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I ran across the phrase "annihilated in detail" while listening to Professor Garrett G. Fagan's instruction regarding the History of Ancient Rome. This comes from a lecture on Marius and Sulla with regards to a particular Roman battle:

They split their forces. As a result when the Germans came on, they were annihilated in detail.

Since the word annihilated already means to utterly destroy, the phrase in detail seems superfluous, not unlike "very unique". However, a search for the phrase "annihilated in detail" in Google returns enough results that it makes me think that it likely has a particular meaning.

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  • Full source please, including any Latin original, or we cannot help you.
    – David
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 18:15
  • I cannot offhand find the Roman source of this. Was it perhaps something the lecturer himself said? Personally, I get from “in detail” to add the idea of something systematic. It was Marius who turned the Roman army into the efficient killing machine it was. If, as I gather, we are talking about Aquae Sextiae in 102BC, this was the making of Marius. But ‘annihilation is itself a bit of an hyperbole: 200,000 were killed and 90,000 captured. But it was done methodically. I don’t myself care for the expression ‘in detail’, but I think it is not a pleonasm.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 20:08
  • @EdwinAshworth — The Latin would be relevant if the translation were poor. In which case it would certainly *not be off-topic”. And please @ me if you refer to my comments.
    – David
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 20:21
  • @EdwinAshworth — I never prohibited you from commenting to the OP. It is ingenuous to suggest your comment was not a contradiction of mine, in which case it was relevant to the OP and a courtesy to me to @ me. That is what I said. And of course I disputed your argument, but that could not be regarded as a prohibition by any native English speaker. And please withdraw your remark about loud voices. It is unjustified and against the etiquette of this site.
    – David
    Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 12:48
  • Just the full source of the original translation, please – Latin being off-topic on ELU, in spite of @David's veiled claim to the contrary. / The number of Google hits for "annihilated in detail" seems very low (ignoring the spurious claim for 37, 100); I'd guess it's unidiomatic (for 'totally annihilated'). //// lbf has discovered a useful source, giving what appears to be a subject-specific and archaic usage. Though your original should be given, it appears 'we' (ie lbf) can help you. Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 13:53

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attack in detail. Glossary of Civil War Terms

To destroy the enemy piece by piece — by attacking smaller segments one at a time — instead of attacking the entire force all at once.

Using annihilate versus attack is synonymous, as in:

Dublin Review Google Books

The intent is to devote all efforts to a part of the enemy and completely destroy it.

... small bands [to] annihilate in detail immense expeditions sent from time to time against them ...

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it isn't superfluous at all.

Read the sentence. They split their forces. Now the forces about to be destroyed are in different distinct group.

When the Germans came on, they were annihilated in detail. It means they were destroyed, in detail, as in every single one of the separated force was destroyed separately, one by one.

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  • I didn't say that it was superfluous, but that it seemed to be. But the word annihilated already indicates that they were made nothing. Since annihilate already means to destroy all or obliterate, a plain reading seems to leave no need for further explanation or modification. A proper use of annihilated already includes "all the things". Not like the general misuse of the term decimate, which—though it means to destroy a tenth—is now generally thought to mean lay waste, or mostly destroy. Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 15:24
  • @David Eldridge: True. the end result is the same. The Allied forces were annihilated. But "in detail" describes how it was annihilated. It was destroyed in small groups, without ever coming back together as a cohesive force to resist the Germans. Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 15:28
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    No difference really than saying, "I had a hard boiled egg this morning." vs. "I had an egg this morning." that it was hardboiled or not doesn't change the fact that I ate an egg. the extra word just added some additional information about the egg. Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 15:34

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