Highlights of Viking Age warfare – 2

Confrontation” by Lil Shepherd is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This post continues a discussion of interesting tidbits from The Vikings and Their Enemies – Warfare in Northern Europe, 750 -1100 by Philip Line.

Battle techniques

Chapter 3 dives into battle techniques.

Predominant leadership model was for a commander to lead from the front. In a time when loyalties were tied to the leader this was a powerful yet risky strategy. Troops would be willing to follow their leader into combat, but if he were killed, morale would probably collapse and the force could disintegrate quickly.

Lots of modern histories assert that a wedge was a frequent Viking technique, yet the author points out there is minimal evidence to support the statement. On the other hand, there is little evidence for much of anything in the Viking era.

Another feature of the medieval battle was the lack of reserves to reinforce breakdowns in the line or reinforce success. This means a collapse somewhere on the battle line could cascade to defeat of the entire line since there would not be any troops to fill the gap.

An intriguing technique used in the time was “feigned flight”, in which a force would pretend to pull back in disorder and then regroup. The goal was to draw the opponent into a rash attack, which would easily become disorganized. An ambush could then be launched or a counterattack mounted on the disorganized attackers.

Author points out there are few examples in the written record of one side collapsing or retreating in panic. An interesting motivation is at work – neither side would want to tell such stories. Neither victors nor vanquished would relish that tale. The losers would not want to report that they panicked. The winners were not inclined to report that either because there would not be as much honor and glory in defeating a force that broke on first contact or panicked early in a fight. What victor would look good if the opponent collapsed?

How did battles end?

If one side did not break and retreat the eventual effect of hard physical effort and all the weight that was carried would lead more and more men to drop into a defensive posture which would pull the lines apart.

It is possible, the author points out, this led to breaks in fighting during which water would be brought forward and some re-provisioning would take place, such as replacing broken shields. After a lull, the forces would re-engage. The extreme physical drain of hand-to-hand combat means the reported engagements that lasted for hours upon hours probably are not literally true.

Detail of naval battles are even sparser than land battles. Author paraphrases most descriptions of naval battles as a few sentences along the line of so-and-so engaged his enemy, fought valiantly, and won, end of story.

Author points out all the large naval battles during the Viking age were fights between Viking forces. The lack of anti-ship offensive armament on ships meant that most sea battles would have been settled by hand-to-hand combat, just as on land.

Author frames an interesting question: when did troops along the line know when the battle was won or was lost? The limited vision and communication would have made it difficult to know was going on in other parts of the line.

A pursuit needed to be taken up very carefully for several reasons. Loss of discipline would mean loss of control of the forces and there was always a chance of a feigned retreat. Loss of discipline was a major risk because in the medieval era taking goodies from the enemy, called booty, was a large portion of the soldiers’ income from the campaign. For Vikings, getting rich and gaining honor was the whole purpose of the raids.

Sometimes battles would just be fought to a draw. Darkness would force an end to the fighting. Perhaps during a pause while the troops were regaining their strength, negotiations could lead to end of the fight.

The collapse of the line would usually result in a bloodbath. Shortly after a line collapsed was the point that most of the casualties were incurred.

The fate of those wounded during a fight was bleak.

After the battle the winning side would strip valuables from the losers on the field and the wounded would probably be killed, if not just left to die.

Author points out relatively few prisoners would be held. Armies had enough trouble feeding their own troops so feeding prisoners would be a real problem. If there was not enough value to keep the troops and sell them off as slaves the prisoners would either have to be set free or killed off.

Next post: campaigns and sieges

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