The Difficulties of a 21st Century Phalanx Commander By Bob Crumpton
|Macedonians from Vendel, designed and painted by Colin Patten|
What is wargaming about ? Is it the faithful re-enactment, time and time again, of battles gone by, or is it the attempt by modern individauls to prove themselves equal to/better than the historical leader whose army they 'borrow'? One must be a bit of a maschocist to be the former, especially knowing at the start of an encounter that you're going to lose !
So presuming we set out to win, unless playing a 'blind' , disguised, or straight forward 'line-them-up-and-knock-them-down' battle, the modern tabletop General has several initial advantages. In many cases he knows where the original went wrong. He has a 1000 foot high perspective of the
battlefield, he has the battlefield 'experience' of the interveneing years to draw on ....OK OK I know hundreds of instances where this isn't all true - I'm just generalising here !
Does this sound familiar?
The pike block moved forward. Its frontage bristled with sharp, very long, pointy sticks. Each was wielded by a man, considered a professional soldier . It got flanked, it ran away.
Battle over. If it faced a Roman army, under most
rules, It might as well not have turned up unless it was with loaded dice. "Ah Ah they say - thats what happened in history'. 'Yeah' says I, 'and Wellington
won at Waterloo but it doesn't stop amateur Napoleons having a go at reversing the result'.
I love ancient wargaming. I started with a 15mm Seleucid army, which grew so it could represent all the variants of the time, got supplemented later by a 25mm equivalent, whilst, at the same time accumulating a selection of Roman enemies, who in turn begot Vikings, Anglo-Normans & Huns till the floorboards in my
little office/converted bedroom creak. This eventually led me to a club where I met diverse interesting people who caused me to buy modern & fantasy skirmishers etc etc etc but it all started with those damned Seleucids back in 1980.
I accumulated books on the subject. Thucidides sits on my shelf, as do books by Michael Grant, Lazenby, Cunliffe, Liddell Hart,Hackett, and, probably the best of the lot, "The Western way of war" by Victor Davis Hanson, whom I will forever forgive for being an American by reason of his excellent book on
I still have a problem. In ancient Greece, every adult male probably experienced at least one battle a year between their 18th and 60th year (unless they died in the interim). All the contemporary historians took for granted their audience knew the mechanics of battle. Every man certainly knew his place in the battle-line. My problem relates to the phalanx doing a runner. It happens quite regularly (to me at least) on a wargaming table. Why ?
BECAUSE most rule sets I have ever come across deny me the abilty to avoid being flanked without covering troops. Historically correct but should it hold true for the wargaming table ?
Here we have a group of men brought together for battle, as a phalanx. They are not our technical equals, but they are , to the best of my knowledge our equals in intelligence .Now I was in a school army cadet force. We trained 3 hours a week on a Thursday afternoon. I started when I was 13 and left when I was 17 (A Sergeant !) By that time I was teaching recruits drill. They could march in step, left,right and about turn on the march, do basic rifle drill and many other field-crafty type things, all taught them by a 17 year old amateur.
Surely our ancestors had the ability to do likewise. When I went to Police Training school aged 22, with
3 x 3 hour sessions a week for 13 weeks, 400 of us did a synchronised marching / countermarching display (taught by professionals). The course after mine did it on TV for a game show !
So - back to the phalanx. So many men wide, usually 8 or 16 deep. Each with a pike 12-24 feet lomg. A nasty point at each end (the butt spike is important in this). Ranks 1 to 5 needed to lower their pikes to face the enemy, without the butt spike causing injury to their own men behind them. There can only have
been one solution - a basic drill, to achieve this.
So - how do they get flanked and routed so easily. If we assume they can do the lower-pike manoevre, then surely they can do a left face, or right face turn and do the same ? OK granted it will only present a narrow front, BUT a front it will be. Fair enough they couldn't do it if pinned - but if most rulesets only allow a change of front by wheel then flanked they will be.
History records that at Leuctra, Epaminondas the Theban general fielded a 50 deep phalax against the Spartans.. Taking Hanson & others view that the rear ranks were there for 'othismos aspidon' or the push of shields - to give weight to the forward motion, then surely 50 men deep would actually endanger one's
own front ranks with the threat of suffocation, by being shoved by the enemy ahead and the depth of men behind. However, if that same pike block feared a flank attack, a quick 90 degree face would present a 50 shield wide pike block to the attacker - a far more daunting prospect, especially as in the above case
the men were the cream of the Theban army (and therefore one thinks better drilled ?) This tactic completely threw both the Spartan infantry and the cavalry they had massed on that flank Take that a step further.
The Greeks KNEW that the original Hoplite shield, big as it was, only covered 2/3 of the body. Due to the way it had to be carried, 1/3 projected to the LEFT of the bearer. It was therefore natural for the guy to the left of a shield to edge closer, to cover his unprotected right side, with the overhang of his
neighbours shield. This led to, and was well recorded, to a phalanx gradually edging Rightwards as it advanced. .How many rule sets can you think of that say "When a phalanx advances its full move distance of (say) 8 inches, it also involuntarily moves 1 inch to its right whilst maintaining the front." - ONE
that I've found so far WAB 'armies of antiquity.( Co-incidentally, they allow a 180 degree about face but not a 90). Ancient commanders allowed for the drift - we don't under most rules, we lose historical accuracy when it suits us.... When Epaminondas actually produced a battle line that overcame the natural
envelopment of his left by the Spartan right, it completely flummoxed them.
Now if you take the above as special pleading, YES it is - but if allowances are made under even such noble systems as WRG rules relating to the use of dummy elephants' by 'semi-mythical' queens, is a RIGHT TURN too much to ask for ?
If the Spartans , as a full fledged standing army, with parade ground tactics, can perform the "Laconean countermarch" - a fancy way to about face by each man marching to a spot, about wheeling and marching through the file gaps to take up his position facing the other way, surely a left / right turn is not beyond
the average Greek pikeman.
O.K. Some might say - where is your evidence that it was ever done.... Ah ha says I - you see it didn't have to be.. As Hanson proves (to me at any rate) the prime idea of any Greek battle was to square up, have a bash and then be home for tea. The concept of reserves, etc didn't fit with this scenario. "Get stuck in" was what counted. The nearest one came to tactical reserve was sending the canon-fodder allies in to soften up the enemy, then whacking them with your heavies. Yet on the wargames table, how often do we see ancient
armies with reserves, or generals feeding troops in bit by bit - far more than ever happened in 'real' battles.
So verily I say unto you - if we are going to
apply our modern knowledge to byegone eras - then my phalanxes could perform static turns. Ergo I could march on with 3 pike blocks, front in line, left and
right in column. The 2 on the flanks in column. Try and flank me, they'd do a left or right turn and you'd be facing a pike frontage.
Go on - taste pike Roman!
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