Empire of Plague

On this day, March 20th in 235 AD the Barracks Emperor Maximinus Thrax was acclaimed emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard.  His three year reign began in the year of the 6 emperors and is considered to herald in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century”.

Traditionally historians have viewed the crisis as a failure of leadership combined with a degrading of moral fibre as the goodly yeomen farmer soldiers gave way to effete and debauched libertines who would not bare a sword to defend the borders.

This is quasi-religious moralistic pontification as far as I am concerned.  As I sit in lockdown in a self-imposed isolation to limit the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 let me tell you how the Roman Empire declined.

In the years 165 to 180 AD the Antonine plague ravaged the Roman Empire.  Maximinus Thrax was born in the early 170’s right in the period when the plague was raging.  The disease wiped out a third of the population of the empire and in particular devastated the Roman Legions, where it spread first.

Legions needed to recruit warriors from the outside of the borders to make up the numbers.  “Barbarians” were settled on depopulated farms in border regions.  The family of Maximinus Thrax were of Dacian origin, replanted into the Empire.

The senate reacted against the elevation of a soldier who had no family from either the Senatorial or Equestrian classes.  The senate worked actively against Thrax by recognising other candidates.

Ten years after the reign of Thrax the Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire from 249AD to around 262AD.  To have a single plague that kills one third of the population is an event that can destroy a regime, a nation or an empire.  To have two such events within the span of a single lifetime must have been devastating in the extreme.  In this context I don’t find the decline of the Roman Empire surprising, the thing that astounds me is that the Roman Empire survived.

 

A Litany in Time of Plague; by Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, Earth’s bliss;
this world uncertain is;
fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
none from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
gold cannot buy you health;
physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
the plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
which wrinkles will devour;
brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
worms feed on Hector brave;
swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
hath no ears for to hear
what vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
to welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Retreat from Kabul

Remnants_of_an_army2

Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler

The painting above immortalised the moment, on the afternoon of Jan 13th, 1842, when Dr. William Brydon reached the British outpost at Jellalabad, 140 km east of Kabul.

He was the first survivor of an army of 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians who left Kabul on January 6th under a promise of safe passage out of Afghanistan.  For seven days they were set upon by Afghan tribesmen as they tried to struggle through snowbound mountain passes.  Their column was broken up, groups became separated, snipers fired constantly and they were subjected to massed attacks when the terrain permitted.

Brydon arrived at Jellalabad on a horse which collapsed and died when it was stabled.  He had a sword cut on his scalp and was saved more serious injury because his hat was stuffed with pages of a magazine in an attempt to keep him warm.  The paper absorbed much of the sword cut.  He became famous as the “only” survivor, although others subsequently made it back to safety.

The subsequent defence of the fort at Jellalabad became the stuff of legend in the British Army and was celebrated in boys story books for the next century.  The 2,000 men of the 13th foot (Somerset light infantry) held the fort for five months until a relief force reached them.  Under the command of General Robert Sale the troops turned an old ruined fort into a defensible position.  Instead of sitting behind the walls they sortied out to raid the Afghans.  On one occassion they stole a herd of sheep to keep themselves suppllied.  Then they raided the Afghan camp and stole all the supplies.  So successful were they in this that the Afghans gave up and returned to Kabul.  Sale also personally freed his own wife and daughter from captivity.

When the 13th returned to India every garrison on their path celebrated them with a 10 gun salute.  Queen Victoria had them designated as a Light infantry and they were called “Prince Albert’s Own”.

 

From “The Young British Soldier” ; by Rudyard Kipling

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
and the women come out to cut up what remains,
jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
an’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Happy Birthday Rudyard Kipling

Kipling in 1895

Despite being a nobel prize winning author Rudyard Kipling is a divisive figure in the modern world.  Many of his poems, novels and short stories are schoolboy classics.  But he represents the most obnoxious, biased and jingoistic elements of British Imperialism.   One thing is certain; he was a prolific writer and he has left us a wealth of poetry, not all of which is doggerel.  Born in India, December 30th, 1865, in the days when the sun did not set on the British Empire, and when the world map was a sea of pink, the colour used to pick out the Empire.

 

My Boy Jack? ; by Rudyard Kipling

‘Have you news of my boy Jack? ‘
Not this tide.

‘When d’you think that he’ll come back? ‘
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has anyone else had word of him? ‘
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
not with this wind blowing and this tide.

‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find? ‘
None this tide,
nor any tide,
except he did not shame his kind –
not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
this tide,
and every tide;
because he was the son you bore,
and gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

The long dark night.

Winter-Solstice-Stonehenge

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

In 2019 December 22nd is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night.  Tonight the Sun dies and tomorrow it is reborn.

This is the night of Druantia, the white goddess, the Celtic tree goddess, the moon goddess, the triple goddess of Birth, Love and Death, the muse of the Celtic poets. Queen of the Druids, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans.  Virgin, drudge, whore, muse, hag and crone. Daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, fertile cornocopia or barren spinster.  She is the queen of the faeries and she is personified as a Wren.

In Celtic Druidic tradition the “Hunting of the Wren” was a ritual to see out the old and see in the new as the darkest day of winter passed.  The Christian Church in Ireland worked hard to eliminate the Celtic practice of Goddess Worship.  They made the wren into a traitor, who revealed the hiding place of St. Stephen who was then stoned to death.

 

To Juan at the Winter Solstice; by Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
that will prove worth your telling,
whether as learned bard or gifted child;
to it all lines or lesser gauds belong
that startle with their shining
such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
or strange beasts that beset you,
of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
below the Boreal Crown,
prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
from woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
the never altered circuit of his fate,
bringing twelve peers as witness
both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
all fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
when, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
how many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
whose coils contain the ocean,
into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
battles three days and nights,
to be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow if falling, winds roar hollowly,
the owl hoots from the elder,
fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
do not forget what flowers
the great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
but nothing promised that is not performed.

Away on a Pelican, home on a Hind.

Golden Hinde (replica), ship of Sir Francis Drake ...

After an abortive November departure for the Pacific Sir Francis Drake left Plymouth aboard  the Pelican on December 13th, 1577.  He was to return three years later on the same ship, now renamed “The Golden Hind” sailing into history as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

He carried a drum emblazoned with his coat of arms on the circumnavigation and on his other adventures as Captain, Privateer, Pirate, Explorer and Admiral of Queen Elizabeth’s fleet.  Legend holds that he sent the drum home to his family seat and asked that it be held there against the day England was again in danger.  In which case the drum should be beaten to summon past heroes to the defence of the realm.  A replica of the drum is on display at Buckland Abbey in Devon.

 

Drake’s Drum; by Sir Henry Newbolt

Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
an’ dreamin’ arl the time O’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the Island, yarnder lie the ships,
wi’ sailor lads a-dancing’ heel-an’-toe,
an’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’,
he sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha’ sleepin’ there below?)
roving’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
a’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
if the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
an’ drum them up the Channel as we drumm’d them long ago.”

Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
an’ dreamin arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
they shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago!

Cutting edge

Carabiner

Ulster Carabiner of the 9 years war

What is considered to be at the “cutting edge” of military development can be very surprising.  In the 1590’s the dominant force in Europe was Spain.  They ruled the continent with their Tercios, the mixed phalanxes of Musketeers, Pikemen and Swordsmen.

Los Tercios fueron invencibles

They were highly disciplined, highly drilled and worked as a cohesive unit.  Cavalry charges could not break the infantry lines.  The Musketeers were protected by the pikes and swords.  The great muskets and arquebuses were so heavy they acted like small cannon.  Firing them required a support stand to steady the barrell.

The English who invaded Ireland under Elizabeth I were armed and armoured like the Tercios.  They had good shoes and warm socks.  The pikemen wore half armour for protection against cavalry sabres.

In Ireland they met the pride of Ulster, the carabiners of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell.  This yellow garbed barefoot lad with a spanish pattern helmet does not look like much but looks can decieve.

His weapon is a carbine, lighter and shorter than the muskets and arquebuses of the English, and the very cutting edge of firearms technology in its day.  O’Neill equipped his men with a lighter weapon for very good reasons.

Ireland is not a flat land of grainfields and open plains.  The open country of the continental mainland where the Tercios fought against the French and the Dutch accommodated large formations.  Ireland is a country of hills and bogs cut all over with small streams and rivers.  Uneven and wet land.

Anyone who hikes regularly in Ireland knows how the acid water from the peat bogs will eat the boots off your feet.  Good waterproofing is vital for modern boot materials.  In the Elizabethan era the fine footwear of the soldiers melted off their feet within days.  Even when the shoes were in good shape they gave no good purchase in wet boggy hills.

So the yellow cloaked Irish carabiner in his bare feet actually knew what he was about.  Stay light, stay agile, stay warm.  That great shapeless yellow thing he is wearing was the butt of many jokes by English soldiers over the years.  But it is made of raw wool dyed saffron, the royal colour of Ulster.  The wool is warm and waterproof.  Even when it is soaking wet it keeps you warm.  Vital in Ireland.  It acts as cape, cloak, greatcoat, groundsheet and sleeping bag.

O’Neill spent his money wisely, on good shot, good powder, good firearms.  He drilled his men to use the natural advantages of the countryside, fighting a guerilla war against the English.  He fought them to a standstill for nine years.

The eventual demise of the Irish comes down to the incompetence of the Spanish.  The Armada had been a great failure, and English protestants were assisting the Dutch rebellion against their Catholic Spanish Majesties.  The Spanish Kings felt that Ireland represented a possible second front to keep the English bottled up.  The great soldiers of Spain sent to assist the Irish did not land in Ulster.  Battered by storms many never made it to Ireland and those that did landed in Kinsale and Baltimore, at the very other end of the Island from the strongholds of Ulster.

The Ulstermen marched south to link up with the Spaniards but the English got to Kinsale first and were able to dominate the Spaniards with their Artillery.  When the Irish arrived the English Cavalry were able to decimate them.  Irish units, highly effective in guerilla warfare, were not trained for formation battle.  That skill was supposed to be provided by the Spaniards, but the English successfully kept the allies apart.

In that defeat at the Battle of Kinsale lies the root of the current situation where Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.

The yellow carabiner in the photo forms part of an exhibit in the Irish National Museum at Collins Barracks, Dublin, which traces Irish involvement in Military Engagements all over the world through history.

Happy Birthday Sir Philip Sidney

Image result for sir philip sidney

Scholar, Knight, Diplomat, Traveller, Linguist, Poet, Politician, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth, Master of Ordnance, Soldier; shot in the leg in the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands during the 80 years war against Spain.  An avid proponent of the Protestant cause.  He died aged only 31 from gangrene.  Born November 30th, 1554.  A true renaissance man.

 

The Bargain; by Sir Philip Sidney

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
by just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
there never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
my heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.