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After majoring in history at the University of British Columbia, Ludwig Dyck went on to write numerous articles for popular history magazines. His book, "The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest," has been re-published by Pen & Sword Books.

The Gothic Wars -Battle of Adrianople 378 AD

The Gothic Wars

The Battle of Adrianople

The death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople during the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD, was one of the decisive battles in Western history.

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

In 376 AD the Goths appeared on the lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. They came as a whole tribe, with warriors, women and children. They came on foot, on horseback, and in lumbering ox-drawn wagons, refugees on the retreat from a foe even fiercer than themselves. They came knocking on the Roman door.

A Germanic people and originally of Scandinavian origin, the Goths migrated from their homeland in eastern Germany to the shores of the Black Sea in the late 2nd century AD. In 247 their raids on the Roman Empire began in earnest. On land and sea, the Goths spread terror for nearly a quarter of a century and defeated the Roman army of Emperor Decius, who was killed in battle against the invaders.

The Romans managed to contain the Gothic threat, but the western branch of the Goths, the Visigoths (“wise Goths”) pushed into the abandoned Roman province of Dacia (Transylvania). Not until the reign of Constantine the Great was a lasting peace procured with the Visigoths. They became federates of the Empire, which they were obliged to protect in exchange for yearly monetary subsidies. To the east of the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths (“bright Goths”), under their great King Hermanic, meanwhile built up a vast empire of barbarian peoples that stretched from northeast of the Dniester to the shores of the Baltic.

Visigoths by Angus McBride

The nominally peaceful relations between Goth and Roman continued for about half a century. War resumed in 364, however, when the Visigoths interfered in a Roman civil war. But the rightful heir to the East Roman Empire, Emperor Flavius Julius Valens, not only managed to squash the usurper to his throne but drove the Goths back north across the Danube and pursued them into their homelands.

As it turned out, the latest Gothic incursions were but a tremor compared to the earthquake that was unleashed with the appearance of the Huns, a pastoral Mongoloid people who roamed the steppes between the Caspian and Aral seas. Political turmoil in their own lands caused the Huns to press toward Eastern Europe.

‘Desperate and Dangerous’ After Being Defeated by the Huns

Like the Goths, the Huns were not numerous, but relied on cunning, brutality, terror, and above all the speed and endurance of their sturdy ponies. In 372 they routed the Alans, a nomadic people of Iranian or Turkish origin, from their homeland north of the Caucasus and south of the river Don. The armies of Hermanic were next to fall; the old king slew himself in despair. Neither his successor nor the Visigoths were able to stop the Huns, whose swift mounted archers cut down the Goth infantry from afar.

The Huns are part of numerous legends of the Germanic heroic age. The image above shows Geatish King Gizur challenging the Huns By Peter Nicolai Arbo – Public Domain

Their defeat at the hands of the Huns caused great turmoil among the Goth tribes. Many became subjects of the Huns while others wandered west. The more anti-Roman and anti-Christian factions of the Visigoths pushed into the Carpathians, but the bulk of the Visigoths, the powerful Tervingi, under the leadership of Fritigern and Alavivus, sought refuge within the confines of the Roman Empire and trekked toward the Danube border, where they appeared in 376.

So it was that the Roman Empire suddenly found itself faced with upward of 50,000 barbarians in desperate need of food and land. The obvious danger was that a refusal of the Tervingi pleas would result in war. The issue demanded the personal attention of the Eastern Emperor Valens, who had successfully dealt with the Goths a decade previous. Unfortunately for the Romans, Valens was over 300 miles to the south, at Antioch, and involved in a war against the Persians.

To deal with barbarian invasions and with the more organized Persians, the Roman emperors of the late fourth century had at their disposal an army in excess of half a million men. However, the Empire’s borders were vast and the bulk of the troops were in stationary garrisons, the limitanei. Only a third were in the better trained and armed mobile army, the comitatenses. Virtually none of the soldiers and few of the generals were Romans, the soldiers being recruited from the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, Gaul, and the African frontiers, or from beyond the Rhine and Danube. Indeed, contingents of Goth troops served within the ranks of the eastern army. The barbarian ethnic origins of the Roman troops increased their fighting prowess but at the same time undermined their reliability and loyalty.

Late Roman army – post mid 4th century CE. Artwork by Johnny Shumate Pinterest

Defiantly, the Goths Refused to be Disarmed

In the east, the bulk of the Roman mobile army was deployed against Persia. The immediate defense of the lower Danube would have to be carried out by the barely adequate Thracian garrison. After much heated debate among ministers and councilors, the pleas of the Tervingi were accepted on the condition that their warriors be disarmed. Without their weapons the Goths would pose little threat and present a handy source of recruits for the legions.

Late in 376 the Tervingi received news of their acceptance. As a gesture of goodwill to the Romans, Fritigern and his people accepted the religion of the Emperor, that of Arianism, a creed of Christianity that believed Jesus the Son to be mortal and separate from, not co-eternal with, God the Father. In spite of such a show of friendship, the Tervingi prudently refused to obey the Roman demands of disarmament and defiantly kept their weapons.

The Tervingi crossed the Danube on boats and rafts made up of tree trunks. Heavy rains had swollen the river and not a few Goths drowned in its ice-cold torrents. The barbarians camped on the southern bank of the river near Durostorum (Silistria) where they endured a bitter winter. Not only were Roman food supplies barely adequate, but the corrupt Roman Count of Thrace, Lupicinus, used the supplies destined for the Goths to run a black market. The barbarians were reduced to starvation and forced to barter the favors of their women and sell their children into slavery in return for dog meat dished out by the Romans.

Gothic tribes seeking refuge across the Danube by Angus McBride

Around this time a tribe of Ostrogoths, the Greuthungi, appeared on the Danube border. Under their leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, the Greuthungi managed to avoid Hunnish subjugation. Like the Tervingi, they wished to cross into the Empire. The Romans rejected their request. The Tervingi, after all, had been former federates, but the Greuthungi were an unknown factor. Roman troops deployed along the Danube as river patrols forced the Greuthungi to remain on the river’s north bank, but this was soon to change.

No longer would they suffer Hunger and Slavery

Early in 377, back at the Tervingi camp, tensions ran high and there were murmurs of revolt. To intimidate the angry barbarians, Lupicinus assembled the Roman Danube garrisons and shepherded the whole tribe toward his headquarters at Marcianople. There he might keep a better eye on them, even rid himself of potentially rebellious chieftains. But with the Danube defenses stripped of their troops, the way became clear for the Greuthungi, who forded the river and followed in the Tervingi’s wake.

At Marcianople, Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to a dinner conference. While the chiefs’ honor guard remained outside the palace, Fritigern and Alavivus pleaded their case to Lupicinus. Of the two, Alavivus was probably the most vocal. Meanwhile, outside of the city, Roman soldiers kept the hungry Tervingi multitude away from the city’s walls. The barbarians soon turned unruly. The Romans tried to quiet them by dragging away troublesome individuals. But such bullying only inflamed the Tervingi more and some of them picked fights with the Roman soldiers.

Inside the palace, Lupicinus seemed drowsy after a luxurious meal followed by a noisy floor show. When he heard of the troubles outside the city, he suddenly ordered the Tervingi chiefs’ guard of honor to be put to death and for Alavivus to be seized and held captive. The situation looked equally dire for Fritigern but he cleverly wormed his way out of the predicament. Perhaps not too dismayed at having been rid of his rival, he promised Lupicinus to prevent bloodshed if released. It was a ruse. With swords drawn, Fritigern and his personal retainers made their way through the palace and angry crowds gathered in the city. Alavivus was never heard of again.

Once back with his people, Fritigern promptly struck out to loot the countryside. No longer would he heed the will of the Romans, no longer would they suffer hunger and slavery. From now on the Goths would take what they wanted and make war on those who opposed them. The mournful blare of the barbarian battle horns—of the wild bull, the Uri—resounded across the countryside.

In answer Lupicinus mustered his troops and met the Goths nine miles outside Marcianople. The Roman troops fought bravely but the onslaught of the Goths proved unstoppable. Leaving his troops to be slain among their fallen standards, cowardly Lupicinus rode away to hide behind Marcianople’s walls.

The Tervingi warriors equipped themselves with the arms and armor of the slain Roman soldiers. Soon after, they joined up with the Greuthungi. Their combined forces raided all the way to Adrianople. Outside the city, Fritigern found yet more allies. In light of recent events, the city populace had turned on a regiment of Goths that had formerly been part of Adrianople’s garrison. Surrounded by a clamorous multitude, which pelted the Goths with missiles, the barbarians beat their way out of their encampment in the city suburbs with their blades.

The newcomers enthusiastically joined Fritigern who led their combined forces in an assault against Adrianople’s walls. But the Goths lacked knowledge of siege craft and the city’s defenders were well armed; Adrianople was a locale of fabricae, Imperial armament factories. The barbarians suffered heavy casualties with no gain. Fritigern counseled from now on “to keep peace with walls.”1

“Everything Was Consumed in an Orgy of Killing and Burning…”

Unable to seize Adrianople, the Goths broke up into smaller bands to plunder the Thracian countryside. Escaped slaves, primarily mine workers, drifted in to join Fritigern’s army. Numerous Goth children, whom the Romans had dragged into slavery, were restored to the joyful embrace of their parents. Upon the Roman civilian population the barbarians exacted brutal vengeance. “Everything was consumed in an orgy of killing and burning that paid no regard to age or sex,”2 wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century Greek historian and principal source for the Goth wars.

To restore order, strong detachments of Roman troops from Armenia arrived in Thrace. Word also reached Flavius Gratian, the 18-year-old West Roman Emperor and nephew of Valens. Gratian sent regiments from Pannonia and Gaul led by Count Richomer the Frank. But even before the western reinforcements arrived, the Armenians managed to drive large numbers of barbarians into the defiles of the Haemus Mountains and push Fritigern’s main army into the marshy region of the northern Dobrudja near the town of Salices.

Gothic-Wars-Battle-of-Adrianople-04

With his back to the Danube and the shore of the Black Sea, Fritigern decided to make his stand. The Goths drew up a laager (a circle of wagons) and went on the defensive. Not wishing to risk an attack on the Goth wagon fortress, the Romans planned to wait until hunger forced the Goths to break camp. To the frustration of the Romans, Fritigern got word of the enemy plan through a deserter and stoutly remained inside his wagon fortress. To bolster his forces, Fritigern called in all nearby raiding parties.

In late summer 377 Fritigern decided to press the attack against the inferior Roman forces. The Romans were ready and the two sides met at the crack of dawn in Ad Salices, “the battle of the Willows.” The Romans’ barbarian troops began the attack with the “barritus,” the battle song that began softly and then worked its way up to a deafening roar. The Goths responded with a thunderous chant in praise of their forefathers.

A hail of javelins, sling-shot, and arrows at long range descended on both sides, which advanced behind the barrier of shield walls. The infantry lines clashed while Goth and Roman cavalry skirmished along the flanks, chopping down loose infantry units and stragglers. With huge fire-hardened clubs the Goths threatened to cave in the Roman left wing. A fierce counterattack by Roman reserves restored the situation. Both Roman and Goth fought with unrelenting tenacity but neither could win the upper hand. At nightfall each army crept away to lick its wounds. Flocks of ravens and other carrion feeders descended upon the battlefield, which years later remained covered with the bones of the fallen.

Barbarian Hordes Pillaged with Impunity

The Romans fell back to their blockade and a lull set in. Richomer returned to the west to obtain further troops and orders from Gratian. The remaining Roman forces set up a system of outposts and pickets to maintain the blockade, which dragged on into November.

Once again the Goths faced starvation. Their future looked bleak, but Fritigern, with promises of booty, managed to entice Alani and Hun bands to cross into the Empire and join his Goth army. The newcomers tipped the balance of power and caused the Romans, who feared an imminent breach of their thin lines, to order a general withdrawal.

Hordes of barbarians now pillaged throughout Thrace. At Dibaltum the Romans suffered yet another defeat when a large troop of retreating Roman infantry was ambushed and annihilated by Goth cavalry. Emperor Valens received the news of the recent disasters while still at Antioch. He hastily concluded a peace with Persia. With the extra troops now available he left for Constantinople in 378 to personally take the field against the Goths.

When Valens arrived at Constantinople on May 30 he was dismayed to find the public in a state of unrest over his disastrous Goth policy. Brutal and sadistic, the pot-bellied and bow-legged emperor had never been popular with the people who suffered through his purges of torture, public execution, and banishment that followed the civil war of the previous decade. It also did not help matters that he was of the increasingly detested Arian faith.

To avoid the crowds, Valens stayed in his capital only a few days before he moved his headquarters to the nearby village of Melanthias. He decided to replace the commander of his infantry, Trajanus, with Sebastianus, an able general who had personally requested his recent transfer to Constantinople. Trajanus, nevertheless, remained in the emperor’s service.

At Melanthias, Valens attempted to boost the morale of his soldiers with pay, supplies, and flattery. The perhaps 20,000-man army then slowly marched toward Nice. Sebastianus and an elite corps of two thousand lightly armed soldiers were sent ahead to conduct guerrilla warfare against the barbarians.

Sometime in June, scouts brought the news of a large number of barbarians near Adrianople. The barbarians, heavily laden with booty, had returned from a devastating raid into the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains and were pulling back farther to the main Goth camp between Beroea and Nicopolis. Sebastianus set out in pursuit. Along the shores of the river Hebrus, he fell upon the Goths in a night ambush and killed all but a few.

More good news for the Romans was on the way with the arrival of a letter from West Roman Emperor Gratian. Gratian recently beat back serious Alemanni (West German) incursions over the Rhine and was coming to aid his uncle with the Goths. Encouraged by Sebastianus’s victory and Gratian’s forthcoming reinforcements, Valens marched forth from Nice to Adrianople, arriving at the city in mid-July.

At Adrianople, Valens received Richomer returning from the west with more news from Gratian, who beseeched his uncle to wait for his arrival and not to do anything rash. Information also came in from his scouts, who told Valens of Goth cavalry activity to his rear, threatening to sever the supply line to Constantinople. Valens sent a regiment of infantry and archers to secure the roads to his capital and entrenched his army in front of Adrianople, within a strong rampart and moat, to await his nephew. An eventual Roman victory seemed assured. However,  Valens smoldered with jealousy over his popular young nephew’s recent victory. Valens resented having to be bailed out by Gratian and wished that he alone could claim the victory laurels.

Barbarians at the Gates of Rome

On the Goth side, Fritigern was faced with the problem of how to lure Valens into battle before Gratian’s arrival —his Goth army was too weak to risk an attack on the fortified Roman encampment. Fortunately for Fritigern, Gratian was delayed by Alan raiders at Casta Martis, in eastern Dacia, who may have been acting in concert with the Goth leader. Fritigern then gathered his various foraging parties to prevent them from being destroyed piecemeal by Sebastianus, and marched to Cabyle. From there he descended toward Adrianople. Circumventing the city, he struck toward Nice to position himself between Constantinople and Valens’ army.

Roman scouts reported that the Goth army was a bare 15 miles from Adrianople, advancing toward Nice, and numbered a mere 10,000. Such tidings further strengthened Valens’ resolve to engage them on his own. After all, with a two-to-one numerical superiority, Valens could scarcely stand idly by with the main Goth army poised to ravage the countryside all the way to the gates of his capital.

A council of war was held. Victor the Sarmatian, a cavalry commander and veteran of Valens’ earlier Goth war, spoke for many of the generals who urged Valens to wait for Gratian. In contrast, Sebastianus, roused by his own success, counseled an immediate attack in what he saw as an assured victory.

At this point an Arian priest, sent by Fritigern, arrived at the Roman camp. The priest declared that the Goths were willing to accept peace if the province of Thrace, along with all its livestock and grain, was ceded to them. He also slipped Valens a secret note from Fritigern. The note asked the emperor to move out with his army to overawe Fritigern’s unruly barbarians into accepting a peace.

Valens aims to crush the Goths once and for all!

No doubt the Goth’s desire for Thrace was sincere. But their belief that the emperor would simply give it to them seemed incredibly naïve to the point of being a coverup for luring the Romans into battle. Not surprisingly Valens rejected the “peace” proposal. A decade previous Valens had defeated the Goths; he was sure he could do so again. On the morning of August 9 Valens led his army from Adrianople to crush the Goths once and for all!

The sun beat down mercilessly, with temperatures reaching of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the blazing heat,  the Roman soldiers  force-marched 12 miles over rough ground to Fritigern’s camp. Cavalry led the front of the column and brought up the rear, with the infantry in the middle. The infantry made up about two-thirds of the army; it consisted of thousand-men-strong, heavily armed, legions and smaller units of more versatile auxilia. Around two in the afternoon, before having their midday meal, the tired and hungry Romans unexpectedly stumbled upon the Goths. They were encamped on a hill, as usual, within their wagon burg.

Overconfident, Valens had ordered inadequate reconnaissance. The Romans were caught off guard and still strung out along the road. With much confusion and delay, barbarian howls, and a clash of shields, the Roman soldiers began to form their lines of battle. The lead cavalry took position on the right, the infantry eventually formed the center, and the rear cavalry charged ahead and attempted to form the left wing. A corps of Batavi, a Frankish tribe renowned for its cavalry, remained behind as a reserve. To make things even more difficult for the Romans, the Goths lit fires on the plain between the two armies. The heat and smoke became all but unbearable to the Romans while the Goths were able to seek shelter beneath the cool shade of their wagons.

Nevertheless, like the Romans, the Goths proved unprepared for battle. Fritigern’s entire cavalry, under Alatheus and Saphrax, were out foraging, so that only the Goth infantry defended the camp. At once Fritigern summoned Alatheus and Saphrax back. To buy time until their arrival he dispatched more envoys to the Romans. These were men of humble origins and at first were scorned by the emperor. The last brought an appeal from Fritigern who pleaded that, in return for noble Roman hostages, he would do all in his power to secure a peace. Valens accepted Fritigern’s dubious proposal. Either he, too, wished to buy time to properly deploy his troops, or the fortified position of the enemy and the exhausted state of his own men caused him to reconsider not waiting for Gratian.

The Goth Army strikes like a Thunderbolt from the Mountains

Brave Richomer volunteered to be the hostage but he never reached the Goth camp. On his way to the Goths, his overeager bodyguard of archers and skirmishers lost their nerve and prematurely opened fire. A limited Goth counterattack threw the skirmishers back against their own lines in confusion. Valens decided to order a general advance. The Roman infantry was still not fully deployed but the cavalry was ready. At this moment the cavalry of Alatheus and Saphrax appeared on both flanks of the Goth laager. The Greuthungi chiefs wasted no time and led the five thousand or so Goth, Alan, and Hun horsemen in a wild charge down the hillside.

The Goth cavalry hit the Roman cavalry, in Ammianus’s words, “like a thunderbolt from the mountains.”3 The Roman right wing cavalry was closing in on the Gothic camp when it was completely overwhelmed and scattered by the furious charge of the barbarians. The cavalry on the Roman left wing fared even worse. Having advanced too fast it opened a dangerous gap between it and the Roman infantry. Into this gap rode the Goth cavalry to strike the Roman cavalry from the sides and rear. Hewn to pieces, the Roman horsemen were swept from the field or driven back upon their infantry.The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

With the Roman cavalry eliminated, Alatheus and Saphrax’s horsemen galloped around the Roman infantry’s flanks and rear. Caught between the hammer of the enemy cavalry and the anvil of the wagon ramparts, the Roman soldiers were pressed together amid much confusion. Vast clouds of dust all but obscured a sky thick with the arrows of Goth archers.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Like an avalanche the Goth infantry now broke loose from behind the wagon barricades and stormed upon the legions. Surrounded and crowded, many a Roman soldier had scarce room to draw back his sword arm. But the men who fought for Rome were barbarians themselves—warriors who refused to give up without a fight. Ammianus captured the savageness of the battle:

“Strokes of Axes Split Helmet and Breastplate”

“The lines dashed together like beaked ships and tossed about like waves at seas. On both sides strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. One might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance. The infantry, their lances broke, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives.”4

The battle continued until sunset, when what remained of the Roman lines finally broke under the pressure. Valens himself stood among a battalion of elite Palatini troops, the lancearii and mattiarii who thus far had held back the enemy. Trajanus, who was with the emperor, cried out that all hope was lost unless the Batavi reserves came to the rescue. Upon hearing Trajanus’s words, General Victor hastened to find the Batavi only to find that they had already taken to flight. Everywhere the Goths, berserk with rage, hacked down fleeing Imperial infantry with their double-edged long swords or impaled them on their spears, whether they surrendered or not. Victor decided to make good his escape while he could.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Behind Victor the Palatini finally gave way to the Goths. With all but his personal bodyguard bolting in panic, Valens too attempted to flee but was mortally wounded by an arrow. Dragged to a nearby peasant’s cottage by his entourage, his bodyguard fought another small unit action against the Goths. Without knowing that the emperor himself was inside the building, the Goths set it aflame, burning everyone inside. Thus ended Valens’ 14-year reign. To the Catholic Christians of the day, it seemed that the fires of Hell had claimed the hated “Arian” Valens.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

The emperor did not die alone. Beneath a dark, moonless night, the blood-drenched battlefield was covered with heaps of the 14,000 dead Roman soldiers, virtually the entire Roman infantry. Along with Victor, Richomer managed to flee the slaughter but they were the exception. Trajanus, Sebastianus, the Masters of the Stables and of the Palace, and 35 tribunes were killed. Of the Gothic losses there are no records, but considering the length of the battle they too must have been heavy.

A Bane for Rome, a Boon for the Goths

Adrianople was one of the greatest military disasters in Roman history, later heralded as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. Its immediate consequences, however, were negligible. The Goths, now splendidly equipped with Roman arms and armor, marched on to Adrianople where they hoped to capture Valens’ war treasury and supplies.

The second Goth siege of Adrianople began with preliminary and confused engagements in the suburbs on August 10. A thunderstorm dispersed the attacking army. Fritigern, who wisely remembered his earlier inability to capture the city, opposed a direct assault in favor of deserters within the city who were willing to open the gates to the Goths. When this plan failed the other Goth chiefs overruled Fritigern’s caution, and on the 12th the Goths fervently stormed the walls.

Accompanied by the drone of war horns, the chiefs led the assault. The city was jammed to the limit with war refugees from the defeated Roman army, who ably manned heavy catapults and other missile weapons in the city’s defense. With many of their men skewered by the javelins or crushed beneath the monstrous rocks of siege engines, the Goths failed to make any headway. Both below the walls and on the parapets, dead Goths and Romans lay in heaps.

The Death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople During the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD.

Frustrated, the Goths decided to move toward Constantinople. Only when they got there did they seem to realize the utter inadequacy of their army in face of the Roman capital’s lofty fortifications. After being given a bloody nose by a sortie of Arab horsemen, the Goths abandoned any hope of taking Constantinople. This deprived Fritigern of the much-needed supplies to keep his army unified. Once again his army splintered into various small factions that preyed upon the hapless Thracian rural population.

Gratian realized that the disaster of Adrianople meant a lengthy and drawn-out campaign against the Goths—a campaign that he, with his commitments in the west, would not be able to carry out. Accordingly, in January of 379 he raised Theodosius the Spaniard, a veteran commander of the Illyrian cavalry, to be Emperor of the East.

Rome Pays a High Cost for Peace

During the next three years Theodosius had his hands full. In 380 Fritigern and the Tervingi raided as far as Thessaly where they inflicted a defeat on Theodosius. Meanwhile, Alatheus and Saphrax led the Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns into northern Illyricum but suffered a loss to Gratian’s army. The following year, small-scale actions against scattered Goth raiders drove both bands back into Thrace.

By 382 Fritigern had disappeared from the scene, due to death or because he lost the support of his followers. After years of wandering around the Balkans and continuous minor skirmishes, the Goths had become weary of battle and were ready for a peaceful resolution. Theodosius was ready to give them one.

The Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns were settled in Pannonia II and the Tervingi in Moesia II, the same region originally granted by Valens. However, under Theodosius both groups became federates of the Empire, were not required to pay tribute, and received high pensions in return for their military services. Vast numbers of Goths were also enrolled into the Imperial army, again at extraordinary salaries. Theodosius became “the friend of peace and the Gothic people.”5

For the Romans peace finally reigned throughout the land, albeit at a high monetary cost and with potentially dangerous high numbers of Germans in the army. As to the Huns, the original cause of the whole war, their migration toward the west petered out, as for now they consolidated their rule over the Ostrogoths and the former Visigoth lands of Old Dacia.

The Beginning of Rome’s End?

The battle of Adrianople has traditionally been seen as the deathblow to the legions and the advent of a thousand-year supremacy of cavalry on the battlefield. The Gothic victory is often described as one of heavy cavalry over infantry. True, after they routed the Roman cavalry, the Goth horsemen ensured the encirclement of the legions. But the ratio of cavalry units on both sides was roughly equal, with infantry comprising the bulk of both forces. The reason for the Roman defeat was not so much a lack of cavalry, but poor leadership and exhausted and disorganized troops having to fight a fresh and better-led enemy.

As to the advantage of cavalry over infantry, this was nothing new. Although for a long time the Roman army, to its detriment, continued to lack an adequate cavalry arm, the increasing strain put on the Roman army by mounted barbarians and Persian Sassanids in the third century caused the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine to raise the prevalence of the cavalry. Even the Praetorian Guard was disbanded, to be replaced by a new guard, the scholae palantinae, made up of barbarian cavalry. Thus Adrianople was less a turning point than part of an ongoing trend in which Rome’s enemies were increasingly mounted and Rome’s armies had to follow suit. By the fifth century this trend led to the cavalry replacing the legions as the primary unit of the Roman army.

The real importance of Valens’ defeat lay in the eventual peace settlement that occurred in the battle’s aftermath. For the first time, whole tribes of armed barbarians were settled within the borders of the Empire. This marked a new and ultimately disastrous stage in Roman-German relations. With whole regions given over to the rule of barbarian tribes, it was only a matter of time before these tribes declared total independence from Rome and thereby threatened to dismember the Empire from within.

 

“The Gothic Wars, The Battle of Adrianople” was first published in Military Heritage Magazine in the June 2001 issue and republished online at Warfare History Network, October 2015. The above version has been re-edited by the author and includes additional images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.

Notes

1. Heather P.J.,  Goths and Romans 332-489 (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991), p. 142, Marcellinus Ammianus, The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378) (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 31. 6, p. 422. 2. Marcellinus Ammianus , Book 31. 6-7, 3. Macrellinus Ammianus . Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John. C.Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939, p. 471., 4. Macrellinus Ammianus  p. 473-475, 5. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths (Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California, 1990), p. 131.

Sources

Ammianus Macrellinus. Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John. C.Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939, Bury.J.B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: The Norton Library. 1967, Cary M. and Scullard. H.H. A History of Rome. London: MacMillan Education. 1988, Delbruck Hans. The Barbarian Invasions. Trans. By Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. London: University of Nebraska Press. 1990, Dupuy Ernest R. and Dupuy Trevor N. The Encyclopaedia of Military History. New York: Harper & Row. 1986, Ferrill Arther. The Fall of the Roman Empire-The Military Explanation. London: Thames & Hudson. 1986, Gibbon Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol.III. London: Methuen & Co. 1909, Gunther R. Korsunskij. Germanen Erobern Rome. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. 1988, Heather P.J. Goths and Romans 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991, Lot Ferdinand. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row. 1965, Macdowall Simon. Germanic Warrior 236-568 AD. London: Osprey. 1996, Malcom Todd. Everyday Life of the Barbarians. New York. Dorset Press. 1972, Norwich John Julius. Byzantium The Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books. 1990, Sandell Roger. Attila the Hun. in Command Magazine. Issue 47. Feb. 1998, Williams S. and Gerard Friell. Theodosius The Empire at Bay. London: Batsford Ltd. 1994, Wolfram Herwig. Geschichte der Goten. Munchen: Verlag C.H. Beck. 1983 also used English edition.(E), Zosimus. Historia Nova: The Decline of Rome. Trans. By James J. Buchanan and Harold T. Davis. Trinity University Press. 1967.

 

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Charlemagne: Warlord of the Franks

Charlemagne: Warlord of the Franks

With warrior skills learned at his father’s side, Charles the Great—Charlemagne—carved out a mighty empire in strife-torn western Europe

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

On Christmas morning, 800 AD, a tall, powerfully built man walked up the steps of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Highly pious but by no means meek, Charles, ruler of the Frankish empire, had come—so he thought—simply to attend mass. In his mid-fifties, Charles retained the characteristic vigor for which he was known, his muscles hardened by years of warfare and his two favorite pastimes, hunting and swimming. Charles  usually preferred the blue cloak and cross-gartered leggings of his own people. Today, however, he had obliged Pope Leo III, who had asked Charles to wear a long tunic, Greek mantle, and shoes of Roman fashion. Despite his classical garb, Charles’  fair skin, golden hair, piercing blue eyes, and great height marked him as a man of the cold, gloomy northern realms.

If Charles had had any inkling of the elaborate ceremony about to take place, he likely would have avoided the entire affair. He was a no-nonsense sort of individual, a man more accustomed to giving orders than to taking them. But as a scrupulously practicing Catholic, he felt it his duty to obey a summons from the Pope, even one who had a good deal more reason to obey Charles than the Frankish king had to obey him.

“The Most Pious Augustus”

Once inside the church, Charles was surprised and somewhat taken aback by the emotional greeting accorded him by the Pope. Leo, having barely escaped imprisonment and mutilation by his political enemies on spurious charges of perjury and adultery, owed his recent reinstatement to Charles. Charles had publicly shown his support of the Pope and demanded that he be restored to his seat as bishop of Rome. Now the grateful Leo returned the favor by placing a golden crown on the king’s startled head while the entire congregation cried out a blessing: “To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, life and victory!”1 After 324 years, there was once again an emperor in the West—not that Charles, better known to history as Charlemagne, needed a papal decree to make him emperor. He had already been one in fact, if not in name, for many years.

Through Charles’ great heart pumped the blood of the Franks, one of the major Germanic tribal groups. Centuries earlier the Franks poured into Roman Gaul from their homelands on the lower Rhine. The western Roman Empire was in its death throws and the great migrations were in full swing. Axe wielding Frank infantry, mailed Goth cavalry and fearsome Hun archers, among a colorful array of tribes, carved up the carcass of the western empire. The final act came in 476 AD, when Odoacer, a half Germanic, half  Hun, barbarian general, disposed the last of the West Roman Emperors and became king of Italy.

In northern Gaul, King Clovis (c.465-511) consolidated the Franks’ hold on on the land through a combination of force and deceit. Although born a pagan, Clovis’ shrewd mind saw the Catholic Orthodox Church as a potential ally and unifying force. Clovis allowed himself to be baptized, along with thousands of his troops.

The Merovingian Franks are usurped by the Carolingians

Hedonistic excesses inevitably sapped the vigor of Clovis’s dynasty, the long-haired Merovingians. Their power gradually gravitated into the hands of their leading officials, the Arnulfing, or as they later became known, the Carolingians. The most famous of these usurpers was Charles Martel—the Hammer—who in 732 repulsed a Moorish invasion of Europe at the Battle of Tours and henceforth was immortalized as a savior of Christendom.

Pepin III, father of Charlemagne

Martel’s grandson, eight-year-old Charles, must have looked up to his grandfather with awe. Born out of wedlock, Charles was the oldest of three children born to Pepin III, known by the unflattering nickname Pepin the Short, and to  Bertrada of Laon. While his father was disposing of the last of the Merovingian kings in 751, Charles was learning from grizzled veterans how to use the weapons of war—the spear, the round shield with its heavy iron boss, the single-edged short sword, and the most powerful weapon of all, the double-edged long sword. It was a skill that would stand him in good stead in years to come.

Frankish arms (Altaipanther – Own work, Public Domain)

The western Europe of Charles’s youth was fragmented by tribal rivalries, the growing power of the Catholic Church, the encroachment of Islam, and the waning influence of the Byzantine Empire. All these factions jockeyed for advantage and territory. In 754 a  tear-stained Pope Stephen II threw himself at Pepin’s feet and begged for his aid against the “most evil Lombards.”2  Stephen was hoping that Pepin would help the Church retain its tenuous hold on Rome and the rest of Italy. At the time, the most prominent power in Italy was Lombard King Aistulf, who had just swallowed up the last Byzantine lands around Ravenna and was threatening to do the same to Rome. Aistulf swore that the he would butcher all the Romans unless they submit.

Honoring the Franks’ Ancient Alliance

Fortunately for the Church, Pepin decided to honor the Franks’ ancient alliance, which went back to the days of Clovis. Pepin not only wrested the Byzantine lands away from the Lombards but, instead of handing them back to their rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor, he gave them to the Church instead. In gratitude, the Pope anointed Pepin and his sons, Charles and his younger brother Carloman, as his rightful heirs.

Besides the Lombards, Pepin also fought Saxon and Moorish raiders. More often than not, Charles was at his father’s side. After a lengthy campaign, the Gothic kingdom of Septimania (Mediterranean France)  was conquered and subdued in 759. Thereafter, the renowned Goth cavalry became a loyal Frankish ally. The rebel kingdom of Aquitaine, however, gave Pepin more trouble. During the eight-year-long Aquitaine War, Pepin’s Bavarian vassal, Duke Tassilo, refused to send any help, thus beginning a long feud between him and the Carolingians. Pepin, preoccupied by the fighting in Aquitaine, was unable to resolve the feud and bring Tassilo back into line.

When Pepin III passed away in 768 his Kingdom was split in Frankish tradition among his two sons. Right away, Charles was faced with a falling-out with his brother and with renewed rebellions in Aquitaine. Egged on by court flatters, Carloman resented having to share his father’s lands with a “bastard,” and refused to help his brother in Aquitaine. Like his father, Charles was left to fight in Aquitaine alone. Charles nevertheless drove the rebel leader into Gascony, whose duke not only surrendered the fugitive, but also submitted his province to Charles. Carloman was infuriated by his brother’s success.

In 770, Charles married the second of his five successive wives, Desiderata, daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius. Engineered by Charles’ mother, it was an effort to smooth out the traditional enmity between Lombards and Franks, but it failed miserably. The Pope was outraged, cursing the union with the “perfidious and foully stinking race of the Lombards.”3 Charles was none too happy himself. Claiming that Desiderata was ill and barren, he sent her back to her insulted father within the year. Relations with the Lombards soured further after Carloman suddenly fell ill and died. When Charles annexed Carloman’s kingdom, Desiderius sheltered the anti-Charles nobles of Carloman’s court, along with Carloman’s wife, Gerberga, and his infant sons. Together, Gerberga and Desiderius hatched plots to check Charles’ growing power.

In 772, Desiderius made another grab for the Papal States and tried  to bully the Pope into declaring that Carloman’s son, not the bastard Charles, was the true king of the Franks. Charles strove to resolve the situation without resorting to violence, offering Desiderius 14,000 solidi in compensation for the Papal lands. Desiderius foolishly interpreted Charlemagne’s goodwill as a sign of weakness and refused the offer. Although it was late in the year and the weather turned foul and cold, Charles believed there was no time to be lost.

Charles called for the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host. Foremost among Charles’ warriors were his elite guard, the “scara,” made up of though, battle hardened Franks, in chain or scale mail armor, with iron coifs and helmets, greaves or vambracers. A scara’s full arms and horse were of enormous expense, costing 40 solidi or as much as over a dozen cows. The military value of mail was such that any merchant exporting mail shirts was forced to forfeit his property. Only the King, his lords and bishops, could afford such splendidly equipped warriors. The bulk of the soldiers, levied by the counts and equipped by their home villages, made due with a spear or a bow and a shield. Charles’ entire armed forces numbered an estimated 30,000 heavily armed cavalry and 120,000 local levies. Most of these were absorbed in garrison duty, however, so that the field armies rarely numbered above 35,000.

Emperor Charlemagne, a Papal Guardsman to the right and a mounted infantry man in the back. Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In a two-pronged attack, Charles’ Frankish warriors descended upon Italy. Charles led one column down the shoulder of Mont Cenis, while his uncle, Count Bernard, moved through the St. Bernard pass, thereafter named after the count’s patron saint.

Cold wind, rain and sleet whipped at the Franks, who drew their cloaks about them and lifted one weary leg after another. Around them, rocks and pathless ridges reared to misty skies and abrupt abysses plunged to unseen depths. The slowly moving columns, with their pack horses, leather-covered ox carts, and a wide array of herdsmen, cooks, carpenters and merchants, pushed steadily onward. When Charles’ column descended into the valley of Susa, the hardest part of the trek was behind it. The soldiers may have breathed a sigh of relief, but they soon saw to their dismay the powerful Lombard fortifications that stretched across the valley ahead. Prince Adelghis, son of Desiderius, had come to contest Charles’ entry into Italy. Undaunted, Charles ordered an immediate assault.

Charlemagne crossing the Alps (Eugene Roger 1807-1840)

Charles takes the Iron Crown of the Lombards

With brawny arms lifting banners high and battle horns resounding, the Franks let loose a thunderous war cry as they tore down upon the Lombard parapets and towers. Lombard bows twanged and arrows thudded into shields and faces. Lombard swords hacked through shoulder bones, blood spurted from rend mail, and spears thrust and parried as the Franks tried vainly to scale the ramparts. Charles contemplated a retreat when, according to legend, a wandering minstrel happened by. The minstrel sang of a secret mountain pass that led to the rear of the Lombard lines. “What reward shall be given to the man who shall safely conduct Charles into Italy?” the singer wondered, “on paths where no spear will be hurled, nor shield raised against him?”4

Whatever the truth of the legend, Charles sent a detachment along a high trail, which afterward was known as “The Way of the Franks.” The next morning, Charles renewed his frontal assault. Suddenly, the Lombards heard the tramp of marching feet, the clatter of arms and the neighing of horses- not just in front of them but behind them as well. Outflanked, the Lombard army broke in wild panic, the Frank cavalry riding down the stragglers. Prince Adelghis had enough. He fled to Verona and from there eventually made his way to the safety of the Byzantine court.

Unlike his son, King Desiderius was not ready to give up yet. He abandoned Susa but rallied his troops for a last stand at Pavia. Meanwhile, Charles reunited with Bernard’s column and advanced unopposed onto the Lombard capital.

A trio of warriors from the age of Charlemagne, left foreground a Austrasian ‘scara’ mounted infantryman, right a Lombard cavalryman and mounted in the back, a Gascon cavalryman Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In fanciful prose the Monk of Saint Gall, one of Charlemagne’s biographers, captured the scene of Desiderius watching from a high tower. Beside Desiderius stood a noble who knew Charles in person. Both anxiously awaited the first sights of the approaching Frankish army:

First the baggage train appeared over the horizon. Desiderius asked, “is that Charles in the midst of that vast array?” “No, not yet” answered the noble.

Next the Frank army marched up, causing Desiderius to snap “now Charles is advancing proudly in the midst of his troops.” When this was still not the case, Desiderius flew into a panic, “ if even more soldiers come into battle…what can we do?

“There now appeared Charles’ escort followed by his abbots and their attendants. By this time Desiderius was sobbing, “let us go down and hide our selves in the earth, in face of the fury of an enemy so terrible.

When you see the field bristle as with ear of iron corn…then you can be sure that Charles is at hand, ” said the noble and with those words, blew “from the west a mighty gale…the wind of the true north…which turned the bright daylight into frightful gloom.

“The Emperor rode ever on…topped with his iron helm, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his Platonic shoulders clad in iron cuirass. An iron spear raised high against the sky” in his other hand “his unconquered sword.” “His shield was of iron, his horse gleamed iron colored” and all those who rode with him wore the same armor. “That is Charles,” exclaimed the noble to Desiderius, who “fell half conscious to the ground.”5

Charles counted upon his scara to breach Pavia’s defenses but in spite of the Desiderius’ apparent weakness, Pavia refused to submit.  Lacking powerful siege equipment, Charles had to settle in for a lengthy investment of Pavia. A siege camp, including a chapel, grew up beneath Pavia’s mighty walls, graced by the arrival of Charles’ new young queen, Hildegard. Before winter passed, Charles found time to visit Rome, where he was given a triumphant reception. Roman soldiers lined the Flamian way, children waved palms and olive branches and sang hymns of praise to the puissant savior of the Church. Meanwhile, disease and famine wore down Pavia’s defenders until in June 774 the city fell to the Franks. Charles seized the Iron Crown of the Lombards and exiled Desiderius to a monastery. Charles’ conniving sister-in-law Gerberga and her children were found at the city of Verona and promptly handed over to Charles. Presumably they too ended their days in a monastery.

Alfred Rethel’s (1816 – 1859) Romantic impression of the triumphant Charlemagne entering Pavia.

During his battles the Lombard cavalry impressed Charles so much that afterwards he made them the the spearhead of his army. The rising popularity of the stirrup in the 8th century transformed man, horse and lance into one massive projectile. Already since the 5th century, cavalry had been the backbone for most armies and now too the Franks were following suite.  To lead the Lombard cavalry in the future and preside over the Carolingian Italian domains, Charles choose his second son by Hildegaard, Pepin. Already in 781, while on a pilgrimage to Rome, Charles had Pepin, who was still a toddler, crowned as King of Italy (r. 781-810).

Even though Desiderius was in exile at the Francia monastery of Corbiento, the feud of his family with Charles had not yet reached its end. One of Desiderius’ daughters, Liutberga, was the wife of Tassilo, the treacherous Duke of Bavaria, and she goaded her husband against Charles. Not that Tassilo need any prodding; what he needed were powerful allies. He looked to Italy, where half of the Lombard lands still remained in the hands of their dukes. There was no questioning the loyalty to Charles of brave Eric, Duke of the march of Friuli, or of Hildebrand, Duke of Spoleto, but Arichis, Duke of Beneveto, was another matter. Arichis eagerly allied himself with Tassilo and the two of them were further strengthened by the alliance of Constantine VI (r.780-797), the Byzantine boy-emperor who was still fuming because he had been denied Charles’ daughter in marriage.

In 888 Charles crushed the brewing conspiracy before it could get out of hand. He first dealt with the Lombard Duke Arichis who fled into the unconquerable fortress of Salerno from where he bend over backwards to appease Charles. To spare the people the ravages of war, Charles accepted Arichis overtures of peace and made Arichis’ son, Grimoald, Duke of Beneveto in his stead.  As Byzantine envoys appeared to indicate a change of heart in their emperor’s stance against Charles, this left only Tassilo of Bavaria of the three conspirators. Having gained Papal support, Charles with his eleven-year-old son Pippin at his side, moved their army of Frank, Italian, Saxon and Thuringian soldiers upon Bavaria in a three-pronged assault. Tassilo, who had so contemptuously refused to acknowledge Charles’ suzerainty, panicked, surrendered, and was shipped off to a distant monastery. Bavaria was now under Charles’ control.

The Ring of the Avars

Before his fall, Tassilo had opened a new Pandora’s box by inviting the much-feared Avars across his borders. From their homelands in Turkestan, the Avars had migrated to settle in the old Roman province of Pannonia (Hungary), subjugating the local Slavs. Under their “Kagan,” the great Khan, they rapidly became a menace to their Slav, Germanic and Byzantine neighbors. For years even the Byzantine Emperor was forced to pay the Avars an annual tribute of an astounding 80,000 gold solidi. Although the Avar Khaganate came to extend over territory of modern-day Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, by the time of Charlemagne its zenith had passed.

Warriors from the age of Charlemagne: A Saxon bowman infantry levy to the right, an Avar horseman to the left and a western Slav tribesman in the back. Artist: Angus McBride (Osprey Men at Arms, The Age of Charlemagne)

In 782, swarthy Avar “jugars” (chiefs) with brightly colored strands interwoven into their hair, had visited Charles’ Royal and Military Assembly in Saxony. They talked of peace but Charles knew that the short, wiry Avars were as dangerous as hungry wolves, no different than his own Franks and the Saxons. If given the chance, they would sink their teeth into his growing empire.

In 788, with Charles busy subduing the troublesome Italian and Bavarian Dukes, the Avars saw their chance. They attacked Friuli in Lombardy but were unsuccessful, then advanced into Bavaria. Again they were defeated and their their terror-stricken warriors hunted down until they drowned in the Danube. After so many defeats, the Avars mused about the wisdom of having attacked Charles’ realm. In 790 their envoys came to Charles’ palace at Aachen to negotiate a mutually acceptable border with Francia along the River Enns. It was too late -the time for talk had passed.

The campaign against the Avar Khaganate was to be carried out by two armies. Charles would lead one down the Rhine, advancing from Bavaria, while a second army under Charles’ son Pepin, King of Italy (r. 781-810) would attack with the Lombards from north eastern Italy.

At the 791 Assembly, enthusiastic cheers greeted Charlemagne’s proposal to make war on the Avars. Charles assembled his army at Regensburg and from there advanced into the land of the Avars. On the bank of the Enns, Charlemagne held mass for three days, imploring “God’s help for the welfare of the army, the assistance of Lord Jesus Christ, and for victory over the Avars and revenge on them.”

At his camp Charles received messages from Pepin telling him that he had already struck into Avar territory and on August 23rd won a great victory. Pepin’s Lombard cavalry was acquitting itself well against the Avar cavalry. It was during the Avar wars that the superbly trained Lombard cavalry established itself as premier shock troops. A prideful Charles wrote to his wife, “Our beloved son tells us that the Lord God gave them overwhelming triumph: so great a number of men have never been killed in battle.”7

Continuing along the Danube, Charles’ army of Franks, Saxons, Frisians, Serbs, Abodriti and Czechs continued on until near Vienna they reached the first Avar fortifications on both banks of the river. The Avars standing vigil on their fortifications in the wooded hills beheld the ominous sight of Charles’ great army, approaching on both banks, with a flotilla sailing in between them. God really did seem to be on Charles’ side that day, for Avars decided to abandon their defenses without a fight. They fell back to await the Franks at their legendary fortress, known as the “Ring of the Avars.”

Pepin meanwhile went on to captured the first or outer ring of Avar defenses and looted the villages therein.  However, the appearance of Avar reinforcements prevented Pepin from advancing further.  Pepin fell back, no doubt hoping to join his armies with that of his approaching father. However, Charles, had penetrated up to the river Raab when disaster struck. Pestilence broke out among the horses, devastating the cavalry. In addition the alarming news arrived of a palace revolution instigated by Charles’ neglected bastard son, Pepin the Hunchback. The Avar campaign was called off as Charles returned home, burning and killing along the way. Once back home, he squashed the Hunchback’s revolt and sent his deformed son to a monastery. Pepin, the king of Italy, delivered the treasures he had taken and 150 Avar prisoners to Charles at Aachen.

For several years Charles was kept busy by the Saxons (see Saxon Wars below) and other affairs. In 795, there surfaced the first indication of dissension among the Avars when the emissaries of the highest Avar “tudun” (Chancellor) appeared at Charles’ court at Aachen. The emissaries declared that the tundun wished to submit himself and his people and accept the Christian faith. The Avars had turned upon each other and were soon at each other’s throats. Civil war broke out, claiming the lives of both the Kagan and jugar.

With the Avars fighting each other, Duke Eric of Friuli sensed easy prey. In 796 Eric unleashed his Lombards under a Slav general named Wonimir. On the plains of Pannonia, armored Lombard and Avar horsemen sliced through each other’s ranks. Heavy lances powered through mail links and shattered shields. Avar horse archers sent arrow after arrow into the Lombard ranks, whose own bowmen trudged onward on foot. But the Avars were disunited and the Lombards shattered their famed Ring. The Ring went into legend as a gigantic, near impregnable, fortress of nine concentric rings of stone and clay, crowned with hedges and palisades. Modern opinion, on the other hand, holds that it more likely referred to a series of fortified earthworks surrounding Pannonia. Duke Eric of Friuli faithfully sent the vast Avar treasures to Charles.

That same year the tunus and his following received baptism but soon after broke their fealty. A second Frank army under Pepin King of Italy was needed to hold the Ring and secure the rest of the treasures. In all, 15 wagons loaded high with gold and silver coins, cloth of gold and precious ornaments rolled into Charles’ court at Aachen. A gratified Charles lavished gifts upon friends and allies and used the wealth to complete his magnificent palace and chapel. The Avars, however, were not entirely finished yet and sporadic fighting lingered on into 803 before their lands were incorporated into Charles’ empire.

The Saxon Wars

Even more savage than the Avar war was Charles’ war against the Saxons. By the end of the great migrations, the Saxons occupied most of northern Germany. Unlike most of the other Germanic peoples, they had never embraced Christianity and stayed true to the old gods and to the reverence of nature and trees. The Saxons were the most poorly equipped of Charles’ foes. Cavalry and armor were all but unheard of – a spear, an axe or, if he was lucky, a sword was all a Saxon soldier could count on. What the Saxons lacked in equipment, however, they made up in bravery, tenacity and unconventional warfare. A terrible cycle of raids and counter-raids was the order of the day along the Saxon-Frank border.

In 772, fuming with anger, a vengeful Charles crossed the Rivers Eder and Diemel. Deep in the Saxon heartland, at Eresburg, he destroyed the sacred, all sustaining pillar of the Saxons, the wooden “Irminsul.” There had been sacrificed to Othin eight different beasts and one man, hanged from branches, their blood soaking the earth of the Saxon holy site. There too, were treasures of gold and silver to enrich the Frankish war chest.

Charlemagne cuts down the sacred “Irminsul,” as the pagan Saxons are forced to submit to Christianity (Hermann Wislicenus – circa 1885)

The Irminsul’s destruction only served to unite the Saxons under a powerful guerilla leader, Widukind, whose vengeful warriors set fire to Frankish border villages and churches, looting, raping and killing at will. Everywhere, Frankish villagers fled in terror of the Saxon raiders. As soon as Charles’  heavily armed troopers arrived to fight the invaders, Widukind’s raiders took to the woods or melted back into the general Saxon population. Unable to come to grips with the partisans, Charles released his Franks on the hapless Saxon villages.

To establish order Charles built strongholds or captured them from the Saxons. The Saxons struck back, infiltrating a Frankish camp in 775 and butchering the sleeping and half-awake garrison. The following year the Saxon army demolished the Frankish stronghold at Eresburg but faltered at Syburg, which resisted both the clumsily built Saxons siege engines and the torch.

Nevertheless, Charles kept up the pressure and by 777 it was the Frankish banner which fluttered over many of the circular palisades, ramparts and moats that protected the strongholds of Saxony. Charlemagne deemed that the time had come to hold his annual Assembly in Paderborn, Saxony. The Saxons found themselves called to the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host, and there were mass baptisms. Even now, however, the Saxons’ eyes burnt with an unbroken will to retain their pagan freedom.

Widukind had fled to his Kinsman, the Pagan King of Denmark but returned to lead another uprising in 778. The following year the Franks tore through the Saxon ramparts at Bochult. In the aftermath of the battle, churchmen in lavish robes moved among dead and dying, chanting Psalms and giving last rites and lending aid to the handful of doctors. The clergy became a permanent fixture of the Saxon wars, as Charles further consolidated his hold on the land by establishing mission districts.

In 782, news arrived of Slavs raiders on eastern Saxon borders. Charles sent three high-ranking commanders, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad, to take care of the intruders. The three marched their soldiers the east, when to their horror their Saxon auxiliaries deserted in another massive uprising led by the elusive Widukind. When Charles heard this, he sent in reinforcements under his cousin, Count Theodoric.

The Saxons awaited the four Frank commanders on the slopes of Süntel Mountain. Theodoric ordered a pincer movement, much to the annoyance of the other three commanders. Confident that they did not need Theodoric’s help, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad attacked prematurely. With a blare of trumpets they spurred their cavalry up the slope, right into the Saxon lines bristling with spears. It was a slaughter. The Saxon ranks stood unbroken, the Frank cavalry a writhing mess of dying and trampled horses and men. Both Adalgis and Geilo, along with five counts and 19 other nobles, perished in the attack.

A raging Charles came storming back across the Rhine but once again the Saxon army vanished into the villages and forests while Widukind found safety among the Danes. Charles’ fury knew no bounds. In a grizzly bloodbath at Verden, 4500 Saxons were rounded up and beheaded. And if that did not prove his point, Charles ordered churches built near his Saxon military outposts. He ordered the death penalty for any Saxon who refused baptism or committed even the slightest transgression against Christianity.

The next few years saw incessant punitive raids, battles and castle assaults, as Charles pushed through Saxony and into the lands of the Slavs. Those Slavs that readily submitted, he treated as allies, the others were subject to the same brutalities as the rebellious Saxons.

In 785, Widukind, after defeats at Detmold and at Osnabrück, on the “Hill of Slaughter,” finally surrendered. He had enough of the bloodshed and accepted that the Christian god was stronger than Othin was. Widukind received his baptism at Attigny. As a sign of respect for his old adversary, Charles stood as Widukind’s godfather. With Widukind no longer an adversary, peace seemed assured. Yet even though they had lost their charismatic and skilled leader, the Saxons refused to bow to Charles’ Christian yoke. In 793, Saxon rebels ambushed and annihilated Count Theodoric and his entourage, reopening the war.

Charles’ final answer was forced deportations: seven thousand Saxons in 794, every third household in 797 and1600 leaders the next year. This finally did the trick, as increasing numbers of Saxons remained loyal and the centers of resistance shrunk to the eastern borders of their realm. In 804, 10,000 Saxons, the entire population east of the Elbe, were settled in Francia. Christianity had been hammered into the Saxons. After thirty years of war and resistance, the last embers of resistance flickered out. The Saxons learned their lessons well. Centuries hence their descendants, the Teutonic Knights, marched east to convert the pagan Baltic peoples at the point of the sword.

Charlemange’s Campaigns in Spain

Charles fought longer in Saxony than anywhere else but it was in Spain, where he fought arguably his most famous battle. Ironically, it was also his greatest defeat. During the 777 assembly at Paderborn, a deputation of exotic strangers caused much attention among the tall, fair-skinned Franks and Saxons. Suleiman ibn Al-Arabi, the governor of Barcelona and Gerona, had come to ask Charles for help against his rival, the Emir Abd al Rahman of Cordova. Suleiman was ready to hand over his own cities to Charles and promised that the governor of the key strategic city of Saragossa would do so as well. Charles liked what he heard, and in 778, over 40,000 Franks and allied Lombards, Bavarians, Burgundians, Provencals, Bretons and Goths crossed the Pyrenees to meet up at Saragossa’s gates. The enraged Muslims inside, however, refused to open the gates to an infidel. For a month Charles laid siege to Saragossa. Although Suleiman kept his word and submitted both Barcelona and Gerona to Charles, he was unable to offer any concrete help. Branded as a traitor to the Muslim cause, Suleiman was assassinated by an emissary of Abd al Rahman. Frustrated, Charles called off the siege and turned back home. On the way he let his anger out on the less fortified city of Pamplona, razing the walls and sacking the city.

Disaster befell the rear guard of Charles’ army on its way through the narrow pass of Roncesvalles. Hidden in the woods and shrubs lurked thousands of wild hill folk, the Basques. They patiently watched the Frank army march through the forbidding countryside. After a long wait, there appeared the rearguard with the baggage. The day was hot and the Frank soldiers huffed in their heavy mail and wiped rivulets of sweat from their brows. Suddenly, boulders came rumbling down the slope, crushing whoever was caught in their wake. Missiles whistled through the air, piercing shields, mail and flesh. With a roar, the lightly armed Basques swept down the slope. A furious, chaotic melee erupted. Frankish swords shattered Basque spears and splintered shields. But the Basques were too many. Overwhelmed, the Franks fought until the last man. Among the fallen was Roland, prefect of the Breton march. Darkness shrouded the crimson splattered, corpse filled, pass. The Basques looted the baggage and quickly disappeared into the night. Although a humiliation for Charles, the valor of his soldiers was later immortalized in the famous “Song of Roland.” In the song, the Basques are changed to Saracens and Roland becomes the brave hero, who blew the Oliphant horn in a desperate call for help.

Roland blows the horn, note the Basques hurling boulders from the cliff onto the Frankish rear guard.

The Spanish debacle of 778 was not the last time the Franks and Muslims crossed blades. The Muslim cities of the Spanish march continually tried to defect to the Emirate of Cordova and in 801 Barcelona only resubmitted after a two-year siege.

The turn of the century marked the end of Charles’ great conquests. Battles continued to rage on virtually every border of Charles’ realm, but they were for the most part wars of consolidation. Brittany rebelled repeatedly and was never really conquered. In the east, the withering of the Avar and Saxon wars gave way to escalating conflicts with the Slavs. Led by Charles’ namesake son, the Franks conquered the Sorbs and the Bohemians. In Italy, Charles’ second son, Pepin, King of Italy, was kept busy with the unfaithful Grimoald of Beneveto. Ortona and Lucera were besieged, and there were skirmishes with the Byzantines concerning Venice.

Charles rides to Battle for the last Time

With old age creeping up on him, Charles left most of the fighting to his sons and captains. He resided longer and longer at Aachen, which he loved due to its hot springs. He stayed busy with the administration of his empire.

Reconstruction of Aachen

The latest and most dangerous threat to Europe was the advent of the Vikings. From Norway, the sons of Odin hit the British Isles the earliest and the hardest. The Danes under King Godofrid likewise made war on Charles’ Slavic allies and raised a colossal rampart along the Danish-Saxon border from the Baltic to the North Sea. In 810, Godofrid’s huge fleet of 200 ships crushed the Frisians, who were part of the Saxons realm. Godofrid boasted that he could not wait to meet Charles in open battle.

For the last time, Charles mounted his battle charger. Even at nearly seventy years old, Charles, with his platinum hair and six-foot-tall gaunt frame remained a larger-than-life figure. Before the two forces could clash in combat, Godofrid was murdered by one of his retainers. His fleet returned home and his successor was eager to make peace with Charles. There would be much war to come between Vikings and Franks, but not while Charles still lived. 

Charles’ Pan-European Empire

Charlemagne carved out the first pan-European empire, a feat that many future warlords, including Louis XIV the “Sun King,” and Napoleon, tried to emulate but could not. Charles lived in a brutal age and did not refrain from using overt violence to obtain his goals. Yet within his realm there was peace unknown since Pax Romana. Charles kept his soldiers on a tight leash, forbidding pillaging of the countryside and drunkenness. When possible, scouts marked out the route, warning the villagers of the cattle and sheep that would be requisitioned from them once the army passed through. Charles needed no walls to protect his villas, instead building monasteries, schools and a great bridge across the Rhine. He fostered the liberal arts and gathered to his court the intellectual elite of Europe in what became known as the Carolingian renaissance.

Charles’ ascendancy was not lost on the rest of the western world. There was correspondence with the Kings of the British Isle and with the Byzantines. For a time there was even a chance of Charles marrying the beautiful widowed Empress Irene. Harun-al Rachid, the opulent Caliph of Baghdad and enemy of the Spanish Emirate of Cordova, was Charles’ lifelong friend. One of his gifts to the great barbarian king of the north was an elephant named Abbul Abuz.

In 823, Charles personally crowned his remaining legitimate son, Louis the Pious, King of Aquitaine, as co-Emperor and successor. The crowning took place in Aachen and not in Rome. By this Charles made it clear that despite his own investiture by the Pope, it was Charles, not the Church, who choose his successor. Nevertheless, the Pope’s investiture of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor set a precedent that led to centuries of dissension between the Papacy and the Medieval Holy Roman Empire.

Originally, Charles had intended to split his Empire among his three sons but sadly both Pepin, King of Italy, and Charles the Younger, the conqueror of the Slavs, had died prematurely. Louis the Pious inherited his father’s love for learning but unlike his late brothers, he had none of his father’s warlike nature. When on January 28, 814, Charles succumbed to old age after 47 years as King of the Franks, Louis found himself unequal to the task of carrying on his father’s legacy. It was not long until feuds fragmented the empire forever.

Without Charles’ coalescing personality his empire was fated to collapse. In many ways Charles never saw himself as anything more than a great tribal warlord; his “empire” no permanent institution like that of Rome but an amalgamation of tribal kingdoms loyal to himself. The days of great empires were over anyway. The Medieval age had begun, which forever remembered Charles as the ideal king, the champion of Christ, the rex pater Europa (King father of Europe),  source of glorious legends, as Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse, as “Charlemagne.”

The gold and silver gilded bust of Charlemagne containing part of his skull and dating from around 1350.  Aachen Cathedral Treasury.

Notes

1. Stephens, W. R. W., Hildrebrand and his times (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1988), p. 7. 2. Eduardo Fabbro, Charlemagne and the Lombard Kingdom That Was: the Lombard Past in Post-Conquest Italian Historiography (Journal of the Canadian Historical Association: Volume 25, 2., 2014) p. 5, 6., 3. Russel Chamberlin, The Emperor: Charlemagne (New York: Franklin Watts. 1986), p. 66, 70., 4. J.I. Mombert, A History of Charles the Great (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888), p. 91., 5. Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. LewisThorpe , translator and Introduction, Two Lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987), p. 162, 163., 6. Bernhard W. Scholz  and Rodgers Barbara, Translators. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (The University of Michigan Press. 1972), p. 69., 7. Russel Chamberlin, p. 177.

Sources

Bunson Matthew E. Encycolpedia of the Middle Ages. New York: Facts on File. 1995,  Chamberlin Russel. The Emperor: Charlemagne. New York: Franklin Watts. 1986, Clark Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. 1981, Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Thorpe Lewis. Translator and Introduction. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987, Goldin Frederick. Translator. The Song of Roland. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1978, Hildinger Erik. Warriors of the Steppes. New York: Sarpedon. 1997, Joshua J. Mark, Odoacer,  Avars, Ancient History Encyclopedia., Keegan John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993, Mombert J.I. A History of Charles the Great. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888, Nicolle David. The Age of Charlemagne. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2004, Norwich John Julius. Byzantim the Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books. 1990, Parker Geoffrey. Editor. Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995, Russel Charles Edward. Charlemagne, First of the Moderns. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1930, Scholz W. Bernhard and Rodgers Barbara. Translators. Carolingian Chronicles. Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories. The University of Michigan Press. 1972.

Charlemagne “Warlord of the Franks,” was originally published in Military Heritage Magazine and republished on the magazine’s website, Warfare History Network. The above re-edited version contains additional images for non-profit, educational purposes only.

 

Origin and Recruitment of the Janissaries

Origin and Recruitment of the Janissaries

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

During the reign of Murad I (r. 1360-1389) many prisoners of war fell into Ottoman captivity. Rather than kill those that were not worth ransom, the Ottomans used them for the Kapikulu Ocaklari, meaning ‘gate or court slaves.’ Of the captives the fittest young men were selected to begin training for service in the Sultan’s personal army. They formed the first ortas (battalions) of the Yeni Ceri ‘new army’ or Janissaries.

Toward the end of Murad’s reign, the Devsirme ‘collection’ tax of eight to fifteen year-old boys from subjected Christian population was introduced. The Devsirme became the main recruiting base for the Janissaries. Enslaving your own subjects, including Christians, was against the Sariat, the Islamic religious law, but the Ottomans followed their own unorthodox believes. Reaction to the Devsirme varied according to the time period and location. Parents hid their children or tried to flee, in what were usually futilely attempts to escape the efficient Ottoman collectors. Others volunteered their children in hopes of giving them a chance at a better career than the rural farming life. Some families, not only Christians but Muslim converts among Bosnian Slavs as well, even bribed the Ottoman officials so that their children were taken.

Devsirme recruit, 16th century with Enderum Sakirdi eunuch teacher to right and Civelek, young trainee off duty, in background. Artist: Christa Hook (The Janissaries, Osprey Elite Series).

Assembled by their local Christian priest, who was needed to proof their Christian identity, the boys were led away by an Ottoman Surucu drover. The boys nearly all hailed from rural Balkan villages as they were fitter and deemed more naive than their ‘street wise’ city counterparts. Almost none were Balkan Greeks, who were mostly urban folk, and none were Jews, who were exempt. A few of the smarter ones were selected for schooling in office positions. The rest were assimilated into Turkish culture by serving as a farmhands for a Turkish family. In an age were slavery and the atrocities of war were commonplace, the initial shock gave way to grudging acceptance. Given human nature, no doubt many of the young lads bonded with their new Turkish families.

Acemi Oglan Janissary trainee early 16th century, with Ic Oglan Cavusu officer of Janissary recruits (17th century) to right and Falakaci Basi of punishment unit (17th-18th century) to the left. Artist: Christa Hook (The Janissaries, Osprey Elite Series).

After four to eight years laboring on Turkish farms, the boys were sent to become the Acemi Oglans, ‘foreign boys,’ of the Acemi Ocagi, ‘hearth of the inexperienced’ -the Janissary training center at Gallipoli. For another four to eight years, the Acemi Oglans underwent rigorous infantry training, under challenging and Spartan conditions, until their Kapiya Cikma, their final examination. The young Christian farm lad was now a young Muslim soldier in the prime of his life. He would always remember with pride the evening, when after prayers he donned the soldier’s dolama to become one of the honored Janissary. Through it all, he had not forgotten his Christian parents, however, and in many cases had been able to keep in touch with them.

The young age of the recruits left more time for training in the arts of war and for indoctrination of Islam so that they would be completely obedient to their superiors and their ultimate master, the Sultan. In return the Janissaries were honored and amply rewarded for success in battle. They are generally considered the finest infantry of their heyday, which lasted into the early modern period. No European power had an infantry corps to compare with the Janissaries.

Sources:

Nicolle, David, Nicopolis 1396 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999) p. 27, 28, Nicolle David, The Janissaries (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000) p. 4, 13, Uyar, Mesut and Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottoman Turks: From Osman to Ataturk (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2009) p. 17-20.

 

The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

WWII History Magazine and Warfare History Network

The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

With the German Sixth Army destroyed at Stalingrad, the Soviet juggernaut lunged west and southwest across the River Donets. The Soviets seemed unstoppable, recapturing the major city of Kharkov from the Germans on February 14, 1943. However, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was only waiting for the Soviets to overextend themselves.

Once the Soviet armor ran dry of fuel and low on ammunition, Manstein unleashed Army Group South’s riposte. Fresh panzer formations sliced into the startled Soviet flanks, ripping apart two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups). Manstein’s brilliant counteroffensive restored the southern front and culminated in an SS frontal assault and a triumphant recapture of Kharkov.

Meanwhile, to the north of the Donets campaign, the Soviet winter offensive was held at bay before Orel by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center. Operations everywhere then bogged down to a standstill as the Russian spring thawed the frozen earth and turned it to mud. The thick “rasputitsa” clung to steel tank tracks, to truck tires, to the hoofs of tired horses, and to the boots of exhausted soldiers.

The front was left with a gargantuan Soviet salient, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, bulging around the town of Kursk between the two German army groups. The Kursk salient was consequently the target of the last, great German summer offensive, ending with the legendary tank battles in the environs of Oboian and Prokhorovka.

With the third summer of the German-Soviet war approaching, the Red Army war machine had grown more powerful while that of the Germans proportionally declined. Despite von Manstein’s recent victory at Kharkov, only the most fanatical senior German commanders, along with Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union could be decisively defeated. A stalemate, however, was still in the cards, but only if the Germans managed to retain the initiative. To do so, Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of Army general staff, proposed eliminating the Kursk salient.

In what came to be known as Operation Citadel, the Ninth Army of von Kluge’s Army Group Center would strike for Kursk from the north while his Second Army defended the western face of the salient. At the same time, von Manstein’s Army Group South would attack toward Kursk from the south with Colonel General Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General Werner Kempf’s Army Detachment. Once the two German army groups met, the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. The Eastern Front would be straightened out, allowing German troops to be transferred to the West along with thousands of Soviet prisoners to toil in the Reich’s factories and on its farms. Such were the rewards of victory, and to achieve it Zeitzler counted on the new, vaunted Panther tanks and the Ferdinand or “Elephant” tank destroyer.

Germans attempted to reduce the Soviet salient around the village of Kursk, resulting in one of the greatest tank battles in the history of modern warfare. The Germans attacked from north and south, but were kept at bay after fierce fighting.-Warfare History Network

Hitler presented Zeitzler’s plan to his senior Army commander on May 3-4. Von Manstein argued that Citadel might have worked in April, when Hitler first signed the operational order, but now its “success was doubtful.”1 Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of the Ninth Army, cautioned that the plan was painfully obvious and that the Soviets were already preparing deep and strong defensive positions.

Von Kluge, who liked to curry favor with Hitler but was known as a fence sitter, supported Citadel but argued against any further delay, so if it failed he could not be blamed. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armored troops, called the idea “pointless,”2 certain to result in heavy tank casualties. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Panthers and the Elephants were in no way ready for combat.

When Wilhem Keitel, Hitler’s chief of the armed forces high command, later argued for the attack on political reasons, Guderian spat back, “How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”3 Hitler admitted the idea made his “stomach turn over,”4 but eventually not only decided in favor of Citadel but delayed it for two months until the new tanks were ready.

Historian Charles Winchester has aptly noted, “The idea that an offensive involving millions of men fighting across a battlefield half the size of England could be determined by a few hundred new tanks shows touching faith in technology.”5

Hitler’s delays played right into Soviet hands. Stalin heeded the advice of Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, deputy commander of the Red Army, and Marshal Alesksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Army general staff, to postpone a Soviet offensive until the Germans bled themselves dry on the Kursk defenses. And those defenses were awe inspiring. Half a million railcars rolled into the Kursk salient, pouring in division after division. Whole towns in the forward areas were evacuated. Three hundred thousand civilians, mostly women and old men, helped dig trenches and build fortifications. The southern shoulder of the salient alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to channel the panzers into the crossfire of antitank strongholds.

Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov strides to meet with subordinates. To his right, Aleksander Vasilevsky, chief of the Soviet general staff

The 48th Panzer Corps Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Friedrich W. von Mellenthin, poignantly summoned up the German predicament: “The Russians were aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics, and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. Instead of seeking to create conditions in which maneuver would be possible … the German Supreme Command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent panzer divisions against Kursk, which had become the strongest fortress in the world.”6 If this was not adversity enough, the Soviets had twice as many men, two and a half times as many guns and mortars, 900 more planes, and 750 more tanks than the Germans.

Just before the battle, an SS trooper in the coal black darkness outside of a command bunker thought to himself, “The mud might slow us down but it cannot stop us. Nothing will.”7 Alfred Novotny, a fusilier of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, was of the same mind: “We were totally convinced as soldiers that Kursk would turn the war around again, in favor of Germany. We, the Fusiliers and Grenadiers, would do it!”8 The high morale was due in part to the fact that the soldiers were unaware of what they were facing. The troops were “prepared to endure any losses and carry out every task given to them,” but “the Russians are masters at the art of camouflage. Inevitably their strength was considerably underestimated,”9 reflected Mellenthin.

Over 2 million men, 35,000 guns, 6,250 tanks and assault guns, and 4,900 aircraft were flung at each other by two merciless totalitarian regimes, each bent on the utter annihilation of its foe. The German attack in the south opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1943, followed 12 hours later by the attack in the north. Forewarned of the exact time of Model’s attack by intelligence operatives, Soviet commanders ordered their artillery to bombard Model’s front lines before his own artillery had a chance to open up. The Germans answered back with air strikes and with a short but intense bombardment.

Using the Tiger as an armored shield, German grenadiers observe the devastating impact of its 88 mm gun.

Tiger tanks, Elephant tank destroyers, and Brummbär self-propelled artillery battalions of the Ninth Army smashed gaps into the Soviet defenses and chewed up counterattacks by the Soviet Central Front. Through the gaps poured the panzer and infantry divisions, only to find another of eight skillfully defended defensive belts.

Not only were the Soviet defenses far thicker than anticipated, but Hitler’s beloved 89 Elephants, all fighting with Army Group Center, did not live up to expectations. Although their powerful, long L/71 88mm guns proved deadly to Soviet armor, the 67-ton Elephants were underpowered and lacked a machine gun for protection against enemy infantry. When attacked by Soviet close-combat infantry anti-tank units, some Elephant crews tried to fend off the Soviets by firing their MG-42 machine guns through the main barrel.

Another nasty surprise was the Central Front’s 12 new SU-152s. The front’s 152mm assault gun unit knocked out seven Elephants and 12 Tigers of Model’s attacking units, earning it the nickname Zveroboi (animal hunter). After a week of round-the-clock fighting, Model’s exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking into the open, having only penetrated nine miles.

SU-152 Zveroboi (animal hunter) waiting in ambush for German Tigers and Elephants

Soviet casualties were heavy, but they did not prevent Zhukov from launching an offensive in the Orel sector on Model’s northern flank on July 11. From then on, Model was hard pressed just to contain a Soviet breakthrough. Zhukov, who had failed to destroy Army Group Center in two previous winter offensives, remained fixated on its destruction. He should have paid more attention to the southern flank of the salient, where Von Manstein’s thrust made dangerous gains.

Alfred Novotny has never forgotten the 4th Panzer Army’s opening artillery barrage and the foul weather that accompanied it: “The first hours of the Kursk offensive still cause flashbacks 50-odd years later. Sometimes I think I can still hear the incredible loud noise of the German weapons … flak, artillery, mortars, Stukas, and Nebelwerfers. I cannot forget the endless, terrible rain, rain, and more rain. We were totally drenched, heavily laden down with equipment, knee deep in mud all around us.”10

The Soviet defenses facing Novotny and his comrades were as formidable as they were in the north, but the defending Soviet armies had more front line to cover and, unlike Model, Von Manstein used massed armor formations from the onset. A bombardment that used more shells than the French and Polish campaigns combined opened the way for Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, the most powerful concentration of German armor under a single command during World War II.

The 4th Panzer Army blasted its way through the defenses of the Soviet 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army. The latter’s Guards distinction and the superior equipment that came along with it were indicative of its elite, veteran status. There were many Guards divisions at Kursk, and most of them had earned their distinction at Stalingrad.

Fighting with the 48th Panzer Corps on 4th Panzer Army’s left wing, the 200 Panthers at Kursk turned out to be a disappointment just like the Elephants to the north. Although the Panther eventually turned out to be arguably the best tank design of the war, at Kursk it suffered from mechanical problems and inadequately trained crews. By the second day of the battle, the Panthers, armed with high-velocity 75mm guns, were reduced to 50 in number. After five days, there were only 10 left.

The bulk of the fighting was left to the old workhorses of the German Army, the Panzer Mark IIIs and Mark IVGs with their new anti-tank rifle side skirts, the assault guns, and a relative few of the feared heavy Tigers, with their 88mm guns, to the defeat the Soviet armor. With their help, the battle-hardened veterans of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 48th Panzer Corps fought their way through swamps and streams and overcame mine-infested belts of trenches. Strongholds of camouflaged antitank rifle infantry, sappers with explosives, dug in heavy antitank guns, Soviet T-34 medium tanks, and tank destroyers awaited the German armor.

“The Mark V Panther medium tank was the German response to the outstanding performance of the Red Army’s T-34. The Panther sported sloped hull armor and a 75mm high velocity cannon”-Warfare History Network

Not only that, but the land sloped upward toward Kursk, giving the Soviets a clear view. Even so, Grossdeutschland managed to reach the outskirts of the villages of Kruglik and Nowosselowka by July 9. On the left wing of the 48th Panzer Corps, however, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army held up the 3rd Panzer Division in the woods north of Beresowka. To capitalize on this limited success, General Nikolay F. Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, transferred two tank corps and a rifle division from his reserve to Katukov.

With its left flank dangerously exposed, Grossdeutschland abandoned its northward drive and swung to the southwest on July 10, to trap and destroy the enemy between Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division. The diary of a Grossdeutschland soldier reads, “Squadron after squadron of Stukas come over to drop their deadly eggs on the Russian armor. Dazzling white flames indicate that another enemy tank has brewed up.”11

A Major Franz of the Grossdeutschland assault gun battalion sped toward the village of Kruglik when “at 300 meters from the village … I suddenly saw fiery red arrows coming toward us from the outskirts. There were explosions directly in front of the mass of advancing assault guns … we were under fire from a Stalin Organ.”12

General Andrei L. Getman remembered, “Many of our soldiers and commanders fell heroically in the five days of ferocious battle. Nevertheless, the corps continued to resist the enemy. Meeting organized fire resistance he ceased his attacks by nightfall.”13

That evening, the 3rd Panzer Division had joined the chaotic fighting among the groves and ravines that nearly eliminated the 6th Tank Corps. On July 11, the remnants of the 6th Tank Corps and the mauled 90th Guards Rifle Division pulled back to the west. The 3rd Panzer Division filled Grossdeutschland’s forward positions, allowing the latter to prepare for a renewed push to the north. It was not to be. During the night of the 11th, reinforced Soviet counterattacks flung the 3rd Panzer Division out of its new positions.

While Grossdeutschland dealt with the problems on its left flank, Knobelsdorff ordered the 11th Panzer Division to strike north along the road to Oboian and to the River Ps’ol. Its vanguard stood on the highest point on the way to Oboian. A soldier remembered, “One could see far into the valley of the Ps’ol River, the last natural barrier before Kursk. With field glasses the towers of Oboian could be made out in the fine haze. Oboian was the objective. It seemed within an arm’s reach. Barely 12 miles away.”14

Although bloodily slashed by the 11th Panzer Division, the Soviet defenders refused to give way. Not only that, but Vatutin gathered his forces for a massive counterstroke to “encircle and destroy the main German grouping penetrating to Oboian and Prokhorovka.”15 Victory for either side still hung in the balance, for, on the right wing of the 4th Panzer Army, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was simultaneously on the verge of a decisive breakthrough.

The Battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

SS General Paul “Papa” Hausser’s cream of the Waffen SS armor reached the River Ps’ol. On his left flank, the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head) crossed the Ps’ol on pontoon bridges on the 10th and immediately engaged the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To avoid further bridging operations for his heavy tanks, Hausser’s two other panzergrenadier divisions advanced south of the river.

The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich (The State) panzergrenadier divisions pushed eastward through Soviet artillery barrages and dug-in tanks of the Soviet 2nd Tank Corps and elements of the 5th Guards Army. Leibstandarte spearheads were already at the outskirts of the Prokhorovka on July 9. The SS formations were aided by initial German air superiority and by Vatutin’s massive, chaotic redeployments, which caused Soviet units to pull back in some areas.

By July 11, paratroopers had dug in and stiffened Soviet resistance. A trooper of the 9th Guards Airborne Division recalled, “The village of Lutovo shuddered from exploding bombs, shells and mines. The soldiers observed the enemy from foxholes. Infantry poured out of the armored transporters. The distorted faces of the Fascists bore witness … that their warlike ardor was roused by a large dose of schnapps. Submachine gunners opened fire on the run and concealed themselves behind the tanks. A squall of 3rd Battalion fire met the Fascists. The long bursts of [Soviet] heavy machine guns struck the infantry in the flanks.”16

Meanwhile, General Herman Breith’s 3rd Panzer Corps’ northward thrust east of the Donets was constantly thwarted by the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army. Von Manstein urged Kempf to have Breith catch up to the 2nd SS Corps and cover its right flank. On July 11, the Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment ripped through the Soviet 305th Rifle Division and tore into the 107th Rifle Division to its rear. The 6th Panzer Division lunged forward nearly eight miles, and the 19th Panzer Division also made good progress. Although Breith’s armored spearheads were still 15 miles from Prokhorovka, the remaining Soviet defenses were too weak to absorb another German assault. Unless Vatutin immediately rushed in reinforcements, Breith and Hausser would break through to Prokhorovka.

Seven Soviet armies now surrounded the 20-mile deep bulge that the armor formations and the following infantry divisions of 4th Panzer Army and the Kempf Army had bitten into the Kursk salient. To blunt the German advance and at the same time launch his massive counteroffensive, Vatutin rushed in Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s crack 5th Guards Tank Army. The 5th Guards Tank Army, along with the already committed 5th Guards Army, was transferred from Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. Konev’s Front was to lead the planned post-Kursk counteroffensive.

The early commitment of two of the Steppe Front’s armies shows how critical the situation had become at Prokhorovka. Stalin even ordered Zhukov to fly to the Prokhorovka area and personally oversee the two Fronts. Reinforced by two tank corps and self-propelled artillery units, Rotmistrov fielded a total of 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov, “On the morning of 12 July, together with the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Army, launch a decisive offensive to destroy the enemy southwest of Prokhorovka.”17

Silhouetted against a battle-scarred landscape, a German Tiger tank is seen in action at Kursk on July 13, 1943-Warfare History Network

At dawn on July 12, the 121 tanks and assault guns of the Totenkopf Division prepared to shatter the Soviet defenses and advance northeastward on the ridge line north of the Ps’ol. The day promised to be humid, and clouds hung over the horizon. Brutal, indecisive fighting against three Guards rifle divisions raged throughout the day.

South of Prokhorovka, Hoth was on the battlefield watching the ensuing carnage in Das Reich’s sector through a trench telescope. Das Reich was forced on the defensive because the delay of 3rd Panzer Corps exposed its right flank to Soviet attacks.

During the day, 50 Soviet armored vehicles drove along one of the balkas, or valley bottoms, past a group of T-34s lined up on the ridge. There were white crosses on the turrets of the T-34s on the ridge. These were captured T-34s of Das Reich, and they suddenly opened fire on the vehicles below.

The first Soviet vehicle in line was also the only one equipped with a radio, and it was hit immediately. One after another, the Soviet vehicles exploded in flames. In another area of Das Reich, a T-34 rammed into a field kitchen before being destroyed in close combat. On the 12th, SS 2nd Lt. Hans Mennel, in command of a Mark IV, knocked out his 24th Soviet tank during the fighting.

Between Totenkopf and Das Reich, the Leibstandarte launched its attack at 6:50 that morning. Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets howled upon the German formations. The Leibstandarte’s panzergrenadiers struck eastward, north, and south of the railway line that led northeast toward Prokhorovka. Crewmen in black uniforms and camouflage jackets took last puffs on their cigarettes and climbed into their sand yellow and red-brown Mark IVGs. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 67 tanks revved up their engines. Steel tracks clanged toward purple walls of smoke, flares from German reconnaissance planes, rising above the undulating ridge lines ahead. The smoke signaled a warning that enemy tanks were approaching.

The engine noise of the Red Army’s 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared from the direction of Prokhorovka. Hundreds of Soviet tanks in waves of 40 or 50, with Guards Airborne riflemen piled on top of them, rolled out of the town and surrounding area.

The Soviet tanks charged at great speed, colliding head-on with the SS grenadiers and SS Major Martin Gross’s 2nd Panzer Battalion. An SS 2nd lieutenant related, “They were around us, on top of us, and between us. We fought man to man, jumping out of our foxholes to lob our magnetic hollow charge grenades at the enemy tanks. It was hell! Our company alone destroyed 15 Russian tanks.”18

SS 1st Lt. Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the Nazi foreign minister, commanded a company of six Mark IVs, which drove down a slope to aid the hard-pressed panzergrenadiers. Ribbentrop’s company knocked out a handful of T-34s at 800 meters. The Mark IV, the most common German tank at Kursk, was not as fast as the T-34 or as heavily armored, but it had a superior gun and fire control. In the end, tactics and training proved decisive.

Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off the burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, the Soviet armor bravely sped on until the tanks of both sides sliced through each other. “There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. The shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor,”19 witnessed Rotmistrov from his observation post on a hill.

“A T-34 began to burn,” reported Ribbentrop. “It was only 50 to 70 meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames. The avalanche of tanks rolled straight toward us … from this range every round was a hit.”20

Ribbentrop knocked out four more Soviet tanks. On the last one, he scored a direct hit at 10 meters. He recalled, “The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”21

Ribbentrop had turned with the waves of Soviet tanks that swept by him. Soon they were under withering fire from German assault guns and two more panzer companies lurking down the slope behind an antitank ditch. Amid the thick smoke and dust, the jumble of Soviet tanks and wrecked vehicles, Ribbentrop’s Mark IV remained unnoticed by the Soviet tanks around him. “Machine guns firing, we rolled through a mass of [Soviet] troops from behind,”22 he said.

Ribbentrop pulled his Mark IV into cover behind a destroyed T-34 and joined the slaughter of the Soviets tanks trying desperately to cross a bridge over the antitank ditch. “Burning T-34s ran into and over one another. It was a total inferno of fire and smoke, and impacting shells and explosions,”23 he remembered. A shell hit Ribbentrop’s turret, driving the gunner’s sight into his eye and inflicting a serious head injury. He was able to reach the safety of the German lines after he and his crew had knocked out 14 Soviet tanks.

Another scene from the battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

Meanwhile, north of Oktiabrs’kii, the Tigers of SS Captain Heinrich Kling’s 13th Heavy Panzer Company crushed through hedgerows and thickets. Suddenly, a wave of 60 Soviet tanks swept out of a wood less than a mile away. Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann’s Tiger rocked from the recoil as his 88mm gun knocked out the first T-34. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance. Four Tigers were hit and temporarily crippled.

Wittmann’s Tiger shuddered from two hits but remained unfazed although his radio operator received a wound in the upper arm. “Three o’clock, three hundred!”24 cried Wittmann. A T-34 appeared out of some bushes. It swung its 76.2mm gun toward Wittmann’s Tiger, but Wittmann’s gunner, Balthasar Woll, was faster. The 88mm muzzle flashed and blew the turret off the T-34.

Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel’s Stukas appeared above the dueling tanks. Oily black smoke spiraled into the sky. Like birds of prey, the Stukas howled down upon the Soviet tanks. Swarms of Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters tore into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky.

Famed Tiger Ace Michael Wittmann

Wittmann’s platoon of three Tigers pushed on through the storm of steel, through the flames and smoke of burning grass. He had passed Prokhorovka when Kling’s voice rang through the radio, “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”25 Soviet tanks of the 181st Tank Brigade closed in from about a mile away, disappearing into a valley and then reappearing over a rise. The stationary Tigers’ guns opened and maintained a rapid rate of fire. Numerous Soviet tanks were blown to pieces, but the remaining machines kept coming. They had to close to within 800 meters to be able to penetrate the Tigers’ frontal armor.

Leading a group of 15 tanks, Captain P. A. Skripkin’s T-34 closed in on Wittmann’s platoon. “Forward, follow me!”26 he shouted. Skripkin fired a round into a Tiger’s side, disabling it. Wittmann’s Tiger responded by pumping two rounds into Skripkin’s tank. Skripkin was wounded, and his crew pulled him out of the burning T-34. The driver jumped back in, and like a flaming ball of fire his T-34 tore down onto SS Staff Sergeant Georg Lötzsch’s Tiger. Lötzsch steered straight toward the oncoming Soviet tank, slammed on the brakes and fired. The 88mm round hit the edge of the turret and ricocheted into the sky. The 30-ton T-34 rammed into Lötzsch’s Tiger, shaking the ground with its impact. Flames engulfed both tanks. Lötzsch kept his nerves and backed out just before the T-34’s ammunition exploded.

The Mark Vi Tiger tank, with its 88mm cannon, was perhaps the most feared weapon in the Wehrmacht arsenal; however, the mammoth tank was plagued by mechanical failures and an insatiable appetite for fuel-Warfare History Network

Despite horrendous losses, the Soviets kept up the pressure. From north of Oktiabr’skii to south of Storozheveo, the battle seesawed back and forth. The Leibstandarte’s efforts to advance were thwarted by packs of Soviet tanks and infantry. The 1st Panzer Regiment was forced back to Oktiabr’skii. By 6 pm, the 181st Tank Brigade, assisted by the 170th Tank Brigade, threatened to sever the link between the Leibstandarte and Totenkopf at the village of Vasil’evka. Meanwhile, at Storozhevoe, Leibstandarte grenadiers reeled under an avalanche of Soviet tanks and mounted infantry.

A tank destroyer crewman recounted, “Salvo after salvo of Stalin’s Organs rained down upon our positions, with artillery and mortar shells in between. T-34 after T-34 rolled over the hill … three … five … ten … but what was the use of counting?”27 At one point Soviet tanks penetrated to Komsomolets, threatening Leibstandarte’s command post and engaging its artillery regiment at point-blank range.

By mid afternoon the sky broke into heavy showers. Rain sizzled on swaths of smoldering tank carcasses, and roads turned into mud pits. Combat in the 29th and 18th Tank Corps sector ground to a halt. Both sides were too drained by the terrible ordeal to go on.

All along Vatutin’s front, the 4th Panzer Army advances on July 12th had been arrested or slowed down, but so had Vatutin’s own offensive. The cost had been extremely heavy. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost about 650 tanks, although only 250 or so of them were total write-offs. Gross’s battalion alone accounted for 90 Soviet tanks, earning him the Knight’s Cross. The 2nd SS Corps lost just over 60 tanks and assault guns completely destroyed. The SS owed part of its success to the one-eyed “Papa” Hausser who “untiringly led all day from the front,”28 inspiring his troops with “his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations,” noted Hoth, whose recommendation earned Hausser the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross.

During the night, troopers dug in and prepared for renewed offensives on the 13th. Soviet and German soldiers alike felt that victory could be achieved if, somehow, the last bits of energy could be called forth. The following day, the weight of the battle in the 2nd SS Corps sector switched from the Leibstandarte to Totenkopf and Das Reich. With its remaining 54 tanks and 20 assault guns, Totenkopf continued to advance north of the Ps’ol, engaging two Guards rifle divisions and the 51st Guards Tank Regiment. Totenkopf reached its objective, the Prokhorovka-Kartasshevka road, but was forced to relinquish its gains due to serious attacks on its left flank and the Leibstandarte’s failure to keep abreast south of the river.

Northeast of Oktiabri’skii, the Leibstandarte was flung back by airborne troops and riflemen supported by Soviet tanks, antitank guns, artillery, and mines. Rotmistrov related, “The fire of our Katyushas always instilled terror in the Fascists. Suffering great losses, the enemy was forced to fall back, abandoning the burning tanks and the bodies of his dead soldiers and officers.”29 The Soviets went on the offensive, but just north of Komsomolets State Farm they were given a dose of the German’s own nebelwerfer rocket launchers.

South of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich captured Storozhevoe and reached the outskirts of Vingoradovka, giving the Soviets cause for concern. It looked like Das Reich might link up with the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was rapidly gaining ground due to a daring night coup by Major Franz Bäke of the 6th Panzer Division.

A T-34 had led a column of vehicles into the darkness behind Soviet lines. The guards at the trenches must not have looked closely, because the T-34s’ markings were painted over and replaced with a small cross. It was one of the score or so of T-34s in German service, and Bäke used it and favorable terrain to lead his battalion of German tanks past the Soviet sentries. Bäke’s battalion was the spearhead of Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s battle group whose objective was the Donets bridge at Rzhavets. However,  after six miles or so, the T-34 broke down, “no doubt moved by national sentiments”30  Bäke opined.

Soviet soldiers labored to dig 6,000 miles of defensive trenches prior to the commencement of Operation Citadel. More than 300,000 Russian civilians contributed to the effort-Warfare History Network

Abandoning the T-34, Bäke’s battalion crept onward while continuing to keep radio silence. The lead was now taken by a Mark IV.  The German column rumbled past stationary T-34s and anti-tank guns. Exhausted Soviet crews slept in the grass, secure in their knowledge that the front was far away.

Things got dicey when a column of Soviet tanks, some mounted with infantry, appeared heading in the opposite direction. In the darkness, the Soviets appeared to believe Bäke’s tanks were their own returning from the front, or did they? At first twenty-two tanks passed his unit, almost track to track, but then six or seven pulled out of the column, turned, rolled back and pulled behind Bäke’s panzers. Bäke turned his panzer to block the T-34s. Although his own command panzer had only a dummy gun for protection, Bäke ordered the rest of his unit to continue and to secure the objective bridge.

The T-34s ominously drew up in a semicircle while Bäke and his operations officer slipped out of their panzer. They crept up to the T-34s and attached hollow charges. A handful of infantry was hitching a ride on one of the T-34s. One of them noticed Bäke and raised his rifle. Before the surprised Soviet managed to pull the trigger, Bäke snatched the rifle from his hand and jumped into a ditch. One after the other, three explosions lit up the night while one of Bäke’s tanks knocked out a fourth T-34. A cacophony of German and Soviet machine-gun and tank fire erupted. When the rest of the battle group joined the attack, the startled Soviets withdrew across the nearby Donets bridge. They blew up the bridge behind them but could not prevent German grenadiers from wading across the river.

Franz Bake with adjutant Captain Herbert to right

The bridge was captured and repaired, leaving the 3rd Panzer Corps free to thrust northward. To stop them, General Kuzma Trufanov, deputy commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, hurled one rifle division, two reinforced Guards tank and two mechanized brigades at the 3rd Panzer Corps. On July 13, while the 19th Panzer Division, and behind it the 7th Panzer Division, were trying to move out of the bridgehead, the 6th Panzer Division was busy fending off Trufanov’s divisions around Aleksandrovka to the east. That day, the 6th Panzer Division suffered a heavy blow from friendly fire. A German Heinkel He-111 bomber accidentally bombed 6th Panzer Division headquarters, killing 15 and wounding Bäke and his division commander, Maj. Gen. Walther von Hünersdorf, and 47 other officers.

To the west, Grossdeutschland’s northward advance on July 13 was cancelled due to renewed Soviet onslaughts against the 3rd Panzer Division. For a while all contact with the 3rd Panzer Division was lost as the Soviets recaptured Beresowka. On Grossdeutschland’s right flank, the 11th Panzer Division was also unable to press forward due to intense Soviet counterattacks. Rain and muddy roads also hampered the supply of the troops.

Soviet T-34 tanks, supported by thousands of Red Army soldiers, advance rapidly during a counter-attack at Kursk -Military History Network

Despite the setbacks, Hoth and Kempf continued to have full confidence in victory. Hitler had other ideas. The Führer summoned his army commanders to his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler told them that the Allies had landed in Sicily on July 10 and that Citadel must be called off immediately to enable the transfer of troops to Italy. Kluge agreed because he was already embroiled in Zhukov’s Orel counteroffensive.

Von Manstein, who had originally argued against the whole Kursk operation, pressed for the attack to continue, saying, “To break off the battle now would probably mean throwing away victory.”31 Von Manstein still had the fresh 24th Panzer Corps with 112 tanks in reserve. He wanted to wear the Soviets down through attrition and thereby forestall major Soviet offensives elsewhere.

“We were now in the position of a man who has seized the wolf by the ears and dare not let him go,”32 was von Mellenthin’s impression. Hitler, however, had made up his mind. Four days later he ordered the withdrawal of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps followed by the transfer of Grossdeutschland to Army Group Center. Until then, von Manstein did his best to destroy as many of the enemy as he could.

On July 14 and 15, Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division beat back two tank corps, a Guards corps, and Soviet rifle divisions to recapture the territory lost on the 12th. Throngs of Soviet infantry were sent fleeing to the west to be caught in a barrage of murderous German artillery fire. For the Soviets, however, the most dangerous situation was a linkup between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps. If this happened, the Soviet salient between the two German corps would be closed and the five Soviet divisions therein trapped.

Despite their recent wounds, both Bäke and Hünersdorf were back leading the 6th Panzer Division on another attack on Alexandrowaka. Bäke himself knocked out two Soviet tanks and an antitank gun while his battle group destroyed another 29 tanks and 25 antitank guns. Hünersdorf’s luck, however, ran out. A sniper shot him in the head on July 14, killing him.

Russian infantry service field artillery and fire small arms at attacking Germans in defense of the Kursk salient- Military History Network

That same day in the Das Reich sector, grenadiers fought house to house in the village of Belenichino, destroying 12 Soviet tanks in close combat. SS Lance Corporal Simon Grascher remained glued to the ground in a storm of small caliber, grenade, and antitank fire. The flanking fire of two T-34s was decimating his company. Spurning the dangers, Grascher fought his way forward. He overcame two bunkers and a number of machine gun nests to destroy one of the T-34s with his last hollow charge. Grascher knocked out the second T-34 by throwing a grenade in the temporarily opened hatch. Grascher was killed in the fierce battles that followed, receiving his Knight’s Cross posthumously.

Men like Grascher kept a heavily reinforced Trufanov from being able to do more than slow down the contact between Das Reich and the 7th Panzer Division on July 15. Trufanov did, however, buy the time for most of the Soviet divisions to slip out of the closing German pincers.

By July 16, Hoth and Kempf were finally in a position to resume the push for Kursk. Although their divisions were largely intact, they were battered and their men were worn down, and 60 miles still lay between them and Model’s northern pincer. Von Mellenthin stated, “Gross Deutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for 10 days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.”33

Indeed, the remaining 27th and 53rd Armies of Konev’s Steppe Front alongside the fresh 4th Guards Tank Corps and 1st Mechanized Corps, with nearly 400 tanks, were closing in on Oboian and northwest of Prokhorovka. How they would have fared against von Manstein’s reserves is a matter of speculation, for on July 17, von Manstein began his withdrawal. Zhukov noted, “Because of the exhaustion of our own First Tank Army and the Sixth and Seventh Guards field armies, the enemy was able to pull his main forces back to the Belgorod defense line by July 23.”34 Inevitably, most of the German divisions were soon drawn into new battles against Soviet offensives elsewhere.

As exemplified by the e´lan of the German panzer formations at Oboian and Prokhorovka, the Germans inflicted deep wounds on the Soviets at Kursk while remaining themselves relatively unscathed. Together, Army Group Center and Army Group South lost 323 tanks and assault guns irreparably destroyed during the Kursk battles. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Red Army personnel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with combat losses between 20 and 70 percent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehicles irreparably destroyed.

Losses to both the Germans and the Soviets in damaged armored vehicles were much higher than destroyed vehicles. By the time Wittmann’s Tigers disengaged on the 17th, Wittmann himself had accounted for 30 Soviet tanks and 28 antitank guns. From July 5-16, Das Reich alone knocked out 448 Soviet tanks and assault guns against a loss of 46 of its own. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps chalked up 1,149 Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles. The trend of high Soviet losses against those of the Germans would continue for a long time to come, and often at times be exceeded, as in future battles the Germans were usually on the defensive.

Nevertheless, the strategic consequences at Kursk were not lost on the German commanders. “Citadel had been a complete and most regrettable failure…with the failure of our supreme effort, the strategic initiative passed to the Russians,”35 reflected Von Mellenthin. Von Manstein commented, “When Citadel was called off, the initiative in the Eastern theater of war finally passed to the Russians.”36 Guderian agreed, “By the failure of Citadel we suffered a decisive defeat.”37

In an attempt to beat back a Red Army breakthrough near Belgorod, German artillery fires at the Soviet spearhead. In the foreground, a Waffen SS grenadier keeps watch over Soviet prisoners- Military History Network

Soviet propaganda naturally made the most of the Red Army victory by completely inflating the German losses. Zhukov wrote, “The picked and most powerful grouping of the Germans destroyed here [Kursk] … the faith of the German Army and the German people in the Nazi leadership … was irrevocably shattered.”38 Marshal Alexsandr M. Vasilevsky boasted of 500,000 German casualties. The massacre of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on July 12 was turned into the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army.” The Soviets claimed 400 German tanks destroyed that day and 3,100 German tanks destroyed during the whole Kursk battle. The reality was rather the reverse, and German morale remained high, both among civilians at home and among the soldiers at the front.

Only the relatively recent declassification of Waffen SS combat records and the public accessibility of Russian archival material has revealed the true nature of Kursk: a brilliant tactical victory for the Germans, but a decisive strategic victory for the Soviets.

 

“The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian” by L. H. Dyck was first published in World War II History Magazine September 2006 and republished on September 2016 at Warfare History Network . The  article above features additional images sourced from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.

Notes

1, 2. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990), p. 30., 3, 4. Ibid., p. 309, 5. Charles Winchester,  Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945 ( Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998), p. 106., 6. F. W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballatine Books, 1973), p. 264., 7. A.J. Barker,  Waffen SS at War (Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing, 1998), p. 72., 8. Alfred Novotny,  The Good Soldier (Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003), p. 55., 9. F. W. Mellenthin p. 264.,10. Novotny p. 52-53., 11. Mellenthin p. 273., 12, 13. David M. Glantz and House Jonathan M., The Battle of Kursk (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 152, 153., 14, 15. Ibid., p. 159., 16. Ibid, p. 173., 17. Ibib, p. 169., 18. Ibid., p. 185, Ibid., p. 188, Franz Kurowski, Panzer Aces (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), p. 178., 21. Ibid., p. 179-180., 22. Ibid., 180., 23. Ibid., p. 181., 24. Ibid., p. 312., 25. Ibid., p. 313., 26. Paul Carell, Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), p. 77., 27. Glantz and House, p. 186., 28. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Mueller Gene, Hitler’s Commanders (Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 281., 29. Glantz and House, p. 215., 30. Ibid. p. 199., 31. Carell, p. 88., 32. Mellenthin, p. 278., 33. Ibid. p. 276., 34. Zhukov Georgi R., Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 244., 35. Mellenthin, p. 277-278., 36. Glantz and House, p. 277., 37. Guderian, p. 312., 38. Ibid.,p. 278.

 

Sources

Barker A.J. Waffen SS at War. Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing. 1998, Carell Paul. Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, Glantz David M. and House Jonathan M. The Battle of Kursk. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1999, Guderian Heinz, Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Kurowski Franz. Panzer Aces. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2004, Mellenthin F. W. von, Panzer Battles. New York: Ballatine Books, 1973, Mitcham Samuel W. Jr. and Mueller Gene. Hitler’s Commanders. Lanham: Cooper Square Press. 2000, Novotny Alfred. The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003, Winchester Charles, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 1998, Zhukov Georgi R. Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles.New York: Harper & Row. 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unstoppable Panzer Count Strachwitz

Military Heritage Magazine

The Unstoppable Panzer Count Strachwitz

“With speed and daring and a knack for improvisation and organization, Strachwitz achieved near miracles in battle against overwhelming odds”

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz’s incredible military career spanned two world wars and a civil war.

During World War I, the young Strachwitz served in the 1st Guards Cavalry Division:

“Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for field gray one and rode off to war at the front of his squadron. Soon the dashing Hussars found themselves stuck in clouds of dust, raised by thousands of infantry and supply wagons. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and superiors. Because of his daring, the soldiers nicknamed Strachwitz the “last horseman.”

At the end of WWI, Strachwitz found his Silesian homeland torn by civil strife between Poles and Germans:

“Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns the fleeing Poles.”

It was, however, during WWII, that Strachwitz’s military exploits made him a legend. Although assigned a rear-echelon position during the French campaign of 1940, Strachwitz could not be kept from the front. Setting out with on his own initiative, Strachwitz and his driver drove nineteen miles into French territory where he pulled up to a French signals garrison:

“Strachwitz got out of the car, calmly lit a cigarette, and demanded the surrender of the garrison in perfect French. He told the captain that his panzers were only minutes away. The bluff worked and 600 French soldiers surrendered.”

Strachwitz (2)
Count Strachwitz wearing his “Schiffchen” forage cap in a photo taken for postcards after he received the Swords to his Knight’s Cross.

With the German attack on Soviet Russia in 1941, Strachwitz was granted front line command as battalion commander with the 16th Panzer division. On June 26, 16th Panzer got hit by Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos’ spirited counterattack:

“Amid deafening explosions, fountains of earth, and clouds of smoke, an adjutant reported to Strachwitz that they were T-26 light tanks. Strachwitz’s binoculars zeroed in on more Soviet tanks in the woods to the rear. He ordered the heavier Mark IVs to counter the Soviet outflanking attempt. Soviet infantry swarmed through the panzers. A bullet grazed Strachwitz’s arm. Roughly bandaged, the wound continued to bleed into the cloth. At dusk, after hours of fighting, the Soviets were thrown back but the regiment had been cut off from the division. It was only the first day of the largest tank battle in Barbarossa so far.”

By 1943, Strachwitz had been promoted to Oberst der Reserve (Colonel of the Reserve) and commanded the panzer regiment of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. During the night of March 15-16, Strachwitz hid his panzers in a deserted peasant village west of Belgorod:

“Strachwitz remained calm, letting the whole Soviet column enter the village. With a Soviet command tank within 70 yards, Strachwitz’s hidden Tiger fired and blasted the turret right off the T-34. The other panzers let loose, knocking out 18 T-34s and KV-1s in a few minutes. Strachwitz climbed on top of his turret and watched the inferno. “The Russians have recognized us, they’re broadcasting, “Watch out, it’s Strachwitz,” exclaimed Strachwitz’s radio operator.”

When on August 1st, 1944, the Soviets reached the Gulf of Riga at Tuckum they cut off 30 German divisions in northern Latvia and Estonia. Someone needed to break through to beleaguered Riga. “If anyone can do it, it’s Strachwitz,” said Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian.

“Strachwitz entered Riga on August 21. Driving by cheering Latvians and German troops, the count’s Panther stopped in the marketplace right in front of a number of high-ranking officers. In his sweat- and dirt-stained overall, his face smeared in oil, Strachwitz emerged from the cupola. “Hurrah Leutnant, you busted the cauldron,” called out an officer. To astonished gazes, Strachwitz replied that he was a full-fledged general. In three days, Strachwitz’s small battlegroup had captured 18,000 prisoners and destroyed numerous artillery pieces, tanks and anti-tank guns.”

In a war and theater of operations that was characterized by a descending spiral of hatred and brutality, Strachwitz did his best to treat prisoners as best he could. He also helped ailing farmers, women and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unlike most senior commanders of the Third Reich, upon his death in 1968, Strachwitz was buried with full military honors:

“It was because of his bravery, which served as an example to all officers and soldiers, that he carried the highest decorations of the Knight’s Cross, the Oakleaves, the Swords and the Diamonds,” said General Heinz Georg Lemm of the Bundeswehr, himself a holder of the Oakleaves and Swords.”

Ludwig H. Dyck’s full article on Count Strachwitz is featured in Military Heritage Magazine’s July 2017 issue. Copyright L. H. Dyck.

 MH July 2017

Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest”

Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”

Ludwig H. Dyck

Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;

“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”

The Barbarians Before Rome (oil on canvas) by Luminais, Evariste Vital (1822-96); Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dunkirk, France; Giraudon; French

“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;

“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”

Knackfuss low pix
‘The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest,’ H. Knackfuss (Courtesy of School Museum Zetel and of Museum and Park Kalkriese).

Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”

As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.

“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”

Gaius Julius Caesar in battle by Mark Churms

Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;

“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”

Copyright L. H. Dyck

Viriathus, Lusitani Freedom Fighter

As featured in

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Viriathus, Lusitani Freedom Fighter

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Viriathus (Eduardo Barrón)

Leader of the Lusitani resistance against the Roman Republic, Viriathus became Portugal’s First National Hero

Viriathus & the Lusitani surrender to Rome

The Lusitani were one of the large Celt-Iberian tribal groups of Hispania (Spain), the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The Lusitani lands roughly equated with those of today’s Portugal. In 206 BCE, after Rome had appropriated the Carthaginian domains of southern Spain, the native Iberians rose up in revolt. The ongoing conflicts eventually spread to involve the free Celt-Iberian tribes to the north. The Lusitani started fighting the Romans in 194 BCE, raiding into Hispania Ulterior, (further Spain) the nearest of the two Roman Spanish provinces. When in 179 BCE hostilities finally ceased, it was largely due to the respect the Lusitani had gained for the Roman governor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the Elder). It was around this time that Viriathus was born.

Viriathus spent his childhood tending sheep in the hills and wild lands. When he became a teenager Viriathus likely started to join in local raids. Like other young Celt-Iberian warriors, he sought to prove his valor in the banditry that was common among the tribes. As Viriathus grew to manhood he watched his tribe’s relations with Rome deteriorate. The governors that had come to take Gracchus’ place were men of greed, who oppressed the neighboring tribes. After Lusitani complaints to the Roman Senate failed to improve the situation, the Lusitani resumed hostilities with Hispania Ulterior in 154 BCE. Viriathus would have been in his twenties at the time. In 153 BCE, some of the Lusitani even crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and struck into Africa. Two years later, the Lusitani inflicted a defeat on Hispania Ulterior’s Governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Probably Viriathus took part in at least some of these campaigns, his charisma and leadership gaining him a band of followers.

Although the Lusitani remained unbowed, the years of war had taken their toll. Almost certainly, Viriathus had lost relatives and close friends. Exhausted from having their homes burnt, their people killed or enslaved, the Lusitani sent envoys to Galba. He told them that he understood their reasons for making war. “Poorness of the soil and penury force you to do these things. But I will give my poor friends good land, and settle them in a fertile country, in three divisions” (Appian, Roman History, VI. X. 59, 60). Viriathus had heard of the great Gracchus from his elders. Perhaps Galba too was a man of his word.

Governor Galba betrays the Lusitani

Viriathus joined the men, women and children who gathered in the villages of Lusitania. They set out with their belongings, their carts, their livestock and their weapons, to meet up with others until scores became hundreds and hundreds became thousands. The year was 150 BCE and the Lusitani were surrendering to Rome. There were fully 30,000 of them when the Roman soldiers told the chieftains that the Lusitani should separate themselves into three groups. Escorted by legionaries and auxiliaries, the groups were led out of sight of each other.

Iberian Falcata Sword
Iberian Falcata Sword

Galba visited the first group, asking them to lay down their weapons to show their peaceful intentions. The Lusitani did as requested only to watch in apprehension as Roman soldiers dug a trench around them. The legionaries then forced their way through panicking Lusitani families. The Romans seized Lusitani of fighting age and killed them on the spot. A life of slavery awaited the others. Both the other tribal groups were dealt with in the same fashion. In what must have been a mad scramble to escape the slaughter, only a few escaped. Galba kept almost all of the loot and gave only a small amount to his soldiers. Back in Rome, the Senate was outraged at Galba’s disdainful behavior but were unable to reprimand him on account of his great wealth.

Viriathus leads the Lusitani to Victory

Among the survivors of Galba’s massacre was Viriathus, who swore vengeance on Rome. Viriathus became a young chieftain and in 147 BCE joined a Lusitani army raiding into Roman pacified Turdetania. Legate Gaius Vetilius responded vigorously, however, trapping the Lusitani against a river. Downcast, the Lusitani sent envoys with olive branches to Vetilius. They repeated their pleas for more fertile lands to settle on.

Vetilius agreed to the Lusitani demands but in turn demanded the surrender of their weapons. Viriathus would have none of it, reminding the tribesmen of Galba’s treachery. His words stirred their hearts and spirits so that they called upon Viriathus to take command of their entire army. Assembling the Lusitani cavalry, Viriathus led them in feint charges against the Roman lines. The skirmishing confused the Roman commanders and allowed the Lusitani infantry to flee the field.

At night, Viriathus and the cavalry slipped away to join his infantry. Vetilius came in pursuit but the heavily armored legionaries were unable to catch up with the lightly armed Lusitani. Viriathus kept just out of reach, drawing the Romans up the Barbesula River valley until the Roman column was strung out along a narrow pass, with a slope covered in thickets on one side and a cliff on the other. Here Viriathus sprung his trap, wheeling his cavalry around and attacking from the front while tribesmen hidden in the thickets stormed down the slope. The Lusitani threw javelins then closed in wielding short swords and the deadly falcata, the curved sickle-like swords that widened toward the tip. The Romans managed to fight their way out but not before losing over half their number. Vetilius was among the 4000 casualties.

As Viriathus’ renown grew, more and more tribesmen came over to his side. Here was a leader who even the Romans could not beat. Viriathus always divided the loot fairly, even distributing his own share to his bravest warriors. In a tale of his wedding, Viriathus was unimpressed by the gold and silver of his Romanized father-in-law. He leaned on his spear and ate little, offering sacrifices in the Lusitani way, then lifting his bride onto his horse and riding away into the hills.

In 146 BCE, Viriathus raided into the fertile Carpetani lands. Retreating before larger Roman forces, he wheeled back to strike at the strung out Roman column and inflicted severe casualties. The Romans named this feint and counter-strike method of fighting, the concursare. The same year Viriathus defeated another pursuing Roman army around Mt. Veneris (“Venus” mountain), harassed Roman garrisons in central Spain and captured Segobriga. Viriathus displayed the Roman standards throughout the hillsides. The Roman army commander, Claudius Unimanus left an account of the ferocity of the fighting:

“In a narrow pass 300 Lusitani faced 1000 Romans; as a result of the action 70 of the former and 320 of the latter died. When the victorious Lusitani retired and dispersed confidently, one of them on foot became separated, and was surrounded by a detachment of pursuing cavalry. The lone warrior pierced the horse of one of the riders with his spear, and with a blow of his sword cut off the Roman’s head, producing such terror among the others that they prudently retired under his arrogant and contemptuous gaze” (Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 5.4).

Attrition wears down the Viriathus

Rome’s victories in the Fourth Macedonian War (149-148 BCE) and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), freed additional resources up for the Spanish theater. In 145 BCE consul Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, of the renowned Scipio family, arrived in Hispania Ulterior with two green legions and allies totaling 15,000 foot and 2000 horse. Fabius took his time training his troops and limited them to skirmishes. In 144 BCE he engaged Viriathus directly, coming off the better and burning two cities to the ground. When Fabius was replaced by Quintus Pompeius the next year, Viriathus regained his winning streak, ambushing Quintus near Venus Mountain.

In 142 BCE, the fortunes of the war turned again when Fabius’ brother, consul Fabius Maximus Servilianus brought with him 20,000 troops and routed Viriathus near Itucci. In their next confrontation, Viriathus slashed back in one of his typical counter-strikes and inflicted 3000 casualties. Nevertheless, worn down by attrition, Viriathus fell back from central Spain to Lusitania. After him came Servilianus, who laid siege to the town of Erisana. Viriathus came to the rescue, trapping the Romans in a defile but then offering peace terms.

Viriathus’ only demand from Rome was that the Lusitani borders be respected and that the Lusitani become amici populi Romani -“Friends of the Roman People.” Although Servilianus accepted and the Senate ratified the terms, Roman pride found it hard to forgive a guerrilla leader who had humbled Rome. The Romans provoked the Lusitani until war erupted once more in 140 BCE. Servilianus’ brother, consul Q. Servilius Caepio, who took over in Hispania Ulterior, chased Viriathus through Carpentania, Lusitania and through the Vettones lands. The passage of the Roman forces was marked by destruction. When Caepio was further reinforced by Popilius Laenas from Hispania Citerior, the Lusitani were ready to plead for peace. Laenas was ready to grant it, but only if Roman deserters and all weapons were handed over. The Romans punished the deserters in Hispanic fashion, by chopping their rights hands off. Reluctant to turn over his weapons, Viriathus chose three close friends, Audax, Ditalco and Minuros to further negotiate.

During the age of Viriathus most of Spain remained covered in woodlands  (Photo by Esetena – Own work, wikipedia-commons).

The Murder of Viriathus

Viriathus, who for years had outwitted his foes, failed to recognize the enemy among those closest to him. After returning from the Romans, his three “friends” came to Viriathus’ tent at night. Telling the guard they urgently needed to confer with Viriathus, two of them held the sleeping Viriathus down while the third pushed a knife into his back. When the murder was discovered at daylight Viriathus’ followers were overcome with sorrow and anger. The three conspirators slipped away to the Romans. Having been paid a sum in advance, they now wanted the remainder of their payment but were told that Rome did not pay traitors. Back at the Lusitani camp, Viriathus body was dressed in rich garments and then burnt on a funeral pyre. Sacrifices were offered and warriors ran and rode around the pyre.

Although a warrior named Tantalus tried to reverse Lusitani fortunes, without Viriathus large numbers of Lusitani surrendered to Laenas in 139 BCE. Fortunately, Laenas proved a man of his word, allotting farmlands to some and deporting others to new regions. Lusitania, nevertheless, remained free of Roman dominion until the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), when the conquest of all of Hispania was completed.

The Death of the Rebel, Viriathus (d.139)
The Death of the Rebel, Viriathus (d.139), Madrazo y Garetta, Raimundo de (1841-1920) ,Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Bibliography

  • Appian, Appian (Harvard University Press, 1913).
  • Dio Cassius, Roman History, Volume 2 (Havard University Press, 1914)
  • Dyck, L.H., The Roman Barbarian Wars (Pen and Sword, 2016).
  • Polybius, The Histories (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Wilcox, P., BARBARIANS AGAINST ROME Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies (Osprey Publishing, 2000).