Writing about war–tactics, decisions, and the edge of battle

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It's not battle.  It's just foraging....

It’s not battle. It’s just foraging….

Yesterday I began book 4 of the Traitor Son series–which for now, I’m calling ‘A Plague of Swords.’  I’m starting a week late because I did some fun things like visiting my friends in the USA and spending a day with Jeffrey Hildebrandt.  But now I’m ready to get down to some serious writing.

A great deal of all my writing has to do with what I call the ‘edge of battle’ or the build up to battles.  I think this is because I am fascinated by the process that leads armies to clash–perhaps I find this more fascinating than the actual clashes.  When I wrote my first historical novel–Tyrant–I had Kineas, my protagonist, say that he didn’t love war, he loved the preparation for war–the training and the planning.

I suspect that’s me.

I’ve been reading military history since I was ten or eleven years old.  At some point–about age forty–I lost patience with any book that claimed to be about ‘decisive battle’ and didn’t want to talk to me about culture, economics, weather and logistics, because my own experience of war and my observations when visiting the battlefields of the American Revolution (for many years, the war I knew in the most intimate detail) had revealed to me that battles are very seldom about heroism or even about tactics or training; mostly, they are about logistics.

My questioning of the primacy of tactics and technology began with the Vietnam War.  Even as I was growing up, shooting deer and having bee-bee gun fights, my uncle’s younger friends were returning from Vietnam, and it was clear to me that our side had everything–except overall victory.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that we won all the battles, too.

To an eleven-year-old, this made no sense.

That's me commanding a British Army.  reenacting can teach a lot of lessons about communications and logistics.

That’s me commanding a British Army. Reenacting can teach a lot of lessons about communications and logistics. Did you know you see more from horseback than on foot?

As I began to ‘get serious’ about the American Revolution, it became increasingly clear to me that the British got to play the same role as the USA in Vietnam–they had a highly professional, brilliantly well-trained and usually well-led army and they won most of the battles.

On the other hand, they were at the end of a supply chain thousands of miles long, and like Vietnam, the fighting in America was deeply unpopular at home, not least because it was very expensive, and British taxpayers had not yet recovered from paying for what we OUGHT to call World War One — that is, the 1755-1763 conflict called the ‘Seven Year’s War’ in Europe and the ‘French and Indian War’ in America.

Another day, I’ll comment on the apparently consensual nature of warfare and how it is really a cultural artifact like dance and gourmet food.  And how I’ve noticed that the West, for all our vastly superior tactics and training, hasn’t won a lot of wars lately.

For today, I really want to look, as a writer, at the ‘evolution of a battle.’

I don’t think I’m going to shock you to suggest that most, if not all, of the historical fiction books I write–and some of the fantasy–climax in a major military engagement.  To me, the interest in such a book is the forensic examination of how two–or three or five–armies come to clash, and why–at the macro and micro level.

So–for any given situation–why fight a battle?

Warfare tends to go through peaks and troughs of ‘decisive battle’ activity.  The merest glance over the literature spawned by the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs‘ debates will show that decisive battles (which, let’s face it, are hardly ever decisive except for the men and women who die in them) are usually a product of change in military hardware and a de-emphasis on fortresses and sieges.  BTW, just to get your thinking caps on, while modern air-warfare may look incredibly unlike siege warfare, anyone who has ever faced an IADS (integrated air defence system–all those pesky SAMS and linked radars and so on) is facing a situation that Vauban would have understood perfectly.

There is a tendency to assume (as an author) that your two armies go for each other like boxers in a ring or dogs in a dog fight–but that’s seldom the case.  In fact, usually one of the antagonists is all too aware of some shortcomings–inferior manpower, bad logistics, poor material readiness, poor training–and wishes to avoid battle.  It is unsurprising how few really stupid generals there have been in history.  Many made serious mistakes–but many committed to battle because all the other options had run out.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, where armies were seldom professional–and sometimes this was true even of the Romans, right, lads?  Generals preferred to fight late in the season when all their young levies and raw recruits had had a few months to march, practice, and get tough.  Ideally, most generals would prefer to fight a string of minor engagements from a small skirmish to a large scale fight over foragers (people out gathering food) to build skill and morale.  That’s in Livy, Caesar mentions it, and it was still a useful way to approach training your men as recently as WWII.  In fact, in a  nutshell, there’s the plot of 1/3 of the military HisFic novels out there.  Raise a group, train them, get in ever larger fights until you build confidence and expertise, win the big battle.

But… what if the enemy simply refuses to FIGHT a battle?  Or–and I can quote hundreds of examples–what if the enemy fights ten battles, loses them all, and refuses to give way?

What if, even as your plucky band of military heroes increase their skills and fighting prowess, they’re also encountering massive fatigue and shattering trauma and despair from losses and from bad food and limited sleep.  What if the whole campaign costs too much money?  And the king tells you to pack it in?  While you are ‘winning’?

In fact, war–most war, including modern war and Roman war–is about money and cultural tenacity (something that the Romans had in spades).  How much will country ‘A’ pay to ‘punish’ country ‘B’?  How long will country ‘A’ sustain it’s forces in the field?

(Mil His aside–historically, did you know that more than 80% of battles are won by the home team?)

It is tempting to imagine that armies win battles with tactics.  An enormous amount of ink is spilt by writers and by wargamers about ‘wedge’ and ‘volley,’ about ‘charging at a gallop’ and ‘the thin red line’ and the ‘French Column.’  It is possible that these things may, on occasion, be decisive.  I have serious doubts, frankly.  I have a suspicion that the concentration of military historians on tactics (and technology) has to do with their own military training and its emphases, and with a desire to establish a ‘military science’ that can overcome all the mud and blood and fog and horror.

But… the English Longbow and the Roman Legion both lost from time to time (and in the end!).  And I’d like to note–as an author–that when they lose, it doesn’t matter if they were outnumbered–it was the business of their king or their senate to get them there in adequate numbers, and commit them intelligently–that’s all war.  It doesn’t matter that it was raining that day–it rains on this planet, and a military system that requires sunny days is–doomed.  It doesn’t matter if the ‘better’ army quits and goes home because they ran out of money, food, or political will.  All these things are part of war, and war doesn’t care who is ‘better.’  As an example, I am always disagreeably surprised when someone tells me that the German’s had the ‘better’ military in WWII.  They lost–horribly.  They made terrible decisions based on a deeply flawed and utterly immoral concept of the conditions of the battlefield and they got ploughed.  The terrible decisions are as much part and parcel of their cultural assumptions and their ‘war machine’ as the Tiger Tank and the Bismark.  It all comes in one package.  All the decisions come home to roost.  Every time I plan for the ‘bad guys’ in one of my novels, I remember Hitler and the German General Staff.

In fact–here we go, writers–the fascinating thing is that all victories and defeats are the product of human decisions.  And that’s what makes a good military novel at least as much fun as a good murder mystery–it’s all about people.  The leaders–the war lords, the kings, the legates and the generals–make the critical decisions whether they know they are doing so–or not.  Too often, the can be reduced to decisions about the ‘day of battle’ but I thought it might be fun to trace an entire campaign season.  My hypothetical country is a lot like Medieval England, and my hypothetical year is roughly 1350.  Our main characters are the King of England and his son Edward, the Black Prince.

The campaign season starts–in parliament.  No kidding, it starts in parliament, and the single most important starting condition for our fearless king is that parliament has voted him the means to wage war–money.  We could side track here into forced loans, loans from Italian bankers (the Riccardi of Lucca, anyone?) the wool staple, and on and on.

Let’s keep this light-hearted.  Our army needs money, and that comes from voted taxation, in the main.

Second, once money is voted–after all that human interaction and all that debate and grubby loan-taking–we start raising troops.  Our leader now gets to make critical decisions about what troops he takes into the field–and if he makes the wrong decisions, he”ll have the wrong troops.  Will he lay a major siege?  Or will he fight a field battle?  Is this year going to see a cavalry heavy, fast moving chevauchee through France?  Or a naval fight like Sluys?  Or the Siege of Harfleur?

BattleofSluys

All decisions.  And once taken, irrevocable.

Now that our prince and his father the king have built his army, he must both take it to France (this is the 100 Year’s War) and supply it while there.  Getting it to France was top prove an incredible bottleneck for the English throughout the war–and in fact forced a huge amount of their ‘grand strategy’ because they needed ports with logistics centers and major fortifications…  At any rate, our heroes need a fleet of vessels just to get all the army the king can afford (of course, there’s foreign mercenaries and subsidies to the Gascons) over to France.

Where in France shall we land?

What are we trying to accomplish? (Another digression–I laugh aloud when modern military professionals tell me that Medieval war was ‘stupid’ and barbaric.  Medieval kings like Edward III went into the field with strategic goals and a solid understanding of their material resources.  They planned campaigns based on their understanding–sometimes flawed–of the enemy and his capacity to resist.  I feel this compares favorably to many of the military campaigns waged in the last twenty years.)

Let’s assume our heroic king’s son and his army manage to reach France.  Let’s assume the King’s heroic son–our main character–goes to Gascony, an English enclave in period with a superb port (and a major portion of the English wine trade).  Now we have to supply that army.

Now, we can choose to make a chevauchee (a giant fast moving raid–really, a terrorist attack) because it allows our troops to supply themselves from the surrounding countryside.  But chevauchees don’t always accomplish anything besides the deaths of a lot of peasants and nuns and so on. (NB that our characters BELIEVE that the chevauchee–the terrorism–proves to the peasants and to the enemy lords that they cannot protect their people and thus forfeit their chivalric/political right to rule.  While this may sound specious, it was apparently grounded in feudal political ‘fact’–there are examples of French peasants going to their knights and, in effect telling them to just go get killed to prove themselves worthy.  See how cultural this is? It’s not about efficiency… Anyone see any parallels to current conflicts?)

But if we choose to march out and lay siege to a major enemy fortress, we need a lot more supplies–there just aren’t enough peasants with enough food to supply our army unless we keep moving.  This is one of the classic problems of Medieval warfare–if you stop, you starve.  Taking a major town (unless you take it by luck, by escalade or storming) is a major commitment, and you will lose a huge number of your troops to disease.

Right.  Our prince chooses the raid–the chevauchee.  And off our army goes into La Belle France.  Finally, at the end of a huge chain of assumptions and critical decisions, we are finally marching against the ‘enemy.’

Who, to be fair, has had to face all these same sorts of decisions but is on home ground.  But he doesn’t know where, or when, we are coming, and his preparations are complicated by another English army forming in Normandy and by serious taxation problems, a crisis in public confidence…

I will not belabour this fictional campaign any more–it is pretty clear I mean the Poitiers campaign, and there will eventually be a battle, although it will not be on the day chosen by either commander, and by the time it is fought, the English will be in full retreat and the French, in effect, in pursuit.  I am merely going to assert that the Black Prince and his Councillors–the officers of his army–have had to make hundreds, if not thousands, of critical decisions about things that appear to have little to do with war–about the delivery of arrowheads to fletchers in the Dordogne, about the purchase of ponies to mount the English archers, about the pay of spies, about scouting, about where to cross rivers and where to pitch camps and what towns to take and on and on.  All good for writing.  All about character and motivation.

There is another way to write this–from the point of view of a cook or an archer or a groom or a sex worker.  They don’t usually have a clue what’s going on–even today, in modern war, let me tell you… the complete lack of horizon among the grunts and whores and grooms and slaves can make a very dull book–or require some major acrobatics just to inform the reader ‘where’ we are on the historical map.  Some writers do this very, very well, and I’m playing with it now, in the Traitor Son series.

And we aren’t to the battle yet.

10 thoughts on “Writing about war–tactics, decisions, and the edge of battle

  1. From reading The Ill-Made Knight I would have guessed your position on this. I really loved all the build up to the battles. It was one of my favorite aspects.
    This post is very interesting and I have to agree. I almost want to say that “sadly” I agree because it is kind of frustrating to think that what it comes down to is logistics and money (or rather a myriad of things like you said, but money playing a bigger role than most people seem to realize) . One would like to think that there can be a heroic, military genius who wins a battle against all odds.
    But if you take Agincourt for example, nobody doubts that Henry V. made some good decisions and everybody talks about how the French had too heavy armor, had to march through mud, and of course everyone knows about the English longbows, but no one talks about how Henry could recruit those excellent soldiers, and pay them well, BECAUSE he inherited a relatively stable England. He inherited a much more stable England than Richard II. left Henry IV. Scotland and Wales were more or less pacified, state finances were much more balanced than under Richard. Henry IV. did not fight the French on the battlefield that much, which saved so a lot money. He rather negotiated and was able to fuel the conflict between the dukes of Burgundy and Orléans. And in general, Henry IV. was not such a money waster. And that enabled Henry V. to build that many ships, hire all those bowyers and carpenters, buy and transport supplies, and he could AFFORD to not plunder Harfleur.
    Speaking of which, I really would love to read your take on Agincourt. I’m a little sad that William is too old for Agincourt and Tom Swan starts way after 1415 (and he is never home anyway). Was that by choice, because so much has already been written about it or are you interested in writing about it one day?
    I wish you lots of fun writing “A Plague of Swords” (love the title!) and I’m relieved you mentioned it, because on my quest to see if there are any updates on The Dread Wyrm, I found a cover and a description and it said “The epic series concludes with a final, stirring adventure.” I almost had a heart attack. Concludes??? Final? Such false information should not be provided. Think of us poor fans. And it was not on some random site, but on Orion’s official site, hence my almost heart attack before I remembered that you already mentioned writing book 4.

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    • SO in brief–there are 5 traitorson books bought and paid for. All will be written barring a sword blow to the head or other dramatic accidents… 🙂 There was a time last year when people at Orion thought there would only be three books. No one asked me…
      As for Azincourt, I’d note that it didn’t accomplish much, and that it may be the classic example of two generals who both think they are right, when only one is. I think Bouccicoult believed he had the answer to archery based on his Ottoman experiences. He was wrong. But everyone was wrong… Henry V thought he was in enormous danger. And I think Azincourt is too much covered, and in fact, it’s sort of the justification of all boy’s own tropes.

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    • Matt–first, thanks, I like your stuff, and I LOVE Boy’s Own. I just feel it needs to be tempered–not dumbed down and not tarted up. When I say 1/3 of the HisFic genre is ‘build a unit, win a skirmish, win the battle’ that’s as much a ‘base human story’ as the Iliad. It’s a good story, and future leaders (and past ones) like to read it. And–IMHO–if it is all doom and gloom, no one will buy it… so it is purely a matter of tempering, not a matter of ‘no glory, no fun.’ Hope that makes sense 🙂

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  2. Is modern and post modern war about money or is it political power? The use of military power not in support of a grand strategy (economic, diplomatic, cultural, etc.) is hugely expensive. One of the huge strategic sins US decision makers consistently make is failure to express their political goal in such a way that military executioners can achieve them by use of military power. You writing on this subject is most interesting and has caused me to reflect on the environment for the Thirty Years War. Also, the Westphalian Peace (1648, I recall) at the end which shaped Nation States. State sovereignty is a building block for security and peace. All a sovereign has to do is protect all in the state from inside and out side threats to the existence of the state. However, it is a well documented fact that in a world of anarchy the peace is often interrupted by war that threatens national existence. It seems to me the current Global Environment of violence rocked by small groups and super empowered individuals mirrors the situation of the Thirty Years War. If there is any remote similarity between then and now it is the huge expense of war and total lack of profit. For thought, how mush has the US of A spent on security since 9/11? Cheers and sincere respect.

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  3. I realize this is an old post, but here goes.

    I would be the first to agree with you that logistics, money and the will to absorb losses are the most important elements to winning a war, but this article gives the impression that tactics and battlefield ability are next to pointless, and that the outcome of every war is predetermined.

    All the money, manpower and weapons in the world wont help if your army and nation are totally smashed on the battlefield, you at least need to be able to hold your own on a tactical level to win.

    If the enemy overruns your country with minimal losses, and topples your government you lose. Maybe in a decade or so local resistance can frustrate the occupying force into withdrawal, maybe leaving a puppet government in charge but your nation, military and government as it was has long since ceased to exist and something completely different will rise in its place. Thinking that is a victory for anyone but the new regime because it happened in the same country the previous nation once existed in seems stupid.

    The French in 1940 are the perfect example of this, they had the resources to win, they had the army. The government lacked the will but that only became in issue after the Germans smashed through organized resistance. They lost on the battlefield when they could have handily won because they tried to refight the last war.

    Now imagine if the Allies had failed miserably to hold a beachhead in Normandy, and did not make a successful attempt before Uncle Stalin came rolling on through Europe. They ended up on the winning side in reality, but it was completely out of their control.

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    • I don’t mean they are pointless. Merely that they are vastly over-emphasized in fiction. And also in ‘military’ history. That usually leads to some silly nationalistic or racial mythology. The truth is, almost everyone is good at fighting. Logistics and governance, on the other hand…

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  4. Re read and saw the comparisons to individual interactions as well… of course there differences as well but one can see the scaling up as well. After all an army. Or government is made up of individual human beings and a lead by people who have the same behaviours feelings fears etc.

    Also good comparison can be made about the tools we use in War and personal combat. .. people generally overlook the idea that is so often has very little to do with efficiency and afraid more to do with other factors not least of which the social environment plays the bigger part.

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