When nations go to war, the most tragic aspect is the disruption and annihilation of civilian lives. International media has been reporting the robust resistance put up by Ukrainian citizens in many cities against advancing Russian troops in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The Telegraph has a riveting account of the unique contribution being made to the defense effort by Ukrainian blacksmiths through mass production of caltrops, a defense device widely used in medieval times.
According to the Daily Star , in the city of Rivne, yet to come under attack, the Art of Steel workshop known for its production of medieval armor for cosplay and historical re-enactment has switched to the manufacture of thorny caltrops, also known as “hedgehogs,” hoping, literally, to halt the advancing Russian army in its tracks.
The smithy has shared online images of the caltrops it is making. The large, spiked steel weapons are designed to block roads and burst tires. “Helping to protect the city. Who knows how to weld, make ‘hedgehogs’ for checkpoints,” said the post accompanying the pictures, according to Vice.
This Roman caltrop is on display at the Westphalian Museum of Archaeology Germany, and similar ones have been manufactured by the thousands by Ukrainian blacksmiths for the current Russian invasion. (Bullenwächter / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Caltrop Defensive Weapons Have A Long History
Calling the caltrop the “ideal passive weapon,” an article on Historynet says that they are cheap, portable, durable, easy to produce and use, and that they are effective in most settings. Also, unlike other weapons, caltrops have never been “replaced” by more efficient modern equivalents.
The very first caltrops were basically a big wooden ball from which four metal spikes protruded in such a way that when three were planted on the ground, one always pointed straight up. These highly effective defensive devices have been around since antiquity.
Sown on the battlefield , and sometimes partially buried, caltrops were much more difficult to detect than elaborate, time-consuming systems of pits and stakes, and served to severely discourage attacks on vulnerable points. They were used by the Greeks, Roman and Persians to good effect. They figured in many prominent battles, sometimes even helping defending armies turn the tide.
In the Middle Ages in Europe , the caltrop was simplified and refined in design by blacksmiths. Instead of a ball, two double-pointed strips of iron were twisted and hammered together. By this time, too, the caltrop was in use throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. In China, although eventually forced to surrender to the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Khan owing to their food supplies running out, the Chin fortress of Chü-yung Kuan was effectively defended against the Mongols for more than a month and the humble, unassuming caltrops were a significant aspect of their defenses.
Although its popularity declined somewhat as time went on, no one has ever developed an equally deadly and effective substitute for the medieval caltrop.
Crow’s feet boards studded with spikes are also a form of caltrop. These were laid on the ground by the Russian Army during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War. On display at Royal Engineers Museum, Kent. (Gaius Cornelius / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Caltrops May Change The War In the Ukraine!
Currently, in the Ukraine-Russia war, caltrops have been extensively deployed by Ukrainian civilian defense forces. The Rivne workshop told the Telegraph that they have made hundreds of hedgehogs in preparation for the worst-case scenario. “Half [are] connected by chains, the rest are separate. Such spikes are made in all cities of Ukraine, we are not the only ones. Many [forges] create anti-tank barriers, some make stoves to heat the military. All the masters who know how to work with metal are trying to help the army in some way.”
In Kyiv too, construction workers are turning their energies to fashioning salvaged girders into triangular hedgehog barricades as well as smaller barriers for wheeled vehicles. “We build things. We do not know how to fight, but we knew we could be useful,” said foreman Zakhar to the Telegraph.
The talented and famous blacksmiths of the Ukraine are making medieval protective weapons, like caltrops, to slow and even stop the Russians in their tracks! ( master1305 / Adobe Stock)
Ukraine’s Iron Reserves and Smithies
Ukrainian armor is actually quite famous. Vice quotes a Facebook post from the Art of Steel team who said, “Ukrainian armorers are famous in the amateur blacksmith community for their work. If you’ve been to a [convention] and seen someone in a steel breastplate, there’s a decent chance it came from a Ukrainian forge.”
The reason Ukrainian blacksmiths have developed these skills over the ages is because of the unique mineral properties of its sedimentary rock, according to a Jordan Newman, a Texas-based amateur blacksmith and geologist. Rich in iron ore, these Precambrian metamorphosed sedimentary rocks are easy to refine and the smelting doesn’t produce any slag that could contaminate the iron. As a result, Ukraine has become a hub of iron production and “people visit Ukraine for apprenticeships. Some seek the raw talent that comes from generational trade. Others want to embrace the old ways.”
In this current 2022 episode, Ukrainian civilians are resorting to all the weapons in their arsenal to resist the Russians. The age-old expertise of Ukrainian blacksmiths is being put to good use as they prepare to defend their cities with pre-modern but still very potent barricading techniques known as caltrops in medieval times.
Top image: The caltrops the Ukrainian Art of Steel workshop has been manufacturing with traditional blacksmithing for the current war with Russia. Source: Art of Steel
By Sahir Pandey