The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Coordination of different arms

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

An encirclement during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598). Encircling an Army with your own is one of the greatest feats in command as it requires complex coordination of multiples forces.

It’s one thing to move a relatively small unit around. That’s quite easy. So I’m told. Mind you, the first time I tried drilling a troop (around 30 Royal Marines) when I was a sergeant in the Royal Marines, I wanted them to turn right. So, I gave the order: Right Turn.

It was at this point that I realised that they were facing me, so the direction that I wanted them to turn was, in fact, to their left. However, one doesn’t get to be a Royal Marine sergeant without picking up a bit of low animal cunning. I explained to them that they were sloppy on About Turns, and I gave them several for practise. When I was finished, they were facing the correct way, the way I wanted. To this day, I don’t know if I fooled anyone.

But, pointless anecdotes aside, moving as a single small group is relatively easy. Moving several groups isn’t. That’s why modern militaries constantly have exercises that basically involve getting a bunch of people from point A to point B in fighting condition. The same requirement is true in pre-gunpowder times.

One of the secrets of success of Alexander the Great was his ability to time the moves of the component parts of his army such that they struck at the right time in the right place. We’ll discuss this more in the chapter on Command and Control, but the essential point here is that without constant training and practise, confusion will arise and things will go wrong. There are many, many examples of battles lost because groups ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps some new sergeant had given the order to Turn Right when they meant Turn Left.

As a couple of illustrations from the wars between Rome and Carthage, demonstrating experience in commanders and the trained quality of their troops.

On the Roman side.

209 BC. The young Roman general Scipio met Hasdrubal in battle at Baecula. Scipio’s troops were a mix of inexperienced and severely demoralised by a massive defeat in which his father and uncle died commanding. Scipio only carried out basic manoeuvres that his troops were capable of – marching forward and carrying out a minor pincer movement. It was enough to secure victory, but not enough to prevent Hasdrubal from continuing on his way towards Italy with the intention of reinforcing Hannibal.

206 BC. A more experienced Scipio, with troops with greater experience and morale, and with several key Iberian tribes having switched sides to join them, come the the battle of Ilipa. Scipio deployed his forces in the opposite manner to usual, undertook some complex manoeuvres, which resulted in the complete encirclement of the enemy, who were slaughtered. Attempting to do this three years before would have been disastrous. This time, with more experienced troops, it worked brilliantly.

202 BC. The highly experienced and confident Scipio with very well drilled veterans, faced Hannibal at the battle of Zama. The battle resulted in the complete rout and destruction of Hannibal and the Carthaginian forces.

On the Cathaginian side.

Hannibal inherited a good army from his father and brother-in-law. He managed to move the army to another theatre of war entirely in a remarkable feat of logistics. He wielded an impressive coalition together, and fought a series of battles, each more impressive than the last. The battle of Ticinus was a solid, competent performance that inflicted losses on the Romans and drove them from the field; the battle of Trebia saw Hannibal attempt and nearly succeed at an encirclement. The Roman heavy infantry held firm, and was able to retire, although the rest of the Roman forces were badly mauled. The battle of Trasimene involved a well-organised night march followed by a brilliant ambush that basically routed a Roman army. With Hannibal and his army having gained experience and morale, they came to the battle of Cannae, which has gone down in history as one of the most crushing victories of all time, a masterpiece of its type.

After this, Rome engaged in attrition, and Hannibal’s veterans were whittled away by battle casualties, disease, or wasting away in sieges. By 203 BC, wastage of his forces meant that he had to leave Italy and return home to Carthage. In 202 BC, he faced Scipio at the battle of Zama. His army was new and inexperienced, and his tactics at Zama were, by necessity, much cruder, resulting in a crushing defeat for the Carthaginian forces.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.