The Old Scots Navy I

If the three pillars of the medieval state comprised God, Pope and King, the Renaissance prince was a subtly different character from his forebears. Cunning and ruthlessness were expected, inspiration coming more from Machiavelli than Malory. James IV (1488–1513) was, in some ways, the mirror of the Renaissance ruler. He was cultured and learned, his interests eclectic: building and the arts, medicine and science (he was known to practise dentistry upon his courtiers). At the same time, he was romantically attached to the cult of chivalry. The founding of a Scots Royal Navy became one of his grandest passions. He was married to Henry VII of England’s daughter Margaret, thus Henry VIII became his brother-in-law. Both men had a yearning to strut upon the European stage, and tension escalated in 1513 when Henry was contemplating an expedition against France in support of the Holy See and the Emperor Maximilian.

James was placed in the invidious position of having to choose an ally, to continue sitting on the fence was politically unsustainable. The King of Scots chose to support the traditional friendship with France, and a series of ultimata delivered to Henry earned nothing but derision. This created the strategic backdrop to the Scots campaign in North Northumberland, one which was succeeding admirably in its key objective of diverting English forces from the Continent, till James took the fatal decision to fight at Flodden. This battle, fought on 9 September, was an unparalleled disaster. The Scottish army was outfought and suffered grievous loss, the cull falling heaviest on magnates and gentry. Slashed and hacked by bills, an arrow shot through his jaw, one hand virtually severed, James IV lay unnoticed among the piles of corpses.


In the course of the sixteenth century, warship design and construction underwent a significant revolution. Northern round ships or carracks, with a length twice the beam, were being built up to a weight of 1,000 tons. The fact that these ships were constructed as floating gun platforms brought out the final transition from converted merchantman to purpose-built man-of-war. They were multi-masted, multi-sailed and had sufficient weight to carry soaring timber castles, bearing an increased weight of ordnance. Both James IV and Henry VIII competed in a naval arms race in the early years of the sixteenth century. The ship which was to become most closely identified with Tudor navies was the race-built galleon. Sleeker and swifter than the carrack, two or two and a half times as long as it was broad, the height of the superstructures was reduced to produce a faster and more seaworthy vessel.

A passionate debate as to the best suited of these types for naval use raged throughout most of the century. More conservative-minded captains favoured the solid bulk of the grand-carrack. In close combat these enjoyed significant advantages. The castles provided excellent and lofty gun platforms, light pivot guns, hand guns and bows could shoot directly down onto the enemy deck and shooters enjoyed good protection. Even if she were boarded, the carrack’s defenders could maintain their position in the castles, making life distinctly uncomfortable for attackers. The crucial advantage enjoyed by the galleon was her superior sailing qualities. She could stand off and use her guns to batter the heavy carrack at a distance. The Spanish, whose ships were effectively floating forts, favoured the carrack, a castle on the waves.

By the end of the century, Revenge was regarded as a fine example of the race-built galleon. Her gun deck was around 100 feet, with a total length of about 120 feet. She was 32 foot across the beam, and her main ordnance was a score of truck-mounted culverins. Fixed firing platforms had now given way to a two-wheeled timber frame carrying guns with a barrel length of some 12 feet. As yet there was still no standardisation of calibres but the gun threw an 18-pound ball. The ships were all twin-deckers, and these heavier pieces were carried on the lower level while, on the upper, was mounted a further battery of smaller guns firing 10-pound shot. Ships of this period were crammed with ordnance, and the vessel could also house a dozen or more small muzzle-loaders (‘murderers’) throwing a 2-pound ball, earlier breech-loaders having now been phased out.

This general lack of standardisation was the curse of naval gunnery. Several times, during intense bouts of fighting in the course of the Armada battles in 1588, the English were rendered impotent for want of shot. Bruising and effective as the galleons’ fire proved against cumbersome carracks, the capital ships survived, though not without loss and considerable damage. Galleons, in order to keep the weight as low as possible, were built with the lower gun deck stepped down at rear to create a mezzanine type effect. This housed the two hindmost guns, which could be swung around as stern-chasers should circumstances dictate. Officers enjoyed elevated quarters, while the mariners were accommodated on the gun deck. Ships were also fitted with an ‘orlop’ deck: a further mezzanine, a couple of yards or so above the planking, which formed the quarters for the specialists on board, carpenter, surgeon and purser. In all, the vessel would require a crew of around 150, of whom 70 might be marines with 30-odd gunners.

Though Sir Richard Grenville’s epic stand on the shot-torn decks of Revenge is not a Scottish fight, Sir Walter Raleigh, in his subsequent report, gives a vivid impression of the conditions which obtained in sea-battles of this era:

All the powder of the ‘Revenge’ to the last barrel was now spent, all her pikes broken, forty of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt. In the beginning of the fight she had but one hundred free from sickness, and fourscore and ten sick, laid in hold upon the ballast. A small troop to man such a ship, and a weak garrison to resist so mighty an Army. By those hundred all was sustained, the volleys, boardings, and enterings of fifteen ships of war, besides those which beat her at large. On the contrary the Spanish were always supplied with soldiers brought from every squadron: all manner of arms and powder at will. To ours there remained no comfort at all, no hope, no supply either of ships, men or weapons; the masts all beaten overboard, all her tackle cut asunder, her upper work altogether razed, and in effect she was evened with the water, only the very foundation or bottom of a ship, nothing being left over head either for flight of defence.


When James IV finally embarked upon the abolition of the Lordship in 1493, he doubtless contemplated the move as enabling him to cement royal power in the west. In this he was mistaken. The fall of Clan Donald ushered in an age, not of centralised authority but of murderous, internecine strife, the Lin na Creach (‘Age of Forays’). In the same year he kicked away the last supports of the tottering Macdonald hegemony in the west, James’s Parliament enacted that all coastal burghs should provide a well-founded vessel of not less than 20 tons with able-bodied mariners for her crew. To reinforce awareness that the ending of Clan Donald’s sway was but the beginning of a new extension of the business of the state, James led a fleet to the Isles in August, accompanied by Chancellor Angus and a fine train of magnates. At Dunstaffnage, where he stayed a mere 11 days, he may have accepted the surrender of some chiefs, reaffirming their holdings by royal charter. The Macdonalds were not completely over-reached; both Alexander of Lochalsh and John of Islay received knighthoods.

In 1495, accompanied by Andrew Wood and commanding Yellow Carvel and Flower, James cruised down the Firth of Lorn, through the Sound of Mull to MacIan of Ardnamurchan’s seat, Mingary Castle, where a quartet of powerful magnates bent their collective knee. These included such noted seafarers and pirates as MacNeil of Barra and Maclean of Duart. While James was diverted by his flirtation with the posturing Perkin Warbeck, this policy of treating with the chiefs was undone, largely by the avarice of Argyll, who preferred force to reason. Inevitably, this merely served to alienate the Islesmen, whose galleys conferred both force and mobility. In 1496, Bute had been taken up and disorders reached a level where the king felt obliged, once again, to assert his authority by launching a naval expedition. Indeed this was the only means whereby the chiefs could effectively be brought into line. A land-based expedition would accomplish nothing; Islesmen counted wealth and power in the number of their keels.

The king’s expedition of 1498 proceeded by way of Arran to his royal castles of Kilkerran, where he spent two months, and Tarbert. James, though he wished to impress his authority on the west, did not necessarily have much enthusiasm for the chore. For the royal writ to run in the west and to fill the gap in authority left by the collapse of the Lordship, power needed to be exercised by loyal and respected subordinates. Argyll had succeeded in alienating a number of the chiefs, including his own brother-in-law, Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, who was to become a fierce opponent. MacLeod had secured, by uncertain means, the keeping of the boy, Donald Dubh, would-be claimant to the defunct Lordship. Argyll was no more loved by Huntly, his successor as Lieutenant in the north-west and one who proved equally hungry for personal gain.

James was briefly diverted in 1501 by the near-fiasco of his Danish adventure and did not turn his gaze westwards again until the following year. That Torquil MacLeod should control the person of Donald Dubh was fraught with risk. MacLeod was summoned to appear, failed to do so and was outlawed as a consequence. Huntly was commissioned to take up Torquil’s confiscated estates, doubtless to Argyll’s fury, he being sidelined for failing to keep a grip on his own kinsman. Both Mackintosh and Mackenzie managed to escape from confinement, though the first was soon recaptured and the second killed. By 1503, disturbances had become widespread, and Huntly was engaged in wholesale dispossession of those who refused to submit. With Donald Dubh lending legitimacy to their cause (old John of the Isles died in January 1504), the rebels under Torquil struck back. Bute was again extensively despoiled.

Parliament, sitting in March 1504, commissioned Huntly to retrieve Eilean Donan and Strome castles, while a naval command, assembled under the ever vigilant eye of Sir Andrew Wood, was entrusted to Arran. The fleet was to reduce the rebels’ stronghold of Cairn na Burgh, west of Mull in the Isles of Treshnish. The capital ships, with a full complement of ordnance, soon proved their worth; naval gunnery swiftly reduced Cairn na Burgh. Few details of the siege have survived, but the operation would clearly have been a difficult one. The ships would come in as close as the waters permitted and deliver regular broadsides, essentially floating batteries. What weight of shot the rebels possessed is unclear; most likely it was not very great. Several rebel chiefs – Maclean of Lochbuie, MacQuarrie of Ulva and MacNeil of Barra – presently found themselves in irons. Gradually the power and authority of the crown was restored. These captured chiefs saw little prospect in continued defiance. Argyll was fully abetted by MacIan of Ardnamurchan, a ruthlessly effective pairing.

Argyll, now restored to his Lieutenancy, was prepared to be more diplomatic and, from 1506, there was a return to a more conciliatory policy, rewarding those chiefs prepared to submit, even some of those who’d been implicated or involved in the recent disturbances. MacIan too did well enough, though he had few friends in the Isles and his own advancement had to be checked to avoid the greater alienation of others, especially the Macleans. Torquil Macleod kept the rebel flame firmly alight, and his example helped to inspire dissidents. The Parliament summoned for early 1506 convicted him of treason. An expedition sent against him was to be led by Huntly and involved the hire of captains such as John Smollett and William Brownhill, with ordnance supplied from the royal train. The king and his advisors had planned on a campaign of two months’ duration to wrest Lewis from Macleod. In September, the king paid a sum of £30 to Thomas Hathowy as a fee for the hire of Raven, which had been engaged for service in the campaign. By September, it also seems likely that Huntly had succeeded in reducing Stornoway Castle and capturing Donald Dubh, though the wily MacLeod slipped the net and remained a fugitive until his death in 1511.

By now James IV was losing interest in the Isles. Control was best exercised through local magnates like Argyll, even if the Campbells, for all their avarice, were not possessed of an effective fleet of galleys. This deficiency was partly corrected by the cordial relations the earl enjoyed with the Macleans, anxious to see the ruin of Clan Donald fully accomplished in order that they might assume the mantle of a naval power among the clans. James had by now set his heart upon, and his mind towards, the creation of a Scottish national navy. In August 1506, he’d written to the King of France intimating that this naval project was a key objective. Scotland was a small kingdom, disturbed by the fissiparous tendencies of the Islesmen and magnatial factions. It was also a poor nation, lacking the resources of England. Nonetheless, during his reign, James bought, built or acquired as prizes taken by his buccaneering captains, nearly two score of capital ships, a very considerable total for the day.


This proposed Scottish Navy was not a complete innovation. The king’s predecessors had been possessed of ships; as early as 1457 Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews owned the impressive Salvator – at 500 tons a very large vessel. Developments in naval architecture, influenced by advances in the science of gunnery, had necessitated the final differentiation between ships of war and merchantmen. The crown could no longer count upon assembling an effective fleet by hiring in merchant vessels and converting them to temporary service as men-of-war. Nations that sought to strut upon the wider stage required a navy as a tool of aggressive policy and a statement of intent. The fifteenth century had not witnessed any serious English interference before 1481–1482, and the prime consideration, in terms of sea power, was to protect Scottish ships against the unwelcome attention of privateers, for the most part English, who infested the North Sea like hungry sharks.

Richard of Gloucester’s campaigns showed how exposed the Firth of Forth and indeed the whole of the east coast were to a planned attack from the sea. Here, in the east, the problem was wholly different from that of the west. No Hebridean galleys disturbed the peace, but the Forth and Edinburgh were horribly exposed to English hostility. While Henry VII proved less inclined to attack Scotland than his despised predecessor and actually ran down the navy he’d acquired, the Perkin Warbeck crisis of 1497 highlighted the continuing exposure. Even when a more cordial atmosphere prevailed, the activities of privateers continued regardless; Andrew Wood and the Bartons persisted in their piratical activities as did their English opposites.

In 1491, the Scots Parliament empowered John Dundas to erect a fort on the strategically sited rock of Inchgarvie. Wood had already thrown up a defensive work at Largo. Conversely, the legislature had previously ordered the slighting of Dunbar Castle, the English occupation being the requisite spur (later, after 1497, the ubiquitous Wood was to oversee its rebuilding). Such defensive measures and the encouragement of privateers like Sir Andrew and the Bartons were entirely sound but, of themselves, insufficient to undertake coastal defence and the wider protection of the sea lanes. For this greater task, only a fleet would suffice. With James the creation of a navy rapidly rose to become a near-obsession; policy was overlaid with prestige. For the first ten years of his quarter-century reign, James spent under £1,500 Scots in total on his ships, a very modest outlay. This climbed to something in the order of £5,000 per annum after 1505, and by the end of the reign he was spending over £8,000 per annum on his new navy. To give a comparison, during the years he was on the throne, the king’s income roughly trebled but his expenditure on the navy increased sixty fold!

A switch of emphasis from west to east characterised James’s policy towards ships and shipbuilding. Dumbarton remained both as a base and a shipyard, but he considerably improved the facilities of Leith’s existing dockyards, constructed a new yard at the New Haven (Newhaven) and, latterly, another at the Pool of Airth. Not only did Scotland lack adequate facilities for the construction of larger men-o’-war, but she lacked the requisite craftsmen and these had to be imported, primarily from France. In November 1502, the Treasurer’s accounts reveal the hire of a French shipwright, John Lorans, working at Leith under the direction of Robert Barton. This first importation was soon complemented by others. Jennen Diew and then Jacques Terrell were engaged and, due to a shortage of hardwood, obliged to source timber for their new keels abroad. In June 1506, the great ship Margaret (named after the king’s Tudor consort) slid into the placid waters of the Forth. This vessel was a source of great pride to the king – as indeed she might be, the cost of her construction had gobbled up a quarter of a whole year’s royal revenue. She was four-masted, weighed some 600 or 700 tons and bristled with ordnance. James’s chivalric obsession with the panoply of war found a natural outlet in the building of his great ships. He appointed himself Grand Admiral of the Fleet and dined aboard the Margaret, wearing the gold chain and whistle of his new office.

The fiasco of the Danish expedition in 1502 acted as a further spur towards creating a purpose-built navy. This botched intermeddling represented an attempt by James, at least in part, to establish himself and his realm as a player on the wider European stage. The result was scarcely encouraging and, despite the ‘spin’ placed upon the outcome, the affair proved something of a debacle. In 1501–1502, King Hans of Denmark found he was confronted by rebellious subjects in his client territories of Norway and Sweden and had lost control of a swathe of key bastions, including the strategically significant hold of Askerhus near Oslo. James was bound to the Danes by earlier treaty, and the situation raised possibilities for a decisive intervention by the Scots. The king hurried to make preparations for an expedition: Eagle and Towaich were made ready, together with Douglas and Christopher. The total cost of the fleet and accompanying troops was a whopping £12,000, and the burden fell on the Scottish taxpayers. From the start there were difficulties. Lord George Seton had been paid to make ready his vessel Eagle, but his part ended in acrimonious litigation and impounding of the ship, which does not ever appear to have weighed anchor. Raising the requisite number of infantry, ready to serve in the proposed campaign, proved arduous; far from the number of 10,000 postulated, it seems unlikely that the force amounted to more than a fifth of that total.

When the truncated fleet finally sailed towards the latter part of May, 1502 it comprised Douglas, Towaich, Christopher, together (possibly) with Jacat and Trinity, under the flag of Alexander, Lord Hume, wily borderer and chamberlain. In the two months of campaigning, little was in reality, achieved. The Scots likely suffered loss in an abortive escalade of Askerhus. Others sat down before Bahus and Elvsborg. A significant number simply deserted. For James, who’d had equal difficulties in securing payment of the taxes due to fund the business, there was nothing but frustration, tinged with humiliation. This was not at all what he’d envisaged.

Construction of Margaret was followed by the commissioning of Treasurer, built by Martin le Nault of Le Conquet at a further cost of £1,085 Scots. More vessels were purchased including Robert Barton’s Colomb, which was quickly engaged in the west, cruising from Dumbarton under the capable John Merchamestone to recover Brodick Castle, seat of the Earl of Arran, seized by Walter Stewart. When King James wrote to Hans of Denmark in August 1505, he had to concede that he had no capital ships available, such were the demands of home service, making good storm damage, wear and tear, with other vessels detached on convoy duty. In part, this deficiency could and had to be made up by hire or joint venture agreements with merchants/privateers such as the Bartons, but it was clear more capital ships were needed. By 1507, work on the construction of the New Haven was already far advanced and the king was considering the possibilities of Pool of Airth, well to the west of the fort at Invergarvie and thus far more sheltered from attack. By the autumn of 1511, three new docks had been built under the direction of Robert Callendar, Constable of Stirling Castle, who had received £240 Scots to meet the costs involved.

Impressive as the construction of the great ship Margaret had been and as much as she represented the best in contemporary warship design, she was insufficient to satisfy James’s obsession with capital ships. As early as 1506, the king had engaged James Wilson of Dieppe, a Scottish shipwright working in France, to begin sourcing suitable timbers for a yet larger project. This new vessel, Michael, was to define the Scots Navy of James IV. A later chronicler estimates its cost as not less than £30,000 Scots, a truly vast outlay. Finding adequate supplies of timber to build her hull and furnish the planking gobbled up much of Scotland’s natural resource with much else imported besides. She would have weighed at least 1,000 tons with a length of 150–180 feet. Her main armament probably totalled 27 great guns with a host of smaller pieces, swivels and handguns. Henry VIII, not to be outdone in what was developing into a naval arms race, commissioned Great Harry, which went into the water a year later. For James this was imitation as flattery; the fact that Michael was afloat, moved Scotland into the first rank of maritime powers. A Scots Navy had now fully ‘arrived’. The new ship took to the water for the first time on 12 October 1511. She had been nearly five years in the making and carried a full complement of around 300 of whom 120 were required to serve the great guns.

James took an enormous pride in his flagship. At that moment, she was likely the most powerful and advanced warship that had ever sailed. Her very existence heralded Scotland as a European power. His nascent navy now comprised in addition to Michael and Margaret, the capital ships Treasurer and James with smaller but still potent men-of-war in Christopher and Colomb, plus a couple of substantial row-barges and lesser craft. This royal squadron could be further up-gunned by the private vessels of the Bartons and seafarers such as Brownhill, Chalmers, Falconer and, of course, Sir Andrew Wood. Not only had the king created a navy, but the sea was his passion to a far greater extent than appears to have been the case with any of his forebears. It was thus the crowning irony of his reign that this fine instrument of war was never really tested in battle. For James, the great trial came on land, in the rain, at the end of a wet summer in September 1513, not on some great field of European destiny but the habitual graveyard of North Northumberland. The catastrophe of Flodden cast a perpetual dark shadow over the king’s memory, his creation of a Scottish navy a mere footnote by comparison. In the final, dolorous act, the regency council sold Michael to their French allies for something less than half of what she’d cost to construct. It was an ignominious and inglorious ending to so great an enterprise.

What then did James achieve, if anything? For a brief and untried moment he projected the image of Scotland as a power of the first rank, or very close, a status she had not enjoyed before and would not resume. The cost in treasure to the nation had been very considerable, though the yards provided much employment and created a more sophisticated shipbuilding industry. It is true that, during his reign, no successful attacks were launched against the Forth. Lack of a naval presence would bear bitter fruit during the harrying of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s. To that extent, James’s policy of aggressive defence was a success, and his victories over the dissident clans and Islesmen in the west should not be overlooked. In spite of these very real achievements, it is impossible to escape the fact that this fledgling navy did not survive his violent death. The construction of the fleet had been due in no small part to the French alliance and the king’s ability to source skilled men and sound materials from French ports and forests. Had the disaster at Flodden not occurred, the naval history of Scotland might have followed a different course. In those few hours of frenzied, doomed carnage James and his realm lost all he had created.

The Old Scots Navy II


And it is no marvel that the Spaniard should seek by false and slanderous pamphlets, advisos and letters to cover their own loss, and to derogate from others their due honours . . . seeing they were not ashamed in the year 1588, when their purpose was the invasion of this land, to publish in sundry languages in print, great victories in words, which they pleaded to have obtained against this Realm and spread the same in a most false sort over all parts of France, Italy and elsewhere. When shortly after it was happily manifested in very deed to all nations how their Navy which they termed invincible, consisting of 240 sail of ships, not only of their own kingdom, but strengthened with the greatest Argosies, Portugal carracks, Florentines and huge Hulks of other countries; were by thirty of her Majesty’s own ships of war, and a few of our own Merchants, by the wise, valiant and most advantageous conduction of the Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of England, beaten . . .

Sir Walter Raleigh

In the late summer of 1588, survivors of Philip II’s great Armada, which was to have encompassed the destruction of heretic England, were beating northwards into the cold and unforgiving waters of the North Sea. Great carracks and galleasses wallowed in harsh seas, intense cold and pervading bleakness further lowering the morale of crews disheartened by defeat. The Duke of Medina Sidonia, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, hoped to lead his battered squadrons around the north of Scotland and then down the west coast of Ireland. Here a number of the ships foundered, driven onto rocky promontories. Scotland, under James VI was, in theory at least neutral, the situation obfuscated by the fact Mary had, under the terms of her will of 1577, bequeathed her claim to the throne of England, not to her Protestant son but to Philip II of Spain. James, however, was putative heir to Elizabeth and had a particular and vested interest in ensuring this ‘Enterprise of England’ should fail.

And it did indeed fail. Those wrecked on the barren shores of Ireland could hope for little mercy from the locals even if they were co-religionists: ‘It is the custom of these savages [the Irish] to live like wild beasts in the mountains . . . their great desire is to be thieves and plunder one another’ as one Spanish survivor recalled. Despite the nature of their reception, the idea of large numbers of Spanish soldiers, well-armed and led, being deposited in Ireland filled the administration with deep consternation. The available defenders were no more than 2,000 at best, ill-armed and worse trained, whose function was to control near a million Catholic Irish. At least one capital ship San Juan de Sicilia reached Tobermory where it was subsequently destroyed by explosion; an act of sabotage generally credited to the Anglophile Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean, and intended to rob Clan Donald of any advantage. Maclean may have been precipitate as the legend persists the doomed vessel carried a fortune in gold, a tale that has drawn treasure hunters ever since.

Alonso de Leyva managed to keep his large ship’s company together when the great Santa Ana was grounded on the rocks of Loughros More Bay. His command comprised some 700 souls, well-armed and with a leavening from the very cream of Spanish magnatial families. His men managed to join with the crew of the damaged galleass Gerona and, under his direction, repair the stricken vessel and make for the relative safety of Scotland. The clumsy ship, unsuited to northern tidal waters and northern tempests made heavy weather of the difficult passage. A bare 40 sea miles from Scotland, their luck ran out as her rudder broke and the ungainly craft, loaded with some 1100–1200 men, drifted helplessly on to rocks beneath the ramparts of Dunluce Castle. The garrison was not much troubled, however, for only a mere handful escaped the wreck.

A more fortunate, if sorely tried, survivor was the spirited Francisco de Cuellar. He had been stripped of his command for disobedience and was in disgrace, a prisoner aboard La Lavia when she was driven inshore by strong winds off Streetdagh Strand. Those who struggled ashore were manhandled and mistreated by the rapacious locals bent purely on spoil; any English officers, fearing an insurrection, would have been heartened. Despite his injuries and being a non-swimmer de Cuellar made it to the sands and survived the attentions of the indigenous predators. After many adventures, hampered by his wounds, the gallant Spaniard wandered the wastes of Ireland, sometimes befriended, often robbed and abused. With a handful of companions he stoutly defended a M’Glannagh pele against the English before making good his escape.


For several centuries, though most evidence arises during the later period, Hebrideans had been exporting military manpower to Ireland where the fighting skills of the ‘Gall-Gaidhil’ (‘Foreign’ Gaels) were continuously in demand. Principal reasons for this continual migration were essentially economic. The Hebrides are poor and, in large part barren, thus a young man with a strong arm and fire in his belly might find ready employment with the Irish chiefs frequently at odds with the English, each other or both. These warriors evolved into an elite caste, the Gallolaigh or, in its anglicized form, galloglass. A significant contribution to the supposed superiority of the Islesmen was their naval capacity. Clinker-built galleys would always be superior to the currachs of the Irish lords. In his excellent and definitive study of the Hebridean galley, Denis Rixson points out that this was a clear paradox; a region that was economically backward and relatively sparsely populated could prey at will on a larger, more populous and wealthier neighbour by dint of a clear technological advantage.

The new age of internecine bloodletting after 1493 proved a further spur to military/economic migration to Ireland. Ties of blood and marriage also played their part. Bruce had married the Red Earl of Ulster’s daughter and a whole web of allegiances had subsequently bound the MacSorleys and other chiefs since. In 1595, one correspondent wrote that a recently arrived company of Scots had been offered local wives, each a spouse appropriate to his degree. The letter concludes with an observation that the Scots had, on receipt of the offer, immediately departed whence they’d come! In financial terms, the more unsettled affairs in Ireland stood, the stronger the Hebrideans’ bargaining position. In 1594, O’ Donnell was offering high wages – double the norm – to tempt extra recruits. One year later, Macleod of Harris received an advance of £500, a very sizeable sum, from the O’Neill Earl of Tyrone and was able to raise a brigade of Islesmen 2,500 strong. Further cash bonuses accrued with the promise of harness and mounts. To poor men from the impoverished Hebrides, this was largesse indeed. Equally, other Islesmen, motivated by dislike of their neighbours, might sign on with the English. The 1590s would be bumper years for galloglasses. The native earls of Ulster were fighting a sustained and, for a long time, very successful guerrilla campaign against the encroaching English. Their final defeat at the battle of Kinsale would clearly have a proportionately adverse effect on the market.

To promote and facilitate this commerce in armed men, Hebridean galleys remained the perfect maritime vehicle. In design largely unchanged from previous centuries, the galley persisted through the sixteenth century. In terms of developments in naval and artillery technologies, galleys were redundant as warships in any action with an Elizabethan man-of-war, though her oars and handiness could still give her the edge in inland and island waters. English commander George Thornton, with decades of service in Irish and Scottish waters, clearly appreciated the usefulness of the galley’s oars, that they could outstrip pursuit even by a fast pinnace, unless the wind was sufficient to close the gap. The galley could be beached and was thus not dependent upon a sound anchorage. Its use in war was not restricted to ferrying troops. It could be used to victual the armies, to transport lifted livestock or harvest local fish stocks. Numerous accounts from the late sixteenth century record Scottish sea-rovers relieving Irish owners of their beasts.

In 1589, a raid of industrial proportions descended on Mayo, perpetrated by those experienced pirates, the MacNeills of Barra. Some 400 raiders slaughtered 600 head and stole near as many. These were in due course also killed, converting the haul into hides and tallow. This was pure brigandage, reminiscent of the Norse practice of ‘strand-hogg’. MacNeill was not a numerous or powerful name like Clan Donald but the remoteness of their island fastness and their skill as seafarers provided ample compensation.

From time to time the English would snap at the involvement of the clans in Irish affairs. Thomas Radcliffe, third Earl of Sussex, campaigned vigorously in Ireland during the reign of Mary Tudor. In 1557 he fought, with no small success, against Donough O’Connor and the murderously formidable Shane O’Neill. He subsequently intervened in a dispute between factions of the O’Briens, restoring the ousted Earl of Thomund. Exasperated by the continual presence of Scottish spears in the glens of Antrim, he resolved to discourage their industry and, by way of warning, took up Kintyre and several of the more southerly isles. In naval terms he was unopposed, though the lesson was largely wasted. Throughout the sixteenth century, the Irish administration was more concerned with securing the exclusion of the Scots than exerting any particular influence over them. In 1540, James V undertook his cruise through the western seaboard and the Isles with a powerful squadron of a dozen well-found vessels, bristling with ordnance. By this time there was no question that a fleet of galleys, however swift and numerous, could take on capital ships in an open engagement. Equally, for the crown, the cost of mounting such a show of force, however impressive, was very considerable, to the extent the game was scarcely worth the candle.

Though the Scots might possess the technological advantage over their Irish cousins, at least two native Irish clans – the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys – were possessed of effective galley squadrons. To counter these, the Anglo-Irish deployed both conventional warships and galleys of their own. In June 1602, Sir Oliver Lambert petitioned the Lord-Deputy to authorise the acquisition by purchase of an English crewed galley to take on these two clans who were clearly active in raiding and piracy, taking many prizes. Sir Oliver had in mind a vessel of 15 oars a side and carrying a complement of 50 marines. Clearly, he tended to the view that it was necessary to set a thief to catch a thief in terms of the most suitable craft for the work. Like Scotland, the west coast of Ireland was a confusion of narrow inlets and tiny natural harbours, inaccessible to a galleon. Both the O’Malleys and the O’Flahertys had a similar opportunist approach to the MacNeills and appear to have operated in similar freebooting style. The formidable Grany (Grace) O’Malley (Grainne Ni Mhaille), a lady of conspicuous skill as a pirate,9 had, through a judicious choice of consort, united the two clans into a single thriving consortium. More than happy to contract to the English if the terms were attractive, she could bring a score of galleys and 200 broadswords. In 1598, her son Donald was bargaining for a commission to deny Scottish galleys any approach to Ulster:

He will take upon him to keep from the north both the Highland and Lowland succour of Scotland, if Her majesty will build him two galleys in Wexford or Carrickfergus, the one of twenty-four oars, and the other of thirty.

These were indeed substantial vessels, and both Wexford and Carrickfergus were possessed of established yards and the size of O’Malley’s proposed flagship, presumably the larger of the two, invites comparison with the nearest Hebridean equivalent, the ‘Rodel’ galley. This is shown, carved on one of the panels of the tomb of Alexander Macleod (d.1528), interred in St Clement’s church, Rodel on Harris. It has 17 oars a side, a total of 34, and thus a likely crew of more than 100. Competent as the O’Malleys undoubtedly were, there is no record of any sea fight between their galleys and those of the Scots. As previously noted, the main English intention was to stop up the sea passage and deny the Irish their hired help, to control access via the North Channel.

With Elizabeth’s naval resources concentrated against the very real threat from Spain, her officers could not afford a significant deployment off Ireland. However, for the best part of half a century, a small squadron, which became known as the Ulster Patrol, remained active. Details of a number of the vessels, which from time to time performed this thankless and inglorious chore, have been preserved, and it is immediately clear that there was a wide disparity in the type of craft employed, ranging from diminutive vessels such as the Spy of 50 tons, a crew two score strong and mounting only nine guns, up to the altogether more potent Swiftsure – 40 guns and more and with a couple of hundred mariners and marines on board. The disparity should be considered in the light of observations that the English would require a ship of no more than 30 tons to take on the O’Malleys. This implies that boats such as Spy, Moon (60 tons, 9 guns) and Charles (70 tons, 16 guns) were sufficient in terms of weight of shot, but the bigger ships Swiftsure and Foresight were there to provide ‘shock and awe’.

The task facing English skippers, doughty George Thornton and others, such as captains Rigges and Moyle, was an unenviable one. Climate and coastline were hostile, the enemy numerous, well-prepared and with a deep local knowledge; their galleys were no match in a fight but damnably elusive otherwise. Ships were precious, representing a very considerable outlay in men and treasure. Storm damage was frequent and costly; pay and supply were frequently scarce or non-existent. Corruption and a whole raft of inefficiencies combined to render the task yet more difficult. Yet there were some successes. A report from 1584 records the destruction of six Scottish galleys taken or drowned – the latter perhaps as a consequence of ramming rather than gunfire.

In the summer of 1595 a large fleet of Hebridean craft at least 100 strong – larger galleys, birlinns and nyvaigs – was known to be sea bound, probably, from Arran for Ulster. On board, in addition to supplies, were perhaps as many as 3,000 mercenaries, raised for service by Donald Gorn Macdonald of Sleat, MacLeods of Lewis and Harris. They probably sailed on or about 22 July. George Thornton, at this point, had Poppinjay, while Gregory Rigges was master of Charles. It was not the entire Hebridean fleet which encountered the Ulster Patrol off Copeland Island, but a substantial contingent nevertheless. Accounts differ as to the exact details of the fight, but there is a consensus that the Hebrideans were badly mauled in the first clash, perhaps up to three being sunk, two more captured and others run ashore. A standoff then ensued; the Scots had numbers but the English had weight of shot and the first, bruising test had left the Islesmen in no doubt as to who would prevail if battle was resumed. Donald Macdonald promptly offered to change sides, expediency as ever being the driver. His offer was, however, declined, and he with most of his brigade was obliged to return home, leaving pledges and assurances for their good behaviour. Both sides would be fully aware of their worth. A couple of battalion-sized contingents, presumably not involved in the fight, did get through to Ireland unmolested. The Ulster patrol had, however, thoroughly proved its worth.

Such a battle would be fast and confusing; the capital ships would run out their guns at first sight of the galleys. That they were able to do so suggests they had the weather gauge but that the winds were not so strong as to spoil the gunners’ aim. Charles we know was smaller, a mere 70 tons and 16 pieces. Poppinjay likely fired the heavier broadside. The guns, probably at this date brass or bronze muzzle-loaders, mounted on two-wheeled carriages and secured by tackle, might at best be 18-pounders. Gun captains would be ready with bags of powder ladled into the muzzle, shot and wadding thrust down and secured with the rammer, a fine trickle of priming powder poured down the quill placed in the touch-hole. The great gun sighted and aimed, then a vast, crashing roar as the linstock lighted the charge, the gun belching fire and death. A fast-moving galley would be no easy target, but the very press of the Hebridean craft would have aided their demise. Screaming round shot would punch through the planking, shearing limbs, unleashing a lethal blizzard of splinters, which could impale and mangle as sure as iron. Grape, fired from the deck-mounted swivels, would flense the waists, killing men so tightly packed by the dozen. Holed and mastless, galleys would swiftly founder leaving a spew of spars, cordage and a seaborne carpet of bobbing corpses.

If the Scots had experienced relatively little loss of life in the fight, perhaps 100 men or so killed, some, at least had learned a salutary lesson. In August, Thornton met Maclean of Duart on Mull. The chief offered 2,000 broadswords for the Queen’s service, subject only to Argyll’s acquiescence. In the last decade of the sixteenth century, Maclean was at odds with Clan Donald over the Rhinns of Islay, and English assistance would more than make up for the naval shortcomings of his Campbell allies. Maclean also enjoyed a significant windfall as the doomed Armada hastened to its destruction, salvaging a rich haul of invaluable ordnance. His offer to supply men to the Queen for service in Ireland was as much calculated to make friends of the English as to net the usual financial reward. Perhaps one of the best and most experienced masters to serve with the Ulster patrol, George Thornton died, still active, in 1601.

Such successes were relatively rare. In the majority of instances the Scots got through; the galleys were outdated and outclassed as men-of-war but they still possessed agility, speed and the handiness of the oars. When confronted, a fleet would simply scatter, depriving their opponents of a worthwhile catch. If the weather turned foul as it was frequently like to do, there was no sense in continuing to hazard a capital ship in the continuing pursuit of minnows. Efforts were made to prevent the Islesmen importing Irish timber supplies and the need to have some form of oared vessel added to the strength was recognised. In 1596 it was proposed to add a pair of light pinnaces of suitably shallow draft. Three years later the revised intention was to construct substantial oared vessels, 44 feet in the keel and with a beam of 14 feet, carrying 40 oars and armed with bow-chasers. Though they might cruise with relative impunity, galleys were vulnerable once beached and out of the water. Captain Norreys deployed three galleons against rebel-held Rathlin Island in 1575 and, in the ensuing action, not only destroyed the garrison but added a total of 11 beached galleys to the final tally.

Captain Plessington of Tramontana engaged an Irish galley in the summer of 1601. The English man-of-war succeeded in driving the galley inshore but was obliged to launch her boat close to contact. The Irish galley carried 30 oars and a well-armed complement of 100 or so, many of whom were equipped with firearms. For an hour, the two boats skirmished and sniped, using only small arms and the English were suffering the more heavily. Plessington ran out his great guns and, shooting over the heads of his longboat crew, made a swift conclusion. The vessel he destroyed was one of Grany O’Malleys, apparently skippered by one of her illegitimate offspring!

Features of an Atlantic Wall Bunker

Features of an Atlantic Wall Bunker

The bunker was primarily an instrument of defence. For that purpose, most but not all Regelbauten included a number of standard features. The fortress engineer staff selected designs they needed and adapted them to local conditions. As a result, some bunkers in areas that were less vulnerable might lack some of the standard features designed to counter any assault. Shortage of construction materials also affected the design.

Whether the bunker was a weapons position, an Unterstand or a supporting position, the desired features included a protected entrance, and some bunkers had two. The simplest Regelbau bunkers had a 3cm-thick steel armoured door usually located inside a protected entrance hall with an open entranceway in the outside wall.67 The hallway connected at right angles to a small corridor with the door at the end. An embrasure for small arms covered the outside access to this corridor. A grating gate often closed off the open access to the entrance corridor. In some instances, where an entrance corridor was not present, the armoured door was on the outer wall. Often the armoured door was a heavy ‘Dutch Door’ that allowed the top half to open if the bottom section were blocked by rubble resulting from damage. The armoured doors included a double lever lock system and a rubber seal lined the edges to render them airtight and gas proof. A peephole with a cover allowed the occupants to inspect newcomers before letting them in. Except in the H-702, the armoured door opened into a gas lock for added protection. These entrance corridors included a decontamination niche, usually located at the opposite end from the entrance to the air lock.

Some bunkers included a close-combat room, a defensive position for a light machine-gun or small arms on a wall section that projected slightly beyond the outside wall so that its embrasure could cover the entire exposed wall and the entrance. One or two Tobruks at the rear of the bunker served as observation positions and provided additional protection for the entrance.

All bunkers, except the smallest, had some type of ventilation system. Armoured grilles covered air intakes on the outer walls. Larger bunkers included steel air ducts suspended along the ceilings and a ventilation system to which air filters could be introduced in the event of a gas attack. In multi-room bunkers and bunkers with gunrooms there were valves on the internal walls to control the internal air pressure, to provide gas protection and to reduce the effects of blasts on the human body. In the case of the latter, it proved not to be very effective. Most Regelbauten had additional heating vents, especially in the crew quarters. Although the larger, more complex bunkers usually had a form of central heating (even air-conditioning for cartridge rooms), most bunkers used a small standard type of heater, a WT80, in the crew areas; this type of heater had a roof vent that was designed to trap a grenade should the enemy get that close. Many of these features, including the anti-gas protection, were common in the permanent fortifications of most nations during this era.

Although the size of the bunkers varied widely, the height of rooms was established at 2.1–2.3 metres. The number of rooms was determined by the size and purpose of the bunker. Usually the interior walls were of concrete poured during the construction of the bunker, but in some cases they were made of brick. The interior doors, if armoured, were of thinner steel, but wooden doors were also common, especially if the door was for a brick wall. Normally, wood lined the walls and served as insulation because bunkers were cold and often damp. A standard concrete thickness was prescribed for all floors, but some were also covered with asphalt tiles to counter blast pressure effects from a direct hit on the bunker. These floor coverings enhanced the protection provided by the pressure valves between rooms.

Almost every type of Regelbauten had an emergency exit that consisted of a well on an exterior wall that led to the roof. This well had handrails for the troops to climb out, but it was filled with sand or gravel. The emergency exit was accessed through a small door on an inside wall. One or two small brick walls beyond this door had to be broken to allow the contents of the escape well to spill on to the floor of the bunker. The men inside would have to clear away the debris before they climbed out the escape well.

Larger bunkers normally included some type of communications equipment. For internal communication between rooms, the voice pipe was a standard feature. This fast and effective method was found in the many permanent fortifications of other nations as well. For external communication, the most common method was by runner, but telephones or even radios linked most large bunkers, especially artillery bunkers, to their command post. When a radio was present, the antenna was often located in the entrance hallway. The antenna extended and retracted through a tube in the ceiling. The command post usually had a telephone and radio link to higher headquarters. Telephone cables buried about 2 metres deep linked most of the bunkers in a strong-point to one another and to a higher headquarters.

Some combat bunkers and the larger Unterstände included a periscope for all-round surveillance. In the smaller bunkers the crews had to rely on the few embrasures to survey their surroundings. Most weapons embrasures had a stepped opening that narrowed towards the armoured embrasure. This feature, known as an anti-ricochet device, prevented enemy rounds from being funnelled into the embrasure. Some types of casemate with a large opening that allowed the gun a field of fire of up to 120° sometimes did not have or could not accommodate the stepped anti-ricochet device. Additional protection for large gun artillery bunkers often consisted of a stepped carapace extending beyond the roof. Some observation bunkers had cantilevered roofs to protect the observers.

Bunkers were usually covered with earth. Only their roof positions, walls with embrasures and entrances were exposed fully or partially. For additional protection many of the post-West Wall era bunkers had a stepped entranceway so that their floor level was below ground level for additional protection. In some locations it was not possible to cover the bunkers with earth because the terrain lacked relief. In some cases an artificial hill was raised around the bunker. In other cases the engineers employed various types of camouflage, even disguising the bunkers as civilian structures with a judicious coat of paint. Exposed walls received a camouflage paint job. Different types of texturing on the concrete surface were done in the mould when the concrete was poured. Bunkers that were not earth-covered and those with exposed walls had rounded corners to deflect enemy shells.

The interiors of the bunkers were rather spartan. Whenever possible there was electric lighting, but kerosene and/or acetylene lamps were the only light sources available in isolated areas. The men ate at wooden tables, slept on steel bunks and stored their personal effects and equipment in lockers. The soldiers cheered up their environments with wall paintings, but they were not allowed to conceal the painted wall signs that identified the rooms, the instructions for operating equipment, the warnings or the components of the bunker. Most interior rooms were painted white; it is believed that green and black were used on most of the metal components. A personnel shelter often had a nearby water source, unless it had its own well. While a large bunker normally had latrine facilities, most combat bunkers and Unterstände had none. Instead, the troops used a latrine bucket with a seat (a portable toilet) that was often located in the close-defence position, which gave the soldiers some privacy. Otherwise, the gas lock or the decontamination niche served as a latrine. The men probably used the latrine bucket only during combat. Most Wn would have some type of latrine facilities outside the bunkers for the troops. The StP was likely to have a latrine bunker.

The German Infantry Company and Platoon in Coastal Defence

The actual composition of German infantry units in coastal defence is a bit confusing. The organization of the company changed after 1940 when its standard composition was three rifle platoons and a heavy weapons platoon. In 1939 the platoon or zug (Schutzenzug or rifle platoon) consisted of a three-man light mortar section with a 50mm mortar and three thirteen-man rifle squads, each of which had a light machine-gun – an MG-34. Between 1941 and 1944 modifications took place, which reduced the rifle squad to ten men. A complete reorganization in 1943 introduced the ‘1944 Infantry Division’ with platoons of four rifle squads. The squad leader carried a submachine-gun. The standard rifle squad was referred to as gruppe (Schutzengruppe or rifle squad), which translates as ‘section’ instead of ‘squad’ and causes some confusion in written accounts. In 1944 many platoons numbered only three squads, which reduced their firepower to three light machine guns. The platoon’s mortar team initially had light 50mm mortars that were eventually replaced with 81mm mortars, and then eliminated in the ‘1944 Division’. The infantry company also included a machine-gun section with two heavy machine-gun teams. The heavy machine-guns were the same MG-34 or MG42s used in the rifle platoons, but with different mounts. In the battalion heavy weapons company, which had a heavy machine-gun platoon and two 81mm mortar platoons before 1944, one of the mortar platoons received 120mm mortars.

The change in the organization and appearance of the ‘1944 Infantry Division’ had little effect on the divisions assigned to coastal defence since most were static formations. The companies and platoons of these old divisions did not update to the new standards and they received older weapons and captured foreign models. Thus a rifle platoon assigned to beach defence might have more than the allotted number of machine-guns and could even have heavier weapons. Since their primary mission was to defend a Wn or StP, their internal organization was modified based on the position they held. The elements of these divisions that were not assigned to a Wn or StP and were held as reserve units conformed more closely to the standard table of organization for the pre-1944 division.

Atlantic Wall: Bunkers and Organization for Defence

Regelbau M162a fire-control bunker for gun battery at Frederikshavn, Denmark, in the summer of 1945. This photo was taken by Frits G. Tillisch, a Danish army officer serving in the Danish Resistance.

Cross-section of one of Mirus Battery’s gun emplacements. Modified drawing from Report on German Fortifications (Office of Chief of Engineers, US Army, 1944). (J. Kaufmann)

When the Germans went over to the defensive in the West after 1940, they increased the number of batteries to protect the ports and deter an Allied landing. However, even if the guns were able to damage some enemy ships or sink them, it is doubtful whether they alone could have stopped a raid or major landing. The Germans, therefore, had to create additional defences and protect the likely invasion beaches adjacent to or near ports and their gun batteries, which represented possible targets for an enemy landing operation. As a result, they established a complex of bunkers and other fortifications around each battery that included, in addition to the gun casemates, personnel shelters, supporting facilities and bunkers for machine-guns and other infantry weapons. Eventually this led to the formation of strongpoints (StP) and strongpoint groups. Smaller groupings of infantry bunkers and associated supporting positions formed resistance nests (Wn) charged with holding the key beaches or adding to the all-round defences for a fortress or smaller position. A variety of specialized bunkers existed for machine-guns, anti-tank guns, infantry guns and so on.66 The Tobruk pit, introduced in 1942, greatly enhanced all-around security in Wns and StPs. Each position required wire obstacles and, where possible, minefields and field fortifications.

The naval engineers determined where to deploy their heavy coastal batteries and the layout of their gun emplacements and associated supporting positions while the army engineers created the defensive scheme for protecting these batteries. In Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, Colin Partridge reveals that OB West issued Basic Order number 7 on 28 May 1942 establishing four categories of coast defences. The types of defensive positions from smallest to largest were:

1. Widerstandsnest (Wn) or Resistance Nest

2. Stützpunkt (StP) or Strongpoint

3. Stützpunktgruppe or Strongpoint Group

4. Küstenverteidigungsabschnitt and Verteidigungsbereich or Defence Area

The Widerstandsnest – often referred to on maps as ‘W’ or ‘Wn’ with a number designation – varied in size, but were the smallest defensive positions. The smallest Wn was manned by a squad-sized unit of approximately ten men, while the largest required up to a platoon-sized unit of thirty to forty men. In 1944 a German squad consisted of nine men, and a platoon comprised three squads, but many squads were not at full strength.68 Squad weapons included the squad leader’s 9mm MP-40 machine pistol (submachine-gun), a 7.92mm MG-42 light machine-gun and K-98 Mauser 7.92mm bolt-action rifles. Some units still used the older MP-38 and MG 34. Other types of machine-gun and assault rifle were issued during the war, but most went to SS units, which never served in coast defence, and to other specialized Wehrmacht formations. Three squad members served the machine-gun. These included a gunner, his assistant and an ammunition carrier. The two gunners carried pistols and the ammunition carrier a rifle. The remaining men in the squad were riflemen, so a reduced squad was short of riflemen.69 The infantry platoon also included a three-man light 50mm mortar team. Some of the troops in a Wn came from the battalion’s machine-gun company, which included three heavy machine-gun platoons (two squads, with two heavy machine-guns each) and a heavy mortar platoon (three squads, with two heavy mortars each). The heavy mortar was an 81mm mortar with a three-man crew. However, by 1944 it was replaced with a 120mm mortar in many units and the 81mm mortars were assigned to the infantry platoons to replace their inadequate 50mm mortars.

Besides mortar ammunition, the German rifle platoons needed only 7.92mm ammunition for their rifles and machine-guns and 9mm rounds for the few sub machine-guns and pistols they used. The squads stationed in a Wn or StP often ended up with foreign weapons requiring other types of ammunition. Some of the platoons were equipped with older or captured weapons instead of the standard issue, which complicated the ammunition requirements.

According to Colin Partridge, the 1942 directive called for the Wn to be manned by one or two squads with anti-tank gun, machine-gun and mortar positions. Except for the machine-gun, these weapons were not of the type found in an average German infantry squad since many were foreign-made. Since the platoon only had one mortar, these squads had to receive additional weapons. In some cases the troops in the company’s weapons platoon had to be augmented.

The crew of the smallest type of Wn, which comprised only one or two bunkers and associated field fortifications, consisted of a squad-sized formation. Probably half of the men took up posts in the weapons bunker and the remainder manned the rest of the bunkers and/or field fortifications in the complex. The squad often had a second machine-gun. A resistance nest, consisting of several bunkers and field fortifications, required up to a platoon. This type of position could include an antitank gun or cannon. Except for the Tobruks – most of which were one-man open firing positions – weapons bunkers normally needed three to eight men. A typical Wn comprised a personnel shelter (often with an associated Tobruk), an artillery or infantry observation bunker, a bunker for an anti-tank gun and one or more Tobruks. These resistance nests served individually in an interval between stronger sectors or were associated with other Wns to create a defensive barrier along a section of coast.

The Stützpunkt (StP) or strongpoint consisted of several Wns. The 1942 directive ordered the StP to provide protection for artillery or flak positions. This entailed a higher command system and usually required a company-sized unit. Field fortifications surrounded the entire position and often consisted of a couple of personnel bunkers, three or more weapons bunkers and associated Tobruks. The StP were armed with anti-tank guns, light anti-aircraft guns and multiple machine-guns for defence. Often heavy coastal batteries were incorporated into a strongpoint.

The Stützpunktgruppe (StP Gr) or Strongpoint Group was a collection of several strongpoints and Widerstandsnests that often required from two companies to a reinforced battalion-sized force. Generally this type of position included a bunker for the battalion headquarters for command and communications, a medical bunker, flak positions and/or other supporting facilities. Many coastal batteries were surrounded by a strongpoint group or were part of it. The strongpoint group covered a vulnerable landing area or held a key position like a small port.

These three types of defensive position could be grouped into an even larger fortified position known as a Verteidigungsbereich (VB) or Defence Area. In Der Atlantikwall, Rudi Rolf points out that ‘fortress construction work’ was begun on the sectors encompassed by the ports of Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg and the area around Cap Gris-Nez in 1941. In the spring of 1942 these locations were identified as a Festungsbereich (FB) or Fortress Area. In 1943 this term was dropped and replaced with Verteidigungsbereich. The formation of the Verteidigungsbereich led to the designation of Festung or Fortress for the former FBs that included several major ports with U-boat or S-boat bases. Not every major port was designated as a VB or Fortress, however; Ostend in Belgium, for instance, is a notable exception.

Thus in 1943 and 1944 sections of the coast of France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway were identified as

1. Festung or Fortress;

2. VB or Defence Area; or

3. Freie Küste (literally ‘Free Coast’) – the area not covered by a Festung or VB, but which may have included StP or StP Gr.

Norway, Denmark and the German Bight had no officially designated Festung, but a few historians claim that some VBs were really Fortresses. Denmark included four VB (Frederikshavn, Hansted, Aalborg and Esbjerg). In Mur de L’Atlantique en Norvège, J.B. Wahl lists at least eighteen Festung in Norway, but none is comparable to those in France and the Netherlands.70 The Netherlands included one VB (Den Helder) and two Festung (Ijmuiden and Hoek van Holland). The mouth of the Schelde, including Walchern Island, was included in a KVA (see below). The remainder of the Dutch coast consisted of sections defended by StPs and sometimes StP Groups. A port that was not a Fortress or VB was usually protected by a StP Group.

In France and Belgium OB West divided the entire coastline into Küstenverteidigungsabschnitt (KVA) or Coastal Defence Sectors, which might include any of the above types of sections in the sector and facilitated command and control problems. Initially, in 1941 the FBs were created mainly around ports. Most of the construction involved naval positions. The FBs were still under the command of a naval officer in 1942. The designation changed to VB in 1943 when most of the Regelbauten construction was for army positions. Prior to this, the army had relied mainly on field fortifications built by the regimental troops of a division. Usually, a VB included one of a division’s regiments and its colonel was the designated commander of the VB. The FBs that had been designated as Festung created a special command problem because the Kriegsmarine had divided the coastline into sections commanded by Seekommandant (Seeko). This naval commander, usually an admiral or captain, was in command of all naval land forces, including the naval coastal batteries. The harbour commanders were subordinate to him. The Seekommandant’s port commanders, usually naval captains, often outranked the army Fortress commanders, the latter often having the rank of colonel. Most Fortress commands included naval units and naval ground units, and the special detachments assigned to the fortress by the army and the Luftwaffe. In some cases an army division was assigned to a fortress, putting its general in command. This often happened shortly before and after the Allied invasion of Normandy. A KVA was supposed to be defended by any army division that included troops to hold the various fortifications, augmented by troops from the higher Corps and Army commands. The artillery batteries, which did not belong to an army division, and the coastal artillery units came under Corps command. Hitler decreed that after the enemy landed on the beaches, the naval coastal batteries came under army command.

OB West created twenty-one KVAs in France and three in the Low Countries. Letter designations from A through to J (the letter I was not used) were used in the Fifteenth Army command that included all of Normandy in 1942. The Seventh Army command (Brittany to the Spanish border) began its designations with A at St Malo in Brittany and ended them with F on the Spanish border. In May 1942, after reorganization, First Army took over a section of the Atlantic coast, including the corps of the Seventh Army stationed in KVA D through to KVA F. Seventh Army retained command in Brittany and took over Lower Normandy (Fifteenth Army’s KVA H through to KVA J), including a corps from Fifteenth Army assigned to that region. Some KVA were subdivided when a second or even third division took over part of its coastal defence after 1942. The Fifteenth Army’s KVA A in Belgium was divided into KVA A3 and A2. KVA A1 in the Netherlands included the mouth of the Schelde. Thus, there was one division in each of the three parts of KVA A. KVA D and E in Fifteenth Army command, KVA J and C in Seventh Army command, and KVA E in First Army area were divided into 1 and 2 each. These were not subdivisions but new KVAs. This was done to avoid having to re-letter the entire system.

Cannae Part I

The winds of change echoed along the Tiber as the year 216 began, and though a skeptic might have heard the winds howling disaster, most Romans seemed confident they were blowing toward a quick and decisive victory.

The strategy seemed sound; pressure would be applied in all the appropriate directions. Marcellus, the reliable and hyperbelligerent spolia opima winner, was sent to keep an eye on Sicily, the fleet there having been augmented for a potential invasion of Africa. More on target, in late 217, Publius Scipio, now recovered from his wound, had joined his brother Cnaeus and his two legions in Spain with eight thousand fresh troops and a small fleet. Both Scipios had been given the proconsular imperium to tear up Barca land and rob Hannibal of his base. Nor was Hannibal’s Gallic connection overlooked. Twice-consul L. Postumius Albinus was given two legions and dispatched north to break the rebellion in Cisalpine Gaul and seal off any further support from that quarter. But the central objective, the overwhelming priority, was to directly confront Hannibal and crush him beneath the weight of Rome’s key advantage, military manpower. Everything points to a corporate decision to stage a great battle and obliterate the invader once and for all. Fabius was out, the bludgeon was in.

Viewed from the comfortable perspective of subsequent events, the reasoning that led to Cannae is easy to dismiss. But it was far from implausible. Arguably, there was a fundamental Hannibal problem: if you didn’t beat him, you couldn’t get rid of him. On the other hand, if the Punic force were to lose even one significant battle, it was too far from any secure base to survive. Just one Roman triumph, a single day’s victorious fighting, would put an end to the invasion. The string of previous defeats could be convincingly attributed to impulsive commanders, impiety, bad weather, bad luck, bad timing … The excuses were endless. Meanwhile, Romans still had good reason to believe in their military system—after all, its fundamentals would provide security for nearly another half millennium. They had merely to supersize it and leave nothing to chance.

Of course they were wrong, and Fabius Maximus had been right. Lacking a secure base, Hannibal probably could have been attrited out of existence. But the victory at Cannae would allow him to sink his claws deep into Italian soil, and then he would prove far harder to uproot. So the battle proved to be much more than a human tragedy and a tactical debacle; it was the strategic basis of fifteen more years of Hannibal, what must have seemed at times like perpetual Hannibal. About the only things the Romans could salvage from Cannae were Scipio Africanus and perhaps ten thousand disgraced survivors, and one day they would avenge themselves and Rome by drawing the Carthaginian away and then defeating him nearly as badly as he had defeated them. But that day was still far in the future.


Deciphering any political environment is difficult, more so an environment twenty-two hundred years old and littered with deceptive contradictions, patronage relationships, and family alliances. Although modern historical scholarship has clarified the climate of opinion and motivation to some degree, we will never know exactly what Romans were thinking in 216. Therefore, while it is possible to say that as the year began, attitudes had hardened and grown more overtly aggressive, certain issues remain veiled in obscurity.

For example, Livy (22.33) tells us that a Carthaginian spy, who had gone unnoticed for two years, was caught right around this time. His hands were cut off, and then he was let go. In the same breath Livy adds that twenty-five slaves were crucified for forming a conspiracy in the campus Martius, the field where Roman troops customarily drilled. The two events seem related. Why else would they be mentioned together? Also, from this point Hannibal’s intelligence advantage begins to diminish, or at least it appears to, on the basis of available narratives. Was this spy the Punic mole, and were these slaves his spy ring? It can be inferred as such, but not with certainty. It may be that the Romans avoided saying too much about what could have been considered an embarrassment and a vulnerability.

Other deceptions are more apparent. Both Livy and Plutarch would have us believe that the consular elections of that year, which determined the commanders at Cannae, were basically contests between the impulsive “people,” whose choice was the lowborn knave and demagogue C. Terentius Varro, and the prudent patriciate, who managed to secure the elevation of the wise and experienced Lucius Aemilius Paullus as a brake on his hotheaded and foolish colleague. The historians even stage a tête-à-tête during which Fabius and Paullus agree that the former’s strategy of avoiding battle is the best approach and that the impulsiveness of Varro is virtually as dangerous to Rome as Hannibal. Livy even insinuates that on the day of the battle, Varro issued his orders to fight without bothering to inform Paullus. Polybius, while less hyperbolic in his denunciation of Varro, is nevertheless plainly sympathetic to Paullus and largely absolves him from blame. But all of this becomes more difficult to swallow in light of the fact that after Cannae the apparently incompetent Varro was given a number of other important commissions and even military commands—although this also may have been a means of shifting the blame. Meanwhile, Polybius’s exculpatory portrayal of Paullus fades somewhat when it is realized that Paullus was the grandfather of the historian’s patron, Scipio Aemilianus.

Modern historians have come to understand that a more likely explanation is that Varro, the first member of his family to rise to the consulship, and largely without illustrious descendants, was tagged by later generations as Cannae’s designated scapegoat, while Paullus’s reputation was rescued by the later propagandizing of his powerful family.6 Actually, Varro may have served under Paullus during his first consulship three years before, when they’d been campaigning in Illyria, and both were probably now on the same side of the debate over how to fight Hannibal.

This amalgam of confrontationists was likely built around the powerful families of Aemilii and Cornelii, particularly the Scipionic branch, and included Minucius and Metilius, the tribune who’d worked to elevate Minucius to equality with Fabius Maximus. Probably they were opposed by the Fabii and the older, more conservative members of the senate, who could be assumed to have stood on the side of patience and the gradual attrition of the invader. Yet the policy of patience was plainly in eclipse, perhaps even among some of its adherents. After all, they were every one of them Romans, and the Roman default position was to fight. A measure of this enthusiasm was that as many as a third of the senate joined the army at Cannae, and most of the other senate members had close relatives among the ranks. This showdown with Hannibal was intended to be the magna mater of all battles, and an analysis of those selected for magistracies in 216, especially as military tribunes, shows them to be considerably more experienced in military matters than was usually the case. Plainly much of the leadership was ready to stake their future and the future of their respective gene pools on this gigantic roll of the dice.

So were the rest of Rome and Rome’s allies. The contemplated instrument of destruction was to be an army roughly twice the size of any previously assembled by the Romans to operate as a unit. Varro and Paullus would each command double armies of four legions plus equivalent allied units, but the whole mass was expected to fight together—eight legions and eight alae, in effect a quadruple consular army. Given that a Roman army operated best as a maneuver unit when it was composed of two legions and two alae, there was reason to suspect that this monster might prove inherently unwieldy—a lumbering Frankenstein of a force at best, and at worst a paralytic, a quadriplegic consular army. And this raises the question of who actually would be in charge overall. Meanwhile, to compound the effect, each of the legions, and presumably the alae, was increased from forty-two hundred to fully five thousand, which added up to a grand total of eighty thousand infantry. As we shall see, quantity had a quality all its own … but not the one the Romans expected.

The sole area where the force seems somewhat shorthanded was cavalry—six thousand, two thirds of it allied, when the normal legionary and alae component might have been expected to yield almost ten thousand. Apparently recent losses, especially those of Centenius, had taken their toll, and this too would prove telling at Cannae.

More specifically, the army that would confront Hannibal had two basic components. The first was the force left to keep an eye on him at Gerunium, an experienced element with a history of heart-stopping ups and downs—mostly the latter. Its core was built around the two legions that Publius Scipio had managed to salvage from the defeat at Trebia, soldiers who earlier had been repeatedly ambushed by Gauls. The legions had later been taken over by Geminus, then transferred to Fabius Maximus to chase and lose Hannibal, and then they’d nearly been destroyed under Minucius. To make up for casualties and other attrition, they were bound to have been reinforced on multiple occasions, but at least the veterans had served together and under the same officers for a period of years.

The second element was essentially virginal, the Roman portion consisting of four new legions all recruited around the beginning of the year. While these troops as individuals appear to have received the rudiments of military training as part of their upbringing, the process of integrating them into maniples and teaching them to fight as units not only took time—presumably the spring and early summer—but would have resulted in only a thin behavioral veneer of mutual trust and confidence, which, without the experience of actually fighting together, could be ripped away fairly easily in an emergency to reveal a substrate of panic and helplessness. Next to nothing is known about the allied components, but if this was a newly recruited force, it’s hard to imagine they were any more tested than the Romans, nor would they have been used to their officers, who were also Romans.

It is not clear when the two forces joined together. Polybius (3.106.3) talks about sending new recruits forward for experience skirmishing, but these recruits appear to be reinforcements for the legions already at Gerunium. Although Livy (22.40.5) maintains that the new legions arrived before Hannibal left winter camp and headed toward Cannae, modern opinion favors a delayed linkup, as late as less than a week before the battle. Given this, it’s hard to imagine that the Romans’ juggernaut was in any meaningful way integrated; rather, it remained two separate armies that on the day of battle would be cut up and welded together for its moment of truth, tactically a dubious proposition.

Yet it could be argued, and probably was at the time, that the Roman military system made their troop formations inherently interchangeable, and therefore more easily mixed and matched. No doubt the injection of experienced leadership was counted upon as a lubricant. And there was the intangible of morale. The allied forces in particular were furious over Hannibal’s rampage across the Italian countryside and were vengefully eager for combat. Meanwhile, the Roman troops seem to have been embarrassed, not daunted, by previous defeats and were now grimly determined to prevail.

To seal the deal, the establishment did something unprecedented. Livy (2.38.2–5) tells us that once the allied levies arrived, the consuls had the military tribunes formally administer an oath to all the infantry and cavalry that they would depart from their ranks only to secure a weapon, kill an adversary, or save a comrade. Previously, the historian notes, this had been a voluntary pledge among the soldiers themselves; now flight in the face of the enemy was against the law. To some societies and some armies this might have seemed a mere formality, but the Romans were literalists and legalists. And as we shall see, it was this oath that would determine the fate and futures of those who might have thought themselves otherwise lucky to escape the death trap at Cannae.

As a fighting force, the fated quadruple consular army was large and full of Romans, both good things. But it was also full of vulnerabilities. It had a substantial number of light troops, perhaps as many as twenty thousand, but they were of suspect quality. If not the “armed servants” one source calls them, they were clearly not as effective as their Carthaginian equivalents. These soldiers had been scattered like chaff at Ticinus and Trebia … though they did seem to stiffen somewhat under Fabius and Minucius. Still, it is probably telling that Rome’s staunch ally, old King Hiero of Syracuse, looking for ways to help, thought it wise to donate one thousand light troops of his own, some of them archers (apparently the only archers at Cannae).

The cavalry was probably even weaker; it had already suffered savage losses, and the skills involved are not easily replicated on short notice. The ranks were probably swelled a bit by members of the senate, who were by definition equestrians, yet many would have been old and past their military prime. Besides, the majority of cavalry were allies, and Hannibal’s well-advertised leniency toward them could be expected to have an impact on their fighting spirit in a pinch, especially among forces with the greatest ability to get off the battlefield in an emergency.

The obvious strength of the Cannae army was its heavy infantry. Even if it could not be screened effectively by light troops and its flanks protected by cavalry, it was big enough to be relatively immune from harassment, provided it could maneuver and win decisively with some degree of dispatch. Yet this was also a force subject to emotional volatility—its better half, the experienced element, had been defeated more than once by Hannibal, and the other part was a mass of neophytes, with all that that implied. Temperamentally, it was an army likely to overreact—prone both to excessive enthusiasm and passive despair. Judging by his plan and its results, this was exactly what its Barcid nemesis anticipated.


It is not certain when Hannibal left Gerunium and headed south, but he likely would have waited until the early summer, when the crops were ripening and his troops could forage. Livy concocts a tale of an attempted ambush and then a night escape in the face of the already united Roman army, but Polybius’s version that Hannibal marched out past the guarding force of Geminus and Regulus, who were under orders not to engage until Varro and Paullus arrived with the rest of the army, is simpler and more plausible.18 The historians agree on one point: the Punic force was hungry. Whether on the basis of good luck or good intelligence, Hannibal gravitated to Cannae, around sixty miles south of Gerunium, nearly to the Adriatic coast. Here he captured a grain storage and supply dump in the ruined citadel on the heights of the otherwise abandoned town. His food problem solved, at least temporarily, he made no further effort to move, and this was telling.

Cannae sat at the bottom edge of an immense treeless plain, the largest south of the Po.19 It was ideal for cavalry operations and large-scale maneuvers, exactly the terrain for magnifying Punic military advantages. By this time Hannibal probably understood that the Romans were intent on a showdown and were putting together a monster of an army for the occasion. So far, his efforts to chip away at the Italian alliance had come to nothing. He needed a really spectacular victory to generate the kind of political impact to begin breaking off Rome’s affiliates. This was the perfect time and place to inflict it. Staying here was tantamount to accepting the challenge. He had only to await his opponent’s arrival.

But, being Hannibal, he probably kept himself busy preparing the reception. If we accept Polybius’s version of the events leading up to the battle, the Punic army may have been alone at Cannae for several weeks. This is a dangerously long time to give any commander to prepare a battlefield, much less a commander with Hannibal’s fertile military imagination. By this time he was likely on a first name basis with every rise and depression, every twist in the River Aufidus, every potential campsite, every approach and escape route, every possible advantage he could squeeze out of the surroundings and then blend with a battle plan that seems to have been derived from his cumulative observations of Roman fighting tendencies and the capabilities of his own troops. As always, much remained to be determined by chance and the circumstances of the actual engagement, but it’s a safe bet that during this respite Hannibal’s mind seldom wandered from the upcoming test.

His plan when it was finally hatched implied a great deal of faith in his army. This faith was not misplaced. The gang of desperadoes that had stumbled off the Alps not much more than a year and a half earlier had been but a scrawny prototype of the force that now awaited the Romans at Cannae. Freeze-dried no more, the men and horses had regained their health, had eaten their fill, and were rested. We know that key elements had been systematically rearmed with the best of the captured equipment, and it is likely that many others had picked up bits and pieces of what had once been Roman weaponry.

Another change had to do with the Gauls. By this time they were much more reliably integrated into the fighting force. They still fought together, to take advantage of their peculiar tactical characteristics, but at Cannae small units of Gauls were interspersed with Spaniards, indicating that their tribal allegiances had been effectively superseded by the command system that controlled the rest of the army. Very likely the process that had begun for the Gauls on the slog through the Arno marshes was now complete. They were now not only fierce and brave individually; they were also disciplined, well trained, and above all reliable at the unit level. And as such they would play a critical role at Cannae.

Psychologically, this was an army that had known nothing but the most decisive sort of success since it had entered Italy. In a life-and-death struggle, confidence is crucial, and the recent past had given these men every reason to believe in their own fighting skills, as well as their commander’s ability to drive opponents into positions of utter vulnerability and near helplessness. Many must have already killed Roman soldiers personally and must have also observed them reduced to an abject state, begging for mercy. That was Hannibal’s point when he reassured an officer worried about the size of the opposing force at Cannae. (“In all this multitude there is no one who is called Gisgo.”) For Carthaginians, more Romans simply meant more Romans to kill. This was the dark side of a truly professional fighting force, especially one that fought with edged weapons; they were used to killing, inured to it. They would kill without hesitation. It was a terrible advantage that the Carthaginians had and that most of the Romans at Cannae lacked.

Cannae Part II

Nowhere was this more evident than in the cavalry, probably the most lethal Punic fighting component. As had been true since Trebia, the Spaniards and Gauls rode together as a shock element, although now they were almost certainly better trained and integrated. The Spaniards carried two light throwing spears, a sword, and a round shield, or caetra. The Gauls, primarily composed of nobles, were more heavily armed and armored, with chain mail, metal helmets, and a stout thrusting spear. The two groups would have been an impressive one-two combination, with an initial hail of javelins followed by closer, more decisive engagement. This was a force more than capable of taking on anything the Romans had on horseback, and likely predisposed to fight in the same very confrontational way—one entirely different in its ethos from the other face of Punic cavalry.

They were the Numidians, Hannibal’s version of killer bees, proverbially swarming their opponent if given even the slightest opening. The Numidians were the closest thing a western Mediterranean battlefield saw to an inner Asian steppe horseman. They lacked only the steppe horseman’s deadly composite bow, relying instead on a brace of light javelins and a slashing dirk. Characteristically, Numidians pinned and herded their foes through absolute mastery of their hyper-agile ponies, and then ran the enemy down with ruthless efficiency, able to cut their hamstrings even at a full gallop. Like the steppe horsemen, they were fatally easy to underestimate. Riding bareback and carrying only a light shield for protection, they avoided hand-to-hand combat and were largely incapable of direct confrontation. Polybius (3.72) describes them as “easily scattered and retreated, but afterwards wheeled round and attacked with great daring—these being their peculiar tactics.” Yet in the hands of a commander as opportunistic as Maharbal, they could destroy an entire force once it became even slightly demoralized and ready to bolt.

All together, Hannibal’s cavalry now numbered around ten thousand, two thirds more than when he’d entered Italy, and more to the point, they were enjoying a five-to-three quantitative edge over the Cannae-bound Romans, whose horsemen were by far inferior in quality also. Looked at another way, the Carthaginian force had one horseman for every four foot soldiers, while the Roman ratio was one to thirteen, a strong indication that the Punic army was far better adapted to the flat terrain on which the battle almost certainly would be fought. All in all, it constituted a yawning gap, and one that would soon send the Romans stumbling down the initial steps toward tactical ruin.

Numerically, the Carthaginian advantage in cavalry was nearly reversed with regard to infantry. Polybius and Livy both agree that forty thousand foot soldiers would have been available to Hannibal at Cannae, a figure modern sources support. But if the infantry were outnumbered two to one, the quality of the Punic soldiers was better, and not just in terms of confidence and prior experience killing Romans. The Carthaginian force was notably less homogenized than its Roman equivalent, and in those various parts were vested a variety of fighting skills tailor-made for a commander with Hannibal’s protean military imagination. The ancient sources provide no specific figures for the various contingents, but modern historians have made a number of informed estimates that seem basically in agreement.

The approximately eight thousand Punic light troops were probably proportionately even more outnumbered by the Roman velites than was the case with their comrades in the other infantry arms, but the relative difference in personal capabilities was equivalently lopsided in the other direction. Basically, Roman skirmishers were men either too young or too poor to take their place in the maniples. The Carthaginians were specialists—screening and harassment was their business. Numidian javelin men, perhaps six thousand of the total light troops, proved particularly adept at cooperating with their horse-borne countrymen and seem to have intensified the effects of the cavalry’s swarming tactics. Though less numerous, the other major component of the Carthaginian light infantry—the Balearic slingers—were, if anything, individually even more lethal. They were both feared and coveted as mercenaries throughout the western Mediterranean. Much overlooked by modern historians, the sling was capable of launching a projectile toward its target at up to 120 miles per hour—fast enough to kill a man at fifty paces. While light troops in general played a secondary role at Cannae, at least until the later stages, one shot delivered by a slinger early in the battle may have played a critical role in compromising the Roman leadership.

Hannibal’s close order heavy infantry probably numbered around thirty-two thousand at this point and came in three varieties: Gauls, Iberians, and Libyans. Despite the heavy infantry’s having suffered relatively severe casualties at Trebia and Trasimene, there probably remained around sixteen thousand Gauls, whose shock value and increased reliability we have already considered. There were likely about six thousand Spaniards left at this point, a fraction of the original contingent that had made up the bulk of the army when it had departed New Carthage. In Darwinian terms, we can assume the fittest survived. Nevertheless, Polybius (3.114.4) leads us to believe they wore no armor, but only a purple-bordered linen tunic, and possibly not even a helmet; but since a lot of captured Roman equipment was available, this may not be entirely accurate. Tactically, these Iberians were most interesting because they fought like Romans, first throwing a heavy javelin not fundamentally different from a pilum, and then weighing in with either a straight or a curved short sword and a large oval shield. Interspersed with Gallic units, they could be construed as having had a stabilizing effect on the critical center at Cannae, allowing the more impulsive Gauls to rush forward, hack away for a while, and then fall back, leaving the Spaniards to fight the pursuing Romans on their own terms.

Finally, there were the Libyans, presumed to be Hannibal’s best-drilled and most elite maneuver element, since they were the first to receive Roman equipment and because they formed the jaws of the trap that snapped shut on the Romans at Cannae. Thus far he had used them scrupulously and in ways they would take few casualties, so of the twelve thousand who had come down off the Alps, probably around ten thousand remained. But if these African spear-fighters formed the teeth of the Punic force structure, the other elements were the claws and muscle and sinew of this beast of battle. Hannibal’s genius as a commander was his ability to devise and execute a plan that used all the parts in concert to swallow and digest a much larger prey.


We pick up the Roman juggernaut where we left it at the beginning of Chapter II, slouching toward Cannae, proceeding with the utmost caution. The Romans may have found the flat coastal terrain reassuring, since it gave Hannibal nothing to hide behind should he try to stage an ambush. No doubt they sent the cavalry out to reconnoiter just in case.

According to Polybius’s version, the two halves of the great army probably joined up on the road in late July, with Geminus (Regulus, the other proconsul, seems to have been sent back to Rome because of advanced age, to be replaced by Minucius) having followed Hannibal south at a respectful distance, and Varro and Paullus intercepting Geminus near Arpi, roughly two days’ march north of Cannae. With the army combined, there were eighty-six thousand mouths to feed. So it made sense to keep the contingents separate for as long as possible. The hunger of the army would also place time constraints on the commanders to seek decisive combat once they got within striking distance of Hannibal. Ironically, it seems perhaps the dinner tables had turned; though Livy (22.40.7–8) would have us believe that as battle approached, Hannibal was also running out of food. If true, and not merely the historian’s way of saying Fabius had been right all along, both sides needed a fight quickly.

The Romans had no trouble locating Hannibal, since he was hardly hiding, and they set up camp initially approximately six miles to the east on the broad plain that runs down to the Adriatic. There ensued an elephantine pas de deux, as the two armies warily closed the distance while at the same time trying to gain some tactical and psychological advantage.

The Romans, however, were literally of two minds, since Varro and Paullus followed the tradition of alternating command daily when consuls operated together—just what Fabius had refused to do the year before, which had thus enabled him to save Minucius. Because of the curtain of blame later cast over Varro, it is hard to separate actual disagreement between the two consuls from aspersions dumped on Varro retrospectively. If it is conceded that both consuls wanted to fight, and most modern historians do concede this, the evidence such as it is points to Paullus as the more cautious of the two, particularly worried about being caught on the flat ground ideal for Carthaginian cavalry.

The vicinity of the anticipated field of battle was dominated by high ground to the southeast, where the abandoned town of Cannae and Hannibal’s first camp were located, and bisected by the River Aufidus, a shallow, narrow watercourse running in a northeasterly direction toward the sea. The terrain to the northwest, over and beyond the left bank of the river, was broad and flat. The area between the right bank and the highlands toward Cannae, while still level, was more broken and constricted. Hannibal almost certainly preferred the left bank but could and would fight on the right side; both Roman consuls wanted to avoid the left side and stage the battle in the most confined area possible. The days preceding August 2, 216, were an extended test of wills that saw Hannibal unsuccessfully harass the Romans with light troops as Varro initially approached. Then Hannibal moved his camp to the left bank and formally offered battle on this side, first to Varro and then to Paullus, only to be refused. Finally, Hannibal sent Numidians after the Romans’ water bearers, and this gesture provoked the Romans into action, albeit on the right side of the Aufidus. Meanwhile, the Romans had moved too close to withdraw safely, and so they split their army into two camps, leaving two thirds on the left side of the river and the remainder in a smaller enclave on the right bank. The stage was set.

The Roman battle plan at Cannae can be summarized in three words: “pack the middle.” Because this approach would play into Hannibal’s own scheme and lead to a great disaster, it is easy to dismiss the plan as nonsensical. It wasn’t. Rather, it had a clear purpose, to maximize the Roman numerical advantage in infantry while minimizing the obvious Carthaginian superiority in cavalry. It was also based on past experience. At Trebia, ten thousand legionaries had finally managed to hack their way through the center of the Punic line, and had they been able to do it sooner, they could have split and pivoted to crush the Carthaginians attacking on each flank. Even amidst the surprise and demoralization of Trasimene the impetus of around six thousand Romans had carried them through the Carthaginian stopper force, only to be captured later. We can assume that Varro and Paullus and those advising them were confident in the ability of their troops to puncture the heart of the Punic line, and were intent on doing this as rapidly as possible. Geometrically this called for a narrow, thick formation, exactly the configuration on the day of the battle described by Polybius (3.113.3), “placing the maniples closer together than was formerly the usage and making the depth of each many times exceed its front.”

Breaking though in this manner was decidedly not a matter of simple momentum, like some gigantic rugby scrum pushing inexorably forward. Romans fought primarily with short swords, so the cutting edge was by definition the first line of combatants. True, pila could be launched from several rows back, but any soldier behind around line eight would probably have hit a fellow Roman up front.

The real arguments for this type of human geometry had to do with order, endurance, and psychology. Long narrow columns are easier to keep together, and, they therefore move faster and more cohesively on the battlefield. The many lines to the rear also insured an almost inexhaustible supply of fresh fighters to take the place of the fallen and exhausted, a kind of conveyor belt of shark’s teeth. Finally, a great many of the Roman participants at Cannae lacked combat experience; the middle of such a formation was a safe, psychologically reassuring place for them. One source equates this to the human instinct to herd together for mutual comfort, but without considering that this was actually prey behavior. The thickened manipular order could be expected to have massive combat endurance, which would make the formation almost impossible to defeat by frontal attack, and would thereby allow the unit to move steadily forward. But what would happen if it faced the unexpected, was hit from an unanticipated direction? At this point herding behavior might become just that, dissolving the maniples into a crowd compressed to the point of mass helplessness. The legions would lose the ability to replace frontline fighters through now nonexistent gaps between units. It was a prospect not pleasant to contemplate, and one we can be pretty sure the Romans failed to consider.

Hannibal may have. Just how much he knew of the Romans’ plans prior to battle is impossible to say. Though Livy (22.41.5–6) maintains that “all the circumstances of his enemies were as familiar to him as his own,” whether Hannibal understood beforehand the degree to which the Romans would pack the middle remains open to question. Yet his experience fighting them would have warned him of their will and of their ability to break through in the center, and the likelihood of their trying it again. Also, given his knowledge of Greek military practice, he was doubtless familiar with the Athenian tactics at Marathon in 490, when the Greeks withheld their center and crushed the Persians with their wings. As the day of battle approached, all of this must have been taking root in Hannibal’s fertile brain as he roughed out the framework of an even more lethal trap. As we shall see, the final details would await the contingencies of the battlefield, but the basic plan of using the Romans’ own greatest strength against them was inherent in Hannibal’s deployments and therefore had to have been plotted in advance.

Though there is a tradition of viewing Hannibal as simply being up to his usual tricks—hidden attackers and fake surrenders—the key deception at Cannae was far more subtle. In essence, the trap was hidden in plain sight, something that even today does not seem to be fully understood. Basically he planned to string a line of combined Gauls and Spaniards between two very deep columns of Libyans positioned on either flank, so that viewed from above the formation would look like a backward block letter C. The idea was that as the legionaries rushed forward, the Gauls and Spaniards would give way in a measured fashion (this was critical), leading the Romans farther and farther in between the two columns of Libyans, who would then be in a position to stage a devastating simultaneous attack inward from either flank, stopping the Romans dead in their tracks and leaving them all but surrounded.

Maps of the battle, which are invariably drawn from a bird’s-eye perspective, make the net results clear enough, but also reveal the central deception in a way that leaves open the question: “Why would anyone be dumb enough to walk into such an obvious trap?” But from ground level it would have been far from obvious.

The analogy of American football is helpful. This very intricate game can be enjoyed and understood by the public precisely because it is viewed from on high; the deception is designed to be seen at ground level, and from this perspective deceptions are profoundly confusing, requiring all manner of coaching, cues, and experience so that players are not fooled on every play. As the Romans approached the Carthaginian line, all they would have seen was a continuous line of men, with no way of knowing the varying depth at either side. As the Romans pushed forward, their attention would have been focused straight ahead and toward the center, where they were making the greatest progress. When the Punic flanks attacked, most of the Romans would not have realized it was even happening. They would have known only that their body of men had strangely come to a halt. By this time it would have been too late. They were as good as dead.

Assuming that Hannibal did not have direct knowledge of the Romans’ plans and simply had to anticipate what they might do, the Carthaginian’s plan faced several worrisome contingencies. Expecting his adversaries to pack the middle implied they would deploy on a fairly narrow front, not much wider than his own. Should the Romans march onto the battlefield in a more normal formation, their advantage in numbers would leave the Carthaginian line seriously outflanked on both sides, affording a perspective that would not only betray the depth of the Libyan columns, but also would force the Carthaginians to abandon the ambuscade by pivoting outward to make up the difference. Also, the Roman and allied cavalry could not be ceded the initiative; if they were allowed to sweep around to either side of the Carthaginians, the jaws of the trap would be revealed and their commanders could be warned before it was too late. None of this happened; instead the Romans played into Hannibal’s hands as if choreographed; but such schemes are always vulnerable to the unexpected and this could account for the shadow of what is possible to interpret as Plan B in the sources—Appian’s (Han. 20) story of Hannibal concealing some cavalry and light troops in ravines on a hill (presumably the bluffs leading up to Cannae) with orders to attack the enemy rear as at Trebia, and Livy’s (22.48) tale of 500 Numidians staging a fake capitulation, being conducted behind enemy lines, and later producing hidden swords and assaulting from this quarter. Neither is taken very seriously by modern historians; but they were hardly out of character for a fox full of tricks.

Cannae Part III

As the sun rose on Tuesday, the second day in August, the scarlet tunic signifying battle could be seen displayed above the tent of Terentius Varro, whose turn it was to command the Cannae army. Polybius says Varro’s men were eager for the fight, were at a near fever pitch of anticipation from the waiting. Orders would have been distributed to the tribunes in the night. The tribunes then would have assembled the men and cavalry in time to march out of camp just after dawn, cross the river, and join the troops in the smaller encampment on the right bank. All were now present, with the exception of ten thousand (probably a legion and an ala) left to guard the main camp and stage an assault on the Punic encampment during the battle. It is likely that the men guarding the main camp were the bulk of those fated to survive the day and become the living ghosts of Cannae. Those less fortunate, around seventy-six thousand men, would move into the customary formation—velites out front; triplex acies, compacted in the middle; and cavalry on the flanks—all awaiting the Carthaginians and destiny.

But exactly where were they? The short answer is that we will never know the precise site of the battle for sure; but that said, the issue has stirred up enough controversy over the years to make it worth considering. Geographically, there are basically two reference points—the location of Cannae itself and the River Aufidus, now called Ofanto. There are also two reliable historical artifacts: we know from Polybius that the battle was fought on the same side of the river as the smaller Roman camp, and the Roman line faced roughly south, with its right flank anchored by the river. It also makes sense that the Romans would have wanted their left flank resting against the highlands on which Cannae was perched, the idea being to make it impossible for Hannibal’s cavalry to sweep around either side to envelop them. The problem is that the distance between the bluffs and the modern Ofanto is far too narrow to accommodate anything like the size of the Roman army, no matter how compacted.

This led a number of respected scholars to propose that the battle was actually fought on the left side of the river, or on a broad plain to the east of Cannae. But the problem with the first view is that it clearly contradicts Polybius, who seldom made this sort of mistake; the drawback to the second is that the flat area to the east is easily wide enough to give Hannibal’s cavalry complete freedom, which raises the question of why Varro would have bothered crossing the river to fight there. Yet all of these interpretations assume that the course of today’s Ofanto is identical to that of the Aufidus, likely a bad bet, given the passage of twenty-two hundred years. This assumption is questioned by modern historians Peter Connolly and Adrian Goldsworthy. Their ingenious alternative is that the ancient river ran considerably to the north as it passed Cannae, leaving flats of about 1.3 miles, wide enough to fit the Roman order of battle as it was assembled that day. This hypothesis remains open to conjecture, but this alternative location seems to be the most plausible for what would shortly become the most prolific killing ground in the history of Western warfare.

If this was indeed the point of deployment for the Romans, it must have inspired great confidence. The inexperienced citizen and allied cavalry, stationed at the extreme ends of the line, right and left respectively, had been relieved of any offensive responsibilities; the cavalry had simply to guard the flanks while the infantry did its work.

Similarly, the numerous but qualitatively inferior velites that were spread out in front of the army had no particular mission once the force was deployed, and they could conveniently retreat between the maniples if pressed.

Meanwhile, the reinforced triplex acies seemed unstoppable, and if anything slowed it down, it was at least impenetrable. It must have appeared to Varro and Paullus that they had finally positioned their forces in a way that even Hannibal could not bend to his own advantage.

Now it was his turn to do just that. Hannibal apparently sent the Balearic slingers and Numidian foot soldiers across the river at about the same time the Romans crossed, but the mission does not seem to have been to interfere with enemy deployments so much as to set up a perimeter behind which the Punic cavalry and heavy infantry could line up. When this was done and he was certain the Romans were ready to fight, Hannibal followed. We can conjecture that the cavalry crossed the river first to reinforce the screeners. Next the Gallic and Spanish infantry joined them, lining up in the center, followed by the two bodies of Libyans, who took their place on either side but remained in columns to form the backward block letter C. By this time the horsemen would have split apart and moved to the flanks, the Spanish and Gallic heavy cavalry on the left facing their Roman equivalents, and the Numidians on the right matched against the allied mounted elements.

As orderly and purposeful as these pre-battle rituals seem in print, the real thing must have provided, even before the fighting started, plenty of distractions and cause for disorientation. At this point the field must have been a jumble of cacophony—horns blaring, drums pounding, swords beating on shields, shouts and war cries reverberating back and forth, to and fro—all the sounds that men muster as they steel themselves to face death and intimidate those they hope will be their victims. Also, more than 125,000 men and in excess of 15,000 horses tramping about in a confined area must have kicked up huge quantities of dust, and it appears that Hannibal’s familiarity with the environment now dovetailed with his desire that the Romans not accurately perceive the true nature of his infantry formation. He had apparently observed earlier that a southeasterly wind, the Vulturnus, gusted with increasing force during the morning, and could be counted on to whip up the dust and blow it into the Romans’ faces, a vexation apparently confirmed by a fragment from the near-contemporary poet Ennius.

Finally, and probably most important, this was August in southern Italy; we can count on it having been hot, and it was bound to get hotter as the day progressed. Most of the Roman heavy infantry and at least the rearmed Libyans would be burdened with between fifty and eighty pounds of arms and armor as they fought for their lives throughout the day. If Trebia had been orchestrated by hypothermia, Cannae was destined to be an inferno where untold thousands were likely to be felled by heat exhaustion, and access to drinking water may well have allowed the Carthaginians to persist in their butchery during the last and most murderous phases of battle.

So it was as they began to fight. The ancient sources agree that the light troops were first to engage, and from Polybius we hear they were evenly matched, neither side gaining an advantage before withdrawing, as was customary, behind their respective lines of heavy infantry. If it had been otherwise, presumably we would have heard more from other sources. So it seems the velites’ numerical preponderance had won the Romans at least a standoff—an auspicious start, considering the multiple drubbings they had taken on earlier occasions. Still, the Punic auxiliaries may have inflicted a very significant casualty at the outset. Livy (22.49.1) reports that the consul Aemilius Paullus, who was with the Roman citizen cavalry, was dealt a severe head wound from a slinger just as the battle commenced—an injury bad enough to leave him unable to ride a horse and bad enough to force his bodyguard to dismount in order to protect him. Polybius does not mention this incident, but it is still suggestive, considering what was about to happen.

The first decisive Punic move came when the Spanish and Gallic cavalry under Hasdrubal—leader of the service corps and destined to perform brilliantly on this day—charged headlong into the opposing horse on the Romans’ right flank. With their adversaries anchored on the river and outnumbering the Romans by more than two to one (around sixty-five hundred to twenty-four hundred), there were none of the normal wheeling maneuvers. Instead the Carthaginians seemed intent on going right through the Romans.

The combat that ensued, Polybius (3.115.3) tells us, “was truly barbaric.” In large part this was because it was mostly on foot. Roman cavalrymen had a decided proclivity toward fighting on the ground, and many of these troopers must have been inexperienced and new to their mounts. But they also may have chosen to dismount because of Paullus’s wound. Plutarch maintains that when the consul was forced from his horse and his attendants got off theirs to protect him, the cavalry assumed a general order had been given and so also dismounted—a development that supposedly caused Hannibal to comment: “This is more to my wish than if they had been handed over to me in fetters.” While it is unlikely the Punic commander actually observed the cavalry getting off their horses, the act nonetheless proved fatal to most of the outnumbered Romans, who were basically annihilated. This is also where many of the Roman senators and others of the equestrian class would have gathered to fight, and ended up making their last stand. It is not clear if Paullus died here—he and his staff may have escaped to join the rest of the army—but Livy’s version makes it seem that this was his end. So at a point when the battle had barely begun, it seems logical that the republic had already been dealt a grievous blow. And it would only get worse. Rather than chase down the last of the survivors who managed to get back on their horses and flee, Hasdrubal reeled in his men from the pursuit, then rested and re-formed them to inflict further mayhem on another part of the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the heavy infantry engagement had begun and had already taken shape, literally, in an unexpected way. As the line of Gallic and Spanish infantry advanced (one source estimates the formation was roughly 840 men wide and 26 deep46), it bowed outward to form a crescent. While some maintain this was natural for a line of men moving forward, others believe it was a last-minute decision on Hannibal’s part. Whichever it was, this convex formation had an immediate and beneficial effect for the Carthaginian side. For as the Roman hastati charged and reached pila-throwing distance, the shape of the line left only a narrow group in the Punic center vulnerable to this potentially devastating missile barrage, and may have led many legionaries to waste their shots while still out of range.

The same thing would have happened as the sides closed for sword-play. Initially at least, the Roman manipular order and their own training would have more or less automatically kept their line straight, and so only the center group of Spaniards and Gauls would have been engaged. The key to Punic success turned on the interior line retreating slowly and in a controlled manner. This was why Hannibal and his brother Mago (presumably joined by other officers and Celtic nobles) stationed themselves here, immediately behind the front, to better manage the action and encourage these most critical of fighters. And the initial geometry of battle served exactly its purpose by committing only a relatively few combatants, and by keeping the huge Roman force at bay until the legionaries in the middle managed to push those at the Carthaginian center back.

As we imagine clusters of bare-chested Gauls flailing their broadswords, interspersed with Spaniards fighting from a crouch behind their shields, all seeking to fend off the surging Romans—themselves bashing forward with their scuta, seeking an opening for their gladii—we should not forget that this sort of combat, essentially a series of individual duels, was both physically and emotionally exhausting. It could not be sustained for more than a few minutes. Once the Punic line failed to collapse immediately, these spasms of violence had to be followed by rest periods when both sides drew back to catch their collective breath for a few minutes. War cries and insults might have been hurled back and forth, followed by pila and other projectiles picked up or passed forward, and then close combat would have been reinitiated. Over time the lulls would have grown longer and the mêlées shorter.

This interrupted rhythm of violence also was to the Carthaginians’ advantage, allowing them to regroup, regenerate, and fall steadily backward in relatively good order. Seeing this, the Romans naturally pushed ahead with increased confidence and growing excitement, focused on their objective of breaking through at the center as quickly as possible. As this happened, the retreating Punic line began to assume an increasingly concave shape, and a critical juncture was reached. Polybius (3.115.6) reports that the Gallic and Spanish infantry in the middle were forced into such a rapid retreat that the Punic line started to break up. As the Roman tide surged forward, it cast caution and training aside and followed the line of least resistance, crowding inward toward the center. The intervals separating the three lines of the triplex acies, and the spacing between maniples, disappeared, and its general organization started to disintegrate. Collectively, the legionaries thought they could see victory just ahead, but it was a mirage; instead, as-yet-unnoticed defeat stared them down from either side in the form of two serried blocks of Libyan heavy infantry, the jaws to the Carthaginian trap.

The moment of Hannibal’s killer epiphany had arrived. The order went out, and man by man the Africans on both the left and right sides pivoted inward, dressed their ranks, and in unison fell upon the Roman flanks, most likely the location of the least-experienced citizen and allied troops. There was little the Romans could do in response besides turning as individuals to face the threat; as units, their formations were too compressed and disorganized to maneuver effectively. They were reduced to a crowd of loners trying to fight off a coordinated engine of destruction. Meanwhile, the emotional shock waves rippled inward, spreading paralysis throughout the Roman ranks and halting the forward momentum of the entire army. Their fate was all but sealed.

That took place in another quarter. Terentius Varro, the overall Roman commander, was with the allied cavalry numbering around thirty-six hundred on the left wing, doing not a lot in the face of a roughly equal number of Numidian horse under either Hannibal’s nephew Hanno (Polybius 3.114) or the resourceful Maharbal (Livy, 22.46.7). The Numidians skirted and swarmed their adversaries as best they could, but were probably thwarted by the Cannae bluffs anchoring the Romans’ position creating the kind of standoff the Romans had wanted on their flanks, a standoff likely satisfactory to Varro. It was around this time, Livy maintains, that the Numidians supposedly staged their fake surrender. But even if this did occur, the Roman consul, who would have had little idea of what had taken place on his opposite flank, was shortly in for an even more unpleasant surprise.

Hasdrubal, fresh from obliterating the Roman horse on the other side of the combat zone, led his reconstituted force of Gallic and Spanish heavy cavalry across the battlefield behind the deployed lines of legionaries, and was soon bearing down on the allied horse with a force that was nearly twice the size. But even before the Carthaginians could bring the charge home, their intended victims evaporated in a panicked stampede, apparently sweeping Varro and his attendants along in their wake. The Numidians, devastating in pursuit, took out after them, killing or capturing all but three hundred of the allies, though Varro escaped to nearby Venusia with seventy of his bodyguards. With Paullus very possibly killed on the right, and Varro removed from the left, Hasdrubal may have already shorn the quadruple consular army of both its consuls.

Yet the focus of his appetite for destruction remained unerring. Rather than rising to the bait of the chase, yet again the Punic commander re-formed his cavalry and instead headed toward the rear of the Roman infantry, quite apparently intent on closing their last avenue of escape. Here, Polybius tells us (3.116.8), Hasdrubal delivered multiple charges at different points, seemingly with devastating effect. On first glance this seems puzzling, since the triarii in the rear should have been well equipped to turn and resist, lining up on one knee with their shields resting against their shoulders and their long spears protruding to form a barrier that horses would not charge. But instead of a solid wall of triarii, it is far more likely the Roman rear was cluttered with a soft mass of up to twenty thousand velites, who had withdrawn behind the maniples shortly after the battle had begun. Most of them were probably adolescents, were very lightly protected, and were lacking room to throw their javelins, and with no avenue of escape, they were virtually the perfect prey for heavy cavalry. Terrified by the horses and the slaughter of their comrades, they would have recoiled inward, exposing their backs and hamstrings to spear thrusts and sword slashes while they pressed desperately against an ever more compacted and undifferentiated human mass.

The same crowding into helplessness must have been taking place on the flanks, as the Libyans on either side continued to press home their attack, an ever-tightening human vise. Meanwhile, the nearly routed Gauls and Spaniards, no longer pursued by the Romans at the forward edge of battle, would have been given time to regroup and turn the tide in their favor. A terrible dynamic was taking place. Assailed from all sides, beyond the control of its officers, with those on the outer edges having no place to go but inward, the Roman army, by pressing itself into paralysis, was becoming if not the instrument of its own destruction then at least complicit in the process.

Somewhere between sixty-five thousand and seventy thousand Romans and allies—depending upon how many had already fallen—were now surrounded. Tactically the battle was over, but the killing had just begun. There was no alternative. The army was still too large and full of fight to be taken prisoner; besides, with its leadership immobilized in the press, it had no real means of surrender. The only choice was its effective extermination, a task the Carthaginians accomplished through systematic butchery almost until the sun set on this terrible day.

Not only does the process beggar description, but exploring the details of the massacre might seem to serve little purpose beyond pandering to some bloodlust with a kind of pornography of violence. Yet war is truly terrible, and to turn our eyes away from its results is in itself an act of cowardice. Hannibal’s great victory, his tactical masterpiece celebrated through the ages, produced, in the end, little more than corpses. But this is probably better illustrated by recounting the subsequent course of events than by moralizing over it now. Nevertheless, there is a more prosaic but still historically valid reason for prying into the details of this exercise in mass homicide. As one source put it, “What remains unclear is how encircled troops, with nowhere to run, could be slaughtered in such a one-sided fashion.” We live in an age when killing is cheap, virtually automated; that was far from the case at Cannae. Other than those who succumbed to the heat, each of the men who died had to be individually punctured, slashed, or battered into oblivion. One modern source estimates that in order for the necessary killing to be accomplished in the eight hours that Appian (Han. 25) estimated the fighting lasted, over one hundred men had to be dispatched every minute. Yet even this astonishing figure underestimates the swiftness and profusion of the slaughter, since the estimate assumes that the killing took place at a regular rate throughout the day and not in a great spasm toward the end, as actually happened. In essence, so many victims, so little time, and that doesn’t even attempt to reflect on the ruthlessness and horror of it all.

Nevertheless, logic tells us that the liquidation of the Roman army at Cannae, if it is possible to reconstruct at all, must have been a matter of mechanics and motivation. We can start here. Among the ancient sources, only Polybius (3.116.10–11) has left us something approaching a plausible description of what must have been the most horrific several hours in all of Western military history: “The Romans, as long as they could turn and present a face on every side to the enemy, held out, but as the outer ranks continued to fall, and the rest were gradually huddled in and surrounded, they finally were all killed where they stood.” In other words, they were finished off from the outside in, peeled like an onion. This makes sense, at least basically, but there were likely to have been other lethal dynamics at work.

Hannibal’s skirmishers—the Numidian foot soldiers and Balearic slingers—having earlier withdrawn to safety behind his main line, must have been intact and available. It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have had them let loose a hail of javelins, stones, and even expended pila onto the stationary mass, a deadly barrage that could hardly have missed in such a target-rich environment, nor avoid inflicting serious injury on Romans who were either too crowded or too exhausted to raise their heavy shields for protection.

Meanwhile, the infantry of Libyans, Gauls, and Spaniards would have continued with their grim work at the circumference. One modern source in an otherwise believable reconstruction of the carnage describes victims “dispatched with frenzied blows, usually to the head.” This seems to miss the mindset implied in the quantity and rapidity of the butchery. Hannibal’s soldiers were practiced killers; very likely most had adopted the cooler, utilitarian approach of the predator, having drawn on our emotional heritage as hunters of the most prodigious and ruthless sort. Moreover, they would have known how to kill quickly and efficiently. If the victim’s back were turned, then a spear or sword thrust to the kidneys would have been so painful as to instantly paralyze, and would have killed within seconds through massive internal bleeding. Or if the victim were facing forward, an equivalent stab to the lower abdomen would have produced the same results almost as fast. Yet such a death stroke—or even more so, multiple death strokes rapidly delivered—implies a certain acceptance, or at least passivity, on the part of the recipient.

Cannae Part IV

This is something the ancient sources—all of them Romans or Roman sympathizers—deny. They would have posterity believe Cannae was, in the words of Polybius (3.117.1–2), “a battle in which both the victors and vanquished displayed conspicuous bravery,” a battle in which the Romans fought stubbornly to the bitter end. Given what has been learned through modern combat studies, this does not seem likely. Even among elite units, when sufficient casualties have been suffered, the whole group slides into a state of apathy and depression more extreme than is encountered in almost any other kind of human experience. “Unable to flee and unable to overcome the dangers through a brief burst of fighting, posturing, or submission,” writes military psychologist Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, “the bodies of modern soldiers quickly exhaust their capacity to energize and they slide into a state of profound physical and emotional exhaustion of such a magnitude and dimension that it appears to be almost impossible to communicate it to those who have not experienced it.” Were Romans tougher and more stoic than modern combatants? Perhaps, but as far as we know, the mental makeup of the ancients was similar to our own. How else would so many of their recorded deeds make sense to us? It seems, then, that the reason why it was possible to kill so many so fast is that most of the victims faced death without resistance. Would this paralyzing combat fatigue have afflicted everyone, and to the same degree? Probably not. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some would have gone down fighting no matter what the circumstances. But the circumstances were really bad, well beyond the limits of most.

If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir at Cannae must have been the equal of any hell that history in all its perversity has managed to concoct. Thousands upon thousands packed together, unable to move, beset by the cries of those in extremis, many of them dressed in now useless chain suits and cooking-pot helmets beneath the broiling sun, without prospect of water, only death offering any relief whatsoever. As time passed, more and more men would have fainted from the heat, slid to the ground, and been trampled beneath the feet of their comrades, their bodies and discarded shields tripping still others who would then have fallen similarly to their deaths. At the outer edges especially, but also in the interior, where javelins rained, the ground would have grown slick with Roman blood, which would have brought down still others. As at Lake Trasimene the hopeless would have begged their fellows to finish them—presuming there was room for even a short sword thrust—or simply would have done the deed themselves. The stink of death and all the bodily functions that accompany it must have come to pervade the atmosphere and compound the wretchedness of those condemned to take their last breaths there. There was no place worse.

Here and there it is possible to catch a glimpse, even if it’s only a statistic, of a shadow of an actual person caught in the grip of this misery. We know that of the forty-eight military tribunes at Cannae, twenty-nine did not survive. Most would have died in this central killing field, since it was their job to lead the legions. Both quaestors, Lucius Atilius and L. Furius Bibaculus, were likely here also, as were Geminus and Minucius—all of them dead. If Paullus had not been killed earlier on the wing, as Livy suggests, then he too met his end here—according to Polybius (3.116.15), “in the thick of the fight.” This brings to mind the fate of Paullus’s son-in-law.

Nineteen-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio was young for a military tribune, but he had already seen a lot. He had saved his father’s life at Ticinus and had likely been part of the disaster at Trebia, and perhaps even at Trasimene. At Cannae we know he was attached to the Second Legion, and, given his social standing and his relationship to Paullus, it doesn’t seem likely that the young Scipio was with the ten thousand left to guard the camp. So probably he found himself caught in the dwindling remains of the Roman infantry, once again ensnared by Hannibal’s trickery. It must have been a learning experience, but perhaps a futile one in the face of almost certain death. Yet, contrary to all expectations, he would survive and elude capture, as did thousands of others also apparently hopelessly trapped. Here again this seems to have been a matter of mechanics.

Body buildup had to have become the central problem of the Carthaginian executioners, piles of dead obstructing them from getting at more Romans, not to mention all that slippery blood. A point of diminishing returns must have been reached and a new approach required. Logically this would have suggested a change of venue, a shift in the killing field to less cluttered terrain. The controlled release of clumps of legionaries away from the main mass would have effectively served this end. These Romans could then be run down and killed (or taken prisoner). But this also would have opened a window of opportunity for the Romans, who might have organized into wedges capable of defending themselves until they could reach either of the two camps and some sanctuary, however temporary. Many never could have made it, especially if they got separated. But chance, this opening, and the inevitably growing exhaustion of their Carthaginian tormentors would have collaborated to sweep away from this disaster the core of a class of survivors who would live to fight another day. Young Scipio, it seems, was one of them.

Finally the killing must have trailed off. Polybius maintains that Hannibal rounded up approximately two thousand Romans who had climbed up and hid in the ruins of Cannae, and also captured both Roman camps immediately after the battle.65 While Hannibal may have captured the refugees in the ruins, it doesn’t seem likely that his troops were in any shape to overwhelm a fortified area, no matter how dispirited the inmates. Sleep was probably the only item on their agenda.

If this makes sense, then Livy’s story (22.50.4–12) of what went on in the two Roman camps that night appears believable. Most of the men seem to have been in shock. But those in the larger enclave, having avoided the main disaster and having participated in only a brief failed attempt on Hannibal’s camp, were probably in better shape. These men were still organized and were being led by their officers, who undoubtedly were aware that their present position was untenable. They sent a runner to the smaller camp and ordered them to break out and join forces, so that both elements could slip away under the cover of darkness and make for Canusium, a walled town about twenty-five miles to the southwest. The message fell on deaf ears, until one of the surviving military tribunes, P. Sempronius Tuditanus, made an impassioned speech and got six hundred (Frontinus says it was only sixty-two) men to follow him out to join the others. Not everybody from the big camp was willing to leave. But Livy indicates that some four thousand legionaries and two hundred cavalry in this group arrived safely at Canusium, where they were eventually joined by several thousand other survivors; meanwhile, another forty-five hundred found their way to Venusia, where Varro had taken refuge. All of these men were destined to be reorganized and branded with the stigmatic title legiones Cannenses, the living ghosts of this terrible battle.

How terrible? Dawn of the next day revealed approximately 45,500 legionaries and twenty-seven hundred cavalrymen strewn about a space not much larger than a single square mile. As the Carthaginians set about despoiling the bodies and searching for their own among the dead and half dead, even they were shocked by their handiwork. Livy, the ancient cinematographer, leaves us a scene as surreal as any other in military history:

Here and there amidst the slain there started up a gory figure whose wounds had begun to throb with the chill of dawn, and was cut down by his enemies; some were discovered lying there alive, with thighs and tendons slashed, baring their necks and throats and bidding their conquerors drain the remnant of their blood. Others were found with their heads buried in holes dug in the ground. They had apparently made these pits for themselves, and heaping the dirt over their faces shut off their breath. But what most drew the attention of all beholders was a Numidian who was dragged out alive from under a dead Roman, but with a mutilated nose and ears; for the Roman, unable to hold a weapon in his hands, had expired in a frenzy of rage, while rending the other with his teeth.

If this does not give pause, it is possible to resort to statistics. By way of approximation we can consider each Roman weighed 130 pounds—they were lighter than modern men. Then there would have been well in excess of six million pounds of human meat left to rot in the August sun—the true fruits of Hannibal’s tactical masterpiece, at least for an air force of vultures.

The fate of the others remaining at Cannae was not much better, particularly if they were Roman citizens. According to Livy’s timetable, Hannibal, after allowing his troops much of the day for looting, next made short work of the two camps, gathering up nearly thirteen thousand prisoners. When these men were added to those taken from the ruins on the hill and to those taken from the battlefield, the total was slightly more than nineteen thousand captives. Many of the Romans would end up as slaves in Greece and Crete, still there more than two decades later—another of Cannae’s many legacies.

Hannibal too was left to wrestle with the outcome of Cannae. The fight had cost him between fifty-five hundred and eight thousand men, but at least half of these had probably been Celts, and the army was basically intact. Meanwhile, his men had recovered gold rings numbering in the hundreds, some taken from captives but most pried from the lifeless fingers of senators and equestrians. In a single day Hannibal had decimated a substantial proportion of Rome’s leadership, a blow that some might well have considered mortal. Maharbal, Hannibal’s brilliantly opportunistic cavalry commander, was apparently one who thought so. Livy tells us (22.51.1–4) that sometime after the battle, amidst the congratulations of the Barcid’s henchmen, Maharbal warned that no time was to be lost, and held out instead the prospect of dining in the enemy capital within five days. “Follow me: I will go first with the cavalry, that the Romans may know that you are there, before they know you are coming!” It was the most audacious of proposals. March on Rome! Finish it now! When Hannibal hedged and refused to make an immediate decision, Maharbal’s reply was equally impulsive: “So the gods haven’t given everything to one man; you know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you don’t know how to use one.”

Assuming the incident actually took place—it was very much characteristic of both men: Maharbal seizing the main chance, and Hannibal the gambler growing cautious in the face of overwhelming good luck—it strikes at the heart of Punic prospects and is therefore hotly debated. On balance, scholarly opinion seems to support Hannibal for not trying it. Some argue that he was short on pack animals and the logistical support needed to move his army 250 miles to Rome with the necessary alacrity. (This argument seems odd, given the journey from Spain and the Carthaginians’ tromp through the swamp.) Other scholars maintain that even if he had gotten to Rome, he couldn’t have done much productive, and he lacked siege equipment. (He could have built some.) Still others are of the opinion that Hannibal was better off trying to break the Roman alliance, win on a solid base of support, and then negotiate. (We shall see how that worked out.) In fact there were many good reasons for not marching on Rome, and only one good reason for going.

Unlike the scholars, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a soldier, thought Maharbal was right. Maharbal seems to have understood that when a more powerful adversary is down, it has to be dispatched. Rome still had huge manpower reserves; there was no such thing as a peace party; this was a state that bargained only with the defeated. Hannibal’s single chance of winning the larger war was to begin marching his army toward Rome. Even if it had taken him a month to get there, the tension in the city would have only built with reports of his coming. And ultimately his appearance outside the walls might have broken the spirit to resist, or might have led to Rome’s sending an ill-prepared force out to another catastrophic defeat and ultimate capitulation. Or not. In the end it still would have been a long shot. But it was his only shot. Instead, Hannibal chose another route, and the war became only a matter of time.


Still, if Rome was not about to collapse, there were certainly cracks … and not just in the façade. At Canusium it seems things almost reached the point of falling apart. The survivors were treated kindly by the locals, especially a wealthy woman named Busa, who gave them food and fresh clothing. Among the survivors were four military tribunes (for some reason Tuditanus is not mentioned): Lucius Bibulus; Quintus, the son of the former dictator Fabius Maximus; Appius Claudius; and Publius Scipio, who, despite being the youngest of the group, emerged as its dominant personality in what was shortly to become a crisis situation.

The episode began when a reliable source informed them that within the group of survivors, a cabal of young nobles led by M. Caecilius Metellus and P. Furius Philus, whose father had shared the consulship with Flaminius in 224, were ready to give up on Rome, abandon Italy, and become mercenaries abroad. When the other tribunes agreed to form a council to discuss this stupefying piece of intelligence, Scipio would have none of it, demanding immediate action. Leading a few followers, he burst in on the conspirators with drawn sword and took them into custody, but not before demanding on pain of death that they swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

The nascent mutiny put down, Scipio and Appius learned of Varro’s presence in Venusia and sent him a message asking if the consul wanted them to deliver their forces to him or wanted them to remain in Canusium. Varro promptly marched his own troops over to them. This may be significant.

Besides the obvious motive of concentrating forces, the reasons for Varro’s decision and the later treatment of the legiones Cannenses could be connected. Had the conspiracy gone beyond the young nobles and extended to the troops, making it necessary for Varro to reach Canusium quickly, in order to stabilize the situation? Or alternatively, did the errant consul rescue his own reputation at the men’s expense, by giving the appearance of restoring order where there had not necessarily been disorder? It’s impossible to know. What is known is that Varro, having exited the battlefield at a full gallop, was later remarkably well treated by his countrymen, while the Cannenses, who left under rather more duress, were effectively banished. Rank certainly has its privileges, but the contradictions here are hard to ignore or explain.

Back in Rome the city’s population was on the ragged edge of panic, “expecting Hannibal every moment to appear,” Polybius (3.118) tells us shortly before he effectively signs off, the remainder of his description of the war surviving only in fragments. For better or worse Livy becomes our primary oracle, framing subsequent events with a dramatist’s eye.

Accordingly, Rome’s streets are described as echoing the wailing of lamenting women, because the initial reports indicated that the Cannae army had been crushed and there were no survivors. The senate met to take measure of the situation, with Fabius Maximus arguing for gathering more intelligence, sending the women indoors, and preventing anyone from leaving the city. It was only after a letter arrived from Varro verifying the disaster—but adding that he was with ten thousand survivors at Canusium and that Hannibal was still at Cannae not doing much of anything—that the cloud of terror began to dissipate and enough traction was gained for the senate to begin serious planning. What emerged was a characteristic combination of superstition, practicality, and adamantine stubbornness.

Existentially, beating back the dread and propitiating the gods called for extraordinary—what we would call barbaric—measures. Perhaps conveniently, two of the vestal virgins were found not to be so. One of the two women committed suicide before she could be buried alive with the other, while the seducer was beaten to death by the pontifex maximus, the chief priest. Meanwhile, the priest’s colleagues were consulting the Sibylline Books for other goddess-calming measures, and found the answer in more live interments—this time two couples, Greek and Celtic, male and female. And if human sacrifice did not prove sufficient, the city fathers thought to send fellow senator and historian Fabius Pictor to Greece to consult the Delphic oracle for more ideas on atonement. In a further attempt to restore emotional equilibrium, the senate officially limited mourning to thirty days, but the senate still had to call off the annual festival to the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, since the rituals required married women who weren’t in mourning, and few were available.79 Rome did regain its composure, but these steps, plainly meant to be viewed as extreme, reflect the degree to which the news of Cannae had shaken the inhabitants.

Yet beneath the veil of ritualistic excess, the senate remained clearheaded, making the leadership and personnel decisions necessary to deal with the immediate crisis and to restore Rome’s capacity to defend itself. Almost immediately the stalwart Marcellus, apparently no longer in Sicily, was sent to Canusium, where he would reorganize the Cannenses and put them back in fighting shape, while Varro was sent specific instructions to return home, possibly to nominate a dictator. (Upon arrival he would be greeted rapturously “for not having despaired of the Republic.” Acidly, Livy reminds us that a Carthaginian arriving back in Carthage under similar circumstances would have been punished with the utmost rigor—that is, he would have been crucified.) The man chosen as dictator was very experienced—M. Junius Pera, a former consul and censor, with the highly capable Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus acting as master of horse. Together they set about rebuilding Rome’s force structure.

In time there would be a huge manpower pool available, but in just two years Hannibal had killed at least a hundred thousand of Rome’s soldiers, and the recruiters on the Tiber behaved as if they were more than a little shorthanded. Just one thousand new cavalry could be raised, a number reflecting Hannibal’s prodigious attrition of the equestrians. To levy more foot soldiers for two new legiones urbanae, the draft age was lowered and boys of seventeen or even younger were called up, along with reinforcements from the Latin allies. Yet more telling was the enlistment of six thousand criminals and debtors, who had to be equipped with the Gallic arms taken by Flaminius for his triumph in 223. Finally, and most significant, the city’s slaves of fighting age were promised freedom upon discharge if they were willing to join the war effort, a call that was answered by eight thousand of them, who were subsequently known as volones, or volunteers. Their owners were compensated with state funds, the cost of which, Livy (22.57.11–12) notes ominously, exceeded the amount that would have been required to ransom the prisoners held by Hannibal.

Back in Apulia, the Carthaginian was in an avuncular mood. As he had after Trebia and Trasimene, he let the allies he held go free, yet again professing his goodwill. He then turned to the Roman captives and sought to explain himself, which was something new. He was not pursuing a war to the death with Rome, he explained; he was fighting “for honor and empire.” Just as his Carthaginian predecessors had yielded to the success of Roman arms, now it was time for Rome to accept defeat in the face of his own skill and good fortune. It was a speech that might have been given by Pyrrhus or any other Hellenistic monarch, a perfectly reasonable speech. The rules of war as he saw them dictated that, after such a string of beatings, the vanquished, presuming they were in their right minds, admit defeat. That was the way the “great game” of the Mediterranean basin was played; it was time Rome got used to it. He was prepared to be generous. The captives were to be ransomed for a reasonable price; ten of their own number would be sent to Rome to work out the details. Carthalo, a Carthaginian cavalry officer, would accompany them to present Punic peace terms. It’s impossible to know if Hannibal really expected his initiative to work, but it seems unlikely that he anticipated the reception that the delegation actually got.

As the group approached the city, the senate had the dictator, Pera, send a lictor to meet them and inform Carthalo that he would not be received and that he had to leave Roman territory by nightfall. So much for a negotiated peace. There was some sympathy for the captives, but not enough. In the speech the leader of the prisoners gave to the senate, Livy (22.59) has him argue that ransoming their number would be cheaper than purchasing the previously mentioned volunteer slaves, and comparing themselves favorably with those who took refuge at Venusia and Canusium, “men who left their swords on the field and fled.”

These pleas fell on deaf ears, especially those of T. Manlius Torquatus. He delivered a savage rebuttal. Although he did concede that the troops at Canusium were better judges of courage and cowardice than the captives, he revealed little regard for either group. The negligence of the captives was twofold: first, “they fled to the camp when it was their duty to stand firm and fight,” and second, they surrendered the camp. It was left unsaid but still implied that all those who had left the battlefield, captives and escapees alike, had violated the oath administered before the battle never to break rank except in the pursuit of duty.

The point, for the moment at least, was that the captives were not to be ransomed. The senate even went so far as to forbid their families to raise money privately to free them. This plainly went against precedent; just the year before, Fabius had paid prisoners’ ransoms with the proceeds from the farm Hannibal had left untouched. The Roman leadership wanted to send a message not just to its own soldiers, but to Hannibal, to shock him with the degree of their determination.85 Whatever he might think, in their eyes this was a fight to the finish.

When the delegation reluctantly returned with the bad news, Hannibal’s mood—though not necessarily his strategy—hardened. Appian (Han.28) maintains that Hannibal had those of senatorial rank fight as gladiators for the amusement of the Africans; some were slaughtered; the rest were sold into slavery. The last, at least, we know was true. Polybius in a fragment (6.58.13) reports that Hannibal lost his joy over the victory at Cannae; he now knew he was in for a long fight.

But as hardheaded and hard-hearted as was the image presented along the Tiber, the Roman leadership still had to work within its means. After Cannae much of southern Italy was leaning toward Hannibal, and Rome needed a presence to fend off the momentum toward the Punic side. The new legiones urbanae and the scratch force of slaves and criminals were not yet trained. The only trained men were the Cannenses.

We next hear of Marcellus in the autumn of 216, first at Casilinum, then at Nola, parrying Hannibal’s thrusts at the latter town with his army of survivors. Livy conflates what was probably a series of desultory skirmishes into a tactical victory featuring a surprise sortie out of the city gates, but even he questions the number of losses inflicted on the Punic force. It was not much in the way of revenge. Still, the Cannenses, now divided into two legions, showed themselves to be once again an effective fighting force and one ready to take the field against its nemesis. If nothing else, the men had amply demonstrated their loyalty to the state. Yet they were not forgiven, even in the face of further disaster.

As the terrible year 216 came to an end, Rome settled down for a change of leadership. But no sooner had L. Postumius Albinus—who had been sent in the spring to Cisalpine Gaul with two legions plus allies to break the rebellious Celts—been elected in absentia to his third consulship than news filtered into the city that he and his entire army had been ambushed and annihilated. To add insult to injury, the victorious Boii beheaded the fallen consul-elect, hollowed out his skull, and subsequently used it as a drinking cup. But more to the point, Rome was down another twenty-five thousand troops. It did not matter; by December of 216, the new legiones urbanae were ready and were given to Marcellus.

No longer needed, the Cannenses would now get what they deserved, at least in the eyes of the senate. Taxes had been doubled so that all soldiers could be paid in cash immediately, except for those who’d fought at Cannae. They got nothing. But this was secondary compared to being shipped to Sicily. Here they would stay until 204, removed from their families and their livelihood, effectively banished. It was a terrible punishment, inflicted upon them because they were seen as having broken an oath never before required, which had made them, technically at least, deserters. Rome had lost a great battle and needed a scapegoat. Rather than blame the strategists and commanders who had planned it, the powers that be turned on the survivors. The logic, the same as for decimation (“pour encourager les autres”), might have made sense at the time. But these ghosts of Cannae would live to haunt the republic. For one day, legionaries would look to their generals and not Rome for a future, and that perspective would spell civil war and absolute rule. This more than anything else was the battle’s legacy.