The Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane



Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane Wars, 1817–1828

Until the late eighteenth century the Bantu-speaking mixed farmers south of the Limpopo River lived in small chiefdoms. By the 1830s, when white people began to invade southeastern Africa beyond the Fish River in substantial numbers, however, society throughout the region had been drastically transformed. The nucleus of change lay in northern Nguni country. There, in the country between the mountain escarpment and the Indian Ocean, the Zulu kingdom had incorporated all the northern Nguni chiefdoms. The royal family and its Ntungwa clan constituted a new ruling class. They controlled a standing army of conscripted warriors and exacted tribute from the commoners. Moreover, in a process known as the Mfecane (Zulu) or Difaqane (Sesotho), meaning time of troubles, emigrant bands from modern KwaZulu had created new kingdoms as far north as modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. The Mfengu, who arrived among the Xhosa and became allied with the Cape Colony, were among the refugees displaced by these events.

This transformation was in essence an internal process within the mixed farming society in southeastern Africa. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the relation between the population level and the environment was changing. Previously, the society had been expansive and the scale of political organization had remained small in spite of the tendency of the population to increase, because members of ruling families had frequently split from their chiefdoms with their followers and founded new chiefdoms between or beyond existing settlements. Gradually, however, the population of the region had been increasing to a level where that expansive process was no longer possible. Farmers were reaching the limits of land with arable potential on the verge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the rugged mountains at the southern end of the highveld. Throughout southeastern Africa, as the possibilities for further expansion diminished, competition for land and water supplies grew more acute.

Changing climatic conditions exacerbated the crisis. Rainfall decreased significantly throughout the region during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, with an exceptionally severe drought between 1800 and 1807, followed by another between 1820 and 1823. The problem was especially serious in the northern Nguni area. There, the terrain is marked by steep hills and deep valleys, which create widely different environments within short distances, and it was necessary for people to move their cattle seasonally from one type of pasture to another. As the land filled up, pastures began to deteriorate through overstocking and people began to interfere with the customary movements of cattle. By the end of the eighteenth century, strong chiefdoms were subduing their neighbors and incorporating them into loosely structured kingdoms. Then came the first great drought of the century, which people remembered as the time when “we were obliged to eat grass.”

By the 1810s, there were two rival kingdoms in the area: the Ndwandwe kingdom, led by Zwide, and the Mthethwa kingdom, led by Dingiswayo, who created a standing army composed of age regiments. The two kingdoms clashed repeatedly and with unprecedented ferocity. The outcome of the crisis was shaped very largely by Shaka. The eldest son of Senzanga-kona, the chief of the small Zulu chiefdom, Shaka was illegitimate, since his father never married his mother, Nandi. Rejected by his father, Shaka grew up among his mother’s relatives. In Zulu tradition, he was “a tall man, dark, with a large nose, and was ugly,” and “he spoke with an impediment.”

When he was about twenty-two, Shaka joined the army of Dingiswayo, king of the Mthethwa, where he acquired a reputation as a brave warrior and a man of original ideas and became commander of his regiment. When Senzangakona died in about 1816, Dingiswayo helped Shaka succeed to the Zulu chieftaincy over the heads of his numerous legitimate half-brothers. Shaka then equipped the Zulu warriors with short stabbing spears in addition to the traditional long spears and trained them to fight in close combat. A year or two later, the Ndwandwe captured and killed Dingiswayo. The Mthethwa kingdom then disintegrated and Shaka’s Zulu conquered and incorporated its chiefdoms. In 1818, the Zulu defeated the Ndwandwe in a decisive battle at the Mhlatuse River and became the dominant power throughout northern Nguni territory. By the mid-1820s, Shaka’s Zulu had established control over most territory from the Pongola River in the north to beyond the Tugela River in the south and from the mountain escarpment to the sea.

The transformation of the northern Nguni was accentuated by external factors. Some historians believe that foreign trade was crucial in the rise of the Zulu kingdom. Traders from the Portuguese settlement on Delagoa Bay were increasingly active in this period, bartering beads, brass, and other imported commodities for ivory and cattle. Creating competition for control of the trade route, they probably intensified the conflicts and the centralizing process. The available evidence, including the recorded oral traditions of the African informants, however, does not seem to warrant the conclusion that the trade was sufficient to have been the primary cause of the transformation.

One historian has gone so far as to assert that external forces—white slave traders and white colonists and their Coloured allies—bore most of the responsibility for the transformations in southeastern Africa. According to him, the export trade in slaves from Delagoa Bay precipitated the changes among the northern Nguni, and Griquas and Whites from the Cape Colony were the principal disrupters of the African chiefdoms in the modern Transvaal and Orange Free State. The first claim is palpably false: scarcely any slaves were being exported from Delagoa Bay before 1823; subsequently there was a rise in slave exports, but that was a result, not a cause, of the warfare in the area. The second claim draws attention to a previously underestimated factor: Griquas did cause considerable havoc in some parts of the highveld; nevertheless, the main agents of that disruption were Nguni emigrants from modern KwaZulu.

The Zulu kingdom was the end product of radical changes in northern Nguni society that had begun in the late eighteenth century. It was a militarized state, made and maintained by a conscript army of about forty thousand warriors. Instead of the initiation system, which had integrated young men into the discipline of their particular chiefdoms, men were removed from civil society at about the age of puberty and assigned to age regiments, living in barracks scattered throughout the country. During their period of service they were denied contact with women and subjected to intense discipline. They were employed on public works for the state, but their most conspicuous duties were military. In warfare, their standard tactic was to encircle the enemy and then, in close combat, to cause havoc with short stabbing spears. They celebrated a victory by seizing booty, principally in cattle, and, sometimes, by massacring women and children. Survivors were incorporated into the Zulu kingdom under chiefs whose tenure depended on their loyalty.

In earlier times, there had been no standing armies, women and children were seldom killed, and defeated chiefdoms were rarely incorporated. Men, women, and children had lived in their homesteads throughout their lives and had forfeited only a relatively modest amount of their produce to their chiefs. Under Shaka, grain and cattle flowed in larger quantities to the royal residence and the regimental barracks; and, with a high proportion of their mature men absent, women had greater responsibility for rural production and for managing the homestead.

To foster loyalty to the state, Shaka and his councillors drew on the customary Nguni festivals. They assembled the entire army at the royal barracks for the annual first-fruits ceremony and before and after major military expeditions, when they used spectacular displays and magical devices to instill a corporate morale. The traditions of the Zulu royal lineage became the traditions of the kingdom; the Zulu dialect became the language of the kingdom; and every inhabitant, whatever his origins, became a Zulu, owing allegiance to Shaka. Nevertheless, as Carolyn Hamilton, drawing on Zulu evidence, points out, “The process of centralization was far from smooth. . . . . There were . . . great inequalities within the Zulu kingdom, deep-seated divisions and considerable disaffection. . . . [0]utbreaks of rebellion . . . prompted continued coercive responses from the Zulu authorities. These included merciless campaigns and stern sentences for individual rebels. . . . The Zulu authorities fostered this image through carefully managed displays of despotism and brutal justice at the court, using terror as a basis for absolute rule across a huge kingdom.”

During the 1820s, the Zulu kingdom became increasingly predatory. Shaka sent the army on annual campaigns, disrupting local chiefdoms to the north and the south, destroying their food supplies, seizing their cattle. Tensions within the royal family came to a head on September 24, 1828. While the army was away on a campaign to the north, Shaka’s personal servant and two of his half-brothers assassinated him. One of those half-brothers, Dingane, eliminated his rivals and succeeded to the kingship, maintaining Shaka’s domestic and external policies, though he lacked Shaka’s originality and panache.

Meanwhile, militant bands of people who had been driven from their homes by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, and the Zulu created the widespread havoc throughout southeastern Africa that became known as the Mfecane. By the early 1830s, organized community life had virtually ended in some areas—notably, in modern Natal, south of the Zulu kingdom, and in much of the modern Orange Free State between the Vaal and the Caledon river valleys, where the only human beings were small groups of survivors trying to eke out a living on mountaintops or in bush country. Settlements were abandoned, livestock were destroyed, fields ceased to be cultivated, and in several places the landscape was littered with human bones. Demoralized survivors wandered round singly or in small groups, contriving to live on game or veld plants. Some even resorted to cannibalism—the final sign of society’s collapse. A self-proclaimed former cannibal later told a missionary: “Many preferred to die of hunger; but others were deceived by the more intrepid ones, who would say to their friends . . . : here is some rock rabbit meat, recover your strength; however, it was human flesh. Once they had tasted it, they found that it was excellent. . . . Our heart did fret inside us; but we were getting used to that type of life, and the horror we had felt at first was soon replaced by habit.”

By that time, a rival Nguni kingdom controlled much of the central highveld. In about 1821, one of Shaka’s allies, a chief named Mzilikazi, fled over the escarpment to the highveld with a small band of warriors. There, they became known as Ndebele (Nguni) or Matabele (Sotho). Using Zulu military methods, they carved out a state between the Vaal and the Limpopo rivers, conquering several Sotho and Tswana chiefdoms and incorporating many of their people as subordinates, exacting tribute from others, and, like the Zulu, sending impis out to terrorize more distant communities.

Other states were developing on the periphery of the areas dominated by the Zulu and the Ndebele. Several militant bands of refugees from the northern Nguni area, enthused with similar zeal for conquest, struggled to establish themselves in modern Mozambique. The most successful were those led by Soshangane, who created the Gaza kingdom there and drove out others led by Zwangendaba and Nxaba, who eventually carved out new chieftaincies for themselves in parts of modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. Similarly, a Sotho community known as the Kololo, harrassed by the Ndebele, fled northward from the highveld and eventually founded a kingdom in modern Zambia. In mountainous territory northwest of the Zulu, meanwhile, an Nguni chief named Sobhuza, who had been driven out of land near the Pongola River by Zwide’s Ndwandwe, absorbed several Sotho as well as Nguni communities and created a durable kingdom that became known as Swaziland after Sobhuza’s son and heir, Mswati.

Perhaps the most significant of the new states was Lesotho. Its leader was Moshoeshoe, the senior son of a Sotho village headman, who gathered the survivors of the wars in the Caledon River valley. Besides Sotho, who had belonged to numerous different chiefdoms before the invasions began, they included people who had arrived in the area as members of invading Nguni bands. From headquarters on a flat-topped mesalike mountain named Thaba Bosiu, the Basotho warriers warded off attacks by a series of aggressors, including an Ndebele impi and Griqua raiders.

Lesotho differed fundamentally from the Zulu kingdom. It was the scene of postwar reconstruction on pacific rather than coercive principles. Although Moshoeshoe placed his sons and other relatives over chiefs of other lineages, he never created a standing army, he remained on easy, familiar terms with all and sundry, he encouraged his people to debate public questions freely in public meetings, and he tolerated a great deal of local autonomy. “Peace,” he said, “is like the rain which makes the grass grow, while war is like the wind which dries it up.” With its humane leader and its central position in southern Africa, Lesotho played an important role throughout the next half-century.

In transforming the farming society of southeastern Africa, the Mfecane wrought great suffering. Thousands died violent deaths. Thousands more were uprooted from their homes. Village communities and chiefdoms were eliminated. A century later, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, a Motswana, started his novel Mhudi with tragic incidents in the Mfecane. Yet, in Thomas Mokopu Mofolo’s well-known novel Chaka, written in Sesotho and translated into English, German, French, and Italian, and in an epic poem by Mazisi Kunene, the name of Shaka has passed into African literature and the consciousness of modern Africans as a symbol of African heroism and power.

Besides the destruction, the immediate consequences of the wars were twofold. First, thousands of Basotho and Batswana from the highveld, as well as Mfengu and Xhosa from the coastal area, poured into the Cape Colony in search of subsistence, which they were able to obtain by working for white colonists. Second, the wars provided Whites with unprecedented opportunities to expand into the eastern part of southern Africa. In much of the central highveld, the population was sparse throughout the 1830s. The surviving inhabitants, fearing further disruptions, tended to conceal themselves from intruders, which gave white travelers the impression that the area was uninhabited and unclaimed. In fact, however, the rulers of the newly created Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, and Sotho kingdoms assumed that, jointly, they had dominion over the entire region, though they contested its distribution among themselves. In particular, Dingane and Mzilikazi continued to send impis through the sparsely occupied southern highveld.


The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon


The formation of the Templars arose out of these conditions of insecurity on the roads and the murder, rape, enslavement and robbery of unarmed pilgrims. Only recently a group of nine French knights, most prominently Hugh of Payns, a knight from Champagne who had fought in the First Crusade, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer in Picardy, had proposed to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Warmund of Picquigny and King Baldwin II, who had succeeded his cousin in 1118, that for the salvation of their souls they form a lay community or perhaps even withdraw into the contemplative life of a monastery. Instead Baldwin, alive to the urgent dangers confronting travellers in his kingdom, persuaded Hugh of Payns and his companions to save their souls by protecting pilgrims on the roads, or as one chronicler put it, they were to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but were also ‘to defend pilgrims against brigands and rapists’. The Easter massacre along the road to the river Jordan persuasively drove home the King’s view, and on Christmas Day 1119 Hugh and his companions took their vows before the Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, calling themselves in Latin the Pauperes commilitones Christi, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ.

The King and Patriarch probably saw the creation of a permanent guard for travellers as complementary to the work of the Hospitallers who were providing care for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem. Already in 600 Pope Gregory the Great had commissioned the building of a hospital at Jerusalem to treat and care for pilgrims, and two hundred years later Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged it to include a hostel and a library, but in 1005 it was destroyed as part of the Fatimid caliph Hakim’s violent anti-Christian persecutions. In 1170 merchants from Amalfi obtained permission from the Fatimids to rebuild the hospital, which was run by Benedictine monks and dedicated to Saint John the Almsgiver, a charitable seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria. But after the First Crusade the hospital was released from Benedictine control and raised an order of its own, the Hospitallers of Saint John, which was recognised by the Pope in 1113 and came under his sole jurisdiction.

Official acceptance of the new order came at Nablus in January 1120 when the nine members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ were formally introduced to an assembly of lay and spiritual leaders from throughout the lands of Outremer. In this year too they first attracted the attention of a powerful visitor to Outremer, Fulk V, count of Anjou, who on his return home granted them an annual revenue, an example that was soon followed by other French nobles, which added to the allowance they were already receiving from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet altogether these amounted to only a modest income, and individually the Poor Fellow-Soldiers were genuinely poor and dressed only in donated clothes, meaning they had no distinctive uniform–the white tunic emblazoned with a red cross came later. Their seal alludes to this brotherhood in poverty by depicting two knights, perhaps Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer, having to share a single horse.

They were also given the use of another hand-me-down. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the King had made do with the al-Aqsa mosque for his palace, but now he had built a new palace to the west and he gave what had been the mosque to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers. They made it their headquarters, residing there and using it to store arms, clothing and food, while stabling their horses in a great underground vault at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. As the vaults were thought to have been Solomon’s stables, and the al-Aqsa mosque was known as the mosque of the Templum Solomonis because it was believed to have been built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, it was not long before the knights had encompassed the association in their name. They became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici–the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon; or, in a word, the Templars.


In the autumn of 1127 Baldwin II sent emissaries to the West in an effort to solve two fundamental problems facing the Kingdom of Jerusalem: its military weakness and his lack of a male heir. Baldwin had four daughters but no sons, and to secure the succession he and his barons had decided to offer the hand of Melisende, his oldest daughter, to Fulk V, count of Anjou. In the event the mission to Fulk was a complete success; the count agreed to return to Outremer and marry Melisende, securing the succession and strengthening the kingdom’s ties with the West.

Baldwin also sent Hugh of Payns, the Grand Master of the Templars, sailing westwards at the same time, his mission to solicit donations and to raise recruits. The King had prepared the ground for Hugh by writing to Bernard, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, explaining that the Templars were seeking approval of their order from the Pope, who they hoped would also initiate a subsidy that would help fund the battle against the enemies of the faith who were threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin knew his man: Bernard had already written to the Pope objecting to a proposal put forward by a fellow abbot to lead a mission of Cistercians to the East, saying that what the Holy Land really needed was ‘fighting knights not singing and wailing monks’.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who was made a saint within twenty-years of his death, was one of the most influential and charismatic figures of the medieval Church. A volatile and passionate young man of an aristocratic family, he deliberately sought out the Cistercian order, known for its austerity, and in 1113 joined its monastery at Citeaux. Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, he founded a new Cistercian house and became its abbot, calling the monastery Clairvaux, meaning the Valley of Light. By the time Pope Honorius II was elected in 1124, Bernard was already regarded as one of the most outstanding churchmen of France; he attended important ecclesiastical assemblies and his opinion was regularly sought by Papal legates.

Significantly Clairvaux was built on land given to Bernard by Hugh, the count of Champagne, whose vassal was Hugh of Payns, the future founding Grand Master of the Templars. By the time Hugh of Payns sailed westwards in 1127, Bernard was already well informed about the East and what was needed there; his mother’s brother was Andre of Montbard, one of the original nine Templars, and Bernard’s early patron the count of Champagne had three times gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on the last occasion, in 1125, he too renounced his worldly possessions and joined the Templars.

Grants of land as well as silver, horses and armour were made to the Templars almost as soon as Hugh of Payns landed in France in the autumn of 1127. The following summer the Grand Master was in England where he was received with great honour by King Henry I, who donated gold and silver to the order. Hugh established the first Templar house in London, at the north end of Chancery Lane, and he was given several other sites around the country. More donations followed when Hugh travelled north to Scotland. In September Hugh of Payns had returned across the Channel where he was met by Godfrey of Saint-Omer and together they received further grants and treasures, all these given for the defence of the Holy Land and for the salvation of their donor’s souls.

The climax of Hugh of Payns’ tour came in January 1129 at Troyes, the capital of the counts of Champagne, where Theobold, Hugh of Champagne’s successor, hosted a convocation of Church leaders dominated by the presence of Bernard of Clairvaux. Hugh addressed the assembly and described the founding of the Templars and presented their Rule, adapted from the precepts followed by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This stipulated attendance at services together with the canons, communal meals, plain clothing, simple appearance and no contact with women. Because their duties carried them away from the church, they could replace attendance with the recitation of paternosters, and they were also allowed a horse and a small number of servants, and while the order was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem they owed their individual obedience to the Grand Master. These regulations formed the raw material from which, after considerable discussion and scrutiny by the gathered churchmen, Bernard drew up the Latin Rule of seventy-two clauses.

Bernard’s Latin Rule enjoined the Templars to renounce their wills, to hold worldly matters cheap, and not be afraid to fight but always to be prepared for death and for the crown of salvation and eternal life. The knights were to dress in white, symbolising that they had put the dark life behind them and had entered a state of perpetual chastity. The hair on their heads was to be cut short, but all Templar knights wore beards as they were not permitted to shave. Foul language and displays of anger were forbidden, as were reminiscences about past sexual conquests. Property, casual discussion with outsiders, and letters and gifts given or received were subject to the approval of the master. Discipline was enforced by a system of penances with expulsion the punishment in extreme cases.

In all this the Templars were regulated like monks, but when it came to guidance in military matters Bernard offered few practical injunctions, though he did understand that in creating ‘a new type of Order in the holy places’, one that combined knighthood with religion, the Templars needed to possess land, buildings, serfs and tithes, and was entitled to legal protection against what the Latin Rule called ‘the innumerable persecutors of the holy Church’.


The Knights Templar would in time become one of the wealthiest and most powerful financial and military organisations in the medieval world, yet there are holes in the historical record about their origins, and there are contradictions too. When were they founded? How many were there? What accounts for their meteoric rise? Part of the problem in finding the answers to these questions lies in the nature of the sources themselves.

The earliest chronicler of Templar history was William, archbishop of Tyre. Born into a French or Italian family at Jerusalem in about 1130, he studied Latin and probably Greek and Arabic there before continuing his education from about 1146 to 1165 in France and Italy. After returning to Outremer he wrote, among other works, a twenty-three volume history of the Middle East from the conquest of Jerusalem by Umar. This Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum, or History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, was begun around 1175 and remained unfinished at the time of William of Tyre’s death in about 1186. Most of it concentrated on the First Crusade and subsequent political events within the Kingdom of Jerusalem–events from which William was not entirely detached, for he was involved in the highest affairs of both the kingdom and the Church, and as archbishop and contender for the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem he was naturally jealous of any diminution of ecclesiastical authority–and so resentful of the Templars’ independence and their rise to wealth and power.

Two other early chroniclers were Michael the Syrian, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, who died in 1199, and Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford, who died in about 1209. But Michael was weak on matters outside his own experience and times, while Walter preferred a good story to sound historical inquiry, and moreover his prejudice against the Templars was fundamental, for he objected to the entire concept of an order of fighting monks. Despite his own bias against the Templars, William of Tyre is considered the most reliable of the three; he diligently sifted through sources to glean the facts about events that occurred before his time, and he made a point of interviewing surviving first-hand witnesses.

All the same, William of Tyre did not even begin writing his history until the mid-1170s, that is fifty-five years after the founding of the Templars, and there is no earlier source. The chroniclers of the First Crusade, men like Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent, had all completed their works within a decade of the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and long before the foundation of the Templars in 1119–or was it 1118? According to William of Tyre it was the latter, but he was notoriously poor on dates even if careful in other things, and the balance of scholarly opinion has the Templars established in 1119. In whatever year it was, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to write a first-hand account of the founding ceremony of the Templars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Day–at the time it did not register as a significant event.

We do not even know how many founding members there really were. William of Tyre says that there were nine and names the two most prominent as Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer. Other sources also name Archambaud of Saint-Aignan, Payen of Montdidier, Andre of Montbard, Geoffrey Bissot, a knight called Rossal or possibly Roland, another called Gondemar, and two more whose names have not survived. Moreover, William of Tyre maintains that even as late as the Council of Troyes in 1129 there were still only nine Knights Templar. But why would only nine men command such attention from the Council and the Pope, and why would Bernard of Clairvaux devote so much effort to praising their worth and propagating their fame? Indeed in this case Michael the Syrian seems to be more reliable, for he says there were thirty founding Templar knights, and most likely there were very many more a decade later.

Just as we owe it to William of Tyre that the Templars comprised only nine members right up to 1129, so we also owe to him the claim that they were a poor and simple order throughout the early decades of their foundation. Certainly the Templars looked back on themselves in this idealistic way, so that in 1167 when they were very rich indeed they adopted as their seal the two knights astride one horse, a self-image perhaps also derived from their ascetic Cistercian promoter in the West, Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet however humble the lives of the individual knights, the order itself was never indigent, not even at the start when already it was receiving an income from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as significant donations from powerful French barons.

But to portray the Templars as poor and humble and few in numbers in their early years gave William of Tyre a handy stick with which to beat them in his critical history. By the 1170s, according to William of Tyre, the Templars ‘are said to have immense possessions both here and overseas, so that there is now not a province in the Christian world which has not bestowed upon the aforesaid brothers a portion of its goods. It is said today that their wealth is equal to the treasures of kings.’ William contrasts this state of affairs with the Templars’ earlier simplicity, suggesting they have somehow betrayed themselves. But it seems that his real complaint is that their support in the West made them independent of any power in Outremer, particularly that of the Church as represented by William, the archbishop of Tyre, and would-be Patriarch of Jerusalem:

‘Although they maintained their establishment honourably for a long time and fulfiled their vocation with sufficient prudence, later, because of the neglect of humility, they withdrew from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, by whom their order was founded and from whom they received their first benefices and to whom they denied the obedience which their predecessors rendered. They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.’

This was the beginning of the criticism the Templars would receive from sources whose interests they crossed. Some would call them saviours of the East and defenders of all Christendom, others would find them ‘troublesome’ and accuse them of arrogance, greed, secrecy and deceit. Their destruction lay in their beginning; when there was no more East to save, the Templars would be doomed.

onna-bugeisha and kunoichi



While it was considered inappropriate for women born into Samurai clans to train in the martial arts, such things were not impossible, especially when weaker clans needed every warrior they could muster. Onna-bugeisha, sometimes erroneously called female Samurai, protected their household from soldiers, bandits and brigands. Some would trained in the yari, others the naginata, sometimes at an expert level, in order to protect their household. Some seemed to be ordinary women but were in fact fearsome martial artists.

Onna-bugeisha were not as common as samurai, with most upper-class women traditionally responsible for running their husband’s households. However, recent research shows women did fight in battles, with DNA remains from the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580 showing that 35 out of 105 bodies were female.



Not all ninja were men. The female onna-bugeisha were warriors belonging to Japanese nobility, and there were also female ninja, or kunoichi. Women were well suited to the clandestine role of the ninja and were uniquely able to infiltrate enemy strongholds in the guise of servants, dancers, concubines and geisha. The kunoichi also sometimes acted as assassins.

The most famous female ninja was Mochizuki Chiyome, who was descended from Kōga ninja and the wife of a samurai lord. When her husband was killed in battle, she came under the protection of her late husband’s uncle, Takeda Shingen, the leader of the Takeda clan. Shingen asked Mochizuki to form a network of kunoichi to spy on rival clans and daimyo. Mochizuki recruited a band of female orphans, refugees and prostitutes, who she trained in the clandestine arts of the ninja. Mochizuki’s kunoichi gathered information and acted as messengers, often travelling as miko (priestesses) to avoid suspicion. Posing as geisha, prostitutes and servants, the kunoichi could gain access to the most heavily guarded strongholds. Like their male counterparts, they were also trained assassins. The network grew to be several hundred strong before Shingen’s death in 1573, after which Mochizuki vanishes from the historical record.

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History

Roman Legionary Infantrymen





LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.

The ancient sources present a reasonably clear picture of the Republic’s military affairs as it emerged from the struggle with Hannibal. All Roman citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty-six were liable for service. The maximum length of service was likely sixteen years for infantry and ten for cavalry, but in normal circumstances a soldier would probably serve for up to six years and then be released.

The number of the main infantry division, the legion, is given as 4,200 soldiers, but in emergencies it could be higher. The legion was drawn up in three lines of hastati, principes, and triarii, with the youngest and poorest forming the velites. As lightly armed skirmishers, the velites carried a sword, javelin, and small circular shield. The hastati and principes, in contrast, were heavily armed. Protected by the long Italic shield, they relied upon a short Spanish sword, or gladius, and two throwing spears, or pila. Like the hastati and principes, the triarii were also heavily armed, but they carried a thrusting spear, or hasta, instead of the pilum. All soldiers wore a bronze breast- plate, a bronze helmet, and a pair of greaves, or shin guards. In order to be distinguished from a distance, the velites covered their helmets with wolfskin, and the hastati wore three tall feathers in their helmets. To preserve a degree of exclusiveness, wealthy recruits wore shirts of ring mail, whether serving among the hastati, principes, or triarii.

At the beginning of Augustus’s reign as emperor in 27 b. c. e., Roman legionary infantrymen wore a simple round helmet with a horsehair tail at the top as well as a chain mail shirt known as a lorica hamata. The latter consisted of interlocking metal rings and provided good protection but was, however, very heavy and took a long time to manufacture. Later in Augustus’s reign infantrymen began to use a new type of helmet, of Gallic origin, which was more closely fitted to the skull and included neck and cheek guards. In addition, possibly due to a major loss of military equipment in the German defeat of three legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 c. e.), the Roman infantry began to use a new type of breastplate known as the lorica segmentata. This armor consisted of horizontal metal bands covering the chest and abdomen as well as vertical metal bands protecting the shoulders. This could be manufactured much more quickly than mail armor and was very flexible. However, the fittings that held the bands together were easily damaged; as a result, this type of armor was in constant need of repair. Early imperial infantrymen also wore greaves, or shin guards, on their legs as well as leather strips called pteurages that were attached to their body armor and provided protection for their thighs and upper arms.

The principal weapon of early imperial legionary infantrymen was a short sword called a gladius, which was modeled after that of the Spanish Celts and used for hand-to-hand combat. Infantrymen also carried a javelin, or pilum, which was hurled at the enemy from a distance, as well as a thrusting spear known as a hasta. The large semicylindrical shield, or scutum, was probably of Celtic origin and derived from flat oval shields. By the first century c. e. its upper and lower curved edges had been removed, giving it a more rectangular shape. Legionary infantrymen were also equipped with a dagger, which, like the gladius, was of Spanish origin.

Roman officers of the early Empire wore the same Gallic-type helmets worn by the infantry and a variety of body armor, including mail shirts, cuirasses that were modeled after the human torso, or scale shirts known as loricae squamatae. The latter consisted of overlapping metal scales arranged in horizontal rows and fastened to a foundation of linen or hide. This type of armor was easy to make and repair and, when polished, gave the wearer an impressive appearance. However, it was not very flexible, and its wearer was vulnerable to a sword or spear thrust from below.

Under the early Empire, troops of the auxilia used equipment that was generally inferior to that of the legionaries; however, they began to receive better quality equipment during the reign of the emperor Trajan (c. 53-c. 117 c. e.). The infantry wore a variety of helmets as well as leather tunics covered with metal plates or mail, and used narrow, flat, some- times oval shields. Their principal weapons were the hasta and the spatha, a long sword that became the dominant form of sword throughout the Roman army by the early third century. Cavalrymen wore iron hel- mets that covered the entire head except for the eyes, nose, and mouth. They wore either mail or scale body armor and used the same weapons as did the infantry of the auxilia cohorts. Although they did not use stirrups, they were firmly anchored on horseback by the four projecting horns of their saddles.

During the crisis of the third century c. e. the Roman Empire experienced increased invasion and internal chaos but lacked a centralized military supply system. Armies were consequently forced to salvage equipment from battlefields or to obtain it on their own from other sources, which, in turn, led to an end to uniformity in the appearance of soldiers. During this period, the lorica segmentata was gradually abandoned, and soldiers increasingly made use of mail shirts as well as an improved form of scale armor. In this type of armor, which did not require a foundation, the scales were ringed together vertically as well as horizontally. The scales were therefore locked down, and the wearer was much less vulnerable to a thrust from below. Moreover, the older Gallic helmet was replaced by a new helmet of Sarmatian origin, the spangenhelm, which consisted of several metal plates held together in a conical shape by reinforcement bands. This helmet, which included cheek, neck, and nose guards, was used by both infantry and cavalry. In addition the scutum was replaced by a large-dished oval shield covered with hide or linen. Cavalry units used a similar type of shield that featured the insignia of the bearer’s unit.

In the late third century c. e., the emperor Diocletian (c. 245-316 c. e.) established a series of state-run arms factories, or fabricae, in an attempt to remedy the supply problem. However, these factories failed to restore uniformity in military equipment due to the fact that a wide range of barbarian peoples were serving in the Roman army by this time and used their own native weapons. In the fourth century the factories did mass-produce a new type of helmet of Parthian-Sassanian origin, known as a ridge helmet, because it consisted of two metal halves held together by a central ridge. During this period, soldiers also received monetary allowances for the purchase of clothing, arms, and armor. By the late fourth century c. e., the army came to include increased numbers of barbarians who had little need for armor and therefore little desire to purchase it for regular use. Instead, soldiers relied primarily on large circular shields for protection. When an army was on the march, its armor was carried in wagons and was normally used only during an actual pitched battle. The Roman army also used various types of artillery both in battle and when conducting a siege. These included a device known as a tormenta, which fired arrows, javelins, and rocks, as well as larger ballistae and catapults that hurled larger arrows or stones.

Azande Warfare


The reasons for this remarkable record of success against invaders armed with firearms are complex. Despite the lack of any overall political authority, the individual Azande chiefdoms tended to be well organized and tightly controlled. The larger ones at least consisted of a central ‘royal domain’ under the direct control of a king, plus a variable number of peripheral ‘provinces’ or clusters of villages, each ruled by a governor appointed by the sovereign. The governors allocated day-to-day responsibility for each section of their frontiers to a local headman, who established his headquarters in a spot along the border chosen for its strategic position. This would often form the nucleus of a fortified village inhabited by the headman’s retainers and relatives. Each kingdom was therefore demarcated and protected by a ring of these villages, outside which was an uninhabited buffer zone separating it from neighbouring kingdoms. It was one of the duties of the frontier villagers to patrol this no-man’s-land and report any suspicious activity to the king, which was no doubt one reason why foreign armies were never able to surprise the Azande in their own territory. According to Captain Guy Burrows, who campaigned in Azandeland in the 1890s, the villages were very different from the compact, stockaded type common among other tribes, but applied on a smaller scale the same defensive principles as the kingdoms themselves. The chief’s house would be on a small hill surrounded by scattered huts, with smaller groups of huts further away, usually situated behind a bend in the path so that they could not be seen from a distance. These outlying habitations served as sentry posts, and it was the responsibility of their occupiers to prevent the main village being taken by surprise.

Most of what is known about traditional fighting methods comes from the work of Evans-Pritchard, who in the 1920s was able to interview several surviving veterans of the great wars of the nineteenth century. He estimated that a large Azande kingdom might deploy up to 20,000 warriors. The professional core of such an army consisted of permanently embodied companies known as ‘aparanga’, recruited from unmarried youths, and ‘abakumba’, or married men. In normal circumstances each company varied in strength from around twenty to over a hundred, but in an emergency all the able-bodied men of the kingdom could be called up and attached to the existing companies, which might therefore be much larger when they actually took the field. Azande warfare was strongly influenced by the topography and vegetation of the country, which impeded the movement of large bodies of troops but provided ideal cover for ambushes. Evans-Pritchard’s informants emphasized the difference between raids, ‘basapu’, and full-scale campaigns, or ‘sungusungu vura’. Raids were directed at neighbouring settlements – usually, if not always, those of fellow Azande owing allegiance to a rival king – and followed a formal overall pattern.

Before any campaign was undertaken it was first necessary to consult the poison oracle or ‘benge’, in which, says Burrows, the Azande had ‘absolute and unshaken faith’. The procedure involved administering a certain poison to chickens, accompanied by statements along the lines of ‘If this bird lives the war will be successful’. It appears that the poison was highly variable in its effects, so the outcome was unpredictable enough to be taken as an indication of the views of the supernatural powers. Of course the potential for manipulation is obvious – for example by altering the dose or composition of the poison or using a chicken already known to be resistant – but nineteenth-century accounts are unanimous that the Azande genuinely believed in the oracle, so it is impossible to tell how far it was actually manipulated. There were certainly instances where chiefs followed the advice of ‘benge’ even when it might seem to have been against their interests. In 1870, for example, a slaving party accompanied by Georg Schweinfurth was saved from almost certain annihilation when a prince called Wando declined to support his allies in attacking it because the oracle was unfavourable.

Assuming that the result of this procedure was satisfactory, a war party would approach an enemy village in three or four separate units, two or three of which would be deployed in ambush along the path leading to their own village. The remaining warriors entered the target village quietly, under cover of darkness, and took up positions outside the doors of the huts. As dawn broke they would call out, challenging the men inside to come out and fight. Usually they did so, fearing that otherwise their assailants would set fire to their huts. Inevitably the defenders were at a disadvantage as they emerged into the open, and a few might be fatally speared. Most escaped with minor wounds and were not pursued, as the real aim of the raid was not to kill but to plunder. Internal Azande conflict was not always so innocuous, however, and chiefs were often deliberately murdered by political rivals during these affrays, or captured and later put to death. Discussing one family, the Nunga, Evans-Pritchard observes that during the late nineteenth century ‘hardly a prominent person died a natural death’.

The Azande kept no livestock apart from chickens, so the booty consisted mostly of portable goods and the women and children, who were carried off as slaves or for ransom. Non-combatants were never killed deliberately, although there might be casualties if the raiders set fire to the huts and grain stores to cover their retreat. The attackers then fled as rapidly as they could along the trail leading to their own villages, which usually led through the tall, dense grass typical of the country in the rainy season. By this time their victims were rallying and were beginning to beat drums to summon help from friendly villages. As Azande villages were generally situated close together, reinforcements might start to arrive within a few minutes. The defending warriors then went in pursuit, and – being unencumbered by booty and captives – would catch up with the fleeing raiders fairly quickly. But meanwhile the first of the attackers’ ambushes was being prepared. Although the pursuers of course knew what to expect, their options were limited. The thick grass made it very difficult to manoeuvre off the established paths, and in any case it was a point of honour to come briefly to blows with at least the first ambush, so that their own ruler could not accuse them of cowardice. In the words of one of Evans-Pritchard’s informants:

The warriors in ambush trod down the grasses a few yards back from the path, parallel to, and at one side of it, so that they might have concealment and also room for movement. They crouched in this clearing with about six yards between man and man. The leader of the company was alone exposed. He stood in the middle of the path to observe the approach of the enemy and give the signal for attack, but on a curve in the path and at the tail of the ambush, so that the pursuers might be well into the ambush before they saw him . . . . The retreating raiders arrived at a trot at the point where the leader of the first ambush stood on the path and they passed under his raised arms, the last of them maybe running hard with the enemy in close pursuit. They continued through the second and third ambushes to where the prince was waiting. Here they were stopped by a man holding a spear across the path and shouting to them to halt as the prince was present. No one would retreat past him. Meanwhile when the first of the enemy, in hot pursuit of the raiders, was well into the first ambush its commander hurled a spear at him and gave a shout; and at once the warriors lying in wait began to hurl their spears.

If the ambushers inflicted enough casualties in the ensuing exchange of missiles, their opponents would turn back and the fighting would end there. Otherwise the men making up the first ambush would retreat, and draw the pursuers into the second ambush a little further back. At this point the pursuers usually contented themselves with a token skirmish before returning to their village.

A full-scale war between rival Azande kingdoms was conducted very differently. It involved more troops and was more thoroughly planned, but no attempt was made to achieve surprise. Schweinfurth witnessed a formal declaration of a war of this kind in the form of an ear of maize, a chicken feather and an arrow hung from a branch above a path. This, he says, was interpreted to mean that ‘whoever touched an ear of maize or laid his grasp upon a single fowl would assuredly be the victim of the arrow’. In fact the intention of the invading force was to provoke a pitched battle, which was fought according to traditional rules designed to minimize casualties. A battle always began late in the afternoon, so that the losing side could take advantage of darkness to slip away. Each side deployed with a centre and two wings, and the aim was to push back the enemy wings and threaten to envelop his centre. Burrows refers to a crescent formation like that of the Zulus. However, the victors were careful not to encircle their enemies completely, but always left a gap in their rear so that they could escape. The only eyewitness account of internal Azande combat by a European observer is given by the Italian explorer Carlo Piaggia, who confirms the impression of ritualized conflict involving little real bloodshed:

Only the men go to war, with a few women – the most daring, who do not wish to abandon their husbands and lovers. The others go and hide for fear of becoming the prey of their enemies, should they be victorious . . . . It is rare for the battles to last many hours, or for them to cause much carnage, because as soon as five or six men can be seen dead on the field the fighters run away full of trepidation, and their opponents claim victory. The latter, satisfied by their efforts after this skirmish, return calmly to their villages. (Evans-Pritchard)

In contrast, Piaggia continues, wars against ‘foreign tribes’ were far more ferocious. These, he says, ‘foster the thirst for “vendetta” so far as to make [the Azande] eat the flesh of their dead enemies. Piaggia was a witness to one of these wars, from which comes their reputation for being cannibals.’ Whether the Azande were really habitual cannibals is uncertain. The whole subject remains controversial in anthropological circles, but there is a great deal of evidence that cannibalism did occur among the rainforest tribes further south. Among the Azande this passage is the nearest we have to a first-hand report. However, Piaggia does not explicitly say here that he witnessed acts of cannibalism, merely that he knows how the accusation arose. A few years later Schweinfurth heard the A-Banga, who were relatives and allies of the Azande, taunting Sudanese invaders with ‘the repeated shout, “To the cauldron with the Turks!” rising to the eager climax, “Meat! Meat!”’ Perhaps the closest we can get to the truth is to say that the Azande may have eaten human flesh occasionally as an act of revenge, but that cannibalism was not an established part of their culture. They were no doubt happy to foster their reputation as a psychological weapon against their enemies, especially the Arabs, who for religious reasons attached great importance to the burial of their dead intact.

Against Arabs and Europeans the Azande went to war with the same ruthless attitude as Piaggia describes in their conflicts with other outsiders, in combination with the skirmishing skills learned in their internal conflicts. Several commentators describe their desperate courage and their willingness to accept heavy casualties. In the words of Guy Burrows:

Their courage and pluck are admirable; their contempt for death is supreme. They will stand a fire that is dropping them by dozens, charging time after time until absolutely compelled to retire. Coming upon seven or eight men armed with rifles, they will throw away their own arms and rush their opponents, though they may lose twenty or thirty men in the attempt, knowing that ultimately the rifles will be theirs.

The men interviewed by Evans-Pritchard also provided much fascinating detail on exactly how Azande weaponry was used, and the minor tactics which were employed when two hostile forces clashed at close range:

A battle consisted of individual combats between warriors on either side all along the line and at short range, usually only a few yards separating the combatants, for the spear had to pierce a man’s shield before it could pierce the man . . . . The Zande shield, however, protected two-thirds of the body, and when a man crouched behind it, as he did if a spear or knife was aimed high, his body was fully covered. If the missile came at him low, he jumped into the air with remarkable agility to let it pass under him . . . men have demonstrated to me with old shields or ones I had made for me, how they moved in fighting, and it was a most impressive display in the art of self-defence, in the movements of the body to give the fullest protection of the shield, and in the manipulation of the shield to take the spear or throwing-knife obliquely.

The skirmishing fights typical of internal Azande wars were always accompanied by the shouting of challenges and the names of the kings and princes commanding the various contingents. According to Schweinfurth the fighting would be interrupted by long intervals during which men would climb to the tops of ant-hills and exchange insults. He describes the large basketwork shields of the Azande as ‘so light that they do not in the least impede the combatants in their wild leaps’, and goes on to praise the skill and agility of their users in a much-quoted passage:

Nowhere, in any part of Africa, have I ever come across a people that in every attitude and every motion exhibited so thorough a mastery over all circumstances of war or of the chase as these Niam-niam – other nations in comparison seemed to me to fall short in the perfect ease – I might almost say, in the dramatic grace – that characterized their every movement.

The so-called throwing knife was a characteristic weapon of the region north of the Congo rainforest, from the Sudan in the east to northern Nigeria in the west. It took many different forms, not all of which were suitable for use as missiles, and in many places ‘throwing knives’ seem to have been used for ritual or magical purposes, as status symbols or as currency, rather than as weapons. Among the Azande, however, the multi-bladed knife or kpinga was certainly an effective weapon of war. Nineteenth-century explorers were unfamiliar with this type of artefact, and often had difficulty in describing it for a European readership. Hence Petherick, writing in 1858, refers to ‘singularly-formed iron projectiles, resembling a boomerang of rather a circular form, bearing on their peripheries several sharp projections’ (Petherick, Egypt, 1861). In his report to the Royal Geographical Society in 1860 he also mentions an ‘iron boomerang’ which was designed to return to the thrower’s hand, but this rather unlikely story is probably a misinterpretation based on the visual analogy with the well-known Australian weapon. Schweinfurth calls these throwing weapons ‘trumbashes’, and explains that ‘the trumbash of the Niam-niam consists ordinarily of several limbs of iron, with pointed prongs and sharp edges’. Fortunately we also have detailed drawings by Schweinfurth and others, as well as surviving artefacts in museums, which enable us to reconstruct their appearance accurately.

Evans-Pritchard says of the kpinga that ‘when correctly thrown, one of its several blades was certain to strike the objective squarely, and the sight of the blades circling towards one in the air must have been frightening’. He did not, however, believe that it would have been a particularly effective weapon against a warrior armed with a shield, as the multiple blades would dissipate the impact on the shield and the spinning motion cause it to bounce off. By contrast the early twentieth-century anthropologist Emil Torday speculated, in his account of the Kuba or Bushongo kingdom of southern Congo (which he believed had been founded by an offshoot of the Azande), that throwing knives might have given the newcomers a decisive advantage in battle: ‘all of a sudden, some objects, glistening in the sun as if they were thunderbolts, come whirling with a weird hum through the air. The enemy warriors raise their shields; the shining mystery strikes it, rebounds into the air and returns to the attack; it smites the warrior behind his defence with its cruel blades.’ Torday’s theory of the Azande origin of the Kuba is discounted nowadays, and consequently this passage is usually dismissed as a product of his fertile imagination. But tests carried out with reproduction throwing knives tend to confirm his assessment of their capabilities. In one such test, staged for the Ancient Discoveries television series, the missile did indeed bounce off the top edge of a shield attached to a dummy, but its momentum carried it forward to strike the target in the middle of the forehead with enough force to embed it several inches deep. The psychological impact of the ‘weird hum’, magnified several hundred times as an Azande regiment threw its weapons in unison, may also have been a significant factor.

The amount of metal as well as the skilled craftsmanship required to make a kpinga made it a valuable piece of equipment, and these weapons were usually the property of the ruler, stored in royal arsenals and issued only to regular troops for specific campaigns. Evans-Pritchard was told that before a man hurled a throwing knife he would shout a warning that he was going to do so, because men did not want to risk being accused of throwing them away in panic. Spears seem to have been far more common, and receive far more mentions in battle accounts than throwing knives. In fact Burrows, writing of the 1890s, refers exclusively to spears and shields as ‘the national Azande weapons’. He adds that a single broad-bladed stabbing spear was the usual weapon of the western principalities, while further east lighter throwing spears were favoured, with each man carrying between four and six. Schweinfurth’s symbolic arrow notwithstanding, the Azande did not use bows, which they regarded with contempt as ‘Pygmy weapons’.

In 1858 John Petherick had found that the Azande were completely unfamiliar with firearms, and reacted with terror when he demonstrated his gun by shooting a vulture: ‘before the bird touched the ground, the crowd was prostrate and grovelling in the dust, as if every man of them had been shot’. But they quickly recovered from the shock, and by the time Schweinfurth arrived in 1870 most of the important rulers had at least a small bodyguard of musketeers. Evans-Pritchard’s informants described four different types of gun. The first were muzzle-loading smoothbore flintlocks or ‘biada’, in widespread use among the Arabs in the 1860s and usually acquired from them by trade or capture. Alongside these were ‘orumoturu’, also muzzle-loaders, but using percussion caps rather than flints for ignition. In the mid-1870s the Remington breechloader or ‘sipapoi’ began to make an appearance. This was the standard infantry weapon of the Egyptian army, and was supplied by the Egyptians to friendly princes such as Zemio. Finally there was the ‘abeni’ or Albini. This was a variant of the Snider breech-loader used by the Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free State forces from the late 1880s, and was captured in large numbers as well as being supplied by the Belgians to friendly princes.

The Remington was invariably the weapon of choice among the Azande, however, partly no doubt because its unique ‘rolling block’ action made it difficult for inexperienced users to burst or jam it. By the 1890s some Azande chiefs even maintained regular units of riflemen, dressed, armed and drilled in European style. The Belgian Lieutenant de Ryhove described Rafai’s small standing army as wearing ‘startling’ white uniforms, and carrying brightly polished rifles (Levering Lewis). He expressed his astonishment that ‘After having encountered so many naked people with heads dressed with plumes, bodies covered with tattoos and rigged out with bizarre or grotesque accoutrements, I was able to see people clothed, armed, disciplined, and manoeuvring with military correctness in the sunshine – and in the very heart of Africa.’ Unfortunately no detailed description of the appearance of such units seems to have survived, but it is likely from the description that the men seen by de Ryhove had been outfitted in surplus Egyptian army equipment.






Communist soldiers in Vietnam could be divided into three classes. There were the regular uniformed North Vietnamese Army troops who fought in established units and formations. Most NVA soldiers were recruited from the urban conglomeration around Hanoi or from villages in the rural paddy areas of the northern plains. NVA troops were no more naturally suited to the rigors of jungle warfare than were the city and farm boys drafted from Middle America. In addition to the NVA, there were regular VC troops who were full-time guerrilla soldiers. And last, there were local VC troops who stayed at home and fought a clandestine war at night and farmed by day.

The local VC varied widely in their military capabilities. In some areas they were highly regarded when they were well led, but for the most part, they were not considered a major threat. Their training was quite elementary and they were sparsely equipped with a variety of small arms, grenades and explosives. Their equipment ranged from captured American and old French equipment to Soviet pattern automatic rifles. In a fight, the local VC almost always lost. They did not have the training, the equipment or the numbers to do much damage, although on very rare occasions, they would mass to company and even battalion strength to strike at vulnerable positions. The local VC did a great deal of damage by laying booby traps and mines as well as pungi stake traps on likely enemy trails. The VC proved to be extremely cunning in this form of warfare and what they lacked in the traditional military skills, they more than compensated for in waging this type of combat. Local VC forces were also often used to act as a screen through which NVA or regular VC units would withdraw after a major action. They were particularly well suited to this task because of their intimate knowledge of the local area and their ability to blend in quickly with the populace. Perhaps more important than their military strength, the widespread presence of local VC cadres provided a compelling political alternative to the peasants of South Vietnam. The very fact that an indigenous VC organization existed served to divide the peasants loyalty and robbed the Southern forces and their allies of the overwhelming support they needed to be successful in this kind of guerrilla war.

The regular VC were in fact professional guerrillas. Forty percent of them were recruited or impressed in the South, endured a grueling march north to be trained and marched south again to serve in an area different from their home. The remainder were specially trained North Vietnamese. The regular or “hard core” or “main force” VC as they were often called were capably led by dedicated professional officers and NCOs. For the most part, their senior officers had experience fighting the French and all of them had been around war long enough to give them a healthy collective measure of battle experience. Like their local counterpart, most of the Southerners had the outlook of seasoned veterans before they joined. The regular VC soldier was stringently, but contrary to popular belief, not harshly disciplined by his leaders. Nonetheless, his morale fluctuated. In 1966, a thousand of them were defecting to the Americans or other allies every month. By 1968 their morale and discipline had improved dramatically and this desertion rate dropped to almost nothing.

The regular VC were physically and mentally tough soldiers. They were prepared to endure deprivation and their standard of field craft was extremely high. They could wait silently in a jungle ambush for long periods of time, carry heavy loads for long distances and spend hours silently stalking an enemy position. They were adequately trained when they arrived in their area of responsibility in the south and their training continued when they were not actively engaged on operations. As a rule of thumb, while serving in South Vietnam they received two thirds of their training in technical and tactical skills and one third in political propaganda. They spent a great deal of their time training at night and proved to be a very dangerous opponent after dark.

The regular VC soldier was well supported by an elaborate infrastructure. There were troops responsible for pay, supply services, training and political cadres, taxation of VC controlled areas and in some instances, primitive medical services. They had a definite organizational structure, clear rules governing promotion policies and even a precisely defined grievance system. However, it should be stressed that in the VC organization, there was no administrative fat and the ratio of fighting troops to service troops bore absolutely no resemblance to that of a modern Western army.

The regular VC was better equipped than the local VC although their equipment scales were extremely light. The standard weapon was the AK–47 assault rifle. They had light and medium mortars, grenades of Chinese and American manufacture, Soviet sniper rifles, light and medium machine guns, B40 rocket propelled grenades and various explosives and demolitions for use in the construction of mines and booby traps.

By 1968 there were between seventy and eighty thousand VC operating in South Vietnam. Many lived in villages within the allied area of influence; many more lived in rudimentary camps and villages in the jungle and others operated out of fantastically elaborate tunnel complexes. Some tunnel complexes were found to be as much as 30 kilometers in length. Most tunnel systems in South Vietnam had been developed according to a central plan and were prepared and improved on over several years.

Main force VC were by no stretch of the imagination paragons of austere military virtues. And certainly, unlike the way they were portrayed in their own propaganda, they were not stoic and essentially noble peasant warriors. They were tough, dedicated and cunning but they were also vicious and utterly ruthless with their own people as a matter of policy. For the VC, mass murder was an accepted tactic, not a disciplinary failing and in this respect they were altogether completely different from their American opponents. Throughout the war, the VC executed scores of thousands of Vietnamese civilians when they took control of an area. For years they waged a bloody and continuous program of assassination of village chiefs, local officials, schoolteachers and any other figures of importance who could have even the most remote connection with the Southern government.

The North Vietnamese Army was composed of long service conscripts, who unlike the American soldiers fighting against them, were in for the duration of the war. The NVA soldier was well trained and well disciplined. A considerable period of his training was spent inculcating in him enthusiasm for communist ideology and patriotic fervor. He was certainly a patriotic soldier and he took enormous pride in the fact that his army had already convincingly defeated the French. He was prepared to do the same thing to the Americans and what he considered to be their South Vietnamese puppets. Throughout the war it was often reported that the North Vietnamese soldier was an unwilling and sullen conscript who was kept in the army by brutally fanatical officers and NCOs, but the evidence against this view is overwhelming. Defections from the North Vietnamese Army were never great in terms of relative numbers and this was despite the hardship and privations suffered by the northern soldier.

The North Vietnamese soldier certainly must have suffered a great deal. We can only guess at what the NVA non-battle casualty rate was from disease, but living in the jungles of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia under the conditions that pervaded, it must have been very high. His discipline was extremely strict and the penalties for disciplinary lapses were savage and immediate. Nonetheless, this does not mean that he was motivated solely by fear of his leaders. To accept the viewpoint that the NVA Regular was a completely unwilling military slave is not consistent with his battlefield performance. His initiative, tenacity, courage and stamina were maintained for years in the face of appallingly heavy casualties.

From the time he began his trek south down the Ho Chi Minh trail the NVA soldier lived a life of danger coupled with severe physical and mental stress. He carried his assault rifle and personal ammunition, a water bottle, Chinese stick hand grenades, a spare khaki uniform, a plastic poncho, a hammock, pictures of his family and girlfriend and frequently, a diary. In addition he would also carry a heavy burden of ammunition or bulk supplies of food to be stockpiled in the south for future operations. Once in the south, he spent the largest part of his time hiding in the jungle or in hand dug caves and tunnels. On small unit patrol actions and ambushes he usually gave a good account of himself but when he was led forward for conventional offensive operations, he invariably suffered far greater casualties than he inflicted. Yet despite this, he soldiered on and eventually triumphed.




Irish Gallowglass warrior and Irish Kern, Marc Grunert

The most prominent feature in the pretty town of Ballyshannon in south Donegal is a tall, ornate Victorian building which for very many decades has had the name of the proprietor prominently displayed across its frontage – Gallogley. It is an unusual surname but it is a vivid reminder of the crucial role played by a fresh group of newcomers to Ireland in the late Middle Ages.

The ability of Gaelic lords to win back lost territory is in part explained by their employment of gallóglaigh, which literally means ‘young foreign warriors’. Confusingly, the annalists referred both to the Vikings and the English as the ‘Gall’, the foreigners. The word ‘gallóglaigh’ was anglicised by the colonists in Ireland as ‘gallowglasses’. Gallowglasses were of mixed Viking-Gaelic blood, who after the king of Scotland had broken any remaining power the King of Norway had in his land at the Battle of Largs in 1263, sought employment for their arms in Ireland. When Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, brought over reinforcements to help his brother Edward in 1316 the annals noted that he had with him a great force of gallowglasses. Thereafter more and more of these fighting men came south to Ireland from the Western Isles.

A high proportion of the gallowglasses were descendants of a Viking Lord of the Isles known as Somerled, which means ‘summer wanderer’. These men broke up into warring clans and it was often those who were defeated in these petty conflicts that came to Ireland to seek their fortunes. In Spring they would plough their small fields, plant their seed oats and then gather their weapons and armour to row and sail across the North Channel to Ulster, there to offer their services to the highest bidder. Previously driven into remote corners of the island, Gaelic lords were taking advantage of the growing weakness of the Lordship of Ireland by campaigning to recover the lands lost by their ancestors. Many were eager to employ these warriors from the Isles. The O’Donnells, the ruling family of the lordship of Tír Conaill in what is now Co Donegal, were among the first to engage gallowglasses: instead of fighting the English, they used them to drive the O’Neills out of the fertile country around the Foyle. Their leading gallowglass clan, the MacSweeneys, at first were paid in kind:

This is how the levy was made; two gallowglasses for each quarter of land, and two cows for each gallowlass deficient, that is, one cow for the man himself and one for his equipment. And Clann Sweeney say they are responsible for these as follows, that for each man equipped with a coat of mail and a breastplate, another should have a jack and a helmet: that there should be no forfeit for a helmet deficient except the gallowglass’s brain (dashed out for want of it).

Each gallowglass had a manservant to carry his coat of mail and a boy who looked after the food and did the cooking. He fought in traditional Viking style, wielding an axe or a spar, ‘much like the axe of the Tower’ as Sir Anthony St Leger described it. St Leger who faced gallowglasses in battle on many an occasion, believed that

These sort of men be those that do not lightly abandon the field, but bide the brunt to the death.

Gallowglass fighting men stiffened the ranks of native Irish foot soldiers, or kerne, who, according to St Leger:

Fight bare naked, saving their shirts to hide their privates; and those have darts and short bows: which sort of people be both hardy and deliver to search woods and marshes, in which they be hard to be beaten.

When the summer season of fighting was over, these Scottish warriors – provided they had survived – received their pay, mostly in the form of butter and beef, and sailed back to the Isles in time to reap, thrash and winnow their harvests. In time gallowglasses acquired land as a more secure source of income. The MacSweeneys got territory in Donegal and divided into three clans: MacSweeney na Doe (na Doe comes from na d’Tuath, meaning ‘of the Tribes’) in the Rosses and around Creeshlough; MacSweeney Fanad, on the peninsula named after them just west of Lough Swilly; and MacSweeney Banagh in the vicinity of Slieve League.

A branch of the MacDonnells, settled in the lands about Ballygawley in Co Tyrone, became a powerful arm of the O’Neills of Tír Eóghain in their struggle to become the leading Gaelic rulers of Ireland. Another cohort of MacDonnells, the lords of Kintyre and Islay, made their home in the Glens of Antrim.

During the fourteenth century bands of gallowglasses spread out all over Gaelic Ireland to seek employment for heir arms. These men from Innse Gall – the Irish name for the Hebrides – bore surnames now familiar all over the country including MacCabe, MacRory, MacDougall, MacDowell and MacSheehy. They were to help Gaelic lords bring the Lordship of Ireland to its knees.