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Building a Fantasy Army Part 3: Strategy and Enemies


Strategy includes purpose of the army as well as the means by which it aims to fulfill its purpose. At the basic level, military can be either offensive or defensive. An expanding or expansionist state will often focus on heavy infantry, whereas a defensive one will focus on cavalry. This can be seen from two periods of Roman history. During Principate period, majority of the army was infantry while mounted units were considered supplemental. But as military’s role changed from expansion to defense, so did composition of the army. From the start to the end of the first century AD, Rome’s infantry strength grew from 300 000 to 385 000, while cavalry strength grew from 30 000 to 65 000. Qualitative increase was even greater, as it also included introduction of heavy cataphractii and clibanarii units. Several theories exist as to difference of naming. One possibility is that the difference was geographical, with cataphractii being used in the West and clibanarii in the East, but this is unlikely as Notitia Dignitatum mentions both types in both Western and Eastern armies. Contemporary sources imply that clibanarii are in fact a specialized form of cataphractii, and include “super-heavy” cataphracts, as well as armoured horse archers (such as Equites Sagittarii Clibanarii). Thus cataphractii may have used textile armour for a horse while clibanarii used fully metal horse armour. Another possibility is that cataphractii had a horse completely unarmoured, or armoured only at the front. Lastly, it is possible that cataphractarii were deployed in column formation while clibanarii formed a wedge. Whatever the case, cataphracts utilized a combination of lancers and archers. Their introduction could thus be a consequence of several strategic considerations:

  1. Need for mobile response force. Cavalry can respond very quickly to incursions which were detected at the last minute. But traditional Roman cavalry was only used in harrassment role. Thus, heavy shock cavalry was required to dispatch infantry-based barbarian armies.
  2. Avoidance of attrition warfare. Roman Empire, especially in the Late Antiquity, could not well afford casualties. Because of this, a cavalry unit capable of dispersing and slaughtering the enemy was required.

From the third century onward, usage of various forms of cataphracts expanded, and they became the primary striking force of the Empire. Cataphracts even served as Scholae, elite guards units which replaced the Praetorian Guard. Still, usage of contus (a 4,5 – 5,5 meter long lance) as a two-handed jabbing weapon meant that the amount of damage they could do was limited, and later Byzantine cataphracts used mace as their main offensive weapon against infantry.

During Middle Byzantine period, main danger were Arab raids. Raiding style of warfare (as practiced in Medieval Europe and also by Seljuks, Ottomans and other formerly nomadic or nomadic peoples) usually favours cavalry, and also requires their opponents to invest heavily in cavalry to stop those raids. Even against major attacks, massive Arab superiority in manpower and resources meant that Fabian strategy had to be adapted, relying on fortifications to provide safe havens for army and population both. As enemy penetrated into Byzantine territory, highly mobile cavalry units were used to follow, harras, and break the invading army’s line of communication. Consequently, early medieval Byzantine armies often had proportion of 50-50 cavalry to infantry, and sometimes even more.

As Amorium and Ancyra experienced first-hand, however, being a fortified city did not always make you safe

This changed as the Empire went back on the offensive with the aim of taking and holding new territory. In Byzantine army of Leo VI., themes had about a quarter of cavalry by numbers (23 500 out of 102 000); but tagma had well over half (16 000 out of 28 000). Thus it can be concluded that cavalry was seen as superior in pitched battle, and elite forces whose purpose was protection of the emperor as well as being strategic reserve were heavily supplied with cavalry, despite being stationed in and around the capital As the Empire, in the course of 9th and 10th centuries, switched back to offense, importance and tactical sophistication of the infantry in imperial armies increased accordingly. Few themes created in 926. were all-cavalry, but this was a result of 12 000 strong cavalry of Banu Habib deserting to the Byzantines. By 959., cavalry will have been 38% of the army, and new themes created by Nikephoros Phokas on the Cilician Plain were likely all-cavalry. The one Nikephorean theme there is data for – Theme of Tarsus – consisted of 5 000 cavalry and no infantry. Unlike the Banu Habib case, this can only be explained by the terrain and purpose of the themes being suited to cavalry warfare. Classism and elitism are not good explanations, as Nikephoros himself had written extensively on infantry tactics and warfare. This was at any rate time when heavy infantry had reappeared in Byzantine armies and again became an important element in warfare, especially in siege warfare. Later, John I created a new cavalry tagma, further increasing proportion of cavalry in the tagmata.

While infantry is crucial for sieges, even expansionist state may focus on the cavalry. This is the case if conquest is done by strategy of attrition (through raids, as explained above). Roman conquests were generally done through shock and power, using engineers and infantry to take cities one by one. But Muslims armies such as those of various Caliphates, as well as Seljuk and Ottoman armies, preferred to “prepare” the area by constant raiding. Over time, this “preparation” would cause economic damage, depopulation, and require a massive investment of resources to suppress. As border area grew more and more desolate and harder to defend, it would be gradually abandoned by the population, at which point invaders would move in settlers from their own empire and take over the area. For this strategy, cavalry was uniquely suited – and also absolutely crucial in defending against it.

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1683 Vienna?The Great Ottoman Siege

This was not uniquely Muslim approach either: it was in fact a standard approach for most states, including European feudal states and Mongols, but Muslims and Mongols were much more effective at it. Reason for such a strategy is simple: army may be concentrated for a major battle, but logistics constrain the size of an army that can transition through an area. If state cannot secure logistics for a massive army, then it has to split it into groups separated enough to enable them to live off the land. But this in turn opens them up for defeat in detail – which means that raiding is a much less risky strategy. The reason why Romans could afford to send out huge armies for a direct conquest is that they were so much better at logistics than most of their enemies. Plundering could also provoke the opponent into field, but often the strategy of battle avoidance prevailed – a raiding army would be shadowed, and if it was engaged at all, it would be at favourable terms to the defender. This meant that sieges were extremely numerous, but they typically came only after enemy was “prepared” through raids. In fact, field battles for the sake of fighting were nonexistent: all of them arose either from raiding or from sieges – either an effort to relieve a fortified position that was under siege, or intercepting enemy army in the field while it was in the process of delivering a siege to one’s own fort or city. Latter were also very important, because defeat of a relief army meant surrender of the fort – and in feudal armies often surrender of a number of forts which would be denuded of garrisons after the battle.

Battle of Sisak was one of examples where fort was relieved. It is a particularly illustrative example because Ottoman commander Hasan Pasha Predojević, or Telli Hasan Pasha as he is also known, decided to have a battle in the full view of the fortress. He was likely counting on defeating Christian army and taking the fortress from demoralized defenders the same day – and had he won, thatis exactly what would have happened. But, in part precisely because he did what he did, he lost.

States faced with such strategy generally opted for a two-fold response: building of fortifications and increase in cavalry forces, especially light cavalry. Both of these factors are common across major conflicts with raiding strategy: first half of Byzantine-Arab wars, Byzantine-Seljuk wars, Ottoman-Hungarian wars and Ottoman-Habsburg wars. In both cases, invading Muslim empires relied heavily on light cavalry raiders to devastate the countryside, denying the enemy resources, displacing the population and generally preparing the area for conquest. Response to this strategy consisted of building of fortifications, which served two-fold purpose: as a shelter for population and as a basis for cavalry forces which would hunt down and destroy raiders. Population itself also adapted, melting away into mountains, forests or swamps at the first sign of raiders. Cavalry forces were crucial in countering raiders, as infantry was simply incapable of bringing them to battle unless enemy cavalry so chose – at which point infantry army would be destroyed, as happened to Romanos IV at Manzikert. Yet he chose the battle despite being at a tactical disadvantage due to political pressure at home, showing that military decisions are not always military in nature. Another lesson of Manzikert was to reinforce the lesson, so widely known in Byzantium and medieval Europe, that decisive battle is best avoided – even if you have the theoretical advantage. This approach of battle avoidance combined with fortifications was extremely effective: it took Crusaders two years to conquer the Holy Land, but thanks to massive fortifications, capable diplomacy and occasional Crusade they managed to hold it for two hundred years despite being outnumbered by 5:1 to 10:1. Only when Mamluks started razing the castles were Crusaders finally expelled, but even so it took 30 years.

Krak des Chevaliers was one of most important Crusader fortresses. Unfortunately, being awesome is not enough of a defence when it is not backed by force.

Strategy has even more important influence on basic recruitment model of the army. A defensive army will consist of a citizen militia or part-time professionals, whereas an army of an expansionist state will consist of full-time professionals. This is because militia actually has advantage in defense, due to motivation and knowledge of terrain, whereas an army used for wars of conquest needs to be able to spend long periods of time away from home. Professional army is an imperial army and is superior for wars of conquest; but it is not inherently superior to other forms of military organization. Roman Republic used its citizen-militia army to mop the floor with the Greek and Carthagean professional and mercenary armies. Byzantine armies of full-time professionals were defeated by Arabs, and retreated into Anatolia. There, they were transformed into themes – a sort of National Guard, a force of part-time professionals deeply embedded into local society, and proved far more effective at preserving the Empire than fully professional armies of old. Same process repeated with the thematic system: as the Empire went back on the offensive, themes were neglected in favour of full-time professionals of tagmata and foreign mercenaries, who were highly capable in set-piece battles. But this army was destroyed at Manzikert and in the civil wars that followed. Where themes had survived, they managed to hold back the Turks for some years, but majority of Anatolia was quickly lost – thus leading to the First Crusade. After the loss and recovery of Anatolia, defense was entrusted to part-time militia of pronoia holders. This likewise proved effective, with Anatolia remaining unconquered until said militia was transferred to Europe in 1261. By 1300., Anatolia was lost again, and this time forever. Rulers of feudal Europe relied on mercenaries to provide them with offensive power of professional armies, with this practice eventually giving birth to full-time standing armies in France and Hungary (the Compagnies d’Ordonnance and the Fekete sereg – Black Army, respectively). But for defense, landed levies still proved invaluable.

An professional army, as noted, is an army of conquest. It is thus often large (though not as large, in absolute numbers, as militias), and more importantly, able to stay in the field year-round. It is thus able to force a constant pressure on the enemy and over long distances. Combined with greater size, especially of field armies, the result is that it is much more destructive – and not always only to the enemies, as logistical requirements can damage one’s own side as well. However, professional army is not very good for defense. Limited numbers and difficulty in recuperating losses make it vulnerable to defeat, or threats from multiple fronts. When Byzantine Empire abandoned thematic forces in favour of professional tagmata in 10th century, the consequence was that the emperors, being incapable of fighting on two fronts, had to constantly shuffle forces between western and eastern theaters. This allowed Bulgaria to conquer the entirety of Balkans under Tsar Samuel, and Empire’s eastern expansion had to be put on hold until Bulgarian problem could be dealt with. As Bulgaria had been allowed to grow powerful, its conquest took decades, and in the meantime Empire was unable to expand further in the East. The only expansion whic happened there was the absorption of friendly buffer states – which, when combined with the loss of the old-model light cavalry thematic armies, left the Empire vulnerable to mobile attackers such as Turks.

Pitched battles happened almost always when defenders managed to catch and confront enemy raiding army, when an army marching to besiege a city was opposed by the enemy army, or when a city or fort being besieged was aided by a relief force. Siege scenarios were much more likely in warfare between centralized states, such as Roman-Persian, Byzantine-Arab and Ottoman-Hungarian wars. But all these wars involved also a fair share of raiding, and where states were less well organized (and even when they were not), raiding was the primary feature of warfare, with sieges a distant second and a scant field battle here-and-there. This does not mean that field battles di not happen, but they are rarely sought. Instead, they have to be forced, either by raiding the enemy territory or attempting to besiege a key stronghold. Battles of Crecy and Agincourt were both a consequence of English chevauchees. Battle of Krbava Field was likewise an attempt of Croatian army to destroy Ottoman raiding party – the only reason it was so devastating was that much of Croatian nobility was killed at the battle, thus affecting the mobilization potential of the kingdom out of proportion compared to actual casualties. Battle of Mohacs was forced onto the king by the political concerns, as nobles refused to join unless the king himself took the field, and nobles and troops alike then refused to retreat due to devastation which an unchecked Ottoman army would cause on southern Hungary – thus echoing the political causes of battles of Crecy and Agincourt.

When it comes to standard fantasy races, they are in fact unlikely to come into much contact. Dwarven underground strongholds would be nearly impossible to assault by anyone not a dwarf. Elves are more likely to have contact with humans: humans historically did devastate forests for firewood and similar. As such, there is a potential for a prolonged and bloody conflict between the two. Elves would have a significant advantage in such due to being immortal and fighting in a forest: one could easily imagine a repeat of Roman campaigns in Germany. However, immortality also means that they would not be able to accept causalties, forcing them to rely nearly exclusively on guerilla warfare. A campaign of burning down forests – as Numenoreans did in Middle-Earth against wood men – would force them to either go out in the open or to retreat underground; but such a campaign would be difficult to mount.

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