Whenever one thinks of something new to introduce to war I always think: Yeah. They were smarter than you and more experienced. They had the ability to think of your basic idea and did not. Probably for a reason. But I'm curious to actually find out.

Lets imagine a portable watchtower that can be constructed in the field. Height is about 15 meters. And it has wheels. With the sole purpose of having a soldier on top to surveying the battlefield and report back to people below who in turn would inform the general of what is going on.

The setting in question, this can be very general, already uses signals and banners...etc to identify units so a watcher on top should get more information if surveying from a height of 15 meters. Anyway the tech is roughly 16 century. Nothing more.

I think you all know the problems of dust clouds or failure to recognize friendlies coming up from a direction and thinking them hostiles...etc

Obviously we know from history that even siege towers were made, it took more time but they need to be armored and this does not, and that they were even mobile. So. The ability to make it is not impossible. So. It's a question of is that a good idea not if it could be done.

Is this a good idea that adds value to the force in question? Why? Not a good idea? Why not?

Edit: As requested to specify the usage of them. I thought it would be a little general. Basically I imagined that the material of making them would be part of the baggage train so that a commander would make one if he thinks it would help.

Obviously if he sent a cavalry detachment to ambush the enemy or if the battle is a seaborne landing then again that is not useful. So. It only becomes a tool for the general.

Example. The two sides are already engaged in melee. Then the commander, from the back as it is usually done, to make the tower. The tower is quickly erected and manned. Then maybe the watcher sees an week section or can see reinforcements coming to a section of the enemy's line...etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you specify the exact year and location of reference? Hot air balloons were used in the U.S. Civil War (1845) as portable watchtowers and portable watchtowers are in use today. I can't imagine any answer other than "yes!" unless it's an issue of building the watchtower, which is a function of the year and location. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH The design of the watchtower is the pin here: you don't haul a siege tower through the land, and then you need to read the art of war to see, that a tower of this type is pretty much part of the supply train. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ The enemy adapts: "Colonel A, I expect that the enemy is centered somewhere near that artificial tower. Take your regiment upwind and obscure their vision with smoke. Colonel B, the enemy will attack the smoke-makers with overwhelming force; your job is to protect them. Take your shovels." $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, Edited it $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ The real question is where on Earth is this equipment supposed to be used. The commanding officers normally sought elevated terrain from where they could observe and direct the battle -- not only it gave them a better view, it also allowed their subordinate officers to see their signals; apparently this question assumes that the armies are maneuvering on an absolutely flat terrain. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 0:59

6 Answers 6


You're vastly over complicating the problem. You can easily have an observation platform that is 15 meters (or more) in height without all the elaborate engineering.

All you need is;

  • a series (2 or 3) 5 meter lengths of solid timber poles that are pre-drilled so they can be bolted together;
  • 4 to 8 x lengths of stout rope that can be tied off to anchor points on the poles and to spikes in the ground;
  • add a small viewing platform that can be fixed to the upper pole plus a rope ladder attached to it (Edit: or as someone else suggested pre-installed metal rungs;
  • a couple of dozen fit soldiers with mallets; and
  • a set of signal flags, quill, ink, paper and weights for dropping messages.

Then you basically just treat the whole exercise like raising a marquee without the canvas. (Alternately think of it as a ship's 'crows nest' transported onto land).

You assemble the observation post at the ground of your choosing by simply having a construction crew hoist it up. Then you fix it in position. No wheels, no fancy engineering. And you can carry as many as you want on wagons as part of your baggage train. If lenses have been invented then so much the better - the crew gets telescopes as well!

As for how useful it would be? It depends on the tactical situation. It could potentially be very useful in one situation then not at all in another, but at least its simple, quick to set up & inexpensive.

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    $\begingroup$ Man, literally just checked back to edit because I started thinking the same thing. It's exactly like erecting a telephone pole. The lines holding it up are called guy wires, or in this case, just guys. I thought of sticking the sections together like tent poles, though. Not sure which is better. You could also add the little rungs that screw into the sides of telephone poles that the workers use to climb them. If you want an explanation for how this was invented in universe, just say it was inspired by a en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maypole $\endgroup$
    – Morgan
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Morgan mentions maypoles, and this was my thought as well. In the region of Dalarna, where I'm from, the erection of poles at Midsummer is serious business and 15 meters isn't that high. Of course they are made of wood. The highest one is usually erected in Leksand and the 25 meter pole, heavy with leaves and flowers, is erected by hand using shorter poles. It's a process that takes more than half an hour and is watched by many thousands of spectators. Search for images of "midsommarstång Leksand" to get an idea of the scale, it's quite impressive! $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Part 1; Sea, upon thinking about it how the device is 'imagined' will depend a lot on the era (or tech level) your setting it in e.g ancient, medieval, renaissance? But in general I suppose the viewing platform could simply be a modified version of a wagon wheel. Your crew puts it onto the end of a 'shaft' at the top of the pole once the tower is assembled, all the ropes are attached and its ready to be raised. Then pin it in place. Step 2: you slot a a thin timber walking platform (like the lid of a barrel) over the 'wheel' and pin that in place to the wheel. That's the base of the platform. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ Part 2: Since there's no OH&S in fantasy settings (at least not boring ones) you could I suppose forgo any kind of safety railing for the platform. In reality? You could simply make the steel 'pins' you used to secure the 'barrel' to the 'the wheel" a meter or more in length with eyelets at the ends that you can thread a stout rope through. And that's your railing. Alternately & probably better you simply have 6 or 8 other metal rods you use as the railings. This adds more 'parts' but even with that its no more complicated (probably less so) that the average siege engine/catapult wagon etc. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ Why have a "platform" and a rope ladder? This isn't an amusement park attraction which has to be safe for the little kids and elderly relatives - this is a pre-modern army. A fit soldier just climbs to the top with maybe a belt looped over to help keep them there. The commander on the ground can shout back and forth or use hand signals if there is too much noise. Signal flags could then relay orders from the commander to more distant units. You just need a pole (and 3 ropes) - nothing more. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 14:39


This highly depends on how it is constructed - and used. Let's look at two designs:


A cart-tower is somewhat top-heavy, and while it gives the sight even on the move, it has the downside of being effectively a siege tower that you haul with you. You get seen, it is slow, it threatens to fall over. Nope! Hard pass, unless you are in a siege.

Cart with fold-up tower

Let's lighten the thing. A barrel, a long log, and a hinge that mounts it to a cart. It's light and can also transport other things on the cart! Great! We can't use it on the march, but once we set up camp, we pull up the tower, secure it with a few ropes and we got an outlook! Now, this is handy, but also constrains us to terrain which the cart can move through.

Added Value?

The army on the march

Now, what is the added value? Actually, unless the army already marches with heavy equipment on carts (like cannons), it being bound to a cart can become a downside: you get slowed down to the speed of the cart with the tower.

An army without carts marches. All the equipment is distributed on the backs of the army, and surprisingly, armies (or large detachments; the front and rear guard always) marched often this way to be faster and less dependant on terrain as they went and cleared the way of enemies or made sure none came from behind. Then they waited for their slower supply trains or pulled up to the waiting supply train, restocked, and separated again.

Pure cavalry armies even could go with almost no supply train, as the Mongols showed.


I see such a pop-up tower would accompany siege units, which themselves are slow, and the supply/baggage train, which already comprises of carts. The first group can now better gauge the battlefield and where the shots land with it without much loss of speed. The latter group allows to possibly safeguard the position by seeing better or to relay commands to a unit that is detached from this position.


However, the fact that it is heavy - even as a pop-up design - and thus reduces other resources that can be transported is a downside that has to be looked at, but it is not crippling so. As a result, it would be not universal to carry one but could be an addition in some units or under the command of some generals. Also, as it needs to be transported by cart it is bound to fortified roads or open terrain like other carts, so it might be dropped off if the terrain goes unfavorably.

A 15-meter tower is really easy to spot. So erecting it in enemy land acts as a huge target for the tower, making it a bad thing to put up in some circumstances.

The terrain might make the tower obsolete in alpine regions. For example, fighting in the Alps, you could often send a spotter some hundred or such meters away up a mountain slope and get a similar height advancement while retaining cover for him. His signals wouldn't be as visible though.

  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisH which is noted in the upsides. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:59

I think it would be a lot more useful as a simple tripod tower with a climbing rope. All you would have to do is lash three poles together and tie a rope to the top with knots for the watcher to climb up. Wheels would actually slow the tower down due to added weight and terrain.

If you're already on a hill, even a short tower could be useful to observe enemy movements. Mind you, a common tactic was to send out skirmishers to block the view of one's main force with just their bodies and horses alone, so the ability to see over them would be a pretty decent advantage.

Also consider that field fortifications were already a thing. Roman engineers for instance were known to be able to set up a field-expedient fort while simultaneously fending off an attack. They also brought many of the materials with them.

From Wikipedia:

The most detailed description that survives about Roman military camps is De Munitionibus Castrorum, a manuscript of 11 pages that dates most probably from the late 1st to early 2nd century AD.

Regulations required a major unit in the field to retire to a properly constructed camp every day. "… as soon as they have marched into an enemy's land, they do not begin to fight until they have walled their camp about; nor is the fence they raise rashly made, or uneven; nor do they all abide ill it, nor do those that are in it take their places at random; but if it happens that the ground is uneven, it is first levelled: their camp is also four-square by measure, and carpenters are ready, in great numbers, with their tools, to erect their buildings for them." To this end a marching column ported the equipment needed to build and stock the camp in a baggage train of wagons and on the backs of the soldiers.

Camps were the responsibility of engineering units to which specialists of many types belonged, officered by architecti, "chief engineers", who requisitioned manual labor from the soldiers at large as required. They could throw up a camp under enemy attack in as little as a few hours. Judging from the names, they probably used a repertory of camp plans, selecting the one appropriate to the length of time a legion would spend in it: tertia castra, quarta castra, etc. (a camp of three days, four days, etc.). https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castra

Compared to all that, I think lugging around a few poles and some rope would be insignificant.

You mentioned 16th century technology, so you would probably be in the age of gunpowder. Field fortifications and the like were really popular in western Europe in that time period. That was the era when star fortresses were popping up everywhere, an era of trench warfare when soldiers often did more digging than fighting. Building and digging was absolutely necessary on both offence and defense, so a lookout tower would probably not be out of place.

Edit: Watchtowers similar to this were also used in the Crimean War:


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    $\begingroup$ You could actually make a bipod tower (A-frame), which would fold with a fairly simple top hinge and be lighter. Anchor feet, insert spotter in basket, haul up on a rope. Fasten rope and another opposite as guys $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:41

Much simpler alternatives were likely in wide use.

A big tower with wooden wheels would be difficult to move even on modern paved roads, so you can forget about such a contraption keeping up with a marching army in pre-industrial times, on rough roads or in the mud.

Armies mostly marched on foot, with supplies carried on horses or mules, (or horse carts following the army, significantly more slowly). Carrying around such a contraption would be a logistical nightmare.

What to use instead? Two siege ladders bound together in the shape of an "A". Quick to set up, quick to dismantle, and the reason a medieval army starts a military campaign is to besiege some castle or town, so they'll need siege ladders anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ Siege ladders were constructed when in the area of the siege most usually $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Even in that case, ladders can be constructed much more easily (than portable towers) when they make camp, and their scouts could carry them for some time. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ An even simpler solution is "send a few horsemen/scouts to the top of that hill, and have them signal what they see with a flag/horn". If there are no hills and no trees around... the location is very flat then. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 23:29

Considering the time period, this tower would be made of wood.

wooden watchtower

Something like this. The logs involved in this design are around 4-5 meters long and average 20cm in diameter. Seems about right. There are about 72 logs in the tower, totaling ~ 325 meters. That's 10 cubic meters of wood - about five tons (1), plus the wheels. The wheels are a tricky bit. How do you design the suspension for such a massive object, using medieval materials? The Conestoga people figured it out - we can too. It likely weighs about as much as a fully loaded covered wagon (2).

So let's assume it can be built and works reliably. 6 tons will require a substantial team of horses (6-14) to pull it steadily (3, 4). It will also need a wide, flat road, or risk tipping, breaking, or getting stuck. From the top, you can see an extra 8 kilometers (5) vs. a guy on a horse - enough to make you a lot harder to sneak up on (depending on the terrain, of course). In an area with lots of rolling hills, low scrub, and highway bandits, I could see it being very useful to have a way of looking (and potentially shooting) over those obstacles. It might be quite useful in guarding valuable wagon trains through unsafe (but well-paved!) territory. I wouldn't try to take this thing over much of an incline.

In a pitched battle? I think it could be useful. I'd say send the general himself up there with a set of flags - one pair for each regiment, say. He picks up the set that belongs to the regiment he wants to signal and uses some flag language to communicate commands. Each regiment includes a flag officer or two whose job is to watch the flags, communicate with the troops, and relay information to the general using flags of his own. I believe that the general with a better view of the action and faster communication between the various parts of his army would have an advantage over an adversary relying on horse messengers. He could react faster and more intelligently, avoid traps, and spring them on his enemy before they could respond.

The other option is always to leave the tower behind, give all those horses to your scouts, and have them ride ahead and to all sides looking for danger and reporting back. Advantages: the scouts can potentially range farther, and unlike the tower, they can see without being seen. They are also much more nimble, not requiring the medieval equivalent of an interstate highway to move along. In situations requiring fast travel, rough terrain, or stealth, I think scouts would be preferred.

But overall, I think the mobile watchtower is a pretty good idea.


Conestoga wagons

lumber weight chart

horse pull capacity

horse weight

horizon calculator

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    $\begingroup$ This is amazing. I can't thank you enough. It really fits in with the original concept but I want things to be very practical so that other solution I like more. Those links are great as well. Especially the wood calculator and horizon calculator. Anyway I might make a super fancy version of that tower just for fun. Or maybe one with super decorations to be used as decoy or something. Anyway great stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 18:45

Frame challenge

Are you fighting in a completely flat area without hills and trees?

Normally battles were fought in hilly areas or even in valleys, so that the generals and other soldiers could get a clear view of the battle and direct companies to where they would be most effective. Battles could sometimes be determined by the first army to get to an area and choose the high ground, so they could see better.

Fast forward to more modern times and the artillery was often set up on these hills to get more range as well as being able to see well. Even before artillery, archers would be posted higher up to also get better range and visibility.

It's barely hyperbole to say that the landscape itself was the highest-ranking general organizing the fight on those three bloody days. So, it's not surprising that geographical features such as Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, Devil's Den, Culp's Hill and others are more widely known than the names of the victorious generals. Only iconic Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his subordinate Gen. George Pickett, whose ill-fated charge across open fields was the crescendo of defeat, are as well remembered.
Military commanders have appreciated the importance of landscape for millenniums, and nowhere is that better expressed than at Gettysburg. Remembering that pivotal battle, we would do well to consider how topography and it's underlying geology affects our daily existence, determining the course of roads, the locations of homes and factories, the placement of our cities and our ability to grow food. Lessons from Gettysburg extend far beyond heroism, history and culture-war subjects to the way in which we live our daily lives. More than we commonly realize, topography is destiny.


Rewind tech and society from your setting a little and "generals"/commanders/war chiefs were on the front lines, leading the soldiers in 100% melee battles. They didn't direct anything, they assumed people knew what to do. Sometimes this was a set out plan prior to the battle and sometimes it was signals from the front.

... Alexander the Great’s psychopathic urge to get down and dirty once he’d instilled his commander’s intent among his generals often ran the risk of his being unable to revise tactics in the event of something not working as planned, and nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion. Hannibal, once he’d similarly briefed his trusted lieutenants, usually joined his Celtic contingent in order to ensure discipline in its ranks, dressed in a common soldier’s armor so as not to be marked by the Romans, but recognizable enough to his own Celts. Gaius Julius Caesar preferred to run his battles from the rear but was quick to draw his sword and lead from the front in moments of crisis. ...


If someone needed to get even higher to see something, they climbed a tree. This is also likely part of the reason why war animals, like horses, were used, to get a better view of the battlefield over the heads of soldiers. I can't find any proof of this, but the military isn't stupid. Or at least good ones aren't. They would find and take any advantage they could.


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