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Thread: Pitched battles

  1. #1
    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Pitched battles

    Historians often reduce wars to a series of pitched battles, and study the tactics in them much more profoudnly than many other aspects of warfare. Somehow, we've come to view wars without a decisive battle as somehow less important, less intense - less interesting. I think it's utter rubbish.

    Set-piece battles, as in, when two armies consciously deploy and face off in a [hopefully] decisive engagement are much less common in war than the average history buff seems to think, and for good reason. Giving battle is a chancey decision, as, due to the lack of control such short and very concentrated engagements impose, they tend to come down to blind luck and low-level decisions by their very nature, and can potentially result in very heavy casualties. Few intelligent commanders elect to follow such a course of action unless believing that they have a decisive advantage or simply no other way to proceed. Neither victory, nor a decisive result can ever be guaranteed. Instead, engaging in positional warfare (holding and contesting certain strategic/economic/whatever locations) and logistical/political/economic 'irregular' warfare (over a large territory in small groups - raids, counters to such, attacks on communications and logistics) have generally been seen as preferrable.

    This can be seen very well in the medieval and pike&shot eras, when holding and capturing fortified positions was key, and often constant mobile warfare was conducted to facilitate such - battles generally resulting when a besieging/threatening force had to be dislodged or frustrated, or a raiding force was caught in a bad position. Even when these battles occurred, they often hardly matched the common perception of the decisive battle - only resulting in one force giving ground in order to regroup, the other unable to follow up quickly exactly because of the innumerable fortifications littering the land. Indeed, chances for a decisive victory were greater in a one sided engagement (catching one side off guard, like at Montiel or Solway Moss), rather than when two large armies had elected to fight on similar terms.

    Then of course there are the numerous wars which brought profound territorial changes without ever getting the main forces of either side to commit to a decisive engagement, which is to say, pretty much ever damn medieval war.

    Pitched battles - yes, they still happen. But they're hardly what determines the outcome of wars in general (an exception being short civil wars), and far from always decisive. We shouldn't judge armies purely by their effectiveness in set-piece battles, for I'd suggest we view them as the exception, rather than the rule.

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    Pyrrhus the Molossian's Avatar Equites Alares
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I wholeheartedly agree here. Battles also usually only happened if both sides wished to fight which was even more rare.

    People remember some of Hannibal's more illustrious battles but they don't remember the other 14 years of raiding, positiong and so on throughout Italy.
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    Mausolos of Caria's Avatar Sagittarius
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Yup. Insofar the ''New Wars'' of non-state actors who never fight on open field are not totally new, this kind of warfare has also been dominant in antiquity and the middle ages. Of course there is the technological difference and the power and presence of the media, but the ''little war'' has always been the most common form of aggression between people.


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    AUSSIE11's Avatar Shisai
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I agree completely that many people overestimate the value of large scale combats as opposed to the value of actually avoiding combat. This is especially true whon talking of asymetric engagements such as the British army in the Napoleonic wars, The US navy in the war of 1812, or the Kaisers Navy in WWI and the Kreigsmarine in WWII. All these forces managed to cause disruption to their numerically far superior opponents by avoiding combat until they had a distinct tactical advantage or it was absolutely necessary. For all these forces and countless others throughout history avoiding battle was much more important than engaging because none could afford a decisive defeat for either material or political reasons.
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    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar Sixth Heaven Demon Lord
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Strategy should dominate your tactics and a good strategist knows when to fight. There are however significant opportunities that cannot be missed in order to engage in battles and defeat the enemy's forces, even when outnumbered it is worth a try. I think pitched battles are underestimated in our contemporary warfare for the sake of raids and small scale attacks but at the same time that all depends on the strategy, type of war, terrain and what you hope to gain from such a battle; even how decisive the battle will be and how heavy the casualties inflicted upon the enemy or on one's own army are factors as well as possibly the weather and if one wishes to fight away from their defended position or attack a defended position.

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    Akrotatos's Avatar Pili Prior
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    What I can't understand was what exactly an army did when not fighting battles? What did Hannibal do those 14 years? I can't picture it in my head
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    AUSSIE11's Avatar Shisai
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Quote Originally Posted by Akrotatos View Post
    What I can't understand was what exactly an army did when not fighting battles? What did Hannibal do those 14 years? I can't picture it in my head
    Raided, Trained, defended, created a threat as a force in being. In many ways I actually think the Force in Being is possibly the most important aspect of an Army/Navy, particularly when outnumbered.

    For example an army of 10,000 men might sit at home on a border requiring a nighbor to either comit forces to attacking them, which if they are fortified may not be easy, or leave permenant garrisons on the border in order to protect against any possible assaults. These men are possibly denying their enemies from deploying thousands of men on other fronts by simply existing. This force could be tying up 10,000, 20,000 or even 40,000 of their opponents. however if they deploy, engage and are defeated they may just release these garrisons to be deployed on other fronts.

    An example of this is to consider how much of the British High Seas fleet was tied up by the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and co. The RN had to maintain a force many times the size of the Germans in the North Sea just to keep an eye on them in case they broke out.
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    Aquilifer
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Quote Originally Posted by Akrotatos View Post
    What did Hannibal do those 14 years? I can't picture it in my head
    Most of the time he was actually looking for a port to communicate with Carthage, as well as to receive reinforcements. Of course he was trying to take Capua and negotiate an alliance with Phillip V, but his operations in southern Italy after Cannae all point out that he was trying to get a port.

    This is probably the best book on the subject, but Miles and Lazenby are good too: http://www.scribd.com/doc/76921078/H...ean-247-183-BC

    As some of the above members have said, it was fairly easy to avoid battle. You'd have a tough time finding any engagement where one side did not agree to combat. The only exception would be sieges.

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    Miles
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    This is a great thread, I enjoy reading about the long, drawn out parts of warfare, particularly in antiquity.

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    Pyrrhus the Molossian's Avatar Equites Alares
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Looking for a port is a bit simplistic. He did not spend all his time doing that for 15 years. He raided, besieged, tried to relieve sieges, fought battles, skirmishes, conducted marches everywhere, gathered supplies, conducted scouting and ambushes, the list goes on. He only fought when there was a clear reason to.
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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Quote Originally Posted by Akrotatos View Post
    What I can't understand was what exactly an army did when not fighting battles? What did Hannibal do those 14 years? I can't picture it in my head
    They tried to counter the Romans' Fabian (anti-logistics) strategy. To simplify and put it in modern terms, Hannibal was fighting a guerrilla war - trying to reduce the Romans' power base through capturing cities and laying waste to their lands, prevent his own Italian allies from being attacked, and maintain his army in fighting shape. The Romans were frustrating his army's supplies, attacking their supporters, and preventing Hannibal from receiving reinforcements. When the Romans attacked Hannibal's own power base in Iberia, he was done for. A textbook example of a war won mostly regardless of set piece battles - Scipio could have lost at Zama and still won the war, because Hannibal was out of Italy and out of Iberia, his army scattered and his main hinterland entirely in Roman hands. The Romans' defeat of Hasdrubal can't really be called a set piece battle, more of an ambush - very much in lone with their strategy of destroying isolated detachments and logistical elements.
    Last edited by Blatta Optima Maxima; February 17, 2013 at 11:12 PM.

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    ray243's Avatar Equites
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I think a large part of why we and the western world glorify pitched battle is a result of our western historical tradition. Herodotus and subsequent ancient historians often reduce wars to a series of pitched battles, thus making us understand ancient warfare as nothing more than two armies clashing against each other at a designated place.

    If we look at the east Asian historical tradition, you will notice pitched battles were rarely mentioned in detail by historians.

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I think pitched battles are underestimated in our contemporary warfare for the sake of raids and small scale attacks
    Verdun. Rzhev offensives. Stalingrad. Kursk. What do these have in common? They're all cases of primary-level forces engaging opposing primary forces, and they all ended in heavy casualties for the instigator, with only one resulting in a major strategic decision, and even then at the expense of quite monstrous losses.

    Add to that the fact that hardly anyone even considers engaging in such an all-out contest when there's a lack of a strategic position to be gained as a serious course of action anymore, precisely for that reason - it's very risky, and if there's no object that can be immediately exploited, it's simply not worth it.
    Last edited by Blatta Optima Maxima; February 18, 2013 at 06:08 AM.

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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Would an ancient Roman and Greek view the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk as a pitched battle? The scale and length of the battle in the modern era is so much bigger and longer than any ancient pitched battle.

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Quote Originally Posted by ray243 View Post
    Would an ancient Roman and Greek view the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk as a pitched battle? The scale and length of the battle in the modern era is so much bigger and longer than any ancient pitched battle.
    The scale of modern warfare is such that any "battle" consists of a multitude of skirmishes and sieges in itself. But if we view it from a strategic point of view, it's about committing your main [mobile] force against the enemy's directly.

    On a different note, perhaps I should somewhat elaborate on my view of what a pitched battle is and what isn't. The battle of Crecy is a clear example of one - the English took up a position, dug in, and then the French caught up, deployed and engaged it directly. Yet Patay is not really a pitched battle - the English were retreating from Beaugency, but their rearguard units got destroyed by the French cavalry forces in pursuit, and then the English were attacked and massacred while trying to deploy in a position of neither's choosing. In the first case we see the main forces of both sides in a direct contest, in the second case we see the unforseen destruction of a force in retreat from a strategic defeat.
    Last edited by Blatta Optima Maxima; February 18, 2013 at 08:53 AM.

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    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar Sixth Heaven Demon Lord
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    @Blatta, yeah it really depends on the strategic situation. In terms of actual battles then one could assume that it could just result in a costly strategic stalemate, which is why positioning and maneuvre is more important than the battle itself. The battle is just a means to defeat an enemy army and gain a strategic goal but for that to happen it depends on how total a victory would be (if indeed one's forces even succeed).
    Our contemporary warfare is mostly made up by costly battles that do nothing for the strategic initiative, but some opportunites should not be missed if indeed a battle is winnable and can give you some strategic gains. I can think of a few examples of battles post World War 2 which actually changed the course of a war and even some missed opportunities.

    @ray, what always bothered me so much is how the hell is there a "Battle of France", it's like military operations (made up by multiple battles) and large pitched battles themselves have simply become one thing. Most common people, for example, cannot even tell the difference between battles and wars and strategy and tactics, and I think that things like "The Battle of France" adds to the confusion.

    Chinese warfare seems to be dominated mostly by strategy and very few battles are actually given very much coverage as there were many pitched battles with amazing tactics. But if you look at the Three Kingdoms, their warfare is very similar to our contemporary style in strategy and almost the scale as well. Battles like Guandu sort of seem more like Stalingrad (as there were no majority of troops from both armies actually facing eachother at one time) Guandu was actually sending mobile units to strategic positions around the city and attempting to gain an advantage by facing other mobile units. It was only ever at the end when Yuan Shao was beginning to lose that both forces fought eachother in their entirety and Yuan Shao at that point had not put up much of a fight.
    Last edited by Lord Oda Nobunaga; February 18, 2013 at 08:54 AM.

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    The battle is just a means to defeat an enemy army and gain a strategic goal
    Note the stressed part. A pitched battle is just one of the means of defeating an enemy army. A far more common form was destroying/forcing them outside an area by means of attacking their logistics and bases of operation, aka raids, skirmishes and sieges. But yes, battles also tend to happen when a field force is cornered, as means of disposing of it - even though they're not always what we'd call a set-piece or pitched battle. Still, in such a case they really don't decide the outcome, and thus still shouldn't be the focus of attention.

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    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar Sixth Heaven Demon Lord
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I think I see what you're getting at. But an example of something like that woul be the Ulm Campaign which although not one pitched battle it still destroyed the enemy army and allowed Napoleon to capture Vienna with no opposition. So while Mack's army was not exactly cornered before Ulm occured, Napoleon was able to wipe them out and continue advancing. So a battle does not have to happen to destroy a cornered enemy or a threat on your flanks but it can be used quite effectively so that one can simply wipe them out and advance to continue the campaign (in that example advance upon Vienna).

    I'm not exactly sure what you mean "the focus of attention". Are you saying that battles are usually publicized as the main reason for winning a war? Or are you saying that battles are altogether useless and should be discarded and that pitched battles should be removed from warfare?

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    I'm not exactly sure what you mean "the focus of attention". Are you saying that battles are usually publicized as the main reason for winning a war?
    More like this. If you read the OP, you'd see my gripe is with historians seeing warfare as pretty much pitched-battles-only and all the rest being "unimportant", "uninteresting", "indecisive", "supporting/preparations/mopping up", etc.

    P.S. I never said I think the "Battle of France" is a pitched battle.

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    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar Sixth Heaven Demon Lord
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    Default Re: Pitched battles

    Huh? I never said that, I said that why is there a "Battle of France" when it was really multiple battles, shouldn't it be the France Campaign or something instead of the "Battle of France". Then I explained that many people (such as myself when I started reading on this) cannot understand the difference between a war or campaign and a battle which may add to the misunderstanding of things like the "Battle of France" or the Gulf war as one battle.

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