Battlefield Casualties

This page attempts to show a more realistic view of the battlefield by including the casualties and lost equipment that would be present..

The tidy diagrams normally used ignore the fact that in a real battle the fighting soldiers would have to contend with the dead and wounded, with spent missile weapons sticking in the ground, and with lost equipment scattered about.

This illustration shows a slice of the battlefield 33 feet wide and 85 feet long. The two purple lines are 60 feet apart. This is the distance for the initial pilum volley.

The green line in the middle represents the mid-way line at which the two opposing forces would meet. For clarity, only one side is shown.

In an earlier section some estimates were made about the effectiveness of the initial pilum volley. Using those estimates the 50 man century (under strength but not untypical) illustrated on the left might expect two killed and two wounded. 20 pila have been thrown by the first two ranks. Though some would be stuck in the ground they are all shown as lying on the ground to make the illustration a little clearer.

At the top only the pila and casualties are shown. There are 4 bodies, two killed, two seriously wounded. There are two shields with pila stuck in them that were abandoned.

At the bottom the surviving members of the century are shown at the line of battle. The first two ranks have their swords drawn and are engaged with the invisible enemy. The last three ranks still carry their pila. Behind them their own killed and wounded can be seen. The helmet of the man in the middle has come off and is lying on the field. Several are shown with their swords beside them.

Gaps in the ranks are shown where the four casualties occurred. In practice the gaps would have been filled in but the illustration is clearer with them shown left vacant.

At the very bottom, behind the casualties, are shown the optio, signifer and aeneator.

In the engagement one side or the other would very likely be pushed back or would fall back after the initial clash with swords. The illustration helps one understand some of the practical difficulties that would have entailed, for both sides, as the battle line moved over the purple lines on one side or the other. The pila would be a considerable hazard. On the ground they could cause tripping or a sprained ankle. Stuck in the ground, bent at the shank as they were designed to do, they would be an obstacle course to be negotiated while backing away from the enemy. The wounded, if not removed right away, would likely be killed as they lie by the enemy when the battle line moved far enough.

These 4 casualties represent an overall casualty rate of 3%. The projected casualty rate for the battle, before one side is routed, is 10%, 5% killed and 5% wounded. The 50 men of this first line century would, on average, be supported by 3/4ths of a century from each of the second and third lines. Thus some 125 men on each side would be engaged in battle in this 33 foot wide strip of the field. Over time the line of battle would shift as the weaker side gave way. The sides could shift back and forth over the same ground or one side could more consistently give way to the other. The next illustrations presume that one side has shifted 100 feet toward the bottom of the screen.

The six frames below show various aspects of the battlefield. From left to right:

Frame 1: this is the original illustration from above with the two purple lines, 60 feet apart, indicating the initial pilum volley and the green line indicating the line of contact.

Frame 2: simply shows the century pushed back 100 feet from the initial line of contact. This is meant to represent the final stages of the battle, just before they would have broken and run in defeat. By this time all three lines are considered to have been engaged in the fighting. The 125 men on each side who would have been involved have all thrown their pila.

Frame 3: shows the casualties. Each side had 125 men engaged. With 5% killed on each side and an equal number wounded there would be 25 casualties. Only 22 are shown, several are presumed to be "walking wounded." Color coding has been used to distinguish the winning side (red) from the losing side (blue)

Frame 4: shows the 250 pila that would be littering the battlefield. As the line of contact moved over the 100 feet distance the successive waves of fresh men would have thrown their pila at different times and places.

Frame 5: shows the helmets and swords lost on the field by the dead and wounded.

Frame 6: combines frames 2,3,4 and 5 together.

The illustration is incomplete, however. The surviving soldiers of the red army are not included at all. If they were the illustration would be hopelessly complicated and impossible to make out. Nor are all of the soldiers of the blue army illustrated. The same nominal century as was used in the first illustration is still shown in place at the bottom of the final frame. What is intended is merely to indicate the general area in which contact between the two forces would be occurring. If, as the illustration supposes, all three lines had been fully engaged by this time there would be 125 men on each side, less the 12 or 13 casualties, crowded into the 33 foot wide strip. Some might be far back from the line of battle, many might be crowded quite close to it.

This final illustration shows a closer view of the battlefield at the bottom of Frame 6 above.

The density of the pila on the field is almost surprising. It is one of those instances where just saying that they all threw their pila and actually visualizing the results are rather different.

This would be a very difficult battlefield to maneuver over. What cannot be represented is the impact of the dead and wounded, the cries of pain, the blood from the terrible wounds the Roman short sword could inflict.

Although the movie was poor in its accuracy otherwise, I believe Braveheart did give a better idea of the carnage sword wounds would have caused. These battles were bloody, gory affairs beyond our ability to even imagine.

The illustration does not include any terrain features. On even a good battlefield site there would be small bushes, rocks, rivulets and other obstacles. Initially these were to have been included but the illustration is already so dense that adding more detail would be counter productive. It might be instructive, however, to simply imagine a large tree and a boulder in the middle of the field and how this would even further complicate the difficulties of moving around that the soldiers faced..

The illustration shows 250 pila. This may need some further explanation. The triplex acies formation used in the models has 4 cohorts in the first line, 3 in each of the other two lines. The century illustrated is 5 ranks deep, 10 wide, 50 men. For every 4 centuries on the first line there would be 6 in the other two lines. If both armies fully engaged their men then, on average, a 50 man first line century would be supported by 75 men from the other two lines.

Not all of the other two lines would be fully engaged at every point of the line of battle. The illustration is simply meant to illustrate a kind of average scene.

The 50 man century illustrated is considerably under the 80 man theoretical strength. If the two sides were closer to the nominal strength then there could be 7 or 8 ranks to the century. In that case the number of casualties and pila should be increased by 40% to 60%. The scene would look more like the illustration on the right. There is such a density of killed and wounded, of pila and other equipment that it is difficult to imagine how a century of fighting soldiers could possibly have maneuvered over the ground. Yet this is a reasonable representation unless the lines were pushed much further back than 100 feet.

Note on the images:
Recent work by Peter Connolly appears to show that the common view that the pilum bent upon use may be incorrect. It seems that in actual testing of reconstructed pila the iron shanks, even thin ones, do not bend readily and those that do, bend only a very little. The illustrations above were done before this research was known and the bent pila are probably incorrect.

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© 2003, Gary Brueggeman. All rights reserved world wide. No part of this work may be reproduced in part or whole, in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.