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Celtic Warfare

Originally publish April 2006.

Celtic Warfare

Some notes I made when reading the book “Celtic Warfare 1595-1763”, by James M. Hill.

The book examines traditional tactics as they appeared in Scotland and Ireland. The Celtic Warfare book coverforemost element being the Celtic or Highland Charge. The following description came form the 18th century, but with the exception of the firearms it could apply to earlier centuries as well.

Their manner of fighting is adapted for brave but undisciplined men. They advance with rapidity, discharge their pieces when within musket length (range) of the enemy, and then, throwing them down, draw their sword, and… dart with fury on the enemy through the smoke of their fire… Their attack is so terrible, that the best troops in Europe would with difficulty sustain the first shock of it; and if the hordes of the Highlanders once come in contact with them, their defeat is inevitable.

This type of massed attack resembles similar tactics of tribal warfare around the world. The charge would start as a line which would break into knots of men who would try to break through the enemy’s line. When combines with an eerie blood curdling war cry, and the Scots’ reputation as being ferocious fighters, it was an effective tool under certain conditions, and succeeded in defeating larger forces on several occasions.

In the words of the book:

The charge succeeded because of the emphasis placed on individual prowess and accomplishment. They preferred individualized combat that highlighted the strength of each warrior… Armed with sword, targe and later, musket, the Celtic fighter was a self-contained fighting unit. Because the Celts emphasized the individual warrior, they were best… in small, mobile armies. A Celtic general, often the foremost warrior of his clan, found it easier to command a small force he led by example. He took upon himself the most dangerous and demanding tasks, cementing the all-important bond of trust between him and his subordinates.”

There are several reasons however that could cause a Highland charge to fail. It worked best in rough country where a more “modern” army, trained to move as a large unit, would not have room to maneuver. In open country, a disciplined enemy had time to whittle the charge down with arrows, or musket-fire, or could move around to engulf them we greater numbers. Fighting as individuals, the Scots often lacked the discipline to regroup and hold off a counterattack if their initial charge failed. In addition, a lack of organization providing
support services, quartermaster units, or an officer corps limited their effective size, and meant the could not provide adequate supplies for a sustain campaign away from their home areas.

Again, from the book:

Since the Celts were vulnerable against regular armies on smooth terrain, they often employed guerrilla tactics within the own territory. Such tactics accounted for most of the Celts’ successes against Julius Caesar during the Gallic wars… as well as the victories of Hugh O’Neill over the Elizabethan armies of the late 16th century… They awaited unsuspecting enemy columns behind plashes (wall-like hedges) flanked by deep ditches, attacked savagely, and then disappeared into the safety of forest or bog. In this manner the Celts were able to use the tactical offensive – the charge – against an enemy who,
despite his overall strength, was at a temporary disadvantage.”

The author mentions that during the 1640’s guerrilla tactics almost disappeared from Scottish use. This halt in the use of guerrilla tactics may have been influenced by Scottish mercenaries who learned their trade under the likes of Gustavus Adolphus in the 30 Years War, coming home to apply their knowledge of “modern” tactics to the conflicts at home.

About the 1660, the author writes that the English started to place less emphasis on their navy, and more on their land forces. These modernizations eventually helped wreak havoc on the Highland charge. More accurate muskets, and light, mobile cannons could cut down a charge from a distance. Also the invention of the socket bayonet, allowed an army to continue to fire until the last moment, and still have the bayonet in place, and ready for single combat, when wave of the charge hit. Thus the late 17th century may represent the beginning of the end for the “romantic” period of Celtic warfare. After that, the traditional tactics that Scots were slow to change simply could no longer resist the better equipped, and more disciplined armies that they faced.

To end, here are a couple more quotes from the book that I found interesting:

Generally when Gael fought Gael, honor and courage were rewarded by a lenient attitude concerning the final kill. If, during a feud both sides demonstrated prowess and courage… it was likely that the number of fatalities would be relatively low as each side ‘rewarded’ the other by sparing as many warriors as possible. Only those who behaved in a cowardly manner would be killed. Thus each clan upheld its honor at minimum cost. When the clans faced the Lowlanders, however, especially those who would not stand and fight manfully, the slaughter that followed resulted from contempt for cowardly behavior. This attitude toward the Campbells was of a different nature… They recalled many brave feats performed by the Campbells, but in 1644-45 Campbell prowess could not overshadow their alliance with the Lowlanders and the British…”

The study of warfare of… the Celts is merited for several reasons, one of the most important being that Gaelic warfare played such a significant role in the development of the New World. Imagine… what the demographies of North America might have been had Gaelic Ireland not succumbed to the English, or had one of the Jacobite uprisings been successful… A flood tide of displaced Gaels went to America between 1700 and 1776, and eventually peopled the frontier south…”

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