19 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The English Civil War

By Erastes

The causes of the English Civil War were complicated and diverse. Poverty, Puritanism, unrest and the growing dissatisfaction of the general populace against the Monarchy to name just a few.

However, when it did start, how many everyday soldiers knew anything about these causes, or the machinations behind the scenes? For them it would have been a daily misery of mud, dirt, lice, bad food, long marches and the fear of whether they would be ambushed--or what the outcome of the next battle would be.

In fact, even many of the ordinary folk didn't even know that there was a war on at all, contrary to the belief that the entire country was split into two. There's a famous story that a farmer was asked permission to use his field for a battle and he asked "Who's fighting who, then?"

When I was researching this for my novel TRANSGRESSIONS, I found it a particularly difficult time to research satisfactorily. Not because there weren't any details on the war, there were, The internet is stuffed full of information. There are hundreds of books on the war.

However, the main problem I came up against was that it was difficult to find any details on the ordinary person's life of the period. I could find details of battles, names of generals, every minute detail of the uniforms throughout the entire war but there was little nitty gritty when it came down to what people ate, what houses they lived in, how much they earned--that sort of thing.

So I angled the book from a poor man's point of view. A young boy who wants to join up to escape his father's boring farm, and to get a bit of excitement. However--when he does--he soon finds out how little glamour there is. He finds it just as boring as being at home. To load a matchlock musket for example took around 40 separate operations to load it, and there picture manuals demonstrating each move.

A rather gruesome video. Note that the wooden powder charges he wears on the bandolier around his body were called Apostles, because there were 12 of them. They were made of wood, too, and were really unsafe things to be wearing in battle. Many a man was blown to pieces if his match touched the wrong place, or he was hit by a bullet in the wrong place. Cromwell addressed this problem when he created his New Model Army, and changed the carrying of powder to being wrapped in pieces of waxed paper, a tradition that continued for hundreds of years after.

Here's a little snippet from TRANSGRESSIONS about the training.

On the third week the drills moved on to wheeling and counter-marching. Apart from being massively boring, it was also complicated and difficult for the Sergeant to explain a move that enabled the swift relocation of some three hundred men, when he only had between twenty to thirty to demonstrate with. The Sergeant was not a patient man, and he did not explain manoeuvres well, and the more the recruits got it wrong the more incoherent he became.

For wheeling on an angle, the line had to close up close to the men either side, look to the direction of the wheel, (either right or left) and shuffle around in that direction until the line was pointing in the appropriate direction. This did not take long with the small number of soldiers David practised with, but David could only imagine how long a full line would take, all the time having their muskets out of action and vulnerable to the enemy as they shuffled helplessly in a semicircle, with nothing but pikemen to keep the enemy at bay.

At first they were hopeless at it, and Sergeant's Winter's screams of "Watch your dressings" were all that could be heard as the line buckled and bent, lost shape and direction, or forgot to look the opposite way to which they were pressing, but after days of dizzying and tiny steps they accomplished it well enough to stop their Sergeant from dishing out punishments.

Then they had to master centre-wheeling, which was worse, as the pivotal point became the soldier in the very middle of the line, and the column spun around him. The significant difference was that whilst one half of the unit was marching forwards, the other half was moving backwards and the first time they tried it, it was utter chaos. It was after a day of constant angle wheeling, which they just about mastered and Winter had explained the new manoeuvre so badly no-one understood it and no-one dared to ask him to repeat himself. Consequently everyone went in opposite directions; half the troop tripped over the other half and most ended up on the ground, helpless with laughter. Needless to say, most men were on punishment detail that night, including David, which surprised no one.
It is ironic to note that, other than to show how well trained your brigade is, the act of countermarching is considered to be completely useless on the battlefield.

For further reading, I highly recommend The Knowledge Base of the Sealed Knot without whose inestimable help, the book would not have been written.