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Ramses II versus Muwatallis II: A Hittite army under Muwatallis ambushes part of an Egyptian army under Ramses as it is strung out in march formation. The various Egyptian divisions are divided and unaware of the unfolding disaster. How will Ramses rally his army and meet the Hittite attack?
The Battle of Kadesh was definitely not one of the decisive battles of history. For starters, the battle itself was inconclusive with each side taking some significant but not crippling losses, and then agreeing to a truce. Kadesh was both an Egyptian tactical victory – with Ramses rallying his army and repulsing the Hittite chariot attack – and a Hittite strategic victory – with the end result being an Egyptian withdrawal from the disputed zone. Even if the battle had a clear winner, the region being fought over was not vital to either side’s existence regardless of what either leader thought:
The battle at Kadesh was not fought on the territory of either power, but far from each’s homeland in a buffer zone the control of which was seen as vital to preserving the national security of the homeland itself. As in modern times, what had begun as a buffer zone for each antagonist had, over time, become defined as a vital interest. The situation was somewhat analogous to the role of East Europe in Soviet calculations of national security. Although the region was originally acquired as a buffer zone, the preservation of Soviet power in East Europe quickly became redefined as a vital Soviet security interest. What had once been negotiable quickly became nonnegotiable. (Gabriel and Boose, 1994: 64)
We can observe similar phenomena today in disputes over even smaller, less important regions that nonetheless feature prominently in the nation’s perception of its vital security interests. Despite being an inconclusive skirmish in a buffer zone between the two sides, it is interesting to note that Ramses’ withdrawal back across the Orontes River following the battle of Kadesh marked the last time an Egyptian army was north of the Orontes for the next three millennia and counting.
The most intriguing question from this battle is why Muwattalis did not send his otherwise uncommitted infantry across the Orontes River to complete the destruction of the Egyptian army as the chariots pressed the Egyptian camp on three sides:
This was the critical point in the battle. Muwattalis had achieved complete tactical surprise and, without committing either his infantry or chariot reserve, had shattered the Egyptian force and was closing in on its commander. The commitment of either infantry or reserve chariots would have sealed the Egyptian fate. Muwattalis could have sent infantry contingents over the ford north of the city and completed the envelopment of the [camp]. The Hittite infantry was still behind the city guarding the king and the baggage train. But Muwattalis did nothing. (Gabriel and Boose, 1994: 79).
Healy (1993) offers one explanation in the Osprey volume on this battle. Healy argues that the fact the Hittite infantry did not attack across the ford is difficult to explain away (1993: 66) and argues that far from a great pitched battle, the engagement of Kadesh was really just a reconnaissance in force that turned into a running combat (1993: 82). In this account, the chariot force Muwatallis initially sent across the Orontes was smaller than otherwise reported, maybe 500 chariots, and its objective was really just to determine the Egyptian army’s location and size (Healy, 1993: 66). The rout of the P’Re division was not a coordinated flank attack but simply the Hittite chariots riding through whatever appeared in their way as they emerged from the brush around the ford (Healy, 1993: 69). While this account is certainly plausible, as pharaohs are known to exaggerate and glorify their exploits no matter how minor they may have actually been, it is much easier to explain away Muwattalis not committing the Hittite infantry to the battle than it appears.
Gabriel and Boose offer another explanation:
The reasons for this inaction [at the critical point in the battle] are unknown but it is probable that [Muwattalis] fell prey to the old trap of other commanders that “the best is the enemy of the good.” From Muwattalis’ perspective, things were going fine. Why change? Do nothing rash. Wait! See how the situation develops, hold back the reserve, and wait for the decisive moment. Wait for the best possible situation. Under these circumstances, risk nothing to achieve only a good result. The result was paralysis. (1994: 79)
While Muwatallis may have suffered from some paralysis, it is important to keep in mind that Muwattalis achieved his strategic goals in this battle while Ramses did not. The Egyptian army, minus a division and the heads of many subordinate commanders, withdrew from Syria after the battle. The Egyptian army never crossed the Orontes River again while the Hatti was able to foment revolt in Egyptian-held Palestine. Muwattalis risked nothing and did achieve a good result. The committal of a large infantry force of unknown quality across a river is not without risk. If Muwattalis had committed his infantry to the battle, it is possible that they too would have been defeated with the chariot force when the rest of the Egyptian army arrived from the northwest and south. Rather than an Egyptian tactical victory in a skirmish, the result could have been an Egyptian decisive victory in a pitched battle that Ramses was able to exploit and achieve his strategic objectives at the cost of Hittite ones. It only seems fair that we explore better questions than why Muwattalis did not commit his infantry, such as how Ramses allowed his army to be divided without any effective information gathering capabilities to determine where the enemy was.
There are a lot of uncertainties regarding this battle. I have followed Gabriel and Boose’s account fairly closely while incorporating some elements from Suhr’s account featured in a 1995 Military History magazine that is now available online. I have also downplayed Ramses’ propagandist claims that he was at the head of every charge and critical point in the battle as much as possible.
If you are looking for some good war-gaming of the battle and other battles during the same era, check out GMT’s Chariots of Fire, another volume in its amazing radiocarbon dating physics series. Highly recommended.
– Jonathan Webb
Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe c. 1200 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Ferrill, Arther. The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Gabriel, Richard A. and Donald W. Boose Jr. The Great Battles of Antiquity: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.
Goodenough, Simon. Tactical Genius in Battle. Oxford: Phodian Press, 1979.
Healy, Mark. The Warrior Pharaoh: Ramses II and the Battle of Qadesh. London: Osprey, 1993.
Rice, Rob S. “Kadesh, 1285 BC.” In Battles of the Ancient World 1300 BC – AD 451, 206-215. London: Amber, 2007.
Egyptian infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_11_figure_1.htm
Egyptian light chariots: Healy, Mark. The Warrior Pharaoh: Ramses II and the Battle of Qadesh. London: Osprey, 1993.
Hittite heavy chariots: Healy, Mark. The Warrior Pharaoh: Ramses II and the Battle of Qadesh. London: Osprey, 1993.
Hittite infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_9_figure_1.htm
Map of the Middle East: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kadesh
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Ramses II: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesses_II
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