by Hector of the Black Height
It always is hard to define a middle ground. Every SCAdian fighter who has attended Pennsic or any other great War within the Society understands the dynamics of single combat and the single fighter’s place in the melee team. We all have seen the grand sweep of battle, when the King says "right flanking" and a thousand men and women sweep right. There’s some stage in between these two extremes of imagination and execution, an operational middle ground, and in the Midrealm that stage is occupied by the regional unit. The Principality of Ealdormere and its component parts have formed such a unit for almost ten years, and I have been part of that unit, at a variety of levels and in a variety of roles.
The points below are a compilation of what I’ve learned in eleven Pennsic Wars, fighting in and against regional units. Different people will have different experiences and different opinions, and that’s to be expected. Still, don’t write differences off merely to differing tastes in tactics. One important lesson to be learned by any regional unit commander is that tactics in SCA combat are very much limited to short-range engagement. The regional unit leader has to look beyond spear length and even beyond bow-shot. The former Soviet Army saw a definite, doctrinal step between strategy and tactics. They called it "operational art". That’s a pretty good term to use in the SCA; so is "regional unit command".
Making a fighting unit
± Achieve mass. Identity, heraldry and the rest come later. Mass leads, all other factors follow. Without mass, a unit is just a cloud of skirmishers for an opposing unit to brush aside, or an isolated speed bump which does not contribute to the overall battle plan of the Crown.
± Pick some task your region does well and try to do it as often as possible. Calontir holds ground. Atlantia impersonates a freight train. Ealdormere sweeps the flank. Ohio tends to break walls. What do you do well? Strategically, operationally and tactically, build upon success.
± Whatever you do, NEVER STAND STILL if there’s room to move. On the open field, if you aren’t moving the other guy will be. Standing still means you have surrendered the initiative, lost momentum and minimized your shock action on contact. In contact, press home the attack, win the immediate (tactical) battle, fight past (see Note 1) the opposition’s front lines and manoeuvre to achieve tactical advantage. Out of contact you may move to contact, move to positions of opportunity or by moving threaten one or more opposing units. Mobility across country (a.k.a. speed; see Note 2) isn’t just a means of getting from point A to point B. Mobility is a tactical attribute and an operational weapon. Opposing commanders notice speed (including the ability to generate a short-term burst of speed in a pulse charge) and fear it.
± Acknowledge the concept of areas of influence. Once you have a formed unit, your area of interest increases far beyond fifteen feet (i.e. beyond one spear-length plus a long step). Let the melee team leaders worry about zero to fifteen feet from their shieldwalls. Regional unit leaders worry about sixteen feet out and beyond. The regional unit’s job is to move across the ground into contact with the opposition. Once in contact (see Note 3) the melee team leaders have their job to do. The regional unit leader’s job is to deliver the fighters and their weapons to within fifteen foot range, ending up in the best position possible on the ground, having taken the fewest casualties possible while getting there.
± Sub-unit leaders must always be watching their flanks (mostly for co-ordination with friendly forces) and their boss. The regional unit leader must always be watching the ground and the opposition. Once forces are committed, the unit leader must let his subordinates fight their fight; the unit leader must be planning the next move. It’s like a chess game; grand masters plan several moves ahead on the board. On the field, let your subordinates worry about this move; very soon they’ll be looking to you for the next move. Knowing what the next move is going to be is how unit commanders earn the big bucks.
± KISS. If you don’t know what this means (Keep It Simple, Stupid) you’re probably pretty new to this game. If the overall unit plan from the shield-wall view can’t be summed up in one phrase, it’s too complex and will almost certainly fail.
± A regional unit must have all-around security, especially on the move. Arrange flank security (not a cloud of two-stick skirmishers looking to fight singles for laughs or personal glory, an actual formed sub-unit or sub-units to guard your flanks), blocking forces and rear security -- as required by the tactical situation and the aim -- from within your unit. If your unit can’t make it from the start line to the objective without being blocked or annihilated en route, you shouldn’t have accepted that task and the Crown shouldn’t have given it to you without support. If you’ve committed all your forces as security, blocking forces and so on and have no main body left to Do The Deed once you’ve got to where you want to go, you’ve over-extended your unit and shouldn’t have accepted that task.
± Accept that you will take casualties and plan accordingly. Be realistic in estimating just how many fighters you must expend to get from point A to point B. Identify a chain of command for when the unit leader (and his or her successors) goes down. Make sure sub-units have their own chains of command in place as well. Make sure the regional unit commander (in Ealdormere’s case, the Prince) and the deputy commanders are spread out in the regional formation so, if things go wrong, someone with authority survives to take command, regain control and carry out the mission.
± Accept gaps on the flanks. At the regional unit level, unless you’re in a static shieldwall or in the streets of a town, you will never be shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbouring units; the field’s just too big. Gaps aren’t all bad; they give you room to move. Also, accept gaps inside your unit line if you’re moving at any speed. If your region consists of a central population core, you’ll be able to train together as a unit and will move better together, as a block -- if that’s what you want to do. If your region consists of pockets of fighters spread across a large area (which is what we have in Ealdormere), you won’t have much training time together. In this case, just try to keep the small sub-units moving in the same direction and form them up quickly when you need to concentrate.
± The faster you want to move across ground, the more fluidity in your formation you have to accept. If your unit likes being rigid in contact, the greater preparation time you have to allow for in the transition from the move to the halt.
± Maintain momentum. Holds can kill your unit’s momentum if you let them. Use sergeants and corporals (for want of better titles) to push from behind on the "lay on".
± Keep a unit reserve and keep it with you on the move. Control of the reserve (see Note 4) is the unit leader’s real power, the real ability to influence the course of battle once the gun has fired.
± Figure out drills or procedures for rally points and rally routine after contact, and let the sergeants and corporals run that activity. While they are gathering the scattered and re-forming the shieldwall, the regional unit leader must be looking for the next target or the next open ground to move into. You then must make sure everyone knows where you want them to go; again, rely on sergeants and corporals to pass the word and get people moving for you.
± The unit commander must stay out of the front rank. The shield-carrier up front fights with his sword; the commander hangs back and fights with fifty or one hundred swords. More to the point, you cannot command your unit, you cannot influence the course of the battle, when you’re dead. The leader probably will have a chance to swing his or her sword; usually this happens at the end of a battle, when all forces are committed or the rest of the unit is dead.
± The regional unit commander must not micro-manage. Let subordinate leaders perform separate tasks to support the overall unit aim. Give them a job and then let them get on with their lives and do it.
± Above all else, remember the aim. On the field, remember the aim. At all levels, remember the aim. When concocting your plan, remember the aim. While issuing orders, remember the aim. When confirming the information you’ve just passed, remember the aim. When co-ordinating with flanking forces, remember the aim. When the gun goes off, remember the aim. After first contact, remember the aim. Until you take a good shot and go down, remember the aim.
± Once the unit’s aim is achieved, maintain your momentum, support neighbouring units and cause maximum damage to the opposition until you’re dead or victorious. Then go have a shower and tell lies all night.
Making a fighting unit work
± Identify leaders: the titular head/rallying point; deputies and subordinates; staff assistants; and sub-unit leaders. Unless there is an utter vacuum -- which probably means your unit has assembled on the morning of the Field Battle from the lost and lonely -- do not "create" leaders. Let existing leaders lead. This is especially important if you are forming your regional unit from far-flung groups.
± Let people who want to be sergeants and corporals do their thing. They are essential for maintaining momentum, gathering stragglers, tightening the flanks and regrouping after contact. My experience has been that there are lots of glorious people who’ll stand out front, shout "follow me" and die like a dog in hopes of a few kills or a hot shower. There are fewer people who’ll hang tough in back and hammer new lads and lasses into holes in the line. Successful units have a few good people in back, and these sergeants and corporals are essential to the success of a regional unit.
± While moving to contact or in contact, remember that the opposition is defeated by breaking apart his formed unit and moving through his line. Too many units hit the other guys’ line, crack their shield-wall and then stop. Fight through the objective, break through the line and into the opposition’s rear. From there you can turn back and destroy what’s left of the unit you hit (see Note 5). Also, if you blast through the opposition’s line you’re back in open country, which means you’re free to move. By maintaining forward momentum through the target and into open ground you seize the initiative and maintain that initiative into your next advance.
± Tailor missions to people and existing groupings whenever possible. If you need three people to perform a specific task, it’s always preferable to take an existing group of three and task it, as opposed to splitting three people away from a larger group. Be sensitive to people’s social groupings if possible.
± Don’t worry about tidy organization charts and nice, even numbers like those found in a military manual. Take the people you have, in the natural groupings that they’ve formed, and work with them. You cannot force SCAdian fighters into a formal Table of Organization and Equipment. Trying to do so wastes your planning time and the fighter’s time and patience on the ground. Besides, once the gun starts the action, all that detail in the org-chart "wiring diagram" is irrelevant. Even if you form a "by-the-book" organization, it will not survive first contact.
± Weapons mix is a tactical art. As an organizational and operational issue for a regional unit commander, it is a red herring unless you are doing some very specific things (setting up a tactically exclusive unit or sub-unit fighting with nothing but spears, for example). With a typical unit you fight with what shows up on the day and shuffle accordingly. Make sure you have some weapons with reach here and there across your frontage and beyond that, let the melee team leaders organize their teams. That’s tactics; leave tactics to the front line leadership. Remember, don’t micro-manage!
± Any logistic support provided by others than the fighters that impacts on the swinging stick in the line makes the unit feel like it’s got its act together. Armour cartage; cold drinks at the side of the field; a shade fly and armour dump, musicians to march you up and down the hill; all are important. If the fighters have to carry their shade fly it’s not logistic support, it’s one more thing for them to carry to the field and back. Get a couple of non-fighters involved in a quartermaster corps and everyone (including the non-fighters who get to participate) is happier (see Note 6). Note that a shade fly for the non-fighting Baroness and her ladies is NOT a shade fly for the fighters.
± Set up the unit leadership hierarchy to maximize passage of information downwards. The shieldwall wants to know what’s going on. Having a plan is good. Making sure the troops know that there is a plan, period, is better. Making sure the troops know what the plan is, is best of all. Communicate, communicate and communicate some more!
± Speaking of communications, it’s very hard to communicate on the field between units at the regional level or higher. Units are large, unit frontages are long and there’s a lot of distance between commanders for messages to cover (and remember the time it takes for your question to reach the King is equaled by the time it takes for the reply to get back to you). Be clear on your unit aim, know what the overall plan is, know what your neighbouring units are supposed to accomplish and then be prepared to use your initiative to exploit whatever opportunities fate presents, consistent with what everyone else is doing. If you wait for approval or co-ordination from above, the opportunity will pass. Be picky; just because you see a tactical opportunity for a charge, it doesn’t mean you should charge. Will your advance hang your neighbours’ flanks out in the breeze? Will you leave a gap in the Kingdom line no-one will be able to fill? Does moving against this new target conflict with the Crown’s overall plan? You won’t have time to get permission in a case like this; in like manner, the Crown won’t have time to re-organize the line if you screw up the plan with an impromptu advance or retreat. Be bold, but be sensible.
± If you’re in command, don’t be afraid to say "I don’t know" to subordinates. Don’t be afraid to guess and anticipate, as long as you admit the information being passed is a guess or anticipation. Anticipation is a tried and true method of defeating time squeeze, the inevitable tendency SCAdian commanders have of leaving passage of information on the field to the very last minute -- or later. Anticipation is also known as "local planning", and the troops like to know somebody above them in the chain of command has a plan. Communicate, communicate and communicate some more!
± Tell your people what you want them to do, even if it’s an ambitious task. You may be surprised pleasantly.
± Trust your subordinates. Take risks on the field. This is not heart surgery and nobody cares what the "final score" is two days after. Risks on the field can add excitement and fun and are how leaders at all levels learn.
Making a fighting unit work well
± Leadership is a function, not a title. The leader is the person the troops listen to, not necessarily the person with the most gaudy fashion accessories or longest alphabet soup behind his or her SCA name. Recognize this and live with it. If you are a Baron or a Peer in such a situation, prepare to take direction from somebody without a hat, belt or fancy medallion. If you are a leader with "quality" falling into your unit, recognize these people’s right to some respect and consideration. Exercise a little diplomacy (on both sides of this equation) and you’ll all get a lot more done.
± Remember, your SCAdian army and mine are unpaid volunteers who bear all their own costs and occasionally loan you duct tape. Be nice to them. Don’t screw them around or they’ll vote with their feet (and maybe even switch sides, which can be painful for you). Treat the fighters who place themselves under your command with respect; they are supposed to be your friends, after all.
± Have pride. Build pride. Maintain pride. Make sure participants believe the unit’s contribution matters to the whole army. Make sure the same participants believe the individual’s contribution matters to the unit. Morale matters. Proud fighters fight better. They also show up, period. This may sound ridiculous but, in SCA combat, attendance is a force multiplier!
± Celebrate success as soon as possible after the battle (i.e. on the field if practical), while incidents are fresh in everyone’s mind. Praise people publicly for individual accomplishment and for the part they play in the overall activity. Emphasize positive reinforcement. Use the SCA’s award system and our hierarchical culture to support the positive reinforcement. Hold battlefield courts (see Note 7) or gather the troops to name a "man of the match".
± Part of being a regional unit commander is saying "yessir" to the Crown and part is saying "no way" and sticking to your guns. Nobody likes being run over by Atlantia again and again. Look out for your unit’s welfare. At the same time, be aware that everybody has to pull the crap detail once in a while and accept it when it happens. At a typical Pennsic expect to get your own way in every battle except one, where your unit will be either a reserve in a static battle or a sacrificial lamb in a draw play (see Note 8). Life happens, in my Pennsic experience about 15% of the time.
± Recognize that, as new people move up in the organization, new voices must be heard and new faces must have their chance at command. Take the time to teach melee team leaders about the bigger picture. You must prepare the next generation of unit leaders for your unit, because nobody else will do it for you. This means more than War College lectures (though they’re a starting point). You must watch junior leaders develop as tactical commanders and then mentor them. Take the time in practice and on the melee field to debrief. Make sure tactical lessons are put into a "big-picture" context; get leaders looking at issues from the larger perspective.
± At the same time that you are preparing the next generation of leaders, prepare for the next generation of battle. Should your unit be preparing to field more combat archers? Was weapons mix a tactical problem last War? Did you have enough scouts working for you in the woods? What about support staff on the side-lines? Part of the job of a regional unit leader is having a vision of what should be done. Part of the job is selling others on that vision (especially selling your sub-unit leaders, who in turn can become your best salesmen) and achieving consensus on a vision of the future. Part of the job is arranging the logistics, recruiting and training to make the vision happen. Note I said "arranging the logistics". Get more people involved than just yourself. Share the responsibility and work and you’ll share the fun. Also you’ll help develop the next generation of leaders, who’ll learn by doing under your supervision and tutelage. Delegate, follow up and watch your unit take shape over the winter.
± A failure of chivalry or honour is catastrophic to what we’re doing and must be addressed. A failure of communications or tactics on the field is part of the game-play; after all, the opposition wants your tactics to come in second to their tactics. If you as a leader want to ream somebody for something that happened on the field, make sure you can distinguish between catastrophe and game-play. If you have a situation where a person's behaviour is not satisfactory, always correct or admonish in private.
± Have fun. Do not let anything get in the way of the fun for the majority of your unit. Accept minor unhappiness because you can never please all the people all the time. Accept the "fickle finger of fate" factor; somebody has to lose. Even so, after all that is considered most of your people should be having a good time. If they’re not, people will vote with their feet and play elsewhere. At that stage (or preferably, long before people get ticked off enough to go elsewhere) leadership at all levels must reassess its performance (see Note 9).
Regional unit operations are a strange balance of tactical savvy and big-picture acumen. Unlike the melee team, the regional unit has sufficient strength to protect its flanks and rear, sufficient mass to hit an opposing unit hard and sufficient size to attract attention and to make unplanned movement out of danger cumbersome. A regional unit leader has to be able to use a personal weapon, manoeuvre melee teams and make his or her people fit into the grand mosaic of the Crown’s overall battle plan.
I have avoided discussion of local politics, because dabbling in SCAdian politics (whether live or on paper) is a sure way to alienate people. However, to assemble a regional unit, you must consider regional politics and their effect on the people who’ll be fighting under your command. Avoid setting up a politically contentious figure as unit leader or figurehead. This may split your force, hurt morale and take the focus off the field. If there is a political split shortly before a battle (I’ve seen people refuse to form up, ten minutes before the gun fired, and still shake my head at the memory) remind people that the fight is waiting on the field, not back in camp, and we all didn’t drive umpteen hours just to be disagreeable. Keep fun the priority and people may be able to leave the politics behind. If people insist on dragging local politics into the game and want to wrap other people around their particular axle, they are wrong and must be seen as casualties. Leave them and their bitterness behind, get the remainder out on the field and keep the main body happy. Remember the aim; ultimately, the aim is to have fun.
Tactics are defined as "the application of weapons to ground". Melee teams are the masters of weapons application. The regional unit commander must focus on ground: crossing it, holding it, spotting open ground and filling it or exploiting it. Successful unit commanders tend to have a good eye for ground and the shifting tide of battle. It takes time for a commander to get comfortable ignoring the weapons activity around him and worrying about the ground. Start now. Get used to it. Get your staff, your deputies and your successors used to it, too. Once you learn to see past spear range, the big picture can be very interesting.
As experienced heavy-weapons fighters we know the strange and magical fraternity of the Field Battle, the shared experience that bonds us. Being part of a unit, representing your local group, Barony or Principality, can heighten that sense of fraternity and accomplishment. One of those accomplishments is being a leader, part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. When you watch your unit, your people, execute your plan on the field, when you see the opposition streaming off the field during a hold, when you see your people taking pride in their part of the unit’s task, the adrenaline pump you’ll feel and the sense of satisfaction that will remain afterwards will make all the work and worry worthwhile.
NOTES to this essay:
Note 1: This can mean fighting through the opposing line or getting around the flanks to attack from the rear. This issue is discussed later in this article, in some detail.
Note 2: Speed is relative. For a solo two-stick fighter, the standard speed of movement on the field seems to be just under a sprint. For moving a regional unit to contact, a comfortable trot moves a unit faster than 90% of the formed units on the field and at least half the solo fighters. That’s how fast Ealdormere goes, and we are reputed by some to be the fastest unit in the Midrealm.
Note 3: Also recognize that while out of contact a formed unit can, just by being in a good position on the ground, threaten two or three units, tie up enemy reserves, check the opposition’s advance, force enemy units to change formation or alter enemy formations' order or march, especially on the flanks. In the right place at the right time, a formed unit out of contact can have far more influence on the overall battlefield than a unit of the same size, in contact and committed.
To be realistic about this, the value as a threat of any unit out of contact will also depend on the unit’s strength, its appearance, its reputation and its ability to move to contact in a timely manner. If the other side knows that your unit will never reach them in time to do them any damage, you’re not a threat, you're either a back-drop to the main event or an impediment to faster units on your side who might be able to influence the battle if your mob wasn't standing in the way.
Note 4: Being a reserve is a task for a unit (working at the formation/Kingdom level) or a sub-unit (at the unit level). Being in reserve is a job in itself. While in reserve, a unit or sub-unit cannot do something else. Once the reserve is doing something else, like guarding a flank or attacking something, it’s no longer in reserve. That may seem obvious, but many a commander has called an otherwise-tasked unit a reserve and then couldn’t understand why the "reserve" was otherwise occupied -- doing what it had been told to do, in contact with the enemy and unable to disengage and change tasks -- when a reserve was needed.
Note 5: In this situation why turn back? If your aim was to stop or destroy an opposing unit and your people have just blasted a hole through them, the opponents you just trampled probably aren’t very threatening right now. "Destroying" a unit is not the same as "killing every one of ‘em to the very last newbie". Remember your aim. If the aim is to take heads, feel free to turn back, surrender your forward momentum and go hunting. If the aim is to eliminate the opposing unit as a tactical threat and you’ve broken through their centre, scattered survivors won’t be much of a threat to your formed unit, will they?
Realistically, if your unit aim is to destroy an enemy unit and you break through on the opposition’s flank you’re probably going to have to turn in on them and either fall on their rear or roll up the flank you’ve broken down, to inflict damage on the majority of that enemy unit and by doing so to prevent that unit as a whole from reforming and performing. Again, to what degree you press home that flank attack depends on your unit aim and the leader’s on-the-spot assessment of the flow of battle and the threat posed by what remains of the opposition.
If you plan on blowing a series of holes through several opposing units, you will have to consider both the front of your unit (composition, timely provision of replacements on the move, steering and passage of information) and the rear (straggler control, counter-attack forces and reserves, rear security if you happen to leave too many of the opposition alive behind you).
Note 6: At the same time, remember you’re creating a logistic support structure. Logistics is the science of managing stuff. Stuff has to be purchased and accounted for; if you spend SCA money on stuff recklessly or without approval from your local exchequer, you just declared yourself a political time bomb and may even end up being asked by the BOD to find a new hobby. Stuff must be taken to events, taken to someone's home, barn, loft or garage after events, repaired as needed and stored for about 96% of the year. If you or your group want to do exciting things with logistics, be warned! Go in with your eyes open. I’m not saying it can’t work, but making logistic support work well in the SCA is an art, requiring very dedicated people in the right places.
Stuff must be bought with money (group money or someone's personal money) and then the stuff somehow must be allocated for use in an equitable manner and, for non-disposable items, accounted for and maintained thereafter. How stuff (or money to buy stuff) is allocated can be the biggest political headache imaginable.
Note 7: If you rule a Barony, Principality or Kingdom and want to do this, either carry the tokens of your martial orders with you or have a man-at-arms or other retainer carry such items for you onto the field. Also make sure that a seneschal and herald are part of your retinue -- if you are holding an actual court to invest fighters with honours -- and these two officers know they are expected to find you on the field after the battle.
Note 8: If your unit is assigned duty as bait or a speed-bump, communications are vital to morale. If the troops don’t know they’re supposed to be slaughtered, afterwards they’ll think either they screwed up or the rest of the Kingdom left them alone to die. Fighters who feel like failures -- or, worse, like suckers betrayed by the leadership of their own side -- are much less likely to show up and fight for your side tomorrow.
When your unit is handed a suicide mission, you as a leader have to re-define your unit’s aim and expectations. Your unit can charge into impossible odds, last fifteen seconds and then be annihilated. If everyone expected to last only ten seconds, that fight can go down in your local history books as a real success. The unit’s expectations depend on how well its leadership communicates before the battle.
Note 9: If the fun factor is missing because of things you can change, change them. If the fun is missing because of factors beyond your control (the best example I can think of is Pennsic XXIII, when the East was constantly massacring the Middle due to unequal forces) you must stick up for your people and their interests. Go to someone who can effect change and demand they make things better for everyone.
Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.