Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Generals in General

So, no post last week, huh?

What is my excuse this time?

Well, I had a bad dose of Real Life(TM). I believe Mr Berry sells it in handy 3 oz cans. Actually, I was at a conference in Manchester, trying to stay awake in the plenary sessions and go to sleep in my hotel room. I don't think I acheived either.

Anyway, consider Greek generals.

Here we find that the behaviour of generals is, to some extent at least, moderated by culture. In this case, the culture is reasonably clear: Homer. One of the over-riding facts of what we know about classical Greek culture comes down to Homer - the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Now, I've not read them (there are only so many hours in the day, after all), but the Homeric general is depicted as a hero. And this is the mileau that Greek generals moved in. So, for you average Greek general, the aim was to be a hero. This means fighting in the front rank of the phalanx, of course. You can't be a hero in the rear, after all.

In terms of command and control, this is not a good thing. Most rules permit the general to find it more difficult to command if they are in close combat. But for Greek generals in the phalanx, even before contact it must have been virtually impossible to command, in the front rank, with a bunch of other nervous men around you, wielding a spear and shield with a vision and hearing limiting helmet on.

Changes of plan are not going to happen.

Now, of course, to some extent, the general of a phalanx army did not need to command much after saying 'That way!'. As Greek armies developed with light troops and cavalry taking a greater part, they did start to hang back to direct stuff. Quite a few were in fact killed in the second phase of the battle, while attempting to shore up a crumbling position, or exploiting success.

Persian generals were already more sophisticated and usually were to be found in the centre, surrounded by the best troops, commanding a reserve. This was exploited, of course, by Alexander who usually aimed at the general. Once the general was dead, in this case, the army tended to collapse.

So, early classical Greek armies of, say, Marathon, need to loose most command and control facilities once the advance has begun. Other armies could be different, but it did take a while for the Hellenistic 'battle manager' to develop. Early Greek armies seem, then, to have been 'one shot' operations. There were no reserves, so no need to manage them.

How do we translate this into wargame terms? It could be a bit tricky, but classical Greek armies, until say 450 BC, should only be able to set up and start under a general's control. Thereafter, it is pretty well up to the phalanx officers to deal with events.

At this point, it is worth noting that the Spartan phalanx is reported to have had a front rank consisting of officers. This is worth pondering, if only a bit, as it may account for the general scary effectivness of the Spartans. If all the file leaders were officers, they may well be better trained and able to reorganise and fight on a bit better than the rest. If the 'democratic' phalanx hoplites took the idea of Homeric behaviour seriously, then the officer class would probably do so in spades. A Spartan phalanx, with a front rank of blokes all trying to be Achilles, would be, in my view, a very scary prospect.

As armies start to consist of more than just hoplites, the command function becomes more complex and generals need to stand back and start co-ordinating stuff. Mind you, they often did this on foot, as Xenophon was told off by his men for leading them from horseback. The qualities of Homeric heroes were still expected.

Furthermore, quite a few Greek generals who lost battles preferred to die fighting than run away. The ideal of the hero was still there, and they did plunge into battle, seeking an honourable death "doing their best" than the humiliation of returning home defeated.

Homer, it seems, had a lot to answer for.

No comments:

Post a Comment