Invasion And Intervention: The Bruce Campaign

What are the key points for interventionism/invasion in foreign countries and what can we take from history in relation to that topic?

On Tuesday I rounded off my discussion of the Bruce campaign in Ireland, fought from 1315-1318, when Edward Bruce, younger brother of Robert, attempted to become High King of Ireland through military invasion.

There are some historical constants that you can always find when it comes to invasion and intervention. What lessons does the Bruce Campaign teach us?

Have achievable aims from the outset – Short, Medium, Long.

All we really know about Edward Bruce’s objectives was that he wanted to become High-King of Ireland. Beyond that, he and his brother planned a co-ordinated offensive against England once that goal was achieved.

But Edward’s aim was a long shot, for reasons that will become clear. When it comes to invading a foreign country, or intervening in one, you should make sure to have aims – logical and achievable – for both the short, medium and long term.

In Edward’s case, the short term was to establish a secure beachhead, achieved when the town of Carrickfergus fell into his hands with little resistance (though the castle, which led out for over a year, made it less secure then it should have been). Medium was the seizure of Ulster and gaining the support of its nobles, making the north a stable area under his rule. This, too, was arguably achieved. Long term goals were an offensive against the Anglo-Norman position, with the aim of driving them out of Ireland.

It was too much. Bruce was not in a position, for many reasons, to force the English out of Ireland, not within the years of the campaign anyway. His medium to long terms goals should have been to secure Ulster further against outside attack, make trustworthy alliances with Irish Kings outside of Ulster, and only take on the Anglo-Normans when he was certain o be in a position – in terms of manpower, local support, supplies, siege equipment – where he could not only defeat them on the field, but capture their major towns as well. Not only that, but he had to do so and still be strong enough to take on whatever Irish Kingdoms remained that would not recognise his authority?

Know which local horse to back.

Bruce got support from native Irish families in Ulster with relative ease. He then went on to try and form an alliance with Felim, King of Connaught. This turned out to not be so wise, when Felim and a large amount of his own Irish vassals were slaughtered at the Second Battle of Athenry. AND HIS Ulster allies were not much better, deserting his cause en masse after Faughart.

Knowing which local powers to back and support is important. They have to be strong enough to actively aid you in the fight against the designated enemy, but not so powerful and independent that they can turn on you and cause further problems down the line. Bruce may have been better served going after the support of Kingdoms further south, especially Thomand, or doing more to support the rebellions of naive Irish in Leinster, which the Anglo-Normans were able to crush unmolested.

If you back the right horse in an invasion or intervention, a large part of your job is already done. You’ll have support for your war, an ally when the dust clears, someone who can help bring stability to the country in peacetime. Did America pick the right horses in Iraq? Not really.

Use your force multipliers…if you trust them.

The core of Edward’s army were battle hardened veterans of the war in Scotland, with the rest being a collection of mercenary gallowglass and native Irish soldiery. The last part is important: if Edward was setting himself up to be King of Ireland, then he had to be able to command the Irish in battle. He had to be able to trust them.

It isn’t immediately clear just how much of an involvement the Irish contingent of Edwards army had in his campaigns. All that we know, and not even that for sure, is that before the decisive engagement at Faughart, Edward’s Irish allies were nervous about the coming fight and as a result Edward essentially sent them to the rear and didn’t use them. His Scottish soldiers were then swamped by the numerically superior English.

The Irish should have been a force multiplier for his better Scottish veterans, but Edward does not appear to have used this element to the fullest advantage. When you invade a foreign country, or intervene in a foreign conflict, you have to gain the support of local powers, and you have to use them wisely.

Be prepared for environmental problems.

That is, be prepared for non-military or non-diplomatic problems. The famine that hit Ireland during the Bruce campaign probably did more to wreck his ambitions than anything else. If Bruce had settled for a slower expansion from Ulster, he may not have needed to spend so much time ravishing the countryside of its few crops. This leads to bad things in relation to…

Get the people on your side.

Even in the 14th century, the people – the peasantry – were important. The peasants fed your army, they make up part of it. They were, in Edward’s war aims, supposed to be his future subjects. But when Edward was forced to turn to large scale pillaging in order to keep his military forces fed, he lost the support – whatever of it he actually had – of the people. Without them, his efforts against the English were dealt a serious blow.

Don’t allow the enemy his centre.

The enemy “centre of gravity”, from Clausewitz, is his critical thing that, if destroyed/captured/eliminated, essentially ends the war. In any invasion or intervention, it has to be a target, whether it is a capital, and industrial area, or an army. For the Anglo-Normans, I believe that Dublin was a centre of gravity, their major stronghold in Ireland, the area where they held the most control.

Edward captured some towns, but was never able to really threaten the large urban areas under Anglo-Norman control. The Scottish army that he had did not have the resources or machinery to besiege large walled towns. The lack of a threat to Dublin (and failure at Limerick) allowed the Anglo-Normans a safe haven and administrative centre, a strongpoint that was impervious to Edward’s martial skills. If Bruce had any real ambitions of becoming King of Ireland, attacking and seizing Dublin simply must have been part of his strategy, but he lacked the means to make this possible.

Don’t have your efforts based around one leader.

When Bruce died, the Scottish effort fell apart. It is the danger in having a military operation built around the leadership of one individual. In the aftermath of his death, there was no one, no other member of the royal family, no high ranking noble, to step in and take his place, even if it was just to rally Scottish forces into a defensive posture.

You need a clear chain of command, you need a clear idea of whose going to take over if the commander falls.

Know when to call it a day.

When the famine got worse and worse, when his Irish allies were slaughtered, when the people turned against him, when it was clear he couldn’t take Dublin…Edward didn’t budge. You have to know when to call it a day in war: to make the strategic decision and walk away from a failed operation, preserve what strength you have left and make plans for future campaigns. In 1317, Edward and his army should have walked away, returned to Scotland, and left the quagmire in Ireland behind.

Instead, he choose to stay and fight it out. It cost him his head at Faughart, a battle where the Scottish were, by most accounts, woefully out matched. Bruce had lost the war in Ireland long before this, by means that were, mostly, out of his hands. It did not make the final result any less certain though.

We can look at these lessons and see examples throughout history and potential application all around us today. If the west should choose to intervene in Syria for example, what are the goals? Which factions internally are they backing? Will they trust them for support? Will they be prepared for internal problems of a non-military nature? Will they be able to get and keep the people of Syria on their side? Do they know what the enemy centre is, and the best way to neutralise it? What is the chain of command? Most importantly, are they capable of walking away if it goes wrong? More pressingly, are they capable of doing nothing at walk if it is not within their strategic interests?

I suppose there is one last point, which looms over all the others.

Make sure it is worth your time in the first place.

Were the soldiers that Edward led, his own martial prowess, wasted in Ireland in a campaign that had little chance of success from the outset? Would they have been better off in an offensive within Britain? It is hard to argue against this, seeing as how things went in Ireland. The campaign there was meant to drain England of manpower, open up a second front. But Scotland did not take advantage of this on their southern border to any great degree, and their defeat in Ireland may only have emboldened the English.

You have to seriously evaluate your prospects ahead of time. Did Edward do a good enough job in this regard? His grave in Faughart is all the answer you need.

It must be said though, as a disclaimer more then anything, that historical examples are not always sure fire ways of predicting the future. But they, and some of the constant points that always crop up, should not be ignored either.

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1 Response to Invasion And Intervention: The Bruce Campaign

  1. Pingback: The Stupidest Thing I’ve Read This Week (07/04/12) | Never Felt Better

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