Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Battle of Alesia (52 B.C.E.)

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Put yourself in this situation. You're the commander of an army. You're up against somebody

with superior technology, but you have them slightly outnumbered. You are better supplied,

but they are better disciplined. You've defeated them in a minor engagement in the past, but

that was in an unusual situation, where you had cut their supply lines and they had acted

foolishly. You have allies, but they're very far away fighting battles of their own. Seriously

consider this question: what would you do?

This was Vercingetorix's situation in 52 B.C.E. His opponent was Julius Caesar. This was the

Battle of Alesia.

This is how Vercingetorix responded to his situation. He pulled his men back to a highly

defensible hilltop fort. He sent out messengers to all of his allies, asking for reinforcements.

His logic was this: If Caesar was foolish enough to attack the fort, Vercingetorix still

held the high ground with superior numbers, and would cut him to pieces. If Caesar was

foolish enough to wait around, Vercingetorix's reinforcements would arrive, and Caesar would

be up against two armies instead of one. You can see that Vercingetorix was trying his

best to play into his army's strengths. Greater numbers: let's amplify that by calling for

reinforcements. Better supplied: let's dig in and see if the enemy impulsively tries

to attack uphill like last time.

So what went wrong?

Over the course of a seven-year pro-Consulship, Caesar had been slowly tightening his grip

on Gaul. He hadn't annexed any territory officially - only the Roman Senate could do that - but

the Gauls contributed troops to Caesar's armies, supplied him with grain, and even handed over

annual tribute. The Roman Senate may not have called it annexation, but it would have felt

an awful lot like it to the Gallic people. As Caesar's grip on Gaul tightened, a conspiracy

hatched between the regional Gallic leaders. They decided on a coordinated uprising across

all of Gaul. This conspiracy coalesced around one man who was elected to lead the uprising,

named Vercingetorix.

Now, we return to the scene of the battle. Vercingetorix outnumbered Caesar by a third,

and is sitting in a great defensive position. He has reinforcements on the way, but he doesn't

know how many are coming or when they will get there. His men are well fed for the moment,

but seem intimidated by Rome's infantry. So he waits.

Caesar closes in, and quickly gets to work besieging Alesia.

This is already a little unorthodox. Caesar has the numerically inferior force, and is

deep in enemy territory with shaky supply lines. Plus, being enemy territory, a Gallic

army could be just over any horizon. Caesar was putting himself in a terribly vulnerable

situation, and he knew it.

So what does he do? He begins to construct a set of inward-facing walls that ran an amazing

18 kilometers, circumventing the entire fort and hillside, cutting off any potential escape.

They would have had to clear entire sections of forest just to construct it. These were

not just some thrown together fortifications, either. These were two stories tall, with

ladders and raised platforms for patrols.

3:15 **Then, Caesar turned around and amazingly did the exact same thing again, this time

facing the other direction. Leaving a wide enough gap to contain his entire army, he

constructed another set of walls, facing outwards. He managed to get all of this done in the

matter of a few weeks. Naturally, as you would expect, Vercingetorix attempted to slow down

his process by sending out raiding parties to attack the workers, but they were easily

repulsed by the Roman infantry.

Do you see what Caesar did, and why he did it? This is where his genius begins to show.

Vercingetorix put him in an impossible situation, where he either assaulted a well defended

position against superior numbers, or waited to be caught between two armies with even

more superior numbers, or retreated. Caesar created a fourth option. He made his own fort.

He stole Vercingetorix's tactical advantage out from under him. Now, if Vercingetorix

wanted out, he was going to have to be the one assaulting Caesar well defended position.

Vercingetorix's reinforcements finally arrived, and the numbers were huge. If you count the

combined Gallic armies, they outnumbered the Romans at something approaching 3:1.

On the very first day, the Gallic reinforcements advanced. They placed their massive numbers

of cavalry in front, shielding and concealing lines of archers behind them. The Gauls always

had excellent cavalry, superior to Roman cavalry in every way, so this was a pretty aggressive

stance. Luckily for Caesar, he had been collecting cavalry from Gaul for many years now, and

had just received some elite mounted auxiliaries from Germania. He sent them out to meet the

enemy advance. Intense cavalry on cavalry fighting took place all day. Whenever the

Romans thought they were gaining the upper hand, the Gallic cavalry would pull back into

the range of their archers, and the Romans would get surprised by a nasty volly of arrows.

At this time, Vercingetorix's forces pushed up and prepared for an attack on the interior

wall. They never found an opportunity. Caesar's elite German cavalry, in a last ditch effort,

regrouped on the hillside, and charged downhill into the enemy, finally driving them into

a full fledged retreat. This time, the Romans were able to reach the lines of Gallic archers,

who were easily killed. Somehow, outnumbered and outmatched, the Romans were able to hold

the Gallic cavalry off, and all sides retired for the evening.

The second day passed uneventfully, but that night a focused surprise attack was launched

from both directions at one specific point in the Roman defensive line. A young man named

Marc Antony heroically commanded this section of the line, and in Caesar's eyes his leadership

single-handedly saved the day. Additional troops were called over from the far sides

of the wall, and the Romans were barely able to hang on for the night. Caesar knew talent

when he saw it, and for the rest of his life Antony would be his right hand man.

On the third day, the Gauls planned for an all out assault. They began by taking some

nearby high ground outside of the enclosure that was being lightly defended by Roman infantry.

The Gallic relief army then launched an offensive along the entire Roman defensive line. The

thrust of the attack was lead by Vercingetorix's cousin, who took his men up the newly liberated

hill and charged down it, attacking a weak point in the Roman wall. The small Roman army

was stretched thinner and thinner trying to defend the entire length of the wall at once.

Caesar took personal command of his men in reserve, micromanaging groups of 500 men,

having them reinforce sections of the wall just as they were about to fall to the enemy.

Finally, Vercingetorix realized what was happening, and got his act together. He threw every man

he had at one point along the thin Roman line, attempting to break through. At this point,

the Gauls were doing pretty much exactly what they should have been doing doing. Spread

the Romans thin to maximize their numerical weakness, and then breach the walls to nullify

their defenses.

Caesar saw what was happening, and threw every man he had in reserve at that section of the

wall. Caesar was now fully committed, but Vercingetorix's breakout was thwarted. The

besieged Gauls now shifted their tactics, and began to attack the entire length of the

inside wall. Caesar's army was now completely surrounded, fighting in all directions `at

once. The Roman situation now begins to crumble. Vercingetorix's cousin, attacking downhill,

successfully breached the Roman wall, and Gauls begin to pour into the Roman defenses.

Caesar personally rode through his lines, stealing any unit he thought could be spared,

and threw them towards the breach in the wall. In total was able to rally over 6500 men,

who formed a shield wall and held the entire Gallic army in place.

Caesar then took personal command of his remaining cavalry, who were not of much use defending

his walls, and, amazingly, punched through the Gallic attackers at another section of

the wall. The Roman cavalry then turned, and charged up behind the Gauls who had breached

the walls. The Gauls saw the Roman cavalry charge and paniced, not realizing the Romans

were stretched to capacity, and that this was the last card that Caesar had to play.

Many Gauls tried to flee, but it was too late. The Roman cavalry encircled the Gauls, killing

or capturing most of them. Seeing this, the rest of the Gallic relief army retreated.

This finally allowed the Roman infantry to turn and focus on Vercingetorix, who retreated

back into the fort. He surrendered the next day.

Now you see what Caesar was able to accomplish when he was put in an impossible tactical

situation. And you can get a hint at how his brain worked. He wasn't necessarily obsessed

with fancy formations, or complicated maneuvers, or classic set-piece battles. He had great

sub-commanders who could do all of that for him. His thinking was always focused on bigger

issues. Where does the enemy have the advantage? How can I mitigate that? Where am I strong?

How can I maximize that advantage? How can I make the enemy is tired? How can I make

sure the enemy has the sun in their eyes? How can I make the enemy fight in the mud?

How can I make them skip breakfast? His military talent - and, you could say, his political

talent - lied with opportunism. He would take a situation and squeeze every conceivable

advantage out of it until there was nothing left. And then, as we see with the Battle

of Alesia, he would roll the dice.

The Description of The Battle of Alesia (52 B.C.E.)