The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Army Tactics

Now that your protagonist has raised an army, he or she must learn how best to deploy it. There have been many tactics used throughout history to win battles, and the list below is not exhaustive. Some tactics can be used by all the types of soldiers I covered in my The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Armies. This is not even including magic, which could massively change battlefield dynamics.

Terrain

Where an army is set up on the terrain can have a tremendous impact on their chances of victory. Examples include holding the high ground, so your enemies are exhausted by the climb, and narrowing the field of battle. Natural obstacles such as rivers, forests, and cliffs can protect an army’s flank and limit the directions an enemy can approach from. I recommend reading my Deep Dives in the battles of Agincourt and Crecy because they are wonderful examples of how terrain can be used to your advantage.

Using the high ground. Image source.

Deployment of Forces

How an army is deployed also plays a big role. Several TV shows and movies show big blocks of one type of soldier, such as cavalry or infantry. But it was common during the Middle Ages to mix and match. For example, infantry can be placed in between formations of archers to protect them if they are attacked.

Scouting was critical when placing forces. Commanders relied on their scouts to inform them of the terrain and other pieces of intelligence so they could plan out their deployment.

How an army is deployed could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Image source.

General Tactics

The first basic tactic used in the ancient world was forming a line. This formation was enhanced using shields and was employed by the ancient Romans, the Vikings, and modern riot police. It usually relied on having the bigger army.

A tactic used against the line formation was the concentrated center where an army would force a gap through the center of the enemy’s line. This allowed reinforcements to surge through and get to the sides and back, a tactic known as flanking.

A variation of this tactic is to conceal a unit on your flank and have them swing around to the side of the enemy once they have engaged. As enemy units are neutralized, it frees up soldiers to continue enveloping the enemy.

A favorite tactic of mine is the inverted wedge, which was used by Hannibal at the battle of Cannae in 216 BC. As the Romans attacked the center of his line, Hannibal’s forces fell back, pulling the Romans further in which Hannibal’s forced wrapped around them.

Another family of tactics involved goading your enemy into chasing after you. This was achieved by feigning a retreat or by performing a series of hit-and-run maneuvers. The enemy formations will probably lose cohesion during the chase, especially if it is over rough terrain. They can also break up as sections move faster than others.

The bottleneck was an effective tactic if an army was outnumbered. They would pick a location where the terrain narrowed, limiting how many of the enemy soldiers could engage them. This tactic was used by the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae and William Wallace at the battle of Sterling Bridge.

The deployment of forces at the battle of Cannae. The center of Hannibal’s line fell back while the flanks enveloped them. Image source.

Infantry Tactics

Since infantry moved more slowly than cavalry and were also vulnerable to charges by them, several tactics were developed to minimize their vulnerability. One of these was the schiltron, a compact formation, usually round or rectilinear, with the pikes and other polearms pointing outward at all angles. It was used by Robert the Bruce and William Wallace in their battles against the English. Variations used in later periods included the hedgehog and were used as late as the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, since they were incredibly effective against cavalry charges.

The use of the schiltron formation at the battle of Falkirk. Image source.

Cavalry Tactics

Tactics for cavalry depended on the type of horsemen. Light cavalry usually focused on hit-and-run tactics and used light weapons or bows. Heavy cavalry were the tanks of their day and were used to smash through infantry and archery formations. Often, they were deployed in three divisions, with the first creating a gap in the line and the following ones flooding through to flank.

Ranged Tactics

As I’ve shown in my Deep Dives into the battles of Agincourt and Crecy, archers could win battles if deployed correctly. One tactic was to place them at a distance from the enemy, usually behind cover, such as sharpened stakes pounded into the ground. If the enemy could be drawn into charging their position, they would unleash deadly volleys of arrows that would decimate their ranks before they even reached the archer’s line.

Another tactic was putting archers on the high ground, which slowed attackers and gave them greater range. This tactic was used successfully in the battles of Crecy.

A third tactic was drawing the enemy into a crossfire, where archers fired from multiple sides. It was commonly used in ambushes.

Archers shooting at charging cavalry. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

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