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Soldiers seem to be split into their respective companies or battalions but on the battlefield instead of presenting a complete front line they split up and leave gaps in the line between each battalion or company. Was it therefore not possible for a group of men to force themselves between this gap?

I imagine this would be even easier in a pike formation where it is quite unwieldy to swing your pike around.

Like this:

P P P
R   R
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4  
The great innovation of the Roman Cohort over the Greek Phalanx was the realization that no, it was not possible to effectively utilize that gap. Attempting to do so put one quickly into an untenable position as the unit behind the gap took you in flank. In fact, the gap was a sucker ploy - intended to lure you in for a deadly counter attack. –  Pieter Geerkens Jun 1 at 0:26
    
@PieterGeerkens but would the unit behind the gap be preoccupied with the man in front of him? And even then, would it not be possible to just stand in front but between the 2 men (i.e. the leftmost person in century A and the rightmost person in century B) and help your comrade kill either man? –  Evil Washing Machine Jun 1 at 0:52
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That is why Roman Legions were equipped with a gladius rather than a sarissa. –  Pieter Geerkens Jun 1 at 1:43
    
uh, what? I never said that they weren't, nor did I deny what the benefits of the gladius are. That didn't answer the question at all. –  Evil Washing Machine Jun 1 at 2:18
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I was being serious not sarcastic - the entire point of the gladius, in conjunction of the cohort, was to prevent exactly what you are describing. That Rome ruled the Mediterranean for over 500 years speaks legions (pun intended) on the effectiveness of the tactic, and the ineffectiveness of your suggestion. –  Pieter Geerkens Jun 1 at 2:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Soldiers do not like to be surrounded. This simple fact drives nearly all battle tactics, ancient or modern, ground or air. A soldiers' eyes, weapons and protection all point forward. Harass a soldier's flank, and they will retreat. The most consistently successful ancient formations and tactics were all about addressing this fact, along with the difficulties of commanding an army with nothing more than flags and runners. Break the enemy's formation and you win.

Attacking a gap in the line of an ancient formation with fast moving forces may bring you victory. The goal is to pass through quickly, before the enemy heavy infantry have time to react, and fall upon their rear. This is why ancient formations were relatively compact, even between their companies, and most cavalry battles took place on the wings where there is room to maneuver.

Attacking a gap in the line with slow moving heavy infantry is a sucker's bet. Let's say the armies of Numbers are facing the armies of Letters. Numerically equivalent, but differently deployed.

    111        ZZZ
    111        ZZZ
    111
               YYY
               YYY
    222
    222        XXX
    222        XXX

What happens when Y chooses to march into the gap between 1 and 2? Y's weapons are facing forward, neither at 1 nor 2. Their flanks are exposed. If they turn to face either formation, their rear will be exposed to the other. This is a terrible position.

To make matters worse, both sides have skirmishers, cavalry and reserves available. As Y marches into the gap between 1 and 2, General Number will be ordering reserves to slow Y's forward progress preventing them from punching through the line completely and attacking from the rear.

Finally, the rear ranks of 1 and 2 can sidestep to extend the line and close the gap.

     11ZZZ
    111ZZZ
    111
    1YYY
    2YYY
    222
    222XXX
     22XXX

Y is now surrounded on 3 sides. The further they push at the weak center, the worse they are surrounded. Because of the strong tendency of ancient formations to press forward from the rear. Unless X and Z do something, Y will rout.

     11ZZZ
    111ZZZ
    111
    1            YYY
    2            YYY
    222
    222XXX
     22XXX

With Y routed, there is now a huge hole in Letters' line. Cavalry, skirmishers, reserves and the flanks of 1 and 2 pour in, turning the flanks of Z and X. X and Z can no longer support each other. While X is held in place, Z is surrounded and routed. Numbers then descends on X.

This is similar to what happened at the Battle Of Cannae when Hannibal defeated a far larger and equally well trained Roman army.

The Battle of Gaugamela saw multiple penetrations of the Macedonian line by cavalry. A charge by chariots was thwarted by deliberately allowing them to pass through the infantry, only to be defeated by reserves.

Late in the battle, Persian cavalry successfully navigated a gap in the Macedonian line. Had they exploited it by falling upon the failing Macedonian left, the battle may have been won. Instead they sacked the Persian camp and were turned away by reserves. This failure shows the importance of discipline in ancient warfare; give a bunch of amateurs the choice been fighting and looting and they will loot.

A similar tactic plays out in many ancient battles. The center is made deliberately weak with orders to slowly withdraw when pressed. An overconfident attacker presses forward and is destroyed by strong forces pressing their flanks.

This plays out even in modern warfare. During Operation Cobra, the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the Germany army, on the verge of being surrounded, attacks the apparently weak American center hoping to cut off the American spearhead. In reality, they make little headway. The time wasted on the counterattack only guarantees the German army in the west is trapped and nearly destroyed.

Alternatively, attacking the gap can result in victory. Maybe the gap between 1 and 2 is wide enough for Y to maneuver. Maybe General Number is slow to react. Maybe the General reacts quickly, but communications are poor and the orders don't reach 1 and 2 fast enough. Maybe Number's cavalry has been defeated, or is off doing something dashing, and Number's reserves have already been committed.

Following behind a screen of skirmishers, Y can split and attack 1 and 2's flanks simultaneously. This maneuver on Y's part requires great training and discipline. The soldiers of each wing of Y must raise their weapons vertically in the air, rotate 90 degrees as a unit, lower their weapons and attack in the new direction, all while being harassed by the enemy. X and Z thin their ranks to extend their lines to prevent having their own flanks turned.

    111ZZ
    111ZZ
    111ZZ
    YYY

    YYY
    222XX
    222XX
    222XX

Numbers is in trouble. 1 and 2 have been separated and can no longer mutually support. Each are being attacked on two sides and are in danger of being surrounded, while X, Y and Z's weapons all face forward.

In modern warfare, the enlarged scale offers many more opportunities to exploit boundaries. The lines between strategic formations are often exploited. Many times in World War I and II, an army or national boundary was chosen as the target of an offensive. The, often correct, assumption being that communication and coordination between armies and allied nations will be poor. Because of the hierarchical nature of armies, the defending units on either side of the boundary may not be able to communicate with each other. They may not even know where their counterpart is located. The defending units may not have maps or transport beyond their own areas of operation, hampering their ability to support their neighbors. They may not speak the same language, use the same radio frequencies, equipment, ammunition, spare parts or fuel. They may not be able to call in artillery support nor air support from their neighbors.

In modern warfare, the greatly enhanced speed, firepower and control of units makes exploiting a gap a tactical possibility... though you still don't want to get bogged down in the middle. As the Thunder Runs of the Battle Of Baghdad it is a great risk and the penetrating unit can only survive so long without support. Even in the 21st century, soldiers do not like to be surrounded.

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brilliant answer, thanks! –  Evil Washing Machine Jun 9 at 10:20

Your description of the Roman formation is incomplete...

P P P
R   R
  R
R   R

So if your pikemen break formation to try and worry the flanks of the Romans in the front line, then the second line troops charge on the disordered pikes and break them. If they hold formation and advance into the gaps, their flanks are open to the men in the front line if they drive off their own opponents.

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How often did Roman soldiers face actual, disciplined pikemen? As I understand it, pikes (Sarissa) were used by the Macedonians, but fell out of fashion for their unwieldiness and high level of training necessary to be effective. It wasn't until well into the middle ages that pike became fashionable again, well after the Roman empire was gone. –  Schwern Jun 2 at 20:24
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The Romans faced Greeks and Macedonians from the times around the 2nd Punic Wars and the Successor states in the Mid East after that. Possibly the wars with Mithradates down to 70 BC or so also qualify. To me "pikes" would include the sarissa and any other decent phalanx infantry that uses a shorter spear. –  Oldcat Jun 2 at 20:33
    
@Schwern The Romans faced well trained pikemen on many occasions, mainly against the Macedonians and Seleucids. The reason these pikes seemed so much less effective then they had against the Persians and other Greeks was because of the low amount of heavy cavalry employed by the later succesor states, who tried to use pikemen alone to achieve victory. The result would be pikemen winning a pushing match untill their line became disorganized and the Romans could fight hand tot hand. –  Jeroen K Jun 2 at 21:35

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