Today’s Norsevember post looks at what it was like to face the Vikings in battle!
So what could you have expected to face?
A front line of terrifying berserkers
There is a pattern in Norse literature of a group of Viking fighters having 12 berserkers at the very front of the group. It’s likely the number of berserkers depended on the size of the force, but you could expect to come up against these distinctive warriors at the very outset.
Imagine what this would do to morale – frenzied Vikings impervious to harm. A huge man with wild eyes charges toward you – he looks like a pin cushion, pierced by 4 arrows. He doesn’t even notice them. Another hits him and he keeps sprinting towards you, axe raised. Imagine how exhausting it would have been to face these berserkers before even getting involved in the main fighting, each with the strength and ferocity of several soldiers.
Attacks that could appear from nowhere
Vikings arrived in their longboats at unpredictable times, in unpredictable locations. The fact that their longboats could travel through shallow water meant they could land pretty much anywhere on the coastline and even travel inland up rivers and waterways.
Imagine the sight of a Viking fleet travelling upriver to your town, being protected by a few men-at-arms. By the time any defensive force was mustered, the Vikings were often long gone – along with anything of value.
Men fighting alongside shield brothers they would fight with to the death
Vikings fought in their boat crews with men they raided with year on year from their villages. These men ate, drank, rowed, fought together. They trusted and loved one another. Morale was high and you weren’t fighting men scrambled together or conscripted, you were fighting a family of brothers who protected one another with all their hearts.
Warriors who were unafraid of death
Norse religion rewards bravery and punishes cowardice – Viking warriors who fell in battle had the honour of ascending to Valhalla, guided by Odin’s Valkyries. Why turn and run away when you could stay and continue fighting harder, assuring your place alongside the All Father?
Vikings were unpredictable, as already touched upon. And they weren’t afraid to try any trick in the book to achieve their goal: plunder and glory.
One strategy they had during a battle was the boar’s snout – they’d suddenly form a wedge and charge through enemy lines, opening them up. The warriors could then fight one on one, using their ferocity and intimidation to their advantage.
A lack of care for the rules
For the British isles and French soldiers, there were unwritten rules of battle. A respect for holy sites and holy men, arranging battle times and sites in advance, being honourable. The Vikings couldn’t give two shits about honour and customs.
If they could deceive their way to victory, if slaughtering the clergy brought them more riches, if they could surprise, disorientate and unbalance the enemy through any method, they would do it. This made many of the tactics of the European armies less effective than they would have been against like minded armies.
A ray of hope
Despite their reputation, if you were prepared, you had a chance. In pitched battles, with the odds close to equal, Vikings didn’t win a particularly higher percentage of their battles than expected and suffered some quite significant and resounding defeats.
The problem was, the Vikings were usually better prepared, taking advantage of political turmoil, undefended riches, weak leadership and disorganised forces. They were experts at manipulating any situation.
Be prepared, or die.