Can we learn from history?
In my last blog we looked at the battle of Kadesh (1274 BCE) where classic errors were made and perhaps the first opportunity for those following after to learn. The Egyptians left large gaps between their divisions allowing the Hittites to exploit those gaps and move on the command HQ. There were, of course, perfectly good reasons for the gaps between Egyptian divisions, all of which were covered in my last blog. What may have not been as clear was the first recorded tactical error by the Hittites. Their exuberance to exploit the gap between the Egyptian divisions resulted in their chariots out-pacing the infantry and therefore supporting troops. With the Hittites slower chariots surrounded by the Egyptian infantry and their faster deadlier chariots they were destroyed.
Jumping ahead 1,300 years (give or take a few decades) to 9 CE we look at the three Roman Legions, the 17, 18 and 19th, under Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany for our next example. Following earlier victories over the Germanic tribes a young man named Arminus was sent to Rome as tribute. He was educated as a Roman and became a trusted confidante of Varus. If this were a plot of a movie we would think the outcome of this alliance between Varus and Arminus was obvious. Too bad Russel Crowe wasn’t there to advise Varus, but history didn’t have two millennium to wait for benefit or Mr. Crowe’s wisdom.
As a little background information we should note that the brilliance of the Roman military machine was firmly rooted in maneuvers involving two armies meeting in open fields, a luxury not afforded in the close confines of the dense forests of Germania.
We now find Varus leading his legions in a column miles long weighted down by equipment and baggage trains along with the usual camp-followers. The Romans were confined on both sides by forest and forced to trudge along mile after agonizing mile of seemingly endless wilderness. Even the most inept armchair general will tell you this is a classic example of a need for advanced as well as flanking scouts. Varus was not a complete fool (at least not a “total” fool that is) and indeed did employ both advanced and flanking scouts. The error was that these scouts were from “loyal” German troops recommended by the equally loyal Arminus. Those “loyal” Germanic flanking scouts quickly disappeared, moving ahead to join their tribesmen in the ambush ahead, as did the advanced scouts.
The location for the German ambush was carefully planned with the area being even more restrictive than had been the case prior to this. On one side there was a steep incline while the other side of the trail was an impassible swamp. This allowed the Germans to fire on the Romans from both flanks while the different elevations assured that one side was not in direct line of fire from the other. Added to this a severe weather front moved in soaking the Romans and their equipment increasing the weight each Roman was carrying by more than double. The Romans couldn’t advance up the incline which was also fortified, they couldn’t attack the swampy ground as doing so would find them mired in the soft ground and easy targets for the Germans. Retreat was blocked by their own baggage train and transport so continuing along the trail was the only option. An option that proved even more disastrous than holding their ground. Due to the rough ground and a continuous rain of missiles the Roman column was not all moving at the same speed. This left gaps in the column which the Germans were quick to exploit. In the end this led to the ambush by the German tribesmen crushing the three legions. Many books, the internet and even recent documentaries have stated that the Romans were lost to a man. Research into original documents from that time by real historians has found that several Romans did survive the massacre and found their way back to Roman territory.
The Emperor Augustus has been said to have uttered in frustration, “Quintili Vare legions redde!” (Quinctilus Varus give me back my legions!). Looks like not even the most powerful man in the world of the time could command the dead. Documentaries have also stated that the Legions Eagle standards were lost forever, however there is evidence that some if not all of the lost eagles were recovered. The series “I Claudius” states that the Germans were eventually conquered, however even though there were some punitive actions taken against the Germans, probably the reason for the recovered eagles, the German territory east of the Rein was never conquered.
Before The National Enquirer, the yellow journalism of the tabloids and television documentaries perverted historical facts and research in favour of sensationalism and profits history was researched by serious historians. Military leaders have been schooled in tactics of the past and cautioned about the errors of those who came before. Leaving gaps in your columns to be exploited by the enemy was to be avoided while watching for and exploiting the same errors by your opponents was of paramount importance. So, don’t leave gaps in your column and don’t out-pace your supply and support troops…sound advice…right?
There are many examples of military errors, far too many for a blog. As well there are good examples of military leaders learning from history, applying what they have learned, only to find things didn’t go as planned. In my next blog we’ll look at a couple of examples of this from the 20th century.
Thanks for reading my blogs.