How Great Generals WinClick here to purchase from Barnes & Noble. Click here to purchase from Amazon.com.
Introduction: The Rules of War Are Simple but Seldom Followed
My understanding of how great generals win commenced with realizing how not-so-great generals don't win. This learning process started on a hot day in August, 1951, when, as a young combat historian, I stood in a valley of the Taebaek mountains of eastern Korea and watched American artillery pulverize Hill 983 about a thousand yards in front of me.
This mountain and the similar one just to the north had not then attained the names---Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges---by which they would go down in history as the quintessential battles of the Korean War. But those of us standing there on that summer day watching the artillery shells methodically obliterate all traces of vegetation from 983 already knew what was in store.
The attack was to be direct---straight up the steep slopes of the mountain, climbing 3,600 feet above sea level. The attack was also to be without surprise: the assemblage of a dozen artillery battalions in the valley south of the mountain had told the North Korean defenders that the top American commander in Korea, Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet, had singled out their bastion for assault.
Thus the gruesome battle that followed, and the even more gruesome battle to capture Heartbreak which came directly on its heels, were programmed from the outset, as if both sides had been handed a script and told to follow it precisely.
The American artillery destroyed all the vegetation but could damage only a tiny fraction of the dirt-, rock- and timber-covered bunkers in which the Communist soldiers hid. Thereafter, American, South Korean and, on Heartbreak, French infantrymen climbed the steep fingers leading up to the peaks, the only avenues available to root the enemy out of their bunkers and drive them away. The North Korean and Red Chinese soldiers knew these avenues of approach as well as the United Nations troops and they carefully zeroed in their automatic weapons and mortars on them and created fields of fire to decimate the climbing United Nations infantry.
It all worked out as programmed: the superior UN firepower at last wrested the peaks from the Communists but the cost was staggering. UN casualties, the vast bulk of them American, totaled 6,400, while Communist losses may have reached 40,000. Yet the UN command gained nothing. Its strategic position in Korea was not affected one iota and there were almost no tactical gains: behind Heartbreak loomed another ridgeline equally pitted with bunkers. And behind this third ridge rose many more ridges which could have been armored with bunkers as well.
The only thing achieved by the Battles of Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges---and by all of the numerous other battles for ridgelines that the 8th United States Army in Korea ordered during the fall of 1951---was that the American command finally realized the futility of frontal attacks against prepared positions. There was no great intellectual awakening as to the foolhardiness of the policy. The reason was simply that the cost of further attacks was too high. The period between the start of the "peace talks" in July and the cessation of the ridgeline assaults at the end of October, 1951, had produced 60,000 UN and an estimated 234,000 Communist casualties.
It is incredible that it took such bloodletting to teach an obvious lesson. From the beginning of organized warfare, frontal attacks against prepared defenses have usually failed, a fact written large in military history for all generals to see. Even more pertinent, because it was part of the active-service experience or training of the senior generals in Korea, was the trench warfare of World War I---which this phase of the Korean War copied almost exactly. The first World War had showed conclusively that frontal attacks could not succeed, except at such an enormous human cost that the term victor became derisory, since no one emerged a winner from those rendezvous with death at the disputed barricades of the Western front.
Yet the lesson had not been learned. The men who had seen or studied the trench warfare of World War I ordered it anew in the Korean War. And the results in Korea were identical to what they had been in Europe: enormous human losses and no appreciable tactical or strategic gains.
* * * * * * * * * *
The lesson I learned from Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges was that great generals do not act as did the generals who ordered the ridgeline battles in Korea. Great generals do not repeat what has failed before. They do not send troops directly into a battle for which the enemy is prepared and waiting. On the contrary, great generals strike where they are least expected against opposition that is as weak and disorganized as possible.
The tremendous advances in military technology since the Korean War have not changed this fundamental truth. Technology governs only what methods we use to achieve military decisions. Advances in weaponry actually increase the need for generals to avoid the most heavily defended and dangerous positions and to seek decisions at points where the enemy does not anticipate his strikes.
Especially since the Vietnam War astonishing improvements have occurred in the accuracy and deadliness of rocketry and conventional (nonnuclear) weapons by use of satellites to navigate with precision and radar, infrared, laser and other sounding devices to guide "smart" bombs and missiles onto targets. These advances have brought forth predictions of future "automated battlefields" where weapons will be so effective that human beings will be unable to survive on them and battles will be fought by robots and all sorts of unmanned aircraft, vehicles and weapons.
But there is a significant countertrend which portends warfare depending less on overwhelming firepower and more on movements of small bodies of unobtrusive individuals who achieve their goals by surprise, ambushes and unanticipated movements.
The reason war may be moving in this seemingly contradictory direction is that the technology which has produced main battle tanks, assault aircraft, ships and rockets has also produced weapons which can destroy many of these offensive weapons. Defensive weapons are much cheaper than offensive weapons and some can be held in the hands of a single defender. One such is the Stinger missile which Afghan rebels used effectively to knock down helicopters during the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Patriot missile, which destroyed Iraqi Scud missiles in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and can knock down attacking aircraft, costs only a fraction of a Scud's price and about 1 per cent of a fighter-bomber's.
If, as a number of technologists believe, the tank is already obsolete and manned aircraft and large warships too expensive, complicated and vulnerable to survive for long against defensive missiles, then future war may be fought less by unmanned weapons and robots on an "automated battlefield" and more by small bodies of dispersed, well-trained and armed troops who move deceptively and inconspicuously around obstacles, conducting war more like what we associate today with guerrilla or semiguerrilla forces. The Soviet Union lost such a war in Afghanistan.
It is unlikely that mankind will resort to nuclear war. Any use of a nuclear bomb will bring an instant nuclear reprisal which can accelerate beyond human capacity to control and can result in making most of the earth uninhabitable. No sane ruler wants to sentence his own people to death. Even if a mad dictator secures a nuclear device and uses it, sensible world leaders almost certainly will destroy him and his scientists with a surgical blow but will not succumb to nuclear holocaust.
The future is not ours to see. But it will probably bring to war the same challenges that have burdened generals since the beginning of armed conflict: how to avoid the enemy's main strength and how to strike a decisive blow against him. War will change but the principles of war will remain the same.
* * * * * * * * * *
The English strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart says the goal of the great captain is the same as that of Paris in the Trojan War of Greek legend 3,000 years ago. Paris avoided any obvious target on the foremost Greek champion, Achilles, but instead directed his arrow at Achilles's only vulnerable point, his heel.
The outstanding Confederate cavalry raider Nathan Bedford Forrest encapsulated the secret of great generals when he said that the key to victory is "to get there first with the most."
However, the true test of the great general is broader than this: it is to decide where "there" is, where the Achilles's heel can be located. For the point where the successful commander concentrates his forces must be a point that is vital or at least extremely important to the enemy. To get there first with the most, the military commander must understand and practice the aim of another great Confederate leader, Stonewall Jackson, to "mystify, mislead and surprise" the enemy.
This is because no intelligent enemy commander will willingly uncover a point or place that is vital or important to him. He will do so only if forced or deceived. To achieve such force or deception, the great captain will nearly always act in one of two manners. He will move so as to make the opposing general think he is aiming at a point different than what he is actually aiming at. Or he will operate in such a way that the enemy commander must, in the words of the greatest Union general in the American Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman, find himself "on the horns of a dilemma," unable to defend two or more points or objectives and thus forced to cede at least one in order to save another.
One of the remarkable facts about great generals throughout history is that---except in cases where they possessed overwhelming power---practically all their successful moves have been made against the enemy's flank or rear, either actual or psychological. Great generals realize that a rear attack distracts, dislocates and often defeats an enemy physically by cutting him off from his supplies, communications and reinforcements and mentally by undermining his confidence and sense of security. Great generals know a direct attack, on the other hand, consolidates an enemy's defenses and, even if he is defeated, merely forces him back on his reserves and his supplies.
These concepts have been accepted in principle in many armies for a long time. Against a weak or incompetent enemy they are easy to apply. In the 1991 Gulf War, for example, U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf applied this classic doctrine to defeat the 500,000-man Iraqi army in a hundred hours. While "fixing" the main Iraqi force in Kuwait in place by threatening an amphibious invasion from the gulf and by launching two U.S. Marine divisions and other forces directly on Kuwait, he sent two mobile corps nearly two-hundred miles westward into the Arabian desert. These corps then swept around behind the Iraqi army, cutting off its line of supply and retreat to Baghdad and pressed it into a tight corner between the Euphrates river, the gulf and the marines advancing from the south. Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the thousands and resistance collapsed.
Not all wars are so one-sided as the 1991 Gulf War and not all opponents so ready to surrender. In war the one great incalculable is human resistance. Because enemy response is so unpredictable, commonplace or mediocre generals often do not understand the full significance of flank or rear attacks and, usually because of strong enemy resistance, find themselves drawn or provoked into a direct strategy and frontal attacks which are rarely decisive.
One of the factors which makes a general great, and therefore makes him rare, is that he can withstand the urge of most men to rush headlong into direct engagements and can see instead how he can go around rather than through his opponent.
One reason such generals are few is that the military profession, like society as a whole, applauds direct solutions and is suspicious of personalities given to indirection and unfamiliar methods, labeling them as deceptive, dishonest or underhanded. A big cause of American hatred of the Japanese in World War II was that they launched a "sneak" attack against an unexpected point, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The military profession and the public have idealized rather the "manly" virtues of the straightforward hero who confronts his opponent in the open, a type romanticized in the cowboy of the American West who never draws his six-shooter until his opponent has already reached for his gun.
Soldiers for generations have drawn analogies between war and sports. The Duke of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It is common in the U.S. Army today to equate war with American football. This is no accident. Football---not baseball---has become a symbol of war because football consists primarily of a direct challenge by an attacker against a defender. Although football can have indirect aspects, it is decidedly less a game of subtle ploys, surprise and deception than baseball. Until the mid-1970s, U.S. Army doctrine resembled the straightforward, grind-it-out, pounding, "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" game played at Ohio State University in the Woody Hayes era in mid-century. Although teaching since then has emphasized maneuver, direct solutions and head-on attack are engrained in military psychology and will be difficult to eradicate.
The sincere, candid, unsecretive leader has always been an ideal. As a consequence, the successful great general must possess a Janus-faced personality, conveying honesty and openness to his troops and subordinate leaders while hiding or dissembling those parts of his character which permit him to "mystify, mislead and surprise" the enemy.
Some great generals have found this a difficult assignment and have suffered for it. Stonewall Jackson was notorious for his secrecy and his reticence in telling plans to subordinates. Although his men idolized him for bringing them victories, they looked on him as strange and unapproachable and his major commanders found him difficult, demanding and uncommunicative. His answer to the charges was enlightening: "If I can deceive my own friends I can make certain of deceiving the enemy."
Few individuals are able to assume the double-faceted, contradictory persona required of great captains. The military system, moreover, tends to promote the direct person over the indirect. Consequently, most generals are guileless, uncomplicated warriors who lead direct campaigns and order frontal assaults. The resulting heavy casualties and indecision that characterize most wars are therefore predictable.
* * * * * * * * * *
Even some generals who enjoy high reputations or fame have actually been predominately direct soldiers who brought disaster to their side. One such general was Robert E. Lee, the beau ideal of the Southern Confederacy who possessed integrity, honor and loyalty in the highest degree and who also possessed skills as a commander far in excess of the Union generals arrayed against him. But Lee was not, himself, a great general.
Lee generally and in decisively critical situations always chose the direct over the indirect approach. For example, when the 1862 invasion of Maryland proved to be abortive, Lee did not retreat quickly into Virginia but allowed himself to be drawn into a direct confrontation at Antietam which he had no hope of winning and which proved to be the bloodiest single battle in American history. Since the Confederacy was greatly inferior to the North in manpower, any such expenditure of blood should have been exchanged only for great strategic gains. Standing and fighting at Antietam offered no benefits, whereas a withdrawal into Virginia would have retained the South's offensive power. Antietam also gave Abraham Lincoln the Northern victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which insured that Britain and France would not come to the aid of the Confederacy.
In 1863 Lee allowed himself to drawn into an identical battle of attrition at Gettysburg. When his direct efforts to knock aside the Union army failed, Lee compounded his error by destroying the last offensive power of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pickett's charge across nearly a mile of open, bullet-and shell-torn ground. This frontal assault was doomed before it started. James Longstreet and other commanders recognized this and Lee himself acknowledged the blunder at its disastrous end, when only half of the 15,000 men in the charge returned to Confederate lines.
Yet Lee was not in a dangerous position when he bumped into the Federal Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. He was north of the Union forces and, since supplies were far more plentiful in this direction than back in Virginia, he could easily have swung past the Federal force blocking his path and swept on to Harrisburg or York, thereby putting the Union army on "the horns of a dilemma" by threatening Philadelphia in one, Baltimore in another and Washington in a third direction. If the bulk of the Army of the Potomac had pulled back to defend the nation's capital, Lee could have moved southeast along the Susquehanna river, threatening Philadelphia or Baltimore. If George G. Meade, the Union commander, had kept his main army shielding Washington, Lee could have captured Baltimore, where all of the rail lines to the north met, thereby cutting Washington off from reinforcements and supplies. If Meade had moved his troops to defend Baltimore, Lee could have crossed the Susquehanna and seized Philadelphia, the second-largest American city and a point disastrous for the North to lose.
Another Civil War general who enjoys fame but who came close to losing the war, this time for the North, was Ulysses S. Grant. In his 1864 campaign in Virginia, Grant threw his army into one direct assault after another against emplaced Confederate forces. Grant's aim was to destroy Lee's army. But he nearly destroyed his own, losing half of his total strength between the Wilderness in the spring and the stalemate in front of Petersburg in midsummer. By the late stages of this campaign, Grant's troops no longer were willing to press their attacks, because they knew they would be defeated. Indeed at Cold Harbor the Union soldiers were so certain of death that, before the assault, they pinned their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their families could be notified after the battle.
Grant achieved his only strategic success not by battle but by maneuver. He got across the James river and close to the main railway supplying Richmond from the south because he elected not, once again, to attack Lee directly in another defensive emplacement, but to slip across the James and try to capture Petersburg before it could be defended. He barely failed and the war in Virginia turned into a stalemate which Sherman, not Grant, broke by his move on the Confederate rear.
Direct moves intellectually similar to those of Lee and Grant contributed to German defeats in two world wars. In the opening stages of World War I, the German commander, Helmuth von Moltke, undermined the famous plan of Count Alfred von Schlieffen to send the great bulk of the German army on an "end run" to the west and then south of Paris. This main German "hammer" was to turn back north and shatter the French and British armies against the German "anvil" positioned in fortresses along the Franco-German border. Moltke turned the wide indirect sweep intended to cross the Seine river west of Paris into a direct attack to the north of the river and squarely on Paris. This permitted the French to block the army's path and achieve the "miracle of the Marne" by stopping the German offensive and creating the trench-war stalemate that lasted until 1918.
In late 1942 Adolf Hitler's insistence upon a direct assault on Stalingrad instead of withdrawing German forces while there was still time resulted in the destruction of a large German army and the loss of initiative in the east---and ultimately the war---to the Russians and other Allies.
* * * * * * * * * *
This book is intended to show, by specific examples, how great generals in the past have applied long-standing rules or principles of war that nearly always will secure victory---if only because they have used them when their opponents have not. These rules are not rigid prescriptions, like algebraic formulas, but are concepts which must be applied artfully as circumstances call for. They are not esoteric abstractions understandable only to military experts and advanced students in command and general staff colleges. Rather, they are applications of common sense to the ever-present problems which emerge when two nations or groups of nations range against each other in mortal combat.
The purpose of every belligerent is to impose his will on his opponent. Trying to induce others to abide by one's wishes is a common human aim, applicable to individuals and groups as well as nations. The only distinction between ordinary human disputes and war is that war is an act of violence in which one side exerts force against the other side. If a side could attain its purpose without force it, of course, would do so, since no nation will attack unless there is resistance. For this reason the nineteenth-century Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of national policy by other means.
It may appear obvious that every individual, group and nation engaged in any conflict should always apply the policy of Paris in the Trojan War and strike only at the Achilles's heel. Yet the history of human relations, as well as of war, shows conclusively that human beings more frequently ignore or do not see the opportunities for getting around an enemy or opponent and instead strike straight at the most obvious target they see.
It is uncommon for a person to achieve his goals by moving on his opponent's rear, either literally or figuratively. Human beings have been conditioned by a million years of culture to cooperate within a group. This conditioning makes us loyal to our group and bellicose to the enemy of our group. Our tendency in each case, whether cooperating with our friends or fighting our enemies, is to be direct, not devious or circuitous.
It is only the unusual person who can separate his primeval desire for direct confrontation of his enemies from the need to disguise and hide his actions so as to catch the enemy off guard and vulnerable. Yet this is the only route to great generalship. Sun Tzu, the celebrated Chinese strategist, wrote about 400 B.C. that "all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him." Sun Tzu also wrote that in war "the way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak."1
Many people have a misconception as to the true objective in war. It is not, as numerous military and civilian leaders alike believe, the destruction of the enemy's armed forces on the battlefield. This concept, generally rendered into shorthand as "Napoleonic doctrine," dominated the writing of military textbooks and regulations and the teaching in general staff colleges for well over a century.
Napoleon himself was not the author of this "doctrine," although, as Liddell Hart points out, it emerged from Napoleon's practice after the Battle of Jena in 1806 of relying on mass rather than mobility, which had governed his strategy until then. After Jena Napoleon was concerned exclusively with battle, confident he could crush his opponent if brought to close grips.
Later Napoleonic campaigns based on sheer offensive power obscured the lessons of earlier campaigns in which Napoleon combined deception, mobility and surprise to achieve tremendous results with great economy of force. Clausewitz was most impressed with Napoleon's later campaigns and became the "prophet of mass" focusing attention on great battles. This doctrine suited the Prussian system of mass conscription to create a "nation in arms." The concept achieved its triumph in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when superior Prussian numbers won an advantage. Thereafter other powers hurried to imitate Germany's model. World War I showed that the generals' lust for battle combined with the recently developed machine gun reduced war to mass slaughter. Though the result was to kill or maim much of Europe's youth, the idea that war is to destroy the enemy's main force in battle has continued to influence---and in many cases guide---our thinking to this day.
Yet the purpose of war is not battle at all. It is a more perfect peace. To attain peace a belligerent must break the will of the enemy people to wage war. No nation goes to war to fight. It goes to war to attain its national purpose. It may be that a nation must destroy the enemy's army to achieve this purpose. But the destruction is not the end, it is only the incidental byproduct or means to the end.
If a commander looks at the peace he is seeking at the conclusion of war, he may find numerous ways of attaining it by avoiding the enemy's main force and striking at targets that may destroy the enemy's desire or ability to wage war. The great Roman leader in the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, weakened the Carthaginian hold on Spain by ignoring the enemy's armies and unexpectedly seizing the main enemy base, present-day Cartagena. In the final stages of the Napoleonic wars in 1814, the Allies forced Napoleon's surrender by turning away from his army and capturing Paris, thereby causing the French people to lose heart and give up. Sherman's army fought very few military engagements in late 1864 and early 1865 but, by marching through Georgia and the Carolinas, destroyed the will of the Southern people to wage war and caused many Rebel soldiers to desert the army and go home to aid their families.
Clausewitz understood that the purpose of war is political and not military and actually expressed this in his writings. But his syntax and logic were so obscure and difficult that the soldiers who drew their inspiration from Clausewitz heeded less his qualifying limitations and more his sweeping phrases, like the "bloody solution, destruction of enemy forces, is the first-born son of war" and "let us not hear of generals who conquer without bloodshed." Clausewitz's emphasis on battle likewise demonstrated a contradiction in his theory. For if war is a continuation of policy, the goal to be achieved in the war is the primary purpose. But, in emphasizing victory in war, Clausewitz looked only to the end of the war, not the subsequent peace.
Although Clausewitz was actually saying that battle is the most usual way of achieving a nation's goal in war, generations of direct soldiers---unable to weigh his contradictions or decipher his obscurities---read that it is the only way.
* * * * * * * * * *
We now can define the purpose of military strategy, or the broad conduct of war. It is to diminish the possibility of resistance. The great general eliminates or reduces resistance by means of movement and surprise. As Sun Tzu says, "Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." To achieve this, Sun Tzu recommends that the successful general "march swiftly to places where he is not expected."2 By appearing at points the enemy must hasten to defend, the enemy is likely to be distracted and to weaken or abandon other points, thereby contributing to or ensuring his defeat. Speed and mobility are the basic features of strategy. Napoleon said: "Space we can recover, time never."
In the chapters ahead we will examine how great generals like Napoleon have carried out the principles of war. It may be of help to summarize here briefly a few of the most salient principles so as to make the actions of great generals easier to follow.
B.H. Liddell Hart epitomizes much military wisdom in two axioms. The successful general, he says, chooses the line or course of least expectation and he exploits the line of least resistance.3
Although these two admonitions may seem self-evident, generals rarely follow them or understand when these axioms are employed against them. The Battles of Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges were fought on the lines of maximum expectation and of maximum resistance. When the Germans invaded the Low Countries in May, 1940, the British and French commanders could conceive of no response but to race into Belgium to counter frontally what they believed was the principal German assault, which they also thought was frontal. This permitted the Germans to follow the line of least expectation and drive through the "impassable" Ardennes and break out at Sedan. Now behind the Allies, they were able to rush to the English Channel along the line of least resistance. Likewise, American leaders in December, 1941, were expecting an assault in the East Indies and perhaps the Philippines and were unprepared for the Japanese aerial descent on Pearl Harbor.
Genghis Khan and his great Mongol general Subedei Bahadur practiced another principle of war, shown to perfection in Subedei's invasion of eastern Europe in 1241. We don't know the name the Mongols used for it but the early eighteenth-century French army strategist Pierre de Bourcet conceived the same principle independently and called it a "plan with branches."4
Subedei sent four separate columns into Europe. One rushed into Poland and Germany north of the Carpathians and drew off all European forces in that direction. The three others entered Hungary at widely separated points, threatening various objectives and keeping armies from Austria and other states from combining with the Hungarians. The three Mongol columns then converged on the Danube river near Budapest to deal with the now-unsupported Hungarians.
Bourcet recommended that generals spread out their attacking forces into two or more advancing columns that could reunite quickly when necessary but take lines threatening multiple or alternative objectives which the enemy had to defend, thus forcing him to divide his strength and prevent his concentration. If the enemy blocked one line of approach, the general could instantly develop another to serve the same purpose. Union General Sherman used this method in his march through Georgia and and the Carolinas in 1864-65. His widely separated columns threatened two or more objectives, forcing the Confederates to divide their forces to defend all---and therefore were unable to defend any. This forced the Rebels in most cases to abandon their weakly held positions without battle.
Like Sherman and Subedei, the attacker using the "plan with branches" is often able to reunite his columns to seize one objective before the enemy can react and concentrate against him. A variation is for part of an army to converge on a known objective while the rest descends on its rear.
Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862 practiced a modification of the plan by using pure deception: he advanced directly on the main Federal force along the principal approach, then secretly shifted across a high mountain to descend unexpectedly on the Federal flank and rear.
Napoleon embellished Bourcet's plan with branches by spreading separate advancing columns wide like a weighted fishing net. These columns could concentrate quickly and close around any isolated enemy unit that fell in the way.
Napoleon also owed much to another eighteenth-century French theorist, the Comte de Guibert, who preached mobility to concentrate superior strength against a point of enemy weakness and to maneuver against the flank or rear of the enemy. Using great mobility, Napoleon maneuvered his waving net, stretched wide over a large region. This greatly confused his foes, unable to fathom Napoleon's real purpose. They usually spread out their own forces, hoping to counter these mystifying movements. Napoleon then quickly coalesced his separate columns to destroy a single enemy force before it could be reinforced or he descended with his army as a "grouped whole" on the enemy's rear.
The most deadly of Napoleon's strategic methods was this manoeuvre sur les derrières. His method embodied the injunction of Sun Tzu: march unexpectedly away from the enemy's main strength and concentrate one's own strength against an enemy point that is weak, yet vital or important to the enemy. The art of war is to create this strength at the point of weakness.
Napoleon added another element by frequently seizing a terrain feature in the rear, like a mountain range, defile or a river, where he established a strategic barrage or barrier which prevented the enemy from retreating or getting supplies and reinforcements. Among others, he achieved victory with strategic barrages in the Marengo campaign in Italy in 1800 and in the Ulm campaign leading up to his victory at Austerlitz in 1805. By the time of the American Civil War it no longer was necessary to seize a terrain feature. Armies were relying on railroads for their supplies and new troops. A strategic barrage could be established merely by blocking a railway line in the enemy's rear. General Grant did this at Jackson, Mississippi, in 1863 and thereby isolated the Confederate forces at Vicksburg. This led to the surrender of the city, opening of the Mississippi river to Union boats and loss of the trans-Mississippi states to the Confederacy.
Attacks on an enemy's rear are devastating for a number of reasons. By forcing the enemy to change front, he tends to be dislocated and unable to fight or to fight effectively. An army, like a man, is much more sensitive to menace to the back than to the front. For this reason a rear attack induces fear and distraction. In addition, a move on the rear often disturbs the distribution and organization of enemy forces, may separate them, threatens the retreat route and endangers delivery of supplies and reinforcements. A modern army can exist for some time without additional food but it can't last more than a few days without ammunition and motor fuel.
An attack on the enemy's rear has grave psychological effects on enemy soldiers, but especially on the enemy commander. It often creates in the commander's mind the fear of being trapped and of being unable to counter his opponent's will. In extreme cases this can lead to paralysis of the commander's decision-making powers and the disintegration of an army.
A rear or flank attack must be a surprise to be wholly successful. This applies both to tactics, or actual battle, and to strategy. If an enemy anticipates a rear attack, he can often move to counter it and will usually be prepared to defend against it. In addition, a rear attack normally succeeds only when the enemy is "fixed" or held in place by other forces on his front and is unable to switch troops in time to meet the surprise blow.
The Prussian king, Frederick the Great, did not fully understand this principle and suffered such severe battle losses that he nearly forfeited his state. Frederick always employed tactics of indirect approach but his flank and rear assaults were made on a narrow circuit and did not fall unexpectedly. In 1757, for example, he found the Austrians strongly entrenched on the heights behind the river at Prague. Leaving a detachment designed to mask his design, he moved upstream, crossed the river and advanced on the Austrian right. The Austrians saw the maneuver and had time to change front. The Prussian infantry fell in the thousands when they attempted a frontal attack across a fire-swept gradual slope. Only the unexpected arrival of the Prussian cavalry turned the scales.
* * * * * * * * * *
The essential formula of tactics or actual battle is a convergent assault. A commander achieves this by dividing the attacking force into two or more segments. Ideally each segment attacks the same target simultaneously and in close coordination, but from a different direction or approach, thereby holding all enemy elements in the grip of battle and preventing any one from aiding others. Sometimes one part of a force fixes the enemy in place or distracts him while the other part maneuvers to gain surprise and break up the defense.
A true convergent assault is vastly different from a feint or "holding" attack by one force with the aim of diverting the enemy from the main blow. Unnumbered commanders over the centuries have wrecked their hopes with such obvious feints which an astute enemy has recognized or they have tried to hit an objective so divided or spread out that the enemy is not distracted and can bring up forces to repel each blow.
A premier example of a convergent assault took place in 1632 during the Thirty Years War when Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus set up guns and burned straw to create a smokescreen while forcing one point on the Lech River in Bavaria. This held the Austrian Marshal Tilly in place while another Swedish force crossed the Lech on a bridge of boats a mile upstream. Assailed from two directions simultaneously, Tilly was unable to defend either point. His troops fell back and Tilly was mortally wounded.
Napoleon's characteristic battle plan was "envelopment, breakthrough and exploitation." He tried to rivet the enemy's attention with a strong frontal attack to draw all enemy reserves into action. Napoleon then moved a large force on the enemy's flank or rear next to his line of supply and retreat. When the enemy shifted forces from the front to shield against this flank attack, Napoleon broke a hole in a weakened section of the main front with suddenly massed artillery, sent cavalry and infantry through this hole to create a breakthrough, then used cavalry to shatter and pursue the disordered enemy.
In the Korean War advancing Communist Chinese troops employed a somewhat similar formula. Since they could not counter United Nations air power and artillery, they shifted their main assaults to nighttime. Their general method was to get a force to the rear of enemy positions to cut off escape routes and supply roads. Then they sent in both frontal and flank attacks in the darkness to bring the enemy to grips. Chinese soldiers generally closed in on several sides of a small enemy troop position until they made a penetration, either by destroying it or forcing the defenders to withdraw. The Chinese then crept forward against the open flank of the next small unit and repeated the process.
None of the axioms employed by great generals is difficult. Indeed, once they have been employed successfully they reveal their innate simplicity and appear to be the obvious and sometimes only logical solution. Yet all great ideas are simple. The trick is to see them before others. This book is about generals who possessed the vision to see the obvious when others did not.
1 Regarding notes. In notes below and throughout the book, some references are given only by the last name of the author or editor. These references are cited in full in the Selected Bibliography. References not listed in the bibliography are cited in full where they appear in the notes. Numbers in notes refer to pages. Sun Tzu, 11, 29.
2 Ibid., 15, 25.
3 Liddell Hart, Strategy, 341, 348.
4 Ibid., 114.<< More on 'How Great Generals Win' << Back to top