Friday, 28 May 2010

The blame game begins for the failure of the Spanish Armada

It was on the dockside at Dunkirk that the Duke of Parma - commander of the Spanish land forces in the Netherlands - was found by Don Jorge Manrique, the Inspector General of the Armada who had been sent by Medina Sidonia from Calais on the Sunday evening with the blistering message for Parma to hurry up and get his troops into invasion barges to cross over to England. Manrique had ridden hard for Bruges, where Parma had been on the Sunday morning, arriving there on Monday afternoon to be told that the duke had gone to Dunkirk. After a short rest and change of horses, Manrique had headed to the port. He was tired, worried and distraught when he arrived at 10.30 that morning.

Manrique pushed through the crowds of soldiers and stalked up to Parma. He handed over Medina Sidonia’s note and began to deliver himself of his commander’s angry demands for instant action and assistance. When he demanded to know where Parma’s fleet was hiding and why it was not at sea, Parma waved his hand at the barges loaded with troops or waiting their turn to pick up the men. Manrique was aghast.

The craft before him were flat-bottomed river craft quite unsuited to a sea voyage except in the calmest of weathers. And none of them were armed. Parma had told King Philip this often enough, and Parma assumed that Medina Sidonia knew. But he did not, and neither did Manrique. In a fit of temper, Manrique accused Parma of making excuses for not going to the aid of the Armada, of hiding his armed flyboats in another port and of other things not recorded.

Parma saw he was getting nowhere, so he called in his senior officers and got them to explain to Manrique what was going on and why. Manrique was having none of it. The discussion was getting angry and heated. That was when the youthful Prince of Ascoli arrived. He had seen for himself something of the condition of the Armada after the battle fought the previous afternoon, though not all of it. His report made it clear that the Armada would not be arriving for a rendezvous any time that day, nor probably for the next few days, but it was still unclear how much damage the Spanish fleet had sustained.

Then Captain Marolin de Juan arrived. De Juan was the chief navigator of the Armada and had been out in a patache on a similar mission to that of Ascoli. He had much the same story to tell: The Armada was scattered but there was no evidence that it was defeated. It would probably be back soon.

The dispute fizzled out quickly. Everyone knew that they would have to await news of events at sea. Meanwhile, Ascoli had no eyes for the barges, but wanted only to rejoin Medina Sidonia on the San Martin. He begged Parma to lend him some armed men for his pinnace and enough food and drink to keep his men working. Parma may have been making a show of getting ready to leave port, but he knew well enough that the Dutch flyboats were out at sea and, probably, that the Armada was scattered across the sea. He refused, and told Ascoli to go and have a hot meal instead. Ascoli was frustrated and furious, but he could do little other than follow orders. Parma almost certainly saved his life.

Meanwhile, Parma ordered the embarkation to halt. The men were put into camps near Dunkirk and Nieuport, while the barges were kept tied up to await events. He then retired to a desk to dictate to his secretary a letter designed to ensure that he did not get blamed. The letter rehearsed the difficulties that he had been writing about for months, then gave a brief account of events over the previous two weeks as the messengers had arrived in succession from Medina Sidonia. It is a long letter, and clearly Parma was emphasising that he had done all he could, while attempting to blame Medina Sidonia for what had gone wrong.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Parmenio, Alexander the Great's right hand man

Alexander relied on the seven men who held the formal title of Bodyguards. These senior generals and leading noblemen made up the command council or senior staff of the Macedonian army. Alexander, as king, was obliged to listen to their advice, though the decision was his alone.

These were all experienced and skilled military men. The most respected of them all was Parmenio. Aged 66 years of age by this date, Parmenio had spent his entire adult life in the saddle. He had begun his military career under King Amyntas II of Macedon in around 380bc. As a young man he saw Macedon overrun by wild Illyrian tribesmen and, for a time, went into exile along with Amyntas. The king found support among the Thessalians, returning at the head of a large army of Thessalian horsemen. The Macedonians rose to support him and the Illyrians were expelled.

Parmenio worked his way up through the command ranks of the Macedonian army under Amyntas and saw much campaigning against the Illyrians and Epirots. It was during the reign of Amyntas that the hill tribes of Upper Macedonia were brought under more direct rule by the Kings of Macedon. Until then the kings had ruled directly only the lowlands and exercised only a vague sort of control over the hill tribes. How much fighting was involved in this we don’t know, but Parmenio would have been involved in what there was. In later life Amyntas narrowly survived an attempt at a palace coup organised by his wife. Executions followed, but Parmenio must have chosen the winning side as he survived.

When Amyntas died, Parmenio was a fairly senior, but not top ranking commander. The new king Perdiccas, did not survive long as he was killed invading Illyria. Perdiccas left an infant son, Amyntas, with his own adult brother Philip as regent. Philip wasted little time getting the army on his side and then ousted Amyntas. It must be presumed that Parmenio had played some role in the coup as he was immediately favoured and promoted by Philip.

When Philip in turn died, Parmenio had been in distant Asia with the advance guard of 10,000 men sent to prepare the way for the invasion of the Persian Empire. His second in command was the nobleman Attalus, great uncle of the young prince who was Alexander’s half brother and main rival for the throne. When men arrived from Alexander with orders to execute Attalus, Parmenio let them do their work despite the fact that his daughter was the wife of Attalus.

Parmenio had thus survived three major rounds of executions among the Macedonian nobility, each linked to a different attempt to put a new king on the throne. He must have been as wily a politician as he was a successful general. His relationship to Alexander is not entirely clear. He was certainly a supporter of the young king and one of the inner circle of Bodyguards. Parmenio’s son, Philotas, was a boyhood friend of Alexander’s. Although the two youngsters had never been particularly close, Alexander had appointed Philotas to command the companion cavalry as the expedition to Asia set out from Therme.

Perhaps it is best to see Parmenio as a much respected advisor, but not a man who was very close to Alexander on a personal level. There are some hints that in times of crisis the veterans of Philip’s army were inclined to look toward Parmenio, not Alexander. This would have been perfectly understandable for men risking their lives on campaign, but must have rankled with Alexander who was, after all, both king and commander in chief. This tension between the young king and his older, more experienced second in command would later become more pronounced. It did, however, exist at this time and must have served as the background to the dispute that now followed.

This is an extract from Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The morning of the Battle of Crecy - The French

The morning of 26 August 1346 dawned bright and clear over northern France.

At Abbeville King Philip of France awoke early, along with the vast army he had gathered to crush the English invaders. His first duty was to hear mass at the Abbey of St Peter, for a Christian king had to set a good religious example on such a day. According to Geoffrey Baker, Philip held a quick council of war with his senior commanders to decide how best to proceed.

Late on the evening of 24 August the English had chased the survivors of du Fay’s force who had fled west as far as the gates of Abbeville. Those manning the walls of the town had watched the English horseman as they came to a halt outside crossbow range and rode about scouting the town. The Englishmen had then left, riding northwest into the setting sun and keeping close to the banks of the Somme.

At dawn next day columns of smoke had been seen rising from Le Crotoy, indicating that the English were in that direction. While the army rested Philip had sent out scouts to find the English and discover what they were doing. Those who rode along the Somme clashed with English scouts near Noyelles. The French scouts sent north toward Hesdin found a few isolated English riders moving about north of the Forest of Crecy – presumably these were Warwick, Northampton and their men scouting the ground around Crecy.

Now Philip and his commanders discussed what these reports meant. King John of Bohemia may have been almost blind, but he could see more clearly than most. He stated that the English would stand and fight. Nobody else agreed. Philip himself believed that Edward would continue to run north. Baker tells us that several French noblemen “reproached the King of Bohemia for being foolish”.

Still it seems that Philip wanted to harry and chase the English rather than trap them. Presumably he hoped that hunger and fatigue would reduce the English army to impotence and save him the bother of a major battle. He gave the order that the French army was to continue the pursuit. Le Bel says “King Philip urged his men on to follow the English”.

It must be said that the events of the campaign so far favoured Philip’s interpretation rather than that of John of Bohemia. In both 1339 and 1340 Edward had marched about northeastern France making much noise, but eventually retreating to Flanders when he ran out of food and supplies. Now, in 1346, Edward had marched across Normandy, Ile de France and Picardy making much noise, but fighting only when he had a clear advantage. He had been given the chance to fight outside Paris, but instead had run. He had been running ever since and there was nothing to indicate that he would do anything other than continue running.

Later French tradition has it that the French army set off down the north bank of the Somme towards the rising columns of smoke coming from Le Crotoy. It must be admitted that the contemporary sources do not state the direction of march. North of the Somme does, however, fit the known facts.

If Philip was determined to chase the retreating English until their discipline broke down and supplies ran out, then this was the correct way to go. If he had marched directly north to Hesdin, the English might have turned around and slipped behind him past Abbeville and marched east. Edward had already pulled off a similar stunt at Poissy and might be expected to try it again. If he did, the English would again be a day or two ahead of Philip and so would have enough time to capture a town or two and so replenish their supplies.

But if Philip marched to the north end of Blanchetaque, picked up the English trail and followed it he would ensure that he was following the English step by step, keeping his sword in their backs. The countryside had been stripped bare of food, now stored in castles and towns. There would be no time for the English even to think of attacking a fortified position with the French hurrying them along. It was a sound strategy and fits in well with le Bel’s comment.

This is an extract from The Battle of Crecy by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

RAF Bomber Command goes to war in 1939

On 31 August 1939 the Air Ministry sent an identical telegram to all officers and men of the RAF not currently on duty. It read simply “Report to Unit immediately”. Given the tense international situation of the time nobody who received that telegram could have been in much doubt as to what it meant.

The next day, 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France both sent an ultimatum to Germany stating that unless German armed forces pulled out of Poland within two days war would be declared. So it was that on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939 radio sets in virtually every base of RAF Bomber Command were tuned into the BBC Home Service at 11am that day. The crowds of men and women gathered round the radios heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announce that Germany had not replied to the ultimatum and that as a consequence Britain was at war with Germany.

The general mood in Bomber Command was one of grim acceptance. Most flying crew were young men. They had no experience of combat flying and little idea of what was going to happen. Most expected to be ordered off on a mission that day, or at least the next, and took their aircraft on a short flight to test its airworthiness. Just as likely, many thought, was for the skies to darken with Luftwaffe bombers coming to pound the RAF out of existence. Either way casualties were likely to be heavy within the next few weeks.

Among the ground crews and administrative staff were some men who had served with the RFC during World War I. These older men had seen combat and knew very well what to expect. Most saw their role as calming the nerves of the younger men, giving assurances of the superiority of modern British aircraft or simply by acting in a confident manner. It was a role that some took to well, but that many others found an enormous strain – all the more so once casualties began to mount.

In the event the Luftwaffe was too busy in Poland to bother with attacks on Britain or France. By the time the Polish campaign was over at the end of September, Hitler was expecting Britain and France to make a face-saving peace. When this did not happen, he ordered his generals to prepare a surprise winter invasion of France in January 1940. The Luftwaffe laid its plans to support this ground attack and husbanded its forces.

This is an extract from RAF Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Gladiatorial Arena at Pompeii

In the popular imagination gladiatorial games took place in purpose built arenas in front of baying mobs of thousands of Romans. In fact, the earliest gladiatorial contests took place either beside the tomb of the man being honoured by a munus or on his estate. There would have been few spectators other than the dead man’s family and household.

Later, as the events became spectacles and attracted large crowds, they were held in town squares or, in Rome, at the Forum. In these venues the editor of the games, the man putting on the spectacle, might erect temporary wooden seating for the comfort of the audience. The erection of permanent structures in which games could be held did not begin until the 1st century BC. Only then were the events being staged frequently enough for the large expense of permanent buildings to be worthwhile.

The oldest gladiatorial amphitheatre of which enough remains for us to see the layout in any detail is that in Pompeii. The structure was built in 80BC and had seating capacity of about 20,000. We know of earlier amphitheatres from written sources, but these were built at least partially of wood and so have not survived. The Pompeii amphitheatre is built entirely of stone and includes several features that were to become standard elements of amphitheatre design across the Roman Empire.

The most consistent feature of all amphitheatres was their shape, an elliptical oval. The most effective layout to give all spectators a good view of the action in the arena would have been a circle, but that would have been of little use for the primary purpose of the games by this date which was to enhance the prestige and fame of the editor of the games, and thus his chances of winning elections. The elliptical oval, however, gave a position of prominence for the special dais on which sat the editor. This dais was placed half way along the shady, northern side where the curve was at its flattest. From there the editor could see everything that went on in the arena or in the seating. More importantly, he could be seen by the entire crowd. The platform on which he sat went by the name of the tribunal editoris. The arena itself was covered with sand to soak up the blood and give the fighters a good grip with their feet. The word arena comes from the latin for sand.

A second feature of the amphitheatre at Pompeii that was to persist was the location of the two gates which gave access to the arena itself. These were put in at either end of the oval. One was dubbed the Porta Libitinaria, named after Libitina the goddess of burials. It was through this gate that the dead, be they human or animal, were removed for disposal.

A third characteristic set by the Pompeii amphitheatre was the layout of the seating. The seats were made of stone and ran in horizontal lines around the arena. The front seats were raised several feet above the sand and separated from it by a sheer wall of polished stone. This was a safety feature as the wall stopped beasts or frantic men from climbing into the crowd. Sometimes nets were rigged above the wall for added safety. The long horizontal rows of seats were broken by vertical flights of steps so that each block of seats formed a wedge-shape. At the top of the steps was a door through which the crowd entered and left the amphitheatre.

Finally, the amphitheatre of Pompeii was built by two extremely wealthy local magnates named Gaius Quintius Valgus and March Porcius. These men made sure that a prominent inscription recorded their generosity for posterity, and for the attention of the voting public. The fashion was followed elsewhere and with other public buildings. The construction of an amphitheatre was as much a method of gaining public approval as building a temple.

In one important respect the Pompeii amphitheatre is unique. It was built by digging down into the ground so that the floor of the arena was some feet below the level of the ground. The soil excavated was heaped up to form the banks on which the stone seats were built. This model was not followed elsewhere. Most amphitheatres were entirely free standing structures whether they were built of wood, stone or a mix of the two.

This is an extract from the Age of Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 14 May 2010

Gladiator History

The First Fights
The very first gladiator fights did not take place in Rome. They probably took place in the cities of the region known as Campania. The people of Campania were descended from Greeks. The Greeks had a tradition of organising games and fights at funerals. The idea of gladiator fights may have arisen from funeral games.

Large numbers of people in the ancient world were slaves. Perhaps around 25% of the population of Rome were slaves. Slaves were the property of their owner. They had to do everything that they were told or risk being severely punished. Some slaves were treated well, others led miserable lives

The Munus
The first gladiator fight in Rome took place in 264bc. The fight was part of the funeral held for the nobleman Brutus Pera. These fights were called a munus, meaning a duty owed to the dead man. The munus held for Brutus Pera involved six of his slaves fighting to the death in pairs.

The sword used by the legionaries in the Roman army was called a gladius. Because this was the weapon used by the men who fought in the early munera they became known as gladiators, meaning men who use a gladius. The sword was short and heavy. It was ideal for stabbing, but not for slashing.

Celtic Warriors
The Romans loved spectacle and grand shows. By around 200bc prisoners of war were made to fight as gladiators using the weapons and armour that they had used in battle against the Roman army. Among the earliest prisoners of war to fight as gladiators were Celts. These men fought with a long, slashing sword and a large shield but no armour.

Desert Raiders
The Numidians lived in the desert areas of North Africa. The Numidians were skilled horsemen who launched raids into Roman territory to steal food and loot buildings. Numidian prisoners were made to fight as gladiators on horseback using their throwing spears and small shields.

Quiz Question
In which year was the first gladiatorial fight staged in Rome?

That’s Amazing
The first gladiatorial fights were held in the cattle market. The stalls and pens were cleared away to give the men room to fight.

This is an extract from Action Files: Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Ancient Egyptian Empire

The Middle Kingdom
In about 1975bc Egypt was reunited by Mentuhotep, the ruler of Thebes in Upper Egypt. This began the period known as the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom covered the 11th to 13th dynasties. It was a period famous for fine arts and beautiful craftwork.

In 1490bc the pharaoh Thutmose II died leaving Egypt to his son Thutmose III. The new pharaoh was a child so his stepmother Hatshepsut became regent. After a few years she had herself made Pharaoh. She ruled Egypt for 15 years, but dressed as a man to look like a pharaoh.

The Aten
In 1352 the pharaoh Akhenaten abandoned the gods of Egypt in favour of a new god called the Aten. He built a vast new city to be the capital of Egypt and a new temple to the Aten. The Aten was a sun god that is shown as a disk from which sun rays burst forth. The next pharaoh, Tutankhamun, restored the old gods.

Rameses the Great
The greatest ruler of the New Kingdom was Rameses II of the 19th dynasty who lived from 1279bc to 1213bc. Raises conquered lands to the northeast of Egypt as far as Syrian to establish a might empire. He used his wealth to build vast temples, all carved with pictures of himself.

Egyptian Society
During the New Kingdom, Egypt had a strictly ordered society. The pharaoh was believed to be descended from the gods and to be divine. The priests and royal officials were almost as important as pharaoh. Beneath them came the noblemen and scribes who organised the kingdom. Craftworkers and vast numbers of peasant farmers were the least important.

Climate Change
Egypt relied on water flowing north from Africa in the Nile. It is thought that the Middle Kingdom may have come to an end when the climate changed and drought struck Egypt. Shortage of food caused riots and rebellions that destroyed the power of the pharaohs. When the climate became wetter again the time of troubles ended.

Quiz Question
Which pharaoh abandoned the old gods to worship the Aten?

Make a magic eye charm
You will need
Self-hardening modelling clay
Thick cord or string
Poster paints

Shape the clay into a wadjet eye, as shown. Add extra clay for the pupil of the eye and at the top of the charm. Use the pencil to make the top piece into a loop. Leave the clay to harden. Paint it in bright colours and leave to dry. Varnish. Thread the cord through the loop and wear your charm for extra luck.

This is an extract from Action Files: Egypt by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 10 May 2010

The trenches of World War I

In the winter of 1914-15 all the soldiers on the Western Front believed that the trenches were only temporary structures. They thought that as soon as the good spring weather arrived, the armies would return to traditional fighting tactics.

The trenches were based on temporary field defences that all armies built when stationary for a few days. They were designed to shelter men from artillery shells and rifle bullets.

Trenches were designed to be over 2.3 metres deep, so that men could walk along them without needing to crouch. Often trenches were much shallower than this.

A firing step was built into the front of the trench. Standing on this step a man could aim his rifle over the top of the trench towards the enemy. Sentries stood on the firing step to see if the enemy were attacking.

Trenches were built in zig-zag routes so that there was no straight stretch of more than 30 metres. This was so that nobody could aim a gun along the trench to kill everyone in it.

In 1914 there were usually two or three lines of trenches. The front trench contained most of the men, ready to repel an enemy attack. The second and third trenches contained first aid posts, kitchens, latrines and other essential services.

The different lines of trenches were linked by communication trenches that ran forwards. These were not as deep as the line trenches and did not have firing steps.

In marshy areas or rainy weather, the trenches often filled with water very quickly. Hand-powered pumps were installed to keep the trenches dry, but they did not work very effectively.

Sandbags and wooden planks were widely used to give strength and shape to the trench walls. Collapsing trenches were a problem throughout the winter in all areas.

Barbed wire was strung on a line of metal posts in front of the trenches. This would slow down any attacking soldiers so that the defenders had more time to shoot them.

This is an extract from 1000 Facts on World War I by Rupert Matthews