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The History of Kent

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Caesar in Kent

At 10.00am on the morning of 26 August 55BC, Julia Caesar arrived, off the Kent coast at Dover, ahead of his eighty ship and two legion strong invasion force. The excuse for his presence revolved around the inhabitants of this separate world supplying the Gaul’s during his wars with them. In practice, it, probably, resulted from his boundless ambition to conquer.

Caesar had made no secret of his interest in Britain, having quizzed the merchants, unsuccessfully, for information, and sending Gaius Volusenus, with a galley, to make a recognisance of landing sites. He had then marched two Legions to Morini, considered being the shortest crossing point, and set sail. The Britons having received a warning, from the merchants, of the invasion prepared their defence with warriors gathered on the cliff tops.

Caesar knew it would be foolish to attempt a landing against such a defensive position. Therefore, he dropped anchor and waited for the remainder of his fleet to arrive. By 3pm, the tides and wind enabled the fleet to sail about eight miles further around the coast where they found a flat shoreline. The Britons, recognising Caesars plan, sent their chariots to track the ships, leaving the main body of the army to follow on foot.

The size of the Romans ships prevented them from reaching close to the shore. This disadvantaged the soldiers who had to disembark far from the beach in deep water, laden with heavy armour, whilst under fire from the enemy’s darts. The Britons, on the other hand, were unencumbered with neither armour nor deep water. Assessing the situation, Caesar ordered the galley’s to row broadside close to the shore. Then using all their weaponry drove the natives back. Spurred on by each other and shielded by the galleys the soldiers were able to take the fight to the Britons, who, as more Romans reached the shore, took flight. The Romans could not follow as their horses had not yet arrived. Caesar had decided to transport the horses from a different port, which was, unfortunately, wind-bound. Caesar, therefore, built a camp and awaited their arrival.

On 29 August 18 transport ships carrying Caesars, horses set sail. When in sight of the Roman camp, a sudden storm hit the vessels forcing their return to Gaul and the safety of port. On the same night, the moon was full creating a spring tide, an occurrence the Romans had never experienced. The beached galleys filled with water and the remaining ships at anchor either suffered irreparable damage or sank. The invaders now had no horses, ships or provisions, and no way of returning to Gaul.

Once the Britons discovered how few in numbers the Romans were, with no horses, or ships, they planned to impede their foraging for food. They anticipated scoring a great victory over the Romans, one, never to be forgotten.  

Knowing where the remaining corn harvest was the Britons laid in wait for one of the Legions, whose turn it was to collect the crop. The next morning, the seventh Legion, appeared half of whom laid down their weapons and gathered the corn; whilst the remainder carried it back to camp. Suddenly the Britons sprung the trap. They drove their chariots from the hiding places in amongst the startled and defenceless Roman soldiers. Meanwhile, Caesar had noticed the amount of dust coming from the fields and marched his other Legion to support the retreat of his men to the safety of the camp.

Realising the day could be theirs the natives attacked the camp in vast numbers. In the days following the storm, Caesar had been able to repair some ships, and although only just seaworthy, with the wind favourable, he loaded his men and sailed back to Gaul in the night, just 25 days after landing.

Part 2

As dawn broke on a crisp May morning in 54AD a vast multitude of Britons, gathered on the cliff-tops, saw a Roman fleet with hundreds of ships appear out of the gloom. Terrified they fled taking refuge in the hills as the Romans took the oars and made their way to the flat shoreline.

When Julius Caesar arrived back in Gaul the year before, having faced an enemy who had no respect for the Romans, he vowed to return the following year with a much larger force. Before, leaving Gaul to winter in Italy, as was his way, he left instructions with his lieutenants for as many ships as possible to be built, using a new design. The ships were to sail; lower in the water thus enabling soldiers to disembark and reach shore much easier, they should also be wider to accommodate as many horses, as possible.

Caesar was delighted, when returning to Gaul, to see 600 ships waiting to be launched. Shortly after he set sail, from the Calais/Boulogne area, at sunset, with five Legions and a similar number of horses, in a fleet of more than 800 ships, which included transports and officers vessels. By midnight, the gentle south-west wind had stilled, and they drifted with the current. At daybreak, the tide turned, and using their oars, reached the landing place, of the previous year, at noon. With no sign of opposition, the Romans disembarked and set up their camp.

Having discovered where the Britons were Caesar set of with four Legions, leaving the fifth Legion and 300 horses under the command of Quintus Atrius to protect the ships, anchored on a soft open shore. After about 12 miles, he met the enemy who opposed his passage, on the banks of a river. His army repulsed the Britons who, took refuge in fortified woods, with all passages blocked. However, the seventh Legion formed a testudo and managed to break through the defences forcing the defenders to retreat. As the country was unknown, Caesar did not let his forces pursue them; instead, he used the remaining light to fortify a camp.

The following morning Caesar split his forces into three and sent them in pursuit. However, before they were out of sight messengers arrived from Quintus Atrius, telling of a terrible storm, which destroyed 40 ships and left the rest requiring substantial refitting. He immediately called back his troops, and they returned to base camp. Having surveyed the damage, much of it caused by ships smashing into each other Caesar had them hauled onto the beach and enclosed within the camp, which his army completed with all speed. He also sent messengers to Gaul for new ships to be built. Having completed the enlarged encampment he again set out, leaving behind the same guard.

Unbeknown to Caesar, the Britons had buried their differences and united under Cassivellaunus, king of the Catuvellauni tribe. They attacked the marching army with chariots, and this time, the Romans sustained many losses, when following the Britons into the woods. The Britons suddenly left the woods and attacked the advanced guard sent ahead to fortify the camp. Realising what was happening Caesar sent two cohorts to assist, who, unused to the Britons way of fighting, also became subjected to the slaughter. The Roman soldiers, who watched the scene of carnage, supposed they would not be able to cope, with this style of fighting, when weighed down with so much armour.

Unfortunately, tribal enmities proved too engrained, resulting in the betrayal of Cassivellaunas. Caesar extracted tribute and eventually returned triumphant to Rome, although he never returned to Britain.  

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