Certain military formations are pretty well-known. The Roman three line approach, the bristling spear points of a Greek phalanx and so on. But what happened when daring chaps shunned military practice and adapted their formation to face a specific enemy? Often, they got completely buggered.
Cannae is one of the most famous battles in the world, and is still studied today, such was the absolute thrashing Hannibal gave a massive Roman army. However, a significant benefit he enjoyed was that Varro, his opposite number, was a bit over-confident due to numerical advantage. Romans normally adopted a so-called checkerboard formation between maniples (literally ‘handfuls’, in practice two centuries paired up) which gave great flexibility.
Varro decided to make best use of his substantial manpower by getting rid of the gaps and cramming the soldiers more closely together. We don’t know how Cannae would’ve gone if he hadn’t done this, and whilst keeping the checkerboard formation might not have saved the day it might’ve made the defeat less crushing. Hannibal surrounded the Roman army (an impressive feat, given he had fewer men) and slaughtered the vast majority.
The Battle of Magnesia was fought a couple of decades later, in 190BC. The Romans, and their allies from Pergamum, faced off against Antiochus III, master of the Seleucid Empire.
Antiochus had a large phalanx, as you might expect, but broke it up with lots of little intervals. Into each of these intervals he put a couple of war elephants (worth nothing here that the Romans had first encountered war elephants long ago when they faced Pyrrhus).
Antiochus was about to discover that there was a very good reason why the Macedonians hadn’t shoved elephants in the middle of tightly clustered and not very manoeuvrable foot soldiers.
The battle did not go well for the Seleucids, and (as often happened, such as the Battle of Beneventum which saw Pyrrhus suffer final defeat by the Romans) the elephants panicked. Naturally, this made an orderly withdrawal for the phalanx all but impossible. Fighting Romans was never easy at this period in history, and trying to do so when a large number of berserk elephants are trampling all over you is even harder.
It’s the 600th anniversary of Agincourt this year. Henry V deserves great credit for the fantastic triumph, but it’s also worth noting the very helpful role the French nobility played. As well as enjoying a substantial numerical advantage over the English, Henry V had dug the army in defensively, so the initiative lay entirely with the French.
The English had several problems, not least of which was lack of supplies and being a bit diseased. The French had been pursuing Henry for a while, and finally catching him saw their morale very high. Unfortunately, they assumed victory was a foregone conclusion.
The longbows at Agincourt did great work, but it’s worth knowing that the French actually had thousands of crossbowmen at their disposal. But they didn’t let them fire. The crossbowmen and French archers were deployed behind the men-at-arms, and appear not to have done very much. Instead, the French charged (on horse and on foot) the English lines. Fierce hand-to-hand combat was had, but the English longbows and Henry’s perfect choice of battlefield (narrow ground, with mud so thick a man in armour would struggle to get to his feet if he fell) gave the victory to the outnumbered English.
The three battles have a few things in common. The side that changed formation had a substantial numerical advantage (NB at Magnesia ancient sources reckon Antiochus had 40,000 more men, but modern historians reckon it was closer to 50,000 each). The side that changed formation took the offensive (most especially at Agincourt), and lost.
There are several reasons why sticking in formation is almost always the best thing to do. Not only is it proven to work, the men know what they’re doing. If you’re in a phalanx and an elephant ten feet away suddenly goes berserk and you’ve never been in that situation before, it’s not ideal when several thousand Romans are trying to kill you at the same time.
Clever moves can be made with formations (also at Cannae, Hannibal deliberately deployed his centre in a weak, convex formation to deliberately tempt the Romans into attacking. This then [as planned] became concave and proved critical to surrounding the Romans). But unless you’re a military genius, it may well ruin your prospects.