Let Battle Commence
From the journals of Marcus Rutilius Robura… in which Caesar arrives on the scene and puts his seal on proceedings
he first clash with the combined forces of the Belgic tribes came while Caesar was still in the throes of establishing his camp on the north bank of the Axona. The commander of the Belgic army was Galba – a barbarian version – a chieftain from the Suessiones with a very high reputation throughout the north of Gaul – so we were assured, as a wily opponent. This, however, was to be the first mistake that Galba made in haste and one that these fierce northern warriors – the lucky ones that is – were to live to regret at leisure.
The attack came against the fortified town of Bibrax about seven or eight miles north of the river, where I had persuaded Iccius and Andecumborius to make their advanced base. They had been all for massing everything they had on Durocortorum and concentrating on their own defences. Nevertheless, they saw the sense of my argument when I explained that it would be fatal not only for them, but also for the Roman legions that were still advancing from Vesontio, if the main Belgic army were to get across the river unopposed and start forcing their way south. If we used the river obstacle properly, the Remi would be able to inflict severe losses on the massed invaders by themselves, even if they were unable to stop them completely. At least that would give their own people a chance to defend themselves against lesser odds.
We had made this decision jointly, after we had found out where they were forming up to the north of the next river obstacle. Finding them had not been a difficult task. The Remi warriors knew the surrounding territory like the backs of their hands and it was impossible anyway to keep the movement of such a huge mass of undisciplined troops a secret. Bibrax itself was a natural hilltop fort that could be seen from miles around. In the event, it acted like a beacon for the massed Belgic army as it marched south and drew them like moths to the flame, as I knew it would.
There was certainly no secret about the strength and state of Bibrax. Everyone who was anyone in the north knew how well supplied it was. They were also well aware that it was jam-packed with the sort of booty that would appeal to a marauding army, so that there was not much Galba could have done to dissuade his ill-disciplined troops from attacking it even if he had wanted to. To buy some time and make sure that the legions would at least have some breathing space when they arrived, I persuaded Andecumborius that it would not be a bad idea if he sent a few ‘deserters’ north to spread the idea that the fortress was ripe for taking anyway. This took a bit of doing, because he saw no good reason why he should be used to draw fire away from Caesar. Nevertheless, he eventually took my point that if the Romans didn’t have the chance to consolidate themselves before any attack was made, it wouldn’t matter much which of our two forces took the initial onslaught, the outcome would be the same – slaughter.
While the reinforcement of Bibrax was under way, Labienus arrived at Durocortorum with some Sequani cavalry and the vanguard of the legions. He looked pleased enough to see me this time, which was a contrast to the last time I’d beaten him to a new area of operations. I briefed him fully on what was going on. There was one bit of good news. The tribes that had decided to join forces to try to eject Caesar before he got any funny ideas about taking over the whole country were thoroughly incensed that the Remi were not planning to join them. I had already discovered through Iccius’s sources that, before they did anything else, the Belgic rebels were intending to make their recalcitrant countrymen fall into line and in this they had been encouraged by rumours of discontent among the Remi that Andecumborius and Iccius had been spreading at my instigation. The bad news was that, as far as I could see, the enemy numbers were not all that far short of those I’d reported to Labienus by hand of Sallust.
There was only one worthwhile crossing point on the Aisne in these parts and that was the bridge between Durocortorum and Bibrax. Without waiting for Caesar, Labienus ordered his subordinate legate, Quintus Titurius Sabinus, to dig in around the bridge south of the river with a force of six cohorts of heavy infantry. Meanwhile he got on with the business of carrying out a detailed reconnaissance of the country north and south of the Axona.
It was at this point that Caesar arrived at Durocortorum with his staff, nearly all of them but himself looking the worse for wear after a hard ride, virtually non-stop, from Ravenna. That was some journey. They had covered something like eleven hundred miles in an astonishing fifteen days, having called on the Aedui and the Senones on the way. With barely a pause for breath, he went into a lengthy meeting with the two war leaders of the Remi and greatly restored their flagging spirits. If truth be told, they had begun to despair of his ever getting there on time.
After listening to their lengthy welcome and their reasons for wanting to be on his side, Caesar launched into one of his fine speeches, congratulating them on their good sense in coming over to the Roman side and giving them every assurance that he would stand by them come what may. Then – completely without warning – he issued a blunt demand that their entire senate should join him in his camp immediately, together with their sons of military age. Their compliance would be seen as a first act of good faith. Andecumborius and Iccius took this without turning a hair, although I was appalled when I heard him come out with it. He had read these two far better than I had within an hour of meeting them and knew perfectly well that they would expect just such a demand and think less of him if he didn’t make it.
After that meeting, it was my turn to brief the Commander on what I had learned. I had no hesitation in telling him that the situation was getting pretty desperate. Nevertheless, I had to do some hard talking to persuade both Caesar and Labienus that they didn’t have time to hang about. I was able to tell them, quite truthfully, that I had been spending a fair amount of time out on the ground watching the enemy build up for myself while the Remi were putting into effect some of the improvements to the defences at Bibrax that I had recommended. I knew from first-hand observation that the enemy armies were itching to be on the move. If they changed their minds and decided to go for Caesar before they dealt with the Remi, we would be hard-pressed to hold them.
Before we could even think about taking on the massive forces that Galba had massed to the north, we would have to have a base we could fall back on – preferably north of the Aisne. There was no other major fortification like Bibrax in the area and we needed to defend that crossing point at all costs. There would be no advantage in ordering the Remi out of Bibrax itself to give ourselves a ready-made base, although they had offered to hand over its defence to us without any prompting.
We needed to impress on our new-found allies that they had an important role to play in their own defence. If we took over their one defensible strongpoint, we could hardly expect them to hold forward of the river. We needed our own fortress, from which we could operate with confidence, preferably in the area of the crossing points. Iccius needed to believe that he would be able to get back to Durocortorum with his army if things went against them. Caesar had to have a site for a multi-legion camp that was both convenient and defensible.
Luckily, Labienus had taken my hint and not spent too long looking much further than the hills just north of the river that dominated the area of the bridge and fords. This stretch of high ground was immediately on the other side of the bridge and spread for more than half a mile or so downstream to the west. The site, which I had spotted fairly early on in my own reconnaissance, had the advantage of being close to the river, which would cut down the amount of work necessary to fortify the perimeter. An extra bonus was the presence of an area of marshy ground that stretched right across its northern front, that would slow down any direct assault. The long low hill was certainly extensive enough to take the whole army, although the flanks would be vulnerable to any turning attempt that Galba might make, unless something was done to reinforce them.
Without wasting any more time in talking, Caesar gave orders for the site to be occupied and for the necessary entrenchment to be started, then left Labienus in charge of the work and rode off with me to Bibrax to see for himself the preparations that the Remi were making. I don’t think that what he saw particularly impressed him, but at that stage none of us had any first-hand knowledge of the tactics these people used either to attack or defend these hill-top fortresses. The Remi had at least had time to evacuate most of their dependants from the area – there were still streams of women, children, the old, the sick and the halt driving cattle, leading ox-drawn waggons, pushing hand-carts and all staggering under heavy loads of whatever they could salvage on their weary journey south. If the enemy got in amongst this lot, they would have a field day.
On the way back to see how our own fortifications were progressing, Caesar called in on Sabinus on the south side of the bridge, only to find that his efforts were being hampered by the constant stream of refugees. Although the work was going ahead well enough, the size of the barely regulation ditch and wall that had been constructed so far did not impress the Commander one little bit. He was so unimpressed, in fact, that poor old Sabinus was taken aside and given an old-fashioned rifting for not using his initiative. The result was that the defences on the southern bank grew over the space of the next couple of days to comprise a ditch twelve feet deep and ten feet wide, with a massive earth rampart behind it built out of the excavated rubble and topped by sharpened stakes. This wooden palisade was only high enough to protect the defenders up to chest level, while still allowing them to use every weapon available to them. The whole barrier was about eighteen feet across in the end, with a mass of nasty little sophistications being added once the major works had been completed. The gates giving access to the bridge were dominated by two lofty towers – their open plan storeys protected by hide-covered wattles – from which it would be relatively easy to give any battering-ram party a very hard time.
The main camp, north of the bridge, covered an area of something like a hundred and fifty acres with a perimeter of nigh on three and a half thousand yards. It had to be that size to house some sixty thousand men, a good twelve thousand animals, plus all the heavy equipment needed to support the operations of the eight legions. That didn’t take account of the camp followers – the contractors and hangers-on that follow every army in the world. They were never allowed inside the walls of any Roman camp. If they were stupid enough to hang around when an attack on the camp took place, they took the consequences, but that seldom happened. Any soldier will tell you that if you want to know what’s going on, then you ask the meanest civilian employee – Gunga Din, the water-bearer. There’s no point in expecting the intelligence team to know. Camp followers – now as then – always seem to have their own bush telegraph to give them adequate warning of when to make themselves scarce.
With the whole army now on the ground, my efforts were diverted to showing the cavalry and light infantry reconnaissance troops the ground which I was now quite familiar with. This was a task I relished. It got me out and about with real men and away from the more tiresome aspects of staff work. It was a task I was well fitted for, too and for a few short days I was able to enjoy the company of my brother-in-law, Quintus, as we went about the vital job of positioning the piquets in order to get the maximum warning of any enemy moves.
As the days went on, I couldn’t really believe our luck. We were being given ample time to consolidate our position, when I had fully expected a direct attack within hours of Caesar’s arrival. It became quite clear, though, from the stories coming in from refugees and from reports from Andecumborius’s spies, that there was trouble at t’mill amongst the massed Belgian tribes.
It seemed that they were getting wind of a large force of Aedui warriors under Diviciacus, moving north to threaten their rear. The tribe that formed the bulk of the army opposing us was getting twitchy. The Bellovaci were unhappy enough, having failed in their bid for the high command, but they were even more upset at the thought of Diviciacus being let loose amongst the folks back home, even if they had left a sizable portion of their disposable force behind to take care of such problems.
The rumours reaching them were in fact very true, because it had been a specific point of Caesar’s policy to make the Gauls earn their keep as allies and he had pointed out very forcefully to Diviciacus – according to Quintus – that it was just as much in his interests as in ours for the Belgic tribes to be stopped from concentrating into one cohesive force. Once they did that, we would all be overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.
When Quintus told me about Caesar’s plans for the Aedui to make their left hook up behind Galba’s army, I couldn’t help remembering the knowing smile that had been playing annoyingly round the Commander’s lips as I was urging him to get a move on at that first briefing several days before. I’d had a feeling then that he knew something that I didn’t and wasn’t letting on. He and Labienus must have had a good laugh at my expense later on.
Caesar now seemed to be in his element. He was everywhere; down in the ditches, encouraging the troops in the hard labour of constructing the defences; in amongst the artisans in the specialist engineer cohorts; watching the artillery detachments as they assembled the onager catapults the spear-launching scorpions and tested their range; riding out with the cavalry to take a personal look at the enemy concentration beyond the next river obstacle; devising traps to add to the defences; and generally keeping everyone on their toes.
In the event, Caesar had a valuable ten days to sort us out. Once he was satisfied that the main camp defences were strong enough to withstand any surprise assault, he gave orders for two additional curtain walls to be built across the flank approaches to the camp, where the hill was at its steepest. These were to be about seven hundred yards long and were to have forts at either end to house an artillery force that would create havoc amongst any assault troops that tried to get at the camp from either side.