The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Operations

By David Flin

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

The bloody consequences of the fighting in the Emu War

“Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals talk about logistics.” That might be a well-known saying, but it is wrong on two counts.

Firstly, in my experience, professionals talk about promotion prospects, sport, food, romantic endeavours (or lack thereof), criticising the current government, and so on. They rarely talk about anything else.

Secondly, and more seriously, they talk about operations, which includes logistics but isn’t limited to it.

Operations is basically the art (or maybe it’s a science) of getting an army to the battlefield in the best possible condition to win. It involves making sure that the army can march, working out the best routes, trying to select the battlefield you want rather than the one the enemy wants to use. It includes keeping track of the location and state of both your own forces and the enemy forces, making sure that the sub-commanders know what to do should an unexpected situation arise, that there are scouts out checking the route ahead, that the troops are sufficiently supplied and that everything is where it should be. For example, it is all well and good to have plenty of reserve arrows for your archers, but it’s not much use if the archers are over a mile away from the reserve arrows.

There is a fundamental truism that I will cover in more detail in the chapter on logistics, but which is especially relevant here. Big armies starve and little armies get beaten.

Trying to get a large army to the right place at the right time in the right condition is what operations is all about.

There are any number of aspects of operations to examine for good and bad examples. There are a lot of disparate elements involved in bringing forces to the battlefield in a state to fight effectively.

One example that I am all too aware of was the operational loading of equipment onto ships for the British Task Force as it set off for the Falklands in 1982. To save a few hours, everything was loaded onto the ships as soon as it arrived.

This completely neglected the fact that operational loading makes life easier at the other end when unloading. This is quite important when unloading could be taking place while under fire. When you go shopping, you pack carefully. Fragile stuff at the top, heavy stuff at the bottom, raw meat separate from other consumables and cleaning products separate from food. It’s basic stuff and everyone does it.

Operational loading is similar, but with one important difference. The stuff that goes in at the top is the stuff that you will need first. Stuff that you won’t need immediately goes in at the bottom. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that is operational loading in a nutshell.

By throwing everything onto ships as soon as it arrived, operational loading went to Hell in a handbasket. It enabled the ships to sail a few hours earlier. They later needed to pause during their journey Down South to reorganise equipment and personnel. It delayed the ships by a couple of days, and one helicopter trans-shipping an SAS detachment from one ship to another crashed into the sea with no survivors.

Twenty-two lives lost and the ships arrived later than they need have done, and all because there was a panicked haste to get the ships underway at the start.

Another example from the modern era of poor operations, this time leading to perhaps the most ignominious defeat of military forces ever, is from Australia.

In 1932, wild emus were causing damage to crops in Western Australia. Naturally, the strategy chosen by the Australian government was to get the military involved to conduct a campaign to cull the emus such that they (the emus, not the government) were no longer an agricultural menace. Australia declared war on the emus.

A detachment of soldiers with machine guns under the command of Major Meredith was sent to deal with the emu menace. The battle started on 2 November, 1932. The Australians tried to lure the emus into an ambush, but were outwitted by the emus who split into small groups and kept running out of range.

By 4 November, the Australian forces had come up with a new plan. They saw that the emus tended to congregate near a dam, so they set up an ambush there. Over 1000 emus approached the position. The machine-gunners waited until the birds were at close-range before opening fire.

One of the important elements of operations is ensuring that your troops are properly equipped. In this case, properly equipped with weapons that work. The machinegun jammed after a dozen rounds, and the emus fled out of range.

Over the next few days, the Australian army mounted machineguns on the back of trucks and tried to chase the emus. However, the emus were operationally more effective than the Australian army. The emus retreated onto rough terrain. This terrain was such that the emus could run faster than the trucks could drive. Indeed, the terrain was sufficiently rough that in trying to keep up, the trucks were broken.

After a week or so, the Australian army admitted defeat. The cost of culling the emus was too high for it to be worthwhile. Furthermore, the Australian government was unhappy at the negative publicity that was being developed.

As a result, the Australian army was withdrawn and the emus won a great victory.

The emus had demonstrated better operational awareness than the Australian army. They had chosen terrain that suited them better than the Australian army. The emus were smart enough to avoid the many ambushes laid by the Australian army. When facing small numbers of opponents with greater firepower than they had, the emus were smart enough to scatter and avoid damage.

It is left as an exercise for the reader to work out how the war may have developed had the emus been armed.

How not to choose a battlefield.

Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay,

There are those who say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a charismatic leader, a charming and romantic ideal of a putative royal family. That’s as maybe. He was also a useless general who got his own army butchered because he chose an idiotic place to fight.

His forces consisted largely of Highlanders armed with heavy broadsword, fearsome in close-quarters combat. The Government forces they faced had artillery and muskets – good at range but the troops were unreliable in close-quarters.

It doesn’t take a military genius to work out that the best way the Highlanders could fight the battle was to close quickly and get into melee combat as fast as possible.

The Prince chose to fight on Culloden Moor. It’s peat bog without a single scrap of cover or concealment. Moving is hard work – you sink to your ankles at every step, and the mud grips your ankle. Each step is an effort. You can only manage a slow stagger, regardless of how strong you might be. All the time they were advancing, they without a scrap of cover and targets for the firepower of the Government forces.

The Government forces occupied a farm and had a dry stone wall as cover, and the wall allowed the opportunity for concealed flanking moves.

It was an idiotic place for Bonnie Prince Charlie to choose to give battle. What made the choice worse was that broken terrain of hills and mountains were just a few miles away, with narrow paths, plenty of cover, and countless opportunities to close the range very swiftly and give the Government artillery no time to deploy.

What made it worse was that rain was coming. That was obvious to anyone who knew the area. Like the Highlanders he commanded. Rain would have made the use of gunpowder less reliable and given his troops additional protection as they closed.

The Prince gave victory to the Government forces on a silver platter in a truly inept display of generalship. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether a good general wins a battle or a bad general loses one. That’s not the case here. The fate of the Highlanders was decided the moment that the Prince chose that battlefield.

Things had been exacerbated by the fiasco of the night march before. The Jacobites planned to carry out a night attack on the government encampment. It was a complicated plan that involved several separate forces avoiding tracks. They got hopelessly delayed, and an hour before dawn, they were still well over 2 miles from the Government encampment. So the attack was cancelled, and they went back to their own encampment, everyone in the Jacobite army having lost a might’s sleep for no result.

During the night march, many Jacobite soldiers had dispersed to search for food. Inevitably, several hundred of these failed to find their way back to the army for the battle. Which was probably just as well for them, given the outcome.

This was a clear situation where the outcome of the battle had been determined before it had even begun. Tactics simply determined how the victory was won, not which side would win.


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