Every once in a while you stumble over something where, although the execution is ragged, the concept is so staggeringly brilliant that you’d tolerate even “slipshod,” and “ragged” is positively welcome. Such a concept is The Art of Battle.com, which delivers informative animated presentations that let you visualize famous battles in motion. “It’s like a museum, except not boring,” they claim.
The animations are ugly. The colors were selected by a fugitive from the Fashion Police. For some battles, there’s not even an ugly animation, there’s just a plug-ugly PowerPoint presentation. But if it’s ugly and it works, is it really ugly?
Land battles are divided into historical bins: Ancient (to AD 500), Medieval (501-1500), Gunpowder Battles (1501-1850) and Modern (1851-present). The divisions feel somewhat arbitrary, but they are only one way of looking at the battles; you can look at them by war, by faction, by commander, even by tactic.
There’s a rough-and-ready tutorial on some basic tactics. What makes it worthwhile is that each concept of maneuver is paired with historical examples of the maneuver succeeding in battle, and failing. For example, a “counterattack from a strong defensive position” succeeded for Babur against the Afghans at Panipat in 1526, but failed for the Gaul Vercingetorix’s stronger army against Julius Caesar at Alesia in 52 BC.
The Art of Battle scores most dramatically when it covers battles that are less well-known. A classic example is the battle of Kohima-Imphal in Burma in 1944, in which a British field army under William Slim, accepting very high casualties, closed with, defeated in detail, dispersed, pursued, and all but annihilated a smaller (but still formidable) Japanese field army under Renya Mutaguchi. Slim’s forces suffered 11% casualties, enough to make the unit combat-ineffective by most measures, but Mutaguchi’s force suffered over 50% casualties, most of them during the rout phase. (That will not surprise historians. A defeated army suffers its greatest casualties after it breaks and runs).
This site is no substitute for a terrain walk on the battlefield with an able historian (or an insightful serving or retired soldier). It’s no substitute for a stint at military academy. But nobody is saying it is. What it is, is, a great set of military history tutorials that has something for the beginner as well as for the experienced student of armed social action. If you watch your way through these potted battle scenarios, you’ll be better informed about military history than 97% of your fellow citizens.