Ancient and Medieval battles: going deep vs going long. Isn't going deep a terrible idea?

#22
The "pushing" is something of a metaphor, describing a process much more psychological than physical. You don't literally have guys shoving back enemy soldiers shield-to-shield or anything, but confident and/or better soldiers advancing inch by inch and forcing an inferior enemy force to slowly back up and give up ground, thus being "pushed" back. Concentrating additional men along the line increases the confidence of the attackers, and increases the psychological pressure on the defenders, making them more liable to back up while shielding themselves from enemy attacks and thus eventually break the coherence of the line, which was almost always disastrous. Adding a second line would not only help prevent this, but also help prevent routs, allow sections of the line to be reinforced when necessary, allow a quick response to flanking maneuvers, and from Late Antiquity onward provide an internal refuge for skirmishers and cavalry.
I still don't see how a line of 500 men deep would be really different in this respect opposed to a line of 100. If the army who went long was smart and didn't succumb to psychological irrationality, they would know to push which would squeeze the unit in between them and the unit behind or just force all of them back.

I guess psychological warfare was somewhat effective, such as the use of elephants, but once the enemy understands the threat it basically loses all effectiveness. Going deep was done for thousands of years and no one figured out that it doesn't make any real difference or is actually a disadvantage? If it were really that effective, they could just have untrained peasants behind them to make it look like they were deeper than they actually were.

"Adding a second line would not only help prevent this, but also help prevent routs, allow sections of the line to be reinforced when necessary, allow a quick response to flanking maneuvers, and from Late Antiquity onward provide an internal refuge for skirmishers and cavalry. " All of that would work as good or better with a reserve unit farther back rather than pressed right up against the back of a unit, wouldn't it?
 
Sep 2014
1,140
Queens, NYC
#23
I think the assumption behind deepening the formation was that there would be a rough equality of casualties between the adversaries; that at a certain point the thinner formation would be penetrated simply because it ran out of men; the deeper formation would have someone to step in the enemy's gap.

Outflanking requires turning to attack the enemy's side. That requires some drill. Medieval armies may have lacked such drilling.
 
Jul 2016
8,184
USA
#24
Nice, if you had kept them pressed right up against each other, they would be less effective, just as I thought. So why did ancient and medieval armies not know this?
Some did know it. Like the Romans. Commanders often had to remind the men, or order them, to keep their spacing. But its not easy to control in the middle of battle, communication and good order break down. Discipline comes into play, the less discipline, imposed or personal, the worse the unit does as a whole.

For others, like ancient hoplite phalanx or medieval shield walls, the weapons used, the formations, the fighting styles, spacing in between ranks wasn't as necessary, so often you'd have everyone crammed together, laterally and in depth, and they were doing the right thing. Now if two sides of overlapping shields with men pressed close together end up closing with one another to sword distance, they're going to be going shield to shield, which means a pushing match will start.
 
Jul 2016
8,184
USA
#25
I think the assumption behind deepening the formation was that there would be a rough equality of casualties between the adversaries; that at a certain point the thinner formation would be penetrated simply because it ran out of men; the deeper formation would have someone to step in the enemy's gap.

Outflanking requires turning to attack the enemy's side. That requires some drill. Medieval armies may have lacked such drilling.
Studies have shown that ancient infantry combat wasn't all that deadly, most of total casualties were rather low until the rout, the disorganized retreat, occurred. Previously, the winners usually suffered about 5-10% of their total strength as casualties, mostly wounded, while the defeated would generally suffer up to about 30%, with the occasional nasty massacre that was higher. What it looks like is the loser probably suffered a little worse during the course of the battle and that is why they break, either that or their morale simply broke triggering a rout (which sometimes happened before battle actually came to blows).

Most deaths in the rout occurred when wounded soldiers, unable to flee to safety, would be cut down or finished off. For the victor's army, those wounded could limp back or be carried to camp, deal with their wounds, heal, and survive (though staph, gangrene, and tetanus would kill many of those). Additionally, the ones in the very front ranks (or what remained of them) who stayed while the rest ran, they'd die quickly as enemy could pour around them to their flanks and rear by large openings caused by routing enemy. This is why it was often necessary to place some sort of subunit leader in the rear of the formation, to prevent that rout from starting, as those in the farthest rear would be the ones who triggered it. Many tossed shields, arms, and armor to lighten themselves, especially if there was no safe haven of a camp or some sort of terrain feature for safety. Ditching all arms and armor and still being in the vicinity of enemy, especially blood thirsty cavalry riding down the routed enemy (cavalry was probably responsible for the majority of deaths during a rout), made for a deadly experience.
 
Jan 2016
1,045
Victoria, Canada
#26
I still don't see how a line of 500 men deep would be really different in this respect opposed to a line of 100. If the army who went long was smart and didn't succumb to psychological irrationality, they would know to push which would squeeze the unit in between them and the unit behind or just force all of them back.
Lines were never 100 or 500 men deep except in the most cramped of circumstances, and never by choice. On the very thick side you would go up to maybe 40 ranks deep, and on the very thinnest as low as 4. Late Roman and Byzantine armies tended to have two main lines of heavy infantry, each 8 men deep, which could be combined into one line 16 men deep when needed. The practical difference between a line 100 and 500 men deep indeed wouldn't be that big, aside from the massive waste of soldiers, but the differences between lines 4, 8, and 16 men deep could be monumental. I think anyone would be more likely to give up ground or even rout if the enemy in front of him had 15 guys backing him up and they only had 3, particularly if those 15 were lobbing projectiles and in the closer ranks getting the occasional stab in.

I guess psychological warfare was somewhat effective, such as the use of elephants, but once the enemy understands the threat it basically loses all effectiveness. Going deep was done for thousands of years and no one figured out that it doesn't make any real difference or is actually a disadvantage? If it were really that effective, they could just have untrained peasants behind them to make it look like they were deeper than they actually were.
Deepening the line definitely made a real difference when you're talking about files of 4 vs 8 vs 16 men -- not so much when you get to 30+, as the commanders of the time realized ("If for some reason you want to make the files thirty two deep -- not a very useful idea --give the command: "File after file:", from Leo VI'sTaktika), but before that point it was often decisive. You could stand to lose a lot more men while holding the line with a depth of 16 men than 8, and likewise for 8 and 4, while trying to hold back the assault of a line with files of 16 men with 4 would be nearly impossible. The "pushing" itself was largely a byproduct of the inherent inferiority of thinner lines, up to a point, and the fear of the soldiers therein of being hurt or killed because of that inferiority, accentuated by the deaths or incapacitations of those around them as combat progressed -- it wasn't a physical push in most cases, but it was the logical response of a being interested in self-preservation to the sustained attack of an enemy with many more men and many more resources.

"Adding a second line would not only help prevent this, but also help prevent routs, allow sections of the line to be reinforced when necessary, allow a quick response to flanking maneuvers, and from Late Antiquity onward provide an internal refuge for skirmishers and cavalry. " All of that would work as good or better with a reserve unit farther back rather than pressed right up against the back of a unit, wouldn't it?
Well yes, and that's exactly what militaries disciplined enough to maintain such a formation did -- a second line was detached from the first, and kept far enough away that it wasn't as vulnerable to arrow fire but close enough that it could reinforce the front line in a snap if needed. Having the infantry push the enemy back was often less important than having that reserve line ready, particularly in armies with a strong cavalry wing. The double-line formation was a strong compromise between holding power, adaptability, and security used by the Romans for well over 1000 years.
 
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Jan 2016
1,045
Victoria, Canada
#27
Sometimes pushing is a metaphor, other times it was true. There are those who take the literal view of Greek hoplite othismos seriously, for which there is evidence of it at least occasionally to have happened, to the point that it being a possible phase of hoplite vs hoplite battle has lots of merit. Then there are quite a few descriptions of it occasionally happening during Roman battles, medieval too, where sometimes infantry vs infantry combat came down to literally two sides shoving with their shields.

I can say as someone extremely knowledgeable about Republican and early Principate warfare, shield on shield pushing definitely wasn't preferred, as those shield styles (scutum and thureos variations of it) don't do well in that role because of the center shield boss/umbo. And their method of fighting, throwing pila and how they used swords required decent spacing between ranks and side to side, and space in the fore to attack enemy and spring back kind of like boxing, to have the maneuverability described by a few sources that describe a loose form of combat. But even with them it occasional morphed into really close and cramped fighting shield to shield with some shoving (though not as a true collective battle tactic, more as chance).
I'm certainly no expert on hoplite warfare, but I can't imagine physical shoving matches being at all common in the context I'm more familiar with (warfare in the 7th-12th century central-eastern Mediterranean); most notably in that the shields were the wrong shape and the spears used were far too long to function in those kinds of close quarters (3.5 meters was the standard in the Byzantine military manuals), while I can't recall any mention of active pushing matches in the sources themselves. From what I know of it, hoplite warfare strikes me as one of the few contexts (perhaps alongside early medieval northern Europe?) in which shield pushing would work as an actual battle tactic, given the shield types, uniformity, and specific variety of spear, but I'm interested in the medieval examples you mentioned -- where and when do they come from?
 
Jul 2016
8,184
USA
#28
I'm certainly no expert on hoplite warfare, but I can't imagine physical shoving matches being at all common in the context I'm more familiar with (warfare in the 7th-12th century central-eastern Mediterranean); most notably in that the shields were the wrong shape and the spears used were far too long to function in those kinds of close quarters (3.5 meters was the standard in the Byzantine military manuals), while I can't recall any mention of active pushing matches in the sources themselves. From what I know of it, hoplite warfare strikes me as one of the few contexts (perhaps alongside early medieval northern Europe?) in which shield pushing would work as an actual battle tactic, given the shield types, uniformity, and specific variety of spear, but I'm interested in the medieval examples you mentioned -- where and when do they come from?
Western and Northern European shield walls using circular shields.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,608
Sydney
#29
Looking at the Roman legionnary kit it seems to me they were equipped for a close and personal type of encounter
large shield , short slashing stabbing sword
the enemy would have faced a wall of shield with the few spaces being where grief came at them
sure they had a block formation but each block must have been pretty stolid , no prancing heroes there
that was a combine harvester of death with an increasingly high heap of writhing body in front
 

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