Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 1

This is part of Paperback Writer's Left Behind and Loving It virtual workshop. She has been so kind to invite me to hold some lessons on my blog and I'm honoured to participate.

Writers of Historical Fiction and Fantasy (and sometimes other genres) often have to deal with major battles where Romans and Caledonians meet at Mons Graupius, English archers and French knights at Crécy, and the rebel forces of the rightful king face the army of the ursurper half-brother in a final fight for the Invented kingdom.

The bad news is: battles require some amount of preplanning, even if you're not an outliner.
The good news: you don't need to be a general to write a believable battle.

In this first post, I'll give you a check plan for setting up the battle. Friday we'll deal with the writing of battle scenes from different POVs and layers, and Sunday with the little tricks that make a battle more interesting.

The first point to consider is: What role does the battle play in my book?

If your king and his few faithful followers spend a good deal of time setting up that rebel army because it's the only way to kick ursuper half-brother off the throne, you better have a battle at the end or the reader will be disappointed.

The same goes for a Roman MC whom you put in northern Britain in 84. If he skips the battle at Mons Graupius, the other Romans will point fingers at him and his career will be ruined. And your valiant 14th century French knight better fights at Crécy albeit it sucks to be a French knight in that battle.

But if your hero is part of a Romance, you don't need to spend that much space on the battle because the fact he's in lurve with the daughter of an English baron is a lot more important. In that case, you can reduce the set up to: who against whom and who won, and just have a scene where your valiant knight rides in the charge, cuts down an enemy or two and luckily survives - or gets captured because some English archer shot his mount under him.

So, let's assume you want a pretty major battle in your novel, though it looks a rather scary idea right now. In case of historical fiction you sometimes can research a battle, but the basic questions are no different for Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

Who fights? Against whom?
Where do they fight?
How well are the soldiers armed and trained, how well led?
What is their motivation?

The Troops: The normal infanty/cavalry ratio is something between 3:1 to 5:1. Cavalry is more expensive and takes longer to train. There are exceptions, of course, if you deal with mounted nomadic tribes like the Huns, or mounted knights who pay for their horses. But even in a cavalry-oriented army usually has some infantry (fe. the French at Crécy had Genoese crossbow mercenaries).

Sometimes there are specials forces, like Balearic slingers and Scythian archers in the Roman army.

Don't make your armies too big. The largest armies in the Roman and Medieaveal battles I've researched are some 80,000 maximum, often smaller.

The Weapons: Arm your armies. Some of it will depend on social status. Chain and plate mail cost money, and some men will only be able to afford a boiled leather jerkin, and not everyone wore a helmet. Not everyone had a sword, either, spears were more common in many cultures. Professional armies were usually better equipped than tribal societies where everyone gets what he can afford or filch from a dead enemy.

Depending on how your battle develops you might for example want to know how far a javelin or arrow reaches. You don't want your archers start shooting at a distance where the arrows will stick in the mud some 50 metres in front of the hostile lines. Arrows don't magically multiply either, except in Hollywood.

What damage can an arrow or sword cause if the opponent wears armour / doesn't wear armour? Questions like these will often pop up when you start writing the actual scenes, and it's time enough to check details then. Reenactment groups are a good source for that sort of information.

The Training: Is your army professional, well trained and disciplined, or a bunch of brave and fierce warriors who can't keep a line and rush at the enemy like mad? We'll see below that the latter will have a more difficult time. Or a warband that meets now and then, where the men know each other and have fought side by side - they won't have the training of a professional army but may be able to keep up some sort of formation (fe. a shieldwall).

The Terrain: Where a battle takes place can be an important factor for the outcome. Does one army have to charge uphill, is there a river that blocks retreat, a wood where one can hide reinforcements? Weather can also play a role - rain will make the ground slippery and heat can lead to exhaustion. More than one crusader died of heat shock because he was fried in his armour.

Have the armies fortified their position with trenches and palisades, put up traps in front of their lines? If they have the time, they'll often do.

Some more questions that belong in this part are: Is the army far from their supply lines? (The Romans moved back to their forts at the Rhine during winter because they could not maintain the supply all the way to the Weser). How well do they know the land, can they be ambushed, or spring an ambush?

It may prove useful to draw a little sketch of the positions of the armies. If your general orders the cavarly to form the left wing, you don't want it to gallop in from the right later.

The Movements: That one is the most tricky for us armchair generals. But writers of historical fiction are not always at such a great advantage - the battle of the Teutoburg Forest lasted three days, but the information we have doesn't paint a clear picture at all. Because I've played with historical battle formations for quite some time, I have some ideas how to stage a fictive battle that looks realistic. Here are some basic setups.

The aim of a battle is brutally simple: to kill as many of the enemy as possible with as little losses on your side as possible.

Lets have two equally strong and well trained armies meet on flat terrain with dry ground. Both armies have considerably more infantry than cavalry.

Both would put the heavy infantry (the guys with the armour, helmets and shields) in the center, and lighter infantry like archers and the cavalry at the wings. The mounted generals and staff hold behind the infantry.

The armies will try outflank and encircle the enemy. The infantry moves forward until they clash and begin to fight, while the archers try to get some arrows into the enemy. When the melee gets to tight, they'll draw their swords and join the fun, all the while trying to get around the bulk of the enemy and attack it from behind. Pretty much the same happens with the cavalry, they whirl around, trying to close the circle and at the same time keep the enemy's cavalry at bay. At some point, one of the armies will either have managed to encircle the other, at which point the butchering starts - if the enemy doesn't manange to break out; or there will be an indecisive end to the battle because everyone is tired and it's getting dark.

You can imagine this basic scenario leaves a lot of room to play. One infantry could form a wedge and try to break the other's lines, one army might have hidden reserves. The moment the defender is situated on higher terrain, a charge becomes more difficult for the attacker. But such a position doesn't mean a sure victory; at Mons Graupius, the more disciplined Romans took the Caledonians out despite having to charge uphill and being outnumbered. If there's a river, the could try and push the enemy into it.

If a dominantly infantry army meets one composed mostly of heavy cavalry, keeping the horses at bay is the most important thing. Archers can shoot the horses from a distance, but the best way to stop a charge is to have the first lines of soldiers kneel, spears or pikes firmly planted in the ground, and the next lines stand, with spears pointing more upward so the whole thing looks like a hegdehog. That's what Jackson got wrong in Éomer's downhill charge at the end of The Two Towers - no horse crashes into a thicket of pointy things.

The Psychology of Battle: This is the most important aspect and the one you can have the most fun with. An army is made of humans and human feelings, and a good general or leader not only tries to govern the men's motions in battle but also their emotions.

Let's get inside the head of some soldiers/warriors and look how it can affect the outcome of a battle.

Titus Bravus, Roman soldier. "This army is the best. I know what I have to do and the chaps around me know what they have to do, the centurion knows what he has to do, and we won't let each other down. Look at them barbarians milling around. Maybe there's twice as many as us and they're said to be fierce fighters, but we are Roman soldiers, we'll have them for dinner."
Now imagine the majority of the men in a legion thinks like that. No wonder they often won battles against less disciplined opponents even when outnumbered.

Simon Le Preux, French knight. "I'm a French knight, I have won many tournaments, I'm better than the other knights in this," he snorts, "army. Those English archers? Only a peasant would employ archers. I'll have some for dinner - no wait, I don't think they'll taste any good. But I will demonstrate my courage and attack them, and the other knights who still hesitate be damned."
See why the French lost at Crécy? They underestimated the enemy and they didn't really work together.

Psychology of masses is an important factor. If some soliders begin to think they'll lose and the wood over there looks a lot better than those mad warriors in front of them, and start to run for the wood, others will follow, and soon there's scarcely a way to stop the route. In an army, fear can spread like a disease. As can hartred. After several battles against the same damn enemy, the level of cruelty committed during and after battle will rise.

Another point is whether the soldiers can trust the officers not to screw up. Since military service was part of the political career in Rome, some of the tribunes and legates were not exactly military men, and Rome lost some battles because the general did screw up. If soldiers begin to distrust the leaders, there's the danger of mutiny, and morals will go down. "Why should I risk my ass for Quintus Idiotus Stupidus? Who got the job because he married the daughter of Publius Pomposus to begin with."

Motivation plays a role as well. If you fight off invaders who threaten your way of life, your freedom and your family, you'll probably hold your place even with little fighting experience and a rusty sword. Because there are things worse than dying in this battle.

Fear of the unknown is a strong human emotion. The Romans held discipline during the first phase of the German attacks at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, but they must have hated those primordial woods so different from what they knew from home; and they were superstitious besides. The forest was infested with demons and ghosts.

So, and how can I use all that cool stuff?

Let's go back to our rightful king Isandor, his ursurper half-brother Malgant, and that final battle. Exiled Isandor won't have access to large, professional armies, but he has some faithful followers and their retainers, so he is not utterly devoid of trained warriors. He also has some talent for things military. And a lot of people are not happy with Malgant. He takes too much taxes, sells men in debt bondage, and his minions molest the women.

After several year of strife, and a marriage to the daughter of a neighbour king who happens to have a troop of splendid mounted archers and some heavy cavalry, Isandor assembles whoever can hold a sword or spear. He'll have good cavalry, some decent and well equipped infantry, and a rather large contingent of men with little experience but a damn good reason, let's say some 40,000 in all.

Malgant has a professional army. His élite troops are really well trained and have a lot of privileges, but part of the army has been recruited by force, and the men want to be anywhere else than at the mercy of the drill sergeants, good equipment be damned. Malgant has to hire cavalry from the Mountain Savages. His army is 80,000 in all.

After days of marching around, the armies meet on a wide plateau. Malgant deploys his army in the traditional way: infantry as big block in the center, cavalry on the wings. He knows Isandor has a lot of untrained infantry and he intends to crush it with his fearsome bad boys.

Isandor comes up with a neat little trick. He puts the least experienced troops in the center, well aware that they might fall back (and hoping they won't totally panic), and the better disciplined infantry to their sides, the cavalry on the wings. He has also hidden those of the men who are good with a bow below the rim of the plateau.

So, Malgant's infantry pushes the king's center back. But since the men know about the little surprise, they manage to not panic. The better experienced troops hold their ground, and Malgant's army finds itself fanned out in a half moon with the center pushed forward like a c. At that point, Isandor's cavalry closes the circle, and Malgant's highly trained troops don't have much room to fight. Also, the men pressed into service are prone to surrender.

Malgant's hired horse tries to get in the back of the weakest contingent of Isandor's infantry in hope to break the circle, but at the moment, the archers climb up the few steps and start shooting at the horses. The mountain riders flee, thinking it not worth to risk their lives for the gold they've already got. Spending it will be more fun.

I hope this will help you to organise a battle. In the next lesson we'll get at the actual writing.

Btw, the idea for King Isandor's strategy is modeled after the battle of Cannae where Hannibal made pasta sauce of a much larger Roman army, with some things of my own added. To use and adapt actual battles can prove helpful for Fantasy battles.

Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here
Great! Thanks for sharing this! Looking forward to the next installment.
Thank you. I appreciate your knowledge and your gifted humor sprinkled throughout the lesson.
Awesome information, and lots of fun! I think I need a battle ;)
Great post! I like the touches of humour :-)

Excellent point at the end about modelling an imaginary battle on a real one. Bernard Cornwell says he modelled his King Arthur's Battle of Badon on Wellington's Peninsular War victory at Salamanca, for example.

John Keegan's book The Face of Battle is a fantastic read for anyone trying to understand the psychology of soldiers in battle, by the way. I'd highly recommend it.
Fascinating and very useful!
Great post! And your blog has fabulous links and resources.
Thanks very much. I'm apprehensive about writing the climatic combat scene at the end of my wip, and this is just the sort of thing I need to help me out!
Thank you, Adrian and Christina.

battles are fun.

I'll check that book.
Modelling a battle with spears and swords after one with guns must have been som fun for him. :)

Thanks, Susan.

Thank you for your kinds words about my blog, LJ.

Thank you Calen. I hope I can come up with more useful tips this week.
This is fantastic, Gabriele! And just what I need for a major battle in one of my fantasy stories, which was worrying me. Thanks! d:)

Excellent post.

I endorse book Carla’s recommendation. The Face of Battle is a classic of it’s kind. (It is rather clinical; don’t read it before bed time.)
What a great post! I'm saving this for details later.
Awesome post, Gabriele, you can lead my armies anytime (of course neither of my stories have armies- but we could always institute a draft *g*).
Thank you for sharing. I definitely need to write a battle now.
Thank you for your kind words, everyone. I'm glad I can be of help to writers facing those battles.

Battling with uncooperative characters and elusvie plots is bad enough, after all. :)
wow, what a great blog. One I will gladly read over and over. I struggle with battle scenes in my books, so this was a blessing to read. Thank you for allyour'work, Gab.
Sign me up for your blog posts...I'll read yours any day
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)