The Vita Caroli Magni of the lat e 13th century relates the life of Charlemagne and portrays the church militant In the form of Archbishop Turpins. His crest of a mitre seems to have a cloth mantling hanging down at the rear, which wafts out behind, though the other helms have a plate over this area which is presumably a reinforce. No surviving helm shows this feature, questionable since any reinforces are usually added to the front.

Warrior bishops were present as early as the tenth century, as can be seen by Otto the Great’s commitment of his bishops to the German empire for military purposes. When discussing medieval bishops and priests, one envisions saintly individuals in ecclesiastical robes, providing prayer or preaching to their flocks. However, bishops and archbishops could be seen leading their own retinues into battle, sometimes in full armour.

In 1124, Henry V found that many Germans refused to join his advance into France because they were not keen to fight foreigners. Though the personal retinues of those attending a diet (parliament) in 1235 were recorded at 12,000 knights, in reality the imperial army often had to rely more on the forces of the church. Ecclesiastics did not hold allodial land, having it rather by imperial decree. Their services were not feudal, however. From the revenues of these estates they were expected to find and finance a specific number of troops, a burden which sometimes left them pawning or mortgaging their land or goods. Many abbots, bishops and archbishops were military leaders and could be seen at the head of their men. Their importance to the emperor may be seen from the fact that, in 1046, Emperor Henry III invaded Italy with three archbishops, ten bishops and two abbots.

The following examples are worth noting, as they demonstrate the conflict that sometimes seemed to be inherent in calling upon spiritual leaders to perform acts of destructive warfare. In 1003, Henry II sent Bishop Henry of Würzburg and Abbot Erkenbald of Fulda to destroy Schweinfurt to punish its rebel lord, the Margrave Henry. When Henry’s agitated mother refused to leave, the two churchmen “…[put] aside secular concerns in favor of the love of Christ,” and instead did only token damage. On the other hand, Bishops Arnulf of Halberstadt and Meinwerk of Paderborn, among others, were ordered by Henry II to pillage Polish territory during his expedition against Boleslav Chrobry in 1010: “And so it was done,” without elaboration. Archbishop Gero of Magdeburg was co-commander of Henry’s rearguard towards the close of the Polish campaign of 1015. His force suffered heavy casualties and while he himself managed to escape, he found himself in the melancholy position of having to officiate at the funerals of some of his fellow nobles who did not. Archbishop Tagino of Merseburg, who sponsored Thietmar to succeed him in his see, commanded a force against Boleslav during the fighting of 1007.

The most memorable instances of ecclesiastical magnates participating in warfare, of course, were those in which they were not only nominally in charge of a body of men but were involved in the thick of combat themselves. While this may be implied by the number of times a bishop or abbot is cited as the leader of a military unit, unambiguous descriptions of these men putting themselves directly in harm’s way are rare. The unarmed leadership showed by Udalrich in the defense of Augsburg is a good example, as is the case of Bernward of Hildesheim during the Roman uprising against Otto III. Thietmar described a similar action during the fight against the Slavs at Bardengau in 997: “Bishop Ramward of Minden took part in that battle. Followed by the standard-bearers, he had taken up his cross in his hands and ridden out ahead of his companions, aftermath of a defeat on the Hungarian frontier. The passage is vivid and evocative:

The bishop lost an ear, was also wounded in his other limbs, and lay among the fallen as if he were dead. Lying next to him was an enemy warrior. When he realized the bishop alone was alive, and feeling safe from the snares of the enemy, he took a lance and tried to kill him. Strengthened by the Lord, the bishop emerged victorious from the long, difficult struggle and killed his enemy. Finally, travelling by various rough paths, he arrived safely in familiar territory, to the great joy of his flock and all Christians. He was held to be a brave warrior by all the clergy and the best of pastors by the people, and his mutilation brought him no shame, but rather greater honour.

This vignette has frequently been cited as proof positive of the martial nature of Ottonian bishops.

It was Archbishop Aribert of Milan who introduced the carroccio, an ox-drawn cart bearing the standard of St Ambrose. A rallying post with its own guard, it was a disgrace to lose it to an enemy. The idea was taken up by many Italian cities and was seen occasionally in Germany and elsewhere.


A mid-12th century document concerning the Archbishop of Cologne’s men provides a small insight into the services of ministeriales. ‘Whether or not they were enfeoffed knights, they were expected to defend the archbishop ‘s lands, though beyond his boundaries they expected payment if they did not agree to se1ve voluntarily. Ministeriales holding a fief with five marks’ income should go over me Alps with their lord for the coronation of me king. However the archbishop not only had to give advance warning of a year and a day, he also had to provide each man with 10 marks and 40 ells of cloth for equipment, plus a saddled packhorse, two travelling bags, four horseshoes and 24 nails four every two men. Once at the Alps each man received one mark per month for the duration of the journey. If payment was not forthcoming on time, the ministeriaJis was freed. Ministeriales with lower incomes could opt to stay behind, but had to pay an indemnity equal to half their fief’s revenue.


We experienced such cold as I shall never forget. The spittle from mouths turned to ice before it reached the ground, sparrows fell frozen from roofs to the ground. You could see some men without hands and feet, others deprived of fingers, face, ears and noses, others crawling like quadrupeds.

Such were the recollections of a chaplain serving with what had been the finest army in Europe during the winter of 1709. The Swedish army, under the command of the young King Charles XII, was widely acknowledged as the best-trained, best-equipped and best-disciplined military force that had existed in Europe for a very long time. By the summer of 1708 Charles was ready for a showdown with Peter I, the barbaric ruler of Russia who had presumed to challenge Sweden’s command of the Baltic. He was about to pit his magnificent fighting machine against Peter’s army of half-trained peasants. It was, as one English commentator observed, an army of veterans facing a mob. Charles’s contest with Peter and his allies had, in fact, been under way for nine years and, in virtually every encounter, the Swedes had whipped the pants off their opponents. But Charles had never been able to bring his enemy to face him in a major battle. That was about to change. He was now all set to take the war into Russia and deliver the coup de grâce. His foe would be forced to stand and fight. Failure to do so would simply leave open the door to Moscow.

Charles’s strategy was straightforward. He had 35,000 men under his command when he reached the River Dnieper. At Riga (capital of Latvia) on the Baltic Coast his general, Count Adam Löwenhaupt, was stationed with another 12,500 troops and wagons loaded with vital supplies. When these arrived Charles would be ready to cross the Russian frontier and strike north-eastwards towards Moscow, 800 kilometres away. Before the autumn set in he would have brought the Russian tsar to his knees. There could be no question of venturing into enemy territory until he had the fresh troops, food and equipment his subordinate was bringing. But Löwenhaupt was expected every day. He did not arrive. His start had been delayed by difficulties in commandeering horses. Fortunately Charles did have a plan B. He had formed an alliance with the Cossack chief, Mazeppa, whose territory lay farther south in the grain-rich Ukraine. Clearly the invasion would have to be postponed until the next campaign season. Until then Charles had a choice of strategies: he could either set up camp for the winter where he was and wait for Löwenhaupt or march his men to the Ukraine. He decided on the latter course. Too late he learned that both Mazeppa and Löwenhaupt had met with Russian attacks and been badly mauled. There would be no immediate relief for Charles’s hungry men. By this time the Swedes had reached an area to the east of Kiev. There was no option but to dig in where they were to see out the winter.

For a disciplined army like the Swedes that would not have been a major problem – under normal circumstances. But the winter of 1708–9 was very far from normal. In fact, it was the coldest and the longest for more than 200 years (and, very probably, for much longer still). In Paris on 14 January a temperature of minus fifteen degrees centigrade was recorded. In London the thermometer recorded minus twelve (the recommended temperature for a modern domestic freezer is minus eighteen). Average temperatures throughout Europe were seven degrees centigrade below normal. Rivers iced over, coastal waters froze from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Venetians were able to walk across their lagoon. The earth became like iron to a depth of more than a metre. Autumn-sown crops perished. Fish died in their ponds, cattle in their byres, birds fell from the sky, wild animals collapsed with hypothermia and starvation, mature trees exploded as their sap froze solid. Nor was this frightening phenomenon a mere cold snap: the great freeze began around the turn of the year and, with only a brief intermission, continued until the end of March.

When nature ‘breaks the rules’ so dramatically, human suffering reaches new depths. No houses, not even the palaces of the wealthy, were equipped to cope with such fierce cold. The Duchess of Orleans wrote from luxurious Versailles to a relative: ‘I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen’. She was one of the lucky ones. In villages throughout Europe people huddled around bonfires, which were kept burning perpetually as long as branches, seasoned timber or even furniture could be found to feed the flames. English sailors aboard a man-o-war in an Italian harbour died in their cots.

One observer reckoned that ‘the great frost was most severely felt in France, where in most places the fruit trees were killed, and the corn frozen to the ground, which occasioned there a dreadful calamity and desolation’. As Europe’s principal wine producer, France was, inevitably, hit very badly when millions of vines were destroyed. The national economy and the livelihoods of thousands of vineyard owners and workers were shattered and it took several years for fresh stock to be planted and matured to the point where production could recover its pre-Great Freeze levels. But there was one important French export that never recovered. A species of tree that suffered particularly badly in France was the walnut, known by cabinetmakers as ‘Grenoble wood’. Among wealthy patrons in late-seventeenth-/early-eighteenth-century society, furniture made of, or veneered in, walnut was greatly prized. To own cabinets surfaced in this wood with its beautifully patterned grain – ‘very black in colour and so admirably streaked, as to represent natural flowers, landskips and other fancies’ – was the height of fashion. Walnut fuelled a major native furniture industry and was an important timber export. In 1720 that export was banned as the stocks of seasoned timber dwindled. It would be almost a century before new trees would reach the maturity to be felled and so provide fresh stocks of wood.

By the time that happened fashion had passed on from what furniture historians call the ‘age of walnut’. Cabinetmakers had been obliged to look elsewhere for their timber. A writer in 1786 informed his readers:

Formerly the walnut tree was propagated for its wood but since the importation of mahogany and the Virginia walnut it has considerably decreased in reputation.

Europe began to look to the colonies to make good the deficiency in native timber. Initially this gave a boost to the economy of Virginia, where a related species of walnut grew in abundance. But the real winners were the plantation owners of Jamaica, Cuba and Honduras, who filled the gap in the market with mahogany. Fashion was quick to make a virtue of necessity. By the mid-1720s the ‘new look’ was the lustrous deep reddish-brown of the exotic tropical timber that would never grow in Europe. The ‘age of mahogany’ had arrived. And the deforestation of large areas of the Caribbean began. This very dense wood had, according to the salesmen, uses far beyond the decoration of the homes of the wealthy:

The excellence of this wood for all domestic uses is now sufficiently known… it is in no less esteem for shipbuilding, having properties for that use excelling oak and all other wood.

This change in public taste was directly due to the appalling winter of 1709. But the same circumstances that provided a challenge to craftsmen, and an opportunity to the owners of town and country mansions to exhibit the new ‘cool’, were a matter of life and death to the majority of peasant farmers who, at the best of times, lived not far above the level of subsistence. We are all familiar with the images of drought-parched lands in Africa with their skeletal inhabitants forced to rely on foreign aid. Such extreme weather has only very rarely occurred in the temperate lands of Europe, but it did appear in 1709.

What hope was there for individual citizens? Their heart-rending lamentations filled the listening air and existence seemed only possible in another clime and other new conditions.

If that contemporary account seems to us a bit OTT, we have only to call to mind the wailing women of disaster zones pictured on our TV screens as they bury their children or raise their despairing cries over the graves of their husbands. At least French countrymen in the summer of 1709 could go out into the fields, get down on all fours and eat grass like sheep. Many did just that. The same chronicler went on to describe one concomitant of the Great Freeze with which we, too, are depressingly familiar:

To make matters worse, even in that time of dire distress, speculators came to the front, bought the grain that frugal farmers had saved and sought to make a profit even out of famine. Nor could all the efforts on the part of the government check it.

It was not only country-dwellers who suffered. The few available supplies could not reach the major centres of population because roads and rivers were blocked by snow and ice. The city of Paris was effectively cut off from the outside world for three months. And it was not alone. When the wagons, ships and river barges did begin to move again, they had little relief to bring to the clamouring citizenry. The summer and autumn brought only the most meagre yields of grain, fruit and olives. People made ‘bread’ from ground ferns, nettles and thistles. The government, with good reason, feared street riots. To avert revolution they forced the wealthy to open their larders, dole out food at their gates and set up soup kitchens.

If life was terrible for ordinary French people in the year 1709, for the Swedish soldiers trapped on Russia’s western border it was a living hell. The land was soon scavenged dry. Parties sent farther afield in search of food ran the risk of being picked off by Russian patrols. The soliders needed to build up their bodies in order to survive the appalling climatic conditions, but had to exist on the most meagre rations. Those who managed to commandeer space in a ruined cottage or a barn were the lucky ones. The rest made do as best they could. They had an inadequate supply of tents and, in any case, these provided no insulation against the bitter winds and the frequent blizzards. Some of Charles’s men could do no better for themselves than crouch against walls, or huddle together in trenches gouged out of the iron earth. Thousands succumbed to frostbite, hypothermia and malnutrition. By the time winter relaxed its hold on the earth, half of the Swedish army was dead. Tsar Peter’s men, of course, had to endure the same weather, but they had secure supply lines and could build themselves suitable shelters.

As the weather eased, prudence might have suggested that Charles should withdraw westwards, await reinforcements and allow his surviving troops to recover completely. But the Swedish king was determined not to relax his pressure on the Russians. Although his army was now greatly outnumbered and his enemy was fighting on his own ground, Charles still believed he could dispose of the barbarian menace in one pitched battle. The result was the Battle of Poltava (27 June 1709), one of the major turning points in European history – and, indeed, in world history. When news of it reached London, the novelist and leading man of letters, Daniel Defoe, described it as ‘an army of veterans defeated by a mob, a crowd, a mere militia; an army of the bravest fellows in the world beaten by scoundrels’. Charles XII was certainly not defeated by any superior generalship on the part of Tsar Peter, nor by the superior fighting abilities of the Russians. Poltava was not a ‘great battle’ in any tactical sense. Peter established a strong defensive position and allowed the Swedish army to dash itself to pieces against his wooden palisade and the musket fire of his troops. Had the Swedes not been weakened by their privation or lack of supplies, they would, in all likelihood, have been able to prevail or at least withdraw in good order. As it was, they finally fled, leaving behind 10,000 dead, wounded or prisoner.

The Battle of Poltava ushered onto the stage of European affairs a nation hitherto regarded as a backward Asiatic people ruled by an uncouth tyrant. Ever since that day in June 1709, Russia has held a leading position among the world’s major powers. The history books never fail to point this out. What they often omit to mention is that the victory that transformed the fate of the nation was, in large measure, due to climatic conditions beyond the powers of any human monarch or general to control.

These very conditions were, at the same time, creating problems for the government in distant London. During the months of May and June 1709, the citizens of the city of London were astonished to find the streets of that metropolis swarming with men and women of an alien race, speaking an unknown tongue and bearing unmistakable indications of poverty, misery and want. It soon became known that about 5,000 of these people were sheltered under tents in the suburbs of the city. Additions were almost daily made to their number during June, July, August and September, and by October between 13,000 and 14,000 had come.

This unprecedented influx of destitute refugees came from an area of the German Rhineland between Cologne and Mannheim. For eight years these people from the cockpit of Europe had suffered as armies fighting the War of the Spanish Succession had advanced and retreated over their lands, trampling their crops, requisitioning their livestock, raping their daughters and firing their barns. All this they had been able to endure because the tide of war rolled on; the battalions moved out in search of new battlegrounds; there had been time to repair damaged buildings, plant the new season’s crops and, if necessary, start again from scratch. Humble German farmers were resilient and used to hardship. But the past winter had broken their spirit. Now, it seemed, the very fields worked by the same families for generations had turned against them. The ground was unworkable. No ploughshare could turn it – always supposing that horses had survived to pull the ploughs. One eyewitness to the misery of the people wrote:

The pen almost refuses to do its task when asked to tell of the hundreds of strong men who, during that memorable winter, lay down to die of cold and hunger in the once fruitful valley of the Rhine. So intense was the cold that even the wild animals of the forest and the birds of the air were frozen to death. Wine was frozen in the casks and bottles. The vineyards were frozen to the ground and the fruit trees completely destroyed.

The Great Freeze had started the previous Christmas Eve with massive falls of snow. Unlike other winters with reflected sunshine glaring from the white landscape and glistening on icicles, this one was dark and drear. For three months grey cloud overshadowed all, occasionally tipping more snow onto earlier deposits, which were encrusted with centimetres-thick ice. Most farmers would have had supplies of meat and fish salted down for the winter and grain to feed the next season’s breeding stock. But now there was not going to be a next season. They had to slaughter and eat the young animals to keep them from dying in misery. They had to use up or sell the seedcorn because the planting time came and went but the soil remained like granite. The savage winter had robbed farming communities of their future. Famine loomed, as those who did not leave in the first wave of emigration soon discovered. Over much of Europe the 1709 harvests were virtually non-existent. Nor was it only the workers on the land who suffered. Since agriculture was the economic basis of society, commercial intercourse ground to a halt, as another observer reported:

Nobody could pay any more, because nobody was paid. The people of the country in consequence of exactions had become insolvent; commerce dried up and brought no returns. Good faith and confidence were abolished. Chaos, ruin and universal suffering prevailed.

There are very few situations in life so thoroughly negative that nobody wins. The desire of people to escape from the Rhineland was a godsend to property speculators. Never was land so cheap. Capitalists with the necessary resources to play the long game bought farms and holdings at a fraction of their normal value, knowing that they would be able to sell at huge profit when normal conditions returned.

Thousands of individuals and families were, therefore, on the move. They congregated in Holland but their destination was England, that traditional refuge of displaced persons from the Huguenots of the sixteenth century to the EU migrants of the twenty-first. Some of the Germans hoped to find in the island a new home and a fresh start. Others did not look that far ahead. They were driven by the imperative of the moment, believing only that whatever lay ahead could not be worse than what they were leaving behind. Then there were those who saw Queen Anne’s realm as a staging post to the New World. For several decades groups of émigrés had made their way to the colonies of the Americas. The most attractive state to Germans contemplating crossing the Atlantic was Pennsylvania because it had a liberal constitution, was growing rapidly and was, around the turn of the eighteenth century, the most successful colony on the eastern seaboard. But to make such a huge move required organisation, money and the chartering of ships. Thus, the desperate travellers made first for England, with mixed hopes and plans. For the moment all they sought was employment, the chance to earn money to feed their families and, perhaps, to save enough to enable them, in the fullness of time, to move on.

Mass immigration is an alarming phenomenon and people respond in a variety of ways. Humanitarian feelings come up against economic realities and sheer racial prejudice. On 20 April 1968, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered a speech about a problem that was then facing Britain. His words have achieved a lasting notoriety.

There are among the Commonwealth immigrants who have come to live here in the last fifteen years or so many thousands whose will and purpose is to be integrated… But to imagine that such a thing enters the heads of a great and growing majority of immigrants and their descendants is a ludicrous misconception, and a dangerous one. We are on the verge here of a change… As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.

Such alarmist rhetoric raised enormous pro and anti responses from reactionaries and liberals at the time. In recent years similar prejudices have been stirred up by immigrants coming into Britain from EU countries. These instances may help us to understand the reactions of English or Dutch citizens to thousands of destitute Germans fleeing from the results of the Great Freeze and turning up on their doorsteps. There was a natural sympathy for these people, forced from their homes against their will. The good folk of several Dutch cities put their hands in their purses to help. They wanted to see the newcomers settled, but ‘not in my back yard’. In April the burgomasters of Rotterdam authorised the distribution of money to the poverty-stricken Germans – not to relieve their immediate suffering but to help them on their way to England. The trouble was that that policy simply encouraged more refugees to make the journey. The Rhinelanders kept on coming, and kept on accepting the Dutch handouts. Enough was enough. On 12 August the city fathers issued a total prohibition on any further influx. They might as well have ordered a high North Sea tide not to overflow their dykes. Desperate people who could not turn back found numerous ways of infiltrating Holland. Like the determined young men who, in recent years, have besieged the ports of France in order to stow away in container lorries, these eighteenth-century seekers of a better life used ingenuity and ran grave risks to reach that horizon beyond which, they believed, lay a brighter future. River barges were set to patrol the Waal and the Maas.

In Britain there was a similar pattern of response; initial sympathy and support was superseded by reluctance and firm prohibition. In the spring the House of Commons addressed the problem. Members were told that Queen Anne herself was moved by the plight of these poor people. As a result funds were raised to bring over 5,000 German immigrants. Thus the tented camps in the suburbs. But, by June, the temporary accommodation was bulging at the seams. Twice as many poor strangers were dwelling in the environs of the city as had been bargained for. Shanty towns grew up with the inevitable sights, sounds and smells always attendant upon overcrowded, unsanitary human agglomerations. The government was under pressure to ‘do something’, to get rid of the ‘dirty foreigners’. There were protests, scuffles, mini-riots. Ministers did two things. They sent urgent orders to Mr Dayrolles, the English minister at The Hague. No more migrants could be accepted until satisfactory permanent provision had been made for those who had already arrived. The order had little effect. Poor people were still finding their way across the North Sea, often because they were surreptitiously being helped by the Dutch authorities to continue their journey. Since they could not reverse the tide, the best thing to do was help it on its way. When the English government protested through diplomatic channels, they received the vague response that the Dutch would ‘make their best endeavours’ to stem the flow. The other official action taken was to arrange passages for the unwelcome guests to those overseas places where few British citizens could be persuaded to go. The West Indies were short of minor officials and craftsmen. There was always room in Ireland for Protestant settlers to help keep the Catholic majority in order, and most of the Rhinelanders were Protestants. Getting immigrants to do jobs that indigenous people don’t want to do is nothing new.

Some of the refugees fared better than those sent to the fever-ridden Caribbean or the remoter parts of Ireland. Those who had capital and/or contacts made good their original intention of heading for the east coast of North America. Some were assisted by the energetic recruiting activities of Benjamin Furley. This Quaker businessman who had settled in Rotterdam was a friend and associate of George Fox and William Penn, who were working hard to develop Pennsylvania. Land in the colony was available at knock-down prices and Furley offered additional cash inducements for families and individuals willing to make their home on the far side of the Atlantic.

It is only fair to point out that in 1709 Holland and Britain had reason for not wanting thousands of extra mouths to feed. The Great Freeze affected these countries too. The harvests were the worst in living memory. The prices of farm produce soared. Extra demand created by the immigrants sent them even higher. So the refugees were moved on – willingly or unwillingly.

But this did not entirely solve the problem. On the last day of 1709, the British government issued the following statement:

Inasmuch as during the summer just past a number of poor people arrived here in England, from different parts of Germany, who have hitherto been supported by Her Royal Majesty, and have gradually been sent to the West Indies, and afterwards to Ireland: and whereas more such poor people have come here since, notice has consequently been sent to Holland and elsewhere that none such would be passed, much less supported, and that those who have arrived here since the first of last October were to be sent back to Germany via Holland at the first opportunity. All such as intend to come hither are therefore notified to desist from their voyage which would assuredly result in failure unless it be that they have means of their own with which to support themselves.

But any stemming of the flow that such directives might have succeeded in achieving was only of a temporary nature. What began in 1709 was one of the most significant migrations in Western history. Throughout the ensuing decades over 100,000 men, women and children would leave Germany to become settlers in overseas territories ruled by other nations.

If you read the standard history books you will discover that in 1709 the ‘Ancien Régime’ in Europe, the system of rule by absolute monarchies, was at its height and the ugly spectre of popular revolution was absent from the feast. There were no serious disturbances to the ordered hierarchic society and the conspicuous consumption of royal and aristocratic families that have left for posterity stunning proofs of their patronage of artists and craftsmen. The ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, presided over an effulgently glittering court at Versailles and set the tone for neighbouring monarchs to emulate. You will read of splendid battles fought and won by talented generals like the Duke of Marlborough, who defeated the French at Malplaquet in this very year. You may find reference to the surprising triumph of Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava. You will learn that, despite the wars, art, science, philosophy, literature and architecture were flourishing in Europe. You will learn how this spectacular and superior European culture was beginning to export itself around the globe and establish mimetic hierarchies in the Americas. You may be directed to the works of the great polymath Gottfried Leibnitz, who, in this same year, was putting the final touches to his Théodicée, a magisterial philosophical tome covering most aspects of the human condition, in which he asserted that God had placed his human creatures in the best of all possible worlds.

Whether the majority of eighteenth-century Europeans would have agreed with him may be doubted. Even if we leave aside those areas which were devastated by the armed conflicts of the major powers that raged intermittently for many years, life was never easy for the inhabitants of central Europe. ‘Germany’, a term of convenience we use to refer to the greater part of this geographical area, simply did not exist. What did exist was a patchwork of some three hundred petty states, within ambiguous and fluctuating borders, each guarding its own customs and privileges, each harbouring its own ambitions, each jealously eyeing the territory of its neighbours. This politically unstable continent could never know meaningful peace as long as it was a prey to great-power rivalries and small-power inter-state tensions.

All this you may well glean from the standard histories. What you will almost certainly find no reference to is the Great Freeze. And this, despite the fact that it changed Europe more profoundly than all the activities of kings, parliaments and armies put together. It transformed the political balance in the East and North. It gave a new impetus to colonial settlement. It changed the shape of economic activity. It shifted large masses of Europe’s population. It created new fashions. And it killed more people than all the wars that had raged for half a century or more. And that puts us human beings in our place. It reminds us that all our endeavours – good and bad – may at any time be swept into the dustbin of history. No one knows what caused the Great Freeze, but the fact is that for a mere three months out of the last half-millennium Europe was subjected to arctic conditions the like of which it had never before experienced and which it has never since experienced. We need to be humble enough to allot the Great Freeze its appropriate place in our story.

The Medieval Galley

Russian Galley 1720

The history of medieval naval warfare is the history of the galley. Since ancient times, battles at sea have taken place largely on the decks of ships and were fought much like land battles, with hand-to-hand combat. Medieval naval battles usually followed a similar pattern. First, smaller, more maneuverable ships would pin down the enemy fleet. Then the larger, more heavily armed galleys would attack, initially firing missiles and then ramming or grappling the enemy vessel in order to board it. Blasts of lime were often fired to blind the enemy and were then followed by volleys of stones. One of the most dreaded tactics was to fling onto the enemy ship what was known as Greek fire, a substance that, once ignited, was inextinguishable in water. Crossbows, lances, bows and arrows, and, by the late Middle Ages, guns and cannons served as well at sea as on land. However, the ship itself was the most powerful weapon, often determining the outcome of a naval battle. The warship at sea was likened to the warhorse on land and, like the warhorse, the warship was bred for fighting.

Equipped with sails for distance and oars for maneuverability, the medieval galley was ideally suited for the purpose of war. Medieval variations on the classical galley were many. The dromon, developed by the Byzantines, was a large galley that utilized one or two tiers of oars, a square sail set on a single mast, and a stern-hung rudder. In times of war, the dromon could carry troops, weapons, supplies, and cavalry horses, as well as engage in sea battles when necessary. The beam of the dromon permitted mounted cannons in the bow of the ship, which could be fired directly ahead of the vessel. A variation on the dromon was the Italian galley, which had one level of oars with two or three oarsmen to each rowing bench, a total of approximately 120 oarsmen. The Italian galley was manned by about fifty soldiers and typically had a large catapult mounted on a platform on the front deck.

The galleas was another variation on the galley. Developed by the Venetians, the galleas had a gun deck, oars, and two to three masts. The triangular lateen sails, adopted from those of the Arab dhows, permitted the galleas to sail nearly straight into the wind, impossible with square sails. Sailors armed with crossbows and lances could fight on the ships’ decks.

The last major naval battle in which galleys were employed was the Battle of Lepanto II, fought off the coast of southwestern Greece on October 7, 1571, between the Ottoman Turks, under the command of Ali Pala (died 1616), and the Christian forces, under the command of Don Juan de Austria (1547-1578), half-brother of King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). The Turks’ 273 ships (210 were galleys) and the Christians’ 276 ships (208 were galleys) faced off in long lines across from one another, with the Christian forces hemming in the Muslim forces. Don Juan skillfully placed his most heavily armed galleys in the center of the line and his smaller, more maneuverable galleys on the outside, where they could dominate the flanks. The massive and heavily armed Christian galleys eventually triumphed over the lighter and less armed Arab ships, giving naval supremacy to the Christian forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Battle of Lepanto was the last major naval battle in which galleys were employed, and it was the first major naval battle in which guns and gunpowder played the decisive role. From this point on, guns and cannons would be increasingly important in naval warfare.

Although the galley was the vessel of choice in the Mediterranean Sea for more than four millennia, it was a typically unstable ship, particularly in rough waters. Maneuverability during battle was provided by oars, rather than by the sails, which had to be lowered during battles to prevent the enemy from tearing or setting fire to them. Despite their shortcomings, however, various forms of galleys continued to be employed in the Mediterranean until 1717 and in the Baltic Sea until 1809. In an effort to produce a more seaworthy craft, medieval shipbuilders turned to other designs for seagoing vessels.

Steamed Victory: The Nemesis I

Iron Steamer Nemesis Attacking a Masked Battery, China 1841 – William Adolphus Knell 1802-1875 Oil on canvas

Steam was the nuclear power of the nineteenth century. Relatively clean, efficient, and more reliable than wind or oars, steam power made its worldwide naval debut in the First Opium War. The Nemesis, a 660-ton steamship, was launched on the Mersey River in 1839, and made its way to Liverpool before beginning the voyage to China at the height of the Ningbo hostage crisis. An exemplar of state-of-the-art technology, the Nemesis was the first steam-powered vessel to round the treacherous Cape of Good Hope. Twelve years before its more famous counterparts the Monitor and Merrimac clashed during the American Civil War, the Nemesis also boasted a hull of iron. But fueling this coal-guzzler was a nightmare, and its journey was slow as it made frequent stops to take on more coal in order to feed its Rabelasian appetite of sixty-five tons per week. As the Nemesis steamed up Africa’s eastern coast, a violent storm nearly sent it to the bottom after a long rip in its seams almost tore the ship in half. When the Nemesis reached Sri Lanka, her captain, William Hall, an early advocate of steam power and much experienced in the operation of steamships, received orders to proceed to Canton. On November 25, 1840, the Nemesis arrived in Macao. After a brief meeting with the Portuguese governor Pinto, Hall crossed the Gulf of Canton and set anchor in Danggu, twentyfive miles northeast of Macao, where it rendezvoused with the man-of-war the Melville.

The Nemesis arrived just in time to have an intimidating effect during the next parley between Qishan and the two Elliots. They met in Canton on November 29, 1840, aboard the Melville. Qishan, who cast aside protocol and status by agreeing to meet on the enemy’s turf, the Melville, brought with him encouraging news.

The New Year (1841) came and went with no movement toward a settlement on either side. An opium ship slipped into Canton, carrying not only the contraband, but a rumor that the Emperor had decided on war. Elliot decided to preempt the enemy, and on January 5, 1841, began preparations for an attack. Still hoping to avert hostilities, Elliot informed Qishan that if an agreement couldn’t be reached within the next two days, war would recommence. He even set a specific time, eight in the morning of the 7th.

As promised, on the morning of January 7, 1841, fifteen hundred Indian soldiers and one hundred British marines, sailors, and infantry aboard the Nemesis, Enterprize, and Madagascar landed without a fight at the mouth of the Canton River, the gateway to Canton. The Anglo-Indian force, backed by artillery aboard the Calliope, Hyacinth, and Larne, as well as the Nemesis and four smaller steamers, attacked Chuanbi Fort while the guns of the Samarang, Druid, Modeste, and Columbine targeted the walls of Tycocktow Fort across from Chuanbi. Eight thousand men inside the fort’s tower returned fire, but stopped after a few minutes. The Chinese cannon had been tied down and couldn’t be aimed at the invaders. The British and Indians took advantage of the cease-fire, and two companies of marines went over Chuanbi’s earthen walls at 9:30 A. M. The muddy flats in front of the fort slowed the artillery pieces that the men dragged along behind them. The Manchu Dynasty’s elite corps of Manchu troops waved flags and banged gongs, but volleys from the British men-of-war soon knocked out their guns. The Manchus believed propaganda that the British killed all prisoners, so they resisted until most of them were dispatched by the invaders. “A frightful scene of slaughter ensued, despite the efforts of the [British] officers to restrain their men,” an English participant recalled. By 11 A. M., the yellow Chinese flag was lowered by the invaders, and the British Union Jack flew in its place. Six hundred Manchus died, and another one hundred, apparently not taken in by propaganda, surrendered. The British had only thirty casualties, none fatal, and their injuries were caused not by the defenders, but by the accidental explosion of an overheated artillery piece.

The Chinese defenders fled the city, but a flanking move by Major Pratt of the 26th regiment forced the refugees back into the fort. Ships’ artillery shelled the city, killing many of the defenders. The Nemesis and other British ships went in for the kill, setting ablaze eleven Chinese warships at anchor in the mouth of the river and using Congreve rockets as incendiaries.

The Chinese artillery at the fort and aboard war junks did not return fire. To escape the deadly bombardment, some defenders jumped into the water, where gunfire from British ships killed many of them. Others inside the fort were burned and disfigured when their antiquated matchlocks’ gunpowder exploded-their misery compounded by British gunfire. The British took very few prisoners. Years later, a staff officer, Armine Mountain, wrote, “The slaughter of fugitives is unpleasant, but we are such a handful in the face of so wide a country and so large a force that we should be swept away if we did not deal our enemy a sharp lesson whenever we came in contact.” In contrast to the slaughter of the Chinese, the British suffered no fatalities and only twenty-four wounded.

The successful seizure of Chuanbi was followed by a naval battle that was more like a rout, at Anson’s Bay, to the east of Chuanbi. There, the steamship Nemesis demonstrated that it was a navy unto itself by firing on fifteen Chinese war junks. A rocket from the Nemesis had the blind luck of hitting one of the junk’s powder magazines, and the ship was blown to pieces. At the sight of this ferocious new technology and its devastating effects, the fourteen remaining junks began to flee, but not fast enough for some of their terrified crew, who jumped overboard. The Nemesis didn’t pursue the junks, but steamed up river where it found two more junks and another village that had been deserted as soon as the news of the massacre at Chuanbi made its way upstream. The Nemesis torched one of the junks, seized the other, and then rejoined the fleet.

Three other forts remained near Chuanbi. On the next day, just as British ships were about to shell the forts, a physician under a white flag of truce arrived with an offer from Admiral Guan, the commander of the Chinese troops, asking for a three-day cease-fire to allow him to confer with Qishan. Captain Elliot had been horrified by the massacre at Chuanbi, and to the fury of his men, who wanted to capitalize on their quick victory by marching on Canton, he accepted the cease-fire. Elliot displayed a conflicting combination of pacifism and belligerence in a letter to James Matheson after agreeing to the truce. “I hope we shall settle without further bloodshed. The Commissioner [Lin] knows we can take much more than he would like to lose whenever we please.” Elliot channeled his men’s bloodlust into demolishing the walls of the Chuanbi and Tycocktow Forts.

Qishan and Elliot parleyed at the Lotus Flower Wall, twenty-six miles south of Canton. Elliot showed up with an intimidating entourage of fifty-six Royal Marines, a fifteen-member fife-and-drum band, and Captain Rosamel, commander of the French corvette Danaide, anchored in Canton Bay. Elliot’s invitation to Rosamel was both a diplomatic courtesy and a clever political ploy to keep an eye on the French, whom he feared would try to share in the British spoils without having fought for them.

While the Chinese feted Elliot’s men with wine and mutton, and the British entertained their “hosts” with a musket drill that was part show, part threat, Qishan and Elliot conferred aboard a boat in the middle of the Canton River. By January 20, 1841, they had agreed to what would be known as the Chuanbi Convention. In light of the annihilation of the Chinese forces, the British were surprisingly magnanimous about the terms, which in the hands of a more vengeful power could easily have devolved into a diktat. The British agreed to buy Hong Kong for $6 million, ambassadors at last would be exchanged, all contact between the two powers would be direct and official, there would be no more linguistic squabbling about “tribute-bearing barbarians,” and trade would resume. The British also agreed to return the forts they had captured, including all of Chusan Island. To pay for the war and save Palmerston from a budget battle in Parliament that might cause the government to fall, the Chinese were forced to pay $6 million, neatly neutralizing their gain from the sale of Hong Kong. Qishan presumed that the Emperor and his court would agree to the indemnity because they planned to extort the sum from the Hong merchants, which they in fact did. (Howqua alone coughed up the enormous sum of $820,000 as his contribution to the indemnity.) Far from home and burdened by slow communication, Elliot couldn’t know that the Chuanbi pact would infuriate Palmerston, who still wanted the instructions he had given Elliot followed, namely reimbursement for the twenty thousand confiscated opium chests and the cost of the war. The Emperor was even more outraged, especially by the cession of Hong Kong, and recalled Qishan to Peking. Impotently, the Emperor, still operating in an alternate universe, however celestial, also ordered Elliot to report immediately to the capital for his execution.

On February 1, 1841, Elliot unilaterally proclaimed Hong Kong British territory and the residents subjects of the Crown, neither of which assertions had been agreed to in the Chuanbi Convention. A week later, eight Protestant missionaries from Macao arrived on the island. British justice was also installed and practiced with the cruelty that was more appropriate for shipboard discipline than a civilian population, and included flogging. “None of the Chinese ever stood more than six blows of the cat [whip], when they invariably fainted,” a resident of the island wrote.

Elliot met again with Qishan at Second Bar, an island twenty miles southeast of Canton, this time in the company of a French ship’s captain. Qishan refused to put the Imperial seal on the Convention of Chuanbi. By now Qishan’s position had become untenable. The Emperor was furious with the mandarin for ceding Hong Kong, and he had already been fired when Elliot met with him, which may explain why no progress was made. Qishan did not inform Elliot of his removal from office, but ascribed his refusal to illness.

As Chinese soldiers began to mass around the Bogue, Elliot decided to use arms again when diplomacy failed. On February 26, 1841, the Melville, the Queen, the Wellesley, the Druid, and the Modeste began to shell forts on Wangtong and Anunghoi islands on the Bogue. The stationary guns of the forts were set at such a high elevation they only damaged the topsails of the British ships. Within fifteen minutes, the Chinese stopped firing at the fleet as marines, sailors, and Indian soldiers landed on the beach on the southern portion of Wangtong. “Opposition there was none. The unfortunate Chinese literally crammed the trenches, begging for mercy. I wish I could add that it was granted,” the leader of the troops, Edward Belcher, reported in the Repository. The Indian soldiers began executing the prisoners. When Belcher tried to save the prisoners, “two were shot down whilst holding my shirt, and my gig’s crew, perceiving my danger, dragged me away exclaiming, `They will shoot you next, sir!'” When the invaders occupied the fort, they learned that the defending soldiers had retreated before the landing had begun, leaving the civilians to be butchered by the Indian troops. Within two hours, the forts on Anunghoi were also seized with minimal effort. Elliot narrowly missed being killed by a cannonball as he reclined in a hammock on the deck of his ship. Three Chinese died in the engagements, one hundred were wounded, and more than a thousand taken prisoner. Admiral Guan’s body lay among the defenders, a bayonet in his chest. The British accorded the old warrior a cannon salute from the Blenheim when his family retrieved the body and sailed off with it. With the fall of the remaining Bogue forts, the mouth of the Canton River and the gateway to Canton belonged to the British.

On February 27, 1841, Elliot made his way up the Canton River aboard the Nemesis. A few miles upriver, he came across the Cambridge, which had been captured earlier and was now surrounded by Chinese warships, all of which fled after a brief bombardment by the Nemesis. The Cambridge’s Chinese crew jumped overboard as the British boarded her. Unable to tow the Cambridge, Elliot put the ship to the torch. The only British fatality was a marine whose musket exploded in his hands.

Elliot, now backed by more ships and soldiers, continued on toward Canton, removing barrier chains and demolishing forts. As the armada approached the city, ten thousand residents fled, including Lin’s family. James Ryan, an American merchant who had remained behind, wrote that the city “never looked so desolate.” The hatred of those who had not fled registered in their faces, Ryan observing that they “scowl upon every one of us in a way indicative of a greater dislike than I have ever before observed.” Canton harbor was too shallow for the Nemesis to dock, however, so Elliot and the Nemesis, unaccompanied by the rest of the fleet, turned back and steamed up and down the Canton River, destroying more forts and nine Chinese warships. The Chinese had never seen a steamship before, and the sudden apparition of the Nemesis on the river terrified them.



The warrior women of Dahomey, an ancient kingdom in West Africa and present-day Benin, first came to the attention of European travelers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A German book published in 1598, Vera Descriptio Regni Africani, describes an African royal court whose palace guard consisted of women, and similar royal formations occurred elsewhere in the world from ancient times, particularly in the East. The kings of ancient Persia had female bodyguards, as did a prince of Java.

As late as the nineteenth century, the king of Siam, now Thailand, was guarded by a battalion of four hundred women armed with spears. They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. Women in general were regarded as more loyal and trustworthy bodyguards than men, because they were less likely to be bribed or suborned; many rulers chose female bodyguards for this reason.

But the women of Dahomey outclassed them all. More than 250 years after the first reference, we catch sight of them again in the high summer of the British Empire when the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley, in a report on his successful campaign against the Ashanti (1873–74), compared his energetic and disciplined Fanti female porters to the king of Dahomey’s “corps of Amazons.”

Eighteenth-century accounts of Dahomey by European merchants and slave traders—slavery was the basis of the kingdom’s wealth—paint a picture of a colorful feudal world whose kings were surrounded by hundreds of serving girls and guarded by armed women. One of Dahomey’s kings, Bossa Ahadee, would march in ceremonial procession accompanied by several hundred wives, surrounded by female messengers and slaves, and escorted by a guard of 120 men armed with blunderbusses and 90 armed women.

The presence of the armed women was, at this stage in Dahomey’s history, more a symbol than a real threat to Dahomey’s neighbors. The tables were turned, however, when one of them, the king of Oyo, took to the field against the Dahomeans with a raiding party of eight hundred women to enforce a claim of female tribute he had leveled against King Adahoonzou. It was left to the all-male Dahomean army to defeat the Oyan Amazons.

By the time of King Ghezo (1818–58), Dahomey’s royal court consisted of some eight thousand people, the majority of them women, many of whom existed in a minutely graded pyramid of concubinage, at the top of which were the so-called Wives of the Leopard, the women who bore the ruler’s children. One of the functions of the armed female element of the court, all of whom were recruited in their early teenage years, seems to have been the capture and execution of women from rival tribes. All the “Amazons” carried giant folding razors, with blades over two feet long, which were apparently used to decapitate female enemies and castrate male foes.

From the late 1830s Ghezo seems to have used members of his predominantly female court in battle against neighboring tribes. It is possible that he deployed four thousand female warriors in an army totaling sixteen thousand. When in 1851 he laid siege to the city of Abeokuta, the siege was repulsed with losses of some three thousand, of whom two thirds were women. A French account of the engagement describes their officers standing in the front line, “recognisable by the riches of their dress” and carrying themselves with “a proud and resolute air.” Nevertheless, these women warriors occupied an inferior and ambivalent position in the hierarchy of the Dahomean court and, significantly, referred to themselves as men in their war cries and battle chants.

Far from discouraging Ghezo, this setback spurred him on to include more women in his army. They seem to have been divided into a regular corps of well-trained and highly disciplined “Amazons” armed with muskets and machete-like swords, who also formed an elite personal bodyguard, and a rather less satisfactory reserve, armed with cutlasses, clubs, and bows and arrows, who were more interested in rum than rigorous military discipline. In peacetime the “Amazon” corps was wholly segregated from men, and outside the confines of the royal palace its approach was signaled by the ringing of bells, upon which civilians had to turn their backs and males had to move away.

There were several practical reasons for Ghezo’s use of women in battle. Dahomey was exceptionally warlike, and lost many men on campaign, while simultaneously depending for its wealth on a slave trade that favored the disposal to slavers of a large proportion of its able-bodied male population. At its peak strength in the early 1860s, the Dahomean army was approximately fifty thousand strong—one-fifth the total population—of which the female element numbered ten thousand, a quarter of their number consisting of the “Amazons.”

It has been suggested that many of the women, as well as some of the men in the Dahomean army, went to war as camp followers, much in the manner of the soldaderas who marched with Mexican armies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who saw them in 1863, likewise poured derision on “the fighting Amazons.” “Mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” he ruminated with all the authority of the European white male, “the officers decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…they manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep.” But he also noted that this army, then some 2,500 strong, was well armed and effective in battle. Nor could all of them have been old and hideous, since all 2,500 were official wives of the king.

In spite of the dread in which they were held, the “Amazons” were no match for small but well-armed colonial armies. In a series of engagements in 1892, the male and female Dahomean warriors were defeated by a French army, and the kingdom became a colony of France. The victorious French commander commended the women warriors on their speed and boldness and installed a puppet ruler who was permitted a few token women in his bodyguard. A troupe of so-called Amazons from Dahomey formed part of a display at the recently erected Eiffel Tower, under which they danced and drilled.

Reference: Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, 1998.

Xiongnu, Huns and the End of the Roman Empire I

In the fourth century AD an offshoot of the Xiongnu (Hun-nu) nation moved west onto the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. This Xiongnu faction, known to the Romans as the Huns, defeated the Alani and conquered the populous Gothic realms in Eastern Europe. In the process they caused a major refugee movement into Europe which destabilised the Roman Empire. Over the following century the Huns launched devastating attacks on Roman territory that destroyed frontier defences and eventually caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476).

This westward movement of Xiongnu people occurred in a period of Chinese history known as the Sixteen Kingdom Era (AD 304–439). The Sogdian Letters record how the resurgent Xiongnu (Xwn = Hun) overran northern China in AD 312 and sacked the walled capital Louyang. The attack was led by a southern Xiongnu faction who called themselves the ‘Han Zhao’ because their leaders claimed to be descendants of the Han dynasty princess that Chanyu Modu had received as his royal bride. With an army of 50,000 steppe warriors the Han Zhao also sacked the former capital Chang’an, capturing two Jin Emperors during the course of their campaigns (AD 304–319).

As a consequence the northern domains of China fractured into numerous small kingdoms formed from various nations and dynasties that had once been Chinese subjects. Some of these states and their successors existed in steppe territories ruled by warlords descended from the Southern Xiongnu. This included the Northern Lang in the Hexi Corridor, the Northern Tiefu of Inner Mongolia and the Kingdom of Xia in the Ordos Loop. Between AD 351 and AD 376, a powerful frontier regime known as Former Qin began to conquer its warring rivals, but it was the Northern Wei that achieved overall victory and established control over northern China (AD 386–534).

The Northern Wei governed with Chinese-style administration and promoted their regime using Buddhist ideologies. But their ruling dynasty was descended from Xianbei warlords so the regime possessed numerous skilled cavalry that could campaign on the steppe. Their rise to power prompted a migration of Xiongnu factions westward towards the Caspian steppe. A Chinese text called the Weishu (History of the Northern Wei) records that by the start of the fourth century ‘the remains of the Xiongnu descendants’ were to be found northwest of the steppe-dwelling Rouran who by that period occupied most of Central Asia.

One of these Xiongnu groups called themselves the ‘White’ clan which was the symbolic colour of the West in their ancient culture. The Roman historian Ammianus confirms that this subgroup followed a migration route into Transoxiana where they threatened lands subject to the Sassanid Persian Empire (AD 356). The Persians called these invaders ‘Chionites’, but the Indians referred to them as ‘Huna’. The Chionites quickly overran Bactria and the Byzantine scholar Faustus records how in AD 368 the Persian King recruited Armenian troops into his armies to try to defend his eastern provinces. Writing in the sixth century the Byzantine scholar Procopius calls these invaders ‘the Hephthalite Huns, who are called White Huns’ and reports that ‘they do not intermix with any of the other Huns known to us.’

Another subgroup of Xiongnu (Huns) first appear in Roman accounts in AD 370 when they arrived in lands to the north of the Caspian Sea and crossed the Volga River. Coming from unknown territories, these Huns rapidly conquered the Alani and Goths who occupied steppe lands north of the Black Sea (Scythia). Zosimus reports that ‘a barbarous nation, which had remained unknown until this time, suddenly made its appearance and attacked the Scythians beyond the Ister (Danube).’ He claims that the Huns did not seem to be ‘Scythians’ and had no ‘regal government’. Claudian confirms that the Huns came from somewhere beyond the ‘extreme eastern borders of Scythia’. Ammianus explains: ‘A hitherto unknown race of men has arisen from some hidden recess of the earth and like a tempest of snows from the high mountains they seize or destroy everything in their way.’

The Huns had migrated to seek land and they arrived on the Pontic steppe with their wives, children, horses and wagons. Zosimus explains that their warriors ‘were not capable of fighting on foot, rarely walked, could not fix their feet firmly on the ground, but live perpetually, and can even sleep, on horseback’. According to Roman accounts they possessed superior horses, greater skill at archery and demonstrated more persistence in their attacks than other steppe nations.

Some Roman accounts suggest that the Huns had a Mongolian ethnic element. Jordanes, the sixth century Byzantine historian, describes them as being ‘tanned with a large head that is not distinct. Their eyes are small resembling a pin head.’ He reports that male Huns ritually scarred their faces with blades as displays of mourning enacted at funeral services. Procopius also suggests that the Huns had a distinctive haircut that was copied by the riotous gangs who watched chariot races in Constantinople. The Hun haircut was achieved by ‘clipping the hair short on the front of the head down to the temples, then letting it hang down in great length and disorder at the back’.

Jordanes reports that the Huns were ‘short in stature with fast physical movements, alert horsemen, broad shouldered and primed in the use of bow and arrow, with firm-set necks held erect with pride’. Ammianus offers a similar account, describing the Huns as possessing ‘compact bodies, strong limbs and thick necks’. He suggests they were disfigured by a lifetime of horse-riding and walked awkwardly when they dismounted. Sidonius compared the Huns to the centaurs of classical mythology describing how they learnt to ride as soon as they could walk. He reports, ‘You would think that the limbs of man and horse are fused together so firmly does the rider always move with the horse; other people are carried on horseback, but these people live there.’ Ammianus reports that even their war councils were conducted while mounted and ‘when deliberation is required regarding important matters, they all consult as a common body on horseback.’

Hunnic horses were considered superior to the western breeds used by Scythians on the Pontic Steppe and Roman cavalry in Europe. A Roman named Vegetius wrote a study on veterinary medicine in which he lists the characteristics of these horses. They had ‘large hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below their knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, great strength in their cannon bones, small pasterns, wide spreading hooves, hollow loins, angular rumps without fat or muscles, a back stature that is long rather than high, drawn in belly and large bones.’ This exactly describes the horses used by Central Asian steppe nations.

Roman horses were expensive to maintain since they had to be kept warm in stables and required frequent veterinary attention. Vegetius explained that Hunnic horses did not need stables and could endure greater cold and hunger without distress. They were also longer-lived and less prone to injury than their Roman counterparts. Hunnic breeds were also better able to bear wounds due to their quiet and sensible temperament. Therefore in the opinion of Vegetius they held ‘first place among horse breeds in their fitness for war’.

Hunnic Conquests

Skilled Hun bowmen could outpace and outmanoeuvre armoured Sarmatian riders who specialized in cavalry charges carrying cumbersome lances. Jordanes reports that the Alani ‘equalled the Huns in battle, but had different cultures, manners and appearance. The Huns exhausted them by their incessant attacks and subdued them.’ Zosimus confirms that their warriors overcame the western steppe-dwellers with continual attacks and ‘by the rapidity with which they wheeled about their horses, by the suddenness of their excursions and retreats, shooting as they rode they caused a great slaughter among the Scythians.’ Claudian refers to their attacks which seemed ‘disorderly, but had incredible swiftness, allowing the Huns to often return to the fight when little expected’.

Ammianus describes how Hunnic warriors rode into battle in wedge-shaped masses while ‘their medley of voices makes a savage noise.’ They were ‘lightly equipped for swift motion and unexpected action, they purposely divide suddenly into scattered bands and attack, rushing about in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter.’ The Huns surpassed all other warriors in the skill of their archery, but when the opportunity came, ‘they can gallop over the intervening ground and fight hand-to-hand with swords.’ They also lassoed their enemies throwing ‘strips of cord plaited into nooses over their opponents, entangling and binding their limbs so they cannot ride or walk.’ Unlike the Chinese who possessed sophisticated crossbows, the Goths and Romans had no projectile weaponry that could easily outrange and target mounted Hunnic archers.

Ammianus records that within a few years the Huns ‘had overrun the territories of the Alani,’ they ‘killed and plundered many of them, then joined the survivors to themselves in a treaty of alliance.’ This gave Hunnic armies Sarmatian cavalry equipped with scale and chain mail armour. After suppressing the Alani, the Huns moved west to attack the Goths who by the fourth century AD were a populous nation inhabiting agricultural territories stretching from the Baltic coast to the northern Black Sea. The Goths on the Pontic steppe had adopted cavalry practices, but they fought with spears instead of the sophisticated reflex bows used by the Scythians. Procopius explains that Gothic bowmen ‘entered battle on foot under the cover of heavily armed men’.

Gothic spearmen could not ride faster than Hunnic warriors, and even in close combat Goth riders could find it difficult to overcome Huns equipped with helmets and lamellar armour. Procopius describes how an elite Hun soldier ‘was surrounded by twelve Goths carrying spears who all struck at him at once, but his corselet withstood the blows and he was not seriously injured until one of the Goths succeeded in hitting him from behind, in a place where his body was unprotected, above the right armpit’. This Hun was only wearing a helmet and jacket-like coat of chain or lamellar armour, since another spear-thrust wounded his exposed thigh.

Roman sources suggest that it was difficult to unseat or kill a mounted Hunnic warrior. Sidonius describes a Hun who was speared by a lance, ‘transfixed, his corselet was pierced front and back so that blood came throbbing through the two holes.’ Some Huns carried shields and Sozomen describes a Hunnic warrior leaning on his shield, ‘as was his custom when parleying with his enemies’. Grave finds suggest that some Huns practised the steppe custom of artificial cranial deformation and by binding the heads of their babies they encouraged the infant’s skull to develop in an elongated shape. Some Romans assumed that this practice was connected with warfare, to flatten the face and make it easier for warriors to wear helmets with broad nose-guards. A few wealthy Huns gilded their armour, perhaps emulating the customs of the Aorsi who wore gold ornaments. Asterius of Amasia reports that ‘the armour of the barbarians is ostentatious’ and describes a steppe chief on the Black Sea coast who offered his gilded cuirass to a Christian representative.

When the Gothic kingdoms were defeated by the Huns, tens of thousands of refugee Goths and Alani fled south to seek protection in the Roman Empire. Ammianus reports that, ‘exhausted by a lack of necessities they looked for a new homeland far from the savages and after much deliberation they chose Thrace as a suitable refuge, because it has very fertile soil and because it is separated by the mighty flood of the Danube from the lands exposed to war.’ The Gothic realms were allied to the Roman Empire and Ammianus records how a large part of the defeated nation suddenly appeared on the banks of the Danube asking admittance into imperial territory. Zosimus reports, ‘The surviving Scythians (Goths and Alani) were compelled to abandon their homelands to the Huns and cross the Danube, they therefore appealed to the Emperor to receive them, promising to serve faithfully as soldiers.’ Tens of thousands of Goths and Alani were admitted into the frontier provinces along with their families, but despite confiscation orders, many were able to bribe officials and cross the Danube carrying weapons.

These refugees were confined to camps near the frontier, but they were offered limited supplies while they were systematically exploited and mistreated by various Roman officials. As a result the Gothic refugees rebelled and overran the Balkan countryside with raiding parties (AD 376–378). In AD 378 the Eastern Emperor Valens marched against the Gothic army, but he was outmanoeuvred by their steppe cavalry at the Battle of Adrianople. The Emperor was killed along with most of the Eastern Field Army while their enemies ‘plundered the dead bodies and armed themselves with Roman equipment’.

The Goths dominated imperial politics throughout the following century as their various nation-states crossed the Empire to seize territories from imperial control. They overran rich agricultural territories, demanded tribute from Roman cities and captured various armouries and imperial workshops. The Visigothic chief Aleric boasted that the Roman province of Thrace forged spears, swords and helmets for his warriors. Meanwhile the Huns moved westwards towards the grasslands of Hungary on the Danube frontier. In a few decades they had conquered and occupied a territory stretching over 1,700 miles from the Roman Danube to the Volga River.

Early British Night-fighters – The Blitz


Almost all the first batches of Mk I Beaufighters were night fighters. The earliest deliveries had no radar, but in September 1940 one of them was flown to the FIU for trials with one of the first AI.IV installations. By November 1940 AI.IV was standard on production Mk IF aircraft. The installation was good, and a skilled operator could obtain a clear and unambiguous target blip over a range of at least three miles (provided that the aircraft was about three miles above the ground) down to a minimum range of something like 100 feet. This minimum range was closer than with AI Mk III, but it was still too far for certain visual contact in adverse conditions. One of the most important and most difficult skills an AI operator had to acquire was to judge the rate of closure on the target simply by watching the blips. With the Beaufighter there was ample in-flight performance for overtaking any Luftwaffe bomber of 1940, even if the bomber had become frightened and tried to get away. But it was far from simple to guide the pilot with absolute precision, so that he came up astern to visual contact without overshooting or colliding with the bomber from behind. At that time, sudden closing of the throttles on British engines generally resulted in severe backfiring and large gouts of flame from the exhausts. The Hercules was better than most engines in this respect, but still could not equal the German engines, whose direct-injection fuel systems did not suffer from this failing, which at night could mean life or death. The fact that a night fighter needed powerful airbrakes was not then realized, and much later many Beau pilots learned that the best procedure was to keep on plenty of power and drop the landing gear. The Beau’s great strength is reflected in the fact that the gear-down limit was 240 mph IAS, well above any likely indicated speed at around 15,000 feet (the later Mosquito was red-lined at only 180).

It was thus fairly safe for the pilot to go on closing on the target after the AI blip had vanished off the bottom end of the range scale. With practice one could judge just when the range ought to be dropping close to zero, and visual contact by this time ought to be certain. Should the enemy suddenly appear dead in front, a cool pilot could then slow down by lowering his wheels briefly (though this was not realized during the night Blitz). Once in a firing position the pilot, having made certain that his firing-button outer ring was set from ‘Safe’ to ‘Fire’, could open up with devastating armament. The first fifty Beaufighters had four 20 mm Hispano cannon under the nose, ahead of the hatch. Subsequent deliveries added six Brownings in the wings, four on the right and two on the left.

This armament was the heaviest of any RAF fighter in the Second World War, and still sounds impressive today. In the RAF’s hour of desperate need in 1940 it was manna from Heaven to a service that had nothing more powerful than rifle-calibre machine-guns, which were swiftly becoming ineffective as the Germans bolted armour on to their bombers. What amazed the author, even at the time, was that there was no modern British shell-firing cannon. The 20 mm Hispano-Suiza had been designed at the end of First World War. Installed singly between the cylinder blocks of the same company’s fighter engines, it did not matter that it was eight feet long and weighed 109 lb. Also fitting neatly between the cylinder blocks was the 60-round drum of ammunition. Lacking any obvious alternative, a licence for this was obtained at the proverbial ‘eleventh hour’ in 1937, and by 1939 it was coming into production by British MARC Ltd at Grantham. By 1945 a group of British factories had delivered just under 100,000, later versions having a shorter barrel. Fortunately, the British armament experts showed little interest in the mounting on an engine (and to bolt it on a Merlin would have meant major redesign of the reduction gear). Instead, its first British application was to mount four in the nose of the Westland Whirlwind, though this odd fighter was never of any importance. More to the point, one was – with difficulty, turning the gun on its side – mounted in each wing of the Spitfire IB. The first trial installation took place soon after the outbreak of war, and in March 1940 one of the experimental Mk IBs shot down a Do 17 with sixteen rounds. In the Battle of Britain the Mk IB equipped 19 Squadron, though maddening stoppages and other faults persisted. These were gradually cured, and by 1941 the standard Spitfire fighters were of the B type, with two Hispanos and four Brownings (though in the week the prototype Spitfire first flew, in March 1936, designer Mitchell had schemed a version with four Hispanos!).

Wisely, Bristol could see the futility of the four Brownings of the Blenheim fighters, and replaced them in the Beaufighter by four Hispanos. In this aircraft there was no need for the clumsy drum feed, and the Bristol design team devised a superb installation with continuous belt feed from four 240-round magazines. Air Ministry armament experts rejected the scheme, claiming that it would either jam the guns or be wrecked. Bristol then proposed an air-driven servo feed, tested on the fourth Beau in competition with the established French feed using 60-round drums. In French single-seat fighters only one such drum could be fitted, but in the Beau the observer could leave his radar, clamber forward and exchange used drums for fresh ones. As each drum weighed about 100 lb, and the fighter might be pulling g in a tight turn, changing drums was not popular with the observer (the drum racks had sharp edges, too). More time was wasted comparing two further servo-feeds, by Avro and Hydran. Then suddenly, as France fell, two Armée de l’Air officers arrived with drawings of their own newly developed Chatellerault belt feed. It was at once adopted, though it took until September 1941 to get it into production and in service (on the 401st aircraft). So all the Beaufighters in the long winter Blitz had hand-changed 60-round drums. It was only when Bristol studied the French feed that it was realized it was just like their own, original, rejected feed, except that it extracted rounds from the belt by pushing the nose instead of pulling the case. This proved to be a disadvantage, and it was changed to case-pulling, making it identical to the British scheme that could have been on the very first production aircraft!

Beaufighters became operational during September 1940, and during the winter their numbers increased rapidly, reaching 100 that year and 200 in May 1941. Production of AI Mk IV more than kept pace, and the improved radar was retrofitted to most of the early Mk I aircraft that had been delivered without it. A few Mk IV sets were also installed in Blenheims of FIU, and it was one of these, piloted by none other than Ashfield, that scored the second AI night victory on 7 November 1940. Was Ashfield – who was later killed in action – a superman? At first glance, for the whole RAF night-fighter force to have no success at all using AI, while one crew engaged in research scored two victories, does seem to require explanation. There is always an element of luck in being in the right place at the right time, but I think it is fair to describe night fighting as something uniquely difficult. Until it was mastered, neither a GCI controller nor an aircrew could ever say it was in control of the situation. Then, once one or two exceptional crews had begun to work with gifted controllers, the whole thing snowballed.

In November 1940 the Luftwaffe switched its assault from London to Midlands cities. At that time the RAF was just beginning to discover that its night-bomber crews – thanks to failure to practise before the war – were hardly ever able to find their targets. In contrast, the Luftwaffe had foolproof and easily used radio navaids that had been developed during the late 1930s, based on technology related to the Lorenz radio landing aid. Using X-Gerät and Knickebein, a jumpy and unskilled crew could fly direct to any British city and automatically release their ordnance at the correct point in space for a near-direct hit. These precision radio beams had been reported in the notorious ‘Oslo parcel’. British experts foolishly scorned the notion of the Luftwaffe having in service an advanced aid that had not even been thought of by the RAF, but, fortunately, Tizard sent for young Dr R.V. Jones, the infra-red researcher from the Clarendon mentioned previously, and his methodical sleuthing uncovered the unpalatable truth. Not only did this prove that the German radio technology had been seriously underrated – X-Gerät manufacturers’ date-stamps mostly went back to 1938 – but it enabled Britain urgently to set up jammers and even spoof beacons, which caused more than one Heinkel to come to grief. Unfortunately there was one occasion, on 4 November 1940, when for various reasons no jammers were operating. On that night the city of Coventry was devastated.

Riding their fine Beaufighters, the handful of RAF night-fighter crews who had been converted to the type watched the burning cities, and helplessly chased one ‘contact’ after another (they all just seemed to disappear). Even if they had known that the first waves of bombers were following invisible lines in the sky, like transport aircraft flying the American radio range, they could not have accomplished the vital final step of drawing in close enough behind to see the enemy, identify it and shoot it down. Then, on 19 November, one crew did it. It was 604’s John Cunningham and his observer Sergeant J. Phillipson: during a raid on Birmingham they shot down a Ju 88. Chisholm, also of 604 Squadron, wrote, ‘The news was electrifying. For me it meant that the bombers we were sent to chase were really there . . .’ In the minds of the NF crews, the Magic Mirrors, with their overtones of useless trickery, had become AI Mk IV, a system which, placed in the right position by increasingly adept ground control, could – with a modicum of luck – take a good crew to a visual contact. Cunningham quickly gained other successes, became a national hero, and for the rest of his life suffered being called ‘Cat’s Eyes’. Bombers were being shot down at last. With radar unmentionable, a common Ministry of Information cover story at the time was that night-fighter pilots not only wore dark glasses before take-off, to become night adapted (which they certainly did), but also derived abnormal night vision by eating copious quantities of carrots (which most of them did not). Even today there are thousands of the British public who have a lingering image of cat-eyed pilots munching this vegetable.

A vital role in closing the last links in the world’s first night defence system worthy of the name was provided by the GCI stations previously mentioned. It was essential for the ground controller to have an up-to-date (real time) picture of the local situation; a lag of thirty seconds could well make interception impossible. What had been AMRE at Bawdsey, and was now renamed TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment, a pure ‘cover’) at Worth Matravers, played the chief role in creating the GCI radar, with its PPI (plan-position indicator) picture painted by successive sweeps of a rotating radar beam, just as in so many radars today. Some of the GCI team were in the wooden huts on the Dorset coast, and others at the airfield at Christchurch – rather an inconvenient distance on the other side of Bournemouth – where TFU (Telecommunications Flying Unit) kept its growing fleet of night fighters and other trials aircraft. The PPI was swiftly improved until each sweep took sixty-five seconds, instead of the original eight minutes, and reached out to a distance of ninety miles. It could not indicate height, which had to be telephoned in by a CH station.

TRE undertook a crash programme to make the first dozen GCI sets, often using any suitable hardware that was handy, and delivered the first on 16 October 1940, at Durrington, Sussex, where it was operational two days later. The last of this batch was operational by 6 January 1941. Percival Rowe, by then Superintendent of TRE, recalled:

In theory, it looked simple enough to us. All that was needed was for a night fighter to patrol up and down the English Channel until told by R/T from the Worth Matravers GCI station that there was an enemy bomber in a suitable position for interception. Bomber and fighter would then be tracked and their heights assessed. When the fighter had been put on the tail of the bomber by directions from the GCI station, the latter would give the signal ‘Flash weapon’, which would tell the fighter crew that the AI set should be switched on and used to complete the interception. The time was to come when it really was almost as simple as this, but not at Worth Matravers.

The civilian boffins at that establishment were the very first controllers to direct night fighters using the original prototype GCI, but there seemed to be too many problems for a kill to be achieved. Not least of the problems was that, like Chisholm near his home airfield, the night fighters continually got lost. There were three important answers. The first was a regular pattern of bonfires across southern England maintained by the ROC (often at peril to their lives from people who thought the blackout was being sabotaged). The second was the building of the Racons – passive ground radar beacons – which showed up strongly on the fighter’s own AI scopes. The beacons were arranged in a regular checkerboard pattern across southern England, and the fighter observer could always see the blip from at least one and usually from two. By measuring the distances it was possible to get a fair idea of position, refined if necessary by actually plotting with a compass and pencil on a topographic map (not a plotting chart). The third way of solving the navigation problem was to learn to trust the GCI controller who, once the PPI sets were in use, always knew where the fighter was; he could identify it by its IFF signal. If required – and when lost on a dark night one is less concerned about loss of face – the controller could talk the fighter pilot home to his own airfield. To quote Rowe, ‘Once this had been demonstrated, the fighter pilots poured over from Middle Wallop to see the new brand of magic, after which they came to believe that, though they might not know where they were, there was an “eye” on the ground that could watch them and lead them home.’ This again was a fundamental advance in the technology of aviation that today is taken for granted.

This ability to be guided home was especially helpful to the pilots of single-seaters and Defiants, which had nobody on board to help the pilot navigate. With Racons and GCI radar the concept of the AI-equipped single-engined fighter was looked at again, and it was soon realized that AI could be put in the Defiant and the Hurricane after all. Boulton Paul Aircraft were given drawings of the pilot-indication AI Mk V, which had a novel CRT scope with a U-marker around the blip, and the company completed installation drawings for the Defiant on 19 November 1940. The aerials were as in the single-seat scheme of the previous July, with the transmitter on the right wing. The transmitter itself was behind the turret, the receiver, control box and power pack behind the pilot’s seat, the display on the pilot’s left, and the control panel on his right. This pioneer single-engine installation suffered from moisture and bad electrical screening, and for some reason was not cleared for service until August 1941. By this time the radar had become AI.VI, with a wider bandwidth of 188–198 MHz and an added beacon facility. The radar-equipped Defiant IA served with 264 Squadron and later with 96, 125, 256 and 410. The more powerful Defiant Mk II served additionally with 141, which had destroyed an He 111 the previous December without AI, and with 151 and 153 Squadrons.

Having discovered that there was no law of nature forbidding radar in a single-engined aircraft, the Air Staff also fitted AI.VI to twelve Hurricane Is in late 1941. In November 1942 a report on their first year of operational service simply glowed with enthusiasm, especially commenting on their high serviceability and rapid accumulation of flight time, leaving the impartial observer mystified at why it was not done before and not done again.

Australian Airmen in Mesopotamia, 1915–16

Maurice Farman Shorthorn of the Mesopotamia Half Flight in 1916 (Photo Source: Australian War Memorial)

By David Wilson

On 8 February 1915, the Government of India sought the assistance of Australia to supply trained airmen, aircraft and transport for service in Mesopotamia (Iraq). The Australian Government replied that men and transport would be provided, but that aircraft could not. The unit (known as the Mesopotamian Half-Flight, Royal Flying Corps) was quickly raised from senior non-commissioned officers serving at the Central Flying School and from volunteer trainee riggers and mechanics from the staff of the motor-engineering shops at the army depot at Broadmeadows. Captain Petre, the commander of the force, departed for Bombay on 14 April to make arrangements for the Half-Flight’s arrival, leaving Captain T.W. White in temporary command. White, Lieutenant W.H. Treloar, an officer from the 72nd Infantry Battalion who had learned to fly in England before the war, and 37 men departed from Melbourne aboard the Morea for Bombay six days later. The premonsoonal heat, oppressive to Australians used to moderate climates, engendered in them an unquenchable thirst. The culture and sights of Bombay took a toll on the Australians’ three months’ advance pay before they boarded the SS Bankura. The vessel was bound for the town of Basra on the Shatt el Arab, downstream from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in south-eastern Mesopotamia.

The Australians arrived at Basra on 26 May, joining two Indian Army officers, Captains P.W.L. Broke-Smith and H.L. Reilly, and nine mechanics from the Indian Flying Corps. A New Zealander, Lieutenant W.W.A. Burn, completed the Dominion nature of the Half-Flight.

An Indian Army pioneer unit had completed a road made of date palm logs from the waterway to an Arab cemetery, the only high ground in the area suitable for an airfield. The surrounding swampland was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, forcing the troops to take quinine twice daily to counter the insidious effects of malaria. The novelty of Basra, its culture unchanged from biblical days, was a marked contrast to the Australian lifestyle. The clay buildings offered little relief for the Half-Flight members toiling in the oppressive summer heat to prepare the aircraft for operations.

Even by the standards of 1915, the aircraft initially supplied to the Half-Flight were not modern. With two Maurice Farman Shorthorn and a single Longhorn aircraft, with a maximum speed of 80 kph on a calm day, the Half-Flight was ordered to fly reconnaissance missions in support of the advance of forces under the command of Major General C.V.F Townshend along the Tigris River to Amara. Operations commenced on 31 May when two crews (Petre and Burn, and Reilly and Broke-Smith) flew from a landing ground south of Kurna and supplied useful intelligence to the force commander. Below them, the infantry force advanced upstream through the saturated landscape by using 500 Arab war canoes, supported by artillery mounted on barges and steamers. They succeeded in forcing the defending Turks to retreat. White and Reilly, who had battled a dust storm for two hours to fly the Shorthorn the 100 kilometres from Basra on 1 June, reported the fact to navy authorities. En route, the airmen attempted to drop three 20-pound bombs on one of the Turkish paddle steamers that was retreating in disarray. Although the bombs missed the intended target, they exploded ahead and astern of one of the smaller ships, the crew of which, having interpreted this action as the aerial equivalent to a naval ‘shot across the bows’, drew into shallow water where they waited and later surrendered to the first British vessel that appeared. Townshend took advantage of the Turkish confusion and, in company with Captain W. Nunn, Royal Navy, and 22 men, accepted the surrender of Amara in the early hours of 3 June.

To guard the left flank of the advance up the Tigris River toward Kut, a force was drawn from the 6th and 12th Divisions to capture Nasiriyah, on the Euphrates River. Reilly, Treloar, Petre and Burn were again instrumental in the capture of this township. They flew Caudron aircraft that had been ordered forward from Basra over the Euphrates marshes. The capture of Nasiriyah paved the way for the advance on Kut.

Although more suitable for training than active service, the Caudron was an improvement on the Shorthorn and Longhorn aircraft. Despite the construction of a brick engine-overhaul workshop (augmented by the repair-shop lorries that had been supplied from Australia) and an iron hangar at Basra that improved maintenance facilities, the unreliability of the aircraft engines had fateful repercussions. During the first reconnaissance flights towards Nasiriyah, Reilly had force landed in the floodwaters near Suk-esh-Sheyukh, where, with the assistance of the garrison, he was able to save the aircraft. Reilly and Merz planned to fly their aircraft back to Basra in company on 30 July to try to overcome engine problems. But the two aircraft became separated, with Reilly and his mechanic being forced to land 40 kilometres from a refilling station established at the island of Abu Salibiq. Merz and his companion, Burn, pressed on alone. They were never seen again.

Eyewitness evidence suggested that Merz and Burn had landed 35 kilometres from Abu Salibiq, where a well-armed force of Arabs attacked them. The two Australians attempted to retreat to Abu Salibiq, using their revolvers in a spirited defence, killing one and wounding five of the Arab assailants, before one of the Australians was wounded. Gallantly, the two officers fought together until the end, showing great personal commitment and devotion to each other. Search parties, sent out from Basra and Abu Salibiq, found that the Caudron had been reduced to matchwood, but discovered no sign of Merz or Burn.

Engine failure was a common occurrence for the Half-Flight with, as will be seen, dramatic and tragic ramifications. For the members of the Half-Flight it was a period of frustration, with tent hangars being destroyed by the ubiquitous hot, sandy winds, leaving frail aircraft subject to the vagaries of an insatiable climate. Moreover, the poor standard of workmanship at the maintenance facilities in Egypt and England meant that the engines required considerable upkeep. And yet it was also a period of innovation—to enable the Half-Flight to operate in the watery maze of the Mesopotamian river system two barges were constructed: one on which two aircraft could be transported and the second to serve as a floating workshop. Given the terrain, floatplanes would have been an asset, but attempts to modify one of the Maurice Farman aircraft to fly with floats proved unsuccessful. In August the nucleus of a seaplane flight, under the command of Major R. Gordon, was transferred from East Africa and proved its worth in the reconnaissance before and after the attack on Kut.

Four Martinsyde single-seat scouts also reinforced the unit, now known as 30 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), in August. The first of these aircraft was test flown by Petre on 29 August, who found the performance of the aircraft a disappointment—it took the aircraft 23 minutes to reach an altitude of 2000 metres, and the maximum speed of 80 kph was only a marginal improvement on the Maurice Farman and Caudron types that it supplemented.

Early in September, 30 Squadron concentrated at Ali Gharbi, halfway between Amara and Kut. The squadron, due to aircraft unserviceability, could only deploy a single Maurice Farman, a single Caudron and two Martinsydes to support the Indian 6th Division’s attack on Kut. However, a series of accidents, and the capture of Treloar and Captain B.S. Atkins of the Indian Army after they suffered an engine failure while reconnoitring Es-Sinn on 16 September, reduced the aircraft strength to a single Martinsyde. To reinforce the aerial component four aircraft (all that were available) were ordered upriver from Basra on two seaplane barges. One Maurice Farman was damaged on an overhanging tree after a strong wind blew the barges into the riverbank. This aircraft was repaired in time for battle where, based at Nakhilat, it joined a Martinsyde to participate in the attack on Es-Sinn.

Commencing on 27 September, Townshend instigated a flanking manoeuvre, made possible by air reconnaissance, which discovered a practical route through the marshes for elements of the 17th Infantry Brigade and cavalry to deploy against the left flank of the Turkish position. The action of this force, combined with an infantry bayonet charge, culminated in the rout of the Turkish defenders and the fall of Es-Sinn and Kut. The two 30 Squadron aircraft played a crucial role in these events, maintaining communications between Townshend and Brigadier W.S. Delamain, the commander of the flanking mobile column, before bombing the retreating enemy.

With the fall of Kut, the aircraft sought indications of the enemy strength located at Nasiriyah, on the Shatt el Hai (an ancient waterway linking the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), in the marshes to the north of Kut and along the Tigris river approaches to Baghdad. These operations were hampered by the difficulty of supplying replacement aircraft and supplies from Basra, and by the fragility of the Martinsyde. Difficulties aside, Reilly found that the Turkish defence of Baghdad centred on strong entrenchments at Ctesiphon, with an advanced guard twenty kilometres distant at Zeur. A second force of 2000 cavalry and camel-mounted troops at Kutaniyeh required constant surveillance to warn of any threat to the British position at Aziziyeh, only eight kilometres distant. In addition the enemy defences at Ctesiphon and Seleucia had to be carefully mapped, a task that was undertaken on a daily basis by White and Major E.J. Fulton. These flights, due to a combination of strong winds and the slow speed of the aircraft, took about two and a half hours, and engine failures (despite regular overhauling every 27 hours), were frequent.

White and Captain F.C.C. Yeates-Brown, Indian Army, undertook a photographic reconnaissance of Ctesiphon one early autumn morning. After flying at 1500 metres and evading Turkish anti-aircraft fire, the two airmen completed their mission, and turned for home and breakfast. Then the aircraft engine lost power. White opened the throttle and dived steeply for 60 metres in an attempt to remedy the problem. Initially, engine revolutions increased. White was forced to use a combination of prevailing wind, judicious use of available power and gliding to clear the general Ctesiphon area before landing adjacent to the Turkish redoubt at Zeur. The arrival of the aircraft confused the defenders long enough for White and Yeates-Brown to attempt to seek safety. Yeates-Brown, rifle in hand, stood in the observer’s seat to warn off possible pursuit and to indicate a safe passage through the broken terrain. Taxiing at speed over the cracked earth and aware of the possibility of pursuit, the airmen approached the vicinity of Kutaniyeh with some trepidation—White had dropped bombs on the troops during his previous return flights from Ctesiphon. By continuing in their sputtering aircraft along a roadway over a ridge some distance from the Tigris River, the airmen were able to bypass Kutaniyeh. Jolting overland for a further 25 kilometres, the obstruction to the fuel line or carburettor cleared, and the aircraft became airborne, miraculously enabling the crew to keep its breakfast appointment.

The seaplane flight also had its share of engine failures, one of which also involved White when he flew a Maurice Farman in the search for another flown by Gordon. Gordon’s absence was particularly distressing because with him was the Chief of the General Staff in Mesopotamia, Major General G.V. Kemball. The aircraft they were flying had suffered engine failure en route from Kut to Aziziyeh, and was discovered near the river by White, close to a large Arab camp. Circling the downed Farman, White came under attack by ground fire from the camp. It damaged an aileron rib and the propeller of White’s aircraft before he landed about a thousand metres from the downed seaplane. The Australian pilot ran to the riverbank with a spare rifle, located Kemball and returned to the aircraft to take flight for Aziziyeh. Gordon, who had left the site of the downed Farman, was saved by an Indian cavalry patrol that had noticed the descent of the floatplane.

White was not so fortunate on 13 November. He and Yeates-Brown volunteered to attempt to destroy telephone lines to the north and west of Baghdad before the British attack on Ctesiphon. The task involved the two airmen flying a round trip of 200 kilometres, meaning they had to carry cans of fuel on the aircraft. After bypassing the Turkish defences, White and Yeates-Brown discovered that their target ran parallel to a main thoroughfare used by bodies of soldiers in formation. The two airmen planned to land fourteen kilometres from the city where the telegraph line was within two hundred metres of the road. Locating the site, White circled to land. As he made his final approach he sighted a uniformed Turkish horseman calmly noting the landing of the aircraft, which could indicate the presence of enemy troops. Unfortunately the aircraft landed with the wind astern, forcing White to turn sharply to prevent damage to the front elevator. Despite judicious use of aileron and rudder, the pilot could not prevent the lower left mainplane colliding with a telegraph pole.

White traded shot after shot with the approaching Arabs, while Yeates-Brown successfully cut the wire by igniting several necklaces of gun cotton around two of the telegraph poles. The first explosion gave the Australians a brief respite from the advancing Arabs. Returning to the Maurice Farman under Arab crossfire, the airmen decided to attempt to taxi to safety. As they started the aircraft engine, a second charge exploded, snapping the telegraph wire and causing it to flail about. As they watched in horror, the wire swung around and coiled itself onto the aircraft. The only option for the airmen was to surrender. Both men were roughly handled and only the presence of a body of Turkish gendarmerie prevented them from being severely beaten. Both men became prisoners of war.

After the Turkish first and second defensive lines at Ctesiphon had been captured by Townshend’s force on 21 November, Turkish reinforcements forced the attackers to withdraw down the Tigris to Kut, where 13 000 British and Indian troops were surrounded. Two damaged BE-2C aircraft, half of the squadron reinforcements that had been sent from England, and a damaged Martinsyde remained at Kut. These had been operated and maintained by the British aircrew and the noncommisioned officers and mechanics, who joined their army colleagues in captivity. Nine Australians, of which only Flight Sergeant J.McK. Sloss and Air Mechanic K.L. Hudson subsequently survived captivity, also remained at Kut. Petre made flights from Al Gharabi over the beleaguered township to drop bags of grain (and a millstone to grind it) before he was posted to Egypt and, subsequently, to command a training squadron in England. The eight Australians at Basra were also sent to join the newly formed Australian Flying Corps in Egypt early in 1916.