Prepare for war: Seven battlefield maneuvers you need to know

Battle of Arsuf If you want peace, prepare for war, advised Publius Flavius Vegetius in his famous late 4th century work, De re Militari, described by historians as the “the bible of warfare throughout the Middle Ages.” For commanders of medieval armies that meant their ability to employ the right battlefield maneuvers at the right moment could be the difference between victory and defeat. The lives of their soldiers and the security of their kingdom and its citizens hung on the outcome.

A distinct shortage of resources – quality of weaponry and training, manpower, funding, etc.  – compared to times of antiquity plagued many of the Medieval kingdoms. And this transformed warfare. There was greater focus on avoiding large scale battles in favor of smaller army groups engaged in skirmishes and sieges. Archaeologists  believe pitched battles, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, were rare.

Military manuals such as De re Militari or the Byzantine Praecepta Militaria of Nikephoros II Phokas (written in the 10th century) and the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos (written in the early 11th century), were in circulation and provided a sound grounding in battlefield maneuvers and strategy. But the high illiteracy rates among the warrior class during the Middle Ages calls into question how widely such works were read by commanders in charge of the combatants – at least in Western Europe, where literacy rates plunged after the fall of Rome.

Still, there were times when pitched battles could not be avoided. Byzantine armies, for example, engaged in many such battles with a variety of enemies in the almost 1,000 years their empire continued on after the collapse of Rome in the west. The Franks led by Charlemagne engaged invading Arab forces in a watershed battle that turned the tide of Arab conquest north of the Pyrenees.

One of the tenets emphasized by the De re Militari was that a general should only engage in battle when he was sure of victory or had no other choice. What then were the battlefield maneuvers available to the Medieval general needing victory in a pitched battle?

The website www.theartofbattle.com , maintained by Jonathan Webb, contains a helpful and easy-to-read tutorial on Seven Classical Maneuvers of War:

  1. penetration of the center;
  2. envelopment of a single flank;
  3. envelopment of both flanks;
  4. attack in oblique order;
  5. feigned retreat;
  6. attack from a defensive position;
  7. and the indirect approach.

As Webb notes, a commander often had to employ more than one battlefield maneuver during the battle to achieve victory. Webb’s tutorial includes visual aids with each maneuver.

You can read more by clicking here: Tactics Tutorial » The Art of Battle.

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