Tactical Lessons and Mass Combat

by Hector of the Black Height

from the "Proceedings of the Inaugural Session of the Northern War College"

When looking at mass melee combat in the SCA, it is tempting to assume that the tactical principles we have learned as individual fighters will apply to the mass battlefield. Some lessons will retain their validity, but a few different lessons come to mind.

Influence vs. Engagement

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is that a unit does not have to actually engage the opposition to have an effect on the overall battle. A unit which can position itself to threaten two or more enemy units can actually have a greater impact on the enemy’s operations than a unit in contact. It may be in the unit commander’s best interests (and in the enemy’s worst interests) to avoid contact, remaining as a threat, forcing the enemy into indecision, tying up reserves and generally dominating an area with its presence alone. This is especially true of units which penetrate deeply behind the enemy’s front line or dominate a flank.


Momentum is more than a physical property. Momentum is also a state of mind, and recent Pennsics reveal it’s a state the Midrealm is seldom good at reaching. It’s easy for a single fighter to stop and start. Units are difficult to get moving and, once moving, need time to stop or change direction. Practice and effective communications can assist in developing and maintaining momentum in the advance, but commanders must strive to teach their fighters as individuals within a group to build and maintain their momentum, despite holds (a major problem for the Midrealm), casualties, enemy action and the fluid nature of the open field.

Picking Targets

The individual fighter never has trouble finding an opponent. The unit commander must be looking for enemy units that can be fought and defeated, within the framework of the overall battle plan. Sometimes the desire of the front line to charge into whatever opposition they see must be suppressed in favour of the commander picking a fight the unit can win which also can have an effect on the battle as a whole. Unless a unit has been handed a suicide mission, what’s the point of looking for a fight you’re going to lose?


The individual fighter doesn’t necessarily see the ‘big picture’, and that includes his or her own worth as part of the overall army. The plain truth is that a fighter who is dead can no longer influence the battle; neither can a unit that has been wiped out or scattered. Unit commanders must strive to avoid engagements they cannot win. Unit commanders must also strive to avoid fights that will shatter their units, unless their task is a trade of one unit for another (i.e. sealing a flank against any enemy penetration at all costs).

Speed and Flexibility

I do not believe the East’s fighters are faster on their feet than we Midrealmers are. I am convinced that they are more flexible mentally, and this mental flexibility leads to:

faster starts, especially after holds;

easier, faster and more effective reorganization on the move;

more effective, spontaneous concentration of force at an enemy’s weak points; and

a greater ability to change direction quickly and to react to opportunities presented on the open battlefield.

Just like the East we can go umpteen miles an hour cross-country on foot. The difference is their ‘zero to umpteen‘ time if far faster than ours. We have to be more aware of the need for acceleration, and a significant part of the acceleration process is speeding up our thinking. Attending a War College, talking to other field leaders and learning to look at the big picture helps accelerate the battlefield thought process. So do anticipation of future tasks, timely and effective communications and boldness, at all levels of command including the individual fighter himself or herself.

Rigidity in formation leads to slow movement. Rigidity in planning leads to slow responses to change on the field. Ealdormere has achieved great success with a loose, flexible formation that allows speedy manoeuvre. Have we been as flexible mentally? I’m afraid not.

The East and its traditional allies have learned all these lessons far more successfully than the Middle has, and thanks to this the East is now the dominant force at Pennsic. There is nothing mysterious or impossible about the East’s success; the question remains, how will we respond to the Eastern challenge?

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.