The Celts at War
A Brief Foreword
The Celts were famous for one thing as fighters: they were extremely proud winners, and very bad losers. If they won a battle, they’d preserve their enemies’ heads in cedar oil and nail them to their front door – for the whole village to see. Sometimes, heads could be seen all over a Celtic soldier’s house and Irish Celts would nail them to their chariots.
But if the Celtic army were losing in battle, then the fighters would be expected to stab themselves, rather than escape with life – and the tale of failure.
How They Looked
In a battle, a Celt fighter would most certainly be wearing one thing and one thing only – a torque (or torc). This was a gold band that was worn around the neck (or on the wrist for everyday wear). The Celts didn’t believe in armour – they thought that the Gods decided their fate. They also believed that their nakedness brought protection from the Gods.
The Celts bleached and spiked their hair with lime – one ancient writer wrote that each spike of hair was so sharp that an apple could be impaled on one!
Often, the Celts would charge into battle with painted skin – usually lacquered with a blue dye called woad (which they also used to dye their everyday clothes).
How They Rode
Welsh and Scottish Celts would ride into battle on horseback – controlling the reins with one hand while stabbing the enemy with the other. But Irish Celts would never do this. Horses were very important to Irish tribes – they’d ride, worship and eat them. So each fighter would get himself a fast, faithful steed, but they would also get a hard, solid chariot. The Irish Celt and his own hired chauffeur would be on the chariot, and the driver would be riding the horse into battle. The chauffeur would drop off the fighter and he would run into battle, while the driver and his horse rode around the battlefield – ready to pick up the fighter if he was in trouble!
Meanwhile, on the other side of Britain, the Welsh and Scottish were falling off their horses because they only had one hand to control them – and no stirrups (which were to be on the market in China in 500 AD). But in the second and third centuries BC the Celts invented a special saddle with four high pommels (bumps). The rider would sit on the saddle in the correct position so that his left leg were between two pommels, his right leg were gripped between the other two pommels and his backside in between them. Now, the Celt fighter would be sitting firmly in the saddle with little danger of falling off!
How They Fought
In battle, the Celts’ only weapons were a sword and a spear. The spear was a simple iron javelin, with a sharp but collapsible tip. Usually, the Celts ran or rode into battle, and just before they met the enemy they threw their spears. During the battle, if they saw one of the spear-tips then the Celts would pick them up – either to prick the enemy with or to save to make more spears. On the way into the battlefield, and while fighting, the Celts would make a lot of noise to scare the enemy. They would scream, encourage their horses to neigh and bang their weapons on the side of their chariots/saddles. As with horses, a Celt’s sword had to be of high quality – most Celts would have two swords (one for battle and one for special ceremonies).
How They Lost
In the end, the Roman legions battered the Celts. This was mainly because Celt soldiers fought as individuals, and their armies were unorganized and had no ranks or tactics. If you looked out onto a battlefield where a fight between the Romans and the Celts was just starting, then you’d see a gigantic mob of blue, spiky-haired screamers charging at perfectly rectangular divisions of well-armoured soldiers. Another reason why the Romans conquered the Celts was because Celtic tribes spent too much time waging war against each other.
A Briefer Afterword
So, in conclusion, although the Celtic armies were defeated and conquered, they deserve a name. The Celtic peoples were one of the most brave, inspiring and exciting fighters in History.
Also to be found on the History Page