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Thread: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    (Mainly focusing on historiography of the pre-medieval period, but later subjects are not out of question)

    Continuing in my series of contrarian-ish attacks on the perceptions about warfare in much of modern mainstream historiography and popular perceptions, I've got something to say about organization. You see a lot of historians, particularly where antiquity is concerned and even on this very board, go into great detail when describing the structure of units by precise numbers and theoretical battlefield formations.

    Now, as I've already established, battlefield formations are hardly the most important thing about a unit, due to the relative rarity of such set-piece engagements - and hardly a topic worth spilling endless words over. The other factor, seen as the defining characteristic of a unit by many historians of a purely philological background, is its size, in numbers of men. Just how far from truth it actually is can be seen just by looking at something right in front of our noses - modern armies and early-modern ones. Units are more often far under their theoretical strength than not, and sometimes there is no such thing as theoretical strength for some levels of organization. So units are neither about their numbers, or the way they are arrayed on the battlefield. What the hell are they defined by, then? The answer couldn't be simpler - their role.

    By looking at armies throughout history, a pattern can be discerned - the distinction between various levels of command, namely, the individual, the tactical (generally on a couple of levels), the operational and the strategic, as well as the distinction between units primarily administrative and primarily tactical in nature. In many cases, there might be strong parallels with modern organization, even if there is quite a bit of overlap due to the notable difference in size. Still, the point stands: a unit is defined by its purpose, not the details of its operation and strength.

    The typical organizational tropes, with modern names:
    -The squad: a small group of men, usually composed at the gathering of a larger element, but sometimes pre-composed, which is more or less indivisible, together in all deployments, tasks and mundane life.
    -The regiment: a unit that hugely varies in size, and forms the administrative building block of an army, rather than a sub-division. It might also double as a tactical unit in some cases.
    -The battalion/brigade: the basic large-scale tactical unit. Formed by dividing administrative units (battalion) or grouping them/tactical detachments of such (brigade). Both can also be the regiment at the same time.
    -The company: an administrative sub-unit of the regiment.
    -The platoon: a tactical sub-unit of the battalion, sometimes (but rarely) brigade, used for low level command.
    -The division: an operational/administrative unit, formed by grouping numerous tactical/administrative units from the larger whole of an army, or alternatively acting similarly to a regiment, but on a scale large enough to potentially act as an operational level unit.
    -The corps: an operational/strategic, sometimes administrative unit, which is large enough to act with a great degree of autonomy, but still forms a part of a larger force and can act as part of it. Can be formed both as a group of smaller units with some common characteristics, or by detaching units from the larger whole. An ambiguous designation for anything that isn't modern.
    -The field army: the strategic and administrative whole that acts as an autonomous unit in the field, used to accomplish strategic goals. Can be permanent and ad hoc alike.


    Now, for an example, let's see the Roman mid-era army.
    -The squad = contubernium/decuria
    -The platoon/company = century/turma
    -The battalion = cohort/ala
    -The regiment/brigade = legion, auxiliary cohort, ala

    Larger units formed in a generally ad hoc manner.

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    Diocle's Avatar Centurio Primus Pilus
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Blatta Optima Maxima View Post
    Now, for an example, let's see the Roman mid-era army.
    -The squad = contubernium/decuria
    -The platoon/company = century/turma
    -The battalion = cohort/ala
    -The regiment/brigade = legion, auxiliary cohort, ala

    Larger units formed in a generally ad hoc manner.
    Yes, and then?

    Is it a matter of names? Are you applying modern names to the Ancient Roman Army?

    Or you are suggesting that the Legions, deployed in cohorts on the battlefield, never existed?

    Pompeius M is working on the Roman structure based not on cohort system but on smaller units.....

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    Marcus Aemilius Lepidus's Avatar Pili Posterior
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    I also have problems to see the intention of this thread.

    Proud to be a real Prussian.

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    No, I'm trying to explain how a unit should be viewed according to its role. I keep seeing people, often the authors of Osprey books and posters on this site, go into needless detail over the numbers of men in units - viewing them as some sort of constant - as well as the formations they take up when deploying for a set-piece battle, instead of discussing their purpose.

    By applying modern names to historical organization, I tried to show how we can draw parallels between different systems due to the basic requirements of running an army being the same.
    Last edited by Blatta Optima Maxima; February 19, 2013 at 09:39 AM.

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    Dromikaites's Avatar Equites Alares
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Diocle View Post
    Yes, and then?

    Is it a matter of names? Are you applying modern names to the Ancient Roman Army?

    Or you are suggesting that the Legions, deployed in cohorts on the battlefield, never existed?

    Pompeius M is working on the Roman structure based not on cohort system but on smaller units.....
    I think he says one gets a better understanding of the military operations and battles if one understands the purpose behind various units.

    As in understanding the purpose of a decuria, century, cohort, etc in addition to knowing how many men would comprise each type of unit.

    I concur that numbers alone are many times misleading. For each type of mission there can be too few soldiers just like it could happen to be too many soldiers.

    For instance anybody wanting to go into the details of a Napoleonic campaign would need to understand the concepts behind battalion, regiment, division and corps. Without that it is very hard to figure out what happened beyond one-liners like "Napoleon was brilliant, his adversary were idiots" or "Wellington outsmarted Napoleon" etc.

    I am however very skeptical about our ability to truly understand what happened in battles and campaigns which happened before the 18th century. We lack both accurate records about almost everything and we also lack understanding about how people really fought.

    Unless re-enactors are willing to put their lives on the line, it's hard to figure out how a cavalry charge worked or how two pikemen units charged each other.
    Last edited by Dromikaites; February 19, 2013 at 10:16 AM. Reason: Expanding
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    Diocle's Avatar Centurio Primus Pilus
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    OK! Understood! Interesting topic!

    Can we start from your exemple? We are almost sure about the Contubernales, Archeology finds confirm the number of eight men.

    The centuriae, the maipula, were part of the cohort, and the cohort is quite a mysterious object: was it a permanent structure? Was the Legion deplyed in cohorts? Was the cohort also an administrative structure?

    What we know for sure is that during the II and more the III century, the vexillationes were splitted from the mother Legion, for campaign and practical uses, these vexillationes were composed by....one or more cohorts, that acted as indipendent units, until in the IV century they became new Legions.

    The Auxiliariy units were also organized in cohorts, and they did the dirty job of the everyday warfare during the low density conflicts on the borders of the Empire.

    Was the cohort (battalion) a permanent unit in the Roman warfare? My opinion is yes!

    The Romans utilized the battalion/Cohort as the basis of their warfare, the problem remains about the utilization of the cohorts during the main field engagements.

    This is the link to AoD forum in which Pompeius examine the problem, I've some doubts about his conclusions, but his knowledge is far superior to mine, so here the link:

    http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?t=514257
    Last edited by Diocle; February 19, 2013 at 10:03 AM.

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    Condottiere 40K's Avatar Tribunus Laticlavius
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    The military evolved from our need to carry out foreign policies through other means.

    It's a living organism that through warfare will organize itself in it's most efficient form, but tends to get bogged down in peacetime by administrators trying out their pet doctrinal theories, and/or retains the hierarchy of the previous conflict.
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    I fear this is an exhaustively large topic. For every vertical step we take, there are differences horizontally as well. It seems though it is already narrowed to Med/ ancient period. Is this the intention?

    ---




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    Holger Danske's Avatar Tribunus Augusticlavii
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    I don't get this thread...

    Have you ever been in a deployed military unit, btw?

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by PikeStance View Post
    I fear this is an exhaustively large topic. For every vertical step we take, there are differences horizontally as well. It seems though it is already narrowed to Med/ ancient period. Is this the intention?

    ---
    Yes. Read the bloody OP for once, people!

    Quote Originally Posted by Holger Danske
    Have you ever been in a deployed military unit, btw?
    Not yet; I intend to join the officer academy, though. But I bet this is just some appeal to authority coming up, so I don't think I'll be responding to you much. No, having been a grunt for a few years does not make an expert of military strategy, or history, or evolution, or anything. It just means you've experienced your current organization yourself.
    Last edited by Blatta Optima Maxima; February 19, 2013 at 12:27 PM.

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    hellheaven1987's Avatar Praefectus Cohortis
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Holger Danske View Post
    I don't get this thread...
    There is no point about this thread besides let OP rant about stuff we all know.
    Quote Originally Posted by Markas View Post
    Hellheaven, sometimes you remind me of King Canute trying to hold back the tide, except without the winning parable.
    Quote Originally Posted by O'Hea View Post
    The only reason why Charlemagne came into this at all is because Hellheaven thought it'd be a fun way to troll some byzantophiles.

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    Blatta Optima Maxima's Avatar Definitely banned
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by hellheaven1987 View Post
    There is no point about this thread besides let OP rant about stuff we all know.
    Not all. I have some specific members of the site in mind, but I won't mention any of them here.

    None of them post in the VV too regularly, so don't fear.

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    Diocle's Avatar Centurio Primus Pilus
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Holger Danske View Post
    I don't get this thread...

    Have you ever been in a deployed military unit, btw?
    Brigata Alpina Taurinense!



    About units I want to use another exemple from the Swedish Army of the XVII cent:

    The Erik Hand's Swedish Brigade of three Squadrons at Lutzen:

    Ostergotland Rgt.: 348 Pikes, 540 Muskets, 128 Officers
    Dalsland Rgt.: 168 Pikes, 282 Muskets, 64 Officers
    Vastergotland Rgt.: 120 Pikes, 240 Muskets, 128 Officers

    Tot.: 636 Pikes, 1062 Muskets, 320 Officers

    The Brigade and the Squadron were used only in the field, for the greater pitched battles, while the Regiment and the Companies were the permanent structures:

    The Swedish Squadron was modelled on the Dutch Batallion or Half-Regiment of four Companies.
    The Squadron was composed of 505 men plus Officers, Gustavus did try make the Squadron a permanent unit: as to say Half Regiment of four Companies.

    Infantry Regiment: Eight companies, each nominally of 150 men for a total of 1200 men, but from 1628 larger regiments started to appear, they were composed of 12 or even 16 companies. The Regiment was a permanent administrative unit.

    I quoted the Swedish army during the 30YW because the tactical unit more used in the field (the Swedish Squadron of four companies) didn't correspond to the permanent unit (the Regiment),nor to the greater Brigade used only for the pitched battles.

    The Squadron, was not a permanent structure but I think that it was the basis for the day to day low intensity warfare.


    I like this thread, really thanks Blatta!
    Last edited by Diocle; February 19, 2013 at 01:40 PM.

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    hellheaven1987's Avatar Praefectus Cohortis
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Historians enjoy to define the manpower of each unit is largely because a lot of time it is only method to determine number of men involved in a military campaign; that, however, does not mean the number is 100% correct, as some primary sources already emphasis the number of men per unit would/should never be fixed. For example, Byzantine Emperor Maurice, in his Strategikon, has stressed the point not to make the number of men in each unit standard; in fact, he actually pushes the idea to make number of men of each unit as different as possible and the creation of ghost units in order to prevent enemies to calculate out the actual amount of men that are deployed and deceive enemies the deployed location of troops.
    Quote Originally Posted by Markas View Post
    Hellheaven, sometimes you remind me of King Canute trying to hold back the tide, except without the winning parable.
    Quote Originally Posted by O'Hea View Post
    The only reason why Charlemagne came into this at all is because Hellheaven thought it'd be a fun way to troll some byzantophiles.

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    Condottiere 40K's Avatar Tribunus Laticlavius
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    True, but such deception tends to stem from a position of weakness.
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    hellheaven1987's Avatar Praefectus Cohortis
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    True, but such deception tends to stem from a position of weakness.
    It is, but lets be honest war would not even happen if one side realizes they have no chance of winning at start.
    Quote Originally Posted by Markas View Post
    Hellheaven, sometimes you remind me of King Canute trying to hold back the tide, except without the winning parable.
    Quote Originally Posted by O'Hea View Post
    The only reason why Charlemagne came into this at all is because Hellheaven thought it'd be a fun way to troll some byzantophiles.

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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    I think we have a modern military tradition with squads/platoons/regiments/battalions/brigades/divisions/corps but thats an evolving one. At times the battalion was a combat formation composed of two brigades. regiments have been operational units or purely administrative units not reflected in battlefield formations. The OP gives pretty flexible definitions and there's heaps of overlap.

    I don't believe this system bears any relation to the hoplite or pike phalanx armies of antiquity, where a single mass of men was deployed en bloc, suggesting a unit equivalent of company, platoon or squad level is not present.

    The Camillan, Scipionic and Marian forms of the Roman army were different in their composition and ability to break down into effective sub units.

    I can't speak authoritively about Keltic or Germanic force composition but I imagine they were groups of warriors organised around chiefs and charismatic warriors, each gaggle of men varying in size dramatically. Forces were derived from differing institutions: A French King might have proffessional household troops, a mercenary company, the retinue of a feudal liegeman and a levy of peasants in his army, and its quite possible they embodied distinct systems of unit organisation.

    I think these unit names represent a bunch of traditions (they're not consistent across meodern military traditions let alone the bizarre array of past ones) anmd have a 'perfect world" quality noit seen on the battlefield. Has an army ever entered the battlefield at ration strength? The vast array of differing methods of recruitment (conscription, volunteer, slave, inherited, poress ganged) service type (contract, proffesional, obligatory, vocational) training (in a school, in a monastic institution, in regular tribal exercises), level of discipline and weapon systems means (I think) that there's no universal concepts in force organisation beyond the blandest generalisations.
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    hellheaven1987's Avatar Praefectus Cohortis
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    I don't believe this system bears any relation to the hoplite or pike phalanx armies of antiquity, where a single mass of men was deployed en bloc, suggesting a unit equivalent of company, platoon or squad level is not present.
    Hardly; at least for Macedon phalanx the smallest tactical unit is syntagma, with its own full officer corp.
    Quote Originally Posted by Markas View Post
    Hellheaven, sometimes you remind me of King Canute trying to hold back the tide, except without the winning parable.
    Quote Originally Posted by O'Hea View Post
    The only reason why Charlemagne came into this at all is because Hellheaven thought it'd be a fun way to troll some byzantophiles.

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    Condottiere 40K's Avatar Tribunus Laticlavius
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    One reason that may be overlooked regarding the advantages of an organized hierarchy are salaries.
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    AUSSIE11's Avatar Shisai
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    Default Re: The nature of military organization: units are not about the numbers, or formations

    The OP's main beef, as far as i can tell, is with peoples claiming that, to give an apocriphal example, "Because Commander A's battalion met and defeated Commander B's Battalion and both units are the same size, then obviously D'Erlon was a better commander and/or his troops better!" Ignoring the fact that within the exingensies of war both units could be of dramatically different size or composition, and that's assuming that the two armies had a comparable definition of battalion to begin with!

    I think also that some consideration should be given to the difference between so called Strategic, Tactical and administrative units. yet again these can vary greatly as in the modern army almost every unit between company and division can be defined as both Tactical, and in some cases Strategic.

    As for giving your units wierd and wonderful names and making them different strengths for the purposes of deception, isn't that only logic on many scales? an example is the Special Air Service, originally only compay size they were given the "service" title more for deception than any other purpose.
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