In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.
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My aim with this topic is to examine the development of European swords through the Medieval period and into the Renaissance, along the way looking at all the details that change throughout that timeframe. I also intend to look at the possible reasons behind the gradual transformations of the sword, be they caused by changes in technology, society, combat styles, or even fashion.
Today I will tackle the first part of this period up until around the 11th to 12th century. Before we go straight into the Early Medieval period however, we do need to find where our starting point originates. Like many things in Medieval Europe, the influence of the Romans is never too far off, and in the case of swords it is no different. The Roman Empire is famous for its use of the ‘gladius’, a relatively short sword with an acute point optimized for stabbing. While this makes for a very deadly weapon when used in a well organised tight formation of troops, all of which would have used the very large ‘scutum’ shield, this sword isn’t incredibly well suited in other situations. A different type of sword started to enter Roman service that was particularly favoured by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the early Imperial period. This was the ‘Spatha’, a longer, narrower sword that is more optimised for cutting, and was seemingly inspired by long Celtic Iron Age swords. Initially the spatha was a cavalry sword, suited to the job due to the longer reach it afforded the wielder; up to 100cm as opposed to the 65-85cm of the gladius. Eventually however, in the later Imperial period from around the 3rd Century AD, and until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the spatha became the primary sword of the infantry. There is still debate on the reasons for this change, with possible theories stemming from the shift in demographic of the Late Roman Army. It appears that more Germanic peoples made up a greater portion of the armies, many of whom even commanded whole legions of their own culture. This may have caused the fighting style to change, with looser formations, lighter more manoeuvrable shields, and these longer swords to take advantage of the greater freedom and space in the melee. Additionally, these Germanic people could have simply chosen to fight with weapons more familiar to them, as the spatha is more similar to Northern European swords of the time. Whatever the reasons, it is ultimately this change that would be the basis for the vast majority of European sword development through the medieval period.
Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire, and until around the 8th Century we have what is known as the Migration Period. Throughout these few hundred years we see very little change in the basic design of the sword from the spatha. The migration period sword is still somewhat different in that the guard and pommel shapes change slightly from the more rounded Roman styles. Initially the guard and pommel pieces seem to become more minimal, with some being simple flat bars, ovals or discs, resulting in swords that have almost no pommel and simply a bar to help retain grip. Early on in this period most of the hilt construction appears to consist of organic materials, generally wood, as well as perhaps some horn and bone elements, very similar to Roman swords. As we move closer to the early medieval period the guards and pommels seem to feature metal more prominently, especially on the more ornate examples that are also heavily jewelled. The metals are mostly gold, silver or copper alloys, although these metals survive much better than Iron, so this could be skewing our statistics. The metal on these swords is mostly in the form of ornate plates covering parts of the grip, or plates in the pommel and guard construction that from a sandwich around a core of organic material.
It is later in the migration period, more specifically going into the Vendel period and the time of the Merovingian dynasty, that these swords start to change again in subtle but significant ways. We start to see pommels changing in shape due to end caps being fitted over the flat bar piece that already exists. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward and is most likely to do with the way sword hilts are constructed. Every sword is made as a single piece in essence, with a thin bar section continuing from the bottom of the blade called the ‘tang’, which is where the sword is held. This keeps the whole sword from having any significant weak points where any joins could be. From there the hilt is basically just slotted onto the tang in order to make the sword more comfortable and easy to hold. With the previous migration period examples the tang was mostly fitted straight to the plate at the pommel end of the hilt, with the affixing method such as rivet or simply the exposed tang being peened. What we get in the later migration period is the appearance of larger end caps on top of this plate, which seemingly started to be used as a way of adding more decorative elements to the hilt without the fragile materials interfering with the strength of the construction. The prominent example of this pommel style is known as the ‘pyramid pommel’. These pommels, and the swords in general, are amazing examples of craftsmanship of the period, with gold elements holding finely shaped garnets in the cloisonné technique, and sometimes added filigree and different textures added under the stones to give different reflections. It is from these end caps that we start to see pommel design turn into the familiar shapes of the Viking age.
Overall it appears that the place of the sword shifted somewhat in the migration period, with it becoming a more high-class weapon that only the very elite could afford. Gone were the days of the large standardised army of the Roman Empire. Small groups and petty kingdoms could scarcely afford to outfit many of their troops with this expensive weapon. Instead we see the spear return to prominence, if it ever left. Much less Iron was required for spears, and they could be far more effective in a basic shieldwall of less disciplined troops than the sword. This could explain why so many examples from this period are so incredibly ornate, when earlier and later swords are generally far more utilitarian.
From the migration period we move into the early medieval period. Possibly also referred to as the ‘Viking age’ or the ‘Carolingian period’. Many of the examples of swords that we will see in this period are commonly known as ‘viking swords’, although very similar styles were used across Europe, such as in Francia and Britain prominently. Again the changes we see are rather minor in overall appearance, but they set some significant precedents that develop later into the medieval period. The first point to be made is that there certainly were the ornate styles of Migration period sword being used well into this time, just as these ‘viking swords’ could be seen after their time of prominence too. The most striking change we see as we advance in time is that the guards and pommels of swords start to be made entirely of iron or steel. There would still have been many rich examples featuring precious metals and other decoration, but for the most part the organic elements are now confined to the grip alone, which is usually made of leather wrapped wood, or sometimes made of bone, horn, and even wrapped in wire. The hilt styles of these swords appear very similar in shape to earlier examples, with flat bars against the hand on both ends, resulting in a very secure grip on the sword. The pommels are also still made with an added end cap, often still hollow, covering the end of the tang. Although they do start to simplify, with less individual parts until they combine into a single piece as this period comes to a close.
An important part of the development of swords is of course in the quality of the steel being used for the blade. While I couldn’t possibly go into all the details of the metallurgy and smithing processes that combine to make a good sword, now is a good point to mention the basic approach to swordsmithing in this period, as a big change is about to occur. Swords of this early medieval period are famous for having very intricately made ‘pattern welded’ blades. The term ‘damascus steel’ is commonly used for this style of blade construction, but in this case is a misnomer. From the Roman period, through the migration and early part of the Viking age, pattern welded sword blades, and those of other weapons, were very common. This method is essentially a way of making a high quality blade that is strong, flexes but does not bend, and has few weak spots. This was a necessary technique due to large quantities of quality iron not being readily available, as well as the ability to melt steel in order to homogenize it into a uniform structure not being prevalent. So what pattern welding does is it allows you to take pieces of steel of differing qualities and form them into bars or rods and twist them together into various patterns, some of which can be highly decorative as well as functional. The different steels are then ‘forge welded’ together, basically meaning they were heated to a high temperature and hammered into shape until they fuse together. Early forms of this technique had been done for hundreds of years, possibly even by early Celtic smiths, through a method known as ‘piling’ which is mostly just forge welding various pieces together at random or in simple lines. The point here is that by the early Medieval period, pattern welding techniques had been around for centuries and had essentially been perfected. A smith making these complex patterns had reached the peak of forging technology. The significant change that happens in this period is not to do with forging technology, but with smelting technology, which is the earlier stage where the metal is extracted from Iron ore and refined. What actually changed here is the type of furnace being used in this process, going from a type called a ‘bloomery’ to the new ‘blast furnace’, essentially allowing for higher temperatures. This change is commonly thought to have happened around 1000 AD, but it appears to being around 800 AD, so essentially the entirety of the ‘Viking age’ is covered by the slow process of pattern welded swords being replaced by new single steel swords. Many methods did carry on further however, such as the use of forge welding different steels together, notably done to have a softer or more flexible body to the sword, with harder steel on the edges. It is important to mention that the majority of this change comes out of the Carolingian or Frankish Empire, and frequently the high quality swords made there were sought after in surrounding regions, including Scandinavia. This continues to include the famous swords inscribed with the name ‘ULFBERHT’ that seemingly denoted the highly advanced steel being used.
Having covered the material changes of the sword going through the early medieval period, we should finally look at some of the significant changes that occur in the shape of swords and their hilts again before we get to the High Middle Ages post 11th century. The development I mention here is most likely linked to changes in combat techniques that also come from the Carolingian Empire. The whole period I have covered here, from the Roman Empire, through the migration period and the early medieval, has always featured the sword alongside its best friend; the shield. Not just any shield however, but specifically the centre-gripped or boss held shield, a shield held in the middle in a single fist, protected by the metal dome of a ‘boss’, the Viking round shield and the Roman scutum are good examples. Eventually this type of shield gave way to the strapped shield in its various forms, with straps attaching the shield to the forearm. There are several reasons why this change of shield may have taken place, one being the ability to free the hand while still retaining the shield being more suitable for cavalry, an element of the Frankish army that became more prominent in this period, as they were credited with being the origin of the medieval knight. Also, although the centre-gripped shield was more manoeuvrable in certain ways, and more offensive and allowing for greater reach, it could be easily manipulated by the opponent by pivoting the shield around the wielder’s gripping hand. The first strapped shields of this period came in a dome shape which could glance off attacks rather than being pivoted, and the strapping to the arm also helped with this. Ultimately this type of shield would appear to be more useful and sturdy in tight formations of troops, as the face of the shield could more safely be pointed toward the enemy while giving greater cover to the formation from missiles.
So why is all this detail on shields relevant to the use of swords? Well the key point here is that these new shields being strapped to the arm were no longer held forward along with the sword hand in combat. Also previous shields would essentially do most of the work in creating openings in the opponent’s defences, and then the sword would be quickly used to exploit them. The strapped shield can no longer function this way, which both leaves the sword hand now more vulnerable, and the sword now being made to do more of the work in combat, rather than just waiting for the time to strike. Dealing with that last point first, the sword would now be more likely to encounter other swords and weapons, and result in opponents entering a ‘bind’, where swords are used to apply pressure on and manipulate each other. This is what you may think of when you imagine proper ‘swordfighting’. So how does the sword adapt to this? First of all we can see the shape of the pommel and guard changing. The pommel will start to become more rounded, and smaller in some cases, allowing the sword to be gripped more comfortably in a point forward position with the blade more in line with the forearm. This allows for the swordsman to exert greater pressure in the bind, as well as attack with the point more easily. The previous method of gripping the sword in more of a right angle to the arm, while seeming more secure in the hand, had a weak point at the grip itself when attempting to apply pressure rather than going for the quick chop. The grip will also change overall by becoming slightly longer, as well as both the pommel and guard starting to curve away from the hand in some examples, all of which gives the hand more room to grip the sword more comfortably in this more forward position. Lastly, to deal with the issue of vulnerability of the hand, the guard of the sword will now truly become a crossguard. Early examples begin to have slightly longer guard pieces, until they eventually become much longer, as well as thinner to help accommodate for the weight as they get larger.
It is these developments all together that start to bring us towards the ‘arming’ sword of the high middle ages, the most prominent of which we may know of at the period around 1000 AD would be those famously wielded by the Normans, such as in the Bayeux tapestry. The improvement in smelting technology gives the appearance of a single-steel sword, and the new requirements in combat and use of different shields start to lengthen the grip, change the pommel first into slightly rounded or ‘brazil nut’ shapes, before the iconic circular pommel, and then the true ‘crossguard’ comes into existence.
With this important transition taking place, I will stop there. Keep an eye out for my next post on this topic where swords start to evolve more drastically and rapidly throughout the rest of the medieval and following renaissance period, including changes to the overall shape and length of the swords, the first longswords and two-handed swords, and various blade types meant for specific purposes.
Since before 3500 BC people have been putting defensive walls around their settlements. As I’m sure you all know, these pesky walls and fortifications can be a real pain when you want to get inside somewhere for whatever reason. Maybe you’re at war with the occupants, maybe they have something of yours, like some loot that should clearly belong to you, or perhaps you just happen to have an army and feel like attacking something. Whatever your reasons for laying siege, that’s your business, and I’m not here to judge. No, my purpose today is to let you know which siege tactics and weapons you should be using to get you through those walls and to whatever goal lay within. So whichever period of time in which you happen to be conducting your siege, take a look below at the closest example and you should find the best methods available to you.
New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1077 BC)
Starting as early as we can with any real substance, with the New Kingdom of Egypt. As an Egyptian in this period you could expect to be fighting various different enemies, such as the Canaanites or the Hittites. Many of the enemy held towns that you come across may be fortified, so you should be prepared for a siege. As you will see throughout later periods, it is often the case that you are better off attempting to out-wait the enemy within, just as they try to wait for you to give up and go away. This basic but effective approach can be more seriously applied by preventing any movement into or out of the walls, and thus cutting the enemy off from any new supplies or means of escape. This was done at the siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC when Pharaoh Thutmose III had a moat and wooden palisade constructed around the city, essentially giving the attackers their own wall to sit behind and wait for the enemy to surrender, except with the important difference being that they had the rest of the outside world behind their walls, rather than a small limited space with ever dwindling supplies. The defenders eventually surrendered after several months and were spared.
If such a peaceful outcome doesn’t interest you so much, then there are other options that you have in this period. The Egyptians did use various constructions against fortifications, the most common and basic of which would have been large ladders to scale the walls in order to assault the defended positions atop. Usually an assault like this should be supported by archers, but keep an eye out for the large sails that your enemy may have flying above their walls, as these may render your arrows less effective against the occupants in the city. These tactics would have been used at the siege of Dapur in 1269 BC against the Hittite Empire during Ramesses II’s campaign to conquer Syria. As an attacker you should be able to defend your own troops from enemy arrow shot as well, as there are examples of mobile roofed structures and simple moving towers that you can use in an assault.
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)
Moving forward in time as we go, we come to some other good examples of early siege warfare with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, after years of war and conquest, had become a most powerful and successful empire, and had also learned a thing or two about how to conduct a siege in the process. During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 B.C.) the battering ram was developed into something more sophisticated than a simple wooden log. These Assyrian rams were heavy, five meters long, and protected by a roof and turret in which archers were placed. The ram was suspended from the roof by ropes so it could swing freely. The ramming end was covered by a metal plate, shaped into a blade that was driven into the bricks of the wall effectively.
Once you have a few, or preferably many, of these rams in place on the enemy’s walls and gates, you should then look to combine them with methods of topping the walls during the assault, as the Assyrians had found that a multi-faceted approach is a good idea. As usual it is always the standard to assault the walls with ladders, but there are also other methods for getting higher, most notably the use of great earthen ramps. These would be a huge engineering effort to construct, but they could only have to be built part way up the wall, and from there you could bring a ram up the ramp to demolish the wall at this height where it is usually thinner. This method was proven successful at the siege of Lachish in 701 BC when Assyrian King Sennacherib fought to subjugate the rebelling Kingdom of Judah.
Classical and Hellenistic Greece (510-31 BC)
Moving onto Greece, the later part of the Classical, and then the Hellenistic period of Greece saw a height of military innovation, which in turn gives you plenty of options for how to assault a fortification. In earlier Ancient Greece, siege was never much of a consideration. War at this time was a part-time seasonal affair that would take place when the common farmers had time off between sowing and harvest. It only really becomes more common once professional armies are taken up by the Greek states, allowing for the time it takes to conduct a siege. It also helps that after around 450 BC the Greeks could take some ideas from their Persian enemies, leading to tactics such as surrounding cities, building ramps, and the use of battering rams, similar to what the Assyrians were using some centuries earlier. However, the Greeks did start to develop their own methods eventually.
At around 400 BC the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily was in conflict with the Carthaginians. It was here that many Greek artisans and technicians were recruited to create new innovations of war. The first step was the gastrephetes meaning the ‘belly bow’ which was the first crossbow. From the basic mechanics of this weapon, it was possible to scale it up until it was too heavy to carry, and so was placed on a tripod and mounted on a swivel, with a winch to draw it. This was the first catapult (named katzapeltes, meaning ‘shield-piercer’) which was used at the siege of Motya in 197 BC to shoot as far as 300 yards at the Carthaginian fleet. Eventually this weapon was further developed into the oxybeles that used torsion by twisting sinew rather than the tension of a bow. In the following years the Greeks invented many variants of catapult, including lithobolos or ‘stone thrower’, and even a supposed repeating crossbow mechanism that shot bolts from a magazine called the polybolos. Various types and sizes of ballista were even used in the most famous example of a siege tower the Helepolis ‘the taker of cities’ which was used in the siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC. This tower was supposedly over 40 meters tall and 20 meters wide and ran on 8 huge wheels. It had 3 walls to the front and sides which were all plated in iron to make it fireproof. It weighed 160 tons and had 2 or 3 ballistas on each of its several floors.
The Roman Empire (27 BC – 480 AD)
If you’re Greek or Roman, you’ll mostly be using the same sort of siege machines. Ever since the earlier Romans saw the power of Greek inventor Archimedes’ huge catapults, ship-lifting claws, and even sunlight death beams (apparently) in Syracuse (again) they clearly felt they should probably use some of these. They did make some improvements of their own to these weapons however, such as making them lighter and more manoeuvrable, or combining battering rams and boarding bridges into their siege towers. They also further developed on the torsion powered weapons of the Greeks, resulting in the Onager, which later became the standard use for the term ‘catapult’ which was a stone thrower with a vertical arm. These could be thrown in a great arc, and also use heavier projectiles, great for either going over, or smashing into a wall you wish wasn’t there.
Aside from the weapons, the tactics used by the Romans were similar to what is seen before, but executed well. They would surround cities and blockade ports effectively, and then set up their own fortified camps out of range of the enemy and in elevated positions for observation. This helped the Romans defend themselves should they be attacked by enemy reinforcements coming from elsewhere, something easily missed when you’re so focussed on the enemy within. In an assault they would construct ramps and use ladders as usual, but they would also use moving barricades and shields made of wood or wicker to defend themselves, as well as using their own shields in the famous testudo formation as they advanced.
The Medieval Period (up to the 15th Century)
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD there was very little in the way of siege weapon development. The following Migration Period saw many smaller groups settle and have less need for sieges. Later in the Early Medieval period and Viking Age, there are some examples of sieges, but most of these just use what knowledge is left from contact with the Romans, for example with the Franks, as well as the Byzantines, who would have had the best ability and knowledge during this time. More northern peoples such as the Vikings or Saxons, would have avoided large sieges and aimed more for raiding actions. The Vikings did besiege some large cities however, such as Paris in 845 and again in 885, where they are said to have used ballistae and catapults, although it is unlikely. The Vikings mostly used their advanced ships to their advantage, where attacking Paris was ideal, as it is on a river island. They also attacked London at the end of their era, where they used their ships again to pull down towers, and pulled roofs off of buildings to put over the ships as cover from arrows.
1066 is seen as the end of the Viking age, and shortly after this is when the Normans started to build many stone castles throughout England. During the 12th and 13th centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defences, siegecraft developed. Sieges became far more common as the use of castles and fortified cities did too, and battles became rarer than in the past. The tried and true method of simply out-waiting the defenders still continues to be a solid choice in these cases, but then again, those defenders were probably expecting a siege and prepared for a long one too. So when it finally came to demolish those walls, something more powerful than a catapult of ballista was needed. The first weapon to be widely adopted was the mangonel. This weapon was essentially a larger swinging-arm catapult that was powered by the pulling force of a team of men. Shortly after this came the more famous trebuchet. This was a similar weapon that could be made very large, but was instead powered by a sophisticated counterweight mechanism. The trebuchet first appeared from the Byzantines, and was quickly adopted by the crusaders, which in turn spread its use throughout Europe. Although these weapons mostly launched stones of 50-100kg at a range around 300 meters, their main advantages over every other type of siege weapon before it was its accuracy and cycle rate, as there was no need for time consuming cranking or winding, but just resetting everything into place. Also, the key to bringing down a heavily fortified wall is to keep striking it in the same place, something a trebuchet could easily do after the first shot was correct. There were some huge trebuchets which supposedly launched stones of 800kg or even 1,500kg, but these would have been very difficult and incredibly slow to construct and use.
The Age of Gunpowder
If you really, truly want to knock down walls, then ignore everything I just said, and get a cannon. Cannons only became viable in the later medieval and renaissance periods, after years of experimentation since the 13th century. Once they stopped trying to use gunpowder to shoot ballista bolts, bundles of arrows, and stones and finally settled on the idea of the cannonball, the previously impregnable castles of Europe were rendered obsolete. The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons is the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further and faster than previous weapons. They could also fire in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, old fashioned walls that are high and relatively thin were excellent targets, and over time easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II’s army. However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be “built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw”. He proposed star shaped fortresses with low, thick walls. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I.
With everything thrown into an entirely new state of being by the ever increasing power and efficiency of cannons, and the fortifications to match them, the attackers would now need to prepare for the siege thoroughly. There has always been a need to encircle the enemy and defend your own lines from those within as well as reinforcements from without, but now that so much of your army would consist of vulnerable artillery positions, you would need to think harder about your own defences. So lines of trenches would now be built by the attackers, first starting out of range of the defending artillery, parallel to the walls, and then another line is dug towards the walls in a zig-zag to prevent those using it from being exposed, until finally the forward line would be dug from there in artillery range parallel to the wall again. You can then place your artillery in that forward position, and build other defences around it, and prepare for the long siege ahead. As has been the case forever, it is still in the 17th century mostly about waiting the enemy out, whether you are the attacker or defender. And now that sieges had become so prevalent, and so long, they had become very expensive, and a single siege could take up an entire campaign. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle of war was now a slow, grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles were almost always expensive failures.
Eventually, in the 19th century, after hundreds of years of siege warfare settling into a rut, things started to change in a few ways. Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless. For example, the walls of Vienna that had held off the Turks in the mid-17th century were no obstacle to Napoleon in the early 19th. This was starting to lead to a decline in sieges taking place, but when railways were introduced, they made it possible to move and supply of larger armies. It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which blocked these lines. Furthermore, the apparent effectiveness of additional field defences along with improvements to firearms technology made it easier for the defenders again. This then led to the adoption of tactics that would make the defenders surrender by bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the defences.
By the 20th century, city walls had become ineffective to modern artillery, which could destroy them, or bypass them from miles away. This brings us to WW1, which introduced trench warfare on a mass scale, and essentially a form of siege as it progressed. During the war, many methods and tactics for assaulting enemy lines with special troops developed, but overall the war was dominated by artillery. By WW2 and subsequently, the form of siege was mostly in the form of large forces encircling and bombarding cities into submission before assault. However, the continuing development of armoured vehicles and aircraft meant that mobility was far more important than ever before, and the introduction of long range bombing, and eventually inter-continental missiles make it virtually impossible to defend a position indefinitely without the surrender of either side.
Late last year I got the opportunity to read an advance issue of Medieval Warfare and since it was a chance to keep up to date with different historical literature since graduation I was delighted. A couple of issues were sent to W.U.HSTRY and Lilly (W.U.HSTRY ruler) sent this one over to me as it kept in line with my interests as a historian including art history, the Hundred Years War, and my curiosity in medieval weaponry. My initial reaction in receiving this issue, which is released in January 2017, was to enjoy how much effort has gone into the layout of the magazine and wishing I had the ability to draw medieval landscapes and images with such skill. The key theme of this issue was the ideology of man, specifically those of the lower orders of society, trying to act like God through violence and war in order to settle their respective scores, and the German Peasants War of the sixteenth century was an apt choice to represent this theme throughout. The editor of Medieval Warfare, Peter Konieczny, gave a short introduction to the theme of this month by identifying the main contributors to January’s edition such as eminent medieval scholars such as Kelly DeVries, some of whose work I enjoyed reading myself during research in my undergraduate History degree. There are heavier analytical aspects to this magazine towards the German Peasants War and this is followed by a lighter hearted tale of a cow stopping a siege.
I could sit here and analyse the whole magazine but I thought it would be more suitable for me to choose the highlights. As expected from the magazine with warfare in the title there is a strong tilt towards weaponry, armour, military tactics and the role the lords and peasants played against each other during the German Rebellion. The first article by Kelly DeVries ‘Lucifer and his Angels’ debates the issue around why would peasants revolt in the first place. The abstract introduces the Marxist opinion that peasant oppression from their lords meant that rebellion was always ‘simmering’. DeVries initially states that peasant revolts were infrequent, of varying size, and never successful. This is a good start to looking into why, how and what caused the sixteenth century German peasants to revolt and why it is particularly interesting to medieval historians. Throughout the article is images of armour worn during the war and maps presenting the breadth of the revolt in the German provinces.
The next couple of articles include text by Erich B.Anderson who looks at an army that swept through Upper Swabia in 1525 and Jean-Claude Brunner’s ‘Siege of Salzburg’. They both look in-depth as specific episodes of German history within the different aspects of the Peasants War. Another interesting part was an excerpt in Sidney E.Dean’s article on ‘Knight of the Iron Hand’ Götz von Berlichingen where Dean looked specifically into the mechanics of Berlichingen’s literal iron hands and whether they were efficient or useless in their role. Each article offers the opportunity to look into further reading which for both amateur and academic historians alike are useful.
The best article available in my opinion would be Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis’ ‘Death, Violence and Sex’ which looks into Anti-War propaganda art created during the sixteenth century as a response to the wars encircling Europe during the late middle ages. This is a particular interest to the art geek in me. Art in the military was limited as an aid in studying the military in itself and their equipment. Tzouriadis references Hale’s 1990 work Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. This offers extra insight into how historians have started to critically analyse illustrations to inform their research. The article shows several examples to back up both Tzouriadis and Hale’s analysis.
It is always good practise as historians to look for parallels between the medieval and modern eras. Dahm looks into the socio-economic and political similarities between medieval Germany and 1850 when an eminent piece of medieval warfare scholarship was published. The last part of the magazine was dedicated towards the Hundred Years War as an increasing interest in the logistics of medieval warfare is appearing in historical literature, and a weapon that never existed.
In all this is a fascinating issue that introduced an element of history I was unfamiliar with and happy to get acquainted. The whole issue is 60 pages and packed with information, illustrations and snippets of relevant information. There is a coherency between the articles with a strand on the role of peasants in history, the logistics of each revolt, war, rebellion, siege or catastrophe and finally their representation in the media. I found nothing to argue with but a lot to research as a new interest to add to my bookshelves and by the end of the magazine you will want to rewatch Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the last article).
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Today I bring you something completely unlike me – warfare! I worked on this some time ago (2010 I believe), during my urban Europe studies, and for my surprise I really enjoyed it. I think the reason for that is because, even though it about warfare, my approach attempted to put things in context from a cultural and social point of view. I have now gone over my research, and unlike many other topics I investigated at the time, I still feel the same way about this one. So, I thought I’ll share, see what you think of it! Sure Alex will have something to say!
The period from 1500 to 1700 has been conceived as one of the most bellicose times in Europe. Changes in warfare throughout this period impacted the experience for towns, cities and their inhabitants. But first, we need to establish the background of military technology up to this stage. Medieval warfare was based in men power, archers and few machines like catapults or mortars. Armies were not particularly big, except when involved in conflicts of great magnitude such as the Crusades. However, by the 14th century gunpowder artillery began to have a role in war. Although gunpowder had existed since ancient times in China, it is thought that this type of application in artillery was first ‘invented’ by German engineers, and used by the Venetians in their wars against the Genovese. And the bad – or good news – were that gunpowder was coming to stay. Here is when ‘the Military Revolution’ began. You know I am not always very fond of this pre-established terminology, but this one I believe in. The term was first used in a lecture in 1995, at Queen’s University, (Belfast) by Michael Roberts. He believed that this revolution happened in Europe between the 16th and the 17th century.
M. C. Paul has defined the concept as “a series of changes in tactics and strategy, the scale of warfare and the impact of warfare in society, which began in the United Provinces (Netherlands) in the late sixteenth century and culminated in Sweden during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus in the first third of the seventeenth century”.
The main evidences of this process are the new pieces of artillery and fortifications of the period, but there are other issues that reflect the changes implied in this revolution. ‘Military brokers’ (yeah, brokers like those from the banks or that sell insurance) were used by the different governments in order to rise mercenary armies to fight their foes, but that usually ended up damaging civilian life and property. There were also ‘new’ ways of recruitment, as well as the increasing number of mercenary troops. These new recruits were usually criminals, troublemakers, and people with mental and physical disabilities – in other words “meat-shields”, disposable troops, people who no-one would particularly miss…Or at least not the town councils that recruited them...
Artillery wise, there were some changes that were crucial in its development. The machines were provided with carriage devices that made them easier to transport and display. But the critical change was from stone to cast-iron shot, which was more accurately calibrated and had a density liable to flatten masonry works on fortresses. This was a big threat for towns and their security. The problem here was not any more some few knights trying to get control of their fortresses: this was pure destruction on wheels. Hence, new devices for defense were needed. The first measure that everyone applied in order to protect their communities was to thicken and reinforce the town walls. There were also the additions of gun-loops in the lower parts of the walls, in order to protect the more vulnerable points, such as entrances or gates. These gun-loops did not require a massive reform of the wall surface as they could be easily done by modifying arrow slits to allow a gun barrel pass through it. But this did not always work. La Rochelle (France) exemplifies this best. After the Huguenot massacre in Vassy, the protestant French forces knew that just the reinforcement of their fortifications was not enough. Therefore, they undertook a long process of reconstruction and addition of new defenses, such as the angled bastion. These protected effectively the city during the siege of 1572-73. Many other places followed this model, and opted for the addition of the diamond-shaped bastion. Nonetheless, the general model of fortification was the ‘trace italienne’, which consisted in a low rampart replacing the medieval wall, or a separate rampart in case the wall was kept, with no bastions as they were seen as a burden. But all this was to change, thanks to a single man and its vision: the French architect Sebastien Vauban. His fortifications included all the devices mentioned before and were considered the most elegant and efficient in Europe, fact that can be appreciated in his masterpiece: the city of Lille.
But, how effective were these fortresses? The truth is that they proved to be quite effective in the innumerable sieges that happened during this period. By the beginning of the 17th century these were insuperable strongholds but the presented one issue: visibility issues. Good news for the attackers – surprise attacks will get top marks, but this was not always a very easy maneuver to perform. Moreover, the visibility problem was easily resolved. Towns added gun-towers to have a better view of their surroundings and to provide effective flanking fire. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to consider this the end of story – it is not, at all. War had secondary effects on towns. All this process of walling up cities created a stronger feeling of independence and community in towns as the walls became their symbol. Furthermore, it created a closer relationship between towns and the rural areas due to the need of ready supplies. But space started running short, and towns begun to build up their houses to have space to live and work, and new plans of edification were generated (radial and gridiron). These made streets narrow and buildings close to each other…Cities became a massive hazard for epidemic infections and that mixed with the social disruption.
Interestingly, and despite all this development, the conditions of a siege remained the same that in other ages of history: famine, crime, disease…John Landers has produced a study with a table that shows the death causes in Sweden between 1620 and 1719 more people died due to disease (88%) than in combat(12%). This is not something new, but actually a rather common effect of warfare. The new urban layout made people fear more artefacts like bombards that could cause a fire and massive demolition inside the town due to their firing arch. People were constricted within their own walls…But along came the 17th century to change this. As cities could not expand and were too crowded the walls were demolished or left to ruin. Frontiers were closed, towns opened, and the fortified ‘bonneville’ changed into ‘la comerce’ – system that has been preserved up to modern-day urban geography. Also it has to be considered that the urban response was not the same everywhere. Unlike France or Italy, England remained basically unwalled until the Civil War, and there were differences among the south and the north of the country. In Eastern Europe, the process happened a bit later. Places like Russia or even Germany preferred the reinforced wall system rather than the new one.
I am very supportive of this statement by Hale, about these changes:
“Gunpowder, in short, revolutionized the conduct but not the outcome of wars”.
But we are missing a key fact in here that I have already been hinting at. One can appreciate war from its victims, and gun powder for sure changed the perception of conflict for those who had to suffer it. The destructive nature of canons, firearms, their terrible noise…That was something that shaped people’s minds, and it made them fear. An arrow does not produce much noise, it will not keep you up by night…but a gun shot will. All the urban developments jeopardising urban health and security contributed to this shock too. So, personal opinion? Yes, gunpowder revolutionised warfare, but more importantly, it change the modern world and its people.
Now, if this has made you think, or tickled your fancy, here are my sources. Some may be out of date, and if that is the case, please send us a comment with some more up to date theories!
-Duffy, C., Siege Warfare: the Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-1660, (London and New York, 1979)
-Hale, J.R., ‘Gunpowder and the Renaissance: an Essay in the History of Ideas’, Renaissance War Studies, (London, 1983), pp. 389-420
-Johnston, A.J.B., ‘Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban: Reflections on His Fame, His Fortifications, and His Influence’, French Colonial History, Vol. 3, (2003), pp. 175-188
-Kinard, J., Artillery: an Illustrated History of Its Impact, (E-Book published by ABC-Clio, 2007)
-Landers, J., ‘The Destructiveness of Pre-Industrial Warfare: Political and Technological Determinants’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 42, No. 4, (Jul., 2005), pp. 455-470
-Nicholas, D., Urban Europe, 1100-1700, (Basingstoke, 2003)
-Parker, G., The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, (Cambridge, 1996)
-Paul, M.C., ‘The Military Revolution in Russia, 1550-1628’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1, (Jan., 2004), pp. 9-45
-Potter, D., Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c.1480-1560, (Woodbridge, 2008)
-Reid, S., Castles and Tower Houses of the Scottish Clans 1450-1650, (Oxford and New York, 2006)
-Thompson, M.W., The Decline of the Castle, (Cambridge and New York, 1987)
-Wolfe, M., Walled Towns and the Shaping of France: from the Medieval to the Early Modern Era, (New York, 2009)
A topic that I have seen a lot of misconceptions about in the past is the use and effectiveness of plate armour of the Late Medieval/Renaissance period. A lot of this comes in the form of tropes from movies, as well video games to some extent. Some examples show the armour to be completely useless, while others show it to be used strange ways and configurations.
Introduction to Plate Armour
After the plate armour used in the Ancient and Classical periods (such as Roman lorica segmentata). It began to see widespread use again in the late 13th Century. These were mostly single plates used to protect joints and the shins over a mail hauberk. By the end of the 14th century, the full suit of armour had been developed. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. England produced armour in Greenwich which developed its own unique style. Maximilian style armour immediately followed this in the early 16th century.
Obviously the point of armour is to protect the wearer from harm, and yet there are countless depictions of armour in films, television and other media of armour being barely any better that wearing nothing, or even worse when mobility is considered. So what sort of protection did the plate armour of this period provide? There is some very simple evidence that we can see first of all; the design of specific anti-armour weaponry. This includes warhammers, maces, poleaxes, and certain specific swords, crossbows and daggers. These weapons are all designed with the aim of two main approaches. First of all is to punch through armour using a high force of impact at a small point, such as with the spikes on warhammers and poleaxes, as well as heavy crossbows. Secondly, they could bypass the armour entirely by exploiting the gaps between plates, which would be what you would try to do with swords, rondel daggers, and spikes on the top of poleaxes or similar weapons. Furthermore, there are fighting techniques that were developed to be used in conjunction with these weapons against an armoured opponent. These can be seen in certain late-medieval combat treatises that depict armoured fighting. In these styles of combat, you are taught to rely on your armour to fully protect you from strikes you may receive from regular weapons (shown below), and when fighting an armoured enemy you should first aim to tire or weaken them by striking them with heavy blunt force or accurate thrusts to weaknesses, and then if possible to grapple them to the ground so you can finish them with a thrust through the visor or under the helmet to the throat with your rondel dagger.
These examples are quite convincing to me, but if you need more evidence, there have also been more scientific tests on the effectiveness of various weapons against various armours, and the metallurgy of medieval armour. You do need to be careful, however, to avoid the ‘tests’ you may see on some ‘historical’ documentaries’ you may find on TV, as they seem to think placing a solitary breastplate or thin piece of mail made of who-knows-what type of steel against a flat surface and shooting it with a modern bow is good enough. In real use, weapons and armour would behave far differently. First of all there would be movement, as the armoured man would most likely not stay still while you attack him, he would attempt to move and negate some of the force of a blow, or let it glance off at an angle. This is a very important point, as with all forms of armour, even modern tanks, the shape and angle of it makes up half of the protection value. The other half, comes from the quality of the materials. Generally the materials and construction of armour get better through time, especially when multiple layers are used, and the steel starts to be surface hardened. In some tests, it does very rarely occur that an arrow may pierce a piece of plate armour, but this in reality would barely even cause a wound in most cases, as underneath the breastplate for example, there is usually empty space, and then a layer of chain mail, and then a layer of thick padded gambeson.
Furthermore, the type of arrow used would be important, as something with a broad head point would have little hope of doing anything to armour. Even with more effective types of arrow, if it only hits a smooth angled part of the armour, it will glance off. The main weakness against arrows would be the visor of the helmet, where although the arrow wouldn’t literally slip though the gap, but it would just have something to catch onto, and drive all the force of the shot into the opening, probably widening it and then entering the face. Therefore a knight would probably just lower their head in the hail of arrows, just as if it was rain.
“Did you hit me yet?”
The second main principle of armour to consider is the mobility of it, including the weight, comfort, and range of motion. These factors are probably subject to even more misconception, thanks again to movies, mostly. The first thing to mention here is that obviously armour is going to have some negative effects on the mobility of its wearer, and with all armour there is always a compromise between mobility and protection. If you want to increase the protection, you have to either increase the thickness, or the size of a plate of metal, thus making it heavier, and more cumbersome for the wearer. You can see examples of this in action when you look at certain armours, as with some the pauldron of the forward facing shoulder would be larger, providing more protection, while the shoulder of the sword-arm would have a smaller pauldron, allowing for easier use of the weapon. a reasonable trade-off. So there are some points to certainly consider in the mobility of plate armour, it obviously doesn’t act like clothing, and some examples do restrict movement a fair amount, but these are either very poorly made, or are tournament armour, which is meant for jousting and provides a lot of protection, but would be useless to fight normally in.
However, as I said there are many misconceptions about plate armour surrounding this. One of the main ones, and perhaps quite understandable, is the weight. After all, it must be insanely heavy to wear a full suit of metal on your body! and with layers of chain underneath? Well full harness would probably weigh somewhere between 30-50 kg. This is actually pretty similar to the weight in gear modern soldiers have been carrying in march for years. There have been tests on the effects of this weight on the wearer in regards to their ability to move and march after wearing armour for long periods of time, but with armour you probably wouldn’t be wearing it to march in for long distances, unless you were particularly paranoid of being ambushed at any moment. Open battles in the medieval period were enough of a rare occurrence in war when compared with sieges, and were usually planned in advance, allowing you the time to equip yourself, so you wouldn’t be wearing your armour for overly long periods of time. When you were wearing your armour, you would of course be heavier, but with the weight evenly spread out all over your body it really doesn’t have the same effect as carrying 50 Kilos just from your shoulders.
So what about the ease of movement in armour? This is another case where the popular view is very wrong, with some believing that knights would not be able to get up if they fell on the ground, or even had to be hoisted into their saddles with cranes. A lot of this comes from misleading information from the 19th century, as a lot of historical misconceptions seem to. Well made plate armour would mostly allow for completely normal movement by the wearer, with the main restriction only being tilting of the neck in certain helmets. In fact, well articulated armour would allow for greater range of movement in most joints that the human body is capable of. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth and sixteenth century armour as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armour can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.
Lastly, the main issue one may have while wearing a full suit of plate armour would be the visibility out of the visor. Certain helmets had larger openings which would make it easier to see, and most had visors or removable face plates. It is generally thought that visors would be kept down at range to protect from arrows, and then lifted when in close combat. However, this may not be as common as once believed, because when you can mostly rely on your armour to protect you from random attacks, you have less of a need to concentrate on parrying enemy blows, so you can just wade into combat and take down unarmored foes with little difficulty in most cases. This would favour you having the visor lowered to protect you, allowing just enough visibility to get by.
So after reading this I hope you find that you know more about armour and how it was used than you probably knew before. And if you still need convincing, you probably could have just skipped reading this whole thing and though about this instead: If plate armour wasn’t really damn good, then why would people continue to use, develop and spend fortunes on it for hundreds of years?
During the first world war maritime warfare underwent a technical change that led them to becoming a revolutionised weapon. Both the British and Germans used them to lead attacks on other submarines, merchant ships and battleships. World War One was the first time submarines are used for a significant amount of time in battle or skirmishes. The German submarines entertained a distinguished success in managing to halt and destroyed almost half of all food and supplies carried by the British Merchant Navy. Even though they had similar purposes they should not be confused with the Austro-Hungarian submarines.
Unterseeboot, or ‘U-Boat’/’Undersea Boat’, had several naval stations on German coast lines, and the Germans had a total of 29 boats at the beginning of the war. Most were manufactured in Brugge Harbour but requirements for more submarines meant that development grew to involve Zeebrugge and Oostende Harbours. Each piece of the submarines was designed and built inland in German factories and then transported to the harbour were they would be fitted together piecemeal. A large amount of naval manufacturing took place in these harbours since torpedoes and destroyer boats were also constructed large-scale here. Even though they were crucial in damaging enemy naval war ships they were mostly designed for commercial warfare, as the main aim was to sink merchant ships from between Britain, America and Canada.
The U-boat Campaign during World War One took place during the entire four years. It mostly took place in the waters around Britain and in the Mediterranean since these were the busiest channels for sea port trade. Since both Germany and England relied on imports for food and fertilizer, the general idea was to blockade each other and sink the ships. Pre-War England had a vastly superior navy, something that had been built up to prestige over some five hundred years. This meant it was vital for Germany to catch up in naval aspects in order to successfully unhinged Britain’s trading standards. This they did with swift renovations to their underwater ships. In August 1914 the first ever submarine flotilla patrol took place by German U-boats with the aim to sink the British Grand Fleet’s premium ships. However U-15 subs failed in the one attack that took place with torpedoes missing their mark. The Germans knew that merchant ships in the Mediterranean had to make stops in places like Crete, Gibraltar, Malta and navigate the Suez canal. It was around these areas that were targeted in order to disallowed British and neutral ships to pass. U-33, U-39 and U-35 were responsible for taking control of the Mediterranean commercial fleets.
The second attack taking place mere days after the announcement of War between England and Germany was broadcast. On the 5th of September HMS Pathfinder was sunk by U-21, the first of which to be done by a self-propelled torpedo. The next biggest was during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign when the U-21 sank two pre-dreadnaught battleships, one the most lethal battleships in the English and American navy. Commercial warfare began in 1915 when the Kaiser declared the waters surrounding the British Isles to be a series of war zones. This meant merchant ships could be attacked without warning and without provocation even if they are ships declared neutral. However restrictions had to replaced onto submarine movements and attacks when a SM U-20 sank an American civilian ship the RMS Lusitania and SS Sussex. Part of the Sussex Pledge the Germans were forced to do was to limit submarine fleets. The Germans resorted to surfacing submarines while in battle which led to a small victory at the Battle of Jutland. Despite winning the battle the British Grand Fleet was still in control of British waters. Therefore the Germans went back to just targeting merchant ships. This succeeded with several million tonnes of shipping destroyed up until 1918. 1917 saw a reversion to unrestricted submarine warfare but by armistice the Germans had failed to deplete the British resources enough. This meant on the declaration of peace in 1918 all the German submarines had to surrender and sail to the British submarine port at Harwich. The decisive moment was when Japan joined the Allies in 1917 who were strongly anti-submarine. The Japanese fleets aided by the French and Italian was successful in patrolling the Mediterranean and blockading the Germans.
Most of the U-boats the Germans created were studied at great length ensuring some of the more technical aspects were taken into consideration when upgrading the British submarines. Much was scrapped in aid in use as building materials and the rest was sold to Allied navies. The last moment to take place by the German Submarines during World War One was to stage and suppress a naval mutiny since the loss of so many ships destroyed naval morale.
Chemical weapons were probably the most feared of all weapons in World War One. While other new developments such as the machine gun killed far more soldiers overall during the war, soldiers could still find some shelter in shell craters from gunfire, and death would be quick. Death by poison gas however was frequently drawn out and a gas attack meant soldiers having to put on crude gas masks which if unsuccessful, an attack could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
Although chemical warfare had already been outlawed as of the 1899 Hague Conference, France, Germany and Britain all continued to experiment with tear gases as they did not consider them to be in violation of the agreement. From September 1914, the desperate search for ways to break the endless stalemate of trench warfare caused them to turn to these chemical weapons.
In August 1914 the French first used tear gas cartridges developed before the war from weapons used by the Paris police. This was more an irritant rather than a gas that would kill. It was used to stop the seemingly unstoppable German army advancing throughout Belgium and north-eastern France. The Germans first used gas In October 1914 when they fired gas shells at the French that contained a chemical that caused violent sneezing fits. Again, the gas was not designed to kill rather than to incapacitate an enemy so that they were unable to defend their positions properly.
One particular early use of gas of this type showed the limitations of this early and unreliable form of chemical warfare. It was on the Eastern front, unlike the other examples, at the Battle of Bolimov. Here, eighteen thousand gas shells containing xylyl bromide were fired at Russian positions, but were a complete failure. The winter weather was too cold to permit an effective aerosol to disperse the gas, and the chemical was either blown back towards the German lines, fell harmlessly to the ground, or was not concentrated enough to cause any damage.
These first uses of gas took place when the war in the west that was still very mobile. Once trench warfare had time to settle in, all sides involved in the conflict looked for any way possible to bring movement back into their campaigns. One of the more obvious was to develop a weapon that would destroy not only an enemy frontline but also the will to maintain troops on that frontline. Poison gas might even provoke a mass mutiny along a frontline thus causing it to collapse. In other words, poison gas seemed to be the answer for the war’s lack of mobility.
Poison gas (in this case, chlorine) was used for the first time at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. On the 22nd April, French sentries in Ypres noticed greenish-yellow clouds moving towards them, a gas delivered from pressurised cylinders dug into the German front line. The French took this for an enemy smokescreen used to disguise the movement of German troops. Believing this, all French troops in the area were ordered to the firing line of their trench – right in the path of the chlorine. As the gas clouds reached the French trenches and revealed their nature it would have been too late, as the impact was immediate and devastating. Chlorine gas kills by irritating the lungs to such an extent that they flood with fluid, and the victim effectively drowns as a result. The defenders that did not succumb to the gas fled, allowing the German infantry to advance and quickly overrun the frontline.
After this first used of deadly poison gas, other nations then rushed to develop their own chemical weapons and defences against them. This led to a rapid development in these two areas. The development in the use of gas led to both phosgene and mustard gas being used. Phosgene was a gas which was felt by the victim only 48 hours after it had been inhaled and by then it had already too late, as it had imbedded itself in the respiratory system and very little could be done to eradicate it. Also it was much less obvious to begin with that someone had inhaled phosgene as it did not cause as much violent coughing as other gases. Mustard gas was first used by the Germans against the Russians at Riga in September 1917. This gas caused both internal and external blisters on the victim within hours of being exposed to it. The damage to the lungs and other internal organs were extremely painful and although not always fatal, many who did survive were blinded by the gas.
Alongside the development of new gases, armies quickly developed gas masks that gave protection as long as sufficient warning was given of a gas attack. Soldiers were also trained to use make-shift gas masks if they were caught in the open without a gas mask during a gas attack, such as cloth soaked in their own urine and placed over the mouth, said to give protection against a chlorine attack. By the end of the war, relatively sophisticated gas masks were available to soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front.
The invention of Gunpowder is truly one of the most remarkable throughout History. It was invented in China during the Tang Dynasty, circa 850 AD. It was a remarkable discovery as it was discovered by an unnamed Chinese alchemist who mixed seventy-five parts of saltpetre with fifteen parts of charcoal and ten parts sulphur. When the concoction was close to a lit flame it exploded. The unnamed inventor was practising alchemy- a medieval precursor for chemistry, whereby they attempted to find the elixir of life.
The origins of the ingredients are as follows- Charcoal is an impure form of carbon that contains some left over ash and sulphur is an element, like Charcoal had been known for many years preceding the invention of gunpowder. Saltpetre has been known to China as it can be found in some of the region’s soil. A Chinese Pharmacist described it as:
‘It is a ‘ground frost’, an efflorescence of the soil. It occurs among mountains and marshes, and in winter months it looks like frost on the ground. People sweep it up, collect it and dissolve it in water, after which they boil it to evaporate it. The crystals look like the pins of a hair-ornament. Good ones can be about half an inch (12.5mm) in length.’
However when gunpowder was first developed it was not associated with weaponry as it could not be used as an effective explosive. It can however mimic an explosive when a large amount of saltpetre is added to the concoction. Through trial and error the Chinese were able to get enough information about the how gunpowder could be used as a weapon. A few hundred years after 900 AD gunpowder gradually became a part of weaponry. Firstly gunpowder was added to mixtures that were launched from trebuchets and catapults. What’s more the Chinese used them to light arrows in order to make the attack more effective in warfare. Secondly the Chinese advanced even further to use gunpowder as the main element to light up flamethrowers for battle in order to make the development of warfare safer as it avoided keeping the fluid under pressure as beforehand fire oil was used. The next stage of development saw the first attempt at utilising the explosive power of gunpowder, in other words a bomb was created using gunpowder. Eventually Chinese technicians were able to effectively create materials that would contain the explosion from gunpowder. This allowed the Chinese to make the hand-held gun and the canon. In the years after 969 gunpowder weapons were successfully used against enemies like Nun Thang.
As we move into the next century in 1040 AD there are many accounts of the Chinese using gunpowder whip arrows and even used animals to carry gunpowder. To do this warriors would apply the gunpowder around the necks of birds, hoping that they will settle down on to enemy territory. By the time the eleventh century arrived the Chinese developed gunpowder even further for weaponry. They began to use Fire lances. The Fire lance was a sophisticated use of weaponry, whereby soldiers would have a small iron fire-box attached to their belt that was lit up through a tube, ready to be fired at the enemy. It was a very versatile weapon as fire power could be used from the gunpowder and when it ran out the weapon could be used as a regular spear. The design was particularly simple yet innovative as the Chinese used sixteen layers of paper that were rolled up and tied to cords at the end of each spear, allowing the flames to shoot out at a range of 3.6 metres.
The use of Fire-lances were pivotal for the military use of gunpowder as it more often than not caused enemies to be frightened due to the loud bang that gunpowder produced. This therefore inadvertently created psychological warfare as many men and horses would have been startled by it unlike other weapons such as swords and spears which could only frighten at close range. Gunpowder was able to startle the enemy when at further range.
In naval warfare the Chinese developed from the Fire-lances, ‘thunderclap bombs’. Thunderclap bombs proved to be very useful as it was able to treat gunpowder as a true explosive. The bombs when fired met the water and the noise that erupted mimicked thunder, whilst the sulphur in the gunpowder turned into flames. An example of this happening occurred in 1161 at the battle of Tshai-shih. The Chinese fleet was led by Yu Yun-Wen against the Jurchens, who attempted to seize the south of China. Fortunately the thunder bomb aided in the Chinese victory as the smoke emitted from the bomb blinded the men on board as well as the initial bomb causing many casualties.
After the Mongols were overthrown from the mid fourteenth century by the Ming Dynasty bomb development in China continued. Light-casing bombs were then established during this era and like its predecessors the bomb contained a much-needed addition in order to aid with warfare-a type of napalm. The ingredients to this concoction were unpleasant as when the bomb exploded iron spikes flew out with a poison contained in the gunpowder. This caused intense swelling and burns. Although it is unknown what the actual poison contained, however it can be assumed a poisonous plant might have been responsible.
When the Chinese used gunpowder with a high-saltpetre content the possibilities of gunpowder seemed more and more effective in warfare. Due to the high-saltpetre content the bomb needed metal casing as the explosions permitted more damage. Eventually from this large bombs could be made to defend territory. In 1250 mines were used by the Chinese. The first mine was not very effective as it detonated by a long fuse, thus making it highly unreliable. In 1300 however the Chinese managed to find a way to rectify the issue. They were able to create a hidden mechanism that allowed a weight to spin a wheel over flints that triggered the fuse when the enemy arrived. It was the fuse that the Chinese technicians figured out could connect to all the mines, allowing them to explode.
It was from these early Chinese designs that gunpowder was developed through circa 850 to the mid fourteenth century as affective weaponry for arrows, lances, bombs and mines. It was from these initial designs that the rocket and guns came about and can be argued that its origins can be traced back through to the days of alchemy- finding the elixir of life and quite ironically so it can be argued that gunpowder is the elixir of death? So before you mimic the famous words of the fifth of November rhyme please do also remember the origins of gunpowder and its use as a lethal weapon.
Today, I shall be writing about the muskets used by the British army in the 18th and early 19th century. Muskets were generally inaccurate, caused as much harm to the user as to the enemy, and took a long time to reload. The Brown Bess muskets were no exemption, yet they remained in service until the 1830s. It is hard to show you in this blog the specific types of Musket, changes that were made to weapons were small or are very hard to show, so I do apologise for not going into the design aspects of the weapons. However I hope you’ll agree by the end of this just how important this weapon was, and in a certain way its beauty. From previous blog posts, you would have seen how weapons were used in both warfare but also in society. They were hunting weapons or the like, but this changes in modern history. Musket weapons weren’t so regularly seen in public. Pistols were common, and in the USA, muskets were common place, but in general these weapons were mainly found in armies, it was a weapon of war. That being said, weapons were decorated in the past, with ornate handles and inscriptions on the blades, so were these weapons. Pistols and Muskets have been found to be ornate and crafted. Some of them have even been heirlooms! So having that being said, please read on, and let me guide you through the weapon of the British army, the Brown Bess Musket.
It would be understandable to think the name Brown Bess to be that of a horse or something similar and not a gun. The nickname Brown Bess only came around during the latter part of the 19th century, when the guns had been retired from service. There actual names were as follows: Dog Lock Musket, Long Land Musket, Short Land Musket, and the Sea Musket. Each was superseded by the one before it, as improvements were made.
To fire a musket, there had to be an order to things. Otherwise it would not fire, saying that even loading it correctly, could still cause you to go blind as it misfired. Firstly, you have to ensure the weapon is clean, if not then a misfire can happen. After you are sure it’s clean, you half cock it. You then bring out a paper charge from your cartridge box, you bite the top of the paper off, spit it out, you keep the musket ball in your mouth, and then sprinkle some of the gunpowder into the pan and then lock it. You then pour down gunpowder down the barrel, followed by the musket ball that was in your teeth. You then take out your ram rod (which varied from different models) and push the charge down to bottom. You then bring it up, lock it, and then fire. When you fired, you closed your eyes, the smoke and the flash could make a soldier go blind, therefore the common infantryman closed his eyes when he discharged this weapon. This didn’t do accuracy any favours, but the men relied on volley fire so they weren’t punished for missing their target. You didn’t usually fire the musket on your own, but when the officer (of noble rank) issued the order. A British soldier could fire 2-3 rounds a minute. If you could fire in 3 minutes, then you were usually put into the riffles, as they were the best shots.
So what was the tactics used with the musket I hear you ask? Well basically, men lined up facing each other and just shot each other. The Musket produced a lot of smoke, so much that it looked as though the battle was being fought in smoke; it made it hard to issue orders when you couldn’t see what was going on! Notice on this picture how you can see the smoke resting on the battlefield. This was only created by a handful of Brown Bess Muskets and Cannon, if a full army was firing, then you probably wouldn’t be able to see those men in the background
The range of the musket was not great, and you certainly couldn’t shoot across the battlefield with one. The side that could load faster and have more luck was the side that would have a better chance at winning. Of course cavalry and cannons could have a large effect on a battlefield, but with the advent of the square, cavalry were made less of a threat than before. There is one case during the Napoleonic wars, where a regiment of infantry, managed to repulse a cavalry charge just with musket fire. This was unheard of, as the charge should have broken through the ranks of men. However the speed of reload and skill with the weapon ensured that the men stood against the cavalry and won. These muskets nonetheless could be equipped with a bayonet, which would allow them to engage in close combat, as was needed. This bayonet during the 17th and early 18th century was usually the ‘plug bayonet’. The bayonet had a round handle that slid directly into the musket barrel. Therefore it could no longer fire. However later developments fitted on the outside of the barrel, ensured it could still fire. These types are called the ‘sword bayonet’ or he ‘socket bayonet’. The battle of Waterloo is a very good example of the use of the Brown Bess Muskets and there may be a post on Waterloo coming down the line so stay tuned for that!
So what wars did the Brown Bess muskets contribute to? Well any military campaign that the British army was involved in, so was the musket. Let me name a few, so you can get an idea of how vastly used this weapon was. The Seven years’ War against the French, which was known for fighting taking place all across the world; the American War of Independence (or revolutionary war if you are an American); the Jacobite rebellions, especially in 1745 at the battle of Culloden, or the War of Austrian Succession, or the many wars against Spain and the Napoleonic wars. Yes this weapon was used by the British in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo. It was the weapon that helped defeat the French, which managed to drive back the French Old Guard. So you can see it was a weapon that was associated with the British army.
The Musket was eventually replaced by riffles. Weapons that could be fired quicker, with greater accuracy and with less chance of killing its user. Riffles and Muskets coexisted, and were used at battles such as Waterloo. In American Civil war, the confederates still used Brown Bess muskets, supplied by the British of course, and the Union used riffles, again supplied by the British and other European nations. This gave the Union a massive advantage, as the riffle was a far superior weapon. You may ask that if riffles were a lot better than muskets, then why did they coexist? Why did the British and other European armies use both? Well riffles cost a lot, and muskets were cheap. The British army had the Green Jackets and the riffle regiment, who fought like skirmishers. They went in front of the army to pick of men, usually captains and the like, or the carrier of the flag. But they were never used in the main force. Human life was cheap, it was replaceable, however riffles were not and therefore soldiers were not as well equipped as they could have been which reminds me of a similar scenario recently!
To conclude, the Brown Bess Musket was awful compared to its successors, however it won the British army countless victories and was in service for over a hundred years. It ensured armies would march in line (or in column as some European nations did), face each other and shoot at each other, hoping that their shot would hit and that they would survive. We have to thank the Swedish for this style of warfare, marching in line and such. The Brown Bess is a beautiful style of weapon, weapons nonetheless and many flintlock loaded muskets and pistols that have survived have ornate carvings on them, personalised for show. Each man looked after his own weapon and grew quite attached to it. It was the only item that could realistically save him. The Bess is an iconic weapon, one that will always be associated with the British army, or visa versa. The musket was truly a horrific weapon.
If you want to see one fire, there are many videos on YouTube, just type Brown Bess into the search bar. Or if you want to see one live fired. Then go to re-enactment shows, such as the Military Odyssey or War and Peace. You will see how loud one really is too fire!