A Brief Explanation of Pre-gunpowder Combat

Last week I wrote a post on Napoleonic (really, musket) warfare, trying to make sense of it for those who haven’t read much about it. I thought I’d expand that by explaining the basic dynamics of two other periods of combat. The first is pre-gunpowder. The second, possibly next week, is 20th century. Of the three, this first is the epoque I know the least about. This post owes a lot to Gary Bruegemann’s Roman Army Pages.

It may seem strange to group the entire period from time immemorial to the 16th century A.D. into one era. But the basic technology of warfare remained the same – spear, sword, man, horse, bow, stone. Innovations like the stirrup or plate armour did transform battlefields, but not so much as to make them unrecognizable next to those of previous centuries.

As John Keegan points out in A History of Warfare (which I admit to having read only in part), this was the era in which the strength of the warrior really mattered. Gunpowder changed things by providing a weapon that could be used to kill the best-equipped fighter regardless of strength. Physical endurance remained important, but physical power diminished in significance.

Total War: Attila official screenshot, via Gamesplanet.com.

Armies in these periods, as in the Napoleonic, fought packed together. Think about it: if you stand in the open, brandishing your sword at the foe, and two or three of them step up to meet you, you’re done. Better have friends to guard your right and left. Better to have friends at your back, too, so that when you get tired, you can let them take your place instead of dropping your guard and dying. In any war before the immense personal firepower afforded by quick-loading rifles, spreading out meant death.

The first piece of infantry armament to consider is the shield, a ward against harm at all distances. Good armies (not necessarily all armies) would stand as close together as musketmen, pressing into the cover of their rightward neighbour’s shield [edit: Sorry, I spoke dishonestly here. It’s possible some good armies used a looser order, and I think that’s how dismounted late medieval knights fought. Also, even Roman infantry may have needed a small amount of fighting room]. Together, the line would form a shield wall, difficult for an opponent to pierce. Infantry battles were thus wearing-down affairs rather than bloodbaths. The goal was to breach the opponent’s shield wall, throwing him into disarray, when he could be killed more easily, while preserving the integrity of one’s own. Think of the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the elves standing in an ordered row, rather than the shots of the main characters fighting at Helm’s Deep with no one at their shoulders.

From The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), via Movie Screencaps.com.

Because physical force was integral to victory, two factors were especially important: movement and the ground. The momentum of a charge added force to the initial blow. It’s likely that units charged repeatedly, locking in battle for several minutes before drawing apart to cycle their weary front lines and charge again. Horses (pulling chariots or mounted) could provide greater momentum, as well as the force advantage of height and the benefit of mobility. Horses would not (and were too valuable to) run into a solid wall of sharp objects, though: cavalry could be warded off in the same way as in the Napoleonic period – unless the infantry scattered.

Flat ground was usually sought, to facilitate the use of those solid blocks of infantrymen. But even a gentle slope could provide a force advantage charging downhill, and impose physical exertion on troops toiling up it to engage the enemy (in the gunpowder period, hills remained important for these reasons and because they provided broad fields of fire, especially for artillery).

Total War: Rome II official screenshot, via Gamesplanet.com. Not quite historically accurate.

Missile infantry (archers, slingers, etc.) hoped to wear down and chink enemy formations before the melee. Melee infantry might carry javelins, thrown on the charge, for the same reason and possibly to weigh down any shield they caught on.

The primary melee weapon varied usually between the spear (or longer pike) and sword (short or long). Classical Greek and Macedonian forces saw the elongation of their pikes to the 13-to-20-ft. sarissa. Spears or pikes had the benefit of reach (especially to ward off cavalry) and could even deflect the fall of arrows en masse (imagine them not all held perfectly straight). Roman swords also lengthened under European influence. It seems that swords were more effective than spears in the hands of the more flexible legionary formations (which could break into smaller subunits than the Grecian phalanxes). I believe there is an established explanation for that, but I’m not sure what it is yet.

There are, of course, variations on the above themes. For a long time, in the European Middle Ages, cavalry became dominant, for technological, economic and political reasons (the stirrup, serfdom and decentralized government). Pitched battles also gave way to sieges and warfare stagnated as powerful fortresses checkered the landscape. Then there are the Mongol horse archers who swept across Asia and into eastern Europe in the 13th century. Finally, there’s the startling re-emergence of infantry strength with the Anglo-Welsh longbowmen and Swiss pikemen of the 14th and 15th centuries (I think these demonstrate that the supremacy of knights was due to the poverty of both kings and peasants rather than technological imperatives).

Total War: Medieval II official screenshot, via Gamesplanet.com.

Ultimately, I don’t think the contrast between the age of the sword and the age of the firelock is as stark as it may seem. To save themselves from being cut apart and for ease of control, armies of both eras stood in dense masses. Their weapons required them to fight at close distances, line squared up against line. While I don’t believe there are any extant ancient or medieval drill manuals, the manner of maneuvering a column of pikes and a line of musketeers must have been similar. In some ways, the difference between a Roman battle and one of Napoleon’s is 80 yards (musket range).

Rocroi, el último tercio, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau, via Wikipedia. Used by permission.

The most radical transformation in the history of warfare, since it was first organized, occurred in the 19th century, as the air filled with bullets at all distances and the earth swelled with the heaving of shell bursts. It is this most recent epoque of warfare I hope to examine next time.


Bonus: Three of those screenshots are from Total War games. I’ve found immense enjoyment from YouTube user HeirofCarthage’s series of more than 400 Total War: Rome II gameplay commentary videos:

He’s an excellent commentator of his own and others’ games. The game itself is not entirely historically accurate, but gives you the flavour of the Roman era amid engaging gameplay (I’ve not even played an hour and I still feel I’ve gotten a game’s worth of value!).


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