IN THE WEST, following the fall of the Roman Empire, there was, in fact, no other choice. It would take more than a thousand years before strong states emerged across Europe. In the meantime, the continent was broken up into petty statelets and fiefdoms that lacked the resources to field disciplined standing armies as Rome had done. That required the support of an elaborate administrative infrastructure, which no longer existed. Feudal armies were made up of nobles, retainers, and mercenaries who would come together for a few months to fight a single battle or campaign and then disperse afterward. Kings had to rely on the goodwill of powerful magnates to assemble their forces, and if that goodwill was lost the soldiers were liable to walk off the job. If guerrilla warfare is the war of the weak, then during the Middle Ages practically every European polity was weak enough to resort to it.
It is easy to lose sight of this elemental truth because of the great myth of the Middle Ages—the clash of knights on horseback. This would seem to be the very antithesis of stealthy, low-intensity conflict. But such battles did not happen nearly as often in real life as they did in the epics of the period.98 Siege warfare was more important. So was the raid, or to use the French name popular at the time, the chevauchée (“ride”). That innocuous term connoted something far more ominous: roaming the enemy’s countryside, burning, stealing, raping, kidnapping, and killing at will. The flavor of one of these operations can be gleaned from a letter written home to England by Sir John Wingfield, steward to Edward of Woodstock, better known to posterity as the Black Prince, during his eight-week chevauchée through France in 1355. “And, my lord,” Wingfield wrote to the bishop of Winchester, on December 23, 1355, “you will be glad to know that my Lord has raided the county of Armagnac and taken several walled towns there, burning and destroying them, except for certain towns which he garrisoned. Then he went to the viscounty of Rivière, and took a good town called Plaisance, the chief town of the area, and burnt it and laid waste the surrounding countryside. Then he went into the county of Astarac. . . .” Well, it is not hard to imagine what the Black Prince did there, or in succeeding towns that the English force, five thousand strong, entered. They left a swath of devastation in their wake, stretching from Bordeaux to Toulouse, a distance of 150 miles. Wingfield boasted that “the countryside and towns which have been destroyed in this raid produced more revenue for the King of France in aid of his wars than half his kingdom.”99
Sometimes the chevauchée was a tactic used to draw the enemy’s armed forces into battle. More often, as in the case of the Black Prince, it was designed to avoid battle against a superior foe. The chevauchée was hardly a European invention—it was also endemic under different names in Arabia, North Africa, Central Asia, and many other areas. The Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula were particular masters of what came to be known as the razzia, which would make them, as T. E. Lawrence was to discover many centuries later, highly skilled guerrillas.
Unlike the Bedouin or the Xiongnu, the Europeans of the Middle Ages did not have any particular cultural affinity for a raiding style of warfare; indeed they esteemed face-to-face battle above all. They adopted the chevauchée for purely practical reasons. The spread of castles made set-piece battles a rarity and, when they did occur, made them less decisive, for the defeated side could usually retreat to the safety of its castles. But while fortified castles were hard to penetrate until the spread of cannons in the fifteenth century, the tendency to seek refuge inside them left much of the surrounding countryside lightly defended and vulnerable to enemy raiders. The chevauchée had the advantage of being both easy to carry out and lucrative. The spoils gained thereby could provide sustenance for fighters who could not expect a salary from a paymaster or a meal from a commissariat. It also offered a convenient excuse for bandits and deserters to prey on helpless peasants: they could claim to be fighting for some larger cause when their only interest was in enriching themselves.
When carried out, as it often was, by relatively small groups ranging in size from a few dozen men to a few thousand, the raid was akin to what we would call guerrilla warfare. When undertaken by larger armies of tens of thousands of soldiers, it was closer to a conventional military operation, especially if the invaders intended to occupy territory, instead of simply grabbing loot.
The chevauchée was above all a tactic of attrition designed to instill fear in the enemy’s population and wear down its will to resist. As with other manifestations of low-intensity warfare, the practitioners of the chevauchée could not expect fast results. It would take many years of suffering before the issue could be settled. Thus the length of Europe’s wars during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, which strike the modern observer as perverse. Typical conflicts included the Hundred Years’ War (England vs. France), the Eighty Years’ War (Netherlands vs. Spain), and the Thirty Years’ War (Protestants vs. Catholics in Germany).
The Anglo-Scottish struggle lasted even longer: 450 years from the first invasion of Scotland by King Edward I in 1296 to the failure of the last Scottish uprising in 1746. The Tartan Rebellions, as we may dub them, show why guerrilla tactics were so pervasive in the Middle Ages—and so indecisive.
EIGHT HUNDRED SOLDIERS were on his trail, all “valiant and active men,” in the words of the great Scottish poet John Barbour, and they had a secret weapon: “a sleuth hound so good that it would turn aside for nothing.” It was said that Robert the Bruce had raised the dog himself, so that it knew his scent and would follow it unerringly. The pursuers were led by a fellow Scottish nobleman, John of Lorne. He was serving the king of England, Edward I, but he had a more personal reason to track down the fugitive and his “rebel accomplices.” He was a relative of Sir John “the Red” Comyn, whom Bruce, the thirty-three-year-old earl of Carrick, had murdered the preceding year in a bid to establish his own claim to the throne of Scotland.
Bruce had indeed been crowned on March 25, 1306, six weeks after Comyn’s death, but ever since he had been on the run from the English troops and their Scottish allies. His attempts to meet the more numerous English army in open battle had led to a shattering defeat at Methven, followed by another repulse at Dalry.100 Almost bereft of followers, he was forced to seek shelter in the countryside amid what a modern historian describes as the “wide wastes of moor and bog” where wolves and wild boars still roamed and roads and bridges were “few and far between.”101
The inhabitants of this rough land were poor but extraordinarily tough and hardy. They fought with spears, long-handled Lochaber axes, and two-handed broadswords more than five feet in length.102 The men of the Highlands wore a kilt, which today has become a decorative item of clothing but in those days was quite practical. Since, as one historian notes, “men were frequently wading deep in water and travelling long distances through days of rain,” it made sense to wear the “loose kilted plaid,” which “allowed quick drying, and could easily be stripped off and wrung,” rather than breeches which “stuck to and galled the skin or induced rheumatism and other ills by keeping the legs constantly wet and cold.”103 Wearing a kilt and carrying a sword, Bruce’s few followers could travel long distances with nothing more to sustain them than a little water and a bag of oatmeal.
Often Bruce himself did not have even that much. A contemporary chronicler, John of Fordun, described Bruce as “passing a whole fortnight without food of any kind to live upon, but raw herbs and water.” Sometimes he had to walk barefoot because his shoes “became old and worn out,” and he had to sleep in caves to avoid detection. He was “an outcast among the nobles,” most of whom had accepted English rule—as Bruce himself had done for four years before making his own bid for power. “And thus,” wrote John, “he became a byword and a laughing-stock for all, both near and far to hiss at.”
In desperation Bruce was forced to undertake a mode of warfare that could not have come easily to a great feudal lord. He had been brought up to view the cavalry charge as the epitome of combat—to dream of leading a great host with heraldic banners flying. He was inclined to agree with a nephew who counseled him, “Ye should endeavor to make good your right in open battle, and not by stratagem and craft.” But Bruce was wise enough to see that “he could in nowise harry his foes with equal forces,” so he turned to stratagem after all. “Speed, surprise, mobility, small-scale engagements, scorched earth and dismantling of fortresses—these were to be the hallmarks of his campaigns,” writes Bruce’s foremost modern biographer, Geoffrey Barrow. He adds that for the would-be king to act “based on his belief in the supreme virtue of guerrilla warfare . . . was not only a revolutionary decision, it was proof of his genius and imagination.” But could it possibly work?
William Wallace, the leader of an earlier Scottish insurrection in which Bruce had played a minor and ambiguous part, had tried similar stratagems, and, notwithstanding some initial successes, he had failed miserably. In 1305 he was captured and sent to London, where he was given the standard punishment for treason: he was briefly hanged, then cut down “half-living” to have his genitals sliced off and internal organs ripped out of his chest before he was decapitated and his body hacked into pieces. His head was placed on London Bridge, and his quartered remains were sent to four different cities.104 Bruce knew he risked a similar fate. Already his family members had paid a steep price for his effrontery: his sister and daughter were imprisoned in cages, and three brothers had been executed. But to hang this “Scottish traitor,” the English would first have to catch him. And that was no easy matter.
In 1307, when the bloodhound got on his trail, the guerrilla king was hiding near Cumnock, south of Glasgow. He had but three hundred men and thus had no intention of risking battle against John of Lorne’s forces. He decided to break up his men into three different groups to facilitate their escape. But the hound was not fooled. He ignored the other two groups and kept on Bruce’s track. Bruce then divided his followers again into parties of three—and again the dog held a “straight course” after his former master. Bruce now decided it was every man for himself and set off accompanied only by his foster brother. The hound still followed him “without wavering.” Seeing which way the dog went, John of Lorne ordered five of his speediest men to race ahead and cut off the fugitives. Knowing there was no escape, Bruce turned and stood his ground, great sword in hand. John Barbour described what happened next in his epic poem, The Brus (The Bruce), completed in 1376:
Soon the five came in the greatest haste, with mighty clamour and menace. Three of them went at the king, and the other two, sword in hand, made stoutly at his man [the foster brother]. The king met the three . . . and dealt such a blow at the first that he shore through ear and cheek and neck to the shoulder. The man sank down dizzily, and the two, seeing their fellow’s sudden fall, were affrighted, and started back a little. With that the king glanced aside and saw the other two making full sturdy battle against his man. He left his own two, and leapt lightly at them that fought with his man, and smote off the head of one of them. Then he went to meet his own assailants, who were coming at him right boldly. He met the first so eagerly that with the edge of his sword he hewed the arm from the body.
. . . [S]o fairly it fell out that the king, though he had a struggle and difficulty, slew four of his foemen. Soon afterwards his foster-brother ended the days of the fifth.105
Bruce was “drenched in sweat,” but he had no time to exult in this small victory. He saw John of Lorne’s men coming up fast with their bloodhound. He and his foster brother had to run off into the woods. From 1306 to 1314 that is mostly what he did—run and run some more. During what were literally his wilderness years, he persevered through what John of Fordun summed up as “mishaps, flights and dangers; hardships and weariness; hunger and thirst; watchings, and fastings; nakedness, and cold; snares, and banishment; the seizing, imprisoning, slaughter and downfall of his near ones”106—and gradually, despite all that, he gained the upper hand. He started to push the English out of their captured territory, even raiding into northern England on occasion.
The key obstacles were the English castles that dotted the Scottish countryside. Since the Scottish rebels lacked proper siege engines, they had to resort to daring commando raids. On one occasion, Bruce’s men even donned black capes and walked on their hands and knees in the dark pretending to be cows in order to get close enough to clamber up rope ladders and seize a redoubt.107
BY 1314 THE Scots felt strong enough to challenge the English, now led by Edward I’s ineffectual son, Edward II, in open battle at Bannockburn. Bannockburn was a glorious Scottish victory and, in the words of a medieval chronicle, “an evil, miserable, and calamitous day for the English.”108Yet it no more determined the outcome of the war than had previous clashes at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk. The war ground on, ceaselessly, remorselessly, unendingly, interrupted only by brief “peaces” and “truces” that were inevitably violated.
Bruce and his successors would launch repeated chevauchées into northern England, where, according to a medieval chronicle, they “ravaged and burnt.”109 They also stole everything they could carry away, and extorted protection money from the locals. The English army moved too slowly to stop them, but attacks on a sparsely settled frontier region could not bring England to heel. In desperation, Bruce tried other tactics, such as invading Ireland to harass its English occupiers and even attempting to kidnap the queen of England from her home in York.110 However bold and imaginative, these ploys failed.
King Robert I died in 1329 with his country still facing the constant threat of English invasion. Scotland was simply too small and too poor to defeat its southern neighbor. Its population in the early fourteenth century was less than a million; England’s was 5.5 million.111 But it was too tough and prickly to be subdued.
For their part, English monarchs lacked sufficient resources or willpower to pacify the sprawling Scottish countryside. Most of their invasions followed a pattern: after an initial victory or two, the English army would be forced to slink home because the Scots’ scorched-earth tactics made it impossible to stay in the field. During one such expedition in 1322, the ravenous English foragers were said to have found only one lame cow in the entire Lothian region.112 Those today who imagine that long-running conflicts—say, over Kashmir or Palestine—can be resolved neatly and expeditiously through negotiations ignore the lesson of the Anglo-Scottish wars: conflicts of blood and soil, fought as a series of skirmishes between guerrillas and regulars, can drag on for centuries even among peoples far closer in religion and outlook than the Indians and Pakistanis or the Israelis and Palestinians.
Organized warfare between Scotland and England finally petered out in the sixteenth century, although the final clash between Scottish insurgents and English armies did not occur until the Jacobite rising of 1745–46 aimed at restoring the Catholic Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain. For centuries before that the frontier was unsettled by the attacks of border reivers (from the Old English word meaning robbers), who chose to cloak their thievery in a nationalistic guise.
THE HISTORIAN Eric Hobsbawm coined the term “social bandits” to describe “peasant outlaws” who “are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.” The mythical archetype was Robin Hood. Rob Roy MacGregor in Scotland (1671–1734), Jesse James in America (1847–1882), Ned Kelly in Australia (1855–1880), and Pancho Villa in Mexico (1878–1923) were real-life examples. Less famous but more significant were the klephts and haiduks, the Christian bandits who battled Ottoman overlords in the Balkans for five hundred years. Hobsbawm notes that the prevalence of such men “is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history”; they flourish wherever social order has broken down, including today in such areas as the triborder region of South America. In years past rough badlands such as Scotland, Corsica, Sicily, Spain, and the Balkans were particularly fertile pastures for social bandits until the state became too strong to resist.113
In most of the wars fought in Europe between the fall of Rome and the rise of nation-states in the seventeenth century, it was not easy to tell “social bandits” from soldiers, regulars from irregulars. All victimized hapless peasants in equally savage fashion for their own benefit. Friedrich Schiller, the eighteenth-century poet, playwright, and historian, wrote with great feeling of how during the Thirty Years’ War in the preceding century his native Germany “was laid waste by the desolating bands” of various captains and “lay exhausted, bleeding, wasted, and sighing for repose.”114 This was the guerrilla version of total war, a struggle of all against all, and it was the natural result of the decline of nation-states and conventional armies in the millennium after the fall of Rome.
All that was about to change, at least in the West. The years after 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War, would see the rise of increasingly powerful and sophisticated states—and also the rise of increasingly powerful and sophisticated insurgent groups to challenge their power. That is one of the most enduring dynamics in the history of warfare: as a state becomes more capable in its defense, so guerrillas become more capable in their offense.