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Battle of the Sabis

In this last posting, the main character and his compatriots find themselves set upon unexpectedly while encamping. This results in a rushed, hasty assemblage of troops to engage the rapidly advancing Belgae. The main character and his best friend wind up at the front of the closest unit, with an unfamiliar Centurion.

The Battle Proper

From what we know about this battle, some of which (of course) comes from Caesar himself, the legions were in the middle of setting up camp when the cavalry and skirmishers sent ahead to scout are ambushed across the Sabis river, and rush back in a near panic.

As a result, the legions are forced to assemble into ad-hoc groupings, and lots of troops are thrown together into makeshift centuries and cohorts on the hill. Some parts of the line, particularly on the Roman left and center, are able to mount a strong defense and push back their Belgae opponents. Legions VIIII and X, on the left most end, are able to push all the way back to the river and beyond, with Legion VIIII pursuing their fleeing foes back to their own camp.

On the bank, however, Legion X—led by Titus Labienus—skirts back along the river and finds that the Roman right is in dire straits. In fact, Caesar reports that most of the Centurions of both legions caught on the far right, VII and VIII, were killed or seriously wounded, and as a result the discipline started to break down. Some men started fleeing back toward Legions XIII and XIIII, which had been bringing up the rear carrying all of the baggage of the other six legions in addition to their own and was setting up their own camp behind the hill.

In the action on the Roman right, Caesar reports having dismounted his horse, grabbed a scutum and gladius, and wade into the battle personally—an action which temporarily stemmed the tide of the Belgae breakthrough on that side. At one point, some of the Belgae on that side had broken off and started making for the Roman baggage trains, which gave Caesar a chance to reorganize his troops and avoid being encircled.

At that point, it appears that Labienus had crossed the river again and was putting pressure on the rear of the Belgae forces there, helping relieve the embattled Roman right flank and ultimately turning the battle from a potentially catastrophic strategic Roman defeat into a tactical victory for the Romans. Legions XI and XII in the center had driven off their foes, and turned to engage the Belgae forces that were now trapped between Caesar, Labienus, and the two center legions.

Caesar remarks that the Belgae on this side of the line were primarily from the Nervii, a Belgae tribe well-known for ferocity in battle—having honed their chops fighting constantly against Suebi and other Germanic tribes who tried to cross the Rhine into their territory—and for their focus on war. In his book, Caesar describes the Nervii as being indefatigable, fighting even while completely surrounded and standing on piles of bodies. At one point, apparently, some of these warriors were in the habit of catching Roman pila (javelins) mid-flight and throwing them back at the Romans.

Some of the takeaways

Personally, one of the things I find fascinating about this battle—at least the description we get from Caesar—is just how important small-unit leadership is on unit cohesion, and how critical it is for small-unit leaders to exercise personal initiative.

First, the unit cohesion issue. Even if we leave aside the threat of punishment for abandoning their post or fleeing the field that certainly would have had an effect on the Roman soldier, I believe there is little doubt that simply the existence of experienced unit leaders as Centurions, Optios (century second-in-command), and Pilus Priors (Senior Centurion in a Cohort) was tremendously effective in maintaining unit cohesion. Someone with authority, commanding troops on how to conduct the battle and keeping them focused on the fight at hand, goes a long way to making a unit effective even in the massive chaos of battle.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Roman right. Caesar reports that those units lost all or almost all of their Centurions, and that correlates with the reports of some of the soldiers on that flank taking their spontaneous leave of the battlefield to flee to the rear. The appearance of their general Caesar fighting on the line with a shield and sword stabilized the situation.

The initiative of Labienus, taking stock of the situation himself and ordering his legion back into the fray to relieve the beleaguered Roman right flank, is certainly pivotal to the outcome, but smaller examples of initiative—even if not specifically mentioned—are evident throughout. Soldiers were caught unprepared for the Belgae onslaught, yet the initiative and experience of the lower officers, the Centurions and Optios and Pilus Priors across the board, was absolutely critical in organizing an effective defense.

These are lessons that resonate even today. One aspect of US Army leadership is to encourage leaders at all levels, from the infantry fire team and individual tank all the way up to Brigade and higher level commanders, to take decisive action in the absence of orders and execute their mission on their own authority. It is also important for those leaders to be present and visible during the battle, to lead from the front and share their soldier’s risks and discomforts.

So that’s a little background on Sunday’s excerpt! Let me know what you think in the comments.

Resources Mentioned

The Gallic War and other writings of Julius Caesar (Hadas, Moses)

Published inHistory