Psychology of the wedge

Both infantry and cavalry historically used a wedge formation (or conceptually similar rhomboid formation) to attacked defenders in field battles. The cavalry version may have been a Scythian invention regarding its use in Europe. It only fell out of favour during the 17th century as far as I can tell. This approximately triangle-shaped attack formation was so effective, simple and popular that even forces not usually credited with very high tactical sophistication such as Germanic tribes from early Roman Empire era used it.
artist's impression (c) PCasal
I have never seen any indication that such an attack formation needed particularly fearsome warriors or soldiers or particularly large horses, heavy armour and so on in its tip.
As far as I can tell, the effectiveness relied on the survival instinct of those targeted by the wedge tip: They feared to be unable to resist such an onslaught, and evaded sidewards or fled to the rear. The tip was instrumental in suggesting to the defenders that evading sidewards is possible and improves their chance of survival. This again meant that the perceived relation between wedge angle and wedge charge speed was an important factor.* A too broad wedge (or a blunt attacking bloc) would not allow for evasion by sidewards motion.

The wedge's breakthrough at the created gap enabled a subsequent attack to the left and right. This again led to additional defenders in the line feeling encircled and breaking. (It also weakened the wedge, which made it harder to penetrate two lines in one push.)

There were numerous possible countermeasures; a deep-enough phalanx, deep-enough pike block, a second line of defence or charge-stalling obstacles such as mud, caltrops or spikes in the ground. An incredibly disciplined infantry (legionaries) could also stop a wedge at times. Missile effects by archers, slingers, crossbowmen or ballista do not seem to have been reliable enough at stopping a wedge assault.
This appears to have changed by the 17th century, as muskets, arquebus and field artillery offered so much firepower (and fearsome side effects) that wedge attacks disappear from military history as far as I know**. Even cavalry seemed to not have used it any more. The new standard for cavalry charges*** was to have "heavy" cavalry (blade riders mostly, trained for formation manoeuvres) attack as a first line followed by rather disorderly light cavalry****. Even such cavalry charges were rather limited to cavalry-on-cavalry charges, though.

It appears that the combined firepower was capable to collapse the wedge's tip, blunting it and transforming it into a general charge. That was still fearsome, but also often suicidal in face of pikes and firearms. The wedge did not make a return to the battlefield when infantry combat became linear again in the early 18th century with the rise of practical bayonets and every-infantryman-a-fusilier armies.
The closest approximation was the Revolutionary French and Napoleonic French attack column, which forfeited the angled tip right away.
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The use of fearsome formations and equivalent psychological impressions may still hold tactical value in land warfare. The principal problem for this is that the battlefield needs to be 'empty'; any visible forces can be shot at and destroyed, so they remain hidden from enemy sight for almost all the time. The visible shape of a formation can thus hardly be used in normal territory to influence a defender's mind.
We CAN aim for equivalent psychological effects with
  • noises (such as causing tank panic with tracked vehicles even if no decisive tank force is present),
  • timing of impressions (the arrival of reinforcements has proved morally devastating to the enemy in battle time and time again),
  • equivalents to rolling barrages that suggest to the defenders that their position will be hit soon,
  • direction of impressions (even noises of friendly tank reinforcements from behind can devastate morale) and 
  • the feeling of isolation (jamming radio links, severing lines of sight to friendlies with smoke).

*: This should be taken into account when we read that for example Byzantine heavy cavalry did not charge at gallop speed at least until it met the Normans, who did so in Italy. It appears to me that the Normans preferred a brutish yet blunt gallop charge and this proved superior at the time and place.
**: They also disappeared in conflicts where pikes were not plentiful as far as I know.
***: This was after the weird pistoleer caracole (partially armoured horsemen firing pistols at infantry formations in a kind of Cantabrian circle movement) interlude.
****: Light cavalry eventually became trained in formation manoeuvres on the battlefield like heavy cavalry beginning in the 2nd half of 18th century, which led to a de facto unified standard cavalry after the Napoleonic Era.


  1. At the Battle of Strasbourg the head of the wedge of the Alamanni was composed of heavier armoured members of the social elite. It's likely that they were followed by their retainers, the best trained warriors.

    This might be a general trait of the wedge that had a social elite leading the group, who wore better armour and were in company with the prototype of standing household troops. As a tactic it's also reported from the Iberian peninsula in Hannibal's days, making it a generally known method throughout Europe. Infantry wedges might have fallen out of use in some places, when the elite moved on to cavalry and the middle class formed a shieldwall/phalanx. My 2c on the history part.

  2. Could it be that the wedge formation was quite natural?
    The richest warriors could afford some kind of armour and the best horses. They would accumulate at the top of the charge.

    The change of cavalry tacticts was IMHO dictated by the changed tactics and quality of infantry.

    When the Swiss had digested the lessons learnt in northern Italy and supplemented their Gewalthaufen with pikemen, infantry could defeat even the best and most expensive mounted attackers.

    The Swiss and Swiss-like formations had not many firearms at the beginning, therefore, a solution for the cavalry was to use men with many pistols to soften up the first ranks of the formations.

    This was countered first around 1520 by the Spanish infantry with more firearms and dedicated "anti tank" specialists (musketeers) that could kill even an attacker in very expensive armour.

    When the infantry used thin extended lines of mainly fire arm bearers the attack in lines made sense for the cavalry as it allowed a very efficient exploitation of mistakes of the infantry.


  3. The wedge was used successfully by Athenian triremes. Great for ramming and also for defending against a ram. It went out of use during the age of sail.

    Then in the late 19th century the Austrians used it effectively with Ironclads against an Italian fleet.

    American naval doctrine in early WW2 called for use of the wedge or V. But it was ineffective in the Solomons Campaign. Perhaps because of the narrowness of the New Georgia Sound AKA 'The Slot'. And also because most of the action was at night and it was not easy to stay in wedge formation.

    1. My sources speak of multiple lines and Kyklos (defensive circle) as naval formations of the ancient Greeks, and Periplus and Diekplus as manoeuvres. No wedge.

  4. Only short about the normans: the normans did not charge at full speed, neither at home and especially not in southern italy. Also the normans fought not against byzantine heavy cavalry in southern italy and moreover many normans fought for byzantium (even against other normans). To the opposite the normans copied many things from the byzantines, especially to keep a tight formation in an cavarly attack, and even the kite shields which were an byzantine inovation.

    1. There are so many sources on Normans charging at gallop with lance couched by the time of Hastings and Durazzo that you can find plenty with a two-minute internet search. This includes historical research papers.

      Feel free to bring forward any source for Byzantines charging at gallop before they met Normans at Cannae (1018).

      The Normannic kite shield was different from the Byzantine kite shield in regard to how it was held. The mounting points are visible on the outside and have different locations. Moreover, the mounting points of Byzantine kite shields are usually depicted differently than with the Normannic ones.

    2. By the way; Anna Commena's Alexiad explicitly mentions a Frankish (=Norman) charge in gallop twice according to this translation:

  5. Where? Full gallop is mentioned in this translation only for one to one combat or other extraordinary circumstances, for example for sichelgaita trying to rally the fleeing troops. It is NOT mentioned for a norman cavalry charge.

    By the way: the couched lance attack was also used by byzantine cavalry of this time and also many other types of cavalry within europe. The origion of this style of attack is unclear but there are indicators that it came from the persian area and was first used in byzantium and then spread from there to europe.

    Also there is a difference between a gallop and a charge at full speed. I wrote: The normans did not charge at full speed. You wrote: the gallop is mentioned. Typical for you to not answer about the point but to lead the discussion elsethere and to mix different words and definitions.

    Gallop as an translation of different styles of horse-riding and speed is also relativly unclear. You also asked for sources for cavalry charging in this way before cannae: from Arrian until Maurikios you find several such sources. As Maurikios is especially important for the byzantine case i will citate his strategikon:

    In a full gallop, the rider should shoot an arrow or two and then insert the bowed bow into the sheath. And now he should take his lance which he carried on his back.

    Not the only place in which FULL gallop is mentioned long before cannae.

    And to the kite shields: even norman shields differ here and moreover also byzantine troops used shields identical to norman shields in this time. As i mentioned normans fought for byzantium in this time and not only in this area, but also on the eastern frontier of the empire. The difference you mentioned is also moreover one of infantry vs cavalry shields and as normans were usually more cavalry oriented and many byzantine troops with kite shields were infantry that is the reason why. That does not change one word about my true statement, that the kite shield was developoed in byzantium.

    Typical you: i wrote: the kite shields which were an byzantine inovation. You wrote that norman shields differ from some byzantine kite shields in the mounting points. Completely different things. Straw man rhetoric at its best.

    1. I do not appreciate your disinformation. I provided the source link.
      book 6
      "Taticius quickly drew up his men and allowed the Franks to begin the battle and make the first charge against the enemy. And they, long spears in hand, rode at full gallop and hurled themselves like fire upon the barbarians, cut the phalanxes to pieces and routed them completely."
      book 13
      "All of a sudden there accidentally met him some Franks on mailclad horses, valiant fellows, fifty in number; they formed themselves into two parties, one attacked him from the front with a tremendous dash at full gallop(...)".
      You do not seem to understand the significance of the mounting points on shields. The Byzantine ones had standing cross-shaped placement in many illustrations, which is incompatible with the whole concept of the Norman kite shield and its straps. You need to understand the difference in how shields are carried to understand this. In other words; the Byzantine 'kite' shields were more closely related to am ancient thureos or scutum or a Germanic round shield than to a Norman kite shield. The shape alone means little.

      Shooting arrows or hurling javelins at gallop is different from a lance charge. The associated problems are entirely different. For starters, a shock attack better uses a close formation, whereas the missile attack can very well use an oval motion or dispersed order. The step up in speed to gallop risks tearing a close formation apart.
      I don't know who you are because you left no identifier, but you have overestimated your understanding of the subject. You weren't irritated by my claim of two examples of gallops at the source link when you found but one. A more curious person less full of itself would have wondered about that a bit more and found that the famous Alexia was actually not a short memo, and a simple click would reveal its full length with the examples that I mentioned.
      "Typical you"?

    2. You make a link to book4


      and now it stands in book6 and book13. And you use this cheap trick only to discredit me personally and everything i am saying and as an pseudo-argument that full gallop was standard for norman cavalry which it was not. (also i will check the translation)

      The question here is: was full gallop the standard and the answer to this is no. It was an exception. And did byzantine cavalry used full gallop also before cannae to which the answer is yes (see the strategikon).

      What is the main point about an wedge and also about any kind of cavalry charge which tries to attempt an shock effect: it is to keep the formation. Even Maurikios stated this over and over again that to keep the formation is essential.

      You cannot keep your formation when you make an full gallop / full speed attack. It would break the formation. In Napoleonic times the riders were not so heavily armed than in the middle ages, the horses could reach 40 km/h, but the fastest attack speed for most cavalry was under 20 km/h, most times 18 km/h.

      The reason: to keep the formation. And without formation no shock and moreover the line becomes disorganised. Some Horses are faster, some are slower, it would deliver many lowest level flanks for the enemy to attack the horsemen from their sides etc It would destroy the shock element.

      Moreover full speed does not deliver anything necessary in the case of energy, it would not enable you to stop the attack, to make maneouvers to the side, to make an feinght flight etc all which was practised by the normans.

      >>For starters, a shock attack better uses a close formation,>>

      For people like you which have no clue about fighting from horseback: You cannot keep an close formation at full speed and even not with an fast gallop. You need to be slower than the horses max speed, much slower.

      Moreover after delivering the shock and breaking the enemy formation you need reserves from your horses to hunt down and override the fleeing enemies. If you exhaust horses and men with the attack itself you will be doomed the same moment the battle lasts longer. Its about endurance. Charges at full speed would wear down the horses to fast, especially in an hot climate like in the south.

      This kind of speed is moreover not necessary. The energy of even 20 km/h is overkill for the question of energy.

      >>Shooting arrows or hurling javelins at gallop is different from a lance charge. >>

      The strategikon does not describe here shooting only with arrows but maurikios cleary stated that after the shooting the cavalry makes an attack with the lances at full speed. And this was written in the 6 century.

      There are even roman pictures of cavalry using lances in an couched grip and the horses look like an full speed attack, for example at the bow of orange.

      >>The step up in speed to gallop risks tearing a close formation apart.>>

      And thats exactly what i have written and claimed. That for this reason full gallop was an exception and not the standard doctrine for norman cavalry.

      >>The Byzantine ones had standing cross-shaped placement>>

      Some ! byzantine shields has such an placement. And others not. And i had written why: infantry vs cavalry shields.

      >>I don't know who you are because you left no identifier, >>

      I am an member of an mounted police unit and also make some reenactment in this area. So now you know more about me than i about you.

  6. PS: First example in book 6 is not an prove for full gallop atacks as standard for norman cavalry as this fight describes western mercenaries in byzantine armies fighting in the east against turks. So this proves more that full gallop was used in the byzantine army under some circumstances / against specific enemies and says only a little part about normans fighting in italy. The battle described here was NOT in italy.

    Second example in book13: describes a small skirmish in which the second party used the full gallop attack of the first party to attack in an organised manner the rear of the enemy unit.

    they formed themselves into two parties, one attacked him from the front with a tremendous dash at full gallop, while the others followed him noiselessly at the 'rear .......For now the men in his rear attacked him and fought fiercely with him.

  7. Your replies are meaningless, you're trying to distract from the weight of evidence.

    "You cannot keep your formation when you make an full gallop / full speed attack."
    is wrong. Late 18th century Prussian cavalry proved this. They mastered the very fast "Mauerattacke" and demonstrated it with 23 squadrons (~3,000 horses) in a single formation in 1784. It requires much training, but it isn't impossible.

    source "F. Miller: "Reine Taktik der Infanterie, Cavallerie und Artillerie", 1787, p.585 as mentioned in "Waffen der Kabinettskriege", 1986, by Georg Ortenburg

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I'm tired of the attempts to deceive readers here and will not tolerate it any more.

      I can't tell if the problem of those misleading comments is a confused mind or bad faith, but I do not tolerate it. I've seen too many people discuss like that during my life, I know the pattern and I know how bad it is.

      I will reply to one part of the deceptive comment; the Strategikon does NOT tell about a lance charge at gallop in that paragraph. It tells about shooting arrows while galloping, THEN TURNING towards the enemy for the lance attack.
      Moreover, the entire section is about what the author thought how a tagmata SHOULD be trained like. It may have been nothing but a proposal.
      Fake evidence like that has no place in a discussion, nor has the amount of goalpost-moving that I've seen here.

      Anybody who thinks he or she can play with goalposts against me at my own place should wonder why anyone would think so.

  9. I deleted yet another crap comment. The anonymous author tried to deceive readers with even more fake evidence. This time he attempted to pass off writings younger than 1090 AD as evidence about details of a 971 AD battle.
    I didn't bother to read the rest of the comment. To start a comment like that is disqualifying, period.