns and repeated low-level strikes by Bf 109 fighters and 200-mph Henschel Hs 123 ground-attack biplanes eventually brought the advance to a halt just short of Cambrai. Despite Air Staff claims to the contrary, it seemed air support could help in defensive situations. Ironically, the Hs 123 was the sort of plane the War Office had been demanding during the winter of 1939–40.

By the 23rd, the British forces in the Arras region had been forced to withdraw northwards by Panzers swinging around to the north-west of the city. At this point, Blenheims were used against German columns in the Arras region. Not for the last time in the Second World War, RAF bombers were being called in to slow down an enemy advance when, just hours before, in support of a British advance, those same bombers might have been paving the way for a victory.

Weygand was still hoping to launch a major push southward from the Douai region. However, on the 25th, the British contribution to the attack had to be used to counter a German breakthrough further north on the Belgian front. On the 26th, Weygand’s plan was abandoned. Gort was already pulling back to the Channel by this time.

This did not necessarily mean evacuation. The pocket contained very substantial Belgian, French, and British forces; the initial plan was to fall back and hold a bridgehead from Calais to Ostend. This would tie down considerable German forces and give the French further south more time to establish a new defensive line along the Somme and Aisne. However, both wings were already in trouble. In the west, Boulogne had fallen on the 25th and Calais was already surrounded; in the east, the Belgians were struggling to hold the line. Gort was in no doubt that evacuation was the only option.

Preparations had been underway since Gort had first suggested the possibility of evacuation on 19 May. On the 23rd, Dowding was instructed to prepare a ‘strong covering operation’ for a possible evacuation of the BEF. Non-essential personnel were already leaving France. On the 26th, it became a full-scale evacuation. What exactly the Belgian and French armies were supposed to do was not clear, but from the British perspective they would serve the useful role of covering the British withdrawal. Dunkirk was the only major port in the British zone; if it fell, evacuation would not be an option. The Aa canal running to Gravelines, just 12 miles from Dunkirk, represented the best and last hope for establishing a defensive line to the west of Dunkirk.

It was a desperate race to man the line before the Panzers breached it. The Army needed the Air Force to buy them some more time. From the 24th, Fleet Air Arm Swordfish and army-cooperation Lysanders and Hectors joined No. 2 Group Blenheims in attacks on German columns advancing along the coast. It seemed that even the ‘heavies’ would finally be used by day. For the 25th, four Hampden squadrons were told to prepare for a low-level daylight strike on armoured forces west of Gravelines. A Hurricane escort would be provided.

Given Portal’s attitude, it is surprising that the plan got as far as this. The attack did not take place. Instead, the Hampdens bombed communication targets in western Germany under cover of darkness. Only Portal knew how this was going to help save the BEF. It seems extraordinary that the crisis should see Naval biplanes used by day while so many of the RAF’s specialist day bombers were only used by night. The Swordfish, Lysanders, and Hectors did their best; the Swordfish attack on the 25th ran into sixteen Bf 109s and Bf 110s, but the escort fought them off and no planes were lost. With fighter escort, daylight bombing was perfectly possible.

It will never be known whether these efforts would have been enough to halt the Panzers. The German advance was halted not by air attack or the defences on the ground, but by the German High Command, who feared the tanks might get bogged down in the marshy terrain; the Panzer divisions would soon be needed to strike at the main body of the French Army, along the Somme and Aisne. After two weeks of continuous advance, units were at 50 per cent strength and in need of rest. The Panzers were ordered to halt on the Aa Canal. Hermann Göring assured Hitler his bombers could finish the job. It would be two days before the order was rescinded and the Panzers tried to resume their advance; by that time, the defences were ready. Göring would have to deliver on his promise.

As the battle shifted to the Channel coast, encounters between the Luftwaffe and Spitfires (still under orders not to cross the coast) became more frequent. The British pilots seemed to have learned something from their earlier unsuccessful encounters off the Dutch coast. JG 27 lost five Bf 109s over Calais on the 23rd in clashes with Spitfires, and the next day another four were lost and two more damaged. The Spitfire was by no means superior to the Bf 109E—most were still handicapped by their fixed-pitch wooden propellers—but it was superior to anything most German pilots had encountered before. As soon as they could break free from their restrictively tight ‘vic’ formation, the Spitfires were formidable opponents.

German bomber losses were on the rise again, with at least four Ju 87s shot down over Calais by Hurricanes on the 25th. The RAF’s own attacks on Wehrmacht columns were now only suffering light losses. For the first time, RAF bomber efforts could be sustained day after day. On the 24th, General von Kleist, the overall commander of the Panzer forces closing in on Dunkirk, reported—perhaps rather melodramatically—that for the first time in the campaign, the enemy had air superiority. On the same day, Guderian reported that enemy fighter activity had become so strong that reconnaissance was practically impossible once again. Two days later, he was complaining that RAF fighter activity was intense and friendly fighter cover was completely lacking. The German commanders were perhaps exaggerating the extent of the problem, as commanders of all armies are inclined to do, but the RAF was making its presence felt. It was unfortunate that the Spitfires had not been able to do this sooner.

The BEF had secured Dunkirk, but the situation was still desperate. It was challenging enough to evacuate an entire army from a single port without any interference from the enemy; under air attack, it might be impossible. With the future of the entire British Army at stake, it seemed there could now be no excuse for Fighter Command holding back. Newall understood this. He gave Dowding very clear instructions that his command must provide continuous and powerful protection throughout the long, late-May hours of daylight. This would have been difficult enough if Calais was being used. Dunkirk was well within range of Fighter Command, but the distance fighters would have to fly to reach Dunkirk reduced the amount time that they could patrol for. Maintaining continuous, powerful protection would require a lot of fighters. It was more frustration for Dowding; his fighters were being misused yet again.

The Germans also had problems. The fighting had been tough, operations continuous, and losses heavy. Fighter units were, on average, down to 50 per cent serviceability rates, and the pilots were weary. German fighter units would be operating from captured and sometimes basic French and Belgian airstrips. These were not necessarily any closer to Dunkirk than RAF airfields. Accepting second-rate airfields, with pilots living rough, ground crews working in the open air, and supplies being brought in by transport plane, was all part of being a mobile tactical air force. It was what the German Air Force was used to. Even so, with their permanent bases and more secure lines of communication, RAF fighters seemed to have an advantage.

However, over-reliance on well-equipped permanent bases is also a disadvantage. There was no shortage of airfields in Kent that Dowding could use, if Fighter Command had been willing to match the flexibility of the German fighter force. Most of them were not part of the Fighter Command system, but being wired into the radar air defence system was not needed for operations over Dunkirk. If Fighter Command was going to put enough fighters over Dunkirk, it would need to improvise.

The Admiralty was showing the way; it was willing to risk its priceless destroyers to rescue the Army. More stirringly, Admiral Ramsay, in charge of the evacuation, assembled an improvised fleet of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, and other privately owned craft to help lift the troops from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. Many of these would be piloted by their civilian owners. It perhaps behoved Fighter Command to match this courageous enterprise by throwing all it had into defending this band of civilian volunteers, not to mention the precious Royal Navy warships and soldiers trapped on the beaches.

It was not just Dowding who was reluctant to do this. Even at this moment of extreme peril, with Britain in danger of losing its entire Army, the bomber threat still dominated. Churchill had already asked his Chiefs of Staff to consider the worst-case scenario of a French collapse. Even with good fortune, it was estimated that Britain would do well to evacuate 45,000 troops of the 300,000 British troops in France. The generals saw no way for what was left of the British Army to be able to drive out an invading German Army. The Navy did not believe it could prevent it from getting ashore unless the RAF had control of the skies. Fighters would also be needed to protect ports and secure the supply of food and raw materials. The civilian population would only be willing to carry on the struggle if enemy bombing could be reduced to an acceptable level. The aircraft factories that supplied Fighter Command also had to be protected. All these responsibilities rested on the shoulders of Dowding’s fighters. Britain could only survive if Fighter Command remained intact.

Churchill agreed; he saw air attack as at least a great a danger as losing the British Army. It was a line of thinking that came very close to arguing Britain could afford to lose her Army, but it could not afford to lose Fighter Command. There was a genuine fear that if left unguarded, even for the briefest period, Britain (and particularly its aircraft industry) might suffer an instant and fatal blow. Given recent events in Rotterdam, this did not seem like an extravagant claim. It was, after all, what everyone believed British bombers were already doing to German industry. If Dowding did not overexpose his Command defending the troops at Dunkirk, there would not be too many objections from the politicians.

Bomber Command

Similarly, Bomber Command did not want to be distracted by the plight of the British Army. Portal believed that his bombers were already winning the war, even though there was no concrete evidence of this. Photo-reconnaissance Spitfires had been dispatched to photograph the extent of the damage inflicted; unlike the low-level reconnaissance after the Sylt raid, the Spitfires were flying at 25,000 feet, and nobody was sure what could be seen from this altitude. When no damage was discernible, it was assumed that it must be technically impossible to see any damage at that altitude. It was better to believe the bomber crews.38 ‘We have already made progress in the systematic elimination of the key objectives’, the Air Staff claimed. ‘Shortage of lubricating oils and petrol may have a very important effect on the intensity of the air offensive against this country in the ensuing months’. On 26 May, the day the full evacuation started, Portal was trying to get the Blenheim effort reduced. He could not afford to lose the bomber crews that would one day fly the next generation of heavy bomber. If the trapped Army needed bomber support, they would have to rely on Fleet Air Arm Skuas, Albacores, and Swordfish, or Air Component Hectors and Lysanders—not his bombers.

Despite Portal’s protests, Blenheims continued to fly around fifty sorties each day. He was also forced to use his precious ‘heavies’ to ease the pressure on the Dunkirk defences, although he still insisted that this could be best done by bombing communication targets in Germany. On the night of 25–26 May, a Whitley impressed the residents of Cologne by defying the cloud to bomb a bridge and ignite a gasworks below. The bridge was closed for one and a half hours. Troops falling back on Dunkirk might be forgiven for wondering how closing a bridge in Cologne was going to help them.

The heavies did also provide some closer support. On the same night as the Cologne attack, Wellingtons bombed German positions in the battlezone. Once the Dunkirk perimeter defences were established and the fighting more static, it became easier to define targets. Results were inevitably mixed, but any bombs dropped in the battle area at least had a chance of making a contribution and it was certainly encouraging for the trapped troops. The total effort against battlefield targets and communications in Germany was still only around fifty sorties per night. Raids on oil targets continued. On the night of 27–28 May, twenty-four Hampdens tried to hit oil refineries in Hamburg. The bombers managed to get seven bombs and a few incendiaries to fall within the city limits, starting one small fire.

As the bombers were returning from their attack, news was breaking that Belgium had surrendered. Sir Roger Keys and Lt-Col. Davy, who had both been liaising with the Belgian forces, made it clear to the cabinet that the principal reason for the collapse of the Belgian Army had been Luftwaffe dominance in the air, not weakness on the ground. The message was the same from every sector of the front—there were not enough fighters. Keys presented a heroic picture of Hurricanes trying and failing to break through the German escorts, but there had been no major RAF fighter support for the Belgian Army since the Air Component pulled out of France. In other circumstances, it might have seemed strange that Britain did not just give the Belgian Air Force replacements for the Hurricanes and Gladiators that had been destroyed on the ground, instead of leaving the pilots without aircraft. It would not have turned the tide, but it would have shown a willingness to help and given the Belgians some hope. Given the attitude of Dowding and the Air Staff, it is not at all surprising that such a move was not even considered.

German 1914 Military Evaluation of Imperial Russia

Clockwise from top left: soldiers stationed in the Carpathian Mountains, 1915; German soldiers in Kiev, March 1918; the Russian ship Slava, October 1917; Russian infantry, 1914; Romanian infantry

German 1914 Evaluation of Russian Training

The German army published a final evaluation of Russian training on 25 March 1914. European armies strove to conduct their summer training at Major Training Areas (MTA). The German MTAs were the best of any army: each corps had its own MTA, generally about 8 x 8km in size (64 square km), which allowed live-fire with minimum safety restrictions and manoeuvre for large (brigade- and division-sized) units. Russian MTAs were of widely varying size, but often considerably smaller than the German. Finding suitable areas in Russia’s vast swamps and forests was not easy. So while the Russian artillery MTA at Rembertow, near Warsaw, was 57 square km, where seventy batteries exercised at once (still pretty crowded), the X Corps MTA was only 12 square km, in which two infantry divisions and two artillery brigades tried to manoeuvre simultaneously – a virtual impossibility. The Wilna MTA was only 3 square km. The Russian war ministry had been trying to increase the size of the MTA since 1911, to no effect.

Russian infantry training was centralised at the regimental level; the regimental commander specified the training schedules for the battalions and companies. Every company conducted the same training at the same time. The company commander had very little influence on training, and therefore had little enthusiasm for it. This did not trouble him, for professional satisfaction and pride in personal accomplishments were unknown to Russian officers. Such stereotyped training and over-centralisation were ill-suited to developing a sense of personal responsibility, independence and initiative. The consequences were plain in larger exercises and later in combat.

The time available for field training at the MTA was poorly used. The duty day began late and training lasted only about two hours. Training was always conducted in the same spot directly behind the tents, with no attempt being made to find different terrain or to gradually increase the difficulty of the marches.

Artillery batteries were to live-fire fifteen times at the MTA. Due to the shortage of firing positions and inadequate training facilities they were rarely able to do so. In one case, during eight weeks at the MTA a battery fired seven times. Since each battery of eight guns was only allocated 600 shells, the fire mission was always terminated when the battery had adjusted on to the target: the battery had only one opportunity each year to fire for effect.

Kaiser Wilhelm is always criticised for conducting cavalry charges during the Kaisermanöver. He was not alone. In the 1913 manoeuvre of the Guard Corps, a cavalry brigade conducted a charge against the fully deployed enemy advanced guard and, ‘aided by the favourable terrain’, overran the infantry and penetrated as far as the ‘surprised’ artillery. On the other hand, the intelligence report noted that the charge against such strong unbroken infantry could just as well have ended in failure.

In any case, the 1913 Guard Corps exercise was ‘canned’: the tactical course of the exercise was established in advance and the leaders were not required to arrive at independent decisions. Reconnaissance was poor. The senior leadership was unequal to the requirements of their positions, was unable to co-ordinate unit operations and movement, to correctly evaluate the situation or to write effective orders. It also showed a serious lack of initiative.

The infantry attack at this exercise showed serious deficiencies in conducting the fire fight, moving reinforcements forward, gaining fire superiority and making the assault. Use of the terrain was good, but reconnaissance often failed completely.

The Guard Cavalry Division exercise was a pure parade manoeuvre. The intelligence report guessed that its purpose was to allow Grand Duke Nicholas, the presumptive commander-in-chief, the opportunity to show himself to his French guests at the head of a mass of cavalry.

The field training exercise at Krasnoje Selo, the imperial headquarters, constituted the highest level of training in the Russian army. It had been well known for decades that the point of the exercise was always to attack or defend the high ground in the manoeuvre area. Leaders at all levels displayed an indifference towards the conduct of the manoeuvre, as well as complete passivity and lack of initiative. Movements were executed slowly, probably because of late receipt of orders. Meeting engagements were seldom practised, and when they were, the leadership showed itself to be incapable of acting decisively in uncertain situations, but continually waited for further reports and information and finally slid into a passive defence.

The Russian defence was built around the counter-attack, with half the forces holding a thin front while the other half held in reserve. Preference for the defence was natural for the Russians – the product of their national character and years of practice.

Units also deployed on too broad a front. While the doctrinal divisional frontage in the attack was 3km, one division in the attack deployed on a 9–10km front. At another point, a regiment in the attack spread out on a 2.5km front. This was also true in the defence: in one over-extended position, 1.5km of front was held by twelve guns and an infantry company.

The German intelligence report clearly believed that, unit for unit, the German army was massively superior to the Russian. This was the sole consolation that the Germans would have in the east. The war there would not be fought under conditions of numerical parity: the Russians would begin with at least a 2:1 superiority and would bring up wave after wave of reinforcements.

But the real Achilles heel of the Central Powers was the Austrian army. Bad as the Russians were, the Austrians were probably worse. Whatever masterpieces the Germans could contrive from their superior manoeuvrability and combat power, they would at best balance out Austrian defeats. The Austrians would be outnumbered by the Russians, had inferior equipment (and less of it) and many of the minorities were unreliable. Unit for unit, they were probably inferior to the Russians.

German 1914 Evaluation of Russia’s Readiness for War

In February 1914 the 1st (Russian) Department issued a special intelligence estimate, Die Kriegsbereitschaft Russlands (Russian Military Readiness). This was a warning to the German army that, whatever the Russian deficiencies, the Russians were not to be taken lightly. Quantity had a quality of its own. The estimate listed seven pages of improvements in the Russian army since the Russo-Japanese War. All the material deficiencies caused by the war had been made up by 1911. The military budget had increased from 351 million roubles in 1903 to 518 million in 1908, to 635 million in 1913. The transportation budget had increased from 542 million roubles in 1908 to 649 million in 1913. The size of the army had been increased by six corps. The units deployed on the border had been strengthened (infantry companies up from 116 men to 158), permitting quicker combat-readiness. The number of officers had increased, and their pay and training improved.

Cadres had been created in the interior to facilitate the mobilisation of reserve units. Refresher training for reservists had increased from 320,000 men in 1911 to 368,000 in 1912, 422,349 in 1913 and 490,000 scheduled for 1914. The refresher training period had been increased from four to six weeks.

The rail net had been developed through incremental upgrades and not through new railway construction. Existing track and installations had been improved. The quantity of rolling stock had been increased, as had the quantity of fuel. More personnel had been added. District rail committees provided for better use of the rail net.

The speed of mobilisation had increased greatly. The 1910 reform, which provided for territorial mobilisation, improved radio, telegraph and telephone nets and practice mobilisations, contributed to the fact that the line troops were now ready to move on the fifth day of mobilisation, the reserve troops by the eighth day, which was as fast as the Germans and the French; only the greater distances that the Russians had to move those troops made the deployment slower.

The speed of the mobilisation was further accelerated by the official introduction of a ‘period preparatory to war’ (Kriegsvorbereitungsperiode) in 1913. This was in fact a secret mobilisation. These alert measures included the disguised call-up of reservists, horse purchases and the uploading of ammunition, rations and animal fodder. German intelligence was especially sensitive to the Russian use of secret mobilisation because it had detected unmistakable signs that the Russians had conducted one such during the Balkan crisis in the winter of 1912/13. At that time the Russians had retained conscripts in the army who ought to have been discharged, while simultaneously calling up the next conscript class, which increased the peacetime strength of the Russian army by 400,000 men. The Russians had also conducted an unusual number of practice mobilisations and reserve exercises, prepared the railway system for troop movements and massed troops on the Austrian border. Both in 1912/13 and in 1914 the German general staff would exercise great restraint in the face of the secret Russian mobilisation. Nevertheless, the Russian army was obviously trying to steal a march on the Germans – an enormously destabilising factor in times of international tension.

In summary, the estimate said that Russian readiness had made ‘immense progress’ and had reached hitherto unattained levels. In some areas Russian readiness exceeded that of the other Great Powers, including Germany; in particular the higher state of readiness in the winter, the frequent practice mobilisations and ‘the extraordinary increase in the speed of mobilization provided by the “period preparatory to war”’.

There is no evidence, as has often been contended, that the Germans expected that the Russians would not be ready to attack until the thirtieth or even the forty-fifth day of mobilisation, and that this would have given them time to implement the Schlieffen plan. From 1909 onwards, the German intelligence estimates warned in ever more emphatic terms that the Russians were getting stronger and their mobilisation and deployment were getting faster. From all the evidence, it appears that the Germans thought the Russians would attack by the twentieth day of mobilisation at the latest.

Battles of Maharajpore and Punniar 1843


Gough, quick to react , ordered a full reconnaissance of the enemy positions (conducted by General Harry Smith, serving on his staff, and also accompanied by the Governor General Lord Ellenborough ) which suggested that he was faced with up to 15,000 men , including several thousand cavalry, and possibly 100 guns. The Mahrattas were drawn up with their left on the River Asan. Their right flank was open, as if they were expecting reinforcements from that direction. Several villages had been fortified, including the village of Maharajpore, some distance to the front of the main position. Having found out where the enemy were, Gough ordered a frontal assault whilst the enemy’s left was turned.

Goughs force was divided into three columns. The Right Column, under the one-armed veteran of the Peninsula and Waterloo, General Thackwell. and the Centre Column under General Valiant, were to fall upon and turn the enemy’s left flank, whilst the Left Column under General Littler would assault their front.

The terrain in front of the Mahratta positions was cris-crossed with ravines, but despite this all three columns, setting out before dawn, reached their start points without mishap or delay. Littler’s column reached their position first and halted about one mile from the village of Maharajpore. This village was fortified and held by a strong force of infantry and artillery Little could be seen of the rest of the enemy positions due to the extreme flatness of the ground and the high crops of corn which obstructed the view almost completely, Gough spent almost an hour within quarter of a mile of the Mahratta pickets, and did manage to observe that the village was too far in front of the main enemy line at Chonda and Shirkapore to be afforded any support. At 8.30am he ordered the assault to commence regardless of the fact that he had no real idea of the enemy strength and deployment, nor of the terrain to his front!

Gough ordered up his 8 ” howitzers to bombard the village whilst the horse artillery troops of Grant and Alexander deployed within 500 yards of two enemy heavy batteries, both of which they silenced, the position being stormed by infantry from Valiants brigade. Meanwhile Littler’s infantry was deploying under heavy artillery fire for an assault on the village whilst on the extreme left Scotts Native Cavalry Brigade had repulsed a determined attack by a large body of Mahratta horse. Some of Littler’s sepoys began to waver under the weight of fire, but were urged on by Gough. The 39th Foot led the assault with the bayonet. Casualties from artillery fire were heavy, but despite storms of grapeshot the village was reached and the gunners killed defending their guns to the last. Within half an hour the defenders of the village had been destroyed and the village itself was ablaze. The heavy howitzers were not responsible for this, as they had not yet opened fire.

There now remained the problem of the main enemy position, around Chonda and Shirkapore. Both were heavily entrenched and some of the batteries were so well hidden that they were almost invisible. Again no tangible intelligence of the enemy deployment was available and the attack went in blind.

General Valiant manoeuvred around Littler’s rear and attacked Shirkapore, led by H.M. 40th Foot. Casualties including the Colonel and Second-in-Command of the 40th were again heavy as three successive lines of previously unobserved entrenchments were stormed at bayonet-point before the village was taken. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their guns to the last. The village taken, Valiant turned towards the right flank of the enemy main position.

Meanwhile, Grants Horse Artillery was again in the thick of it, having galloped to within point blank range of a battery 12 enemy guns. (The reason for this apparent dash may be that severely outranged by the enemy cannon, it was better to get in close and at least return their fire.) So rapid and accurate was Grant’s fire that the enemy gunners were several times driven from their guns for a while, which enabled Littler’s infantry, headed by H.M. 39th , to roll up the Mahratta line from left to right with far less loss than could have been the case . The capture, by the Grenadier company of H.M. 39th, of a small entrenchment mounting four guns on the far left of the Mahratta position marked the end of the engagement. The Mahrattas ceased to form an effective fighting force and withdrew from the field. leaving over 50 guns and much of their baggage. Pursuit was not possible as Thackwell’s cavalry were halted by an impassable ravine, although he was later censured by Gough for not having carried out a more effective pursuit. Exactly how is open to some conjecture.

Casualties were quite heavy (almost 800), the 39th losing over 200 and the 40th almost that number. The artillery suffered less than 50 casualties, despite its point-blank exchanges with the enemy. Of the native regiments, most were not engaged although the 16th Bengal Native Infantry were alone in suffering any great loss: 179 dead and wounded. It was the opinion of many that the sepoys fighting ability was becoming questionable at best! Criticism was made by Sir Harry Smith o the poor standard of training and initiative shown among the officers of the Indian Army , e. g. the heavy battery failed to engage the enemy because their commander would not open fire without direct orders to do so, despite being only half a mile from the enemy positions!

Meanwhile, General Sir John Grey had commenced his march on Gwalior. Finding his route blocked by the enemy, he turned south towards Punniar to outflank the Mahratta posItions.

His line of march took him parallel with some hills, at a distance of only a few hundred yards from his right flank Despite the fact that Grey must have known that the Mahrattas were in force somewhere on the other side of the hills. he failed to send out any sort of flank guard or even patrols to the summit of the hills to see what was on the other side! So, with a line of march some 10 miles long , with no idea of the lay of the land or he presence or location of any enemy , save what the vanguard and rearguard might have told him , the front of the column reached Punniar at around three in the afternoon , only to hear the sound of guns coming from the rear of the column. Panic stricken native cavalry reported that the rearguard was under attack and being cut to pieces!

Before too long the troops were reassembled and reinforcements of cavalry and artillery sent to the rearguard’s aid. It then dawned on Grey just what was happening – the Mahratta force he was trying to outflank had been marching parallel with him on the other side of the hills! Some of their artillery was entrenched in a village near Punniar taking pot-shots at his baggage, whilst their main body occupied some high ground on the other side of the hills about four miles to his east.


Grey’s first order was to send H.M. 3rd Foot (The Buffs) and a detachment of Bengal Sappers and Miners straight over the hills to whatever fate befell them, as he had no idea whether they would encounter any enemy troops due to the dead ground between the hills and the main enemy position on hills further east! Predictably, they reported that the enemy were in position over the hills in great strength and requested reinforcements which Grey sent in the form of H. M. 50th Foot and two Bengal Native Infantry battalions under Colonel Anderson of the 50th Anderson’s Brigade crested the hills , under heavy but ineffective artillery fire, to the right of the Buffs, to face a deep valley filled with Mahratta infantry, behind which was an entrenchment holding four heavy guns. Descending the slope, Anderson’s troops took shelter in a dried upriver bed and commenced pouring volleys into the enemy. With the light fading fast, and Grey (possibly thankfully!) nowhere to be seen, Anderson ordered his men to charge. The valley was cleared and the guns taken, their gunners defending them to the death. On their left the Buffs, under even heavier fire, braved the storm of grape and captured eleven enemy guns. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their pieces to the last and were killed to a man.

With this, and the onset of night, the extremely confused (and confusing) battle came to an end. Casualties among the two Queens battalions had again been high, as they had borne the brunt of the fighting. Out of a total loss of 213 casualties The Buffs lost 72, the 50th lost 42, and only the 39th Bengal Native Infantry suffered greatly with 62 out of a total of 97 Native casualties. Mahratta casualties were reported by Grey as being very heavy, but this is difficult to substantiate.

With these two battles the campaign was over, and on New Year’s Eve the Rani came into the British camp and a treaty was signed. The Gwalior army was greatly reduced, to around 10,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 32 guns. The native contingent, under British officers was reduced to a strength of 10,000 .

As for the Generals, it is possible to criticise Gough for his handling of the battle of Maharajpore insofar as he attacked headlong and totally blind against an enemy well entrenched and far his superior in numbers and artillery. By his own confession Gough underrated the Mahratta forces, and was influenced by the presence of a number of political personages including Lord Ellenborough, Governor General of India , and may have made decisions based on their advice or influence. Gough should have known better if he had any understanding of the effects of similar influence from ‘Politicals’ during the Afghan War, and a possibly unhealthy precedent was being set for a Governor General to accompany the Commander-in Chief with the Army into the field , e. g. Hardinge during the Sikh Wars.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that, like Napier in Sind. he unknowingly marched his army straight into a trap, like Napier he fought his way out of it to eventual total victory.

Grey at Punniar is another case altogether. His performance hardly suggests that he was a very competent commander, nor were his brigadiers much better. His failure to use his cavalry during the battle, or after in pursuit, and his orders to blind send a battalion over the top in the face of heaven knows what does not suggest any particular grasp of basic military theory. The officer in command of the brigade which included the 50th Foot had accidentally shot himself with a pistol a few days before the battle. Prior to this he had failed to demonstrate any ability at all, even for peace-time soldiering, and was constantly asking Colonel Anderson of the 50th for advice! It is therefore fair to say that had the Battle of Punniar NOT been a confused affair led by the Colonels of the two Queens battalions then the result may have been very different.

It is interesting to note one other aspect of this albeit which did much to set the seal on military tradition since then; that is the awarding of medals to all participants in the campaign, rather than just a few of the senior officers.

In order to make the most of the victory Lord Ellenborough issued a bronze medal to each of the soldiers of all ranks who had participated in the campaign. This was not unusual for him as at the close of the Afghan War medals had been issued to troops for Jalalabad, Ghazni and the Afghan Campaign as a whole. This had stirred up a lot of discontent from various quarters.

One school of thought , including the Duke of Wellington was against the issuing of campaign medals to all ranks (the Waterloo Medal didn’t count!) and the Duke of Richmond alluding to the Afghan disasters, stated in Parliament that “Only suffer a disaster, and you will get a medal to revive your spirits”. On the other hand persons like General Sir de Lacy Evans and Lord John Russell were for the awarding of campaign medals for all ranks, including back-dating such awards to include the Napoleonic Wars-no easy task! Whatever the arguments, the precedent was set and campaign medals have been issued as a matter of course to all ranks with clasps for different actions and rainbow ribbons, ever since Lord Ellenborough’s time as Governor General of India.