Thursday, 30 December 2010

Rearming the Reich

In his rise to power inside Germany, Hitler had used luck, skill, propaganda and violence - or the very real threat of it - to achieve his ends. It soon became clear that he was to use very much the same tactics in achieving his aims now that he was the Führer of the German people. For the luck and skill he would rely on his own talents and for the propaganda he could rely on the dark genius of Josef Goebbels. For the violence he turned to the armed forces of Germany, the Reichswehr, and at once realised that this instrument of war was quite simply not up to the job.

The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I was dictated to Germany by the victorious Allies. The numerous provisions, were prompted by the unshakeable belief that it had been Germany and her aristocratic, military elite which had started the war. If war were to be avoided in future, the authors of the treaty believed, Germany had to be stripped of any offensive power. Under the terms of Versailles, the German armed forces were to number no more than 100,000 men, none of whom could be conscripts, and were allowed neither tanks nor aircraft. The famously efficient Army General Staff was disbanded.

The new Reichswehr were composed of the Reichsheer, or army, and the Reichsmarine, or navy. The majority of the manpower was in the Reichsheer, which consisted of 2 Group Commands, 7 Infantry Divisions and 3 Cavalry Divisions. The Reichsmarine was so reduced in size that it was little more than a fisheries protection and coastguard service. The aim of Versailles was, simply, to stop Germany from having sufficient armed forces to be tempted into starting a war. The effect was to drive the German governments and military establishment towards finding new and imaginative ways of creating effective military power.

The rearmament of Germany after the catastrophic defeat of the Great War began before Hitler became Führer, but it was to gather pace and urgency once the Nazis were in power. Crucially, it was Hitler’s ambition for an aggressive foreign policy that not only gave the rearmament a timescale, but also pointed the direction which it took. This ambition and the restrictive military terms of the treaty were to have a direct bearing on the form of the new German war machine which Hitler was to create.

Less well-known clauses in the Versailles treaty committed the victorious Allies to reducing their own armed forces. These reductions were not on anything like the drastic scale imposed on Germany, but would have been significant if they had ever been carried out. However the idealistic euphoria for peace and the perceived benefits of the influence of the League of Nations which dominated thinking in 1919 soon wilted in the face of belligerent communism radiating from Soviet Russia and the practical needs of Britain and France to police their empires and colonies. In the event, the planned disarmament of the victorious nations never took place. This, of course, gave Hitler the ready-made excuse he needed for rearming Germany.

This is an extract from the book HITLER - MILITARY COMMANDER

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Pirate ships

Pirate Ships

Intro Text

Pirates used fast, heavily-armed ships. They needed to be able to catch up with merchant ships, then defeat them if they fought back. Some pirates preferred to have small ships so they could hide in narrow inlets and creeks. Others chose larger ships with more guns. The ship needed enough space to carry food for the crew, ammunition for the guns and to store all the loot they stole.

This is a larger pirate ship carrying over 30 guns. There were cabins for the crew and storerooms for the food, drink and ammunition. The upper decks were kept clear so that the guns could be used at short notice.

You Must Be Joking
In the warm Caribbean ocean, seaweed and shellfish grew quickly on the bottom of ships. This slowed the ships down. Three times each year, pirates would drag their ships ashore to scrape off all the weed and shells. This was known as "careening".

Can You Believe It?
Pirates built their own ships.
NO. Most pirates stole ships If a pirate captured a ship which was better than his own, he would sell his old ship and keep the new one. Some pirates chose to buy or hire their ship from a pirate stronghold such as Port Royal or Tortuga.

Only the most successful pirates could attract a crew large enough to sail a big ship. Most pirates had small crews, so they used smaller ships. The hulls were often painted green so they would blend in to the green land when the pirates were hiding in creeks and inlets.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Al Capone the Gangster

No gangster in the world is better known than Al Capone (1899-1947). Although his criminal career ended more than 70 years ago, his image as a brutal, ruthless yet intelligent and stunningly successful gangster has never diminished. His grip over the Chicago underworld never slackened, his rule being enforced by clever diplomacy, bribery and lethal violence. Helped by movies and books, Al Capone’s career has acted as an inspiration to generations of criminals and a stark warning to the forces of law and order. For many he is the ultimate gangster.

Capone was born in New York in 1899 to parents who had immigrated from Italy a few years before. As a teenager Capone engaged in petty theft, but he entered organised crime when he got a job as a bartender at the Harvard Inn, a rundown bar owned by gangster Frankie Yale. Capone’s talents quickly led to his rise in Yale’s gang and by the age of 20 he is thought to have carried out at least 2 murders for Yale.

In 1919, Yale sent Capone to Chicago to help his friend Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio, who ran much of the windy city’s vice business. When Prohibition arrived, Torrio promoted the cunning Capone to run his illegal alcohol business. By 1923, Capone was heading his own mini empire of criminality in Cicero. He gained total control over Cicero’s underworld and got a henchman elected as the town’s mayor.

Meanwhile, Torrio was engaged in a war with the North Side Gang. In 1925 Torrio was badly injured in a gun battle and retired to Italy, naming Capone as his successor. Capone moved quickly to establish control over Torrio’s gang. He then established a firm grip on the city’s government through bribery and blackmail. Politicians and senior police officers were in his control, and Capone’s empire of vice, gambling and alcohol operated virtually unhindered by the law. Capone quickly became the richest man in the city, indulging his tastes for fine clothes, fine living and loose women to the full.

But if Capone and his gang were beyond the law, they were not beyond the reach of other gangsters. The North Side Gang – led by Bugs Moran – was continually trying to encroach on Capone’s territory and activities. There were frequent outbreaks of violence and in 1928 Bugs Moran tried to have Capone murdered. The attempt failed only because Capone’s bodyguard threw his boss to the ground.

Capone plotted revenge, and gave the job of carrying it out to his chief executioner Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn. McGurn hired gunmen from New York, Detroit and Tennessee. Then he began studying the North Side Gang’s movements and activities. He discovered that on 14 February 1929 the entire gang leadership was due to be at a garage at 2122 North Clark Street to receive a large consignment of illegal drink.

McGurn had his hired guns dress as policemen and drive a stolen police car. They arrived just a few minutes after the illegal drink and burst into the garage as if making arrests. The gangsters lined up as instructed. The fake policemen then opened up with machineguns and shotguns with such savagery that several of the victims were almost cut in two. Moran himself had been late arriving and, seeing the police car, had not entered the garage. The Valentine Day’s Massacre, as the mass killing became known, destroyed the North Side Gang.

Indirectly, the massacre also destroyed Capone. The killings were so brutal and so open that they prompted a backlash by the honest citizens of Chicago, and caused the federal government to take an interest. At first the forces of law and order were unable to link any crimes directly to Capone, who always acted through middlemen and used cash rather than traceable bank accounts.

Then the famous Elliot Ness of the US Treasury came across a book that detailed payments made to Capone. In 1931 Capone was convicted on five charges of tax evasion. The judge, knowing full well of Capone’s other crimes, imposed the harshest sentence possible: 11 years in a federal prison and one year in the county jail, as well as an earlier six-months contempt of court sentence plus fines and court costs totalling $80,000.

While Capone was in prison, his grip on his criminal empire slackened. By 1938 the onset of tertiary syphilis had begun and Capone entered a steep decline in his health. He was released in 1939, but with his health broken he retired from crime. He died on 24 January 1947.

Monday, 20 December 2010

RAF Advanced Landing Grounds in Sussex

As preparations for D-Day advanced, it became clear that the existing Fighter airfields of Tangmere, Ford and Westhampnett in Sussex would be unable to cope with the large number of aircraft expected to operate from the county. The need for additional airfields had been recognised after the Dieppe Raid. On that occasion Fighter Command had gained and held air supremacy over the town and the sea offshore, but only by putting up vast numbers of fighters on a strict rota system. To be confident of achieving air supremacy over the much larger area over the Normandy beaches and English Channel woul would require far more aircraft, even given the depleted state of the Luftwaffe by the summer of 1944. It was to provide bases for these aircraft that the Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) were constructed.

The ALGs were never intended to be permanent airfields. The runways were constructed of heavy-duty metal mesh laid down over the turf, while accommodation consisted of requistioned nearby houses and tents. There were to be four hangars at each ALG, but again these were of temporary constructions, known as blister hangars. Care was taken over selecting the sites, the ideal being a flat area of poor-grade farmland close to woodland where stores could be hidden from probing Luftwaffe eyes. There were not enough such sites to be found in Sussex, so some good quality farmland had to be sacrificed much to the annoyance of the local farmers.

Among the unsung heroes of Fighter Command were the runway repair crews of the ALGs. The metal spikes holding the runway mesh in position were constantly working loose, so the men had to rush out to hammer them back in at short notice. More than once they were at work even as aircraft came into land, the men scattering for a few seconds, then returning to work.

In December 1942 workmen started to clear the site just outside Bognor Regis, flattening out bumps and demolishing farm buildings in line with the runways. January 1943 saw work begin at Chailey, and in February at Selsey, Apuldram and Coolham. Cowdray Park had been a private airfield used by Lord Cowdray and his friends before the war, so this needed only to have metal mesh laid down for it to become an ALG. It was July 1943 before work began at Deanland. A grass air strip at Funtingdon had been cleared early in the war as an emergency landing strip for damaged aircraft and it was upgraded to be an ALG in September 1943. Two months later the old army base at Hammerwood began conversion to be an ALG. A final ALG was planned to be built at Pulborough, but it was never constructed.

Even while the ALGs were being constructed, squadrons were being moved into Sussex, or new ones formed. Both the ADGB and 2nd TAF ha bases in the county and the pace of activity quickened appreciably. The main targets for 2nd TAF were German military bases in northern France and the Low Countries, plus transportation links, railway locomotives and rolling stock and factories producing military equipment. Although the primary need was to prepare for the landings in Normandy, it was necessary to launch raids as if preparing for an invasion taking place around Calais so as to mislead the Germans.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Tragedy of Ron Ramsden, RAF pilot

“Something which happened just before the war I shall never forget.

“I had a cousin aged about nineteen at that time. He had quite a few friends his own age and in those days it was considered the duty of older members of the family to take younger members out and about with them to give the parents a break. So when my cousin and his friends went - say playing tennis - my sister and I would be called for and taken with them to be ball boys and mind the jackets and wallets and so on while the tennis was played. At the end of the afternoon we were usually bought an ice cream for our efforts.

“Then one of the young men, Ron Ramsden his name was, somehow came into a little sum of money – left to him by an auntie or some such thing. He spent the money on buying himself a sports car. This was an unbelievable luxury in our working class circles. I remember hearing my mother and my cousin’s mother and aunties all gossipping together and saying how Ron should not have wasted the money on such a frivolous thing, but should have put it in the bank for his future because he would never get the chance to acquire such a nest egg again. It was quite a little scandal over the teacups.

“I remember one sunny day walking with my cousin towards his home where the family was going to meet for tea. We passed the home of Ron who was outside in the road cleaning this sports car where it was standing at the curb. It was the only car parked in the entire road. He was so happy and proud, chatting to my cousin and my cousin was looking admiringly at the smart car. Ron was blond and I can still see his yellow hair shining in the sun and blowing in the breeze. And I remember thinking he seemed so handsome and jolly and not at all wasteful and foolish as the aunties were saying.

“Three years later we were deep into the war. My cousin was in the army in Burma and the Battle of Britain was raging. My mother came home from visiting the aunties.

“‘Ron Ramsden is dead,’ she said. ‘Killed flying with the RAF.’

“By this time I was a young teenager and I remember thinking ‘Well I am glad he did buy that car. At least he had a little happiness before he died.’”

So my Mother told me of her childhood and about one friend who was snatched from her, fighting bravely in the skies over England. Ever since she told me of that dashing young man I have wanted to learn more about him and men like him. In researching this book I finally had the chance.

This is an extract from Heroes of RAF Fighter Command in Kent by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Battlefield Walks in Northumberland - The Video

A walking guide book to the great battlefields of Northumberland.




Father Christmas Comes to Newbury

The History Man went to Newbury to speak to the Probus Club Christmas Lunch on the subject of "The Biography of Father Christmas". He even dressed the part.

To book Rupert Matthews, The History Man, to speak to your event contact him VIA HIS WEBSITE
Among the talks on offer are:
King ArthurMedieval Women RAF Bomber Command at War
Beware the Yeti!
In Defence of Freedom 
The Arrowstorm
Hitler’s Forgotten Secret Weapon

Authors & Writers

The Great Global Warming Myth

Your Local Ghosts
The Real St George

Details of all talks are available on the website

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

RAF Bomber Command, reforms in the early months of Bomber Harris in command

After the Augsberg Raid, Arthur Harris decided to devote his squadrons to the “area bombing” attacks that had already proved themselves to be reasonably effective and less costly than other tactics. His orders were to degrade the capacity of German industry to produce weapons and supplies to keep the vast armed forces of the Wehrmacht in the field. That meant bombing industrial cities, and Harris took on the task with skill and dedication.

Several reforms begun under Pearse and Portal, reached fruition during the early months of Harris’s command. The most noticeable of these came in the form of the big four-engined bombers. These aircraft, the Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster, could carry heavier bombs in greater numbers over longer distances with more reliability than could the two engined aircraft they replaced.

Almost as significant were the improvements to navigation. Primarily this was “Gee”, which enabled a navigator to fix his aircraft’s position with reasonable accuracy if less than 350 miles from England by means of triangulating radio beams. New navigation aids, that would enter service as “Oboe” and “H2S” were under development, though they would not enter service until the end of 1942.

Less obvious were changes in tactics and organisation. One change that Harris opposed was to put only one pilot in each aircraft. This enabled twice as many aircraft to take off as when two pilots were in each aircraft. Harris insisted that another crew member had to be trained well enough to pilot the aircraft home in an emergency and that an automatic pilot, codenamed “George”, had to be fitted.

A change which did receive Harris’s enthusiastic backing was “streaming”. Previously each bomber had been free to choose its own route to the target and, except in a few cases, to deliver its attack at the time and height the pilot preferred. However, casualties caused by night fighters and anti-aircraft guns had been rising steadily as the Germans became experienced in the difficult skills of accurate shooting in the dark.

Henceforth the bombers were to be organised in a stream. This meant that every bomber had to follow the same route to and from the target, flying at a similar height and time to all the others. It was hoped that the enemy fighters and gunners would no longer be able to pick off the bombers one by one as they made their attacks but, instead, would be swamped by a vast number of attackers arriving at once. There were initial fears that bombers would collide in the dark, but such casualties proved to be far less than the numbers saved from German attacks.

At first the bomber streams were haphazard and only loosely organised. In time that would change and develop until by 1945 every single bomber had its allotted time and height to be over the target. Streaming proved to be among the most effective defensive tactics adopted by Bomber Command.

Monday, 13 December 2010

RAF Bomber Command: The great disputes of 1945

The year 1945 opened with Bomber Command trying to get over a serious and ill-tempered disagreement between Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, and Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff. Although the extent of the row was not known lower down the chain of command – and certainly not to the men flying missions out of Norfolk – it was to influence the types of missions undertaken for the rest of the war.

The heart of the problem was that Portal was in possession of vitally important information that he was not allowed to give to Harris. This meant that Harris, not knowing all the facts, relied on the information that he did have. Portal gave orders based on what he knew, Harris argued against them using perfectly logical arguments based on what he knew.

For most of 1944 the Allies had been able to intercept and decode the majority of the military and government radio messages sent by German army units in the field. This showed that the German war effort was being severely hampered by a lack of fuel. British government intelligence experts did some calculations and soon realised that the German armed forces would run out of fuel within 12 months, and even sooner if oil storage and refinery plants could be hit by Bomber Command. The problem was that this was all so highly secretive that even the people decoding the messages were not told what they were doing. There were probably only about 25 people who knew what was going on. If the Germans had realised that their supposedly unbreakable codes had been cracked, they would have changed them at once and the Allies would have been deprived of enormously valuable information.

Portal knew about the codebreaking – codenamed Ultra – and therefore knew that the targetting of oil was both vital and necessary. Harris did not know about the source of this information and was baffled by Portal’s insistence. Harris remembered earlier directives telling him that if only ball-bearings or molybdenum or rubber could be denied to the Germans then the enemy war production would grind to a halt. Time and again, Harris had sent bomber crews on extremely dangerous missions to hit these supposedly invaluable targets. Many crews had been killed, but although the targets had been hit the Germans did not seem to suffer the severe blow Harris had been promised.

Now Harris was being asked to do it again. He did not want to risk his men unnecessarily. He knew that the area bombing of industrial centres was having an effect, as were attacks on transport links. Harris preferred to keep his men bombing targets of known worth rather than shift them to dangerous targets of doubtful importance.

In any case, Harris argued forcibly, the US 8th Air Force was better equipped and trained for precision bombing. Now that long range day fighters could escort the Flying Fortresses all the way over Germany such raids were no longer as costly as before. The RAF Bomber Command was better suited to area bombing, be it of industrial centres or transport links.

So serious did the conflict between the two become that Portal and Harris stopped talking to each other and instead wrote each other formal letters. In the last two months of 1944 they wrote each other 24 letters, totalling 25,000 words on the subject. In the end, Harris offered to resign but Portal refused the offer. The dispute was never really resolved, but for the immediate future it was masked by the dreadful winter weather over Europe which made precision attacks on small oil targets impracticable anyway.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Build up to the Battle of Pinkie 1547

The defeat of the English at Ancrum Moor forced King Henry VIII to adopt a new strategy for dealing with the Scots. Instead of launching border raids and trying to pressure the Scots into marrying their child queen, Mary Queen of Scots, to an English prince, Henry decided on a purely military option.

The new war plan envisaged a large English army marching into Scotland to capture key towns, cities and fortresses. These were to be garrisoned with strong bodies of English troops and supplied from the sea by the newly powerful English Royal Navy. There would be no attempt to rule Scotland or to occupy its more rugged areas. Instead, the English-held strongpoints would disrupt attempts to muster an army while English money would be used to bribe the various factions of nobles into continuing their disputes.

In this way Henry hoped to keep Scotland in turmoil and unable to invade England. Henry died in January 1547 and left the plan to his nine year old son, the boy-king Edward VI.

As Edward was unable to rule the kingdom, Henry had put a Regency Council in control, led by the Duke of Somerset. Somerset was King Edward’s uncle, being his mother’s brother. He also had plans to usurp the powers of the Council and become sole Protector of England. To do this he needed prestige, and he looked for a military victory in Scotland to give it to him.

Declaring he was merely carrying out the dying wishes of Henry VIII, Somerset called a muster of English soldiers for the end of August in Berwick. Then he hired a force of European mercenaries, who could be relied upon to be loyal to himself as the man paying them, and marched north to take command. At Berwick Somerset met up with the Earl of Bothwell, the Earl of Cassilis and other Scottish nobles who opposed the Earl of Arran’s government. In the harbour Somerset had a fleet of 32 merchant ships laded down with all the supplies his army would need and 30 warships armed with the heaviest cannon available.

On September 1st, Somerset marched north. He moved slowly, anxious to avoid the notoriously successful Scottish ambushes and raids. At Coldingham Moor, on the Lammermuir Hills, a party of Scottish scouts was seen and Somerset halted the army until his own scouts drove them off. At Tantallon Castle, Somerset bypassed the defences and pressed on. On the 8th September the English army crested Falside Hill and looked down into the valley of the Esk, with Edinburgh beyond. Drawn up in battle array on the far bank of the river was a Scottish army. It was obviously larger than his own, so Somerset gave orders to halt. He put his men into defensive positions along the Falside ridge while he consulted his officers about what to do next.

The Scots army was confident of success, and with good reason for, despite their internal differences, Scotland had rallied to face the invader. The Regent, the Earl of Arran, had persuaded the majority of the nobles to bring their men to the mustering in front of Edinburgh. The Earl of Huntly had brought the Highlanders, Lord Home had brought the Borderer light cavalry and the Earl of Angus, victor of Ancrum Moor, had come with all his men.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Xerxes arrives to watch the battle at Thermopylae

The first signs of action would have been a force of Persian troops marching out of camp towards the West Gate. These men would undoubtedly have been royal guards from the unit known as Immortals. On campaign most Persians wore the more convenient dress of the Medes, but these men would have been drawn from the crack 1,000 Royal Guards and they were there to make a show. It is likely, therefore, that they marched into action  arrayed in the finery of the Persian nobility.

These robes swept down to the ankle and wrists with great billowing folds of brightly coloured cloth. Each man had his own pattern of embroidery and patchwork so that the mass must have shimmered like a rainbow on the march in the early morning sun. Each man carried a brightly decorated quiver over his left shoulder which contained his bow as well as his arrows. The 2 metre spear was tipped with an iron head, burnished to silvery sparkle, while the butt end was a gilded silver pomegranate as large as a man’s fist. The men habitually carried the spear point downward so that the gilding of the butt would catch the sunlight as they marched.

Behind this imposing display of armed might would have come a small army of workmen. No doubt these men were drawn from the ranks of the more primitive nations marching with Xerxes, such as the Mysians or Milyae. These men were poorly armed and may have been brought along to undertake exactly this sort of ground levelling manual labour.

The Greek scouts in the West Gate will have fallen back before the Persians. One would have been sent scampering back to the Phocian Wall to alert Leonidas, while the others kept a wary distance from the advancing Persians.

But the glittering ranks advanced only a short distance on to the plain from the West Gate. There they formed a defensive line and came to a halt. Behind them the workmen swarmed up the hillside to begin their work. Attacking the ground with shovels, pickaxes and spades they would have cleared and levelled an area of ground on which the throne could sit. Then the throne would have been manhandled up the slope and put into place. Tents, banners and sunshades would have followed until the small platform of level ground resembled nothing so much as a gorgeous and brightly coloured pavilion.

Finally, Xerxes himself would have appeared. Accompanied by his officers and advisers, plus a host of servants, the Great King would have walked through the West Gate, turned to his right and mounted the hill to take his place on his throne. Secretaries sat at his feet ready to write down whatever was Xerxes’ will. Messengers hung around nearby to take his orders to the army. Commanders waited patiently for the king’s pleasure. All was at last ready.

All this can be reconstructed from the single sentence in Herodotus that “Xerxes watched the battle from his seat”, from studying the topography of the battlefield and an understanding of how the Persian army operated. In a similar way it is possible to describe a plausible reconstruct of much of the course of the fighting.

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

Friday, 3 December 2010

Truths and Myths about the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada of 1588 was passing into legend even before the last ships of the ill fated fleet struggled back to Spain. It suited the propaganda purposes of England’s Queen Elizabeth to claim divine assistance, so it was put about that “God blew, and they were scattered”. Credit was being given to God for the works of man.

Thereafter the myth makers and balladeers got to work with a will. Incidents were romanticised, invented or forgotten. Individuals raised to the status of hero by storytellers and historians, while those less lucky were written off as cowards or blamed for the faults of others. Within just a few years the general public across Europe had been presented with dozens of written versions of the story of the campaign, most of which had been written with a clear political motive which pushed truth and accuracy out of the way.

In the decades that followed other myths and legends grew up. Among the more persistent of these was the idea that the English ships had been smaller and less well armed than the vast Spanish galleons of the Armada. In fact, the largest ship in the campaign had been English, while it was the guns of the English ships that were the more effective and which did much to win the campaign for England. And yet there was an underlying truth in the myth, for the English ships had generally been smaller and were certainly less impressive to look at.

Another legend that began early was the story of Drake playing a game of bowls. According to the story as it was most often told, Drake and Lord Howard of Effingham were in Plymouth with the English fleet awaiting news of the Spanish Armada in July. With nothing much to do but kick their heels, the senior officers went up to Plymouth Hoe, a broad grassy hill just outside the town, to play a game of bowls. As they were playing a messenger came racing up to announce that the dreaded Armada had been sighted, and that it was closer than expected. The ships’ captains, senior commanders and even Lord Howard began to dash about in a panic, sending out orders and then countermanding them in their haste to get to sea. Drake’s voice then boomed out calling on them for silence. The agitated mob turned about to see Drake calmly taking up his stance to bowl his ball. “There is time to finish our game and beat the Spaniards too”, said Drake. Instantly the hubbub was calmed and the game went on even as the Spanish masts came up over the horizon.

As we shall see, this particular legend had a real basis in fact.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Supply System of the Macedonian Army under Alexander the Great

Philip had some years earlier banned the Macedonian army from using carts to transport food or equipment of any kind. Everything had to be carried by the men or on pack animals. The reasons for this were three fold.

First, carts could operate only on good roads. At the time of Alexander the only roads to have paved surfaces were those within towns and cities or the limited number of sacred roads that linked temples, shrines and cult centres. Processions moved along such roads and needed flat, secure paving to take the weight of the large carts that carried cult statues. Good as such roads were, they did not tend to go where armies would want to march.

The vast majority of roads were little more than strips of ground that were cleared of boulders, bushes and other obstructions. In wet weather they quickly deteriorated to quagmires interrupted by deep puddles. In dry weather they turned to dust that flew up in clouds of choking powder that got into noses, mouths and eyes. So irritating and penetrating could this dust be that “traveller’s eye” was a recognised complaint. In any case, such roads as there were existed only in the lowlands. Mountains were crossed by paths and tracks that no cart could traverse.

If the army had depended on carts for transport it would have been tied to lowland roads. That would be bad enough in territory that had been thoroughly scouted and efficiently mapped. But no army can rely on fighting over only such lands. By abandoning carts, the Macedonian army was freed to march over rough ground and high passes that were impassable to more traditional military forces.

A second problem with carts was their speed. The usual draught animal in ancient Greece as the ox. Oxen can plod along at only around 3.5 kilometres per hour. Moreover an ox can work for only five hours per day if it is to keep up a sustained effort. The resulting average daily speed of 17 kilometres was very slow. A fit man can easily sustain daily speeds of 30 kilometres or more. Relying on carts drawn by oxen would slow the army down considerably.

Even if horse-drawn carts were used, which could keep up with a man’s daily marching rate, there was a third problem. Until some anonymous genius of the early medieval period invented the horsecollar made from straw-stuffed leather and braced by metal fittings, the only horse collar available was the throat and girth harness. This has the unfortunate effect of exerting pressure on the horse’s windpipe. The harder the horse pulls, the more it is choked by the weight it is pulling. This put a strict limit on the amount of weight that a horse could pull. Bizarre as it may seem, this meant that a horse could actually carry on its back more than it could pull.

This is an extract from The Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews