Saturday, 3 January 2015

Traffic Jams and Chariot Tactics

I mentioned a week or so ago that I had spent a lot of time sitting in traffic jams. This is an unfortunate aspect of modern living, even in relatively sparsely populated parts of the country, especially while the world is working up to the frenzy of capitalist materialism we know as ‘Christmas’. To be honest, I think that Christians should ask the materialists for their festival back, please, but that is probably another post.

Anyway, having had a fair bit of time sitting in the car listening to classical music, feeling my nerves fraying and so on, I did recall an interesting paper I once read about the dynamics of traffic flows. The hypothesis was, as I recall, that a stream of traffic was modelled as a liquid which was compressible, but only up to a limit. Working out the mathematics of this (I do not think I ever understood the details) it turned out that there could be phase transitions in the flow, so that the previously flowing liquid became a solid, even though elements of the liquid were still entering and leaving the block. So it was, sort of, a dynamic solid, in equilibrium with the surroundings, but there for no readily apparent reason.

In my slightly fraught state, I also remembered my current struggles in painting classical Indian chariots. As you probably know, these are fairly large vehicles, with four or six crew per chariot. The Baccus chariots, for it is they with which I am struggling, for all the niceness of the model and cleanness of casting, I have really found difficult to assemble and paint. I am getting there, but having nearly attached myself to the chariot body with superglue, glued a chariot to my tweezers and then having to rebase the first batch because at four horses per chariot two chariots will not fit on a single base, these are never going to be my favourites.

Be that as it may, I also, while sitting in the dark on a flyover, with only a load of brake lights to admire, I recalled an article from many moons ago by Charles Grant in Military Modeller (just after ‘Battle’ had been forcibly amalgamated, and before MM reverted to being about military modelling, without wargaming). I think it was a regular column called ‘On Military Matters…’ or something like that, and it was about the tactics of using chariots.

The main point I think grant was trying to make was that chariots could not be lined up hub to hub and charge. Even over a short distance there would be sufficient roughness to the ground such that they would have to move around a little bit, and if they were deployed very close, that would inevitably lead to road traffic accidents. A pile up of chariots would be very messy even in peacetime. In a battle it would be disastrous.

Another point Grant made was in manoeuvring. Chariots need some room to turn. In a ninety degree turn, the ‘outer’ chariot in the formation has to move a lot further than the ‘inner chariot’, but even the inner chariot needs some room to move forward so it can turn. Again, the result of having a load of chariots deployed hub to hub, and then trying to turn the lot at once would be fairly disastrous.

Again, the model of the vehicles being a liquid which is compressible, but only to a point, comes to mind. If the chariots are deployed too close together, they can neither turn nor, in any sensible manner, advance. They chariot, more or less by its very nature, has do deploy in a fairly loose formation.

So, then, what was the use of a chariot? Three possibilities occur. The first is that they were used as a sort of heavy cavalry and charged the enemy headlong. As noted above, this seems a little unlikely if they were deployed in close formation, and would presumably be rather ineffective if a loose formation was adopted.

The second possibility is that of the chariot as battle transport. This does seem to have happened, as the Iliad is full of the heroes being driven to the fight, and sometimes their drivers (as well as the Homeric heroes) meet sticky ends. Homer does like his rather gruesome deaths of heroic figures. He is, in fact, a rather anti-heroic fighter. So the chariot as personnel carrier does seem to be a viable model.

The final possibility is that of the chariot as weapon platform. That is, as with the Indian chariots I am struggling to paint, the crew are armed with javelins and bows, and use the relative speed of the chariot to harass the enemy. I suppose the nearest analogy to this would be light cavalry and, as with the light cavalry, the chariot can have been rarely decisive. Indeed, I seem to recall that after the British had decided not to fight the Romans in pitched battles, they dispensed with everyone except slingers and chariots, and carried out what we might call guerrilla warfare instead.

The first model is the least likely to have occurred, of course, except, perhaps in the use of scythed chariots in the East. So far as I can tell, these were only once really successful, but I suppose that the commanders were ever hopeful that the circumstances may recur for their use. This leaves us with the other two models (which are not, of course, exclusive). The chariot as battlefield transport does seem to have happened, as both Homer and the Ancient Britons attest. The chariot as weapons platform is a bit more controversial, the question being whether it was stable enough to be so used. The answer seems to be that it was. So there are two possible modes of chariot use.

I guess that what this amounts to is that the reality of ancient warfare was rather different to our expectations. I suppose that is almost inevitable. But the point is that ancient warfare was probably a fairly slow and desultory affair, at least until hand to hand range was met. Chariots probably could trot around the battlefield loosing off bows and javelins, and perhaps occasionally stopping for the noble occupant to have a punch up with one of his opposite numbers.

But the thing is, how do we model this in our rules. I fear the answer is not terribly well.


  1. This is one of those topics where we can probably never get past speculation and untested theories but I think it is no coincidence the the introduction of cavalry is rapidly followed by the disappearance of chariots as a major arm and decisive battle weapon. That it lingered on in remote areas or as a small number of specialty weapons is not surprising as neither of these things is unique to chariots.

    If we look at the armies where the chariots arm was large and critical, armies like the Hittites and early Egyptian armies, there was no cavalry so chariots would have been useful for scouting and messengers etc things where cavalry was quick to take over once horse riding was introduced. Against an enemy of trained close order troops chariot probably had little impact but for a mob of poorly armed and disciplined rebels or tribesmen the reaction to the rapid approach of a squadron of chariots was probably much the same as people in a Spanish street when a bull is let loose or when a modern crowd is charged by mounted police with batons. Sauve qui peut!

    As an archery platform, they would carry more arrows than the average foot slogger and would have the mobility to get away when threatened but I doubt they could match the firepower of a mass of foot archers or do enough damage against a block of spearmen to do anything but wear them down by the constant threat and occasional casualty. Once horse archers became available, this role seems to have been dropped (relatively) quickly since the horsemen would have been more mobile, less vulnerable to enemy fire and provide 2 archers for each set of 2 horses and 2 men where the chariot provided only 1.

    The later scythed chariots did have at least 2 successes but its easier to understand why few armies adopted them than it is to understand why any did or why as late as the 16thC some people tried to revive a modern version. I put them into the same category as tiny robot anti-tank mines in wwii. A desperate attempt to make up for a lack of proper weapons (or in ancient terms the lack of an adequate number of really solid infantry).


    1. I think that the lack of disciplined and trained infantry was a big bonus to the chariot. i imagine that chariots look big, scary and, of course, contain your social superiors, so running away seems like a good option.

      I also started to wonder about the speed of ancient warfare, that it might be an awful lot slower that i imagine. A chariot, even with 4 horses, is not going to get up much speed in a battlefield situation. So maybe the mere threat of a chariot lumbering into motion would be enough to discourage the opposition.

  2. I think Ross' answer is spot-on in reply to your very interesting post. I suspect that as different civilizations developed skills with horse riding and associated technologies (saddles?) then chariots became less useful and less cost-effective.
    In general I think phrases like "hub to hub", "wheel to wheel", "boot to boot" are beloved of poets and storytellers for dramatic effect but not very reflective of what happened on battlefields.
    BTW, I agree with the sentiment in your first paragraph about Christmas.

    1. I agree that there is often a lot of hyperbole in the accounts. Chariots wheel to wheel would quickly land up in a sorry tangle and the vehicles would only be useful as firewood.

      As for Christmas, I did suggest to someone that we moved the religious festival sometime more convenient (and warmer).

  3. Third attempt to comment - no idea what happened to first two. Luddite Man strikes again!

    Thinking specifically about 'Celtic' chariots, I suspect that we don't model these particularly well in most wargames rules because the rules tend not to be for the type of 'heroic' warfare that chariots are at their best in.

    They are pretty inefficient as weapons platform (could they hit anything from an unsprung moving platform?) or as a battlefield transport (one warrior:one vehicle is a pretty poor delivery ratio) but as a vehicle for showing off, they are ideal. They are the iron age equivalent of the shiny sports car with go-faster stripes, fluffy dice and a bootful of expensive sound equipment - absolutely no practical use, but just the thing to flaunt at other boy racers.
    That said, I imagine a line of these coming towards you might put the wind up less steady troops. From the receiving end, they probably appear to be a lot more dangerous than they really are - which is relatively slow, widely spaced and difficult to manoeuvre.
    No, I think they are all about show. In a set of rules for heroic warfare, where a handful of psychopaths on each side seek each other out for single combat, like the Red Branch tales or the Iliad, the morale effect of flashy chariot work can be taken into account. When fighting in battle against the Romans, where extravagant showing off would fall on stony ground, the lack of practicality of chariots would soon become obvious. Then they are expensive, slow, unmanoeuvrable light horse.

    Mind, I profess to be unconvinced by Caesar's account of the numbers of chariots retained by Cassivelaunus - dodgy Roman counting, if you ask me. I + I = X, X + X = C, and so on.

    1. I suspect that you are right. I'd add the Aztec style Flower Wars for the heroic fighter thing, which is like Homer minus the chariots.Mostly, the Celts, I suspect, used chariots because they hadn't run into a volley of pila yet.

      I think that the Britons used the chariots more when they were indulging in hit and run tactics (hence, the heroic bits) rather than full battle. As for Roman counting, I think most ancient numbers and reporting thereof was a bit dodgy. Most of its seems to me to be on what was (rudely) called the 'mining engineers count' when I was at university, which went "One, Two, Lots...".