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I am working out a situation where an army is invading a heavily wooded land, two large units of regular footmen with sword and shield and supporting archers, against a force almost exclusively of archers.

These archers though are positioned in tall, thickly wooded trees, too tall to reach with ground-based archers (think those massive California Redwoods from Star Wars). The archers are also notable for their skills in this world.

Tactical errors notwithstanding, as there's to be tragic blunders in my scenario, I remain curious if I have my thoughts right about this.

How would such a force tackle the problem outlined above?

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    $\begingroup$ "Two large units of regular footmen with sword and shield": there was no such thing in the Middle Ages, neither in Western Europe nor anywhere else. The one and only army which fielded large units of infantry armed primarily with swords and shields was the Roman army, from about 300 BCE to about 300 CE. (In the Middle Ages, there were small forces armed with swords and shields, for example some marauding Viking bands. But large units, no. They would have been utterly ineffective against any kind of normal medieval force; remember than the Middle Ages is the time of heavy cavalry.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 20 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ Since you gave them shields: "Shields overhead. Keep going. Set every tree with an archer in it alight as you pass it. Vassal, stay here with your element for a couple days and clean up any archers who survive the fire, smoke, and thirst." $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 20 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ I struggle with the idea of efficient long range combat in a dense forest. $\endgroup$ – Erik Oct 20 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ One comment regarding something that has come up in different answers regarding shields: Shields are most likely not effective protection against medieval archers, especially when the arrows are coming from heights where gravity can counter-act velocity drop due to air friction. See this video for a demonstration of how longbow arrows can easily penetrate medieval shields: Lockdown Longbow - Do shields stop arrows? With the penetration shown in that video, an army could not use hand-held shields as effective protection during any sort of march. $\endgroup$ – 2ndQuantized Oct 20 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP (1) The person is using a crossbow that causes the arrows to leave the crossbow at the same velocity as from a longbow. (He mentions this at the beginning of the video.) The behaviour of the arrow will be dominated by the initial velocity, so it is an accurate representation of a longbow for this purpose (up to some small effects, such as oscillation from the archer's paradox). See this video and this one for more details about what he is doing. $\endgroup$ – 2ndQuantized Oct 20 at 18:14
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Medieval problems require medieval solutions: FIRE!

Either set the whole forest on fire, or just the tree where your targets are hiding (fire arrows were a thing already in medieval time).

If the trees burns, you are done.

If the tree or the shrubs on the ground do not burn promptly, they will produce enough smoke to allow your men to reach close to the tree and chop them down.

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    $\begingroup$ Or just have a couple of men with shields protecting the men with axes $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 20 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ Before modern times there were very few problems that you could not solve with fire. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Oct 20 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @TheSquare-CubeLaw Case in point, even the problem of (forest) fires is solved with fire $\endgroup$ – Mark Oct 20 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like setting a forest on fire while trying to march through it is a very bad idea. $\endgroup$ – aleppke Oct 20 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ @aleppke you just have to wait until the fire is out. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Oct 20 at 19:14
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Your enemy has done 90% of the work of setting up a siege for you. Help them finish it.

Many medieval battles were fought as sieges - a well fortified position, a superior force surrounding it, and you starve them out. That's what we've got here.

Short of burning the forest down, or smoking them out, or cutting down the massive trees, just wait them out. Get your archers set up with a line of sight on the base of the trees, sheltered from the sniping enemy with shields (and / or brush), and just wait for them to starve or die of thirst. As they climb down they'll be very exposed and can be easily sniped.

Be sure to have nice cookouts within smelling distance. Pig-on-a-spit will break the soul of an enemy archer whose dying of hunger and thirst as he's been trapped up a tree for 4 days waiting for a shot that he can never take.

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    $\begingroup$ If the archers are in the trees, they might've made walkways, storages and housing. They can also have other weapons that are a staple in these situations, like rocks or simply very heavy branches and if they're smart things like tar. With the high flexibility this would provide it would mean little parts of the woods are safe. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Oct 20 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Water is still going to be a limiting factor. If you're up a tree, you have no access to a well. All the ground force need to do is surround them. And the tree force have no defence against fire. $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 20 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ 'Tree Force'? Has anyone told the US President? $\endgroup$ – smci Oct 20 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham "Water is still going to be a limiting factor." There's a lot of rain the rainforest. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Oct 21 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 That could help, sure. But many places have a "wet season" and a "dry season", and a quick Google suggests Redwood National Park gets most of its rain between November and May. Historically, warfare mostly happened in the dry seasons. Bows with natural fibre strings also aren't useable in the wet, which could be an issue for the OP. $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 21 at 8:06
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Your Archers Have a Bad Time

So my first thought is, "There's no way you could convince archers to do this." Why? Because of three things:

  1. Being up in a tree does nothing for them, archery-wise. You can't take a proper stance, because you're on a tree limb and worried about falling. You can't have massed volley-fire, because the tree branches block LOS and the archers are too dispersed. You COULD ambush people (even in urban fights where we 'expect' the Bad Guy to be in upper-story windows people don't look up. That tendency will only be exacerbated in a world where essentially none of your soldiers routinely think about "upstairs.") But the problem with that is....
  2. You can't decisively destroy the enemy force. The Tutenbourg Forest, where German tribesman slaughtered 3 Roman Legions, is a textbook ancient ambush... that lasted 3 days. Your archers are up trees. You wait for The Perfect Moment. You fire! Loose all the arrows! (probably not at your 12-shots-a-minute max speed because your archers are all up trees) Your accuracy.... isn't great. Because it's bow-and-arrow at armored targets, in the woods, with lots of branches in the way. Plus ancient armor is DESIGNED to stop impacts from above anyway. Still, the enemy is disorganized, maybe some leaders are down, and they quickly fall back out of bowshot. Now what? Your archers clamber down 50ft of tree to chase after them? Not fast they don't! The enemy has plenty of time to reorganize themselves. If they even flee, which if they're smart they won't because...
  3. A guy in a tree is a dead man, one way or the other. There is a Very Good Reason you don't see this in real life beyond the very occasional lone sniper. That's because being in a tree might be great concealment, but the second the enemy knows you're there you're at a HUGE disadvantage. If the enemy sets fire to your tree, then what? Or if he simply keeps a watch on you from a safe* distance. *safe being either out of bowshot or within bow-range but under a pavaise of some sort.
    Once the enemy knows you're there, exposed, on the side of a tree, it's not too terribly difficult to have their own smaller force of archers outflank you. The enemy on the ground has shields, you have a hard-to-move-around-in tree. You get shot. you die. Or they go around you, you starve to death, and die.

It's point 3 that really toasts this plan. A small ambush of 10ish guys up trees to kill 10 other guys? MAYBE that works out. But armies? You want me, Joe Archer, to stay in a tree, where I can't run away if the plan goes awry, and shoot arrows? Of which I have.... how many? Not enough to hold my position if THEIR archers kill my 6 buddies. There's 6,000 enemies. What if a larger-than-average force comes at my position? I can't fall back, I can't kill them all, I probably can't even surrender fast enough. No sir, ain't doing it!

What you COULD Accomplish

So how do I fight an army of mostly-infantry with a force of archers in a woodlands environment? Simple. I DON'T. Not a smack-down drag-out fight anyway. Can't meet them in a pitched battle, arrowstorms don't work in woods, and without a line of infantry to support me I can't hold a position. So I send half the archers home, they're just mouths to feed and medieval logistics are murderous. Instead I harass their foraging parties, kill their scouts, have 6 guys fire 2 arrows each at the head of their column then have them meld back into the woods, just for another 6 guys to do the exact same thing 10 minutes later. Always always ALWAYS have a fallback position. Have other archers kill or drive away all the game in the area near where they're traveling, then have yet more archers kill the oxen pulling their supply wagons. Find a couple axes? Great! Chop down trees to slow their passage. Which means it takes yet more supplies for them to traverse said woods. The enemy starves, gives up, and goes home. Or starves, stays put, and is slowly attrited away to nothing.

A Note on Arrows A consideration when thinking of medieval archery is penetration of your arrows. It's not like Total War where your maximum range is maximum deadliness and the only difference is accuracy. The force of an arrow drops off DRAMATICALLY with distance. To the point where, if your bow can shoot an arrow 100 meters (totally arbitrary number) You're only really dangerous to a man at 50 meters (any further away and a quilted jerkin is likely to stop your arrow) and it's only at 20ish meters that your arrows are accurate and powerful enough to do things like "kill a guy in mail with a shield and a helmet" reliably. Even shooting downwards distance dramatically lowers punch. For more, see Armor punching myths

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  • $\begingroup$ "Not enough to hold my position if THEIR archers kill my 6 buddies." Their archers can't kill your buddies; the trees are too tall for their arrows to reach that high. This is stated in the original question. Also, the archers can probably climb from tree to tree without ever returning to the ground. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Oct 21 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 "Also, the archers can probably climb from tree to tree without ever returning to the ground" - quotation needed. OP never said anything about tree roads and the trees in Star wars are well spaced between each other. $\endgroup$ – Echox Oct 21 at 15:09
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You said 2 large units of foot soldiers supported by archers. Your big problem will be retaining cohesiveness of any force entering a large/densely spaced forest.

A large mass of amour wearing footmen will not be able to remain in formation as they advance through the trees. Neither will their supporting archers (or indeed their baggage train).

If your opposing forces are;

a) expert archers/soldiers b) familiar with/at home in the terrain and can exploit it to their advantage c) pre-positioned along their enemies line of advance

Then they don't really even need to be positioned in the trees (or at least not all of them). This is especially the case if they have prepared the ground in advance by cutting down and bushes and small trees etc and piling them in pre-selected barriers through the forest, digging ditches and using smoke to confuse the enemy.

Assuming it is a large forest then unless they are really well drilled troops formation, command and control will fall apart fairly quickly. And that means you can use hit and run tactics to force them to withdraw.

Footnote: this strategy would leave the archers 'victorious' only in the sense that you can force the other side to withdraw after taking casualties. If their objective was to capture the forest and/or defeat your archers, they lose, this time.

What it doesn't do is eliminate the enemy force as a threat. At best you get a temporary stalemate (they can't get 'in' but you cant get 'out') pending further tactical or strategic developments by one side or the other.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think what this world really needs is a large mass of amour. $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 20 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ This is fairly consistent with Rome's experience of fighting in Germania. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Oct 20 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on who selects the battle ground. Generally if on the offensive, Rome planned its military campaigns well in advance with a view to fighting its battles at locations of its choosing. For the most part in Germania this was in and round settled areas where there was more open ground and their heavy infantry had the advantage. The one time a large Roman force got caught on the hop in close terrain (Teutoburg Forest) it didn't go well for them. $\endgroup$ – Mon Oct 20 at 22:36
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I'm curious what on Earth are those archers perched in very tall trees supposed to do? They cannot possibly be effective against "two large [infantry] units". Two large infantry units very stronly imply that they are marching on a wide road, or at least through large clearings; there is no way for two large infantry units to march through a forest -- they would lose unit cohesion, they would lose their way, they would stretch for miles and miles. No mentally competent commander would even think for a second of marching two large infantry units through a forest.

Which means that the archers are perched on their very tall trees on the sides of the road. And they are shooting downwards at a steep angle towards small targets. The infantry will simply raise their shields and march on, ignoring the foolish archers placed in an ineffective position by their foolish commanders. There is nothing preventing the invading force from simply marching on under their shields.

Medieval archers were effective when shooting what we would call indirect fire into the massed enemy force. That was the entire idea of medieval archery: put your archers on some small elevation behind a line of defending infantry, and let them shoot volleys of arrows into the massed enemy who had to come in a mass to try to pierce your infantry line. The enemy could not use their shields to protect themselves from the arrows coming from above on a curve because they had to fight your infantry. All in the open. Archers trying to hit individual soldiers through a forest of trees, no, that doesn't work.

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  • $\begingroup$ You may need to make your archers some shields to use as they walk down this road. Fortunately you are by a forest, and an improvised shield made of branches should be enough to shield them as your army walks by. $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 20 at 15:34
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As others have said, putting archers is trees is not smart. The correct tactics for the defenders would be to let the invaders into the forest then use hit and run ambush tactics against the invaders, starting with their baggage train. The defenders will have no trouble tracking the invaders movements using the tall trees and knowledge of local terrain. Let them into the woods, then kill their scouts, destroy their food, destroy their tents and supplies, and make them afraid to move. The archery skills of the defenders should be used as "snipers" to target anybody who shows any leadership. An invading army is a threat so turn them into a bunch of guys who are cut off from support, hungry, and with nobody in charge to coordinate their movements.

In addition to observation, the best use of the high ground in the trees is to drop the occasional gift on the invader's heads. Bonus points if the gift is filled with burning tree sap.

For the attackers, their best tools are fire and distance. Burn a large swathe through the woods so the defenders have nowhere to hide and cannot get close to the main force without being seen. Then move slow and steady while protecting the flanks.

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What exactly is stopping the attackers from using a testudo formation to protect a few guys with hatchets, who then fell any trees with archers in them?

It seems to me that the archers are trapped. Look up some photos of redwood forests. The trees aren't that close together, so they can't easily climb from one to the next. Sure, the defenders may have built bridges between them, but so what? Every time a tree is felled, any bridges connected to it will fall as well. Imagine 3 trees connected in a line like, A-B-C. If you cut down B, A and C are now isolated.

The infantry won't even be under that much fire, because only archers in the nearest trees will have a clear shot; the rest are blocked by other trees.

So how this will play out is that first, using the cover of testudo formations, the attackers will cut down the trees with the most bridge connections, the goal being to divide and trap as many archers as possible. At each isolated tree, the attackers will hack away at the base of the tree, being sure to stand on the side furthest away from the rest of the archers, using the tree they're cutting as cover. Any archers who survive the fall are likely to be easily dispatched.

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They'd have to take the fight to the treetops.

If the archers are living in fortified positions on the tops of these trees, the only real way for the invaders to take the fight to them is to climb the trees somehow, while the tree-dwellers are firing arrows and dropping munitions (hot oil, rocks, etc) down onto them.

Fire is unlikely to work, because we're talking about massive, living trees, and they're unlikely to be terribly flammable. Going around them is unlikely to work, because the tree-dwellers will have created methods to travel between these mega-trees without returning to the ground. Starving them out might work, but it's likely that these treetop communities will have some method of feeding themselves without needing to return to the ground (e.g. collecting rainwater, eating fruit, hunting treetop animals or their eggs, etc).

So, your invaders are basically reduced to the prospect of storming a giant castle located hundred of feet in the air, while under attack by the inhabitants of that castle. Most of the people involved are probably going to die in the process, simply due to how unforgiving the process of assaulting such a heavily fortified position is likely to be - unlike a conventional castle, you can't just knock down the walls with catapults or tunnel underneath them, so you'll need to pick one of the most difficult methods to take a castle available: scaling its walls while under fire.

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