My critique of The Carvaka Podcast’s Warhorse Evolution, Economics and Tactics, focusing on the discussion around tactics and military history
Before I begin let me make it clear that this post comes as a result of a request for an analysis of this episode of this podcast made by u/shazam2068, now, I’ll make it clear at the very beginning, my interest in this video is not the discussion around economics or geography and archaeology, which I might largely agree on with Abhijit Iyer Mitra’s analysis, except perhaps a few points regarding economics. My analysis and breakdown here is of the section of the podcast which discusses tactics, and why and how this discussion presents an incorrect view of warfare in the ancient period. Here’s a link to this video
Now I request that you skip to 1:17:45 since this is roughly where the discussion on tactics begins. My attempt will be to quote lines from Mr. Abhijit Iyer Mitra, and what will follow is a quote by quote breakdown of the claims he makes and critique of his theories and analysis.
FROM 1:17:48 TO 1:24:00
I’ve shown you the two formations that were the most important of the time. The left is the Roman “Tortuga” and on the right is the Macedonian phalanx
Here Mr.Mitra refers to an image of a modern reenactment of the Roman testuedo or turtle formation as the Roman “Tortuga” . Now, in all fairness he does correct himself later on in the video, although in the interest of chronology I’ve pointed out this mistake here. And on the right of this image is a screenshot from the Kings and Generals series on Alexander’s Army featuring the Macedonian phalanx.
Next is the claim that these were the two most important formations of the time. Keep in mind that the Macedonian phalanx was employed by Phillip II and Alexander and later on by his Diadochi between 359 BCE to roughly 219 BCE after which the employment of such formations was restricted to the Greek states during the Hellenistic period, meanwhile the dominant form of infantry organisation which when came into contact with the phalanx, defeated it was the Roman Legion. After the end of the Hellenistic Period , the Roman Empire dominated much of the Mediterranean and Western Europe. So one wonders, why Mr. Mitra lumps the two in the same time period or why he doesn’t say that the Roman legion was the most important infantry formation of the “time period”.
Also, what Mr.Mitra ignores is the fact that these formations and tactics were restricted largely to the cultures or states that created them. In the East, there were no formations in this time period which resembled the Macedonian phalanx specifically or the Roman legion, meanwhile further west, the Gauls and the Spaniards, the Carthaginians and the Libyans or the Numidians, didn’t use such formations or tactics either. Mr. Mitra is also vague when he refers to “this time period” since one struggles to imagine he could mean all of ancient history as it would ignore the tactics employed by those states and their armies which existed in the Indian subcontinent, in Western Europe, in the Steppe or in the Far East. Therefore, not only is this statement vague, it supposes that such tactics or those derived from such tactics or those similar to such tactics were employed by virtually all armies on the planet. Which I need not say, is wrong.
In the turtle what happens is… It was pure stampede dynamics, you hold the line and two lines keep pushing against each other. The front most soldiers keep getting crushed, just EXACTLY what happens in a stampede…… It was pushing shield to shield. They were being crushed by their compatriots from the back…… If the soldier did not kill you he would be crushed by his compatriots from the back.
Here, Mr. Mitra seems to imply that in ancient warfare, generals and soldiers were of the understanding that the most efficient way to kill and defeat and enemy is to run at them full gallop, push against them with your shields while they did the same and to push the man in front of you while the man in the ranks tried to, in the midst of this chaotic scene, jab and poke the man in the front ranks of the enemy with his sword.
I cannot stress enough, how far of a departure this is from the contemporary and modern understanding of warfare. The most fundamental element of war, and the most steadfast element of war is man, and man is a being of instinct, of nature, of fear and his most basic instinct is that of self preservation. Therfore, infantry formations, where all other ranks expect the one in the rearmost would be expected to be crushed by their own ranks behind them and by the enemy in front of them would not exist. This is fantasy and nothing more. Human beings weren’t automatons, they couldn’t be stuffed against each other and not collapse out of exhaustion, heat or trauma, let alone fight effectively. To any contemporary general, say Caesar or Alexander, such a tactic would not only sound impossible they’d either laugh at or scorn at the suggestion of such an inhumane employment and treatment of their men.
Romans and Greeks alike, understood the principle of morale, of discipline and organisation. The truth is that in battle, no more than the first and second ranks engaged. When two opposing armies, or two opposing infantry formations approached one another the advance would be in accordance with a pace at which the soldiers could maintain cohesion and support of their neighbouring comrades, collective action and support in depth from the men standing behind the front rank soldiers in deep files, gave the men in the front ranks confidence. Once the enemy came closer the front ranks slowed their advance and the men standing behind the front rank in deep files would follow suit, eventually the first ranks came into contact, which the second rank stopped enough paces behind the first so as to allow for the first to be able to fence and fight. The job of the second rank was to support the first rank, to check his flanks, to avoid enemy break through or sudden pushes and to replace the soldiers standing before him should the man in the first rank be slain or injured by taking his place and allowing him to be dragged to move to the rear.
What Mr. Mitra does not seem to understand is this very human nature of war. Of morale, of fear, of organisation and the necessity of discipline. Warfare was never an all out push or melee, but rather a test of nerves, skill and a period of ebbs and flows of combat. The lines of infantry were never straight, but rather curved or had bends depending on where the enemy had gained or lost ground in account of prowess in arms or exhaustion of units that gave ground. Front ranks on each side would engage and at times disengage in period of lulls in violence. The front most rank would be at the centre of the battle, the recipient of all its tensions, vigours, fears and desperation, while the ranks in their rear would await in anxiety, nervousness and restlessnes. By acting as units, by standing in deep files and columns, men were able to, by virtue of organisation and discipline, shake off to a certain extent, that fear and that concern for self preservation. This is why such formations existed. To tame men’s hearts and to give them a decided advantage over unorganised forces, where men fought as individuals.
As an example, the Gauls did indeed follow this tactic of all out charge, of relentless assault but they didn’t stand in deep files but rather assaulted the enemy in hopes of shaking them, of causing fear amidst their ranks and overcoming them with physical prowess. The Romans defeated the Guals, not merely because they had better organised troops but by virtue of the advantages such organisation lensed to the Roman soldier. Once the impetus of the Gual’s charge was gone, the Romna soldier, standing in tenacious resistance would then proceed to fight, each rank engaging in combat, as the one’s in the front would after a certain time retreat to the back and the one’s further back would come to the front, therefore, by putting the depth of the files into the centre of the tension, the Roman general ensured that men wouldn’t stand in the back paralysed and anxious for violence, hence losing morale, but rather would, at appropriate intervals be positioned into the fight, thereby allowing their compatriots to rest and exhausting the enemy, whose disorganised forces would soon lose morale and start retreating.
Next Mr. Mitra dwells on the weakness of the testuedo. Of the fact that it’s rear and sides were exposed (pointing to the picture of a modern reenactment of a Roman unit using shields for some purpose). Ofcourse, Mr. Mitra perhaps doesn’t realise that an actual testuedo was meant to cover the infantry unit from all sides with shields, hence the name. But, without realising the error of his hypothesis, he goes in with his theory on how cavalry works….
Cavalry would come around from the back and shoot arrows from the back. Cavalry with spears would never charge into these soldiers because a horse was worth 20 Romans soldiers, they would jab into gaps at the legs.
Now the first and the second claim that cavalry would shoot arrows from the back or the sides and that cavalry would never charge into Roman lines from the front, both can be easily dismissed by pointing to the The Battle of Carrhae fought in 53 BCE. A short summary of the battle should suffice, although I would recommend reading on the battle from any book on Roman military history. Keep in mind this isn’t what the post is aimed at therefore terminology and explanations will be simplified.
The Roman general Crassus deployed his men into a hollow square, each side formed by twelve cohorts, after being informed of an approaching Parthian army. The Parthian commander Surena, had ordered his cataphracts to remove the cloths on them and reveal their shining armour to intimidate the Romans. Next he ordered his horse archers to wheel around the Roman front and surround the square (keep in mind this is a square which means each side has a front and is facing the enemy). Crassus sent his skirmishers to drive the horse archers off, but they were driven back by the latter’s arrows. Plutarch wrote in his accounts that the Romans were met with a shower of arrows that passed through every kind of cover, hard and soft alike. Other historians state that most wounds inflicted were nonfatal hits to exposed limbs.
The Romans repeatedly advanced towards the Parthians to attempt to engage in close-quarters fighting, but the horse archers were always able to retreat safely and loosed Parthian shots as they withdrew. The legionaries then formed the testudo formation by locking their shields together to present a nearly-impenetrable front to missiles. However, that formation severely restricted their ability in melee combat. The Parthian cataphracts exploited that weakness and repeatedly charged the Roman line, which caused panic and inflicted heavy casualties. When the Romans tried to loosen their formation to repel the cataphracts, the latter rapidly retreated, and the horse archers resumed shooting at the legionaries, who were now more exposed.
In the end, the hopeless Romans were defeated decisively.
Finally, Mr. Mitra around 1:22:00 corrects his mistake of calling the Testuedo a Tortuga
FROM 1:36:00 TO 1:48:00
Here Mr. Mitra makes several points and discusses them for a couple minutes each. Now it’s hard for me to quote him precisely here which is why I’ll request everyone to refer to the timestamps in the videos for exact quotes if they feel the same to be necessary.
At the start Mr. Mitra tackles the issue of why Indians were never able to defeat cavalry and cites an example of the Marathas and the fact that their usage of the cavalry was inefficient, since horses would go bad in a couple or more generations and the Marathas placed emphasis on a caste and status which was accentuated by what people rode on which in this case was horses.
Now, here I must critique Mr. Mitra’s approach to analysing military history. He seems to be focused on the economic and combat aspect. Meaning he analyses, in ways that I personally don’t agree with, the cost of war and then looks at speicifc tactics and battles and concludes, that since horses required a certain terrain to be bred, since they went bad after a few generations and since the Marathas were defeated at Panipat and ultimately declined and were conquered by the British, that since their campaigns in Bengal and Orissa were so destructive due to the fact that their costs to maintain their mounts was high, that the whole thing was redundant, that the entire practice was ill-conceived and that Indians should have focused on infantry tactics since the ancient era. He also points to caste and a focus on status as factors for the Maratha failures.
First and foremost, Mr. Mitra seems to ignore the inherent disadvantages that a purely infantry force would have and perhaps, he fails to understand the role that cavalry played outside of battles and direct combat. Let us examine an example to understand the problems with this confined analysis of the importance of cavalry to understand why Indian powers stressed the need to acquire good horses be it from abroad or from regions like Marwar.
Two armies, at the beginning of a campaign, operate on the basis of the intelligence they might have on enemy territory and movements, based off of intelligence such as spies or reconnaissance units. In case of the aggressor, the general might take initiative and move into enemy territory either to force the enemy army which is defending it’s state to intercept him before he either reaches the capital or an objective of strategic and tactical import, or move in to take a strategically useful and tactically defensive position, therefore taking the strategic initiative and the tactical defensive and using defensive offense in order to force the defender to fight a battle in his own territory on a field of the attacker’s choosing. Ofcourse, these examples are a representation of the circumstances that led to a number of battles in the Indian subcontinent, such as the Battle of Panipat or the Battle of Khanwa or the Battle of Tarain, and indeed in real life there’s a multitude of variations in which these scenarios played out and even entirely different scenarios did take shape too, but in order to limit the parameters of this discussion let’s try and focus on the above scenarios to gain an understanding of how much armies in the period depended on good cavalry.
Now, let us try and understand how these armies might have moved. In one of the examples mentioned above, the Battle of Panipat, Babur who was the commander of the Mughal forces made use of his light horse archers that served as excellent vanguard and reconnaissance units to scout ahead and report on the enemy locations and movements. He realised that the flat plains before the small town/village of Panipat, was an excellent location to take a defensive position and utilise his wagon fort and tulughma tactics. In the coming battle of Panipat, he scored a victory by seizing the strategic initiative and taking a tactical defensive. However, such scout formations could not be sent too far ahead of an army’s main column where the commander and his infantry and artillery train were positioned.
Therefore, armies didn’t have pinpoint locations of their enemies before coming fairly close to each other. The reconnaissance abilities of an army played an incredible role in eliminating the fog of war to a certain extent and giving the main column of the army time to prepare for an encounter, and even the reconnaissance itself was limited by the fact that it had to maintain a minimum level of proximity with its main column, in order for intelligence to be conveyed in a fairly efficient and orderly fashion. Hence, a general’s movements were informed by intelligence gained, his ability to take initiative and his understanding strategy and tactics.
Cavalry played a crucial role in campaigns, in communications, in intelligence gathering and in executing maneuver warfare and shock or Steppe tactics. It’s vast and varied utility and flexibility as an arm of the military made good cavalry an invaluable asset. From the very moment a campaign began, to making victories decisive, cavalry was necessary.
Next, we should also look at the successes which many Rajput states and indeed the Peshwa Bajirao himself gained owning to superior cavalry tactics. Be it the Battle of Palkhed, be it the Battle of Delhi or Bhopal or Maonda and Mandholi or the campaigns of Rana Sanga and Rana Kumbha. These are all excellent examples of cavalry being used in India effectively. These successes and their outcomes far outweighed the cost of horses and equipment.
To counter the point about caste in simple terms without getting into a discussion on the subject itself, medieval and ancient monarchs were constrained and inclined in term of their recruitment policies. They had the choice to either recruit from existing military labour pools, constituted by those castes and ethnic groups that held a dominant position in society both as a result of previous centuries of military service, a militarised culture and traditions, and as a result of their social and ritual status or recruit from the landless or tenant labour force which would require training and expenditure. Overall, a force which could be raised quickly, required limited or no training and was effective in warfare was preferable over one which would have to be put through the rigours of extensive training and would require great expenditure.
Here’s an example of how truly effective cavalry could be even when recruited from specific manpower pools adhering to caste.
BATTLE OF GANGWANA, 1741
The Battle of Gangwana was a military engagement fought between the armies of the Kingdom of Marwar under Raja Bhakt Singh Rathore, and a combined army of the Jaipur Kingdom and the Mughal Empire in 1741 under the overall command of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II Kachhwaha along with 3 Mughal Generals.
Jai Singh arrived at Kunchgaon, 11 miles to the east of the Pushkar Lake. He arrayed his guns, artillery pieces, in a long line facing the supposed direction of the arriving Marwar army. His army numbered anywhere between 40,000 to 100,000. The huge discrepancy between quoted numbers of total men present in the Jaipur army was because of the large number of camp followers such as tent keepers, water holders etc. that accompanied Mughal Armies of the period.
Bhakt Singh, had a mere 1000 Rathore horsemen. Since, no reinforcements would arrive for him. With a force of mere 1000, he surprised the Mughal-Jaipur army, by charging straight towards their camp. This surprise, combined with the high morale of his troops, excellent organisation and discipline would prove fatal to his enemies.
Bhakt Singh manged to punch through the artillery, hacking and slashing the gunners as he went, him and his horsemen reached the centre of the camp and threw the horde of enemies into absolute chaos, hacking and slashing their way.
The cavalry penetration was so deep that the Rathors burst through the rear of the Jaipur army and began to raid the baggage train. Tents and supplies were burned, and Bakht Singh seized Sitaramji, Jai Singh’s personal family idol. The Rathors galloped from one end to the other causing havoc in the large masses of confused men and horses, the Jaipur army fled in panic, and within 4 hours the Rathors held the field. Sir Jadunath Sarkar quotes that — “the battle front was like tigers upon a flock of sheep”.
By now, Bhakt Singh had only 70 Rathore men on horses. At this point, Mughal rocket contingents, began firing at the this small contingent of Rathore cavalry. Bhakt Singh could not see any enemies on the field and the direction of the artillery was covered by smoke and dust, he signalled a retreat, forcing the withdraw of the remaining Rathors.
Jai Singh’s army lost several thousands of its soldiers in the battle. According to Chahar Gulzar-i-Shujai of Harcharan Das, who was an eye-witness to the battle, 12,000 of Jai Singh’s men were killed in the conflict, and another 12,000 were wounded.
Though modern estimates place the losses at 12,000 total.
Finally around 1:48:00 Mr. Mitra makes a comment about how it took 200 to 300 years for India to adopt gunpowder in a proper way and for anyone who wished to understand how this point is also wrong, they need only look at my previous posts on military technology in the 16th century.
The analysis by Mr. Mitra presents an unrealistic view of ancient warfare, it is filled with those misconceptions and generalisations which military history and science as a subject is trying to and has in many cases succeeded in, debunking. Overall the above analysis is hopefully going to present to those who read it with a clearer picture and broader understanding of why horses were necessary in ancient and medieval Warfare, why purely infantry based armies were a fool’s errand and why medieval kings stressed the need to use cavalry. I have listed in my sources, books that shed light on Indian military history, for people to get a better understanding of the military systems and conditions operating in India.
“Battle Studies” by Col. Ardant Du Picq
“Military System of the Marathas” by Surendra Nath Sen
“Medieval Warfare” by Maurice Keen
“A History of Jaipur” by Sir Jadunath Sarkar
“Akbarnama” by Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, Henry Beveridge (Trans.)
“A Military History of India” by Sir Jadunath Sarkar
“Thirty Decisive Battles of Jaipur” by Narendra Singh (Rao Bahadur.)