23rd september – Eight days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did Alexander win the battle?’
That is not a simple question to answer as many factors were involved. For example, we can say that Alexander won the Battle of Gaugamela after creating a hole in the Persian centre, penetrating it, thus forcing Darius III to flee. But did he create the hole by his own skill or was a Persian mistake involved? And could that hole have been created, whether inadvertently by the Persians or by Alexander, if Parmenion hadn’t kept the Macedonian left wing intact or without the efforts of the phalanx, or even without the deserter who – just before the battle – warned Alexander about the traps that Darius had laid on the ground for him?
Most of these are questions we will never be able to answer. So let’s go back to the hole. It is the most direct reason why Alexander won the day. What happened that led to its creation?
In The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller offers some suggestions.
… instead of most of the cavalry of the Persian left wing being directed against Alexander’s Companions, and the others sent to the support of Bessus, the whole galloped towards Bessus. This may have been due to a misunderstanding of verbal orders, or to the instinctive urge of masses of horsemen to follow those in the lead, or again – assuming that part was ordered to charge the Companions – it may have been because it was met by such a hail of missiles from the javelin-men and archers who were posted in front of the Companions that the horsemen instinctively swerved to their left to avoid it and then joined those galloping toward Bessus.
To put that into context – Alexander and his Companions were riding to the right of the Macedonian centre (the phalanx); to Alexander’s right was his flank guard. This is where Bessus was heading. He was ignoring Alexander in favour of attacking the flank guard in its rear.
From the Persian perspective, what should have happened is that while Bessus attacked the flank guard, the Persian left wing enveloped Alexander and the Companions. What did happen is as Fuller describes above, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.
It would be easy to criticise the Persian cavalry for being unprofessional. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the horsemen should have slowed down when they realised they were riding instinctively or have been brave enough to take the hit and ridden the Macedonian javelin-men down so as to engage Alexander and the Companions. But if it is a case of misunderstanding orders – in the heat of battle no one can be blamed for that. Can they? Well, maybe, but surely before the battle Darius and his commanders would have considered the risk of a break in the line happening and agreed upon what to do in the event that it did.
Either way, the Macedonian army as a whole is to be congratulated for creating a situation whereby the Persians were forced into making an error. And as Alexander is its leader, the greatest praise must go to him.