Building a Fantasy Army – Elves
This post will concern typical fantasy elves. In other words, the Tolkien-inspired High Fantasy elves, rather than their folklore fairy counterparts.
Physiology and Biology
Elves are generally human-sized, though they are often somewhat slimmer and lighter. As a rule, they will be somewhat physically weaker than humans on average, though individual elves may be weaker, as strong as, or stronger than, individual humans.
They also tend to have very long lifespands. This can vary from several centuries on the low end, up to the infinity on the high end. Tolkien’s elves could live for thousands of years, though they would still age and die if they stayed in the Middle Earth.
Elves are also likely to have supernatural or magical abilities, though exact specifics again greatly vary. These may range from merely being better at manipulating people to being able to cause effects that even modern science has not figured out yet (and likely never will).
Environment, society and strategy
High Elves generally live in a manner similar to humans. This means that they build stone cities, and spend a lot of time perfecting their art, craft and skills. As a result, their armies are likely to follow human model. In mountainous terrain, dominant military arm will be light and heavy infantry, while in hilly or flat terrain heavy cavalry will dominate. Elves living in mountains are also likely to live in city-states and thus field infantry militias, while elsewhere larger polities will be a rule, fielding combined-arms armies.
Due to their low replacement rate, elves will focus on building fortifications and utilizing terrain on making their land as defensible as possible. This means that fortified cities will be located in mountains, hills, or surrounded by rivers or lakes. Kingdoms as a whole will utilize the environment to maintain defensible borders. Open battle will typically be accepted only when necessary to relieve a fort.
Heavy infantry and especially heavy cavalry will be important in order to win battles through shock action, and avoid attrition. Still, their limited ability to replace losses means that open battle will be avoided whenever possible, and ability to disengage will be paramount. Both of these suggest that cavalry will be the primary military arm of a High Elven army, as it will be able to wage attritional warfare through raiding and harrassment while also being capable of fighting a pitched battle. Just as importantly, cavalry – unlike infantry – can actually run away from a losing battle. This ability is paramount for the low-population elves. Infantry will thus be used only for defending cities and fortifications, and will likely consist of militia – specifically, heavy infantry and archers. Offensive warfare will be waged almost exclusively through cavalry chevauchee.
Wood Elves, as is painfully obvious, live as woodsmen. This largely precludes the usage of any cavalry, as well as of heavy infantry. Instead, wood elves will focus primarily onto light infantry. They are unlikely to live in cities, much less fortified cities, due to lack of space. Consequently, their most important belongings will be mobile, and their defence will rely on stealth and mobility – both in tactical (clash of armies) and strategic (protecting the civilians) sense, with dwellings themselves being either hidden, mobile, or both.
Wood Elves will avoid direct confrontations, due to both lack of heavy weapons and armour, and the lack of population density. Unlike High Elves, they are unlikely to have any cavalry or heavy infantry, and so will avoid waging any offensive warfare at all. Instead, their warfare will consist almost exclusively of defending against intrusions into their own domains. There, they will fight guerilla campaign, attacking enemy supply lines and using the terrain to destroy isolated units.
Organization and Recruitment
High elves can have highly complex societies akin to more complex forms of human societies. Thus their armies may be feudal, federal, or centralized. However, organization is likely to be highly decentralized due to likely consensual nature of elven politics. Likely basis for the military organization would be either territorial or federal (possibly even feudal) setup, as seen in Byzantine Empire and Holy Roman Empire, respectively. This will make their military systems highly resillient, efficient and effective, but also unsuitable for the offensive warfare. In terms of recruitment, they are likely to rely on city militias, which – again, due to long Elven lifespan – are likely to not have most of the human equivalent’s shortcomings. This could have the effect of forcing the High Elves to rely on the militia infantry, despite what was written in the “strategy” section, as a result making their army almost purely a defensive force – though a very numerous one. They may also use their wealth – if they have managed to amass it – to acquire services of other groups as mercenaries, using them to provide bulk of the shock troops while Elves themselves provided more specialized units. This however may present a domestic political danger and even a military risk, should mercenaries prove unreliable.
Wood Elves are likely to have tribal organization of society and military both. As a result, there will be nothing resembling a standing army, or even a standardized military organization. The only potential exception to this will be groups guarding any leaders. Generally however, longer lifespan and thus greater ability to accumulate wealth will make any levy better equipped, and certainly better organized, than a human equivalent.
If elves have logistical basis similar to that of human armies, then logistics would stay standard.
High Elves would have logistical apparatus mostly similar to human equivalents, with constraints due to nature of their army. As such, logistical support could range from “everybody provides everything for themselves” to “state takes care of everything”, or anything in between. Same would go for the consumables such as food and water, though their advanced knowledge would make any such supply arrangement far superior to a human equivalent. If advanced enough, most of the logistical train could be eliminated, making elven armies far more mobile. As noted in article on logistics:
“Something like Tolkien’s lembas and miruvor would completely transform logistics – even if it was not utilized on a regular basis. Instead of having to move around with a massive wagon train, elven armies could be entirely on foot or mounted, thus allowing them far better mobility. Roman army’s forced march of 50 kilometers per day would likely be normal for an elven army marching on a road, and off-road march rate would be significantly increased. Assuming that water is not a problem, elves would only need to carry lembas. That would be a major help. During the Civil War, soldiers received 9 – 10 pieces of hardtack per day weighting a total of 1 pound (0,4 kg). With lembas, these 10 pieces would last for ten days. For comparison, Roman soldier’s ration was 1,5 kg per day, and twenty days’ rations were carried by the legion. This means that by using lembas instead of those rations, army could march for 75 days without resupply, giving it an operational range (not radius) of 3 750 kilometers.”.
This alone would make elven armies far more dangerous than a human counterpart, as they could strike anywhere and with little warning – much like Mongols did historically, not being constrained by waterways and supplies. And due to their low numbers, they would need this advantage.
Wood Elves would likely have to take care of their own logistical support. They would buy – possibly even make – their own weapons, and provide their own supplies when on a campaign. This would have the result of making them completely incapable of any offensive warfare under human logistical constraints. However, if they have advanced knowledge or even magical food and drinks, then logistical constraints would limit them far less than assumed – even, potentially, far less than the more advanced logistical arrangements of other species such as humans.
Weapons and Tactics
As noted, most fantasy elves can be expected to be weaker than humans. This means that elves will prioritize technique and skill over raw power. Primary weapon would thus be spears and/or pikes. In general, two-handed weapons will be preferred: such as spears, polehammers, poleaxes, longswords etc. Which weapons will be used depends on the armour: if everybody uses no armour or mail, then spears will be the main weapon. If plate armour dominates, then pikes and polehammers (and similar weapons) will be the primary melee weapons.
Lack of physical strength also means that elves will shun bows, in military role at least. Instead, slings, javelins and perhaps crossbows will be the order of the day when it comes to ranged combat. Their long life or even immortality will also favour the usage of skill-intensive but not physically demanding weapons such as slings, as the main reason bows replaced slings (reduced training requirements) would not apply. Slings would also provide better performance against opponents armoured in plate armour than bows would (as evidenced by the Spanish invasion of Peru). Both slings and javelins also benefit from height, thus being advantaged by the elven body type.
High Elves are more likely to engage in open, direct combat, even though they are still better off avoiding it. As a result, cavalry – both heavy and light cavalry – will be widely used. If such is not the case (for logistical or social reasons), then most likely option is a combined-arms approach, combining spear or pike units with missile units such as slingers or crossbowmen. Light infantry may be used instead if terrain is suitable for ambushes and guerilla warfare.
In a pike clash, elves will have a major advantage in cohesion. They will also be much better at actually maneuvering in combat, presenting a problem for opposing infantry and cavalry both. Potentially millenial lifespan would also leave them extremely capable at handling sensitive things such as scouting, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and so on. Their heavy cavalry would also be extremely effective, thanks to elven discipline and training which would allow them to pull off complex maneuvers.
Wood Elves will prefer indirect combat through ambushes and guerilla warfare in forest. They are also typically portrayed as being closer to nature. As a result, they are likely to utilize much less metal overall. Their primary weapons would be spears and javelins, as slings would not be very useful in forests. Bows would also be used, though elves are unlikely to be capable of achieving high draw weight, thus compromising bow’s performance against armour.