In recent weeks I have been musing over the terrible cost of the war in Ukraine. Just this last week the Ukrainians announced that they had killed 1,100 Russians in Bakhmut in the last few days. It is estimated that the Russians are losing 5 times more men than the Ukrainians and the number of their casualties is above 200,000 men with 60,000 killed. This got me thinking about the Great War and the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 when British casualty rates were 57,000 in one day with 19,000 killed. These are huge figures when you consider that British casualties at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 were 17,000 with 3,500 dead. Remember the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC during the Second Punic War. Almost 50,000 Romans were killed in one day!
War is a terrible thing. The Battle of Cannae was the worst defeat ever suffered by the Roman Republic. After the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca had crossed the Alps with his elephants and a large force of Spanish troops, Gauls, Libyans, Numidians, and Phoenicians, Hannibal went on a rampage defeating Rome in battle after battle. On August 2, 216 BC near the ancient village of Cannae in Apulia in southeast Italy, the Romans attacked Hannibal with a large force of 86,000 men under the command of the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. It is estimated by the Roman historian Livy that 48,000 Romans were killed that day and 19,000 captured against an inferior force of 50,000.
Military specialists love to talk about Cannae, because it represents the archetypal battle of annihilation. Hannibal deployed his forces in such a way as to draw in the Roman infantry and surround them massing his forces on their flanks and rear. He put his weakest forces in the middle of his line so as to produce a crescent-shaped formation and held back his stronger African force on the flanks. The battle began with a fierce cavalry engagement by his Numidian horsemen against the Roman horsemen. As the Roman heavy infantry attacked his weak centre, Hannibal started to retreat slowly, drawing in the Romans. The Romans were soon encircled by Hannibal’s stronger African infantry and were attacked in the rear by the Numidian horsemen. The Romans were in a pocket with no means of escape and the Carthaginians began to systematically massacre them.
Cannae is famous for Hannibal’s military tactics and their perfect execution. Military specialists call this a battle of annihilation. The American historian Will Durant called it “a supreme example of generalship, never bettered in history… and it set the lines of military tactics for 2,000 years”. Cannae has influenced Western generals for centuries. The Chief of the German General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, was so inspired by Hannibal as to develop “the Schlieffen Plan” during WWI based on Hannibal’s double envelopment maneuver. During the Gulf War in 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., commander of coalition forces, was inspired by Hannibal’s triumph at Cannae in the rapid and successful coalition operations during the conflict.