Monday, 29 October 2012

Ctesiphon - Fallen City of the Sassanid Kings

Beside the River Tigris stand the remains of the royal capital of not just one but two great ruling dynasties of the ancient world. The remains of the city of Ctesiphon today lie some 20 miles from Baghdad and have seen better days.

Ctesiphon began life as a small and unimposing cluster of dwellings across the river from the city of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, capital of the Hellenistic Kings who at the height of their powers had ruled over a sprawling inheritance stretching from the shores of the Aegean to the Hindu Kush. These lands, hard-won by Alexander and bitterly contested by his successors had eventually come into the possession of Seleucus, the onetime commander of one of Alexander’s elite regiments and political survivor par excellence.

The descendants of Seleucus had ruled over their empire as the Greek speaking successors to the almighty kings of Persia that their illustrious ancestor had had a hand in overthrowing, with all the attendant pomp and bluster, until one day King Antiochus IV was humbled by a Roman Pro-Consul who took his sword and drew a line in the sand around the king and dared him to step over it. It was an eloquent illustration of the decay of the Seleucid Dynasty in the face of the inexorable rise of Rome, which had already deprived them of some of their wealthiest territories. By the time that Pompey the Great made his triumphant progress through the former Seleucid territories of the Near East, annexing a province here, setting up a petty client kingdom there, the Seleucid monarchs were no more; their line extinguished in fratricidal mayhem. It was not the Romans who had done for the Seleucids however, neither was it King Tigranes the Great of Armenia, whom Pompey had lately overthrown to take possession of a swath of formerly Seleucid territory that the Armenian ruler had made his own. Instead it was a formerly subject people of the Seleucid Kings who had struck the most decisive blow. The Parthians, a rough around the edges, formerly nomadic people who had occupied the north-eastern fringes of the Seleucid Empire and had paid little more than grudging lip service to the kings ruling in Seleucia, had risen against their nominal masters. Over the course of a century from attaining effective independence, the Parthians had grown from a nuisance to a dangerous rival to a deadly threat. In 139 BC, following a disastrous punitive expedition by the Seleucid King Demetrius II, the Parthian King Mithridates had taken Demetrius prisoner and held him captive for ten years. In 126 BC the Parthians advanced upon and took control of Seleucia. Rather than making it their own however, they left it as an entrepot of Greek merchants who lived under the protection of the new Parthian rulers and instead set up their capital across the river in Ctesiphon.

In 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae, the formidable horse archers and cataphracts of Parthia had destroyed a Roman army under Marcus Crassus, inflicting on the Republic one of the worst defeats in its history. From this point Rome knew no deadlier rival and a grudging respect grew up between the two great empires that faced each other across the Euphrates.

The Parthian rulers however found themselves faced in the end with the same problems as their Seleucid predecessors; a vast and sprawling territory to control, fiercely independent subjects whose loyalty could never be taken for granted and a large and aggressive neighbour which would take advantage of any sign of weakness.

In 116 AD Rome’s greatest soldier-emperor Trajan did just this, advancing deep into Parthian territory and capturing Ctesiphon. Although stiffening resistance and trouble in Egypt forced Trajan to withdraw, he did so having stripped the Parthian capital of enormous wealth, much of it generated through a stranglehold on the silk trade which passed through Parthian territory.

By the time of the final, fatal revolt against Parthian rule in 226 AD, the Romans had repeated this feat twice more, each time withdrawing with vast quantities of loot. The credibility of the Parthian ruling house was in tatters. The revolt was led by Ardashir, a petty king who had laid claim to the ancient titles of Persian kingship and who now marched against the last Parthian ruler Artabanus IV, defeating him in battle and laying claim to all of his territories to usher in an era of a second great Persian Empire; that of the Sassanids. Ardashir rejected Ctesiphon with its Parthian associations and instead began redeveloping Seleucia as his seat of power; renaming it Veh Ardashir. The ever fickle Tigris had other ideas however, shifting its course to bring destruction to the new king’s efforts.

Under Ardashir’s son Shapur, Persia would prove once  more to be a formidable opponent of Rome. His forces probed the Roman defenses and at times advanced deep into imperial territory, capturing strategic cities and inflicting stinging defeats on the forces of emperors Alexander Severus and Gordian III. His efforts culminated in the capture and sack of Antioch. In 260 AD Shapur would take prisoner and subsequently enslave the Roman emperor Valerian. Roman pride had never known a more terrible shame.

Shapur constructed himself a splendid new palace at Ctesiphon fit for a King of Kings.  Little if anything remains of this structure. Some surviving mosaics from Shapur’s better preserved palace at Bishapur (below) however give an indication of the rich decoration that the palace would doubtless have featured.

The sole surviving monument is the Palace of Khusrow known today in Arabic as the Taq-e Kisra. Only one half of the façade along with the vault of the great iwan now stand. This vaulted mud brick chamber 37 metres high and 26 metres across was at the time of its construction the largest such structure attempted. The chamber was open at the front of the building to create a dramatic archway leading into the royal audience chamber.

The palace was constructed in the reign of Khusrow I (531-579 AD) This mighty king was a contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and fought a series of wars against Byzantium which saw the two superpowers of their day clashing directly or by proxy in conflicts from the Yemen to Georgia. At the same time Khusrow faced the threat on his north eastern frontiers of the Hepthalites or White Huns against whom he waged a war of annihilation.

Under Khusrow, Ctesiphon became an imperial capital as never before. Khusrow took a firm grip on his sprawling territories, gathering more power unto himself than any of his predecessors at the expense of the great noble families who had ruled their own lands as little kings in their own right. Khusrow’s reforms brought the armies and the tax revenues of the Persian Empire directly under royal control for the first time. In the reign of Khusrow all roads led to Ctesiphon and these too were redeveloped to improve the speed of communications within his empire. In his quieter moments Khusrow found time to enjoy playing the game of chess, recently introduced from India.

Under Persian rule, Ctesiphon had only once been subjected to the sack at the hands of the Romans back in 283 AD when the emperor Carus had led a lightning strike down the Euphrates whilst the Persian king and his elite forces were engaged in fighting a civil war far to the east. Carus died, most probably by assassination before he could advance any further into Persia and the Romans retreated. Under Julian the Apostate the Romans had advanced to the very walls of Ctesiphon before the expedition of that remarkable emperor also met with disaster in 363 AD.

A digital reimagining of Ctesiphon in its heyday

In 627 the city faced its gravest threat yet in the form of the emperor Heraclius, who, having put all the armies of the Great King Khusrow II to flight was advancing upon the city, having turned the tables in a war which had seen Persian forces overrun the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire and advance to within sight of Constantinople. In the face of impending defeat Khusrow was overthrown and flung into the terrible prison known as the House of Darkness before being done to death shortly afterwards. Peace was established and Heraclius called off his advance. Both empires were militarily exhausted after years of warfare and left vulnerable to a new and unexpected threat from out of the Arabian deserts.

In 636 the forces of the last Sassanid king Yazdegird III were annihilated at Al Qadisiyyah by the forces of the Caliph Umar and two years later the Arabs stormed across the Tigris to put Ctesiphon to the sack for the last time. The Persian king fled, as Darius had fled from Alexander, leaving his palace to be looted by the Arab conquerors, who would make the land their own. In these early days of the Arab conquests the division of the spoils was scrupulously handled with a fifth going to the Caliph and the remainder being equally shared out amongst the conquerors. According to one Arab account, the most remarkable item taken from the palace of Ctesiphon was a magnificent carpet known as the King’s Spring which depicted a stream flowing through a garden and measured one hundred feet across. Precious jewels were even sewn into the carpet. The carpet was sent to the Caliph who ordered it cut into small pieces and distributed amongst the faithful. One has to wonder how such an unwieldy object could have been transported in one piece however.

Following its conquest by the Arabs, Ctesiphon was abandoned and the new cities of Basra and Kufa grew up around military camps to become the major centres of the province of Iraq. The ruins of Ctesiphon were systematically plundered during the 9th Century for the construction of the city of Baghdad which became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and one of the most sophisticated cities of the Middle Ages. The Caliph Al Mansur is said to have considered pulling down Khusrow’s palace but was deterred by the scale of the task. The great iwan was allowed to stand therefore and it still stands today against the ravages of time. In 1888 the Tigris flooded and carried away half of the façade. This photograph shows the remains of the palace before the flood.

You may also enjoy - Austen Henry Layard - Discoverer of Nineveh

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Don't Bring a Longbow to a Gun Fight

Here is my last post for the time being at least on the Hundred Years War. Fittingly enough it is on the subject of the last engagement of that war; the Battle of Castillon in 1453. In its way Castillon was as seminal as Crecy, for just as that engagement heralded the arrival of the long bow as a battle-winning weapon that would secure a century of English ascendancy, so at Castillon the cannon came of age to play a decisive part in the battle.

The initiative in the war had turned decisively in favour of the French in the aftermath of the Battle of Formigny in 1450. This had been a disastrous defeat for the English under Sir Thomas Kyriell. An English army of 4000 men had been forced into an indefensible position and all but annihilated by a superior French force. Following this battle the French had overrun all Normandy and reclaimed it for King Charles VII, whilst refugees poured across the channel. In the following year the French had invaded the English territory of Guyenne, culminating in the seizure of Bordeaux.

Battle of Formigny

In England there was widespread outrage. The Duke of Suffolk; whom many blamed for the debacle of the loss of Normandy and accused of conniving with the French, was arrested and beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword.

The expedition of 1452 led by the septuagenarian Lord Talbot represented the last throw of the dice for the English to regain their territories in Guyenne and was supported by a widespread popular uprising. The following spring found Talbot advancing at the head of 6000 men towards a French army of 9000 who were laying siege to the town of Castillon.

Upon arrival Talbot received false intelligence that the French were fleeing. In fact under the direction of master-gunner Jean Bureau the French had dug in and were ready for a fight.

The French camp was a well-constructed affair, protected by an earth rampart, palisade and ditch and designed to allow the 300 French guns to enfilade their attackers.

Talbot, convinced that his enemies would not stand, thought to over-run the French camp and began an immediate attack with the forces that were to hand, not waiting for his whole army to come up. The English advanced in columns against the French with men at arms to the fore and archers to the rear. They did not lack for courage that day but it was a foolhardy enterprise and slaughter was the result as the English pressed forward; attempting to cross the ditch and storm the ramparts, only to be torn apart by murderous cannon fire at point blank range. The English nevertheless pressed on with the attack for a full hour as fresh men reached the battlefield and were thrown forward into the fray.

Talbot himself, the only man on horseback, had refused to wear armour in accordance with an oath he had sworn upon being ransomed from captivity following the fall of Caen. Instead, cloaked in purple, he offered an obvious target for the French gunners and a well-aimed cannonball struck his horse. Pinned beneath the stricken animal, old Talbot was hacked to pieces as a counter charge from the French camp swept away the broken English and further French reinforcements arrived to take them in the flank. By the time that Bureau’s guns fell silent, four thousand Englishmen lay dead. It was as profound an illustration of a change in the game of war as that made on the Western Front in 1914.

                                                                                                                                    Battle of Castillon
Within a few months of the Battle of Castillon, King Henry VI had lost his mind and Richard Duke of York had taken power in his stead. England stood on the brink of the Wars of the Roses; that murderous civil conflict ensuring that the territory lost in France would remain lost forever. The One Hundred Years War was at an end.

Just two months before the flower of English chivalry were mown down at Castillon by French guns, another event of world changing proportions had occurred. At the other end of Europe the mighty walls of Constantinople, which had repelled invaders from east and west for a thousand years were at last breached by the massive siege artillery of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror who then took the city, snuffing out at last the venerable Empire of Byzantium. The age of the gun had truly dawned.




Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Doge Pietro Orseolo II – Mediterranean Statesman

Of all the rich pageantry that so characterised the Medieval heyday of the Venetian Republic, the most famous ceremony of all was the Festa della Sensa. This grand occasion, celebrated each year on Ascension Day was marked by the progress of the Doge aboard the state barge, the Bucentaur. The barge would make its way out to the edge of the Venetian lagoon, accompanied by a bustling flotilla of the great and the good, all festooned with banners and in their finery. Here, where the waters of the Adriatic lapped against the islands of the Lido, the Doge would stand upon the magnificent gilded prow of his barge and cast into the waters a ring, symbolising the marriage of his city to the sea; provider and protector of Venice’s wealth.

The rich symbolism of this ceremony, legend had it, had been endowed during the heady days of the ‘Peace of Venice’; a few weeks in the summer of 1177 when the Republic had played host to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. Emperor and Pope had chosen Venice as the ideal neutral setting in which to set aside their differences and bury the hatchet after years of bitter struggle which had brought misery to Italy. As the blessings of peace descended, the Pope expressed his gratitude to Doge Ziani by presenting him with that first consecrated ring.

The origins of the ceremony went back further than this celebrated occasion however to the reign of the man who arguably set Venice on her path to greatness. Doge Pietro Orseolo II.

Orseolo came to power at a time when factional strife was rife amongst the leading Venetian families and relations with both the Byzantine Empire to the east and the resurgent Holy Roman Empire under the Ottonian Dynasty were somewhat shaky. Venice had assisted in Emperor Otto II’s failed attempt to seize Byzantine territories in the south and had then come within a whisker of being invaded by Imperial forces when Otto had been drawn into the machinations of the Coloprini family. In return for Otto’s assistance in ousting their deadly rivals the Morosini, the Coloprini had been willing to trade the freedom of the city and enfief Venice to the emperor. Otto’s death had curtailed the Imperial campaign against Venice. Nevertheless when Orseolo, (whose father had formerly been Doge and was subsequently canonised), was elected to office in 991, relations with both empires remained frosty.

Doge Orseolo set out at once to restore Venice’s international reputation; agreeing a treaty with Byzantine Emperor Basil II ‘The Bulgar Slayer’ which promised the support of the formidable Venetian fleet for his prodigious military efforts. In return Basil granted the Venetians a raft of trading privileges in Constantinople and beyond which formed the basis for Venice’s domination of eastern Mediterranean trade.

Orseolo next turned his persuasive charms on the new sixteen year old Emperor of the West Otto III. Otto, who dreamed of a restored Roman Empire with himself at its head and later moved his court to Rome, was dazzled by his reception as the guest of the Doge when he visited the city and soon granted similar privileges to Venetian merchants throughout his territories.

Having won the good will of the leaders of the Christian world Orseolo did not stop there but dispatched envoys to every Muslim court around the Mediterranean, happy to engage in diplomacy at a time when most of the princes of Christendom would have scorned parleying with the infidel. The Venetians were generally well received and profitable commercial relations were established. Orseolo, it seemed, was happy to do business with anybody. For those who would steal from the Republic however, he had only cold steel.

In the year 1000 Orseolo set out at the head of his fleet bound for the Dalmatian coast, where he determined to put an end to the Croatian pirates who plagued the settlements and shipping there. From his mast head flew for the first time in anger the banner of St Mark.

The whirlwind campaign through the Dalmatian islands scoured the pirates from their nests and all resistance was crushed. The last diehards held out in the fortress of Lagosta which surrendered following a bold assault by the Venetians. Having received the submission of all the settlements of the Dalmatian coast Orseolo returned to a hero’s welcome. It was in celebration of this achievement that the Ascension Day ceremony, in which the Doge would offer up a prayer for calm waters and a blessing on all Venetian maritime endeavors, was inaugurated.

In 1004 Orseolo once more led the Venetian fleet into action, this time against the Saracens who were besieging the Byzantine city of Bari in southern Italy. Orseolo’s fleet broke the blockade and successfully brought supplies to the beleaguered city before engaging the Saracen fleet in three days of combat which ended in Venetian victory. The gratitude of Emperor Basil II was such that it secured a Byzantine royal bride for Orseolo’s son and heir Giovanni.  The arrival of the Princess Maria caused a considerable stir in Venice and there was scandal at her oriental extravagance, daily bathing, exotic perfumes and most shocking of all, her use of a fork to eat her meals.

Tragedy struck the Orseolo family within a year of the Princess’ arrival. Plague broke out in the city and carried off both Giovanni and Maria. Heartbroken, Pietro retired from public life, having raised his younger son Otto to share power with him. He died in 1008. His achievements had secured the good will of both empires and had served to make Venice the pre-eminent commercial power in the Mediterranean; a position she would retain for centuries to come. It was fitting therefore that as the Venetians set out in pomp and splendour each year to renew their special relationship with the sea, that they remembered their first great Doge; Pietro Orseolo II.


The Festa Della Sensa

The Peace of Venice 1177

Monday, 8 October 2012

Robert Blake - Nelson's Hero

As you may be aware I live in Huntingdon Cambs: A thriving metropolis and hotbed of culture filled with beautiful people, is not how I would choose to describe the place. Nevertheless in addition to the accolade of making the front cover of the book ‘Crap Towns’ Huntingdon has produced no less than two great leaders of our country; Oliver Cromwell and John Major.

Sir John has yet to get his own museum but when future generations look back on his achievements I am sure they will one day erect one. The former school house in which young Oliver Cromwell received his early education however, has been turned into a very decent little museum dedicated to the great man’s life and times. Despite being a lover of history and living in Huntingdon for no less than twelve years, I had never visited it. I cannot really justify this oversight on any grounds but sheer idleness.

Last week I finally got around to checking it out. I was genuinely impressed by the quality and quantity of the artefacts that the museum possessed and how well put together it was and felt that it should be held up as an example of how to create a museum in a small space. I nevertheless found myself no more enamoured of warty, puritanical, Christmas-hating Cromwell than I was before.

Instead I was intrigued by a small display featuring a sword which had once been wielded by Robert Blake, and read with great interest of the career of this capable soldier and sailor who should definitely be better known in the pantheon of English military heroes.

Robert Blake was a well-to-do merchant and member of parliament from Somerset and an unlikely hero. During the English Civil War he rose to prominence as a capable and dogged commander. His defence of thrice besieged Taunton, during which he famously declared that he had four pairs of boots and would eat three of them before he surrendered gained him celebrity status.

It was following his appointment in 1650 as General at Sea however that Blake truly made his mark and he soon demonstrated a keen grasp of naval tactics. Rising tensions between Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Dutch Republic led to the outbreak in 1652 of the First Anglo Dutch War. Hostilities commenced when a Dutch fleet refused to dip their ensign in respect when they encountered Blake’s squadron off  Dover. Incensed, Blake promptly opened fire and five hours later the superior Dutch force had been scattered in disarray.

In the first major clash of the war Blake inflicted a stinging defeat on the Dutch at Kentish Knock, (pictured) which resulted in Parliament deciding to dispatch a fleet to the Mediterranean; underestimating the strength of their enemies across the North Sea. Later that year Blake’s nemesis Admiral Maarten Tromp gave his depleted forces a bloody nose off  Dungeness.

Blake was at the heart of the fighting during the Battle of Portland which raged along the length of the English Channel for three days in the following January. Blake’s squadron was isolated and given a pounding by Tromp and Blake was wounded in the thigh during the engagement. Nevertheless the Commonwealth Fleet had by far the better of the battle and Blake led his battered forces in pursuit of the Dutch admiral who was driven to sailing dangerously close inshore in order to escape annihilation.

Blake’s wound, from which he never fully recovered, forced him to play a bit part in the Battle of the Gabbard and to miss the final decisive Battle of Scheveningen in which Tromp was killed. It was Blake nonetheless who was the architect of these victories and indeed of the naval tactics which were to become the hallmark of the great age of sail. His fighting instructions laid out for the first time the principles by which fleets were to engage the enemy fighting in line rather than ship to ship or in small squadrons.

Making a partial recovery, Blake set out to sea once more in 1654 where he continued to innovate. His action against Barbary Corsairs in Porto Farina was the first successful action by ships employing gunnery against shore batteries. Following the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish war in the following year, Blake blockaded Cadiz throughout the winter of 1656-57; another naval first. Later in 1657 Blake conducted a daring raid on the port of Tenerife; leading his fleet into the harbour, battering the shore defences into silence and destroying every ship in the port. It was this action which prompted Nelson to declare ‘I do not reckon myself the equal of Blake,’ when contemplating a similar attack on the same target.

Within a year of this triumph Blake was dead, succumbing to ill health stemming from that old leg wound. He was given a state funeral and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey only to be disinterred and reburied in a nearby churchyard after the Restoration. This was done in spite of Blake not having taken an active part in the trial and execution of Charles I, although he was a stalwart of the Parliamentarian cause. It was nevertheless a gross act of ingratitude to a man who laid the foundations of British naval dominance.


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Beating the French - Again!

What could be better to raise our spirits this morning than a crushing English victory over the French? How about crushing English victory over the French and Scots at the same time!

I knew already of course of the Battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but Verneuil does not trip off the tongue in the same sentence. No kings did battle at Verneuil and it sits in the historical shadow cast by other better known events. It was arguably just as significant as those better known clashes however.

The battle was fought on 17th August 1424. King Henry V, victor of Agincourt and conqueror of Normandy had died two years previously. Charles VI, the mad king of France, had followed him to the grave within months. This left the infant Henry VI on the throne of England and the hapless Dauphin Charles VII ruling over the south of France from Bourges. Meanwhile, true power rested with the regent John Duke of Bedford who held sway over the English possessions sprawling across the north of France, which now included the royal capitals of Paris and Reims.

In their efforts to eject the English, the forces of the Dauphin were ably assisted by the Army of Scotland commanded by the Earls of Douglas and Buchan. It was the Scots indeed who had facilitated the French recapture of the strategically important town of Verneuil, since the town’s people could not differenciate between Scotsmen and Englishmen.

The Duke of Bedford soon marched on Verneuil, eager to retake the town. The Franco-Scottish force, under the command of Agincourt veteran the Duke of Alencon and the Viscounts of Aumale and Narbonne prepared to meet the English in battle, forming up across the road to Verneuil; the French on the left, the Scots on the right, with Italian mercenary cavalry deployed on the wings.

With Bedford having dismissed his Burgundian allies for siege duties elsewhere, the French force was significantly larger than the English; outnumbering them by perhaps as many as two to one. Bedford therefore elected to fight a defensive battle; forming up his dismounted men–at-arms in line with archers on the wings who were protected by a barrier of stakes driven into the ground, though the ground was baked hard and the archers struggled to drive the stakes in.
John Duke of Bedford

Battle commenced when the Milanese mercenary cavalry on the French left charged against the English archers and succeeded in breaking through to fall upon the English baggage which was laagered to the rear. Here however they ran into a second reserve force of archers and were driven off in disarray by a hail of arrows. The cavalry on the other wing did not even attempt to engage the English archers opposite them but instead made straight for the baggage so as not to miss out on any plunder. Here they too fell foul of the longbowmen and fled from the storm of arrows that greeted them.

The French commanders meanwhile had thrown caution to the wind and charged the English men at arms opposite. In hard fighting the French were driven back. Unable to stand up to the onslaught they broke and fled, with many drowning in the moat surrounding the town. The Duke of Bedford himself is said to have killed many, wielding a pole-axe to deadly effect.

This left the Scots in an impossibly bad position; already engaged in hard fighting with the Earl of Salisbury’s men-at-arms on the English left, they then found themselves assailed on the flank by the reserve archers, who having driven off the cavalry, now exchanged bows for daggers and set upon the Scots. When Bedford’s victorious men at arms, having put the French to flight and ruin, also wheeled about and closed upon the Scottish rear, slaughter ensued. The fighting between these old adversaries was vicious, the Scottish commanders had sent a message to Bedford beforehand announcing that they intended to give no quarter. They received none. By the time it was over four thousand Scots including Douglas and Buchan lay dead. Aumale and Narbonne had also fallen. Alencon meanwhile was a prisoner, taken captive by Sir John Fastolf; the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Fallstaff.

English losses were slight by comparison and only two men at arms had been killed.

The Battle of Verneuil finished the Scots as a fighting force in the conflict and secured English dominion of Normandy. Ultimately of course all would be lost as the English alienated their subjects and allies and finally lost the crucial support of the Duke of Burgundy. In the aftermath of Verneuil however, few would have bet against further English successes.

For the Scottish connection see:

The 100 Years War by Desmond Seward

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Lighter than Air

I thought I would bring together and expand a little on the posts I made the other day on the history of airships. I have always thought it sad that these graceful, silver giants of the sky didn’t make a better go of it.

What makes an airship an airship as opposed to a balloon is the ability to be steered rather than proceeding at the mercy of the winds. For this reason the earliest airships were known as dirigibles; ‘steer-ables’.

The first working dirigible was flown by Henri Giffard in 1852. This steam-powered airship managed a flight of 17 miles at a speed of 5 miles per hour.

Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont took the airship to the next level by creating the first gasoline powered airship in 1898 by combining the engine from his De-Dion tricycle with a propeller. Having improved on the airship principle he moved on to aeroplanes. In 1906 he developed a curious hybrid comprising both a balloon for achieving take-off and an aeroplane for horizontal flight. (Pictured)

Early airships were of the ‘blimp’ variety where the shape of the bag was maintained by the pressure of the gas within. In 1900 Ferdinand Zeppelin created a rigid framed airship named LZ1 with an aluminium skeleton and 17 hydrogen cells. It’s first flight over Lake Constance carried 5 passengers to a height of 1300 feet.

And so a legend was born. Zeppelin continued to refine his designs and in 1909 formed the German Airship Transportation Corporation (DELAG). A year later his airship LZ7 ‘Deutschland’ set out on the first commercial flight from Dusseldorf only to crash in the Teutoburg Forest. Luckily none of the 23 passengers were injured. Zeppelin pressed ahead with new designs and between 1910 and 1914 DELAG airships made 1500 commercial flights without incident, carrying some 34,000 passengers.

The potential of the airship for military use was first grasped by US military who commissioned a dirigible in 1908. During the First World War the Zeppelin airships were initially intended to be used for naval surveillance but were soon turned against civilian targets in England. In total Zeppelin airships made 159 attacks on England during the First World War, resulting in 557 civilian casualties.

 Following the downing of the massive L33 over Essex in 1916 the British gained a valuable insight into German airship construction from analysing the wreckage (pictured). The result was R33, Britain’s answer to the Zeppelin, unfortunately the airship was not completed until after the end of hostilities and was used for military testing before being handed over for civilian use. In 1925 the R33 was swept from her mooring mast in a gale and blown out over the North Sea. Her crew received gold-watches from King George V in recognition of their gallant efforts in returning the R33 safely to base.

The end for the golden era of the Airship came of course with the fiery destruction of the Hindenburg in 1937.

British airship aviation had suffered a similar calamity when the R101; pinnacle of British Airship design crashed in 1930 en-route to Karachi. The crash killed 48 of the 54 on board and sounded the death knell of the British air-ship programme. Its sister ship the R100 constructed by Vickers under the watchful eye of Barnes Wallis was scrapped the following year, angering Wallis who had been critical of the Air Ministry's R101 design.

For more on airships see the links below:

British Pathe airship footage