Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Open Battle in Close Order Formation


 There is very little written about how medieval warfare was fought at the small unit and individual level.  There are legions of books about how the units maneuvered but nothing about what amounted to mounted and dismounted drill that would allow warriors from different cultures and tactical systems be able to be integrated on arrival right on the eve of battle. 

Recent recovery of manuscripts written as early as a century after the Burning are a generation or two of evolution and development of arms and armor, and associated tactics, operations and strategies.  In short, that evolution was a reaction of the increased effectiveness of the Infantry honed in battle with the Saracen i n the Levant.   And the loss of good horses and horsemen due to the rising cost of armor, particularly plate. That in turn required bigger pikes for smaller shields until only the buckler remained.

These manuals, available on line at the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) at show a different tactical operating environment (TOE) in the tradeoffs between Armor, Protection and Mobility between walkers and riders. The Tactical Imperatives schema is a more detailed way to analyze the tradeoffs.

I recommend starting with a study of the Bayeux Tapestry which shows certain tactical innovations that the re-enactors and Hollywood have missed. 

  Find one on line as notice how the shield is being held by the Norman Knights on horseback.  It looks like the Corporate Coat Clutch except that the shield is controlled by the left forearm.

 The handles on shields intended for use in the Norman, Viking, and Western European shield walls are horizontally aligned with the ground, snug inside the curve of the shield, where the clench fist is a few inches from the edge to hold the shield close to the chin.  The elbow is directly under the left fist with the left forearm tight against the biceps.  This is true during the 11th and 12th Century and most of the 13th.   The exception to the vertical forearm is on mounted knights later where an angle was necessary for the rider to hold the reins.

Arn the Cuman shows the Cross Gut Grip vs the Stong Arm Grip

Throw, Stab or Stick?

 Another item to note is that the Mounted Norman Knights are holding their spears in what looks like they are about to throw the spear.   That option was used during this time frame, but that is not what the Normans are doing here.  This is a standoff overhand stab.

  The spear is being held in the last quarter of it’s’ length too far back to control the throw. In other sources, I found a few examples of the rider stabbing a foot soldier, hang onto the spear and let the forward motion of the horse pull the spear out.  This is also found in the Middle East and Eastern Europe where the couched lance is rare.  This calls for considerable skill in being able to stab someone or horse or foot with a grip that allows two thirds of more of the weight of the spear in front.

Throw, Stab or Stick?

The Shield Wall 
Experiments with PoserPro2012 to recreate problems of formation formation

The Strong Arm Wrestle Grip in the Infantry forward ranks in the Shield Wall as done by the Angles, Saxons, and Normans is critical to maintaining an unbroken wall of shields. The Shield Wall was an import from the Vikings as all of the above came from Scandinavia and Northern Germany.  The name “Norman” means

“Northman” or Norseman”.   The boss (metal bump) on the front of many Norse shields covers the handle used to secure the shield to the gunwales of the Viking long ship.

By definition, the Shield Wall is a wall over to top of which those behind engaged those before.  As below, the weaponry between the shields to fight those in front means gaps and cracks in the line. 

An early experiment on Shield Walls
 Neither is this:
Copied from Images from Wargaming games

The left hand holds the shield so that the right half of the shield covers the warriors’ chest and abdomen.  The gap between soldiers “shoulder to shoulder” is covered by the shield carried by the warrior on the right. The gentlemen are carrying their shields in the ever popular Gut Clutch useful as that is the most likely outcome. While the dexterity of both hands may be retained, the total strength of both arms and the upper body are weakened.

 Battles of Hastings and Stamford Bridge  1066

 The Saxon line on Senlac Hill show overlapping shields which reoccur in war like the Greek Phalanx, and the Roman Legion who locked shields together. They had just defeated Harald Hardrada, last of the Viking Kings at Stamford Bridge almost to Scotland, and speed marched down to meet William at Hastings.  Despite the fatigue that Anglo Saxon army was, the shield wall on Senlac hill held for twelve hours.  Then someone started to chase what looked like a retreating Norman force, but wasn’t.

The Saxons held Senlac Hill for Twelve hours in an era where less than an hour was the norm

 Notice the array of spears in the Saxon position, they look like quills on a porcupine, no sword or spear goes between overlapping shields.  Therefore, how did warriors behind a wall fight the enemy charging at then? Answer: they fought over the shields with spears held in a stabbing down position. Swords were a sidearm and limited to periods where the wall wobbled.  There are a few examples in the art of the time where a single swordsman nails and opponent who got too close to the wall and was stabbed like a volleyball close return.
A PoserPro2012 experiment on placing only four ranks in formation. This, of course, is far more orderly than the real deal

 The Eye-Hands Principle 

There is a scientific reason for warriors to hold weapons and shield in what looks like a cramped position and in close combat and that is that the brain cannot handle both hands on one side of the center of the visual field (eye line), nor crossed hands.  When hands are on one side, or crossed, both arms and the upper body become significantly weaker.   That the Western knights used the Clench or Strong Arm grip shows knowledge of the effects or crossed arms on gross body movement,

The is relaed to the Cross Extensor Reflex but doubly so.

This Eye-Hands principle is the foundation of the Clench or Strong Arm grip on a shield in a shield wall. Since there is little room to move shoulder to shoulder and the wall in front.  As a purely hypothetical certainty, perhaps the mechanics of baseball, tennis, golf, karate and weed whacking apply.   This is the respected body mechanic known as the “Elvis Pelvis Swivel”, as demonstrated by Arn the Cuman mercenary.

Arn the Cuman showing step by step what Elvis did and sung.

  Or in the case of stab and retract, the Double Elvis Pelvis Swivel applies.  Elvis had a Black Belt in Karate.  The stab is the same as a same side strike applied to the right side with a whiplash from right foot to right arm, twisting the hips to counter-clockwise.  The retraction is an opposite side whiplash, with the dynamic from left foot to right arm by twisting the hips clockwise. 

These principles apply in any other fighting system, regardless of the type shield, the grips on the shield, or use of the shield or no shield at all.  Using a shield in the offense such as the Renaissance sword and buckler works only so long as both hands don’t drift across the eye line.  
The Tactical Operating Environment in the Renaissance had replaced most shiels sith thicker armor and the
double handed sword where fancy handwork with a longer two handed handle was
the symmetry of the day

As in golf, baseball, or felling a tree, the strongest Eye-Hand position is with both hands in direct alignment with the eyes.  The tiniest of shifts weakens the whole upper body.  The appearance of these throwing, hitting, and running games appeared about the time those body movements and coordination disappeared on the battlefield of ths day.

The Cross Gut carry weakens the whole upper body, when two are so joined in battle it is a gut shove with the hands as bystanders.  The body instinctively knows this, and the remedy is to look away from the shoving so long as the eyes stay between the hands.  This means that a lot of shields in use today need to be redesigned without telling one’s opponents of this secret magic trick.

The Crowded Battlefield 

Given no room to maneuver for the individual warrior, especially in a formation that works so long as it does not move, the freewheeling sword and shield work famous in game and video, does not take place until cracks, gaps, holes, and flanks are exposed.  Then it is time for everyone for themselves, i.e. panic from which few survive.   This is captured in the film "Zulu" in the bloody tradeoff between a good Medieval infantry (Zulu) against a good British infantry armed with the Martini-Henry lever action rifle .."and a bayonet with some guts behind it".

Zulu - Volley Fire

Victoria Cross Roll Call

The Knights Templar, Hospital, and other Orders kept order and security of the Crusader Army under Richard the Lion Hearted in a perilous journey from Acre to Jaffa, where at the Battle of Arsuf in 1191.  This was one of the very few battles in which the shield wall moved, and in so doing protected the cavalry from the swarms of arrows from fast riding Saracens.

Order of Battle and Dispositions ofhte Battle of Arsuf
starring Richard the Lion Heated
and Salaidn

Panic - the Startle Respose that destroys nations.


By blinding and confusing an eneymy force, self confidence and cohesion come apart.
Consider now that overlapping shields of belly to back and shoulder to shoulder and the popular free for wall, the melee was only done when there was a crack or crumble in the wall. Normally, any serious breach of the front ranks was the tripping point for panic whereupon most to the panicked were slaughtered by enemy cavalry   

While still a Political Science student at UCLA and a drilling Army Reservist (E-5) I was made privy to panic.  The issue of a Panic Tipping Point is one I was fortunate to have learned about from my Army Reserve Company Commander, Otto H Atkinson, of the 3/31st "Polar Bear" Battle Group (my father found their last command post in the Philippines untouched since their surrender to the Japanese in 1942).   As we unloaded from the busses at Camp Irwin in the Desert for two weeks of fun and games, Captain Otto had us drop out gear a the barracks and spent the first week dug in 24/6  nonstop training. 

One trick he used was to have us in a defensive position, fields of fire coordinated, and waiting for the next order.  Captain Otto has the 1st Sergeant make an attack on one flank all by himself with one soldier directed to "panic" toss his weapons and run off screaming.  Capt. Otto told the next soldier in line to do whatever the first guy did.  The First Sergeant attacked fining his M1 rifle, the Panickee panicked and the follower followed and the whole company scattered like popcorn in a high wind..   

Then we learned what to do and what not to do when someone panics. 1. Check to see if there is something really there, and tell your mates to cool it.  2. Do not chase the clown down, or the rest of the troops will follow. I have used this with each new command when in the field.  That, and killing myself off to see who takes over.

 The cacophony of clash of arms, shouts, screams of men and horses made verbal commands from within a basked helmet somewhat problematic.  Drums were a common means of giving fairly complex commands, but used less in the West than in the East.

The flags, pennons, Guidons and streamers were the principle means of command, control and inspiration in battles well into the XXth Century.  The Rule of the Order gives specific guidance on Guidons, as in guide on it. The recovery of the dying flag bearer to another is a central item depicting bravery in print, on the stage, screen, radio, TV and the net. That is firmly ensconced in modern military tradition, each unit with its’ revered divisional, regimental and battalion colors and the Guidons for the company, battery and troop are still carried.

I once stood in a formation of the 3rd Armored Division in massed formation at Fleigerhorst near Hanau for a pass in review by President John F Kennedy.   Given sick, lame and lazy plus other NATO contingencies I estimate that there was about 10,000 in ranks. In medieval times, 10,000 was respectable but not overly impressive.  We presented arms through seven national anthems during which we hooked our front sites over our belts to keep them aligned.  It took one huge flag from the flight Tower to give the signal to unhook, then order arms. 

 A few days after this, he gave his famous speech ICH BIN EINE BERLINER

 The idea of a mob of that size  attacking in a tight shoulder to shoulder formation is tempting fate, that of Murphy's Laws.  Anything that can go wrong will, and in the worst possible time, and place.   The commanders of the day knew that and avoided open battle unless the odds or fate says otherwise.  The greatest casualties of Medieval warfare up to WW 1 was, unlike popcorn, the cavalry was the wind.

Command and Control on an Unruly Battlefield 

The Medieval principle command and control system was that of unit flags, guidons, and pennons as a guide for those who followed.  This was so critical, that they are still held as imporant in today's military systems including those of the flags of the distubancies under arms today.  The term "capture the flag" was often a war winning tactic.
A change of command ceremony is one in which the outgoing commander presents the unit flag to the Command Sergeant Major who hands it to the incoming commander.

This is B Company, 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry (Dragoons) of the 3rd Armored Division
in Gelhausen, Germany 1963-64.  I'm the skinny one at the extreme low left.
The Sharpe's British TV Series on the Napoleonic War has Sergeant Sharpe commissioned as he had captured a French unit's Eagle.  It was vital for the unit flag to fly. And we are all familiar with courageous men shown picking up the fallen flag that often was the key to victory...that the flag still flew.   It is one of the leading scenes in "Birth of a Nation" that Woodrow Wilson really liked.   The end clip of this clip shows the Confederate commander attacking alone but for his battle flag.  

Clips from Birth of a Nation

 The raison d'etre for the shield wall was defense against cracks, gaps, and wobbly shields would make a panic inducing penetration.

The Shield Wall was one of the two big tricks the West brought to the Levant. The other “trick" was charge of Heavy Cavalry with couched lance. The West rode on large stallions which are spirited while the East preferred smaller mares for ease of management.  Cavalry is covered in another chapter.

Templar Military Assistance Mission (like MACV)

Not only did Knights Templar have standardized individual and small unit tactics, the knights also provided the same kind of assistance to other groups of  Christian and Crusaders.  This is similar to the mission of the Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam by providing advisors, services and support and when needed actual combat forces.. The Knights were assigned the most difficult tasks as in the Battle of Arsuf where they were in a position to preclude panic and maintain formations while under a constant barrage from Saladin's forces light and heavy.

During the Second Crusade, Knights Templar assigned to support that effort were critical in training and coaching the forces through some very hostile terrain, and the Turk as well. Thus, the training received by a typical Templar Knight has to have included individual and small unit tactics common throughout the order, and receive command and staff training the results of which form the Gold Standard of combat troops of that Era.

A collage of bits and pieces of my tour in Vietnam 1968-69 with the 1st Infantry Division
and the 1st Air Cavarly Division.
The only records found around the campus are those of the Rule which accounted for every minute of the day. So where are the programs of instruction, the training schedules, lesson plans and manual? Given the uniformity of tactic and technique throughout the Order, there had to be something like "doctrine". With several centuries of close order combat and high specialization in certain geographic areas, the capabilities of different forces were likely common knowledge.

There is little found in the documentation including paintings and statuary of medieval war in any event. This article is an effort to fill some of those gaps.


Keep an eye on

PS:  More to follow



  1. gordon, i really enjoy reading what you write. i've yet to find a better independent military tactics overview.