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Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Warrior's Way

 WIGES WEG
     by Andrew Thompson   
   "Blod and wræc min sweord singeð; ðurh ban and flæsc; wiges weg  is æfre deað."
 The warrior who is, paradoxically, most prepared to die in battle, is the one least likely to do so.
     A successful society must win wars and this is the function of the military. Warfare, however, unlike normal life, is characterised by chance and uncertainty. The military ethos; the warrior virtue, is society's evolutionary response to these factors, seeking to minimise their impact.
    Indo-European culture, dating from 4,000 - 5,000 B.C., replaced the existing, mainly agricultural, societies in Europe and placed value on the ability to protect herds and flocks as well as raid those of others. Armed confrontation gave great value to the possession of good weapons but also to bravery. Organised military campaigns gave rise to the need for a 'super-leader' or hero. As battle required superior male strength, these societies thus became patrilinear and a single male god, the sky-god, took prominence. Faint echoes of these changes are recorded in the Norse myths, where the Vanir fertility gods are, after a war, essentially absorbed by the militaristic Æsir.

    One may ask how warrior virtues can be inculcated; for despite some opinions, such controlled violence is a learned behaviour and is not innate. Do folk from harsh, unforgiving climes with little to lose make the best warriors? ("Conan the Barbarian Theory") or do richer folk with more to defend and greater material resources make the best soldiers? (Roman Army Theory). The answer lies in the distinction underlying the two words "warrior" and "soldier". Here the word "warrior" carries the assumption of heroic single combat, whereas the word "soldier" carries the assumption of disciplined combat as part of a group!
Woden / Odin : God of War, but also not to be trusted.
To achieve success on the battlefield, military organisations must overcome the paralysing effect of fear on the individual soldier. [Herefetor = "Warrior Fetter" - the application of which was thought of as one of Woden's magical abilities]. Accordingly, the military stresses such martial virtues as courage, both physical and moral, a sense of duty and honour, discipline and loyalty. It puts a
premium on such factors as unit cohesion and morale. The "glue" of the military ethos is what the Greeks called 'philia' - friendship, comradeship or 'brotherly love'. 'Philia' is the bond which links the disparate individuals in a military unit who have nothing in common but the prospect of facing death and misery together. This is the source of the unit cohesion which is so critical to success on the field of battle. Across the ages, numberless men have given their lives, more or less willingly, not for country or honour or faith but because they knew that by fleeing and saving themselves they would expose their companions to great danger. Thus loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The leader who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all the physical and psychological factors are relatively minor in comparison. This feeling of loyalty is the result, not the cause, of comradeship: comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.
    The ability to stand and fight, rather than flee, is, however, not all the warrior must have. He must be able to kill, preferably without damaging emotion. This is, in modern societies, increasingly difficult, as the thousands of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder bear witness to. It would have been easier in earlier days: folk lived nearer to nature and were much closer to death and suffering than are we. The Romans, of course, schooled their society to actually enjoy killing and taught that the barbarians they warred with were intrinsically less worthy of life, a view to re-emerge in Nazi Germany with reference to the Slavic races. Men can only be taught to kill dispassionately by long, hard training. Few of us would be incapable of killing under the right circumstances but this would be as a result of massive adrenaline secretion. The Berserks of the Sagas must have been terrifying - both to the enemy and their normal comrades - who would want a man who is out of his mind with battle fury guarding ones flank? Berserks make poor soldiers because they are ruled by their 'ellenwod' (fury) rather than 'siðscipe' (fellowship). The good soldier does, however, need a little of this battle-fury to give him "fire in the belly". This was regarded as the gift of Woden. It is likely that in Old English / Anglo-Saxon armies this was produced by group chanting and the beating of weapons on shields. One of the reasons for most ancient battles being over relatively quickly has always been thought to be the exhausting nature of the combat and this is true, however, it is also true that one can only rouse oneself to fighting pitch so many times before one runs out of adrenaline and fighting becomes automatic and the "fighting edge" is lost.
    Warriors must be fit; both physically and psychologically: a certain mental toughness and elasticity being required. This is achieved by reasonably harsh training, which, at some stage, must involve practising with real, lethal weapons. A modern example can be seen in the S.A.S. whose members are, even today, sent to foreign war-zones to experience the sensation of being under hostile fire to see if they have "the right stuff"! A sense of eliteness is helpful, for if a military group 'know' they are superior to their enemy, morally, physically and technologically, they will have a large advantage. Where the sense of superiority is mistaken, however, there can be disastrous over-confidence; the best examples being Germany's attack on Russia in W.W.II and the Vietnam fiasco.

Brihtnoth, defeated at Maldon
    The greatest need of the warrior is a good leader. To have a leader in whom he can believe, who he knows will not squander lives but also not shirk from battle and hard decisions, is ideal. For such leaders, warriors are prepared to fight, kill and, if necessary, die. Loyalty to their leaders gave Anglo-Saxon warriors a sense of honour, identity and belonging. They expected to support such leaders in battle until victory or death intervened, cowardly fight meant a life of infamy. His household troops preferred to fight and die around Brihtnoth in the Battle of Maldon, even though he had led them into defeat at the hand of the Vikings. Professionalism, however, is a massive force-multiplier. If Brihtnoth's force had been experienced, he may well have won. If all Harold's infantry at Hastings had been professional soldiers, like the Huscarls, he would also have been likely to have won. Only the professionalism of the archer-corps at Crécy and Agincourt enabled them to stand, fight and win against overwhelming odds. Similarly, and much earlier, at the (First) Battle of Poitiers, it had been conclusively proven that good heavy infantry, if it maintained rank and found a defensible position, usually defeated good cavalry. In this famous battle in A.D.732, Charles Martel's troops routed the much-feared Muslim cavalry, which, even after repeated attacks, was unable to break the Frankish shield-wall and fled in disorder, having suffered heavy casualties and the loss of its commander. This battle would have been well-known to Harold Godwinson as he marched south to meet the Norman threat. However, at Hastings, Harold was to fight with a number of disadvantages. Firstly; his kingship was recent and had been disputed both at home and abroad. Secondly; he was aware that the English Army was inferior in some ways to the force that William had gathered, with no real tradition of cavalry combat or the horses on which to do it, few archers and thirdly and most tellingly; apart from the household troops and a few professional mercenaries - only about a sixth of the total after the losses at Stamford Bridge, his rapidly gathered army mostly consisted of local levies raised by the thegns of the South-East of England and the Fyrdsman was, at best, an enthusiastic amateur, whereas the opposition were mostly well-drilled professional and mercenaries.

The Battle of Hastings
     Some have argued, perhaps tellingly, that had the English / Anglo-Saxons at Hastings carried an entrenching tool, like the Roman Dolabra, they could have won. Certainly, even rough field-works would have provided  some force multiplication, such as provided by the wooden stakes at Agincourt, by preventing cavalry from closing but the real deficiency was the lack of any real distance weapon among the English. A strong defence is all very well but a distance offence is needed to compliment it in order to win battles! The English warriors in the 11th Century still fought, to some extent, in the old heroic manner,  requiring close-quarter combat. This style, paradoxically, demands a higher standard of brute courage and it seems certain that there must have been an element of -"If we can only get at them, we can finish this!" among the English Fyrdsmen which may explain their seeming inability to refrain from the futile and costly pursuits of 'apparently' retreating Normans. True professional soldiers would have held their line until commanded to pursue. Similarly, when King Harold and his brothers were killed and the battle lost, true professionals would have attempted an orderly retreat but instead, the English fought on, heroically, to their deaths. Perhaps, even by the 11th Century, they still retained enough pagan thought-processes to still feel controlled by Wyrd (Destiny) and thought that by fighting "to the last gasp" they would achieve Dom (Fame) and win everlasting Lof (Glory).
At least they were right about that !

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