Destroying a Line

Fencers do not form lines on a mere whim. The line formation, as I’ve said before, derives great strength from its easily maintained cohesion. These strengths do not exist on the line’s flanks, which is why we usually direct our attacks there, and why we usually put our strongest fencers on our flanks.

However, it often happens that the line’s flanks are not vulnerable. Maybe they’ve anchored their flanks on the Edge of the World. Maybe you’re in a limited-front engagement. Whatever the situation, it is still possible to destroy a line: once you disrupt the line’s cohesion, it loses all of its strength. (This is why I think lines are fragile.)

That’s the idea behind many maneuvers, such as charging – disrupt the enemy’s cohesion while (mostly) retaining your own, then kill them by exploiting all the 2v1s that surface. But even in the absence of maneuver, lines suffer minor disruptions all the time. If a fencer loses a hand, or steps backwards, or dies, his line’s perfect cohesion suffers a momentary weakness. A well-drilled unit can exploit this weakness with well-timed aggression and increase the disruption. As the line’s cohesion crumbles, so too does the line.

In fencing, you win when your opponent makes a mistake that you are able to exploit (either you kill him immediately, or force him to make bigger mistakes). In theory, the same thing exists on a line: once your opponent (any individual opponent) makes a mistake you can exploit, his whole line should be in danger.

What follows is an intermediate-to-advanced technique for demolishing any line, anywhere. I have seen it work before, but it’s not easy, and this exists more as a theoretical construct than a proven tactic. Nonetheless, I invite you to consider it, poke holes, and drill it up if you like. If you don’t, this was originally Wistric’s idea. So blame him.
 

Time 0: Let us consider two lines. For ease of discussion, leave aside concerns of armament or handedness for now, and assume that terrain does not exist except to prevent typical flanking maneuvers. The lines are lightly engaged, picking at hands and feet with no fighter exposing himself.
 

A B C D E F G H I J

Q R S T U V W X Y Z
 

Time 1: H makes some mistake. It could be that he retreats from his line or loses a hand. Small mistakes always happen. Obviously, the smaller the mistake, the harder it will be to exploit. For our purposes, let us say he does something very dumb, and dies.
 

A B C D E F G H I J

Q R S T U V W X Y Z
 

Time 1.5: At the instant afterwards, X’s unit has a small numerical advantage over the other side – and X can make a 2v1 happen. He also has a potential awareness advantage – if he killed H, he will likely know that H is dead before anyone else, before H even calls “dead”. Even after he calls “dead”, H’s team will have to take a small amount of time to update their “mental maps” and adjust to the new battlefield.

This time is something that X exploits. He IMMEDIATELY steps into the gap, redirecting his attack to G (or binding his blades so W can kill). I is also a viable target. Either way, he must do this without recovering (if he attacked) and without waiting even an instant. Snap decision-making is vital. X may be killed by I, but as long as G dies, the technique can continue.
 

A B C D E F G I J
              X
Q R S T U V W . Y Z
 

Time 2: X’s comrades immediately and automatically press (because they have drilled, and need no command), aggressively exploiting their local 2v1 advantages. X could, and perhaps should, give the command anyway, but if his team only acts after the command is given, the opportunity is likely already gone. Drill (and, to a lesser extent, decentralized authority) is necessary.

The right flank here may or may not die in the press; it’s not really important, so long as I and J are kept busy for a short time and are not allowed to move behind the line.
 

A B C D E F X I J
            W . Y Z
Q R S T U V .   . .
 

Time 3, etc: even if the opposing line maintains cohesion (unlikely), the gap still widens. The astute reader will note that new flanks have appeared, and from here, it’s a standard “wrap the flank” affair. Attackers who find themselves out of range of enemies go into the backfield (W), pressure others as time and space allow (X), or perform rearguard actions. The dead, shown in pink, may prevent easy maneuver, but the advantage propagates, at least at 2v1, down the line. This is (one reason) why skill at 2v1 is so important. As the numerical advantage increases, the line should crumble faster (more people in the backfield, etc).
 
          W   
A B C D E .X I J
          V .   Y Z
Q R S T U .
 

Resolution: at this point, the attacking/pressing line has killed five fighters while likely only losing one or two, and the opposing line’s cohesion is demolished. The opposing line is only seconds away from total annihilation and can do almost nothing to stop the chain reaction. It’s worth noting that the attackers are also somewhat disordered – that’s inevitable after a press – and they’ll need to rally and reform after mopping up.

Caveats

Now this is really cool, and in theory you could use it to demolish an entire line in under ten seconds with minimal losses, triggering from almost any error. But it’s not a foolproof or uncounterable technique.

Firstly, this requires some skill on the part of X – if simply to know if it’s time to commit to a press after H screws up, and to make that decision immediately and with resolution. More skilled fencers will be more successful here, no doubt, but awareness is key. X’s unit also must be able to follow his lead without hesitation, and propagate the 2v1 with aggression and rapidity. This does not require a great deal of pure fencing ability, but it does require a modicum of judgement, awareness, and automaticity best gained by rigorous drill. It will likely be a bit messy in practice, but that’s okay; once the break starts (Time 2, above), it’s should be very hard to stop. If things get too dicey, X’s unit can call a rally, and reset with a significant numerical advantage.

Look back at time 1.5. I have assumed, for demonstration purposes, that G and I are not any more skilled or aware than the average fencer. But if they are, this is the point at which they could potentially stop or even reverse the break – by reacting faster than W or Y. Naturally, they would have to kill X without dying to W or Y, and without losing cohesion with their own line (if they step back, W or Y steps forward and continues the break), which is no mean feat. Nonetheless, if their G and I are strong fencers and your W and Y are not, it may be wise to simply take the kill on H and recover, without stepping in. This is a judgement call.

There are easier counters, too. The simplest is not to be in a line – if your opponents have more than one rank, a gap does not form. Although you may still get several kills out of this technique, you won’t be able to roll the unit. Likewise, if the unit has reinforcements incoming (which is typical at wars, when the rez line is only a couple dozen feet away), this technique is likely to stall out. Another counter is for the breaking unit to simply fall back, cohesively, when the break begins; fortunately, very few units have the training to do this.

If X is particularly skilled, you can hunt out a particularly unskilled H of your own, and plan this whole thing from the start. I do not advise relying on this overmuch, as any plan can be countered. Improvised death is the best death. Ideally, you can make this break happen from anywhere.

In the final calculation, concerns of armament or handedness are important for obvious reasons. Righties more easily attack to the right. Daggers do better in the press. Cloaks are great for triggering a coordinated attack (they can easily bind or weigh down multiple blades), but less good for continuing it. Etc. Drill with and against multiple situations.

2 comments to Destroying a Line

  • Dante di Pietro

    What happens if the line is ranks deep?

    • Ruairc

      This is addressed – if the opposing unit has more than one rank, this technique is not likely to be nearly so devastating, if it’s effective at all. Generally, however, I consider the term “line” to indicate a unit with no additional ranks.

      If all, or even many, units were capable of coordinating this technique reliably, I suspect lines would not be nearly so popular. But it is a difficult thing to learn.

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