Written by Sir Kirk fitzDavid. Originally appearing in the Online Bird of Prey, Volume 9, 2003
Calontir has a history of good fighting on the open battlefield, and the Calontir shieldwall is probably the most effective tactic ever devised for SCA bridge combat. However, I believe our woods fighting tactics are our weakest area. In woods battles we are at best indistinguishable from other kingdoms’ fighters, and at worst we flounder around in helpless purple blobs. This series of articles is intended to:
(1) Identify the basic factors in woods combat,
(2) Describe training techniques to make individuals and units more effective in woods fighting, and
(3) Develop new tactics for units from small squads to large infantry/skirmisherforces. All of these are aimed at making the Calontir army as feared in the woods at it is on the bridge.
II. Basic Factors
Woods movement and fighting in SCA combat can generally be divided into three groups: In the woods themselves, on trails, and in and around clearings. These divisions are clearly artificial, and you must keep in mind that every woods battlefield presents a unique blend of them. In addition, woods combat presents special command and control problems to unit commanders.
A. Movement and Combat in the Woods:
i. Movement: Obviously, moving through the woods presents a challenge, affecting where and how you move and how tired you are when you arrive. The trees and bushes are obstacles preventing direct travel. Dense underbrush or poison ivy or oak can be impenetrable. And your vision is often blocked, so you can’t see more than a few yards. All of these make it difficult to even get where you want to go. The woods also govern how you move. Logs and uneven terrain force you to step carefully and move more slowly. The plants hang up on shields, weapons, and even armor, dragging you back or tripping you up. They tend to spread groups into long thin lines, where the tail often can’t keep up with the head. The lines are hard to stop, and even harder to turn around and go back the way you came. Moving in the woods also tires you out more quickly than the clear. Woods battlefields are usually many times the size of open battlefields, and their obstacles make your path even longer. The trees themselves cut off the refreshing wind, but usually make up for this by providing plenty of shade.
ii. Combat in the Woods: Combat is also affected by the woods. Long weapons are hard to swing or aim. Shields get hung up on vines just when you need to block with them. Every tree becomes an immovable shieldman, for good or bad. Trees and bushes break up formations, making teamwork difficult. It is hard to move about while fighting because of the danger of tripping, so the tendency is to breakup into small groups fighting until one is wiped out, then the survivors join into the nearest fight or retreat away. All of these factors affect both sides, so the trained unit can take advantage of the problems of the untrained unit.
B. Movement and Combat on Trails
i. Movement: Movement on trails is deceptively easy compared to moving through the woods. You can move fast, with two or three abreast on the big trails. Turning around is easier if everyone can simply reverse directions. You also know where you’re going. However, trails do not always go where you want them to. They sometimes have thick underbrush on each side, concealing off-road enemies, and a long strung out column is easy to ambush. If you must deploy to fight, you almost always have to move into the woods which will cause some disorganization.
ii. Combat: Combat on trails is usually similar to fighting in the woods, since you often are forced to move off the trail to fight. While on the trail itself, however, fighting is generally a little more conventional. Your shields or long weapon is easier to use. Movement back and forth along the trail is easier and your footing is generally more secure, and the leader can give orders easier. However, by sticking to the trail a large unit can only get a few fighters into action. Therefore, a small unit can delay or harass a bigger unit, while the big unit’s leader may lose control of the troops he sends into the woods.
Movement and fighting in clearings are a kind of special case when it comes to woods combat. Away from the clearing edges, movement and fighting are just like in the open field. Near the edge, however, there are some definite combat advantages to the unit in the clearing. If you are posted on the edge of a clearing, you have most of the movement and combat advantages of troops fighting in the clear, while your opponents in the edge of the woods labor under the disadvantages of the woods. You can attack and bottled up troops leaving trails and entering clearings unless they deploy in the woods first. The major disadvantage to being in a clearing is having to leave it to accept the problems of woods and trails.
D. Command and Control
SCA combat usually has enough problems with command and control. Units wander off by themselves, fighters don’t hear orders or disobey them outright, and nobody talks enough. The woods make all these problems worse. Long columns of troops get separated by the least delay in the middle of the line. The woods block both sight and sound so commanders can’t be heard from a distance, and can’t be seen easily. Fighters don’t want to leave the trail, where travel is easy and fighting simple, and go off to thrash about in jungles full of mud and poison ivy. People must concentrate on simply moving, let alone telling those around them what’s going on. Again, however, these problems can be turned to the advantage of the well trained unit, since it can exploit them at the enemy’s expense.
The very nature of woods combat limits the number of basic formations available for movement and fighting in the woods. Trees tend to act like the teeth of a comb, straightening out any tangled or overly complex formations. Indeed, woods movement will usually reduce your choice of formation to one of three types: Single file or column, multiple parallel columns, and line abreast.
A. Single File or Column
i. Movement: Single file movement through the woods is the basic form of travel. The first man breaks a trail, and the others follow in his footsteps. He can almost always find a path, and since everyone follows him, it’s easy to make turns. If your column isn’t too long, the head can support the tail if it’s attacked. However, single file has some serious disadvantages. Your column can easily get strung out by the least delay in the middle of the line. Fighters in the back may not be able to keep up with those ahead. The line is hard to turn around if the way ahead is blocked or the need arises to go someplace else. On trails, single file (or column, if the trail is wide) is again the usual form of movement. It is fast and easy, and everyone knows where you are going. It doesn’t get strung out as easily, since fighters with delays can be bypassed by those behind. However, as in the woods, your formation can get very long. You can best use single file, then, when on a trail or when you need to move fast, particularly when there is little chance you will be attacked while moving.
ii. Combat: Single file is at a serious disadvantage in woods combat. Because of its length, any single part of the line can be overwhelmed before the other parts can help. The back of your line can even be wiped out without the head knowing there’s a fight. It takes time to deploy even to attack, since the rear has to catch up with the front. The length also makes single file easier to spot, and it’s particularly easy for an enemy scout to get an accurate count of your numbers. A long line has a hard time responding to orders because of its very length.
B. Multiple Column
i. Movement: Multiple column movement sacrifices some of the mobility of single file for gains in combat power and ease of command. Ideally, 3 or more columns move parallel to each other through the woods. As in single file, each column leader breaks a trail for the fighters following. However, because each column will meet different obstacles, they have to carefully keep each other in sight to keep up with one another. In addition, the column leaders have to make sure the files don’t get too far apart. On the plus side, the formation is much more compact than single file, so it is easier to control from the center. On the minus side, the formation is difficult to turn since the outside columns must move much further. On trails, only one column will be able to use the trail, and the others will have to keep up through the woods. Light forces in the woods should usually be able to keep up with heavy infantry on the trail. To best use multiple columns, you should not be moving too far or making a lot of turns, so the columns can keep together. Conversely, you should also have a clear objective to head towards, so all the columns can find the best paths without continuously looking for direction from the leader (who is probably in the center column). In any case, multiple column movement should be practiced to get the kinks worked out.
ii. Combat: The multiple column formation makes up for its somewhat clumsy movement with its combat flexibility. Since it is more compact, the fighters can respond more quickly to threats. If either side column is attacked, you can easily reinforce it from the center column(s). Similarly, the column heads or tails can support each other. When attacking, the multiple file formation deploys much more quickly than single file, and provides a wide front automatically. Attacking a single column head or tail on a trail, your multiple columns already have the single column flanked on both sides. Attacking a unit from the side, you can give each column a different mission, such as blocking reinforcements, flanking, or carrying out the main attack. The unit commander should be located near the middle of the formation, so he can keep in touch with all the columns. The columns should also keep close enough together that each of their leaders is in voice contact with the unit commander, so he can direct them as best as possible.
A line formation has serious draw backs except when the woods are very open, or if the unit is about to attack. It is very difficult to control, and the ends cannot support each other if necessary. Also, it is also almost impossible to turn, and will fall apart if it has to move through any difficult obstructions for any significant distance.
Most woods battles are resurrection battles. This brings a number of factors into play which are unimportant in field and bridge battles. Since most fighters get killed and return to combat, putting them to proper use can be decisive. Each fighter who is killed and returns to action must face fatigue, being with a group which is unfamiliar and probably smaller than the one he or she started with, and finally getting back into the action where it will have an effect on the outcome of the battle. Heat related problems are exaggerated by fatigue.
When you are about to re-enter a battle, you have already marched into the woods, probably walked up and down hills, been in at least one fight and got killed (not usually an exhilarating experience), and slogged out to the resurrection area, which no doubt seemed 10 miles away. You are hot and sweaty, and sometimes in a nasty mood. You probably just had a drink, maybe a bite to eat, and either want to run in so you don’t miss any more of the fun or don’t really want to go back at all. You do have a few advantages, though. You know where some of the fighting was taking place, and probably have an idea whether your side is winning or losing. You may know where the enemy’s banner or command post or whatever is. When you are the leader forming up a group to rejoin the battle, you should at least look to see if all his troop are ready to follow, or if some really need more rest. Unless everyone is very fit, or there is a real emergency, you should conserve your energy by moving at a walk or stopping frequently, and by taking easy paths wherever possible. If you have an option when to join battle, you should stop for a moment before rushing in, so that the group has had time for a breath. Foremost in your mind should be the fact that fresh troops have a great advantage attacking worn out ones.
When your group forms up and leaves the resurrection area, it is almost invariably smaller than the one you started with. Usually there are troops from many units, unlikely to work as a team and often with an unbalanced weapon blend. Since they will be tired, they won’t be thinking as clearly as usual. None of them will know all of what’s going on, yet you can probably put together a reasonable picture of the action by talking to all of them. If you are the leader, you should try to get them to think together, and perhaps try to get the fighters to pair up to cover each other. The leader must explain the situation and their objective as he sees them. In particular, he should tell them where he thinks they should go and why. If you aren’t the leader, try to get him to explain what he has in mind. With a common purpose, the mixed individuals will work more as a team. If he is killed on the way, try to keep the force together and get to the objective.
C. Getting Reinforcements into Action
i. Where to Go: All fighters, and particularly leaders of groups leaving the resurrection area, should have some idea of either where the major fighting is going on, or, if their side is defending a banner or other fixed object, where that is so they can go defend it. Alternatively, a unit could have a rally point for resurrected fighters to return to if they don’t know of any better place to go. A rally point will allow units in the woods to be reinforced by sending back messengers. Thus, large units can be rebuilt to launch major new attacks or reinforce defenders.
ii. Getting there: If you have an objective, your group returning to battle needs to get there as quickly as possible, stopping only to rest. You must not be distracted by enemy scouts or scattered enemy fighters, and have to avoid fighting except to quickly overrun smaller enemy units directly in your path. This will keep you from wasting your energy and numbers. You will therefore have a useful unit when you arrive. If your group doesn’t have an objective and is only going to fight what you can find, keeping together at least will improve your odds of beating opposing units that you run across.
iii. How to arrive: When your unit arrives at your objective and there is a battle taking place, try to get an idea of what’s going on before you commit. Coming in on the enemy’s flank or rear can cause havoc, particularly if killing from behind is in effect. A momentary pause before attacking will also give you a chance to catch you breath, but don’t wait until the enemy has formed a line to screen you to attack. Even if you arrive at the end of a losing battle, you should attack if the enemy does not outnumber you greatly. He will be tired, you will be fairly fresh, he will be disorganized and you will be be organized. Consider sweeping up a few enemy stragglers even if you can’t take on the main body. Picking off a few troops then getting away successfully can take the shine off an enemy victory, and may entice some of them to follow you to where you can turn and jump them.
D. Heat Problems
Just because you’re out of the sun doesn’t mean you won’t have trouble with the heat. Woods are often warm and humid–not as warm as direct sunlight, yet this means the heat can sneak up on you. Take the usual precautions while you’re at the resurrection area: tank up on water, rest with the helm off and the armor loosened, and decide whether you’re really ready to go when the time comes. Group leaders bear a certain responsibility for their fighters, and should keep an eye out for problems. If you don’t, your force will waste away and some may have serious heat injuries.
Since this isn’t a work on scouting, I will only cover a few points. Scouts should be able to report in as much detail as possible, particularly in regard to the numbers, direction of travel, and location of the enemy forces they locate. They should report directly to unit commanders, not mouth off in front of any old fighter. If you have some fighters acting as skirmishers, they should try to screen out enemy scouts, but should not chase them so far that the skirmisherscannot get back to help you. Scouts make ideal messengers since they can move fast and work on their own, but don’t waste too many this way and leave yourself without your eyes.
VI. Other terrain features
Many woods battlefields, such as Pennsic, are also pretty hilly. Their primary effect is wear out fighters quicker, but they have significant effects on movement and combat. Units will of course move slower up hill, but it can be hard to keep up with the leaders in either case, so units can become spread out. The tail of a unit descending a hill is more exposed than on the flat, since the head cannot help it out as quickly. In general, units attacking uphill are at a major disadvantage. Your head is more exposed, movement forward takes more energy, and running is more difficult. If the hill is steep, the enemy can push you down without killing you. You are also more fatigued if you had a long march up the hill before going into combat. If you have the time, try to scout the area to find an undefended way up the hill to get even with or above your opponent. If this is impossible, at least take care to organize your force for the best attack. Attacking down the hill means your legs are more exposed, but your head is much harder to hit. You get a big speed boost when moving down the hill to hit a gap or attack a flank. Remember that it is easy to get hurt when falling or rolling down a hill, so you must be more careful than on the flat.
Most fighters don’t like to cross water or its companion, mud. The footing is usually bad, it’s hard to keep your speed up, and there always seems to be a guy with a spear on the opposite bank ready to poke you in the face just when you need to look down. A narrow stream or gully, therefore, is a good place to defend when outnumbered since the attackers really don’t want to get to you anyway. When attacking, it’s usually worthwhile to try to flank the defenders out of position by crossing up or downstream from them, and hitting them while part of your force continues to threaten across the ford. The truly dedicated can throw their aluminum shields down to form a bridge (I don’t think plywood or steel will survive this kind of treatment). If you’re sure you’ll attack across a stream, it might even be worth dragging a scutum along to form a bridge. A scutum on a bank also makes an excellent physical barrier to crossing a stream.
Fallen trees and dense bushes make excellent barriers in the woods. Dense bushes can anchor one end of a line, while a large log can be hazardous to cross and expose the crosser to spear and polearm fire. A well planned defense can incorporate and combine these barriers into a line as strong as one on a bridge.