Chariot tactics

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[edit] Development

Image:Standard of Ur chariots.jpg
Relief of early wagons on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BC

First depictions of four wheeled wagons pulled by semi-domesticated onagers and other available animals come from the Sumerians.

Image:Chariot spread.png
Approximate historical map of the spread of the chariot, 2000 –500 BC.

Against infantry the fast chariots used tactics of wearing down the enemy by missile fire, deploying heavy troops and running down enemies.

Image:Andronovo culture.png
The area of the oldest spoke-wheeled chariot finds within the Sintashta-Petrovka culture is indicated in purple.

The next step was towards faster chariots with spoke-wheels. Lighter wheels made altogether lighter constructions possible. This made it feasible to outrun light infantry and other chariots. Long range weapons could be employed effectively against massed troops, moving always out of close combat range. Bows and arrows gave the marksmen a devastating effect against unarmored opponents. Slingers and javeliners who could counterattack and protect the other troops, had no armor protection. They were skirmishers, keeping out of enemy range. But the moving chariots were difficult to hit, while showering them with arrows. So they were rendered helpless against these. The role and tactics of war chariots are often compared to tanks in modern warfare.

Chariots, carts and wagons still had the disadvantage of using more than one horse per transported soldier. The horses' collars strangled their breath seriously if the pulling force was too strong. It took till to the 9th century to invent the breastcollar and solve this problem. Riders achieved supremacy through greater manoeuvreability than chariots in the 1st millennium BC, as soon as the domesticated horse had been bred large enough to carry an armed man.

[edit] Chariot and elephant warfare

The chariot was restricted to terrains with level ground and plenty of space. It was the core of most cavalrys, while it developed into shock-troops and commanding centers. Then it was replaced by the war elephants with its supreme abilities in melée. Agile infantry and early troops on horseback provided them protection and additional fighting power.

[edit] Light and medium chariots

Image:Ramses II at Kadesh.jpg
Relief of Ramses II located in Abu Simbel fighting at the Battle of Kadesh. Note that there are two archers riding in the chariot, one of them having the reins tied around his body to free his hands. Archers in a chariot could use strong infantry bows, but while moving the undamped shaking lessened the ability to aim at specific targets.

There were two different ways for light chariots to operate on the battelfield. One was deploying heavily armed troops and giving them a fast moving platform, the other was using ranged weapons. A confrontation between these two concepts was the battle of Kadesh. When the movement of the Egyptian chariots could be blocked the medium Hittite chariots were in favor. They fought with a protected archer while deploying close combat troops. When the Egyptian chariots where able to surround them, their supreme firepower was an advantage, but they could not keep the enemy contained. Hittite chariots forced a retreat, because of their supremacy in close combat. Light chariots could be carried across unfavorable terrain, heavier types not. This limited their efficiency for warfare.

The Celtic chariot (essedum) was the longestlasting to be used in battles. It had a light and agile structure. A heavily armoured warrior stood on a small platform with two independent running spoken wheels. His charioteer was sitting on a thick rope and net connecting the platform to the horses. It could quickly carry the nobleman into battle and evacuate him in case of trouble. His preferred way of fighting was close combat. Fighting not on horseback was common among early cavalrys. This tactic is similar to the dismounted men-at-arms or modern mechanized infantry.

[edit] Heavy chariots for shock-troops

These were, until war elephants came up, the only cavalry shock-troops available. Usually they were employed besides troops on horseback. Up to three men stood on a chariot, wielding polearms and close combat weapons. Javelins and bows were employed for range fighting. The chariot was a heavy construction and moved relatively slow. Light infantry could keep up with them. The momentum of this heavy chariot was sufficient to break through enemy formations, causing an effect similar to heavy cavalry with lances. It was tried to widen the gaps it caused, by attaching sickles or scythes to the axis. These should threaten to cut the calfs when passing. This tactic has been tried several times with different arrangements and weapons, but was never successful on the battlefield.

[edit] Indian chariots and war elephants

Indian chariots combined the security of a chariot with the impact of a war elephant. In meantime infantry had learned to avoid chariots by forming passages and then attacked them in the back. Now the elephant rushed into the formation. He was equally dangerous for the infantry from the front or behind. The chariots could relatively secure follow him and assist with arrowfire into the gaps. After the Greek had their first contact in the battle of Gaugamela, this new tactic soon totally substituted chariots among shock-troops around the Mediterranean. Polybius tells that the Asian elephant "Suru" was the last one surviving after Hannibal`s passage over the Alps.

[edit] War elephants

Image:Elephant Armor.jpg
Added Armor Protection made Elephants virtually invincible to the arrows fired by enemy archers. This allowed them to charge into enemy lines easily and to protect Infantry behind the Elephants. This is an Indian Elephant Armor

A war elephant with a mahout on top was already a weapon, replacing the heavy chariots. With thick skin they were difficult to kill. Additional armor made them appear invincible. Troops who had never faced such an animal before often retreated. Atop of them a light tower was mounted, carrying several marksmen with bows and javelins or sarissae. They are most likely compareable to modern tanks.

The Indian chariots were supplanted by skirmishers with range weapons. The higher density of shots and better aiming of infantry upgraded this weapon system. Elephants were used for frontal assaults against heavy infantry and for massive flanking manoeuvers. They move unequipped at a maximum speed of 30 km/h. Depending on their grade of equipment it was now possible for cheaper light infantry to stand their ground against their heavy counterpart. The moving of an elephant through most battle formations seemed at first unstoppable.

African forest elephants and Asian elephants were employed. The Asian counterpart was considered far easier to handle and it was stronger, allowing to carry more battle gear. The bigger African bush elephant is not mentioned to be employed. Horses were frightened by the smell of the elephants which allowed them to be used as massive organic fortifications against cavalry maneuvers on the battlefield. In the battle of Raphia a direct confrontation between the two elephant species on the wings ended with a victory of the more powerful Asians.

According to Polybius, Greeks and Romans showed the weaknesses of elephants. To avoid damage, heavy troops make columns for the elephants to pass without resistance and the light troops kill them afterwards. They are easy to scare by noise, especially the screams of pig's burning alive frightens them. Massed fire of javelins makes them nervous so they equally damage friend and enemy. To panic them it was advised to chop of their proboscis and to stop them their legs were attacked with axes. In case an elephant paniced and endangered own troops, Carthaginian mahouts were equipped to kill them. War elefants came totally out of use with the introduction of accurate field artillery. They were an easy target and could not be protected in the field.

[edit] Sources

Polybius on the Celtic Chariot and warfare

Chariot tactics

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