This large Sunday game was based on the decisive battle between the Saxons led by Ethalston against a combined force of Scots, Welsh and Irish lead by Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin. Details of the battle come from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the poem ‘Battle of Brunanburh’.
King Ethalston, invaded Scotland and King Constantine sought help from his Irish and Welsh neighbours, which resulted in a combined army fighting the Saxon invaders at an unknown location, but it is thought to be near modern day Merseyside.
Because there is much speculation about the size of the various armies engaged, the course of the battle, and the influence of the Saxon victory on British history, there is plenty of scope for ‘artistic license when re-creating the battle on the wargames table.
The Saxon army was given about 25% more troops than the combined allied armies, but the Picts and Welsh were given a few units of horsemen and chariots, which added greater mobility and interest to the game.
The Picts, Welsh and Irish Viking armies deployed first. The Welsh infantry units were deployed on the right wing behind a line of wooden stakes. The Picts were in the centre and the Irish Viking on the left opposite a small river. This small river bent round at 90 degrees towards the Saxon deployment zone which enabled the Saxons to deploy astride the river and occupy both banks. With so many units to deploy the Saxon army had little choice but to ‘deploy in depth.’ The allied army was under the control of Dave and Tony. The Saxon army was commanded by Chris, Mark and me. I guess I played the role of Ethalston as I was in control of the Saxon centre.
After a quick consultation the Saxon commanders decided on a general advance to establish a shield wall approximately two thirds of the way across the table. This would give us the depth required to move our greater numbers from left to right and visa versa, to respond to events as required, behind our advanced shield wall.
The allied commanders did not initially respond to our advance , but once our forward shield wall was established, the Picts and Welsh concentrated their cavalry and chariots towards their centre. In response we brought forward our bow armed Saxon units, which resulted in a missile engagement in the centre and left. In preparation for an expected attack the best of the Saxon units; housecarls, select fyrd and most of the commanders were moved to the frontal shield wall. In hindsight, this was perhaps not the best strategy as this left the massed hordes of greater fyrd without enough commanders, and therefore insufficient command and control to respond to unfolding events.
Dave’s Irish Vikings assaulted Chris’s Saxon units defending either side of the small river. At the same time the Picts in the centre attacked the shield wall. The hand-to-hand combat was fast and furious and many units from both sides hit the casualty tray. On our far left, Mark launched an assault on the Welsh through and into a small area of woodland. The dice Gods were more than a little unfair to him and the attack was bounced back with many disrupted units. The few units of Welsh cavalry earned their spurs as they moved across to further frustrate the Saxon assault.
Despite the ongoing carnage in the centre between Picts and the Saxons, neither side could gain an advantage and there was a general ‘thinning’ of the lines as casualties mounted and more and more units were removed from play. As a response to this Chris started to pull back his units across the small river with the aim of concentrating our greater Saxon numbers towards the centre of the table. The massed hordes of Saxons looked very impressive when compared with the numbers of Irish Viking units advancing against them to the right of our centre. However, the Viking berserkers charged from their home units and slammed into the Saxon shield wall. This gained time for more Irish units and commanders to join the fray at key points, and much to Chris and my frustration, the Saxon shield wall buckled and broke. We tried to re-construct our shield wall in our next tactical movement phase, but we had so many command and control problems associated with our hordes of greater fyrd and disrupted units that all we could do is await the next Viking onslaught!
On the Saxon left, Mark’s Saxons were also having a hard time and gaps began to appear at various points which forced units from our left to pull back towards the Saxon centre – the only part of the Saxon line still holding its ground. Mark had by this stage of the game had suffered the wrath of the combat dice on too many occasions! On the Saxon left of centre a failed attempt to push the Irish Vikings out of a small area of woodland heralded the start of a general collapse of the Saxon army. The multitudes of Saxon greater fyrd still looked impressive on the table, but in reality, more than half of the Saxon Housecarls, select fyrd and generals had already been lost. The Irish, Picts and Welsh started to steadily advance along the entire width of the table against diminishing Saxon resistance and Mark , Chris and myself resigned ourselves to heavy defeat.
The sheer size of the deployed Saxon army in this Brunanbruh game gave the Saxon commanders, including myself, the feeling that you could swamp the opposition by sheer weight of numbers. This presumably was how the Saxons achieved the historical victory. However, the combined allied Irish Viking, Picts and Welsh armies, despite their smaller numbers, had greater mobility and variety of troop types which Tony and Dave used to very good effect. Dave’s Vikings broke the Saxon shield wall and the Saxon response to this was ineffective. Too many Saxon generals were subsequently committed and lost in combat. As a consequence of this, the Saxons were unable to bring the massed hordes of Saxon Greater Fyrd into the fight when and where they were needed.