Friday, 18 December 2015

The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC

Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, had his greatest military victory on 1st October 331 BC. This was his defeat of the Persians, under King Darius III, at Gaugamela (the battle is also referred to as the Battle of Arbela.

Alexander versus Darius

Alexander began his campaign against the Persian Empire in 334 BC and had a number of victories as he moved steadily eastwards, most notably at Issus in 333 BC. This defeat for Darius had destroyed the Persian army’s best infantry division and forced him to place much greater reliance on his cavalry, chariots and elephants.

Darius had tried to buy Alexander off with massive bribes, plus the hand of his daughter in marriage, but Alexander was determined to fight and gain  the whole of Darius’s kingdom rather than the half that he was being offered.

The Battle of Gaugamela

Knowing that he could not avoid a battle, Darius arrayed his army of 200,000 men in two lines, one behind the other, on a broad plain near Gaugamela in what is now northern Iraq. He knew that his force was considerably larger than Alexander’s (about 47,000 strong), so he had some trees felled in order to give his chariots room to outflank the Macedonians.

Alexander was a master of tactics, and he showed this now by giving the Persians every indication that he was going to mount an immediate night attack but not actually doing so. This meant that he could rest his troops and allow them a good night’s sleep, whereas Darius’s men had to maintain their positions throughout the night and were therefore exhausted from lack of sleep when Alexander eventually made his move.

Alexander sent a cavalry charge towards the centre of the Persian front line, thus appearing to play right into Darius’s hands, but then drifted off to the right. This encouraged the Persian chariots to drift correspondingly to their left, but this then created a gap in the line that Alexander’s second wave was able to exploit. Alexander had ensured that his flanks were protected by a force of light horse and infantry, and these were able to fight off the expected encircling moves of the Persians.

Alexander was thus able to force his way straight through the gap in the Persian line and head for the position held by Darius himself. The Persian king promptly turned tail and fled, thus enabling Alexander to turn back and attack the rear of the Persian force that was now attacking the Macedonian reserve force.

The aftermath

With the whole remaining Persian army in disarray, the Macedonians were able to chase them off the field. Persian losses were probably around 50,000 whereas Alexander only lost around 500 dead and 3,000 wounded. He was thus able to enter Babylon without opposition and then march into the heart of the Persian Empire, taking only 60 men with him in the final hunt for Darius. This ended when the Persian king was murdered by his own nobles, although Alexander also pursued the assassins and despatched them as well.

Alexander was thus the unquestioned ruler of the Persian Empire, having defeated an enemy that had been a threat to the Greek world for centuries.

© John Welford