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Old 11-06-2019, 04:13 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Food for the Crows: The Whole Bloody History of Human Conflict

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Whether it’s Hitler jack-booting his way across Europe, Genghis Khan sweeping down from the Mongolian Steppes or the invasion of Iraq, or even just that guy eyeing your girlfriend and having had one pint too many, humans have always been up for a fight. Why? At heart, though we like to pretend otherwise, we’re just animals, with instincts honed over thousands of years of trying to not only survive, but rise to be the dominant life-form on this planet, and one of those instincts is the need for combat. Whether to protect our loved ones, our land, or our homes, or to take those of another; whether to satisfy the call of duty or the bonds of friendship; whether to enrich ourselves or consolidate our power, or just for the sheer dumb hell of it, we love to fight. At heart, we all do. If men didn’t have an instinct for war, then kings and emperors would never have built and held the realms they did, and huge armies would not, for long periods of time, have held sway over vast sections of the world.

But what is it that really makes men - and many women - want to fight? What is it that makes young people enlist in the army, or sign up for kickboxing lessons? What is it that makes that guy talking loudly in the cinema a worthy recipient in your mind for a knuckle sandwich? Why do the strong prey on the weak, and the many on the few? And what part does false courage, such as alcohol or the encouragement of mates, play in our desire to inflict violence on others? There’s surely no one answer, and the possibilities I’ve outlined above may go some way towards providing reasons, but no doubt there are many others. Men and women fight because they’ve been wronged, or feel they have. They fight against oppression and tyranny, they fight for their country out of a sense of national pride, or to protect their families. And of course, without question, two of the main reasons people fight is for religion and money, the two sometimes going hand in hand.

In this new journal I’ll be looking at all instances of man’s desire for conflict, so we’ll be examining the major and minor battles of history, trying to see why they took place, if they met their goal, and what, if any, impact they had on later history. But I won’t be just checking out the battlefields of humanity, oh no: the title of this journal is The History of Human Conflict, and for there to be conflict there does not necessarily have to be battle, or war, or even physical confrontation. Man’s entire history is built on conflict. Sometimes this is a good thing, as a society without conflict can be seen to be a stagnant one, and we all know what happened to the Eloi in H.G Wells’s novel. Out of wars and empires have come some incredible advances in science and technology, agriculture and of course warfare, architecture, art and music, and education. These can be the by-products of war; they are usually not the goal. But conflict does move humanity on, and every so often, to be crude and inaccurate, the human race needs a good kick up the arse to get it going, or keep it going, in case it gets lazy and starts to atrophy.

Nobody would deny though that the main product of wars is death, loss, famine, destruction and a reduction in population. But as I said, human conflict is not limited to wars and battles, so my intention is to look into all other forms of struggle - union strikes, the vote for women, slavery, poverty, ideological battles as well as physical ones, from the smallest to the largest and from the most important to the least. Naturally, I don’t intend, nor do I have any hope of covering every conflict in our history - nobody could live that long - so I will be choosing my subjects carefully. Unlike some of my other history projects, this one will not adhere to a timeline, so we may check out a battle in Ancient Greece and then hop over to World War I for the Battle of Jutland, or maybe look in on the Bay of Pigs or the Tet Offensive, all the while stopping off to examine women’s suffrage, the plight of Palestinians or the unfair treatment meted out to the workers by heartless employers and global conglomerates.

Throughout this I will be maintaining my usual mix of wit and personal observation (shut up), while researching from multiple sources. I hope to make this an interesting, perhaps surprising tour through the many and varied confrontations man has had with his fellow man, and no doubt will continue to have as long as he exists.
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Old 11-07-2019, 12:46 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Are you going to include Chula and Frown’s beef?
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Old 11-07-2019, 11:06 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Are you going to include Chula and Frown’s beef?
A historical battle, so probably yes.
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Old 11-07-2019, 11:32 AM   #4 (permalink)
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I'm just waiting for N'SYNC v. Backstreet Boys.
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Old 11-07-2019, 01:04 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Ah yes, the famous Battle of Whogivesafuck! Who could forget that?
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Old 11-11-2019, 04:05 PM   #6 (permalink)
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For no particular reason, let’s first check out one of the bloodiest wars in man’s history, the biggest battle and the largest loss of life ever sustained by the British Army, over a period of 141 days in 1916. When people speak of the First World War, this is the battle that most frequently comes up, not only due to the massive casualties but also the belief that, in essence, it really accomplished very little.


Timeline: 1916

The Battle of the Somme

Era: Twentieth century
Year: 1916
Campaign: The Somme Offensive
Conflict: World War I
Country: France
Region: The River Somme, Picardy, France
Combatants: Britain, France and Germany (others took part but these three were the main powers)
Commander(s): Allies side: (British) General (later Field Marshal) Douglas Haig, General Henry Rawlinson, General Sir Hubert de Poer Gough (French) Marshall Joseph Jaques Joffre, General Ferdinand Foch, General Joseph Alfred Micheler.
German side: Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, General Max von Gallwitz, General Fritz von Below
Reason: Britain and France were at war against Germany, and had been for two years at this point
Objective: Originally to push the Germans out of Belgium, where their U-Boat fleets were harrying Allied shipping, but after the Verdun offensive the Somme became more a battle of attrition to relieve pressure on the French forces (see full text for more)
Casualties* (approx): Allied total: 620,000 German: 434,000 - 600,000 (varies)
Objective Achieved? No
Victor: Neither

* Casualties refers to both those killed and those wounded

Note before we begin: Oh, seriously? Within the command structure for the battle we had a JJJ (Get me an interview with Spiderman!), a German general called Foch and another called von Below? You have to laugh, don’t you? Over a million dead did not...

By December 1915, Field Marshal (then General)l Sir Douglas Haig had been placed in charge as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) and with the French commander, Joseph Joffre, had agreed to mount a combined offensive at the River Somme. The Germans, however, threw a spanner in the Allied works by attacking Verdun a week later, forcing the French to commit most of their forces to that battle, leaving the British basically facing the Germans at the Somme on their own. The idea of the attack at Verdun was to defeat the French by exhausting and demoralising them, thereby leaving the British as easy pickings, and bringing the war to an end. Unfortunately for the Germans, as Hitler would discover twenty-five years later, battles don’t always go to plan, and just as would be the case at Stalingrad, the German commander overreached himself and by doing so depleted his reserves for the Somme, leaving them fighting a desperate rearguard action.

Unbelievably, the night before the battle began General Rawlinson telephoned the troops to wish them good luck; this message was intercepted by the Germans, who then knew an attack was imminent! Prior to the infantry offensive, the British and French had spent seven days shelling the German positions, the intent being to wipe out most if not all resistance, leaving their infantry nothing more than a mopping-up campaign, hence the infamous “walk, don’t run towards the enemy” instruction which cost so many British soldiers their lives when they realised that the enemy was not so badly defeated. Hardly at all, in fact: the artillery the Allies had used was not powerful enough to penetrate the German trenches, many of the shells failed even to explode and the barbed wire marking the border of their territory was not, as originally envisioned and intended, destroyed but mostly left in place. Once the shelling stopped, the Germans came out of their entrenchments and manned their machine guns, cutting down the advancing troops.

For all that, in strictly military and not human terms, the battle, which was more an offensive and was to last 141 days, began well for the Allies, as they pushed the Germans back from both the north and south banks of the Somme. However it was simultaneously the day when the British suffered their highest casualties, almost 20,000 men being killed over a twenty-four hour period. Probably due to being in retreat at the time, the Germans only had about half that number killed. Things began to go badly for the British by the middle of the month, due to a combination of inexperienced troops, bad planning and poor communication, as German strengths were underestimated. Near the end of August, meetings between the four Allied commanders failed to establish a proper strategy, and shortly thereafter the Germans launched a massive counter-attack.

In mid-September the first usage of tanks in war was seen, but, new and temperamental as these machines were, they were prone to breaking down and often got mired in the mud. The tanks of WWI were far different to those seen in war films of the Second World War, and were basically big lumbering slabs of metal with tracks wound right around them. Consensus is that they were pretty useless, but as a morale-draining tactic they must have been quite effective. Seeing one of these roll out of the smoke towards you can not have been a good way to start your day if you were a German soldier! Weather became an increasingly regular obstacle to progress, heavy rain hampering any attempts to move forward, and further miring the new tanks in deep, sucking mud.

In the end, tired, battered, losing more men every day and unable to battle the increasingly foul weather, the campaign was called off on November 19. A mere seven miles of ground had been won, none of it strategic, and between them the Allies and the Germans had sustained over a million casualties. Perhaps the most telling and succinct legacy of the Battle of the Somme can be found in the words of Friedrich Steinbrecher: “Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” Or, as another, unnamed witness described it, “monotonous, mutual mass murder.”

It’s probably hard for we in the twenty-first century, with all the technology at our hands that allows us now to kill from a distance of thousands of miles, with drones and cruise missiles and a more almost understanding attitude taken by most of the world’s armies towards things like PTSD to understand and appreciate how men could crouch in trenches, wait for the signal and then literally walk to their deaths. Not against an enemy who came towards them, but right into static machine-gun fire, being cut down like stalks of wheat by a scythe. But remember, or understand, if you don’t know: any soldier who refused to go “over the top” when the whistle blew would be shot by the officer in charge, and if there was anything worse than dying in the war it was to be shot for cowardice, as those of us who’ve seen Downton Abbey know.

Your family would be disgraced, any medals you had been awarded would be rescinded, your regiment might find itself out of favour, and after the war was won your family would be remembered as the one whose son wasn’t brave enough to fight for his country. It’s possible, too, though I can’t confirm, that you might not be buried in consecrated ground. All things being equal, considering you were going to probably die anyway, might as well take your chance with your mates against the German guns. Hell, maybe you’d get lucky and make it. Small chance, but if you were shot as a coward you would definitely die.

But who couldn’t be terrified in such a war, or any war? Most of these men were young, often no more than boys, boys who thought they were going off on a great adventure, a “lark” after which they would be heroes, loved by girls and respected by men. None of them expected to die - they surely knew the possibility was there, but it lurked likely in the back of the mind, pushed away and ignored, because if you really thought about your chances of coming back, at least in one piece, from such a wholesale slaughter, you’d never enlist in the first place.

Not that that would save you, either, as during World War I conscription was in effect, and anyone who didn’t sign up would receive a letter from the war ministry advising them they had been drafted, and to report to their local army office. Only people who, for reasons of health, social standing or other factors which made them unsuitable would escape being called up, and there was no way to refuse, unless you wanted to become a “conshy”, a conscientious objector, for which you would likely be thrown in prison, and for which beliefs you would be vilified by everyone, especially the women who, not being eligible to fight, were very quick to disparage, embarrass and sneer at any man who did not join the war effort.

The Battle of the Somme would go down as not only the bloodiest in World War I, but one of the most brutal ones in all of history, and according to some commentators, one of the most mismanaged and bungled, and indeed pointless and least successful of the First World War. It would mark the first use of both tanks and sustained air power, but neither did much to sway the outcome of either the battle or the remainder of the war, and “the war to end all wars” was going to continue to be decided mostly by the boots on the ground, by the senseless slaughter of the flower of youth of England, France, Germany and their allies, until finally the war would grind to a shuddering halt, with nothing really resolved on either side, and the population of the planet severely depleted.

Why will this battle be remembered?

I’ll be putting this as a postscript to each entry, to look at the reason(s) why a battle went down in history, why it’s still talked about, what lessons can be or were learned from it, and what overall effect, if any, it had, either on the overall campaign in which it was fought, or in history, or both.

Obviously, the main thing the Somme is remembered for is the huge loss of life for what turned out to be very little gain, leading to the epithet later for Haig as “the Butcher of the Somme”. Instead of being relieved of his command or tried for war crimes (this was the real world, after all) Haig was promoted to Field Marshal in 1917. The general belief was that the commanding officers, at too far a remove from the field of battle, completely misinterpreted and misunderstood the situation, and sent their men in without the proper information, and therefore unprepared. The comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth illustrates this very well, in many scenes but in one particular one. General Melchard is looking admiringly at a small clod of earth on a table, which his adjuntant tells him is the amount of ground they have gained that day. When asked what scale the model is on, he’s told, one to one, and nods. "So this is the actual ground taken, eh?"

It’s satire, but it does serve to show how so little terrain was gained, and often, once gained quickly lost again as the Allies and the Germans moved back and forth across the lines in a murderous and insane game of capture-the-flag, or to quote Roger Waters “Generals sat and the lines on the map moved from side to side.” Indeed. Opinions vary on whether the Battle of the Somme was a victory for anyone, or just a costly exercise in how not to direct a battle. Poems were written about it, films made, and protests raised. It certainly wouldn’t have done much for the morale at home for the folks to hear that, yes, we “won” (I’m sure that was the official line) but that many towns and villages had likely lost all of their young men, and almost half a million of them would not be coming home, or would be returning badly wounded, and would never again be the same.

In military terms, the Somme allowed the British army to see how this sort of warfare was conducted (if badly) and to “bed in” their inexperienced troops - those that survived, that was. It also badly damaged the German resistance, leading to their exhausted defeat two years later. In addition, as already mentioned, it was something of a proving ground for the new weapon, the Mark I tank, which, though it failed to turn the tide of the battle or even contribute in any real meaningful way, did impress Haig so much that he ordered a thousand more.

In the end though, the Battle of the Somme will always be synonymous with pointless and wholesale slaughter of youth, the cream of England’s manhood cut down like blades of grass beneath an uncaring, out of control lawnmower, propelled by someone who had no clue how to use it and just pushed on regardless.
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Old 11-22-2019, 04:07 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Oh and please at some point in the near future discuss Alexander the Great's pikemen because the Macedonian phalanx is a new aphrodisiac for me.
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Old 11-30-2019, 10:56 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Let’s jump back a little in time now, almost exactly five hundred years in fact, to a time when England was once again at war with her old enemy, France, and had been for nearly a century at this point. Seems down through history England was always at war with someone: if it wasn’t the French it was the Scottish, if not them the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the Germans. I suppose it comes from having both a large standing army that had to be kept busy, rivalries between kings and old grudges over land, religion or both. If, as I stated in my History of Ireland journal, we are a nation of begrudgers, then the same can certainly be said of the English, who did not allow sleeping dogs to lie, and to muddy the metaphor slightly, were always looking for an excuse to stir up the hornet’s nest.


Timeline: 1415

The Battle of Agincourt


Era: Fifteenth Century
Year: 1415
Campaign: The Lancastrian War
Conflict: The Hundred Years’ War
Country: France
Region: Agincourt (Azincourt) near Calais, Northern France
Combatants: France and England
Commander(s): (English) King Henry V, Edward, Duke of York, Sir Thomas Camoys, Sir Thomas Erpingham (French) Constable Charles d’Albret, Jean de Maingre, Charles, Duke of Orleans, John, Duke of Alencon, Jean, Duke of Bourbon
Reason: King Henry had been trying to take back land in France he believed to be England’s by right. Negotiations between France and England had stalled, and Henry, perceiving an insult in the French response to his demands, moved to invade France.
Objective: Ostensibly, to claim the throne of France, which Henry believed to be his by right of his great-grandfather, Edward III, but in reality just to provoke the French and secure better terms to allow him to renounce his claim.
Casualties (approx): (English) Up to 600 killed (French) Up to 8000, of which up to 6000 killed
Objective Achieved? Yes
Victor: England
Legacy: The battle destroyed much of the French nobility, led to the fracturing of power structures and the collapse of alliances within the country, and showed the value both of the use of longbows and the choice of terrain, as well as the folly of being too heavily armoured, to say nothing of overconfidence. Agincourt also quickly established Henry V as one of England's finest commanders and most respected kings.

England and France had been at war for literally almost a hundred years, hence the name given to the war, which had seen the rise and fall of four separate monarchs both of England and France over its duration, and would see too one more on each throne before it came to an end. The war as usual was about territory and perceived rights, with England demanding its lands in France, particularly Aquitaine, Normandy, Brittany, Flanders, Anjou and Touraine and France wishing to claim them back for the Crown. Of course, the war had not been going for a century non-stop; there were periods of peace, or truce, which lasted decades in some cases, but by 1415 the last truce was over, and the period known to history as The Lancastrian War had begun. This would last till 1453, when it would bring to a close the final phase in the longest war in European history.

Having only succeeded to the throne two years earlier, Henry V was anxious both to stamp his authority on his new realm and to avenge what was seen as the humiliation of his forebears as their lands in France were taken back by the French Crown while they were otherwise engaged, fighting Scotland or Spain. After a period of peace, a truce lasting twenty-six years, Henry was tired of negotiating with the French king and decided to sue for war. He accordingly invaded France on August 13 with a fleet reported to have been over a thousand ships strong. However due to bad weather, disease and a siege that took longer than expected, he had only taken one town, the port of Harfleur, by the time winter began drawing in. Having a stronghold in Calais he decided to march there, to make his presence known and hopefully to tempt the French into battle.

They didn’t quite take the bait, but did move to block him at - wait for it - the River Somme. He managed to find a way through though and continued on north while the French army shadowed him, unwilling to force a pitched battle. A sense of overconfidence, even contempt of the English army seems to have contributed to the French army’s downfall, as did the terrain. Content to wait out Henry, the French commanders did not force a battle, allowing the English king time to have his men construct obstacles of sharpened wooden stakes which would deflect their cavalry. They would have reason to rue this later. They did outnumber the English though - some accounts claim a ratio of ten French soldiers to every English, though accounts of the French army totalling around fifty thousand men to the English’s nine makes this more likely to have been five to one - and largely ignored their archers, who were in fact to prove critical to the success of the English. Mostly, the French nobles seemed more eager to capture and ransom the high-ranking English lords and considered them beneath them as an adversary, believing the battle would be a foregone conclusion.

They were, of course, very much mistaken.

Although technically on home ground, the French were hampered by the wooded terrain, and the rain made the ground thick and mucky, which in turn made progress for the more heavily-armoured French knights difficult. The armour tended to drag them down, and made it all but impossible to rise once they had fallen. Reports speak of knights actually drowning inside their helmets. The narrow woodland forced the French to send only their infantry forward, with no way for their archers to provide covering fire without hitting their own men, while the narrow defile in turn created an easily-defended area for the English to hold. When the French surged forward, so great was their combined momentum that as men at the front fell and died, the ones coming up behind could not stop and fell on top of them, many of them sharing the same fate, or being trampled by even more coming behind them.

The cavalrymen fared little better. Although on horseback and therefore (as long as they remained there) not subject to the sucking mud, they were unable to charge the English longbowmen due to the sharpened stakes set before them. The Englishmen had no such restriction, and as their arrows hit the French horses the animals panicked and charged back through the French lines, many trampling advancing infantry who could not get out of the way. Those who managed to continue pressing forward towards enemy lines had to lower their heads so as to protect their eyes and mouths from the hail of arrows filling the sky from the English lines, as these were the weak points in their helmets. This made both breathing and progress difficult, and tired the French knights out even more; by the time they had made it to the woodland fortification, it’s said many had not the strength to even lift their weapons, exhausted by the trek through mud, arrows and heat.

With so many prisoners captured, Henry feared the French would realise their superiority in numbers and would turn against their captors, so in a move that perhaps should have shocked the medieval world, but seems to have been generally accepted by historians as understandable, he had thousands of the French prisoners slaughtered, going against the ancient laws of chivalry that governed both his and the French knights. Though many of his men balked at such an order, he threatened to kill anyone who disobeyed, and all but the most senior (and therefore most valuable for ransom) were executed. Of course, this was half a millennium ago and so accounts may not be reliable, but there are those who maintain the order to slay the prisoners was merely a terrorising tactic, designed to prevent the French from attacking from within his own lines, and that Henry countermanded the order when the main force of the French army retreated and the day was won.

Why will this battle be remembered?

Mostly, it will be looked to as a glorious victory for England against overwhelming odds, a battle they were expected to lose, being outnumbered, in a foreign land and almost under siege. It is also pointed to as an example of terrain deciding the turn of the tide, and the folly of the French in persisting in wearing heavier armour, whereas the English, in lighter armour, were able to deal with the treacherous conditions more effectively. It is feted as the time when an all but newly-crowned king personally led his forces to a decisive and unexpected victory, and when, due to his St. Crispin’s Day speech, a king identified with his men as being more than just employees or servants, leading to Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers” dialogue nearly two hundred years later.

But it will be mostly remembered for the use of the longbow by the English and the frustration of the superior French cavalry by the use of the sharpened spikes. Had either or both not been effectively employed by Henry’s men, the battle could easily have turned against them. Cavalry was a tried and trusted way to win battles, men on horseback either running down and routing infantry, or cavalry fighting it out against other cavalry, but at Agincourt this did not work, as related above, and in fact the horses of the French were turned into weapons against their own people. The French archers were next to useless, unable to fire into the narrow space through which their countrymen attacked for fear of hitting their own forces, and though the French held the high ground, which should always be the superior position, the usage by the English of the woodland frustrated their opponents and made them hard to get at.

It will not be remembered, as such, though perhaps it should, as a war crime. The decision of King Henry V to massacre his prisoners is almost a footnote in the history of the Battle of Agincourt, overshadowed by the amazing victory, and while this reprehensible action has not quite been airbrushed out of the account, it seems to be viewed by historians now as excusable, understandable, even necessary. Are these apologists who make such claims? Possibly: it won’t be to anyone’s surprise to find that few if any commentators who excuse or explain the slaughter are French. No doubt they would have a different view on the matter. And no doubt, too, that had it been the English who had been slaughtered after having been taken prisoner by the French, the event would have gone down in English history as one of unmitigated horror and savagery. To the victor, the spoils, after all.

Though Agincourt was a massive victory for the English, it didn’t lead to more successes, at least not right away. Henry had been essentially on his way home, and he continued there after the rout at Agincourt, returning as a hero and a saviour, one of the first and most important victories of his relatively short reign. However, the cream of the French nobility had been decimated by the battle. With losses said to be ten times that suffered by the English, the Kingdom of France lost most of its top men - dukes, counts, other nobles - including three of the commanders of the French forces at Agincourt. After Henry left, internal strife began to tear the French factions apart, weakening their strength and leaving them primed for a fresh attack by the victorious English two years later.

Agincourt also demonstrated that England was indeed a power to be reckoned with, having defeated a far better armed and more numerous contingent of what was, at the time, one of the most powerful kingdoms on Earth. The Hundred Years’ War would end in 1453 in a victory for the French, but civil war, famine and social unrest would work to destabilise the old seats of power, leading to the rise of Napoleon and the eventual French Revolution, while on the English side peace would not last long either, as anger over the right of succession to the English throne would lead in two short years to the Wars of the Roses, when England would be plunged into bloody conflict for thirty years.
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Old 11-20-2020, 04:51 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Timeline: 490 BC

The Battle of Marathon

Era: Fifth Century BC
Year: 490 BC
Campaign: First Persian Invasion of Greece
Conflict: Greco-Persian Wars
Country: Greece
Region: Marathon
Combatants: Perisan Empire, City State of Athens
Commander(s): (Athens) Miltiades, Callimachus, Aristides the Just, Xanthippus, Themistocles, Stesilaos, Arimnestos, Cynaegirus, (Persia) Datis, Artaphernes, Hippias
Reason: An attempt to subjugate both Athens and Sparta in retribution for standing against the Persian Empire
Objective: To take Attica, and then Athens and Sparta, and eventually all of Greece
Casualties (approx): 203 (Athens) 4,000 -5,000 (Persia)
Objective Achieved? No
Victor: Athens
Legacy: This battle served to show two things, which had not been apparent before: firstly, that the mighty Persian Empire could be beaten, and secondly, that the Athenians could do so without having to rely on their traditional ally, the Spartans.

Some people just can’t let a grudge go. After the Greek colonies in Asia Minor were conquered by the forces of Darius I, Emperor of Persia, they revolted and were helped in that endeavour by soldiers from Athens, who came to help their Greek brothers. This was in 498 BC. Darius, who had not seemingly even heard of Athens before, demanded to know who these upstarts were who dared attack and burn his city of Sardis, capital of Lydia, one of Persia’s most important cities. When told they were Athenians, he swore revenge on them, and to this end had a slave whisper in his ear three times a day “Master, remember the Athenians.”

And so he did. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the major players here, beginning with the emperor himself. It’s critical to remember that at the time, the Persian Empire was one of the biggest and most powerful empires in the known world, and you simply didn’t stand up to them. If they wanted your country, it was best just to hand it over without any fuss, because if you didn’t, well, they were going to take it from you anyway, and leave a whole lot of children without fathers and wives without husbands, and fill the air with the acrid stench both of burning masonry and flesh.


Darius the Great, c. 550 - 486 BC

Darius I, also known as The Great, was the third king of the Achaemenid Empire, essentially the First Persian Empire, established in Iran (then known as Persia) around 550 BC by Cyrus the Great. At its height, the Achae - sod it, let’s just call it the Persian Empire, huh? - stretched from the Balkans of Eastern Europe to the Indus Valley in Asia, and was possibly the first major empire, though I’d have to check that. It was the first to devolve rule under its authority to governors or satraps, who each reported to the Persian King. Darius presided over the biggest expansion of the empire, and had among his other titles, King of Kings, King of Babylon and Pharaoh of Egypt. What does seem odd, to me (though it probably wasn’t uncommon at the time) is that Darius did not ascend the throne due to any right of birth, but rather, in a sort of military coup.

He was not born of royal parents (but then, for all I know, neither was Cyrus, whose son, Cambyses II, succeeded him on his death and then promptly went mad) but served in the army and though the king at the time, Cyrus the Great (guess everyone was “the Great” in those days, eh?) had a prophetic dream about Darius taking his throne, this seems to have happened only after Cambyses lost it. Killing, it is said, his own brother, Bardiya, he then died of an infected wound. The murder was, it seems, kept secret and so when an imposter called Gaumata came and proclaimed himself as the brother, Bardiya, the people accepted him - having become restless under the rule of the increasingly-loopy Cambyses - and it was up to Darius, with a cohort of allies, to depose him. It’s pretty likely there was no imposter and that Darius removed the obstacle to his reign by killing Cambyses’s would-be successor, but as they say, history is written by the victors.

You have to admire the selection process for who would become king of these six or seven nobles then. They decided they’d all sit on their horses outside at sunrise, and whoever's horse neighed first would be king. Hey, it beats 270 electoral college votes, doesn’t it? So our friend Darius took the throne, and became the third ruler of the Persian Empire. However taking the throne and holding it are two different things, and Darius found that the official story from the palace of how he took power was not always believed, leading to revolts in Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt, all of which he ruthlessly put down, claiming he had killed “nine lying kings” in the process. Rebellion was closer to home, too, though, much closer. One of the nobles who had helped him to the throne, Intaphernes (is this where the word interfere comes from?) paid Darius a terrible insult which led the ruler to believe his ex-comrade was planning to seize power for himself, so, as you do, he slaughtered him and almost all his family.

Darius conquered all before him, but it was his attempts - eventually successful - to put down the Ionian Revolt in the Greek-inhabited areas of Asia Minor and the surrounding islands which drew support from Athens and Eretria, actions which would cause him to turn his eyes towards Greece itself, and especially Athens, and which would lead to the first major defeat for his army under his rule.



Miltiades the Younger (c. 550 - 489 BC)

Odd as it may seem, though there was a Miltiades the Elder, he was not his father, the Elder dying without issue, and passing his kingdom on his death on to his nephew, Stesagoras. Miltiades the Elder had set himself up as tyrant of the Thrace Chersonese (which is now the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey) which he ruled for 35 years until his death in 520 BC. Note: although today the word tyrant is used as a pejorative for a despot or dictator, in ancient times it had a different meaning, simply indicating that the holder of the title was the unchallenged ruler, who had taken power by his own hands and had not been elected. There were a lot of tyrants in ancient Greece, as we will see. Anyway, poor old Stesagoras didn’t last long, dying in 516, a mere four years after taking power, felled by “an axe to the head”. That’ll do it all right. Mind you, it doesn’t say who wielded the axe.

Back in Athens, Miltiades the Younger, Stesagoras’s brother, was doing well and had become the archon, or chief magistrate, of the city, under the rule of the tyrant (see? I told you) Hippias. When someone perhaps misunderstood the term “let’s bury the hatchet” with regard to Stesagoras, Miltiades the Younger (who, given his uncle is now dead we will just in future refer to as Miltiades) was sent to take over. He immediately established his power and tricked the nobles into being captured, then consolidated his hold over the city. Around 513, our friend Darius made his appearance and subjugated the Thrace Chersonese, making Miltiades a vassal and forcing him to fight for him. However when word came to the Persian king that his Athenian vassal had been plotting to destroy a bridge he and his men had been left to guard, to prevent Darius’s crossing the Danube into Scythia, he was less than pleased and Militades had to flee. He joined the Ionian Revolt, and when that was crushed, legged it back to Athens, possibly to await the vengeance of his ex-master, which was surely to come.

He wasn’t exactly welcomed back with open arms though. Hippias had been deposed and exiled, tyranny abolished in Athens and democracy had taken its place. As a tyrant himself, the Athenians were sceptical of Miltiades, but his knowledge of Persian tactics and experience fighting them would be invaluable, and so he was forgiven and allowed to rejoin the city, which he would defend in the battle to come.

Hippias (c. 547 - 490 BC)

We’ve heard of this guy already. In a tactic which would be repeated by deposed rulers or out-of-favour nobles or generals down through history, Hippias would lead the Persians back to his old stomping ground of Athens, in the hope of being able to claim it back and being re-established as the tyrant there once Darius and his boys had kicked the crap out of the fledgling democracy and reinstalled tyranny. Not saying they all didn’t anyway, but Hippias seems to have lived up to the more modern interpretation of the word tyrant, being a cruel ruler who executed his subjects on a whim, and levelled crippling taxes on the ones he spared. Eventually the people had had enough and Hippias was deposed and exiled. Given that he had looked to the Persian empire for assistance against his growing enemies when in power, it was only natural that he should seek shelter among them, always hoping one day to return and retake power. Unbeknownst to him, he had allies in the Spartans, who didn’t much like this idea of democracy and thought Athens was becoming a threat under it. Get the tyranny back, they thought, and scotch this whole stupid idea before it had a chance to breathe. But despite threats from Persia, at the urging of the Spartans, that they would attack if Athens didn’t take Hippias back, they were told to bog off. Understandably, they did not take this well.

When the Ionian Revolt kicked off (yes, this again!) Hippias was delighted when Athens aided the rebels as, once they were defeated, he was able to float the idea of an invasion of Greece to Darius, who nodded sagely, remembering the words his slave was commanded to whisper in his ear. “Let’s go get them bastards!” he may have said, though there are no records of his actual words. Hippias suggested Marathon as a good place to land, and Darius agreed.

The Battle

So Darius’s fleet arrived in the Bay of Marathon, 25 miles from Athens. Before they could move inland though, Miltiades, familiar with the Persians’ tactics, marched his army there and blocked off the only two exits from the plain. Seeing they were hopeless outnumbered (around 125,000 to 10,000, very roughly, though not every man fought in the battle or was used) he sent a runner to Sparta, hoping they would come to their aid as a fellow Greek city state. Unfortunately the Spartans were in the middle of a holy festival which could not be disturbed (so they said) and would not be able to send reinforcements for ten days. This could have been a ploy of course; as mentioned, the Spartans had no love for the Athenians (though I haven’t read here any actual accounts of them fighting each other) and had in fact tried to force them to take back their deposed tyrant, on pain of being attacked by the very forces who were now threatening them. Then again, they might have been looking at the longer game. If Darius did succeed in taking Athens he was unlikely to stop there, and the Spartans would find themselves fighting not only his forces, but those of Athens, now newly under the control of the triumphantly returned Hippias.

Anyway, whatever the truth, Sparta were no help, but the small town of Plataea did send 1000 men, which is not to be sneezed at when you’re up against an army over ten times your size) and for five days the armies faced each other across the plain of Marathon in stalemate, the Athenians waiting for the Spartans to arrive, the Persians unable to break out without great losses. Look, democracy is all well and good, but can we really trust a system of command that had ten generals directing the battle, and who rotated the command between them every day? So one day General X was in charge, the next General Y and then General Z, and so on, until it came time for General X to have his shot again? Sounds like a recipe for disaster. But that’s apparently how they did it, and Miltiades was one of those ten generals. In overall command was the polearch, Callimachus, to whom all ten deferred.

Or did they? Because according to accounts, even on days when he wasn’t in command Callimachus ordered the generals to report to Miltiades. Sounds like a man who perhaps was looking for a fall guy. At any rate, the battle seems to have been a case of the old “game of two halves”, with the first half being the two armies eyeing each other across the plain for - well, some accounts say five, others say eight days, but days certainly - and the second half seems to have, if you’ll forgive extending the football analogy a little, kicked off with a sudden rush from the Athenians down a slope, which took the Persians by surprise.

But there was a hell of a lot riding on this. In terms of the Persians, of course, the prize was the whole of Greece and the destruction of the Athenian (and, presumably, the Spartan) states, removing any further interference from them to the now-subjugated Greeks in Asia Minor, further tightening Darius’s grip on and extending his empire. Failure here would mean a humiliating defeat for the Persian king - the first of his rule - and reputations are both built and lost on decisive battles. For the Athenians it was all in: they had to take all their soldiers to Marathon, but this left Athens undefended should they lose and the Persian fleet make the relatively short trip up the river to the city state. It would mean the reinstallation of the tyranny under the traitor Hippias, the abolition of the almost embryonic democracy, and, though they couldn’t have known it at the time of course, this would have had catastrophic repercussions for the rest of the western world, as we owe so much to Greek art, literature, politics and science. It could have been the beginning of a dark age worse than that in Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and would surely (I assume) have seen Islam as the ruling religion in most of the world, fundamentally changing the balance of power.
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Old 11-20-2020, 05:02 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Solidarity was another thing in the Athenians’ favour, which is to say, other than the thousand or so warriors from Plataea, every soldier was from Athens, spoke Greek, spoke the same dialect as his brothers and was fighting for the very survival of his city state. Orders would be easily understood, and men would be willing to die to protect their homeland. Although the Persian contingent was far larger (let’s run with the generally accepted figure of 25,000, though some commentators have wildly speculated at figures from 100 to even 600 thousand) it was made up of soldiers from many parts and countries, vassal states who perhaps were only there because they had to be and were fighting under duress, with many different languages, ways of looking at things and, let’s not forget, being essentially bossed around by an ex-tyrant who was in fact their old enemy, for whom they were now forced to fight.

Darius wanted revenge, but the men who fought and died for him more than likely just wanted to survive and get home. It’s fair to assume that, in any army, there’s a percentage of glory-hunters, those with a death wish, those who want to prove themselves and those who have a genuine and often rabid hatred for the enemy, or, conversely, a rabid zeal for and loyalty towards their leader. But it’s also fair to assume that these may not have been in the majority, and that the larger part of Darius’s army of many nations just wanted to get it over with and get home. They weren’t fighting for their homeland - that was thousands of miles away - and they weren’t, presumably, fighting to avenge their king’s hurt honour. I would venture to suggest most of them thought Darius could stick it where the sun never shone, but could do no more than go along with the invasion.

So on the one hand you have the Athenians, fiercely protective of their city, ready to die to defend it, aware that if they fell it was all over. And on the other side the Persians who probably mostly just wanted to have this done and make their way home. One highly motivated side, one more or less pushed into the conflict. Not to mention the Spartans, who, though the Persians had not fought them (they didn’t deign to come to the aid of their fellow Greeks in the Ionian Revolt) were surely well known and feared as some of the most capable and indefatigable warriors in the world. They were on the way, so they said, and all the Athenians had to do was hold out another few days and they would join them at Marathon.

The Athenians were heavily armoured against the lighter protection the Persians wore. The latter preferred not open combat but to launch arrows from behind shields, which made them more static an adversary. They did have cavalry, which the Athenians did not, though why they didn’t use them is debated. There are stories of the horses still being aboard the ships, or being re-embarked in order that those ships could sail after the battle to take Athens. Other accounts mention the densely-forested and hilly terrain, suited to the Athenians’ charge but not to men on horseback (remember Agincourt?) and of course there were their own archers for the Persians to consider: not a lot of point firing arrows if your cavalry are trying to charge, to say nothing of the Athenians being on top of the hill with the Persians at the base of it, making any cavalry charge (should they have mounted one) difficult for the invading army.

In the end, it seems to have been the shock tactics of the Athenians attacking so fiercely that won the day. The Persians, used to being feared and probably expecting the Athenians to stay where they were and wait for reinforcements, or try to contain them at Marathon, were not prepared for the sudden, ferocious charge down the hill towards them. I suppose it might have been similar to say a band of some African warlord’s militia charging headlong at the US Army or something. Not expected, seemingly suicidal, but if so, suicidal like a fox. I’m no master of strategy or tactics and such details bore me even reading about them - wing this, phalanx that, feint the other - but it seems that the Athenians broke through the defences of the Persians and then closed in behind them (classic pincer movement?) sending them flying back to their ships. Some got confused and, unfamiliar with the terrain, stumbled into the nearby swamp. The Athenians captured a handful of their ships, but the rest managed to sail for Athens. The defenders however marched back home and were able to greet Darius’s fleet as it arrived and the Persians, seeing their chance to catch the city undefended lost, gave it up as a bad job and limped home.

As detailed in the statistics above, less than 200 of the almost 10,000-strong Athenian army were killed, while somewhere around 6,000 of the Persians lost their lives. Making it about two percent deaths for Athens, as opposed to nearly (assuming we use the 25,000 estimate) nearly a quarter of their forces. A stunning victory for the little guy, and almost the last time Persia tried to invade Greece.

Oh, and in either a classic case of poor or clever timing, the long-hoped-for reinforcements from Sparta arrived the day after the battle. No longer needed, it’s reported they looked over the battlefield and shrugged, and said the ancient Greek equivalent to “Gnarly battle, dude. A righteous victory.” They had to admit the rival city state had done fine without them, and it probably hurt. Maybe they should have marched a little faster.

Why will this battle be remembered?

Marathon was the first real defeat of the Persian empire; whether it was the first defeat of a force superior in numbers to its enemy I don’t know, but I wonder. It didn’t serve to break the power of the Persian empire but it certainly stopped its expansion, and Darius died a few years later, revolt in Egypt putting paid to his plans to again try to invade Greece.

The most popular legend to come out of the battle is of course the name, which has been attributed variously to the runner who was sent back to ask the Spartans for help, and who ran approximately 140 miles, and who dropped dead after delivering his message; the quick march by the victorious Athenians back to their city to counter the arriving Persian fleet (a distance of approximately 25 miles), and another runner who was supposedly dispatched from the battlefield to announce the victory. Whatever the truth (if any) of these stories, the marathon run was named after this feat, and it with us still.

As mentioned, the defeat of the Persians essentially saved Greek, and by extension, western culture. Had Athens been returned to the days of Hippias, it’s unlikely such enlightened scholars as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid or Socrates would have flourished in such a tightly-regimented and controlled society as a tyranny. It was only the open and free nature of the new democracy that allowed such men to share the ideas they had and bring them to a wider audience, and in so doing enhance and enrich all of western civilisation.

The real legacy of the battle, at least to the Greeks and to any enemies of Persia, was that it proved the empire was not invincible, that it could be defeated, and even that you didn’t have to be a huge army to bring that about. This can be seen in the Egyptian revolts which plagued Darius’s last years and prevented him returning to take on Greece again. It wasn’t the end of the Persian empire by any means, but it was perhaps the beginning of the end. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes I, who did manage to take control of Greece but was defeated in two battles that took place in 479 and 480 BC, emboldening another Ionian Revolt which this time was not put down and resulted in the Persians losing control of Europe. The empire lasted more or less for another 150 or so years, when the rise of Alexander the Great finally defeated and destroyed its power in 334 BC.
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