Raids in medieval warfare

Oct 2011
518
Croatia
In Medieval warfare, raiding was the usual wartime activity - much more common than sieges, and especially more common than open field battles. In fact, many - if not most - open-field battles happened when defenders managed to intercept a raiding army while it was performing the raid, or - more commonly - returning from it.

So, a few questions:
1) What were typical and maximum sizes of raiding armies? I know that Arab armies which raided Anatolia could get quite large.
2) What about composition of such armies? Proportion of light vs heavy infantry/cavalry?
3) What are typical tactics? Especially raid and counterraid, and interception of raids?
4) How did terrain affect raids? Flatlands, vs flatlands with rivers, vs mountainous areas? Which type of terrain was most favourable to defenders, and which to side sending out raids?
5) Any overview of strategic utilization of raids? I know that their impact and purpose could range from mere scouting to near-complete depopulation of area affected by raids.

I also found the following:

Raiding on Byzantine border:

Raiding in Ottoman-Croatian wars:
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,872
Cornwall
Well in Iberia it could range from small parties to almost army-size. Large plains of no mans lands without too much supply so usually cavalry, to move fast and not need much supply.

Castles were the key - small castles with relatively few men could not be attacked by cavalry raiders.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Picard

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,160
Portugal
Francisco García Fitz analysed some of the things that you are mentioning here for the Reconquista, 11th to 13th centuries, in his work “Castilla y León Frente Al Islam”. All the first chapter is dedicated to raids: https://www.marcialpons.es/libros/castilla-y-leon-frente-al-islam/9788447204212/

(in Spanish. Don’t know if the book is available in English).

In the book, following several other authors, he explains that the raids (cabalgadas) and the depredation were part of a long term strategy to destabilize and finally to conquer territory.

So:

“1) What were typical and maximum sizes of raiding armies? I know that Arab armies which raided Anatolia could get quite large.”

And

“2) What about composition of such armies? Proportion of light vs heavy infantry/cavalry?”

He divided them in “small” and “big”. Both with quite variable resources.

The small were organized locally, often were difficult to differentiate from the robbery. He even mentions an incident that three men from a village made a “cavalgada” on Muslim lands.

The “big” were more complex, organized by the kings, nobles or by the villages.

For instance, the following:

  • Valle del Guadalquivir, 1144, from the noble mesnadas; royal mesnadas, militias from the villages (from Extremadura and Toledo);
  • In 1104-1105, cabalgada from Alfonso VI to Seville, 3500 men;
  • 12th century, cabalgada from the Militias of Ávila and Segovia, Valle del Guadalquivir, 1000 horsemen+ unknown number of foot soldiers;
  • 1143, again from Ávila and Segovia and other villages, Valle del Guadalquivir, 900 horsemen, 1000 footmen;
  • 1182, militias from Santarém (Portugal), 1000 horsemen, 1000 footmen;
  • 1213, Afonso de Molina (prince), Valle del Guadalquivir, 1200 horsemen, 2800 footmen + more other troops;
I also partially answer to point 5 (“Any overview of strategic utilization of raids? I know that their impact and purpose could range from mere scouting to near-complete depopulation of area affected by raids.”)

I will try to answer better and to the other points later on. But all the information that I have available, from Fitz or other, is for the Iberian Peninsula.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Picard and Arminius
Apr 2018
316
Italy
Depends by ages and kngdoms.

Britsh chevaunchees during Hundred Yers War varied from 7.000 to 15.000
Ottoman raids also 20.000 or more

Generally speaking islamic raids had larger armies, probabily because of the jihad that called men from distant countries also.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,872
Cornwall
Francisco García Fitz analysed some of the things that you are mentioning here for the Reconquista, 11th to 13th centuries, in his work “Castilla y León Frente Al Islam”. All the first chapter is dedicated to raids: https://www.marcialpons.es/libros/castilla-y-leon-frente-al-islam/9788447204212/

(

For instance, the following:

  • Valle del Guadalquivir, 1144, from the noble mesnadas; royal mesnadas, militias from the villages (from Extremadura and Toledo);
  • In 1104-1105, cabalgada from Alfonso VI to Seville, 3500 men;
  • 12th century, cabalgada from the Militias of Ávila and Segovia, Valle del Guadalquivir, 1000 horsemen+ unknown number of foot soldiers;
  • 1143, again from Ávila and Segovia and other villages, Valle del Guadalquivir, 900 horsemen, 1000 footmen;
  • 1182, militias from Santarém (Portugal), 1000 horsemen, 1000 footmen;
  • 1213, Afonso de Molina (prince), Valle del Guadalquivir, 1200 horsemen, 2800 footmen + more other troops;
Good stuff Tulius. I have Garcia Fitz's account of the Las Navas campaign which is very interesting.

This information of course is all from Christian archives and derives from the decline of either Almoravid or Almohad empires. There's also Alfonso El Batallador's bizarre trip down south for months, taking back with him a number of Almoravid-persecuted mozarabes. These are long, slow raids where it was blindingly obvious there would be no standing force to confront them. A 5000-strong Christian force tried this in 1493 (?) without authorisation from King Ferdinand. They assumed that they could raid the Axarquia without enough troops being in Malaga to confront them - resulting in the catastrophic debacle of the Desastre de la Axarquia around the slopes and ravines of Cutar and Moclinejo.

And also those numbers really constitute an 'army' in these times in Iberia, an invasion - what is not recorded is all the minor frontier troubles where aceifas (generally muslim) or cabalgadas (christian) were of a few dozen men, the way of the frontier.

Almanzor was obviously the absolute master of what the OP describes. 57 raids against the Christian states. Trouble is with most records in arabic having been destroyed we dont really have too much of a grip on his numbers. We do know it was an entirely professional fighting and administrative machine - thousands of berber and slavic soldiers, horses especially bred. Everything self-financing from the huge booty in slaves and gold. Any state which was the target of an attack only had a few weeks if that of warning to gather any force to meet him, from their feudal servants and few retained soldiers. He had a fairly clear field until the very end - even then Abd Al Malik continued the trend.

He must have had fast cavalry power and also overwhelming strength for the day, devastating everything they came across and carrying it back with the slaves captured. most notably of course the bells of Santiago and dismantling the walls of Barcelona and enslaving any people foolish enough to still be there.

I think you are probably talking of the order of 10,000 professional (key item) men or more each time. Fast, hard, devastating.

Generally speaking islamic raids had larger armies, probabily because of the jihad that called men from distant countries also.
Doesn't really work like that in the west my friend. Politics was the key - just as likely to hate each other than any Christians. besides jihad is a word too much bandied about - I read an analysis and actually only one bit of it is anything to do with fighting. People might call a jihad if they were going to war but it doesn't inspire their enemies to come and help

Islamic armies were normally larger but not for these reasons. They were lighter of arms and horses, probably ate less all in all - and therefore cheaper and more numerous. Plus the Almohad armies (and probably the Almoravids) used Jihadists up front - daft enough to go to battle for the cause with no weapons, hardly any food or decent clothing but very handy to break the charge of the Christian knights and tire them out. Completely cheap and expendable. They also used 'slaves' of a sort, eg from sub-saharan Africa.

Christian knights carried expensive armour and horses and everybody wanted paying in some form. Bigger and more powerful individually, but costly, fewer and forming smaller armies as they needed more supplies to move a certain distance. This all led to a sort of balance as analised by Garcia Fitz in the Las Navas campaign

He estimates the Christian army at 10-14,000 and the Almohad army at around 28-30,000. That led to a very long balanced battle in a confined battlefield. At Alarcos 17 years earlier Castille probably had less men and fought in an open plain, leading to catastrophic defeat.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Condottiero