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The Fantasy of Military History

Sunday, April 10th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

furies-of-calderonBeing a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Roman history, I didn’t hesitate to read through his Codex Alera series as each book came out. They are good, entertaining books, if not necessarily as absorbing as his demi-noire urban fantasy series.

But it is not my purpose to discuss the Alera books as to note a common error that is made in them as well as in many other fantasy novels. By my admittedly inattentive count, the indomitable Aleran military lost no less than six complete legions in the span of 25 years.

And by complete, I mean absolutely complete, in one battle, the number of survivors can be counted on a single hand. Contrast this with Roman history, in which only four Imperial legions were recorded to have lost their aquila, three of them in the same battle in the Teutoberg Forest under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus.

Since Butcher’s Vord exterminate literally everything they encounter, there is perhaps sufficient room for literary license to permit this exaggeration for effect. There is, however, little room to excuse similar exaggerations of martial lethality committed by other fantasy authors.

George R.R. Martin is famous for his ruthless willingness to slaughter characters, but his battles are also extraordinarily lethal. Nor is he alone in this, as there are few books or films that do not enjoy a touching scene of brave last stands or the lone, victorious hero, slumped exhausted over his bloody sword on the field of slaughter.

academs-furyUnfortunately, I do not have the time today to compile the exhaustive list of examples that I had planned, but rest assured they exist and I would appreciate any comments adding examples of a military force being exterminated or nearly exterminated. For the fact is that few battles are anywhere nearly as lethal as is commonly imagined.

As I noted in the comments last week, the bitter three-day battle of Gettysburg resulted 3,155 out of 93,921 Union troops killed versus 23,231 out of 71,699 Confederate troops. That is a lethality rate of 15.9 percent, which is in the general vicinity of Waterloo, which despite its notorious brutality was only 11.4 percent.

And those battles took place during the Napoleonic era, when battle tactics had not yet changed to account for the increased lethality of firearms and medical treatment was rudimentary. Contrast, for example, the Battle of Cowpens during the American Revolutionary War, where 135 of the 3,062 combatants, (4.4 percent), were killed, or the famously bloody American battle of Tarawa, where 4.8 percent of the Marines and Navy personnel involved died. Granted, Japanese fatalities in the South Pacific tended to amount to nearly 100 percent, but that was due to the IJA’s unusual refusal to surrender under any circumstances; the battles were much more akin to sieges than conventional infantry battles.

So, why the confusion? My suspicion is that because no one kept very good records of medieval battles, the historical reports tend to lump the killed and wounded together as casualties. Since most fantasy authors with an interest in history tend to be more social historians than military historians, it is not hard to see why they would imagine that medieval battles were far more lethal than they were in fact.

For example, the Battle of Agincourt is widely considered to have been among the most brutal battles of European medieval history due to the inability of the French cavalry to reach the English longbowman. It was basically the equivalent of the modern turkey shoot, as the heavily armored, dismounted French men-at-arms simply could not make their way through the mud that separated them from their English opponents. But even at Agincourt, the lethality rate was around 20 percent, while at the Battle of Hattin, which represented the complete destruction of the crusader forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 3,000 of the 20,000 crusaders escaped, while many of the 17,000 “slain” were actually executed, enslaved, or eventually ransomed by Saladin after the battle.

There is no question that war is a terrible thing. But it should be kept in mind that battles, and especially medieval-era battles, almost never resulted in the complete destruction of one army, let alone both.


  1. Not quite a complete annihilation, but after the Battle of Bannockburn, estimates were that only about a third of the english foot soldiers returned to England. Now granted this was likely also due to the fact that their poorly organized retreat 90 miles south to the English border was harassed by the Scots the entire way (both the army and the local population).

    Comment by NateM - April 10, 2011 11:46 am

  2. Fighting to the last man sounds heroic, but its also pretty foolish from a strategic standpoint. The ability to retreat, reform, and fight again presents a sounder military tactic.

    Aside from glorified last stands like Thermopylae, most armies, consisting of men who ultimately wanted to live, would retreat if given a bloody nose on the field.

    On the other side of the battle, letting your opponent throw down their arms was humane and merciful. That said, I can’t see a horde of Uruk-hai, draconians, or rock demons stopping to let the defeated leave unharmed, but inhuman foes are another topic altogether.


    Comment by NewGuyDave - April 10, 2011 12:12 pm

  3. I don’t think it is implausible to integrate a horrific battle into a fantasy or sci-fi novel. What is too often lacking is the effects of enormous casualties on the characters. Look at the effects of Teutoburg upon Augustus or the effects of the Afghan massacre upon Lord Auckland. Bloodbaths affect the very psche of nations and generations. What would Europe have been like without the Somme, Verdun, Pashendaele, etc.? Writers too often want the drama but not the ugly aftermath.

    Here, as is often the case, Tolkien reigns supreme over his successors, as the reader finishes the book with a sense of melancholy at the loss of so much in Middle Earth. Yet, you consistently hear the complaint from the bloodthirsty that too many of his characters survive! Keep in mind that, of the nine who leave Rivendell, one is killed, one suffers a debilitating injury, a third suffers a serious injury, and virtually all others suffer minor injuries.

    Comment by Tyr - April 10, 2011 12:23 pm

  4. Now that I think about it – two are killed, if you count Gandalf the Grey as having been killed and returned as Gandalf the White.

    Comment by Tyr - April 10, 2011 12:28 pm

  5. One consideration is that in the days before antiseptic cleanliness and antibiotics, many of the wounded casualties did indeed die.

    Then, many fantasy worlds clearly have equivalent magic, since women engage in activities that would not be feasible if your average women spent half her adult life pregnant, and the other half nursing, just to maintain replacement rate.

    Comment by Mary - April 10, 2011 3:46 pm

  6. Fighting against Hannibal of Carthage was always hazardous to the health. Between the battle of Trebia, Lake Trasimine, and Cannae, he defeated some 18 legions, and in the case of those last two, entire legions were pretty much destroyed, even if you go with Livy’s lower figures. Some 50,000 Romans perished at Cannae.

    But then Hannibal was famously a tactical genius; I think that you’ve raised a good point here with your observation about the depiction of fantasy armies being destroyed. I suppose that the good armies are usually arrayed against a force commanded by an evil Hannibal level genius, which might explain the high casualty numbers.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 10, 2011 4:12 pm

  7. One disaster that comes to mind is the Roman defeat at Carrhae. Losses were estimated at around 40% if I remember correctly. This is an extraordinary case, though.

    Comment by Gabriel Rizk - April 10, 2011 7:46 pm

  8. Warhammer 40k would be nothing without the knowledge that almost everyone was going to die. And usually in particularly brutal or senseless ways.

    Comment by Christopher - April 10, 2011 9:37 pm

  9. I suppose that the good armies are usually arrayed against a force commanded by an evil Hannibal level genius, which might explain the high casualty numbers.

    Except, of course, that the evil Hannibal level geniuses almost invariably engage in strategically stupid behavior. In fact, aside from Abercrombie, virtually no fantasy battles pay any attention to strategic or tactical maneuvering; siege tactics appear to be the only ones that interest authors.

    Comment by Theo - April 11, 2011 4:30 am

  10. “Except, of course, that the evil Hannibal level geniuses almost invariably engage in strategically stupid behavior. In fact, aside from Abercrombie, virtually no fantasy battles pay any attention to strategic or tactical maneuvering; siege tactics appear to be the only ones that interest authors.”

    That’s unfortunate. I haven’t read much of the recent epic stuff, and the more I hear, the less inclined I am to investigate. Do we mostly get the “lone hold out” outpost or city, besieged by the bad guys, with some heroic force on its way to relieve them?

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 11, 2011 6:16 am

  11. Well, Butcher’s stuff is a little different in that the city battles are a series of successful stormings rather than siege defenses, but then his insectoid Vord are vastly numerous and totally immune to morale. But the climax, as is the case with most fantasy since Tolkein, is less about the heroic cavalry arriving and more about the city holding out long enough for the heroic protagonist to kill the One Core Evil that holds the entire attacking force together.

    Of course, given the World War II battles in the South Pacific following the U.S. establishment of naval supremacy post-Midway, one could argue that strategically unnecessary battles are not necessarily indicative of an ahistorical note.

    The interesting thing is that one never, ever reads of a siege failing due to disease, which was one of the most common historical outcomes, and any successful sieges – as opposed to stormings – usually take place well off camera and in an absurdly short period of time.

    The more military history one reads, the more one becomes aware of how little actual knowledge of it exists in the field. For example, fantasy authors and moviemakers alike love to begin battles with cavalry charges into the face of an emplaced infantry defense, (think about the inexplicable cavalry charge that Faramir leads in The Two Towers movie), whereas the primary use of cavalry was the pursuit and slaughter of an already broken foe.

    Cavalry charges against fresh, fixed infantry is only one step less silly than a cavalry charge against a walled city, but the absurdity and ahistoricity of it somehow never seems to slow anyone down.

    Comment by Theo - April 11, 2011 8:17 am

  12. I think many writers may be used to the idea of the armored cavalry charge, a la Medieval knight, against rabble. They would be better served to read about the masses of arrow volleys sent forth by the Mongolian cavalry as they charged, or the use Hannibal made with his superb cavalry.

    It is often mentioned that Hannibal was outnumbered by at least two to one in infantry at Cannae, but in casual summation it is seldom mentioned that his cavalry was both more numerous and far superior to that of the Romans. He used his cavalry to drive the Roman cavalry off the field,then once the Romans were scattered his cavalry hit the legions from the rear.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 11, 2011 10:12 am

  13. Michael Curtis Ford’s “Ten Thousand” was a great tale of post-battle survival. More men died from the elements and starvation than the pursuing Persians. Great storytelling too.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - April 11, 2011 10:48 am

  14. One; most writers of ‘epic fantasy’, aren’t going for realism despite what they and their publicists/fans/agents/cultists/publishers/editors/slaves/critics/virgo-supercluster-overlords might be repeating, over and over and over, and…you get it…

    They just want to be ‘believable’, actually they want to be ‘Believably Awesome.’

    Clearly there is an emphasis on the ‘Awesome.’

    Seriously, it’s about connecting those two points in Fantasy Space, the Point A ( for Awesome! ) and B ( Believable? ).

    Sometimes the narrative-duct-tape loses a bit of its hold.

    Also this may be due to the fact that Fantasy Writers, seem to use a BGP, and AGP calender for ALL universes.

    Some issues with the BGP/AGP Omniversal Calendar.

    That is BGP ( Before Gunpowder ), everyone fought to the last manly man, ( and in recent years manly woman ! ) read ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ like ‘The Art of War’, and everyone, has steel, I mean everyone. Even you.

    AGP ( After Gunpowder ), everyone is trying to get out of whatever war/battle/bathroom stall they are in, all the time, all leadership is corrupt/inept/mad, and everyone has non-magical-magical-gunpowder that causes insane damage, and it’s not the gunpowder that did that it’s the bullets(?) ( or even more awesome, our Hero! )

    It’s story telling, now chill, or the Ghost of Mark Twain and I will shoot you ( the guns will be loaded with magical-non-magical-gunpowder ) for overthinking this shit.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - April 11, 2011 3:27 pm

  15. I do like the idea of the Before Gunpowder/After Gunpowder Omniversal Calendar, RadiantAbyss. In my efforts to write battle scenes that are Awesome and yet don’t suck regarding believability, I slogged through and annotated the heck out of Clausewitz’s On War, and have been wrestling ever since with questions of how to apply his AGP theories to events that appear BGP in my writing. (GP arrives eventually, but not the way it did for us.)

    Comment by Sarah Avery - April 11, 2011 11:00 pm

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  17. Avery:

    BGP/AGP Omniversal Calendar is of course more nuanced than my few off-the-cuff-comments.

    I could probably write an essay on it’s usage, in-n-out of ‘genre’.

    Oh and though ( to any one who gives half-a-crap about military history and or military theory ) ‘On War’, is as ‘important’ to someone writing On War ( yes I took the low-road-joke, sue me ) as the ubiquitous ‘Art of War.’

    I must be a well intentioned jerk and insist up you reading Jomini.

    9,000,000,000,000 word report due by Sunderday after next. Get crack’n.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - April 12, 2011 2:32 pm

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