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I am trying to understand the early Roman legion deployment. I can see some advantages to putting the inexperienced warriors at the first line and the veterans at the last.

But have there been armies, that put the most experienced soldiers in the front row consistently? What are the advantages to such an approach?

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    In modern warfare it is not uncommon to start the battle with commando raids, air strikes and the like, which by definition imply using the most trained and experienced troops. This is even true for the countries having professional armies, which resort to population-wide military draft only in extreme situations.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 27 at 5:40
  • @RogerV. as was demonstrated recently in Ukraine. However I believe that was an operational level initiative (200km from border to Kiev). What I believe I have had in mind 12 years ago when asking this, was more in the lines of very close tactical support a la gunships, choppers or indeed special forces working together with the regulars. But mostly about historic contexts where everyone marches in a line.
    – Vorac
    Apr 28 at 6:01

4 Answers 4

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Basically, the time to put veterans in the front line is when you are in an attacking mode. That is, you put your shock troops in front so that they can actually deliver a shock.

In a defensive mode, you put your less experienced troops in front 1) to give them experience and 2) to have them absorb casualties and spare your veterans. If and when the enemy breaks through, your veterans are available for a counterattack (the shock phase of the battle).

In the "olique" formation, generals would put their best troops at the "cutting edge," and "refuse the flank" with their weaker (backup) troops.

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    Could you give an example of such a battle? I would like to look it up in wikipedia and judge the results and effectiveness.
    – Vorac
    Sep 21, 2012 at 14:22
  • @Vorac: During the battle of Cowpens (American Revolution), the American commander put his militia up front, and his veterans in the third line for a counterattack.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 21, 2012 at 14:54
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    Actually I am looking for a battle in which the veterans were the front line and the first to engage!
    – Vorac
    Sep 21, 2012 at 15:02
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    @Vorac: In the "olique" formation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblique_order, generals would put their best troops at the "cutting edge," and "refuse the flank" with their weaker (backup) troops.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 21, 2012 at 15:02
  • I am accepting this answer because of your final comment. This is exactly what I am looking for - concrete examples of veterans in the first line.
    – Vorac
    Sep 24, 2012 at 5:35
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If your veterans are broken, your inexperienced warriors cannot help. Once the inexperienced are broken, the veterans can help. This is simple. If you put veterans in front row, you can rely only on them, and the young warriors are completely useless.

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    Yea, and if you put the youths at the back, they will never become veterans. And inexperienced warriors are cheaper. So - many reasons to put veterans at the back. That's why I am asking if the opposite happens from time to time.
    – Vorac
    Sep 24, 2012 at 5:34
  • It's good and true, but -1 since it isn't an answer to the actual question.
    – o0'.
    Feb 14, 2015 at 13:24
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Veteran soldiers should be placed where they will count most. When Veterans are placed in the front ranks, sometimes it is in units composed of all veterans, sometimes in small formations spearheading an assault, and sometimes integrated within a unit of non-veterans. I provide examples for each. In these deployments they are able to exercise their discipline, leadership, and fighting skill.

At Waterloo, Wellington forward deployed many of his veterans in positions which would be over-run and necessitate retreat from. Veteran soldiers have the discipline to face long odds and be capable of orderly retreat. In Papelotte were deployed,

"There were four battalions of these veteran Germans [Prince’s Nassauers]" -Papelotte

In La haye Saint,

"...the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion of the King’s German Legion... [being] ...their very experienced battalion commander Major George Baring and his near four hundred German troops who had shown their mettle on numerous occasions in the Peninsula." https://www.waterlooassociation.org.uk/2018/06/03/struggle-for-la-haye-sainte/

which would be variously reinforced thorughout the battle, and at Hougamont,

"the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, with additional detachments of jägers and landwehr from von Kielmansegge's 1st (Hanoverian) Brigade.[6][7] The light company of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards under the command of Lt-Colonel Henry Wyndham, was also stationed in the farm and chateau, and the light company of the 2nd Battalion, Third Guards, under Lt-Colonel Charles Dashwood in the garden and grounds. The two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards were initially positioned in the orchard, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun. Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonell, Coldstream Guards, had overall command of Hougoumont" -Hougoumont

In the course of the battle, two of those three positions would be over-run. Wellington must have known this likelihood, and he positioned veteran soldiers in those positions because they would be better able to withstand the coming assaults and retreat from them without routing if they became untenable (where retreat was possible). Wellington was fighting a defensive battle. His objectives were to preserve his line of retreat and keep his army intact until the Prussian army arrived.

In the battle of Granicus River (Alexander the Great), both sides put their elite soldiers in their front line in different ways. The Persians drew up in two lines, the first line of heavy cavalry.

"They had extended their horse along the bank of the river in a long phalanx, and had posted the infantry behind the cavalry"

and

"the Persians were fighting from the top of the bank, which gave them an advantage, especially as the best of the Persian horse had been posted there."

Meanwhile, the Macedonians had two contingents effecting a passage: The first a mixed force led by Ptolemy with Socrates' squadron of Companion Cavalry, and the second led by Alexander himself and his personal Companions.

The Macedonian disposition of elite soldiers at the fore of their attacks provided leadership, and with Alexander placing himself at the crises of the battle, tipped the balance to a Macedonian victory by restoring morale and shifting the local balance of combat infusing one particular point with the strikingest soldiers in the army.

"He made his first assault upon the Persians at the place where the whole mass of their horse and the leaders themselves were posted; and around him a desperate conflict raged,131 during which one rank of the Macedonians after another easily kept on crossing the river." and, "At last Alexander’s men began to gain the advantage, both through their superior strength and military discipline..."

Arrian, CH. XIV, XV

The Persian battle deployment has been criticized by some for not placing its "true" veterans in the front line, who were the Greek mercenary infantry. However, it placed what its leaders probably viewed as its best soldiers at the front, the heavy cavalry, to prevent the enemy even getting a foothold on the bank. Veterans placed on this front line would be less likely than other troops to give way in the face of the assault, and they would be sure of of good utilization as the enemy would surely come to them.

As noted in other answers, on the attack, oftentimes veterans might be placed in the front lines. While attacking fortifications or naturally strong positions, veterans are often deployed first, even to present day as stormtroopers or pioneers. This because if the enemy can be pushed from defensible positions and overrun before being reinforced the position can be taken, and the bulk of the army need not suffer demoralization and excessive casualties from attacking strong positions or especially in being repulsed in attacks against strong positions. The doppelsöldner amongst the Landsknechts are an example of placing the most veteran soldiers of a tactical unit in the front (and back) lines or integrating veterans to strengthen a unit. In each fahnlein,

"One-quarter of the men were to be more experienced men who held the most dangerous positions in battle and, as their name doppelsöldner implies, they received double pay."

-Fighting techniques of the early modern world, AD 1500 - AD 1763 : equipment, combat skills and tactics, Jorgensen, Pavkovic, Rice, Schneid, Scott

These soldiers in also wielded specialist weapons and had a slightly different role from the bulk of the unit. They used Zwiehanders and firearms. Part of their job was to disrupt enemy formations and pike squares --- to soften them up to be broken by the mass of the lanskencht's pike square. The same source also mentions a forlorn hope, which may be different, which was also deployed for that purpose. In a close-ordered formation, only the front rank soldiers have any battlefield awareness and vision. Furthermore, when moving in formation, the front ranks lead (obviously). Putting your veterans in the front row of a unit will help with disciplined manouvre, and if they are also placed in the rear ranks, the mass of soldiers in between will be encouraged to keep in formation.

From these three examples a couple of common themes emerge in the motivation behind putting veteran soldiers in the first line. Leadership of less experienced, special fighting ability, and discipline in the face of the enemy. The qualities of a veteran which enable him to fulfil these three purposes are always present, but placing the veterans in the front ranks allows them to bring these capabilities to bear. Leadership is best done from the front by example, and at a unit level in close formations, cohesive movement is only possible if the front rank moves as ordered. Even in modern times, if advancing on a restricted front or through a bottleneck, veterans should lead the way to reduce hiccups which could stymie the advance. Veterans will overcome difficulties which might balk green soldiers. In terms of utilizing the superior or special weapon skills of veterans, to fight the enemy, the veterans must be able to face them. If their formations are deployed far from the front line, they must move to where the enemy is before their fighting aspect can be utilized. Similarly, if placed in the rear ranks of a unit's formation, it will be hard for them to get to grips with the enemy. As far as keeping discipline, it is an integral element in the previous two purposes, but of itself it is vital. What I emphasize here is the ability to take casualties and shock without losing combat capability or morale. This quality is best used to control vital points on the battlefield or in executing difficult tactics.

The Waterloo example showcased both at Papelotte. This forward positions was held for much of the day, slowing Napoleon's advance and holding up the British left flank. When the position became untenable, the defending soldiers had to execute a retreat. That the retreat was disciplined is evidenced by how the defending force continued to fight on for the duration of the day retaking their old positions multiple times. Besides retreating, other difficult tactics requiring discipline to execute could be rolling up a flank, feigned retreats, or redeploying to face unexpected threats. I hope I've been able to give a couple ideas why veterans might be deployed to the front of other soldiers. One obvious reason I didn't go in to is that soldiers in the front ranks are more likely to die, so if you want to kill of your veterans it is a good idea to put them on the front lines.

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The Greek phalanx often deployed the most elite soldiers on the right flank of the formation.

Hanson writes as follows in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience(emphasis mine)

Each individual hoplite carried his shield on the left arm, protecting not only himself but the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half-protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to avoid these problems.

The most expirienced soldiers would not form the whole front row, but the most important part of it.

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  • Kind of ironic they would place the most valuable soldiers in the most vulnerable position but then again the gains seem to be worth it. And - if the concept of Pederasty was actually widespread instead of recently over emphasized - the phalanx was a lattice of veteran-newbie-veteran-newbie. A composite material made out of humans.
    – Vorac
    May 11 at 1:01

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