The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Strategy

By David Flin

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

Chapter 4

Strategy, Operations, and Tactics.

Young group playing RISK in a street cafe. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Photo by Jorge Royan and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Military strategy, military operation, military tactics. They’re all much the same thing, aren’t they?

Well, no. They actually have distinct and separate meanings.


Military strategy is about the fundamental backdrop to a military endeavour. Should we fight? Who should we fight? What equipment do we need? To a large extent, these are the political questions providing the backdrop for the military.

For example, in 1066, King Harold of England faced potential invasion from both King Harald of Norway in the north and Duke William of Normandy in the south. Harold had the local fyrds available, as well as his own personal forces. Harold had a number of possible strategies to choose from. He could keep his forces concentrated in either the north or the south, or he could divide his force and try to defend both north and south at the same time.

Harold chose to keep his forces in the south. This was partly because he expected William to invade first, and partly because his personal lands were in the south. The intention was to defeat William, then march north if the local forces under Edwin and Morcar couldn’t defeat Harald.

As things turned out, adverse winds delayed William. Harald invaded first and defeated Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford Gate. King Harold marched north, catching the Norsemen by surprise, and annihilating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, in the south, the winds changed and William was able to cross the Channel. Harold marched all the way south again and fought the final battle of the 1066 saga at Hastings, with the hard-fought outcome that we all know.

Harold’s choice of how to dispose his forces in the initial phase was a decision of military strategy.

Strategy answers the questions:

Do we fight?

Who do we fight?

When do we fight?

How do we fight?

And, the most important question of all: What are we fighting for?

It may sound obvious, but if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, the chances are you won’t be able to do it. It may sound obvious, but it is astonishing how many people don’t work out what they want to gain from a war. As a consequence, they don’t work out how best to get that result and, as a consequence, they end up losing.

Clausewitz said that: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” He also said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”

Which is an academic’s way of saying that you don’t fight wars without a purpose and, if you do, you’re going to fail to get what you want.

The much-quoted Sun Tzu is relevant here. One thing that he said was: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

We can take the example of Henry V’s Agincourt campaign. Everyone knows that the Battle of Agincourt (1415) was a remarkable victory against the odds by the English over the French. Which is true, as far as it goes. It was, however, a rather inept campaign from the English point of view. This was because the military strategy adopted did not coincide with the political objectives.

Initially, Henry V claimed the throne of France, but was prepared to accept cash instead. France responded offering less cash and negotiations broke down. Finally, Henry invaded France. The objective was, presumably, to force the French to come to terms.

OK. The objective is to force the French to come to terms. One would have thought that this would involve demonstrating to France that it was cheaper to pay up than to fight. A reprisal raid, burning and despoiling the countryside is one way of doing that. Marching and taking major cities is another.

Arranging for allies to threaten France – easily done given the loose feudal nature of France at the time, with Burgundy and Normandy and Aquitaine and several others all potentially wanting to be independent kingdoms rather than duchies of France.

The objective was to force the French to the negotiating table.

How does Henry V start the campaign? He lays siege to Harfleur. A single town, not especially important or critical to France. He takes a long time taking the town, pretty much running close to winter when the weather is likely to make further campaigning difficult. His army is decimated by disease, and it’s all pretty much a bust at this point.

The logical and sensible thing to do at this point is to leave a strong garrison in Harfleur, return to England for the winter, and start again next year with a reinvigorated army. Maybe France would negotiate over the winter, maybe not, but at least he would have another reliable base of operations.

But no. Henry decided to march his army through northern France to British-held Calais as a demonstration to prove that he could. Not the worst idea in the world, if the objective is to force France to the negotiating table by proving it can’t protect its lands. In the manner of the time, this would involve devastating the countryside. The mercenary companies, many of whom were now in Henry’s army, had done that when they were freelancing.

However, after the losses from disease at Harfleur, the English army wasn’t strong enough and didn’t have the time to scourge the countryside. Crops had been harvested and were ripe for burning, but to do so would have involved scattering the army and taking time to do it.

As a result, the English army marched through the French countryside in a demonstration of power. Only they weren’t demonstrating anything. The French army following them was stronger, and the appearance (as well as the reality, but the appearance is what was important) was that the French army was chasing the English army out of France.

Which was the exact opposite of the English objective.

Of course, the French army caught up with the English army and blocked the English army from continuing to Calais, resulting in a battle that Shakespeare made famous.

That is an example of how not to do it. England won the battle but, in the end, France won the war.

J. B. Hagenauer, Fabius Cunctator (1777), Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna

Fabius Maximus gives an example of getting the strategy right. He was given the task of defeating the Carthaginian general Hannibal in southern Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). Hannibal had heavily beaten Roman armies at Trebia and Lake Trasimene. Fabius realised that defeating Hannibal in direct battle was unlikely. Fabius recognised that Hannibal was handicapped by two problems.

First, he was in charge of an invading army, and unable to get reinforcements easily. Hannibal needed a decisive victory, because his forces were only going to get weaker if he couldn’t find local allies.

Secondly, much of Hannibal’s armies were made up of Spanish and Gaulish allies. They mainly desired quick battles and raids for plunder. They were, as the phrase has it, “in it for the money.” They were not interested in long-term campaigns without plunder.

Fabius recognised this and came to the conclusion that to defeat Hannibal, he had to deny him quick battles. As a result, he chose a strategy of avoiding battle. He sent out small groups to attack Hannibal’s foraging parties while keeping the main Roman army out of reach of the Carthaginian army. Fabius made sure that his army was positioned such that Hannibal couldn’t march on Rome without leaving the Mediterranean ports uncovered, and hence leaving his lines of supply unprotected.

Hannibal didn’t have the strength to storm Rome while there was an unbeaten Rome army loose, and he didn’t have the time to besiege it before his army fell apart.

Fabius’ strategy was working. However, it was unpopular in the Roman Senate. As the memory of Hannibal’s victory faded, political pressure from the Senate grew to forcing the army to engage Hannibal in a swift, decisive battle and defeat him.

In due course, Fabius was sacked, Varro and Paullus given command of eight legions – the largest force Rome had ever fielded to that point – and they marched off to fight a decisive battle.

They did, in fact, fight a decisive battle, at Cannae. Unfortunately for the Romans, Hannibal won the battle, with the vast majority of all the legions destroyed.

Rome panicked, but Hannibal still believed he didn’t have the strength to take Rome. The moment passed. Eventually, as a result of the strategy of Fabius, Hannibal had to withdraw from Italy. The strategy worked.

Fighting Seasons

There’s another part to decided when to fight. The time of year can make a bid difference.

Moving large numbers of troops about isn’t easy. It especially isn’t easy when there is no forage to be found, when temperatures are at either extreme, or when the ground is impassable.

This leads to campaigns generally being restricted to “fighting seasons”. In India, the summers are very hot. Traditionally, the summer months were avoided and the campaigning season started in September. In Ukraine, early spring and late autumn are exceptionally muddy and movement away from roads is, at best, problematic. No-one sane would start an invasion of Ukraine in February or March.

Likewise, the monsoon in SE Asia puts an end to campaigns there, winter in the northern part of Norway is challenging, and harvest was a key factor in western Europe.


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