Maneuvering with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.

–Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter VII: Maneuvering, [5].

In 1096 C.E. an armed rabble, thousands strong, consisting of peasants and poor men-at-arms, marched out of France across Europe on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This later became known as the People’s Crusade, a precursor to the First Crusade.

Their goal: to seize the wealth of the East, to serve God in sanctioned warfare, and to begin a new life. The poor men-at-arms had a chance to become lords if they could find new lands.

Their tentative leader was Peter the Hermit, also known as Pierre L’Ermite or Petrus Heremita, or “Peter of the Ermites.” Although he may have spend time in seclusion in the Forests of Liege, he wasn’t a hermit, but a member of the Ermite family of nobles in medieval France.

They were joined by a hodge-podge of Italians, Germans, and so on as the reached the Byzantine Empire and crossed into Asia Minor.

Peter lost what little control he had over the pilgrims. The leaders bickered among themselves, and thus the People’s Crusade ended in disaster.

Peter survived to later join the main crusading armies, but the Seljuk Turks had killed or captured nearly everybody else.

The People’s Crusade is an interesting case study for various reasons: it shows what desperation and faith can do, its an example of religious violence and persecution, and gives an idea of how feudal hosts were raised.

And, most importantly, from a wargaming standpoint, it shows us what not to do if we expect to win battles on the tabletop:

1. Shun undisciplined mobs. 

Some wargamers, like the Bearded Bastard, would love the chance to run a undisciplined horde like the People’s Crusade. They are masochists.

The best example are orcs and goblins; in more popular sets of rules these forces not only have a chance to run amok, but might attack each other.

Choose armies where the rules in whatever system you use give you good command and control.

2. Don’t deviate from the plan.

In fact, have a plan to begin with. The People’s Crusade has the vague notion that God would provide if the just reached the Holy Land. But they didn’t coordinate with or get support from the Byzantines. The Emperor shuffled the rabble through his lands as fast as he could.

3. In a multi-player game, don’t assume you’re the leader because you’ve picked the Commander-in-Chief.

Peter the Hermit is credited for leading the People’s Crusade. But there were others, like Walter Sans Avoir, who had their own followers and, at times, operated independently.

I once knew a wargamer who used his control of the C-in-C figure to boss his fellow players around. But he was a terrible tactician. He also like to have his allied player take most of the casualties while he charged toward the objective to get all of the glory.

Other lessons can be gleaned from the People’s Crusade, but these are the main three. While it can fun to run an undisciplined mob from time-to-time (“Let’s see what these Clubmen can do in the English Civil War”), they shouldn’t be the backbone of your army.

The only exceptions to this include:

A: You’re a masochist.
B. You’re the Bearded Bastard.
C. Both A & B.


Next on The Art of Wargaming: The Logistics of Tactics and the Tactics of Logistics.