I recently read an ebook on fighting, everything from hand to hand to pitched battles. The author did a very good job on it, and even though I consider myself a novice expert on military tactics and strategy, I learned some things. However, in one part she was very off the mark. The author stated that all battles are planned, and an obvious mistake was when a writer had two armies fighting it out by accident. It seemed that she had never heard of a meeting engagement, where two opponents blunder into each other and a battle is joined without prior planning. Now granted, many battles through history were planned affairs where two armies took the field at a predetermined time. In more modern settings, including the Napoleonic Wars, one side tended to plan an attack and would attack the side that wasn’t prepared. But we could still say that the battle was planned. The meeting engagement is planned by no one, but a fierce battle can still develop.
The most famous meeting engagement in American history is Gettysburg. Both armies were hoping to get into a fight, just not where they met. The vanguards of both armies ran into each other and a fight developed. The Union cavalry commander wanted to hold the ground, so he dug in. The rest of the armies came up in bits and pieces and were set out to turn the flanks that kept expanding, until, by the second day, there were two lines of troops facing each other. The story goes that Longstreet kept asking Lee to retreat and make the Union army attack him at a place of his choosing, in a planned battle. But Lee, a very aggressive general, decided that he couldn’t retreat, and so attacked an opponent that was superior to him in numbers and position.
There have been many meeting engagements in modern history, including multiple battle of maneuver on the Russian Front and North Africa during World War 2. Mobile forces are well suited to meeting engagements as they move across unfamiliar terrain and bump into each other in an oh shit moment of recognition. Then it’s a race to get the most to the developing battlefront before the enemy. I also think that most of the naval battles I have heard of were meeting engagements. Fleets normally blunder into each other before they’re ready. Some ships are hunting others, it is night, foggy, rainstorm, whatever, and they come out of the fog bank and there is the enemy fleet.
I plan to use several meeting engagements in Refuge: The Legions, when I have the force of NATO and the forces of the Empire marching toward each other with only a general idea where the other force is. Armies on the march, if they are well led, always have forces out ahead and to either side, both to scout out the enemy and to keep the enemy from scouting them. Often scout forces will try to route the other side’s scouts, fighting to gain information, and many meeting engagements occur this way. Now in fantasy there may be other ways of getting information on the enemy, such as aerial forces and magic. If using aerial forces like dragons or large birds, many of the things that caused consternation on mid twentieth century battlefields will also occur there. People may be hard to spot from the air under the cover of trees, or only can be seen when they are at river crossings. If an army is spread over an area of march a spotting may only give the most rudimentary location for the total force, and give very little information about their destination. And if magic is used the other side may use counter magic to give a false impression and a false location. So again the chances of a meeting engagement increase.
As said earlier, I plan to use several meeting engagements in the Refuge series because I think there is nothing more exiting in warfare than a complete fog of war situation in which both sides rush whatever they have into a fight with a force of unknown composition. The stakes are high, decisions have to be made in an instant, and reinforcements are not always sent to the right place. Sometimes the reinforcements are not sent to the right place but it turns out, with the direction of a good commander on the spot, to be the best place for them to go to. Battles have been turned on men going to the wrong place at the right time and rolling up an enemy flank. And they have been turned on regiments uncovering vital parts of the line like a blocker in football moving to the wrong place and allowing a sacker through. Like I said, exciting stuff and just the kind of series of scenes I like to write.
Coming soon will be a five part blog on what I think far future space warfare will look like.