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In my medieval world, a union of five states located on the south shores of a continent much like Europe is a subject of joined invasion by a northern continental empire and marine power coming from a distant southern continent.

The defenders

The five states are well-developed countries with big cities, strong army and navy, good roads and many navigable rivers. They are all located around the coast of an inner sea roughly the size of the Black Sea and the land area of the states is comparable with the size of the countries on the Balkans or Central Europe (Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Czech Republic and etc) or Ireland if you're not familiar with the geography of Central and Eastern Europe. The inner sea is connected with the ocean by a narrow strait filled with small and medium-sized islands (like the Greek islands). The borders of the five states are well defined by long mountain ranges and rivers but there are also some rivers and mountains which crosses the borders and splits some of the states into different provinces just like the way Balkan mountains splits Bulgaria and Danube river splits Hungary. All five states have their own rulers but in case of war or another emergency the states respond as a single entity and combine their armies and resources to handle the threat. The five states have central governments and are ruled in the manner of ancient Rome, with fair taxes and laws, local governors, public spendings etc. Generally, the people are happy with their rulers and the quality of life is better compared to neighboring countries.

I'm trying to figure out a scenario in which the invading army manages to seize control over most of the strongholds around the river banks and the seashore and by doing so preventing the five states to communicate and organize and forcing them to fight separated. Controlling the mountain passes is also a requirement but it can be achieved later in the war.

The northern continental empire

Some of the border rivers spring from the mountains in the north, deep into the territory of the invading northern country. Maybe they'll use their river fleet to quickly move troops south and besiege the cities near the banks. Of course, there are river chains that protect the border but the invaders may find a way to bypass it (it will be nice if you find quick a way of doing so). After reaching the city walls either with ships or on foot after landing the attackers will use some new technology provided by their foreign ally to attack the walls or maybe they will use the element of surprise. Is it possible to take control over ten to twenty fortified cities in just a few days (as few as possible) and what technology or tactics can be used?

The southern marine empire

The second invading force will use its mighty fleet to raid the coastal cities around the inner sea. The first obstacle is the heavily guarded strait with three main strongholds called Eyes. The East Eye and the West Eye are located on the edges of peninsulas and there are trading cities with the same name nearby while the Middle Eye is placed on an island in the middle of the strait and it is just a military base without a major settlement nearby. Each of the eyes is managed by different state (food, salaries, repairments etc.) but the commander of the Middle Eye is the one in charge who commands the troops. The three fortresses act as naval bases and guard the passes around the islands. Their main purpose is to prevent pirates from entering the inner sea and plundering the trade roads but the number of ships stationed there is big enough to repel an invading fleet. I'm thinking about a surprise attack on the harbors while all the ships or at least a large number of them are inside. The defenders will be unable to react and the Eyes will be captured. Maybe during the night most of the ships are in the harbors or there is a storm approaching or there was a storm already and the ships needed repairing. I'll be glad if you find a solution. Is any of these a possible scenario? Another option is to ambush the ships somehow and sink them in a naval battle.

Then after securing the strait the invaders will enter the inner sea and attack the largest ports. These ports are also guarded by fleets but relatively small in size because the defense of the strait is considered impregnable. The foreigners don't have to hurry and it will be enough to perform a naval blockade. Of course, they will prioritize taking some of the cities because they will use the ports as bases to deploy the army and proceed inland but for most of the cities, there is no need to attempt breaching the walls. It will be even better if there is a way to burn the defending ships while still in the harbor or at least to drive them into a single naval battle to destroy them all at once. If there are no ships to transport troops from one place to another it doesn't matter who controls the coastal cities.

Technology level

The technology level is similar to that of Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages. The Southern empire may have some advanced technologies but not something too advanced. Better navigation, stronger ships or even some kind of explosives but weak and used on rare occasions are all fine. It should not be something the defenders can't understand and replicate over time.

So, let's summarize. A confederation of five states is invaded by two empires. The first goal is to cut off the states and prevent them from helping each other. How could this be achieved?

If more details are required I'll provide them with comments.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do the invaders have spies and agents among the five states? The agents can work out discord among the defending states, so that defenders would have an impression that the invasion is actually invited by their neighbors trying to reshape the political map. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 6 '18 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ In the royal palaces, there might be spies disguised as ambassadors from the southern empire. Very little is known about their home and most of the kings will be happy or even proud to have people from such a strange and mysterious country in their royal court. The opinion of some of them might even be considered valuable by the rulers. During the first days of the war, the country of origin of the invading fleet will be unknown and these spies can try to convince the kings whatever they want. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ The northern empire on the other side can't use embassadors as spies because of the centuries of regular conflicts with the five states. They will never trust each other. But there is a possibility someone high in the hierarchy who acts as a spy. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Can you post a map? $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 8 '18 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ It won't be hard. Communication was always a problem as far as Empires were concerned. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Apr 16 '18 at 2:24
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If you want to prevent effective interaction between allies you have two choices:

  • close all the communication channels
  • make the communication channels extremely noisy

The first option is also the one requiring more effort from your side and is granted to have you constantly on the chasing side, thus it will become less and less sustainable in the long term.

The second option instead is relatively low effort, and simply requires that you flood the two allies with counterfeited messages and information, spreading confusion and mistrust.

Something similar was attempted by Nazi Germany by forging UK notes, with Operation Bernhard

Operation Bernhard was an exercise by Nazi Germany to forge British bank notes. The initial plan was to drop the notes over Britain to bring about a collapse of the British economy during the Second World War.

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  • $\begingroup$ How can the invaders close these communication channels without advancing further inside enemy territory? Won't they need bases near the rivers and main roads to prevent ships and riders to deliver the messages? And about making the channels noisy? How is this possible? The messages are probably stamped with special seals. They will need replicas of these seals, and the messengers should speak the language without dialect, should wear local clothes etc. Isn't this too dangerous and risky? The fraud will be revealed quickly and the messengers will be killed. Did I understand you correctly? $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 12:55
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Consider how politics were conducted in the relevant period (~400 AD to ~1000 AD): Lots of scheming for succession. Alliances often cemented for a generation by arranged marriages. Plenty of intrigue and spies and bribery and shifting allegiances. Military actions generally small and seasonal in (relatively poor, backward) Europe, larger with standing armies in the wealthier, advanced Asian empires.

This leads to several possible ways for two larger empires to conquer the groups of smaller states. Note that only a few involve the most expensive option of direct military conquest (armies of conquest were usually paid out of the Emperor's personal funds. Separate State treasuries funded by taxation were not common yet.). A successful campaign will involve many of these lines of effort working together.

  • Marriage. Turn an enemy into an ally by marriage. No further conquest needed for a generation.
  • Succession. Harbor the sore losers of previous succession fights, quietly help them prepare their army of reconquest. The ensuing civil war will paralyze the minor country. And who knows? You might win.
  • Bribery. Put your spies and agents in as many trusted positions within the small countries as possible. Use them to mislead, misdirect, and hinder their efforts. Get the small Kings to exhaust their treasuries on the wrong threat.
  • Poison Pen. Use spies and false/misdelivered/undelivered messages to seed distrust among the small countries.
  • Succession #2. Quietly assassinate most of the good, strong candidates, and foment a war of succession among the remainder...which you can help end any way you wish.
  • Diplomacy. Foment a conflict between two countries, leaving both weaker and willing to accept your influence.
  • Misdirection. Feint at one country that will actually be invaded by the other empire, drawing their defenders out of position.
  • Seasons. Attack at an unexpected time when the small countries' part-time soldiers are all at work on their farms.

So many possibilities....

Remember that military conquest was (and still is) very, very expensive, but influence or control over a country can be cheap and often just as effective. Many Emperors were reluctant to engage in wars of conquest: If the Emperor stayed home to run the Empire, a successful General might get funny ideas. If the Emperor supervised the big army, he might return to find a usurper on his throne.

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  • $\begingroup$ The northern empire wants to gain access to the sea they've lost several centuries ago. It's not about money and power. It's a national pride. The empire will always remain hostile and this hostility is the glue that keeps the union together. The common people will never let the eternal enemy influence state's affairs but this could be hidden from the public either through corrupt administration or stupid king. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ The southern empire is invading the continent because of a prophecy that was written thousands of years ago. The whole society is devoted to the cause. People are joining the army voluntarily and the rich are using their wealth to pay for the fleet, armor, horses and other necessities. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ There must be a massive war campaign but I can use some of your suggestions to weaken the five states and make them suitable for invasion. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 18:26
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You can try intrigue and scheming at each kingdoms court

Disrupt the flow of information between the two nations or pollute it with false information

Attack all of them at the same time and force them to go on the defensive. Make the attacks vicious enough that none of them want to 'take a bullet for the team'. e.g. raiding, murder, killing off nobles when caught, ...

Have the sea invaders work closely together with the land invaders. I think taking control of those three eyes is necessary to rule the sea. Think about possible sabotage as well. The island might not be open to that route but the two other eyes may. How big is the strait? Is it viable for the whole invasion fleet to attack one eye first and win the battle before the others notice and send reinforcements?

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  • $\begingroup$ The strait is roughly the distance between Athens and Izmir (south Aegean sea). Around 250-300 km. I think it could be possible to capture one of the eyes without the rest noticing if the assault is quick enough and if the attackers manage to block all ships from leaving the bay. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ The resources of the invading force are vast but not limitless. They cannot fight all five states at once but yet they can attempt several raids and confuse the states. Without knowing the exact number of troops participating in these attacks each ruler will think that his country is the one facing the main invading army and will insist support from the others instead of providing such. This will prevent them from helping each other for a while until they realize what is actually happening. It's a good idea. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ You might try taking border outposts in each state and then send false documents in each state about an attacking army, but only attack one. It will work the first time probably. For the fleet, I would attack the outer eyes first, one by one, with sabotage and then take on the middle eye. Perhaps even luring part of their fleet away first by forged documents. $\endgroup$ – Robin Apr 6 '18 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ To deliver these documents the fake messengers should act like locals. Otherwise, they will be revealed quickly either by their dialect or by their clothes. It will be hard to persuade the locals to help the invaders especially the guards and the real messengers who are loyal to their country but it's not impossible. $\endgroup$ – Gonrah Apr 6 '18 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Soldiers came from all walks of life, I think it would be doable to find a commoner that is in high need of something and bribe them. even official soldiers could be easily bribed. Especially after you took the outpost. Threaten to kill the others, family, loved ones and so on. Border outposts are often not the kind of outpost soldiers want to get stationed as well and it could be possible that those who are stationed there got that as a sort of reprimand. I think you can find less loyal soldiers in a harsh mountain territory outpost. $\endgroup$ – Robin Apr 6 '18 at 13:04

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