The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences I


“In this year, after existing for 350 years, the kingdom of Hungary was annihilated by the Tatars.” This terse statement by the Bavarian monk Hermann of Niederaltaich appears in the annals of his monastery for the year 1241. At almost the same time, the Emperor Frederick II wrote to the English King: “That entire precious kingdom was depopulated, devastated and turned into a barren wasteland.” Contemporary witnesses and chroniclers still called the Asiatic attackers “Tatars”, although these already identified themselves as Mongols.

The “Mongol storm” had been in progress in Asia and Eastern Europe for half a generation, buffeting Russians, Cumans and Poles, yet Hungary was the first to be hit with full force by Genghis Khan’s successors. On 11 April 1241 at Mohi by the confluence of the Sajó and Hernád rivers, the Mongol horsemen led by Batu Khan annihilated the numerically superior but ill-led and barricaded Hungarian forces. Amid indescribable chaos the majority of the country’s religious and lay dignitaries were slaughtered, and it was as if by a miracle that the king and some of his young knights escaped. The Mongols followed in Béla’s tracks as far as Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, and finally even besieged the Dalmatian island city of Trogir, where he had taken refuge: in the Mongols’ eyes a country was not definitively vanquished while its rightful ruler still lived. For months the siege of Trogir continued, and the king and with him Hungary—indeed probably the West itself—were only saved by the sudden death of the Great Khan in far-away Karakorum. When this news reached Batu Khan in the spring of 1242, he promptly turned his Mongols around to be present at the contest for the succession. They pulled out of Hungary, laden with plunder and numerous prisoners: even thirteen years later, the missionaries Carpini and Rubruquis, travelling through the region of Karakorum, met Hungarian slaves still in bondage.

The Mongol storm resulted in a deep disruption for the Magyar population from which, according to medievalists such as György Györffy, Hungary never completely recovered. Györffy calculated that some 60 per cent of the lowland settlements were destroyed. The inhabitants who survived the massacres and abductions were threatened by starvation and disease. Failed harvests caused by destruction of the fields and the impossibility of tilling them added to the catastrophe. The situation was somewhat less severe in the regions west of the Danube, as these were only plundered and torched during the Mongols’ advance and never occupied; here the population loss amounted to about 20 per cent. The Slavs of Upper Hungary as well as the Székelys and Romanians of the Transylvanian mountains had come off fairly lightly. In all, according to older estimates, about half of Hungary’s 2 million inhabitants in 1240 became direct or indirect victims of the Mongol invasion.

The attack did not take Béla IV by surprise since he, alone in Hungary and perhaps in all the West, had recognized the deadly danger posed by the Mongols’ obsessive expansionist dreams of world domination. Owing to its still existing relationships with the Russian principalities, Hungary was quickly informed of events in the East, including the ruinous defeat of the Russians and Cumans by the nomad horsemen in 1223. Moreover, while still crown prince Béla had despatched a group of Dominican monks to the East in order to convert to Christianity the Hungarian tribes who, according to tradition, had remained in the old homeland; in his search for Magna Hungaria, the land of the early Magyars, Friar Julian actually came across people beyond the Volga with whom he could communicate in Hungarian, and it was from these “relatives” that he heard of the Mongols’ unstoppable westerly advance. After their return in 1237 one of the friars wrote an account of his travels and sent it to Rome. When Julian set out a second time on his adventurous journey to the East to scout out the Mongols’ intentions, he could no longer reach the ruined homeland of the distant tribesmen, who had by then been overwhelmed. Julian hurried back to Hungary with the terrible news and accurate information about the Mongols’ military preparations. Furthermore, he brought a threatening letter from Batu Khan to King Béla, calling upon him to surrender and hand over the “Cuman slaves” who had taken refuge in Hungary. Béla did not reply to the ultimatum. However, unlike the Pope and the Emperor, who had for years been entangled in a controversy over the primacy of Rome, the King took the Mongol threat seriously, being fully aware that if the charges and demands were ignored by those threatened, a devastating campaign would always follow.

Béla IV therefore suspected what was in store for his country, and prepared for battle. He personally inspected the borderlands, had defence installations prepared on the mountain passes, and tried to assemble a strong army. It was not his fault that, despite these precautions and warnings to the Hungarian nobles, and appeals to the Pope, Emperor Frederick II and the kings of Western Europe, the Mongols descended upon Hungary and wrought devastation following their victory at Mohi. Though intelligent and brave. Béla was not a general and did not have a powerful professional army at his disposal. Even before his father’s Golden Bull the nation’s warriors, formerly ever ready for battle, had become “comfortable landowners” and were no longer a match for the Mongol hordes operating with remarkable precision and planning.

Another factor was present, with consequences hardly ever considered by Western historians with no knowledge of the Hungarian language although it had decisive consequences already in the earliest days of the Hungarian state, and contributed to other great disruptions in the nation’s history—defeat by the Ottomans and Habsburgs. This factor was an ambivalence towards everything foreign. Oscillation between openness and isolation, between generous tolerance and apprehensive mistrust was probably the main cause of the essentially tragic conflict with the ethnic group which would eventually form the backbone of the Hungarian army: the Cumans. Although this Turkic people had repeatedly attacked Hungary in the past, they later sought refuge and support from the Magyars, especially in view of the unstoppable advance of the Mongols. While still crown prince, Béla endorsed the Cumans’ conversion by the Dominicans and accepted the oath of allegiance of one of their princes who converted together with 15,000 of his people—a bishopric was established for these so-called “western” Cumans. Ten years later the “eastern” Cumans also fled from the Mongols across the Carpathians, giving Béla the support of another 40,000 mounted warriors against the impending invasion from Asia. Before admitting them he had them baptized, yet the integration of this nomad people into the by then Christianized and westernized Hungarian society led to tensions and rioting. When the Mongol offensive was already approaching, the distrustful Hungarian nobles attacked and murdered the Cuman Prince Kötöny, whereupon his soldiers, swearing vengeance, took off to Bulgaria leaving in their wake a trail of carnage and destruction. Thus four weeks before the crucial battle at Mohi the King lost his strongest allies.

The same groups of nobles who had aggravated existing tensions in the early phase of the Cumans’ assimilation then complied only hesitantly and reluctantly with the king’s appeals to be in readiness with their contingents. In their accounts the two important witnesses of the Mongol onslaught, Master Rogerius and Thomas of Spalato, revealed clearly the profound differences between the king and a section of the magnates. According to a contemporary French chronicler, Batu Khan heartened his soldiers before the battle of Muhi with the following derogatory slogan: “The Hungarians, confused by their own discords and arrogance, will not defeat you.” The barons, as already mentioned, were incensed mainly by the fact that Béla sought to withdraw his father’s prodigal donations, and that he overrode their opposition in bringing the Cumans into the country and then giving them preferential treatment. They even spread the rumour that the Cumans had come to Hungary, as the Mongols’ allies, to stab the Hungarians in the back at the first opportunity.

The Italian cleric and chronicler Rogerius, who lived through the Mongol invasion, saw this differently. He praised Béla IV as one of the most notable of Hungary’s rulers, who had done a great service to the Church by his missionary work among the pagan people: he had tried—as they deserved—to subdue the “audacious insolence” and insubordination of his barons, who did not balk even at committing high treason. Rogerius defended Béla against the accusation of not having taken steps in time to avert the danger from the Mongols. On the contrary, the nobles had been urged early and repeatedly to gather their regiments and rally to the King. Despite Béla’s obvious inability to impose order on the army, Rogerius blamed the nobles whose antagonism to the King not only denied him vital support in the battle, but virtually willed his downfall—“because they thought that the defeat would only affect some of them and not all.”

Added to the mistrust of foreigners and the discord within their own ranks was the indifference of a silent Western world. The priestly chronicler accuses the European princes of failure to answer the Hungarian King’s calls for help; none of Hungary’s friends had come to its aid in its misfortune. Rogerius does not exclude even the Pope or the Emperor from blame; all had miserably failed. In a letter to Pope Vincent IV Béla wrote in 1253: “We have received from all sides…merely words. […] We have received no support in our great affliction from any Christian ruler or nation in Europe.” The Mongol nightmare determined, consciously or unconsciously, not only the King’s exchange of letters with the various popes and potentates, but also his foreign policy. By far the most important and lasting psychological consequence of the Mongol invasion was the inference “We Hungarians are alone”. The sense of isolation, so characteristic of Hungarians, hardened from then on into a “loneliness complex” and became a determining component of the Hungarian historical image. The calamities of the sixteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries set this reaction into concrete.

The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences II



Fear of a second Mongol invasion was bizarrely echoed even in King Béla’s dynastic policy. He wrote in a letter to the Pope: “In the interests of Christianity, we let our royal dignity suffer humiliation by betrothing two of our daughters to Ruthenian princes and the third to a Pole, in order to receive through them and other foreigners in the East news about the secretive Tatars.” Clearly an even greater sacrifice, mentioned in the same letter, was the marriage of his firstborn son to a Cuman girl; this was supposed to bind the warlike nomad horsemen, called back a few years after the Mongol attack to the depopulated areas of the Danube-Tisza plains, even closer to the House of Árpád, and hasten their absorption into the Western Christian community.

The aversion to foreigners, even when they were urgently needed as allies; the friction within their own ranks, even in times of extreme danger; and finally the justified sense of aloneness and being at the mercy of others, formed the background to the first catastrophe in the history of the Christian Hungarian kingdom. That the Hungarians felt misjudged, betrayed and besieged by enemies was probably also, or perhaps primarily, the result of what is unanimously criticized in international historiography as “brazen blackmail”. The Austrian Babenberg Duke, Frederick II, set a trap for the fleeing King of Hungary (his cousin and neighbour, not to be confused with the Hohenstaufen Emperor) robbed and imprisoned him. The Austrian was already nicknamed “the Quarrelsome” because he had fallen out with most of his neighbours, even having been temporarily outlawed and divested of his fief in 1236 by the Emperor.

Rogerius, who—as mentioned above—had lived through the Mongol invasion as an eye-witness and was himself imprisoned for a year, described this deed in the thirty-second chapter of his account:

After his flight from the hordes the King rode day and night until he reached the Polish border region: from there he hurried, as fast as he could, by the direct route to the Queen, who stayed on the border with Austria. On hearing this the Duke of Austria came to meet him with wicked intentions in his heart, but feigning friendship. The King had just laid down his weapons and, while breakfast was being prepared, lain down to sleep on the bank of a stretch of water, having by an act of divine providence made his long escape alone from many horrible arrows and swords, when he was awakened. As soon as he beheld the Duke he was very happy. Meanwhile the Duke, after saying other comforting words, asked the King to cross the Danube, to have a more secure rest on the opposite bank, and the King, suspecting no evil, consented because the Duke had said that he owned a castle on the other side where he could offer more befitting hospitality—he intended not to entertain the King but to destroy him. While the King still believed he could get away from Scylla, he fell victim to Charybdis, and like the fish that tries to escape from the frying pan and jumps into the fire, believing that it has escaped misfortune, he found himself in an even more difficult situation because the Duke of Austria seized hold of him by cunning, and dealt with him according to his whim. He demanded from him a sum of money which he claimed the King had once extorted from him. What then? The King could not get away until he had counted out part of that money in coin and another part in gold and silver vessels, finally pledging three adjacent counties of his kingdom.

According to Rogerius, Duke Frederick robbed the Hungarian refugees and invaded the defenceless country with his army. He even attempted to capture Pressburg (now Bratislava) and Györ, which however managed to defend themselves. The chronicler did not realize that Duke Frederick II and Béla IV had old scores to settle. Frederick had attacked Hungary several times since 1233, and had supported an uprising by Hungarian magnates against their King. When András II and his sons. Béla and Coloman, resisted and chased him back to Vienna, the duke could obtain a peace agreement only in return for a costly fine. He had never forgotten this humiliation, and now, against the admonitions of Pope Gregory IX, exploited the Hungarians’ desperate situation.

The historian Günther Stökl referred to the “understandably very negative impression” which “the treachery of its western neighbour left in Hungarian historical consciousness”.5 As is well-known, none of the Central and East European states have school textbooks that treat in a particularly balanced way their own and their region’s history. Still, the chasm is rarely as wide as in the depiction of the episode described by Rogerius. Thus the Hungarian historian Bálint Hóman (1935): “Frederick… capped the disgraceful offence against the right of hospitality to the greater glory of Christian solidarity with an attack on the country suffering under the Tatars.” The Austrian historian Hugo Hantsch (1947) saw the role of the Babenberg Duke differently: “Frederick… stops the Tatars’ advance to Germany… Austria once again proves its worth as the bulwark of the Occident, as the shield of the Empire.”

It was an irony of fate indeed that the moribund kingdom was successful against the expansionist attempts of Duke Frederick of Austria in particular. After Frederick’s death in the battle at the Leitha in June 1246 Béla even got involved in the succession struggle of the Babenbergs and brought Styria temporarily under his control, his son and successor becoming its prince for some years. However, after a serious defeat by Ottokar II of Bohemia at Marchegg in Austria, the Hungarians were no longer able to assert themselves. The “annihilation of the kingdom of Hungary”—never actually came to pass. On the contrary, Béla IV steeled himself after his return for the enormous task of rebuilding the ravaged country, especially the depopulated lowland and eastern areas, which he did with considerable energy, resolve and courage.

Béla, not unjustly dubbed in his country as its second founder after St Stephen for his statesmanship and achievements, still had twenty-eight years ahead of him after the departure of the Mongols. Like Stephen, he was a ruler who practised openness, and the prime mover in an extensive policy of colonization. His realm extended over the entire Carpathian basin and embraced Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia and part of Bosnia. The reason why he so quickly regained his political power is partly that the most densely populated western areas of the country were those least affected by the Mongol depredations. Still, his entire domestic and external politics were always haunted by the nightmare of a renewed Mongol incursion, which led to the organizing of a completely new defensive system. The fact that only some castles had withstood the Mongol attacks showed that only well-built forts offered genuine security. That is why the King wanted to see so many cities and smaller places encircled by stone walls. He created a new powerful army, replacing the light archers with a force of heavy cavalry.

Béla managed to resettle the Cumans on the Great Plains, and this foreign tribe came to play an outstanding role in the new army. In his previously cited letter to Pope Innocent IV he wrote: “Unfortunately we now defend our country with pagans, and with their help we bring the enemies of the Church under control.” The Alan Jazyges, originally also steppe horsemen from the East, settled in the country with the Cumans. A royal document of 1267 states that the King had called peasants and soldiers from all parts of the world into the country to repopulate it. German colonists as well as Slovaks, Poles and Ruthenes thus came into Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia); Germans and Romanians, but also many Hungarians, moved to Transylvania. Soon French, Walloon, Italian and Greek migrants moved to the cities. The Jewish communities of Buda (newly fortified as a royal seat), Esztergom and Pressburg were under the King’s personal protection. Already by 1050, according to the Historical Chronology of Hungary by Kálmán Benda, Esztergom was a centre for Jewish traders who maintained the business connection between Russia and Regensburg and are said to have built a synagogue. Minting was assigned to the archbishopric of Esztergom, which in turn entrusted the task to a Jew from Vienna named Herschel.

King Béla finally had to pay a high political price to the predominantly narrow-minded, selfish oligarchs for the surprisingly fast reconstruction, the promotion of urban development and—his priority—the establishment of a new army. The disastrous concentration of power in the hands of the great magnates remained in force, and in stark contrast to Béla’s radical measures and the reforms passed before the Mongol attack, they were able to assert their old privileges and, even more serious, they were not after all required to return the royal estates and castles, but even received further endowments. This soon created chaotic conditions.

During the last decade of his reign Béla was already embroiled in a serious conflict with his son, the later Stephen V, who was strong in military virtues but power-hungry. Stephen’s rule as sole king lasted only two years; he could not control the mounting tensions between the power of the oligarchs—who by now were feuding among themselves, as were some of the senior clergy—and the lower nobility, who had been supported by Béla as their counterbalance through the granting of privileges. But it was the particularly explosive and unresolved issue of the absorption of the Cuman horsemen into the Hungarian environment which once again impinged disastrously on the royal house itself. Although the Cumans were a mainstay of the new army, especially in campaigns outside Hungary’s borders, the complete socio-religious and linguistic assimilation of the tens of thousands of former nomad horsemen took another two to three centuries.

The marriage of Béla’s son Stephen to Elizabeth, daughter of the treacherously assassinated Cuman prince Kötöny, was meant to seal a lasting reconciliation with this ethnic group. The plan was to give the Cumans parity of treatment with the nobility, but Stephen’s untimely death brought an abrupt end to these endeavours.

Stephen’s son Ladislaus IV (1272–90) was still a child, and the Queen Mother Elizabeth, who called herself “Queen of Hungary, daughter of the Cuman Emperor”, proved to be a puppet in the hands of the power-hungry oligarchs and blatant favourites, and thus totally unfitted for the task of regency. She and her son trusted only Cumans, hindering rather than fostering the precarious process of integration by their exaggerated and demonstrative partiality towards the steppe warriors.

Only once did the young King Ladislaus IV show his mettle—by a historic action at a decisive moment for Austria’s future. It happened on the battlefield of Dürnkrut, where the army of Hungarians and Cumans, estimated at 15,000 men, resolved the conflict between Rudolf of Habsburg and Ottokar II of Bohemia. In the words of the Hungarian historian Péter Hanák, “In the battle of the Marchfeld [Dürnkrut] Hungarian arms helped establish the power-base and imperial authority of the Habsburgs.” Apart from this, the life of the young King, already known in his lifetime as “Ladislaus the Cuman” (Kún László), was an uninterrupted series of scandals, intrigues and bloody settling of scores. The passionate, spirited and, according to tradition, continuously love-struck King for some reason refused to produce a successor with his wife, the Angevin Princess Isabella of Naples, and had her locked up in a convent. When his pagan following and numerous mistresses resulted in a papal interdict, the psychopathic monarch threatened (as the Archbishop expressed it in a letter to the Pope) “to have the Archbishop of Esztergom, his bishops and the whole bunch in Rome decapitated with a Tatar sabre”. Incidentally, Ladislaus IV is supposed to have performed the sex act with his Cuman mistress during a Council meeting in the presence of the dignitaries and high clergy. He was excommunicated, and finally killed at the age of twenty-eight by two Cumans hired by the Hungarian magnates.

Ladislaus died without issue and anarchy followed. Groups of oligarchs ruled their spheres of interest as if they were family estates, and considered the entire country theirs for the taking, dividing it up between themselves. The last Árpád king, András III, was unable to re-establish central authority or prevent the country’s disintegration. He died in 1301, leaving only an infant daughter, and with him the male line of the Árpáds died out. Years of struggle for the coveted throne of Hungary, by now recognized as a member of the European community of states, resulted in 1308 in the victory of the Angevin Charles Robert, grandson of Mary of Naples, sister of Ladislaus IV.

In the long run the politically and, above all, psychologically most significant heritage of the time of “Ladislaus the Cuman” was the “new historical image” of the Hungarians, invented from A to Z by his court preacher Simon Kézai. In his famous letter to the Pope, King Béla still compared the Mongols with Attila and his murderous and fire-raising Huns. Barely a generation later, between 1281 and 1285, the grandson’s court scribe saw the Huns in a quite different light. Kézai, a gifted storyteller, perceived Attila as a worthy ancestor of the Christian kings. From sources he found “all around Italy, France and Germany” this court cleric, a man of simple background, calling himself in his preface an enthusiastic adherent of King Ladislas IV, concocted the evidently desired historical image. He produced the surprising theory of a “Dual Conquest”: the original 108 clans had in the distant past already made up the same people—who at that time were the Huns, and were now the Hungarians. Coming from Scythia, they had already occupied Pannonia once before, around the year 700, and under Attila conquered half the world. They then retreated to Scythia, finally settling permanently in Pannonia. The 108 clans of 1280 were thus, according to Simon Kézai, the descendants of the original community—without any mingling. Thus was born a historical continuity which had never existed.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part III

What the grand master did not understand was the need to remain calm and rational. When scouts reported to him that the invaders had gone as far as Gilgenberg and had burned the city, inflicting indescribable outrages on the citizens, Jungingen’s temper flared. No more positional warfare – he would march on the foe by night and attack by surprise at dawn. When the grand master set his army in motion he was taking a risk that he could have avoided. The best-informed German chronicler, Posilge, described the recent movements of the two armies thus:

The grand master with his forces and the guests and mercenaries rode against the king to the border near Drewenz, near Kauernik, and the two armies camped opposite one another. Because the king of Poland did not dare cross the Drewenz, he went toward Gilgenberg and took that city and burned it, and they struck dead young and old and with the heathens committed so many murders as was unholy, dishonouring maidens, women, and churches, cutting off their breasts and torturing them, and driving them off to serfdom. Also the heathens committed great blasphemies on the sacraments; whenever they came into the churches they ground the host in their hands and threw it under their feet, and in that way committed their insults. Their great blasphemies and insults went to the hearts of the grand master, the whole order, and to all the knights and men-at-arms among the guests; and they rode with righteous indignation against the king from Lubov to Tannenberg, to the village in the district of Osterode, and came upon the king without warning, having come in great haste fifteen miles by daybreak on the 15th of July. And when they could see the enemy, they formed their ranks and held the enemy in sight for more than three hours. The king meanwhile sent the heathens out to skirmish, but the Poles were altogether unready. If they had attacked the king immediately they would have won honour and booty, but that, unfortunately, did not happen; they wanted to call him out to fight chivalrously with them. The marshal sent the king two unsheathed swords with the heralds.

Such were the movements of the two armies. Jungingen had managed to bring his forces against the Poles and Lithuanians without warning, a considerable feat for any era. Then he wasted his advantage, letting the sleepless soldiers stand in battle order without food or drink until the enemy was ready. After that, he had his men dig camouflaged pits to trap the charging Polish cavalry, then ordered a withdrawal from that line so that the royal forces in the woods could have room to deploy in two lines in the open field against him. As a result, not only were his pits now part of the Polish defensive line, but his powerful artillery was now stationed at a place where it was ineffective; moreover, his infantry was standing where it was difficult to provide proper support for the massed bodies of knights. Even considering that the grand master could hardly expect the Polish knights to charge unless they had room to line up their units, this was poor generalship. Jungingen’s troops were tired, wet from a morning shower, hungry, and undoubtedly becoming nervous. Moreover, the day was unusually warm, and the men were not accustomed to heat. Nevertheless, Jungingen had a good chance of prevailing if only he could persuade the king to commit his troops to battle first, allowing the experienced knights the opportunity for one of their long-practised counter-strokes. The grand master’s pride, arrogance, and rashness were partly balanced by his courage and skill in battle – and he had a large force behind him. The masses of knights in the huge formations masked the poor placement of his supporting troops and gave him confidence in a total victory.

The sight of the armies forming their lines of battle was something that no participant ever forgot: the grand master’s elite corps of white-clad knights around his large white banner with the black cross, the colourful flags of the castellans and bishops; Jagiełło’s crowned white eagle on a red field; the archbishop of Gniezno’s white cross on a red field; the castellan of Cracow’s crowned bear; the Polish marshal’s lion-head breathing fire against a blue background; the Lithuanians’ white knight (Vytis) on a white horse; and the geometric symbol for Vilnius. The serried ranks of the infantry and bowmen paraded into place, accompanied by music; the artillery was dragged to whatever slight rise might give the cannon a better field of fire. Messengers rode back and forth, ordering units to make small changes in their stations, and officers encouraged their men to stand valiantly and fight bravely.

One cannot ignore the role contemporary values played in this contest. The grand master wasted his advantages by not attacking promptly, then delaying longer in order to send the chivalric challenge for battle – two swords. The king was meanwhile purportedly hearing masses, ignoring the requests by his commanders for instructions. Jagiełło had displayed excellent generalship in bringing his forces into the field, even considering the slowness of his advance after slipping away from the ford so cleverly; now he, too, seemed to let events run their course without his direction. Perhaps the king was using the religious services to delay the beginning of the battle, knowing that the German knights and horses would tire from wearing heavy armour; perhaps he was waiting for reinforcements; and perhaps he was paralysed by exhaustion and indecision. Historians’ arguments about this point will never be fully resolved. Perhaps genuine piety persuaded him that time spent in prayer was the most important activity he could undertake at that moment. Conventional religious practices were generally considered more important than cool-headed strategic or tactical decisions. ‘God’s will be done.’ His opponent, Jungingen, took time for prayer too. The German troops began singing their anthem, Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). Meanwhile, the Polish and Lithuanian troops chanted their battle-song, Bogu rodzica dzewica (Virgin Mother of God).

The Combat

The knights with the two swords arrogantly presented them for the king’s use and Vytautas’, challenging them to come and fight. The king responded calmly, dismissed the heralds, then gave the signal for the battle to begin. While the Poles advanced in reasonably disciplined order, singing their anthem, the Lithuanians charged wildly and scattered the lightly armed units opposite them. Then the contending forces hammered away at one another for about an hour. Beyond this, there is little agreement in the various accounts. Apparently the Poles did not commit their major units, because the Germans remained on the defensive, awaiting an opportunity to charge ruthlessly into the rear of some retreating formation or gap in the lines.

The battle of Tannenberg is still being refought by historians today. Although the outline of the combat is very clear, German, Polish, and Lithuanian historians are not in agreement about the various actions which occurred during the battle, or even where the fighting took place on the broad field. The memorial chapel and mass graves have been located by archaeologists, but since some of those might indicate the slaughtered prisoners and wounded who perished over the following few days, there is no agreement even as to where the armies lined up. This much is agreed upon: the visiting crusaders were stationed on the left opposite the Lithuanians, presumably because they would be more motivated to fight against Tatar pagans than Polish Christians, but perhaps just because that was the most convenient posting; the Teutonic Knights held the centre and right of the line, opposite the Poles and their mercenaries.

The most important description of the battle is that of Jan Długosz, the Polish court historian. It is brief and tends to glorify the Polish contribution to the victory at the expense of the Lithuanian. In sum, he wrote that one wing of the ‘crossbearers’ defeated the horsemen under Vytautas after fierce fighting. Although Vytautas and the Smolensk regiments remained on the field, the Tatars fled, followed by many Lithuanians and Rus’ians. The German crusaders, seeing the wild flight of the enemy, assumed they had won a victory and left their positions to pursue them. This left a gap in the order’s lines. The Poles, meanwhile, had been holding their own against the Teutonic Knights. Now, seeing their opportunity, they pressed harder, and came in through the gap created on the left when the crusaders broke ranks to pursue the Tatars; soon the Polish knights had put the main battle force of the Teutonic Knights in great difficulty.

This generally accepted understanding of the battle has been modified significantly by a recently discovered letter written in 1413 by a well-informed noble or mercenary captain. Its finger-wagging admonition to keep the ranks of the knights firmly in hand supports an alternate version of the combat given by less well-known chroniclers, that a small number of crusaders attached to the Teutonic Knights had fallen for a tactical ruse by the Lithuanians, a feigned retreat that led pursuers into a trap sprung by Polish knights waiting on the flank. The Lithuanians and Poles then drove into the disordered lines and rolled up the crusader formation.

Jungingen, seeing the disaster unfolding, should probably have sounded the retreat. Nothing of the kind entered his mind, however. His hot blood raging, he gathered together all the knights he could into a wedge formation and charged directly for a slight height where he supposed the king would be found; certainly, he could see the royal banner flying there and a large number of heavily-armed knights. Jungingen did not lack the courage to stake everything on this one charge – he knew that the warhorses would be too exhausted to bear his men from the field if the attack failed. Perhaps he hoped that his charge, coming at a somewhat unexpected angle, would find the Polish forces insufficiently disciplined to change their formation quickly enough to meet him. He was wrong. Vytautas, seen at the centre of Matjeko’s painting, had seemingly been everywhere at once on his wing of the battlefield, performing fantastic and courageous feats; he now hurried over to the royal position with his men, perhaps to urge the king to reinforce the main battle lines with his reserves. In any case, Jungingen’s advance fell just short of the royal bodyguard. In vain, he yelled ‘Retreat!’ Surrounded and exhausted, Jungingen perished with a multitude of his best men. The rest of the cavalry, seeing him fall, fled in disorder. Panic quickly spread through the German ranks. The light cavalry from Culm seem to have led the flight. The Polish knights, once they had destroyed the main battle force, turned on the disordered surviving units as they tried to escape down the narrow roads and chewed them up one after another. The rearmost German knights were hindered in their terrified flight by the tangled units ahead of them. Unable to get past the masses of men, horses, and wagons, unable to fight effectively against an enemy coming up from behind, all they could do was to try to surrender or die fighting against hopeless odds. The crusaders on the victorious left wing came back booty-laden only to fall into the hands of those who held the battlefield. This was Długosz’s account of the battle; it quickly became the accepted story. Even the Germans agreed with Długosz, perhaps because he credited the Teutonic Knights with at least a partial victory, a rout of the pagan wing of the great army.

Polish historians emphasise royal generalship. They describe Jagiełło’s determination to participate in the combat personally, how the royal banner was brought to earth at one point, and how the king was saved from injury only by the last-moment intervention of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the royal secretary, when a knight from Meissen, Luppold von Köckritz, charged directly for him. Mythology did not hesitate to turn this incident into a personal combat between Jagiełło and Jungingen. In short, according to Polish patriotic scholarship, Polish intelligence, courage, gallantry, and self-sacrifice had won the day.

Lithuanian historians disagree sharply with this interpretation of events. They insist that Vytautas’ men had made a tactical retreat, one common to warfare on the steppe, a ruse that tricked the crusaders from Germany into breaking ranks and dashing into an ambush. They regard the presence of Vytautas and the units from Smolensk fighting in the ranks of the victors during the decisive period of combat as proof that the main Lithuanian forces did not run away, but only lured the Germans into disordering their forces so badly that the way was open for the Polish attack. Credit for the victory should go to the grand prince, who inspired the tactics, who exhausted horse after horse in his relentless direction of the cavalry units, first on the right wing, then at the height of the fighting in the centre, when he brought the reinforcements that repelled Jungingen’s charge; not to his rival, Jagiełło, who was practically useless during the entire combat, unable to give commands or to inspire by personal example.

Modern scholars, despite new archaeological information and newly discovered archival material, have not come to complete agreement as to what transpired. Everyone agrees that Jungingen made mistakes in bringing his army onto the field of battle; everyone agrees that Jungingen and Vytautas were brave warriors who risked their lives in desperate combat; almost everyone agrees that Jagiełło, for one reason or another, chose to remain where everyone could see him, by his tent on the hill, and that the decisive moment of battle was when the crusaders’ attack on that position failed. All but the Lithuanians are practically unanimous in agreeing that a feigned retreat by an entire army was difficult and risky, although it was a common tactic for small units everywhere in Europe; also, if the retreat was a ruse, why was there no ambush of the pursuing forces? Or was there? More likely, the flight of the Lithuanian wing of the army was not planned. Jagiełło was, if anything, a cautious commander, and he would have understood that the retreat of an entire wing of his army would have been a disaster if the victorious crusaders had maintained discipline and charged with their full force into the gap left by the fleeing horsemen, then smashed into the flank of the royal forces. On the other hand, the forest at the rear of the Polish line, which would have hindered a retreat, may have shielded the central Polish battle formation from view or from an effective attack from the flank or rear. Because everyone agrees that the Teutonic Knights’ defeat resulted from the ill-disciplined pursuit of the Lithuanian forces, the dispute about the motivation of the Lithuanian units cannot be resolved to universal satisfaction: either there was a strategic retreat on the part of a significant fraction of Vytautas’ forces or those Lithuanians, Rus’ians, and Tatars had been driven from the field in defeat.

From the standpoint of observers at a distance of almost six centuries, the important fact is that the grand master’s lines were left in disarray, a situation that the Polish and Lithuanian units led by Vytautas exploited. Those scholars who put faith in the possibility of a ruse tend to inquire how many Tatars were in Vytautas’ levy, as if only steppe warriors could perform such a manoeuvre. Unfortunately, no contemporary source gives us more information about numbers than did Długosz, and not all scholars agree even upon the composition of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. But no matter. The Tatar contingent was not large, and it does not seem to have done any harm to its pursuers. Nor does it matter – the result was the same: the disruption of the German lines on the left wing led to a subsequent victory in the centre by the Polish forces. The Lithuanians had hitherto borne the brunt of the fighting, as the casualty figures substantiate, and they were still contributing significant pressure on the foe’s disintegrating lines.

The grand master must have considered ordering a retreat and rejected it; Jungingen’s decision to gamble everything on a massive charge at the royal tent might have been the best choice available. A chaotic retreat through the forest might have led to as complete a defeat as the army in fact suffered; and surely there would have been criticism that the grand master had missed his best chance to obtain a total victory over an enemy who was equally exhausted, certainly somewhat disorganised, and perhaps ready to collapse. Already thousands of Poles and Lithuanians had fallen in combat; some units had broken, and others were wavering. Had, by chance or skill, an arrow, spear, or sword brought down the king or great prince, the day would have belonged to Jungingen.

The total losses were almost beyond contemporary calculation: the oldest and also the lowest estimate was that 8,000 men died on each side. For the Teutonic Knights that meant that at least half the armed men perished. Thousands more became prisoners. Most of the order’s troops taken captive were put to the sword; only secular knights and officers were held for ransom. The dazed survivors gathered later, exhausted, wounded, and often without equipment, in the nearest cities and castles.

Jagiełło and Vytautas, for their part, were in no position to hurry with their armies into Prussia. Even though victorious, their losses had been heavy. The troops were fatigued; the horses were exhausted. The Lithuanians had fought for many hours, and the Poles had suffered, too, from the lack of sleep and drink, the tension of waiting, and the draining excitement of pitched battle. When the Germans fled, the Poles and Lithuanians had followed them for ten miles, cutting down those they overtook, and driving others into the swamps and forests to perish. When the victorious horsemen returned to camp they needed rest. Those with the most stamina went in search of booty, returning much later as exhausted as those who had been unable to move a foot from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers had been busy on the battlefield, gathering weapons, money, jewellery, and clothing, finishing off the wounded, slaughtering the lower-class prisoners, and burying the dead in mass graves. The Poles and Lithuanians needed a short pause to rest and to celebrate, possibly to pray, and to care for wounded and fallen comrades. Tatars and irregular troops rushed ahead to rob, rape, kill, and burn, starting panics that would hinder the organisation of regional defence.

There was no further effective resistance. The Teutonic Knights had lost so many castellans and advocates, so many knights, and so many militia units, that defences could not be manned. Those who survived had taken refuge wherever they could, often far from their assigned posts. The highest-ranking leaders had fallen almost to a man: the grand master, the marshal, the grand commander, the treasurer, and 200 knights. Marquard von Salzbach, the order’s expert on Lithuanian affairs and a former friend of Vytautas, was apparently taken prisoner by Jagiełło’s men, then beheaded by the grand prince. He had refused to be properly humble and submissive. Arrogant and proud to the end, unrepentant about having taunted Vytautas about his mother’s virtue, he and his companions had anticipated being treated in a manner befitting their status; nevertheless, when their fate was clear there is no indication that their courage flagged. They had understood from the beginning that there was no good in being Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ former friends.

Some contemporaries believed that Tannenberg was a disaster to the crusading cause comparable to Nicopolis, but most simply marvelled at the huge losses in men, horses, and equipment. As the continuation of Posilge’s chronicle said: ‘The army, both cavalry and infantry, was routed completely, losing lives, goods, and honour, and the number slain was beyond numbering. May God have pity on them.’

That the defeat was so total and so final was hard for contemporaries to grasp. The news spread to courts where old men remembered the exploits of their youth in Lithuania – in Germany and France the disaster could hardly be believed; to bishops and burghers in Livonia, who were not sure whether to rejoice or mourn; to wives and families in Poland and Lithuania, who both exulted in their rulers’ exploits and gave thanks for the safety of husbands, brothers, and friends; to neighbouring rulers who may have hoped for another outcome of the war, one in which perhaps all the armies would have gone down in defeat together. Everyone demanded more information, and especially an explanation of how the Teutonic Knights could have suffered such an unexpected disaster. The responses were varied. The Teutonic Knights talked about treason, the numbers of the enemy host, and unfortunate tactics; the Poles were satisfied with courage, skill at arms, good generalship, and God’s favour.

The propagandists of the order worked hard to persuade contemporaries that the disaster was not as bad as it appeared, that it was the work of the devil through his agents, the pagans and schismatics – and most of all, that it was the fault of the Saracens. Moreover, they argued that now more than ever crusaders were needed in Prussia to continue God’s work. The Polish propagandists laboured, too, to present their interpretation of events, but they did not have the long-term contacts which had been developed in many crusading Reisen. Their praise of Jagiełło and his knights tended to awaken more sympathy for the hard-pressed order than was good for Polish interests. After the first impact of the news was absorbed by the European courts, after the first months of difficulty had passed, interpretations favoured by the order tended to prevail.

The modern reader, looking back on almost six centuries of events that dwarf the battle of Tannenberg without driving it from the public mind, hardly knows how to understand the negative attitudes toward the Teutonic Knights. Comparisons to Wilhelmine Germany of 1914 and to Hitler are unworthy of comment, though Germans of those generations thought of their acts as deeds of national revenge for the battle in 1410. In the context of twentieth-century events one is tempted to say that contemporaries of Tannenberg were right, that there is a divine justice operating in the world. In concluding that the Teutonic Knights had paid the price for having lived by the sword and swaggered in a world of pride, contemporaries found that Biblical admonitions came easily to mind: Tannenberg was God’s punishment for the Teutonic Order’s outrageous conduct. Pride had risen too high – Jungingen personified his order’s universally acknowledged tendency to arrogance and anger – and a fall had to follow.

The deficiencies of this method of justifying past events (Weltgeschichte als Weltgericht) should be obvious: if victory in battle reflects God’s will, then the Tatar domination of the steppe and the harassment of Polish and Lithuanian borderlands is also a reflection of divine justice; God punishes kings by sacrificing many thousands of innocent lives. Good Old Testament theology, but hard to fit into a New Testament framework. It is best that we do not tarry long in either the shadowy realm of pop psychology or dark religious nationalism, but move back into the somewhat better-lit world of chronicles and correspondence.

Conflicting views of modern historians about the battle of Tannenberg and its aftermath make for interesting if confused reading. One could summarise them roughly by saying that until the 1960s each interpretation reflected national interests more than fact. Since then, historians have become both more polite and less certain of their inability to err. Archaeology is beginning to shed light on the battlefield, giving promise that problems left by the literary sources may be more fully resolved. Political issues in Germany and Poland that seemed to depend on every imaginable historical justification have disappeared with the political parties that sponsored them, so that at last a quiet discussion about the past is possible. Most importantly, since the fall of Communism German and Polish historians have come to respect each other sufficiently to give real attention to one another’s ideas. There is, indeed, reason to hope that some day we may come to a better and more general agreement as to what really happened at Tannenberg and what it really signified.

Special Forces Post-WWII


On the other side of the world, France and then the United States were fighting a war of attrition in Indochina. The French wanted to restore their pre-war colonial rule. The U.S. was persuaded by George Kennan and John Foster Dulles to adopt a policy of containment to rein in international communism. The locals wanted self-determination and were willing to take help from any quarter, as they had done during the Second World War. Step by reluctant step, the U.S. entered the Vietnam quagmire, unsupported, for once, by the U.K. Like Afghanistan today, it was a conflict fought against a guerrilla army, one in which the occupation of minds counted for more than the control of territory. It saw the emergence of strategic hamlets and free-fire zones (based on British experience in Malaya); civic action teams; recruitment of aboriginal tribes; and a steady buildup of Special Forces such as the Mobile Guerrilla Force and including, from 1962, the creation of Navy SEALs (described by their Vietcong adversary as “devils with green faces”) on the orders of President Kennedy. The same themes resonated in Afghanistan, but as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out: “Apart from Special Forces and a few dissident colonels there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing the capabilities necessary to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict.” By 1970, as U.S. planes began bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail and American combat troops invaded Cambodia, the British SAS focused on another Communist threat: the potential loss of Oman, gateway to the Gulf, as a result of the despotic, medieval regime of the Ruler, Sheik bin Taimur, a British client. A coup d’etat was engineered by SIS in which the Ruler was replaced by his son, Qaboos, then under house arrest. The first problem was to open a line of contact with Britain’s chosen Ruler-in-waiting, Qaboos. His father grudgingly allowed him to receive cassette tapes of music. Qaboos, as a result of his service with the British army in Germany, liked Scottish marches, with bagpipe accompaniment. The tapes, purchased at Harrods store in London, were doctored so as to interrupt the music and relay voice messages from a friend who had shared his room at Sandhurst military college.

After a brief exchange of fire during which Bin Taimur shot himself through the foot, the deposed leader was spirited away by the Royal Air Force to live out his final years in London. The SAS then moved stealthily into Oman with a strategy that placed as much emphasis on winning hearts and minds as war-fighting. It included the extraordinary gamble of persuading the untamed hill tribes of Dhofar to change sides by arming them with the latest British rifles, and paying them. A similar strategy saved Western policy in Iraq in 2006 with the difference that in Oman, SAS officers and sergeants worked in isolation with these “turned” enemy, at great personal risk. The Oman Cocktail—a blend of bribes, development, and firepower—became a signature tactic of the SAS, out of sight of the British public in a six-year war without limits that ended in 1976. This SAS victory had momentous implications. It ensured Allied control of the gateway to the Hormuz Strait, the Gulf, and its oilfields for decades.

The SAS phenomenon spread to postwar U.S. Special Forces thanks to Charlie Beckwith, a young American officer attached to 22 SAS from 1961 to 1963, during which time he took part in jungle operations in Malaya. The informal structure and idiosyncratic discipline of the SAS that paid little heed to rank, only quality, puzzled and fascinated him. He wrote later: “I couldn’t make heads or tails of this situation. The officers were so professional, so well read, so articulate, so experienced. Why were they serving within this organization of non-regimental and apparently poorly disciplined troops? The troops resembled no military organization I had ever known…. Everything I’d been taught about soldiering, been trained to believe, was turned upside down.”

In 1977, having survived an apparently fatal gunshot wound in the abdomen in Vietnam, “Chargin’ Charlie” set up an elite Special Forces known as Delta, carefully modeled on the SAS. Its first major test, Operation Eagle Claw—an attempt to rescue U.S. diplomat-hostages in Iran in 1980—was a fiasco caused by poor air support and a top-heavy command structure. Beckwith’s ironic verdict, in a message to his British buddies, was: “You can’t make chicken chowmein out of chickenshit.” Delta survived that disaster to become the cutting edge of U.S. unconventional warfare in Iraq from 2003 and Afghanistan after campaigns in Mogadishu, 1993, Central and South America. When the going got tough in Congress, ingenious spirits in Washington such as Marine Colonel Oliver North recruited plausibly deniable ex-SAS British mercenaries and others to operate in Nicaragua. They included Major David Walker, formerly of the SAS and later head of the enigmatic private military company KMS.

The creation of Delta Force was followed in 1979 during the Iran crisis by the Foreign Operating Group (later redesignated the Intelligence Support Activity, aka “The Activity”). In 1981 the ISA ran signals intelligence that led to the rescue of U.S. General James Lee Dozier, a prisoner of Italian Red Brigade terrorists for forty-two days, as well as the 1984 attempted liberation of Bill Buckley, the CIA station chief held captive, then murdered, in Beirut; and operations in Panama, Colombia, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Like Britain’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, a unit with roots in the Irish conflict, the ISA also acts as the eyes and ears of an SF strike force such as Delta.

By the time the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, Special Forces had emerged as the means to resolve political conflict without the penalties that would accompany the use of conventional armies. It was even, as M. R. D. Foot argued, a political safety-valve, a useful alternative to the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war. This history examines the validity of that novel proposition, and much else, including the extent to which the SF phenomenon licenses its operators, notably deniable warriors in the private sector, to enter a legal gray area where others dare not go, boldly or otherwise. In practice it uniquely inhabits an ambiguous zone between the politically acceptable and the officially deniable. Success comes at a cost, usually in civil liberties. Population control methods employed in the conflicts of Malaya, Vietnam, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and internment without trial in Northern Ireland were all case studies in misapplied social engineering.

But in an age of asymmetric warfare, the techniques developed by Special Forces represent the future. The economic crash of 2008 forced the Obama regime to take a long, hard look at the Pentagon’s spending. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State, espoused instead Professor Joseph Nye’s concept of “smart power,” acknowledging that “most of the conflicts we are facing and will face rarely have a military solution.” It was probably no coincidence that in the final months of the Bush presidency, after prolonged campaigns that ended in stalemate, at best, a blueprint for a new military strategy emerged from the Pentagon. Dated September 2008, the 280-page document is Field Manual 3-05.130, entitled Army Special Operations Forces—Unconventional Warfare. It defines the Bush administration’s foreign policy aims as “furthering capitalism to foster economic growth…and promote the sale and mobility of U.S. products to international consumers” accompanied by such strategic tools as “global freedom of action” and “full spectrum dominance.”

To create a new world order, after the American model, the authors concede, will be the work of generations. While orthodox military dominance, worldwide, is a given, the main thrust of policy is the use of Unconventional Warfare, “working by, with or through irregular surrogates in a clandestine and/or covert manner against opposing actors.” It is also “a fundamentally indirect application of power that leverages human groups to act in concert with U.S. national objectives.” That means training and supporting surrogates in “the full range of human motivation beyond narrowly defined actual or threatened physical coercion.”

It is, essentially, war on the mind, manipulating public opinion. “The objective of Unconventional Warfare (UW) is always inherently political…. Some of the best weapons do not shoot.” Furthermore, “A fundamental military objective in Unconventional Warfare (UW) is the deliberate involvement and leveraging of civilian interference in the unconventional warfare operational area…. Actors engaged in supporting elements in the Unconventional Warfare Operational Area may rely on criminal activities, such as smuggling, narcotics or human trafficking…. The methods and networks of real or perceived criminal entities can be useful as supporting elements of a U.S.-sponsored UW effort.”

The foot soldiers in the new model army of irregulars will be “unconstrained by sovereign nation legalities and boundaries. These forces may include, but are not limited to, specific paramilitary forces, contractors, individuals, businesses…black marketers and other social or political ‘undesirables’.” The new doctrine also proposes a license to kill opponents pre-emptively, “against non-state actors operating within or behind the laws of nonbelligerent states with which the United States is not at war…or within a hostile state that harbors, either wittingly or unwittingly, these nonstate actors within its borders.”

There is more of the same. The new doctrine also synthesizes the darker history of Special Forces: the ruthless use of surrogates including civilians, involvement in the international drug trade, compulsory relocation of civilian populations, the redirection of aid programs for political purposes, and the subversion of unfriendly governments lubricated by the dollar (as in Iran in 1951). It is a pragmatic handbook for illegal military activity to “ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade.” Its attraction to increasingly hard-up military planners facing an open-ended Global War On Terror, could be irresistible unless the Obama administration puts its foot on the ethical brake. Whatever the outcome, we cannot understand the complexities of modern, asymmetric warfare without an awareness of the sophisticated, multi-layered organism that we loosely describe as “Special Forces.”

What began as Irish and American resistance to British rule, mutating into organized guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and propaganda-by-deed along the way, has now become a military discipline in its own right. It does not discard the old skills such as, for example, the British commando raid on the Bruneval radar station in 1942 to snatch enemy secrets. But it has matured into a matrix of intelligenceled military and non-military techniques requiring skills beyond the reach of the most talented conventional soldier including public relations, deception operations, undetectable burglary, and esoteric foreign languages—alongside, of course, high-altitude freefall parachuting, scuba diving, and a voluminous knowledge of exotic weapons. There is much more. SF medical specialists learn field surgery by practicing on anaesthetized, live animals freshly wounded by gunshot to ensure realistic blood pressure levels as the medics try to revive them.

The SF military agenda is now expected to include unconventional military operations as part of a conventional campaign (see Britain’s amphibious South Atlantic War, 1982); counterinsurgency (Iraq, Afghanistan); combat rescue (Entebbe 1976); peacekeeping including weapons verification (Balkans); snatch operations to arrest wanted war criminals; rescuing allied pilots from enemy territory; and surrogate warfare using deniable paramilitaries. As an IRA joke about the SAS ran: “An SAS man is one who can speak half a dozen different languages while disguised as a bottle of Guinness.”

Yet during the decades since 1945, Special Forces have won acceptance among governments at the pace of a funeral march and are sometimes—as in Yemen in the sixties—dependent on private funding. Official caution is understandable. Elements of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, operating as armed men in civilian clothes, came chillingly close to resembling the death squads of South America. If democratic governments have a nightmare about their armed forces, it is that some adventurous spirits will act as a law unto themselves.

As we have seen, the SAS was officially reinvented with the inauguration of a reserve unit, 21 SAS (the Artists’ Rifles) in 1947 and its merger with an ad hoc formation, the Malayan Scouts (SAS) in 1951. With the end of the Malayan Emergency, two of the regiment’s four squadrons were axed. They were restored in the 1960s, following the regiment’s successful cross-border secret war in Indonesia. Yet it was not until the regiment’s unique skills were demonstrated during the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980—when what started as a terrorist “spectacular” became a British government “spectacular”—that it was accepted as a national institution. What little was published about the SAS until then, in postwar years, was almost universally hostile, the work of left-wing journalists.

American Special Forces, in spite of their many successes in defending a political lost cause in Vietnam, were also slow to win permanent status in America’s order of battle. This time the leading opponents of Special Forces were the military top brass. “These [Special Forces] units,” writes Colonel John T. Carney, one of their pioneers, “had been virtual pariahs within their own armed services…in the late 1970s” after Vietnam. “In the aftermath of post-Vietnam down-sizing, funding for special operations forces had been cut by 95 per cent. Reaching a low point in 1975, special operations forces constituted only one-tenth of one per cent of the entire defense budget.” No official U.S. document even dared mention Special Operations Forces as such until 1981, when a Defense Guidance from the Pentagon directed all the armed services to develop an SOF capability.

Five years later, Senators Sam Nunn and William S. Cohen persuaded Congress to legislate for an independent U.S. Special Operations Command, to ensure that never again would “ad hoc rescue forces have to be cobbled together to meet the kind of time-urgent crisis that the Son Tay and Iranian rescue missions represented.” Another year passed before Special Operations Command could begin work as the lead agency against terrorism, just in time for Afghanistan, America’s first major Special Forces conflict since Vietnam. SF soldiers do not give up easily. As Colonel Bill Cowan USMC, one of the pioneers of the reborn Special Forces, told the author: “Following my retirement I went to serve as an aide on Capitol Hill. I got the last laugh with the bureaucracy. I was one of five key staffers who wrote the legislation which created the Special Operations Command in Tampa. The Pentagon and the White House fought the legislation tenaciously. But they lost and the command was formed, leading to Spec Ops being at the forefront as they are today.”

The story of the CIA’s paramilitary Special Operations Group followed a similar pattern. Following many misadventures involving coups and assassinations in the 1980s, the Agency retreated to intelligence analysis allied to satellite surveillance. The SOG “knuckle-draggers” were moribund. George Tenet, CIA Director, started the SOG renaissance in 1998. The process accelerated rapidly after 9/11. The budget grew by millions of dollars, equipment including jet aircraft, cargo planes reminiscent of Air America and Vietnam, speedboats, and Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

Their remit, handed down by President George W. Bush, was to use “all necessary means” to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Not everyone—notably Defense Secretary Rumsfeld—was happy about the duplication of effort that SOG—though tiny compared with SOCOM—represented. In 2005 he unveiled yet another weapon to be added to SOCOM’s armory. The Marines had landed, in the form of 2,500 Leathernecks and sailors, to form an entity known as MarSOC (U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command). The Corps was not happy, for it creamed off some of its best reconnaissance talent. It was also to lead to one of the most disputed firefights of the Afghanistan campaign, and an equally controversial court of inquiry that exonerated two officers.

The CIA, meanwhile, continued to recruit experienced Special Forces officers, training some of them for a year in spycraft, before sending them back to the Agency’s preferred form of low-profile warfare, working through proxies. For a time after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a symbiosis of CIA and SOCOM functioned well enough. But the two have continued to work in parallel, rather than together, with mixed results. Should President Barack Obama conclude some time in the future that U.S. strategy requires a change of emphasis, away from hearts-and-minds toward Howard Hart’s nostrum (“Cut a deal with the Taliban”) and Senator Biden’s wish to concentrate America’s fire on al Qaeda, it suggests a bigger role for the CIA’s Special Operations Group. The McChrystal formula, publicly endorsed by the president at West Point on 2 December 2009 to safeguard civilians in the most populous areas of Afghanistan (and, by extension, Pakistan), will be a task that emphasizes the role of SOCOM, as well as the poor bloody infantry.

But we should note that Obama, a cautious cat, hedged his bets. He said: “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan…. Unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies. So as a result…we will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold—whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere—they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.” Note the language. For “nimble and precise,” read “Special Operations Forces.” At the military level, the symbiosis of CIA paramilitary and intelligence combined with Special Operations Forces was the future war-fighting model beyond the time-limited commitment to Karzai’s Afghanistan.





The war chariot was made possible by two inventions, the spoked wheel and the bit. Complete chariots have been found in Egyptian tombs. The frame was made of wood covered with leather. It had two wheels, each with four (later six) spokes, and an axle placed at the very rear of the body for stability on fast turns. Attached to the sides were one or two quivers, each containing thirty or forty arrows, a bow case, and sometimes a quiver for javelins.

In the late eighteenth century BC both the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the Babylonian Empire fell apart. Everywhere records failed, leaving the seventeenth and much of the sixteenth century a dark age. In the old centres of civilization alien conquerors took over, and new powers arose in the north. Amorite and Hurrian invaders, called by the Egyptians hyksos (‘foreign chieftains’), established themselves in the Nile Delta and in about 1650 BC proclaimed a new dynasty with its capital at Avaris – the first non-Egyptian dynasty in the history of Egypt. At about the same time a Hittite king called Hattusilis created a powerful state, controlling central Anatolia from his citadel at Hattusas. His successor Mursilis extended Hittite rule over northern Syria, and in 1595 BC performed the most spectacular military exploit in history to that date, when he led his army all the way to Mesopotamia, sacked the great city of Babylon and carried off the statue of its god Marduk, doubtless accompanied by much booty of a secular nature. As a result, the enfeebled dynasty of Hammurabi vanished and was soon replaced by barbarians known as Kassites from the Iranian hills. Like earlier barbarian invaders of Mesopotamia they were quickly Akkadianized; their king called himself ‘King of the Kassites’, but also ‘King of Sumer and Akkad’; and the dynasty lasted longer than any of the native dynasties of Sumer and Akkad, though next to nothing is known of its history. The Hurrian princes took advantage of the general disorder: in about 1550 BC a great Hurrian kingdom called Mitanni arose in northern Mesopotamia and soon contested the domination of Syria with the Hittites.

All these kingdoms relied upon a new military technology, the horsed chariot and the composite bow. Early evidence for chariot warfare links it to the Hittite kingdom. The hyksos princes introduced it to Egypt, and then it became common all over the Middle East. But it is unlikely that the Hittites invented it. There is a mysterious but definite connection between chariot warfare and people of Aryan heritage that is, speaking dialects ancestral to the Aryan or Indo-Iranic division of the Indo-European linguistic family. Today Aryan languages are spoken in Iran, much of Central Asia and most of the Indian subcontinent. The oldest literary evidence for an Aryan language is the collection of Sanskrit hymns called the Rig-Veda, composed in about 1500 BC. Most of the people of the kingdom of Mitanni spoke Hurrian, but the aristocracy, all chariot warriors, had Aryan names and worshipped the same gods – Indra, Varuna, Mithra – who appear in the Rig-Veda. Many cities in Syria and Palestine acquired dynasties with Aryan or Hurrian names at this time. Some scholars have thought that even the Kassites of Babylonia (whose original language is obscure, but could not have been Indo-European) paid homage to some Aryan gods. Everywhere the Aryan word maryannu (young warrior) was used for chariot fighters. There survives a Hittite treatise on the training of chariot horses, translated from Hurrian, which is studded with Aryan technical terms. In the fourteenth century, when this treatise was written, Aryan may no longer have been spoken in the Middle East, but it was still the international language of chariotry, as Italian is of music.

It is widely supposed that the ancestors of these Aryans had come from the north, and likewise the horse and the war chariot. The dissemination of the horse preceded the other two. The original range of the wild horse (Equus caballus) lay on the Eurasian steppe, where domesticated horses were being ridden as early as the fourth millennium BC. By 3000 BC there had developed a nomadic pastoral culture exploiting the deep steppe with riding horses and ox-drawn wheeled carts, stretching across the European steppe from the Dneister to the Ural River, and soon to spread across the steppes of Central Asia. Horse nomadism was never suitable for the arid steppes of the Middle East, but by the Middle Bronze Age Syrian and Mesopotamian princes were importing horses from the north and occasionally riding in horse-drawn chariots. These were prestige vehicles, with no military function.

The war chariot of the High Bronze Age was a much more specialized vehicle and could not have come from the European steppes, which lack the necessary woods. Many scholars think the likeliest place for its invention lies in the mountainous regions south of the Caucasus, where the high pastures were famous for horse-breeding in antiquity. Some think that we should also look there for the homeland of the Aryans. It seems certain that by around 1700 BC horsemen in that part of the world developed a chariot built of lightweight hardwoods, with two spoked wheels and a leather-mesh platform on which a rider could stand, the whole thing light enough (about 60 pounds) for one man to carry, and pulled by two fast horses. It was the first effective use of the horse as a draft animal, and the swiftest vehicle ever designed. It was surely invented for hunting, which always remained one of its main uses, but some enterprising highland chieftain soon experimented with using such chariots in war: that is, as a galloping archery platform, carrying two athletic young men, one an expert driver and the other an expert archer armed with a composite bow, firing a steady stream of arrows with a range of several hundred feet. The basic principle of the composite bow had been known in the Middle East for some centuries, but it was an expensive weapon requiring years to manufacture; like the rifle of the eighteenth century AD, it was probably used for hunting by kings and nobles, and in war by certain highly trained specialists. The weapon may not have been perfected, nor its full military potential realized, until it was mounted on a mobile platform. These inventions eventually spun off a third invention, the first real body armour: the archer, and sometimes the horses, were protected by leather tunics sewn with bronze or copper scales.

It has been suggested that chariot warfare was first tested early in the seventeenth century at Troy, which at that time was taken over by the conquerors who built the citadel known to archaeologists as Troy VI. Knowledge of the new art had spread far by about 1650 BC, when upstart regimes in Anatolia and Egypt used it in their rise to power. The long Hittite march to Babylon in 1595 BC demonstrated its full potential. Over the next century Aryan and Hurrian adventurers seized power in cities all around the Fertile Crescent.

These conquests were not mass migrations; rather, we should imagine quick takeovers by small military elites, resembling the Norman conquests of England and Sicily in the eleventh century AD. There was relatively little destruction; the transition from Middle to High Bronze Age was not marked by any general decline in material civilization, such as had accompanied the transition from Early to Middle Bronze Age. Like the medieval Norman knights, the chariot conquerors were soon absorbed culturally by the conquered. Only in two places did these conquests lead to lasting cultural and linguistic change. In the west, around 1600 BC, a band of Indo-European (but not Aryan) charioteers established themselves in Greece, and two centuries after that took over the more advanced Minoan civilization on Crete, adapting the linear Cretan script to write a language that was turning into Greek. In the east, a larger migration spread over the Iranian plateau and during the latter half of the second millennium overran northern India, taking over the remnants of the Indus River civilization, whose people became the lower castes of Hinduism; the oral poetry of the conquerors preserved faithfully an Aryan dialect that was turning into Sanskrit. But in the Middle East the upheavals were over by about 1550 BC, when the native Eighteenth Dynasty expelled the hyksos from Egypt. By that time the barbarians had been assimilated and a new pattern of interstate affairs had taken shape.

The great raid of Hastein and Björn Ironsides




The greatest of all Viking expeditions to Spain was led by two of the most famous of all Viking leaders, Björn Ironsides and Hastein. Björn was later believed to be one of the many sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. When he was a child, Björn’s mother was supposed to have given him a magical invulnerability to wounds for which he earned the nickname ‘Ironsides’. Hastein was the wily Viking chieftain who later proved to be such a thorn in the side of Alfred the Great. Björn and Hastein left their base on the Loire in 859 with a fleet of sixty-two ships to raid along the coast of Galicia and Asturias. Finding local resistance too strong, the Vikings moved on to pillage the emirate’s west coast. Here they evidently enjoyed greater success. The emirate’s coastguards captured two longships scouting ahead of the main fleet and found that they were already full of treasure, provisions and captives. The fleet suffered another defeat when it landed at Niebla near Huelva in south-west Spain. The fleet next put into the mouth of the Guadalquivir, perhaps with the intention of sacking Seville for a second time, but it was confronted by the new Moorish fleet. The Vikings had no answer to its incendiary weapons and they fled after several longships were burned. The Viking way was always to move on if resistance proved too strong in one place, knowing that they would eventually catch somewhere off-guard. Finally, at Algeciras, a few miles from Gibraltar, they achieved complete surprise, taking and sacking the town and burning its main mosque.

Björn and Hastein took their fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Though Vikings had never plundered in the Mediterranean before, the sea was no stranger to piracy, and Italy and Francia suffered frequent raids by Arab and Moorish pirates based in North Africa. The Vikings landed first on the African coast, at Nakur in the vicinity of modern Melilla. Local forces put up only a little resistance before fleeing and the Vikings plundered freely for a week, capturing the harem of a local ruler, which was later ransomed by the emir of Córdoba. The Vikings also captured some black Africans, who they described as blámenn (‘blue men’), who had probably been brought to North Africa by Arab slave traders. The Vikings found them so exotic that they kept some of them. They were eventually sold again as slaves and finished up in Ireland. From Melilla, Björn and Hastein returned to Spain, plundering the coast of Murcia and then the Balearic Islands. Returning to the mainland, the Vikings continued north along the Mediterranean coast, sacking Narbonne and then setting up a winter camp on an island in the Camargue, a marshy delta of the River Rhône. In the spring, Björn and Hastein sailed over 100 miles up the Rhône, sacking Nîmes, Arles and Valence. After the Franks defeated them in a battle, the pair judged it wise to head back to the open sea and sailed east along the Côte d’Azur to Italy.

Hastein’s mistake

According to a colourful but surely legendary account by the Norman monk Dudo of St Quentin, Björn and Hastein landed at the Ligurian port of Luni and mistook it for Rome. Luni had enjoyed modest prosperity in the Roman period as a port for exporting the pure white Cararra marble from the nearby Alpi Apuane, but by the ninth century it was little more than a village and the scant ruins that remain today make it hard to imagine that anyone could ever have mistaken it for Rome. But why spoil a good story? The glory-hungry Vikings were determined to capture the most famous of all cities. Judging the city’s defences to be too strong to storm, Hastein came up with a plan to gain entry by a ruse. Viking emissaries approached the townspeople, telling them that they were exiles seeking provisions and shelter for their sick chieftain. On a return visit the emissaries told the townspeople that their chieftain had died and asked permission to enter the city to give him a Christian burial. The unsuspecting townspeople agreed and a solemn procession of Vikings followed their chief’s coffin to the grave at which point Hastein, still very much alive and fully armed, leapt out of the coffin and slew the city’s bishop. In the resulting confusion, the Vikings sacked the city. When he was told that he had been misinformed, and that he had not after all, sacked Rome, Hastein felt so disappointed that he ordered the massacre of Luni’s entire male population. This story was repeated by many later Norman writers and the same ruse was attributed to later Norman leaders such as Robert Guiscard, Bohemund of Taranto and Roger I of Sicily. It is evidence that medieval warriors admired cunning as much as bravery and skill at arms. The Vikings moved another 60 miles down the Tuscan coast to the mouth of the Arno, sacking Pisa and then, following the river upstream, also the hill-town of Fiesole above Florence. After this the Viking fleet disappears for a year. Björn and Hastein must have wintered somewhere and it may be that they sailed into the eastern Mediterranean to raid the Byzantine Empire. Late Arabic and Spanish sources claim that Vikings raided Greece and Alexandria. If they did it was probably Björn’s and Hastein’s fleet.

The fleet reappears in 861 when it passed through the Straits of Gibraltar again, this time homeward bound. The straits are only 9 miles wide so the chances of the Vikings slipping through unobserved were slim and the Moorish fleet was ready and waiting for them. Of Björn’s and Hastein’s remaining sixty ships, only twenty escaped the ambush the Moors had prepared for them. Björn and Hastein may have been unaware that a strong surface current flows constantly through the straits from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea. During the Second World War, sixty-two German U-boats entered the Mediterranean undetected by riding this underwater current with their engines turned off. Not one was ever able to get out again against the current. Björn and Hastein may have had the same problem, their slow progress against it giving the Moors plenty of time to intercept them.

Undaunted by this disaster Björn and Hastein continued raiding as they sailed homewards. Just before they left Spanish waters, they raided the small Christian kingdom of Navarre and sacked Pamplona. In a spectacular coup they captured its King Garcia I, and ransomed him for the incredible sum of 70,000 gold dinars (approximately 679 pounds /308 kg of gold). The survivors of the expedition returned to the Loire in 862 very rich men. After the expedition, Björn and Hastein split up. Björn headed back to Denmark, perhaps intending to use his wealth and reputation to launch a bid for the throne. He never made it and died in Frisia after losing everything in a shipwreck. Hastein stayed on the Loire: he still had a long and profitable career ahead of him.

The daring nature of Björn’s and Hastein’s expedition secured their reputations as legendary commanders but the cost had been very high: less than a third of those who had set out three years earlier had made it back. This must have given other Vikings pause for thought for, though they continued to raid the Iberian Peninsula until the early eleventh century, there was no return to the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar had proved to be a dangerous and unavoidable bottleneck for any fleet trying to get into or out of the Mediterranean and in the future the Vikings kept well clear. The Moors defeated major raids in 889, 912 – 13, 966 and 971. The raiders in 889 got as far as Seville before they were defeated, once again, on the fields of Tablada. The survivors of the raid settled in the surrounding countryside and many subsequently converted to Islam. This was the only known Viking settlement in Iberia. During the course of their expeditions to Iberia, Vikings may have accidentally discovered the Atlantic island of Madeira. The evidence for this comes from an unusual source, the DNA of Madeiran house mice, which indicates that they were introduced to the then uninhabited island from Northern Europe, probably as stowaways, some time between around 900 – 1050.

An embassy to the king of the Majus

There probably were also more peaceful contacts between the Vikings and the Moors. There was strong demand in the Emirate of Córdoba and in the Moorish states in North Africa for Frankish, Slavic, English and Irish slaves, and many of these would have been supplied either directly or indirectly through middlemen by Viking slave traders. Many of the younger male captives were destined to be castrated: al-Andalus was famous as the main supplier of eunuchs to the Islamic world. In 845, after the Viking attack on Seville, the emir Abd al-Rahman sent an embassy led by al-Ghazal to visit the king of the Majus with gifts for him and his queen. Al-Ghazal described the land of the Majus as an island, three days journey from the mainland. There were other islands in the vicinity, which the king ruled too. Before his audience, al-Ghazal insisted that he should not be asked to kneel before the king. This was agreed, but when he arrived at the king’s hall he found that the entrance had been lowered so that he would be forced to enter on his knees. The perfect diplomat, al-Ghazal resolved the difficulty by lying on his back and pushing himself in, feet first. This would very likely have impressed rather than irritated his hosts, who would have recognised something of themselves in his determination not to be humiliated. The king’s wife Noud took a fancy to al-Ghazal and seduced him, assuring him that the Majus did not suffer from sexual jealousy and that women were free to leave their husbands at will. Al-Ghazal was correct that Scandinavian women had the right to divorce, but as for the absence of sexual jealousy, this was wishful thinking. A wife’s adultery was usually taken very seriously by her husband and in some parts of Scandinavia he had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together: he may actually have mistaken a favoured concubine for a queen. It is not known which king al-Ghazal visited. If he had mistaken the Jutland peninsula for an island he may have visited the Danish king Horik. Alternatively, he may have visited a Viking warlord in Ireland, possibly Turgeis, whose wife was called Auðr, which is not too different to Noud. The purpose of al-Ghazal’s embassy is not stated either but it was almost certainly to do with trade – slaves if he had gone to Ireland, furs from the northern forests if he had gone to Denmark.

Ultimately the Vikings had no great impact on the Iberian Peninsula. Their raids were bloody and destructive but both the Christians and the Moors were able to contain them. As a result, the Vikings did not act as a catalyst for change by upsetting the local balance of power as they did in so many other places that they raided. Writing in the 1150s, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri summarised the Vikings as: ‘fierce, brave and strong, and excellent seamen. When they attacked, the coastal peoples fled for fear of them. They only appeared every six or seven years, never in less than forty ships and sometimes up to one hundred. They overcame anyone they met at sea, robbed them and took them captive’. So, just another bunch of barbarians.



While barrels for small artillery pieces were easily cast as early as the 13th century, most larger cannon and the great bombards were constructed by the hoop-and-stave method. It was not until improved casting techniques and mature foundries were developed that large barrels could be made as single pieces of cast metal, first in iron and bronze, and later still in brass. By c. 1550 cast barrels of muzzle-loaders were cooled as a single, solid piece, after which the bore was reamed and a touch-hole drilled. Iron cannonballs were also being cast from greased, clay molds. Women from among the camp followers were frequently employed as laborers to dig the pit in which the mold was cast, gather faggots for the casting fire, dig out the gun after the metal cooled, and drag it to its siege site or for emplacement on the walls of a nearby castle or fort. During the 17th century Jesuit priests taught Chinese gunsmiths and generals up-to-date Western casting methods. English gunsmiths worked with local forges in India, and Dutch traders and governors brought the new technology to the Spice Islands, where guns of varying caliber were cast in local forges for use in Dutch fortifications and ships. Late medieval and early modern artillery varied greatly in size, caliber, and utility, but over time certain locales gained reputations as centers of quality gun manufacture. Permanent, large-scale foundries were set up and an international trade in cannon, it must be said, boomed. Northern Italy, Flanders, and Nuremberg were known for casting the best bronze guns. England and Sweden grew famous for casting cheap iron cannon in very large numbers that were nonetheless of excellent quality.

As cannon grew in importance in land and sea warfare in the mid-16th century the Spanish crown set up arsenals and foundries at Medina del Campo, Malaga, and Barcelona, and another at Seville in 1611. However, Spain lacked the skilled labor to meet its foundry needs-partly because its economy stagnated after expelling the Jews and Moors-and so remained dependent on additional purchases from the cannon markets of Flanders, Italy, and Germany. This lack of foresight and strategic planning cost Spain dearly as the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) led to an acute crisis in armaments that was compounded by war with Elizabethan England and later also with France. This lack of cannon hamstrung Spanish armies and fleets. Due to shortage of skilled labor, Spain’s foundry at Seville barely produced three dozen average caliber guns per year during the first half of the 17th century. In contrast, England, the Netherlands, and Sweden each had multiple foundries that cast 100-200 cannon per year. Spain was cut off from these northern markets by its wars with England and the Dutch rebels, although merchants in England sometimes sold to Spain in evasion of royal bans on exporting cannon outside the realm. Portugal also failed to develop a serious cannon production capability. Its chronic shortage of cannon for ships and fortified bases overseas was a significant factor in the loss of empire in Asia to the better armed Dutch and English in the 16th-17th centuries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries German foundries cast guns for use in Italy, by Spanish armies, and in the Netherlands. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) created a huge domestic demand for cannon, but so disrupted the metals trade and skilled labor markets that German production declined. English, Dutch, and Swedish guns were imported and dominated that war. German cannon foundries recovered quickly after 1648, however, and soon challenged England and Sweden in international gun exports.

Netherlands foundries supplied the Dutch army’s growing need for artillery, which was driven by its prolonged war with Spain, its ultimately very large blue water as well as coastal navy, and the huge requirements of fortifying border towns as well as a growing overseas empire. The Netherlands also became a major exporter of first-rate artillery pieces of all calibers. This was not the case at first. The Dutch rebellion cut off the northern provinces from the industries of southern Flanders and the important metals market of Antwerp, which the Spanish still occupied. Over much of the last four decades of the 16th century, until foundries were built north of the rivers and skilled labor imported or trained, the Dutch imported cast iron cannon from England that were happily supplied by Elizabeth I to a Protestant ally against Spain. By 1600, Dutch foundries were so efficient they met domestic needs and began exporting ordnance to other European markets. Eventually, the Dutch set up a system whereby bronze ordnance was cast at home while iron cannon were cast in Dutch-owned foundries in Germany and at overseas bases. In Asia, the Dutch cast bronze cannon in Batavia for local use using “red copper” from Japan, but cast iron cannon wherein sufficient ore was available and nearby forests provided charcoal fuel.

Sweden and Russia were late starters in the foundry business. Both had great natural advantages-large deposits of iron, copper, and tin, and rich and abundant forests to produce charcoal for the blast furnaces of their great foundries-but only Sweden took full advantage in the 16th and 17th centuries to catch up to the rest of Europe, once social and military-cultural inhibitions to the adoption of gunpowder weapons were overcome. In Sweden the crown played a central role in encouraging casting of guns. Wrought-iron cannon were made from the 1530s; casting of bronze ordnance began in the 1560s; cast iron foundries overtook the older method of making iron cannon after 1580. By the time of Gustavus Adolphus, Swedish foundries were among the world’s best. Using both local labor and imported “Walloons” (gunsmiths from the Low Countries), Sweden emerged as a leading maker and exporter of cast guns in the 17th century. Tolerance of imported Catholic master gunsmiths in Sweden contrasted sharply with Spain, where Protestant gunsmiths eventually refused to work because they were not exempted from torments and execution by the Inquisition. The Dutch brought iron casting techniques to Russia, establishing a foundry at Tula in the 1630s. As skilled labor did not exist in Russia at that time, gunsmiths were imported from the Low Countries and Sweden, while unskilled peasants hewed the forests and worked the charcoal pits. Despite foreign aid, Russia remained a minor power in terms of both gun casting and artillery deployment until the great military reforms of Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century.

English gun casting declined in the 17th century as the countryside was badly stripped of forests to feed the blast furnaces of the foundries and the shipbuilding industry. England’s long continental peace also sapped innovation and profit from its military industries. France similarly went into decline after an early lead in gun design and manufacture. The great French siege trains of the early Italian Wars (1494-1559) were no longer seen in the 17th century, as royal armies declined and skilled workers left for better-paying markets or to escape religious persecution of the French Civil Wars (1562- 1629), during which Frenchmen killed each other mainly with imported cannon. This situation was not reversed until Richelieu reestablished the French cannon industry to meet the demands of the Thirty Years’ War on land, and of a vastly expanded French navy.

Suggested Reading: Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails, and Empires (1965).

Breaching the Shield Wall


A Norman knight. The raised pommel forward and rear increased stability in the saddle and the kite shaped shield gave added protection to his exposed legs. The Saxons were not familiar with fighting armoured horsemen.

Norman battle tactics were as unfamiliar to the English as their close-cropped appearance and language. Chronicler William of Malmsbury described the differences between the assailants on that `fatal day’.

`The English at the time wore short garments, reaching to the mid knee; they had their hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skin adorned with punctured designs; they were wont to eat until they became surfeited and to drink until they were sick’.

The Normans were arrayed in a strange battle formation. There were three divisions of three lines, with the Bretons to the left, Flemish and French on the right and William’s men in the centre. Some 1,500 archers were positioned ahead of 4,000 heavy infantry with 2,000 knights waiting expectantly in the rear for the first signs of a breach in the shield wall. William of Malmsbury described the Normans as `exceedingly particular in their dress’ and `fierce in attacking their enemies’. Unlike the solid formation ahead of them, the Normans were `ready to use guile or to corrupt by bribery’. They were accessible to new ideas and fought as such, `they weigh treason by its chance of success, and change their opinions for money’. This was a clash of two cultures.

William’s men were independent-minded adventurers, like their Viking forefathers. They fought for plunder and economic gain as well as for their lords. Buoyed by Papal support and the promise of power and riches by Duke William all the soldiers had participated in a high-risk enterprise. By crossing the Channel, a perilous voyage in questionable weather, they had burned their boats. Going back was hardly an option. They were a disciplined force, as evidenced by William’s masterful logistics and tight control. He mustered a force of 10,000 to 14,000 men and kept them intact and focussed throughout a long summer in the Dives and Somme estuaries prior to the crossing. The biggest and riskiest amphibious operation mounted since Roman times paid off, the landings were unexpectedly unopposed. William’s landing force was an inter-ethnic mix of about 2,000 Bretons, 1,500 Flemings and French and 4,000 Normans. More diverse than the English, but unlike them, the majority were hardened professionals, mercenaries and accordingly equipped.

Two weeks of rapine and plunder in the surrounding English villages followed the months of enforced inactivity in France, a deliberate policy to goad Harold into battle. After the disciplined restrictions placed on their sojourn in the Dives estuary awaiting favourable winds, unrestricted warfare against defenceless civilians had been welcomed by warriors used to raiding back home, especially as it formed part of God’s will. With so little opposition to date, William’s men probably felt confident they would give the effeminate English a beating. They had not even appeared to defend the helpless villages they razed to the ground, and after this battle there would be even more.

Armoured horsemen had been gaining steadily in importance on the Continent but were less well known in England. Norman knights were identically armed and clad like the Housecarls and Thegns although knights wore knee-length mail hauberks, split front and rear for riding with an integral mail hood. Helmets could be hammered from a single piece of iron or made of riveted segments, padded within with leather or cloth to cushion the head against blows. These conical helmets often had a nasal guard to protect the nose and face, giving the wearer a grim impersonal appearance, which could be embossed and decorated to add to the wearer’s fierceness.

The Norman archers failed to make an appreciable indentation on the Saxon shield wall, because flights loosed uphill tended to stick in shields or go overhead. The Bayeux Tapestry shows axe and sword wielding Housecarls with clusters of arrows protruding from their shields. Cross-bows were employed at close ranges and these men, like the archers, occupied the lowliest social position in William’s army. Hideous wounds caused by cross-bow quarrels against the unprotected Fyrd apparently caused real dismay in the depth of the English shield wall. It soon became apparent to the Normans that the only way to break through would be by direct attacks by mounted knights.

Norman war horses were carefully selected and bred stallions, taught to head-butt as well as kick and bite. They caused real consternation as the ground shook with their up canters against the shield lined hill-crest. Half a ton of horse and armoured rider could conceivably barge a breach in the shield wall, but horses shy away from seemingly solid objects. Attempting to simply push through, despite losing momentum invited the sort of retribution described by Robert Wace, as one Housecarl:

`.Rushed straight upon a Norman knight who was armed and riding on a warhorse, and tried with his hatchet of steel to cleave his helmet; but the blow miscarried, and the sharp blade glanced down before the saddle-bow, driving through the horse’s neck to the ground, so that both horse and master fell together to earth’.

Once down at the edge of the shield wall he was finished. The Bayeux Tapestry suggests the Norman knights were jabbing their lances over the top at those behind, riding by, especially vulnerable to being unhorsed by a whirling axe. Slowed down by the climb, stumbling horses were pushed away from the pliant shield wall, acting like an aggressive rugby scrum. Examination of surviving skeletons from the period reveals that most injuries appear to have been inflicted to the upper head and shoulder and lower pelvic region. Skull indentations suggest many fighters had no head protection at all. Injuries to the upper leg and pelvic region point to the common fighting practice of disabling with a spear thrust and then finishing off the victim as he tumbled to the ground, with a sword or axe blow to the head.

The Normans were raiders, adept at swift mobile cavalry sweeps. Once elements of the Fyrd had been enticed beyond the shield wall by feigned retreats or cut off in groups, they were easy meat for the Norman horsemen. This mounted element and the employment of archers in support gave the Normans a greater degree of flexibility to whittle down the more immobile shield wall. Williams mounted command capability gave him an edge in this very tight contest between two evenly matched, tactically astute and ruthless warlords. It was a close run battle, lost with the fall of key commanders at crisis points. The Normans ventured all, planned cogently and won.