Saturday, May 17th, 2014

The painters’ and poets’ imagination created the mêlée, Colonel Ardant Du Picq claims:

This is what happened:

At a charging distance troops marched towards the enemy with all the speed compatible with the necessity for fencing and mutual aid. Quite often, the moral impulse, that resolution to go to the end, manifested itself at once in the order and freedom of gait. That impulse alone put to flight a less resolute adversary.

It was customary among good troops to have a clash, but not the blind and headlong onset of the mass; the preoccupation of the rank was very great, as the behavior of Caesar’s troops at Pharsalus shows in their slow march, timed by the flutes of Lacedaemonian battalions. At the moment of getting close to the enemy, the dash slackened of its own accord, because the men of the first rank, of necessity and instinctively, assured themselves of the position of their supports, their neighbors in the same line, their comrades in the second, and collected themselves together in order to be more the masters of their movements to strike and parry. There was a contact of man with man; each took the adversary in front of him and attacked him, because by penetrating into the ranks before having struck him down, he risked being wounded in the side by losing his flank supports. Each one then hit his man with his shield, expecting to make him lose his equilibrium, and at the instant he tried to recover himself landed the blow. The men in the second line, back of the intervals necessary for fencing in the first, were ready to protect their sides against any one that advanced between them and were prepared to relieve tired warriors. It was the same in the third line, and so on.

Every one being supported on either side, the first encounter was rarely decisive, and the fencing, the real combat at close quarters, began.

If men of the first line were wounded quickly, if the other ranks were not in a hurry to relieve or replace them, or if there was hesitation, defeat followed. This happened to the Romans in their first encounters with the Gauls. The Gaul, with his shield, parried the first thrust, brought his big iron sword swooping down with fury upon the top of the Roman shield, split it and went after the man. The Romans, already hesitating before the moral impulse of the Gauls, their ferocious yells, their nudeness, an indication of a contempt for wounds, fell then in a greater number than their adversaries and demoralization followed. Soon they accustomed themselves to this valorous but not tenacious spirit of their enemies, and when they had protected the top of their shields with an iron band, they no longer fell, and the rôles were changed.

The Gauls, in fact, were unable either to hold their ground against the better arms and the thrusts of the Romans, or against their individual superior tenacity, increased nearly tenfold by the possible relay of eight ranks of the maniple. The maniples were self-renewing. Whereas with the Gauls the duration of the combat was limited to the strength of a single man, on account of the difficulties of close or tumultuous ranks, and the impossibility of replacing losses when they were fighting at close quarters.

If the weapons were nearly alike, preserving ranks and thereby breaking down, driving back and confusing the ranks of the enemy, was to conquer. The man in disordered, broken lines, no longer felt himself supported, but vulnerable everywhere, and he fled. It is true that it is hardly possible to break hostile lines without doing the same with one’s own. But the one who breaks through first, has been able to do so only by making the foe fall back before his blows, by killing or wounding. He has thereby raised his courage and that of his neighbor. He knows, he sees where he is marching; whilst the adversary overtaken as a consequence of the retreat or the fall of the troops that were flanking him, is surprised. He sees himself exposed on the flank. He falls back on a line with the rank in rear in order to regain support. But the lines in the rear give way to the retreat of the first. If the withdrawal has a certain duration, terror comes as a result of the blows which drive back and mow down the first line. If, to make room for those pushed back, the last lines turn their backs, there is small chance that they will face the front again. Space has tempted them. They will not return to the fight.

Then by that natural instinct of the soldier to worry, to assure himself of his supports, the contagion of flight spreads from the last ranks to the first. The first, closely engaged, has been held to the fight in the meantime, under pain of immediate death. There is no need to explain what follows; it is butchery.

But to return to combat.

It is evident that the formation of troops in a straight line, drawn close together, existed scarcely an instant. Moreover each group of files formed in action was connected with the next group; the groups, like the individuals, were always concerned about their support. The fight took place along the line of contact of the first ranks of the army, a straight line, broken, curved, and bent in different directions according to the various chances of the action at such or such a point, but always restricting and separating the combatants of the two sides. Once engaged on that line, it was necessary to face the front under pain of immediate death. Naturally and necessarily every one in these first ranks exerted all his energy to defend his life.

At no point did the line become entangled as long as there was fighting, for, general or soldier, the effort of each one was to keep up the continuity of support all along the line, and to break or cut that of the enemy, because victory then followed.

We see then that between men armed with swords, it was possible to have, and there was, if the combat was serious, penetration of one mass into the other, but never confusion, or a jumble of ranks, by the men forming these masses.


  1. Bruce says:

    I’d always heard du Picq was the source of the French château generals ordering their troops to make suicidal cold steel arme blanche bayonet charges against machine guns. So when I read du Picq, I was surprised to read there never was a cold steel bayonet charge ever in military history; Charles XII ordered one once, but even his berserks went with running shot — running shot being a fast half-charge reload with a musket while scooting from one piece of cover to another. The British official histories said it was a bad idea and No True Redcoat would ever. French Napoleonic veterans told du Picq it was a great idea. Like double-taping magazines — everyone in ordnance hates it, and they have good reason, but a lot of Viet vets swore by it. Beer and vino and bulshuckology, or something everyone in the field did, and everyone in ordnance hated?

  2. What a concise description. The “Hollywood mashup” model of pre-modern hand-to-hand combat is annoying in its current ubiquity.

    Bruce, there have been plenty of mass bayonet charges in history. It’s just that they’re usually conducted at the quick-march rather than as a pell-mell rush, and they very rarely actually reach the enemy line. If they’re successful the enemy runs away; if they’re unsuccessful the charging unit withers under fire and falls back. There have been only a very few occasions where actual fighting with the bayonet occurred between the charging and defending units.

    “Running shot being a fast half-charge reload with a musket while scooting from one piece of cover to another.”

    These are skirmishing tactics, which everyone used very heavily during the Napoleonic period and thereafter. Skirmishers fix the enemy, disrupt his movements, and reduce his morale. While they occasionally won battles on their own, it was more common that, due to the communications difficulties in commanding men who are spread out, the battle was decided by larger forces in close order.

    Of course there were always schools of thought that argued the entire army should be deployed as skirmishers, especially among the French, the acknowledged masters of skirmishing tactics. They never really came up with a solution for imposing any kind of coherent direction on those dispersed swarms, though. That had to wait for the radio.

  3. Grasspunk says:

    Which movie depictions of hand-to-hand combat are realistic?

  4. For hand-to-hand mass combat (a phenomenon almost totally different from individual combat)… honestly I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such in a movie. Partly this is because, odd as it may seem, our understanding of the subject has improved greatly in the last 25 years. If anyone has any suggestions I’d be very interested.

    For Napoleonic combat, I can’t help but suggest the incredibly epic “Waterloo” by Sergei Bondarchuk (produced by the De Laurentis company). IIRC, the Soviet government lent them a motor rifle division to equip and train as Napoleonic troops and had the Red Army’s engineering troops recreate the Waterloo battlefield in Ukraine, including moving hills and ridges around, building roads and villages, and planting crops before production so that they’d show the right stage of growth during filming. They even laid irrigation piping to make the right spots muddy.

    Then they marched full-sized units around on it, including cavalry. Here’s a taste.

    Sadly the artillery’s realism was limited by the special effects technology of the day.

  5. Steve Johnson says:

    In addition to mass hand-to-hand combat, I think our understanding of individual hand-to-hand combat has gone from almost nothing to basically complete understanding in the last 25 years.

    25 years ago if you wanted to most effectively train unarmed individual combat you had no real idea where to start. Today you have a specific plan — either learn how to defend against being taken to the ground, learn how to strike and escape if you do get taken down, learn how to take someone to the ground and how to dominate on the ground, or learn enough of each of the three main skills to keep the fight where you have an edge on your opponent. That is a huge increase in knowledge.

    Compare to UFC 1–5, when people would come in knowing striking but no take down defense (very poor idea) or take down defense and striking with no ground skills (more successful).

    It really is astounding how much the understanding of individual fighting has advanced in a short period of time.

  6. I wonder why. It’s not like our current culture is more focused on either combat or history than that of the past. I was pretty shocked when I realized how recent most of the scholarship that informed my old classical warfare primer was.

  7. Grasspunk says:

    Scipio, thanks for the rec. The battle shots were impressive. Just when I thought there was a painted backdrop they made a rider gallop across it to prove it was real.

    Still, I am curious what a better representation of hand-to-hand combat would be. It always seemed that people would be more careful to protect themselves by clustering in groups than was shown in the hockey line-brawl style movie fighting.

  8. Grasspunk, see the primer I listed above for my synthesis of the current best understanding. It’s phrased as suggestions for the makers of a video game but it ended up being sufficiently comprehensive to turn into a post.

    There aren’t any books I can suggest that are entirely about the topic, but bits and pieces show up in memoirs as well as more general works. There are some research papers as well, from a wide variety of disciplines.

  9. Grasspunk says:

    While browsing some site I’d never been to before (radixjournal.com) I found this example of a Knight Fight Club. I kept wanting the teams to stick together and not get flanked. Several of the knockdowns were from people getting caught unawares from the side. It seemed relevant to this discussion. And Scipio, I just saw your link. Thanks for the recommendation.

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