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.



Johnny Shumate illustrations


The Argyraspids are perhaps the most famous (and notorious) fighting unit in the history of Alexander’s Successors. They are hardened, and cantankerous, veterans, numbering three thousand and commanded by Antigenes and a previously unattested Teutamus. Robert Lock proposed that they were, in fact, newly formed at Triparadeisus in 320 and assigned the task of conveying the Susan treasures to Cilicia under the command of Antigenes (Lock 1977). But this argument fails on a number of counts. That the argyraspides are the former hypaspists of Alexander is clear, and it is perverse to think otherwise (see Heckel 1982, 1992: 309–10). Diodorus (17.57.2) and Curtius (4.13.27) refer to the hypaspists at Gaugamela anachronistically as Argyraspids, showing that their common source was aware of their later history. The nominal strength of the Argyraspids was, like that of hypaspists, three thousand, and both units were named for their shields (aspides). Antigenes, the chief commander of the Argyraspids, was also a hypaspist commander. And, finally, the troops of Antigenes were among those who returned with Craterus, first from India via the Mullah Pass (Arr. Anab. 6.17.3, where we find a large number of apomachoi) and then from Opis along with the demobilized veterans (Justin 12.12.8).

The exact point at which the hypaspists began to adorn their armor with silver and took the name argyraspides is uncertain. We do know that the change occurred in the Indian campaign, which began in the spring of 327. Curtius (8.5.4) says that, on the eve of the Indian expedition, Alexander “added silver-plating to his soldiers’ shields, gave their horses golden bits and ornamented their cuirasses with either gold or silver” because he had heard of the splendid arms found among the Indians. This remark is echoed by Justin 12.7.5) who says that the entire army was called argyraspides (exercitumque suum ab argenteis clipeis Argyraspidas appellavit). But this is nonsense: there would have been no point in calling a unit the “Silver Shields” if all soldiers carried shields plated with silver. Furthermore, it seems remarkable that, within a year and half, this splendid army should have found itself at Hyphasis “in rags” and Coenus, as the spokesman of the troops, could claim: “Our weapons are already blunt; our armour is wearing out” (Curt. 9.3.10). It may be, however, that the reference to the assumption of new armor is anachronistic. We are told that after the Hyphasis mutiny the army returned to the Hydaspes, where they found twenty-five thousand new suits of armor that had been brought from the west (Curt. 9.3.21; Diod. 17.95.4).

Finally, it is noteworthy that, after the creation of the Silver Shields, the Alexander historians continue to refer to hypaspists in the king’s army. This is exactly what we should expect, but we must be clear that these were the troops who replaced Philip’s veterans in this capacity. When Alexander took the army through the Gedrosian desert, he had with him the hypaspists, even though Antigenes (and one must assume that he was then leading the Argyraspids) accompanied Craterus into Drangiana via the Mullah Pass. Hence we find that, after the dismissal of the Argyraspids from Opis in 324, a full contingent of hypaspists remained with Alexander at the time of his death in the following year and continued to serve in the Royal Army under Perdiccas.


Command of the entire unit belonged, as we have noted above, to the archihypaspistes (Nicanor son of Parmenion from 334 to 330; Neoptolemus from 330 until 323). But Curtius 5.2.3–5 speaks of a reorganization of command in Sittacene in 331, claiming that new commanders of chiliarchies were selected on the basis of valor. The so-called contest was, however, not one in which individuals engaged in combat (as in the case of funeral games). Instead, it amounted to oral testimony given by others concerning the merits of certain individuals (particularly, notable accomplishments in the past), followed by the decision of judges. At this point, it is worth quoting Curtius in full:

Those adjudged to possess the greatest valour would win command of individual units of a thousand men and be called “chiliarchs.” This was the first time the Macedonian troops had been thus divided numerically, for previously there had been companies of 500, and command of them had not been granted as a prize of valour. A huge crowd of soldiers had gathered to participate in this singular competition, both to testify to each competitor’s exploits and to give their verdict to the judges—for it was bound to be known whether the honour attributed to each man was justified or not. The first prize of honour went to Atarrhias for his bravery; it was he who had done most to revive the battle at Halicarnassus, when the younger men had given up the fight. Antigenes was judged second, Philotas the Augaean gained third place, and fourth went to Amyntas. After these came Antigonus, then Amyntas Lyncestes, Theodotus gaining seventh…and Hellanicus last place. (Curt. 5.2.3–5; see further the textual problem in 5.2.2, noted by Atkinson 1994: 57; also Atkinson 1987)

But Curtius cannot be right in assigning to each of the nine victors the rank of chiliarches, nor is it plausible to assume that these reforms involved the phalanx battalions of the pezhetairoi (thus Milns 1967 and Atkinson 1987). To begin with, it is clear that the individuals in question are all men of relatively humble birth. Of the eight names that have survived only one is attested elsewhere with a patronymic: Atarrhias son of Deinomenes (Plut. Mor. 339b; Heckel 2006: 60). Those of this group who can be identified are all associated with the hypaspists, a unit which had been organized into chiliarchies since the beginning of the Asiatic campaign, if not earlier. And this was the very unit that was recruited on the basis of physique, fighting qualities, and merit. To put men of this social class in command of territorial levies, who had a long tradition of serving under their aristocratic leaders, would be unheard of and unacceptable to the troops themselves. Hence Curtius must have confused the nature of this reorganization. Instead of selecting chiliarchs to command enlarged formations, Alexander was now designating both chiliarchs and pentakosiarchs on the basis of merit.

In fact, the three chiliarchies of the hypaspists, each with two pentakosiarchies, would require exactly nine officers at these two levels. Hence we may conclude that Atarrhias, Antigenes, and Philotas the Augaean (possibly, “Aegaean”) were appointed chiliarchs. Not surprisingly we find that, in the following year, the most prominent individual associated with the hypaspists is none other than Atarrhias. And it was Antigenes who attains prominence in India and is the commander of the Argyraspids, the unit into which the hypaspists had been transformed (in India). About Philotas we know nothing, but it is unlikely that he is the famous infantry commander who later served briefly as satrap of Cilicia (Heckel 2006: 219; “Philotas [6]”). The remaining six served as pentakosiarchs under their respective chiliarchs.


Unlike the pezhetairoi and asthetairoi, the hypaspists (and the later Argyraspids) did not normally carry the sarissa. This (in Alexander’s time) fifteen- to eighteen-foot pike was far too unwieldy for the types of maneuvers required of the hypaspists. Instead, their weaponry and armor was similar to that of the Greek hoplite. The helmet was of the Phrygian variety, with cheek pieces (which the pezhetairoi did not need) and a tapering crest that cushioned and deflected blows from above. The cuirass was the linothorax, which gave ample protection but afforded greater mobility; at the bottom of the linen corselet, below the waist, were pteruges, which shielded the groin and upper thigh, but also gave the hypaspists the flexibility to mount a horse if called upon to do so. (Such activity is attested in Illyria and in the pursuit of Darius III south of the Caspian.) Hypaspists carried the larger hoplon (some three feet in diameter, as compared with the smaller shield of the pezhetairoi: see Heckel and Jones 2006 for details and literature) and the regular spear favored by hoplites (dory), keeping in reserve the thrusting and slicing sword (xiphos), instead of the cleaver (kopis) of the cavalryman. Greaves were probably also used in battle and sieges, though one suspects that these might have been discarded in mountain warfare. The infantrymen thus depicted, interspersed with the cavalrymen, on the Alexander Sarcophagus are undoubtedly the king’s hypaspists. Later, at Paraetacene, the Argyraspids fight against the mercenaries in Antigonus’s army, the latter almost certainly hoplites, and there is no suggestion that their success was owed in any way to the use of the sarissa; here again the former hypaspists of Alexander appear to have fought as hoplites.

Thus equipped, the hypaspists could fight in regular hoplite formation, disperse among the cavalry and serve as hamippoi, proceed more nimbly in broken terrain (unencumbered by the sarissa and the weight of leather or metal cuirasses), and scale the walls of cities under the protection of their larger shields.

Africa: The Impact of Firearms I


Igbo war canoe from Nigeria, circa 1830s, demonstrates a blend of indigenous and imported technology. Construction is of a single log. Steering is provided by two oars-men in bow and stern. Muskets stand ready on the fighting platform in the center, and captured enemy flags and trophies fly overhead. Swivel guns and small cannon were sometimes installed.

Guns manufactured in Europe had been important trade items on the coast of West Africa since the seventeenth century, when they had been exchanged for slaves as part of the infamous ‘triangular trade’ with the West Indies. Native powers such as Ashanti and Dahomey adopted them with enthusiasm, and by the middle of the nineteenth century they were spreading to other areas of the continent. By then the trade was assuming huge proportions: according to the explorer Richard Burton, in the early 1860s a single company was importing 13,000 guns a year through East African ports alone. By way of trade among the Africans themselves, guns had infiltrated into the heart of the continent even before the first explorers arrived. In 1862 John Hanning Speke, the first European to explore the shores of Lake Victoria, found that the people living there were already familiar with flintlock muskets brought by Arab traders, and when Stanley sailed down the Congo in 1876, the first clue that he was approaching the Atlantic and ‘civilization’ came when the Bangala opened fire on him with muskets instead of the spears and arrows which he had encountered so far. All these weapons were smoothbore muzzle-loaders of the type which had equipped the armies of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Many of them were army surplus pieces which may well have seen service at Waterloo, though others were manufactured specifically for the African market. But by the 1870s, just at the time when Europeans were beginning to contemplate the military conquest of large areas of the continent, it was realized with some alarm that more modern weapons were also getting into the hands of Africans.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented revolution in small arms technology. Before 1850 European armies still relied on the single-shot, smoothbore muzzle-loading muskets which had served them for 300 years. After 1900 the latest development, the magazine-fed repeating rifle, remained in front-line service for another half-century. But between those two dates the armies of the industrially developed powers adopted and discarded with bewildering speed a succession of improved weapons, each of which promised a decisive advantage over those it replaced. First came the muzzle-loading rifle of the 1850s, not much quicker to load and fire than the old smoothbores, but far more accurate at long range. Rifles such as this – the French Minié, British Enfield and American Springfield, for example – equipped most of the combatants in the Crimea and the American Civil War. Faster-firing breech-loaders had already begun to make an impact in the latter conflict, but it was not until the late 1860s that they became the standard infantry weapon of most major powers. Typical of the first generation of breech-loaders were the British Snider and the American ‘trapdoor’ Springfield. These were both conversions of older muzzle-loading rifles, but by the 1870s purpose-built breech-loaders were appearing, of which the best known was the Martini-Henry. As the term ‘breech-loader’ suggests, they were loaded not through the muzzle but by opening and closing a breech at the rear of the barrel. Not only did this do away with the laborious process of ramming powder, bullet and wadding down the muzzle, so increasing the rate of fire, but it was now possible for a soldier to reload from a prone position without exposing himself unnecessarily to enemy fire. He could also load and fire more easily while advancing.

It was the breech-loader which gave the regular soldier the first decisive advantage over a traditionally armed African opponent with spear and shield, because he could now shoot so much quicker – perhaps ten rounds a minute compared to the musket’s two. But each round still had to be extracted from its container and loaded individually, and even faster rates of fire could be achieved by fitting the rifle with a magazine containing five or more rounds, each of which could be fitted into the breech by operating a bolt or lever. The American Civil War had also seen the debut of early repeaters like the Henry, and the famous seventeen-shot Winchester followed soon afterwards, but these weapons were not widely adopted by European armies, even though explorers were using them in Africa as early as the 1870s. Stanley preferred the Winchester over his heavy and slow-firing hunting rifles for ‘defensive’ purposes, and took one on his famous expedition in search of Livingstone in 1871. However, they were not always reliable, and the early models used low-power cartridges which gave poor long-range performance. It was also believed – with some reason – that ever faster-firing guns would lead to the demand for impossible quantities of ammunition. But in 1886 the French introduced the Lebel, the first of the bolt-action service rifles which most infantrymen carried through two world wars. The British equivalent, the Lee-Metford, was in service early in the 1890s.

At the same time two more innovations were introduced. The traditional gunpowder or ‘black powder’ gave way to new smokeless versions, which avoided the clouds of white smoke which used to give away a rifleman’s position, and also gave the bullet greater velocity and hence better range and accuracy. Simultaneously, and partly as a result, the heavy old-fashioned lead slugs were replaced by smaller calibre bullets – typically .303in. or 7.9mm, compared with .450in. or 11mm for single-shot breech-loaders. These were lighter and a soldier could carry more of them, largely avoiding the supply problem. Magazine rifles were capable of even more rapid fire than the single-shot breech-loaders – by 1914 the British regulars were achieving the staggering rate of thirty rounds a minute – but their impact on African warfare was less decisive than might have been expected. If an opponent was obliging enough to charge a firing line in the open, as the Dervishes did at Omdurman in 1898, they would be slaughtered, but Sniders and Martini-Henrys were usually more than adequate in such circumstances. In small-scale ‘bush warfare’, where the main threat came from ambushes launched from cover at close range, many observers felt that the new smaller rounds lacked the power to knock a man down quickly enough to stop him getting to close quarters. And the concealment afforded by smokeless powder was less useful against an enemy who did not return fire, but attempted to charge to contact with cold steel.

Each stage in this progression saw European and American armies discard hundreds of thousands of obsolete weapons, many of which found their way to Africa. In 1871 Stanley had found the Arabs of Tabora already in possession of ‘German and French double barrels, some English Enfields, and American Springfields’, as well as obsolete muzzle-loading flintlocks (Stanley, 1872). Already by this date military and exploring expeditions were arming their local recruits with Sniders and similar breech-loaders; these men often kept their weapons after they were discharged, and it was not long before traders were buying them up and selling them in the interior. In 1884 the imperial pioneer Harry Johnston visited a chief on Mount Kilimanjaro who maintained a force of 400 warriors, half of whom were armed with Sniders. In other cases weapons were deliberately sold by European merchants in areas where their governments hoped to make trouble for a rival power. The Zulus obtained many of their guns from the Portuguese in Mozambique. Others acquired them by defeating invaders in battle. In the Sudan in 1875, for example, the Bari massacred an Egyptian patrol and captured thirty-three Sniders and Remingtons. The presence of even this small number of guns in the hands of a hostile tribe caused the Egyptians considerable alarm, although it turned out that the Bari could not make use of them because they had not captured any cartridges.

In 1888 the British consul general at Zanzibar reported to London on the implications of this influx of breech-loaders, which were replacing the ‘cheap and worthless’ old trade muskets. Unless checked, he concluded, this meant that ‘the development and pacification of this great continent will have to be carried out in the face of an enormous population, the majority of whom will probably be armed with first-class breech-loading rifles’ (Beachey). So in the Brussels Treaty of 1890 the European powers agreed to ban imports of all rifles and percussion smoothbores into Africa between 20 degrees north and 22 south. This agreement has been regarded by some historians as a major factor in the suppression of African resistance, but in practice it had little effect on the lucrative gun-running business. Arab caravans transported firearms smuggled in via the east coast as far north as the Sudan, and were the main means by which King Kabarega of Bunyoro kept his armies supplied in his wars against the British. Officials in German East Africa happily sold guns to the warring factions in British Uganda, as did Charles Stokes, a renegade lay employee of the Church Missionary Society. The Ethiopians re-equipped much of their army with breech-loaders captured from the Egyptians or supplied by France, Italy and Russia, while Samori Touré, who led the Mandinka of West Africa in their wars against the French in the 1880s and 1890s, is said to have sent spies to work in French arsenals in Senegal, then set up his own workshops to manufacture rifles and ammunition, with considerable success.

Altogether around a million guns – most of them breech-loaders – were sold in Africa between 1885 and 1902 alone, but on the whole the consul’s fears proved unfounded. There were occasions, however, when his prediction seemed all too plausible. Many African warriors proved to be poor marksmen, but some armies did win firefights even against European-trained troops, especially when they had the benefit of cover. The Mahdist victory over Hicks Pasha in 1883 was partly due to the accurate shooting of the ‘Jihadiyya’ defectors from the Egyptian army (though later on the marksmanship of the Mahdist armies seems to have deteriorated). At Adowa in 1896 the Ethiopian army overwhelmed the Italians with close-range fire from modern rifles, and in Angola in 1904 Kwamatvi riflemen firing from the cover of the bush massacred a Portuguese column which included cavalry and artillery, as well as infantry armed with bolt-action rifles.

But more often the standard of African musketry was abysmally low. Charles Gordon complained that even the trained Egyptian soldiers whom he led against the Bari in the Sudan in 1872 were ‘not a match for a native with spear and bow; the soldier cannot shoot, and is at the native’s mercy, if the native knew it’ (Hill). The missionary J H Weeks, writing with thirty years’ experience of the Congo, put it even more forcefully: ‘I have seen the native make war with both kinds of weapons, and I would prefer to fight twenty natives with guns than two armed with spears.’ The reasons for this failure to make the most of the new weapons were complex. Many of the cheaply manufactured ‘trade guns’ were of very poor quality, and customers unfamiliar with guns were often deliberately cheated. In the 1830s the South African traders supplying muskets to the Zulu king Dingaan routinely removed some vital component, such as the spring which powered the flintlock mechanism, before delivering the guns. At first the Zulus did not realize that their new weapons were useless, though a newspaper article published in 1837 warned that Dingaan had ‘at last’ discovered the trick.

It is likely that many similar deceptions went undetected, since one writer believed that guns were frequently purchased for display only, and that many of those to be seen in African villages had never been fired and never would be. Even those weapons which were theoretically functional were not always reliable in practice. In 1845 a writer in Birmingham had condemned the city’s gunsmiths for exporting ‘horribly dangerous’ weapons made of poor iron, and pointed out that while a good-quality musket cost sixteen shillings to make, ‘African guns’ were being sold at a profit for a third of that price (White). Later in the century cheap and inferior copies of more modern weapons were also manufactured specifically for the undiscerning African market, and by the 1890s, according to Hiram Maxim, a factory in Spain was even producing counterfeit Winchesters. Furthermore the gunpowder supplied for these guns, Weeks reported, ‘is generally adulterated, and is warranted to make more noise and smoke than do damage’.

Not only were their weapons often inferior, but African warriors seldom received proper training in the use of the sights, and shared the usual tendency of inexperienced shooters to fire too high. As Colonel J W Marshall reported after a battle in Sierra Leone in 1898: ‘A large number of rifles were used by the enemy, but the bullets whistled harmlessly overhead. A native can seldom use a rifle at short range, for he thinks the higher the sights are put up, the more powerfully does the rifle shoot.’ However, Samuel Baker, who led native troops in the Sudan, believed that their main problem was an inability to estimate range. Aiming high was in any case a perennial failing with shooters accustomed to the curving trajectories of spears and arrows, and was no doubt still necessary with the low muzzle velocities which poor-quality gunpowder produced. But when this habit was carried over to more modern cartridge weapons with a flatter trajectory, it must have made the tendency to fire over the enemy’s heads even worse.

African military systems (1800–1900)

Africa: The Impact of Firearms II

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Battle of Isandlwana (Charles Edwin Fripp)

Africans often tried to compensate for the inadequacies of their muzzle-loaders by ramming in enormous charges of powder. Not only did this risk bursting the barrels, but the recoil made it difficult and dangerous to hold the gun to the shoulder. In Gabon in 1856 the explorer Paul du Chaillu watched his companions load their muskets, and ‘wondered why the poor cheap “trade” guns do not burst at every discharge. They put in first four or five “fingers” high of coarse powder, and ram down on this four or five pieces of iron-bar or rough broken iron, making the whole charge eight to ten fingers high’ (du Chaillu, 1861). The Austrian explorer Ludwig von Hohnel once borrowed a porter’s gun to finish off a wounded zebra, and was nearly killed by the recoil. He later swore that he would never again use a weapon which he had not loaded himself. According to Weeks the firing method used on the Congo was as follows:

he holds the butt of the gun against the palm of his half-extended right hand, and, without taking aim, he pulls the trigger with a finger of his left hand. By this mode of firing he guards his eyes from the sparks of the powder as it flashes in the pan, and his head from being blown off should the barrel burst from the excessive charge of powder.

Not surprisingly the results of shooting in this manner were unimpressive. On one occasion during F D Lugard’s campaign in Bunyoro, for example, an estimated 1,000 rounds were fired at his marching column with both muskets and breech-loaders from the far side of the Semliki River, a distance of about 100 yards, but no one was hit.

Even troops in European employ were often inadequately trained, because ammunition was too expensive to be wasted on target practice. Commander Verney Cameron, who took thirty-five African ‘askaris’ with Sniders on his trip across the continent in 1873, once had each of them fire three rounds at a roughly man-sized packing case set up 100 yards away. ‘Although there were no hits,’ he remarked resignedly, ‘the firing was fairly good.’ Another British officer, Captain Wellby, once saw two of his men firing repeatedly (against orders) at a friendly Turkana tribesman who was walking slowly towards them, obviously not appreciating the danger. Luckily they missed him completely, leaving Wellby unsure whether to be more angry about their disobedience or their marksmanship. W D M ‘Karamoja’ Bell, who made his name as an elephant hunter in the Karamojong country of northern Uganda in the first few years of the twentieth century, was once forced to issue .450in. calibre cartridges for his men’s .577in. rifles; the poor fit naturally meant that the trajectory of the rounds was completely unpredictable once they left the barrel, but Bell claimed that the men’s aim was so wild that if anything their accuracy was improved. On the other hand Paul du Chaillu (who had made his fortune from a previous book on Africa) took with him on his 1864 expedition 35,000 rounds of ammunition, most of which was intended for target practice before setting out for the interior. This stood him in good stead when he and seven of his men were attacked by hostile tribesmen, and du Chaillu is one of the very few African campaigners who does not complain about his men’s poor shooting.

Another potential problem was that the world view of many Africans encouraged them to think of shooting skill in magical terms, and countless European soldiers and explorers were asked for charms that would make the locals’ musketry as effective as that of the invaders. Speke encountered a classic statement of this attitude from King Mtesa in Uganda:

The king turned to me, and said he never saw anything so wonderful as my shooting in his life; he was sure it was done by magic, as my gun never missed, and he wished I would instruct him in the art. When I denied there was any art in shooting, further than holding the gun straight, he shook his head. (Speke, 1863)

Given these disadvantages, it might seem strange that Africans did not prefer their traditional weapons to the expensive imported firearms. Certainly not all the reasons for the popularity of guns are explicable in terms of technical performance. They no doubt included questions of prestige (firearms being associated with wealth), and simple fashion. But there were also practical considerations. Most traditionally armed warriors carried shields made of animal hide, which were effective against spears and arrows but could usually be penetrated by a musket ball. Guns were also popular because of their usefulness for hunting. Even large antelopes were seldom killed outright by spear or arrow wounds, even if poisoned, and usually had to be followed on foot for miles before they succumbed. A musket ball, however, with its much greater velocity and penetrating power, would bring the game down much more quickly, saving the hunter hours of walking. In the same way, if a man was hit by a bullet he seldom got up and carried on fighting as would often be the case with a superficial arrow or spear wound.

The musket, despite its poor long-range performance compared with more modern firearms, may also have had a greater effective range than traditional missile weapons: most African bows were designed for hunting in dense cover rather than for distance shooting, and the arrows rapidly lost hitting power at more than a few dozen paces, as well as being easily deflected by intervening vegetation. Firearms could therefore be an effective counter to skirmishing tactics. Among tribes such as the Ila of present-day Zambia, who specialized in throwing their spears, a show of bravado in the face of enemy missiles was much admired. The Ila took this to an extreme by doing without shields, relying instead on flourishing an elephant’s tail, or a stick ornamented with a bunch of feathers, to distract an opponent’s aim. But they had no effective counter to the guns adopted by their Barotse and Matabele enemies, whose balls travelled too fast to be seen and avoided, and they suffered a series of crushing defeats.‘When guns are pointed at you,’ one warrior complained helplessly to a missionary, ‘what can you do?’ (Smith and Dale).

The noise and smoke of gunfire could have a decisive moral effect on opponents who were not used to it, and there are numerous examples of spearmen who refused to face firearms, even though theoretically they should have defeated them easily. Richard Burton recorded that the Tuta tribe, who terrorized the region south of Lake Victoria, had ‘a wholesome fear of firearms’ (Burton, 1860). They would avoid contact with a caravan carrying the red flag of Zanzibar, knowing that it would be accompanied by men with guns. According to the account of the not always reliable Portuguese explorer Major Serpa Pinto, when he was attacked in his camp on the Zambezi by an overwhelming force of Barotse spearmen, one of his askaris accidentally loaded his Snider with explosive rounds filled with nitroglycerine (presumably brought along for use against elephants). After firing a few rounds the gun inevitably burst, but by then several of the enemy had been literally blown to pieces. The Barotse, faced with this gruesome spectacle, quickly retreated, even though the weapon which had done the damage was now out of action.

Spears Versus Guns

Of course it should not be forgotten that not all African warriors were afraid of guns, and their psychological effects might wear off quickly. In 1871 David Livingstone reported that a tribe on the Upper Congo which had been victimized by Arab slavers had recently ‘learned that every shot does not kill, and they came up to a party with bows and arrows and compelled the slavers to throw down their guns and powder-horns’ (Coupland, 1947). Ignorance might provide the motivation for men to face guns, just as much as familiarity. Bell says that the Karamojong at the time of his visit ‘were then at a most dangerous stage of ignorance with regard to firearms. Their experience of them had been gathered on raids with the Swahilis, and they all firmly held the conviction that all you had to do to avoid being struck by the bullet was to duck when you saw the smoke.’

Most Africans who came into contact with firearms eventually adopted them. This included even successful warrior peoples such as the Zulus and Matabele, although they tended at first to incorporate them into their traditional close-combat tactics as a sort of superior throwing weapon, to be discharged just before closing with their stabbing spears. But there were those who never saw the need to make the transition. The best known of these conservatives were the Masai, who in one battle in 1895 speared around 900 Swahili and Kikuyu gunmen with minimal loss to themselves. Their neighbours the Hehe had begun to rely on guns in the 1870s, but by the time of their fight with the Germans at Lugalo in 1891 they seem to have fallen back on traditional methods. In this battle, a Hehe eyewitness said, they ‘shot one gun (probably as a signal to attack); they all moved quickly and fought with spears’ (Redmayne). Certainly the results vindicated their decision, as the German column was almost annihilated.

The ducking tactic described by Bell among the Karamojong was widely adopted as a counter to firearms by those who still relied on handto-hand fighting. It required agility and quick reactions as well as courage, but it was frequently successful, and it is worth examining the facts behind it. When a flintlock musket is fired there is an appreciable delay between the flash of the priming powder in the pan and the detonation of the main charge (though ignition by means of percussion caps, which had become commonplace in Africa by the late nineteenth century, does not produce the same highly visible flash, and so the situation is less clear-cut). Precise data on the muzzle velocities of African firearms is lacking, but we can assume that the low quality of the powder and the large amounts used would cancel out, so that when it left the muzzle a round from a smoothbore would be travelling at about the same rate as one from a contemporary British Army musket. This could be as high as 1,500 feet per second, but modern tests have suggested 800 feet per second as more reasonable, especially if the round does not fit tightly in the barrel. Even with a proper round ball the velocity falls to about half that after 200 yards, and the irregularly shaped pieces of scrap iron often used in Africa would lose speed more quickly because of increased air resistance. So, as a rough approximation, over the first 300 feet (i.e. 100 yards) the ball might average 600 feet per second. This would give an attacker half a second to dive for cover on seeing the smoke from an enemy’s shot at that range, or a quarter of a second at 50 yards. Of course this whole calculation is very crude and the situation oversimplified, but it does indicate that the tactic is theoretically feasible.

However, it would only work in the manner suggested against a single opponent, or a unit firing a simultaneous volley on a word of command, which is unlikely to have happened with the undrilled troops who formed the bulk of African armies. A more likely scenario would be that one man would open fire and his companions would then follow suit, producing a scattered volley or ripple of fire over several seconds. Perhaps the main advantage of the tactic lay not in the physics but in the psychology: if a warrior believed that he could avoid being shot he would charge more determinedly, and the more determined he appeared the more nervous his opponent might be, making the attacker’s confidence self-fulfilling.

The time taken to reload a muzzle-loading musket would vary according to the training and steadiness of the shooter, and whether prepared cartridges were supplied or – as was usually the case in Africa – loose powder had to be measured out for each shot. But there seems little reason to doubt the general assumption at the time that a man on the receiving end of a charge could expect to get off only one shot. None of these tactics would be much use against breech-loaders, which usually had higher muzzle velocities as well as being much quicker to reload – though the effect might be the same if the rifleman was too nervous or excited to lower the sights as the enemy got closer, as happened sometimes even to the British regulars in the Zulu War. Almost invariably the firepower of the breech-loaders was sufficient to stop a charge by spearmen in the open, however great their advantage in numbers might be. Writing of his fight with the Banyoro at Masindi in 1872, Samuel Baker recalled ‘how impossible it appeared for natives in masses to produce any effect against Snider rifles’ (Baker, 1873). Most African successes against troops equipped with such weapons were the result of ambushes and surprise attacks, but there were occasional exceptions to this rule. The best known of these was at Isandlwana in 1879, where the Zulus minimized the advantages of the British Martini-Henrys by clever use of ground, even after the element of surprise had been lost. This achievement is justly regarded as the high point of nineteenth-century African warfare.


The Turkana

Turkana - Mtome Loseng

Mtome Loseng of the Turkana

In the far west, beyond Lake Rudolf, lived the most dreaded of all these desert raiders, the Turkana. During the nineteenth century they had expanded south and eastwards at the expense of the Samburu and others, and had even raided as far as Lake Baringo, where they clashed with the Masai. In spite of the extensive territory which they conquered, the Turkana themselves claimed that this was not their main aim: their campaigns were launched to capture cattle to replace their losses in the frequent droughts, but they were so successful at this that their victims eventually moved away to escape the raiding parties, evacuating new grazing lands which the victorious bands then occupied. They continued to clash with an almost equally formidable people, the Karamojong, along the Turkwel River on the border with what was to become Uganda, and sporadically with the Samburu in the east, but elsewhere Turkana expansion had virtually stopped by the 1890s, though this would change early in the twentieth century, when the tribe became a focus of resistance to the British.

By 1900 the Turkana numbered around 30,000 people spread across an area of 24,000 square miles, a population density so low that they were no longer able to muster and feed large armies. The aridity of this territory made it of little interest to potential invaders, so that there was no reason to maintain standing armies for defence. Turkana warfare had become a matter of skirmishing and sudden raids rather than pitched battles. The traditional age-set system gave way to a more locally based organization, and the authority of the elders declined. Life in the desert was so precarious that there was little energy to spare for show and bravado; one twentieth-century informant described the campaigns of his predecessors in strictly practical terms: ‘the Turkana fought to get food’ (Lamphear, 1976). According to a traditional saying, the secret of success in war was ‘not power, but knowledge’. In their painstaking use of reconnaissance, their emphasis on surprise, and the desire to minimize their own casualties while maximizing material gain, the Turkana could perhaps be compared to the Apaches. Captain John Yardley, who fought them in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya during the First World War, describes their tactics as follows:

Like most of their kindred tribes, and in contrast to the Abyssinians, the Turkana had no knowledge of any military formations or movements. They did not need any. Their intimate acquaintance with their own country, where every rock was familiar to them, and every mountain track as easy to find by night as by day, made preconcerted movements superfluous. Even if they had been well drilled, they were far better off when they bolted from one ridge or hollow to another in their own time and by their own route.

The Turkana were very dark-skinned, and did not paint their bodies. Therefore they referred to themselves as ‘black people’, as opposed to the ‘red people’, who included whites as well as the Samburu and Masai, who were naturally paler and painted themselves with red ochre. In the late nineteenth century the Turkana were often believed to be giants, although von Hohnel – the first European to describe them – described them as ‘of middle height only’, though ‘very broad and sinewy, in fact, of quite a herculean build’. Turkana war gear reflected their ruthlessly practical attitude. The spear or akwara was considerably longer than the weapons used elsewhere in the region. An average length was 8 feet, but one ‘giant’ chief seen by Captain Wellby in 1899 carried a spear ‘twice his own length’ – which must have made it more than 12 feet long. The blade was protected when not in use by a leather sheath to keep it sharp. On their right wrists most men wore a circular iron wrist knife or ararait. This peculiar weapon – basically a bracelet with the outer edge kept razor-sharp – could be brought into action almost instantly. In an emergency it could be used without the warrior having to drop his spear or anything else he was carrying, and could inflict serious wounds when grappling at close quarters. Like the spear blades, these knives were usually kept covered by a leather sheath to prevent injury to the wearer. Yardley describes this weapon as ‘the most murderous kind of knife I have ever seen . . . . After throwing their spears, they slipped the scabbard off in a fraction of a second and closed with their enemy. One well-directed gash at the throat would wellnigh decapitate a man, or an upward thrust entirely disembowel him.’ Variants of this type of knife were popular over a wide region of north-east Africa, and in some places they were also worn by women. It was said that Arab slavers would always shoot a woman seen wearing a wrist-knife rather than attempting to capture her, as it was so dangerous to approach her. Other Turkana weapons were wooden clubs and throwing sticks. Their buffalo-hide shields were fairly small and light, befitting the mobile skirmishing tactics which the Turkana preferred, but were solid enough to be used as weapons in their own right if necessary.

In 1895 the British government took over the territories formerly administered by the bankrupt Imperial British East Africa Company. These included what was to become the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, but at that time the frontier had not been surveyed. Since 1891 an agreement had existed with the Italian government, which laid claim to southern Somaliland and to a protectorate over the kingdom of Ethiopia (then commonly known as Abyssinia). However, in 1896 the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik decisively defeated an Italian army at Adowa, securing his country’s independence for the next forty years. It suddenly became necessary for Britain to deal with a power which it had until then disregarded, especially as Ethiopian expeditions soon began to penetrate into the desert south of the escarpment in search of ivory and slaves.

The Fight at Lumian, 1901

The nature of warfare against the Turkana was epitomized by the fate of the Austin expedition. In October 1900 a survey party was dispatched to the Ethiopian border region under the command of Major H H Austin of the Royal Engineers, who had served with Macdonald on his campaign in the far north of Uganda during the war against Kabarega. Austin left Khartoum with three British officers, twenty-three Sudanese soldiers seconded from the Egyptian army, and thirty-two ‘Gehadiah’, former followers of the Mahdi. Both these contingents were armed with Martini-Henry rifles, though in the words of Austin’s second-in-command, Major Bright of the Rifle Brigade, the ex-Mahdists were ‘most indifferent’ shots. This expedition was dogged by misfortune almost from the start. Its members floundered for months in the Nile swamps, and when they emerged near Lake Rudolf they found food and water scarce, and the local tribes, who had mostly welcomed previous visitors, hostile to all outsiders as a result of Ethiopian raids.

Austin made a detour to a Turkana village at Lumian, which was believed to be still friendly, in search of supplies. Having arrived near the village late in the day, he camped in the angle formed by the junction of two small, almost dry river beds. While the camp was still being set up, two soldiers and the cook were ambushed and speared to death by Turkana warriors who quickly vanished into the surrounding scrub. It was now nearly dark, so there was no time either to move the camp or to build a thorn-bush zeriba to protect it. Austin therefore ordered the sentries to keep their rifles loaded, and the rest of the soldiers to sleep at their posts with fixed bayonets. After dark, according to Major Bright’s account, the ‘giant Turkana’ crept close to the camp along the river beds, ‘without the slightest noise’. Then, around midnight, they attacked: ‘Rising as from the ground they rushed with blood-curdling yells on the unprotected camp. They came from three sides, but were met with a steady and rapid rifle fire which appeared to surprise them, for they threw a few spears into camp and then fled. For the remainder of the night we were left unmolested.’

But the Turkana continued to harass the expedition as it marched southwards along the western shore of Lake Rudolf. Large bodies of tribesmen shadowed them just out of rifle range, but ‘when they approached too near they were dispersed with a few well-directed shots’. It soon became clear, however, that smaller groups were keeping them under observation from much closer range, although they were seldom seen. Bright relates how one of the Gehadiah was killed within 100 yards of the camp when he crept out to scavenge some meat from a dead camel. One night a corporal guarding the animals was speared within earshot of his companions by a band of Turkana, who escaped into thick bush before a shot could be fired. After one march, during which no enemy had been sighted all day, a soldier waded across the Turkwel River to bring in a missing donkey, carelessly leaving his rifle on the bank to avoid getting it wet. As soon as he reached the far bank, a group of warriors emerged as if from nowhere and stabbed him to death. By the time the expedition reached safety, it had lost forty-five men from Turkana attacks and exhaustion due to starvation. Only one of the Gehadiah survived the march.