This is (I hope) going to be short. Before WW1 one of the signal skills a field commander (for sake of argument, I shall refer to them as Generals, even if, as Custer was, they weren’t actually, unless it’s relevant to the anecdote) needed was the ability to “read the ground.”
At the chance meeting which opened what became the Battle of Gettysburg Gens. Henry Heth (rebel) and John Buford (Union) were contending for the high ground of McPherson’s Ridge. For the next three days two armies (in a meeting neither really wanted: Meade because it didn’t suit him, and Lee because it wasn’t where he’d have liked to have it) fought to maintain possession of the salient points of terrain near Gettysburg.
If you know any of the places in that battle, they are almost certainly bits of terrain which relate to the Union positions. Cemetery Ridge (not to be confused with Cemetery Hill, which was also important), Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, Oak Ridge, Culp’s Hill, all of them are known because they were gr0und being fought over, or for. Some, like Little Round Top, were critical points: if the rebels had gotten past Chamberlain, and turned the Union left, it’s possible Meade would have been embarrased†, and been forced to withdraw‡.
Now I’m going to draw a strange comparison: Pickett’s Charge, and the Battle of Hastings. They both relate to terrain, and they both have to do with leadership, and the battle’s outcome (some of which has to do with the purpose of the war). The Gettysburg came out in 1993. I was fresh out of basic training (so much so that when some of the incidental music was “My Old Kentucky Home” I sat up straighter, as it was the regimental song of the command I served in at basic). When the camera panned across the ground between Cemetery Ridge, and Pickett I gasped. I sat there and trembled, in horror, because there was no way he could do it.
1: It was a huge distance, almost 4,000 yards between the lines; and another couple of hundred to breach them; if it had been a straight line, but it wasn’t. 2:The Union had batteries on their flanks: short of shot, but enough to decimate anyone marching formations that large in the open. 3: It was uphill. Not terribly steep, but it doesn’t take much to slow a formation down. 4: the Union forces had been able to set up breastworks. They had some cover; at least enough to improve morale. 5: The rifles of the age let units in masse reach out to 1,000 yds. With easy rates of fire running to 4 rounds a minute, and a moving pace of not more than 150 yards per minute the rebels were going to be under musketry for at least 8, perhaps as many as 10 minutes. Preceded by cannon, then a lull, and then a renewal (because there was some ground dead to artillery).
Lee should have quite the field on June 2. He could have quit on June 3. He should never have sent Pickett and Pettigrew on that death march. There was no way they could have held the Union lines, even if they had reached them in force.
Which brings us to Harald, and Hastings. In some ways William has Pickett’s problem. Assaulting uphill, against a fortified foe.
This was Williams view:
It doesn’t look too bad. Uphill some, but the Normans were tough; and they’d had a couple of days to rest up after the crossing.
This was Harald’s view:
The ground looks a lot steeper facing down. With his flanks secured by slope and bog, he was secure. All he needed was to repulse the Normans until they had to retire. He had hopes of winning by attrition. They had no reinforcements.
This is how he set the field:
Horses couldn’t breach the line, because of that line of stakes (in a similar way Henry V secured his front at Agincourt: with his flanks secured by woods on either side, constraining the French, and making it harder for their advantage in cavalry and armor to be brought to bear), and the shield wall of the Saxons was a secondary defense of no small power. William lost three horses; which forced him to take his helmet off, lest his followers think him dead. The two-handed axes of the Saxons were said to have dismembered horses, and riders.
So what happened?
1: Harold was injured. 2: Something caused a small break in the Saxon line. They held, and repulsed the Normans, but some of them seem to have fallen prey to bloodlust in the disorder. 3: Harald either died, or was more severely injured.
That, ultimately was what turned the battle (though it didn’t end the war). This was a smaller affair than Gettysburg, and more dynastic; not so much a national crusade. It was more of a rumble to see who got to be top dog in the neighborhood. With Harald dead there wasn’t anyone who had the combination of acumen, and charisma/status to keep the Saxons a coherent body in the field.
Which isn’t important to the question of reading the ground. It’s still debated whether Harald ought to have waited to give battle, since he’d just made a forced march all the way from York, where he’d just had the same sort of fight Harald Hardrada of Norway to see who was in charge.
Reading the ground, and reading the enemy; and to some degree, the politics. William was raiding Haralds personal properties; it was people to whom he owed a very specific loyalty who were being despoiled. He also had to worry the Fyrd (i.e. the levy of troops) might decide they had done their service (he had kept them in the field for four months: they owed him about one: that’s without the question of the weather in S. England in Oct. All in all, I don’t fault Harald for giving battle on that day. Had it not been for his being injured, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have lost. Had he carried the day, odds are William would have had to go back to France, and let go of his claim.
This isn’t such an important thing on the scale of armies anymore (though in some regards it is. Tommy Franks deep drive into Iraq in 1991 was as much because it was great tanking country, and the US had great tanks, as it was anything else, just as Harald’s choice to be on top of a boggy hill was meant to neutralise the horsepower of William. On the small unit level, reading terrain is what it’s always been; a matter of life and death.
†in a military context a unit/commander is embarrased when the flanks have been turned: and the enemy is at right angles to the friendly position. Not only is the weight of attack intense on the closest part of the exposed unit, the rest of the unit has no idea what is happening. In the age of black powder this was magnified by the inability to see the enemy once firing commenced. What usually happened was the flanked unit broke formation; exposing a new unit to the horror of being flanked. This often “unzipped” the entire line. The classic example (in the gunpowder age) is Frederic the Great at the Battle of Leuthen. Though such collapse also happened in the days when muscle drove the weapons (usually when it was cavalry on the exposed flank)
‡The rebels tried to do just that in the North of the field, on the first day, but Robinson’s Bde (New York) had two battalions (13 and 104) refused. By virtue of high ground and the refused right they were able to manage of fighting retreat, and the rebels (under Ewell) didn’t exploit the vacancy. Gettysburg was full of such touch and go moments most of which were Union mistakes the rebels failed to completely exploit; which is why Lee was willing to repeatedly reinforce failure.