Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore

by John Withington


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Britain's biggest military blunders and defeats throughout history, including Hastings, Somme, and Singapore
Crecy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Trafalgar, Waterloo, El Alamein—war and history buffs know plenty about the great British military victories, often won against the odds. But what of the defeats and disasters, from Britain's conquest by Roman armies to the fall of Singapore in 1942, described by Churchill as the "worst disaster" in their military history? This is the story of those disasters, and the ones in between, from famous battles like Hastings and Yorktown, to those that are less well-known but had far-reaching consequences, such as Castillon. Others, like the Battle of the Medway in 1667, were deeply shameful—"a dishonor never to be wiped off"—but had relatively little long term impact. Sometimes, a brilliant retreat helped prevent an even greater calamity, as at Gallipoli and Dunkirk. This epic story follows British armies and navies across the world to France, Africa, North and South America, and the Far East. It is a tale of bungling, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and heroism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752461977
Publisher: Spellmount, Limited Publishers
Publication date: 04/01/2012
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Withington is the author of Disaster!: A History of Earthquakes, Floods, Plagues, and Other Catastrophes.

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Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters

From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore

By John Withington

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 John Withington
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-8127-9


The Battle of the Medway, AD 43

We do not know exactly where the Battle of the Medway took place, but it was probably one of the biggest ever fought on British soil. It resulted in a decisive defeat for the ancient Britons and was the turning point in the Roman campaign to conquer Britain.

The emperor Caligula was a busy man, if the stories the Romans told about him are to be believed: what with turning his palace into a brothel in which respectable Roman women were forced to serve, throwing spectators to the wild animals in the arena, trying to have his horse made a consul and so on. So perhaps it is not surprising that he called off an invasion of Britain that he had planned for AD 40. Actually at least three other planned expeditions had been called off since Julius Caesar's second incursion nearly a century before, in 54 BC, when the great general stayed for three months and penetrated as far as the Thames Valley, winning victories over British tribes and seizing treasure and hostages.

When Caligula was murdered by his own bodyguards in AD 41, the new emperor, his uncle Claudius, quickly dusted off the invasion plan. Claudius had been surprised, and terrified, when he was chosen to succeed his nephew. Saddled with a reputation as the buffoon of the imperial family, attacking Britain seemed to offer him a couple of opportunities. First – a chance to rapidly establish his authority and prestige, and second – money, which Claudius needed to buy the loyalty of the army. The great Roman historian Tacitus said Britain was then reputed to be a rich country. The land was fertile, yielding produce 'abundantly', and there was 'gold and silver and other metals', while an invasion could also deliver booty and slaves.

Claudius may also have had another motive: the need to put the ancient Britons in their place. In the years since the birth of Christ, the Catuvellauni, who inhabited Hertfordshire, had been extending their lands under their formidable leader, Cunobelinus – Shakespeare's Cymbeline. One tribe who suffered from their ambitions were the Atrebates, who were friendly to Rome. One of Cunobelinus's sons, Adminius, was also pro-Roman, but when the king died in AD 42, his other two sons, Caratacus and Togodumnus, both anti-Roman, took power, and Adminius fled to Rome. Soon he was followed by Verica, the king of the Atrebates. According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, writing about a century and a half later, it was Verica who persuaded Claudius to intervene. Apart from resenting the dents that the Catuvellauni had put in their prestige, the Romans were also afraid that the Britons might start destabilising the Roman province of Gaul, just across the English Channel.

Rome was confident. The Britons were divided: 'torn apart by the warring parties of different leaders', in Tacitus's words. 'It is very rare that two or more British tribes will come together to repel a common danger' he added. 'They fight separately and separately are defeated.' In AD 43 at Boulogne, Claudius assembled a force of about 20,000 legionaries, who had been serving on the Rhine frontier and in Pannonia (which straddles parts of a number of modern-day countries including Hungary, Austria and Serbia), as well as about 20,000 auxiliaries, recruited from tribes and nations allied to Rome. The expedition was to be led by Aulus Plautius, the governor of Pannonia. Tacitus says he was 'eminent for military abilities', and we know that he had helped suppress a revolt by slaves in Puglia. Beneath him, he had some talented commanders including the future emperor, Vespasian.

There was a problem however. The soldiers would not embark. Roman geographers had shown the known world as being surrounded by water. So what was this 'Britain' place across that great sea? Part of some other world? What would they find there? It did not help that some Roman sailors who had been shipwrecked on the remote island came back with stories, said Tacitus, 'of monsters of the sea, of forms half-human, half beast-like, things they had really seen or in their terror believed.' For up to two months, there was a standoff until Claudius's personal envoy arrived and persuaded the men to get into the ships. The expedition's leaders must have been concerned about how late in the campaigning season it was getting, but the delay may have been a blessing in disguise. The Britons seem to have concluded that the reports they had heard of a great Roman army about to embark must be mistaken. Their enemy would never leave their invasion this late, so the British militia was allowed to go home to get in the harvest.

Dio Cassius says the invasion force crossed the Channel in three groups, and landed unopposed, because the Britons 'had not expected that they would come'. Some at least of the Roman fleet is believed to have come ashore at the natural harbour of Richborough on the east coast of Kent. Once the Romans had arrived, however, the Britons were in no hurry to fight. Instead they drew the invaders on, trying to make them exhaust their supplies; in Dio Cassius's words, taking 'refuge in the swamps and the forests, hoping to wear out the invaders in fruitless effort, so that, just as in the days of Julius Caesar, they should sail back with nothing accomplished.'

The Romans did manage to track down two separate forces led by Caratacus and Togodumnus, and defeat them in skirmishes. Or perhaps the Britons picked a confrontation to test the invaders' strength. As the Romans continued their advance, one of the Catuvellauni's subject tribes surrendered, but by now the British militia had been reassembled and was gathering on the far bank of the Medway. It is not certain exactly where, but many modern historians think it was near Rochester, close to where the M2 bridge now crosses the river. According to some estimates, the Britons' army numbered up to 80,000, which would have meant that they outnumbered the Romans about two to one. If these figures are correct, this would have been the biggest battle ever fought on British soil except perhaps for the Battle of Watling Street (see chapter two).

The Britons had a small nucleus of professional, aristocratic warriors, but the majority of the army were workers on the land. They had some light chariots of a kind long regarded as obsolete on the Continent, but Caesar recognised that during his campaigns, their very unfamiliarity caused some confusion in the Roman ranks. He wrote that the Britons used them for 'driving all over the field hurling javelins' with the idea of generating 'terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels', but they were not sufficiently heavy or armoured to break through determined infantry. Few of the Britons wore armour; they carried only small shields, and used long swords which needed a lot of room to swing, making concerted action difficult and meaning they were less effective at very close quarters. They had plenty of experience of war, but not of confronting a foe like the Romans – the first professional army ever to fight in Britain. The legionaries were heavy infantry, trained to close with the enemy and fight in packed ranks. Each one wore flexible strip armour, which protected the upper body but allowed freedom of movement. The head was protected by a bronze helmet, and they carried wooden shields big enough to screen most of the body. When combined in formation, these created a kind of mobile barricade. Each man carried two javelins and a short double-edged sword. The Romans also had an assortment of catapults and other missile-throwing artillery, but perhaps the greatest difference was that they were well trained and could execute pre-arranged manoeuvres on a signal. They could be detached and sent off to different parts of the field, and could operate en masse or as resourceful individuals. This gave them an operational flexibility the Britons simply could not match. The auxiliaries often added other specialist military skills – serving as cavalry, archers or light infantry – while sometimes they were used as expendable shock troops.

Waiting on the banks of the Medway, the Britons seem to have believed the heavily armed Romans would be unable to cross the river, so, according to Dio Cassius, they 'bivouacked in rather careless fashion'. In fact, among the Roman auxiliaries were men 'accustomed to swim easily in full armour across the most turbulent streams.' Some of these soldiers crossed and landed on the British right flank, taking the enemy completely by surprise, but rather than falling on them, this detachment concentrated on attacking the horses to disable the British chariots. Taking advantage of the chaos that this caused, Plautius then sent over a force of legionaries under Vespasian on the British left, which killed 'many of the foe'. Shaken though they were, the Britons rallied and fought doggedly, so the first day ended without a firm conclusion, which was extremely unusual for a battle of this era, and perhaps evidence that a very large number of men were involved. With the bridgehead on the British left still holding, the Romans used boats, and perhaps even a pontoon bridge, to send over more men to reinforce it, but the next morning, the Britons launched a determined counter-attack. For a time it seemed as though they might win, as they captured a number of leading Roman officers. Then came the crucial moment of the battle, as the commander of the bridgehead, Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, narrowly evaded the Britons and then retaliated so effectively that they were 'soundly' defeated.

It proved to be not just the turning point of the battle, but of the whole campaign, something the Romans recognised by awarding Geta a triumphal procession, a rare honour for someone who had not held the rank of consul. The British survivors managed to retreat and cross the Thames into Essex, seeking to cut off the Roman advance towards the Catuvellauni capital of Colchester. Once again, the Britons tried to take a stand somewhere on the river's banks, and once again Roman auxiliaries swam across, while other soldiers, wrote Dio Cassius, 'got over by a bridge' – possibly a temporary one. This enabled them to attack the enemy from 'several sides at once and cut down many of them'. Soon after – we do not know how – Togodumnus was killed and the emperor Claudius came over to put the finishing touches to the conquest.

Claudius spent sixteen days in Britain, and Dio Cassius says he won a battle himself, though not all historians are convinced that this is true. One of the triumphal arches voted by the senate to celebrate the conquest speaks of eleven British kings surrendering to him. Once he had gone back to Italy, the legions began gradually extending Roman power northwards and westwards. Caratacus, though, escaped and carried on a guerrilla war in the Welsh mountains. In AD 51, he was finally defeated. He sought refuge with the Brigantes tribe in the north of England, but their queen put him in chains and handed him over to the Romans. By then, says Tacitus, his fame had spread to Rome itself, where 'all were eager to see the great man, who for so many years had defied our power.' Claudius had him paraded through the streets with his family, but Caratacus spoke up defiantly, demanding: 'If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery?' Then, more subtly, he suggested that if the Romans killed him, he would quickly be forgotten, while if they spared him, he would be 'an everlasting memorial' to Rome's mercy. It did the trick. Caratacus and his family were pardoned, and did homage to the emperor.


The Battle of Watling Street, AD 60 or 61

Less than twenty years after the great Roman victory on the Medway, Queen Boudicca of the ancient British Iceni tribe was driven into revolt by the brutal, high-handed treatment she and her people suffered at the hands of the conquerors. Boudicca remains an iconic figure in British history, but her rebellion ended in comprehensive defeat at what may have been the biggest battle ever fought in Britain.

After the victories of AD 43 (see chapter one), the Romans gradually extended the area they governed and, according to Tacitus, 'the nearest part of Britain was reduced into the form of a province'. The Romans' diplomatic and political talents, however, did not match their military skills. In AD 47, tribes from outside the area under Roman control launched an attack. The Romans soon beat them off, but then responded by disarming tribes within their domain, who had been allowed to keep their weapons until then. The Iceni, who lived in Norfolk and the north of Suffolk, were incensed because they had not been conquered but had chosen to become allies of Rome. They rose in revolt, along with other British tribes, but were soon crushed.

History had not heard the last of the Iceni however. In around AD 58, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus became the Roman governor of Britain. Not a great deal is known about what he did before he arrived in Britain, except that he had put down a rebellion by the Moors in North Africa. By around AD 60, he was in North Wales with the XIVth legion trying to extend Roman rule into Anglesey. Tacitus says he not only had to fight a 'dense array of warriors', but was also confronted by women 'in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled', while the Druids lifted their hands to heaven and poured forth 'dreadful imprecations'. If that was not bad enough, Suetonius received news that the Iceni were in revolt again.

After the little falling out of AD 47, the Iceni's king, Prasutagus – 'famed for his wealth' according to Tacitus – had tried to remain friends with the Romans. He died in AD 59 or 60 (historians cannot agree) and left his estate to be shared between his two teenage daughters and the emperor Nero, who had succeeded Claudius in AD 54, 'under the impression that this token of submission would put his kingdom and his house out of the reach of wrong.' Indeed, leaving part of their estates to the emperor was a device sometimes used by wealthy Romans to try to ensure that the terms of their wills were carried out. The kind of special relationship that Prasutagus had constructed with the Romans, though, often did not survive beyond the death of the individual concerned, and now the empire's top financial officer in Britain, the procurator Decianus Catus, treated the whole of the king's lands as though they belonged to Rome.

Romans helped themselves to the possessions of the Iceni nobility 'as if they were the spoils of war', while relatives of the king were treated like slaves. Prasutagus' widow, Boudicca ('Boadicea', the name by which she used to be more commonly known, seems to have come from a miscopying of Tacitus) was then probably in her thirties and acting as regent. She appears to have protested, and for her pains she was flogged, while her daughters were raped. Not surprisingly, this drove her into revolt. Boudicca, Dio Cassius tells us, was formidable: 'she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips.' Besides this, he continues, she was 'possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women.'

It was not just the Iceni who were treated in this way. The Romans had also performed the considerable feat of alienating the Trinovantes. Before the conquest, this tribe from southern Suffolk and Essex had fought a long, unsuccessful war with the Catuvellauni (see chapter one), and had seen their lands and their capital, Colchester, taken over. So when the Romans appeared and took the Trinovantes' oppressors down a peg or two, they had a chance to win them over. Instead, they turned Colchester into their first colonia in Britain – a place where veterans were given land when they retired from the army. The veterans, though, grabbed more than they were supposed to, and: 'drove people out of their houses, ejected them from their farms, called them captives and slaves.' The Romans also put up a temple to the emperor Claudius, made a god after his death, and those Britons unfortunate enough to be chosen as priests for the cult were forced to 'squander their whole fortunes'. So now the Trinovantes made common cause with the Iceni, as did other tribes 'not yet cowed by slavery'.

When the rebel army had gathered, according to Dio Cassius, Boudicca ascended a mound of earth to address it. She wore her usual outfit – a gold necklace around her neck and a tunic of 'divers' colours' beneath a thick mantle fastened with a brooch. She also held a spear 'to aid her in terrifying all beholders'. In the past, she told them, they may have been deceived by the Romans' 'alluring promises', but now they had learned the difference between freedom and slavery the hard way, and 'how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery.' They had been taxed to the hilt, robbed of their possessions, 'stripped and despoiled'. Would it not be better to be dead? The Britons should have expelled these Romans just as they once beat off Julius Caesar. She continued: '... let us, my countrymen and friends and kinsmen – for I consider you all kinsmen, seeing that you inhabit a single island and are called by one common name – let us, I say, do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its name but also its reality. For, if we utterly forget the happy state in which we were born and bred, what, pray, will they do, reared in bondage?'


Excerpted from Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters by John Withington. Copyright © 2011 John Withington. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 7

1 The Battle of the Medway, AD 43 9

2 The Battle of Watling Street, AD 60 or 61 15

3 The Battle of Mons Graupius, AD 83 or 84 23

4 The Anglo-Saxon Conquest: Crecganford, AD 457 and Dyrham, AD 577 29

5 The Battle of Hastings, 1066 35

6 The Battle of Castillon, 1453 47

7 The Battle of the Medway, 1667 53

8 The Siege of Cartagena de Indias, 1741 65

9 Surrender at Yorktown, 1781 73

10 The 'Castlebar Races', 1798 81

11 The Battle of New Orleans, 1815 89

12 The First Afghan War, 1842 99

13 The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854 115

14 The Battle of Islandlwana, 1879 127

15 Khartoum, 1885 139

16 'Black Week': the Boer War, 1899 157

17 Gallipoli, 1915 169

18 The Battle of the Somme, 1916 185

19 The Road to Dunkirk, 1940 203

20 The Fall of Singapore, 1942 221

Bibliography 234

Index 236

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