Sunday, 14 April 2013

Kent - The Coming of the White Horse

After the Roman legions left England the Romano-British were left to their own devices, which would have been fine except for one thing, there were plenty of others willing to take their place, Picts in the north and Saxons on the East. “Saxons” incidentally didn't come from “Saxony”, the word was used much as European settlers described the diverse Native American tribes as “Indians”. In fact “Saxons” covers many different Germanic tribes. There was also no “Britain” as such, or even “England”, as authority broke down. What does seem clear is that the leader opposing the Saxons was called Vortigern.

Vortigern is a bit of a shadowy figure, not least because most of the sources we have now were written  by Saxon writers, and even then many years after the event. Whether is was some sort of overlord of the Britons, or just a local ruler in the south east, he at least controlled the richest region in England, and thus the most tempting target. His response was to hire mercenaries. In 449 he invited a a group of Jutes, from Jutland in Denmark, to serve under his command, giving in return the Isle of Thanet for their use (under his sovereignty of course). The tribal leader, Hengist, agreed. And it worked, Hengist and his brother Horsa, beating off raiders whilst their families built up  a settlement on Thanet (basically the eastern tip of Kent around Margate, which was actually  an island at the time). In fact, it worked so well that Vortigern offered to marry their sister Rowena, cementing ties between the two groups.

Hengist was a bit more ambitious than that. He had seen at close hand how rich, and vulnerable, Vortigern's state was and he hatched a plan. This plan, according to legend, consisted of agreeing to the wedding and when the British party arrived, including of course all the important people in the state, he would butcher then and decapitate the establishment. The plan failed, Vortigern and his brother Catigern, managing to escape with their lives. The stage was now set for a short and bitter civil war, Vortigern raised an army and returned, burning with vengeance.

The Forces

Details are vague and contradictory, but a good summary of current ideas is at

The British

The Romano British saw themselves as the inheritors of Roman civilisation, defending themselves against barbarians. In the north there were well established legionary settlements, including possibly the descendants of Samaritan heavy cavalry, and firm alliances with local tribes, Unfortunately, in the south there was neither, and defence rested on local levies. Some of the old Roman coastal forts were still strong, but society was not especially martial.

Vortigern probably had a bodyguard of about 150-300 men, the Bucellarii or Teulu, looking similar to Roman light cavalry with mail shirts, swords and javelins. These would have been good troops. But the bulk of his force would have been local levies, organised and armed as a cut-price version of the Legions, in units of 100 with a shield, spear and javelin, but lacking the training or iron discipline of the Romans.

The Saxons

The Saxons were a different force entirely, more akin to pirates, or doubtless adventurers in their own minds. Most in this case came from Hengist's homeland of Jutland, though not necessarily all, as he was already known throughput the Germanic world.

Like the British, the core of the army was a body guard of several hundred men, the “comitatus” or “gesith”, and these were probably the first to arrive. But as words spread of Hengist's successes men swarmed across to join him in Kent.

The “Saxons” were “men with seaxes”, a type of large knife, and this seems to have been a signature weapon, though most had a spear and a circular shield with an iron boss. The wealthy or important had mail shirts, and often a broadsword. And all were professional warriors, more than a match, man to man, for most of the British they would face in southern England.

The Conquest

Again, what happens next is disputed (well, this is the “Dark” ages). But a rough approximation is that, after several skirmishes, the two sides met in 455 at a ford on the river Medway, at Aylesford. The river Medway divides Kent east/ west, with presumably the Saxons arriving from the east, from their base in Thanet, and Vortigern arriving from his territories to the west. Details are unclear, but it seems to have been hard fought, with Horsa and Catigern both falling, and the Saxons being driven back towards Thanet. More skirmishes followed, with a huge battle at Crayford in 457 which according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle was a Saxon victory, although by 466 Vortigern's son Vortimer had almost driven  Hengist into the sea, with a climatic battle at Ebbsfleet (“Wippedesfleote”) near Ramsgate. Here Vortimer was killed, and in the resulting power vacuum the Saxons stormed back, finally establishing complete control.  Hengist, and his son Oisc, invited more settlers from back home and established them to the west of the Medway, keeping the East for his own tribe.

The “country” Hengist set up became known as Kent, using his family banner of a prancing white horse on a red background (“Hengist” being “stallion” in Old German). It remained as an independent state, more or less, for over 300  years until it was finally annexed by Mercia in 785.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Forest Warfare in 1840s North America - Part 2

British troops against Quebecois rebels at the Battle of Saint Eustach, 1837. The British regiments in Canada in 1842 had already considerable experiance, but not necessarily in forest warfare.

In the 1842 volume of the United Service Magazine of London (available as a free Google ebook) Sir J.E. Alexander of the 14th Regiment of Foot gave his thoughts of the special requirements of fighting in North America, in an article entitled "On Bush Fighting"


Movement through woodland made parade ground drill impossible, but some degree of cohesion still had to be kept, a difficult balance as these two passages show...

"In advancing through a wood in extended order great attention must be paid to preserving the line as correctly as possible: if skirmishers advance too far, or carelessly fall back too much, the consequences may be fatal to themselves or to their comrades; also distances between the files should be kept as correctly as possible".

"When the soldier advances, he should not go straight forward, but should move at an angle toward some tree or other cover, to the right or left of what he has just quitted. The reason for this is obvious: if an advance is made straightforward toward the enemy, the latter has no occasion to alter his aim, whereas obliquing toward him obliges him to take a "flying," or a difficult shot. In retreating, the same mode must be practised,—look behind for the next shelter, fire, and, concealed by the smoke, oblique to the selected cover".


" Before taking one's company into the bush, it is requisite that the men can well riddle a target at 100, 150, and 200 yards' distance—both a fixed target, man's size, and a moveable one, passed along a rope, between two posts."

To motivate the men during target practice Alexander recommends a bounty of a shilling per bulls eye.
In the field each man should carry a "powderhorn to contain 100 charges, and 100 bullets in their patches, disposed in a long and narrow waist-pouch, with 120 caps, will not encumber the soldier, and, if well managed, will serve for a good day's fighting."

Although the rifle was a superior weapon, it was "advisable to impress soldiers armed with smooth barrels with the belief that there is no superiority in the rifle, if they keep moving, as they ought to do, in the bush". And indeed, the new percussion musket "used in platoon firing, always with the front rank kneeling, leaves little to be desired in the way of an efficient weapon".

In forests, "the first rule for bush-fighting is (after careful loading), that the soldier should fire to the right of the tree; thus the smallest portion of the person is exposed".

This was the age of gunpowder, where the smoke from a discharge might be easily seen by an enemy - nonetheless that might well be an advantage..,

" When an Indian, pursued, throws himself into a ravine, he does not cross it at once, but, covering himself with the bank, he fires at his exposed pursuers, and then, concealed by the smoke, moves to the right, left, or rear, as he deems best".

Close order work

Alexander devotes several paragraphs to hand to hand combat, and clearly expected this to be a part of any actions in the future. Of course, part of the importance here was psychological...

" Whatever gives the men a real or fancied superiority over an enemy is useful: thus a simple bayonet exercise, teaching the men to parry carte and tierce, and to thrust with the musket and bayonet, and recover themselves easily from a short lunge".


Ambushes and Night Attacks

" Cautiously creeping on the enemy, taking advantage of cover, and rushing on him, and striking with lead or steel, when he is caught at advantage, are the principles of bush-fighting".

Properly executed, a surprise attack could sweep away the enemy - the operative word being "surprise" as Alexander says...

" It has been proposed to make a charge on foot through the enemy's voltigeurs in this way: suddenly close the skirmishers to the centre, advance at the double, dash through the opposite line of skirmishers, wheel by subdivisions to the right and left, and sweep down and put to the rout the enemy's line. It is objected to this mode of attack, that if it is suspected the enemy will pour in a very destructive fire on the advancing company or column, and perhaps fatally shake it".

One option of course was to attack at night, which gave a much greater chance of catching the enemy unawares. Some officers apparently thought night attacks were " un-English and cowardly". Alexander disagrees, citing British experience in Africa and Arabia. In his opinion,

" There is no doubt that a sudden rush of even a few pikemen, broadswordmen, or even bayoneteers, through an enemy's bivouac at night, thrusting at all they met, would produce the greatest confusion, and little injury would result to the assailants; fire in the dark being so very -uncertain, and nearly harmless".

Using the Forest

If possible, Alexander recommends the practice of the Burmese, who "by the dexterous use of cutting tools, as we observed in the late war in Ava, were in the habit of inclosing themselves nightly (in the bush and near their enemy) in good stockades; no nocturnal rush could be made through their encampments; this was also the Roman practice".

In fact, there was much good use to be made of felled timber.

"Artificial intrenchments in wooded countries are easiest made by felling trees; a breastwork or bank of earth, or of stones, must be employed when there are no trees. It is wonderful how little covers a man from fire: a rifleman will lie down behind a stone a foot high, on an exposed slope, and render good service, with safety to himself".

And of course trees not only a good defence, but could be used to delay the enemy (which might be very important in any delaying action against invaders. He recommends a rear guard of men armed with hatchets ("not bill hooks") to fell trees across the path, and delay the enemy as much as possible.

Mounted Riflemen

The British deployment in Canada was remarkably low in cavalry compared to, say, India, and Alexander makes no mention of cavalry as such, but he is in favour of mounted riflemen.

" With regard to Mounted Riflemen, we think they are a most valuable arm on service, especially in Canada or North America; they ought, of course, to have none of the showy trappings of the dragoons, but a serviceable and dark uniform,-say a double-breasted frock".

As for armament, Alexander sees little difference between a fusil or a rifle, as long as it could " throw a ball well, and at a long range", but a bayonet was essential, and also a "good straight sabre" to "enable then to act as dragoons in the charge".

On deployment the ideal was for " two-thirds of them to scour the bush, leaving one-third outside in charge of the horses, at a safe distance from danger." The sabre, of course, would be left with the horses.

 Defence of settlements

When defending a settlement (there is more talk of retreat and defence in the article than perhaps Alexander realised) " a careful officer will immediately reconnoitre all round it, and at some distance from it, and he will not trust to other eyes than his own to gain a knowledge of the localities".

Otherwise he gives this advice on defending a settlement

" Voltigeurs will, of course, when they can, always take advantage of buildings, particularly if they occupy a commanding position, and can be made defensible by the assistance of abbatis, &c., and have a supply of water. The lower story will be barricaded with what materials may be at hand, and loop-holes be contrived in the windows of the upper. Cover for the enemy, if time will permit, ought to be cleared away in front, and above all things a flanking fire ought to be obtained; a porch affords a good one along the front of a building. The church in a village will be of course the citadel, the streets leading to it being blocked up by waggons, trees, fences, &c".

Forest Warfare in 1840s North America - Part 1

The 24th Regiment in summer dress, 1840

In 1842, war with the United States was regarded as a distinct possibility in British military circles. There had already been tensions over the Canada/ Maine border and American involvement in two rebellions, as well as American insurgents crossing the border. Eighteen regular regiments were stationed in Canada, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (all separate entities at this stage), as well as 2 battalions of the Rifle Brigade and 2 cavalry regiments (see previous blog for more details).

Fortifications such as Fort Henry had been built at great expense, but much of the fighting would probably be in the heavily wooded countryside, as it had been in the previous two failed attempts to invade Canada, in 1776 and 1812.

In the 1842 volume of the United Service Magazine of London (available as a free Google ebook) Sir J.E. Alexander of the 14th Regiment of Foot, stationed in Canada, gave his thoughts of the special requirements of fighting in this area, in an article entitled "On Bush Fighting"

From the tone of the article it is clear that some officers reckoned that parade drill would suffice, in Canada as it had in Waterloo.

" Some old officers think that the rifle is not equal to the musket and bayonet, in or out of the woods—that one fire with a common piece, and a charge under cover of the smoke, will clear every enemy from the front."

Sir Alexander firmly disagrees, pointing out that in the successful campaign in Canada in 1814
"it was found necessary to intermingle the newly arrived regulars with the Glengarry Light Infantry, a provincial corps, to show them how to cover themselves, and to teach them, in short, wood-craft."

In contrast, he  believes in the virtues of "light infantry training", as was being introduced for all British regiments at the time, and gives some advice on adapting this to the North American theatre, the nature of which is given in the following passage...

" In bush-ranging, his camping ground may at one time be among rocks overhanging a clear stream, alive with fish; at another among majestic trees on the edge of a prairie richly decked with wild flowers; a third bivouac maybe on a hill-side, commanding a prospect over boundless forests and lakes, frequented only by wild fowl."


Campaigning was likely to involve long marches in difficult terrain.

"For British troops to rival the walking and running feats of Indians, (who, lightly equipped, can march in a day five times the distance the white man accomplishes, and Kafirs, as we know, can accomplish seventy miles in one day,) it would be well if much more attention were paid than there is at present to gymnastic exercises. "

To this end Alexander recommend that sport be encouraged at every opportunity, so that " the men could leap, wrestle, spar, play single-stick, and otherwise harden and make supple their frames". Especially to be encouraged were the " exhilarating games of football and cricket" but even skittles or quoits would help. However, he cautions though that " Moderate, active, and daily exercise is what does good to the frame, not a sudden and violent strain on the .system. We speak from long experience in training."

 Sir Alexander does not refer to the harsh Canadian winter, but it was one more reason that the men had to be fit. Here we see the 43rd Regiment marching by the St Lawrence, to New Bruswick from Canada.

Furthermore, equipment should be adjusted to the conditions. Alexander recommends jettisoning as "much useless leather" as possible including the "large crowned shako" worn at the time, and that all "useless baggage (the bane of Indian armies)" dispensed with.  Boots should be primed with "talin and rosin melted together".

Training should involve as much actual field work as possible

Alexander quotes Colonel James Fitzgibbon, formerly of the 49th, that
" Without much practice in the bush, the men cannot have such confidence in themselves or in one another, and must, through ignorance, greatly expose themselves to the enemy's fire".

To this end, "Preparatory to taking the field, it is highly desirable, in many of our colonies, that the troops should be drilled in the woods, both by companies and in greater numbers."

Duties of an officer

" In the bush, a cheerful demeanour, without the least familiarity, is best; being on the move, has naturally an exhilarating effect, and if an officer is seen contentedly to partake of the very same fare as his men, they will cheerfully go through much rough work."

As well as taking care of his men, ensuring they have good food and lodging, Alexander recommends that an officer should pay careful attention to the individuals under his command.

" The peculiar superiority possessed by each individual would be ascertained, and well known in his company, and when choice men were wanted for a forlorn hope, or for any other special service, the fittest men could at once be selected. Swimmers, for example, where swimmers only could be of service. Men thus grouped together would have the highest confidence in each other; under the influence of which confidence they would be elevated and stimulated to make greater efforts than under other circumstances."