Darq Evol gazed out over the narrow mountain pass, watching as it continued to disgorge his Legions of Terror, the black-clad soldiers marching in perfect unison. Over 1,000,000 soldiers of darkness had marched across the treacherous Frosttalon Mountains, braving unrelenting blizzards and starvation, to emerge behind the forces of light – all without a single death.
“Form up the army and prepare to march upon Lighthaven. The forces of good will be destroyed this day,” he hissed to his nearby lieutenant.
The lieutenant, his face obscured behind a midnight black helm, saluted sharply, before turning to stride down the hill to his warg mount. He motioned for his nearby men to mount up as well.
Darq Evol stroked his chin, repressing an evil cackle. Today, the forces of light would be driven from the world. Today, his legions would shatter the last allied army of elves, dwarves, and men. Darkness would soon rule the world.
–Rise of Darq Evol: Chronicles of Darkness
There are few things that novels and movies get as spectacularly wrong as fantasy armies. And while no one expects them to get into the boring nitty-gritty aspects of warfare, the mistakes they make are incredibly glaring and could have been fixed if anyone bothered opening a history book.
For example, many fantasy novels will put an inordinate amount of time into getting the daily diet of a peasant just right, yet they will still have a million-man army tromping around the countryside. All without the merest mention of how an army that size would be more destructive than a plague of locusts.
And movies are even worse. The fantasy armies in movies look nothing like they would from any historical period. In virtually all movies, armies are composed of nothing but young men, all wearing identical plate armor and brandishing longswords. Rarely do you ever see a shield, a spearman, or even a bowman, unless of course, the bow is brandished by the token female warrior.
But these are only a few of the problems with fantasy armies, and below are some of the most blatant mistakes fantasy novels and movies make about fantasy armies.
5. Army Composition
First things first – swords were very rarely used as a primary weapon in warfare. I know it looks cool to see thousands of men waving swords run willy-nilly into the enemy, engaging in what amounts to single combat – where incidentally, anyone easily could stab the hero in the back – but aside from the Romans (who used javelins to break up the enemy lines before engaging), virtually no armies used swordsmen tactically.
What they did use was the spear. Spearmen were found around the globe, and they formed the backbone of nearly every army from antiquity to the Renaissance. But don’t tell that to film producers or writers, where encountering a spearman is rarer than a story without the chosen one farm boy who is foretold to save the world.
Historical armies often contained a bewildering array of soldiers, including axemen, spearmen, pikemen, skirmishers, archers, crossbowmen, light cavalry, heavy cavalry, mounted archers, mounted crossbowmen, dismounted knights, halberdmen, macemen, and in some places, even more specialized and strange troop types.
And not every army contained every type of troop. Some regions like Scotland had virtually no cavalry and relied almost entirely on poorly armed spearmen and bowmen. While other armies, like the Eastern Steppe warriors, relied on their mounted archers and lancers while fielding infantry as almost an afterthought.
Meanwhile, fantasy armies usually seem to be composed of nothing more than swordsmen who hate wearing helmets. Not only is it wrong, but it’s boring. In my opinion, it’s much more exciting to see how an army of poor spearmen would attempt to deal with an invading mounted army, rather than armies of swordsmen engaging in highly choreographed combat.
The saying ‘An army marches on its stomach’ has been attributed to both Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, and while it seems unlikely it originated from either of these great generals, it’s still very true.
From the first armies lost in the mists of pre-history to the modern armies of today, nothing is more important to an army than food. Every competent general has always gone to great pains to ensure they have access to supplies, be it through capturing ports, creating supply drops beforehand, or by marching through rich farmland. And the ones who didn’t – like Napoleon during his retreat from Russia – suffered greatly for it.
Meanwhile, most fantasy armies never seem to eat. Vast armies, with soldiers as far as the eye can see, march through the dense wilderness without carrying any supplies with them, and never seem to need to pillage and loot foodstuffs. Never mind the huge amount of fodder needed for the horses and pack animals.
In most fantasies, the dark lord’s plans would fail within a few weeks, as the legions of terror slowly starved to death on their long march. The final battle would involve the few remaining emaciating orcs, their expressions haunted with memories of what they had to do to survive, facing off against the well-fed Armies of Light.
3. Desertion and Attrition
Probably the aspect of warfare most ignored by fantasy novels and movies is the fact the up until World War 1, losses from disease and desertion far exceeded losses from battle. But this is probably more understandable than some of the other mistakes on this list. It’s doubtful anyone would watch to read about an army of dwarfs pooping themselves to death, as dysentery ravaged their army.
But it’s not like it couldn’t at least be touched upon. If an army sets out at the beginning of a war with 30,000 men, it’s unlikely that even a third would still be alive at the end of the conflict. Men will desert if the war drags on too long, or if their pay is late, or if supplies begin to run low. And disease has destroyed more armies than all the most brilliant generals combined.
Nothing breaks the suspension of disbelief more than reading about 100,000 knights setting out across a frigid mountain range, only to find out that 100,000 knights emerged on the other side. Are readers expected to believe there wasn’t one clumsy knight in the whole army who happened to trip and fall down a crevasse? That not a single knight changed his mind about the grand crusade and decided to go back to check on his lands? That no one had a heart attack while clearing a landslide across the path? It’s just painful to read, and it shouldn’t happen.
2. An Army is not Just Soldiers
When most people picture a fantasy army, they think of a group of young men, marching, and singing as they go off to war. And most authors and studio executives seem to share this view since nearly every novel and movie portrays fantasy armies this way.
But if fantasy armies were at all like historical armies, they would resemble something closer to a town on the move, rather than just a group of young soldiers. Camp followers almost always outnumbered the fighting men in an army, and they would include soldier’s wives and children, washerwomen (who often doubled as prostitutes), blacksmiths, carpenters, siege experts, merchants, and the huge amount of men needed to make the baggage train function.
Any army that tried to march without camp followers, would end up being very dirty, very hungry, and would probably mutiny before too long. Even the Roman army – famous for carrying much of their own supplies – always marched with a baggage train on campaign.
1. Medieval Armies Weren’t that Big
Probably the greatest mistake writers and movie studios make when it comes to fantasy armies, is portraying them as vast hosts, more numerous than the stars in the sky. It’s understandable they want to portray them this way, since what’s more exciting that millions of soldiers facing off in an epic final battle?
But it’s so far from reality, it takes a person’s suspension of disbelief out back and shoots it behind the shed. Medieval armies weren’t large, and a major battle like Agincourt – fought during the Hundred Years’ War – only had around 10,000 soldiers on the English side, with around 50,000 on the French side. And the French army was so large, many soldiers didn’t even get the chance to fight.
Most medieval warfare consisted of sieges and raids, with armies only engaging in battle as a last resort. The average battle during this time period would only see a few thousand troops on each side, and it’s difficult to see why this had been ignored by writers and filmmakers. Sure, a final battle can be exciting, but raids between small forces, or pitched battles between small groups of soldiers can be just as rousing.
While many of these mistakes seem to be firmly entrenched in fantasy fiction, some authors are starting to break the mold. Authors like George R.R Martin and Joe Abercrombie portray much more realistic warfare, and Glenn Cook of the Black Company series has always portrayed gritty realistic warfare.
Let me know in the comments below if you agree or disagree with this list, or if you can think of any other authors or movies that portray realistic fantasy armies.