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Medieval Knights in Modern Warfare

Manny Marotta

Medieval Knights in Modern Warfare

A co-promotion with Countere Media (

Within living memory, there was a time where modern warriors donned chainmail, mounted horses, and rode fearlessly into battle like their ancestors.

It’s common to claim that time and technology move in a linear fashion: there’s one development, and then another development, and these improvements build atop of one another and nobody takes a step backwards. Only in very rare instances, such as when the fall of Rome caused Europe to lose the knowledge of cement-making for hundreds of years, is this “linear development” theory challenged, and never in the modern day. However, in the early 20th century, and within living memory, the mode in which humans fought wars saw one momentous, medieval leap backwards.

WWI launched warfare into the modern age. In the space of just four years, troops went from marching into battle wearing red pants and top hats, to wearing fatigues and helmets; from carrying equipment on dog-carts, to flying it in on airplanes; and from conducting cavalry charges on horseback, to staging mechanized attacks using packets of tanks. But while WWI rapidly modernized fighting in many ways, in other forms, it forced fighting styles back a few years—give or take a millennium.

Unlike the Napoleonic or Revolutionary Wars, which had involved one-day engagements in which armies were in contact for a few hours, and then separated until the next battle weeks later, WWI involved months of static trench warfare, stuck in a single place under siege conditions. This hellish setting brought with it all the nuances of classic siege conditions, including attempts to fortify front lines and men in any way possible. So, when machine guns and artillery forced soldiers underground, they went medieval.

Due to the ceaseless intensity and proximity of WWI battles, many soldiers adopted rudimentary body armor that soon began to resemble the armor worn in medieval battles. This style of armor had been abandoned with the emergence of the musketeer in the 16th century, but now, 400 years later, it was coming back.

This “medieval” body armor, though peppered with bullets and shrapnel, protected the men inside. French tankers wove chainmail onto their helmets, and this kept flying debris off their face while giving them a frightening, ancient aesthetic. Entente and German soldiers used maces, whose designs were indistinguishable from their medieval counterparts, to bash at one another in close quarters.

Suddenly, one saw anachronisms everywhere: contemporary gas masks with lance-armed cavalry; chainmail with modern steel helmets; maces wielded alongside submachine guns and grenades. These two worlds, separated by hundreds of years, found themselves drawn together once again, and for a brief period, the common private had a phantasmal association with a French chevalier at Mirebeau, or a Scottish swordsman at Stirling Bridge, or an English archer at Agincourt.

And if the latter two examples seem hyperbolic, think again: WWI’s medieval style of warfare was revived in parts of WWII. Take, for example, “Mad” Jack Churchill, an English soldier who, while serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940, became the only soldier of WWII to be credited with a confirmed longbow kill. He carried his longbow, along with a Scottish broadsword, in future battles, and he invaded mainland Europe carrying these ancient weapons—in a hilarious and quixotic episode, he even managed to take some prisoners with his sword. This was no LARP—this was advanced warfare, with a medieval twist.

This trend was not unique to Europe. In the years leading to WWII, Japan, which had modernized rapidly in the 19th century, resurrected its samurai past and impressed upon its warriors a Bushido code of honor, such that the Japanese soldiers in WWII saw themselves not as modern men, but as resurrections of their ancestors. They, too, wore medieval-style armor, in the form of senninbari, or belts that were superstitiously believed to ward off bullets. So while flying propellor aircraft and driving tanks, Japanese soldiers carried samurai traditions from a distant past.

Why did these soldiers do it? Why, when suddenly confronted with weapons more powerful than society had ever seen, many troops chose to put on medieval-style protection, pick up swords and maces, and fight like their great^¹² grandparents? There are the aforementioned practical concerns, sure—the necessity of protecting oneself from shrapnel and debris—but also higher ideals, the last grasping at Romantic principles in the moment the world was disappearing into the pit of modernity from which it would never emerge. Ernst Jünger, a German soldier in WWI, wrote in his memoir Storm of Steel:


One hears it said very often and very mistakenly that the infantry battle has degenerated to an uninteresting butchery. On the contrary, to-day more than ever it is the individual that counts. Everyone who has seen these princes in their own realm knows these knights, with their hard, set faces, brave to madness, tough and agile to leap forward or back. Trench warfare is the bloodiest, wildest, and most brutal of all warfare, yet it has [the greatest chivalry].”


Jünger’s experience of seeing the modern, mechanized war as a natural continuation of medieval battles was not isolated. In the First World War’s Middle Eastern theatre, T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—exclusively rode on a camel or a horse in traditional Bedouin garb, and he fought with a jambiya dagger, and his troops conducted ambushes of Ottoman columns in a form not very different than Saladin’s cavalry during the Crusades—all while fighting airplanes and machineguns!

Echoes of this anachronistic adherence to medieval traditions continues into the modern day. Britain still awards knighthoods, although most often to celebrities, and we call people such as Elton John and Patrick Stewart “Sir ______.” Independent companies grant lordships to buyers of barren plots of land in the Orkney Islands. There are “Medieval Times” restaurants throughout the U.S. where, for a hefty fee, you can eat turkey legs while watching actors joust one other. Even going to watch sports forces you to remember medieval knights; in 2022, I visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where it was claimed that modern hockey helmets, pads, and gloves were deliberately designed with medieval armor in mind. In 2019, China and India engaged in a surreal scrum in which they clubbed each other rather than use modern weapons, and recently, the IDF was filmed using a medieval-style catapult to launch projectiles into Southern Lebanon.

We live with history every day: it’s the houseguest we can never expel. But sometimes, this guest reminds us that linear progress often leaps headfirst one thousand years into the past and finds a comfortable home in traditions from the medieval age.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “I do not know with which weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.” World War Three looks more likely by the day. So who knows, in some not-so-distant future, you might find yourself tying a baking pan to your chest, jumping on a horse, and jousting your next-door neighbor for the last tin of Spam? Stranger things have happened.

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