About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

The Princes on the March

Hugh’s army was one of the first of the better-organized princely forces to depart, probably leaving France sometime near Urban II’s proposed date of August 15, 1096. Eschewing the roads through Hungary, the army aimed instead for Bari in southeastern Italy, intending to sail from there to Durazzo (Durrës, in modern Albania).

As Hugh’s followers set about putting their moral and financial houses in order, Hugh himself wrote a letter to the Emperor Alexius, warning him of his imminent arrival. The letter does not survive. Instead, we have a satirical paraphrase written in the biography of Alexius by his daughter Anna Comnena. Hugh, according to Anna, proclaimed himself “the King of Kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens,” and warned Alexius that he expected to be received in Constantinople with all the pomp suited to his great station. The language, though a bit over the top, does accord with what we know about Hugh and his followers—namely, that they expected him to become king of Jerusalem. We also know that most Latin observers found Greek court ceremonial more than a little overbearing. It is easy to imagine, then, the brother of the French king firing off a pompous and high-handed missive to the Greek emperor before departing for the East.

Alexius must have viewed Hugh’s letter not so much as a sign of Frankish pretension but as part of an ongoing crisis. By the time it arrived, he had already received the armies of Walter and Peter at Constantinople. He would have also had to deal with the crises created by Peter’s followers near Belgrade and afterward at Nish. Finally, Alexius would have heard how King Coloman, because of the Franks’ boorish and brutal conduct, had decided to forbid them from entering his domain. Alexius’s own subjects, already overburdened with the massive armies of Peter and Walter and equally aware of the chaos engulfing Hungary, were likely ready to take a similar stand against Hugh—even without knowing that while passing through Italy, Hugh had welcomed into his army some of the most erratic and violent members of Emicho’s following.

As soon as Hugh reached Bari in early October, he sent ahead a party of envoys to the Byzantine port of Durazzo to announce his imminent arrival. Accompanying this diplomatic group, unaccountably, was William the Carpenter. At Durazzo, according to Anna Comnena, the Franks repeated the veiled threats of Hugh’s earlier letter, backed up this time by Urban II’s endorsement: “Be it known to you, Duke, that our Lord Hugh is almost here. He brings with him from Rome the golden standard of St. Peter. Understand, moreover, that he is supreme commander of the Frankish army. See to it then that he is accorded a reception worthy of his rank and yourself prepare to meet him.”

Hugh arrived at Durazzo a few days later, after, according to one source, his ship nearly sank during a treacherous crossing of the Adriatic. Envoys from Durazzo’s Byzantine governor met up with him, on the beach and still reeling from the voyage, and escorted him into the city. There he was greeted warmly and feted in a manner appropriate to his station. The following morning, after the Franks had had a good night’s sleep, the Greeks placed Hugh and his men under arrest and escorted them under close supervision all the way to Constantinople.

At about the same time as Hugh was preparing to cross the Adriatic, the two princes from northern France, Robert of Normandy and his cousin Robert of Flanders, were still readying their followers for the long journey east. Sometime in mid-October 1096, probably at Chartres, their two armies rendezvoused with Robert of Normandy’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, a wealthy and prominent count who had also decided to take the cross.

Stephen’s army included a chaplain named Fulcher of Chartres, not a warrior or, in the conventional sense, a person of any significance, but in terms of history one of the most important of all crusaders. Fulcher, a somewhat officious man, had not only attended the Council of Clermont but had also jotted down notes about its more important decrees (though, curiously, he failed to mention Jerusalem in connection with Urban II’s sermon). When he left with the French armies that October, he probably continued his record-keeping habits, or at least he made careful note in his own memory of the things he saw. At some later date, probably starting around 1102, he began to arrange these notes and memories more coherently in a book that he would revise often, entitled The Jerusalem History.

His description of the atmosphere around Chartres at the time of the Franks’ departure was suitably vivid: “At that time a husband would tell his wife when he expected to return, and that if God permitted life to be a companion to him on the journey, he would come back to his homeland and to her. He commended her to the Lord, and he kissed her, and as they cried, he promised that he would return. But she feared that she would never see him again and was unable to hold herself up and fell to the ground lifeless, sobbing for her friend who left her, now alive but seemingly already dead.” Crusaders may have expected a hundredfold return on their labors, but the immediate sacrifice and loss were no less daunting because of it.

By October the French armies had crossed over into Italy. Along the way they stopped at Lucca, where Urban II himself received them. It was the first time most of the soldiers had laid eyes on the pope. It was also very likely the only opportunity Urban had to preach directly to an army of crusaders, though there is no evidence that he did so. Fulcher observed only that the pope spoke individually or in groups with several of the pilgrims (including Fulcher) and then gave the army as a whole his blessing.

From there the Franks marched down the coast to Rome, hoping to pray at St. Peter’s. Unfortunately, the supporters of the antipope Clement III still controlled most of the basilica and were hostile to Urban’s loyalists. When the pilgrims entered the Vatican unarmed to pray, a few of Clement’s men threatened them with swords and stole their offerings. When the Franks knelt before the altars, Clement’s followers dropped rocks on their heads. The experience proved dispiriting enough for many of the crusaders that they decided to return home—victims of cowardice, according to Fulcher. More likely the grandeur of the papal vision, of which they would have at least had a taste at Lucca, clashed too sharply with the tawdry reality of Roman politics.

Toward the end of November, the armies finally arrived at Bari. As they would have quickly learned, they were the third major crusading host to pass through this port, seeking transportation to Durazzo. Hugh the Great had sailed about six weeks before Stephen and the two Roberts, and Bohemond—having just delivered the rousing sermon that reached a crescendo with him cutting up his own cloak into crosses—had probably left about a month after Hugh. It was probably rumor of Hugh’s army that inspired Bohemond to abandon his uncle at Amalfi and prepare to attack Jerusalem instead.

Once in Bari, the Franks would have gone at once to pray before the recently erected shrine of St. Nicholas, whose bones Italian adventurers claimed to have stolen from Asia Minor during the chaos that had followed upon the Seljuk Turks’ expansion into that territory. They likely prayed for favorable winds and a quick crossing. If so, Nicholas did not listen. The winter seas had begun to turn ugly, and Robert of Normandy and Stephen both agreed that it would be wiser not to test them and instead to set camp in Italy until spring. Robert of Flanders, however, was impatient. He successfully led his army across the Adriatic to Durazzo. There is no record of how he fared upon arrival, but presumably he received the same strained welcome as Hugh the Great had before him.

As for Bohemond, he was too familiar with Alexius’s strategies to fall so easily into his hands. To avoid the emperor’s traps, he arranged for his army to land at different points along the Adriatic coast and then to meet up on All Saints’ Day, November 1, at the port city of Valona (Vlorë, in modern Albania). On his best behavior, Bohemond instructed his men not to plunder the country where they had arrived, since it belonged to Christians, and not to claim more food than they needed. These rules were necessarily flexible. On Christmas Day, when the Byzantine town of Castoria refused to open its markets for the crusaders, Bohemond granted his men permission to plunder the countryside. And when, around New Year’s, they stumbled upon what they took to be a castle full of heretics, they burned it to the ground and killed everyone inside.

This was all part of a drawn-out, slow, even leisurely four-month-long march to Constantinople. It was a kind of “purposeful procrastination,” as a recent historian has phrased it, where Bohemond tried to make contact with other crusade leaders to propose to them an idea: that they begin their expedition with an attack on Constantinople. It was not as mad an idea as it now sounds. Bohemond was a veteran leader in the Norman wars against Alexius and had previously defeated the emperor in battle. Growing up, he had learned to think of himself as a potential Byzantine emperor. The crusade potentially gave him his chance. He only succeeded, however, in reaching Godfrey of Bouillon, who had arrived at Constantinople at about the same time Bohemond was looting around Castoria. The Lotharingian duke politely refused the invitation.

Godfrey himself had left his homeland at the head of an army of “illustrious princes,” according to Albert of Aachen—though most of these princes were related to Godfrey or else were members of his household. Most notable among them was Godfrey’s younger brother Baldwin (his older brother Eustace, Count of Boulogne, as noted earlier, had departed with Robert of Flanders). They set forth around August 15, the semiofficial departure date and also at about the same time as Hugh the Great left France. Like the armies of Peter and Emicho, they followed the pilgrims’ route through Hungary. But as they approached the German-Hungarian frontier, they met up with an alarming number of refugees from Emicho’s and Gottschalk’s armies, who told them how Coloman had betrayed their trust and how the Hungarians had closed all their markets and had refused them any hospitality. Godfrey wisely set camp on the Austrian side of the Leitha River and tried to discover the truth behind the stories.

Three weeks of tense negotiations followed. First Godfrey sent a small and undistinguished delegation to meet with Coloman. It included a knight named Godfrey of Esch, who had met Coloman in the past. Each side aired its complaints over the course of eight days, before Coloman allowed the envoys to return with an invitation to Godfrey that they meet together near one of his castles, called Sopron. Godfrey agreed, and at the advice of his men traveled there with three hundred soldiers. Leaving the main part of his army to mill about, he crossed a bridge with only two relatives to accompany him and walked into a marsh, where he found the king of Hungary awaiting.

They sat together for hours and talked about friendship, peace, and love. Each man, king and duke, decided that he found the other to be sincere in his affections. But Godfrey still had more negotiating to do if he were to achieve a satisfactory accord. At no small risk, he walked back across the bridge and dismissed all but twelve of his three hundred followers and then, with this much smaller group, entered yet another of Coloman’s castles. Negotiations and feasting continued for another eight days.

Finally, as the end of September neared, a deal was struck: Coloman would open his kingdom to the Lotharingians provided that they agreed to keep the peace and to respect Hungary’s markets and properties and also provided that Godfrey offered Coloman hostages of sufficient importance. Godfrey agreed to these terms and turned over to the king as hostages his brother Baldwin, Baldwin’s wife, and their household. Each side sent out heralds to proclaim the terms of the agreement. The penalty for even the slightest violation of the peace was death.20

Through this combination of diplomacy and fierce discipline, Godfrey steered his army through Hungary. Soldiers of the king shadowed his every step and effectively held his brother and his brother’s family prisoner—very similar to the treatment Hugh the Great received at Durazzo from Alexius. After three weeks, around October 15, Godfrey’s army reached Zemun, plundered just four months earlier by Peter the Hermit. They rested there for five days, in part because they heard that their diplomatic situation was unlikely to improve once they reached Byzantium.

The crossing of the Sava River to Belgrade thus became something of a preemptive military operation. Approximately one thousand soldiers managed to fit into only three ships and to establish a defensive line against any potential Greek attackers. The rest of the army, like many of Peter’s followers before them, used makeshift rafts constructed of timber and vines to cross safely. The operation proceeded without incident, and once all of the Lotharingians were across the Sava and outside of Hungarian lands, Coloman released Baldwin and his family from captivity and sent them to the other side of the Sava, too.

The next day, just as Godfrey’s army was entering “the vast and mysterious woods of the kingdom of Bulgaria,” envoys from Alexius met up with them and proposed yet another truce. Provided that, again, Godfrey respected the peace of the empire, Alexius would allow his army free passage and access to markets. At the city of Nish, where Peter the Hermit had lost nearly one-quarter of his army, the governor Nicetas now offered to the Lotharingians a generous gift of grain, wine, oil, and meat. The cities of Sophia and Philippopolis did much the same.

It was at Philippopolis, however, after an eight-day rest (where the soldiers might have occupied themselves visiting the first crusader shrine—the tomb of Walter of Poissy), that relations with Byzantium suddenly soured. A messenger arrived (it is unclear from whom) announcing that Alexius was holding as hostages and, rumor had it, in chains Hugh the Great, Drogo of Nesle, Clarembald of Vendeuil, and William the Carpenter. Perhaps this was honorable captivity, akin to what Baldwin had received from Coloman. There was also something like an expectation that Godfrey would join his fellow leaders in Constantinople. Instead, he stopped his advance and sent envoys to Alexius, demanding the captives’ release. (Two other leaders in Godfrey’s army rode ahead of the delegation, hoping to win a few last-minute presents from the emperor before the truce fell completely apart.) When Alexius refused this demand, Godfrey ordered his men to start plundering.

They did so for eight days. Alexius relented. Two new messengers reached Godfrey, promising that Alexius would release the prisoners provided the Lotharingians stopped ravaging the countryside. Godfrey ordered his men to cease their attacks and then moved camp up to the outskirts of Constantinople. Hugh, Drogo, Clarembald, and William were waiting to meet him, in the shadow of the city’s great walls and its golden domes, intimidating in their splendor. The former prisoners and the duke rejoiced at their newfound fellowship, embracing and kissing one another. Peace was, for a time, restored. But when messengers arrived from Bohemond a few days later and offered to make all-out war against Alexius, Godfrey must have been sorely tempted.

The final army to leave for the Holy Land was the first one that Urban II had recruited—the southern French. Though no one knows the exact numbers, it was the largest of the princely armies, a fact explained in part by the amount of time Urban II had spent recruiting in this area. Equally important was Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s extraordinary wealth, which enabled him to finance a much larger army than any of the other princes could. Theoretically attached to the French crown, Raymond’s Occitan—or as they are more often known, “Provençal”—followers would have formed a distinct cultural and linguistic group within the main army. One feature in particular would have immediately distinguished these Provençals from their fellow crusaders: the unusually large number of poor men and women who chose to follow in their wake. The care of these indigent pilgrims, as we shall see, Count Raymond took very seriously.

Before leaving Occitania, Count Raymond attended to his spiritual obligations, trying to resolve conflicts throughout his principality, including one of his own property disputes with the abbey of Saint-Gilles. As a final step toward putting his spiritual house in order, he arranged to have a candle left on the altar in the cathedral of le Puy, with a flame burning there before an image of the Blessed Virgin (likely the black statue of the Madonna, a replica of which sits in the cathedral today) as long as he should live. Perhaps because of the great care with which he approached these financial and spiritual obligations, his armies did not manage to leave until near the end of September, if not early October, well after Urban II’s mid-August goal.

In addition to a number of Provençal princes and castellans, Raymond’s army included several distinguished churchmen—most notably, papal legate Bishop Adhémar of le Puy and Bishop William of Orange. In the long run, however, the most important and influential among them was an obscure cleric named Raymond of Aguilers, ordained a priest during the course of the march. This Raymond was a chaplain within the household of Count Raymond, and he had served some minor role in drawing up plans for the departure. By the time the armies had arrived in Anatolia, as Constantinople neared, he certainly had a clear sense of what the crusade ought to be about, and he worried constantly that the army was losing its direction or else that deserters who had returned to the West were spreading lies about what was going on in the East. He wanted to make sure not only that the crusade succeeded, but also that his vision of the crusade prevailed. As often happened in the Middle Ages, he sought to control history by writing it. Probably realizing that his word alone would carry little weight, he recruited a knight named Pons of Balazun to help him with the project. And at some point during the march, certainly by the fall of 1098, like Fulcher of Chartres, they began writing a book, which is today simply called The Book of Raymond of Aguilers.

It begins in the middle of things. Passing over the early stages of the march, where the Provençals skirted across northern Italy, Raymond opened his story with the army already in Dalmatia, or “Sclavonia,” as he preferred to call it, a semiautonomous kingdom under the protection of the Byzantine Empire. Its land was, in Raymond’s description, mountainous and devoid of all sustenance, and its natives were a barbarous and ignorant people. When the Slavs’ harassment of the Provençals grew unbearable, Count Raymond ordered six of them captured and then had their eyes gouged out and their hands and feet cut off. Upon his command, they were left alive in public view, a warning of the consequences to be faced by those who would bedevil Christians. It was also a perfect example of the kind of rough justice characteristic of Christian lords in eleventh-century Europe—composed of small-scale acts of brutality intended to intimidate and subdue a potentially rebellious population. For Raymond the writer, the mutilations in Dalmatia were among Count Raymond’s outstanding deeds, a shrewd tactic that made the final forty days in that wilderness pass in relative peace.

By February 1, 1096, the Provençals entered into Byzantine territory at last, walking to the port city of Durazzo, where previously the northern Franks and southern Italians had arrived by sea. As soon as Raymond’s men reached the city, Alexius began applying to them the same treatment he had given to the earlier armies. His envoys presented Raymond with letters of safe conduct but at the same time established armies to shadow them and—perhaps deliberately, perhaps owing to misunderstanding—engage them in small skirmishes. These encounters could be deadly. Early on Greek soldiers killed a knight named Pons Rainaud. Later in February Bishop Adhémar of le Puy himself was attacked. As the army entered “the valley of Pelagonia,” Adhémar rode off alone on a mule, apparently looking for a congenial place to set camp. A group of Pecheneg soldiers or brigands (in the frontier regions of Macedonia, the distinction would have been a fine one) suddenly fell upon him, hit him sharply on the head, and knocked him off his mule. As much as the dazed Adhémar could later reconstruct things, most of the Pechenegs were ready to kill him, but one of them sensed that the bishop had access to more money than he was carrying. This brigand tried to stop his companions from killing Adhémar so that he might interrogate him, and in the process they all made enough noise to alert the rest of the army that the bishop was in danger. A group of Provençal soldiers quickly rode to his rescue.

This turn of events caused Count Raymond to take a more aggressive strategy against the emperor. Near a castle called Bucinat, he set an ambush for Pecheneg soldiers and routed them all. About a month later, around April 12, 1097, when the town of Roussa refused him supplies, he ordered an attack. His soldiers quickly broke down the walls, accepted the citizens’ surrender, and then stole much of their wealth. As the crusaders marched away, they shouted Count Raymond’s war cry: “Toulouse! Toulouse!” To all appearances, the Provençals were at war with the Greeks. Again, the crusade was turning into a war of Christians against Christians.

But at about this time more messengers from Constantinople arrived, along with envoys that Raymond himself had dispatched, carrying with them further promises of peace from Alexius. This time they carried news, too. The emperor was hosting at his palace Bohemond, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert of Flanders, among other princes. He was no longer keeping them prisoner; he was discussing with them whether to join the Latin army on the road to Jerusalem.

Important decisions were thus being made about the organization and financing of the crusade army. Raymond’s presence was required if he did not wish losing, despite his wealth and his great number of followers, control of the crusade. Setting aside his grievances, he departed with a small escort, leaving the rest of his army to complete the journey to Constantinople without him. Up until this point, chaplain and writer Raymond observed, his tale had been pleasant to tell. But from the moment that Raymond left for Constantinople, the story became suffused with grief and anguish. The thought of Alexius made the chaplain regret ever having taken up his pen.


Vercingetorix’s Army I

‘In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for none [of those leaders] suffers his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 11]

When we try to understand the form of Vercingetorix’s army, we are faced with a number of problems. Documentary records provide some descriptions, but not even Caesar describes Vercingetorix’s army in detail. On the whole, the information sources for Gallic society and warfare are problematic: they mainly come from ancient authors who rarely provide us with the type of perspective we require to place the Gauls correctly in context. Often the sources themselves are not first-hand, being repetitions of other authors or uncritical retellings of travellers’ stories. However, Caesar’s Gallic War, along with other ancient sources, provides us with some useful descriptions of the Gallic peoples, although we must be wary of accepting his descriptions in too unquestioning a manner.

Caesar had his own reasons for writing his works: they promoted his image and presented Roman actions positively. In addition, Caesar gained much of his information on the battlefield or in the political arena – hardly the place to discover the nuances of a nation’s culture. And so, like other authors before him, he resorted to using previous works to fill in the gaps of his experience. The physical appearance of ‘Celts’ given by Caesar matches authors such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny. These all focus on the remarkable aspects of the Celtic appearance that were unusual to Mediterranean eyes: fair skin, hair and blue eyes. The descriptions of Gauls are often derived from those peoples closest to Roman provinces and show little of the range and complexity of the Celtic societies further away. By portraying the Gauls as ‘barbarians’, the Romans could focus attention on certain Gallic attributes for their own purposes, sometimes to contrast how well the Romans behaved, sometimes to show how badly. There was a certain contradiction in this, as the Romans sometimes ridiculed behaviour in the Gauls that the Romans themselves engaged in.

‘These [nobles], when there is occasion and any war occurs (which before Caesar’s arrival was for the most part wont to happen every year …), are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependants about them. They acknowledge this sort of influence and power only.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 15]

Vercingetorix’s army was based on the ad hoc accumulation of willing participants organized along tribal lines, in contrast to the Roman army’s formal standing armies with strict military structures. One way to understand how Vercingetorix’s army functioned, therefore, is to understand the structure of wider Gallic society. A problem when attempting to reconstruct Vercingetorix’s army in this context is the fact that Gallic society had little homogeneity. At the time of Caesar’s invasion, Gallic culture was still rooted in prehistoric religious and tribal customs, which differed from tribe to tribe. The role of the ‘king’ is a good example. It sometimes commingled the role of leader with that of high priest. In many tribes, however, attempts were made to keep these two roles separate. Religion still played a dominant role in Gallic life and priests took the role of wise arbitrators seriously, attempting to balance military and civilian leadership by halting the unrestrained power of either. By Caesar’s invasion, kingship in some tribes was starting to be replaced by elected positions, much like the process that had happened previously in classical Mediterranean civilizations. The Aedui (whose capital at Bibracte was used as the focal point of the Alesia Campaign) seem to have been one of the most advanced along this process, although many other tribes were also developing similar mechanisms. At the time of the Alesia Campaign the Aedui had developed a constitution and had an elected magistrate called a vergobret, who functioned in the role of king. Separate from this civilian magistracy there was also a growing military magistracy. In charge of these was a military chieftain – a role that separated the military and political functions of the leaders, thus preventing the concentration of power in a single person’s hands. A larger group formed solely from the nobility of the villages formed a ‘senate’ that would decide the grander fate of the tribe as a whole, such as whether it went to war or the election of magistrates. Nobles tended to come from kin groups with a long history of noble or renowned ancestors and marriage between these noble families helped maintain their status. Vercingetorix’s attempt to unify Gaul was therefore seen by some Gauls as an attempt to circumvent the new structures and revive a system of hereditary kings that would place him foremost.

‘the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 13]

Although social divisions were clearly demarcated, the struggle for power within these groups was inevitable. Even within noble families, members would compete with each other for support in order to gain supremacy. However, Gallic clientage was where the real social power was held and this was based on how many supporters an individual could accumulate. This system enabled wealthy chieftains to extend their control over large numbers of followers with little regard to social standing, tribal boundaries or definitions. Honour was a major feature of this relationship and this meant commoners had to be protected by their leaders. If they failed, they lost their honour and also their clients. This was a mutually beneficial system whereby wealthy individuals would protect their ‘clients’ and, in return, would be supported by them. Caesar makes note of this system, describing it as an ancient Gallic custom, but it was also very similar to Roman practice. So long as a leader could guarantee support and protection to his clients he would be maintained as leader. These social distinctions exhibited in the political system were apparent in the military system. At Alesia, the tribal leaders used this relationship to gather bands of warriors, calling upon those who owed them allegiance.

The Gallic tribes, like all ‘Celtic’ peoples, had a society based on warrior ideals. War was not only seen as destructive, but also productive. The necessary hierarchies required for military combat reinforced the social ties and structures they were formed from. In order to fight, a Gaul had to have achieved puberty and be wealthy enough to own his own arms. This mechanism guaranteed that each warrior had a stake in the successful outcome of the battle. At the top of the social pyramid was the military chieftain, a post that was annually elected and maintained only a controlling position over the ‘armed council’ that decided matters of warfare. These were made up of the nobility, who held the most prestigious place in battle, due in part to their ability to furnish themselves with both horse and complete panoply of the best quality armour. At the bottom were various levels of commoners who were mainly consigned to the ranks of the infantry, although they were not confined to that status – the possibility was always open to them to improve their position. In times of social upheaval it was not unknown for commoners to be a central part of societal transformation. Commoners retained their rights as freemen, whether they were well off and landed or part of the underclass. On the other hand, slaves were non-citizens with no rights. Often either captured or bought outsiders, their role was servile. Although their position could be changed and their lowly status was not always passed on to their offspring, only in extremis were slaves allowed to fight.

At the outset of hostilities the council called together an assembly of all the warriors, usually at a central place in the tribal region. During the Alesia Campaign, the hill fort at Bibracte was used as the focal centre, not only for the Aedui tribe, but also for the whole of the rebellious tribes of Gaul. With all of the available warriors armed and drawn together, the armed council could assess the state of readiness of the army.

These events could also be an opportunity for intertribal competition through the display of prowess and equipment, showing their readiness and willingness for war. Weapons were not only used for war but also could signify an individual’s status within society. The type of weapon a warrior had and how elaborate or decorated it was influenced how others interacted with him.

‘The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they … who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of another man the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 16]

Before battle it was not uncommon for rites and rituals to be performed and augurs to divine the fate of the battle. The Gauls had a range of gods forming an organized system of belief, depending on tribal preference. Many of the Gallic gods were directly associated with sky gods, the war god being one of the greatest. Usually the war god also had a male and female appearance and these often had positive and negative characteristics, which manifested as constructive or destructive traits. By the Roman invasion of 58BC, the Roman and Gallic gods were very similar in general terms, showing something of their shared Indo-European origins. After the assimilation of Gaul into the Roman Empire, these shared origins led to the relatively easy incorporation of the Gallic gods within the Roman pantheon.

‘Mars presides over wars. To him when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 17]

Particularly common war gods were Teuates, Esus and Taranis; these gods usually had a physical manifestation, particularly on the battlefield.

War gods also tended to be bloodthirsty and some writers suggest that they were only appeased with human sacrifice. Examples of such sacrifices were the drowning of a man in a tub to appease Teuates, hanging a man from a tree and pulling him to pieces to encourage Esus and encasing several people in a hollow tree and burning them to satisfy Taranis. Rites attributed to war gods often focused on the ritual deposition of war booty and sacrifice of captives.

‘According to their natural cruelty, they are impious in the worship of their gods; for malefactors, after that they have been kept close prisoners five years together, they impale upon stakes, in honour to the gods, and then, with many other victims, upon a vast pile of wood, they offer them up as a burnt sacrifice to their deities. In like manner they use their captives also, as sacrifices to the gods. Some of them cut the throats, burn, or otherwise destroy both men and beasts that they have taken in time of war.’

[Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, II]

Vercingetorix’s Army II

Gallic gods were worshipped in religious sanctuaries often cut off from the outside world by large walls and ditches filled with ritual offerings. At Beauvais and Amiens, enclosures have been found with 30–50m-long sides surrounded by palisades, ditches and banks. A wooden temple in the centre of the enclosure was decorated with paintings, sculptures and weapons. Caesar and Livy both suggest that temples were used to display human and animal trophies of war until they decomposed and then were ritually destroyed in enclosure ditches. Animal bone and human sacrifice have also been discovered in these enclosure ditches. One of the largest was at Ribemont-sur-Ancre in the Somme, where remnants of over a thousand individuals aged between fifteen and twenty years old were found. They were probably sacrificed, possibly to war gods, and their bones were stacked criss-cross in a pile.

‘They [the druids] wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 14]

This treatment was not confined to sacrificial victims. Warriors also were given sacrificial treatment. Community ossuaries are known, where dismembered bodies were laid on the ground and skulls detached and treated ritually. These practices may be connected with cult practices and much of the skeletons show evidence of wounds that do not suggest a natural death. One ancient author, Nicander of Colophon, noted that the Celts practised a form of divination at tombs of dead warriors. In the south of France, a whole range of stone sculptures from sanctuaries reveals that the development of a hero cult was widespread in the centuries before the Roman invasion. Entremont, Roquepertuse and Glanum, all in Provence, are some of the best known Celtic sanctuaries in the world, due mainly to the cult of the head found at these places. Headhunting seems to have occupied a curious place in Gallic religion, and commonly occurs in art as carved stone severed heads with half closed eyes. There are historic accounts of how Gauls collected human heads and hung them from their horse’s necks or nailed them up as trophies. An explanation has yet to be found for the practice, although the cult must be linked with the concept of the spirit residing in the head and may even be linked to the ritual wearing of a torc necklace.

‘Their hair was of gold, their clothing was of gold and light stripes brightened their cloaks. Their milk-white necks had gold collars around them, a pair of Alpine spears glinted in each warrior’s hands, and their bodies were protected by tall shields.’

[Virgil, Aeneid, VIII. 659–62]

Certain warriors would wear chunky neck rings called torcs, usually made of gold or bronze and very rarely of silver, and these would reflect the noble status of the individual. Torcs represented the epitome of the Celtic craftsman’s skill and are well represented in Gallic and Classical art. After the Gallic Wars, many torcs were taken from the defeated warriors. In the Roman military torcs came to be used as a symbol of rank and achievement, finally being incorporated into the military decorations of the Roman army. Clearly the torc was a significant part of the Gallic warrior’s dress. So important, in fact, that some Gallic warriors wore only the torc. For religious reasons these warriors, called gaesatae, went to war naked. However, it is unlikely gaesatae were present at Alesia because Caesar would have mentioned them given their specific religious connections and unusual appearance.

‘For they [the Gauls] were most excellent fighters on horseback, and were thought to be specially superior as such …’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 6]

In ancient sources the Gauls were famed for their excellence as cavalry and the quality of their horses. It is likely that they carried small shields, in either geometric shapes or simply round. Although the cavalry wore no clothing specific to their rank, we can assume that their higher status meant that their equipment was of better quality. Excavation at Alesia has revealed the advanced nature of Gallic horsemanship. Two types of horse bit were found, one a simple snaffle-bit of a common form used across Europe at the time. The other, a complex curb bit, is a form invented by the Celts only a hundred years before the Battle of Alesia and would have given the rider complete command of the horse with one hand. The Gauls were also credited with inventing spurs, although of the six spurs originally discovered at Alesia only two remain, one of iron and one of bronze. The Gauls were also notable for having developed an ingenious form of saddle, one reason for their renowned cavalry skills. Unfortunately no saddle remains have been discovered at Alesia, but contemporary examples show they had four pommels that held the rider on the horse without the need for stirrups.

‘The Gauls are tall, with moist white flesh; their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also make artificial efforts to lighten its colour by washing it frequently in lime water. They pull it back from the top of the head to the nape of the neck … thanks to this treatment their hair thickens until it is just like a horse’s mane. Some shave their beards, others let them grow moderately; nobles keep their cheeks clean shaven but let their moustaches grow long until they cover their mouths … they wear amazing clothes: tunics dyed in every colour and trousers that they call bracae [breeches]. Their pinstriped clothes in winter and light material in summer, decorated with small, densely packed, multicoloured squares.’

[Diodorus Siculus, World History, V. 28. 30]

This description from a Roman source gives a general likeness of the Gallic men. Some of these characteristic features are mentioned by other authors and so are likely to be applicable to Vercingetorix’s army as a whole. Long hair seems to feature strongly, often as a wild swept-back mane or lime washed and drawn into a horse-like mane. Likewise, with this long hair comes a long curving moustache, often covering the mouth and sometimes with a small beard. In the main, the Gallic warrior’s dress was similar to peoples across northern Europe at the time, consisting of tight breeches with a long shirt with sleeves, and slits on the sides to help movement. Light cloaks were also worn, sometimes fastened by bronze brooches with elaborate decoration and coral or enamel inlay. Clothing was usually manufactured from woven wool and when different dyed wools were used this would produce attractive multicoloured plaid or striped patterns. This could be enhanced with embroidery and belts with gold and silver ornamentation. In wartime the wealthier members of Gallic society would have worn coats of mail. Unfortunately, not even the smallest scrap of mail has been recovered from Alesia, although a number of mail coat fasteners have been recovered, confirming they were in use, no doubt this was because of their high value.

‘Meanwhile the King of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armour which was set off with gold and silver and bright colours and all sorts of embroideries; it gleamed like lightning.’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives 7]

Weapons found at Alesia provide us with excellent examples of late La Tène (first century BC) metalwork. Unfortunately, the location of the weapons recovered from Alesia were not recorded to modern standards, being simple lists attributed to ditches without any complex stratigraphic analysis. However, on the basis of coin dates, from more recent excavation it has been shown that these ditches are contemporary with the Battle of Alesia. Regrettably, only the ironwork from the Gallic warrior’s assemblage of equipment survives, as the wood and leather has long since decomposed in the moist soils. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the weapons provide a useful cross-section of the iron weapons used at Alesia.

‘These are the creatures who assail you with such terrible shouts in battle, and clash their arms and shake their long swords and toss their hair.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

The ideal Gallic warriors were, above all, swordsmen. Their swords were long, often close to a metre in length, and were not used for thrusting but for a slashing style of fighting. The ferocity of these assaults meant that Roman legionaries had to be trained to overcome the fear that these wild charges created. By the late La Tène period swords were becoming shorter than they had been in the past, but swords as long as 0.75m were common. These longer blades have been attributed to the cavalry, but this is not necessarily the case as earlier Gallic swords had much longer blades. The Gallic peoples liked elaborate metalwork, and so swords and scabbards have been found with ornate patterned and inlaid designs. At Alesia, twenty-one swords have been found, in some cases still in their original sheaths. In general, these swords are typical of other European examples from the late La Tène period. The swords have blades with either rounded or pointed tips, with the wider examples having acid-etched decorations on them. Examples of sheaths show they originally had oval U-shaped fittings on one side, for attachment via straps to the belt. There they would be worn on the right hip. These belts could be made of linked iron rings or loops, but more commonly would be simple leather straps. Sword handles were wooden and so now are lost, but their bent W-shaped guards still occur, usually made of iron, but sometimes made of bronze. The parts of twenty-one swords found at Alesia present a broad spectrum of sword evolution, indicating they were in use over a long period of time, perhaps representing their prior use as heirlooms or the desperate use of any weapon available, even if it was old and damaged. Remarkably, two more unusual types of sword were uncovered deliberately intertwined with a sword sheath and buried in a ditch. This behaviour hints at possible ritualistic practices that were carried out after the battle, the ditches of the circumvallation perhaps being seen in Gallic eyes as enclosure ditches around the sanctuary of Alesia, a place where so many Gauls had sacrificed themselves.

‘[The Gauls] … wear bronze helmets with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief.’

[Diodorus Siculus, History, 30.2]

Gallic helmets came in a variety of forms, from simple bronze bowls to elaborately decorated tall bronze helmets with coloured inlays on them. The more simple helmets were plain bronze bowls with short protruding neck guards, called ‘Montefortino’ or ‘Coolus’ types, after the place of their original identification. More elaborate versions had decorative edges and domes and cheek pieces decorated with multiple circular bosses. Sometimes the wealthiest individuals would have taller pointed domes to their helmets, enhanced with pink coral or red enamel inlays, ornately decorated horns, statuettes or horsehair plumes. None of these more elaborate helmets were discovered at Alesia, presumably because such expensive items would only be attainable by a few commanders and as such would be too valuable for Roman soldiers to leave behind. A further type of helmet was developed in the late La Tène period, which was made of iron. This ‘Agen-Port’ form of helmet became the forerunner to the imperial Gallic helmet that was popular in the Roman army for the next 200 years. Agen-Port helmets had corrugated reinforcements and wide strengthening brims. The Gallic helmets found at Alesia are of a very similar form that was widespread in Gaul. Indeed, their importance is such that they were named the ‘Alesia’ type. The inner domes of the helmets were discovered to have the remains of organic materials still adhering to their sides, indicating that leather or wool was used to pad them out. Twenty cheek pieces, some highly elaborate, suggest that some of the helmets were richly decorated and probably belonged to noble warriors. Only tribal chiefs and cavalrymen are likely to have worn these helmets.

‘[The Cimbri] … wore helmets, made to resemble the heads and jaws of wild beasts, and other strange shapes, and heightening these with plumes of feathers, they made themselves appear taller than they were. They had breastplates of iron, and white glittering shields; and for their offensive arms, every one had two darts, and when they came hand to hand, they used large and heavy swords.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 25]

Sculptural and archaeological evidence points to the Gauls using long wooden shields about one-half to three-quarters the length of the body. These could be oval, round or geometric in shape, with iron bosses covering the handgrip, and, more rarely, iron edging strips. Parts of shields that have been discovered suggest they were made of a tough wood like oak, about 1.2m long and 1.2cm thick at the centre, with the addition of a thick wooden spine. Roman shields of this type date to about 300 years before the first Gallic examples, so it is likely that the Gauls adopted the shield form after their invasion of Italy in the fifth century BC. It is thought that in rare cases the fronts of Gallic shields were decorated in elaborately decorated bronze sheet with inlays. Although nothing like this has been found at Alesia, this is no surprise, as richly decorated shields would have been removed as booty. Most Gallic shields of the period had either round or ‘butterfly’ bosses, made from a single piece of beaten iron. Seventeen dome-shaped shield bosses were discovered at Alesia, all conforming to these descriptions. Although the wood does not survive, the iron shield bosses, nails, edging strips and ornamentation have been discovered. The bosses are typically Gallic, occurring in a wide circular form with large attachment nails and a butterfly form with small nails. We have no evidence of the colours that shields were painted, but sculptures hint they were very ornate, which seem to match the Gallic love of intricate design as manifest in their beautiful metalwork.

‘The spears of the Gauls were not like javelins, but what the Romans called pila, four-sided, part wood and part iron, and not hard except at the pointed end.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Although the Gallic warrior is described by the ancient sources as predominantly a swordsman, for the poorer Gallic warrior the most fundamental part of his equipment was his spear. A warrior would be able to obtain a spear before a shield, sword or helmet. Spears tend to be split between the heavier forms and lighter throwing spears or javelins. The larger spears can range up to 2.5m long, the heads being almost 0.5m alone. Smaller spears are assumed to be throwing javelins. Almost 400 fragments of weapons have been found at Alesia, 140 of them being javelins and 180 being spears. The huge number of missile weapons discovered suggests that this form was the predominant weapon used at Alesia. Often the ends are bent and the edges are damaged by cut marks. Similarities in the manufacture of these weapons mean they could be Gallic, but they could also be Roman or German in origin. This is particularly the case with the leaf-shaped blades that are 15cm to 30cm in length. The larger acid-etched and wavy bladed spears are probably Gallic, although some of these may also be German in origin. The identifiably Gallic spears are of the long thrusting type, with a heavy median vein for strength. The concave section of the blades at the tip, along with many traces of cut marks, indicate that these weapons were used for thrusting as well as cutting. The majority of these larger blades have some form of acid etching, either circles, triangles, zigzags or lattice designs. With these decorated spearheads, comes a series of wavy edged spears, which would inflict particularly grievous wounds. Some spears also have cross guards towards their sockets. These guards led excavators working for Napoleon III to think of them as small stabbing swords. It is likely, however, that the cross guard was part of the offensive use of the spear, enabling a shield to be pulled down before the spear was thrust into its victim. As such, these are very similar to medieval spears of similar form. Pila have also been found at Alesia, and although usually attributed to Romans, some authors have suggested that they could also be of Gallic origin, as a few examples have been discovered in Gallic oppida. This is not too far-fetched, as it is known that the Germans at the time used a similar type of weapon, and so the Gauls may also have been employing related forms. The truth is that in a time of need, all forms of weaponry, whether indigenous or foreign, were put to use.

The Gauls were not famed for their archery but Caesar mentions Vercingetorix found archers for his army. Presumably these archers were made up from the lower classes of Gallic society, although their presence in the battle played a more significant role than this rank would suggest. More than forty examples of arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia, with either one or two barbs, and many can be paralleled by examples coming from other Gallic oppida. It is clear that the Gallic army also contained bands of slingers, but as yet evidence of their presence at Alesia is yet to come to light. This may be because their shot was usually simple rounded stones and so their presence elsewhere has usually only been confirmed by the occurrence of large piles of such material.



The amalgamation of German rocket scientists into the American space program yielded benefits for the US, while giving the Germans a safe haven. Wernher von Braun became the spokesman for imaginative space-travel stories on American television in the 1950s, his previous association with the Nazi regime largely forgotten and forgiven.

Beginning in the fall of 1945, the arrival of more than 100 German scientists in El Paso, Texas, as invitees of the US Army, at Fort Bliss happened with little fanfare – a deliberate US Army action. Fort Bliss’ huge open range area abutted the White Sands Proving Ground (to become the White Sands Missile Range) in adjacent New Mexico, giving vast isolation in which to conduct missile launches with little fear of collateral damage or prying eyes. Some of the Germans were amazed at the expansiveness of the American west – easily capable of swallowing up all of Germany’s area many times over. Also curious to them was the ease with which they, with their US Army escorts, traveled thousands of miles across many state lines with no policed border crossings.

The Germans were guests of the US Army who arrived without the normal processing of foreign visitors to the United States. They had one-year contracts. Initially they were closely watched and escorted by their US Army hosts any time they wanted to go off Fort Bliss. Over time, the restrictions relaxed. Von Braun, in particular, urged his German associates to learn English, which many of them accomplished with the colorful inflections of the American southwest. Some of the men initially felt their talents were underutilized at Fort Bliss. Von Braun did what he could to keep them focused and motivated, discussing their unifying vision of space travel. During their first Christmas in America in 1945, some of the Germans, including Wernher von Braun’s younger brother Magnus, devised a skit foretelling the first launch of man into space from White Sands in the year 2000. Little did they know then how the American-Soviet space race would buoy many of these same German émigrés on an aggressive adventure to put men on the moon by 1969.

The first year for the Germans in El Paso saw some of them assist the US Army in early V2 launches. For the Germans, the future was in new missiles and new goals in space, while for the Americans, self-sufficiency with the V2s was a worthy milestone. Before the first year-long contracts were up, it was evident the Germans possessed knowledge and skill levels not yet attained by their American counterparts. In an effort to retain the services of the Germans, five-year contracts tied to civil service wage rates were offered. In addition, the scientists and engineers could bring their families from Germany. The rocket men did what they could in those first few postwar years in El Paso, caught in a limbo where some American decision-makers did not want to fund extensive new missiles as a military venture, and the notion of non-military manned spaceflight was too far-fetched to gain traction. But in 1949, Soviet testing of their first atom bomb, coming on the heels of the contentious Berlin blockade and airlift the year before, prompted a change in thinking. The Germans would be employed initially in the creation of a new ballistic missile with a 200-mile range and nuclear capability. Longer-range missiles were expected to follow this initial effort. Col Holger N. Toftoy, the US Army ordnance officer entrusted with leading this effort, needed a better physical plant than the makeshift operation he had at Fort Bliss. When his request to build proper rocket research facilities was turned down for other operational requirements at the Texas site, he inspected, and then requested, two mothballed US Army arsenals in Huntsville, Alabama. His plans for the US Army missile facility survived some challenges to become funded at Huntsville.

In 1949, with multi-year work agreements and a planned move in the following year to the green hills of northern Alabama, the German scientists encountered a new dilemma. Their status as invitees of the US Army had circumvented normal immigration processes. They could not apply for US citizenship because they were technically illegal aliens. In a bit of old west choreographing that met the letter of the law, the Germans in El Paso simply stepped into neighboring Mexico and returned to Texas, this time as recognized aliens seeking American citizenship.

If a summation of the German rocket scientists’ experiences can be made, it must include recognition of the team spirit they managed to hold on to, in spite of their upheaval in Germany, and perceptions of underutilization early in their U.S. sojourn. Their integration into US Army ballistic missile programs of the 1950s gained for them the next new missile program, the Redstone, followed by the Jupiter. But much more fortuitously, it kept them available to form a cadre at NASA for developing the space exploration vehicles and rationale they had dreamed of since the 1930s. In 1960, with President John F. Kennedy’s stirring challenge to the United States to put a man on the moon within the decade, much of the US Army’s missile development team at Huntsville transferred over to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who created the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville to enable creation of the Apollo Saturn V multi-stage moon rocket. Naturalized US citizen Wernher von Braun was selected to become the first director of the new Hunstville NASA center.

If the spectacular acceleration of America’s space program outstripped the efforts of early V2 launches in the New Mexico desert under the overarching moniker Project Hermes, those flights nonetheless set the stage for what followed. After a number of basically stock V2s (albeit usually with some American-made components) reached various altitudes and achieved differing levels of upper atmospheric research over New Mexico, scientific and engineering entities in the United States began modifying the German war booty in an effort to make the V2s more effective research vehicles.

The US Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) accepted the US Army’s invitation in January 1946 to become involved with V2 research in the New Mexico desert. The NRL held a key position in the US V2 program, conducting upper atmospheric science and developing the technology to enable this research. The NRL logged 80 experiments between 1946 and 1951. Major accomplishments included the first photos of Earth from altitudes of 40, 70, and 101 miles; the first detection and measurement of solar X-rays; the first direct measurement of atmospheric pressure higher than 18 miles; the first photography of the ultraviolet solar spectrum below 285 angstroms; the first detection of solar Lyman-alpha radiation; and the first direct measurement of the profile of ionospheric electron density versus height.

The NRL’s Richard Tousey took advantage of the V2’s altitude capability to design special spectroscopes to measure solar ultraviolet radiation from above the filtering blanket of Earth’s atmosphere. His first instrumentation package was destroyed in a shattering desert crash, but in October 1946, the device survived and provided the first solar spectrum in the far ultraviolet range.

The military V2 s had warhead nose cones that were ill suited to housing scientific payloads. The Naval Gun Factory in the District of Columbia manufactured new lookalike nose sections that had appropriate access panels and the ability to better accommodate research packages. The 7½ft-long science noses initially answered the need. As science flights continued, instrumentation packages in the extreme nose of a V2 were sometimes irretrievably damaged on impact with the ground. Researchers noted the lower sections of the rocket body tended to survive the return to Earth better than did the nose cone. Some effort was made to use explosives to separate the rocket nose from the rest of the body, and to mount instrumentation in the lower body areas for an increased chance of data survival. Launches of anesthetized monkeys provided data on weightlessness and other phenomena that increased the scientific confidence level that humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight.

Navalized V2s included a trio of the missiles trucked from New Mexico to Norfolk, Virginia in 1947. The three V2s were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA-41) for Operation Sandy, the shipboard launch of a V2. A US Army team familiar with the German rockets assembled the V2s for the US Navy and trained a US Navy launch crew. While Midway cruised in calm waters a couple of hundred miles off the east coast of the United States, Operation Sandy launched one of the V2s on September 6, 1947. The launch succeeded, but the missile destroyed itself at about 12,000ft. With little delay, Midway began aircraft launch operations once the V2 was gone. The test was called successful because it showed the possibility of handling a large rocket like the V2 aboard a ship at sea, then launching it without impeding the ship’s normal operations. The US Navy’s missile aspirations were whetted by the Operation Sandy flight. But what if rough seas caused a calamity in which a V2-type missile tipped over on deck after being fueled? Operation Pushover used a replicated section of steel aircraft-carrier deck installed at White Sands, plus two V2s that were deliberately toppled at different times in the pre-launch sequence to gain an appreciation for the inferno a fully fueled missile could cause. Ultimately, the US Navy’s unique leg of the strategic triad in American nuclear deterrence would come in the form of specialized submarine-launched Polaris missiles.

The USAAF’s (later USAF’s) Cambridge Research Laboratories in Massachusetts participated in upper-atmosphere measurements made aboard V2s launched over New Mexico. Instrumented balloons of the day typically only reached about 19 miles high; the V2s promised altitudes of 100 miles or more. It was in the service’s interests to quantify as much as possible the characteristics of the upper atmosphere and near exoatmosphere, to aid in the development of viable high-altitude aircraft and even higher-flying missiles.

Records show seven V2s were assigned to the Cambridge labs, under the name Blossom. They were modified by lengthening them about 5ft 5in. in the midsection, as well as extending the nose cone and developing parachutes for instrument and experiment recovery purposes. Their modifications were designed to cause the Blossom V2s to break up in flight, separating research sections for, hopefully, survivable landings in the desert. Four of the seven Blossom V2s were considered to have successful missions.

The American testers of V2s in the desert gained valuable experience with large-rocket staging when they mounted an American product, the WAC Corporal rocket, to the nose of a V2. The staging and separation enabled the WAC Corporal to ride aloft, boosted by the massive liquid-fueled V2, and then accelerate ahead to achieve research altitudes unattainable by other means of the day. Suggested in mid-1946 by Col Toftoy, the ensuing lash-up of the American and German rockets constituted the first multi-stage liquid-fueled rocket tested in the United States. The modified missiles were operated under the project name Bumper. The existing WAC Corporal was modified with the addition of another fin and the enlargement of all fins to help stabilize it in the extremely rare atmosphere in which it would begin its solo boosted flight after separation from the V2. As the WAC Corporal eased out of the V2 nose cone on rails, two small rocket motors imparted a gyro-stabilizing spin to the smaller missile to enhance the accuracy of its flight into space. The first Bumper launch was on May 13, 1948. It was a test of the system. The Bumper team made several launches of varying degrees of success leading up to Bumper 5 on February 24, 1949. The full-up V2 and WAC Corporal combination delivered as designed, and after leaving its V2 booster behind, the slim Corporal reached the then-astounding altitude of 244 miles above the stark desert, and a speed of 5,150 mph. It was the highest a man-made object had soared at that time.

Two Bumpers were earmarked to explore flight dynamics around Mach 7. This required a flatter trajectory and not maximum altitude, which translated into a long 250-mile downrange profile. Even the vast reaches of White Sands could not contain a run that long, so Bumpers 7 and 8 were launched from the USAF’s newly designated overwater range at Cocoa Beach, Florida, on Cape Canaveral. They inaugurated the Florida facility. One of the Florida Bumpers boosted its WAC Corporal in a trajectory that enabled the smaller rocket to reach nine times the speed of sound – a record.

Seventy-two Americanized V2s are counted in the launch statistics between April 16, 1946 and September 19, 1952. Of these, only 68 percent were called successful launches, although some of the failed missions still yielded useful information and experience. If the scientific research was sparse over this large batch of V2s, the experience gained in missile operations and how to conduct missile research was very valuable, and is generally credited with saving the US years of delay in maturing its missile development program.

One can only imagine the excitement of US Army, US Navy, and industry rocket testers as they pondered the availability of as many as 100 supersonic German V2 missiles in 1946. These early American rocketeers were fresh from victory in the most technologically complex war the world had known. Yet by their very use of appropriated German technology, they had to be cognizant that even as they were pioneering new experiments, they were doing so with a design made by their erstwhile mortal foe. Subsequent space developments would show just how important the sometimes-controversial decision to bring German rockets and rocket scientists into the United States would be.

If Wernher von Braun’s enthusiastic, upbeat, yet authoritative persona made him the natural leader of the transplanted German rocketeers in America, he wisely kept his wartime deputy, Dr. Eberhard Rees, close at hand and in pivotal positions in the nascent postwar American rocketry discipline. Rees, a mechanical engineer by training in Germany in the 1930s, was summoned to join the rocketry team at Peenemünde in February 1940. It would be his introduction to rocketry, and to Wernher von Braun. Years later Rees recalled how he and von Braun discussed the spaceflight potential of rockets – the kind of talk that once got von Braun incarcerated for a brief time. Both men agreed that their peacetime vocations would involve development of rockets for spaceflight.

When Wernher von Braun was chosen to be the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, he tapped his old colleague Eberhard Rees to be deputy director to handle technical and scientific issues. At Marshall in the 1960s, Rees and von Braun were seminal to the success of the evolutionary Saturn I, I-B, and Saturn V that were required to boost manned Apollo vehicles to the moon. Rees would later say the Saturn development was the most interesting work in his career. When von Braun departed Marshall, Rees assumed duties as director until his retirement in 1973.

Nor did the early American rocket breakthroughs end with the last captured V2 launch in 1952. General Electric built upon another German rocket, the unfielded surface-to-air Wasserfall. Smaller than a V2, but with similar aerodynamic shaping, the Wasserfall silhouette had German research to back up its reasoning; General Electric capitalized on this research, but improvised with a different internal motor system in their variant known as the Hermes A-1. The wealth of experience General Electric gained in its White Sands V2 and Hermes efforts can be traced through several iterations, each more original than the previous, leading to the US Army’s successful Redstone surface-to-surface missile.

The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company – Convair – was, like all American aircraft manufacturers after war’s end, in search of new business. Convair diversified its aviation portfolio with contracts for the giant B-36 strategic bomber, forays into twin-engine airliners, and exploratory military work. When the USAAF solicited proposals for projects as part of a decade-long study of guided missiles, Convair received approval to explore a theoretical 5,000-mile-range ballistic missile projected to deliver a nuclear warhead with an accuracy of just under one mile. The first step in this ambitious plan was creating a smaller liquid-fueled missile to validate the use of swiveling rocket nozzles instead of movable vanes for control. The use of telemetry, and improvements in guidance systems also were to accrue from this demonstration missile, given the USAAF project designator MX-774.

Convair’s Vultee division undertook the challenge. Vultee lead engineer Karel Bossart began with a known quantity – the V2 – and his resulting MX-774 bore a strong resemblance to the German wartime product. But Bossart and his team made a salient change that saved substantial weight. Where the V2 had a steel shell housing separate fuel and oxidizer tanks, the Convair engineers reasoned that the external skin of the rocket body could be the outer wall of integral tankage for the two fuel components. The pressure of the liquids in the tanks lent rigidity to the missile while on the ground; in ascent, the loss of fluids due to fuel burn was offset by gas pressure to maintain rigidity. This clever mating of German silhouette as a design shortcut, plus revolutionary integral tanking and swiveling nozzles, permitted the MX-774 to be built in less than two years. After static engine tests, the first launch of an MX-774 took place at White Sands on July 13, 1948. It and two other copies suffered problems in their flights, but they validated two key concepts – swiveling nozzles and thin-wall integral fuel tank/rocket body construction.

The Germanic connection does not stop there; photos of MX-774 launch recovery operations show what appear to be German-inspired ribbon parachutes intended to slow the fall of the instrument-laden missiles.

Convair MX-774 Vultee “Hiroc” Missile

The innovative design of the MX-774 gave Convair and the USAF sufficient confidence to proceed with an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) derivative – the much larger, and finless, Atlas. Late variants are still in use as satellite boost vehicles at the time of writing. Visitors to the Atlas assembly plant are surprised at the hollow, vibrating drum-like sensation that comes from thumping the skin of a cradled and unpressurized Atlas. The original Atlas missiles deployed by the Air Force as ICBMs in October 1959 no longer looked like V2s, but they owed their successful development time to the use of V2 aerodynamics in the MX-774 more than a decade earlier. Withdrawn from USAF service as an ICBM in the middle of the 1960s, the Atlas will forever be associated with its decades-long service as a boost rocket, including the mission that put John Glenn, America’s first orbital astronaut, aloft in 1962.

Women Soldiers in NATO


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the spring of 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War, when military groupings coalesced around the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other. It was the start of a standoff that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 1976, NATO’s highest authority, the Military Committee, recognized the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces. Since then, the status of women in NATO forces has changed beyond recognition. Between 1976 and 2001 the number of females in NATO uniforms rose from 30,000 to nearly 300,000. The pace and scale of integration, however, differs from country to country within NATO.

In April 1949, acting in response to the Soviet land blockade of West Berlin, the United States and Canada had combined with Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom to form NATO to provide for the collective defense of the major Western European states and the North American states against the perceived military threat from the Soviet Union.

Since 1949, NATO has undergone successive enlargements, and following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire has been joined by a number of Eastern European states that in the Cold War were members of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet counterweight to NATO formed in 1955 and dissolved in 1991. In 2006, full members of NATO were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

In some respects, Norway and Denmark have made the most striking progress toward the integration of women into the military. Norway was the first NATO country to allow women to serve on submarines, and since 1985 women have been allowed into all other combat functions. In 1988, Denmark opened all functions and formations in its armed services to women following a series of combat-arms trials conducted between 1985 and 1987. Women in Norway and Denmark have only been held back from entry into the para-rangers and marine commandos, both functions in which they have not met the entry requirements. Otherwise, female soldiers train, work, and are deployed on equal terms with men.

Nevertheless, representation of women in the armed forces of Norway and Denmark remains relatively low, at, respectively, 3.2 percent and 5 percent. Norway appointed its first female defense minister in 1999, but few female soldiers have progressed to senior ranks, and it was not until November 1999 that Norway appointed its first female colonel. One reason for this is that many female officers change from operational to administrative duties after maternity leave, reducing their chances of being selected to study at military academies.

The NATO nation with the highest representation of women in the armed forces is the United States, with 14 percent. The breakthrough for US servicewomen came with the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1973. At the time, disillusionment with the military in the aftermath of the Vietnam War meant that men were reluctant to serve, and as a result female recruits were welcome. By 2001, 8.6 percent of US troops deployed worldwide were women and nearly 11,500 had supported NATO peacekeeping operations.

In Canada, women have been able to serve in almost all military functions and environments, including submarines, since 1989. However, most women in the Canadian armed forces—at 7,900, some 15 percent of regular personnel—are to be found in traditional fields and there has been only patchy progress toward integrating them into the combat arms—infantry, artillery, field engineering, and armor—where representation hovers around 2 percent. In May 2006, Canada suffered its first loss of an active-combat female soldier when Captain Nichola Goddard, one of 230 female Canadian forces personnel serving in Afghanistan, died in an engagement with Taliban forces.

France, which withdrew from NATO’s military-command structure in 1966, granted female soldiers equal status in the early 1970s but retained quotas until 1998. Currently some 23,500 women make up just under 10 percent of the 260,400 active personnel in France’s front-line armed forces. Of France’s 6,800 naval aviators, 480 are women. Of the 64,000 air force personnel, some 7,000 are women. The French army comprises 137,700 personnel, of whom 12,500 are female.

In the United Kingdom, women in the armed forces were segregated into women’s corps until the early 1990s, at which point the role of women underwent considerable changes. Women were able to serve at sea in surface ships and in all aircrew roles. In the Royal Air Force over 95 percent of posts are open to women, and approximately 70 percent in the army and navy.

British women in the military now serve alongside men in nearly all specialties, with an exception being units whose primary duty is “to close with and kill the enemy,” where it is still felt that their presence would impair combat effectiveness. This restriction is consistent with a ruling of the European Court of Justice that allows women to be excluded from certain posts on grounds of combat effectiveness and leaves the final decision on the precise definition of the term to national authorities.

At present British servicewomen are not allowed to drive tanks, serve in the front-line infantry, or work as mine-clearance divers. They cannot be part of the Infantry, Royal Armored Corps, Royal Marines, or the RAF Regiment, and are also barred from submarine posts. In 2006 the British army’s 7,432 women comprised 6.7 percent of the force; there were some 5,000 women (8.9 percent) in the Royal Air Force; and 2,890 (7.8 percent) in the Royal Navy, with 745 at sea aboard fifty ships.

The role of women in the modern navy was thrown into sharp relief by an international incident in March 2007. A fifteen-strong boarding party from the frigate Cornwall, which was patrolling an area south of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in Iraqi waters in the Persian Gulf, was taken prisoner by two Iranian fast boats. One of Cornwall’s boarding party was a woman, Acting Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the mother of a three-year-old child. The captured Britons were taken to Tehran and subjected to a sustained campaign of psychological harassment. Initially, Turney was separated from her colleagues, who were told that she had been sent home. She later appeared on Iranian television, wearing a hijab and making a confession that the boarding party had crossed into Iranian waters. After two weeks the boarding party was released and returned to the United Kingdom, having incurred considerable criticism for appearing to cooperate with their Iranian captors during their incarceration. Later Turney and another member of the boarding party, Arthur Batchelor, and their navy handlers, incurred even more criticism for selling their stories to British newspapers and television.

There were five fatalities among British women serving in Iraq between the invasion in March 2003 and April 2007. The overall figure for fatalities during the same period was 140. In a war with no front line in the traditional sense, British servicewomen increasingly found themselves in the fighting as medics, signalers, and in logistics crews. Private Michelle Norris, a teenage medic with the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing her wounded patrol leader during a fierce firefight in al-’Amarah, Iraq, in the summer of 2006.

In the spring of 2007 there were some 1,600 female troops on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for much of the time they were exposed to the lethal hazards of roadside bombs and mortar fire. There are no restrictions on women deploying on operations unless they are pregnant. Although they cannot join a unit whose primary duty is “to close with and kill the enemy”—for example, the infantry and cavalry—women undertake a number of postings fraught with risk, and their deployment has its critics.

Colonel Bob Stewart, the first commander of British forces under UN command in Bosnia, opposes women being close to combat, arguing that their deaths or injuries have a debilitating effect on male comrades. One female soldier died in his arms in Northern Ireland, and the trauma rendered him inconsolable and effectively unable to operate. Stewart reflected, “If you put women in the front line because they are equal, then you have to expect that there will be operational casualties.”

Belgium’s armed forces, which were opened to women in 1975, now contain just over 7 percent female personnel, a number that continues to rise. All functions are open to women, but the majority occupy administrative and logistic posts. In Luxembourg, which has no air force or navy, women were allowed to enter the army in 1987, and today they make up 0.6 percent of personnel.

Most Mediterranean countries began opening their armed forces to women in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1979, Greece admitted women noncommissioned officers to support functions, but military academies remained closed to them until 1990, and full access to military education has still not been achieved. Women are excluded from combat roles but can go to sea, and, since 2001, have served as aircrew in the Greek air force. Spain began to recruit women in 1988, followed by Portugal in 1992, and in both countries female servicewomen make up some 6 percent of total strength. In Spain, combat positions are open to women, but over half serve in administrative posts. Portuguese women can in theory apply for all posts, but in practice posts in the marines and combat specialties remain closed to them.

In Turkey, women were accepted into military academies in the late 1950s, but this policy was reversed in the 1960s, and it was not until 1982 that they were readmitted to military education, a process that only got under way in the early 1990s. As a result, women in the Turkish armed forces make up a mere 0.1 percent of personnel. They can serve as officers but are restricted from serving in the armored and infantry fields and in submarines.

Italy was the last NATO member to admit women to the military. In September 1999, after a long and vociferous campaign mounted by La Associazione Nazionale Aspiranti Donne Soldato (Association of Aspiring Women Soldiers), the Italian Parliament passed legislation enabling women to serve in the armed forces. The first female recruits reported for duty in 2000, and in June 2001, to mark this success, the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces met in Rome. The Italian armed forces are taking a gradualist approach to the integration of women, bringing them into general support rather than operational positions and maintaining restrictions on their admission into military academies.

In the countries that have become members of NATO in recent years, simultaneous preparations for accession to the European Union stimulated the introduction of equal opportunities for women in the military. In the Czech Republic, servicewomen represent nearly 4 percent of service personnel. The figure in Hungary is higher, around 9 percent, but women are largely restricted to traditional roles. In Poland the figure is very low, at about 0.1 percent, and most servicewomen fill medical posts.

In Germany, until 2000 approximately 3,800 women made up 24 percent of the military’s medical service. Another 37 women served in military bands. These were the only two branches in which women were allowed to serve, as they were prohibited by law from rendering service that involved the use of arms.

In February 2000 the European Court of Justice ruled, after a challenge by a German woman, Tanja Kreil, who wanted to enter the army as a maintenance technician, that it is contrary to European law that women are not allowed into nearly all branches of the military. The policy of recruiting women to the German armed forces was reconsidered, and from 2001 women were able to enter all branches and careers in the military. In 2005, there were some 7,200 women in the German army; 2,350 in the air force; 1,600 in the navy; and 5,600 in the medical corps.

Reference: Rebecca R. Moore, NATO’s New Mission: Projecting Stability in a Post–Cold War World, 2007.

The Four Phases of the War in Afghanistan

The war is usually divided into four distinct phases. The first lasted from December 1979 to February 1980, and covered the initial deployment of the Soviet forces throughout the country.

The original Rules of Engagement permitted the Soviet soldiers only to return fire if attacked, or to liberate Soviet advisers captured by the insurgents. But casualties began to mount from the very start. The first ambush took place soon after the soldiers had arrived. In mid-January an Afghan artillery unit mutinied and its three Soviet advisers were unpleasantly murdered. The Afghans asked the Russians for help. About a hundred Afghans were killed, for the loss of two Soviet soldiers.

A major demonstration broke out in Kabul on 21 February: some three hundred thousand people are said to have come on to the streets, shouting anti-government and anti-Soviet slogans. The demonstrations continued the following day, the largest protest ever seen in the capital provoked, the Russians believed, by agents from outside the country, including an alleged CIA officer, Robert Lee. The demonstrators filled the main roads and the squares, and marched on the Arg, where Karmal was now in residence. Administrative buildings were besieged, the Soviet Embassy was bombarded, and several Soviet citizens were killed. Shops were looted, cars were destroyed, and a major hotel was set on fire. Casualties began to rise among the civilian population. General Tukharinov, the commander of the 40th Army, was ordered to block the main approaches to the city and the demonstrations were brought under control.

But it was a turning point. Moscow ordered the 40th Army to ‘begin active operations together with the Afghan army to defeat the detachments of the armed opposition.’ The Russians launched their first major operation in Kunar province, on the frontier with Pakistan, in March. Even during this first period the 40th Army lost 245 soldiers, an average of 123 a month.

Soviet columns were already being attacked on the main supply roads from the Soviet Union. In response the Russians set up a system of mutually supporting guard posts (zastavas) at regular intervals along the main roads, around the major cities and around airports, observing the movements of the mujahedin, watching over electric power stations and pipelines, escorting convoys, and if necessary calling in an air or artillery strike as backup. There were 862 of them spread throughout the country, manned by over twenty thousand men, a substantial proportion of the 40th Army’s strength.

These guard posts where among the most distinctive features of the war. Some were very small – no more than a dozen soldiers. The men in these tiny garrisons might remain there, unrelieved, for as long as eighteen months. Some were perched in inaccessible places, on heights overlooking Afghan villages or supply routes, where they could only be supplied by helicopter. They were regularly attacked: in the eight months between January and August 1987 three zastava commanders and seventy-two men were killed; and 283 were wounded. But none of these zastavas was ever captured; they survived, not so much by force of arms, which in the long run would have been impossible, but because their little garrisons took care to be on reasonable terms with the people in the surrounding villages.

But life in a zastava was a monotonous and exhausting business. Poor food and water, little entertainment apart from the obligatory Lenin room and perhaps a television, and the ever present threat of disease or an enemy attack wore them down morally, physically, and psychologically. They survived, where Western soldiers might not have done perhaps, some of them said, because most of them came from hard lives and cramped quarters back in their own homes in the Soviet Union. The enforced intimacy in a small guard post for months at a time was no worse than the enforced intimacy of life in a communal flat.

General Valentin Varennikov, a veteran of Stalingrad and a ruthless, wilful, and controversial figure, had by now succeeded Sokolov as Head of the Ministry of Defence’s Operational Group. He visited one zastava perched on the top of a mountain close to Kabul, which was part of the city’s outer defences. ‘[T]he helicopter made one and then another circle above the zastava and then cautiously began to lower itself with one wheel of the chassis on to the tiny landing strip, which was about 1.5m by 4m. When the wheel touched the stone, the three of us jumped out and the helicopter flew off…

‘The territory of the zastava was shaped like an irregular rectangle. On three sides it was surrounded by a solid wall of sandbags brought in by helicopter. There was no fourth wall, because it was here the helicopter would touch down with one “foot” on the land. There were two heavy DShK machine guns at either end of this square, which was about six square metres in area. Steps led down to a little square below. Here there was a 120mm mortar, with a mountain of shells piled up beside it, and a shelter from the weather.

‘From the little square, a path ran downwards at about 45°, a set of steps hacked out of the granite rock, on both sides of which was stretched a stout rope instead of banisters. At the bottom there was another little square, about the same size as the one above. Here there was another heavy machine gun and this was where the tiny garrison – 12 men in all – had their living: a place to relax, a kitchen, somewhere to wash and so on, the furniture – chairs, tables, sleeping places – all made out of ammunition boxes.’

The second phase of the war lasted from March 1980 to April 1985. Both sides learned to improve their tactics. After getting a bloody nose in direct confrontations with the Russians, the mujahedin adopted the classic tactics of the guerrilla: hit and run, ambush, booby trap. In the summer of 1980 a band based only four miles from Kabul succeeded in bombarding the headquarters of the 40th Army in Amin’s old palace, now repaired after the damage that had been done to it during the fighting in December. With the launching of the first large-scale operation in the Pandsher Valley in April 1980 the Soviet Union stepped deep into the quagmire. Other major operations followed, on a scale which the Soviet army had not experienced since the Second World War. In August the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 201st Motor-rifle Division was ambushed on the border with Tajikistan at Kishim and lost forty-five men. Delegations from the Soviet Union began to arrive to see for themselves what was going on. So did the first concert parties to entertain the troops. It was in this phase that the Soviets suffered most of their casualties: 9,175 killed, an average of 148 a month.

The third phase lasted from May 1985 to the end of 1986. Gorbachev began active negotiations to bring the soldiers home and there was a deliberate effort to reduce casualties in what was becoming an increasingly unpopular war. The Soviet forces sought to confine themselves to air and artillery operations in support of the Afghan forces, although motor-rifle units were primarily used to back up the operations and the fighting morale of their Afghan allies. The special forces – the SpetsNaz and reconnaissance units – concentrated on attempting to prevent supplies of weapons and ammunition reaching the rebels from abroad. But even these support operations could involve very serious and costly fighting: 2,745 soldiers were killed during this period, an average of 137 a month – a decline, but not a substantial one. The Soviet withdrawal began during this third phase, when six Soviet regiments were brought home in the summer of 1986; a net reduction of fifteen thousand troops.

It was in this phase that mujahedin cross-border raids into the Soviet Union instigated by the Pakistanis reached their height. These did little damage. But the Americans worried that they might provoke a disproportionate Soviet response. Indeed when a raiding party penetrated more than twelve miles north of the Amu Darya river and struck a factory with rockets in April 1987, the Soviet Ambassador in Islamabad stormed into the Foreign Ministry to warn that further attacks would have severe consequences, and the raids were called off.

The fourth and final phase of the war began in November 1986 with the installation by the Russians of a new Afghan president, Mohamed Najibullah, to replace Babrak Karmal. With active Russian support, Najibullah launched a Policy of National Reconciliation, which was intended to reach out to moderate non-Communist political and religious leaders, while building up the Afghan army and security forces so that Soviet military support could eventually be dispensed with.

The Soviet forces continued to support the operations of the Afghan army. But the Soviet commanders were now determined to keep their casualties to a minimum and made greater use of long-range bombers flying secret missions from the Soviet Union, missions which for cover purposes were attributed to the Afghan air force. In one incident near the end of the war, a heavy bomb dropped from a long-range bomber landed close to an Afghan military headquarters, and another killed several dozen civilians. Fragments of the bomb were discovered in the wreckage, the Afghans complained, and the Soviets set up a commission of inquiry. But the incident was hushed up and no one was punished. The bombers attempted to suppress mujahedin positions in the areas around Faisabad, Jalalabad and Kandahar which the 40th Army had already abandoned. They ineffectively attacked the mujahedin rocket batteries which were now shelling Kabul with greatly increased frequency. In the very last weeks of the war they bombarded Masud’s positions in the Pandsher Valley. The purpose of this so-called Operation Typhoon was political rather than military.

But most of the energies of the 40th Army were confined to preparing and then executing their final withdrawal from the country in February 1989. The withdrawal took place in two stages, between May and August 1988 and between November and February 1989. It was accomplished with the same logistical skill that the Russians had shown when they first entered the country. During this period 2,262 soldiers were killed, an average of eighty-seven a month.

The withdrawal was not seriously opposed by the rebels, who by then were much more concerned with jostling for power in the new Afghanistan. The resulting civil war was, at least for Kabul, more destructive than anything that had happened during the Soviet war.

General Lyakhovski, the indefatigable Russian chronicler of the war, paints a devastating picture of the 40th Army’s performance. Until the middle of 1980, he says, the troops were hidebound by orthodoxy, sticking close to their armoured vehicles in the valley roads. Later their performance improved, but even so many problems remained unsolved. Units were understrength, and the need to remain alert against mujahedin attacks by day or night led to physical exhaustion and low morale. The soldiers lacked stamina. They were poorly trained. Their personal equipment was inadequate. Junior commanders were careless about security and intelligence, and tactically inept, so that even when they got them at a disadvantage, the rebels were too often able to break out. Lyakhovski’s devastating conclusion was that the Soviet Union’s comparative failure in Afghanistan, its first war since the Second World War, demonstrated its weakness, robbed it of confidence in its own strength, and dispelled the myth of its military invincibility.

This is not entirely fair. Despite the criticisms levelled against the soldiers of the 40th Army, the best of them became formidable fighting men, respected and feared by their enemy. The troops from the elite parachute and special services units were increasingly well trained and equipped to fight their elusive enemy. Edward Girardet, who spent much time with the mujahedin, reported, ‘The special troops are swift, silent and deadly. Swooping down in a single December [1985] raid, they slaughtered 82 guerrillas and wounded 60 more.’ A mujahedin commander, Amin Wardak, described the ambush: ‘They attacked at night in a narrow gorge. At first, we didn’t know we were being shot at because of the silencers. Then our people began falling.’

The 40th Army was unique in its composition. ‘Never before in the history of the Soviet armed forces,’ said its last commander, General Gromov, ‘had an army had its own air force. It was particularly well supplied with special forces units – eight battalions in all, alongside the highly trained air assault and reconnaissance units.’ It was unique, too, in the task it was set. Unlike some Western armies, no other Soviet army was ever asked to fight an extended counter-insurgency war in a foreign country. The 40th Army was disbanded as soon as the war was over. It had won all its major battles and never lost a post to the enemy: a record which consoled its commanders. But it was never able to deliver the political success which the leaders of the country had hoped for.

The First Incendiary Missiles

The first incendiary missiles were arrows wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw, often referred to as tow) and set afire. Burning arrows of these materials could be very effective in destroying wooden walls from a safe distance. Indeed, Athens was captured by flaming hemp arrows in 480 BC, when the Persians invaded Greece. Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities with fire and, as the grand Persian army approached Athens, the populace was evacuated to the countryside. A few priests and poor and infirm citizens were left behind to defend the Acropolis. These defenders put up barricades of planks and timber around the Temple of Athena and managed to hold off the Persians for a time by rolling boulders down the slopes of the Acropolis. But, in the first recorded use of fire projectiles on Greek soil, the Persians shot fiery arrows to burn down the wooden barricades. The Persians then swarmed over the Acropolis, slaughtering all the Athenians in the temple and burning everything to the ground.

But simple flaming missiles of straw were “insufficiently destructive and murderous” to satisfy ancient strategists for long, notes Alfred Crosby. They were not much use against stone walls, and ordinary fires could be doused with water. “What was wanted was something that would burn fiercely, adhere stubbornly, and resist being put out by water.” What kinds of chemical additives would produce fires strong enough to burn walls and machines, capture cities, and destroy enemies?

The first additive was a plant chemical, pitch, the flammable resin tapped from pine trees. Later, distillations of pitch into crude turpentine were available. Resinous fires burned hotly and the sticky sap resisted water. Arrows could be dipped in pitch and ignited, or one could set fires fueled with pitch to burn the enemy’s equipment. Other mineral accelerants for making hotter and more combustible weapons were discovered, too.

The earliest evidence that flaming arrows were used by a Greek army appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans besieged the city of Plataia, an ally of Athens, and used a full panoply of siege techniques against the stubborn Plataians. We know the Spartans used fire arrows, because the Plataians protected their wooden palisades with what would later become the standard defense against flaming projectiles—they hung curtains of untanned animal skins over the walls. Then, the Plataians lassoed the Spartans’ siege engines, winching them into the air and letting them crash to the ground. With their machines smashed and with their archers unable to ignite the rawhide-covered walls, the Spartans advanced beyond mere flaming arrows, into the as-yet-unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event occurred just two years after Euripides’ play about Medea’s mysterious recipe for “unnatural fire.”

The Spartans heaped up a massive mound of firewood right next to the city wall. Then they added liberal quantities of pine-tree sap and, in a bold innovation, sulphur. Sulphur is the chemical element found in acrid-smelling, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic areas, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. Sulphur was also called brimstone, which means “burning stone.” Volcanic eruptions were observed to create flowing rivers and lakes of burning sulphur, scenes that corresponded to ancient visions of Hell with its lakes of fire. In antiquity, clods and liquid forms of sulphur had many uses, from medicine and pesticides to bleaching togas. Sulphur’s highly flammable nature also made it a very attractive incendiary in war. “No other substance is more easily ignited,” wrote Pliny, “which shows that sulphur contains a powerful abundance of fire.”

When the Spartans ignited the great woodpile at Plataia, the combination of pitch and sulphur “produced such a conflagration as had never been seen before, greater than any fire produced by human agency,” declared Thucydides. Indeed, the blue sulphur flames and the acrid stench must have been sensational, and the fumes also would have been quite destructive, since the combustion of sulphur creates toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which can kill if inhaled in large enough quantities. The Plataians abandoned their posts on the burning palisades. Much of the wall was destroyed, but then the wind reversed and the great fire eventually subsided after a severe thunderstorm. Plataia was saved by what must have seemed to be divine intervention against the Spartans’ technological innovation. Notably, this also happens to be the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poison gas, although it is not clear that the Spartans were aware of that deadly side effect when they threw sulphur on the flames.

Defenders quickly learned to use chemically fed fires against besiegers. Writing in about 360 BC, Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy soldiers or onto their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulphur, which would stick to the coating of pitch. Then, one used ropes to immediately let down burning bundles of kindling to ignite the pitch and sulphur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked wooden “bomb” filled with blazing material that could be dropped onto siege engines. The iron spikes would embed the device into the wooden frame of the machine and both would be consumed by flames. Another defense strategy was to simply “fill bags with pitch, sulphur, tow, powdered frankincense gum, pine shavings, and sawdust.” Set afire, these sacks could be hurled from the walls to burn the men below.

During the grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”) in 304 BC, both sides hurled resinous missiles—firepots and flaming arrows. On moonless nights during the siege, wrote Diodorus of Sicily, “the fire-missiles burned bright as they hurtled violently through the air.” The morning after a particularly spectacular night attack, Demetrius Poliorcetes had his men collect and count the fire missiles. He was startled by the vast resources of the city. In a single night, the Rhodians had fired more than eight hundred fiery projectiles of various sizes, and fifteen hundred catapult bolts. Rhodes’ resistance was successful, and Poliorcetes withdrew with his reputation tarnished, abandoning his valuable siege equipment. From the sale of his machines, the Rhodians financed the building of the Colossus of Rhodes astride their harbor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Technological advances in fire arrows were reported by the Roman historians Silius Italicus and Tacitus, who describe the large fire-bolt (the falarica), a machine-fired spear with a long iron tip that had been dipped in burning pitch and sulphur. (The opening scene of the 2000 Hollywood film “Gladiator” showed the Roman falarica in action in a night battle in Germany). The burning spears were “like thunderbolts, cleaving the air like meteors,” wrote Silius Italicus. The carnage was appalling. The battlefield was strewn with “severed, smoking limbs” carried through the air by the bolts, and “men and their weapons were buried under the blazing ruins of the siege towers.”

Machine-fired fire-bolts and catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when that city managed to hold off the long siege by the hated emperor Maximinus in AD 236 (his own demoralized soldiers slew him in his tent outside the city walls). Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden shafts of the bolts. Vegetius, a military engineer of AD 390, gives one recipe for the ammunition: sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil.

Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century AD) described fire-darts shot from bows. Hollow cane shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron and punctured with many small holes on the underside (to provide oxygen for combustion). The cavity was filled with bituminous materials. (In antiquity, bitumen was a catchall term for petroleum products such as asphalt, tar, naphtha, and natural gas.) These fire-darts had to be shot with a weak bow, however, since high velocity could extinguish the fire in the shaft. Once they hit their target, the fire was ferocious. They flared up upon contact with water, marveled Ammianus, and the flames could only be put out by depriving the blaze of oxygen, by smothering it with sand.

The fire-dart sounds similar to the Chinese fire-lance, invented in about AD 900. This was a bamboo (later, metal) tube with one opening, packed with sulphur, charcoal, and small amounts of the “fire chemical” (explosive saltpeter or nitrate salts, a key ingredient of gunpowder). The tube was affixed to a lance with a kind of pump, which Crosby describes as “a sort of five-minute flame thrower.” At first, they “spewed nothing but flame,” but soon the Chinese added sand and other irritants like sharp shards of pottery and metal shrapnel, and many different kinds of poisons, such as toxic plants, arsenic, and excrement, to the saltpeter mixture. As Robert Temple, historian of ancient Chinese science, remarked, “Bizarre and terrible poisons were mixed together” to make bombs and grenades. “Practically every animal, plant, and mineral poison imaginable was combined,” for “there hardly seemed to be a deadly substance unknown to them.”

In India, a military manual by Shukra, the Nitishastra (dated to the beginning of the Christian era) describes tubular projectiles thrown by devices used by the infantry and cavalry. The tube, about three feet long, contained saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, with other optional ingredients, such as iron filings, lead, and realgar (arsenic). The tubes shot iron or lead balls by “the touch of fire” ignited “by the pressure of flint.” Shukra remarked that “war with [these] mechanical instruments leads to great destruction.”