Stay the course

Stay the Course

Sun Tzu and Terence McSwiney agree on this point.  It is not the side that can inflict the most, but those who can endure the most who will conquer.  It is a constant source of argument in military theory:  which side suffers most casualties; winners or losers?

In ancient Greece when battles were decided head to head on the field by two infantry armies it was accepted that the winning side often lost the most men.  By the time one side broke the winning side was so exhausted they were in no fit state to give chase.

This dynamic changed dramatically with the introduction of cavalry.  No horse alive will charge a well formed phalanx, but a routed enemy is manna to the cavalryman.  Any enemy who could not retire from the field in good order was sabre fodder.

The dynamic changed again with the introduction of artillery, especially mobile horse artillery, to the battlefield.  A solid infantry square was safe against marauding cavalry, but sitting ducks for artillery.  Dispersing to avoid the cannon fire opens your lines to the cavalry.  The Napoleonic wars were choreographed by the interplay between infantry, cavalry and artillery.

With the development of the rifle musket in the 1850’s the dynamic changed again.  The effective rifle range switched overnight from 3/4 rounds per minute at around 50 yards to 5/6 rounds per minute at 1,000 yards range.  The days of bright coloured lines of infantry standing toe to toe on the open field were over.  The US Civil War demonstrated that in such circumstances a defensive force with prepared earthworks could wreak havoc on forces attacking over open ground.

In WW1 the Western Front signaled the death of the horse on the battlefield.  The swan song of the horse in modern warfare was probably the charge of the Australian Mounted Infantry on Turkish Positions in Palestine.

Then at the end of the First World War the tiny forces of the IRA fought the all conquering British Army and Militarized Police to a standstill in Ireland, by enduring the most.

By the end of the Second World War it appeared that the infantryman with his rifle was almost redundant in a world of fighters, bombers, A-bombs, Aircraft Carriers and attack helicopters.  And then there was Vietnam when the people demonstrated again that it is the side that can endure the most who will conquer.  Despite overwhelming superiority of the USA in kill ratio and military technology they still lost.

Given the lack of appetite of the American people for losses in war raises many questions for the presence of US forces in far off battlefields like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or Somalia.  If you are prepared to quit, don’t start.

 

Don’t Quit; by John Greenleaf Whittier
When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
when the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
when the funds are low and the debts are high
and you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
when care is pressing you down a bit,
rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is strange with its twists and turns
as every one of us sometimes learns
and many a failure comes about
when he might have won had he stuck it out;
don’t give up though the pace seems slow —
you may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out —
the silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
and you never can tell just how close you are,
it may be near when it seems so far;
so stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit —
it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit

The death of Sparta

300_spartans

In 371 BC, on the 6th of July, the Spartan army lost the battle of Leuctra.  In the process they lost their dominance as a land army and lost the myth of the unbeatable army which had lasted since the defense to the death at Thermopylae in 480 BC and the defeat of Persia at Platea in 479 BC.

A loss in battle 100 years before was not a death knell for Sparta, so what went so wrong in 371 BC?  To answer that you must understand the economics of the Spartan system.

Spartan boys were taken from their homes as children and raised in barracks as soldiers.  Each soldier was maintained in his position as a military professional by his estate.  The estates, large farms, were worked by slaves and the Spartan system was entirely reliant upon the goodwill of slaves to function.  Initially there were a large number of small estates.  Over time estates became larger and the number of soldier citizens diminished.  At the time of the battle of Platea the Helots were said to outnumber the Spartans by 7 to 1.

At any given time Sparta could only field about 5,000 elite troops.  These ‘special forces’ relied on lesser trained allies and even slave soldiers to supply weight of numbers.  The Spartan elite were the greatest and best trained soldiers in the world in their day.  On the battlefield they were marked by their red cloaks and their silent drill.  While other armies roared and sang and shouted the Spartans advanced in a silent wall of death.

Because there were so few elite Spartans, any serious loss of their numbers could have serious repercussions.  There were simply not enough estates and enough slaves to support a larger Spartan elite.  They tried to bridge this manpower gap by according a special elevated status to the sons of Spartans born to Helot mothers.  These boys could serve as middle level administrators and auxiliary soldiers.  But they could never rise to the rank of soldier citizen.

The nature of Greek warfare also helped to underscore the immortality of the Spartans.  Greek heavy infantry fought in a phalanx, a tightly packed line of spear men, ten to twelve ranks deep.  Your own shield, the great round pylon, protected your left hand side.  For protection on the right you relied on the shield of your neighbor.  The hoplites tended to lean in to the right to stay protected by their neighbors shield.  As a result there was a tendency for the phalanx to move gradually to the right.  To prevent this impetus armies would put their best trained and most veteran troops on the right flank.  This was the place of honour.  These troops would stand firm and prevent right hand drift.

In any battle with allies, the Spartan elite held the right flank.  This meant that they were facing the weak flank of their enemy.  The success of the Spartan elite was continually reinforced by facing them against weak foes.

The Theban general, Epaminondas, introduced three ground breaking innovations to the Greek way of war.  Firstly he placed his strongest troops in the left flank, directly facing the Spartans.  Secondly he arranged them in a phalanx 50 lines deep.  This provided an irresistible weight of numbers against the Spartan phalanx of only 12 deep.  Finally, he organised his remaining troops in echelon instead of phalanx.  They formed a series of blocks stepped further and further away from the Spartan line.  This denied the Spartan left flank contact with the weaker right flank of the Thebans.

At Leuctra the Spartan elite were smashed.  They lost between 1,000 and 4,000 troops.  The important thing is that most of the losses were elite Spartan troops instead of allies and slave soldiers.  These were irreplaceable Spartan Citizen soldiers, the product of 20 years of training.

Leuctra also shattered the illusion of invincibility of the Spartan troops.  The spell was broken, and the economic system was broken.  Sparta declined and became a bucolic backwater and an economic dead end.

At the same time, in the north, Philip of Macedon paid close attention to the Theban tactics.  The oblique line and the massed wedge became a trademark of the Macedonian war machine, and enabled Alexander to conquer the world.

Epitaph of Simonides at Thermopylae:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passes by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Salamis

trireme

Sept 22nd 480 BC the allied fleet of the southern Greek city states defeated the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. It was an unlikely victory, and one that stopped the Persian invasion in its tracks.
Up to this point the Greeks were in full retreat. Glorious as the 300 Spartans under Leonidas were at Thermopylae the Greeks were defeated on both land and sea.

Athens lay next in the path of the enormous army under Xerxes. When the Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi they were advised, in highly vague terms as usual, to retreat behind their wooden walls. Athenian power came from their fleet, so they believed that this meant they should abandon the marble city and sail away. The Persians sacked Athens on the 21st of Sept. Next day the two sides fought a naval engagement; the battle of Salamis.

The victory by the Greek allies (half the fleet was Athenian) severely damaged the ability of the Persians to maintain their invasion. The Persians had no fleet themselves. They relied upon the fleets of the Asian greek states under their vasselage as well as the Phonecians. The clash at Salamis did little numerical damage to the Persian fleet, but it was a tactical disaster. The ships they lost were the “fast ships”. These were the bronze beaked war triremes. They served a similar role in ancient fleets to Destroyers on convoy duty during the Atlantic war in WW2. They protected the slow moving cargo vessels from enemy attack.

Once the Greeks had eliminated the Persian triremes, the sea was open to them. Capturing Persian transports was like shooting fish in a barrel. Also, the Triremes carried the best and the brightest of the strategists, navigators, rowing crews and sailors. The Persians were unable to replace these ships and men in the time needed to complete their invasion.

It is perhaps no surprise that Xerxes took this opportunity to remove himself from the campaign, and returned to Persia leaving Mardonius in charge.

According to the history books the Greeks did not immediately attack the Persian land army, because “an eclipse of the sun” occurred and was taken as a bad omen. They bided their time over the winter. What a lot of tosh. The Greek armies had been badly mauled in their defense of Attica. The respite accorded by the victory at Salamis gave them a much needed opportunity to rest, regroup and rearm. In the meantime the Greek navy undoubtedly went to work on the Persian supply fleet. Grain ships bound for Mardonius captured and brought to Greek armies.

As a result Mardonius had to retreat far north to Thessaly where he was in relatively friendly territory, and could secure supply routes from Persia. The following Summer he marched south again and met the allies at Platea. Where Salamis was a battle dictated by the Athenian sailors, Platea was dictated by the Spartan Hoplites. In a world where battles were fought by men banging shields, singing paeans and roaring defiance the Spartans stood apart. They marched in silence, a disciplined phalanx of red cloaked warriors, bringing death to their foe. Platea was the high watermark of the Spartan military system.
Platea was only made possible by Salamis. So it is the Battle of Salamis that goes down in history as the battle that saved Greek Independence, Greek Civilization and hence Western Civilzation. If the Greeks had not won at Salamis the world today would be a different place.

The Battle of Salamis; by Aeschylus

The night was passing, and the Grecian host
By no means sought to issue forth unseen.
But when indeed the day with her white steeds
Held all the earth, resplendent to behold,
First from the Greeks the loud-resounding din
Of song triumphant came; and shrill at once
Echo responded from the island rock.
Then upon all barbarians terror fell,
Thus disappointed; for not as for flight
The Hellenes sang the holy pæan then,
But setting forth to battle valiantly.
The bugle with its note inflamed them all;
And straightway with the dip of plashing oars
They smote the deep sea water at command,
And quickly all were plainly to be seen.
Their right wing first in orderly array
Led on, and second all the armament
Followed them forth; and meanwhile there was heard
A mighty shout: “Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country, make your children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral gods,
And your sires’ tombs! For all we now contend!”
And from our side the rush of Persian speech
Replied. No longer might the crisis wait.
At once ship smote on ship with brazen beak;
A vessel of the Greeks began the attack,
Crushing the stem of a Phoenician ship.
Each on a different vessel turned its prow.
At first the current of the Persian host
Withstood; but when within the strait the throng
Of ships was gathered, and they could not aid
Each other, but by their own brazen bows
Were struck, they shattered all our naval host.
The Grecian vessels not unskillfully
Were smiting round about; the hulls of ships
Were overset; the sea was hid from sight,
Covered with wreckage and the death of men;
The reefs and headlands were with corpses filled,
And in disordered flight each ship was rowed,
As many as were of the Persian host.
But they, like tunnies or some shoal of fish,
With broken oars and fragments of the wrecks
Struck us and clove us; and at once a cry
Of lamentation filled the briny sea,
Till the black darkness’ eye did rescue us.
The number of our griefs, not though ten days
I talked together, could I fully tell;
But this know well, that never in one day
Perished so great a multitude of men.