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Chapter 19

AT Richborough we were anxious to hear the latest news from Aulus, and I found a dispatch from him just arrived. It reported that the Britons had made two attacks, one by day and the other by night, on the camp which he had fortified just north of London, but had been beaten off with some loss. However, new enemy reinforcements seemed to be arriving every day, from as far west as South Wales; and the men of Kent who had retired into the Weald were reported to have sent a message through to Caractacus that as soon as Aulus was forced to retreat they would leave their woods and cut him off from his base. He begged me therefore to join forces with him as soon as possible. I talked to a few seriously wounded men whom Aulus had evacuated to the Base, and they all agreed that the British infantry was nothing to be afraid of, but that their chariotry seemed to be everywhere at once and was now so numerous as to prevent any force of less than 200 or 300 regular infantry from leaving the main body.

My column was now preparing for its advance. The elephants carried great bundles of spare javelins and other munitions of war; but certain curious machines slung across the back of the camels puzzled me.

‘An invention of your Imperial Predecessor, Caesar,’ Posides explained. ‘I took the liberty of having a set of six made at Lyons when we were there in July and sent up to Boulogne on camel-back. They’re a sort of siege-engine for use against uncivilized tribes.’

‘I didn’t know that the late Emperor had been responsible for any military inventions.’

‘I think, Caesar, that you will find this type of machine extremely effective, especially in conjunction with light rope. I have taken the liberty of bringing up several hundred yards of light rope in coils.’

Posides was grinning broadly, and I could see that he had some clever scheme at the back of his mind which he was keeping a secret from me. So I said to him: ‘Xerxes the Great had a war-minister called Hermotimus, a eunuch like you, and whenever Hermotimus was allowed to solve a tactical problem by himself, such as the reduction of an impregnable town without siege-engines or the crossing of an unfordable river without boats, that problem was always solved. But if Xerxes or anyone else tried to interfere with advice or suggestions Hermotimus used to say that the problem had now become too complicated for him and beg to be excused. You’re a second Hermotimus, and for good luck I am going to leave you to your own devices. Your forethought in the matter of the obelisk-ship has earned you my confidence. Understand that I expect great things from your camels and their loads. If you disappoint me I shall be greatly displeased with you and shall probably throw you to the panthers in the amphitheatre on our return.’

He answered, still grinning: ‘And if I help to win the victory for you, what then?’

‘Then I’ll decorate you with the highest honour that it is in my power to bestow and one not inappropriate to your condition: you shall be awarded the Untipped Spear. Have you any other novelties smuggled away in the baggage? These camels and elephants and black spearmen from Africa already suggest a spectacle on Mars Field rather than a serious expedition.’

‘No, Caesar, nothing else much. But I think that the Britons will have an eyeful before we have done, and we can collect the entrance money after the performance is over.’

We marched up from Richborough and met with no opposition: the river-crossings were held for us by detachments of the Fourteenth sent back by Aulus for this purpose. When we had passed they fell in behind us. I did not see a single enemy Briton between Richborough and London, where Aulus and I joined forces on the fifth of September. I think that he was as pleased to see me as I was to see him. The first thing I asked him was whether the troops were in good spirits. He answered that they were and that he had only promised them half the forces that I had brought, and had not mentioned the elephants, so that our real strength was a surprise to them. I asked him where the enemy were expected to give battle, and he showed me a contour map he had made in clay of the country between London and Colchester. He pointed out a place about twenty miles along the London–Colchester road – not a road in the Roman sense, of course – which Caractacus had been busily fortifying and which would almost certainly be the site of the coming battle. This was a wooded ridge called Brentwood Hill, which curved round the road in a great horseshoe, at each tip of which was a great stockaded fort, with another in the centre. The road ran north-east. The enemy’s left flank beyond the ridge was protected by marshland, and a deep brook, called the Weald Brook, formed a defendable barrier in front. On the right flank the ridge bent round to the north and continued for three or four miles, but the trees and thorn bushes and brambles grew so densely along it that to try to turn that flank by sending a force of men to hack their way through would, Aulus assured me, be useless. Since the only feasible approach to Colchester was by this road, and since I wished to engage the main forces of the enemy as soon as possible, I studied the tactical problem involved very carefully. Prisoners and deserters volunteered precise information about the defences in the wood and these seemed to be extremely well planned. I did not welcome the notion of making a frontal attack. If we marched against the central fort without first reducing the other two we would be exposed to heavy attacks from both flanks. But to attack the other two first would not help us much either; for if we succeeded in taking them, at great cost to ourselves, it would mean fighting our way through a series of further stockades inside the wood, each of which would have to be taken in a separate operation.

At a council of war to which Aulus and I summoned all general staff-officers and regimental commanders, everyone agreed that a frontal attack on the central fort was inevitable, and that we must be prepared to suffer heavy losses. It was unfortunate that the forward slopes of the ridge between the wood and the stream were admirably suited to chariot-manoeuvre. Aulus recommended a mass attack in diamond formation. The head of the diamond would consist of a single regiment in two waves, each wave eight men deep. Then would follow two regiments marching abreast, in the same formation as the leading one; then three regiments marching abreast. This would be the broadest part of the diamond and here the elephants would be disposed as a covering for each flank. Then would come two regiments, again, and then one. The cavalry and the rest of the infantry would be kept in reserve. Aulus explained that this diamond afforded a protection against charges from the flank: no attack could be made on the flank of the leading regiment without engaging the javelin-fire of the overlapping second line, nor on the second line without engaging the fire of the overlapping third. The third line was protected by the elephants. If a heavy chariot charge was made from a rear flank the regiments there could be turned about and the same mutual protection given.

My comments on this diamond were that it was a pretty formation and that it had been used successfully in such and such battles – I listed them – in republican times; but that the Britons outnumbered us so greatly that once we had advanced into the centre of the horse-shoe they could attack us from all sides at once with forces that we could not drive off without disorganization: the front of the diamond would almost certainly become separated from the rear. I said too, very forcibly, that I was not prepared to suffer one-tenth of the number of casualties that it had been estimated the frontal attack would cost. Vespasian came out with the old proverb about not being able to make an omelette without breaking eggs, and asked somewhat impatiently whether I proposed to cut my losses and return to France immediately, and how long, if so,’ I expected to keep the respect of the armies.

I countered with: ‘There are more ways of killing a cat than beating it to death with a horn porridge-spoon; and breaking the spoon into the bargain.’

They argued with me in the superior way of old campaigners, trying to impress me with technical military terms, as though I were an entire ignoramus. I burst out angrily: ‘Gentlemen, as the God Augustus used to say, “A radish may know no Greek, but I do”. I have been studying tactics for forty years and you can’t teach me a thing: I know all the conventional and unconventional moves and openings in the game of human draughts. But you must understand that I am not free to play the game in the way you wish me to play it. As Father of the Country I now owe a duty to my sons: I refuse to throw away three or four thousand of their lives in an attack of this sort. Neither my father Drusus nor my brother Germanicus would ever have dreamed of making a frontal attack against a position as strong as this.’

Geta asked, perhaps ironically: ‘What would your noble relatives have done, Caesar, in a case of this sort, do you think?’

‘They’d have found a way round.’

‘But there is no way round here, Caesar. That has been established.’

‘They’d have found a way round, I say.’

Crassus Frugi said: ‘The enemy’s left flank is guarded by the Heron King and their right by the Hawthorn Queen. That’s their boast, according to prisoners.’

‘Who’s this Heron King?’ I asked.

‘The Lord of the Marshes. He’s a cousin, in their mythology, of the Goddess of Battle. She appears in the disguise of a raven and perches on the spear-heads. Then she drives the conquered into the marshes, and her cousin the Heron King eats them up. The Hawthorn Queen is a virgin who dresses in white in the spring and helps soldiers in battle by defending their stockades with her thorns: you see, they fell thorn-trees and pile them in a row with the thorns outwards, making the trunks fast together. That’s a fearful obstacle to get through. But the Hawthorn Queen holds that right flank of theirs without any artificial felling of trees. Our scouts are positive that the whole wood is in such a fearful tangle that it’s no use trying to get through at any point there.’

Aulus said: ‘Yes, Caesar, I am afraid that we must make up our minds to that frontal attack.’

‘Posides,’ I suddenly called, ‘were you ever a soldier?’

‘Never, Caesar.’

‘That makes two of us, thank God. Now suppose I undertake to do the impossible and get our cavalry through on the enemy’s right flank, past this impenetrable tangle of thorns, can you undertake to get the Guards round on their left through that impassable bog?’

Posides answered: ‘You have given me the easier flank, Caesar. There is, as it happens, a track through the marshes. One would have to go along it in single file, but there is a track. I met a man in London yesterday, a travelling Spanish oculist, who goes about the country curing the people of marsh-ophthalmia. He’s in the Camp now, and he says he knows that marsh well, and the track – which he always uses to avoid the tollgate on the hill. Since Cymbeline’s death they have been levying no fixed toll, but a traveller must pay according to the amount of money he has in his saddlebags, and this oculist got tired of being skinned. In the early mornings there’s nearly always a mist on the marsh and he takes the path and slips round unobserved. He says that it’s easy to follow once you are on it. It comes out half a mile beyond the ridge, at the edge of a pine copse. The Britons are likely to have a guard posted at that end – Caractacus is a careful general – but I think now that I can undertake to dislodge them and get as many men across the marsh as care to follow me.’

He explained his ruse, which I approved, though many of the generals raised their eyebrows at it; and then I explained my plan for forcing the other flank, which was really very simple. An important fact had been overlooked in the general concentration of interest on the diamond formation; the fact that Indian elephants are capable of bursting through the densest undergrowth imaginable and are daunted by no briars or thorns. However, in order not to tell the story twice, I shall say no more about the council of war and what was decided at it. I shall proceed to the battle, which took place at Brentwood on the seventh of September, a date that had long been memorable to me as the day on which my brother Germanicus had defeated Hermann at the Weser: if he had lived he would still have been only fifty-eight years old, which was no older than Aulus.

We marched out from London along the Colchester road. Our vanguard was kept busy by British skirmishers, but no serious resistance was offered until we reached Romford, a village about seven miles from Brentwood, where we found the ford across the River Rom strongly defended. The enemy held us up there for a whole morning, at the cost to themselves of 200 killed and 100 prisoners. We lost only fifty, but two of these were captains and one a battalion commander, so in a sense the Britons got the best of the exchange. That afternoon we sighted Brentwood Ridge and encamped for the night this side of the brook, which we used as a defensive barrier.

I took the auspices. Auspices are always taken before battle by giving the sacred chickens lumps of pulse-cake and watching how they eat it. If they have no appetite the battle is already as good as lost. The best possible omen is when the chickens, as soon as the cage-door is opened by the chicken-priest, rush out without any cry or beating of wings and eat so greedily that big bits drop from their mouths. If the sound of these striking the ground can be distinctly heard it prophesies the total defeat of the enemy. And, sure enough, this best possible omen was granted. The chicken-priest did not show himself to the birds, but standing with me behind the cage suddenly slid the door back at the very moment that I threw the cake before them. Out they rushed, without so much as a cackle, and fairly tore at the cake, throwing lumps about in a way which absolutely delighted us all, it was so reckless.

I had prepared what I considered a very suitable speech. It was somewhat reminiscent of Livy, but I felt that the historic importance of the occasion called for something in that style. It ran:

Romans, let no tongue among you wag and no voice bellow vainly, praising the days of old as days of true gold, and belittling the present age, of whose glories we should be the doughty champions, as a graceless age of gilded plaster. The Greek heroes before Troy, of whom the august Homer sang, bore, if we are to believe his record, this verse perpetually upon their lips:

We pride ourselves as better men by far
Than all our forebears who e’er marched to war.

Be not over-modest, Romans. Hold your heads high. Puff out your chests. Ranged in battle before you to-day are men who as closely resemble your ancestors, as eagle, eagle, or wolf, wolf – a fierce, proud, nervous, unrefined race, wielding weapons that are long centuries out of date, driving chariot-ponies of an antique breed, employing pitiable battle tactics only worthy of the pages of epic poets, not organized in regiments but grouped in clans and households – as certain of defeat at your disciplined hands as the wild boar who lowers his head and charges the skilled huntsman armed with hunting-spear and net. To-morrow when the dead are counted and the long ranks of sullen prisoners march beneath the yoke, it will be a matter for laughter to you if you ever for a moment lost faith in the present, if your minds were ever dazzled by the historied glories of a remote past. No, comrades, the bodies of these primitive heroes will be tumbled by your swords upon the field of battle as roughly and indiscriminately as, just now, when I, your general, took the auspices, the holy fowl flung upon the soil from their avid bills the fragments of sanctified cake.

Some of you, I have heard, no doubt slothful rather than fearful or undutiful, hesitated when called upon to set out upon this expedition, alleging as your excuse that the God Augustus had fixed the bounds of the Roman Empire for ever at the waters of the Rhine and the channel. If this were true, as I undertake to prove to you that it is not, then the God Augustus would be unworthy of our worship. The mission of Rome is to civilize the world – and where in the world would you find a race worthier of the benefits which we propose to confer upon it than the British race? The strange and pious task is laid upon us of converting these fierce compeers of our ancestors into dutiful sons of Rome, our illustrious City and Mother. What were the words that the God Augustus wrote to my grandmother, the Goddess Augusta? ‘Looking into the future I can see Britain becoming as civilized as Southern France is now. And I think that the islanders, who are racially akin to us, will become far better Romans than we shall ever succeed in making of the Germans. … And, one day (do not smile), British noblemen may well take their seats in the Roman Senate.’

You have already quitted yourselves bravely in this war. Twice you have inflicted a resounding defeat on the enemy. You have slain King Togodumnus, my enemy, and avenged his insults. This third time you cannot fail. Your forces are more powerful than ever, your courage higher, your ranks more united. You, no less than the enemy, are defending your hearths and the sacred temples of your Gods. The Roman soldier, whether his battlefield be the icy rocks of Caucasus, the burning sands of the desert beyond Atlas, the dank forests of Germany, or the grassy fields of Britain, is never unmindful of the lovely City which gives him his name, his valour, and his sense of duty.

I had composed several more paragraphs in this same lofty strains, but strangely enough not one word of the speech was delivered. When I mounted the tribunal platform, and the captains shouted in unison: ‘Greetings, Caesar Augustus, Father of our Country, our Emperor!’ and the soldiers took up the shout with roaring applause, I fairly broke down. My fine speech went altogether out of my head and I could only stretch out my hands to them, my eyes swimming with tears, and blurt out: ‘It’s all right, lads: the chickens say that it’s going to be all right, and we have prepared a grand surprise for them, and we’re going to give them such a beating as they’ll never forget so long as they live – I don’t mean the chickens, I mean the British.’ [Tremendous laughter, in which I thought it best to join, as if the joke had been intentional.]

‘Stop laughing at me, lads,’ I cried. ‘Don’t you remember what happened to the little black boy in the Egyptian story who laughed at his father when he said the evening prayer by mistake for the morning one? The crocodile ate him; so you be careful. Well, I am getting to be an old man now, but this is the proudest moment of my life, and I wish my poor brother Germanicus were here to share it with me. Do any of you remember my great brother? Not very many, perhaps, for he died twenty-four years ago. But you’ve all heard of him as the greatest general Rome has ever had. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his magnificent defeat of Hermann, the German chieftain, and I want you to celebrate it suitably. The pass-word to-night is Germanicus! and the battle-cry to-morrow will be Germanicus! and I think that if you shout his name loud enough he’ll hear it down in the Underworld and know that he’s remembered by the regiments that he loved and led so well. It will make him forget the wretched fate that overtook him – he died poisoned in bed, as you know. The Twentieth Regiment will have the honour of leading the assault: Germanicus always said that though, in barracks, you Twentieth were the most insubordinate, most drunken, and most quarrelsome troops in the entire regular army, you were absolute lions on the field. Second and Fourteenth, Germanicus called you the Backbone of the Army. It will be your duty to-morrow to stiffen the French allies, who will act as the army’s ribs. The Ninth will come up last, because Germanicus always used to say that you Ninth were the slowest regiment in the Army but also the surest. You Guards are detailed for special duty. You have the easiest time and the best pay when you’re not on active service, so it’s only fair to the rest of the troops to give you the most dangerous and disagreeable task when you are. That’s all I have to say now. Be good lads, sleep well, and earn your father’s gratitude to-morrow!’

They cheered me till they were hoarse, and I knew then that Pollio was right and Livy wrong. A good general couldn’t possibly deliver a studied oration on the eve of battle, even if he had one already prepared; for his lips would inevitably speak as his heart prompted. One effect of this speech – which, you will agree, reads very poorly by comparison with the other one – was that ever since I made it the Ninth have been familiarly known not as the ‘Ninth Spanish’ (their full title) but as the ‘Ninth Snails’. The Twentieth, too, whose full title is ‘The Conquering Valerian Twentieth’ are known to other regiments as the ‘Drunken Lions’; and when a man of the Fourteenth meets a man of the Second they are now expected to salute each other as ‘Comrade Backbone’. The French auxiliaries are always known as ‘The Ribs’.

A light mist settled over the camp, but there was a moon soon after midnight, which was of the greatest service; if the weather had been cloudy we would not have been able to manage the marshes. I slept until midnight and then Posides woke me as arranged and handed me a candle and a blazing pine branch from the camp-fire. I lighted the candle with it and prayed to the nymph Egeria. She is a Goddess of Prophecy, and good King Numa in the days of old used to consult her on every occasion. It was the first time that I had performed this family ceremony, but my brother Germanicus and my uncle Tiberius and my father and grandfather and great-grandfather and their ancestors before them had always performed it at midnight on the day before a battle; and if they were to be victorious the same favourable sign was invariably given by the nymph. It might be the stillest night imaginable, and yet, as soon as the last words of the prayer were uttered, the light would suddenly go out of itself as if snuffed between two fingers.

I had never been sure whether to believe in this mystery or not: I thought that it might perhaps be due to natural causes – a draught, or a bad patch in the wick, or even an involuntary sigh on the part of the watcher. The nymph Egeria could hardly be expected to leave her native grove by Lake Nemi and fly at a moment’s notice to the middle of Germany or Northern Spain or the Tyrol – in each of which countries she is said to have obliged at one time or other with the customary sign – at the prayer of a Claudian. So I had set the lighted candle at the farthest end of my tent, screened from any draught that might come in by the flap, and then, walking ten paces away, addressed Egeria in solemn tones. It was a short prayer, in the Sabine dialect. The text had become grossly mutilated by oral tradition, for Sabine, which was the original patrician language, had long fallen into disuse at Rome; but I had studied Sabine in the course of my historical studies and was able to recite the prayer in something like its original form. And sure enough, I had hardly spoken the last word when the candle, as I watched it, suddenly went out. I immediately relighted it, to see whether there was perhaps a fault in the wick, or whether Posides had doctored the wax; but no, it burned brightly again and continued to burn until finally the wick fell over in a little pool of wax no bigger than a farthing. This is one of the very few genuine mystical experiences that have happened to me in a long life. I have no great gift that way. My brother Germanicus, on the other hand, was constantly plagued by visions and apparitions. At one time or another he had met most of the demi-gods, nymphs, and monsters celebrated by the poets, and on his visit to Troy, when he was Governor of Asia, was granted a splendid vision of the Goddess Cybele, whom our Trojan ancestors worshipped.

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