Intensity and Duration of fighting in Ancient & Medieval Battles

Mar 2018
786
UK
The standard picture of pitched battles, where the main weapons were melee, is a simple one, both in sources and in popular imagination. Roughly speaking: both armies dress up, march towards each other, skirmishers exchange missiles, the front lines of the two armies clash for a few hours, reinforcements are brought in/flanking manoeuvres executed, and finally one side breaks. My question is about the middle step. How do two opposing blocks of 1,000 - 10,000 melee armed infantry fight each other for several hours?

The simplest picture is that each side is neatly formed into ranks (say, as in a phalanx) and then the two front lines meet and the start hitting each other. When one man in the front row dies, his comrade from the row behind steps over his dead body and takes his place. Now I hope we can all agree that it is just impossible for this to happen continuously for hours. There is no way anyone can wield a spear/sword/axe/pike/shield/whatever for several hours, it's simply too tiring. The casualty rate would also just be too high and serving in the front rank would be pure suicide. So, if we can agree that it didn't happen this way, how did it work? It would appear to me that there are a few potential ways of resolving this problem, I'd be interested to know if any of them are close to what actually happened, and how this differed by time and area.

One way it could work is if the fighting happens the way described above, for short periods of time of 5-20 minutes or so. Then, after this intense melee, one (or both) sides naturally pulls back such that there is a clear no-mans-land between them. During this time both sides would jeer/yell/taunt each other, perhaps exchange missiles, but also catch a break, drink some water and so on. This would also give the opportunity to shuffle people between the ranks of the formation while not being in imminent danger. After a while, the more aggressive side would once again close, also explaining how one army could be pushed back quite long distances over a period of hours. This makes a lot of sense to me from a practical point of view, and I think (but can't find a source) that Adrian Goldsworthy is a proponent of this, but it does have a few problems. How do you coordinate when to pull back for a rest? If you have a shield wall/phalanx formation, then the whole line has to do it at once, which feels implausible. If you do it by smaller groups, then you leave space for those small units to get flanked.

Another way, essentially a variant of the above, is to rotate between first and second line of units, some sort of maniple swaps. That is, when one block of infantry pulls back from the battle line, a unit immediately behind comes up to takes its place. This gives the front unit a chance to recover more fully and has all of the advantages of the previous method, but also bigger problems. How can you swap maniple-sized units in this way safely? How could this possibly by done by shield wall/phalanx formations without a complete loss of cohesion? Or how would less organised armies (e.g., the Gauls) be able to carry something like this out?

The only alternative I can think of is that the fighting really was continuous on the front line, but very low intensity. Something like the lines meet not at the spear-tip to shield range, but spear-tip to spear-tip distance. It might be within human endurance to stay this level of not-quite-imminent danger for hours with very little stabbing or slashing, and only closing in to actually striking distance for a few blows at a time. This also seems to be inline with human psychology of not wanting to rush into danger, but after a while you and a couple of comrades by your side might pluck up enough courage to take a step forward for a few seconds.


Of course, a combination of these could be happening in the same time, with the dominant one changing between different armies and periods. What is the expert opinion on how this worked? Is there some source describing this that I've never heard? Or am I making problems up and the simple "lines clash" model is fine?
 
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AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,015
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Just some thoughts, on the base of my memory. It depends also on the composition of the clashing armies.

If there were Kings or High Lords probably there were knights and knights tent to create a particular battle field with duels, enemy bowmen and crossbowmen targeting them and squires and infantry ready to help them if wounded or in case of withdrawal. This phase took its time ...

In the meanwhile the infantry formations faced one each other [in case the cavalry of a Lord prevailed on the hostile one it would have taken advantage from the disorder in the enemy infantry busy with the fight].

Intensity varied and as for I can understand the formations themselves limited the contact to the soldiers in the first lines. So it wasn't the same warrior to fight for more than a hour or for hours, but a sequence of warriors. Sure medieval infantry wasn't so ordered and equipped as a legion [warriors of the vassals, common milites, mercenaris ... a nice confusion!] but at the end an infantry formation was an infantry formation and it worked in a similar way.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,961
Sydney
During the war of the roses ,with it's many battle , Towton was noted as especially fierce and bloody ,
the fighting lasted for hours of unceasing grind
much to the amazement of the contemporary witness
I can only conclude than once the early moves were done with , as soon as battle was joined , it would resolve itself in a matter of a few hours at the most ,
for medieval armies rotating troops on contact didn't seems to be a practical solution
 
Mar 2018
786
UK
Intensity varied and as for I can understand the formations themselves limited the contact to the soldiers in the first lines. So it wasn't the same warrior to fight for more than a hour or for hours, but a sequence of warriors. Sure medieval infantry wasn't so ordered and equipped as a legion [warriors of the vassals, common milites, mercenaris ... a nice confusion!] but at the end an infantry formation was an infantry formation and it worked in a similar way.
Sure, I should have said I was considering infantry. I agree with "it wasn't the same warrior to fight for more than a hour or for hours, but a sequence of warriors", but my question is: how did that work? How do you move people around in the dense pack that is a fighting military formation

During the war of the roses ,with it's many battle , Towton was noted as especially fierce and bloody ,
the fighting lasted for hours of unceasing grind
much to the amazement of the contemporary witness
I can only conclude than once the early moves were done with , as soon as battle was joined , it would resolve itself in a matter of a few hours at the most ,
for medieval armies rotating troops on contact didn't seems to be a practical solution
Sure, that timescale seems typical of how long melee fighting lasts for between armies. I however, do not believe that it is possible for someone with a pike or billhook to poke someone else with it (while being poked at the same time) for hours. That is just far beyond the limits of physical and mental human endurance. If you look at HEMA or anyone practising any kind of martial art or weapons training, everyone is exhausted after ~10min. In a battle situation where there are multiple people trying to kill you at same time it must be even more tiring. Adrenaline can only help so much.

I'm happy to accept that rotating troops is impossible in this circumstances, but that still leaves options 1 and 3 from the OP as alternatives to intense, hours long, fighting.
 
Jul 2018
306
London
In the push of pikes it seems that most of the first couple of lines went mostly down at the clash; after that it was a game of trickery, to stab the opponent without being stabbed or sneaking under the pikes to chop them or force the pikeman to drop it. I am inclined to think that something similar happened in antiquity. A bad clash, a violent ten minutes and a much less intensive fight afterwards, with pauses and time to switch fighters in the first line.
Just my speculation.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,802
I believe there was a similar thread on this topic, but I cannot remember it now

Anyway, the average soldier in armor could effectively fight for no more than about an hour (see how football players, who are top athletes, well fed, well cared for and carrying no weight and not risking their life are completely out after max 2 hours of play)... even just standing while carrying a heavy shield and a heavy weapon is exhausting, not to mention moving about and trying to hit someone

In other words melee could last more than an hour only if there were enough troops to organize some sort of rotation (carefully removing tired troops from the front line to be replaced by fresh troops)... hence the importance of reserves (men who had not fought yet), and victory would often go to the side which still had reserves to commit when the other side had exhausted theirs

Pulling back from melee is quite difficult and could easily turn into a rout.... so decision had to be obtained preferably within 1 or 2 hours of the start of fighting
 
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Mar 2018
786
UK
In the push of pikes it seems that most of the first couple of lines went mostly down at the clash; after that it was a game of trickery, to stab the opponent without being stabbed or sneaking under the pikes to chop them or force the pikeman to drop it. I am inclined to think that something similar happened in antiquity. A bad clash, a violent ten minutes and a much less intensive fight afterwards, with pauses and time to switch fighters in the first line.
Just my speculation.
Are there any sources to confirm this? Or more specifically, what happens when the intensity of the pike push calms down? Does a gap form between the lines, what sort of distance are we talking about? I struggle to imagine someone standing for hours with an enemy pike inches from their face. Morale would break very quickly as the casualties would just be enormous.

In other words melee could last more than an hour only if there were enough troops to organize some sort of rotation (carefully removing tired troops from the front line to be replaced by fresh troops)... hence the importance of reserves (men who had not fought yet), and victory would often go to the side which still had reserves to commit when the other side had exhausted theirs

Pulling back from melee is quite difficult and could easily turn into a rout.... so decision had to be obtained preferably within 1 or 2 hours of the start of fighting
Right, I think there's no disputing this. The questions is how does the "some sort of rotation" happen?? It must happen, as you've stated, due to the limits of human endurance and the recorded fact that reserves could be brought in to make a difference. But, rotating people in melee combat seems very difficult, and I have never heard a convincing description of how it works.

The most famous example of this must be the roman maniple swap. But I've never been able to find any sort of explanation of how it actually worked.
 
Feb 2018
233
US
My knowledge might be outdated now, but as of a decade ago Philip Sabin's work was a gold standard here. If I remember right, you want to start with Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World
 
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AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,015
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Are there any sources to confirm this? Or more specifically, what happens when the intensity of the pike push calms down? Does a gap form between the lines, what sort of distance are we talking about? I struggle to imagine someone standing for hours with an enemy pike inches from their face. Morale would break very quickly as the casualties would just be enormous.



Right, I think there's no disputing this. The questions is how does the "some sort of rotation" happen?? It must happen, as you've stated, due to the limits of human endurance and the recorded fact that reserves could be brought in to make a difference. But, rotating people in melee combat seems very difficult, and I have never heard a convincing description of how it works.

The most famous example of this must be the roman maniple swap. But I've never been able to find any sort of explanation of how it actually worked.
Actually I'm not aware of comprehensive original sources describing how the maniples in Roman legions exchanged position during a battle. What we can understand is that from behind the fresh forces passed through the gaps in the front line while the warriors on the front stepped back and that they closed those gaps. An other interpretation is that the enemies didn't dare to attack the gaps so that the warriors from beyond had the time to pass and reach the front line.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,963
MD, USA
A number of years ago, at one of our Roman Days events, we massed 40 legionary reenactors from a half-dozen groups. At one point we formed up in 2 groups of 20, and I think we were 4 ranks deep (though it may have been 2). We found that it was very simple to march one unit right through the other from back to front, or front to back, with files passing between files. So bringing a relieving unit forward, or having an exhausted unit pull back through the second line, would have been no problem at all.

I'm a little more leery about the idea that ANY army would have its rear ranks replacing men in the front just whenever they wanted. Obviously you have to move up to replace the dead and wounded! But in some armies the front rankers were file-leaders, officers whose duty it was to lead, and on whom the whole unit's organization depended. In other cultures, my understanding is that the front rank was a place of honor, not something you'd give up to someone behind you who had not yet earned that right.

My general feeling is that battle lines spent a lot of time either just in reach, jabbing and prodding from as far out as possible, chucking whatever was to hand, and then fading back a couple steps, just out of reach to yell and rest (and chuck a few things). This could have been happening spontaneously all up and down the line, without really causing any breaks. The guys to your right may have surged forwards in a determined charge, while the ones on your left are still holding back a little. This is where videos of riots come in handy, just seeing the organic flexibility of a mass of people, that they aren't a rigid and brittle formation that will shatter if they aren't in lockstep.

Matthew