Today I’m continuing a short series on some mundane details of medieval warfare that won battles, even wars. These small details are perfect to consider when putting together your ascendant empires or rising kingdoms.
We’ve looked at training, we’ve looked at roads and now this. This might be the most boring of the boring. So before I bore you further, check out this clip from gladiator. Warning: it’s really violent.
This is going to feel awfully intuitive to someone who’s played real time strategy games it feels like it’s impossible to get away from. We arrange the troops in progressively smaller units, legions, battalions, companies. We sort them by specialization archers, artillery, light infantry, heavy infantry and cavalry. But this is far from intuitive in ancient battle and not every nation understood the gains to be had from simply organizing troops. Or for that matter, had the resources to devote to such organization. Look at the germanic tribe trying to fend off the Romans. Most of them look like they’ve been dragged out of the pub with what they could carry because that’s exactly what they did. The threat of the Romans was at their door and they all answered the call bearing what tools they knew how to use. Some guys were probably adept hunters, so they have the bow, another guy a blacksmith he’s got a hammer. We’ll do it like we’ve always done it, we’ll get there, there’ll be tons of use, we’re the meanest and we’ll beat the bad guys to death. So they arrive, they make their threats, they stick back in the woods a little to give them some cover and in come the Romans.
It was brave to be sure but the Romans won this skirmish because every soldier had his mission. The archers laid down suppressing fire, the siege engines threw oil and rocks (more likely as a morale tool than anything else) and the heavy infantry marched in to apply pressure with flanking cavalry for the kill. The strategy was cunning and exciting to watch but only possible because each soldier had their standard equipment, had received training to have their role established as a matter of habit, each one had one job and did it as a team. Remember the Romans didn’t have a bird’s eye view. Their understanding of the field was conceptual, they laid out their plans, defensible positions, avenues of attack and went in for the kill. Each soldier on an individual level had to trust that the men to his left and right wouldn’t quit the field when they grew tired or frightened and leave his flank vulnerable, his life depended on it. This is where this tight organization and regimented training come in. Each one with with a purpose, a small piece of the puzzle, each one knowing their chain of command and where they sat on it. It enabled each man to focus on one thing and one thing only and that is powerful.
I think the thing that’s changed our conception of warfare most is probably rifled firearms. Then later machine guns and flight. Each one shifted our understanding of how wars our fought what amounts to ‘good’ tactics and what amounts to ‘poor’ tactics. I often consider this when we talk about the American Revolutionary War. In ninth grade I remember the students in my history class mocking the British in their red (not camo) coats lining up in neat rows to be mown down by Americans. Here’s what they didn’t understand. In that era the British firing line was second to none because it was functionally automated. They were a well oiled machine designed to pump lead into the battlefield and they did that phenomenally well because at that time (shortly before rifled weaponry substantially increased accuracy) that was how you took ensured victory. Take a hundred men, arrange in firing lines, train them to perfection and thus turn them into a blunderbuss. The British domination of the world stage was done in part through the use of carefully curated organization. It’s not sexxy but, by gum, it worked.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.