Saturday, 12 June 2021

Revenge in the Name of Honour ,The Royal Navy's Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812 - Nicholas James Kaizer


I recently reviewed another War of 1812 title, 'Lord's of the Lake', covering the naval war on Lake Ontario by the Canadian historian Robert Malcomson, see the link below;


In the preamble to that review I remarked about my apprehensions when choosing titles to read covering this early 19th century struggle, between the two great English speaking nations of the world, given the national bias that has been a feature of some of the works in this area and that Canadian historians have brought an interesting and fresh look at the war.

So it was with great interest that when purchasing Lords of the Lake I also picked up another naval history on the theme of 1812 by another Canadian historian, Nick Kaizer, a Halifax based historian from Nova Scotia, a part of the world that took a front seat in the maritime clashes between Britain and the United States with Halifax being home to the British North American Squadron during the war.


The title, 'Revenge in the Name of Honour' captures one of the key themes of this study of the single ship actions at sea and in particular the actions between the opposing frigates, picking out as it does the peculiar nature of these actions to capture the imaginations of the American and British public at the time, despite the fact that the war as a whole and these small scale battles at sea had little to any worthwhile strategic effects on the outcome of the war or the larger conflict of the Napoleonic war that was the main focus of the British Royal Navy at that time.

As Kaizer points out, this aspect is very difficult for a modern audience interested in these actions to fully comprehend, especially from a British perspective, where the national war aims of defending an independent Canada, denying the American demands on rights of maritime navigation and forcing peace negotiations through blockade, bankruptcy and the defeat of Napoleon were all met.

The USS Constitution, 'Old Ironsides' as she became known after 18-pdr shot from HMS Guerriere was observed to bounce off the American frigate, seen here as the oldest naval warship in commission and still afloat, in Boston harbour in 2006.
 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Constitution_Departs.jpg
An anonymous British lieutenant aboard HMS Guerriere commented to the Naval Chronicle after the action with the Constitution;
"No one that has not seen the Constitution would believe that there could be such a ship for a frigate, the nearest ship in the British navy, as to her dimensions and tonnage, is the Orion, of 74-guns...."

The fact of the matter was that despite all those factors, the Royal Navy through its dominant position at sea established in the French Revolutionary War and to the climax of Trafalgar in 1805 had established an aura of invincibility in the minds of the British public and those in its wider empire, particularly Canada, and that invincibility induced a feeling that British ships and particularly frigates should simply win every time, no matter what the opposition.

In addition, the record of success against European navies had seemingly caused that feeling of invincibility to permeate through the ranks of a very large Royal Navy, now engaged in reaping the benefits of its dominance by policing the high seas against small scale incursions by France and her allies and supporting the main British land offensives in the Peninsular War and those of her allies in eastern Europe as the war turned against Napoleon; with it seems many Royal Navy commanders thinking that they only needed to run up their colours to defeat any enemy force encountered no matter what its size in comparison to their own vessel, with no heed to training their crews in competent gunnery or sailing skills.

Kaizer's account of the court-martial of the commander of the 18-gun Cruizer-class brig HMS Epervier, Commander Richard Wales, after loosing his ship in action with the 20-gun sloop USS Peacock, whilst escorting a convoy off the coast of Florida, makes remarkable reading, revealing a captain who, among other facts, never trained his crew on the guns by firing live ammunition, preferring to run through mock drills and thus save money on the cost of expended shot and powder.

The action between the USS Peacock and HMS Epervier reveals how badly commanded and trained some Royal Navy ships had become through complacency after years of victory.

This lack of training by Wales not only meant that his crew was totally unprepared for the shock of firing their guns in anger and not practiced at aiming their fire, but also that the corroded bolts anchoring the guns, after the brig had been raised following its sinking in Halifax during a hurricane, were only revealed once she was in action with the Peacock rather than if she had preacticed with them in the first place!

With this overall picture underpinning the War of 1812, Kaizer sets the scene for the shock delivered to a British government and Royal Navy, unprepared to meet the threat posed by the tiny American naval force of six frigates supported by a handful of smaller sloops, and in particular its squadron of three heavy frigates, Constitution, President and United States.

The book documents the series of naval engagements that occurred through the conflict, detailing each one, the subsequent Royal Navy court martials and enquiries and US reactions that followed each action and the consequences that followed for the commanders involved, whilst capturing the wider public reactions in the press and various naval journals that voiced opinion about them; showing the range of opinion and the differences between those in British and American naval circles and that of the wider British press compared to that circulating in Halifax often forced to rely on early news of a British defeat from American papers and reports mixed with Haligonians concern and pride for crew members serving in the North American Squadron.

Captain James Dacres, commanded HMS Gurriere
in her action with USS Constitution 19th August 1812

Perhaps the most interesting opinions of the first encounters with the US heavy frigates are those of the captains of the British frigates, Gurriere, Macedonia and Java and the conclusions they drew for their respective defeats. Whereas Captain James Dacres of the Guerriere focussed on his misfortune and concluded with a bold claim to look forward to causing a different outcome should he get a similar opportunity, Captain John Carden emphasised the superior dimensions, broadside and crew size of the USS United States and initially the Admiralty concluded that;

'under the right conditions and with the right tactics an 18-pounder frigate had the ability to tackle and defeat a 24-pounder adversary at close action'.

The final testimony of Lieutenant Henry Chads, following the death of Captain Henry Lambert commanding HMS Java, reveals a crew of landsmen worked hard to upgrade their sailing skills and despite only being exercised on the guns once during the voyage out to India managed to put up a good fight when she encountered the USS Constitution off the coast of Brazil on the 29th December 1812; with Java getting the better of her opponent in the early exchanges, cutting away some of the American's rigging and smashing the ships wheel whilst stern raking her with her fire and proving the superior sailor.

USS Consttution vs HMS Java - Patrick O'Brian

Indeed Commodore William Bainbridge was struck down by musketry from the Java as she passed close by, but the damage to Java's rigging eventually caused her to miss a tack whilst attempting to stay on the stern of the American frigate and she was caught whilst attempting to pass through the wind and suffered a devastating stern rake in return.

The respective tracks of HMS Java and USS Constitution.

What comes out from the reactions to the successful American actions, particularly involving the large US frigates is a sense of disbelief, followed by rationalising (rational-lies) the reasons for the defeats, ranging from more guns on the American ships, larger crews, to just plain bad luck that would be reversed on the next occasion.

Once the realisation had sunk in that the American large frigates and sloops were a much more formidable design than first imagined, with the large frigates in particular giving them the structure and strength of a third rate and carrying heavier (24-pdr) and far more guns in general than their frigate rating of 44-guns would seem to suggest, a more practical approach to dealing with the threat emerged; specifically leading to a directive from the British admiralty to avoid tackling these larger vessels one to one with the more common 18-pdr British 38-gun fifth-rates, but to resort to blockade with multiple ships on station supported by the odd third-rate, fast sailing, 74-gunner.

However this more considered approach to managing the American problem, whilst the British/Canadian military successfully dealt with US invasion attempts and Napoleon was driven back behind France's pre-1793 borders, didn't deal with the chivalric code that permeated both American and British naval captains, with a few exceptions, that demanded that the American ships should be met one on one in a so called 'fair-fight', so beloved by wargamers with points systems.

This romantic notion of the bloody business of war reminded me of the similarity of opinion seen in the second 'Great War' as the publics of France, Great Britain and Germany delighted in the adventures of First World War ace pilots, meeting their opponents over the trenches of Flanders.

This despite the fact that meeting the Constitution, President or United States in a 38-gun fifth-rate was anything but a 'fair-fight' with, for example, Constitution's broadside shot weight being 700 pounds in comparison to the Guerriere's at 500 pounds, and with a war to win, what has fairness to do with it anyway!

Likewise the American administration started to realise that despite the propaganda advantages of the victories over British warships, the damage caused to the American ships in these actions often meant their early return to a US port to make repairs and a termination of their principle mission, namely to attack and destroy British maritime trade, and saw them likewise issue guidance and orders to American commanders not to seek out these naval duels.

Kaizer details the manoeuvres made by both American and British commanders such as Captain Philip Broke on board HMS Shannon, issuing challenges to American commanders to come out and meet him one on one, in defiance of Admiralty orders, leading to his eventual action with USS Chesapeake on the 1st June 1813, which was perhaps the most even fight of the conflict and fortunately for Broke ended successfully whilst also ending the run of US successes from 1812 and offsetting his flagrant disregard of orders that engineered the action in the first place.

In fact Broke's actions off Boston stands in stark contrast to those of Captain James Hillyar in his action on board HMS Phoebe 36-guns against the USS Essex 36-guns off Valparaiso on 28th March 1814, with the battle-hardened veteran Hillyar, long past any notions of chivalric one on one actions, determined to complete his orders from the Admiralty to destroy the Essex and bring an end to its cruise against British whalers in the Pacific.

Refusing Captain David Porter's offer to meet in a one on one action, with the American captain keen to garner his career with such laurels, instead bringing the force of his long-gun advantage over the American short range carronades and the support of the sloop HMS Cherub to batter the American frigate and her consort Essex Junior into submission after another violation of neutral waters proved one too many and Hillyar elected to end matters.

As the ability for the American large ships to get to sea decreased, the burden of taking the war to the British fell on the smaller ships of the US navy and the American privateers, more able to slip past the blockade, with the notable cruises of the USS Argus and Wasp in British home waters covered, but noting that the victories of the small ships grabbed little attention in the press when compared to the frigate actions.

Despite the success of blockade on the US coastline and the aggressive counter-attack led by Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, encouraging US slaves to flee servitude and join the Royal Navy in its struggle, and a series of large scale raids that lead to the burning of Washington and its state buildings, the defeats by the US heavy frigates early in the war still caused a feeling of lingering shame to Haligonians and  the North American Squadron determined to put the matter right at the first opportunity by capturing one of the three enemy large ships.

The opportunity finally came on the 15th January 1815 following the delay by the US Congress to ratify the peace treaty signed in Ghent on December 24th 1814, and, with the war continuing, seeing the USS President under Commodore Stephen Decatur attempt to evade the blockade off New York with a planned offensive against the British East India Company and its merchants, brought to bay by the fast sailing British 24-pdr heavy frigate HMS Endymion 40-guns.

HMS Endymion yaws to rake USS President 15th January 1815 - Thomas Butterwoth

Taking full advantage of Decatur's damage to his ship after he had grounded on leaving the harbour and his desire to evade Endymion's consorts of four other frigates including the 56-gun razee, HMS Majestic, which saw the American concentrate on trying to take out the British frigate's rigging and slow her down, whilst Endymion used her heavy guns to fire into the President's hull, eventually yardarm to yardarm, with her 24-pdr main battery causing great damage and casualties and slowing the large American frigate to allow the British squadron to close and capture her.

HMS Endymion was a new class of British heavy frigate but was probably still not a match for a one on one engagement with the USS President and the capture of the latter is most likely down to the fact that Decatur was forced to fight a running battle that allowed Endymion to do the job of so crippling the American frigate that she could not escape.

However the British commodore commanding the squadron was quick to heap praise on Captain Henry Hope commanding Endymion and made it clear in his report that the capture of President was due to to the action fought with Endymion despite the the later drawing off to make repairs as the squadron came up to secure the prize.

I found this book a thoroughly good read, giving an interesting insight to the British reaction to the losses they suffered and the response which developed amid a debate within naval circles as to what that response should be; and Nick Kaiser has really pulled out the differences in opinion between the captains in the Royal Navy's North American squadron, desperate to put the record straight with one on one challenges to the Americans and the senior command, focussed on winning the wider conflict and keen to prevent the American ships from interfering with that wider strategy.

In addition we see a Royal Navy striving to find the balance in its post action court-martial proceedings after each loss to find the lessons to be shared among the fleet whilst not exposing to public scrutiny the weaknesses in practice such enquires could reveal, but often finding a way to punish incompetence through future unemployment if not always meted out in a just way.

As well as providing much in the way of scenario set ups and objectives for wargaming the actions described, particularly if you want to test out the Admiralty's pronouncement;

'under the right conditions and with the right tactics an 18-pounder frigate had the ability to tackle and defeat a 24-pounder adversary at close action'.

the book contains sixteen colour profile plates of the British and American ships discussed, drawn by Florian Richter which was a very nice discovery when I first flicked through the pages of the book 

Florian Richter's gorgeous full colour ship profiles really adds extra value to this book for the naval wargamer

Whilst working my way through the various chapters I found myself recalling two other books I had read previously and reviewed here on JJ's and I would highly recommend getting and reading with this title, namely; 


Revenge in the Name of Honour is another great title from Helion & Company and consists of 217 pages which includes the following;

List of Maps 
1. Actions along the Eastern Coastline of British North America and the United States, 1812-1815. 
2.Actions in the West Indies and along the Eastern coastline of South America, 1813-1814.
3. Actions in European and West African Waters, 1812-1815.
4. Operations in the Pacific, 1814.

Preface
Introduction

1. 'A Perfect Unmanageable Wreck': Opening Acts in the Naval War of 1812.
2. 'It is with the deepest regret': The defeats of Frolic, Macedonian and Java.
3. 'The unlooked for revers of the medal': Impact of the losses in Britain and Nova Scotia.
4. 'Very happy to meet any American frigate': Crisis for the Admiralty and the Officers of the North American squadron.
5. 'Hope yet of an honourable encounter': Philip Broke, Thomas Capel, and the blockade of Boston.
6. 'All I request is that both ships may quickly meet': Victory, defeat, and stagnation, 1813-1814.
7. 'Defended so long as she could be with any prospect of success': Lost sloops and elusive frigates, 1814.
8. 'Gallantry and spirit on both sides': Triumph of the Endymion and Constitution in the war's final months, 1815.

Epilogue

Appendices
I      Careers and fates of the British naval officers.
II     Dispositions of Frigates in North American waters, July 1813.

Bibliography

If I were to make one small criticism of the book it is that it doesn't have an index which is a little frustrating for an historical wargamer likely to come back to the book for reference around a particular engagement and it would have been nice to have avoided flicking through pages to find the particular action and ships involved, that said I would have no hesitation in recommending having the book on any Naval War of 1812 book shelf and it makes a welcome addition to my own.

Revenge in the Name of Honour retails through Helion Books for £25 and is in paperback but can be purchased at the time of writing for just under £13 from other retailers.

Next up: More adventures along the Welsh border in Carolyn and my recent trip away, post lockdown and more All at Sea additions with three more Spanish third rates about to be fitted out in JJ's shipyard together with an at anchor version of L'Orient ready for her date with destiny at the Battle of the Nile, more anon.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Blood & Horse Droppings - WOTR Rules from Dr Robert Jones

My only as yet completed company, Warwick's for my planned WOTR collection

Last week in a chat with friends from the DWG, in one of our regular Zoom gatherings which have replaced in the recent lockdowns our regular pub gatherings following a monthly club meeting, a new set of Wars of the Roses wargame rules came up in conversation, written by Dr Rob Jones a medievalist historian based in Cardiff and whose name immediately rang a bell, having had the pleasure of listening to him present at Penarth Wargames Society's annual show, Crusade in 2017 and 2019, both of which I reported on here at JJ's and can be seen in the link below.

Rob Jones Presentations at Crusade 2017 & 2019

In addition to the name of the author, what further peaked my interest, was that his new rules were based on the rules I was planning my own collection around, 'A Coat of Steel' (ACOS) by The Perfect Captain which seemed to me to really capture a lot of the peculiarities of medieval warfare and the warfare of this particular era, if in a rather opaque manner, with its references to a lot of medieval nomenclature which provides some of that 'feel' but at times rather confuses the matter of simply being a set of wargame rules.

Warwick's boys get stuck-in in a Christmas game held at the DWG a few years ago

Anyway intrigued, I found my way to Dr Jones' web site and the page relating to his rule set, 'Blood and Horse Droppings' (BHD) and promptly got a copy of the rules, a set of 'Warre Dice Stickers' and some army lists for the period and sat down to read, compare and contrast with ACOS, see link below if you are interested.

Blood & Horse Droppings Rules


So in essence, Rob Jones has sieved out what I feel are the best aspects of ACOS, namely its rather unique method of combat resolution. which requires opposing commanders to select from a range of six distinct tactical options for their 'companies' that in the case of  BHD, when compared one to another and combined with the result of a six sided 'Warre Die' result, churns out a result of casualties, disorder and/or pushbacks that helps to capture the feel of the bloody scrum produced from men locked in close combat with two handed 'tin openers'.

I was slightly disappointed to see his dropping of the similar shooting options of choosing different ways to launch arrow attacks dependent on wind direction and the tactics of the target presenting themselves in an advantageous way or not in the approach to combat, but can see that his simplification of this process could well pay off in a cleaner and faster resolution to this aspect of the game.

Perfect Captain - A Coat of Steel
Perfect Captain - A Crown of Paper

However additionally BHD retains the use of the wonderful artwork and characteristics beautifully captured in ACOS's with its character cards and the use of Traits and Puissance ratings to show the tactical and aggressiveness ratings for the various captains together with their respective ranks, that is Royals, Barons and Knights.

Another key change is the organising of the various troop types (retinue, array, mercenaries, spears, mounted men at arms, scurrours, Irish and Gonnes) around a set sized (base footprint) unit incorporating figures to represent the different troops that would be grouped within a company, the basic unit; therefor a retinue company would feature a captain and his fully armoured men at arms, some other jacketed men at arms and a group of archers, liveried and locals, the number of which and the types used being simply to illustrate the look of the unit, perhaps with archers to the rear and men at arms to the front. 

Rob Jones made particular mention in his talks of how groups of men were raised during this period, which would include a mix of weapon specialists, and how they would fight together in 'their company', be that liveried retinues or commission of array, with a group loyalty to one another and the captain who raised and organised them, and he has reflected this in the rules, together with a very limited range of movement options also captured in his presentations.

Some Scurrours, painted for a friend at club, during lockdown (Vince - I'll bring them along for you next month)

I would thus take my current based groups of figures as seen in the pictures above and group eight such bases of infantry types, four to the front and four to the rear on a movement tray to represent such a company, and for my cavalry units, probably sticking to a single rather than double rank with a similar frontage as for the infantry. 

Different strength companies, under or over strength are represented by a casualty rating of 4, 5 or 6 indicating how many casualties can be absorbed before the company breaks and with the lower or higher number indicating an above or below strength average company.

The various hits taken by units in the form of casualties and 'Black Flag' disorder hits could probably be easily recorded using micro dice, small markers or on a roster, depending on your own taste.

By retaining the basic character parameters and troop types in ACOS it also should enable BHD to be played using 'A Crown of Paper' (ACOP), the stand alone campaign game from The Perfect Captain which is another compelling reason to check these rules out.

I plan soon to make a start of my big pile of Perry WOTR plastics and metals and I will continue with my ACOS basing system which will easily convert as illustrated into BHD units, a rule set I am keen to have a go with, seeing that they incorporate a lot of the ideas of medieval warfare that Rob Jones outlined in his very entertaining presentations.

More anon
JJ

Friday, 4 June 2021

All at Sea - Cape St. Vincent Spanish Additions, Part Two

The 'Captain' capturing the 'San Nicholas' and the 'San Jose' at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, 14th February 1797 - Nicholas Pocock, Royal Museums Greenwich

Picking up where I left off last month, work progresses to make additions to the Spanish contingent that I completed for the Trafalgar collection to enable a refight using the forces that were present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent  on the 14th February 1797.


This little project requires the addition of three Spanish first-rates and nine third-rates and alongside my model of L'Orient under full sail I also painted another three additional generic Spanish 74's again with a more Revolutionary War look to their colour schemes incorporating the single yellow-ochre gun port strakes for the two gun decks and my combination of various other common Spanish type schemes to the bulwarks, stern galleries and figureheads.


As with Trafalgar I am starting to work up the scenario using several references with a key decision to decide when to start the action, that is where to set the British fleet up on its approach.

Set up proposed by Nick Skinner in the KMH scenario plan

Also as with the Trafalgar set up the Spanish, like the Combined Fleet, are battling with a bow wind as will the British when they turn on to a parallel heading, so the movement rates will be relatively slow, which will impact on the required table space, but my first guess would be a minimum of three lengthways ten by five foot cloths.

Spanish Fleet:
The Spanish fleet are all classed as Landlubbers and are organised as follows:

 Zone 1 Spaniards: [Cordoba’s Squadron]
Teniente General Jose de Cordoba y Ramos aboard the Santìsima Trinidad
 
Santìsima Trinidad                    130 (poor)
Mexicano                                  112 (poor)
Purìsima Concepción                112 (poor)
Salvador del Mundo                 112 (poor)
San José                                    112 (poor)        Admiral F. J. Winthuysen
San Nicolas                               84 (poor)
Atlante                                      74 (poor)
Conquestada                             74 (poor)
Soberano                                   74 (poor)
Firme                                        74 (average)
San Genaro                               74 (average)
San Ildephonso                         74 (average)
San Francisco de Paula             74 (poor)
San Ysidro                                74 (average)
San Antonio                              74 (poor)
San Pablo                                  74 (poor)
Neptuna                                    74 (poor)
Bahama                                     74 (poor)
San Domingo                            74 (poor)
San Juan Nepomuceno            74 (average)
Terrible                                     74 (poor)

Zone Two Spaniards: [Moreno’s Squadron]
Commander Admiral J. Moreno aboard the Prìncipe de Asturias

Prìncipe de Asturias                 112 (average)
Conde de Regla                        112 (poor)
San Fermìn                               74 (poor)
Oriente                                      74 (poor)
Glorioso                                    74 (poor)
Infante de Pelayo                      74 (average)

This order of battle, illustrates the need for the extra Spanish ships and with the extra first-rates will complete my Spanish collection to allow any action requiring a sizable Spanish fleet to be put on the table.

Fourth - Third Rate







Fifth - Third Rate






Sixth - Third Rate







So the next batch of models will see the final three Spanish 74's added and my L'Orient model at anchor, leaving just the two extra Spanish first-rates to be added.

Next up I have another book review from the Naval War of 1812, more adventures on the Welsh borders and a look at something interesting going on in the world of 'Wars of the Roses' wargaming.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

North Wales & Border 2021 - Roman & Megalithic Anglesey

Legio XIIII 'Gemina' make an opposed landing on Anglesey, c.60 AD - Angus McBride

Last week, Carolyn and I decided to take advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions ahead of the May Bank Holiday to travel up to Pentre, a little village outside of Shrewsbury where we stayed in a very nice  'air bnb' to base ourselves for a little bit of exploring the delights of North Wales and the border area.

A little stop-off in Hay on Wye during our travel up to Pentre, where I managed to make a few additions to the library.

With six months of lockdown we, like the rest of the country, were eager to get out and about and as this was a part of the UK that we both had places on our list we wanted to see, together with a lockdown habit of enjoying long walks, we planned to combine the two and spend a few days walking and exploring the area.

The Wheatsheaf Inn built in 1792, one of the seventy pubs that were in the County Town of Ludlow in that year, that have since reduced over the intervening centuries, seen here next to the historic gatehouse on the old town wall encompassing five hundred historic listed buildings.

No 'Plastic, Make Believe' interiors here. Imagine if these old walls and timbers could talk! Not having been in a pub for over six months, popping into the Wheatsheaf on our way up to Pentre made a very pleasant detour to our journey 

After driving up on the Sunday afternoon with a stop off in Hay-on-Wye, the book capital of Europe, where Carolyn indulged my curiosity to see what military history additions to my library I might discover, more anon, with some book reviews to follow, and a pleasant pint in the oldest pub in Ludlow only recently reopened for the return of visitors, we got settled in at Pentre; and then on the Monday our first day exploring took us off down the A5, London to Holyhead road, to Anglesey with the picture above by Angus McBride firmly lodged in my mind as I imagined seeing this last refuge of Druidism in Briton, before Seutonius and Agricola changed the history of these islands for ever.

The area of our little post-lockdown expedition, with our base just outside Shrewsbury indicated and the drive along the old A5 to Anglesey with the three areas of interest we planned to visit that day.

The weather on the Sunday and Monday had been rather indifferent with drizzle accompanying our stroll around Hay and Ludlow and a chill-out day to follow, walking locally, which encouraged getting under cover to drink and read books, but for our journey to Anglesey on the Tuesday, God was in his Heaven and the sun shone bright amid azure blue sky as the temperature started to climb.

After crossing the Menai Strait, that separates the island from the mainland we continued on to Holy Island and Holyhead where we planned to check out the remains of Roman occupation and explore the last stop in Wales before reaching Dublin across the Irish Sea with the South Stack Lighthouse marking the last point of land and with a very nice four mile cliff walk thrown in before heading back to the Strait and calling in at an amazing Megolithic burial mound that harks back to the pre-Roman times on Anglesey and Britain as a whole, with Tolkienien descriptions of 'ruins in the landscape' and 'Barrow-wights' springing to mind with monuments like this no doubt inspiring his literature.

Caer Gybi - Holyhead Roman Fort


The 260 square mile island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh) is situated off the north-west coast of Wales and is the largest island in Wales and the seventh largest in the British Isles.

It is linked to the mainland over the Menai Strait by the Menai Suspension Bridge designed by Thomas Telford in 1826 and the Britannia Bridge, built in 1850 and replaced in 1980.

The principle town on the island is Holyhead on Holy Island with a ferry port that normally handles over two-million passengers a year travelling too and from Ireland.

The English name for the island is obscure, but it is referenced as such by Viking raiders in the early tenth century and later adopted by the Norman invaders of Gwynedd, however the Welsh name has a much earlier and established heritage, first recorded by the Romans in the Latinised form 'Mona'.

The Roman Conquest of Britain 43-84 AD
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman.Britain.campaigns.43.to.84.jpg

It is the Roman and early period of Anglesey that the island is famous for and historically associated with the last stronghold of the Druids in Britain and where their religion and influence was stamped out and crushed by the Romans in two invasions of the island in 60 and 78 AD, and places Druidism alongside Christianity as the two religions that were actively opposed and suppressed by Imperial Rome.

It appears not much of the early Roman occupation of the island is visible with the first century Roman fort at Aberffraw underneath the current village, excavated in the 1970's, revealing a thirteen foot wide  V shaped ditch and earthwork bank, later added to with another similar U shaped ditch some five and a half feet deep with evidence of abandonment and another medieval ditch added at a later date, this together with some Samian pottery shards.

The above ground archaeology harks back to the latter days of Roman occupation as Britannia became the target for raids from Ireland and the Continent, requiring the building of coastal defence strongpoints and watchtowers ready to to repel such incursions, which I looked at in a previous post on a visit to Portchester back in 2017, built to repel raids along the Saxon shore.

 

The only remains of the Roman 3rd - 4th century fort in Holyhead are the familiar herringbone style stone and mortar walls that surround the church of St Gybi, with one long side of the enclosure overlooking the natural harbour. 


British Campaigns of Agricola 78-84 AD
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agricola.Campaigns.78.84.jpg

With walls almost thirteen feet in height and nearly five feet thick in places it makes an imposing footprint on the town with three corner towers, one original, still standing and with easy parking making it a great place to start our day tour.




One corner of the enclosure was made into a remembrance garden and close by was a poignant reminder of Holyhead's link with the sea and the sacrifice made by two Holyhead ferry boats commandeered for war service in World War One. 
 


A postcard showing the Dublin ferry SS Hibernia leaving Holyhead, later commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Tara and sunk off North Africa in 1915 
https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/1915-sinking-hms-tara-hmhs-14867538

Another Holyhead Steamship, SS Anglia, seen here as a WWI Hospital Ship before her sinking in the Channel after hitting a mine, bringing injured troops back from France in 1915
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMHS_Anglia

In Roman and Medieval times the harbour water would have come up much closer to the foot of these old walls, but today's modern harbour facilities lie beyond the main road into town and as you can see the day was set well for our exploring with wall to wall sunshine and blue skies.



Caer y Twr - Iron Age Hillfort/Roman Watch-tower


Just a little way out of the town the road leads to a former quarry that has now been reclaimed as part of a natural park for wildlife that has a visitor centre and carpark that enabled us to grab the walking boots and head out along the cliff paths towards the South Stack lighthouse, the last stop before Dublin, and on the highest ground on the island, above it, the obvious place for a late-Roman watchtower.


On our way out from the carpark we discovered a rather interesting object, that to the untrained eye might have suggested something to do with the former nearby quarry, and with no signs to indicate precisely what it was I started to take a closer look.

The rifling marks on the interior and the breech looking mechanism suggested a naval type of gun and later research shows the remains of gun mountings above the lighthouse so I came to the conclusion that this is one of those former coastal guns.

I could find no references to this piece of military history positioned on the start of the cliff path out to South Stack Lighthouse. It appears to be the barrel of a naval type gun, probably WWI vintage and about four inch calibre with rifling in the barrel and the breech mechanism seen here. There were coastal gun positions overlooking the lighthouse, so perhaps this is one of those guns.


The walk out along the lower cliff path provided stunning views out over the sea, cliffs and back towards Holyhead, but Carolyn was unlucky with her hopes of seeing Puffins that nest in these cliffs.



Irish pirates have been replaced by Irish Ferries, but indicate what an important sea route this remains in modern times.


As we climbed higher the end of the headland came into sight with the lighthouse indicating lands end.


On reaching the end of our first two mile section of our walk the ground suddenly rose still higher and the remains of ancient dry stone walls and more squared off walls with mortar holding things together came into view indicating an area that had once been occupied.




The views back to the town and the fort made this an ideal place to set up a watch point, able to take advantage of an Iron-Age enclosure of dry stone construction to encircle the later buildings with ample opportunity to signal via beacons of any activity on the sea beyond.




Having climbed quite a bit we grabbed a bite of lunch sat enjoying the views and then decided to head back to the car via the higher track that is also used by vehicles supplying the lighthouse.

There is lots of wildlife evident in the area and among the birds spotted on our route back to the car was a very photogenic Stonechat that was very happy to perch close by and have his picture taken.
 
A male Stonechat or Saxicola torquata - A common resident, perches prominently on tops of bushes. Male has black head with prominent white half collar, back and wings are dark brown, streaked black, breast is orange-red. Habitat is heaths, scrubby hillsides and hedgerows. Voice is a metallic chak-chak and jingling warble. What a treat!

This little chap was certainly not camera shy and obviously photogenic!

A real treat to end our walk along the cliffs

The birds weren't the only ones enjoying the perfect flying weather.

RAF Valley, built in 1941, is nearby and home to the RAF flight training squadron using Hawk T2's and Texan T1's for fast jet and propeller aircraft training, and the day was perfect flying weather for Stonechats and Hawks.

Bryn Celli Ddu - 'The Mound in the Dark Grove'


We were feeling pretty tired by the time we got back to the car, but we still had one more place to visit before heading back to Shrewsbury for a well earned curry that evening.

Given the pre-Roman history of Anglesey we were really keen to see the evidence of those early inhabitants and there was one particularly interesting monument that lay close by our route back on to the mainland.
 
The UK abounds in pre-historic sights and monuments and Anglesey must have quite a high number per square mile in comparison to the rest of the home nations, if this sign in the car park close to Bryn Celli Ddu is anything to go by.

If you are interested in prehistory and the monuments associated with the megalithic and Neolithic periods then the British islands abound with burial mounds, henges and stone rows that give a glimpse into the lives of these ancient peoples, and you can check out previous posts on the blog that illustrate the many examples to be seen. 


The burial mound at Bryn Celli Ddu is a stunning example of these kind of monuments and with its name meaning 'The mound in the Dark Grove' had other connotations of the Druids and their Sacred Groves that made this a place I wanted to include in our visit.

The Mound in the Dark Grove, a stunning way to end our day in Anglesey.


The mound is thought to have been built around 3,000 BC and would have originally had an outer henge or earthwork and inner ditch with standing stones within, but today only the outer edge of the  ditch survives, with a few of the upright stones standing within it.


A mix of burnt and unburnt human bones were found within the inner passage of the mound together with quartz pieces, arrowheads, seashells and stone beads.





The passage way into the tomb is somewhat unique in that it has been constructed to allow shafts of sunlight from a midsummer solstice to travel the length of it into the inner chamber, suggesting the solstice had a significance to these people and the Neolithic builders.






Standing close to the mound and gazing out towards the mountains on the mainland beyond, through the nearby trees, made this a very special place to visit and one to remember.


Anglesey was a great place to visit on our first opportunity to get back out exploring and enjoying freedom that we used to take for granted, and I'm looking forward to showing some of the other great places we visited on our week away.

Next up: More reinforcements for my Cape St Vincent Spanish fleet , then part two of this series of posts and I will have another War of 1812 book review to do.