An army is lined up for battle on an open field: thousands of nearly-identical soldiers, laid out in tightly-drilled ranks in orderly battalions, underneath a cloud of fluttering banners all emblazoned with the colours and symbol of the kingdom. Their equipment marks them out as medieval – or the closest thing to it: rank upon rank of identical full plate armour, high closed helms, swords and bows and shields and halberds which all seem like they were cast from the same dies. Their general rides out before them, atop a barded warhorse. They raise their ornate sword, and give an inspiring speech to the army – rousing words about the rightness of their cause, the quality of their leadership, the things that are at stake. With a raised arm, the general commands the army into instantaneous motion, vast formations advancing and shifting and spreading out into a battle array as the enemy force closes in, as the two gargantuan forces begin to advance towards each other and…
Wait a minute, but this is all wrong, isn’t it?
Sure, this sort of image makes for efficient storytelling. It uses the visual shorthand of modern armies, as seen in the military-themed media and propaganda of our own societies to bridge the gap between an audience’s common knowledge and the logic of a fictional world. It paints an easily translated picture of discipline and courage and strength in the face of an enemy, and if you needed to evoke those sentiments with only a paragraph of text, or a single image, or a few seconds of film, then perhaps that might be enough. But if you want your audience to engage with that image, to look closely, then the longer they look, the more questions that image is going to raise: How was that general chosen? Who raised all of those troops? Who trained them to maneouvre so perfectly? Who’s keeping them in formation? How do they distinguish between one another on the field of battle? How are individual formations armed, and how do they fight together in combat? How is the General passing orders? And can they do the same in the heat of battle? Who made all this identical and seemingly mass-produced equipment? Who’s feeding an army this big? Where’s all their baggage?
If a fictional army is to hold up to the scrutiny of an engaged and knowledgeable audience, then a creator is going to have to have the answers to these questions in mind when they put together that army. This month, I’d like to begin to talk about this process, and how to use it create a fictional military which fits in the world which has been built for it.
First of all, let’s settle a definition: what is an army?
For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I’m going to set down a solid definition of an army right here: an army is a part of society which is intended to defend the rest of that society from external threats. I know this isn’t a perfectly precise or accurate definition, but it encompasses the vast majority of historical armed forces. More importantly, it provides two starting points from which we can build our fictional fighting force.
An army is a part of a society: this seems somewhat self-evident, but there’s a more important implication to this. The soldiers and officers and leaders which make up an army aren’t spawned from nowhere. They exist as people who grew up in the society that raised them, that means when they become part of a fighting force, they take their previous assumptions and prejudices and relationships with other parts of their society with them. How an army deals with that previous cultural background ultimately determines what kind of army results.
Generally speaking, there are two main ways which an army springs from the society which it recruits from, and these two ways lead to two broad types of armies, which I will call “militias” and “professional armies”. In a militia system, the army is a direct extension of civilian culture. “Soldiers” are called up to fight on a limited or part-time basis and their place in the army is often determined entirely by their place in society. In many cases, their weapons and equipment are privately owned, their units are made up of fellow civilians from their local community, and their leaders are the high-ranking members of local society: local law-keepers, landowners, and other “big names”. A “militia” army is a direct representation of part or a whole of a society which represents it, and the bonds which keep it together on the battlefield are the same ones which keep it together in peacetime.
Professional armies try to divorce the role of “soldier” from that of civilian altogether. Upon recruitment, soldiers are inducted into a parallel society divorced from their civilian lives. This is often described as “breaking down a recruit and building them back up again”. As a result, the soldier’s ties to their previous community are severed or weakened, the part of the army they now serve in becomes their primary community. Their previous cultural background is subsumed into the identity of the full-time soldier with new traditions and prejudices intended to maintain a way of life and thought wholly different from the world they came from: they “all bleed green” as the saying goes.
Each of these two systems has its advantages. Because “militia” soldiers exist most of the time in civilian society, they are much easier to mobilise. There’s no need to train, equip, and organise them from scratch because they’ve seen part-time training as part of their normal social obligation, they own their own equipment, and their organisation on the battlefield already matches the organisation of their community at home. As a result, “militia” armies can put immense numbers in the field, as the citizen levies of the early Roman Republic, or the “Pals’ Battalions” of the First World War British Army did. In societies with less developed administrative systems or simply fewer resources to keep a whole parallel military society (which by definition serves no directly productive economic role) in operation, militia systems are common.
That being said, it should be noted that militia systems are not necessarily “archaic” either. the conscription and reserve systems of the 19th and 20th centuries were also built at least partially on this model, with many countries maintaining “reserves” of millions upon millions of part-time soldiers to be called up in case of existential threat to soak up the horrific casualty tolls of modern warfare. While many of these systems were phased out during the “long peace” after the Second World War, some countries have revived or retained these institutions to support their professional full-time armies in recent years, and as the example of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces are showing as I am typing this, those systems can still be effective if utilised properly.
A professional army’s advantages rest mostly in the fact that a full-time soldier can devote their full energy to preparing for combat: they don’t have to worry about earning an income to pay for their food or equipment because someone else has handled that for them. They don’t have to worry about fulfilling non-military obligations within their community, because their community’s whole purpose is to fulfil military obligations. They don’t, for example, have to go home for planting season just to so their family doesn’t starve, which makes for a huge advantage in a society which still relies on subsistence agriculture. A professional full-time soldier has the time and resources not only to be better at individual combat, but they also have the means to devote themselves wholly to learning more technically complex ways of fighting. As a result, professional armies are generally more flexible and more capable than militia armies.
That doesn’t mean professional armies are outright better than militia armies though. Someone still has to pay for all the upkeep of all of those soldiers who are all too busy training to grow food or make tools. Even in top-of-the-line modern militaries with their advanced fighter jets and main battle tanks and laser-guided artillery shells, a huge chunk (usually the majority) of military spending goes to wages to ensure that soldiers can support themselves and to make their lives comfortable enough that they’re willing to put up with discipline and physical hardship and the possibility of a messy and violent death. All that money also has to be collected (in the form of taxes), transferred, recorded, and distributed as well: a process that requires an enormous amount of administrative overhead (even more if you need even more administrators to make sure the folks handling the money aren’t skimming some off the top). All this means that professional armies are remarkably expensive, and the effort and resources needed to maintain even one professional soldier means that most professional armies are relatively small – especially compared to militia armies.
This can be a problem, especially in high-intensity (and thus, high-lethality) situations. The British Army in 1914 was one of the best-trained and best-equipped professional armies in the world. It was also tiny compared to those of its peers. While the Germans and the French, who mobilised their extensive reserve (which is to say, “militia”) formations to bring dozens of divisions each to war, the British were able to bring only six – and within months, most of the men in those six divisions were dead or wounded, to be replaced by the Pals’ Battalions, Britain’s own improvised “militia” army.
In practise, all real-life militaries tend to exist between the two extremes. As I’ve already mentioned, modern militaries sometimes back up their professional militaries with “militia” army reserve systems. Likewise, the “militia” armies of the European middle ages were at least partially composed of “semi-professional” soldiers, who still possessed roles within civil society but possessed their own subculture and devoted a great part of their time and effort towards preparing for war.
Of course, this still begs the question of where a given society’s army sits on this scale. Why do some societies put the majority of their emphasis on professional full-time armies, while others tend towards extensive militia systems? That leads us to the second part of our definition: the fact that an army is intended to defend its host society from outside threats – or rather, a specific sort of outside threat. It is this requirement which often serves as the primary determinant of the character of a society’s army. An army is designed, either intentionally, or through trial and error, to be able to respond to the most commonly expected outside threat to its host society as effectively as possible using the natural and human resources available to that society.
This means, for example, that a sparsely-populated society with similarly populated rivals across a long and unguarded frontier might rely on locally raised militias entirely – not because it is a better system overall, but because it is a better system for the circumstances. Decentralised command and deployment means that individual detachments can respond to local threats faster, while raising part-time soldiers from local civilian populations reduces central administrative burdens and allows for a cohesive fighting force based on civilian social ties without expensive and time-consuming training and acculturation. Since such a force would mostly be defending their homes against small raiding forces instead of fighting against large scale field armies, the weaknesses of this system are less important.
Likewise, a geographically constrained but relatively densely populated state which prefers to rely on nearby allies for immediate security might have a different kind of army: a small, carefully-drilled, and lavishly equipped professional force. With its allies serving as geographical buffers, this society would be able to pick and choose its battles, its army intervening decisively on the side of its allies in wars far from its home territory. A relatively small force would be easier to supply and move on foreign soil, while its qualitative superiority in conventional battle would serve to both make this society a valuable ally, and a nut too difficult to crack for a potential enemy. A geographically limited home territory would also be far easier for a small and centralised army to defend effectively as well.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that armies will always fight the opponent that they expect. That frontier militia force might find itself unable to match the large-scale coordination and heavy weapons of a more professionally organised army. That small professional force might find itself spread far too thin occupying a foreign country, or wiped out by a less well-equipped or well-trained, but far more numerous force, leaving the enemy with disproportionate, but acceptable casualties – while the host society finds itself without an army altogether. History is full of such mismatches, usually resulting in the mismatched army coming to grief. The small, professional armies of 18th century Old Europe – intended to fight similar professional armies – had a very difficult time dealing with the massive citizen-armies of Revolutionary France. At the Battle of Watling Street, a relatively small professional Roman force wiped the floor with a much large force of tribal levies, which had been intended to fight other tribal levies. Using a hybrid system of local militias and a professional army, the Vietnamese defeated four successive imperial powers (Imperial Japan, France, the US, and the PRC) in the space of forty years, because their armies had all been designed to fight something else.
I’d definitely like to go deeper into this topic (if the Patreon supporters vote for it). This is really only just a foundation on the composition of armies. If the votes favour it, then next time I’d like to talk about how armies are organised on a more detailed level, and perhaps something about how they’re equipped after that.