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The definition I've found that makes the most sense is Wikipedia's:

In warfare, a set piece battle may involve large formations moving according to a plan and responding to the opposing force also by plan.

So I assume the point is that the course of the battle is decided in advance, as opposed something ad-hoc or improvised.

But what's the origin of the term? And what are its opposites?

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Set-piece battle

According to this Ngram, this exact wording appears to have been coined during the First World War, and usage increased dramatically during the Second World War.

Ngram

The earliest use of set-piece battle I found is from 1920, in The Australian victories in France in 1918 by Sir John Monash. On page 227 is a section which begins:

**The " Set-Piece " Battle** In a well-planned battle of this nature, fully organized, powerfully covered by Artillery and Machine Gun barrages, given a resolute Infantry and that the enemy's guns are kept successfully silenced by our own counter-battery Artillery, nothing happens, nothing can happen, except the regular progress of the advance according to the plan arranged. The whole battle sweeps relentlessly and methodically across the ground until it reaches the line laid down as the final objective. Such a set-piece battle lasts usually, from first to last, for 80 to 100 minutes; seldom for more. When the Artillery programme is ended the battle is either completely won, or to all intents and purposes completely lost. If the barrage for any reason gets away from our Infantry, and they are relegated to hand to hand fighting in order to complete their advance, the battle immediately assumes a totally different character, and is no longer a set-piece affair.

And the preceding page:

Modern war is in many ways unlike the wars of previous days, but in nothing so much as in the employment of what I have more than once referred to as " set-piece " operations. The term is one which should convey its own meaning. It is the direct result of the great extension, which this war has introduced, of mechanical warfare. It is a " set-piece " because the stage is elaborately set, parts are written for all the performers, and carefully rehearsed by many of them. The whole performance is controlled by a time-table, and, so long as all goes according to plan, there is no likelihood of unexpected happenings, or of interesting developments.


Set-piece

The standalone set-piece is:

  1. A realistic piece of stage scenery constructed to stand by itself.
  2. An often brilliantly executed artistic or literary work characterized by a formal pattern.
  3. a. A carefully planned and executed military operation.
    b. A situation, activity, or speech planned beforehand and carried out according to a prescribed pattern or formula.

It was very common in drama and when referring to fireworks displays in the 19th century. Wikipedia says:

In film production, a setpiece is a scene or sequence of scenes the execution of which requires serious logistical planning and considerable expenditure of money. The term setpiece is often used more broadly to describe any important dramatic or comedic highpoint in a film or story, particularly those that provide some kind of dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition.

And:

The term set piece or set play is used in association football and rugby to refer to a situation when the ball is returned to open play following a stoppage, particularly in a forward area of the pitch.


Military set-piece

The earliest reference I found to set-piece in a military context to describe a carefully planned and executed action (and not describing a dramatic depiction of a battle) is this 1895 footnote to Herodotus:

The battle is a regular set piece : the two armies are drawn up in battle array;

1905's The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 compares carefully planned and executed operations with field-days at Aldershot Command training camp:

As a "set-piece" carried out with the same perfect precision and steadinlss under a moderately heavy artillery as on an Aldershot field-day, this demonstration was a great success.

And:

The conception of a battle as a tactical set-piece, devised beforehand and carried out according to programme, is one of those dangerous fixed ideas begotten of Aldershot field days which tend to stifle the living- spirit of warfare.


Opposites

Monash refers to three different phases, each with very different character. From page 84 of The Australian victories in France in 1918:

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This is excellent, but could do with a quick one-paragraph summary at the top, since the most important points (that it was originally from art/theatre) are currently rather buried in the middle! –  PLL Nov 17 '11 at 22:16
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Wow, a truly excellent answer! –  Matt Fenwick Nov 17 '11 at 22:18
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In MOST battles, at least one side (the defense) has a chance to "set up" (dig trenches, post artillery and mines, etc.). Sometimes the offense also has the opportunity to emplace its artillery, deploy its cavalry, form infantry lines, etc., without interference from defending forces before the battle begins. In this case, the battle will proceed along pre-determined lines shaped by these deployments. That's a "set piece" battle.

The opposite of a set piece battle is a "meeting engagement." That is when forces collide with each other on the road, and start fighting, without having time to entrench, deploy, etc. Such an action is more like a "brawl" than a real battle. An example was the battle of Lundy's Lane in the War of 1812. A more modern example is the Battle of Kursk (second stage), in which, after initial success, the Germans moved too far east (to extend their gains), and collided with the reinforcing Russian armies.

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Interesting. Personally, I always figured the term came from wargaming. If the actual military units are operating and responding simply just like they would on the game board, they are behaving like "pieces" in the "game set". In real life weird things happen that would be hard to code into a strategic wargame ruleset. –  T.E.D. Nov 17 '11 at 14:43
    
Nice examples. So the "set" part is from "set up"? –  Matt Fenwick Nov 17 '11 at 14:43
    
@MattFenwick: To take off on T.E.D., a "set piece" battle is "supposed" to play like a wargame, (with set-up pieces) although it often doesn't! –  Tom Au Nov 17 '11 at 14:53
    
This is a good description of the usage and connotations; but as dictionaries and @Hugo’s answer show, it isn’t the origin of the phrase. –  PLL Nov 17 '11 at 22:18
    
@PLL: I'd say that a "set piece" battle is one that has successfully been "wargamed" by the professionals. –  Tom Au Nov 17 '11 at 22:23
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In art, a "set piece" is something that has been carefully arranged for a particular effect. My guess is that "set piece battle" simply extends the concept from art to warfare.

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@ Dave: dictionaries (OED, Merriam-Webster) confirm that your guess is correct :-) –  PLL Nov 17 '11 at 22:19
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