The impression of British warfare that has been passed down to us speaks of ferocious wild-eyed savages, their naked bodies covered in woad tattoos, their hair white with chalk and set in spikes. Consumed with an ill-founded sense of invincibility, these other-worldly demons would hurl themselves upon their prey, hoping to make up in relentless aggression what they clearly lacked in strategy. If their devastating charge broke the enemy on impact, they would win, but if they were held then the superior discipline and tactical mind of their opponents would certainly overwhelm them. There is truth to this perception, but by examining the evidence it is clear that this does not begin to do them justice.
This is not to infer that the organisation, strategy, discipline and battlefield co-ordination of the British war machine was in any way comparable to the more "civilised" lands of the Mediterranean. It could not hope to be, because whereas the soldiers of Rome and Greece were trained to fight as a unit and drew all their potency from this, the Britons, like the Gauls and the Germans, were individualists on the battlefield, and their formation, if they had such a concept, would not be to any level of sophistication that a Roman legionary would recognise.
But what of their fighting prowess? Surely an army consisting almost entirely of men who were farmers first and warriors second could not hope to rival a Roman legion, equipped throughout with professional soldiers for whom war was their life? Well in some ways they most certainly could. A Roman legionary is only as formidable as the unit of which he is a part; take him out of that formation, or else have an enemy break it into pieces with a fearful charge, and his skills as an individual fighter are quite ordinary. Romans were only introduced to warfare when they joined the army in their youth; their British counterparts had been practicing with weapons since the age when they were old enough to hold them.
The quality of British weaponry should not be underestimated. To a Roman, a sword is a tool; one is much the same as another, and it is used with no more regard than a butcher would have for his cleaver or a farmer his hoe. The smiths of northern Europe could produce weapons of a quality that no Roman factory could hope to match. Furthermore a British warrior commonly had a strong attachment to his weapon that few in the Classical world would have understood; the theme of ancestor worship is very strong in British pre-history, and so it is with such a symbolic weapon as the sword, which would have been passed from father to son with generations of battle glories etched upon its blade, and consequently an intense feeling of family honour, pride and duty would be bound into the fabric of this weapon, almost having a life of its own as it compelled the man who wielded it to live up to his pedigree and not to bring shame upon his ancestry.
We can conclude, therefore, that the Britons were formidable warriors on an individual basis, but what of their strategy? The only sources of information that we have are Roman, written from their perspective and, as a consequence, they gloriously reinforce their own sense of martial and intellectual superiority at the expense of their rivals. The prevailing theme throughout their literature is expressed by Tacitus in "Agricola", when he writes that the Britons, like the Gauls to whom he compares them, are as reckless in courting danger as they are anxious to escape it when it comes. This is the essential propaganda that the Romans adhered to, yet by reading between the lines of their own texts we can see numerous occasions where this assessment appears to be contradicted, and it seems that their methods of waging war are not as unsophisticated as we might think.
First Roman Invasion, 55 BC
Second Roman Invasion, 54 BC
The Roman Conquest, 43 AD