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"Ancient Armies YouTube video: Could an Infantry Line Wheel?" Topic


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22 May 2021 12:06 p.m. PST
by Editor in Chief Bill

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Bolingar22 May 2021 11:06 a.m. PST

Just uploaded the third video of the Ancient Armies channel. Every Ancients and Mediaeval wargamer (and come to think of it, everything up to WW1 wargamer) takes it for granted that once deployed into a line, infantry had no problem wheeling right or left. But, historically, could they actually do this?

It took me years of trawling through the primary sources to discover that in fact they couldn't. Drilled troops could change direction on the battlefield, but not the way you think. Check out the video here.

Wargamorium22 May 2021 12:21 p.m. PST

Very interesting.

Two questions –
1. does this mean they did not wheel?
2. What about non-professionals?

Sorry – I know very little about ancients

Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP22 May 2021 12:32 p.m. PST

I wonder about wedging troops, and/or troops in looser, "tribal" formations which followed their chieftain wherever he went. Could they wheel?

John the OFM22 May 2021 3:41 p.m. PST

Let's bring up the Marching Band, shall we? grin

Bolingar23 May 2021 1:31 a.m. PST

Two questions
1. does this mean they did not wheel?
2. What about non-professionals?

An infantry line never wheeled as a line. The best that professional troops like Spartans could do was wheel individual square-shaped subunits (pentecosties in their case) into column. The column moved off right or left, stopped, and reformed into a line. A column probably could wheel as a column (each subunit wheels, moves off, is followed by the next subunit and so on) but there's no case I know of where that was actually done. The example I gave in the video of a Spartan line out flanking the enemy line was about as complicated as it got.

Non-professional infantry never wheeled as a line and never formed a column. Essentially all they did was deploy into line and then advance and fight.

Bolingar23 May 2021 1:36 a.m. PST

I wonder about wedging troops, and/or troops in looser, "tribal" formations which followed their chieftain wherever he went. Could they wheel?

I'm wary of the idea of 'looser' formations. Melee infantry were never loose as they needed to be close enough together so individual soldiers would not get attacked on the sides by enemy. Essentially all infantry were close enough together so they had just enough space to wield their shields freely (Romans, Gauls, etc.) or closer so their shields overlapped (hoplites, phalangites).

Tribal formations in melee formation could not wheel – they just advanced into contact with the enemy.

A wedge was a part of the line where the best troops were concentrated that advanced ahead of the rest of the line (that formed echelons on its sides to cover its flanks), the idea being that the best troops could fight through the enemy line and pierce it. There was obviously no wheeling in this case.

Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP23 May 2021 4:36 a.m. PST

The Zulu "horns of the buffalo" could obviously wheel, as could Highland clan warriors in Jacobite times. So it's not obvious to me that no non-professional warriors of antiquity were capable of the same.

Your description of a wedge formation is rather different than that described by Delbruck and others, where it originates as much from social/political reasons (i.e. the tip of the wedge is the chieftain, followed by his most honored warriors and kin, and they in turn followed by the mass of the tribe). A Germanic battle line, in this model, consists of tribes on line, each in a wedge-headed mass. Something like the sub-units of the civilized battle line as described in the video.

If this model is correct, then it seems possible that the line could wheel if individual chieftains started heading in a new direction, followed by their tribes. Of course there would have to be a "regulating" unit to select the new direction, with the other chieftains observing and following his lead. The "regulating" tribal wedge would likely have been that of the king or otherwise most prestigious chieftain in command of the entire army.

One last quibble – I doubt that the Germans in the Teutoburger Wald were deployed in a regular line, or were packed in so tight that they couldn't move around trees, etc.

Please don't mistake my meaning – I really like the video and thought it made a solid case regarding the capabilities of formed battle lines from civilized armies.

David Brown23 May 2021 4:47 a.m. PST

Any unit, regardless of its training, can wheel.

The pertinent issue is how well the formation or fighting capability is maintained after that wheel and how long it takes to sort out any disorder caused by the manoeuvre.

Therefore is it desirable to risk a wheel/change of direction when in battle or closing up into battle formations?


DB

Bolingar23 May 2021 6:44 a.m. PST

The Zulu "horns of the buffalo" could obviously wheel, as could Highland clan warriors in Jacobite times. So it's not obvious to me that no non-professional warriors of antiquity were capable of the same.

The horns of an impi didn't wheel the formation was more like a wedge in reverse, with the impi's flanks advanced ahead of the centre, enabling them to fall on the enemy's side and rear (by individual warriors rushing the enemy, not by any elegant wheels) once the centre had made contact. Zulus probably didn't get a far as structured file-and-rank formations so didn't execute manoeuvres as we understand them.

Your description of a wedge formation is rather different than that described by Delbruck and others, where it originates as much from social/political reasons (i.e. the tip of the wedge is the chieftain, followed by his most honored warriors and kin, and they in turn followed by the mass of the tribe). A Germanic battle line, in this model, consists of tribes on line, each in a wedge-headed mass. Something like the sub-units of the civilized battle line as described in the video.

If this model is correct, then it seems possible that the line could wheel if individual chieftains started heading in a new direction, followed by their tribes. Of course there would have to be a "regulating" unit to select the new direction, with the other chieftains observing and following his lead. The "regulating" tribal wedge would likely have been that of the king or otherwise most prestigious chieftain in command of the entire army.

Exactly. The tip of the tribal wedge consisted of the best armed and most experienced fighters of the tribe: the chieftain and his personal warriors. A wedge did not physically try to push its way through an enemy line; rather, its tip attempted to outfight the portion of the enemy line it contacted, using superior fighters to kill the enemy front-rankers and make the rear-rankers panic and fall back. There is no case that I know of of a wedge doing anything other than drive straight ahead at the enemy line to pierce it and then roll up the pierced line.

One last quibble I doubt that the Germans in the Teutoburger Wald were deployed in a regular line, or were packed in so tight that they couldn't move around trees, etc.

Sure. That was an ongoing ambush, not a regular battle which my video covers.

Bolingar23 May 2021 6:45 a.m. PST

Any unit, regardless of its training, can wheel.

The evidence suggests it can't unless it's square-shaped. And trained. And made up of full-time professional troops. I'm listening…

Bolingar23 May 2021 9:38 a.m. PST

Let's bring up the Marching Band, shall we?

Here it is. :-)

Personal logo Unlucky General Supporting Member of TMP23 May 2021 2:26 p.m. PST

Very well made video. You've clearly put as lot of research and thought into this. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks.

It seems you are focusing on close-order and rather exact (and drilled) formation fighting. I don't profess to be expert on this but it seems improbable to me that formed soldiery would attempt to form and reform as depicted in such close proximity to an enemy in the middle of a battle. I suspect that once engaged, you are pretty well stuck with what you have. Further maneuver would only be an option for subsequent lines of battle.

In terms of 'lines' I'd suggest cavalry and open formation units would definitely wheel inasmuch as the archer unit you started with are unlikely to be formed up or packed-in like close order heavy foot. I think Dave Brown's comment is on the mark also as it goes to disorder – if disorder is important to the unit concerned.

How much ancient armies were strictly formed as a general rule and how much they retained their formations is another question. I don't doubt that the examples you used are accurate. I definitely think you made your case for pike blocks. For me, the last example of a Spartan overlapping formation and maneuver is unlikely and perhaps unnecessary.

I'd have thought that once you've got around the flanks and rear of a phalanx then your need for strict cohesion and parade ground formation changes has gone. Trying to call out drill instructions over the din of battle and rely on nerves of steel as you shuffle about in the face of the enemy is a challenging assertion. Once you have successfully overlapped the enemy lines, you could rush to form up more urgently and less rigidly and just start hitting the enemy in the rear. The outflanked hoplites are done for either way.

I suspect part of a wargamer approach is that we have rigid miniatures on fixed bases.

Bolingar24 May 2021 6:42 a.m. PST

It seems you are focusing on close-order and rather exact (and drilled) formation fighting. I don't profess to be expert on this but it seems improbable to me that formed soldiery would attempt to form and reform as depicted in such close proximity to an enemy in the middle of a battle. I suspect that once engaged, you are pretty well stuck with what you have. Further maneuver would only be an option for subsequent lines of battle.

Manoeuvre was an option for non-engaged infantry, whether in a second line or on an unengaged flank. Of course once an infantry line was in contact with the enemy and fighting, manoeuvring was no longer possible.

In terms of 'lines' I'd suggest cavalry and open formation units would definitely wheel inasmuch as the archer unit you started with are unlikely to be formed up or packed-in like close order heavy foot.

The tacticians don't mention 'loose' intervals for non-melee infantry, be it archers, slingers, javelineers, etc. Just that these troops may have needed more space between the ranks to wield their weapons that's how Vegetius describes a late-Roman infantry line, with a yard per file and two yards per rank.

Open order two yards per file as well as per rank was not a fighting formation but used on the march. It could also be used for insertion or interjection: alternating one's own files with the files of another formation, e.g. inserting light troops into a body of heavy infantry. But in that case the combined formation still had one file per yard.

The idea of loose clouds of skirmishers really belongs to tribal warfare, like this video of Papua New Guinean tribal warriors skirmishing with each other in loose lines. However there is no evidence non-tribal armies fought this way.

How much ancient armies were strictly formed as a general rule and how much they retained their formations is another question. I don't doubt that the examples you used are accurate. I definitely think you made your case for pike blocks. For me, the last example of a Spartan overlapping formation and maneuver is unlikely and perhaps unnecessary.

Sparta made a speciality of overlapping an enemy phalanx to a greater extent in order to leave more troops free to outflank the enemy line, which was different from the standard overlap of other hoplite phalanxes that had a few hoplites past the enemy left who then basically turned towards the enemy without any wheels or manoeuvres and munched the edge of the enemy line like a pacman.

I'd have thought that once you've got around the flanks and rear of a phalanx then your need for strict cohesion and parade ground formation changes has gone. Trying to call out drill instructions over the din of battle and rely on nerves of steel as you shuffle about in the face of the enemy is a challenging assertion. Once you have successfully overlapped the enemy lines, you could rush to form up more urgently and less rigidly and just start hitting the enemy in the rear. The outflanked hoplites are done for either way.

Getting round to the enemy's rear in numbers and at speed required a proper manoeuvre which the Spartans excelled at. And since the manoeuvre was executed by the 8x8 or 8x9 pentecosty, the hoplites would have no trouble hearing orders. The manoeuvre was made easier by the fact that they had already practised it beforehand as a drill and so knew exactly what to do.

Stryderg24 May 2021 10:43 a.m. PST

After basic training, we could almost march in step…almost. Wheeling was right out.

David Brown24 May 2021 1:48 p.m. PST

Stryderg,

After basic training, we could almost march in step…almost. Wheeling was right out.

Are you misrememebring?wink

After just a few drill sessions we could march instep, halt, about turn, left/right turn, go into open order, wheel on the move, about turn on the move, etc, after just a few hours drill…..

DB

Stryderg25 May 2021 9:43 a.m. PST

For those of us who actually listened to instruction and then executed those instructions, it wasn't a problem. It was some of the other folks who either didn't listen or didn't want to execute or who felt like doing their own thing that kept throwing a wrench into the works.

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