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.

Lance and steel bonnet

Border Reivers L_tcm4-565625

The Border robber was a specialist, and needed special equipment, the most important part of which was his horse. “They reckon it a great disgrace for anyone to make a journey on foot,” wrote Leslie, and Froissart had noted two centuries earlier how the Scots at war “are all a-horseback . . . the common people on little hackneys and geldings.” The Border horses, called hobblers or hobbys, were small and active, and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, “and to get over where our footmen could scarce dare to follow.”

Such precious animals naturally attracted legislation, particularly in England, where horses were in short supply. In the late 1500s their export to Scotland was strictly banned; Hunsdon “condemde sundry” for this treason in 1587, and complained that English gentlemen were involved in the illicit trade. It was a well-broken law in both directions, for Scotland had banned horse export twenty years earlier, with no great success.

The Scots had long been noted horse-breeders, so much so that legislation was occasionally passed to restrain production. By statute of 1214 every Scot of property must own at least one horse, and in 1327 the country could put 20,000 cavalry into the field. Export to England at that time was highly profitable, and was carried on even by men of rank. The Stuart kings imported from Hungary, Poland, and Spain to improve the breed, and there emerged the small, swift unusually hardy mounts which in James IV’s time were reputed to be able to cover as much as 150 miles in a day. They must have been short miles.

However, even allowing for exaggeration, such horses were ideal all-purpose mounts both for peace-time raiders and war-time light cavalry. They enabled the Border riders to muster and move men at high speed over remarkable distances. A leader like young Buccleuch could raise 2000 horse at short notice, able to strike faster and at far greater range than would have seemed credible to an ordinary cavalry commander; between sixty and eighty miles a day seems to have been within their capability. In addition, the horses were cheap to buy and easy to maintain: there is evidence that they did not even need shoeing.

The Border rider, as he sat his hobbler, was a most workmanlike figure, far more streamlined than the ordinary cavalryman of his time. His appearance was “base and beggarly” by military standards, and this applied to the lords as well as to the lowly. “All clad a lyke in jackes cooverd with whyte leather, dooblettes of the same or of fustian, and most commonly all white hosen,” Patten noted after Pinkie (1547). “Not one with either cheine, brooch, ryng or garment of silke that I coold see. . . . This vilnes of port was the caus that so many of their great men and gentlemen wear kyld and so fewe saved. The outwarde sheaw . . . whearby a stranger might discern a villain from a gentleman, was not amoong them to be seen.”

On his head the rider wore the steel bonnet, which in the early part of the century was usually the salade hat, basically a metal bowl with or without a peak, or the burgonet, a rather more stylish helmet which, in its lightest form, was open and peaked. These head-pieces, many of which would be home-made by local smiths, were gradually replaced in Elizabethan times by the morion, with its curved brim, comb, and occasional ear pieces.

Over his shirt the rider might wear a mail coat, but the more normal garment was the jack, a quilted coat of stout leather sewn with plates of metal or horn for added protection. It was far lighter than armour, and almost as effective against cuts and thrusts; backs and breasts of steel might be worn by the wealthier Borderers, but for horsemen whose chief aim was to travel light they were a mixed blessing. The Scots Borderers were officially recognised by the Privy Council as “licht horsemen” who were not obliged to serve in heavy armour during war; the English Borderers, when employed on campaigns, were similarly used as scouts and “prickers”.

Leather boots and breeches completed the clothing, which was without badges except in war-time, when the riders wore kerchiefs tied round their arms as signs of recognition, as well as the crosses of St George or St Andrew, according to their nationality—or their allegiance. Embroidered letters attached to their caps were also used for war-time identification. (There was a suspicion in the English Army in the 1540s that the English March riders used these identifying signs not only to be known to each other, but “that thei used them for collusion, and rather bycaus thei might be knowen to th’enemie, as the enemies are knowen to them, for thei have their markes too, and so in conflict either each to spare other, or gently each to take other. Indede men have becen mooved the rather to thinke so, bycaus sum of their crosses—the English red cross—were so narrow, and so singly set on, that a puff of wynde might blowed them from their breasts.”)

This light and serviceable costume, so suitable for the cut-and-run activities of its wearer, reflected also the changing military patterns of the day. The sixteenth century saw a revolution in warfare; it was the bridge between the medieval knights and men-at-arms, with their heavy armour and weapons, and the age of firepower.

Gunpowder had come into its own, and when it was discovered that mail did not stop a bullet, the whole concept of protective equipment changed. Long leather boots took the place of greaves, plate gave way to the reinforced coat, and the knight’s casque to the open helmet.

The great change, of course, was in missile weapons. For two centuries England’s military thinking had been dominated by one of the most lethal hand weapons in the history of warfare: the six-foot long bow with which the English peasant had mastered the powers of chivalry. Naturally, England was reluctant to change from this proven battle-winner, and in this as in most other military developments she lagged behind the Continent, even under such a war-conscious monarch as Henry VIII.

The hand-gun v. long bow controversy, which reached a climax in Elizabeth’s reign, was a bitter one. The bow school, apart from their sentimental reasons, urged the efficiency of the archer who could despatch twelve shots a minute into a man-sized target at 200 paces (practice at shorter ranges was actually forbidden in Henry’s time); against this the new arquebus could fire only ten to twelve shots an hour when Elizabeth came to the throne, although the rate had risen to thirty-five to forty by 1600. An arquebus was unsuitable in wet weather, it was cumbersome, and it cost 30s. (A bow cost about 6s 8d, with arrows). The Earl of Sussex, on the Border in 1569, demanded archers, not “ill-furnished harquebusiers”, and local opinion seems to have supported him; the tenants of Home Cultram, as late as 1596, rejected calivers as too expensive.

But the fire-arms lobby, which included such influential figures as the veteran Sir Roger Williams, eventually got their way; in the 1560s the majority of English infantry carried the long bow, but by 1600 it was virtually obsolete in the country as a whole. On the Border, however, where a light, rapid-fire weapon was needed, the bow lived longer; in Leith Ward, Cumberland, in 1580, the muster roll showed over 800 bowmen to nine arquebusiers, and in the 1583 muster the English West March counted 2500 archers, with no mention of fire-arms. Hundreds of hand-guns with ammunition were sent to Berwick in 1592, but the powder was unreliable, and as for the guns, “when they were shot in, some of them brake, and hurte divers mennes hands.” In the same year Richard Lowther asked only for bows for the defence of Carlisle.

Like the local peasant infantry, the Border riders also used the bow, but there is increasing mention as the century progresses of their carrying arquebuses, the light pieces called calivers, and the dag, the heavy hand-gun which was the rough equivalent of the modern large-calibre pistol.

The principal close-quarter weapons of the Border foot soldier were the bill, the long cleaver-cum-pike which had lasted through the Middle Ages, the spear, and a local arm called the Jedburgh axe, with a distinctive round cutting edge. Swords are seldom mentioned in the English muster rolls, but the March riders of both sides certainly carried them, occasionally with small shields.

However, in peace or war, the rider’s favourite weapon was the lance. These were sometimes over thirteen feet long, but usually must have been shorter. They were used couched, for thrusting, and also for throwing. Camden describes the Borderers on horseback spearing salmon in the Solway; anyone who has tried to spear fish on foot will appreciate the expertise required to do it from the saddle.

Eure pronounced on this Border skill without qualification: he found the March riders better at handling lances on horseback than Yorkshiremen, and “better prickers in a chase as knowing the mosses, more nimble on foot.”

This then was the Borderer’s armoury, for war-time campaign or peace-time raid. So if one mounts the reiver on his hobbler, with steel cap, jack, lance, cutting-sword, dagger, and hand-gun, he is fully equipped and ready to be pointed at the target—farm, village or grazing herd, peel tower or sheiling. This, quite literally, was his day’s work.

Behind the Saxon Shield Wall


Both sides looked alike, this Saxon Housecarl would have had a circular shield.

Norman poet Robert Wace described what the Norman infantry would have seen as they toiled up the slopes of Senlac Hill to attack the shield wall at its crest: `The English stood firm on foot in close ranks, and carried themselves right boldly. Each man had his hauberk on, with his sword girt, and his shield at his neck. Great hatchets were also slung at their necks, which they expected to strike heavy blows’.

The English regarded the wary Norman approach with mixed feelings. Many were arrogantly confident. Barely three weeks before they had decimated the Viking ranks at Stamford Bridge. Some of the Housecarls were still showing flesh wounds, battered and bruised from the fight. They were weary. Harold’s core bodyguard had travelled 190 miles from London to York, fought a battle and rode 260 miles south again to Senlac Hill. Having fought one pitched battle and about to embark on another, they were physically and emotionally past their peak. Nevertheless, being at the top end of society, they had most to lose. The traditions espoused by the Anglo-Saxon vernacular poem The Battle of Maldon made much of the Housecarl’s duty not to leave the field, even if his lord had fallen. Like the Thegns and other freemen warriors fighting for the earls, they were a unique and close knit warrior society and would fight to the death to repel the invader.

Standing behind them in the ranks, two to three men back, were three or four files of the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd. These were the men from the southern shires who had already been called out before in late June to oppose an invasion that never came. They were disbanded on the 8th September to gather a late harvest. By the end of the month they heard the king was battling the Vikings with the northern Fyrd, but there had been little time to reflect. Twenty days after they were stood down they were immersed in a rush of strange raiders whose hair was half cropped at the back and sides. Their women were raped, families butchered, houses set alight and their livestock killed. They were fearful yet burned with hatred, standing with their betters, pounding their swords rhythmically against their shields sustained by the bellowing chorus of Uit! Uit Out! Out! Robert Wace called them `a great assemblage of villainaille, of men in everyday clothes’. Many wore leather caps with a mix of old helmets, some with tough hide coats to offer some protection against sword cuts. This was an emergency, freemen had also been called up with the general Fyrd to protect their threatened shire.

The smell of burned villages was in the air. It added to a sense of unease. During the preceding spring a fiery comet had been seen streaking across the sky, night after night. What did it mean? The harbinger of doom or momentous change? Death and destruction had already come in its wake. The Normans had also unfurled a Papal banner. Relics and the bones of the Saints meant a lot to these simple folk. Was God with the Normans? Maybe so, but many abbots and deacons were also fighting beneath Harold’s standard.

Wace captured the atmospheric tension permeating the English ranks as the Normans perceptibly increased their pace, closing the final few metres to the shield wall:

`The English were to be seen stirring to and fro, were going and coming; troops ranging themselves in order; some with their colour rising, others turning pale; some making ready their arms, others raising their shields; the brave man rousing himself to fight, the coward trembling at the approach of danger’.

Both sides did not run at each other. Despite the storm of missiles exchanged between the shield wall and approaching mass, the men on foot were wary and looking for a potential opening on the opposite side. As they locked weapons and grappled the Normans recoiled from the shield wall. The professional English warriors at the front looked for exposed peripheries, and lopped them off with axe or sword. Only elite Housecarls wielded the two-handed Danish battle-axe. At four to five feet long, the lengthy haft gave range and power to the swing. The Normans quickly appreciated that such a weapon differentiated the quality warrior.

He could just as easily hook the unwary from their feet or entangle a shield and brain the man with the iron-capped spike at the end as swiftly dismember him on reversing the blade when he was down. Small throwing axes were accurately hurled, spinning end over end into the enemy line at 50 yards. Their swift approach was difficult to discern amid the melee and almost impossible to parry.

The Saxon wall depended upon tight interlocking shields and emotional bonding for its integrity. Warriors had implicit trust that the man to his left would jab and thrust across his front to the right. Crashing up against it unbalanced Norman foot soldiers who became momentarily vulnerable to spear and sword jabs, coming over the top of the wall. Axe-men needed space, and would trade this in concert with an accompanying sword man. One step back created an enticing opening into which an unwary Norman might plunge only to be despatched by the backward swing of an axe or a vicious accompanying sword thrust. An accomplished axe-man could wield his finely balanced blade and haft in a two-handed figure of eight sequence for some time. Skilled warriors did not expend energy hacking and slashing, they employed economical pre-practiced fighting sequences, cannily deducing any weakness on the opposing side. Spearmen jabbed at face level, forcing their opponents to raise their shield which temporarily blind them to attack from another companion. Spear points jabbing in unison outside the shield wall were difficult to penetrate. The integrity of the shield wall was all-important. `They were so densely massed’ described Norman Chronicler William of Poitiers `that the men who were killed could hardly fall to the ground’.

The shield wall had never faced armoured horsemen before. Harold’s astute hill crest siting did much to compensate for their weight and height advantage. Even so, the ground trembled as the great Norman Destriers rode up. To their surprise and consternation the Norman knights ricocheted off the pliable barrier. All they could do was ride alongside and try to barge an opening while defending and jabbing lances and swords across the top of the shield wall. Horses might be felled by an axe or tripped by spear jabs, riders dragged off their horses and despatched by axe and sword or dragged inside to be dealt with by the Fyrd. Breaking ranks was fatal to the Saxon defender. When the Bretons broke on the Saxon right the Fyrd rushed after them and were cut down to a man by the Norman horse. Conroy raiding sweeps of groups of ten to twenty knights were irresistible in the open.

Medieval battles rarely lasted more than an hour or so. Too much was at risk in an era more used to the skirmish or quick raid to gamble all on a deliberate battle. Exhaustion and the deaths of key Saxon leaders took their toll. Harold had already lost two brothers, an irredeemable political and socio-economic loss, when he was allegedly hit in the eye by an arrow. Wace describes how `in his agony he drew the arrow and threw it away, breaking it in his hands; and the pain to his head was so great that he leaned upon his shield’. True or not, Harold was cut down and dismembered in a frenzied attack by a group of Northern knights. Whether William had received a resupply of arrows is not known. The English had left their archers in the north. Tired and totally immersed in the melee of close combat it was difficult to hold a crumbling shield wall with missiles raining down in depth.

Even as the defeated English army was cut down straggling away from the field, chased by the merciless Norman horse, they retained their innate aggression. Housecarls fought on despite having lost their lords. As dusk fell pursuing Norman knights tumbled into an unseen ravine, the Malfosse or `evil ditch’. Immediately the retreating Saxons rounded on them, slaughtering them in large numbers. The hard fought battle had been close-run. Defeat was, however, total. Saxon survivors would never again enjoy society as they knew it before 14th October 1066.