Mesopotamia and Egypt

Preliminary skirmishes

Fighting between primitive tribes consists either of raids on rival settlements (where surprise is important, and disorder inevitable) or of structured and even ritualistic clashes. In either case the struggle is made up of a large number of one-to-one encounters.

This does not fit the pattern or what is normally called a battle. The story of warfare is usually taken as beginning with the first centralized civilizations, capable of placing troops in the field and even of maintaining a standing army. On this basis Mesopotamia and egypt are the likeliest sites for the first battlefield.

Of the two Mesopotamia is the more prone to warfare. In Egypt a long narrow strip of fertile river valley is virtually secured from invasion by desert to the west and arid highlands to the east. Once a single kingdom has been established, in about 3100 BC, the pharaohs control the region very successfully, without threat from outside, for more than a millennium. In these circumstances the king's soldiers have the role of a police force, with little likelihood of a pitched battle.

By contrast it is difficult to achieve or sustain central control over the more open plains of Mesopotamia. The pattern there is of a constant struggle betweeen city states. Warfare is endemic.

The foot soldiers of Mesopotamia: from 2500 BC

An early glimpse of ranks of soldiers can be seen in the decoration of a musical instrument of about 2500 BC, found in the royal Cemetery at ur. They wear copper helmets (as do the soldiers buried with the ruler) and heavy protective cloaks, and they appear to be armed with battleaxes. Their leaders ride in Wagons with solid wheels drawn by four onagers, a local variety of the wild ass.

A Sumerian document implies that a century later the first great Mesopotamian conqueror, Sargon, keeps more than 5000 soldiers as a permanent army. One of the tablets from Ebla, a city further to the north, gives a glimpse of the brutal military excursions of the time.

Sargon's men march into battle in a solid block, six ranks deep. This formation, known usually by its later Greek name of Phalanx, remains for several millennia the basic way of deploying infantry on the battlefield - transforming the men into a more terrifing and effective fighting unit than their individual strengths and skills would amount to in a free-for-all.

The discipline and training of an army is required to hold the Phalanx together, if necessary through quite complex movements. The way each Phalanx is deployed on the battlefield becomes the main element of a leader's tactics.

Fortification and siege: 8000-2000 BC

The towns which Sargon marches to attack are well fortified - a precaution which has been considered necessary in this part of the world for many centuries. The Tower at jericho dates from not long after 8000 BC. Uruk, a neighbouring city of Ur, provides itself in about 2700 BC with more than 5 miles (8 km) of protective walls.

The tools of siege warfare - ladders to scale the walls, shovels and picks to undermine them - are not invented for this purpose. Only the battering ram (in its basic form a tree trunk with which a large number of men rush against a closed gate) is a specific Siege weapon. It is known from about 1900 BC.

No doubt the basic tricks of siege warfare are also known by this time. Miners, attacking the base of a wall, and soldiers, crashing the heavy ram against a gate, are partially protected by temporary roofs above their heads. Archers, with a steady hail of arrows against defenders on the ramparts, prevent rocks being thrown down on those below. Miners support the masonry above them on wooden props; when they leave they set fire to them, hoping to bring the wall down into the cavity.

These are simple devices. Often they prove inadequate. But elaborate Siege engines, such as the Catapult to fling huge stones, are still many centuries away.

A pharaoh on the warpath: 1469 BC

The first military campaign of which we have a detailed account ends in a battle followed by a siege. It is an expedition undertaken in about 1469 BC by the pharaoh of Egypt, Thutmose iii. He later has the details inscribed on the temple walls at Karnak.

The inscription tells how he marches north against a confederation of his enemies. A surprisingly rapid advance, and an approach by an unexpected route, lead to immediate victory in battle. But the enemy take refuge in the walled town of Megiddo, in what is now Israel. It is seven months before they give in. Brief battle and long siege will prove to be a familiar pattern of war (see battle and siege of Megiddo).

The pharaoh himself travels in a chariot. He also fights from it. Rulers in earlier centuries have been trundled towards the battlefield in Heavy wagons with solid wheels, from which they have stepped down to fight on foot. But the two-wheeled chariot is a light enough vehicle to play an important military role.

It is not known how many chariots Thutmose iii takes to Megiddo. Two centuries later the balance within an Egyptian army is 50 chariots and 5000 foot soldiers.

From chariot to cavalry: 2nd millennium BC

The light chariot drawn by two horses is a devastating weapon on the battlefields of the second millennium BC - in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mycenaean Greece and, from about 1200 BC, China. With a highly-trained charioteer controlling the horses, the warrior can dash about the battlefield causing panic and havoc with a thrusting spear or a shower of arrows (from a Composite bow). The Aryans, entering India from about 1500 BC, bring with them this irresistible advantage of war Chariots.

But the charioteer needs reasonably level ground, and the war chariot will gradually yield pride of place to cavalry. Even so an Assyrian king, as late as the 7th century BC, vividly describes the carnage of chariot warfare.

The nomadic people of the steppes develop extraordinary skills in horse riding, even though they have the benefit of neither Parthian shot nor Saddle. Riding on only a saddlecloth, with their feet perhaps supported in felt or leather loops, they learn how to shoot while galloping. Their weapon is the Composite bow, short enough to fire directly backwards over the horse's rump in the famous Composite bow.

Their example is followed, albeit in less nimble fashion, by established armies. The kings of Assyria go into battle on horseback from the 9th century BC. The cavalry (still in action at the start of World War I in Europe) has arrived.

The Assyrian war machine: 879-612 BC

Assyria is the first society to make militarism the central policy of state. A regular event each spring is the departure of the army for conquest. At the head of the march are standard bearers and priests; behind them come the king and his bodyguard, followed by the chariots, the cavalry, the infantry and, bringing up the rear, the baggage train.

This great cavalcade moves outwards through territories already under Assyrian control, growing as it moves, for each region is required to contribute troops. Eventually the great army reaches previously unconquered areas.

Resistance may be brief, for the Assyrian custom is to make an example of any town which refuses to capitulate. Siege engines are brought up, and the end is usually swift. Soon citizens of the unfortunate town are dangling on poles all round the city walls. The prophet Ezekiel provides a terrifying imaginary account of a town besieged, in his vision of Jerusalem destroyed by the wrath of God.

Other towns understand the message and open their gates. If they seem liable to cooperate, they may be incorporated into the Assyrian empire, providing troops for the army in their turn. If not, their people will be taken as slaves and others will be moved into their territory (the probable fate of the Lost tribes of israel after 722 BC).

Any group rash enough to oppose the Assyrians in the field faces formidable opposition. The main fighting force of an Assyrian army is the foot soldiers, wielding slings and spears, or swords and battleaxes of iron, and protected by armour and shields made mainly of leather. But the minority of specialist troops are also highly effective. They work as teams.

Archers on foot, with bows as tall as themselves, are protected by two companions, one carrying a huge shield and the other a spear. The cavalry operate in pairs; one horseman shoots with a Composite bow, while his colleague protects him with a shield. Two-wheeled Chariots carry a driver and an archer, often with a shield-bearer, or even two.

Medes and Persians

The cavalry of the Medes: 7th century BC

The Assyrian war machine is eventually toppled (in 612) as much by accumulated resentment, particularly from Babylon, as by any military weakness. But among their conquerors are the Medes, nomads from the steppes, who use to devastating advantage their extra agility on horseback. The Assyrians have an effective cavalry, but they cannot match the nimble archery of the Medes.

The Persian empire, which derives from the success of the Medes, grows above all through administrative genius. But the cavalry, together with chariots and archers, are now at the heart of its military successes - rather than the foot soldiers who did most of the work for the Assyrians.

The Persian army: c.500 BC

The regular army of the Persian empire contains an elite corps involving a brilliant element of propaganda. These crack troops are known as the Immortals, for the simple and inspired reason that there are always 10,000 of them (in theory as soon as one dies, another soldier is ready to take his place). At the heart of this 10,000 are an even more special thousand - the royal bodyguard.

The army is precisely decimal. Divisions of 10,000 are divided into battalions of 1000, companies of 100 and squads of 10. The bow is the chief Persian weapon, and the armies' tactics are based on rapid movement and light armour.

In a crisis the Persian standing army is reinforced by a levy on the subject people of the vast empire. The recruits, of widely different origins, fight according to their own customs and with their own weapons, but under Persian officers. Because the Persian empire is on the whole benevolent, the system works well in most circumstances.

But the Persian armies will prove no match for something new in history - the world's first citizen armies, put into the field by the Greek city states.

Greece and Rome

Greek citizen armies: from the 7th century BC

The citizens of the Greek city states are free men - mainly small farmers, or merchants and artisans in the city. They have a strong collective impulse to protect their shared patch of territory, which is often not much more than a single valley among the hills. Each man, enlisting for military service, provides his own equipment.

The rich come on horses; they are few in number because Greece has relatively little grazing. The poorer citizens arrive with minimal equipment; they will be used as light infantry, in skirmishes before and after a battle. But the majority bring sturdy armour, including a heavy shield, the hoplon, from which these soldiers take their name. They are the hoplites.

The armour of the hoplite is a bronze helmet (the famous Greek helmet with a long narrow bridge down the nose), a corselet from shoulders to hips (usually in leather with bronze over the chest), bronze grieves (guarding the shins), a round shield (wood reinforced with iron), a long spear with a sharpened iron tip and a short double-edged iron sword.

Variants of this equipment can be found at this time in other armies. The hoplites are revolutionary not for their equipment but for the way they use it - massed together in the famous Greek Phalanx (which has Mesopotamian origins).

The Phalanx is a slow-moving but almost irresistible force, with a lethally sharp front edge. It consists of a solid block of men, usually eight ranks deep but often more. Each rank marches close behind the one in front. The first three ranks hold their spears horizontally, pointing them forward, so that three staggered spear points precede each man of the front rank. The men in the rear hold their spears upright in readiness.

Each Hoplite is protected partly by the shield of the man to the right of him. It is in his interest to make sure that he keeps safely behind it, and this gives the Phalanx its only vulnerable characteristic. The left of the line tends to fall back and curve away.

Greek tactics: 7th - 4th century BC

Greek battlefields are usually flat and open, chosen for the convenience of the hoplites. The engagement, invariably brief, begins when the phalanx trundles into action. Keeping close formation, the hoplites run slowly forward in their heavy armour, yelling a morale-boosting battle cry.

If the enemy's main force is cavalry (as with a Persian invasion), the phalanx is unlikely to be penetrated, since the horses will shy back from the wall of spears. But if the opposing force is another phalanx, running forward at the same speed, the clash is titanic, as the front lines meet and many fall - either wounded or simply overwhelmed by the weight of armour crashing in from both sides.

The first aim of every hoplite, as the opposing ranks meet, is to jab his spear point through the opposing shields to find any gap of flesh unprotected by an enemy's armour - such as neck or armpit. But if the opposing ranks break, the spear is abandoned for the hoplite's other weapon - the short two-sided sword, with which he will attempt to slash the unprotected top or back of an opponent's legs.

Once disaster has turned into flight, the weight of the hoplite's armour becomes a major disadvantage. Now the Greek light infantry, poor relations to the hoplite, come into their own, pursuing and spearing the defeated.

The phalanx undergoes a few tactical developments over the centuries. Its tendency to drift backwards on the left is brilliantly exploited in the 4th century by Epaminondas (see the tactics of Epaminondas). Preliminary assaults on the opposing phalanx by slingers and archers become standard practice. And Alexander the great increases the weight of the phalanx by doubling its depth to 16 ranks and arming the hoplites with spears of 6 or 7 yards (6 metres) in length - enabling the first five ranks to use their spears in the initial charge.

But these are only modifications. The next real advance in European infantry tactics must wait for the Roman legions.

Meanwhile in the east...: from the 5th century BC

The might of Rome dominates much of Europe, west Asia and north Africa for four centuries or more. But even before the start of the Roman period China - in its isolation - has developed a military machine which no rival in the west could match.

The power of the Kingdoms of china derives not only from the sheer size of the armies (it is said that two of the kingdoms in the 5th century BC are capable of mobilizing more than a million men), but also from weapons unknown in the west (the Crossbow) and from organization in the field. The terracotta army of Shi Huangdi gives a vivid image of a Chinese army in battle formation.

The Roman legions: from the 4th century BC

In the early years of Rome's history Roman soldiers form up for battle in a Greek phalanx, but by the 4th century a distinctive tactic is beginning to emerge in the deployment of the Roman legion.

The essence of the change is the division of the army into companies of 120 men, known as maniples. Each maniple is formed up on the battle ground as a block 12 abreast and 10 deep. Instead of the serried ranks of the Greek phalanx, the soldiers stand about 5 feet apart within each maniple; and the maniples are deployed on the field like three rows of squares on a chessboard (each black square a block of men, each white square open space).

In the first shock of battle each maniple knows that there is a space behind into which it can fall back. By the same token a maniple of the second or third rank has space in front, where it can move to give support. And enemy forces may be enticed into a space between maniples, where they can be attacked from both sides. This is very different from the rigid once-for-all clash of two solid phalanxes.

In keeping with this more open role, the weapons of the Roman foot soldier are gradually modified.

Arms of the Roman legionary: from the 4th century BC

In a Roman army the long heavy spear of the Greek hoplite is replaced by a javelin. The Roman foot soldier flings this as soon as he is in close contact with the enemy. He then gets to work with his short thrusting sword, the most characteristic weapon of the Roman legionary.

The Roman helmet is simpler than the Greek version, with more of the face exposed. And the Roman shield is rectangular, with a slight curve so that it hugs the body. Held edge to edge above the head, these shields can form a roof to protect soldiers carrying out a siege - the famous Roman testudo or 'tortoise'.

The foot soldiers in their maniples form the centre of any Roman line of attack. Cavalry and light infantry give support on the wings, particularly in the later centuries. It is a military system which proves well suited to conquer and control most of Europe, north Africa and much of the Middle East. The legions, and the great network of Roman roads which they build and march upon, are the backbone of the empire.

But by the 4th century AD there is a military threat of a kind unfamiliar to the legions - heavy cavalry, which Rome's horses and horsemen are at first ill-equipped to confront.

Heavy cavalry: 3rd century BC - 4th century AD

The cavalry, deriving as a military force from the nimble tactics of Mounted nomads, have traditionally depended on speed. A quick assault against clumsy infantry can be followed by an equally rapid escape. Armour for the horseman's body is neither necessary nor possible, given the size of early horses. But a heavily armoured cavalry would have clear and different advantages. It would be like a much more powerful version of the infantry, while retaining the mobility of mounted troops.

Such a desirable addition to an army requires strong horses. In Persia, a developed region exposed to nomad raiders from the north, such animals are deliberately bred from about 300 BC.

The new breeds of horse spread gradually westwards, north of the Black Sea, into the Ukraine and eastern Europe. They are used by the Goths, and are possibly a factor in the crushing defeat of a Roman army by the Visigoths at Adrianople in AD 378. The Romans subsequently rely heavily on Gothic mercenaries for their own armies, so the heavy cavalry becomes increasingly a central element in any successful force.

By now a saddle on a wooden frame, raised in front and behind to form a secure seat for the rider, has replaced the earlier saddle cloth - probably from about the 1st century AD. But one element is still needed to give the heavy cavalryman his full potential. This is the Stirrup.

Byzantium and Islam

Byzantine castles: 6th century AD

Fortification is as old as urban living, with Jericho's tower dating back to about 8000 BC, but its purpose is defensive - to guard the place where people live and keep their wealth. A different concept of fortification is pioneered by Belisarius, the great general who recovers north Africa and later much of Italy for the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Following the African campaign of 533, the Byzantine army builds the world's first Castles - strong protective shells in which armed men may safely lurk, and from which they can control a nearby pass or the surrounding district. This is fortification with an aggressive purpose. The castle becomes, during the Middle Ages, an important means of military expansion.

The Arab armies of Islam: 7th century AD

Speed, rather than weight of armour, is the secret of the armies which achieve the most rapid and far-flung conquests in history. This is true of the Arab expansion in the 7th century AD, and it will be true of the Mongols six centuries later.

The Arab tribesmen in the armies of Islam use the classic techniques of the skirmish to overwhelm the more organized troops of the Byzantine and Persian empires.

Mounted on camels and horses, and preferring to fight in flat areas of desert or scrub, the Muslim warriors arrive at speed in an extended line to torment the ranks of the enemy. In a single burst of aggression, they fling their javelins and fire off their arrows before wheeling fast away, out of range of retaliation.

This tactic is repeated until a break appears in the enemy's ranks. On the next charge the tribesmen plunge into the breach and set about their opponents at close quarters with the sword. In their early campaigns the Arab horsemen ride without the benefit of Stirrups - an innovation which they probably discover when they conquer Persia.

Development of the stirrup: 2nd c.tury BC - 7th century AD

It is probable that early Nomadic horsemen, such as the Scythians, use some form of looped fabric to support their feet. But the first direct evidence of a stirrup is a loop for the big toe used by Indian cavalry from the 2nd century BC. Suitable only for use by barefoot warriors in warm climates, this device spreads gradually through southeast Asia.

At some time before the 5th centurythe Chinese, who need to keep their boots on, transform the toe loop into a metal stirrup for the whole foot. From China this crucial device moves westwards, through Iran to the Muslim world in the 7th century, and then through the Byzantine empire to western Europe.

Middle Ages

The knight in armour: 8th - 14th century

The Franks acquire Stirrups by about 730. They also develop exceptionally heavy horses (the breeds of northwest Europe are the ancestors of the carthorses later used for haulage and ploughing). With Stirrups and a powerful horse, the medieval knight is ready to take the field.

A mounted knight in armour, usually of mail (also known as chain mail), is to a large extent protected from the archer's arrow or the spear of the footsoldier, while his own long lance is a lethal weapon against any opponent. Its thrust no longer depends on the strength of an arm. Seated in a shaped saddle, with his feet in Stirrups and the lance held firm against his body, the knight drives home the point of the lance with the full forward impetus of his horse.

Both horse and armour are expensive, so warrior status is now reserved for the ruling class; and with faces concealed inside armour, devices on helmet and shield are essential to identify friend from foe. Painted armour happens also to be a glorious way of advertising one's lineage. It is no accident that possession of a 'coat of arms' is a distinguishing mark of European aristocracies.

Such a system of warfare is ideally suited to feudal societies. The mounted knight holds sway in Europe throughout the Middle Ages until new weapons in the 14th century - such as the pike and the longbow - restore some measure of advantage to the humble infantry.

Medieval castles: 9th - 13th century AD

In Feudal europe, where armed men are granted rights over often hostile territories, the castle becomes an important feature of the countryside. Such castles are often surprisingly flimsy affairs. It comes as a shock to read that William i, in his invasion of England in 1066, lands at Pevensey on September 28 and builds himself a castle before fighting the battle at Hastings on October 14.

It is of the mound-and-bailey variety, also called motte-and-bailey (from the Norman French motte for a mound). This is a design developed by the Franks in the 9th century and adopted by the Normans.

The construction of a mound-and-bailey castle is a simple matter of hard and rapid labour. A circular ditch is dug (when filled with water, it becomes a moat). The earth from it is piled inwards to form a mound, preferably adding height to an existing prominence. On top of the mound a tower is built, within a palisade.

An adjacent area is surrounded by another palisade, and sometimes also by a moat. This is the bailey, or outer courtyard, in which the garrison live and keep their livestock. A bridge crosses the moat to reach the more secure mound and its tower. In the first five years of the Norman conquest of England thirty-five such castles are established, nearly all of them of wood.

Where stone and time are available, it is clearly preferable to construct a castle of the stronger and non-combustible material. During the 12th century stone walls and towers become more common in European castles, together with more sophisticated forms of bastion and battlement.

One influence is the Byzantine castle architecture seen by the crusaders on their way east. They soon create in the Holy Land magnificently impressive examples of their own - such as the great Krak des Chevaliers, largely built by the Knights of st john and occupied by them from 1142.

In Europe the castle as a fortified garrison is seen in a highly developed form in the great series built in the late 13th century for Edward i along the coast of Wales, uncompromising in their purpose of keeping the Welsh in submission.

In subsequent centuries the castle evolves into something more akin to a great man's residence, his fortified palace. This is true of the famous French castles of the Loire, built in the 15th and 16th centuries. And it is true of the magnificent castles of exactly the same period in two very different cultures, in India and japan.

Gunpowder: 11th century

In about 1040 a Chinese manual on warfare is issued under the title Compendium of Military Technology. It is the first document to describe gunpowder. This black powder, formed by pounding a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur (a dangerous process if the pounding is overdone), seems to have been developed in the small chemical laboratories attached to the temples of Daoists where research is conducted mainly on the secret of eternal life.

At this early stage in China the military use of gunpowder is limited to grenades and bombs lobbed at the enemy from catapults. Its real destructive force will only emerge when the explosion is confined, in the development of Artillery.

A weapon of mass destruction: AD 1139-1346

Pope Innocent II and the second Lateran council take a firm stand, in 1139, against a weapon which they consider morally unacceptable in its devastating capacity to kill. It is the Crossbow, invented in China in the 3rd century BC and first recorded in use in Europe in a battle at Hjörungsvag in Norway in986.

The pope and his cardinals make one distinction in this early attempt at arms control. They specify that the weapon is unacceptable in warfare between Christians. They are pontificating a few decades after the success of the First crusade. The implication is clear. The weapon of death may be turned against Muslims.

The Crossbow proves effective on crusade. Indeed Richard I wins one of his Victories over saladin, at Arsuf in 1191, largely because of the effect on the Muslim forces of the bolts fired by his crossbowmen. Each bolt, about ten inches long with a square metal head tapering to a point, can be shot with sufficient force to pierce contemporary armour at a range of up to 300 yards. The weapon's limitation is its very slow rate of fire.

The papal embargo fails to stop the spread of the Crossbow among Christian armies. It is familiar on European battlefields in the 12th and 13th centuries. Mercenaries from Genoa in particular are famous as crossbowmen - until they confront a new and faster weapon at Crécy in 1346.

The strategy of the Mongols: 13th century AD

Several different factors explain the devastating success of Genghis Khan and his armies, but superior weaponry is not one of them. The traditional riding skill of the nomads of the steppes plays, as ever, a large part. With Stirrups now a standard part of cavalry equipment, the agility of the horsemen is greater than ever, in galloping close to the the enemy, releasing a hail of arrows and wheeling away again.

Horsemanship also plays its part in the system of communication which enables Mongol armies to coordinate their strategies. Riders gallop between well-equipped staging posts across the steppes, enabling a message to travel more than 200 miles in a day. Pigeons, too, are trained for the purpose.

But the single most important element is a ruthless use of two psychological weapons, loyalty and fear. Genghis Khan makes a cunning distinction in his treatment of nomadic tribesmen and the settled inhabitants of cities and towns. A warrior from a rival tribe, who battles bravely against Genghis Khan but loses, will be rewarded for his valour and encouraged to join the Mongols against the rest of the world. Only cowardice or treachery in an opposing tribe are punished.

For sedentary folk in alien lands these rules are reversed. Here treachery is positively encouraged. Spies infiltrate the towns. Informers are sought out and bribed. The Mongols are coming. There is a choice to be made.

The choice is a simple one; to fight or to surrender. News of the consequences travels fast. If a town bravely resists, the inhabitants are massacred in a public display. They are herded outside the walls to confront Mongol troopers with battle-axes. Each trooper is given a quota to despatch. A tally of ears is sometimes demanded as proof that the work is done.

Terror stalks ahead of a Mongol horde like an invisible ally. The spies in the town let it be known that a rapid surrender may well be rewarded with mercy. Usually the citizens need no persuading. The gates are opened. After sufficient plunder to keep the troops happy, the horde moves on.

The footsoldier

A new age of infantry: 14th century AD

After many centuries when horsemen dominate the battlefield (whether the heavily armed Knights of Europe or the swift Mongols of the steppes), the early 14th century sees the reassertion of the foot soldier.

Partly this is due to new weapons - the English longbow and the Swiss halberd. But the change also involves the return of very ancient tactics. The Greek phalanx, with the long spear introduced by Alexander the great, is revived to devastating effect by Swiss peasants armed with pikes.

The longbow: AD 1298-1346

The longbow, probably developed in Wales during the 12th century, derives its range, accuracy and power of penetration from two characteristics.

It is about 6 feet long, giving a much greater acceleration to the released arrow than is possible from a shorter conventional bow. And the craftsmen make it from strips of yew cut where the hardened heart of the tree joins the sap wood. The different qualities of the two types of wood complement each other, combining tension and compression as in a Composite bow.

The length of the English bow makes possible a heavier arrow, a yard in length, with greater power of penetration. A trained bowman can shoot between six and ten arrows a minute, with considerable accuracy to a range of 200 yards.

The power of the longbow is first demonstrated in 1298 at Falkirk, where an English army defeats the Scots. But the Scots are mainly unmounted spearmen; the battle is fought round the edges of a boggy marsh; this is an unromantic event which does little to spread the fame of the new weapon. That must await another half century until English bowmen come up against the mounted chivalry of France at Crécy in 1346.

The fighting begins at Crécy with a direct confrontation between English longbowmen and Genoese crossbowmen, employed as mercenaries by the French king. The English, outnumbered by the French, occupy a defensive position on a slope overlooking a small valley. The battle begins when the French king orders a line of crossbowmen to advance on the English position, with mounted knights following behind them.

The English outshoot the Genoese, who need to pause to crank their crossbow after each shot. When the Genoese retreat in panic, they become entangled with the advancing French cavalry. The resulting chaos offers an easy target to the bowmen on the hill.

Subsequent charges by the French cavalry meet a similar fate in a battle which continues until nightfall. The next morning some 1500 French knights and esquires are found dead on the battlefield together with large numbers of more humble soldiers.

The English longbow proves itself at Crécy the most effective long-range weapon of its time. It dominates the field in subsequent battles of the Hundred Years' War such as Poitiers and Agincourt. But near the end of the war, at Formigny, the bowmen meet more than their match in the new form of French artillery. The weapon of the future, clumsy and awkward though it is, wins the day.

Swiss pikes and halberds: 14th - 15th century AD

The power of a citizen army of footsoldiers, demonstrated so forcefully in ancient Greece, is proved again two millennia later by the peasants of Switzerland. The similarity extends beyond the passion of free men fighting for their patch of land. It includes tactics and even weapons.

The Swiss adopt the Greek formation of the Phalanx, a tightly cohesive square of men. And they borrow from the armies of Alexander the great the exceptionally long spear which prevents an enemy from coming in close.

The Swiss spear or pike, some 20 feet long, improves in one respect on Greek technology. Its steel point projects from a long metal sleeve, preventing a mounted knight from slashing the wooden shaft.

The Phalanx with its pikes at the ready is a defensive body, bristling like a hedgehog. When the enemy begins to falter, the Swiss change to offence. For this too they have a devastating weapon, perfected by themselves - the halberd. The pike can only prod an assailant. The halberd is much more versatile, as the Swiss footsoldiers prove triumphantly at Morgarten, in 1315, when they trap a Habsburg army in a narrow mountain defile.

The Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, rely on the thundering weight of a charger to mow down the opposition. In the confined space of Morgarten, they find themselves at the mercy of the Swiss halberdiers.

At the end of each 8-foot halberd there is a sharp metal point; this can jab like a spear. Below the point to one side is a hook; this is used to grapple a knight and drag him from his horse. Below the point on the other side there is an axe blade; with a heavy sweeping blow, at the end of the long handle, this will cut through armour and sink into limb or neck. With this lethally adaptable weapon the Swiss footsoldiers bring down the Habsburg cavalry.

After Morgarten and other similar successes the massed Phalanx of infantry, reintroduced by the Swiss, becomes once again a standard part of battlefield tactics. It is extended in Spain into the massive 'Spanish square' which combines men armed with pikes, swords and muskets.

Meanwhile the Swiss farmers have discovered in their martial skill a new profession. They begin to hire themselves out as mercenaries - in a long tradition of which there is an echo, even today, in the Swiss guards of the Vatican.


Artillery: 14th - 16th century AD

The most significant development in the story of warfare is the use of Gunpowder to propel a missile. There has been much debate as to where the first experiments are made. Inconclusive and sometimes mistranslated references from early documents appear to give the priority variously to the Chinese, the Hindus, the Arabs and the Turks.

It is likely that the matter can never be resolved. The earliest incontrovertible evidence of artillery is a drawing of a crude form of cannon in a manuscript dated 1327 (now in the library of Christ Church, Oxford). There is a reference to a gun Mounted on a ship in 1336, and the possibility of cannon of some kind in use at Crécy and Calais in 1346-7.

The problem confronting early makers of artillery is how to construct a tube strong enough to contain an explosion which will propel a missile out of one end (or, in other words, how to make a gun rather than a bomb). An early solution gives us our word 'barrel'. The tube is built up of metal strips welded to each other along their straight edges - just as a barrel is constructed of similar strips of wood. This rather fragile structure is given greater strength by being encased in a series of tightly fitting metal rings.

With luck, a round stone (or later a ball of cast iron) will hurtle from the open end of this tube when Gunpowder is ignited behind it.

The laborious loading and firing of such weapons limits their effective use to sieges - either inside a castle defending an entrance, or outside lobbing heavy objects at the walls. The size of the missile rather than its speed is the crucial factor. A breakthrough in this respect, in the late 14th century, is the discovery of how to cast gun barrels from molten Iron.

Cannon, during the next two centuries, become progressively larger. There are some impressive surviving examples. Mons Meg, dating from the 15th century and now in Edinburgh castle, could hurl an Iron ball, 18 inches in diameter, as far as a mile. The even larger Tsar Cannon in Moscow, cast in 1586 with a bore of 3 feet, weighs nearly 40 tons. Mobility is not one of its features.

One of the most remarkable of early cannon is a proud possession of Mehmed, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople. Before his final attack in 1453 he terrifies the inhabitants by trundling close to their city a massive 19-ton bombard of cast Iron. It requires 16 oxen and 200 men to manoeuvre it into its firing position. Once there, it settles down to a slow but devastating bombardment. A stone weighing as much as 600 pounds can be lobbed against the great city walls. The rate of fire is seven stones a day.

In this same same year, at Castillon in France, another potential of gun power is demonstrated - in the effect of light artillery on the battlefield.

Hand guns: 14th - 17th century AD

Portable guns are developed shortly after the first cannons. When first mentioned, in the 1360s, such a gun is like a small version of a cannon. A metal tube, up to a foot long, is attached to the end of a pole about six feet in length - an early and very basic version of the barrel and stock of a rifle.

The gunner has to apply a glowing coal or a red-hot wire to a touchhole in the loaded barrel, and then somehow get far enough away from the explosion. There is clearly not much opportunity for rapid aiming. Most such weapons are probably fired by two men, or are carried to a new position and fixed there before being loaded and ignited by one.

Refinements follow surprisingly fast. During the 15th century the barrel of such weapons is lengthened, giving more reliable aim. The wooden stock acquires a curve, so that the recoil raises the barrel rather than driving backwards with full force. A length of rope known as a 'match' replaces the hot coal or wire for igniting the charge in the touchhole; it is soaked in a substance which causes it to burn with a steady glow.

And a device called a 'lock' is developed - a curving arm of metal which holds the glowing match and will plunge it into the touchhole, when a pull on a trigger releases a spring. The 'matchlock' becomes the standard form of musket until the arrival of the Flintlock in the 17th century.

The guns of Formigny and Castillon: AD 1450-1453

Inconclusive references in contemporary documents suggest that guns of some kind may have featured on Europe's battlefields as early as Crécy in 1346. But the first engagement in which they play a decisive role is at Formigny in 1450.

The English enter the field with a slightly larger force than the French, perhaps 3500 men against 3000. For much of the battle the English bowmen achieve their now customary success. But considerable damage is done to the English force by two small cannons, or culverins, in the French position.

Recognizing the importance of these guns, the English make an effort to capture them. They succeed briefly in doing so. But the French win back their cannons, and with them win the day.

The same pattern is repeated three years later at Castillon. On this occasion the French have several cannons in a defensive position. The English make a frontal assault, suffering considerable losses in men and even more in confidence. It is the last battle of the Hundred Years War, which in itself is the last great medieval conflict. The centuries of the archer give way to those of the gunner.

Fortification: 15th - 16th century AD

The introduction of gunpowder has a profound influence on the science of fortification. Cannon are trundled laboriously up to blast away at castle or town walls from the early 15th century, and by the end of the century sappers are undermining walls to insert explosive charges. The previous convention for a defensive wall (as tall as possible against siege ladders, but not necessarily very sturdy) becomes inappropriate.

A squat and massively thick wall now becomes more effective, preferably sloping back from the vertical so that the impact of a cannon ball is lessened. And strong platforms are needed along the length of the wall, to carry the defenders' own cannon.

It is in Renaissance italy (notable for Europe's most constant warfare and most enquiring minds) that the new science of fortification is developed. Leonardo is only one of many distinguished artists to apply himself to the problem. Of thirty-three serious works published on the topic during the 16th century, all but six are Italian.

The chief Italian innovation is the angled bastion. Round towers projecting from the walls have been a part of medieval castle design, but they leave an area at their outer edge where an attacker close to the wall is only vulnerable from directly above - not a good angle for a castle marksman in the days of muzzle loading.

The Italian design solves this problem. Each bastion now projects from the wall to a triangular outer point which is in sight of the gunners on each of the neighbouring bastions. The area which was previously the ideal spot for a sapper to dig undisturbed beneath the wall, to plant an explosive charge, is now as exposed as any other.

This arrangement of angled bastions means that a fortress can be fully protected if it has the shape of a five or six-pointed star. A greater number of bastions can be placed at appropriate points in existing city walls. By these means, during the 16th century, the defenders acquire the advantage. The balance is tipped again in the next century by the tactics of Sebastien de Vauban.

The spread of gunfire: 16th century AD

During the 16th century the armies of Europe continually adjust their tactics to make the most of the developing potential of cannons and muskets. The two leaders in this arms race are the great rivals, France and spain.

The Spanish are more imaginative in their deployment of the most up-to-date musket of the day, a light Matchlock known as an arquebus. But the French make better use of cannon, placing them in strategic positions on the battlefield. The fortunes of war swing either way between these armies, as Spanish and French generals find new ways to surprise their counterparts with gunfire.

In 1503 Spanish arquebusiers defeat a French army at Cerignola by the discipline and persistence of their fire. In 1512 the French win a battle at Ravenna thanks to the devastating effect of twenty-four massed cannon. In 1515 a Swiss army, fighting on the Spanish side, suffers heavy damage at Marignano from a combination of seventy-two French cannon followed by a cavalry attack.

Ten years later the Spanish turn the tables again at Pavia, where their squads of arquebusiers are deployed rapidly and unpredictably across the battlefield. This 'unusual, astonishing, cruel and unworthy' method of fighting (in the words of a contemporary French author) throws the French cavalry into complete disarray.

Meanwhile, as Europeans become familiar with the new arms, less developed communities further afield are confronted by a terrifying weapon, with no visible missile, which they meet for the first time on the battlefield. Victories won by the mere possession of firearms ripple outwards into Asia, America and Africa during the century.

In 1514 Persians experience their first cannon fire from the Turks. In 1519 Indian tribesmen, confronted by Intruders from afghanistan, laugh (at first) at weapons which seem to fire no arrows. In 1532, in Peru, 150 Spaniards overwhelm the Incas with a few cannon and arquebuses. In 1591 the sultan of Morocco with his musketeers routs the cavalry of the kingdom of Songhay.

Science of the battlefield

The Spanish tercio: 16th century AD

In the 16th century, when Spain is indisputably the strongest power in Europe, Spanish commanders develop a tactic which successfully asserts their dominance on the field of battle. Spanish armies are organized into large bodies of up to 3000 men, known as a tercio (roughly equivalent to a regiment).

Half of the men in each tercio are Pikemen, who go into battle in a solid rectangle as many as 30 ranks deep (a tradition of solidarity on the field going all the way back to the Greek Phalanx). The other half are arquebusiers, firing the Arquebus (the predecessor of the musket) which takes a considerable time to reload

The arquebusiers are grouped to each side of the Phalanx of Pikemen. Those in the front row fire their weapons, then withdraw to the back to reload.

This forceful combination becomes known as the Spanish square. It proves particularly effective in campaigns against the Dutch in the late 16th century. But Maurice of nassau demonstrates that greater flexibility on the field can shake the ponderous Spanish square; he defeats the Spanish at Nieuwpoort in 1600 by deploying his men in smaller squares with space between them, as pioneered by the Romans against the Greek Phalanx. Thirty years later the virtues of flexibility are proved even more conclusively by Gustavus II of Sweden.

Swedish tactics: AD 1631

During the early years of his reign Gustavus II has effected a quiet revolution in the Swedish army. Where other monarchs rely on foreign mercenaries, he conscripts and trains his Swedish subjects - thus achieving an organized version of a citizen army. He instils in his soldiers sufficient discipline for them to be able to respond to flexible tactics on the battlefield.

For the same purpose he makes his infantrymen's Pikes less unwieldy, shortening them from 16 to 11 feet. He lightens the weight of armour, wearing himself only a leather jacket in battle. And he reduces the number of men in each company in battle formation.

Together with these measures of increased human mobility go similar improvements in artillery. Gustavus's ordnance factories produce a cast-iron cannon less than half the weight of any other in the field, but still capable of firing a four-pound shot. Moreover a form of cartridge holding a prepared charge of powder means that the cannon can be reloaded faster even than the muskets of the day.

This field artillery is mounted on carriages which can be pulled by two horses or even, when required, by a platoon of men.

When Gustavus's army is first seen in action in Germany, at Breitenfeld in 1631, the opposing Catholic army under Tilly is deployed in the cumbersome Spanish squares which have been the military convention for a century and more.

The Swedes begin the encounter with an artillery barrage from about 100 cannon which they have been able to bring to the field of battle. Thereafter the rout of the Catholics is completed in a series of unwelcome surprises - musketeers appear among lines of infantrymen instead of on the flanks, cavalry charges suddenly materialize from unexpected quarters. The battle sets a new order of military priority. Fire power and mobility are now the trump cards on the battlefield.

Vauban and fortification: AD 1654-1706

France's expansionist policies during the late 17th century benefit greatly from the military genius of Sebastien de Vauban, who spends more than half a century in active service in Louis XIV's campaigns. His special interest is in fortification (though he is also the inventor of the socket Bayonet). In siege warfare he is as skilled in the arts of defence as of attack.

During his long career Vauban either builds or redesigns some 160 fortresses. But his most significant contribution is the tactic which he develops for approaching and breaching an enemy's stronghold.

Vauban's method, first put into practice during the Dutch wars at the 1673 siege of Maastricht, becomes known as the 'approach by parallel line'. It consists essentially of the infantry and artillery leapfrogging to the base of a fortress wall.

The range of a siege cannon at this time is about 600 yards. Vauban arranges his guns at this distance from the weakest flank of a fortress and then digs a trench behind the guns as a base for the infantry. From here musketeers can protect the artillery from attack by enemy sorties, and can at the same time cover sappers digging trenches which lead towards the fort. They dig in a zigzag line, as a protection from raking cannon-fire along a trench's length.

When the zigzag has moved forward about 200 yards, another trench is dug parallel to the fortress wall. Both infantry and artillery move up into this new position, and the process is repeated. The second move forward brings the sappers within range of musket fire from the ramparts. They extend their trench now under a protective roof, pushed forward on wheels (a device known as a gabion, in the ancient tradition of the Roman Tortoise).

When the third parallel position is successfully established, the siege artillery is near enough for a direct bombardment on the walls. In most cases this is soon sufficient to force a breach in the defences.

Maastricht, subjected to these tactics in 1673, falls to the French army in thirteen days. In subsequent engagements Vauban's method of parallel lines proves reliable and easily adapted to each particular fortification and its surrounding terrain. It becomes the custom in the French army to classify enemy fortresses in terms of the number of days for which they are expected to hold out against an assault of this kind.

The majority of sieges during the 18th century are conducted by European armies along the lines pioneered by Vauban. His example also gives engineers, for the first time, an important status in any modern army.

Prussian tactics: AD 1740-1745

The successes of Frederick the Great on the battlefield during the early 1740s are achieved with a new degree of mobility in the employment of troops. A Prussian attack is an alarming affair for those confronting it. It depends greatly on the discipline of the standing army which Frederick has inherited from his stern father.

Frederick spreads his infantry out in a shallow formation, usually consisting of just two or three long lines each of which is only three men deep. This gives him a very wide front with equivalently great fire power from the soldier's muskets.

A Prussian army lines up in this type of formation about 1000 yards from the enemy. It then marches forward, as if on a parade ground, to the music of fife and drum. During this orderly advance (no doubt an extremely tense experience for both sides), the soldiers hold their fire until at a range of about 100 yards. They then fire a volley, reload, advance a few more paces and fire another. The final assault is made with the Bayonet, in the socket version devised by Vauban.

Discipline is good enough for Frederick to be able to wheel his line of advance during an attack. Prussian drill and tactics rapidly provide the pattern which other European armies attempt to emulate.

Trench warfare: AD 1915-1917

By the start of 1915, on the western front, the pattern of trench warfare is established. It will trap all the combatant nations for the next three years in an insoluble deadlock in which the lifeblood of their young men drains unquenchably away.

The commanders-in-chief - John French and then Douglas Haig for Britain, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Pétain for France, Erich von Falkenhayn followed by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff for Germany - all agree on one thing. The only way forward is to wear the opposing forces down in a ceaseless war of attrition, weakening them to the point where a sudden strategic breakthrough can be achieved.

Never in history have so many men, so heavily armed, remained for so long confronting each other in a restricted area of open ground. All the great battles of the war, some of them lasting several months, take place along a crescent stretching less than 200 miles from Ypres to Verdun. The few major advances made in either direction are less than 50 miles and are soon reversed. Most of the time it is a matter of winning, losing, clawing back a few hundred yards of shell-churned mud.

Yet in this blighted area, during the four years of the war, millions of men lose their lives. In one day alone, at the start of the four-month battle of the Somme in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers die and another 40,000 are wounded.

The pattern of attack, from one line of trenches to the other across no man's land, becomes more sophisticated as the months roll by but remains essentially the same. The trenches are protected by lethal rolls of barbed wire. These need to be flattened before there is any hope of the advancing infantry reaching the enemy. This is achieved by a preliminary bombardment from artillery behind the lines, lasting days and sometimes weeks.

In the early part of the war the bombardment ends when the infantry go over the top of their trenches, armed with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, to stagger and slither towards the machine guns awaiting them.

Later a slight improvement is made in the form of the rolling barrage, in which the artillery gunners steadily raise their sights as the troops advance. The purpose is to lay down ahead of them a carpet of high-explosive shells, forcing the enemy to keep their heads down. Reconnaissance aircraft fly overhead, equipped with radio, to report back to the gunners where their shells are landing and what enemy targets are available.

Even when this softening-up procedure succeeds, the infantry are left with a lonely final assault on the trenches followed by close combat, unless (always the hoped-for result) the bombardment has in itself persuaded the enemy to withdraw to a secondary line of defence.

Innovations on the western front: AD 1915-1917

There are occasional innovations on the western front, when radically new weapons are brought to the battlefield in an attempt to clear the enemy more effectively from their trenches.

The Germans first try the use of chlorine gas against the Russians in Poland in January 1915, but the extreme cold makes it ineffective. They make a second attempt at Ypres in April 1915. This time the creeping poisonous green vapour immediately empties the French trenches. But the Germans, not anticipating such an immediate success, fail to take advantage of their opportunity. Five months later the British use chlorine gas, at Loos in September - again to little advantage, partly because the wind changes and blows the gas back over their own men.

By the end of the war both sides make frequent use of even more alarming gases (phosgene and mustard). The damage is limited by the gas mask, soon part of the basic equipment of every soldier, though mustard gas also causes severe burns to the skin.

From 1916 poison gas is no longer released from canisters, to drift with the wind across the enemy's position. Now it is fired in compressed form in shells and mortars, to expand on impact. During one advance, in the Ypres region in March 1918, the Germans fire half a million mustard gas shells into the Allied lines. But protective measures by now ensure that even such a heavy bombardment results in only 7000 gas casualties and less than 100 deaths.

Poison gas has been relatively little used in subsequent wars, for fear of retaliation in kind. But modern warfare has been transformed by another innovation on the western front.

During the battle of the Somme, on 15 September 1916, the British send into action eleven vehicles of an entirely new kind, the Mark I tank. On this first occasion they make relatively little impression. But on their second outing, at Cambrai in November 1917, they prove their unmistakable value in clearing the battleground for the infantry following behind them. Unlike foot soldiers, tanks can advance against the dreaded machine gun and can crash through the barbed wire barricades protecting the enemy trenches.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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