THE FIRST WOMEN’S BATTALION OF DEATH

The Women’s Battalion of Death in the field.

When World War I began, Russian law prohibited women from joining the army. Nonetheless, women found ways to fight with the Russian army. Some women took the “traditional” route and disguised themselves as men, taking advantage of the general confusion to bypass medical inspections and other formalities. Others applied directly to unit commanders for the chance to enlist. As the war went on and manpower shortages became dire, individual commanders chose not to enforce the law. When women couldn’t convince a commander to let them enlist, they often appealed to a higher authority. (At least one invoked the memory of Nadezhda Durova to strengthen her case.) The number of petitions became burdensome enough that in June 1915—ten months after Russia entered the war—the army established a policy for dealing with them. Thereafter, all requests were referred to the tsar for his personal approval.

In 1917, the February Revolution brought with it the possibility of change. The Provisional Government proclaimed all subjects of the empire free and equal citizens, with the rights and duties that went with citizenship. Many women assumed their new status included their right as citizens to bear arms in their country’s defense. By the spring of 1917, the idea of an all-female military unit was in the air. Individual women proclaimed their desire to serve. Women’s groups sent petitions to the government asking for permission to form all-female military units.

At the same time that women were eager to join the army, men on the front were desperate for the war to stop. For two and a half years, the army had suffered shortages of food and materiel, heavy casualties, and brutal defeats at the hands of the Germans. From the perspective of the front line, the February Revolution had done nothing to improve their lot. The Provisional Government was no more effective at running the war than the imperial government it replaced. The introduction of democracy to the military decision-making process in the form of soldiers’ committees resulted in endless wrangling about every action and made it difficult for officers to enforce orders. In fact, many units voted to remove their officers, and then followed up the vote with force. Morale was low and the desertion rate was high. In May, units at the front experienced mass mutinies. It was not clear that Russia could continue to fight.

Many people thought an all-female battalion was the solution, believing the presence of women in the trenches would raise morale, or at least shame male soldiers into fighting.

In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers.

Bochkareva’s story is similar to that of women who joined the army disguised as men in earlier centuries. She was born into a desperately poor peasant family and went to work at the age of eight. When she was fifteen, she married a local peasant, Afanasi Bochkarev, in an attempt to escape her father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Afanasi proved to be as brutal as her father. She fled again, this time with a petty criminal named Yakov Buk. They lived together for three years. When Buk was arrested for fencing stolen goods in May 1912, Maria followed him into exile in Siberia, where he began to drink heavily and became physically abusive.

When the war began in 1914, Bochkareva saw it as an opportunity to escape. She traveled to her childhood home of Tomsk and attempted to enlist in the Twenty-Fifth Tomsk Reserve Battalion. The commander explained it was illegal for women to serve in the imperial army. Bochkareva pushed. The commander sarcastically suggested she ask the tsar for permission to enlist—not that far-fetched a suggestion as it turned out. Bochkareva convinced (or perhaps bullied) the commander to help her write a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. To the amazement of everyone, and the possible chagrin of the commander, she received a thumbs-up from the tsar.

With the tsar’s permission, she enlisted in the Fourth Company of the Twenty-Fifth Reserve. Her unit was sent to the western front in February 1915. For two years she served with distinction. She was wounded three times—the third time a shell fragment pierced her spine, leaving her paralyzed. She learned to walk again and returned to the front. She earned several military honors for valor, including the St. George Cross.

Bochkareva was an avid proponent of an all-female brigade. She began to recruit for the First Women’s Battalion of Death as soon as she received approval to form the unit, helped by the Petrograd Women’s Military Organization. Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.

The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.

Bessie Beatty, an American journalist who reported on the Russian Revolutions and the subsequent civil war for the San Francisco Bulletin, spent ten days living with the battalion in its barracks. When she asked the women why they had enlisted, many told her it was “because they believed that the honor and even the existence of Russia were at stake and nothing but great human sacrifice could save her.” Others joined because “anything was better than the dreary drudgery and the drearier waiting of life as they lived it.” A fifteen-year-old Cossack girl from the Urals, who managed to enlist despite the requirement that all volunteers be at least eighteen, joined because her father, mother, and two brothers had all died in battle. “What else is left for me?” she asked Beatty.

On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit, the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders. Bessie Beatty trumpeted the significance of the unit and the event to her readers. This was “not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun throughout the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse—machine gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.”

Two days later, Bochkareva and her soldiers left for the Russian western front. Kerensky sent the unit to an area that suffered from dangerously low morale. A few days before the women arrived, a regiment had been forced to disband due to massive desertions. Their posting was deliberate—a test as to whether the presence of women would affect the morale of male soldiers.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death experienced its first taste of battle on July 9 as part of an offensive against a German position. When the order came to attack, nothing happened. Three regiments of the infantry division to which they were attached convened their soldiers’ committees and debated whether or not to fight. After several hours, the women, anxious to prove their worth, decided they would advance without the support of the other regiments. Joined by a few hundred male soldiers, they advanced with few casualties. Eventually, more than half the soldiers in the division joined them in the advance. Together they took the first and second lines of the German trenches.

The women and a few male soldiers held off six German counterattacks on their position. They retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Before retreating, they captured two machine guns and a number of Germans, including two officers, who were not happy about being taken prisoner by women. One officer was so distraught with the shame of being captured by women that the Russian women tied him down for fear he would commit suicide—a variation of the Yoruba rage at finding they had retreated before an army of women.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death inspired the creation of similar units throughout Russia. Between five thousand and six thousand women volunteered for combat. The Provisional Government established fifteen more official units; grassroots women’s groups organized at least ten others. Several of these units saw active duty.

Despite the success of the First Women’s Battalion of Death at the front, military authorities believed the units were more trouble than they were worth. The units were formed as a means of improving morale among male troops. Instead, male soldiers became increasingly hostile to the presence of women soldiers over the course of the summer. By September, the military had stopped enlisting women and was discussing proposals to disband existing women’s combat units.

In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a relatively bloodless coup. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and began demobilizing the army, including the all-female units. Because the great experiment of women soldiers was publicly linked with the Provisional Government, many women soldiers were branded as counterrevolutionaries during the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule and suffered violence at the hands of their countrymen. Some joined anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Others enlisted in the Red Army, which welcomed women during the civil war—though most of them were placed in noncombat positions.

Maria Bochkareva fled to the United States, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson to plea for the United States to intervene in Russia. (And took the time to “write” her memoir.) She returned to Siberia in 1919 and organized a women’s paramedic unit on behalf of the White Russians. She was captured by the Bolsheviks on Christmas Day 1919, tried as an enemy of the state, and shot on May 16, 1920. She was thirty years old.

Russia’s women soldiers were celebrated during the First World War, but they were conspicuously absent from Soviet histories of the war and the revolution that followed it because of their connection to the failed Provisional Government. Nonetheless, they would serve as a precedent when Soviet Russia once again faced an external enemy in the form of Nazi Germany.

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The Escape of Flying Officer Tom Wingham, RAF

Tom Wingham, together with the other members of the crew of their Halifax II bomber, belonging to No. 102 (Ceylon) squadron, had just returned from a bombing trip to Germany, when they were told to report to Boscombe Down to test the latest Halifax bomber – the Halifax III prototype. They still had three more trips to do before they completed their tour but they had been selected for this job because they were the most experienced crew in the group. This was a welcome relief to the crew as the losses within the squadron were mounting with each mission and the odds of survival were quickly diminishing.

The development tests were scheduled to last for about five weeks but problems with the aircraft resulted in the five weeks turning into five months. On their return to their home base of Pocklington in Yorkshire, they discovered that they had been ‘screened’, which meant that the three trips needed to complete their tour had been deemed to be done. The crew was then split up and Tom Wingham chose to go to RAF Rufforth, just outside York, as a bombing instructor with the Heavy Conversion Unit.

By March 1944, Tom Wingham was becoming restless and although his job as an instructor was important, he wanted to get back into the war. His opportunity came when a drinking companion, Fgt-Off Jim Lewis, a navigator who was part of a crew that was being reformed, asked him if he was interested in joining them. Tom Wingham jumped at the chance and together with two gunners, WO John Rowe and F/Sgt Harry Poole, both instructors from RAF Driffield, they made up the crew. The rest of the crew consisted of pilot Sqn Ldr Stan Somerscales and wireless operator Fgt-Off Jack Reavill.

On the 20 April 1944, the crew took over a brand-new Halifax that had been delivered just two days previously by an ATA pilot. She maintained that it was one of the best Halifax bombers she had ever flown. The crew took it on an air test to ensure everything worked as it should and declared it fit for operations. On 21 April the crew carried out two raids on railway yards in France and Belgium and then was stood down for another crew to take the bomber on a raid to Dusseldorf. The second crew was led by the CO of No.76 Squadron, Hank Iverson, but Group HQ ordered him and his crew to stand down as they had completed their quota of trips for that month. Stan Somerscales and his crew were taken off ‘stand down’ and given the green light to take part in the raid.

At 10.36 p.m. on 22 April the big Halifax bomber once again lifted off the runway at Home-on-Spalding Moor (Yorkshire), together with other bombers, and headed south towards northern France. As they passed over Liége Tom Wingham settled himself down in the prone position to carry out checks on his bombsight. Minutes later there was a muffled thud and the aircraft shook slightly. Over the intercom came shouts of, ‘What was that?’ Then F/Sgt Harry Poole in the mid-upper gun turret shouted, ‘The wing’s on fire!’ They discovered some time later that they had been attacked by a Me. 110 nightfighter flown by Fähnrich Rudolph Frank, one of the Luftwaffe’s top night-fighter aces with forty-five victories to his credit, using an upward-firing cannon called a Schräge Musik.

Within seconds Stan Somserscale ordered the crew to bale out as he knew there was no way of saving the aircraft. Tom Wingham immediately jettisoned the bomb load to make it easier for the pilot to maintain control and then clipping on his parachute, moved his seat from over the escape hatch. Being a new aircraft the hatch was extremely tight and it took the combined efforts of himself and Jim Lewis to force it open. All the time the flames were creeping along the wing and into the fuselage. As he watched Jim Lewis drop out, Tom looked back along the fuselage, which by now was enveloped in smoke and flames, and saw Jack Reavill about to leave by one on the other hatches. Sitting on the edge of the hatch, Tom dropped out and as he pulled the ripcord of his parachute he saw the burning aircraft plunging towards the ground. He discovered later that the aircraft crashed between Maastricht and Aachen.

Tom Wingham remembered nothing after pulling the ripcord until he came to in the middle of a field. He lay there for a while trying to collect his thoughts, and then his back and legs started to become extremely painful as he struggled to his feet. Hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes whilst unconscious hadn’t helped his situation. He glanced down at his watch and was aware that he was having great difficulty in focusing. His jaw was also very swollen and tender. He realised later that he was suffering from concussion probably brought about by the heavy metal parachute clips hitting him on either side of the jaw as his parachute opened. Gathering up his parachute and harness, he rolled it into as tight a bundle as possible then struggled across the field and hid it under the hedgerow.

Looking up at the stars Tom managed to fix a position and headed in a south-westerly direction. Reaching a small river he waded across then decided to settle down for the night. In the morning the sun spread a warm feeling through his aching and bruised body but his vision was still out of focus which was causing him some concern. He decided that it would be safer to travel at night and so rested beside the river until dusk. With the gathering darkness he started off, not knowing where he was headed for or indeed what country he was in. He had in fact crossed the Dutch–Belgian border during the night and was now in Belgium. The walking had helped ease the pains in his back and legs. Stumbling on through the darkness he came upon a village and although he could hear voices he could not identify their nationality, so decided to skirt the village and continue in a south-westerly direction.

His vision was still giving him cause for worry and the only way he could work out his course was to lie flat on his back, identify the North Star and line up his body to the south-west. This of course was conditional on clear nights, but on the second day he was caught out in the open during a violent thunderstorm and within minutes was soaked through to the skin in a torrential downpour. In addition to this he could hear the sound of engines as bombers flew overhead on their way to targets in Germany. Then suddenly he heard the sound of gunfire and minutes later saw a burning Lancaster bomber hit the ground and explode just a mile or two from where he was standing.

Tom realised that he was in dire need of help and decided to trudge back to the village he had skirted earlier and make his way to the church. He found the church deserted so decided to wait in the undergrowth until the dawn came. Then he saw movement and watched as a woman emerged from a cottage. She opened a pen full of sheep and proceeded to drive them towards a field close to where Tom was hiding. Taking a chance, he stepped out and explained to the woman in a mixture of gestures and sign language that he was the member of an RAF bomber crew that had been shot down and had parachuted into a field. The communication proved to be difficult but then the realisation of what he was trying to say became apparent to the woman and she quickly ushered him into the cottage.

On entering the cottage he was confronted by three men – the woman’s husband and their two sons. After managing to explain to them that he was a downed RAF airman they helped him take off his wet clothes. Meanwhile one of the sons had disappeared and had gone across the street to another cottage where he knew there was a Dutch policeman, Herman Ankoné, who had been visiting some friends in the village. Unwittingly, the woman Tom had approached for help was known locally as the worst gossip in the area and so the policeman, knowing this, was wary of offering his help. However, they had approached him and by doing so had compromised themselves, so he decided to check Tom out in case he had been a German ‘plant’.

Entering the cottage, the policeman barked out a number of commands in German and getting no response from Tom, proceeded to verify that he was who he said he was. Tom was initially shaken but after realising that the man was not German but in fact Dutch, he relaxed. Again the language barrier was causing problems, so the policeman indicated using sign language and pencil and paper that an English-speaking policeman would come later that evening.

At 9 a.m. a tall policeman in uniform entered the cottage and began to interrogate Tom until he was satisfied that Tom was indeed an RAF airman. Introducing himself as Sgt Vermullen, the policeman told Tom that he and all the other officers in the district just over the border were members of the local Dutch Resistance.

After being given fresh clothes and a meal, Tom was taken to another house in the village where he was instructed to wait until he was collected by other police officers that evening. Promptly at 6 p.m., three Dutch police officers, including Sgt Vermullen and officer Ankoné, arrived to take him over the border into Holland. He was taken to a farmhouse close to the border and introduced to Richard Linckens and his wife Cisca. The couple were members of the Resistance who helped escaping and evading allied airmen and had aided more than forty since the beginning of the war. In order to allay any suspicions from the German border guards, the couple maintained a very friendly relationship with them and on numerous occasions entertained the guards in one room, whilst in another room allied airmen were enjoying a meal. During the two days Tom Wingham stayed there he remembers having supper with Cisca, whilst her husband was having coffee in the next room with some of the German border guards!

On the evening of the second day, the three Dutch policemen arrived to escort him to another safe house in a village called Slenaken. On the way the group ran into a patrol of German border guards and Tom had to jump out of the vehicle and hide in an orchard until they had passed. The group resumed their journey and for the next three days and nights Tom Wingham stayed at the home of Sgt Vermullen in the company of his wife and three children.

Again this aid and hospitality was extended willingly despite the risk that families might pay for it with their lives if they were discovered. Then after the third day, a guide turned up to take him to another safe house. After saying farewell and thanking his hosts, Tom Wingham and the guide set off on a two-hour trek through pitch-black woodland to an isolated farmhouse over the border in Belgium. The farmer and his wife welcomed him but were nervous about him being there. They emphasised the point to the guide that it could only be for one night. The next morning he was told that another guide would come to collect him after lunch but lunchtime came and went, with the farmer and his wife becoming increasingly agitated. Then a message came to say that it would be the following day before he could be collected. Despite Tom feeling a sense of embarrassment at being foisted on the couple, he had no choice but to stay put until the following day.

Just after lunch the following day, the farmer gave Tom an old bicycle and he was taken to a lane some distance from the farm. There he was told to wait until his guide arrived to take him to his next point of contact. After about thirty minutes a woman and a young girl, Madame Coomans and her daughter Mady, suddenly appeared on bicycles and stopped beside him. Once again there was a problem with language but Madam Coomans, the mother, spoke a few words of English and managed to explain to Tom what was going to happen. The mother and daughter would cycle in front with at least a 50yd gap between each of the bikes. In the event of the mother being stopped by a German patrol, the daughter would turn around and cycle back towards Tom. He in turn would turn around and take the next turning off the road. The daughter Mady would catch up and overtake him and then lead him on to safety.

Still suffering from concussion, Tom set off behind the two women, all the time having great difficulty in focussing. Fortunately everything went smoothly and just before dark they reached the small town of Wandre. They parked their bicycles at the rear of the home of the parish priest, before entering the Manse. Here they were warmly welcomed and the priest’s housekeeper provided them with a hot meal. The priest, who spoke good English, explained to Tom what was going to happen next. He was to go and stay the night at the home of Mme Coomans and the next day he was to travel with a guide to Brussels to join up with a group of evaders who were going down the escape line to Spain.

The following morning he was woken to be told that he was too late to join the others in Brussels. Due to a directive from London to the escape line organisers to suspend all movement of airmen, he was to stay with the Coomans. This created a major problem, because Mme Coomans’ husband had no knowledge of his wife’s Resistance activities. Nevertheless, Tom Wingham moved into the small house and lived there for the next seven weeks without Monsieur Coomans’ knowledge as he went to work as a miner blissfully unaware of who was living in the spare room upstairs.

Madame Coomans’ husband worked a regular 2-10 p.m. shift, so she set out her husband’s timetable for Tom Wingham:

8 a.m. – Got up and had breakfast.

10 a.m. – Went to local estaminet (bar) to play cards with friends.

12.30 p.m. – Returned home for dinner.

1.25 p.m. – Departed for work at the mine.

10.20 p.m. – Returned from work.

11 p.m. – Went to bed.

In between all these times Tom Wingam was allowed out of his room, but never allowed to leave the house – not even to use the outside toilet. The stairs from downstairs led directly into the first bedroom, there was no landing, whilst the door to the second bedroom was at the foot of the bed in the main bedroom.

During the day, visitors, in the shape of the local priest, a member of the escape committee from Liége and sometimes the paymaster for the Resistance, would occasionally visit to see if he needed anything and to pay Mme Coomans for Tom Wingham’s food. Tom was constantly concerned about what would happen if M Coomans ever found out that he was in the house. He was told that he would probably just tell him to leave, as he was neither for nor against the Germans and equally he was neither for nor against the English.

As the days turned into weeks the arrival of June heralded the beginning of summer and Tom longed to be able to walk in the warm sunshine. Then on 6 June news came through of the D-Day landings and the retreat of the German army. Two weeks later Tom Wingham’s world almost collapsed around him when he heard a sudden screeching of tyres and the slamming of car doors outside the house. There came a hammering on the doors and shouts in German for the doors to be opened. He had been betrayed to the Gestapo.

Tom had been listening to the BBC on the radio at the time, so switching it off and changing the dial settings, he raced upstairs with the intention of escaping through a window at the back of the house and into the woods. As he went to open the shutter, he saw a leather-coated figure at the back trying to force open a window in the back. Now desperate, he raced downstairs and into the cellar, frantically looking for a place to hide. It took a few moments for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and it became obvious that there was nowhere to hide. The cellar was cluttered with old boxes and the usual items found in a cellar. Upstairs he heard the Gestapo searching the rooms. Suddenly he spied a tiny alcove behind the stairs that led to the cellar, surrounded by old crates. The alcove, which was about 4ft high and just 18in wide, was his only hope and so he somehow squeezed in and pulled the crates around him.

He heard heavy footsteps pounding down the wooden staircase into the cellar. Barely daring to breathe, his heart was beating so loudly that he thought the Germans must have been able to hear it. The two Gestapo men stopped and struck matches to enable them to peer into the inky blackness. Fortunately for Tom they had not thought to bring torches with them and after a few moments, including a time when they moved close to the crates behind which he was hiding, they left. Tom remained crouched whilst he heard them banging around upstairs and then he heard car doors slamming shut followed by an engine starting, and the scream of tyres as they sped away.

He waited for almost an hour before emerging from the cellar just to ensure that they had gone. He discovered later that the Gestapo had gone to the mine, picked up M Coomans and taken him to their headquarters in Liége for questioning. After many hours of questioning the Gestapo realised that he knew nothing of his wife’s involvement with the Resistance, which of course he didn’t, and released him. M. Coomans returned home in the early hours of the morning, not knowing that Tom was still in the house.

That evening Tom slipped out of the back door and made his way through the dense wood to the Manse at the other end of the village and explained what had happened to the priest. He was then passed on to another Resistance group, who took him to a small terraced house in the village where he stayed with an elderly widower who lived alone. Once again Tom found himself confined to the house, not even being allowed to use the outside toilet.

The reason for this was because one of the attached houses was the home of members of the Belgian Nazis (Rexist Party), and one of their sons was away fighting with the Waffen SS. Their bedroom window overlooked the widower’s outside toilet and it was too dangerous for Tom to even consider stepping outside in case they spotted him.

After one week some members of the Resistance came and took him to a farm a couple of miles outside the town. The farmer named M. Schoofs, his wife, a son called Pascal and two daughters made Tom very welcome and he quickly became integrated as part of the family. This was a complete change for Tom, in as much as he could walk freely around the farm and help in the fields picking fruit. It also gave him a chance to repay their hospitality in a small way and not feel completely obliged, although this had never been suggested or hinted at by any of the people who had helped him.

For the next few weeks Tom enjoyed the open-air life, only interrupted by the odd raid by the Gestapo. They almost always made their raids either first thing in the morning or in the evenings. When it was suspected that they were in the area, Tom would get up early in the morning and go to the bottom of one of the fields and hide, and do the same thing again in the evening.

One evening one of the Resistance members called and asked him if he was prepared to join up with an RAF pilot and steal a German plane from a local airfield and fly it back to England. Tom immediately jumped at the chance but the town priest suggested that he be allowed to check on the validity of such a daring proposal. The priest returned saying that it was indeed a genuine proposal and arrangements were put into place to take Tom to Liége to await final instructions. He was taken into the town and placed in the care of an elderly couple in their third-floor apartment.

After two days of waiting and hearing nothing, it was soon realised that the whole project was a non-starter. Increasing German patrols and searches by the Gestapo in the town made the old couple extremely nervous. The Resistance was contacted and arrangements were made to take him back to the farm. Early one evening a member of the Resistance, a Belgian Intelligence agent, arrived with two bicycles and the two men set off to cycle back to the village of Wandre. They had just left the outskirts of Liége when another cyclist, a German soldier, joined them. He accompanied them almost all the way to Wandre before leaving them.

Just a mile from the farm, the two men stopped and parted and Tom walked the rest of the way, whilst the Belgian took the other bicycle back to Liége.

Towards the end of August there were a growing number of German soldiers retreating from the advancing allies. Then suddenly the farm was surrounded by German troops camping out in the fields, hedgerows or anywhere else they could. The officer in charge then told Madame Schoofs that he was taking over part of the farmhouse and making it his headquarters. He told her that their barns would be commandeered as billets for his men. Taking M Schoofs to one side, Tom suggested that he should leave so as not to cause problems for the family in the event of him being discovered. But because of the situation, and the reduction in the level of danger, the couple decided that Tom should play the part of a deaf Flemish mute, as it might arouse suspicion if he suddenly left.

That lunchtime the family, including some of the workers from the fields, sat down in the kitchen to enjoy a rather sumptuous roast lunch of veal. At one point the whole family, with the exception of Tom, left the table to harangue a bunch of dejected, straggling soldiers as they trudged their weary way through the farmyard. As they did so, Tom, still at the lunch table, looked up to see two German soldiers looking longingly at the pile of food on the table.

Tom’s chair was situated close to the door leading into what was becoming the German officer’s control room and suddenly it was pushed ajar violently and Tom was almost thrown to the floor. The German officer’s head peered around the door shouting out commands. On receiving no response he shouted even louder, Tom had to play the part of a deaf mute all the time. At this point Mme Schoofs, on hearing the commotion, stormed into the kitchen and started to berate the officer about how she felt a German officer should behave and how she did not want dirty Boche boots soiling her Belgian kitchen floor. For a moment there was silence, then the officer muttered something and quietly shut the door and locked it.

Word started to come through that retreating bands of Waffen SS troops were killing young Belgian men indiscriminately, so it was decided that Tom Wingham should be moved to a safer location. The problem was how to get him past the German troops now surrounding and even camped within the farm itself. Within the hour Pascal told Tom to get ready to move and so Tom Wingham prepared himself for one of the most nerve-racking moments since he had bailed out of his aircraft. Pascal came in to fetch him and the two men walked out into the farmyard. Waiting in the middle of the farmyard was a very fat peasant woman of around thirty-five years of age holding a battered pushchair. With her was a young child aged between two and three years old, who was playing with some of the German soldiers.

The woman glanced at Tom and then shouted for the child to come to her or Papa wouldn’t push her in the chair. Tom was stunned for the moment as he realised that he had just been ‘married’ off, and dressed in ill-fitting pinstripe trousers and a black jacket, he tottered off with the woman, followed by goodbyes and laughter from the Schoofs family and totally bemused looks from the German soldiers lounging around.

The couple made their way back to Wandre, where members of the Resistance were waiting. After saying goodbye and giving grateful thanks to his ‘bride’ of a few hours, Tom Wingham was placed in a safe house.

Two days later an American tank column entered the village and Tom was able to arrange passage to Paris where he met up with his navigator. The two men returned to England on 16 September.

Tom Wingham returned to operational flying, this time on Mosquitoes with No. 105 squadron. He completed four more missions including, on the night of 2 May 1945, being in one of the last four aircraft of Bomber Command to bomb Germany.

It cannot be emphasised enough the dangers that the men, women and children placed themselves in to help allied soldiers and airmen to escape the clutches of the German army and Gestapo. The identities of the vast majority of these people will never be known, as after the war they just went back to their normal way of life. The debt owed to these people can never be repaid but should never be forgotten as they helped in their own way to shape the course of history.

No. 102 Squadron RAF

Ju-52 ”Kaleva”

Kaleva, registered OH-ALL, was a civilian Junkers Ju 52 passenger and transport plane, belonging to the Finnish carrier Aero O/Y. The aircraft was shot down by two Soviet Ilyushin DB-3 bombers during peacetime between the Soviet Union and Finland on June 14, 1940, while en route from Tallinn to Helsinki, killing all 9 on board.

A few minutes after taking off in Tallinn, Kaleva was joined at close range by two Soviet DB-3T torpedo bombers. The bombers opened fire with their machine guns and badly damaged Kaleva, making it crash into the water a few kilometers northeast of Keri Lighthouse. All nine passengers and crew members on board were killed.

Estonian fishermen had witnessed the attack and crash of the plane. Shortly after the crash the Soviet submarine Shch-301 surfaced and inspected the fishing boats. After confiscating items taken from the wreck by the fishermen, the Soviets picked up diplomatic mail from the wreck and the sea. The future top-scoring Finnish pilot Ilmari Juutilainen was sent to inspect the crash site. After the Soviets spotted the Finnish airplane, the submarine hid its flag.

At the time of the incident Finland was not at war with the Soviet Union. The attack was probably part of the Soviet preparations for the full-scale occupation of Estonia, which took place two days after the Kaleva incident, on 16 June 1940. The occupation was preceded for several days by a Soviet air and naval blockade, which included preventing diplomatic mail from being sent abroad from Estonia. The passengers on the last flight of Kaleva included two German businessmen, two French embassy couriers, one Swede, an American courier, and an Estonian woman. The French couriers had over 120 kilograms of diplomatic mail in the plane. The American courier was reportedly transporting the U.S. military codes to safety from Estonia.

The plane was piloted by Captain Bo von Willebrand, and Tauno Launis was the wireless operator. The American victim was Henry W. Antheil, Jr., younger brother of noted composer George Antheil. Antheil worked as a clerk at the U.S. Legation in Helsinki. In 2007, he was honored for his service in a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State. His name was inscribed on the U.S. Department of State’s Wall of Honor.

The Government of Finland did not send any complaints or questions to the Soviets out of fear of hostile Soviet response, and the true reason for the crash was hidden from the public. This was due to the heavy pressure put upon Finland during the Interim Peace by the Soviets. After the outbreak of the Continuation War, the incident was described in detail by the government.

G. Golderg’s report

The commander of Shch-301 G. Golderg’s report on the incident held in the Russian State Naval Archives starts with the notice of a Finnish airplane on its way from Tallinn to Helsinki on June 14, 1940 at 15.05 PM. According to the report, the airplane was chased by two Soviet Tupolev SB high-speed bombers. At 15.06 PM, the Finnish airplane caught fire and fell into the sea, 5.8 miles from the submarine. At 15.09 PM the submarine took course to the crash site and made it to the location by 15.47 PM. The submarine was met by 3 Estonian fishing boats near the detritus of the airplane. The Estonian fishermen were searched by lieutenants Aladzhanov, Krainov and Shevtshenko. All valuables found from the fishermen and in the sea were brought on board of the submarine: the items included about 100 kg. of diplomatic post, valuables and foreign currencies. At 15.58 a Finnish fighter plane was noticed with the course towards the submarine. The airplane made 3 circles above the site and then flew towards Helsinki. The exact coordinates of the crash site were determined to be at 59°47′1″N 25°01′6″E.

A. Matvejev’s report

Captain A. Matvejev’s report states that on board the Shch-301 noticed an airplane crash on June 14, 1940 at 15.06 on 5.8 miles distance from the submarine. At the crash site 3 Estonian fishing boats and the remains of the airplane were found. At 15.58 PM a Finnish fighter plane made 3 circles above the crash site. By 16.10 PM all items found from the sea and from the hands of the fishermen were brought on board the submarine. The items included about 100 kg of diplomatic mail, and valuables and currencies including: 1) 2 golden medals, 2) 2000 Finnish marks, 3) 10.000 Romanian leus, 4)13.500 French francs, 5) 100 Yugoslav dinars, 6) 90 Italian liras, 7) 75 US dollars, 8) 521 Soviet rubles, 9) 10 Estonian kroons. All items were put on board of patrol boat “Sneg” and sent to Kronstadt.

PANZERGRENADIER TACTICS

I thought this article on PANZERGRENADIER TACTICS might prove of some interest, as probably the German Motorised/Panzergrenadier divisions were amongst the most versatile of the War.

Guderian always accepted that tanks could not operate alone effectively. Despite anti-infantry weaponry-usually machine guns-a tank was always vulnerable to small groups or even lone infantrymen if they were determined enough. This vulnerability was increased if the infantry had access to decent anti-tank guns or devices, but even poorly-equipped foot soldiers could prove a real danger if they had the requisite courage. Finnish tank-killing infantry destroyed about 1600 Soviet AFVs/Tanks during the Winter War of 1939-40, mostly using Molotov cocktails or even petrol filled vodka bottles. Tanks proved particularly at risk in broken terrain, such as forests and urban areas and the Finns exploited this.

When Tanks were fighting through defensive lines or moving through landscape that provided the enemy with good cover, they needed accompanying infantry to go in first to clear the way or make a breakthrough in the enemy line so the Tanks could then exploit. Thus the Panzergrenadier might very often have to fight like a conventional infantryman. Conversely, in a fast-moving advance that usually characterised German Blitzkrieg tactics he might find himself carried by a halftrack, lorry or motorcycle, or in extreme circumstances, hanging from the tank itself, ready to dismount and engage anything that slowed the Tank. Whenever tanks bypassed points or ‘pockets’ of stiff enemy resistance, it was the job of the Panzergrenadier to clear up these pockets.

Although the classic image of the Panzergrenadier is intimately associated with the SdKfz 251 half-tracked armoured personnel carrier, there were never enough of these vehicles to equip panzergrenadier formations to full strength. The concept of a carrier-borne attack into the heart of the enemy’s defences accompanying the tanks was the ideal, but the reality was somewhat more mundane. Most Panzergrenadiers were transported in soft-skinned vehicles like trucks and motorcycles. These were very vulnerable and thus caution was required when following tanks. There were no half-tracks available in the Polish campaign, and later in the War very few Pazergrenadier divisions had a full complement of these vehicles. Even within the Panzer divisions, only 1 battalion in 2 would be so equipped.


Therefore instead of driving into the midst of the enemy position, the Panzergrenadiers. normally debussed at a forming-up point or start line away from the enemy’s line of sight. They then attacked in the conventional manner of infantry supporting tanks. The key tactical advantage was that because of their motorisation, they could be brought into battle as soon as they were needed.

It was only at the time of Barbarossa in 1941 that large numbers of SdKfz 251s became widely available and enough to equip full battallions of Panzergrenadiers within a Panzer division. Now, the Germans could experiment with fighting directly from their half-tracks. Although the SdKfz 251 provided decent protection against small arms fire, they only had 13mm of armoured plate. Thus they became vulnerable to even the smallest calibre anti-tank weapon and suffered accordingly. Due to heavy losses suffered amongst half-tracks when accompanying Tanks into the heart of a battle, the Germans fairly quickly resorted to debussing at least 400m or so in front of enemy positions, when using the SD KFZ 251. Nonetheless, under certain tactical conditions, the half-track could provide a useful firing position.

At the lowest level, the basic Panzergrenadier unit was the gruppe or squad, usually about 12 men mounted in a half-track or often a truck. The squad was led by a squad leader, usually a junior NCO eg a corporal, who was armed with a machine pistol and was responsible for the squad to the platoon commander. On the move, he also commanded the vehicle and fired the vehicle mounted machine gun, usually an MG 34/42. His rifle-armed assistant was normally a lance-corporal and could lead the half squad if it was divided. The squad contained 2 light machine-gun teams, each of 2 men, four rifle-armed infantrymen and the driver and co-driver. The driver was also responsible for the care of the vehicle and expected to remain with the transport. A Panzergrenadier platoon was made up of 3 squads, with the platoon HQ in a separate vehicle. The HQ troop consisted of a platoon commander, usually a junior officer but sometimes a sergeant, a driver, a radio-operator, 2 runners, a medic and usually some form of anti-tank gun.

When the squad was transported by a half-track, the vehicle was mounted from the rear. The deputy squad leader was responsible for closing the door, thus he would sit towards the rear of the vehicle and the squad leader would sit at the front.


These vehicles were open-topped, and on the move it was usual for one man to scan the skies constantly for aircraft, whilst others kept a watch on both sides of the vehicle. When a platoon was driving together, close order, for the convoy was usually 5-10m apart in column or even abreast in open country. In combat, however, the gaps were extended to beyond 50m, and ragged lines or chequered formations were used. If the whole battalion was deployed, the preferred formation was often an ‘arrowhead’. On the whole, troop-carrying vehicles rarely averaged more than 30km per hour road speed. Even under ideal conditions, a panzer division was not expected to advance more than 20km in a day.

The SdKfz 251, drivers were prepared to simply ignore or drive through small arms fire, but the presence of enemy artillery or anti-tank guns usually saw them seek cover. The squad’s machine-gunners might well engage targets on the move, as could the rest of the squad if necessary from the sides. Often when advancing, the SdKfz 251s, could utilise a motorised version of fire and movement, advancing, stopping and firing to cover other half-tracks. A halted half-track provided a good firing position but was vulnerable. As a result, it was not recommended to stop for more than 15-20seconds in hostile terrain. The normal dismounting procedure was via the rear of the vehicle. However, in emergencies, the squad might well jump over the side as well as out of the back. This was often performed on the move at slow speeds. Once dismounted, the Panzergrenadiers fought as normal infantry. Improvements in Soviet anti-tank defences as the war advanced meant that the Panzergrenadiers often had to precede the tanks, or a mixed force of tanks and soldiers might move forward to clear enemy defences.

One of the most important German formations developed during the Soviet campaign was the PULK, a contraction of Panzer und lastkraftwagen, meaning tanks and trucks. This was a hollow wedge of tanks inside which moved the mororized infantry. The point of the wedge was formed by the best tanks and the sides by other tanks and self-propelled guns. When the wedge pierced the enemy defences, it widened the gap as it passed through. The Panzergrenadiers were then able to spread out and attack remaining areas of resistance from the flanks and rear. If the enemy’s weakest point had not been identified, the PULK could advance as a blunt quadrangle. Once a weak spot was found, the formation could incline left or right, its corner becoming the ‘point of advance’.

Although the Panzergrenadiers key role was co-operation with Tanks they could fight on their own. The very flexibility was a vital component of their value. They could fight as infantry offensive and defensive actions, assault vital strongpoints, seize bridges and clear urban or wooded areas in which the Tanks were at risk. Essentially the Panzergrenadiers was part of an all-arms team. His role grew out of the German acceptance that the Tank could not win battles alone. To quote Wilhelm Necker in 1943: ‘The Germans at an early stage in the war and even before the war understood the special weakness of the tank: its dependency on terrain and the fact it cannot occupy, but can only strike hard and break through lines. For this reason, the actual tank force was cut down to the minimum and the division reinforced with various other units, the most important being the Panzergrenadier.’

First German vehicle picture I saw as a child.

Fleischer, Wolfgang: “Die motorisierten Schutzen und Panzergrenadiere des deutschen Heeres, 1935-1945. Waffen-Fahrzeuge-Gliederung-Einsatze”, Podzun Pallas Verlag, Wolfersheim, 2000,

Riemann, Horst: “Deutsche Panzergrenadiere”,

Mittler & Sohn Verlag, Herford, 1989,

Scheibert, Horst: “Panzergrenadiere, Kradschutzen und Panzeraufklarer 1935 – 1945”, Podzun Pallas Verlag, Friedberg, ca. 1984,

Lucas/Cooper: “Panzergrenadiere im 2.Weltkrieg”,

Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 1.Auflage, 1981,

Redmon/Cuccarese: “Panzergrenadiers in action”, Broschur, Squadron/Signal Publications, (engl.) Carrollton, Texas, USA, 1980,

Senger-Etterlin,F.: “Die Panzergrenadiere, Geschichte und Gestalt der

mechanisierten Infanterie 1930 – 1960″, Lehmanns Verlag, Munchen, 1961

Officers, mid-17th century to early 18th century

During this period-with the notable exceptions of England and the United Provinces-monarchs in Europe increasingly took direct control of military affairs away from powerful noble military families and mercenary captains. As they did, better-supervised and more-professional officer corps slowly took shape on land and at sea. The progress of professionalization displacing mere class origin in selection and advancement of officers varied in terminology employed and historical timing in different kingdoms. In general, however, by the mid-17th century, men holding a commission signed by a king were known as “commission-officers.” By the early 18th century, this terminology shifted slightly to commissioned officers. That referred to any officer appointed by the crown-or the Admiralty in the case of the Royal Navy or one of five states’ admiralties of the Dutch Navy. At sea, commissioned officers included captains, commanders, and lieutenants. On land, this status comprised all ranks of field marshal and general as well as colonels in command of regiments. Below commissioned officers were warrant officers, who held rank by virtue of a warrant rather than a royal commission. These were staff or administrative appointments made by a regiment’s colonel or a ship’s captain. An exception was the small Prussian Army, wherein the “Great Elector” Friedrich-Wilhelm insisted on a veto of all officer choices made by his colonels. Warrant officer rank was most frequently awarded to Army chaplains and surgeons, and sometimes also to corporals and sergeants. Naval warrant officers included the master, quartermaster, boatswain, purser, and master carpenter. Holders of these four offices were also known as standing officers. Royal Navy warrants were issued by one of the naval boards.

The French Navy always found it difficult to recruit officers with seafaring skills. Service at sea was resisted by the aristocratic classes, who sought instead to serve in view of the king in the senior arm, the French Army. The Navy thus had only a small permanent officer corps, numbering fewer than 1,000 even if one counts the more than 600 ensigns. Most French sea officers in this period were either “roturiers” (of non-noble social origin) or “anoblis” (recently ennobled), or their sons. They learned seacraft in merchant ships or as privateers. Officers of more noble social origin acquired seamanship by serving on Mediterranean galleys of the Knights of Malta before commanding French galleys that remained part of the fleet based at Toulon. Some later rose to high rank and command of ships of sail. From the 1670s, French ensigns were trained in companies of Gardes marine set up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Many French sea officers switched over, or back, to privateering from 1695 as the Navy abandoned guerre d’escadre in favor of guerre de course. The Navy as a whole was nominally commanded by the “Admiral of France,” an ancient office that was revived in 1669 and given to a succession of the king’s illegitimate sons. Real operational command lay with activeduty admirals and two vice-admirals, one residing in Brest and the other based in Toulon. Below them were “lieutenants-general of the navy” and “chefs d’escadre,” roughly equivalent to the British rank of “commodore.”

From the time of Friedrich-Wilhelm, serfs laboring on Hohenzollern lands were recruited equally into the Prussian Army, while socially and economically privileged Junkers formed the bulk of the officer corps. Rigid social order found expression in a Junker’s desire to serve as an officer, which marked him off as socially superior to all others, and thereby reinforced rather than eroded his noble status. For a half century before 1700, Russian officers were mostly foreigners. This began to change even before Peter I imposed intense and fundamental Army reforms after ruthlessly suppressing the strel’sty. By 1675 there were many experienced Russian officers already serving in the Army; by 1695 Russians served in large numbers at all levels in new-formation units. In 1708 the majority of officers in all the tsar’s regiments were ethnic Russians or came from other of his subjects. Peter insisted on this, but also that no fewer than one third of his officers during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) must be experienced foreigners. Russian officers, too, were by then experienced in war, and were well trained in modern weapons and the new methods of warfare which Peter imported from Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United Provinces. In contrast, 15% of all Polish officers in 1650 were foreign. This number was important, however, since most Polish officers in the “National Contingent” army served a maximum of 10 years, and many did fewer than that. The Austrian Hofkriegsrat faced a much different problem, that of inherited officer commissions. It made some progress in professionalizing the officer corps when it abolished the sale of officer commissions early in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), during the presidency of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Hereditary promotions and sales of at least some commissions were standard for many middle-ranking officers and for most senior positions in most European armies of this era. Commissions were treated, and traded, as military investments. Some British Army officer commissions remained for sale well into the 19th century, until after the Crimean War. This probably reflected the position and prolonged influence of the Duke of Wellington, a man both rich and talented, who purchased a commission as lieutenant-colonel at age 23. The other problem in England, resolved only by the Glorious Revolution and complete military triumph of Protestantism across all Three Kingdoms in 1691, was the tendency of Charles II and his brother James II to appoint officers from a narrow slice of the population solely on the basis of Catholic loyalties rather than military competence. By 1688 about 10% of English officers were Catholics. Virtually all officers in Ireland under James were Catholic, following a purge of the Irish establishment by the Earl of Tyrconnel. Many Protestant officers deeply resented this assault on the property rights of their purchased commissions and deserted to William III within hours or days of his landing in England. The new king did not readily trust such men, however, and for years afterward, continued to rely on fellow Dutchmen or on German and other mercenaries. He truly trusted only those English and Scots officers who had previously served him in the Anglo-Dutch Brigade. For instance, Marlborough came under deep suspicion of divided loyalty and was imprisoned for a time. This situation changed slowly during the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). In 1706 a “Board of General Officers” was established to impose penalties or hear courts-martial of delinquent officers. This introduced a fresh element of professionalism to the British Army, even for gentlemen-officers.

The process of professionalization of the officer corps was much further and earlier advanced in France under Louvois and Louis XIV than in any other country of the time. The traditional independence of noble officers in France was severely eroded after the failure of their effort to retain privileges of their class, and the active treason of several senior commanders during the rebellion of the Fronde. Fresh standards were then imposed on even the most senior officers. The most important reform was to partly open the French officer “corps” (the word did not actually yet apply in its modern sense) to entry by men of low birth but real ability, though an old refusal of French nobles to serve under or to obey men who were regarded as social inferiors, even if they were also of noble birth, was slowly overcome. In 1675 Louis issued an “ordre de tableau” setting up a seniority list for French maréchals (of whom 51 were created between 1643 and 1715) to eliminate conflicts of command authority based on social rather than military rank.

This was part of a larger professionalization and reform undertaken by Louis and Louvois that established the modern system of ranks. Nobles still dominated the top commands: only 1 out of every 15 French generals who served under Louis XIV was of non-noble birth. The upper-class origin of most senior officers and many middle ranks was reflected in an aristocratic code of values and conduct that required displays of conspicuous courage under fire, and encouraged frequent dueling in peacetime, a practice that survived multiple royal bans. At its height, the French Army under Louis XIV had over 20,000 officers. Most were drawn from roughly 50,000 noble families of France. Others came from recently ennobled bourgeoisie, who eagerly served in the many new line regiments Louis raised during his long wars. These men paid to equip and support a new regiment in return for the privilege of its colonelcy. This led to extensive patronage networks organized around colonelcies. That trend was reinforced by the king’s insistence on state service by the old nobility, who built their own client networks in the regiments. Even among aristocratic officers, by the end of this period, an emerging professionalism ensured higher levels of political loyalty to the king than in past wars. Enhanced professionalism also cut back on otherwise endemic officer quarrels, dueling, and absenteeism.

Louvois found a way around purchased commissions by introducing two new, non-purchasable appointments (officially, these were not yet considered ranks): major and lieutenant-colonel. Even so, independent wealth remained key to an officer’s rise in station since he was expected to partly equip and maintain his company or regiment. To recover these costs, a colonel or captain fully expected to milk his regiment through creative accounts. Commissions from royal agents were issued to raise, command, and supply troops, partly replacing the system of purchase of companies and regiments by noblemen, though success in this regard was largely confined to the elite Gardes du Corps.

A young officer’s education also changed markedly in this era in France. Before the reforms made by Louvois, all training was received on-the-job, in active duty with one’s regiment. Louvois changed this in several ways. He designated certain musketeer units as training locales for young officers, especially for future staff officers. Thus, in 1679, when an artillery school was founded, it was attached to the “Fusiliers du Roi,” originally a musketeer regiment that was renamed the “Royal-Artillerie” in 1693. This change in the artillery was a vast improvement on civilian contractors hired by the French Army until 1672 to handle the big guns. Contractors had been paid for each cannon they brought into action on a battlefield or during a siege, which was no proper basis for sustaining a professional corps of cannoneers. In 1682 Louvois set up nine training companies for officer-cadets in various frontier towns. These trained young men in arms, drill, and riding, as well as in dancing, fencing, and other social skills deemed crucial (in most armies, into the early 20th century) to officer status. Cadets also studied mathematics, geography, and map reading, and those who chose to do so indulged art, music, and literature. The next year, officers in training for whom very high expectations were held were attached to the Régiment du Roi, and from 1684 to other regiments of Louis’ household (“Maison du Roi”) regiments. Similarly, a “Ritterakademie” was established for officers of the Prussian Army, though its curriculum was not as advanced in this era as in the French academies.

MOLLY PITCHER

Don Troiani, Artist

Thought to be Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, iconic figure in the US War of Independence, b. 1754, d. 1832

A water bearer to the troops in one of the hardest-fought battles of the American Revolution, a woman nicknamed Molly Pitcher became famous when she took the place of a fallen artillery gunner, her husband, and continued the fight. Her story abounds in vivid detail, including chatting with George Washington, but some historians question its authenticity and doubt that she existed as described.

The woman with whom Molly Pitcher is usually identified, Mary Ludwig, was born to German immigrants in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 13, 1754. She moved to the Pennsylvania town of Carlisle and began her connection with the army at the age of fifteen as a servant to Dr. William Irvine, later a brigadier general in the colonial army. Her first husband, John Hays, enlisted in the First Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775 at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and she soon joined him in the field with the permission of his regimental commander.

During the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, according to contemporary accounts a broiling hot day, Mary is said to have earned her nickname by returning to the battle lines again and again with pitchers of water for her husband and his fellow artillery gunners, who were dying of heat and thirst. “Molly” was a common form of “Mary,” and “Pitcher” commemorated the number of times the welcome water appeared at the front in her hands. As she watched, Hays, now an artillery sergeant, was knocked unconscious in the bombardment, and the order was given to remove his piece from the field. Without hesitation Molly came forward and seized the rammer staff from her fallen husband’s hands. She kept the cannon firing for the remainder of the battle and continued to fight till the close of day.

Other legends grew up around Molly’s service. While tending the wounded, she is supposed to have carried a crippled soldier “on her strong, young back” out of reach of a furious British charge. Another soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut, told this sexually tinted story of her coolness under fire:

While in the act of reaching for a cartridge, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else.

Her bravery was rewarded by George Washington himself, who issued a warrant making her a noncommissioned officer on the spot, resulting in another set of nicknames, “Sergeant” or “Major” Molly. This part of the story has seemingly endless variations, in which Washington’s cameo appearance also involves his presenting her with either a gold coin or, as befitting a magnanimous leader, a hatful of gold.

After the war, Mary and John Hays returned to Carlisle, where he died in 1789. Mary remarried one of her late husband’s comrades-in-arms, a John or George McCauley, but the marriage was not a happy one. McCauley is said to have treated her like a servant, a fate Mary, now known as Molly, had escaped years before. Perhaps it may have come as a relief to her that McCauley also died before too long.

But without a male provider, Mary/Molly may well have struggled financially, and she seems to have petitioned the government for relief. One undisputed fact is that later in life, in 1822, her war service was officially recognized when the state legislators of Pennsylvania awarded her a veteran’s annuity of forty dollars, which she claimed for the next ten years.

“Molly McKolly,” as some sources call her, died in Carlisle on January 22, 1832. Her son by her first husband, John Ludwig Hays, became a soldier and was buried with full military honors when he died in about 1853. At the age of eighty-one, John’s daughter, Polly McCleester of Papertown, Mount Holly Springs, unveiled a monument to her grandmother, which boldly asserts Mary/Molly’s claim to fame:

MOLLY McCauley, Renowned in history as MOLLY PITCHER, The Heroine of Monmouth, died Jan 1833, aged 79 years. Erected by the Citizens of Cumberland County, July 4, 1876.

A wonderful story—but is it true? In Carlisle, the town Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was born in, left, and returned to after the war, the place where she died among her descendants and where she is buried, there is no doubt. But however proud the local people were of their heroine, they mistook the date of her death. Molly died at least a year earlier than recorded on her monument, as shown by the fact that no application for her pension was made after January 1832.

There are other questions and inconsistencies. For many years it was believed that the real Molly Pitcher was born Mary Ludwig and that she had married John Hays in Carlisle. This identification with Mary Ludwig was later challenged in favor of another Mary, who married another Hays with another extremely common first name, William. Another woman known as Molly Pitcher, described as “the heroine of Fort Washington” and buried along the Hudson, is a different individual, frequently confused with the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth.

The confusion arose because Molly Pitcher was not unique. Mary Ludwig Hays was neither the first nor the only woman to take a gunner’s place on an American battlefield and man a field gun. She was preceded by Margaret Corbin during the defense of Fort Washington in 1776—possibly the heroine of Fort Washington described earlier. Corbin was recorded as staying resolutely at her post in the face of heavy enemy fire, ably acting as a matross (gunner). Other women fought in numerous engagements in the Revolutionary War and Civil War (see Sampson, Deborah, Chapter 3, and Tubman, Harriet, Chapter 4). Historical sources confirm that at least two women fought in the Battle of Monmouth, one at an artillery position and the other in the infantry line. There is no evidence linking either of them to Mary Ludwig Hays. And when she died, there was no mention of a cannon or the Battle of Monmouth in her obituary.

“Molly Pitcher” may therefore be not one woman but a composite. But the legend refuses to die. She remains a cherished character of the American Revolution and since 1876 has been firmly identified with Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. An unmarked grave believed to be hers was opened during the centenary events of that year, and the remains were reburied with honors under a plaque declaring her the real embodiment of the famous Molly Pitcher.

One fact remains. Whether or not Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was the real Molly Pitcher, the forty-dollar-a-year payment she was awarded by the state of Pennsylvania was more than the usual war widow’s pension granted to all soldiers’ wives. The citation published in The American Volunteer, February 21, 1822, under the heading “Legislature of Pennsylvania,” makes this plain:

A bill has passed both Houses of the Assembly granting an annuity to Molly McCauley (of Carlisle) for services she rendered during the Revolutionary War. It appeared satisfactorily that this heroine had braved the hardships of the camp and dangers of the field with her husband, who was a soldier of the revolution, and the bill in her favor passed without a dissenting voice.

Note the date. In 1822, veterans of the Battle of Monmouth were still alive to dispute the facts, yet her award was unanimously passed. The “services rendered” by Mary/Molly Ludwig Hays McCauley undoubtedly amounted to something above and beyond the ordinary conditions of war. If only we knew what they were.

Reference: Rachel A. Koestler-Grack, Molly Pitcher: Heroine of the War for Independence, 2005.

The Praetorian Guard – Second Century I

The Praetorian Guard had played an enormously important part in the imperial politics of the first century AD. This also coincided with our richest body of written evidence for the Roman Empire. The second century is entirely different. A succession of strong and competent emperors contributed to a period of unprecedented stability for the Roman world. In this context, the praetorians had no opportunity or, it seems, wish to play any part in toppling or appointing emperors. The written canon of evidence also dramatically declines in quantity and quality, leaving us principally with only a series of much later biographies of the emperors, and the epitome of Cassius Dio. The picture that emerges is of a Praetorian Guard that took part in imperial campaigns, such as Trajan’s Dacian wars, and also continued to operate as a police force in Italy.

Domitian’s unpopularity amongst the wider public meant that his assassination caused little or no disquiet. Only the army seems to have been bothered. His use of praetorians to help fight the Dacian war meant that their first response to news of his death was to demand his deification. The only factor that prevented an immediate military uprising in Rome was the lack of any obvious leader. In the event, that position was filled by the prefect Casperius Aelianus in a brief return to the days when the praetorians shaped the course of Roman history, but he took his time before acting.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva’s accession as emperor was clearly a stopgap. In the summer of 96 Nerva was approaching his sixty-fifth birthday and he had no children. There was therefore no question of a new dynasty, though he did have relatives. The ageing new emperor reappointed Casperius Aelianus to the praetorian prefecture, probably to calm down the Guard and the rest of the army. It seems to have worked to begin with. Nerva issued coins in gold, silver and brass, showing two clasped hands grasping a legionary standard with the legend CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, ‘Harmony of the Armies’.

Nerva emptied the prisons of those accused of treason, condemned informers, returned property that had been appropriated by Domitian, and sought out sound advisers. Despite this, he was still the victim of plots, his age at accession being the main reason for unrest. The first was led by a senator called Calpurnius Crassus. An informer told Nerva what was happening, so Nerva outfaced the plotters by providing them with a chance to kill him, even handing them weapons. This was followed by another, led by Casperius Aelianus, who had whipped up the praetorians to demand the execution of his immediate predecessor, Titus Petronius Secundus, and Domitian’s freedman Parthenius. He next encouraged the praetorians to mutiny. Nerva’s considerable personal courage won out again, this time when he bared his neck and invited them to slit it. He survived, but at the expense of Petronius and Parthenius. Nerva knew he was vulnerable and came up with a solution. He selected a promising soldier, a Spaniard called Marcus Ulpius Traianus (known to us as Trajan), and adopted him as his heir. Trajan had a family connection through being the son of Marcia, sister-in-law of Titus.

The behaviour of the praetorians during this time was strangely muted, despite Aelianus’ efforts. They never successfully avenged Domitian, for all their demands that he be deified. Given the time and effort Domitian had expended on massaging the sensibilities of the army, and the role the praetorians had played in acclaiming him in 81, their relative inertia is a little surprising. On the other hand, the crucial factor was perhaps the one Suetonius had observed: there was no obvious champion they could plant on the throne, like Claudius in 41. Moreover, the actions of Aelianus had made him a marked man along with the praetorian mutineers. Pliny the Younger, writing in his Panegyric of Trajan, referred to the mutiny with unequivocal horror: Nerva’s authority had been ‘snatched’, thanks to the breakdown of military discipline. Nevertheless, this does not explain why Aelianus remained in post. Nerva probably feared risking a further confrontation with the Guard by disposing of him, unless Aelianus was involved in the arrangements to appoint Trajan as Nerva’s heir. Indeed, the appointment of Trajan may have formed part of Aelianus’ demands.

Nerva died on 25 January 98 after a reign of a few days over sixteen months. Trajan, who was still with the frontier armies in Germany, did not actually reach Rome until late 99, apparently preferring to consolidate his hold on the vital Rhine and Danube garrisons. Aelianus and the mutineers were summoned, on the pretext that Trajan had a job for them. This ruse not only removed them from Rome, but was also a trick. Aelianus’ only hope would have been to topple Nerva and replace him with his own choice of emperor. Since that had not happened, Trajan was confronted with a praetorian prefect of suspect loyalty, or at any rate someone associated with an emperor (Domitian) who was now being popularly demonized as part of the establishment of the new regime. Aelianus and the mutineers were ‘put out of the way’, an ambiguous term that might mean they were executed or simply cashiered and dispersed, regardless of whether or not Aelianus had helped facilitate Trajan’s adoption. Trajan replaced Aelianus with Sextus Attius Suburanus Aemilianus. He handed Suburanus his sword of office and told the new prefect to use it on his behalf if he ruled well, and use it to kill him if he ruled badly. Suburanus held the post until c. 101, when he was replaced with Tiberius Claudius Livianus who was sole prefect until possibly as late as c. 112.

Trajan’s first public appearance in Rome in 99 was attended by an enormous crowd. According to Pliny, ‘the soldiers present’, who must have been praetorians given that this was in Rome, were dressed as civilians and consequently indistinguishable from everyone else. This may of course have been relatively normal for praetorians but the point being made by Pliny is surely that the praetorians represented no military threat or presence because there was no need to under an emperor who was completely in control. This of course reflects Pliny’s obsequious relationship with an emperor and benefactor he revered, but there was probably some truth in it. Interestingly, Trajan decided to pay only half the accession donative to the soldiers, whereas the amount promised to civilians was paid in full. The reason appears to have been to make a public gesture that Trajan was not seeking to bribe the soldiers into supporting him, whereas the civilians ‘who could more easily have been refused’ were therefore the more deserving.

The question arises here of whether the equites singulares Augusti, the ‘imperial mounted bodyguard’, belong to this date and even whether Trajan brought them with him to Rome from the frontier. They served with the Praetorian Guard in the same way as mounted auxiliary units did with the legions, forming an elite mounted praetorian wing, and had a base on the Caelian Hill. This does not mean they necessarily got on with the ordinary praetorians. They certainly existed by 118 because an unprovenanced and fragmentary diploma refers to the unit with a consular date for this year, though no veteran soldiers’ names are preserved. It is possible that the unit existed even earlier, on the evidence that some attested soldiers’ names include Flavius, which would suggest a foundation under Domitian. What is not clear is whether the equites pushed the praetorians into a subordinate role or operated in a collaborative function, providing a fast mobile bodyguard for an emperor in the field and freeing up praetorians for fighting. The career of Ulpius Titus, although he lived in the late second or early third century, is of interest here. He was selected for the equites singulares Augusti after having served as a cavalryman in a Thracian auxiliary cavalry wing. Thracian cavalry had served in the Roman army’s auxiliary forces for centuries and provided some of the most experienced and important mounted troops in the whole Roman army.

The praetorians themselves seem also to have increased in number by this time, if not already under Domitian or even as early as Vespasian. A diploma from Vindonissa (Windisch) in Germania Superior dated to the year 100 under Trajan clearly refers to the existence of the X praetorian cohort, which presumably had been added at some point between 76 and 100, most likely by Domitian. This makes it possible there were now ten praetorian cohorts from this date. However, a tenth cohort does not help us by confirming the total number of praetorians, or the size of individual cohorts, now or at any other time. Nevertheless, some authorities have assumed that it does, for example arguing that the Guard was made up of ten milliary cohorts thereafter.

Indeed, the praetorians seem to have enjoyed Trajan’s favour. A fragmentary relief from Puteoli, stylistically attributable to the early second century and probably from an arch of Trajan, depicts two praetorians with shields embellished with scorpions associated with praetorians. This is a stylized representation of the Guard in a symbolic setting, and quite unlike the way praetorians are featured at war on several panels on Trajan’s Column in Rome. The reliefs represent the start of a period when artistic representations of praetorians become more frequent and an impression can be gained of how they might have appeared. Of course, the sculptures also tend to depict the praetorians on campaign. There must have been several reasons for this. Such images flattered the praetorians’ vanity, showing them as the emperor’s right-hand men in action. They also showed the praetorians as a military force, and in this capacity were a useful reminder that the emperor ruled with powerful military backing.

The Trajan’s Column reliefs depict his Dacian wars against Decebalus and show the praetorians taking an active part in the campaigns. This was a trend that continued and become the norm during the second century. In the ‘first battle’, praetorians, identifiable from their wreathed standards, stand in the background behind legionaries. Later, a squad of praetorians accompanies Trajan as he is about to embark on a galley; they are his only accompanying troops. Subsequently he reaches a military base with his praetorians in tow, where they are met by legionaries and auxiliaries. Although it is impossible to tell how many praetorians were involved (our principal source, Dio, provides only a brief account of Trajan’s campaigns), there are some attested examples of individuals. Lucius Aemilius Paternus had a distinguished career as a centurion, serving at one point in the IIII praetorian cohort when he was decorated for his service in Dacia. He went on to fight in Parthia for Trajan too. Gaius Arrius Clemens served as both an infantry and mounted praetorian in the VIIII cohort in the Dacian war. He was also decorated, receiving ‘necklaces, armbands and ornaments’. Clemens was later to rise to be an aide to the praetorian prefects, and subsequently a centurion in the VII cohort under Hadrian, when he was decorated again.

During Trajan’s reign these men served under the prefect Tiberius Claudius Livianus who is attested in Dacia being sent by Trajan to negotiate with Decebalus. These men’s careers, and the depictions on Trajan’s Column, show that the Guard was functioning now really as part of the general Roman army rather than as a distinct and privileged separate unit based in Rome. By the late first century and thereafter, the Praetorian Guard was the only Rome-based military unit to participate alongside conventional troops in the field; the urban cohorts and the vigiles routinely stayed in Rome where of course their services were essential for public order and safety.

Since the purpose of the Guard was to protect the emperor’s person, it was only logical that they would participate in wars in which he was personally involved, but the way they were used does illustrate how the Guard was evolving into a part of the regular army. Lucius Laelius Fuscus expired at the age of sixty-five after forty-two years’ military service. From being an eques in the Praetorian Guard he had progressed through various positions to serve as centurion of the I cohort of the vigiles, centurion of the military police (statores), centurion of the XIIII urban cohort, centurion of the X praetorian cohort and, finally, holding the prestigious position of centurion trecenarius of the VII legion Claudia. The style of the inscription on his marble urn is late first or early second century as far as the reign of Hadrian. The VII legion Claudia participated in Trajan’s Dacian and Parthian wars, raising the possibility that Fuscus had been transferred from the Guard during one of those occasions, though there is nothing to substantiate this.

From hereon there is little mention of the Guard in any other capacity until the reign of Commodus, under whom they seem to have degenerated into institutionalized indolence until they were cashiered by Septimius Severus in June 193. However, evidence from Marcus Aurelius’ reign half a century after Trajan shows the praetorian prefects operating as police in Italy, and it is quite possible that this role was already by then well established as the much earlier evidence from Pompeii before 79 suggests. The single most conspicuous problem with the Praetorian Guard after the reign of Trajan until the reign of Commodus is that it is rarely referred to in the extant sources. For this period we are mainly reliant on what remains of Cassius Dio, which for this era only exists in the form of a later epitome, and the biographies of the emperors known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, which were not composed until the fourth century. For the long period of the reigns of Hadrian (117–38) and Antoninus Pius (138–61), the Guard as an organization is virtually ignored. More is known about praetorian prefects, but otherwise the story can only be pieced together from fragments.

Trajan died in Cilicia in 117, suffering from a sickness that was followed by a stroke that left him partly paralysed. His successor Hadrian was the grandson of Trajan’s aunt, Ulpia. Although his side of the family was originally Italian, they had settled in Italica in Spain, where Trajan was from. After his father died when he was ten, Hadrian was placed under the guardianship of Trajan. Hadrian pursued a successful senatorial military and administrative career and early in Trajan’s reign married the emperor’s great-niece, Sabina, becoming a particular favourite of Trajan’s wife Plotina. Hadrian went on to fight in Trajan’s Dacian campaign and proceeded through a number of other posts, including the tribunician power in 105 and then governor of Syria, the post he held when Trajan died. It was an extremely unusual situation. Although Hadrian’s position as heir looks obvious, at the time it was anything but. Other candidates were believed to be favoured by Trajan, such as the famous lawyer Lucius Neratius Priscus. In the end a rumour circulated that Plotina fabricated the claim that Hadrian had been adopted by Trajan on his deathbed. The letter that confirmed this was sent to Hadrian, arriving on 9 August 117, and he was promptly acclaimed emperor by the army in the province, just as Vespasian had been in 69. This equivocal situation made it all the more necessary that Hadrian assert his position extremely quickly. He requested from the senate the deification of Trajan and tactfully apologized on behalf of the troops for acting presumptuously in acclaiming him as emperor.

Publius Acilius Attianus had been praetorian prefect for about five years by 117 and was with Trajan when he died. As far back as 86 Attianus had been the guardian of the ten-year-old Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian), along with Hadrian’s cousin, Trajan. He seems to have shared the prefecture since around 112 with Servius Sulpicius Similis, a modest man who had taken the post reluctantly after he had been prefect of Egypt; earlier in his career he had risen to the heights of primus pilus. When he was still only a centurion Similis was once summoned by Trajan ahead of the prefects. The deferential Similis said ‘it was a shame’ for him to be called in while prefects waited outside. Sent ahead by Hadrian, Attianus returned to Rome with Trajan’s ashes, which were to be placed at the base of his column in the forum, accompanied by Plotina and her niece Matidia (the mother of Hadrian’s wife, Sabina). Attianus seems to have written to Hadrian with the advice that he should order the execution of Baebius Macer, prefect of Rome, on the grounds that there was reason to believe he might object to Hadrian being emperor. Perhaps Macer was known to prefer Neratius Maximus. Other potential objectors were cited by Attianus. Whatever the truth, the outcome is unknown, though Macer was probably at least removed from post.

A senatorial plot to murder Hadrian soon after his accession was thwarted, but it resulted in the senate ordering the execution of four senators. Hadrian denied that he had wanted this, but it marred the beginning of his principate and had implications for the praetorian prefecture. Hadrian hurried to Rome, arriving there on 9 July 118, and offered a large handout to the people in order to offset the unpopularity the executions had caused, and made a number of other conciliatory gestures such as remitting private debt owed to the state. Attianus was awarded the honorific promotion to senatorial status of consular rank in 119. Hadrian appears to have had an ulterior motive. He allegedly believed that Attianus had been behind the execution of the four senators, and resented his power, which of course included the potential power of the praetorians themselves. Supposedly reluctant to be associated with any more executions and also wishing to transfer all the blame for the senatorial executions, Hadrian coerced Attianus into resigning. It is equally possible that Attianus was a loyalist who had carried out Hadrian’s secret wishes and been prepared to take the blame on the emperor’s behalf. If so, it would have made him a good example of how useful the position of praetorian prefect could be to an emperor in a way that had nothing to do with commanding the Guard. The position with Similis is harder to understand. Hadrian’s biographer implies that Similis was another victim of what is described as Hadrian’s plan to remove the men who had smoothed his path to power. Dio, however, suggests that this unassuming man had some trouble in persuading Hadrian to release him. Similis went on to enjoy seven years of retirement, regarding these as the only years he had enjoyed life; all the years of his career he dismissed as being no more than merely existing. This was recorded on his tombstone.

Attianus and Similis were replaced as prefects in or around 119 by Gaius Septicius Clarus and Quintus Marcius Turbo. Turbo, who had a very significant military reputation, seems to have had a longer personal association with Hadrian. As a young man Hadrian served as tribune of the II legion Adiutrix while it was stationed in the province of Pannonia Inferior. Turbo, at some point in his career, was a centurion with II Adiutrix since the tombstone found at Aquincum (within Budapest) of a soldier called Gaius Castricius Victor states that he was in Turbo’s century. There is no certainty that Turbo’s time in II Adiutrix coincided with Hadrian’s, or even that this is the same man. But they might have served with the legion simultaneously, and if so then they might have come into contact and the future emperor been impressed by Turbo, though a personal connection may have played a more important part in Hadrian’s decision.

Turbo was to have a remarkable military career both before and after his appointment as praetorian prefect. He made some of the previous incumbents seem like dilettantes. By 114 Turbo was commanding the imperial fleet at Misenum. Next under Trajan he seems to have been sent to lead an assault on Jewish rebels in Egypt and Cyrene, leading a naval force and one of combined infantry and cavalry. The action was successful and involved the death of a large number of rebels. Soon after Trajan’s death, Hadrian sent Turbo to crush a rebellion in Mauretania. This was evidently also so successful that Hadrian, exceptionally, appointed Turbo temporarily to be an equestrian prefect governor of the important frontier garrison provinces of Pannonia and Dacia. This was so unusual that it must reflect Turbo’s remarkable skills. The only major governorship normally allocated to an equestrian prefect was Egypt, reflecting that province’s nature as the personal property of the emperor; indeed, as governor of Dacia Turbo was considered to hold a rank equivalent in prestige to being prefect of Egypt. The appointment came rapidly after the execution of the four senators and will have involved Hadrian dismissing the consular governor, Lucius Minucius Natalis. The practical effect was to place his own man in charge of an important component of the army. Perhaps Hadrian had in mind Maecenas’ advice to Augustus around 150 years previously on the advantages of distributing patronage amongst the equestrians. Turbo rearranged Dacia into two provinces. Dacia Superior was demoted to the status of requiring only a governor of praetorian, not consular, rank, and Dacia Inferior was to be governed by an equestrian procurator.

Turbo took his new post of praetorian prefect extremely seriously. He lived like an ordinary citizen and passed the day in the vicinity of the palace, even punctiliously checking up on everything late at night. He transferred his morning salutation (salutatio) to the late evening, greeting his friends and clients then, rather than during the day when he was far busier doing his job. Accordingly, the lawyer Cornelius Fronto dropped in to pay his respects after a dinner party, paradoxically greeting Turbo with the evening departure vale (‘farewell’), rather than the morning salve (‘good health’). Turbo was said to have operated on the principle that as prefect he ‘should die on his feet’.

The prefect Gaius Septicius Clarus had been a friend and correspondent of Pliny the Younger. He also had a senator for a nephew. Clarus had urged Pliny to publish his letters and was rewarded by having the collection dedicated to him. Suetonius also dedicated part of his Lives of the Caesars to him. Although Clarus’ earlier career is completely unknown to us, he had probably served in some capacity as an equestrian commanding officer, perhaps commanding an auxiliary infantry unit. His personal tastes and interests were more literary. This probably formed the basis of Hadrian’s decision to appoint him to serve as a convivial and interesting companion rather than as a military official. Hadrian set out for the northern frontier in 121, accompanied by Clarus, presumably with part of the Guard too, as well as Suetonius, his imperial secretary.

Hadrian was away until 125. During this time he paid particular attention to military discipline. While we have no specific information that this was applied to the Guard it must have done, especially with Turbo in charge of those left in Rome. The choice of Septicius Clarus and Suetonius as travelling companions seems to have backfired. Around 122 Hadrian visited Britain where he initiated construction of the wall that bears his name ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans’. At this point in his biography we are told he dismissed both Septicius Clarus and Suetonius, along with several other unnamed people, for being too familiar with Sabina. He was even tempted to divorce Sabina but stopped himself on the basis of the dignity of his office. It is clear from the structure of the biography that this event is placed during Hadrian’s stay in Britain, but since the biographies of this period are notoriously confused in detail in some places, the actual sequence of events may have been different. Quite what had happened is unclear, but there was a suggestion of sexual impropriety, even if it amounted to no more than indiscreet flirting. Aurelius Victor includes a reference to Sabina’s claim that she had deliberately avoided becoming pregnant by Hadrian because she considered him so ‘inhuman’ that she wished to save the human race from any of his offspring. Hadrian had clearly found out about the carryings-on from his spies, the frumentarii, whom he used for all sorts of private investigations in his household and circle of friends. Septicius Clarus had been added to Attianus and others whom Hadrian had once trusted and now regarded as enemies.

An occasional instance of a military career that included a spell in the Guard is available at around this time. Titus Pontius Sabinus was a career legionary who, as primus pilus of the III legion Augusta, was placed in charge of detachments of the VII Gemina, VIII Augusta and XXII Primigenia sent on ‘the British expedition’ around this time, perhaps accompanying Hadrian. The province had been in considerable difficulties since around the end of Trajan’s reign. After this foray into the wilds of Britain, Sabinus was promoted to be tribune of the III cohort of the vigiles, tribune of the XIIII urban cohort, and then tribune of the II praetorian cohort, before becoming primus pilus once again and finishing up as procurator of the province of Gallia Narbonensis. This shows how much experience was considered necessary for a man to hold the tribunate in the Praetorian Guard. His time as tribune of the II praetorian cohort probably occurred under the latter part of the reign of Hadrian. A praetorian denied the chance to accumulate any experience at all was Lucius Marius Vitalis. He joined the Guard when he was around sixteen or seventeen years old during the reign of Hadrian. He left Rome with the Guard, headed for some unknown destination, perhaps with Hadrian, but died aged seventeen years and fifty-five days. Marius Vitalis illustrates how the original Republican tradition of hiring praetorians from experienced soldiers had been at least partly replaced by recruiting very young men. Men of Pontius Sabinus’ calibre therefore found themselves knocking into shape youths with little or no experience at all of soldiering, and who would have taken some time to turn into praetorians with the right skills to serve the emperor either in Rome or in the field. This goes some way to explaining the rationale behind the decision over half a century later in 193 to cashier the Guard and replace it entirely with legionaries who had considerably more to offer in the way of experience.

Meanwhile, the man who replaced Septicius Clarus and continued to command any members of the Guard in Hadrian’s retinue is unknown. That Turbo had remained in Rome is only likely, and not an attested fact. The most obvious choice to replace Clarus would have been the former prefect of Egypt (117–19), Quintus Rammius Martialis; however, not only is there no information to that effect, but unless he was with Hadrian already there would have been something of a delay before he could either fill the post or join him. Hadrian was to remain abroad until 125, finishing up in Sicily by way of Greece before returning to Rome.

For all his skills and experience, Turbo also fell foul of Hadrian’s capricious inclination to turn against those he had trusted, even though Turbo, like Similis, had been honoured with a statue. He was said, along with others, to have been ‘persecuted’, though what that means, or its consequences, is unknown to us. This may not have occurred until Hadrian returned to Rome in 134. The same applies to the Praetorian Guard at this time. We seem to know a remarkable amount about Turbo’s career before he became praetorian prefect and the manner in which he conducted himself in the post, but little or nothing about the praetorians themselves or how he led them. We can only assume that praetorians accompanied Hadrian on his journey between 121 and 125 because Clarus went with him. In 128 Hadrian visited North Africa, returned to Rome and then headed off to the eastern provinces, including Greece, Syria, Arabia and Egypt. We can do no more than speculate on how the praetorians regarded being removed from the privileged comforts of the Castra Praetoria in Rome. If Septicius Clarus had not been replaced, which is quite possible, then Turbo may have been out of Rome with Hadrian on some of his later travels serving as sole prefect; equally, he may have remained in the city with the prefect of Rome, Annius Verus, with a tribune instead commanding a detachment of the Guard accompanying the emperor.

The Praetorian Guard – Second Century II

The governor of Britain, like any provincial governor, enjoyed the prestige of having his own military staff, singulares, drawn from soldiers in the provincial garrison, including the auxilia, and serving on detachment. These men were known as beneficiarii, literally because they benefited from the privileges and status afforded by the job, and carried out the governor’s orders. They were not praetorians but they were the governor’s equivalent. Just as the praetorians amplified the status of the emperor, so the governor’s bodyguard enhanced and advertised his status and made it possible for him to allocate soldiers from his guard to other deserving officials. While governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny the Younger was asked by a visiting imperial freedman procurator for an escort of six soldiers on a corn-procuring mission, to which Pliny added two mounted soldiers.

Under Hadrian, if not before, additional barracks were built in Rome. In 2015 during work on a new metro line a substantial and well-appointed barrack block of Hadrianic date was discovered around half a kilometre south-east of the Colosseum in the vicinity of four other barrack blocks, together with associated burials. It was clearly a dedicated military zone. It is difficult to imagine who the occupants might have been other than some of the praetorians, and in this case it was probably the equites singulares Augusti. The remains uncovered included a corridor around 100 metres long with thirty-nine rooms opening off it. Some of the floors had mosaics that had existed long enough to be patched and repaired. Such decoration was not typical of legionary fortresses and reflects the higher standard of living to which praetorians were accustomed. These facilities were roughly half the distance from the centre of Rome compared to the Castra Praetoria, making them much more convenient and also made a quicker response in a crisis possible. We know so little about the internal layout of the Castra Praetoria that there is every possibility it was not fully used at this time.

It is therefore interesting that around the same time, by c. 120 or not long after, a fort to accommodate the governor of Britannia’s guard was built in the north-west part of the settled area of London, perhaps connected with Hadrian’s visit to the province and to ensure his protection. The location and purpose of the Cripplegate fort resembled those of the Castra Praetoria in the sense that it was a freestanding military base on the outskirts of what was otherwise a civilian and administrative settlement. London, although tiny compared to Rome, was still the largest city in the province of Britannia. The new fort, which may have replaced an earlier timber one, covered 4.5 hectares and was thus far smaller than a legionary fortress, but it was more than twice the size of most ordinary forts. It was large enough to accommodate the equivalent of a milliary infantry cohort, probably with a cavalry component. The location of known gates, defences, and fragmentary traces of barracks suggest that unlike the Castra Praetoria it was conventional in plan, resembling other forts. Evidence from tombstone inscriptions in London indicates that soldiers were detached from all three legions to serve on the governor’s bodyguard, for example Flavius Agricola of the VI legion, which only arrived in Britain under Hadrian, who died in London aged forty-two. The London fort was by no means typical. Roman forts in a civilian context are very unusual, Carthage being an exception. It survived long enough to be absorbed into London’s later Roman walls, just as the Castra Praetoria was absorbed into the Aurelian Walls of Rome in the late third century. All provincial governors had bodyguard units, so far as we know, for obvious reasons of security and prestige. London’s fort suggests that special conditions prevailed in Britain, necessitating a fortified headquarters in the manner of a provincial castra praetoria, but in this case requiring full military defences because of the residual instability in the province.

Back in Rome, by the end of Hadrian’s reign or shortly after the accession of Antoninus Pius in 138 two new praetorian prefects were appointed: Marcus Gavius Maximus and Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. The reign of Antoninus Pius is even less well known than Hadrian’s since Dio’s account is more or less completely lost, leaving us only with the Historia Augusta. It is both conceivable and probable that praetorians participated in wars during the reign of Antoninus Pius, but there is nothing to confirm that.

Hadrian’s original intention had been to be succeeded by Lucius Ceionius Commodus, adopted by the childless emperor in 136 and renamed Lucius Aelius Caesar. The occasion of his adoption was accompanied by the distribution of 300 million sestertii amongst the soldiers. This must have included the praetorians, and at a preferential rate compared to the rest of the army. Aelius, in the event, predeceased Hadrian, dying on 1 January 138. His demise occasioned a crisis for the ailing Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius, a highly regarded senator whose wife Faustina was the great-granddaughter of Trajan’s sister, Marciana. Antoninus and Faustina adopted Aelius’ son, Lucius Verus, along with Marcus Aurelius, the husband of their daughter, Faustina Junior, providing a cash handout to the soldiers on the occasion of that marriage in 145. This complicated web of relationships successfully created a dynasty but for the most part had relied on selecting suitable men rather than on a direct bloodline. Hadrian had even initially considered Marcus Aurelius as his heir, but rejected him on the grounds that at eighteen he was too young.

The principal praetorian prefect of the new reign was Marcus Gavius Maximus, who in or around 158 was said to have served in the position for twenty years, so therefore must have been appointed either by Hadrian in early 138 or by Antoninus soon afterwards. With one exception Antoninus Pius kept men in the posts in which they had been placed by Hadrian until they died. The other prefect, Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, died around 143, after which Gavius Maximus held the sole prefecture for the rest of his life. The two men are cited on an inscription of 1 March 139 recording the honourable discharge of thirty-nine equites singulares Augusti. The inclusion of the names of both praetorian prefects suggests a closer link between the office of the prefecture and the emperor’s mounted bodyguard than might otherwise have been obvious.46 In the same year a mosaic floor was installed in the Castra Praetoria with an inscription that commemorated the vicennalia (twentieth anniversary of the accession) of Antoninus Pius. It was an appropriate recognition of the mutual dependence of emperor and his bodyguard.

Little is known about Marcus Petronius Mamertinus. His tenure as praetorian prefect is otherwise only known from a letter of Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He may have previously been prefect of Egypt. After his praetorian prefecture he was awarded honorary consular status by 150, leaving only Gavius Maximus in post. Marcus Gavius Maximus was apparently ‘a very stern man’. He also seems to have been extremely rich. A fragmentary inscription from the port town at Ostia, and another one in the Vatican Museum, suggest that Gavius Maximus had paid for the lavish Forum Baths, which remain one of the most conspicuous and largest ruins at the site today. The structure is imaginatively designed so that the bath chambers, which all face south-west, received sun throughout the middle of the day and afternoon, reflecting the most popular time of the day to visit the baths. Although the building, like all such structures at Ostia, is built largely of brick, it was expensively faced throughout with marble, much of which has since been robbed away. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Gavius Maximus may have paid for the baths at his own expense, but it is also possible that Antoninus Pius subsidized the costs on his prefect’s behalf. Why Gavius Maximus would have wanted or needed to pay for the baths, or indeed how he became wealthy enough to fund them, is unknown. Civic munificence was virtually ubiquitous in the Roman world but we know of no particular connection that Gavius Maximus had with the port town; perhaps he had come from there or his father had made his name in the thriving commerce of the settlement. Either way, there is no obvious connection with the praetorians themselves. Instead we have an image of the praetorian prefect as a member of the imperial court rather than as a military commanding officer, and encouraging public popularity through his gifts to the community. Whether or not he is representative of the praetorian prefects at this date cannot be said. This was certainly what the office had evolved into when the Guard was disbanded in 312.

Marcus Gavius Maximus was succeeded briefly in 158 as praetorian prefect by Gaius Tattius Maximus, who had been prefect of the vigiles since 156. The prefecture was then once again restored to a joint position, with Sextus Cornelius Repentinus and Titus Furius Victorinus being appointed. Cornelius Repentinus’ promotion from his position as imperial secretary did not last long. His reputation was destroyed in 158 when a rumour emerged that he had been appointed with the assistance of Galeria Lysistrata, one of Faustina’s freedwomen and mistress of Antoninus Pius. It should be noted in the emperor’s defence that Faustina, highly esteemed though she was, had died in 141.

One inscription from this era gives us an example of a praetorian operating in the broader community in an official capacity as a surveyor. Blesius Taurinus was a praetorian land surveyor (mensor agrarius) serving with the VI praetorian cohort during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Taurinus was sent on imperial authority to Ardea, 22 miles (35 km) south of Rome, where he determined the boundaries of the settlement. With that done, Tuscenius Felix, serving for the second time as primus pilus of an unspecified unit, delivered a decision (what it was is unknown). As so often in the Roman world, military personnel exhibited the greatest concentration of professional expertise available. In this case Antoninus Pius had used these men to resolve something that had been brought to his attention, perhaps a property dispute. The army was the most convenient, and perhaps the only source of the necessary skills and manpower the emperor could call on.

Antoninus Pius was succeeded in 161 by Marcus Aurelius, who since 145 had been his son-in-law and earmarked as his heir by awarding him the tribunician power at the same time. As he lay dying, Antoninus Pius called together all his friends and prefects, who must have included Titus Furius Victorinus, and told them that Aurelius would be succeeding him. When he assumed power, Marcus Aurelius immediately appointed Lucius Verus, the son of Hadrian’s originally intended successor Aelius, as his co-emperor and had him marry his daughter Lucilla. The reasons were both dynastic and practical. Verus was younger and more interested in participating in the frontier wars that were to be increasingly a characteristic of this reign, and was soon dispatched to fight the Parthians in the east.

The joint emperors’ first act was to head for the Castra Praetoria where they allegedly offered the soldiers 20,000 sestertii each, and proportionately more to the centurions and tribunes. This figure is generally regarded as an obvious exaggeration – though it matched the amount awarded on discharge as far back as Augustus’ time so there is no overwhelming reason to assume it is wrong.53 In 162 the praetorian prefect Titus Furius Victorinus accompanied Lucius Verus to the Parthian war, where he was to die either by fighting or from plague in 167. He was commemorated in the forum at Rome by a statue with an inscription that recorded his exploits and how he had been awarded honorary consular status. Furius Victorinus must have commanded several cohorts drawn from the Praetorian Guard, presumably another occasion when praetorians were now routinely forming part of imperial armies in the field when necessary. This war was to be successful. Verus returned to Rome in 166 where his inclination to luxurious and indulgent living annoyed Marcus Aurelius.

In January 168 veteran praetorians were offered improved support for starting families. In order to help these men acquire wives, any sons born of the marriage would count for their fathers-in-law when it came to seeking a claim for intestate property or claiming exemption from tutela (legal guardianship). In other words, the boys’ maternal grandfathers would now be able to use their grandsons by their daughters (so long as these daughters married a praetorian veteran) in the same ways, legally, as they would have done their grandsons by their sons. Praetorians, like all other soldiers, were not allowed by law to marry while in service and this had been the position from the inception of the Guard under Augustus. In practice, unofficial unions did take place and it is apparent from a number of sources that during the second century such arrangements were sometimes accepted by the authorities, right up to and including the emperor. This was far from guaranteed. In 117 the prefect of Egypt, Marcus Rutilius Rufus, denied a wife the right to a claim on the estate of her deceased soldier husband on the simple grounds that ‘a soldier is not permitted to marry’.

Whatever the legality and unofficial liaisons, praetorians do not appear to have embarked on such relationships to anything like the same degree as ordinary soldiers. On the evidence of funerary epitaphs and who dedicated them, only 3 per cent of praetorians in the first century had unofficial wives; the majority of deceased praetorians were commemorated by fellow soldiers. This rises to over 10 per cent in the second century and to over 25 per cent in the third century. By comparison, a third of the legionaries on the Danube in the second century were likely to be commemorated by a wife – three times as many as a praetorian of the same period. The praetorians may have been subjected to sterner discipline because of their location and involvement in imperial security, but it is no less possible that frontier legionaries found that acquiring unofficial wives was the easiest way of securing female company, whereas praetorians, being based in Rome, had more casual opportunities.

There is some suggestion that the Praetorian Guard also evolved its own distinctive traditions of a more formal military presentation and terminology in which, perhaps, publicly acknowledging the existence of an unofficial wife was less ‘the done thing’ than it might have been amongst legionaries. Praetorians were much more likely to describe themselves as the commanipularis, ‘comrade of the same maniple’, of a colleague than legionaries were. For example, Marcus Paccius Avitus of the V praetorian cohort died at the age of thirty after five years’ service. His tombstone was erected by his commanipularis, Lucius Valerius. Whether this is really evidence of a fundamentally different culture or merely different style is a moot point. Legionaries were more likely to call each other commilito, ‘co-soldier’, or contubernalis, ‘tent-party comrade’, which seems more a matter of style than evidence of different levels of formal military culture. Unless a praetorian had a wife whose name is mentioned on his tombstone, we cannot assume that more praetorians had wives who were excluded from the epigraphic tradition and that therefore, for whatever reason, praetorians were less likely to form unofficial unions while the law remained in force. Moreover, Paccius Avitus had died young and this seems to be common to many of the praetorians we happen to know about. Praetorians of the second century were also more likely to be discharged early than legionaries. Up to 58 per cent had been discharged within seventeen years, whereas legionaries had served ‘much longer periods of time’ before being discharged at this rate. Various factors might explain this, including a possibly higher rate of loss in combat and disease in Rome.

Those who lived long enough to benefit from the shorter terms of service were likely to be awarded an honourable discharge and then move on to prestigious civic jobs such as municipal magistracies in their home towns. Gaius Com[. . .] Secundus, a veteran of the V praetorian cohort, returned to what was probably his home town of the colony of Minturnae (Minterno) where he served his community as an aedile, a magistracy that would have entitled him thereafter to a seat on the town council (ordo) as a decurion (councillor). Gaius Arrius Clemens, who had served with distinction in Dacia under Trajan while with the VIIII praetorian cohort, proceeded to a series of posts as centurion before ending up as a duumvir (one of the two senior magistrates) in the town of Matilica (Matelica) in Umbria, and as patron of the community. Such men were primarily memorialized in their prestigious positions of later life, their service as ordinary praetorians being brushed over if mentioned at all. They would have been more likely to marry during this later time in their lives, having both the money and legal opportunity, as well as having age on their side, unlike legionaries. This would also explain why praetorians received discharge certificates which noted their right now to marry, an essential document if they were to marry non-citizen wives.

The outbreak of war on the Danube frontier, when the Germanic tribal confederation known as the Marcomanni invaded in 168, caused Verus and Aurelius to head out to fight, but Verus died in 169 during their return to Rome. Marcus Aurelius carried on as sole emperor until 177 when his son, Commodus, was elevated from the position of Caesar that he had held since 175, to joint Augustus with his father. During that period, between the years 169 and 172, there is clear evidence of praetorian prefects serving in a capacity we would most easily recognize as commissioners of police. An imperial freedman called Cosmus wrote to the praetorian prefects Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex, who had succeeded the deceased Furius Victorinus in or around 167, with Vindex probably being appointed a little later. Bassaeus Rufus came from modest origins and reached the praetorian prefecture via the prefecture of Egypt, but Macrinius Vindex’s earlier career is unknown. The purpose of the letter was to appeal to the prefects for their help in stopping the magistrates at the cities of Saepinum (Attilia) and Bovianum (Boiano), and stationarii, from troubling lessees of sheep flocks on an imperial estate. The stationarii were armed police installed in specific locations, and had been established by Augustus. It is not clear in this instance if praetorians were being used as stationarii, though some inscriptions show that praetorians could be used in this role and sometimes far beyond Italy. Titus Valerius Secundus of the VII praetorian cohort, for example, was a stationarius at Ephesus where he died in service at the age of twenty-six.

Cosmus alleged that the magistrates and stationarii had been accusing the lessees of being runaway slaves, and appropriating the sheep accordingly. This meant that the magistrates and stationarii were stealing imperial property. Rufus and Vindex obliged. They wrote to the magistrates, attaching a copy of Cosmus’ letter, and it is the text of this that has survived. It was a warning to the magistrates and other suspects to desist, on pain of further investigation and punishment. Although the outcome is not known, the document is one of the most specific records of the praetorian prefects operating in a way more akin to a civilian police force, though urban cohorts seem to have been included as well.

In the meantime, the Marcomannic War continued. For all their responsibilities in homeland policing, the praetorian prefects also continued to serve as military commanders in the field. Both Bassaeus Rufus and Macrinius Vindex travelled with Marcus Aurelius on campaign in the early 170s, though we do not know how often or the numbers of praetorians involved. Since both prefects were participating it is possible that a large proportion of the Guard had accompanied them, the remainder perhaps being left under the command of a tribune in Rome, apart of course from those dispersed on various duties around the Empire. In the event Macrinius Vindex was to die leading in battle in or around 172.

Macrinius Vindex was not replaced immediately. Marcus Aurelius was said to have had a particular favourite candidate in the senator Publius Helvius Pertinax, praising him both in the senate and also at military assemblies, but regretted that as Pertinax was a senator he would have to pass him over. Of course, given the appointment of Titus as commander of the Guard by Vespasian, this was a technicality which could have been overlooked had Marcus Aurelius really wanted to. Bassaeus Rufus continued in post in the meantime, possibly as sole prefect. He attended the trial of Herodes Atticus before Marcus Aurelius at Sirmium in 173 or 174. Herodes had been accused of tyranny by the Athenians. During the trial Bassaeus Rufus, described as being praetorian prefect by Philostratus, said it was clear Herodes wished to die. Herodes retorted by saying that at his age there was very little he feared. Bassaeus was still in post in July 177, but probably for not much longer, after which he received honorary consular status. His name is recorded in this capacity. Publius Tarrutenius Paternus became praetorian prefect in or around 179, having been a former imperial secretary. He led a force against the Marcomanni in 179 so he must have been in post by then, but is not specifically attested in it until after the death of Marcus Aurelius when in c. 182 he participated in a plot to kill Commodus. The only other possible evidence we have for the Guard in action at this date is the sculpture on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome depicting the Marcomannic War. Unlike Trajan’s Column, the identification is a good deal more tenuous and depends on the belief that scale armour is the distinguishing factor. There is some verification for this in Dio who refers to this feature of praetorian equipment when describing the Guard under Macrinius in 218. Other scenes on the column also show the equites singulares Augusti with Marcus Aurelius on campaign.

This single example highlights the central issue when it comes to dealing with the Praetorian Guard between the accession of Trajan in 98 and the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. These eighty-two years were more than long enough for no one to have any living memory of the power the Guard could choose to exert as emperor-breakers and makers. The reality was that none of the emperors in that period was deficient in any of the key qualities required. Their successions were largely undisputed, their judgement was respected, and their personal qualities for the most part sufficient to ensure that they stayed in power and died in their beds. The Avidius Cassius episode in Egypt in 175 was a rare exception. The state was thus not vulnerable and in these circumstances there was no opportunity or need for the praetorians to try and influence events. They took part in wars, and their prefects served the emperors as advisers, chiefs of police or generals as and when needed. It must have been for the most part an easy, complacent and privileged lifestyle. This was to change dramatically under Commodus who was the first ruler for almost a century to exhibit serious shortcomings in his ability either to rule or to choose suitable men for key commands, amongst which was of course the praetorian prefecture. This was to result in the revival of a badly led and dysfunctional Praetorian Guard which would culminate in one of the most degenerate episodes in its history.