Colonel Ardant Du Picq contrasts ancient and modern (19th-century) combat:
In ancient combat there was danger only at close quarters. If the troops had enough morale (which Asiatic hordes seldom had) to meet the enemy at broadsword’s length, there was an engagement. Whoever was that close knew that he would be killed if he turned his back; because, as we have seen, the victors lost but few and the vanquished were exterminated. This simple reasoning held the men and made them fight, if it was but for an instant.
Neglecting the exceptional and very rare circumstances, which may bring two forces together, action to-day is brought on and fought out from afar. Danger begins at great distances, and it is necessary to advance for a long time under fire which at each step becomes heavier. The vanquished loses prisoners, but often, in dead and in wounded, he does not lose more than the victor.
Ancient combat was fought in groups close together, within a small space, in open ground, in full view of one another, without the deafening noise of present day arms. Men in formation marched into an action that took place on the spot and did not carry them thousands of feet away from the starting point. The surveillance of the leaders was easy, individual weakness was immediately checked. General consternation alone caused flight.
To-day fighting is done over immense spaces, along thinly drawn out lines broken every instant by the accidents and the obstacles of the terrain. From the time the action begins, as soon as there are rifle shots, the men spread out as skirmishers or, lost in the inevitable disorder of a rapid march, escape the supervision of their commanding officers. A considerable number conceal themselves; they get away from the engagement and diminish by just so much the material and moral effect and confidence of the brave ones who remain. This can bring about defeat.
But let us look at man himself in ancient combat and in modern. In ancient combat:—I am strong, apt, vigorous, trained, full of calmness, presence of mind; I have good offensive and defensive weapons and trustworthy companions of long standing. They do not let me be overwhelmed without aiding me. I with them, they with me, we are invincible, even invulnerable. We have fought twenty battles and not one of us remained on the field. It is necessary to support each other in time; we see it clearly; we are quick to replace ourselves, to put a fresh combatant in front of a fatigued adversary. We are the legions of Marius, fifty thousand who have held out against the furious avalanches of the Cimbri. We have killed one hundred and forty thousand, taken prisoner sixty thousand, while losing but two or three hundred of our inexperienced soldiers.
To-day, as strong, firm, trained, and courageous as I am, I can never say; I shall return. I have no longer to do with men, whom I do not fear, I have to do with fate in the form of iron and lead. Death is in the air, invisible and blind, whispering, whistling. As brave, good, trustworthy, and devoted as my companions may be, they do not shield me. Only,—and this is abstract and less immediately intelligible to all than the material support of ancient combat,—only I imagine that the more numerous we are who run a dangerous risk, the greater is the chance for each to escape therefrom. I also know that, if we have that confidence which none of us should lack in action, we feel, and we are, stronger. We begin more resolutely, are ready to keep up the struggle longer, and therefore finish it more quickly.
We finish it! But in order to finish it, it is necessary to advance, to attack the enemy, 30 and infantryman or troopers, we are naked against iron, naked against lead, which cannot miss at close range. Let us advance in any case, resolutely. Our adversary will not stand at the point-blank range of our rifle, for the attack is never mutual, we are sure of that. We have been told so a thousand times. We have seen it. But what if matters should change now! Suppose the enemy stands at point-blank range! What of that?
How far this is from Roman confidence!
In another place we have shown that in ancient times to retire from action was both a difficult and perilous matter for the soldier. To-day the temptation is much stronger, the facility greater and the peril less.
Now, therefore, combat exacts more moral cohesion, greater unity than previously.