Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘infantry’


Time is the Most Neglected Dimension

Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.

The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 223-24

Standard Battle Array of Ancient Armies

Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, p. 222

Emphasis mine.

An All-Around Mounted Warrior

The 6th-century [C.E. Byzantine] soldier was in fact much more than a cavalryman: he had become an all-around mounted warrior. With his bow he could skirmish at a distance, but he was also heavily armoured and well equipped for close mounted combat. When a steady force was needed to hold ground, he was quite happy to dismount and fight as a heavy infantryman. On many occasions Belisarius took only cavalrymen with him, and when Narses needed steady infantry, he dismounted his cavalry.

Simon MacDowall, Late Roman Cavalryman: 236-565 AD, p. 24

Hand-to-Hand Combat Was Rare in Ancient Warfare

…No one now alive has witnessed combat between organized forces using hand-to-hand weapons, for the last vestige of it disappeared one hundred fifty years ago when the bayonet charge became obsolete. We tend to think (assisted by the movies) that direct shock combat of the sort described above was much more common in premodern warfare than it was. In reality, it was always difficult to make foot soldiers seriously engage one another with edged weapons because of their natural tendency to keep out of one another’s way. We have already seen that the Persian and other Eastern armies put no faith in heavy infantry assault. The main function of their spearmen was to provide cover for their archers, and battles were won by cavalry and archers with a minimum of physical contact. Only the Greeks had developed a style of warfare that made shock combat inevitable, because their infantry formation was no loose huddle but a tight rectangle (phalanx) often eight ranks deep or more, its heavy shields a collective locking device, its sheer depth and weight propelling the men in the front ranks onto the spears of the enemy.

Doyne Dawson, The Origins of Western Warfare, p. 48

Early Firearm Tactics: Pike and Arquebus

The arquebusiers, belonging to the same unit as the pikemen, did not operate completely independently…. In the absence of obstructed terrain, the square of pikemen provided the only place of safety where the light infantry might take refuge from the enemy’s heavy cavalry. They could take a position on the flank of or behind the square, or, should the cavalry attack in flank or rear, many could find safety in the front ranks where the wall of pikes would protect them. In turn, the arquebusiers’ fire could support the pikemen’s defense, and the masses of the enemy’s heavy infantry or the horses and men of the attacking heavy cavalry would provide fine targets for arquebus balls. The Spaniards gradually increased the proportion of arquebusiers to pikemen until, by the end of the 16th century [C.E.], their regiments approached equal numbers of light and heavy infantry.

Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, p. 191

Transformation of the Hoplite Phalanx

In the two great battles of the Peloponnesian War, at Delium and Mantinea, one sees the very beginning of the Greek infantry tactics of deep columns, reserves, integrated cavalry units, adaptation to terrain, and secondary maneuvers, which would only accelerate in the fourth century [B.C.E.] under Epaminondas and come to fruition with Philip and Alexander. Hoplite battle in the Peloponnesian War began a slow transformation, from phalanxes rather artificially deciding wars to hoplites becoming part of an integrated force of horsemen, light-armed troops, and missile troops that could win theaters of conflict on the basis of military efficacy rather than traditional protocol.

Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other, p. 141

Assyrian Warfare: Iron, Organization, and Espionage

The army relied mainly upon archers and pikemen, some very lightly armored, some protected by a cuirass and a conical helmet, and carrying a short sword for close fighting. Coordinated with this infantry was the cavalry, which at first fought from chariots. Later on, when the warrior rode the horse (about 700 [B.C.E.]), he had the infantryman’s bow and spear. Still later came the most original Assyrian contribution to the art of warfare, siege artillery. No fortified city could withstand the assault of Assyrian engines. A choice body of troops fought beside the king, but it was the foot-bowmen who wrought havoc on the enemy.

The Assyrian army’s power cannot be entirely explained by the bravery of the individual soldier, the competence of the king-general, or the sheer numerical strength so easy to attain in a country where every able-bodied man was subject to military service. Perhaps it is better explained by the theory that the Assyrians used iron extensively. Indeed something like a revolution in the metal industry apparently took place under Sargon II (722-705 [B.C.E.]) when he invaded Urartu and exploited its iron mines. Cunning, too, aided Assyrian armies: an efficient espionage and intelligence service was conducted by the royal governors and bureaucrats in the provinces and centered in the king’s palace. Frequently when the troops entered a country they were aided by carefully organized fifth columns.

Vincent Scramuzza, The Ancient World, p. 89-90

Emphasis mine.

Assyrian Army of the Sargonid Period

The Assyrian army in the Sargonid period had a potential magnitude of several hundreds of thousands of troops, although a call-up of the entire force for a campaign was extremely rare. Supreme command of the army rested with the king and, immediately under him, the “field-marshal”…. The army was divided into units of various sizes and types; but the basic division was the “company”…of fifty men under a “captain”…and this unit was in turn broken down into files of ten men. An officer carried a mace as a symbol of his authority.

The levying of troops was the primary responsibility of the captains, each of whom had a certain number of villages under his command, and the captains were in turn responsible to the provincial governor. By the Sargonid age there was also a standing army which was under the direct authority of the king, no doubt created as a counter-balance to the potential misuse of military power by the provincial governors. The king also had his own bodyguard of infantry and cavalry. The troops recruited within Assyria proper were spread around the empire as much as possible, since they were the most loyal, and they constituted the chariotry and cavalry divisions. The infantry consisted largely of foreigners, mainly Aramaeans. Some foreign groups became specialized units. For example, the Ituaeans, an Aramaic people, were entrusted with special tasks such as escort duty throughout the empire.

Garrisons and barracks were scattered over the empire, but the military headquarters was a massive armoury in the Assyrian capital. Here was stationed a large portion of the troops, animals, and equipment of the standing army, and there were, in addition, royal apartments for the king to occupy when he wished. At each New Year there was a grand inspection at the armoury when the king reviewed his troops and their equipment….

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume III, part 2

Tactical Capabilities of Medieval Weapon Systems

With heavy infantry specialized to resist heavy cavalry and light infantry indispensable in sieges and finding its most effective employment in the field against light cavalry, the art of war about the year 1200 [C.E.] had these clearly distinguishable capabilities (using the symbol → to mean was superior to):

heavy infantry → heavy cavalry
heavy cavalry → light infantry
light infantry → light cavalry
light cavalry → both heavy infantry and heavy cavalry.

tactical schematic in two dimensions: infantry vs. cavalry, heavy vs. light

These relationships are conveniently summarized in schematic [above], in which A means ability to attack successfully in the direction of the arrow and D means ability to defend successfully in the direction of the arrow. Attack includes the capability to compel the attacked to fight; defend implies only the capacity for successful resistance but no ability to force action. The schematic assumes a flat surface.

The ability of the cavalry to dismount modifies this diagram. When the heavy cavalry dismounted it became heavy infantry, and confirmed the generalizations that the man on foot is superior to the mounted man and [that] the defensive is stronger when the same weapon systems confront one another. Light cavalry could gain comparable advantages by dismounting, and in each case the dismounted cavalry in the defense could easily take advantage of terrain or artificial obstacles, something more difficult to do mounted. Medieval soldiers grasped and often exploited the value of dismounting heavy cavalry but, lacking light cavalry, could never make use of this transformation. They did occasionally mount bowmen, giving them the strategic mobility of the light cavalry. They more rarely resorted to a similar mounting of heavy infantry, probably because of their ample supply of heavy cavalry. Yet to have mounted heavy infantry on nags would have been a far more economical solution had knights customarily fought on foot. It would have saved the considerable cost of a robust war horse and the expensive, but unused, skill in fighting mounted.

Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, p. 145-46

Archer-Pair in Assyrian and Persian Warfare

The Assyrians had made major and highly effective use of a tactical feature common in Near Eastern warfare for many centuries. This was the archer-pair, consisting of a spearman bearing a very large, light but sturdy shield made of leather and wicker, and an archer; the spearman faced the enemy and held up the shield, behind which the archer hid and fired off volleys of arrows. The Persians called such shields spara and so named these tactical units sparabara, or “shield-bearers.” Typically, the Assyrians had lined these units up side by side, forming a single row of shield carriers backed by a single row of archers. [The Persians] increased the depth of the formation and also the number of archers per shield, producing a heavier concentration of arrow shot.

Don Nardo, The Persian Empire, pp. 27-28

Heavy Infantry With a Vengeance: the Greek Phalanx

Each member of the Greek phalanx brought his own weapons and armor, an expensive and weighty proposition made largely of rust-free and easy-to-cast bronze—a quarter-inch-thick breastplate and helmet (thirty and twenty pounds respectively), greaves to protect the lower leg (three pounds apiece), a round wooden shield three feet in diameter (twenty pounds), an eight-foot thrusting spear, and a short secondary sword—a total of about seventy-five pounds, far more burdensome than the Sumerian equivalent. This was heavy infantry with a vengeance, so heavy that the most common cause of death in battle was getting knocked down and trampled. The very weight and imperviousness of this armor conditioned the whole nature of Greek phalanx warfare, slowing it down to a crawl and insuring that victory would come not through tricky maneuvers but sheer stubborn pushing.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 36

Emphasis mine.

The Despised Foot Soldier

Protected by plate armor and the pride of chivalry, the noble felt himself invulnerable and invincible and became increasingly contemptuous of the foot soldier. He believed that commoners, being excluded from chivalry, could never be relied upon in war. As grooms, baggage attendants, foragers, and road-builders—the equivalent of engineer corps—they were necessary, but as soldiers in leather jerkins armed with pikes and billhooks, they were considered an encumbrance who in a sharp fight would “melt away like snow in sunshine.” This was not simple snobbism but a reflection of experience in the absence of training. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of the Roman legion. Towns maintained trained bands of municipal police, but they tended to fill up their contingents for national defense with riff-raff good for nothing else. Abbeys had better use for their peasants than to employ their time in military drill. In any epoch the difference between a rabble and an army is training, which was not bestowed on foot soldiers called up by the arrière-ban. Despised as ineffective, they were ineffective because they were despised.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, p. 89

Emphasis mine.