1940s >> 1940 >> no-435-november-1940

War: Methods of Offence and Defence (Continued)

In Homeric times the principal warriors were protected by helmets and bronze shields lined with hide—that is to say those who could afford it were so protected, the rest of the fighters had little more than dogskin caps to protect them. Fighting at that time was by individual warriors supported by followers.

By the sixth century B.C. the work of the smith in producing iron weapons and armour had completely altered the method of fighting, and the growth of a landed and commercial aristocracy had produced the military phalanx formation. All armour and weapons were provided by the individual soldier, and the more prosperous citizens of each state armed themselves with long spears and protected themselves with breastplates, greaves and stout shields. In the phalanx the fighters were trained to move together as a body and stand together firmly against the most vigorous attacks. As the soldiers advanced the first lines would have their spears lowered ready to attack while those behind would hold their spears upright ready to be lowered when required. The whole solid body behind the attack would give impetus to the shock when the actual moment of impact occurred.

This formation required strength and fitness in the soldier to obtain the maximum result. It was the excellent Greek athletic training at the time that made of them such formidable soldiers when fighting in the phalanx, and the Spartans the most formidable opponents of all on account of their mode of living and all-round physical culture.

When the Athenians met the Persians at Marathon (B.C., 490) they used the Greek phalanx formation, but they varied the usual tactics. As a rule the whole line advanced equally, but the Persian superiority in numbers was so overwhelming that this method would have weakened the attack as the line would have been too thin.

The vast Persian Army disembarked near the plain of Marathon, but their equipment was far inferior to that of the Greeks, of whom they had previously had little experience. Their weapons consisted of bows and arrows and a short sword for close fighting. Their defensive armour was very poor, consisting principally of wicker shields— a poor defence against the powerfully propelled Greek spears.

The Greeks drew up in formation on the hills above Marathon and, when they realised that the help expected from Sparta would not reach them in time, they prepared to attack the Persians who had already formed into battle line.

The Athenian General Callimachus had already decided upon the new plan of attack. The hoplites (heavily armed soldiers) were placed on each wing and the less well armed and lighter forces were put in the centre of the line. As the line advanced it increased its pace so as to lose as few men as possible, to the Persian archers, and charged each wing with terrific force, putting them to flight. As had been expected, the Greek centre could not stand up against the Persians, but while the latter were disorganised from their victory they were surprised by the attack of the heavy Greek wings which, instead of following up the defeated Persians, had turned inwards upon the centre and annihilated it. The result was a complete and sweeping victory for the Greeks, but it was their heavy armour as much as their tactics that was responsible. The highly civilised Greeks then pursued their semi-barbarous opponents and slaughtered thousands of them before they could reach their ships.

The solid phalanx remained the deciding factor in warfare throughout antiquity. It was improved by an innovation of a Theban General Epaminondas. Before this, however, light armed troops and horsemen were added in increasing numbers. The lightly armed troops first became important during the Peloponnesian War and were the basis of the professional soldier—the mercenary who sold his fighting power for pay to the highest bidder. These troops needed far more training than the hoplite. To be successful they had to become accustomed to rapid movement without losing formation. When the Peloponnesian War ended the men who had formed these companies for years found, themselves useless for peace-time occupations, and the only vocation left them was permanent soldiering, so, like Xenophon’s “Ten Thousand” (who hired themselves out to a Persian pretender), they sold their fighting power to any Greek state that was prepared to pay for their use.

It is interesting to notice that the Greek horsemen who operated along with the heavy armed foot soldier at the time of Pericles were composed of a limited number of wealthy young men who could afford horses. So that the army was a faithful representative of the social division in Athenian society—the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor.

We will have to depart a little from strict chronology in order to make understandable the progress in the methods of warfare. Hence, before dealing with the rise and fall of Athenian power, we will explain the next and vital development, the Greek phalanx—the innovation of Epaminondas. Until his time Sparta had remained the supreme land power in the Mediterranean area.

Epaminondas was the leading general of a Greek state, Thebes, that hitherto had not played an important part in warfare. Under his direction, however, it became for ten years the principal power, with an invincible army. This invincibility was entirely due to the new manner of employing the phalanx. The principle of the method was to throw the whole weight of the attack upon one point in the enemy’s line while at the same time keeping the rest of the enemy’s forces occupied.

It is a principle that was borrowed by Alexander the Great, and has been successfully employed by victorious generals right up to the present day, as witness the operations of the German army in France and elsewhere.

Before this it had been the custom, as already mentioned, for the whole line of foemen, ten or twelve ranks deep, to advance at an even pace I against the opposing line. Epaminondas, however, massed his best troops on one wing in a column fifty ranks deep, which charged the opposing wing with tremendous weight. In the meantime the rest of the line advanced slowly to keep the enemy’s attention occupied, but did not make contact until the enemy’s lines were already destroyed. The principle was tried out successfully at the battle of Leuctra when the Spartan army was completely defeated and the king and his best troops killed.

This new device of launching an overwhelming force at one selected spot in an enemy’s lines was adopted by Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander, and was eventually part of the tactics of the Romans.

Philip of Macedon increased the efficiency of the Theban phalanx by some improvements of his own which made the Macedonian phalanx the most formidable of the times. He had the spears of his warriors lengthened so that the first few ranks could come into action before the enemy could make contact. He also made far more use of cavalry than had been the practice previously. The subjection of Greece to Macedon and conquering swoop of Alexander into Asia is a matter of history well known to most people.

Reverting back to the rise of Athens to imperial power and its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, it is worth noting that the improved warship, which was the basis of Athenian naval power, was actually invented by the Corinthians, but their geographical position prevented them from reaping the full benefit from the invention.

The early Greek warship had ten to twenty oars on each side and was provided with a mast and square sail. The new warship had three banks of oars on each side, and, in addition, at the prow, a beak shod with iron just beneath the water line with which to ram an enemy ship.

As pointed out, Sparta was for centuries the invincible land power of Greece, but Athens, owing to its favourable situation in the Mediterranean, grew rich in commerce and built up a maritime empire. Its commerce made of its sailors first-rate seamen, and the addition of the new trireme (warship) gave it undisputed supremacy on the seas. When, therefore, Athens came to blows with Sparta the problem was to find a way of circumventing the invincible Spartan army as Athens was vulnerable by land. There was only one way open—an old one—and that was for the people to leave their farms to be devastated by the enemy and retire with their flocks and herds inside the city walls with the object of tiring out the besiegers.

In preparation for this eventuality Athens had already, under the guidance of Themistocles, built walls round the city and extended them to the Athenian port of Piraeus, about five miles away. Thus Athenian commerce was able to continue, and the citizens could draw food from abroad while remaining safely inside their walls. But one unlocked for eventuality defeated the plan that had been so carefully and confidently made, and that was the plague, the terrible scourge of the East.

The public places of Athens, the temple enclosures, and the spaces between the long walls were put at the disposal of the refugees to erect temporary shelters until such time as the Spartans, tired of waiting fruitlessly, would retire. Unfortunately for the Athenians, in the second year of the siege, the plague was introduced by some sailor from a foreign port. In the insanitary conditions of the crowded city it wrought havoc.

Before it declined, more than one-third of the population had fallen victims to it, and the rest were so badly shaken in morale that they were in poor condition to carry on the war. The plague, in fact, against which the highest and strongest walls were no protection, dealt the first hard blow in the series that eventually toppled the Athenian Empire; at the same time it showed a vulnerable spot in the defensive armour of city walls.

Before leaving the discussion of Greek warfare one amusing incident snows the relatively small scale of naval warfare in those days. In B.C. , 405 Lysander, a Spartan Admiral, had sailed to the Hellespont with the object of blockading Athens by stopping her supplies of corn. Athens sent a fleet of 180 ships after him. This fleet anchored at a place called Aegosopotaine. It was an open beach and one day, while most of the crew were on shore having their dinner, Lysander and his men rowed rapidly across and captured most of the Athenian fleet with hardly any resistance !

The next important development in warfare occurred in Roman times. We will discuss that in the next article.


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