Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

On the ground:

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This is (I hope) going to be short.  Before WW1 one of the signal skills a field commander (for sake of argument, I shall refer to them as Generals, even if, as Custer was, they weren’t actually, unless it’s relevant to the anecdote) needed was the ability to “read the ground.”

At the chance meeting which opened what became the Battle of Gettysburg Gens. Henry Heth (rebel) and John Buford (Union) were contending for the high ground of McPherson’s Ridge.  For the next three days two armies (in a meeting neither really wanted: Meade because it didn’t suit him, and Lee because it wasn’t where he’d have liked to have it) fought to maintain possession of the salient points of terrain near Gettysburg.

If you know any of the places in that battle, they are almost certainly bits of terrain which relate to the Union positions.  Cemetery Ridge (not to be confused with Cemetery Hill, which was also important), Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, Oak Ridge, Culp’s Hill, all of them are known because they were gr0und being fought over, or for.  Some, like Little Round Top, were critical points: if the rebels had gotten past Chamberlain, and turned the Union left, it’s possible Meade would have been embarrased†, and been forced to withdraw‡.

Now I’m going to draw a strange comparison: Pickett’s Charge, and the Battle of Hastings.  They both relate to terrain, and they both have to do with leadership, and the battle’s outcome (some of which has to do with the purpose of the war).  The Gettysburg came out in 1993.  I was fresh out of basic training (so much so that when some of the incidental music was “My Old Kentucky Home” I sat up straighter, as it was the regimental song of the command I served in at basic).  When the camera panned across the ground between Cemetery Ridge, and Pickett I gasped.  I sat there and trembled, in horror, because there was no way he could do it.

1: It was a huge distance, almost 4,000 yards between the lines; and another couple of hundred to breach them; if it had been a straight line, but it wasn’t.  2:The Union had batteries on their flanks: short of shot, but enough to decimate anyone marching formations that large in the open. 3: It was uphill.  Not terribly steep, but it doesn’t take much to slow a formation down. 4:  the Union forces had been able to set up breastworks.  They had some cover; at least enough to improve morale. 5: The rifles of the age let units in masse reach out to 1,000 yds.  With easy rates of fire running to 4 rounds a minute, and a moving pace of not more than 150 yards per minute the rebels were going to be under musketry for at least 8, perhaps as many as 10 minutes.  Preceded by cannon, then a lull, and then a renewal (because there was some ground dead to artillery).

Lee should have quite the field on June 2.  He could have quit on June 3.  He should never have sent Pickett and Pettigrew on that death march.  There was no way they could have held the Union lines, even if they had reached them in force.

Which brings us to Harald, and Hastings.  In some ways William has Pickett’s problem.  Assaulting uphill, against a fortified foe.

This was Williams view:

Up Senalc

It doesn’t look too bad.  Uphill some, but the Normans were tough; and they’d had a couple of days to rest up after the crossing.

This was Harald’s view:

Down Senlac

The ground looks a lot steeper facing down.  With his flanks secured by slope and bog, he was secure.  All he needed was to repulse the Normans until they had to retire.  He had hopes of winning by attrition.  They had no reinforcements.

This is how he set the field:


Horses couldn’t breach the line, because of that line of stakes (in a similar way Henry V secured his front at Agincourt: with his flanks secured by woods on either side, constraining the French, and making it harder for their advantage in cavalry and armor to be brought to bear), and the shield wall of the Saxons was a secondary defense of no small power.  William lost three horses; which forced him to take his helmet off, lest his followers think him dead. The two-handed axes of the Saxons were said to have dismembered horses, and riders.

So what happened?

1:  Harold was injured.  2:  Something caused a small break in the Saxon line.  They held, and repulsed the Normans, but some of them seem to have fallen prey to bloodlust in the disorder.  3: Harald either died, or was more severely injured.

That, ultimately was what turned the battle (though it didn’t end the war).  This was a smaller affair than Gettysburg, and more dynastic; not so much a national crusade.  It was more of a rumble to see who got to be top dog in the neighborhood.  With Harald dead there wasn’t anyone who had the combination of acumen, and charisma/status to keep the Saxons a coherent body in the field.

Which isn’t important to the question of reading the ground.  It’s still debated whether Harald ought to have waited to give battle, since he’d just made a forced march all the way from York, where he’d just had the same sort of fight Harald Hardrada of Norway to see who was in charge.

Reading the ground, and reading the enemy; and to some degree, the politics.  William was raiding Haralds personal properties; it was people to whom he owed a very specific loyalty who were being despoiled.  He also had to worry the Fyrd (i.e. the levy of troops) might decide they had done their service (he had kept them in the field for four months: they owed him about one: that’s without the question of the weather in S. England in Oct.  All in all, I don’t fault Harald for giving battle on that day.  Had it not been for his being injured, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have lost.  Had he carried the day, odds are William would have had to go back to France, and let go of his claim.

This isn’t such an important thing on the scale of armies anymore (though in some regards it is.  Tommy Franks deep drive into Iraq in 1991 was as much because it was great tanking country, and the US had great tanks, as it was anything else, just as Harald’s choice to be on top of a boggy hill was meant to neutralise the horsepower of William.  On the small unit level, reading terrain is what it’s always been; a matter of life and death.

†in a military context a unit/commander is embarrased when the flanks have been turned: and the enemy is at right angles to the friendly position.  Not only is the weight of attack intense on the closest part of the exposed unit, the rest of the unit has no idea what is happening.  In the age of black powder this was magnified by the inability to see the enemy once firing commenced.  What usually happened was the flanked unit broke formation; exposing a new unit to the horror of being flanked.  This often “unzipped” the entire line.  The classic example (in the gunpowder age) is Frederic the Great at the Battle of Leuthen. Though such collapse also happened in the days when muscle drove the weapons (usually when it was cavalry on the exposed flank)

‡The rebels tried to do just that in the North of the field, on the first day, but Robinson’s Bde (New York)  had two battalions (13 and 104) refused.  By virtue of high ground and the refused right they were able to manage of fighting retreat, and the rebels (under Ewell) didn’t exploit the vacancy. Gettysburg was full of such touch and go moments most of which were Union mistakes the rebels failed to completely exploit; which is why Lee was willing to repeatedly reinforce failure.

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On fighting, and combat skills.


(There are lots of youtube links, as illustration.  I have anchored to the point I need, and (hope) I have indicated which one’s are specific, and about how long to watch them)

I’m going to assume you think our ancestors weren’t stupid.  I’m going to assume this because I assume you aren’t stupid. It happens, however, that lots of narrative about fighting is both stupid,  and assumes our ancestors were too.  Charlie Stross has a series of guest posts on “martial arts”*  they are good as far as they go§, but they gloss a few things.  Some because they weren’t relevant to the questions at hand, and some because we, as a culture, don’t see martial arts in our day to day lives.  We don’t have that many people who are trained in the practical aspects of beating people up, and the ways we use to commit organised slaughter are neither widely practiced, nor the sort of thing which makes for decent entertainment.

Not that books and films don’t try (see the posts referred to above, or any war flick in the past 40 years which has gunpowder).

Digression (topical, I promise):  I sell knives for my pocket money (technically I sell cookware, in practical terms my interests, and expertise means 80 percent of my time at work is spent behind the knife counter).  There is a lot of nonsense about knives, and sharpening, and everything which touches on cutting tools.  Honest, I heard a guy the other day saying, “I like damascus blades because they are lighter than steel.   Knife makers don’t help in this regard.  One (well known, and highly regarded, knife maker used to have literature which said European swords weighed a ridiculous amount (IIRC it was 50 lbs, but my mind refuses to accept that, so that I sort of want to say 15).

The fact is, european swords, and japanese swords (when they were a primary weapon) both came in between 1.75-2.75 lbs (there are some exceptions, at the heavier end).

Physics limits what one can do.  As an example go get a hammer.  Hold it at arm’s length… for as long as you can.  Even an 18 oz. hammer is going to be work to do that with.  Make it 5 lbs. and it’s a lot of work.  Make it a sword.  Now imagine your opponent managed to fool you into missing; now you have to get it back to a guard position before you get clobbered.

(blend digression back into conversation)

Which brings me to the bit about stupid.  I’ve read (lots) about how heavy/awkward armor is.  I read that nights couldn’t mount without a derrick, that if they fell they were helpless without someone to pick them up.


Assume that people aren’t (at root) stupid.  Who, in their right mind, is going to spend a lifetime training to use a weapon system which is designed so as to make them slow, and vulnerable?

Pop quiz, how much did a Roman legionnaire’s kit weigh?  What about a soldier at Waterloo?  How about Verdun?  What about guys landing on on the beaches on D-Day?  How about Inchon?  Guys slogging their way to Dien Bien Phu?  On the road to Baghdad in 2003 (which was my war).  All of them were about 60 lbs.  Which is a bit less than the armor of someone in “harness”† was carrying.

Why is this number so consistent?  Because it’s about the maximum someone can haul around, and still be anything like rapid in movement.  The heaviest I’ve ever been hauling, when we stepped off on a march, was 82 lbs of gear (don’t look at me, I didn’t make the packing list). With all that I was able to keep pace (about 2.5 miles an hour), and do all the things needed (flop to the ground, get up, run a couple dozen meters (crossing danger areas), take a knee (to scan the area/establish a hasty perimeter) etc.  At  the end of the hump (about eight miles), I was tired, but not worn out to the point of being combat ineffective.

So why do we think people couldn’t make adequate armor, which also let them move about?  Because we stopped using it. When it moved from a tool/weapon of battle, to a mark of status; and armor became a specialised sort of equipment; of minor utility (think cuirasses on lancers) because the hand weapons which could pierce it had pretty much disappeared from the battlefield; then the sword came to be the weapon of both offense and defense.

But the offense (understandably) became point focused, because it doesn’t take much in the way of protection to keep a sword’s edge from cutting you‡; the shift was pretty much complete by the early 17th century, because even if the edge wasn’t effective, the point would go right through. Because people no longer wore armor it was seen as ungainly.  Hell, it is ungainly if one is not practised in it’s use.  I used to work renaissance faires. I spent a few years donning a chain hauberk every morning.  I spent the entire day in it.  I walked, ran, climbed trees, did the occasional 270º flip in it (dramatic pratfalls go over well).

I also did swordplay in it.  No we weren’t going full-tilt, but we were using live steel.  I’ve been thwacked.  I got bruised. If you want to see what happens when someone gets hit while wearing plate:

Watch the first 42 seconds of this this piece of film on 15th century armored combat (we’ll come back to other parts later).  Did you see how little the guy who got thwacked seemed to notice?  (If you’ve not hit the videos in the third footnote, go do that now. If you watch it front to back it’s about ten minutes, but I’ve marked out the important bits, each of which is 10-20 seconds).  One of the other things to notice in that clip is how both of them were holding weapons with solid points, and the armor was specialised in ways to defeat points (smooth curves, and lipped edges).  These are things which we don’t see in depictions of armored combat.  The SCA (for all it’s good points) doesn’t really understand armored combat.  They are of the “hack and bash” school of thoughtˆ (in this they are not alone: Viking re-enactors do that, as to the people in the Armored Combat League (an international group which does SCA sorts of fighting with dead steel weapons: I do like the woman on the Spanish team; more than holds her own, but I digress)

In different ways both groups buy into the idea that swords go through armor.  The ACL also buys into the idea that a knight who fell down was hors de combat, since they are “live” until they fall down.  We know swords didn’t do that.  We know because people played at tournaments for fun.  We also know that deep cuts, esp. ones which introduced foreign matte into the wound were (as often as not) fatal, and often crippling.  Since knights weren’t dropping like flies after every tournament…

So how mobile were men in armor?  If we look at paintings, we get the idea they were pretty capable.  If we look at “books of defense” we see lots of energetic movement being taught.  I’m gonna go out on a (pretty strong) limb here and guess the techniques in the books weren’t that far removed from those being done when wearing armor, even though the pictures are usually not of armored men. 1:  It’s harder to learn two completely different techniques, 2: what books showing techniques in armor are similar styles, 3: when people try those techniques in armor, they can do them.

More examples, from another source: Fighting in harness.  If you practice Judo, or Aikido you might have a sense of deja-vu starting around 1:55.  If we look at the work required to do good stage combat, where the actors aren’t in armor, but the swords can still injure; but the fight must look realistic, we see that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: Reclaiming the Blade shows the same sorts of techniques in the harness fighting segment, being done by people in street clothes; as compared to doing things in harness. Note the level of physicality, esp. the amount of up/down movement.  Also note the actual weapon for killing the armored opponent is a triangular spike.

If we slip a bit earlier in the video we see just how agile one can be in plate armor.

Narrative (visual, and literary) tends to lose that level of ease.  We forget that people aren’t dumb, and that if someone were that clumsy, someone would have found a way to exploit it.

We also get confused by the vast power differential which skill in swordplay (even absent armor) gave a competent fighter.  Those swords all had points.  If we accept the idea that they were not just slashing/poking weapons, and that there were systems of use which made them weapons of leverage, then the peasant with a billhook is at a massive disadvantage against a single person who knows what he is doing.  In a melée that billhook could be used to pull someone to the ground (which is the purpose of so many of the twisty/spiky bits on halberds and other polearms of the day), where the confusion of being swarmed (those helmets had limited visibility, better than you might think, but a far cry from a wide field of view) would negate those advantages.  Make the peasant the sole focus of someone who is used to killing people, and give him a sword capable of the sort of smashing and cutting in the videos in the footnotes, and it would take a group of brave (to the point of foolhardy) people, willing to die, to deal with a marauding soldier.  Make a a group and nothing short of other soldiers is going to keep them from plundering the town (which is what made the 30 Years War so devastating, esp. to the Germanies, where so much of the contention was taking place).

Guns put all that to bed.  Swords, in short order, became specialist weapons; primarily for cavalry; where the problems of smoothbore innaccuracy, and the difficulties of reloading muzzle-loading weapons, meant that after a few rounds, the cavalry were either useless, vulnerable, or relegate to sword or lance (though we do get the pleasant, and peaceful, diversion of the carousel from the name for the (usually pointless) drill of firing while riding a circle.  It fell out of favor (in short order) because pistol and carbines were weak, and inaccurate: if the opposing horse put their spurs in and charged the group performing the caracole was usually routed, as they were quickly disordered.

Swordplay from horseback, however, is different to swordplay on foot.  By the end of the 16th century the idea of mobility in armor was gone, swords were lighter, and the sense that the larger swords of the previous era was to bash through armor seemed reasonable.

I suppose I ought next to deal with the idea of generalship in non-gunpowder armies, which, apart from logistics; motivation, was largely about being able to analyze terrain.


*I put it in scare quotes because what we tend to refer to as martial arts are forms of close combat, doe hand to hand; they fail to encompass most weapon arts (which includes distance weapons like bows and firearms), and don’t encompass questions of fieldcraft, which (as a soldier) I can say is both martial, and can be a game changer in a group on group fight).

§ I say that as someone who has been in my share of actual fights, as well as trained in a few martial arts (which includes a lot of weapons)

†Harness is the 15th century word (in English) for a suit of plate armor, it’s whence we get the term, “died in harness”.

‡This video is of people using late 15th century longswords to cut.  They are attacking “tamashigiri” which are tatami reeds, wrapped around a 1″ piece of bamboo.  When soaked in water they are supposed to behave as human limbs would when cut. Some interesting things at these points: at the 53 second mark we see an unsupported piece being split.  At  7:26 there is a  demonstration of “short” cuts (i.e. cuts without time to wind up). At 9:38 we see a demonstration of what happens to a pinned roll of tatami when covered with linen, in particular take a look at the effects from 10:11-10:23.

ˆIt’s not that SCA heavy weapons fighters aren’t good at what they do; they are, and I’d not like to be facing one in the lists, but their weapons aren’t swords/axes/maces, and they do things with them which aren’t doable with those weapons.  Which leads to a fighting style which, while interesting (and more subtle than most observers understand) doesn’t reflect the reality of how the weapons they are representing were actually used, nor what they are really capable of doing. Which in turn affects both how the make their armor, and what they do in it; which in turn affects how people who see them understand what armor is, does, and is capable of doing.