Building a Fantasy Army, Part 1: Introduction and Environment
Military is often an important part of fantasy, even if it is not military fantasy specifically. Epic fantasy such as Lord of the Rings, and political fantasy such as A Song of Ice and Fire, also has a lot of warfare – to the point that combat, at times, overshadows everything else. History of human society is history of violence and management of violence, after all; to ignore that is to fail at understanding a society at all. As such, military history is an absolute requirement for understanding history of society, and fantasy draws a lot from it.
Yet armies in fantasy often spawn from thin air and subsist on air as well. Professional armies appear in societal environment where they have no business being, while on the other extreme societies entirely capable of producing professional soldiers (if not necessarily armies) utilize as their main force peasants conscripted right from their fields, fighting with pitchforks. Armies numbering in tens or hundreds of thousands march happily for hundreds or thousands of miles with no supply train at all, while waving at smiling peasants and happily regenerating losses from battles as if they were playing Dark Souls. Hardly any popular fantasy author other than Tolkien gets military logistics right.
But military does not grow out of thin air – and attempts to do so are always an abject failure. Successful armies are always deeply rooted into the society which has produced them, and society itself is a product of environment. To understand military history of a society in question, one has to understand environmental, political, diplomatic and other conditions in which society and its military developed and existed. Same requirements hold true for designing a fantasy army. Thus, this discussion (or, rather, a guide), will begin with the basics, and then go further towards specifics. Chapters will be as follows:
- Environmental Conditions and Geography
- Society and Culture
- Strategy and Enemies
- Weapons and Tactics
- Aerial Warfare
One thing that should be noted is that things are often not clear-cut. A state may have several terrain types: Hungarian-Croatian kingdom included mountainous terrain of southern Croatia (which included modern-day BiH) as well as the flat plains of Pannonia. Byzantine Anatolia is bordered by mountain ranges, but with flat plains in the center. An empire may – and often does – face several very different enemies, thus forcing the military to adapt to different challenges. Oftentimes, especially when army is organic to the society, this adaptation produces regional differences in military structures, tactics and so on. Army also may have several components which differ in terms of organization, recruitment and social basis: it was in fact very common to have a central army of full-time professionals backed by a militia or part-time professionals – who themselves may be backed by militia troops.
Naval warfare will be discussed in a separate series, as it is a hugely complex topic by itself.
Environmental and Geographical Conditions
First thing which influences military organization is geography, because it determines everything else. Environmental conditions here include:
Terrain is perhaps most straightforward (but potentially also most complex). Terrain, as I define it here, can be:
- rolling (mild hills)
In this article, I will be using Europe as an example, as it is what I am most familiar with – and because Europe has all three types of terrain which can be seen here.
As can be seen from above maps, Europe can be divided roughly into following areas:
- Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal): mountainous, hot
- Apennine Peninsula (Italy): hilly, hot, with low-lying mountains stretching the center of peninsula and peninsula itself geographically defined by the Alps to the north
- France: flat plains and gently rolling hills in the western and northern France, but mountains in the southeast
- Germany: flat plains in the north, but mountainous to the south
- Poland: flat plains all around, as country was situated in North European Plain; southern border was typically defined by the Carpathian Mountains
- Hungary: itself a flat plain, but borders to the North and East were defined by the Carpathian mountains, and to the west by eastern Alps. Southern border defined by rivers.
- Romania: flat but with mountainous western border.
- Balkans: Balkans proper are mountainous area, but Croatia had territory extending into southern Pannonia (between Sava and Drava river), while Bulgaria also often had territory to north of Danube (with Simeon I controlling entirety of Romania)
- Ukraine, Russia, Baltic states: flat, flat, flat – and big.
- Anatolia: mountainous, hot; but with flat highlands and gently rolling hills in the central and southeastern Anatolia.
So why is this important? Simple: terrain has a lot to do with how wars are fought. This can be seen by comparing basic characteristics of each area’s militaries throughout Antiquity and Middle Ages.
- Iberian armies were generally based around light infantry. Iberian infantry in antiquity was predominantly light infantry, as was medieval Spanish infantry, prefering irregular warfare – raids and ambushes. What wasn’t light infantry was mostly heavy infantry; Spanish introduced heavy infantry after their experiences in Italy, and Hermandad had 75% infantry. Later Tercios were likewise infantry-heavy.
- Italian armies were also heavy on infantry, but also had major cavalry forces. At Fornovo in 1495., Gonzaga’s army had11 000 heavy cavalry, 2 000 light cavalry and 8 000 professional infantry.
- French armies relied primarily on heavy cavalry, with heavy cavalry charge being their favourite tactic – even in conditions clearly unsuited for it. After their introduction, French compagnies d’ordonnance were about half cavalry and half infantry (each lance fournie had a man-at-arms and a coutilier who acted as heavy cavalry, and two or three crossbowmen who may or may not have dismounted to fight). Ordonnances of Charles the Bold of Burgundy prescribed five horsemen (2 heavy cavalry, 3 mounted crossbowmen) and three infantrymen.
- Germany raised 1900 gleven and 3 000 to 7 000 foot for King Sigismund in 1422. This means as many as 6 000 cavalry and 3 000 – 7 000 infantry. In 1467 however forces to be raised against the Turkish threat numbered 5 217 horse and 13 285 foot.
- Polish armies were primarily cavalry-based. In 16th century, around 75% of the army was cavalry. Comparing with Hungarian model below, it is likely that during 15th century up to 90% of the army may have been cavalry.
- Hungarian armies were predominantly cavalry, of which majority was likely light cavalry. Reforms of King Sigismund from 1432. aimed at raising some 80 000 cavalry in the kingdom; infantry is hardly even mentioned. At Varna in 1444., there were 15 000 cavalry and 1 000 infantry. At Kosovo in 1448., 22 000 cavalry and 2 000 – 3 000 infantry were deployed. Both of these examples give around 90% cavalry, and exclude additional cavalry provided by Wallachia. Armies of Matthias Corvinus had proportionately more infantry, but never more than quarter of the entire army, with remaining 3/4 being cavalry. At Jajce in 1463., Matthias had 14 000 cavalry and 5 000 infantry. Year later, in 1464., he deployed 17 000 cavalry and 6 000 infantry, not counting the crusaders. Black Army likewise had 20 000 cavalry and 8 000 infantry in 1485. Reforms in early 16th century aimed at raising armies of 6 000 cavalry and 4 000 infantry, but actual armies in 16th century had a lot more cavalry than that. Tomori had asked for 10 000 cavalry and 4 000 infantry to prevent Suleiman from crossing into Sriem. He himself had 2 000 cavalry and 1 000 infantry. Hungarian army at Mohacs had 13 000 or 15 000 cavalry and 12 000 or 10 000 infantry. Latter numbers – 15 000 cavalry and 10 000 infantry – seem more likely, being reported by multiple articles and also more in line with typical composition of Hungarian army through 15th and early 16th centuries.
- Albanian armies under Skanderbeg were also cavalry-heavy, but nowhere as those of Hungary: at Mokra in 1455. he deployed 2 000 cavalry and 1 500 infantry, at Kruje in 1450. some 6 000 cavalry and 2 000 infantry, and at Oranik in 1456. some 6 000 cavalry and 4 000 infantry.
- Ottoman field armies were comparable to those of Hungary in proportions of cavalry to infantry, but were much larger. At Varna, there were 30 000 Sipahis and 20 000 infantry, plus unknown number of irregular Akinci cavalry. Against Uzun-hasan, Mehmed II deployed 71 500 cavalry and 32 000 infantry. At Mohacs in 1521., there were 45 000 timariot cavalry, 15 000 Janissaries and an unknown number of irregulars; a different estimate has it at 50 000 cavalry, 12 000 Janissaries and 2 000 artillerymen.
- Steppe nomads (such as Scythians, Huns and Mongols) typically had fully cavalry armies, with a core of heavy cavalry and much greater numbers of light cavalry. Infantry and combat engineers were provided by the conquered or allied settled peoples.
Comparing the above, it can be seen that terrain has important role in determining composition of the army, but is not the exclusive influence. Social structures and the manner of raising troops also play a major role, as will be discussed later – but armies also influence those in turn, and social and recruitment structures are themselves influenced by the terrain. Greek democracy was a consequence, not the cause, of Greek hoplite style of warfare. The cause of this style of warfare was the broken and mountainous terrain of Greece, which gave infantry – heavy infantry in particular – the decisive role, while relegating cavalry to an auxilliary one. But that same terrain also caused independent polises and democracy to develop by preventing political hegemony for a long time. Similar situation can be seen in medieval Switzerland, where mountains and forests gave rise to communal isolation as well as infantry-centric way of warfare. In Medieval Byzantine Empire, specifically during Middle Byzantine period, cavalry themata were predominant on the Cilician Plain, while themata in mountainous regions were more oriented towards infantry.
In general, in forests, mountains, and forrested mountains, infantry arm comes into its own. As Cchao Tsho writes, “Your servant has also heard that in military strategy and tactics three things are important. First there is the nature of the ground, second the training of the troops, and third the advantageous use of weapons. According to the Ping Fa, where there are waterways fifteen feet wide, chariots cannot pass. Where rocks are piled up among the mountain forests, and rivers circulate between hills covered with woods and thickets; there the infantry arm comes into its own. Here two chariots or two horsemen do not equal one foot-soldier. Where there are rolling hills, wide open spaces and flat plains, there chariots and cavalry find their use, and ten foot-soldiers are not as good as one horseman. Flat places intersected with gorges, and abrupt declivities affording wide outlooks – commanding positions such as those should be held by archers and crossbowmen. Here a hundred men armed with hand-to-hand weapons are not equal to one archer. When two forces oppose one another on a plain covered with short grasses they are free to maneuvre back and forth, and then the long bill (chhang chi) is the right weapon. Three men with swords and shields are not as effective as one so armed. Among reeds and rushes and thickets of bamboo, where the undergrowth is rich and abundant, pikes and short spears are needed. Two men with long bills are not as good there as one with a pike. But among winding ways and dangerous precipices the sword and shield are to be preferred, and three archers or crossbowmen will not do as well as one swordsman.”. That one horseman is worth ten footmen on the open ground is repeated by medieval European writers, and is also shown by the extreme expenses which nobles and rulers alike did to field as many cavalry as they could: 15th century armies of flatland countries (France, Italy, Hungary) were generally between 60% and 80% cavalry; but even Albanian and Ottoman armies had around 60% cavalry, with Ottomans going up to as high as 75% cavalry on occasion.
Climate is the second factor, because it impacts usefulness of various weapons, as well as general environmental conditions. A composite bow could never have been useful in the Western Europe, as humid climate and frequent rainfalls meant that, being glued together, it would simply fall apart. At the same time, this samel climate made heavy cloth armour (such as gambeson) fairly widespread. Ancient Romans didn’t wear trousers, because it was too hot. Mesoamericans used cloth armour which was soaked in special brine; once dried, the cloth became tough and rigid enough to resist arrows while still being light and breathable. Armour in Southeast Asia was typically of mail-and-plate style, using plates connected by mail. This armour was generally only found on islands. On mainland, preferred style was to combine light armour (or no armour) with a large shield. Exception is Vietnam which, due to a combination of milder climate and Chinese influence, used heavier armours in Chinese style. Scale and mail armour was widespread in northen India. In southern India, armour was very sparsely used, and preferred form of protection was a shield. Sparse armour can be seen from Draupadi Ratha monument at Mahabalipuram, as well as Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple.
There are also adaptations beyond just armour itself. Cloth surcoat was used in Middle East and was brought back to Europe during the Crusades. Its function was to improve heat tolerance: surcoat protected from direct sunlight, while providing ventilation. After Crusades ended, surcoats gradually grew shorter and eventually phased out of use at about the time that full plate armour was introduced.
Climate also influences organization and efficiency of military. A society in a milder climate will be able to afford having greater percentage of population as professional soldiers, whereas a society in a harsh climate may have to do with far fewer, and may even be restricted to only fielding part-time militia. Mediterranean states – Rome and Byzantium – developed standing professional army full millenium before it was economical to do so in the northern Europe. Climate may also affect availability of animals. If land cannot support large horses, or can only support a few of them, heavy cavalry will not become a dominant arm of the military.
Resources likewise determine focus, though not as much as the other two factors. A land without high-quality iron ore can still develop heavy infantry and cavalry by utilizing substitutes. An example is Japan, which utilized its limited stock of iron in weapons, and instead made armour out of bamboo. Likewise, distinctive shape of katana is a consequence of its forging process, which was utilized to cope with low quality of ore. In Europe, rigid armour in absence of metal was made from treated leather. In China, paper armour was sometimes used.
This may also have led to bows being much more important in Japan than in Europe, as bowmen did not have to cope with high-quality metal armour. Importance of bows can be seen in the fact that the way of the samurai was kyuba no michi – way of the horse and the bow. Whereas European cavalry used spears and later heavy lances to get through metal armour, lack of such armour in Japan meant that bows could be much more effective than they were in Europe.
Geography also has major impact on how powerful a state may grow. Roman Empire was based around the Mediterranean sea, and its northern borders were defined by major rivers – which served not just as a barrier to barbarians, but also as major waterways for trade and supply of border garrisons. Once Muslim conquests cut off southern and eastern Mediterranean, transforming Mediterranean civilization into a European one, unified empire became basically impossible. Diverse geography and multiple river basins meant that Europe was destined for political fragmentation from that point onwards – something which proved to be a source of weakness and strength both, as political fragmentation meant that any major man-made disaster affected only a small portion of the continent (diseases and climate changes obviously had no respect for political borders, though former could be slowed down by the border control). Within this fragmented continent, several states became powerful thanks to their geography. France had borders defined by the mountain ranges and bodies of water which made it difficult to invade, yet its interior was conductive to long-range transportation, trade and communication. England was in a similar situation, but even better position thanks to being on an island. Hungary remained safe for a long time thanks to being surrounded by the mountain ranges (Carpathian mountains, Dinarides and Alps) and the rivers (Drava and Danube). But once those defences were breached, there was very little to prevent the enemy from reaching its heartlands – as displayed by Mongols in 1241. and again in 1285., as well as by Ottomans after Battle of Mohacs in 1526. And even before then, Danube and Sava were never as significant barriers to Ottomans as the Carpathian mountains were, though they could be relatively easily defended.
As it can be seen, Ottomans had a literal mountain of problems when trying to get into Hungary
It thus has to be understood that rivers are highways and barriers both. They provide an easy way of long-distance transport of massive amounts of resources (be it food, fodder, materials or troops), and were thus a key for any major military operations. At the same time however, loading and unloading of provisions and especially troops was a point of major vulnerability for any army: more than once was an army put to flight when it was attacked while trying to cross the river or else disembarking from ships. Ottoman army was destroyed in 1443. while in process of crossing the Danube, which puts into context Hungarian failure to oppose Ottoman crossing of the same river in 1525. King Corvin’s flotilla of 400 ships which could have easily prevented such an attempt was by 1525. nonexistent – only 50 ships, badly maintained and without crews, were available. Pavao Tomori requested 10 000 cavalry and 4 000 infantry to prevent Ottoman army of 50 000 cavalry, 12 000 infantry and 2 000 artillerymen from crossing the river; but he did not receive them, and his own 2 000 cavalry and 1 000 infantry were insufficient. Thus it can be concluded that an attacking army required numerical advantage of at least 5:1 to force a crossing of a defended river, and possibly far more than that.
But after the battle in which Kingdom of Hungary dissolved, central Hungary was conquered by the Ottomans – Danube serving as a highway and the flatland nature of central Hungary made it almost impossible to defend against superior Ottoman army even without the internal upheaval. Even before, Danube had been an important piece of Ottoman logistical arrangements, and during 14th and 15th centuries Ottomans systematically conquered all strategically important fortresses along the river, culminating in the conquest of Belgrade (1521.) and Buda (1541.). Possession of these forts and subsequent control over Danube was of massive strategic and logistical importance for support of Ottoman offensive against Habsburgs. Artillery especially was transported by river, but massive Ottoman armies also required waterways to enable logistical support.
In response, Habsburgs additionally fortified Hungary and Croatia, integrating the existing and new forts into the newly organized border defence system, and also centralized and modernized the military, finances and bureaucracy. This line was part of a massive defensive frontier which European rulers organized against Muslim powers, stretching from the Spanish presidios of Algeirs and Tunisia, through the islands of Mediterranean, the Habsurg military frontier in Croatia and Hungary, Poland-Lithuania, Ukraine and to the Belgorod defence line of Muscovy.
The original defense line organized by the king Matthias Hunyadi stretched from Herzegovina through Bosnia, and then followed Sava, Danube and finally Carpathian mountains. Thus it clearly followed a political border, and while Sava, Danube and Carpathian mountains presented a barrier to invasion, the east-west stretch of Dinarides in Croatia prevented them from being an effective barrier to Ottoman raids, even while at the same time mountainous terrain made conquest more difficult. Key points in this system were Jajce and Belgrade, former of which defended Croatia while latter defended crossing over Danube. Still, this defence line successfully halted (or, in Croatia, slowed down) Ottoman conquests for the next 150 years, until its collapse in 1520s. During consequent Ottoman conquest of Hungary in 1551.-1552., focus of the conquest was on the river forts and castles guarding river routes.
By comparison, Habsburg-Ottoman frontier (and thus defensive line) stretched along major rivers and hills in Transdanubia and northern Hungary. Some 1 000 kilometers long, during 1570s and 1580s it was guarded by 22 500 Habsburg soldiers and comprised 120 – 130 forts and watchtowers. By 17th century, number fell to 80 – 90 forts due to losses to Ottomans, Hungarian resistance to Vienna and French assholery in the West.
Terrain was extremely important, as late as 17th century, even just the swamps and marshes of the Ottoman side of Hungary still forced them to hire local guides. This was eased by the fact that Hungarian had become language of diplomacy between Habsburgs and Ottomans, replacing Croatian language which had served as language of Ottoman-Hungarian diplomacy up until the Battle of Mohacs. Both sides had extensive knowledge of other’s capabilities, to the point that when in 1561. Hamza Bey was threatened by a Habsburg offensive, he – correctly – pointed out that Ferdinand I. Habsburg simply had not enough soldiers for the undertaking.
As was the case with earlier Hungarian defence system, and with other similar systems, Habsburg-Ottoman frontier followed major rivers, using rivers, river systems, marshlands, mountains and other natural defensive features that were available. Key anchors of the system were Transdanubian Mountains, while further south Croatia was defended by rivers of Česma, Kupa and Korana. Any weak points or likely avenues of attack were futher reinforced with massive fortifications, as the example of Karlovac (built 1579. – 1581.) shows. Along this border, Habsburgs deployed 22 000 troops while Ottomans deployed some 25 000. As with examples provided previously, terrain played key role in composition of the armies. Garrisons on the both sides of the border in Hungary were dominated by cavalry, but in Kanje – which was surrounded by the marshes – infantry-cavalry ratio was 60:37, and similar ratios were present in the Habsburg forts opposing Kanje.
Other states in Europe, while less good of an example than Hungary due to lesser threat they faced, also show importance of geography. France was already noted to have grown into superpower due to flat terrain in inner France combined by mountains and sea to the south, mountains to the east, and sea to the north and the west. Also notable could be changes in terrain caused by protracted warfare: military campaigns required massive amounts of wood, for fire fuel, siege works and construction of fortifications. Island of Csallokoz was nearly deforrested by the needs of two fortresses nearby. Hungarian and Ottoman garrisons in Hungary required a combined half a million cubic meters of wood per winter. This combined with scorched earth strategy on both sides meant that deforestation reached massive proportions. War conditions also meant that regular work on maintaining riverbeds was neglected, but at the same time large hydraulic projects were also done, such as creation of defensive marshes, and water was of course used for protecting forts, be it by situation forts at river bends, digging a ditch around it, or both. Many forts appeared like deep islands thanks to massive ditches, and were often surrounded by inaccessible swamps. These massive swamps were a source of many epidemics (such as typhus, spread by soldiers who had served in Hungary – hence morbus hungaricus), but also provided a refuge. Whole villages “disappeared” (that is, relocated) during the campaigns, major raids, as well as before the taxation season.