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Warfare in the Middle Ages

Only at a comparatively late period were mounted troops used in war in any considerable numbers by Greek or Roman. Among the new peoples who divided Europe among them after the fall of the Empire there were many which were unaccustomed to the use of the warhorse; and others, on the contrary, who almost lived in the saddle. The Ostrogoths who fought as the allies of Rome against Attila at Chalons were a nation that mostly fought on horseback. So were the Magyar tribes who occupied Hungary.

Once only during their first career of conquest the Norman knights and men-at-arms found themselves opposed to infantry that was capable of standing up doggedly against their iron charge. This was at Hastings, the battle that made Duke William King of England. The best of the Saxon array fought with the weapon that had been used by the ancestors of their Norman opponents, the long-handled Danish battleaxe. They held together against the charge of the Norman spears, and when the rush was brought to a standstill by the mere weight of the stolid mass against which it was driven, the axe was used effectually to bring down horses and men. Repulsed in his first attacks, William broke up the Saxon array, first by luring the axemen from their position by pretended flight, and falling upon them when they were dispersed in pursuit, and secondly by bringing his archers into action and thinning the ranks of the defenders.

In the Middle Ages a feudal army showed a forest of banners, the ensigns of peers, barons and knights, and leaders of hired mercenary bodies of men-at-arms, and the flags of cities and even of trade guilds. In the same way in the Dervish armies of our wars in the Soudan every petty emir had his banner. These flags were gathered by the score from every battlefield. They were so common as hardly to be reckoned as trophies. Only the standards of the greater chiefs were so regarded. These armies of Dervish spearmen were the last survivors of the Old World battle hosts, and one could see in them a living picture of what warfare was thousands of years ago, when the chiefs relied for victory on the sudden rush of spears; set their army in battle array by each one rallying his kinsmen and adherents round his banner, and then drove the attack home by each leader trying to carry his standard as far as possible into the hostile ranks.

Before the sulphurous, smoke-clouded days of gunpowder, there was the long period of medieval and classical warfare; of which, roughly speaking, the characteristic feature was the importance of defensive armor. In the Middle Ages an "armed man" did not precisely signify one who carried weapons, but a man who wore armour of plate and mail. In the decisive hand-tohand conflict the completely armed man, trained from early youth to fight when thus protected, and skilful with his weapons, despite the cumbrous weight he carried, was a match for numbers of mere peasants or burghers less skilled with sword and spear and unprotected by a panoply of steel. Hence the importance of the man-at-arms and the prominence in battle stories of individual champions from the days of Homeric heroes down to those of the knights of the Middle Ages.

At the beginning of the Crusading period the heavily armed horseman, the knight and man-at-arms, represented the typical fighting man of European battlefields. The foot soldier counted for very little in war. One age of the importance of infantry had passed away, others were yet to come. But at the close of the eleventh century and the opening of the twelfth the estimation in which infantry was held was at the lowest. The foot soldiers were the servants of the mounted troops, their grooms and armorers, the escort of their baggage train, their hewers of wood and drawers of water, the watchers of the camp, the men who worked the engines and erected the palisades during a siege. The knights and their train of mounted men-at-arms were thus the fighting force for the battlefield in the earlier campaigns of the Crusades.

The Crusaders soon found themselves forced to rely upon infantry to complete their battle array, from the mere fact that by the time they had marched across Asia Minor and entered Syria very few of the horses they had brought from Europe remained alive. The men-at-arms who could not be thus remounted had to serve on foot, and this alone was enough to increase the importance of the infantry arm. Closely formed bodies of foot, armed partly with spears partly with missile weapons, would form a useful protection against the onsets of the enemy horse archery, and a barrier behind which the cavalry, now greatly reduced in numbers, could await a favorable opportunity for charging. The missile weapon adopted was the cross-bow, already in use in siege warfare.

The Crusaders had learned the lesson of combining infantry with cavalry on the battlefield. But in Europe it was not till after the Crusades that any advantage was taken of this Eastern experience. It is curious to see how in important engagements fought in the West during the later period of the Crusades, and at which many knights who had served in Palestine were present, no use whatever was made of the foot soldier, and the decision of the battle was left to the mounted men-at-arms.

The heavily armed horsemanbaron and knight and man-at-armshad been the lord of the battlefield for some three hundred years, despising the mere foot soldier, and counting only the cavalier a " foeman worthy of his steel." Then in the fourteenth century came the beginning of a great revolution in the methods of warfare, and mere levies of armed burghers, peasants and mountaineers showed that they could meet on more than equal terms the hitherto all-conquering feudal cavalry. New tactics and new weapons brought the change about, the men who were the human factors in it being the yeomen and peasants of England, the townsmen of the Low Countries, and the herdsmen of the mountains of Switzerland and the burghers of its lake-side cities.

The militia of the Belgian cities had already shown that a steady array of pikes and halberds in the hands of resolute men on foot could defy the efforts of heavy cavalry to break into it, and that outside the bristling hedge of spears the mounted man was helpless. But the Switzers, in the defence of their mountain land, carried infantry tactics a step further. They showed the mass of spears and halberds had an effective power of shock action; that it could be used to attack and not merely when standing on the defensive.

In the fourteenth century in England a new weapon made its appearance the long-bow which was as great an advance upon the short bow as the breechloading rifle was upon the old musket. South Wales appears to have been the actual place of its origin, but it was in the armies of the English Plantagenet kings that it first made good its position as a winner of battles. From the mechanical point of view its efficiency depended on more than one factor, but the chief of these was that with a six-foot bow it was possible to use a long arrow, and the long arrow drawn till its head rested on the wood of the bow gave the archer the power of storing up a tremendous amount of energy in the long bent spring formed by his bow. On loosing the string he released a driving force sufficient to carry the arrow for 300 yards, and with force enough to kill horse or man even at 200. Further, the trained archer could discharge twelve arrows in a minute. On going into action he drew the arrows from his quiver and stuck them in the ground in front of him. They were thus ready to his hand, and in a moment after loosing one shaft another was on his string. Lifelong practice made the action almost automatic. And the trained archer was a good marksman. The arrow from the long-bow could pierce an oak plank or a steel plate such as was used in the armour of the first half of the fourteenth century. Until the rifle was invented there was no weapon so formidable as the long-bow.

It was not until almost the close of the Middle Ages that anything was done to improve the art of war as it was known to the ancients. Then the invention of gunpowder and the abandonment of armor revolutionized the science of fighting. Strange as it may seem, however, gunpowder was known for more than two centuries before the French, at the close of the 16th century, armed their soldiers with matchlock muskets, while conservative England, fearing that archery would be superseded, forbade the use of the new weapon as late as the time of Henry VIII.

From the fall of Rome and up to the close of the 15th century, wars were less frequent between nation and nation than among the various nations themselves. French fought French; Germans, Germans, and Spaniards, Spaniards, and even the war between the English and the French, the war that desolated France for more than a century, was no exception to this rule, for the enmity that was the cause of all the strife was not that of two rival nations, but was due entirely to the fact that the rulers of England were French princes, themselves hereditary sovereigns of French provinces, like Nomandy or Poitou. Similar conditions existed in other parts of Europe so that the student who reads of the wars of the Middle Ages is struck by the absence of the well-planned and carefully executed campaigns that distinguished the warfare of both previous and later periods.

The wars of the Middle Ages continued a scourge notwithstanding the doctrines of Christianity. As Sir Henry Maine says: "The Reformation brought with it a new fury of fighting, and the wars of religion were among the most ferocious that mankind had waged. Armies did not then so much consist of rival potentates, as of hosts in which each individual detested every man on the other side as a misbeliever. This ferocity is generally believed to have culminated in the storming of Magdeburg," when the whole town, with the exception of the cathedral and about 140 houses, was burned to the ground, and 30,000 of its 36,000 inhabitants were butchered without regard to sex or age.

There were civil wars, it is true; local insurrections, or single battles of more or less importance, but, with the exception of the invasion of the Saracens, the expeditions of Charlemagne, and the conquests of England by the Danes and the Normans, there is little to remind one of the well organized systems of warfare which distinguished the days of Greece and Rome, and which have since been revived by nations of modern times.

Archery lingered on to a late date in Eastern Europe. At Leipsic in 1813 some of the French wounded fell to the bows and arrows of wild tribesmen from the borders of the Czar's Empire. This was probably the last appearance of the bow in European warfare.

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Page last modified: 26-02-2016 19:14:50 ZULU