The book Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, in some ways, defies categorization. It is non-fiction work on a historical subject, but it isn’t quite a “historical” book. At least not in the scholarly sense. The style and depth approach entertainment – though you should think less History Channel and more the better-done PBS documentaries. Yet even that comparison misses the point.
In their forward, authors Jim Lacey and Williamson Murray set forth a purpose for their project. Modern academia* has attempted to remove, or at least de-emphasize, the role of wars in the course of history. Indeed, it is not uncommon (and may even be the dominant opinion) to insist that wars, battles, and the influence of “great statesmen” of the past should be ignored in the classroom because they are an irrelevant to “true history”, which consists of cultural and social change. Even when the study of warfare is not eliminated entirely, it should at least be taught from an anti-war angle. The authors counter that, in some cases, wars and pivotal battles truly did “change history.” Under dispassionate, unbiased analysis (one would think) this would be blindingly obvious. To demonstrate the obvious, they have selected twenty battles where the outcome DID matter, where it DID change the course of history, and discuss these battles in detail.
As often happens, the marketing pitch (e.g. the subtitle) is a bit misleading. The intent is not to recount history as told by twenty battles. Picking one particular battle as being more important or significant than another is an inexact science. Rather, the idea is to talk about twenty battles (because that is a nice number) but select those twenty battles according to their impact upon world events. This does, specifically, contrast with perhaps the more common way of choosing history’s greatest battles. For example, a military historian might choose as his “most significant” battle one that showed brilliant tactics or a decisive outcome. Lacey and Murray give examples, such as Austerlitz or Cannae, which are typically found on lists of “the great battles of history.” They argue, however, that these battles, while tremendously interesting to the military strategist, did not alter the ultimate path of history. To misuse (slightly) a phrase, Napoleon and Hannibal won the battle but lost the war.
Likewise, the audience for this book is difficult to categorize. It is not written to be a textbook for a United States Military Academy class, or even for high school AP History. If nothing else, this could never be approved as a course book in our current political environment. Where the liberal bias is in place, academic policymakers would not even consider this thesis as appropriate for teaching. Where it is not, you’ve probably already incorporated this kind of information into your studies, but at a deeper level of detail. Hence the target for this work is the casual reader; but perhaps someone who has been educated in our current system and realizes that this has left an important gap in their knowledge of history. This book fills in that gap and does so in a way that you don’t mind reading it on your own free time. However, the authors also acknowledge another segment of their audience. In presenting their thesis, they add the line, “We suspect the reader may agree with us.” I took this statement personally. I think it indicates that they expect that many of their readers have already studied most, maybe even all, of the twenty battles. This reader is simply interested in another take on what we already know. Of course, we expect the occasional new insight along with much that we already have a familiarity.
Given this audience and this goal, the style makes sense. It mixes well-referenced factual text with something that verges on historical fiction. For example, I look at their first clash, the Battle of Marathon. This battle’s primary sources are both limited and have been extensive analyzed for hundreds of years. The description of the battle mixes a summary of known facts with some commentary regarding the conflicts between primary sources. It also tosses in the occasional dramatic narrative. We are given a description of the Persian commander’s emotional reaction when the Greek phalanges hit his flanks. Obviously, this is made up; Herodotus did not enlighten us about the emotional state of the commanders. In this, I see a similarity to The Killer Angels, where artistic license is obviously taken but also without taking leave from the known facts.
How the Ranks Have Grown
With a list of twenty historic battles before me, how can I not find games to match up with what I am reading?
The first battle the book looks at is the Battle of Marathon. Marathon is used as the first of the world-changing battles in that the Greek victory at Marathon and the subsequent prevention of a second Persian landing near Athens not only won the war, but saved Western Civilization. The argument is that, had Darius defeated Greece, he would have sought vengeance upon both the nation and its culture. The subsequent ascendancy of Greek ideals such as Democracy, philosophy, and even Christianity may not have been possible in that alternative world.
To experience Marathon myself, I take out my copy of Field of Glory II. That game’s Immortal Fire expansion features Marathon as one if its “Epic Battles.” Having just read the account of the battle in Moment of Battle, I play acutely aware of any departures from history.
There’s no hiding from it, so let’s just cut to the chase.
First, let me say that when I attempted to play this scenario, I lost. I lost pretty substantially. The Greek losses alone rivaled the total for both sides taken from the actual battle. Both my left wing and my center were completely obliterated and even my right wing was pretty much defeated by the time my army broke and ran.
My experience with Field of Glory II is still somewhat limited but, if Pike and Shot is anything to go on, the scenarios can get pretty tough once you move beyond the introductory ones. However, it wasn’t clear to me whether my loss was due to a difficult scenario or just incompetent game play. So I played again, and lost again. Then I did it again. It took me four tries before I was finally able to get a victory. In every attempt, I modeled my strategies upon those which the Greeks used at Marathon. Particularly on my first try, this was a big part of my problem.
As Moment of Battle describes it, the Greek victory can be credited to two tactics. The first is specifically represented in Field of Glory II.
Miltiades, the Greek polemarch**, knew that he was facing a numerically superior army but he also knew he had time on his side. The Persians were trapped on a plain, hemmed in on three sides by the sea, marshes, and other terrain. There was only one way off the beaches and toward Athens. The Greeks had established fortifications to prevent such an exit, fortifications which the Persians were unwilling to contest. That left the Persians with only one route of retreat, back onto the ships upon which they had come. The problem is that, while boarding, the Persian army would be vulnerable to attack. The Persians waited to see if the Greeks would face them in open battle, but eventually had to move.
The size advantage of the Persian army was enough that, even while their cavalry was boarding, the infantry that remained to screen the withdrawal still outnumbered the Greeks. The Persians remained confident that they could react to and defeat a Greek sally with only their infantry. For their part, the Greeks had to compensate for their inferior numbers. Their solution was, at the center of their line, to deploy the Greek hoplite formations at double width and half depth. On the wings, they were deployed in normal formation. The effect was to present the Persians with a similarly sized battle line, which prevented it from being easily out-flanked, but one with all its power weighted in the wings. As I said, this is explicitly modeled in the game.
The other key tactic was in Greeks’ advance, which took the Persians by surprise. Ancient tactics expected the lines to approach each other and begin the fighting with skirmishing and missile attacks. Only after this initial phase would the heavy infantry march forward to engage their counterparts in an attempt to break the enemy lines. The Persians advantage in raw numbers was multiplied by an advantage in number and quality of archers. When the Greeks began to advance on them, they expected that they could decimate the advancing ranks with long range fire and then overwhelm them with their superior numbers on engagement. The Greeks did not do what was expected of them.
Instead of marching steadily forward, the Greeks broke into a running charge supported by neither cavalry nor archers. According to Moment of Battle, the initial volley of arrows went long, falling harmlessly behind the Greek lines. Because the Greeks were moving much faster than they should have been, they weren’t where they were supposed to be when the archers chose their targets. Before the bowmen could become effective, the Greeks had moved into direct contact with the enemy. At this point, the better trained, better organized hoplites in their powerful phalanx formations were facing Persian infantry fighting with wicker shields. While the weakened formations at the center of the Greek lines were disadvantaged by the Persian numbers, they knew their job was to give ground and bide for time. On the wings, it was no contest.
The battle lines converge. My goal is to rapidly engage my flanks.
Field of Glory II will not reproduce this dramatic victory. The opening sees the Persians moving forward to engage with the Greeks. When they get within range, the Persian archers begin their attack and can achieve several turns of effective fire before contact ensues. Similarly, the Persians will not fall into the trap of throwing the majority of their army into the center to be cut off and surrounded. Each time I lost (and even when I won), the computer split its line to deal with the more serious threat on the wings rather than plunging forward after my center.
The key to victory as the Greeks (as usual, ignore this if you want to discover the game by yourself) is the rapidity with which you can break the wings of the Persian army. In every game I lost, I initially gained a significant advantage in points by causing the Persians on the wings to break. At some point, the clock turns against you and your own forces tire out and begin to fall back. When that happens, the Persians’ advantage begins to snowball and it becomes impossible to catch back up. The first time through, my mistake was assuming that, in a one-on-one match-up, the Persian infantry wouldn’t be able to stand up to my hoplites. They can. They’re definitely inferior to the Greeks, but they can hold out for a time. As the Greek player, it is necessary to be smart about engaging the Persians on your own terms to break their line as rapidly as possible.
Even once I realized my mistake, victory didn’t come easily. My last play through, when I finally won, I broke enough Persian units, and quickly enough, so as to get a 25% lead before most of my center was significantly engaged. It was partly due to a refinement in my approach (after the series of failures) but may also have had something to do with luck; I saw a rapid cascade of broken units on the Persian left that looked a bit like “lucky dice.” After being declared the victor, something didn’t feel right about winning the battle without having broken either of the Persian flanks.
Again relying on the Moment of Battle narrative, the moment of truth in the battle came as the Greeks were victorious on the flanks but nearly collapsing in the center. The authors credit the superior training of the Greek troops that allowed the wings to recover and reform facing inward. The Greek infantry rapidly redeployed toward the flanks of the Persian center. The Persians, they speculate, would have been unable to anticipate this maneuver, given the combination of their experience against lesser armies and the fog of war. In just the nick of time, the Greek wings crashed into the Persian center and prevented a Persian victory.
A bloody mess. The casualties are pushing double that of the actual battle.
Since I felt cheated by my “points” victory I decided I would take the option of pressing onward. The battle went on for many more turns. I eventually had routed more than 60% of the Persian army, the next threshold for victory, and stopped the game there. By then, my own left flank had fallen apart although my right flank was steadily grinding towards victory. That initial 30%-plus advantage wound up being my high water mark. Although I remained ahead in points for the rest of the game, I never again held the decisive numbers that I did at the moment of declared victory.
The points-trigger for end-of-game is supposed to represent how an army will not continue fighting once it seems like they have lost. Soldiers will not willingly press on into a meat grinder as I forced them all to do in the game. So pressing on after the game was declared over probably drove up my casualty count. Herodotus tells us that the Greeks lost only 192 to the something-like-6,400 that the Greeks killed as they chased down fleeing Persians. Modern scholars wonder if that might not be a bit of Greek propaganda and suggest the truth might be closer to that of the screenshot above. For what it’s worth, Moment of Battle references only Herodotus’ number.
As the book describes, the battle was not a total victory. Although the Greeks broke the Persian army, killing or capturing thousands, the bulk of the enemy reembarked upon their ships. This shifted the advantage back to the Persians. The entire Greek army was now sitting along on the beach while the Persians afloat and able to land anyplace that the Greeks were not. The Greeks had summoned all*** available forces so Athens was left completely undefended. For most of us, our first knowledge of the Battle of Marathon comes from the messenger who ran, in full battle armor, the 26.2 km from the battlefield to Athens to tell the city of their victory, only to drop dead from exhaustion. More importantly, the bulk of the Greek army also marched those same 26.2 km so as to be present when the Persians arrived by ship. The prospect of another battle against the army that had just defeated them was enough to convince the Persian commander, Datis, to give up and go home. While the victory at Marathon was necessary to win the war, one has to figure that the incredible operational achievement of moving an army on foot to outmaneuver a fleet (a fleet with a head start, at that), may have been the more decisive factor.
One World. It’s a Battleground.
The second battle in the book is Gaugamela. Marathon may have saved the Greek civilization but it was Gaugamela that destroyed the Persian one. Or rather, it established the influence of Greek culture in across the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean through Roman times.
I’ll not play my Guagamela scenarios again, but Moment of Battle similarly emphasizes the issues I had with trying to reproduce that fight in a game. The book describes a handful of key factors in Alexander’s victory.
Guagamela, among other things, is a classic showdown between quantity and quality. Darius’ forces massively outnumbered Alexander’s, but the troops Alexander had were probably the finest in the world. Alexander was further helped by the fact that Guagamela followed his victories at Granicus and Issus; Alexander’s victorious veterans faced Darius’ replacements. Second, the book describes that, immediately before the battle, Darius kept his forces on alert, ready for a possible night attack from Alexander. Alexander, having determined that fighting at night would not be to his advantage, got a good night’s rest along with his army.
Alexander’s skill as a battlefield commander obviously was a major factor in his victory. Moment of Battle describes several of the ways that this made a difference. They note that when Alexander chose to lead his Companions in an unexpected direction, several of his subordinates moved their own infantry or cavalry in support. This is obviously a major command advantage, allowing Alexander to seize initiative in ways that Darius could not. Great Battles of Alexander explicitly attempts to simulate this with their command system. Lacey and Murray also describe in some detail the pivotal moment in the battle where Alexander realized there was a gap in the Persian lines and exploited it. They also describe whey the Persian cavalry did not and, perhaps could not, exploit the corresponding gap that this opened up in the Greek lines. Not to rehash it, but it came down to the superior training and discipline of Alexander’s army which allowed the Greeks to remain in good order while the Persians set to looting the Greek camp. These factors, as I complained, no game seems capable of reproducing.
I wonder whether Alexander had any chance of winning the battle except for his exploitation of the “gap.” Gaugamela was by no means a sure thing for Alexander. Even after charging through the hole and disrupting the Persian center, the fight still hung in the balance. He had Persian cavalry in his rear that, fortunately for him, chose to loot his camp rather than turn around and charge the Greek formations from behind. He had a left flank that was on the verge of disaster, resulting in his famous decision not to pursue the fleeing Darius. Had that gap never opened, though, it could easily been argued that Alexander’s force would have slowly ground down by the Persians’ superior numbers.
So what does that say? Does this mean any game treatment of Gaugamela should consist primarily of determining whether the hole opens in the Persian lines and whether Alexander is ready and willing to exploit it? That probably wouldn’t be any fun.
*I stretch the term “modern” without trying to nail it down. What I’m trying to identify certainly isn’t purely a twenty-teens phenomenon. The ideas probably follow the arc of most political thought which has come to dominate the universities. I suspect it started with a few scholars in the 1960s, outliers in their respective fields, who pushed a revisionist interpretation of history. In doing this, perhaps some merely wanted to counter what most saw as rote and counter-productive learning; memorizing the dates of famous battles is not “learning history,” especially if one totally ignores the context in which wars are fought. The authors, again in their forward, explicitly acknowledge this. What was a few isolated opinions in the 1960s becomes a significant fraction of professors in the 1980s. By the 2000s, such ideas not only represent the new orthodoxy at the university level but the influence extends down through primary-and-secondary education and our society’s understanding of our own history.
**The term polemarch translates to “warlord” but is (and was) used to designate the supreme commander on a battlefield. Because the Greek armies were a coalition, potentially-commanding generals often found themselves among equals with no clear way to designate who should have overall command. In this case, command was rotated among the different generals, each taking their turn on a different day. Miltiades was recognized for having the most experience fighting the Persians. Some juggling may have been required to defer to his experience without slighting the other generals who were also due their turn.
***Much is made of the absence of the Spartans. The timing of the battle conflicted with a religious holiday (one that forbade fighting) leaving them unable to attend. In the end, it seems, this was neither here nor there.