Numbers Deployed in the Field

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by jonwilly, Nov 10, 2005.

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  1. Please treat as serious
    Gents from time to time I see on TV Historical/History programms accounts of Major Battles from long ago.
    Last night it was Boudica and the Romans (Decisive Battles History Channel).
    A Legion 6,000 defeats 30,000 ancient Brits. It then mentions that some Roman account say up to 80,000 Brits killed.
    Now I can accept exageration in the final version, but what I question is the 30,000. A massive number for a primitive sociaty to assemble and deploy and control on a battle field.
    In the past we have had Alexander and Darius 25,000 against 250,000 and Marathon where again the Persians are credited with 2-3 hundred thousand.
    My question is are these massive figures practical for an army of the day, could such number have been Fed and Wartered by the admin system ?
    I find it immpossible to consider for less a few seconds that Hundreds of thousands could be sent out 'Individually foraging' for their food and then reassemble for battle in a practical time.
    Would these massive armys be all Combat Troops or would they be Combat troops and an enourmous Support Services.
    The above are just a couple of examples from ancient history, The Mongols are also said to have deployed 1/4 and 1/2 million man armies.
    Serious question
  2. Speaking from a classicist's perspective - Greek numbers should be taken with a large pinch of salt, Roman numbers are somewhat more reliable.

    Greek numbers first. Before anything else (and this applies to Roman historians as well), numbers are probably the most likely thing to be corrupted in the copying process. 10,000 becomes 100,000 very easily.

    Secondly, with regard to Greek figures, they really didn't have the vocabulary for enormous numbers. The classic example is of Herodotos' account of the Persian Wars, which attributes 1.7 million men to Xerxes' army. Interestingly, he explains how the counting was done.

    But the word for 'ten thousand', myrios, is actually pretty imprecise. Numerically, it does mean 'ten thousand', but it's also used for 'numberless' or 'countless' or 'infinite'. It's the largest single-word numeric-identifier in Greek, which makes its use highly suspect. If there were 'myrios' troops, then seventeen 'myrioi' of troops is far far beyond imaginable. Given the account of the counting, perhaps Herodotos was told a figure by someone else who simply put it in terms of 'lots of myrioi' as meaning 'countless'.

    It is, incidentally, impossible that the army could be that size. It's been shown that if it was really that large, the vanguard would have been crossing the Hellespont just as the rearguard was entering Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) or something like that - unfortunately I can't remember the article, so I can't be certain of the details of that.

    As for Roman numbers, they're actually a lot more reliable, although obviously there are trends for rounding to the nearest large number, exaggerating enemy casualties and playing down friendly ones and, occasionally, anachronistic miseducated guesswork. I won't go into it too much - suffice to say that most Roman numbers are fairly accurate, as a Roman legion was always more or less 5,000 men, and it was well known how many legions, or what components of legions, had fought in any particular battle. Enemy dead were counted as well - under the Republic, at least 5,000 enemy had to be killed for the commander to be eligible for a triumphal procession. The exception is when early battles were being written about - Cannae is a good example of a battle we have a huge variety of casualty figures for. Partly that's because our sources (Polybius and Livy, mostly) draw on different traditions - Roman and Punic - and partly because it went down in Roman history as a major defeat, so the casualty figures are padded somewhat.

    With your example of the British forces under Boadicea, you neglect to mention what they'd been doing before the rebellion. Mostly, these were part time warriors (think of them as being like the TA!!) Usually, they were farmers, who simply took up weapons as the rebellion spread. Or, more likely, they were warrior-elites, usually supported by the surplus of non-elite production. There was no need to Boadicea to support a full-time standing army.

    More immediately, there would have been plenty of food provided by the sackings of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London).

    As for control on the battlefield - there wasn't much, not on the British side. Standard tactic was everyone mass together and then charge. I recommend Simon Scarrow's Macro & Cato novels for a good sense of ancient tribal warfare, though more from the Roman perspective.

    When we get to standing armies, like the Romans, we're on firmer ground. They would have had a support system of sorts, with individuals responsible for transport and supplies, but largely, yes, they would have lived off the land while they were operations. This would have included drawing food from the supplies of those whose lands they passed through, land they plundered but also, perhaps, food brought up from rear echelons (in modern parlance).

    I hope that addresses your questions - if you're keen enough to do some extra research, P.A. Brunt's Italian Manpower is probably the place to start for Rome; for Greece, anything by Hans van Wees should be good.


  3. Thank you for a very precise answer.
    I just could not accept these massive amies and do wonder about reserch carried out by the producers of these 'Movies for the masses'.
    A lack of litriture is a major problem for me, no shortage of second books but backpackers tend to follow other trains of thought.
    Suppying a legion of 6,000 mn would be quite a problem so to me a proper organized supply system must have exsisted.
    I watched Battlefield Detectives on Monday night and then caught the repeat again on Tuesday morning and this led me to question their statement that Harolds troops marched from London to York in four days fought the battle of Stamford Bridge and where back in London six days later.
    I consider Battlefield Detectives to be serious well made productions and in both this edition and previous battles have found there study of the actual terrain highly illuminateing.
    Hastings was fought on a Ridge line, with Harold advancing down to Hastings and William advancing and 'trapping' Harold against the major Forest, behind him.
    Agincourt was fought on a narrow front with the sides dropping off causing the French to bunch and then suffer the effects of crowd bunching so when one man fell he dragged down dozens around him.
    Their comments on the terrain at Gallipoli, Balaklava and Waterloo help explain the events of thoes days.
  4. I agree with you on that for the most part (don't get me started on Gladiator), but quite often, films do have historical advisors. Alexander had Oxford's Robin Lane Fox advising them - part of his fee was that he got to ride in the cavalry charges, even leading one of them.

  5. The accounts of Hastings are very debatable. Its not definite that "William Trapped Harold against the tree line" , although this is a plausible explanation. Harold's men were on Caldbec hill at night then adopted a defnesive position at Senlac at dawn. Its not certain that William frustrated an attempted dawn attack.

    Even though we have a lot of information about hastings there are a lot of uncertainties. We don't know how many people were on each side. Arguments for particular numbers are generally circular depending on how long you th9ink the battlefioeld was and how large an armada William could have assembled.

    Harold's forced march south is no less plausible than that of Nero at the Metaurus (207 BC) 45 miles a day - achieved through relays of carts.
  6. London to York in four days.
    I have no map but I understand that we are talking 200 miles in 4 days.
    Is this a practical proposition for an army of that era ?
    I doubt that today it could be done, please no the SAS could do it, I am talking a typical army 'warts and all'.
    I will suggest that people would be fitter in thoes days but even so 50 miles a day for 4 days seems a bit steep.
    Then fight a major battle and back in London in another six days.
    I suppose apart from William won, all 'facts' are debateable and the suggested forces around 6-7,000 on each side seem more practical then the 'out of this world' numbers for many ancient battles.