Application of Force in the Age of Sail

I am not sure what book I read it in, but it may have been The Price of Admiralty where the strategies of Wellington and Nelson were compared. Nelson preferred the attack, deciding the flow of battle to an extent and using their superior sailing to place the inferior British ships in advantageous positions, be it between ships or on the shoreward side; Wellington was a defender, preferring to create hard points a la La Haye Sainte, and bringing up troops to support the larger battle line. At first glance these two plans could be no more different. In fact, Napoleon could be considered the Nelson of the land, with a preference for sharp application of force in a column, breaking through the opposing line; other Field Marshals, such as Davout often adopted the semi-static defense when pressed. In fact each military commander was taking advantage of their own forces and doing exactly the same thing: maximizing their potential force.

Nelson is the clearest example of this because he was not fighting on terrain. The seas provided their own challenge, but they were flat. No hills, no rivers. While his ships were smaller and of lower quality than their opponents, the British were better gunners and better sailors, which allowed them to place their ships in the most advantageous position and limit the ability of the French to fight back. The captains also knew what they were about, willing to take chances and assured of victory. This last was felt in the French navy. The French were afraid of Nelson, even while out gunning and out manning him. Nelson commanded the British equivalent of the Imperial guard and when he sailed towards the French, he did so in full view; everyone knew the greatest admiral alive and his elite fleet were bearing down on them. Not very reassuring.

Up until Waterloo Napoleon had the same advantage of fear. The Imperial Guard was loyal, strong, well trained and boasted never having fled. Further, they, as with the rest of the French army, attacked in columns, narrow, but deep, so that they could break through and then exploit this gap. This was even their intent when Napoleon sent forward the Imperial Guard at Waterloo.

Wellington proved himself a master of what I termed above “semi-static defense.” What I mean is that he chose a defensive position that covered some expanse of ground, relying on ridges, hills, farms, and whatever other landscape options were available to shelter his forces. He could then bolster his forces at the point of attack, with mobile reserves and pulling from unassailed portions of the line that his opponent couldn’t see. This was by far the most economical use of force, and would remain so through the American Civil War and was in some ways the precursor of trench warfare. It was also difficult to win a decisive victory with this stratagem as the attacker could simply withdraw. This would have been the case at Waterloo had the Prussian Army not attacked Napoleon’s flank. Strategic marches and defenses could win a campaign, but individual battles would more aptly be characterized as stalemates.

Wellington used this to keep his forces together and intact, something even more pressing for him because his troops largely did not have the elan of the French. They were not professionals, and their arrival did not inspire fear the way the Imperial Guard did. Wellington also knew that the French would attack. If he could hold, bolstering his line at the point of attack, using the farm houses, artillery, and even a surprise volley from the Foot Guards to maximize his own force, the way that Nelson crossed the French navy at Trafalgar, Aboukir and the Danes at Copenhagen, and the way that the French army attacked in columns and supported by massive artillery barrages. The key difference between the sea and the land is that while both offense and defense could concentrate force at the point of attack on land, this was much more difficult to do at sea; Nelson found that only in attack could force be concentrated.

It should also be noted that while the above is a quick overview of the strategy during this period and a few specifics, the concept is pretty much the same throughout history in that the first basic principle is to maximize your force and concentrate the attack. The real difference is whether that happens in the form of Nelson crossing between the French ships, Napoleon’s columns, Epaminondas’ oblique-heavy left, the Greek bottlenecks at Salamis, Artemesium and Thermopylae, Subodei’s diffusion and swarms of arrows in feigned retreats or swift moving tank columns of Rommel and Sherman.

Parmenion – Birth in camera, death in the spotlight

Parmenion led Philip’s advance force in Asia Minor. Parmenion’s son Philotas was the commander of Alexander’s Companion Cavalry; his son Nikanor led the Hypaspists; Parmenion held the left wing at Issus and Gaugamela, as well as the military governorship in Syria during the siege of Tyre. In 330 Alexander ordered the execution of Parmenion.

This is most of what we know as fact about Parmenion, arguably the greatest general of his age, architect of Philip and Alexander’s greatest victories.

Unraveling the mystery of where Parmenion came from will further the study of Alexander. Scholars have placed his birthplace from Thessaly to Upper Macedonia, to Lower Macedonia to Paeonia and inevitably use this “fact” as the cornerstone for their theories on Alexander’s behaviour throughout his reign. Now, as thousands of years ago, Parmenion’s actions and personality and influence are seen to affect Alexander’s decision making processes. Yet without knowing more about Parmenion himself, the logic that follows is inherently flawed.

Two aspects of the Alexander history pop out in this vein. The first is that Parmenion plays the literary foil to the brilliant young king in all of the histories. This works because, in some ways, it is true. Alexander is young, dashing, impetuous; Parmenion is old, wise, cautious. There are not two men, other than perhaps Antipatros and Alexander, who make such a marked contrast while both excelling at the same profession. Due to his success, his position under Philip and, depending on who you believe, his loyalty to Alexander or his indispensability to Alexander,1
Parmenion was a prominent enough figure to balance the aura that surrounds Alexander.2 Thus whenever Parmenion said this or that or contradicted the king, it may well be accurate, but it may also be that he represents a faction within the Macedonian Kingdom that would otherwise be passed over.

The second is that the murder of Parmenion and execution of Philotas stem from different motives depending on where Parmenion was from and his relationship with Alexander. If Parmenion was from Upper Macedonia and had a major devoted following and hesitated to join and was dragging his heels, then Alexander may have resented him and wanted to eliminate his influence. If Philotas was truly that insufferable and belittling Alexander’s accomplishments, and Parmenion was resented, outside of the Lower Macedonian Aristocracy, then Alexander may have attacked the son to get at the father. However if he was from Lower Macedonia and simply getting old–not resented, then it may be (as I claim) that Alexander’s inner circle attacked Philotas, not to get at Parmenion, but to get at higher ranks. Parmenion died from this because Alexander could not let him go free after killing his son; there was just too great a chance he would rebel. I could continue spinning situations for quite some time, but the above gives the general idea of the range that these theories can take.

In the end, Parmenion’s influence on the Macedonian army, his decision making, his place in society and ultimately his death rest in some measure on his birth, a “fact” that has not yet been sufficiently argued.

1 There is some suggestion that Parmenion had to be bribed to join Alexander with positions for his sons and then only joined reluctantly.
2 My own claim is that the Parmenion portrayed in the Alexander histories is a mouthpiece and representative of the aristocracy or some large portion therein.

Episodes: Trafalgar and L’Aigle

Certain moments where, depending on which side you support, either the heroism or depravity of human tenacity shines through.

One such moment was during the Battle of Trafalgar. One of the largest clashes of sailing ships ever, anyone who knows anything of that era knows that Trafalgar was a resounding victory for Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. His orders were simple: sail closer and engage, with special reliance placed on superior seamanship and gunnery. Clearly it worked. Of 33 Spanish and French ships that Nelson engaged (while outnumbered by a significant margin), 19 were either sunk or captured.

Each captain mostly fought on his own as Nelson was a firm believer in his men, and rightly thought that a well trained and experienced set of captains working within a larger scheme could better judge and evaluate each situation. The captain of the HMS Defiance believed that the French Ship-of-the-Line L’Aigle had surrendered; he was wrong.

With all small boats on board disabled and believing that all they had to do was occupy the large French vessel, the boarding party swam the intervening distance and boarded. When they realized their mistake it was too late to turn back, so this small crew took on the larger ship while the gunners continued to pound the Aigle until it truly did surrender.

Now this would not be exceptional in that the distance was not far and these men could literally spend months or even years shipboard, but they did so in the midst of a huge battle, one in which massive firing platforms with hundreds of times the artillery of any army of the day were pounding away at each other. And the target had them outnumbered.

This is but one moment amidst one of the greatest naval battles in history, and entirely separate from another moment where arguably the greatest admiral ever to sail died, yet it shows something about people. Imagine for a moment that you are one of the British sailors. At first you approach the French and Spanish fleet perpendicularly and they begin firing before you are able to respond; the roar of cannon and splashes from the cannon balls hitting the water is nerve-wracking, but does not actually deal much damage. As you approach the line, the entire ship rocks as you launch broadside after broadside into the enemy with devastating effect. At this point they are able to respond and deal some damage, but most is done on the first broadside, theirs long expired and yours just sent into their ships. It turns into a slogging match and suddenly your captain chooses sailors to swim over to the enemy, large with boarding hooks, daggers, and swords, since while swimming it will be impossible to keep powder dry.

You hit the water and there is a comparative still after the constant motion on the deck of the ship. Knowing your target, you start swimming and then climb up the side of the ship. It is then that you discover that the enemy did not surrender, but in fact you are fighting tooth and nail, while your comrades still on your ship launch more cannon shot into it. Imagine the relief you feel when the enemy does actually surrender.

Then take a step back and imagine the absurdity yet basic pragmatism of this situation. Surrender was not an option, especially since they were winning the battle and the French probably would have just killed them; leaping back into the water would have been cowardice and they still could have drowned or been crushed by one of the massive boats. No, their options boiled down to kill or be killed and so this small crew, from the outnumbered fleet, on the enemy vessel their own was still pummeling fought.

Leuctra and Waterloo; The transience of invincibility

Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon by the joint Prussian and British forces was an incredibly well-orchestrated defense by the Duke of Wellington, who bore the brunt of the French assaults until the Prussian army arrived and finalized the defeat. But before the Prussians arrived Wellington drove off multiple charges of the French cavalry, defended Hougoumont all day, and held La Haye Sainte for most of the battle.

Mistakes were made on both sides, and at several points Napoleon probably could have routed the British Army and then turned to deal with the Prussian Army. Most importantly for Napoleon, his second in command was Marshal Ney, not nearly the same calibre officer as Marshal Davout, who was left in charge of Paris during this fateful campaign. Napoleon’s final move at Waterloo was to dispatch the Middle Guard, not the Old Guard, but a terrifying unit nonetheless, and one of his elite. The British Foot Guards broke this charge, prompting the disintegration of the French Army and end of Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

Spartan training was the stuff of legends in Ancient Hellas and from the days of Thermopylae and Plataea an aura of invincibility arose, not unlike that which Napoleon would enjoy. Before Thermopylae Spartans were feared, but not considered invincible (ironic that a defeat would do so much to further an aura of invincibility). Throughout the next hundred years or more Spartans were nigh undefeated on land, the major exception being on the island of Sphacteria off of Pylos, where a group of Spartans ignominiously surrendered. Then came Leuctra.

Thebes waxed while Sparta waned, became softer, more materialistic and lazy. In 371 the Spartan king Cleombrotus led the army up into Boeotia where a smaller force under Epaminondas caught it at a disadvantage and crushed it. In one fell swoop the Spartan predominance and invincibility disappeared.

In both situations armies were mismanaged and the loser could easily have emerged victorious; but in neither did they. Spartan hoplites could have held and the Imperial Guard could have kept advancing, but they didn’t. Both groups broke, both groups ran, auras of invincibility irreparably shattered. It took just one instance, one flight, one complete defeat.

The Oblique-Heavy Left

In the field of Greek military history and tactics, there is one formation that astounds with its simplicity and also with its effectiveness: the Oblique-Heavy Left.

In traditional phalanx warfare (a great source-book for which is The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson), the king or general and his bodyguard anchored the right wing. Both forces lined up parallel to each other, the strongest troops on the right, weakest on the left. This was because the hoplon (shield) protected the left half of the body and the right half of the person next in line. The person on the far right was only half covered, while the left was protected. Thus the tendency was to duck to the right to stay under the shield of the neighbor and would result in the line of battle drifting in that direction. The left flank would then be turned as the right of the enemy also drifted and so on. By placing the best troops on the right, it could counteract the drift as it anchored the line.

Since the enemy commander held that side, Epaminondas took an earlier innovation of a deep phalanx (traditional was 8 ranks, Pagondas used 25 at Delium) and further weighted his left flank, spearheaded by his best troops. 50 ranks deep at Leuctra, his left flank started closer than his right flank, while his lighter right was instructed to close with the enemy slower, allowing the left to hammer the enemy’s best troops first. Since hoplite warfare devolved into a shoving match, having the weight of 50 men, instead of the weight of 8 made a difference. Once the commander went down, the army ceased to fight.

Epaminondas saw a means to apply force more efficiently and in doing so changed the power structure of Greece. Simple as it was, the Oblique-Heavy left (and the surety that the Spartans were not invincible) was a revolutionary development.

Of course this did not stop the innovator from dying in battle at Mantinea nine years later, which in part allowed a power vacuum to develop, into which Philip II’s Macedonia stepped.

Advancing Macedonian Historiography

According to Collingwood the mark of the historian and the purpose therein is to relive past events in order to spin out the why of stories. History inevitably ends with the present, not the future, but for history to have value, it must discover why past events happened the way they did, be it from socio-economic trends or from reliving military campaigns from the point of view of the general.

The next advancement in Macedonian history will come in one of two places. The first being the fore bearers of Philip and Alexander, bringing to life the institutions so poorly understood in the time of Philip and Alexander. The second, and more probable,* place will be in the study of the Macedonian hierarchy under Philip and Alexander.

Each new work on Alexander brings in a new perspective because each is by a historian** with a different set of experiences, but most are not really saying anything new. Many of these books simply rehash other arguments and arrange the information in new ways. When they do say something new, it is often touching upon absurd, such as investigatory evaluation of suspects for Alexander’s murder.

In short, what has been brought to life about Alexander has reached the limit of usefulness. Of course this will not stop people from writing about Alexander, but new works are less useful than one might think.

Each of the two topics for advancement round out the study of Alexander and Macedonia the way a new book about Alexander does not. For this field to advance, one or both needs to be seriously studied. Careful and convincing answers are needed.

*More probable simply because the focus of so much work in on Alexander. For some reason people find him interesting. Go figure.

**Though labeling some of the authors as historians would be generous at best.