Quotes of Conflict – The Backgrounds of Famous Wartime Quotes

How many wars can you name? Two? Four? Eight? A dozen? How many battles could you name? Twelve? Twenty-four? Fifty?

The history of mankind is full of conflict. Conflict marked by dozens of wars and hundreds of battles. So many battles and wars, in fact, that many of these great plays of armour, and the acts that made them up, have passed into history and out of memory, and common knowledge. Most people only know of the Big Three: World War One. World War Two. Vietnam.

However, a select few of these hundreds of battles have survived in the public consciousness to this day; remembered not because they were famous and not because they were big. Not even, perhaps, because they were even won…or lost; but rather because someone said something that has remained with us ever since. This article looks at some of the most famous battle-quotes in history, and the battles and wars that made them famous.

Let us begin with one of the most famous…

“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Who said It? Admiral David Farragut.
When was it Said? August, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).

This is one of the most famous quotes in history, often paraphrased and used as a show of defiance, pluck and determination. But what happened?

It is August, 1864. The South is on the losing end of the American Civil War. The Union Navy and Army are charged with taking the Confederate port of Mobile Bay, near Mobile, Alabama. In an attempt to starve the South into submission, the Union forces are ordered to attack, occupy and render defenceless, all of the South’s seaports and harbours, to prevent shipments of supplies and reinforcements. Mobile Bay is the last of these ports still held by the Confederacy. It is heavily defended by soldiers, gunners, sea-mines and powerful shore-batteries of cannons facing the mouth of the harbour.

By this later stage in the war, the South was running low on almost everything. Manpower. Food. Metal. Weapons. Clothing. Medicine. Ships. Gunpowder. And luck.

The Northern forces outnumbered the South to such an extent that victory was almost certain even before the battle started. The North had eighteen warships, compared to the four that the South had. And the North had nearly five times more men than the South.

Enter Union Admiral David Farragut. It was his job to force the harbour. With his heavily-armed and heavily-armoured ships, including the newfangled, steam-powered, plate-armoured ‘Monitor’ ships, he had to break through the Southern shore-defences, neutralise the shore-batteries (or get out of their range) and render the Southern ships a negligable force.

On the day of the battle (5th August, 1864), Farragut sent his ships in. Ironclad monitors on the outside to provide protection and to deal with the shore batteries, and the wooden ships inside, to deal with the Confederate naval ships once they’d made it beyond the harbour’s mouth.

Once they’d passed the shore-batteries and were out of their range, one ship, the USS Tecumseh (as in William Tecumseh Sherman, of ‘March to the Sea’ fame) struck a sea-mine. The mine exploded and the ship sank in less than five minutes. At the time, these maritime explosives were called ‘torpedoes’. The power of the explosion and the speed with which the Tecumseh sank caused other Union captains to panic and want to retreat! When Farragut yelled to his junior officers and captains what the holdup was, they replied “Torpedoes!”. On the very cusp of a war-changing victory, Farragut wasn’t about to let a few mines get in his way.

Exactly what Farragut said isn’t recorded. He issued a variety of orders to the captains under his command, all with the same gist: To ignore the torpedoes, speed up and capture the Confederate navy by surprise. Over time, the quotes were all melded together to the now familiar cry: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”.

“Fire When Ready, Gridley!”

Who Said It? Admiral George Dewey.
When was it Said? 1st of May, 1898.
Where was it Said? Battle of Manila Bay, Manila Bay, The Philippines.
Conflict? Spanish-American War (April-August, 1898).

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a short conflict that had been simmering for months, as America watched Spain and Cuba duke it out, as Cuba fought for independence from its Spanish masters. During this conflict, the American battleship, the USS Maine exploded and was sunk in Havana Harbour, Cuba. Although the likelihood that the Spanish were responsible for this was slim, it was one of the factors that pushed Spain and America to war.

The Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish posessions in the Philippine islands, was one of the first major American victories in this short-lived war. It was also the first major action between the two countries after war was formally declared.

The point of the battle was to destroy the Spanish Pacific Fleet then at anchor in Manila Bay. When Dewey showed up with his captains and his ships, the situation was so perfect it was almost unbelievable.

The Spanish commanding officer, Admiral Montojo, had been given woefully outdated warships to patrol the Philippines and with which to defend the Bay. He also believed that the Bay had certain natural defences that meant that sailors unfamiliar with the area would not be able to attack it until morning, when there would be enough light to see the hazards lurking in the water. Comforted by this fact, Montojo took his time preparing for the coming of the American fleet.

The American fleet showed up on the 1st of May, 1898, just a few weeks after war had been declared. Unbeknown to Montojo, Admiral Dewey had been supplied with charts that told him how to navigate around the waters off of Manila Bay. And the U.S. Navy had more modern, more powerful warships. Instead of waiting for daybreak, Dewey decided to attack while it was still dark!

By the time Dewey reached the bay, it was about 5:15 in the morning. The Spanish shore-batteries that defended the Bay opened up with ranging-shots (shots fired to test the effective range of the gun, hence the name), and Spanish ships did the same. Dewey suddenly realised that the Spanish firepower was so outdated that they posed almost no threat at all! He ordered his ships to sail into formation and prepare for battle. The job was simple:

The ships would line up, bow-to-stern and sail in a zig-zag pattern, back and forth, turning at the end of each pass, a bit like that boring ‘Snake’ game you have on your old mobile-phone where you eat the seeds to make the snake grow longer. All the while, the American ships would be firing ceaselessly at the Spanish defences. With their faster, more powerful and better-equipped battleships, the Americans could shoot further and faster than the Spanish and were able to hit them well out of the range of the Spanish shore-batteries and cannons.

Once the ships had started in formation and began moving slowly towards the Spanish lines, Dewey told his second-in-command, Capt. Charles Vernon Gridley: “You may fire when ready, Gridley”.

And Gridley did. And the rest is history.

As the American ships drew closer and closer and their long-range guns became even more and more accurate with every passing tack, the Spanish defences were obliterated. The Spanish defences were being blown to pieces and even if they managed to engage the Americans, they knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered.

Gridley appeared to have taken Dewey’s order to ‘fire when ready’ exceedingly to heart. By 7:45am (a little over two hours after the battle started), Gridley had exhausted almost all of their ammunition. Dewey ordered a general retreat (he told his men that this was so that they could eat breakfast!).

The battle ended shortly after midday, when the Spanish ran up a white flag and lowered their colours, admitting total defeat. American losses? Seven wounded and two seriously injured. Number of deaths? One. From a heart-attack!

“Forward the Light Brigade!”

Who Said It? Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
When was it Said? 9th December, 1854.
Where was it Said? Tennyson’s famous poem about the Crimean War.
Conflict? Battle of Balaclava, the Crimea. Crimean War (1853-1856).

The most that the average person knows about the Crimean War is what they learned about in English class, studying poetry as a child, specifically, the poem written in 1854 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson titled ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It is one of the most famous and iconic poems in the world. But what was the Charge of the Light Brigade? And what happened to it?

The Crimean War was fought between the Russian Empire on one side, and the French Empire, British Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (part of modern Italy, today), on the other. It took place in the Crimean Peninsula, which sticks out off the coast of the Ukraine and is surrounded on three sides by the Black Sea (which is northeast of the Mediteranean Sea).

The Crimean War started when the Russian Empire began threatening the Ottoman Empire over control of the Holy Lands (the Crimea and Turkey being extremely close to the lands of Palestine, Persia and Arabia, the birthplaces of Islam, Christianity and Judaism). When Russia forced itself into Ottoman affairs, the French and British Empires came to the Ottoman defense to drive the Russians out of Ottoman territory. And so began the war.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava (25th October, 1854). So what happened?

The British, French and Ottomans were trying to take the city of Sevastopol, an important Russian fortress and naval port. To do this, they laid siege to the city. In an attempt to end or shorten the siege, the Russians attacked the siege-lines the north of the city of Balaclava. During the battle, the Ottomans were overrun and were forced to abandon their frontmost line of defence. They retreated to their second line, which was held by both British and Ottoman soldiers. The combined strength of both forces held the Russians at bay, but left the guns which the Ottomans had previously been manning in the hands of the Russians (the cannons being too heavy for the Ottomans to wheel away during their retreat).

A daring cavalry charge by the British sent the Russians into retreat. As they fell back, they decided to help themselves to the cannons that the Ottomans had abandoned earlier. Commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan, saw the Russians’ plans and sent a message to the commanding officer of the Light Brigade to stop the Russians from stealing the guns! Unfortunately for the other guy, Lord Lucan, Raglan’s orders were so ambiguous that they were impossible to understand! Don’t believe me? Here are the texts of the original orders:

1. “Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by infantry which have been ordered. Advance on two fronts“.

If you read this carefully, you’ll see what the problem is. You’re standing on an enormous battlefield in a huge valley with heights, ridges and hills all around you. There is no indication in the above order as to which direction the Light Brigade was expected to move, how far they were supposed to move and what amount of infantry was supposed to be providing them with backup! There’s no mention of compass directions or which of the ‘heights’ the cavalry is meant to try and capture. Remember that there are hills all around you. Lucan stayed where he was, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for clarification. A few minutes later, the second order from Lord Raglan showed up:

2. “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns – Troop Horse Artillery may accompany – French cavalry is on your left.”

Again, this order did nothing but confuse Lucan and his officers. The Russian soldiers who were stealing the guns were on the southern heights (called the ‘Causeway Heights’), far removed from Lord Lucan’s line of sight. He simply couldn’t see them from his position in the valley. The only guns he could see were the Russian cannons that were lined up at the far end of the valley, just a few miles to the east, creating a corridor of death on three sides. He assumed that Lord Raglan meant those guns! Charging them with cavalry would be suicide, but Raglan had ordered him to attack the enemy (the Russians) with the guns!…So he did!

“‘…Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”

The problem was that Lord Raglan, who was issuing these orders, was high on the hilltop. He could see the entire battlefield and he could see the cannons that the Russians had captured to the south, and were trying to make off with. Lord Lucan and his subordinate, Capt. Nolan, stuck in the valley between the heights where Raglan was stationed, and the northern and southern heights on either side, could not. To try and uncomplicate matters, Capt. Nolan went to Lord Raglan himself to ask what the orders were. He was told to attack the enemy with the guns! But then, in warfare, every enemy has guns…woops!

Confused as ever, Nolan headed back into the valley and relayed his lordship’s orders to the officer in charge, Lord Lucan. The following heated exchange took place:

Nolan: “Attack, sir!”
Lucan: “Attack WHAT? What guns, sir!?”
Nolan: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”

Nolan gestured wildly to the east to indicate the guns. What he should have done was pointed to the south where the Russians had captured the British cannons. What he had actually pointed at was the valley which the Russians had surrounded with cannons! Time was running out and Raglan obviously wanted the light cavalry to move quickly, so Lucan decided to act.

He passed the order to his second-in-command, Lord Cardigan. Cardigan and Nolan charged off into the valley, followed by 670 cavalry.

“…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”

The cavalry charge was a complete disaster. Outgunned on three sides, Cardigan and Nolan and all their horsemen were fighting a losing battle. Of roughly 670 men who went in, only about half managed to come out in one piece. Nolan was killed in the advancing charge, his body blown apart by cannonfire.

Cardigan survived the charge and lived to the respectable age of 70. He is remembered today from the fuzzy, knitted garment that bears his name…the cardigan! Another fuzzy, knitted garment came out of the Crimean War as well…the Balaclava, named for the fuzzy, full-face masks that the soldiers wore to keep them warm during the freezing Crimean winters. Every bankrobber in the world should thank the British for this ingenious invention.

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—-“

Who Said It? Major General John Sedgwick.
When was it Said? 9th of May, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).

The Battle of Spotsylvania (yes, such a place actually exists) Courthouse was a battle during the American Civil War. Union general, Ulysses S. Grant was trying to fight Confederate general Robert E. Lee in such a way that would give Grant the advantage (Lee having thusfar proved to be too hard a nut to crack).

During the battle, Confederate sharpshooters kept the Union troops hiding behind walls and down in their trenches. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick couldn’t believe what a bunch of sissies his men were! He told them off for being cowards and hiding from a few stray bullets! He insisted that they stand up and fight and shoot back at the enemy like real men! To prove his point, Sedgwick stood up so that the top of his body was exposed to enemy fire. To try and inspire his men, he told them that “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!”; ‘they’ being the Confederate soldiers.

Unfortunately for Sedgwick, he wasn’t an elephant. A couple of seconds after he started speaking, he was shot in the face by a sniper’s rife and fell to the ground…stone dead. Depending on the sources you read, Sedgwick didn’t even finish saying the word ‘distance’ before he was killed outright.

“Shoot straight, you bastards!”

Who Said It? Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant.
When was it Said? 27th of February, 1902.
Where was it Said? Pretoria, South African Republic (Transvaal Republic).
Conflict? Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant and his comrades, Peter Handcock and George Witton were three Australian soldiers who were arrested and court-martialed during the Second Boer War. After their commanding officer, Captain Hunt, was killed, the three soldiers killed a number of Boer P.O.Ws and a priest who was witness to these killings, in reprisal for their comrade’s death.

It was for these actions that the three men were court-martialed. For their crimes against the Boer prisoners, all three soldiers were sentenced to death by firing squad. Witton’s sentence was later changed to Imprisonment for Life (and later still, he received a pardon); Morant and Handcock, however, were both condemned to death.

On the morning of their execution, the men were led to the chairs on which they would be seated while they were executed. They sat down and were offered blindfolds. Both men refused. The executing soldiers raised their rifles, ready to fire. It was at this time that Morant said his famous last words:

“Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

The execution of Morant and Handcock remained controversial for decades. Witton, the one soldier who escaped execution, wrote a book in 1907 about the experience. He titled it “Scapegoats of the Empire”.

The effect of the execution on both Witton and Major James Francis Thomas (the lawyer sent to provide their defence) was significant. Thomas’s life collapsed after the failure of the court-martial and he died a broken man in November of 1942. Witton had died a few months earlier in August.

“Kiss me, Hardy”.

Who Said It? Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
When was it Said?  21st of October, 1805.
Where was it Said?  Battle of Trafalgar, H.M.S. Victory.
Conflict? The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most famous maritime battles in history. But the price of victory was steep. The admiral was struck by a sniper’s bullet while he stood on the quarterdeck of his flagship, the H.M.S. Victory. The bullet hit the admiral in the right shoulder, passing down through his body to lodge at the base of his spine. He was carried below to the ship’s surgeon, Dr. William Beatty.

Beatty, already busy amputating shattered arms and legs and extracting musket-balls and splinters from other injured sailors, took some time to come to Nelson’s aid. When he did, he determined that the admiral’s wound was inoperable. The musketball had lodged in such an inaccessible part of the admiral’s body that it would be impossible to remove it without almost certainly killing or permanently paralysing Nelson. Early 19th century surgery didn’t leave Dr. Beatty many options.

Knowing that he would in all likelihood, die before the end of the battle, Nelson allowed himself to be made comfortable in the corner of the surgeon’s quarters. His officers made constant reports to their ailing commander, feeding him news of the progress of the battle. Nelson was dying from blood-loss and internal bleeding. He watched Beatty working on other men, men that the doctor actually had a chance of saving. As Nelson lay on the floor, he instructed his officers: “Fan fan, rub rub, drink drink” as they fanned him and fed him lemonade and watered-down wine to keep him cool and hydrated. As Nelson became weaker and weaker, he told one of his officers, Sir Thomas Hardy, “Kiss me, Hardy”.

And Hardy did! Twice, in fact.

It’s widely believed that ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ were Nelson’s last words. In fact, his final words, as recorded by the ship’s chaplain, were “God and my country”. Nelson died at 4:30pm on the afternoon of the 21st of October, 1805.


The Killing Fields – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

I’m sure if you asked many people what “The Killing Fields” were, they’d tell you that it was a movie.

And so it was. A movie about a true event. An event that was as horrific as it was true. An event that rocked the world and which changed and destroyed a country forever. An event which saw two million people butchered, tortured, starved, beaten, shot and bludgeoned to death for no other reason than the desire to create a better world. Truly, the story of the Killing Fields, the story of Pol Pot, the story of the Khmer Rouge, the story of the Cambodian Genocide, is “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions” in its absolute essence.

Cambodia in the 1970s

For 90 years, from 1863 to 1953, Cambodia was part of the extensive French colonies around Southeast Asia. Along with the majority of Vietnam and Laos, it made up a collection of colonies then called “French Indochina”.

In the years after the Second World War’s ending in 1945, many colonised countries demanded independence from their European masters. India, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam were chief among these who wanted independence from Britain and France respectively. British transitions of power and decolonisation happened relatively peacefully, with little incident. The French, however, wanted desperately to hold onto their colonies in Indochina. This sparked the fierce French colonial wars of the 1950s. In time, this collection of conflicts would be called the First and Second Indochinese Wars.

Today, they’re just called the Vietnam War.

In 1954, Cambodia successfully won its official independence from France. However, fighting in nearby Vietnam meant that Cambodia was far from being a stable country. With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnam War came to its eventual end. But in neighbouring Cambodia, things were going from bad to worse.

The Vietnam War had significant effects on Cambodia and there were shortages of food, water and almost everything else required to sustain human life in any comfort. Enter the Khmer Rouge.

In English, ‘Khmer Rouge’ literally means ‘Red Cambodians’, from the Cambodian Khmer word ‘Khmer’, which means ‘Cambodian’, and the French word ‘Rouge’, which means ‘red’. Red being traditionally associated with communism, this was therefore effectively the Communist Party of Cambodia.

Wanting to improve Cambodia and make it self-sufficient, the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, fought a vicious, five-year war (from 1970-1975), against the Khmer Republic, the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (until 1975, also called ‘South Vietnam’).

The Cambodian Civil War, as it was called, ended in 1975 with a Khmer Rouge victory in the capital of Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge Reforms

The Khmer Rouge wanted to make Cambodia a new country. It wanted to make it self-sufficient. It wanted to make it powerful. It wanted to start over.


The Khmer Rouge started by ordering all Cambodian civilians out of the cities. Phnom Penh to start with, but eventually, other population-centers as well. What would follow would be four years of torture, genocide, mass-murder, execution and starvation.

The Khmer Rouge managed to empty the city of Phnom Penh by spreading a false rumor that there was going to be an American air-raid on the capital. As there were insufficient air-raid shelters in Phnom Penh, the population would be safer if they relocated to specially-constructed ‘camps’ outside in the countryside.

This was false, of course. There was no air-raid. And once the population had been relocated to the countryside, it was easy for Khmer Rouge soldiers to pick and separate people and send them to the camps. From here, the Khmer Rouge would start a new country, called the ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.

Of course, there was absolutely nothing ‘democratic’ about this new country.

Once Cambodians reached the camps, they were separated from each other, because of the desire of the Khmer Rouge to build a new country. An agricultural country where people grew their own food. Where foreign influences did not exist. A country that was Cambodia for the Cambodians. Anyone who had any links to anything that wasn’t Cambodian, or which was capitalist in nature was duly disposed of.

Hundreds of doctors, lawyers, nurses, businessmen, diplomats, teachers, anyone who had anything at all to do with with the former Republic of Cambodia government, anyone who worked for a foreign government and anyone with a university degree was interrogated and then killed in any number of ways. Almost anyone in Cambodia who had any kind of education, from university down to elementary school, was killed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want all these smart, dangerous people screwing up their wonderful new vision for Cambodia.

Also on the kill-list were ethnic minorities. Monks. Vietnamese. Chinese. Any Western foreigners. Also, anyone wearing glasses. A person wearing eyeglasses was judged to be educated and intelligent (the only reason ANYONE would have eyeglasses is because they need them to READ, right?) And all classes of educated persons were executed, along with those bespectacled Cambodians who probably never read a word in their lives.

Also among the targeted groups were town-dwellers. Urbanites. City-slickers. They were stupid, ignorant, lazy people. The new Cambodia would be have an economy based on farming and agriculture. These city-dwellers had no idea how to farm or grow crops or dig ditches. So they too were executed because they would not be any use in the “New Cambodia”.

“Old” and “New” People

After the Khmer Rouge came to power, Cambodian people were split into two broad groups. ‘Old people’ and ‘new people’.

‘Old People’ referred to the old classes of people who had lived in Cambodia for centuries. Generally, this meant the Cambodian peasantry. The country folk who lived in small villages, who provided their own food, their own traditional folk-medicines, the people who worked the land and farmed and bred animals and who lived the perfect, peaceful, relaxing peasant existence. They had no need for an education. No need for wordly goods. No need to read or write, because everything they had was already provided for them by nature. There was total equality and nobody had more or less than anyone else.

This was the Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge dreamed of. A peasant agricultural society of peace, tranquility and equality for everyone.

But to get there, they had to first get rid of, or change, the ‘New People’.

The Cambodian ‘New People’ were all those who were city-dwellers. Who were professionals. Who were educated. Who were learned. Who earned money, who owned material goods, who challenged each other and strived to be the best. This was the complete opposite to what the Khmer Rouge wanted or liked. New People had to be destroyed. And they were, in their hundreds of thousands.

After being transplanted from the cities to the countryside, the ‘New People’ were immediately put to work. They had to farm. Grow crops. Harvest rice and grain. They had to dig-ditches, plough fields, they had to chop wood, tend to farm-animals and do all other kinds of things which these people had never before had to do, and which they had no idea how to do! And that was THEIR fault which THEY would be punished for, because the Khmer Rouge wasn’t going to teach them how to be farmers or peasants or labourers. If they weren’t smart enough to be stupid, they would pay the price. And they did.

Anyone who couldn’t work the twelve-hour working days on very little food and almost no sleep were taken away and killed. After digging their own graves, they were beaten and then buried. Whether or not they were actually dead was unimportant, and people could be (and were) buried alive, dying of suffocation. The Khmer Rouge cadres were under strict rules not to waste ammunition on anybody who was not considered important. To conserve what little ammunition they had (which they used to fight the Vietnamese), Khmer Rouge cadres killed their enemies using plastic bags, drowning, burying alive, beating and bludgeoning with clubs, axes, shovels, rifle-butts…anything at all. So long as it wasn’t a bullet.

The Killing Fields

So. What exactly were the infamous ‘Killing Fields’?

The term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined by Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor, Dith Pran, who moved to the United States in the 1980s. It referred to the various sites around rural Cambodia where a total of two million Cambodians were either killed, or to which they were taken to be buried after being killed elsewhere. Estimates of exactly how many people are buried in these vast, unmarked mass-graves varies from about 1,300,000, up to three million. The general consensus is that the actual number is about two million people.

Toul Sleng Prison

We’ve all heard of Alcatraz. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobbibor, Sing-Sing and other famous prisons or prison-camps around the world that have existed at various times in history.

But how many of us have heard of a place called…Toul Sleng?

Toul Sleng is Khmer for ‘Strychnine Hill’.

Strychnine is an extremely poisonous substance, used as often for saving people as well as killing them.

This ‘Strychnine Hill Prison’ was known by another name.

S-21. Security Prison #21.

And it was feared by all Cambodians.

S-21 was not actually a prison. In an earlier life, it was actually a highschool. The Chao Ponhea Yat Highschool. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power, the school-buildings were transformed into a prison-complex. Classrooms that once taught children and teenagers their languages, their histories, their sciences and mathematics, their geography and music, were turned into torture-chambers and cramped, tiny prison-cells or holding-cells. The entire school-campus was surrounded by barbed wire and electric-fences. The windows were all barred to prevent escapes and probably most interestingly, the prison’s commandant was Kang Kek Lew…a former maths-teacher. Who better to keep a track of the records of the estimated 17-20,000+ people that the prison ‘processed’ through the years?

Nobody was safe from Toul Sleng. Everyone from doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, students, ethnic minorities, Western foreigners, monks and almost anyone else with an education. In later years, the Toul Sleng Prison, perhaps ironically, was also used to house members of the Khmer Rouge party itself! Intense paranoia had spread in the Party in the later years of its existence as the rulers of Cambodia and hundreds of party-members were sent through Toul Sleng. Here, they were interrogated, photographed, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated, tortured, interrogated and tortured again.

Medical facilities within Toul Sleng were almost non-existent. What medical help there was proved to be woefully undertrained and understaffed. The medics in the prison knew almost no medicine at all – after all, all the doctors and medical professors had been killed – and the ony purpose in having a medical staff in Toul Sleng was to keep people alive for longer so that they could be tortured for longer.

Conditions in the prison were shocking. There was almost no food and no water. Life was so terrible that committing suicide was infinitely better than trying to survive. Of the nearly twenty thousand people who went into Toul Sleng, only seven people (some say up to a dozen) ever came out.

Today, Toul Sleng is a genocide museum.

Pol Pot: Brother Number One

So. Who is this ‘Pol Pot’?

He was born Saloth Sar, on the 30th of November, 1925. He lived his middle-class existence in rural Cambodia. As a child, he was sent to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to study. After winning a scholarship there, he travelled to Paris, France. In France, he failed miserably at his university studies. How miserably? He flunked his exams three times in a row. It was while he was in France that he got exposed to the local communist parties and so began his interest in communism and what it could do for Cambodia, which in the 1950s and 60s, was struggling under French colonial rule.

Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in 1953 as a young university drop-out fired up with communist beliefs. Over the next twenty-plus years, he would establish the Khmer Rouge, give speeches, rally followers and start a revolution that would end with a communist victory in 1975. With Cambodia firmly under his control, he could start his new, glorious peasant society, starting from “Year Zero”. What Pol Pot wanted to do was nothing less than literally starting civilisation from scratch, all over again.

The End of an Era

So…what happened in Cambodia that caused the eventual end of the Khmer Rouge regime? Did it just self-destruct from poor handling, rampant idealism and internal paranoia? Or was there a people’s revolution? Or was Pol Pot killed by a foreign assassin?

None of those, actually.

The Khmer Rouge regime eventually collapsed because of outside forces. For centuries, there was always an intense animosity between Cambodia and its neighbour, Vietnam. During the early 1970s, South Vietnam fought a war with the United States against Cambodia, in an attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from gaining power. But in 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the fall of the South and the evacuation of American forces, leaving North Vietnam, in Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, victorious over their respective peoples. But almost at once, another war started.

North Vietnamese communists had an uneasy partnership with the Khmer Rouge and it was never one that was going to last. Pol Pot was paranoid about Vietnam and in the second half of the 1970s, he ordered an invasion by the Khmer Rouge, into border-villages in Vietnam.

Hardened by years of fighting and with buckets of combat experience, in 1978, the Vietnamese Army easily forced back the hodge-podge Khmer Rouge soldiers who were fighting with limited munitions and weaponry. In history, this conflict was called the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

In truth, the war had started the moment the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, but fullscale military operations didn’t begin until 1978. Angry with the Cambodian presence on their native soil, the Vietnamese Army fought back and went on the offensive, charging full tilt into Cambodia. The severely underpowered Cambodian Army was easily overwhelmed by the vastly superior and much more experienced Vietnamese forces. The People’s Republic of China attempted to mediate between the two countries, but Vietnam grew more and more uneasy and in late 1978, a fullscale Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was underway.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was not supported by the international community. Of course, this was before news about the Cambodian genocide started making it onto the international airwaves. As Vietnamese forces surged into Cambodia and uncovered evidence of horrendous crimes, opinions about the Vietnamese invasion began to change…although that didn’t stop China from invading Vietnam in 1979 to teach it a lesson about invading Cambodia.

What followed was a ten-year occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, between 1979-1989. The Khmer Rouge were forced out of power and what members who weren’t captured or killed, fled into the countryside, and a new “People’s Republic of Cambodia” was established. The communist republic lasted from 1979 until 1993. In 1993, Cambodia became a democracy and is unique among all nations as being the only communist (or former communist) country to have re-established its monarchy. The Cambodian monarchy was restored in 1993 as part of the government reforms. The current ruler of Cambodia is Norodom Sihamoni.

The End of the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge did not end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. Some were killed or arrested, but others merely fled into the jungles. It wasn’t until 1998, with Pol Pot’s death under house-arrest, that the Khmer Rouge was finally put out of action. Trials for war-crimes committed by members of the Khmer Rouge are still being held today. With a total population of about 8 million people, Pol Pot and his regime successfully killed roughly one quarter (that’s one person in every four), of his country’s entire population.

If you’re looking for more information about the Khmer Rouge and what happened during those years, look for the documentaries “Return to the Killing Fields“, “Pol Pot: Inside Evil”,  and “Pol Pot: Secret Killer“, three films which were my main sources for this grisly article. At the time of this posting, all three documentries (along with several others concentrating on the Khmer Rouge), may be found on YouTube.


Attacking and Defending a Medieval Castle (Pt. I)

Great, stone castles with towers, moats, drawbridges and battlements, have always been one of the key images which come to mind when people think of Medieval Europe. As children, we often dreamt about living in a castle, with its grand halls, dark passageways, cozy chambers and spooky dungeons, but many of us forget that the primary purpose of a castle was to serve as a defensive fortress and as such, they were probably not the nicest places to live in. So, what were they like?

The First Castles.

The first castles that appeared at the end of the Dark Ages are very different in appearance to what most people percieve a castle to be. This is largely because they were made of wood, instead of stone. What…Yes, wood, not stone. Wood. ‘Why?’ you ask? Well, because wood was more plentiful, it was easier to work with and easier to transport. The first kind of castle was known as the ‘motte and bailey’ castle. But what is a ‘motte’ and a ‘bailey’? They were the two key components of early castle-design. The ‘motte’ was the mound or hill upon which the castle keep was constructed. The ‘bailey’ was the walled-in plateau that existed at the bottom of the motte. Within this walled bailey, civilians and soldiers could live in relative safety, with houses, shops and other necessities safely protected by the wall built around their village.

A motte and bailey castle. The motte is the hill on the right, with the keep on top. The bailey is the walled in village at the bottom

When a motte-and-bailey castle was attacked, civilians fled from the bailey, across a wooden bridge which spanned a ditch or moat, and up the side of the motte, to the keep at the top. Defending soldiers would attempt to defend the bailey first, shooting arrows at enemy soldiers gathered outside the bailey walls. Should the bailey be breeched, defenders would retreat across the bridge (destroying it as they went), and up the sides of the motte. Attackers would be forced to go into the ditch or across the moat in order to climb the motte. This put them at a disadvantage, as the defenders, higher up, could shoot them down with bows and arrows.

While the motte-and-bailey castle was effective against small-scale attacks, it was easily overrun by larger groups of enemies. It was soon evident that something more permanent was needed if people desired a safe place to retreat to, in times of warfare.

Stone Castles.

The weaknesses of the motte-and-bailey castle must’ve been evident to their constructors pretty early-on in castle-building history, because while there were hundreds of these, easy-to-build castles all over the place, they didn’t last very long. Indeed, by 1068, the first stone castles started being built in Britain. Wood was cheap, wood was easy to build with, it was easy to transport…but it was susceptable to fire and water. Fire burned away at the wooden walls, and rainwater could rot the wood until it was too weak to be used in making practical defensive walls. Stone, on the other hand, was heavier, harder to cut, harder to transport, but it was a hell of a lot stronger than wood, for rather obvious reasons. The oldest surviving stone castle in Great Britain, Chepstow Castle, was the one built in 1068, and it is the oldest stone castle still surviving in Britain.

Chepstow Castle in Wales, the oldest surviving stone castle in Great Britain.

Now that castles were becoming larger and grander and above all – permanent structures – more care and thought started being put into how they were designed and constructed. We mustn’t forget that a castle’s main purpose was to serve as a defensive fort in times of warfare. So, how was a castle built to make it easily defendable?

Stone Castles – Defensive Features and How Castles were Defended.

1. The Moat.

Every castle has to have a moat! How could you not have a castle without a moat? They’re so wonderful in all their…moaty goodness! Seriously, though, not all castles had moats, it was fact of life, unfortunately. While a moat could make a castle incredibly easy to defend, the truth is that they were not easy to construct. Most moats were shovelled out by hand, or builders surveying the land took advantage of natural depressions or gullies in the landscape, such as building near a dry riverbed. Diverting a nearby river to flood low-lying land, or simply having the depression fill up with water over time, was how most moats were constructed or filled.

Once they were there, however, a moat made a castle ridiculously easy to defend. In a day and age when most people couldn’t swim, attacking a castle which had beautiful, moatside views from its windows, was nearly impossible. To get across, you’d have to row over in a boat, keeping your back to the defenders, who could shoot you between the shoulderblades with arrows. And once you got to the castle walls, you still had to get over them. And certainly by the time you arrived at the castle, the defenders would have hauled up the drawbridge at the gatehouse, which was the only practical way in. It’s no wonder that people loved building castles with moats so much, they made the structures themselves so much easier to defend.

But like I said, not all castles had moats. And if it didn’t have a moat, how else did you protect your castle?

2. The Curtain Wall.

The curtain wall was a massive, defensive wall built around the keep (the main castle building). Curtain walls were truly enormous; they could be up to twenty feet thick and twice as high as they were wide. Most curtain walls had wide walkways along the tops of them, so that defending soldiers could stand up there and shoot down at the advancing enemy, or pour or drop stuff down on them to kill them.

3. Battlements.

Another famous castle design-feature…battlements! The purpose of battlements was to provide protection to defending soldiers who were up on the curtain-wall walkways, shooting or throwing things down at the enemy. Battlements are actually made up of two distinct features: Merlons and Crenels. The ‘merlon’ is the big chunk of stone on the battlements which you could take cover behind. The crenels were the gaps between these stones through which you could shoot at the enemy. Some merlons had special holes built into them, called loopholes or arrow-slits. These enabled defending crossbowmen to shoot their crossbow-bolts through the merlons into the enemy hordes below, while remaining perfectly safe behind a big stone block while shooting through a hole with an outside diameter of a beer-mug. Arrow-slits and loopholes were often conically-shaped so that they allowed the defender a wide field of fire, but presented the attacking enemy with only a tiny hole to shoot at.

4. The Gatehouse.

A Curtain Wall is only as strong as its weakest gatehouse. The gate is the weak-point in any defensive wall, so medieval architects built these entranceways to be as easily defendable as possible, with multiple gates, doors and other features which made them strong, easy to defend and hard to attack.

The first defensive element was the gate itself, a massive, wooden door, usually bolted shut with massive wooden beams to brace the door and to prevent easy entry. The bracing that the heavy wooden bolts provided, made it hard for battering-rams to smash the door down. They also absorbed some of the shock from the ramming.

If the door was broken, there were still plenty of other defensive features in a gatehouse. Most gatehouses would also have a gate (usually two of them) called a portcullis. A portcullis is a lattice gate made of wood and usually strengthened with strips of iron and nails. They were opened by raising them on pulleys and winches, and closed by dropping them down. The metal strips hammered onto the wooden gates made them fireproof, but it also added much-needed strength to the gate, without compromising its weight. When a gate might have to be raised or lowered quickly, it was important that it was made as light as possible.

The latticework in the portcullis’s construction meant that defending soldiers had holes in the gate through which they could shoot at the enemy, but, like with the arrow-slits in the battlements, enemies couldn’t shoot back. Gatehouses usually had two portcullises, one behind the other. The first reason for this is rather obvious – to provide for greater security. The second reason is perhaps not so obvious.

A closed portcullis

A common tactic in siege warfare was to open the gates to the castle and practically welcome the enemy inside. This was an old trick, but it was one that was deployed often, and when you read what happens next, you’ll see why defenders loved doing it so much.

In the event of the main door being smashed open by a battering ram, enemy soldiers would charge into the gatehouse. All doors leading into the entranceway would be locked from the inside, so that the enemy soldiers would be huddled in the ‘tunnel’ produced by the gatehouse’s wide walls and roof. Once enough soldiers had entered the gatehouse, the first portcullis was quickly dropped down, trapping the men between the first and second portcullis.

If you go into a medieval castle today and pass under the gatehouse, take a look upwards. You might see several large holes in the ceiling of the entranceway. They’re not building-mistakes…these are called ‘murder-holes’, and their name directly reflects their purpose.

Murder-Holes in the ceiling of a castle gatehouse

Once the enemy soldiers were trapped between the two portcullises, defenders in the upper levels of the gatehouse would pour things through the murder-holes, to kill the closely-packed soldiers below. It could be heavy rocks, scalding hot sand or cauldrons of boiling water. Contrary to popular belief, oil, which was a scarce commodity in Medieval Europe, was not poured through the murder-holes. It was so valuable that even though it could be heated so hot that it would flash-fry the trapped intruders like a bunch of chicken-wings, it was too valuable a resource to waste during a siege.

5. Towers.

Despite what fairy-tales and movies might give us to believe, towers were used for much more than just locking up fair maidens for tall, strapping knights to rescue. During a siege, a castle tower could be used to signal to approaching allies or reinforcements outside the castle, or it could be used as a command-post, from which superiors could direct their defending soldiers to various parts of the castle, if they saw the enemy army approaching. They also provided execellent vantage-points for shooting at enemy soldiers far below. Towers were often built with clockwise-spiralling staircases, this was so that the defender had the advantage when going up the stairs. A defender would be backing up the stairs, with his sword in his right-hand, with his body protected by the stairway’s central column. The attacker would have his sword-swings blocked by the column and he would have to expose more of his body to the defender, in order to get a decent thrust, which put him at a disadvantage.

6. Castle Grounds.

Really elaborate castles, called ‘concentric’ castles, started being built in the 1200s. These were real masterpieces. Castles within castles. A concentric castle consisted of numerous curtain walls (usually two or three), and a large, central keep. The outer curtain-wall was lower than the inner curtain-wall so that defenders further back, could shoot arrows or bolts over the heads of their fellow soldiers into the grounds outside the castle. Also, the ground between the two walls, should the outer wall be breeched, could be turned into a massive killing-field. Enemy soldiers, with nowhere to hide and duck for cover, would be massacred by defending archers, who shot at them from both walls.


Attacking and Defending a Medieval Castle. (Pt. II)

Continued from Part I, above.

Attacking a Castle.

Considering that castles were so vast, intimidating and well-defended, how did invading armies ever hope to break into them and win a siege? They used siege-engines.

A siege-engine is a massive machine used to bust your way into a castle. There were four main siege engines:


From Medieval.Castles.org.

The battering-ram was used to beat down the castle door. A ram could be anything. Really simple rams were just massive logs carried by dozens of men, who would slam it constantly into a castle door in the hopes that it would splinter and break open. If this proved ineffective, invaders could use a more effective ram, which was housed inside a wheeled, wooden frame. This type of ram was massive, usually made of wood or stone. It was slung up on rope slings suspended inside the wooden frame. The frame had wheels to make it more manuverable and the rope slings made the ram easier to move and smash against the door. These more advanced battering-rams could also have rooves (made of wood or animal-hide) above them, to protect the soldiers manning the battering-ram, from things either fired or thrown on them from defenders on the walltops above.


Pronounced ‘Tre-buh-shay’, this siege-engine worked by a system of counterweights. Mounted in a wheeled, wooden frame, the trebuchet consisted of a long, wooden arm. At one end of the arm was a heavy counterweight. At the other end, was a rope net. The projectile (say, a boulder) was put into the net, and a securing rope was released. The heavy counterweight swung down, bringing the arm up, which rotated on a pivot. The momentum fired the projectile either against, or over the castle wall, destroying everything in its path.


Everyone knows what a catapault is. A big siege engine which flings things at the enemy. These worked by winding back the catapault arm and putting the projectile in metal bowl or basket at the end of the catapault arm. The projectile might be a boulder, several rocks or even the carcass of a dead animal, in a form of medieval biological warfare. In one siege battle, the corpses of people who had died from the Black Death, were catapaulted over a city wall, in the hopes that the defenders would catch the plague and die a horrible death. At the right time, a securing rope or pin was either untied or released, and the catapault fired its projectile either at, or over the castle wall.

Siege Tower.

The siege tower was an enormous, wooden tower on wheels. They were loaded with soldiers, and then pushed up against the walls of castles. To prevent siege towers from getting close to a castle, architects tried to build their castles on hills, where siege-towers would be useless. But if a tower did get right up to a castle wall, a ramp at the top of the tower was lowered onto the wall and enemy soldiers charged off the tower and onto the top of the curtain wall.

Examples of all four of these siege engines in action, can be seen in the Battle of Minas Tirith, in the final “Lord of the Rings” trilogy installment: ‘The Return of the King’.

Other ways of getting into a Castle.


Today, if someone has ‘undermined’ you, it means that they’ve done something which has rendered all your actions or precautions useless. 800 years ago, undermining was actually a way to break into a castle.

First of all: Undermining is not tunneling to get under the walls and into the castle grounds. No. Undermining was a bit more complex than just digging under the wall to get out the other side. This is how it worked:

Soldiers burrowed a tunnel under a castle wall or tower. Having dug the tunnel underneath (which would be shored up with wood), soldiers got out of there, while filling in the tunnel with more wood as they left. Once they were out, they set the wood on fire. Once all the wood inside the tunnel had burnt to ash, what was supposed to happen was that the tunnel collapsed. Once this had taken place, the structural integrity of the tower or wall burrowed under, would have been severely weakened. The lack of a proper foundation meant that the wall or tower could collapse when the tunnel did, which gave intruders a way into the castle.

The Petard.

The petard isn’t really a siege engine, but it was something which attackers did use to try and gain entrance to a castle. A petard is a type of bomb, which came into being in the 16th century with the rise of gunpowder in the 1500s. It was an explosive-device made of iron and wood. The iron part was shaped like a bucket, and this was filled with gunpowder. Once it was full of powder, the wooden backing-board was fastened over the top, to stop the powder spilling out. Once the petard was made, it was given to the unfortunate petardier’s assistant (a petardier is the man who makes the petards), who would have to take it and run across the field to the enemy castle gates and fasten this contraption onto it.

A petardier’s assistant running away after having lit the fuse on the petard.

Once it was fastened on, a match-cord fuse was shoved into a small touch-hole in the side of the petard’s iron gunpowder-container, and was then lit. The petardier then tried to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Petards were incredibly dangerous and they could blow up without warning. Assuming everything went to plan, the fuse burnt into the petard, it set off the approximately ten pounds of gunpowder inside the petard, which blasted a hole in the castle door. If the poor petardier’s assistant didn’t make it away in time (assuming he made it to the door at all, because musketeers would be shooting at him the whole time), he could be blown up along with his bomb. It is from this rather dangerous explosive device, that we get the phrase “hoist by his own petard”, which means to be caught up in the results of your own foul deeds. Of course, 400 years ago, a petardier’s assistant was literally hoist (that is, thrown into the air), by the explosion of his own petard if he didn’t get away in time.

The End of a Siege.

A siege ended when either the attacking enemy was dead or too exhausted to carry on, meaning that the castle had either held out against its enemies, or had successfully repelled an invasion, or when the defenders inside the castle were dead, when the enemy outside had successfully breeched the castle’s defenses.


Hold the Line! – Land Battles of the 18th Century (Pt. I)

If you’ve ever watched movies such as ‘The Patriot’, with Mel Gibson, or any movies made about battles of the American Revolutionary War or the Napoleonic wars, you may have noticed that 200 years ago, army officers didn’t seem to have many brains. How could they expect to win a battle if all they did was line up their men in rows, facing the enemy, creating nothing but a big, fat target for enemy soldiers to shoot at?

On the surface, watching a reenactment of an 18th or 19th century battle, such as those which would’ve been fought during the American War of Independence, the War of 1812 or the Napoleonic wars of the 1810s, looks like a bloody waste of time. All they’re doing is shooting at each other until everyone’s dead. How the hell did one side ever expect to win against another?

The Weapons.

To understand how and why battles back then were fought the way they were, you had to understand the types of weapons that these battles were fought with. Back in the 1700s and the early 1800s, the main infantry weapon was a firearm known as the flintlock musket. The musket is easy to use, but it’s slow to reload and is generally inaccurate beyond a few dozen yards. At 100 yards, you had a 50/50 chance of hitting the target which you were aiming at. One rather telling quote about the inaccuracy of muskets goes:

    “I do maintain and will prove, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common musket, by the person who aimed at him.”

– Col. George Hanger (1814).

Flintlock musket, the type of infantry firearm that predominated wars from the mid 1600s until the mid 1800s.

How a Musket was Loaded.

The flintlock musket is a ridiculously simple weapon to use. A child of ten could do it. The flintlock musket was loaded in the following manner:

1. Hammer to Half-Cock.

You pulled the hammer (containing the flint-stone which gives the weapon its name), to half-cock.

2. Open Frizzen.

The frizzen is the lid and steel plate which closes over the flash-pan. Opening the frizzen gave you access to the pan.

3. Prime.

You ‘primed’ or filled the flash-pan with powder.

4. Close Frizzen.

You closed the frizzen to stop the powder falling out.

5. Cast About.

You cast the musket about, that is, you swung it around so that the muzzle was nice and close to you. Having cast it about, you poured more powder down the muzzle, followed by the musket-ball and a scrunched up piece of paper, known as the wad. The wad was there to stop the musket-ball rolling out (remember, these guns are smoothbore. Things fall out just as easily as they go in).

6. Draw Ramrod.

You drew out the ramrod from the sling underneath your musket. You rammed the wadding, bullet and gunpowder right down to the back of the barrel, so that it was next to the flashpan and frizzen. You then removed the ramrod and replaced it under the musket.

7. Hammer to Full Cock.

You pulled the hammer to full cock. You were now ready to fire. At your own will, or on command, you lowered the musket, took aim, and fired. This seven-step loading process seems like a lot of work, but it could actually be done pretty quickly. In the 1700s, a well-trained British redcoat was expected to be able to do this entire operation four times in a minute, purely by feel. Usually the rate of fire was three shots a minute, but especially well-trained armies, such as the Russian and British Armies, could get off four, or even five shots a minute, which means doing that entire loading procedure in just twelve seconds.

Musket or Rifle?

While the rifle was more accurate, the musket remained the weapon of choice for infantry for several decades. In the opening years of the American Civil War, some soldiers still preferred muskets over rifles. Why?

1. Muskets are quicker to load.

A musket is a smoothbore weapon. This means that the inside of the gun-barrel is as smooth as the outside of the barrel. This means that when you shoot the gun, the ball doesn’t always come out straight. It bounces and zings and ricochets around inside the barrel due to the windage (gap between bullet & barrel), before spitting out the end and heading off into only God-knows-where. The fact that muskets were muzzle-loading weapons, however, meant that if they were smoothbore, bullets and other important components (like wadding and gunpowder), went down the barrel quicker. By comparison, a rifle, with its rifling (spirals carved into the inside of the barrel), was slower to load. The ball had a very snug fit inside a rifle-barrel, and this made the rifle slower to load. When a split second in battle can mean the difference between life and death, you don’t wanna be caught up loading your gun in an inopportune moment.

2. Muskets can be mass-produced.

Because muskets were such simple weapons, they were easy to mass-produce. Calibres and sizes varied, but the basic design never changed. Because of this, it was possible for a gunsmith to turn out dozens, hundreds, thousands of muskets at once. Rifles, on the other hand, were usually custom-made pieces, and no two rifles back in the 18th century were the same. Because rifles were so much harder to make than muskets, muskets again, won out over their more accurate opponent.

3. Bayonets.

A bayonet is a long, thin, sharp, steel knife which fits onto the end of a gun-barrel. In modern combat of the 21st century, the bayonet is a last-ditch, close-quarters combat-weapon. 200 years ago, the bayonet was used in what were called ‘bayonet charges’. During battle, an army officer would shout out the order: ‘level bayonets!’ or words to that effect, and then bellow out, ‘charge!’, upon which, probably 2000 soldiers would charge at the enemy with two thousand long, sharp, pointy things in front of them. Being sliced or spiked by a bayonet was not pretty, and a bayonet charge was a magnificent form of psychological warfare on the enemy.

Bayonets are detatchable knives. They can be pulled off the gun, or they can be put back on. In the 1700s, bayonets were called ‘socket-bayonets’. Meaning that the end closest to the musket-barrel had a loop of metal (the socket), which fitted around the musket-barrel and slid into place, nice and securely. Because muskets were mass-produced, fashioning a similarly-sized bayonet was pretty easy. Rifles, being custom-made, meant that they all had to have custom-made bayonets, which took up too much time and money.

So, despite their inaccuracy, muskets were the desired weapon of the day.

The Tactics.

Although they were faster loading, easier to produce and came with nice, shiny accessories which could turn the enemy into a kebab, muskets were still…inaccurate. To compensate for this, tacticians in battle sent out their troops en-masse, in rows (ranks), to maximise firepower, when shooting at the enemy. Before the invention of the machine-gun, this was really the only way to ensure accurate, high rates of intense firepower.

The most common tactical formation during wars involving muskets was the ‘Line’. It’s exactly what it sounds like; soldiers formed lines (ranks), one behind the other, and marched off into battle. The line allowed as many soldiers as possible to fire at once, inflicting the most injuries as possible upon the enemy. Sometimes, the front rank of soliders would kneel, with the rear rank standing over them. This way, they could deliver double the amount of firepower from the same amount of space.

Another common infantry formation was the ‘Square’, also called the Infantry Square. This formation was commonly utilised against cavalry charges. Once a square had been formed, it meant that several ranks of soldiers could deliver devastating fire in four directions, capable of destroying enemy cavalry as it came galloping towards them. Usually, the soldiers would wait until the cavalry was very close (within a few yards), before opening fire. When horses and their riders crashed to the ground, they started forming a wall of dead bodies which other riders would either have to leap over (exposing themselves to fire), or which they would crash into, again, exposing themselves to fire.

This article is continued in Part II, below.


Hold the Line! – Land-Battles of the 18th Century (Pt. II)

Part II of my two-part article on land-battles during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

How Battles were Fought.

If two armies were going to do battle, for example, back in the 1770s during the American Revolution, it usually played out like this:

Soldiers formed ranks and lines. They would march out into the battlefield, shoulder to shoulder, holding their muskets against their shoulders. When they had reached a good spot, officers ordered their soldiers to halt. When the enemy had also stopped marching, an officer would yell out three orders:

1. “Make Ready!”

The order to ‘make ready’, meant that you were expected to take a firm grip on your musket, in preparation for firing.

2. “Take Aim!”, or alternatively, “Present Arms!”

The order to ‘take aim’ meant that all muskets dropped from their previously vertical position to a horizontal position, ready to be fired. Now was also the time you sought out your target. A similar order, ‘present arms’ meant that you were to present (prepare) your weapon for firing, by bringing it down, ready to shoot.

3. “Fire!”

Rather obvious. On this order, you pulled the trigger. One musket going off isn’t that impressive. But imagine 100, 200, 500 or even a thousand muskets going off at once. The noise was deafeningly loud and the amount of smoke produced by the burning blackpowder could leave you standing in a haze of your own gunsmoke.

Here comes the confusing part, which most people, quite understandably, are at a loss to rationalise.

Once you fired, you stood there like a headless chicken, waiting for the enemy to fire back at you and kill you. During this time, you were probably reloading your musket. Meanwhile, about 20 yards away, another guy with a musket is about to blow your flipping brains out! Once he’d fired, if you were still alive, you and your chums brought your muskets to bear again, and fired back. This went back and forth, like two thousand men playing a deadly game of lead tennis. Given that the majority of battles were fought like this, how the hell did anyone expect to win?

Here come your two supporting wings of the army, to help you fly to glory. Cavalry and Artillery.

The point of warfare in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and even as far back as the 17th century, was to break the enemy’s line. Once the line was broken, you could charge ahead into the disrupted enemy soldiers and hack them to pieces, winning the battle, claiming the land, and advancing your army to victory! So, how did you break the lines?

Usually, you just shot at each other until one line broke, but as you might have guessed, this was slow, tedious and a terrible waste of both ammunition and manpower. To rectify this, officers would call on their artillery to dispatch the enemy to an early grave. Artillery (cannons and mortars), would shoot cannonballs into the enemy lines to try and break them. Most people think that you shot explosives into the enemy lines, the explosives blew up, and the line was broken. No. No, no, no, no, no. That is not what happened.

Most cannons fired roundshot (see ‘Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, pt II’ for cannon ammo), big black cannonballs. These balls were designed to smash their way through the enemy lines like wrecking-balls, ripping off limbs, kicking up soil and smoke to blind the enemy, and to cause mass confusion. Don’t forget that soldiers often stood shoulder to shoulder, which made them ideal targets for cannons and their wide variety of ammunition. With enough artillery, you could disrupt the lines bad enough that you then moved onto your next attack, either a cavalry charge or a bayonet charge. The other popular kind of ammunition was case-shot, which turned your cannons into massive shotguns. Caseshot was devastating to closely-packed infantry. Sometimes, you fired double-case or double-canister, which sent twice the amount of musket-balls at the enemy, ripping them apart. Occasionally, you would use explosive shells, but this wasn’t done as frequently as you might think.

After you and the enemy had exchanged a few hundred rounds of lead at each other, it was time to really break the enemy’s lines. After bombarding them with artillery and depending on the situation, you either ordered your officers to charge, at which all your soldiers lowered their muskets and bayonets, and charged at the enemy, spearing them and cutting them up, or you sent in your cavalry, which galloped in, swords swinging and slashing, outrunning the fleeing enemy soldiers and slicing their heads off. With the enemy lines broken, you could charge ahead and win the battle. The title of this article, to ‘hold the line’, comes from battles such as these. The order to ‘hold the line’ (which today, means to persevere and hold out against all odds), meant that all soldiers were to reform their ranks and lines, so as to form a solid wall of soldiers, capable of fending off the enemy.

Winning a Battle.

Making sure your side won in battle was a tricky thing to do. There wasn’t much that you could do about artillery except try and dodge the cannonballs. Against cavalry, you could try and form an infantry-square and mow down the horses as they charged at you, or you could try and knock them out with your own artillery. Often, picking a good battlefield was a big factor in whether you won or lost. Even today, it’s an important factor in warfare. If you intended to be successful, you usually picked a battlefield that was sloped or hilly, and put your army on the high-points such as at the top of a ridge or hill. This meant that you could see further, your artillery could shoot further, enemy cavalry charges had to fight their way uphill, and you could sit pretty and shoot at the enemy while it struggled uphill towards you with bayonet charges.

Changing Tactics.

Tactics like these lasted a surprisingly long time. From the Medieval Period, starting with archers, through the English Civil War, using matchlock muskets, through the American Revolution, using flintlock muskets, through the American Civil War, using caplock rifles. In fact, tactics such as these lasted right up until the early 1910s with the coming of the First World War. Unfortunately by that time, the machine-gun had arrived, and was capable of ripping apart soldiers who marched in closed ranks into battle, which meant new tactics had to be devised…


Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. I).

Usual disclaimer: I’m a not a historian or an expert on any specific period or aspect of history. I’m just an all-round history buff, trying to educate and interest people in the parts of history which I find fascinating and exciting. Enjoy the article and feel free to post comments.

During the ‘blackpowder era’ of firearms warfare, battle on land could be terrifying, with cannons and shells and musket-balls flying all over the place, and sure it was terrifying, but try doing it two hundred miles out in the middle of the ocean onboard a rocking, rolling wooden warship where defeat meant drowning in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the English Channel. These were the very real dangers faced by sailors and marines of the British Royal Navy during the period from 1792 until 1815, starting with the French Revolution and ending with the end of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe in the mid 1810s. What was battle like, out on the high seas back then and what happened during and after battle?

Ships of the Period

The first, all-metal ships did not appear until the mid 19th century. Before then, all vessels were made of wood. A warship of the 1790s, as typified by the ‘Man-o’-War’, was a multi-decked, three-masted affair with cannons and ropes and sails and all manner of other things onboard. Ships were wind-powered by massive sails and Mother Nature. The majority of the construction was of wood hammered onto wooden frames, with the gaps between the wood filled in with pitch (a black, tarry substance) and oakum, which was the broken-down fibres of old ropes. Oakum and the pitch were absorbent and sticky; contact with water made the hulls of the ships (mostly) watertight. While ships were able to deliver considerable firepower from either their starboard (right) or larboard (left, later changed to ‘port’) ‘batteries’ of guns (cannons), they were very vulnerable to attack from the front or back. The front, consisting of the bowsprit and the strengthened, curved, angled hull, was harder to destroy with cannonfire, but the stern of the ship, where the Great Cabin (also called the captain’s cabin) was located, was about as weak as soggy tissue-paper. With big, glass windows and few cannons, the stern was the weak-point of all vessels of the period.


Weapons to be found on ships during the Age of Sail consisted of bladed weapons such as boarding-axes, cutlasses, rapiers, daggers and bayonets, and firearms, such as pistols, muskets, rifles (what few that there would have been), and blunderbusses. There were also the various classes of large guns (cannons). These guns were massive, iron beasts which fired a variety of shot (ammunition) at any enemy ships. Firearms of this period were all single-shot, flintlock or matchlock weapons. They were slow to reload and inaccurate beyond a few hundred yards, for the cannons, and a few dozen yards, for smaller firearms.

Clearing for Action

If you were a captain onboard a British Man-o’-War during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic wars, and you saw an enemy, French warship sailing towards you, you had two options. To either prepare for battle, or to high-tail it out of there. When escape was impossible (due to being unable to pick up enough speed, or from being out-gunned), the order would be given to ‘clear for action’, or to ‘beat to quarters’.

‘Beating to quarters’ literally meant beating on a drum. The drummer set the pace of how fast everyone was expected to move. On the order to beat to quarters or to clear for action, everyone was expected to be in their places as soon as possible. The surgeon and his mate and the loblolly-boy were roused or set on alert to recieve injured sailors. Powder-monkeys (young boys, or even women!) were sent down to the powder-magazine at the bottom of the ship to fetch up gunpowder, and cannons were loaded and readied for action. The captain ordered his officers around to make sure that everything went smoothly. Officers were in charge of such things as organising the firing of the guns, relaying orders and helping to move away injured sailors. At the start of battle, the ship’s colours (national flag) were raised on one of the masts, to clearly identify the nationality of the ship (in case of mistaken identity) and valuables were put safely away.

The Heat of Battle

A real naval engagement was a terrifying thing to be in on. While in movies it looks glamourous and exciting, there was very little glamour about all the smoke and blood and guts and bullets whizzing around everywhere. As the two combatant ships drew up alongside each other, they would attempt to broadside (fire their full complement of guns on one side of the vessel) each other to cause the most damage. Although they were simple machines, naval cannons could pack a mighty punch. A single cannonball could blast a hole in a ship big enough for a man to crawl through. During combat, more sailors died from their injuries or infections, than actually died from being struck by cannon-blasts. In most cases, it was not the cannonball which killed you. It was the thousands of splinters of wood which the cannonball blasted aside as it smashed into the ship, that would slice into your body like knives and kill you through infection.

Dozens of cannons going off all at once produced amazing amounts of smoke, and the noise was literally deafening. Shouted orders were useless in such chaos, so instead, bosuns (boatswains), issued commands to the sailors using “bosun’s pipes”, long, metallic whistles which were capable of letting out piercing, shrill notes, which could be heard through the battle.

How fast a ship could fire its guns (and possibly win a battle), was dependent on many things. First, the skill of the gun-crew. Cannons were incredibly heavy firearms and they took an amazing amount of muscle to operate properly. Secondly, came the speed of the powder-monkeys. Gunpowder for the cannons was stored in the powder-magazine at the very bottom of the ship. The magazine was a large, copper-lined room, below the waterline, where gunpowder was stored in sacks and barrels. The walls were lined with copper because copper didn’t spark, like iron did. Powder-monkeys (usually young boys) had to be very fast in running the powder from the magazine up to the gun-deck as quickly as they could, in a relay fashion, slinging their powder-kegs from one to the other, back and forth, up and down.

A gun-crew firing an 18-pounder cannon. From left to right: The powder-monkey (with his cylindrical powder-keg), the gun-captain (with the burning taper), and the four other members of his gun-crew, waiting to arrest the cannon when it begins its recoil, after firing.

Naval Surgery

Injuries from cannonfire could be horrific. Imagine having your arm blasted away by an 18-pound, solid iron cannonball, travelling fast enough to smash a hole in the side of a ship with bulkheads over a foot thick. Injured sailors were stretchered, carried or dragged from the gun-decks, to the infirmary at the back of the ship, near the Great Cabin. Here, the ship’s surgeon and the surgeon’s mate, together with the loblolly-boy (another assistant), had to look after and treat patients maimed by the battle upstairs. The treatments and surgery available, were mediocre at best and chances of survival or recovery varied wildly. Badly infected limbs would have to be amputated with a knife and hacksaw.

Bullets, shrapnel and other foreign bodies were removed from patients without anasthetic, the same for amputations. A surgeon was considered especially skilled if he could remove an arm or leg within two minutes. The only relief from the pain was lots of grog, or lots of laudanum (which is a mix of rum and opium). It was a kind of painkiller that dulled the pain and made the patient groggy, but it didn’t completely knock them out, so they could still feel a considerable level of pain. The surgeon’s quarters were often so drenched with blood, that he would pour sand (like what you find at the beach), onto the floorboards of his cabin and surgery, to soak up all the pints of blood which were spilling onto the floor and which caused a slipping-hazard.

Ships during the Napoleonic era would have had a surgeon and a mate. Note that: A surgeon. Not a doctor, a surgeon. Because so many of the injuries would have required amputation, it made more sense to have a surgeon onboard instead of a physician. Stephen Maturin in the “Aubrey & Maturin” series by Patrick O’Brian is a physician, and yet takes on the lesser position of surgeon onboard his friend’s ship, when he is in-search of a medical-man onboard his vessel.

The Weather Gage

One key factor in naval battles of the Age of Sail, was of course…the weather. Specifically the wind. How strong it was and in which direction it was blowing. Of course, the wind and its direction wasn’t the end-all of all battles, but it was certainly important. If the wind is blowing from north to south and there are two ships sailing side by side in an either easterly or westerly direction, the nothernmost ship is said to have the weather-gage. The direction of the wind means that it can easily sail away from an attacker, or sail southwards quickly, to engage the enemy. The southernmost ship, having to fight against the south-blowing winds, would have to trim (take in) sails to be able to move upwards to meet the attacking ship, which could, if it desired, sail away and disengage from the action.

This article is continued in Part II, below.


Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (Pt. II)

The second part of my two-part post on sea-battles during the Age of Sail (1500s-mid 1800s).

Cannons and their Ammunition

In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, a warship’s main armaments, as typified by the frigate or Man-o’-War of the period, consisted of rows of cannons lined up on gun-decks inside the ship. While cannons such as these were simple to learn how to load and fire and operate in general, they were not easily worked, especially in the heat of battle, when a single cannon-blast might decide the outcome of an engagement. Cannons were massive, unwieldly, metallic beasts. Even the smallest of cannons, which fired roundshot of a weight of six pounds, could weigh several dozen pounds, not including the gun-carriage which the cannon rested on.

Firing a cannon was not a simple, one-man-presses-the-button operation back in the 1790s. It took skill, co-ordination and discipline to do it properly. Given their size and weight, it took several men to get a gun loaded and ready to fire. A typical gun-crew consisted of five men: a gun-captain, who was in charge of aiming and firing the gun, and four subordinates, who were in charge of loading the gun and running it out. When the enemy was sighted and the order was given to prepare the guns, this is how they were loaded:

1. The gun is charged with gunpowder, either loose gunpowder poured down the barrel with a special scoop, or a bag or pouch of gunpowder shoved down the barrel with a ramrod.

2. The gun is loaded with its ammunition. Depending on the size or type of ammo, it may need forcing down with a ramrod.

3. The charge and shot are wadded down with wadding (usually old, ripped up cloth), to prevent the ammunition from rolling out or moving unexpectedly.

4. The gun is primed and made ready to fire. On earlier cannons, this meant shoving a metal spike into the touch-hole at the top of the cannon-breech and feeding in either a burning match-cord (for a fuse), or a burning taper, to set off the charge. In later cannons, the gunlock (a type of flintlock firing-mechanism adapted for cannons) would be charged with powder and prepared to fire.

5. The gun is run out on its gun-carriage, pushing open the gun-port in the side of the ship. As cannons could weigh several hundred pounds, even when empty, running out a gun took a considerable amount of strength. Smaller guns could be pushed out by hand, but larger, 36 or 42-pounders would have to be winched out by ropes and pulleys, requiring the efforts of the entire, five-man gun-crew.

The order of ‘fire!’ is given. At this point, either the match-cord is lit, the taper is put to the touch-hole, or the lanyard operating the gunlock mechanism is pulled. The gunpowder explodes and propels the ammunition out of the muzzle, directly at the enemy. The recoil of the gun going off was significant. For safety reasons, sailors never stood directly behind a cannon, as the recoil could throw the gun back and either knock them over, or even worse, the wheels of the gun-carriage could roll over their shoes, crushing their feet! The ropes attached to the cannons didn’t just make it easier to run the cannons out, they controlled the powerful kick of the recoil, once the gun had discharged.

6. The gun is then swabbed with a sponge, to douse any embers inside the cannon, and the process from 1-5 is repeated all over again.

Cannons were simple to operate, even if they weren’t very easy to maneuver. But their simplicity-of-design allowed for a wide range of ammunition to be fired out of them, creating all kinds of hell for the enemy being fired at. While in theory, anything that could fit down the muzzle could be considered ammunition, there were several purposely-manufactured types of ammo which gun-crews used.

Roundshot. The classic, round, iron cannonball. These came in various sizes, the smallest being six pounds, the very largest being forty-two pounds. Roundshot was used to blast holes in the hulls of enemy ships. Roundshot was the mainstay of most battles, and the damage it could cause was considerable, to say the least. At thirty yards, roundshot from an 18-pounder cannon, could blast a hole straight through the hull of a ship three feet thick.

Hotshot. These days, someone who’s a ‘hotshot’ is someone who thinks he’s really skilled or effective at doing something. A little over 200 years ago, ‘hotshot’ was an actual type of ammunition! It is, as the name suggests, quite literally, ‘hot shot’. That is to say, a cannonball (roundshot), heated until it was smoking, red hot, before it was loaded into a cannon and fired at the enemy. Hotshot was both very effective and very dangerous, for obvious reasons. Hotshot required fires to heat the cannonballs red-hot. Onboard a sailing ship made of wood in the middle of the ocean, fire is the last thing you want. Hotshot was usually ‘baked’ on the galley stove, before being loaded into the cannon with a special scoop. Extra wadding was placed inside the cannon, to prevent the shot from setting off the gunpowder charge prematurely. Once loaded, the hotshot was fired just like any other cannonball, but with significantly more damage.

Once the ball had smashed through the enemy hull, it would roll around, too hot to touch. If it stopped anywhere for a long enough period of time, it would set the entire ship on fire, causing absolute chaos and distracting the enemy, probably long enough for you to blow the hell out of them.

Case-shot and grape-shot. Pretty-sounding names, aren’t they? Grape-shot. Sounds like a drink. Grape-shot and case-shot (more-or-less the same thing), consisted of several dozen musket-balls, chain-links, nails, bolts, shards of glass or whatever else you could find, shoved into a metal can (case) or into a cloth bag (grapeshot), and loaded into a cannon. When this was fired, it turned the cannon into one hell of a massive shotgun, spraying musket-balls (or other shrapnel) all over the place. It was particularly effective against groups of enemy soldiers or sailors, huddled together onshore or on the open deck of a ship.

Chainshot and bar-shot. Chainshot and bar-shot were two small cannonballs (or iron bars) linked by a length of chain and loaded into a cannon. Once fired out of the gun, the chain links unravelled, turning the shot into nothing short of a bolas from hell. Chainshot and bar-shot were particularly effective in slicing rigging (ropes), ripping sails to shreds, or dismasting an enemy ship. These whirring, whizzing necklaces of death could render a ship totally immovable once they had put the rigging and sails out of commission.

Explosive shell. The explosive shell was a hollow cannonball filled with gunpowder and stoppered with a match-cord fuse. Once the cannon was fired with this inside it, the ball would whizz through the air, the fuse (ignited by the gunpowder in the cannon) would burn until it reached the gunpowder inside the shell, blasting the thing open and sending metal everywhere.

Winning a Battle.

While cannons could pack a hell of a punch, it was a slow punch at best. To make the most use out of his cannons, the captain or commanding officer of the attacking ship, would be sure to target various weak-spots in the enemy ship, to get the biggest bang for his buck, so to speak. The four best places to shoot at were:

The rigging and the masts. Blowing them apart with chainshot and bar-shot rendered the enemy ship unable to move. You could now blow it to pieces as you wished.

The hull. Blowing holes in the enemy ship’s hull at, or below the waterline, would cause it to sink. Game over. While easy in theory, it took a fair bit of skill and timing to achieve successful destruction of a ship’s hull and make it sink. Most cannons could not be angled far down enough, to shoot into the hull on their own. They needed the help of the ship which they were mounted on. And the ship needed the help of Mother Nature.

On a ship rocking and rolling around at sea, if the ship was broadside to the waves, it would cause one side of the ship to be higher than the other, as it slid up and down the crests and troughs of each wave. Captains used this angling of their ships to their advantage, and would call out one of two orders, to fire ‘on the up-roll’ or ‘on the down-roll’. To fire on the ‘up-roll’ meant to fire when your side of the ship was angled upwards. Firing in this position meant that you could blow the masts off the enemy ship. On the other hand, firing on the ‘down-roll’ (when your side of the ship was angled downwards), meant that you could send your shot down, closer to the waterline, blasting holes in the enemy’s hull and sinking it.

The quarterdeck. The quarterdeck was the main deck of most ships and on smaller ships, it was also the gun-deck. Shooting at this area with case-shot and grape, would kill several dozen sailors, allowing you to board (if you wished) without fear of immediate attack.

The stern. Ships of the Napoleonic era (and before) were notoriously vulnerable at the stern, where there were few cannons to protect it, and where there were large windows, letting light into the captain’s cabin. This lack of protection allowed the attacking ship to destroy the enemy in absolutely horrific ways, if they could pull it off successfully. To successfully attack the stern of another frigate, you had to execute the maneuver known as ‘crossing the T’, where your long axis crossed the enemy’s short axis at the stern. You then had to carry out the firing-procedure known as ‘raking’. Raking fire was devastating, to say the least. It worked like this:

As each of your cannons passed the stern of the enemy, the gun-captain or officer in charge, would yell out the order: “Fire as you bear!”, which meant to discharge your cannon when you sailed past the enemy stern. This sent your shot smashing through the back windows of the ship and right down through the middle of it, destroying cannons, ripping through masts and killing and maiming enemy sailors, who had nowhere to run. Firing at the stern could also disable the enemy’s steering which meant they couldn’t come about (turn around) to face you, broadside-to-broadside, and give you a payback round. Firing at the stern could also sink the ship, leading to a decisive victory in your favour.

During battle, there were three basic outcomes: Sinking, burning or boarding.

Sinking a ship invovled blowing its hull to pieces and then leaving it (and the crew) to drown. Any sailors you picked up would become prisoners of war.

Burning a ship (either with hotshot or flaming torches) meant that it would turn into a massive, floating fireball, probably killing most people onboard.

Boarding a ship involved coming up alongside it, throwing grappling-hooks over the side and swinging over, onto the enemy ship. Boarding-parties (led by officers or the captain), could be ensured of heavy, close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat with enemy sailors. Weapons included muskets, bayonets, daggers, cutlasses and pistols. If you were lucky, you could beat the enemy and take his ship intact, as a prize (for which you could be handsomely and richly rewarded).

Winning a battle at sea was a great triumph for you and your men, and a great shame and dishonour to the enemy. An official surrender or defeat was recognised when the enemy captain surrendered his sword to either the attacking captain, or the attacking officer in command. Another way of surrendering was to ‘strike colours’. ‘Striking your colours’ was the action of lowering the naval flag of the country which your ship was a part of. Continuing to fight after the striking of colours was considered dishonourable, cowardly and above all…a serious crime.