Military history


First British Expedition

The Greeks, who invented the face-to-face battle to the death and, under Alexander the Great, initiated the greatest campaign of conquest the world had vet seen, eventually succumbed to the power of Rome, an Italian city state which had learnt Greek methods of infantry fighting but had succeeded in avoiding both the profitless small-scale quarrelling that eventually exhausted the Greek world, and the over-ambitious long-range campaigning that destroyed Alexander’s empire. The Romans had a gift of incorporating their defeated neighbours into a widening Latin community. Once they began to campaign beyond the limits of the Italian peninsula, they also adopted a cautious, step-by-step pattern of conquest, quite at variance with Alexander’s megalomaniac engorgement of one territory after another. By the middle of the second century BC, Greece had effectively become a Roman possession. By its end, Rome had begun its expansion into Gaul (modern France), the opening of a long drawn-out campaign that was to culminate in the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in 58 — 51 BC.

In 5 5 BC Caesar decided to extend his offensive to include the Britons, whom he believed provided support to and a refuge for his Gaulish enemies. He assembled two legions and a fleet of ships and landed nearDubris (modern Dover) to bring the British to battle. The legion, a force of up to 10,000 troops, mainly infantry but containing elements of other arms including cavalry and engineers, provided the model of organization on which all modern military formations are based. Its long-service soldiers, commanded by a corps of professional experts, the centurionate, regularly defeated any barbarian army it met, if circumstances suited its style of fighting. In 55 BC, and in the following year, Caesar found he was fighting too far from his base in Gaul, which had not yet been fully secured. He therefore withdrew and Britain was not to be conquered until the invasion of the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Caesar’s account of the first battle provides, nevertheless, a striking picture of Roman military methods in the field.


A fleet of about eighty ships, which seemed adequate for the conveyance of two legions, was eventually commissioned and assembled, together with a number of warships commanded by the chief of staff, officers of general rank, and auxiliary commanders. At another port, some eight miles higher up the coast, were eighteen transports which had been prevented by adverse winds from joining the main fleet at Boulogne: these were allotted to the cavalry. The remainder of the army under Sabinus and Cotta was sent on a punitive expedition against the Menapii and those cantons of the Morini which had not been represented in the recent delegation. Another general officer, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, was ordered to guard the harbour with a force that seemed large enough for that purpose.

Arrangements were now complete, the weather was favourable, and we cast off just before midnight. The cavalry had been ordered to make for the northern port, embark there, and follow on; but they were rather slow about carrying out these instructions, and started, as we shall see, too late. I reached Britain with the leading vessels at about 9 a.m., and saw the enemy forces standing under arms all along the heights. At this point of the coast precipitous cliffs tower over the water, making it possible to fire from above directly on to the beaches. It was clearly no place to attempt a landing, so we rode at anchor until about 3.30 p.m., awaiting the rest of the fleet. During this interval I summoned my staff and company commanders, passed on to them the information obtained by [the reconnaissance of] Volusenus, and explained my plans. They were warned that, as tactical demands, particularly at sea, are always uncertain and subject to rapid change, they must be ready to act at a moment’s notice on the briefest order from myself. The meeting then broke up: both wind and tide were favourable, the signal was given to weigh anchor, and after moving about eight miles up channel the ships were grounded on an open and evenly shelving beach.

The natives, however, realized our intention: their cavalry and war chariots (a favourite arm of theirs) were sent ahead, while the main body followed close behind and stood ready to prevent our landing. In the circumstances, disembarkation was an extraordinarily difficult business. On account of their large draught the ships could not be beached except in deep water; and the troops, besides being ignorant of the locality, had their hands full: weighted with a mass of heavy armour, they had to jump from the ships, stand firm in the surf, and fight at the same time. But the enemy knew their ground: being quite unencumbered, they could hurl their weapons boldly from dry land or shallow water, and gallop their horses which were trained to this kind of work. Our men were terrified: they were inexperienced in this kind of fighting, and lacked that dash and drive which always characterized their land battles.

The warships, however, were of a shape unfamiliar to the natives; they were swift, too, and easier to handle than the transports. Therefore, as soon as I grasped the situation I ordered them to go slightly astern, clear of the transports, then full speed ahead, bringing up on the Britons’ right flank. From that position they were to open fire and force the enemy back with slings, arrows, and artillery. The manoeuvre was of considerable help to the troops. The Britons were scared by the strange forms of the warships, by the motion of the oars, and by the artillery which they had never seen before: they halted, then fell back a little; but our men still hesitated, mainly because of the deep water.

At this critical moment the standard-bearer of the Tenth Legion, after calling on the gods to bless the legion through his act, shouted: ‘Come on, men! Jump, unless you want to betray your standard to the enemy! I, at any rate, shall do my duty to my country and my commander.’ He threw himself into the sea and started forward with the eagle. The rest were not going to disgrace themselves; cheering wildly they leaped down, and when the men in the next ships saw them they too quickly followed their example.

The action was bitterly contested on both sides. But our fellows were unable to keep their ranks and stand firm; nor could they follow their appointed standards, because men from different ships were falling in under the first one they reached, and a good deal of confusion resulted. The Britons, of course, knew all the shallows: standing on dry land, they watched the men disembark in small parties, galloped down, attacked them as they struggled through the surf, and surrounded them with superior numbers while others opened fire on the exposed flank of isolated units. I therefore had the warships’ boats and scouting vessels filled with troops, so that help could be sent to any point where the men seemed to be in difficulties. When everyone was ashore and formed up, the legions charged: the enemy was hurled back, but pursuit for any distance was impossible as the cavalry transports had been unable to hold their course and make the island. That was the only thing that deprived us of a decisive victory.

The natives eventually recovered from their panic and sent a delegation to ask for peace, promising to surrender hostages and carry out mv instructions. These envoys brought with them Commius, who, it will be remembered, had preceded us to Britain. When he had landed and was actually delivering my message in the character of an ambassador he had been arrested and thrown into prison. Now, after their defeat, the natives sent him back: in asking for peace they laid the blame for this outrage upon the common people and asked me to overlook the incident on the grounds of their ignorance. I protested against this unprovoked attack which they had launched after sending a mission to the Continent to negotiate a friendly settlement, but agreed to pardon their ignorance and demanded hostages. Some of these were handed over at once, others, they said, would have to be fetched from a distance and would be delivered in a few days. Meanwhile they were ordered to return to their occupations on the land, and chieftains began to arrive from the surrounding districts, commending themselves and their tribes to my protection. Peace was thus concluded.

Late on the fourth day after our landing in Britain the eighteen transports with cavalry on board had sailed from the northern port with a gentle breeze; but as they neared the British coast and were within sight of the camp a violent storm had blown up, and none of them could hold their course. Some had been driven back to the point of embarkation; others, in great peril, had been swept down channel, westwards, towards the southernmost part of the island. Notwithstanding the danger, they had dropped anchor, but now shipped so much water that they were obliged to stand out to sea as darkness fell and return to the Continent.

It happened to be full moon that night; and at such times the Atlantic tides are particularly high, a fact of which we were ignorant. The result was that the warships, which had been beached, became waterlogged: as for the transports riding at anchor, they were dashed one against another, and it was impossible to manoeuvre them or to do anything whatever to assist. Several ships broke up, and the remainder lost their cables, anchors and rigging. Consternation naturally seized the troops, for there were no spare ships in which they could return and no means of refitting. It had been generally understood, too, that we should winter in Gaul, and consequently no arrangements had been made for winter food supplies in Britain.

The British chieftains at my headquarters sized up the situation and put their heads together. They knew we had no cavalry and were short of grain and shipping; they judged the weakness of our forces from the inconsiderable area of the camp, which was all the smaller because we had brought no heavy equipment; and they decided to renew the offensive. Their aim was to cut us off from food supplies and other material and to prolong the campaign until winter. They were confident that if the present expeditionary force were wiped out or prevented from returning, an invasion of Britain would never again be attempted. Accordingly they renewed their vows of mutual loyalty, slipped away one by one from our camp, and secretly reassembled their forces from the countryside.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!