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Key factors for successful armies.

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Topic: Key factors for successful armies.
Posted By: Seko-
Subject: Key factors for successful armies.
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 00:02
I've been wondering why some armies, especially of nomadic origin, had been successful against peers of seemingly equal caliber. What made the fortuitous militaries so successful during their heyday?

I'll share my notions soon.

Posted By: hugoestr
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 00:34
Hmm. Who are you thinking about?

It seems to me that discipline is a major component of having a lot of military success. After all, asking people to face other people who may kill them is not natural. So being able to keep them from deserting at that point is very important.

Posted By: Al Jassas
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 01:10
In the old days wars were won in one single battle, you lose it and that it.
Nomadic armies in particular always looked for this one battle and established empires always tried not to fight them in it, at least not on the frontiers. Sometimes they succeed and others they don't.
I will give three examples from Arab-muslim history. During the Arab conquests Heraclius specifically instructed his commanders never to give a decisive battle with the Arabs because he knew their campaign season was short and once grasing season comes the army will disband. Thus a two year chase across Palestine and Jordan commenced with no decisive results. What was occupied in summer was lost in winter until by mistake the armies gathered in Yarmouk and gave Khalid the chance he waited for. The rest is history.
A similar scenario happened with the Khwarizmids. Jalaluddin was opposed to gathering the armies in one battle but his father searching for a new glory refused. The result is history, Iran had no armies to defend it against the Mongols.
A more successful example is the Khazar invasion of the ummayyad empire in 731. The Ummayyads after losing Derbent and the Khazars entered Azerbaijan they decided to fight delaying action that took almost 2 years drawing them deeper and deeper into the Ummayyad trap. Even if they lost the battle the armies coming from Egypt and North Africa were in Syria waiting to engage them immediately. There was no need to.
One also might argue that Napoleon's adventure into Russia falls into this catagory. They Russians denied him the decisive battle he so craved and drew him deeper and deeper. Had they given him the battle Russia would have probably lost the war although I admit I am not very familiar with the invasion and Russia military standing then.
Now post Napoleon things changed. Now countries could muster millions of men at once at different fronts and supply them with the same uniforms and weapons with no difference. Now wars became industrialised and no matter how good training you have or how brave your soldier are, if the enemy outnumbers you with average trained soldiery drained from the citizenry then you will lose.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 02:12
Nice. We haven't had a good discussion in this sub in quite some time and today we have two new topics.

Hugo you shared one aspect that, to me, is certainly of prime importance. Discipline. I'll touch up on that and a few other necessary elements soon.

AJ, I think you are onto something. A battle in those days meant 'all in'. Everything hinged on it. Fighting one decisive battle could make or break an army.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

Steppe peoples had armies that ebbed and flowed according to a few principles. What were they? Material wealth is one thing that comes to mind. Without it a group cannot successfully have a fighting chance. With it an army has provisions, hardware (shields, bows, swords, pavelins, horses, etc) and a means to utilize them. I'll list the rest below.

Successful necessities
- Leadership. This is a big one. It seems that the most successful nomadic armies had very good to brilliant leadership.
- Discipline. An army is not only as good as its leadership but must live up to the expected standards. Know-how, training, experience, cohesion, and the fulfillment of unit tasks. Quality of soldier and amount of toughness would fall under this category as well.
- Code of warfare. Each fighting units would not only know what is expected of them but what is expected by the leadership too. Rules of engagement. Actions would be rewarded or punished
dependent on behaviors of the individual, and group soldiery.
- Logistics and organization. The better coordination in battle and provisions of material I assume would help chances of success.
- Communication. Flags, drums, trumpets, whistling arrows were all forms of giving battle orders.
- Information. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and those of the enemy.
- Ruthlessness and governance. Will the winning army subjugate, exterminate or placate the losing opponents?
- Cohesion. Unity. When petty disputes were put aside and one leader took control, especially when a code of living and fighting was adhered to then that army proved most formidable.
- Know when to fight. Terrain, quality of enemy and their abilities come to mind.
- Imperial guard. The Xiong Nu, Gok Turks, and Mongols had them.
- Speed and mobility

For now that is what I can think of. I'm sure other important characteristics will surface in this discussion.

Examples of successful armies and why leadership was so important.

It wasn't till the Xiong Nu unified under Modun that they became an aggressive and formidable force to be reckoned with. His reign coincided with strict leadership. It wasn't till later when the Left and Right Kings separated from the whole and challenged the Shan Yu (KaKhan) that those northern nomads succumbed to Han imperialism.

Baibars. He not only enhanced the fighting qualities of disparate units (Egyptians, Beduins, Turks) but unified them in spirit, common goals and battle techniques so that they were able to turn the Mongol tide.

Toba. They were also known as the Tabgatch. Those Turko-Mongol (xianbe) nomads reigned on the Northern Chinese borders. Partly sinicised, it wasn't till able leaders had ruled that they successfully fought off the dreaded Juan Juan, of whom were more ferocious then they themselves.

Cengiz Han. I think of all the leaders, his army fought without mercy. His troops followed a code of life and war under the Mongol Yasa. He was a shrewd tactician and leader. They were open to incorporating subjugated artisans, professionals and fighters when deemed fit. They killed off the population in order to keep from rebellion.

Posted By: Al Jassas
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 03:15
Here is the thing Seko, nomadic outbreaks are not the rule but actually the exception. While one has to appreciate the quality of successful nomadic commanders one must not forget that it was more often than not a combination of events that helped them win.
Nomads have been trying to invade empires since time immemorial however they always lost with as I said a few exceptions in history like Atilla, the arab conquests, Genghis Khan etc. In most cases those nomads had leaders that were as charismatic and successful as those men mentioned earlier but their poor luck was that the conditions on the other side, some unnatural event of some sort or other reasons stood in their way.
Remember that Mongols tried to invade Iraq twice but failed before they finally succeeded, the first was because Genghis Khan died and in the other they were decisively defeated. Same thing happened to Mongol invasions of europe, they could have continued but their commanders either died or decided to leave back to their home country.
As for Baibars, he had a professional army at his disposal, the Mamelukes, as well as trained semi-professionals (Bedouins and ordinary citizens) plus the forces of the turkish and kurdish princelings. Unless there was a major campaign he always depended on the first two catagories who were regularly paid and were registered with the state and assigned to a fixed unit. He had nothing to do with nomadic armies since his country was an established empire.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 03:49
thanks for the reply A.J.

You are right in that Baibars did have a professional army (my initial omission not withstanding and most likely due to my utter laziness and forgetfulness at the time of writing) . The Mamlukes were famous for their professional 'Mameluks'. Though a sedentary country, the Mamelukes fought the Mongols in an open terrain with steppe tactics. Hence the inclusion in my list of examples.

As for good fortune and ruinous luck, I cannot disagree there either. Fate is beyond measure. However, when the stars did align, necessary ingredients were still of prime importance otherwise a golden opportunity could not have been taken advantage of.

As for nomads invading for the sake of invading (my words) I have one hesitation. Living on the pastures and grazing about is prime reason to leave ones neighbors alone. Often the Chou, Han and Tang imperial dynasties had much to say about nomadic counter intentions. It had been generally accepted that the Great Walls were a line of demarcation. When either side broke that understated truce then the other side often regarded such transgressions as acts of hostility. That being said one can only successfully defend and/or attack after sufficient army requirements had been satisfactorily met. It were those exceptional leaders who went one step further and conquered beyond the norm of their times that makes one curious of their capabilities and potential. A list whose number is rather large (Mado, Atilla, Bayan, Teoman  (Bumin), Kutluk, Bilge... on up to imperialists like the Great Seljuks, Timur and Cengiz, etc, etc).

Despite the reasons for a nomadic outbreak, whether by a vacuum (disintegration of one nomadic state that appeared inviting to a new one), retaliation to incursions, or pure aggression the army in question must have not only been lucky but also remarkable.

Posted By: hugoestr
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 04:05
I am not so familiar with Steppe history or warfare, so you will have to inform on that.

Did these nomadic invaders fight on horses? If so, they would have had a great advantage in raiding and in battles. The bulk of the people would have been better trained in horsemanship than cavalry who only trained on horses. Also, cavalry has traditionally been used to break foot formations, so having the bulk of your fighting men on horses rather than walking on foot would be a good for you.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 04:13
Good point Hugo. Sometimes the expectation here, on this sub, is to take the horse for granted. You are right. The advantages of a soldier and group of soldiers on horseback is what made for effective fighting. Speed, endurance and trickery. Many important steppe tactics came about because the horse was the main vehicle at the time. 

Posted By: Al Jassas
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 04:34

There is a lot of confusion about steppe tactics and how were they implimented during the mongol invasions.

First of all what are the mongol tactics? The mongol armies (and Turkish armies in general) were dependent on cavalry, namely horse archers. The horse archer was a powerful tool in warfare, the problem was he took too much time to train and needed alot of horses both were only available in steppe country. The mongol army was almost entirely composed of horse archers who also can perform other cavalry tactics as well. Usually mongols used their allies (and more often than not allies were as big as the mongols) for infantry operations once the cavalry shock was obtained.
Because they used a novel way of warfare they were successful. It was up to the other side to determine how to face them. Some used similar tactics but most adapted their tactics to the mongol way of war.
As for Mamlukes using steppe tactics, that didn't happen. Qutuz (in the lead up to Ain Jalut) sent spies to study the mongol tactics and they gave us a pretty detailed description of it. Those spies told him they relied on shock and continuous assault until the enemy breaks and that they are quite weak in their response to ambushes especially after exhaustion (Jalaluddin and the Abbasids before defeated them using ambush techniques). So he put heavy infantry in a sold square blocking the road against them and directed the two cavalry corps he had to charge the infantry and the enemy cavalry. He used infantry archers in the same manner the English used them in Cresy and the result was total annihilation.
All the other battles went more or less the same way using classical techniques and formation for both cavalry and infantry operations.
PS: In your assessment of cavalry advantages you forgot the most important feature of steppe armies, speed. An army composed fully of horse will move on average +100 km a day in good weather while infantry could only hope to achieve a third of that distance. In open lands mobility could mean life or death. Saladin reached Hattin wells before the crusaders did despite they were much nearer than him because his army had the better mobility. He poisoned the wells and forced a battle he easily won.
It was mobility that distinguished the Ottomans in their wars with horseless europeans and that was one of the reasons why cavalry was resurrected in the 17th century after almost 3 centuries of demise.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 05:42
than let us not confuse ourselves over the tactics. I wish I could find it but we do have a pretty good thread in the old forum on that very thing (steppe tactics). Also, let us not diminish the impact of the variations of those tactics especially on armies unsuspecting of them at Leignitz (Legnica) and the Kalka River.

AJ let us also not confuse ourselves over battle tactics versus army composition. Both are important yet your notion that the Mameluks didn't use stepped tactics is wrong. Even wiki has a grasp of them at Ain Jalut:  The two armies fought restlessly for many hours, with Mamluk leader Baibars most of the time implementing hit-and-run tactics, in order to provoke the Mongol troops and at the same time preserve the bulk of his troops intact. When the Mongols carried out another heavy assault, Baibars – who it is said had laid out the overall strategy of the battle since he had spent much time in that region, earlier in his life, as a fugitive – and his men feigned a final retreat, drawing the Mongols into the highlands to be ambushed by the rest of the Mamluk forces who were concealed among the trees in the highlands. The Mongol leader Kitbuqa, already provoked by the constant fleeing of Baibars and his troops, committed a grave mistake; instead of suspecting a trick, Kitbuqa decided to march forwards with all his troops on the trail of the fleeing Mamluks. When the Mongols reached the highlands, Mamluk forces appeared from hiding and began to fire arrows and attack with their cavalry. The Mongols then found themselves surrounded on all sides by the Mamluk forces...

Hit-and-run (harrying harassment), ambush and feigned retreat were tactics the Mongols knew very well. Baibars used the very same ones against them. They were rudimentary techniques used by steppe soldiers since the dawn of cavalry. The Mamelukes also used tactics composed of sedentary army techniques of which you have mentioned. To exclude one from the other when both were applied would be mistaken however.

In general, steppe tactics were mostly composed by cavalry and not infantry.

In regards to your note on 'speed'. I previously mentioned it as a characteristic that the horse brought to the table. We could add it to our list of 'successful necessities' if you wish (now added with the latest edit). The reason I did not mention some items is because the horse, hence speed and mobility, is mutually inclusive to all steppe armies.

Now, without diverging much more...what were the reasons for one army being successful over another of apparently equal measure? That is the initial question. Horses and weaponry being equal did it come done to those other variables previously mentioned? What are some others?

Posted By: Al Jassas
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 06:27

First I will comment on steppe tactics.

Arab historians agree that mongols were bad at ambushes and worse at recovering from them. The reason is simple. The mongol army was not advanced enough to use signaling techniques that established armies had nor it was organised in fixed units and formations. In all their battles they relied on shock and speed for victory.
The wikipedia article (in addition to several mistakes) proves nothing. The author obviously has no idea about the Mamluke tactics or Arab tactics in general. Plus Hit and run isn't unique to steppe people, it is about the oldest tactic in warfare, steppe people were unique in the size of the cavalry used. Ordinary armies had no more than a quarter of the total army as cavalry but almost the entire army in the steppe case is composed of cavalry some of whom also perform infantry duties once victory was certain.
Now to your question about success and failure. Well that is the million dollar question and there is no answer to it. Each battle is different and each war is different and from a statistical point of view each army has as much chance of victory as the other in the case of total equality in every meter of combat readiness. What is left is the commanders themselves.
Take the Soviet invasion of Finland. The purge of the officer corps left the army practically headless. So despite numerical advantage in every aspect by astronomical ratios (in military terms of course) the red army failed to disloge the Finns who were commanded by professional officers who were largely fighting their 3rd war (for Mannerheim it was his fifth), the lack of training is not a good excuse because most of the Finns didn't have the luxury of basic military training. Fast forward to 1944 and the picture is drastically different. With a fraction of the resources and the losses in 1939-40 and facing an enemy much stronger and better trained than in that period the Russians achieved much larger gains and forced the Finns to the negotiating table. What happen in the period between the two operations? A real war training course called Barbarossa et al. The Soviets were now better lead than before and that made the difference.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 06:27
found the older threads on tactics. Here they are:


Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 06:32
I will have to disagree with the notion that the Mongols were poor at administering and recovering from an ambush. Furthermore, the Mongols were very adept at communications. One reason being is that nomads were bred and buttered on horseback. They hunted on horseback. They fought on horseback. Are we supposed to believe that they did not perfect the art of warfare on horseback nor have the know-how to apply a proper ambush?

Posted By: Al Jassas
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 06:46
That was what Sungur Al-Ashqar and an Ayubid princeling (who was an "ally" of the mongols) reported to Qutuz before the battle and that was what every battle the mongols fought against the mamlukes proved. Its not my opinion you know.

Posted By: Seko-
Date Posted: 20 Nov 2010 at 08:26
When we speak of an empire(s), such as the Mongols, we are taking in a span of centuries. In any given period a momentary lapse of reason, as in weak generalship, did raise its head among them. Adhering to proven battle techniques would have been useful and incumbent on a good general. Yet there were times when lackadaisical and haphazard leadership style and temperament deviated from the norm and led to their own own loss as in the Battle of Ain Jalut. Compound that with excellent planning of Sultan Qutuz and general Baibars was a recipe for disaster.   

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