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I'm imagining a low-tech medieval fantasy world where an attack at dawn such that the defenders are forced to look into the rising sun conveys a huge advantage. The effect on my fantasy humanoids would be many orders of magnitude greater than anything humans experience. The armies are mostly wooden shield and spear equipped levies and normally a shield wall puts attackers at a disadvantage. On open ground at dawn, however, sun-blinded defenders, could have their line broken easily by a charge and face disorganization and defeat by a much smaller force. I'm hoping this will lead to interesting tactical decisions where terrain that defends against an east-to-west attacks becomes invaluable and forces are constantly maneuvering and taking risks to try to get the sun on their side.

My question is this, is there a portable tactic, or inexpensive tool that would allow defenders to avoid being blinded by the rising sun?

  • The extremely vulnerable period lasts about 1 hour at dawn and dusk, however these humanoids lack night vision, so presumably a dusk attack is not as advantageous.
  • Medieval Oakley sunglasses are out due to expense.

  • Other more expensive weapons and skilled soldiers like cavalry, archers, or heavy infantry are plausible only as small supplements to mostly non-professional armies

  • Fabian strategies are allowed, but preserving villages and farmland is preferred
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    $\begingroup$ "At the dawn of the third day, look East..." $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai May 13 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Rather than avoid being blinded by the sun, could they not mitigate it by using reflective objects to dazzle the attackers who have the sun to their backs? $\endgroup$ – suchafunkymonkey May 13 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Am I correctly understanding that the question is basically: "My fantasy race is extremely susceptible to sun-glare. What kind of defensive preparations would they use to minimize their vulnerability?" $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat May 13 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Nyakouai I believe that's "Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East." $\endgroup$ – Ash May 13 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ @lazarusL They don't need to be mirrors as you know them today, they only need to be highly polished objects. Mirrors in various forms have been around for a long time. $\endgroup$ – suchafunkymonkey May 13 at 14:25

11 Answers 11

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You don't need high tech, or even glass, for light-reduction "glasses".

In real life, there are places where bright light is a problem - in snowfields in the north. People find ways to cope.

enter image description here

(Picture from a webpage about Inuits)

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    $\begingroup$ At first this seems like a good answer, because they're light-reduction glasses, right? But they only reduce the total amount of light entering the eyes, they don't change the intensity of the light that goes in through the slits. Works well when the problem is that all the snow all around you is reflecting the sunlight, but doesn't help at all with looking towards the sun. Also restricts your peripheral vision. $\endgroup$ – Jared K May 13 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for simple answer But the picture is a bit misleading for OP's purpose. A slit would be a bad choice because it limits you vision to much but the same concept but only with a lot of small holes would do the trick just fine. $\endgroup$ – GittingGud May 14 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ There is something I saw used in the movie Himalaya. They use an animal's hair (probably yak) that is black and just put it in front of their eyes. It's loose enough to let some light through, like an extra layer of eye lashes if you want. $\endgroup$ – Guimoute May 15 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredK - Wrong on both counts. As long as the vertical slit width is less than the diameter of the iris, peak intensity will be reduced. Likewise, for the illustrated "glasses", the long horizontal extent will proved excellent horizontal peripheral vision. Vertical extent is limited, but this is not likely a problem for the situation described. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast May 15 at 21:28
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I imagine that army tactics in this world would evolve such that commanders would not put their troops in that situation in the first place - i.e. if they are expecting an attack in the open field from the direction of the rising sun, they have already made a gross tactical blunder. They would choose their time/place of battle such that this simply isn't an issue (early morning twilight, perhaps, or a civilized post-lunch melee).

Even attacking troops may want to avoid dawn, as any cavalry units or routed ground forces may also end up facing into the sun, running straight into their own comrades.

That aside:

  • Some kind of muslin or thin material on the inside of helmets (for full helms) or as a veil on the outside (for half helms) may suffice. These might not cope in the wind or the heat of battle though.
  • Helmets with very wide brims (might work as long as you don't have to look uphill)
  • Eye shadow to reduce reflected glare
  • Portable sun shades - either on a per-solider basis, or perhaps a few large shades held by specialist units in the army (like a standard-bearer)
  • There would be a strong military incentive to invent some kind of dark glasses, so a rudimentary form of coloured or tinted glass may be employed, either as part of a visor or as spectacles. Small, simple cuts of glass would likely not be that expensive to manufacture.
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    $\begingroup$ This is the right answer. People that susceptible to sun-blindness would have that as a major consideration in where and how the places they'd be defending would be built. There just wouldn't BE open fields to the east and west. ALSO: With regard to the veils and eye shadow, techniques like that have been used in Africa and the Middle east for a couple thousand years at least. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat May 13 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Helmets with horizontal slits in the visors would be very helpful, as well as being good armour. A little brim over the slits would help further. $\endgroup$ – Chris H May 13 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Snow goggles have been in use by polar peoples for ages and would work in this situations en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_goggles $\endgroup$ – Borgh May 15 at 12:41
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Give them a taste of their own medicine!

Of course it is not the most proper answer to the OP, but it could be an interesting countermeasure.

Attacked soldiers have a mirror (or a patch of very shiny metal) embedded on their helm, just above the forebrow and/or in their shield. By adequately shaping the mirror, it would reflect the light from the low sun toward the enemies, effectively blinding them.

  • The mirror would create a bright spot in front of the soldier: if they keep the lines, the enemy would run against a blinding line of light. This tactic would of course be less effective if the defending soldiers had to run against the enemy or it they can't hold the lines (for instance if the enemy attacks covered by a rain of arrows).
  • For a surprise effect, the soldiers could receive the instruction to cover the mirrors with a blanket and uncover it only when the enemy is charging against them.
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    $\begingroup$ Note that this would not necessarily be limited to the first and last hours of the day. Using mirrors, it would be possible to use this tactic at most times when the sun is shining. $\endgroup$ – Makyen May 13 at 22:21
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For a technological solution, a brimmed helmet such as a morion could be tilted to block the sun while still allowing good visibility of your opponents.

enter image description here

However, if you're caught off guard and forced to come up with a tactical solution to this problem, you could split and roll the line. Let the enemy push through the middle of your formation as you try to hold the flanks. This will put you at a slight disadvantage because it would mean if one side of your army starts to fall, it could not be reinforced from the other side, but it would get the sun out of your eyes eliminating what is probably the greater threat. Plus, if your attacker is in fact is the smaller force, this maneuver could be the precursor to completely surrounding them which would maximize the use of your superior numbers.

enter image description here

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Avoid having open, level ground to the east at dawn

As long as the terrain immediately to your east either blocks the light or impedes your enemy, you're fine.

If you're immediately west of something tall and opaque -- woods, a ridge, a town wall -- it will block the sun until it's higher in the sky. (It may or may not also slow down the enemy.) If your enemy is on top of it, you'll be looking up at them and not at the sun, though you may have a related problem an hour later.

If you're immediately west of a valley, you'll be looking down into it, not into the sun. (And your attackers will be slowed by climbing.)

If you're immediately west of impassible terrain -- water, swamp, thick brush -- then your enemy won't attack that way.

Note that sunglass and substitutes do NOT solve the problem. They prevent eye strain, but they block out the light you need to see as well as the sunlight, so they don't help you see your attackers very much.

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Dig a Trench

The vulnerable area is actually quite small, therefore a 6' deep trench would stop any charge from the vulnerable direction.

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Here's some thoughts

  • Something similar to the Roman marching fort could be useful tactically, simply as a delaying method that puts confrontation off until the sun is well up in the sky. This leaves the defender vulnerable to fast moving auxiliaries when they try to deploy.

  • A simple cloth veil that cuts the sun light down to manageable levels could be put around/over helmets. This reduces the vision of troops and in a melee it can come loose etc...

  • Slit/barred helmets, full face helms with narrow vision slits are often compared to having your head in a bucket, for good reason in my experience. The amount of light that gets in through the visor is extremely limited, such helms need not be made in metal either, a leather helm can be made in the same design. Again there are issues with what one can see when looking out of such a helm.

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For the first hour, the sun is pretty close to the horizon, so if you can block the light just a few yards off the ground in front of you, then you'll be in good shape, right? Also, the place where the sunrise is most dangerous is in an open plain, and I assume you don't have enough time to plant a bunch of tall bushes and trees around your defenses. So you'll likely have some advance notice that enemies are coming near, even if it comes by means of scouts that are set off to the side of the approach area so that they don't get blinded.

Block out the Sun with Smoke

Suppose your east-facing defense has a bunch of catapults geared and ready to pummel the ground 10-50 yards in front of your battle line with powder/smoke bombs, creating a dense smokescreen that would both protect you from the light, and also give you the opportunity to quickly rearrange your troops in preparation for the attack.

The downside is that if you do this more than once, the enemy might expect it. In that case, since neither you nor your enemy can really see one another, and neither of you have been thrown into confusion, the worst case scenario is that you're on level footing with your enemy. In any case, it's easy to imagine generating a very large smokescreen with enough materials, and so this gets the sun out of the picture.

Types of Smoke

Expanding on this idea, you can choose from any number of powders to maximize the effect. You could mix an irritant like cayenne powder with fine flour or cinnamon, which can be caused to explode when enough of it is suspended in the air. You could even follow up with burning wood soaked in onion juice -- it'll produce a lot of smoke, and it would be quite uncomfortable to wade through.

In the worst case scenario, you're downwind of the battlefield. If that happens, or if your enemies are wise to your delicious half-baked smokescreen and try to counter it with water or something, then you can always fall back on regular medieval smoke bombs.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 even with the downside - "neither you nor your enemy can really see one another" - that is at least better than only the enemy being able to see the defenders. $\endgroup$ – colmde May 14 at 8:36
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Faulty premise - it gives no advantage

I can only assume the OP has never been awake at dawn. The sunlight is not ever "blinding".

Sunlight as a distraction is useful only in the very small area covered by the sun. Soldiers looking forwards are by definition not looking into the sun, because they're looking towards their opponents and not up into the sky. One possible exception would be if the enemy are landing on a beach, in which case the horizon is lower and glare off the water could be an issue, but otherwise it really doesn't matter.

Of course targeted arrow firing would be affected, since archers do look up. But no army fired arrows at specific targets, unless the targets were very close - they fired en masse, with the target being "put that arrow 200 yards away". Distance mattered, not accuracy, when you're aiming at troops in formation.

When it comes to hand-to-hand fighting, it might be a slight distraction, but barely even that. If you're fighting, you're focused on the opponent. Slight flashes from a rising sun will have no effect. I'm not aware of any historical land battle in which the angle relative to the sun had any effect due to brightness, although of course I'd be happy to be corrected.

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    $\begingroup$ We're told that for the purposes of this question, it IS blinding. "The effect on my fantasy humanoids would be many orders of magnitude greater than anything humans experience" $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt May 14 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ @BenVoigt Then his "fantasy humanoids" would be unable to function in normal daylight. Except he also says they have no night vision either, which has to make us question what kind of sight they do have. Worldbuilding of course doesn't have to involve humans or Earth-type environments, but it does have to make some kind of sense. And if we need to assume something extremely implausible, then there must be extra conditions (e.g. "they all have a light-sensitive autistic syndrome") which would invalidate our answers - or perhaps lead to better answers. Either way, "faulty premise" applies. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 14 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham There is a reason cars have sun visors. Just this morning I had to use it as the sun is already quite strong even when low over the horizon. It is difficult and straining to the eyes to see the traffic without the visor. $\endgroup$ – Dubu May 14 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ We're not told why it's so bad for them, just that it is. So I think it's OK just to accept the premise of the question at face value. $\endgroup$ – colmde May 14 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ @colmde Other people can if they want, sure. My own feeling is that I wouldn't accept the premise at face value in a novel, so I can't do the same here. The OP may then want to consider whether he's writing something which will bear reading. It looks like he's trying to justify a small force beating a bigger force, but isn't prepared to look at more realistic military scenarios which genuinely would be believable. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 14 at 11:31
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Crystal translucency

Quartz is an extremely abundant material, and some forms of quartz crystals are translucent. Perhaps they could be fashioned into a thin strip and attached a helmet visor, or tied in front of one's eyes with a leather strap. With the strong backlight of the sun, enemies would have quite dark shadows and their fuzzy outlines might be enough to attack or dodge.

Helmet shadow bar

One way that might reduce the enemy's advantage somewhat is to attach a horizontal bar or strip in front of the soldier's forehead that can be lined up with the sun by tilting one's head. It might take some skill to use but the soldier would be able to turn their eyes left, right, above or below, and to some degree rotate their head.

(The bar cannot be vertical because its shadow could only cover one eye at a time.)

When it is hard to maintain head tilt, for instance when dodging something or dashing forwards, the soldier could look at the ground or close their eyes. With your eyes closed it is possible (with some skill) to tell when the bar is in the right place and open your eyes again.

It is clearly not a great solution, but I think it would be better than nothing.

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Since you have middle-ages technology, your humans likely have cheesecloth or burlap. Simply wrapping this around their eyes in a thin layer would allow them to see, but still block out the sun. Halloween costumes do this when they want to hide the wearer's eyes, with the added effect of acting as light-blockers. Since you don't need that much visibility up-close (it actually becomes a hassle in real fights), this is good for front-lines soldiers, with the added bonus of acting as a sweatband and preventing sweat from stinging their eyes.

Adding on to @Artelius's answer, instead or the normal white crystal quartz, you could use Smoky Quartz to form a kind of sunglasses. These are better for commanders and archers, which depend on fine vision control for their duties, which also supports these positions being rarer.

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