Zach – Welcome to Minimum Wage Historian. I’m doing this from Japan so I’m alone today. Today’s topic is from a presentation I gave at ‘Life The Universe and Everything,’ a writer’s conference held in Provo Utah. This is from last February where I tried to dispell myths about medieval combat and warfare in general and tried to show how the realities of such warfare are actually very fascinating and could add depth, realism and drama to a fantasy story. Yes, fantasy, by definition can really do anything it pleases, but there still has to be logic behind what they do and this is why I’m here, to bring logic to fantasy (and sci-fi) combat. Too many times I’ve read a fantasy book where the two armies clash in mass blobs, everything gets into a confused mess and somehow the hero and villain end up facing each other.
Yeah, you know you’ve seen this a dozen times. King Aurthur, Willow, Dark Knight Rises, and so on.
Well, it turns out that battles are actually a little more complex and organized than that. See, there these little things called strategy and tactics. Think of strategy as the big picture and tactics as the finer details. Strategy is the war, why your army is invading and what they’re after, where are they going and how are they going to win the war. Tactics is what you do in the battle. What units are placed where and how they move and fight. Then there is the weapons and equipment which seldom seem to be done right.
I’ll deal with each in turn. Each one will depend on the nature of the civilization you are writing about. A democratic Elven Republic that uses trade to make itself powerful will recruit, train and use soldiers in a completely different way than a Theocratic Orkish Kingdom that focuses on agriculture.
So, let’s take some examples from history. Ancient Rome. At its height it spread from England to the Mid-East with dozens of vassal kingdoms as allies. Rome recruited soldiers from all over its Empire and sent them to legions far from home. So, a Sarmatian could be sent to serve in a legion stationed in Gaul. A Libyan could be sent to Greece and a Briton could be sent to garrison Jerusalem. Wherever they went, they were trained and equipped in a similar manner so that their unifying culture became the Roman Military. It no longer mattered where they were from, they were all Legionaries now and were expected to devote their (probably) short lives to the Legion. This was quite different from how just a few centuries later, Charles Martel would recruit his soldiers. At that time, France was mostly agricultural and the soldiers were no longer life long professionals. They were farmers that had nothing much to do when they weren’t farming. So, Martel recruited young farmers for his army, but had to send them back home so they could harvest their crops in time. So, Europe developed a “campaign season” based around the harvesting of crops. (And it sucks to fight in bad winter weather.) The Venetians had a completely different way to go about warfare. They were mostly a maritime power and every citizen that sailed was expected to train with the crossbow to learn how to defend their ships. Warship captains also hauled and sold cargo on the side to earn a profit while at war. Their land battles were mostly done by mercenary armies because the Venetians themselves cared little for land.
Okay, let’s look at a fantasy example. Let’s take (and I’ll just be making this up as I go,) an Elven kingdom ruled by a woman who’s very powerful and has ruled as monarch for centuries. Hers is an enlightened monarchy and her kingdom has enjoyed peace. Are there other races? Sure, how about some civilized trolls, minotaurs, harpies and some centaurs. Why not. But then the nearby human empire starts expanding and using ork mercenaries to launch raids. Oh oh, time for war. The enlightened ruler refuses to do a mass conscription and instead gives a heart rending speech to her people imploring them to sign up and fight for their land and liberty. (I’m sure it’d make a great scene in the book.) Many sign up. Many don’t. So, they get a small but very loyal and dedicated army. They use their tiny core of experienced veterans to train these new recruits in time for the human invasion. They have to integrate the different species as well. They put trolls and centaurs into their own units as heavy infantry and cavalry. Harpies become scouts and maybe light missile tropes. The human army invades and is looking to take territory, so they start by taking cities. This is a mono-race army of only humans (maybe they’re racists) with little cavalry and many men in heavy armor and long pikes. They move slowly but unstoppably. So, the Elven kingdom, afraid of a stand up field battle, uses its cavalry and scouts to harass the enemy and try to split them up and only after weakening them do they attempt a pitched battle. They are outnumbered 2 to 1 but they are fighting for their freedom and country and are side by side with their brothers and townsmen. The humans are out for plunder and “three hots and a cot.” They don’t really have a cause and don’t really care. They’re confident because they think elves are weak and haven’t really stood up to fight yet. The two armies clash.
Who wins? Well, there’s a whole lot to go through before that question can be answered. That was just one example on how culture and civilization effects how a country fights. Does your country have access to a lot of horses? Dedicated war horses take a lot of land and grain to train and a lot of time and money to get the rider trained and kitted out. Medieval Japan did not have a lot of cavalry because they didn’t have the space to do it properly. The Mongols had nothing but open space. The Byzantines made the space at the expense of their once powerful infantry legions. Even the battles of medieval knights were mostly infantry affairs. What about technology? Does your fantasy kingdom have a tech advantage over their enemies? Do they have siege cannons? Do they have crossbows? Repeating crossbows? Byzantine flame throwers?
The Byzantines used a cheat code and got flamethrowers and laser bears.
What about population? China had a much, much larger population than Western Europe and as such had much larger armies. After the worst outbreak of Black Death in Medieval Europe during the Hundred Years War, we saw large armies shrink down to small raiding parties. Smaller armies also could mean that each man is much better equipped. Massive armies might only afford a shield and helmet for their men.
A feudal kingdom like the Holy Roman Empire was a collection of quarreling kingdoms that sometimes agreed to work together. The Turks used different types of troops from their different parts of their Empire so it was a mish mash of whatever they had.
Religion. Is your religion pacifist in nature? For example, The Byzantines were Christian and as such they actually avoided fighting far more than their Pagan ancestors and relied more heavily on strategy, subterfuge and simply paying their enemies off. Or, is your religion a blood thirsty one that delights in slaughtering heathens? Or is money the root of all happiness in your fantasy religion? Individualism or conformity? Honor or whatever gets victory?
So, do you see how the culture can affect your military? If you’re writing about battles, you have to have your culture fully fleshed out and understand how that changes the way they fight and wage war.
Now, the big picture: Strategy.
Here’s the thing, every battle has a purpose. Every army sets out to accomplish something. If an army sets out to invade a neighbor, what’s the best way to accomplish that? Are the cities fortified? Open? Or are the bases of power castles and forts outside the cities? Is farmland what they’re after or the control of rivers or mountain passes? Maybe islands or other centers of trade? Let’s look at Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. He was arguably one of the greatest generals of all time. He accomplished what so few generals in history have ever accomplished: the complete encirclement of a Roman army. Every battle he fought he completely annihilated the enemy to a humiliating degree. It was so bad that the Roman general Fabian refused to fight him face to face and just ran around Italy avoiding contact with Hannibal. So….why is western Europe speaking Latin based languages and not Cartheginian? Simple, Hannibal didn’t know what to do to win the war. After his shockingly amazing victory at Lake Trasimene the city of Rome, capitol of his enemy, was wide open to attack. There was maybe a couple of inept guards between him and the complete destruction of the Roman Republic. But he didn’t move. He sat there and waited for the Romans to surrender. Meanwhile, Rome quickly gathered another army, trained them up and sent them out again.
This was an example of how no matter how brilliant you are or how powerful your army, if your strategy sucks, you’ll probably lose.
Here’s the main thing to know about strategy. If you only take away one thing from all of my ranting here, its this: Every army survives on its belly. In fantasy how many times have you seen depictions of vast armies of evil marching from horizon to horizon and everyone you see is warrior in black armor intent on death.
Looks cool, gotta admit that, but slightly impossible.
There’s a problem with that.
How do they eat? Armies travel on their bellies. Miss one too many meals and your army is either too weak to move or are ready to mutiny. An army that’s so friggin’ huge that it shakes the earth also has to have a baggage train almost as numerous as the soldiers. Armies require a lot of food and a lot of stuff. They’ll need blacksmiths and all that comes with it. They’ll need doctors, blankets, food, carts, tools, laundry stuff, LOTS of FOOD, weapons, armor horses, food for the horses, food, surveyors, accountants, food, money, lots of money, food, shoes, clothing and food. Sure, the initial shock invasion can travel light, but if the baggage train doesn’t meet up with them soon, they’re stranded and either dead or captured. (Examples: Blitzkrieg, Iraq War, Normandy, the First Crusade, etc.)
What I’m trying to say is that your entire strategy will revolve around logistics. The three ‘B’s’. Beans, blankets and bullets. (or blades if you’re writing fantasy.) Most of the time the army that gets the three B’s where they need to be, when they need to be there will win. Why did Nazi Germany focus on U-boat action around England? They wanted to cut off all supplies to starve them out. Why did Grant focus on the Mississippi in the Civil War? He wanted cut off the South’s main supply lines. Why did Lee’s army fight at Gettysburg? They were looking for shoes.
The ironic thing is, the bigger the army, the more vulnerable they are to logistics. A vast horde of unbeatable warriors can be beaten by cutting off their supply lines and leaving them cold and hungry. Look at Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Napoleon was undefeatable. His army could march over any three armies in Europe without pause. But the Russians didn’t have to fight him in the field. They just withdrew and let Napoleon come further in until his supply lines were stretched too thin and left him with nothing to find. This also worked against a certain German leader during the next century. So, in your fantasy book, you have an army of war trolls that the good guys can’t possibly beat in a fight? Starve them out. Burn the crops before them and attack their baggage trains and supply lines. The three B’s.
Look at Joan of Arc’s first heroic battle at Orleans. Why was that city so important? A novice writer will say, “its an important city” and leave it at that. But the reason Joan knew she had to keep Orleans from falling was that it was a transportation link between the Dauphin’s territories. Cut that link and each part would be essentially cut off from resupply or reinforcements. It was about the three B’s.
I know Logistics doesn’t sound sexy for a fantasy story, but it can add a lot of plot and reasons to fight. Maybe your heroes need a port to allow their navy to resupply them? Maybe they want to stop the enemy from getting their horses so they go take the city where most of their warhorses come from. Maybe the enemy is after the part of the country where most of the good guys’ food is grown. Maybe the Troll army is running for the granary silos or pig farms and the heroes have to stop them from getting to the food. Either way its a reason to fight instead of “because they’re there.” It’ll add motive and make the world seem more real.
This is the reason that most of Medieval warfare was based around sieges. It was a cheap way to destroy the enemy. You surround them and wait and see who runs out of supplies or gets sick the fastest. Look through Medieval history and you’ll see that many battles were sieges. They were far more common than most realize and they were often fairly mundane and boring affairs. But if you want a siege that is truly epic, look at the siege of Malta and the defense of the Knights of St. John.
But, Zach, sometimes armies fight just to kill the other army!
Yes, I know, and in those cases, the three B’s get a fourth, ‘bodies.’ The side that will win will the side that can throw the most beans, blankets blades and bodies into the fray. WWI is a good example of this. In that war, the object was to win by pure attrition. Objectives were excuses to maul and wear down the enemy army. Germany lost because they just couldn’t keep the (4) B’s going. They failed to strangle England and then America jumps in with ship loads of the (4) B’s. This is a particularly brutal and pointless form of warfare and if you want to write a dark, gritty fantasy/sci-fi war, this is an interesting model, but remember, the men fighting at the front are just a part of it. The other half of the war is the flow of food, weapons, supplies and bodies. But you run the risk of making the war seem like the same every day, which it would be. Unless you’re going for some depressing artsy kinda book, I’d stick to a more maneuver based form of warfare where more things than attrition matter. The reader will thank you.
Okay, if done right it could actually be really cool and I’d read the heck out of it. But its tricky to do.
Right, on to Tactics! This is the second most important thing to remember when dealing with battle scenes. What we see in movies and most books is two blob armies facing off, a heroic speech from the hero, then the two blobs crash into each other and everyone is mixed in with everyone and the heroism of the good guys wins out.
Um…no. Not really. Even the most barbaric of barbarians used tactics. Take the Goths that invaded Rome. They didn’t fight in a huge blob. They circled their enormous wagons and placed infantry in between the openings. Then their cavalry would sally out, attack the enemy and retreat back inside their mobile fort. The Goths that fought in the West adopted Roman styles of warfare very quickly. The Mongols had very sophisticated tactics that required precision timing and communication. Their horse archers would charge forward, unleash arrows and charge back in a continuing circle of raining death. The Byzantines would march their infantry slowly while their heavy cavalry would charge, hammer into the enemy and come back behind the safety of the infantry. They’d repeat this until they wore down the enemy with heavy cavalry charges. (That usually didn’t take very long.)
What tactics your army uses will depend on the type of army which depends on the society. Where they fight will depend on the strategy and logistics of theirs and the enemy’s army. Its all interconnected.
Okay, let’s look at how ancient and medieval armies actually fought.
There was a reason they formed lines of different units and there was a reason each unit was placed where they were. Let’s take a look.
Here’s a typical battle formation for two opposing armies. The infantry in the middle where a lot of fighting is going to be. The archers are on the flanks/sides (or sometimes behind) to provide missile support and maybe light skirmishers. The cavalry is placed on the flanks so they can move out and attack the weak flanks or other weak spots as they appear. The reserves are there to plug up holes and make sure the enemy doesn’t break through.
Right, pretty simple. Now this is where it gets complex. Once the two armies engage, arrows start flying to cause casualties and expose weak spots. The infantry have to progress in formation and not break the line. Here’s why. If there’s a break, enemy can move through and now they’re free to attack the sides and backs of the infantry where they are exposed. This can cause catastrophic problems and often causes a “roll up” where an entire infantry unit is destroyed or sent running by enemy using a break in their line to enter in where they are weak and basically attack their soft spots.
That’s why you have reserves. In many movies (First Knight, Braveheart, to name a few) the reserves are treated like an extra army you just kinda have waiting off to the side and then as a tactical genius the general says “Send in the Reserves!!” and suddenly that side wins because they had an extra army. No. Both sides would have reserves to prevent those super lethal breaks in the line. If they saw an area faltering, the reserves would charge in and support that weak spot. Or, if the flanks were being weakened by a cavalry charge, the reserves would counter-charge the enemy cavalry and save the flank. If the flank falls, then the whole army is in danger of being rolled up.
At Gettysburg, the battle at Little Round top was defended by Chamberlain so heroically because he knew that the flank had to hold or the whole Union army was in danger. Flanks had to be defended and attacked. If you can get a flank you can destroy the entire enemy army. Alexander the Great preferred to charge right down the center. He broke through the infantry to get to the enemy commander. Daring but risky.
Now, Cavalry vs Infantry. This is something that’s also horribly misrepresented in movies and books. Movies show cavalry as unstoppable juggernaughts that roll over everything. Not quite. Cavalry can smash into and scatter certain unprepared infantry units. Frankish cavalry charges broke Muslim infantry numerous times during the First crusade. But there’s an easy way to counter a cavalry charge by the fiercest horsemen.
Yes, during much of the Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and up through to almost the modern age, pikes were the #1 weapon of choice for infantry. Pikes could keep swordsmen at bay and make cavalry charges useless. A horse charging into a wall of spikes will do nothing but get impaled.
Now, light cavalry was used to scout the enemy positions and movements. An essential job. They were also used to harass enemy archers and supply lines.
Cavalry archers could fire and move away before infantry could ever reach them. They could attack and never be attacked in return. The answer was to have cavalry of your own to chase them down or have better missile weapons than them. An army without cavalry was a sitting duck to cavalry armies, something the Roman legions of the West learned too late. The Eastern Romans adapted and their Byzantine armies emphasized cavalry much more than their destroyed Western brethren.
The Swiss Pikemen were some of the most feared infantry in the Middle Ages for a reason. Heavy armor and long pikes. A running wall of death heading straight at you. Yeah, kinda scary.
You can’t really have a Medieval army without pikes or spears.
Bows weren’t used nearly as widely as movies suggest. Most armies used crossbows and even then not very much. The English were the exception and they used the famed English Long Bow against the French to great effect.
So, now let’s see how this all worked together.
The cavalry charge forward under the cover of missile fire and advancing infantry. The either fight enemy cav or go for exposed flanks or whatever else looks juicy. If they see reserves coming at them, they high tail it out of there and go back and then return to attack a little while later. (Okay, not a pretty drawing, but hey.)
But what if one army has a longer line and tries to envelope the other army? Well, then the other army has to lengthen its formations to keep that from happening but risk thinning their lines too much. Its a fine line of long formations versus thickness. Too short and you get surrounded. Too thin and they’ll break through your center. No easy answer because it’ll depend on the situation. A good general will be able to judge what is necessary.
I hope I’ve given you a better idea about how a real Medieval style battle will go instead of just two blobs running at each other and screaming.
Now, weapons and armor.
Certain kinds of armor stop certain kinds of weapons. There are no universals when it comes to weapons and armor. For example. Chain mail is cheap, easy to make and works very well against slashing weapons. But its weak against piercing weapons like spears and arrows. Its also useless against blunt weapons like clubs and maces. The blows will still break every bone under the chain mail.
Scale/lamallar armor is great, but has one weakness. The direction of the scales. If the scales are pointed down, an upward thrust will go through. The Byzantine cavalry angled their armor scales up in order to protect against infantry.
A Byzantine Cataphract in full, multi-layered armor. Felt, lamallar/scale, and chainmail beneath. He was as armored as you got without using plate.
Felt/wool armor. Yes, I’m serious. This stuff stops arrows like kevlar stops bullets, but is useless against stabby and hitty things. Byzantines would put wool/felt armor over or under their metal armor for multiple levels of protection.
Plate armor. Now, I’ve seen in too many movies where an axe or even a sword goes through plate armor. Just no. Swords will bounce off and axes might dent if if you’re lucky. So, if you’re writing a story and a character has plate armor, he’s basically impervious to most things. The only way to stop someone in plate armor is to get in the cracks like the armpit, the neck or eye slits. (Or groin if you’re not nice.) Something really peircy might penetrate like an armor piercing crossbow bolt at close range or a really big lance going very fast.
And a suit of full plate was far more maneuverable than one might think. The weight distribution was excellent for a fitted suit of armor and the wearer could get up, roll around and mount horses at will. The idea of the knight being hoisted into their saddle is a Victorian myth. So, if your plucky thief character comes across a noble in plate armor, he has three choices, get out his dagger and go for a gap in his armor, get a mace and smash him, or run. The first two involve risking fight with a trained warrior and you’ll get one shot. The fourth option is to get a bunch of your buddies and dog pile the person in plate armor.
This is a man who’s trained since he was a child in the art of fighting. He’s wearing the best armor possible and he’s ready for you. Your pluck and dagger won’t be enough.
So, what level of technology does your civilization have? That will determine what kind of weapons and armor they have. Do they have simple bows, recurve? Crossbows? How good is their metallurgy? Sword fights weren’t fights where the two characters bang away at each other’s swords. Swords broke and chipped easily when you did that. They either used shields and tried to get in through an opening or they used their swords more like staves and clobbered each other with the pommel. Against unarmored opponents, sure, hack and slash away, but a fight between two armored foes was a brutal affair.
Also, plate armor is friggin’ expensive and hard to make. Each suit had to be tailored to the wearer with exact measurements or the suit wouldn’t fit or move right and become more of a hindrance.
Samurai armor offered a great deal of maneuverability with moderate protection. They were hard to make because of the complexity of each suit and was handed down through the generations as symbols of prestige.
Three dudes you do not want to mess with. Each one will explode on you with a flash of yelling and sharp steel. These were men that did not take warfare lightly.
So, have you figured out your society? That will determine what weapons and armor they use? Do they have massive armies with simple to produce but not very protective armor? Elaborate and highly protective armor just for the nobles? Breastplates and helmets for everyone like the did in the English Civil War and colonization of America? The armor will determine the weapons and that might affect how the units behave on the battlefield. Different tactics for different foes. In the Army we had something called “METT” Mission, Equipment, Time and Terrain. Basically that said that the situation dictates what you do. What’s the mission you have to do? What equipment do you and the enemy have? What factor does time play? Do you need to hurry and get somewhere? Beat them before sundown or hold them off until reinforcements arrive like at Waterloo? What’s the terrain? Are you on a hill like King Aurthur at Baden Hill or are you caught between the enemy and a lake like the Romans at Lake Trasemene? Do you charge down the hill with bayonets like Chamberlain at Gettysburg?
Confused? I hope not.
That’s a whole lot to think about when writing your story, but each one adds possibilities to add to your story and add depth and reality. It forces you to flush out your society which will in turn shape everything around your characters. A battle where they have a definite goal they have to do and fight a certain way, “Hold the line until our allies can join us!” Is much more memorable that [The horde charged and we charged and there in the middle of the chaos I saw Demonitor. And so we started our fated duel! But then Demonitor shouted out, "Send in the Reserves!!" And I knew all was lost!]
So, get thinking and then start writing. And for heaven’s sake, finish it!