What I’m writing about this week, #10: The Hellweg

One of the unsung pleasures of writing historical fiction is doing the grunt-work, ie the research. Not just on the rare and exciting occasions that I get to go somewhere to look at a battlefield, but the sitting-in-front-of-a-computer day-to-day internet research. And I recently discovered a valuable nugget of information that I am deploying in my forthcoming novel The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2). It’s about a very ancient road.

The Hellweg today near Bielefeld in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

The Hellweg was built by the Romans in their wars against the Germanic tribes across the Rhine. The road was used to march legionaries into the heart of the Teutoburger Wald, the primal forest, where famously in AD9, they had their arses handed to them by Arminius in a great battle in which possibly as many as 20,000 Romans perished. Eight centuries later, the Hellweg was still operational as a route into the heart of Saxony. And Charlemagne – who later (800AD) became the first Holy Roman Emperor – used it to great effect to subdue the pagan Saxon tribes.

The name “Hellweg” literally means the Road to Hell – or the Way to the Goddess Hel’s Realm. Perhaps because of its military/battle connotations. However, there are some scholars think it may mean the Salt Road – hal is a Celtic word for salt – because people carried that valuable commodity along it. Yet another etymology is the Bright Road – heller means bright or clear – because it is an open space in the gloomy forest. I think of it as The Hell Road mainly because that is a bold, dramatic name. But a good chunk of it is now prosaically named Bundesautobahn 44.

The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) is out this autumn

In my novel, which will be published by Canelo late in 2021, Charlemagne returns in AD775 from Italy where he has been conquering the Lombards, to find that while he was away the Saxons had been murdering his Christian missionaries and ravaging the Frankish county of Hesse to the south of their ancestral lands. To punish the contumelious Saxons, Charlemagne launches his vast army east along the Hellweg, which his engineers had been carefully maintaining over many years, into the middle of their territory, where he proceeds to wreak bloody havoc.

In The Saxon Wolf, one of my main characters, Bjarki Bloodhand “recalled Tor’s recent words about the Hellweg, that is was a ‘road that lunges like a spear into the heart of Saxony’. That was true, he believed. He had never really thought of a highway as a weapon before but the smooth, wide, slightly cambered, packed-earth road they were on, with the thick green walls of the First Forest on either side, was indeed a crucial tool of warfare. It allowed the army to move at an extraordinary speed, covering twenty miles between dawn and dusk, unheard of for a force this cumbersome, and helped to keep the army together, without contingents straggling or getting lost along the way.”

Nathan Bedford Forest, a highly regarded* Confederate General in the American Civil War, said that the way to win a battle was to “to get there first with the most men”. And he was right. The railways were later used in 19th-century Europe and the USA to great effect to bring troops quickly in large numbers to where they could do the most good. And the Hellweg was a transport system of this same efficiency for its time. Charlemagne swiftly brought huge numbers of warriors to several fortresses in deepest Saxony, capturing them and slaughtering the defenders. You could reasonably argue that the Hellweg was a major reason for his military successes against the Saxons.

The approximate route of the Hellweg today in North Rhine-Westphalia is in blue

The Hellweg ran from the town of Duisburg on the River Rhine, which was the site of an ancient ford over that great natural barrier, to the city of Paderborn, where Charlemagne built a great fortress in AD777. And keeping the Hellweg open – it had to be kept three meters wide, the standard length of a lance – to military traffic became a Carolingian priority because that artery allowed him to bring Frankish troops from their homelands across the Rhine (ie, modern-day France) to the thick, impenetrable forests of Saxony in just a matter of a few days.

Charlemagne did not have it all his way. The Saxons were extremely stubborn in their refusal to submit to his rule and to accept his Christian faith and the bloody wars lasted more than thirty years. These conflicts are the subject of my Fire Born series, with The Saxon Wolf being the second volume. If you would like to read the first novel – The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) – you can buy a copy here.

The Last Berserker is available online from Amazon and is stocked by all good bookshops

*Nathan Bedford Forest was highly regarded at the time in military circles. It should be noted that he was also a slave trader, plantation owner and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Fictional kind-hearted dimwit Forest Gump (of the eponymous movie) was named after him.

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