Today we’re going to talk about what a pre-modern battlefield might look like after the battle is over. Obvious content warning, since this post is going to talk about (and show pictures of) some very ugly things.
Popular media has a particular image for the post-battle battlefield that shows up in film, TV and video-games in the aftermath of a medieval or ancient (or comparable fantasy) battle. We can outline the trope:
The ground is invariably muddy and soaked. It seems to have always rained just the night before, but more to the point, something has killed all of the grass, trees, and shrubs. We are often shown make-shift wooden obstacles – little palisades, stakes, abatis – scattered around, more or less at random, unless they are part of a large, elaborate system of field fortifications. Some – or all – of these will be on fire. Frequently, these obstructions are attached to larger networks of trenches, braced with wood (which may also be on fire).
The bodies on the field, typically still in full kit, are scattered around more or less evenly, or sometimes in little clumped groupings (if they haven’t been gathered for burial). Many objects will either still be inexplicably on fire (despite the rain implied by all the mud) or be smoking from some previous fire.
You can see battlefields like this most frequently in video-games, like the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (in Velen) or Dragon Age: Origins (at Ostergar) or Dragon Age: Inquisition (the Exalted Plains) or in TES V: Skyrim (especially in the siege outside of Whiterun). The basic visual shorthand also shows up in movies, such as after the big final battle in Netflix’s Outlaw King or in the big battle in S1E1 of The Last Kingdom. Game of Thrones even gets into it.
Is this trope accurate? Yes and no, it turns out. It has a ring of truth to it, but not for the Middle Ages, or indeed any point in the pre-modern period. Instead, this depiction is the product of a very different battlefield environment and very different technologies.
Verdun in Velen
Let’s start with the mud. Why is it always muddy? Now, astute readers of medieval history will not that some battles – Agincourt famously – turned on the recent rains turning fields into difficult-to-navigate mud. But, of course, concealed in that fact is that the French were unprepared to fight in that terrain because it was unusual. It doesn’t rain every day, and even when it does rain, unless it rains very hard, usually the ground-cover (read: grass) is sufficient to avoid turning the place into giant mud-pits.
I’ve seen it suggested (mostly by well-meaning fans) that maybe it is the marching of soldiers that churns the ground into mud. And obviously we’ve all seen paths in the ground where the repeated, long-term marching of feet has killed the grass. But note that words: repeated and long-term. In practice, we don’t need to wonder if a day or two of battlefield maneuvers is enough to kill the grass like this, because we know: there was extensive photography of the battlefield at Gettysburg and the grass is just fine. One day’s trampling was not enough.
(I’m going to repeat my content warning here one more time: I am going to show historical photographs of real historical battlefields that include real actual casualties. That may be disturbing, and no one will fault you for not subjecting yourself to it.)
(I should note that assembly, camp and logistics areas might well see enough traffic – horses, heavy wagons, etc – to clear the grass, but you do not generally camp or store supplies in between you and the enemy. While in the ACW, such sites might have been within reach of artillery, in a pre-modern battlefield, they would usually be well out of range of the battle itself).
So why is is always muddy? The real answer is high explosive shells (particularly, but not exclusively, penetrating high explosive shells). Heavy artillery shells in the First World War were made to penetrate into the ground and then explode, sending up a rain of loose dirt – the idea was to be able to destroy or at least bury trenches and deep bunkers. The explosions were so powerful that they uprooted trees and grass, leaving behind the ‘blasted moonscape’ so common in pictures of the Western Front. All that remained were the deep craters which collected water and turned into often fatal mud-traps (Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), includes a horrific description of one man, unable to assist, having to watch another man sucked under the mud to his death in such a crater).
That also explains why these post-battle scenes often lack any kind of local terrain features. Powerful explosive shells could annihilate terrain features like forests, roads, hedgerows, fences, fields – even hills and entire villages – with extended bombardments. And without any ground-cover left, almost any rain at all will then reduce the local terrain into a mud-soaked bog, especially if the local soil drains poorly (as it did so famously in Flanders).
The problem with depicting medieval, or even early modern battlefields this way is, of course, that these armies do not possess any weapons which can deliver this kind of destruction. Even as late as the American Civil War, field artillery – even massed field artillery – was simply not that powerful (although some heavy naval and siege guns were beginning to come close). Post-battle photography of Gettysburg – even in the approaches to Cemetery Ridge and around the Wheat Field – areas of fierce fighting – shows not only trees and ground-cover, but even fences and buildings largely intact.
Field artillery firing solid shot from 6 to 20lbs to is simply not strong enough to tear apart the terrain in the way that we often see in popular depictions of historical or fantasy battlefields; as pictured above, the guns doing that in WWI were often firing 1,000+ pound shells, 100 times the weight of shot of a normal ACW cannon (lighter artillery, like the famed French 75 (Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897) still fired lighter shells – the French 75 fired a c. 12lbs shell – but still had far more explosive power due to improvements in explosives; that said, the French 75, a capable field gun, was famously too light for ideal use in the trenches). Massed musketry won’t do it either and so massed arrow or crossbow fire, catapults or whatever else certainly won’t.
(This, as a side note, may go some distance to explaining why First World War commanders were so unprepared for the challenges the new terrain they were creating in turn inflicted on them. Doctrine said that the solution to well-entrenched infantry was to mass artillery against them – blast them out of position. It had never been the case before that such massed artillery would render the ground itself impassible, because the artillery had never before been powerful enough to do so.)
One of these days, we’ll have a longer discussion about the use and abuse of field-fortifications in depictions of pre-gunpowder battlefields. But to put it very quickly: armies before the advent of gunpowder did often dig ditches and trenches, but not to shelter in them. Pre-gunpowder armies simply cannot create the volume of long-range direct-fire to make trench-works make sense outside of siege conditions (and even then, it was more common to build a shelter or an earthwork wall to provide cover).
Instead, these ditches are designed to foul advancing infantry and (especially) horses. A fall into a trench can easily disable a horse, and an infantry with a spear is at a severe disadvantage if he has to fight his way out. Digging trenches or ditches could thus impede or control enemy movement on the battlefield (something, I might note, Outlaw King gets right). Such obstructions could be used, for instance, to channel enemies away from your vulnerable flanks, or into difficult terrain. But if the ditches are just there to foul up the enemy advance, there is no real need to put in lots of wood bracing, walkways or complex structures.
At most, you fill them with sharp things – stakes and the like – and call it a day.
But the larger problem in many of these depictions is the amount of field fortification. Many of these scenes, with vast, complex and apparently interconnected networks of trenchworks (the Exalted Plains from Dragon Age comes readily to mind), imply armies sitting in starring matches for months. Often these sorts of stalemates are explicitly presented as part of the narrative (Velen and the Exalted Plains both have that going on).
The thing is, as we discussed with the loot train, pre-modern armies generally do not do this because they cannot do this. As I tell my students, an army is like a shark, if it does not swim, it will sink. Pre-modern (specifically pre-railroad) armies must generally keep moving in order to continue to supply themselves.
(Of course, long sieges do happen, but they can happen precisely because the enemy is bottled up and thus not interfering with either lines of supply or foraging actions. Doing this around an active enemy field army is almost impossible; check out P. Erdkamp’s Hunger and the Sword (1998) for a more in-depth discussion of how even the presence of an enemy army can shut down foraging operations).
For an army that is blocked in the field by an opposing force, the supply clock starts ticking immediately and it ticks down fast. Most pre-modern armies march with perhaps just a couple of weeks of supplies (again, see the loot train post to see why the consumption/transport math makes this situation functionally unavoidable). Any commander will thus feel pressured to force a battle before they run out of food and supplies (for an example of this in action, look at the Battle of Philippi, where Antony had to (twice!) force a battle because his logistics did not allow him to hold position, App. BCiv 4.16.122; Antony finds himself in this situation a lot, since he had the same problem prior to Actium).
And also why is everything on fire? It should go without saying that armies armed primarily with spears or bows (or even muskets and cannon) have few means of setting the battlefield alight. it is true that incendiary weapons – pots, arrows and javelins – existed, but these were almost exclusively for sieges or naval battles. Human targets – the primary sort of battlefield target – burn poorly and pre-gunpowder incendiary weapons were almost always impractical on an open battlefield (obligatory Greek fire caveat; we’ll talk about that another day).
The War to Film All Wars
So, if none of these tropes are appropriate to a pre-modern battlefield – and especially out of place in a pre-gunpowder battlefield – where are they coming from?
Flanders, it turns out.
(Obviously, I don’t mean just Flanders, but rather World War One generally, but since I am writing in English, and we are generally thinking about fiction produced in English (if not always by native English speakers), the experience of the BEF in Flanders tends to dominate the memory of the war.)
Everything about these depictions – even the scatter-pattern of fallen bodies – has its origins in the trench warfare of the Western Front in World War One (1914-1918, although I’d like to imagine I do not need to provide dates for that one). The mud and blasted moonscape is a product of high explosive shells. The field fortifications and extensive trench-works were a product of increasing firepower (although you can see a dim image of this horrible future in the union and confederate works around Richmond in 1864/5). The scattered fires are the product of modern munitions.
That particular image of war – armies in continuous proximity to each other, using lots of very heavy high explosive ordnance – has had a huge influence, particularly, on film. WWI was the first war to be extensively filmed (not that extensively, but still far more than ever before) and as film evolved as a visual form in the 1920s and early 1930s, WWI was still the war which informed the visual medium. The war was also documented heavily in photographs and literature; its influence is profound. This is particularly true in the fantasy genre; as I’ve noted, you simply cannot read the Siege of Gondor without recalling the Western Front (where Tolkien served).
(I should also note that I think these tropes are especially strong in video-games because they fit game mechanics which – for ludic reasons – need battles that are endlessly on-going, so that it doesn’t matter when the player engages with them. Armies sit, forever next to each other, waiting for you – the hero – to show up and decide the battle. That touches on one of the real limitations of video-games as an art-form when it comes to depicting conflict: the demand that the game be fun often means that games avoid using the real power of an interactive medium to really delve deeply into the effects of conflict (although there are exceptions, e.g. This War of Mine), compounded by the fact that greater immersion and player agency makes the potential impact of showing those effects much more intense – and thus less desirable for a developer who is looking, quite literally, to make war ‘fun.’)
Conclusion: What Ought We See?
So what should the post-battle battlefield for a pre-modern (or fantasy) conflict look like? Well, first off, it would be unusual for both armies (or indeed, either army) to be in the vicinity for very long. Multi-day battles are very uncommon in pre-gunpowder warfare (somewhat more common, I am to understand, in China, but still not very common). If the two armies are still there, fortified and setting up to Round 2, this should be treated as incredibly strange and indicative of a truly massive conflict (or perhaps a battle that – with one side having lost and retreated into a fortress – has become a siege).
Second, the field should be just that: still a field. Crops and grass might be trampled, but without heavy shells, the local terrain shouldn’t change much. Most armies aimed to fight in open, flat places with grass, not mud-filled bogs, so chances are the battle took place on farmland or pasture. If the land is agricultural, the time of year is going to determine what the fields look like; fallow or recently plowed fields might indeed be mud-pits if it rained recently, but even then the divisions between fields and other terrain features (like trees, roads, hedgerows) will still be there.
If things are on fire, it should be because someone has deliberately set them on fire, which normally means not a battle, but agricultural devastation – one of these armies is burning crops and villages. That might be an invader looking to deal economic damage, or a defender engaged in scorched earth defense.
Assuming gunpowder was not a major factor in the battle, the bodies will likely be concentrated into a line, or a series of lines, piled perhaps several deep, slicing lengthwise across the battlefield. This is the line of contact where the formations met (I am occasionally asked by students, “what happens to XYZ fighting system when they break into a confused melee” – TV style – and the answer is broadly, “they don’t do that”). It won’t be a wall of bodies, so much as a long thin pile, because bodies do not stack up like that.
Likely in one direction, the bodies should train away from the line of contact, as the losing force broke and fled, and some of its fighters were chased down. If cavalry was engaged, there are likely to be a lot of dead or dying horses. If arrow or other ranged fire was a significant factor, the bodies may be more spread out, but they won’t be randomly strewn, because large masses of soldiers don’t randomly move around the battlefield.
Finally, unless we are brought to this place very soon after the battle, chances are that the field has been looted. Broken equipment might be lying around, but just about anything of value of functionality – which I should note includes almost anything made of metal, even if it is broken – will either have been recovered by the victorious army or looted by the local population. You will note, in the pictures above of civil war battlefields, even before the bodies have been moved, there is not a musket, sabre, bayonet or ammunition pouch to be seen.
I actually think that such an accurate depiction could be truly visually powerful. The normal narrative purpose of these spaces is to impress on the viewer how terrible and destructive the conflict is. And certainly, the Western-Front-style moonscape does this in its way, but at the same time, it has become rote and familiar and so loses a lot of its impact outside of its own setting (that is, modern conflicts). Whereas the sharp juxtaposition between the savagery of war and the seemingly uncaring calm of nature provides an appropriate shock all its own.
Next week: We’re going to talk about making Greek or Roman style polytheism work for you.