The Kalmyk Migration


A traditional Kalmyk encampment. The Kalmyk yurt, called a gher, is a round, portable, self-supporting structure composed of lattice walls, rafters, roof ring, felt covering and tension bands

Modern scholars know more about these events three hundred years ago than almost any foreign observer of that time. Yet there is much to be learned from studying commentaries of that time—they teach us what contemporaries knew, suggest why decisions were made, and provide us an understanding of the intellectual climate in which decisions about frontier peoples were made.

Thomas Penson De Quincey (1785-1859) is recognised today for his 1822 Confessions of an Opium-Eater, but in his lifetime he was better known as a writer and journalist. A polymath who had demonstrated early in life extraordinary talents, he was prevented by poor health from doing more than commenting on society, politics and history. Still, his Collected Works amounted to twenty-two volumes.

His long article on ‘the Revolt of the Tartars’, appeared in a prominent magazine, Blackwood, in July 1837, and was almost instantly recognized as an adventure classic. He took the basic facts from a German article by Bergman, Versuch zur Geschichte der Kalmüken Flucht von der Wolga, whose narrative had been based on the recollections of a Russian prisoner, Weseloff. ‘The Revolt of the Tartars’ was, therefore, a third-hand narrative that reflected an obscure incident in the vast borderland between two advancing civilisations—China and Russia. The steppe tribes that roamed what is today Kazakhstan were caught in the middle. Hence De Quincey’s subtitle: Flight of the Kalmuck Khan and his People from the Russian Territories to the Frontiers of China. This event, according to De Quincey, was perhaps the most romantic of any story in history, involving the mightiest of Christian thrones and the mightiest of pagan ones, a myriad of wills, the wild barbaric character of the migrants upon whom the national catastrophe fell, and the many open and hidden motives of those involved. There was first a conspiracy, then a great military expedition, and lastly a religious exodus. Against such a magnificent background, one equal in colour to the skies and mountains that framed the limitless prairie, what did mere facts matter?

The story began 21 January 1761, when Ubashi Khan (Prince Oubacha, 1724-75) succeeded his father as ruler of the Kalmyk people living on both sides of the Volga River. He had been only eighteen years of age when he first had a role in tribal leadership, not old enough to command the allegiance of the clan leaders of his widespread tribe and certainly unlikely to impress the officials of the distant tsarina of Russia who allowed the nomads free use of the Kuban plain in return for military service; and even when mature he lacked the domineering personality that impresses nomads. It was no surprise, therefore, that a rival was able to persuade the Empress Elizabeth (1709-62) to give him her blessing to assist Ubashi in ruling his scattered people. This started the series of events that led the Kalmyks to decide to leave Russia. Doing that, however, would not be easy.

First, the Kalmyks had been in the service of tsars and tsarina so long that memory of their having fled the attacks of the Zungars was distant folklore. Elizabeth and Catherine II (1729-96), their most recent Russian overlords, had plenty of infantry—conscripts from the peasantry—but those sturdy fighters were only familiar with draft animals; for cavalry they had their noble boyars, but those aristocrats insisted on returning to their estates quickly after each campaign was over. This meant that for a more permanent cavalry force the generals had to rely on Cossacks. These wild horsemen were, alas, undependable; they resisted every governor’s efforts to control them and periodically revolted over issues involving pride and traditional independence.

As a result, military leaders had advised trying to replace them, or at least restrict their expansion, by asking more of the Kalmyks. As governors insisted that the tribesmen remain longer on campaigns, mass desertions resulted. This made generals determined to bring the Kalmyks to heel as well as the Cossacks.

Second, the Quin dynasty was not known for treating steppe peoples leniently. In 1756-7, only a few years before, the emperor had ordered his generals to kill all the Lamas of the ‘Yellow Teaching.’ This could only be done after destroying the Zungar leadership, which, as we have seen, they did by a combination of surprise, betrayal, and force. Such a policy of extermination was rare for the Quin emperor, but the Zungars had refused assimilation point blank; his response was to make their steppe into a human desert. Where once 600,000 nomads had lived, now not a tent could be seen anywhere.

For the Kalmyks this meant that a new homeland was available—actually their old homeland—if they could secure Catherine II’s blessing to return there. They knew little about the lands in between, but one steppe and one mountain range were much like any other. Their ancestors, losers in the complicated wars of rapidly changing Central Asia, had come to Russia with only two usable skills—herding animals and making war. They had not seen any reason to learn how to farm or live in villages. This had meant that, since Russian generals always wanted more cavalry, they had enlisted for wars both in Europe and on the eastern steppe, where tsars were extending control beyond the horizon to the east. Now, however, they could see that this arrangement was coming to an end.

Once Catherine II began to settle wheat farmers in the Kuban in 1763, it was obvious that the wide plain was becoming too small to support the herds of the nomads. The immigrants known as ‘Volga Germans’—Roman Catholics from the Holy Roman Empire—were introducing modern agricultural methods that increased production more than the traditional villages of serfs could do. While the empress seemed to be carrying out a traditional policy—encouraging enterprises that would produce more taxes—she was also reducing the danger of revolution by diversifying the population. Although Catherine II was angering Orthodox Cossacks and Buddhist Kalmyks by bringing in Roman Catholics who weren’t even good Russians, she knew that ancient rivalries with the Muslims of the Caucasus Mountains and the Turks would make it impossible for them to acquire allies there.

Meanwhile, the Kalmyks were finding themselves ever more unwelcome in Russia. They had taken, in part, the Cossacks’ main reason for existing—military service for the tsar. But more fundamentally, all herdsmen—Cossacks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Kalmyks alike—hated manual labour, working at lowly jobs in the towns and being treated as an inferior form of life. The Cossacks arguably suffered less—they at least spoke Russian and understood what was going on. But they all resisted as best they could.

No cattlemen anywhere have ever been known to be unduly sensitive to farmers’ complaints about their herds trampling the grain. While the Cossacks giving up some of their horses and becoming farmers was nothing unusual—the Cossacks had always been men of the soil—for the Kalmyks this was a serious challenge to their entire way of life. A nomad was a man only as long as he was on horseback, and paying taxes to some Russian official would undermine the whole clan structure. Moreover, for a Kalmyk to become a farmer implied abandoning Buddhism. In the Russian language the word for peasant was крестьян (Christian).

The religious situation in the Kuban was as easily ignited as a prairie fire, and as quick to spread. Everyone was aware of the wars that the Cossacks had fought against the Circassians and Chechens, and they anticipated the yet more fierce wars to come. But Catherine II, like most Enlightenment rulers, believed that she had the knowledge and the power to shape society as she wished, and that everyone would be better off for it.

This had resulted in a considerable reduction in Ubashi’s authority. The Kalmyk clan leaders were already accustomed to considerable autonomy; after all, with the herds scattered over a very wide area, it had been impractical to refer all minor issues to the khan. When Ubashi was required to submit all his decisions to review by a council of tribal elders, it became possible for a rival, Zebek-Dorchi, to challenge him. (We do not actually know this rival’s name, since Zebek-Dorchi means ‘a legitimate claimant’ to tribal leadership.) Soon the young upstart was the dominant figure among the clan leaders, a role that the tsarist governor seems to have recognised—and welcomed as weakening tribal unity. However, the government seems to have had an exaggerated view of what it could expect its new puppet to do. Clearly, there was no point in any Kalmyk leader asking permission to return to China.

When tsarist officials explained to Zebek-Dorchi what they expected him to do, he agreed to cooperate. But that was a lie. He saw what the settlement of German and Russian farmers in the most favourable areas between the Volga and Don Rivers meant—that more farmers would be coming soon. Already herders were being forced to take up lowly trades in the cities and forts; this would inevitably lead to conversions to Orthodox Christianity. But he could not defy the government, because the governor would give his new authority back to the old khan. Nor could he simply murder his rival—Catherine II was not a person to forgive such actions. But he could prepare the way to lead the Kalmyks back to their original homeland east of the Caspian Sea or even back to the Great Wall of China. To this end he began a correspondence with the emperor of China, who gave his approval to the proposal, then wrote a prominent lama of the Yellow sect, probably a Mongol (but often identified, probably incorrectly, as the Dalai Lama), who, presumably after consulting the stars and signs, set the date for the start of the migration in January 1771. All this had to be conducted in greatest secrecy, first to avoid tsarist officials taking hostages from among the families and then to make excuses for crossing the ring of forts that marked the frontier. If his intention was discovered, the garrisons could prevent their passing safely with their herds and wagons.

When Ubashi Khan learned what the tribal leaders had decided, he originally bent to their will, but over the months to come he made as much trouble for Zebek-Dorchi as he dared. He knew that he could not flee to the Russians because Catherine would not forgive him for failing to control his people, and the Kalmyks in the Kuban would probably assassinate him. Therefore, he accompanied the exodus, but did not cooperate fully with the Kalmyks’ new leader.

The garrisons on the frontier were mostly Cossacks, Orthodox fanatics ready to kill Catholics, Jews, or Muslims, or even Buddhists like the Kalmyks. They were fierce warriors, completely at home on the limitless plains, and among the best horsemen in the world. There were also Poles, Germans, and representatives of all the oppressed people in the empire—the Russians had mastered the techniques of divide and rule, letting the subject peoples terrorize each other into submission.

Catherine II thus had good reasons to keep the Kalmyks in her service. If they were allowed to leave, why not others? Moreover, in 1770 Ubashi had led 40,000 cavalry to support the Russian army in its war against the Turkish sultan and had contributed greatly to the ultimate victory. However, the Russian court and army made no secret of their disdain for him and any of their other barbarian subjects. Insolence, contempt, and mistreatment—common features of imperial regimes—were typical of Russian officers and administrators. Since Western Europeans looked down on the Russians, the example may have been contagious; alternatively, it may have reflected the folk memory among Russians of the long and bloody oppression by horse-born raiders and conquerors from the south and east. It might have come simply from the difficulty of finding competent and humane men to spend their lives on a distant and backward frontier, but more likely it was hatred for the way that hundreds of thousands of their people had been carried away into Muslim slavery, and treasure uncountable had been handed over as tribute. It was pay-back time, even if the Kalmyks had not been guilty of those crimes and were not even Muslims.

If De Quincey alternated between ‘Kalmuck’ and ‘Tartar’, it is of no importance. No horde in that era was ethnically pure. Relationships were often symbolic; what was uniform was the lifestyle. Languages varied, but communication was not a problem—this was not the first time there had been a mass migration. A similar one had brought the Kalmyks west, just has earlier hordes—Goths, Huns, Avars, Pechenegs, Mongols and Tatars—had come through Russia into Central Europe. Many had followed the route back east when climate and politics permitted or required, and the route was strewn with the remnants of Turkic, Mongol and Caucasian peoples who had stopped along their migrations. Some of these peoples undoubtedly disliked the Kalmyk plans because they did not want anyone crossing their grazing lands, consuming the grass and spreading diseases.

Since Zebek-Dorchi had to consult with the tribes along his proposed route, it is no surprise that rumours of the exodus reached the governor, who first dismissed the idea, then became panicked. Zebek-Dorchi’s plan had been for the Kalmyks to burn all their own dwellings—to discourage the faint-hearted from turning back—then to fall on all the Christian settlements in the Kuban. However, the ice on the Volga was too thin that January for Kalmyks in the Kuban to cross. Knowing that they would be massacred in retaliation if they attacked Russian towns and farms, they quietly returned to their homes. Thus, the exodus consisted only of the 200,000 Kalmyks living east of the Volga River.

The Russian army was soon on the trail of the fugitives—and a wide trail it must have been, beaten out by wagons, horses, cattle, sheep and camels. However, the Cossacks, regular army units and other nomadic peoples could not move swiftly, either, as they were burdened by a supply train and artillery; on the other hand, they had few civilians to slow them down, and no herds needing water and forage.

The Kalmyks had a considerable head start thanks to having made the first three hundred miles in a week. Exhausted, they paused at a river before moving on at an average of forty miles a day, a pace which was greater than the animals could stand for long. Soon sheep and cattle began to perish. Even earlier their milk had given out, making it impossible to feed the infants and younger children. As a result, it was the camels which saved the tribesmen, though they, too, were becoming gaunt. It was, after all, deepest winter in one of the coldest regions on earth.

The first confrontation was won by the heavily armed garrison of a fort at a river crossing. Fortunately for the Kalmyks, many of the Cossacks had gone to the Caspian Sea to fish, and the rest retreated under the renewed pressure of Kalmyk numbers. Nevertheless, the tribesmen could not take the fort, and since they could not pass by beyond cannon range, they and their herds were under constant shelling the five days it took to reach the opposite shore. At the very end news arrived that the rear guard, 900 men from one of the most powerful clans, had been defeated by a Cossack force and utterly annihilated.

The Kalmyks immediately increased the pace, fearing that the Cossacks would occupy the only pass through the mountains ahead. They gained time to cover that 150 miles thanks to a ten-day snow storm, during which they slaughtered many of their animals and feasted, regaining strength for the race to come; meanwhile each day some of the tribesmen made progress toward their goal. In early February they could see the mountains.

Their scouts, alas, reported that they had arrived too late—Cossacks were already in place—and soon other reports came in that hostile forces were approaching from every point of the compass. This new enemy—Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs and Bashkirs, all former allies well-known to them—deserved their formidable reputation both for valour and endurance. That made it all the more necessary to force the pass at once. But it was only when the Kalmyks attacked that they saw how small the blocking unit was; Zebek-Dorchi then led dismounted warriors around the defenders and came in from the rear at the same moment that the main body of horsemen struck from the front.

The battle quickly became a slaughter. The Cossacks had exhausted their horses and camels to get into position, and so the mounts lacked the strength to carry the surviving heavy riders through the snow to safety. For generations thereafter Kalmyks related the story of the battle as one of the most glorious moments in their national history.

There was still a formidable army plodding on behind them. Michael Johann von Traubenberg (1719-72) was a German-Balt with a reputation for moving as slowly as he thought. Governor of Orenburg, a Cossack outpost just north of the Kazakh lands, he was responsible for the huge region to the south. To maintain his family’s status at the court, he needed a success in this expedition (or at least the appearance of one); on the other hand, he did not want to repeat the failure of the 1718 expedition to Khiva in the Uzbek khanate—the loss of the entire army of perhaps 4,000 men. The extremes of weather were formidable—brutal cold in winter, terrible heat in summer—so he was cautious about wearing out his men and their mounts.

Traubenberg followed slowly with his artillery as far as Orsk, counting on 10,000 Kazakhs and an equal number of Kyrgyzs to join him as soon as the spring grass was up. Both Turkic peoples were Sunni Muslims, but while their Hanfi legal tradition emphasised religious flexibility based on logical analysis of problems, they had each suffered Kalmyk attack when they had resisted tsarist expansion. Now the sides had changed—these warriors could earn pay and the tsarina’s favour while dispatching ancient enemies. But spring was months away. So the best Traubenberg could do was send scouts to keep track of the fugitives, then follow along slowly with the main army. His scouts reported finding many frozen bodies of women and children who had vainly huddled around the campfires in hope of surviving another night.

By May the Kalmyk had covered 2,000 miles. Thinking themselves safe, they scattered throughout the rolling prairie so that their surviving animals could graze and they could relax. When envoys from Traubenberg caught up with them, their hopes of being able to negotiate a new relationship with the tsarina’s government vanished—the only terms Traubenberg would accept were unconditional surrender. This was hardly rejected before Bashkirs struck, wiping out one isolated clan after another.

Once again the Kalmyks set off in wild flight, with their enemies trying to get ahead and hold them in place until the Cossack army could catch up. But the prairie was too broad to trap them long; and the Kalmyks, despite the desert heat and lack of forage, pushed on. In the summer both fugitives and pursuers reached settled territories. Both faced difficult choices—to proceed straight ahead meant encountering forces trying to prevent them from plundering, to go around meant starvation for men and beasts.

Our information about this summer crisis is sparse because our main informant about the winter march, a prominent Russian prisoner, had escaped and made his way back to Orenburg. De Quincey reports that when he rushed into his home, his mother was so overwhelmed by seeing her only son still alive that she fell dead on the spot.

As the two hordes approached the Chinese border in the early autumn, the fighting became ever more frenzied. As De Quincey put it: ‘The spectacle became too atrocious; it was that of a host of lunatics pursued by a host of fiends.’

As it happened, that very day, September 8, the Chinese emperor, Qianlong, was visiting Xinjiang, hunting in a vast area made almost devoid of human population by earlier operations of the Chinese army. According to a Jesuit reporter, he was standing at the entrance to his pavilion when he observed a cloud in the distance, a cloud that became ever larger, rolling forward in immense billows. Quickly he summoned his military escort and huntsmen, who watched in consternation as they espied distant men thundering toward them, with faint cries of desperation and combat discernible. There were so few Chinese that they could be easily overwhelmed, but nobody dared move without an imperial command.

The emperor realised that the foremost party was the Kalmyk host, but he had not expected them to arrive for another three months and not in such furious haste. While the emperor debated with himself whether or not to retire towards his main army, he saw that the mass of horsemen began moving away at a slight angle toward a body of water, Lake Balkhash (Tengis). He was too far away to see well, but he was quickly informed that the Kalmyks, Kyrgyzs and Bashkirs had been ten days in the desert and were now perishing from thirst. With no thought for further fighting, the Kalmyks threw themselves into the lake. There they were slaughtered by their pursuers until the Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs also succumbed to the desire to drink. Then a desperate struggle began, with all sides trying to lap up the bloody water, to push enemies beneath the surface, and to gather in protective clumps of friends and relatives. Then the Chinese cavalry arrived and the commander of a nearby fort began lobbing cannon balls among those Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs who remained mounted at a distance. The Kalmyks then took their revenge on those dismounted enemies who had been abandoned by their fleeing kinsmen.

The emperor assigned the Kalmyks territories superior to those they had abandoned in Russia, but the losses in human and animal wealth could not be made good quickly. Moreover, Zebek-Dorchi was now thoroughly disgusted with the khan, an enmity that came to the attention of the emperor, who soon discovered that Zebek-Dorchi had been conspiring with various tribal leaders to throw off Chinese rule. The emperor apparently ordered the khan to deal with it, which he did at a banquet during the great assembly of the ‘Tatar peoples’—an annual tradition dating back to the time of the Mongols—slaughtering Zebek-Dorchi and his fellow conspirators. Ubashi Khan was henceforth the undisputed ruler of the Kalmyks, but, with his people scattered to the five districts assigned by the emperor, he ceased to be important.

Ubashi Khan did have his revenge on his rivals—his partisans wrote the tribal history.

Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest I

Raids and Razzias

As well as being characterized by the sort of larger-scale offensive and defensive strategy exemplified in the campaigns of, for example, 838 or 863 described already, the period up to the middle of the tenth century saw a style of frontier fighting and skirmishing, of guerrilla tactics and raiding, that had developed over the centuries from the period when the frontiers became more-or-less stable in the first part of the eighth century. Quite a lot is known about this style of fighting both from historians’ accounts of campaigns and battles, as well as from a number of military handbooks, some of them written by serving soldiers. The late ninth- or early tenth-century Tactica of the emperor Leo VI, for example, shows that warfare along the eastern front followed a well-established pattern. By the 950s and 960s, this was changing, as imperial successes in pushing forward the frontier rendered the traditional system of defensive warfare more or less redundant.

The eastern frontier was guarded by a chain of lookout posts, with small units of irregulars acting as scouts and informants along the frontier, particularly covering the various points of ingress into imperial territory. The frontier was a broad band of territory, and the location of such lookout posts seems to have changed according to the situation, while raids and counterraids intended to destroy enemy outposts or more important local fortresses and bases frequently altered the pattern of local strategy.

An anonymous treatise written in the 960s sets out the key aspects of this type of warfare. First, the local commanders should make sure that the networks of watch-posts and lookouts are in order. Scouts should be recruited from among the local population, men with experience, a good knowledge of local routes and the different qualities they possess. They should work on a fifteen-day rotation, and be dispatched in small groups to watch the roads and routes that might be used by the enemy. Local commanders should make extensive use of spies, including merchants and others on genuine business in the enemy’s land – a long tradition in Byzantine strategic thinking. The call-up of registered soldiers should be strictly observed, and the scouting parties should be checked by an officer from time to time. They should also change their location in order to avoid capture. There were pre-planned schemes for evacuating the non-military population of the regions through which an enemy raiding party would pass, once its route had been ascertained, in order to preserve the local population and at the same time to deprive the enemy of the chance to collect provisions and easy booty.

The most important aspect of this frontier defensive strategy was ‘shadowing’. Following and harassing the enemy by exploiting one’s own knowledge of the local terrain was one aspect; keeping a close watch on his column and especially his encampment, in order to attempt ambushes on forage parties and other isolated groups, was another. Crucial to all operations was the idea of bringing together several smaller forces, leading eventually either to a full-scale confrontation, but with the imperial forces at a numerical advantage, or to a pincer movement, designed to encourage the enemy force to give up and return home. In this case, it was usually planned for imperial troops to have occupied the passes or exit routes which the enemy commander would follow. The subsequent surprise attack or ambush, which could result in the recovery of all or most of the booty, and certainly with the destruction and rout of the enemy army, was the ultimate aim. The possibility that his own forces might themselves become the victims of shadowing and ambush was ever-present, however, and the Byzantine commander was urged to use scouts and outriders in order to prevent this from happening.

One of the distinguishing features of this treatise is the focus on the judgement and independence of the local commanders. Not only should they themselves organize regular, small-scale raids over the border (unless the empire had made a formal truce with the Arab emirs or the Caliphate itself); they should be prepared to attack an invading force whenever an appropriate opportunity arose, and not necessarily wait for the arrival of reinforcements or the local senior commander.

The author of the treatise distinguishes three types of enemy raid, differentiated by size or by timing. Small, rapid raiding parties of cavalry, which might invade Roman territory at any time, and whose entry should be communicated to the local commanders as quickly as possible by the border scouts and watch-posts, should be shadowed, met, ambushed or hemmed in, and turned back, and if possible without any substantial gains in booty. Secondly, there were major raids, generally in August and September, consisting of substantial forces made up of volunteers for the jihâd as well as regular troops from the Arab borderlands – Malatya, Aleppo, Tarsos and Antioch. Such raids had both an economic and an ideological function, first in terms of the desire for booty, and to damage the Roman economy, and second in respect of the desire of many Muslims to participate in the jihâd. The local commander was enjoined to use every means at his disposal to find out when such raids would begin, by which route, and how numerous the enemy host would be. The invading force should be shadowed, along with any accompanying raiding parties which were sent out once the main force had reached Roman territory. The invaders’ logistical difficulties should be maximized by the removal of livestock and crops, or even their destruction in extreme cases. The enemy force should be subject to constant harassment as it moved, foraged for supplies, set up camp, or attempted to collect booty. The passes through which it would return should be occupied and ambushes laid; the water-supplies should be held by Byzantine forces. The enemy should be attacked as they returned, laden with booty. Naturally, the Romans were not always able to respond successfully to such attacks, and there are many examples where Roman preparations failed to produce the desired results, or where the Roman commanders were unable to outwit and out-general their adversary.

The local commander also had to be on his guard against surprise raids, launched before the local population had been evacuated or any sort of ambush or shadowing-party sent out. In an effort to delay the enemy, various measures could be applied, such as a feint attack to distract the enemy from pillaging the villages while they were being hastily evacuated. Once the local troops were in the field, the strategy of harassment and ambush, by day and by night, came into play. While he was one of the empire’s most successful antagonists, the emir of Aleppo was ambushed on at least three occasions using this strategy, barely escaping with his life on one occasion.

This sort of warfare could also be offensive. Local commanders were advised to maintain bands of raiders, whose task it was to raid deep into enemy territory in order to foment insecurity and uncertainty. One of their most important tasks was to take prisoners, so that Byzantine commanders might learn of enemy troop movements and intentions. Similar arrangements seem to have operated in the Balkans at times, although these were not always regular soldiers, but drawn from semi-independent peoples whose marginal situation between the two cultures suited them ideally for this task. Such sources also provided some of the regular light cavalry, in view of their detailed knowledge both of regular routes as well as side-paths and concealed tracks, watering- and camping-places in the mountains.

In the following, a typical penetrative raid into eastern Asia Minor by a medium-sized Arab army is described. The account comes from an eyewitness and contemporary of the leader of the expedition, the famous warrior emir of Aleppo, Sa’if ad-Daulah, and provides a wealth of topographical detail which neatly complements the information and the description of the Byzantine strategic response to such raids found in the tenth-century military handbooks.

Sa’if ad-Daulah’s Raid of 956

The raid in question was launched in early spring of that year, intended as a booty-collecting expedition, as an attack on the Roman frontier provinces, and as a distraction intended to draw off the Roman forces that had been sent to raid the lands to the east of Sa’if’s own base at Aleppo. Its object was the district of Anzitene, recently conquered by the eastern Roman armies and incorporated into the thema of Mesopotamia. This was a rich district and had always been of strategic importance, both in the wars between east Rome and the Persians and later in those between Romans and Arabs. Its strategic location attracted attention, for it commanded access to Armenia from the south and south-west and across the Euphrates. Whoever held Anzitene had a springboard for attacks in either direction, and the Romans were now using it for precisely that purpose, as their campaigns to roll back the Islamic emirates along their south-eastern flank progressed. Sa’if had received information that the military governor of Anzitene, based at the fortress town of Harput (mod. Elaziz), had set out to raid the upper Tigris region, part of Sa’if ’s domain, leaving his home territory more-or-less undefended, presumably because Sa’if was himself still far to the south-west in his capital at Aleppo.

Gathering his forces of both cavalry and infantry (who nonetheless, as was customary with Muslim raiders throughout this period, were mounted so that they could keep up with the fast pace set by the cavalry units), Sa’if set out on Monday 28 April first for the town of Harran, where he negotiated the support of the local Beduin, the Banu Numair. Rather than marching east to deal with the Byzantine raiders in and around Amida, however, he then turned north and marching past several of his own fortresses, entered enemy territory north of the fortress of Hisn Arqanin (mod. Ergani) – the marches of Anzitene – some twelve days after leaving Aleppo, on Saturday 10 May. The castle controls the southern end of the Ergani pass, and it is likely that Sa’if ’s forces controlled the rest of the pass, which cuts through the mountains to enter the plain of Anzitene near the lake now known as Hazar Gölü (anc. Lake Thospitis). Upon receiving news of the Muslim raid, the eastern Roman commander and his forces withdrew from Amida, and began the march back to their own territory. Sa’if ’s raid had clearly taken them by surprise.

Sa’if set up camp on the shores of the lake. The nearest major Byzantine base was at Arsamosata (mod. Haraba), some distance to the north-east at the end of the valley of the Arsanias river, which flows westwards down to the Euphrates. Sa’if ’s force was, therefore, safe from attack for a while. Here the Arab cavalry ravaged the surrounding countryside, carrying off much booty and many captives. The next day – Sunday 11 May – Sa’if himself sent a small raiding force to scout ahead as far as the Arsanias, following himself once it had been deemed safe, and encamped in a small village at the base of the hill on which the provincial capital of Harput was situated – the absence of most of the local forces gave him essentially a free hand in the region. The area was thoroughly ravaged, before he set forth again marching this time to the north-west, where he bridged the river with materials he had carried with him (dismantled rafts and boats) and, having sent across a small cavalry vanguard in advance to secure the bridgehead, crossed with his main army three days later (on Thursday 15 May), destroying the governor’s residence. This was an entirely unexpected action on Sa’if ’s part, and as well as burning the residence of the governor other undefended settlements were also destroyed. The whole area was thoroughly ravaged and an enormous booty in people, livestock and materials was collected.

Having completed his action on the northern bank of the river, Sa’if withdrew to his base and then marched south, pillaging as he went, until he reached the important fortress of Dadima, to which he lay siege. The garrison was quite unprepared for an attack, and would have surrendered had Sa’if not received news at this point of the occupation of the passes through which he was expected to retire by the returning Roman forces. Rather than head for the obvious exits, however, on Friday 23 May he marched south east and encamped not far from Arsamosata, whence he made his way not to the pass of Ergani, by which he had entered Anzitene, but to the pass of Baq’saya, to the south of Arsamosata and east of the Ergani pass. Here he found a small eastern Roman force blocking his way and, in a fierce battle late on Saturday 24 May, he managed to drive it off with considerable loss, seizing its baggage train and killing several prominent leaders. By the evening of Sunday (25 May) he was back in Amida, where he received, of course, a hero’s welcome. In three weeks of campaigning he had penetrated deeply into the Byzantine frontier region, caused a great deal of damage and dislocation to the local population and the military command, totally outmanoeuvred his enemy, outwitted them in a short, sharp field action, and returned safely laden with booty. The raid is a classic of its kind, and also illustrates the problems faced by eastern Roman commanders when they failed to follow the strategy of shadowing warfare enunciated in the treatise we have discussed above and left their own territories inadequately protected. And although there can be little doubt that Sa’if was by far one of the most outstanding of the Muslim emirs with whom the Byzantines had to contend in the region, the account of this raid provides an excellent insight into the character of the warfare along the eastern frontier of the Roman world from the eighth until the tenth century.

Sa’if was not always so successful, however, and indeed there is enough evidence to suggest that the Byzantine tactics – permitting the enemy force to enter Roman territory but blocking their exits – proved sufficiently successful to deter all but the bravest raiders. In 950, for example, he had mounted a similar large-scale raid with a substantial force – supposedly some 30,000, although this may be exaggerated. Leaving Aleppo in the spring he had pushed up through the Taurus, marched north to cross the Halys, and ravaged the area before meeting and defeating a smaller Byzantine force. On his return, however, the Roman forces had correctly assessed which defiles he would use and, permitting the vanguard to pass their pickets unopposed, had then blocked the pass and fallen on the main body and the rearguard. The raiders panicked and fled, suffering substantial casualties, the booty was recovered more-or-less in its entirety and Sa’if, having been abandoned by all but a few of his men, barely escaped with his life. Similar tactics were employed again in both 958 and 960, when Sa’if found his way blocked and suffered a substantial and, on the last occasion, nearly fatal defeat, with the loss of all the booty and his own baggage train.

Warfare in the Age of Byzantine Reconquest II

Offensive Strategy and Tactical Change

From the seventh to the 12th centuries, the Byzantine army was among the most powerful and effective military forces – neither Middle Ages Europe nor (following its early successes) the fracturing Caliphate could match the strategies and the efficiency of the Byzantine army. Restricted to a largely defensive role in the 7th to mid-9th centuries, the Byzantines developed the theme-system to counter the more powerful Caliphate. From the mid-9th century, however, they gradually went on the offensive, culminating in the great conquests of the 10th century under a series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros II Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil II. The army they led was less reliant on the militia of the themes; it was by now a largely professional force, with a strong and well-drilled infantry at its core and augmented by a revived heavy cavalry arm. With one of the most powerful economies in the world at the time, the Empire had the resources to put to the field a powerful host when needed, in order to reclaim its long-lost territories.

As a result of the increasingly aggressive warfare carried on by the empire from the second quarter of the tenth century, particularly on the eastern front, the need to recruit more professional soldiers, and the need to operate effectively on campaigns which demanded more than the seasonally available forces provided by the traditional thematic armies, a number of important changes appeared in the tactical structure and in the arms and armour of Byzantine troops. A number of important technical treatises on strategy and tactics were written in the middle and later tenth century, and the narrative accounts of contemporaries, both Byzantines and Arabs, corroborate much of what they say. The changes can be enumerated briefly as follows: (1) the revival of a corps of disciplined, effective heavy infantry, able to stand firm in the line of battle, confront enemy infantry and cavalry, support their own cavalry, march long distances and function as garrison troops away from their home territory on a permanent basis; (2) the introduction of a corps of heavy cavalry armed with lances and maces, which could operate effectively alongside infantry, adding weight to the Byzantine attack and thus substantially enhancing the aggressive power of the Byzantine cavalry; (3) the development of field tactics in which these arms operate in a complementary way, offering the commanding officer a flexible yet hard-hitting force which could respond appropriately to a range of different situations.

Evidence for these changes comes partly from the contemporary sources, especially the military handbooks already referred to, but also from the startling successes marked up by Byzantine armies in the process of reconquest and expansion from the 950s onwards. In a tract known as the ‘Recapitulation of Tactics’, a new formation of infantry soldiers is described, consisting of troops wielding thick-stocked, long-necked javelins or pikes, probably similar in form to the Roman legionary pilum. Their task was to confront and beat back enemy heavy cavalry attacks. According to the ‘Recapitulation’ there should have been about 300 soldiers equipped in this manner, arrayed in the intervals between the infantry units making up the main battle line. They were deployed in either line or wedge formation to break up an enemy attack. In a treatise known as the ‘Military Precepts’ compiled some twenty years later, the tactic had evolved further, so that there were in each major infantry unit of 1,000 men 100 soldiers so equipped, integrated with 400 ordinary spearmen, 300 archers and 200 light infantry (with slings and javelins). Their task remained unchanged.

This important change in the role of infantry was reflected in the changed political and military situation of the tenth century. Whereas the sixth-century Strategikon presents its sections on infantry drill and formations after those (more detailed) dealing with cavalry, the tenth-century texts give infantry formations equal or even preferential treatment. Infantry had now become a key element of the army both numerically and tactically, outnumbering cavalry by 2:1 or more, in contrast to the normal situation in the preceding centuries. Contemporaries note the greatly improved discipline and training which such troops displayed. The importance of infantry is demonstrated in the fact that a special commander for the infantry division in each army was appointed, the hoplitarch (hoplitarches), in charge of training, discipline and fighting skill. The new tactics were embodied in a new formation, in which infantry and cavalry worked together, essentially a hollow square or rectangle, depending on the terrain, designed to cope with encircling movements from hostile cavalry, as a refuge for Byzantine mounted units when forced to retreat, and as a means of strengthening infantry cohesiveness and morale.

These new formations mark a real change in the role of infantry, no longer drawn up in a deep line with only a limited offensive role, but actively integrated into the offensive heavy cavalry tactics of the period. Infantry units now represented a sort of mobile marching-camp, with a traditionally rather unreliable force given new strength as a defensive field formation on the one hand, to provide security in defence and on the march, a mobile base and refuge for lighter troops and cavalry, and on the other as a formation which could be transformed into a solid attacking formation at a few simple commands. One important aspect of this change was a focus on the recruitment of good infantry from warlike peoples within the empire, especially Armenians. The demand for uniformity in tactical function and therefore equipment and weaponry meant that the Byzantine infantry of this period were more like their classical Roman predecessors than anything in the intervening period.

The cavalry also evolved at this time. New formations of ‘super heavy’ cavalry appear, called klibanophoroi, heavy cavalry troopers armed from head to foot in lamellar, mail and quilting, whose horse was likewise protected – face, neck, flanks and forequarters were all to be covered with armour to prevent enemy missiles and blows from injuring the cavalryman’s mount. Very few in number (because they were so expensive to maintain) these became the elite strike force within each field army. Drawn up in a broad-nosed wedge, their primary function was to smash through the enemy heavy cavalry or infantry line, disrupt his formation, and open up the enemy battle order to allow the supporting horse to turn the enemy’s flanks. The ‘Military Precepts’ mentions a formation of just over 500 such troops for a large wedge, two-thirds of whom would be real klibanarioi/kataphraktoi, the rest equipped as lightly armed mounted archers.

Both Byzantine and Arab writers of the time comment on the impressive effects of this formation on their foes. One Arab writer notes that the horse-armour of the heavy cavalry mounts made them appear to be advancing without legs. Some of these changes were probably due to the general, later emperor, Nikephoros Phokas, who became commander-in-chief in the East in the 950s, and immediately embarked upon a programme of training and drilling the soldiers in an attempt to re-establish good discipline, fighting spirit and good battlefield skills. His success is evident in the effective warfare waged by Byzantine forces over the following fifty years or more.

A Feigned Retreat in 970

In the autumn of the year 965, shortly after the conquest by Byzantine armies of the islands of Crete and Cyprus, as well as the destruction of the Islamic power in Cilicia and its incorporation into the empire, Bulgarian envoys arrived at the court of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Their purpose was to request the payment of the ‘tribute’ (or ‘subsidy’ from the imperial perspective) paid by Constantinople to the Bulgar Tsar as part of the guarantee for the long-lasting peace which had been established after the death of Tsar Symeon in 927. But the situation of the empire had changed radically in the course of the preceding half century, and rather than pay, the emperor Nikephoros, outraged by the presumptive demand of the Bulgarian ruler, had the envoys beaten and sent home in disgrace. He despatched a small force to demolish a number of Bulgarian frontier posts, and then called in his allies to the north, the Kievan Rus’, to attack the Bulgars in the rear.

The steppe region stretching from the plain of Hungary eastwards through south Russia and north of the Caspian was the home of many nomadic peoples, mostly of Turkic stock. It was always a key principle of Byzantine diplomacy to keep these peoples well disposed towards the empire. Following the collapse of the Avar empire in the 630s, Constantinople had been able to establish good relations with the Chazars whose Khans, although converting to Judaism, remained a faithful ally of most Byzantine emperors. Chazar Khans often took up Byzantine invitations to attack the Bulgars from the North, for example, when war broke out in this region. And they served also to keep the imperial court informed of developments further east. The Chazar empire contracted during the later ninth century, as various peoples to the east were set in motion by the expansion of the Turkic Pechenegs. These newcomers clashed with both the Chazars and the Magyars, establishing themselves in the steppe region between the Danube and Don. Their value to the empire as a check on both the Rus’ and the Magyars was obvious, particularly in the wars of the later tenth century, but they were a dangerous and frequently unreliable ally. The Magyars (Hungarians) had been established to the north-west and west of the Chazars since the middle of the ninth century, settling in what is now Hungary by about 900 AD. Both Chazars and Magyars served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies, particularly against the Bulgars, although the establishment by the later tenth century of a christianized Hungarian kingdom on the central Danube posed a potential challenge to Byzantine power in the region, which became especially acute during later centuries. But the growing power of the Kiev Rus’ during the later ninth and tenth centuries introduced important changes to this situation and to Byzantine diplomacy.

The Rus’ were the product of an amalgamation of Scandinavian settlers and indigenous, largely Slavic peoples, based along the rivers of central and western Russia. Their dominance over the neighbouring steppe and forest peoples had made them an important political power. By the middle of the ninth century their longships were entering the Black Sea, and by the early tenth century they had established trading agreements – not without some serious fighting between the two parties – with the empire. An alliance had been established from the middle of the tenth century; and when Nikephoros II asked for their help in 966, the warlike and ambitious Prince Svyatoslav, who had already established a considerable reputation through his successful warfare with and defeat of the Chazars, was only too willing to agree. In 968 he arrived on the Danube and easily defeated the Bulgarian forces sent against him. In 969 he had to return to Kiev to repulse an attack from the Pechenegs, but he returned later in the year and quickly occupied most of northern and eastern Bulgaria, deposing the Tsar, Boris II, and incorporating Bulgaria into his own domain. (See Map 9)

This was not part of the emperor’s original plan at all. Nikephoros tried in vain to establish an alliance with the Bulgars, but late in 969 he was assassinated, leaving his successor, John I Tzimiskes, with the difficult task of removing this potentially far more dangerous foe. To add to his problems, some of the Bulgar nobility now saw a chance to recover their independence of the Byzantine state and its culture by working with the Rus’. Svyatoslav sent the new emperor an ultimatum to evacuate all the European provinces and confine the empire to Asia alone. Then, in the spring of 970 a large Rus’ force invaded Thrace, sacking the fortress of Philippoupolis (mod. Plovdiv) and moving on down the road to Constantinople. John was forced to take action.

The emperor was not able to march immediately against the Rus’, for the majority of the effective field units were still in the east, where they had been campaigning in the region of Antioch and beyond, consolidating Roman gains after the recent fall of that city to the forces of Nikephoros II. In response, however, John appointed Bardas Skleros, together with the patrikios Peter, both experienced commanders, to take command of a small force and reconnoitre the enemy dispositions in the occupied territories. Their mission was, in addition, to exercise the troops and to prevent, as far as they were able, enemy raiders committing widespread damage on imperial territory. They were also to send spies, disguised in Bulgarian and Rus’ costume, deep into enemy-held territory to learn as much as possible about Svyatoslav’s intentions and movements.

It was not long before the Rus’ leader was informed of the imperial army’s presence, and he despatched a considerable force, consisting of both Rus’ and Bulgar troops as well as a powerful detachment of Pechenegs, whom he had temporarily managed to bring onto his side with the promise of booty and pillage, to drive the Romans off. Bardas immediately collected an elite force of some 10-12,000, sending one of his officers ahead to keep an eye on the enemy army and find out how many they numbered and where they had encamped. On receipt of the information that the enemy force was quite close, in the region of Arkadioupolis (mod. Luleburgaz), Bardas divided his force into three: two divisions were concealed in the rough scrub and woodlands on either side of the track leading towards the enemy position; the remaining division he led himself, launching a furious surprise attack against the Pecheneg contingent in the enemy force. Although heavily outnumbered – Bardas can have had only 2,000-3,000 men with him – he was able to draw the enemy out of their encampment and feign a gradual withdrawal. The fortunes of the battle swung back and forth, and it seemed at times that the small Byzantine force must be overwhelmed. Yet their discipline and training told, and Skleros finally ordered the pre-arranged signal to be given for the whole force to fall back. At the same time, however, the two divisions which lay in ambush prepared themselves, and as their comrades drew level with them and then past them, they too launched themselves upon the unsuspecting enemy from both flanks and the rear. Within a few minutes the Pechenegs had received such a savage mauling that they turned and fled, while their allies, the Rus’ and Bulgars, who had been hastening to catch them up in their pursuit of the supposedly defeated Romans, were caught in the panic and suffered similarly heavy casualties as the rout became general. According to a contemporary, the Romans lost some 550 men and many wounded, as well as a large number of horses, which fell to the archery of the Pechenegs. The combined enemy force, however, lost very many thousands. The action won the emperor John valuable time and also provided him with essential information about the make-up, morale and fighting prowess of his enemy, information which he put to excellent use in his campaign the following year.

This brief encounter, although the sources offer few details of the order of battle of either side, gives some idea of the possibilities for a properly trained eastern Roman force, when well-led and prepared, to defeat an enemy vastly superior in numbers. There is no doubt that the troops Bardas Skleros had under his command were well-trained and disciplined, as their careful withdrawal and feigned retreat under very difficult conditions, heavily outnumbered and under constant fire from accurate enemy archery, demonstrates. The short battle admirably reflects the esprit de corps, training and morale of the armies of this period.

The Battles of Dorostolon 971

Varangian Guard 10th Century

Plan of the battle of Dorostolon.

Immediately following this victory the emperor ordered more units from the Asia Minor forces to cross into Thrace and prepare for the coming campaign. He also began to build up a strong siege train and amass supplies adequate for the powerful force he intended to assemble in order to drive the Rus’ forces from Bulgaria entirely. The expedition was to be accompanied by a powerful naval force which was to carry troops and supplies and be ready to harry the invader from the coast or support the imperial land forces once they had reached the Danube. For this was John’s intention, and his careful preparations make it clear that he was hoping to drive the Rus’ forces back across the mighty river. Diplomacy also played a key role, with the defeat near Arkadioupolis being used to persuade the Pechenegs to withdraw their support, and John claiming that his intention was to replace the deposed Boris on his throne.

In April 971 the emperor’s army – a reasonable estimate based on contemporary sources suggests it may have numbered as many as 30,000 – set off and passed through the Bulgarian frontier regions. The passes which had so often proved the site of Byzantine reverses were undefended – possibly because the Rus’ were engaged in suppressing Bulgarian rebellion to the north – and the army passed safely through, to issue onto the plain in which the Bulgarian capital, Preslav, was located. After a series of short but vicious encounters the Russian forces were defeated and driven off, and the city was recovered, along with the important political prize of the deposed Tsar himself. The Rus’ forces withdrew to the north and joined the remaining Rus’ troops under Svyatoslav himself, who had established his base in the fortress of Dorostolon (Dristra, modern Silistra) on the south bank of the Danube.

The campaign proceeded with the emperor’s march northward. As he went the Bulgarians began to slip away from Svyatoslav, which prompted the latter to execute a number of high-ranking Bulgars he had with him at Dorostolon and imprison many others. The emperor’s advance was virtually unopposed, and the army quickly took a series of smaller fortresses and strong-points defended nominally by Bulgarian troops who, however, offered no resistance when the emperor offered them terms. Only in the approach to Dorostolon itself was there some hostile action: a small Rus’ force had set an ambush in the dense woodland on the approaches to the fortress, and were able to surprise an advance party of imperial cavalry, sent ahead to scout the terrain and, possibly, locate a suitable site for the various divisions of the imperial army to set up camp. As the main body of the vanguard, together with the emperor, arrived to find the bodies of those who had been killed, troops from the imperial bodyguard were despatched to comb through the woods and eradicate the threat. A number of prisoners were taken and as a token of his policy to the enemy the emperor ordered them immediately put to the sword.

Once clear of the woodland, the imperial forces established a base camp where the baggage and siege trains were drawn up in a defensive position with a small detachment to guard them. Shortly afterwards the scouts returned to inform the emperor that the Russians were drawn up in battle order on open terrain before the fortress. Their formation was reported as a long, dense line bristling with weapons, awaiting the imperial assault and confident in their numbers. Although the figure of 60,000 given by one of the sources is an exaggeration (the area of the medieval fortifications within which the Rus’ forces were quartered shows that this figure is far too large), it is clear that the Russian army was considerable, and had been built up over the three years that Svyatoslav had been active in Bulgaria. The incremental addition of more soldiers – possibly including some from beyond the Rus’ lands themselves – had no doubt increased very considerably the original force that had accompanied Svyatoslav’s first campaign in 968.

To oppose the long, dense line of the Rus’, John drew up his force in three divisions over the same front. Both wings were reinforced by a reserve of heavy cataphract cavalry; and in a second line behind the first he placed infantry archers and slingers, who were instructed to maintain a constant hail of missiles on the enemy forces as long as they were in range. By shortly after midday the two forces were drawn up opposite one another. The Russians did not await the Roman attack, but with a long drawn-out battle roar advanced to meet the imperial forces. At the initial clash the Romans were able to halt the Rus’ advance and at one or two points break through the densely packed mass of warriors; but the latter were quickly able to regroup and re-establish the shield-wall with which they now opposed the Roman thrusts. The battle lines moved back and forth for more than an hour until both sides fell back and regrouped preparatory to a fresh assault. Again the Byzantine forces halted the Russian charge, and were even able to push their line back some distance, but it could not be broken. A contemporary eye-witness, Leo the Deacon, who accompanied the imperial high command on the expedition, remarks on the Russian refusal to concede defeat when they had a reputation for invincibility to maintain, as well as their personal honour as warriors; the Roman forces, unwilling to accept defeat at the hands of a barbarian nation who, to paraphrase Leo, could not even ride, were equally unwilling to give up. By late afternoon the battle appeared to have reached a stalemate, and it was at this point that the emperor gave the command to commit the heavy cavalry on both wings. Supported by a renewed push from the heavy infantry in the centre, the wedges of heavily armoured horsemen now advanced against the enemy wings, and with a concerted war-cry from the whole Roman front the imperial forces charged into the Russian lines, the cavalry crashing through the shield-wall with irresistible force, driving the Russian wings back towards their centre. Within a few minutes the Rus’ front collapsed, imperial units had penetrated the enemy line, and the Russians began to break and stream back towards the fortress for refuge. The rout was complete, and many were killed as they tried desperately to enter the fortress before the Romans caught up or the gates were shut on them.

The emperor recalled his troops, and as they began to return to their base camp, preparatory to establishing a siege of Dorostolon, Leo records that the soldiers sang a victory song. The emperor had selected for the imperial encampment a low eminence at some distance from the fortress. This was fortified by a ditch with the earth piled inside, upon which the troops were ordered to set their spears and lances and, propped against them in an unbroken wall, their shields. Leo the Deacon notes that this was the usual arrangement for a Roman encampment in hostile country.

The following day the imperial troops approached the fortress and launched attacks against various points around the defences, but were met with a hail of arrows and stones. Although they replied in kind, neither side seems to have suffered particularly badly from this exchange and, after being unable to make any headway against the defenders, the army was withdrawn to its camp, although the fortress was kept under constant surveillance. Towards evening the Rus’ made a sortie from the fortress and sent a mounted detachment to harry the Roman pickets. Leo notes that this was the first time they had seen the enemy on horseback. It soon became obvious that their lack of experience in mounted fighting would tell against them, and a detachment of Roman cavalry rapidly broke their formation and sent them helter-skelter back to Dorostolon.

The emperor seems at this stage to have decided not to press the fortress too closely but rather to try to tempt the Russian forces out to meet his own army in open battle, where victory might be had much more readily and quickly than through either a direct attack against the well-defended walls and towers of Dorostolon or a prolonged siege. But he had prepared for all eventualities, and it was at this point, about the third day after the Roman forces reached the fortress, that the fleet arrived, a fleet which included both supplies and reinforcements, as well as a number of warships equipped with liquid fire projectors. This weapon – a type of medieval napalm projected from tubes mounted on the bows of the vessels in question – was already known to the Rus’, for the warships of Svyatoslav’s father, Igor, had been destroyed by the very same weapon some thirty years earlier. The arrival of the fleet, which now sealed the Russians on the southern bank of the Danube and removed any chance they might have had to escape, was a great boost to Roman morale but must have seriously eroded the confidence of the Rus’ forces bottled up in Dorostolon.

The day after the arrival of the fleet, Svyatoslav led his forces out once again in an effort to draw the Roman forces into battle, hoping to defeating them and relieve the siege. As before, however, the two armies were evenly matched until the Roman heavy cavalry with their fearful iron maces once more drove the Russian line in on itself. Again the enemy fell back, at first in some order, then dissolving into rout and fleeing back inside the defences.

The emperor now set up his siege weapons around the fortress and began to attack both the walls and the troops within by a constant shower of missiles. In an effort to rid themselves of this annoyance, which was causing casualties and affecting morale, the Rus’ mounted a series of sorties with the aim of burning the Roman siege engines and other equipment. In one such incident the detachment guarding one of the emplacements was taken almost by surprise and its leader, a certain Kourkouas, who is reported to have been slightly drunk following his midday meal, was killed. Kourkouas was renowned for his luxurious and conspicuous outfit, and the Rus’ who killed him, thinking he was the emperor himself, hefted his head on a spear and mocked the Romans, though without the effect for which they had hoped. The siege machinery that they attacked remained undamaged, and the siege continued.

Pleased with this apparent success, however, the Russian army issued forth again the next day, and the emperor permitted them to draw up their line of battle. Once again the battle was joined, with the Roman forces drawn up in a single deep phalanx, the cavalry partly concealed behind the extremities on each wing and the missile troops behind the heavy infantry in the centre. On this occasion, a sharp charge by a Rus’ contingent succeeded in pushing deep into the Roman line, inflicting heavy casualties. But a counter-charge by the supporting cavalry, including units of the imperial guards, thrust it back, with the loss of its leader, Svyatoslav’s second-in-command, at the hand of Anemas, a member of the emperor’s own bodyguard. The Romans were immediately ordered to advance and push back the demoralized Rus’ line, which broke and ran, retreating once more in disorder to the safety of the fortress.

That night the Rus’ soldiers and their families opened the gates and came out onto the field of battle to search for their dead, for whom they then built funeral pyres and, having carried out the appropriate rites, committed their bodies to the flames. Whether the Roman forces watching the fortress were ordered not to interfere, or whether they allowed this activity to take place without consultation, is not stated. But Svyatoslav now summoned a meeting of the leading warriors to seek counsel. Some advised an attempt to break out by boat, across the Danube, braving the Roman warships which were on constant patrol; others advised opening negotiations with the emperor in an effort to save as many lives as possible – for, as one of the Rus’ leaders put it, ‘we are not accustomed to facing heavily armoured cavalry, especially after the loss of so many of our foremost warriors, upon whom the men depend for their courage and leadership’.

Svyatoslav was unwilling to follow either of these courses of action, however, and with the support, apparently, of the majority, voted to fight it out to the bitter end. The Rus’, he said, are not accustomed to give in, but would rather die in battle and go to Valhalla. And, as Leo the Deacon adds in his account, a Rus’ soldier has never been known to fall living into the hands of their enemies.

The same night, therefore, in a desperate attempt to obtain supplies, a Rus’ detachment of some 2,000 men left the fortress in small boats, and at some distance along the southern bank of the river crept ashore to begin their search for provisions. The naval detachments guarding the river should have detected this move, for the emperor had ordered that no Russian should be allowed to get out of the fortress. Instead, having succeeded in collecting some food for their beleaguered comrades, the Russian force made its way back by a different route from that which it had followed on the way from its boats, and stumbled by accident upon a small group of Byzantine cavalry soldiers sent out to water their horses and collect wood. Heavily outnumbered, the unsuspecting Roman troops were quickly put to the sword, and although the alarm was quickly raised, the Russians managed to get back with their supplies before they could be intercepted. The emperor was furious at this lapse in naval discipline, which had caused an entirely unnecessary loss of life and allowed the enemy, who were clearly in increasingly short supply, to replenish their stores. The naval commanders were threatened with execution if such a lapse recurred.

The next day was Friday 24 July, and having spent the day preparing for the battle, the whole Rus’ army sallied out towards late afternoon before the fortress. They formed up in a deep, solid phalanx protected by a solid shield-wall bristling with spears. The Roman forces were drawn up in the usual three divisions with the heavy cavalry behind the wings and with the emperor himself in the centre leading his own cavalry as a reserve. The location of the conflict was slightly nearer the fortress than hitherto, however, with the result that both forces were crowded together on a narrower front, with woodland on one flank and the marshy regions stretching back from the river on the other. The Russians, in order to counter the effect of the heavy cavalry on the Roman side, placed their archers on the wings where they could do most damage should the Roman cavalry attack them there. Led now by Svyatoslav himself, the desperate Rus’ warriors hurled themselves with fury against the Roman line, and soon began to push the centre back. Many cavalry mounts were injured or killed by the unusually heavy Rus’ archery. The emperor, observing that while his men were holding the line they were also rapidly tiring in the heat of the day, ordered the issue of water mixed with wine to the ranks, presumably on a rotational basis so as to leave the battle-lines undisturbed, a move which refreshed the imperial troops and enabled them to withstand the constant Rus’ charges.

Realizing that the overall tactical situation did not favour the Roman dispositions, however, the emperor then ordered a general withdrawal, and with admirable discipline and order the whole Roman line was able to pull back some distance from the fortress onto a broader plain which offered much greater room for manoeuvre and for more effective use of the Roman heavy cavalry. During the withdrawal one Roman officer, a certain Theodore of Misthia, was cut off and isolated from his unit – suggestive of the closeness of the Russian pursuit – and a fierce mêlée developed around him. At one point he is reported to have used a Rus’ corpse, which he lifted before him by the belt, as a shield. He was eventually helped by his comrades who rushed his attackers and got him safely back to their own lines. Some time after this, Anemas, who had already distinguished himself, moved with his unit of guards (probably the Athanatoi, the Immortals, a unit created by the emperor John shortly after his accession in 969) to reinforce the line. Anemas himself came close enough to the Rus’ leader to attack him and knock him down, but Svyatoslav’s armour prevented serious injury and within seconds Anemas was himself cut down by the spears and axes of Svyatoslav’s men.

Heartened by this the Rus’ in the centre attacked with renewed force and the Roman line began to give way. Some of the cavalry in the rear of the line began to waver and turn, and at this crucial moment the emperor decided that he must commit his reserve, his own bodyguard, to the fray. The emperor’s units, with the emperor himself in the forefront, moved to join the fray, and this sight steadied the Roman centre and allowed them to stabilize their position once more. At this critical point a strong wind blew up, accompanied by a fierce thunderstorm – not untypical of midsummer weather conditions in the region – and the Rus’ had the misfortune to find the wind blowing directly in their faces. Eye witnesses reported seeing a rider on a white horse, who appeared in the centre of the Roman lines and led a charge which smashed through the Russian shield-wall. Later stories had it that this was in fact St Theodore, the emperor’s own patron and a leading soldier saint in the Byzantine Church. In fact, it was almost certainly the emperor himself and his elite guards who, in a final move to open up the Russian shield-wall, led a charge of the heavy cataphract cavalry. Either way, the move was successful. The Roman centre now began to push forward once more, and the Rus’ warriors themselves, partially blinded by the rain and dust, were unable to organize themselves against this new onslaught. At the same moment the Roman heavy cavalry on one wing (the reports do not specify which) under the general Bardas Skleros completed an encircling movement begun moments before, crashing into the flank of the Russian wing and driving it back onto the troops in the centre. With this sudden turn of events the Russian lines dissolved and began to flee once more towards the fortress. The slaughter was enormous as the victorious Roman cavalry fell on the routing troops. The Romans lost some 350 against over 15,000 Russian casualties, an improbable figure but indicative nevertheless of very heavy losses. Some 20,000 shields and innumerable swords were taken from the field by the Romans.

This battle marked the end of the Russian attempts to break the siege and drive the Romans off. They had lost too many men and were rapidly running out of provisions to continue the struggle. Despite his earlier refusal to contemplate asking for terms, Svyatoslav now so no other option before him. The emperor accepted the Rus’ proposals for a peaceful withdrawal and the handing over of Dorostolon undamaged, with all the prisoners and booty the Rus’ had taken, and agreed to permit the remnants of the Rus’ army to cross the Danube without being attacked by the warships with the liquid fire projectors, which the Russians greatly feared. Indeed, John even agreed to resume friendly commercial contacts with the Rus’, once Svyatoslav had reached home. In the event, the Russian prince was never to do so, dying in an ambush set at the mouth of the Dnieper by his erstwhile Pecheneg allies.

In a brilliant four-month campaign, carefully prepared and supported by a well-oiled logistical organization – one of the greatest strengths of eastern Roman military administration – the emperor John I had crushed and driven off one of the fiercest enemies the Romans had yet faced. Leaving a strong garrison in Dorostolon, he returned to Constantinople, where the great victory was celebrated with an imperial triumphal procession. The deposed Tsar Boris was asked to surrender his crown, and the eastern parts of Bulgaria were absorbed into the empire as a province. The Bulgarian campaign of 971 highlighted again the discipline, order and effectiveness of the imperial armies of the second half of the tenth century.

The WWI Air War over the Sea

When in August, 1918, I found on visiting France a complete chain of Naval Aviation Stations engaged in a systematic patrol of the waters of that “neck of the bottle” through which our troops and supplies had to pass, I had but to examine the weekly charts of German submarine operations to realize how much our aviators were doing to make these waters safe.

—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Flying Officers of the United States Navy 1917–1919

The protection given to convoys by the presence of accompanying aeroplanes is considerable and though attacks have actually been carried out when D.H.6 aeroplanes have been present, there is no doubt but that the enemy’s submarines have been seriously hampered in their operations by the constant fear of being attacked or sighted by aircraft. In this connection it is of interest to note that the day of greatest losses was one on which aircraft were unable to operate.

—P. R. C. Groves for Director, Air Division, Employment of Aeroplanes for Anti-Submarine Work on North East Coast

Although airmen’s attempts to liaise with the infantry during the war did not always achieve spectacular results, cooperative efforts between aviators and sailors proved far more impressive. At the outset of the war the British Royal Navy implemented a North Sea blockade to prevent merchant ships from reaching their destinations and keep the German surface fleet bottled up in port. The military and geopolitical effects of the blockade, though slow to show themselves, eventually proved effective, slowly bleeding Germany of resources, sapping the morale of the German people, and giving the United States a financial stake in Allied success. More narrowly, the blockade set the tone for the war at sea and for the next four years German naval activity in the Atlantic, the North Sea, the English Channel, and the air war over these waters centered on efforts to either break the blockade or, failing that, to inflict similar damage on the Allies.

Naval aviation differed significantly from its land-based counterpart in the way it interacted with the non-flying forces it supported. Military aviators regularly separated their reconnaissance missions from offensive operations, observing or photographing enemy activities that bombers or the artillery dealt with at a later time. Naval flyers similarly reported their sightings to nearby cooperating surface vessels, but the fleeting nature of floating targets frequently forced naval aviators to attack the targets they spotted immediately.

An American, Eugene Ely, demonstrated what the future held for naval aviation when he successfully flew an airplane off the deck of USS Birmingham in November 1910 and then two months later landed one on the deck of the Pennsylvania.3 The British created an Air Department within the Admiralty and began their own experiments in cooperation between aircraft and naval vessels in 1912, still more than two years before the beginning of the war.4 The duties naval aviators anticipated performing included scouting for the fleet using aircraft carried aboard ships, patrol work along the British coastline, and cooperative missions flown alongside defending flotillas and submarines. In January 1912, Lt. H. A. Williamson, a British submarine officer with an airplane pilot’s license, first proposed using aircraft to patrol against submarines. He hypothesized that, even if unable to attack, the aircraft’s presence would force a targeted submarine to stay completely submerged, thereby reducing its threat. Williamson noted the French were also experimenting with this idea. Later developments would prove Williamson’s predictions correct. Within six months early results of the British tests convinced the Royal Navy’s Submarine Committee that aircraft showed “promise of providing a valuable anti-submarine weapon.” On September 11, 1912, Capt. Murray Sueter, director of the British Royal Navy’s Air Department, submitted an aircraft development proposal to the Board of Admiralty in which he listed potential duties that included “assisting destroyers to detect and destroy submarines.” Sueter’s plan encompassed suggestions for a network of coastal air stations at various locations around the British coast, including Calshot, Dundee, Eastchurch, Felixstowe, Fort Grange, the Isle of Grain, Killingholme and Yarmouth.8 The Admiralty adopted Sueter’s scheme the following month and had most of the planned installations in operation prior to the outbreak of war. In response to the first successful U-boat attack on a British vessel, HMS Pathfinder, on September 2, 1914, the Navy beefed up the stations at Dundee and Killingholme. By the end of November the Navy implemented a revised plan specifically aimed at protecting the Straits of Dover, establishing bases to cover the fleet on both sides of the English Channel, in Dover, England, and on the French coast at Dunkirk. Earlier that same month the British introduced an offensive element to its air operations when a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) seaplane took off from Dunkirk to mount the first direct air strike on a German U-boat. Though the crew succeeded in locating the U-boat their attack failed when the submarine dived to escape. After this inauspicious beginning the Dunkirk crews devoted their attention mainly to reconnaissance and bombing of the German submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.

Lighter-than-air vehicles also played a role from the beginning of British anti-submarine operations. Gas-filled airships operating over the water offered the same endurance advantage that observation balloons held in land battles allowing aircrews to remain over their patrol areas hours longer than airplanes. By the summer of 1914 the Admiralty had taken over complete control of airship development excluding the Army, and in February 1915 Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, ordered the construction of the SS (Submarine Scout) airship, the first lighter-than-air type specifically dedicated to anti-submarine warfare. The Admiralty’s goal in ordering SS airships focused especially on keeping open the Straits of Dover and access to the Irish Sea. Their apprehension proved well founded. By the spring, U-boats of the Deutsche Kriegsmarine (German War Navy) appeared for the first time off the west coast of Great Britain threatening receipt of western hemisphere imports. To offer political cover for its submarine campaign, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone, seeking to prohibit the area to any and all traffic, even ships representing neutral nations. Locating submarines in time to launch preemptive attacks required more speed and broader range than two-dimensional warfare offered, making aircraft crucial to defense. Submarines might be spotted cruising on the surface—time on the surface being necessary to recharge the U-boat’s batteries—or, in clear weather and calm seas, the boat might be visible even while submerged. By the end of the year, British constructors had built twenty-nine Submarine Scouts.

The amplified threat and the shift from two- to three-dimensional warfare required a broad reorganization of the entire naval defense system in order to incorporate the aerial component. As the war neared its first anniversary, RAdm. Sydney Freemantle, head of the Admiralty’s Signals Committee, categorized reconnaissance as the airship’s primary function, adding that its “duties are to locate enemy submarines and to keep them in sight as long as possible.” Successful communications between the airships and the Navy’s destroyers were clearly essential; to guarantee the strength of that link the Admiralty established special transmission and reception stations and proposed instituting a dedicated radio wavelength. The British Coast Guard administered the wireless stations reporting to each area’s senior naval officer or the Naval Centre. In August, in order to achieve tighter liaison between aircraft observers and the surface vessels whose attacks they would facilitate, the Admiralty removed all naval air stations from operational control of the director of the Air Department and placed them under the command of the various district senior naval officers.

During 1915, the RNAS concentrated on lighter-than-air craft for anti-submarine warfare owing to the “unseaworthiness of seaplanes and the general lack of heavier-than-air equipment and personnel.” Most of the airplanes and aircrew still in England remained unavailable for anti-submarine work, reserved instead for Royal Flying Corps training facilities. Those not tied up with training duties the RFC saved for home defense missions, thus protecting a nervous British public against the threat of zeppelin attacks on military targets and cities in the British interior. This allocation of resources reflected a new strategic approach to the defense of the British homeland. During the first months of the conflict responsibility for aerial defense of the United Kingdom had rested entirely with the Admiralty. In June 1915, acting on the recommendation of War Office Director of Home Defence Gen. Launcelot E. Kiggell, the chief of the Imperial General Staff divided control of home defense responsibilities. The Royal Naval Air Service stood accountable for attackers as they crossed the English Channel, and the Army’s Royal Flying Corps took charge once raiders had penetrated the coastline. Though shedding accountability for aerial defense of the mainland should have made more naval aircraft available for the war against the U-boats, division of control between the Army and the Admiralty and the transfer of naval air station command out of the Air Department to senior naval officers later in the summer instead exacerbated competition for these resources. The situation became further complicated by an increase in reconnaissance work over the English Channel and the North Sea that prompted the British to expand their Dunkirk Air Command. During the spring of 1916 the RNAS divided the command “into three wings, one for aerial reconnaissance, photography and control of naval gunfire, one for bombing and one for aerial fighting.”

Provision of bombing and aerial combat capabilities ensured that British naval aviators did not have to rely solely on passive defensive measures to combat the submarine menace. The highly mobile nature of the war at sea meant that naval aviators did not always have time to return to base or signal for help before their target disappeared. The Dunkirk group had already demonstrated the potential value of direct interdiction by launching some of the first aircraft attacks on U-boats at sea. Early in the war the Royal Naval Air Service organized an offensive capability, hoping to hit the enemy in his lair rather than simply waiting for his ships to appear. In its first month of operations, March 1915, Dunkirk crews launched bombing attacks on Ostend, Middlekerke and Hoboken, Antwerp, claiming (inaccurately, as it turned out) one submarine destroyed and two damaged. The naval airmen organized a combined air- and seaplane force some thirty strong utilizing seaplane stations on England’s east coast and a newly developed seaplane carrier, HMS Empress, with the aim of attacking German submarine pens across the English Channel. The group carried out several missions, but did not achieve significant success.

By the end of 1915 improved German antiaircraft defenses and the relative ineffectiveness of the light bomb loads early air- and seaplanes could carry caused the RNAS to forego further heavier-than-air offensive activity. Initially, airships appeared to offer an alternative, given their more impressive carrying capacity, but ultimately lighter-than-air bombers proved no more successful in achieving measurable submarine destruction than their heavier-than-air counterparts. Consequently, British airship crews returned to concentrating on reconnaissance, searching for submarines already at sea in conjunction with surface vessels rather than attacking the U-boats in their pens.

Despite the considerable attention historians have devoted to its bombing attacks on London throughout the war, the German Naval Airship Division devoted substantially more of its resources to reconnaissance than to destruction. Of the 1,497 sorties German airship crews mounted during the conflict, 971 (65 percent) had scouting over the North Sea as their purpose, compared to the 306 missions (20 percent) flown to drop bombs on England. The rather meager £1,527,544 total damage done to England during the German airship raids offers clear evidence that airship crews flying reconnaissance missions performed potentially far more valuable services.

Throughout 1916 and into the following year the British developed the Coastal airship, a larger design capable of longer patrols, and added to the number of stations dotting the United Kingdom’s shoreline. Between January and December, the RNAS constructed new facilities at Pembroke, Pulham, Longside, Howden, Mullion, and East Fortune, and opened an airship school at Cranwell. Reconsidering its earlier decision to abandon efforts to copy Germany’s successful zeppelins, the Navy resumed construction of a project previously cancelled, Rigid Airship No. 9, and built a large storage shed to accommodate the aerial behemoth at Howden. Anticipating further additions to its rigid aerial fleet in 1917, the Admiralty built more sheds at its Pulham, Longside, and East Fortune stations, and at the Cranwell training facility. Extending its reach off the British mainland the RNAS added an SS station at Caldale, in the Orkney Islands, for work with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

Despite these preparations and its early appreciation of aviation’s potential value in the anti-submarine war, not until the third year of the war did the Royal Navy give priority to the design and construction of heavier-than-air aircraft capable of directly attacking the U-boats. Until then neither the British nor the French felt any pressing need to rush. Germany’s desire to keep the United States out of the war had led the Kaiser to restrict the conduct of his U-boat commanders. This political strategy prevented submarines from achieving their full destructive potential and kept Allied naval losses within manageable limits during the war’s first two years. But by the second half of 1916 the German military and political situation had both eroded. Germany’s attempt to defeat the French at Verdun had failed, ending in nearly as many German casualties as French, a situation made worse by hundreds of thousands further German, French, and British losses at the battle of the Somme. In the wake of these setbacks, the Kaiser’s high command reorganized its military, naval, and aviation assets hoping that, by bold measures, they might defeat the French and British in whatever time remained before the United States entered the war. As a key component of this new strategy, the imperial government stepped up U-boat activity permitting the Kriegsmarine to return to unrestricted submarine warfare.

The lull in submarine activity in the Atlantic during the first half of 1916 had been prompted largely by American diplomatic protests. Germany’s failure to bring about a favorable resolution to the war at Verdun and the heavy fighting at the Somme brought home the prospects of eventual defeat. Balanced against the possibility of losing the war the political risk of offending the United States seemed one worth taking. U-boats resumed hunting prey in British home waters in August 1916 and the new threat prompted the British to expand seaplane patrols in September. In response, Adm. Stanley Cecil Colville, commander of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, requested installation of a four-machine seaplane base at Portland to supplement the existing facility at Calshot and two more SS stations, one for the Isle of Wight and one for Portland, each with ten airships.

Actions like Colville’s proved preliminary to a wholesale reorganization of the war against the U-boat and, on December 18, 1916, the Admiralty created the Anti-Submarine Division (ASD). The new organization took a special interest in aviation and vastly expanded both the number of heavier- and lighter-than-air craft available and the role of its aerial assets in the anti-submarine campaign. Creation of the Anti-Submarine Division centralized naval aerial activities that previously had been left to the individual prerogatives of each region’s senior naval officer. The new division organized a coordinated system of coastal patrols and split naval aviation according to its offensive and defensive functions, much as the Dover Command had earlier divided its organization into reconnaissance, bombing, and fighting wings. Offensive assets included the airplanes and seaplanes patrolling Britain’s waters actively hunting submarines, purely defensive reconnaissance missions being left to airships due to their endurance. Given these measures made areas near the coasts safer but left ships farther out to sea to their own devices, the director of the ASD further recommended enhancing direct protection of the fleet by equipping British vessels with kite balloons to improve their fields of vision.

By January 1917 the British had built a massive naval aviation program that combined three seaplane carriers in service with more under construction, ships equipped with kite balloons, plans for rigid airships, coastal airships protecting the home waters, and large seaplanes able to patrol farther away. Yet, despite this abundance of assets, Adm. Sir David Beatty, commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, regarded his air strength insufficient compared with his needs and recommended to the Admiralty that: “all naval officers who are engaged upon duties not connected with the fleet should be withdrawn and utilized for developing the Royal Naval Air Service.”

The early months of 1917 also saw Germany remove all remaining restraints from its U-boat commanders, resuming unrestricted submarine warfare that the German High Command hoped would bring the war to a successful conclusion within six months.40 Instead, within just over two months the decision to escalate its cruiser war produced the outcome Germany most hoped to avoid. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Ultimately, the resumption of unrestricted attacks combined with a botched German attempt to recruit Mexico into the war on its side, prompted the United States to enter the conflict.

The U-boat war reached its peak coincident with the American entry into the war. The last half of April 1917 saw approximately 50 percent of the German submarine fleet at sea with five ships sunk on average each day. The 19th proved the worst single day of the month for the Allied merchant fleet, when U-boats and German mines sunk eleven ships and eight fishing vessels.42 This spike in submarine activity pushed the average for the year 1917 to three ships sunk per day. As part of the British response the RNAS laid out formal areas for aerial patrols and categorized those missions as “routine,” “emergency,” and “contact,” with contact flights reserved for its seaplanes. Beginning operations in late April, the new patrol system received formal Admiralty sanction on May 8, 1917. Station commanders at Nore, Harwich, Yarmouth, Killingholme, South Shields, Dundee, and Houton Bay coordinated patrol hours and areas in systematic fashion to avoid overlap and to ensure that each district had at least one aircraft on duty in the air during all possible flight hours.

The British further refined their naval aerial reconnaissance system in the spring of 1917 designing both the spider web system and Tracing U. The spider web created an imaginary octagon of chords radiating 60 miles out of the North Hinder light ship in the English Channel, an epicenter around which seaplanes could systematically patrol guaranteeing maximum coverage with a minimum supply of aircraft. Spider web patrols began on April 13, 1917, and in the first eighteen days five flying boats flew twenty-seven patrols sighting eight U-boats and bombing three. Tracing U (“U” for U-boat) divided the southern portion of the North Sea into grids similar to those in common use by artillery units operating on the Western Front, allowing commanders of coastal air stations to quickly pinpoint submarine sightings, then dispatch attacking aircraft or communicate the information to nearby destroyers.

Organizational refinements to the reconnaissance and patrol system proved effective and valuable, but the adoption of the convoy system in late April 1917 proved the most significant move forward toward defeating the submarine. To this point in the war many senior commanders in the British Admiralty opposed convoying merchant vessels believing that warships should be reserved for offensive action rather than escort duty. The large increase in sinkings that followed Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, the success of an experiment in protecting French coal vessels begun the same month, and the entry of the United States into the war in April combined to reverse their opinions. Furthermore, America’s enlistment in the Allied cause increased the number of ships available for convoy duty and opened US ports for use as convoy assembly points.

The added naval capacity brought with it greater responsibility for Allied aviators. In order to protect the Atlantic courses over which the American Expeditionary Force and its equipment would travel naval aviation expanded its former role in protecting Anglo-French military traffic and neutral merchant shipping during the last half of 1917. Land-based airplanes and seaplanes could patrol the areas off the British and French coasts to the extent of their range covering the arrival of ships during the last leg of their travel from the United States. Kite balloons towed by warships could extend the effective field of vision of the convoy before the aerial escort picked it up, allowing crews a lifesaving early look at potential attackers throughout the journey. The British strengthened the new system further by completing construction of the network of airship stations the RNAS had begun organizing in 1916, the last becoming fully operational by the end of 1917. The RNAS, of course, protected the British coast and that portion of the French shoreline most vital to arriving British traffic. The French Navy also vigorously defended its own ports, but paid more attention to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, leaving the Atlantic largely to their British allies and later to the AEF. The US Navy joined the effort within a few months of the American declaration of war and throughout 1918 expanded the network of protective air stations further still, taking over some British, French, and Italian coastal bases and constructing some of its own.

After the task of organizing an American army, an army that barely existed when the United States declared war, protection of that force as it crossed the Atlantic to fight on the Western Front represented the most important job facing American military and naval leaders in April 1917. In addition to the naval air stations they would build or take over in Europe, US Navy commanders faced the challenge of defending embarkation and receiving bases on their own side of the Atlantic, as well as a small number of less vulnerable installations on the Pacific coast. Even with aerial patrols fully operational the Navy would have to defend its ships against German submarines through most of the Atlantic crossing without the direct assistance of airplanes owing to the limited range of aircraft operating out of its coastal air stations. Taking their cue from British and French experience, American naval commanders enhanced the safety of the US fleet during that vulnerable period by equipping nearly every class of its ships with balloons to provide cover for the convoys.

Building the aerial organization necessary to protect the fleet required putting US naval aviators on duty in France as quickly as possible. Within five weeks of the American declaration of war the Navy dispatched Lt. Kenneth Whiting to take charge of the first group of naval flight trainees sent to France. Training preparations progressed well enough that by July the Navy reported to the French that two schools had been established within the French interior, one at Tours to instruct pilots and the second at San Raphael for prospective mechanics and observers. Plans had also been made for an additional school to teach naval artillery observation as well as an operational station at Moutchic-Lacanau.

Once trained the Navy’s aviators would serve at a network of stations in the planning stages or already under construction on both sides of the Atlantic. By July 1917 provisional plans existed for the organization of naval air stations at Dunkerque, Le Croisic, and St. Trojan in addition to the facilities at Tours, San Raphael and Moutchic-Lacanau. Operations commenced at Moutchic-Lacanau on November 11, 1917 and within a week the naval air station at Le Croisic launched the first of an eventual 1,045 wartime patrol flights.

By the following April another four stations had opened in Great Britain and France, at Killingholme, Ile Tudy, Dunkerque, and Paimboeuf, as well as a base at Bolsena, Italy. Patrols from these and the extant British and French air bases impressively demonstrated the value of aerial reconnaissance to the convoy system. In the spring, RAdm. Henry G. Wilson told the French press that cooperation between the French and US navies had substantially reduced sinkings in the waters along the French coast, comparing October 1917, during which thirty-four ships were torpedoed to February and April 1918, when no ships had been lost to the U-boats.

Though submarine losses directly attributable to aircraft action are difficult to document, the mere presence of airplanes or airships frequently played critical roles in the demise of U-boats. Two incidents, both of which coincidentally took place on April 24, 1918, provide typical examples. In the first, airship SSZ 41, stationed at RAF Polegate received a report of a submarine operating southeast of the Isle of Wight. In response, the crew patrolled in the vicinity of the submarine’s reported sighting for twelve hours in a dense fog, returning without having sighted the U-boat. A torpedo boat destroyer found and sank the German raider later in the morning. Official speculation held that the submarine had been forced to remain submerged in order to avoid detection by the airship and that by morning the desperate need for fresh air and recharged batteries forced the boat to the surface, putting it in a situation where it could no longer avoid detection.

The second incident further demonstrates the potential of air-sea cooperation. Two American seaplanes patrolling off the French coast near Penmarch spotted what they believed to be a German submarine operating two miles from a convoy, responding to the opportunity with two bombs. Tracking the encounter, USS Stewart left its position in the convoy to investigate. While en route, the Stewart watched the aircraft mark the site with smoke bombs and, on arriving at the scene the American ship dropped depth charges after which the crew observed oil on the surface. Though no wreckage surfaced, other ships in the vicinity observed oil as late as two days later, providing strong evidence of a sinking.

The success of the patrols and the convoy system firmly established what the world’s navies had been learning throughout the war—that extending the vision of ships using aerial observers saved lives and material. Over the course of the war’s remaining months the US Navy established a dozen stateside naval air bases, in addition to a pair in Canada, one each in the Azores and the Panama Canal Zone, and a total of twenty-seven air stations in Europe. The stations on the American side of the Atlantic functioned primarily as coastal patrol stations protecting the convoy assembly points from the threat of German submarines. The nineteen naval air stations on the European side of the Atlantic that conducted similar reconnaissance flights generally communicated their sightings to nearby ships but occasionally launched their own attacks on real or suspected submarines.

Considering naval heavier- and lighter-than-air units along with the Army’s airplanes and balloon sections makes it clear that American aviation had reconnaissance and observation as its main purpose. Fifteen North American naval air stations and one in the Panama Canal Zone had reconnaissance as their primary duty, as did nineteen of the US Navy’s twenty-seven European stations. In comparison, the French established a total of thirty-six coastal seaplane bases, as well as a half dozen balloon centers, and four dirigible bases. Adding those thirty-five American bases to the forty-five US Air Service airplane squadrons and the seventeen American balloon companies working on the Western Front raises the total number of American aviation units that served during the conflict to ninety-seven, out of which seventy, or 72 percent, performed reconnaissance or observation as their primary function. Regardless of how military and naval air power developed over the rest of the twentieth century, during the First World War its principal and most valuable function lay in the aviators’ ability to see and report what happened on the ground and water.

The numbers of aircraft acquired by the world’s navies during the war further document the growing appreciation for aviation. The British Navy increased its heavier-than-air aircraft stock from fewer than one hundred to nearly three thousand, its airship strength from six to 111, and its inventory of captive balloons from two to 200. The Deutsch Kriegsmarine air fleet grew from twenty-four air- and seaplanes to nearly 1,500, and its lighter-than-air division worked its way through eighty-three airships, beginning the war with one and making it to the armistice with nineteen. The French Navy enlarged its heavier-than-air aircraft supplies from eight at the outset of war to 1,264 at the end, alongside fifty-eight airships and 198 kite balloons. Even the more limited resources of Austria-Hungary and Italy grew exponentially, the Austro-Hungarian air- and seaplane fleet expanding between eleven- and twelve-fold and the Italian inventory by more than twenty-fold. For its part, over the relatively short time it spent at war the US Navy grew its aircraft inventory from fifty-four airplanes and seaplanes, one airship, and two balloons in April 1917 to over 2,100 heavier-than-aircraft, fifteen airships, and more than two hundred balloons at the armistice. These figures reflect the same kind of progress the world’s other warring powers made during the conflict.

Although these dramatic operational changes and numerical increases speak to how thoroughly aviation had been accepted into the world’s navies, they do not begin to hint at the change in character the presence of aircraft brought to the war at sea. Although aircraft may have failed to live up to naval leaders’ prewar expectations due to airframe and powerplant technological limitations, through its reconnaissance function naval aviation prevented many potential sea disasters. History’s failure to acknowledge this enormous contribution lies in the challenge proving a negative always presents to the post-event analyst. In evaluating the impact of the RNAS/RFC merger that created the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918, one historian argued the demise of the Royal Naval Air Service “crippled Britain’s credibility as a sea power.” During the First World War and afterwards the US Navy arrived at the same conclusion. The day had arrived when a modern navy seeking to project its nation’s power around the globe could not hope to compete without its aircraft.

The Pseudo-Baldwin and the ‘Master of Hungary’

The gigantic enterprise of the crusades long continued to provide the background for popular messianic movements. In the official crusades secular politics bulked ever larger. Already in the Third Crusade, which started on its way in 1189, the political interests of the secular states — the Empire and France and England — found open expression. And the Fourth Crusade, in the opening years of the thirteenth century, ended as a purely lay war waged for purely political ends – an expedition in which the commercial ambition of Venice combined with the territorial ambitions of French and German princes to bring about the capture of Constantinople and the conquest and partition of the Eastern Empire. In such a crusade there was no longer any room for the pauperes — they were not wanted and would not have been interested. But they had not abandoned the old ideal of the liberation and defence of the Holy City, nor the old eschatological hopes. On the contrary, now that the barons had given themselves up altogether to worldliness, the poor were even more convinced than before that they and they alone were the true instruments of the divine will, the true custodians of the eschatological mission.

In 1198 for the first time there seems to have appeared a propheta who summoned the poor to a crusade which should be theirs and theirs alone. Fulk of Neuilly was a typical ascetic miracle-worker whose immense popular prestige owed much to his supposed ability to heal the blind and the dumb. And what he envisaged would seem to have been nothing less than an independent army which would be as rigorously insistent on its poverty as, it was said, the horde of King Tafur had been. The crowds set in motion by Fulk perished miserably on the coast of Spain; but within a few years they were succeeded by the Children’s Crusades. In 1212 armies of children set out to recapture the Holy City, one army from France and another, much larger, from the Rhine valley. Each was headed by a youth who believed himself chosen by God and who was regarded by his followers as a miracle-working saint. These thousands of children could be held back neither by entreaty nor by force; their faith was such that they were convinced the Mediterranean would dry up before them as the Red Sea had dried up before the Israelites. These crusades too ended disastrously, with almost all the children either drowned in the sea or starved to death or sold into slavery in Africa. Nevertheless these mass migrations had inaugurated a tradition; for more than a century autonomous crusades of the poor continued to occur from time to time, and with consequences which were no longer disastrous to themselves alone.

Meanwhile in Flanders and Hainaut the Fourth Crusade itself gave rise, indirectly and after an interval of a generation, to a movement which appealed strongly to the messianic hopes of the masses, even though its origin lay in a political intrigue. When the crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204 they installed Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders, as Emperor of Constantinople and suzerain of all the princes from the West who were now carving fiefs for themselves out of the territories of the Eastern Empire. Baldwin’s state was however very vulnerable and within a year the Emperor was captured by the Bulgarians and put to death. At home Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess; but as she could not effectively oppose that resolute and able politician Philip Augustus of France her lands of Flanders and Hainaut fell under French domination. It was an unwelcome domination and on the death of Philip in 1223 it was only lack of a leader that prevented a general rising. At this point the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour. In virtue of his extraordinary history Baldwin had become in the popular imagination a figure of superhuman dimensions, a fabulous creature, half demon and half angel. Gradually a whole legend was elaborated. It was rumoured abroad that the Count was after all not dead but, having sinned greatly, was still discharging a penance imposed on him by the Pope. For many years he had been living in obscurity as a wandering beggar and hermit; but his expiation was now almost completed and he would very soon be returning in glory to free his land and people.

In 1224 a stranger passed through the country around Tournai, distributing largesse and announcing that Baldwin was about to return. A few months later there appeared between Tournai and Valenciennes a begging hermit, in appearance a typical propheta, of imposing stature, with long hair and flowing beard. He was traced to a nearby forest, where he was found to be living in a hut made of branches; and at once the rumour began to spread that he was no other than the missing Count. It has never been decided whether the hermit suggested this role for himself or simply accepted it when it was proposed to him. What is certain is that, having insisted on spending another year in the forest to complete his penance, he used the time to provide himself with counsellors and to organize a secret court. He was visited by the nobility; a nephew of Baldwin really believed that he recognized his uncle in him; the leaders of the Flemish resistance to France at least claimed to recognize him so that they could adopt him as their man. Fortified by this support the hermit announced that he was indeed Baldwin, returned home from the East after terrible sufferings. Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in a scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation.

Accepted by most of the nobility and towns of Flanders and Hainaut, the hermit assumed sovereign powers. But when the Countess Joanna invited him to come to her court to be recognized and acclaimed, he refused to go. Instead, he prepared to establish his position by force; while Joanna on her side, having interviewed crusaders who had known her father, denounced the hermit as an impostor. The towns were in a turbulent mood, not only because they saw a chance to extend their liberties by throwing off the suzerainty of the King of France but because they really believed that their true lord had been restored to them. Now they rose in arms and deposed Joanna, who only narrowly escaped capture. Civil war broke out; and the hermit, at the head of a powerful force, devastated Hainaut from end to end, pillaging and destroying every centre of resistance and setting fire to churches crammed full with people. This was no ordinary war but (as a modern historian has described it) a war of religious exaltation, a crusade against the Countess Joanna – who was now detested not merely as the ally of France but as an undutiful and rebellious daughter. And the leader of the crusade was no ordinary commander but a holy prince, a being so revered that people kissed the scars which bore witness to his long martyrdom, fought for a hair of his head or a scrap of his clothing and drank his bathwater as an earlier generation had drunk Tanchelm’s.

In May the hermit was crowned, probably at Valenciennes, as Count of Flanders and Hainaut and Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica, in a ceremony in which the splendours of western and of eastern ritual were combined. The new monarch at once created knights, distributed fiefs and benefices and largesse and set off on a state visit to his towns. Clad in imperial purple, borne in a litter or mounted on a noble palfry, surrounded by the banners of his domains in the East and West and preceded by the cross which traditionally preceded the successors of Constantine — yet still wearing the long beard of a holy hermit and carrying the white wand of benevolence instead of a metal sceptre, he must indeed have seemed the messianic Emperor, come at last to fulfil the old Sibylline prophecies.

The popular enthusiasm was overwhelming. Headed by abbots and monks, long processions of townsmen and peasants came everywhere to meet him; towns such as Lille and Ghent and Bruges offered him not only their keys but money as well, praising God for a return so miraculous that it seemed a rebirth; people dropped on their knees as he passed by. As a contemporary observer significantly remarked: ‘If God had come down to earth, he could not have been better received.’ Yet the enthusiasm was not equally great in all classes. While the rich tended to look askance at the new sovereign, the poor were all convinced that it was indeed Baldwin who had appeared amongst them. Although modern historians have tended to ignore the fact, the original sources show clearly enough that it was the urban poor, and especially the workers in the great textile industry, who adopted the man as their messiah. According to the same observer, ‘the poor folk, weavers and fullers, were his intimates, and the better-off and rich people got a bad deal everywhere. The poor folk said they would have gold and silver … and they called him Emperor.’ The comment seems all the more significant when one realizes that in that year of 1225 Flanders and Hainaut were in the throes of an appalling famine, such as had not been seen for generations.

Politically the hermit had become a force to be reckoned with, for he had not only established his authority at home but was winning recognition abroad. Neighbouring princes sent ambassadors to his court and Henry III of England offered a treaty of alliance, directed of course against France. To all this the French king Louis VIII replied by concluding a treaty of alliance with the Countess Joanna, at the same time hinting that he himself might recognize the claims of the new ruler if the latter would visit him in person. The hermit accepted the invitation and made his way in magnificent state to the French court at Péronne. This turned out to be a fatal blunder. In conversation with Louis the hermit proved unable to recall things which the real Baldwin must certainly have known. Very soon he was identified as one Bertrand of Ray in Burgundy, a serf who had indeed taken part in the Fourth Crusade as a minstrel in the suite of his lord and who in later life had become notorious as a charlatan and impersonator.

Unmasked, the impostor lost his nerve and fled overnight from the court, while his suite of a hundred knights, hitherto his devoted partisans, dispersed in utter disillusionment. He might still have saved his life, for Louis had granted him a three-day grace in which to leave French territory; but instead of availing himself of this safeguard he made his way to his old headquarters at Valenciennes. His arrival threw the town into uproar. The rich burghers tried to arrest him but were prevented by the popular fury. Instead, some of the rich were themselves taken prisoner and held to ransom, while the rest fled from the town. The common people deposed the old administration and proclaimed a commune amidst scenes of hectic festivity. They also lodged their messiah in the town fortress and set about strengthening the town walls. And Valenciennes was indeed about to be besieged by the French when the pseudo-Baldwin again lost his nerve and fled, taking with him a large sum of money. Recognized and captured, he was paraded with great ignominy through the towns which had witnessed his triumph. In October he was hanged in the market-place at Lille, some seven months after he had first declared himself Count and Emperor.

Before his execution Bertrand of Ray described himself as a poor devil who had been led astray by the evil counsel of knights and burghers. But nothing could break the hold which he had obtained over the popular imagination. The towns had to beg forgiveness of the King of France, but at heart the common people remained true to their lost lord. Although the Countess Joanna ruled her dominions with prudence and courage, for many generations after her death she continued to be execrated as a parricide, while the figure of Baldwin, the Latin Emperor of the East who for a few weeks had appeared amongst the Flemish masses as their messiah, took his place (as Count Emico of Leiningen had taken his) amongst the sleeping monarchs who must one day return. Again in the words of the contemporary observer, ‘at Valenciennes people await him as the Bretons await King Arthur’; one might add, as the common people everywhere had long awaited the resurrected Constans. Brief though the episode had been, it had inaugurated an epoch of social turbulence which was to continue for a century and a half.

In France messianic expectations centred on the Capetian dynasty, which during the twelfth and the thirteenth century came to enjoy a quasi-religious prestige of peculiar intensity. Already at the time of the Second Crusade Louis VII had been regarded by many as the Emperor of the Last Days. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the common people were at one with the king and his official apologists in claiming for the French monarchy an absolute primacy over all other monarchies. The King of France was anointed from the sainte ampoule, which had been brought by a dove from heaven; his standard was the oriflamme, which had also descended from heaven; he himself possessed miraculous powers, particularly as a curer of disease. Philip Augustus – whose very title was modelled on the semper augustus of the imperial title — saw himself as a second Charlemagne, appointed by God to be the leader of all Latin Christendom. On the day of the battle of Bouvines in 1214, which by smashing the coalition of England, Germany and Flanders went far towards gaining him that leadership, Philip actually assumed the role of priest-king and, like Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland, blessed his army as a host which was fighting for the true faith.

In those same years there were sectarians in Paris who saw in the Dauphin, the future Louis VIII, a messiah who would reign for ever under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit over a united and purified world. If in the event Louis VIII distinguished himself by his shrewdness and determination rather than by any spiritual gifts, his successor was indeed a secular saint. Louis IX – St Louis – set a new standard for kings throughout Christendom. Together with his rigorous asceticism, the genuine solicitude which he extended to the humblest of his subjects earned him an extraordinary veneration. What miraculous happenings were expected, one wonders, when this radiant figure set off on the Seventh Crusade? Certainly when he was defeated at Mansura in 1250 and led into a captivity which was to last four years it was a terrible blow to all Christendom. The disillusionment was so great that many in France began to taunt the clergy, saying that after all Mohammed seemed to be stronger than Christ.

It was in response to this catastrophe that there sprang up the first of the anarchic movements known as the Crusades of the Shepherds. At Easter 1251 three men began to preach the crusade in Picardy and within a few days their summons had spread to Brabant, Flanders and Hainaut – lands beyond the frontiers of the French kingdom, but where the masses were still as hungry for a messiah as they had been in the days of Bertrand of Ray a generation earlier. One of these men was a renegade monk called Jacob, who was said to have come from Hungary and was known as the ‘Master of Hungary’. He was a thin, pale, bearded ascetic of some sixty years of age, a man of commanding bearing and able to speak with great eloquence in French, German and Latin. He claimed that the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a host of angels, had appeared to him and had given him a letter — which he always carried in his hand, as Peter the Hermit is said to have carried a similar document. According to Jacob, this letter summoned all shepherds to help King Louis to free the Holy Sepulchre. God, he proclaimed, was displeased with the pride and ostentation of the French knights and had chosen the lowly to carry out his work. It was to shepherds that the glad tidings of the Nativity had first been made known and it was through shepherds that the Lord was now about to manifest his power and glory.

Shepherds and cowherds — young men, boys and girls alike — deserted their flocks and, without taking leave of their parents, gathered under the strange banners on which the miraculous visitation of the Virgin was portrayed. Before long thieves, prostitutes, outlaws, apostate monks and murderers joined them; and these elements provided the leaders. But many of these newcomers too dressed as shepherds and all alike became known as the Pastoureaux. Soon there was an army which – though the contemporary estimate of 60,000 need not be taken seriously — must certainly have numbered some thousands. It was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, so as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for — as emerges from many different accounts – people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men.

Soon the Pastoureaux were behaving exactly like the hordes which had followed Tanchelm and Eudes de l‘Étoile. Surrounded by an armed guard, Jacob preached against the clergy, attacking the Mendicants as hypocrites and vagabonds, the Cistercians as lovers of land and property, the Premonstratensians as proud and gluttonous, the canons regular as half-secular fast-breakers; and his attacks on the Roman Curia knew no bounds. His followers were taught to regard the sacraments with contempt and to see in their own gatherings the sole embodiment of truth. For himself he claimed that he could not only see visions but could heal the sick – and people brought their sick to be touched by him. He declared that food and wine set before his men never grew less, but rather increased as they were eaten and drunk. He promised that when the crusaders arrived at the sea the water would roll back before them and they would march dryshod to the Holy Land. On the strength of his miraculous powers he arrogated to himself the right to grant absolution from every kind of sin. If a man and a woman amongst his followers wished to marry he would perform the ceremony; and if they wished to part he would divorce them with equal ease. He was said to have married eleven men to one woman – which rather suggests that he saw himself as a ‘living Christ’ requiring ‘Disciples’ and a ‘Virgin Mary’. And anyone who ventured to contradict him was at once struck down by the bodyguard. The murder of a priest was regarded as particularly praiseworthy; according to Jacob it could be atoned for by a drink of wine. It is not surprising that the clergy watched the spread of this movement with horror.

Jacob’s army went first to Amiens, where it met with an enthusiastic reception. The burghers put their food and drink at the disposal of the crusaders, calling them the holiest of men. Jacob made such a favourable impression that they begged him to help himself to their belongings. Some knelt down before him ‘as though he had been the Body of Christ’. After Amiens the army split up into two groups. One of these marched on Rouen, where it was able to disperse a synod which was meeting there under the Archbishop. The other group proceeded to Paris. There Jacob so fascinated the Queen Mother Blanche that she loaded him with presents and left him free to do whatever he would. Jacob now dressed as a bishop, preached in churches, sprinkled holy water after some strange rite of his own. Meanwhile the Pastoureaux in the city began to attack the clergy, putting many to the sword and drowning many in the Seine. The students of the University – who of course were also clerics, though in minor orders — would have been massacred if the bridge had not been closed in time.

When the Pastoureaux left Paris they moved in a number of bands, each under the leadership of a ‘Master’, who, as they passed through towns and villages, blessed the crowds. At Tours the crusaders again attacked the clergy, especially Dominican and Franciscan friars, whom they dragged and whipped through the streets. The Dominicans’ church was looted, the Franciscan friary was attacked and broken into. The old contempt for sacraments administered by unworthy hands showed itself: the host was seized and, amidst insults, thrown on to the street. All this was done with the approval and support of the populace. At Orleans similar scenes occurred. Here the Bishop had the gates closed against the oncoming horde, but the burghers deliberately disobeyed him and admitted the Pastoureaux into the town. Jacob preached in public, and a scholar from the cathedral school who dared to oppose him was struck down with an axe. The Pastoureaux rushed to the houses where the priests and monks had hidden themselves, stormed them and burned many to the ground. Many clergy, including teachers at the University, and many burghers were struck down or drowned in the Loire. The remaining clergy were forced out of the town. When the Pastoureaux left the town the Bishop, enraged at the reception that had been accorded them, put Orleans under interdict. It was indeed the opinion of contemporaries that the Pastoureaux owed their prestige very largely to their habit of killing and despoiling priests. When the clergy tried to protest or resist they found no support amongst the populace. It is understandable that some clerics, observing the activities of the Pastoureaux, felt that the Church had never been in greater danger.

At Bourges the fortunes of the Pastoureaux began to change. Here too the burghers, disobeying their Archbishop, admitted as many of the horde as the town could hold; the rest remaining encamped outside. Jacob preached this time against the Jews and sent his men to destroy the Sacred Rolls. The crusaders also pillaged houses throughout the town, taking gold and silver where they found it and raping any woman they could lay hands on. If the clergy were not molested it was only because they remained in hiding. But by this time the Queen Mother had realized what sort of movement this was and had outlawed all those taking part in it. When this news reached Bourges many Pastoureaux deserted. At length, one day when Jacob was thundering against the laxity of the clergy and calling upon the townsfolk to turn against them, someone in the crowd dared to contradict him. Jacob rushed at the man with a sword and killed him; but this was too much for the burghers, who in their turn took up arms and chased the unruly visitors from the town.

Now it was the turn of the Pastoureaux to suffer violence. Jacob was pursued by mounted burghers and cut to pieces. Many of his followers were captured by the royal officials at Bourges and hanged. Bands of survivors made their way to Marseilles and to Aigues Mortes, where they hoped to embark for the Holy Land; but both towns had received warnings from Bourges and the Pastoureaux were caught and hanged. A final band reached Bordeaux but only to be met there by English forces under the Governor of Gascony, Simon de Montfort, and dispersed. Their leader, attempting to embark for the East, was recognized by some sailors and drowned. One of his lieutenants fled to England and having landed at Shoreham collected a following of some hundreds of peasants and shepherds. When the news of these happenings reached King Henry III he was sufficiently alarmed to issue instructions for the suppression of the movement to sheriffs throughout the kingdom. But very soon the whole movement disintegrated, even the apostle at Shoreham being torn to pieces by his own followers. Once everything was over rumours sprang up on all sides. It was said that the movement had been a plot of the Sultan’s, who had paid Jacob to bring him Christian men and youths as slaves. Jacob and other leaders were said to have been Moslems who had won ascendency over Christians by means of black magic. But there were also those who believed that at the time of its suppression the movement of the Pastoureaux had broached only the first part of its programme. These people said that the leaders of the Pastoureaux had intended to massacre first all priests and monks, then all knights and nobles; and when all authority had been overthrown, to spread their teaching throughout the world.

Film: Kagemusha [The Shadow Warrior] (1980)


Kagemusha is an epic war film by Akira Kurosawa set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history that tells the story of a petty criminal who is taught to impersonate a dying daimyō (warlord) to dissuade his enemies from attacking his now-vulnerable clan. The daimyō is based on Takeda Shingen, and the film ends by depicting the actual Battle of Nagashino in 1575.


In the five years after the release of Dersu Uzala (1975), director Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) worked on developing three film projects: a samurai version of King Lear entitled Ran (Japanese for Chaos); Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (never filmed); and Kagemusha, a screenwriting collaboration with Masato Ide about a petty thief who impersonates a feudal warlord. Kurosawa could not secure funding for Kagemusha in Japan until the summer of 1978, when he met with two of his greatest admirers: American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. After Lucas and Coppola persuaded 20th Century Fox to pre-purchase foreign distribution rights for $1.5 million, Toho Co. Ltd. (Tokyo) put up the bulk of the funding: 100 million yen ($5 million). With a $6.5 million budget, Kagemusha was the most expensive film made in Japan up to that time. It was also the most meticulously planned. In the years spent finding financing Kurosawa made hundreds of storyboard drawings and paintings mapping out the look of every shot and scene. Location scouting for a movie set in 16th-century Japan proved to be challenging; pervasive industrialization after World War II rendered much of the country visually unsuitable for a period film. Kurosawa visited dozens of medieval castles before choosing Himeji Castle (40 miles west of Kobe, on Japan’s main island of Honshu), Iga-Ueno Castle (40 miles southeast of Kyoto, also on Honshu), and Kumamoto Castle (on Japan’s most southwesterly island of Kyushu). Battle scenes were filmed on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and least developed island, utilizing hundreds of hand-picked extras and 200 specially trained horses, flown in from the United States. Many of the riders were female members of various Japanese equestrian organizations whom Kurosawa preferred because he found them more daring than most men.


As Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie notes, “Of all the films of Kurosawa, Kagemusha was the most disaster-ridden” (Richie, 1996, p. 205). Kurosawa’s cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, had to drop out due to failing eyesight brought on by diabetes. He was replaced by Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda (supervised by Asakazu Nakai). Next, Kurosawa and his composer, Masaru Sato, parted ways after intractable disagreements over the film’s score. Sato was replaced by Shinichiro Ikebe. Then Shinaro Katsu, Japan’s leading comic actor for whom Kurosawa wrote the starring roles of Shingen and the thief, quit or was fired (accounts vary) on the first day of shooting. Stage actor Tatsuya Nakadai was hired to replace Katsu. Though disrupted by a typhoon and by Nakadai falling off his horse and spending time in the hospital, the nine-month shoot in 1979 went only a week or so over schedule. For the climactic Battle of Nagashino, Kurosawa had to anaesthetize dozens of horses to simulate their having been slain on the battlefield; he had only a half-hour to shoot the battle’s aftermath before the horses started to wake up. Assembling a rough cut from daily rushes as he went along, Kurosawa completed the film’s final cut just three weeks after the shoot ended.

Plot Summary

During Japan’s Sengoku, or “Warring States,” period (c.1467–c.1603), Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), daimyō (i.e., feudal warlord) of the Takeda clan, meets with his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and an unnamed thief (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) whom his brother has saved from certain death using the thief’s remarkable resemblance to Shingen. The brothers decide that the thief could be an asset, as he could be used as a double for security purposes or could prove useful as a kagemusha (a political decoy). Later, Shingen’s army lays siege to a castle of rival warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui). One evening, on a visit to the battlefield, Shingen is shot by a sniper who has been tracking him. Before dying from his wound, he orders his army to withdraw and tells his officers that his death must remain a secret for three years. Meanwhile, unaware that he is dead, Shingen’s rival warlords—Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryû), Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), and Uesugi Kenshin (Eiichi Kanakubo)—ponder the meaning and consequences of Shingen’s withdrawing his army. Nobukado brings the thief to Shingen’s officers, suggesting that the thief serve as a kagemusha and thus act as Shingen. However, Shingen’s officers feel that the thief cannot be trusted, so he is released. The Takeda leaders dispose of Shingen’s remains in Lake Suwa. Tokugawa sees the disposal of the remains and deduce that Shingen has perished. The thief overhears the spies and offers to work as a kagemusha for the Takeda clan. They accept. The spies follow the Takeda to their home, but are surprised to find the kagemusha acting as Shingen. Mimicking Shingen’s every mannerism, the thief effectively fools the spies, Shingen’s retinue, Takeda Katsuyori’s son, and even Shingen’s own grandson. During the clan council meeting, the kagemusha is instructed to listen to all of the generals until they reach an agreement and then simply agree with the generals’ recommended course of action and move to dismiss the council. Shingen’s son, Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), is bitter about his father’s lengthy, posthumous deception, as it puts a hold on his own inheritance and rise in the clan leadership. In 1573, the Tokugawa and Oda clans assault the Takeda lands, and Katsuyori defies his general and initiates a counterattack. During the Battle of Takatenjin (1574), the kagemusha rallies the soldiers and leads them to success. Becoming overconfident after his successes, the kagemusha tries to ride Shingen’s excitable horse, but is thrown to the ground. As soldiers rush to his aid, they notice that he is missing Shingen’s unique battle scars. The thief is shown to be an imposter, and Katsuyori assumes his rightful place as leader of the clan. Meanwhile, Oda and Tokugawa press onward in an effort to overtake the Takeda territory. Commanding his army, Katsuyori strikes against Nobunaga, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Nagashino (28 June 1575). Takeda cavalry and infantry attack in waves, but are defeated by the Oda troops who have hidden behind stockades. The thief, now exiled, witnesses the slaughter and makes a brave show of commitment to his clan by running at the Oda frontlines with a spear. The kagemusha is badly injured and dies while trying to pull the fūrinkazan from the river (the fūrinkazan is Shingen’s battle standard inscribed with “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain,” the four phrases from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain”).


Released in Japan on 26 April 1980, Kagemusha went on to become the country’s most popular film that year, grossing ¥2.7 billion at the box office (the equivalent of $13.6 million in 1980). Screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Kagemusha won the Palme d’Or, sharing it with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. The film premiered in the United States at the New York Film Festival on 1 October 1980 and then went into general release five days later but had poor box office returns; a three-hour epic about medieval Japan, Kagemusha had very limited appeal in foreign markets. It did, however, garner lots of accolades, including two Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction), a Golden Globe nomination (Best Foreign Language Film), and four BAFTA nominations, winning for Best Direction and Best Costume Design. Kagemusha also won France’s César Award for Best Foreign Film. Critics often remarked upon the film’s epic sweep, visual grandeur, and elaborate sense of pageantry but also noted its essential pessimism. As Roger Ebert noted, “Kurosawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors … depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. It is entirely unimportant, he seems to be suggesting, whether or not the beliefs are based on reality—all that matters is that men accept them. But when a belief is shattered, the result is confusion, destruction, and death” (Ebert, 1980).

Reel History Versus Real History

Kurosawa anchored Kagemusha in Japan’s complex medieval history but also took considerable artistic license with his source material. As portrayed in the film, Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) was a powerful feudal lord who waged war against his rivals, Oda Nobunaga (1532–1584) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), for control of Kyoto, Japan’s capital at that time. In the movie, Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies while laying siege to a Tokugawa clan stronghold (Noda Castle in Mikawa Province). Though it is kept secret, Shingen’s death causes the Takeda clan to break off the siege and retreat. In reality Shingen died on 13 May 1573, almost three months after Noda Castle surrendered (16 February 1573), and accounts vary as to the cause of death: a sniper wound sustained during the siege, or an old war wound, or possibly from pneumonia. In the movie Shingen’s corpse is submersed in Lake Suwa and his death is kept secret for three years. The historical reality is that Shingen was interred at Erin-ji Temple in what is now Kōshū, Yamanashi Prefecture. There was no interregnum during which a kagemusha impersonated the daimyō. Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori (1546–1582), took over as leader of the clan immediately after his father’s death and, as depicted the film, defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Takatenjin in 1574. As also depicted in the film, Katsuyori was decisively defeated at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Kurasawa’s rendition of Nagashino is fairly accurate. When Katsuyori’s cavalry force (numbering about 4,000) attacked, 3,000 Nobunaga riflemen, protected behind wooden stockades, opened rotating volley fire with their Tanegashima (matchlock muskets) and decimated the Takeda horsemen. When it was all over Katsuyori’s army of 15,000 had suffered some 10,000 casualties. Katsuyori also lost a dozen of his generals. Nobunaga’s skillful use of firearms to thwart Takeda’s cavalry is often cited as a turning point in Japanese warfare, indeed the first “modern” battle. What is inaccurate about the movie version: it omits the fact that the battle took place in heavy rain—which Katsuyori erroneously thought would wet the Nobunagas’ gunpowder and render their muskets useless. After his devastating loss at Nagashino, Katsuyori hung on for another seven years but his fortunes continued to decline. Katsuyori’s forces were finally destroyed by the combined armies of Nobunaga and Tokugawa at the Battle of Temmokuzan in 1582. In the aftermath Katsuyori, his wife, Hojo Masako, and Nobukatsu, one of his two sons, committed ritual suicide (seppuku). Daimyōs did indeed use doubles for security purposes but the story of the thief is pure fiction.

CSS Mississippi

Various designs were considered.

No other Confederate ironclad has spurred so much continuing debate as the giant CSS Mississippi at New Orleans. That ironclad was a truly singular vessel, and both its unusual construction and powerful machinery installation drew much attention. The Mississippi was begun early in the Civil War and belongs with the early nonstandard design category of ironclads (such as CSS Louisiana) because it was intended for both offensive and defensive operations on the rivers and the sea. This warship was considered the Confederacy’s ultimate weapon in early 1862, if it could ever be finished.

Construction of the largest and most powerful ironclad built in the South was begun at the same time as on the Louisiana at Jefferson City, Louisiana, just upriver from New Orleans. Nelson Tift (1810–1891) and his brother Asa (1812–1889) were originally from Connecticut but settled and made a name for themselves in Georgia and Key West. Nelson was successful as a planter, politician, and business entrepreneur by the time of the Civil War; Asa was involved in ship repair, warehousing, and merchandising in Key West. Neither had any shipbuilding experience, but both were prewar friends of Secretary Stephen Mallory, so they submitted plans for an enormous vessel to be driven by three screws and built without curved surfaces. This conception was a result of the brothers’ perceptive realization that the Confederacy lacked experienced shipwrights. The Mississippi was, therefore, constructed more like a ferry or a flat than a ship. A rough sketch drawn by the Tifts illustrates the design’s unusual conception and basic premise.

Many prominent naval officers and experts were on hand to observe and comment on the Mississippi’s form, and the plans were apparently approved by Constructor Porter. Some of the country’s most senior officers praised the Tifts’ concept. The Mississippi’s intended captain, Arthur Sinclair (1810–1865) touted the “formidable ship, the finest of the sort I ever saw in my life,” as a potential “terror of the seas” capable of “not only . . . clear[ing] the river of the enemy’s vessels, but rais[ing] the blockade of every port in the South.” Even Union Flag Officer David Farragut considered himself fortunate in not encountering a completed Mississippi during his campaign to seize New Orleans.

There were a few others who doubted, though. Lieutenant Robert Minor, the commander of the Naval Ordnance Works in Richmond, observed, “By model she is waterborne in centre and near before and abaft the broadest beam but bow & stern are not waterborne sufficiently. . . . On the whole the work seems to be very reliable, but all depends upon the principle of construction which remains to be tested.” Minor, despite his experience and technical knowledge, seems to have been in the definite minority of opinion regarding the Mississippi. It is uncertain to what extent the engineers and mechanics actually working on the vessel agreed or disagreed with his opinions. The citizens of New Orleans certainly believed the ironclad to be an invincible weapon that could deliver their city from the Yankee aggressors gathering in the Gulf of Mexico. The Tifts found no lack of support for their ambitious project, both in the Crescent City (New Orleans) and in Richmond.

The first plank of the Mississippi was laid on October 14, 1861, but construction lagged despite the simplicity of the ship’s design and its location adjacent to the Confederacy’s largest shipbuilding center. Among the most significant reasons for the delay was the Mississippi’s sheer size: 240 feet long between perpendiculars, 58 feet in extreme beam, and 15 feet in depth of hold.8 The length was increased by 20 feet during the course of construction when it was found during a consultation with experienced engineers that the existing boiler layout had insufficient grate and fire surface area to effectively propel the ship. The Mississippi’s original design called for “11 boilers 32 feet long and 42 inches in diameter, 2 return flews [sic], with mat [mud] drum 24 inches in diameter, steam driver [steam drum] 30 inches in diameter, about 40 feet long.” This already large system had to be upgraded to 16 double-flue boilers 42 inches in diameter and 30 feet long, capable of generating approximately 1,500 HP.

The Mississippi’s triple 11-feet-in-diameter propeller arrangement was one of the first such systems ever built and required powerful engines of 36-inch bore and 24-inch stroke turning at a maximum of 125 RPM.10 The stroke length was later increased to 30 inches during the revision of the boiler layout. The engines were high-pressure horizontal direct-acting and were optimistically projected to drive the Mississippi at 14 knots. Both boilers and engines, in addition to two doctor engines, two blowers, and two steam pumps, were constructed by Patterson Iron Works (formally known as Jackson & Company) of New Orleans.

The size of the Mississippi’s machinery and propulsion components caused great difficulty for the manufacturers. The giant center propeller shaft had to be forged by Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. No foundry in New Orleans could produce the 50-foot-long wrought-iron piece required. In response to this dilemma the Tifts and Secretary Mallory contracted with Tredegar to forge the shaft from the burned-out steamer Glen Cove (sometimes called the Glencoe). The piece was painstakingly removed from the wreck, but no steam hammer in the Confederacy was capable of working such a large shaft, which had been built in the Northern states. Tredegar therefore had to resort to reworking it by hand. Two roughly 25-foot-long sections were eventually completed with some difficulty. Fifty men labored night and day for two months to complete the work, and a special railroad car was built just to transport the immense piece of iron to New Orleans. Much time was lost in the process, and the shaft and center screw had just been installed when the Mississippi was destroyed.

Forging the two wing shafts was also an odyssey. They were ultimately made by Clark & Company of New Orleans. Finding no complete shafts in the area and “no parties [there] . . . competent to make it” (i.e., no one apparently had the proper equipment), the Tifts contracted with Ward & Company of Nashville, Tennessee, to make the shafts. Negotiations with Ward about proper furnace and hammer equipment along with haggling over prices continued for some time but came to nothing. The Tifts next turned to Clark & Company which agreed to do the work. Clark then constructed a large steam hammer and furnaces in a new building for the purpose. Further negotiations with Leeds & Company of New Orleans resulted in an agreement to finish the shafts once forged, and progress was finally made. The shafts were 9 inches in diameter and about 40 feet long.

Manufacture, delivery, and installation of these pieces proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of the Mississippi’s construction. Nor was progress on the engines themselves turning out to be quick and simple. Under the advisement of a noted agent of Tredegar Iron Works, E. M. Ivens, and according to reviews of the machinery layout by Chief Engineer James Warner, many changes were necessary to strengthen the engine component castings. This included most major parts, such as the piston rods, cylinders, heads, bedplates, main pillow block bolts, crank pins, and eccentrics.

Patterson Iron Works agreed to furnish the engines and boilers after a consultation with Leeds had failed because that company was already occupied in manufacturing the shafting for the Arkansas and the never-finished Tennessee in Memphis. Leeds’s asking price for constructing the engines of $65,000 plus a build time of no less than four months was too steep for a short construction time. The Patterson works in turn offered to construct the machinery for $45,000 plus a bonus if the work was finished in ninety days, and received the contract. When the necessary augmentations and improvements to the boilers and engine castings were specified, Patterson added $20,000 in price for building the engines and $8,000 for the boilers.

The delays occasioned by the machinery revisions, and especially making the shafting, delayed the Mississippi’s launch date until April 19, 1862, just days before the Union captured New Orleans. By the fateful night of April 24–25 the boilers, smokestack, engines, center shaft and propeller, and wing shafts were on board, nearly complete but not connected. As a result, the Confederacy’s greatest warship was burned to prevent capture, after several attempts to tow the hulk upriver had failed. The Tifts had just days earlier estimated a completion date of May 1.

The Mississippi’s loss was a huge blow to Confederate morale and especially to the people of New Orleans. So great was the faith placed in its abilities that the anger and shock caused by the ship’s destruction nearly cost the Tifts their lives at the hands of a furious lynch mob. Most were convinced that only treachery by the Northern-born brothers could have caused the loss of the already legendary Mississippi.

Overall, of any Confederate ironclad, the Mississippi was affected in its construction most catastrophically by shortages of workers and materials and the limited abilities of local industry (despite it being abundant and accomplished). Even though the giant warship was of simplified design, there was not enough time to finish it, since New Orleans was captured at the end of the first year of war. As Secretary Mallory realized, there was great manufacturing potential in the Crescent City, but it took too long to build up to full wartime production. In the end the New Orleans firms’ inability to cope with increased industrial demand at the beginning of the Civil War resulted in the premature loss of the city and the Confederacy’s two most powerful ironclads, the Louisiana and the Mississippi.