Saturday 24 May 2014

Armour and Tactics

One of the issues that has arisen recently, particularly in comments, is the utility of armour. What I mean here is exactly what use armour is at a unit or army level. I suspect that a lot of the way we look at this (guilty as charged) is from the individual’s point of view, and it might be interesting to see how that changes as we move to higher viewpoints of army organisation.

Individuals, it seems, have a bit of a love hate relationship with armour. Often soldiers are being castigated for discarding it. Armour is in its classical form anyway, hot, heavy and unwieldy. And it is not actually used that much, except in a combat situation, which was not the everyday experience of any solider through history.

Despite the propensity of role players to have their characters in full armour every moment of the playing time, this was not usual. On the march, soldiers did not usually walk along in full plate. Indeed, in medieval times, arming was one of the pre-battle rituals that the likes of Richard III made into a statement about kingliness and authority. But he did not wear his battle armour all the time. He would have been seen as very strange, let alone rather smelly.

To be fair to role players, whenever they were in a game, armour was usually a good idea, as hours of walking and riding with not much happening is rather dull to role play, and so something dangerous usually did happen, at least in my experience. But I digress.

So individuals often discarded their armour, or, in an ambush situation, were not actually wearing it anyway. But this does not seem to have affected the tactics of the unit so unarmoured. A pike unit is a pike unit whether in full panoply or not. And there are therefore a limited number of evolutions a pike unit can make, whether in armour or not. Pike in the English Civil War tended to discard armour as the war went on. The reason for this is unclear, but probably has to do with mobility, uselessness against musket fire and cost.

Before anyone raises the question of musket proof armour, which is said to exist, I think it important to note that most breast-plates which were so deemed were, in fact, claimed to be pistol proof and, as a re-enactor armourer told me once, the proofing dents were all in the same place, suggested they were made using a hammer and blunt instrument, rather than proofed by the discharge of a pistol.

So, for an individual, armour may be seen as important but not that important. It is kit which can be discarded if necessary or if it seems either an encumbrance or to be unusable. In battle, to the individual, it can be very useful, even a life saver. That incoming arrow with your name on it can be deflected by a helmet, particularly if it is a glancing blow, rather than aimed directly at you. So, at an individual level, armour is a good thing in battle, saving wounds and death.

However, at a unit level, as I have mentioned, the presence or absence of armour is not going to make a huge difference to tactics. True, there may be some units which organise around who has the greatest amount of armour. Hence, in Roman times, the tribal foot of many nations featured the ones with full armour in the front ranks. After all, they could take the initial damage and let the lightly armoured ones bring up the rear.  

There may also be here, of course, something to do with wealth and social ranks. The higher social rank you are, the more money you have to buy armour and the more likely you are to take the lead in a warrior situation. So the more likely you are to be at the front anyway.

However, it is also fairly clear that, for example, not all ranks in a Macedonian phalanx were armed the same. The rear ranks were more lightly arrayed, the front ranks more heavily so. Even here armour tended to be discarded to the extent that it is reported as having been re-issued when Alexander reached India and the army encountered foes who relied on firepower.

What sort of conclusions can we draw from these considerations?

Firstly, armour can be important to an individual, but does not affect the tactics or activities of the units to which those individuals belong. A pike unit is a load of soldiers armed with long, pointy sticks no matter what those individuals might be wearing.

Secondly, the impact of armour at the unit level is, presumably, to increase the ability of that unit to resist the enemy. What I mean here is that an armoured pike unit, subject to an arrow discharge, will have greater resilience to the shooting than one without armour. It is thus less likely to acquire what in modern euphemistic language is called a mission kill; by which is meant that it is more likely to carry out its task.

However, I am not convinced that the historical record actually allows us to make that big a thing about armour. The record shows that often units have operated effectively having disposed of their armour. How big an effect armour has may simply be a matter of interpretation or the records and, at the end of the day, a question of the taste of the rule designer. While for the individual soldier the possession of a bit of something between his flesh and the outside world could be of vital importance, I am not wholly convinced that we can see the effect of that in the unit as a whole.

I do wonder if the thing about armour is a legacy of older rule sets, which started out with the individual soldier and built up to an entire unit. In that case, the armour of the individual would still count, to a greater extent than, perhaps, the historical records allows.


  1. Is there any recorded evidence for the morale benefits of armour in ancient battles, I wonder? I suppose I'd assumed that the feeling of being less vulnerable than your opponent, and his feeling of being more vulnerable than you, had an effect on how aggressive either side felt and how likely to run away when it came to the crunch. A unit, after all, is a collection of individuals.

    The example of the Civil War and pikemen discarding their armour is a good point, but they were given to disposing of offensive equipment as well as defensive - cutting down their pikes and chucking away their musket rests. Presumably making the simple practicalities of soldiering easier - marching with less heavy kit - far outweighed any advantages gained in the infrequent battles. Perhaps a thought for campaigns (That old thing again) - fully equipped troops march more slowly and get exhausted more quickly than 'cut down' versions, but have slight advantages in battle?

    1. Ancient evidence? I very much doubt it. I have a note for next week which shows we don't even know how the pikes were constructed....

      I do recall (I think it was) Monk suggesting that swords should be replaced with hatchets as troops used their swords only for cutting wood.

      I guess cutting down pikes and getting rid of rests also has a bit of 'not my problem' for someone in a unit. Can't shoot straight? - someone else will. Short pike? Oh, someone will have a full length one. Assuming altruistic behaviour of ones comrades, perhaps?

    2. An old mate of my Dad's who was an infantry soldier in WWII once told me that the bayonet was an indispensable piece of equipment. Practically the only thing it wasn't used for is fighting.

  2. Your comment about social status rings true, but does not mention the fact that ostentatious displays of wealth in the form of armour might be as much a factor in its presence on the battlefield as its actual utility. Perhaps this needs to be considered.

    Deciding whether armour gives morale benefits may be tricky. I can certainly imagine that it would make you feel safer. However, those wearing the armour may also be the professional warriors, so their confidence might be higher anyway. I think you could very quickly find yourself debating chickens and eggs, although I would certainly be interested in any research on this.

    1. I think there are lots of things about social status - you got dressed up in your best for a battle. Rather the opposite in modern times.

      From all the comments I'm starting to suspect that the different aspects of wearing armour cancel each other out, more or less. But I'm not wholly convinced.

  3. Seems the issue is still with us. Just reading Kandak: Fighting with Afghans by Patrick Hennessey (author of The Junior Officers Reading Club). Hennessey tells of a 5-times wounded Afghan veteran officer who refuses to wear a helmet and body armour despite being reminded of the benefits and of the example this officer is setting. In this case the troops are in some sort of contact with the enemy several days running, and they are motorised so it's not just a case of weighing up the pros of lightening the load for months of marching and camping, against the risks of infrequent combat.

    Hennessey hints that this isn't just an issue of indiscipline but possibly also individual attitudes to the conflict - this particular officer is perhaps more desperate to beat the Taleban than the ISAF troops as it is his own country. There are also examples of the motivating effect this officer has on those around him in a tight spot.

    So bringing it back to how do we account for this in war-games, this example would suggest there's might be a morale advantage for not wearing armour.

    1. Is there a bit of 'death defying warrior' in all this as well? I'm so brave that I don't need armour, and so follow me?

      Like the naked Gauls of their first contact with Rome - magical woad is surely sufficient protection. I seem to recall some similar stories from more modern conflicts.

  4. Yes and no,

    There is also evidence of troops acquiring armour on campaign, Hannibal's Spanish, 100YW English archers, Landsknects etc. It also depends on what you mean by armoured, after all those rear rank pikemen who didn't have metal armour or perhaps even not a leather or linen obe, still normally had a mrtal helmet, substantial shield and greaves even though they would not usually get anywhere near an enemy. It may also be noteworthy that it is usually low discipline troops that are more likely to be noted as discarding armour, lare roman border troops vs Caesar's vetrran legions etc.

    More than that, while unarmoured troops were known to fight hand to hand, very, very few skirmishers seem to have worn heavy armour so in that sense armour can affect tactics if only by its presence inhibiting certain tactics.

    Quite a few of the handful of contemporary soldier authors with experience of combat certainly seem to think that, all else being equal, armored troops will be steadier (braver whatever that means) in battle, perhaps less afraid of a serious wound or maybe aware they can't outrun an unarmoured enemy?

    In any event, I am one of those who am suspicious of lightly dismissing persistent behaviors just because we don't have definitive proof of tge reasons behind them. Like individuals paying large sums of money (equivalent of a luxury car is the usual equivalence given for a Greek panoply) for something they will only rarely use if it is of no value, or of states going to great expense and effort to replace old weapons, like bows, with new ones like arquebus if the latter really were superior as skeptics then and now ckaim. Occasionally, yes, but a trend across centuries and around the globe and which is still echoed on hockey rinks and Canadian football fields where players still experience melee and insist on armour or are forced to wear it to reduce injury, is likely to have practical benefits.

    1. Well aye, Ross, but it's cause and effect. Are armoured troops steadier and braver, or are steadier and braver troops (i.e. those with more at stake in the battle) more likely to be armoured ('cos they're better off)?
      I don't think the case is proven.

    2. Weapons procurement is exactly one of those areas where we should question whether the new kit is better than the old. I always understood that the bow was replaced by gunpowder small arms because the latter required less training (and strength).

      More modern examples: the universal disdain that the SA80 was held in by British soldiers when it replaced the old SLR. In the book I referred to earlier, Hennessey reports the ANA soldiers (many of whom had been fighting for one side or the other for years) he spoke to as preferring their old AK47s to the M16 which was handed down to them by the Americans.

    3. In cases where troops bought their own armour, Persisn cataphracts, greek hoplites, medieval knights etc one could argue the social value but in cases where line troops like Roman legionaires, byzantine cataphracts, Spanish pike men etc were issued mass produced armour by the state its harder to support the point especially since the high prestige units were not necessarily the heavily armoured ones. The development of armour piercing weapons would seem to be unnecessary if it was only the enemy's ego that needed to be pierced.

      As for weapon upgrades, 1 automatic rifle vs another is like comparing styles of armour. How many people advocate giving up guns for clubs?

      A better abaligy might be comparing hummers to tanks. They are faster but less resistant to enemy fire. Is the tank more prestigious or are the 2 designed for different roles?

    4. Good point about the more regular type troops and armour. There a higher authority had weighed up the pros and cons and decided that armour must be worn and had the power and the discipline to make it happen. At other times and ages troops were ordered to discard their armour (or part of it) - notably British Horse under Marlborough.
      But I don't think anyone is saying armour is useless. Just questioning assumptions made in war-games.
      I don't think we're entirely beyond decisions being made for prestige reasons. E.G. some would argue that the decision by the UK government to buy 2 new aircraft carriers is one of prestige. The court is out for me on that one, but I can see there is a strong case against spending that money when we are short in other areas of armament.

    5. I agree that prestige can come into such decisions, as can tradition, habit or expectation but there is a big difference between we/they don't need what an aircraft carrier can do and saying we don't need them because aircraft carriers have no effect on naval tactics. Ignorance of how something worked in practice, what its effect was, is not in itself evidence that it had no effect. The persistent use of something like some form of effective protection throughout several millenia around the world, be it a hoplite panoply or Iroquois wooden armour, something that only ceased in a relatively short period of a few hundred years when it could no longer be upgraded to perform that function, and its reemergence when technology improved, suggests to me that further investigation might be more appropriate than dismissal.

      But I think I've perhaps had more than my say on this one. Good discussion.

    6. I guess there are several factors all working at once: prestige, tradition, societal expectation, practical battle protection and so on. All of these, I guess, mediated how decisions about purchase of armour or weapon systems were made.

      I appear to have opened a can of worms, and this seems to need further pondering.

    7. Ross, in the case of the Romans at least it may be a matter of psychological warfare or national prestige. You want to mess with Rome? You want to mess with this manufacturing base? Are you sure?

    8. Someone rather gloomily wrote that no matter what happened, the Romans always won. I think the prestige of Rome was such that they just kept attacking until the other side ran out of money, will or manpower.

  5. While you're considering these replies, this is just a short note to let you know that I've nominated this blog for a Liebster Award. It's entirely up to you if you want to accept it and how you want to respond. Details at:

    1. Why, thank you. I'm still trying to work out what to do about it!