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In a setting I was thinking of, most of humanity lives in complex tunnel and cave systems, in sprawling masses of underground cities. To the scope of this question, let's assume their technology is comparable to the middle ages in europe. Steel is available, plate armor is available.

Most battles in this setting are fought in narrow tunnels (from 2 to 5 men wide), were armies push one against each other until one collapses.

In this hellish scenario, City X decides to use its masses of slaves in war. Those slaves would be mostly conscripted against their will (as it often is with slavery) and could serve as metaphorical cannon fodder.

The queen of city X thinks that this would be a major advantage, since the other city-states don't have similar resources of cheap, untrained muscle to flush on the war effort. Her strategy thus far is using the slave soldiers in risky engagements, and to wear out her enemies, saving the regular, well trained troops for important battles.

A peculiar style of armor is designed for the slave forces. Of course, the first thought is to send them unarmored, for cheapness sake. Yet, this is somewhat unpractical; with so little space in the tunnels, if the first rows of slaves die easily from enemy fire, the corpses can greatly slow the subsequent rows.

So, the slaves are given a one-sided armor, that covers the front part of the body only. The armor could be made of anything - metal is common in this setting, so i'm thinking plates held by leather straps over the body. The point being their back would be completely exposed, and their flanks would have minimum protection.

This would, ideally, make the slave armies less inclined to flee, since it would turn their exposed backs at the enemy. Also, a lot of emphasis could be put on discipline. It would be trivial for the slavers to hurt and punish the slave soldiers when standing behind them.

Would this intendedly flawed armor work?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 11 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ you mean an armor like hastati right ? ancient-battles.com/images/hastatiglobal.jpg also can the unit dig or enlarge the tunnel ? $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jul 11 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ putting expensive armor on cannon fodder kinda defeats the purpose of using cannon fodder. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 11 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ My first thought: slaves free themselves by forming circles facing outward. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 12 at 3:51
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As noted in this answer, a shield wall will be more effective and cheaper. In undergrouond caves you might need to modify both the formation and the shield size, but you don't need to provide 100% protection in the scenario you're describing. Your commander doesn't mind if some slaves get injured or killed so long as the wall holds. Long spears are problematic in tight quarters, but shorter spears can still be used from the second rank.

But you didn't ask for alternatives; you asked if your half-armor works. I'm going to say sort of. A breastplate mainly protects the front, but it has to be fitted to the wearer somewhat or the weight (at least for metal) could be unbalancing. Greaves mainly protect the front and sides of the legs. I don't think you can do much to protect faces without also protecting skulls, so assume your slaves are going into combat bare-headed.

The problem with this approach is that this type of armor has to be somewhat fitted to the wearer, and it doesn't sound like your ruler wants to invest either the resources or the time to make that happen. One reason gambesons and chainmail shirts were popular is that they're relatively easy -- but they protect front, back, and sides, so your ruler won't like them.

One option might be to use chainmail shirts, but don't rivet or weld the rings in the back. You still get the weight distribution that allows it to be worn easily, and you get more flexibility in who can wear what (you'll have a few size categories but won't need as much personalization), but you both make it more vulnerable from the back and you save on production costs. Instead of firmly joining the ends of the rings, just butt them up against each other -- it's enough for the rings to hold, but a blade to the back will ruin the wearer's day. You might also be able to skimp on the back rings some -- lighter gauge and/or bigger. One advantage of this approach is that it won't immediately be obvious to opponents that the armor has a major vulnerability, so they're less likely to be able to take advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ Instead of chainmail, consider brigandine or scale armor for this effect, you can sew the scales into your undercoat in just the places you mean to protect. The shirt can use corset like lacing in the back to accommodate a variety of body types with just a few standard sizes. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 15 at 14:15
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the slave mass can be effective offense if they can enlarge or dig new tunnel since the slave advantage is their mass, otherwise dealing with veteran will increase the dead body to choke or block the tunnel (effective for defense at least) but pretty much a waste.

since the battle happen in narrow tunnel using gas or heat can also spread to friend unit so i dont think its really that effective unless it have open surface or have wind in there.

for armor it remind me of early rome hastati, but do you mean something resembling frontside full plate armor? enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ It wouldn't ever come to full plate frontside (after all, they wouldn't want to waste it on slaves). I was thinking of classic armors too. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica. Jul 11 at 12:53
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You would think a shield wall would be more practical. The guy in front of you dies, pick up his section of the shield and keep pushing the wall. The real soldiers stand farther back and stab the enemy with spears, if any slaves refuse to push the wall, they get the same treatment with the spears. Corpses are removed, and since they have no armor it is easier to lift them over head and pass them to the cart in the back.

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    $\begingroup$ This military doctrine has some issues for this environment. Spears longer than a few feet would risk snagging on walls or ceilings while your round a corner, close-lining your front line soldiers, and breaking up your formation. This is why the Greeks and Romans preferred their short swords for urban combat. There is also the issue that shields are likely to be buried under the dead and stood upon making recovering them during a tightly packed fight about as safe and easy as picking up a carpet at a heavy metal concert. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 12 at 19:15
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There is only one vulnerability that I can think of: whips.

A bull-whip, thrown in such a way that it will wrap around the body and strike the side facing away from the thrower, can be a serious weapon. When a whip wraps, all the linear momentum (mass x velocity) is transferred into angular momentum (mass x velocity x radius) and the resulting hit has much more force than it would have if it had struck the side of the body facing the thrower. It would be non-lethal, but if the whip were heavy enough, it would certainly be enough to painfully knock the person forward, exposing their vulnerable back. A soldier with a whip in one hand and a knife in the other could certainly rack up a body count.

So, if I were ruling the opposing army, I would supply my soldiers with steel-tipped bull-whips and train them to throw. They would also have to be fairly coordinated, since throwing a whip requires some space and it would be quite crowded the tunnels. Perhaps they would work in pairs; a thrower who knocks them down and a stabber who stays low, out of the way of the whip, and knows exactly where to stab to hit a kidney.

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    $\begingroup$ Whips require a lot of room to work with. If your front line is one guy with enough room to swing a whip, and they have 2-4 traditionally armed men fighting shoulder to shoulder, you're odds are not looking very good at all. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 12 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ I'd hate to stand back in the support line of your army when those whips come back for the wind up. Safety goggles would be invaluable! $\endgroup$ – Muuski Jul 12 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ If you stand in a reverse fighters stance, with your dominant hand forward, hold the tail in your off-hand, and throw the whip overhand, like throwing a shot-put, you can do it without endangering the people either behind or to the side of you. But yes, as I said, it would require a high degree of coordination. $\endgroup$ – IAntoniazzi Jul 12 at 20:01
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Lets begin with the armor itself. Not only is front-only infantry armor effective, but it is ideal. Many ancient civilizations preferred this style of armor, even when cost was not an issue.

  1. A soldier can only be combat effective if they are not overburdened. By eliminating back-armor, you cut out half of the armor's weight. This allows you to armor the front-side more heavily, carry a heavier weapon and/or shield, or increase mobility and endurance by just reducing your weight.

  2. Front-only armor works best when battle lines are tightly packed, and in caves, you never have to worry about thinning your ranks to cover a full battle line. The more tightly packed you fight, the harder it is for any opponent to get a weapon around to someone's back.

  3. Better temperature control. If you are filling narrow tunnels with armies of warriors, body heat will become just as big of a killer as any blade. More exposed surfaces will help you keep cool and stay combat effective while your fully armed opponents pass out from hyperthermia.

Then there is the issue of your use of slave armies. As you see at the Battle of Thermopylae, a few trained men in a tight passage can kill a LOT of slave soldiers. In this battle, the 300 Spartans that formed the Greek front-line, inflicted most of the 20,000 Persian casualties, because the battlefield was narrow enough they could form an uninterrupted elite battle line which was not common in ancient warfare.

A trained fighter can predict, then parry/block pretty much every hit the untrained fighter can deliver as long as he only needs to focus on one enemy at a time. They also know all the fiens, techniques, and combos that get untrained men to expose themselves for an easy kill. When training is different enough, killing becomes a very mechanical set of repeatable actions.

The likely outcome here is that your thousands of slaves will come face to face with 50-100 of your enemy's best soldiers supported by a generous supply chain and auxiliary troops trained to process the enemies who surrender. At any given time, a handful of those elite warriors will be killing your slaves and letting the bodies pile up until they choke off the passage, then when the enemy has to stop advancing to clear some of the dead, the elites will pull back their front line to rest while the previous second line (now warmed up but not exhausted from supporting the previous front line) move in to take their place.

The small "army" will be easy to feed and supply with fresh weapon, good food and drinks, and nice beds to sleep in as they rotate out. In contrast, your slaves will have to wait, days if not weeks to reach the front line. Getting food and supplies to the front will be difficult in such narrow passages; so, as they prepare to fight they will be getting hungry, thirsty, and tired as they see a constant line of dead bodies being brought back past them. After the first few days, their moral will be so low that they will be doing everything in their power to find a way to surrender before being pushed forward to their deaths.

Eventually, your front-line will turn into more of an immigration checkpoint where slaves will just hand over their weapons, and let your enemies put them in chains to be brought back as their slaves. Your queen will be forced to order a retreat to prevent all of her remaining slaves from defecting.

In all likelihood, conscript armies will quickly fall out-of-fashion and battlefields will be determined by small bands of nobility and men-at-arms who are trained from youth to be elite warriors. When conscripts are used, they will only be brought to the front when things open up into bigger chambers where their numbers might actually count for something.

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The only thing that will stop this slaves from rebelion is promise of freedom for survivors (for sure evil ruler can simply execute them after war). Flawed armor becomes unflawed when they turn around.

Nevertheless I have solution: arm regular forces with gas masks and slaves with none. Rebelion? Throw gas. Question is how hard it is to get much of gas in medival tech world and what stops regular forces from using gas against enemy (well, they can be prepared for such case, but that will allow enemy to remove slaves with gas).

P.S. I felt uncomfortable writing down that plan...

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  • $\begingroup$ It must be something cruel, so feeling umcomfortable is a good sign. Yet I'd like to research how/if they could produce and contain gas effectively with medieval tech. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica. Jul 11 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Liquid wiki has examples of some reactions that provide chlorine as outcome. One of them (Scheele method) include only one mineral and acid known for alchemists. Nevertheless chemistry itself is rather young science and that could be changed in your story or compensated by luck, they are under the ground, lots of minerals there. Storing gas is not a hard trick. I can add that some claim that ancient greeks knew something napalmish, but don't have info about that. $\endgroup$ – Zmitser Japhimic Jul 11 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't that be greek fire? Anyway, I'll check that out. Thanks $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica. Jul 11 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Liquid yep, exactly $\endgroup$ – Zmitser Japhimic Jul 11 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, greek fire. It's not known exactly what it is but it's something with similar-ish properties to napalm since it is VERY flammable and sticks to stuff. It was used mostly for defensive purposes. It's quite unwieldy and it basically requires static launchers for the thing. It was also deployed at sea, though with one ship sailing to the besieging force and setting them aflame. There are records of a hand-held version that was sort of like a pistol/flamethrower. But it was apparently too volatile to be carried around when you'd be attacking somebody else. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jul 11 at 13:52
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I'm a neighbouring city lacking manpower. My enemy has just thrown thousands of unwilling soldier slaves at my city. I welcome them with open arms, promise them their own house or even repatriation to their homeland where possible in exchange for their services.

I watch as my new army with higher morale than they had when they attacked us and better armed and armoured charge towards the same city that sent them.

I assume there is actually some motivation for these slaves not to join the other side like family and friends back in the city that enslaved them because without that they will desert at the first opportunity and any city leader worth their salt will take advantage of this.

As for armour, just give them cheap helmets and maybe some upper body armour to protect the shoulders. They don't need body armour, they're in a tight tunnel and their advantage is their mass. All they need is for the front rank to have some heavy protection of some sort, a frame that can be pushed through the tunnels on sleds or wheels with spikes on the front and perhaps a tube in the middle for something nasty like a flame thrower or heavy crossbow. The slaves behind cram up like in a rugby scrum and push as a solid mass. Perhaps 1-200 in a group.

The sleds or whatever need to be wide enough to allow the frame shield to be pushed over bodies. The shield would also be somewhat pointed in the middle to make it easier to push through obstacles. Flaps at the top of the shield would extend the height of the shield to the top of the tunnel to make it difficult for the enemy to throw projectiles over.

A side note about the front only armour. Typically when an army routed was when it lost the most men as they lost formation and either panicked and drowned in rivers, or were run down by cavalry. Wearing armour didn't matter when you can't see the enemy because you've got your back to them.

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It works, but for a more sinister reason

In the Russian Army in WWII, they had serious problems with logistics. They lacked guns, ammunition, artillery, equipment, basically everything needed to win a war. However, they did have one thing. Numbers. So Stalin came up with what he considered to be a reasonable plan - just keeping throwing conscripts at the heavily armored and equipped Germans until it worked.

Now, the way Russia had these forces willing charge into death was simple - Barrier Troops. These fine folk stood in the back and shot you if you retreated. That was all. So the Russian peasants were faced with an unpleasant choice - charge into fire and possibly get killed by the Germans, or try to escape and definitely get killed by your own side. Thanks to this glorious leadership of Stalin, Russia managed to push back the Germans at Leningrad.

To be fair to Stalin, this was an old Red Army trick that went back to Leon Trotsky used in the glorious revolution of 1918. Which Stalin promptly stole from him, along with Russia, and then had him killed to succeed as the true disciple of Lenin. Yeesh. Russia fights dirty.

So, to cut back to your side, the reason why this is such a great idea, as you yourself mention, is that you have your own men standing behind the slaves with helpful spears prodding them forward and establishing that retreat isn't an option and the only way to survive is to go through the enemy. (You may have to make examples of a few of the units. But that won't hurt your war effort as long as you recover their equipment.) If you want to capitalize on the whole 'human resource' situation, there are a few more tricks you can do, like promising to free slaves that have killed five or more enemy soldiers (which is a good idea, because they're probably better off in your normal soldiers) or have your front line only have heavy weapons and no armor, trying to crack your opponent's formation. If it works - great. If not - small loss.

Flanking is not a problem because of the size of the tunnels - you can't flank a front line if you can only come from one direction.

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  • $\begingroup$ For example: in order to force Minsk liberation in 1944 Barier Troops would have to be comparable to dozens of thousads of man and thousands of tank. And that would only bring them on the level of attacking forces. Are you sure it reasonable use of power? $\endgroup$ – Zmitser Japhimic Jul 11 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ To clarify - 'Barrier Troops' is the name for the army unit that shot deserters. The army itself was called the Red Army. Second clarification - a) I'm slightly being sarcastic when I say 'reasonable' and b) it worked. Eventually. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Jul 11 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ once more. You describe unmotivated mass of people who fights for Stalin only because of fear of execution. To have them fear this Barier Troops those troops need to outpower thrown at enemy mass. What amount of Barier Troops do you imagine required to stop 1, 2, 3 Belarusian and 1 Baltic Fronts from deserting when thrown in one place? And they were thrown. And defeated 4th Army which had about 105k of dudes. Just imagine what power required to force fear in that mass of people. Also, OP was asking for a way to overcome exactly the same problem. $\endgroup$ – Zmitser Japhimic Jul 11 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ZmitserJaphimic OP wasn't, he was asking if it would work, I said yes, citing historic examples. And you are mistaken when it comes to Barrier Troops firepower - they don't need the equivalent firepower as the enemy forces. They just need enough to kill one soldier. True, if everyone deserted they'd be fine. But that kind of unified rebellious spirit isn't going to happen. Proof - it didn't in Russia. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Jul 11 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ it worked in highly motivated army and that would hapen to army of slaves that OP's evil queen would employ? I doubt that. $\endgroup$ – Zmitser Japhimic Jul 11 at 17:54

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