The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Night Battles

By David Flin

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

The Battle With Torches by Romanian painter Theodor Aman. It depicts the The Night Attack of Târgovişte, a skirmish fought between forces of Vlad III the Impaler of Wallachia and Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on Thursday, June 17, 1462.

Night battles were unusual in the pre-modern period. This was because it is incredibly difficult to see. It’s dark at night. Cavalry become next to useless. Riders (and horses) can’t see the ground ahead, which means that it is very easy for a horse to stumble on a patch of uneven ground and break a leg. The only way to reduce that risk is for the horses to go slowly, which rather defeats the whole point of cavalry. They can, for short periods, move very fast, aiding in scouting or adding momentum to a charge.

The problem of a horse falling adds to the problems the unit faces. If one horse slips or breaks a leg, it is going to fall and spill the rider. This will create two new obstacles and, in the darkness of night, no-one behind will be able to see them. Which will quickly create a multiple pile up. It will cause chaos.

In addition, it’s hard to see what other people are doing, and nearly impossible to see what other units are doing. That makes controlling any action nigh on impossible. The commander of the army won’t be able to see whether units he has sent to do specific tasks has done them or not. A unit might have got lost, and be approaching friendly troops under the assumption that they were enemy.

Even if the unit does its task, it has no way of knowing whether other friendly units have done so. It has no way of reliably sending a message to the army commander – there’s a very good chance any messenger will get lost in the dark.

It’s impossible for the army commander to have any idea what the enemy is doing. It’s next to impossible for him to have much idea what his own forces are doing.

Even today, with all the night vision technology and advanced communication systems that are available, night battles are hard to control. Inexperienced troops are at a huge disadvantage. That was the reason why, during the Falklands War of 1982, the British troops almost invariably launched attacks at night. The troops had trained in these and, while the conditions inconvenienced them, those conditions made life very difficult indeed for the Argentine forces who had not trained in night fighting.

With modern technology, night battles are very hard to control. In the pre-modern period, they were practically impossible to control.

Night Raids

More typical in pre-modern times would be a night raid – an attack by a small, experienced group on a fixed target, typically an encampment. For such raids to be a success (or, indeed, anything other than a futile fiasco), a number of things need to be in place.

The target needs to be unaware. If there are alert sentries or terrain blocks, such as a constructed wall, or both, there will be no surprise element and a raid will be trapped.

If the active portion of a raid takes a long time, the defenders will have chance to get organised. Numbers alone will tell against the raiders.

If the raiders get lost in approaching the target – easily done at night – there will be no raid. Indeed, there are tales (probably apocryphal) of raiders getting lost and ending up attacking their own camp. Alan Moore, in his military history DR and Quinch Get Drafted, relates a tale very much along these lines. This example was written as humour, but believe me when I say that the premise is all too plausible. Although, to be fair, not many pre-modern armies had access to a “Bazooka Nuker”. It sounds like a fun toy. I digress.

The point is, however, that night raids are at best tricky operations that require skilled, well-briefed troops who have a very clear idea of what the objective is and the ability to get away quickly once the raid has been made. Such troops are valuable to any commander, and the risk of failure on such a mission is high. Calculating the risk/benefit balance is a tricky task for any commander.

Night Marches

Night marches are the most common form of nocturnal activity of armies on the move. These will typically be to gain an advantageous position in the morning, either by taking a key terrain feature or by being able to ambush the enemy on the march or in camp.

Night marches aren’t easy. There is a high chance of getting lost. Local guides are almost essential, and it will certainly take longer than expected to reach the destination.

Organisation of the night march is paramount. There is a scene in Band of Brothers (Episode 3, Carentan) in which the force is moving through foggy conditions, and one section constantly loses contact with the rest of the force. That is quite likely to happen; keeping a force together during a night march is a difficult task. Individual units can go astray, either deliberately or accidentally. The force will get thoroughly disorganised on the march and will need to spend considerable time and effort reorganising at the destination. Individuals can absent themselves to either leave the army, or simply conduct some freelance pillaging. Horses can get injured – hidden potholes or tree roots can cause a horse to stumble and break a leg.

Forget about doing a night march in silence. It’s hard enough getting half a dozen troops into a state where they can move at night without making too much noise. You check the bottom of your men’s boots to ensure that there is no metal that will clink against stone. You make sure that everything on the soldier is fastened down so that it doesn’t jingle when they move. Then you prove it by getting them to jump up and down and see what got forgotten and makes a noise. You make sure that anything designed to make a noise is turned off or disabled. You confiscate whistles and horns and other noisemakers. You tell them, time after time, that they will need to avoid chattering or grumbling (which is usually the same thing). You make sure there is a white mark on the back of each of them, so that during the march, the next person in the line can see where the man ahead is and doesn’t shout out: “Hey, where are you?”

Despite all of this, you’ll still make a noise. When there’s an army on move, it will make a lot of noise, especially if animals are involved. There isn’t a hope of surprising an enemy that has scouts out on the lookout for this sort of thing.

Night marches are not for inexperienced troops.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC) between the Carthaginians and Rome is a good example of the effective use of a night march. The road was on the north shore of the lake; with low hills north of the road. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal set up camp to the east, visible to the Romans.

When night came, Hannibal sent different parts of his army on night marches to the north of the lake to take up positions from which they were able to ambush the Roman army.

Come the morning, the Roman force marched towards the Carthaginian camp, in marching order rather than battle order. Flaminius, the Roman commander, didn’t have any scouts out on distant reconnaissance.

Then the Carthaginians sprang the ambush, with devastating results.

Other battle types

The other types of battle – siege, maritime, urban, and so on – all have their own distinctive features. Covering them all in any detail would be an extensive task, and there is not enough room in this book to adequately cover them. They will be in the Advanced Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Military, which I will write if this book sells well. If you want to see them, make sure this book sells well.


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