Thursday, February 16, 2012

Worldbuilding: Urban warfare

This is actually a continuation of my previous post about sieges. My fantasy monstrosity contains a siege, and yes in a sense I am skipping over posts I could write about siege engines, battering rams and such -- but that information is easy enough to find, people are generally aware of them, and it's really just a question of what's appropriate for your technology level and dramatic needs.

There's an aspect of sieges that one rarely sees in fantasy: urban warfare. Or, at least, I haven't seen much. (recommendations?) Even personal-level fantasy warfare on a battlefield can be difficult to find -- warfare, that is, as in organized group fighting. I heartily recommend Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles for its close-up view of first-millennium-AD warfare if you're looking too. He puts you right in the shield wall with his MC.

One can find resources about urban warfare online with a little work. It's all modern urban warfare, of course, where hand-to-hand combat is far less common. Those principles will still apply whenever archers are available, but that still leaves the question of your average medieval-based fantasy soldier who's carrying around a sword or a spear and a shield.

Briefly, the range-weapon urban warfare skills to keep in mind are:
  • Stay under cover as much as possible. Out of sight, essentially -- don't be a target to shoot at.
  • Move fast when you must cross open spaces. This includes knowing where you're going and where any obstacles may be.
  • Be alert! Watch for lines of fire, especially from above, double check everything, and be paranoid.
Which leaves the question of how small groups of soldiers armed with hand-to-hand weapons set about securing (or defending) a city on a street-by-street basis. The closest equivalent I've found thus far is the techniques that riot police use to try breaking up masses of people -- and they are using some ancient techniques.

Questions of squad size will come into play, but these techniques can be adapted to small groups of men in potentially tight spaces.

Shield wall
Shield wall: Present the enemy with a line of overlapped shields and get into a shoving match while trying to stab through the enemy's shield wall. Losing even a few men in the wall can cause the whole thing to collapse. When the Romans were doing this, the second row of men would lay their shields over the heads of the first row for added protection -- could be useful if there are archers on rooftops. The second line also adds to the pushing match, so the questions become: who has more men, who's stronger, who gets in a few lucky stabs first.

Flying wedge
Flying wedge: As an alternative to the shield wall shoving match, a group of soldiers can charge the wall in a wedge formation. The force of impact can give the attackers enough of a break to get their stabs in and collapse the wall.

Weak center: This might not work in a narrow side street, I think, but perhaps on a wide street or in a square. The center of the shield line, here, is deliberately "weak" and falls back when the enemy presses in. Being eager, the enemy keeps pressing and the overlap of their shields loosens up. The men to either side of the weak center can attack into the gaps, or even swing around completely and stab the enemy in the back.

In combination with the range-weapon tactics mentioned above, this should make for an interesting part of the story. Though by "interesting" I mean "brutal, messy and scary" of course. And what would happen if I throw half a dozen knights on horseback into the mix?

Have you ever researched small-group fighting tactics? I haven't had a chance to mention the military references I found on I, Clausewitz's blog -- this is my chance, I guess. Recommendations and references welcome, as always!


Anonymous said...

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen has some of the best descriptions of urban warfare in a fantasy setting that I've seen (in fact his battle scenes in general are kind of amazing).

Unfortunately, (a) his ten book series is blending in my mind, so it's tough to point to the specific books where the urban battles/sieges I'm thinking of happen (there's usually at least one in every book, I think), and (b) that battle would make little sense without having read the story up to that point. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend Eriksen.

FWIW, I reviewed the last book and did a bit of a series wrap-up that might give a little more insight into the series overall.

L. said...

Thanks! I will add Erikson to my to-read pile.

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