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Thread: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

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    The Spaniard's Avatar Civis
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    Default Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    What purpose did the echelon formation serve in ancient battles? I understand the concept of an oblique order, wherein one flank is more heavily reinforced than the other.

    To help illustrate my example, here is an oblique order formation.

    Assuming an army in this period deployed their line with equal distribution of soldiers abreast, what advantage does this formation serve?

    Is the intent to force the opposing line to march further in order to flank the part of the line that is placed further to the rear?

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    I don't think Alexander used echelon, and the diagram doesn't seem to match the description Arrian gives of Gaugemala. For a start Alexander shifted his entire line to the right: in the diagram it appears the two armies are still facing one another as they were at the start of the battle.

    Echelon is used to advanced discrete formations in a stepped of staggered order so the trailing units cover one flank of the unit in front. This work well in 18th century warfare as musket/bayonet armed lines of infantry could advance and reduce the risk of a flank attack/countercharge.

    The Romans certainly appear to have used a "chequerboard" formation which functioned similarly to echelon: wide gaps between units were "covered " by the second and third lines.

    Oblique order of battle is where one army alters its entire axis so its line is not parallel to the enemy, allowing a smaller force to bring its entire line to bear on a portion of a larger force's line.

    Gaugemela seems to be an excellent example of an oblique order of battle: Alexander dislocates Darius' entire line (seemingly bypassing his elephants) by radically shifting right. Arrian does describe a second line behind Alexander's front, but this was not an echelon formation in the classic sense or even a Roman quincunx, rather an insurance policy against encirclement.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by The Spaniard View Post
    What purpose did the echelon formation serve in ancient battles? I understand the concept of an oblique order, wherein one flank is more heavily reinforced than the other.

    To help illustrate my example, here is an oblique order formation.

    Assuming an army in this period deployed their line with equal distribution of soldiers abreast, what advantage does this formation serve?

    I think adding names leads to the wrong conclusion. First the Thebans were famous for using an 'Oblique formation' much to the detriment of their buddies since it often meant that were left vulnerable to flanking.

    The value is if your whole army is on message and you are sheltering the guys you trust least to stand to the bitter end than picking a spot to hit with you best can work. Assuming you win where the concentrated attack happens and after that you or your mates have presence of mind to exploit your local victory before the 3rd tier guys bail or are defeated.

    The first link is problematical since historically you don't get the luxury of both having a heavy flank and not shorting some part of your line. Re Thebes - ask the Thespians and Athens how that works out and who is left holding the bag not Thebes
    Last edited by conon394; October 02, 2019 at 07:49 PM.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    The Thebans famously deployed their stronger element (their citizen and elite phalanx deployed many times deeper than usual) on the left in one battle at Leuctra, is that described as oblique? Its not really, its just reversing the usual placement in the battle line. Oblique refers to angle of approach, not depth of line.

    IIRC Epaminondas advanced his left to contact in advance of the rest of his line, this is may be an example of echelon but not really in the way echelon was employed in 18th century warfare or in the Roman quincunx. It was a straight rush as he saw the Spartans attempting a redeployment on the field. It was a crazy move by the Spartans, to attempt a redeployment in the presence of the enemy but clearly Epaminondas' reversed line threw them badly.

    Full marks to the Thebans, for jumping the best disciplined infantry in the world at that time, and maintaining their own order with a rush to contact by an extra deep phalanx: I imagine it would have been very easy to stumble into disorderly contact. The Spartan machine was in its happy place when a ss of disordered infantry pushed on the Laconian line.

    Ditto Alexanders play at Gaugamela: he was on the field facing a foe with vast cavalry superiority and he rushed his line forward at an angle, textbook oblique advance that dislocated Darius carefully (and I'd argue quite effectively) deployed line. His whole army operated as a unit, but it had to. If the formation broke up the enemy cav was there to slice and dice, and in any event the disparity in numbers meant an envelopment was inevitable if the battle was not won quickly. Alexander's second line gave him a little more time while making the double envelopment a certainty (it shortened his already outnumbered line by up to half).

    Deployment and/or advance in echelon can be part of an oblique deployment but the two are not identical. They also have typical (albeit not exclusive) contexts, the OOB being a very Frederickan ploy, and advance in echelon being a typical horse-and-musket play.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by The Spaniard View Post
    What purpose did the echelon formation serve in ancient battles? I understand the concept of an oblique order, wherein one flank is more heavily reinforced than the other.

    To help illustrate my example, here is an oblique order formation.

    Assuming an army in this period deployed their line with equal distribution of soldiers abreast, what advantage does this formation serve?

    Is the intent to force the opposing line to march further in order to flank the part of the line that is placed further to the rear?
    The purpose of the oblique order is to reject attack along the entire front for both you and your opponent. A slanted axis means only a portion of your line will make initial contact with the enemy. Its main advantage then is that it allows you to hit a portion of the enemy line without exposing either your flanks or committing the bulk of your army. On the defense, it allows your units not engaged to act like a reserve.

    Frederick the Great describes attack in the oblique order below:

    "Doubtless you will have noticed that the constant principle I follow in all my attacks is to refuse one wing or engage only a detachment of the army with the enemy. ... This disposition gives me the advantage of risking only as many troops as may seem appropriate, and if I notice some physical or moral obstacle in my way I am free to abandon my plan, pull back the columns of my attack into my lines, and withdraw my army, placing it always under the protection of my artillery until beyond the range of enemy fire. The wing that has been nearest the enemy then falls back behind my refused wing, enabling the latter to support and cover me when I am defeated. If then I defeat the enemy, this method enables me to achieve a more brilliant victory; if I am defeated, it reduces my losses considerably." [1]

    [1]http://www.hisentco.com/Downloads/ObliqueOrder.pdf
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    This work well in 18th century warfare as musket/bayonet armed lines of infantry could advance and reduce the risk of a flank attack/countercharge.
    I thought it was standard formation for Tercio since late 16th Century?
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dick Cheney. View Post
    The purpose of the oblique order is to reject attack along the entire front for both you and your opponent. A slanted axis means only a portion of your line will make initial contact with the enemy. Its main advantage then is that it allows you to hit a portion of the enemy line without exposing either your flanks or committing the bulk of your army. On the defense, it allows your units not engaged to act like a reserve.

    Frederick the Great describes attack in the oblique order below:

    "Doubtless you will have noticed that the constant principle I follow in all my attacks is to refuse one wing or engage only a detachment of the army with the enemy. ... This disposition gives me the advantage of risking only as many troops as may seem appropriate, and if I notice some physical or moral obstacle in my way I am free to abandon my plan, pull back the columns of my attack into my lines, and withdraw my army, placing it always under the protection of my artillery until beyond the range of enemy fire. The wing that has been nearest the enemy then falls back behind my refused wing, enabling the latter to support and cover me when I am defeated. If then I defeat the enemy, this method enables me to achieve a more brilliant victory; if I am defeated, it reduces my losses considerably." [1]

    [1]http://www.hisentco.com/Downloads/ObliqueOrder.pdf
    So if I understand this correctly, the advantages of an echelon (or oblique attack, which is the same thing) are:

    1. You don't have to commit your all your troops attacking all at once. The leading wings will engage the enemy first

    2. The lagging wings can act like a reserve, and can be used to reinforce fhr wing that is engaged or used to help cover the retreats.

    Seems some useful advantages. But there must have been disadvantages as well, otherwise I'd would have been used all the time..

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    So if I understand this correctly, the advantages of an echelon (or oblique attack, which is the same thing) are:

    1. You don't have to commit your all your troops attacking all at once. The leading wings will engage the enemy first

    2. The lagging wings can act like a reserve, and can be used to reinforce fhr wing that is engaged or used to help cover the retreats.

    Seems some useful advantages. But there must have been disadvantages as well, otherwise I'd would have been used all the time..
    Oblique attack and echelon are different things, or rather, oblique attack is a special case of echelon.

    Anyway, there are disadvantages indeed. The lagging wing is presumably composed of the worst troops in army, and in echelon it acts more as an "army in being", tying up the enemy resources by their presence, rather than actions. Being removed from the thick of battle both by distance and morale, they are slow to bring into any offensive action, making them unavailable for rapid envelopment at their flank or act as actual reinforcements in case things turn out sour at the leading flank. Enemy with good command structure (e.g. Alexander's army) could take advantage of this by shortening the line and hammering the center to split the line, or envelop and quickly destroy the leading flank.

    In short, echelon is a gamble about enemy's reaction time and capability. Refusing battle on one flank means the enemy is, if reacting quickly enough, free to utilize the troops that would face the lagging wing elsewhere. Don't forget that communications or even gaining the clear picture of battle was a difficult task before radio.

    By the way, OP was asking about antiquity. Things were different at Frederick's time, with artillery capable of controlling sections of battlefield over considerable range.

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    @Common Solider
    Sar1n got here before I did. He does a better job then I do, but below is my two cents.

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    So if I understand this correctly, the advantages of an echelon (or oblique attack, which is the same thing) are:

    1. You don't have to commit your all your troops attacking all at once. The leading wings will engage the enemy first

    2. The lagging wings can act like a reserve, and can be used to reinforce fhr wing that is engaged or used to help cover the retreats.

    Seems some useful advantages. But there must have been disadvantages as well, otherwise I'd would have been used all the time..
    I don’t think a slanted line is always synonymous with a flank attack (which is an oblique attack). While I’m not as versed in my definitions here as I would like, the general consensus -I believe- is oblique order is an order of battle – the arrangement of troops prior to battle. An oblique attack can be made in the oblique order (slanted axis), but it can also be made with an uneven distribution of troops (such as in the OP’s diagram).

    Regardless, there are certainly major problems with slanted battle lines and oblique attacks in general. Some case studies are Guagamela, Assaye, and Breitenfeld.

    But just looking at Gaugamela…

    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 


    Rejecting attack along all fronts in favor of a small portion of the enemy line assumes the enemy is weak at point of contact. Furthermore, going all in (whether en mass or with a suicidal cavalry charge, i.e. Alexander) also draws unevenly away from the rest of the battle line. Which ends up looking like this:





    More than anything brilliant then, I’d argue that Gaugamela was a doubtful race against time. Alexander went all in with his right but refused his left. He assumed he could get to Darius, he assumed freedom of action, he assumed his troops were superior and more capable of executing maneuvers, and he assumed speed, spacing, and initiative alone could negate enemy contact on his left long enough to procure victory.

    In short, Gaugamela was always a gamble from the very beginning. An oblique line offered a chance to negate numbers, but its overemphasis on attack (and avoidance with enemy contact) also rolled the dice.
    Last edited by Dick Cheney.; October 07, 2019 at 07:27 AM.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dick Cheney. View Post
    More than anything brilliant then, I’d argue that Gaugamela was a doubtful race against time. Alexander went all in with his right but refused his left. He assumed he could get to Darius, he assumed freedom of action, he assumed his troops were superior and more capable of executing maneuvers, and he assumed speed, spacing, and initiative alone could negate enemy contact on his left long enough to procure victory.
    I think his assumption was based on Persian rarely used their infantry units in active operation yet occupied bulk of their army. Both Issus and Gaugamela were specifically targeting the infantry bulk of Persian army.
    Last edited by hellheaven1987; October 06, 2019 at 02:34 PM.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Re: counters to echelon, a stiff counter attack has a chance of defeating advancing units in detail. The counter to an oblique attack is a refusal or declining the flank, a realignment of the defensive line so it is no longer met obliquely.

    This si of course not definitive. Military tactics are not rock/paper/scissors, but games like Empires in Arms do attempt to replicate the tactical options of 18th/19th century commanders through complex tables where attacking and defensive options are matched (eg a probing attack into an escalated counterattack is bad for the attacker: an echelon attack into a standard linear defense goes well for the attacker).

    Just stress the pont again, oblique attacks are not the same as attacks en echelon.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    Re: counters to echelon, a stiff counter attack has a chance of defeating advancing units in detail. The counter to an oblique attack is a refusal or declining the flank, a realignment of the defensive line so it is no longer met obliquely.

    This si of course not definitive. Military tactics are not rock/paper/scissors, but games like Empires in Arms do attempt to replicate the tactical options of 18th/19th century commanders through complex tables where attacking and defensive options are matched (eg a probing attack into an escalated counterattack is bad for the attacker: an echelon attack into a standard linear defense goes well for the attacker).

    Just stress the pont again, oblique attacks are not the same as attacks en echelon.
    I am still not sure what the difference between an oblique attack and attacks en enchelon. If you could explains the specific differences that would be most helpful.
    Last edited by Common Soldier; October 16, 2019 at 11:41 AM. Reason: typos

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    I am.sti not sure what the difference between an oblique attack and attacks en enchelon. If youncould explains the specific differences that would be most helpful.
    Echelon comes from a French word meaning ladder. This is confusing as the formation more closely resembles steps.

    Like so:
    ............===
    ......===.......
    === ...............(sorry about the formatting, ... is empty space and === are a line of troops))
    ========= (static linear defender)

    To use this tactic you have to have discrete units as part of your battle line (eg a maniple in the Marian Roman army, or a regiment in an 18th century army) capable of detaching themselves and maintaining fixed distances as they manoeuvre.

    This formation is really only practicable for a well trained and tactically flexible force. The typical hoplite phalanx was probably not able to use it, although the Spartans apparently could manoeuvre by rank and file (the rank is the line of men from left to right of the phalanx, the file is the line from the front to the back of the phalanx) so possibly they could.

    Each discrete section of the line detaches and advances in the "stepped" or echelon formation. Each element will encounter the opposition line separately: as mentioned above you could allow an elite portion of you line to contact the enemy line while holding a less robust formation back: this "held back" portion of the line still threatens the enemy line and can rush forward to assist the engaged portion.

    Oblique is also a French term, ultimately from Latin, meaning askew "not parallel". An oblique formation is one not parallel to the enemy's battle line, like so:

    ...// (nominally oblique attacker)
    ..//
    .//
    ...====== (nominally linear defender)

    The difference is an echelon formation is about the way a group of units advances, the oblique OOB is about the position of one entire army relative to the other army's entire position.

    Usually we describe the attacker as employing the oblique advance (or oblique order of battle or oblique deployment or oblique manoeuvre) but a defender might quickly alter their position to present an oblique front to a linear attacker.

    Classically the oblique advance was used by Frederick the Great to crash into his slower enemy's line, especially the flank, by rapidly tilting his battle line: a lot of force would be brought to bear on that one flank and the rapidity of his (usually smaller but superbly mobile) army meant he could destroy part of the enemy army before the rest could be brought to bear.

    The oblique formation or order of battle relied on rapid movement and discipline and is arguably harder to use effectively in the face of the enemy. unless your force was faster they could counter your move to advance obliquely by withdrawing or advancing themselves.

    The two can be used together. A general could advance his line by echelon and then have the units "tilt" so they formed a new oblique line. Alternately a rapid deployment to advance on a slower army obliquely could then be carried out by echelon, so one part of the attacking line engaged the enemy line in advance of the rest which could stand in support or follow up if the enemy line thinned or bowed.

    Echelon is about the arrangement of your own units (into a stepped formation) to apply pressure selectively, whereas oblique deployments were about the relative arrangements of both armies.
    Last edited by Cyclops; October 07, 2019 at 11:37 PM.
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Battle of Breitenfeld is probably the classic example of assault using echelon formation, although it went terribly wrong for Catholic force.
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    The Spaniard's Avatar Civis
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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Everyone's posts have helped to make this more clear. I thank you all. Would using a echelon formation be useful in a defensive position? Would it force the enemy to cover more distance to reach your flank? Can that be labeled as refusing one flank?

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by The Spaniard View Post
    Everyone's posts have helped to make this more clear. I thank you all. Would using a echelon formation be useful in a defensive position? Would it force the enemy to cover more distance to reach your flank? Can that be labeled as refusing one flank?
    For defense, I think an echelon would not be as good. An attacking enemy could concentrate their forces on the forward units of the echelon, engulfing them and destroying the defense in piecemeal. For the lagging parts of the echelon, to defend the forward units being destroyed, they would need to leave their defensive positions, making them vulnerable.
    Last edited by Common Soldier; October 16, 2019 at 11:05 AM. Reason: typo correction.

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    Default Re: Purpose of Echelon Formation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    For defense, I think an echelon would not be as good. An attacking enemy could concentrate their forces on the forward units ofnrhr echelon, engulfing them and destroying the defense in piecemeal. For rhe lagging parts of the echelon, to defend the forward units being destroyed, they would need ronleave their defensive positions, making them vulnerable.
    Yeah that makes a lot of sense.

    The Romans used their quicunx formation both defensively and offensively, and it has some similarities to echelon, but its about manoeuvreing seperate elements into 9and out of) contact at the commander's choice.

    As the echelon allows a force to come to contact in "steps", a static defence obviates this as you say because the attacker could engage each step in turn. One might counter-attack in echelon, but typically its an attacking formation.

    Just another point on oblique advances, the term has many meanings. Aside from the relative alignment of battle lines, it can also describe the direction of advance. An oblique advance goes diagonally forward, as with Alexander's force at Gaugamela.
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