The Israelite victory at Michmash Pass (1010 BC) sparked a popular uprising that ejected Philistine outposts from the Israelite hill country. Saul’s control of the foothills thwarted outright frontal assaults, so Philistine commanders decided to make an end run around Israelite defenses. Assembling near the coast at Aphek, the Philistines paralleled the Judean ridge, crossing into the Jezreel Valley through one of the Carmel passes. They encamped at Shunem, on the south slope of Mount Moreh.
Saul shadowed the Philistine advance, moving his army along the Judean ridge to Mount Gilboa, across the valley floor from Mount Moreh. The slopes of Mount Gilboa offered the Israelites clear observation, interior lines of communication, good defensive terrain and an avenue of retreat. Saul anchored his right wing on its steep north face, his line running west in a downhill semicircle. His left wing defended the western foothills, backed as tight against steep terrain as tactical wisdom permitted.
The Israelites were perfectly deployed to accomplish three things: First, to absorb the Philistine main attack and gradually withdraw uphill until chariots could no longer follow, turning the battle into an infantry engagement. Second, to fight both a tactically and strategically defensive battle; Saul could never hope to overcome Philistine numerical superiority. Third, if things went badly, to quickly break contact and retreat over the mountain to fight another day.
The Philistine attack came against Saul’s center and left, pressing the Israelites hard all along the line. The Philistines soon gained the upper hand, for the Bible tells us, “The Israelites fled before them.” At the center the attackers “pressed hard” after Saul and “killed his sons” (I Samuel 31: 2). On the left they simply pinned the Israelites against the foothills to restrict their range of maneuver.
Where were the Philistine chariots? Some accompanied the infantry attack, but any Philistine commander worth his salt would have balked at the steep terrain. The few engaged were a diversion. No more than a mile south of Saul’s left wing, a gentle slope led to the summit of Mount Gilboa. Philistine chariots swung wide, charged up this slope and gained the heights above and behind the Israelites. From this vantage they poured down murderous arrow fire until the Israelites broke and fled. “The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.’ But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it” (I Samuel 31:3–4).
Saul’s death broke the back of Israelite power in the central hills, but the Philistines made no effort to occupy the south, permitting their loyal vassal, David of Judah, to rule Hebron. David expanded his standing among his fellow Israelites until strong enough to rise against his Philistine masters —with consequences that shook the ancient world.
■ Exploit the home-field advantage. The Philistine commander knew the terrain better than Saul, to the latter’s ultimate demise.
■ Fool ’em. The Philistine commander deceived Saul into thinking the frontal assault was the main thrust when it was only a fixing attack, giving Philistine chariots room to maneuver.
■ Be aware of what’s not happening. Saul knew the Philistine army was chariot heavy and had watched their units assemble in plain sight. Yet he failed to ask, “Where are the Philistine chariots?”
■ Follow Patton’s advice: “Grab them by the nose and kick them in the pants!” The Philistine commander pinned Saul’s left wing in place, permitting his chariots to flank the Israelites.
■ Always secure your avenue of retreat. Saul failed to assign even a small force to this important mission.
■ Follow through. The Philistines’ decision to make nice with David would come back to haunt them.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.