For Your Enjoyment, Part 2: Facts about premodern warfare to make deeper armies and battles

I made a post the other day about using premodern society to inspire worldbuilding, and it got way more popular than I expected. I decided to make a sequel on warfare. Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like me to write on!

Like the last one, I’m going to try to focus on things that are fairly constant across the premodern (here roughly meaning pre-gunpowder) world. There’s a lot of variation across times and places, so keep that in mind. Also, magic and monsters will significantly change a lot of things; I’m not going to touch that here. Lastly, you could make an argument that many settings are technically early modern, but that also makes things more complicated and these posts are long enough already.

I wish I had more expertise about areas outside Europe and the Mediterranean, but I’m lacking there. This post will hopefully have principles that can be generalized everywhere, but readers should be aware of the bias.

Also like the last one, a lot of this is pulled from Professor Bret Devereaux’s blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. Because he’s a military historian, I’ll be using his work heavily, directly using some of his favorite phrases where it helps. Some of his stuff that’d be good to start with if you like what’s here are his “Siege of Gondor” and “Battle of Helm’s Deep” series.

We’ll go into armies, gear, strategy, operations, siege tactics, and battle tactics. If you have any thoughts on what I’ve written—or anything you think I should add—let me know!

Armies

  • Almost no premodern armies were made up of “professionals” or “career soldiers” (there are rare exceptions, like the Romans). That is, it wasn’t anyone’s “job” to be a soldier, not even as a temporary occupation. Instead, regular people fought when they had to, sometimes forcefully through conscription or slavery.
  • One key exception was the “warrior aristocracy.” In many cases, the “nobles” from my last post got their land by force, so the upper class valued military might and trained frequently. Think Medieval knights, though they’re not the only example. This also isn’t a universal constant, just a relatively common phenomenon.
  • Just how armies were organized and formed depended on the structure of the society. There are way too many variations for me to try to go into them, but in general, it was common for people to fight with those they lived with—fellow villagers or countrymen. This created “cohesion,” or the determination to stay fighting with your comrades. Cohesion (sometimes called “morale”) is much more about social bonds than courage; one reason professional armies go through such rigorous training camps is to artificially create those social bonds and keep soldiers fighting.
  • Types of units (infantry, archers, cavalry, etc.) were generally only good if their society valued and invested in them. That could leave dangerous holes, like when Middle Ages Europe treasured their mounted knights so much that their infantry started falling apart. One solution was “auxiliaries,” or using specialized units from other cultures. They could be hired, allied, or just be part of peoples you’ve conquered. The Romans were specialists at this; legions were good heavy infantry and siege engineers, but lousy at everything else. So legions would march with German cavalry, Syrian archers, Numidian light cavalry (North Africa), etc. These auxiliaries could make up half the army, and since they were rewarded pretty well, they were fairly loyal and could even fight on their own.
  • There wasn’t a “standard kit,” either—no mass-produced armor and weapons. Soldiers were often responsible for personally buying their battle gear, which usually led to a very eclectic bunch of gear. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some regularity, especially among units that needed to fill a specific role (archers, pikemen, etc.), but it’s much more varied than you normally imagine. Individual soldiers would often paint personal patterns on their armor and shields, too.
  • One note about cavalry: horses are expensive to own and take care of. There’s a ton of food involved. Most cavalry was part of that “warrior elite,” since only rich people could afford horses.

Gear

  • Absolutely everyone wore a helmet, even if it was just a skull cap. It was the first piece of armor poor people would buy. There’s a reason helmets are the only real piece of armor that continues into the modern age (bulletproof vests excluded): the head is vital to protect and easy to guard. Everyone in your setting should wear a helmet.
  • The next thing that would be bought is essentially a quilt that you wear, called a “gambeson” in Middle Ages Europe. It’s surprisingly resilient and can even stop arrows if they’re fired from a great enough distance. (Note that this piece of armor is slightly more restricted time and place wise, but something like it exists almost everywhere.)
  • “Leather armor” isn’t like biker’s leather. It’s a special kind of boiled leather called “cuir bouilli,” and was pretty hard and tough. While we’re at it, “studded leather armor” isn’t a thing. Taking leather and adding some metal bits doesn’t make it tougher. What fantasy writers were probably thinking of is brigandine, which is made up of metal strips sown into a jacket. It’s pretty dang good. Brigandine often has bolts on the outside, which is probably where the “studded leather” misconception came from.
  • Full plate armor is effectively impenetrable. No arrows or spears are getting through. At this point you start seeing polearms like halberds to try to smash things in, and special daggers (roundel daggers) to stab in gaps in the armor.
  • These pieces of armor aren’t worn alone—they’re layered. Knights would put on a gambeson (or a smaller version called an arming jacket), a mail coat (or “voiders,” which was a shirt with bits of mail where there were gaps in the plate armor), and then their plate armor. Armor in general needed help to put on, but full harness like this could require an entire team.
  • I’ve heard it said (but can’t find where) that “swords are like pistols, but spears are like machine guns.” An awkward analogy, but it kind of works: spears are the high-powered weapons that soldiers use, while swords are fallback weapons for if your spear breaks (or if you’re not a soldier and need something easier to carry around for daily life). In general, spears > swords.
  • There’s a strange idea that bows are easier to use than crossbows; the reverse is true. Crossbows have special winches to help you draw them, and you don’t have to hold the tension to fire. A proper war bow can require someone to pull and hold around 80 pounds of force. Give bows to your beefy dwarves, crossbows to your gentle elves.

Strategy

  • To simplify greatly, war is generally about acquiring resources. In the premodern world, the best way to get more stuff was to control more land. Ever since permanent settlements emerged, they’ve been political and economic centers of the surrounding landscape. Therefore, the best way to get more land (and therefore more stuff) was to conquer towns, cities, fortresses, etc.
  • Since cities (here just meaning decent-sized settlements) are the prize, enemy armies are only important if they get in the way. The intended target of an army was almost always a city; sieges were the main goal. Pitched battles only really happened if they prevented an attacking army from reaching a city or a defending army from reinforcing a city.

Operations

  • Operations is everything that happens between deciding your target and the actual battle/siege. Bret Devereaux wrote that the main goal of premodern operations was “delivering the siege”—that is, it was all the logistics that got the army to the target city.
  • Most movies and books will have soldiers all on their own, an army marching to their destination. Real armies had lots of baggage; pack mules, carts, backpacks, etc. There might be a mule for every five soldiers, a cart for every twenty. They needed to carry rations, firewood, gear, fodder for the animals, materials for shelter and siegeworks, etc. This “baggage train” is an integral part of premodern armies on the march. All those marching soldiers you see in epic fantasy movies are 100% going to starve.
  • If your army has cavalry, then you also need horses. Not just one horse per rider: at least one riding horse and one warhorse. The warhorses were bred differently and were more expensive—and even ignoring all that, you don’t want your warhorse to be tired when you get to the battle.
  • Similar to all the missing supplies in fantasy armies, there are lots of missing people. “Camp followers” are all the people who march with an army but don’t technically fight, and there are a ton of them. The soldiers’ families, slaves, servants, and more will walk with them and help whenever possible. Camp follower merchants (“sutlers”) will provide goods and other services.
  • Even with all this support, it’s practically impossible for armies to carry enough to feed and sustain themselves on the march. In order to survive, armies “forage,” though that’s a very gentle word for it. What that means is that they are constantly sending people out into the countryside as they march, taking food and supplies from nearby civilians. If an army stops moving, then they’ll quickly run out of places to “forage” and will start to starve—Bret quips that “an army is like a shark: if it stops, it dies.”
  • However, an army can’t forage too hard: remember, the strategic aim of a war is to control the producing countryside. If an army takes too much food from civilians (around 20% of a year’s harvest), the commoners will start starving and won’t be able to give the conquerors anything. That’s another reason the army has to keep moving—it has to find new people to take from instead of just foraging from the same people over and over again.
  • One last thing to consider about operations is how slow armies on the march are. Armies move more like inchworms than caterpillars; the army has to all meet up for the night’s camp, so the front of the column has to stop before sundown so the rear can catch up. The larger the army, the slower it is, since the column is longer, making the front stop even earlier. (If that doesn’t make sense, just take my word for it.) The very very general rule of thumb is that premodern armies move about 12 miles in one day. The average traveler on foot can go twice that speed (ish).
  • Armies can split up into multiple, shorter columns to move faster, but that’s risky. In order to have enough forage space, they usually need to take different routes, and making sure that everyone gets there at the same time is important (if you arrive a bit at a time, your enemy can defeat you much easier). While not strictly a premodern general, Napoleon was known for masterfully coordinating many fast-moving columns so they all hit the enemy at the same time.

Siege Tactics

  • If you only remember one thing about how settlements protect themselves, it’s this: dig a ditch. That’s it, just a ditch. A big ditch. Pile the dirt from the ditch on the inside to make a low wall, too. Heck, put water in it and you’ve got a moat, which is even better. Catapults, battering rams, siege towers, and horses all break when they meet a big ol’ ditch. Attackers can fill them in eventually, but it takes a lot of work. Roman legions would make a ditch and wooden wall (palisade) every night.
  • There are a couple things that popular walls also get wrong. One, the crenelations—the zigzag parts on top—are usually too short. The tall parts need to be taller than a standing man, and the shorter ones should be waist-high. Those are so that standing can stand behind the taller bits, reload, then duck out and use the shorter parts as partial cover while they shoot. The other thing that needs to be changed is the wall’s surface itself. All that exposed masonry gives too many footholds for potential climbers. Real castle walls were regularly plastered to keep them smooth (and nice and shiny as a bonus). This is a misconception regarding ancient stone structures in general: they usually had painted plaster (or something similar) over exposed stone. Ancient people wanted things to look pretty. The stone was all that survived, but not all that was originally there.
  • If at all possible, the attackers would try to get the defenders to surrender. Waiting out a siege is painful for attackers—they’re running out of food too, since they’re losing people to forage from (remember the shark). Taking a settlement by assault is very costly, and ideally you want what’s inside to stay intact (including the ever-valuable food your soldiers need). Getting a traitor to secretly open a gate was also an option.
  • One note: if attackers are approaching the walls, they’re not going to do it by marching in close formation. That’s easy arrow fodder. They’ll approach spaced out, often behind large “riot shields” called “mantlets.” Everything that was going to get close to the wall would be covered, including things like battering rams.
  • Almost everything popular culture shows about siege engines is false. Using ladders (a tactic called an “escalade”) was a very risky move that was only attempted if the defenders were very weak. Battering rams could be used against walls and not just gates, since gatehouses were very heavily defended. Siege towers weren’t really for getting soldiers on top of the walls, but getting archers high enough to shoot over the battlements. Catapults and trebuchets weren’t for knocking walls down, but for breaking the top parts of the wall that were sheltering defenders (and for shooting over the walls to destroy buildings inside). Digging tunnels under the walls wasn’t done to get soldiers through the tunnel, but to deliberately collapse the tunnel, causing the wall above to cave in. Also, siege engines weren’t wheeled all the way from one town to another. Armies would bring materials in carts, then construct them at the siege itself.
  • Something that existed in real life and would be awesome to see in a movie is the idea of combined siege engines. The Assyrians would use siege towers that had a battering ram at the base, and the Greeks used a massive tower called a Helepolis that had ballistae and catapults inside. The Helepolis didn’t work since the ground was a little tilted and it broke (remember those ditches!), but still awesome.
  • One common tactic that’s never touched on in popular fantasy is just building a big dirt ramp (called a “mole”) up to the walls. It was slow, and your laborers needed to be protected, but it worked frequently. It wasn’t restricted to just land, too. When Alexander the Great was being defied by a fortress on an island, he made a land bridge to the island. It was fairly close to the shore, but again, still awesome.
  • Defenders don’t have to just sit there, either. Not only can they pepper attackers with arrows (and rocks and hot water, if they get closer; falling rocks really hurt), but they can actually leave the city and make small attacks of their own to wound the besiegers. These counterattacks are called “sallies,” and many walled cities have secret doors called “sally ports” for exactly this reason.
  • A besieging army had to protect itself both against these sallies and from the threat of a relieving army attacking from the rear. To stay safe, they would dig their own ditches and build their own walls, facing both the settlement and the countryside. Caesar called the inward-facing fortifications “circumvallation” and the outward-facing ones “contravallation.”
  • Again, remember that field battles weren’t the most important parts of a war: sieges were. They could be used to intercept approaching attackers or eliminate troublesome defenders, though.

Battle Tactics

  • One very important thing needs to be kept in mind: battles were less about death and more about morale. You don’t win when every enemy soldier is dead. You win when they all run away. Killing your enemy is obviously important, but those deaths are most valuable when they make your enemy lose hope and run.
  • While specific formations usually required some training (like the phalanx), you always wanted your soldiers to stay in some kind of order. Staying organized was very important for morale/cohesion, especially if your soldiers were close together.
  • For this reason, there’s almost never the kind of disorganized melee you see in movies, where it’s just a mess of soldiers and fighting. Instead, soldiers would stay in their formations and the people in the front ranks would fight, reinforcements stepping over bodies when someone falls. Battlefields didn’t have bodies strewn everywhere, but in nice neat lines. The only time you’d see fighting in loose formation is if a unit has broken its cohesion and is routing (fleeing), and the attackers are chasing after to pick off stragglers.
  • Cavalry is also used incorrectly in movies. Horsemen don’t just smash into infantry in close formation; that kind of impact just breaks the horse. Cavalry also doesn’t just stand next to infantry and strike down at them; the horses are also very stabbable. Instead, the cavalry charge was to freak out the infantry and break their morale, making them rout and flee in loose order. The cavalry would then ride between the fleeing soldiers and strike down at them, almost always with spears/lances (being able to hit past your horse’s head is useful), but very rarely with sabers (curved swords that are great at slicing infantry as you ride past). If a charge couldn’t get the infantry to break, the cavalry might turn and ride away in a feigned retreat; for some strange animalistic reason, people are compelled to chase after, loosening the formation and allowing the cavalry to turn around again and run through them, killing as before.

And that’s all I’ve got for now! Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed / gotten wrong, or if there’s something you’d like me to write about in the future.

About Benjamin

I am: 1) a Mormon; 2) an aspiring social entrepreneur; and 3) a lover of knowledge everywhere.
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