One of the most talked about battles in military historical circles is the Battle of Cannae between Rome and Carthage on August 2, 216 B.C. Cannae is significant because in military circles it is considered to represent the perfect battle of encirclement if not the perfect battle period. Another that makes it so significant is that Hannibal, the Carthaginian CDR, managed to defeat a Roman force that outnumbered him while suffering relatively few casualties compared to the damage he did to the Romans.
Cannae is interesting for several reasons. The most notable for my purposes being that the battle and the way it was fought fascinated 19th century German strategists from Moltke to Schlieffen. Cannae was held up as the ideal battle from a planning perspective. All commanders should aim to achieve an annihilating battle of encirclement such as that achieved by Hannibal at Cannae. Because of this battle’s importance to 19th century German planners, it was the exemplar Schlieffen used when planning the invasion of France, I am going to discuss this battle in fairly great detail.
The roots of the battle of Cannae lay in the course of the Second Punic War in which the Romans were on the defensive for the first 15 years and were almost defeated. The war began in 218 B.C. when Hannibal Barca marched an army from Carthage through Spain and over the Alps into Italy. His successful march was a legendary feat in and of itself, but he then proceeded to essentially destroy two Roman armies at the battles of Lake Trebia and Lake Trasimene. He then marched on Rome but could not take the city and so instead decided to ravage the countryside and punish cities that were Rome’s allies.
Rome rebuilt their army and the two armies faced off at Cannae, a town in southern Italy. Hannibal’s army was outnumbered by the Romans almost two to one, he had about 45,000 troops to Rome’s roughly 76,000. The Romans were soundly defeated losing almost 60,000 of their 76,000 troops in the battle. It is not that fact of the Romans defeat that makes this battle noteworthy, it is the way in which Hannibal achieved it.
The Course of the Battle:
The armies met on a river plain outside the city and drew up facing each other in what was a typical battle array with cavalry on the wings and the infantry troops in the center. Hannibal did something a little different though; he put his light infantry in the exact center with heavy infantry flanking them and his cavalry on the extreme flanks of his army. The Romans began by attacking the center of Hannibal’s army which gave way in feigned flight. The Romans thought they were winning and began pursuing the seemingly defeated light cavalry which disrupted the Roman formation.
While the Roman infantry was busy chasing Hannibal’s infantry the Roman cavalry wings were being defeated by Carthaginian cavalry and the Romans were driven from the field. About the time Rome’s horsemen fled Hannibal’s infantry turned and stood again. They had fled enough that now the Carthaginian heavy infantry were on the Roman flanks and the only opening was to the rear however, that did not last long as Hannibal’s cavalry returned to the field and closed off the rear of the Roman army, surrounding them. In military terms this is called a double envelopment and that is when the slaughter really began. The Romans were both disorganized and now surrounded. Hannibal’s army began to close in and literally started hacking away at the chaotic, panicky Roman troops. The Roman army was destroyed, only 10,000 escaping the field.
http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/AncientWarfare/HI370GIF/07CannaeBattle.gif – “The Department of History, United States Military Academy.”
The destruction of the Roman army by a double envelopment was a masterpiece that has seldom been repeated since. The Germans tried it in 1914 on a grand scale when they invaded France. A double envelopment was the essence of Schlieffen’s Plan. It failed then though. Cannae was also indirectly a model for the German invasion of Russia in 1941.
Here are some links to other online article about the battle.
Battle of Cannae
Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War By Gregory Daly
CANNAE: by General Fieldmarshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen
Richard, J. “Second Punic War, 218-201 BC.” History of War. December 1, 2002. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_punic2.html (accessed October 12, 2010).
VerHage, Joshua. “The Second Punic War: 218-202 B.C.” The Web Chronology Project. October 9, 2005. http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/mediterranean/2ndPunic.html (accessed October 12, 2010).
 VerHage, Joshua. “The Second Punic War: 218-202 B.C.” The Web Chronology Project. October 9, 2005. http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/mediterranean/2ndPunic.html (accessed October 12, 2010)