When was the first "front" war vs "pitched battle" war

OK so spin-off of a spin-off thread here…

Thinking about lingyi’s thread, and not wanting hijack it, it occurs to me that the big change in the manner of warfare in the modern era wasn’t between “civilized” pre-modern warfare, where armies of combatants would politely walk to a prearranged battles to fight each other, versus “uncivilized” modern “total war” warfare.

Warfare always had a “civilized” portion, where armies of combatants would fight pitched battles, and “uncivilized” portion where combatants would perform hideous acts against civilians, either while raiding, besieging, or fighting an “asymmetric” war against insurgents.

What actually changed IMO in modern warfare was (due to the size and technological sophistication of armies) confrontations between field armies moved from a single pitched battle at a specific location, to a wider front, where armies faced each other across entire regions simultaneously. World war one was the famous example of this transition. Are there any earlier examples?

The later Napoleonic battles got very large, but still had well defined, local, battlefields. The American Civil War featured sequences of battles in quick succession, but I don’t think the series of battles could really be described as a “front”. And there are plenty of historical examples of raiders and marauders ranging across long distances, but I am talking about the main body of the opposing armies.

Maybe the Franco Prussian war?

The Wilderness Campaign in the US Civil War was the decisive battle against the traitorous secessionists. It wasn’t really a trench war as in WWI, but it was a long grinding engagement of armies rather than a battle of maneuver. I suppose you could argue that it was really Sherman who won the war, but nevertheless Grant had to wear Lee’s army to a nub across a “front.”

I would also say that the idea that war consists of large armies facing each other across a “front” was valid only from about 1914 to 1953, the end of the hot war in Korea.

Other than the Arab Israeli conflicts, Iran Iraq war, First Gulf war, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Indo-Pakistan wars, etc etc

It amazed me with I learned that people set up picnics on the sidelines at the Battle of Bull Run. Wow, talk about “civilized” and “gentlemenly”. And I’m sure there at least a few bets on the winner and the number of deaths.

The other way to look at it though would be that sieges of castles, fortified cities etc were a ‘front’, just a small front. And when the available land area grew relative to the number of combatants and the reach and effectiveness of their weapons, then warfare tended to transition to concentrated armies maneuvering and often (not always) meeting one another in discrete battles. That transition point just shifted with the number of men and range of weapons compare to the available area and terrain conditions.

So, after the maneuver phase of the Wilderness and immediately subsequent campaigns in the American Civil War, was the static fighting of many months near Petersburg (till April 1865) a ‘siege’ (as it was called then), or a ‘front’?

Or alternatively, though we call the eastern theater of WWI a ‘front’, it was often more like concentrated armies maneuvering and meeting in battle at discrete points (like Tannenberg).

What made the western front of WWI into largely continuous combat on continuous lines wasn’t just the technology of the time, but also the much greater size of the opposing armies in the same space as campaigns in the same area over the centuries. Nor was there that well defined a ‘front’ in the lightning campaign of 1940 again same area. Nor necessarily in other mechanized campaigns in WWII once one force or another made a break through, or outflanked (North Africa, outflanking short defensive fronts near the ocean) the ‘front’.

People did the same for several battles at Naco, Sonora. It’s on the border with Arizona, and people on the American side would spectate and yes, sometimes bring picnic baskets. These were internal Mexican battles just before WWI and then again in 1929. Stray bullets and artillery shells would sometimes injure the spectators. In the 1929 battle, there was some improvised aerial bombardment (dynamite thrown out of aircraft cockpits) and some of those landed north of the border. The airplanes were American planes hired by one of the Mexican sides (not sure if it was the rebels or government forces).

The Great Wall of China? Some sections were built about 200BC IIRC. The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall across England at the Scottish frontier. The Romans gave up on Germany and IIRC had a string of forts to define the extent of their control. The Civil War and Crimean War (the one in 1850’s, not today) had trench warfare for some degree of the fighting. Entrenchment was pretty common in warfare as mentioned, in city sieges going back hundreds of years.

I suppose it’s a question of land control - the advent of firearms made it easier to control a front - before that, any emplacement could be encircled and spreading too thin along a frontier without a wall or river to physically block passage risked being overwhelmed in one spot by an attacker. The sheer volume of troops in WWI made it possible to man the entire length of the frontier, and modern transport and telegraph made it possible to move troops quickly in response to enemy movement. Then tanks and air support came along and made defensive emplacements harder.

IANA Historian… Maybe the Crusades? Weren’t they pretty much a long war over a shifting front, with episodic battles?

They were a campaign of many battles, but each battle was classic medieval pitched battle, where both sides met at a battlefield, lined up their troops, and had at it (or fought bitter protracted seiges leading to hideous sackings)

The Crimean war was somewhere between the “pitched battle” wars of the Napoleonic era and the “fixed fronts” of World War I. Apart from the various sieges, the battles weren’t anything like the trench warfare of World War I, but there were some of the same conditions - i.e. armies larger than the space available, so that instead of moving around they tried to extend around each other until they hit natural obstacles on each flank.

I suggest that there wasn’t so much a “first” front war, as a gradual evolution with larger armies and more firepower. The US Civil War met some of the conditions that made trench stalemates, the Crimean war encountered other necessary conditions, and the Franko-Prussian war came close to both at once, but was over too quickly to settle into a stalemate.

These are good examples and thanks for bringing them up. Iran/Iraq and Ethiopia/Eritrea are especially good counters. My blanket assertion was wrong.

First Gulf I don’t think really counts though. The “front” existed for a pretty short time and only until the conditions were created for maneuver warfare to comprehensively destroy the front–in fact the “front” benefitted the coalition as its lack of action enabled troops to move into place. (and even the Syrians sent 15,000 troops! For some reason the details are difficult to google, but my memory is that it was an armored division).

Arab/Israeli and India/Pakistan are also useful counters to my assertion, with caveats I won’t dive into now. But thanks for fighting the ignorance of my hasty post.

I disagree about the Arab/Israeli conflicts: while the low-intensity periods do focus on “fronts”, the full-scale warfare seen in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and parts of 1982 was mostly pitched battles, with both sides concentrating their forces in relatively small areas.

I think there is a good case for fronts in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). There were years of fighting back and forth across chains of fortresses and long lines of entrenchments along the French-Dutch border. Possibly other theatres of this war could be considered fronts as well.

Map of the Low Countries, showing fortresses and defensive lines:

Roman campaigns against Hannibal were very much over vast spaces and pitched battles being avoided.

The well known battles were rare.

In fact, I am not entirely certain there was ever such a dictotomy as the OP postulates. The size of the battlespace has increased manyfold as range and accuracy of weapons increased, but thats not the same.

Not directly Bull-Run-related, but Leroy Walker famously offered to wipe up all the blood spilled in the coming war with a pocket handkerchief. If there is a Greek-style Hades where people suffer ironic torments for their hubris, he must still be mopping with that rag.

The medieval period offers exceptionally stark contrasts between these two styles. Probably the starkest such contrast would be the ludicrously chivalrous Combat of the Thirty versus any of an endless series of chevauchées: raids by armies (led by knights and squires) that expressly avoided fair fights against their peers and instead sought to punish defenseless civilians (the theory being this would show the other side’s lower classes that their knights were not able to defend them). Of course the other side’s lower classes could hardly overthrow their own ruling knights and nobles, so the end result was simply the infliction of misery and death for loot.

Good points. I would argue that the element that made a “front” possible was the development of effective logistics. Armies of the past were always limited in size and activity by their ability to be fed and supplied – many battles were forced because one or both sides was about to run out of food. Modern logistics – especially supply by railroad – enabled large armies to remain in place for extended periods without denuding their surroundings of food and resources and being forced to leave or perish.