Siege of Ottoman-held Osijek


A medium-high oblique view of Osijek bridge, built in 1526 on the orders of Suleiman the Great, spanning the River Draba and surrounding marshes between Osijeck and the Fortress of Dada to the north. This very considerable feat of engineering earned the Turks a freedom of manoeuvre which was denied to

the Austrians. Oriented with north-north-east to top. Habsburg-Ottoman Wars (Fourth Austro-Turkish War) (1663-4).

The bridge was 7 km (4.3 miles) long and 6 metres 20 ft wide. Its strategic importance lay in the easy access it gave Ottoman troops into western Europe, notably towards Vienna. The event shown in this print was the partially successful attempt to destroy the bridge by burning by the Ban [viceregal governor under the Habsburgs] of Croatia from 1647-1664, Nicholas VII of Zrin (Miklós Zrínyi; Croatian: Nikola Zrinski, 1620-64) – the ‘Conte Nicolo di Sd’rin’ in the text of this print. The objective of this assault, made on 1 February early in the 1664 campaign season, was to impede Ottoman access to Vienna.

The bridge was destroyed by the Austrian army some twenty-two years later in 1686: see RCIN 724135.

After seven years of war and the failed Siege of Vienna in 1529, the Treaty of Konstantiniyye was signed, in which John Zápolya was recognized by the Austrians as King of Hungary as an Ottoman vassal, and the Ottomans recognized Habsburg rule over Royal Hungary.

This treaty satisfied neither John Zápolya nor Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, whose armies began to skirmish along the borders. Ferdinand decided to strike a decisive blow in 1537 at John, thereby violating the treaty.

Despite the second failed attempt at capturing Vienna, the Ottoman’s and Austrians signed a peace treaty, which recognised the Kingdom of Hungary as an Ottoman vassal, as long as the Ottoman’s respected the regions of Hungary that had recognised Habsburg rule.

This peace deal did not end the war between the two rivals. The war would turn bloody again at the Siege of Osijek (1537), where Ferdinand and his massive Austrian army, which was well trained and equipped thanks to the success of his defending force at Koszeg, planned a massive blow to the Ottoman strong hold of Osijek. This attack would directly violate the treaty.

Ferdinand sent an army of 24,000 men (from Austria, Hungary, Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, Tyrol, and Croatia) under the command of the Carniolan nobleman Johann Katzianer to take Osijek.

The siege came to nothing and because of the appearance of the Ottoman cavalry sent by the governor of Belgrade, the army had to withdraw. The Ottoman army reached the Austrians near the swamps of Gorjani, near Đakovo and Valpovo on the Drava river. The imperials were severely defeated and Katzianer fled with the cavalry and abandoned his army. The entire force was annihilated. At the Battle of Dakovo, the Austrian attempt would be futile, and faced a crushing defeat, leaving more than 25,000 Austrians dead or wounded and minimal loses to the Ottoman defensive force. Less than a year later at the Battle of Preveza, in 1538, the Ottoman army would again crush the Habsburg led coalition.

A reported 20,000 men were killed, including generals Ludwig Lodron and Pavle Bakić. Bakić’s severed head was taken to Constantinople.

Clement VII and the sack of Rome

Giulio de’ Medici, who finally emerged as Pope Clement VII in November 1523, was not only a tried administrator but a prelate hardened by much experience of armed conflict. As a youth in 1497 he had taken part in an attempt to restore the family to power in Florence; indeed, Guicciardini, commenting on this, remarked that he was more suited to arms than to the priesthood. He entered the crusading Order of Knights Hospitaller of St John, and joined the household of his cousin, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, accompanying him – and unlike him, avoiding capture – at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. After Giovanni’s accession as Leo X Giulio was promoted to the cardinalate and office of Vice-Chancellor, and – as already mentioned – served as papal legate to the army in the campaign against Francis I in Lombardy in 1515 and in the war of Urbino. He took part in crusade planning in 1517 and in the Marche campaign in 1520, and was again legate to the army in the war in Lombardy in 1521. He continued to be active under Adrian VI, and in April 1522 was credited with defeating an attempted Bentivoglio coup at Bologna. The English ambassador at Rome reported (quoted here in his own words with archaic spelling),

Cardinal de Medicis, as legat of the said citie, made soche provision… that, the armye being within, with the aid of the peple issued out and slewe diverse of ther enemys…and put the whole [French and Bentivoglio] armye to flight so that the said Citie by the wisdom and diligence of the said Cardinall is savid for the Churche.

Yet after he became pope in November 1523 Giulio was for ever stamped – thanks to contemporary writers such as Guicciardini and Giovio, who observed him closely – with the reputation of timidity and vacillation. This was the pope who in May 1527 would have to face the sack of Rome, the gravest, most terrifying and humiliating challenge of armed force faced by any pope throughout the whole history of the papal monarchy, worse than in 1084, 1112, 1303, 1413, 1494 or indeed 1798 or 1870.

It could be argued that Clement lacked several of the indispensable qualities to be an effective Renaissance pope, and could do little about it. Of these essentials, he lacked first large resources of money. Second he lacked an aspiring and dependable son, nephew or other close male relative anxious to make a career in the Church or the papal state. His second cousin Giovanni Salviati, on whom Leo had conferred the red hat in 1517, was to prove quite able as a diplomatist, but he was probably too Florentine and parentally dominated to be potentially a Machiavellian new prince. It is worth noting, however, that Machiavelli had sent him a copy of his Art of War, about which the young cardinal wrote appreciatively in September 1521, assuring the author that the defects in organisation of modern armies, including the army of the Church, could be overcome by adopting his precepts. Another second cousin, Ippolito, who would become a cardinal in 1529, was altogether too young and too headstrong to fill the role of a prince within the papal state, and even he yearned in preference for power in Florence. Third, and most important of all Clement’s deficiencies, the second Medici pope lacked fortuna.

This third deficiency was most evident from the course of war in Italy in 1524–25 between the forces of Charles V and Francis I. Having at first continued cautiously to support the imperial cause, Clement, much influenced by Gianmatteo Giberti, his former secretary now promoted to a major post (‘datarius’) in the papal chancery, wavered and switched to France. How can this fatal step be explained? The Pope had of course pro-French tendencies going far back in his career, and may have been dazzled by Francis I’s successes in Lombardy in the autumn of 1524. He may even have had hopes, in spite of its dangers, about the foolhardy expedition to the south of James Stuart, Duke of Albany, or at least wanted to avoid exposing Rome to any threat from Albany’s large army. If only that adamant Swiss, Cardinal Schiner, had still been around, maybe Clement would have been dissuaded from switching to France, but Schiner had died at Rome in December 1522, a year before his former partner in anti-French campaigns became pope. An official agreement was signed with Francis in January 1525, but the timing could not have been worse, on account of the sensational defeat and capture of Francis in the Battle of Pavia at the end of February. This left Clement, by a stroke of extraordinarily bad luck, in a position of weakness from which it would take long to recover. Giberti, falling back on the argument that it was all a miraculous demonstration of God’s will, encouraged the cardinal legate, Giovanni Salviati, to send a note of congratulation to Charles V and express the Pope’s hope that peace would follow, that this was what he had always desired. In fact, a treaty negotiated with the Emperor and signed on his behalf by Lannoy, viceroy of Naples, seemed to give Clement almost all he could want. It included the guaranteed integrity of the papal state, with Reggio and Rubiera, which had been seized again by Alfonso d’Este during the long papal vacancy in autumn 1523, handed back, and Francesco II Sforza accepted as Duke of Milan. Unfortunately for Clement, nothing was done to implement this treaty.

After the Peace of Madrid, in January 1526, when Francis I was released from captivity, and in turn proceeded to break the terms that had been agreed, Clement again needed to act decisively. In a long letter or harangue addressed to him in March Guicciardini reproached him for not being as firm and astute as he had been as a cardinal, and insisted that decisive action could still save the situation and ‘liberate the Apostolic See and Italy from this atrocious and disgraceful servitude’. The Pope should act boldly, Guicciardini complained; for instance, he should retake Reggio ‘or play some trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna’, who was certainly the most aggressive, pro-imperial and ambitious member of the Sacred College. He (Clement) could yet emerge as ‘the most glorious pope in two hundred years’.

For brief periods Clement appeared to muster some strength. The signing in May 1526 of the Holy League of Cognac with Francis I, an avowedly aggressive alliance, seemed to signify a new beginning. In a letter of self-justification sent to the Emperor in June 1526 the Pope was emphatic that Charles should withdraw from Italy, reproaching him for the non-fulfilment of treaty obligations and his violations of papal territory including Parma, and his forcing Clement to seek other allies and to take arms in self-defence. In July Guicciardini, now commissary general of the papal army, saw that immediate action was imperative: a rapid move to capture Milan had every chance of victory over the unpaid, unprepared, numerically inferior imperial forces in Lombardy. That this did not happen seems to have been mainly the fault of the Duke of Urbino, who first hesitated because the Swiss troops had not arrived, and then, having made in July several unsuccessful attempts to attack Milan, retreated; in August and September he lost more time, in spite of receiving French reinforcements, by carrying on the fairly pointless siege of Cremona, then held by imperial forces.

Perhaps it would have made a difference if Clement VII had appointed a resolute cardinal legate to the army and applied himself with furious vigour, as Julius II would have done, to rallying the coalition and insisting on action. The blame, it has to be repeated, falls on the Duke of Urbino, that same Francesco Maria della Rovere who had failed his uncle Julius II in 1511 and been ousted from Urbino by Leo X, only to be reinstated in his dukedom under Adrian VI and – in spite of his known resentment against the Medici for the way they had treated him – reappointed Captain of the Church by Clement. Meanwhile, as well as losing the military initiative, Clement received a crushing reply to his ‘justification’, aimed at depriving him also of the moral high ground. This reply, handed to Castiglione on 18 September 1526, took the argument back to fundamentals, even playing the Lutheran card. The Pope, the Emperor insisted, had drawn the sword that Christ ordered Peter to put up. It was beyond belief for the vicar of Christ to acquire worldly possessions at the cost of even one drop of human blood. No one was coming to attack the Holy See, so there was no need of weapons or troops.

As for Guicciardini’s suggestion to play a clever trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, Clement was instead the victim of an outrageous demonstration by that overpowerful dissident, who in spite of the above assurance did come to attack the Holy See, and moreover did so in the Emperor’s name. Pompeo had nearly been elected pope himself in 1523 but was finally persuaded to switch his votes (rather reminiscent of Ascanio Sforza in 1492) in exchange for the vice-chancellorship and other compensations; his fury at Clement’s desertion of the Emperor in 1525 and signing later of the League of Cognac led him to call an armed march on Rome by the Colonna and their supporters in September 1526. Here was a cardinal – not only that, but the Vice-Chancellor of the Church, head of the whole machinery of papal government – declaring war on the Pope: it was one of the most bizarre and anarchic episodes in a long trend of violent behaviour on the part of a secularised minority in the Sacred College. According to Paolo Giovio, whose biography of Pompeo was highly partisan and stressed his love of family and military honour, 8000 knights and 3000 infantry commanded by Pompeo’s brother were involved in this expedition, with artillery drawn by buffaloes and men, helped at difficult points by Pompeo himself.63 When they reached Rome the cardinal shut himself up in his palace, leaving his followers do as much damage as they could, looting and terrifying the inhabitants of Rome, though they did not succeed in laying hands on Clement.

The Pope took his revenge on the Colonna in November 1526 with a punitive campaign worthy of Alexander VI, demolishing their fortresses and devastating their lands. According to the papal bull condemning Pompeo, which was published in February 1527, the latter’s purpose had been to seize Clement, alive or dead, and to rule as pope in his place, apparently without election by his peers, or any other of the normal formalities. It is hard to imagine how on earth Pompeo can have justified to his conscience and his confessor this treasonable presumption, or justified using force in a manner more calculated to endanger than defend the Church. Though formally deprived of his cardinalate and other offices, he was not punished for long. In fact, he was soon needed to intercede on Clement’s behalf with much more fanatical enemies than himself, and give refuge to fellow cardinals and others in danger.

Meanwhile in September 1526 the Job-like Clement had also had to bear the shock of the Turkish victory at Mohács in Hungary, and news of the loss to Christendom of that country. Like Adrian and Leo before him when such tidings of disaster arrived, Clement declared that he himself would take part in a military expedition and as vicar of Christ was prepared to lay down his life. It was no clearer than the avowals of previous popes, whether he meant by this simply to be ready for martyrdom, or was prepared even to fall in combat. A war-planning council of five cardinals was set up, but it is fairly clear that the Pope’s distractions in Italy, quite apart from his shortage of money, meant that nothing would be done.

Worse than the Colonna raid was to come in the spring of 1527, with the League of Cognac coalition not only continuing to do nothing, but even failing to protect Rome from the mainly Spanish army advancing under the Duke of Bourbon’s command and the horde of Lutheran ‘landsknechts’ under George von Frundsberg. The latter were mercenary foot soldiers, first raised by the Emperor Maximilian in the early years of the century from the south German lowlands. Less disciplined than the Alpine Swiss on whom they were supposedly modelled, landsknechts were a brutal new phenomenon in European warfare. Armed with huge pikes and swords, swaggering in feathered hats and slashed breeches, inspired by Lutheran slogans but furious for want of food and wages, Frundsberg’s undisciplined troops were a terrifying prospect for Rome, even if the Spaniards, demoralised after Bourbon’s death, proved to be equally brutal and avaricious.

For all his military experience, Clement did not strike a heroic pose as he cowered in the Castel Sant’Angelo amid the horrors of the sack and the passive experience of hearing and watching Spanish sappers undermining it; one correspondent in Rome wrote in horrified anticipation of seeing ‘a pope and a whole flock of cardinals blown into the air by fire’. Most of the cardinals, those not with the Pope in the safety of the castle, fared much worse in the terrible months of May and June 1527, suffering torture and mockery to extort from them money and valuables, not only from the landsknechts but also from the Spanish captains whom some had paid handsomely for protection. Few offered physical resistance, in spite of their well-stocked armouries, guards and military retainers. An exception may have been Cardinal Giovanni Piccolomini, who probably considered himself untouchable, having a solidly pro-imperial and pro-German family background from his great uncle Pius II onwards. Nevertheless, according to one of the most reliable accounts – a letter of Cardinal Scaramuccia Trivulzio of Como to his secretary, sent later from Civitavecchia – Piccolomini suffered twice over. After he had bought off the Spaniards, the cardinal’s palace was then assaulted by landsknechts. Since the latter were said to have kept up the attack for four hours before the cardinal surrendered, it sounds as though there was counter-fire from within, and the dead piled up on both sides. Cardinal Piccolomini was paraded through the streets, bareheaded and in a shabby garment, kicked and punched and forced to make another ransom payment, before gaining refuge with Cardinal Pompeo Colonna.

In December 1527 Clement eventually bought his escape to Orvieto, and by then could again pin some hope on relief by the forces of the League of Cognac. For a French army, led by Odette de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, had gained much success in Lombardy and Emilia; early in 1528 it advanced down the Adriatic coast; it won many more victories before laying siege to Naples in April. There Lautrec was deadlocked. The city, defended by imperial forces, was still holding out in August when Lautrec himself died of disease; the remnants of his army had to withdraw northwards. Once again fortuna had been cruel to the Pope. Or had the papacy met its deserts as the victim of military force, hoist by its own petard after itself sponsoring so much war and slaughter?

The debate about the sack of Rome – whether it represented scandalous sacrilege and disaster or a providential judgement of God on a corrupted body – was only just beginning. One writer in the court of Charles V, Erasmus’s friend Juan de Valdés, made a pretty clear case for the latter point of view, in a polemical dialogue that attacked the whole concept of papal war and deplored all the horrors it had perpetrated. The protagonist, called Lactancio, is answered by an apologetic archdeacon, who uses the old argument of necessary defence of the Church; at one point he concedes, ‘I agree that all those things are very cruel, but the people of Italy would look down on a pope who didn’t wage war. They would think it a great insult if a single inch of Church land were lost.’

Whether or not there was any truth in the fictitious archdeacon’s assertion, it is paradoxical that, relatively soon after Clement VII’s return to Rome in October 1528 and reconciliation with Charles V in the Treaty of Barcelona (29 June 1529), the Pope seems to have recovered more purpose than he had shown for years. Charles, not without a tinge of remorse for what had happened, now stood as guarantor of both the papal lands in Italy and of a Medici principate in Florence, to replace the popular republic that had been set up there in 1527. After the successful imperial siege of Florence (1529–30) and final overthrowal of the republic, Clement endeavoured to take a strong line with cities in the papal state that had again tried to throw off papal rule during the period of crisis. Ancona was one example. On the strength of allegations that Ancona was threatened by Turkish naval attack – allegations strongly denied by the city’s own ambassadors – he sent a force to take it in 1532, suppressed the ancient civic constitution and appointed as cardinal legate and governor Benedetto Accolti. Archbishop of Ravenna and a papal secretary since 1523, Accolti had been made a cardinal in 1527, and commanded a troop of 4000 Spanish infantry in the siege of Florence. At Ancona he supervised the building of a new fortress complete with its own gun foundry, and his government was reputedly so oppressive that he was eventually removed and put on trial under Clement’s successor. His interests appear to be neatly expressed by the inventory of his possessions, drawn up after his arrest in 1535, where scarcely any devotional objects, books or works of art are listed (one of the few exceptions was a portrait of Julius II), but several swords and daggers and six or seven handguns.

Perugia also had to be dealt with. Clement appointed as legate in Umbria his second cousin Ippolito de’ Medici, the bastard son of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, who had been raised to the purple at the age of eighteen in January 1529. The purpose of his legation was to dispossess Malatesta Baglioni of Perugia, who was then serving the republic of Florence as military commander against the besieging imperial and papal army. Ippolito never went there, and delegated the administration to a series of vice-legates, the first of whom in 1529–30 was Ennio Filonardi, Bishop of Veroli, but the condition of Perugia deteriorated and reached a point of crisis under Clement’s successor.

Ippolito de’ Medici’s opportunity for greater glory came in 1532 when he was sent as papal ambassador to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and King of Hungary. Ippolito arrived in Ratisbon (modern Regensburg) with a retinue of five prelates, ten secretaries and an armed guard of thirty to forty gentlemen, most of whom were former military captains, and with 5000 ducats in hand with which to enrol troops. His office was extended to that of papal legate to Ferdinand’s army against the Turks in Hungary, and the Venetian ambassador reported on 1 September that he had set off by boat down the Danube accompanied by ten gunners (arquebusieri). Ippolito was described as ‘dressed like Jupiter’ – modified in a subsequent letter to ‘wearing military habit’. Unfortunately, a portrait by Titian showing him in full armour does not survive; Vasari mentions it in his life of the artist as painted at Bologna at the same time as the well-known portrait of the Cardinal in the costume of a Turkish warrior (which it seems unlikely that he was wearing on the above occasion). Ippolito intended to select horses at Vienna and proceed at once to the battlefront, but when he reached the imperial army, which was on full alert, the Turks on the other side of the river made no move. Eventually the campaign was called off and Ippolito was said to have expressed his disappointment with such rage that Ferdinand imprisoned him for a day. The Mantuan agent in Rome, Fabrizio Peregrino, whose graphic and opinionated dispatches will frequently be quoted in the following pages, heard of this episode and commented that Ippolito had wanted madly to play the part of a war captain (‘voleva pazzamente fare il capitano di guerra’). After the papal election in 1534 he quickly left the Apostolic Palace and planned to leave Rome altogether, according to Peregrino, to reduce the expense of maintaining so many military captains and bravi.

The Final Stand – Acre, 1291

Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont defending Acre from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

William of Beaujeu came to Acre late in 1275. King Hugh would feel the effects of the Templar alliance with the Angevin lobby as he was more or less ignored by the order when they bought a small village outside of Acre without referring to him in 1276. Hugh’s distrust of the Templars was quite open and he even wrote about it, blaming both them and the Hospitallers for the state of the kingdom. But Hugh wrote from Cyprus, to which he returned on numerous occasions. When he heard that the only other rival claimant to the throne, Maria of Antioch, had sold her stake to Charles of Anjou, he must have been mortified but not surprised. Roger of San Severino, Charles’s representative, soon headed out to Acre and to the Templars’ house. He began a cosy relationship of mutual cooperation with the Templars and Hugh’s subsequent attempts to wrest control away from the Angevin camp met with failure. Hugh did, however, retaliate against the Templars in Cyprus by attacking the castle at Gastria and other Templar houses on the island.

Baibars had died in July 1277. It was a year of change in Outremer. The Muslims descended for a short while into a familiar pattern of power struggles but Baibars had left an inherently strong platform, and within a few years the Mameluke threat was once again great. But in those years the Templars became embroiled in a damaging civil war in Tripoli. Whilst they were probably only doing what they had always done by backing a strong strategy to best protect the Holy Land, their partisan involvement at a time when there was much else to worry about brought some distrust upon the order.

The Civil War in Tripoli lasted from 1277 to 1282. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Tortosa, had run Tripoli on behalf of the young Bohemond VII for a few years up to 1277, when Bohemond came of age. However, Paul of Segni, the Bishop of Tripoli, who had been at the Council of Lyons and was on good terms with William of Beaujeu, was opposed to Bartholomew. Bohemond soon fell out with his cousin and former friend Guy of Embriaco over a marriage proposal. The girl at the heart of it was a local heiress who was soon kidnapped by Guy and handed to his brother John for a bride. Bartholomew, however, had wanted her for his own nephew. Guy knew what he had done would incur the wrath of Bohemond so he ran off to the Templars and joined them. In retaliation Bohemond attacked the Templar house at Tripoli and cut down a valuable forest of theirs at Montroque. The Templar Grand Master was incensed by this action and led a protest at the walls of Tripoli and then went on to torch the castle at Botrun and besiege Nephin, which did not go to plan and cost him twelve men killed or captured by Bohemond’s men. The Templars moved back to Acre whilst Bohemond went looking for Guy. But Guy had thirty Templars with him and there was a battle between himself and Bohemond in which those Templars seem to have played a decisive part. Bohemond’s forces were badly mauled and he sued for a year’s truce. But in 1278 he was set upon again by Guy and the Templars. It was another defeat, but this time with a naval element. Bohemond’s galleys attacked the Templar castle at Sidon, the order’s own galleys having been dispersed by bad weather. Hospitaller help came to the Templars and prevented a defeat.

Guy was determined to get the upper hand over Bohemond and had designs on Tripoli itself. In 1282 Guy and his men stole into the Templar house there in a bid to take the town by surprise. But the Spanish Templar preceptor called Reddecouer was not there when they arrived. Suspecting intrigue, the men fled to the Hospitaller house but were spotted. Bohemond promised them safe conduct if they surrendered but then broke his word and had Guy and his immediate company killed and the others blinded.

Outside of Tripoli’s internal disputes events moved swiftly and ominously. Charles of Anjou was hampered in his Eastern designs by the wars of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The Mameluke power struggles in the wake of Baibars’s death resulted in the rise of one very capable commander called Qalawun. At around the same time as Qalawun’s star rose, Charles of Anjou died in January 1285. King Hugh’s oldest surviving son, John, reigned only very briefly and another son, Henry, succeeded as Henry II (1285–1324), coming to the East in 1286. The situation was perilous for the Franks, but the Templars had played a part in negotiating peace treaties, including one in 1282 which was to last for ten years and ten months and was to feature a ban on re-fortifications in the Tortosa region.

Qalawun, however, seems to have scented blood before these truces could expire. The Hospitaller castle at Marqab fell in 1285 and the important port at Latakia fell in 1287, the same year that Bohemond VII died. By 1289 Qalawun was at the gates of Tripoli where the Grand Master’s reputation built up during the Civil War caught up with him. The Genoese lobby had risen to prominence in the town during the turmoil following the Civil War and some envoys had left Tripoli to tell the sultan that should Genoa prevail, the trade of Alexandria might be affected. Qalawun therefore had a pretext for intervention. On hearing through informants that the Mamelukes were closing in on Tripoli, William of Beaujeu sent a message into Tripoli to warn the townsfolk, but his messenger was not believed. Another message was sent to Acre where the Templar Reddecouer’s message was this time accepted. The Templars sent a force under Geoffrey of Vendac, the Marshal. Also, the Hospitallers committed a force along with the secular troops of John of Grailly. But it was too late. On 26 April 1289 the sultan’s men stormed the walls of Tripoli and amongst the slaughtered citizens was Peter of Moncade, the Templar Commander.

King Henry had managed to organise a truce with the sultan, but when a rabble of Lombard peasants and merchants arrived at Acre in response to panicked appeals for help, they embarked on a rampage around the city slaughtering everyone they thought was Muslim and embarrassing the Frankish authorities and military orders as a result. Qalawun was angry. He insisted that the government of Acre make reparation to him for the slaughter. Nobody quite knew the identity of any of the culprits except the obvious ring leaders. William of Beaujeu suggested emptying all the city’s prisons of their Christian prisoners to give to the sultan in recompense. But the Grand Master was overruled. Qalawun had decided that Acre’s days as the capital of a shrunken Christian kingdom were numbered.

Whilst the armies of Damascus and Egypt prepared their siege engines once again, William of Beaujeu’s Muslim informant, an emir called al-Fakhri, told him that the Muslim plan was to direct an assault against Acre and not, as had been widely reported, to undertake an African expedition. Once again, as he had done at Tripoli, the Grand Master sent a warning into the city and once again he was not believed. William even sent his own envoy to Cairo to negotiate with the sultan who offered Acre respite in return for one Venetian penny per head of population. So William put this proposal before the High Court at Acre amidst apparent scenes of howling derision. The offer was rejected outright and William was hounded by the citizens as he left the hall. Once again they thought the Templars had gone to the Muslims with some underhand dealings about which they knew very little.

The Muslim preparations were slow but thorough. The sultan was no longer making Acre a secret target. He had vowed to rid the city of all Christians. But in November 1290 he died just a few miles outside the city. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, however, had promised his dying father he would finish the job. Still, he put the assault off to the next spring. Acre’s leaders tried to make the most of the respite and sent a delegation to Cairo which included a Templar named Bartholomew Pizan, a Hospitaller and a leading figure of the town who spoke fluent Arabic. Not one of them survived. They were incarcerated by the new sultan and soon perished. Meanwhile, the sultan’s preparations continued. Siege engines large and small made their way to Acre, and tens of thousands of troops accompanied them. By 5 April 1291 they were beneath the walls. Any complacency the Templars or the townsfolk might have had was now gone. Within the walls, looking out on the vast array of the armed Muslim regiments were the Templars, Hospitallers (both stationed in the northern suburb of Montmusard), Teutonic Knights and some troops sent by King Henry along with his brother, Amalric. Edward I had also sent some men from England who had accompanied the Swiss Otto of Grandson. The Venetians and Pisans were there too. Mixed in with these were the townsfolk now called to arms, and the Italians who had so rudely precipitated the earlier riots.

King Henry had recently strengthened the walls of the city. There was a double line of outer walls and a single wall separating the main part of the town from Montmusard. The city’s castle was on this single wall near to where it met with the outer walls. Here, the double walls jut out forming a vulnerable and obvious bulge in the defensive line. The Templars found themselves facing out to the north of Montmusard looking down on the Muslim army of Hama encamped by the sea, whilst the Hospitallers faced the army of Damascus. Al-Ashraf Khalil was camped to the south opposite the Tower of the Legate.

The siege was set to last for a good while. The Christians, having control of the sea were able to bring food over from Cyprus, but they could never have enough fighting men. On 6 April the bombardment started from the sultan’s engines. Also, his engineers began preparations to undermine sections of the walls, whilst thousands of archers fired their missiles into the battlements. The defenders, however, certainly put up a fight. One Christian ship which had a catapult on board did damage to the sultan’s camp, and on 15 April William of Beaujeu conducted a daring night-time raid along with Otto of Grandson on the army of Hama’s camp. However, the tactic was not a success. In the murky darkness the Templars’ horses got their feet caught in the enemy tent’s guy ropes and were thus stricken and their riders captured. Eighteen men were lost. With a similarly disastrous night sortie made by the Hospitallers a few nights later came a decision not to repeat the tactic.

And so the siege dragged on. On 4 May King Henry came to Acre with forty ship loads of troops from Cyprus, mainly infantrymen. They numbered a little over 2,000. But even this was not enough to fully man the vast walls of Acre. Henry decided to send two knights as envoys to speak with the sultan. One was William of Cafran, a Templar, and the other was William of Villiers. They had not come with the keys to the city, they told the sultan. Al-Ashraf Khalil said he would spare the Christians if they surrendered. However, just as the envoys were about to refuse such a demand a huge stone from one of the city’s catapults landed near to where they all stood and the sultan immediately took the view that the Christians had no intention of negotiating. In fact, it was only the intervention of a level-headed emir which prevented the sultan from killing the two knights himself. The two men returned to the city empty handed.

By 8 May the Tower of King Hugh, at the tip of the bulge in the defences, was standing precariously. The Christians torched it and began to retreat. The Towers and walls from here to St Anthony’s Gate were all beginning to crumble due to the work of the Muslim engineers. A new tower built by Henry II lasted until 15 May but also began to collapse. On the morning of 16 May the Muslims poured into the breach and the defenders fell back onto the inner walls. A concerted attack against St Anthony’s Gate, situated on the inner angle of the walls near to the castle, then took place. The Templars and the Hospitallers rushed to its defence and fought bravely. But on the morning of 18 May a general assault was ordered on the entire southern stretch of the defences from St Anthony’s Gate to the shore. The Accursed Tower, at the apex of the bulge, was penetrated and the defenders fell back towards St Anthony’s Gate. Now, amidst the noise and flames, there was fighting on the streets. William of Beaujeu rushed to the defence. His Templars were joined by the Hospitallers, but the enemy were everywhere. The Templar Grand Master had not had time to properly fix his armour plates (The Templar of Tyre says he had picked up another’s armour in haste) and just as he raised his left arm he was struck in the armpit by an enemy spear. He had no shield and the weapon went through him to a ‘palm’s length’. It came through a gap where his armour plates were not joined. The Master turned towards some Italian crusaders and said ‘My Lords, I can do no more, for I am killed: see the wound here!’

The Grand Master was carried back by his men to the Templar quarter, but later died of his wounds. Now the situation was beyond hope. King Henry fled to the ships. Even the wounded Grand Master of the Hospital John of Villiers was dragged onto a ship against his better judgement. At the quayside there were scenes of chaos as people crowded to get onto small craft and sail out to the larger vessels and to safety. Amongst those who capitalised on the desperation of the women and children was a Templar sea captain, Roger of Flor.

There was murder everywhere on the streets of Acre. Women and children were either killed or enslaved. Many people fled to the only remaining part of the city in Christian hands. It was now 25 May. The Temple quarter sticks out into the sea at the south-west tip of Acre. Inside this vast complex of Templar fortifications and buildings, Peter of Sevrey, the order’s Marshal, and the remaining citizens held on for nearly a week until the sultan offered Peter safety if he and the other citizens were to sail away to Cyprus and leave him with the city. Peter agreed, and a hundred Mamelukes were allowed into the Templar quarter whilst their sultan’s banner was hoisted on high. However, these Mamelukes took to molesting the women and mistreating the boys within the area. This provoked a retaliatory attack from the Templars who could hardly allow such open abuse. The enemy banner was ripped down and the Templars slaughtered the offenders. At night Peter sent Theobald Gaudin and a few others away in their ships to Sidon. Theobald had been both a Commander and Turcopolier in the order and had a long history of around three decades in the East. Myths have formed regarding what exactly the man who would soon become the Templars’ penultimate Grand Master took with him in the hold of his ship. Legends soon arose that Theobald took the order’s treasure, but nothing is known for sure.

Al-Ashraf Khalil knew how determined the Templars were and he knew how difficult their defences were to overcome. So, he once again offered the same deal as before. Peter came out under the promise of safety but when he and his party reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. The remaining defenders stayed resolute behind the walls. However, these walls were gradually being undermined by the industrious Muslim engineers. By 28 May they were in a state of near collapse. When they did finally disintegrate, the sultan poured men over the rubble. But there were so many of them bearing down upon the shaky structures that a whole section of the fortification came crashing down on everyone, Christian and Muslim alike. Now the sultan’s men were inside the complex, the dreadful slaughter began once again. The roof had finally caved in on Outremer. For those Templars who somehow managed to escape, things would never quite be the same again.

Sidon, Tortosa and the castle at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) were all that remained in Templar control. Theobald Gaudin was elected as Grand Master at Sidon where the Templars remained for a few weeks. Then a large Mameluke army appeared at the door of the city and the Templars withdrew to the castle on the sea to the north of the harbour which is linked to the mainland by a causeway. Theobald set sail for Cyprus apparently intending to return with reinforcements. Messages soon came to the remaining Templar defenders of Sidon from Cyprus urging them to give in. When the Mamelukes began to build their own crossing towards the castle, the Templars abandoned it and sailed along the coast to Tortosa. Two great centres of Templar power remained. Here, at Tortosa, where for so long the order’s knights had held sway in the region and had struck fear into the hearts of enemies, the brothers now prepared to leave. They were gone by 3 August. Their impregnable fortress at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) was never taken. It was abandoned on 14 August and subsequently the Mamelukes destroyed it. With the cities of Tyre and Beirut having already fallen, there were no Christian territories left on the mainland. There was just one tiny little island, that of Arwad (Ru’ad) off the coast from Tortosa, where the Templars would play out a final desperate scene in the great drama of the crusades in 1302 (see p. 217). Despite sending out for help to Europe from his base in Cyprus, Theobald Gaudin did not come to the Holy Land again, although he may well have managed to secure a gathering of 400 brothers at a chapter meeting in Cyprus in 1291. He died on 16 April 1292 or 1293. His successor was the last Grand Master of the order, James of Molay, about whom more has been written than any other. Molay would have a long and troubled stewardship but would show that there was still some fighting to be done. Molay’s preoccupations would eventually turn to the struggle to defend himself against King Philip IV of France, but at the beginning of his time as Grand Master, and for some years afterwards, he will have been thinking of how the Templars could once again reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity.

Entry of Roger de Flor in Constantinople by José Moreno Carbonero

Roger of Flor

Roger was the son of a German Falconer and was an enthusiastic sailor from an early age. He found service on a ship of a Templar sergeant from Marseille who had put in at Brindisi. He later joined the Templars as a sergeant himself and took the captaincy of a vessel called The Falcon, formerly a fine Genoese ship. The vessel was involved in a mixture of trade and ‘piracy’ and the order did well from it. At the fall of Acre The Falcon was in the harbour and Roger used it to rescue rich women and sailed them away with their treasure to ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin). Although Roger gave a large amount of his proceeds to the order, there was suspicion that he pocketed much himself. His subsequent behaviour, taking The Falcon to Marseille and abandoning it, thus escaping the Grand Master’s attentions, might implicate him further, as does his new found life as a mercenary leader of the Catalan Company. Roger died serving the Byzantines in 1305.

Second Siege of Saragossa

This is an account of the epic siege of Saragossa in early 1809:

The 27th January 1809 dawned drab and dismal. There was a light mist but the cold of the Spanish winter was intense. French troops gathered in the trenches before Saragossa, chatting nervously and shaking themselves ‘like dogs’ to keep warm. Napoleon’s soldiers had been encamped before the Spanish city for two months, enduring the wearisome monotony of siege warfare, fervently hoping for a breakthrough this winter day which might finish the ordeal. But the Spanish defenders were in no mood to capitulate. The silence of the early morn was occasionally broken by the sharp crack of a sniper’s musket. Some of the bullets whistled harmlessly overhead, others thudded into the breastworks of the French trenches. Soon that noise was itself drowned when the French siege guns opened up, directing their massive roundshot against the city’s ancient defences. By ten the bulk of the French assault force had gathered. The brusque General Pierre Habert inspected his veterans, moving through the ranks, encouraging cajoling. In the centre Major Stahl and 300 voltigeurs prepared to attack a breach laboriously pounded by the heavy French siege guns. On the right a second column under Captain Guttemann formed up to assault the battery of guns on the Spanish parapet, the Palafox Battery named after their illustrious leader. A third column, commanded by Colonel Josef Chlopiski and composed of Poles from the 1st Vistula Regiment, was selected to attack the Santa Engracia convent which formed part of the city’s southern wall.

At 11.00 the gigantic French guns switched to firing into the city, sowing chaos or dismay. The defenders had virtually ceased firing, perhaps waiting for the French, perhaps too busy plugging ruined walls with sacks of earth. Then the signal the entire French army had waited for came. At noon three field guns opened fire, one after the other. The French clambered noisily out of the trenches and began to run forwards across the frosty ground. The defenders opened fire from the walls, here and there Frenchmen and Poles were hit and fell whilst the rest pushed forwards sensing victory. But before they could reach the breach Stahl’s men were hit by canister and counterattacked by a strong force of 700 Spaniards. The voltigeurs reeled back from the shock and scattered. Some ran back to the trenches others fought hand-to-hand with their assailants.

Gutteman’s column was more fortunate, bursting through the breach into Pabostre Avenue and the greatcoated-Frenchmen barricaded themselves into some of the street’s battered houses. Throwing beams across doorways and furniture against windows they then fiercely resisted as Spanish reserves counterattacked and vainly swarmed around them.

Chlopiski’s four companies also attacked with vigour but were astonished to find a second wall had been built behind the breach in the wall of the convent. Undeterred the Poles forced their way through a tiny gap in this unexpected obstacle, broke into the holy building and took on the 1,200 defenders. Baron Lejeune, a colourful engineer officer accompanying the assault, was dazed by a hit in the face by  one such defender’s musket butt. Nevertheless he still managed to witness the infernal scene before being wounded again ‘by a ricocheting bullet in the shoulder, causing me tremendous pain’.  Like ‘furious lions’ the Poles clawed their way through the church before breaking out into the little square behind. As the Poles began to occupy the neighbouring houses the Spanish defenders along the wall found themselves cut off and switched round to face the new threat. The 5th Light seized the critical moment, ran forward from the trenches, scaled the walls and arrived triumphant on the rampart. Supported by the 115th they pushed on to capture 15 guns and penetrate as far as the Trinitarian convent. But the cost of such progress was high: 43 dead and 136 wounded. Even so the French were within the walls. Their assault had been a success and the city, by rights, should now have capitulated. But Saragossa was no ordinary city and this was no ordinary war.

On the afternoon of Friday 4 November 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte had crossed the Pyrenees and entered the kingdom of Spain. He and a veteran army had come to restore his fortunes in that unfortunate country for his brother, king Joseph, who had found himself almost ousted from his newly-acquired kingdom by a popular revolt.

Earlier that year Napoleon, used to deciding the fate of nations and monarchs, had deposed the old Bourbon dynasty and installed Joseph on the throne. Such an act the Spanish people could not accept and, in the summer of 1808, they fought back. The French, victorious in battle against Spain’s regular forces, could never overcome popular resistance and the first year of the Peninsular War settled down into a costly, squalid conflict. Then, in July 1808, the French cause suffered a serious setback. General Dupont, commanding French conscripts, found himself surrounded at Bailen in Andalucia by Spanish regulars. To the astonishment of the Spaniards, and to the rest of Europe, he surrendered after scarcely a shot had been fired. This act of cowardice, as Napoleon saw it, sparked panic in the French administration; troops were withdrawn, the Spanish advanced, Joseph quit Madrid and the French fled northwards over the Ebro.

Napoleon was forced to act to restore French rule but such a campaign would not be easy. Spain was vast and the Spanish, already brutalised through popular resistance, were also now elated by their recent victories. Nobody quite knew whether the genius of the emperor would be enough to triumph but all were sure that more was at stake than the crown of Spain.

That November Napoleon’s moves were decisive; French veterans poured across the Ebro, stabbing at the motley Spanish field armies, routing them and pushing them back. Many of the Spaniards took to their heals or joined bands of guerrillas proclaiming liberty or death. Significantly, resistance was collecting at the Aragonese city of Saragossa, straddling the Ebro, which had earned a reputation by withstanding the French in the summer of 1808 and was now a focal point for the fugitive remnants of armies. After all if Saragossa succeeded now then Spain might just defeat the master of Europe.

On 23 November Marshal Jean Lannes smashed another poorly-led Spanish force, commanded by Francisco Castanos, victor of Bailen, at Tudela. Saragossa’s garrison was soon joined by survivors from the battle and they were feverishly impressed into strengthening the city’s defences, overseen by the energetic General José Palafox. Supplies were brought in from the surrounding countryside, troops were reviewed and armed, engineers – overseen by the talented Colonel San Genis, a native of the city – had walls and ditches repaired and houses fortified and loopholed. Barricades were thrown across streets, earthworks were dug and thousands of sacks filled with earth. The scene was set for one of history’s greatest sieges and Saragossa was readied for war to the death.

Meanwhile the French, composed of III Corps and elements of Marshal Michel Ney’s VI Corps, remained around Tudela to catch their breath and await imperial command. Such orders were not long in coming and the two marshals set off towards the city with their 25,000 men. Arriving beneath the walls and setting up camp they were disconcerted to receive further orders from Napoleon directing Ney to head for Castile, leaving Moncey’s III Corps alone to defeat an electrified city. That marshal, with just three of his four divisions, flinched from the task of fighting his way into a fortified city whilst beset by a hostile population. So, to the joy of that incredulous population, the French withdrew, retreating to Alagon to await reinforcements. Confusion shattered French morale and a devastated Alagon offered little by way of compensation. A Polish officer in III Corps, Heinrich von Brandt, recalled that ‘We camped in conditions of absolute squalor. The inhabitants had fled, the weather was atrocious – freezing northerly gales alternated with torrential downpours without respite.’

Reinforcements arrived two weeks later in the form of Marshal Adolphe Mortier’s V Corps and the siege train from Bayonne. The French, content not to be inactive, set off again hoping, perhaps, that Saragossa would cave in like so many collapsed field armies.

Palafox was convinced it wouldn’t. He had used the fortnight’s respite well and his garrison boasted 34,000 regular troops  and militia as well as swiftly-organising bodies of determined civilians boosted by refugees – who had nothing to lose – from the surrounding area. His defence depended upon a series of well-defended strongpoints, many of them based on the city’s churches and monasteries, now fortified. The Saint Joseph monastery, just outside the southern wall, acted as a bastion in its own right as did the Santa Monica convent in the south east of the city and the Jesus monastery on the northern bank of the Ebro just beyond the suburbs. If the French did penetrate into the city then other substantial buildings – the University, Orphanage, Archbishop’s Palace and a score of churches and religious houses – would grind down their advance through the narrow streets and gain time for relief to arrive. There certainly seemed to be sufficient food – at least for the garrison – to enable the city to endure a three-month siege and, Palafox was sure, the necessary endurance to put up a courageous resistance.

The French began by storming Monte Torrero, an elevated position which dominated the southern side of the city. Just  two hours of resistance were followed by the flight of the defenders into the city. That afternoon the understandably optimistic French attacked from the north with General Honoré Gazan’s men bursting into the suburbs. Canister, from some of the city’s 160 guns, and street-fighting cost them 700 men before they fell back.

Moncey chose this moment to inform Palafox that he should capitulate but Palafox was scathing, suggesting that the French should rather surrender to him. So General André Lacoste, the remarkable engineer officer, began work in earnest. He determined that in order to effect a breach the French should first seize the Saint Joseph monastery, just beyond the shallow Huerba stream. From there the French could reach towards the banks of the Ebro, thus communicating with Gazan, whilst also launching attacks against the Santa Engracia gate, thereby gaining access into the south of the city. Digging began on the 23rd December 1808, shivering conscripts breaking the icy ground and bemoaning their fate and the conditions they were being forced to endure. They were entirely justified for, when on the 29th, General Jean Andoche Junot arrived to replace Moncey he was shocked by what he found. He wrote to Napoleon that his III Corps was composed of too few troops to succeed and that these troops were ‘young men, exhausted by the campaign; they are virtually naked, they have no greatcoats and no boots. They fill the hospitals in their hundreds which, due to the poor conditions and the absence of staff, quickly become their tomb’. He outspokenly informed his imperial master that all reports previously sent from Saragossa were tantamount to lies. It was going to be a tough battle with no guarantee of success.

The early days of 1809 saw the French depleted still further when Moncey was ordered to march on Catalayud with General Louis Suchet’s division, depriving the besiegers of essential manpower. Still, the French were cheered by news of their army’s entry into Madrid; Palafox was swift to counter in the propaganda war with his own proclamation which boasted that he’ll ‘sweep this scum away from our walls’. Letters were even thrown into the French trenches where impressionable conscripts were sat shivering. Written in six languages it tempted the French to desert and join the defence.

But Palafox was being cautious and his apparent reluctance to risk his troops outside the walls meant that by the second week of January the first of the French siege batteries was completed and in position. On the 10th at 06.00 eight French batteries opened up on Saragossa with 32 guns, many of them giant 24-pounders which could hurl a projectile two kilometres. The Spanish suffered heavily from the shot and shell and their batteries in Saint Joseph were quickly reduced to silence. The onslaught prompted the first Spanish sortie of note, however, and at midnight a Spanish column raced for the French position. Taken in flank the Spanish were scattered and fell back, decimated. The French guns continued to fire barely uninterrupted whilst preparations are made to launch an assault against Saint Joseph. In the afternoon of the 11th French officers in the trenches agreed that the breaches seemed practicable and the Spanish suitably cowed by the bombardment. Mariano Renovales, inside the fort, described the fire as being ‘so intense that hardly a soldier could escape being hit by one projectile or another’.  Troops from General Claude Grandjean’s division were now moved into position and two light guns rushed forward to open close-quarter fire against the Spanish whilst three columns of voltigeurs, led by Major Stahl and sappers, raced forward ‘only to find the ditch too deep’. Fortunately Captain Daguenet of the engineers discovered a wooden bridge the Spaniards had neglected to destroy and he and 100 hand-picked voltigeurs, managed to batter their way into the fort with axes. More French troops are rushed in and the Spanish 2nd Regiment of Valencia, suffering 30 dead and demoralised by the loss of their colonel, fled in disorder. Renovales reported to Palafox that they had abandoned ‘a position soaked in blood, covered in arms, legs and torsos’. 

A few more days of bombardment followed, along with more blood-spilling, until the French felt confident that an attack on their next target – a  tete de pont on the south side of the Huerba –  was viable. On the evening of the 15th 40 Polish voltigeurs launched an assault. Despite the gloom Jose Garcia, a sentry, spotted the Poles running forward and the Spanish opened fire and detonated a mine for good measure. Moving at speed the Poles emerged through the smoke unharmed and stormed up their ladders and over the wall. Grim bayonet fighting followed before they flushed the defenders out and the Spanish fled into the city burning the bridge behind them.

It was progress for the French but resistance was still determined. Even so the city’s civilians were suffering enormously. Epidemics were rampant and rations much reduced. Shot and shell daily rained down on Saragossa, death and disease stalked the streets. For the besiegers life that January was almost as grim. III Corps was reduced to just 13,000 effectives and General Honoré Gazan had just 7,000. A report of the 15th January noted that the 14th Line had 1,812 men under arms and 1,128 in hospital; the 115th 1,591 and 1,618 and the Poles of the 1st Vistula Regiment 1,218 fit and 952 sick.  Bands of insurgents roamed the countryside, attacking French foragers, and supplies dwindled. The dour Colonel Joseph Rogniat of the engineers noted that:

‘Our most terrible enemy, at this time was famine. We lacked meat and our soldiers were reduced to half-rations of bread many times. No village sent in requisitions and the lack of troops since Suchet’s division left means that we were not capable of sending sufficiently large detachments out to bring back food.’

Joseph Rogniat: Engineering officer who served at many major battles of the Empire. Born: November 9, 1776. Place of Birth: Saint-Priest, Isère, France. Died: May 8, 1840.

And all the time come rumours that Spanish regular forces are on their way to attempt to lift the siege. As indeed they were. General Pedro Elola had gathered 2,000 militia and was now advancing in an attempt to break through to Saragossa. News of his army ‘bringing with it 5,000 muskets’ had lifted the citizens of Saragossa. The French response was quick: General Pierre Wathier dispersed the insurgents and Gazan sent 500 men, supported by the 10th Hussars, to prevent them from rallying.

Meanwhile Lacoste pushed ahead energetically with the placing of new batteries, working closely with General Francis Dedon of the artillery. To frustrate this work 24 Spanish volunteers under Mariano Galindo sallied forth to attack battery Number 6 at 16.00 on the 21st. They crossed the Huerba and rushed at the guns before being overwhelmed or killed. It was an act of defiance typical of the besieged Aragonese.

It was at this critical juncture in the siege that the obstinate and effective Marshal Lannes arrived before Saragossa to assume command of III and V Corps. His presence, coupled with news of a successful action by Suchet’s division of V Corps, which had scattered armed peasants and taken up a position to safeguard French communications, raised French morale and they celebrated his arrival with a discharge of artillery. Palafox, on the other hand, prepared his own reception for the marshal.

At 04.00 on the 23rd a single cannon fired from the Spanish ramparts. Three Spanish battalions ‘marching in order and silence’ according to Lejeune emerged through the gloomy mist to attack the bleary-eyed defenders of Saint Joseph. Sweeping past a company of Poles and trapping them in the Aguilar house just outside the monastery’s walls. The Spanish set fire to the building but a French battalion rushed forward and managed to force the Spanish back. Whilst this sortie was being contained a second was launched against batteries 5 and 6. Fifty valiant Spaniards broke into the trenches, killed three gunners and attempted to spike two 12-pounders. A French counterattack swept down onto them, pushing the Spaniards back, recapturing the battery and taking 30 prisoners. The defeat of the sortie prompted Lannes to write to Palafox and declare that further casualties would be the victims of his imprudent obstinacy. There was no reply and so Lannes prepared his men for an all-out assault of the kind the marshal preferred.

The morning of the 26th was dominated by the monotonous rumble of 50 French guns. Four batteries concentrated on opening a breach in the wall opposite the Saint Joseph monastery whilst two strong batteries targeted Santa Engracia. Despite a thick fog, the city’s defences were battered and pounded for 18 hours. The Saragossans, as ever, took the punishment but tragedy occurred when San Genis was hit by a roundshot and killed.

The grand assault the following day was a success in as much as the French had fought their way into the city. But, far from capitulating, the Spanish had lured the French into the city’s streets. There, a new style of urban warfare could begin. As the French attempted to expand their control along the Pabostre into Del Gato Avenue they not only met resistance but also heavy counter-attacks. A fierce one on the 28th was beaten off but the struggle cost 17 men are killed and 30 wounded.  Rogniat witnessed the attack and noted that ‘The enemy used a considerable number of grenades and these frightened many of our troops and wounded scores’.  That same day, at 14.00, waves more Spaniards assaulted the Trinitarian convent. General Claude Rostolland was shot and wounded and the 117th Line panicked. Only through the exertions of Captain Robert could a group of grenadiers be rallied and the position saved.

The French continued methodically and on the 29th 90 Poles from the 2nd Vistula regiment were readied to assault the Santa Monica convent. Led forwards by 10 sappers, the Poles were showered by missiles thrown from neighbouring houses and were forced to scurry for cover. Alternate tactics to the all out charge are employed instead. A small charge blasted an entrance into a house next to convent and French troops quickly filled the building. From there they broke down the wall and swept into the convent’s garden, fighting their way among the cloisters. Captain Hardi at the head of 100 grenadiers finally managed to get into the church, wounding General Pedro Villacampa on the way.

Progress was also slow up Santa Engracia Avenue as each house had to be taken by assault. Sappers under Major Breuille placed five barrels of powder in the cellar of one house which was holding out against the odds, blocking the doors and windows and lighting the fuse. The blast brought down six houses but as the rubble and dust prevented progress; the sappers determined to use less powder in future. Charges are now to be sufficient to blow in walls to allow assault troops to quickly push through a breach.

Elsewhere 150 Frenchmen in the Trinitarian convent faced a particularly brutal attack when the monk Iago Sas led hundreds of Spanish forwards through the streets whilst snipers fanned out over the roofs overlooking the convent. The Spanish predictably attempted to smash down the convent’s door with an axe but sacks of earth placed behind the door prevented them from breaking in. Instead they brought up a gun but the gunners are shot down by the voltigeurs of the 50th Line. At 19.00 a second, smaller attack followed but it too failed, leaving a dozen Spaniards sprawling in the street.

But the French weren’t always successful in their own assaults. It was tough going as Brandt recalled:

‘We knew that in order not to be killed, or to diminish that risk, we would have to take each and every one of these houses converted into redoubts and where death lurked in the cellars, behind doors and shutters – in fact, everywhere. When we broke into a house we had to make an immediate and thorough inspection from the cellar to the rooftop. Experience taught us that sudden and determined resistance could well be a trick. Often as we were securing one floor we would be shot at from point blank range from the floor above through loopholes in the floorboards. All the nooks and crannies of these old-fashioned houses aided such deadly ambushes. We also had to maintain a good watch on the rooftops. With their light sandals, the Aragonese could move with the ease of and as silently as a cat and were thus able to make surprise incursions well behind the front line. We would be sitting peacefully around a fire, in a house occupied for some days, when suddenly shots would come through some window just as though they had come from the sky itself.’

Rogniat confessed in his journal that

‘The energy with which the enemy defends himself is incredible; the taking of each house necessitates an assault and these fanatics don’t only fight from house to house but from floor to floor or from room to room.’

Lejeune, too, stressed the difficulties encountered by the ordinary soldiers now finding themselves pitted against a determined enemy contesting every pile of rubble. The strain of life in the trenches was literally exhausting the French:

‘Engineer officers directed the men to spread out along a line and get digging, throwing the earth forwards whilst maintaining as much silence as possible otherwise the enemy would show us with canister. The troops hurry, despite the fatigue brought on by so many nights of such work, hoping to get some rest. And when they sleep even cannon fire can’t wake them. But they are not free from danger. There are enemy sorties, bombs, grenades and bullets to fear; the enemy send up shells to illuminate the area and allow marksmen to pick us off. There are stones fired into the air by mortars which come hurtling down, crushing all. Even so the soldiers sleep on perhaps not believing that this sleep might, for them, prove eternal.’  

Far from being beaten, the Spanish acting en masse or individually seemed in their element, keeping the French on their toes, turning the besiegers into the besieged. French troops in houses could find themselves shot at through floors or ceilings. Those in a supposedly secure area might find themselves ambushed and watch as their assailants made off over the roofs of the houses. Mines, artillery, snipers all took a terrible toll on both sides and many questioned how much longer both sides could persist in this awful battle of attrition?

February began rudely when at 05.00 on the morning of the 1st a mine was detonated under the Augustinian church; grenadiers of the 44th Line surprised the dazed garrison and flushed them out. The Spanish recovered quickly and counter-attacked, a deadly battle flared up around the altar. French reserves were rushed in and tipped the battle in France’s favour. A few defenders found themselves trapped in the bell-tower and they made the most of the opportunity by throwing grenades down on the French below. A second counter-attack by 8,000 Spaniards frees the trapped men and allows them to escape.

The 1st of February also saw the death of General Lacoste. Lejeune saw it happen.

‘Lacoste had told me to detonate my mines two minutes after I head his mines go off. When the moment came we lit the fuse and ten or a dozen houses were blown into the air followed by a deep boom. It took some time for the dust to settle but no sooner than it had then Prost ran forward followed by the Polish assault party. Lacoste and Valaze arrived just as they went into the attack and we all clambered up onto the ruins of a house in order to get a better view. We cheered on the Poles but our shouts attracted attention from the Spanish hiding behind walls and peeking through gaps and hole. They opened fire hitting Lalobe and General Lacoste; the former died instantly but Lacoste followed him a few hours later.’

Colonel Rogniat assumed command of the engineers but he himself was wounded in the hand the following day.

 The French continued to grind through the city. Some progress had been around Pabostre, and even some houses on the Quemada Avenue had been occupied, but the attackers failed to properly secure them. Ever watchful for an opportunity the Spaniards launched an attack and swept the French right back into the Pabostre. Palafox was quick to proclaim a victory but, the next day, the French were back in the rubble-strewn Quemada Avenue and pushing towards the Hospital of the Orphans. It was there that they met more determined resistance. Lieutenant Brenne, leading one attack, was wounded three times before his troops were finally repelled. An attack against the Jerusalem convent was also attempted; breaking into the church French voltigeurs were floored by Spanish fire coming from behind a loopholed wall. Working their way round, they outflanked the position, took revenge and secured the convent.

Another tactic called for the use of mines. With such infernal machines, charged with 500 pounds of powder, the French sappers successfully blasted their way along the Oleta Avenue and, for the first time, the besieging army reached the city’s main thoroughfare – the Coso, which runs along the length of the city. But virtually all the troops they had available were employed in securing their enclaves within the city wall and in battling to advance through the rubble and dust; too few could be spared for more offensive operations. Lannes hastily instructed Gazan to apply pressure on Saragossa’s northern bank but that general’s first attempted ended badly. The French, climbing out of trenches ankle-deep in freezing water, rushed forward but were picked off by Spanish marksmen on the roof of the Jesus convent.

Lannes did what he could to maintain the momentum, switching assaults from one quarter to another, keeping the Aragonese stretched and under fire. Nevertheless, it was proving difficult to become properly established on the Coso, let alone move beyond it. Brandt recalled that

‘our entire division took place in the assault on the Coso. Above the continual bickering of musketry the groans of much larger explosions could be heard – sometimes the booming of cannon and sometimes a mine going off. I was busy in the Coso with a detachment of some fifty men, setting up a barricade. Grenadiers, posted above us in the windows of neighbouring houses, covered this work, which was designed to protect a communications trench which ran from one side of the street to the other. Suddenly our ears were almost shattered by the familiar whistling and roaring noise of an exploding mine. A neighbouring house collapsed and unmasked a Spanish battery which blasted us with grape at point blank range. Miraculously, only three men were hit but the rest ran for it as quick as they could.’

Fortuitously, Gazan was not put off by his initial repulse and the general continued to launch attack after attack. Lejeune witnessed the decisive one: ‘200 grenadiers and 300 voltigeurs throw themselves forward in a number of columns and break into the Jesus convent. 400 Spaniards, demoralised by the bombardment, don’t wait to defend themselves. They turn tail and we seize control’.  It’s an all too unusual success. Mostly, French officers such as Rogniat are convinced that ‘the only way to defeat such obstinate defenders is to kill them’.  Want and disease are doing part of the job for them. Some 500 inhabitants are dying per day and lie unburied in the streets. Survivors cower in cellars or arcades or lurk in Saragossa’s shadowy streets. Shells rain down, fires spark into life among the city’s ruined buildings; smoke shrouds the infernal scene. And slowly, ever so slowly, the French increase their control over the city.

An unprecedented 3,000-pound mine was carefully placed under the St Francis monastery. The fuses were lit and Lejeune was there to see the explosion and to watch the subsequent attack go in:

‘Brave Colonel Dupeyroux with his regiment and Valaze and his engineers were waiting in the ruins of the hospital for the signal. Breuille detonated the mine and it blew in part of the convent’s walls. The bell-tower, which we had expected to see collapse, remained standing. Although the dust still billowed in choking clouds Valaze and his troops swept into the building, flushing out the defenders with the bayonet. The assault was so brilliant that Palafox called the entire garrison to arms, fearing that we would break into the very centre of the city. We had hoped that Spanish resistance would collapse with shock but our attack seemed instead to rather provoke their ire.’

Despite the blast the fighting in the church was savage. Spaniards and French, mingled together, fought their way down the nave and up the stairs of the bell-tower. Refusing to surrender the Spanish were thrown down to their deaths. Masters of the tower the French took time to look down on the smoking city, seeing the barricades across streets and gallows in public squares. Their success has led to a state of alarm across the city, the tocsins dolefully sound out, drums are beaten, and as many men as are available are mustered in the central market place. Palafox hesitated to launch an attack but instead issued a proclamation; among other things he promised to hunt down defeatists and that ‘our friends in America’ are ‘preparing enormous sums for the repair’ of the city’s buildings.  Just as well, the St Francis monastery, for one, has been written off by the fighting:

‘The explosion had not only destroyed a large part of the building but also many of the cellars in which families had been sheltering in order to avoid the bombardment; in addition more than 400 defenders, including an entire company of grenadiers from the Regiment of Valencia had been blown to smithereens. The gardens and the surrounding land were a horror to behold, strewn with masses of human remains. It was impossible to make a step without standing on something.’

The area around the University was much the same. The French are still determined to take it, the Spanish to defend it as Brandt recalled

‘the first attack on the University buildings failed due to the fact that the miners had not been able to place their galleries close enough under the walls, the result being that the explosion failed to make a breach and our columns were exposed to a galling fire from which they fell back with the loss of about forty men’.

Recovering quickly, a 12-pdr gun was brought up along with a mortar to complete the breach but Lieutenant Vecten, directing these guns, was picked off by a sniper. The 12-pdr opened up but the defenders plugged gabions and sandbags into the breach making it impossible to use.

Such tenacious resistance in part stemmed from despair but also from rumours that a large relief force had gathered at Lerida under Palafox’s two brothers. Some 12,000 men were on the march and Lannes was now forced to strip Gazan of troops and march north to defeat this last attempt to break through. For many in the garrison it seemed one promise too many; a company of Swiss mercenaries, fighting for the Spanish, took their chance and desert to the French. More drama followed when 100 desperate citizens broke out of the city and approached the French lines asking to be taken prisoner; the French commanders cleverly turned this to their advantage by issuing them with bread and sending them back into Saragossa to spread the word that the French will treat the citizens honourably and, more importantly, feed them.

Spanish morale deteriorated further when the promised relief did not arrive. On the 16th Lannes received a letter from Paris promising everything he might need to prosecute the siege: reinforcements, supplies, soldiers’ pay for January and surgeons. The scales, it seemed, were slowly swinging the French way.

Still the defenders were fighting back, contesting every house, every garden. A particular problem was sniper fire. Artillery and engineer officers were favoured targets. On the 17th, Lannes, having driven the Spanish field army off, returned to be almost hit by a sniper. Furious he scaled up the bell-tower of the Jesus convent and had fifteen loaded muskets brought up. He fired them off but was soon targeted by a Spanish cannon; a roundshot killed Captain Lepot right next to the Marshal.

The next day – almost in retaliation – the French opened up a massive bombardment at 08.00; 52 guns pulverised the Archbishop’s Palace and cathedral. Gazan’s men launched three columns forwards in an attack on the shattered Lazarus monastery. Two failed outright but the third broke into the monastery’s church and on towards the bridge over the swift Ebro. This dramatic move cut off a considerable number of Spaniards on the northern bank and whilst some 300 forced their way across the bridge, and others jumped into boats and fled across the river, still more surrendered and 2,500 become French prisoners. Colonel Dode of the engineers capitalised on the French success by having the entrance to the bridge quickly barred and fortified.

Just as the Spanish were surrendering on the northern bank a massive detonation was heard from the centre of the city. Having put in a series of attacks, and ensuring that the buildings are packed with defenders, the French detonate a huge mine planted in the University cellar. Resistance was so dazed by the ensuing explosion that Polish and French attackers not only broke into the gutted compound but were able to push on as far as the Trinity church. The next morning the French detonated a mine under that sacred building, occupied it and captured two guns. This progress pushed a deep wedge into the Spanish position and Palafox, by now seriously ill, felt he can do little about it. No relief force was forthcoming, nothing more could be done. Few others seemed to want to shoulder the awful responsibility of resisting against such odds and so the Spanish general finally took it upon himself to send one of his aides to Lannes to ask for a cease-fire. Lannes rejected the proposal and, to underline his words, formed a powerful battery close by the bridge over the Ebro. Palafox resigned in response and left his command to a Junta of 40 notables; they deliberated throughout the night to the tune of detonating mines and thundering artillery.

Fearing popular hatred, and hardly daring to whisper the word surrender, the Junta was divided. Epidemics were killing 500 people a day. The French were stubbornly, if slowly, ploughing their way through the rubble and their noose grew tighter and tighter. They summoned up the courage, for it took courage to surrender after such a siege, to despatch a second messenger to Lannes, asking for a suspension of hostilities. At 16.00 the marshal ordered the artillery to stop firing and sent an officer into the city demanding surrender within two hours. Lannes revealed that he had prepared six mines, all of 3,000 pounds, beneath the Coso. The Junta bowed its head to the inevitable and accepted Lannes’ terms.

The day of glory, if it could be called such, was long in coming. On the morning of Tuesday the 21st February 1809 the Spanish garrison marched out of the Portillo gate and piled their arms before marching off into captivity. Brandt watched

‘After about an hour the vanguard of the famous defenders of Saragossa began to appear. Not long after we witnessed the arrival of the rest of the army: a strange collection composed of humanity of all shades and conditions. A few were in uniform but most were dressed like peasants. Most of them were of such non-military bearing that our men were saying aloud that we should never have had so much trouble in beating such a rabble.’

There were just 8,500 of them. A few thousand more were flushed out from hiding in the following few days. The city was a horror to behold. The narrow streets were choked with dead, heaps of ashes and rubble. Makeshift hospitals were clogged with the dead and dying, as are cellars and houses – anywhere, in fact, where the populace had attempted to shelter from the 32,700 shells and roundshot fired into the city. The central market place resembled a cemetery, the cathedral a charnel house. The French army camped outside the city for fear of epidemics, counting their loses. Lannes had lost 3,000 dead and 15,000 in hospital, mostly dying. A heavy loss but as nothing compared to that of the Spaniards – a staggering 53,873 dead according to the city authorities.

Aragon’s capital had undergone a holocaust quite unlike any city had ever seen, a siege ‘extraordinary and terrible’ according to Rogniat.  Nothing quite like it would be seen again until Stalingrad. The city’s surrender seemed to break resistance in Aragon, four years of occupation followed. But the example of Saragossa to the rest of Spain was inspirational and it was with immense pride that the Spanish recalled the siege. Outside of Spain, Saragossa earned Spain almost universal praise and not only from those countries at war, or soon to be at war, with France. Europe caught its breath that February as French power had been stretched to its limit by one gallant city.

Although it would be Spanish gallantry that would be remembered the siege had been a heroic feat for the French as well; Lejeune wrote that 13,000 men had braved hunger, fatigue and danger to force 100,000 citizens to capitulate. But the victory came at a terrible cost in morale. Outwardly laughing off Spanish resistance and fanaticism, French martial confidence was shaken to its core by the siege of Saragossa. How could they, the liberators of Europe, be so despised as to provoke such resistance? How many more Saragossas would be needed to pacify such a country? Questions such as these weighed heavily on the hitherto enthusiastic soldiers of Napoleon’s empire. There could be no glory for them in Spain.

Far away in Paris, Napoleon heard of the surrender on the 27th February but he had already turned his back on the peninsula and was already planning to march his legions against Austria. He, for one, wouldn’t be returning to Spain but would entrust his generals to find what glory they could in war-torn Iberia.

Frankish Military Organization and Siege Logistics in the 6th Century

Small magnate retinues or “warbands” that fought for glory and plunder, then, can hardly have provided an adequate basis for the 6th-century Frankish armies that fought over fortifications on equal terms with their neighbors. The size of armies is the first issue. The individual siege not only required overwhelming force on the part of the besiegers, but in many cases, several sieges were conducted at the same time, while other forces protected supply routes, garrisoned forts and cities, raided enemy territory, and shielded against relieving armies. Gregory provides many interesting figures for late 6th century Merovingian armies, most ranging from garrison forces of 300 professional troops guarding the gates of Tours, around 4,000 for garrisoning a number of fortifications on the Visigothic border, to field armies numbering 10-15,000 on a single campaign. Bachrach has used the latter numbers to extrapolate individual field armies on the scale of 20,000 men during serious inter-kingdom conflicts, but this is beyond what many scholars are willing to accept, and many opt for much lower numbers.

East Roman estimates of Frankish strength provide a useful check on these numbers. Diplomatic correspondence shows that in 538, Justinian asked for a Frankish mercenary division of 3,000 men from Theudebert of Austrasia when the Romans were hard pressed in Liguria. The Romans only had 1,000 men in the whole province at the time, and 300 were besieged at Milan along with her citizens. The force requested was only a fraction of the troops available to the Austrasian king, as it was to be sent as an auxiliary force to serve under Roman command, in solacium Bregantini patricii, who was in charge of the local defenders at Milan. It was not an army that would operate independently during joint operations, as in the late 6th century: the Romans only needed to strengthen their garrisons in Liguria until reinforcements could arrive, and did not want to give the Franks the opportunity to exploit the situation. This is nevertheless what happened. Theudebert politely excused himself to Justinian for the current campaigning season, blaming the late arrival of the Roman ambassador. However, he surreptitiously had 10,000 Burgundians join the Goths at Milan, and openly sent his own army the next year.

Procopius provides the highly improbable 100,000 men for Theudebert’s army in 539, but it nevertheless destroyed an Ostrogothic as well as a Roman army in the course of a single day. It must have been quite large to take on such a challenge with confidence and win so spectacularly. Since the Roman army that had moved into the area at the time numbered close to 10,000 men, and the Goths were presumably as numerous, we can estimate that the Franks matched them combined, i. e. forming a total of 20,000.

Agathias claims that an army of 75,000 men invaded Italy in the 550s, and 30,000 of them were defeated by Narses at Volturno in 554. This force appears far too large at first, but an inspection of Frankish activities shows that it was actually on a similar order of magnitude. If Agathias’ figure of the Roman army at Volturno, 18,000 men, is correct, the Frankish army was about the same size or slightly smaller, i. e. 15-20,000 men. Leutharis’ army would have been about the same size or smaller. Thus perhaps about 30,000 men for the whole raiding force would be a reasonable estimate (which is given by Agathias as the number of Franks at Volturno), but this may have included some Goths who joined on the way. There were still enough Frankish troops in the north to hold fortifications; a smaller force of around 10,000 would suffice including some Gothic and other local assistance. A reasonable, conservative estimate of the Frankish force, then, would be 30,000 soldiers from north of the Alps, including a large number of Alaman clients. These were in addition assisted by (a guesstimate of) up to 10,000 local Italian troops of indeterminate nature such as Goths and disaffected Italians.

Finally, considering the extensive regional responsibility and large personal military resources of the Frankish duces, the Frankish army that was sent to aid the Romans in 590 under 20 duces could hardly have numbered less than 20,000 men. In light of these rather consistent numbers, we must conclude that the Austrasian Franks could raise expeditionary armies in the range of 20-30,000 men across the Alps without excessively taxing royal resources. It is impossible to say whether these numbers included the camp followers who helped with logistics and construction, or whether such individuals came in addition. That would of course add to the grand total. Hazarding to guess that the very large figures given in East Roman sources were in fact sober diplomatic estimates of the total potential manpower resources of one or more of the Merovingian kingdoms at different times.

While such numbers explain the extent of Frankish activities in Italy, they are in serious conflict with much current historiography, and beg two important questions: on what basis were they raised, and how were they supplied? The Frankish armies of Clovis and his sons were dominated by professional troops settled between the Rhine and the Loire, who were the direct descendants of Roman legions, in large part of Frankish stock, as well as other categories such as laeti and federates. For reasons of supply and political control, they were widely distributed on estates belonging to the Merovingian ruling families and their close allies. While opulent villa centers were abandoned in the 5th century in northern Gaul, this may only indicate a shift in patterns of exploitation that were related to the needs of the army, similar to common 5th century developments in (informal) East Roman and (formal) Visigothic military organization, where estates had a significant role. In fact, Aetius had a strong position in northern Gaul due to his great estates there, and after his successor Aegidius broke with Rome in 461, all fiscal lands would have fallen under local military control. He also had to maintain large forces on the Loire in order to face his Roman enemies and their Visigothic allies. Personal wealth combined with former fiscal lands provided much of the power of the lesser rulers Syagrius, Paul, Arbogast and Childeric in the late 5th century.

When the latter’s son, Clovis, gained full control over the north, he also gained all of these resources, in addition to at least some elements of the traditional form of taxation for remaining land. 81 Direct taxation by the government is in fact well attested throughout most of the 6th century, especially in the Loire and Seine valleys-indicative of the distribution of troops requiring support-and was only gradually suppressed and became obsolete by the early 7th century. Within this framework, Roman unit structure survived in recognizable form in the early 6th century. Procopius’ famous description of recognizably Roman units in the Frankish army confirms that the Merovingians were also quite conservative in their military administration. The soldiers who served the early Merovingians were nevertheless called Franks, and had tax exempt status in return for their military service. A “Roman” in Salian law was whoever still paid taxes, but in the course of the 6th century, the extension of military service among “Romans” and complications caused by property acquisition by “Franks” blurred the distinction, and Frankish identity (and military service associated with tax exempt status) became universal north of the Loire. The Merovingians also absorbed Visigothic and Burgundian military organization, and in the course of the 6th century gained control over a wide belt of client kingdoms east of the Rhine and along the upper Danube (Thuringians, Alamans, Saxons) that added to their potential manpower.

At a certain point in the early 6th century, trusted officers and cadet lines of the Merovingian dynasty began to organize these Franks within the framework of their personal households, but the process is highly obscure. We have an early example in Sigisvult, a royal relative who was sent to garrison Clermont (524) with his familia. Otherwise, the transition from a tax-based army to an estate-based conglomeration of military followings is hard to trace, and can only be established with the hindsight provided by Gregory of Tours, whose information is most detailed for the last decades of the 6th century. This process, and the constant divisions and reshuffling of territory of the divided Frankish kingdom, resulted in the structure familiar from the later 6th century. Within the royal household(s), by far the largest and most widespread, there was a distinction between at least two categories of royal troops, analogous to the doryphoroi and hypaspistai in East Roman military followings. Some of these were called antrustiones, of higher status, while the bulk of soldiers in the king’s obsequium were simply called pueri regis, “the king’s boys.” Both were maintained by the households of the kings and their families (i. e. living off the proceeds of any one of a large number of estates, or taxes still collected). To ease the supply situation outside the campaigning season, they were probably settled or garrisoned in very small groups such as those attested in contemporary Egypt. The troops within the royal household were administered by his maior domus, who took direct control during regencies and became more prominent during the 7th century.

Royal troops in outlying districts were led by regional military commanders, duces, who “bear a close resemblance to the duces found at this same time in Lombard and Byzantine Italy or Visigothic Spain.” In the north and east, the duces led fixed districts (e. g. Champagne, Burgundy) that probably reflect late or sub-Roman military organization; otherwise, their commands could fluctuate depending on changes in the political geography or served as extensions of the royal household. The early duces may in fact have had humble backgrounds as officers in the early Merovingian military establishment or the royal household (cf. the high prevalence of Germanic names among them), but soon became synonymous with the high aristocracy. When not in charge of a division of the royal household troops, late-6th-century duces with estates of their own had substantial military followings in their own right, which may have numbered several hundred men. This came in addition to their official commands, which included subordinate counts, who were in charge of the civitas and its military resources. Counts are normally believed to be of “Roman” origins and also had their own followings, which may also have numbered in the hundreds. Aquitaine and the immediately surrounding civitates preserved a military organization that was taken over from the kingdom of Toulouse, strongly based on private military followings. During the 6th century but probably a survival from the gradual transition to Visigothic rule a century earlier, troops were organized civitas by civitas due to the political divisions of the day. Merovingian kings often only held scattered city territories in the south and southwest, and regional commands were only created when a large number of cities could be grouped together.

The exact composition of individual Merovingian armies is often difficult to determine, as in most cases they are only referred to as an exercitus, army, of a region or kingdom. At a lower level, Gregory refers to the homines, men, of a particular civitas. A close analysis of the narrative sources reveals that the lower-level civitas-organization had two tiers. The largest group consisted of able-bodied poor civilian men (pauperes), organized by the landowners or royal officers upon whom they depended. This group was essential for logistical purposes and could also provide extra manpower for defending cities and fortifications, but did not normally fight. The revolt of Munderic at Vitry in 524 was accompanied by throngs of the common people, presumably his personal dependants mobilized in this fashion. The (far) narrower group, and the basis for expeditionary forces, was formed by professional troops, homines proper, who served in the retinues of local magnates, sometimes supported on campaign by sections of the general “militia” for logistical purposes. Gregory gives us a hint of this composite structure: when Guntram ordered the homines of various cities to attack the Bretons in 584, most of the men of Tours seem to have taken part (such as the troops under the count’s authority). However, the `poor citizens’ (pauperes) and the `young men’ (iuvenes) of the cathedral failed to show up for the campaign, citing the traditional exemption from expeditionary duty. The “young men” were clearly the military members of Gregory’s familia, while the pauperes provided support functions. Merovingian armies, then, consisted of conglomerations of military followings and divisions of the royal household troops.

The retinues of bishops and lay magnates are mostly extras and props in Gregory’s drama (they were the ones who actually exercised “aristocratic” violence), but they accompanied their lords in all their affairs, and are thus ubiquitous in all his writings. They were hence a large and important social group. They must be regarded as professional, full-time soldiers, because they never seem to be involved in any other sort of business; indeed, they seem to have been more engaged in fighting (due to internal conflicts and aristocratic feuds) than most Roman soldiers normally were. In the narrative and legal literature, they go under a vast array of names, including pueri, vassi, satellites, antrustiones for individuals, but as groups were known as trustis, contubernium, obsequium, familia. The size of such followings is in most cases difficult to gauge, but as we have seen, several hundred seems to have been normal for the most powerful dukes and counts; in effect, they were the same size as the military followings of East Roman generals, but far more ubiquitous because all magnates, officeholders and most bishops had such followings.

According to Halsall, large armies were impossible to sustain because few cities in Gaul had more than 5,000 inhabitants, and many villages only around 50. What is often forgotten in such arguments, however, is that a very large number of these villages belonged to much larger estate complexes, whose cultivators paid dues and/or performed services for their lord (cf. thepauperes), depending on the nature of the estate organization. The diversity of the estate economy, even in northern Gaul, is clear from two documents from the early 6th century: the testament of St. Remigius and the Pactus Legis Salicae. Remigius willed his personal property, which at his death consisted of the portions of four estates and other scattered holdings inherited from his father, a typical medium-range northern Gallic landowner of the mid-5th century. It is sometimes pointed out that Remigius’ holdings were rather small, but as a cleric, he may already have disposed of much of his property long before the will was drawn up, and at any rate it was only a portion of a substantially larger complex that still functioned, but had been shared with his relatives. It will be recalled that Genovefa kept Paris (490) supplied from her estates for over ten years; similar logistical abilities were common around 500. The Pactus Legis Salicae confirms the image of a medium-sized, but quite diversified estate economy in northern Gaul, which only became more complex and largescale the further south one looks, and far better attested in the 7th century.

Since soldiers were dependents of a lord, they were supplied through the estate structure of their patrons in peacetime. However, on campaigns, it was the personnel and agricultural surplus from villages and estates near the marching route that provided for an army’s logistical needs. Foodstuffs could be assembled in advance, and were levied from the general population as a tax. This was immensely unpopular, at least in Gregory’s presentation, but seems to have been fairly routine in the 6th century. The vast throng accompanying princess Rigunth (4,000 of the “common people” plus her personal escort and the retinues of prominent officers who accompanied her) was supplied at depots. An alternative was to shift produce from the royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastic estates whose forces were directly involved in a specific campaign (and presented as the proper alternative by Gregory) instead of burdening them on the people, who had immense labor obligations anyway. There is good evidence that foodstuffs were prepared in advance for ambassadors and their retinues according to detailed lists, ordering what should be stored in specific quantities at specific locations. Estate managers had assembling and shifting supplies as their regular daily business, and are known to have supplied cities in preparation for sieges (Convenae 585). Since troops were scattered in small numbers and only occasionally brought together for specific purposes, such as hunts, valuable for training, or publicae actiones to provide security and enforce the law (or, of course, squabble with political rivals), the logistical operations were quite simple considering the scale of estate organization, and rarely noticed by any texts. On a larger scale, armies were preceded by officials who went about collecting necessary foodstuffs, which could be deposited in granaries; from the tone in Gregory, it seems clear that they were zealous going about their business. A final alternative, however, was to buy supplies.

Early Frankish engineering was much more sophisticated than commonly thought, and was possible thanks to the ability to organize labor on a massive scale. The Franks were quite adept at building field fortifications, such as the one built at Volturno, or in Burgundy for stopping Saxon and Lombard invasions. They could also bridge rivers, a particularly difficult task that required highly trained specialists in the East Roman Empire. Civil engineering was quite substantial; the course of rivers were diverted on several occasions, one known example to protect the city from being undermined by the current, the other to provide extra protection during a siege. There was clearly an ability to build stone fortifications; thus bishop Nicetius of Trier had a heavily fortified residence built in the mid-6th century, while Gregory of Tours marveled at the fortifications of Dijon. Chilperic, when threatened with an invasion by his brother in 584, ordered his magnates to repair city walls and bring their relatives and movable goods inside. He recognized that their lands and immovable goods risked being destroyed during an enemy invasion, and therefore guaranteed that they would be reimbursed for any losses. There was thus an obligation to repair city walls on the part of the landowners, who could again draw upon their dependants to perform these tasks. It was also in their self-interest, since power struggles among magnate factions often involved military action.

Indeed, Merovingian kings had the same mechanisms available as Valentinian III, Theoderic and Anastasios to impose burdens of military logistics. The well-known labor requirements that descended from ancient munera had become the traditional seigneurial obligations of the dependant agricultural population, mobilized by their patrons on royal orders. While the “Franks” vociferously protested against taxation, providing military and logistical service was not an issue. As demonstrated by 7th-century immunities granted to monasteries, common obligations required by the king, administered through his officers and landowning subjects, included transportation and bridge-building. Civitates and castella are specifically mentioned as places where such labor was normally called out. No immunities were given for repairs of fortifications, however. The exact method of organizing repairs must have been the assignment of pedaturae to the landowners in question, as was the case with Ostrogothic possessores or East Roman social units and corporate bodies. Although labor obligations were also universal, in e. g. Roman Mesopotamia and Ostrogothic Gaul, as we have seen, extraordinary burdens or expenses were sometimes defrayed through tax relief or cash payments. The decline of direct taxation in Gaul meant that magnates had to shoulder far larger military burdens in the form of retinues, expeditionary service, and garrison troops whenever called upon, as well as routinely supplying labor for logistics and engineering. Thus, while military service and the burden of repair was mandatory on landowners (and apparently not an issue), Chilperic had to make sure that they would support him even if their estates were being ravaged. If they risked losing their economic basis, a negotiated settlement with his rival would soon become more attractive, as we saw above.

During the Merovingian era, most cities still had economic activities useful for military purposes, and were also the homes of at least part of the familiae of kings, bishops, counts and sometimes other magnates. Where their craftsmen and specialists actually resided is more problematic and probably varied from case to case. As early as the Pactus Legis Salicae, the Franks highly valued their dependent labor: not only were there detailed punishments for stealing or damaging a wide range of crops and livestock, it also lays down heavy fines for the theft of skilled slaves. Indeed, the range of craftsmen available and degree of specialization under the Merovingians is rarely addressed by military historians, whatever their views, but they are in fact quite ubiquitous in the original sources, while recent archaeological surveys show that their skills in many key crafts were neither inferior to, nor more narrowly distributed than, those of Roman craftsmen.

All of these groups have actual or potential military applications, and could be summoned at will by their lords whenever their services were needed. A certain number of craftsmen joined any major expedition as camp followers to perform various tasks as need arose, forming a specialized segment of the pauperes (noted earlier in this section). Thus Mummolus had his servant faber (probably one of several-he was only mentioned by Gregory for being so huge) brought from Avignon (583) to Convenae (585). In addition to destructive traps, the defense may also have involved artillery. Bishop Nicetius of Trier’s large fortified estate center was defended by a ballista. These were complex machines requiring specialist operation (tekhnitai or ballist(r)arioi in Greek sources), and unless imported from East Rome, they were trained in a local tradition. It just so happens that Mummolus had been commander of a region that had extremely strong Roman traditions, and that craftsmen there could maintain military skills over several generations. We can recall the artifex at Vienne in 500 who played a vital role during the siege. Nicetius, in turn, was bishop in the region that had one of the highest concentrations of Roman arsenals and fabricae during the early 5th century, and where selfconsciously Roman officers were still active until at least 480. It is possible that Franks had picked up ballista-operating skills on an Italian expedition. If this is the case, it reveals that once in Gaul, the experts would have to be maintained by a magnate’s household, which basically proves its suitability as a valuable form of military infrastructure. Indeed, in the Epistulae Austrasiacae there is preserved a letter from bishop Rufus of Turin to Nicetius, explaining how he finally has the opportunity to send the portitores artifices that Nicetius asked for. The combination of terms seems to be highly unusual, but they were presumably boat (barge) builders, as Nicetius’ estates were on navigable Rhine tributaries. Another explanation is that military skills survived along with military organization, and was gradually reorganized according to political developments, with more and more of the logistics and resource allocation devolving on great magnates in return for tax exemptions and immunities.

Forts Maxim Gorky I & II

Armored Coastal Battery-30 and Armored Coastal Battery-35

German soldiers take cover on the battered concrete face of Fort Maxim Gorky below the burning armored cupola with its two 12-inch naval guns, now crippled and askew. At battle’s end, shattered chunks of the fort’s concrete bulwark testify to the fierceness of the attack. When resistance ended, the Germans found only fifty Russian survivors, all severely wounded, in the bowels of the stronghold.

The fortress of Sevastopol on the Crimea with its ring of forts and coastal batteries covered a circumference of about 10 to 12 km. Six heavy coastal batteries, two located north of Severnaja Bay, reinforced other coastal positions such as three old coastal forts on the north side of the position and three on the south side. Coastal Battery Shiskov, completed in 1912, mounted four 120-mm guns on pivots mounted on concrete platforms. Naval Battery Mamaschai (Coast Battery #10), completed in 1930 and one of the newer positions, mounted four 203-mm guns with gun shields on an open concrete platform similar to most of the other coastal batteries. Coast Battery #18, completed in 1917, and Coast Battery #19, completed in 1924, mounted four 152-mm guns each, and Coast Battery #3, two 130-mm guns. Fourteen new or reconditioned old forts, most of them north of the bay, and 3,600 concrete and earthen positions supported by about 350 km of trenches and thousands of land mines, completed the fortress in early 1942. Trenches and tunnels linked many of the positions. In the Sapun Mountains, at the base of the peninsula where Sevastapol was located, natural and man-made caves in the high, almost perpendicular, bluffs of the Tshornaya River were turned into formidable defenses.             

In addition, the Maxim Gorky I and II (Coast Batteries #30 and #35), each had a pair of gun turrets: the first with twin gun turrets located east of Ljabimorka (north of the bay) and the second with a set of similar turrets situated on the south-western end of the peninsula where Sevastopol stood. Battery Strelitzka mounted six 254-mm guns. Fort Stalin and Fort Lenin included a battery of four 76.2 anti-aircraft guns. Other forts, such as Fort Volga, served as infantry positions. Finally, the old strong point of Malakoff was turned into an artillery and infantry position with two 130-mm guns with shields. Besides the normal anti-infantry and anti-tank obstacles, the Soviets employed a “flame ditch,” a concrete lined ditch where fuel funneled through a pipe was ignited, creating a fire barrier.      

Although it was not actually a coastal defense sector, the isthmus linking the Crimea to the mainland was defended by the Perekop Line, consisting of permanent works forming two continuous lines. In the low lying treeless plain, every rise over 10 meters dominated the area. The 15 km wide northern belt included the outpost of Perekop. The main defensive area, the 400 year old Tartar Trench, cut through the isthmus and served as a moat supported by two dams. The ditch was about 9.0 meters deep, 20 meters wide and was filled with water. The southern position, which crossed the isthmus taking advantage of the local lakes and canals, was supported further to the south by the Tshetarlyk River. Numerous bunkers covered barriers of steel anti-tank rail obstacles, tank traps, and mine fields. Unlike many of the positions on the border, these were already camouflaged and difficult to detect.

Coast Artillery:   Range (meters)

355.6-mm (14´´) 31,000

305-mm (12´´) 24,600 to 42,000

234-mm 24,000

203-mm (8´´) (German) 33,500

181-mm*152-mm (6´´) 14,000 to 18,000

130-mm* (5.1´´) 19,600 to 25,400

105-mm and 152-mm (old weapons) 15,000 to 18.000

75-mm (3´´)(French Canet) 8,000

*These may be the weapons identified as 185-mm and 132-mm weapons by Germans.


152-mm Howitzer 1938 12,400

122-mm Howitzer 1938 12,100

107-mm Cannon 1940 M-60 17,450

76.2-mm Cannon 1936 13,500

45-mm Anti-Tank 1932, 1937 4,670 to 8,800

120-mm 1938 5,700 to 6,000

82-mm Mortar 1936 3,100

50-mm Mortar 1940 800                

7.62-mm Light Machine Gun(Maxim 1910)                                               

76.2-mm Light Machine Gun (Degtiarev 1928)         

*Sources are inconsistent with regard to the figures and the type of shell used

According to German documents, the so-called 76.2-mm Fortress Cannon on a special ball mount in a gun casemate, replaced the older 76.2-mm gun used in fortifications and had a faster rate of fire. The mount included a funnel that carried the used shell into the fossé in front of the gun position. The older gun positions on the Stalin Line did not have this type of funnel, but included an embrasure cover that dropped in front of the gun.   

The mortars and most of the artillery were placed in field fortifications made of earth and logs. Many of these positions were probably not prepared until after the invasion in 1941.             

In addition to these weapons, there were also small flame throwers, static weapons buried into the ground with only their nozzles exposed and ignited electrically or by trip wire. They were placed in front of the defensive position or among the obstacles. According to German sources, the Soviets used a 1941 design, which means that it is not likely that they were in the Stalin Line. However, they may have been placed in other positions such as the Minsk to Moscow highway or the Mozhaisk Line.

World War II      

The Germans, who invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, were not fully aware of the defensive positions that faced them. They estimated that 40% were completed, but had no drawings showing exact locations or composition of Russian installations, except for those located right on the border. 

The staff of the German 8th and 29th Divisions had little knowledge of the condition or existence of Russian fortifications behind the Popily and Niemen Rivers. They planned to deal with any fortifications they encountered with massed artillery bombardment from twenty-nine heavy batteries, including eleven 210-mm mortar batteries.

The Germans easily overran the first bunkers, which were empty, poorly camouflaged, exposed in open terrain, and devoid of obstacles. The Germans smashed the bunker embrasures with anti-tank guns and destroyed many with flame throwers and demolition charges. The 8th Division quickly overcame most opposition on its front with these methods. Grodno fell on June 23 after all the bunkers in front of it had been eliminated. The 28th Division simply bypassed many Russian fortifications at Dorgun on the first day and moved to the Niemen. This division was later ordered to take the strongest border defenses in the area, the Sopockinie fortifications, which it had previously bypassed. After bitter fighting, Sopockinie was taken on June 24. Troops in a three-level bunker resisted for seven hours in the face of the German troops and engineers who detonated several hundred kilograms of explosives. The Germans attributed their success to insufficient Soviet troops in the area and to the incomplete state of the defenses, which lacked obstacles, minefields, and camouflage.               

The old fortress of Brest-Litovsk, located on four islands with wide moats and old walls, was put back into service by the Russians soon after they occupied it in 1939. The German 45th Division attacked it, supported by huge 210-mm howitzers and two 600-min mortars. After a river assault, the German troops encircled it, but it took them seven days of intense fighting to take the citadel, since they had under-estimated the strength of the old works.     

Further to the south, the Germans attacked the Sokal defenses on the Bug River where the Soviets had completed and camouflaged many of the bunkers. On the first day, the Germans methodically eliminated each position, leaving an engineer battalion behind to complete the work the next day. On June 25 twenty two- and three-level bunkers, which were still incomplete, went back into action. Even though they lacked camouflage, they managed to resist for a considerable time. One of the bunkers with a cloche proved particularly difficult to disable. The Germans used demolition charges to eliminate many of them. The procedure required engineers to advance under cover of flame-throwers and place demolition charges in the ventilation shafts, blasting the entrances.    

The URs of Kiev gave stiff resistance from July to August 1941 with the city of Kiev holding off several assaults until August. Further north on other parts of the Stalin Line, many of the URs such as Slutsk, were little more than skeletons, of little use to the Soviets despite Zhukov’s pre-invasion efforts.             

The defenses on the Dniestr extended up to 10 km in depth. Along the east bank of the Dniestr the Germans encountered elements of the old Stalin Line. The defenses near the river lacked an outpost line. Two- and three-embrasure light bunkers for machine guns and a few gun emplacements, stood 400 to 2,000 meters apart in the Yampol sector (UR of Novogrod-Volynski) and were reinforced by field fortifications.             

Elements of the German Eleventh Army in pursuit of Soviet troops retreating from the Pruth River, encountered these works in mid-July. Two infantry divisions attacked across the defended river crossings on July 18 at Cosauti and General Poetash. The Germans successfully forced a crossing at both points. Assault engineers eliminated the bunkers at Porohy with the use of flame-throwers and pole charges placed against the embrasures. Heavy explosive charges reduced the remaining bunkers. Russian troops continued to fight desperately even when out flanked and in a hopeless position, not knowing that the high command had already sacrificed them before the invasion began. German reports indicate that the Soviets reoccupied abandoned positions in places where local resistance was strong. In some instances, however, the troops turned out to be raw recruits forced to defend bunkers unfamiliar to them and they surrendered quickly.         

A heavily fortified area of the Stalin Line at Dubossary, containing many bunkers, artillery batteries, and other supporting positions, finally fell at the end of July. German engineers and infantrymen, supported by anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, engaged in close combat, finally overcoming Soviet resistance.     

In September, the Germans penetrated the position they called the Leningrad Line and struggled on. The Mozhaisk Line, the defenses in front of Moscow, was still incomplete and fell quickly in October. For the most part, the Soviets failed to use effectively the fortifications between the border and Moscow, partly because most were incomplete and not fully manned. Odessa, which had only field fortifications and no permanent landward fortifications, resisted until November 1941.   

After the Germans overran the Perekop Line on the isthmus leading into the Crimea in October 1941, it was only a matter of time before Sevastopol fell. It held out for twenty-eight days in a battle that ended in July 1942. At Sevastopol the Germans deployed their super heavy artillery, including the 800-mm rail gun Dora, to destroy key points like Maxim Gorky I. On June 6, heavy German guns and mortars fired on Maxim Gorky I and scored direct hits that destroyed one of the gun turrets and damaged the other. Additional artillery fire and air bombardment failed to eliminate the Maxim Gorky damaged turret, which was finally put out of action by assault engineers on June 17. The battle for the battery continued as the Russians fought from its battered positions until July 1. The 800-mm monster rail gun inflicted little damage beside landing three rounds on Fort Stalin on June 5, and fifteen rounds on Fort Molotov on the next day. German heavy artillery concentrated on Fort Stalin on June 11-12. The four 76.2-mm guns of the fort had special shelters and remained in action until June 13 when an infantry assault finally took the fort. By early July, the Germans had fired over a million rounds. They had taken over 3,500 fortified positions, 7 armored forts, 38 bunkers built into the rock, 118 bunkers of reinforced concrete, and another 740 built of earth and stone. On July 4, after taking the Sapun positions, and the final assault that took Maxim Gorky II, the campaign against the last major pre-war fortified position came to a close. Soviet methods of fortifications began to change as the war progressed.

The German Siege 1942

Between 2 and 6 June, the Eleventh Army fired a total of 42,595 rounds equivalent to 2,449 tons of munitions. Some nine per cent of Eleventh Army’s ammunition stockpile was expended in the preparation phase. German divisional artillery fired 19,750 rounds of 105mm and 5,300 rounds of 150mm ammunition in the five-day bombardment. Infantry guns fired another 4,200 rounds of 75mm and 150mm ammunition, plus 5,300 81mm mortar rounds. The corps-level Nebelwerfer battalions remained silent during this phase, not firing a single rocket. Two-thirds of the super heavy artillery rounds fired in the prep phase were from the four 240mm H39 howitzers and 16 305mm Skoda mortars.

The heaviest weapons, the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’, only played a minor role in the opening bombardment. One Karl mortar fired two registration rounds on 2 June, but the battalion then was not committed until 6 June. After an immense engineering effort, ‘Dora’ was finally installed at Bakhchysaray 25km north-east of Sevastopol and was ready for firing on 5 June. At 0535hrs, ‘Dora’ fired one of its 7-ton shells at Fort Maxim Gorky I’s Bastion I, and then proceeded to lob eight rounds at the minor Coastal Battery 2 near the harbour entrance. Accuracy was poor, with most rounds missing by 300m or more. Six rounds were then fired at Fort Stalin, with the closest round landing within 35-40m of the target and most impacting 130-260m away. On 6 June, ‘Dora’ opened fire in the evening and fired seven rounds at Fort Molotov; one round struck within 80m of the target, three rounds within 165-210m, one round within 310m, one round 500m off and one round 615m off. ‘Dora’ was then directed against a cleverly camouflaged ammunition dump named White Cliff on the northern side of Severnaya Bay and fired nine rounds with no effect.

It was more difficult for the Germans to employ the clumsy and shortrange Karl system, but on the late afternoon of 6 June the men of the 1st Battery/833rd Heavy Artillery Battalion were able to manoeuvre the 600mm mortar known as ‘Thor’ up onto a hill just 1,200m from the nearest Soviet positions of the 95th Rifle Division. From this location, ‘Thor’ had a clear line of sight to Fort Maxim Gorky I 3,700m to the south, and at 1700hrs it started lobbing 16 of its 2-ton concrete-piercing shells at the target. One of the shells hit Turret No. 2, severely damaging the weapon and causing casualties among the crew. ‘Thor’ was less effective against Bastion I, which contained the fort’s communications and range-finding equipment, but a Stuka attack succeeded in knocking out the cable trunk. All told, Coastal Battery 30 suffered about 40 casualties among its 290 naval gunners during the air and artillery bombardment, but neither ‘Thor’ nor ‘Dora’ had succeeded in destroying the installation.

Although the use of super-heavy weapons such as the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’ may have undermined the morale of the Soviet troops on the receiving end of multi-ton shells, these weapons actually failed to make a significant contribution commensurate with their cost. Primary responsibility must rest with General der Artillerie Zuckertort, the commander of the 306th Army Artillery Command, who violated the cardinal rule of artillery support in that he allowed these expensive weapons to fire too few rounds at too many targets, resulting in none of them actually being destroyed. ‘Dora’ had only 48 rounds available but Zuckertort used them against eight different targets, including only nine rounds against the primary target of Fort Maxim Gorky I. Furthermore, the super-heavy artillery of 420mm or larger all ran out of ammunition early in the offensive and it was the less-celebrated Czech-made 305mm mortars and 240mm howitzers that made the greater contribution and continued to fire from the first day of the offensive to the last.

The Soviets held back most of their artillery during the period 2-6 June because of limited ammunition supplies and concern about exposing their few heavy weapons to enemy counterbattery fire or Stuka attack. At the start of June, the SOR had about 200-300 rounds for each of its howitzers and 600-700 rounds for each mortar. Yet Soviet observers were vigilant and when they could confirm the location of a German artillery unit, they would call upon a few designated ‘sniper batteries’ that could shoot and then re-position. During the period 2-6 June, the Soviets destroyed three German artillery pieces, including a precious 280mm howitzer.

On 7 June 1942, after five days of bombardment, the Soviets expected an imminent ground assault. On the evening of 6 June around 2300hrs, Soviet artillery supporting Defensive Sectors III and IV began shooting harassing fires against suspected German troop assembly areas. In spite of this, at 0315hrs the 306th Army Artillery Command began a massive one-hour ‘destruction fire’, concentrating on the area between Haccius Ridge and Trapez. Both ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’ joined the bombardment, firing a total of 54 rounds against Coastal Battery 30’s turrets [ Maxim Gorky I] and Bastion I, as well as against targets around Belbek. Infantry guns and mortars fired for effect against the front-line trenches in the Belbek Valley, while Nebelwerfer hit the second-line positions and 305mm mortars worked over key targets such as the Olberg. Unlike the previous five days, the German artillery fired at nearly maximum rates of fire and did not pause to assess damage. The effect on the forward Soviet positions around the Stellenberg (Hill 124) was stunning as infantry fighting positions were pounded mercilessly. Long-range guns went after targets in the Soviet rear, particularly reserves and known artillery positions. The Soviet 7th Naval Infantry Brigade, sitting in reserve well behind the line, was particularly hard hit and lost most of the 200 replacements that had just arrived to a combined air and artillery attack. However, ‘Dora’ continued to waste rounds firing against the White Cliff ammunition dump – which prompted an angry rebuke directly from Hitler to stop misusing the weapon against such targets. Although the Germans claimed that ‘Dora’ destroyed the dump – a claim that may be exaggerated – it is clear that it had failed to neutralize Fort Maxim Gorky I, which continued to fire periodically throughout 7 June.

1761 Colberg I

At Colberg 1761, the Swedish and Russian enemy’s interminable delay had given the defenders time to prepare their positions. Eugene of Württemberg had erected great entrenchments between the fortress and the enemy, now distant only some eight miles from Colberg. The defenders had also constructed a second wall round the first, but, although the landward defenses were being capably handled, the approaches from the seaside had been curiously neglected to a large degree. This is rather odd, as the Swedish and Russian fleets had controlled the Baltic ever since the defeat of the little Prussian squadron in 1759. And so it went.

Lt.-Gen. Peter Rumyantsev’s Russian force encountered a small Prussian force over by Belgard under cover of the darkness of June 14–15. A short attack was met by a blistering fire from the bluecoats, who were not prone to leave their post. The Russians fell back, but the timely arrival of reinforcements caused the attackers to be unleashed a second and then a third time. Over the course of the surprisingly vigorous little skirmish, the Russian force gradually built-up to over 700 strong.

This detail finally muscled the bluecoats back, and Rumyantsev’s progress continued. The first inkling Eugene of Württemberg had of the newly arriving Russian force was at the village of Varckmin, where one of his outposts was surprised and overwhelmed by a force of Russian Cossacks.

Rumyantsev’s force gradually linked up with the established detachment of Totleben. This rendezvous immediately formed a formidable core of greencoats in Eastern Pomerania. This body most directly threatened the bluecoat hold on Colberg. Rumyantsev promptly forwarded a note to General Jacob Albrecht von Langtinghausen, with the Swedes over in Western Pomerania, which suggested that the Swedes and the Russians should work together with a united purpose. A nice concept, indeed. Nothing came out of this, though, for Langtinghausen accountably declined to lend any assistance to the greencoats. There is no doubt this was due to the various flaws under which the Swedish army during this period always operated in the field: weak provision arrangements; poor supplies; no engineering and/or bridging equipment, etc.

Rumyantsev’s position was still further complicated, almost compromised, by the treachery of Colonel Gottlob Heinrich Friedrich Totleben, which was finally betrayed to the general light of day through a courier of the latter’s, Sabatko. Totleben was ordered home, and Buturlin dispatched some reinforcements from camps at Posen to help strengthen Rumyantsev with as much brevity as possible. The newcomers totaled a little over 4,000 strong, under General Nieviadomskii. The overall quality of this latter force was only marginal for the most part, but joining all of the Russian forces in the region together did provide a potent strike force to wield in the name of the Empress, nearly 18,000 strong.

Still, Rumyantsev did not deign proceed with a siege of Colberg itself until he had the support of the naval forces. This in the form of a powerful little Russian fleet, under the charge of Admiral Polanski, hailing out of Danzig (July 11–12). The ensemble numbered 23 warships and 44 transport/support ships carrying nearly 8,000 men, 42 guns, and ample stores of provisions of all kinds. The Russians were making their best effort to seize Colberg from its Prussian garrison. This included making sure that Rumyantsev’s men had everything they required to seize Colberg from the foe.

Polanski put his cargo and passengers ashore at and about Rügenwalde at the end of July, and the section of men brought by water advanced to form a juncture with Rumyantsev’s soldiers; which had, of course, advanced themselves by land.

August 17, six Russian ships-of-war arrived off the port, three had moved in towards Colberg and shelled some of the men working outside of the fortress on the entrenchments, with no more than nil success. But one thing was clear: the seaward approaches were now open to the Allied fleets. By August 24, the two allies had an impressive 54 ships anchored offshore, 42 of these being frigates, the rest Sail-of-the-Line. That evening a bombardment was commenced against the Prussian works from the ships’ batteries and the long-range land guns of Rumyantsev. It was an awesome display of power all right (for the total number of shells spent numbered over 3,000), but in truth the damage actually inflicted was likely minimal at best, and certainly nowhere near commensurate with the effort expended. A prolonged effort did serve to keep the garrison always on the alert and thus off-balance around the clock. So there was a psychological aspect to it all.

Meanwhile, Rumyantsev began creeping closer against the enemy works. August 18, after a questionable degree of preparation, Rumyantsev’s men, divided into two separate formations to expedite movement, pressed from Nosowko and Massow towards the enemy lines over near Colberg. Colonel Drewitz and his dragoons pointed the way in this latest endeavor. Colonel Bibkoff, at the moment, rolled towards Wyganowoff, while, at the van of the second column, Colonel Gruzdavtsiev moved on Körlin. Prussian resistance to this enterprise was spotty at best, so the greencoats were able to wrestle Körlin and Belgard away from their foe by August 19. Two days after, Russian spotters made it to Degow. Prussian resistance to the intruders gradually stiffened at this point, and the Russians, while pausing for a moment or two at Stockau, now resolved to put Colberg under yet another siege.

Rumyantsev was nonplused; by September 4, he had Eugene’s entrenched encampment under siege and was starting to shell Colberg from big ordnance on his end of the line. On September 5, shelling very early in the morning commenced. A total of “236 shells were lobbed at Colberg; 62 [of which] landed and exploded there.” About September 11, word filtered through to the garrison that Bevern (from Stettin) had gathered a force to move to Colberg’s relief and that this formation was already on its way. Learning that the newcomers were scheduled to be at Treptow on September 13, preparations were put in place to meet them. The Duke of Württemberg decided to send one of his best to the rescue, Werner with his 6th Hussars—one of the largest cavalry units, boasting 1,500 men and 120 non-commissioned officers. Under cover of the night of September 11–12, Werner pressed a small force towards Treptow. The last time that Werner had been unleashed against the rear of the Russian army, during the previous year’s campaign, he had brought their siege of Colberg to utter ruin. For a time, it looked like he might be able to do a repeat performance. But only for a while this go round.

Once joined with the new arrivals, Werner planned to attack one of Rumyantsev’s entrenched works—which had been prepared on that side of the line. On September 12, his Prussians reached Treptow, but unfortunately the enemy were waiting for Werner; at dawn, his men were suddenly attacked by the Russians as they were decamping. The bluecoats made a good show of the matter, but Werner was captured while leading a charge in which his horse was shot from under him. However, with the greencoats “distracted” by Werner, the incoming convoy and reinforcements got rerouted and so successfully—and belatedly—reached Colberg. But the loss of Werner was still a serious blow to his country.

In the meantime, Swedish General Stackelberg and his force, deployed about Neubrandenburg, had outposts in close proximity to the bluecoats of Belling. Prussian scouts overran the forward posts, very early on August 22. This served to alert the Swedes of the nearness of Belling’s men. The Swedish Plathen now embarked upon a timely attack which pressed against Belling. Initially, the Prussian horse thereabouts faltered, but this actually proved to be more of a trap than anything else. In the event, a prolonged advance by the onrushing cavalry came crashing to an abrupt halt when they met a solid wall of prepared Prussian infantry, backed up by gunners with well-sited batteries. The resulting effect was immediate.

As the combined fire of the bluecoat infantry and artillery shredded the formation of the startled Swedish riders, the reformed Prussian hussars slammed into the by now wavering enemy cavalry, sending them reeling. It was over in mere minutes. For some 50 casualties, Belling had cost the enemy some 300 casualties and inflicted yet another severe check upon the Swedish designs for a prolonged offensive.

With the threat of a Swedish advance temporarily nullified, Belling withdrew on Woldekg, while Ehrensvard continued a program to slowly build up his forces on the Northern Front to make any renewed offensive effort more viable. Meanwhile, having been reinforced from Stettin, Belling descended again upon Neubrandenburg (August 28), but found it evacuated by the enemy. Next, pursuing Stackelberg, the Prussians moved on Treptow, but the Swedes were too well dug in to attack thereabouts.

Belling, with his options basically reduced to one until he could receive reinforcements, withdrew posthaste to Teetzleben (August 29), but the arrival of the new formations of Stutterheim, getting to the scene of action on September 1, fundamentally shifted the bluecoats over into launching a counteroffensive against Ehrensvard’s forces. This effectively surrendered the initiative to the Prussians for the balance of the main campaign.

The Russians, for their part, were not prepared to let up before Colberg. Encouraged by the success of his force in capturing Werner, Rumyantsev on September 19 suddenly attacked the most accessible of the Prussian works (known as the Green Redoubt) about 0200 hours. The surprise stroke was at first successful, the Russians carrying the redoubt initially, but a determined counterattack at length repelled the intruders with the loss of 3,000 men of all arms, including some 800 dead. The Prussians lost 71 dead, 281 wounded, and 187 prisoners. This repulse induced the Russians to give up trying to take Colberg by a direct assault. Events beyond Colberg impacted the proceedings. After the adventure at Gotsyn, General Platen had detached Thadden to take the captured booty and the prisoners, not to mention the wounded, back to the Prussian lines.

Platen had unbuckled the busy Ruesch Hussars to proceed as quickly as possible to Posen, under the charge of Colonel von Naczimsky, to overturn the Russian supply arrangements thereabouts as completely as possible. The enemy reaction had been low key, although a Russian force under Major-General Gustav Berg was alerted to the possible arrival of Platen’s force hard about Driesen. When that scenario failed to materialize, Russian scouts probed for and finally located Platen’s men—between Neustadt and Landsberg (September 19). Berg sent a force of some 250 men under Suvarov to Landsberg (September 21). By this time, the bluecoats of Platen had ridden to Birnhaum and had even detected the movements of the enemy force towards Czerpowa. Platen finally entered Landsberg on September 22 with little fanfare, and, after a brief altercation with Suvarov’s men, and with no practical way to wreak further havoc upon the Russian supply lines, sped off for Colberg. Berg tried to launch a pursuit, but could not catch up with the wily Platen. Platen was able to throttle the enemy pursuit before he reached Arenswalde (September 26).

So, meanwhile, the defenders of Colberg received an unexpected, but timely, reinforcement. September 27, General Platen marched to join Eugene of Württemberg, raising Prussian strength to 15,000 men; although Buturlin similarly stiffened the besiegers with reinforcements (under the command of Dolgoruki), bringing them to 40,000 men. With the campaign in Silesia having gone sour again, Buturlin brought his main force to be in closer proximity to the fortress/port.

As soon as he reached the area, Buturlin reiterated the belief that Colberg could not be taken by direct assault, even though the task may have been manageable with the large influx of Russian troops in the vicinity occasioned by Buturlin. There was just no chance from a psychological perspective. With his army low on provisions and the expedition to Silesia a snub, the Russian commander turned about and, on November 2, headed for home.

It was a decision for which Buturlin would face tough scrutiny from an upset Elizabeth, who fired off a testy communiqué to the marshal. She and her court, upon receiving word of Buturlin’s backward hitch, wrote him “that the news of your retreat has caused us more sorrow than the loss of a battle would have done.” Elizabeth followed up, not mincing words, by ordering the marshal to march towards Berlin without delay and perforce levy a large contribution to help defray the campaign costs for the Russian army in this campaign, while, at the same time, seeking out an engagement with the enemy, should they threaten to intervene. As it turned out, Buturlin did not pounce upon the Prussian capital, but continued his progression back into Poland; basically ignoring the by now dying Empress. Rumyantsev was left with his force to finish the job before Colberg. An additional force of 15,000 Russians under Fermor was left to keep the roads from Stettin to Colberg closed and to prevent a repetition of the reinforcements just sent from Bevern at Stettin.

As for Platen, he continued to operate in the area beyond Colberg, riding into and decimating a Russian detachment at Cörlin (September 30), after which the Prussian commander made for Spie and Colberg. The enemy, not oblivious to his march, made a futile effort to bar Platen from the port, but the latter, yet again, was just too fast moving to be intercepted.

Frederick, far away near Strehlen in Silesia, ordered Bevern to prepare additional troops to be sent to the relief of Colberg. Could the blocked roads be opened, though? Prussian attempts to do just that read like an exercise in futility. October 13, “Green” Kleist and his dragoons tried to break through, but got repulsed. With this situation very bleak, the bluecoats forthwith dispatched Platen to try to bring some supplies in for Colberg.

General Platen had a full 42 squadrons of horse with just eight full battalions of infantry with him. He pressed off from Prettmin (about 0700 hours on October 17), with about 4,000 men. Prettmin was right near Spie, where General Knobloch was in charge of a small detachment. Platen, as was usual with the man’s character, made quick work of a march. His men rolled into Gollnow on October 18, and by the next day they were at Schwentdehagen.

Lt.-Col. Courbière was unleashed (October 20) with his force consisting of the Free Battalion Courbière, the Grenadier Battalion 28/32 of Arnhim, the III./ Belling Hussars, along with the apparently tireless Ruesch Hussars, and six pieces of ordnance, including one 7-pounder howitzer; a total of some 1,350 men. Courbière immediately proceeded with his mission. He was instructed to probe at the enemy positions in the immediate vicinity and to do all in his power to gather badly needed supplies for the hard-pressed garrison of Colberg. His men pushed across the Wolczenica River, and immediately occupied Zarnglaff.

The greencoats were close by in strength, over by Naugard, around 5,000 strong, including about 3,500 horse, led by General Berg. This generous allotment of cavalry allowed for a number of reconnaissance parties. It did not take long for the presence of Courbière’s Prussians to be discovered, and Berg drew up a scheme to deal with the intruders.

Early the next morning, the Russians pushed off, heading for a showdown in short order with Courbière. The latter sent off word to Platen that he needed some help against the much more numerous greencoats of Berg. The warning was correct, but it was far too late to send a rescue. The Russian wave advanced and in a very short fight, lasting less than 3/4 of an hour, compelled the bluecoats to lay down their arms, except for a small force of about 400 cavalry which did manage to wiggle free from the enemy’s grasp.

Platen, moving out from Colberg again, attempted in his own right to break up enemy concentrations from his side, while Kleist and General Thadden endeavored to do the same from the opposite end. Both attempts were unsuccessful. The Russians were making an effort to bag the whole of Platen’s corps. They were simply too inadequate to corner Platen. His troopers slipped past the greencoats through the Kautrek Forest, and rolled into Gollnow, despite their foe’s best efforts. Reinforced by a detachment under our old friend Fermor, Berg attacked and wrestled Gollnow from the unpleasantly startled Prussians. The bluecoats, nothing daunted, then marched, and countermarched, up and back the country roads and lanes north and northeast of Stettin, with no real chance to break through the enemy web by now encasing Colberg. These were the last undertakings at sending in supplies and reinforcements, and they were all abject failures, in spite of every well-intentioned goal having been made in advance, Eugene rose and, moving rapidly around and through the country between his lines and Rumyantsev’s, managed to evade the Russians by a series of skillful maneuvers.

The Russians, for their part, were making progress as well. Dolgoruki came rolling across the Persante (October 20), following which, his men occupied Gammin. Meanwhile, the Prussians were also settling in. Knobloch had pulled his forces back to consolidate at the vantage point of Treptow. While this was going on, Russian scouting parties laid hold of Przecmin and Sellno; at the latter, small bluecoat patrols in the area roamed around, while more significant bodies of Prussians were present just across the Persante.

The greencoat forces of General Brandt, deployed to Sellno to provide an anchor of sorts for their arms in that vicinity, could work in conjunction with Dolgoruki. Knobloch was left at Treptow, near where an enemy force appeared just after dusk on October 21, issuing from Gammin and vicinity. Prussian scouts calmly—and promptly—informed General Knobloch about the arrival of the Russian forces, and, nearly simultaneously, of the appearance of another greencoat detachment, hailing from Gabin. Before another 24 hours had elapsed, Rumyantsev himself was standing before Treptow, preparing, if necessary, to put the place and thus Knobloch’s command under siege.

Siege of Massilia 49 BC


A particular type of shelter known as the musculus appears only rarely in ancient writings. Vegetius describes it as a small machine, reminiscent of the Hellenistic ditch–filling tortoise in its role of protecting men as they brought forward building materials (Veg., Epit. rei mil. 4.16). However, he is surely mistaken. From Caesar’s description of the musculus in action during the siege of Massilia in 49 BCE, it is clear that it was an enormously robust gallery, constructed when the standard vineae and plutei failed to stand up to the defenders’ formidable artillery; its name, meaning ‘little mouse’, is surely another example of soldiers’ humour. The extra protection was required by men moving up to the enemy wall for undermining work. In other words, it was the Roman equivalent of the Hellenistic ‘digging tortoise’. Caesar’s version was 60ft (18m) long, 4ft (1.2m) wide, and 5ft (1.5m) tall, with a pitched roof. It was built out of 2ft–thick (0. 6m) timbers, and entirely covered with a fireproof layer of tiles and clay, followed by a waterproof layer of rawhide, to foil any attempts at dissolving the clay (Caes., BCiv. 2.10). It was perhaps unusual to mobilize such a structure; at any rate, the defenders were taken by surprise when it was suddenly advanced to the wall on sets of rollers normally used to transport ships. With the musculus in place at the wall foot, the defenders were powerless to prevent the Romans from undermining one of the city’s towers.


Like the musculus, but open along one side, was the vinea. This is especially used to shield soldiers when they were undermining the city’s walls by driving tunnels under them, or prizing out the stones at the base with sharp iron tools called terebrae.


Roman law specifically prohibited generals from bringing their legions into Italy proper without the express approval of the Senate. On the Adriatic coast, the border was marked by the Rubicon River south of Ravenna. Yet on January 10 or 11 (sources differ), 49 BCE, announcing that “the die is cast,” Caesar defied the Senate and crossed the small Rubicon with his army into Italy proper. Although Caesar had only one legion immediately with him, he retained eight other battle-tested legions in Gaul. His total force thus numbered some 40,000 men, plus 20,000 auxiliaries. Ranged against Caesar, Pompey and his allies in the Senate could call on two legions in Italy(with eight more being raised there), seven in Spain, and substantial military resources in Greece, the East, and North Africa.

Caesar hoped to counter this formidable imbalance by the decisive approach that had brought him victory in Gaul. Moving swiftly south along the Adriatic, he collected additional forces and recruits. Pompey declared that Rome could not be defended, and he and most of the senators abandoned the city to Caesar in order to buy time to gather additional resources in southern Italy. The only setback for Caesar to this point was the news that Labienus, a former lieutenant of Pompey, had defected to him. All of Caesar’s other key subordinates and legions remained loyal.

Because Pompey was slow both to react to the threat posed by Caesar and to mobilize his own legions, he and 25,000 men and most of the senators who had fled to the south withdrew to Brundisium (Brindisi). Pompey also rejected calls from Caesar that they end the fighting and restore their former alliance, Pompey claiming that he was Caesar’s superior.

Pompey was confident of ultimate victory. He expected to raise substantial forces in the eastern Greek provinces and, with control of most of the Roman Navy, institute a blockade of the Italian coast. In March 49 BCE Pompey and a number of his senatorial allies sailed from Brundisium for Epirus.

Before Caesar could contemplate proceeding against Pompey in Greece, he had to eliminate the threat to his rear posed by Pompey’s sizable army in Spain. Leaving Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as prefect in Rome and Mark Antony in charge of the rest of Italy, Caesar marched for Spain. Gaius Antonius held Illyria for Caesar, while Cisalpine Gaul was under Licinius Crassus. Caesar sent Gaius Curio with other troops to secure Sicily and North Africa.

Pompey supporter Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus landed by sea at Massilia (present-day Marseille) with a small number of men and persuaded its leaders to declare for Pompey. Caesar, having sent most of his army ahead to secure the passes over the Pyrenees that would give him access to Spain, invested Massilia in April with three legions. Caesar then hurried on to take charge of operations in Spain, leaving Gaius Trebonius to continue the siege operations by land and Decimus Brutus to raise a naval force and blockade Massilia from the sea. The siege continued during the entire time of Caesar’s operations in Spain, although Brutus won a naval victory off Massilia against a joint Massilian-Pompeian force.

Taking advantage of Pompey’s absence from the Italian mainland, Caesar moved quickly. In June 49, his legions secured the vital Pyrenees passes just in advance of a large force of 65,000 men loyal to Pompey and commanded by Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius. Frustrated by their inability to reach and secure the passes first, the two Pompeian generals awaited Caesar’s arrival in Spain. Two additional Pompeian legions and about 45,000 auxiliaries under Vebellius Rufus and Marcus Terentius Varro held the remainder of Spain.

Both sides engaged in extended maneuvering in what is known as the Ilerda Campaign. Caesar was anxious to avoid pitched battle because of his considerable inferiority in numbers. His opponents were equally reluctant to engage because of Caesar’s military reputation. Finally, through adroit maneuvering and rapid movement, Caesar cut off the withdrawal of the two legions and surrounded them, securing their surrender at Ilerda on August 2, 49. Following his victory, Caesar disbanded the two legions, gaining recruits in the process. He then marched to Gades (Cadiz) to overawe all Spain. Then, leaving a small force to complete the pacification of Iberia, Caesar returned to Massilia, which surrendered on September 6. Domitius escaped by sea.


An example of aggressive siegecraft is provided by the attack on coastal Massilia by Caesar’s deputy, Caius Trebonius, in 49 BCE. He began to construct two embankments at different points on the landward side, but was severely hindered by the town’s ballistae, which had allegedly been engineered to discharge 12ft (3.5m) iron–pointed spears instead of the usual rounded stone balls. The legionaries’ standard wickerwork shelters (vineae) could not stand up to such punishment, so Trebonius arranged for the workers to be protected by galleries made out of timber 1ft thick (30cm). In addition, he had a 30ft—square (9m) brick refuge built close to the town, so that the workers could shelter within its 5ft–thick (1.5m) walls; but he quickly realized how useful a tower would be in this location, and again exploited the legionaries’ engineering skills to raise the structure, under constant threat of enemy missiles, until it had six storeys. This opened up new possibilities, and Trebonius ordered a massive gallery to be built, 60ft (18m) long, stretching from the brick tower to the town wall. Realizing the danger posed by the gallery, the Massiliotes tipped blocks of masonry and blazing barrels of pitch onto it from the battlements above. But they were driven back by the artillery in the brick tower, and their improvised missiles were easily deflected by the gallery’s 2ft–thick (60cm) gabled roof, with its coating of padded rawhide over clay. Then, concealed within the gallery, Trebonius’ legionaries undermined the town wall, whereupon the townsfolk lost hope and surrendered.


C. Trebonius illustrates perhaps better than any other figure of the Late Republic the independence of the “everyday senator” from any “party affiliation” in ancient Roman politics, as compared, for instance, with the modern American political scene. Characterized by scholars as vacillating between political factions (particularly, the factions of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great), Trebonius, in reality, did as many Roman senators, searching out the best advantages for himself and sticking with one powerful leader or another only as long as he considered their goals appropriate and personally beneficial.

Trebonius emerges from the ancient sources for the first time in 60 BCE, when he held the office of quaestor (financial magistrate) in Rome. During his term, he was one of those politicians who opposed the intentions of P. Claudius Pulcher (commonly known as Clodius). Clodius had developed an intense hatred for one of Trebonius’s good friends, the famous orator Cicero; he intended to utilize the office of plebeian tribune (the powers of which he considered ideal for the purpose) to destroy Cicero’s life. To become tribune, however, Clodius had to relinquish his status as a patrician (a member of Rome’s most blue-blooded families) and apply for adoption into a plebeian family. He had this all arranged, but Trebonius, along with the consuls of 60 (Afranius and Metellus Celer) and other magistrates, opposed and prevented the adoption, since they understood its true purpose.

In the following year, though, Clodius got his way in all things, with the strong backing of Julius Caesar and his associates, Crassus and Pompey, the so-called First Triumvirate. Trebonius apparently continued to resist Clodius, however, endangering his own life against such a loose cannon in the efforts launched to recall Cicero, who had been exiled, thanks to Clodius.

After all this dust had settled, Trebonius teamed up with the Triumvirs. As plebeian tribune in 55 BCE, he proposed a law to grant provincial commands to Crassus (who received the province of Syria and oversight in the neighboring territories) and to Pompey (who received the provinces of Spain), each for a period of five years. In addition, the motion authorized each man to levy as many troops from both Roman citizens and allies, as well as to make war or arrange peace in their provinces, as each saw fit. Two of his colleagues in the tribunate, C. Ateius Capito and P. Aquilius Gallus, attempted to derail Trebonius’s measure; the young Optimate orator M. Favonius also spoke out in opposition, as did M. Porcius Cato, leader of the Optimates. Cato, at least, recognized that there was no way to prevent the measure with the coalition of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey behind it, but he still made the best stand he could against it; by talking out his allotted time and forcing Trebonius to make a show of dragging him off the Speakers’ Platform and into detention, Cato gave the assembled voters a clear proof of the unjust power being exercised by the Triumvirs.

At this informal meeting (contio) of the People of Rome, so many private citizens took the opportunity to express their opinions on this heated matter that the two opposing tribunes did not even have a chance to speak their views. Gallus decided, therefore, to sleep overnight in the Senate House so that he could be the first one to ascend the Speakers’ Platform (located right outside) at dawn on the following day; Trebonius, however, locked him inside the building and did not let him out for hours. In the meantime, the latter’s supporters crowded into the assembly area (Comitium) outside; they tried to stop Capito, Favonius, Cato, and other opponents from entering, but these found clever ways to do so anyway. For instance, Cato and Capito climbed on the shoulders of those standing around the edge of the Comitium and, from his perch, Capito proclaimed a warning about bad omens, which normally would have necessitated dissolving the meeting.

In the event, however, the supporters of Trebonius, many of whom were soldiers Caesar had furloughed from his army, turned to roughing up opponents of the proposal, including Capito and Cato; many people were driven from the Forum in this way, many badly wounded in the confrontation, including Gallus, and a few even killed. Capito, however, incensed by the sight of his colleague all covered in blood, and building on popular disgust at this, soon stirred up renewed resistance to Trebonius. Pompey and Crassus, as consuls, then entered the scene with their bodyguards, restored order to the assembly, and compelled a vote on Trebonius’s motion. Not surprisingly, it passed into law. They followed this up with a law of their own to extend also the provincial command of Caesar for an additional five years and under the same terms as theirs.

For his efforts as tribune, Trebonius received a reward, a posting as legatus, a lieutenant commander, in the army of Caesar from the end of his term of office through 50 BCE. He accompanied Caesar on his second expedition into Britain, commanded forces against the Belgae (especially in the punitive operations after the rebellion of Ambiorix), and expertly countered the assaults of Vercingetorix’s troops during the famous Siege of Alesia (alongside Marc Antony).

Trebonius continued to serve Caesar when the Civil War broke out between the latter and Pompey. After the city of Massilia in southern Gaul (Marseilles, France) declared itself for Pompey’s side in the first year of the conflict, Caesar placed Trebonius in charge of ground forces to conduct the siege of the town, an ever-challenging business that ended in success for Trebonius after six months. In the following year, 48 BCE, Caesar welcomed Trebonius back to Rome with another reward, the office of urban praetor, which placed him just one rank below Caesar himself as consul and made him the chief judicial official over Roman citizens. This placed Trebonius at odds with another of Caesar’s supporters, M. Caelius Rufus, who had hoped for that appointment himself; even though Caesar gave him the next best thing, the peregrine praetorship (the judicial official over resident aliens and foreign visitors to Rome), Caelius resented it and lashed out at Trebonius by vetoing everything he did in office. Indeed, Caelius went further by opposing Caesar’s laws on loans and rent payments, attempting to foment a sort of social revolution in Rome of debtors and renters against their creditors and landlords; in this uprising, Trebonius almost lost his life (which is what Caelius really wanted) and barely escaped the city in disguise. The Senate and Caesar’s consular colleague, Servilius Isauricus, put a stop to all this within Rome itself; Caelius fled southward to try to stir up support for his cause but failed and was eventually killed by Caesar’s cavalry.

The rest of Trebonius’s praetorship appears to have gone smoothly and he proceeded in the next year to the governorship of Further Spain. Since the summer of 49 BCE, both Spanish provinces had come under Caesar’s authority, but his legions there and some of the local communities had grown restless and, in fact, mutinous. Part of Trebonius’s mission was to restore order; he had previous experience of the region, having fought against the lieutenants of Pompey there in the first year of the Civil War. However, the agents of Metellus Scipio, father-in-law of the now-deceased Pompey and acknowledged leader of the survivors of his faction, had come to Spain to reclaim it by inciting more trouble for Caesar’s side; chief among those agents was Pompey’s eldest son, Cnaeus Pompeius. Inspired by his arrival, the mutinous legionaries and rebellious locals eventually forced Trebonius out of the peninsula. Caesar then personally took up the campaign against the Pompeians in Spain. He apparently sent Trebonius back to Rome and, on his own victorious return in the fall of 45 BCE, appointed his loyal legate as suffect (“fill-in”) consul for the remainder of the year. Again, Trebonius had received his ample reward.

After all this, however, Trebonius turned against Caesar. In fact, he seems to have done so already before Caesar’s return from Spain; he even mentioned something to Marc Antony, who kept it secret instead of reporting it to Caesar. The reason, evidently, for Trebonius’s change of heart was animosity toward Caesar’s kind of dictatorship, which made everyone, including his old comrades, feel like pawns in a game played only by Caesar. In wartime, this might have been satisfactory, but it was not once peace resumed. Thus, many Caesarians participated in the Conspiracy of the Liberators to assassinate Caesar in 44 BCE. While other members of the plot attacked him during a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March, Trebonius fulfilled his assigned task by keeping Marc Antony outside, engaged in conversation. Trebonius later expressed in a letter to Cicero his pride in the part he had played, the sense of achievement he felt in ridding Rome of a “tyrant.” Cicero had applauded the assassination, but he blamed Trebonius (and Brutus) for not eliminating Antony, too.

Before his death, Caesar had officially assigned Trebonius to govern the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today), and under the turbulent conditions in Rome following the fallen dictator’s funeral, Trebonius literally had to sneak off to his province so as not to set off any further popular uproar against himself. Soon, the leaders of the Conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius, secretly contacted him, asking him to collect money and troops for the looming head-on confrontation with Antony. He did so, and went further in fortifying key towns in the province against possible attack.

The attack came, but not from Antony. Another adversary appeared, a much more cunning one, in the person of P. Cornelius Dolabella. He had served under Caesar for a number of years and the latter planned to reward him with a suffect consulship in 44 BCE; that is, if Caesar had left for his projected war against the Parthian Empire, he would have handed over the remainder of his own term as consul to Dolabella. Instead, Caesar was assassinated, but Dolabella still wanted that office; the other consul of that year, Antony, stood in opposition, however. Dolabella turned on Antony, posed as a friend of Caesar’s assassins and assumed the consulship anyway, receiving from the Senate a special appointment as governor of the province of Syria to boot.

This proved to be the undoing of Trebonius, who did suspect treachery from Dolabella, but not quite as much as he should have. Early in 43 BCE, when the latter passed through Asia on the way to his own province (engaging in wholesale plunder all along), Trebonius did not permit his entry into the important towns of Pergamum or Smyrna, but, out of respect for his office, he did allow him and his men to gather provisions from Ephesus. All the while, a detachment of Trebonius’s army followed Dolabella. Having done so until nightfall, and seeing no cause for concern in Dolabella’s actions, most of the troops returned to Smyrna, leaving only a few to keep watch on him.

Yet, Dolabella set an ambush for them, captured and killed them, and then turned around unexpectedly and arrived at Smyrna under cover of darkness. His men carefully scaled the walls of the city, secured it for themselves, and even captured Trebonius, sleeping in his bed. One of Dolabella’s centurions, on explicit orders, cut off the head of Trebonius rather than taking him alive and brought it to his commander, who put it on display the following morning on the chair from which Trebonius had delivered his official pronouncements. Dolabella’s soldiers took the rest of the body and furiously attacked it; they also played with his head as though it were a game ball in the streets of the city. A fitting punishment, as they saw it, for the man who had helped to kill Caesar by preventing Marc Antony from coming to his rescue.

The death of Trebonius and the mutilation of his corpse sent a clear signal to the other Conspirators; he was the first of their number to be punished for the killing of Caesar and each of them had to fear such an end now.


The “bronze-bearded” (ahenobarbi) Domitii traced their distinguished lineage at least as far back in Rome’s history as the fifth century BCE. Not all of them possessed the greatest of virtues, but they did share a tendency toward obstinacy and temper and, like many others of the Roman elite, an exalted sense of dignitas. Certainly, these qualities characterized L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who stood with the Optimates in the Senate against Julius Caesar, challenged the latter through much of his career, confronted him on his invasion of Italy, and fought against him across the empire from southern France to Greece.

According to the famous orator and statesman Cicero, Domitius, even as a young man early on in his political career, held to the moral standards of those senators who styled themselves Optimates. Little is known about that early career, aside from his testimony, in 70 BCE, against Verres, the corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. For this, Cicero praised Domitius as a distinguished young man, first among his peers.

By the summer of 61 BCE, Domitius joined up with the most prominent spokesman of the Optimates, Cato the Younger, to bring two proposals before the Senate regarding bribery. One motion declared as treasonable the sheltering or housing of those who distributed bribes (known as divisores in Latin) among the voters; the other authorized the searching of magistrate’s homes for such individuals. Undoubtedly, these motions targeted the chief adversaries of the Optimates at that time, who were also the men possessing the greatest wealth to spread around through bribery, that is, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. Ironically, Domitius’s own comrade, Cato, engaged the very next year in large-scale bribery of the voters to guarantee that his own son-in-law, Bibulus, would gain election to the consulship as a counterweight to Caesar. By the fall of 59 BCE, Domitius found himself implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate Caesar and Pompey, accused by the informer, P. Vettius, of conspiring with the consul Bibulus to do so; Vettius even claimed that the house of Domitius had served as the base of operations for the scheme. Fortunately for Domitius, few believed the accusations, which were probably trumped up by Pompey and Caesar themselves to discredit their opponents.

In the following year, Domitius attained some legal cover through his position as praetor and, together with his colleague Memmius, insisted on holding an inquiry into Caesar’s official misconduct while consul, his blatant disregard of customs and taboos. The Senate as a body refused to take up the matter, so Caesar ignored the praetors’ charges and left Rome for his provincial command. Other proceedings were instituted against him and one of his subordinates, likely all instigated by Domitius, but still these came to nothing.

In the summer of 58 BCE, Domitius attempted to get at Caesar again by standing up for M. Tullius Cicero; the latter had been forced into exile to keep him quiet through the efforts of Caesar and his associates. The plebeian tribune, Clodius, who had orchestrated Cicero’s downfall, found a constitutional means to order Domitius to be silent on the question of Cicero’s recall and the matter of the reconstruction of his house, which had been destroyed at Clodius’s orders.

Undeterred, though obstructed at every turn by the so-called First Triumvirate and its minions, Domitius campaigned relentlessly in 56 BCE for the consulship of the following year, hoping to utilize that office against the opponents of the Optimates. According to the Imperial historian Cassius Dio, Domitius was actively canvassing for votes right up to the very last day before the elections. Another Imperial historian, Appian of Alexandria, asserted that the intention of Domitius in all this was to challenge Pompey; this probably means that, even if Pompey obtained one of the consulships for the upcoming year, Domitius sought to obtain the other and use it as a check on Pompey’s actions and power within the state. Domitius also made clear his intention of removing Julius Caesar from his provincial command. In all this, he had the support of the Optimates in the Senate and especially of their leader, his brother-in-law, Cato.

Caesar had other plans. Pompey and their associate, Crassus, came to meet Caesar at his winter quarters in the town of Luca (modern Lucca) in northern Italy (what Romans referred to as the province of Cisalpine Gaul). Behind the scenes, the three men agreed to cooperate in squeezing Domitius out of the race and obtaining the consulships of 55 for Crassus as well as Pompey.

Even before dawn on the morning of the elections, Domitius arrived in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) where Roman voters cast their ballots for consuls in the Popular Assembly known as the Comitia Centuriata (Assembly of Centuries). Pompey showed up at about the same time; both men, as was customary, came with a crowd of supporters around them. It did not take long for these hangers-on to begin quarreling, eventually brawling, with one another over their candidates; in the escalating confrontation, one of Domitius’s torch-bearers (recall that it was still dark out when all this took place) was attacked by a follower of Pompey with a sword. Legally, no one was supposed to enter the voting area with weapons, and the fact that one of Pompey’s men was armed suggested that more of them must have had concealed weapons; in fact, Cassius Dio recorded that Publius, the son of Crassus, had brought soldiers from Caesar’s army on furlough to vote in this election, likely secretly armed. Domitius’s entourage melted away and he himself barely escaped to his own home; Cato also escaped, but badly wounded in the right arm as he had tried to delay retreating while also protecting Domitius. Clearly, fair and free elections were not going to happen this time. When the voters assembled, Pompey and Crassus secured both consulships; indeed, they managed to secure many other elective offices for their cronies by the end of the year.

In the elections for the consulships of 54 BCE, however, despite the fact that Crassus and Pompey presided, they were unable to prevent Domitius from securing one of the two positions. His hostility toward Pompey never abated and he unleashed it especially against the latter’s key followers, such as A. Gabinius, who was brought to trial on various charges and forced into exile. Yet, he lost another election important to him thanks to the efforts of Caesar; the latter, despite being far away in his provincial command, worked together with others to deny Domitius the open spot in the priestly college of augurs. Winner of the election was one of Caesar’s chief lieutenants, Marc Antony, making Domitius’s loss an even greater insult. He raged against those who had orchestrated what he considered a travesty and an injustice.

The Optimate members of the Senate pushed for the recall of Caesar from his provincial command and clamored for Domitius to replace him. By this time, Crassus had died fighting the Parthians and Pompey had begun to distance himself from Caesar. When a letter arrived from Caesar insisting on retention of his provincial command until which time as Pompey also laid down his own (so that they would both retire into private life and not pose an imminent threat to one another), the Optimates got their wish; Domitius received the Senate’s mandate to take over Caesar’s provinces and he proceeded to gather forces for that purpose.

Before anyone expected it, however, Caesar had moved with a relatively small force into Italy proper and was on the march toward Rome. By then, Pompey had been selected by the Senate as supreme commander against Caesar’s invasion, but he had retreated from Rome to gather supplies and recruit troops in southern Italy. Domitius had the task of confronting Caesar first. He did not maneuver against him but instead took up position in the town of Corfinium, strategically located on the Via Valeria, a major Roman highway in southern Italy, and at the best crossing for the River Aterno (Aternus). Here, Domitius hoped to halt Caesar and provide Pompey the time he needed to rise up against Caesar.

Caesar could have bypassed Corfinium altogether on his march against Pompey, but he chose not to; he could not allow Domitius to hold such a defiant position against him, one which could have been utilized as a base for enemy operations behind his own line of advance. Domitius’s forces slightly outnumbered those of Caesar, but the latter’s were battle-hardened veterans, while the former’s were fresh recruits from the citizenry of the region. These facts did not deter Domitius, however. He sent some of his troops to destroy the bridge over the Aterno so that Caesar could not use it to cross; the latter’s advanced forces prevented this and chased Domitius’s men back to town. While Caesar’s army camped outside Corfinium, Domitius detailed his troops along the walls, complete with artillery emplacements, and tried to rouse his men to imagine the rewards of victory, to take heart, and to stand firm.

Domitius hoped desperately for military assistance from Pompey, who was only about sixty miles away, and the orator Cicero, in his letters from those days, reveals how he and many other senators hoped for the same. They expected Pompey to concentrate his forces together with those of Domitius and others at Corfinium for the showdown with Caesar. Pompey sent word, however, that he disagreed with Domitius’s strategy of holding Corfinium against Caesar (no matter how brave or patriotic that might have seemed to be), that he had never ordered him to do so, and that he would not now trap himself in that town, too; he criticized Domitius roundly not only for allowing himself and his own force to get stuck but also for not sending on two legions of reinforcements he (Pompey) had requested from Domitius. Pompey urged Domitius to withdraw from Corfinium before it was too late (even if that meant laying open to Caesar the estates of their wealthy comrades in the process) and work toward joining forces in Apulia (modern Puglia). This terribly disheartened Domitius because by waiting for the “hero” Pompey, in whom he had reposed great confidence, he had allowed Caesar the time to flank Corfinium with two military camps, surround it with a rampart and forts, and double the size of his force with new reinforcements. In writing to his friend Atticus on the matter, as news came to him of it, Cicero described Domitius as a fool for having trusted Pompey and criticized the latter for basically deserting the former.

Domitius dared not let on to his own men that they were being abandoned by Pompey to their own devices; the only possible escape, as he saw it, was for himself and those few senators close to him, and he kept this idea secret. The plan was discovered by his troops, however, and after a heated discussion and argument, they decided to hand their untrustworthy commander over to the enemy. A day later, the town of Corfinium received Caesar peacefully and he pardoned all of Domitius’s troops, allowing them to join his own army if they wished; he also permitted Domitius and the other senators with him to go free.

Domitius could have gone into peaceful retirement at that point, but he chose instead to continue the fight against Caesar, his next theater of operations being the defense of Massilia (modern Marseilles) in Gallia Transalpina (modern Provence). In other words, he now proceeded to the provincial command he was supposed to have assumed from Caesar in the first place. An excuse for doing so presented itself in the appeals from the nobility of Massilia, who declared their allegiance to Pompey’s side; the great wealth and powerful fleet of that maritime city could prove tremendous assets in the Civil War and could not be allowed to fall into Caesar’s hands.

The Massiliotes kept Caesar at bay with false negotiations for neutrality until the arrival of Domitius; the oligarchy of the city then handed over its defense to him. Under his orders, they gathered a large store of food and other necessary supplies and commandeered all the vessels in the area for military service. Massilia prepared for a long siege by land and blockade by sea, with which Caesar soon obliged them.

Domitius made his first target the enemy fleet, under the charge of Brutus Albinus, one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants. They engaged in difficult and bitter combat in two naval encounters, both sides attempting to maximize their advantages either in maritime skill or fighting prowess. Pompey, finally, came through for Domitius, sending him reinforcement warships all the way from Greece. Domitius also had the full support of the Massiliotes; he called upon every able-bodied man to serve, whether aristocrat or commoner. The remainder of the population did their part as well, by praying to the gods for the success of their fleet. The latter did cause great damage among the enemy vessels, even sinking the flagship of Brutus Albinus (who managed to escape) but were deserted by Pompey’s reinforcements and suffered too many losses of their own to break the blockade.

In the meantime, Caesar’s ground troops, under the command of another of his trusted lieutenants, Trebonius, conducted the siege of Massilia by land. As they erected various devices for that purpose, the Massiliotes, directed by Domitius, attempted to drive the enemy away with artillery fi re and assaults by Gallic warriors armed with firebrands. After some time of this sort of fighting, Trebonius’s sappers undermined and brought down a portion of the defensive wall of Massilia; out of the opening streamed civilians who begged Trebonius for a chance to negotiate peace with Caesar. An uneasy truce ensued, punctuated by skirmishes of differing sorts, until the Massiliotes decided it was, indeed, time to surrender.

Domitius had learned of this decision a few days earlier and prepared ships for his escape. He hoped that inclement weather would deter Brutus Albinus from trying to stop him but that was not the case. Of his three vessels, only his own escaped. Having arrived in Greece, he joined up with Pompey’s main force.

Almost a full year later, Pompey and Caesar fought their major battle at Pharsalus in northern Greece. Up to that moment, Pompey’s three leading lieutenant commanders, Domitius, Metellus Scipio, and Lentulus Spinther, fully expected to destroy Caesar and his army; they had even wasted their time bitterly quarrelling over which of them would succeed Caesar in the post of Pontifex Maximus, the most prestigious priesthood of Rome. Domitius went further in his imaginings about the future; he suggested that, after their victory, the senators who fought on their side should pass judgment on those who stayed out of the conflict or proved useless in it, either exonerating them of wrongdoing, ordering them to pay a fine, or condemning them to death.

Pompey assigned Domitius to command the left wing of his army as it stood to face Caesar’s. The Battle of Pharsalus did not go as Pompey’s side expected. In the turmoil following the victory of Caesar’s troops, Domitius fled the battlefield and headed into the nearby hills for safety. Some of Caesar’s cavalry took off in pursuit and, eventually, captured and killed him.

Having been the first official defender of the Republic against Caesar, Domitius Ahenobarbus carried that duty through to the end of his life. His entire career, in fact, epitomized the determined resistance of the Optimates to the rise of any one senator too far above the others.

Further Reading Carter, J. 1996. Appian: The Civil Wars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Carter, J. 1997. Caesar: The Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Foster, H. B. 2010. Dio’s Roman History in Six Volumes. Alvin, TX: Halcyon Press Ltd. Graves, R. 2007. Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Greenwood, L. H. G. 1988. Cicero: The Verrine Orations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Gruen, E. 1974. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press. Seager, R., and R. Warner. 2006. Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic. London and New York: Penguin. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. New York: Penguin Publishing. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to His Friends. New York: Penguin Publishing. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press.