Immediately, this is a bit interesting. So far, a lot has been said about recruits, soldiers and units and their organisation. Now an army is being discussed. It seems to me that many wargame rules do not manage this sort of distinction very often. I have written before about the idea of emergence, and it is what Vegetius seems to be writing about.
Consider some older wargame rules. I do not want to pick on any specific rules, but some of the older ones start off with the capability of the individual solider. They then work their way up to a unit, with various caveats about how units move more slowly than the individual. Very often, the rules stop there. An army is nothing but the accumulation of a number of units. It has no particular identity over and above that.
I think that this may lap over into our wargames as well. As I recall, many of my early wargames were, effectively, battles of units. This unit may perform heroically, that might run away. There was some sort of acknowledgement of the fact that, for example, seeing another unit scarper had a dampening effect on the units around it. But there was no real engagement with the army as a whole.
An yet, historically, armies do have individual characteristics. For example, after the battle of Cropredy Bridge, Waller’s army disintegrated. The battle, to quote, I think, Clarendon ‘brake the heart of his army’. How could that be, unless the army as a whole could be treated as a whole?
Anyway, Vegetius prefers smaller, disciplined armies to larger ones. This is partly because he believes that disciplined troops can overcome numbers, and partly because smaller forces are easier to keep in supply. The bitter comment of a Thirty Years war commander sums this up: “Small armies lose, large armies starve.”
Vegetius spends a fair number of paragraphs describing how to keep the army in supply and preventing discontent in the ranks. Keep them fed and occupied, seems to be the message.
The question of movement is then discussed. This raises interesting questions about mapping. I have read some rather contradictory things about Roman maps. To start with, I have seen it confidently asserted that the Romans did not do maps. The closest they had were the itineraries, which simply listed the distances between the towns, forts, mansios and other items on a given route. Of course, an army could use these for some sort of planning of movement, but they naturally peter out in the frontier territory.
On the other hand I have recently read confident assertions that military surveyors existed and would have done useful work in mapping routes, topographical features likely to be useful or awkward to the armies, and so on. Vegetius says that an army commander should have an exact description “of the country that is the seat of war.” Well, yes, of course. That does sound very much like a map.
Various things in the campaign and pre-battle are then discussed, such as making encampments, determining the ‘sentiment’ of the troops before an action, and dealing with raw and undisciplined troops. This latter sounds like something of an admission that, despite the claims made earlier in the pieces about discipline and smaller numbers of troops, very often the later Romans landed up with ill-disciplined troops.
Quite a bit follows about how to deploy, which is ‘obvious’, or at least would be regarded as pre-modern obvious deployment. For example, if you have more cavalry, deploy on open ground; if not, use rough ground, and so on. Force to space rations are discussed, although not named as such; troops should be deployed in deeper units if the ground is narrow. Cavalry should flank the infantry, heaviest nearest the foot. There should be a reserve.
The general should be on the right, between the infantry and cavalry, and he should be able to manoeuver his troops as required. There is a bit about not letting your left to get surrounded, while the right is less frequently in danger. The right, of course, is the most honourable side (hence the presence of the general). How many wargame rules establish that the best troops should go on the right? I cannot think of any…
Anyway, Vegetius then discusses seven different formations for the army, including an oblong square, oblique (refusing the left flank), refusing the right, which is ‘not so good’. Others are advancing both wings, , advancing both wings with the gap covered by light foot and archers, advancing just the right wing (presumably the best troops) to outflank the enemy left, and securing one flank on terrain.
Vegetius also comments that facilitating flight of the enemy is a good idea, discusses how to retreat and how to deal with chariots and elephants. He then leaves us with some general maxims, which reiterate some of the previous points.
So, a quick canter through De Re Militari. What have I learnt?
Firstly, that a fair bit of Vegetius’ writing have passed, consciously or not, into current historiography and, either hence or directly, into wargame rules. On the whole I have no problem with this, except to observe that Vegetius was not a general, strictly speaking, and his observations on earlier armies may be a little suspect, or at least, from my reading of him, viewed through rose coloured spectacles.
Secondly, that the issues and problems he discuss are not specific to his times, they do apply more widely, as we see repeatedly in history. Armies need to be fed, trained and disciplined before they can achieve anything.
Finally, Vegetius influence may not be as wide as we might like to think. While he was the main military writer of the medieval period, that does not seem to mean that his maxims were followed. I have seen it suggested that his main legacy to medieval warfare was the idea that war could be conducted in a rational manner. After all, we do not see many legions in the thirteenth century…