Monday, 22 April 2013

Last of the giants – Yamato and Musashi

Watching the US Secretary of State arriving in Japan last week to discuss the increasingly troubling military posturing of North Korea, I was pondering the curious turn of history and thinking about a time when the rising power of Imperial Japan viewed the military might of the USA with equal suspicion and jealousy as the regime in Pyongyang now does.

In an age when the capital battleship rather than the intercontinental ballistic missile was the ultimate expression of military power, Japan set out to achieve not only parity but ultimately superiority over the US Navy in their quest to dominate the Pacific.

Under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty drawn up in 1922 in order to curtail the naval arms race which had once more broken out in the aftermath of the First World War, the five signatories; Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the USA, had agreed to impose maximum limits on the displacement and armament of battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers and the overall size of their fleets. In adhering to the treaty the signatories were obliged to scrap some existing warships and curtail the construction of others or convert partially constructed battleships and cruisers into aircraft carriers.

US warships being scrapped under the terms of the Washington Treaty

By the mid 1930’s Japanese naval strategists had become convinced that their treaty obligations consigned them to certain defeat should they find themselves in a war with the United States and believed that the treaty must be abandoned. One man who argued against this school of thought was the future mastermind of the Pearl Harbour attack Admiral Yamamoto, who believed that the industrial might of America was such that Japan could never hope to out-build her naval rival and that Japan should not antagonise America by breaking the treaty but rather should stay within its provisions and look to even the odds with the US through strategy by landing a knock-out blow when the time came…

Yamamoto was outvoted and by 1936 an increasingly belligerent Japan had failed to turn up at the London conference which had aimed to extend the provisions of the Washington Treaty. Instead Japan now launched an ambitious building programme in which it intended to construct the largest battleships ever seen, armed with the largest guns yet created. The Yamato class was born.

According to the terms of the Washington Treaty the main armament of a capital battleship could not exceed 16 inches in diameter. Japan intended the construction of six battleships armed with a main battery of nine 18 inch guns. These were to be succeeded in turn by a further four so-called Super Yamato class ships which would carry 20 inch guns. It was envisioned that these ten leviathans would all be commissioned by 1946, by which time the US, having stuck to the rules of the treaty and constructed nothing larger than a 16 incher, would find itself hopelessly outgunned in any encounter with the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Yamato under construction
Such grand plans amongst the naval strategists however made little allowance for the stark reality that was soon to intrude upon the Japanese warship programme.  The war which broke out in 1941 with Yamamoto’s brilliant first strike against the US Pacific fleet, came five years too early for the Japanese planners, with not ten but only two of the planned battleships having been launched. Neither the Yamato, which was commissioned nine days after the outbreak of war nor her sister ship Musashi, commissioned on 5th August 1942, were ready to take the fight to the US navy. The Japanese had made unfeasibly long term plans in a world that was changing fast. The aircraft carriers which had been fortuitously absent when the attack on Pearl Harbour came from out of a clear blue sky, would turn out to be the crucial weapon in a conflict in which air power -  not giant battleships  - would provide the decisive edge.

This was a reality reflected in the fate of the third of the Yamato class battleships, Shinano, which following the disastrous defeat at Midway, found itself converted into a much needed aircraft carrier. A fourth Yamato class was abandoned in mid construction and the none of the vaunted Super Yamatos ever made it off of the drawing board.

Battleship Yamato in 1941


Yamato and Musashi then, were destined to be the largest and most heavily armed battleships ever constructed; the magnificent culmination of an era that was already fading. They were the last of the giants; born too late into a world at war that had already moved on to a new way of fighting in which great sea battles would be decided by swarms of carrier borne aircraft over even greater ranges than their colossal 18 inch guns could shoot. Floating follies though they may have been, what magnificent ships they were.

A Yamato class battleship was 862 feet in length with a displacement of 65,000 tons. It had a top speed of 27 knots and a range of over 7000 nautical miles. It carried a crew of 2,400 men. The main battery comprised nine 18 inch guns housed in three turrets, each of which weighed more than a typical destroyer of the period. The ships bristled with an array of six 6 inch secondary guns, a further twenty four 5 inch anti-aircraft guns and by the end of the war they had been fitted with one hundred and fifty machine guns. They also carried seven aircraft which could be launched from their two catapults.

The main guns could fire a shell weighing a little under 3000 pounds a distance of twenty five miles. Yamato and Musashi were also equipped with anti-aircraft shells for their big guns known as beehives. These burst in the air releasing a deadly cloud of steel splinters.
Musashi's forward battery of 18 inch guns
Yamato and Musashi were constructed in closely guarded secrecy at Kure and Nagasaki respectively. The ships were roofed over and screened from prying eyes and the main guns were referred to as ‘sixteen inch specials’ to mislead the intelligence services of rival nations. The true size of the guns was not known by the allies until the end of the war.

These colossal weapons would have a long wait however to be fired in anger. Yamato put to sea in time to join in the Midway campaign but remained beyond the fringes of the battle whilst the Japanese carrier fleet met with disaster.

As the Japanese counter-attacking forces converged on Guadalcanal, Yamato languished at Truk Atol in the Caroline Islands, with neither the ammunition or the fuel being available for her to play a part in the coming struggle.

Here Musashi joined her in February 1943. Neither ship however would see combat as the tide of the war continued to flow inexorably against Japan. Spending long periods confined to port either in Truk or back in Japan, the ships undertook the occasional transportation role but otherwise were deemed either too precious to be risked or simply too fuel thirsty to embark on long operations. In spite of these mundane duties, both ships nevertheless fell prey to the attacks of US submarines.
Yamato and Musashi in Truk Atol 1943
On Christmas Day 1943 as she was steaming towards Truk, Yamato was sighted by the submarine USS Skate which successfully torpedoed her. The impact on her aft starboard quarter caused 3000 tons of water to flood the hull but the Yamato, which was designed to be virtually unsinkable, was able to reach port and effect repairs before returning to Japan. Three months later, whilst en route from Palau to Kure, Musashi was torpedoed by the submarine USS Tunny. The impact tore a nineteen foot hole in the bow and Musashi limped back to her home port for extensive repairs and upgrades.

Both ships were back in action in time to join in the ill-fated attempt to thwart the US landings on Saipan which led to the disastrous losses of aircraft and carriers in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but once again with matters decided by airpower at long range, the Japanese battleships did not fire a shot in anger. The time had come however for the decisive showdown which the Japanese command had always hoped would allow them to bring the superior firepower of Yamato and Musashi into play. As US forces closed in on the Philippines, the full might of the Imperial Japanese Navy was being prepared to be thrown against the invaders.

Yamato and Musashi joined Admiral Kurita’s Centre Force for Operation Sho Go. Their task was to force a passage through the San Bernardino Strait and fall upon the US invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf. A second attacking force would approach from the south whilst the surviving aircraft carriers would approach from the north. With almost all of their fighters lost however, the carriers posed no threat to the American forces but rather served as a diversion intended to draw Admiral Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet away from the vulnerable invasion forces, leaving them easy prey for Kurita’s mighty predators.

Yamato bomb impact during Battle of Sibuyan Sea

As they steamed through the Sibuyan Sea on 24th October 1944, Centre Force was spotted by a scouting plane from the carrier USS Intrepid. As the American carriers scrambled their dive bombers and torpedo bombers in the direction of Centre Force, the Japanese ships soon came under attack by wave after wave of aircraft. Yamato took a bomb through the foredeck which ruptured the hull allowing the sea to flood in, although once again the toughness of her design allowed her to remain afloat. The Yamato class battleships were designed with over 1100 watertight compartments in order to minimise flooding resulting from bomb and torpedo impacts. Yamato steamed on. Musashi however was less fortunate.

Despite adopting the novel defensive tactic of firing her 18 inch guns directly into the water to create huge waterspouts with the intention of knocking the low-flying torpedo bombers out of the sky, Musashi was eventually hit by 20 torpedoes and 17 bombs. The carnage aboard the ship was unimaginable. The greater the damage grew, the more Musashi slowed and listed and she was gradually left behind by the other ships of Centre Force as they turned about and headed away from the conflict zone. Finally the order to abandon ship was given before the crippled, blazing hulk of Musashi slipped beneath the waves, taking 1,023 of her complement with her to the bottom.

The sinking of Musashi

Halsey now assumed that Centre Force had been driven off and set out with his powerful fleet of carriers and battleships to hunt down and destroy the carriers of the Northern Force, not realising that these were paper tigers and that the Centre Force remained the principle threat. Kurita meanwhile swung his remaining ships around and under cover of darkness successfully negotiated the San Bernardino Strait.

On the following day the escort carriers and destroyers of the US flotilla known as Taffy 3; cruising off the island of Samar, whose role was to support the landings rather than engage in combat with the cream of the Japanese navy, were horrified to find the giant battleships of Centre Force steaming towards them.

Nevertheless, in one of the most celebrated naval engagements of the Second World War the ‘tin can’ destroyers of Taffy 3 boldly attacked the Japanese fleet; steaming into a hail of massive shells, zig-zagging to avoid being hit until they were able to close within torpedo range. The destroyer USS Johnston succeeded in blowing the bow completely off of the heavy cruiser Kumano before succumbing to murderous shell fire. Her captain Ernest Evans received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honour and the ship’s company as a whole received a Presidential Unit Citation for their bravery. Meanwhile USS Samuel B Roberts made for the Yamato and launched her torpedoes at the giant warship. In the naval equivalent of a Jack Russell seeing off a Bengal Tiger, the Yamato turned about and fled from the conflict zone in an effort to outrun the torpedoes. Having succeeded, she kept right on going. The Samuel B Roberts was less fortunate, also being sunk by shell fire from the other ships of Centre Force. Finally the combined heroism of the little destroyers and waves of aerial attacks from the carrier borne aircraft of Taffy 3 and the nearby groups Taffy 1 & 2, persuaded Admiral Kurita to withdraw.
USS Johnston

Yamato retired to Truk and thence to Hiroshima; surviving a submarine attack en route, which sent the Battleship Kongo to the bottom of the Pacific. Whilst refitting in Hiroshima she was struck by a bomb during an air raid. Finally repaired, the Yamato was sent out once more, this time sailing to her doom. Her mission, Operation Ten Go, was to fight her way through the US naval forces around the island of Okinawa, run herself aground and thereafter to use her huge guns to attack the US forces landing on the island.

In the event Yamato never made it that far. On 7th April 1945 Yamato and her escorts were spotted steaming towards Okinawa. Four hundred aircraft from 11 carriers were sent up against the approaching Japanese fleet. With no air support of their own, the Japanese ships were helpless under the onslaught. A dozen bombs and seven torpedoes struck the Yamato in a two hour period. Finally the ship was torn apart by a series of massive explosions and sank rapidly. 2,747 of her crewmen lost their lives. 269 survived.

It was the final word in the end of an era. The greatest battleships ever constructed had both been destroyed by attack from the air. They were marvels of construction but the time for such magnificent beasts was past and in the end they served as colossal monuments to an outdated mode of warfare, sacrificed with terrible loss of life in an ultimately futile cause.

You may also enjoy - Dreadnought - From the Armada to the Cold War

 The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922

Battle 360 – The sinking of the Musashi (YouTube)

Dogfights – Battle of Leyte Gulf (YouTube)

Sinking of the Yamato

Monday, 15 April 2013

Austen Henry Layard – Discoverer of Nineveh - Part Two

Woe to the city of blood,Full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears!
Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, People stumbling over the corpses all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, Alluring, the mistress of sorceries, Who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft."I am against you," declares the Lord Almighty. "I will lift your skirts over your face!  I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.All who see you will flee from you and say, 'Nineveh is in ruins--who will mourn for her?' Where can I find anyone to comfort you?"

Nahum 3:1-7

Layard's recreation of Assurnasirpal II's throne room
Nineveh was destroyed just as the prophets had foretold. It lay forgotten, buried beneath the dust of centuries. In 1847 however, the lost city's slumber was finally brought to an end and its treasures were once more destined to see the light of day. Her discoverer was at hand at last.
Layard had learned much from the excavation of Nimrud and when he returned to Mosul he looked once more upon the great mounds across the river with new eyes; seeing at once where he must dig if he were to meet with success at last. Layard now understood that the Assyrian kings had built their temples and palaces atop great platforms of sun-dried bricks. The key therefore was to discover the top of the platform which Layard was able to determine by observing the highest point of the mound which corresponded to the top of the ziggurat; the great pyramidal structure at the heart of the temple. Having unearthed a pavement of brick at the expected height, Layard set his diggers to work and soon they uncovered the entrance to a chamber flanked by the a colossal pair of winged bulls. Everywhere once again the evidence of destruction by fire was clear. Layard soon noted that all of the reliefs and sculptures in this new city were larger than those found elsewhere. Clearly this was a case of royal one-upmanship. Nineveh had been found.
The locals by this stage regarded the charismatic blue-eyed Layard as something of a magician and marvelled at his ability to conjure up from beneath the soil, that which they had never suspected lay under their feet. As Layard's friend the Sheikh declares:

God is great! Here are stones which have been buried ever since the time of the holy Noah- peace be with him! Perhaps they were under ground before the deluge. My father and the father of my father, pitched their tents here before me; but they never heard of these figures. For twelve hundred years have the true believers been settled in this country, and none of them ever heard of a palace under ground. Neither did they who went before them. But lo! Here comes a Frank from many days' journey off, and he walks up to the very place, and he takes a stick and makes a line here and makes a line there. Here, says he, is the palace; there, says he, is the gate; and he shows us what has been all our lives beneath our feet, without our having known anything about it. Wonderful! Is it by books, is it by magic, is it by your prophets that you have learned these things? Speak, Oh Bey; tell me the secret of wisdom. 

A.H. Layard - Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh

Nineveh was the city of Sennacherib, who had set out to comprehensively outdo his father Sargon II. Sennacherib built himself a splendid new palace which exceeded that constructed by his father at Khorsabad in every particular. It was by all accounts an awe inspiring structure, a third of a mile long with a portico of solid bronze columns standing on the backs of solid bronze lions and bulls. Such was the wealth of Nineveh.

In the usual Assyrian style Sennacherib chose to decorate his palace with images of his victorious campaigns and these included depictions of his wars against the errant Kingdom of Judaea. In 701 BC Sennacherib had set out with the intention of capturing and destroying Jerusalem as his father had Samaria. In the path of Sennacherib’s army lay the fortress city of Lachish. Sennacherib sought initially to terrorise the populace into surrender by parading his army before the walls and having a declaration read out to the listening defenders; promising clemency if the city was surrendered and a nasty fate for the defenders if they chose to resist. Fortified by their faith the defenders nevertheless chose resistance and then watched with mounting trepidation as a great earth ramp was constructed in front of the city walls. The Assyrians made use of Jewish prisoners captured from other cities which had already fallen to work upon the ramp. The defenders were therefore faced with the dilemma of shooting at their own countrymen in order to prevent work on the ramp from progressing. Iron tipped battering rams were brought up against another section of wall and eventually succeeded in making a breach. The Assyrians poured through the gap whilst more attacked the defenders on top of the wall by means of a siege tower which had been rolled up the ramp. The city was swiftly overwhelmed, the defenders put to the sword and the city leaders impaled for daring to resist.

The siege of Lachish

The siege of Lachish had been a fine example of cutting edge siege warfare and Sennacherib was greatly proud of the achievement. Scenes from the storming of the city were immortalised in the reliefs chosen to decorate his new palace and these and many others were now uncovered by Layard. At last the mysterious mound had given up its secrets.

Ill health finally forced Layard to return to Europe in 1848. In Paris he received a hero’s welcome and accompanied Botta to see his Khorsabad finds which were now ensconced in the Louvre and were creating a sensation. Layard’s discoveries and his account of the excavations were received with equal wonderment back in England. A full scale recreation of an Assyrian throne room would later feature in the reconstructed Crystal Palace following the Great Exhibition. In the following year Layard returned once more to Mosul and reopened his excavations at Nimrud and Nineveh and it was now that he made his most important discovery; the library of Ashurbanipal.

Ashurbanipal had been the last great king of Assyria, dying in 627 BC. He held the heartland of the empire together through decades of ruinous war with the resurgent Babylonians but the cost in manpower and gold had been ruinous. The effort had finally exhausted Assyria and left her vulnerable. For all the slaughter and destruction of his reign however, Ashurbanipal has in fact gone down in history as a great scholar, which hopefully would please him. At Nineveh he constructed a new palace more spectacular than his grandfather Sennacherib’s which included an enormous library containing twenty four thousand cuneiform tablets covering the history and mythology of the region. It was the discovery of this library that opened the floodgates to the cracking of cuneiform and Layard’s friend Rawlinson greeted the find with joy, applying himself once more to the challenge of decipherment that he had despaired of achieving, but for which he now had all of the material he required.

Under Ashurbanipal Assyria had reached its greatest extent, yet only fifteen years after his death the most powerful nation the world had yet seen would be wiped off of the map. By the summer of 612 BC it was all over. An alliance of the Medes and Babylonians had besieged Nineveh and finally took it by storm. According to legend the last king Sardanapalus gathered his concubines around him and then set fire to his throne room, perishing in the flames as his city met with total destruction at the hands of her enemies. In revenge for the many assaults on Babylon and for one in particular during the years of Assyrian domination, the Babylonian conqueror Nabopolasar ordered Nineveh to be flooded.

Assyria was no more. Her territory was divided between the conquerors, her palaces torn down and her glory days consigned to dimly remembered history. Assyrian civilisation would be all but forgotten until Botta and the intrepid Layard rediscovered the remains of its cities which had been reclaimed by the pitiless desert.

                Back home, Layard’s name was made and he was elected to parliament on the strength of his fame. He proved an outspoken firebrand in the commons; deploring the conduct of the Crimean war and denouncing the treatment of Britain’s Indian subjects in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny. He married in 1869 and in 1877 was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; taking up the role once occupied by his old patron Sir Stratford Canning. In the following year he received a knighthood. Layard retired from public service three years later and retired to Venice, living out his days corresponding with learned men across the continent and enjoying life as a patron of the arts. He returned to London where he died in 1894.

Layard in 1890

                It is as the young explorer rather than the grand old scholar that we should remember him however; setting out with only the essentials he could carry in his saddlebags, careless of danger, disease or discomfort; driven by boundless curiousity and eager to see over the next horizon.

Layard's discovery of Nineveh

Siege of Lachish

Old Testament Prophecies concerning Assyria and Babylon

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Austen Henry Layard - Discoverer of Nineveh - Part One

He will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria,
leaving Nineveh utterly desolate
and dry as the desert.
Flocks and herds will lie down there,
creatures of every kind.
The desert owl and the screech owl
will roost on her columns.
Their hooting will echo through the windows,
rubble will fill the doorways,
the beams of cedar will be exposed.
This is the city of revelry
that lived in safety.
She said to herself,
“I am the one! And there is none besides me.”
What a ruin she has become,
a lair for wild beasts!
All who pass by her scoff
and shake their fists.

Zephaniah 2:13-15
Nineveh on the Tigris

Thus spake Zephaniah and so it came to pass that the mighty city of Nineveh; last glorious capital of the Assyrian Empire was utterly destroyed. Its walls were torn down, its palaces sacked, its streets flooded. The dust of centuries covered her until at last she was lost to memory and consigned to legend. The name of Nineveh was known only from a few tantalising references in the Old Testament. Yet today the history of Assyria is known and the wonders of Nimrud and Nineveh can be marvelled at in the world’s great museums. That this is so is largely thanks to one man: Austen Henry Layard.
The other day I had cause to grab Arnold C Brackman’s superb The Luck of Nineveh from the bookshelf just for a quick reference. A couple of hours later I was a hundred pages in with my original enquiry forgotten. Such is the compelling nature of Layard’s story. Having devoured the book for a second time I then hunted down Layard's own Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh and devoured that too.
Born into a relatively affluent family in 1817 and following an itinerant and cosmopolitan childhood spent in Paris, Florence, Switzerland and Kent, the young Layard was destined for a legal career but a sense of adventure burned within him. In 1838, aged 21, Layard finally broke free from his dull destiny which had filled him with dread at spending his days enmired in fusty legal tomes and struck out on a grand adventure, aiming to reach Ceylon where his uncle had promised him employment. Unusually however, in part due to his travelling companion Edward Mitford’s terror of the sea, he would make his way there overland; passing through regions which at the time were a virtual blank on the Victorian map.
It was a bold and many thought a foolhardy enterprise for the two young men to set out by this route but for Layard, raised on the romance of the Arabian Nights and more recently fascinated by accounts of travels and discoveries in the Near East, it represented both an escape and an exciting new horizon. It is probable that even at the time of setting out, he had little intention of reaching Ceylon.
By the time he had reached Aleppo, Layard was utterly captivated by the landscape, people and surviving ancient monuments that he had seen on his journey from Constantinople. Travelling light and fast on horseback, dressed incognito in Turkish style in the hope of avoiding robbers on the road, Layard was revelling in his freedom. Bouts of malaria and dysentery had failed to quell his adventurous spirit. Following a detour to Jerusalem he determined to visit the ruins of Petra; discovered by Burckhardt in 1812, setting off alone whilst Mitford continued eastwards. Petra lay in a land beyond the rule of law, where the Bedouin tribes held sway and Layard had many adventures amongst the Arabs, winning over the tribesmen with his easy charm but falling foul of robbers more than once. Arriving back in Aleppo robbed of most of his possessions and with only the tattered clothes on his back and his notebooks, Layard nevertheless regretted the journey not a jot, having been thrilled by the sight of Petra. Layard and Mitford pressed on to Mosul from where they journeyed down the Tigris to Baghdad and Layard once more set out alone to explore the ruins of Ctesiphon, almost drowning in a marsh on the return journey before being picked up by a passing steamer.
A H Layard
Soon the two companions decided to part company for good, with Mitford embarking eastwards towards a diplomatic career in India whilst Layard struck out into the wilds of Persia on a year-long escapade which saw him venture into the remote Baktiyari Mountains and at one point even join in raid by tribesmen against the forces of the Shah of Persia. The Great Game was afoot and Layard proved a useful and resourceful man, mapping the region and making copious notes on the dispositions of the locals. Finally, barefoot and in rags having once more fallen amongst robbers, he returned to Baghdad, from whence he was enlisted by the consul with carrying a message to the British Ambassador Sir Stratford Canning in Constantinople.
This then was the formidable traveller and indomitably curious explorer who arrived in Constantinople in 1842 and immediately impressed the ambassador, who soon found many uses for Layard, whom he employed as his private secretary.
Layard had at last found his calling or so it seemed, as a member of the diplomatic service. Nevertheless a greater passion for exploration and discovery still drove him and he continued to strive to find some means by which he might return to Mosul and commence an excavation of the mysterious mounds he had seen there and had become convinced contained the remains of a long lost city.

Whilst in Mosul, Layard had befriended the French Consul Emille Botta and the two of them had speculated long into the sweltering nights about the giant earth mounds across the Tigris from the city and what they might conceal. Botta had commenced some small scale excavations but had turned up nothing of interest. Just as he had reached the point of giving up however, Botta heard about another site at Khorsabad to the north where bricks covered with mysterious markings were being turned up by the local townspeople. Botta determined to investigate and his workmen soon turned up an astonishing find; a relief of an ancient warrior king surrounded by his soldiers and their chained captives. The discovery of a colossal, human headed, winged bull twenty seven feet tall soon followed and Botta was able to announce to the world that he had discovered the remains of a previously unknown ancient civilisation.
Though Botta did not know it at the time he was looking at the face of Sargon II: A great Assyrian general who had succeeded to the kingship during the siege of Samaria in 722 BC, ruthlessly sacking the city and carrying twenty seven thousand people away into captivity; a story which would have been familiar to him from the Old Testament. At the time of course, no one was able to decipher the cuneiform inscriptions that covered the finds.
Sargon had decided that his new dynasty required a new capital and had set about constructing a magnificent new city called Dur Sarrukin. The city boasted a wall with one hundred and fifty towers and seven gateways and a spectacular palace with two hundred rooms. None of it however would ever be used. Sargon was killed in battle in 705 BC and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib. The new king decided to abandon the still unfinished city of Dur Sarrukin and instead moved the imperial capital to the legendary city of Nineveh which lay, just as Layard and Botta suspected, across the Tigris from Mosul. As for Dur Sarrukin, it was destined to be nothing more than probably the largest folly ever constructed, left empty and unfinished to be consumed by the desert sands.
Winged bull (lamassu) from Khorsabad, now in the Louvre
Botta wrote excitedly to his friend Layard about his discoveries and Layard prevailed upon his employer Sir Stratford Canning to find funds for a British excavation. Canning, himself an enthusiast for antiquities who had recently facilitated the recovery of the remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus for the British Museum, agreed to fund the project and in the winter of 1845 Layard found himself dispatched to hire Arab diggers and investigate the mysterious mound of Nimrud; some fourteen miles downstream from Mosul. He met almost immediately with success, when the corner of an alabaster slab protruding from the mound proved to be the entrance to a great chamber, whose walls were covered with reliefs. As the diggers excitedly drove exploratory tunnels into the mound, more and more finds came to light until Layard at last found his way into a great throne room.
Layard had found the complex of palaces begun in the reign of Assurnasirpal II, who came to the Assyrian throne in 883 BC and set about re-establishing the empire in a merciless onslaught, sweeping all before him in a wave of conquest which took Assyrian control once more to the shores of the Mediterranean by subduing Phoenicia. Assurnasirpal commanded the most efficient army yet seen in the Near East, an unstoppable war machine capable not only of dominating the battlefield but of attacking and taking walled cities. He was proud of his army. In his new capital at Nimrud he decorated the walls of his throne room with great reliefs depicting scenes of war. Visitors to the palace would be left in no doubt as to the deadly efficiency of the Assyrian army, nor would they be in any doubt as to the fate of those who rebelled against Assyrian control. The reliefs showed the Assyrians overcoming all adversaries. Nowhere was an Assyrian soldier shown to be wounded or dead. They marched on unstoppably whilst enemy bodies piled up around them.
The most evocative finds unearthed by Layard from the ruins of Nimrud were the colossal stone guardians which watched over the entrances to the throne rooms, similar to those found by Botta at Khorsabad and which today greet visitors to the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum. Their discovery caused a furore amongst the local population in Mosul who denounced the finds as devils and idols.
Moving the winged bulls at Nimrud
Layard, triumphant, spent Christmas 1845 in Baghdad at the home of the British Consul Henry Rawlinson; the man who would play a large part in the decipherment of cuneiform and the unlocking of the history of the ancient civilisations of the Near East. As Layard unearthed treasures at Nimrud, it was agreed, Rawlinson would arrange for their transport downriver to Baghdad, where he could pore eagerly over their inscriptions and arrange their onward transport to the British Museum. In the event it proved impossible to for a steamer to make its way upstream as far as Nimrud and so Layard was obliged to have the reliefs that he had unearthed cut into several pieces and floated down the Tigris to Baghdad on rafts.
Despite the fierce Anglo-French rivalry which raged across the Nineteenth Century archaeological landscape, Botta and Layard remained great friends who took pains to ensure that each other’s achievements were recognised on both sides of the Channel. Nevertheless the two nations were now engaged in a race to bring home the first Assyrian artefacts to Europe. Would it be the British Museum or the Louvre that would take the glory? Layard and Guillois, Botta’s replacement in Mosul, both now fell upon the mound that they hoped would yield up the fabled city of Nineveh but their rival searches brought little to light and Layard returned to Nimrud where, with the pathetically small sum forwarded him by the British Museum trustees for conducting the excavation, he continued to work miracles.
In total Layard discovered three distinct palaces, with miles of reliefs and dozens of sculptures, including thirteen pairs of colossal stone guardians; lamassu as they are known. Selecting the two best preserved examples; one with the body of a lion and one with the body of a bull, Layard undertook the immense task of removing them from their positions and transporting them on rollers and then on a specially constructed giant cart to the river. They were transported on goat-skin rafts downriver to Basra from where they could take ship for India and ultimately England.
In his memoirs Layard reflects movingly on the remarkable journey that these ancient treasures were undertaking:

As I watched the rafts, until they disappeared behind a projecting bank forming a distant reach of the river, I could not forebear musing upon the strange destiny of their burdens; which, after adorning the palaces of the Assyrian kings, the objects of the wonder and maybe the worship of thousands, had been  buried unknown for centuries beneath a soil trodden by Persians under Cyrus, by Greeks under Alexander, and by Arabs under the first successors of their Prophet. They were now to visit India, to cross the most distant seas of the southern hemisphere, and to be finally placed in a British museum. Who can venture to foretell how their strange career will end?

A.H. Layard - Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh
Transporting the bull to the river
His work at Nimrud had been a triumph but the mounds across the river at Mosul still defied him. With almost no funds left, Layard nevertheless determined to have one more crack at the most promising mound known as Kouyunjik, still as convinced as the first time he had seen it that it harboured secrets and treasures just waiting for discovery.
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