The Quest For the Lost Roman Legions:
Discovering the Varus Battlefield
by Tony Clunn
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Varus' Last Lager at Felsenfeld
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Savas Beatie LLC:
By midday the going once more became extremely difficult. Heavy rain and violent winds driving down on their positions made walking difficult, and more trees were found blocking the route. Utterly exhausted, the Romans finally could advance no farther, such was the ferocity of the storm. Such a cyclone of wind and rain had not been seen in Germany for many years, and made the normal late summer storms seem calm by comparison. 1
The Germans continued with their skirmishing attacks. They did not suffer the many difficulties that beset the Roman column, for they were used to bad weather, were not encumbered with women and children, and knew what they were about. Although both sides spent much of their time slipping and sliding along the forest floor, the Germans firmly held the upper hand.
It was impossible for them [the Romans] to wield their weapons. They could not draw their bows nor hurl their javelins to any effect, nor even make use of their shields, which were completely sodden with rain. Their opponents, on the other hand, were for the most part lightly armed, and so could approach or retire without difficulty, and suffered far less from the weather. Beside this, the enemy's numbers had been greatly reinforced, since many of those who had first hesitated now joined the battle in the hope of taking plunder. Their increased numbers made it easy to encircle and strike down the Romans, whose ranks by contrast had shrunk, since they had lost many men in the earlier fighting.
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1. The heavy pounding storms that swept Germany and much of northern Europe in 1981, and again in 1984, may well have been an example of the conditions that prevailed at the time of the Varus battle.
The commander of the Seventeenth Legion had established a bridgehead of sorts around the front of the column as it straddled a deep valley bordering on the verge of the Wiehengebirge ridge, now only a short distance to the north of their position. Once he had re-secured his flanks, for his legion was now the only effective force in strength remaining of the Varus legions, he dispatched a force back around the perimeter areas of the column to assist the beleaguered troops pinned down in the valley floors, help clear trees and undergrowth, and put up a protective shield around the central command core. These actions gave some small relief to the trapped remnants of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth legions, whose losses were alarmingly high. The Germans drew off once more when they encountered this increase in resistance, patient in their determination and conviction that they would win, no matter how long it took. The ground and time were on their side. They watched and they waited.
* * *
Arminius was well pleased with the way the battle had progressed thus far. Although the Germans had all the advantages of ambush and withdrawal, they had still suffered losses of their own. He was content however, for the Romans were still moving in the direction he needed them to go, ever northwest. His men would stand off for a time and continue to coax the legions along with but minor skirmishing forays until he could herd them into the final ambush, the final killing field.
Arminius had planned his final series of ambushes in the main westerly pass at Ostercappeln, less than one mile from his camp at Krebsburg. It was an ideal bottleneck to trap the remnants of Varus' legions, and if necessary, another entrapment zone might follow around the Kalkriese Berg at Kalkriese itself. This location was the ultimate bottleneck, a tightly restricted path around a small projecting knoll lying on the northerly edge of the Berg no more than fifty to one hundred yards wide, with the boggy black morass of the Dieven Wiesen squeezing the trail against the slope of the hills. Arminius, however, had made one small but important oversight. He had forgotten the tenacity and strength of Marcus Aius, his courage, and his leadership skills. He had also not taken into account that Vala still retained command of a fair proportion of the original force of cavalry, oversights that would have a marked effect on the outcome of the next twelve hours.
The command center of the legion column was still reasonably intact. The Consul's own personal guards surrounding and protecting Varus' entourage were hand-picked seasoned veterans of many past campaigns; some of the guards had served Varus for years. Hard as nails and just as mean if not meaner than any painted barbarian, they had savagely fought off any attacks made against the central core of the command cell
Varus, now in a more positive frame of mind after a short nap, Marcus, and the commanders of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth legions were involved in a deep conversation when Vala joined them in the tent.
"Vala-just the man I wish to see," began Varus. "I have decided, Commander, that we cannot survive this piecemeal onslaught in these cursed valleys and hills much longer. The commander of the Seventeenth has reported that the Wiehengebirge is not far to our front, and there are a number of passes we can use to gain the open ground to the north of the ridge line."
Vala looked at the faces around him. Marcus met his eyes with a grim look. He turned back at Varus. "What would you have me do, sire?"
"I need you to take a fast-moving mounted patrol-take all of the cavalry you can muster-and ride like the wind when you do it. I want a clean pass to get into the open ground. If these attacks on us are any example of what lies ahead . . ." Varus' sentence drifted off into silence for a few seconds. "I still do not know how Arminius fares." He barely whispered the words.
Marcus slowly shook his head in dismay at this latest reference to Arminius, but Varus went on, "We have but one chance to make good and recover the situation. Get into the open ground, regroup, and then swing northwest towards the Ems , marching out from the northern edge of the ridge in the open ground where we can better defend our positions and recover the damned initiative. Marcus Aius will assume temporary command of your Eighteenth Legion. Order it now, but let the Seventeenth have your report first."
Before Vala could reply Varus turned to the commander of the Seventeenth. "On receipt of Commander Vala's report you are to act as quickly as you can. Take the clear pass and secure a battle lager position in the open ground as quickly as you can. Leave your flank protection in place and we will bring up the Eighteenth and Nineteenth legions into the position as soon as you have gained and secured the ground." No one moved. "That is all." Varus was not seeking counsel or questions. He had issued his battle orders and expected them to be carried out. He dismissed the Orders Group and prepared for the next move forward. Marcus walked with Vala to attend the cavalry reconnaissance briefing, unable willing to remain in Varus' company and listen to more platitudes about the traitor Arminius. Marcus had long since given up on Varus' views that Arminius was still waiting for help from the legions somewhere to the northwest. As far as Marcus was concerned, Arminius was directly tied to and probably leading the battle against the legions, and was even now planning the next attack against them.
During the next hour, while the Germans held back from the outer protection afforded by the Seventeenth on the flanks of the Roman column, and the rain and winds were still lashing through the valleys and hills, Vala and his riders made their quick dash to the Wiehengebirge. It did not take him long to examine the ground at Ostercappeln, and in particular the passes to the east and west of the area leading away into the open ground to the north. He was about to move back from his vantage point when he saw a streak of color moving up from the valley and into the forests of the westerly pass. A stream of tribesmen, barely visible through the driving rain, was moving across the open ground. The pass to the west was not open. The eastern pass was the only route of escape into the open ground. The results of Vala's reconnaissance were swiftly issued down the chain of command. The Seventeenth pressed forward through the boggy valley floors, maintaining a flank guard at all times, through which the rest of the column progressed in its hasty move toward the open ground and a place called Schwagstorf.
Originally Marcus Aius believed the column should swing northwest after moving through the pass and press on immediately towards Vorden. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized Varus' order to establish an early overnight battle lager was well founded. By the time the Seventeenth began its advance through the eastern exit the day was drawing to a close. Exhaustion and desperation was carved deeply on every man's face-a clear indication that regrouping and establishing the reassuring walls of an overnight battle lager was an urgent first priority. With so many tired and wounded legionaries starting to sink under the strain of the last four days of intense hardship, of sleepless nights and days, it was decided to run for the highest ground on the other side of the feature, slightly northwest of the pass, to a ground swell called Felsenfeld (Felsen Field)
And so the legions swarmed through the easterly pass onto this rising ground where the Seventeenth hastened to establish a tactical battle lager. Dying and wounded comrades were dragged and carried toward the new redoubt, and Roman spirits again lifted slightly as the rain and winds slowly dissipated. By early evening the hasty lager was up and the remnants of the three legions began pouring into the new position, Roman hearts took a little strength from the momentary relief of a stable and reasonably well protected environment.
* * *
[CONTENT REMOVED . . . ]
As the hours of darkness settled over Felsenfeld the rains stopped. The respite from attack, safety of the lager, and end to the rain lifted spirits balancing on the brink of despair. Hope, small and barely flickering, danced anew within their minds. The guards were posted and the rolls called. Every name on the muster was spoken; few were left to answer. Marcus Aius walked the outposts, spoke to the guards, visited the sick and dying, and encouraged everyone he met to stand fast, to fight for their families, for Rome, for Augustus Caesar, and ultimately, for their very own lives. Instead of hopeless stares, Marcus was pleased to see the firm nodding of heads, even smiles. He walked back inside the lager and moved through the mass of humanity huddled inside. There was little order, as most of the men had simply dropped where they could, their shields next to them. But something had changed. More often than not, encouraging words of duty and firmness answered his call to arms. Perhaps, he thought as he approached another groups of soldiers, just perhaps . . .
A chilling cry from beyond one of the lager walls pierced the solitude. Marcus jerked his head to the right in the direction of the scream just as it was cut short, strangled in mid-throat. It had come from one of the outposts! He rushed his way to the parapet and peered out into the darkness. The attack came in the form of a silent rush of tens of hundreds of shadows. The demons pitched in from every direction, coursing over the outposts without stopping to desecrate the soldiers they had slain in passing. Within seconds they had swarmed to the edge of the ditch around the lager at speed and with an impetus that seemed impossible to withstand. Marcus screamed out the alarm, as others were also doing. He watched with incredulity as they flung bundles of brushwood into the ditch to form small causeways over which they ran. With poles they scaled the ramparts, and in the darkness, as they flowed up and over the defenses, they appeared as a wave of ghosts, evil, haunting . . . fatal. And not a one uttered a sound. With a whisk of metal, Marcus drew his sword and the Romans rose as one to meet the attackers. The silence was no more.
A mighty roar, like a sudden wall of sound, rose up to the sky as shields, swords, and bodies came together in a thunderous cacophony of killing. Screams and gasps of pain, cries of recognition and anger, and shouts of hatred and defiance in a score of languages and dialects filled the lager. No quarter was given, no quarter called. By simply standing and facing outward, and with only a few hasty commands, the Romans had formed a thick wall of soldiers. Marcus had run deep into the lager to get the men organized for defense, pulling together groups of soldiers into a reserve. As he was arranging them Varus suddenly appeared next to him, white-faced and open-mouthed, spinning in directions as if unsure what to do.
"Marcus!" He screamed. "How can we hold them back!"
"Sire," yelled back the Tribune, "we are tightly gathered and in good order. We will beat them back. Please leave the tactical arrangements to me." Varus vanished into the throng of gathering soldiers milling about in the middle of the lager.
Marcus turned away with disgust and looked at the men along the front line next to the parapets, each fighting behind his curved scutum, thrusting with a short sword into the recklessly exposed stomachs and chests of their enemies. One Roman pushed with his shield against a massive German as he bent to the right, reaching in and cutting with his blade, hamstringing his opponent. Unable to stand, the warrior fell to the ground where, with a single stroke to the throat, he expired. The Roman lifted his sword just in time to utter his own demonic scream as he thrust his blade deep into the mouth of a bellowing barbarian. The tip of the sword lodged for a few seconds in the thick bone of his skull. The victorious Legionaire yanked his gladius free and was turning to face another attacker when a javelin hurled from an invisible arm whistled through the chill night air and struck him down. As he crumbled to the ground, another nameless Roman waiting behind him stepped up to take his place. Within a few minutes German and Roman bodies began piling atop one another, intertwined in death and dripping blood that made the ground a slippery, stinking morass of gore. Many soldiers on both sides lost their footing and unable to recover quickly enough, died as a result.
Deep in the distance a German horn sounded, strident and loud, calling forward fresh waves of shadows into the stalled attack. From the inner recesses of the redoubt a Roman horn answered the call, and from the inner sanctum of the lager trotted out a section of the reserve, doubling forward, pushing aside tiring comrades to hurl themselves at the German foe, short swords stabbing at naked bellies, slipping into unprotected groins and stomachs. Roman voices for the first time began to be clearly heard above the death struggle, shouting and screaming oaths at the foe. "Forward the Seventeenth! Forward for Rome !"
The adrenaline and heat of battle drove them now, pumping the blood through their veins, some to be spilled in jets and spumes from severed arteries and limbs hacked from bodies that were dead before they hit the ground.
Marcus looked up to watch as a torch arced through the air over the ranks of fighting Romans and landed behind them. Another, and then several more along the lines followed. For a moment he was puzzled, but then he understood. The flames highlighted their alignment and revealed their weaknesses. Legionaires quickly extinguished the flames and the mindless as the merciless fighting continued.
By now every yard of the ramparts and some of the interior rim of the lager itself was a reeling, roaring line of battle as the tribesmen continued pouring across the breastwork to be met by the grim Romans waiting within. How long this assault lasted nobody knew. Some estimated thirty minutes; others two hours-or longer. But when the attack finally ended, when the Germans finally realized they were not going to penetrate the ranks and overwhelm the defenders, they fell back into the night that had delivered them. There was a sagging of tired limbs, and for a short while an unbelievable hush descended over the fort. Even the wounded seemed to hold their breath, as if a cry of agony or plea for water might bring forth the demons a second time.
Marcus Aius leaned wearily against the upright supporting the main entrance position. His breath came only in great painful gasps as his eyes settled upon Centurion Gaius Suebus, who had been fighting nearby without either man knowing of the other. Marcus smiled in a show of self-assurance. "We held them and drove them off! We must hold longer-they cannot have many more resources! Surely in the name of all the gods we cannot be fighting all the German tribes together?"
[CONTENT REMOVED . . . ]
* * *
I stood on the heights at Felsenfeld, looking out across the broad expanse of ground running away to the southwestern pass of Ostercappeln and the site of the Krebsburg. As the evening drew to a close, I felt a great sense of loss and of sadness. I had these selfsame feelings of sorrow and emotion whenever I stood in the glades of the knoll at Kalkriese, and in one area in particular of the Dieven Wiesen, though I have never been able to establish a reason for the feelings that particular site stirred within me. But Felsenfeld produced huge waves of emotion that picked away at my senses. I heard the pleas and cries for mercy that rose from the ground around me, the cacophony and bedlam of a thousand voices engaged in heated battle.
For those who sense such things, the noise still rises across the centuries, from the very mists of a time long gone by.
This is an unedited excerpt from the book The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield , by Tony Clunn (ISBN 1-932714-08-1). It is provided to you courtesy of the author and Savas Beatie LLC ( www.savasbeatie.com ). All copyright protections apply. If you wish to reproduce this material in its entirety as presented above, you may do so provided: (1) You email Savas Beatie and alert us as to where it will appear ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), and (2) This introductory paragraph (and the one that opens this excerpt) remain intact. Should you wish to reproduce only a portion of this excerpt, please contact us for permission ( email@example.com ). Thank you.