Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Decisive Battles: Hastings 1066

Hastings Date: October 14, 1066

Forces Engaged:
Anglo-Saxon (English): about 2,000-3,000 heavy infantry (huscarles, professional soldiers of the English crown), about 5,000 light to medium infantry (fyrd, local levies from the southeast of England); probably 7,000-8,000 in all under Harold II, then king of England.

Northern French (including Bretons, Normans and Flemish): probably 7,000 to 9,000 divided into three contingents, each with roughly 700-800 armored medium horse, 1,500 medium to heavy infantry and 500-600 missile-firing infantry (archers and crossbowmen) – all professional feudal soldiers or mercenaries, under William, Duke of Normandy.

The Situation: The thing you have to remember about Hastings is that Edward I (The Confessor) was probably gay.

Queer. A funguy, a bugger, a poofter, a moffie, an ass-pirate, a butt-bandit, light in the loafer, a cake boy, a closet queen, a fairy, a faggot, a friend of Dorothy. He was very likely a fruit, a maricon, swish, a nelly, a puff, a fudge-packer, a three-dollar bill, a chickenhawk, as well as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses, and the last Saxon King of England to die in his bed.

Where, according to legend and his own PR people, he treated his second wife like a sister and never “polluted” his mind or body with naughty thoughts about doing the nasty. Or even DID the nasty.

The official story is that he just luuuurved him some Jesus. So much that he took the idea of virginity and celibacy so seriously he never bothered to get around to fathering an heir. Or maybe he hated his wife because he hated her father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Or maybe because she was sixteen when she married the king, who was 43, so he hesitated to deflower this shrinking teenager (raise your hands everybody who thinks that a fortysomething guy is going to pass up sex with a nubile teenager – as Dennis Miller used to say, that’s why there’s a LAW!!)

Nope. He just hung around with huge, hunky Norman warriors looking like Tom of Finland in a mail coif until he had a series of cerebral hemorrhages in the autumn of 1065 and croaked in January of the new year. Leaving no heir to succeed him.

So. There’s no heir of the body for the Witenagemot, the Saxon Parliament, to elect to the kingship. They choose instead the son of Edward’s old enemy, Harold Godwinson.

A troubled succession in 11th Century Europe always meant trouble. And as always, troubles came for England not in single spies, but in hordes of bloody great Vikings in long ships.

Here’s the deal; two different people claimed that the throne of England was, in fact, theirs.

From the north came a tall ruffian by the name of Harald Hardrada

the surname is actually an appellation, from the Danish “hard rede”, “hard counsel” and can be better translated as “tough talker” or “hard guy”. His spiel was that Harthacanute, King of England and Denmark, and Magnus I, King of Norway had agree that first to croak would pass his kingdom(s) to the survivor. Harthacanute kacked, Magnus got Denmark but passed on England. Hardrada, Magnus’ nephew, threw in with Harold's brother Tostig (a real Saxon shitheel, traitor and rebel) and called in Magnus’ marker. He’d have England or die tryin’.

From the south came the bastard son of a Norman noble and the daughter of a rustic (probably a tanner), William, Duke of Normandy.

This character, a real hardcase, claimed that Edward had “left him” the crown of England (which by English law he was incapable of doing) AND that Harold Godwinson had sworn fealty to him (which was probably untrue but likewise was irrelevant to English succesion law). Oh, and that his great aunt was Emma of Normandy, Edward’s mom (hunh?).

The reality? All of this was crap; he was a conqueror. And he was going to conquer him some England.

The Sources: As always when one side in an engagement goes on to overwhelm the other, we have the problem with propaganda.Most of the “traditional” sources for information on the battle are Norman or Anglo-Norman, and their purpose from creation was the celebration and glorification of the Conquest. The famous Bayeux Tapestry, possibly sewn in the Norman cloister of that name within a half-century of the battle, was possibly history’s first political cartoon, using pictures (which a largely illiterate public could understand) to emphasize the nobility of Duke William, the perfidy of Earl Harold and the overall goodness that Norman piety and order had prevailed over Anglo-Saxon horniness and treachery. While it seems to be fairly reliable as to actual events and sequences it places the most Norman interpretation it can on each.

The earliest known recorded written account of the battle is in the form of a sung verse, the “Carmen de Hastingae Proelio” (Song of the Battle of Hastings) attributed to Bishop Guy of Amiens, is 835 lines of hexameter and pentameter likely composed sometime in 1067, possibly for the Easter festivities in Normandy. It is in the bloodthirsty tradition of feudal war poetry and celebrates particularly Bishop Guy’s nephew, Guy de Ponthieu. Only a single copy exists in the Royal Library in Brussels, apparently an early 12th century copy of the 11th century original.

Other accounts contemporary or nearly contemporary with the time of the battle are:

1. William of Poitiers’ “Gesta Guillelmi II ducis Normannorum” (The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy) from 1070. This guy is the Scotty McClellan of the 11th Century, a brass-faced liar and spinmeister who says whatever he thinks will make his boss William look good. Unfortunately his material was used by a number of later authors, including Ordericus Vitalis, who included all of Poitier’s lies, and
2. William of Jumièges’ “Gesta Normannorum Ducum” (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans), adapted from a much earlier work ("De moribus et actis primorum Normannorum ducum”, written between c. 996 and c. 1015) and also completed about 1070. A Norman writing from a Norman point of view, this William was also a monk with no military training.Other Norman sources include Ordericus Vitalis’ Historia Ecclestiastica another Norman version that is an autodidact of the two sources above, and William of Malmsbury’s “A History of the Kings of England”, probably written about 1120-1130. William is also influenced by the earlier chronicles but distance enables him to gain both some perspective and probably some knowledge of the primary English source, the “Ango-Saxon Chronicle”

This work is somewhat misnamed – it should be called the “ChronicleS”, since there are nine surviving manuscripts compiled at monasteries throughout southeastern England beginning in Alfred the Great’s time.We are warned that “not all are of equal historical value, and none of them is the original version”. Here’s part of the wiki entry for the ASC:
“Almost all of the material in the chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC, and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other."
This includes political bias: Tetlow (see below) points out that the author of the Abington manuscript is venomously anti-Godwin and includes any gossip he hears that reflects badly on the new king of England.

There are two worthy modern sources for the battle: David Howarth’s “1066 The Year of the Conquest” and, recently reissued, Edwin Tetlow’s “The Enigma of Hastings". Howarth does his usual thorough job but I truly love and recommend the Tetlow book; it looks at the events of 1066 with a reporter’s and war correspondent’s eye. Wonderful, illuminating book.

The Campaign: Hardrada got in first, landing in the north, near York, in September 1066. He kicked the shit out of the locals at the Battle of Gate Fulford on September 20 and looked to have pretty much locked up the north of England. Basking in the afterglow, his boyos left most of their hardware at their ships when they sauntered over to do a little plundering and perhaps some casual raping five days later to find the English army waiting for them at Stamford Bridge.

Harold II is usually remembered as the big loser at Hastings, if at all. But Stamford shows the quality of the man and his soldiers; the guys could flat out fucking fight. The king and his housecarls (huscarles; thingmen or bodyguards) marched and rode their scruffy little horses the roughly 200 miles from London to Stamford in four days to pound the Vikings flat in little over half a day (the sources are oblique, mostly written long after the battle, so the details of the engagement are kinda vague). Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the scrum, the north was secured for England, and just when you’d think that the lads could raise a lusty cheer, ease off the sweaty warharness and slip off to the pub for a crafty ale or six, comes the word that the Normans are ashore at Bulverhythe.Well. Fuck THAT for a game of soldiers. Harold and the housecarls saddled up and rode south again, stopping only in London for a night; a sackful of cheese sandwiches and roger the missus (with boots on and her night-rail over her head, no doubt) once for Old England, and then it was off for Senlac and the goddam uppity Frogs.

The English army assembled sometime in the late evening of October 13th or in the predawn darkness of the 14th at a place called Caldbec Hill,where the Sussex fyrdmen had been directed to gather around a “hoar apple tree”, undoubtedly a local sequoia of a tree that everyone in the area knew. The camp must have been a chaotic mess of bone-tired housecarls trying to get some sleep or straggling late after a thrown shoe or turned ankle, clueless local nobility and smallholders wandering around lost and trying to hook up with the rest of their warband and the usual irritating bastard stumbling around looking for something or someone and waking everyone up by either stepping on them, shouting next to them or shoving a flashlight inside their hootch until they got pissed and threw a boot at him to make him shut the fuck up and go away: the usual military goatfuck.

Harold’s plan, we are told, was to try and attack the Norman palisade at Bulverhythe near sunrise. It was probably irking to the hard-charging English king to find William’s little army dressed right and covered down on Telham Hill the next morning at oh-dark-thirty.

Making the best of a bad job, Harold advanced his force to the crest of Senlac Ridge, approximately 1,000 yards southeast of Caldbec Hill.The position featured steep side slopes, a long slope in front down to a marshy bottom and the then-dense Andreasweald forest to the rear. Here he formed the traditional Saxon defensive position – a “shieldwall”; a rectangular block of men in close order with their long, kite-shaped shields thrust into the ground or braced on it. The front couple of ranks would have been the professionals, the housecarls, armed with longswords or axes. Behind would have been the local gentry, less well equipped, less well trained, probably not as eager for the fight. In the center, the king and his officers, beneath the Dragon of Wessex and Godwin’s personal standard, The Fighting Man.

Below, the armored mass moved off Telham Hill to begin the last fight of Saxon England.

The Battle: The story of Hastings has been told too often to repeat here. We all know the part where the bowmen fire and retire; the Norman, Breton and Flemish infantrymen slog up, exchange cuts and stabs, retire; the knights form a rough line, boot their mounts into a canter and then a gallop and charge. Now a horse will not ram an object it cannot see a way around, over, or through, so the “charge” would have come to a messy, jouncing stop near the shieldwall, where the knights and housecarls would have traded blows and curses with several killed or maimed on both sides before the horsemen retired as well. This sequence apparently took upwards of an hour or so, with heavy losses on both sides but the invaders getting the worst of it.At this point the invaders broke, or at least the Breton left broke, streaming downhill in a chaotic mass of horsemen and footsoldiers. The English right were unable to resist the overwhelming impulse to slaughter a defenseless and fleeing enemy; they broke out of the shieldwall and pelted downhill after the Bretons.

Disaster. Harold must have said some very hard words in Old English as he watched William face his Norman center left and ride down the scattered English troops. The Tapestry shows this in fetching detail as a Norman rider lops the head and limbs off an Englishman in a group surrounded on a hillock. No question that the morning had been a drawn round.

According to all the sources several hours of hard fighting followed a brief pause. To describe this combat as “hard” is nothing less than the literal truth; pre-industrial warfare was demanding in a way that few humans living have experienced. All the emotional and much of the physical elements of modern war were present; fear, rage, confusion, hunger and thirst and lack of sleep, walking or running distances carrying heavy loads.But the moment of actual combat was a modern dies non, something which none of us can truly understand. The French invaders, and the Saxon defenders, had to walk or run the last few steps heavily armed and armored and stand within the distance of lovers hacking at each other with edged weaponry. Assuming roughly equal skill and absent outside intervention (always a risk in the sort of general melee that occurred along the Senlac shieldwall) or the vagarities of luck, at some point the combatants would tire to the degree where one or the other, or both, would have to just stop fighting and rest, chest heaving, breath sobbing, arms, shoulders and back screaming with effort and lactic acid.

Several chroniclers claim that the invaders duplicated the accidental decimation of the English fyrd by a series of feigned flights; I find this unlikely. Harold, an excellent combat commander, would have put the fear of God into his people after the Breton debacle, and William, clever as he was, had not rehearsed this most difficult and tricky of battle stratagems; the risk of a feigned flight becoming a genuine one was just too great. Rather, I suspect that the long noon and early afternoon hours passed in a seemingly endless grind of attacks on the shieldwall. A shower of arrows and spears, the shouting and shrieking onset of footsoldiers, a rough scrimmage along the line of contact, and then the arrival of the horsemen, spears and swords hacking, and then the ebbing and the two sides fell away to rest and recover.But every time the French attacks retreated they left another dozen or score of English dead and mained – most of those first from the kings housecarls, then select fyrdmen as the ranks began to thin. And they did thin – all the sources report that individuals and groups of Norman knights began to push into the English mass. Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed by Norman attacks sometime after midday. This suggests that the English army was beginning to lose cohesion; probably Norman units were gaining the top of the ridge and could hit the English line harder. The early losses among the housecarls were starting to tell.

Sometime in the afternoon William had something of an inspiration.

He directed his bowmen, at this point combat-ineffective as they were unable to fire into the melee to their front, to fire what I would call an “unobserved high-angle fire-for-effect”. The archers and crossbowmen raised their point of aim and lofted their shafts into the air to land in the middle and rear of the English mass.

The effect of this unusual “combined arms” assault must have been shattering. The English troops within the army would have been fixed on the struggle to their front and front-flank. Their armor was designed to catch attacks on the shield, or shed blows from the sides and cuts from side and above; instead, the falling arrows would have landed on shoulders and heads, frightening as much as killing and wounding. The chaos must have been as deadly as the casualties. Sometime after this indirect fire attack, at some time late in the afternoon of the short October day a large group – probably twenty or thirty – of Norman knights fought their way into the center of the English lines. This group included William and two of his closest supporters, Eustace of Boulogne and Hugo de Ponthieu and a knight or man-at-arms named Giffard. Let the Carmen take up the tale:
"Now the victor, joyful France almost ruled the field; already she was seeking the spoils of war when the duke sighted the king far off on the steeps of the hill, fiercely hewing to pieces the Normans who were besetting him. He called Eustace to him ... Hugh, the noble heir of Ponthieu, escorted these two ... fourth was Giffard, known by his father's surname: these four bore arms for the destruction of the king... The first, cleaving his breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb: the ground held the body thus destroyed."
Note that several commentators have speculated that “thigh” is a euphemism for a more personal body part; as Bill Sherman said eight hundred years later, war is all hell and you cannot refine it.What is interesting is that, although the eyewitness account of the Carmen is so specific, probably the most persistent story about Hastings is that of Harold killed by an arrow through the eye.

I have a hard time believing this. For one, it presumes that the English king was goggling up in the sky in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. And thinking about the geometry of a human head and a falling arrow points up the difficulty of making this happen. But…a falling arrow might well have struck Harold, ripping down across his face and tearing the pupil or the sclera of one eye. This would have been incredibly painful and would have effectively blinded the king. So perhaps the end came, not in the heroic combat described by the Norman victors, but in a flurry of hacking blows rained down on a blinded, wounded man crouching behind his shield in pain, hardly able to recognize the danger until it killed him.Their king and his entire male line dead, the English army must have disintegrated into knots of struggling men, some to kill as many invaders as they could before they died, some to escape into the falling dark and the forest behind. The Normans didn’t pursue very far; they were exhausted, and ready for food and rest. In fact, the Norman army held its position for almost a fortnight, waiting for an English counterattack or the approach of emissaries to parley. William didn’t recognize the devastation he had wrought on the English – he had decapitated the country. There was no one, either to oppose or submit to him. He was, in fact, William the Conqueror.

The Outcome: Complete Norman strategic and geopolitical victory; the beginning of the occupation and subjugation of Anglo-Saxon England.The Impact: Immense, world-changing, almost too much so to really understand. The implications of a Saxon England are vast, and the entire history of western Europe and then the globe would have been changed had the overthrow of the English crown and the eventual Anglo-Norman kingdom not occurred. The Norman taking of Saxon England may well be one of the two or three single most pivotal moments in world history along with the closing of Ming China in the 1640’s and the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the 1500’s.

And the timing and events of Hastings are critical to all that. What if Hardrada hadn’t invaded? What if William had missed the weather window and had to wait until the spring? Harold had been king less than a year in October, 1066. He was a strong an, and like many strong men he had made enemies. The monks scripting the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implied that Harold’s support that autumn wasn’t all it might have been:
“William, however, came against him unawares, ere his army was collected; but the king, nevertheless, very hardly encountered him with the men that would support him: and there was a great slaughter made on either side.”
The implication of the bolded passage being that some men would NOT support him. Had Harold had a winter to politic, bribe and cajole his rivals, he might have met William with a force too great to destroy. He might have been able to survive one defeat and retreat to his holdings in Wessex, as Alfred had against the Danes. Might have, might have, woulda, coulda, shoulda…

But he did not. He died, as Saxon England died, on the furzy turf along the top of Senlac Ridge, on an autumn day almost a thousand years ago.

Touchline Tattles: The events of the day are so distant, and have been so thoroughly, shall we say, embroidered upon, that nearly every human interest story about the Battle of Hastings seems like a tale.

What shall we do with, say, the famously mysterious Aelfgyva, eternally linked to “a certain cleric” in a stylized caress…or perhaps a blow…his attitude mocked…or perhaps interpreted…by the little naked man in the margin with his exaggerated genitals? Was this some Pamela-Anderson-sex-tape of the 11th Century, so widely known that no more explanation than her name was needed to set off knowing chuckles and elbows? Who knows?

So many tales, the people who lived them lost through nearly a thousand years...

But my thought is that perhaps the most poignant tale told of the Battle of Hastings is about the woman who had stood beside Harold throughout his adult life, born his children, known his secrets, body and mind. She is known to history only as “Edith Swan-neck”, Eadgitha Swanneshals, and she was the English king’s handfast wife of twenty years.

The stories say that the king’s corpse was so battered that it couldn’t be recognized. I can imagine that this might well have happened; the dead man was hacked apart, his body was probably left where it fell, and it fell amid a litter of other wealthy Englishmen killed alongside him. So the next morning I can picture the Norman clean-up crews being directed to find the body of the king and so prove that the throne was empty, quartering the area they were pointed to and returning to their officer; “Alors, m’sieur capitaine, we cannot find ‘eem, helas, all the dead ones, they are cut apart so terrible that I cannot tell one from the other, me!”

So the story says that the tall lady with the strong, sad face came to the place where her love had been killed, king and noblewoman common in a waste of blood and death, to walk among the other dead and the dying to where his defiled body lay, to tell the men waiting there the intimate signs she alone knew of, and to see in their cold eyes the empty table of grieving and loss and the lonely years that their merciless swords had set for her.


pluto said...

A great post on one of the truly pivotal and legendary battles of history. I particularly appreciate your efforts to separate fact from fiction.

One of the great what-if scenarios is that Harold decides to wait to rush up north and see what William does instead of relying on the traditionally lousy weather over the English Channel for protection.

Then Harold would have met William fully rested and better organized and this would have been an even closer battle, probably resulting in a Norman loss.

sheerahkahn said...

To be honest, I'm still amazed that he marched an army, fast paced, north, defeated the Viking invaders, then turned around, marched his army, fast paced, down to nearly wipe Williams army out.
That alone speaks volumes about Harold's leadership, and the morale of his forces.
I would say William got lucky that Hadrada invaded the north...if he had to face Harolds army fresh and rested...

FDChief said...

Pluto, sheerah: LOTS of what-ifs surround Hastings. What if Edward had fathered a son? What if Tostig had been something other than a rat bastard? What if the weather in 1066 had been normal (i.e. the Channel had been closed to most shipping in October)? One of the reasons its such an enjoyable exercise to discuss and refight - lots of ways to change the outcome. And the changes make such a big difference.

That said, I don't see how Harold avoids the campaign north in September. He couldn't let Harald establish a solid lodgement around York - think of the impossible situation with TWO invaders lodged on the English shore, one north, one south. He pretty much has to race up to give Harald and Tostig the chop.

What WOULD have helped him was if his ealdormen Edwin and Morcar, the fucking Paulus and Varro of the Tyneside, had managed to do anything other than totally fuck the pooch and manage to get scads of Englishmen butchered at Gate Fulford. I mean, all they had to do was set tight behind the walls of York; Hardrada had no siege train, Harold was on the way, between them they could have very likely slaughtered the Danish with a much smaller loss than they suffered between the two engagements - troops they could then have used against William. But no; Dumb and Dumberer have to get their asses waxed without even the grace to get themselves killed doing it.

So my pick for the "Dicks of the Month" for October, 1066 are the Pansy Twins, Edwin and Morcar. Note also that they cemented their sad reputation against William. Losers. As Harold himself would probably have said when he arrived in Yorkshire, "Can anybody here play this game?"

Ael said...

It has always struck me as strange that competence has been such a hit and miss thing with the feudal lords. Alternatively, it may be 20/20 hindsight, where feudal leaders would regularly have to make decisions lacking information about their foes that we take for granted.

In any case, it seems that there was a very wide range of "generalship".

Given that leading a battle was the ultimate reason for their existence, one would have felt that, on average, they would be much better prepared. Given that some of them were obviously well prepared (Harold, William, etc) it clearly wasn't a technological or cultural thing.

Maybe the difference between now and then is that modern officers decide to be leaders, whereas you were born into the nobility.
Alternatively, our modern professional army smooths things over.

FDChief said...

ael: I think that one of the big problems was that a lot of these guys got to be where they were either a) because they were the baddest "fighter" in the gang, or b) because their uncle/father/whatever was king, or c) because they were born to the king/earl/duke's babymomma.

The guy who's the meanest and best fighter may very well not be the best commander, nepotism is a notoriously poor way to pick leaders, and birth is a crapshoot for talents. So I'm not surprised that these guys run such a wide variety of skills. Look at the Godwins: Harold seems to have been an outstanding commander, his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, enh, not so much. His other brother, Tostig, seems to have been an utter fuckup.

The military skills that were lost with the fall of Rome were the higher level skills. Most feudal lords could chivvy a line of guys into some sort of formation and charge. What they couldn't typically do was make a healthy camp, feed their troops, plan a battle more complex than "keep chopping and hope they die quicker than we do".

Hastings is unusual in that both commanders were pretty clever guys for their day. One just had more tactical options than the other and that tipped the balance. As Pluto says; take Hardrada out of the picture and you might have ended up with a Saxon England for another couple of centuries or so...

Ael said...

I understand that choosing by birth will likely give you a wider range of native talent. However, these guys were serious warriors. That is what they did, their whole life. One would think that one's skill level would increase over time.

If winning battles was important to them, they would work to improve their skills. Looking at various leaders and the choices they made, I must conclude that winning was not the deciding factor in determining whether to offer battle (and during the battle, to win it)

Personal honour, family ties, land distribution and other things must have been involved in the decision process. When we look back a thousand years, all we see is some idiot making a foolish choice. The other factors have been stripped away and all we see is a loser.

Maybe, to our eyes, what appears to be a competent commander, in those days was a reckless idiot who would stake his very honour (and all the other stuff) on the outcome of a battle. (where to be honest, once the fighting starts, the commander has limited ability to affect the outcome)

Lisa said...

Riveting exegesis of the battle, thank you.

And your spirited characterization of the fey Edward could not be had on a History channel special.

Leon said...

Once again a great article Chief. One (longish) comment on how they actually fought. We'll never know how it actually played out without a time machine but we're pretty certain it wasn't the mindless melee of Braveheart or Gladiator. I'm following some authors who hypothesise the following.

For most soldiers/warriors in ancients and medieval times, charging headlong into a large number of guys carrying sharp pointy sticks and yelling for your internal organs is a more than daunting task. Because of the human aversion to be eviscerated, most charges would result in 3 options:
1) The defenders see a large mass of very angry men, their knees shake, their hearts fail and they proceed to run away. They get cut down from behind by the attackers.
2) Attackers see a large mass
of very determined people and their hearts quail, their knees knock and they run away and possibly get cut down from behind if the defenders pursue.
3) Neither side budges and the attacker grinds to a halt just outside weapon range (or a safe psychological distance) and both sides work themselves up to close the final distance.

One author who subscribes to this combat model believes that key men within a force (be they huscarles or centurions) would have the aggression and courage to close and do their best to hack and cut their opponents. Their comrades on either side will surge forward with them to cover their flanks but will be swinging/stabbing defensively. Eventually the huscarles/centurions would tire and the line would retreat for everyone to take a breather. This would repeat until one side couldn't take it and broke.

Elite units (Caesar's X legion or a Spartan mora for example) would have more of these aggressive men than a newly raised legion or gaggle of fyrd-men.

This model would explain how ancient/medieval battles would last hours and the disparity between the winner's and the loser's dead as most of the killing would be done when one side ran away.

It would also explain why beserkers were so terrifying, not because they were killing machines but they weren't scared and would go full tilt into the attack.

But that's just a guess.

FDChief said...

ael: "If winning battles was important to them, they would work to improve their skills."

I think its hard for us to really get inside the heads of these medieval lords, but if we could I think we'd be surprised at the huge difference the lack of a "scientific" componant to their intelligence would make.

As good products of the Enlightenment most of us think of things that take skill as something that can be dissected, examined, analyzed, improved and reassembled in a more efficient way. Our approach to warare is like that: we do "staff rides", take lessons learned from past encounters, attempt to divine the particular from the general and figure out where the critical elements are and improve or correct them.

The medieval approach to battle was pre-industrial in thought. Battle just "was", it was something you learned like a trade, by apprenticeship, from your dad, or uncle, or their liegeman. Beyond simple individual battle skills most tactical thinking was confined to "line up, move out, keep hacking until somebody dies." They had a couple of simple tactical strategems but really they were unable to duplicate the battlefield tactics of the Romans five hundred ears earlier. And I think, because of their religious fatalism and nonlinear, inductive thought-processes, that they were slow to adapt and change. Look at William's "combined arms" plan - nobody on the continent was able to duplicate that! Four hundred years later the French who stayed behind on the continent were still doing crossbows, short bows and "line up, move out, keep hacking" while the Anglo-Normans had developed the longbow as a form of tactical, direct-fire distance weapon.

No science, that was their problem. And people wonder why liberals like me get all upset when the red-meat types talk about creationism and science classes...

Lisa: Ta. Oddly enough, I have a certain affection for The Confessor - he was the Bitch Queen of England of his day. But by failing to prouduce an heir he sure fucked his kingdom over.

leon: Absolutely. I have this mental picture of one of those "breaks" in the melee, either at the point where the real hard guys were completely gassed or when one or more of them had gone down and just the regular mooks were left, where the two sides milled around like a couple of high school kids not really wanting to fight (because somebody was gonna get hurt) but too proud to quit and too scared to turn and run...waving swords, shouting and making faces at each other.

I think its George MacDonald Fraser, in his memoir "Quartered Safe Out Here", who draws a picture of his company attacking, and then breaking through a Japanese position in Burma. The attack is a slog, with vicious fighting ofrom both sides, until the Japanese suddenly break. The British chase them to a railroad embankment where the fleeing Japanese have to try and escape across a vast, perfectly flat, open field. Fraser describes quite clinically the gleeful savagery with which he and his mates carefully shoot down the terrified and (at that moment) harmless Japs through the back as they run.

In another case, John Keegan in his "Face of Battle", discusses the common situation where both sides give and take death and injur until one side fails. But rather than slump down relieved or build a golden bridge for the fleeing enemies the winning side is often siezed by a killing rage, pursuing and butchering their now-panicked foes. Keegan surmises that there is something deeply atavistic in a fleeing prey that triggers this killing mania.

Publius said...

Terrific treatment of a truly significant historical event, one that truly influenced the course of world history. Now you have to write the alternative history. The "what if." It's been done, and very effectively, e.g., with WW2. Nice spare-time endeavor for you, I'd say.

"Maybe the difference between now and then is that modern officers decide to be leaders, whereas you were born into the nobility.
Alternatively, our modern professional army smooths things over."

ael, I'd just say that, as we view history, some of those feudal lords were pretty damned good at generalship. Going fast-forward, how about G.Washington, not a feudal lord, but also not a trained "professional"?

And then we have those who've decided to be leaders, such as Franks and Westmoreland. Not to mention a whole host of "professional leaders" fired in WW2. And those in the Civil War. Not to mention men such as Douglas Haig and his French friends. And then, of course, there is the "decider," one G.W.Bush, another one who decided to be a leader.

You're right about one thing: Historicallly, the Army (and the other services) has always saved these "leaders" asses. And I hate to break it to you, but the returns ain't in on our "modern professional army." Other than the '91 shooting gallery, it ain't won nothin'. Ordinary dudes, plucked off the streets, are the ones who made the legends at the top. Just like the ordinary dudes that cause us to still talk about William a thousand years later.

sheerahkahn said...

Medieval combat is a bit of a bizarre hodge-podge of tactics, depending on the time zone you're visiting.
For the Vikings, which is basically the groups involved, the basic manuever was to close with shields, and spears.
aka, shield wall vs shield wall.
Archers were to soften up the initial target area before the clash begins, but once the two engage, the archers angle their arrows to have their shafts rain down on the rear echelons.
Also, to catch anyone backing out for a breather.
One of the unusual tactics which was common for the normans, was to have their allies footmen intermingle with the enemies footmen, and a predetermine signal, break away and run from the battle.
Thus, leaving the opponents in a broken formation, and exposed for the incoming Norman cavalrymen.
Anyway...I could write more...but space.

FDChief said...

Publius: point well taken - I'm not so sure we should be all that impressed with out post-VOLAR performance. Let's face it; we've never fought a peer foe. And our track record so far in central Asia is pretty spotty.

We seem to have bought in to a wierd version of the German General Staff ideal: take one hundred officers and teach them the "book solution" to ensure that their performance will be completely predictable. If you want to eliminate the Ambrose Burnsides and the George Calleys, this is probably a workable solution. But I think we've gone too far - the German officer schooling, and the German officer corps, wasn't as conformist as ours has become. By raising the bottom, I think we've also lowered the top. The "professional" U.S. Army of the 20's and 30's still had places for people like Joe Stillwell and Geroge Patton. I don't think our "professional" Army is that flexible - or that good.

Sheerah: One thing I always keep in mind when I'm looking at these European feudal types is that they took the seven hundred years from the fall of Rome to the 13th Century and basically did fuck all with it. They came up with a couple of minor tactical tricks, but the state of European military practice was about as sad as you can imagine. The Mongols showed up in the 1250s and could probably have ridden from the Don to the Loire without any real check, they were that much better.

A combination of gunpowder, infectious disease and shipbuilding saved Europe's ass. That and the Great Khans dying at opportune times. But feudal military capacity? Not so much.

Leon said...

Chief, excellent point on the strange human desire to mercilessly kill fleeing enemies. I'm guessing all that pent-up fear/frustration gets expressed in that moment. There's an anecdote from ancient Greece where the writer relates how a famous Athenian (Socrates?) retreated with a few comrades during an Athenian rout. The victors went about cheerfully cutting down others but ignored him since he showed he was still capable of defending himself.

Since we brought WW2 into this, I've another anecdote on this idea that only a few men will take the fight to the enemy. There was a series of after-action reports from a British officer who served in North Africa. He said that consistently in a platoon attack, one third of the men would quietly slink away, another third would fire but not advance and the last third (including the officers and noncoms) would move up to physically assault the enemy. He also said the Germans would retreat once the Brits made it to a certain distance, that the few instances where they went hand-to-hand is where one side misjudged.

Lastly one comment on medieval leadership. Part of the problem is their limited control on their battle as they had a tendency to join in the "fun". Once they're engaged they have no ability to influence the battle except for their tiny piece of it. Ancient Greek generals had this problem, they could get their men to the field, exhort them to win but upon joining the frontline lost any chance of controlling the fight. Roman generalship had the commander on horseback (better vantagepoint) behind the line. This allowed him to better react and commit reserves to shore up the line or break through. With the medieval era (at least early period) there was a tendency for leaders to get "stuck in" again and thus lose all tactical control.

FDChief said...

leon: Agree. The feudal leaders had to deal with the issue that NOT getting stuck into the fight was a problem for them. Their "army" was nothing more than a fighting tail and if they looked "afraid" to exchange cuts with an enemy they would have problems getting any respect from their guys. The Romans before, and the moderns afterwards, realized that combat leaders have better uses for their time than whacking individuals.

FDChief said...

leon: re: the 1/3-1/3-1/3 breakdown in WW2...I've always wondered about this. 1/3 combat refusals seems pretty high...I'm sure that guys shirked when they could, but typically 30% casualties was considered combat ineffective. If that many guys were hiding or slinking off...

The other thing I've always questioned is the old SLA Marshall stat about the guys who would shoot vs. the ones who wouldn't. I've been in the position of knowing people were shooting but not knowing WHO was shooting, or being able to see anyone to shoot at. Plus, frankly, if shooting is going to draw fire on me and I don't have good cover or a covered way to move, I'm not going to shoot, either.

I understand that much of the shooting (and much of the killing) in WW2 was done by a combination of artillery and infantry crew-served weapons, and that sounds reasonable. But I have to wonder about the high number of combat ineffectives reported in the study you cite.

Ael said...

I agree that for feudal leaders battle was a trade, like being a blacksmith.
But, I would guess that the variability between blacksmiths would be less than the variability between leaders.

So, if this guess is true, the question is why? I suspect that it is because "doing battle" means something different to our eyes, than it did to theirs.
Further, "doing battle" in their eyes wasn't that strongly correlated with winning.

Take for example the "do I join in the fun" question. Not joining in could imply you are a coward. Nobody would fight for a coward. This puts a leader in a spot, because if you get killed, your army will likely crumble. Even if you don't get killed, you aren't leading when you are hacking.
Also, consider that bravery seen by you will likely be rewarded, so your men will fight much better if you are there!

So, in summary, I think you are way too hard on those people who you (from the distance of a millenium) consider to be fucktards. If you had been in their shoes ...

Now, if one of their competent contemporaries considers them fucktards, they probably were.

Leon said...

Regarding the Brit AAR of 1/3 skulking, I remember it saying something about not being able to get rid of them because you'd just end up getting another unit's skulkers so everyone accepted it. Note that I read this summation of the report but not the actual report itself. I'll have to remember to track down the name of the report or author.

Regarding SLA Marshall, I've read strong criticism about it from Hackworth but I think there is a grain of truth in it. His percentages may be off but I'd accept that a significant number of soldiers fired blindly or not at all. Heck, if I was stuck in a Normandy countryside when bullets started flying I'd forget my rifle and start digging a foxhole and not stop until I hit China (and probably get shot by the Japanese).

Lastly an interesting thing on the expectations of Roman generals. For the rank-and-file, they didn't expect their generals to demonstrate their combat prowess by fighting. If a general got stuck in it usually meant that things were going pear-shaped . A general's job was to get his army to the fight, motivate them, manage the battle but also to observe the men fighting so he can praise/reward them afterwards for acts of bravery. They even had a form of standardized awards for bravery (saving a fellow citizen's life, first over the wall of an enemy stronghold, etc...) In some ways the Roman army feels very modern yet at other times it's very alien. The word "decimation" comes from the Roman habit of punishing legions by executing every 10th man. The crazy (well to us) thing is this was used throughout late republican and at least early imperial times and the legions accepted it.

Leon said...

Finally found it, the report by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Wigram is included as an appendix in Denis Forman's "To Reason Why" book.

Anonymous said...

This is a great piece and the only thing I'd question is your point that Harold probably did not swear allegiance to William. He probably did. The facts are that Harold was captured and held prisoner at Bearain when his boat was blown off-course in the English Channel and he was shipwrecked north of present day Le Touquet. His captor was Guy de Beaurain, the local warlord and Harold was imprisoned at his castle at present day Beaurainville. Harold was only released when William ordered Guy to do so. Harold was then escorted to Normandy and William's court, where the Bayeux tapestry records him swearing allegiance. Admittedly, the tapestry is a biased document but there is no doubt that Harold gained his freedom thanks to William and some kind of payment would be due. Harold then spent considerable time at William's stronghold in Normandy fighting alongside him before returning to England. This also re-inforces the idea that Harold accepted William as his overlord. Harold at this point having no idea that he would be up for King of England in the near future. So one of the great 'what ifs' of this fascinating historical turning point is - what would have happened if Harold and his crew had not been blown into the hands of Guy the Beaurain by the capriciousness of weather in the Channel? He would not have sworn allegiance to William and William would not have had a legitimate reason to invade. Great blog btw.

FDChief said...

Anon: I've always been skeptical of the "swearing allegiance" panel in the Tapestry. First and foremost because Harold knew, if nothing else, that English succession didn't work that way. The authority for succession went through the Witanegemoet; the crown of England wasn't his to swear away.

Second, there was no reason for him to swear fealty to a foreign nobleman; at the time there was no hint that William had any plans to take up lands in England, and there was also no real reason to assume that Harold would be in a position to serve as William's vassal. The oath doesn't make any sense in feudal terms.

What I CAN see is that William wants a lobbyist in London and Harold - not seeing that he has any real hope of succeeding to the throne of England - swears that he will do his best to help his buddy out as best he can. The Norman propagandists twist this into the present tale of fealty.

And, who knows - maybe Harold DID try and push for William in the Witan. We have no records of what happened in the the smoke-filled rooms that year. He might have made his speech for his Norman pal, been laughed off the podium, and then, duty done, accepted the crown when it was offered to him...

But, really...I don't know if any of these counterfactuals matter. The bottom line is that William did what no one since the Caesars before him had and no one has since; he successfully seized the British Isles. Regardless of who did and said what to whom before that, he is who he is and his appellation is the correct one; he was William the Conqueror.