Chapter 2 - The World's First Armies
The Armies of the Pharaohs, 3200-1300 BC
Human settlement in Egypt may have begun as long as two hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Climatic and geographic conditions were highly favorable to the rapid development of a large-scale agricultural society. Egyptian society of 4000 B.C. was formed around provincelike entities called nomos ruled by individual chiefs or nomarchs. Over time, these nomarchs assembled in loose feudal arrangements into two clusters of kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt. In 3200 B.C., the king of Upper Egypt, known variously to history as Narmer, Menes, or, probably most correctly, Hor-Aha (Fighting Hawk), unified the two kingdoms by force into a single Egyptian state. Hor-Aha diverted the rivers of the Nile and founded the first Egyptian capital at Memphis. Thus began the reign of pharaohs of the predynastic period, which lasted for 700 years.
The kings that followed from 3100 to 2686 B.C. expanded the Egyptian state. Successful campaigns were launched against the Nubians to the south and the Libyans to the west. Expeditions were undertaken in the Sinai, and trade was established with the states north of Lebanon and Jordan. During this period a state bureaucracy was brought into existence, writing was introduced as a tool of centralized administration, and political institutions were transformed from a chiefdom into a theocratic state led by a divine pharaoh supported by administrative, religious, and military institutions.
The period from 2686 to 2160 B.C. was the period of the Old Kingdom, and it was during this time that we see the emergence of a definable military organization which was shaped by two factors. First, Egypt was protected by formidable natural barriers to her east and west in the form of great deserts. The peoples of these areas, the Sand Peoples of Palestine and the Libyans to the west, were largely nomadic and represented more of a nuisance than a military threat. Nubia to the south presented a real threat of invasion, but the fortresses and strong points built in 2200 B.C. seemed to have contained the threat relatively well. For a period of almost a thousand years Egypt was under no significant military threat from outside her borders. Second, Egypt's political order was somewhat fragmented. Although united in a single kingdom, the local chiefs maintained their own military forces and often exercised control over strategic trade routes. The situation was not unlike that of feudal Europe where the high king depended greatly upon the local barons for military and political power.
The impetus for the army came from the need of the central rulers to defend the state and deal with periodic revolts by the local chiefs. The pharaoh's army consisted of small but regular standing forces of several thousand organized like household guards. Egypt introduced conscription during this time, levying one man in a hundred to be called to service each year. The pick of the conscripts went to the regular army. During this period the first military titles and ranks also appear. Yet, the majority of the army was still organized into militia units under the command of local barons. In normal times, these forces were stationed and trained at the local level. In times of crisis, the political relationship between the barons and the pharaoh determined in practice how many troops were made available for national aims. Such a form of military organization produced an army that was unfit for forging a large national empire.
The exact structure of the Egyptian army of this period is unclear. Some distinctions were made between regular officers and others, and it is evident from titles that the army was broken into a number of military specialties and ranks. The size of the army is also a matter of some conjecture. Weni, a commander of the army in the Sixth Dynasty (2345 B.C.), recorded that his force was "many tens of thousands strong." A string of 20 mud-brick fortresses was built around 2200 B.C. to guard the southern approaches to Egypt; each required at least 3,000 men per garrison. This would suggest an army of 60,000 men in the frontier force alone. With a population approaching two million at this time, these and even larger force levels could easily have been achieved.
The Egyptian armies of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1786 B.C.) became more structurally sophisticated as Egypt struggled through periods of anarchy and the weakening of centralized power, leading eventually to its invasion and conquest by the Hyksos in 1720 B.C. Still, a clearer command structure did emerge with the pharaohs acting as field commanders on the major campaigns and with general officers in charge of safeguarding the frontiers and managing logistics. Titles emerged for such positions as commanders of shock-troops, recruits, instructors, and commanders of retainers. There was also the title for troop commander, and progression in rank seems to have moved from command of 7 men to a company of 60 to a command of 100 men.
By 1790 B.C. the centralized government of Egypt began to lose ground to the rebellious local barons, and the national army proved insufficient to bring them to heel. Taking advantage of the disarray, the Hyksos invaded Egypt and established themselves for almost 200 years as its rulers. The name Hyksos is probably a Greek rendering of the Egyptian term hik-khase, meaning "chiefdom of a foreign hill country." In the Egyptian lexicon of the day, these people were referred to derisively as asiatics. While the origins of the Hyksos remain obscure, it is likely that they were the nomadic tribes of the Palestinian land bridge.
It remains an interesting question how a people who were culturally and economically so far beneath the Egyptians could have conquered such an advanced culture as Egypt's. The answer lies in the use of very sophisticated military technology. The Egyptian army of this period was an infantry force organized by function in units of bowmen, spearmen, and archers. The primary killing weapon was the mace; even the bow was the simple bow of limited range and penetrating power. Given that the Egyptians had never fought anyone who had any more sophisticated weaponry than their own, this same weaponry had served sufficiently for more than a millennium. The Hyksos, on the other hand, were an army of mobility and firepower. The centerpiece of the Hyksos army was the horse-drawn chariot. They used the composite bow and penetrating axe and also carried the sword. In addition, the Hyksos wore helmets and body armor and carried quivers for rapid reloading of their bows. These weapons conferred a decisive military advantage, and the Hyksos made short work of the Egyptian army.
The Egyptian soldier must have been terrified by these new weapons. While the Egyptians had to anchor their positions with exposed infantry formations, they could be killed from a considerable distance by the arrows from the composite bow which exceeded the range of their own arrows by at least 200 yards. Worse, the Egyptian formations were immobile while the Hyksos could mount horse-drawn chariot charges from all directions. The horse must have had a great psychological impact on the Egyptian soldier, who had never even seen one. The blade axe of the Egyptian soldier was no match for the killing power of the penetrating axe and, without body armor, the sword must have taken a heavy toll in close combat. In 1720 B.C. the Hyksos established their capitol at Avaris (modern Tanis), and in 1674 they captured Memphis. For the next century or so the Hyksos held control of most of Lower Egypt while Upper Egypt remained largely in the hands of the princes of Thebes.
Over time, the Theban princes rebuilt their power until, after a series of short, but bloody, clashes, Ahmose I (1570-1546) drove the asiatics from Avaris, and once again unified Egypt. Under Amenhotep I (1546-1526) Egypt began the process of establishing a great empire. Amenhotep pushed Egypt's borders beyond those of the Old Kingdom and established an Egyptian presence in Asia. Thutmose I (1525-1512), one of Amenhotep's generals, pacified the Nubian south, and his successor, Thutmose II (1512-1504), solidified the Egyptian presence in Palestine to the Syrian border. His successor, Thutmose III (1504-1450) became Egypt's greatest warrior pharaoh, and is known to history as the Napoleon of Egypt. Thutmose III established the empire far into Asia, exacting tribute from Babylon, Assyria, and the Hittites. He fought 17 campaigns abroad and was victorious in all of them. (See Map 2.) Thutmose III established a first-rate professional army through which Egypt reached its pinnacle as a military power.
It is also worth noting that the psychology of the Egyptian leadership had changed drastically. Prior to the Hyksos invasion and occupation, Egypt's strategic culture was marked by a concern for the status quo and a turning inward for a millennium. Unconcerned about foreign threats, Egypt concentrated on developing her high religious culture almost to the point of pacifism. The destruction of the Egyptian army and the occupation of the homeland by a culturally foreign power, the Hyksos , engendered in Egyptian culture a great fear of invasion. Accordingly, having eventually removed the Hyksos from Egyptian soil, the Egyptians continued to press outward from their borders in order to establish a series of weak states on the periphery that could act as a buffer to their territory in time of war. The new strategic culture of Egypt was marked by paranoia and a fear of being surrounded. As such, she became militarily aggressive in a search to control all possible threats to her east by a policy of preemptive military action and aggressive diplomacy.
The wars of liberation and expansion under the Thutmosides wrought a profound change in Egyptian society. For the first time there came into being a truly professional military caste. Military families were given grants of land to hold for as long as they provided a son for the officer corps. The army changed its structure and became a truly genuine national force based on conscription. Although the local militias continued to exist, they were thoroughly integrated into a national force structure and, more important, the local barons lost the power to challenge national policy or withhold troop levies. Thutmose III completely changed Egyptian weapons and tactics. He adopted the weapons of the Hyksos -- the chariot, composite bow, penetrating axe, sickle-sword, helmets, and armor -- and made further improvements in the design and tactical employment doctrine of the chariot in battle. Thutmose mounted his newly armed archers on chariots and produced the most important military revolution in ground warfare yet seen in Egypt.
The national army was raised by conscription, with the national levy being one man in 10 instead of the traditional one man in 100. The army was centrally trained by professional officers and noncommissioned officers. The pharaoh himself remained commander-in-chief and was expected to be a true field commander by leading his men in battle. There was also an Army Council that served as a general staff. The field army was organized into divisions, each of which was a complete, combined arms corps, including infantry, archers, and chariots. These divisions numbered 5,000 men, and each was named after one of the principal gods of Egypt. Later Ramses II organized Egypt and the empire into 34 military districts to facilitate conscription, training, and supply of the army. The rank and administrative structures were improved, and there were professional schools to train and test officers in the operational arts.
The two major combat arms of the Egyptian army were chariotry and infantry. The chariot corps was organized into squadrons of 25 machines, each commanded by a "charioteer of the residence." Larger units of 50 and 150 machines could be rapidly assembled and deployed in concert with larger ground units. The chariot corps was supported logistically by special units and staffs, including mobile repair stations and parts depots, whose task it was to keep the machines operational even when deployed. The fact that the pharaoh was usually pictured as leading a chariot charge clearly indicates that it was the elite striking arm of the Egyptian field force.
The infantry was organized into regiments of 200 men, each regiment identified by the type of weapon it carried. Units were further identified as being comprised of recruits, trained men, and elite shock troops. Each regiment was commanded by a "standard bearer." Below him in rank was the "greatest of fifty," who commanded a unit probably like a platoon. These platoons comprised a regiment, and several regiments were commanded by a "captain of a troop," who seems to have functioned as a brigade commander. Above this was a "lieutenant commander of the army," who was answerable to a senior general, often a royal prince, at division level. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century, European armies did not reach this same level of organization for more than a thousand years.
The administrative structure of the army was reformed and, we may presume, it was as highly bureaucratized as are today's armies. The Egyptians, after all, were remarkable record keepers. The army had its own professional scribes, the equivalent of the modern administrative officer. Logistical support was especially well-organized as befits an army that was expected to operate over long distances from its home base. Supplies were moved over hostile territory by ox-cart, and the Egyptians were absolute masters at integrating naval support into their ground operations. Then, as now, more supplies could be moved in a few ships than could possibly be carried by a ground army on the march.
The tactics of the Egyptian army were very well developed and supported by an excellent strategic and field intelligence apparatus. Tactical expertise was increased by the presence of a trained professional officer corps quite accustomed to maneuvering various types of large units over different types of terrain. The Egyptian army employed agents and patrolling techniques similar to those used in modern armies to gather tactical intelligence, and were adept at moving their armies across hostile terrain without being detected. They also utilized counterintelligence and deception in order to gain maximum surprise. Prior to the formulation of final battle plans the Egyptians routinely used the commander's conference, in which the pharaoh presented his battle plan while senior officers were expected to give frank and open advice. The result of these practices was sound battle tactics that allowed Thutmose III to conduct 17 major battle campaigns and win them all.
On the battlefield Egyptian forces usually deployed chariots to act as a screen for infantry. Engaging the enemy with the long-range composite bow, the chariots began killing at a distance and then smashed the enemy formations by shock. If the enemy gave ground, reserve chariot units could be used to exploit the weakness or, more commonly, infantry units could be brought into play in an effort to further disrupt enemy formations. The mobility allowed by a light, highly- maneuverable chariot (the Egyptian chariot was so light that two men could carry it across a stream) allowed the use of mobile reserves for the first time in warfare. These could be committed at a propitious moment to turn a flank or exploit a breakthrough. Once a rout began, the chariot archers could engage in ruthless, rapid, and lethal pursuit. If tactical surprise had been achieved, as at Megiddo, chariot forces could engage an enemy that had not yet deployed for battle. If something went wrong, as at Kadesh, chariots could be used to rescue a desperate situation.
The battle of Meggido (Armaggedon in the Bible) demonstrated all the characteristics of a modern army in battle. Thutmose III moved his army of 20,000 men from Egypt to Gaza, a distance of 250 miles, in less than 9 days and did so undetected. He immediately undertook another 10-day forced march to Yehem, near the village of Aruna, where he prepared to cross the mountains into enemy territory. Thutmose had to choose among three routes, two of which were easy marches but longer distances. The third was through a narrow defile but much shorter. Yet, this route would have placed the army in jeopardy since it would be strung out in file on the march and, if ambushed, would have been unable to defend itself. Thutmose's senior officers advised against the third route. Thutmose's intelligence units learned that the enemy was deployed to protect the easier routes. In a bold gamble, Thutmose risked security for surprise. Taking the dangerous route, he arrived completely undetected outside the city of Megiddo, where he faced only a screening force of enemy soldiers. The result was a smashing victory which would have been complete had the Egyptian troops not lost their discipline and stopped to plunder the defeated enemy's camp.
The battle of Megiddo provides an example of an army that utilized every major tactical device used by modern armies. Thutmose took advantage of his intelligence-gathering capacity and located the deployment of the enemy force. Using this information, he was able to achieve tactical surprise and to mass his forces at the point of the enemy's greatest weakness. He achieved flexibility of deployment by tailoring his units accordingly, and used his chariots to maximize his force at the point of attack (the schwerpunkt ). His reserves were deployed to rescue the situation if things went wrong, as they did for Ramses II in 1295 at Kadesh, where a rescue force of Egyptian chariots prevented a disaster. Thutmose maintained excellent communications along the route of march by messengers and semaphore flags and, when engaged, used trumpets, flags, and horse messengers to coordinate the battle in much the same way as Wellington did at Waterloo.
The Egyptian army lacked only cavalry formations, an innovation that would be introduced 600 years later by the Assyrian army. The failure of the Egyptians to develop cavalry remains a mystery in light of their knowledge of the horse that they obtained from the Hyksos. Perhaps it was a case of an army emphasizing one item of "heavy" equipment (the chariot) that worked so well that it saw no need for a "lighter" and more maneuverable "vehicle" such as the horse. But in almost every other respect the army of Thutmose III and later warrior- pharaohs was a modern army capable of conducting military operations in a modern manner, including the ability to mount seaborne invasions and to use naval forces in conjunction with ground forces for supply and logistics.