Monday, June 21, 2021

Conference Special: The Sword of God - Khalid ibn al-Walid (part two)

Khalid ibn al-Walid ... strategy, tactics, battles

Picking up where we left off in Part One ...

  ... Mobility and use of concealing terrain were signatures of Khalid's generalship, and he would regularly find himself outnumbered.  Using what you might call an army-level version of traditional Arab raiding tactics, he would often attempt to pin the enemy into position without fully engaging ... in order to outmanoeuvre and envelop the enemy - compensating for numerical weaknesses with local advantages.  We see this in the Arab civil wars, and in the wars against Persia.  It should come as no surprise that this is what we see at Yarmuk ...

Early career: Uhud ... the battle of the mountain ...

March 625 ... the Arab Wars: the Muslims were fighting the Meccans for supremacy.  Khalid is commanding the Meccan cavalry wing.  A lot of the details of this battle seem mythical, but it is clear that, though outnumbered, the Muslims were able to drive the Meccan main divisions backwards.  The Muslim left flank was held by a body of archers on a hill.  As victory neared, those archers, rather than hold their position guarding the flank, instead chose to take the opportunity to raid the Meccan baggage, leaving the flank open.  Khalid was able to move his cavalry unseen and unopposed around the flank and fall on the rear of the main body.

Legends recount how, before this battle, a number of duels occured around the Meccan standard bearers, costing many of them their lives.  The victories of their champions bolstered the morale of the outnumbered Muslims - and dulled the enthusiasm of their enemies.  It is evident from the accounts of battle in other theatres in this period, as well, that the duels were more than just romanticisations by story tellers.  The men in the ranks were clearly affected by these challenges such that commanders could not simply pass over them (it seems a challenge had to be responded to ... and that the outcome was important).

I have borrowed this plan from Wikipedia.  As above, the accounts of the battle don't allow me to verify much of the detail on the plan, but it may help you understand the broad position ...

... it probably means that Khalid left a gap in trying to gain an outflanking position - and the archers obligingly rushed through it.  How deliberately this came about is not clear, however, I suspect Khalid saw something happen that day that informed many of his later battles.
Arguably, Khalid should have fallen on the archers and protected his own army's rear zone - but he was clearly (then and later) prepared to sacrifice the camp for the chance of taking a battle-winning position beyond/through concealing terrain into the enemy's rear..
The key elements: a large mobile cavalry reserve/wing; the opportunity to attack/loot the camp pulling the enemy out of position; pre-battle duels taking out enemy commanders; willingness to expose the camp; encirclement hidden by terrain; victory out of the jaws of defeat.

In 627, Khalid embraced Islam and was given high command in the Muslim armies.

In the subsequent Meccan campaign, he commanded the Muslim Bedouin contingents, which probably gave him the opportunity to to perfect his art of rapid movement, especially in barren and desert areas with minimal supply. Mobility and supply was enabled by large numbers of camels ... the Arabs then dismounting or transfering to horses for battle.
The Destruction of Persia

The battles of Khalid's campaign against the Sassanids are marked by his clear superiority in manoeuvre over larger but more ponderous enemy forces.  Swift movements allowing Khalid to choose either to hit unexpectedly or to draw battle out over several days to wear the enemy down and strike when the advantage was secured.

At the Battle of the Chains (so called, because we are told that the men of the Persian centre were linked together by chains), April 633, Khalid made a series of marches and counter marches in the days before the battle in order to tire and confuse the enemy.  Marked by Kazimah on the map, battle was joined only when Khalid was satisfied with the propects for victory.  As he would do in later battles, Khalid deployed with the desert forming a safe zone behind him, and repeatedly attacked the fatigued Persian flanks until they were forced to withdraw, exposing the immobile centre.  The centre was destroyed.

Next, at the Battle of the River (near the Euphrates at Uballa), April 633, Khalid was able to strike more rapidly than the Persians expected as they assembled a new army in the aftermath of defeat at the Chains.  The Persians had the river to their rear, on which they were transporting recruits and supplies for the army.  Khalid moved quickly to battle this time while he had the opportunity to trap the enemy against the river.

The duels that preceded the battle are interesting to consider ... all 3 Persian commanders were apparently killed .. Against the commander of the enemy centre, Khalid allowed his place to be taken by a champion swordsman*, following his victory, the commanders of the wings rode forward and, again, we are told both the Persian leaders fell.  Assuming the stories to be true, and judged with knowledge of the outcomes, to describe this bravado by the senior Persians as foolhardy seems an understatement.

The Battle of Walaja: May 633 .. the Persians were able to regroup, and massed 2 armies to defeat the Arabs ... each nearly twice the size of Khalid's expedition.  Khalid moved quickly to prevent the armies combining - intending to take out the army at Walaja first.

Realising that he needed to anihilate the force at Walaja, Khalid risked weakening his outnumbered force by separating 4,000 of his best cavalry from the army, 'disappearing' them into the undulating landscape so that when he had drawn the Persians into an attack, they could appear from concealment behind the enemy's flanks.  A hybrid double envelopment by ambush, if you like ...


(Map by Mohammad adil at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This mastery of the landscape seems remarkable, given that Khalid was operating on enemy territory (however, the Walaja army was arriving by ship, so may largely have been, in reality, no more 'local' than the Arabs are) ...

As the battle pressed on, Khalid is said to have ordered the centre slowly to fall back, while the wings held their ground, drawing the Persians into a killing zone.  This is very reminiscent of Hannibal's tactic at Cannae ... It is normal to wonder whether such subtle movements are really so controlled - or whether fortuitous effects are recorded as planned and commanded with victor's hindsight.  However, allowing the enemy to press forward, feeling they are on the brink of victory does seem a Khalid trademark.

Three further battles were fought in this phase of the conquest of Persia before Abu Bakr recalled Khalid and deployed him against Byzantine Syria/Palestine.  At the battle of Ullais, Khalid defeated and killed Christian Arab tribal chief Abdul-Aswad in a duel.  Reports suggest that thousands of Persian soldiers were beheaded when they were trapped by the river as they fled.

With Khalid sent West, the final victory over Persia would not be until 651 and the death of Yazdegerd III (grandson of the great Chosroes II)


Abu Bakr died in 634 and his successor Umar seems to have confirmed Khalid as supreme commander over the forces in Syria.

After a march through the desert and a decisive victory at Ajnadayn, where he united his force with several other, including Amr al As, Khalid finally attacked and conquered Damascus on 18 September 635.  Learning from spies that the Byzantines were massing two huge armies to recover the lost teritories, in the Spring of 636, Khalid withdrew into the desert plateau above the Yarmuk river ..


We have discussed Yarmuk previously, so this will be a summary.  Although, evaluated on its own, Khalid's victory seems unusual, surprising, very fortuitous etc. I believe, in the light of Khalid's previous victories, we should probably attribute more to judgement than to luck.

(my map of Yarmuk from the Great Battles of History book)

The pattern has a familair ring ... having drawn the enemy to a battlefield he has chosen, the fighting itself is drawn out over several days.  Although the Byzantines try to avoid being pulled out of position, they find the battlefield opening up and are able to attack the Muslim camps, which pulls them forward.  Fighting with the open space of the desert behind him, only when the Byzantines are fully committed, does Khalid deploy some of his reserve to hold the line.

The battle is preceded by a number of duels which go the Arab way, and in which the Byzantines lose a number of high-ranking officers.  Khalid allows this to go on, and it forces the Byzantines to attack.

Although heavily outnumbered, Khalid had massed a significant proportion of his cavalry into a mobile reserve under his direct command.  After several days of intermittent fighting, duelling and repositioning of forces, the mobile guard somehow disappeared into the landscape, and when the enemy was fully committed, they reappeared behind the enemy's open flank and were able to engulf them, isolating the infantry centre.  

Attempting to withdraw, the mass of the Byzantine army found that Khalid's men had taken the key passages across the Yarmuk and have trapped them against the river (in this case, the steep ravine edge that descends to the river). 

The road back to Damascus was open ... the Byzantine armies were smashed, as was the empire in the Levant.  

Shortly after his epoch defining victory, Khalid was removed from command and, effectively, retired by Caliph Umar - apparently for fear of the development of a personality cult around the veteran war leader.

Khalid died in 642, and had remained undefeated in over 50 battles ... his victories were cornerstones of the rapid expansion of Islam in the Middle East and around the shores of the Mediterranean.

* according to legend, Khalid spurred up his horse to accept the challenge, but Maqal bin Al Ashi charged forward determined to get there first - recognising both his zeal and his status as a swordsman, Khalid chose not to recall him.  Which seems very prudent ... especially if Khalid made enough of an effort for it to be clear to the soldiers that Maqal got there first due to his exceptional courage and fervour, rather than any reticence on Khalid's part.  Or am I starting to sound cynical? At Walaja, Khalid himself is said to have fought the main duel, and won ... so he was clearly capable in this respect.  I imagine, at Walaja, that Khalid was happy to run the clock a bit, in order to bring his flanking forces into play ..

Friday, June 18, 2021

Ancients Stuck at Home #n: Lockdown Lonesome DBA ... Maurikians vs Arabs ..

Just prepping the text for part 2 of the posts on Khalid, and it seemed appropriate to look at some tabletop action. So here's a little intervention.  I've had a few face-to-face games outdoors, under canvas, as it were, and many more (though mostly not ancients) via online links.  Unlike many friends, though, over Lockdown, I've not done many solo games.
For most of my illustrations on this topic, I have used the splendid and nostalgic 30mm flats ... so this time, I opted to use more conventional 15mm figures.

There's not a lot of choice regards the Arabs list.  The Byzantines chose to go with normal Cv options (not the 6Cv) and to take a mostly mounted army - just 2 4Bw on foot.

Rather than run either (or both) using an 'autopilot' style mechanism, I decided to roleplay each commander/player according to a tactical briefing I gave myself:

Byzantine: the Byzantine game intends to overwhelm the flanks with mounted manoeuvreability.  To fight with a potentially hollow centre, prepared to hold off the Arab foot with LH (it's 3-2 in favour of the foot, but the LH only flee when doubled).  The archers are to shoot down enemy mounted troops.  If defending, the army chooses Rough optional terrain so that the archers have unobstructed arcs of fire but the enemy are slowed. 
Arab: the Arab army will fight on a wide front, happy that the Blades fight 3 vs mounted just like the Cv do (so nothing to fear) ... the archers will hunt down LH if poss and avoid exchanging shots with enemy Bw (who will outnumber them) ... if possible, the Bds will hunt down the enemy foot archers and chop them up.  The wide infantry centre should allow the cavalry to mass on the flanks.

Aggression - attack/defend ... Arabs 4 + 5 on the D6 .. Byzantines 1 + 1 on the D6 (a very clear 9-2 making the Arab the attacker).

The Byzantines took 2 Plough and, as optional, 2 Scrub ... the plan being that the Plough are effectively not there ... the Scrub will slow the enemy whilst the archers get extra shots at them.

After the placements were diced up, the Arabs flipped the board round for their attacker edge.

Both players placed at least one element in the Rough, the Arabs planning to move out of it in the first turn, the Byzantines because they planned a 'slow centre' ...  inded, both players deployed as if the Plough wasn't there.
The Byzantine game plan went astray from the very start: their first (Defender) Pip score being 1, the Plough is counted a Rough Going and impedes movement.  This is the classic DBA 'Double Whammy' as, in addition to the Plough unexpectedly getting in the way, there is also just the 1 Pip for movement.
They opt to make a single element move out onto the left flank.

This will be followed by another element on the next turn, as part of a very slow start ... the Arabs got 14 Pips over the first 3 turns, the Byzantines, a very disappointing 5 Pips.  As a consequence, the battle will be fought on the Byzantine half of the board and with the flanks not engulfing the enemy as the plan had envisaged.

(all 5 Byzantine Pip moves in the first 3 turns are shown)

Without many Pips, and concerned by the marauding Camel Scouts on the flank, the Byzantine player wheels his Right towards the flank ... this will bring the LH quite close to the enemy's Bowmen (but, hey, there's only one of them - what could possibly go wrong)

Meanwhile, the Arab player has fully evolved the army and has brough the General across to match cavalry numbers on the Arab Right.
It doesn't get any better for the Byzantines ... the first shot of the game is a 6:2 in favour of the Arabs (4 vs mounted + 6 = 10, against the LH 2 + 2 = 4 ... very easily doubled and destroyed). 
The same happens in the following turn with the second shot (ironically only a 2:1 on the dice to the Arabs ... but that translates to 6:3 on the totals and another Byzantine element goes down without a fight)
So it was quickly 2:0 in element losses against the Byzantines - and 4 down will end their game, of course.  Here, we see the next evolution ... the Arab commander has wheeled towards the flank (the slow development of the Byzantine line has forced this - as, otherwise there would be an easy overlap).  It brings the Arab general under fire but he shrugs it off.  On the other flank, the Byzantine player has opted to abort the LH centre as they are being shot down too quickly.  He makes multiple moves around the flank.  This could be deadly - but the Arab player doesn't really have the Pips to respond ... and now only needs to get a couple of elements more.
After a surprising miss, another shot from the deadly Arab archers destroys the Byzantine 3Kn (so, 3:0 to the Arabs) but by now there are enough Pips for the Byzantines to execute the outflanking attack on their Right.

First the Camel Scouts are easily defeated, then, the following turn, a cavalry element.  The alignment of the combats meant that, having completed it's work as a flank contact, in its next turn, the Byzantine LH found itself outside a basewidth of the enemy and thus eligible to make multiple moves, crossing the battlefield to threaten the enemy general.

The Byzantine general took over duty as the flank guard, and the remaining cavalry element survived a shot and contacted the Arab archers (who now had a 3:0 personal tally against the Byzantines).  The tide had indeed turned.  It was quickly only 3:2 to the Arabs.  Worringly, the Arab general recoiled towards the LH and, luck of the draw, a lone Arab cavalry element drew when the elements around it recoiled (so would fight 'double-overlapped in the next round of combat) ... 

In fact, the Arab general managed to hold his own, even when engaged front and rear - but the archers went down 'beaten by mounted' and the double-overlapped cavalry got doubled.  So from being 3:0 up, mid game, the Arabs lost the battle 3:4.

The Arab foot did not manage to get to the Byzantine archers ... the over-achievement of bowmen continued (although the best outcome was a recoil, there were several of them, and combined with the slowing effect of the Scrub, it meant that the foot did not get into combat).  The Byzantine commander might well have claimed that the hollow centre had worked.
Summing up, it worked very well, and was reassuringly interesting from the start. It was also useful to see Plough working when it turns into Rough (which never seems to happen) ...

Very evenly matched armies but, by mid-game, a Byzantine win did not look on the cards.

15mm figures.  V3 version of DBA.
For what it's worth, I rolled the dice using my mobile phone ...