Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cannae-Prelude to Battle

Today in 216 BC was the opening of one of the classic battles of all time.  Just to say that one more time, 2 thousand and 231 years ago, the Roman Republic, as it was still a Republic and not an Empire at the time, was thrashed so soundly that few battles in the ensuing years come close.  That was the Battle of Cannae.  ( I've always mispronounced it as Can Nay when actually it is pronounced Ca Nye or kæni, if you want to go all dictionary on me.)

Now, I remember reading about this invasion in my History class at some point in my youth.  All I remember of this study was Hannibal and his elephants in the Alps. Which at the time I thought was pretty cool, I mean, ancient Tanks right?  So, a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned using the  tactics used by Hannibal  to administer some battle damage to the pride of a couple of F/A-18 pilots on my last flight in the Eagle.  We'll be getting to that soon.  I got to thinking which, as you know, is dangerous.  Why were we studying a battle fought a couple thousand years ago and what impact did it have on History?

Some pretty good info out there on it, some of which I'll summarize here.

The Invasion
Google Earth's Ruler shows this invasion route to be ~1200miles as the crow flies.  That's a darn long walk!

Ok, So in 218 BC, Hannibal starts out from Saguntum  which best as I can figure out is in the vicinity of modern day Valencia with about 40,000 infantry and 12,000 guys wearing Stetsons and riding horses.  Makes his way over to modern day Marseille where he engages the Gauls (aka the ancestors of the French) and defeats them.

The Romans, being no dummies, send forces out to meet him.  Hannibal turns left and walks up the Rhone River valley into the Alps and turns south, making his way through what the Romans thought were impassable mountains, in the winter.  

His exact routing is lost to history, but one historian postulates he passed within sight of the Matterhorn. 

As he exits the Alps and is now in Italy, his forces now are estimated at 20,000 infantry, 4,000 Stetsons and only a handful of elephants.  Seems Elephants didn't function as well in the snow as history has led us to believe.  Well, even M-1 Abrams don't do so well in the mountains.

Initial battles


In December of 218 BC, having successfully avoided the Romans and denied their plan to fight a decisive battle on foreign soil, Hannibal enters the Po River Valley.  The Romans manage to bring forces to bear and there is a skirmish at Ticinius which while not decisive  forces the Romans to leave Lombardy.  More importantly it convinces the Gauls and Ligurians to join forces with him bringing his army back to full strength (less the elephants, poor buggers).

The Romans manage to put together a blocking force in Placentia (modern day Piacenzia), but Hannibal manages to carry the day by enticing the Roman infantry into a frontal assault by an overconfident commander sending his unfed troops through a chest high river in winter.  As they exited the river, Hannibal attacked, wearing them down and then as they started to retreat,  destroying them with an ambush from the southern Flank.

What was left of the Romans, a little more than 2 legions retreats backwards towards Rome.  The Carthiginians are suffering from exposure due to late winter rain and snow and are delayed in pursuing.  The Romans make good their escape.

In April of 217 BC, Hannibal manages to reengage the Romans at Lake Trasimene about 174 miles Southeast of Piacenzia.  

Hannibal is being pursued by a Roman force of 30,000 along the banks of the north shore of the lake.  This shore is a small plain with steep hills a short distance away.  During the night, Hannibal deploys his forces in the hills, the following morning, he makes as if he and his forces are leaving the area.  The Roman commander urges his forces through the opening to the valley and quickly charges after the Carthaginians.  Once the last of the Romans has entered the valley, Trumpets are blown and Cavalry and Infantry seal the valley entrance behind the Romans.  The Carthaginians attack the left flank of the Romans.  The battle is over in less than 4 hours with over 15,000 Romans dead.

The Romans appoint a new Commander who proceeds to engage Hannibal with a strategy of attrition.  The Romans finally recover from the shock of the two terrible defeats and start lobbying the Commander to engage Hannibal in battle.  He refuses and when his tour of Duty is over, he is replaced in command by two commanders, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus . 

This reads like a screenplay folks.  Varro is evidently a hothead, damn the torpedos kind of guy and Paullus appears to be overly cautious.  Not only that, they changed command every day.  One day it's Varro, the next Paullus.  Apparently, the Roman Command and General Staff College didn't spend a lot of time on Principles of Command.  But they will....

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae -The Bloodiest Battle in History
The Second Punic War
The Battle of Cannae


  1. Every time... well almost every time... I read or hear about Hannibal, I am reminded of a bad joke from an old calendar.
    Something that ran for about three days.
    Day 1 - Hannibal crosses the Alps with an elephant
    Day 2 - Hannibal crosses a chicken with an elephant
    Day 3 - Hannibal has a very cross chicken

  2. Now you've got me wondering where you're going with this one...LOL

  3. Good stuff Juvat. (He said from his hospital bed...)


  4. And after 2,230+ years we still have alternating quarterbacks. Alternating quarterbacks have never done as well as Paullus and Varro. Butt the expert analists sure love 'em.

    I wonder if there's a way to wargame insurgency/COIN on the gridiron?

    Just reading Dan Hampton's book on the Weasels. He describes the tactic of employing air delivered calgon bath beads to the Uncle Ho Memorial Expressway in an attempt to glutenize the mud and prevent travel. The chemical reaction between calgon and iron in the soil turned the mud bright red. Elephants along the trail featuring bright red bellies were therefore easily identified as communist elephants. The ROE allowed commie elephants to be targeted. 2,188 years after Cannae.

    1. Yeah, but the problem is the quarterbacks alternate between the one on the battlefield and the one in Washington. That's never a good idea.

      Interesting about calgon. Hadn't heard that one before.


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