The Frankish Way of War

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The Frankish Way of War

The kingdoms and peoples of Europe and North Africa
just before the East Roman Emperor Justinian began his reconquest of the West.

On Foot or Horse?

It is generally accepted that (unlike the eastern Germanic
tribes such as the Goths and Vandals), the Franks, Alamanni, Burgundians and
other western Germans fought primarily on foot rather than on horseback. Although
there is some truth to this, it is an oversimplification.

Many of the eastern Germans who lived for a while on the
steppes of modern Ukraine would have had the space and pasture needed to raise
and maintain good horse herds. These factors remained when some, such as the
Ostrogoths, followed the Huns into the Hungarian Plain in the early fifth
century. The open spaces where they lived would also have made horse-mounted
mobility very important – almost essential. The western tribes who lived in
relatively contained spaces in the forested and hilly lands on the east bank of
the Rhine would have had less motivation or ability to develop cavalry armies.

That some Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians fought on
horseback when they had suitable opportunities is indisputable. Various
Frankish graves contain horse furniture and spurs while in some cases horses
were interred nearby. Gregory of Tours’ account of Clovis’ son Theuderic
fighting the Thuringians includes the detail that the Thuringians dug pits to
disrupt the Frankish horsemen. The Franks of the sixth century – with the
wealth of their conquests and the varied terrain of most of France at their
disposal – would have had the opportunity to raise and maintain a substantial
number of good cavalry mounts.

If an increasing number of Frankish, Alamanni and Burgundian
warriors may have had the means to mount up in the first decades of the sixth
century, they were still perfectly happy to fight on foot just as their
ancestors had done. It may still have been their preferred way of fighting.
Against the Thuringians a significant mounted force may have given the Franks
an edge. Against the Ostrogoths and Romans in Italy – where every good solider
was primarily a cavalryman – this would not have been the case.

In the centuries that followed, the Frankish warriors
evolved into the finest cavalry of Western Europe – becoming the chivalry of
medieval France. Most evidence suggests that this transition did not really
start to take hold until the eighth century – well beyond the scope of this
book. The evolution from tribal warriors on the Rhine to the rulers of France
did, however, naturally transform the way the Franks fought. As they absorbed
the last elements of the Roman army in northern Gaul along with the Alan and
Sarmatian laeti, they would have found recruits who were more familiar with
mounted warfare than their tribal ancestors. With all of Gaul at their
disposal, along with the captured treasures of the Alamanni, Burgundians and
Visigoths, the Franks of the sixth century would have had the wealth and land
to equip their warriors with good weapons, armour and horses.

Frankish Weapons and Tactics

The Romans had no equivalent to the aggressive infantry
tactics of the Franks. Sixth century Roman infantry were second-rate troops,
more suitable for garrison duties rather than standing firm in line of battle. When
they were deployed in battle, the Roman infantry usually had to be stiffened by
dismounted cavalry as they were at Casilinum and in several other battles
against the Goths. In such circumstances it would have made sense for the
Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians to fight on foot to capitalize on the one
advantage they had over the Romans rather than meeting them on terms in which
the Romans had come to excel.

The modern historian Bernard Bachrach has postulated that
the descriptions of Frankish tactics by Roman historians were distorted by the
lenses through which they observed the events of their day. The offensive use
of infantry would have been so surprising to them that they ignored everything
else and concentrated their descriptions on the Frankish foot warriors. He has
a point but probably overstates it. This is what the contemporary writers
Procopius and Agathias have to say of the Frankish fighting methods:

Under the leadership of Theudibert [the Franks] marched
into Italy. They had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were
the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot-soldiers having
neither bows nor spears. Each man carried a sword, a shield and an axe. Now the
iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both
sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always
to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the
shields of the enemy and kill the men. (Procopius)

A great throng of Germans came up and opened an attack by hurling their axes they slew many. (Procopius)

The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is
very simple. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting
on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this.
At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached.
They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapon except the double-edged
axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are
neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing
like a javelin and also in hand to hand combat, the greater part of the angon
is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the socket of
the spear. some points are turned back, bent like hooks and turned toward the
handle. (Agathias)

In battle the Frank throws the angon. If it hits an enemy
the spear is caught in the man and neither can the wounded man nor anyone else
draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way
a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon hits a shield
it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot
be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield. Nor can it be cut
off by a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron. When the
Frank sees this situation he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear,
pulling down so [his enemy] falls, his head and chest left unprotected. The
unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust
with another spear. (Agathias)

Although Procopius says that the Franks did not carry
spears, Agathias says that angons (javelins with long iron heads) were their
primary weapons. The accounts are not entirely inconsistent. A charge by men on
foot was proceeded with a volley of heavy throwing weapons – axes and/or
javelins. This disrupted the enemy formation and the ability of the individual
enemy warrior to defend himself. Then the Franks closed in for the kill. Such
weapons and tactics would have been familiar to the ancient Romans if not their
sixth century descendants.

These descriptions are perfectly consistent with the weapons
and equipment found by archaeologists in Frankish graves. Many examples of
relatively small, curved axe heads have been found, as have a number of long
javelin shafts with conical armour-piercing heads which have small barbs at the
base. The prominent iron shield bosses found in many Frankish graves would have
been perfect for the warrior to punch into his opponent as he followed up the
missile volley to finish his enemy off with a handheld weapon such as a short
sword or a conventional spear.

A number of relatively conventional spearheads have also
been found in Frankish graves which support Agathias’ statement that the Frank
might finish off his opponent with a spear, contradicting Procopius who said
that the Franks did not carry them. Archaeological evidence shows that a
throwing axe (francisca) along with a short sword with a single edge (scramasax),
were almost universal amongst Frankish warriors. Graves containing angon heads
and long double-edged swords are almost always high-status warriors. A
reasonable conclusion is that the best warriors, fighting in the front ranks,
carried angons, franciscae and good swords, while lesser men may only have been
armed with franciscae and short swords. This assumption helps to reconcile the
apparently contradictory descriptions of Procopius and Agathias.

The sixth century descriptions of Frankish fighting methods
are consistent with what Sidonius Apollinaris’ had to say of them in the
previous century. Volleys of axes and spears preceded a charge into close
combat with fast-running young men whirling their shields, anxious to be the
first to reach the enemy.

Both Procopius and Agathias say that the Franks did not use
bows, slings, or other longer-range missile weapons. When seen through the eyes
of sixth century Romans whose mounted troopers were bow-armed and a substantial
proportion of their infantry were too, this may well have seemed the case.
Arrowheads and light javelin heads have been found in Frankish graves and an
analysis of Alamannic graves shows that poorer men may have been archers while
richer men tended to fight hand-tohand. It may be that such men would have
fought to defend their home territory but were left behind on a major external
expedition. In previous times the Franks and Alamanni were not averse to using
missile weapons when it suited the terrain or their situation. At any time a
number of men may have used bows in battle. Against the masses of bow-armed
Romans in sixth century Italy it would have been even more pointless to bother
with light missile weapons than attempting to meet the well-trained Roman
cavalry on horseback.

So, what can we conclude from this?

The likelihood is that, after their conquest of Gaul, the
Franks had a high proportion of good warriors who owned horses and could fight
on horseback if the situation demanded it. Most, or all of them, could also
fight effectively on foot in hand-to-hand combat and may even have preferred to
do so – especially against enemies who had better cavalry. The Goths and Romans
often dismounted to form a defensive line but the Franks also took the
offensive when on foot. Indeed they seemed to prefer offensive tactics. Their
throwing weapons and shields with prominent bosses seem most suited to a
relatively loose attack formation which left enough room for each man to throw
his axe or spear and punch forward with his shield as he charged into combat.
When needed they could also call on men with bows to support them.

The Battle of Casilinum [Capua], AD 554.

At the Battle of Vouillé Gregory of Tours characterized the
Visigoths `fighting at a distance’, while the Franks `tried to come to close
combat’. This may be nothing more than a disparaging comment to contrast
Visigothic cowardice with Frankish bravery. On the other hand, `fighting at a
distance’ could describe hit-and-run tactics appropriate for men on horseback
armed with javelins as well as spears. The Franks, armed and equipped with
hand-to-hand weapons and very short-range missiles, would naturally have
preferred `to come to close combat’ without bothering with preliminaries which
would place them at a disadvantage. At Casilinum the Alamanni and Franks decided
that their best option was to make a headlong charge on foot. They succeeded in
piercing the Roman line but against an enemy with combined arms – foot, horse
and archers – they were surrounded and cut to pieces. At Vouillé this tactic
worked although we do not know how or why.

The headlong charge of the Franks came to be seen by the
Romans as a characteristic of their way of warfare for centuries. A later sixth
century Roman military manual (the Strategikon) has this to say of them:

The fair-haired races place great value on freedom. They
are bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they
consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace. They calmly
despise death as they fight violently in hand to hand combat. They are undisciplined
in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards.

Describing how Roman troopers were trained to use lances in
a charge, learning from the Germans but maintaining better discipline, the
Strategikon has this to say:

They (the front ranks) lean forward, cover their heads
with their shields, hold their lances high as their shoulders in the manner of
the fair-haired races. Protected by their shields they ride in good order, not
too fast but at a trot, to avoid having the impetus of the charge breaking up
their ranks before coming to blows with the enemy, which is a real risk.

Of course, these are generic descriptions of Germanic
tactics and are not specific to the Franks. The Germanic Vandals, for example,
fought exclusively on horseback by the sixth century and apparently had no
tactic other than to charge into close combat. By the time the Strategikon was
written, the Vandals were no more and the Ostrogoths had been defeated. The
most important Germanic peoples, with whom the East Romans still had to deal
with, were the Lombards and, of course, the Franks. The Lombards certainly had
a sizeable force of mounted lancers. Many of them had fought for the Romans
against the Ostrogoths and Franks. As the Strategikon was written at about the
same time the Lombards were moving into Italy, it is more than possible that
the description of the `fairhaired race’s’ tactical methods would have been
influenced more by the Lombards than by the Franks.

In the years that followed, the East Romans came to call all
Germans `Franks’, regardless of their origin. They were still renowned for
their ferocious charge and increasingly it was on horseback. In the later
medieval period, French armies were noted for the prowess of their mounted men
at arms which often swept all before them.

Agathias wrote that the Franks did not wear armour and went
into battle half-naked. This can be nothing more than a Greco-Roman stereotype
of savage barbarians. From the time of Childeric in the mid fifth century, the
Franks had access to Roman armouries and they also had talented smiths. Even if
every man might not have been fully kitted out with helmet and body armour, the
majority of a war leader’s comitatus of full-time retainers surely would have
been. Graves of many high-status warriors contain helmets and some also have
body armour. That lesser men were not buried with them does not necessarily
mean they did not have access to armour. For a relatively poorer man such
valuable items of equipment would likely have been passed on to his sons rather
than being interred with him.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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