Collections: Total Generalship: Commanding Pre-Modern Armies, Part IIIa: Discipline

This is the third(ish) part of our four(ish)-part (I, II) look at the role of the general in the command of pre-modern armies, particularly in the context of a pitched battle. Last time, we looked at the limits on the ability of the general to communicate his orders to his army. While films and video games often present army command as fairly frictionless – the general can communicate a wide range of orders in the heat of battles, which are easily understood and rapidly acted upon – in actual command, the ability to issue any orders once the battle began was quite limited, leaving a general with a few key decision-points rather than a wide open field of possibilities.

In this post and the next few (since it has become necessary to divide this topic up a bit) we’re going to look at the army itself and the degree to which different armies might be differently capable of following the orders a general gives or the plans he makes. In particular we’re going to be talking about the role of three factors: synchronized discipline, independently acting junior officers and finally cohesion in shaping the options available to the general. Originally I had planned to do those all in one post but it has become fairly clear they need to be split up, so each gets its own post. In essence all three of these factors constrain the degree to which a general can get his army to execute certain plans, particularly complex plans.

We’ll start with synchronized discipline.

And as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Plug-and-Play Armies

For once, synchronized discipline is not a feature of armies entirely absent from historical tactics games. ‘Discipline’ is often a statistic or feature for more elite units in these games, sometimes as a simple stat boost (often to morale), but in other cases it really does open up new command options. In many Total War games, ‘disciplined’ units (the terminology varies) often have access to advanced formations that less well-trained units of a similar type lack. Thus for instance in Empire: Total War, only the professional line infantry (and its elite variants) can actually use the fancy fire-by-rank drill once you research it; less well-trained militia can’t. The same is true of more professional units in Total War: Three Kingdoms, being able to arrange into various defensive formations that militia units with equivalent arms cannot.

But for understandable gameplay reasons the distinction rarely extends beyond allowing or disallowing certain special abilities on a unit. If I, say, order a unit of professional state-troop Swordsmen to deploy from column into line (by right-click dragging to tell them to adopt a wider formation), they do it instantly and easily, with each man flowing into his new position in the formation. And if I give the same order to a literal Peasant Mob they…also seemingly effortlessly flow into the new desired width, each man moving mechanically to his new assigned position. But as you may recall, deploying smoothly from column into line was sufficiently tricky to do on the fly that most armies seem to have avoided it in the pre-modern period, instead matching their marching width to their fighting depth so they could march into position and then right- or left-face to make the transition easier.

The film equivalent to this is the overly complex battle plan arrived upon by the hero just before the battle and at best only briefly explained to the army (and always off-screen so that we can preserve tension), but which the army executes flawlessly in the moment despite apparently never having trained to do that. Take, for instance, the famous ‘Battle of Stirling’ scene in Braveheart (1995) – a scene which, I must note, has next to nothing to do with the historical Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), including lacking the all important bridge the battle was fought around. In any case, in the film, Wallace, having apparently invented the pike in the previous scene, deploys them in a large army under combat conditions. And in the words of Todd Howard, ‘it just works.’1 Everyone flawlessly knows what to do when he shouts ‘now!’ – no one panics, no one reacts with confusion, no one fumbles their new and unfamiliar weapons.2 No one runs away because they don’t trust this newfangled weapon or tactic.

From Mount and Blade: Bannerlord, a version of my ‘budget tercio’ formation as performed by elite, highly trained troops with lots of combat experience. The square moves up to block enemy attack while the loose line of archers can fire around it while still largely sheltered behind it, while the cavalry wait in reserve to roll out to the flanks and counter-charge any flanking cavalry. I use ‘square’ here because it compresses the infantry the most, allowing the archers clear shots. If the enemy infantry line is intact when it approaches, I deploy the infantry from square into shield-wall before counter-charging, which in the real world would demand a lot of training.

Now in a video game the reason that soldiers can act in a coordinated way so easily of course is that all of those individual models in a unit of ‘Peasant Mob’ are being directed centrally.3 Even in a game like Mount and Blade: Bannerlord where each soldier is simulated separately from any unit, they still ‘snap’ to formations like this because the game can both instantly determine exactly where each model should stand and also instantly direct each model to run over and stand at that exact point (you can actually see this very obviously if the commander of an infantry formation is on horseback – order the formation to move and the commander will charge forward on their horse and stop at the exact spot they will occupy in when the rest of the formation arrives). But of course that demands both information and communication capabilities which, as we’ve discussed, no pre-modern army – and indeed, no actual army – has.

The exact same complex formation successfully deployed by an army of barely trained conscripts (it’s hard to see, but the core of the square there is almost entirely fresh recruits). Everyone knows where to go and the whole formation works exactly the same, except that the individual soldiers are less effective with their swords and bows.

Rather an army, at its core is simply a very, very large crowd (placed under conditions of extreme psychological stress). Think about the effort that goes into herding crowds to do even very simple things, like filing into and out of a stadium at a sporting event – how much it takes just to get a crowd to walk slowly in one direction through clearly marked doors and routes!

So how do real armies function and given their limitations how can they coordinate the action of many hundreds or thousands of humans together?

All Together Now

Pre-modern armies certainly do demand a considerable degree of coordination. In film and even sometimes in video games armies clash together in a confused melee with friends and foes all intermixed at random. Indeed, I have been asked by students more than once “What happens when X type of soldier ends up in a confused melee?” and had to explain that the answer is ‘they don’t.’ Because no one fights that way, at least not intentionally.

In a fight, after all, a combatant is extremely vulnerable to attacks from behind or in their peripheral vision, especially if they are focused forward on the foe in front of them. A confused melee would thus produce extreme casualties and produce them extremely quickly. But fighters want to survive their combats and their leaders would like not only to win the battle but to have an army at the end of it. Remember: the purpose of the battle is to deliver a siege: if you win the battle but with only a pathetic handful of survivors, you haven’t really won much of anything.

The battle line is the obvious solution: each fighter is only responsible for a few feet of frontage directly in front of them, a small enough area that they can focus on it visually and direct whatever shield or armor or weapons they have towards it, giving them a greater margin of safety. Adding depth to the formation (that is, increasing the number of ranks, that is a row of fighters right to left) both secures each fighter against the possibility of being flanked due to the death of the fellows to their right or left (as now they’ll just be replaced by the next rank moving up) and adds a morale reinforcement which we’ll come back to in a few weeks. But now you have a formation that consists essentially of a large number of files (that is, a single row of fighters front-to-back) which need to move together to create that unbroken, mutually supporting front line so that no one is being attacked from many sides at once. Again, all of this is before we start adding fighting styles like pike-formations or shield-walls that are designed to excel in this environment (and fare poorly out of it).

As an aside, this is one dynamic that I find games like Mount and Blade or the Total War series that simulate individual soldiers struggle to get quite right. In most games the line of formation either remains almost perfectly rigid (think units on ‘pike phalanx’ in Rome: Total War) or units the moment they come into contact form rough blobs of models all pushing forward. But actually you are going to have men in the rear ranks trying to keep their relative position to the front ranks so the formation neither holds rigidly steady nor dissolves but is going to almost flex and bend (and if you are lucky, not tear or break). This is only an aside though because we’re not well informed about these sorts of dynamics, so it is hard to speak about them in-depth.

But to fight this way now means that all of your soldiers (really here we are talking about infantry; cavalry must also be coordinated but in different ways and because they are often composed of elites that coordination may be produced through different training methods) need to move in the same direction at the same speed in order to retain that front line where they can support each other. Again, we are not yet to something like a shield-wall or a sarisa-phalanx which demands tight coordination; even in a rough skirmish line you need to get everyone moving together just to maintain that unbroken front. A break in the front, after all, would be dangerous: enemies filtering into it uncontrolled could then flank and defeat individually the members of the broader line (two-on-one contests in melee combat typically end in seconds and are very lopsided), causing collapse.

Now the good news is that if all you need an army to do is form up in a rough line a few ranks deep and then move more or less forward, the coordination demands are not insurmountable. We’ve already discussed using marching formations to create the line of battle so all you need is a way to regulate speed (since forward is a fairly easy direction for everyone). It isn’t quite ideal for everyone to simply self-regulate their speed by looking around (at least not for a contact infantry line; for missile-skirmish troops moving in a ‘cloud’ rather than a line they can absolutely do that) because that will produce a lot of stagger-start-stopping and accordioning which at best will slow you down and at worst will eventually turn your neat line into a rough crowd – one easily defeated if it is opposed by a line of infantry in good order. Keeping everyone in the same speed can be handled with music: the regular beat regulates the footsteps. That can be a marching song or it can be an instrument (ideally one easy to hear).

We’ve talked about armies – or components of armies – like this. I’ve described hoplite phalanxes through much of the classical periods, for instance, as essentially unguided missiles for this reason: the general hits ‘go’ and the line moves forward. Likewise a shield-wall formation like the early English fyrd doesn’t need to do complex maneuvers. And for many armies, that was enough: a body of infantry which either held a position or moved forward in a single line, in some cases with a body of aristocratic cavalry which might be capable of more complex maneuvers (that the aristocrats had trained in since a young age). And you can see, if your culture has armies like this, why the general might be focused on either leading the cavalry in particular or else being the motivating ‘warrior-hero’ general – such an army isn’t capable of much command once the advance starts in any event. They haven’t trained or prepared for it.

But what if you need the formation to turn? Or change width or depth? Or adopt some kind of special formation like a square or a circle? Or, heaven help you, make a feigned retreat? Or any other ‘cool general stuff?’ Now we come to the problems because even if you can communicate what you want to happen, the problem you have is coordinating hundreds of people doing it.

Let’s take the really simple example: COMPANY, RIGHT WHEEL! The command here is to take our line, which is wide but not deep (let’s say we’re 4 men deep and 25 men wide) and rotate it so that it turns almost like a door with its right-most soldier as the hinge. But now things are terribly complicated: at that command, everyone suddenly needs to be covering ground at different speeds (even if still stepping in time)! The fellow on the far left needs to be moving quite quickly to cover the outer edge of the circle we’re drawing with our turn, while the fellow on the extreme right is basically stopped (or in a marching right wheel, advancing at a slower pace) – and everyone in the middle needs to keep the same relative position to everyone else as they do it so the line doesn’t fall apart.

The intended movement result of a ‘Right Wheel’ command.

Obviously doing that quickly in a situation where you are under a lot of psychological pressure is going to take practice. Which brings us to:

Drill and Synchronized Discipline

The usual solution to this difficulty often goes by the terms ‘drill’ or ‘discipline’ though we should be clear here exactly what we mean. Discipline in particular has a number of meanings: it can mean the personal restraint of an individual, a system of rewards and punishments (and the effects of that system; the punishments are typically corporal) and what we are actually interested in: the ability of a large body of humans to move and act effectively in concert (all of these meanings are present to some degree in the root Latin word disciplina).4 For clarity’s sake then I am going to borrow a term (as is my habit) from W. Lee, Waging War (2016), synchronized discipline to describe the ‘humans moving an acting in concert’ component of discipline that we’re most interested in here. That said, it is worth noting that those three components: personal restraint, corporal punishments and the synchronized component of discipline are frequently (but not universally) associated for reasons we’ll get to, not merely in the Roman concept of disciplina, but note also for instance their close association in Sun Tzu’s Art of War in the first chapter (section 13).

Via Wikipedia, an illustration of a Ming musket drill using volley fire techniques (1639). Drill and synchronized discipline were not purely a phenomenon of Europe or the broader Mediterranean.

The reason we cannot just call this ‘drill’ is because while drill is the most common way agrarian societies produce this result, it is not the only way to this end. For instance as we’ve discussed before, steppe nomads could achieve a very high degree of coordination and synchronization without the same formal systems of drill because the training that produced that coordination was embedded in their culture (particularly in hunting methods) and so young steppe nomad males were acculturated into the synchronicity that way.5 That said for the rest of this we’re going to place those systems aside and mostly focus on synchronized discipline as a result of drill because for most armies that developed a great deal of synchronized discipline, that’s how they did it.

Fundamentally the principle behind using drill to build synchronized discipline is that the way to get a whole lot of humans to act effectively in concert together is to force them to practice doing exactly the things they’ll be asked to do on the battlefield a lot until the motions are practically second nature. Indeed, the ideal in developing this kind of drill was often to ingrain the actions the soldiers were to perform so deeply that in the midst of the terror of battle when they couldn’t even really think straight those soldiers would fall back on simply mechanically performing the actions they were trained to perform. That in turn creates an important element of predictability: an individual soldier does not need to be checking their action or position against the others around them as much because they’ve done this very maneuver with these very fellows and so already know where everyone is going to be.

Via Wikipedia, plate 2 of Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showing scenes of the misery of the Thirty Years War. Here troops are enrolled and mustered (things go downhill from here).

The context that drill tends to emerge in (this is an idea invented more than once) tends to give it a highly regimented, fairly brutal character. For instance in early modern Europe, the structure of drill for gunpowder armies was conditioned by elite snobbery: European officer-aristocrats (in many cases the direct continuation of the medieval aristocracy) had an extremely poor view of their common soldiers (drawn from the peasantry). Assuming they lacked any natural valor, harsh drill was settled upon as a solution to make the actions of battle merely mechanical, to reduce the man to a machine. Roman commanders seemed to have thought somewhat better of their soldiers’ bravery, but assumed that harsh discipline was necessary to control, restrain and direct the native fiery virtus (‘strength/bravery/valor’) of the common soldier who, unlike the aristocrat, could not be expected to control himself (again, in the snobbish view of the aristocrats).

Via Wikipedia, plate 10 of Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showing the punishment of soldiers via L’estrapade or the strappado, a form of torture where the victim is suspended by their wrists, dislocating the shoulders.

In short, drill tends to appear in highly stratified agrarian societies, the very nature of which tends to mean that drill is instituted by a class of aristocrats who have at best a dim view of their common soldiers. Consequently, while the core of drill is to simply practice the actions of battle over and over again until they become natural, drill tends to also be encrusted with lots of corporal punishments and intense regulation as a product of those elite attitudes. And though it falls outside of our topic today it seems worth noting that our systems of drill to produce synchronized discipline have the same roots (deriving from early modern musket drill).

Nevertheless, a thoroughly drilled army becomes capable of a lot more; to get a sense of how much more I think we ought to take an example.

The Limits of the Possible with Synchronized Discipline

Of course I chose the Romans. Could there have ever been any doubt?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/Roman_Legionaries-MGR_Lyon-IMG_1050.JPG
Via Wikipedia, a small relief from Glanum showing mailed Roman legionaries in fighting formation.

But in all seriousness, to say the Romans had a reputation for this sort of thing is honestly underselling the point. Polybius remarks both on the superior flexibility of Roman soldiers (18.31.9-11) and the intensity and effectiveness of Roman rewards and punishments (6.35-38). Josephus, a Greek-speaking Jewish man from the province of Judaea who first rebelled against the Romans and then switched sides offers the most famous endorsement of Roman drills, “Nor would one be mistaken to say that their drills are bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills” (BJ 3.5.1).

It is hard to tell if the Roman triple-line (triplex acies) fighting system6 created the demand for synchronized discipline or if the Romans, having already developed a tradition of drill and synchronized discipline, adopted a fighting style that leveraged that advantage. Probably a bit of both, but in any event our evidence for the Roman army before the very late third century is very poor. By the time we truly see the Roman army clearly (c. 225 BC) the system seems to already be in place for some time.

A Roman consular army was a complex machine.7 It was composed of an infantry line of two legions (in the center) and two socii ‘wings’ (alae) to each side, along with cavalry detachments covering the flanks. Each of those infantry blocks (two legions, two alae) in turn was broken down into thirty separate maneuvering units (called maniples, generally consisting of 120 men; half as many for the triarii),8 which were in turn subdivided into centuries, but centuries didn’t really maneuver independently. In front of this was a light infantry screening force (the velites). So notionally there were in the heavy infantry of a standard two-legion consular army something like 120 different ‘chess pieces’ that notionally the general could move around on their own and thus notionally the legion was capable of fairly complex tactical maneuvers.

Diagram of the battle formation of a Roman legion. Remember: legions did not generally fight alone! In a standard consular army, there would be two legions, side-by-side, with two allied alae on the right and left of that and then the Roman and allied cavalry to the right and left of that.

You may have noted that word ‘notionally‘ because now we get into the limits of drill and synchronized discipline, because this isn’t a system for limitless tactical flexibility of the sort one gets in video games. Instead, recall that the idea here is to create coordinated movement and fighting (the synchronized discipline) through rigorous, repeated practice (drill). Of course one needs to practice specific things. Some of those things are going to be obvious: a drill for marching forward, or for turning the unit or for advancing on the charge.

In the Roman case, a ‘standard’ battle involved the successive engagement and potentially retreat of each heavy infantry line: first the hastati (the first line) formed a solid line (filling the gaps) and attacked and then, if unsuccessful, retreated and the next line (the principes) would try and so on. Those maneuvers would need to be practiced: forming up, then having each maniple close the gap (we don’t quite know how they did this, but see below), the attack itself (which also involved usually throwing pila – heavy javelins), then retreat behind the next line if things went poorly. It’s also pretty clear from a battle like Cynoscephelae (197) or Bibracte (58) that individual maniples or cohorts (the Romans start using the larger 480-man-cohort as the basic maneuver unit during the second century BC) could be ‘driven’ over the battlefield to a degree so there were probably drills for wheeling and turning.

Now even in this ‘standard’ battle there is a lot of movement: maniples need to open and close gaps, advance and retreat and so on. This is what I mean by saying this army is a complex machine: it has a lot of moving parts that need to move together. The men in a maniple need to move together to make that mutually-supporting line and the maniples need to move together with each other to cover flanks and allow retreats. In terms of how the individual men moved, I’ve tended to think in terms of a ‘flow’ model akin to this video of South Korean riot police training, rather than the clunkier Spartacus (1960) model.

But once an army has practiced all of these drills, it creates the opportunity for great improvisation and more complex tactics as well. Commanders, both the general but also his subordinates, can tell a unit to perform a particular maneuver that they have drilled, assuming the communication infrastructure exists in terms of instruments, standard shouted commands and battle standards (and note back to last week on how Roman methods of battlefield communication were relatively well developed). That, for instance, allowed Aemilius Paullus to give orders to his first legion at Pydna for each of those maneuver units to either push forward or give ground independently, presenting the Macedonian phalanx with a tactical problem (an unevenly resisting line) it did not have a good solution for (Plut. Aem. 20.8-10). Having good junior officers (next week’s topic) was required but it wasn’t enough – those officers needed units which were already sufficiently drilled so that their orders (to press hard or retreat and reform in this case) could actually be carried out by soldiers for whom the response to those calls had become natural through that very drill.

At the same time I don’t want to give the wrong impression: even for the Romans battles where there was this sort of on-the-field improvising led by the general were uncommon (though not extremely rare). For the majority of battles, the legionary ‘machine’ simply pushed forward in its standard way, even when – as at Cannae (216) – pushing forward normally proved to be disastrous. Just because an army can fight flexibly doesn’t mean it will or even that it should.

Orders by the Menu

But the real reason I wanted to run through the Roman system for doing this is actually to demonstrate the limits of this kind of synchronized discipline.  Because yes, this sort of drill and training allowed constituent units to potentially maneuver more dynamically and flexibly (when under competent leadership; it is quite striking that Roman command skill with this sort of thing was very dependent on the skill of the general (and one assumes by proxy the skill of his subordinate officers – more on that next week)), but only to do those things which they had practiced.

And therein lies the rub: just as the commander doesn’t have a multitude of points where he can intervene in the battle but rather a limited set of key decision points, so too he does not have an infinite set of potential orders he (or his subordinates) might give at any given moment.  Instead, the commander (or his subordinates) has a McDonald’s Menu worth of options he can employ.  He can order anything on the menu and expect the unit to respond accordingly but he cannot order anything not on the menu, nor can he order an altered version of a menu item (no Big Mac without cheese; Sir, this is not a Wendy’s).

Now generals could and did use drilling in the early stages of the campaign to add one or two ‘menu items’ to their drill so as to be prepared for this or that problem.  Indeed the general preparing some sort of surprise of this sort and then deploying it against an enemy is a standard topos of effective ancient generalship (although in many cases we may doubt the purported gimmick was actually used (e.g. Dionysius 20.1.6, Dio 10.5)).  But that is the thing: such extra ‘menu items’ have to be prepared in advance and often well in advance of the battle.  Caesar, for instance, anticipating war elephants drills his troops in anti-war-elephant tactics before the Battle of Thapsus (46 BC, Caes. Bel.Afr. 84).  Alexander’s phalanx seems to have been drilled to respond to scythed chariots as well (Arr. Anab. 3.13.5-6).

That said the bulk of the menu was likely to remain constant.  After all these ‘menu items,’ while they have simple names are often actually fairly complex to do and train when you are dealing with units of dozens or hundreds.  Turning back to our example of Company, Right Wheel! we can get a sense of the complexity of training that maneuver by the way they did it.  The ‘right guide’ (the man on the extreme right) adopts a set pace (nine inch steps) while the ‘left guide’ moves at the normal regulated speed (note this requires training your soldiers not only to step in time but to step at standard lengths) and every soldier in the middle regulates his motion by maintaining elbow contact with the man to his side.  That’s a good method to get the result, but it isn’t an obvious or simple method: the fellow training the company to do this needs to already know how to do this.

Now in the modern period with mass printing, you could print drill manuals that had all of the commands and instructions on how to do them, but in the pre-modern period that kind of mass printing isn’t an option (and our military texts almost never go into this kind of granular detail) so your officers have to learn to train the behavior by observing it and participating in it themselves.  Which means in turn a great deal of your ‘package’ is set before the army is even mustered at the beginning of the campaign season because you are relying on a package of culturally embedded knowledge about how armies ought to function.  And if your culture doesn’t have that tradition, inventing it from scratch is going to be hard and take time; and by ‘time’ I mean ‘decades.’ Effective drill for volley fire (the ‘countermarch’), for instance, answered a need that had existed for most of the 16th century, but the embryonic ideas for it only started emerging in the 1570s, the actionable plan on how to do it in 1594 and it was only then finally deployed in a major battle in 1600 at Nieuwpoort.

However, the time available for that kind of training is limited.  Remember that drill works by repeating the same set of actions over and over again until they become almost instinctive.  That takes a lot of time and repetition!  That both means it is going to be difficult to find space for new ‘menu items’ (especially with green troops that still need to learn the basics) but also that synchronized discipline itself is expensive.  Our ancient sources stress how Roman levels of synchronized discipline required diligent and continuous drilling to create and maintain.

Doing that in turn would demand keeping the soldiers in question under arms for training for long periods when they were not fighting.  In the Middle Republic this seems to have been accomplished through rolling recruitment: Rome was essentially always at war and always raising armies so there were always a goodly number of veterans to train and ‘break in’ the truly green new recruits in any given draft (though again – and I owe this notion to Michael Taylor – there are some signs that the less intense conflict of the mid-second-century leads to some dulling of the Roman edge).  As we transition through the Late Republic into the Early Empire, that is replaced by the slow professionalization of the Roman army, culminating in the force of long-service professionals created by Augustus.  Being mobilized in peacetime, professional soldiers could be drilled extensively (assuming their cultural values are going to let them drill you; also be wary here of assuming standing forces of ‘military settlers’ are professional in this way).

But all of that is extraordinarily expensive.  Keeping those soldiers under arms, after all, means that they need to be fed, clothed and paid.  Even in a system like the Middle Roman Republic where soldiers provided their own kit out of their own wealth (because Roman soldiers in the Middle Republic were recruited from the modestly well-to-do smallholding class), by drafting those men you have removed them from that economic activity.  The expense of doing this would have been in most cases enormous and of course those are resources that could be deployed to any number of other uses, including simply raising a larger army of less disciplined, well trained troops.  For, say, a Greek polis given the choice between having 450 men under arms all year round and excellently trained or having 5,000 hoplites under arms only in the one month where there is a battle to fight the clear answer is the latter.  A lot of things need to line up before producing armies with high levels of synchronized discipline makes sense: the state needs a lot of resources, year-round security challenges and a tactical system which is effective and demands this kind of investment. So while developing synchronized discipline offered an army a degree of greater control and flexibility, it was prohibitively expensive.

Conclusion, Part IIIa

It isn’t hard to understand, given those costs, why most pre-modern armies didn’t invest this heavily in synchronized discipline or drill, especially if their infantry was expected merely to be a pinning or holding force and for aristocratic cavalry to be the ‘battle winning’ force. By and large armies capable of the kind of synchronized discipline of a Roman or Han dynasty (or early modern gunpowder) army were the exception, rather than the rule.

Yet in games the player is never really given this choice or forced to make this trade-off between more expensive armies which allow for greater control and cheaper armies which can only be handled in very limited ways. Even if ‘cheap’ units can’t adopt advanced formations (and they often can), they can still maneuver around the battlefield with as much agility as far more highly trained units. It is infrequent, for instance, to have units which can be perhaps trusted to hold their ground but which cannot really be ordered to attack (we’ll come back to the absurdity of being able to order a ‘peasant mob’ to charge elite units and having them do it in a bit), which was a fairly common concern of pre-modern commanders.9

Now I should note that so far we’ve mostly talked about drill’s role in producing synchronized discipline, but this is also a way of producing cohesion as well: the process (often quite brutal) of inculcating synchronized discipline produces cohesion through the shared experience and shared suffering of the troops. It is essentially a tool for creating ‘synthetic’ cohesion, particularly useful if an army has no ‘organic’ cohesive elements. Cohesion, of course, as its own effects on the ability of an army to execute complex plans.

Next week, we’ll turn and look at another key element in enabling even this limited degree of tactical flexibility: junior officers. Because it doesn’t matter how well drilled the army is, if there is no command structure to communicate orders from the general to his troops, those orders will not be acted upon.

  1. Trying to do this in real life is more likely to look like the actual launch of Fallout 76 than Todd Howard’s imagination of the launch of Fallout 76.
  2. The utterly confused and wild melee that follows is actually also a pretty good example for why armies form in lines and do not fight like they do in the movies, something we’ll come to in a moment.
  3. And in a film they can all do it because it’s in the script.
  4. I’m not going to go on at too much length on the importance of disciplina as a key social concept in Roman society, but it was very important. Fortunately I have already recommended J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts (2006) which presents disciplina as one of the two core animating concepts of Roman military values (alongside virtus) so you can go read that!
  5. For more on this, see T. May, The Mongol Art of War (2007)
  6. Which, like everything in the Roman army is a slight miscount. There are four lines in the triplex acies of the Middle Republic, because the velites skirmish out in front; they’re not included in the number because the triplex refers to the lines of heavy infantry.
  7. I’m going to focus on the Middle Republic here, but a lot of this continues and some of it even intensifies into the Late Republic and the Early Empire
  8. Note that we are assuming the organization of the socii broadly matched the Romans, which it seems to have done in general features, though we are often not well informed on particulars.
  9. I always really liked that in the old Sierra Civil War Generals games, unit cohesion would first prevent the unit from charging, then from attacking in general long before the unit broke and fled so that weak, low-morale units could defend but it was unwise to order them to attack and some units simply lacked the cohesion to charge even without having taken losses. Really wish those games would get a remaster and re-release, they were quite good.

131 thoughts on “Collections: Total Generalship: Commanding Pre-Modern Armies, Part IIIa: Discipline

  1. Lovely post as always. With how difficult this drill and discipline is to produce I have to wonder at the morale impact on Rome’s enemies, seeing the light skirmishers retreat behind blocks of heavy infantry — which then fanned out in what must have seemed a nearly magical manner to fill the gap. To an enemy commander, it must have seemed like Roman generals were playing with cheat commands activated!

  2. “In a fight, after all, a combatant is extremely vulnerable to attacks from behind or in their peripheral vision, especially if they are focused forward on the foe in front of them. A confused melee would thus produce extreme casualties and produce them extremely quickly.”

    This becomes obvious even when playing at battle with children. I once participated in a series of skirmishes with boffer weapons (foam padded swords and shields) with a bunch of kids, mostly age 7-10, but some teenagers and a few adults, also. The rules were simple: If you get hit, you’re out. In one skirmish I put a plan together: Half of us hold the line as well as we can, and the other other half of the group sweep out and flank the enemy. It was a hastily put-together plan on a fun outing for the kids.

    Initially, those of us holding the line were getting overwhelmed, until the flanking maneuver struck and the entire opposing line just crumpled. It’s amazing how even simple games can illuminate concepts like this.

    1. I do LARP (live action role-playing) swordfighting training once every 2 weeks and we have a very small group (10 people is a lot) but sometimes we do team battles and then too you can see that if the corner person of a 5 man line falls, that is much, much more disastrous than any other spot failure. Because now the corner person is *totally* free to attack the next person from the side, rather than kind of watching and kind of attacking multiple people.
      Flanking is OP

      1. I’m glad other people have boffed with children. I work at a LARP summer camp and I would characterize most of our mock battles as “producing extreme casualties extremely quickly” (it gets slightly better when they’re “in character” and invested in that particular one not dying, vs a game of CTF).

        1. In my college’s LARP club, I spend a *lot* of time checking my flanks to make sure that I’m not out by myself. It’s often a good day if a rough line is formed. There *was* one time where us NPCs were the Uruk-Hai and formed a pike block on a bridge on campus and proceeded to repeatedly wipe the floor with the PCs until the odds were set way too heavily in the player characters’ favor.

          1. Re: checking your flanks: given the difficulty in actually drilling people with real lives well enough to have them have battlefield discipline necessary to not have things descend into a wild fracas during LARP, situational awareness is usually the next best thing. (I often shout “situational awareness!” while cutting down flanked children during summer camp. How will they learn otherwise?).

      2. I was in an SCA battle where that happened. I was the left man on the shield wall and saw a unit coming at us. I charged them, in the hope that I’d make sufficient noise to get my unit’s attention. It worked–the unit wheeled left and instead of flanking us, the opposing unit faced our front. Our discipline allowed our commander to pull our attention from our target (an aspect of discipline I didn’t see addressed in this essay) and face a foe from an unexpected quarter. We always spent 10-15 minutes a week training in small-unit drills, and apparently that was enough to engrain these movements into our muscle memory.

        My charge was undisciplined, sure, but I remember clearly thinking that I was going to be hit either way, and that when I tell this story later “I charged them” would make a MUCH better one.

        It was somewhat surprising how little training this discipline required. Part of this was, I think, because we were more than just a group of people tossed together. We were brothers. We were constantly hanging out together, and relied on each other. Unit cohesion on the field was merely an extension of our social order. Partially it was because the other teams lacked our training–they trained in individual, not unit, combat, acting more as guided missiles. And partially I think it was due to the fact that most of us were not actually injured. It’s easy to be brave when you know you’re going to walk away, and discipline is easy in what is ultimately an academic exercise rather than a real battle.

  3. Do we have any surviving sources about Macedonian and Diodochi era drills among the armies of the Diodochi states and their antecedents? I imagine they must have drilled extensively for those phalanxes to work at all, nevermind the other moving parts. But if any sources exist, I’m not personally aware of them.

    1. The closest you’re going to get is something like Asclepiodotus’ Taktika, but there are more than a few difficulties in using it this way. That said, it is clear that Macedonian-style phalanxes were drilled and had some significant measure of synchronized discipline. They seem to have been substantially less flexible than their Roman opponents, though.

      1. I haven’t read the primary materials, but I’ve understood that the Byzantine military writers usually discussed the drills of the phalanx which was hundreds of years in the past. I think this might have been a way to write about contemporary matters without revealing military secrets and without criticizing the current doctrine too harshly. When you are writing to colleagues, you can hide your actual ideas into the discussion so that those in the know understand it, while others are simply reading a learned study.

  4. Something I’ve always found kind of fascinating: At the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, Count Tilly tried to order his Catholic army forward in a flanking maneuver when the Saxon wing of the Protestant army routed. But because his army wasn’t really capable of this, it ends up getting strung out in the open and smashed to pieces by Swedish artillery, leading to the first major Protestant victory of the Thirty Years War. Or at least that’s my understanding of how it all went down. 🙂

    Feels like an example of a case where a General’s ambitions outstripped his army’s abilities to actually execute them.

    1. The other element is that the opposing army was able to perform a couple of simple maneuvers (refuse one flank, advance the other), faster than Tilly’s army could maneuver.

  5. I would like to make a point here: the drill you describe is really onerous, and it is definitely not fun when you are only learning it. However, when you – and the unit as a whole – get good at it, and the drill functions smoothly, it becomes sort of enjoyable. Drill is, in this sense, also a psychological tool for building cohesion. Tolstoy, for example, describes very well how the individual soldier’s real home is his place in the formation: that is always the same, no matter where the company is fighting. (The natural cohesive unit is the company. Regimental cohesion as such is for the officers, for whom the officer corps of the regimemt is suitably sized.)

    BTW, the example you give, right wheel by a company, is already a very difficult move, especially if you do it with a formation designed for effective handlimg of firearms, where men are an arm’s length from each other.

    1. Wheel turn is difficult, but it’s not prohibitively difficult; a typical US High School can field at least a small marching band that can wheel on command for parades, and larger schools often learn quite complicated patterns for field performances where movements and music playing are simultaneous.

      1. Yeah, my brother was in marching band, and they got a wide repitore of things including wheel turns down in a few weeks of band camp. Though that was several weeks of eight+ hour days just drilling.

        Also it occurs to me that there’s a pretty significant additional complication to the drills; you’d probably like to be able to still do the drill after losing seven people out of your century and you’d like to do so without just leaving a hole where they’d used to be. Particularly if the drill in question is tesudo and you’re under fire.

        1. After Shiloh, Grant said in his defense that with all the green troops, he had thought they needed more drilling than they did learning how to build fortifications.

          One of the things that made it so astoundingly bloody, but quite possibly true.

        2. “The Reason Why” (on the charge of the Light Brigade) mentions how impressed observers were with the way the Light Brigade moved down the field looking like an accordion, with each rank expanding as a horse or rider fell, then contracting to maintain the proper spacing between files. They were a well-drilled professional bunch.

      2. Marching bands of course grew out of military bands, whose purpose was helping perform exactly that kind of drill.

  6. Exceptional insight.

    By the way that’s why I always thought of the Cannae Manouver as a double reinforced flank, symmetrical in its shape, and not of a double flank encirclement with Hannibal’s alae pivoting against the flanks of the Roman infantry.

  7. With regard to the South Korean riot police versus the Spartacus scene, it’s probably worth noting the composition of those two groups.

    The riot police are probably the closest modern equivalent to legionaries, in tactical terms. They exist to be a highly disciplined, well-trained force capable of dealing with a larger group of opponents who generally engage in a wild melee, with a great emphasis on a defensive shield wall, and with the primary weapons that get used being short melee weapons, not anything ranged. The people making those motions in that video are experts (or at least a decent approximation thereof), and they move like it.

    Conversely, the people moving on screen in Spartacus are Hollywood extras. They’re (in military terms) a peasant mob equipped in a Roman legionary’s style and asked to do a Roman legionary’s job, but they probably only have a few hours of training instead of literal years of it. It’s no surprise that their movements are ponderous and simple – that’s all they know how to do.

    I think those two videos demonstrate your point even better than you planned them to.

    1. According to Wikipedia, the legionaries in Spartacus were portrayed by Spanish army soldiers.

    2. Fascinating to watch the riot police, especially as the lines pass through one another. Looks like some kind of optical illusion.

      It seems to me the Spartacus scene involves a lot more people, who would presumably be a lot harder to control, even when everything they do is scripted.

      1. The usual gold standard for movie battle scenes is probably the 1970 waterloo movie, where they due to some shenanigans got to borrow two divisions of soviet troops as extras (including a brigade of cavalry) and they apparently spent months drilling before the actual filming. It’s not neccessarily historically accurate in the details (the director cares more about epic shots than accuracy) but the sheer scope and just watching thousands of people move together is amazing.

  8. “enemies filtering into it uncontrolled could then flank and defeat individually the members of the broader line (two-on-one contests in melee combat typically end in seconds and are very lopsided), causing collapse.”

    My limited experience with this in the context of martial arts sports is that the way to survive more than a few seconds and maybe win as the one is to stay mobile enough that the two can’t both find their footing to attack at the same time, up to and including outrunning one of them. This approach is workable in a nice empty arena but would have catastrophic consequences for a military formation.

    1. I do LARP (live action roleplaying) swordfighting every 2 weeks and I agree. We sometimes to free for all battles, and that typically results in a lot of duels and in case any new person attacks it either becomes very much a standoff (since noone wants someone at their backs) or someone is constantly running backwards in circles.
      But we sometimes do team battles and then if a person in the middle falls it is shitty, and if a person on the corner falls that team is near guaranteed to lose as 2 people gang up on the new corner, and they cannot run away because then 3 people would gang up on the next and we often do these fights in limited space (because our group is small enough that the entire formation can kind of run around but those fights are really weird and not what we aim for in a team battle)

      1. Recently I were on an LARP-CON. I had the fun experience of being the one who exploited a hole in the enemy line, when the guy in front of me took an arrow to the chest.
        We had an stand of for several minutes, with the other guys holding the top of a small hill, and we were trying to push them off. From moment the hole in the line opened, to the point were the right side of their line was rolled up, took maybe 15 seconds. We had to allow the left side of their line to disengage for saftey reasons.
        It is astonishing how fast cohesion breaks as soon as the people on the flanks get distracted.

    2. Big shields help, like a lot. If you can close a lot of vectors, the time you survive goes up by a lot. You still probably will be overwhelmed, but you can defend yourself longer.

  9. Sounds like the JRPG fighting model might be apt – a few basic moves and the occasional, pre-chosen special.

    1. Though it’s quite tricky to make a JRPG-style battle feel tactical. Not impossible, but tricky.

      In another comment, I suggested Into the Breach‘s specialized, quirky weapons as a potential foundation for a more realistic tactical game. ItB’s weapons are obviously too over-the-top to fit—it’s a game about mechs fighting giant bugs—but the core gameplay loop could still work.

  10. Typo check: in the section on Roman consular armies, “success engagement” should probably be “successive engagement” (though one might hope that one of these engagements might be a success).

  11. I would like to note that modern Spanish historians would disagree on when the countermarch was created and by whom.

    1. The Spanish manual, Milicia, discvrso y regla military, written in 1586, describes the counter marching technique:
      “and in the aftermath of the shot by the first row; without turning heads, make way for the next row, countermarching to the left,”

      Now, this quote does come in a section about skirmishing, where they were deployed in small groups of 15 men (5 x 3) — my source doesn’t explicitly state it was done at a larger scale.

      I think a lot of these tactics were “diffused” to the English via the Dutch, which might be why there’s a tendency to consider the Dutch as the originators. I suspect the tactic was used in battle before the Battle of Nieuport, but that may have been the first time its use was clearly documented in a battle.

  12. Nitpicks:
    “For moe on this” – For more on this.
    “Even if ‘cheap’ units can’t adopt advanced formations (and they often)” – and they often can.

  13. Returning to my list of ideas for tactical video games that could incorporate some of these ideas:

    Into the Breach is a roguelite tactical game made by the developers of FTL, where giant robots fight giant bugs. Your mechs have specialized weapons, most of which have several distinct effects to account for. Calling in an artillery strike on a giant spider might shove its eggs into a nearby building, which rarely ends well for the building. Or you might have a tank that fires shots so powerful that it blows itself backwards, potentially shoving it into the line of fire for another bug’s ranged attack. Part of what makes the game’s individual battles so satisfying to play is the difficulty in using these limited tools to achieve your goals.

    A game where you have only a limited set of commands to give each unit—”march forward,” “turn,” “volley fire,” whatever—could probably tap into that same kind of satisfaction. It would be tricky to implement the kind of “weapon” diversity ItB has if we’re sticking with historical armies, but I could see it working if it was a fantasy not-Roman army with imps and necromancers and griffinry.

    The film equivalent to this is the overly complex battle plan arrived upon by the hero just before the battle and at best only briefly explained to the army (and always off-screen so that we can preserve tension), but which the army executes flawlessly in the moment despite apparently never having trained to do that.

    I want to see a comedy movie/anime/whatever put the overconfident hero in command of an army, have him invent a brilliant-on-paper plan and give it to the army, only for that plan to fall apart hilariously because the officers only mostly understand what’s going on and the individual foot soldiers barely understand their own role in the wider plan.
    If Kazuma was one of those competent badass isekai heroes and not a selfish hikko-NEET, Konosuba would probably be pretty good at that, especially since Megumin is a pretty potent plan B. (Translator’s Note: The Japanese word for “explosion,” when transcribed with Latin characters starts with the letter B.)

    [T]he ideal in developing this kind of drill was often to ingrain the actions the soldiers were to perform so deeply that in the midst of the terror of battle…That in turn creates an important element of predictability: an individual soldier does not need to be checking their action or position against the others around them as much because they’ve done this very maneuver with these very fellows…

    Which is probably part of why drill is so rarely represented in fiction. It’s hard to maintain tension when so much of the battle is going to play out as expected, and hard to resolve tension if the fallout of failure is out of the hands of any individual character. It’s not impossible, but it’s tricky and contingent on certain kinds of tensions and plots.

    [E]ven for the Romans battles where there was this sort of on-the-field improvising led by the general were uncommon (though not extremely rare).

    I imagine they’re overrepresented in the sorts of battles people learn about in school, though. After all, many of those battles are either A. run by the sort of general who’s famous for incredible feats of generalship, B. the sort of desperate struggle where unconventional tactics might be attempted as a last-ditch effort, or C. interesting specifically because of their unconventional tactics. (Or D, all of the above.)

    1. Well one benefit of showing drill on film is the viewer can have some sense of what the fuck is going on on screen, unlike with standard Hollywood chaos melee. The first episode of the HBO Rome TV is OK for this.

      1. Kind of like those exposition scenes in shonen training montages, except that they’re explaining mundane tactics instead of magic or martial arts or whatever.
        Well, and it’s usually tougher to connect infantry maneuvers to character growth. It’s not hard to write your superpower system so the hero has to overcome their personal flaws to reach their full potential, but generalship usually doesn’t require much except being a good general.

    2. “Glory” devotes a fair amount of time to drill and the formation of unit cohesion. Although the 54th does not, in the movie, perform any of the reasonably complicated maneuvers of which Civil War regiments were capable.

      1. “Gettysburg” shows the 20th Maine execute a wheel maneuver as the key part of a decisive bayonet charge down Little Round Top. Although it kind of looks like a melee in the movie, they describe the intent fairly well (better in the book the movie is based on).

    3. Seconding that you could have a fun video game implementing this stuff. I’m thinking something that’s less an RTS and more a management simulator with RTS elements.

      Like, by default all units start out knowing “forward march”, “halt”, and “attack”, with the AI being able to string together forward-march and halt to get around. Anything else has a very high chance of failure until trained. One of the major challenges in the game is balancing units between deployable, training, and producing states.

      Going into the next post, each unit has an AI with a random and somewhat hidden personality. You can guess based on past behavior or close examination whether a unit that sees an enemy approaching will withdraw, charge, or hold position, but the decision isn’t completely yours to make. Figuring out which people to put where and with what tasks is another part of the player’s job.

      1. Like, by default all units start out knowing “forward march”, “halt”, and “attack”, with the AI being able to string together forward-march and halt to get around. Anything else has a very high chance of failure until trained. One of the major challenges in the game is balancing units between deployable, training, and producing states.

        I think you’d need a basic wheel right/left manoeuvre as well. Maybe that could (in untrained units) have a chance of causing the unit to become disordered, giving it a combat and morale penalty unless you halt it for a bit (to represent the unit pausing for everyone to find their place in the ranks again).

      2. Another potential idea would be to have bigger/smaller individual units to reflect how good they are at small-scale manoeuvring. E.g., the Romans could have each cohort represented as a separate unit, giving them lots of tactical options, whereas a levy or militia army might just have three or four big blocks.

      3. Crusader Kings battles are almost fully abstracted, but each phase of the battle involves each group randomly choosing a tactic; the list of tactics changes and expands based on the commander.

    4. Honestly, if I wanted to make a tactics game that incorporated discipline, I’d go for Blood Bowl’s “failing a die roll ends your turn… and most of the stuff you want to do involves die rolls” before I’d go for Into The Breach (which is more about how coordination and perfect information trumps sheer numbers or power).

      To put it a different way… give each order a chance to fail DISASTROUSLY. Then you can tweak it a little — maybe drilling lets you pick a handful of orders that your units will be able to execute flawlessly, while low morale or fatigue crank up your chance of failure.

  14. During the Battle of Gettysburg the 20th Maine Regiment famously executed a wheel right downhill bayonet charge. This was not pre-planned before the engagement, and to my knowledge Union volunteers received little training. From the descriptions of how difficult simple marching could be, that must have been a tremendously difficult action to pull off. Which I guess is part of what makes it famous.

    1. At Little Round Top 20th Maine had been together for 11 months, and had fought in brutal but simple (straight-foward charge) combat at Fredericksburg- they were in reserve at Antietam, and missed seeing much action at Chancellorsville. So they had both some combat seasoning and plenty of time for drill before their encounter with destiny on July 2nd 1863.

      Colonel Adelbert Ames, who had led 20th Maine until just before the Gettysburg campaign started, was a West Pointer, ex-artillery man who finagled his way to command a regiment of volunteers because he wanted the promotion and glory associated with that branch. He seems to have been one of the more effective regimental commanders in the Army of the Potomac in May 1863, which was why he was promoted to run a brigade in IX Corp and a college professor who was his Lt. Col got handed the regiment still in V Corps. Praise for the decision-making on Little Round Top goes to Chamberlain. Praise for the state of the regiment that it was able to maintain cohesion goes to Ames, the man who built the regiment.

  15. The context that drill tends to emerge in (this is an idea invented more than once) tends to give it a highly regimented, fairly brutal character. For instance in early modern Europe, the structure of drill for gunpowder armies was conditioned by elite snobbery: European officer-aristocrats (in many cases the direct continuation of the medieval aristocracy) had an extremely poor view of their common soldiers (drawn from the peasantry). Assuming they lacked any natural valor, harsh drill was settled upon as a solution to make the actions of battle merely mechanical, to reduce the man to a machine. Roman commanders seemed to have thought somewhat better of their soldiers’ bravery, but assumed that harsh discipline was necessary to control, restrain and direct the native fiery virtus (‘strength/bravery/valor’) of the common soldier who, unlike the aristocrat, could not be expected to control himself (again, in the snobbish view of the aristocrats).

    Not sure we should be dismissing highly effective training programmes as being the result of mere class snobbery. Granted, people sometimes get the right answers with the wrong methods, but in general, if people are successful at what they do, it’s safer to assume that they know what they’re doing.

    1. I don’t believe Prof. Deveraux ‘dismisses’ the training programs, per se. After all, he notes that they are effective. Rather, the point is that those programs were likely often more harsh/coercive that really necessary, as a result of the biases of the people in charge.

      1. How would you go about checking whether a training programme is more harsh/coercive than necessary? The obvious way would be to compare the army’s performance against one with a less coercive programme; but since both gunpowder-era European and ancient Roman armies performed better than their enemies (even when those enemies had similar equipment and tactics, as in 18th-century India), this would suggest that their training programmes weren’t excessively harsh.

        1. What do we know in detail about the training programme of say the Romans and their opposing Italian tribes back when Rome isn’t winning because it has insane reserves though?
          You need an apple to apple comparison. Ideally two armies which have nearly the same armaments, similar resources, similar experience, similar societies, and a similar principle of cohesion.

          Perhaps there are possible comparisons for example between different European nations doing the same tradition of drill slightly differently, but comparing say, the Zulu’s and the British results in comparing how their weapons and army systems match up in general, not whether the punishment of soldiers in one army being different makes them win.

          1. Well, the Prussian army under Frederick the Great had a high reputation, and was also drilled pretty ferociously. A few decades later, in the American War of Independence, the Continental Army performed pretty badly until it had received some proper drill (from the Prussian Baron von Steuben).

    2. Bret has made this point about how Early Modern drill sprang from the utter contempt in which commanders held their socially inferior cannon fodder before, and to be honest I think it’s over-egged. Yes, class snobbery was of course rife at the time, but quite a bit of the drill reform literature also contained rather optimistic assessments of the character and fighting potential of commoners. For example, I’ve read a lot of the military manuals written by John VI of Nassau-Dillenburg (one of the key pioneers of the Orange-Nassau reforms), and he repeatedly went on about how drill would unlock the potential of his true-hearted peasants, who were naturally inclined to be brave defenders of hearth and home. Of course, this was still a form of patronising stereoptying (and when push came to shove, many of the ‘loyal subjects’ drafted into Nassau-style militias decided that they weren’t actually that keen on obediently dying for the fatherland and ran away), but it’s rather different to saying ‘the only way we’ll get any use out of these scum is by drilling them until they become robots’. In a way, at the heart of the drill reform movement was a kind of universalising worldview, which countered the older idea that military prowess was reserved for certain hardy martial peoples (e.g. the Swiss) by proposing that any man, regardless of origin, could be made into a good soldier with the right training.

      1. Also, loading a musket is quite a complex process, and people in stressful situations (like, say, a battle) tend to forget how to carry out complex processes unless they’re already second nature. You don’t need to be a peasant-hating snob to think that drilling musketeers intensely is a good idea; you just need to have a basic understanding of how people are affected by extreme situations.

        (And of course, when we add in countermarches and other tactics designed to get the most firepower out of a unit, the required complexity, and hence the level of drill needed, goes up even further.)

      2. Also, loading a musket is a complex process, and people in extreme and stressful situations (like, say, a battle) tend to forget complex processes unless they’re already second nature. So you don’t need to be a peasant-hating snob to think that drilling musketeers intensively is a good idea; you just need a basic understanding of how people react to stress.

        (And of course, if you want to do Dutch-style countermarches or other fancy tactics, the level of complexity, and hence of required drill, goes up even further.)

        1. His argument doesn’t seem to be “Drill is totally pointless” but more “Drill was done in an unnecessarily harsh way”, so practicing is obviously still valuable,

  16. I found that South Korean riot police drill fascinating. Between that, and your use of video of police horses in explaining some of the mechanics of cavalry, it seems that police crowd control/combat preserves a lot of the same dynamics as pre-modern warfare. Only with more radios, of course, and usually extreme asymmetry.

    1. My understanding of Roman warfare is that the asymmetry is actually pretty typical for certain campaigns, especially against “barbarians” – not Carthage or Greece or Persia, but against the Gauls? I suspect that riot cops versus rioters is actually a pretty good approximation there. Numbers and passion on one side, discipline and training on the other.

      1. Eh, it’s easy to overstate. The gauls weren’t as disciplined as the romans, but neither were they completely without it, we don’t know quite how they organized themselves, but they used standards and such, which indicates some degree of organization. And Hannibal incorporated gaulish allies into some of his quite fancy manuevers.

        1. It took Caesar ten years of hard fighting to break Gallic resistance (and earlier they had whacked Romans and Greeks repeatedly), and an even longer time to consolidate Roman rule in Spain. So they were hardly a feckless mob. Major eastern kingdoms went down much more handily.

    2. That video really brings home the difficulty you always hear in keeping soldiers from pursuing a routing foe. I always wondered why a soldier would leave the relative safety of the formation to chase someone running away. But if you’re regularly running into formation to form a line, and they flee as you are already doing that, I can totally see why soldiers might just keep running.

      1. ‘Pike and Shot’ (on Steam) does a fair job of simulating this. I recently played an English Civil War campaign as the Royalists. My Cavaliers would regularly rout the Parliamentary horse and then chase them off the field, not to be seen again until near the end of the battle (if at all). I believe this happened in reality at the battle of Edge Hill, where the Royalist horse was too busy looting the baggage train to do much in the later stages of the battle.

        1. It happened all the way through the war, including at Naseby near the end. There were at least a couple battles, maybe more, the royalists lost when their cavalry went to loot and parliamentarian cavalry stayed in the battle and kept fighting.

    3. It makes sense, because the thing that caused the battlefield to look very different is ridiculous firepower that makes standing around in big groups a bad idea. That clearly is not a factor in policing or riot control, so their methods can still use the techniques that worked back before long-range explosive cannon shells.

  17. Reading your thoughts on discipline and references to cohesion reminded me of Ardant du Picq’s work. That made me wonder: do you think he did a good job characterizing pre-modern battle and soldiers?

  18. How did punishment work in Greek hoplite armies? I would guess corporal punishment against hoplites were not too common, since they were after all citizens of some means, but what if a hoplite misbehaved? And could lower-status soldiers like peltasts, psiloi and navy oarsmen suffer similar penalties as discipline-based army soldiers?

    1. I imagine that in a hoplite army, the fact that a soldier is surrounded by people who know him socially and interact with him in civilian life will impact how discipline is handled. A hoplite who falls asleep on watch or something may not be whipped or whatever, but he’s going to be known forever as the guy who could have gotten everyone killed. So the ‘punishment’ may overlap strongly with social shaming.

  19. “assuming their cultural values are going to let them drill you”. I think you mean “assuming your cultural values are going to let you drill them”?

    Although it is funny to think of generals agreeing to let their soldiers devise drilling regimens for them to do.

    1. “Okay men, today it’s the soldiers drilling the generals. The primus pilus and I will hold a mock battle, all of you come up with things that can go wrong and act them out.”

    2. I think you still need “their” in the first case. The soldiers need to be from a culture that accepts that they will be drilled into a formation by their officers.

  20. One game that tries to be realistic with some of these factors is the Combat Mission series* – set in WWII and after. It’s got a delay before orders are implemented (depending on unit experience, proximity to an officer, and whether a tank has a radio or not). The morale system allows for units being “shaken” or “pinned”, not just routed – a unit can refuse to leave cover, and its rate of fire can go down, without becoming completely useless. Even a panicked unit may stay in cover rather than fleeing, although it won’t accept commands.

    And even high-morale units may not obey units exactly – a unit that takes fire in the open may seek the nearest cover, and a light tank suddenly confronted by a heavier one may pop smoke and back up. This AI control of individual units can be a good thing, since the game is turn-based and turns are 1 minute.

    So it is possible to take some of this into account in a turn-based tactical game. OTOH fog of war is unrealistically light – if one of your units sees an enemy unit, the player and all your other units see it, no waiting for a scout report to come back. And officers have no role beyond a morale boost and reduced command delay with proximity. And the command delays are mostly less than a minute, which is probably unrealistically slow.

    * I’ve played the earliest games in the series, CM:Beyond Overlord and CM:Barbarossa to Berlin, and my comments are based on those two. I think they’ve gone less turn-based since.

  21. IGNORE
    (Placeholder post because email updates don’t work unless I check a notify box.)

  22. I had completely forgotten about the Civil War Generals games–I played the second one when I was a kid, and you’re right, the game did a really good job of modeling cohesion and morale and making sure that units didn’t go straight from “will do exactly as you tell them” to RUN AWAY!.

    One thing that I thought the game modeled really well was that, as in the actual ACW, ranged combat was the default, unless you specifically ordered the unit attacking to charge, and even then, a good portion of the time the defender would retreat before the attackers came into contact. On the flip side, if a unit was ordered to attack a significantly stronger one, it might make the attack but extremely half-heartedly.

  23. For, say, a Greek polis given the choice between having 450 men under arms all year round and excellently trained or having 5,000 hoplites under arms only in the one month where there is a battle to fight the clear answer is the latter.

    Guessing this is an advantage of mercenaries; you only have to pay them while you’re using them but they’ve got training and experience from when other people were using them. Though that requires that someone always has a security problem. And of course when you need them you may find they are employed on the opposite side of the field.

      1. That, and their interests are not always the same as their employers interests, and those employers often have very little leverage if a mercenary band decides to not fight as hard in a particular battle, or to leave the field because the day is lost rather than rushing to a critical point, or to come with a quiet arrangement with the enemy of the day.

        1. On the other hand, setting up the mercenaries you hire to get killed so you don’t have to pay them was not unthinkable. Or trying to get them to work “on spec”- they had to win in order to make it possible for them to get paid. Plenty of room on both sides for double-dealing and mistrust.

          1. I believe that setting up the mercenaries to get killed was a pretty risky gamble.

            For one thing, they were competent professionals, so they may spot that that was your aim, and simply refuse to obey, and you would still have the problem.

            And even if it worked, ok, now you no longer had to pay that company, but you still need to hire mercenaries in your next war, and the ones that are available know that the last time you did so they all ended up dead. I suspect that would affect their enthusiasm for working for you.

          2. Though they weren’t really mercenaries, one of the factors behind the breakdown in Gothic-Roman relations that led to the 410 sack of Rome was the Goths’ perception that Theodosius had deliberately put them in the most dangerous part of the battle line at the River Frigidus, in order to kill them off and weaken them as a potential threat to the Empire.

      2. Yeah, but they’re getting part of their annual salary from you and part from other people, so if your security problems are highly irregular the value proposition compared to paying your citizens for an entire year (or several years!) of training for one month in the field probably starts looking better.

      1. True. The existence of mercenaries who can be hired by a state to solve their security problem logically implies the existence of mercenaries who can be hired by a state to cause someone else’s security problem.

        It’s like lawyers. In a world where the norms of society mean that lawyers do not exist, no one hires lawyers, and the necessity of inventing ‘lawyering’ may not immediately arise.

        But in a world where the norms of society mean that some people hire lawyers, in short order, anyone who can afford to will be hiring lawyers.

        1. It’s more than that. The goal for an army is to deliver a battle or a siege, as our host is often reminding us. But one of the important taskt to deliver a siege, is foraging, and small war. In other words one important task of mercernaries is plundering and burning. So when you hire mercs you often hire people who are good at that.
          So you either hire and support bandits, or pay for the training of bandits. Active bandit groups will degrade the security situation where ever they are.
          If you want a good example of that, look at pirates, and freebooters with a “letter of marque”.

          1. The French Foreign Legion was originally created to channel a lot of foreign troublemakers out of the places where they caused trouble.

  24. On note 9, you might like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! which has similar mechanics, and it doesn’t need a remaster since it’s a much more rece… oh my god both games are 25 years old!

  25. William McNeill’s Moving Together in Time argues that rhythmic movements of the major muscles produces an endorphin feedback that encourages group bonding. So drill is good at more than the individual level – it ties people together. And found in more than the military – harvest and other communal occasions were typically marked by group dancing (eg US line dancing), and then there was group work. Anthropologists followed up by noting the cohesive effect of synchronised group effort – eg hauling large blocks of stone – and that pre-modern societies often did these things seemingly as a bonding exercise rather than for any practical use. Pre-modern ships involved a lot of synchronised hauling, and crews that had been at sea developed a fierce bond. I’ve seen this happen with anarchic white-collar workers – given a group physical task they welded into a very possessive knot.

    So in a good many societies the peasants came pre-drilled as it were, if their practices involved coordinated effort (not all did).

  26. “Wheeling” as an example of how difficult these, seemingly simple sounding, maneuvers could be is an excellent choice. As a Civil War reenactor with 25(!? where does the time go?) years of experience, wheeling is a frustratingly difficult thing to train soldiers to do properly. It doesn’t sound that complicated (your link to Gilham’s manual shows that). The trick is to look toward the outside of the wheel, while maintaining elbow contact — inevitably somebody around the middle fails to look to the outside and the formation breaks apart, you have to halt them, reform the company and try again. Usually by the third or so attempt they get it, but without practice they often forget. (Also there’s a fair amount of training in how to stand, face, march forward, etc., until you can even get to wheeling)

    Wheeling in the Civil War (as a formal maneuver) was only done at the company (and smaller) levels. It’s too slow and time consuming to use at larger scales, and even at the company level other maneuvers exist that are quicker and more “fluid.” COMPANY INTO LINE, is an excellent example, where a company marching by the flank forms into line facing the same direction they were moving. It’s the equivalent of halting, facing to the left, and the performing a 90 degree right wheel, but it’s one quick maneuver (or “evolution” to use the period term) — the soldiers effectively just break formation and *run* into the new one. Interestingly, I’ve found this easier to teach than wheeling!

    Good, and attentive, file closers (the NCO’s and junior officers who stand behind the battle line), are beneficial to keeping the troops where they need to be.


    The 20th Maine at Gettysburg didn’t perform a proper wheeling maneuver as defined by the drill manuals. Good junior officers, Chamberlain being able to effectively communicate to them what was expected (he called all the company commanders together so everybody was on the same page), timing, and good cohesion allowed them to pull it off. I think this is critical to understand — Chamberlain didn’t simply order the left wing of his regiment to “right wheel,” he had to explain the whole maneuver to his officers, and then trust them to lead their companies in a way that would achieve the desired result. It worked.

    1. There’s a movie (forget the title) about Abe Lincoln, where as a company commander in the Black Hawk War he isn’t sure how to get his unit through a gate, so he orders them to halt, break ranks, and reform in one minute on the other side of the gate.

      1. Oh yeah, I remember that story! It’s a classic. I have sympathy for those militia commanders — the manuals are often not that clear, and sometimes they leave out important information. A fellow reenactor pointed out to me that these manuals were written by the relatively small professional officer corps for themselves. So there were a lot of traditions and things that professional officers just “knew” that could be used to fill in the gaps.

        Then you have an event like the Civil War, where the army is expanded to such a size that it’s not possible to provide nearly enough experienced instructors, and you have newly minted captains trying to figure this all out by reading (often incomplete) manuals. There’s a quote by a Confederate captain, when asked by his superior about how he would deploy his troops when meeting the enemy, he responded: “Well, Major, I can’t answer that according to the books, but I would risk myself with the Trigg County boys, and go in on main strength and awkwardness.”

        As bad as the Civil War era manuals are, I have a copy of a militia manual in use during the Black Hawk War . . . it’s a real difficult read! Some very complicated and showy maneuvers to do simple things. The subsequent manual went back to copying French manuals that were much more clear, but still. Very hard to learn from the books without a lot of practice, and being willing/able to consult other manuals to fill in gaps.

  27. Have you played Field of Glory 2 for the computer? It has some interesting CC limitations that I think reflect some (not all) of your complaints about the more arcadey TW series. For example, units of Cavalry typically are bye bye once ordered to engage, and pursue off map, only rarely coming back to be commanded again. And units out of a set range from your general can’t be issued complex orders, typically.

    In general, I wonder what your thoughts on Tabletop type games are, and how they handle these issues. There are a number of really excellent miniatures rulesets aimed at dealing with some of the constraints of command and control.

    1. I was going to bring up the earlier Pike and Shot iteration of the same game, they had various states of degradation of combat cohesion (I believe they termed it “disruption” that would be represented by a letter that would impair your units in various ways (eg. after a certain point your unit can’t charge, etc.)

  28. Glaring error: you absolutely can alter McDonald’s menu items. You can get a Big Mac without cheese.

    1. Maybe Prof. Devereux and I are behind the times, but there was definitely a time when there were no substitutions allowed on the Big Mac. That led other burger chains to tout their flexibility as a marketing ploy to distinguish themselves. “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce/Special orders don’t upset us/All we ask is that you let us/Serve it your way.” (A Burger Kind jingle of many years vintage.)

      1. Ordering a ‘Big Mac with extra everything’ was the hack I used to ensure I got a freshly cooked sandwich back when I was stupid enough to go to Mickie-D for that sort of thing.

  29. I would love to see these ideas applied well to historical tactical games like Total War, but because I am ambitious I’m already thinking of how interesting this could be for asymmetric faction in a fantasy setting. Even just using some basic tropes for common factions is interesting. Elves field small but incredibly well drilled and equipped professional armies. High micro faction that will do exactly what you want, but can’t afford to take fights on even terms. Orcs have excellent combat stats but are practically impossible to control once combat starts and therefore can be manipulated into unfavorable engagements and break quickly when losing. Dwarfs rely primarily on a fyrd style army that is limited in its battlefield level maneuvering but can rely on the excellent equipment and stubbornness of the troops to grind through bad battlefield situations. Getting more exotic, an undead faction could completely change the game by having unbreakable troops but are incredibly vulnerable to having the army commanders killed.

    1. Depending on the fantasy, elves or elf-equivalents might be telepathic, thus have some degree of ‘radio’. OTOH, Tolkien’s orcs were quite well trained when in service of a Dark Lord (Saruman’s Uruk-hai, some more obscure references to Morgoth’s), plus might be granted cohesion if not direction by the Lord’s mental power (which might also be working against the enemy — see Saruman wearying Aragorn’s group and motivating his orcs, or the collapse of Sauron’s armies when he got distracted, and of course the One itself.)

      AIUI, in early D&D, the fact that undead had Morale 12 and thus would *never break* was part of what made them scary, back when players came out of wargames and knew about convincing your enemy to flee.

  30. Fancy drill really *does* take a lot of practice (though doing so in high heels on a slick gym floor is very exciting indeed at times). But the principle remains.

  31. Fighting more than one person is very hard (especially if you are on the ground!). It is very noticeable in martial arts films that hordes of bad guys always very scrupulous at taking it in turns to attack the hero. Next time you watch a big fight scene, look at what the bad guys *not* fighting the hero are doing. Often waving their hands/weapons around or posturing. It can be quite amusing.

    1. Which is what by contrast made the fight scenes in the television show “The Wild, Wild West” so memorable. Highly choreographed of course but James Gordon was an expert at fighting multiple assailants simultaneously.

        1. The movie was terrible. The TV series was a total hoot, a cross between James Bond and the western of your choice.

          1. The movie exists in the zone where people who like bad movies might find it goofy fun… but that might have heavy overlap with the nostalgia of having watched it at an age when I lacked media literacy.

    2. I suppose stories where a fighter does have superpowers (either blatant or or the Charles atlas kind to use tv tropes term) do get kind of a pass in this regard. I imagine engaging in a multi melee brawl does get easier when you have superhuman reflexes or the ability to rank most of the damage

    3. Though I do not, it’s not always easy for the attackers either, if you don’t know what you’re doing it’s easy to get in the way or even get hit by your “friends”, and that gets more complicated the more people there are. So there’s a diminishing returns involved

    4. If the one guy is obviously better than any one of the attackers, I can naively imagine that there might be a coordination problem: no one wants to be the *first* person to go within reach, and thus you get a lot of hesitation. IIRC Exalted 2e (tabletop RPG) tried to model this; coordinating a many-on-one attack was somewhat difficult but extremely effective if done, wrecking the defender’s Defense Value. Without it, though, implicit assumption that no one was quite attacking at once. Of course Exalted has wuxia movies in its DNA.

      1. It’s a prisoners dillemma: For both of us it is better if we attack a common enemy than if we do nothing. But for both of us it is even better still to let the other attack first & take his attention, then attack right after while you two are fighting. If people are not able to both make a plan for when to attack and trust each other to keep it, they can just kind of stand around but not attack.

    5. The famous Japanese swordsman Musashi, who was in several fights where he was pitched against many opponents, advised to go on the offensive immediately – ‘drive them’. Probably a sound strategy, as it would keep things mostly one-one-one.

  32. So, how does defense in depth work. This series helps highlight how difficult it is to respond to defense in depth, but how does the defender keep their army organized through the process?

    1. With difficulty. For example, James M McPherson writes that at the battle of Missionary Ridge: “Some Confederate regiments at the base of Missionary Ridge had orders to fall back after firing two volleys; others had received no such orders. When the latter saw their fellows apparently breaking to the rear, they were infected by panic and began running.”

    2. Generally they’ll have troops already manning the rear defensive positions, so that when the first line falls back the second line is fully intact and can hold off the enemy while the retreating force reorganizes. They’ll have scripted out and drilled for withdrawing and regrouping.

      Mind, an organized withdrawal while engaged is notoriously the most difficult maneuver to execute and often collapses into a rout.

      1. One important part, is that the depth is in wide part’s simply empty. The attackers have to move through space, were things can happen, and junior officers can make decisions.
        At that time, the defenders stand in prepared positions, have clearity of objective, and can reorganize every group that routed in front of the enmey.

  33. One thing I really liked about the old Civil War Generals games was how simply moving your units around the map would deplete their morale and cohesion. Roads were the best, followed by open fields, and then forests and swamps which presented a serious obstacle to movement even if they were only a hex or two wide. And even if you were moving your soldiers up a major road, it still took a few hours of in-game time where the units would need to sit around doing nothing before they would return to full efficiency.

    This, in turn, led to great in-game situations where you’ve got reinforcements coming in to a battle who have been marching for five hours straight and really should get an hour or two of rest before going into battle, but your line is collapsing and the Confederates are about to overrun all your artillery, but also Sheridan will be arriving at any moment with all his cavalry so you’re crossing your fingers and sending them into the fight just hoping they’ll hold the line until then.

    1. One of the 1970s board wargames from Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) about modern war in Europe had “friction point” chits you put on units when they did anything. They reduced the unit’s combat strength and the only way to get rid of them was spend a turn doing nothing.

  34. This is a little off-topic, but I am glad you mentioned how silly it is for soldiers to just end up mixed up in a confused series of one-on-one duels, as in film, rather than staying in formation. You must be familiar with Philip Sabin’s writing on ancient combat, particularly his article “The Face of Roman Battle.” Sabin seems to think that fighting in formation with a mass of comrades was as a critical component, as much as discipline, to manage the terror of close-quarters combat. A discussion of the actual mechanisms and psychology of melee combat might make an good future topic on its own. Disclosure: I’m not an academic or a military person, but I find it an interesting topic.

  35. It seems to me that the Spartacus scene simply has a lot more extras (something like 8,000 Spanish soldiers were used for the Roman army) than there are South Korean riot cops. While the actual advance is clearly at a slow pace, when the lines close up they are certainly flowing in a way similar to the riot cops.

Leave a Reply