The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Cohesion

By David Flin

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

Anglo-Saxon shield wall against Norman cavalry in the Battle of Hastings (scene from the Bayeux Tapestry). How long do these soldiers hold before they flee? Well it depends on their cohesion.

Cohesion has been mentioned a few times already. This is where we talk about what it is.

As the word implies, it is a measure of how well or badly a unit will hold together under the stress of combat. Combat is very stressful and the natural tendency is to run away from it. Troops need an incentive to hold together under these circumstances. The stronger the cohesive force holding the unit together, the greater the cohesion of the unit and the less likely the unit is to break up into a fragmented, fleeing mob.

There are many things that can keep a unit together in the face of the stress of combat.

Fighting for a homeland.

This applies to troops who have a stake in the society. If it makes no difference to a peasant who their feudal master is, then they have no incentive to fight for one over another. The Saxon fyrd had a strong stake in their local land, and would fight stubbornly for them. The Battle of Maldon (991) is an example, where a Viking incursion was met. The Vikings asked for Danegeld, and the reply was that they would be paid with “spear tips and sword blades.”

A striking fictional example of high cohesion is from the Peter Jackson film, Return of the King. Specifically, during the siege of Minas Tirith, when Gandalf exhorts the Gondor gate guard to stand their ground. “You are soldiers of Gondor! No matter what comes through that gate, you will stand your ground!” Their response? They locked shields and readied spears. Trolls and countless orcs and scary flying things came, and they stood and fought. Win or lose, it stood. Fictional, of course, but an excellent depiction of high cohesion.

As for an example of low cohesion, perhaps the classic example is from outside this period, the Battle of Prestonpans (1745). An English army under the command of General Cope faced the Highlanders under Bonnie Prince Charlie rebelling against King George II. The English army outnumbered the Highlanders, were better equipped, and were in a strong defensive position. However, these were not experienced soldiers, and had low morale and poor officers. The Highlanders were shown a route through marshes to get around the flank of the English army.

General Cope was able to wheel his army round to face the threat, and things should have been fine for the English. The Highlanders charged.

Straight away, the English artillerymen started to run away. These caused the dragoons to panic, and they fled. This left the infantry isolated; they fought very briefly, and then they too ran away. The whole battle was over in less than 15 minutes. It is believed to be the shortest battle in recorded history.

And that is what happens when troops have very low cohesion.

Fighting for a Charismatic Leader

In a lot of societies, the strength of the cohesive force lies in the personal relationship between the leader and the led. The stronger the loyalty, the stronger the cohesive force.

Different leaders gain the loyalty of their followers in different ways. They can pay and reward them well. Which is fine so long as you can afford it. William of Normandy promised his followers land in England when he invaded 1066. However, as Pope Innocent VI discovered with his attempted Crusade against the free companies, when you have nothing to offer, their loyalty doesn’t stay for long.

They can rely on a reputation for trustworthiness and fair dealings. Contemporary sources describe in great detail how important a good reputation is.

Of course, a good reputation alone will only do so much. A reputation for winning victories also helps.

Some leaders have tried to maintain control through fear. The Romans, for example, introduced “decimation”, the killing of 1 in 10 of the troops of a unit that had disgraced itself. This was used in the early days of Rome, and revived by Marcus Licinius Crassus in 71 BC. It fell out of favour again, occasionally to be rediscovered, briefly.

The big trouble with using fear as a motivator is that it only works up to the point that the fear of the enemy is less than the fear of the leader, and it only works while the troops are afraid. When other factors come into play, fear may not be enough.

It also goes without saying that the use of fear as a motivator pretty much eliminates any displays of initiative and of going “above and beyond.” There’s a reason why the use of fear alone only has had modest success in history. Evil Dark Overlords, take note.

Another option for cohesion derived from the leader is an extremely charismatic leader. These are rare. Maybe one arises every other century. In Shakespeare’s fictionalised version of Henry V, he was trying to convey the sense of the King’s charisma in raising the spirits of the bedraggled, hungry, outnumbered archers at Agincourt. How convincing or not that is really depends on how good the actor playing Henry V is.

Which, I suspect, is an indication that the Charismatic Leader needs to be a fine actor, able to generate, well, charisma. Combine that with the need to have the skills of a great general (all the charisma in the world won’t help you if you can’t fight a battle), and it’s fairly clear why such people are few and far between.

Fighting for a Unit

This type of cohesive force most frequently arises when the unit is part of a long-term professional military structure with an existence separate from the society it is part of. It is most commonly seen in modern standing armies, where the loyalty to the regiment or the ship is strong. These same emotions and ties apply to those ancient forces, like the Roman legions, which were essentially self-contained entities.

In such situations, the cohesive force comes in the form of, in modern parlance: “Not letting your mates down.” The ties that develop within a unit are very strong, although they take time to develop.

A unit consisting largely of new recruits will not have had the required time to gain this feeling of unity. As a result, it will have low cohesion. When put under stress, their structure will fall apart. This was seen, in a modern setting, in the Falklands Conflict of 1982. The Argentine ground forces were, for the most part, new conscripts with poor junior officers. When they came under pressure, they panicked and the unit became a mob of individuals making individual decisions. Generally, the British forces, smaller in number overall, could then focus attention on small isolated sections, deal with it, and move on.

Units with high cohesion will stick stubbornly together, come what may. Perhaps the best example, although not the most well-known in the Western world, took place on 12 September, 1897, in the Battle of Saragarhi. This was a battle between around 15,000 Afghans on one side and 21 Sikhs of the 36 Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry. The Sikh soldiers were in a small fort holding a heliograph signalling station. The Afghans attacked the outpost, and the 21 Sikhs decided to fight to the last. The fort was taken, the defenders all slain, inflicting an estimated 500 casualties on the assaulting forces. Two days later, the post was recaptured by another British Indian contingent.

Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal. One will be blessed eternally, who says that God is the ultimate truth. Reported to be the last words of the last Sikh soldier.

And that leads us neatly to the final section of this analysis: Fighting for a Cause/Belief.

Fighting for a Cause/Belief

Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men.

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

Well, I had to use that as an introduction to this section.

The cause might be revolutionary, religious, ethnic, or nationalist in nature, but what it will feature is some sort of mass appeal to the bulk of those participating. The first of the Crusades, for example, started off with the intent to recover the Holy Land for Christendom. To be sure, many of those involved had other motives (land, financial reward), but the religious/ethnic driving force was a powerful one.

Revolutionary France was another situation where there was a mass movement spurred on by belief in a Cause.

Sometimes the cause appeals to a specific section of the society. For example, the black regiments raised for the Union forces during the American Civil War had a cause – ending slavery. They may have been treated shabbily by the Union command, but they fought.

In a similar manner, French Jews during WWI had a cause – to be accepted as French. They volunteered in large numbers for the infantry – the arm that carried the greatest danger. They did it to prove their patriotism and afterwards, there was no doubting their commitment to France, their willingness to fight and die for the country. And, for a decade or so, they achieved that aim.

Fighting for a cause produces a strong cohesive force, but it is one that is not easily controlled, contained, or directed. The one thing it is not is pragmatic. It can burn like a wildfire.

Fighting for a cause can produce some incredible levels of cohesion. Martyrdom is very possible; troops of all sorts, when inspired by a cause, may fight well or poorly, but they fight, often to the last.

Will you give all you can give

So that our banner may advance

Some will fall and some will live

Will you stand up and take your chance

The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France.

Or, if you prefer, the best national anthem in the world, bar none:

Aux armes, citoyens,

Formez vos bataillons

Marchons, marchons!

Qu’un sang impur

Abreuve nos sillons!

No subtlety, and no lack of cohesion.


Discuss this Article


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