The barbarians thought that the Romans would not be able to cross it without a bridge and consequently biouvacked in rather careless fashion on the opposite bank. - Dio Cassius
MEDWAY (43 AD)
One of the decisive battles of British history, the battle at Medway (River) opened the door for the subsequent Roman conquest of Britain. The Romans under Julius Caesar had already raided Britain in force in 55 and 54 BC, and Gaius (Calicula) had abandoned a planned invasion in 39 AD when his legions balked at a channel crossing. Trade in iron and other goods between the Britons and the Romans was well established, and several of the British tribes paid annual tribute to the Romans to secure friendly relations, although British attitudes toward their hegemonic neighbor were increasingly hostile.
The new Emperor Claudius came to power in 43 AD anxious for a military conquest to establish his reign. The ouster of the elderly Verica of the Atrebates by the Catuvellaunian prince Caractacus (aka Caratacus and Caradoc) gave Claudius a pretext to intervene. He dispatched Aulus Plautius with an large army estimated at 40,000 men, comprising the Legios II (Augusta), IX (Hispana), XIV (Gemina) and XX (Valeria), with auxiliaries and supports.
The gathering of the Roman invasion force in Gaul was known to the Catuvellaunians who initially mustered on the Kentish coast in anticipation of a Roman landing. When bad weather and a mutiny delayed the Roman campaign, they dispersed inland, only to discover that Plautius had landed his force unopposed on the Isle of Thanet. From there, the Romans moved to Richborough on the mainland and forward into Kent with little opposition. Several local tribes submitted to the Romans, while the Catuvellaunians with their clients and allies regrouped in-land, gathering a force 80,000 strong at the River Medway in anticipation of a major battle to defend the Catuvellaunian capital at Camulodunum (modern Colchester).
The British formed their forces to defend the river at a point where it widened, creating what they believed to be an impenetrable obstacle to the Romans. On the marshy ground near the river, the British lined the river banks with their foot. The British charioteers encamped on firmer ground to the rear. Plautius was able to approach the river and oversee the British dispositions from a high hill overlooking the river. There he laid his plans for the ensuing battle.
Within the Roman ranks, Plautius could call upon the services of eight cohorts of Batavian auxillaries who were capable of swimming German rivers in full military gear. Under the cover of darkness, they moved downriver to a point beyond the Briton's left flank. At the same time, Legio Augusta moved up-river with the army's engineers. Meanwhile Plautius occupied the Britons' attention by deploying his remaining two legions in full view across the river.
The battle began in earnest after his Batavians swam the Medway and then marched into the British rear, apparently catching the British charioteers by surprise. Slashing at the legs of the horses, they caused considerable damage, effectively dismounting a large contingent of the British charioteers. The crossing prompted the remaining charioteers and British foot to shift toward the threat on their left flank, but the Batavians were able to fend for themselves, retiring back to the river.
With the British so occupied on their left, Legio Augusta under the future emperor Vespasian was able to establish a bridgehead beyond the British right flank, presumably with the aid of a rapidly deployed pontoon bridge. After crossing, they moved to attack the British flank and rear, despite being heavily outnumbered. On the Roman side of the River, the Legio Valeria moved toward the bridgehead as reinforcements, while the Legio Gemina was held in reserve (the Legio Hispania not being present at the battle).
By nightfall, the Britons were disordered but still fighting desperately and in control of most of the field. Both armies slept on their arms during the night, the Britons taking shelter in nearby woodlands. The next morning, the Britons launched a fierce attack on the Legio Augusta and its reinforcements from the Legio Valeria, nearly capturing Gnaeus Hosidius Geta (who is variously attributed as the Legate of the Legio Valeria, the commander of the Roman auxiliaries, and a senior centurion), who led the Romans in a strong counter attack that earned Geta triumphal honors. At this key juncture, the British began to give way.
Caractacus was able to withdraw his Britons in some order to regroup beyond the River Thames, with the Roman army hot on their heels. In a repeat of Medway, the Batavians were able to ford that river and establish a Roman bridgehead. In the subsequent battle, Togodumnus, the brother of Caractacus and a leader of the major faction of the Catuvellaunians, was killed, possibly after having been taken prisoner. Caractacus escaped and continued his resistance in the midlands and Cornwall, but the Roman tide provided irresistable. Eventually, Caractacus was betrayed to the Romans by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and forced to march in Claudius' triumph.
The Battle Map
Terrain Notes: The blue denotes the River Medway. Dark Green denotes woods. Orange-green denotes marsh. Brown denotes a large (good going) hill.
Deployment: Both armies are initially deployed as indicated on the battle map. Note that the placements are approximate. The British warband and all Roman elements may be formed in groups despite the spaces between elements depicted on the map. The Romans are the invader and move first.
Roman Surprise: The key to this scenario is the tactical surprise achieved by the Romans. In order to simulate that surprise, the Romans are allowed six free bounds for movement before the British response on bound seven. During the surprise period, the British player does not roll PIP die, however, individual British elements that have been engaged (attacked or ZOC'ed) by Roman elements may move either to attack or retire from the Roman element to their front, but not as a group and not with supports.
Alternatively, players may choose to skip the Roman Surprise and begin the scenario with the Batavian auxiliaries deployed in first bound contact with the nearer elements of British chariots, and then proceed normally from there.
Roman Command Control: The Roman army fought in three widely dispersed detachments with strong local commanders, which suffered no apparent command and control difficulties. For that reason, the Roman CnC is allowed an unlimited command and control radius.
Batavians: The Batavians can cross the Medway at any point without difficulty. The Batavian auxiliaries fight against the British charioteers at +2 (due to the Brits surprise and the Batavian horse hamstringing tactics), with the result that any chariot element forced to recoil is instead converted into a dismounted 3Wb element, which immediately recoils the prescribed distance away from the Batavian auxilia.
Roman Pontoon Bridge: It is assumed that the Legio Augusta was able to effect its crossing of the Medway through the rapid construction of a pontoon bridge. The pontoon bridge is considered completed at the beginning of the Roman third bound or is immediately available if starting with the Batavians in contact deployment option.
The Medway: The River Medway is difficult along its entire length. The Ancient Brits will not attempt to cross the Medway at any time.
Camps: Since camps played no apparently role for either side in the battle, they are not used in this scenario.
This scenario was inspired in significant part by Paul Burton's "A Fair and OPen Battle - Reconciling History and Competition - The Medway: 43 AD", Slingshot #236 (Sept. 2004). Burton's article recounts the history in brief and lays out detailed DBM and WAB army lists for refighting the battle.
Last Updated: 6 Sept. 2004
Questions, comments, suggestions welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.