Operational Theory in Xenophon’s March Up Country
Battle of Cunaxa by Adrien Guignet
Xenophon’s Anabasis stands out for its attention to detail of the pragmatic concerns of planning and executing a military operation. Throughout the march up country, Xenophon takes great care to offer in detail the decision-making of the Greeks regarding orders of march, skirmishes, and logistics. A more thorough analysis of the actual military movements themselves seems as though it would offer a rich and helpful understanding of how the Greek leaders—Xenophon in particular—managed to execute such a grueling and difficult campaign.
While many of Xenophon’s great triumphs seem to result from chance, and it certainly plays a role, I’d like to posit that a more full examination of the choices made will show that the success of his generalship is primarily attributable to his ability to coherently assess and organize a military force.
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It may be useful here to begin by briefly defining some of the terms and ideas in military theory for the sake of clarity in analyzing the aspects of this march.
As this piece is primarily focused on the operational and tactical levels of war, it’s essential to differentiate the various scales as to which military planning is waged. Traditionally this has been broken into the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be disregarding the sub-tactical and grand strategic levels.
Tactical is the level at which actual fighting occurs or is imminent. Another way to potentially think of this state is one where soldiers actively carry themselves as though they may be in contact. The operational is the linkage of these tactical actions into a coherent campaign, the actual military movement itself. This distinguishes itself in that here we may say soldiers are not actively in a psychological state where contact could occur, but in the movement from contact to contact. The strategic level of warfare—often called the “theatre” of war—is what the operational details are organized towards, in this instance, it would encompass the whole of the march itself.
Some technical military terminology may also be important to define at this point. Finding, fixing, and finishing are a set of terms that refer to a continuous cycle of military operations that dictate a large portion of the pacing of battle.
Finding is the phase of military operations in which you collect and gather intelligence and reconnaissance. Simply, it is the act of actually finding the combatant on a battlefield. This is why, despite being a finite resource for Xenophon, cavalry plays a crucial role whenever he can include them in his forces. Without this component, he is essentially blind in his movements.
Fixing is slightly more difficult to capture in a concrete way. In its simplest sense, it can be thought of as "when an enemy formation no longer has complete freedom of movement". A military formation that is fixed is no longer able to maneuver in an operational manner. Depending on the circumstances, this can encompass a large set of conditions from harassing an enemy column to being enveloped and trapped on a hill. When a military formation is fixed, it can be thought of as being forced through contact to move from an operational state to a tactical state. Soldiers can no longer simply march along.
While the preceding stage involves shaping conditions to facilitate the final blow—finishing, as the name implies, refers to the destruction of a military formation through killing, routing, or surrender. Meno’s troops when defeated are a good example of this, being found in the hills they are isolated and destroyed in detail when cut off.
The final set of ideas I would like to introduce is the concepts of mass, friction, and maneuver.
In modern military parlance, the term 'mass' tends to have a more nuanced meaning, it can be understood here in its literal sense of bringing as much force as possible to a discrete physical point on a battlefield.
Friction is a term borrowed from 19th-century General Carl Von Clausewitz, which refers to the bureaucratic inertia of a military force. In short, an order will always have to pass through a chain of command and will never be executed exactly as a general intends it. Clausewitz likens it to a body moving through water, where, no matter how much the brain wills it, the limbs are always slowed down compared to walking on land.
Lastly, maneuver is an operational term that is subject to heated debate in modern military theory. However, I believe it can best be understood as fixing an enemy formation for the purposes of envelopment by rapidly moving friendly units. To maneuver is to move formations with the intent of isolating and destroying a military force, rather than solely relying on a frontal assault.
This brief outline should provide a sufficient framework for engaging with the thinking and military movements of the Greek army. For the purposes of this piece, I will exclusively focus on the period of the march to Armenia when the Greek forces are directly engaged with the Persians.
The Movement to Armenia
Finding the Greek leadership decapitated in one quick strike and plunged into conflict with Tissaphernes and Artaxerxes, Xenophon must rapidly reconstitute his demoralized forces into a coherent body. The section in Book III Chapter II provides a clear account of the forces available to Xenophon, their advantages, and limitations regarding conducting their retreat. Xenophon's strategic goal is to extricate the Greeks from the current situation, “...as free from danger as possible, and how, if we have to fight, we can fight to the best advantage.”
The most significant problem Xenophon identifies with this order of march is the absence of Greek cavalry and proficient light infantry. Although the Persians cannot overwhelm the hoplites at a tactical level, their ability to rapidly engage and disengage enables them to force the column from an operational march into a tactical fight. This introduces the fear of the Persians maneuvering to envelop the Greeks. If any Greek detachment becomes separated from the main body, they will be vulnerable to defeat in detail by the lighter Persian forces.
Xenophon's proposed reorganization of the army takes this into account. One of his main proposals is to set fire to all their wagons and tents and to get rid of all equipment that is ancillary to their needs. This army is already slow, and any measures to increase their speed, even marginally, will impact their survivability. His appreciation for their operational shortcomings becomes clearer when he proposes their order of march. He accurately assesses that “...like cowardly dogs that run after and try to bite anyone who chases them - I should not be surprised if they too follow in our tracks as we go away.”
Thus, the Greeks adopt their first operational formation—a hollow square. Formed around the baggage train and camp followers, the hoplites will march in detachments to protect all aspects of the force.
It is also worth noting Xenophon's emphasis on discipline during his speech. The concept of friction in military affairs is significant, and organizing and forming 10,000 men for a march of hundreds of miles is an arduous task even in peacetime. He makes a special point that “...they thought that we would collapse through lack of control…It is therefore necessary…that those in the ranks should be much better disciplined and much more ready to obey their officers now than they were before.” Without discipline, there is a risk of delayed transmission of orders, leading to isolated detachments being left to perish at the hands of the Persians. In such a large formation, various commanders across the ranks can reliably call up reserves to meet challenges as they arise.
A small mention should be made of Xenophon's note toward the end of his speech that, “… [once] we shall have tried out this order of march…we can decide on what seems best as different circumstances arise.” While seemingly trivial, Xenophon's early acceptance of flexibility and reform in their forces' structure signals an important aspect of his command. He acknowledges the necessity of improvisation and reform to overcome the challenges of the march, without which the expedition likely would never have left the Persian Empire.
The first tactical engagement of this portion of the march starkly demonstrates the Greek shortcomings, however. After Mithridates arrives at their camp flanked by horsemen—an early indication of the advantage cavalry confers in finding an enemy force—he returns with a larger force to engage the Greek rearguard. “The Greek rearguard suffered badly, but were unable to retaliate…In the pursuit, however, they failed to catch a single one of the enemy. This was because the Greeks had no cavalry…” Their inability to close with the Persians results in the Greeks being unable to create the necessary distance from the enemy formation where they,“...had to fall back…fighting all the way. The result was that in the whole day, they covered no more than two and a half miles”
The Greeks' operational immobility leaves them with two choices. They can either abandon the rearguard to be destroyed, as Meno had done, to regain operational mobility, or they can endure a slow pace to maintain cohesion, knowing they can ill afford to lose troops. They’re left with an untenable lack of mobility until they can address the situation.
Xenophon's most pressing problem to solve is the Greek ineffectiveness at skirmishing with the Persian light infantry and cavalry. In the Battle of Cunaxa, the Greeks fought to their distinct advantage, using overwhelming mass to drive the Persian lines off the field without casualties. However, outside of set-piece battles, the Persians can disengage at their leisure, rendering the Greeks' mass irrelevant.
While the Persian light infantry can’t stand up at the point of contact with the Greek forces—they don’t need to. Simply being able to force the Greeks to engage tactically is disastrous for the mobility of the Greeks. The operational mobility of the Persians has made up for their tactical inadequacies. Lacking cavalry, the Greeks must find a way to counter this operational disadvantage at the tactical level.
The situation the Greeks find themselves in here warrants further analysis as it is Xenophon's clear-mindedness that allows him to rapidly adjust and counter the threat. Despite his efforts to increase their marching speed by destroying their wagons, they are still found and fixed by Mithridates, and if this situation is allowed to continue their rearguard will be destroyed as Xenophon notes by saying, “...we had the greatest difficulty getting back ourselves. We should be grateful to the gods, then, that they did not come with a large force…”
Seizing the opportunity presented by the small-scale Persian attack, Xenophon immediately recognizes the presence of Rhodians in the Greek camp, whose slings can outrange the Persian skirmishers as well as horses he can expropriate from the belongings of their former commander Clearchus. Despite the Greeks' reliance on hoplite forces until this point, Xenophon understands the need for immediate reform in conducting a tactical rearguard defense.
Sensing a weakness to exploit, Mithridates returns in force during a river crossing, intending to inflict a decisive defeat so that, “...he would hand the Greeks over to him as prisoners.” This is where the final stage of finding, fixing, and finishing occurs. From Mithridates' perspective, he accurately assesses the Greek capabilities. After successfully disrupting their operational march, he moves with force to destroy the formation itself. His choice of battle reflects his ability to traverse and understand the battlespace due to his superior mobility. If we examine this engagement more closely, the entire march could have ended in disaster had Xenophon not implemented his earlier reforms.
By engaging the Greeks at a crossing point, Mithridates gains a significant tactical advantage on paper. The operational effect of a river crossing slows down the Greek formation and creates disorganization. Xenophon later explains that,
“...what is bound to happen is that the hoplites get pushed out of position and make heavy going of it, crowded together as they are, and confused; and the result is that, when they are in this disordered state, one can make no use of them...whenever they had to make any sort of crossing, over a bridge or anything else, each man struggled to be first across, and that gave the enemy excellent chance of attacking them.”
This operational disorganization compounds the difficulties at the tactical level. The concept of friction helps illustrate the situation faced by the Greek commanders. If Xenophon did not have the Rhodians and cavalry at his disposal, and instead needed to rely solely on charging with his hoplites, Mithridates' sufficient force could have enveloped him. Now take a moment to imagine attempting to issue orders to this mass of soldiers. With the confusion and breakdown of unit cohesion, it seems impossible to imagine a commander at the front of the column, like Chrisiphus, being able to respond quickly enough to support Xenophon.
However, Xenophon’s reorganization of the Greeks works, and upon the charge of Greek cavalry backed by hoplites, the Greeks are now able to bring their charge home as "Many of the native infantry were killed in this pursuit…". The reorganization of the slingers also proves sufficient when Tissaphernes has caught up with the Greeks. Realizing that he is outranged, Tissaphernes ceases his attacks, allowing the Ten Thousand to complete this leg of their march to Armenia.
The earlier focus on reforming their force structures by the Greeks largely contributes to these subsequent successes. By developing effective countermeasures at the tactical level, they regain the operational initiative. The Persian inability or unwillingness to develop counters, in turn, denies them the ability to fix the Greeks again. Although they’re still a more maneuverable force and shadow them for the rest of the way, their opportunity to envelop and destroy the Greeks has vanished.
Although it falls beyond the scope of this discussion, a comprehensive examination of Persian attitudes towards the conduct of the war would provide an interesting insight into their understanding of these concepts. While Mithridates displays solid judgment, it is not immediately apparent that the higher Persian leadership thinks as thoroughly about the conduct of war.
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