The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Courage

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Spartans surrounded by Persians, Battle of Thermopylae. 19th century illustration.

This is a bit of a digression, but you’ll be used to me doing that by now. However, the different types of battle imply different types of courage needed to fight in them.

Inevitably, there are indeed different types of courage. For troops, these come down to two different types of courage: stoic courage and dashing courage. Commanders of armies also need moral courage, because they will need to make difficult decisions and they need the moral courage to stand by those decisions or change their minds, as appropriate. They also need the wit to distinguish which is which, but discussion of that is outside the brief of this book.

Stoic courage, as the name implies, is the courage to stand firm in the face of an assault. It is the principal requirement of heavy infantry, unable to move quickly, to be able to either hold position or steadily advance.

Dashing courage is needed for dashing into attacking positions. Leaping into the unknown requires a different kind of courage to stoic courage. Dashing courage is the principle requirement of light cavalry, which isn’t expected to stand and fight, but is expected to rush into situations to find out what’s there.

But, in the end, courage is not as important as cohesion (drink) for troops. Cohesion can give courage to an individual and a unit; courage on its own can’t give cohesion to a unit. That’s because courage is very much an individual thing, something that warriors need in abundance, but which is not so important for soldiers (see PXXX for definitions of warriors and soldiers). Cohesion is what holds a unit together.

It’s well-known that in most pre-modern battles, the majority of casualties occur after one side or the other has broken and are fleeing. There are exceptions to this, such as the Battle of Hastings (1066), when both sides had high cohesion and the forces held together for most of the day, the battle swaying to and fro, until early evening when the Saxon forces finally broke.

In general, one side will lose cohesion during a battle, break and flee. That is when the slaughter begins. This is why one military adage states: “Victory goes to the side that keeps on going for the longest.”

In history, troop morale and unit cohesion are vital, as important as weapon technology or numbers. As we have seen earlier, many factors can boost cohesion and morale: training, command, charismatic leadership, psychology (fighting for one’s home is generally a stronger motivator than fighting to plunder someone else’s home, which is generally a stronger motivator than fighting for some lord in a distant land for no reward). It is my fervent wish that we see these factors more often in fiction.

At which point, I need to give a shout out to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. JRRT is explicit in having “will” be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of battles. The greatest weapon that the Nazgul had was their ability to strike terror and break cohesion, far more effective than any physical threat that they posed.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.