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Weapons, Hand-to-Hand

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology

Robert Douglas Smith

Weapons, Hand-to-Hand 

Throughout the medieval period the main weapons were those used for fighting hand-to-hand at close quarters, primarily the sword and the staff weapon of which there was a bewildering variety. However, soldiers used a range of other hand-held weapons during this period, ranging from the dagger and the ax to war hammers and cudgels.


The main hand weapon for most types of soldiers throughout the medieval period was the sword. By at least the first century b.c.e. the Roman soldier had adopted the gladius, a short sword consisting of an iron blade with a bronze-covered wood, bone, or ivory cross-guard, pommel, and grip attached. The gladius could only be used for thrusting and thus had limited effect when wielded from horseback, for which a longer sword (c. 28 to 36 inches [71 to 92 centimeters]) was carried, the spatha. It had appeared by the end of the second century c.e., first as a cavalry weapon but quickly finding popularity among the infantry as well, which may suggest an increased desire on the soldiers’ part to use the sword as a slashing rather than a thrusting weapon.Swords were also the weapon of choice for the elite of barbarian society, and from very early on the sword became a part of every cavalryman’s arsenal,

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English or French, fourteenth century. © Wallace Collection, London, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library International

its ownership generally preceding even that of a warhorse. But they were also used by large numbers of infantry; the Visigothic Code of Ervig (r. 680–687) even made the ownership of a sword mandatory for all men joining the army. Thus swords quickly became a symbol for the freeman all over Europe.

Although barbarian soldiers used short swords—archaeological examples average 16 inches (40 centimeters) in length, no doubt imitating Roman gladii or a weapon based on them—the preference of these warriors was for the longer spatha-type weapon. These were heavy, likely meant to be used with two hands, and two-edged, and with a center of gravity near the point. Archaeological evidence has shown them to be long, 29.5 to 39 inches (75 to 100 centimeters), and narrow, 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) in width on average, which has given rise to the scholarly opinion that they were not very strong or well made.

A type of sword specific to this time was the scramasax (also called a sax or seax).This was a single-edged weapon that could be up to 33.5 inches (85 centimeters) in length with a width between 1.6 and 2.6 inches (40 and 65 millimeters). But, unlike the long swords of the period, the lower range of whose length they equaled, the scramasax was lighter in weight and could be wielded in one hand. Shorter examples, measuring around 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, have also been found.

Barbarian swords had large pommels and cross-guards, of various sizes and shapes, made of the same metal as the blade. Some pommels were also covered in a thin sheet of bronze or silver. Grips were covered in wood and leather and sometimes also had metal elements. Scabbards differed little in construction from their Roman predecessors—wood covered with leather and decorative and reinforcing metal elements. Blades, hilts, and scabbards were frequently decorated; especially popular was the inlaying of gold, silver, and bronze, and decorative effects such as gold cloisonné and the attachment of jewels. The most wealthy of barbarian leaders owned extremely decorated swords; that of Childeric, the fifth-century Merovingian chief whose extremely rich tomb was excavated at Tournai in 1653, had gold inlay and cloisonné decoration on both the hilts and scabbards of two swords found in his grave—a spatha and a scramasax. Daggers were also used by many barbarian soldiers, with artistic and archaeological remains confirming their stylistic and technological connection to Roman ones.

Almost all Carolingian soldiers would have carried a sword. It is especially prominent in Charlemagne’s many capitularies that refer to weaponry, especially for the cavalry. If a warrior owned a warhorse, then he also owned a sword. Thus it is not surprising that in illustrations and excavations these weapons are common. Nor should it be surprising that the sword began to gain a reputation as the weapon of honor for the noble and wealthy soldier.

In the early Carolingian period it appears that swords themselves were not substantially different from previous Frankish examples. Both the longsword and the scramasax are attested by literary and archaeological sources, and both were similar in size and manufacture to the earlier weapons. However, by the end of the eighth century the scramasax began to disappear and the longsword began to change both in shape and manufacture.

The longsword blade was usually of simple broad shape and could be single- or double-edged, with a rounded point and made for slashing and cutting rather than thrusting. The hilt was usually fitted with a simple straight cross-guard and pommel. Of particular interest in this period was the manufacture of what are known today as pattern-welded swords. They were made by building up the blade of a weapon from many smaller pieces of iron, either from the same source or else a source very slightly different in composition, with one containing slightly more phosphorous than the other. These pieces of iron were then welded together, twisted and worked in such a way that the resultant surface of the blade exhibited a discernible and visible pattern akin to waves, ripples, or woven patterns, especially herringbone work. To the central core of this pattern-welded material a steel edge could be welded on, producing a very high quality sword. The reason that blades were made this way, requiring as it did a great deal of time and enormous skill, is not known for certain. It has generally been thought that the use of separate pieces of iron twisted and welded together improved the blade by combining their hardness and toughness. Yet it is also possible that they were made in this manner because it was difficult to obtain large enough blooms of material to make entire blades for the increased number of swords required by the larger armies of that period.

It was common for swords of this period to bear an inscription of some sort; many remain indecipherable to us today, but inscriptions might be Christian symbols or the name of the owner or maker, among other possibilities. For example, the inscriptions INGELRII and ULFBERHT are both known from several swords and probably refer to the smith or the workshop where they were made, showing that swordsmiths had developed a wide reputation for quality and that their work was exported across Europe.

What is known for certain is that swords were very expensive to make, whether pattern-welded or not. This is undoubtedly why the weapon became a powerful and vital symbol—of manhood, valor, authority, and honor—that found its way into the contemporary literature and culture. An example of this can be found in the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf’s description of the fiery sword that guarded Eden: “The hard-edged blade with its woven patterns quivers and trembles; grasped with terrible sureness, it flashes into changing hues.”

By the eleventh century, the sword was quite simple, consisting of a wide, double-edged blade with a somewhat rounded end, a simple cross-guard, and pommel. It was kept in a scabbard, which was secured to a simple waist belt. At this time the sword was a cutting and thrusting weapon well suited to hand-to-hand combat and the attack of the mail armor in use during this period, and it remained the basic sword type throughout the next two centuries—essentially a weapon with a broad blade and simple hilt. However, it is not true to say that all swords in this period were identical. There was considerable variation in length, for example, from as short as 26 inches (66 centimeters) to as long as 38 inches (96 centimeters). The cross-guard, although usually of quite simple form—often just a plain straight bar of iron—could also be more elaborate. For example, the ends might curve either away from or toward the hand, and it might be more ornately shaped and perhaps decorated. The pommel, too, tended to be relatively simple, with many swords having just a plain disc pommel—although the so-called Brazil-nut form common earlier in the Middle Ages also remained in use. Early examples also frequently have inscriptions or inscribed decoration on the blade itself. The grip was usually short, fitting just one hand, although longer grips, which could accommodate a second hand to increase the power of attack, were not unknown. Grips themselves ranged from the simple wood bound with leather to the very elaborately decorated high-status examples made for kings and nobles.

The use of the sword began to change in the later thirteenth century from a cutting and slashing weapon with a relatively wide blade to a thrusting and piercing weapon where the point was used more than the edges—a change that no doubt is related to the development of plate armor. During the first half of the fourteenth century, sword blades were made narrower with longer points and were diamond or hexagonal in cross section. Over the same period, the grip was lengthened and extended so that it could be used either in one or two hands. The simple straight cross-guard of the earlier sword also changed and by around the middle of the fifteenth century was curved toward the blade, and the simple wheel-shaped pommel was replaced by pommels of triangular, conical, or oval shape. National characteristics also emerged during this period, with swords of different designs being developed in different areas of Europe.

An extra ring at the base of the blade was sometimes added through which the forefinger was inserted, and from the early fifteenth century an iron ring was added to one quillon (the cross piece at the base of the hilt) as extra protection. From about 1450, a second ring was added to the other quillon, and by the end of the century, pieces of iron, called guards, were added from the cross-guard to the pommel to provide added protection for the hand. Over time the hilt became more elaborate and additional guards were added, which in some cases almost enclosed the hand in a cage of iron bars. However, this development was neither straightforward nor standard, and many early features, such as straight quillons, continued to be used on some types of swords. During the fifteenth century, there was a tendency for swords to be made lighter and, at the end of the century, they had become an essential part of everyday dress. As a result, these swords became highly decorated and ornate, leading eventually to the development of the rapier in the sixteenth century, the civilian sword par excellence, as the sword moved from the battlefield to the town street.

Training in the use of swords was of course very important, and swordsmanship was taught in a master-pupil relationship. From the early fourteenth century, the techniques of fighting with the sword started to be written down and illustrated, and there are manuscripts showing the various starting positions, called wards, and sequences of movements that had to be learned by the aspiring swordsman. Although a few examples from the fifteenth century survive, such as the Fectbuch of Hans Talhoffer, written in 1467, fencing books proliferated after the 1530s when fencing became part of every gentleman’s education.


Although there is no evidence to suggest that Roman soldiers used axes as weapons, it is clear that barbarians used them extensively. Contemporary writers report that barbarian warriors used axes both in close infantry fighting and as missile weapons and that axes as weapons were easily able to damage armor, cleave helmets, and penetrate shields. When used as infantry weapons, axes were swung with one or both hands, and when used as missile weapons they were thrown. One tactic, used especially by Frankish soldiers—whose term for such an ax, “francisca,” has been adopted by historians as a name for all of them—was to throw their axes in unison at approaching troops, thus disrupting their charge.The fact that these weapons were thrown suggests that franciscae were relatively small, a fact confirmed by artistic renderings and archaeological finds that indicate that their average weight was about 2.6 pounds (1.2 kilograms), with the head weighing between 9.6 and 32 ounces (300 and 1,000 grams). These ax heads measure 7 to 8 inches (18 to 20 centimeters) in height, and it is estimated that their handles measured in the region of 16 inches (40 centimeters) in length. For example, the francisca head found in the tomb of Childeric, King of the Franks (r. c. 440 to c. 481), measures 8 inches (20 centimeters) and weighs 30 ounces (935 grams). Soldiers had to be skilled enough to judge the speed and distance of a charging enemy in order to completely take

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Illustration from thirteenth-century Exchequer documents. HIP/Art Resource, NY

advantage of the small cutting edge when throwing their axes. Forged from a single piece of iron, franciscae had a distinct shape: the upper head with an S-shaped curvature; the lower edge of the blade a simple elbow; the lower part of the head swinging strongly to the handle; and the upper edge of the blade formed into a point or rounded.

The throwing ax remained important to barbarian soldiers until the beginning of the seventh century, when it began to decline in use, possibly because of a drop in the number of skilled throwers but more probably due to an increase in the use of archers by the Franks. By the end of the seventh century the francisca had effectively disappeared. The handheld ax, however, continued to be favored as an infantry weapon throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, although with a longer handle and larger head and usually wielded with two hands.

Axes continued to be used widely throughout Europe at this time. Indeed, in Scandinavia and England they were almost as popular and “honorable” as the sword; the Vikings, in particular, used them extensively. In the Carolingian Empire, axes did not have the same appeal or carry the same symbolism, but they were still used. They were either small and used with only one hand or relatively large and wielded with two hands. There are rare contemporary illustrations of double-headed axes with a similar sized head on either side of a central socket. Axes were used primarily by foot soldiers, although one-hand axes could also be effective weapons from horseback. Very-high-status axes were often decorated with inlays of silver.


Some historians have suggested that the scramasax did not disappear at the end of the eighth century but, rather, became a supplementary weapon to be carried in addition to the spear and sword: the dagger. During the Carolingian period, it seems that many warriors began to carry daggers. However, the evidence for their use is scarce, and it is not always clear whether they were subsidiary weapons to the spear and sword. Despite the fact that there are no daggers depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, their use must have been widespread at the time and indeed for all this period, though they do not figure greatly as a fighting weapon until the later thirteenth century. The scramasax seems to have been the common and widespread form of dagger from before this period until around 1300.During the period from 1300 a number of different types of daggers appeared across Europe. The quillon dagger probably first developed around the middle of the thirteenth century. The earlier versions of these daggers had quillons and pommels curved away from the grip (known as antennae pommels) or pommels in a crescent or ring form. Later quillon daggers were characterized by guards that resemble quillons of swords, and indeed they most often look like smaller versions of the swords of the same era. Pommels could be of almost any form—discs, wheels, octagonal, or spherical pommels among others. The grip could be either of one or two pieces and was usually wrapped in leather and wire. The quillons often curved forward toward the blade, which was usually short and could be either double-edged, of flattened diamond section, or single-edged and triangular in shape. In both, the blade tapered from the hilt to the point. Surviving scabbards are rare, especially early ones, but were probably of leather with a metal throat and chape. Usually a knightly weapon, they were worn on the right side hanging from the sword belt on a cord or thong.

The rondel dagger was introduced around 1300 and was in widespread use all over Western Europe from the middle of the fourteenth century. Most often slender and elegant in form, like the quillon dagger, it too was a knightly weapon. It gained its name from the discs of either wood or metal at either end of the grip. The blade was relatively short, double-edged and of flattened diamond section, and tapered from the hilt to the point. Later on, the blades became longer, up to about 15 or 16 inches (38 or 40 centimeters) in length, and single-edged blades become more common. Scabbards were usually just simple leather sheaths, often with decorative tooling.

Perhaps the most common and widely used form of dagger was the baselard, which probably originated in Basel, Switzerland, in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, from where it quickly spread all over Europe. Baselards were very common from 1350 until the late fifteenth century. Although during the fourteenth century baselards were particularly a knightly weapon, especially in southern Germany and Italy, in the fifteenth century they became more of a civilian weapon. They were commonly worn on the right hip, suspended at the front or from a hanger attached to the sword belt. Their hilts have a very characteristic form, with cross pieces at both the guard and pommel ends giving it the shape of an H on its side or a capital I. The cross pieces can be of equal length and both can be quite small, but the typical baselard has a cross piece at the guard slightly longer than that at the pommel. The grip was usually made of two pieces of wood, ivory, horn, or bone and was riveted through the tang, often with many rivets. Although early examples have single-edged blades, they are most commonly of double edged or flattened diamond form. Scabbards, again rare survivals, were made from leather with metal mounts at the throat, middle, and chape. Luxury versions of baselards were also made, and a few have survived in which the scabbard is made from carved ivory or bone. Some baselards have elaborately carved hilts of boxwood, bone, or ivory, and another type has curved cross pieces shod with metal.

An intriguing type of dagger was developed about 1300 in which the hilt was made from wood with no metal and shaped with two prominences at the guard and a bulbous knob at the top. The contemporary name was “ballock dagger,” obviously derived from the shape of the guard, but more prudish historians in the nineteenth century called them “kidney daggers.” The grips of ballock daggers that survive are made in one piece, and although most are made from plain wood, ivory, or horn, later metal examples are known. Early examples have a single-edged blade of triangular cross-section tapering evenly from the hilt to the point but, from about 1400, double-edged versions appear. Scabbards were usually made of leather with no metal mounts. The ballock dagger was worn on the left hip, hanging vertically at the front or sometimes horizontally at the back.

The “eared dagger,” characterized by two discs at the pommel rather like ears, developed in Spain at the end of the fourteenth century and spread to Italy, France, Germany, and England in the fifteenth. In general, eared daggers are elegant and the two discs are usually highly decorated with enamel, incised, or colored decoration, often with etching, damascening in gold or silver, or niello work. The guard of the eared dagger was usually of disc form and was larger early on; reducing in size over time until it almost disappears. The blade is broad and double-edged, often with a broad ricasso (the groove along the blade).

The final distinct type dagger, the so-called “cinquedea” (literally “five fingers”), was a specialty of Italy. The very broad flat blade, which tapers evenly from the hilt to the point, has either a strong medial ridge or is fluted. The flutes are almost always arranged in three layers running with the axis of the blade, two at the tip, three immediately behind those, and four near the hilt. The hilt can be of two forms: either with a wheel pommel, a grip like a sword, and quillons curved toward the blade or, more commonly, having an arched pommel with strongly down-curving quillons of rectangular cross section. Cinquedeas can be very long and indistinguishable from a sword or they can be short and dagger-like. Scabbards were usually made from the hardened leather known as cuir boulli, shaped to fit the blade, and often covered in tooled decoration.

The dagger was used for a number of purposes, not only on the battlefield, but as a weapon for personal protection, for assassination, and for eating. And, of course, throughout the late Middle Ages a wide range of knives and peasant daggers of many different forms were also in use.

Staff Weapons.

Evidence for the use and types of staff weapons before the end of the thirteenth century is somewhat limited. When mentioned in this period, they are always the weapons of the foot soldiers and idiosyncratic in form. These refer to a form of long-hafted weapon, some of which may actually be axes rather than the polearms of the later medieval period. For example, in 977 a Catalan document refers to a guisarme, described as a long-hafted weapon with an extremely long, ax-shaped head. Similarly, a capital of the Church of Saint Nectaire in France, carved in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, depicts two Roman soldiers carrying long-hafted weapons, one of which is fitted with an ax head and the other with what appears might be a broad blade like the later glaive. Although staff weapons, used both by foot and equestrian soldiers, are of great antiquity, the period from 1300 was when they especially came into their own as an infantry weapon. In 1302, at the battle of Courtrai, the Flemish townsmen from Bruges, Ypres, and Courtrai, armed, in the main, with staff weapons, routed a superior and supposedly better armed French army. The reaction to this victory, essentially from the lower and middle classes, and the large numbers of French cavalry dead were noted throughout Europe and caused uproar among the nobles, knights, and upper classes of society. The weapon, called a goedendag (“good day”), which caused such a devastating and unexpected victory, far from being sophisticated or innovative, was basically a heavy club with an iron cap to which an iron spike was attached. Its use at Courtrai and, equally important, the discipline of the Flemish forces, mark the rise of the infantry armed with staff weapons as a potent force on the battlefields of Europe. This victory was followed by that of the Swiss using staff weapons at the battle of Morgarten against the Austrians in 1315. From this time on staff weapons played an increasingly important part on the battlefield—blocks of disciplined, well-trained, and drilled infantry all armed with similar weapons were common down to the seventeenth century.The traditional infantry weapon, the spear, was around 6 to 9 feet (2 to 3 meters long) and was essentially a defensive weapon. It was used to extend the reach of the foot soldier in a thrusting motion, which, when well directed, was effective against both other infantry and mounted troops, especially when used in formations of closely ordered infantry. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the spear had been joined, as discussed above, by other forms of staff weapons, in particular the goedendag. However, the increase in the use of armor, especially the development of the full-plate harness, led to the need for an infantry weapon that was capable of both thrusting and cutting actions. Essentially, the ability of plate armor to resist penetration coupled with its smooth, rounded surfaces, which tended to deflect blows, meant that the thrusting spear was less effective. From the very end of the thirteenth century there developed a new type of staff weapon, the halberd, which combined the spear with the long, two-handed ax. At first the halberd consisted of a fairly broad blade with a spike projecting from the top secured to the end of a long pole—around 6 feet (2 meters) in length. It was used in a similar way to the spear as a thrusting weapon, but it could also be swung over the head and brought down with considerable force. During the fifteenth century,

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Battle of Crécy.

Soldiers and knights in armor fight with swords, spears, and halberds during the battle of Crécy, 25 August 1346. Illustration from Les chroniques de France, MS Cott. Nero. E. II., fol.152v, fifteenth century. British Library, London, UK/© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved/The Bridgeman Art Library International

an extra spike was added to the ax portion of the head, making it an even more formidable weapon.

The halberd is most closely associated with the Swiss armies of the later thirteenth and, especially, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Swiss had been granted rights of freedom that carried with them the right to bear arms, and this resulted in a population that carried weapons as a norm of everyday life. This familiarity with arms, especially staff weapons, resulted in the creation of a voluntary, part-time army that was both well disciplined and skilled. In fact, Swiss mercenaries gained a considerable reputation all over Europe during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and were much sought after by military leaders and commanders. By the end of the fifteenth century, a very characteristic Swiss halberd had developed, used alongside the pike, although it is important to note that it was not just their weapons that made the Swiss such a formidable force but discipline and the ability to fight as a unit.

The halberd and the goedendag were joined by a variety of other staff weapons over this period, some very characteristic of particular areas and some more widely distributed around Europe. The glaive, a large cutting and thrusting weapon, had a long blade with a convex front edge and a straight back. Although it was never very common, it probably first appeared in Europe during the thirteenth century and was used throughout the end of the Middle Ages. Later, in the sixteenth century, it came to be used very much as a ceremonial weapon carried by official guards and in processions. The “bill” was a weapon far more commonly used throughout Europe in the later medieval period. Although there were considerable variations in its form, a bill generally consisted of a broad cutting surface with a forward-facing hook with one or more spikes projecting from the rear, the front, or both. Simpler bills were similar to halberds and were probably used in much the same way. Other more complex types were developed. For example, the Welsh bill had a long slender curved blade and a right-angle spike, and the roncone, developed in Italy, which had a long straight blade with a smaller curved hook, with both top and backward-facing spikes. Finally, the partisan, a later type of staff weapon used throughout Europe from about 1500, was basically a long, flat blade tapering to a point, rather like an elongated spear.

Although staff weapons were commonly used as an individual weapon in one-to-one combat they were increasingly used as a mass weapon by a group of soldiers acting together in formation—in particular the massed pikemen of the Swiss. Staff weapons were also commonly used as ceremonial weapons carried by official guard companies.

Maces, War Hammers, and Poleaxes.

While swords were primarily used for slashing and thrusting, mounted cavalry also used a number of other close-range weapons, although none as common as the sword. The mace, which was used from at least the twelfth century, came to be made most often entirely of iron, as opposed to earlier versions that consisted of a copper alloy or iron head mounted on a wooden shaft. It was therefore heavier and capable of inflicting greater damage, and it was especially effective against more heavily armored foes. Short war hammers consisting of a rectangular head, often with a backward protruding spike, were very effective from horseback and were common from the mid-thirteenth century, when one is shown in the hand of an anonymous English knight’s effigy in Malvern Priory Church. A surviving war hammer, dating from about 1450, in the Wallace Collection in London, has a hammer head that is square in shape, although turned at a forty-five-degree angle to present a diamond-shaped front; the pick is short, slightly curved, and equal in length to the head.The ax, which earlier had, for the most part, been used primarily by the infantry and had fallen into disuse, again became popular in the fourteenth century and was used for fighting on foot as well as being used by cavalry and in the foot tournament. Fitted with a long two-handed shaft, the ax as a weapon was also usually furnished with a backward-facing short spike—a weapon called a poleax. Injuries, causing death, from the spikes of both war hammers and poleaxes have been identified in the skulls recovered from the graves of soldiers killed at the battles of Visby in 1361 and Towton in 1461.

Irregular Weapons: Clubs, Cudgels, and Flails.

Finally, it is also clear that throughout the medieval period crude and simple weapons, particularly clubs and cudgels, were used, but these weapons, by their very nature, do not survive or have not been recognized as weapons with the result that they are usually completely ignored in studies of arms and armor. Yet, simple weapons, farm implements, clubs, and even stones were used in warfare, especially by the poorer soldiers of low social and economic standing, from the very early conflicts of history into the modern age.Here, perhaps, should be considered the weapon that consists of a wooden handle on one end of which is attached a length of chain ending with an iron ball, often spiked. Opinions about whether this seemingly “quintessential medieval weapon” of cartoon and movie fame really existed are severely divided. One problem is that they do not appear in any medieval Western European records—although something similar is occasionally seen in non-Western sources. A second issue is that from a practical point of view such a weapon would be very difficult to wield, as, should a blow from it fail to connect with an attacker, the momentum of the ball end would bring it back to injure its user!

What was used, however, was the agricultural flail or a weapon based on it. This consisted of a long wooden shaft to which a second, and shorter, piece of wood was attached by means of a simple iron ring or short chain. This was certainly used by the common soldier during the Middle Ages, as there are numerous references in written sources, although surviving examples date only from the early modern period.

[See also Armor, Body; Arms Industry and Trade; Courtrai, Battle and Siege of; Franks, Carolingian, subentry on Narrative (751–899); Hand-to-Hand Combat; Morgarten, Battle of; Switzerland, subentry on Narrative; Vikings; and Visby, Battle of.]


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              Robert Douglas Smith

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