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Saturday, 17th May 2008
Can attack

I It has only been a relatively new innovation

which has meant war can be carried out at a distance greater than arms length. The bayonet was a weapon with serious importance during the Second World War.

By that stage though hand to hand fighting was not really expected to be the norm in the same way it had once been. It takes a while for the horrible implications of this to sink in.

arms length

Shooting a person is a very different proposition to standing toe to toe

Shooting a person is a very different proposition to standing toe to toe and slugging it out with broadswords. Nothing clean about that sort of warfare and the sort of non-fatal injuries which could be inflicted on people would make the whole process truly horrific.

By the time Players issued the classic set Arms and Armour [1909] 50 cards the mechanization of warfare was well under way but there was a long way to go.

Players, Arms and Armour [1909 50 cards    

The set charts the history of Arms and Armour and does it with the sort of style that may only have been possible before World War One. This is not a comment on the way in which humanity was changed by the experience of World War One (World War Two is evidence of business as usual).

Rather the exquisite care and attention that was lavished on pre-World War One cards which makes the majority of them stand out in terms of artistic and production quality over the vast number of the cards produced after.

I am not telling you any great secret...

I am not telling you any great secret there and it will be no surprise to discover pre-WW1 cards are both rarer and more expensive. Still all is relative and I could think of worse ways of spending a hundred pounds or so. I will leave it to the card illustrations on the page to do the issue some sort of artistic justice.

continual warfare

At the turn of the century Britain was forever at war with some part of the Empire, it was pretty much the norm rather than the exception it is thought of as today. These wars were also bloody affairs not the 'sterlized' technology of today.

It starts off with the Roman invasion of the British Isles and shows exactly why the Romans managed to overwhelm the divided Brits. By card 4 we have got rid of the Romans and the Saxons were upon us.

Card 5 gives us A Knight of the 'Round Table' which is decent of them given there is unlikely to have been one. The card does at least make reference to that fact when you read the reverse.

By now (542 AD) The Brits have got the idea that armour is a good idea if surviving the metal weapons of the opposition is considered a good thing.

Still King Arthur did not exist so the Saxons were soon in control of things only to be followed by The Vikings (card 7). I hope you are keeping up with the number of invasions the unconquered British are enjoying.

Card 7 is interesting because it makes mention that peat-bogs had preserved the Viking arms and armour in startling condition. For the most part armour was leather and shields were wood with metal used to reinforce.

Helmets were conical in shape designed to deflect the heavy blows of some fearsome weapons that at the time were of the hacking and slashing variety, battle-axes and broad swords.

Lets move on to the first crusade (1095 AD) where we find a fellow in scale armour (think fish). A writer of the time suggested the shields had such a high polish they dazzled the eyes of the beholder.

...rust was actually a serious consideration.

Maybe, but rust was actually a serious consideration. The Romans found Britain was not a good place for armour and keeping them from going rusty was a task in itself.

Card 13 depicts a Horseman in Armour. The detail explains it was not until the 13th century that the long military surcoat was first worn. This was designed to stop the armour underneath getting rusty. You have to also consider once wet it would add considerably to the general weight of things.

armour's zenith

War Flail

Armour by now how developed into the 1950's Hollywood epic version of events. Helmets which fully encapsulated the head with a slit for vision and holes for breathing. This is the sort of fellow you see leaping up to the Royal box for the colours of the fair maiden before the joust began.

All was fine whilst the chap remained on his horse and could be thought of as the armoured vehicle of the day. The real trouble would set in when he fell of his horse.

If this was the case, getting up again was not really an option. Lying on the ground basically without defence in the middle of a battle does not improve life expectancy.

Card 15 has a chap with the sort of implement which was designed to get the horseman off his horse. The War Flail was just the job. Think large metal ball on the end of a large metal chain attached to a thick wooden staff. For those not imagining this see the card illustrated.

gallows humour

The War Flail was also called the 'Morning Star' and more amusingly 'Holywater Sprinkler'. Nothing amusing if you were on the wrong end of this thing.

It developed from an implement which had three balls attached to a pole to a single ball. This could be made of metal or wood. If wood then it would probably have metal spikes driven into it.

This is not to be confused with the Mace which is illustrated on card 18. Armour was still predominately mail and leather rather than plate armour.

Leather was hardened by boiling in oil.

Leather was hardened by boiling in oil. Flexibility was useful but of rather less importance than stopping someone removing vital bits of your body.

Warfare is always about the balance between defence and offence. The more armour being worn the more dramatic had to be the weapons used to kill the occupant. Getting yourself onto a horse meant you could carry more armour.

basic hacking

The basic principle for a chap on a horse was to keep beating down on the people beneath.

A Knight with a Battle Axe
The battle-axe, an ancient and terrible wepaon, was widely adopted during the 14th century, and played a conspicious part of the battles of that period. A knight of that time was armed with a mixture of mail and plate-armour, over which was the decorated surcoat. The bassinet, or light helmet, which was worn beneath the helm or outer helmet, was camailed - that is provided with a tippet of chain mail for protecting the neck.

The people below therefore had to have some pretty elaborate head gear to stop their brains being ventilated and also on their shoulders if they did not want to be rendered incapacitated.

Battle Axes (card 19) were about as fearsome as it gets. The chaps that wielded these things were no pencil pushes and getting it right first time was a good idea.

A battle axe was easily capable of cutting the legs from under a horse which was a sure way of cutting someone down to size.

If the armoured knight on horseback was the tank of the ancient battlefield then the Archer was the artillery. British archers were the most feared of the bunch. Card 23 shows the state of play in Agincourt. By now armour had evolved into the more efficient plate armour.

Few people alive today can actually pull a longbow. The arrows were the cloth-yard in length and were capable of going through the armour plating of the knights.

...describe the air black with this rain of terror

This changed things considerably as the 'bolts came out of the blue'. Accounts of the time describe the air black with this rain of terror and you can imagine the sort of misery it caused on impacting the opposition lined up on the field.

Stout staves were fixed into the ground before them to fend off the cavalry if they did manage to get close enough to inflict damage.

At this point warfare was all about showering your enemy with a rain of arrows before charging at one another and causing as much damage to the opposition as possible.

Card 29 gives us the term 'Swashbucker.' Apparently a small round shield was called a buckler (we are now in the 16th century). The clashing of the sword on the buckle gave the combatants the name swashbucklers.


Firearms are slowly evolving into something useful and as a result by the end of the 16th century armour is degrading into more of a fashion statement than protection. Card 33 gives this new fashion.

This also means the sword undergoes development. Big heavy swords are being replaced by lighter weapons which are used in a thrusting rather than slashing motion.

Am I overdressed?

It is a much quicker action to thrust rather than bring a big heavy sword around in a slashing motion.

Guns were still rather unreliable at best. Card 48 shows a soldier of the Crimean with the 'Brown Bess' a gun which barely got a projectile 200 yards.

Armour did not really exist by this stage and had not for a good few years we are now more in the era of uniform.

Uniforms were to remain in vogue until recently when the chemical warfare suits can be considered a form of armour but that is a long way from 1909 when this set was created.