ALEXANDER THE GREAT
This is the chapter on Alexander from the Course book - Great Captains
Before Napoleon issued for cadets at U.S. M.A. in 1952 by the Department of
Military Art and Engineering.
The problem which faces the professional military man as he embarks
upon his career is a difficult one. He has made the decision to adopt a
profession wherein the opportunity for active practice is extremely limited.
The graduate lawyer, doctor, or tradesman is immediately plunged into an
activity which crystallizes the theory he has assimilated in school and opens
new and immediate fields for development. Not so with the junior officer in
time of peace. True, he has much to learn in the field of technique. He must
familiarize himself with the materiel and organization of his time and acquaint
himself with the technical details of his particular arm. He disciplines, and
is disciplined. He is instructed in the combined functioning of all arms and
services. If fortunate, he participates in field maneuvers which serve as the
best available training for the practice of his profession. As time goes on, he
begins to realize that all this is but scanty preparation for the grim reality
of war. He asks himself how successful this peacetime theory is going to prove.
For in his memory he has pictures of stirring events which convince him that
the peacetime training of years, when put to the test, may be found lacking and
be overthrown in a few short months. How can he be sure that his theories will
not meet such a fate? How can he determine what is true and what is false? How
can he better visualize what may happen when it comes his turn to go forth to
battle? What principles should he adopt in seeking to fortify himself against
future developments? Where can he find a guide? There is no laboratory for war
other than war itself, and war is so destructive of all things as to preclude
the idea of seeking it for purposes of training. All that is left, then, is to
study what has transpired in past wars, and through the process of careful
thought to attempt to translate the lessons learned and the principles found
into terms of future wars.
Military history, therefore, becomes the laboratory of the military
man. In its pages he will find suggestions which make for greatness or
mediocrity in the military leader. From the study and analysis of the campaigns
of great leaders, certain principles emerge which have stood the test of time
and which will serve as the foundation for present, though perhaps more
elaborate, military operations.
The history of war dates back many thousands of years, but wily in
relatively recent times has there been an effort on the part of any writer to
define the broad principles of war.
During the early part of the nineteenth century General Jomini
published the first of his military works. In this and subsequent volumes he
enunciated the main principles of war and illustrated their application by
drawing on the campaigns of the great captains of different ages. He found, as
a result of his study and analysis, that war is an art, the highest expression
of which is to be found in the battles and campaigns of great military leaders.
He was the first to show that there is a similarity of pattern in the military
conceptions of these men and that this similarity can be reduced to certain
principles which form the pattern.
The purpose of this study will be to touch upon the lives of a few
great military leaders and to suggest how out of the campaign and battles of
these men has been derived what today we call the art of war.
The first great military leader was Alexander. He was the first to
reduce war to a science. In order better to appreciate his contribution to
military art, it is necessary to examine what others did before him.
Battle of Marathon
The Battle of Marathon, 490 B.C., in which the Greeks under
Miltiades defeated the invading Persian army, affords us one of our earliest
examples of how tactical skill can overcome sheer weight of numbers
(Figs. 2a and 2b). The
Persian army had completed its disembarkation and was drawn up on the seashore
in front of its fleet. The Greek army, greatly outnumbered, occupied the high
ground to the north. To avoid being outflanked, Miltiades lengthened his line
so as to rest his flanks upon two streams running southward to the sea. As an
additional security measure, he made his flank units stronger by further
weakening his center.
The Greeks advanced rapidly to the attack; but at the first impact
their light center was thrown back by the Persians, who then pushed forward to
exploit the success. The Greek wings, however, were unshaken and, at a word
from their leader, swung inward against the flanks of the Persian force.
Cramped for maneuver room and surprised by this unexpected attack, the Persian
army was severely defeated. Here we see illustrated for the first time the
tactical double envelopment.
Battle of Leuctra
Our next historical example is the Battle of Leuctra, 371 B.C. (Fig. 2c). Here Epaminondas, faced with odds of two to
one, clearly demonstrated how brains and ingenuity on the part of a leader can
overcome great obstacles. At Leuctra, Epaminondas with six thousand Thebans
faced an army of over eleven thousand Spartans. The latter were fresh from
recent victories and high in morale, while the Thebans were still suffering
from the disappointment of many failures.
As the two armies drew up for battle, Epaminondas noted that the
Spartan King and his choicest troops were on the right flank of the Spartan
army. He reasoned that success might crown his efforts could he but defeat this
group and put it to flight. To this end, he quadrupled the strength of his own
left, led it forward, and ordered his center and right to advance more slowly,
and in echelon, so as not to become seriously engaged until the Spartan right
had been defeated. His plan was successful. The threat of the Theban center and
right served to prevent the Spartans from reinforcing their right, which was
crushed by the heavy assault of the Theban left. Epaminondas completed his
victory by wheeling against the flank of the remaining Spartan troops with his
left wing at the moment that his center and right engaged them in
This Theban victory resulted from Epaminodas' ability to seize the
initiative and to bring to bear at a critical point on the battlefield a
striking force superior to the resisting force. That he was able to do this in
spite of his total numerical inferiority is a tribute to his reasoning and
generalship. In order to obtain the necessary strength in his left wing,
Epaminondas weakened his center and right to such an extent that they could not
be used to engage seriously the forces opposed to them. Yet they had to hold
these forces in check until the left wing attack could be driven home.
Therefore, the maneuver now referred to as the oblique order was
resorted to. Through this maneuver Epaminondas fixed in position the entire
enemy line; and he was able by reason of the deception of his dispositions to
drive his main thrust home before the weakness in his own center and right had
been detected by the Spartans. No finer illustration of the successful
application of the principles of mass (concentration of combat power) and
economy of forces is to he found in ancient military history.
Aside from the contributions made by Epaminondas and Miltiades,
little recorded progress in military art is found prior to the time of
Alexander the Great. It was the general rule for opposing armies to draw up in
line of battle facing each other and to fight until one or the other gave way.
Usually, it was the stronger, numerically, of the two which won by overlapping
arid outflanking the other, simply because its greater numbers enabled it to
form a longer line. Evidence of planned tactics does not appear.
Alexander III of Macedon
When Alexander, at the age of twenty, succeeded his father, Philip,
to the throne of Macedon (336 B.C.), he inherited an army superior to any the
world had yet seen. Philip had been a great organizer, and it was through his
efforts that the army of Macedon had become such a fine military
The Macedonian army consisted of foot troops and cavalry. Organized
around the native Macedonian phalanx as a nucleus, it comprised soldiers from
allied nations and tributary tribes and mercenaries.
There were four classes of infantry: the pezetaeri, or foot
companions, who bore the sarissa, a twenty-one-foot spear, and were heavily
armored; the hypaspists, or shield-bearing guards, with sword and one-handed
pike, also heavily armored; the peltasts, a well-organized and substantially
armed light infantry; the psiloi, or irregular lightly armed foot, composed of
archers, slingers, and darters. The pezetaeri and hypaspists were also called
Of cavalry, there were the Cavalry Companions (the blue bloods of
Macedon), the Thessalians, and the Greeks. All of these were heavily armed and
well equipped. Alexander considered them the finest troops of his army. His
shock tactics depended upon these troops. Next came the light cavalry, made up
of well-armed mercenary troops. Third, was a group of lancers and horse-bowmen.
Finally, there were a number of irregular nomads, armed in any manner.
The Macedonian phalanx was the tactical unit of the day. It was
made up of both infantry and cavalry and was designed to operate as an
independent force. It was fashioned from the earlier Greek phalanxes but was
much improved. It was designed for shock action and represented the best
thought of the day.
The unit of the phalanx was a lochos, or file, of sixteen heavy
infantrymen, hypaspists or pezetaeri, whose chief was the front-rank man. Four
lochoi made a tetrarchia of sixty-four men, a platoon as it were. Two
tetrarchia made a taxiarchia, or company, of one hundred and twenty-eight men.
Two taxiarchia made a syntagma, or battalion, of two hundred and fifty-six men.
This was a body sixteen men square. Each unit had its leader and assistant
leaders, and was so arranged that the best men were in front and rear, with the
least reliable in the center. Four syntagmas formed a chiliarchia, or regiment,
of one thousand and twenty-four men, under a strategos (colonel). Sixteen
syntagmas, or four chiliarchias, constituted a simple phalanx, which was thus
made up of four thousand and ninety-six heavy infantrymen. In addition, there
were attached regular complements of cavalry and light troops. The phalanx
might be compared to our division, though much smaller. There were also double
and quadruple phalanxes, each formed, as its name implies, from two or more
simple phalanxes. Figure 2d shows a simple phalanx
formed for battle and gives normal distances and reinforcements. Figure 16
shows a lochos, or file.
The heavy infantry and heavy cavalry bore the brunt of the
fighting. The lighter troops were used in front, in rear, and on the flanks to
secure the main body and to reconnoiter and harass the enemy.
The artillery of the day was much improved by Philip and, later, by
Alexander, who was the first to construct the machines and to mount them on
wagons in such a manner as to be able to march them in company with the army,
as our field artillery does today. Up to this time these military machines had
been used only in sieges. Having them at hand, Alexander made constant use of
them at defiles, against fieldwork, in crossing rivers, and in many sudden
emergencies. The artillery comprised the catapult and ballista (Fig. 3). The
catapult, a huge bow-like affair, shot spears or spikes weighing up to 300
pounds. It had a maximum range of half a mile. The ballista, which was a large
mechanically operated throwing arm, was capable of throwing huge stones and
similar objects to a great distance at high angles.* The catapult would
correspond to our gun; the ballista, to our howitzer or mortar.
In the middle of the sixth century B.C., the Persians under Cyrus
began a series of conquests which resulted in elevating the Persian state to
the first rank among the military powers of that time. We are interested in
this Persian rise to power because it was attended by the Great War between
Greece and Persia.
About 500 B.C., the Grecian cities in Asia Minor, which some years
before had been brought under the sway of Persian authority, revolted. They
were assisted in this action by the Greek states. Darius, the King of Persia,
quelled this revolt and then determined to punish the Greek states for the aid
they had given. To this end he undertook a joint military and naval expedition
against Greece. This Persian invasion was turned back by the Greeks at the
Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), already described. Later, 480 B.C., Darius'
successor Xerxes undertook a second such expedition. After meeting with
considerable early success, this second invasion was repulsed and the Persians
were driven out of Greece, never to return.
* It is said that the ballista could throw a stone weighing 200
pounds to a distance well over 600 yards.
This aggression served to implant in the heart of every Greek a
hatred of Persia and a desire to avenge the wrong. And so it is natural that we
find in Philip of Macedon, and later in his son Alexander, the cherished
ambition to lead the Greeks against the hereditary enemy of Hellas, the Persian
King. Philip's death came while he was planning such an undertaking, and it
fell to Alexander to carry the plan to its conclusion. From the time he
ascended the throne to his death thirteen years later, his dream of conquering
and Hellenizirig Asia was to be his ruling ambition. That he accomplished the
one but not the other was due to the fact that he worked on an impossible
theory, that of coalescing races by intermarriage and forced
In 334 B.C., at the age of twenty-two, Alexander started upon his
conquest of Persia. He took with him thirty thousand foot and five thousand
horse, the finest equipped and best trained army of the age. His advance took
him first eastward and southward through Asia Minor and Phoenicia, then
westward along the southern shores of the Mediterranean through Egypt, until he
controlled the entire Mediterranean coastline and had neutralized the Persian
fleet by victories on land and sea. Here was the first example of grand
strategy. He did not propose to risk himself and his army in the heart of
Persia without first securing his base.
Alexander returned from Egypt to Syria and from there embarked upon
his invasion of the Persian Empire. Across the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to
Arbela, where he met and defeated the second great Persian army, thence to
Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis, he marched his army. In the space of four short
years all of Persia had been overrun, its armies destroyed and its king made a
Alexander, in pursuit of the fleeing Darius, pushed through Media
and the Caspian Gates to Parthia. There he learned that Darius had been
murdered by his attendants. From Parthia he ranged south and east to subdue the
provinces of Ariana, Drarigiana, and Arachosia. He then made his way over the
mountains into Bactria and Sogdiana as far as the Jaxartes River. From this
point he retraced his steps southward over the mountains and then moved
eastward to undertake the conquest of India. Crossing the Indus, in the spring
of 326 B.C., he continued his march to the bank of the Hydaspes River. Here his
further eastward movement was opposed by the army of Porus, one of the kings of
By patient planning and masterly strategy Alexander succeeded in
forcing a crossing and defeating the opposing army. But his progress into India
was stopped by the growing discontent in his army and its refusal to advance
further. Forced to yield to this strong feeling on the part of his veterans,
Alexander constructed a fleet and transported his army down the Hyphasis to the
Indus, and thence to its mouth. Here he split his force. A part of it sailed by
sea to the Persian Gulf, while Alexander with the remainder crossed the
Gedrosian Desert and returned through Pasargadae to Babylon. In this latter
city, in 323 B.C., his career came to an end. Stricken with fever, he died at
the height of his glory, and his great dreams of a vast world empire came to
Such then, briefly, is the outline of eleven consecutive years of
unremitting campaigning. It is a saga of conquest filled with action of every
kind and description; sea battles, land battles, and sieges; burning deserts,
icy mountains, and swollen rivers. Certainly every problem known to man must
have presented itself for his solution.
An examination of Alexander's battles will reveal how he
contributed to the art of war by formulating those principles of the art which
were later to be elaborated by Hannibal, Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon. For
this examination the battles of Issus, Arbela, and the Hydaspes have been
BATTLE OF ISSUS (NOVEMBER, 333 B. C.)
During his advance south from Asia Minor into Phoenicia, Alexander,
through lack of knowledge of the terrain, permitted Darius to cut off his
communications by striking across his rear through the Amanic Gates
The situation was serious. Alexander was headed south through
Beilan Pass when word came that the entire Persian army was at Issus, astride
his communications. Once he had confirmed this report, Alexander lost little
time. He faced his army about and, sending his cavalry forward to seize the
defile of the Syrian Gates, retraced his steps toward Issus.
Darius had made no effort to seize the Syrian Gates but had
remained at Issus. Hearing of Alexander's action, he took up a defensive
position behind the Pinarus, a little stream everywhere fordable, and awaited
Alexander's move (Fig. 4b).
The position was a narrow one and did not give Darius an
opportunity to deploy his greatly superior numbers.* He, therefore, took up a
position of great depth. The cavalry was posted on his seaward flank, where the
ground was suitable for its action. His mountain flank was secured by
detachments of light infantry.
* Some writers state that Darius had 500,000 men; others give much
lower figures. The brunt of the battle was borne by troops that numbered about
100,000. Alexander's strength was 3035,000.
Alexander advanced to the attack under cover of light infantry and
cavalry. Detachments were sent to drive back the force Darius had posted in the
mountains. Once this had been accomplished, other light troops worked their way
through the hills to a position opposite the left flank of the main Persian
battle line. The stage was now set for the decisive action. Alexander
instructed his center and left to advance slowly and to delay becoming
seriously engaged until the Persian left had been crushed. The Macedonian right
wing, led by Alexander in person, consisted of the heavy cavalry and the
hypaspists. It advanced slowly across the eastern part of the plain, with its
right flank skirting the high ground, until it came within range of the Persian
arrows. Then, at a pre-arranged signal, it dashed across the river and drove
back the Persian left. This exposed the entire Persian line to the flanking
action of Alexander's heavy horse. The result was the complete route of the
The Persian cavalry on the opposite flank tried to do the
corresponding thing. But Alexander's left had been refused; and by the time the
Persians had crossed the stream to engage it, their left had been defeated and
their line of retreat threatened. They lost confidence, broke off the battle,
and fled. By vigorous pursuit Alexander completed the destruction of the
The action leading up to the Battle of Issus, as well as the battle
itself, serves to illustrate not only the superior qualities of leadership
possessed by Alexander but also his tactical skill as a general.
To find that an enemy greatly superior in numbers had planted
himself astride his line of communication would come as a shock to any military
leader, regardless of his poise or past record of success. To be thus surprised
when far from home and without hope of assistance would serve further to
confuse and magnify the difficulties to be overcome. Yet this was the situation
which confronted Alexander as he stood at the head of his army near Beilan
Pass. Let us examine further his solution of the problem in an effort to
uncover the reasons for his success.
Alexander's training had impressed upon him the futility of acting
on unconfirmed intelligence. His first move was to check the truthfulness of
the reports which had reached him. Once convinced of their correctness, he
proceeded to act.
His immediate concern was to make secure the return march of his
army through the defile of the Syrian Gates. To obtain this security, he took
advantage of the mobility of his cavalry to dispatch it on the mission of
seizing and holding this defile until the remainder of the army arrived; in so
many words, security through mobility.
Once safely through the Syrian Gates, his next concern was to
ascertain the Persian dispositions, as well as to secure the advance of his own
force. By throwing out a screen of light infantry and cavalry to his front and
flanks, he was able to accomplish both of these ends. The initiative rested
with him and the time to make a decision was at hand.
Alexander's decision was to retain the initiative by attacking the
Persian army. Any frontal attack would mean opposing his thin line to the
enemy's mass. No opportunity for flanking action against the seaward flank
existed. He, therefore, decided to strike his main blow against the enemy's
left, while at the same time making a display of strength against the rest of
the hostile position. This display of strength would serve as a holding
In obtaining the necessary forces to insure the success of his main
attack, Alexander had been compelled to weaken the rest of his army. Therefore,
in order to prevent the enemy from defeating his own center and left before his
main attack should prove successful, Alexander adopted Epaminondas' tactics of
Leuctra. He instructed his center and left to advance echeloned to the left
rear and not to permit themselves to become seriously engaged until the enemy's
left had been broken. Here we see true evidence of military greatness and a
fine example of the application of some of the principles of war: mass obtained
through use of economy of force.; security obtained through the active use of
covering forces and the deceptiveness of maneuver.
One other point worth noting is that Alexander led the force
charged with making the main attack. Here was the leader's place in battle.
Success or failure on this portion of the field meant everything. To plan a
battle is not enough. To plan a battle and commit troops to action is still not
enough. That action must be vigorously and intelligently directed. Such
direction at all points of the battlefield is not within the physical
capabilities of one mar', but to direct it at the decisive point is possible;
and this direction may prove to be the deciding factor between victory and
Little mention has been made of the aftermath of this battle.
Alexander's attack, striking into the rear of the Persian force and threatening
to cut off its retreat, threw panic into the closely packed hordes and caused
them to flee in ever- increasing terror and confusion. Cut down by Alexander's
pursuing cavalry and hampering each other's movement by their uncontrolled
efforts to escape, less than four thousand survived to rejoin Darius east of
the Euphrates River. Others scattered into the adjacent mountains or were
killed. By active pursuit on the heels of a successful battle Alexander had
destroyed a vast hostile army. He who fights and runs away may live to fight
another dayunless actively pursued.
BATTLE OF ARBELA (OCTOBER, 331 B. C.)
The first thing worth noting in the campaign which culminated in
the Battle of Arbela is Alexander's estimate of the situation. He reasoned that
to undertake a military expedition into Persia without first subjugating the
entire Mediterranean seaboard from Macedon to Egypt would expose his rear to
attack from both land and sea ; by land from Phoenicia and Egypt; by sea from
the Persian fleet which still controlled the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore,
after his victory at Issus, Alexander spent the better part of two years
building the foundation for his campaign into Persia. There is not space here
to recount in detail the obstacles which he overcame during this period. The
siege of Tyre, the destruction of the Persian fleet, and the conquest of Egypt
are replete with examples of his intellect, courage, and resourcefulness. As
has already been stated, here for the first time in history was methodical war
on the grand scale. Here was exemplified the principle of strategic
Hearing that Darius was assembling a new army to oppose him,
Alexander moved without delay to strike this gathering force; back from Egypt
to Gaza, the center of his strategic base, and thence eastward to seek battle
in the heart of his enemy's country. Decision and action! Seek out the threat
and destroy it. Where better is illustrated the principle of the objective?
Cities or provinces did not tempt Alexander. It was the enemy's armed forces
that he sought. Once they were destroyed, all else would be his for the
From Gaza through Jerusalem to Damascus, and thence north ward and
eastward across the Euphrates, Alexander moved. Darius' plan was to draw him
deep into hostile territory and then crush him. But Darius underestimated the
caliber of his opponent.
Soon after crossing the Euphrates, Alexander noted increasing
evidence of the presence of Darius' force. His reconnaissance agencies finally
located the mass of the Persian army east of the Tigris on the plains of
Gaugamela, near ancient Nineveh, and some seventy miles west of Arbela.
Swinging swiftly to the north, Alexander succeeded in making an unopposed
crossing of the Tigris and advanced to within seven miles of the Persian
Rumor and the conflicting reports of prisoners estimated Darius
numbers to be in excess of one million. What Alexander believed has not been
recordedcertainly he did not hesitate to attackbut evidently these
stories found credence in his army. Alexander at this time is estimated to have
had about 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry.
The Persians deployed for battle on a broad plain which would
permit the free maneuvering of cavalry and chariots. Darius had learned a
lesson at Issus. He was not to be caught a second time with his army crowded
into a restricted space.
After four days of preparation, Alexander set out with his army
under cover of darkness, intending to attack Darius at daybreak. Delay having
made this impossible, he established a new camp within sight of the Persian
hosts while he reconnoitered the prospective battlefield.
When Alexander appeared, the Persians were drawn up in battle
array. As the Macedonians went into camp, Darius realized that there would be
no attack that day, but his fear of a night attack caused him to keep his
troops under arms throughout the hours of darkness. Consequently, when
Alexander formed for battle the next morning, the Persians were weary for lack
The dispositions of the armies for battle were as shown in
Alexander was on the right with the Cavalry Companions, covered to
his front by light infantry. The Macedonian phalanx was in the center. On the
left were the Greek and Thessalian heavy horse. In rear of each flank Alexander
placed a column of light horse and foot, each so disposed that it could face
quickly in any direction. He thus protected his flanks against envelopment by
the long Persian line.
The Persians deployed a double infantry line of many provincial
contingents, with cavalry on each flank. The center was composed of what little
Greek infantry* still remained to Darius, and here he himself took post with
the cavalry of his guard. A line of chariots at wide intervals covered each
As Alexander moved to the attack, his entire army shifted to the
right (Fig. 4d). It is not clear whether this was due
to the natural drift of the phalanx or to obstacles placed by the Persians. In
any event, this caused a corresponding drift on the part of the Persian left
wing and opened a gap in the center of the Persian line. The Persian wings
swept in to envelop Alexander's flanks but were met and repulsed by the light
troops disposed for that purpose. Alexander noticed the gap in the Persian
center. Quickly forming a giant wedge from the right- flank units of the
Macedonian phalanx and headed by the Cavalry Companions, he led it against this
break in the enemy line. His attack was overwhelming and split the Persian
force. Darius, in the path of this onslaught, turned and took flight. Panic
spread throughout the Persian center and left, and they crumpled and gave
Alexander was forced to turn from his pursuit, momentarily, to
rectify conditions on his own left, which had temporarily fallen back. This
done, he returned to the vigorous pursuit of the fleeing Persians. Day and
night he pushed after the dispersed and panic-stricken enemy until he had
hopelessly scattered the entire force. This pursuit is notable as perhaps the
first instance of relentless pressure on a defeated enemy to the limit of
endurance of man and horse. Alexander lost more horses from exhaustion in the
pursuit than in the battle itself.
BATTLE OF THE HYDASPES (326 B. C.)
In the spring of 326 B.C., Alexander was undertaking the conquest
of India. His army had arrived at the north bank of the Hydaspes River. On the
far side, disputing his crossing, was the army of Porus, one of the many kings
of India (Fig. 5).
The Hydaspes River presented a most formidable obstacle. About half
a mile in width, and swollen by rains, it was everywhere unfordable. To cross
it with an army in the face of determined hostile resistance seemed out of the
question. Alexanders solution of the problem remains a classic. It is the basis
of our modern doctrine for the attack of a river line.
First undertaking to convince Porus that he intended to wait until
the river fell before attempting to cross, Alexander carefully spread rumors to
that effect. He provided a basis for the rumors by settling his troops in camp
and collecting vast stores of supplies from the surrounding country. This
activity did not cause Porus to relax his vigilance.
Alexander then proceeded to confuse him by engineering a series of
feints and alarms. He constructed many boats and located them at various points
upstream and downstream from his camp. He embarked and disembarked his troops
and made numerous feints at crossing in the night. He assembled his army in the
light of the camp fires, as though making ready for a crossing; blew his bugles
and created a big hubbub, only to dismiss it without actually making any real
attempt to cross. For a while Porus met all this activity with equal energy. He
would order his men under arms and move reinforcements to all threatened
crossing points. Soon, however, he began to weary of this ceaseless vigilance
and relaxed his efforts. This was what Alexander had been waiting for.
Having lulled Porus into a false sense of security by his failure
to follow through with any of his long series of feints, Alexander now
determined to take advantage of his opponent's carelessness. His reconnaissance
had discovered a suitable crossing some sixteen miles above camp. Continuing
his feints in the vicinity of the camp, Alexander moved his main body to the
selected crossing point. This movement was carried out on a stormy night when
the darkness, thunder, and rain combined to conceal all preparation. The route
chosen was well back from the river and out of sight and hearing of Porus'
scouts. Careful plans for the crossing had resulted in the construction of many
boats and rafts and in their concealment in the vicinity of the assembly point
for the crossing force.
Faulty reconnaissance very nearly brought the undertaking to a
disastrous conclusion; for when Alexander's troops reached what they thought to
be the far bank of the river, it was discovered that they were on an island and
still separated from the main shore by a deep channel. Fortunately, a place was
found where the infantry could cross by wading breast-deep. The cavalry swam
across. Alexander hastily assembled his leading units and moved to gain contact
with Porus' main forces.
Meanwhile, Porus was going through the throes of indecision. He
could see what he thought to be the bulk of Alexander's force still occupying
the main camp and estimated the crossing force to be a very small one.
Consequently, the force which he sent to oppose it was annihilated by
Porus was now completely bewildered. He did not know what to
believe but finally decided to move against Alexander. Leaving part of his
force behind to guard against any crossing in front of Alexander's camp, he
moved out some distance and drew up in line of battle on a plain where the
ground was suitable for his plan of defense. There he waited for Alexander to
Porus' dispositions are shown in Figure 5.
In front were the elephants, which Porus knew Alexanders cavalry could not
face, one hundred feet apart and covering the entire infantry line. Columns of
foot flanked the elephants. These animals were intended to keep the Macedonian
cavalry at a distance and to trample down the foot when it should advance
against the Indian line. The cavalry was on the wings; in its front were
scythed chariots. Porus' intention was to fight a purely defensive
Alexander arrived at the head of his heavy cavalry and proceeded to
reconnoiter the enemy dispositions. Knowing that the Indian army outnumbered
him in every arm except cavalry, Alexander decided that he must use this arm,
despite the elephants, to gain his victory. The presence of the elephants along
the entire hostile front precluded other than a flank attack. His
reconnaissance having discovered a concealed approach through the hills to the
south flank of Porus' army, over this route he dispatched one of his most
trusted leaders, Coenus, in command of a body of heavy horse, with instructions
to smash the right flank and rear of the Indian army. Alexander, with the
Cavalry Companions and sustained by the Macedonian phalanx, made an oblique
movement toward Porus' left. This movement resulted in much the same formation
as that used at Issus. His center and left were refused and acted as a threat
to hold in check the Indian center and right, while his own right drove into
and heavily engaged the Indian left.
Meanwhile, Coenus had ridden unobserved to a position opposite the
enemy right flank and rear. Porus had moved the cavalry of his right flank
across to help his left check Alexander's attack. This left the infantry of the
Indian right exposed to Coenus' attack. He took them by surprise in flank and
rear and so badly cut them up that they no longer affected the outcome of the
battle. Coenus rallied his forces and, continuing his circuit of the Indian
army, struck in rear the cavalry opposed to Alexander. Caught between two
attacks, this force was defeated and retired in confusion to the protection of
the elephants. These beasts were turned to charge Alexander's cavalry. This
movement exposed their flanks to the advancing Macedonian phalanx, which
wounded the animals and killed their drivers. All became confusion. The
elephants, out of control and maddened with pain, turned and trampled their own
infantry. Alexander and Coenus pressed their cavalry attacks with such vigor
that soon the entire Indian army was a milling, panic- stricken mass. Very few
of its number survived the battle and the pursuit which followed. Porus was
captured and his army destroyed. The crossing of the Hydaspes, with its ensuing
battle, is an excellent example of how strategic and tactical skill can combine
to overcome the greatest difficulties.
* In the battle itself Alexander is reported to have had 5,000
cavalry and 6,000 infantry; Porus had 4,000 cavalry and 30,000
One cannot help but be impressed by the long-range planning which
led up to this victory. The ceaseless and apparently aimless activity which
went on continuously in Alexander's camp was all directed toward a definite
end, that of creating in the mind of the opposing leader a picture so confused
as to render him incapable of correct action at the proper moment.
Once this state of mind had been established, the initial success
was guaranteed. Not only this; we can see how his state of mental uncertainty
continued to hamper Porus' actions long after the existing facts should have
made clear to him the true situation. It was this uncertainty Which prevented
him from taking advantage of Alexander's error in reconnaissance and from
opposing in force the actual crossing. A real display of opposition at the time
when Alexander's troops were frantically searching for a means of crossing the
second channel would have resulted in their defeat. But the psychological
forces that ruled Porus' mind as a result of Alexander's deceptive measures
combined to spare the latter this embarrassment.
in the action after the crossing we see the use of the principles
of offensive and mass. Alexander's initiative had been so outstanding that it
apparently did not occur to Porus to undertake to fight other than a defensive
battle. And, in truth. Alexander gave him no opportunity to make a choice.
There was no delay on Alexander's part in seeking out the hostile army, once
the crossing had been made. Yet his advance was not haphazard. It was made with
a definite plan in mind. We are impressed by the ceaseless activity which
furnished the prologue of the final action. First, the advance to make contact;
then, the skirmishing to cover the assembly of his force and to insure time for
reconnaissance; and, ultimately, the tactical plan wherein, as at Issus,
concentration of combat power was obtained through economy of forces and
security gained through maneuver. The piece de résistance of this
plan was the swift and hidden thrust by Coenus with the heavy cavalry. Here
concentration of combat power and mobility rode side by side with surprise to
effect the destruction of all opposition. The crossing of the Hydaspes was a
great series of actions, planned and led by an intelligent and active general.
Action based upon intelligence would seem to be the ideal combination in any
fighting man, particularly when such qualities are tempered by patience and
supplemented by a high type of courage.
Alexander possessed such qualities and combined them with an energy
that was remarkable. A natural orator, a master organizer, and a keen judge of
men, he left little to be desired in the qualifications of a great
To say that Alexander was a military genius would be to repeat what
every historian has Written and, in saying it, to explain his greatness by
attributing it to forces over which he had no control. Perhaps such a man does
possess qualities not ordinarily bestowed upon human beings. That we cannot
know. Yet, it is so easy to explain a man's greatness by attributing it to
genius that we are prone to overlook the possibility that genius may be
In the world of Alexander, as in the world today, every man was not
afforded the opportunity of displaying his capabilities. For that reason, many
a potential Alexander died without realizing the powers which were latent
within him. Great deeds call for exceptional circumstances. A great man cannot
be recognized as such until he has displayed those characteristics which make
for greatness. Such opportunity does not come to all.
We cannot create the opportunity for greatness. That either strikes
us or passes us by. We can, however, prepare ourselves against the event of
opportunity finding us unready. Any such preparation cannot help but give
greater completeness to that spark of natural ability which may exist within
us, unknown perhaps to us or to the world until the call of opportunity demands
its expression. Such preparation lies in the field of self-improvement, and
calls for a planned expansion of our individual capacity for work through
self-discipline and continuous application. No great military leader ever lived
who achieved greatness through inactivity of mind or body. Their very greatness
depended upon their ability to keep in the van. The miracle of birth can
furnish no last guarantee of this. Rather, it is developed by training and hard
Genius, then, is relative. It can be great or small, and its degree
may be measured in great part by the thoroughness with which it has been
That Alexander possessed a genius for making war equal to that of
any man is written between the lines of the record of his accomplishments.
Leaving home with an enormous debt, in a few years he had possessed himself of
all the treasures of the earth. With courage, endurance, intelligence, and
skill he completed the conquest of the entire then-known world, marching over
nineteen thousand miles in his eleven years of campaigning; and all this before
he was thirty-two.