Letters from Armorica: Spikes (23 February 1016)

Armand’s First Letter. Amelia’s First Letter.

Dear Journal,

Rams are not going to work—at least, not in the way we’ve designed them so far. They do too much damage, and all in the wrong way, with, I am afraid, tragic results.

Our first design was simple. We took a standard war wagon and ran a hardened beam fore and aft, with the aft end “stepped” (Master Norfolk informs me that “stepped” is the proper word) against the hardened framework of the stern post. The bean extends about two yards in front of the wagon, and is tipped with a simple iron head.

My army advisors wanted the head of the ram to be covered with spikes and barbs, so as to do more damage, but I put a stop to that.

“Suppose you succeed in driving that barbed monstrosity you’ve drawn into the side of a ship or wagon. Now, how do you get it out? I presume you would prefer your wagon to be able to strike more than once?”

From the looks on their faces, it was clear that they hadn’t considered that point.

“Perhaps,” said one, slowly, “perhaps the head of the ram could be made to come off.”

“That is better than leaving your wagon and its crew dangling in mid-air at the end of their own ram.”

So the first ram was made with a smooth rounded head, designed to punch its way through and then be withdrawn to punch again.

We set up a test with the new wagon against Bessie, one of our earliest efforts. Bessie is slow, wallowing, and useless, but a good enough target for all that. The ram hit Bessie in the side, as planned…but at a slightly oblique angle. The ram wagon was designed to withstand the collision from the front; but this pushed the ram and its beam sideways, causing it to give way. The front of the ram wagon was torn apart, and a soldier observing the collision through one of the front ports was crushed by the moving beam.

A war wagon has a crew of four; and the other three did not escape unharmed. A wagon is mostly open inside, except in this case for the ram, and the three were thrown about like dice in a cup.

Worse, the ram did relatively little damage to old Bessie, laden as she is with a hardened wood skin. It pushed her to the side, and shook up the one soldier inside—he broke his forearm—but it didn’t do any lasting damage to Bessie herself.

When I spoke of this to Captain Taylor, one of my Navy advisors, he was unsurprised. “A ram,” he said, “depends on the speed of impact and the weight of the ship, and it’s even odds which ship is going to come out the worse. And your little wagons haven’t got any weight to speak of.” He shook his head. “Might work,” he said, “if you could get the wagon to go fast enough. Fatal for the crew, of course.”

So that’s that. Oh, I’ve got plenty of useless ideas. One could turn the entire bow of the wagon into the head of the ram, distributing the effort into the wagon’s entire structure instead of down one beam in the middle; that should keep the wagon from tearing itself apart. But it won’t spare the crew. And a wagon heavy enough to do any good would be too slow to catch the Provençese wagons to begin with.

I’ve just returned from visiting the wounded soldiers. One will never walk again, and the man who was crushed likely won’t last the night.

Next letter

____

Photo by Claud Richmond on Unsplash

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