Sunday, June 15, 2014

Road to Bannockburn: Robert the Bruce Prepares His Troops

Robert the Bruce Sculpture via
Seven hundred years ago today-15th June, 1314- as King Robert the Bruce prepared the battlefield at Bannockburn, the possibility of defeat lay heavily on his mind. At forty years old, he was a seasoned campaigner, and his motto of “live to fight another day” had served him well in his eight year reign. He had faced defeat at English hands, but had also a victory at Lowden Hill under his belt, and seven years of a successful guerilla campaign.

King Edward II of England had until 24th June to touch the walls of Stirling, and relieve the castle’s siege. The long truce had given the English King sufficient time to gather a strong army and lead it northwards, the largest to invade Scotland in many years. But the Scottish king had not been idle; he had used time to his own advantage. The truce had allowed him to choose the field of battle, the confluence of the Bannock burn and the mighty River Forth, the main route to the castle.

As his army grew the Bruce had them dig thousands of small pits in the ground- most with wooden spikes and covered in grass- but not in any haphazard arrangement. The canny king ensured that the pits were strategically placed like a modern minefield, guiding the enemy into 'safe' channels, thus directing the flow of the English attack. Not only had he chosen the battlefield, he had also dictated the route of the English charge. He had laid his ‘mines’ in the better, firmer areas, and left the attacking channels in the marshier, heavier ground.

Battle of Bannockburn Day 1 by John Fawkes (Click to purchase)

It is said that he turned away volunteers that were not well equipped, and that he did this out of a kind, kingly disposition. This may not be so. The king wanted well equipped men, yes, but he also wanted highly maneuverable, highly trained forces, arrow shaped groups of men called ‘chiltrons’, who carried long sharp pikes. He formed them into groups of a thousand strong, and drilled them every day. After weeks of practice, as they advanced and turned they were like a well-rehearsed porcupine; ready to spear unwary cavalry and infantry alike. The fore-runner of the infantry squares at Waterloo.

These lightly armored, mobile troops had one other advantage; they could run away quicker than the English could follow. If Robert lost Stirling Castle, he was determined not to also lose his army. As King Robert gazed south on this day, he knew that his destiny approached.  As he thought of the thousands of Englishmen, marching towards the Scottish border, perhaps he composed the address to his troops on the day of battle…
“Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie…”
(Robert Burns)
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