Julius Caesar’s First Incursion Onto Britannia
Much like Mongol attempts to invade Japan, Romans faced the challenge of safely transporting their army to a rocky island across a stormy sea.
In 55 B.C, Caesar found himself with a few weeks left before the upcoming winter. Having just finished business with the Germans across the River Rhine, he sought to accomplish one more feat for glory. His naval fleet already present along the northern coast of Gaul since his campaign against the Veneti, he ordered them to amass in Morini territory where the distance to Britain was shortest (modern: near Calais, France).
With limited intel gathered from traders, an officer who had only sailed around the nearby shores, and a spy of his who had not yet returned from the island, Caesar ventured forth knowing little of what to expect. However, news of Caesar’s voyage began to spread, so some delegates of the Britons crossed the channel to Gaul and offered their preemptive surrender.
Caesar prepared ninety-eight warships to ferry two of his legions. Eighteen of the ships carried the cavalry and these ships had terrible trouble crossing channel due to storm. They would never arrive. The rest of the legions were left behind in Gaul under the commands of lieutenant-generals Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta to further subjugate the Menapii and Morini who had recently renewed some aggression towards Rome despite their surrenders the year prior. Some cohorts were left behind to guard the Caesar’s port, commanded by lieutenant-general Publium Sulpicium Rufum.
When Caesar crossed The Channel, he first found himself beneath the Cliffs of Dover or what he referred to as high cliffs unsuitable for military landing. So, he sailed north a bit where he found a beach and was met with a violent welcoming. Britons charged the beach and would not let the Roman soldiers come ashore while they had difficulty treading the beachwater weighed down by their armor and weapons. Caesar had his galleys come up close and by both force and fear – for the Britons had never seen the fearsomely designed Roman ships-of-war – pushed the Britons back onto the beach far enough for the Romans to ground ashore.
Once settled upon sand, the Romans first beat back the Britons and arranged for their chiefs to hand over hostages for peace. However, when the high tide of a full moon’s night dragged the Roman ships out to sea, heavily damaging them, the Romans were considered to be stranded. The Britons spread word amongst each other that the Romans came in so small a force – there cavalry had not arrived – and were so stranded on account of the damage their ships incurred at sea, that they could readily destroy them and cause no Roman to ever return to their isle again. Caesar recognized the dire straits, so he ordered his most damaged ships salvaged so that repairs may be made to make as much of the remaining fleet as seaworthy as possible. Only twelve ships were ultimately lost.
The Romans faced the Britons in battle a few times during this stay. The Britons infantry was not exceptional by any remark, but their unique charioteers brought a challenge. The Britons had great skill and alacrity with their horses and chariots. They were very good at controlling horse. At least one footsoldier would accompany the charioteer, hop off and engage in melee combat, then run and jump back onto the chariot with ease. So, they could make quick work upon an enemy army and flee very easily to avoid defeat.
So, during the period in which the ships were being repaired, Caesar had set up camp and forcefully harvested grain from the fields of local tribes. He had sent, one day, the Seventh Legion to do so, and while they had put down their weapons and were busy harvesting the field, they were ambushed by the island natives laying-in-wait in the surrounding forests. Seeing a cloud of dust rise up at the horizon where the Seventh Legion had gone to harvest, Caesar rushed toward the spot where a battle was raging. The natives stopped attacking and left the Romans alone once Caesar arrived.
After about a week-long storm, the native tribes joined forces to attack Caesar’s camp. All Caesar had to counter the enemy charioteers with was about thirty horsemen. But, he lined up his legions for battle and marched them forward to meet the attack. Work was done upon the natives. And they fled. The Romans chased after them as far as they could, burned down their villages, and returned to camp. Some of the tribes sued for peace. Caesar doubled the number of hostages he had originally received from them before returning back to the continental mainland. Caesar settled up his army for the winter in Belgae. While there, two more tribal states of Briton came across and offered their surrender and hostages. For this, a public celebration was held in Rome twenty days long.