Farthest South part 3.

Into the unknown.

Nero’s Nile expedition of 62 AD was a small affair, part geographic philanthropy part Reconnaissance for conquest. Lead by two Praetorian Centurions it had travelled down the Nile through Egypt into modern Sudan, which was as war torn then as it is now, and reached the prosperous capitol of the Kingdom of Kush, Meroe. It was a time of stabilising relations between Rome and Meroe. After sporadic conflicts, it is known that trade was already beginning to flourish again between the province of Egypt and Kush. The Romans were well treated by Kandake Amanikhatashan, who had only recently ascended the throne and wished friendly relations with her powerful Roman neighbour in Egypt. This was fortuitous for Nero had sent the mission not just to find the source of the Nile but to suss out Kush for conquest. The centurions gathered supplies and information and were once more on their way into the unknown. Continue reading “Farthest South part 3.”

Book Review: The Gempei War by Stephen Turnbull.


Paperback: 96 pages

Publisher: Osprey Publishing (28 July 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813847


A ritual war, brutal and yet played by the rules in an ancient, secluded land. A power struggle between two families for the control of the ruler. Internecine strife within one of the factions for ultimate power. Cunning politicians, giant warrior monks and mighty warriors who can cut arrows in two, swim rivers under fire, and who die at their own hand rather than surrender. The ultimate personal goal is to be first into battle, to kill a worthy opponent and to die with honour. Buddhist Warrior Monks standing on the ribs of a demolished bridge. Horsemen riding across frozen plains. Frantic, primal duels amidst great battles on land and sea, where victory lies in cunning, and sure, why not throw in a herd of oxen with flaming torches tied to their horns?

Sounds like a mashup of the latest bestselling fantasy novel doesn’t it? Well who needs fantasy when you can just read about the Gempei war?

In Western terms the War was comparable properly to the power struggle of the Wars of the Roses with two principal families and their allies splitting and drawing in the larger population via their overlords in a fight for control. In cultural and political terms it had as great an affect on Japan as the Great Civil Wars of the 17th century in Britain. Fought on a scale that was roughly comparable to the American Civil war in the 19th.

Stephen Turnbull is a name synonymous amongst history students and enthusiasts alike with the age of the Samurai. Many of the “Samurai” books published by Osprey have been written by him and in the Gempei War he brings his formidable expertise to arguably the most critical period of pre Edo Japanese history. By the simple process that without the Gempei War the Tokogowa would have not been fighting to attain but to create the Shogunate.

The idea of the Shogun is fairly well understood, thanks to James Clavell’s novel and the Creative Assembly video game. What is more obscure is how the position was created. The Gempei War, the great civil war caused by the rivalry between the Minamoto and the Taira families over the control of the Emperor, was as Turnbull points out the root to which all later Japanese history traces. Whether it is the Shogun, or the code of Bushido, so much cultural significance is derived from this four year period from 1180 to 1184.

Stripping things back and basing his narrative around two primary sources, Turnbull hopes to present the most authoritative work in English on the Gempei War. This is a big statement to be found within the limited confines of an Osprey book. Nevertheless I was impressed by it. First of all setting the scene with the rise of the Taira, and then showing how Taira Kiyomori unwittingly began isolating himself and causing resentment, then sparking the whole thing by passing over the Imperial heir once too many times, prompting said heir to cast around for allies and finding a willing bow in the aged Minamoto Yarimosa, whose suicide at the first battle of Uji, inspired his young exiled kinsman Minamoto Yotitomo to rally the clan and make a bid to destroy the Taira.

Along the way Yotitomo proved himself to be a leader adept at utilising the talents of those nearest him, and then eliminating them when they had served their purpose or grew too powerful. By the end of the Gempei War, while the nobility of the Taira, and the young emperor rotted beneath the waters of the Shimonoseki straits, Yoritomo was the sole voice of law in the land and the Shogunate was born that would be the focus of Japanese power and ambition for the next 500 years until 1600 when one family would come to dominate the position until 1867 when the Emperor was restored to power.

Turnbull’s impressive array of carefully chosen images surround the three detailed two page spreads by Giuseppe Rava, which highlight the individualistic nature of the fighting, but in my opinion lack something that can be seen in other Samurai reconstructions, yet Osprey undoubtedly chose the right man for the job. I think the best is the death of Kizo Yoshinaka at Awazu, which superbly illustrates the role of the Samurai of this period as a horse archer. However it has been pointed out to me that in the scene depicting the battle of Ichinotani, there are some anachronisms in weaponry and haircuts. As usual with a campaign book we get 3D maps. The one showing the battle of Kurikara is very detailed and so is the one of Dannoura, that goes so far as to show the tides of the Shimonoseki Strait.

In this era the Samurai were men of the horse and the bow, and this created a very different dynamic to Japanese warfare, yet the events and stories of the Gempei War would be handed down to later generations of Samurai and indeed soldiers, as the epitome of how to behave in battle. No event until 1600 would have such profound effects on Japan and this book does a creditable job of showing us why.


Book Review: Milvian Bridge by Ross Cowan.


Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (28 July 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813812


The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of the unsung turning points of world history. A known but unknown moment, but a truly decisive encounter, at the very gates of Rome. It’s political and cultural ramifications were not so much the ripples of a stone dropped into a still pond but the beginnings of a tidal wave.
Look at a map of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD and then compare it to a map representing it in the early 4th century and you will notice allot has changed. Not so much in extent, although that is a given, but in organisation. For a start it is now split in two, and each one of those large provinces are now sectioned into districts.
The empire was now ruled by two emperors (Augusti) and their deputies, or successors (Caesars). The hallowed names of the last two men to truly change the course of world history, now being used as titles. In many ways the Romans were now living in a changing world, full of changing values, yet full of reminders of their ancient past, now legacies and traditions rather than actual modes of life.
Christianity was on the rise across the empire. This dangerous eastern religion was suppressed and persecuted throughout the provinces. Few could have thought at the turn of the century that in just over a decade the belief of a persecuted minority would have become the state religion of the most powerful empire in the western world. Indeed it is one of the great ironies of the battle that pagan soldiers emblazoned a mark that usually singled people out for persecution on their shields in the hope of gaining divine intervention.

God rewarded their blind devotion, or at least that of their leader who duly did the decent thing and was properly grateful. Another irony being the adoption of an originally pacifist ideology to win a battle. This basically let the door open for later warriors to wage war in the name of God at will. After all old Roman deities had no qualms about being used as excuses to kill, steal and destroy, to the Romans it just seemed natural. Of course after the rise of Constantine the spread of Roman Christianity was like the insertion of a food colouring to dough. It was mixed indelibly into society and adapted as needed. The tale of how a divinely inspired emperor saw the sign of God in a vision and took up the holy symbol on the shields of his as yet still pagan legionaries went into legend. But apart from that little nugget, what else do we know? Well, that’s the problem.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of those vague ancient battles. One of the ones that is described in a sentence or two by contemporary writers. None of Constantine’s General’s (Duce) are known by name, few of his opponent, Maxentian’s are either. The course of the battle is a simple straightforward affair, the two sides meet and one runs away, yet the sources disagree on the choreography and are vague when it comes to the nitty gritty. It’s not a subject an analytical and dedicated historian will take up lightly. All well an good to insert it into a wider biography of Constantine or a history of the late Roman Empire, but in fact I would say that there are very few ancient battles that can be written about with any certainty in a stand alone study. Milvian Bridge is not one of them.

That is of course why Osprey Campaign is a perfect format to discuss this battle. Because the length is just under 100 pages author, Ross Cowan is given the ability to boil down military analysis, discussion, narrative and some background politics without needing to worry about bogging down a conventional biography or history. Even so it is notable that in the detailed “Opposing Armies” section, there is little discussion of arms and equipment of the opposing sides and instead leaves that to accompanying images and colour plates. The organisation of the much more convoluted later Roman armies are the main concern.

Title Artist Sean O’brogan must be quite at home with the Roman army by now. With almost 7 titles including this one, that I can think of dealing with subjects from the early, republican and late army. No one except Graham Turner is painting armour with such realism. His full colour plates are true to his style, and I should think the picture of the infantry clash most difficult given the geometrical challenge of perspective caused by the flying javelins and darts being thrown by Constantine’s legionaries. The influence of Angus McBride is I think evident in his Praetorians, and I very much liked his depiction of clibernii. Perhaps the troops could have been given some varied helmets and equipment, maybe that’s too picky, but I’m beginning to prefer my Romans a little more individualistic nowadays, especially the later ones. The scene of the rout over the Tiber is very good, an overview instead of a closeup is original. I noted only one riderless horse though, and although there are shields strewn around, dropped my men obviously dumping their kit in order to swim, there is a lack of other armour on the ground.

There is no lack of gaping holes in the contemporary narrative for an author to insert in some speculation into, and Cowan is forced to assume and suppose certain patterns where the sources are silent, especially when describing Constantine’s approach to Rome. These often frustrating sources are gone into with some detail. Nine separate ancient accounts of the battle and a discussion about the archeology of the likely battlefield are discussed in order to build up a firm footing for the author’s tentative, and he stresses that it is tentative, reconstruction of the action.
On the whole I am in favour of his assertions on this matter, he makes good logical sense and puts some flesh and bones onto the action.

When it comes to the campaign, Cowan ably illustrates the opposing strategies, from the confident, popular, downright dynamic Constantine, who fought in the front of his cavalry like Alexander had. And the cautious, inexperienced Maxentian who relied on a hitherto tried and true strategy of avoiding a pitched battle. Yet at the last moment he threw all that common sense out the window and ended up a waterlogged corpse, one of the last great pagan sacrifices to Rome, on the right bank of the Tiber alongside thousands of his men as a result.


Book Review: Roman Army Units in the Western Provinces (1).


Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (16 Jun. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472815378
So apart from the catchy title what does this book offer the Roman Army enthusiast and student? Men-At-Arms books focus of organisation and equipment, so that’s a given. Yet one may ask do we not already know what Roman troops looked like in the 1st Century AD? The answer would be yes, basically, but the study of Roman military equipment is subject to changing perceptions as the result of exhaustive academic and archeological study.
It wasn’t so long ago that Peter Connelly’s depiction of ring mail clad Caesarean legionaries was viewed as radical. What has transpired over the last century of study is to present an archetypal legionary and auxiliary. But what many see as the last word is really the beginning. Since the early 2,000’s historians have been slowly introducing a non uniform Roman army that many find unpalatable to think about.
There is a gravitational pull from the upper end of the atmosphere of academia to the popular reading public. Years of work and research by scholars and archeologists takes years of critical analysis and peer review to make it into accepted thought, from where an author can feel secure enough to publish. Essentially it takes an extended time to sieve down to general readers and enthusiasts, through the academic colander, and that means there are large gaps, as serried chunks of information is passed down. It’s not just history, but it affects the field. Therefore right now people who grew up with a set image of a Roman soldier are being challenged to accept the new evidence that is now arriving to say, actually they looked like this.

Raffaele D’Amato fresh from giving us his excellent New Vanguard series on the Roman Navy brings his sharp eye, clear writing and eye for detail to the Roman army. Arguing that instead of looking for a uniform army of men wearing cloned armour, we should look at the appearance of the legionary in a much more complex, fluid and geo-cultural way. In a nutshell the Roman army, though indeed mass producing equipment to an extent, made allowances for regional and national variances, especially in locally raised troops and auxiliaries or in those units long stationed in a given place.
The concept of a uniform, the author notes, doesn’t factor into the logic of the Roman army any more than it did the Greeks. Men equipped alike and trained alike was enough, but that is only a guideline, as one helmet pattern was phased out over a decade for a better model, and so on with shields, swords and armour. If you think how in a 20 year period between 1798 to 1815 the British army went through two major changes of uniform and equipment change, while engaged in a major war (and to this day provokes debate about when and how), it doesn’t seem all to strange to think the Romans didn’t also work this way.
Accompanying the text are many illustrations to back up the text, which although making its point, boils down, due to space constraints on a huge subject, to a list of archeological artefacts divided by province and region to present the case. At the heart of the book is the illustrations, expertly rendered by Raffaele Ruggeri, and show a familiar but different Roman army than we are used to. I loved that they included a reconstruction of the Auxiliary officer statue from Vachéres, probably my all time favourite military carving from this period. However I was a little surprised to see that the plates themselves no longer include any identifier on the image page save for a number reference to correlate in the plate commentary at the back.

It is a subject that deserves more space, and the MAA format just about carries it without creaking. The two Raffaele’s have done an admirable job in showing a glimpse at an increasingly mature and complex Roman army, and I think it’s about time.


Mother Seacole: Why Mary Matters.

Mary Seacole.
Mary Seacole.

The rather distasteful controversy regarding Mary Seacole’s statue, recently installed at the Royal College of Nursing, should be put aside as quickly as possible. Simply put, she matters. Why?Because she mattered to the men who fought in the Crimean War.

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead” wrote Sir William Howard Russell, the Times War Correspondent in the Crimea. The Adjutant General of the army wrote that she “frequently exerted myself in the most praiseworthy manner in attending wounded men, even in positions of great danger.”

Sadly England did forget.

Nevertheless this kind faced, roly poly Jamaican woman of Scots-African descent, who to look at was almost the human embodiment of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, (though she was the farthest thing from prickly) was extremely important to the redcoats of the Crimean Army.

So much so that after the war when she was destitute, old friends and soldiers, happily contributed funds to keep “Mother” or “Mami” Seacole solvent, as any good son would. Their affection for her was demonstrated countless times during the war.

“I’ll see you tonight at Mother Seacole’s” officers used to say to each other before parting. Mother Seacole’s was her store, eatery and bunkhouse on Spring Hill where the main British Field Hospital was to be found, two miles from the siege batteries opposing Sevastopol, and three miles from the port of Balaclava, where the British supply base was.

Here officers had made a sort of informal club were they could relax, eat “comfort food” and buy little luxuries. Soldiers frequented the place as well and stopped in for a drink when they passed, rooms could be rented for functions and it was patronised by General’s, prince’s and humble line officers alike.

Finding it was no problem, everyone knew were the “British Hotel” was. A straight shot up the muddy road from Kadikoi, a small village a mile north of Balaclava. Described as a metal shed with wooden huts attached, sitting dominant amongst the ramshackle habitations and tents, with smoke slowly rising from the kitchen stove and a Union Jack flying from a flagpole outside. No one could miss it.

From the port the ground rises in a series of rolling hills which flatten into a plateau before dropping back down to Sevastopol. A grey brown landscape of grass, scrub and rock devoid of tree’s and rugged in its desolate beauty, which turned into a sea of mud and snow in winter. The collection of buildings on this exposed high point naturally drew the eye.

Here Mother Seacole spent her days, cooking, cleaning and visiting wounded soldiers in the field. Her cooking was legendary throughout the army, her hospitality was second to none, her home cures were more reliable that those of the army doctors, and no one could help the soldiers forget their troubles like her.

Mary had been born to a Scottish soldier and a free African mother in Jamaica and had once been married to a short lived English merchant. When she was young, her mother ran a boarding house for sick soldiers, something there was no shortage of in the West Indies. She had studied conventional and traditional medicine, learning nursing from her mother and at the local army hospitals. She had a natural affinity towards soldiers and an adventurous spirit. She always “turned a bold front to fortune”.

One day in 1855 an officer came in with a familiar request that sums up the relationship between Mary and those whom she called her “Sons”.
“You see, Mrs. Seacole, I can’t say good-bye to the dear ones at home, so I’ll bid you good-bye for them. Perhaps you’ll see them some day, and if the Russians should knock me over, mother, just tell them I thought of them all—will you?”

There was no request too great that Mary would not grant her boys, she took his hand and told him to trust in God’s providence, then let him go. So many men would be sure to pay her a visit and shake her hand before going into the lines and she made so many friends that she was constantly grieving for those who never came back.

To the men of the varying regiments of the army, Mary, was mother, wife, sister and sweetheart. The surrogate woman in their lives, the phantasm of the girl they left behind them, who they might never see again.

The British Hotel, by Blackwood.

She wrote “I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.” One day news came that a young gunner, whom she had nursed through a long sickness, had been killed at his post. Mary had come to see the boy almost as her own flesh and blood, and his death nearly broke her heart. She saw him buried soon afterwards:

“It was a long time before I could banish from my mind the thought of him as I saw him last, the yellow hair, stiff and stained with his life-blood, and the blue eyes closed in the sleep of death.”

The death of friends would haunt her for many years, one was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and when she heard he had been killed she became fairly ill with grief for a whole day. “Mind you” Mary noted ominously “a day was a long time to give to sorrow in the Crimea.”

Yet as a private, volunteer battlefield nurse, this was the job she had chosen. No one else was doing this on the front, except for the regimental women, To be where the need was greatest, to try to alleviate pain and, when she could, to give respite to the mind for an hour or two, which all too often proving to be the last hours of a man’s life. Nowhere was too dangerous for Mother Seacole.

The 17th of June 1855 was spent making sandwiches, loading up mules and packing her bag full of necessities in preparation to go up to the line. She would be needed the next morning when the Allies attempted to storm Sevastopol.

Setting out, no doubt dressed in her usual bold tones she reached the Cavalry screen keeping out spectators. Some soldiers recognised her approaching and called her forwards, she was allowed to pass. From there Mary was let into the temporary hospital on the right flank. The sandwiches soon disappeared, but her oversized bag was passport enough to get her to where she was needed. Gunfire was thundering away from the port, high shots from the Russian guns were flying through the air as she arrived.

“Lie down, mother, lie down!” The soldiers yelled at her, prompting Mary to “embrace the earth” with indecent haste. She was quite used to artillery fire but heeded the advice nonetheless. Someone or other always helped her up again, and she stayed at the field hospital with her bag of bandages and flasks of cold drinks for most of the day, serving as a nurse to wounded men awaiting the tender mercies of the doctors, who she perhaps unkindly said looked more like “murderers”.

Mary returned to the centre of the position at Cathcart’s hill, with a dislocated thumb from a hasty dive for cover. Her hands were stained and smelling of the sherry she had used to clean wounds. Collecting her mules from the errant boy who had absconded with them earlier she then rode to the extreme left flank in the gathering twilight, were she was able to help some men of General Eyre’s Division before heading back to Spring Hill.

The outposts told her the attack had failed with huge losses, although she had been as close as one might get to the action she had been so busy with the wounded, she had no clue as to the outcome of the attack. The next day an armistice was put in force and Mary rushed to the scene.

“That battle-field was a fearful sight for a woman to witness”, more death, more friends lost, another funeral to attend. In addition to her everyday jobs in the rear of the lines, where she viewed the war like any other combatant did, Mary was witness to the last field battle of the war.

From a spot on a hill, just above the allied cavalry, with her laden mules she watched the Battle of the Tchernaya play out on 16th August 1855. “I was near enough to hear at times, in the lull of artillery, and above the rattle of the musketry, the excited cheers which told of a daring attack or a successful repulse”

French and Russian Dead, by Cadogan.
French and Russian Dead, by Cadogan.

After the Russians were repelled, she and the ambulances descended onto the field and helped to evacuate the wounded French, Sardinians and Russians. While probing a wound that hit a Russian soldiers jaw, his dying spasm caused his mouth to shut over her finger and left a scar she carried for the rest of her life.

Despite this all the Russians she met and cared for were deeply grateful. A wounded officer remained prominently in her memory “In return for the little use I was to him, he took a ring off his finger and gave it to me, and after I had helped to lift him into the ambulance he kissed my hand and smiled far more thanks than I had earned.”

She returned to England in 1856 and began a lifelong struggle to pay off debtors as the war had bankrupted her. After her death in 1885 all but a few forgot about her, although between 1857 and 1867 efforts had been made to keep her solvent and commemorate her service, earning her some celebrity, but it would be Florence Nightingale who survived into legend not Mother Seacole.

Mary matters most of all because she mattered to the redcoats in the Crimea. She matters because she is an example of self sacrifice and she should remain an inspiration to all today. Denied by the war office, the medical board and Florence Nightingale herself the chance to be an official nurse, she went on with her own money, helped by a business parter Mr. Day.

23,000 British soldiers died during the Crimean war. None are yet remembered on a memorial in the Crimea, were they lie. So it is only right that the woman who held so many hands, and closed so many eyes on the very fields they now reside in should have one. Some see her as a challenge or threat to Nightingale’s legacy, but since when did it become a crime to acknowledge a worthy soul, who only wished to “to be useful all my life”.