Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: What Are a Knight's Weaknesses?

So we've talked about knights' strengths, about what made them dominate the battlefields of Europe from Charlemagne to Henry V. If that's all there was to the story, we could spend the rest of the series wondering why anybody bothered to fight them at all. If they were so invincible, why didn't their very existence end war?

The question answers itself. They weren't invincible. Here we'll talk about some of the weaknesses that allowed dismounted and unarmored foes to defeat them from time to time--even before gunpowder appeared on the battlefield.

First and most obvious, full plate armor is heavy. Really heavy. It's a myth that a knight armored for battle couldn't stand up if he got knocked from his horse, and another that he had to be lifted onto his horse by a crane. Only the very heaviest armor, designed for jousting in the 15th century, was ever that limiting--to go into battle in something you can't stand up in would be really, really stupid. And most knights weren't stupid.

But it was still heavy. And even though knights were the world-class athletes of their day, fighting in heavy armor is hard work. Stop a charging knight, bring his horse down or knock him off of it, and it's going to take him some time to get up. If you can get men--lighter-armed, faster men--to him while he's still on the ground, put them to work whacking him in the head with hammers or maces or sticking swords or knives or spears through the joints in his armor, he'll go down just like anybody else on the field.

Second, his horse--as great an asset as it is--is vulnerable. It's true that many horses could carry a fully-armored rider and wear some armor themselves, but when a horse is already carrying two hundred fifty pounds of armored rider, there's a limit to how much more it can carry. Even wearing armor, most of a horse's neck and legs and all of its belly are exposed.

And a horse depends on its rider to avoid obstacles. See, horses don't like to run full-speed into people with sharp things pointed at them, which means they must either be trained to obey their riders absolutely, or they must wear blinders that keep them from seeing what's ahead. Either makes them vulnerable to obstacles like pits or trenches or spikes placed where their riders won't see them until it's too late to avoid them. And when he's off his horse, a knight is a heavily-armed infantryman, hard to kill to be sure, but slower than most of his enemies.

Third, a knight can't see very well through the little slits in his visor, nor can he hear very well through the metal. On a hot day, you can bet breathing isn't easy, either. Better than taking a sword to the face, of course, but the very thing that protects him makes him vulnerable to surprise and attacks from the sides and rear.

Finally--and maybe most important of all--knights are expensive. Their weapons, armor, and horses are the best to be had, but quality isn't cheap. And their equipment must be maintained, which means skilled craftsmen must travel with the army. And the knights have to eat, as do their horses (most knights would have two or three, at least) and all the people who must travel with them to keep them healthy and their equipment maintained. Each knight might have five or six people to support him. All of them eat, but only a few of them fight. It works out when a knight is worth ten men on the field, but if you can field six men with halberds or pikes for the cost of one knight, and the knight is only worth three men... well, you start to see things differently.

So war in the late middle ages became more and more about how to make knights less important on the field, about minimizing the impact of their strengths and taking advantage of their weaknesses. Next time, we'll talk about some of the ways medieval armies did this, even before gunpowder.

Go get your nerd on!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: What is a Knight Good For?

Before we charge ahead with the story of gunpowder and early-modern infantry tactics, we need to spend a couple of posts looking at our starting point. The first step in understanding the journey ahead of us, after all, is understanding where we are starting from.

First, let's be clear on a couple of points:

1. Gunpowder did not replace knights on the battlefield. Gunpowder was merely the last in a series of developments that rendered knights, in their traditional tactical role (the job they did on the battlefield) of heavy cavalry, obsolete. And heavy cavalry didn't go away; it simply evolved into other forms (which we'll talk about in a future post). Some of those forms, believe it or not, were still fighting with swords and spears in the early years of the twentieth century.

2. Minutemen did not replace knights on the battlefield. For one thing, their roles were completely different; for another, centuries passed between the disappearance of the one and the rise of the other. There were lots of steps in between.

3. Knights didn't go away when gunpowder came into use on European battlefields. That change, too, took a long time--and knights are still with us, after all, even if they don't fight in shining armor like they used to.

So those are clear now. I hope. Let's move on to our story.

This story is about change. So I think it's useful to start not with the changes themselves, but with why things changed.

The why stems largely from the strengths of a mounted knight. A few of these are, in no particular order:

- He sits taller than everybody else. That means he has a better view of what's going on on the battlefield, better situational awareness than his adversaries (at least until he puts his visor down, which he usually doesn't have to do until the moment before he closes with his enemy).

- He's harder to kill than anybody else. When weapons are muscle-powered, a layer of steel (with leather and heavy cloth underneath) between your skin and your enemy is very handy.

- He's faster than almost anybody else. A squadron of knights on horseback can get to most places on a medieval battlefield before their enemies can do anything about it.

- He has gravity on his side. If you've ever boxed or fenced or even tried to cut down a tree with an axe, you know it gets tiring very quickly. Up on his horse, above everybody else, the knight can use gravity as his ally: he strikes downward at his enemies, while they have to strike upward to reach him.

Add to those a couple of facts about who knights were and how they lived:

- They were the world-class athletes of their day, training for combat and physical exertion from childhood and with access to the best nutrition and living conditions available.

- They were the wealthiest, best-equipped combatants on the battlefield, with access to weapons, armor, and horses better than anything anybody else could bring to the field.

All these factors combined to make knights the baddest cats on the battlefield--and gave their enemies plenty of reasons to seek ways around their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses.

What were those weaknesses? We'll look at those next time.

Go get your nerd on!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

New Civil War Find

I just found this on Yahoo! news:

Archaeologists comb newly-found Civil War POW camp

I love new finds, and this sounds like a good one. According to the article (and I know very little about Civil War prisons or POWs on either side, so I have to take their word for it for now), Camp Lawton opened as a replacement for Andersonville in October 1864. Six weeks later, with Sherman coming on fast, the Confederates evacuated the prisoners in the middle of the night--leaving most of their stuff behind. The stuff lay forgotten there until now.

What's cool about this stuff is what it isn't. It isn't official war correspondence or bulletins or telegrams from one leader to another. It isn't rifles and bayonets and sabers and the things they carried that we already know about. It's the stuff of everyday life--the version of everyday life that belongs to men who spent years on campaign, then years more in a POW camp. It tells us a little bit about men who've been largely forgotten, except perhaps by their own families. It sheds light on what life might have been like for these men whose stories we don't hear much.

This is real Nerd stuff. I just wanted to share it.

Go get your nerd on!


Thursday, August 11, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: Intro

When I did this series for my kids, we did it in eight lessons. I think I'll take a little longer than that here.

For one thing, I have more time here. Eight one-hour lessons is not a lot of time to go through five hundred years of history. There are a lot of side-trails and rabbit-holes I'd have loved to go down with my class that we just didn't have time to do. So I'm going to take my time and indulge myself here.

For another, I want these posts to be relatively short, so people will actually read them and come back for the next one. Short posts means more posts, if I want to do the subject any justice at all.

I think I'm going to structure this series this way: I'll spend a couple of posts talking concepts, tactics, weapons, and the like, then illustrate with a battle study before we move on to the next concept. We'll keep that up as long as it works; if it doesn't, we'll try something else.

I hope you enjoy this series. It's one of the most fascinating periods in military history--in all the millennia before the fourteenth century, warfare was powered almost wholly by the muscles of those who fought, whether they were men, women, horses, elephants, dogs, or other creatures. In the centuries since, it has been increasingly driven by muscle and a simple chemical reaction.

The Renaissance was a time of change, no less on the battlefield than in the universities and royal courts of Europe. At its dawn, a man encased in metal armor, riding a huge horse and carrying a sword or spear, was the mightiest force on the battlefield. Four centuries later, a farmer from Pennsylvania or New Hampshire or Virginia could have killed such a man from four hundred yards away, if he were still to be found at all. For the next few months, we'll explore the changes that drove the knight from the battlefield and transformed warfare forever.

Are you ready to get your nerd on?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Failure: The Second Best Outcome


My thirty-day writing challenge, it's safe to say, was a failure.

No, let's be more clear: I failed to complete the thirty-day writing challenge I set for myself.

Better. More direct. More precise. A subject and verb. I failed. No evasion, no ambiguity.

Why really doesn't matter. Life got in the way, I got busy, I got tired. It happens. Part of success, I think, is recognizing that it happens and moving on instead of beating myself up about it.

Because after all, if I fail--it's because I did something. Did something, put myself out there, and fell flat. Which beats the stuffing out of doing nothing, which is exactly what I've been doing the last two months. What I've been doing most of my life, actually.

It's the second best outcome I could hope for. The first, obviously, is success. Take on a challenge and complete it. Stand tall knowing I did what I set out to do.

The second best is to take on a challenge and fail, and know that even though I didn't complete it, I'm ahead of where I was.

The worst outcome--last place in any endeavor--is to sit on the sidelines thinking wow, that looks hard. I'm glad I'm not out there.

Because, really, what do we accomplish if we never take a risk, never push ourselves to do the one thing we can do that no one else can?

I'll still answer the rest of the Trust30 prompts, in time. Not out of some stubborn ideal of finishing what I started; just because they're fun, and they get me writing and make me think. Sometimes about things I'd rather not think about. Which is a good thing.

I'm also going to start doing some history here again. I think next we'll explore the changes in warfare that led from armored knights on horseback to rifle-armed militia. From Knights to Minutemen is a concept I've done with my kids; I'll adapt it and share it here. That will give us something to talk about.

Let's move forward together!