A Brief History of Offensive Land Tactics in the West

By Chase Englund
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Tactics were defined by Clausewitz as the art of organizing an army, and the techniques for using weapons or military units in combination for engaging and defeating an enemy in battle. Obviously, the increasing sophistication, technological progress, and organization of the state over time have resulted in massive changes to textbook tactics since organized battle first began.
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In order to fully understand where we (Western military culture) are now, we must first understand how it originated. This brief explanation aims to illustrate how tactics have evolved with the development of the state and with technology. This article may at first seem Eurocentric; however, the basic reasoning behind the focus on Western military tactics over time is because these tactics have proved to be the most sound in battle, due largely to a tendency for a pragmatic focus on effective killing.
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For a key to the symbols used in the diagrams and for a brief list of military terms used in the article see the bottom of the page.
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Feudalistic Warfare:
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Early states sought to beat their unorganized foes with organized rectangles of men. These men stood in formation, fought in lines and were replaced from behind. Fighting like this was very effective against an unorganized foe for various reasons. It kept your units organized, and (ideally) meant that the soldier need only concern himself with one direction, forward. A single man and maybe a few advisors usually commanded them which meant that once the fighting began, typically no further orders were given. Maneuvering after the fighting began was risky and could lead to collapse due to a lack of cohesiveness and maneuverability. This is not to mention the fact that a commander could not be heard over the din of battle all the way in the rear.
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Infantry in this type of army typically used hacking weapons such as swords or axes, good at breaking through armor. Units other than infantry included skirmishers, a sort of primitive archer. They were not meant to defeat regular infantry and were typically used in a harassing role. They would fire from the front of the line and retreat before the enemy’s infantry body reached them, disrupting the enemy formation before the clash. Heavy cavalry was often effective, mainly because they were facing armies using short weapons or against foes who were unable to organize cohesively. The prominence of both these conditions led to the complete dominance of heavy cavalry in the middle ages, as well as in ancient Egypt (whose version of heavy cavalry was the chariot, since horses were not yet the large beasts they are today). Ranged cavalry could also be used effectively. This was typically a strategy used by pastoral, nomadic raiders. They could amass huge amounts of ranged cavalry against relatively small, elitist feudal armies. Neither the footmen nor the heavy cavalry had the speed to chase them down as they fired mass volley after mass volley. Finally, once the formation broke apart, the nomads charged and won the battle.
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The disadvantages to this set of tactics are immense. The general lack of cohesiveness and organization within the infantry body made it easy to outflank and very difficult to react to changes in the battle. Heavy cavalry is also typically ineffective at chasing down faster units. There is also a total lack of logistical organization, which makes long range maneuvering or conquest impossible.
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Phalanx Warfare:
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For an ancient state with no access to modern technology, the ideal formation of its men was into a phalanx. A phalanx was basically a large square of men which were heavily armed with shields and some sort of stabbing melee weapon (which requires less space, allowing tighter formation), usually a spear or sword. They function like earlier formations, only highly more organized and tightly packed, overlapping their shields into what is called a ‘shield wall’. The states that fielded this type of formation typically did not have the organization to field an officer corps or a logistics train for resupply. This meant these armies were much better at defense than at offensive conquest. This also meant that battle decisions were usually limited to the generals’ orders given before the actual fighting started. The unit was more cohesive, but still unwieldy. Once the clash began, the phalanx fought until it either won or was broken.
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Light cavalry was common when fighting the phalanx. Heavy cavalry declined in effectiveness for several reasons. New infantry cohesiveness allowed better tactics for dismounting riders and slaughtering them, not to mention the fact that no sane horse would charge straight into a hedge of spears or pikes. Shock heavy cavalry could sometimes be moderately effective against enemies who used swords instead of spears, such as the Romans. Even then, they were not as effective as they were against feudal armies. Thus, light cavalry became the tactical standard for these types of armies. Light cavalry was, and still is, used to exploit breakthroughs and sometimes to flank when conditions are favorable enough. They would charge only when a unit had lost its cohesive ability to counter them. In addition, they could also chase down ranged cavalry. They were also commonly used for scouting purposes. In addition to skirmishers, well-equipped phalanx armies could field long ranged skirmishers using bows, the first real archery forces. Another interesting feature of an army at this stage was the use of slave levies. Unlike modern conscription, these men were unpaid and given no real training or serious equipment. They were used to bolster the ranks and used as either skirmishers or light infantry.
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Disadvantages to this set of tactics include the unwieldiness of the huge phalanx. Its large size makes it difficult to maneuver or react once in combat. The lack of logistical organization also continues to limit an armies range.
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Legion Warfare:
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As the state advanced, it eventually gained the necessary sophistication organize its military forces more effectively. This amounted to the breaking up of the phalanx into smaller, more maneuverable units, which could be more easily controlled on the battlefield thanks to officers, who fought with the men and directed the action. Actual tactical decisions once contact is made were still limited, but the army was no longer one or a few unwieldy blocks. The army went in as separate units, not all at once. This way, the commander could see how things are going and where to send spare units.
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In addition to these developments, the army at this stage developed serious archers, which inflict more damage. They are still less effective than infantry were; however, they could now constantly fire over their own infantry body. Skirmishing was still a viable tactic, however, with increased resources, a well-equipped state just gave its men skirmishing weapons in addition to their standard infantry weapon. They would throw this weapon just before contact was made. A good example of this was the Roman pilum. In this stage, an army also often deployed field cavalry defenses such as spike barricades for their vulnerable rear units. In addition, increased sophistication allows for at least a slow logistics train, which made conquest possible. Armies could now be resupplied in between battles. Further developments included siege equipment, which was usually used to tear down or assault walls, but some pieces could also be used as a primitive form of ‘artillery’. Various ammunition for these pieces included simple rocks, flaming balls made from wicker or something similar, or even dead animals for sieges. Armies at this stage would also sometimes deploy another interesting type of unit, the mercenary. This type of unit was, and still is, typically used only in harsh economic circumstances or when one is badly outnumbered. The advantage of the mercenary is that it is an extremely cheap way to increase the size of ones forces. The disadvantage is that they are often unprofessional, flee more easily, and do not share the same commitment to the goals of the state as the regular army.
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This type of organization is really the ideal of archaic warfare. However, as the state capitalizes and new technology emerges, the lack of an effective ranged infantry weapon makes these armies outdated to superior technology.
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First Generation Warfare:
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From here on out, the titles of each chapter will be based on terminology created by the US military in 1989 to classify the stages of tactical transition. At this point, we assume the state has become capitalized and moderately industrialized, enough so to produce effective ranged weapons effective and easy to use enough to replace melee ones (guns). Along with these, the military has become a separate professional branch of government, with a full officer corps. Ranged infantry is also not physically engaged with enemy units. These facts mean that it is much easier to move men around after the fighting has already begun.
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These changes have changed the army considerably. First of all, the squares of melee infantry spread out into the long rectangles of gunpowder infantry, in order to maximize firepower and bring more of their guns to bear at one time. Unlike a bow, a gun could not be fired in an arc. Thus, in order to have a significant amount of your men firing, one must spread out the line. Infantry used the bayonet, attached to the end of the musket barrel, for close combat and to fend off any cavalry. Skirmishing became its own wing once again, consisting of men using accurate rifles to  harass approaching formations. The grenade was invented, allowing grenadiers in the main infantry body to harass enemy formations as well. Artillery finally came of age and was a significant force to reckoned with, winning and losing battles. Cavalry was still in a similar light role as before, however would eventually adopt ranged firearms. Here we also see the idea of trenches beginning to evolve, at this stage usually called ‘redoubts’ or ‘earthworks’.
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Disadvantages here are also sparse until new technology emerges. Once this happens, however, this type of tight formation in open spaces becomes suicidal due to modern artillery and rifling.
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Second Generation Warfare:
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At this stage, the state transitions from ‘capitalized’ to fully industrialized. The inventions of automatic weapons, accurate long range artillery, and breach-loading rifles have made the battlefield a far more lethal place. A single man could now have significantly more firepower and range, and is able to cover more space on the battlefield effectively. Accurate artillery and modern rifles decimated closely grouped formations. This resulted in the army spreading out into a very long, thin line, with plenty of space between men. This fact, coupled with the massive armies of a fully mobilized industrial state, created a phenomenon known as the continuous front. This is a front line that literally stretches from sea to sea, across whole continents. With such great distances involved, a commander could not observe all the action at once. Thus, there was a ‘decentralization of command’, which basically means allowing junior level officers to make maneuver decisions. These decisions were relayed by radio to the commander, who would determine broad maneuvers of the whole line and organize offensives.
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The battle functioned basically how it always had, using the seven classical maneuvers, however, on a much larger scale. Units have become so spread out that they can maneuver independently of one another. For example, a squad could flank a position independently of its platoon, a platoon could flank independently of its company, and so on. In the past, this was never possible because the units of an army still operated in giant groups in order to be effective. A single platoon now carried the weapons that would have been requisitioned only to separate wings of the army in the past, such as their own artillery or cavalry (tanks). The logistics train has become so effective with modern industry, that is constantly replenishes an army, even while it is still fighting. This created a situation where the two armies were fighting literally around the clock from static positions, mainly with artillery. Large infantry attacks culminate ‘offensives’ designed to penetrate the enemy line, cutting off their constant resupply, thus defeating them. In the past, the conditions of victory were to destroy the enemy’s army, and the ground was the stage upon which armies acted, nothing more. In modern times, defeating an enemy’s army does not mean victory, because it is constantly resupplied by the home industry. Therefore, the reward for winning battle became capturing the terrain upon which the battle took place. The term ‘gaining ground’ was used to describe the slow, meticulous nature in which territory must be pried from an enemy until one reached their capital or destroyed their industry (or both).
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Infantry tactics in this stage change completely. Troops fortify by getting even lower to the ground, digging trenches from which they fire. Due to the dispersion of the troops, these trenches formed into a long line referred to now as a ‘brittle crust’ defense. The way infantry fought also changed entirely in this stage. The lethality and effectiveness of modern firearms made marching in formation straight at the enemy suicidal. Small teams of men now started to move in a leapfrog pattern called ‘fire and maneuver’. Basically, the squad of riflemen moved while their machine gunner covered them, and they in turn all covered the machine gunner as he caught up. The squad stayed low and moved from cover to cover. When there is no natural cover, it became common for infantry to ‘dig in’ or dig trenches to take cover. Every soldier was now equipped with an entrenching tool. Staying in the open for more than a few seconds often meant death. The focus of fighting was also no longer on volleys, but on individual marksmanship. Snipers were now assigned to infantry units. Skirmishing evolved into what we now call the ‘Special Forces’, but still involves small, independently acting units of men attempting the break up the enemy formation before an attack. A good example of this idea was the German ‘Stormtrooper’. Due to the high risk of the job, they are highly trained and receive special equipment. They are not trained to take ground, only to disrupt positions for infantry assault, the quintessential role of skirmishers. Due to increased rifle range and snipers, the artillery component of an army is forced to move so far into the rear that their targets are no longer visible. The infantry now ‘calls in strikes’ on set coordinates on a map.
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Cavalry became obsolete, their mounted riders making easy targets for marksmen. The only new cavalry was in the air, but limited technology restrains in into a mainly scouting role. Both sides constantly barraged one another with long range artillery in hopes of destroying their equipment faster than it can be replaced (an idea called ‘attrition’, rarely effective) so that their infantry could finally make a breakthrough and split the enemy line. Field defenses took on a completely new life at this stage. The general effectiveness of defense over offense typically created what we call ‘trench warfare’ where neither side could make a breakthrough. They both constructed elaborate trenches, sandbag barriers, and barbed wire coils. Other features included landmines and sniper towers. All of these were designed around machine gun nests and covered by long range artillery.
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The disadvantages to this set of tactics are many. The lack of ability to break through an enemy’s line creates an indefinite, costly war of attrition. Once new technology is developed, the ‘brittle crust’ defense becomes antiquated and easily broken. This stage of tactics should be thought of as a transition between First and Third Generation Warfare, used for as little time as possible, as there is no real advantage to it whatsoever.
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Third Generation Warfare:
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At this stage, the state has fully transitioned into an industrial modern economy, and several new technologies have given mobility back to the modern battle. The most basic innovation, which makes this stage possible, is tanks. This new form of cavalry has allowed armies to break easily through the brittle crust defense. Using mechanized infantry, tanks, artillery, and the new invention of air support in coordination, static line defense is easily swept aside. This is called ‘combined arms assault’. Tough spots in the line are merely outflanked, bypassed, and dealt with later when they are surrounded. Therefore, the new way to hold the front is with something called ‘zone defense’, which we can think of as a ‘buffer zone’. The frontline can now be miles thick, which multiple mobile units operating within it. When an attack is located, commanders have some space and time to react to it. Available units in the area will converge on it, attempting to halt any breakthrough. If a partial rout is achieved, there are still other ‘zones of defense’ through which the enemy must break in order to hit the rear and outflank the whole force, not to mention cutting off supply and communication in the rear. The loss of supply weakens the enemy and the loss of communication makes them lose cohesiveness. The supply line of a fully modern army is so effective, that it is nearly impossible to defeat unless one destroys the industry that is supporting it in the enemy’s home cities. So thus, we see the emergence of strategic bombing.
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Infantry in this stage typically use automatic or semi-automatic rifles, and have one squad member as the machine gunner, using a light machine gun. The only real fundamental change is that the infantry is now mechanized, using armored personnel carriers to keep pace with the tanks. Barbed wire and mines are still used, but no longer to protect infantry positions. Infantry continues to entrench, but the constant movement of maneuver warfare makes this entrenchment brief and minor, known today as ‘foxholes’. They also now use short range artillery (mortars) to disrupt tough enemy defenses (technically a type of skirmishing). Cavalry has come back with a vengeance. Huge metal tanks, which can roll over barbed wire and provide infantry with mobile cover give infantry the punch they need to break through machine gun defenses. Heavy tanks are used mainly in conjunction with the infantry. Fast, light tanks are used as light cavalry was in the earlier days, as a flanking and exploiting force. Night vision allows armies to operate around the clock. The concept of maneuver warfare is born, where troops are constantly mobile, moving with the tanks by helicopter and APC. Tanks assist the infantry moving through fields, and the infantry assist the tanks in moving through urban or wooded areas where they are vulnerable to other AT (anti-tank) infantry. AT infantry is a defensive response to tank warfare, along with various AA infantry weapons. Snipers now operate in scouting teams as well as with the regular infantry, working with Special Forces commandos to move ahead of the infantry and screen. Due to the high risk of the role, skirmishers are also increasingly taking the form of unmanned vehicles, both on the ground and in the air. Artillery has improved and now is even longer ranged, using missiles to deliver ordinance.
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Field defenses are largely similar to Second Generation Warfare, but now also includes anti-aircraft artillery, anti-artillery missiles (such as the American built Patriot), and anti-tank features. Air support is the single most decisive factory in winning a modern war. Support from above is crucial in destroying enemy tanks, as well as hitting the enemy’s long range artillery. If this were not enough, control of the skies is also the factor that determines whether or not you can bomb the enemies industry, literally essential to winning a modern war. Over time, air warfare has evolved into push-button missile warfare with nuclear weapons. No seriously effective defense against this has yet been developed. The problem with air warfare is that you may stop 95 out of 100 missiles or planes, but five nuclear strikes on your country will still constitute unacceptable loss. No perfect defense has yet been devised.
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The disadvantages to this tactical system are obvious. The intense destructiveness of nuclear weapons has made it impossible to use protracted conventional warfare as a means of foreign policy for the last 65 years. Even if it could be used without literally ending the world as we know it, the extremely destructive nature of modern conventional war makes it very cost ineffective.
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“Fourth Generation” or Guerrilla Warfare:
 
Fourth Generation Warfare refers to the current state of warfare. The technology of Third Generation Warfare has advanced so much as to make modern war a near impossibility. Mainly this is due to the inevitable evolution of strategic bombing into nuclear weapons. In the past, armies took longer to train, supply and field, and once yours was defeated, it pretty much meant the end of the war. In industrialized war, the state has an almost inexhaustible ability to quickly resupply their fielded armies. This means it is really not possible to win a war unless you strike the enemy industry, which is done with nuclear weapons. Some theorists of the late 20th century have put forth another theory. They argue that the weapons of conventional war have developed into such lethality that any conventional war would be quickly decided. Destruction rates would be faster than production. However, even in a case like this, once one side collapsed, they would probably resort to tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, which would almost inevitably escalate into a strategic exchange, wiping out both sides. No country will accept loss in a conventional war while they still have nuclear weapons. While this cannot be proven, the fact that no two great powers have fought each other since 1945 seems to validate this fear of inevitable escalation. In any case, in the past war was a cost effective means of exerting your political will. This is no longer the case. To win a modern war requires the destruction of the enemy’s economy to achieve victory, and usually greatly hurts both anyway. So thus, the result has been an unprecedented withdrawal from conventional war between great powers.
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Along with this decline in conventional war came a rise in unconventional war. After the great wars of the 20th century, the European powers have caused their own decline, a testament to the costliness of war. This has caused their colonial possessions to take advantage of their weakness and rebel. Most of these small nations lack any kind of real conventional force, and so thus, they resort to guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla tactics are nothing new to warfare; they were used by the barbarians against the declining Romans, the Americans during their revolution, and so on. Guerrilla warfare has become seemingly ‘popular’ in recent times due to the recent decline of the colonial European powers and the simplicity and effectiveness of mines and explosives. Nevertheless, for it to succeed there must be several preconditions.
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First of all, guerrilla warfare is basically a way of achieving political goals without a serious army. This is done by harassing a stronger force until one or several things happen. Ideally, in a classic rural insurgency, the enemy will attempt to use snipers, skirmishers, mines, and AT infantry to execute hit and run attacks on the larger force. Although this will never defeat them, they will either lose political will to continue or not want to continue funding an expensive occupation. If this does not happen, the guerrilla will also attempt to entice foreign conventional powers to step in on their behalf, with either money or direct military action. This is called a proxy war, which is nearly impossible to win. If an industrial country is supporting the insurgents, they can continue to help them indefinitely no matter how many you kill, because you cannot strike at the industry that is supporting their effort unless one wishes to escalate into a dangerous conventional war. However, all of the above typically only works on foreign powers, or on extremely unpopular, incompetent governments. When the enemy force is domestic, the task is much harder, because even if the government wanted to leave, it cannot. The guerrilla will use mines and explosives to perpetrate violence, causing the government in power to become repressive and harsh. This will in theory will cause the populus to rise up and overthrow the government. In reality, however, this type of urban rebellion usually is only possible if the army and police consist of citizens. Most of the countries where these little wars take place still have elitist armies, or at least elitist guard units of the military, who will crush the protestors and the guerrillas.
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 Therefore, logically, in order to fight this kind of war, a conventional power needs to do several things. First of all, they will usually start by controlling the major cities. These cities need to be well protected and policed. Next, the power should seal off the border to any foreign funding of the insurgents, using military force if necessary. The power will also need to move into the rural villages, aid and provide permanent protection from the insurgents. In return, the rural towns will consent and give support to the government. This needs to be done all the while insuring the relative stability of the populus. If the native army is made up of the people, it needs to be relatively democratic and fair in order to ensure against rebellion. The countries infrastructure also needs to be respected and repaired if damaged. In addition, the large draft armies needed to wage conventional warfare are not nearly as effective. No matter what the extent of training, the draft soldier typically does not have the commitment needed to wage this type of psychological warfare. It is much easier to work with people who have signed up. If the army is still elitist, harsher methods can be used. Once all this is done, conventional units should move into the countryside, seek out the isolated insurgents, and crush them. The commander of a counterinsurgency effort should keep in mind that insurgency is usually an ineffective tactic when properly combated. The only way the insurgents can win final victory is taking the cities through conventional force. This cannot be done as long as the larger power has the will, the money, and the competence to stay in control.
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The disadvantage to this type of fighting is the fact that it only works in a certain set of circumstances. It has been adopted as the holy grail of revolutionaries around the world due to its success in the old European empire, the availability of explosives, and the extreme difficulty and cost of equipping a modern conventional force. However, as we observe most recent guerrilla wars, we see that they are largely ineffective political wars of attrition, which drag on for decades. The problem with guerrilla warfare is that even though the guerilla may inflict constant casualties on a conventional force, they are completely ineffective using conventional tactics, and thus are unable to ever defeat the state’s conventional forces and acquire the real centers of power, the cities.
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Key to military symbols used:
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Military Terms Glossary:

AA – (acronym) anti-air
Action – (noun) any fighting which occurs during a war
AT – (acronym) anti-tank
Automatic and Semi-Automatic – (adjective) an automatic rifle fires continuously as one holds down the trigger of the weapon. A semi-automatic rifle fires once with every trigger pull, with no need for manual chambering of rounds
Chambering – (verb) to put a round of ammunition into the breach (or back end) of a rifle to be fired. This place is called the chamber.
Cohesiveness – (adjective) how well an army acts in unison and organized discipline.
Conscription – See ‘Levy’
Cover fire or Suppression – (noun) automatic fire or volley fire used to make the enemy duck down, so that other friendly units can move without being fired on in the open.
Engagement – See ‘Action’
Exploit – (verb) to take advantage of a breakthrough in the enemy’s line by sending reinforcements there. By overwhelming a weakened portion the enemy line, one hopes to cause panic and begin a rout
Flank – (noun) the sides of a military unit, weaker than the front (a unit is designed to fight from the front)
Insurgent – (noun) a skirmisher type military unit who employs guerrilla tactics
Levy – (noun) forced military service, also known as a draft
Logistics – (noun) the ability to re-supply one’s forces in the field
Offensive – (noun) a large attack meant to capture an objective or break the enemy line
Officer Corps – (noun) an institution for training officers who will lead men in battle, participating in the combat themselves
Refuse – (verb) to intentionally hold back from combat a portion of ones front line, used for various reasons
Retreat – (noun, verb) a withdrawal from battle
Rout – (noun, verb) a collapse and subsequent panic and fleeing of a military unit, more disorderly than a retreat
Semi-Automatic – See ‘Automatic’
Strategic bombing – (noun, verb) strategic bombing is bombing which takes place against civilian targets (mainly cities) meant to destroy or wear down an opponents industrial output.
Tactical Bombing – (noun, verb) Tactical bombing is bombing which takes place on the battlefield against military targets.
Unit – (noun) any portion of an entire army. Armies are divided into units so they can be more easily managed and maneuvered in the field.
Volley – (noun) a simultaneous firing of many guns or bows at once

 

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