Topographic battle orders



March 5, 2022


Noor Israr describes the relevance of fighting techniques

A new Topographic battle orders has commenced by Russian invasion of Ukraine bringing to light military activities that are now widely covered by electronic media. Although modern weaponry, particularly utilisation of air power, has deeply altered the shape of an armed conflict yet there is hardly denying the fact that topography still matters and it is actually the ground value that is taken into consideration. It is in this context that reference is always made to the traditional battle methods while engaging in a war. In a battle the most important factor is the formation of the fighting unit and an absence of tactical formation is disastrous for any fighting outfit. The organisation and deployment of his forces distinguishes a victorious commander even if all factors are equal in a campaign. Historically few significant formations were designed and adopted by fighting forces that yielded positive results for them. Such formations were standardised and with some variations they remained largely acceptable tactical designs.
Flying Wedge
This style of formation is an ancient tradition that was rated very effective in its implementation and results. This tactical innovation was usually employed in conjunction with cavalry and involved a mass of troops in a triangular wedge with the tip charging at the enemy. It was expected that the charge would penetrate deep into the ranks of the enemy infantry and would topple their placement. It was also taken care that the wedge could completely separate a line into two groups dividing a force and making them easier to defeat.
In old times this tactic was invariably used by heavily armed infantry to penetrate through static shield walls thereby forcing defenders to fight individually becoming easy target. Heavy cavalry was considered especially successful in this formation as the sheer momentum it generated was positively able to drive deep into enemy lines and turn them over. It was also noticed that some Germanic armies and Vikings used a modified wedge formation that included placing skirmishers in the center with spearmen deployed on the flanks forming the base of the wedge. The purpose was to quickly overwhelm an enemy and if it was not found possible than at least to ensure that it was surrounded and was easy to fight.
The tactic first came to wider transcontinental prominence when Alexander the Great employed it in various battles and personally led his cavalry in a flying wedge to great effect. The wedge had the inbuilt advantage of being applied to multiple unit formations very effectively. It was also expected that an army in a hollow wedge with a reinforced center was always in a position to subdue the enemy centre and was also capable of withholding and protecting vulnerable flanks and it had the potential to be successful in a battle as it was able to engage more than half the enemy force.
Napoleonic era saw maximum usage of Flying Wedge tactics as Napoleon realised the efficacy of this maneuver and used it in most of his battles very successfully. The era witnessed cavalry armed with guns maximising its firepower and then bringing lances or sabres to penetrate through the thin firing lines already enveloped by heavy cavalry.
Flying wedge has not lost its utility and is considered currently as a potent tactical formation to be employed in multiple functions though the nature of functions varies. Armored vehicle wedge formations as well as light infantry wedges allow for visibility and supporting fire by each unit while affording the opportunity to get maximum firepower in a fight. The tactic is also useful for civilian missions as Riot Police are often found utilising it to divide small groups and reduce their presence in thin lines easily manageable.
Phalanx/Firing Line
It may appear strange to imagine a combination of Macedonian sarissa pike phalanx with early firearm firing lines but their principle of deployment was the same. It was adequately replicated by the Greek Hoplite phalanx with strict onus on teamwork as well as requiring individual talent to play its part. While Macedonian phalanx still required excellent discipline, it focused on the collective devastation of a barrage of spear points. The 13-20 ft long sarissa spears were terribly unwieldy for one-on-one combat but when the average soldier charged at a Macedonian phalanx they had to fight through 5-10 thrusting spears before even reaching the front lines. By organising a dense line, the soldiers needed only to thrust their spears forward and the line formation did the rest.
This specific line pike formation was abundantly employed from antiquity to the middle ages as a potent tactic against cavalry formations but also became popular with the arrival of handguns. The early development of firearms was faulty and a musket man hoped for a lot of luck to hit a single charging cavalryman.
Realising the lethality of firearms though they were mostly inaccurate discerning commanders started massing their men close together and firing volleys in the general direction of the enemy. It was expected that some shot would surely land and it was also assumed that most of them would land in unison. It was noticed that sudden impact of a volley followed by quick succession of them by kneeling first line and firing with the second line effectively broke enemy tenacity. Nowadays it is sensational to watch movies showing the work of the firing lines but it was the most effective war tactic followed till the first half of the 19 century.
Hollow Square
The most famous period of Hollow Square was during the firearm line formation but its origin goes back to ancient times. The mention of this tactic was associated with the retreat of 10,000 Greek mercenaries running from the clutches of Persian army. Under heavy attack and constant missile fire the Greeks formed a massive moving hollow square to protect their noncombatants and baggage. The heavy infantry repelled charges and allowed their long range skirmishers to fight back from the safety of the square.
Hollow Square was also utilised by Asian armies and they were successful in repelling cavalry charges. But it was during the Napoleonic wars that this tactic flourished and witnessed its maximum usage. By this time hollow square evolved into an extremely flexible field formation used with multiple variations. Usually the armed infantry formed a square to resist cavalry charges that were very deadly during the times as cavalry was armed with arm guns. The speed of cavalry charge was often broken by mass of hollow squares and once it came in, the infantry would effectively envelop it.
Commanders organised infantry squares in groups of at least 500 to 1,000 but more often than not the numbers were much more than that. The sides of the squares were at least two men deep and their corners were reinforced and occasionally stuck out to provide enfilading fire. Arrangements for reinforcing and supplying the troops forming squares were undertaken but due care was taken to secure the vital inner space and keep them flexible so that they could absorb recurrent cavalry charge.
There was the trend to form multiple squares and commanders made sure that they remained mobile and often used them offensively to ward off cavalry charges. Battle of Waterloo saw some squares holding as much as a dozen separate cavalry charges effectively. The vital problem with square tactic was that once they were broken disaster ensued as it was very difficult to reform it. The hollow square tactic became redundant with the adoption of more rapid firing weapons though it could still be utilised in certain war situations such as protecting the wounded or taking care of ambushed units. TW

Noor Israr has a discerning taste in music and is currently studying development economics at UCF


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