The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Types of fighting

By David Flin

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

Light cavalry such as this French estradiot, engraved by Gabriel Daniel, were used as scouts to provide intelligence of the whereabouts of the enemy

Surprisingly enough, there are very many ways in which combat can come to a body of troops. Or, depending on objectives, how a body of troops can get into combat. The prelude and aftermath of combat is also crucial; the first indicates how much information and preparation each side has, the second determines what form subsequent encounters might take. Neglect either prelude or aftermath, and the combat effectiveness of the force is much reduced.

What sorts of combat are we talking about? Just to run through a basic list:


Encounter battles.

Pre-set battles.


Night battles.

Raids, punitive.

Raids for loot.

Sea battles.

Urban fighting.


And, of course, one can have combinations of these, although some are less likely than others. I don’t suppose there are many examples combining sea battles and urban fighting. Although, come to think of it, an amphibious attack on a coastal town may well count. Something the Vikings in particular had experience of; there’s also the example of the Battle of Cartagena (209BC) in Spain, between the Romans under Scipio and the Carthaginians under Mago.

Combining sea battles and raids for loot is well-known. It’s generally called piracy.

Certain types of troop are more useful than others in certain circumstances. Cavalry is extremely potent in an ambush, and of limited value in a siege. And, as mentioned earlier, there is also the various roles in the prelude to and aftermath of a battle.

Let’s start by discussing scouting. The Duke of Wellington said: “The whole art of war consists of guessing at what is on the other side of the hill.” Of course, the wise army commander doesn’t rely on X-ray vision or luck; they find out, and they prevent the enemy from doing the same.

It might sound basic, but it is the job of scouts to scout. That means gathering information about what lies ahead and reporting this information back to the main body. Scouts aren’t the first point of attack, despite the temptation to ambush unsuspecting groups. Scouts scout. It’s that simple.

An army on the march is highly vulnerable. It is generally strung out, there will be wagons that get in everyone’s way, many people in the column will not be prepared for trouble. A moving column is very vulnerable. As a consequence, any competent commander, any efficient troops, will have scouts out. Ahead, on the flank, and to the rear.

The brilliant invention of the corps in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, a portion of the army large enough to engage small detachments and fight defensively for long enough to the other corps to converge on them, enabled armies to handle marches much better. Several corps marching in parallel don’t overstrain marching capability so much, and still retains the ability of the army to reform.

Light cavalry – highly mobile and fast – are best for scouting. Their job is not to engage, but to bring warning back to the main body. The faster they can move, the quicker the information gets back.

It might not be enemy action that they are reporting. It could be a bridge destroyed, or wounded from another group, or a barn full of fodder, or ...

In the book version of Lord of the Rings, as the Rohirrim rode to Gondor, they came across a force blocking the direct route through to Gondor. Good mark to the scouts for spotting that and warning the main body, which would otherwise have blundered into a battle they couldn’t afford. The scouts did the job they were supposed to do. Further, they found a local guide, Ghân-buri-Ghân, who could show them a route past the road block. Exemplary work by the scouts. As a result, the Rohirrim arrived at the Pellenor Fields undamaged and little delayed.

Learning about what lies ahead, to the sides, and behind is vital information. There’s an old saying that the best scouts don’t need weapons. Well, sooner them than me. The unexpected is always likely to crop up. However, the sentiment behind the saying is sound. The first job of a scout is to accurately tell the command what the situation is “on the other side of the hill.” The scouts are the eyes of the army.

I have two examples of modern-day scouting I can give from my experience. Both of these come from the Falklands War of 1982. Although these are set in the modern period, and the technologies involved are very specific to the modern period, the principles involved are ageless.

The Good

42 Commando was preparing for an assault on Mt Harriet. We were conducting patrols to learn about the ground in front of us. It so happened that we found a series of mines laid across a route around the mountain. We also saw an Argentine patrol making its way through the minefield. This meant that we knew a safe route through the minefield, and were able to redeploy forces to be able to approach the mountain from a safe direction.

That enabled us to begin the assault proper from an unexpected direction, which had considerable impact against untrained and inexperienced troops.

The Bad

Mount Kent. I flinch every time those two words are put together. To summarise: an SAS patrol scouted out the position, and reported no enemy present. As a result, my troop was ordered to occupy the place, and we were flown in by helicopter.

Imagine our surprise when the 30 of us found that Mount Kent was not unoccupied, but that there was a large Argentine force present, considerably larger in number than us.

The fact that I am alive to write tells you that the outcome wasn’t too fatal for us. It was, however, not ideal and could have been avoided with good scouting in the first place.

Uses of scouting

In attack or in defence, scouting gives the command a view of the battlefield and, equally as important, can deny information to the enemy. The Duke of Wellington’s quote becomes apposite here.

Take, as a practical example, the position often seen in films and books, of a force on the march which comes under attack. Generally, my first reaction is to scream at the screen: “Where were your scouts?”

It’s a subject that has long been covered. There are manuals describing how to arrange a march, and it includes a bit more than having a couple of guys with poor eyesight 50 yards ahead of the column. GH Dufour gave possibly the classic summary of procedure on how a convoy or a line of march should be organised. He states the need for both infantry (which can fight on all types of ground) and cavalry (for its speed and scouting ability).

He breaks the cavalry into three groups: an advance guard 2-5 miles in advance of the column, a second group at the head of the column, and a rear-guard. The infantry is broken into four groups: one at the head of the column, one in the centre, one at the rear, and with flank guards to keep the column in order and protect it from ambushes from the side.

To be fair to writers of fiction, history is replete with examples of forces that neglect scouting when on the march. The Romans at the Battle of Trasimene did that, and paid the price. The Carthaginian forces, under Hannibal, were aware that the Romans were moving along next to Lake Trasimene. Hannibal’s troops made a night march to get into position near the roadway. Not easy, night marches. That takes experienced troops.

The Romans were in a hurry, and didn’t have flank guards worthy of the name. The result was as you might imagine. A one-sided slaughter. The moral of this story is if you don’t have scouts and if you don’t have flank guards, you are not going to fare well.


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