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Let's picture a medieval world, where a tribe of Viking-like mercenaries live for the thick of the fight, the blood nourishing the ground, and the honour of the gods of war. So they are equipped, trained for skirmishes and wars. Their equipment would be Viking like, for instance:

  • Round shields along with short swords and spears, especially used for battle formations.
  • Axes, but probably more used as all-purpose tools than on the battlefield.
  • Longbows and possibly javelins for ranged options.
  • Thick leather and fur armor; less resistant than full-plate ones but still enough to prevent a cut or two and lighter to wear. Chainmails are also there to supplement the defense of the frontline.
  • Iron helmets (horns not included)
  • Some horses

Now, a small part of this tribe goes much further in this battle mindset to an almost fanatical aspect of themselves. Being stronger, faster and more endurant than other soldiers and having access to the same equipment, they take enhancing drugs to be truly one with the battlefield and have a seat among their gods when they will expire. With that comes an increase in adrenaline, loss of fear, acutened senses, and much stronger pain resistance.

Note that drinking the decoction is quick and the effects start to take in fast too, like 1 to 2 minutes at most, making one ready against even surprise strikes. Depending on the quantity taken, the drug can last from 1 to at most 4 hours. taking for longer than that is dangerous to the health and have nasty adverse effects.

The big downside is that they lose control of themselves : Apart from other berserkir, They barely recognize friends from foes and, due to their excitement, they have a difficult time refraining their pulses to charge the enemy, unable to follow a sound formation. Your perfect berserker, in short.

Now that the setting's set, what tactical advantages can be taken from such units, in a battlefield?

For the purpose of this question, we will assume that the enemies have approximately access to the same kind of equipment and troops (minus berserkir). Also, until they become frenzied, berserkir can and will follow orders. However, they refuse fight orders if they are not frenzied : If you send them on a charge, they will take their drugs beforehand.

Having thought a little ahead, sending them with other units looks like a real bad idea for obvious reasons, but sending them alone on the frontline isn't any better. Indeed, battle formations are exceptionally strong against a disordered charge, as the attackers literally impale themselves against the enemy line. I can picture quick skirmishes and guerillas on the logistic lines would work quite well, but during a direct confrontation, hmm... I have a hard time seeing how and where one should send them to get the most out of them.

So what advantages can you get from them on the battlefield? This comes with many subsequent, related questions that may be interesting to look at to find an answer. For instance, when should they be deployed and where relatively to other troops? What would be their favored environments to fight in (forests, mountains...)? Would they have good match-ups against specific troops types?

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  • $\begingroup$ "battle formations are exceptionally strong against a disordonned charge" - only if you have something like a well-organized phalanx. And medieval formations typically had nothing like that. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 4 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander: There is more to the Middle Ages than the superstitious, ignorant and poor western European barbarians... The Arabs and the Romans (= "Byzantines") did have efficient well-regulated armies; and, surprise, the Vikings maintained civilized relationship with them. They even enrolled as mercenaries. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 4 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ +5 constitution, +5 strength, -1 accuracy, -10 charisma, and the blessings of the gods. :-) $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 4 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP That's not really doing credit to the history. The Carolingian empire was quite effective, until the succession crisis split it in three and caused internal war. Alfred the great also organized an effective military. Many historians go as far as to say the dark ages were bright times, and while I wouldn't say that, your portrayal does injustice to the period and region. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 5 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Spike the drinks when they are having lunch, then watch and cheers from afar... $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jan 5 at 1:12

15 Answers 15

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pretty much a shock troop or human stampede, since cow/bull is expensive and cant row a ship, assuming this was in open battlefield or raid.

it even state here from:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker

King Harald Fairhair's use of berserkers as "shock troops" broadened his sphere of influence.[citation needed] Other Scandinavian kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard.[24] It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organization or rituals of berserk Männerbünde, or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.

  • intimidation, most battle is won by making opponent surrender or running away, rather than total slaughter, there even some opponent that chickened out after seeing berserker bit their own shield like madmen.

  • they wont run away or chickened out, which is one of the element in losing battle.

  • distraction, the ruckus they make can help opponent attention focusing on them while making other troops unchecked or unnoticed, and if they get surrounded or stuck inside enemy formation they can help harassing the enemy to buy time or create an opening in opponent formation.

  • will keep moving or charging forward in attempt to hit the enemy, even when impaled, just like boar (thanks to adrenaline, and they are numb from pain), and the momentum can help breach or disturb the opponent formations (assuming opponent use shield wall formation) to give an opening, you can make your berserker as the frontline while the back row follow/push them behind to form boar snout or wedge formation as discarded warriors since the frontline is likely death from the impact anyway (make sure the berserker can only see forward or block their side view so they wont attack their fellow berserker beside them, for example use a horse blinder, and of course it have risk that they end up attacking your own men just like how handling animal to charge is, from elephant, to bull, to boar, wolf or dog, sometime even horse).

Svinfylking – boar warriors

In Norse mythology, the wild boar was an animal sacred to the Vanir. The powerful god Freyr owned the boar Gullinbursti and the goddess Freyja owned Hildisvíni ("battle swine"), and these boars can be found depicted on Swedish and Anglo-Saxon ceremonial items. The boar-warriors fought at the lead of a battle formation known as Svinfylking ("the boar's head") that was wedge-shaped, and two of their champions formed the rani ("snout"). They have been described as the masters of disguise, and of escape with an intimate knowledge of the landscape.[6] Similar to the berserker and the ulfhednar, the svinfylking boar-warriors used the strength of their animal, the boar, as the foundation of their martial arts.[6][23]

here image of boar snout formation enter image description here

regarding terrain or environment, definitely not in forest as a wise berserker say

enter image description here

in my opinion the best terrain for them is a chokepoint or narrow place, as the famous berserker that defend the stamford bridge has shown.

from:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stamford_Bridge

The sudden appearance of the English army caught the Norwegians by surprise.[14] The English advance was then delayed by the need to pass through the choke-point presented by the bridge itself. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it that a giant Norse axeman (possibly armed with a Dane Axe) blocked the narrow crossing and single-handedly held up the entire English army. The story is that this axeman cut down up to 40 Englishmen and was defeated only when an English soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and thrust his spear through the planks in the bridge, mortally wounding the axeman.[15]

This delay had allowed the bulk of the Norse army to form a shieldwall to face the English attack.

because in chokepoint situation, opponent cant use their number (if they have superior number) and formation well, while berserker has advantage in individual prowess to mow them down as single army and you can send another small number of berserker to replace it, if the previous berserker is down, or tired, or the drug effect is over.

the problem with berserker is likely they really lack defense or movement fighting style that protect themselves such as dodging, so range opponent may has chance against them if they lose their shield or the shield is to burdensome from the barrage of arrow/javelin stuck in, but it can be mitigated their survivability (at least until they reach opponent side) if the berserker wear the best armor for that period, such as chainmail for example.

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    $\begingroup$ Like the correlation you kept with Norse culture, very insightful :). Just a little point, I'm not really sure putting them horse blinders would be that good. Aside from any sort of humiliation (they're not horses XD), I doubt the advantage of making sure you strike the good guy is enough to lose the advantage of seeing attacks incoming from the sides ^^'. $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena its for situation where you need them to form a line or formation or work together, and since they are work like glass canon after all, the best that we can hope is the berserker beside him can prevent the incoming attack from the side and make their eyes only focus on the front to mitigate eye contact with your own troops to become target, because if that happen, it will be chaotic and may make your troop lose the momentum. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jan 5 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena regarding the horse blinder, dont take that to literal, you can incorporate it as the helmet decoration for example, or just a bit of protruding from the helmet to block their side view, and at least that can help prevent horizontal slash. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jan 5 at 23:44
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Morale. In a typical pre-modern battlefield, most of the casualties are not suffered in face-to-face combat; rather, one side or the other will lose their nerve and rout, leading to them being run down by the enemy. Berserkers, however, won't break - they're too busy berserking to worry about trifling things like self-preservation.

In an evenly-matched fight between a unit of berserkers and a unit of regulars, the berserkers are extremely likely to win, simply because they're willing to fight to the last man and most enemies aren't. The enemy will end up breaking first.

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    $\begingroup$ On top of that, it's only the first two or three ranks you need to panic rather than the whole army. After all, the ranks behind can't see anything and will take the cue to flee from the guys in the front. $\endgroup$ – Daron Jan 4 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ I guess that the less the troops have strong motives or/and mentally prepared, the more likely they are to flee. Then, mercenaries and especially peasant levies are not very suited to take down berserkir ^^. $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ "In an evenly-matched fight between a unit of berserkers and a unit of regulars, the berserkers are extremely likely to win" for 1 fight. I agree strongly with this answer but you gloss over an important aspect, that you are likley to run out of berserkers fast in your campaign. They will not act in a way that avoids injury and it being before modern medicine they will likely get infections and be sick of dead for the next fight. Or they will just die directly in combat too. $\endgroup$ – TafT Jan 6 at 8:54
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Shatter the enemy morale

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

-- Kyle Reese, The Terminator

I can easily imagine the foes something something to that effect about the bersekir. They'd be fearsome and ruthless. It's going to be enough to shake and frighten the enemy combatants in many cases.

Can you picture it? This...man, just hacks at your brethren and coming at you. Doesn't flinch when his own comrades are injured or killed. Doesn't seem to notice his own wounds. Just. Keeps. Coming. At you.

Whatever their actual combat effectiveness, they can be undoubtedly scary. They can drive the enemies to turn and flee rather than face them. And a fleeing enemy is not a fighting enemy.

Environments

The berserkir can be fairly effective in most terrains. Perhaps decent visibility is the greatest boon. You want the enemy to see what the berserkir can do.

A forest might give a slight advantage as it hinders archers and enemy mounted troops, as well as some formations. All things that benefit a berserkir.

Troop matchup

Unfortunately, while berserkir can be quite effective in scaring enemies, this advantage is quite easily negated. If you're not scared of them, there is not much advantage to sending them forward. A well disciplined army will ignore fear and march forward.

This is how Rome prevailed in the early days. A Roman soldier would be conditioned to just keep fighting and following orders regardless of friendly casualties. This can effectively eliminate or at least vastly mitigate the scariness of enemy troops.

Furthermore, a well coordinated army would easily take out a mindless killing machine. Surround, keep the shields up, and stab them.

Another issue is just keeping the berserkir at bay. A spear can attack them without exposing the attacker to harm. Horse riders can incapacitate and kill berserkirs and seek them out on the battleground. Arrows can also be quite effective against them at open plains.

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    $\begingroup$ they would actually be pretty useful for retreating troops. one of the big risks with retreating is the enemy pushing and turning a retreat into a rout. but if you can loose a few berserker in your wake the enemy now has to stay in formation and deal with that while you retreat. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 4 at 18:40
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DISTRACTION CARNIFEX!

What is a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX (and yes, the term must be in all caps) you might ask? It's a big, durable, psychologically scary unit that draws a disproportionate amount of enemy attention to it due to it's perceived threat value, while the actual backbone of your army gets into position to get stuff done. The other importance factor of a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX is that they're relatively expendable. They might have dangerous weaponry, but they're never the heaviest hitting and it's not a lost battle if they die. A DISTRACTION CARNIFEX can be dangerous, but only if it's left alone and not focused on. They punish the enemy if they do not focus on the big, scary distraction.

The way a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX works is as follows:

  1. Your berserkers start screaming "BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD" and charge the enemy lines.
  2. Your enemy is quite understandably startled by these lunatics rushing at them and starts opening fire with dakka
  3. The berserkers tank some hits before they get stuck in the foes' front lines because they have armor, don't feel pain, and because "they are absolute lunatics"
  4. In the time it takes for the enemy to deal with the problem, your ranged units have gotten themselves set up for maximum efficiency and the rest of your army has advanced across the field without being winded or pelted by ranged fire
  5. Wait until the berserkers are mostly dead to avoid friendly fire. Or just bring an army of berserkers and mostly ranged units with the remaining melee units most existing to guard the ranged unit's flanks from cavalry and infantry like in a typical pike-and-shot army.
  6. Profit

Another advantage can be seen with the Saurus warriors in Total War: Warhammer. Saurus warriors are really tough, but have the tendency to go berserk in game when below 50% health. However, because they are front-line melee fighters, they tend to go berserk only after they are firmly stuck in the enemy lines, holding enemy troops in place for bombardment by ranged units (that is, if their faction they belong to had any ranged options worth writing home about). In fact the berserking is actually a net positive because it means they won't lose morale and flee the battle when the tide turns against them, which means they will effectively lock whatever troops they are fighting in place and will usually fight to the last man. The Dwarfs in the same game do something similar but are just highly-disciplined (and actually do use the ranged advantage), rather than going berserk.

By the way, and this is important, DO NOT put a berserker on horseback. Berserking completely negates all of the advantages of cavalry, which is the ability to maneuver and perform hit and run attacks. Not to mention at that point the horse is smarter than the berserker and might refuse to obey its rider or outright buck them off. You learn this in Total War: Warhammer after your Velociraptor cavalry leaves the battlefield chasing after an enemy scout because it got a paper cut.

Berserkers are usually more of a liability than a tactical advantage. You can't get them to retreat if the battle is lost, you can't get them to reposition if a vulnerability opens up in enemy lines, they'll kill your soldiers if they come too close in the heat of battle, they're a potential discipline problem out of battle, and you can't give them good arms or armor because they're likely to be killed behind enemy lines and lose it. They're basically expendable cannon fodder, which is an issue because you need training in order to know how to use the berserking potion effectively (as well as have the physical fitness and muscle memory to make use of it). They trade tactical flexibility for being a really big hammer, and completely fail to present an effective plan B when "having a big hammer" isn't good enough. I'm reminded of something I read on Tv Tropes...

Singers loved berserkers for their deeds, lords loved them because they didn't have to buy them armor or decent weapons, (and didn't have to pay them after they inevitably died) and no one else remembered them, because they seldom lasted longer than a raiding season or two.

-- Tv Tropes, paraphrasing a dialogue in the comic Northlanders

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  • $\begingroup$ I was wondering why the word carnifex tickled something in my mind, then I read the rest of your post and found out x). Regarding horses, wouldn't it work if you drug them too? That's animal cruelty, sure, but it would remove their survival instincts and let them fight along the berserkir. I guess? $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Horses aren't a naturally predatory species, and so while they could be driven nuts they might not be as aggressive as you want. They might also get so nuts they buck off anyone who tries to ride them (as an aside, you never want to try riding a spooked or angry horse unless you have no choice). Drugs also don't always work consistently across species. Look at chocolate. What sends a human into a berserker rage might just give a horse a heart attack. Or if the potion is made from mushrooms it could cause them to colic and definitely kill them rather than likely kill them. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 5 at 22:08
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How about:

  • Useful for suicide missions if that's an option, as they won't surrender when bezerking,
  • Useful as a diversionary tactic when they're up against a superior force for the same reason.
  • Useful in depth strike (behind-enemy lines missions), where they infiltrate calmly, find a target, and then can attack the target with more force because of the bezerking effect.
  • possibly useful in close-quarters battle where they're confined: 'Send the berzerkir through the breach into the enemy keep!' and then use your own disciplined troops to guard the gap and keep them in there!

But you couldn't do anything large-scale with them. On a battlefield, discipline and control are essential to integrate and coordinate your infantry, cavalry, artillery (archers), fortifications, and reserve in time and space. Having a unit that goes totally off-plan for a couple of hours is not going to help that coordination at all, and you'll lose to a similar force who can tactically withdraw, and take advantage elsewhere on the battlefield.

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    $\begingroup$ A common suicide mission is attacking fortifications. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 4 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @John Yes but suicide missions usually have some benefit or chance of success. Having a bunch of melee-focused berserkers attacking fortifications with no strategy results in them getting shot to pieces while inflicting few casualties and overall is a waste of troops. I doubt the berserkers have the wherewithal to use ladder or siege towers while 'zerked, and they can't use siege equipment or battering rams. They wouldn't even be cost-effective as suicide bombers because you're wasting the cost of a berserking potion when a calm person can do it better. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 5 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @user2352714 I meant the people sent to attack fortifications while sappers or petards are being sent in, basically just cannon fodder that need to distract the enemy. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 5 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ Or when the siege tower and ladders are already on? Well, at least when it's not easy to destroy or remove them ^^ $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena The question is if the berserkers will have enough coordination to climb up a ladder. If they're berserked they might lack the fine coordination necessary to climb up walls. If they only berserked after they climb the ladder they have to waste time drinking the potion in the middle of the heaviest fighting. Or the berserkers might slaughter the siege personnel that put the ladders there rather than be directed towards the enemy. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 5 at 22:39
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Propaganda

Equip some of your less-able-to-fight troops with bagpipes. Whenever the berserkers are on the field the pipers play their most warlike tune.

The enemy will get to know this tune and word will get around. The mere thought of berserkers coming their way will cause huge psychological damage to the foe and loss of morale. The tales are sure to be exaggerated.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or you could send the bagpipers by themselves. 30 minutes of massed bagpipes should sap anyone will to resist - or keep on living. $\endgroup$ – Mon Jan 5 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon - This has already been tried. It didn't turn out well for the pipers. historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/… - Best to keep them in the background! $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 5 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ Probably explains why you cant take guns and knives to a Ceilidh, it would just be to tempting. $\endgroup$ – Mon Jan 5 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon - It's amazing what can be hidden under a kilt! $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Jan 5 at 1:15
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WAIT UNTIL THE TIME IS RIGHT

It sounds like you have pretty good control over them until they drink their potion. But you don't get any of the positive effects until they drink it. So, don't let them drink their potion until they are just about to engage in battle.

Move them around tactically, use standard tactics and formations - have them behave just like any other troops. In fact, if they can't be distinguished, that's even better. Then, right before they make contact, give them the command to drink. As you said, you won't get an immediate effect, but I doubt they'd rout at that point, which is the usual reason you lose battles.

The fear is that your enemy will bait them with a feint or a small force. For example, an opposing cavalry charge could run straight at them, then turn away. If they drank too soon, then they'd run off chasing those horses. But if they drank too late, that cavalry feint might not be a feint!

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  • $\begingroup$ Ohh... I see! "Activate" them when their targets cannot get away from them. So cavalry, even at a stop, is not the best target for them. This also means any environment providing traps such as cliffs steep peaks or lake borders are even more important to be effective $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 22:30
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Shock troops used to break enemy lines. The lack of self-preservation leads to high casualties on both sides, but can create a path through enemy lines.

Unlike in another answer, the unit wouldn't be particularly good for defense, because they'd be prone to engage the enemy outside of a defensive position, attacking the enemy when they should wait for the enemy to attack.

They'd be most effective when they have easy and quick access to the enemy, e.g. open field or light forest. But they could also be used to rout enemies in defensive positions by swarming the enemy. Basically any situation, where a sane person wouldn't even consider attacking.

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You're basically asking about the tactical use of agents that have sacrificed self-control, and might, just as likely, harm their allies?

This actually has some historical precedent in zoological warfare. In the Roman Empire (particularly late Roman Empire), war elephants were effectively tanks. Conventional militia and even the days' equivalent of artillery was particularly weak against them. However, the capability of an elephant on a battlefield was directly proportional to the control that the rider kept over it, and elephants had specific psychological weakness.

No, I'm not talking about mice. I'm talking about herds of pigs, lit on fire, and unleashed on the battlefield. The pigs are fast, they were already very compromised, and they were extremely dangerous to the elephants. We're talking about mobilized flaming fat. They're not unlike your proposed berserkers, though they clearly weren't expected to make it through the fight. However, you need to remember that the pig was already soaked in flaming lamp oil—probably olive-based—just as your berserkir have already downed their rage-inducing drug. For what they did after being lit, all bets were off and to prevent blowback, the armies structured themselves to avoid the pig's potential trajectories after being set ablaze. (There were plenty of cases of the fire-pigs backtracking into friendlies, but they were a near-certain way to break the invading elephants.)

As another, likely even closer, parallel, during the Roman invasion of Celtia, the Celts had borrowed a few tricks from the Vikings, such as the ingestion of drugs such as amanita muscaria (a hallucinogenic mushroom), hyoscyamus niger (a form of henbane), and copious amounts of alcohol to induce their war state. They were up against highly trained Roman soldiers who had conquered, basically, the rest of the continent; but in this drug-induced trance (much like your berserkir) they could take maybe eleven or twelve arrows to the chest and keep swinging. (Needless to say, much like the aforementioned elephants, this scared the hell out of the Romans.)

The notion, much like for the pigs, was that they weren't returning home that night, and if they were it was a small miracle and likely a great shame. They had the solitary goal, not of saving their own lives, but saving their clan and family. (Heavy intoxication certainly helps with a move like that.) While downing hallucinogens before battle certainly has its risks and downsides, it also effectively made them pain-proof. Modern militaries do much the same thing with amphetamines, but now it's generally to keep soldiers awake for an extraordinarily long time rather than to drive them into a deadly trance.

Sure enough, the Romans ended up retreating and actually built a wall bisecting the Celts from their more mild-mannered southern neighbors, deciding that even economically, Scotland just wasn't worth it.

I suppose the TLDR is that, given proper strategy, an out-of-control supersoldier like your berserkir is treated much like an explosive device. They are unnaturally powerful and will likely get the job done, even though they may die in the process. The downside to them potentially breaking ranks can be mediated with spatial buffering. Traditional notions of morale no longer apply, but it's still quite usable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Weird. Regarding the efficiency of actual drugs for war, it contradicts with my (few) sources, where taking the hallucinating component of the famous red and white mushroom didn't make them frenzied... Maybe I should look further into that, double-check things out... $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Jan 5 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ Not all hallucinogens, nor all people, are the same. I strongly suggest starting with the Vikings. $\endgroup$ – Michael Macha Jan 6 at 0:35
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The only advantage I can figure is the "shock and awe" effect on unprepared opponents, more or less what it was achieved the first time war elephants were employed against the roman army.

If the opponents lose their cool and break the line, your mad men can have an easy target to pursue. If they don't fall for the bait and refuse to engage battle, they will end up against their own mates, since you state

They barely recognize friends from foes and, due to their excitement, they have a difficult time refraining their pulses to charge the enemy

Not too different from the movie version of the Orcs patrolling the tower outside of Shelob's lair in the Return of the King, which end up slaughtering each other over a quarrel for Frodo's vest.

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Give the Drug to your Whole Army

...but only take it as a last resort.

As others have pointed out, guaranteed moral is very valuable in a pre-modern battlefield, but disorganization is just as bad as poor moral. There are many historical cases where much smaller armies have ravaged their opposition just by making them unable to maintain proper cohesion; so, taking the drug is just as likely to lead to a devastating defeat as it is an unexpected victory.

So, the only time you would take the drug is when defeat already seems certain, and you have nothing left to lose. Hearing the order "go berserkir" would be the equivalent to a modern soldier hearing the command "fix bayonets". No modern solider EVER wants to be in a situation where a bayonet charge is their best option, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

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The most reasonable, likely, and historically accurate answers to this question:

  1. Morale breaking: Barbarian versus barbarian (low-organization) armies generally clashed for short periods of time and winning consisted of one side becoming psychologically convinced that they were going to lose, cause a chain route. The routing force loses more casualties in the route than the battle. Who breaks first is almost entirely (typically) based on morale (how the lowest common denominator of troops feel about their chances of success). Once the lowest common denominator of troops become scared, or convinced that they will lose, they run, and then the people next to them run, and then the whole army runs. Berserkers (insofar as they existed) are designed to scare the lowest common denominator; size, ostentatious aesthetics, and lack of fear/humanity. You don't need the whole army to be convinced they will lose, only the lowest morale soldiers, or the ones specifically fighting opposite the berserkers. The troops facing the berzerkers run, or their pre-battle displays convince low denominator soldiers across the whole frontage to lower their morale, and you win. Fear of the men standing next to you deserting you, allowing you to be killed from any direction is the primary factor causing a route; you don't want to be the last one to run.

  2. Berzerkers, large warriors with large weapons, with experience, could be useful breaking up shield formations, especially of more organized armies. Barbarian armies do not have the endurance of organized armies (like Romans) and have to achieve victory early or not at all. Having grouped or distributed men who are more effective at dislodging shielded soldiers from shield walls, removing/breaking shields, or causing spacing in the shield wall through extremely violent melee in order to get inside the formation and break it/route it was a key to victory.

Notes: Berzerkers may be over-hyped and there are versions of this in multiple cultures. Ultimately there is a lot we still don't know, or are certain of regarding how groups of men conducted themselves in the killing of other men on the battlefield.

I'm a tattoo artist and part time zoo keeper. Proof reading is for nerds.

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Berserkirs are for Pinning the Enemy

The key is to pin the enemy, and then use their lack of mobility against them.

The Wheel About

Your army consists of:

  • 70% main army (A)
  • 20% berserkirs (B) - placed on the far right
  • 10% reserves (R)
E E E E E E E E E E

 A A A A A A A B B

          R

Have your center fall back under pressure, as the right goes berserkir and stands fast. Your reserve shifts right.

E E E         E E E
  A A E         B B
     A E   
       A E
         A E 
           A E    R

Obviously, your berserkirs are in a rough spot - outnumbered and unsupported. But that's fine, this is what they live for. The rest of the main line is tired from fighting, but holding.

Your reserve, though, is fresh, and has the enemy main line FLANKED.

The reserve smashes into the rear / flank of the enemy's left. That section of the line fails under the extreme pressure, and the rout begins. You roll up the enemy's line, and then finally relieve the berserkirs.

E E E         E E E
  A A E         B B
     A E   
       A E R
         A A 

At no point are your troops in any real danger from the berserkirs, and it makes good use of their fanatical state. If the enemy tries to bypass the berserkirs, then the closest people for the berserkirs to attack are... the enemy's rear ranks!

You can do many variations on this. A favorite might be:

The Agincourt

Your berserkirs hold the enemy in place at the bottom of a hill, while the rest of your force rains indirect fire from the hilltop. As long as the berserkirs can stay close together, good enough archers can probably avoid hitting them most of the time.

The risk here is the enemy retreating out of arrow range, and the undisciplined berserkirs following. Best mitigation would probably be to keep the main force close, with the understanding that an enemy retreat would initiate a general charge.

Perhaps your main body knows to move to the left as the come down the hill in this case, setting up the conditions for The Wheel About on the fly.

In any case, the enemy is going to have to reform their lines while under pressure from murderous berserkirs, which is not a great place to be.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Wheel About is an excellent tactical plan! $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Jan 6 at 21:35
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In my personal opinion, berserker troops should be used as support for the infantry to flank and distract the enemy, as well as destabilize/destroy choke points in the way of the infantry if war engines (catapult, trebuchet, artillery etc) are not available.

Remember, the infantry is the backbone of any military and must be prioritized above all else. It wouldn't be that expensive to add drugs to their kit, but it would weaken them when they're coming down, as amphetamines cause the user to become tired after the effects wear off.

Considering that drugs have been developed in your alternate history, sneaking hallucinogens or morphine into the enemy's food/water supply would be a useful tactic.

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There's a lot of good answers here, but I think one overlooked one is that a surprising number of soldiers won't even kill the enemy under normal circumstances. If taking the drug makes all of your soldiers willing to kill it would probably make them unstoppable (in battles) until they fall apart from PTSD.

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