Battle Guide in a Nutshell — General, Medieval, and Western European






I. Before the Battle

Preparing for battle and knowing where the armies stand is essential when discussing battles.

IA. Size

Numbers are hard to find, and reliable numbers are next to impossible. These numbers are from John Beeler's "Warfare in feudal Europe, 730-1200".

Philip II of France's professional army consisted of around 2,700 soldiers (up to 2,800), most of which were infantry, roughly 2,000 of them were. That leaves less than 1,000 for cavalry, sergeants, and others. By 1213, several armies in Europe sought to limit the Capetian rise to power. At this point in time, Philip II was able to bring 24,000-27,000 soldiers for the raging war. Taking the lesser estimate of 24,000, Beeler has these estimates: 17,000-foot soldiers, 5,000 mounted sergeants-at-arms, and 2,000 knights. In all, they were unequally divided among the command Philip II and his son, Louis. However, an army of this size would have been anomalous and remarkable for the time (Beeler, Warfare in feudal Europe, 730-1200, 42-43). However, this is a far more agreeable estimate than the questionable claims of 100,000 on each side, as those at the time were often alleging. Some, however, may put the size at half of Beeler's or less. Take this into consideration when writing about the scale of a battle. If it is typical for the time, then it could be close to 10,000-12,000. If the army's goal is to limit (or defend) the power and growth of a kingdom, then 20,000 is a large army. Nevertheless, keep in mind that a commander would not use all 20,000 in a single battle. Many of these soldiers, especially knights, were divided among various lords.

It is also imperative to consider where the armies are fighting. A pitched battle was uncommon compared to the sieges, raids, and other battles of the period (Beeler, 45). Sieges took much time, resources, and manpower. On the note of available troops, a limit on how long someone was required to serve was standard for the time, thus maintaining an army of consistent size could be problematic for long campaigns and sieges(Jones, 118). The time limit on service was often over a month. Given how long it could take, a sieging army might have been helpful elsewhere, as Archer Jones notes it could have taken an entire campaign season (149). Keep in mind the season as well. No army would want to lay siege during the coldest and least fruitful days of the year for numerous reasons. The safest courses of action required much coordination from the attackers; they needed the proper equipment (ideally artillery, and depending on the period, gunpowder) and controlled the flow of supplies, resulting in weakened and desperate defenders who faced surrender or starvation.

In short, consider who the armies at play are, how wealthy they are, and their societal structure. Even republics saw the strength of mercenaries, and the great kings hired them frequently. While the mercenary today has this reputation of being a rugged, stone-cold killer who is all in it just for the gold, this is a recent development. Mercenary companies likely developed close relations with their employers due to frequent use. If loyalty were such a huge problem, nobody would have hired them, as no lord would throw money at a group of people prone to switching sides. Mercenaries were, for sure, less prone to cracking, shattering, and fleeing when compared to the motley troop of peasants with no experience in war.

IB. The Gear

While Charles Oman magnifies the prominence of knights to debatable proportions, he is correct in that in the collection of those 17,000 units of infantry, there was no discernable standard of their equipment (Charles Oman, The art of war in the Middle Ages : A.D. 378-1515, 64). He points out that those of sturdy discipline and formal training were quite the exception. If they were prepared and well-regulated, then it would be reasonable to assume that they were mercenaries. On average, the fact that most were lacking in gear, shy on morale, and weak in discipline is what made cavalry so much more effective. I will explain soon enough why Oman is wrong to assume that foot soldiers were practically worthless, but as far as the battle is concerned, only a select few were truly ready to face it with an ounce of courage. Mercenaries were frequently employed even if they were expensive. So, let's talk about the infantry.

In short, they were given the short end of the stick. Given that they were non-nobles (the less friendly term is peasant), they were given less importance. Good gear was expensive, training took a lot of time, and for the tactics of the time, they were seen as another tool to get the knights into action. Thus, the average foot soldier was ill-trained, had meagre armor, used a spear and shield, and knew little about combat (Verbruggen, The art of warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages: from the eighth century to 1340, 99-100). Up until the late 1200s, they were largely seen as an ineffective fighting force. By 1302, their significance in the battle of Courtrai changed the perspective drastically (Verbruggen, 98). With that said, they could carry an array of equipment, especially starting from the late 1200s and early 1300s (Verbruggen, 146). Crossbows, longbows, short bows, swords, hammers, shields, pikes, spears, battle-axes, the famous halberd, and much more. What equipment one might have depended explicitly heavily on time period, who the army was fighting, wealth, and even culture. These pikes, spears, and halberds were exceptional at preventing or stopping charges (especially cavalry). When soldiers' distance between their enemies decreased, some found these long polearms to be unwieldy. Thus they would drop them in favor of a secondary or tertiary weapon (Verbruggen, 147). For protection, mail (a lot less than a knight would have), gambesons, doublets, coifs, and simple helmets were common. Despite this, foot-soldiers needed excellent command, leadership, discipline, and unyielding formations to see the peak of their utility in a battle. These elements came with time and experience, but, for a long time, they did not come with training (Verbruggen, 154).

What about the valiant knight charging into battle? They consisted of a fraction of the army's size for a reason. Gear, armor for the horse, riding training, lances, helmets, hauberks, swords, and shields to make a complete set was expensive and time-consuming. The primary limit, of course, was the horse. Learning to ride, fight on horseback, and even equip the horse with its gear was reserved for a select few. This is especially true for when plate armor becomes more prominent, as it was designed and made specifically for the wearer. For reference, Verbruggen states that a fully equipped armoured cavalrymen would cost roughly "fifteen mares or nearly twenty-three oxen." (24). In other words, an exorbitant amount of wealth. As far as training, riding was only part of it (and that took considerable effort in the context of war), many knights were expected to be well-versed in martial arts (Verbruggen, 29). The training process began at a young age; it was an extensive, gruelling, and expensive process. Once complete, it was well worth it in battle.

Mail is far more effective than movies or shows would have someone believe. As a general note, keep in mind that armor did work, especially plate armor. How effective it was depended heavily on the weapon, type, and period. If a knight's plate armor is obliterated by a soldier with a short sword, something strange has happened. Even though a full suit of plate armor was heavy, the wearer was not a stiff tinman. He was far more flexible than one might think. There are numerous videos online about medieval armor, and they help give perspective. Remember to keep it consistent, too. Do not show any favors to the protagonists if other characters are wearing the same armor.

II. The Battle

Now is the time to talk about actually fighting. This will encompass quite a bit.
IIA. The Goal of the Battle
This can vary from sieging, raiding, taking a strategic position, holding a strategic position, or taking out an army with no hope of escape. However, the leader hoped that the battle might be the one that ended the war. Sometimes a glimmer of gold waited behind the enemy's banner.

IIB. Infantry

Chessmaster François-André Danican Philidor once said "[Pawns] are the soul of chess.” Infantry did almost everything; they were the soul of war. They had various duties from maintaining, setting up, and using siege equipment, scouting, foraging, building camps, holding positions, stopping cavalry charges, and shielding others. At the battle of Bouvines, one lord used them to create a protective circle for the cavalry (Oman, 64). Their effectiveness has generally been overlooked and understated. This is primarily because taking down knights on the offense was dangerous, risky, and often did not work. If the cavalry blundered a charge, then a well-commanded group of infantry might have been in a good position to throw everything at the knights (Verbruggen, 162). From there, they could take the horse and knight for ransom. When used correctly (by the 1300s and onwards, typically), infantry was a formidable force.

For the most part, prior to the 1300s, infantry was used in defense, especially in forming garrisons. Still, heavy cavalry could charge through a line of infantry with impunity. Verbruggen estimates that "ten riders were mechanically equal to a hundred foot-soldiers, and that a galloping rider exerted a force equal to that of ten foot-soldiers on the defensive" (165). It may not be 100% accurate, but heavy cavalry had the power to decide and shape battles. It, undoubtedly, was frightening to the victims of a charge. Assuming a soldier had the right gear, they could kill, wound, or capture the horse and knight. If a group of soldiers mobbed the knight, he had no hope of survival and could beg for mercy, resulting in his capture and ransom. However, sometimes knights would dismount. Even without a horse, they posed a severe threat. These knights were fully equipped with excellent armor (again, mail was no joke) and had formal training in the art of war. The Battle of Courtrais/Battle of the Golden Spurs and the Battle of Agincourt remain clear examples of the triumph of infantry. They let loose arrow volleys, surrounded, dismounted, and butchered the mounted warriors. In both cases, the terrain was not perfect for cavalry. Those who led infantry had to use the numbers advantage wisely, as a group of knights eradicated an uncoordinated and ill-equipped group of soldiers.

Formations were also paramount and varied from army to army, but also changed based on the immediate threat. When cavalry was charging, infantry formations were tight to make it harder for enemy cavalry to trample through, but sometimes a column was used. If flanks were an issue, soldiers marched into circular or crown formations. If archers were the immediate threat, they readied shields and adopted loose formations (Verbruggen, 160-161).

Remember that infantry could have a wide variety of weapons and armor. Think about what is practical—a one-handed flail was not—and apply that. Many light infantry units favored the bow early on. However, eventually the crossbow had great prominence due to the significant reduction in time it took to train someone (Jones, The art of war in the Western world, 118-119). They could reinforce their knights or fire at light infantry, especially if their targets lacked a shield. Swords were never exceptional at getting through most forms of armor, but axes, maces, and hammers delivered heavy force against targets. A crafty, trained, and experienced swordsman could get by armor, but the average grunt on the frontline was not familiar enough with their weapon to penetrate it. Spears and maces made for great weapons due to their simplicity and effectiveness; it took far less time to train someone to use a spear or mace than most swords. Though if infantry was caught in a close melee, their sword was decent at cutting through the lightly armored foes, but practically worthless against knights.

IIC. Knights

These soldiers were elite. Trained, well-armored, well-equipped, and typically educated in war, they were a massive threat and were always respected on the battlefield. They were regarded as nearly impenetrable with a complete set of mail (and later plenty of plate). Thus, commanders used them well and wisely, as the cost of losing them was far too much. As disciplined warriors, knights, too, understood the importance of formations, and so they charged together in a tight formation to break their enemy's. Whenever possible, these mounted warriors were also the vanguard of flanks and went to great measure to protect them (Verbruggen, 94-95). They were known to, on occasion, dismount and fight on foot.

Nevertheless, their greatest strength was on horseback. Since they were more mobile than infantry, they could efficiently run down soldiers in retreat. Sometimes they reinforced the infantry or regrouped allied infantry in retreat. These units dominated the field when matched against an enemy lacking in discipline, morale, and experience.

Both infantry and knights were under the control of their commander, who, either by himself or an officer, would ride out into battle and issue orders. While the medieval battle may often be portrayed as hectic and chaotic, communication was vital to success even in ancient times.

Knights, too, had a variety of weapons at their disposal. After trampling through enemy lines, a knight could continue their fight with a secondary weapon, as a lance was not practical in a prolonged, close quarters engagement. This could be a mace, axe, or a sword of some variety. When a knight matched another knight in a fight, outside of a charge, they hoped to dismount their opponent. They both had an understanding that the fight was difficult. If they were already dismounted, knights frequently engaged in wrestling, hoping to be in a sufficient enough position to stab their foe in the weak spots of their armor. While it is hard to estimate how long this could take, the Combat of Thirty, a famous battle between knights and squires, lasted for hours. The fight was agreed upon between two factions, however. A real engagement between knights could still take a long time.

IID. Landscape & Weather

This is an essential element that is often overlooked. This always demands respect and deference; else, an army will perish. Leaders considered if they were by or in the forest, hills, mud, rocky, a nearby river, etc. French cavalry at the time formed the paragon of war; it was unmatched and led France into being a dominant military power. Some, such as Beeler, point out that most feudal powers used infantry (59). This might run contrary to what I have already written, but you can see why when one thinks about the theme. When infantry decided key victories, it was because knights had limited effectiveness due to the terrain (Verbruggen, 188). Do not take terrain and geography lightly.

III. Strategy

The higher goal. Often, military leaders were faced with raiding and sieging. Defenders buckled down in tight, strategically important fortresses or easy-to-defend locations (Archer Jones, 146). Carrying out a long invasive campaign was tricky, chiefly due to supply shortages. Invading armies could carry enough for a while, but not long enough as necessary, so they had to live off the land or communicate with locals or those back home (Verbruggen, 293). Taking surrounding territory, such as farms or towns, was done to coerce defenders into withdrawing from their fortress. However, if the defenders knew the enemy army's whereabouts, they could move their food stock and people beforehand. Only in rare cases was destroying supplies and razing buildings viable. Providing equipment, such as ammunition, spare weapons, shields, and armor, was also important. Weapons could take a heavy beating in battle or even break; thus, soldiers needed to have their weapons in good condition before a battle.

When it came time to take out an army, attackers desired a strategy that permitted them to encircle their foe, though it was limited to an attacker who had a large force at his disposal (Verbruggen, 282). Otherwise, using superior numbers often prevailed. Sometimes attackers tried to starve out their enemy, typically when laying siege. Even when sieged, defenders could beat their enemies, especially if they were lacking in siege equipment. Success could be limited to those who won a siege with great effort, as it was costly and may not leave them with sufficient momentum to carry out the war and take another fortress (Verbruggen, 289). Defenders sought to limit or destroy supply lines, which, if successful, was devastating (Verbruggen, 290). When forced to face an enemy on the battlefield, the defender wanted to move to a position they could hold with ease, usually through the terrain or geography, such as a rocky location to limit the effectiveness of cavalry.

Coming back to communication, this is still one of the most important aspects of any war. Medieval commanders knew this just as well as their predecessors. Jones makes a point of this and controlling movement, claiming that a campaign sought to seize, dominate, and constrict the flow of information (123).

IV. Conclusion

There is a lot that goes into war, and I know I cannot cover everything. Specific information on armor, siege engines, weapons, and events are not here. This is meant to be a general guide or a list of things to consider when writing a battle or army on the march. Here is the list of sources, I know they aren’t in a formal style, sorry. Thank you for reading.