The Battle of Badr, 13 March 624

Every year the Quraysh sent out two major caravans, one in the winter and the other in the summer, to biannually balance the lion’s share of their wealth. Besides these two, there were always a number of smaller caravans to raid, but the two major ones, established by Hashim ‛Abd Manef, Muhammad’s great-grandfather, were the greatest prizes to seek. Muhammad, intimately familiar with the trading business, knew the general timings of these caravans. The specific intelligence he regularly received from Makkah gave him more details, thus providing him sufficient information to intercept them. He was informed that a major caravan escorted by seventy horsemen was coming south from Syria under the control of Abu Sufyan bin Harb, one of the important elders of the Quraysh. He knew this in large measure because it was the very same caravan, then traveling north, that he had failed to intercept in the raid to al-‛Ushayrah. By calculating the movement of the caravan, along with the time it took to offload and load goods, the Prophet was able to determine the most opportune time to send out scouts to herald the caravan’s approach.

The caravan coming from Syria was loaded with wealth, having virtually every family among the Quraysh involved even if it offered but minimal profit. It was composed of one thousand camels, and at least one clan, the Makhzum, had upward of ten thousand mithqals of gold carried in the baggage. The total holdings of the caravan were upward of fifty thousand dinars, or five hundred thousand dirhams. A mere threat to this caravan would incite the entire city of Makkah to action, and by plotting to take it, Muhammad was essentially threatening to bring down upon the people of Madinah, the very thing they feared: the full weight of Qurayshi might.

Yet to seize this prize would go beyond the monetary gain, for it would establish Muhammad as the principal leader in the Hijaz. Despite any risks involved, he began his preparations and in doing so realized that he would need more men to ensure success. Therefore, for the first time he tapped the manpower resources of the Ansar. Doing so was somewhat risky because the zakat and other charity of this group provided the base of wealth for the operations of the unemployed Muhajirun. Yet his need for immediate manpower was greater than the need for future tax revenue. It could even be said that he was taking a calculated risk, for if this force were to be destroyed, his days in Madinah would be numbered. Some of the people answered his summons eagerly, but others were very reluctant because they saw this move as an open invitation to all-out war with the Quraysh. It was one thing to launch an occasional small raid on a caravan and quite another to unleash a full-scale operation that could entail serious casualties and invite a strong response from Makkah. Such was a daunting prospect indeed.

Muhammad dispatched a scout to locate the caravan, who was deceived as to the exact location of the caravan by false information given by a native of the area. When the scout returned to the Prophet, the two had a secret consultation in Muhammad’s quarters, whereupon the Prophet came out and called on all who could procure an animal that was ready to ride to accompany him on the raid. Some, eager to now follow up the success of the Nakhlah expedition, asked if they could use their farm animals, but Muhammad refused due to the pressure of time, saying he only wanted “those who have their riding animals ready.”

Having quickly made preparations, Muhammad left Madinah on Saturday 9 December 623, with a force of approximately 83 Muhajirun and 231 Ansar, heading southwest toward the caravan watering location of Badr. He had 70 camels and only 2 horses in his force. Before departing Muhammad personally inspected his men and sent home those he considered too young to fight; the range between 14 and 15 years of age was apparently the break-point. As he looked his men over, the Muhajirun presented a mediocre lot, for they had recently been suffering from disease due to their recent change in venue and diet. Nevertheless, if he was to intercept the caravan he would need every willing man available, regardless of physical condition. Realizing that his advance might be spotted by Qurayshi scouts, not to mention having a sudden premonition of evil regarding a mountain tribe in the area, Muhammad deviated off the main route from Madinah and followed obscure canyons and wadis until he debouched into the open plain of Badr.

Abu Sufyan was aware of the danger. He personally engaged in a reconnaissance of his own, riding well ahead of the slow-moving caravan to reach the wells of Badr just after two of Muhammad’s scouts had left. When he arrived, he asked a local if he had seen anything unusual, and the man told him of two men who came earlier, took some water, and then left. Abu Sufyan went to the place where the men had rested. Spying camel droppings, he broke one open to find a date pit within. “By God, this is the fodder of Yathrib!” His worst fears confirmed, he hastened back to the caravan and ordered it to quicken its pace and deviate to the coastal route, leaving Badr to the east. While this meant they would not get any water, he knew they could proceed without it if necessary, and now was certainly a time of extreme necessity. Concurrently, he ordered a rider to rush to Makkah and alert the town that the caravan was in jeopardy.

When this messenger arrived, having torn his shirt and cut the nose of his camel in grief, he cried “Oh, Quraysh, the transport camels, the transport camels! Muhammad and his companions are lying in wait for your property with Abu Sufyan. . . . Help! Help!” With this warning ringing in their ears, the leaders of Makkah rapidly prepared a relief column of 1,000 men. About 100 were mounted and armored, with about 500 of the remaining infantry in chain mail as well. The clan of Makhzum, with so much to lose, contributed 180 men and one-third of the cavalry dispatched.   The Quraysh lightheartedly declared as they made their preparations that Muhammad would not find this caravan such an easy prey as the one at Nakhlah. With Abu Sufyan leading the caravan south, another of their key leaders, Amr bin Hisham, known to the Muslims as Abu Jahl, was in command of the relief effort. Before leaving, the leaders in Makkah took hold of the curtains of the ka‛bah, crying out “O Allah! Give victory to the exalted among the two armies, the most honored among the two groups, and the most righteous among the two tribes.” Twelve wealthy men of the Quraysh also determined to provide the necessary meat on the hoof for the journey, each supplying ten camels to be slaughtered for rations. Logistical lift was provided by seven hundred camels for this hastily organized force.

Having prepared the relief force as speedily as possible, they marched hard to the north, soon meeting another messenger from Abu Sufyan declaring the caravan was now safely past the danger zone. But Abu Jahl was determined to press on ahead and thus changed the mission of protecting the caravan to one of engaging Muhammad’s men. This caused Abu Sufyan to cry in anguish, “Woe to the people! This is the action of Amr bin Hisham,” thereby exonerating himself of Abu Jahl’s actions. It was possible that Abu Jahl was determined to gain glory for himself at the expense of Abu Sufyan and thus gain power in Makkah, since the two were intense rivals. However, it should also be noted that Abu Jahl probably had a far better appreciation of the danger presented by Muhammad’s insurgency, and was thus willing to risk more in an effort to crush it.

Abu Jahl’s rash decision to change the relief column’s mission led to immediate complications. With a pending, though now seemingly unnecessary, battle in sight, a number of the Quraysh were not interested in either fighting their fellow clansmen or helping him establish primacy in Makkah due to a renowned victory. This was further exacerbated by the dream of one of the members of the al-Muttalib family, the very same from which Muhammad hailed, in which he foresaw the deaths of the principle nobles of the Quraysh in the coming battle. Abu Jahl could only lament with disdain that “this is yet another prophet from the clan of al-Muttalib,” and urged his men to ignore the portent. Relating such a dream could very well have been the action of a fifth columnist within the ranks of the Quraysh to instill fear and doubt, thus dampening their courage. Of the one thousand who started out, anywhere from two hundred to four hundred withdrew and headed back to Makkah, and those who did remain were still unsure about the situation. With divided counsel and with overconfident leaders, the Qurayshi force pressed northward to the probable spot of Muhammad’s force near Badr. They were so sure of victory that they even turned down offers of reinforcements from a nearby tribe.

The area around Badr is essentially a bowl with mountains or ridges surrounding it on nearly every side. However, to the northwest and northeast there are passes, and to the south the terrain levels out to allow a caravan trail to pass through. It is about 1.6 miles wide from east to west and 2.5 miles long north to south. Those within the plain would be hidden from view until a force moved over the ridges or up the caravan trail. Due to its wells, there was also a grove of trees on the south side of the plain that could make spotting an enemy force more difficult from the southern approach.

Having sent men to collect water at Badr, and those men not having returned, Abu Jahl realized where Muhammad’s men probably were, though he would be unable to easily hear their movements because the Prophet had ordered the bells cut from the necks of his camels. However, this mattered little as Abu Jahl’s scouts confirmed his suspicions regarding the Muslims’ location. Meanwhile, Muhammad was completely oblivious to the onrushing relief force until the day before contact, when his men captured the Qurayshi water bearers. After trying to beat the truth out of them, and disbelieving it when they heard it, Muhammad admonished his men that these were indeed water bearers from a large relief force from Makkah. When the water bearers told the Prophet that the force killed nine to ten camels per day for food, Muhammad reckoned that the force was a thousand strong, which was an accurate assessment, though not taking into account those who had broken ranks and went back to Makkah. Muhammad, caught by surprise, now realized he was in serious trouble. With his men on foot, faced with what he thought was a thousand men, many of them on horseback, he would be hard-pressed to withdraw into the mountains. With this in mind, and his need for some type of substantial victory, he was forced to make a stand, risking everything on one desperate engagement.

He now needed to inspire his men, for they had come out to raid a caravan, not to fight a pitched battle. He had pinned his hopes on the Ansar, and to them he turned for a declaration of loyalty. Securing this, he prepared for the first major fight of his life. Riding ahead of his men on his camel, he surveyed the plain to determine what to do. One of his officers, al-Hubib bin al-Mundhir, asked him if Allah had ordered them to fight a certain way or if this was just a matter of military tactics. When Muhammad said it was the latter, the officer advised that the wells of Badr to the west and south should be stopped up with rocks, and a cistern should be constructed to the east to hold plenty of water for the Muslims. Muhammad adopted the plan at once, and work teams quickly completed the projects.

There is room for debate as to where Muhammad actually positioned his men. While tradition has determined that he positioned himself almost to the center of the Badr plain, the early documentation and common sense would indicate that he positioned the men further to the northeast, with their backs to the mountains and with his own headquarters on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the ground below. This placed his men close to their cistern and provided him a place to observe the action with a ready means to escape if the battle went poorly. In doing this, Muhammad placed his men on what Sun Tzu called “death ground.” With no room to maneuver they were compelled to fight and win, or die trying. However, Muhammad did have the foresight to position them in such a way that scattered survivors would be able to flee into the mountains if they fared badly in the fight, a concept reasonably well known to some military thinkers of that day.

On the morning of 22 December 623, or 17 Ramadan AH 2, Abu Jahl’s force stopped short of the slopes to the south of the Badr Plain and encamped. He sent a scout ahead to estimate the situation, and when he returned it was with grim news. He accurately reported the Muslim strength but then noted that they were prepared to fight to the death, and this would incur heavy casualties in the Qurayshi force. “I do not think a man of them will be slain till he slay one of you, and if they kill of you a number equal to their own, what is the good of living after that? Consider, then, what you will do.” With these words, dissension surfaced in the ranks of Abu Jahl’s force, and he with difficulty put down the tide of division that could further weaken his force. As Abu Jahl struggled to control his wavering leaders and warriors, Muhammad moved about the ground near the Badr wells, placing his hand on the sand to declare that certain men of the Quraysh would die at such a point. The differences between the two camps on the eve of battle were striking.

During the night, a light rain fell and the area where the Quraysh had encamped was in the wash of a wide wadi, thus becoming waterlogged. Meanwhile, the Muslims sheltered beneath their shields as Muhammad busied himself with prayer. When the Friday morning of 23 December came, as the Muslims wearily gathered for prayer with the breaking dawn, the Quraysh found that their horsemen would have difficulty with the loose terrain, forcing many to dismount. Only the key leaders such as Abu Jahl remained mounted. To make matters worse, there was further division within the Qurayshi camp. That night Abu Jahl had already rejected reinforcements offered by a neighboring tribe, apparently determined not to share in the glory of his anticipated victory, when he had an argument with fellow noble Utbah bin Rabi‛ah. Utbah had been counseling the nobles that they should not engage in battle, and Abu Jahl chided him for his defeatism. “Your lungs are inflated with fear,” he noted, to which Utbah retorted that his courage would be displayed on the field of battle. To emphasize his determination to attack Muhammad in the morning, Abu Jahl unsheathed his sword and slapped the back of his horse with the flat of the blade. Another, watching this exchange, left in bewilderment, noting that such discord among the leaders was a bad omen.

As dawn broke, both sides began to make their preparations in what was to become an unusually hot day. Even as the Quraysh were lining up, Utbah bin Rabi‛ah rode on his red camel among the men, exhorting them not to fight against their family members, a fact very personal to him since one of his own sons had become a Muslim. “Do you not see them,” referring to the Muslims, “how they crouch down on their mounts, keeping firmly in place, licking their lips like serpents?” Utbah’s openly displayed dissension put Abu Jahl into a fit of fury, declaring that if “it were anyone else saying this, I would bite him!” Attempting to again rally his men, Abu Jahl cried out to Allah, asking him to destroy the army that was unrighteous in his sight. With the advantage of their cavalry lost due to the soft ground, and lacking substantial water and already suffering from thirst, Abu Jahl moved his hesitant fighters over the ridge and onward to destiny in the Badr plain.

Even as he did so, Muhammad had completed arranging his men during the predawn hours with only a few clad in light chain mail for battle. He personally used an arrow to align them by ranks into a straight line, even jabbing one of his men, Sawad bin Ghaziyyah, in the stomach with the arrow tip to get him in line. Sawad declared that the Prophet had injured him and demanded recompense on the spot. Muhammad uncovered his torso and told him to take it. Instead, the warrior leaned forward and kissed the Prophet on the stomach. When Muhammad asked him why he did this, Sawad said that he might very well be killed and wished that this be his last remembrance of his leader. Having positioned his men, Muhammad returned to the small tent set up as his headquarters and demonstrated his confidence by taking a brief nap. He placed Qays bin Abu Sa‛sa‛a in command of the rear guard, composed of older men and probably armed with spears, while to the front Sa‛d bin Khaythama was in command of the right and al-Miqdad bin al-Aswad in charge of the left. These two were leading the younger men, ardent and spoiling for the fight. The latter commander was possibly the only Muslim actually on the battlefield mounted on horseback. Several gusts of wind blew across the sand, and Muhammad cried out that the angels of Allah had arrived, so each man should mark his own hood and cap with a special symbol of identification to protect them from angelic wrath.

As the Qurayshi force advanced slowly across the plain, several men stepped forward to initiate single combat. Two Muslims were killed in the first exchange, along with one of the Quraysh who had vowed to fight his way through to the Muslim water supply. He was met by Muhammad’s uncle Hamzah, who slashed off part of one leg before the man managed to reach the water. Hamzah climbed into the pool and finished the Qurayshi warrior off with a single blow. With these modest preliminaries complete, the champions came forward to do single combat. Honor and shame being a key virtue for such tribal cultures, three men from the princely class of the Quraysh, Utbah bin Rabi‛ah along with one of his sons and Utbah’s brother, demanded to have combat with men of equal social stature. Three dutifully stepped forward, including Muhammad’s uncle Hamzah, his cousin ‛Ali bin Abu Talib, and Ubaydah bin al-Harith. When the duel was over, the three Quraysh were dead and Ubaydah was mortally wounded when his leg was severed by the blow of a sword from Utbah’s brother. As for Utbah bin Rabi‛ah, he died displaying the very valor he had declared the night prior to Abu Jahl.

With the single combats essentially inconclusive, the moment for battle had arrived. Even as the sun began to cap the mountains to the southeast, Abu Jahl’s men found the light blazing at an angle into their eyes, and they squinted to the northeast to see the Muslims remaining rock solid in their ranks. The lines of the Quraysh now began to advance.

The Muslims remained stationary, the sound of mailed warriors steadily approaching their line. In the midst of the Qurayshi force they could see three battle flags of the ‛Abd al-Dar, and several mounted men leading them on, their mail gleaming in the morning sun. Abu Jahl, on horseback, continued to urge his men forward, still sensing an unease and hesitance in their gait. “One should not kill the Muslims,” he cried. “Instead, capture them so they can be chastised!” Ahead he could see the four battle flags of the Muslims, with the larger one in the center and elevated to the rear—the green flag of Muhammad himself. Abu Jahl felt his ardor rise, and he cried out poetic verse about how his destiny was to wage war and conquer his foes. Abu Jahl must have at this moment sensed that his desire for triumph was about to be fulfilled.

As for Muhammad, he had informed his men that anyone who killed any of the enemy would get that man’s armor and weapons as plunder.78 He watched the scene unfold below, a cloud of dust now rising from the ranks of the advancing enemy. Muhammad had ordered his men to keep the enemy at bay with missiles, only resorting to sword play at the last minute. Commands were now shouted out and several volleys of arrows were thrown from Muslim archers posted to the right and left of the main body. This was followed by a shower of stones from the main body of the Muslim force. The arrows and stones, though mostly harmless against the armor and shields of the enemy, still served as a harbinger of the fight to come. The Muslims, being less armored, probably suffered more in the exchange, with at least one killed as far back as the cistern as he took a drink of water. Following the missile skirmishing, the signal was given and the Muslims now began their own slow advance, marching in ranks toward their enemy. Then came the command to draw swords, and in unison the front rank unsheathed their curved Indian blades, a flash of brilliance like lightning dashing into the eyes of the Qurayshi soldiers, even as the rank behind leveled their spears.

And then Muhammad gave the signal to charge. The Muslims suddenly cried out at the top of their lungs, shouting “One! One!” a sound like thunder echoing from the mountain sides as they broke ranks and bolted for the center of the Qurayshi lines. As swords were wielded and spears thrust, the Qurayshi men began to feel the exhaustion already creeping over them as they cried out for the water they did not possess but now so desperately needed. In contrast, individual Muslims could fight for several minutes and then quickly pull from the ranks to refresh themselves in their trough before returning back to the fight, their gap filled by men in ranks behind them. One of them, ‛Awf bin al-Harith, while taking a respite from the fighting asked the Prophet what makes Allah laugh with joy. Muhammad replied that it was the man who charged “into the enemy without mail.” On hearing this, ‛Awf stripped off his chain mail and tossed it aside. He then threw himself into the ranks of the Quraysh until he was killed.

Because of their armor, few of the Quraysh fell in the first charge, but their morale was wavering even as Muhammad paced back and forth under his tent, declaring that the Quraysh would “be routed and will turn and flee. Nay, but the Hour (of doom) is their appointed tryst, and the Hour will be more wretched and more bitter (than this earthly failure).” The Muslims purposely targeted the leaders of the enemy, and Abu Jahl’s horse was quickly brought down. No longer seeing their leader hovering over them, the Qurayshi line shuddered and then broke in confusion as men, overcome by thirst, exhaustion, and doubt, turned to run. It was then that the real killing and maiming began, as the Muslims raced after them, swords flashing as they dismembered bodies and took heads. Even then, individual men, usually noblemen of the Quraysh, attempted to make a stand and rally their fleeing men until they were cut down.

Abu Jahl, finding himself cut off from his army along with his son Ikrimah, positioned himself with his back to a thicket of scrub, fighting until he was severely wounded. Mu‛adh bin Amr cornered him, his sword severing a leg and sending the foot and calf flying. Ikrimah desperately fought to protect his father and brought his sword down on Mu’adh’s shoulder, nearly severing the man’s arm. Mu’adh staggered from the fight, and, with his father too injured to move, Ikrimah withdrew as well, leaving his father to his fate. Another Muslim passed by and gave Abu Jahl an additional blow, though still not fatal.85 As for Mu’adh, he would rest and reenter the fight, soon after tearing off his mangled arm because he was dragging it around. Despite the severity of his wound, he would survive the battle and live into the days of the khalifate of ‛Uthman.

With the Quraysh in full flight, Muhammad’s men began to round up prisoners, a sight that angered one of the leading Ansar, Sa‛d bin Mu‛adh, who was now with the Prophet at his command tent. Muhammad could see the displeasure on the man’s face and asked him why he disapproved taking prisoners. “This was the first defeat inflicted by God on the polytheists,” Sa‛d remarked. “Killing the prisoners would have been more pleasing to me than sparing them.” Despite Sa‛d’s attitude, the Muslims continued to assemble the prisoners, sorting through the dead and wounded to find friends or enemies and take stock of their incredible victory.

‛Abdullah bin Mas‛ud found Abu Jahl still alive and barely breathing from the wounds he had received. He placed his foot on his neck and asked, “Are you Abu Jahl?” Upon affirmation, he took hold of his beard and severed the dying man’s head. He then took it and threw it at Muhammad’s feet, who gave thanks to Allah for the great victory. The dead Quraysh, a total of at least fifty and possibly as many as seventy, were thrown into one of the wells, with Muhammad reciting over them, “have you found what God threatened is true? For I have found that what my Lord promised me is true.” At least forty-three prisoners were taken, though some sources say as many as seventy were captured. As for the Muslim dead, Ibn Ishaq states that only eight died at Badr, although other sources placed the number as high as fourteen. Among the dead of the Quraysh were a disproportionately high number of nobles, and the loss of their core leaders had to be a serious blow to them. Many had stayed and died fighting, even as their servants and lower ranks fled. In addition, if the Quraysh had about seven hundred men on the field and suffered seventy dead, 10 percent were killed, a rate comparable or significantly higher in light of other battles not only ancient but even from the modern era.

While it is tempting to attribute the Muslim victory at Badr to the power of Allah or to angelic intervention, just as Muslim writers would contend, there were conventional reasons why they won. The Quraysh were divided among themselves, uncertain as to the wisdom of their leader’s actions and concerned about fighting their brethren from their clans. In contrast, the Muslims were actuated and motivated by one force: the will of their leader Muhammad. The weather also worked against the Quraysh, robbing them of the one element that could have proven decisive in battle, their cavalry. The Muslims were on the defensive, fully rested and provisioned, while the Quraysh lacked that vital necessity of water so crucial in the desert. This was accentuated by the fact that the Muslims were more lightly armored than the Quraysh, and thus more mobile and resilient in an infantry battle waged in the desert, which could still become sufficiently warm in December. Muhammad had also chosen the terrain carefully, following counsel and wisdom of those more experienced in the actual tactics of battle, while Abu Jahl scorned the advice brought to him by other noblemen of the Quraysh. The latter also allowed his army to be drawn into battle on ground not of his choosing. Finally, the Quraysh had underestimated Muhammad’s capabilities while the prophet had overestimated theirs. The former approached the battle overconfident of an easy victory while the latter prepared to fight to the death, certain that he and his men would either immerge triumphant or his movement would be destroyed forever. Prepared to die, Muhammad’s men triumphed, a factor that had brought victory to many combatants throughout history.

The Siege of Orleans

The Regent of France, John, Duke of Bedford, returned to France in March 1427, accompanied by a man from the Welsh Marches who was to become one of the most redoubtable soldiers of the War—Lord Talbot. They took with them a pitifully small new army, 300 men-at-arms and 900 archers, though they also brought a new artillery train. The English were lucky that during Bedford’s absence the Dauphinists had not taken advantage of the defection of the Duke of Brittany, a shifty intriguer. In 1426 Duke John of Brittany had signed a treaty with the Dauphin at Saumur while his brother with a mixed force of Bretons and Scots had seized the important English fortress of Pontorson and massacred its garrison. Furthermore, because of Gloucester’s meddling in Hainault, Anglo-Burgundian co-operation was almost non-existent. Bedford acted swiftly. In May Lord Warwick captured Pontorson, after which Duke John veered back to the English and in September 1427 formally reaffirmed his allegiance to the Treaty of Troyes. In June the Regent and his wife visited Duke Philip of Burgundy at Arras and began to restore good relations; Bedford stopped a new English expedition to Hainault and then arranged a truce between Gloucester and Burgundy. Humphrey abandoned Jacqueline of Hainault and her claims, obtaining a Papal Bull which declared their marriage invalid (his chief reason being that he now wanted to marry her lady-in-waiting Eleanor Cobham). By the end of 1427 Bedford had entirely restored the Triple Alliance.

A further 1,900 troops had arrived from England in the spring but before launching a major new offensive it had been necessary to capture a number of enemy strongholds. Among them was the town of Montargis, sixty miles south-east of Paris, which dominated the Yonne valley. It occupied an extremely strong position on a headland completely surrounded by the rivers Loing and Vernisson, while the approach was criss-crossed by canals which hindered the besiegers. It had a resolute garrison under the Sieur de La Faille who was well liked by the townsmen. Lord Warwick pitched his camp on the road from Paris, on both sides of the river, and possessed a good supply line. He had brought only 5,000 men but he had an adequate artillery train and on 15 July began a methodical bombardment of the town. Nevertheless, after six weeks he had made little progress. He could hardly have expected that the Dauphinists could produce a commander capable of taking him by surprise.

John, Bastard of Orleans (popularly known later as the ‘bon et brave Dunois’ from his county of that name) was the left-handed son of the Duke of Orleans who had been murdered in 1407. A penniless adventurer, the Bastard became a professional soldier and fought at Baugé and Verneuil. He was now twenty-four years old. In September 1427 he and another good soldier, La Hire, were sent to reinforce Montargis with 1,600 troops. The Bastard had obviously studied the battle at Cravant, and a messenger from him reached the town with a plan of concerted action. Suddenly the Bastard and his men appeared in full view of the English on the road south of the town. Warwick’s troops rushed to attack them, whereupon the townsmen opened the sluice-gates and the ensuing flood carried away the wooden bridge over the river, cutting the English forces in two and drowning many. At the same time the defenders sallied out to attack them from the rear. Warwick lost a thousand men, the rest fleeing in panic and abandoning their artillery.

On the same day as the débâcle at Montargis, Sir John Fastolf and a small force were defeated at Ambrières in Maine, and all Maine rose in revolt. The Regent, coldly determined, at once recommenced the siege of Montargis and began to put down the rising in Maine. He showed himself no less merciless than his brother: the town of La Gravelle did not honour its promise to surrender by a given date, so he beheaded the hostages which it had given as a surety. Lord Talbot was also beginning to show his quality. When La Hire seized Le Mans, Talbot retook it and rescued the garrison with only 300 men, going on to capture Laval which was one of the keys to Maine. By the spring of 1428 the situation had been restored and the way was now open for the long-hoped-for offensive.

But the English were still bedevilled by lack of money. Although taxed to the hilt the conquered territories could not provide enough, while in England Parliament had shown itself unco-operative despite Bedford’s pleas. In July 1427 he had sent Salisbury home to beg the Council for help, and eventually the Earl obtained £24,000, though he had to lend part of it from his own resources. He sailed from Sandwich in June 1428 with 450 men-at-arms, 2,250 archers, ten miners, over seventy masons, carpenters and bowmakers and a new artillery train. Meanwhile the Regent had been assembling troops and supplies. Salisbury marched into Paris in July. He and the Regent differed over the objectives of the forthcoming campaign—the former wished to capture Orleans, the key to the Loire and from whence he could strike over the river into the Dauphinist heartland ; Bedford, on the other hand, wanted Angers which would give the English complete control of Anjou and enable them to link up their northern territories with Guyenne. Moreover the Regent had scruples about attacking Orleans ; to do so was to breach a treaty, and as its feudal lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England, the assault would be against all the rules of chivalry. Salisbury prevailed, but Bedford seems to have kept his misgivings ; some years afterwards he wrote to his nephew Henry VI how the Plantagenet cause had prospered everywhere in France until the siege of Orleans, ‘takyn in hand God knoweth by what avys’.

The Earl began his offensive in mid-August, capturing more than forty towns and fortresses, ‘somme wonne be assault and somme otherwyse’ as he put it. They included the towns on the Loire nearest to Orleans—Beaugency and Meung downstream and Jargeau upstream. On 12 October he invested Orleans. On the northern bank of the Loire, the city must have presented a daunting spectacle. Its thirty-foot-high walls were so long that the English were unable to surround them with siege works and had to rely on patrols. Inside there were more defenders than the besiegers outside—2,400 troops and 3,000 militia, commanded by the same Sieur de Gaucourt who had been at Harfleur ; they had 71 guns mounted on the walls, some firing stone shot weighing nearly 200 lbs and far outnumbering the English artillery. Nor were the English troops, who had dwindled to 4,000, of the best quality; they had been looting and deserting ever since they landed and had sacked an especially holy shrine at Cléry. As for Burgundians, Salisbury had a mere 150, hired from the Duke. The Earl had no hope of blockading the city with so few men, and the defenders could obtain supplies and reinforcements without difficulty. Not in the least deterred, ‘mad-brain’d Salisbury’ decided to batter his way over the main bridge across the river, a structure 350 metres wide which stretched from the south bank to the centre of the city. It was defended on the bank by an earthwork and then by two massive towers over the first arch, known as the Tourelles. A bombardment followed by an assault was unsuccessful, but when the towers’ garrison realized that miners had tunnelled beneath the foundations they fled in panic, demolishing two arches of the bridge behind them.

Salisbury climbed up on to the third floor of the Tourelles to have a closer view of Orleans and decide where to attack next, ‘looking very attentively on all sides to see and devise in what way he might surround and subdue it’. An apocryphal story says that an English captain, Sir William Glasdale, said to the Earl: ‘My Lord, you see your city.’ Suddenly a schoolboy set off a small bombard on the walls whose gunners had left it during dinner. Salisbury heard the report and ducked. The gunstone came through the window, killing a gentleman next to him, and an iron bar flew off, hitting Salisbury’s visor and slicing away half his face. To the genuine sorrow of his men ‘who both feared and loved him’, after a week’s agony he died at Meung on 27 October, his last words being to beg his officers to continue the siege. Wavrin believed that had Salisbury lived another three months he would have taken Orleans. His death was a calamity for the English.

The Earl of Suffolk took over the command. This great-grandson of Edward III’s moneylender was a very different man from Salisbury. Although a veteran of Harfleur who had seen many campaigns, he was an unimaginative and unenterprising soldier, averse to taking risks, and above all unlucky. He continued the siege, after a fashion ; a garrison was left in the Tourelles under Glasdale while Suffolk and the rest of the troops went into winter quarters in nearby towns. However, Lord Talbot and Lord Scales brought them back on 1 December, surrounding the city with a line of sixty stockaded earthworks, known as bastilles, linked by communication trenches. As a blockade it was hardly adequate, for there was a wide gap to the north-east. In any case the defenders inside the city had plenty of food, and were reinforced by the Bastard of Orleans, La Hire, Poton de Xaintrailles and 500 fresh troops. But the English hung on grimly during the winter. The courtesies of chivalry were scrupulously observed. On Christmas Day Suffolk sent some figs to the Bastard and received a fur coat in exchange while the city lent the besiegers an orchestra.

We know the names of Sir William Glasdale’s garrison in the Tourelles, and they sound astonishingly modern and ordinary—they would not have been out of place at Torres Vedras or Tobruk. Among them were Thomas Jolly, Bill Martin, Davy Johnson, Walter Parker, Matthew Thornton, George Ludlow, Patrick Hall, William Vaughan, Thomas Sand, Dick Hawke, John Langham, William Arnold, George Blackwell, and John Reid from Redesdale.

On 12 February 1429 Sir John Fastolf, who was taking a convoy of Lenten food—herrings and lentils—from Paris to the English at Orleans, learnt at Rouvray near Janville that he was about to be attacked by a Dauphinist force of 4,000 men under the Count of Clermont. Fastolf, who only had 500 English archers and 1,000 Parisian militia (probably crossbowmen) immediately halted and laagered his wagons, leaving two narrow entrances fortified by the pointed stakes of his archers. Clermont had some small cannon and began to use them on the laager with considerable effect. But then a Scots detachment under Sir John Stewart of Darnley insisted on attacking on foot, and the French men-at-arms joined them, though remaining on horseback. They were bloodily repulsed by arrow-fire, whereupon Fastolf mounted his archers (who almost certainly carried lances) and charged out to complete the enemy’s rout, killing about 500—mainly Scots. Fastolf lost only four men, apart from some wagoners who had tried to run away. It was heartening that the Parisians should have shown themselves so loyal. The Regent had a service of thanksgiving held in Paris and paid special honour to the militia men.

By the spring of 1429, the English were still no nearer capturing Orleans. In April Bedford begged the Council for more men and was sent only 100 men-at-arms. The Dauphinists then made a shrewd diplomatic move by ceding Orleans to the Duke of Burgundy, on the pretext that its lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England. Philip was eager to accept but Bedford, although concerned at putting the alliance with him at risk, refused to agree. Angrily Philip ordered Burgundian troops to leave the siege. By 15 April the Regent was again writing to the Council, deploring the low morale of his army, pleading for reinforcements and warning that without military or financial assistance he would be force to raise the siege.

The walls were still unbreached. Suffolk held on, without much hope. He had forgotten to put chain-booms across the Loire, so the enemy were able to use the river for moving troops and supplies. On 29 April barges laden with food sailed from Chézy only five miles upstream and, while the English were distracted by a mock assault on one of their earthworks, got through to the city. Next day, accompanied by a small escort, the leader of an army of relief rode into Orleans on a black charger, carrying a small battle-axe. She was Joan of Arc.

‘The Witch of Orleans’

The relief of the siege of Orleans by a French army under Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was the decisive event of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the French and the English. The course of the war had to that point constantly shifted. On October 25, 1415, King Henry V of England defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Five years later French king Charles VI agreed to the Treaty of Troyes whereby his daughter Catherine was to marry Henry V. Charles VI also repudiated the dauphin, his son Charles, as illegitimate and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Henry V then campaigned successfully against French forces loyal to the dauphin until his untimely death in August 1422 reopened the matter of succession. The

English named Henry’s nine-month-old son as king of France and England. Charles VI died that October, and many French supported his son Charles, the former dauphin, as the rightful king. Charles, however, was weak, degenerate, vacillating, and utterly incapable of leadership.

In these circumstances the regent for the young Henry VI, the Duke of Bedford, allied England with the powerful Duchy of Burgundy and on July 21, 1423, defeated the French at Cravant, establishing English rule over all of France north of the Loire River. On August 17, 1524, Bedford annihilated a French force at Ver-neuil. In the autumn of 1428 English-Burgundian forces launched an offensive to secure the crossing of the Loire River at Orleans to campaign in Armagnac, the heart of Charles’s territory.

Orleans was a large city and one of the strongest fortresses in France. Three of its four sides were strongly walled and moated, and its southern side rested on the Loire. The city walls were well defended by numerous catapults and 71 large cannon, and stocks of food had been gathered. Jean Dunois, Comte de Longueville, commanded the city’s garrison of about 2,400 soldiers and 3,000 armed citizens.

English troops under the Earl of Salisbury arrived at Orleans on October 12, 1428. Because he had only about 5,000 men, Salisbury was not able to invest Orleans completely. Nonetheless, on October 24 the English seized the fortified bridge across the Loire, although Salisbury was mortally wounded in the attack. In December William Pole, Earl of Suffolk, took over command of siege operations. The English constructed a number of small forts to protect the bridge as well as their encampments.

Although the French in Orleans mounted several forays and were able to secure limited supplies, by early 1429 the situation in the city was desperate, with the defenders close to starvation. Orleans was now the symbol of French resistance and nationalism. Charles was considering flight abroad, but the situation was not as bleak as it appeared. French peasants were rising against the English, and only a leader was lacking.

That person appeared in the young illiterate peasant girl, Jeanne d’Arc. She informed Charles that she had been sent by God to raise the siege of Orleans and to lead him to Reims to be crowned king of France. Charles allowed Jeanne, dressed in full armor, to lead (as chef de guerre) a relief army of up to 4,000 men and a convoy of supplies to Orleans. The Duc d’Alengon had actual command.

Jeanne’s fame quickly spread far and wide, and her faith in her divine mission inspired the French. As the relief force approached Orleans, Jeanne sent a letter to Suffolk demanding surrender. Not surprisingly, he refused. Jeanne then demanded that the army circle around and approach the city from the north. The other leaders agreed; the French army was ferried to the north bank of the Loire and entered the city through a north gate on April 29.

Jeanne urged an attack on the English from the city, assuring the men of God’s protection. On May 1 Jeanne awoke to learn that a French attack against the English at Fort St. Loup had begun without her and was not going well. She rode out in full armor and rallied the attackers, who were then victorious. All the English defenders were killed, while the French lost only two dead. Jeanne then insisted that the soldiers confess their sins and ban all prostitutes from the army and promised the men that they would be victorious in five days. Another appeal to the English to surrender met with derisive shouts.

On May 5 Jeanne led an attack out of the south gate of the city. The French avoided the bridge over the Loire, which the English had captured at the beginning of the siege. The French crossed through shallow water to an island in the middle of the river and from there used a boat bridge to gain the south bank. The French captured the English fort at St. Jean le Blanc and then moved against a large fort at Les Augustins, close to the bridge. The battle was costly to both sides, but Jeanne led a charge that left the French in possession of the fort.

The next day, May 6, Jeanne’s troops assaulted Les Tournelles, the towers at the southern end of the bridge. Jeanne was hit by an arrow and carried from the field, but the wound was not major; by late afternoon she had rejoined the battle. On May 7 a French knight took Jeanne’s banner to lead an attack on the towers. She tried to stop him, but the mere sight of the banner caused the French soldiers to follow it. Jeanne then joined the battle.

Using scaling ladders, the French assaulted the walls, with Jeanne in the thick of the fight. The 400-500 English defenders attempted to flee on the bridge, but it was soon on fire and collapsed. On May 8 the remaining English forces abandoned the siege and departed.

In his official pronouncements Charles took full credit for the victory, but the French people attributed it to Jeanne and flocked to join her. In successive battles, most notably at Patay on June 19, the French routed the English from their Loire strongholds. In July the French took Reims from the Burgundians, and there, on July 16, Charles was anointed king, with Jeanne in attendance in full armor and with banner in hand. The moral effect of this coronation was vast. Given the circumstances, few could doubt that Charles VII was the legitimate ruler of France.

Jeanne called for an immediate advance on Paris. Charles, however, wanted only to return to the Loire. Jeanne’s attempt to capture Paris failed, and Charles signed a truce with the Duke of Burgundy. Charles ordered Jeanne to cease fighting and had her army disbanded. In May 1430 Jeanne was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. When Charles refused to ransom her, Duke Philip of Burgundy sold Jeanne to the English, who put her on trial at Rouen for heresy and sorcery and executed her in May 1431.

Although the Hundred Years’ War continued for another two decades, the relief of the siege of Orleans was the turning point in the long war. Jeanne’s death checked for a time the uprising of French nationality, but peace between France and Burgundy in 1435, Charles VII’s effective advisers (he became known as “Charles the Well-Served”), and military reforms in France that provided for a standing army and infantry militia finally brought the expulsion of the English. The Hundred Years’ War ended with the fall of Bordeaux to the French in 1453.


Gies, Frances. Jean of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337-1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978.

Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117) Part I

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117)

He always marched on foot with the rank and file of his army, and he attended to the ordering and disposition of the troops throughout the entire campaign, leading them sometimes in one order and sometimes in another; and he forded all rivers that they did. Sometimes he even caused his scouts to circulate false reports, in order that the soldiers might at one and the same time practise military manoeuvres and become fearless and ready for any dangers.

After the death of Augustus, the Roman Empire gained little new territory. Throughout the remainder of the first century AD a number of allied kingdoms were annexed to become directly ruled provinces, but the only major new conquest came when Claudius sent an army to invade Britain in AD 43. The great conquerors of the last decades of the Republic had also been the principal leaders in the civil wars which had torn the State apart, and it was simply too great a risk for an emperor to permit any of his commanders to win fame and glory in a similar way. It was absolutely vital that the military achievements of the princeps never be overshadowed by those of any other senator. Even Augustus had sacked a Prefect of Egypt who had celebrated his victories too boldly, and forced him to commit suicide, though the man in question had only been an equestrian and not a member of the Senate. Tiberius, Vespasian and Titus already had distinguished military records before they came to the throne, but Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Domitian had not this advantage and were thus even more reluctant to permit potential rivals to gain too much prestige. We have already seen how Claudius recalled Corbulo from beyond the Rhine rather than permit him to expand the war and reoccupy part of the German province lost in AD 9. The same emperor made sure that he was in at the kill for the culmination of the first campaign of his British expedition in AD 43.

Claudius spent less than a fortnight in Britain, but was present at a major defeat of the Britons north of the Thames and the capture and occupation of the tribal capital at Camulodunum (Colchester). How active a role he actually played in the running of any of these operations is questionable, but it is significant that he felt it was worth considerable travel and six months away from Rome to preside over the army’s success. Brief though the visit was, it helped to associate the emperor very personally with the subjugation of a mysterious island visited, but not conquered, by Julius Caesar. Claudius was then able to return to Rome and ride in triumph along the Sacra Via, something emperors did not normally do as a result of the victories won vicariously through their legates. In the flood of propaganda, which included games, the construction of a number of monuments, and both Claudius and his son adopting the name Britannicus, it was always made clear that this was the emperor’s victory. For a man whose reign had begun when he was discovered hiding behind a curtain in the chaos following Caligula’s murder and raised to power by the praetorian guard in spite of the wishes of the Senate, it was a great proof of his right and capacity to be Rome’s first citizen.

In the long run, the political system created by Augustus discouraged further expansion of the Empire. Most emperors were reluctant to spend the long periods of time on campaign carrying out fresh conquests and did not trust anyone else to do this for them. Some authors in Augustus’ day were in any case already proclaiming that Rome controlled all the best and most prosperous parts of the earth and that further expansion would prove more costly than any profits it might yield. There was some truth in this, although the suggestion put forward by some modern scholars that the Romans stopped expanding because they now bordered on peoples whom their military system could not readily defeat is not supported by the evidence. Yet it is certainly true that the professional army as constituted under the Julio-Claudians could not quickly or easily be expanded in size to provide troops for new military adventures. Conscription was deeply unpopular, as Augustus had found in AD 6 and 9, and avoided if at all possible by all subsequent emperors. The imperial army was on average a far more efficient fighting force than the pre-Marian militia, but it lacked the seemingly limitless pool of reserve manpower which had proved such a strength in the Punic Wars.

Under the Principate the army’s main roles were controlling the provinces – a task which involved them in everything from minor policing to putting down rebellions – and securing the frontiers, usually achieved by a combination of diplomacy and the aggressive domination of neighbouring peoples through real or threatened punitive expeditions against them. Wars of conquest were rare, although the ideology of the Empire and its rulers remained for centuries essentially one of expansion. It was still considered a fundamentally good thing for the imperium of Rome to increase, but as had always been the case, this did not necessarily require the acquisition of more territory. Roman power could be respected in a region even when it was not physically occupied by the army or governed by a Roman official, and many areas which were never controlled in this way were still felt by the Romans to be part of their empire. The determination to protect and increase Rome’s imperium provided the motivation for most of the wars fought under the Principate.

Domitian spent several years supervising his armies fighting on the Rhine and Danubian frontiers, although it seems unlikely that he ever exercised direct battlefield command. A line of frontier forts was established in Germany further forward than had been the case in the past, but only a relatively small area was annexed in this way. In the main these conflicts were especially large-scale versions of the frequent campaigns to maintain Roman dominance over the tribes bordering on her frontier provinces. Dacia was invaded in response to heavy raids on the province of Lower Moesia, but it is unlikely that permanent occupation was anticipated, and in the event the operations there met with little success. One army – commanded by the Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus, much to the annoyance of the Senate who felt that any army ought to be led by a member of their class and not a mere equestrian – was defeated, and perhaps annihilated, by the Dacians in AD 86. Domitian’s relationship with the senatorial class steadily worsened throughout his principate, denying him the popularity – and favourable treatment in our sources which were mainly written by senators for senators – of his father and brother. In the end he was murdered in AD 96 through a palace conspiracy and replaced by the Senate with one of their own members, the elderly Nerva.

Nerva was the first of what Edward Gibbon termed the ‘five good emperors’ who presided over the Roman Empire at the height of its power and prosperity in the second century AD. He was succeeded by Trajan, who devoted much of his efforts to renewed expansion. His conquest of Dacia grew from Domitian’s unsatisfactory campaigns in the area and had its root in frontier problems. In contrast the invasion of Parthia and the march to the Persian Gulf had little motive beyond the traditional desire of a Roman aristocrat to win glory by defeating powerful enemies.


Trajan was born and brought up at the city of Italica in Spain. His family claimed descent from some of the original Roman and Italian troops who formed this colony established by Scipio Africanus after his victory at Ilipa in 206 BC. Italica prospered and grew to be one of the largest and most important cities in Spain. Its citizens seem to have had Latin status, although the local aristocracy could gain full Roman citizenship through the holding of local magistracies. If they had sufficient wealth – and political success even at a local level always required money – then these families were able to become equestrians and send some of their sons into imperial service. Over time some gained the riches and favour to enter the Senate. In the first century BC, especially under Augustus, many Italian noblemen were made senators. Under his successors a growing number of men from the provinces joined the House. Some of these men were descendants of Roman colonists, but an increasing number were drawn from the indigenous aristocracy who had been granted citizenship. Claudius introduced a number of Gauls into the Senate. By the end of the first century there were also men from Spain, North Africa and the Greek east.

All of these men were Romans, both in law and in culture, regardless of their ethnic background, and their behaviour in public life differed in no significant way from that of senators of Italian or strictly Roman ancestry. Under the Principate Rome’s ruling élite gradually absorbed the rich and powerful of most of the provinces without losing its traditional ethos. This process did a great deal to make widespread rebellion extremely rare throughout most of the provinces, save for those where the local aristocracy remained outside the system. Trajan was the first emperor whose link with Italy was extremely distant. He was succeeded by his cousin Hadrian, another Spaniard whose provincial accent earned the scorn of many other senators when he first came to Rome. Near the end of the century the throne would be seized by Septimius Severus, a senator from Lepcis Magna in North Africa. Later there would be Syrian, Greek, Pannonian and Illyrian emperors.

Trajan’s father and namesake, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, had had a fairly distinguished senatorial career, although it is not clear whether he was the first of the family to enter the Senate. In AD 67 he was the legionary legate commanding X Fretensis under Vespasian during the campaign in Galilee, and supported him during the Civil War. This brought him a consulship, perhaps in AD 70, and appointment as legatus Augusti first of Cappadocia and then of Syria. During this time there appears to have been some friction with the Parthians and Traianus’ skilful handling of this affair led to his being awarded triumphal ornaments. It is uncertain whether the operations involved actual fighting or just vigorous diplomacy. During these years the family was granted patrician status. Scarcely any genuine patricians still survived by this time, for such prominent men had inevitably suffered much in the purges of successive emperors, and Vespasian had decided to create new patricians to add dignity to his Senate. Most of the beneficiaries were men who had shown themselves to be reliable during the Civil War, including the family of Tacitus’ future father-in-law, Julius Agricola.

Trajan’s own upbringing appears to have been fairly conventional by the standards of the senatorial class, although it was claimed that he proved no more than adequate at rhetoric and other academic pursuits. At an early age he developed a passion for hunting which persisted throughout his life, and excelled at physical and especially military exercises. At the end of his teens, probably around AD 75, he became a senatorial tribune (tribunus laticlavius) in one of the legions in Syria, serving under his father’s command in the manner of many young aristocrats. Later he transferred to a legion on the Rhine frontier and saw further service against the local tribes. Some tribunes were notorious for wasting their military tribunate, but Trajan embraced the military life with great enthusiasm and served for far longer than was usual. The Younger Pliny in his Panegyric – a written version of a speech praising the emperor and originally delivered in the Senate – claimed that he served for ten years, the traditional term required to make a man eligible for political office in the Republic. This may be an exaggeration, but his account of Trajan’s time as tribune may well give an accurate picture of the enthusiastic young officer:

As a tribune … you served and proved your manhood at the far-flung boundaries of the empire, for fortune set you to study closely, without haste, the lessons which you would later teach. It was not enough for you to take a distant look at the camp, stroll through a short period of duty: while a tribune you desired the qualifications for command, so that nothing was left to learn when the moment came for passing on your knowledge to others. Through ten years’ service you learnt the customs of peoples, the localities of countries, the opportunities of topography, and you accustomed yourself to cross all kinds of river and endure all kinds of weather … So many times you changed your steed, so many times your weapons, worn out in service!

A number of civil posts followed this spell in the army, until in the late 80s AD Trajan became the legate of Legio VII Gemina at the town of Legio (the root of its modern name, Léon) in the peaceful province of Hispania Tarraconensis. In AD 89 Lucius Antoninus Saturninus, the legate of Germania Superior, rebelled against Domitian. Trajan was ordered to march from Spain to confront the rebel army. In the event he did not arrive before Saturninus had been defeated, but his loyalty and prompt action won him the emperor’s trust. It seems that his legion remained on the Rhine and mounted a successful punitive expedition against a German tribe – perhaps the Chatti who had made an alliance with Saturninus. In the 90s he gained a further reputation as a commander, and served as a provincial legate, perhaps in both Germania Superior and Pannonia on the Danube. During his tenure in the latter he fought and defeated some of the Suebic tribes. When Domitian was murdered and Nerva elevated to the throne, Trajan was widely respected as one of the gifted generals of an age for active service – he was then in his fortieth year. Facing pressure from the praetorians who demanded the punishment of Domitian’s murderers, and probably nervous of rivals emerging from amongst the provincial legates, in AD 97 Nerva adopted Trajan, marking him out as his heir. The choice was a popular one, especially with the army, and did much to secure the new regime. A year later Nerva died and Trajan became emperor. Within a year he was touring the Danubian frontier, and in 101 he began a major campaign in this area, aimed at the defeat of King Decebalus of Dacia.


In 58 BC Julius Caesar had considered attacking Dacia (an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Transylvania) until the Helvetii gave him an even more attractive alternative opportunity for winning military glory. Only his murder in 44 BC prevented a revival of his original plan for such a war from being fulfilled. The Dacians were at that time united under the rule of Burebista, a charismatic war leader who controlled a far larger force of warriors than most tribal leaders. Not long after Caesar’s death the Dacian king was himself assassinated, and no comparably strong ruler emerged amongst his people for over a century. This changed when Decebalus rose to power in the last decades of the first century AD, once again massing a strong force of warriors – he was especially keen to recruit deserters from the Roman army – and subjecting many neighbouring peoples, such as the Sarmatians and Bastarnae, to his rule. Dio described him in conventional terms as the ideal commander, who was:

shrewd in his understanding of warfare and shrewd also in the waging of war; he judged well when to attack and chose the right moment to retreat; he was an expert in ambuscades and a master in pitched battles; he knew not only how to follow up a victory well, but also how to manage a defeat.

Under Decebalus’ aggressive leadership the Dacians had raided across the Danube, and inflicted serious defeats on the Romans. Domitian’s campaign against them ended in a deeply unsatisfactory way with a treaty by which the Romans paid Decebalus an annual indemnity and provided him with engineers and artillery to strengthen the fortifications of his realm. Such terms indicated that Rome had not won the war and even hinted that she had lost, and added to Domitian’s unpopularity with the Senate. When Trajan launched an invasion of Dacia in AD 101, its main aim was to achieve a far more satisfactory peace, based on a Roman victory which would allow the imposition of an appropriate treaty, making Rome’s superiority over Dacia obvious to all. At first he does not appear to have planned to annex the kingdom.

Trajan subsequently wrote Commentaries describing his Dacian Wars, but only a few tiny fragments of these have survived. Cassius Dio, a senator of Greek extraction who wrote in the early third century AD, provides our best narrative of these operations, but even this remains only in the form of epitomes produced centuries later and lacking detail. A few other sources provide a little information, but it is impossible to produce a narrative of this conflict in anything like the detail of the other campaigns examined so far. The spoils from the conquest of Dacia funded the great Forum complex later constructed by Trajan in Rome. Little of this has survived beyond its massive centrepiece, a column 100 Roman feet high (97 feet 9 inches), decorated with a sculpted spiral frieze telling the story of the wars. Several hundred scenes depicting thousands of individual figures of Roman soldiers and their enemies were laid out to form a clear narrative. Originally it was highly colourful, the figures painted and equipped with miniature bronze weapons, the sculpture incorporating levels of detail which cannot possibly have been visible to the observer at ground level.

Trajan’s Column tells a story, but it is a narrative which we can read only with difficulty. The task would be similar to looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, but without the captions and with only the haziest idea of the events and personalities of the Norman Conquest. Although many attempts have been made to relate the reliefs to the topography of Romania and to reconstruct the course of the wars in detail, none of these have ever carried much conviction and can never move beyond conjecture. Yet in another sense Trajan’s Column provides us with a fascinating glimpse of how Roman commanders liked to be depicted in art. A range of artistic conventions influenced its style, but much of it drew on a centuries-old tradition of Roman triumphal art, for generals riding in triumph through the city almost invariably included in their processions paintings showing their own and their armies’ deeds. Such pictures were often used to decorate temples or other monuments constructed with the spoils of war. The Trajan of the Column represents the ideal commander of Roman art, and it is interesting to compare this to the literary figure of the great general. Scenes from another monument at Adamklissi in Romania probably also show episodes from the war, but the story they tell is even harder to reconstruct. Trajan may be one of the officers depicted in the Adamklissi metopes, but these are too badly weathered to allow definite recognition.

Preparations for the campaign were extensive and probably occupied at least a year. Ultimately nine legions – at full strength or at least in the form of a substantial vexillation – were concentrated on the Danube to take part in or support the operations. Other legions sent smaller vexillations and the already substantial auxiliary forces of the region were augmented by whole units and detachments from other provinces. Perhaps a third of the Roman army as then constituted was to take part in the war, although these troops were never massed in a single field army but operated in a number of separate forces and in supporting roles. It was a formidable force, but the task ahead of them would not prove easy. Dacia was defended by the natural strength of the Carpathians. The kingdom was rich in gold deposits and Decebalus had used this wealth to create a large army and to establish well-fortified strongholds controlling the main passes through the mountains. Excavation at a number of these sites has confirmed their formidable nature, with walls and towers which combined native, Hellenistic and Roman methods of construction.

Dacian warriors were brave, though perhaps no more disciplined than those of other tribal peoples. Their religion, based around the worship of the god Zalmoxis, often prompted men to commit suicide rather than surrender. In battle few appear to have worn armour, apart from the allied Sarmatian cavalry who fought as cataphracts, with both horse and man covered in metal or horn armour. Weapons consisted of bows, javelins, Celtic-style swords, and also the scythe-like falx, a two-handed curved sword with the blade on the inner side and ending in a heavy point. This last weapon was capable of reaching past a shield to inflict terrible wounds, and appears to have encouraged some Roman legionaries to be equipped with greaves and an articulated guard to protect their exposed right arm.

Trajan’s Column begins with scenes showing the Roman frontier posts along the Danube and a force of legionaries marching behind their massed standards over a bridge laid across river barges – the Roman equivalent of a pontoon bridge. Then the emperor appears, holding a consilium of senior officers to discuss the forthcoming operations. Trajan usually appears to be slightly larger than the men around him, but he never dominates by sheer size in the manner of the monumental art of other ancient rulers, such as the pharaohs of Egypt. High-level planning and the issuing of orders to the army’s high command is followed by other preparations from the campaign. His head veiled in accordance with his office as pontifex maximus, Rome’s senior priest, the emperor puts a circular ritual cake, or popanum, on to the flames of an altar, as around him the rite of the suovetaurilia is performed with the sacrifice of a bull, a ram and a boar to Mars. This important ceremony was held outside the ramparts of the army’s camp near the start of any major campaign to purify the troops and ensure the support of Rome’s deities. Just as they did in political life in Rome itself, magistrates played a central part in the regular religious ceremonies of the army. There is then a curious scene which shows Trajan watching a peasant clutching a large circular object fall off a mule, and which may be connected with an anecdote in Dio in which allied tribes sent a message to the emperor written in Latin on an enormous mushroom. Then the commander mounts a tribunal and makes a speech to a parade of his legionaries, an address known as an adlocutio. Afterwards the soldiers fortify several positions – presumably on the enemy bank of the Danube – the emperor moving amongst them as they labour and supervising the work.

Its crossing place secure, the main army advances into the hills, probably moving towards the pass in the Carpathians known as the Iron Gates. Trajan and one of his officers are shown inspecting an enemy hill fort, which appears to have been abandoned, before he returns to oversee a group of legionaries clearing a path through the thick woodland. A prominent theme on the Column, as indeed in much literature, is the engineering skill and dogged perseverance of the citizen soldiers of the army, and very often Trajan and his officers are shown overseeing the labour. He is also shown interrogating a Dacian prisoner, just as Caesar and other commanders had done, before the action moves rapidly on to the first major battle. In this the legionaries are shown formed up in reserve, whilst the auxiliaries, who include amongst their number bare-chested barbarians – probably Germans or perhaps even Britons from the irregular units known as numeri – wielding wooden clubs, do the actual fighting.

The savagery of these non-citizen soldiers is emphasized in this and other scenes. One regular auxiliary infantryman grips in his clenched teeth the hair of an enemy’s severed head so that his hands are free to keep fighting. To the rear two more auxiliaries present severed heads to the emperor. In this scene Trajan appears to look away, but in a later, similar scene, he is shown reaching out to accept two such ghastly trophies. The Romans had outlawed headhunting in the provinces of the Empire, but it was evidently acceptable for soldiers to practise this when fighting against foreign enemies. Yet with one possible exception, only auxiliaries are shown on the Column taking heads and it seems likely that such behaviour was acceptable amongst these less civilized troops, but not amongst legionaries.

The bringing of trophies to the commander echoes incidents in the literature, such as the cavalryman at Jerusalem who picked up a rebel and brought him to Titus. The general, and even more the emperor, could reward such heroic feats and his role as witness to his men’s behaviour was vital. Such a task meant keeping relatively close to the fighting, so that the men believed that they could be seen as individuals. One of Domitian’s generals is supposed to have ordered his men to paint their names on their shields to make themselves feel more visible. Later on the Column Trajan is shown distributing rewards to auxiliary troops, although other evidence suggests that these men no longer received medals (dona) like the legionaries so that the awards must have taken another form. Auxiliary units gained battle honours, and sometimes an early grant of the citizenship which was normally given on discharge, so perhaps promotion and sums of money or plunder were the most common form of reward to an individual auxiliary soldier.

This first battle probably took place near Tapae, where in AD 88 one of Domitian’s generals had won a victory which did something to remove the shame of Cornelius Fuscus’ defeat. A god hurling thunderbolts at the Dacians is shown at the top of the frieze, but it is unclear whether this is simply intended to show Rome’s deities fighting on her behalf or indicates an action fought during, or perhaps terminated by, a storm. Some commentators have suggested that the reliance on auxiliaries to do the fighting whilst the legionaries remain in reserve reflected a Roman desire to win victories without the loss of citizen blood. Tacitus praised Agricola for winning the battle of Mons Graupius in this way, but in fact such a sentiment is rarely expressed.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117) Part II

It does seem to have been fairly common by the late first century AD to form the first line of infantry from auxiliary troops, whilst the legions formed the second and subsequent lines. This was certainly logical, for the higher organization of the legions, with ten cohorts coming under the command of a legate and being used to operating together (unlike auxiliary cohorts which were all independent units), made them easier for the army commander to control. For this reason legionaries were more effective as reserve troops to be committed as and when the fighting line needed reinforcement. In some cases, the battle may have been won by the auxiliaries without the need for any reserves. It is impossible to tell whether this was the case at Tapae in AD 101. It is equally possible that the sculptors chose simply to represent the opening phase of the battle begun when auxiliary infantry and cavalry launched an attack on the enemy. Dio tells us that the fighting was extremely fierce and that victory cost the Romans heavy casualties. When the Roman medical aid stations – medics are shown treating soldiers in one of the later scenes on the Column – ran out of bandages, Trajan sent them much of his own store of clothes to cut into strips and make up the shortage. To commemorate the fallen, he also established an altar on the site of the battle.

Following up on their success, the Romans are shown continuing the advance and putting captured settlements to the torch. The parapet of one Dacian fort is shown decorated with a row of heads mounted on poles, whilst in front of the rampart are stakes concealed in pits, resembling the ‘lilies’ made by Caesar’s men at Alesia. Dio tells us that in one such captured fort the Romans found standards and equipment captured from Fuscus’ army. The Romans then cross a river, this time without the benefit of a bridge. One legionary is shown wading through the water with his armour and equipment carried in the rectangular shield raised over his head. After this Trajan addresses another parade, before meeting with a group of Dacian ambassadors, and subsequently a group of native women. Then the action moves to another area as the Column shows Dacian warriors and Sarmatian cataphracts swimming – and in some cases drowning in the attempt – across the Danube to attack some Roman garrisons held by auxiliary troops. One group of enemies employ a battering ram with an iron tip shaped like the animal’s head in an effort to breach a fort’s wall, and this may perhaps be an indication of the knowledge of siege techniques which Decebalus had acquired from deserters and the treaty with Domitian.

In response to this new threat, we see Trajan and a mixture of praetorian guardsmen and auxiliaries embarking on a warship and a barge. They are bareheaded, wearing travelling cloaks (paenulae) and burdened with bundles – perhaps folded tents or simply supplies. The force moves along the Danube, then disembarks. Trajan is always at their head, and rides with a group of auxiliary infantry, cavalry and barbarian irregulars to hunt for the enemy raiding force. Two auxiliary cavalrymen seem to report to the emperor – presumably scouts who have found the Dacians – and this is followed by a massed Roman cavalry attack. Surprise appears complete – the goddess of Night is shown at the top of the scene suggesting an attack under cover of darkness – and the Sarmatians and Dacians are routed and cut down around their four-wheeled wagons. Caesar noted that Gallic armies were always accompanied by carts carrying their families, and it is possible that the Dacians followed a similar practice. However, it may be that these scenes represent not a raiding force, but a migration by some of the local peoples, perhaps tribes allied to Decebalus.

The Adamklissi metopes also show fighting around barbarian wagons and a dramatic Roman cavalry charge led by a senior officer, perhaps Trajan himself. Although cruder in style, these reliefs are less stylized than those on the Column and appear to show three distinct types of barbarian, probably Sarmatians, Bastarnae and Dacians. It is possible that the Adamklissi metopes correspond with these scenes on the Column, but they might equally depict entirely different events.

After this Roman victory Trajan is seen receiving another Dacian embassy, this time consisting of aristocratic ‘cap-wearers’ (pileati) rather than the socially inferior warriors who were sent by Decebalus at the start of the war. Dio mentions several attempts at negotiation, which failed due to Decebalus’ mistrustful nature and, most likely, the uncompromising nature of Roman demands. This is followed by a major battle, in which legionaries are shown fighting alongside auxiliaries. The Roman troops are supported by a scorpion mounted in a cart drawn by a team of two mules and known as a carroballista. Trajan supervizes from behind the fighting line, an auxiliary presenting him with a captive – perhaps one he had captured personally. Behind him is the famous field dressing-station scene, which may mean that Dio’s story about the bandages should be associated with this battle rather than the earlier encounter. As always with the Column, we simply cannot know.

After the defeat of the Dacians – many of whom are shown held captive in a compound – Trajan mounts a tribunal to address his paraded soldiers, and then sits on a folding camp chair to dole out rewards to brave auxiliaries. Yet in the midst of these scenes of Roman celebration is a bleaker scene off to the side, where several bound, naked men are brutally tortured by women. The men are most probably captured Roman soldiers and the women Dacians – in many warrior societies the task of humiliating and killing with torture enemy captives has often been performed by the women of the tribe. The scene may well be intended to show that the war was still not finished, for such a savage enemy needed to be defeated utterly.

At this point the narrative of the Column contains a clear break, perhaps indicating the end of the first year’s campaigning, so that subsequent scenes should be assigned to AD 102. Another river journey is shown, then a column of legionaries marches across a bridge of boats and two Roman armies join together. In these and the following sections we see Trajan formally greeting arriving troops, making speeches to parades, taking part in another suovetaurilia sacrifice to Mars, receiving Dacian embassies, and accepting a prisoner or other trophies brought to him by soldiers. As the army advances through the mountains, making roads, building forts, fighting battles and besieging forts, the emperor is always with them, watching, directing and inspiring. He does not wield a tool or a weapon to join the soldiers in their tasks, for his role is to direct their efforts rather than share in them. Eventually the Romans overcome the difficult terrain and their stubborn and ferocious enemies. The First Dacian War ends with the formal surrender of Decebalus and the Dacians, kneeling or standing as suppliants before the emperor, who sits on a tribunal surrounded by the massed standards of his praetorian guard. Then Trajan stands on this or another tribunal to address his parading soldiers. Trophies and the goddess Victory mark the end of the conflict.

The peace was to prove temporary. Decebalus agreed to the loss of some territory, gave up his siege engines and engineers, handed over Roman deserters and promised not to recruit any more of these. In most respects the war had ended in an entirely satisfactory way for the Romans, with their enemy reduced to the status of a subordinate ally, and Trajan was justified in taking the honorary title Dacicus. Yet in the following years Decebalus broke most of the terms, beginning to rebuild his army and strengthen his power, occupying some of the lands of the Iazyges, a Sarmatian people, without seeking Roman approval for this expansion. The king was clearly not behaving in an appropriate manner for a Roman ally and war, which was threatened in 104, was openly renewed in 105 when the Dacians began to attack some Roman garrisons. The commander of the most important garrison, Cnaeus Pompeius Longinus – a former legatus Augusti who may still have been holding this rank – was treacherously imprisoned during negotiation. However, Decebalus’ attempts to use him as a hostage came to nothing when the Roman managed to obtain poison and committed suicide. At some point the Dacian also enlisted a group of deserters to assassinate the emperor, but this plan also failed.

Trajan was in Italy when the Second Dacian War erupted, and the Column’s narrative begins with his voyage across the Adriatic to be greeted by local dignitaries and the wider population. Two scenes of sacrifice follow. Even greater forces seem to have been mustered for the Second War. Trajan raised two new legions which were named after him, II Traiana Fortis and XXX Ulpia Victrix, both of which probably served in the Second War, although it is unclear whether they took part in the First. In the conventional Roman way the emperor combined force with vigorous diplomatic activity in AD 105, accepting the surrender of individual Dacian chieftains who abandoned their king, and negotiating with ambassadors from all neighbouring peoples. Decebalus appears to have had far fewer allies as a result. Even so the Column shows a heavy attack against some auxiliary outposts, which held out until relieved by a force led by Trajan himself.

The main Roman offensive may not have been launched until 106, and most probably followed a different route to the earlier campaign. It began with another sacrifice on the bank of the Danube, before the army crossed the river at Dobreta. This time they did so not on a temporary bridge of boats, but on a monumental arched bridge, built in stone and timber and supported by twenty piers each 150 feet high, 160 feet in width and 170 feet apart. It was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus – who would later plan Trajan’s Forum complex and presumably had much to do with the construction of the Column – and built by the soldiers. A roadway was cut into the cliffs of the Danube to permit easier approach to the bridge. Dio’s account describes this feat of engineering in loving detail strongly reminiscent of Caesar’s account of his bridge across the Rhine. It was a great and magnificent victory for Roman engineering, in its way as admirable to the Romans as any feat of arms. The Column provides a detailed, if stylized depiction of the bridge as the background to the scene of sacrifice.

After this Trajan joins the army – the soldiers are shown cheering him enthusiastically, much as Velleius described the legionaries welcoming Tiberius – takes part in another suovetaurilia purification ceremony, with the ritual processions walking round the camp, and then addresses legionaries and praetorians at a parade. At a consilium, Trajan briefs and discusses the campaign with his senior officers. The usual preliminaries over, the army advances, harvesting grain from the fields to supplement their supplies. The Column suggests some fighting, though not perhaps as much as in the First War, and Dio tells the story of an auxiliary cavalryman who, discovering that his wounds were mortal, left the camp to rejoin the battle and died after performing spectacular feats of heroism. The culmination of the campaign was the siege of Sarmizegethusa Regia, the religious and political centre of the Dacian kingdom set high in the Carpathians. After a stiff resistance, and it seems an unsuccessful Roman assault, the defenders despaired and set fire to the town before taking poison. The war was not quite over, but its issue was no longer in doubt as the Romans pursued the remaining Dacians. Decebalus was eventually cornered by a group of Roman cavalry scouts, but slit his own throat rather than be taken alive.

The leader of the Roman patrol was a certain Tiberius Claudius Maximus, who had joined the army as a legionary before becoming a junior officer in the auxilia. On the Column he is depicted reaching out to Decebalus, and by chance his tombstone has survived, carrying an inscription describing his career and giving another version of the scene. Decebalus was beheaded and the head taken back to Trajan, who ordered it to be paraded before the army. The war was over, and victory was completed by the discovery of the king’s treasure, buried in a river bed, after much labour by Roman prisoners.

A new province was created, guarded by two legions supported by auxiliaries and with its main centre at the newly founded colony of Sarmizegethusa Ulpia – a grand city built on fertile land at the foot of the Carpathians, unlike Decebalus’ mountain fastness. Settlers came from many parts of the Empire, but especially the eastern provinces, and Roman Dacia soon prospered. The fate of the Dacians, whether they were completely expelled or simply absorbed in the more normal way, has been the subject of fierce debate in recent centuries, most especially amongst the Romanians – contemporary politics has had a major influence on whether they believe their ancestors to be Romans or Dacians.


A massive programme of propaganda, of which the Forum complex was only a part, celebrated the victory in Dacia. Had Trajan simply wanted military glory to confirm his position as emperor, it is unlikely that he would have sought other opportunities for aggressive warfare. His rule was as popular as that of any emperor, and subsequent generations preserved his memory as the Optimus Princeps, the best of emperors, only rivalled in prestige by Augustus himself. His relations with the Senate – always the most critical factor in determining a ruler’s treatment in our literary sources – were generally very good, his rule considered both just and successful. Even Trajan’s vices – he was prone to infatuations with boys and youths – were pardoned, since his behaviour never reached a stage which Romans considered excessive or made him vicious. His decision to launch an invasion of Parthia in AD 114 was, according to Dio, motivated by a desire to win renown.

Trajan had spent more of his life with the army than most Roman aristocrats, and certainly appears to have enjoyed the military life. The pretext for war was, once again, a dispute over the relationship of the Armenian king to Rome, for a new monarch had been presented with his diadem of authority by the Parthian ruler and not by a Roman representative. The peace with Parthia had always been uneasy, since for the Romans their eastern neighbour represented a deeply unsatisfactory thing – the former enemy who had not been reduced to subordinate status and remained fully independent and strong. Trajan appears to have planned to win a permanent victory, for his campaign was from the beginning far more than simply a struggle to show dominance over Armenia. Massive Roman and allied forces – some seventeen of the thirty legions went in their entirety or as a substantial vexillation to the war – were backed by huge quantities of supplies which had been massed in the east for several years in preparation for the conflict. At the back of his mind the emperor was eager to emulate the great conquests of Alexander in the very region through which the Macedonian king had passed centuries before. The culture of the Roman Empire was firmly Greco-Roman and the heroes of the Hellenic world every bit as worthy of emulation as earlier generations of Romans.

Trajan’s eastern war began well, as in successive years he overran Armenia, Mesopotamia and most of Parthia itself. The Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and the major city of Seleucia were both captured, after which Trajan sailed down the Tigris to reach the Persian Gulf. If Trajan had any plans to follow further in the footsteps of Alexander – and it seems unlikely that he did – these were then dashed when major rebellions erupted throughout his newly acquired territories in AD 116. Roman columns had to operate throughout the new provinces, putting down insurrection. Matters were made worse by a major rebellion by the Jewish communities in Egypt and other provinces – though not Judaea itself – which required substantial numbers of troops to defeat. Trajan himself began a siege of the desert city of Hatra in Arabia. During the siege, when his own guard cavalry took part in at least one of the assaults, Trajan himself was almost struck by a missile as he rode past the walls. Dio notes that the emperor was not wearing any symbols of rank, hoping not to stand out amongst the other officers, but his age – he was now 60 – and grey hair made his seniority clear. He was missed, but a cavalryman riding beside him was killed. Hatra withstood the Roman onslaught until Trajan’s men, desperately short of water and other provisions, withdrew. The emperor was planning fresh operations when he suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards.

Trajan was succeeded by his relation Hadrian, but there was considerable doubt over whether in fact he had formally nominated him before he died. Thus, at the beginning of his reign, Hadrian’s position was somewhat insecure, making him reluctant to spend several years away from Rome fulfilling his predecessor’s eastern ambitions. This, combined perhaps with a feeling that Rome’s military resources were overstretched, led to the abandonment of the territories taken from the Parthians. Another casualty was Trajan’s great bridge across the Danube, which was partially demolished to prevent its ever being taken and used by an enemy. There were to be no wars of conquest during Hadrian’s reign from AD 117 to 138, and in most cases the wars which developed in response to rebellion or attack were fought by the emperor’s legates without his on-the-spot supervision. Lacking Trajan’s aggressive ambitions, Hadrian nevertheless spent much of his reign touring the provinces and in particular visiting and inspecting the army. Dio noted that he ‘subjected the legions to the strictest discipline, so that, though strong, they were neither insubordinate or intolerant’. A cult of Disciplina – one of a number of Roman deities personifying virtues – flourished in the army at this time, especially with the troops in Britain and Africa, and may well have been encouraged by Hadrian himself. Even when the army was not at war, the emperor could still conform to the ideal of the good general by ensuring that the troops were well trained and ready to fight if necessary. According to Dio:

He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves – their lives, their quarters and their habits – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a vigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions … He covered his head neither in hot weather nor in cold, but alike amid German snows and under scorching Egyptian suns he went about with his head bare. In fine, both by his example and his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day [i.e. a century later] the methods introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.

Hadrian watched the troops on exercise, just as a commander did in battle, praising and rewarding skill and criticizing and punishing poor performance. An inscription set up by an auxiliary soldier named Soranus survives, recording – albeit in rather poor Latin verse – an incident when the emperor commended his skill as an archer. Much fuller inscriptions found at Lambaesis in North Africa include selections from a number of speeches delivered at a parade of the provincial army as a culmination to a series of rigorous exercises. Hadrian’s style is very direct, referring to Legio III Augusta as ‘his’ legion and its commander as ‘his’ legate. He shows a detailed knowledge of the legion’s recent history, noting that it was seriously under strength through having detached a cohort for service in a neighbouring province. He also mentions that it had subsequently sent a cohort, strengthened by men drawn from the rest of the unit, to reinforce another legion. Stating that under such conditions it would have been understandable if III Augusta had failed to meet his high standards, he reinforces his praise by declaring that they had no need of any excuse. The centurions, especially the senior grades, are singled out for specific praise. Both in this section of the speech and in those parts delivered to individual auxiliary units, the emperor repeatedly pays tribute to the diligence of the legate Quintus Fabius Catullinus. His address to the cavalry element of a mixed cohort (cohors equitata) gives a good indication of the style of these speeches:

It is difficult for the cavalry of a cohort to put on a pleasing display anyway, and especially difficult not to displease after an exercise performed by an ala; the latter fills a greater expanse of plain, has more riders to throw javelins, makes frequent wheels to the right and performs the Cantabrian ride in close formation, and, in keeping with their higher pay, has superior horses and finer equipment. However, you have overcome these disadvantages by doing everything you have done energetically, in spite of the hot temperature; added to this, you have shot stones from slings and fought with javelins and everywhere mounted quickly. The special care taken by my legate Catullinus is very obvious…

Some criticism is contained in the speeches, for instance when a cavalry unit is reprimanded for pursuing too quickly and falling into disorder which would have made them vulnerable to a counter-attack. Yet overall Hadrian sought to encourage his soldiers and make them feel that they and their units were valued and respected. Apart from the specific details there is little that would seem out of place in a similar address by a modern general or manager.

Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius was not a military man, and spent no time on campaign. It was a mark of the security of the time that he was content to trust his legates to fight the major conflicts of the time. These were all in response to problems on the frontiers. From the late first century AD the military bases on the fringes of the Roman Empire had taken on more and more of an air of permanence, with old timber fortifications and internal buildings being replaced by stone. Hadrian had taken the process further in his visits to the provinces, ordering the construction of new installations and frontier boundaries. In Northern Britain the army laboured to construct the Wall which bears his name and stretched for 80 Roman miles from coast to coast. Such barriers were only ever intended to restrict outsiders, and never to hinder the movements of the Roman army, instead providing them with secure bases from which to launch aggressive operations. Rome sought to dominate its neighbours, not merely to repel any invasion or raid on the provinces, but attempts at permanent occupation of new territory were rare.

Roman Emperor Avitus (9 July 455–17 October 456)

Italy was ripe for the taking, but Avitus, the Visigoths, and the Gallic Field Army did not march straight into Rome, because, according to Sidonius (Pan.Av. 589–90), Avitus recovered the two Pannonias for the Empire at the very beginning of his rule. This means that Avitus advanced first against the territories held by the Ostrogoths on behalf of East Rome (see the reign of Marcian). Avitus was basically reacting to the settlement of foederati by the East Romans that had taken place in the previous year, 454, in which Marcian had effectively taken control of West Roman territory by settling the Ostrogoths in Pannonia. It is very unlikely that there would have been any fighting involved between the armies when Avitus reached Pannonia. Avitus had been chosen as Emperor by the Visigoths and Gauls and was accompanied by a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. This would have made him the ideal ruler also for the Ostrogoths. Therefore it is clear that the Ostrogoths were glad to become Avitus’s foederati and to recognize him as their Emperor, but we should not forget that they did this while still receiving payments from Marcian in return for being his foederati. This was to become one of the causes of quarrel between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Empire. See the reigns of Marcian and Leo.

There was another question that needed to be taken care before advancing into Italy, which was referred to by Sidonius in the context of Maximus’ last days. The Burgundians needed to be pacified. It is probably in this context that we should see the referral in the so-called Auctar.Prosp.Haun (MGH AA Chron. Min. 1, p.304, a.455), which states that the Gepids attacked the Burgundians in 455. Katalin Escher (71–72) has suggested that the Gepids did this as allies of Rome, and this is indeed the likeliest reason. Avitus would have used the Gepids so that he could himself march with his Gallic army strengthened by the Visigoths first to Pannonia and from there to Italy. It is possible or even probable that Avitus stayed in Gaul until the Gepid attack had convinced the Burgundians to make a peace with him, but one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that he used the Gepid campaign as a diversion which allowed him to lead his forces to Pannonia while the attack against the Burgundians was still ongoing.

Even though there is no certainty regarding the dating of the appointment of Aegidius as MVM per Gallias I would suggest that Avitus kept Agrippinus as MVM per Gallias and that Aegidius was appointed as his successor by Majorian. See later. Avitus’s Mag. Ped. was Remistus who was probably a Visigoth and his Mag.Eq. was Ricimer. It was the latter who was destined to become Aetius’s successor as the power behind the throne. However, unlike Aetius, Ricimer was a pure-bred barbarian who was closely linked to three Germanic royal families. His father belonged to the royal family of the Suevi, his mother a Visigoth (daughter of Vallia) and his sister had married the Burgundian king Gundioc. In addition to this, he had had a long and distinguished military career under Aetius in the course of which he had befriended Majorian.

After having been confirmed as Emperor by the Roman people (i.e. the Senate), Avitus sent ambassadors to Constantinople to seek their acceptance. It is not known whether this was successful, but most historians think that the Eastern government did not recognize Avitus; but the fact that both halves of the Empire appear to have coordinated their actions towards the Vandals seems to contradict this. Similarly, it is possible to see Sidonius’s statement (Pan. 589–90) that Avitus recovered the two Pannonias merely with a march either as a sign of cooperation between the empires to subject the Ostrogoths under Roman rule, or as Avitus’s way to put pressure on the eastern empire by subjecting the Ostrogoths under his rule. The latter is actually more likely because we find the East Romans denying payments to the Ostrogoths after this. So there is no certainty about this, but in light of the presence of Marcian’s fleet close to Corsica (see below) I would suggest that it is more likely that the Eastern Empire did indeed lend its support, even if it was more modest than before. Avitus’s position was also precarious because the Italian nobility was very apprehensive of being ruled by a Gaul who brought with him his own supporters from Gaul, a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. In addition to this, Avitus had to prove himself a successful defender of Italy against the Vandals who had just sacked Rome. It was the Eastern Emperor who dispatched the first ambassador to Gaiseric with the demand that he was to stop his raids against Italy (this implies some cooperation between the courts) and to hand over the Empress and her daughters. This produced no results. It was then that Avitus dispatched his own envoys which reminded Gaiseric of his agreements; Avitus threatened to use his own army and allies if Gaiseric failed to abide by the treaty. Gaiseric’s response was to send his fleet to ravage Sicily and the areas (presumably Bruttium) close to it (Priscus).

Avitus dispatched Ricimer to Sicily with an army where Ricimer inflicted a crushing defeat on the Vandals on the plain of Agrigentum (Agrigento). The sources do not provide any details, but it seems probable that Ricimer cleared Bruttium of the Vandals before shipping his army across to Sicily at the Straits of Messina. Even though Sidonius refers only to the victorious land battle on the plains of Agrigentum, it is still probable that Ricimer would have used his fleet to transport supplies and simultaneously to attack the anchored Vandal fleet from the sea. The Roman war effort would have been aided by the fact that Agrigentum was one of the metropolises of the ancient world and on top of that well-fortified. According to modern estimates it had a population of 200,000–600,000, while Laertius claimed that it had a population of 800,000. Its urban area covered 456 hectares and the walls were 12.9 km long with nine gates. The city also had natural defences in the form of hills, gorges and hollows. In short, it is clear that the Vandals would have needed a huge army to besiege the place and even then they would have faced serious troubles.

It is no wonder that at this time both West and East Romans took the Vandal threat very seriously. They had not only sacked Rome, but Sidonius’s list of tribes (Pan.Maj. 335ff.) subjected by Gaiseric proves that the Vandals had conquered Mauretania Tingitana (Autololi), Mauretania Caesariensis, Numidia (Numidians, Gaetuli) and Tripolitania (Garamantes, Arzuges, Psylli, Nasamones, Marmaridae) by about 456/8. The last two (Nasamones and Marmaridae) suggest the possibility that the Vandals may have also invaded East Roman territory just south of Cyrenican Pentapolis. It is no wonder that even the Alexandrians felt threatened!

According to Hydatius (a.456), Avitus sent a message to Theoderic in Spain that Ricimer had destroyed through stratagem/encirclement/ambush a Vandal naval detachment consisting of sixty ships in Italy which had been advancing towards Gaul. The next sentence suggests that it was actually destroyed off Corsica because it states that a multitude of Vandals had died in Corsica at a time when Avitus had moved from Italy to Arles in Gaul. It is possible, however, that the Vandals had actually been destroyed by the East Roman fleet (or marines?) serving under Ricimer, because it was the Easterners who arrived in ships at Hispalis and reported a bloody victory by Marcian’s army. Still another possibility is that these are two separate incidents, so that in the former case Ricimer had destroyed sixty Vandal ships in Italy (possibly at Agrigento in Sicily), while in the latter case the East Romans had killed a multitude of Vandals at a time when Avitus had fled to Arles. This would have been the first example of Marcian’s changing attitude to the Vandals towards the end of his rule. The latter is true and that we are here dealing with two separate defeats suffered by the Vandals. MacGeorge notes that the vocabulary used by Hydatius doesn’t necessarily mean that the encounter was a naval battle. In her opinion, the Vandals could have been ambushed after they had embarked their forces. Considering that the news included the number of ships and the word meaning encirclement/ambush this is a distinct possibility,  that it is still very probable that the action included also the use of a Roman fleet, so that Roman ships were either able to surprise the Vandal ships at anchor or were able to encircle them from the seaside so that the Vandals had land behind them. These victories naturally strengthened Ricimer’s standing among the military.

In the meantime, the Suevi under their king Rechiarius had continued their ravaging of the Roman territory with the result that Avitus sent the comes Fronto and Mansuetus as his envoy to demand the immediate evacuation of the territories invaded at the same time as Theoderic II dispatched his own envoys to the Suevi for the same purpose (Hyd a.456.; Jord Get. 230ff.). The Suevi responded by invading Tarraconensis. Their attack met with success and they were able to take large numbers of captives and booty back to their own territory in Gallaecia. Avitus dispatched the angered Theoderic II to Spain.

Theoderic’s forces consisted of his own men and of the Burgundians under their kings Gundioc and Hilperic. The Burgundians had been promised Lyon and other territories in Gaul in return for their assistance.5 Rechiarius’s army opposed the allies at the River Urbicus/Ulbius twelve miles from the city of Asturica (Astorga) on Friday, 5 October 456. The deployment of the forces in defensive position behind a river was typical for those who feared the Gothic cavalry charge. The Burgundians were deployed on the left and the Visigoths on the right. The Visigoths crushed their opposition and annihilated almost the entire enemy force. Rechiarius was wounded by a javelin but still managed to flee via Bracara to Portus Cale (Oporto). The Visigoths were admitted into Bracara without opposition, but the Visigoths paid this kindness back by sacking it on Sunday, 28 October 456. Since Avitus had been overthrown on 17 October (see below), it is just possible that the sack of the city resulted from this if the news of this had been brought by relays of fast-moving horsemen to Theoderic. However, since Hydatius (a.457) states that Theoderic was in or close to Emerita (Merita) when he received the news of the death, it seems likelier that Theoderic just rewarded his men by allowing them to pillage. The Visigoths took many Roman captives from Bracara including nuns and children. The churches were turned into stables.

After this, the Visigoths continued their pursuit of the defeated foe and caught him at Portus Cale. Rechiarius had attempted to flee in a ship before the arrival of the Visigoths, but then unluckily for him the adverse wind forced his ship back into the harbour. Theoderic executed Rechiarius in December 456 and then continued his march to Lusitania with the result that Aiolfus deserted the Visigoths intending to become king of the Suevi in Gallaecia. But the Suevi of Gallaecia chose Maldras (or Masdra) as their new king. This resulted in a chaos which was exploited by some bandits who pillaged part of the assizes (conventus) of Bracara.

Ricimer knew that his opportunity to overthrow Avitus had come when Avitus’s supporters, the Visigoths, were preoccupied with the Suevic war. Avitus’s position in Italy was very weak because he had not been able to gather enough support for his cause among the Italian upper classes and among the field army posted there. In fact Avitus had managed to do the exact opposite, so he became even more hated. Avitus had appointed his Gallic supporters to high positions; the populace blamed him for the hunger they were facing thanks to the Vandalic war; he had been forced to strip the metal (mainly bronze) from public buildings to reward his Visigothic supporters and Visigothic bodyguards, which angered the senators in particular. The Italian senators demanded that Avitus send these Visigoths back to Gaul and when he did this after he had cashiered them with money, he sealed his own fate.

According to Gregory of Tours 2.11 and Fredegar 3.7, Avitus was overthrown by the senators because he was a libidinous debaucher of women. According to the latter, Avitus had raped senator Lucius’s wife with the result that Lucius betrayed his native city of Trier to the Franks. Fredegar’s account is not among the most reliable sources for this period, but if the account of the sack of Cologne and Trier by the Franks in the LHF 8 is dated to 456/7 then it is possible that Trier could have been betrayed by this Lucius as claimed by Fredegar. However, it is likelier that this actually occurred in 465 because the LHF connects this account with events of that year (see later) or even as early as 411 as suggested by Hodgkin (3.393–5) so that Fredegar would have mistaken Iovinus for Avitus. Nevertheless, it is by no means impossible that Gregory and Fredegar are right.

When Avitus could no longer hope to obtain help from the Visigoths, Ricimer decided to act. Two explanations have been put forth for the revolt of Ricimer. Firstly, it is possible that the principal reason for Ricimer’s revolts was his lust for power and that he intended from the start to make his friend Majorian emperor, because as a barbarian he could not become one. Since Majorian belonged to the Italian nobility and was supported by the former soldiers of Aetius this was a wise choice. The second of the reasons put forth by Ian Hughes (2015, 63–64) is that Ricimer and Majorian both acted because the hostility of the Roman senators of Italian origin was just too great towards Avitus and that both men just acted in the interest of the Italian nobility. The two men were indeed acting on behalf of the Roman Senate in this case. Furthermore, the fact that Avitus was not in the East Roman ‘good books’ after his Pannonian campaign, which is proven by the refusal of Marcian to recognize the West Roman consul, meant that both men could also expect to be rewarded by the East Roman emperor Marcian for their great services to the Roman Republic.

When the two men declared their revolt, Ricimer marched to Ravenna where he murdered Remistus and anyone else who supported Avitus. There are several different versions of what happened next. John of Antioch (fr. 202) states that the rebels attacked Avitus near Placentia when he was attempting to reach Gaul, but according to the more credible account of Hydatius (a.456), Avitus managed to flee to Arles from which he dispatched tribune Hesychius with gifts to ask Theoderic’s help. This same embassy brought the news of the naval victory off the coast of Corsica. The Visigoths were apparently unable to provide any assistance even if it appears likely that they sought to end their war with the Suevi immediately with the result that Avitus was forced to rely on the forces available to him near the city of Arles. These must have consisted primarily of the regular units posted in the cities and of the Alans settled nearby. Avitus appointed Messianus as MVM Praes. and marched his forces into Italy. The armies fought a decisive battle near Placentia on 17 October 456, which Ricimer and Majorian won. Messianus was killed while Avitus fled inside Placentia. Avitus was allowed to retire as Bishop of Placentia, but was then killed by Majorian’s men. According to Gregory of Tours’s version (2.11), when Avitus learnt that the ‘Senate’ still wanted to kill him, he decided to flee to the church of St.Julian in Clermont, but died en route. As noted by Ian Hughes, the truth of the matter must be that Avitus was attempting to flee to Clermont to raise a revolt against the usurpers and that Majorian’s forces caught up with him and then killed him.

The defeat of Avitus at Placentia brought with it a series of new troubles, not least of which was the fact that large numbers of regulars and Alans that had previously protected south-east Gaul had now been killed. The loss of these forces was very costly for the West Roman Empire when the Burgundians and Visigoths started to advance into this area, and the overthrow of Avitus naturally caused them to revolt.

Russia: fighting in Syria?

Su-34 Taking off From Khmeimim Airbase in Syria

Map of the Syrian Civil War

Moscow managed to preserve the Syrian regime but it has failed to achieve all its goals in Syria.

Their original objectives were before we mention what they actually achieved.

Firstly, the Russian Federation was requested to intervene by President Bashar Assad- a point that particularly undermines any NATO or ‘Western Coalition’ reasons as they worked along the United Nations framework for military intervention in sovereign states; Russia is the only legitimate foreign agent in Syria.

Secondly, Russia’s main claim was that there were at least 20,000, (in 2015 at least) Islamic State affiliates who were of Russian or former- Soviet origin. And following any demobilisation, would potentially return and commit acts of terrorism on home soil. Therefore Russia acted in an extension of its own foreign policy to safeguard against these individuals. Therefore Russia they had to tackle Islamic State and eradicate its forces before their return to Russian lands.

The return of battle- hardened Islamic extremists complete with battlefield skills to areas of Russia such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan- areas with previous Islamic ambitions in the 1990s that effectively border the Middle East is something that would threaten to sow seeds of discord in Russian affairs and could not be tolerated.

The third objective for Russia in Syria is most probably twofold; to preserve the most strategic foreign outpost- in this case the port of Tartus and now Kmeimim airbase- and also to showcase/test-drive recent additions to the Russian military’s inventory.

Following the demise of the USSR the Russians have no large global bases apart from Tartus and a port leased from Vietnam since the Cold War; Crimea is now itself a part of Russia so Sevastopol is a domestic base. Their Cuban bases are often touted as candidates for reopening but financial restraints prevent this. The threat of losing Tartus- which effectively allows a Russian presence in the Mediterranean and helps to prevent a blockade of the Black Sea in the event of a war is a huge problem that would allow NATO to ‘contain’ Russian naval forces and overall force projection. The German navy during WW2 was a brutal force, but once contained within the Baltic was effectively suppressed.

Russia has now brokered a deal that gives them an almost endless lease of Tartus, with a view to retrofitting it to host its larger ships for a much, much longer duration. They have also now secured Kmeimim airbase for a similar vague length of time, which now gives them an effective landing strip in the Middle East with which to operate any number of fighters or reconnaissance aircraft into once exclusive NATO airspace.

Following the modernisation process of the Russian armed forces after 2008- a long overdue drive to replace outdated Soviet hardware and doctrine- the Russians have amassed an array of shiny new toys, that unlike NATO don’t have too many conflicts in which to be tested. Syria proved to be a perfect testbed for this purpose.

Precision munitions, submarine and air- launched cruise missiles, new aircraft- (Su30, Su34, Su35, MiG31) and old (Su25, Tu95, Tu22M3, Tu160), and unique systems such as the T90 tank, BMPT2 “Terminator”, S-400 Triumf and Pantsir AA systems to name but a few. Islamic State operatives also prove to be an opponent that few have sympathy for, unlike Afghanistan or Chechnya etc.

These systems have received intense battle experience, in a hostile environment and in unforgiving terrain and so far have proved their worth. This sort of testing is worth its weight and for Russia to have effectively most of Syria in which to test it in has reinforced confidence in their armed forces but has also worked to showcase their capabilities to NATO- who since 1991 has approached Russian borders.

The media hysteria surrounding Russia’s arrival into Syria has worked to make NATO tread lightly in E. Europe, but has also led to the notion of a Russian “Resurgence” or attempt to regain Soviet glory. Russia has effectively hemmed in American efforts to destabilise Syria and together with Turkey and Iran have effectively shut them out from any political dialogue.

With Russia also sending half of its forces home in 2016, and steadily demobilising its forces from Syria it allows them to A) save money, B) show a level of military and political restraint and C) draws focus upon America’s vastly extended and bloated military campaign in Afghanistan. Russia has sent a limited military force into a foreign land, defeated the enemy and united political factions to a successful degree, and then also withdrawn.

This has seen Russia blow away comparisons with the Soviet Union, and enter a much more legitimate period of political maturity that the United States has forlorn under Trump. A political coup on the international stage, it has seen weapons exports increase to new client states who have witnessed their Syrian exploits. A ‘modern Russia’ has emerged; the Soviets are not becoming “resurgent”.


On September 30, 2015, the Russian Federation formally entered the Syrian civil war as President Bashar al-Assad’s rule was increasingly under threat.

Since 2011, intense fighting and mass desertion had weakened the Syrian Arab Army. Even the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the deployment of Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, and regular shipments of Russian weaponry had not been enough to stop the advance of the opposition and radical armed groups.

In March 2015, the Syrian government lost a second provincial capital, Idlib, when Jeish al-Fattah, a loose coalition of various armed groups, led a successful offensive on the city in the country’s northwest.

The provincial capital of Raqqa, with its strategic oil and water resources, had been captured the previous year and had become the main stronghold of the rising Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In addition, the Syrian government had lost control of large swathes of several provinces – Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Az Zor, Hassakeh, Deraa and Quneitra – and was struggling to control Hama, Homs and the Damascus countryside.

The Russian intervention stopped the advance of the opposition, which was backed by the West, Turkey and the Gulf, and effectively preserved the Baathist regime in Damascus. This paved the way for a more assertive Russian presence in the Middle East, leading some observers to talk about “Russian resurgence” or even to make parallels with Cold War-era regional dynamics.

So after five years of the war effort in Syria, where does Russia stand today? Has the Kremlin achieved its goals and has it challenged the US dominance of the region?

Why did Russia intervene?

Some observers have attributed the Russian decision to intervene formally in Syria to a July 2015 visit to Moscow by General Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, who was assassinated by the United States in Baghdad in early January this year. The Iranian general supposedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops and save the Syrian government.

However, it does not seem like the Kremlin needed convincing. The fall of al-Assad would have threatened Russia’s interests and eliminated another regional ally. This would have been a major blow to Moscow, particularly after the Western-backed toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which Putin, then a prime minister, personally opposed and criticised then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for enabling.

The decision to intervene in Syria also reflected the Kremlin’s fear of the so-called “colour revolutions” and their potential success sparking a major anti-government uprising in Russia itself. A year earlier, the pro-West Maidan revolution in Ukraine provoked a sharp reaction in Moscow, which led to the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in the Donbas region. This, in turn, triggered Western sanctions, which hurt the Russian economy, particularly business circles close to the Kremlin.

Tense relations with the West also motivated Moscow to put troops on the ground in Syria. Given the deadlock on the Ukrainian crisis, an intervention in the Syrian conflict, which Western powers had been heavily involved in, presented the Russian government with another front where it could pressure the West into negotiations.

The rise of ISIL provided an opportunity to wrap the intervention in anti-terror rhetoric, ensuring domestic support, while the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved more heavily in the Syrian conflict – to avoid an “Iraq repeat” – and the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal reassured Moscow that there would be no direct clash with the US.

What has Russia achieved politically in Syria?

Russia’s superior military power managed to shift the dynamics on the ground in Syria relatively quickly. Although the declared goal of its operation was to fight “terrorist” groups, the Russian army, along with its Syrian allies, first targeted groups of the moderate opposition backed by the West, who at that time were already suffering from internal divisions and having to fight on two fronts – against Damascus and ISIL.

Less than a year later, Russian troops, along with Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government forces, laid siege on East Aleppo, and by November, forced opposition armed groups to surrender and leave the city. This was a turning point in the conflict, as it marked the steady retreat of opposition forces and ushered in a new axis between Russia, Iran and Turkey, seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis while excluding the West and Arab powers.

In January 2017, the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) format was launched which brought together the Syrian opposition, including armed groups formerly supported by the West but by then largely abandoned, and the Syrian government, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey. Later that year, under this format, Russia managed to establish four de-escalation zones where all sides committed to pause military activities. This removed the burden of fighting on multiple fronts and allowed Syrian government forces, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, to take over one opposition-held area after the other. Parts of Idlib province now form the last de-escalation zone remaining in opposition control.

In the span of five years, Russia not only managed to preserve the Syrian government but also largely eliminated and marginalised the moderate opposition – the main challenger to al-Assad’s legitimacy and the only other political-military force whose participation in government would have been acceptable to the West.

Russia’s leading role in Syria also gave it regional leverage beyond the Syrian borders. It forced Turkey to re-engage, following a crisis in relations caused by the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces, in 2015. The failed coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2016, accelerated the process.

Russia’s perceived success in Syria also encouraged other countries in the Middle East to seek improved relations with Moscow amid the US pivot out of the region. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Sudan, and Israel have all paid visits to Moscow in recent years. This allowed Russia to enter into the Libyan fray, albeit late, and seek a say in the future of the country by backing the offensive of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar on the capital Tripoli.

Despite the increased diplomatic engagement in the region and the prestige on the international scene that has come with it, Russia has not really achieved the same level of influence the US has had.

“It’s clear for everybody now that [Russia] is a superpower now and [it is] playing a crucial role in the Middle East. But at the same time, there are limits to its economic and political resources,” Leonid Isaev, senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, said.

Moscow has also failed to leverage its position in the Syrian conflict to jump-start dialogue with the West on sanctions or even get Western Europe to commit to funding the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria.

At the same time, Russia is not in full control of Damascus. Despite Putin’s repeated gestures of disparagement towards al-Assad, who he is said to personally dislike, he is not the only decision-maker in Syria.

“There is mutual understanding between Iran and Russia in Syria and there is a division of spheres of influence and competencies,” Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst, said. “It is difficult to say which one can influence Assad more. The regime is quite independent and is able to use both Moscow and Tehran to ensure its survival.”

In addition, the continued Turkish and American military presence in resource-rich northern Syria also guarantees Ankara and Washington a say in the future of Syria. It also prevents the advance of Syrian government forces and their Iranian and Russian allies to re-establish Damascus’s full territorial control.

What has Russia gained economically?

Russia entered the Syrian war amid an economic crisis due to slumping oil prices and the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis. This initially caused domestic concern about the cost of the war.

According to the government, the first six months of the operation cost $464m, which compared with the US spending in Iraq (nearly $2 trillion in 16 years or about $125bn per year), was a relatively modest number.

Two years after the start of the intervention, Russia’s defence budget dropped from 5.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) ($79bn) in 2016 to 3.7 percent ($61.4bn) in 2018, alleviating fears of overspending on the military.

At the same time, the Russian government has presented the operation in Syria as an opportunity to test and promote Russian weaponry (something other large arms exporters, like the US and Israel, have also done in the region). In 2017, the defence ministry said some 600 new weapons had been tested in military action in Syria.

The Syrian war has also boosted the mercenary business in Russia, particularly the Wagner group associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for catering at events attended by the Russian president. In recent years, there have been reports of Wagner mercenaries being employed in Venezuela, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Libya and elsewhere.

Prigozhin, along with another Russian businessman considered close to the Kremlin, Gennady Timchenko, has won some lucrative contracts in Syria.

“Putin’s chef” has been linked to oil and gas deals with Damascus, while Timchenko has acquired the right to mine phosphates and operate the port of Tartous, where a $500m Russian investment has been announced.

But apart from these two investors and some smaller Russian companies, there have been no significant economic and trade opportunities for Russian business in Syria, whose oil and gas reserves are much more modest than Iraq’s.

“Apart from Timchenko and Prigozhin, Russian businesses do not want to work in Syria. This has much to do with the impact of sanctions,” said Semenov.

The European Union and the US are major trade partners of Russia and both have imposed heavy sanctions on Syria, which Russian businesses would rather avoid.

This has also complicated the reconstruction process in areas badly damaged by fighting where the Syrian government has regained control. Russia itself has not committed any significant funding for reconstruction and has failed to convince the EU or Gulf countries to do so.

The situation has further been exacerbated by Syria’s deepening economic troubles, including its currency collapse, which was deepened by the crisis in Lebanon. The financial lifeline, which Tehran was able to extend since the beginning of the war, has also dried up due to US sanctions on the Iranian economy.

While economic opportunities have not been that significant for the Russian economy, the political leverage that Russia acquired with its intervention in Syria opened the door to increased economic cooperation with other countries in the region.

“[Russia] has some political assets which it tries to sell to the Gulf countries … In return, [it is] looking for stronger economic and investment cooperation with the Gulf,” Isaev said.

In recent years, Russia has signed investment pledges and deals worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Russian companies have also acquired lucrative energy contracts in Egypt, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey.

How has the conflict affected domestic politics?

Apart from concerns about the financial cost, there was no major domestic opposition to the intervention at its outset. The Russian public, including most of the political opposition, largely embraced the Russian government’s narrative that it was going to fight “terrorists” in Syria.

Subsequent reports of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces, the targeting of hospitals by the Russian air force and a high death toll among civilians have not swayed public opinion.

However, there have been some fears, especially among the older population, of a possible repeat of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of more than 15,000 Soviet troops and a humiliating withdrawal.

Russian authorities have been sensitive to these concerns and have allegedly underreported casualties among troops and failed to acknowledge losses among mercenaries. Still, the actual death toll is believed to be in hundreds – much lower than in the Afghan war. In March 2019, the Russian defence ministry officially claimed that 116 soldiers had died in Syria since 2015.

The Kremlin has been eager to declare victory in Syria and create the impression that the conflict is nearing its conclusion. Putin himself announced the withdrawal of Russian troops twice – in 2016 and 2017, although Russian servicemen continue to be deployed on the ground. In August, a roadside bomb killed a Russian major general near the city of Deir Az Zor.

Despite the absence of an active anti-war movement in Russia and concern about the fate of the Syrian people, the Russian public is growing tired of the conflict. An April 2019 survey by the independent pollster Levada Center showed that some 55 percent of respondents said Russia should end its military operation in Syria, up from 49 percent in 2017.

This sentiment seems to be linked to the growing perception that the Russian government has major domestic problems to resolve and cannot waste its energy on a foreign conflict.

“Russia now has a lot of internal problems … like the economic impact of the COVID lockdown, the aftermath of the referendum on the constitution, the parliamentary elections next year,” said Isaev. “Now, I’m not sure we are so interested in the Syrian conflict.”

According to him, Russia’s current foreign policy priorities include the political crisis in Belarus and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. This has pushed to the background the Syrian war, wherein the Russian government is mainly interested in preserving the status quo and maintaining a frozen conflict.

The Hessians Part I

“On the 28th of October the engagement at White-Plains took place. But it has been asserted, that, by my not attacking the lines on the day of action, I lost an opportunity of destroying the rebel army … Sir, an assault upon the enemy’s right, which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them, that I have political reasons, and no other, for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Howe’s narrative, April 22, 1779

Howe’s failure to launch a full-scale attack at White Plains was one of the vital points of his command, and one for which he had received the most vociferous criticism. Members of the House of Commons may have inched further forward on their seats as Howe came to this point. He had not managed to deal satisfactorily with any of the other debating points covered so far; failure to tackle the White Plains controversy head-on might bring an end to the patience of the House.

Howe, finally, did not disappoint. The delivery of his speech, with its emphasis on the key words “Hessian” and “was,” made it clear what had happened. To scotch any remaining uncertainty, Howe added that further details on the affair would “in no degree affect my honour or my conduct.” Nobody listening could be in any doubt. The Hessians had refused to go into battle. Howe’s “political reasons” were nothing more than an unwillingness to criticize men who were still fighting alongside British troops in North America. Howe had played his ace well, managing to clearly convey his meaning without inelegantly apportioning blame. The general, beloved of his army, was refusing to openly criticize any part of it, even foreigners. He was being generous. He was being noble. And he was lying through his teeth.

The participation of Hessian troops in the war had been controversial from the start. It was a time-honored practice, but many colonists were repelled by the idea that their mother country would bring German hirelings across the ocean to fight them. The reputation of the Hessians, in particular their reputed fondness for relying on their bayonets, resulted in them being viewed as objects of dread. In much the same way as the redcoats were in awe of the legendary American riflemen, rebel soldiers dreaded encountering the mustachioed, blue-coated soldiers from states including Hesse-Cassel and Brunswick. For Britain, there had been little option but to resort to hiring troops. Recruitment was never going to provide enough men and in any case, new recruits would take time to be trained. The Hessians may not have been the first choice, but they were experienced soldiers and could be relied upon to do their job.

There was no doubt that the soldiers who were provided would be effective, but Howe had revealed from the start that he was concerned about the officers who would command them. In a quite remarkable letter to Germain in April 1776, he had suggested that a bonus could be offered to the Hessian officers, which would be dependent on them receiving a favorable report from Howe. It may well have been considered insulting by the professional officers concerned, but Germain smoothed things over by offering reassurances that the officers supplied would be of a high quality. For the most part, that turned out to be so, but it was not the case in the most important instance of all, the Hessian commander-in-chief, General von Heister. Howe and von Heister disliked each other from the moment the elderly German officer stepped ashore on Staten Island. At the age of 69, he was “a stiff and completely militarily minded general” according to the Hessian liaison officer Friedrich von Muenchhausen. This was a poor match for Howe’s easy-going, informal nature; the two men were never going to bond over a late-night game of cards and a bottle of claret. If they had tried it would have been a strange affair, since they shared no common language.

Von Heister also displeased Howe by insisting his men needed time to recover from their long journey to Britain and then across the Atlantic. Having previously had no difficulty in finding reasons to delay opening his campaign, Howe was suddenly affronted by being offered another and he rather huffily prepared to press ahead without the Hessian contingent that he had waited so long for. There had been nothing to complain about in the Hessians’ conduct during the Battle of Long Island, but further friction between the two commanders was not long in coming. Wanting the rebel lines at Brooklyn to be razed, Howe had asked the Hessian troops to do the work. Perhaps feeling that his men were being treated as workhorses, von Heister had insisted they should receive extra pay for the manual labor. Howe instead had put British troops to work and made another mark on von Heister’s card.

Although disliking the commanding officer, Howe was delighted with the small contingent of Hessian jägers present in the first wave. These were exactly the sort of troops Howe dreamed of turning his own light infantry into. Referred to as “chasseurs” or “greencoats” by the British, they instantly took their place in the vanguard of the army, alongside the British lights and grenadiers, and when Howe made his first tentative request for reinforcements, he had asked for 800 more jägers.

Off the battlefield, there were problems. Howe was never able to get a grip on looting and pillaging and the Hessians were among the worst offenders, sometimes appearing to see America as a personal larder, to be plundered at will. “They slaughter milch cows for meat,” reported Loftus Cliffe, “depriving everyone of milk and butter. All houses are ‘damned rebel houses,’ especially if there is a good cellar.” Despite such depredations, and their fearsome reputation, the Hessians gradually earned a more favorable reputation among the Americans and many prisoners declared they received better treatment from the Hessians than from the British.

As Howe’s army prepared to move to confront Washington at White Plains, the second wave of Hessians finally arrived, nearly 4,000 strong, including a 125-man company of jägers. Howe was pleased to get the extra troops and delighted to have more jägers at his disposal. The commanding officer of this corps was the 60-year-old Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Howe may have suppressed a groan when he saw that another old man had been sent out to him, but von Knyphausen was to prove a far more effective and energetic commander than von Heister. Also stepping off the transports after the arduous journey was a jäger captain, Johann Ewald. A compact man with a soldierly posture, he was a stickler for protocol but in no way an unthinking martinet. He was one of the most imaginative soldiers in America at the time, with the priceless ability to size up the lie of the land quickly and grasp which ground could be held and which attacked. Just 32 years of age when he joined Howe’s army, he had already been a soldier for half his life and had fought in the Seven Years War. His most serious injury, however, had come during a drunken brawl with friends in which he lost his left eye and took over a year to recover fully. He was to become a firm favorite of every British officer he served under, including Howe, who reminisced with the young German officer about his own days as a light infantry commander in the previous war.

The crossing from Britain had been an ordeal (fresh provisions had been exhausted almost a month earlier and scurvy had broken out) and the bemused Hessians had then encountered the eerily quiet streets of New York. With a quarter of the houses destroyed by the fire and many others deserted and ransacked, it was a ghost town and the men were happy to be transported up the East River on October 22, to join the main army. The following day, Howe and Ewald met for the first time. Seeing something of himself in the German captain, Howe complimented Ewald on the appearance of his men and put him to work straight away.

Ordered to scout out the rebel positions, Ewald and his men joined with the 1st Jäger Company and advanced. Ewald declined the invitation to mix his troops with the more seasoned troops of the other company, declaring that he needed to get to know his men. He was given the perfect opportunity within minutes, as heavy firing broke out on his left flank. Ewald’s company had stumbled into an engagement with several battalions of Americans and required rescuing by British light infantry. It was an inauspicious start, costing the lives of six of his men, and Ewald received a sharp telling off from von Heister once back at camp. Partly out of his personal dislike of von Heister and partly due to his instinctive respect for Ewald, Howe took the trouble to reassure the Hessian captain and commended the bravery of the jägers in general orders the following day, referring to their “spirited behaviour.”

Ewald quickly proved himself to be a man of action and relished the opportunity to put his theories on partisan warfare (“which I had acquired through much reading”) to the test. On October 26 he learned of a large enemy supply depot and suggested an operation to capture it. With the support of a light infantry battalion and the 17th Light Dragoons, the depot was captured, earning Ewald another commendation from Howe. The Hessians were therefore very much on the credit side of Howe’s ledger as he prepared to advance upon the rebel lines at White Plains.

Henry Clinton, as ever, was full of ideas. He suggested to Howe that he should pretend to withdraw his army back to New Rochelle, threaten an attack in a different direction, and then suddenly swing back to attack Washington at White Plains. Howe had already shown his lack of appetite for such shenanigans and Clinton should not have been surprised at being ordered instead to advance on White Plains on the morning of October 27 and make a full report on the strength of the rebel position. His report was uncharacteristically cautious: Clinton could not recommend an assault on the Americans, believing their flanks to be secure and suspecting that a clear route of retreat was available to them if pressed. Despite this, Howe decided to attack the following day.

Clinton’s relationship with Howe was by this point under intense stress. Not only was his advice consistently disregarded, there is every reason to believe that Clinton had recently received two very worrying letters from London, which raked up the details of the embarrassing southern expedition all over again. Germain had written to Clinton on August 24, explaining how he was “extremely disappointed and mortified to learn by your letter of the 8th of July that you were still in the South.” Three days later, Clinton’s secretary, Richard Reeve, who had been dispatched to London to argue his case over the shambolic operation at Charleston, had sent a very gloomy report. Reeve had met with Lords North and Germain as well as General Harvey. Germain, according to Reeve, was “a good deal dissatisfied at your going to the southward,” while Harvey “expressed regret that Clinton had gone to South Carolina in the first place.” It is not possible to be certain when these letters reached Clinton, but communications from Germain to Howe, written at the same time, reached America on October 23. It is feasible, indeed likely, that as the Battle of White Plains unfolded, Clinton was fuming once more over the sorry affair at Charleston.

Unhappy over the decision to attack at White Plains in the first place, Clinton suggested that if it must go ahead, it might be best to advance in two columns, offering to command one of them. This Howe could agree to, and Clinton was given command of the right column, with von Heister commanding on the left. Von Heister encountered the enemy first. Once Washington saw the British move, he sent 1,000 men to slow the advance of von Heister’s column. The regular stone walls in the area made ideal defensive positions, and the rebels were able to fire from cover on the advancing column, made up of Ewald’s jägers, a battalion of light infantry, two English brigades, and two Hessian regiments, as well as part of the 17th Light Dragoons. The column numbered around 6,000 men and was too strong to be delayed for long by the rebel skirmishers, who steadily withdrew, taking up a position with more American defenders on top of Chatterton Hill, on the extreme right of the American line. Clinton had declared the American flanks to be secure, but Chatterton Hill was exposed and vulnerable. Separated from the rest of the American line by the Bronx River, it could not easily be supported. Howe decided to concentrate his initial efforts there.

On the right, Clinton was making slow progress. Believing that the rebels would withdraw from their position as soon as they saw him, he attempted to get around their flank without being discovered. From the left, Ewald watched his slow progress with puzzlement; “… why he [Clinton] did not move forward and resolutely attack the enemy is a riddle to me,” he recorded in his diary, “for he had no more difficulties to overcome than the left flank had.” Howe was unconcerned, believing that his first job was to clear the rebels from Chatterton Hill. With this in mind, he spoke to von Heister. What happened next is not clear. Without a common language the men could not speak directly to each other and von Heister would later complain that he often received orders written in English that he could not understand. The absence of a liaison officer to facilitate communication between the generals was a startling omission, one that was not put right until the following month, when von Muenchhausen was appointed to the critical role. On Chatterton Hill, close to 2,000 rebel soldiers waited, comprised of a mixture of steady troops and nervous militia, while the British and Hessian generals talked. In a deleted section of his narrative, Howe detailed what happened next. “The attack being intended upon the enemy’s right which was opposite to the Hessian troops,” he wrote, “I purposed the attack to General Heister whose consent I could not obtain and on that account it was deferred.” Howe’s words were ambiguous. Had he been unable to make von Heister understand what was required of him, or had there been a more definitive refusal on the part of the German commander? A point of the finger at von Heister followed by a gesture toward Chatterton Hill ought to have been enough to get the general idea across, and the draft of Howe’s narrative contains a further intriguing hint that von Heister had been uncooperative rather than uncomprehending. “I purposed the attack to General Heister,” he had started, “who would not…” But Howe crossed this out and substituted the far milder “whose consent I could not obtain.” Still, there was little room for doubt. “I mentioned General Heister’s dissent to General Clinton,” Howe continued, “and my intention of making it [the attack] with the British under his direction.”

After his abortive conference with von Heister, then, Howe had traipsed across the battlefield to find Clinton and ask him to lead the assault. This, clearly, was the event alluded to in Howe’s speech. He had ultimately decided to omit the explicit passage detailing von Heister’s “dissent,” confident that he could get his point across perfectly well without it, but the speech declared that this was the reason why the American lines had not been attacked. It could not have been, since the refusal of von Heister to lead his men against the hill only delayed the assault.

In fact, by the time Howe and Clinton returned from the right flank, the attack on Chatterton Hill was under way. The British had displayed indiscipline before, on Breed’s Hill, before the rebel lines at Brooklyn and on the Harlem Heights. Here they displayed it again, commencing the attack without orders from their commanding officer. Once more, the indiscipline proved costly. Four British regiments, the 28th, the 35th, the 5th, and the 49th, crossed the Bronx to storm Chatterton Hill, but their initial advance was repulsed with heavy loss. Clinton, watching the affair unfold in the company of both Howe and Cornwallis, blamed the commanding officer, who fired his musket at the Americans while climbing the hill and then stopped to reload, robbing (in Clinton’s opinion) the advance of its momentum. Whatever the reason for the repulse, the British quickly returned and Hessian units became involved as well, whether under orders from von Heister or out of shame at being left on the sidelines. British troops jeered as their German comrades struggled to cross the Bronx (having picked an unfortunately deep point for their crossing, one of their color-bearers was nearly swept away), but if their progress was slow, it was also dogged. Colonel Rall in particular played an important role in the fighting, attacking the Americans in their flank and helping to drive them from the hill. The rebel soldiers, featuring once more men of the Delaware and Maryland regiments, withdrew to the main American lines. Losses were fairly even, with British casualties numbering around 200 and the Americans losing around 175. It was a very steep price to pay for the occupation of a hill.

The blaming of the Hessians demands further investigation. Unless Howe had simply forgotten the details of the day by the time he came to prepare his narrative, he must have been aware that he was doing the German troops a great disservice. Yes, von Heister had clearly baulked at the idea of leading the attack on Chatterton Hill, but the attack had gone ahead anyway and Hessian troops had eventually played an important part in it. Howe was also bypassing the real controversy, which swirled around the fact that, having taken possession of the hill, no further attempt was made to assault the rebel lines. This was the attack that did not happen, and this was the decision for which Howe’s critics were demanding an explanation. The Hessians made for convenient scapegoats, but in reality Howe had no reason to resort to such underhand methods. There had actually been solid reasons why a further assault had not been made.

Following the capture of Chatterton Hill, Howe had considered his options for the remainder of the day, before deciding to launch a full assault the following morning. The rebels put the time to good use, strengthening their defenses to the extent that Howe believed reinforcements were needed if he was to tackle them. Percy was called up and duly arrived, on October 30, with men from the New York garrison. The attack was scheduled for the next day and Howe once again asked Clinton for his opinion. Clinton’s response was surprising to say the least. He was opposed to the attack and provided an exhaustive list of reasons to support his position, including, “… the strength of post, the difficulty of approach, the little protection from cannon, little chance of making a blow of consequence, the risk after a tolerable good campaign of finishing it by a cheque, the moral certainty of a junction with Burgoyne next year.” Clinton was not one for throwing compliments around, and Howe should have been well pleased with being credited with mounting a “tolerable good campaign,” but grudging praise aside, it was clear that Clinton had little appetite for anyone’s ideas but his own. He suggested that the British might limit their ambitions to the taking of another hill on the American flank in an attempt to force them from their lines.

Howe had made maneuvering Washington out of prepared defenses into his personal hobby, but this time he wanted more. To Clinton’s surprise, the commander-in-chief was determined to press on with his full-scale assault. Not even heavy rain could deter him and at 2 a.m. on the morning of October 31 he ordered the reluctant Clinton forward. It was too late. The Americans had withdrawn from their lines and taken up an even stronger position about an hour’s march away, at North Castle Heights. For two days Howe watched the American lines as the worsening weather hinted at the end of the campaigning season—frost now covered the ground in the mornings. Criticized as an overly cautious commander, Howe had fully intended to attack Washington at White Plains, but had delayed pulling the trigger for too long. On November 3, he turned his army away and marched back toward Manhattan. The Battle of White Plains had never properly started, but it was to claim one more casualty. Commanding the rearguard during the withdrawal, Clinton changed the order of march only to be informed by one of Howe’s aides-de-camp that he was to make no deviation from his orders. Seeing this as a petty interjection, Clinton lost his temper and blurted out that he would rather be in a detached command of just three companies than serve directly underneath Howe. The outburst brought into the open Clinton’s disdain for his commanding officer, and if Howe heard about it, then the two men might no longer be able to work together. Unfortunately for Clinton, he had been heard by Cornwallis.

The Hessians Part II

Howe had been frustrated at White Plains, and he declared to Germain that the Americans were proving to be unwilling to stand and fight. This was plainly not true, but Howe must have been aware that he was repeatedly failing to deliver the knockout blow he had talked about so freely in the build-up to the campaign. The change in the weather suggested that time was running out to finish the job in one campaign, and the taking of Rhode Island, long considered, may well have been the only move remaining for Howe before going into winter quarters. It would have made for a fairly anticlimactic end to the campaign, but a serious mistake by the Americans was about to hand him something much bigger. In fact, it was to give him his greatest success of the war.

The Americans left behind at the Harlem Heights were now completely isolated and the only sensible course of action would have been to evacuate them as quickly as possible across the Hudson. On the other side of the river, Fort Lee was by now complete and offered an obvious stronghold for the men to move to. At precisely the wrong moment, the American leadership decided to indulge in a game of passing the buck. Nathanael Greene, based at Fort Lee, asked Washington what he thought should be done. The number of men available to him fell between two stools: “If we attempt to hold the ground, the garrison must be reinforced,” he reasoned, “but if the garrison is to be drawn into Fort Washington, and we only keep that, the number of troops on the island is too large.” Washington, making one of his biggest blunders, insisted that Greene must make the decision since he was the man on the spot. Washington also stressed the importance of holding Fort Washington to prevent British shipping from sailing up the Hudson, a dream that had already been conclusively dispelled. There were nearly 3,000 men still on Manhattan Island, and time was running out to extricate them.

Washington was not oblivious to the danger. After Howe’s army turned back toward New York, he claimed to be unsure what the British commander had in mind. He did not believe the campaign was over, but was most fearful of a movement toward Jersey. News of British preparations for the capture of Rhode Island were dismissed by the American general as misinformation; Washington believed an expedition to the southern colonies was far more likely. As for Fort Washington, he believed the enemy would “invest it immediately,” but he made no comment of taking any action to counter this or to remove the men. Washington had an instinctive understanding that Howe would be feeling the pressure to achieve something more before the end of the year (“He must attempt something on account of his reputation; for what has he done as yet with his great army?”), but seemed to miss the point that the capture of nearly 3,000 men at Fort Washington would fit the bill nicely. Again, the specter of the British rampaging through Jersey was more troubling. In a letter to William Livingston, governor of Jersey, Washington advised him to prepare his militia and to pursue a scorched-earth policy; any forage that could not be safely removed was to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British. To help motivate Livingston, Washington painted an apocalyptic picture of the progress of the British troops: “They have treated all here without discrimination,” he warned. “The distinction of Whig and Tory has been lost in one general scene of ravage and desolation.”

As had happened repeatedly, Washington appears to have awakened only slowly to dangers that ought to have been obvious. By November 8 he was feeling his way toward an order to abandon Fort Washington, citing the failure of the fort to impede British shipping on the Hudson. “If we cannot prevent Vessels from passing up,” he wrote to Greene, “and the enemy are possessed of the surrounding country, what valuable Purpose can it answer to hold a Post, from which the expected Benefit cannot be had?” Rather than taking this line of reasoning to its obvious conclusion, however, Washington backed away at the last moment. “I am therefore inclined to think,” he continued, “that it will not be prudent to hazard the Men and Stores at Mount Washington; but, as you are on the spot, leave it to you to give such orders, as to evacuating Mount Washington, as you may judge best.” It was a shocking abrogation of responsibility, but everything Washington had seen of Howe up to that point would have convinced him that a direct assault was the last thing on the British general’s mind. An attempted siege was by far the most likely course of action.

Howe would need no further invitation. General von Knyphausen, with six battalions of Hessians, had been dispatched to Kingsbridge on October 28 and had been encamped on Manhattan since November 2. By November 12, British forces were concentrating in the area. Howe explained his decision to attack the fort to Germain, explaining how it “kept the enemy in command of the navigation of the North River.” It did no such thing, and Howe also mentioned that it was covered by strong ground and “exceeding difficult of access.” In short, it was just the sort of position that had deterred him on several occasions, and was a prime candidate for the sort of siege he had tried to implement at Brooklyn. Although hailed by some as impregnable, the fort was actually vulnerable, having no source of fresh water within its walls. A brief siege would see the cramped garrison surrender with little or no loss to the British.

Instead, Howe planned an ambitious assault. Tellingly, he originally intended it to be a Hessian-only affair, although British troops were later incorporated into the plan. Evidently feeling that the Germans needed to shoulder more of the burden, Howe was perhaps proving a point as much as anything else. Von Heister, whose stock with Howe was at an all-time low, was not involved; the Hessian troops were to be led by von Knyphausen. The addition of British troops also might have opened the door to Clinton’s involvement. He had led the way on Long Island, at Kip’s Bay, and at Throg’s Neck, and Howe had turned to him when von Heister had refused to charge at White Plains. At Fort Washington, however, there was no place for Clinton, suggesting that Howe might already have heard about his petulant outburst during the retreat from White Plains. Clinton had been given command of the planned descent on Rhode Island, but there was time enough for him to take part in the attack on Fort Washington, had Howe wished it.

Nathanael Greene was unconcerned in the face of the obvious preparations and believed the fort could stall the British for a considerable amount of time. He accepted that it could not prevent British shipping from moving along the Hudson, but argued, “I cannot conceive the garrison to be in any great danger,” adding that “the men can be brought off at any time.” The commander at Fort Washington, Colonel Robert Magaw, was confident that he could hold out until the end of the year, but what that would actually achieve was not specified. Washington himself arrived on the scene, although his primary purpose was to get troops into Jersey to counter the anticipated move there. He and Greene consulted on the situation on November 14, but no decision was made. Howe gave the Americans one last chance to see sense, on November 15. He also gave Magaw the thing longed for by every garrison commander: the opportunity to declare that he would defend his post “to the very last extremity.” Greene and General Putnam, who had been in Fort Washington at the time, were making their way across the Hudson when they met their commander-in-chief, mid-river, on his way to inspect the garrison. Assured by Putnam and Greene that the men were in good order and ready for the coming fight, Washington turned back. The following day, the attack began.

Howe was sending men against the same fortifications that he had declared untouchable a matter of weeks ago, but now they were held by a thinly stretched garrison of fewer than 3,000 men. The plan was to drive the Americans from their outer works into Fort Washington itself, and, to prevent them from concentrating their forces to resist, three sections of the defenses would be attacked at the same time. Johann Ewald, who had been asked to reconnoiter the defenses, had declared them to be very formidable, noting that American preparations had been thorough. Trees had been felled to give a clear field of fire, while the naturally difficult terrain had been enhanced with defensive works, including abbatis. Two of the attacking columns moved from the north, von Knyphausen leading a column of Hessian troops, with Cornwallis and Brigadier General Edward Mathew commanding light infantry, the Guards, grenadiers, and the 33rd Regiment. From the south, Percy headed a mixture of British and Hessian regiments. As if to underline the futility of holding the fort in the first place, HMS Pearl sat brazenly on the Hudson to provide fire support. Ewald reported that it took more than four hours for von Knyphausen’s column to dislodge American defenders from their strong positions (the British grenadier officer John Peebles recorded that they were “slow but Steady troops”), but Cornwallis and Percy made much swifter progress. Cornwallis landed his light infantry in 30 flat-bottomed boats and quickly took possession of a defended hill, forcing the rebels back toward the fort. Percy’s advance from the south was so rapid that Howe saw an opportunity to cut off the rebels’ retreat. Sending in the 42nd Regiment by boat, they were able to intercept many of the retreating Americans, capturing 170 of them.

Howe would later write with evident pride of the performance of his men, particularly his beloved light infantry, who had advanced “up a very steep uneven mountain with their usual activity.” It was Colonel Rall, who had earlier distinguished himself at White Plains, who had the honor of reaching Fort Washington first. Advancing to within 100 yards (90 meters), while retreating Americans crammed into the fort, he demanded their surrender. Forgetting his bold claims of the previous day, Magaw was obliged to accept. Close to 3,000 prisoners were taken, with around 150 killed or wounded. Howe did not mention his own losses in his report to Germain. These were considerable, with 78 men killed and 374 wounded. Howe, in fact, had lost more men in taking an isolated fort than he had lost in the Battle of Long Island.

Washington had a tricky job to do. The loss of the garrison at Fort Washington was the most severe blow yet endured by the American army and required explaining. His letter to Congress on the day of the action came uncomfortably close to an attempt to pin the blame on others. Assuring Congress that he had left the decision to Greene, Washington made it clear that it had been Greene’s decision to stand and fight. Washington’s account of the battle included the remarkable assertion that he had sent a note to Colonel Magaw after the British and Hessian forces had pushed his men back into the fort itself, ordering the American commander to hold firm. Washington had then planned to withdraw the garrison on the night of November 16. Perhaps Washington believed he could pull off another night-time evacuation, but his assessment of the situation was badly misjudged. The American losses extended to more than just men, since large amounts of supplies and ammunition also fell into the hands of the British. “I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motion of things,” he confided to his brother, “and I solemnly protest, that a pecuniary award of twenty thousand pounds a year would not induce me to undergo what I do.” Greene was also deeply disturbed by the loss of Fort Washington and all too aware that the bulk of the blame might fall on him. He declared himself “mad, vexed, sick and sorry” and begged for news of how the defeat was being reported.

Howe’s position was obviously more comfortable, but he had his issues to deal with as well. Although the Hessians had gone a long way to recovering the confidence of their commander-in-chief, and the second wave had brought the more aggressive von Knyphausen as well as the mercurial Ewald, there was still the problem of von Heister. He and Howe were barely on speaking terms (not that they could understand each other anyway). The belated appointment of a liaison officer to smooth dealings between the two men came too late to repair their relationship. Von Muenchhausen was an effective aide-de-camp and might have brought Howe and von Heister closer together (von Heister spoke German and French, Howe English only, while von Muenchhausen was fluent in all three) if there had been any will on the part of the two generals.

The situation with Clinton might still have been rescued. Howe certainly attempted to keep their dealings on a professional footing, but Clinton was unreceptive. The second-in-command was becoming consumed by resentment over the southern expedi­tion fasco and Howe’s role in it. The two men would not work together again and Howe therefore found himself shorn of the support of his two most important subordinates. There were other men to lean on, notably Cornwallis, and so long as he retained the confidence of the politicians at home he had little to be seriously concerned by. Personal animosities were inevitable under the stress of a campaign, but Howe could afford to be pragmatic. He had every reason to believe that he was moving steadily toward a successful conclusion to the war.

That impression was reinforced four days after the fall of Fort Washington. The Americans had failed to remove stores from the white elephant that was Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Ineffective when operating in conjunction with Fort Washington, it was entirely purposeless now, but massive quantities of supplies and ordnance were still there when Cornwallis landed troops 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the fort, on the morning of November 20. It was not an easy matter to drag guns up what Howe described as the “narrow rocky road, for near half a mile, to the top of a precipice,” but capturing the fort itself proved more straightforward. The garrison evacuated quickly upon the approach of the British (several inebriated men were left behind) and the fort changed hands without a shot being fired. It could hardly have been a surprise to the Americans that Fort Lee would be the next target in the slow but remorseless advance of the redcoats, but kettles were still warming above fires as the British took possession and Cornwallis spent that night camped outside the fort, “making use of the enemy’s tents.” More importantly, between Forts Washington and Lee the rebels had lost 146 cannon, close to 3,000 muskets and around 400,000 cartridges.

The invasion of New Jersey had begun, but Germain would not read about it until the end of the year. Howe did not bother to inform the American Secretary of events following the stalemate at the Harlem Heights until November 30 and the letter did not reach London until December 29. It would have made for a pleasant late Christmas present, but Germain would have been justified in wondering why Howe had taken so long to inform him that the campaign was still alive and kicking; it was two months since he had last written. The general was gracious enough to offer an apology (“The service in which I have been employed … with advice to the reduction of New York, would not allow of an earlier time to send an account to your Lordship of the progress made from that period.”), and in any event, the contents of the letter, detailing the landing at Kip’s Bay, the capture of New York, the fighting near the Harlem Heights, the Battle of White Plains, and the capturing of Forts Washington and Lee, were so pleasing to Germain that he could afford to overlook Howe’s tardiness in writing. The general had obviously been busy and, condensed into a single letter, the events of the campaign took on a rather dashing air. Howe finished by reporting that Cornwallis was in hot pursuit of Washington through New Jersey and that all seemed well with the army. Clinton was singled out for praise, as were the Hessians. “The Hessian troops, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Heister and Knyphausen,” Howe wrote, “have also exhibited every good disposition to promote his majesty’s interests, and justly merit my acknowledgement of their services.”

There was no sign here that Howe believed they had in any way sabotaged his plans at White Plains, or in any way retarded the progress of his campaign. But then, the campaign was not yet over.