Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alexander's Lost Dream

After the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, the back of the Persian Empire had been broken. Shortly thereafter King Darius, the leader or Persia was killed by a satrapy and relative, Bessus. A satrap was a local kingdom whose loyalty lay with a greater power. In this case it was Persia, later loyalty would be to Macedonia. With only remnants of the Persian army remaining and a few indignant satrapies remaining the gates to the east were essentially wide open. Although Bessus claimed himself king, he was merely a thorn in Alexander’s side. What lay beyond Bessus was a vast new world. It was the true prize for the conquering Alexander. It could have been Alexander’s dream. Yet it would also be the site of his greatest disappointment. This was where his invincible army came up against an immovable force that finally led Alexander to turn around.

The death of Darius did not bring an end to the Persian-Macedonian Wars. With Darius out of the picture, Bessus proclaimed himself king. Alexander was never content with coming to any peaceful conclusion of the war with Persia. In his mind, the Greek world had suffered mightily at the hands of the Persians in the two previous Greco-Persian Wars. It was Alexander’s duty to exact revenge. In Alexander’s mind, this could not be achieved until the entirety of the Persian Empire was conquered with him at the reins. Previously in the war, peace had been offered by the King Darius. The entire Persian Empire west of the Euphrates was guaranteed for Alexander. This was not enough. The Hellenes had suffered too much at the hands of the Persians in their long, heated rivalry. Plus in Alexander’s mind, land west of the Euphrates had been spoken for as a result of a series of Persian defeats in that region. Alexander wanted it all and there was no Persian force that could stop him.

One of the renegade provinces that shared in Bessus’s desire to stand up to Alexander the Great was the satrapy of the Persian province Persis. The leader of Alexander’s opposition was named Ariobarzanes. The battle was fought in a valley known as the Persian Gates. Valleys are great defensive locations. This was especially true when facing Alexander. Alexander relied heavily on using his infantry to approach from one angle to keep enemy forces at bay, while his highly mobile cavalry could come around and entrap or smash through enemy forces. This tactic became known as the hammer and anvil strategy. The hammer and anvil strategy was used with repeated success for Alexander as in the battle of Issus. The narrowness of a valley prevented the type of mobility open plains of Issus had allowed. The Persians effectively held the valley for roughly a month. It took a local to show Alexander a way around the valley for the Macedonians to deal the final crushing blow to the entrapped Persians.

The last of the major Persian resistance was defeated and only little of the remaining known world was left to be conquered. The known world according to the Hellenes ended at the farthest extent of the Persian Empire, eastern India. It is believed that little or nothing was known by the Greeks about anything east of the Persian border. With Persian resistance out of the way, nothing was stopping Alexander from approaching the edge of the world.

Upon entering what is today Pakistan, Alexander was able to achieve the surrender of many local chieftains. Alexander had proven himself a great conqueror and was thus able to secure their submission. Many of the local chieftains who met with Alexander in the satrapy of Gandhara agreed to Alexander’s terms, but a few refused. The hill tribes of the Aspasioi, the Kambojas, and Assakenoi remained independent. These tribes put up a fierce resistence against Alexander. According to one source the Assakenoi were able to field 38,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 30 elephants against Alexander in one battle.

The tribes also chose not surrender right away but rather take defensive positions in cities all along Alexander’s path of conquest. So fierce was the resistance that the enraged Alexander burned down the defensive cities of Massaga and Ora. Alexander was eventually able to move past these tribes with the help of local leaders who supported Alexander. Alexander enticed supportive local leaders with land as in the aftermath of the Siege Aornos, a well fortified city.

Victory allowed Alexander to move further east into the region of Punjab. With the support of a local Kingdom known as the Taxiles, Alexander advanced past the Indus River towards the Hydaspes River. At the battle of the Hydaspes River, the local King Porus fielded a large army to meet Alexander’s advance. Porus’s army included a mix of infantry cavalry, chariots, and war elephants.

The forces of Porus took up a strong position along the Hydaspes River bank. Alexander’s forces sat on the other side of the side of the river. Alexander was required to come up with innovative maneuvering schemes to cross the Hydaspes to meet the challenge of King Pours. Essentially what Alexander had to do to win the battle was leave a portion of his army on the river banks as a diversionary force. King Porus’s forces, waiting on the other side of the river bank could see Alexander’s forces remaining stationary. At night Alexander would create sounds of movement to make King Pours think Alexander was readying for attack. The attack never came. King Porus began to disregard the sounds of battle preparation . Because nothing had ever amounted from Alexander’s diversionary sounds, King Porus disregarded the diversion the day of the attack. King Porus waited for a direct crossing.

Secretly Alexander personally took troops further down the river, to a spot where there was an island in the middle of the river. There Alexander could land his forces to springboard an attack on the other side of the river. The island landing allowed for a shorter and safer transportation required to cross the river. Alexander with his small diversionary force hoped to draw King Porus away from the river banks allowing for the bulk of the Macedonian army waiting on their side of the river, to cross. The diversion worked and King Porus was trapped. Despite falling victim to Alexander’s trap, King Porus and his men fought on bravely. So well did King Porus’s units fight that it actually impressed Alexander. In the aftermath of the battle Alexander befriended the imposing, some say 7 foot tall King Porus and allowed him to rule his former territory and more provided by Alexander, so long as acknowledged he ruled under Alexander.

It is important here to note why Alexander found his dream in the Indian subcontinent. Alexander was first and foremost a conqueror. This why he did not settle for peace deals against Persia. Alexander’s conquering nature is why he decided to cross over India into the first place. Alexander wanted to be ruler of the known world. Alexander loved conflict, and loved using his military genius to overcome great odds to defeat his opponents. Over the years Alexander had won so many hard fought victories despite often being outnumbered, taken many “impregnable” cities and fortresses, and allowed no natural obstacles stand in his way. In his mind, he and his army were invincible. India, with its huge population and its largely unknown nature provided a place where Alexander could outwit, outfight, and conquer indefinitely. For all that Alexander was, one thing he was not was restive. Until the day he died Alexander had designs on conquest. Yet it is these designs for unending conquest in the face truly insurmountable odds that made Alexander’s troops do the one thing no commander could in the field could do: put an end to his conquests.

What was it about India that made the Macedonian army who’s spearheading advance had never been dulled finally decide enough was enough? For one thing Alexander’s troops had been on a non-stop campaign from the years 335 BC until the battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC. Alexander’s army had proven too successful. Home was far away and the inspiration of Alexander could only do so much the deeper into foreign lands the army got. Secondly, tribes on the Indian subcontinent had proven themselves worthy fighters. Resistance was always fierce and they were able to field diverse armies that included elephants. Elephants were crucial because the hammer and anvil strategy required the crushing power of cavalry to act as the anvil. Elephants with their grandiose size and loud cries scared horses. Thus Alexander when fighting forces that included elephants had to factor how to draw away the elephants from his own cavalry.

The greatest threat to Macedonian advance was the people who lay ahead in India, the one’s Alexander had not even warred with yet. The empires of the Nanda and the Gangaridai were truly the immovable objects that Alexander’s army could not defeat. It would have been nearly impossible for the depleted forces of Alexander’s armies match the rested and waiting armies of these two empires. This is saying a lot for an army that repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what impossible meant. According to the ancient historian Plutarch Alexander’s forces were, “violently opposed to Alexander’s,” furthering campaigns against the Nanda and Gangaridai. After years of campaigning Alexander’s army had roughly 20,000 men left to fight. The Nanda-Gangaridai Alliance could field a total of an estimated 294,000 troops. Nanda-Gangaridai forces were comprised of 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots, and 6,000 war elephants. If estimates regarding the size of the Indian armies and Roman armies are true, the Indians could field a substantially larger army than Rome could during the reign of Augustus. It is difficult to verify these numbers. What can be said for certain is whether or not these numbers are accurate it was believed by the soldiers that the Nanda-Gangaridai forces were on the order of this size. Furthermore both empires were known for having huge populations and since much was not known about their lands it was hard for Alexander’s army to know how great resistance could have been. In addition Alexander’s troops had just completed a war with the Persian Empire who fielded colossal armies as well and all they had to show for it was continued conquests. The men were tired and their opponents were too strong, too fierce, and too well equipped.

Ultimately Alexander’s dreams lived and died in India. India was the place where he could try to conquer endlessly. Alexander loved the competition and the thrill of beating the odds. His army though could not stand by his dream. They had to put an end to the conquests. Alexander believed his army was invincible, yet his army knew they met their match. Alexander was so angered by the end of his conquests that upon turning around from India some believe Alexander made his forces take the more difficult path back to Babylon as punishment. Many soldiers died along the way. Alexander never lost his dream of unending conquest. If he could not do so far from home in India, he would conduct his conquests a little closer to home. Had Alexander been able to fulfill his dream, he would have undoubtedly altered the course of history. Alexander had his eyes set on the three places that would come to dominate the period from after his death until the Middle Ages. Alexander had his eyes set on Rome, Carthage, and the Arabian peninsula. Alexander passed away before he could conduct those campaigns. It was Alexander’s insatiable appetite for conquest that made him great, but it also caused the mutiny exposing a dissatisfied army as Alexander’s Achilles heal. The realities of maintaining a military limited Alexander’s unsatisfiable dream.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Eagle

Having recently watched the movie The Eagle, I wanted to write an article on Roman Legionary Standards. The premise of The Eagle is that the ninth legion, stationed in Britain, ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall, was ambushed and defeated. In the process of the legion being mostly wiped out, the Roman Standard was taken from the legion. The son of the centurion who lost the standard seeks to redeem his family’s honor by recovering the standard his father lost. The main character, Marcus Aquila, ventures beyond the Wall and searches throughout northern Britannia for the lost Eagle Standard. Marcus goes to great lengths, putting his life on the line throughout the movie, but eventually recovers the standard. Although this story is fanciful, it is not entirely outside the realm of truth. The purpose of the movie is to show no matter how great the lengths, a true Roman would do almost anything to recover a lost standard.

It is important to understand what exactly the standard was and why it was so important. A Roman Standard was a staff with an animal that had great mythological importance attached atop it. After the military reforms of Gaius Marius, the standard would exclusively have an eagle sitting atop the staff. The Eagle standard was removable from the staff. This can be seen in The Eagle as Marcus Aquila only recovers the Eagle. Standards had multiple functions in battle. One function was to serve as a rallying point for Roman soldiers. Another was to serve as the symbol of the power of Rome. The standard symbolized many Roman virtues such as honor, ambition, and strength. Since the standard was the symbol of Roman honor, its loss meant not only the loss of the battle, but the loss out Roman dignity by way of the legions who fought the battle.

The loss of a standard would be considered catastrophic for Romans. It could be as devastating if not more devastating than the casualties sustained in battle. The late Republican army, early Imperial army believed in the notion of Imperium sine fine. This meant the empire without end. Roman armies from the Second Punic War on marched throughout the Mediterranean and into mainland Europe relatively unfettered. Although the were some strong enemies, eventually all were crushed. Therefore the standard embodied the unending advance of Rome wherever it was carried. Such conquests bred an air of invincibility among the people and armies of Rome. Thus the loss of a standard went completely against the notion of Imperium sine fine, and meant that people could call into question Roman invincibility. This could not be tolerated. Being superior was central for what it meant to be Roman. The superiority of Rome made citizens happy to be Romans, and outsiders envious of Romans. Therefore if the standard was lost, Roman superiority was lost, and faith in the Roman system was lost.

The battle of Carrhae and its aftermath embodies the Roman obsession with Legionary Standards. During the battle of Carrhae, the wealthy member of the Triumvirate Crassus was defeated by a Parthian army. Seven Roman Legions were sent into disarray. As a result the Parthians captured seven Roman Standards. This humiliated Rome. The name of Crassus became synonymous with Roman shame. It became the goal of Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony to recover the lost standards. Marc Antony in 37 BC marched with an estimated 100,000 Roman and allied troops into Parthia for the sole purpose of recovering the lost standards of Carrhae. Antony found himself entrenched in a prolonged quagmire against the Parthians and had to turn back. Although Antony’s foray against Parthia did not end until 30 BC, the official end of the war was in 20 BC. In 20 BC the sole ruler of Rome, Augustus, was able to negotiate, not recapture through battle, the return of the seven lost Standards from the Parthians. The honor associated with returning the standards was so great that it was treated as if the Romans had won a war to regain them.

Standards proved to be very symbolic for the Roman people. The standard was the symbol of an unending empire. Standard symbolized the Roman notion of being the self-designated leaders of the world. The ambition to be great was a common thread throughout the long history of Rome. This ambition was rooted in the strong sense of honor Romans had about being Roman. Thus although it may seem frivolous today to worship such an object, to Romans, honor was everything. Thus there was no sacrifice that was too high pay to protect the symbolic honor of Rome, the standards.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Paratroopers Over Crete

The German invasion of Crete was very famous because it the first primarily airborne invasion of a territory. Crete is an island in the Mediterranean. The British Navy ruled the Mediterranean. The Germans needed a new way to attack Crete. Ultimately this new method was looked on largely as a failure, but the lessons learned from the invasion would later be used against the Germans throughout the war.

Paratroopers were the spearhead of the German invasion of Crete. Crete is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. It was a crucial base for British naval and supply operations in the Mediterranean, especially for the North African theater. British naval superiority in the Mediterranean made a large scale invasion of Crete quite risky. To bypass the British naval advantage, the Germans used paratroopers to attack Crete. Although the island was successfully taken by the Germans, it was a faulty strategy to attack Crete with exclusively paratroopers because it was too costly and inefficient expense of men and materiel.

Paratroopers are not meant to provide the core of large scale military operations. Their purpose is to act as quick strike units ahead of a larger force. Often time paratroopers are tasked with blowing up rail lines, communication lines, or bridges. The most famous paratroop operation of the war was the German invasion of the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael. A small unit of German Fallschirmjäger (elite paratroopers) landed gliders on top of the fort and around the fort to knock out the defensive guns and bridges that threatened the German blitz through Belgium. Since airborne invasions were so new, the Allies were caught by surprise. A force of roughly 500 Germans was able to defeat a force nearly twice that size, while also conquering a fort that was thought to be impenetrable.

Success bred hubris for the Nazis. Rather than taking the lesson that paratroopers are best used in small scale, quick operations, the senior Luftwaffe commanders believed the success of the Eben-Emael could be replicated on larger scale attacks. Crete was not a fort with only 1000 defenders. Rather it was an entire island with tens of thousand of troops. Nazi opposition comprised of the Commonwealth, Greek, and Cretan partisan troops. Past success of German paratroopers combined with German air superiority made Nazis confident they could bypass British Naval Superiority and overcome Crete’s defenses.

The flaw in the Nazis invasion of Crete was the failure to understand that paratroopers were not common infantry. They were superior. Paratroopers required more training than infantry because they conducted special tasks. The Fallschirmjäger used in the invasion were elite units that worked best in small operations. Infantry are meant for large scale operations because they require less training and there are more of them. Therefore infantry are more expendable. Units with large amounts of training are not expendable. Training costs and time associated with training are too valuable. Thus infantry have a comparative advantage in conducting such large scale operations versus elite paratroopers. Losses in infantry units can be easily absorbed because those units are replaceable. Losses in the Fallschirmjäger were not easily replaced. Therefore expending Fallschirmjäger was a costly endeavor for the Nazis.

Airborne units are subject to the elements more so than most units. Air currents can blown airborne units off target. Such occurrences were prevalent throughout WWII. Amphibious landings on the other hand are relatively more direct and reliable for getting units to their targets. An exclusively airborne invasion was a risky endeavor because if enough units were to become scattered it left those units highly susceptible to Crete’s defenses. Furthermore communication among scattered units is extremely difficult to maintain. The only way the island could have been taken was with a concerted effort that required effective communication and coordination.

Unfortunately for the British Commonwealth forces, and Greek units, communication was even worse on their side. Counterattacks were not effectively coordinated. Superior force numbers could not overwhelm the specialized German units. Fallschirmjäger were able to regroup and capture airbases required for resupply. Part of the confusion on the British side resulted from believing a sea borne invasion was still on its way and needed to be accounted for. Thus maximum counterattacks could not be mounted against the airborne German units.

The attack was not easy for the German paratroopers though. Since Crete was a small island it was hard for paratroop units to land behind enemy lines and outflank the enemy. Paratroopers in Crete became more like frontline units. Yet the airborne units were not properly supplied to act as frontline units. The German paratroopers were supplied with lighter artillery pieces because this was all airborne operations could accommodate. Furthermore the means of supply for the paratroopers was flawed. Rather than letting the troops jump with their rifles and MP 40 submachine guns, the paratroopers were to jump with only handguns, knives, and grenades while the rest of the weapons would simultaneously be parachuted in. The idea behind this was to prevent the paratroopers from losing their weapons in the jump. This plan failed and battles sprung up over paratroopers trying to recover their gear. The light artillery pieces used by the paratroopers were insufficient for taking the island. Thus the Nazis had to devise complex parachuting schemes to land heavy artillery pieces, while the German Navy drew up risky plans to land heavy artillery on the island.

The German air superiority held the battle together for the Nazis. Allied defenses could be bombed. This helped balance the lack of proper weapons for the paratroopers. Air superiority also meant a constant stream of resupply for the paratroopers. Eventually poor coordination and the prospect of a unending supply of German paratroopers proved too much for the British. The key defensive city of Heraklion was captured by the Germans and this sealed Crete’s fate.

In assessing the flaws in the German paratroop invasion of Crete it is important to see how the invasion fits into the Grand Strategy of the Nazis for WWII. The Invasion of Crete occurred in late May early June of 1941. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, took place in late June. The German attacks on Greece and subsequently Crete were a distraction for the Germans. The distraction of capturing these two would have grave implications for Operation Barbarossa. The invasions delayed invasion of Russia forcing it to begin ever closer to the for middle Russian winter. Nazi high command should have recognized not only was this the main theater, but the only theater the Nazis should have diverted complete attention towards.

Furthermore to determine the success of the German invasion, the implications of the victory must be analyzed in the cold, calculated manner Eisenhower used in assessing whether the Philippines should be immediately invaded after it was captured by Japan. His analysis was one, does taking that objective win the Allies the war, and two does not taking the given objective lose the Allies the war. If both answers are no, such an invasion should be avoided. Therefore did taking Crete tip the balance of the Mediterranean in the Germans favor. No. Would have not taking Crete lost them the war in the Mediterranean. The answer is no as well. Other factors were at play. The British still held Malta and Gibraltar as key naval, air, and supply bases for the Sea. Also neither the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) or Luftwaffe were able to assert control over the Mediterranean after the airbases in Crete were captured.

In addition the motif for Britain’s struggle and success in the war was living to fight another day. The British were able to use their navy to evacuate their troops from Crete as they had at Dunkirk and in Greece. Eventually Britain’s naval superiority ensured that they could continue to supply their campaign in places like North Africa while the German units would often have to rely on scrounging together materiel or hope to capture Allied supply bases. Crete was a costly endeavor and became magnified by the fact that losses were exclusively among airborne units. Hitler decided never to use airborne units in such attacks for the rest of the war, while the Allies learned from the mistakes of the Germans. When the final invasion of Europe did come paratroopers were a key part of the Allied invasion. The Allies figured out how to beat the Nazis at their own game, sealing their fate.