Germanic Warfare

Chatti Germanic Tribe | Northern Germanic Tribes: Cherusci, Jutes, Saxons.

Early Germanic warriors either first century BC or AD. The Germans east of the Rhine had a fearsome reputation and constantly waged war on their Gallic neighbours. The Gauls who lived close to the German border were considered to be the most hardened of the Gallic peoples as a result.

What we know of the Germanic warrior comes mainly from Greek- and Latin-speaking Roman authors. At this time, the Germans wrote nothing down. Some evidence survives in the archaeological record to give us a material picture of his arms and armour. Yet his reputation has survived the ages: fierce to the point of being savage, fearless bordering on the reckless, cunning like the fox. Unlike his Roman opponent, the Germanic war fighter was remarkably underequipped. In large part this was due to the paucity of basic materials. “Even iron is by no means abundant with them”, Tacitus noted, “as we may gather from the character of their weapons”. About one in ten warriors had a single-edged knife (measuring 7–12 centimetres, 2.8–4.7 inches long). Others carried a sword for cutting and thrusting; or a machete-like sax (measuring about 46 centimetres – 18.1 inches – long) for slashing and chopping. Some might bear a double-edged sword similar to the Celtic long sword of the Raeti and Norici or Roman spatha. However, Germanic weapons were made of a form of iron called ‘steely iron’ which has a much lower content of carbon, typically 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of its weight, making it softer and more likely to bend when struck with force. To compensate for this weakness, Germanic swordsmiths made the sax with a thicker upper edge, but notwithstanding this measure, against the harder steel weapons used by the Romans, Germanic swordsmen were at a material disadvantage.

Axes were wielded by those with means, while others with fewer means used wooden clubs hewn from logs which had been fire-hardened or made more deadly with iron spikes.35 Both weapons were used with devastating effect: even the rough edge of a club can cause considerable blunt trauma and crush bones. They also used bows of fir and yew and arrows, slings and slingshot that were devastating when used en masse. When the ammunition ran out, they threw rocks and stones.

Their preferred weapon was a slender but versatile spear. “They carry lances”, wrote Tacitus, “frameae as they call them, with the iron point narrow and short, but so sharp and so easy to handle that they employ them either for stabbing or throwing on occasions”. They also carried darts – missilia the Romans called them. Ranging from 90–275 centimetres (35.3–108.3 inches) in length with a tip 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 inches) long, in an expert’s hand these were terrible weapons, especially to men wearing chain mail armour, the links of which the sharp, narrow point could pierce and rip apart. Each man carried several into battle and “they can hurl them to an immense distance”.

The regular Germanic fighter wore little or no body armour, unless stripped from an opponent or made by a local craftsman, “and only a man or two here and there a helmet or head piece”. Though there were likely national or clan differences in dress, he typically wore a short- or long-sleeved tunic, baggy or close-fitting long trousers belted at the waist, and a cloak fastened with a brooch. German woollen cloth was somewhat rough to the touch but nevertheless dyed in solid colours, or woven with stripes or geometric patterns. A shield was the primary mode of defence. Sculptures and coins show Germanic shields to be flat and long, and in shape oval, rectangular or hexagonal. Tacitus comments that their shields were not supported by metal or leather but were simply wicker or painted boards, however, metal edging strips have been found in eastern Germany contesting his generalisation. He also mentions the care with which they painted the coloured devices on the front of them. Surviving first century BCE examples from Denmark, one measuring 88 centimetres (34.6 inches) by 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the other 66 centimetres (25.9 inches) by 30 centimetres (11.8 inches), are made of wooden planks. In these specimens a central ‘barleycorn’ shaped shield boss protects the handgrip, but iron domed and pointed circular shield bosses have also survived.

Germanic warriors fought both on foot and horseback. Each was similarly equipped with spear or darts and shield. Lightly armed infantry made up the largest part of a Germanic tribal army but their cavalry, even in smaller numbers, were very effective. Germanic cavalry would often dismount and fight on foot and Caesar observed that they even trained their horses to remain standing in the same spot so they could leap up on to them and ride to another part of the battlefield or escape. “Their horses are not remarkable”, writes Tacitus snootily,

for beauty or speed, neither are they trained to complex evolutions like ours; the riders charge straight forward, or wheel in a single turn to the right, the formation of the troop being such that there is no rear flank.

The right turn meant that the rider’s shield side was presented to their enemy so he could launch his weapon with his right side fully protected.

Young men able to run fast formed the vanguard of the attack as they were able to keep up with the cavalry charge. It was actually part of their ritual of attaining manhood. When deemed ready, a young man was formally presented with a lance and shield in the presence of his tribal assembly in what was regarded as the youth’s admission to the public life of his community. In times of war, one hundred of the ablest young men were selected from their villages to accompany the cavalry on foot. Some, having proved their courage and skill, might then become retainers or bodyguards of the clan or war chief,

and there is an eager rivalry between the retainers for the post of honour next to their chief, as well as between different chiefs for the honour of having the most numerous and most valiant bodyguard. Here lie dignity and strength. To be perpetually surrounded by a large train of picked young warriors is a distinction in peace and a protection in war.

The relationship between the retainer and retained was complex, based on a code of honour, reward and recognition:

Upon the field of battle the chief is bound in honour not to let himself be surpassed in valour, and his retainers are equally bound to rival the valour of their chief. Furthermore, for one of the retainers to come back alive from the field where his chief had fallen is from that day forward an infamy and a reproach during all the rest of his life. To defend him, to guard him, nay, to give him the glory of their own feats of valour, is the perfection of their loyalty. The chiefs fight for victory; the bodyguard for their chief.

The Germanic nations were admired by Roman authors for their free spirit and democratic form of self-rule. Chiefs were elected by a tribal assembly to administer the law in their communities and each leader had a council of one hundred free men to consult for advice and to enforce his decisions. For campaigns they elected a war leader. Caesar had observed “when a state either repels war waged against it or wages it against another, magistrates are chosen to preside over that war with such authority, that they have power of life and death”. After the war, they relinquished that power. “They choose their kings for their noble birth”, observes Tacitus,

their generals for their prowess: the king’s power is neither unlimited nor arbitrary, and the generals owe their authority less to their military rank than to their example and the admiration they excite by it, if they are dashing, if they are conspicuous, if they charge ahead of the line.

These were characteristics Drusus would have admired as they were the very same principles by which he led his own men.

Raiding was common practice among Germanic nations. In part this arose from the need to keep retainers fed and usefully employed as “forays and plunderings supply the means of keeping a free table”.62 Not for them tilling the land, but yet they could stand bloody wounds if it meant their status would rise on account of them.63 Germanic tribes tried to avoid a pitched battle. ‘Hit-and-run’ was the preferred tactic in battle, using ambushes to strike their enemy when they were least expecting and prepared for an attack. Only as a last resort, did they meet in a set piece battle, and having first carefully picked the ground, preferring wet or wooded or stony ground. The Germanic army on the battlefield is often portrayed as a rabble, a mêlée, but this is inaccurate. They assembled in columns and took up wedge formations, familiar to the Romans as the cuneus, a tactic they themselves used. Like the Romans, the men in the wedge formation interlocked or overlapped their shields to form a shield wall or ‘shield castle’. In 58 BCE, the Germanic king, Ariovistus, arrayed his men against Julius Caesar by assembling the seven tribes under his command in columns of 300 men strong with spaces between them. The Romans attacked from the front and sides, and the Germanic left flank – their unprotected side – collapsed, but on their right flank – the side protected by their shields – Ariovistus’ men were able to deflect the Roman attack by pushing aggressively forward into Caesar’s ranks.68 They were only defeated when Roman reinforcements arrived.

Just as the warriors of Raetia, Vindelicia and Noricum did, Germanic warriors fired up their spirits by singing and chanting. The Germanic war fighters sang to Hercules according to Tacitus (who may have equated him to Thor or Irmin, son of Wuotan), and

they raise a hymn in his praise, as the pattern of all valiant men, as they approach the field of battle. They have also a kind of song which they chant to fire their courage – they call it barding (barritus) – and from this chant they draw an augury of the issue of the coming day. For they inspire terror in the foe, or become flurried themselves according to the sound that goes up from the host. It is not so much any articulate expression of words as a war-like chorus. Their great aim is to produce a hoarse and tempestuous roar, every man holding his shield before his mouth to increase the volume and depth of tone by reverberation.