If you look in some older wargame books, you will find some calculations as to how far a person can walk, across country in, say, fifteen minutes. This is then used as a basis for calculating how far a unit of troops can move in a similar amount of time. The answer is, of course, far further than a unit of troops would actually move in the given time. Thus is is massively reduced, along with some hand-waving sort of argument that, due to the requirement to keep in line, the troops actually had to move rather more slowly than individuals would.
Here, as my regular reader will know, we try not to do hand waving sorts of arguments, or, if we do (and we all hand wave from time to time) we do try to acknowledge that we are wafting our limbs around and look at the reasons for that. The point here, in terms of movement is, of course, that shifting five hundred men across the countryside in anything like a coherent manner is a whole lot more difficult than we might imagine. This applies even if the men involved are trained to do it.
I am starting to suspect that the dispersed nature of modern troops and warfare has a bigger impact on wargaming older periods than I imagined. It is a truism I have heard that, under pressure, people often tend to bunch up. Modern warfare make bunching up a disaster – a bigger target for weapons of all sorts is created. Thus a lot of training goes into making the soldiers move in a dispersed manner. It is safer. On the whole, of course, these considerations do not apply to anything much before the invention of modern high explosive artillery. Troops were in rather tight formations to aid command and control before the mid-nineteenth century (say; let’s not be picky).
Moving a battalion of infantry from the English Civil War across country is not an easy matter. Terrain is rarely entirely flat. Frequent halts have to be called in order to dress the lines. On the other hand, the accuracy of ranged weapons was low (for reasons I will come back to in another post, hopefully) so the slowness of the advance, and, for that matter, the density of troops, did not matter all that much.
Then there are other problems. A unit of pikemen, for example, needs coherence to be effective. Dispersed pike, for all the arguments I have occasionally seen to the contrary, are useless. On its own a pike is merely an eighteen foot lump of wood, slightly unmanageable. In my view, people who think that you could ‘fence’ with a pike have never tried hefting wood around. The power of pike is in the unity and order of the mass, not the individual. Hence, I suspect, the comment that you see in the sixteenth century and beyond, that to kill a pikeman is to murder an innocent man.
Terrain is rarely simple. Even our garden has folds in it, enough to cause a pike block to pause and redress its lines. Hedges are impassable, woods a disaster, although the same people who argue in favour of pike fencing also seem to think that pikes are perfectly capable of being used in a wood. And that brings me, roughly speaking, to an explanation of the title of this post.
In some of the Polemos rules, bases trying to cross streams have to roll. I forget what the criterion is, but they can, in fact, fail to cross the obstacle. This has caused some amusement, and comments along the lines of the title here – are there crocodiles in that stream?
At the end of the lane up which I live there is a stream or, in the local language, a beck. It has been tinkered with by humans over, I imagine, the centuries. Just last year, a whole load of work was carried out to reinforce the banks to stop them collapsing, manage the flow to stop it undercutting the banks and remove some trees, to stop leaves clogging it up in the autumn. This is, then, a heavily managed landscape feature. Nevertheless, I would submit that five hundred people attempting to cross the stream would firstly, be thrown into some disorder themselves and, secondly, do a fair bit of damage to the banks.
On the face of it, a single person could cross it stream, although the banks are fairly steep, with the only problem being wet feet. A unit say eight deep is a different proposition, I suggest. By the time the fourth of fifth is clambering across, the banks would be collapsing into the water, the mud would be stirred up and, as troops with heavy equipment are more clumsy than your average hiker, a few, at least, would simply fall in (much to the amusement of their comrades, I imagine).
This trouble is for a feature that is man managed, canalised. How much more difficulty would an unmanaged stream offer. The canalisation of the flow means that the banks are solid (more or less) and the flow is even. There are no bankside boggy bits or hidden pools. The undergrowth is cut down. And so on. It is quite possible to suppose that an ancient tribal unit, for example, could hesitate at such a crossing, or at least find that it takes a while. You might dispute the (I think) one in six chance of that happening, as in the Polemos rules, but it is really a bit hard to suppose that it is unlikely, that a unit will pass a stream with only a slight delay, as in most rules (at least, the ones I can remember).
Finally, of course, we should remember that the Scottish pike charge at Flodden was disrupted by a hidden ditch. The cohesion was lost, the units opened to the English bills. The slaughter was frightful, to the extent that most later sixteenth century Scottish armies refused to cross the border at all. Even small terrain features can have a big effect. The case of crocodile streams most recently commented on was a refight of the battle of the Sambre. The stream disrupted the Gallic attack. Perhaps a refight without the stream would be instructive (as would Flodden without the ditch). Caesar and the English could find life a lot tougher than they did with the terrain features present.