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Social Background of the Army Organization


Any army is a reflection of society which creates it. Thus it is society, more than anything else, which will determine how army is shaped. This is evident throughout history: many attempts at replicating Roman armies failed because underlying society was incapable of supporting such an army. In modern day, Arab states proved completely incapable of creating and maintaining effective Western-style militaries. They always easily acquired hardware due to their oil-provided wealth, but they also always proved laughably incompetent at translating said hardware into battlefield performance.

Tribal Society

Romans faced tribal armies in Iberia, Gaul and some other areas. Characteristic of tribal armies is a much closer link between social order and army – its structure, tactics, organization and even weaponry – than is the case in more advanced societies.

Gaul was the most advanced of these societies, in process of transition into urban society when Rome attacked. But its army was still tribal. Gallic nobility fought mounted, but they never developed effective cavalry arm. Infantry likewise was relatively well-equipped, but Gallic emphasis on individual valor caused them to mount frontal attacks which squandered their numerical superiority. Gallic (and also Germanic) habit of bringing whole tribe to the battlefield meant that a defeat meant genocide against the whole tribe.

Gallic society was governed by aristocracy of nobles surrounded by armed retainers who acted as a warrior class – not unlike medieval feudal states. Most of rest of social order were free farmers and tennant farmers, many of whom were serfs. Typical feudal jockeying for power among nobility precluded effective alliance against Romans, or formation of a national army capable of standing up to Roman legions.

As in later feudal societies, primary fighting arm was cavalry. Gallic cavalry had no cataphracts, (and even cataphracts were nowhere as effective against infantry as later mounted men-at-arms were). Excessive individualism of nobility meant that cavalrymen were accustomed to fighting as individual combatants, with absolutely no battlefield coordination either within cavalry or with infantry.

Infantry itself was comprised of ill-disciplined rabble incapable of any degree of tactical sophistication. Gallic infantrymen were lightly equipped swordsmen, with little use of spearmen or archers. Only mounted nobility wore armour, while infantrymen fought only in clothes, and sometimes half-naked. However, infantrymen were still highly motivated due to nature of tribal army, tied together by ties of tribal loyalty.

City State

City State was a normal state of affairs for much of Antiquity in the Mediterranean, and also – again in Mediterranean – for many medieval states. This held true especially for Ancient Italy and Greece, as well as Medieval Italy.

City states such as Greek poleis and Rome had citizen militias, and serving in the military was part of the price of citizenship. Such armies were usually based around spearmen or, later, pikemen, supported by archers (or crossbowmen), often but not always with limited to nonexistent cavalry. Tactics utilized by such citizen armies were by necessity relatively simple and straightforward: spear phalanx or a pike block, designed to maximize impact of cohesion and discipline instilled by the communal feeling. One good aspect was large number of soldiers: Athens had 240 000 inhabitants of which 100 000 full citizens; this allowed it to field some 30 000 hoplites.

But as noted, due to being comprised of amateurs, such armies are likely to have had relatively simple and straightforward organization. This limits their tactical flexibility, preventing them from carrying out complex maneuvers. Greek hoplite armies had extremely simple organization (compared to something like Roman legion, Macedonian phalanx or Byzantine meros or thema). This directly caused them to quite badly underperform in sieges and urban assaults.

Problem with such armies – especially Greek ones – was that they were logistically limited. Campaign season was limited by the need for citizens to help with harvest, and armies were also – especially Greek ones – relatively logistically unsophisticated. And this is consequence of the very reason why such citizen armies were possible: warfare was between city-states, several hours to – at most – several days away from one’s house. It is thus not surprising that Greek logistics were awful. Hoplite armies moved with insufficient tools (no portable grain mills, no engineering tools), but with huge numbers of personal servants. As a result, they were – unlike ancient Macedonian and Roman, or medieval feudal armies – completely incapable of year-round campaigning. Sparta was incapable of sustaining operations in Attica – 230 km (10-day march) away from Sparta and 90 km away from friendly Corinth. Spartans did manage to regularly invade Attica, but never to actually sustain operations there to the point of causing significant damage. All their armies disperse due to lack of supplies. Athens was capable of operating at much greater distances – as far as Sicily, in fact – but this was largely a consequence of its naval strength. But these were exceptions. In general, hoplite armies fought within their own neighbourhoods – wars were between neighbouring poleis, just few hours away, and so there was no need for logistical support beyond a packed lunch (and maybe dinner) and a water bag. In fact, hoplites were supposed to provide their own rations – Athenian standard was three days’ worth. Most hoplites were attended by a personal slave.

Defensively, however, such armies had several important advantages which they share with tribal armies. They were very numerous and relatively cheap. At the same time, fact that they were rooted in civilian society meant that they were highly cohesive, and required little organization and limited drill to be effective on battlefield, as they naturally replicated social organization. At the same time, a city state is much more capable of organizing such training and education than a tribal society is.

Feudal State

Feudalism was as much a consequence as the cause of dominance of heavy cavalry in Western European warfare. After facing Byzantine cataphracts during Justinian’s wars in the West, Western European barbarian states quickly developed heavy cavalry of their own. Emphasis on heavy cavalry was significantly increased due to contact with Arab agressors. This was made possible by a slew of technological improvements. First Germanic tribes made breakthrough in horse breeding in 3rd century. The 6th century saw introduction of war saddle with single girth, and iron stirrup was common by the 7th century, as does curb bit. Iron horseshoe appeared in 9th century, and spurs in 11th. By 12th century Western knights had high saddles which helped transfer much of force of the charge into lance; in late 12th century rigid backplate was also developed which further enhanced this ability.

Destrier, or war-horse, was absolutely necessary for late medieval heavy cavalry. Horses which made up destrier bloodline came from central Asia and Arabia. The “great horse” originated in Low Countries, and was further reinforced with Arab bloodlines during the Crusades. Over time, with selective breeding, destrier’s size and strength increased – by 15th century, horses could reach well over 700 kg. At the same time, armour gradually improved – first the extent of coverage by mail armour increased, followed by addition of bits and pieces of plate reinforcement in 13th century and early plate armour in early 14th century. Where 11th century knights relied on mail hauberk and large kite shield, 15th century plate armour made a shield wholly unnecessary. Horses themselves received protection as well, with mail armour being common in 13th century, and plate armour being widespread by 15th century, though most often only partial protection was used (e.g. Chafron and peytral instead of whole set).

But heavy cavalry is expensive, and it was this need combined with limited administrative capabilities which helped transform formerly tribal societies into feudal ones. Only large landowners could afford heavy armour and large horse – even after improved grain yield made cavalry armies practical in the first place. These same landowners were also logical choice to fill in the sociopolitical niche left empty by the dissolution of administrative state. Local (peasant) militia did exist, but was singularly ineffective against heavy cavalry or even professional infantry; thus it could not form basis of social structure which would have led to perhaps a more democratic government.

As a result, wealthy landowners took over political role. But engagement in politics required administrative centres, and their duties as governors meant need to secure protection. This led to development of castles and armed retinues. At lowest level, castle was a slightly-bigger-house, and armed retinue just a bunch of armed peasants.

As society developed however, system became more layered. Armed peasants, sufficient for suppression of brigands, could neither be expected to campaign over long distances, nor were particularly effective in battle. As a result, military professionalized. Instead of conscripting peasants, a group of hearths was expected to provide for a single semi-professional soldier. Soldiers were then organized into highly standardized units. This system of “banners” (banderia) developed, as it provided large numbers of reasonably professional soldiers. This reinforced – or in many parts, introduced – feudalism, as it meant that tribal militia could no longer stand up to feudal armies.

Further developments reinforced tendency towards professionalization. Introduction of crossbow made horse archers powerless against infantry, while pikemen made heavy cavalry charges much more dangerous. Both of these however required discipline to use. To counter them, cavalry also had to develop combined-arms techniques as well as discipline required to implement said techniques. This in turn led towards further professionalization of military, and thus increased centralization as professionalization necessitated development of financial structures.

Feudalism ended because of introduction of gunpowder. Cannons meant that nobles were no longer safe in their castles: enemies had to be intercepted in the field. At the same time, firearms proved some level of counter to heavy cavalry: knights now had to wait for an opportunity to charge. Further, necessity of organizing production and supply of artillery train as well as forts capable of resisting enemy gunpowder artillery meant that feudal lords could no longer truly keep up, and cities gained importance. All of this had the effect promoting centralization, as nobles had lost the ability to oppose the king, while increasingly more numerous armies required support of state apparatus and bureaucracy to function. This created a self-reinforcing circle.

But in a typical feudal state – one which did not advance much down the road towards centralization – warfare was low-level. It was endemic, but it was nowhere as destructive as warfare in more centralized societies. Wars between kings – such as a Hundred Years War – could be large-scale and destructive (but even this was only relative to standards of the time: they never reached the scale or destructiveness of Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman wars). But majority of warfare was between lords with small holdings, with armies numbering in dozens or perhaps low hundreds of soldiers. Early English and Britonnic sources all give armies that number in low hundreds and in low thousands, respectively. Anglo-Saxon law states that “We use the term “thieves” if the number of men does not exceed seven, “band of marauders” [or “war-band”] for a number between seven and thirty-five. Anything beyond this is an “army” [here]”. Hugh V of Losignan takes only 43 horsemen to win a castle and some land in 1028., but said expedition is large enough that his lord – Count of Aquitaine – is aware of it and orders him back to the court. Likewise, noncombatants were protected by social mores and code of conduct (code of chivalry); breaking that protection was grounds for abandonment of loyalty to person who broke them.

Even Agincourt, one of largest feudal battles, had armies of “only” 9 000 on English and 35 000 on French side – and majority of French force were actually armed auxilliaries (peasants). This is nowhere close to Roman battles, where each side could field up to 100 000 men in some cases (and even such cases were exceedingly rare). Purely feudal armies simply do not have the ability to scale up forever. Such an army is a retinue of retinues, based around personal relations: vassal receives land from senior in exchange for bringing him troops. But as his administrative abilities too are limited, high-ranking vassal will further pass on lands to people – thus becoming their senior – who will bring him troops which then he brings to his senior. This relationship stretches in a pyramidal from from king at top to landed knights at bottom of military hierarchy. Each of landed knigths will have a (small) retinue, which they will bring to their senior to be part of his overall retinue, and so on until king and overall army of the kingdom.

Problem with such a system is that it does not have the ability to scale up forever. Average retinue is five men, but retinue sizes are typically (though not always – see Hungarian banderial system) not standardized. Large retinues are combination of smaller retinues. But the system as such is based on personal relationships, and thus cannot scale up endlessly. Even if it could, fact that retinues often vary in size with little standardization means that sizes of armies are limited for simple reason of logistics. Organizing supply for such an army would be nearly impossible, which is why Hungarian kings introduced standardized banner sizes with multiple nobles forming a single banner – or a single major noble’s force being split into multiple banners. But Kingdom of Hungary was relatively centralized and well-organized to begin with, which is why such reform was possible in the first place. Especially under king Matthias, Hungary was a centralized Early Modern state. But even so, no field army was anywhere close to 100 000, and typical army was less than 20 000 strong. In a fully feudal army – with no such standardization – it would be impossible to distribute supplies among various retinues, meaning that even lower end of Hungarian army sizes would be difficult to reach. As a result, Medieval warfare was nowhere as destructive as warfare of either antiquity or modernity. It is precizely modernization of society – specifically, of government – which caused massive increase in destrutiveness of warfare post-1450., whereas previously nature of feudal society sharply limited the capacity for violence.

Secondly, feudal states were generally incapable of fully mobilizing their resources towards either offense or defense. Only times when resources were fully marshalled were for the occasional large-scale civil wars (and even those were rare). Against external threats however, only lords whose lands were directly threatened by an invasion could be relied on to supply troops.

In a feudal army, most of the professionals will be in cavalry. In Hungary, Sigismund predicted raising 80 000 cavalry, of which 12 000 in Croatia. Infantry is barely mentioned. While infantry can be raised, most of it will consist of conscripts recruited for a specific campaign – very few will be professionals. Even in Hungary, which had to introduce disciplined infantry to counter Ottomans (and also faced such infantry in its wars against Hussites), cavalry outnumbered infantry at ratio of some 2-1. Even more significant is the lack of coordination and training for large-scale battles. Even when effective infantry was available, it was difficult to train more than several thousand men to perform as a unit. Doing so would require removing control of armed forces from bannermen, which would require centralized administration – which is to say, a state that is not feudal.

Federal State

In a federal state, army is likewise likely to resemble the state. This is to say, army will be organized around territorial units making up the federation. Each federal state will field its own armed forces, and these will be commanded primarily by the state itself. However, central government may request these forces when facing outside enemies, in addition to fielding an army directly answerable to the central government.

A good case for that is the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Swiss cantons. In such setups, each state within federation will have an army of its own. What this means is that, while such a thing does not happen often, organization of armies may vary – one state in federation may have feudal army and another citizen militia. This is however rare. What almost certainly will vary is their numerical strength. While Army of Holy Roman Empire had 12 000 cavalry and 28 000 infantry in 1681., numbers supplied by each circle varied from less than 2 000 to over 8 000, with no standardization in units. As such, where Austrian Circle had 2 552 cavalry and 5 507 infantry, Frankonian Circle had 980 cavalry and 1 902 infantry. Other circles had similarly random numbers.

Territorially Organized State

This is a state that is neither federal nor centralized. Provinces are just that – provinces – but they enjoy wide autonomy. This was the situation in Middle Byzantine Empire.

In such a situation, central government has power to dictate organization of the army to an extent: whether army will be infantry- or cavalry- -dominant will depend on state’s resources. But most of the army itself will be commanded primarily by provincial governors.

Consequence of this is a regularized army organized along territorial lines. Unlike in feudal or federal state, basic structure of the army will be highly standardized, with all units beyond level of individual province being of equal size. On level of province, exact size of provincial army will depend on size of said province, but said size will always be in multiples of largest formalized division (e.g. so if division is standardized at 5 000 men, all provincial armies will be in multiples of 5 000). Provincial armies will be backed up by a standing army maintained by the central government, which will be better paid and better equipped than provincial armies, but much less numerous. This central army will serve to protect against usurpation by provincial commanders and also to provide a mobile central reserve. Armies for major campaigns are formed by agglomeration of a central army and several provincial armies.

This was, in essence, the Byzantine thematic system. Basic division of the army was the theme, which was essentially an army given a province (or rather a group of provinces, which eventually were merged) to support it. Soldiers were given lands, and geographically distributed according to their own units, from themes downwards. Thus each military unit had its own area on which soldiers lived and drew support from. This made for a highly efficient logistical and financial support system at the cost of distributing soldiers all over the Empire. This however is an extreme example. If soldiers are not supported from lands, then each army can be supported by resources of a province without need to distribute soldiers all over it. That system is what Early Byzantine army utilized unti Arab invasions, as each army had assigned area of responsibility; but all armies were still financed from central tax system, which means that closer analogue might be circles of Holy Roman Empire. Such armies would be less numerous and more distant from society they defend compared to thematic-model armies.

Unlike feudal army, this army will be much less reflective of the society. Central government will be able to much more easily adapt the army to strategic situation and active threats, changing proportions of cavalry to infantry and of different types of cavalry and infantry in order to counter current enemies. This Byzantine Empire did: cavalry was the basis of the army when there was need to counter Arab raiders, to the point that armies of the themes were referred to as “ta kaballarika themata”, or “the cavalry armies”. When the Empire went back on the offensive however, majority of armies were comprised of infantry: a 10th century army described in Nikephoros Phokas’ Praecepta Militaria had infantry outnumber cavalry on a 2:1 ratio.

As a result, armies will also be much more numerous on average. Armies may also be equipped by state armouries, though it is more likely that soldiers of provincial armies at least will buy their own weapons and equipment from private producers. As such, standardization of equipment will not be as high as in centrally-equipped armies. Central army is more likely to be equipped from state armouries while provincial armies are more likely to rely on individual procurement by soldiers.

Just as in the federal state, territorially-organized military system (“regimental system“) will result in military structure with pronounced regional identities and loyalties. Troops will identify with their provinces (as opposed to feudal loyalty to noble families), and leadership will also be broken down according to territorial lines. Since each regiment is responsible for education, training and organization of troops and also had its own history, traditions, recruitment and function, significant vertical and horizontal loyalties will develop within the regiment, but also between the regiment and local society. Military service is valued, both by servicemen and by the society at large. As a result, even part-time provincial soldiers are likely to be highly effective and cohesive force.

Unlike feudal system, however, much flatter organizational pyramid and greater standardization require intensive administration. Land ownership has to be tracked and counted, as it forms the basis of the military structure and responsibilities – military service depends on land wealth. As a result, this system depends on relatively effective (though not necessarily all that extensive) administration, and is thus somewhat more centralized than a feudal system.

Centralized State

Centralized state is both a consequence and a cause of utilization of fully professional standing army. Greater centralization is enabled by significant monetization of the society combined with developed administrative apparatus which allows the government to tap into that wealth.

As a result, military organization of a centralized state is likely to be fiscally-intensive. Army will be based around one or both of following options: standing army of full-time professionals, or armies of mercenaries (stipendiary or contract army). Mercenary army may also be full-time, with mercenaries being under permanent contract, which rather blurs distinction between national standing army and a mercenary one. Majority of mercenaries however will be employed transiently, contracted as necessity requires. It is possible for army to also be based around citizen-soldiers, much like armies of city-states were. Essential difference is thus between production of the army, or production of the wealth required to hire an army.

The consequence of this however is that wars are extremely destructive. Centralization means that field armies are much larger, as they are tightly organized and supported by apparatus of the state. They can also stay in the field year-round. Such large armies however still had to be supplied by foraging when outside their own territory, which turned them into elemental forces of destruction which wrecked countryside they passed over.

Further, because wars are no longer between the lords but between the states and even peoples, entire populace becomes a valid target. In Ottoman wars, it was normal – and for Ottomans, actually expected – to burn down enemy villages and slaughter civilians in order to destroy enemy economy and social structures. Their enemies quickly adapted this mindset; but such a mindset was not normal in feudal wars, which – with some exceptions towards tail end of Middle Ages – typically happened above the heads of populace.

Romans were even more “extreme” as they saw and described wars as being against peoples, not states or rulers (with the exception of their wars in Hellenistic East). Their wars were against Celtiberi or Carthageneans, not against “Carthage” as a state. Natural consequence was extreme cruelty in carrying out the war. Thus the typical Roman conduct of war, as described by Polybius: “When Scipio thought that a sufficient number of troops had entered the town, he gave leave to the larger number of them to attack those in it, according to the Roman custom, with directions to kill everything they met, and to spare nothing; and not to begin looting until they got the order to do so. The object of this is, I suppose, to strike terror. Accordingly, one may often see in towns captured by the Romans, not only human beings who have been put to the sword, but even dogs cloven down the middle, and the limbs of other animals hewn off. On this occasion the amount of such slaughter was exceedingly great, because of the numbers included in the city.”. Such a slaughter was normal against a city which attempted to hold out. While such slaughter did happen in Middle Ages on occasion (such as Crusader sack of Jerusalem), it was always presented in sources as being shocking and unusual – even by members of the army which carried out the slaughter. Raymond d’Augliers states about Crusader sack of Jerusalem that “If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief”; but to Romans, such conduct was normal.

All of the above applies primarily to professional national armies. It also applies to mercenary armies: unpaid mercenaries could be – and were – extremely destructive. Unlike national armies however, they were comparatively casuality-averse and also unreliable. A mercenary army could decide to switch sides if it saw an obviously losing battle or war. Further, mercenary warfare was highly technical, designed to minimize casualties while maximizing maneuver.

Because they are removed from the structure of the society, professional armies need to have very strict drill and complex organization to replicate social structures and their cohesive principles. This also lends itself to the highly technical nature of warfare already noted as being employed by mercenary and other professional armies. And unlike all other armies, soldiers themselves are also removed from structure of the society, which makes an army of full-time professionals potentially dangerous to the very society it is supposed to defend.

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