On the Employment of Scouts

First of two essays by Hector of the Black Height

I think that SCAdian commanders are failing to make effective use of one of the most effective weapons in their arsenals. That weapon is the SCAdian scout. I have some very specific ideas about scouts and scouting. I am a heavy fighter, not a scout. However, that does not necessarily invalidate my opinions. As valuable as scouts are -- or can be -- scouts can help win a battle. Only heavy fighters can actually win that battle, by holding ground and by defeating the enemy's heavy fighters in close combat. The trick is to integrate scouts into the fighting Army, to combine their strengths with the strengths of the heavy fighters and to create an unbeatable, inter-disciplinary team. These essays address one approach to the employment of scouts in a heavy-fighter battle.

Basics: Area vs. Point Reconnaissance

Before I go on, let me explain the two basic ways to employ scouts. This concept is, basically, the same way any military commander employs his observation and reconnaissance resources, from the Eyeball, Mark One through to ground-mount radar. A scout can observe an area or a specific point (not many other options, eh?). In the Middle Kingdom, Master Erik Eriksson and his Shadow Dancers have provided area reconnaissance on the Pennsic battlefield for several years. In this set-up, the scouts, working singly or in teams, are assigned specific areas of the battlefield to observe. When they see something, they report back to a higher headquarters. The scout commander, Master Erik, makes sure the entire battlefield is covered with observation.

How the area reconnaissance scouts report back is, in many respects, the ultimate limiting factor of area reconnaissance in SCA combat. A member of the scout team has to get up and run back to wherever a commander is, to pass the information. The time spent running back with the information is time in which the observed enemy can change their location, activity or intentions. This also assumes the runner can find the headquarters and the commander to whom information is to be passed, and it also assumes the scout will survive the journey. The deeper in enemy territory the scouts are located, the juicier the information that will be discovered, and the more dangerous the trip back will be.

Once the message is passed, the scout may expect a new assignment, which means somebody at the headquarters had better be able to task scouts; the King or Prince may have other things on his mind. Or, the scout may expect to return to his or her team in the forward area. Rejoining the team assumes the team hasn't been forced to move by circumstances. There are a lot of maybes and what-ifs in all of this!

Point Reconnaissance

As you probably can tell, while I have great respect for Master Erik and the Shadow Dancers (especially in the deep reconnaissance role to find banners) I am not convinced the benefits of area reconnaissance in the Pennsic woods battle outweigh the value of the resources employed. The farther afield scouts are deployed, the older their reports will be when runners bear them to the commander. Old information can be worse than useless. That's my tactical opinion, and we can argue tactics all night (preferably over a beverage). However, I have a profound respect for local, point reconnaissance. When I have been helping move groups of fighters through the woods, I generally have very specific questions about my surroundings:

  1. What's over the next hill? Friend or foe?
  2. Who's on my flanks?
  3. Where's the banner we're supposed to capture (or the unit we're supposed to link up with, or the trail we're supposed to follow)?

I really don't care very much about the Big Picture as a unit commander; I leave the broad sweep of battle to Their Assorted Majesties. I want to know what is going to effect my immediate movement. I want to have eyes that will look over the next hill, so I know what to expect and how to deploy before we struggle over the rise. I want to avoid unpleasant surprises from my flanks. That's the sort of information I want scouts to hand me, over and over again as the battle unfolds.

A Possible Scout Organization While On The Advance

A unit the size of Ealdormere (see my essay "What is a Unit; an Opinion" for more details on this contentious topic) needs a handful of scouts to provide immediate reports on the ground to the front and flanks. Were I the Constable of Ealdormere setting up the staff organization for our Prince at War, I'd want one or two scouts, working as a team, on the left and right flanks, and three or four scouts working to the front. Pairs are always best; one can watch the ground and the other can warn the first scout of possible problems (like Eastern scout-killers). Once data has been gathered, one can run back and pass information, the other can keep watching, gathering data and ready to run back if an emergency occurs.

This concept of point reconnaissance works to the front and the flanks; as a general rule the need for information from the front is more urgent. That's why I suggest two pairs of scouts or three single scouts working forward.

If I had the luxury of LOTS of scouts, I'd also post a team of scouts to the rear of the Principality, to provide all-around observation and to maintain contact with neighbouring units. However, since friendly fighters moving up from Resurrection Point generally dominate the rear, as a general rule a rear sentry post would be the least of my worries.

How to Task Scouts

Orders for a scout should be simple; the easiest way to task scouts for reconnaissance is to ask a question:

>> Is there enemy over the next hill?

>> Is there any enemy on or behind that high feature over there?

>> Where is the banner guard?

Keep the questions simple; make sure the scouts can give a simple, clear answer. What a commander wants is a steady flow of clear, concise reports. If you as a commander ask a simple question it won't take the scout a ten-minute area study to collect the information you want. In the situation I am describing, my scouts will never stop moving. I would ask a question and the scout would be off at a run to find an answer. The scout would dash up the hill, sneak-and-peek for five or ten seconds, turn around and run back. The commander would receive an all-clear or a warning and then the scout would be asked another question.

In this situation, a scout must understand his or her reporting relationship. The scout is providing intimate reconnaissance support to the supported unit AND TO NO-ONE ELSE. A scout in this case works for the unit commander or sub-unit commander. If I had a command position within a Barony and a scout supporting that Barony started wandering off on missions for the Prince or King, I would be most unhappy, and I would be most vocal in expressing that unhappiness. In fact, I'd probably throw a large, hairy hissy-fit at the commander tasking MY scout. I want that information on the next hill or the trail. I brought a scout and I'm going to get the benefit of my foresight, dammit!!! (If you want self-gratification, be a local-support scout and listen to the commanders fighting over your services! Believe me, they will.)

This is not to say that scouts should keep secrets. If I was a scout working to the front of Ealdormere during an advance and I saw 200 Atlantians coming up the trail ahead, I'd be running back to my Prince, telling every Midrealmer I saw en route to prepare for a visit from 200 Atlantians. However, I would just say "200 Atlantians straight ahead!" as I ran through these intervening units, back by the fastest route possible to my boss. A scout should have a very clear understanding of his or her task and taskmaster. If I am working for the Prince of Ealdormere in the woods and I see 200 Atlantians, I run straight back to the Prince and report. If the Prince wants me to tell the King thereafter, that's my job and I'll do it. I will NOT tell the Prince about our new neighbours and then decide on my own to tell the King; the Prince may have another task for me (like "Okay, where can we go that Atlantia isn't?"). If a scout isn't clear on who his or her boss is, the scout should ask immediately. Otherwise that scout will get "borrowed" by any curious commander within arm's length -- mea culpa; I've borrowed under-employed scouts in the past. If a scout isn't crystal-clear on who the boss is, that scout will end up looking for work because a curious, frustrated commander somewhere won't be asking that stream of questions which is the reason scouts take to the woods in the first place.

The Information Being Passed

Scouts can be worth their weight in gold, if they can do specific things. A good scout will:

  1. provide timely information, clearly and unambiguously;
  2. report facts;
  3. if opinions or assumptions seem relevant, tell the commander that they are NOT facts as they're being passed;
  4. report what he or she did NOT see; and
  5. indicate how old the information being passed is.

Here's an example of what I mean. I just told my scout to see if there are any enemy on the top of the big hill to my left. Here's the report:

"You wanted to know about the big hill on the left. There was enemy there less than two minutes ago. I saw six or eight fighters at the top of the hill, and then I was chased away well before I reached the top. I'd guess the fighters at the top of the hill were commanders; mixed heraldry, three white belts, two coronets, no shields. I heard a lot of noise behind the hill. Do you want a guess of how many fighters I heard?" (Nodded helmet) "I'd guess fifty or more."

A scout is responsible for collecting data. The commander will make deductions based on facts collected from all over the field. Scouts are NOT an intelligence processing service. Scouts are gatherers of raw data. The commander assembles data from a variety of sources, comes to some conclusions, makes some decisions and then issues orders to his or her fighters. The scout's role is to keep fresh information flowing in, so the commander can make the best decisions possible.

Remember, the commander you are reporting to has a lot on his or her mind. Keep your report clear and concise. Also remember your report may be interrupted. Always report the single most important fact first. That way, if the commander is distracted (say by 200 charging Atlantians), the critical data will have been passed. In the example above, if something happened and the scout had to vacate the commander's vicinity after once or two sentences, the commander would at least know there was enemy on the left.

One other point: in the example above the scout repeated the question the commander asked, and then answered it. Field commanders have a lot on their minds, and they may have trouble hearing anything (including their own thoughts) over the rushing of the adrenaline past their ears! Repeat the question asked; the commander may have several scouts out, so now he or she knows which report is coming in. Or the commander may have forgotten you in the heat of the moment.

Scouts and Resurrection

Scouts are a unit resource. If the unit commander is killed, the unit scouts report to the next in the chain of command; scouts should be familiar with the chain of command within the unit they support. Scouts should keep reporting to the unit until the unit ceases to be a cohesive whole. In a "standard" (one-death) battle, they then should revert to the control of the next level up (a Barony's scouts work for the Principality, the Principality's work for the Kingdom). In a resurrection battle like the Pennsic Woods Battle, in my opinion the scouts should wait until a certain point (such as 50% casualties to the unit the scouts support) and then should pull back and move towards Resurrection Point. They can "die" and go back for a break and a drink of water with the rest of the unit. They also can stay forward of the Point, reading the battlefield and listening to other scouts' reports. Then, as the unit resurrects as a formed whole and moves back into the fray, the unit commander will find scouts waiting to lead the unit forward, with reasonably fresh information on the battle and battlefield. This is a matter of opinion; some commanders may want their scouts to keep supporting the forward battle, or to transfer their support to an allied unit. Scouts supporting a unit should determine what the unit commander wants in this regard before the battle starts.

If a unit's scout is killed in a resurrection battle, I believe the scout has two options. Either the scout goes back to Resurrection Point, takes a break and waits for his unit to die off so they can all resurrect together, or the scout resurrects and rejoins his unit forward. This second option is not as easy as it sounds. If the scout resurrects he may come out of the Point to meet a stream of his unit's fighters going in, or that scout may just get embroiled in another unit's battle. Remember, these are the woods we're talking about; Murphy rules!

This has been a pretty thorough, though straight-forward, look at the role and tasks of scouts in the advance. In my next essay I'll examine some other tasks for scouts, and some other ideas to maximize the effectiveness of scouts within a unit.

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.