Proposed by: Nathan Ross
Date: April 23rd, 2012
Grid Ref: TBA
Lat/Long: 51.8625,-0.464859
Starting scenario: Starting Scenario: Along Watling Street moving out from London
Original URL: https://www.romanarmytalk.com/rat/thread-16575-post-274363.html#pid274363

 

While it appear, after much debate, that the western route out of London would be the more likely, I think it's still at least possible that Paulinus retreated northwards up Watling street, and that the battle site might be located in that direction. I've long favoured the Dunstable area - only 30 miles from London, where the road crosses the chalk escarpment of the Chilterns, and only a day's cart-travel from St Albans, last known sighting of Boudica and co.

Looking over some maps of the area, I've tried to match the topography with the description given in Tacitus(to recap: "He chose a position in a defile [faux] with a wood [silva] behind him. He established there could be no enemy except at his front, where there was an open plain [aperta planities] with no fear of ambush. Then he drew up his regular troops in close array [frequens ordinibus], with the light-armed auxiliaries at the flanks and the cavalry massed on the wings. By contrast, unprecedented numbers of British troops and followers paraded wildly everywhere. Their confidence was such that they brought their families to witness the victory, installing them in carts at the extreme border of the field [campus]."

Steve Kaye's article in British Archaeology provides a handy summary of the required terrain features, principally:

1. a defile approximately 1km wide set within an elevated feature. The defile's sides must rise at least 30m above the bottom and have a steep slope (generally over 8°), and must extend at least 1.5km in both directions to discourage mass flanking movements by the Britons.

2. an adjacent, lower elevation, plain (less than 4° of slope) or extensive flat area with gentle slopes, at least 1km across to accommodate the British horde and wagons.

The site I have selected lies on Watling street itself, one mile south-east of the junction with the Iknield way, on the edge of the suburbs of modern Dunstable.

Here it is (approximately) on Google Maps

And on Bing

The elevation of the road rises on a gentle slope between 150 and 160 metres. The southern approach is closed in by slopes on either side of the road, giving a 'defile' feature; in the centre, the ground opens slightly giving an open plain just over 1km broad (north-west of Turnpike Farm and Lodge Farm). Beyond this, the slopes of the Chilterns close on either side, giving steeper escarpments rising to 210 metres elevation on either side. The north-eastern escarpment in particular is quite steep, and might approximate the 'rampart' feature mentioned by Tacitus.

This terrain appears to me very similar to that described by Tacitus, and meets the criteria set out in Steve's article. The narrow gap in the hills, now centred on the school buildings, would allow for a Roman line of approximately 750-850 metres width.

The 'defile' to the south-east would constrict the British approach to the site, and a mass of carts placed here would effectively block the retreat from the battlefield.

Tacitus mentions a wood to the rear of the Roman position - this area is now covered by suburban housing, but it's not impossible that the area was forested in antiquity (as it apparently was in medieval times!). Dunstable itself was not a major settlement, but there is a water source just beyond it. A Roman marching camp placed here could be well supplied and protected.

Anyway, in true armchair-doodler style I've made a rough sketch to illustrate my idea of the battle plan:



The legionary force holds a  line with the left anchored on Watling street and the right protected by the steep escarpment below Dame Ellen's Woods. Auxiliary light troops on the flanking slopes, and cavalry on the high ground to either side. The British force moving up from St Albans would bunch in the shallow valley around Jockey Farm - from here the Roman force would be visible at the top of the slope ahead.

British attack: the slopes on either side would funnel the advance towards the legionary front line. The British apparently advanced 'at a walk', but they'd have to cover around 2 kms so that would be fine. A last rush once they reach the school playing field would bring them up to the Roman line (wasn't it Waterloo that was 'won on the playing fields of Eton?  :wink: ). Meanwhile, the cavalry deploy along the hilltops to flank the British.

Roman counter-attack: the 'wedge' (whatever it actually was!) would drive out from the Roman centre to split the British force. At the same time, the cavalry move down the lateral valleys to attack the British on the flanks. The British retreat in confusion, but are blocked by the mass of carts and civilians closing the neck of the 'defile'.