Battle Tactics: How Fantasy Elements can Change Warfare in the Age of Reason

About four p.m., the enemy’s artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” The word of command, “Prepare to receive cavalry”, had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.
—Captain Rees Howell Gronow, Foot Guards — The charge of the French Cavalry at Waterloo ( One of the most poetic description of the battle. The charge was a failure: The English formed infantry formed up and repelled the charge. Ney did not support the charge with Infantry to counter this and is often blamed for the French defeat.)

Flintlock Fantasy, Steampunk, and other forms of Fantasy set after the middle-ages are gaining prominence. Part of this is that as Fantasy matures as a genre, authors feel more confident branching out beyond the traditional settings. I also feel that part of the service that Fantasy offers is to mythologize the past and that we are now distant enough from the conflicts of the age of reason to parse them, anachronize or grimdark them, and re-introduce them to a broader audience through the wonders of popular fiction.

The Renaissance  the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the early industrial age, which I will collectively and brutishly refer to as the Age of Reason, brought great changes to warfare as well as to the rest of society.  Introducing magic and other Fantasy elements to this volatile age is an exciting prospect, but one that is fraught with peril.

Take your standard Fantasy wizard type. We know he can change the classical battlefield or the wars of the middle-ages pretty easily (if you don’t read this and this). Fireballs could blast formations to pieces and hereditary magic could bump the knightly aristocracy down the food chain. But Gunpowder would change that, right? I mean muskets give a brigade of common men nearly equal footing with the great mages of Fantasy… could the Old Guard take down Gandalf?  the answer depends entirely on who is writing and how they define magic in their world. The problem is just dumping magic onto an age of Reason battlefield without considering the implications results in problems. A firing line of muskets or the Grand Battery could certainly rival a great mage for power, but what happens if he can call lightning down on your powder stores? and don’t even get me started on what a Napoleon figure could do with a guy who could summon fog or rain.

To show how Fantasy Elements could change warfare in this period, I am going to discuss warfare what warfare in this period was like. Naturally this is extremely generalized and covers a broad swathe of history, and glosses over many of the more contentious arguments about warfare in this period. Don’t use this as research for your thesis 😉

Centralization of Power, Standing Armies, Conscripts and Drill: As the age of Reason progressed military power became more and more centralized, be it in the hands of a King or a president. Collections of feudal bonds were replaced by states. The old nobility with their personal armies were replaced by professional soldiers supplemented by militia and conscripts. The return of drill, more than anything, spelled the end for Knights of old.
  • Early in this period well-trained Pikemen become more and more common. Drilled to form up into a hedge (and later a square) against cavalry charges, these guys could even repel armoured knights. Some historians feel that well-trained longbowmen, drilled to shoot rapidly ended Chivalry. Courtly life at Versailles certainly did. As well trained footmen that could counter heavy cavalry became more common the knights in heavy plate disappeared and the role of Cavalry changed (see below). By the time the guys with guns show up Knighthood was a thing of the past.
  • Centralization of power and industrialization allow for uniform equipment of soldiers on a much larger scale.
  • Conscription and the return of the professional soldier led to bigger armies and reserves. The armies of these periods were often very large and some of the battles were colossal.
  • Skill at front-line fighting was no longer a necessity for a general. Leadership, Logistics, Tactics, and Strategy become more important. Keeping abreast of technological changes and adapting becomes increasingly vital.
  • Drill becomes extremely important. Well drilled artillery and musketeers fire faster and are less likely to break as men around them fall. Charging at the right moment or assuming the correct formation on time become pivotal. Discipline is king.

The Role of Infantry: Infantry gradually become prominent again in the Age of Reason. The Pikemen and Swordsmen of The Prince gradually gave way to musketeers, and then line infantry armed with “rifle” and bayonet. Gun technology progressed but the bayonet remained important throughout this period.

  • Early line Musketeers would fire at a short range and then charge. Gustavus Adolphus is said to have perfected this kind of warfare. He drilled his Line Infantry to fire en-masse , afix bayonets, then charge. The initial volley would shock the enemy line and make them more susceptible to the charge.
  • A rifle with a bayonet is as efficient as a spear in the hands of a well-trained soldier. Do not think of line infantry as weak in close combat.
  • With proper drill and discipline infantry armed with rifle and bayonet could assume formations that could repel Cavalry.
  • The famed square of the Napoleonic line infantry was a bayonet hedge on all sides with a hollow space in the middle. It was very resistant to flanking and charging. People would still shoot in and out of the square but the formations were so large that attrition could go on for some time. It was sub-optimal against line fire and really rather vulnerable to artillery though. They tended to drill so they could form up quickly when it was needed. The hollow area in the middle could be used to trap cavalry or shelter valuable personal/cannons/wounded, or the Emperor himself 😉
  • Skirmishers armed with rifles saw use, particularly as screens.
  • Grenades saw use later in this period.
  • Infantry started to become more and more specialized.

Firing from square formation. Not sure what this is depicting. Old Guard I think.

The Role of Cavalry: Cavalry still saw use well into the age of the gun. There were many types. Lancers, Heavy Cavalry armed with sword and pistol, Chasseurs armed with carbines, Dragoons that could fight with sabres or dismount and use rifles. They all had their uses.

  • Cavalry dropped the heavy armour in favour of speed. There were exceptions, like the Curassier, but even these were still not the Knightly tanks of old.
  • Proper use of Cavalry included destroying troops out of formation, artillery in vulnerable positions, or countering other cavalry.
  • Charging into cannons with proper fields of fire would result in dead Cavalry. Charging vulnerable cannons was key.
  • Over the Age of Reason the Cavalry charge stopped being a leading tactic and became a reaction tactic for the most part.
  • The use of Cavalry really ended with the machine gun, better guns, and trench warfare, somewhat beyond in this period. Cavalry still saw use in the American civil war and even in the World Wars.
  • Cavalry was absolutely vital in pursing the enemy and making sure units did not reform and rejoin the battle.

The Role of Artillery: Artillery gradually came to dominate the battlefield in this period of warfare. Cannons destroyed old fortifications, wrecked formations, ruined cavalry charges, and filled the air with thunder and smoke. Cannons, Mortars, and even Rockets saw use in this period. Specialty shot became common as well. Grapeshot was used to destroy massed of men who strayed too close or break charges. Cannon balls would streak through the air and blast through lines of men.

  • Most artillery was too heavy to move much during a battle.
  • Some smaller cannons could be moved bu horse and set up under fire, even during battle.
  • Cannons could be used massed or distributed through the ranks, varying by tactics.
  • I cannot imagine the terrible courage of men who stood in lines against cannon fire and massed musket fire. Perhaps being able to see the men opposite them struggling to reload spurred them to action. Maybe it was like a race.
  • Enemies would disable enemy cannons by spiking them, since they would often have to give up territory in the face of a counter-charge. Captured cannons were added to existing batteries after battles.

The Use of Terrain and Weather: The Generals of the Age of Reason used terrain to their advantage. A slight rise could shelter a line of men or hide a cavalry formation. The high ground could prove a decisive advantage. Fog could conceal troop movements and allow a surprise charge. Rain and mud could bog artillery down. Formation and Manoeuvre were of great importance in this style of battle.Naval Battles: This was the age of sail. Naval battles were thunderous, magnificent affairs. Ships would manoeuvre around trying to gain better fields of fire. Bigger, better ships, with more and more cannon became prominent. Naval warfare in this period deserves a post on its own.

  • A crippled vessel could be captured.
  • Boarding actions were prominent.
  • Naval power became exceptionally important in this period. Not only did it allow control of ports and colonies, it made moving and supplying armies easier.

Fortification in the Age of Reason: The old castles often could not stand up to cannon. City walls were useless against cannon that could fire over them or reduce them to rubble. However the fortifications that were actually built in this period were nigh impregnable. The star forts built by Vauban and others were so defensible that the generals of the period were loathe to attack the bloody things head on. This often forced long sieges and encouraged the smart general to seek out a decisive engagement in the field.

A simple star fort diagram (top down view) showing the overlapping fields of fire. Take one part of the fort and the rest could fire on you.

I could get into supply lines and the the goal of crushing the enemy army in the field as an expression of will, but you likely get the point. So what happens when you add magic to the field?Steampunk Elements: Steampunk tends to be Victorian but introducing some Steampunk tropes to the Age of Reason battlefield can be rousing good fun. The effect of Steampunk tech is generally to advance weapons technology a bit further on. Napoleonic era battles might look like a Flashier version of the American Civil war with Steamtech added in. Better rifles, machine guns, and cannon would end line warfare. Accurate long range rifles and cannon force the command structure back from the field. Exotic tech would have unusual effects.

  • Flight makes fortifications more vulnerable, and spying enemy formations easier. Gyrocopters and dirigibles would be superb spies.
  • Tesla cannons might replace grapeshot.
  • Knights might survive into this period with steamtech powered armour.
  • Coal suddenly becomes a burning issue for supply.
  • Steam Tanks would become a dominant force if introduces in significant numbers. They can survive cannon and rifle fire and advance through lines.

Fantasy Creatures: Fantasy creatures can have an interesting effect on the battlefield.

  • If a creature is large enough to haul a cannon around and can be trained for combat, mobile artillery can become way more fun. Ogres with cannons and giants with guns mounted on them are a popular staple of fantasy wargaming. I personally like dire trolls throwing gunpowder bombs myself.
  • Dragons might be vulnerable to cannon-fire, but gunpowder and slow moving artillery are likely more vulnerable to a mobile, fire breathing dragon.
  • Exotic Cavalry mounts are game changers. Napoleon made great use of camels in his Egyptian campaign, Imagine what a creative general could do with armoured crabs that could withstand cannon fire or some sort of mount that allowed amphibious operations.
  • Unusual races bring new tactics. Nightvision alone would change so much in this style of warfare. Generals could setup and attack with artillery at night, conduct superior night raids and watch enemy deployment. It would be a nightmarish (heh) advantage if your enemy had it and you didn’t.
  • Could the undead be taught to use simple firearms? Drill is fairly mechanical (early on at least). Their morale is unshakable, and they keep fighting despite injury. Those are both incredible assets in this style of warfare. Zombie line infantry… hmmm.
So cool

Dire Troll Bomber from the game Hordes (Privateer Press)

Mages and Wizards: The Common Wisdom  in gaming used to be that the gun replaced the wizard. This partly has to do with the pedigree of RPGs and Fantasy wargaming. The wizard essentially too the place of the artillery in some of these games. Lately Fantasy has progressed beyond this. If a cannon is nasty, what about a magic cannon? Wizards can also do much more than provide direct fire-power. Think about the interactions between your magic system and your battlefield. One of the reasons I enjoyed Promise of Blood, is that Brian McClellan thinks this interaction through. Read it and see why… he has powder mages!

  • Gunpowder is explosive. If a mage can introduce even a small amount of fire to something at a decent range gunpowder warfare changes dramatically.
  • Enchanted bullets cannons, and guns, could be serious fun.
  • Enchanted armour could resist the weapons of the period, this would radically alter the battlefield making the charge a more dominant strategy and possibly creating something like a knight.
  • The tactics of this age are much more complex, thus the ability to summon fog, illusions, and even simple communications spells can really change the field. Swordsmen might still have a role if they can get to the enemy without being seen. Spying on the enemy with spells to learn a battle-plan is even more effective when deployments are so vital.
  • Defensive spells could allow cavalry to charge right into cannon fire, making protecting the artillery more important.
  • Healing magic could prolong engagement times and make breaking the line an arduous task.

In general it is not enough anymore to simply add a Fantasy element to Warfare without considering how it will effect the battlefield (unless that’s not the focus of your story). Modern fantasy readers are more astute and less forgiving. Think it through, discuss it with other authors and readers. It is a rewarding aspect of world building, and when done properly it creates awesome books. Seriously get writing your Napoleonic Fantasy world right now! I want to read it…

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6 comments on “Battle Tactics: How Fantasy Elements can Change Warfare in the Age of Reason

  1. Awesome, awesome post.

  2. This is incredibly detailed… Very high quality info here!

  3. Great post. Gave me lots to think about regarding Steampunk warfare. Thanks so much!

    • grimkrieg says:

      I really just brushed lightly the topic. If you want to see an interesting version of steampunk style warfare check out the Warmachine/Iron Kingdoms from privateer press.

  4. Present says:

    Im loving all these blog posts, they’re all well thought out, on a range of topics, written well and most importantly, interesting. Keep up the good work

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