The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Raids

By David Flin

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

Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower, from an original drawing by G. Cattermole

It may sound obvious, but the purpose of a raid is to loot rather than to fight. From this premise, the needs of the force are derived.

The raiding force needs mobility more than it needs fighting power. Forces on a raid will typically refuse a battle unless it is either on very advantageous terms or if it is absolutely essential. A raiding force will ideally consist largely of light cavalry, or have some other means of transport (such as Viking longships).

There are countless examples of raiding as a way of warfare: Vikings when indulging in small-scale operations; the riding families on the Anglo-Scottish borders; Celtic clans before the Romans came to Britain; and countless others. Raiding was a profitable way of life in many places at many times.

Raids involve speed and the carrying capacity to remove the loot. Troops involved in a raid will, therefore, not want to be heavily encumbered with weapons and armour. The heavier the equipment that they carry, the less loot they can take away with them.

That means that they need to strike a balance. The raider needs to be heavily enough equipped to deal with any immediate threat, and lightly enough equipped to be able to carry plenty of loot and still be able to move swiftly.

The well-equipped infantry raider

Perhaps the first infantry warrior one thinks of is the Viking. Indeed, the very word “Viking” is derived from the verb, which literally translates as “to go on a raid.” For example, a Norseman might say: “Goodbye, sweet Helga, I am going viking,” in much the same way I might say: “Goodbye, my sweet, I’m just popping down to the shops.” In each case, the reply would probably be: “Make sure you bring me back something nice.”

The Viking might bring back an illuminated bible or a monk slave, and I might bring back a box of chocolates, but the principle is the same. The Viking pays in blood and slaughter, and I pay with money. But we both load up our transport (longship and car respectively) and head home with what we have gathered.

OK. They’re not that similar, and I have digressed a lot.

The typical Viking raider will have light armour, helmet, shield, and a favoured weapon. The most common armour would be a gambeson, quilted cloth, with probably several layers of stout linen or hemp canvas. Reindeer hide was popular. Chain mail would be available, but it was both heavy and very expensive. They would have worn a helmet, either of metal or leather, depending on how wealthy they were.

They would also have had a round shield. In transit, these shields would be stored on the side of the ship, providing extra protection from wave and wind. The shields were, according to the sagas, traditionally made of linden wood, although fir, alder, and poplar were also used, generally with steel or iron shield boss. These woods are not very dense and make for light shields. They are not inclined to split; the fibres of the timber bind around blades, preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot of pressure is applied. The shields were often reinforced with stronger wood and with leather or iron around the rim.

The most common hand weapon for a Viking was the axe. Swords were considerably more expensive and only wealthy warriors could afford them. Several types of axe evolved over the years, with larger heads and longer shafts. The larger types, called the Dane Axe, were used with two hands. They also carried axes that could could be either thrown or swung.

An axe-head was mainly wrought iron with a steel cutting edge. They could be produced by blacksmiths, rather than specialist weaponsmiths.

Like most Scandinavian weapons, owners often gave their axes names. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, axes were typically named after she-trolls. I’m sure there’s a moral in there somewhere.

The well-equipped cavalry raider

The cavalry raider has similar requirements to the infantry raider, because the task is essentially the same. I’ll be using the reivers from the Anglo-Scottish borders as my example. Their heyday was a little outside the period that I’m considering, but they deserve to be better known. Their whole way of life was based around raiding. In addition, I was married to a Borderer (not English, not Scottish, a Borderer). She was very clear on that point. Borderers claimed to be either English or Scottish as the situation required.

The culture of the Borderers was based around the riding families –Forsters and Dixons and Armstrongs and Elliots and Johnstones and others. That leads to the societal structure that creates the military structure. The economy of the area – sheep and cattle farming – results in much of the wealth of the area being in items that are self-mobile. The cattle, sheep, and horses don’t need to be carried. That makes raiding so much easier, assuming that the raiders know how to drive animals.

And that is exactly what happened. Cattle and sheep rustling on a grand scale. And protection rackets, feuds, burnings, assassinations, defiance of the law, and other anti-social behaviour.

The authorities in both England and Scotland tried to stop this. Unfortunately for them, their authority didn’t extend across the border, and so raiders pursued by powerful forces of the law just crossed the border. This was part of the reason why the Borderers didn’t regard themselves as either English or Scottish.

As for forces of law that weren’t powerful, their fate was usually a short one if they tried to do anything. The riding families were hard raiders skilled in ambush and fighting. An example of this on a large scale can be seen in the Battle of Solway Moss (1542). A Scottish army of around 18,000 crossed into England near Carlisle. Facing them was Lord Wharton with 3000 riders. Rather than taking refuge in Carlisle castle, he fired the beacons to summon his 3000 riders, and rode out immediately with 300.

They found the Scots as they were crossing the River Esk, and were disrupted. Naturally, the reivers attacked, and they did so in the way that they knew best; finding weak spots, striking, and riding off before any response could be organised. It was exemplary light cavalry tactics, and the Scottish army lost cohesion (drink). Put simply, the Scottish army fell apart under the repeated attacks. With the Esk behind and the Solway Moss, a peat bog, the result was a one-sided massacre, with many Scottish troops drowning.

The typical Border reiver wore a helmet (a steel bonnet) and a quilted jack. This was a leather coat sewn with plates of metal or horn for added protection. Leather boots completed the protection. It was all lightweight, appropriate for their role and their needs.

As for weapons, the heyday of the Border reiver was when hand-gun was just starting to replace the bow. At the time, hand-guns were expensive, heavy, and had a slow rate of fire. However, a longbow is not a good weapon to use from horseback.

The reliability of the bow was the key factor in it being retained longer here than elsewhere.

Riders would typically have a sword, but these were seldom mentioned and were very much a back-up weapon. Their favoured weapon was the lance. Not the heavy lance of the Middle Ages designed to punch through heavy armour, but a lighter, spear-like version. These could be used couched, thrown, or to stab downwards.

That was the Border reiver: mounted on his horse, sure-footed and enduring rather than fast, with steel cap, quilted jack, lance, sword, dagger, and bow or hand-gun, depending on the period. With a bag of meal, ready to go raiding in either war or peace.

Raids: Reprisal.

Much of what was said about raids for plunder apply equally to reprisal raids. There are two differences. The first, and least significant, is that because plunder is (theoretically) not an issue, those involved have less need to worry about keeping encumbrance down to allow space for the plunder they hope to gain. The second, more important and less quantifiable difference is that once troops get into the mindset of causing destruction as an end in itself, it is very easy for them to get out of control. Discipline, control, and hence cohesion (drink) are all put under severe stress.

Discipline and control can be maintained. This was demonstrated by General Sherman and the Armies of Georgia and of the Tennessee during the Marches through Georgia and then South Carolina.

More typically, reprisal raids become disorganised and largely out of control. Troops often go wild, cohesion totally collapses, and it takes a great deal of effort to get them back into any semblance of order.

The Battle of the Baggage (737) is one example of an army being caught in disarray and punished accordingly. The Umayyad Caliphate under Asad ibn Abdallah al-Qasri, had invaded Transoxiana, and the local ruler called on the Türgesh for aid. After plundering and destroying a few villages, the Umayyad retreated.

The volume of plunder taken slowed the Umayyad forces, and the Türgesh arrived. Asad’s troops broke and fled and tried to cross the Oxus river. The crossing was “confused”; Asad had ordered each of his troops to carry a sheep. The Türgesh overwhelmed the rearguard, and the rest of the Umayyad army fled across the river, abandoning weapons, sheep, and, in many cases, their lives.

Once on the other side of the river, Asad believed he was safe from pursuit, ordered his men to set up camp, and he ordered the baggage train to also halt and set up camp.

The Türgesh forces crossed the river and, after a bit of confusion, located and attacked the baggage train, overwhelming the defences. While they were distracted in looting the baggage train, Asad arrived with his army, and drove off the Türgesh forces while they were distracted with looting.


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