What to do if you lose a battle

There is an old adage: ‘Live to fight another day’. While a few medieval military commanders would disagree with this notion and fight to the last man, most would be wise enough to know that even if a battle was lost, the war was not necessarily over. But what would you do if your side lost a battle? A Byzantine handbook offers some answers.

Byzantine battle depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes, fol. 109r,

The Strategikon is a Byzantine military manual written around the year 600. It has been attributed to the Emperor Maurice (582-602), and while he could have been the author considering his extensive military career, scholars have suggested that other high-ranking Byzantine commanders may have also written this guide.

The work was intended for officers in the Byzantine army, providing them with instructions on a wide number of military matters, including setting up formations, staging ambushes, the use of spies, and even how to conduct drills for the soldiers. One interesting section of the Strategikon deals with what to do when your side loses a battle.

The first point made by the Strategikon when dealing with a defeat is not to take the troops back into battle, at least for a few days. The author explains:

For even if the general understands the mistake he has made and hopes to remedy it by means of a second battle, the soldiers as a whole are unable to grasp the reason for deliberately going right back into the fighting. They are more likely to look upon what happened as God’s will and completely lose heart.

Instead, the Strategikon advises:

It is better to rely on stratagems, deception, carefully timed surprise moves, and the so-called fighting while fleeing, until the troops come to forget their discouragement, and their morale picks up once more.

The military manual explains how a retreat should be handled:

If the victorious foe consists mostly of infantry, then we should withdraw without delay on horseback, and in good order either to retreat or to establish camp safely someplace else. If the victors consist of cavalry, Persians or Scythians, for example, it is best to abandon superfluous property and the slower horses. Except for a small mounted force, all should take their stand on foot in two phalanxes or formations, or in one four-sided rectangular formation. In the middle should be the horses and baggage, with the soldiers on the outside, as described, and the archers on foot in front of them. In this way the army can move or retreat in safety.

Another topic considered by the Strategikon is what do if the enemy offers to negotiate after you have lost a battle. If you get a deal that is lenient, then you should quickly make an agreement. However, if the terms are harsh or you believe that the enemy is trying to delay you, “this should be countered by circulating rumours making them even more unfavourable, so that when the men learn how harsh they are they will become angry and feel compelled to resist the enemy more forcefully and be more obedient to their own officers.”

The Strategikon also includes over a hundred and forty maxims that a commander should follow. Among them you can find these words:

Defeated troops should not be allowed to fall into despair, but they should be dealt with by stirring up hope and by various other means.

The general who possess some skill in public speaking is able, as in the past, to rouse the weak-hearted to battle and restore courage to a defeated army.

The best commander is the one who can instill courage at the right time and can hold back the headlong flight of frightened soldiers.

The general is at fault if most of the army is destroyed in a single battle.

It is essential to be cautious and take your time in making plans, and once you come to a decision to carry it out right away without any hesitation or timidity. Timidity after all is not caution, but the invention of wickedness.

Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, has been translated by George T. Dennis and was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. You can learn more about this work in Murray Dahm’s article, “Learning from the enemy: The Strategikon and the Sassanids,” which is part of our latest issue of Medieval Warfare magazine.

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