Saturday, 19 August 2017

Packing Soldiers

It might surprise some people to realize that the purpose of fighting snot to kill enemy soldiers. While soldiers are expected to fight and, in fact, to kill, that is not the main purpose of their existence and activity. The main purpose of fighting is to smash up the coherence of the enemy. Once that is done, the enemy will break and become either extremely vulnerable to further attack and slaughter, or simply run away in a confused mass.

This fairly simple fact accounts, for example, for the disparity of casualty figures in many pre-modern battles. The victors lose few men. The losers lose many. The disparity can be somewhere around 5% for the winners to 15% for the losers.  In one of Montrose’s battles the winners lost a single man, the losers hundreds. The pursuit was the main cause of the casualties.

I have been reading Bert Hall’s ‘Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe’ (Johns Hopkins, 1997), as I mentioned last time. He starts, sensibly enough, with medieval warfare, and he notes, along the way, that the basic idea of most offensive warfare is to achieve the incoherence of the enemy formations. If that can be achieved, the battle is more or less won.

There are, of course, various ways to achieve incoherence. One of the main ones is to charge the enemy formation with big, scary aristocratic cavalry. If they flinch then you have won. Bodies of infantry on the defensive rely on coherence to see of cavalry commands. If only a few decide that the future looks rosier in the rear areas, then the formation can lose coherence and the battle is lost and won.

Another way to smash up the enemy formation is via archery. Longbows are the only bows to have really a sufficient rate of fire to achieve this and, famously, the English achieved this at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The point here is that the archers were deployed forward and to the flanks of a solid body of dismounted men-at-arms. The enemy, for whatever reasons, charged up the middle and were flanked by the archers and shot up. People under fire tend to flinch away from the cause of the problem, and so the French knights bunched up. The formation was disrupted. Men began to fear, at least, suffocation. By the time contact was made the coherence and energy of the assaulting formation was lost. The front might still fight bravely and destructively, but their chances of winning had gone.

Of course, the French did not take too long to hit on a solution to the problem, and spent much of the middle part of the Hundred Years War refusing to fight battles against English armies on the defensive. Given that being on the defensive was required for the English tactics to work, this was very effective. The French would not, and the English could not attack. The French could then deploy their resources in sieges and raid, exploiting the fact that the English struggled to hold the ground.

An alternative was the pike. The Low Countries guild pikemen had startling success against the French when they stood on the defensive. Again, the problem they did have was exactly that they needed to stay on the defensive to maintain coherence against the enemy. Big blocks of men are hard to move and keep in formation, and pike blocks rely on being big and in formation. As with the English this became problematic. The French refused to fight and even tried various ruses to induce the Flemish to attack. If they did, they were lost.

Finally we reach the Swiss, who both used pikes in large numbers and had a reputation for attacking at speed. This seems to have something to do with the nature of Swiss society and recruitment to the army. Villages fought together, as did urban guildsmen. Training was undertaken. The Swiss pike block was much more coherent and capable than any other infantry formation of the era, and it showed. But the point is that this depended on the social conditions in Switzerland – loyalty to canton, time to train and, in the final analysis, a lack of decent farmland for the sons of peasant farmers.

The thing is, much as I rack my brains, I cannot think of a set of wargame rules that models this lack of coherence. The older rule sets tend to focus on casualties. We can fudge that to argue that not everyone counted as a casualty was, in fact, dead, but it is exactly that, a fudge. More recent rule sets would have bases, say, of French dismounted men-at-arms recoil at an angle to the incoming archery, or, in extreme cases, be eliminated. And yet this is not what history tells us happened.

Now, you might say ‘Well, Polemos rules do not do that either’, and, indeed, you would be right. We did try to model unit disruption through the shaken system, and I think that cramping troops together as they flinched away from incoming fire was not a major part of the English Civil War, but I do not really think that Polemos, either, could cope.

Here, I think the problem is the bases we tend to use. My bases are stiff plastic card. You cannot cramp them together any more than side by side. It just does not work and anyway, would probably start to damage the bases if you tried. And yet this cramping is what we find in the medieval historical record.

Off hand, the only mechanism I can think of to model this behaviour would be for a flinching unit to move into another unit and for the effectiveness of the combined base to be reduced by, say, a half. Then when that base is his, it jumps into the next across and effectiveness is reduced again. This might model the effect we need, but could be a bit annoying.

This is not, of course, the only time when over dense formations were a problem – the French infantry in the villages at Blenheim were tightly packed and could barely raise their arms, or so I recall. So I wonder if anyone has any bright ideas for modelling the effect, or is it just one of those historical things we ignore to get a nice game?

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