Writing Authentic Battle Scenes


by Ian J Miller

If you write historical novels, you may end up having to handle battles, and the question is, how to do it? The simplest way is to focus on one or more persons on the front line. You may be able to write some important character aspect of the protagonist, and this is good, but if so, the battle is merely an excuse to do that and is not an important part of the plot.

But suppose the battle is important, or you want to bring it to prominence? You may well want to do better than to describe a lot of hacking or shooting. To give an overview of what is going on brings you into the zone of strategy and tactics, but how do you do that? The obvious answer is, do some research, but where?

You can copy a historical battle, and that at least has the merit of giving you the chance to get the strategy to be at least believable. However, you might still have the problem of first being too obvious, and second, many famous battles were not really won by strategy. A classic example is Agincourt, where the French essentially lost through stupidity.

The battle was fought by each side lining up, and the numerically superior French charged. The knights on horseback charged archers protected by palings, and the horses took too many arrows, while other knights in armor marched up on foot, waste-high in mud, and some apparently fell over and drowned in the mud. By the time those who could get at the English did so, they were so tired they could hardly fight.

My argument is that that sort of battle is no model for a novel, unless it is set in that particular battle. Writing about real battles does make life a lot easier. But writing about the opposition stupidly marching through mud when they can simply stand where they are and let the English come to them, while seemingly not obvious to the French Generals at the time, tends to be obvious to many readers. The reader might ask, why didn’t the side with the majority divide its forces and send a number around the back of the opposition?

As it happened, at Agincourt, a small number of French did attack the English from the rear and took much of the wealth from the baggage train. That seemed to be more theft than military strategy, but it highlights what was possible. However, that is not the point. Unless you are actually setting your novel at Agincourt, that battle is of little help for a fictional battle.

So, what can you do? The example of Agincourt shows that just simply looking up battles is not going to help as much as it should. If you look up enough, the principles of military strategy might come through, but then again they might not. I had this problem when I was writing my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy. In the first, Athene’s Prophecy, I had to have my young protagonist learn about military strategy from a Roman General, so the question then is, how to learn enough to make a reasonable fist of it.

My answer was found in a rather unusual book, “The Art of War” by Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini, who served on the General Staff for Napoleon and Ney, and after arguments in 1813, switched to the Russian side, although he finally returned to France. He was a contemporary and rival of von Clausewitz, and he covers all sorts of aspects of the military.

Obviously, simply reading a book is not going to make you a successful General, but as a writer you have one advantage: you control events. Here, the pen rules. The question is not whether you are right, but whether you are at least plausible. Also, if as I was, you are teaching a young commander, it gives the protagonist plausible reasons to at least comment on previous battles in front of the instructor. One example of this. In Athene’s Prophecy, I had the lesson discuss the battle of Issus, and in this the usual histories show that Darius’ cavalry was making good progress around the left flank of Alexander’s army, where Parmenio was in charge.

The battle is supposed to have turned when Alexander made a winning attack on Darius’ cavalry on the right flank, at which time those on the left flank panicked, turned, and the Greeks annihilated them. However, how would the two different flanks know anything about what was going on with the other? Following Jomini’s advice, I had my protagonist argue that the cavalry on the Greek left did not make good progress; Parmenio let them, and then pulled off one of the more difficult “grand tactics” that was as important for victory as anything.

You may well say, ancient battles are irrelevant to modern battles. While there are obvious differences, to allow for technology, that is not exactly true. The strategy of punching a hole in the opposition line and encircling the opposition worked for Tuthmoses III, and was essentially the Russian strategy to retake Stalingrad. If you follow the third battle of Karkhov in WW II, you will see that over two months (!!) Erich von Manstein effectively replayed the strategy of Cannae.

Obviously there were changes to allow for equipment, etc., but if you can imagine a battle scene, and if you follow the principles, you should at least be plausible. In my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy, in the first book, after the teaching, Scaevola eventually had to command a battle. That was totally imaginary, so as author I had the opportunity to “invent” the terrain suitable for how I decided to fight the battle. That was the key, because the terrain allowed what I thought was a plausible battle.

Yes, it depended on the other side not being prepared for it, but historically a huge number of battles were won through the losing side being uninspired. The second book involved the invasion of Britain, so there I stuck as close as I could to history, and in the third, I had three space battles. One of them was once again a modified version of the Cannae strategy, but in three dimensions. How plausible these were is obviously a matter of opinion, but my argument is, if you prepare through a bit of research and try to understand how such battles do proceed, you can at least be plausible and avoid the worst of the possible mistakes.




Alternately titled “Battle Scenes.”

Guest post contributed by Ian J. Miller. Ian writes futuristic science fiction and technothrillers. He lives in semiretirement at Lower Hutt, New Zealand, with his cat, Horatio.

13 thoughts on “Writing Authentic Battle Scenes

  1. I think Agincourt also highlights some interesting issues around WHY the French were ‘stupid’. There are wider factors than tactics & strategy. Firstly, the English were never going to attack the French lines, other than goading them with arrows: their entire plan was defensive, picking the battlefield (a narrow, ploughed field), knowing that the French would be itching to charge. But the English were also running low on food & water, suffering from dysentery, exhausted from marching for days in their race across northern France. They appeared to be lambs to the slaughter.
    The French had vast numbers of powerful knights but little coordination. And they were wildly over-confident. As a counter to the initial English arrows they sent forward their crossbowmen (who hadn’t had time to retrieve their large pavise shields from the baggage train and who came off second best). Annoyed at the way things were going the French knights just decided to charge – again, a lack of leadership showed the French to be little more than a posh, well-equipped rabble.
    But there’s no glory in killing a peasant archer, despite (because of?) them being easy pickings so the French knights threw themselves at the heavily equipped English infantry – and were cut down by the arrows of the archers who had moved to the flanks, and the wooden stakes, and the swords and axes and halberds.
    The French should have won. Understanding their motivations & issues (glory, over-confidence, stubbornness, lack of leadership) is as important as knowing about the English defensive strategy.


  2. My experience with battles is what I draw on. Number one, you never see the whole thing, just your little corner of it. You’re on sensory overload, and fighting desperately just to stay alive in it. So I focus on the feelings.

    For example, a mortar round lands close enough to toss you around like a rag doll. Unlike what you see in the movies, it takes you a few seconds to get back on line. Sometimes you’ll just sit there, bombs exploding around you and not be able to do much because your now battle injured brain is trying to deal with the damage that’s occurred to it.

    I’ve seen other people acting completely out of character. For instance, the guy who just sits there laughing because he’s now brain damaged and can’t do anything else but laugh. Or the feeling of sheer relief because you’ve made it to a place where bullets can’t reach you.

    One of the things I experienced was an almost schizo feeling. Part of me was sitting back, safe and sound watching all this, while the rest of me was on auto pilot, focusing on cover, concealment, and returning fire, communicating with buddies, and so on. I like to think of it as means of protecting oneself from the horror of what was really happening. A very unnerving feeling afterwards.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As a reader, I want to be able to easily picture the battle and feel the tension, see the blood and sweat, but not be bored by too much technical detail or historical wording that I don’t understand. Also if the battle element goes on too long, I find it slows the main story and I end up skip reading bits to get back to the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on My Writing Blog and commented:
    Might be helpful! I have mainly written about historical battles, so I had to research them and then pick the theory I liked. I did invent another battle, but it was a minor aspect and I didn’t have to go into too much detail!


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