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Chapter 20

AULUS came hurrying eagerly in. ‘Our outposts report that the enemy are withdrawing from the Weald Brook, Caesar. What action shall we take? I suggest putting a regiment over at once. I don’t know what the enemy’s plan is, but we have to cross the brook to-morrow in any case, and if they have chosen to abandon it to us without fight, that will save us time and men.’

‘Send the Ninth across, Aulus. Supply them with bridging material. They’ll not have as much fighting to do to-morrow as the rest, I hope, so they’ll not need so long a sleep. That’s splendid news. Scouts must be pushed ahead to get in touch with the enemy and report as soon as they’re located.’

The Ninth were hurriedly roused and sent across the Weald Brook. A message came back from them that the enemy had withdrawn half-way up the ridge, that twenty plank-bridges were now fixed across the brook and that they were standing by for further orders.

‘It’s time the Guards were on their way,’ said Posides.

‘Is the oculist trustworthy, do you think?’ I asked.

‘I’m going ahead with him myself, Caesar,’ said Posides. ‘It’s my plan, and, by your leave, if it fails I don’t intend to survive.’

‘Very well. Give them the order to start in five minutes.’

So he kissed my hand and I gave him a clap on the back and out he went. A few minutes later I saw the first company of Guards march silently out of the eastern gate of the camp. They were told to break step so that their measured tread should not be heard by the enemy’s outposts, and their arms were muffled with rags so that they should not knock together. Each man had his shield slung across his back and a big chalk circle smudged on it. This was to enable them to keep touch in the dark without shouting to each other. The white circles showed up well: Aulus had observed that deer follow each other through dark forests guided by the gleam of white fur patches on each other’s rumps. The oculist led them over three or four miles of rough, boggy country, until they reached the marsh proper. It stank, and the will-o’-the-wisp darted about it, and to reach the beginning of the secret track the Guards had to wade thigh-deep after their guide through a slimy pool full of leeches. But the oculist made no mistakes. He found the track and kept to it.

A British outpost was stationed in the pine copse at the further end, and as the moon rose these watchful men saw a sight and heard a sound which filled their hearts with the utmost dismay. A great bird with a long shining bill, a huge grey body, and legs fifteen feet long suddenly rose through the mist a javelin’s throw away and came stalking towards them, stopping every now and then to boom hoarsely, flap his wings, preen his feathers with his dreadful bill and boom again. The Heron King! They crouched in their bivouacs, terrified, hoping that this apparition would disappear, but it came slowly on and on. At last it seemed to notice their camp-fire. It jerked its head angrily and hurried towards them, with outspread wings, booming louder and louder. They sprang up and ran for their lives. The Heron King pursued them through the copse with a fearful chuckling laughter, then turned and slowly promenaded along the edge of the marsh, booming dully at intervals.

In case you imagine that it was indeed the Heron King who had come to frighten them – for if Egeria could appear so strangely, why not a Heron King? – I must explain the ruse. The Heron King was a French soldier from the great marshes which lie to the west of Marseilles, where the shepherds are accustomed to walk on long stilts as a means of striding across soft patches too wide to jump. Posides had rigged this man up in a wicker-work basket constructed in the shape of a bird’s body, and stitched over with blanket stuff. Wicker wings covered with cloth were attached to his arms. The head and bill were improvised of stuff-covered laths and fastened to his head: he could move them by moving his neck. The beak was treated with phosphorus. The boom was made by an ingenious water-pipe he carried in his mouth. The soldier knew the habits of herons and imitated the walk with his stilts, which were strapped firmly to his legs. The oculist led him and Posides along the track until the dark outline of the copse could just be made out. The Guards were following 200 yards behind, and Posides sent back a message halting them. He waited until he saw the bird striding around the copse again and knew that the ruse had been successful. He ran back and told them that the coast was clear. They hurried forward and occupied the copse. Eight thousand men in single file take a long time to pass a given spot, and it was more than five hours before they were all across, by which time dawn had appeared, but the mist had not cleared, so they were not seen from the hill.

An hour before dawn I sacrificed to Mars and then breakfasted with my staff, and we made a few further arrangements about what to do if everything did not go according to plan. But now we knew that most of the Guards must already be in position – for there had evidently been no interruption of their progress across the marsh – and we were confident of victory. Geta was absent: he had taken an odd battalion of the Eighth Regiment (I had forgotten to mention this battalion as part of our reinforcements) with the cavalry, the Batavians, and the elephants, to a position about two miles away on our left flank. My son-in-law, young Pompey, was also absent. I had entrusted him with the command of the Nubians and the Balearic slingers, and he had taken them across the Weald Brook. The Balearics carried coils of tent-rope, tent-pegs, and camp mallets; the Nubians, native drums and their long white spears.

It was a fine breakfast and we all drank just the right amount of wine – enough to make us feel very pleased with ourselves and yet not enough to induce recklessness – and in the intervals of serious discussion we did a great deal of joking. They were mostly witticisms about camels, which were much on our minds at the time. My contribution was a quotation from a letter of Herod Agrippa’s to my mother: ‘The camel is one of the seven wonders of nature. He shares this honour with the Rainbow, the Echo, the Cuckoo, the Negro, the Volcano, and the Sirocco. But he is the first and greatest of the seven.’

I gave the order for the army to move forward into its positions beyond the Weald Brook. Massed trumpeters blew a call that could be heard miles away. It was answered by a great din of war-horns and shouting from the hill. That gave me a sudden shock. Although, naturally, I had been aware that battles cannot be fought without an enemy, I had been thinking of this battle all night as a diagram on the map, a silent affair of squares and oblongs gently pushing each other this way and that; the Roman squares and oblongs inked in black, the British left white. When the trumpets and horns blew I had to translate the diagram into terms of man, horse, chariot, and elephant. I had not slept since midnight, and I suppose my face and gestures betrayed the strain I was under: for Xenophon actually suggested that I should rest a few minutes after my breakfast and go forward only when all the regiments were in position. As though it was not essential for me to be waiting at the brook dressed in my Imperial armour and purple cloak to greet each regiment as it arrived and watch it cross over! If Xenophon had so much as whispered the word ‘massage’ I believe I should have killed him.

I rode forward to the brook on a steady old mare, none other than Penelope, the widow of ex-citizen and might-have-been Consul Incitatus, who had recently broken a leg on the race-track and had to be destroyed. The mist was pretty thick here. One could only see ten to fifteen paces ahead, and what a terrible stink of camel! You have perhaps, at some time or other, passed in the mist through a field where an old he-goat was loose: at ordinary times wind and sun carry off most of the smell, but mist seems to suck it up and hold it, so that you will have been astonished by the rankness of the air. These were he-camels which I had imported for circus-shows – female camels are too expensive – and they smelt pretty bad. If there is one thing that horses hate it is the smell of camel, but as all our cavalry were far away on the flank this did not affect us, and Penelope was inured to circus-smells. There was no confusion in the crossing of the brook, and in spite of the mist the regiments formed up beyond in perfect order. A disciplined regiment can perform quite complicated drill movements in the pitch dark: the Guards often practise at night on Mars Field.

Now I want to make you see the battle as it was seen by the Britons, because that way you will be better able to appreciate my plan of attack. The best British infantry are manning the three forts, each of which has a sally-port for sorties and an avenue running back through the wood into the open country behind. The forts are linked together by a strong stockade facing the entire semicircle of wood, and the wood is so full of Britons that no advantage would be won by attacking the stockade at a point between two forts. Just before dawn the sally-port of the central fort opens and out drives a division of chariotry. It is commanded by Cattigern, Caractacus’s brother-in-law, King of the Trinovants. Another division drives out from the fort on the British right flank. It is led by Caractacus himself. The two divisions draw up on either side of the central fort. Caractacus is angry and reproaches Cattigern, because he has just been told that the Trinovantian infantry posted at the Weald Brook have fallen back during the night. Cattigern is angry at being spoken to in this way in front of his whole tribe. He asks Caractacus haughtily whether he accuses the Trinovants of cowardice. Caractacus wishes to know what other excuse they have for deserting their posts. Cattigern explains that they retired for religious reasons. Their commander had been coughing violently because of the mist and suddenly began to cough blood. They regarded this as a most unlucky sign, and respect for the nymph of the brook did not allow them to stay. They therefore offered a propitiatory sacrifice – the chief’s two ponies – and withdrew. Caractacus has to accept this explanation, but does not conceal his displeasure. He does not yet know of the retirement of the other outpost from the copse by the marsh, but he has heard alarming rumours of the appearance of the Heron King in person in that quarter: the Heron King has not been seen since legendary times. Our trumpets are then heard and the British reply with horns and shouts. British scouts come rushing up to report that the enemy are crossing the brook in force.

Dawn has broken, and the whole semicircle of wood stands out clearly, with open ground shelving down towards the brook, but after 300 or 400 yards the field of vision is obscured by a sea of mist. Caractacus cannot tell yet in which direction the Roman attack will develop. He sends more scouts forward to report. They hurry back twenty minutes later to report that the enemy are on the move at last. They are coming up the road towards the centre in mass formation. Caractacus wheels his chariot division across to the right flank again and anxiously waits for the first Roman companies to appear through the mist. A Briton comes up to report that before the chariots emerged from the wood a muffled sound of hammering was heard from the mist, as if the Roman soldiers were driving tent-pegs; and that a party sent out to investigate the noise did not return. Caractacus replies, ‘Tent-pegs can’t hurt us.’

At last the tramp and clank of our approaching regiments can be clearly heard, and the encouraging shouts of the officers. The leading company of the Twentieth appears dimly through the mist. The Britons roar defiance. Cattigern swings his division across to the left. The Romans suddenly halt. A curious sight is seen. A company of immensely tall, long-necked beasts with humps on their backs are being trotted up and down, in and out of the mist, on the flank which Cattigern has been told to attack. The Britons are alarmed at the sight and mutter charms against magic. Cattigern should now be attacking, but he cannot yet be sure whether the Roman advance is only a feint; for only 500 men are as yet visible. The main attack may be taking place elsewhere. He waits. Caractacus sends a mounted messenger, ordering him to attack without delay. Cattigern signals the advance. And then a strange thing happens. As soon as the column of chariots sweeps down into the mist where the beasts have been seen, the ponies go quite mad. They squeal, buck, snort, baulk, and cannot be forced to go a step farther. It is clearly a magic mist. It has a peculiar and frightening odour.

While Cattigern’s division is in confusion, the ponies plunging and kicking and the charioteers shouting, cursing, and trying to get them under control, trumpets sound and two battalions of the Twentieth, followed by two battalions of the Second, suddenly charge out of the mist at them. ‘Germanicus! Germanicus!’ they shout. Shower after shower of javelins flies from their hands. Caractacus then launches his own attack. His division is unaffected by the spell and sweeps down, 3,000 strong, on the flank of the halted Roman mass, which seems unprovided with a flank-guard. But a more powerful charm than a stinking mist protects this flank. The column is going at full speed and is just out of javelin range when suddenly there come six terrific claps of thunder and six simultaneous flashes of lightning. Balls of burning pitch hurtle through the air. The terrified column swings away to the right, and as they go a shower of lead bolts comes whizzing at them from the Balearic slingers posted behind the thunder and lightning. Charioteers fall right and left; as they have the reins tightly wound about their waists, this involves the wreck of a number of chariots. The column is almost out of control, but Caractacus manages to swing it back again on its course. He is aiming at the Roman rear, which can now be clearly seen, for a light breeze is rolling the mist away to the other flank. But a catastrophe follows. As the column, which has lost its formation and is now pressed together in a disorderly mass, rushes forward, chariot after chariot comes crashing to the ground as if halted by an invisible power. The chariots behind are bunched so close and the impetus of the downhill rush is so great that nobody can pull up or turn without colliding with a neighbour. The mass charges blindly on and the wreckage in front piles higher and higher. Above the crash of splintered chariots, the screams and groans, rises a dreadful noise of drums and up springs a horde of tall, naked black men brandishing white spears. They fling themselves on the wreckage, and their long spears dart here and there among the fallen men. They laugh and crow and shout and no Briton dares defend himself against them, mistaking them for evil spirits. Caractacus escapes from the slaughter. His own car has been among the first to overturn, but he has been thrown clear. He runs off to the right, stumbling as he goes over the tightly-stretched tent-rope pegged knee-high in the long grass. The last section of the column, Belgic chariot-men from the West Country, have realized in time what is happening in front. Five hundred of their chariots manage to avoid disaster by swerving away to the right. There Caractacus hails them and is rescued. The rest of the division is lost, for the Fourteenth has pushed two battalions round in their rear and two battalions of the Ninth rush obliquely forward to assist the Nubians.

Caractacus leads his chariots back up the hill and instructs the Belgic commander to go to Cattigern’s aid on the other flank. He himself drives up to the central fort, for he notices that the sally-port is open and wants to know why. He enters and finds the garrison gone. Meanwhile Cattigern is fighting bravely at the head of a force of dismounted chariot-men, supported by infantrymen who have streamed out of the wood to his assistance. He is wounded. His chariotry has disappeared. His brother has headed the flight back to the central fort, down the avenue through the wood, and so away. The garrison of the fort has gone after him. Our Twentieth and Second are gradually forcing Cattigern’s men back, keeping unbroken formation as they advance. Caractacus, returning to the sally-port, hears the noise of chariots racing towards him: it is the Belgic section of chariotry, now also in flight. He tries to halt them, but they refuse to listen to him; and realizing that the battle is lost he turns his own chariot and blows two long blasts on his ivory horn as signal for a general retreat. He hopes to overtake the fugitives and rally them a few miles farther along the Colchester road. He hears a sound of Roman trumpets, and as his chariot drives clear of the wood on the other side he sees eight battalions of Roman regulars advancing towards it on his right. It is the Guards. And away on his left he sees elephants and Roman cavalry emerging from the wood and charging towards him. He shouts to his driver to whip on the horses. He escapes.

With Caractacus gone, the battle was over. The Guards cut off the British retreat from the wood and the infantry remaining in it put up little fight. Cavalry were sent down the avenue to capture the fort on the British right, but half-way along it they came across a party of British spearmen: these had the presence of mind to cut the cords, releasing a sort of portcullis which fell squarely across the avenue, barring progress. The three avenues were all provided with a series of these portcullises, each connected with stockades on either side, but this was the only one of which use had been made. By the time that the cavalry had demolished this obstacle the retreating British party had released another portcullis and hurried on to warn the garrison of the fort that all was lost. The garrison escaped safely in a westerly direction. The other fort surrendered an hour later; by which time Cattigern had been severely wounded and the resistance of his men broken.

We took 8,000 prisoners, and counted 4,700 corpses on the battle-field. Our own losses were insignificant: 380 killed, 600 wounded, of whom only 150 were disabled from further fighting. Our cavalry and elephants were sent ahead in the direction of Colchester, to prevent fugitives from rallying on the road. They overtook Caractacus at Chelmsford, where he was trying to organize the defence of the River Chelmer. The sight of the elephants was enough to send the British scurrying in all directions. Caractacus escaped again. This time he gave up all hope of saving Colchester. With a force of 200 chariots of his own tribe he turned west and disappeared from the scene. He had gone to throw himself on the protection of his allies, the men of South Wales.

We piled a great trophy on the battle-field, of broken chariots and weapons, and burned it as a thank-offering to Mars. That night we camped on the farther side of the wood. The men had been roaming about in search of plunder. Gold chains and enamelled breastplates and helmets were found in abundance. I had issued strict orders against the violation of captured women – for hundreds of women had been fighting in the wood beside their husbands – and three men of the Fourteenth were duly executed that evening for disobeying me. When night fell I felt the reaction after victory and at supper with my staff was suddenly seized by the most painful attack of stomachic cramp, ‘the cardiac passion’ as they call it, that I have ever experienced. It was like 100 swords stuck into my vitals at once, and I let out a fearful bellow which made everyone present think that I had been poisoned. Xenophon rushed to my aid and hastily cutting the straps of my corselet with a carving-knife and throwing it aside, he knelt over me and began kneading at my stomach with both hands, while I continued to roar and bellow, unable to stop. He mastered the cramp at last, and had me wrapped in hot blankets and carried away to bed, where I spent one of the wretchedest nights of my life. However, the extraordinary completeness of my victory was the medicine that really cured me. By the time that we reached Colchester, three days later, I was myself again. I travelled on elephant-back like an Indian prince.

Near Colchester the advance-guard of a friendly army met us. It was the Icenians, who had risen in our support on the day that they heard of my arrival at London. Together we invested and stormed the city, which was defended bravely by a few old men and a number of women. I swore honourable alliance there in the name of Rome with the King of the Icenians, the King of East Kent, and the King of East Sussex, in recognition of their assistance in the campaign. The remainder of Caractacus’s empire I formally declared a Roman province, under the governorship of Aulus, and presently received the homage of all its petty kings and chiefs, including those Kentish chiefs who had been hiding in the Weald. After this I decided that I had done all that I had come to Britain to do. I said farewell to Aulus and his army and returned to Richborough with the Guards, the elephants, and the 500 volunteers who had sailed with me from Ostia but arrived too late for the battle. We embarked in our transports and crossed without further incident to France. I had been a mere sixteen days in Britain.

My only regret was perhaps rather an ungrateful one. I was with the Ninth throughout the battle and, feeling very courageous at the moment that their two battalions went forward to help the Nubians, I had galloped excitedly ahead of them to join in the fighting. However, I changed my mind: I did not wish to get mixed up with the Nubians, who often in battle mistake friends for foes. I turned Penelope round behind them and pulled up on the flank. There I saw a British chief doubling back between me and the tangle of broken chariots and kicking horses. I drew my sword and spurred after him. I was nearly on him when a big body of chariots swept into view and I had to turn and gallop back. I know now that the chief was Caractacus. To think that I was cheated by a few seconds from a single combat with him! Since I had a horse and a sword and he had neither, I might easily have had the luck to kill him. And if I had done so, what immortal glory I would have won! Only two Roman generals in history have ever killed an enemy commander in single combat, and stripped him of his arms.

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