Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: Uffington Castle

This week I will be examining a completely different type of castle. Although described as a castle, Uffington is really an ancient hill-fort. Located two miles south of the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, England, archaeologists have traced the earthworks to the late Bronze/early Iron age.

The castle we see today is an eight-acre double walled hillfort in roughly the shape of a pentagon. There is a north-west facing entrance protected by the curing outwards of the bank along both sides and around the ditch. The information board in the car park helpfully told me that the fort’s early use was as a religious site or meeting point. It was later occupied by the Romans and Saxons. Although we are unlikely to ever discover who originally occupied the site, the coins of the Dobunni tribe have been found in the area. Large amounts of pottery and animal bones have also been excavated, leading archaeologists to suggest that the castle was more of a spiritual centre than defensive structure. This is supported by the presence of ‘The White Horse’. A large chalk monument cut into the side of the hill. Strangely, ‘The White Horse’ can only be fully viewed from the air.

The hillfort commanded excellent views of the surrounding countryside. A perfect place to construct a castle.

Originally the steep ramparts (which would have been 3 metres deeper than they now appear) would have been bare white chalk with a surrounding timber fence.

A view of the White Horse (Click to enlarge).

Uffington castle is a good example of a defensive construction that served a purpose beyond that of providing a local stronghold in an area.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: A few thoughts on the Maginot Line

In military history, the ‘Maginot line’ has become a byword for expensive and inadequate war preparations. The defences themselves are usually associated with the fortifications constructed by France along its Eastern border with Germany in the 1930s. Less well known to historians are the completely separate line of heavy fortifications that ran along the frontiers with Switzerland and Italy. In addition, the line also consisted of less extensive fortifications along the Belgium and Luxembourg borders. Collectively, these three segments of fortifications were designed to guarantee French security in the event of a German invasion. In total, they cost three billion French francs.

Historical background to the Maginot Line

The decision to construct new fortifications was not a particularly radical change in French military planning. Since the seventeenth century, French military planners had relied upon forts and defensive concentrations to secure strongholds along the nation’s vast borders. The utter failure of Plan XVII in 1914 to win the war through a great offensive had seemed to suggest that only a campaign of attrition would ensure victory in future wars. This was supported by France’s experience during the rest of the First World War. For much of the conflict, successful offensive operations were almost impossible to achieve without huge casualties. As such, French military planners in the 1920s and 30s had to take into account the lower birth-rate during the years 1914-1918. They calculated that in 1935, a numerically much inferior age group would arrive at conscription age. By contrast, Germany’s population outnumbered France by twenty million. Germany’s manpower resources would remain significantly higher than France. By constructing a system of large defensive fortifications, the French military hoped to negate the effects of future manpower shortages.

It was at the Battle of Verdun (1916) that the design of the Maginot line had its origins. During the battle, the French forts had proved their value in withstanding massive artillery bombardments. Therefore large parts of the Maginot line were based upon the use of forts which would provide and be exposed to direct fire in order to give close and medium fire support. Around these forts were lesser positions which would assist in a close combat role.

Design of the Maginot Line

The French forts of the Maginot line were designated as ouverages. There were two types: the gros ouverage and the petit ouverage. The gros ouverage was designated as an artillery fort whilst the smaller variant consisted of nothing large than an artillery mortar. The gros ouverages became the centrepiece of the Maginot line and mounted artillery pieces consisting of 75mm guns and 81mm mortars. Some also included 135mm and 95mm guns. None of these weapons had a particularly long range. It was therefore the job of these forts to provide support fire and together with other ouverages inhibit the enemy advance. Surprisingly the ouverages were not protected by minefields, since only the Germans had developed this technology and put it into large-scale use. Apart from a few booby traps and anti-tank mines, the Maginot forts were only protected by wire obstacles and anti-tank rails. The main defensive element was the firepower which could be laid down by each fort and those supporting it. Behind the Maginot line was the support line which included communications and logistical areas.

Of particular interest to the military historian was the deliberate ‘Achilles Heel’ built into the rear of the ouverages. In 1916, the French had unexpectedly lost Fort Douaumont to the Germans. The subsequent attempt to recapture the position took months and cost thousands of lives. Much of the damage seen today was caused by French heavy artillery. However, the fort was so well constructed that much of the surface damage was superficial. Realising that a fort lost to the enemy could be used to help maintain a permanent breach in the defences, the French ensured that parts of the Maginot line could not be captured and then turned against them.

In front of the line were advanced positions which were intended to provide early warning and delay the enemy. These fortified houses and positions were called avant-postes. In the Maginot line proper, these formed a useful network of advanced outposts. However, in the north (the area known as the Maginot Extension covering the frontier between Longuyon and Sedan) these lower level fortifications were the only defences covering the region. These were clearly not up to the standards of the rest of the line. Unsurprisingly, it was here that the Germans broke through in 1940.


Although the Maginot line has been widely criticised for failing to prevent a German invasion, it did fulfil its primary objective. The main German blow fell away from the bulk of the line. The French High Command had expected this and were able to deploy the majority of their forces on the Belgian frontier. It was the French field army that failed to keep the Germans out. By contrast, the Maginot line completely repulsed an Italian invasion in the south of France. After the war the Maginot line was reoccupied by France and remained in use until the 1960s when parts were sold off to the public. Despite its reputation, the Maginot line was a highly formidable set of defences which the German army took very seriously in 1940.

Enno Kraehe, ‘The Motives behind the Maginot Line’, Military affairs, 8 (1944)

J.E. Kaufmann, ‘Unusual aspects of a unique fortification: the Maginot Line, Military affairs, 52:2 (1988:Apr.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Crusades: The Battle of Hattin 1187

For nearly ninety years, the Franks had held the Holy Land for Western Christendom. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had formed the centrepiece of the Frankish settlements known collectively as ‘Outremer’. However, on the 4th July 1187 the Kingdom was shattered and its army slaughtered in the space of a few hours. The Battle of Hattin represents a decisive moment in both Islamic history and that of the Christendom. United under the banner of the Kurdish sultan Saladin, the armies of Islam dealt the Western colonies a crippling blow from which they never truly recovered.

Repeated violations of the truce made between Saladin and King Guy (in particular an especially ferocious attack upon a Muslim caravan led by Reynald of Chatillon) led Saladin to begin preparations for war in 1187. He ordered troops from throughout his empire to gather at the frontier town of Hauran and assembled the largest army that he had ever commanded. Meanwhile on the Frankish side, equally large preparations for war were also underway. By June some 1,200 fully equipped knights along with ten thousand infantry had been assembled at Acre. Saladin’s forces are believed to have been slightly larger.


On the 1st July, Saladin’s forces crossed the River Jordan into Frankish territory and lay siege to the city of Tiberias. When news came of the invasion, King Guy held counsel with the leading figures of the land. He was advised By Raymond of Tripoli that in the heat of summer, the attacking force would be at a major disadvantage. Therefore the best strategy would be for the Christian army to remain purely on the defensive. This was good sound advice and most of the knights were inclined to accept this strategy. However, King Guy was not a wise man. His ascent to the throne had been opposed by many of the leading barons of the kingdom. His only supporters had been Reynald of Chatillon and Grand Master Gerard of the Knights Templar. They advised that the army should seek out and attack Saladin.

Therefore on the morning of the 3rd July, the Christian army left its comfortable well-supplied camp at Sephoria and marched into the hills. The Bishop of Acre accompanied them bearing pieces of the ‘True Cross’, upon which Jesus was said to have been crucified. Had the army remained at Sephoria, Saladin would probably not have risked an attack. The air was hot and dry with no water supplies along the road. Soon both men and horses were suffering from thirst and exhaustion. Muslim skirmishers were also continuously attacking both the rearguard and vanguard with ‘hit and run’ archers on horseback. By the afternoon, the Franks had reached the plateau immediately above Hattin. Ahead of the Franks lay a rocky hill with two summits known as the Horns of Hattin. Beyond this lay a village and lake. By the afternoon the army could go no further and made camp on the slopes of the hill. The site was supposed to have a well. Unfortunately for the Franks, this well was dried up.

The Battle

That night Saladin’s men surrounded the Christian army and set fire to the dry scrub that covered the hill. The Franks, already suffering from thirst were further tormented by the hot smoke now pouring over their camp. The Muslim attack began soon after daybreak on the 4th July. They had successfully formed a cordon around the entire Christian army. Desperate for water, the Frankish infantry surged forward down the slope towards the lake. Many were slaughtered or taken prisoner by Saladin’s massed forces. Only the Christian cavalry could hope to turn the tide against the Muslim forces. Saladin ordered his cavalry to assault the hill where King Guy’s red tent remained clearly visible. Despite overwhelming odds, the remaining Frankish horseman on the hill beat back wave after wave of Muslim cavalry. Raymond of Tripoli led his knights in a desperate attempt to break through the surrounding Muslim army. When his men charged, the forces opposing them opened up their ranks to allow them to pass harmlessly. Unable to rejoin the battle, Raymond and his knights withdrew to Tripoli.

With the infantry now largely out of the battle and both horses and men suffering from thirst and heat exhaustion, the remaining Franks fought on. The King’s tent was moved to the summit and his knights gathered around him for a last stand. It was soon over. The Bishop of Acre had been killed and the Holy Cross was in the hands of a Muslim. The surviving Franks were exhausted. Then King Guy and the surviving leading men of the Kingdom were presented before Saladin.

Saladin’s tent had been erected on the battlefield and in it he received King Guy and Reynald. He greeted them graciously and offered the King a goblet of rose-water, cooled with ice brought from Mount Hermon. Guy drank it and passed it to Reynald. By the laws of Arab hospitality to give food or drink to a captive ensured that his life would be safe. Saladin had made no such gesture towards Reynald. Saladin reminded Reynald of his crimes and truce violations. When Reynald replied with insolence, Saladin took a sword and struck off his head. He then reassured Guy that ‘A king does not kill a king’.


Whilst Saladin spared the lives of the Barons of the kingdom, the Templar and Hospitaller prisoners were considered too dangerous to live. Fanatical Muslim ‘sufis’ carried out the executions of the surviving members of the Military Orders. Shortly afterwards, Saladin’s forces began the systematic conquest of the now heavily depleted castles across the Holy Land. After a five-day siege, Jerusalem itself fell to Saladin’s army. The damage was almost complete. If not for the fortunate arrival of groups of Westerners on pilgrimage, all the Crusaders lands would have been conquered. Although King Richard’s Crusade allowed a smaller reconstituted Kingdom to continue, the position of the Franks in the Holy Land was more precarious than ever. Saladin had managed to wipe out the bulk of the Kingdom’s defences in a matter of hours. Despite repeated attempts to rebuild the Christian position in the East, the Battle of Hattin proved to be a blow from which the Kingdom of Jerusalem never recovered.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Hattin have a look at these books;

Malcolm Barber, ‘The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320 (London and New York, 1993)

Jean Richard, ‘The Crusades c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge, 1999)

Carole Hillenbrand, ‘The Crusades: Islamic perspectives’ (Edinburgh, 1999)

P.M. Holt, ‘The Age of the Crusades: The near east from the eleventh century to 1517’ (London, 1986)

Alan V. Murray, The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Dynastic history 1097-1125 (Oxford, 2000)

Jonathan Philips, The Crusades (Harlow, 2002)

Sir Steven Runciman, ‘A History of the Crusades: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187’ (Cambridge, 2002)

Hans Eberhard Meyer, ‘The Crusades’ (Oxford, 1988)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: Läckö castle

This is the first in a new series of articles which I will be writing over the coming months, dealing exclusively with the subject of castles.

The first of these articles begins with a look at Läckö Castle in south-west Sweden. Läckö Castle was originally built in 1298 by the of Bishop of Skara, Brynolf Algotsson. Strategically located in the centre of his diocese, the position was ideal for command and control of the area. Läckö was situated on a peninsula in Lake Vänern (a major source of commerce and trade in the area in one of Europe’s largest freshwater lakes). The position gave the occupants a complete overview of the lake for many miles The original medieval foundations of the castle were fortified. Defences were especially important given that the region was surrounded by powerful threatening kingdoms such as Denmark.

After the reformation in 1527, the Swedish Crown took possession of the property. It then passed through the hands of various nobles until 1615, when Field Marshal Jacob Pontusson de la Gardie was granted Läckö as a reward for services to the crown. Although the military element of the castle continued with a permanent guard detachment stationed, the Field Marshal also embarked on major improvements to the existing structure. Interestingly thou, none of these improvements were military in nature. They included adding a portal to the main courtyard and constructing a third story above the keep.

Note the privy sticking out of the wall!

However, these improvement works were minimal in comparison to those made by the next occupant. Magnus Gabriel de la Garde was only thirty when he took over the castle. He had already had a highly successful career as a diplomat. Sweden’s success in the Thirty Years War had propelled the country from the fringes of European politics to ‘Great Power’ status. Sweden was now dealing with countries such as France and the Habsburg dominions as equals. This new era, known as the ‘Age of Greatness’ was an age of prosperity and growth for Sweden. Nobles such as Magnus Gabriel were now regularly travelling into the heart of Europe and bringing back new ideas and wealth to the country. In 1654, he constructed new rooms for the staff, a kitchen wing, a chapel and a fourth floor for the keep. The castle you see in these pictures are the final product of Magnus Gabriel’s building work.

In four centuries, the castle had changed from being a semi-militarised settlement, into a grand stately home. Looking at the castle now, it is clear that the military functions of the original structure have long receded into the background of the architecture. Two seventeenth century cannons and a handful of arrow slits in the castle turrets hint that Läckö could once also have had military purpose.

Nevertheless, the structure itself is an excellent example of how the purpose of buildings can gradually change as security and prosperity start to replace disorder and fear. In the age of gunpowder, a castle served its owner better as a stately residence, rather than as fortified military base. The wealth generated by Magnus Gabriel whilst travelling abroad, gave him the money necessary to decorate the interior with the latest baroque furniture and paintings.

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