I often struggle with having massive standing armies in fantasy worlds. As you probably know from this blog - I have a tendency to dwell (probably too much) on the mundane things like feeding people and housing people. Having a large group of guys sitting around unproductively (between wars) is a drain on the entire community.
Wait! Don’t think I’m ignoring the importance of an army, whether it be fantasy or real. What I’m really saying is that letting soldiers sit around and do nothing is really bad! “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Leaving a massive group of well-armed and well-trained guys to get bored will end in disaster, or at least a military coup. So what do you do with them?
Before we get into soldiers, I want to stress the use of militias. Most of my fantasy kingdoms seem to have very few soldiers, but they have a trained militia. Militias allow for two things - peasants who are not push overs and a swelling of the army if the kingdom is ever attacked. These are good things! The army may be 2,000, but with the militia it is 10,000 trained (or at least semi-trained) soldiers - much more difficult for the invaders to take advantage of.
OK, so soldiers, between the wars. The main pursuit of soldiers if sentry duty. Sentries stand a post and look for danger, but there are several variations on how this can work. They could be wall guards, literally walking the walls of the castle or city wall. This is boring work; watch out for idle hands. They can be border guards, standing sentry at the kingdom’s boundaries. Here they are often the guys supporting the customs and tax officials. A tax collector standing on the border is not going to be able to collect from a caravan with dozens of guards, but a tax collector backed by two platoons of armed and ready soldiers stands a far better chance. But there are also those soldiers who’s job is to patrol the forests and middle lands, typically for bandits. This is a sentry job too, just a moving one. Most folks probably think this is what soldiers always do between major wars, but there is so much more they could be doing.
- Construction - The Roman Legions were great builders. They built the roads and the walls. Some folks believe that Hadrian’s Wall was built simply to keep the legions busy so they wouldn’t have time to think about assimilating with the Scots. Today we have the Army Corps of Engineers. They build all sorts of major projects, though they probably are not a material part of our forces (by numbers). So the precedent is definitely there to have soldiers building stuff.
- Messengers - Does your fantasy world have a postal service? If so, who’s carrying the messages? Can they be trusted? Letting military units carry the messages, especially if they are cavalry, gets the job done, keeps the soldiers busy, protects the message by force, and allows the unit to review region (checking for those pesky bandits and poachers).
- Police - Soldiers are not police. Soldiers fight (at least typically - I know this whole post is about what else they do). Police keep the peace and investigate. That’s not the same thing. That’s why standard soldiers do not make for good policemen; it’s just two different disciplines. However, using soldiers as police is a time honored tradition. Soldiers are best used when extra police are needed - like when there is a riot brewing. At these points, no one really cares if the soldiers are too rough - they do what needs to be done. Do be careful here, because if your culture believes in people possibly being innocent, sending a bunch of spear stabbers to “capture” the suspects usually doesn’t end well.
- Athletes - I don’t want to get into whining over the “amateurs” that go to the modern Olympic games, but some countries clearly believe that they can employ athletes within the army. This may seem frivolous, but what sports are popular in your fantasy world? In mine, it’s mainly what we see as track and field events. Having military units who are training for running, jumping and throwing events, and then performing those events at public competitions - that’s the stuff that national pride is made of. Whether it is unit against unit or kingdom against kingdom, these events keep the soldiers busy and keep the public entertained. I do not advocate gladiatorial competitions between soldiers.
What else? Any of a huge number of things! Construction might also include such things as digging canals, painting buildings, or building fences. What about ship building? There might be reason to have the soldiers trained as smiths and be making armor and weapons for themselves and for the militia. There is always training, but training can get boring pretty fast. Military exercises are less boring, but still training. Soldiers often have some fashion of first aid training - can they use that to help civilians in peacetime? What about firemen? Someone needs to pull down burning buildings, and soldiers are typically brave enough to do it. There are other fields as well. If you agreed with having military smiths, then having soldiers mine the iron or cure the leather seem reasonable next steps. In Forsbury, it is common to go from being one of the Baron’s cowboys to being one of his Border Watch (light cav).
Not enough? There is no rule that everyone has to do the same thing, so break it up a bit. Also remember that an army lives or dies on their logistics. Not to suggest that the soldiers take up farming their own food, but they might be active in moving barrels and cases of food around from ship to storehouse and from storehouse to barracks. Simply transporting goods around the city for their own purposes should keep quite a number of them busy at all times.