Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Principles of Close Order Combat before the Machinegun

The face-to-face battlefield changed more in the four years of WW1 than in the previous four thousand.  Before, a successful defensive move was to “close ranks” to repel or break cohesion of that group whose ranks were not close enough.  Once an attacker breaches the front ranks of a defending unit, even one very small, weakens the ability  of the defenders to close ranks, present a united front, shoulder to shoulder.  The enemy has the opportunity to attack defenders from more than one side.  Shoulder to shoulder forces the enemy to attack more than one defender, those on both sides, and few directly behind.

On 3 September 1260 The Mameluks Sultanate defeated the Mongols invasion of the Holy Land at Ain Jalut.   The Mameluks used “Hand cannon” of Chinese origin in hopes of frightening Mongol horses with unknown results.  The shortage of grass for Mongol horses limited the number of spare horses that limited the mobility and flexibility of Mongol cavalry. 

The old adage of the enemy of my enemy is my friend caused considerable angst in the remaining Crusader states.  Some wanted to have a treaty (MOU – memorandum of understanding) with the Mongols to finish off the Muslims, but the Pope vetoed that notion.  Instead, the Crusader states in harms’ way gave free passage and watering holes for the Mameluks.

Eventually, trade with the Far East introduced gunpowder and guns in sufficient amounts to have an effect on fortifications and open battle, but that did not happen until several decades after the end of the Crusades in the Levant.   The gradual introduction of more effective firearms into the hands of the infantryman did not defeat the “close ranks” formations of the defenders until the carnage of WW 1 tipped the balance.  These two battles, one in the American Revolution and the other at Waterloo show close ordered formation not less tightly paced as a Greek phalanx.


This in part was due to logistic reasons – no railroad.  Until the railroad, armies marched on their stomachs fed by forage, pillage, and/or plunder.  Such plundering alienated the civilians who were plundered even by their own troops to the point that the Founders of the US Constitution made it a point in the Bill of Rights in the Third Amendment:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”.

The Industrial Revolution changed the tactical milieu not only by design of weaponry but upon the ability to supply forward forces continuously. The range of technological change came tin a rapidly increasing perhaps exponential rate during the 100 years before Armistice Day of the First World War. 

Just before the American Civil War, rifles replaced smooth bore muskets that tripled the effective range of the infantryman against massed close order infantry. This was a change from a fifty-yard lethal range to three hundred.  The railroad increased the available ammunition supply rate (ASR)   The tactical imperative changed from “close ranks” to “dig in, spread out, and hide”. It took another sixty years and millions of lives until World War 2 before the lessons became standard practice.

In addition to a more lethal front line rifle, rifling added accuracy and range to cannon which now could be fired from well behind the front line instead of being part of it.  The defense also shifted to field fortifications (dug by the port-a-fort entrenching tool) to defeat incoming bullets and escape both shell fragment and bullet swarm.  The rate of fire of the infantryman increased due to the now familiar brass cartridge and the action of loading new rounds after extracting fired cartridges by hand by hand or automatically. Barbed wire was introduced during the Great War from the Old West to slow down attackers in the same manner as Caltrops were used in medieval war. Then we come to the Second World War.

These examples show that as the effective fire increases so are the defensive measure on the receiving end.  The mantra then was close up, build up, and armor up.  The differences in mobility between the foot mounted infantry and the horse-mounted cavalry still presents the problem of the cavalry outrunning the infantry. This left gaps in the defensive line, or it slowed the attacker down which turned the cavalry (horses, tanks, personnel carriers) into a slow vulnerable target with no shock effect. 
The defeat of the Army of Jerusalem at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 featured a separation of the infantry from the main force of mounted cavalry by reasons that are not clear.  Saladin had just completed encircling the entire force, something that requires continuous pressure on the defender from all sides (exterior lines) while the forces inside the circle must defeat the forces on the circle one piece at a time before attacking another piece.  Interior lines require space and speed. 

The remaining options for the Army of Jerusalem were to use heavy cavalry to break through and escape.  The advance guard under Count Raymond III of Tripoli and the rear guard under Balian de Ibelin both did just that. The fact remaining is that there was no infantry to support the mounted charges by King Guy in his attack to break the Saracen lines and reach water. 

As the battle developed, Jerusalem advanced across the slowly rising field with a row of low rolling hills (the Horns of Hattin) with Raymond of Tripoli commanding the advance guard, King Guy with the main body that had infantry protecting the cavalry inside each “battle”. 

Saladin then chose the Tactical Imperatives of the Contra Attack to “confuse, blind, parried and block” the Army of Jerusalem.  Faced with that, Jerusalem attempted to seize the high ground and break out towards the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias). This charge disconnect the main body from it’s own infantry, and both guards front and rear.

As the range and lethality of weapons increased, so did the need to make some choices between firepower, protection, and mobility.  These choices are complex, but there is a simple basis for analysis – the human body.  The choices can be called “Tactical Imperatives”

Over the centuries armies have attempted to close the speed difference between foot mounted infantry and horse mounted cavalry.  One solution, then and now, is to for the infantry to ride to the battle but fight on foot.  That option is called “mechanized infantry”,, Panzer Grenadier, Dragoons, and other storied names.
hic desinit lectio

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