A term associated with the heavily armoured cavalry is ‘clibanarius’, apparently from a Persian word for an oven or furnace, which must have seemed most apt under the Mediterranean or Persian sun. It is sometimes anachronistically translated as ‘ironclad’. Although probably starting as a nickname for cataphracts, some of the evidence suggests that clibanarius seems to have gained a specific and distinct technical meaning. To add to the confusion, a unit could be referred to as cataphractus clibanarius. Some scholars have suggested that clibanarii carried bows as well as the lance (as did most of the Persian horsemen) or that one had full horse armour and the other only the frontal half armour. It has also been suggested that the distinction was not one of equipment but of tactical use and training with clibanarii being trained to cooperate closely with light horse archers. By this way of thinking, a unit trained in both might operate as cataphracti on one occasion or clibanarii on another.

In addition to the variety of types in service, the main impression of the Roman cavalry that Arrian gives his reader is of a highly disciplined force, rigorously trained through constant practice. In cavalry tactics, as in so many fields, the Romans were the beneficiaries of centuries of development among many peoples, both their conquered subjects and those still beyond their borders. The eclectic range of formations and manoeuvres that the empire’s regiments were expected to master included the Celtic toloutegon, the Cantabrian gallop, the Thessalian rhombus, and of course the wedge, so valuable for cutting through enemy formations in shock action, which the Macedonians had learnt from the Thracians and Scythians.

By Hadrian’s reign, when the cataphract was finally adopted by the Roman army, the Roman Empire had reached its high watermark. As well as annexing Dacia (roughly modern Rumania), Trajan had campaigned in the east, capturing the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and carrying the Empire’s borders to their greatest territorial extent. After that Rome was increasingly on the defensive. In Britain of course, this retrenchment was clearly embodied in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and the other frontiers also gradually ossified into fixed defensive systems.

On the Danube, Hadrian began paying subsidies to the Roxolani and awarded citizenship to their king, Rasparagus, but other Sarmatian groups remained a major threat, despite a significant victory by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the winter of AD 173/174. Once more the Sarmatian dependence upon the headlong charge proved their undoing in a battle fought upon the frozen River Danube. It seems incredible that any cavalry force would willingly give battle on ice, yet, remarkably, the historian Cassius Dio claims that the lazyge raiders, who had been retreating with their loot, actually halted on the river and waited for the Romans, expecting to have the advantage ‘as their horses had been trained to run safely even over a surface of this kind’.

When the Romans came up the Sarmatians tried to employ exactly the tactics Arrian had prepared to face, with some dashing straight at the Roman centre while others attempted to envelop both flanks. The Romans, however, did not panic and ‘drew together in a compact body’; possibly a square with the cavalry in the centre since they are not mentioned in the ensuing fight. The Sarmatian assault failed to break the Roman infantry, many of the men having thrown down their shields for the front ranks to stand upon for firmer footing. The lazyges did manage to drive their horses into the waiting lines but many mounts lost their footing and went down ‘since the barbarians, by reason of their momentum could no longer keep from slipping’. Those piling in from behind became embroiled in a vicious struggle in which many were bodily hauled from their horses ‘so that but few escaped out of a large force’.

Marcus Aurelius adopted the soubriquet ‘Sarmaticus’ as a result of this victory and, after further campaigning, was able to negotiate a favourable peace two years later. The terms of this settlement illustrate how the Romans, although not expanding territorially, still sought to incorporate the manpower of defeated enemies. As a result of this defeat, the lazyges returned some one hundred thousand captives taken in raids over the years, and also undertook to furnish eight thousand cavalry for service with the Roman army, of whom 5500 were sent to Britain.

Some see a tantalizing link between this and the historical basis for the legend of King Arthur. The Sarmatians would have been horsemen, some at least clad in shining mail (though not uniquely so among Britannia’s garrison) and fighting under a dragon standard (although again not uniquely, for draco standards were widely used by the late Roman army). Add to this that Sarmatian religious beliefs, true to their Scythian roots, included the veneration of an ancient sword plunged in the ground, and connections are tempting indeed. A Sarmatian unit was still based in Lancashire in the third century and there is archaeological evidence for their presence around AD 400, just before the official Roman abandonment of Britain. At one point they were even commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus.

The peace lasted for a generation, but a new threat was already emerging in the region.


31. Captain (Charles A. May), 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: Dragoon officers wore a rather plain shell jacket for ordinary stable duty, marches, or active service from 1833 to 1851. Some had collars adorned with gold borders and laced blind buttonholes. Others, as shown here, had plain collars. Officers wore no stripes on their undress trousers. 32. Private, 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: The memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, an enlisted 1st Dragoon with Taylor’s army in northern Mexico, recount that the and Dragoons wore orange bands on their forage caps. This spirited steed is outfitted with the Ringgold saddle and horse equipment, which were adopted in 1844. 33. Sergeant, 1st Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1847: Company C was on Kearny’s arduous march from New Mexico to California in late 1846, virtually dismounting itself in the process. The men took the field against California rebels in January 1847 on foot. This sergeant has donned a pair of ‘breed’ leggings to protect his lower legs. He is armed with the US. Model 1843 Hall carbine and the Model 1840 heavy dragoon saber.’


Brevet Major General Stephen Watts Kearny, painted shortly after his triumphs with the Army of the West. The first lieutenant colonel and the second commander of the 1st Dragoons, he retained cavalry yellow [correction dragoon orange] on the collar and cuffs of his general’s coat.

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, she embarked upon a collision course that would shortly involve her in a war with Mexico. The Mexicans had never recognized Texan independence, and they looked upon America’s action as the most blatant kind of aggression. Even before a Texas convention could convene at Austin on 4 July to accept the American offer, President Polk directed Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to enter the future state with a 3900- man ‘Army of Observation’. Taylor shipped his infantry and artillery from New Orleans to Corpus Christi Bay, but he had Colonel David Twiggs and the and US. Dragoons ride overland from Fort Jesup. They joined their comrades on the Gulf Coast roughly 400 sabers strong, having lost three dead and fifty deserters in the process.

President Polk had more on his mind than merely adding One state the He intended to negotiate the peaceful acquisition of New Mexico and Upper California. Still fuming over Texas, however, the Mexicans refused to deal, and Polk resorted to more drastic means to get what he wanted. On 13 January 1846, he had his Secretary of War order Taylor’s Army of Observation to the north bank of the Rio Grande, and on 8 March, ‘Old Rough and Ready’s’ 3000 effectives ambled out of their winter camp, headed by Colonel Twiggs and his 378 2nd Dragoons. Texas audaciously claimed the Rio Grande as her southern boundary, but the Mexicans fixed the line much further north along the Nueces River. By occupying the disputed territory, Polk hoped to bully Mexico City into parting with the provinces he coveted. Ironically, this unwarranted invasion brought him a full-fledged shooting war instead.

The Mexicans mobilized a large army at Matamoros to sweep the Yankee heretics from sacred soil. Receiving unsubstantiated reports that the Mexicans were crossing the Rio Grande in force on 24 April 1846, Taylor ordered Captain Seth Thornton and two companies of the 2nd Dragoons upriver to investigate. The next morning at Rancho de Carricitos, twenty miles away from Taylor’s camp, Thornton’s sixty-three troopers ran into 1600 angry Mexican cavalrymen. Eleven Americans were killed, six wounded and the rest captured, except for Thornton’s Mexican guide, who brought Taylor word of the disaster on the twenty-sixth. With his wonderful gift for under- statement, Old Rough and Ready sent Polk a message that read: ‘Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.’

After the usual preliminary maneuvers, a Mexican army of 3709 men gave battle with Taylor’s 2288 troops on 8 May 1846, at Palo Alto, Texas. The affair was largely an artillery duel, but a squadron of the and Dragoons was posted on either end of the American line to guard Taylor’s flanks. When 800 enemy cavalry- men tried to turn the Yankee right, Captain Samuel H. Walker and his company of twenty Texas Rangers pounced on their flank, sweeping their ranks with a devastating fusillade from their rifles and Colt’s revolvers. As the harried lancers reeled back, a squadron of the and Dragoons joined in and helped push the enemy left beyond its starting point. The fight ended largely in a draw, but the Mexicans sustained 257 casualties to Taylor’s fifty-five.

The next day, the Mexicans retired to a deep, dried-out river bed sheltered by a dense tangle of trees and chaparral known as Resaca de la Palma.

Following somewhat lackadaisically, Taylor sent Company C, 3rd U. S. Artillery, right up the Matamoros Road to tussle with the batteries at the Mexican center, while his infantry thrashed doggedly through the prickly undergrowth on either side. When his light artillerymen failed to silence the Mexican guns, Old Rough and Ready directed Captain Charles A. May and his company of the 2nd U. S. Dragoons to charge them.

Over six feet tall and as straight as an Indian, dapper Charley May looked the very image of a ‘dragoon bold’, and he had the bluster and panache to match. He was instantly recognizable with his striking, full beard and flowing, dark brown curls. As he approached the American 6-pounders, he hollered gaily to their commander, Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, ‘Hello, Ridgely, where is that battery? I am ordered to charge it.’

‘Hold on, Charley,’ the gunner replied, ’till I draw their fire and you will see where they are.’

Ridgely’s fieldpieces then barked their challenge, the Mexicans answered, and before they could reload, May’s company sailed down the Matamoros Road in a column of fours. The enemy crews left their cannon and fled from the Americans’ waving sabers, but May and his cheering dragoons, caught up in the exhilaration of their first real cavalry charge, failed to check their foaming steeds for another quarter of a mile. The company ground to a quick stop, like an accordion, with the rear ranks slamming into those in front and turning the whole column into a mishmash of shouting men and rearing animals. Mexican infantrymen alongside the road fired their muskets into the milling Yankees, hitting nineteen dragoons and eighteen horses. May just got back to the battery, with six troopers still beside him, too few to hold it, and he scurried shamefacedly back to Taylor, only to hear the general bellow sarcastically at the 5th and 8th Infantry, ‘Take those guns, and by God, keep them!’

The doughboys went on to seize eight cannon and win the day, inflicting 5 I 5 to I 500 ‘ losses on the Mexicans at a cost of 122 Americans. Fortunately for May, his bugler, a Private Winchell, had possessed enough presence of mind to carry off a prisoner, who turned out to be no other than General Rómolo Diaz de la Vega, the commander of the enemy battle line. Hoping to assuage Taylor’s wrath over his bungled charge, May claimed to be the general’s captor. The American press hailed him as a national hero, and he was twice breveted up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His peers and subordinates who knew the real story, especially the and Dragoons’ buglers, hated May and looked on him with contempt. A trooper who later served under him called the headline hero ‘the cowardly humbug of the war’.

Two days later, acting on Taylor’s report of the Thornton debacle, President Polk asked the Congress to acknowledge that a state of war existed, alleging falsely that the Mexicans had invaded the country and ‘shed American blood upon American soil’. Both houses quickly passed a war bill that permitted the President to raise 50,000 volunteers and appropriated $10, 000, 000 for the prosecution of the conflict. Polk signed the legislation on 13 May and issued an immediate call for troops.

Fittingly enough, a large number of the volunteers were to be cavalrymen, who could more easily traverse the great western expanses over which the war would be fought. Between May and July 1846, the Federal government called on various states to supply mounted regiments: one from Kentucky; one from Tennessee; two from Missouri; one from Arkansas; one from Texas. They were organized on the regular model, with ten companies apiece. But the companies were supposed to be smaller, with sixty-four men in each. Enthusiasm for the war, however, often caused such limitations to be ignored. Company C, 1st Regiment of Mounted Missouri Volunteers, reported to its regimental rendezvous with 119 rank and file. Polk left it up to the states whether their sons would serve for one year or the duration of the hostilities, and they invariably chose the shorter enlistment period.

The regular army was also temporarily augmented. In 1847, Congress authorized the creation of nine infantry regiments and the 3rd Regiment of United States Dragoons – to serve until the end of the war. At the same time all regular cavalry regiments received a second major, a move inspired, no doubt, by the desire to extend field officer grade to the President’s brother, William H. Polk of the 3rd Dragoons.

The Mexican War was America’s first real cavalry war since the Revolution. The Mexican Army had at least fourteen regular mounted regiments and six active militia cavalry regiments. The 1st and 2nd U. S. Dragoons, toughened by ten years of fighting Indians or Herculean rides on the Plains, made light of such odds. The story is told of Sergeant Jack Miller of the 2nd, who was leading a small patrol that stumbled across five times its number of enemy guerrillas near Monclova that November. As his men grabbed instinctively for their carbines, Miller roared, ‘No firing, men! If twenty dragoons can’t whip a hundred greasers with the saber, I’ll join the Doughboys and carry a fence rail all my life.’ The Americans charged and bowled the Mexicans over with their heavier horses, killing six guerrillas, wounding thirteen and taking seventy prisoners. Only one of Miller’s men and three mounts were lightly scratched.

The prevailing prejudice in America against the life of a common soldier and the titanic immigration from Europe that swept over the country in the 1840s ensured that the regular infantry and artillery regiments were composed largely of what an English visitor called a ‘rag-tag-and-bob-tail herd’ and ‘either of the scum of the population of the older states, or the worthless German, English, or Irish emigrants.’ Fully one half of Taylor’s troops were foreign-born. The dragoons were still drawn primarily from older stock Americans, and they considered themselves to be a far cut above their fellow soldiers. As Samuel E. Chamberlain, a teenaged private in Company E, 1st U. S. Dragoons, boasted:

I came to the conclusion that the Dragoons were far superior in materials to any other arm of the service. No man of any spirit and ambition would join the ‘Dough- boys’ and go afoot, when he could ride a fine horse and wear spurs like a gentleman. In our squadron were broken down Lawyers, Actors and men of the world, Soldiers who had served under Napoleon, Polish Lancers, French Cuirassiers, Hungarian Hussars, Irishmen who had left the Queen’s service to swear allegiance to Uncle Sam and wear the blue.

Our officers were all graduates of West Point, and at the worst, were gentlemen of intelligence and education, often harsh and tyrannical, yet they took pride in having their men well clothed, and fed, in making them contented and reconciled to their lot . . .

The volunteer cavalrymen, in their ebullient and ignorant fashion, considered themselves as good as any regulars and the match of any Mexicans – and some of them lived up to their own bravado. One of the first such organizations to get into the field was Colonel Jack Hays’s Texas Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, whose various elements linked up with Taylor’s army through the spring and summer of 1846. Hays’s outfit was an amalgamation of several companies of the famed Texas Rangers, led by such legendary Indian fighters as Captains Ben McCulloch and Samuel Walker. The appearance of their 500 men was nothing short of formidable, each one carrying a rifle and one or two Colt revolvers. Commencing his advance on Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, on 19 August, Taylor was soon impressed with the rangers’ skill as scouts and exterminators of the guerrillas who infested his lines of communication.

The trouble with the Texans was that they were too prone to kill Mexicans on any pretext – including unarmed and unoffending men, women and children. Many of them nursed grudges as old as a decade against the ‘greasers’, and they were motivated as much by private vendettas as patriotism. Samuel Chamberlain called them ‘packs of human bloodhounds’, and any regular who tried to restrain their outrages found him- self just as apt to become the victim of Texan fury. However uncontrollable they were at other times, Hays’s Rangers were magnificent in a fight. When Taylor battered his way into Monterrey in a terrific four-day fracas that began on 20 September, the Texans were ever in the forefront. Following Colonel Hays’s standing orders to ‘Give ’em hell!’ – they smashed an enemy cavalry charge to pieces, and then slid off their ponies to fight beside the infantry, storming redoubts, palaces and the thick-walled adobe houses where the Mexicans took shelter.

Taylor owed Hays and his Texans quite a debt for the conquest of Monterrey, but he was not at all sorry to see them ride home when their six-month tour of duty expired on 2 October. ‘On the day of battle,’ he quipped, ‘I am glad to have Texas soldiers with me, for they are brave and gallant; but I never want to see them before or afterward.’

Taylor’s victories were to weave the charismatic mystique that would place him in the White House in two years, but much further to the north, relatively small bands of American cavalrymen were achieving something much more significant and lasting – without the same loss in blood.

From the end of June and into the first week of July, the Army of the West issued out of Fort Leavenworth, in staggered detachments to preserve the forage along the Santa Fe Trail, and disappeared into the endless prairie grasslands. The man responsible for this odd assemblage of 1700 regulars and volunteers was Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, and his mission was to incorporate the provinces of New Mexico and Upper California into the United States. To attempt so mam- moth a task, he was given the following forces: nearly 400 of his own 1st Dragoons from Companies B, C, G, I and K; 100 volunteer infantrymen in a two-company battalion raised in Missouri; a company of 100 St Louis cavalrymen called the LaClede Rangers; fifty Delaware and Shawnee scouts; and about 1,000 mounted riflemen in the nine companies of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. The Army of the West was also burdened by the twelve 6-pounders and four 12-pound howitzers of Major Meriwether Lewis Clark’s Battalion of Missouri Volunteer Artillery, 1,556 wagons, 459 horses, 3658 draft mules, and 14,904 cattle and oxen. It required a good month for this host to cross the 537 miles to Bent’s Fort, and as it entered enemy territory, Kearny was forced to put his men on half rations.

The governor of New Mexico mustered a motley army of 4000 to contest Kearny’s progress, but his force fell to pieces and dispersed as the Americans drew near. On 18 August 1846, three days after he had been notified of his promotion to brigadier general, the slim old dragoon occupied Santa Fe without having to fire a shot. Kearny stayed in New Mexico only long enough to institute a civil government and win the inhabitants over with his courtesy and respect for their religion. 0n 25 September, he set out for California with the 300 of his regular troopers still fit to ride. The 1st Dragoons must have made an interesting sight, for every man was mounted on a mule. The general had kept them constantly on the move with an inexhaustible list of special assignments, and the pace wore their horses down. Before he rode out of courier-range, Kearny instructed Colonel Alexander William Doniphan, a towering, sandy-haired lawyer and the commander of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, to pacify the Indians in the province and then go down and capture Chihuahua, Mexico’s gateway to the northwest.

Kearny had embarked upon the most trying march of his long career. On 6 October, about ten miles below Socorro, he encountered twenty mounted Americans hurrying east. One of them was the renowned scout, Kit Carson, who was carrying dispatches from Commodore Robert Stockton marked for Washington announcing the fall of California to the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron and Major John C. Fremont’s battalion of 234 mounted frontiersmen. Carson’s news caused Kearny to alter his plans. The route ahead would be difficult, lacking water and forage, and since California was already occupied, he sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe and exchanged his wagons for pack mules. After this was done, Kearny resumed his journey, retaining Kit Carson as a guide.

The closer the 1st Dragoons came to California, the more arduous the going – especially after they entered the Gila Desert. Men and animals reached and passed their breaking point many times, but somehow Kearny kept the column closed up and plodding on. To make matters worse, on 22 November, he met some Mexican horse traders who informed him that the Californians had risen in revolt against their insufferably arrogant American masters. Struggling out of the Gila and into the verdant San Felipe Valley on 2 December, Kearny sent a courier to San Diego to request an escort from Commodore Stockton for his small and weakened force. On 5 December, he was joined by Captain Archibald Gillespie, twelve ‘Horse Marines’ and twenty-six mounted riflemen.

Gillespie told Kearny that there were seventy-five Californian lancers blocking the road to San Diego at San Pascual. Urged on by Carson and the rash Gilles- pie, Kearny decided to attack the insurgents after a lieutenant and nine dragoons scouted their camp that night. Unfortunately, the mules and half-broken horses the dragoons were riding were still jaded from their long trek. When the Yankees charged their waiting opponents on 6 December 1846, the poor beasts were unable to keep together, and they carried the dragoons at varying speeds – singly or in small groups – into the enemy’s line. A continuous rain had ruined the powder in the Americans’ pistols and carbines, and they were unable to reach past the Californians’ lances with their sabers. The results were truly tragic. Kearny was speared twice by a young gallant who then bowed and rode off when it was apparent the general was no longer capable of defending himself. His subordinates but the dragoons drove their assailants off the rocky summit, killing five. Kearny then dug in right there and then, his troopers enduring a three-day siege and near starvation. The general’s second-in-command, however, had wisely sent Stockton a plea for help after the Battle of San Pascual, and at two o’clock on the morning of 11 December, some 180 Marines and sailors relieved the much-reduced Army of the West.

When Commodore Stockton sallied out of San Diego at the end of the month with 607 men to finally quell the rebellion, the partially recovered Kearny and sixty dismounted troopers of Company C, 1st U. S. Dragoons, went with him. On 8 and 9 January 1847, the Californians gave battle on the San Gabriel River and at La Mesa, and their power was broken. Stockton and Kearny took Los Angeles on 10 January, and the last of the insurgents surrendered three days later. California was now indisputably American, thanks in no small part to Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, but his intrepid devotion to duty hastened his untimely death in the following year.


On 25 October 1854, at the Brigade of the British cavalry charged a battery of Russian Battle of Balaclava, the Light artillery that was deployed at the end of a mile-long valley. The valley was flanked on both sides by additional guns that fired down from above. The action, which was in defiance of every basic principle of cavalry action in warfare, was the result of an erroneous interpretation of an ambiguous order given by Lord Raglan, the commander of the British forces in the Crimean War, to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the approximately 670 men who participated in the charge, almost three hundred were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.  Some observers were nonplussed by this horrific casualty rate. General Sir Richard Airey, second-in-command to Lord Raglan in the Crimea, merely shrugged: `These sorts of things will happen in war. It is nothing compared to Chillianwallah.’ In Airey’s eyes, the Charge of the Light Brigade was just another heroic failure.

Cavalry soldiers in the first half of the nineteenth century were regarded as impetuous, foolhardy and unreliable. Moreover, by midcentury, the replacement of the musket by the rifle had made cavalry charges riskier and less effective. It is conventionally assumed that it was the introduction of the breech-loading repeating rifle and more powerful and accurate artillery that decreased the effectiveness of the cavalry charge by the end of the nineteenth century. Even so, the charge still had numerous proponents in the British military establishment, who developed new tactics that took into account the increased fire- power of the infantry and artillery. In an age before mechanization, the cavalry served the vital purpose of making rapid movement possible. It was not until the First World War that the age of the cavalry charge truly came to an end. One of the last charges in Western military history took place during the retreat from Mons in August 1914, when the 2nd Cavalry Brigade advanced against the German 1st Army in an attempt to protect the British Expeditionary Force’s vulnerable left flank. The result was a swift rebuff and 250 casualties.

Cavalry charges could thus still achieve impressive results on the battlefield in the late nineteenth century. This was particularly true in colonial theatres, where enemy forces were usually less well armed than their British counterparts. Not surprisingly, then, it was at the height of the empire that perceptions of the cavalry began to change. Whereas previously its failures had been blamed on impetuous soldiers who refused to follow orders and exercise restraint, now the cavalry came to be celebrated for its dash.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Captain Soame Gambier Jenyns survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, the most famous heroic failure in British military history. Two years later, in 1856, he returned to his familial home, Bottisham Hall in Cambridgeshire. A large crowd cheered him as he rode into the village on his horse, Ben, another survivor of the charge. The parish priest observed: `it must have been grati- fying to our gallant friend to see the welcome accorded, while there was not a man, woman or child, but what turned out to do him honour’. In 1873, two years after he retired from the army, Jenyns died suddenly while out shooting on his father- in- law’s estate in Shropshire. His funeral cortege in Bottisham featured a military band and a column of Hussars; Ben, now twenty-five years old, was led behind the coffin. Hundreds of people packed the church and the surrounding streets; after the coffin was placed in the family vault, three volleys were fired by a rifle team, followed by a trumpet flourish. A memorial was later installed in the chancel of Bottisham church that referred to Jenyns as a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Jenyns’s example illustrates how the Charge of the Light Brigade was enshrined as an heroic failure. The survivors became celebrities who were feted at annual banquets and, as the decades passed, were given lavish public funerals. This was despite the fact that the charge was a disaster that had resulted from a string of errors and misunderstandings in the British chain of command. It had occurred during the Crimean War, which resulted from conflicts among the European powers as they grappled with the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. For their part, the British saw the war as necessary to ensure that Russian expansionism did not threaten the route to India. In the autumn of 1854, 27,000 British, thirty thousand French and seven thousand Turkish troops invaded the Crimean Peninsula, with their primary target the Russian naval base at Sebastopol. British forces included a division of cavalry, split into a Heavy and a Light Brigade. Traditionally, light cavalry (smaller men and horses) had been used to carry out reconnaissance work, while heavy cavalry (bigger men and horses) were used to overwhelm the enemy in battle. But in the decades after Waterloo, the army had shrunk from 250,000 men to 110,000, and such specialization was no longer possible. The two types of cavalry were thus now used almost interchangeably.

In the 1850s, cavalry officers continued to be predominantly men from elite backgrounds who had purchased their commissions and promotions. Lord Lucan, who commanded the cavalry at Balaclava, had joined the army the year after Waterloo and had spent much of his career on half- pay, as many wealthy officers did to avoid being sent to colonial theatres. Through purchase he had risen from being a sixteen- year- old ensign in 1816 to the rank of lieutenant colonel only ten years later. He had been promoted to major general in 1851, even though he had not been on active service for fourteen years. In command of the Light Brigade, meanwhile, was the 7th earl of Cardigan, who, like Lucan, had had no battlefield experience. He, too, had been promoted through purchase, rising from cornet to the lieutenant colonelcy of the 15th Hussars in only eight years between 1824 and 1832. Four years later, he paid £40,000 for the more prestigious lieutenant colonelcy of the 11th Hussars.

Cardigan was Lucan’s brother- in- law – Lucan was married to his sister Ann – but in this case the familial connection bred enmity rather than accord. Lady Lucan had complained to her brother that her husband mistreated her, which chilled relations between the two men. Just prior to their departure for the Crimea, Lady Lucan had left her husband, increasing the animosity between them even further. `They do not speak,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Edward Hodge of the Heavy Brigade. `How this will answer on service I do not know.’ Such squabbles among the British commanders were deemed unimportant, however, as the army expected to take Sebastopol in a matter of weeks. Confidence was further boosted by the first confrontation with the Russians, at the Battle of Alma, which resulted in an emphatic British and French victory.

Next, the British turned their attention to Balaclava, a fishing village 6 miles (9.6 km) from Sebastopol that possessed a deep, sheltered harbour in which the fleet could land the army’s supplies prior to the attack on the Russian base itself. The British seized the village without opposition, but the Russians soon mounted a counterattack. On 25 October, the Russian commander, Prince Alexander Menshikov, ordered an infantry advance of thirty thou- sand men. The six hundred Turkish militia who manned the poorly constructed redoubts that defended the British position were quickly overwhelmed. All that now stood between the Russians and Balaclava was a `thin red line’ of 93rd Highlanders, who withstood the Russian charge, thereby passing into British military legend, though their victory did not become nearly as famous as the Light Brigade’s defeat shortly afterwards. The Heavy Brigade then charged the Russian cavalry, pushing them back despite the fact that they were outnumbered nearly three to one and were fighting uphill.

With the initial Russian attack blunted, Lord Raglan endeavoured to retake the redoubts before the Russians could regroup. He wanted to use General Sir George Cathcart’s infantry division for this purpose, but they had not yet arrived on the battlefield. He thus opted to send the Light Brigade forward without infantry support. This was in direct contradiction of standard military practice, but he assumed that the Russians were in such disarray that the redoubts could be occupied quickly. Lucan, however, interpreted Raglan’s order as meaning he should advance only after the infantry arrived, so he kept the Light Brigade waiting at the entrance to the northernmost of the two valleys that formed the battlefield’s terrain. Viewing the scene from the heights above the battlefield, Raglan could not understand why Lucan was not advancing as ordered. When he heard a report that the Russians were dragging away the British guns from the redoubts, his impatience boiled over. (Losing a gun was considered a severe embarrassment for a British general; Wellington was famous for never having done so.) At 10:45 a. m., Raglan issued what became the most infamous order in British military history: `Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the Enemy and try to prevent the Enemy carrying away the guns.’

Fifteen minutes later, the order was pressed into Lucan’s hands by Captain Louis Nolan, aide- de- camp to General Richard Airey, Raglan’s second- in- command. Lucan was unclear what it meant. Most military historians believe that the Russians were not attempting to take away the guns from the redoubts, and in any event Lucan would not have been able to see them from his position even if they had been. Nor could he see any enemy retreating that he could `follow’. He asked Nolan for clarification. Nolan told him that he should `attack immediately’. When Lucan asked what precisely he should attack, several witnesses later claimed that Nolan gestured with his arm towards the end of the valley. Lucan was astonished that Raglan would issue such an order. To launch a cavalry charge of well over a mile without infantry support down a valley that was defended to the front and on both sides by artillery was suicidal. But instead of sending Nolan back to Raglan for further clarification, Lucan rode over to Cardigan and ordered him to attack the battery at the far end of the valley. The astounded Cardigan protested on the grounds that `there is a battery in front, a battery on each flank, and the ground is covered in Russian riflemen’. Lucan acknowledged this, but confirmed that the order had come directly from Raglan.

When the trumpet call for the advance came, even the lowest- ranking private could see that a mistake had been made somewhere in the chain of command. They had proceeded between 100 and 200 yards (90-180 m) when the Russian guns on the sides of the valley opened up and shells began tearing gaps in the line. Some of the men tried to quicken the pace, but Cardigan kept them steady. Because the distance that had to be covered was so great, the Light Brigade had to move forward slowly, at a rate of about 4 miles (6.4 km) an hour, down most of the length of the valley, only increasing the pace to a full gallop for the last 250 yards (228 m). This meant that it took about seven minutes to reach the Russian battery. Fewer than half of the British troops who had started in the front line made it to the battery, while the second line no longer existed in any meaningful form.

The Charge of the Light Brigade had taken barely twenty minutes from start to finish. The participants were unaware that they had just been part of what would become one of the most famous military events in British history. Many of them did feel, however, that something extraordinary had occurred. Captain Jenyns declared: `never was such murder ordered’.

George Goad, a cornet in the 13th Light Dragoons, described the charge as `the most terrible thing you can conceive’. Lieutenant Fiennes Wykeham Martin of the 4th Dragoons wrote to his brother:

My Regiment is cut up and the rest of the Light Brigade are completely annihilated owing to a mistake in the orders. We charged for about a mile and a quarter down a valley flanked on both sides with artillery and infantry and with a tremendous force of cavalry at the bottom. They bowled us over right and left with grape shot, balls and round shot. Of 700 men who went into action only 190 came out and all for no good as we were not backed up. We have twice heard from a Russian officer who was taken prisoner, that our little Brigade charged 20,000 – rather long odds!

Captain Arthur Tremayne of the 13th Light Dragoons, whose horse had been shot from under him as he reached the Russian guns, wrote to his family that the charge had been `the most tremendous cavalry action ever recorded’. Tremayne was well aware that the order had been a blunder: `It was seen by all to be madness, unsupported by guns, or infantry . . . I am sincerely grateful to God for my preservation . . . and though one is always more or less in a dangerous position in war, no danger can be greater than that I have escaped.’ A week later, on 3 November, he added: `All agree in saying that there must have been some mistake in the order, as no such cavalry attack is on record.’ The men recognized the significance of what had occurred as much as did the officers. `Thank God I escaped that dreadful massacre . . .,’ wrote Henry Gregory of the 13th Light Dragoons to his sister. `A more dreadful sight I never saw, for our poor men was [sic] actually mowed down by dozens . . . The ground was actually strewed with dead men and horses, and men and horses running about in all directions, it was a horrible sight for any human being to witness.’

There have been plenty of battles in which generals have sacrificed large numbers of men to achieve victory. In these cases, the heavy losses are accepted as the cost of war. The Light Brigade’s casualty rate of around 40 per cent was certainly high, but it was lower than that of other famous charges, including Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War in 1863, in which over half the participants on the Confederate side were killed or wounded. In fact, given the foolhardiness of the advance of unsupported cavalry against well- placed artillery, the casualties at Balaclava were remarkably low. But it was the utter futility of the charge that made it so famous. If it had succeeded, or had it even been possible for it succeed, it would not occupy the prominent place in British memory that it quickly came to take up. Alone among the examples of charges cited in this chapter, it had no military purpose whatsoever. It was caused by a series of blunders, mistakes and misunderstandings so numerous that historians still fiercely debate which one was the most significant.

The futility of the Charge of the Light Brigade was comprehended immediately, and was highlighted by the two most widely read accounts. The first was provided by William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The Times, who watched the charge alongside Lord Raglan. Russell’s first report of Balaclava reached Britain on 14 November 1854, less than three weeks after the battle. It emphasized the pointlessness of the charge:

As they passed towards the front, the Russians opened on them from the guns in the redoubt on the right, with volleys of musketry and rifles. They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men are not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true – their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so- called better part – discretion.

The second account was Alfred Tennyson’s `The Charge of the Light Brigade’, one of the best- known poems in the English language, which was based on Russell’s account. Tennyson later claimed to have been so inspired after reading it that he wrote the poem in a few minutes. It was first published in the Examiner on 9 December. Tennyson attributed the blame for the charge to an anonymous `someone’ who had `blundered’, while the men of the Light Brigade were identified only as `the six hundred’:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

The way of presenting the charge espoused by Russell and Tennyson soon became the prevailing mode, shifting it from a military disaster to an episode whose very pointlessness made it something uniquely noble. In 1855, an anonymous publication satirized Russell’s role through a series of cartoon- like depictions of the activities of `our own correspondent’ in the Crimea. In one scene, the correspondent `becomes frantic with enthusiasm at beholding the splendid charge of cavalry at Balaclava’, thereby simultaneously poking fun at and acknowledging the public’s near- reverential view of the charge.

Visual as well as verbal representations played a key role in enshrining the Charge of the Light Brigade in heroic myth. Though he did not arrive in the Crimea until mid- November, three weeks after the event, the Scottish artist William Simpson included a watercolour of it among the dozens of paintings he sent back to be made into engravings by the London art dealers Colnaghi. The engravings were first exhibited at the Graphic Society in 1855, and eighty of them were published in a volume entitled The Seat of War in the East later that year. Their popularity was such that a selection was issued in a smaller octavo volume, with an introduction by the military historian George Brackenbury. Brackenbury demonstrated that Tennyson’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade had by this point taken firm hold: `The Light Cavalry was ordered to advance, without supports, over a plain of nearly a mile and a half in length, and exposed to a crushing fire of artillery and musketry in front and on both flanks. Without a murmur or a moment’s hesitation these lion- hearts rushed on to the discharge of the fearful duty assigned to them; resolved, since the ordinary alternative of death or glory was denied, to do and die.’ (Italics in original.) He concluded: `The Light Cavalry charge was over; a glorious and ineffaceable page has been added to the records of chivalry, and to the annals of England.’

The ensuing decades would see the appearance of a multitude of visual depictions of the charge. In general, the visual representation of warfare during the Crimean War moved away from the traditional emphasis on the heroism of elite officers and towards scenes featuring the common soldier. A particular focus was camp life during the devastating winter of 1854-55. As the Athenaeum declared in its review of Simpson’s paintings:

All looked with painful interest at views of the spots . . . where the flower of England, unscathed by fire, unsmitten and unhurt, rotted away, with their faces turned towards England. For them, there will be no victory, no rejoicing – for them, no open arms and happy faces, no flags waving or jubilee of bells – but in their stead, cold, narrow graves, in an enemy’s country, on a spot perhaps to be blasted by a great nation’s greatest and most terrible disgrace.

In this context, the Charge of the Light Brigade was useful for confirming this perception of the inept commanders who had needlessly squandered the lives of their men, while at the same time emphasizing the heroism of the common soldiers.

The Crimean War did not, however, lead to the complete eradication of conventional forms for depicting heroism in battle. Instead, the older and newer visions of military heroism existed side by side. To be sure, there was much criticism of the elite commanders whose errors had led to the Charge of the Light Brigade. The war is often given credit for engendering the drive for military reform that culminated in the Cardwell reforms of the early 1870s, which abolished the sale of commissions and made promotion contingent on merit and experience rather than birth and wealth. But those reforms were not enacted for another fifteen years; in the intervening period, a fierce debate raged both within the political and military establishment and among the public at large as to whether the old, aristocratically based system was really so terrible. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1856, for example, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, interpreted the Charge of the Light Brigade as confirming, rather than undermining, the value of aristocratic leadership on the battlefield:

Talk to me of the aristocracy of England! Why, look to that glorious charge of the cavalry at Balaclava – look to that charge, where the noblest and wealthiest of the land rode foremost, followed by heroic men from the lowest classes of the community, each rivalling the other in bravery, neither the peer who led nor the trooper who followed being distinguished the one from the other. In that glorious band there were sons of the gentry of England; leading were the noblest in the land, and following were the representatives of the people of this country.

Contemporary accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade reflected this tension as to whether oligarchy or meritocracy represented the best path forward for the British Army. Certainly, there was ample criticism of some aristocratic commanders: there was no danger that either Raglan or Lucan would emerge from the Crimea as a hero. But Lord Cardigan was a different matter: he was seen not only as blameless – he had questioned Raglan’s order appropriately and then followed it when Lucan insisted that he must – but also as heroic. When asked how Cardigan had behaved in the charge, Captain William Morris of the 17th Hussars, another hero of the charge who will be discussed below, replied: `He led like a gentleman.’ Stories flew around the British camp that Cardigan’s horse had leapt over the Russian guns at the end of the valley as if he were fox- hunting. Even his bitter enemy Lucan had to concede that Cardigan `led this attack in the most gallant and intrepid manner’.

Deteriorating health led to Cardigan’s departure from the Crimea in December 1854. When he landed at Folkestone on 13 January 1855, he was greeted by a cheering crowd and a brass band playing Handel’s `See, the Conquering Hero Comes!’ All along the route of his train journey to London, people gathered to watch him pass, despite bitterly cold winter temperatures, and every station was bedecked with bunting. His portrait and prints of his horse leaping over the Russian guns were sold all over the country. He was, as a popular music- hall song extolled him, `Cardigan the Brave’; even Punch temporarily abandoned satire to show him charging at the Russian cannon. The `Cardigan jacket’, patterned after the woollen garment he had worn during the Crimean winter, became a popular fashion. Both Houses of Parliament offered their official gratitude, and he was invited to dine with Queen Victoria at Windsor, where the next morning he regaled the royal children with the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In February, a banquet was given in his honour at Mansion House by the Lord Mayor of London. He paraded to the event through the capital’s streets in his full- dress uniform, riding Ronald, the horse that had carried him during the charge – the crowds were so eager to obtain a souvenir that they plucked hairs from the latter’s tail and mane. In the pamphlet Our Heroes of the Crimea (1855), the journalist George Ryan wrote: `It may be said without fear of contradiction, that the Earl of Cardigan is now the most popular soldier in England. As a gallant chevalier he won his golden spurs in a tilt with giants. All salute him as the lion of the British Army; and a clasp to the Crimean medal will tell how he led heroes to fight on that bloody field, which gives to the world an example of devoted valour unequalled in warfare.’

Another hero to emerge from the Charge of the Light Brigade was Captain Louis Nolan, who prior to the Crimean War had a reputation as a skilled trainer of cavalry soldiers and horses and had authored two books on cavalry tactics. Although his regiment, the 13th Light Dragoons, was not sent to the Crimea, he was detached from it and placed on the staff of Brigadier General Airey so that he could help with the acquisition, transport and management of the horses for the cavalry division. After delivering the fateful order to Lucan, Nolan decided to ride forward in the Charge of the Light Brigade. It proved a fatal choice: most eyewitness accounts cite him as the first man killed, after a shell fragment struck him with full force in the chest. Once the recriminations began, Nolan was an obvious potential scapegoat, as he had not only delivered the infamous order to Lucan but had also possibly conveyed to him an erroneous sense of its meaning. Lucan, certainly, found it expedient to blame Nolan. In a letter published in The Times in March 1855, he claimed:

After carefully reading this order I hesitated, and urged the uselessness of such an attack and the dangers surrounding it. The aide- de- camp, in a most authoritative tone, stated that they were Lord Raglan’s orders that the cavalry should attack immediately. I asked him, `Where, and what to do?’ as neither enemy nor guns were within sight. He replied, in a most disrespectful but significant manner, pointing to the further end of the valley, `There, my Lord, is your enemy; there are your guns’.

But although Lucan hinted that Nolan’s conduct had bordered on insubordination, he could not assign him all of the blame for the debacle, for by doing so it would have appeared that he had been unwilling to stand up to a junior officer. Indeed, the Morning Chronicle wondered how such a relatively low- ranking officer could have been responsible for such a massive disaster: `What baffles the understanding is, in what respect Captain Nolan, whose position was merely that of an aide- de- camp, should thus have proved the unwitting instrument of the Light Brigade’s destruction.’

For that reason, few people saw Nolan as the primary culprit for the fiasco. Instead, he was often depicted as a martyred hero. His friends and admirers collected funds for a memorial, which was installed on the wall of Holy Trinity Church in Maidstone in Kent, where the depot for cavalry regiments serving in India was located. Each year, the Balaclava Commemoration Society held an annual dinner for veterans of the battle. In 1875, it was accompanied by a `Balaclava Festival’ in the central hall of Alexandra Palace. The centrepiece of the exhibition was an obelisk topped by a figure representing Honour and surrounded at the base by `relics of the engagement’. The obelisk listed the names of the seven officers who had been killed, with Nolan’s centrally positioned and in larger lettering.

A third individual who emerged from the Charge of the Light Brigade as a hero was Captain William Morris of the 17th Lancers. In March 1854, Morris was made deputy assistant quartermaster general of the forces that were being assembled for the upcoming Crimean campaign. This meant that, like Nolan, he served under General Airey, the quartermaster general. Still recovering from a serious bout of cholera, Morris arrived at Balaclava only days before the debacle. The senior officer of the 17th Lancers, Colonel John Lawrenson, was on leave, and his second- in- command, Major Augustus Willett, had died of cholera on 22 October. Despite his weakened state, Morris stepped in and took command of his old regiment on the day of the battle. When the Heavy Brigade charged in support of the 93rd Highlanders, Morris tried to lead the 17th forward to take advantage of the disarray of the Russians, but he was sharply rebuked by Cardigan. Several witnesses reported that Morris was furious at not being allowed to advance and, slapping his leg with his sword, said as he rode away from Cardigan: `My God, my God, what a chance we are losing.’ His wish for action was shortly to be granted. The Light Brigade was waiting at the entrance to the valley when Nolan, who knew Morris from Airey’s staff, galloped up carrying Raglan’s order. Nolan asked Morris where he could find Lucan. Morris pointed him out, then asked: `What is it to be, Nolan? Are we going to charge?’ As he spurred his horse towards Lucan, Nolan shouted back over his shoulder: `You will see. You will see.’

After relaying the order to Lucan, Nolan rode back to Morris and asked him permission to ride with his regiment, which Morris readily granted. Unlike Nolan, Morris survived the long ride down the valley. When he reached the Russian battery, he was accompanied by about twenty men, who charged the enemy cavalry positioned behind the guns. Seeing a high- ranking officer, Morris thrust his sword into the man’s body up to the hilt. He was then unable to extricate his blade, however, and as the man fell from his horse Morris was dismounted as well. He was still struggling to reclaim his sword when he received a severe blow to the head from a Russian sabre. He blacked out for a moment; when he recovered, he found that his sword had somehow come free, but he was now surrounded by Cossacks, one of whom delivered another head wound courtesy of his lance. The episode was witnessed by Sergeant Major Abraham Ransom:

Then I saw an act of heroism; [Captain] Morris was on foot, his head streaming with blood, engaging five or six Cossacks . . . Morris sought to defend himself by the almost ceaseless `moulinet’ or circling whirl of his sword and from time to time he found means to deliver some sabre cuts upon the thighs of his Cossack assailants. Soon, however, he was pierced in the temple by a lance- point, which splintered up a piece of bone and forced it under the scalp.

Morris was saved by the arrival of a Russian officer, who intervened to prevent the Cossacks from finishing him off. He surrendered his sword, but as more British troops arrived behind the guns the Russians found themselves with more pressing business. His head bleeding profusely, Morris tried to mount a riderless horse, but could only manage to grab the saddle. He was dragged along until his dwindling strength caused him to lose his grip. As a Cossack approached, he desperately lunged for a second horse and struggled into the saddle. The horse was shot from under him as he attempted to ride back to the British lines; pinned beneath on the ground, he lost consciousness temporarily. After he awoke, he began limping down the valley on foot. He was almost back to the British lines when he saw the body of his friend Nolan and collapsed beside it. He was found there by Captain John Ewart, who sent word back that an officer required aid, and shortly there- after Surgeon James Mouat and Sergeant Charles Wooden arrived on the scene. Both would later be awarded the Victoria Cross for saving Morris, as they were forced to fight off several Cossacks when carrying him to safety.

Morris’s injuries included two severe cuts to the head, a broken right arm from a sabre blow and a broken rib on his lower left side. After two months in the military hospital at Scutari, he returned home to convalesce in January 1855 and was invited to dinner by Queen Victoria. By June, however, he was back in the Crimea, where he was a figure of renown. Captain Henry Clifford of the Rifle Brigade reported to his family:

I saw a Capt. Morris yesterday, you have perhaps seen his name in the papers. He behaved most splendidly in the unfortunate charge at Balaclava, and was badly wounded in the head with a sabre cut, had three ribs broken and side very much torn, with a thrust from a lance and his right arm cut to the bone by a sword. No one thought he would live, but he is well enough to walk about now, tho’ looking very ill and after spending a few months in England has come out here again.

That same year, he was promoted to major and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the French. In his native Devon, Morris became a local hero. In 1856, he was honoured by a banquet at the Globe Hotel in Great Torrington, near his birth- place of Hatherleigh. The ceremony was presided over by Sir Trevor Wheler, a veteran of Waterloo, who declared that they were gathered

to congratulate that gallant officer on his safe return to his native shores and are desirous of placing on record the deep sense we entertain of the zeal and gallantry he has shown on all occasions when his services have been required by the country . . . I do sincerely believe that if the British cavalry had to give this sword to one of their officers more deserving than another, though there might be great difficulty in making their selection, their unanimous verdict would be `Give it to Colonel Morris, the bravest of the brave.’ The local poet Edward Capern composed fulsome verses in his honour:

Hail to thee! Hail to thee! Champion of Liberty!

Fresh from the field of his struggle and pain,

Hail to thee, hail to thee, bold son of chivalry,

Hail to the land of the Hero again.

Capern’s poem displayed the key component of heroic failure in the mid- Victorian era: the link between `chivalry’ and `struggle and pain’. Suffering was heroic and noble, even, or perhaps especially, if it occurred in a context of futility. Morris’s response to the adulation, meanwhile, embodied perfectly the ideal of the self- sacrificing hero who accepted his suffering as being all in a day’s work: `I have been promoted and rewarded by Her Majesty for my services, while other men more deserving than myself have either lost their lives or owing to unfortunate circumstances have gained nothing.’

After the Crimea, Morris returned to his regiment and was sent to India in 1857 to help quell the rebellion that had broken out earlier that year. The following year, while stationed at Poona in the Bombay Presidency, he died of dysentery. His fellow officers collected funds for a memorial tablet, which was installed in the church at Poona. It referred to the Charge of the Light Brigade only obliquely by listing the battles in which Morris had fought, including Balaclava. Back home, however, his role in the charge was the focal point of memorial efforts. In 1860, a 60- foot- high (18 m) granite obelisk was erected on Hatherleigh Moor. A bas- relief on the base by E. B. Stephens showed his limp body being carried from the battlefield, with the single word `Balaclava’ inscribed beneath. It was an odd depiction of a soldier: Morris was wounded to the point of helplessness in what was presented as the most noteworthy moment of his career. But it was in keeping with contemporary notions of heroic failure, in which heroism was defined more by suffering in defeat than by any action undertaken in victory.


The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps.

The Seleucid Empire

Shortly after King Arsaces conquered Parthia and seized it from the Seleucid Empire, the rebel governor of Bactria, Diodotus II, named himself the new king of his province around 235 BC. The Bactrian ruler then also entered into a peaceful agreement with the Parthian king, because both men knew they would soon face the wrath of the Seleucid emperor. The two new kings did not have to wait long, for later in the year King Seleucus II (r. 246-225 BC) launched a campaign in the east to reclaim his lost territory. Unfortunately for the Hellenistic ruler, his attempts to reclaim Parthia and Bactria ended in failure and he was forced to return in order to deal with a turbulent Babylon. A couple of decades later, Seleucus’ son, Antiochus III (r. 223-187 BC), was ready to succeed where his father had failed. After stabilizing the western half of the empire, Antiochus the Great made extensive preparations for an eastern campaign. His aim was to either completely retake land or at least force the eastern rulers to submit and become client kings as well as give tribute to their acknowledged overlord. In 209 BC, the Seleucid emperor carried out a campaign against the fledgling kingdom of Parthia with a large army of around 15,000 heavy infantry, 6,000 cavalry and over 12,000 peltasts and other light infantry.

Before Antiochus began his eastern expedition, King Arsaces was succeeded by his son, Arsaces II (r. 211-185 BC), whose soldiers attempted to slow or halt the Seleucid invaders by first preventing them from gaining access to all of the wells or other sources of fresh water in their path, and then by sending men to raid and harry the Hellenistic forces as they marched. None of these actions stopped the Seleucid army from advancing further into Parthia. Antiochus continued to overcome further resistance, then successfully besieged more than one fortified settlement and captured several towns before he and the Parthian king agreed to meet and make peace terms. In the agreement, Arsaces was allowed to keep his kingdom as long as he became a vassal and paid tribute to the Seleucid emperor. Additionally, the Parthians lost the important city of Hekatompylos, along with much of the former region of Hyrcania, to the Seleucids.

With Parthia made into a client kingdom, Antiochus moved on to deal with Bactria next. Yet before he reached the former province of the empire, the new rebel ruler of the Greco–Bactrian kingdom, Euthydemos, confronted the Seleucid army at the Arios River on the border. The Bactrian forces consisted primarily of cavalry that may have numbered as many as 10,000 men; thus, Antiochus proceeded with his horsemen, especially his 2,000–strong royal guardsmen, supported by many light infantry peltasts. Even though they were outnumbered, the Seleucid cavalrymen achieved victory against the Bactrian horsemen, forcing Euthydemos to retreat back to his capital city of Bactra. After a lengthy siege of two years, along with further violent encounters, Antiochus eventually gave in and expressed his desire to make peace with the Greco–Bactrian king. Similar to the terms made with Arsaces, Euthydemos was allowed to retain his kingship in exchange for a pledge of loyalty and the payment of a large tribute. Antiochus also confirmed his control over the regions of Margiana and Aria. Parthia and Bactria were the primary targets of Antiochus’ eastern expedition and, although he did not fully recover the lost territories, he forced their rulers into a state of vassalage, which was enough to satisfy the Seleucid emperor. Antiochus was then free to return to the west in order to settle unfinished business with a rival Hellenistic kingdom ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Earlier in his reign, several years before he left for his campaigns in the east, Antiochus had been defeated by Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221-204 BC) at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. The news that a rebel– lion had broken out in Egypt reached Antiochus in 206 BC, which was one of the reasons that the Seleucid emperor wished to end the siege of Bactra. In 204 BC, the death of Ptolemy only fueled Antiochus’ desire to seek revenge against the rival kingdom while it was weak and vulnerable. As he prepared in the years before his ultimate confrontation with the Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antiochus the Great created a new type of mounted warrior inspired by his combat experiences in the east, which later became known as the cataphract.

Although the Parthians and Bactrians that Antiochus faced in his eastern campaigns certainly utilized heavily armoured cavalry like their predecessors, it is unknown whether one or both regions had begun fielding riders and steeds armoured to the extent of the new Seleucid cataphracts. Whether Antiochus simply copied Parthian or Bactrian troops or innovated by developing the idea further, the new cavalry that would fight the Ptolemaic Egyptians at the Battle of Panion were definitely the first to be called cataphracts.

The events leading up to the confrontation at Panion resulted from Antiochus’ moves to reclaim the region of Coile–Syria from the Ptolemies in 202 BC. The Seleucid emperor began his campaign with the seizure of the city of Damascus, which was accomplished in the first year. By 201 BC, Antiochus had not only captured Gaza, but he had also taken much of the land in between the two cities, which gave him control over Palestine, a large part of Coile–Syria. However, by the end of that year, the Aetolian mercenary commander of the Ptolemaic army, Skopas, managed to recruit a large number of mercenaries, which he combined with the native Ptolemaic forces. Then, early in 200 BC, Skopas launched a campaign to retake Palestine during winter in the hopes of catching the Seleucids off guard. The ploy worked; the region was soon back in Ptolemaic hands because the Seleucid army was still away in its winter quarters. In response, Antiochus quickly gathered the largest army he could muster and then marched south from Damascus until he met the Ptolemaic forces near Panion later in the summer.

Within the ancient written records, there is one description of the Battle of Panion in Book XVI of the Histories written by Polybius. However, the account is not a full description of the events but rather a criticism of the report written by Zeno of Rhodes that described the conflict. Yet the information that the critique of Zeno’s account has provided, combined with the study of the local topography where the battle most likely took place from scholars such as Bezalel Bar-Kochva, is sufficient to construct a rough outline of the major events that occurred during the battle. The Seleucid army, comprised of as many as 60,000 sol– diers, reached the site of the battlefield first. As the Seleucids travelled the route to Gaza, Antiochus halted the southward march of his forces to the south of Mount Hermon, near the town of Panion. After making a camp for the baggage, most likely located adjacent to the settlement, the army divided into two groups so that it could occupy the entire field to the southwest of the town because the Banias River cut through the level ground. One contingent, consisting of some of the infantry– men, cavalrymen and elephants, remained on the rougher terrain of the same side of the river as Panion in order to guard the camp. It was in this southern arena that Antiochus’ son, Antiochus the Elder, took an elevated position atop the hill of Tel–Fakhr. Meanwhile, the majority of the army crossed the Banias River so that it could occupy the more level ground of the Banias Plateau on the north side of the waterway.

In the northern arena, King Antiochus the Great commanded most of the Seleucid phalanx and the elephant line in front of the infantrymen located in the centre, while he sent his right–wing cavalry to take control of the hill of Tel–Hamra to the north, `among which were the cataphracts, under the sole command of the younger of the king’s sons Antiochus’. Polybius used the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi to describe the new cataphract troops, which is the first time the term has appeared in the historical record. While in his account of the earlier Battle of Raphia, the ancient writer uses the term hippoi for all of the cavalrymen in the Seleucid army, the fact that Polybius added the word kataphraktoi to describe a specific unit of cavalrymen at the Battle of Panion suggests that the heavy horsemen were covered with more extensive armour than was ever worn before by the Seleucid cavalry. Opposing the Seleucid troops north of the river were the main body of the Ptolemaic phalanx, along with every elephant in their army because the Egyptian kingdom had fewer of the huge warbeasts than their eastern Hellenistic rival. Like Antiochus, Skopas led from the centre and sent the majority of the Aetolian mercenary cavalry to the left wing in order to face the horsemen of Antiochus the Younger, which included the unique unit of cataphracts. The Aetolian horsemen were considered the best cavalry of Greece at the time, thus Skopas hoped they would be able to overcome their more heavily armoured opponents. In the southern area, on the other side of the Banias River, the Aetolian mercenary infantrymen, supported by further Ptolemaic cavalrymen, were placed there in order to attempt to break through the Seleucid lines defending the route to Panion and try to seize the Seleucid army camp that contained the valuables of the baggage train.

The combat commenced to the north when the Indian elephants of the Seleucids engaged the Ptolemaic African elephants and drove them off, allowing the Seleucid phalanx to slam into the front lines of the Ptolemaic infantry. Meanwhile, Polybius also states:

Antiochus the Younger and the cataphracts charged down from the high ground and put to flight and pursued the cavalry under Ptolemy, son of Aeropus, who was in command of the Aetolians in the plain on the left wing.

After the cataphracts managed to drive off the formidable Aetolian horsemen, the young prince then led his cavalry in a charge against the rear of the Ptolemaic phalanx as they were fighting the Seleucid infantrymen. The Ptolemaic forces had much more success in the southern arena for they managed to rout both the Seleucid cavalry and infantry, yet the wall of elephants stationed as a rearguard behind the Seleucid troops then successfully blocked the Ptolemaic advance. Unable to break through the elephants and capture the Seleucid camp in the southern arena, the Ptolemaic army was ultimately defeated, for their main phalanx was surrounded and crushed on the northern side of the river. Skopas was able to escape with 10,000 of his men, mostly Aetolian infantry from the southern arena, and reach the refuge of Sidon. However, King Antiochus was not far behind and soon put the city under siege, until it was taken by the summer of 199 BC and Skopas was forced to surrender. Antiochus had won a spectacular victory at Panion that more than made up for his humiliating defeat at Raphia nearly twenty years before. The emperor’s new creation, the cataphracts, were the main component contributing to the Seleucid success, which would not be forgotten by Antiochus who used the unit in much the same manner in his next major battle a decade later.

By 198 BC, Antiochus the Great had conquered all of Syria, but the conflict was not yet over with Ptolemaic Egypt, because the fighting merely shifted to Asia Minor and Thrace to the north. The Seleucid Empire eventually defeated the Kingdom of Egypt but their actions in the northern territories soon threatened the expanding Roman Empire that just recently had begun to take a major interest in the region. Rome publicly desired to protect its Greek allies who felt endangered by the encroaching actions of Antiochus near their borders, but it is also safe to assume that the imperial aspirations of both the Seleucids and the Romans meant that an eventual war was unavoidable. As both sides prepared for their inevitable clash, it became clear that the Seleucid Empire was far superior in terms of cavalry; a fact that was exploited in attempts to intimidate the Romans, as stated in the account of Livy:

The ambassador of Antiochus was heard before the Aetolians. He, a boaster like most who are maintained by a king’s power, filled seas and lands with an empty sound of words: an uncountable number of cavalry was crossing the Hellespont into Europe, partly equipped with breastplates-these they call the cataphracti-partly those who use arrows from horseback, and as a result of which there is no protection against them, since they aimed quite accurately backwards while fleeing on their horses.

The cataphracts were a major part of the threatening propaganda used by the Seleucids because their heavy metal armour made them look nearly invincible on the battlefield and they had already proven their worth against the Aetolian cavalry that was renowned throughout the ancient world. The fact that they were a new creation of the Seleucids probably only added to the fear they invoked before they were actually seen in person, for such heavily equipped horsemen were a rarity in the west. However, according to Plutarch, the Roman’s responded in typically arrogant fashion to the threat of the new cataphracts and the rest of the enormous Seleucid army:

When King Antiochus was coming upon Greece with great forces, and all men trembled at the report of his numbers and equipage, he [Flaminius, the Roman consul] told the Achaeans this story: `Once I dined with a friend at Chalcis, and when I wondered at the variety of dishes, my host said, “All these are pork, only in dressing and sauces they differ”. And therefore be not you amazed at the king’s forces, when you hear talk of cataphracts and men–at–arms and choice foot– men and horse–archers, for all these are but Syrians [Seleucids], with some little difference in their weapons’.

Although obviously propaganda, these quotes do not portray the fear and doubt that was probably felt by many on both sides for each empire had already proved to be extremely dangerous to their enemies. What is important to note regarding the cataphracts in both of these statements though, is that the latest addition to the Seleucid cavalry was quickly seen as one of the most lethal units in the imperial army. The History of Rome of Livy was also the first time that the cataphracts were written about in Latin, therefore, the Roman historian changed the Greek words kataphraktoi hippoi into the Latinized spelling of cataphracti in order to describe the revolutionary unit of horsemen to his Roman readers.

After Antiochus failed to invade Greece in 190 BC, he retreated with his army back to Asia Minor. The Roman response was quick for they sent an army under the command of the renowned general, Scipio Africanus, and his brother Lucius Scipio, which reached the Seleucid forces at Magnesia. Both armies were roughly the same size, especially regarding the infantry of each side, at around 50,000 men each; however, the Seleucid army certainly had a significant advantage in the number of cavalry with around 12,000 horsemen compared to around 3,000 cavalrymen in the Roman army. The centre and the left wing of the Roman army was comprised of heavy infantry legionaries with their left flank protected by the ancient course of the Phyrgios River, while nearly all of their cavalry was placed on the right wing. The Seleucid forces that opposed them were arrayed with the heavy infantry pikemen in the middle, which were supported by cavalry and light infantry on either side of them. Among the cavalry, there were 6,000 cataphract troops that were divided evenly between each wing, as stated by Livy:

On the right side of the phalanx, he placed five hundred Gallograecian horsemen. To these he joined three thousand horsemen clad in complete armour, whom they call cataphracti.

And in his description of the left wing:

Then, three thousand cataphracts; then, one thousand other horsemen, being a royal cohort, equipped with lighter coverings for themselves and their horses, but, in other respects, not unlike [the cataphracts].

As his son did at Panion, Antiochus led the cataphracts and the rest of the cavalry stationed on the right wing.


While the infantry centres of both armies collided, the battle was decided by the actions of the cavalry of each side. First off, the cataphracts and the right-wing cavalry led by Antiochus charged into the Roman legionaries stationed on the left with such force that they not only broke through the frontlines, but also then completely routed the Roman infantry contingent. Most likely due to his Roman pride, Livy downplayed the collapse of the Roman legion in question, yet still made it known that Antiochus and the cataphracts were very successful in the attack as he recounted the significant event:

For Antiochus, who commanded the right wing, having observed that the enemy, through confidence in the river, had placed no reserve there, except four troops of horse, and that these, keeping close to the infantry, left an open space on the bank of the river, made a charge on them, with a body of auxiliaries and cataphracts. He not only attacked them in front, but having surrounded the wing in the direction of the river, pressed them in flank also; until the routed cavalry first, and then the infantry that were next to them, fled with precipitation to the camp.

Although Livy mentions cavalry, it is important to note that the vast majority of the Roman left wing that the cataphracts overcame was comprised of legionaries. In The Syrian Wars, Appian reinforced Livy’s account, for he also stated that `Antiochus, on the right, broke through the Roman line of battle, dismembered it, and pursued a long distance’. This feat alone was particularly impressive for at this point in history, Roman legionaries were definitely considered some of the best, if not the best, infantry troops in the world; a legion defeated by a frontal assault in that manner was a rarity for the time. However, Antiochus followed up that brilliant action by attacking the Roman camp, which was guarded by Thracian and Macedonian allies of Rome, instead of striking the legionaries of the centre in the rear or the flanks. If he had done that, victory could have easily belonged to the Seleucids at that moment, but instead Antiochus and his cavalry were tied up in their combat with the camp garrison and the remainder of the routed legionaries who managed to rally and come to the aid of their allies at the fortified camp.

At the same time that Antiochus led his charge on the right wing, the chariots he had placed in front of his left wing simultaneously advanced towards the Roman right wing, predominately composed of cavalry forces. Yet the light infantry stationed among the horsemen of the Roman army launched such a devastating barrage of javelins and arrows that the Seleucid charioteers were unable to withstand it, and thus they were forced to retreat with their vehicles back into their own lines. Chaos ensued, for the cataphracts were preparing to make their assault right as the chariots came rushing back towards them, which caused the armoured horsemen to completely lose their momentum. This allowed the cavalry on the Roman right flank to fully exploit the confusion on the Seleucid side and quickly overcome the lumbering heavy cavalrymen stuck in their tracks. Livy recounted the disastrous sequence of events for the Seleucids, emphasizing the amount of armour worn by the cataphracts as a major contributing factor to the defeat of the Seleucid left wing:

But that futile affair was soon the cause of real loss. For the auxiliaries in reserve, which were posted next, being terrified at the turn and disorder of the chariots, betook themselves to flight, leaving all exposed as far as the post of the cataphracts; to whom when the Roman cavalry, after dispersing the reserves, approached, they did not sustain their first onset. Some fled, and others, being delayed by the weight of their coverings and armour, were put to the sword. The whole left wing then gave way, and the auxiliaries, posted between the cavalry and the phalanx, being thrown into confusion, the terror spread even to the centre.

In his account of the battle, Appian also stated that the heavy weight of the cataphract armour prevented them from successfully reacting to the unexpected retreat of the Seleucid chariots:

The horses being wounded in great numbers charged with their chariots upon their own ranks. The dromedaries were thrown into disorder first, as they were next in line to the chariots, and after them the cataphracts who could not easily dodge the scythes on account of the weight of their armour.

Appian continued to stress how much their extensive armour negatively affected the cataphracts:

[The Roman cavalry] made so heavy a charge that they put to flight not only those, but the adjoining squadrons and the cataphracts, who were already thrown into disorder by the chariots. The greater part of these, unable to turn and fly quickly, on account of the weight of their armour, were captured or killed.

After crushing the cataphracts, and the rest of the Seleucid forces of the left wing, the horsemen of the Roman army did what Antiochus failed to do to achieve victory by slamming into the flank of the Seleucid phalanx. Yet, miraculously, the Seleucid pikemen held firm and withstood the onslaught from the legionaries in the front and the Roman cavalry attacking the flank. However, Antiochus had placed a small reserve of elephants to protect the rear of the army, which was then the target of severe missile fire from the archers and javelineers within the Roman ranks. It did not take long for the barrage to cause the huge beasts to panic and then rampage into their own infantry troops in front of them, causing the Seleucid phalanx to collapse. The routed Seleucid infantrymen fled to their camp, which was stoutly defended first by the reserves and then by the flood of retreating men who poured into the encampment, allowing many of the pikemen to escape the slaughter; although thousands of the Seleucid troops were slain on the field. The Romans had won the battle.

Magnesia was only the second major battle that the new Seleucid cataphracts had participated in and for the first time their major weakness was fully exposed. Although nearly invulnerable due to their extensive armour, those same defences could also be their Achilles’ heel, for it drastically limited their mobility, normally one of the greatest assets of cavalry troops. From battles such as Magnesia, and in future conflicts, the later kingdoms and empires that utilized cataphracts had to learn that for the elite heavy cavalrymen to be the most effective, they must be supported by light infantry and/or cavalry in order to protect their flanks, or even more importantly, to drive off attacks whenever the armoured horsemen were immobile. On the other hand, the cataphracts’ spectacular charge that caused the rare collapse of a Roman legion also reinforced how deadly the new heavy cavalry troops could be when used properly on the battlefield with shock tactics.

As the first cataphracts ever created, the least is known about the Seleucid version of the heavy cavalry warriors. The most complete depiction of the arms and armour of the Seleucid cataphract is located on the Balustrade Reliefs of the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamum. One of the most impressive features shown among the armament is a metal mask with an incredibly detailed face, including a sculpted beard that was attached to the helmet of the rider. The rest of the cataphract armour included a Hellenistic-style cuirass with traditional pinions and pteruges (strips hanging from the shoulders and lower edge respectively) attached, as well as laminated armour that covered the entire arm (manica) that was made of articulated metal or rawhide hoops that overlapped down the limb and were often riveted to inner straps. An almost complete set of cataphract armour featuring physical remains of iron manica, like those depicted on the Pergamum frieze, have been found during excavations carried out by the French at the site of Ai Khanoum, an ancient Hellenistic city located in modern day Afghanistan. Similar laminated armour that covered the arms probably also protected the legs as well, along with Hellenistic–style greaves. A figurine of a warrior from Syria, now located in the Louvre, has also been discovered and is depicted wearing similar armour to the images on the reliefs at Pergamum. The figure is shown wearing a Hellenistic-style cuirass as well, most likely made of leather, with pteruges, and the arms of the heavily armoured soldier were covered with manica. Last but not least, the helmet of the Syrian figurine has the same metal face mask with the intricate sculpted beard. However, the armour of the cataphract slightly changed in the later years of the Seleucid Empire by the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BC), in that the type of cuirass had been exchanged to mainly become a Roman type of mail coat instead of the previous Hellenistic corselet.

The primary weapon wielded by the mounted warrior may have first been the lighter xyston-style lance but later it predominately became the kontos (heavy lance) that was most likely similar in length, at around 3.6 m (12 ft.), but may have been thicker and weighed more. The horse of the Seleucid cataphract also wore a metal facemask, but for the steed it was most likely constructed of bronze and ornamented with a feather crest. It is also clear that the heavy warhorse was provided with lamellar armour to protect the chest; however, it is likely that the armour was even more extensive for the cataphract than what is depicted on the reliefs at Pergamum. The further protection was probably either a half–trapper or even a full body trapper worn by the horse, made of metal scales that overlapped upon a fabric backing, which fastened over the chest of the beast. The half–trapper only covered the shoulders and chest of the mount, while the full trapper provided armour for nearly the entire body; remains of horse trapper armour of the fuller type has been found at sites such as Dura Europos. Another possible addition to the cataphract equipment was an armoured saddle that provided a defence for the thighs of the riders, influenced by earlier Achaemenid models. A fragment dated to either the 4th or 3rd century BC from a terracotta relief flask found at the site of Khumbuz–Tepe, located in southern Khwarezm, contains a depiction of this unique heavy cavalry equipment.

It is probable that the Seleucid cataphracts were predominately recruited from among the Iranian population of the empire, not the ruling Macedonian/Greek people. Not only did the Iranian peoples have a much stronger background in cavalry warfare than the Hellenistic westerners, but they had also faced cataphract–type soldiers in combat on many more occasions, and their ancestors may have even fought as the elite heavy cavalry troops before the conquest of Alexander the Great that resulted in the creation of the Seleucid Empire. On the other hand, it is curious to note that when Livy described the cavalry units at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, he clearly identifies the origins of many of them, but does not do so in his description of the cataphracts. Similarly, when the cataphracts are mentioned in the accounts of Polybius, he also does not use an ethnic term to describe them, which he often does for many other contingents of warriors. Therefore, it may also be possible that the cataphract units were comprised of regulars, primarily of Macedonian origin, that were recruited from the military colonies, not foreign allies or mercenaries. Yet regardless of their origin, the cataphracts were most likely provided with armour in the style of the region the soldier fought in; in the east, the armour would have been predominately lamellar and scale armour types, while plate armour cuirasses were more common in the west.

After the Battle of Magnesia, the Seleucids continued to utilize cataphract troops, yet due to their expensive cost to maintain in the field, there numbers were reduced. As a result of their defeat to the Romans, the empire lost important territory, specifically Asia Minor, as well as a significant portion of its army, and was, therefore, greatly weakened. With fewer available men and decreased resources, the amount of cataphracts in the Seleucid army may have been reduced by thousands of soldiers. However, the empire was still powerful and the new emperor, Antiochos IV, attempted to prove that with a grand display of his military might. In 166 BC, the emperor held a festival at the city of Daphne in Syria with games and a majestic parade of all his best troops in their finest armour. In the account of Polybius, the cataphracts made an appearance in the procession:

Next came the cataphract cavalry, both men and horses acquiring that name from the nature of their panoply; they numbered 1,500. All the above men had purple surcoats, in many cases embroidered with gold and heraldic designs.

It is possible that the number of cataphracts was cut drastically from the 6,000 soldiers at Magnesia down to 1,500 men at Daphne, though there is also a chance that the heavy cavalrymen at the parade were only the base unit, while the overall numbers of the cataphracts were increased during times of war.

The cataphracts continued to fade within the Seleucid army as the empire declined throughout the later half of the second century and into the first century BC. After the Romans seized much of the western territories of the empire, the Parthians then conquered substantial Seleucid lands in the east. The empire fractured into several different kingdoms after the death of Antiochus IV in 164 BC, allowing the Iranian tribal kingdom to easily conquer each former Seleucid region individually. From 160 to 140 BC, the ruler of the Parthians, Mithridates I (r. 165-132 BC), managed to seize most of the eastern regions, including Media, Persis, Elymais, Characene, Assyria, Babylonia and Gedrosia, transforming his kingdom into a full-fledged empire. The Seleucids first attempted to retake their lost territories in a failed campaign led by King Demetrius II (r. 146-138 BC) in 138 BC, and then again in 129 BC by his brother, Antiochus VII Sidates (r. 138-129 BC). After some initial success, however, Antiochus VII ultimately failed to overcome the Parthians. By the first century BC, the once–formidable Seleucid empire was so weak that its land was reduced to the royal city of Antioch and part of Syria. In 96 BC, King Antiochus VIII Grypus (r. 125-96 BC) was murdered, which plunged the fragile kingdom into a state of anarchy that it would never recover from. Once the powerful king of Armenia, Tigranes the Great (r. 95-55 BC), was made aware of the chaotic situation in the Seleucid lands, he quickly exploited the situation and took control of the dying kingdom in 83 BC. Even though the Seleucids underwent a minor resurgence a little over a decade later and regained their autonomy, Roman general Pompey the Great annexed Syria in 63 BC, thus the Seleucid Empire finally ended. Yet even though the Hellenistic state had collapsed, the Seleucids had certainly made their mark on the militaries of the ancient world with the creation of the cataphracts. When Asclepiodotus wrote his military treatise, Tactica, in the first century BC, the ancient writer made sure to include the new heavy cavalrymen in his work:

Now the cavalry, which fights at close quarters, uses a very heavy equipment, fully protecting both horses and men with defensive armour, and employing, like the hoplites, long spears.

The Plains of Poland

The Second World War began with a terrific gamble. At dawn on 1 September 1939, a huge German army rolled across the 1,250-mile Polish border. The attack was spearheaded by Panzers, seven divisions of them. No one had tried such a strategy before. It was not one of the terror tactics that the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War that had raged for the previous three years. The deployment of Panzers in Spain was considered largely a failure. When German tanks rolled over the border into Austria in 1938, at least 30 per cent had broken down before they reached Vienna. Things went little smoother during the occupation of Czechoslovakia the following year. The crews lacked the experience to fix mechanical problems on the spot and a tank broken down on a bridge or a narrow road could hold up a whole brigade. They also destroyed the surface of the roads they used, slowing those who followed. Fuel was another problem. The Wehrmacht, the German army, quickly realised that there was more to tanks than guns and armour. They were going to have to learn a whole new discipline – the art of mechanised warfare.

However, there were a handful of men who believed that tank warfare would work on the plains of Poland. Hitler was among them. The proper use of the Panzer, he believed, was something that would have to be learnt in war itself.

The first lesson, it was believed, should be easy. The Poles had just one armoured brigade, 660 tanks in all versus Germany’s 2,100. Although the Polish army would outnumber the attacking Germans once it had all been mustered, the Poles started out with seventeen ill-equipped infantry divisions, three infantry brigades and six cavalry brigades – real cavalry brigades with horses, not the armoured units cavalry later became. However, the German High Command was not 100 per cent confident of victory. Orders issued in Berlin in 1939 stated:

No tanks must fall into enemy hands without the crew and the crews of neighbouring tanks doing their utmost to rescue or destroy it. A crew may abandon an immobilised tank only if they have run out of ammunition or can no longer fire, and if other vehicles cannot be expected to save it… If there is a risk that the tank may fall into enemy hands, it should be destroyed. Waste wool, combustible material, ammunition, etc. inside the vehicle should be soaked with fuel (possibly by ripping out the fuel pipe) and the vehicle is to be set on fire.

The German Panzer spearhead would be followed by four motorised infantry divisions, four light divisions and forty regular infantry divisions. The Germans also had overwhelming superiority in the air. The Polish Air Force had just 842 obsolescent planes, while the Luftwaffe, the German air force, could put 4,700 modern aircraft in the air. One tactic the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War was the terror bombing of civilian targets, including, infamously, the Basque market town of Guernica.

The Poles also believed that the French would attack Germany in the rear, across Germany’s western frontier. When they finally did, they sent insufficient forces and it was too late. The Soviet Union – Russia and its Communist satellites – would be no help. It had signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which publicly guaranteed that the two nations would not attack each other and privately divided Poland between them. Poland was on its own and its cavalry lances would be matched against the monstrous new machines of war: the Panzers.

The Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish air force in the first two days. This left the sky clear for German Stukas to dive-bomb Polish columns which did more to dent the morale of raw Polish recruits than inflict physical damage. What tanks the Polish did possess were dispersed throughout the army, which itself made the fatal mistake of trying to defend the entire length of the border. The Panzers concentrated on weak points and broke through. They penetrated deep into the country, then fanned out, isolating and encircling Polish units. When they came across Polish strongpoints, they simply bypassed them and allowed the bombers to take care of them later. And if they could not simply outflank a heavily fortified Polish position, they waited for the infantry and artillery to catch up, then launched a conventional assault on the stronghold.

The Poles did not grasp the full extent of the threat posed by the German armour and believed that, once they had fallen back to a defensive line, they could hold it. But the speed and depth of the Panzers’ thrusts caused confusion and the dive-bombing of undefended towns choked the roads with refugees. This was all part of Panzer theory. The idea was to prevent the enemy from using the road network to bring up reinforcements or regroup its forces. After all, civilians on the roads were no hindrance to the advancing Panzers. The refugees were simply machine-gunned from the air, producing further panic – and further obstacles to advancing Polish forces.

After the First World War, Poland had been recreated with two million Germans living within its borders. Some were involved in active sabotage. Others spread rumours of German victories, the inevitability of Polish defeat and the cowardice and deceit of Poland’s leaders. This tactic, known as Schrecklichkeit, ‘frightfulness’, again sapped morale.

The Panzers led four deep thrusts into Poland. Two came directly from the German Reich itself, led by the XIX Panzer Corps and the XVI Panzer Corps heading for Warsaw, via Bydgoszcz and Lodz respectively. A southern thrust from Slovakia, led by the 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions, headed through Chelm to Brest-Litovsk, where they were to meet up with the Third Army, led by elements of XIX Panzer Corps. This came via East Prussia, a part of Germany separated from the Reich by the ‘Polish Corridor’ which, under the Treaty of Versailles, gave Poland access to the Baltic. The Southern Army Group was under the command of General Karl von Rundstedt, whose chief of staff was General Erich von Manstein. The Northern Army Group was commanded by General Fedor von Bock.

The attack began at 0445 on Friday 1 September when the German naval training ship Schleswig Holstein began bombarding the Polish Corridor. The Luftwaffe then bombed the Polish airfields. At 0800 a large formation of tanks from the German 4th Panzer Division arrived at the positions held by the Polish cavalry brigade Wolynska Brygada Kawalerii. They came under fire from machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and retreated to the village of Wilkowiecko. The Polish cavalry were then dive-bombed, causing the horses to stampede. A swarm of Panzers then left Wilkowiecko to attack the Polish 21st Lancers, who were now fighting on foot along the edge of Mokra Wood, but they were forced to withdraw leaving four burning tanks behind them. Renewed Stuka attacks and an artillery barrage left the villages of Mokra I, II and III in flames. Polish casualties were high. Nevertheless, when the Panzers went in again, several were hit and caught fire, and escaping crews were captured by the lancers.

The Germans aimed their main attack at the 4th Troop of the 21st Lancers. But at 1100 hrs, shortly before they reached the lancers’ position, the Polish Armoured Platoon arrived and began bombarding them with 10cm howitzers and 7.5cm field guns. The Germans retreated behind Wilkowiecko, leaving crews behind on the battlefield in their wrecked tanks to be captured by the Poles. This was going to be no pushover.

Around this time the Reich Press Chief, Otto Dietrich, issued an edict that the word ‘war’ was to be avoided in press reports at all costs, stressing that the Polish ambassador was still in Berlin. Even the Polish News Agency said that the fighting was ‘confined to border zones’. But the German First Lieutenant W. Reibel took part in the attack and described the scene:

The bow waves crashed around the tanks, spraying a cool shower over many a driver who crosses the river too fast. To our left is a blown-up railway bridge, at the edge of the road is a dead Polish soldier. It really is a strange feeling to know that now we have left Germany and are standing on Polish soil. Far away we hear the weak barking of a machine gun. Somewhere there is a hollow thunder of cannon – the first signs of war. Ahead of us lies a village. According to the map it must be Mokra III. The name means nothing to us yet. It’s just a village like any other. But what would we have done if we had known? There! Arriving at the last houses in the village we hear rifle and machine gun fire, then comes the order: ‘Prepare for combat.’ The shooting steps up… projectiles strike the tank with a bright clang. Trenches crisscross our attack zone, marshy meadows impair our progress. Yet we roll on relentlessly… Slowly we reach the edge of the wood and push into a forest lane, my company ahead of me. All hell has broken loose here. Ahead of us is an embankment with an underpass. Bullets are cracking and roaring like mad… A lot of vehicles from 2nd Company and our company are now standing in the forest lane. Suddenly a tank that had already pushed through the underpass goes up in flames. Damn the lot of them. It’s an anti-tank force… Many a dear comrade was missing when we assembled. Their tanks turned into iron graves. Our company too has suffered its first deaths… A short time later our company too marched back to the resting area… The burning villages lit the horizon with a red glow. Then came a sudden cry: ‘Polish cavalry approaching to the left’ and we seized our weapons again. But it was a false alarm. Herds of riderless horses were searching for human beings.

Nevertheless, the Wolynska cavalry brigade succeeded in holding up the advance of the German 4th Panzer Division for a whole day.

Official sources in Germany told a different story. After reporting ‘an almost grotesque attack on some of our tanks by a Polish lancer regiment with what annihilating consequences one can easily imagine’, the army propaganda sheet Die Wehrmacht went on to say:

Even the anti-tank guns which the Poles believed could easily halt the advance of our tanks were soon revealed as too weak. In one battle a single German heavy tank annihilated two gun crews with a single shot and then crushed the guns themselves under its heavy track chains. Incidentally, the tank driver, a very young second lieutenant, shortly afterwards stopped a railroad train loaded with Polish reservists, forced them to climb out and herded them along – 400 men in all – in the van of his tank.

On 2 September, the Polish army was forced to retreat under intense pressure from the XV Panzer Corps under General Hoth and the XVI Panzer Corps under General Hoepner who threatened to encircle it from the south. Meanwhile at the head of the XIX Panzer Corps, the armoured spearhead of the Northern Army Groups, was General Heinz Guderian, the great theorist of Panzer warfare. Now, at last, he could now see his theories being put into practice. He believed that it was essential for a Panzer commander to be in the forefront of the action with his men. Reporting the situation back to an HQ in the rear then waiting for orders to be sent forward again would slow progress.

The fast-moving nature of this new type of mechanised warfare meant that troops were liable to shoot first and ask questions later. Consequently, Germans ended up firing on other Germans who had turned up in unexpected places. Nevertheless Guderian soon proved the worth of his ‘command from forward’ system. All the armoured unit commanders were kept as far forward as possible, allowing them to issue commands by radio direct to the Panzers and infantry troops following. This meant they could take rapid advantage of any situation. However, stationing the commander forward when the lines are fluid had its own dangers. Guderian found himself under shellfire from his own artillery who were firing haphazardly through the mist and was lucky to escape with his life. The Luftwaffe general in charge of close air support was also fired on by his own troops, even though his plane clearly carried German markings.

The Poles also claimed some initial successes. On 5 September, their news agency reported: ‘A successful Polish counter-attack has been reported against motorised divisions advancing towards Bieradz in southern Poland. The enemy abandoned considerable numbers of assault vehicles and motor cars whose occupants were taken prisoner. There were many captives.’

There were other setbacks. Panzers outran their fuel supplies, blocking the roads when they ran out of petrol. Again there was a high level of breakdowns. No less than a quarter of the tanks were out of action at any one time. This was an improvement on the 30 per cent breakdown rate they had experienced before, though all the vehicles needed an overhaul by the end of the campaign. However the Panzers played a decisive role in the remarkable success of the Polish campaign. The Wehrmacht, under another important advocate of the Panzer, General Walther von Reichenau, covered the 140 miles to the outskirts of Warsaw in just seven days. Guderian made even more ground in lightning thrusts with two Panzer divisions and two motorised divisions moulded into a single corps. His XIX Corps covered 200 miles in ten days cutting through the Narev Operational Group and destroying the Polish Eighteenth Army for the loss of only 4 per cent of its strength: 650 killed and 1,586 wounded and missing. And General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Panzer commander in Spain, managed to infiltrate 50 miles though thick, though undefended, woods to turn the Polish flank at the Jablunka pass.

But the Panzers acted as a cutting edge rather than as an independent force. Their six armoured divisions comprised just 11 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s strength and they were given strict orders not to outpace the infantry. The Panzers were still strictly under the command of their larger army groups. Training regulations maintained that tanks were only allowed to open fire independently ‘when breaching the enemy or to ward off impending attack’.

It was only on 8 September, when it became clear that the Southern Army Group had not managed to occupy Warsaw that Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps were allowed to leave the Third Army behind and race south-eastwards to take Brest-Litovsk, a hundred miles beyond the Polish capital to the east. But Guderian’s success, according to von Manstein, was due to Germany’s success in the air, rather than the Panzers themselves.

‘What decided the battles,’ he wrote, ‘was the almost complete elimination of the enemy’s air force and the crippling of his staff communications and transport network by the effective attacks of our Luftwaffe.’

But Die Wehrmacht lauded the success of the 15th and 16th Panzers, who had fought their way through to the outskirts of Warsaw on 6 September: ‘Our spearhead rapidly reached the hills on the side of the river. The enemy artillery fired but our tanks rolled undeterred towards their targets along roundabout routes, under cover of farmsteads and underbrush. As the sun sank towards the west, our tanks penetrated the city under their protective fire, German combat engineers crossed the river so as to get behind and destroy the enemy still resisting in the city. While the armoured spearhead was still securing the river crossing, the second wave of tanks was already rolling up. It was led by a general travelling in a command tank studded with antiaircraft machine guns. Reinforcement Panzer units and mobile divisions rolled up in an irresistible train over twelve miles long.’

A defence of the city had been hastily prepared. But by 8 September, Panzers had entered Warsaw. However, the 4th Panzer Division met dogged resistance in the city and 57 of the 120 attacking tanks were lost in just three hours. On the 11th, there was a report of a Polish counter-attack which claimed to have smashed eighteen tanks. Although the Poles claimed on 14 September to have set more tanks on fire, and captured several anti-tank guns in skirmishes in the capital, the German thrust into Poland had been so swift that it was impossible for the Poles to pull back enough of their army to mount a concerted defence of the city.

The Myth of Polish Cavalry Charges Against Tanks in September 1939

While resistance inside the capital continued, the Polish cavalry took on the Panzers, according to Guderian. The British advocate of mechanised warfare Basil Liddell Hart also wrote of ‘gallant but fantastic charges with sword and lance’. However, it is probably a myth. Denis Hills, a Briton who was in Poland at the time, dismissed this ‘Balaclava stuff’ as ‘a bit of fantasy’. Though the Polish lancers would have come up against Nazi Panzers, they were far more effective against infantry battalions. At dawn on 9 September, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment of the Suwalki Cavalry Brigade charged a column of transport trucks just north of the Zambrow Forest, but only after they had been softened up by machine-gun fire from men hidden in the woods.

‘The command “Draw sabres, gallop, march!” flew down the lines,’ according to platoon commander M. Kamil Dziewanowski. ‘Reins were gripped tighter. The riders bent forward in the saddles and they rushed forward like a mad whirlwind.’

This, the last Polish cavalry charge in history, turned the Germans into ‘a frantic mob’ who were quickly overrun with negligible Polish losses.

‘The morning sun was high when our bugler blew assembly,’ Dziewanowski went on. ‘We came up slowly, driving our prisoners ahead of us. We took about two hundred men, most of them insane from fright.’

Dziewanowski said that, although his proud cavalry brigade did turn themselves into ‘an outfit of tank hunters’ that autumn, they had more sense than to attack them with sabres. Instead, daredevils among them crept up on the German tanks at night and threw Molotov cocktails at them, or blew their tracks off with hand grenades.

After this one last charge, the cavalry’s horses were too hungry and exhausted to mount anything like it again. However, the myth of the Polish cavalry taking on the Panzers persists. The reason may be that Polish, like the British, love stories of heroic defeat. After years of suffering under Nazi, then Soviet, tyranny, they have clutched onto the romantic idea of gallant Polish cavalry officers digging their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloping heroically at the invading Nazi divisions. In fact, the origin of story probably lies in Nazi propaganda – Germany, a great twentieth-century power, was crushing primitive Poland, stuck in the eighteenth.

On 17 September, Soviet forces entered Poland from the east. The country was divided between Germany and Russia along the lines of the secret protocol that accompanied the Non-Aggression Pact. On the morning of 18 September, the Polish government and high command crossed the Rumanian frontier into exile and formal resistance was over. The Warsaw garrison held out against the Germans until 28 September, while terror-bombings and artillery barrages reduced parts of the city to rubble and the civilian population were starved and denied water. The last serious body of the Polish Army held out until 5 October, though some guerrilla fighting went on into the winter. By then Poland as an independent state had been removed from the maps.

However, while the Poles were ill-equipped and unsupported, the invasion of Poland was not the bloodless victory that the Germans had expected, or the Panzers had hoped for. The Germans lost 10,572 killed in action. Another 5,029 were listed as ‘missing’, but as the country was completely overrun it can be assumed that they were not taken prisoner. And 30,332 Germans were wounded.

Of the 2,100 tanks that took part in the attack on Poland, 218 were destroyed. Fifty-seven of those were lost in heavy fighting in the streets of Warsaw. Tanks are not well suited to fighting in the confined conditions of city streets, where they are vulnerable to attack from the side and above. Against such a weak enemy a 10 per cent loss was considered high. Few faced anti-tank guns. When they did it was discovered that the smaller Panzer Is and IIs had neither the strength nor the firepower required for all-out mechanised warfare. It was found that the four divisions of light tanks were of little use, even in the ideal conditions of Poland. As a result four more Panzer divisions were created, bringing the total to ten and each was assigned its own Luftwaffe unit. From now on, armour and air power would work hand in hand.

The campaign had also shown up problems with the motorised infantry troops assigned to Panzer divisions. They had been carried in trucks, aptly known as ‘soft-skinned vehicles’ which presented easy targets to the enemy. This made the drivers cautious and large gaps opened up between them and the Panzer spearhead. Meanwhile, the infantry itself, which was on foot, was left far behind, along with the horse-drawn transports that the Germans used throughout the war.

During the Polish campaign, the rivers did not present the obstacles that the Panzer commanders had feared. Although none of the 1939 generation of tanks was amphibious, mobile bridging units were brought up rapidly from the rear and the Poles were too disorganised to mass their forces on the far bank. The Germans also learnt that the Soviet tanks had thin, out-dated armour, and that their crews were often undisciplined. When the Soviets attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, their tanks could not overcome the Finnish tank hurdles and fell victim to anti-tank guns bought in Sweden. They could not cross rocky terrain. Traps were laid using felled trees and huge boulders, and slit trenches were used to conceal a soldier. When a tank appeared the man would toss a hand grenade under its gears to put it out of action. By 29 December, the Finns had destroyed 271 Russian tanks.

However, the Western Allies learnt little from the Polish Campaign. They dismissed many of the reports they received of lightning thrusts by armoured columns as the ravings of a demoralised people reeling under the shock of defeat. Allied strategists also failed to pick up the fact that the Panzers had not confined themselves to the wide open plains of Poland that would normally be considered perfect tank country, but had also pushed through heavily–wooded areas and over hills. Just eight months later the Western Allies would be surprised when the Panzers attacked through the heavily-wooded Ardennes, an area they would break through again in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1939 though, British and French military thinking was still mired in the mud of the First World War. Although forward-thinking strategists had developed the theory of mechanised warfare, those in command had turned a deaf ear and for the next three years the Panzer would reign supreme.

Wilson-Kautz Raid, June 1864

Clockwise from upper left: Brigadier General August V. Kautz, Brigadier General James H. Wilson, Confederate artillery firing across the river.

Union Army commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant did not want a siege, but the battle had proved unsuccessful. He had been through one siege already in this war, at Vicksburg. It had lasted 47 tedious days, and the inactivity had made it difficult to maintain discipline and morale in the ranks. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was stronger than Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had been, and Petersburg was better defended, with several supply routes still open. A siege here would last much longer than at Vicksburg and would be more stubbornly contested. Nevertheless, on June 20 1864 Grant told Butler and others, “I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg.”

That same day he also set in motion one last attempt to force Lee out in the open. His army now lay across the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad east of the city and was in striking distance of two more of Lee’s remaining sources of supply: the Weldon Railroad, which ran into North Carolina and on to the port of Wilmington, and the Southside Railroad, running west to Lynchburg. If he could cut these lines, even temporarily, Lee might be forced to attack him or to abandon Richmond and Petersburg altogether.

Grant ordered General Wilson to take his own cavalry division and Kautz’s on a wide sweeping ride around the enemy right. Grant wanted Wilson to cross the Weldon line as close to Petersburg as possible, cut it, then ride on to the Southside, once again as close to the city as practicable. Then he was to tear up track as far west as he could get, if possible the entire 45 miles to Burke’s Station, where the Southside intersected with the Richmond & Danville line.

From there, if still unmolested, Wilson and Kautz were to continue the destruction, moving southwest on the Richmond & Danville. If they were successful, only one line – the Virginia Central – would be left intact to serve the Army of Northern Virginia.

Grant expected that Sheridan, who was on his way back east from the Trevilian raid, would keep most of Wade Hampton’s cavalry occupied, though Rooney Lee’s mounted division would have to be dealt with. As further cover for the movement, Grant ordered Birney and Wright to move to their left, across the Jerusalem Plank Road and out to the Weldon line in the vicinity of Globe Tavern. They might do considerable damage to the railroad themselves, and they would also provide a screen behind which Wilson could get well on his way.

Wilson asked for two days to rest and refit his men. Then, before dawn on June 22, he set out with a total of about 5,000 troopers. By midmorning they had reached Reams’s Station on the Weldon line without opposition; they stopped briefly to burn the railroad buildings and uproot the tracks for a few hundred yards on either side. That done, the raiders moved on, and by afternoon they passed through Dinwiddie Court House, with Rooney Lee now snapping ineffectually at their heels.

Before nightfall Wilson and Kautz reached Ford’s Station on the Southside line, where they had the good fortune to find two loaded enemy supply trains. These they burned, along with the station buildings and everything else combustible. Then they headed west, tearing up the track as they went, heating it red-hot over fires fed with railroad ties and then twisting the rails out of shape to render them useless. Not until mid- night did the Federal raiders finally halt, more than 50 miles from their starting point. The exhausted men slept with their reins in their hands, lying in formation in front of their saddled horses.

The following morning, while Kautz’s men rode ahead toward the Richmond & Danville line, Wilson’s men continued their work, moving slowly west while Rooney Lee’s cavalry skirmished in their rear. “We had no time to do a right job,” a trooper complained. Now they simply overturned the rails and ties, which could be done quickly but was hardly a permanent form of destruction. The next day they reached Burke’s Station and met Kautz, who had reduced the depot to a charred ruin and had torn up the Richmond & Danville line for several miles in either direction.

Kautz took the advance again and headed out, reaching the Staunton River 30 miles southwest of Burke’s Station on the after- noon of June 25. Destruction of the bridge here would be a hard blow to the Confederates, but by now the raiders were expected. More than 1,000 home guards, supported by at least one battery, waited in earthworks on the far side of the river. When Kautz advanced to burn the bridge, the defenders opened a stubborn fire and drove the Federals back. At the same time, Rooney Lee was pressing Wilson’s rear guard. Wilson decided it was time to end the raid and return to friendly lines.

For several reasons, this was not going to be easy. Wilson was 100 miles from safety, with tired animals and worn-out men. General Hampton was on his way back to the Petersburg area with his two divisions of Confederate cavalry. And friendly lines were not where Wilson thought they were. Wright and Birney had moved their corps as ordered on June 22, but they had become separated in the woods, and A. P. Hill’s Confederates had shoved their way between them. Hill stopped Wright short and forced the Federals back. Then he struck Birney ferociously and threw him back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, taking 1,700 prisoners. As a result, the Weldon Railroad was still firmly in Confederate hands.

At midday on June 28, Wilson’s weary riders reached Stony Creek Depot, just 10 miles south of Reams’s Station, and presumed safety. But here they ran into Wade Hampton’s and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry divisions. The dismayed Wilson could not break through; his line of retreat was cut off and he was in real trouble.

That night Wilson ordered Kautz to ride west and north, around the enemy divisions to Reams’s Station; Wilson would hold Hampton at Stony Creek. While Wil- son fought off a substantial attack, Kautz reached Reams’s Station the next day – only to discover, instead of the Federal II and VI Corps, part of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry and two brigades of Hill’s Confederate infantry.

Increasingly desperate, Wilson next took his own command around the opponents facing him to rejoin Kautz west of Reams’s Station. But now the enemy was converging on him from three sides: Fitzhugh and Rooney Lee’s cavalrymen from the north, Hill’s infantry from the east, and Hampton’s riders from the south. There was no choice but to make a headlong run for it.

The Federals burned their wagons, spiked their guns, left their wounded behind and headed southwest. Before they could get away, the Confederates attacked and Kautz, in covering the escape of Wilson, became separated from him.

There was a large swamp on the enemy left flank, and Kautz thought he saw a chance to break through there. “It was our only chance,” wrote one of his troopers. In they plunged, the men riding past Kautz, who was sitting astride his horse, one leg slung over his pommel, with a pocket map of Virginia in one hand and a compass in the other. Looking at the sun for position, he pointed out their course. Incredibly, the troopers got through the swamp unopposed. Seven hours later, bone-weary and falling asleep in their saddles, they rode into friendly lines southeast of Petersburg.

Wilson’s men had it even tougher. For 11 hours they were pursued south, until they were nearly 20 miles farther away from Federal lines. Wilson allowed the men two hours’ rest, then he led them east, toward the James River. Riding all day June 30, with Hampton racing to cut them off, the Federals finally reached Blackwater River – seven miles south of the James – after midnight, on July 1.

There was no enemy on the other side of Blackwater River, but Wilson found the only bridge burned. Hastily the troopers made makeshift repairs and straggled across; that afternoon they reached the James and safety, having covered 125 miles in 60 hours. “For the first time in ten days,” Wilson wrote later, his men “unsaddled, picketed, fed, and went regularly to sleep.” Like most cavalry raids in this War, Wilson’s had been audacious, dramatic – and had yielded mixed results. Undeniably the destruction of more than 60 miles of railroad track was important. Years later Colonel Isaac M. St. John, who was in charge of Confederate ordnance supplies in Richmond, said that nine weeks passed before another train entered either Petersburg on the South-side Railroad or Richmond on the Richmond & Danville. The ensuing shortages forced Lee’s army to consume every bit of its commissary reserves, yet it was not forced out of Petersburg, much less Richmond. Meanwhile, Wilson had lost all of his artillery, wagons and supplies, along with one quarter of his command in casualties.


The Huns

SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.

This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.

The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.

Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:

Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.

Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.

Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).

Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.

That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:

When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.

Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.

As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.

The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.

Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.

The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.

The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.

Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.

The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:

Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.

The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.

In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.

One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:

After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.

This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.