The Hittites originated in the mountains of the modern Ukraine, near the Black Sea. By 1900BC they had established the Kingdom of Hatti in central Anatolia, part of modern day Turkey. From here, they built an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to Mesopotamia. This empire was to last nearly a thousand years.
Hittite Kings were also commanders in chief. But to become King, they needed to be experienced in battle. So the children of the aristocracy and royalty were trained to fight from childhood. Ordinary soldiers volunteered, enticed by the incentive of advancement. Hittite society was feudal, with fief holders working the land for their Lord. However, if they joined the army, they were awarded income and land for service. So soldiers could help expand the empire, take a share of it and advance themselves and their family.
In 1274BC, the Hittite’s cemented their reputation by their defeating the Egyptians. Threatened by Hittite incursions into the Lebanon and Palestine, the warrior pharaoh Ramses II went on the offensive. The two armies finally came face to face at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River. Although the 35,000 strong Egyptian armies vastly outnumbered the Hittite’s 20,000 men, the Hittite’s were victorious. This occurred for three main reasons: the organization of Hittite forces, their chariots, and iron.
The Hittite’s adapted their fighting style according to the terrain. Tactics and weapons were selected according to the conditions. But the organization of their army units was also crucial to their success. Infantry, archers, and chariots were organized into lines ten men wide and ten men deep. Squads of ten formed the lines, which in turn created companies of ten squads and battalions of ten companies. These small units were easy to deploy for the maximum shock during an attack.
Hittite chariots acted as heavy infantry. They were broad enough to accommodate not only a driver and a warrior, but also a shield bearer to protect both in battle. Dedicated protection meant that chariots could fight infantry at close quarters. It was this battle tactic that was crucial to the victory at Kadesh. But so was the Hittite use of iron. The use of iron was pioneered in the late bronze age- and the Hittite’s were familiar with the technique. So instead of soft, bronze weapons, they used iron instead- giving them the edge over their enemies.
The Hittites used one further technique to weaken their conquests: biological warfare. Accounts of their conquests record how they would drive diseased sheep into enemy territories to infect the population before attacking. The reports describe the symptoms of the disease as skin ulcers and respiratory failure, which Dr. Siro Trevisanato; a Canadian biochemist believes Tularemia or rabbit fever. But in the end, this tactic could have destroyed the Hittite’s themselves when they too fell prey to the disease.