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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Supplemental. The armies. So this section was originally supposed to be a part of episode 5, Cavaliers and Roundheads, but it just kept growing, started to sidetrack the narrative, and had I let it go on like that, we never would have gotten anywhere. So I pulled it out and created this little standalone supplemental.
If you’re not super interested in the composition of the armies that are about to fight the English Civil Wars, then by all means skip on ahead. When you get to the battles, just imagine some guys with long spears, some other guys with muskets, some guys up on horseback, and a few cannons blasting away in the background, and you’ve pretty much got the gist of it. If you want something a little more detailed, then stick around. Still here? Okay, good. At the outset of the English Civil Wars, which are going to consume the remainder of the 1640s, England was the one major power in Europe that did not have a standing professional army.
The only thing resembling a standing army were the so-called trained bands. The trained bands were local militia groups that met once a month or so to drill, or maybe didn’t even meet that often because the local lords hadn’t bothered to equip them.
When the Civil War started though, the trained band units were really the only thing that had any kind of military structure to it, so both sides tried to fold these local militia groups into their field armies. Except that there was one almost universal fact about the trained bands. They were not at all interested in leaving their home counties. The whole point of the militia was to defend their homes, and you can’t very well do that if you’re marching me halfway to Scotland. Sometimes you could coax them out for a short campaign, but they got itchy feet pretty quickly and could turn mutinous in a hurry if you didn’t let them go home.
So relying on the trained bands was no good. Which meant that both royalists and parliamentarians had to raise armies from scratch. So what was the composition of those armies? Starting at the bottom, we have first of all the infantry. These are the poor saps who got drafted into service, usually under pressure from their local lord. Maybe they were committed to the cause, whichever cause that happened to be. But given the number of soldiers who will just immediately switch sides upon being captured, I’m not sure ideological passion is really the motivating force for the average infantryman. The infantry was divided into two main groups, pikemen and musketeers. Pikemen were armed with pikes, musketeers were armed with muskets, or maybe that was obvious. These guys lined up to fight as a battalion, usually made up of 2-3 regiments, which were themselves made up of 10-15 companies. Theoretically, a company was supposed to be 100 men, and 10 companies were supposed to make up a regiment. But no one ever came close to this theoretical ideal, and the average company during the civil war was more like 30 guys and a captain.
Now what’s weird is that at least at first a regiment was composed of both pikemen companies and musketeer companies, but in battle pikemen and musketeers were deployed separately. So as the soldiers lined up, each regiment was, at a minimum, immediately divided in half and then sent off in different directions. It took everyone a while to realize how silly this was and align the logistical regiment with the tactical regiment, but they got there eventually. The pikemen were usually bunched at the center of the battle line and operated much like an old Greek phalanx. They would line up six deep, carrying 15-18 foot pikes, and march forward until they hit the line of enemy pikemen. They were all supposed to be outfitted with a metal breastplate, but they were usually issued only a leather buff coat, which you would think would make all of this a very messy and very stabby business, but in reality being run through with a pike was actually a pretty rare thing. The goal was simply to win the contest known as the push of pike, which is exactly what it sounds like. You were trying to shove, push, and knock off balance the other side until their ranks broke and ran off. Sometimes the push of pike was a hell of a contest, but often one side or the other just wasn’t that into it, and after a perfunctory showing would break and run. Then there were my favorite times, when neither side was into it, and they would just kind of stand there and wave their pikes around to make it look like they were fighting, occasionally looking over their shoulders and hoping the general way in the back were buying it. The musketeers, meanwhile, would be deployed on the flanks, and their job was to blast the other side until they ran out of ammunition and then charge in with swords or, more often than not, simply the butt end of their muskets. The musketeers were usually outfitted with a matchlock rifle, which had the benefit of being both cheap and reliable. The downside of the matchlock was that the priming charge had to be lit by a slow burning match that every musketeer had to keep on hand and permanently lit. Not only did it take a little practice to get the timing right, but god help you if anything ever got wet. As the war went on, flintlock muskets started showing up, which didn’t need the slow burning match, but they were more expensive and less reliable, so usually only went to sentries or scouts who needed to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice and couldn’t just wander around with lit matches all the time.
In battle, the musketeers were lined up six deep, like the pikemen, and each soldier could fire and reload about once every minute or so. So they would just cycle through the ranks. You’d fire, go to the back, load your gun while slowly shuffling forward, and then firing again. This is where timing a light gets a little tricky. So what this means is that battle is not bang, wait for a minute, bang. It’s bang, wait 10 seconds, bang, wait 10 seconds, bang.
Sometimes, and this really becomes a royalist trademark because they were always having ammunition issues, you’d get three ranks to bunch together and fire all at once in a mass volley, and then charge in and fight it out with a sword, or the butt end of a musket. Moving up from the infantry, we then have the cavalry. Theoretically, there were two types of cavalry. Heavy cavalry and light cavalry. Heavy cavalry wears armor, which is heavy. Light cavalry doesn’t, so they’re light. Get it?
But in the English civil wars, heavy cavalry is pretty much not a thing. Almost everyone is some variation of light cavalry, minimally armored and carrying pistols and swords. They were organized into troops, which is why cavalrymen are often referred to as troopers, which had anywhere from 30 to 100 guys led by a captain, and a field regiment was ideally composed of six of these troops. Now, without any heavy cavalry around, battle tactics became confused, and this confusion is at the heart of why the royalist cavalry is going to keep kicking the crap out of the parliamentary cavalry at the beginning of the war. The traditional division of labor was for the heavy cavalry to lock knees and ride full speed into the enemy, trying to mow them over, and the light cavalry, armed with guns, covering the flanks of this steamroller. But when the heavy cavalry didn’t show up for the English civil war, the commanders on both sides had to adapt. Or not. The parliamentary commanders kept sending out their cavalry to fight the way they had always fought. Ride around with their guns, trying to win a firefight. But when Prince Rupert, we’ll get to him in episode 5, showed up in Charles’ camp, he brought the latest continental military theories with him. And those theories said, who cares if the light cavalry isn’t fully armored, riding full speed into the enemy is still super effective, so just keep doing it.
So, the royalist cavalry just kept doing it, blasting into their parliamentary counterparts at full speed, waiting until the last possible moment to fire their pistols at point-blank range. In the early campaigning, the royalist cavalry was basically invincible, because the parliamentary cavalry just wasn’t prepared to deal with these kinds of shock tactics. In between the infantry and the cavalry, with a foot in each camp, were the dragoons.
Dragoons were basically mounted infantry. They lined up for battle mounted on horses, but their job was to ride off to some trouble spot or golden opportunity, dismount, and then provide some timely additional firepower.
In the early going, the dragoons were grouped together, but as the war progressed, they started being split up and deployed with cavalry units to provide ground cover for their permanently mounted comrades. Then, as the war kept going, the dragoons pretty much stopped dismounting altogether, mostly because, as Stuart Reid points out in All the King’s Armies, once you got on horseback, you really didn’t want to get off again. Because you know who dies in battle? Infantrymen. You know who rides off and lives? Cavalrymen. So I would just as soon stay on my horse, thank you very much.
Finally, we come to the artillery. Artillery is not going to play a huge role in our story, because it was rarely decisive out in the field. And since I am not going to get sidetracked by the many and prolonged sieges of the war, where artillery did play a major role, there is no need to dwell on it too much. But just so you know, there were three types. Siege artillery, firing huge shot, the cannon royal fired a 63 pound ball. These were used to batter medieval castle walls, sometimes over the course of years. The various mobile armies, meanwhile, carried the other two types. Heavy field artillery and light field artillery.
The heavy stuff, fired shot up to 20 pounds, would be positioned prior to the battle, and used to bombard the enemy before fighting commenced. The light artillery usually fired 4-6 pound shot, and could be moved around during the battle. The one major role artillery does play, is how damn heavy it all was, and how crappy all the roads were. Moving the pieces around took a lot of men, and a lot of horses, and a lot of carts, and it was slow going, a total drag on the rest of the army that limited everyone’s mobility for not much value once the fighting got started. One field report noted that moving one 12 pound gun with 50 rounds, and one brass mortar with 24 rounds required 67 horses, and a whole host of gunners, fire workers, conductors, and workmen to keep everything running to say nothing of the sentries who had to guard it all. So in the end, artillery was way more trouble than it was worth, but no one wanted to give it up because look how big those guns are.
So hopefully, you now have a better idea of what everyone is doing once these battles get going. Pikemen will be jabbing away at each other trying to convince the generals that they’re actually fighting. Musketeers will be lined up blasting away at each other until they run out of ammo, whereupon they will start hitting each other over the head with their guns. The royalist cavalry will be charging into the parliamentary cavalry, and then the parliamentary cavalry will be riding off in disarray. The dragoons will be trying to convince their officers to let us stay on our horses please. The artillery is stuck in a bog.
If you want even more detail, I recommend The Civil Wars of England by John Kenyon and All the King’s Armies by Stuart Reid, both of which focus exclusively on the military aspect of the war. Okay, so with that out of the way, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled program.
- All the King’s Armies: A Military History of the English Civil War 1642-1651 by Stuart Reid: https://amzn.to/3BaHr4B
- The Civil Wars of England by John Kenyon: https://amzn.to/3h51lXP
A brief description of the soldiers who fought in the English Civil Wars.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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