What is a Unit: an Opinion

by Hector of the Black Height

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

There are many ways to define a unit; history, command structure, livery, heraldry, equipment... When looking at a unit in operational terms, other factors shape the definition. These are related to what a unit is there to do, not what it looks like or where it comes from. On the field a unit is defined by its goal, mission or aim (three words for much the same thing). The scope of a mission will change, depending if you are fighting in a five-man melee tourney or at Pennsic. Letís focus on Pennsic, as thatís the battlefield the Northern War College is looking at.

A unit is a self-contained group of people who are going to achieve an aim. How they do this is immaterial at this stage of the discussion; itĎs enough to say that they will achieve an aim on their own. How does one achieve an aim on the battlefield? You get to the field, form up, move to a starting position (in modern military terms the Line of Departure or Start Line), cross the Start Line when the gun goes off, make your way across the field, make contact with the enemy and defeat him. Thatís the basic process, for one fighter or an army.

Form Fits Function

In the SCA we fight a very polite war; we move to the battlefield unimpeded and form up free of enemy interference. Once the gun goes off and we cross the Start Line weíre on our own, and thatís where I believe the definition of a unit starts to take shape. A unit must be strong enough to cross the Start Line at point A and move across the battlefield to its objective at point B. If a body of troops cannot get from point A to point B on the field without somebody else running interference for them, I believe theyíre not an independent unit. They are a sub-unit, and the co-operation of other sub-units will be necessary to accomplish a single aim.

For practical reasons, a unit must have a single commander at the pinnacle of its internal hierarchy. There may be -- will be -- many sub-commanders, but ultimately they all listen to one commander and act in concert to achieve the overall aim assigned by that commander to his or her unit.

The Pennsic battlefield is fluid and turbulent. Itís unlikely that any unit can move across the field without making contact with somebody. A unit will be strong enough to put out its own vanguard, flank security or rear-guard, probably made up of one or more of its own sub-units. After deploying flankers or skirmishers the main body of the unit will still be strong enough to accomplish the mission once they reach their objective.

What is implied by this? A unit must be strong enough to put out its own speed-bumps when crossing the field and must be able to afford to lose them. A unit, after expending its own security force (probably one of its sub-units, perhaps more than one) must have enough strength to do what it came across the field to do. If itís too weak to do the job when it gets there, why go at all?

So, what do we know about a unit?

>> It has a single commander who sets the unitís aim.

>> Itís strong enough to accomplish a single mission.

>> Itís strong enough to move across the field to achieve that mission. This includes sufficient strength to take casualties while crossing the field.

Mass Matters

Based on my experience on the Pennsic battlefield, I believe a unit has to have a strength of ten percent of one side or the other. With thousand-a-side armies, a unit at Pennsic is about one hundred people. Anything smaller is a sub-unit which cannot perform a mission on its own, but can act in concert with other sub-units (or units).

Letís look at a concrete example. In my opinion Ealdormere is a unit (i.e. it fields about one hundred people). It has enough mass and strength to cross the battlefield, engage the enemy and accomplish an aim (seal a flank, stop another unit, engage the enemyís rear and so on). The Baronies within Ealdormere are sub-units. Performing specific tasks in concert under a single commander (the Prince) they can achieve an overall aim. These tasks include:

 point unit in a charge;

 flank security or rear-guard;

 blocking force;

 main body (an often overlooked job; somebody has to be left to Ďdo the deedí once youíve deployed flankers, van- and rear-guards and any Ďspeed bumpsí and crossed the field); and


Units form the Kingís overall reserve. A unit can hold a sub-unit as its own reserve. A unitís reserve will be controlled by the unit commander, will move with the unit and will be committed by the unit commander to help achieve the unitís aim. An Ealdormeran Barony sitting in the Kingís hip pocket and looking to the King for orders is not part of Ealdormereís reserve. Itís part of the Kingís reserve which the King may use as he sees fit. This distinction is important; if a unit is told to leave a sub-unit with the King as a reserve, the unit commander wonít be able to draw on it when his people are on the other side of the field.

If a unit is one hundred people or more, the thousand fighters of the Midrealm and its allies are a collection of units working in concert to defeat the enemy. In modern military parlance a collection of units is called a formation.

Keep Things Simple

So what? Certain important principles can be drawn from this definition of a unit. Each unit should have a single mission which supports the formationís overall aim, the defeat of the opposing army. If there are ten units in the formation, there should be ten missions being accomplished. This total of ten includes those units whose missions are acting as a reserve, supporting other unitsí attacks or exploiting gaps made by other units. More missions than there are units means either:

the plan is too complex (you cannot run a six-phase attack with shifting co-ordination points and multiple objectives unless youíre provided with high-tech communications, trained and rehearsed troops and experienced battle staff); or

the formation commander has split his units into sub-units to fight the battle, which violates such principles of war as concentration of force and simplicity.

Units win battles. Sub-units help win battles, but sub-units on their own cannot defeat formed units. Take the classic manoeuvre unit at Pennsic, Atlantia. One unit, one commander, one block of men, one mission. How often has Atlantia swept a flank and had whatever we throw at them bounce off? Too often, because we donít hit Atlantia with units. We throw sub-units at Atlantia which are too small to accomplish that mission. They are defeated in detail, crushed (or brushed aside) by Atlantiaís concentrated force. This is the textbook illustration of a unit beating sub-units.

We as commanders -- at all levels -- must form, collect or recognise what are units, before the battle. We must manoeuvre those formed units across the field and into contact with the enemy. Once we have made contact we must re-form those units and keep re-forming unit-sized groups. Doing anything else begs our defeat in detail.

The SCAís warrior tradition is built on the chivalric ethos of individual valour and prowess. Thatís fine; the individual on the field, having fun, is the building block for anything we do. The next level up is the canton, household or lance, the group of friends who develop their own identity and esprit de corps. We need that spirit and pride -- Ealdormere has accomplished wonders, based on morale and esprit -- but we must not mistake heraldry and attitude for performance on the thousand-a-side battlefield. We must recognise that a household or a Barony are important things but they are not units. A unit is a big organization, because we want it to do a big job. We have to stop thinking in terms of five and ten fighters. The Middle and its allies must form, plan for and fight every battle with units that support each other. Units defeat units: only by defeating the enemy, unit against unit, will we achieve victory.

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.