Opinion

The Teutoburg Forest Massacre: Kalkriese Hill Ambush

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Part 4 of a series

In my opinion, some modern historians rely more heavily on the archeology than should be warranted, because the archeology is in abundance only at Kalkriese. A minority even propose that Kalkriese was the only battle, but I find their arguments unconvincing. Recent archeology has also identified a scattering of Roman artifacts over a relatively narrow path 15 miles long.

Late in the afternoon of September 10, Varus probably realized without doubt that he had been betrayed by Arminius and that a large part of the foreign auxiliary cohorts had either joined Arminius or deserted. He probably realized that even his loyal Roman cavalry wings had proved useless in forest combat, protecting his flanks, and effective reconnaissance. Many of his senior officers had been killed or wounded. Varus may have been wounded himself. Only about 8,000 Roman soldiers would be fit for duty the next day. At this point he probably called on his deputy commander and leader of one of the elite cavalry wings, Numonius Vala, to take his remaining force of about 300 cavalry on the best remaining horses and ride for help. There were two other Roman Legions, the 1st and 5th, posted in Mainz, west of the Rhine, commanded by Varus’s nephew, Lucius Nonius Asprenas. They could also ask their Frisian allies to come to their aid. Paterculus, however, claims that although Vala had always been a man of honor before, he rode off with the intention of desertion.

Whatever Vala’s motivation, he rode off to the north but came to a quick and bloody end. His tired cavalry force was quickly overtaken by a larger Germanic cavalry force, probably German Auxiliary cavalry led by Arminius. Neither Vala nor any of his Roman cavalry survived. This scene may have been in plain view of Varus and his officers. Later that evening, Varus, assisted by a military servant, fell on his sword in expiation for his defeat and perhaps to avoid German torture and sacrifice to their war-gods. Both Varus’s father and grandfather had died the same way. Many of his senior officers also committed suicide in the same manner. This was considered honorable by the Romans, but it left the remaining Roman force of 8,000 without senior officer leadership.

On the morning of September 11, the two camp commanders (prefects) for the 17th and 18th Legions, Lucius Eggius and Ceionius were left in command of 8,000 Roman troops and many wounded. They organized into two battle groups of 4,000 each, the 17th Legion and the remnants of the 19th Legion under Eggius, and the 18th Legion and the remnants of the auxiliary cohorts under Ceionius.

On September 7, Lucius Caedicius, Prefect for the 19th Legion, had been ordered to proceed to the camp at Aliso (Haltern) with enough men and supplies to set up camp there. Fortunately, he had taken most of the wives, children, and family baggage of the three legions with him. On September 11, Caedicius was just arriving at Aliso. Within days, their palisades would be assaulted by Germanic tribes. But the Germans knew little about laying siege to an enemy camp, and after several days of assaults gave up, allowing Caedicius, his troops, and the women and children to escape across the Rhine to safety. Unable to catch Caedicius, the Germans came back and burned the deserted camp at Aliso.

Eggius led his 4,000-man battle group out of the camp (now called Felsenfeld), to the northwest and found that they were trapped between the 350-foot Kalkriese Hill on their left and impassable marshes on the right with less than 100 yards separating the two. In addition, at least 500 yards of ramparts made of turf, limestone, and sand, about 5 feet high and 15 feet wide, had been built on the slope of the hill, narrowing possible passage. These ramparts were topped with a 4.5-foot palisade of posts connected by flexible tree limbs, protecting a defender up to his chest and allowing the Germans to hurl javelins and shower the Romans with spears, rocks, and arrows. The German ramparts had gates to release cavalry and infantry attacks, panicking and mauling attempted Roman troop formations. Behind the rampart was a drainage ditch to prevent erosion by heavy rains. It probably took the Germans two to three weeks to construct these Roman-style ramparts. The ramparts were manned by a relatively fresh German force of perhaps 15,000 including the Cherusci, the Bructeri, and now the Anglivarii from the north. The Angrivarii had a reputation for fierce independence.

To be continued.

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