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Caesars Raid 55BC - Land Operations

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It is thought that Caesar first began to plan an invasion of Britain about 57BC when he was fighting the confederation of Celtic tribes known as the Belgae in present day Belgium. But ongoing unrest in tribes along the Rhine and within Gaul meant the plan had to be delayed and could not be implemented until July/Early August 55BC.

Meantime Caesar had begun gathering intelligence about the country. He knew the basic geography of the islands across the channel but there were some surprising gaps in his knowledge.

As a result, knowledge that an invasion of Britain would take place was widely known. This was also known to at least some of the British tribes in the south east as normal cross channel trade and refugees from conquered tribes in Gaul would have carried the rumours across the channel. 

August was late in the campaigning season to undertake what was a very risky operation, but some British chiefs had sent envoys to Caesar assuring him of their good intentions. This may have influenced Caesar to launch the expedition with only two Legions, limited Cavalry numbers and limited supplies.

However when the fleet arrived off the British coast the numbers of British ready to oppose the landing may have been a surprise.

Despite this the establishment of a beach-head was successful, and with construction of a fortified camp underway the situation would not have appeared too bad. The only cause for concern was the non-arrival of the 500 cavalry which meant Caesar could not begin exploration of the situation inland from the landing area.

For four days the Legions worked on the encampment, and British tribal envoys began peace negotiations while providing some provisions to the Romans from nearby settlements. On the British part these talks could have been delaying tactics as they worked out future guerrilla  strategies as it would have been clear they could not beat the Romans in open battle.

Then on the fourth day the cavalry transports from Ambleteuse arrived and by afternoon were lying close inshore. Unfortunately at this point winds had risen to the point where the inbound transports were driven back and as the storm broke were blown back across the channel being lucky to reach Ambleteuse without loss the following morning.

The storm also caused severe damage to the fleet which had brought the legions across from Gaul. Beached warships received hull damage and some waterlogged. Heavier transports anchored offshore dragged their anchors with some driven ashore and damaged beyond repair, others crashing each other and losing cables, anchors and rigging. Any unloaded provisions were destroyed.

The situation was bleak as there were insufficient ships to transport all troops back to Gaul, and little food. Caesar ordered foraging parties out to harvest any ripe standing cereals they could find and confiscate supplies from local settlements. The worst damages ships were ordered demolished and used to repair the lesser damaged ships. In all about 12 ships were beyond repair. In addition he sent word to Gaul for replacement ships to be despatched.

The British realised the situation the Romans were in and began attacks on isolated patrols, foraging partied and outposts. But they did not engage the main bodies of Roman troops. The objective was to prevent the Romans from obtaining local supplies and starve them out.

Soon after a large foraging party from the VII Legion some way from encampment were surrounded and attacked. Reinforcements were immediately sent from the cohort of the X Legion on duty, with others assembled to follow. A major engagement followed with the legionaries under heavy pressure and the British again using large numbers of chariots. The British were eventually driven off but numbers of Romans were taken prisoner and weapons captured.

Over the following days bad weather settled in and it was clear the British were changing their battle tactics from harassment to open full-scale battle. When they had assembled their army they attacked the Roman positions at the beach-head. Once again Roman discipline and tactics were superior and the were decisively beaten.

British envoys arrived to negotiate peace and hostages taken for transport back to Gaul. The Autumn equinox was near when a period of fair weather arrived. So although replacement transport had not arrived from Gaul. Caesar decided to immediately load all troops onto the available ships and return to Gaul. Although they were overloaded they all reached the Gaul mainland the next morning.

So ended Caesars first expedition to Britain.

Lessons were learned and Caesar was able to argue to political forces in Rome that the expedition was only a reconnaissance in force. Intended to learn more about Britain which would be invaded the following year. But clearly it was very nearly a complete disaster.

Caesar immediately ordered construction of large numbers of ships over the winter to an amended design.  These ships would incorporate some design aspects of Veneti ships, enabling them to both come closer to shore and withstand rougher inshore conditions.

 

- 55BC Objectives
- 55BC Timing
- 55BC Crossing
- 55BC Military Units
- 55BC Landing
- 55BC Land Operations


This page last edited - 22 December, 2012.

Copyright Ian M King, except where otherwise indicated.