Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘battles’


Battles Were Fought by Mutual Consent

Most battles were fought on relatively flat and open plains, with terrain used (if at all) only to shield one’s flanks. This is partly because of the unwieldiness of the formations involved, and partly because the enemy could always choose not to attack a strong defensive position, so battles tended to occur mostly by mutual consent when both sides were willing to fight in the open. On the battlefield, defensive features like river lines could be a double-edged sword, as the enemy could focus his attack wherever he chose, and you would have to attack across the river yourself to exploit his weakness elsewhere. Adopting too cautious and defensive an approach could also shift the psychological balance between the armies, and so prove counter-productive in terms of overall combat effectiveness. Without this moral pressure to come down onto the plain or move away from the safety of one’s camp and take the risk of engaging on equal terms, many confrontations would have ended in indecisive stand-offs, given the enormously high stakes involved when the losing army was likely to be completely shattered and have its troops massacred in the pursuit.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 222-23

Emphasis mine.

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.

Quality and Resilience Determined Victory in Ancient Battles

Victory in ancient battle did not go to the ‘big battalions’, as the processes of combat were very different to the mutually devastating firepower duels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [C.E.]. Fatalities from missile fire or mêlée seem to have been remarkably light until one force turned tail and exposed itself to one-sided slaughter. When victorious armies did suffer significant losses, these were usually concentrated in parts of their force that had given way before the eventual triumph. Hence, raw numbers were much less important than fighting spirit and a fearsome reputation, as good troops could stand firm even against great odds and could sometimes panic less-resolute adversaries into flight even before physical combat was joined. By far the most important variable in the model is troop quality, to reflect this psychological factor and also to show how good troops like Spartan hoplites and Roman legionaries could use their superiority in drill and discipline to achieve tactical advantage.

…Although combat did not involve heavy mutual fatalities, it does seem to have revolved around shorter-term attritional mechanisms such as wounds, exhaustion, psychological strain and ammunition depletion, so the distinction between fresh troops and those who have become ‘spent’ becomes a key means of tracking the progressive loss of resilience.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 221-22

Rarity of the Set-Piece Battle

While perhaps the most stunning manifestation of combat and the prominently mentioned events of military history, set-piece engagements…were never quite the norm of war. More often, armed conflict was less dramatic, intermittent, and played out in landscapes not conducive to conventionally marshaled armies and navies, and it involved civilians. We associate the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Guagamela and the fight on the Hydaspes River with the military genius of Alexander the Great, but he spent far more time fighting irregular forces in counterinsurgency efforts throughout the Balkans, the Hindu Kush, and Bactria.

Nevertheless big battles—or so generals dreamed—could sometimes change entire conflicts in a matter of hours, which in turn might alter politics and the fate of millions for decades. It is with history’s rare battle, not the more common dirty war, insurgency, or street fighting, that we typically associate war poetry, commemoration, and, for good or evil, radical changes of fortune and the martial notions of glory and honor. …

Victor Davis Hanson, The Father Of Us All, pp. 106-107

Not Quite a Chessboard: the Plain as Battlefield

In warfare the plain—a relatively large, open, and uninterrupted battleground—is like a giant chessboard. With room to maneuver, opposing commanders may have many options. They must weigh up strengths and weaknesses—their own as well as the enemy’s. Flanking, probing, enveloping, it is a game in which numbers and maneuverability are often critical. As in chess, the battle often involves the constriction and isolation of key elements of the opposing force. But like all geographic features, the picture is not quite as two dimensional as the word “plain” might suggest. We are not talking about beautifully smooth playing fields, but individual sites with their own unique characteristics. For example…Issus was fought on a coastal plain in what is now Turkey where movement was constricted on both flanks: one by the sea, the other by inland foothills. As it happened, these geographic “bookends” worked in Alexander’s favor, as they boxed in the larger number of his Persian foe and to some extent neutralized the numerical discrepancy. Some 2,000 years later General George Custer was to learn a different lesson about numbers and maneuverability on the plains of Montana. In open spaces, movement and superior numbers are king. Brought to bay on his lonely, isolated knoll, outgunned and overrun, there could be only one, grisly, outcome. He was also to learn that plains have their own wrinkles and folds. At Little Big Horn the numerous ravines (coulees) were capable of hiding significant numbers of his enemy….

Stephenson, Michael (editor), Battlegrounds, p. 13

Emphasis mine.

Battle Casualties in the Ancient World

…Taken together the data [on ancient battles] suggest that seven of every ten soldiers of the defeated force would become casualties by day’s end. About one-third of the force would be killed and another third wounded severely enough to be left behind to die or shift for themselves on the battlefield. The victors could expect to lose to enemy arms approximately one in every ten men, either killed or wounded.

Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, From Sumer To Rome, p. 88

Few Pitched Battles But Many Sieges

Medieval strategy does indeed appear to have been dominated by two general principles: fear of the pitched battle, of the confrontation in open country, and what one could call the ‘siege mentality’, in other words ‘an automatic reaction which consisted in replying to an attack by shutting oneself up in the most easily defensible strongholds of the country’. From this emerged the shape which the majority of medieval conflicts assumed—the very slow progress of the attackers, the obstinate defense of those attacked, limited operations both in time and distance, a war of attrition (guerre d’usure), ‘a strategy of accessories’ where each combatant or group of combatants, often in an incoherent and discontinuous fashion, fought primarily for immediate material profit. Contemporaries had an expression to describe this kind of warlike activity on a reduced scale. It was the guerre guerroyante, made up of losses and recaptures, surprises, incursions, ambushes and sallies. ‘War is…above all made up of pillaging, often of sieges, sometimes of battles.’ Moreover, because of a lack of money, men, supplies and provisions, many plans failed to mature: ‘A campaign brought to a conclusion constitutes an exception, an enterprise which defies the rule.

Phillipe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, p. 219

Emphasis mine.

Battle of Leuctra

Thebian phalanxes in echelon at Leuctra

The Spartans drew up for battle in the conventional phalangial line, the best troops on the right, a few cavalrymen and light troops covering the flanks. They expected the Thebans to form in similar fashion. In such a battle the Spartans, superior both in numbers and in fighting quality, would unquestionably have been victorious. Epaminondas, however, refused to fight on Spartan terms. He quadrupled the depth of his left wing, forming a column 48 men deep and 32 wide. The remainder of his army, covered by a cavalry screen, was echeloned to his right rear in thin lines facing the left and center of the Spartan army. This is the first known example in history of the deep column of attack and of a refused flank, prototype of the holding attack and main effort of more modern times. Epaminondas personally led his left-wing column in a vigorous charge against the Spartan right, while his cavalry and the infantry of the refused center and left advanced slowly, occupying the attention of the Spartans to their front, but without engaging them. The Spartans were hopelessly confused by these novel tactics. The weight of the Theban column soon crushed the Spartan right. Epaminondas completed the victory by wheeling against the exposed flank of the remaining Spartans, who promptly fled when simultaneously engaged by the Theban center and right. The Spartans lost over 2,000 men; Theban casualties were negligible. Spartan military prestige was shattered forever.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, pp. 42-43