The duty of my station when in engagements was to fill up the intervals occasioned by killed and wounded, and to receive and issue orders, etc. The duty of firing is left to the private men. The business of an officer is to see that they do their duty properly, level and fire well; and, if necessary, assist them with his exhortations to inspire them with courage, and keep them from breaking and confusion.

James Green, “Account of Green’s Services”


In eighteenth-century conventional linear warfare, the regimental infantry officer took part in four main activities: he motivated his men, directed them, kept them in good order, and engaged in personal combat. At least on European battlefields, perhaps the first of these four activities was the most important. Historians commonly assert that eighteenth-century common soldiers braved enemy fire partly because they were more afraid of their officers than of the enemy. There is some truth in this. As Wolfe put it in his tactical instructions to the 20th Regiment in 1755, in action the cordon of supernumerary subalterns and sergeants in the battalion’s rear were required “to keep the men in their duty.” This meant they used compulsion — even lethal force — to prevent the men from taking off: “A soldier that quits his rank, or offers to fly, is to be instantly put to death by the officer who commands that platoon, or by the officer or sergeant in the rear of that platoon; a soldier does not deserve to live who won’t fight for his king and country.” Roger Lamb, a veteran of the American War, later opined that this threat was effective: “A coward taught to believe that, if he breaks his rank and abandons his colors, he will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy.” British officers in America did occasionally resort to such threats in action, even if they do not appear to have carried them out. For example, Ensign John De Berniere wrote of the retreat from Concord that, as the militia’s fire began to take its toll, “we began to run rather than retreat in order. The whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose: the confusion increased rather than lessened. At last . . .  the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire.” Less happily, Tarleton recalled that “neither promises nor threats” availed the frantic efforts to recover the troops from their panic after the collapse of his line at Cowpens.

Although the threat of summary retribution must (if only subconsciously) have reinforced common soldiers’ readiness to brave enemy fire, eighteenth-century officers principally led rather than drove their men into combat. As previously discussed, this sometimes took the form of stirring exhortations that appealed to national or regimental identity. Similarly, the officers probably orchestrated the loud cheering in which the redcoats commonly indulged during combat. But the main way that the officer motivated his men was by maintaining a resolute, steady demeanor, particularly before and during the advance. As Bland pointed out in 1727, “the private soldiers . . .  form their notions of the danger from the outward appearance of their officers, and according to their looks apprehend the undertaking to be more or less difficult.” For this the officer needed presence of mind and, above all, physical courage — the essence of the eighteenth-century cult of honor and sine qua non of the gentleman-officer. The need for these qualities intensified once the battalion engaged in close combat because the advanced position of the regimental officers who conducted the firings made them highly vulnerable not only to the enemy’s fire but also to that of their own men (whether accidental or otherwise). The officer’s prominent position also ensured that any momentary lapse in resolution would have been highly conspicuous. Any who failed in this respect almost certainly would have been pressured into quitting the corps, as happened to two unfortunate officers of the Queen’s Rangers after the battle of Brandywine.

Like courage, stoicism was a key element of the officer’s ability to lead by example. This manifested itself most often in reluctance on the part of injured officers to leave the battalion for medical treatment. A particularly impressive instance occurred at the battle of Freeman’s Farm, as later related by Thomas Anburey:

In the course of the last action, Lieutenant [Stephen] Harvey, of the 62nd, a youth of sixteen, and nephew to the Adjutant General of the same name, received several wounds, and was repeatedly ordered off the field by [Lieutenant] Colonel [John] Anstruther; but his heroic ardor would not allow him to quit the battle, while he could stand and see his brave lads fighting beside him. A ball striking one of his legs, his removal became absolutely necessary; and while they were conveying him away, another wounded him mortally. In this situation the surgeon recommended him to take a powerful dose of opium, to avoid a seven or eight hours’ life of most exquisite torture. This he immediately consented to, and when the Colonel entered the tent with Major [Henry] Harnage, who were both wounded, they asked whether he had any affairs they could settle for him. His reply was, that being a minor, everything was already adjusted; but he had one request, which he had just life enough to utter: “Tell my uncle I died like a soldier!”

Similarly at Bunker Hill (according to Captain the Honorable Charles Stuart), “not one officer who served in the light infantry or grenadiers escaped unhurt, and few had less than three or four wounds.”

In America courage was an even more essential commodity for British officers because the hazards run in action there were seemingly higher than in conventional linear warfare. European officers generally considered it taboo to target individuals of consequence. At Brandywine, for instance, Major Patrick Ferguson countermanded his order for three of his British riflemen to shoot down an unsuspecting mounted rebel officer and his aide de camp because “the idea disgusted me . . . ; it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” By contrast, rebel troops appear to have been positively encouraged to kill British officers. Indeed, at a dinner after the fall of Yorktown, captive Captain Lieutenant Samuel Graham noted that the unpolished Daniel Morgan “spoke with more volubility, perhaps, than good taste” on his riflemen’s role in Burgoyne’s downfall — and particularly of his having expressly ordered the shooting of Brigadier General Fraser during the battle of Bemis Heights.

To combat the rebel tactic of picking them off in action, British officers commonly toned down their appearance. In the case of the Guards, this process started even before the troops departed for service. Hence one English journalist noted how “[t]he [Guards] officers who are ordered for America are to wear the same uniform as the common soldiers, and their hair to be dressed in the like manner, so that they may not be distinguished from them by the riflemen, who aim particularly at the officers.” In America Howe issued a similar instruction to the British and Hessian officers in his army days before he opened the New York campaign. Although British regimental officers would have retained their scarlet (rather than brick-red) coats and their epaulettes and swords, they appear to have stripped the metallic lace from their button holes and hats, laid aside gorgets (and possibly also their crimson sashes), and (like the sergeants) taken up fusils. These sensible measures probably enjoyed some success. After the battle of Long Island, Captain William Dansey reported with relief that the threat the rebel sharpshooters posed was “not so dreadful as I expected,” though (as he added later) “such a bugbear were they at first [that] our good friends thought we were all to be killed with rifles.” Interestingly, when Simcoe was wounded and captured in October 1779 during the Queen’s Rangers’ raid into New Jersey, he heard one rebel regret that he had not shot him through the head, “which he would have done had he known him to be a colonel, but he thought ‘all colonels wore lace.’”

Nevertheless, whatever their appearance, British officers would have marked themselves out in action by issuing commands to and encouraging their men. Such was the case with the aforementioned mounted officer with the grenadiers at the battle of Monmouth, one rebel officer having recorded: “I ordered my men to level at him and the cluster of men near him. . . . He dropped [and] his men slackened their pace.” An even more striking instance occurred during the storming of Chatterton’s Hill, as related by Corporal Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment:

Captain [Lieutenant William] Gore, who commanded the right wing of our battalion, seeing the rebels which we engaged on the right wing were dressed in blue, took them to be Colonel Rall’s brigade of Hessians, and immediately ordered us to cease firing; for, says he, “you are firing at your own men.” We ceased for about two minutes. The rebels, hearing him, made answer that they were no Hessians, and that we should soon know the difference. . . . The aforesaid captain was killed upon the spot: the enemy in his front took as good aim as possible at him, and directed the most of their fire towards the place [where] he stood, for they took him for the officer that commanded the regiment.

Clearly the rebels singled out and peppered the unfortunate Gore precisely because he drew attention to himself in such spectacular fashion.

Officer casualties were probably disproportionately heavy in those engagements in America where British bayonet attacks failed to dislodge the enemy quickly because sustained fighting gave the rebels more opportunity to single out officers and shoot them down. Burgoyne later claimed that this had unfortunately very much been the case during the seesaw struggle in the center at the battle of Freeman’s Farm: “The enemy had with their army great numbers of marksmen, armed with rifle-barrel pieces. These, during an engagement, hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting their ground. In this action, many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute’s interval of smoke in any part of our line without officers being taken off by [a] single shot.” In a similar fashion, at Cowpens over two-thirds of Tarleton’s infantry officers went down in the fighting that preceded the final, catastrophic British charge, according to Roderick Mackenzie, who was himself wounded. Although officer casualties do not appear to have been grossly disproportionate in relation to those of the enlisted men, during the course of the war, some regiments and companies were clearly more unlucky than others. After the 52nd Regiment lost its fourth grenadier captain in three years at the battle of Monmouth, one of the corps’ drummers observed with black humor, “Well, I wonder who they will get to accept of our grenadiers now. I’ll be damned if I would take them!”

Considering how (as we have seen) eighteenth-century officers often carried spontoons (or, less commonly in Europe, firelocks) in addition to their swords, one might have expected that they would have fought alongside their men in action. As Mark Odintz has convincingly demonstrated, however, in America this does not appear often to have been the case. For example, when Brigadier General Alexander Leslie wrote to his brother about the death of Captain the Honorable William Leslie at Princeton, he reassured the earl, “I don’t find he was too rash, as you seem to fear, or that he was out of the ranks.” More explicitly, after the battle of Monmouth, Lieutenant Hale regretted the fact that he and three brother-officers of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers had recklessly outpaced their companies during the initial breakneck British advance. Hale shamefacedly added, “I am told the general [i.e., Clinton] has expressed his approbation of the ridiculous behavior of the four subaltern officers . . .  who had got foremost.”

That Hale took especial notice of the fact that one of his brother officers had dispatched a rebel with his sword during the pursuit (“as we all might have done”) demonstrates that engaging in personal combat was an unusual exploit for an officer. Similarly, contrary to the recommendation of one officer and military writer who served in Britain, firelock-armed officers and sergeants in America were not encouraged to augment the battalion’s fire in action. At the opening of the Albany expedition, Burgoyne reminded his army that “[t]he attention of every officer in action is to be employed in his men; to make use of a fusil except in very extraordinary occasions of immediate personal defense, would betray an ignorance of his importance, and of his duty.” Likewise, in a memorandum composed around May 1776 at Cape Fear, Clinton complained that an officer could not properly command his men “while he is firing, loading, and playing bo peep behind trees.” According to the general, when this happened the soldier, “when things become desperate talks of every man for himself and sauve qui peut.” Months later, an incident at the storming of Chatterton’s Hill appeared to vindicate Clinton’s disapproval. He later described what happened when, having forded the Bronx River, two British battalions suddenly found themselves exposed to very heavy fire from the rebels atop the hill: “The officer who led them immediately formed in column for attack and advanced; the instant I saw the move I declared it decisive. But when the officer had marched forward about twenty paces he halted, fired his fusil, and began to reload (his column remaining during the time under the enemy’s fire); upon which I pronounced it a coup manqué, foretelling at the same time that they would break. It happened as I said, and I could not help remarking to Sir William Howe that, if the battle should be lost, that officer was the occasion of it. I had scarcely done speaking when Lord Cornwallis came up with the same observation.” Clinton’s judgment on the affair was unequivocal: “General Burgoyne and I have often represented the absurdity of officers being armed with fusils, and the still greater impropriety . . .  by which they neglected the opportunity of employing their divisions to advantage. These had no confidence in them, and they became in fact as the worst soldiers in their divisions.” In short, the officer could not properly carry out his duty to orchestrate violence and simultaneously be a direct agent of it.

The third activity that officers were expected to perform in action was to keep the men under order. This responsibility included supporting the sergeants in their main duties of filling vacancies and dressing the ranks and files — an important job when the men’s natural instinct was to “bunch” under fire. To facilitate this task, in conventional linear warfare officers and sergeants customarily carried spontoons and halberds; which were less useful as weapons than as tools with which to manhandle misaligned men into position. As mentioned earlier, the formation of two ranks at open file intervals customarily employed by the redcoats in America from 1776 precluded them from maintaining perfect dressings in combat. Despite this, however, the officers and sergeants needed to preserve a certain level of order, without which their control over the men would have broken down. This was especially critical when the battalion came under fire, met unexpectedly aggressive resistance, or routed one enemy force only to encounter a fresh one in its path. Any of these scenarios was likely, at best, to have dampened the men’s ardor and to have temporarily diverted their attention from their officers. At worst, the battalion might have fallen into disarray, in which case it could neither have continued its advance, prevailed in the firefight, nor withstood a resolute enemy attack. Whatever the degree of confusion, it was the officers’ immediate and overwhelming priority to restore full control over the bewildered or excitable soldiery.

As one instance of this, during the final assault at Bunker Hill, the adjutant of the 1st Battalion of Marines, Lieutenant John Waller, had to exert himself to restore order to the corps before it could resume its advance and storm the rebel position. Waller’s account is so vivid that it deserves to be quoted at some length:

when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch. We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them. While it was performing, Major [John] Pitcairn was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a sergeant, and many of the privates; and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Nesbitt, of the 47th [Regiment], to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing while this was doing; and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.

Similarly, during Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood’s first attack at Princeton, a “very heavy discharge” at forty yards brought down seven of the men in Lieutenant Hale’s ad hoc grenadier platoon and forced the others to recoil some distance, where Hale “rallied them with some difficulty, and brought them on with [charged] bayonets.”

As Hale’s experience indicates, sometimes the officers and sergeants could not restore their men’s order while the enemy continued to present an immediate threat, in which case the whole had to retire some distance first. Thus at Concord, when the rebel militia’s fire forced Captain Walter Laurie’s three light companies at the North Bridge (in the words of one of the officers) “to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance,” the four remaining officers did not succeed in halting the men until they reached the cover of the grenadier companies marching to reinforce them. A similar phenomenon occurred at the battle of Eutaw Springs. There, when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart’s line collapsed, it was necessary for the King’s troops “to retire a little distance to an open field in order to form” under the cover of the fire from a detachment of the New York Volunteers, who posted themselves in an adjacent brick house.

The last of the regimental officers’ four main activities was to oversee the various maneuvers and firings of their troops. In theory, because the battalion was under the overall control of the field officers, this task did not demand a vast effort from the captains and subalterns. For example, if the commanding officer ordered the battalion to open fire at the halt by subdivisions, the eight officers in question simply had to step forward and give the signal in the predetermined sequence for their fire divisions to “make ready,” “present,” and “fire” (and then to “load”). Hypothetically, maneuvering the battalion generally demanded even less of the captains and subalterns, for most of the evolutions required no further verbal instructions than the initial command bellowed by one of the field officers. All the captains and subalterns had to do was to oversee their maneuver divisions as they executed the evolution — doubtless the sergeants would have shoved wayward men into place. In short, in conventional linear warfare the directorial role of the captains and subalterns did not require them to display a great deal of tactical initiative. But as will become clear later in this chapter, it was a very different matter in America. There the British considerably loosened the ties that ordinarily bound the maneuver and fire divisions of the battalion so rigidly into a single tactical entity.



In conventional linear warfare it was, as Bland had put it in 1727, “a fixed rule for every battalion to act, as near as possible, in concert with the whole, both in advancing, attacking, pursuing, or retiring together.” This was because a battalion that did not regulate its movements “according to the motion of the line” risked being “surrounded by fresh troops, and cut to pieces, before the line can come up to their assistance.” Here the principal threat was that the battalion might be “attacked on the flanks by the enemy’s horse, who are frequently posted between the first and second lines for this purpose.” In short, “the whole line must act like one battalion” or else risk destruction in detail: “While they [i.e., the battalions] keep in a body, they can mutually assist one another; but if they should separate in pursuing those they beat, the enemy may destroy them one after the other, with such an inconsiderable number of troops, that were they in a body, would fly at their appearance.” More succinctly, at the battle of Dettingen (1743), Lieutenant General Jasper Clayton directed one British regimental commander to “[k]eep your battalion in a line with the regiments on your right and left, [and] if you perceive any of them to give way, look sharp and guard your flanks.”

British commanders in America cannot have been unaware of the importance of what Bland recommended. Indeed, Howe made efforts to improve his battalions’ ability to maneuver together in preparation for the New York campaign by holding a series of exercises on Citadel Hill at Halifax. During the first series of exercises in the second half of April 1776, Lieutenant General Lord Percy exercised the line battalions three at a time (that is, in brigade strength), while Major Thomas Musgrave exercised the light infantry and grenadiers eight or so companies at a time (that is, at battalion strength). During the second series of exercises in May and early June, Musgrave took out the newly organized flank battalions (four in number) and Percy the First to Sixth Brigades (each of three battalions). Presumably, one of Percy’s priorities was to practice the brigades in deploying and maneuvering together, Howe himself having later testified that at Halifax the army “received great benefit . . .  from the opportunity of being exercised in line, a very material part of discipline, in which we were defective until that time.”

Yet despite Howe’s exercises at Halifax, it does not seem that British battalions in America often regulated their movements in the manner recommended by Bland. This was largely because they did not need to do so. Since the rebels lacked the powerful cavalry forces maintained by European armies, and since only the cream of the rebel infantry was capable of maneuvering adroitly and aggressively, rebel field commanders often proved incapable of seizing the tactical initiative by, for instance, launching violent local counterattacks. Of course, the Continental Army did improve dramatically in quality over the course of the war. But even then the celerity with which the redcoats usually advanced, the extended frontage their battalions needed when drawn up two deep with open files, and the broken and/or wooded terrain that characterized most American battlefields all militated against the maintenance of a well-connected line of battle. As the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it in recounting the attack of Cornwallis’s division at Birmingham Meetinghouse at the battle of Brandywine, “We could not see the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry [on our right] because of the terrain, and while we received only a few orders, each commander had to act according to his own best judgement.”

Throughout the war then, it was common for British lines of battle to bulge and even to fragment entirely as their constituent battalions diverged from a single axis and rate of advance to engage whatever enemy units presented themselves. In fact this phenomenon was so marked at some engagements (such as Monmouth Courthouse) as to make the precise sequence of events almost incomprehensible for the historian. Captain John André’s account of the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse illustrates vividly how the various corps conducted their maneuvers with only limited reference to those of their neighbors:

At about 4 o’clock the attack began near the [Birmingham] Meeting House. The Guards were formed upon the right, the British Grenadiers in the center, and the Light Infantry and Chasseurs [i.e., Jäger] on the left. The Hessian Grenadiers supported the Guards and British Grenadiers, and the 4th Brigade supported the Light Infantry and the left of the Grenadiers. The 3rd Brigade under [Major] General Grey was the Reserve. The Guards met with very little resistance and penetrated to the very height overlooking the 4-gun battery of the rebels at Chad’s Ford, just as General Knyphausen had crossed. The Hessian Grenadiers were to their left and not so far advanced. The British Grenadiers divided after passing Birmingham Meeting House, the 1st Battalion inclining to the right and the 2nd pushing about a mile beyond the village of Dilworth. The Light Infantry and Chasseurs inclined to the left, and by this means left an interval which was filled up by part of the 4th Brigade. The Light Infantry met with the chief resistance at a hill on which the rebels had four pieces of cannon. At the end of the day the 2nd Battalion [of] Grenadiers received a very heavy fire; the 64th Regiment, which was near them was engaged at the same time. The rebels were driven back by the superior fire of the troops, but these were too much exhausted to be able to charge or pursue. The Reserve moved centrically in the rear of the whole and inclined successively to the parts most engaged.

Howe’s Hessian aide de camp understated the case when he wrote that, after the Fourth Brigade moved forward to fill the gap between the grenadiers and light infantry, “The new front was somewhat more sloping.” In reality, by the close of the battle, the battalions had become quite widely separated. For example, as the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it, “as the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry had attacked so far to the right, we stood at a great distance from the army . . .  until about seven o’clock in the evening.”

Where the fighting took place in thickly timbered country, it was plainly impossible to maintain a properly connected line during the advance. Thomas Anburey, who fought at Hubbardton as a “gentleman volunteer” with the grenadiers, later noted that “the woods were so thick, that little or no order could be observed in advancing upon the enemy, it being totally impossible to form a regular line.” Limited visibility was not the only factor that prevented the troops from maintaining a well-connected line of battle in woodland fighting, however. Some units inevitably encountered stiffer opposition than others, which consequently slowed their advance. As an anonymous Brunswick officer commented in the aftermath of the disaster at Bennington, “It is serious business fighting in wild woods and bushes, and one company may easily have better or worse luck than another.” A similar phenomenon was experienced at Guilford Courthouse, where, as Stedman later recalled: “The British line, being so much extended to the right and left in order to show a front equal to the enemy, was unavoidably broken into intervals in the pursuit of the first and second American lines; some parts of it being more advanced than others, in consequence of the different degrees of resistance that had been met with, or of other impediments arising from the thickness of the woods, and the inequality of the ground.” Lieutenant Thomas Saumarez, with the 23rd Regiment on the British left, highlighted the role of these “impediments” when he related that, during the advance against the second rebel line, “[n]ot being able to attack in front, the Fusiliers were obliged to take the ground to their left to get clear of the brushwood.”

Tarleton’s account of Guilford Courthouse conveys especially clearly how the British line became deranged as it fought its way through the woods. He recorded that, after Cornwallis’s line had routed the North Carolina militia and plunged into the dense woodland that blanketed most of the battlefield, “[t]he broken ground and the extent of the enemy’s front . . .  occasioned the flanks to open from the center.” What Tarleton meant by this was that, because the units posted on the extremities of the first rebel line maintained the contest after the militia had flown, the brigades of Lieutenant Colonel Webster and Major General Leslie drifted to the left and right respectively, leaving a yawning gap in the British center. This gap was filled by the 2nd Battalion and the grenadier company of the Guards, which were ordered up from the reserve. But the integrity of the British line was not restored for long. As the battalions engaged and forced back the various units of Virginia militia in the second rebel line, the fact that some units encountered “less opposition and embarrassment than others” conspired with “[t]he thickness of the woods where these conflicts happened” and thereby “impeded the British infantry moving forwards in a well-connected line.” Consequently, some corps unknowingly outstripped the rest of the army and “arrived sooner in [the] presence of the Continentals.” First to break out of the woods, on the left, was Webster with his own 33rd Regiment, with which (supported by the Jäger and the Guards’ light company) he immediately attacked that part of the rebel third line that he could see across the open ground. Rebuffed in disarray, the mortally wounded Webster and his command remained in the woods “till he could hear of the progress of the King’s troops upon his right” — which effectively meant until the end of the action, when he “soon after connected his corps with the main body.” Next to emerge from the woods, in the center, was the 2nd Battalion of Guards, whose impulsive, unsupported attack the Continentals also bloodily repulsed. With the British left and center (if they could still be called such) now in confusion and the right stalled far behind in the woods, it was probably fortunate for Cornwallis that Greene now ordered a general withdrawal before the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Regiment and the 23rd Regiment came up. These had initially been part of Leslie’s and Webster’s brigades, but (in Tarleton’s words) “had inclined from the divisions on the right and left.”

In combat in America then, the field officers were compelled to display an unconventional degree of tactical initiative in directing their respective corps, as Major General Phillips admitted in general orders prior to his thrust against Petersburg in April 1781: “As the present movements will be made in a difficult country, it becomes necessary that officers leading columns and commanding corps, should use and exert the intelligence of their own minds, joined to the knowledge of the service, in times of an attack, when they cannot immediately receive the orders of the Brigadier General [i.e., Benedict Arnold] or Major General.” It is worth stressing once again that this kind of order would have been unusual in most conventional European campaigns.



Unlike conventional European linear warfare, on American battlefields it was common for the companies within the battalion to operate as semiautonomous tactical entities, each one under the direction of its captain or senior subaltern. Indeed, individual companies were not infrequently detached from the battalion during combat to perform particular tasks. Although this phenomenon was most marked in the case of the light infantry, line battalion companies also sometimes acted almost independently in action, particularly in woody country. For example, Captain the Honorable William Leslie recorded of the battle of Long Island that, as Major General James Grant’s and Brigadier General James Agnew’s Fourth and Sixth Brigades deployed on the British left, “my company [of the 17th Regiment] was sent as a reinforcement to the advanced guard, who were much incommoded by riflemen.” Similarly, when Sergeant Roger Lamb found himself separated from the 23rd Regiment during the attack on the Virginia militia at Guilford Courthouse, he suddenly espied a single company of the Guards advancing to the attack. He later commented: “The reader may perhaps be surprised at the bravery of troops, thus with calm intrepidity attacking superior numbers, when formed into separate bodies, and all acting together; but I can assure him this instance was not peculiar: it frequently occurred in the British army during the American War.” The Irishman was well placed to comment on this theme, for he not only participated fully in Cornwallis’s southern campaigns but also served in the northern wilderness with Carleton and Burgoyne in 1776 and 1777. He was therefore involved in some of the most confused and fiercely contested engagements of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps the earliest explicit expression of the unconventional degree of tactical independence that companies had to be able to exercise in action in America is contained in a series of tactical instructions that Major General Phillips issued to Burgoyne’s army in May 1777, shortly before the opening of the Albany expedition. The thrust of Phillips’s message to the captains was that Burgoyne required “that every company may form a respectable body singly, and though attached to its place in battalion, yet always ready to act separate from it, as the nature of the ground may require, or the nature of local service they may be sent on make necessary.” Having recommended that officers drill their own companies (to ensure that they were “perfectly acquainted” with their men and the latter were “accustomed to the sound of their [officers’] voices”), Phillips observed, “It is well understood, that all regiments exercise by companies; but it is usually done with a view of joining in battalion.” By contrast, he warned, the expected nature of the forthcoming campaign made it necessary “that each company should be led to consider itself as a small, distinct body, and [to] exercise in various evolutions independent of the battalion, with every possible view for single companies being taught to depend upon themselves.”

Phillips’s instructions also made it clear that, even when joined in battalion, each captain would have to exercise considerable tactical latitude in handling his company. This was because the companies were expected to draw up “with small intervals of distance” between them to enable them to exploit good defensive ground (trees, fences, banks, and such), to negotiate obstacles (enclosures, ravines, ditches, marsh, small rises, brushwood, and such), to facilitate changes of position and facing, and to traverse difficult ground. To facilitate command and control and to enable companies to act coherently, Phillips recommended “the commanding officer of a battalion to put himself at the head of one company, and to maneuver that company; while the other companies . . .  follow the evolutions so given by the commanding officer.” Presumably this unconventional arrangement (which to modern eyes would resemble a cross between “follow my leader” and a “Mexican wave”) was intended to address the problem that a field officer at the center of the battalion could hardly have controlled all its companies (spread out over two hundred yards or so) simply by verbal command, particularly on wooded ground.

Although Phillips intended these company-level instructions to confer tactical flexibility on the battalion in action in close country, he acknowledged that even a single company would occasionally be too unwieldy a tactical entity to execute some maneuvers. He therefore indicated that, when it was necessary for the battalion to furcate in order to negotiate multiple obstacles, the officers might have to tell off their companies into even smaller maneuver divisions, each commanded by no less than a sergeant (curiously, Phillips did not simply recommend that the company should break up into two platoons). But as soon as the separated maneuver divisions had negotiated the obstacles in question, and as soon as the ground permitted, they were to reform: first into companies, then into battalion.

Even more explicit evidence as to the degree of tactical autonomy allowed for companies in action in America is provided by a set of tactical instructions that Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hope drew up for the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers in August 1780. These guidelines incorporated the same basic unorthodox, staggered manner of operating in battalion that Phillips had prescribed three years earlier:

Whatever company or division in the battalion may be first ordered by the commanding officer to perform any movement, the same is always to be immediately followed by the two next on their right and left, and so on through the whole battalion without waiting for further directions — the men receiving the word of command from their own officers. . . . When the battalion is ordered to march in line, the whole is ordered to march by that particular division in front of which the commanding officer marches; the officer of which will give the greatest attention to keep the direction in which he moves, that the same file continue to cover him as when first put in motion.

Like Phillips, Hope clearly envisaged that when the battalion was in line, the various companies could not all be expected to take their dressings from one particular point of the battalion, as was usual in conventional linear warfare. Consequently, each company was to dress itself on one of the two officers posted on its flanks: “In marching by companies or division[s], the officers commanding each should at all times caution his division to which flank he would have his men dress . . .  remembering always that they should never be required to look in a different direction from that which [it] is intended they should incline to. And to facilitate this still more, there should be always either an officer or sergeant on each flank when the battalion breaks off into companies or divisions (as far at least as the numbers will admit of their being so distributed), [so] that the men may have some superior to look to for regulating their movement and [to] dress by.” Although the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers may never have employed Hope’s command-and-control method in action (the last occasion on which the grenadier battalions were hotly engaged was the battle of Monmouth), it is interesting that it appears to echo Phillips’s instructions to Burgoyne’s army. Once again, since it would have been impractical for a field officer to bellow oral commands to the battalion’s companies over an extended frontage, particularly in woodland, it is tempting to speculate that Hope’s instructions may simply have represented an explicit codification of the method of operating in battalion that was already in widespread use.

If the companies within line battalions often performed as semi-independent tactical entities in action in America, particularly in broken country, then light infantry companies commonly enjoyed even more tactical freedom. For example, as Knyphausen’s column approached Chad’s Ford at Brandywine, Captain Patrick Ferguson’s riflemen cooperated with the companies of the Queen’s Rangers in dislodging strong rebel delaying parties from successive prepared positions: “they remained planted like cabbages whilst our parties divided, gained their flanks, [and] turned their breastworks.” Once the Queen’s Rangers had successfully crossed Chad’s Ford, Private Stephen Jarvis’s company and one other were detached to occupy an eminence upon the left; from whence “we saw our brave comrades cutting them [i.e., the rebels] up in brave style.”

Perhaps the most striking example of the kind of tactical freedom enjoyed by companies of a light battalion was the role of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry in the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse, also during the battle of Brandywine.62 The account that one of the officers who participated in the attack penned later is so dramatic and striking that it deserves to be quoted at length:

As soon as the [first] line [of Cornwallis’s division] came to Dilworth Church [i.e., Birmingham Meetinghouse], the enemy opened a fire from five fieldpieces [on Birmingham Hill]. The churchyard wall being opposite the 17th [Regiment’s] light company, the captain [William Scott] determined to get over the fence into the road; and calling for the men to follow, ran down the road and lodged the men without loss at the foot of the hill on which the guns were firing. The hedge on the left side of the road [was] much cut with the grape shot. By a bend of the hill, [we] had a view of a part of the enemy’s line opposite the [two battalions of] grenadiers [to our right] and opened a fire from about half the company on it, no more being able to form on the space. Presently, [we were] joined by the 38th [Regiment’s light] company. Some of their gallant soldiers wanted to ascend the hill immediately; [which was] objected to as too imprudent. The 33rd [Regiment’s light] company joined immediately afterwards, and the men of [these] three companies . . .  ascended the hill. . . . Their [i.e., the rebels’] line advancing on us, we were compelled to throw ourselves on our knees and bellies, and keep up a fire from the slope of the hill. [The] enemy repeatedly attempted to come on, but were always drove back by our fire, although their General (Lincoln) [sic, Major General Sullivan] very much exerted himself. At this time a most tremendous fire of musketry opened from both lines. Looking back to see how far the grenadier line was off, from which alone we could receive immediate support, to my surprise I saw close to me Major [the Honorable Charles] Stuart of the 43rd [Regiment]. . . . Recollecting the 43rd [Regiment’s] grenadier company was the left of their line, we persuaded Major Stuart to run down the hill and prevail on that company to hasten to our support. He did so, but before he could return, to my inexpressible joy, [I] saw Captain [Charles] Cochrane of the 4th [Regiment’s light] company on my left throw up his cap and cry “Victory!”; and, looking round, [I] saw the 43rd [Regiment’s grenadier] company hastening to our relief. We dashed forward, passed the five pieces of cannon which the enemy had abandoned, and made some few prisoners — the enemy running away from us with too much speed to be overtaken.

This account makes it perfectly clear that the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry’s companies (totaling together around five hundred men) did not fight at Brandywine as a single tactical entity under the close direction of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie. Nor even do they appear to have operated in the staggered manner laid down by Phillips and Hope (in other words, the individual companies did not remain loosely coupled and take their tactical cue from the company at the center). Instead each of the officers commanding the various companies exercised near-total independence in conducting his men, which enabled the companies to pick their way forward according to terrain and the strength of the opposition to their front. Indeed, most tellingly of all, at a moment of crisis the officers of the 17th Regiment’s light company were able to request the immediate support of the 43rd Regiment’s grenadier company. This was, of course, part of another unit altogether, namely, the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers (to the right of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry).

The letters of Captain William Dansey, who commanded the 33rd Regiment’s light company from 1776 to 1778, offer further evidence that the companies of a light battalion did not keep in formation and operate in a closely coordinated fashion in combat. Instead Dansey’s references to his company’s performance in action (like his verdict on the affair at Harlem Heights, that this was an engagement “in which the light infantry were chiefly concerned, and my company among the first of them”) tend to give the impression that the light companies were unleashed against the rebels rather like a pack of savage dogs. Occasionally one or more other light companies came to Dansey’s assistance when his men were hard pressed. For example, of the battle of Long Island, Dansey observed: “I led my company into the very thick of them [i.e., the rebels] and had a most miraculous escape. In about three minutes I had three men killed and six wounded out of thirty, [and] Mr. [Richard] Cotton my lieutenant got a graze upon the shoulder. We were well supported by three companies or there would not have remained a man to tell the story. I have to thank God for my safety under the heaviest fire of musketry ever people escaped from.” In his next letter he elaborated on this close scrape: “I was lucky in my escape, for I had my right hand man wounded and left hand man killed. I had three killed and six wounded in my company in about three minutes, having fallen in with about 400 riflemen unawares. They are not so dreadful as I expected, or they must have destroyed me and my whole company before we were supported by anybody else. Afterwards they were all either killed or taken. My company, though obliged to retreat (not having 20 yards the start and being only thirty men) killed two officers and two men before we gave way. We had got in among them.”66 In other engagements, however, Dansey and his men appear to have maneuvered and fought with almost no support from the rest of the battalion’s companies. This appears to have been the case at one point during the battle of Monmouth, of which he recorded: “I have only to tell you I had a very narrow escape from being taken prisoner with my whole company. We were obliged to run up to our middles in a bog to get away from the rebel light horse, and I had only one man taken.”

Because light companies appear commonly to have enjoyed near-total tactical independence in action, their captains required a high degree of individual initiative and skill. As might be expected, Dansey’s letters give a fascinating insight into his personal role in directing his company in combat. For example, in recounting his part in a major skirmish that developed during a foraging expedition in New Jersey (on 23 February 1777), Dansey explained how he had employed an elementary ruse de guerre to induce the enemy to retreat:

I faced two hundred of the rebels with my company only in a wood, for two minutes, myself not twenty yards from some of them, and received all their fire. Our friends thought we were cut to pieces. Another company joined me, and I drove the rebels and had only one man wounded in the arm. We killed six and wounded sixteen of them. I was so near as to call to them, “By God, my lads, we have you now” in the hopes they would be bullied into surrender, but that would not do: they answered me with a heavy fire. However, when I got my men to the trees round about me, and the other company coming up to my support, I bullied them another way. Seeing them snug behind the trees and showing no disposition to run, and too many of them to charge (as we were rather too thin), I cried as loud as I could hollow, that they might be sure to hear me, “By God, soldiers, they run, have at them my brave boys” which had the desired effect. One thought the other [had] run, and they all set off as if the Devil drove them. We cleared the wood of them and they never [showed?] themselves within shot again that day.

The opportunity to exercise this level of personal initiative and tactical skill in combat made the light company captain’s battlefield role markedly different from that of captains of the battalion companies. Indeed, in March 1778, after one of his brother officers was rewarded with the post of aide de camp to Major General William Tryon, Dansey grumbled with obvious frustration about the limited recognition that fell to successful light company officers like himself, especially when they faced the added danger of professional disgrace in the event of mishap:

I am almost wishing for a smug [illegible: berth?] of that kind, for I find there is nothing to be gained by fighting with light infantry but — Lord knows — broken bones. And as to the honor of it, if it was not for self-satisfaction it is all a farce. Merit goes by favor, and we are only tools for the favorites to work with, [so] consequently generally fall into ignorant, unskilful hands. And like the mechanic’s tools, we suffer; and if the work does not succeed we are blamed, [while] if it does [succeed] we have no more merit than the carpenter’s axe or saw. In short, an officer of the light infantry’s character is always at stake; and if he does ever so well, the merit becomes other people’s, whose impudence or sycophancy gains them the ears of people in power. But I’ll persevere. I may be lucky, [and] therefore will not draw from the lottery of preferment yet.

Other examples can be cited to show the level of initiative that light infantry officers had to display in action. For example, at the action at Spencer’s Ordinary, teenaged Lieutenant Charles Dunlop of the Queen’s Rangers “led on his division on horseback, without suffering a man to fire, watching the enemy, and giving a signal to his men to lay down whenever a party of theirs was about to fire.” Similarly, in September 1776 Lieutenant Loftus Cliffe, a subaltern in the 46th Regiment, marveled at the coolness and flair with which Captain Mathew Johnson conducted the regiment’s light company at the affair at Harlem Heights: “Johnson and his . . .  company behaved amazingly. He goes through his maneuvers by a whistle, for which he has often been laughed at. They either form to right or left, or squat or rise, by a particular whistle, which his men are as well acquainted with as the battalion [companies of the 46th Regiment are] with the word of command. He (being used to woods fighting, and having a quick eye) had his company down in the moment of the enemy’s ‘present!,’ and up again at the advantageous moment for their fire, killed several, and had not one of his company hurt during the whole time he drove the enemy before him.” The 46th Regiment was Howe’s own corps, and it may be that the commander in chief himself influenced Johnson to adopt his sensible command-and-control system. Howsoever the case, that Johnson was able to practice such a system, and that his less imaginative brother officers derided him for it, signifies not only how much latitude the light infantry captain exercised in “fighting” his company in action but also that not all officers were fit to be entrusted with so demanding a situation.

In conventional linear combat, the captain and subaltern were likely to be involved in four main activities: motivating their men, keeping them in good order, engaging in personal combat (occasionally), and directing their men. This latter role especially was at a premium in America, where conventional methods of command and control were not always feasible. Because it often proved unnecessary and even impracticable to maintain a well-connected line of battle during the advance, field officers were compelled to exercise a far higher degree of tactical initiative in “fighting” their battalions than was usual in European campaigns. To enable the field officers to synchronize the actions of the battalion’s loosely deployed companies in combat, particularly in woody country, some corps appear to have adopted an innovative, staggered method of maneuvering. Finally, in the case of the light battalions, the field officers nominally in command seem commonly to have exercised little overall direction over the companies in action. Once these latter engaged, they appear to have cooperated only loosely, the respective captains enjoying the kind of tactical independence that demanded flair far in excess of that expected of the officers of the line infantry.


The battle of Pydna, of course, was not the end of the contest. The Roman legion would go on to fight more variations of the phalanx in the centuries to come, taking on the other armies influenced by the Hellenistic phalanx and employing, to varying degrees, similar methods. There was a Fourth Macedonian War, followed by a war against the Achaeans, and the kingdoms of Numidia and Pontus, in north Africa and north Turkey, respectively. But the writing was already on the wall. The phalanx had met the legion on multiple occasions, in all variations of leadership, terrain, weather, states of troop discipline and supply, and the various morale-influencing factors of divine inspiration and omen. The legion was the hands-down winner, and would continue to dominate the battlefield for hundreds of years to come.

But we already knew this. Again, the interesting question is, “why?” let’s take some time to go over the evidence, and more importantly, to return to Polybius’ original statement as to why the legion won out over the phalanx, agility, flexibility and adaptability. So, was Polybius right?

Was Polybius Right?

The answer, supported by the evidence of the six battles we’ve just examined, is “yes, but only partly.”

Let’s take a look. Polybius is certainly correct in that while both the legion and the phalanx required tight unit cohesion, and were limited by the fundamentals of the battle line, the legion certainly required less of it. The short sword is, by its very nature, a weapon well suited to both whole unit combat and individual fighting. Legionaries deployed at larger intervals, which gave them more space to maneuver as individuals, able to absorb the shock of a charge, to dodge incoming missiles, to fence with an opponent if required. More importantly, they were trained to do this very thing. The sword was their weapon, and they were skilled in employing it both as an instrument of a formed maniple, and as an individual fencer.

Contrast this with the phalangite, whose primary weapon, the massive pike, was only effective when formed. Fighting as an individual, a phalangite was left with little option but to drop the giant weapon and draw his own sword, with which he was not nearly as well trained as his Roman enemy.

There’s a great example of the ineffectiveness of the phalangite pike in an individual duel in Diodorus. He tells a story of a fight that breaks out in the camp of the army of Alexander the Great at Alexandria – not Alexandria, Egypt, but a different city named for him in modern day Uch, Pakistan. Coragus, one of Alexander’s Macedonian phalangites, had a bit too much to drink and got into it with Dioxippus, one of the Athenian allied soldiers in Alexander’s army.

Both men were, by all accounts, tough as nails. Coragus was a veteran of many battles, and had secured a solid reputation as a fighter. Dioxippus had won the boxing title in the Olympics of 336 BC. It’s not clear if Dioxippus had won at ancient boxing, which was mostly similar to the modern sport, or at pankration (all-force), a kind of mixed martial art that combined throws, holds, punches, kicks and whatever else you could think of, apart from biting and eye-gouging. Either way, Dioxippus was nobody to take lightly, but that didn’t scare Coragus, who wound up challenging him to a duel. The whole thing turned into a kind of contest between the Macedonians and the Greeks, with each side cheering on their respective champion.

Everybody cleared a space for them to fight, and Coragus put on his armor. Dioxippus showed up naked and oiled. Coragus appears to have brought his pike and a javelin, while Dioxippus brought only a club. Now, we don’t know how long this club was, but it makes more sense to me if it was a short, one-handed weapon, not all that different from the Roman sword. You should keep in mind that the club was the favored weapon of the mythical hero Herakles, which lent a symbolic flair to Dioxippus’ choice.

The fight began, and Dioxippus easily dodged Coragus’ thrown javelin. Diodorus alternately calls Coragus’ weapon a “spear” and later a “long lance,” which likely means he’s talking about the pike. Whatever the weapon, Diodorus is clear that Dioxippus got inside the weapon’s effective range, slammed the pike shaft with his club, and snapped it.

Coragus doesn’t appear to have had time to reverse the weapon to make use of his butt-spike, so he drew his sword, but Dioxippus was already close enough to grab his wrist and execute a wrestling throw, evidence that Dioxippus had won at pankration and not boxing, to put Coragus on his back. Then, boot on his opponent’s neck, Dioxippus raised his club and proclaimed victory.

It was a great moment for Dioxippus, but it ultimately led to his downfall. The Macedonians were furious at the embarrassing loss, falsely accused him of theft and the poor Athenian wound up committing suicide in protest. He was largely ridiculed for this overreaction, but Alexander was furious at the senseless waste of a powerful life.

Now, Dioxippus was not a Roman legionary, but the story does illustrate the effectiveness of a fast-moving individual armed with a short weapon against a Hellenistic phalangite who is without the protection of his formed phalanx. It is possible that the Roman legionary had some speed advantage. The average phalangite wore the linen or bronze cuirass, helmet, shield and greaves and carried the pike. The hastati front line of the Romans would only have worn a much lighter pectoral, and possibly a single greave. The Roman shield was much heavier, but the lighter armor, in the front line at least, may have given the hastati a speed edge in engaging the phalanx.

Even more importantly, the Romans introduced a tactical innovation, in that they combined the missile functions of the skirmisher with the shock combat function of the heavy infantry. The Roman legionary, possibly with the exception of the triarii, had a limited missile weapon role – it was most often used to soften up the enemy line, but also could be used to return missile fire from skirmishers in a pinch. The pilum was purpose-built in a way that most ancient javelins were not – uniquely designed to cause an enemy to discard his shield, thus preparing the battleground to allow the legionary the chance to engage in close combat under the most advantageous circumstances possible.

Roman legionaries did not skirmish as the velites did, but their hybrid role as a limited kind of missile troop is often underappreciated. The argument can be made that this is because it wasn’t new. The famous Persian “Immortals” of Xerxes I, who fought Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, are described by Herodotus and depicted in carvings at Persepolis – modern day Marvdasht in Iran – as being spear- and shield-armed heavy infantry who also carried bows. But the general belief is that the Immortals acted either as formed groups of either archers or spearmen, and didn’t combine the two as the Roman legionary did, using their missiles to soften up the enemy just before the charge to close combat, a similar tactic to the 17th century cavalry cuirassier, who discharged his pistol at point-blank range just before his charge hit home.

The effectiveness of this combining of skirmishing and shock-combat capabilities in a single infantry class is illustrated by the abolition of the velites during the Marian reforms of 107 BC, after which the legions had no dedicated skirmishing body (though auxiliaries still skirmished). Each legionary had their javelins, and that was that.

Polybius is certainly right that terrain played an important role. Looking at the tactical subunits of the Hellenistic phalanx and their respective depth and frontage gives us some clues. The Hellenistic lochos of 16 men would have been useless, just a long line of 16 men in single file, and even the tetrarchia of 64 would still have only had a frontage of four men, or 16 feet, and would therefore be easily enveloped. At the speira level of 256 men, you’re covering a little less than 50 feet, which still isn’t great. It isn’t until you get up to the chiliarchia level of 1,024 men that you’re getting to just under 200 feet of frontage. And all of this assumes that the phalanx is deploying in the usual lochoi of 16 soldiers. In many instances, as at Cynoscephalae, the phalanx’s depth was doubled, with the resulting loss of 50 percent of its frontage.

Now, compare this with the Roman legion. We’re not sure of the exact depth of the maniple (the sources point to either three or six ranks deep) but we are still looking at units of approximately 120 soldiers. If we assume they’re three ranks deep, and we believe Polybius’ statement that the soldiers have 6 feet each, we’re looking at almost 250 feet of frontage for a single maniple. And this doesn’t even count the likelihood that the two centuries were able to function independently of one another (after all, each had its own centurion), which would result in two tactical units covering over 100 feet of frontage each. The checkerboard deployment of these units would have allowed them to operate independently of each other without having to worry too much about their flanks. If one maniple or century was attacked on their exposed flank, there would be another one not far off who could come to their aid. And any unit that hit a Roman flank would in turn have to expose their own flank to the other maniples.

Polybius is right that the Roman system was much more flexible, and it is clearly geared to take maximum advantage of the legionary’s ability to fight in all directions, and even on his own if need be. Further, the smaller units, stationed at intervals, allowed the Romans to handle broken terrain much more easily, weaving around boulders or sinkholes or whatever other irregularities the battlefield presented.

The phalanx could only fight in one direction, and because it was so reliant on its depth (without at least five ranks, you wouldn’t have the interleaving pike heads critical to defending the front rank), it required far more troops to be effective. And because it could only fight in one direction, protecting the flanks became even more critical than usual, and it was pretty damn critical already. The best way to protect the flanks was to expand the frontage of the phalanx, with the result that phalanxes tended to deploy, as we have seen in all six of the battles we’ve examined in this book, as more or less one enormous line. This is necessarily more vulnerable to terrain than a checkerboard deployment, and made the phalanx far more dependent on flat, level ground to prevent gaps from forming in the line.


Another thing you may notice when you look at these battles is the role of the general in the fighting. Roman generals certainly could and did participate in battles directly, fighting hand to hand in the front ranks and exposing themselves willingly to danger. In fact, one of the highest honors a Roman general could earn was the spolia opima (rich plunder), which were the weapons, armor and other treasure stripped from an enemy leader killed in single combat.

The Romans in three battles we examined had a recent example of this – the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who in 222 BC met Viridomarus, king of the Gaesatae tribe of Gauls, in single combat and killed him. The winning of this high honor cemented Marcellus’ place in history, and would certainly have encouraged other Roman generals to get out front in the fighting. This wasn’t a one-off event. Over a century and a half later, Julius Caesar would grab a shield and join his own front line fighting against the Nervii in what is now northern France. Casualty rates among Roman centurions were notoriously high, in part due to the culture of valor and risk-taking that dominated.

But at least in the battles we’ve examined here, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Note Flamininus’ moving to his right wing at Cynoscephalae when he realized he couldn’t salvage things on his left. Witness Paullus moving bodies of troops around as events unfolded at Pydna. The general impression is that the Roman consul led from immediately behind the battle line, on horseback, which not only made him more mobile for purposes of acting as an observer and giving orders, but gave him a higher vantage point from which to see the evolution of the battle and to allow him to direct his troops.

That doesn’t appear to be the case with Hellenistic generals. They were stamped in the mold of Alexander the Great, a general famous for his personal role as a warrior. In many of his most famous battles, Alexander charged at the head of his cavalry, acting as a tactical unit in the fight and personally giving and receiving blows, almost at the cost of his life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC. It is believed that Alexander set his troops in line before the battle, but once the order was set, he abdicated actual command to his subordinates in favor of acting as a fighting cavalryman.

Remember that all of the Hellenistic generals we’ve examined were descendants of the successors of Alexander, and likely considered themselves the rightful inheritors of his legacy. The stories of his personal valor and style of command would have been much fresher to them than they are to us.

We see this in the behavior of the generals here. Pyrrhus of Epirus is always in the thick of the fighting, and is killed, though not in the most heroic manner, in a battle. We see Philip V personally leading his troops on the ridge at Cynoscephalae, and Antiochus leading the cavalry charge that breaks the Roman left at Magnesia. It seems likely that they, in the tradition of Alexander, were happy to lay out their general plans for the battle and then leave it to their subordinate commanders to enact it while they rode off to fight.

This makes sense in the plodding, defensive context of the phalanx. Here was a formation that wasn’t expected to move much. It was supposed to be laid out in a position and then to hold that position, or to march straight forward from it, while other units conducted any more complex maneuvers required. In fact, it’s generally considered that during the time of Alexander at least, the phalanx’s job wasn’t to win the battle at all, but merely to pin the enemy battle line in place long enough for Alexander and his heavy cavalry to strike the critical blow that would begin the rout. The formation’s tremendous depth, along with the difficulty of maneuvering with the enormous pike, lend it to this style of generalship. We don’t see Hellenistic generals breaking off pieces of their phalanxes to respond to contingencies the way the unnamed Roman tribune does at Cynoscephalae. We also don’t really see them rallying up small units of phalangites as Marcus does the Roman routers at Magnesia.

It’s possible that this focus on personal heroism on the part of the commander deprived the phalanx of much needed leadership in the thick of battle, but it’s equally possible that it was simply part of the Hellenistic military ecosystem. A static, defensive formation like the phalanx wouldn’t require as much attention from the general of the entire army, freeing him to engage in the kind of personal heroism that would inspire everyone, boost morale and thus prevent the infectious panic that could be the end of a battle.

Some of this may also be due to the nature and position of the Hellenistic versus the Roman leader. Romans had despised the word rex (king) ever since the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king, in 509 BC, and the government of the Republic was carefully devised to prevent any one person from amassing too much personal power. A Roman consul was, despite his enormous authority, a servant of the Roman civitas, the social body of Roman citizens. Abstracting loyalty to a state, instead of a person, is a sophisticated concept, and one that the Romans excelled at, at least until their first civil war. Personal glory was absolutely a priority for the Roman consul, and Rome’s history is rife with unnecessary military action specifically brought on by a Roman public official’s need to win glory in battle. This need was driven partly by the limited term of office. Roman commanders only held imperium for a short period, and once it expired, so did their authority to lead an army. But, at least conceptually, the Roman consul was a public servant.

The Hellenistic king was a royal monarch. His military authority never waned. The army, like everything else in his kingdom, was his personal property.

Command and Control, Independence of Action and Initiative

There’s something else, the extent to which command and control is pushed down to the lowest level in the Roman army.

Command and control (also known as “C2”) is a modern military concept that refers simply to the ability to command military actions and personnel. C2 obviously accrues to the highest in rank, who have the authority to make more and bigger decisions. When that C2 is assigned to officers and soldiers of lower rank, it’s said to be “pushed down” or “pushed out” to a lower level. This is a judgment-neutral statement, and military theorists can disagree about whether or when pushing C2 down is a good idea. The Coast Guard is known for pushing C2 down as far as it can.

A lot of evidence of distributed C2 in the army of the Roman Republic that isn’t in evidence in their Hellenistic opponents. We’ve already talked a little about the power and influence of the Roman centurion, and we’ve seen them taking individual initiatives at Pydna to get their troops into the phalanx as the gaps opened up. We also know that senior centurions participated directly in counsel with the consular leadership of the Roman army, and that there was some interplay between these operational leaders and the highest ranks of Roman society, as evidenced by the 1st century AD Roman consul C. Silius Italicus’ poem Punica, which tells the story of the centurion Ennius, whose feats endeared him to the famous Scipio family to the degree that he was buried in their family plot.

The casualties among Roman centurions were extremely high. Julius Caesar, writing in the 1st century BC, describes casualties at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Roman centurions (per capita) died around 700 percent more frequently than milites (soldiers, common legionaries). This is a clear indicator of the personal initiative they were expected to show in leading their troops into combat, and may be an indicator of a military culture that encouraged the seizing of tactical initiative at this comparatively low level. We also hear of the velites wearing animal skins over their helmets, in part to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible to their superiors who could then mark them out for reward, promotion or praise. This isn’t absolute proof, but it is certainly evidence of individual initiative on the part of the average soldier.

But we have more concrete examples, and in the battles we examine here, no less. At Cynoscephalae, we see a tribune feeling confident enough in his ability to make major strategic decisions without consulting his general or the overall commander, to the degree where he wheels off 20 maniples from the rear of the line to execute a flanking maneuver that may well have won the battle.

At Magnesia, we see a tribune taking it upon himself not only to rally fleeing troops, but to punish them with death, re-form them, and then lead them in a countercharge, all on his own initiative and without any consultation.

At Pydna, we see an allied commander make the call to throw the unit standard into the enemy ranks in order to motivate his own troops. It’s a precursor of Caesar’s standard-bearer in 55 BC, jumping into the sea to motivate his frightened comrades. All of these decisions appear to be self-initiated, made in a split second, and without consulting higher command.

Correlation is not causation, and these are just a few data points, but they are enough to give the feeling of a military culture that rewarded initiative and personal resourcefulness to the degree where comparatively lower-ranking individuals felt comfortable making operational decisions.

We have no comparative examples in the Hellenistic armies we’ve examined. At Heraclea, Megacles dons Pyrrhus’ armor, a decision which, if anything, nearly jeopardizes the outcome of the battle. At Cynoscephalae, Nicanor hurries with his foraging troops in a column over the ridge, at the command of his superior. Nicanor is unable to make any tactical decision that might have saved his men, such as forming them up before setting off. We don’t hear much of individual brilliance during the battles we’ve examined. Some of this may be due to history being written by the winners, but reckoned as a whole with the cohesive nature of the phalanx, the royal system of government that accrued all personal power with a king, a picture of a more rigid system that discouraged individual initiative starts to make itself seen.


The medieval and early modern world saw their share of phalanxes. There’s a great translation of Aelian’s tactics published in 1616 by John Bingham under the title of The Tactiks of Aelian or Art of Embattailing an Army After Ye Grecian Manner Englished & Illustrated Wth [sic] Figures Throughout: & Notes Vpon Ye Chapters of Ye Ordinary Motions of Ye Phalange. The book is remarkable for, apart from its great title and equally amusing English, its illustrations of phalangites in 17th century armor. They wear the crested morion-style helmets you might see on one of Cortes’ conquistadores, and iron peascod breastplates over buff leather coats. These men are as far from a Hellenistic phalangite as you could imagine, but the legacy is clear and the connection to it is powerful.

The fact remains that the people reading Bingham’s translation of Aelian weren’t doing so for nostalgia’s sake. The 17th century AD was every bit as bloody as the 3rd century BC, and the commanders looking to writers like Aelian were hard-bitten war leaders like the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus and the Holy Roman Empire’s general Count Albrecht von Wallenstein. They were looking to the ancient world because they genuinely believed that the military methodology of the period still had value, and it’s fair to argue that it did. The “pike and shot” formations that were the core of 17th century armies married the Hellenistic phalanx of pikemen with the emerging firearms of the period.

Even here we see the legacy of the ancient world. The matchlock arquebus (an early type of firearm), much like the Hellenistic pike, was of little use on its own. It was only truly effective deployed in a tightly packed formation that could pour on concentrated volumes of fire. Worse, it was incredibly slow to reload, far slower than the bows and javelins that were still used on early modern battlefields. In order to employ them effectively, you had to marshal thousands of arquebusiers to maneuver, reload and fire in perfect unison, as part of a giant and complex formation.

There’s only one way this kind of military operation can be accomplished: constant and relentless drill. Make no mistake: these are concepts that grew out of the ancient military experience and of the legion and the phalanx in particular. It may seem like a silly point. Of course all soldiers drill constantly. How else would they ever be effective? The truth is that in pre-modern armies, it’s a lot rarer than you think. Outside the organized city-state cultures we’ve examined here, many cultures fought as warbands, and even inside them, they could frequently not resist the temptation to pursue individual honor and glory at the expense of critical unit cohesion.

But even if it seems simple, even if it seems commonplace, it remains the fact that the notions of troop cohesion, drill, keeping formation and even conceptions modern professional militaries take for granted (numbered corps, uniform standards, military retirement, span of control, etc …) reached a level of refinement in these two formations that endures to this day. The legion and the phalanx certainly didn’t invent these concepts, but they cemented them. They are timeless because these concepts are universal and effective. They endure, all around us, every day.

The result was a massive cultural shift. The same is true of the legion and the phalanx. In their organization, esprit de corps, deployment, method of arming, and in hundreds of other fine details, they represent an expression of how people mobilize for war that seems so incredibly familiar.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the legion and the phalanx is how they were, ultimately, expressions of culture – of a Rome struggling to come to grips with brutal Celtic invasions that swept away its burgeoning hoplite phalanx and put its nascent city to the sack. Of a fractious Greece with disparate city-states constantly striving against one another, until the threat of the enormous Persian Empire gave them a common enemy, if only for a little while. These cultures bled into and informed one another, and in a way we can see the conflict between the legion and the phalanx as a conflict between two branches of Greek legacy, drifting apart and then coming together again.

But in the end, it is this above all: a great story, full of blood and sweat and adventure and more than anything – people, fascinating, complicated and ambitious.

In other words – us.


Air Support – Kursk

The campaign against the Soviet Union in 1941 began in the same manner, in what had now become standard Luftwaffe doctrine. The Russian Air Force was attacked with great effect, which resulted in the destruction of over 1200 Soviet aircraft by noon of the first day. Support was then shifted to aiding the army in making penetrations and providing Close Air Support to rapidly moving ground units. However, it quickly became evident that the Luftwaffe was not large enough to cover the extensive expanses of the battlefields on the eastern front. Even as early as 1941, Luftwaffe units were subject to frequent lateral movements on the front in order to provide Close Air Support to outnumbered German ground forces to allow them to maintain momentum.

By the end of 1942, the use of airpower along the front lines in direct support of the army no longer assured victory. Because of the increasing capability of the Soviets to re-supply and reinforce the front lines, the Luftwaffe began to shift its emphasis toward interdiction. Changes were made to make the tactical forces of the Luftwaffe more flexible. At the same time units became more functionally oriented. This new orientation led to the creation of such elements as night harassment squadrons, used against Soviet troop concentrations; anti-tank squadrons using Hs-129, Me-110, Ju-87 and Ju-88 aircraft; and railway interdiction squadrons using the Ju-88.

The backbone of the Luftwaffe’s tactical support inventory was the Ju-87 Stuka. This aircraft was a single-engine, fixed-gear dive-bomber crewed by a pilot and a rear-facing gunner. It was developed during the 1930’s by Ernst Udet, the head of the Air Ministry’s production division. Udet had been infatuated by dive-bomb tactics developed in the United States. The Stuka was built not so much for its load-carrying capacity or range but because of its accurate ordnance-delivery capability. It was accurate because it could withstand the steep dive angles necessary for pin-point bombing. The Stuka proved itself well in the role for which it was designed, but in later years of the war its limited speed and maneuverability became liabilities in the face of increased Soviet counter-air capability.

The aircraft which was to take the place of the Stuka was the FW-190. This aircraft was much more maneuverable, although it carried about the same bomb load as the Ju-87. One advantage of the FW-190 was the outfitting of some models with heavy caliber rockets, allowing the Luftwaffe to institute low altitude delivery techniques against concentrations of troops and supplies. These tactics decreased exposure to antiaircraft fire and greatly increased the survivability of the FW-190 as compared to the Stuka. Later versions were equipped with 30mm cannon and given a purely anti-tank role. However, production was not started on the FW-190 until late 1941 and then only in an air-to-air version. Despite its effectiveness, it was not delivered to ground attack squadrons until just before the Battle of Kursk, and then in limited numbers.

The Henschel Hs-129 was a twin-engined aircraft designed as a tank destroyer. It was heavily armored and heavily armed with from 30mm up to 75mm cannons. The 75mm gun fired a round with a weight of 26 pounds, capable of penetrating any armor. Hs-129 squadrons were responsible for repulsing the attack of an entire Russian tank brigade during the Battle of Kursk. However, as was the case with many German aircraft by the end of the war, increased numbers of Soviet aircraft made the Hs-129 extremely vulnerable to the point where per mission losses were excessive, sometimes running as high as 20%.

Two bombers made up the remainder of the Luftwaffe’s direct support forces. The first, the Ju-88, was a twin-engined bomber served by a crew of four. It could carry a bomb load almost three times that of the FW-190 or the Ju-87 and was equipped with 30mm cannon on some versions. The second bomber, the Heinkel He-111, also had two engines but one more crew member than the Ju-88. The He-Ill was significantly slower than the Ju-88 and had shown itself to be vulnerable to fighter attack as early as the Battle of Britain. These two bombers were used in this role mainly due to the lack of sufficient numbers of ground-attack fighters. By late 1943 both were switched back to the mission of strategic bombing.

A point here about equipment needs emphasis. The Luftwaffe’s slowness in developing and fielding the ground-attack version of the FW-190 was a significant error. The Ju-87 needed a minimum ceiling of 2600 feet to operate effectively. This limitation often denied ground forces support in time of poor weather. Additionally, the high altitude approaches required made dive bombing a highly vulnerable tactic in the face of effective antiaircraft fire. In fact, as early as 1934 von Richtofen had stated that advances in antiaircraft made dive bombing techniques “complete nonsense.”  Until the Battle of Kursk, however, the Luftwaffe had been very successful with the Ju-87. Therefore, they neglected the FW-190 as a ground-support aircraft and the warnings of von Richtoffen as well.

The Luftwaffe was also ill-prepared to face the Soviets with regards to the proper types of munitions. Standard high-explosive bombs were not effective in stopping heavily armored vehicles and tanks. Rapid work was done to improve and deploy ordnance with penetrating capability such as cannon and shaped-charge munitions. This development was somewhat successful, although the fitting of a particular weapon to an aircraft was often done in an improvised manner as exemplified when external cannons were mounted on the Stuka. The result was a decrease in speed and maneuverability in an aircraft already lacking in these critical areas.

Headquarters were organized two different ways. Initially they were assigned directly to the Army Command. In such cases the army decided the tasks to be carried out; however; the Luftwaffe staff made all decisions regarding mission execution, This concept was modified in 1942 in order to give the Luftwaffe more operational control over its own forces. After that time, Air Fleets were attached by air liaison office to the army command, normally at the Army Group level. This new system economized on the size of Luftwaffe staffs. An attempt was still made to align an Air Fleet to each Army Group’s area of operation.

Luftwaffe personnel were trained early in their service in the intricacies of providing tactical support to the Army and in army tactics in general. These tactics were taught at the Luftwaffe Air Command and General Staff College as well as in other joint schools. There was also a separate dive-bomber school which specialized in the tactics of providing Close Air Support, Training doctrine always emphasized that the Luftwaffe was designed to attack the enemy’s rear areas in the interdiction role. In the field, the army maintained an instructional staff at Luftwaffe units to keep them well briefed on the latest ground tactics. Additionally, many tactics bulletins were disseminated, giving the views of senior Luftwaffe and army tacticians.

By mid-1943, the doctrine embraced by the Luftwaffe was a modification of that which had been originally printed in Air Field Manual No. 16. As late as the eve of the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, interdiction was considered by Luftwaffe leaders to be the most decisive mission for airpower and this point continued to be stated doctrine. Attacks were to disrupt the enemy’s flow of supplies, troops and equipment to the front. Since these targets would be large and concentrated they would prove to be extremely vulnerable to attacks by the Luftwaffe. Attacks along the front were to be avoided since the targets there were necessarily dispersed and would not provide good results. Finally, Luftwaffe commanders felt airpower used to improve force ratios of ground units was to be avoided at all costs since such use was least effective. This last mission was later to become the one most commonly assigned to the Luftwaffe at Kursk.

The planning for Battlefield Air Interdiction missions was begun at Army Group – Air Fleet levels where the Luftwaffe’s capability to carry out a mission was analyzed. If the Luftwaffe staff determined that the mission was within the capability of the Luftwaffe, the mission statement was issued. The assignment of specific missions was accomplished by the flying units themselves. The combination of fighter-bombers and fighter escorts was determined by the Air Fleet staff based on aircraft availability and the status of the Soviet threat. The Luftwaffe operated under the overall tactical principle that once a target was engaged it would be engaged by multiple attacks until it was destroyed. Therefore, extensive use of aerial reconnaissance continued. Dive-bombers were generally assigned point targets which required greater accuracy, while low-level attacks were used against area targets. It was also felt that low-level attacks could produce the extra benefit of affecting the enemy’s morale.

Timely engagement of interdiction targets was critical. By early 1943 the Luftwaffe realized that strikes at interdiction targets would have an effect on the front line siguation within a few days. Soviet strategy all along the eastern front was to fight a battle in one area and then shift emphasis to another. Lateral mobility became an extremely important factor in Soviet and German plans. By 1943 interdiction became essential in combating the lateral movement of Soviet forces. Later in the war, notably after the fall of Orel in August 1943, the inability of the Luftwaffe (and the entire German war machine for that matter) to move rapidly to counter Soviet thrusts would prove to be decisive to Soviet victory.

The Soviets were fond of massing troops in large concentrations close to the front lines in preparation for any operation. In 1941, the Luftwaffe often engaged Soviet troop columns in excess of 100 34 yards wide.  However, the best target was the Russian rail system. This was true for a number of reasons, of which the lack of an effective road system over which large amounts of heavy equipment could be transported was primary. Rainy weather often made the few available roads impassable. The Luftwaffe had initial problems in determining the correct way to go about interdicting rail traffic. Luftwaffe planners assumed that interdiction of single track routes where no bypass could easily be constructed would be most effective. For this reason transshipment points and railway depots were neglected. Later, however, it was discovered that rapid repairs could be made to sections of track along primary routes with relative ease. In fact, the only real result of attacks made on track was the tying up of a great deal of Soviet manpower in prepositioned sites as railway repair crews. Attacks on transportation centers were more successful since they usually destroyed a certain amount of supplies and equipment and effectively cut routes for a longer period of time. One drawback was that such critical areas were easier to defend and Soviet antiaircraft often took a heavy toll. A Soviet air defense officer at the time confirmed that Russian air defense fighters and the bulk of antiaircraft artillery were stationed very close to transshipment points like railway junctions. Another method of cutting routes on a more permanent basis was to concentrate on destroying railroad bridges. Bridges, however, were also easy targets to defend. (This was a lesson which the USAF was destined to relearn in attacks against the transportation system of North Viet Nam.) The most effective way of cutting the rail system was to attack locomotive repair facilities and the locomotives themselves. The Soviets attempted to deceive Luftwaffe pilots by instructing their engineers to release quantities of steam to simulate destruction. This tactic proved ineffective since the timing of the deception was critical. Luftwaffe pilots soon became adept at determining when a locomotive was truly hit.

The Luftwaffe developed an excellent system of studying areas of expected action ahead of time to determine the vulnerabilities of the rail transportation system. This information was then compiled into a publication entitled “Instructions for the Strategic Assembly and Conduct of Combat Operations.” This detailed study was coordinated ahead of time with the army so that German mobility would not be effected. Such coordination was not as important later in the war when movement of the front was generally east to west. What was especially noteworthy about this system was that it gave the Luftwaffe the option to plan action early and allowed timely attack of enemy concentrations and routes.

Certain realities prevented the Luftwaffe from carrying out a more extensive and effective interdiction campaign. Principally, by 1943 the Luftwaffe was tied to an overall strategy whose objective was to blunt Russian offensive action and force the Soviets to collapse due to heavy losses. To this purpose, Hitler decreed that battles of attrition were to be fought and forced the German Army to hold every piece of ground as if it were located in downtown Berlin. Defensive patterns were static and even encirclements were accepted in hopes that the Soviets would wear themselves out in such actions. Therefore, the Luftwaffe was tied more and more to the success or failure of the ground forces by bolstering the wall against which the Soviet forces would expend their might. Additionally, air superiority became more fleeting as Soviet air forces began to recover from the disasters suffered in 1941. Also, by 1943, the most experienced pilots were being drained from the eastern front to counter the air threat of the strategic attacks against Germany by forces of the RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force. Consequently, less escort was available to allow fighter bombers to attack safely behind the front lines. Armed reconnaissance missions which had been successful under earlier situations of at least local air superiority could no longer be accomplished effectively.  Such was the state of the Luftwaffe as it made preparations in early 1943 for the Battle of Kursk.

Königgrätz: Battle of Eagles

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Königgrätz/Sadowa/ on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Königgrätz. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines.

At Königgrätz the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Königgrätz the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Königgrätz the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Königgrätz was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

After Königgrätz

The victory of Sadowa made General von Moltke a celebrity, though an unlikely one. Intellectual, thin, clean-shaven, crisp and dry in speech and writing, he had the air more of an ascetic than a warrior. Although a gifted translator, he was so taciturn that the joke went that he could be silent in seven different languages. In 1867 he accompanied the king to the Paris Exhibition, was presented with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and had conversations with French marshals Niel and Canrobert. The social niceties over, he returned to his office in Berlin to devote his thought to the problems of waging war against France. As professional military men, both he and Niel privately believed that a war between France and the North German Confederation was inevitable. As Niel once put it, the two countries were not so much at peace as in a state of armistice.

It was Moltke’s job, as it was Niel’s, to ensure that his country was ready when the test came, and he went about his task diligently. As a conservative Prussian, he saw France as the principal source of the dangerous infections of democracy, radicalism and anarchy. As a German, he shared the nationalist belief that Germany could become secure only by neutralizing the French threat once and for all.

Following the war of 1866, the Prussian army became the core of the Army of the North German Confederation. Under War Minister Roon’s direction, integration of the contingents of the annexed states into the Prussian military system proceeded without delay. As Prussian units were regionally based, other states’ forces were readily accommodated into the order of battle while respecting state loyalties. Thus troops from Schleswig-Holstein became IX Corps of the Confederation Army, those of Hanover X Corps, those of Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt XI Corps and the forces of Saxony XII Corps. In addition to the manpower provided by this regional expansion, the new army could call upon the enlarged pool of trained reserves produced by Roon’s earlier reforms. While maintaining an active army of 312,000 men in 1867, the Confederation could call on 500,000 more fully trained reservists on mobilization, plus the Landwehr for home defence. Once the southern states’ forces were included following the signing of military alliances, the numbers available swelled still further. By 1870 Germany would be able to mobilize over a million men.

The world had hardly seen such a large and well-disciplined force. Its backbone was the Prussian army, combat-hardened and commanded by experienced leaders, which had won the 1866 campaign. The post-war period allowed time to make promotions, weed out unsuitable commanders, and learn lessons of what could have been done better. The time was well used.

For instance, Prussian artillery had not performed as effectively as hoped against the Austrians for several reasons: faulty deployment, lack of coordination with other arms, technical failures, and want of tactical experience in handling a mixture of muzzle-loading smoothbores and the new breech-loading steel rifled cannons. All these deficiencies were addressed. At the king’s insistence, Krupp’s steel breech-loaders became standard, this time with Krupp’s own more reliable breech blocks. From 1867 General von Hindersin required gunners to train hard at a practice range in Berlin until firing rapidly and accurately at distant targets became second nature. Batteries also practised rushing forward together in mass, even ahead of their infantry, to bring enemy infantry quickly under converging fire. Time and again, this would prove a devastating tactic. If the Battle of Waterloo proverbially was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is small exaggeration to say that Sedan was won on Germany’s artillery ranges. The proficiency of German gunnery was to astound the French in 1870.

Less spectacular but equally important in conserving the lives of German troops were improvements to the medical service. The huge numbers of wounded after Königgrätz had swamped the medical services. Disease and infection had spread rapidly in overcrowded field hospitals. In 1867 the best civilian and military doctors were called to Berlin, and their recommendations for reform were implemented over the next two years. The medical service was put in charge of a Surgeon General and army doctors were given enhanced authority and rank. Sanitary arrangements for the health of troops in the field were revised and their enforcement became part of the regular duties of troop commanders, who were also issued with pamphlets explaining their responsibilities under the 1864 Geneva Convention. Troops were issued with individual field-dressings to staunch bleeding. Medical units were created and all their personnel issued with Red Cross armbands. The units included stretcher-bearers trained in first aid who would be responsible for evacuating the wounded from the front to field hospitals. From there evacuation to base hospitals would be by rail using specially fitted out hospital trains. Once back in Germany, where the new Red Cross movement was taken very seriously, the wounded would be cared for with the help of civilian doctors assisted by volunteer nurses recruited and trained under the active patronage of Queen Augusta. Yet there would be no conflict of authorities in wartime, nor any room for civilian volunteers wandering about the combat zone under their own devices. The work of civilian doctors and nurses would be directed by a central military authority in Berlin. Like the artillery, the medical service was transformed between 1866 and 1870 by a systematic approach to overcoming the problems experienced in modern war.

This approach was epitomized by the General Staff itself under Moltke’s direction. In 1866 the General Staff had established itself as the controlling brain of the army and had won confidence by its success. It recruited only the very best graduates from the Army War College, and had expanded to over one hundred officers, who were assigned either to specialist sections or to field commands. Its task was to ensure that the army in wartime operated like a well-oiled machine to a common plan. It worked effectively because it was well integrated with the command chain and avoided unnecessary centralization. Army corps were responsible for carrying out their part of the plan. The commander of every major unit had a chief of staff who was in effect Moltke’s representative. Many senior commanders had themselves done staff duties, just as General Staff officers were required periodically to move to operational duties so that they understood the problems of field commanders. Germany’s 15,000 officers were expected to show initiative in achieving objectives laid out in a general plan, and to understand their duty to support other units in pursuit of it. Moltke organized regular staff rides and war games to provide his officers with experience in solving command problems, together with related skills like map reading in the field. Intelligence on French forces and plans was continuously gathered and updated.

Origins of the British Light Infantry

‘Light troops are, as it were, a light or beacon for the general, which should constantly inform him of the situation, the movements and nature of the enemy’s designs; it is upon the exactness and intelligence of what they report that he is enabled to regulate the time and manner of executing his own enterprises.’ (Colonel Coote Manningham)

There was nothing particularly new about light infantry at the turn of the nineteenth century. Most armies had light troops in some form, including the British who had theoretically deployed light companies of just forty-four men since the middle of the eighteenth century. Captain Cooper wrote in his 1806 compendium of works on light infantry that

In the American wars they were particularly useful; and the mode of fighting, which the American nations pursued, evidently showed the necessity of such a corps. For, until Light Infantry were established, a regular army was never safe on its march, being always harassed and dispirited by the irregular troops of the enemy. To obviate these difficulties, the British Generals selected the most enterprising officers, and the most active of the privates … by these means they produced the desired effect; they engaged the enemy in his own way, opposed Light Troops to Light Troops, repulsed him with advantage, and secured and facilitated the operations of the army. The success of these troops gave rise to the formation of a Light Company in every regiment.

After the peace of 1763, the Light Companies were all reduced.

Notwithstanding the above, in the British military tradition the army mainly relied on foreign mercenaries and locally-raised irregulars when light troops were needed. The majority of the light infantry fighting for the British in the forests of North America were provided by the likes of Rogers’ Rangers. Armed with, for instance, the Pennsylvania long rifle or the Ferguson rifle, they were a very effective supplement to the red-coated British infantry in the heavily-wooded terrain of the colonies. During the American War of Independence, Hessian mercenaries provided most of the formal light infantry presence in the order of battle.

At the end of the wars in North America the conservative military view was that formed units of light infantry would be of little utility on the more open European battlefield and that the practice of raising companies of backwoodsmen or hiring mercenaries when the situation dictated would suffice.

In Dundas’ drill manual of 1792 which consists of 458 pages, only 11 appertained to light companies. All this is not to say that there were not advocates of light infantry, but those that developed and practised light tactics tended to do so well out of the gaze of the Horse Guards.3 The fact that the term ‘Light Bob’, which later became a plaudit, was almost an insult before and during much of the French Revolutionary Wars is a measure of how far the British military were from accepting whole light infantry units into the regular army on a permanent basis.

The process of change in the outdated British military came as a result of the hard school of defeat in early campaigns and battles against the French revolutionary armies between 1792 and the end of the century. The raw energy released by the Revolution and the levée en masse had produced large numbers of enthusiastic but barely-trained soldiers. In battle they attacked in columns preceded by clouds of voltigeurs and tirailleurs deployed as a protective skirmish screen, which also galled the enemy line with their fire. This was so effective that by the time the column closed, the enemy was half defeated.

Volley fire against skirmishers was ineffective; they would either go to ground or into cover as the orders ‘Ready, present, fire’ were given, and similarly a bayonet charge had little effect against tirailleurs who simply fell back and resumed their firing as the line re-formed. In short, without sufficient skirmishers of their own to counter those of the French, the British could do little to oppose the voltigeurs. Slowly an understanding of the need for more than a nominal light company per infantry battalion grew, but there was continued opposition from the ranks of more conservative officers. Nonetheless, in 1794 Thomas Graham (later major general) was authorized to raise the 90th Regiment as light infantry following the experience of facing tirailleurs the previous year.

By the final years of the eighteenth century there were senior commanders such as Generals Grey and Sir John Moore, both veterans of North America, who were active exponents of light infantry. Sir John had witnessed the methods of one of his commanding officers, Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie. Following this seminal moment Sir John started to form his own theories, based on his experience of campaigning in the Mediterranean and the West Indies, which he put into practice when he held a command during the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. He trained elements of his force, including a militia battalion, as light infantrymen or, as he promoted the concept, as ‘a universal soldier’. This was an infantryman that was, he stressed, not only trained to fight conventionally in line but also capable of being deployed as a skirmisher. The writings and advocacy on light infantry that had been begun by a handful of almost visionaries in the last decade of the eighteenth century had, by 1806, had become a deluge of print, including compendiums such as Cooper’s bringing together the best thought and practice regarding light troops.

Despite growing enthusiasm, the conversion of whole battalions to light infantry would, however, not begin until 1803. In the meantime, the appreciation and tactical handling of line battalions’ light companies was improving rapidly.


Iphicrates’ Reforms

Iphicrates was born towards the end of the fifth century into a poor and rather obscure Athenian family. Despite his lowly background he rose to a position of command in Athens, fighting in a number of campaigns including the Corinthian War and the Social War, he also spent time in Persian service after the Peace of Antalcidas. Diodorus places his peltast reforms after 374, following his Persian sojourn, using his experiences prior to that date to develop this new type of soldier.93 The exact dating of the reforms is not relevant here, but their nature certainly is, as it was this type of soldier that constituted the bulk of Alexander’s mercenary forces. I have also tried to argue earlier that Alexander’s heavy infantry were essentially a version of Iphicratean peltasts, being equipped as they were with a small shield and very little body armour.

The primary sources of information that we have for the peltast reforms of Iphicrates are Diodorus and Nepos, both of whose accounts are very similar. According to them the most significant changes were as follows:

Iphicrates replaced the large (shield) of the Greeks by the light pelte, which had the advantage that it protected the body while allowing the wearer more freedom of movement; the soldiers who had formerly carried the [large hoplite shield] and who were called hoplites, were henceforth called peltasts after the name of their new shields; their new spears were half as long again or even twice as long as the old ones, the new swords were also double in length, In addition Iphicrates introduced light and easily untied footwear, and the bronze harness was replaced by a linen covering, which although it was lighter, still protected the body.

Diodorus regards these changes as having been introduced into the existing hoplite troops and in the process discounts the possibility of already existing peltast-style light infantry. Diodorus’ failure to realize the existence of peltast troops before Iphicrates is indeed very striking. In this omission Diodorus shows his serious lack of understanding of the military situation of the day. Modern commentators have frequently been struck with the absurdity of this, and have taken up an opposite attitude. For them the change was a trivial one and consisted chiefly in the standardizing of the existing, but rather haphazard, peltast equipment. This argument, however, simply will not do. It assumes that the light-armed skirmishers of earlier narratives were equipped in the same manner that Diodorus describes. This simply cannot be the case; light-armed skirmishers would not have carried a sword and spear twice the length of those carried by hoplites. Earlier narratives also tell of peltasts actually throwing their spears. If Iphicrates was standardizing that which already existed then why did he not provide his troops with these throwing spears? We are surely not to believe that they carried these as well. Some other explanation must be sought.

Was Iphicrates actually inventing a new type of peltast, one with specific and specialized equipment? The other extreme view is that Iphicratean peltasts were in no way different from Thracian peltasts. On this interpretation, Iphicrates’ reforms were of little significance, as troops of exactly the same type existed already in Thrace. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extreme positions. There was probably no uniformity of peltast equipment before Iphicrates, some using primarily throwing spears, some longer spears, still others using swords of various sizes. The size of the shield probably varied too. I suspect therefore that Iphicrates studied the light infantry of his day and based his reforms around choosing from the various groups the equipment that best suited the type of soldier that he was trying to create. We may see Iphicrates therefore not as creating something entirely new, or as standardizing that which already existed, but as refining the equipment and tactics of the peltasts of his day.

Mercenaries had not been a significant part of the military forces of the city-states in the fifth century. There was, on the one hand, very little fiscal means to support such troops, and, on the other, a generally held belief that it was a citizen’s duty to take up arms and defend his polis as need arose. Any Greek mercenaries that did exist were generally employed in Persia or Egypt. Mercenaries were also employed in Sicily in significant numbers from an early date. By 481 it seems possible that Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, maintained an army that included as many as 15,000 mercenaries. They presumably constituted a significant part of the army that won the decisive victory over the Carthaginians at Himera. The most significant event that sparked a major increase in the employment of mercenary troops on mainland Greece was the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian states were the first to employ mercenaries in great numbers. These mercenaries were initially not light-armed troops but hoplites from Arcadia. Athens was slow to hire such troops, largely because of the geographical difficulty in reaching them, but by the end of the war mercenaries of all kinds were finding employment on both sides. The reasons for this change lay in the nature of the war itself. The war was prolonged and almost continuous and there were few large-scale set piece battles fought; most engagements were on a small scale and fought by troops who were relatively lightly equipped and very mobile. Mercenaries were simply better at this kind of combat than heavily armoured hoplites. The hiring of mercenaries was made possible now, and less so earlier, by the relative prosperity of the warring states as compared to earlier in the fifth century.

The end of the Peloponnesian War did not see an ending of the employment of mercenaries in Greece. The peace itself led to a large number of men who had become accustomed to earning their living as hired soldiers suddenly becoming unemployed. This would generally have a destabilizing effect upon any society, but they would not have stayed unemployed for long. The political situation in Greece in the fourth century meant that there were always potential paymasters. Their other great sphere of employment, Persia, was also undergoing change. The central authority of the Persian Empire had begun to weaken. The local governors and satraps grew more independent and ambitious. Their position needed military support, and they found it most readily in Greek mercenaries. It had long been recognized that mercenaries formed a more secure power base for tyrants, rather than citizen soldiers whose loyalty was more open to question if a usurper came along. Greek mercenary infantry in Persian service continually proved themselves more capable than anything that the native Persians were able to achieve, so the great king himself was also forced to hire his own contingents to keep pace with his potentially disloyal satraps. We see this to be true during the reign of Alexander too: the only quality infantry that Darius had at his disposal were the Greek mercenaries. Initially 20,000 strong at the Granicus, they had been reduced to perhaps only 2,000 by the time of Gaugamela. This was because of successive losses at the Granicus and Issus, but probably due to desertion too as it became apparent that Alexander was a more attractive paymaster. The League of Corinth had specifically outlawed a Greek taking up arms against another Greek; this decree had meant little at the outset of the campaign when Persia looked like a good bet for victory. At the time of the battle of Gaugamela in 331, however, Darius found it almost impossible to hire more Greek hoplite mercenaries. This was partly because he was no longer an attractive employer, partly because of the distance from Greece, and partly because Alexander was hiring them in increasing numbers, thus reducing the available pool.


The Spartan King Agesilaus died at the age of 84 on the way home from Egypt. There seems to have been something unhappily circular in the defence economy over which he presided: mercenary expeditions raised money by which the Spartan state was enabled to hire more mercenaries. However, it may be pleaded that Agesilaus was in fact trading military expertise for manpower.

Agesilaus’ death marks the end of an epoch in Greek history. His skilful operations had to some extent concealed the serious decline in the fighting potential of the Spartan citizen army. The development of new forms of warfare had been in itself an admission that the supremacy of the Spartan hoplite phalanx was at ‘an end. Since the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan army had been substantially remodelled; this in itself reflected a decline in numbers of the fully-enfranchised citizens who formed the backbone of the heavy infantry. The decline could in some degree be paralleled by population decline in other Greek states, but apart from all general tendencies Spartan military strength had also been seriously affected by the losses suffered in a devastating earthquake which occurred as far back as 465 BC – before the Peloponnesian War had even begun.

The Spartan army in the fourth century consisted of six battalions (morai). Each of these was under the command of a polemarch and, according to contemporary historians, consisted of 400 or perhaps 600 men. Both citizens and non-citizens served in it. Within the mora, there was subdivision into smaller units, as previously with the lochos. During the Corinthian War, a Spartan mora, after escorting a contingent of allied troops back to the Peloponnese, was intercepted in the Isthmus and routed with crippling losses by the Athenian commander Iphicrates. In numerical terms, casualties of 250 out of a total strength of 600 men, which on this occasion the unit contained, were extremely serious. The strategy and tactics of Iphicrates were even more significant; his victory was gained against hoplites by the use of lightarmed troops. The Spartan debacle, which occurred outside Corinth, can be paralleled by others in Greek military history, where (as at Amphipolis in the Peloponnesian War) incautious troops marching close under enemy walls exposed themselves to a sally from the city gates.

The action, however, was still more reminiscent of Sphacteria. The Spartans were overwhelmed by missiles and never allowed to come to grips. At Sphacteria, Spartan lack of foresight, combined with some bad luck, had produced the fatal situation, but Iphicrates was the deliberate architect of his own victory, which vindicated to the full his new strategic and tactical concepts of light-armed warfare. Indeed, there is a third reason for regarding Iphicrates’ success on this occasion as historically significant: the troops he commanded were mercenaries and their victory was gained against a predominantly citizen force.