Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

The Life of a Soldier

When you read about the Egyptians in the Bible, it seems as though they were nearly always fighting; and, indeed, they did a good deal of fighting in their time, as nearly every nation did in those old days. But in reality they were not a great soldier people, like their rivals the Assyrians, or the Babylonians. We, who have had so much to do with their descendants, the modern Egyptians, and have fought both against them and with them, know that the "Gippy" is not fond of soldiering in his heart. He makes a very good, patient, hardworking soldier when he has good officers; but he is not like the Soudanese, who love fighting for fighting's sake. He much prefers to live quietly in his own native village, and cultivate his own bit of ground. And his forefathers, in these long-past days, were very much of the same mind. Often, of course, they had to fight, when Pharaoh ordered them out for a campaign in the Soudan or in Syria, and then they fought wonderfully well; but all the time their hearts were at home, and they were glad to get back to their farm-work and their simple pleasures. They were a peaceful, kindly, pleasant race, with little of the cruelty and fierceness that you find continually among the Assyrians.

In fact, the old Egyptian rather despised soldiering as a profession. He thought it was rather a miserable, muddled kind of a job, in which, unless you were a great officer, you got all the hard knocks and none of the honours; and I am not sure that he was far wrong. His great idea of a happy life was to get employment as a scribe, or, as we should say, a clerk, to some big man or to the Government, to keep accounts and write reports. Of course the people could not all be scribes; but an Egyptian who had sons was never so proud as when he could get one of them into a scribe's position, even though the young man might look down upon his old father and his brothers, toiling on the land or serving in the army.

A curious old book has come down to us from these ancient days, in which the writer, who had been both a soldier and a high officer under Government in what we should call the diplomatic service, has told a young friend his opinion of soldiering as a profession. The young man had evidently been dazzled with the idea of being in the cavalry, or, rather, the chariotry, for the Egyptian soldiers did not ride on horses like our cavalry, but drove them in chariots, in each of which there were two men—the charioteer, to drive the two horses, and the soldier, who stood beside the driver and fought with the bow, and sometimes with the lance or sword.

But this wise old friend tells him that even to be in the chariotry is not by any means a pleasant job. Of course it seems very nice at first. The young man gets his new equipment, and thinks all the world of himself as he goes home to show off his fine feathers.

"He receives beautiful horses,

And rejoices and exults,

And returns with them to his town."

But then comes the inspection, and if he has not everything in perfect order he has a bad time of it, for he is thrown down on the ground, and beaten with sticks till he is sore all over.

But if the lot of the cavalry soldier is hard, that of the infantry-man is harder. In the barracks he is flogged for every mistake or offence. Then war breaks out, and he has to march with his battalion to Syria. Day after day he has to tramp on foot through the wild hill-country, so different from the flat, fertile homeland that he loves. He has to carry all his heavy equipment and his rations, so that he is laden like a donkey; and often he has to drink dirty water, which makes him ill. Then, when the battle comes, he gets all the danger and the wounds, while the Generals get all the credit. When the war is over, he comes home riding on a donkey, a broken-down man, sick and wounded, his very clothes stolen by the rascals who should have attended on him. Far better, the wise man says, to be a scribe, and to remain comfortably at home. I dare say it was all quite true, just as perhaps it would not be very far from the truth at the present time; but, in spite of it all, Pharaoh had his battles to fight, and he got his soldiers all right when they were needed.

The Egyptian army was not generally a very big one. It was nothing like the great hosts that we hear of nowadays, or read of in some of the old histories. The armies that the Pharaohs led into Syria were not often much bigger than what we should call an army corps nowadays—probably about 20,000 men altogether, rarely more than 25,000. But in that number you could find almost as many different sorts of men as in our own Indian army. There would be first the native Egyptian spearmen and bowmen—the spearmen with leather caps and quilted leather tunics, carrying a shield and spear, and sometimes an axe, or a dagger, or short sword—the bowmen, more lightly equipped, but probably more dangerous enemies, for the Egyptian archers were almost as famous as the old English bowmen, and won many a battle for their King. Then came the chariot brigade, also of native Egyptians, men probably of higher rank than the foot-soldiers. The chariots were very light, and it must have been exceedingly difficult for the bowman to balance himself in the narrow car, as it bumped and clattered over rough ground. The two horses were gaily decorated, and often wore plumes on their heads. The charioteer sometimes twisted the reins round his waist, and could take a hand in the fighting if his companion was hard pressed, guiding his horses by swaying his body to one side or the other.

Round the Pharaoh himself, as he stood in his beautiful chariot, marched the royal bodyguard. It was made up of men whom the Egyptians called "Sherden"—Sardinians, probably, who had come over the sea to serve for hire in the army of the great King. They wore metal helmets, with a round ball on the top and horns at the sides, carried round bossed shields, and were armed with great heavy swords of much the same shape as those which the Norman knights used to carry. Behind the native troops and the bodyguard marched the other mercenaries—regiments of black Soudanese, with wild-beast skins thrown over their ebony shoulders; and light-coloured Libyans from the West, each with a couple of feathers stuck in his leather skull-cap.

Scouts went on ahead to scour the country, and bring to the King reports of the enemy's whereabouts. Beside the royal chariot there padded along a strange, but very useful soldier—a great tame lion, which had been trained to guard his master and fight with teeth and claws against his enemies. Last of all came the transport train, with the baggage carried on the backs of a long line of donkeys, and protected by a baggage-guard. The Egyptians were good marchers, and even in the hot Syrian sunshine, and across a rough country where roads were almost unknown, they could keep up a steady fifteen miles a day for a week on end without being fagged out.

Let us follow the fortunes of an Egyptian soldier through one of the great battles of the nation's history. Menna was one of the most skilful charioteers of the whole Egyptian army—so skilful that, though he was still quite young, he was promoted to be driver of the royal war-chariot when King Ramses II. marched out from Zaru, the frontier garrison town of Egypt, to fight with the Hittites in Northern Syria. During all the long march across the desert, through Palestine, and over the northern mountain passes, no enemy was seen at all, and, though Menna was kept busy enough attending to his horses and seeing that the chariot was in perfect order, he was in no danger. But as the army began to wind down the long valley of the Orontes towards the town of Kadesh, the scouts were kept out in every direction, and the whole host was anxiously on the lookout for the Hittite troops.

Kadesh came in sight at last. Far on the horizon its towers could be seen, and the sun's rays sparkled on the river and on the broad moat which surrounded the walls; but still no enemy was to be seen. The scouts came in with the report that the Hittites had retreated northwards in terror, and King Ramses imagined that Kadesh was going to fall into his hands without a battle. His army was divided into four brigades, and he himself hurried on rather rashly with the first brigade, leaving the other three to straggle on behind him, widely separated from one another.

Ramses II


The first brigade reached its camping-ground to the north-west of Kadesh; the tired troops pitched camp; the baggage was unloaded; and the donkeys, released from their burdens, rolled on the ground in delight. Just at that moment some of the Egyptian scouts came in, bringing with them two Arabs whom they had caught, and suspected to belong to the enemy. King Ramses ordered the Arabs to be soundly beaten with sticks, and the poor creatures confessed that the Hittite King, with a great army, was concealed on the other side of Kadesh, watching for an opportunity to attack the Egyptian army. In great haste Ramses, scolding his scouts the while for not keeping a better lookout, began to get his soldiers under arms again, while Menna ran and yoked to the royal chariot the two noble horses which had been kept fresh for the day of battle.

But before Pharaoh could leap into his chariot a wild uproar broke out at the gate of the camp, and the scattered fragments of the second brigade came pouring in headlong flight into the enclosure. Behind them the whole Hittite chariot force, 2,500 chariots strong, each chariot with three men in it, came clattering and leaping upon the heels of the fugitives. The Hittite King had waited till he saw the first brigade busy pitching camp, and then, as the second came straggling up, he had launched his chariots upon the flank of the weary soldiers, who were swept away in a moment as if by a flood.

The rush of terrified men carried off the first brigade along with it in hopeless rout. Ramses and Menna were left with only a few picked chariots of the household troops, and the whole Hittite army was coming on. But though King Ramses had made a terrible bungle of his generalship, he was at least a brave man. Leaping into his chariot, and calling to the handful of faithful soldiers to follow him, he bade Menna lash his horses and charge the advancing Hittites. Menna was no coward, but when he saw the thin line of Egyptian troops, and looked at the dense mass of Hittite chariots, his heart almost failed him. He never thought of disobedience, but, as he stooped over his plunging horses, he panted to the King: "O mighty strength of Egypt in the day of battle, we are alone in the midst of the enemy. O, save us, Ramses, my good lord!" "Steady, steady, my charioteer," said Ramses, "I am going among them like a hawk!"

In a moment the fiery horses were whirling the King and his charioteer between the files of the Hittite chariots, which drew aside as if terrified at the glittering figures that dashed upon them so fearlessly. As they swept through, Menna had enough to do to manage his steeds, which were wild with excitement; but Ramses' bow was bent again and again, and at every twang of the bowstring a Hittite champion fell from his chariot. Behind the King came his household troops, and all together they burst through the chariot brigade of the enemy, leaving a long trail marked by dead and wounded men, overturned chariots, and maddened horses.

Still King Ramses had only gained a breathing-space. The Hittites far outnumbered his little force, and, though his orderlies were madly galloping to bring up the third and fourth brigades, it must be some time yet before even the nearest could come into action. Besides, on the other bank of the river there hung a great cloud of 8,000 Hittite spearmen, under the command of the Hittite King himself. If these got time to cross the river, the Egyptian position, bad enough as it was, would be hopeless. There was nothing for it but to charge again and again, and, if possible, drive back the Hittite chariots on the river, so as to hinder the spearmen from crossing.

So Menna whipped up his horses again, and, with arrow on string, the Pharaoh dashed upon his enemies once more. Again they burst through the opposing ranks, scattering death on either side as they passed. Now some of the fragments of the first and second brigades were beginning to rally and come back to the field, and the struggle was becoming less unequal. The Egyptian quivers were nearly all empty now; but lance and sword still remained, and inch by inch the Hittites were forced back upon the river. Their King stood ingloriously on the opposite bank, unable to do anything. It was too late for him to try to move his spearmen across—they would only have been trampled down by the retreating chariots. At last a great shout from the rear announced the arrival of the third Egyptian brigade, and, the little knot of brave men who had saved the day still leading, the army swept the broken Hittites down the bank of the Orontes into the river.

Great was the confusion and the slaughter. As the chariots struggled through the ford, the Egyptian bowmen, spread out along the bank, picked off the chiefs. The two brothers of the Hittite King, the chief of his bodyguard, his shield-bearer, and his chief scribe, were all killed. The King of Aleppo missed the ford, and was swept down the river; but some of his soldiers dashed into the water, rescued him, and, in rough first aid, held the half-drowned leader up by the heels, to let the water drain out of him. The Hittite King picked up his broken fugitives, covered them with his mass of spearmen, and moved reluctantly off the field where so splendid a chance of victory had been missed, and turned into defeat. The Egyptians were too few and too weary to attempt to cross the river in pursuit, and they retired to the camp of the first brigade.

Then Pharaoh called his Captains before him. The troops stood around, leaning on their spears, ashamed of their conduct in the earlier part of the day, and wondering at the grim signs of conflict that lay on every side. King Ramses called Menna to him, and, handing the reins to a groom, the young charioteer came bowing before his master. Pharaoh stripped from his own royal neck a collar of gold, and fastened it round the neck of his faithful squire; and, while the Generals and Captains hung their heads for shame, the King told them how shamefully they had left him to fight his battle alone, and how none had stood by him but the young charioteer. "As for my two horses," he said, "they shall be fed before me every day in the royal palace."

Both armies had suffered too much loss for any further strife to be possible, and a truce was agreed upon. The Hittites drew off to the north, and the Egyptians marched back again to Egypt, well aware that they had gained little or nothing by all their efforts, but thankful that they had been saved from the total destruction which had seemed so near.

A proud man was Menna when he drove the royal chariot up to the bridge of Zaru. As the troops passed the frontier canal the road was lined on either side with crowds of nobles, priests, and scribes, strewing flowers in the way, and bowing before the King. And after the Pharaoh himself, whose bravery had saved the day, there was no one so honoured as the young squire who had stood so manfully by his master in the hour of danger.