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Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts
2 Feb 2023 | 6:29 pm

1. The Great War: Groping for a Solution

This is Part 9 of our series on maneuver in warfare, which will itself be just one of multiple series on various aspects of military history. Simply as a refresher, here are the preceding entries in this series:

  • Part 1 examined the basic notion of maneuver as a means to create battlefield asymmetry, using the battles of Leuctra, Gazala, and Crimea as examples.

  • Part 2 discussed the use of dispersion to create ambiguity and paralyze the enemy, using campaigns by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Helmuth von Moltke as examples.

  • Part 3 covered the archetype of the annihilation battle, using ancient examples like Lake Trasimene, Cannae, and Walaja.

  • Part 4 introduced the peculiar geometry of musket armies, drawing lessons from the battles of Breitenfeld, Leuthen, and Zondorf.

  • Part 5 was a comprehensive look at Napoleon's art of war, including his victories at Austerlitz and Jena.

  • Part 6 examined the first signs that conventional offensive action was beginning to falter in the American Civil War.

  • Part 7 studied the prosecution of the Franco-Prussian War by Helmuth von Moltke, and how his campaigns set a template for the German approach to war.

  • Part 8 discussed the famous breakdown and failure of maneuver warfare at the onset of World War One, and contemplated the causes of this failure.

As the astute reader will no doubt have noticed, there is an element of chronological progression here, and we are rapidly approaching the Second World War. Before we get there, however, we must look at the ways that armies of the Great War attempted to revive viable offensive operations in the final years of the conflict. In particular, we will take up, in turn, notable solutions (and attempted solutions) by the Russian, German, and Anglo-French armies.

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This is of the utmost importance before advancing to the great mobile campaigns of the Second World War, because the new technologies, tactics, and concepts of that war did not arise entirely sui generis in the interwar period. They were, rather, an extension of innovations that were already clearly present by the end of 1918. Thus, we can say that just as the causes of the Second World War were seeded in the First, the methods were as well.

Brusilov: Dispersal and Suppression

One of the chief ironies of the First World War was the tragic arc of Russia's participation. From a military-technical perspective, no great power disappointed as badly as Russia in the first years of the war. Russia's enormous population and strategic depth was greatly feared by Germany - at one point in the prewar period, the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg bemoaned that "Russia grows and grows. She lies on us like a nightmare." German (and Russian) planners presumed that the sheer mass of Russia's armies would be a strategic nightmare that would make a two-front war virtually unwinnable for the Central Powers.

Instead, Russia's armies in 1914 proved to be woefully incompetent to an extent that completely nullified their numerical advantages. 85 percent of Russia's soldiers were peasants, and the vast majority of these were illiterate - even those serving in technical capacities. Even in the railway battalions, where duties were logistical and technical in nature, over a third of the men were unable to read. By one assessment, three quarters of Russia's officer corps lacked technical training directly relevant to their duties. This lack of training, combined with technical deficiencies in the artillery arm and problems with shell production, left the Russian army greatly overmatched against the Germans.

The result was two years of defeats and high casualties. Russia's opening invasion of Germany met disaster at Tannenberg, and by the end of 1915 Russia had been forced to withdraw from Poland, Galicia, and the Baltic coast - abandoning a huge swathe of prewar Russian territory and pulling the frontline nearly all the way back to Minsk. So while prewar German planners were terrified of being crushed by Russia before they could defeat France, after the first 18 months of the war the Russian front was the one place where Germany was unequivocally winning.

From this nadir, the Russian Army actually began a course of marked improvement in 1916 and 1917. A reinvigorated industrial policy began to rectify the shell shortage, while the army at the front showed greatly improved combat effectiveness. In fact, in 1916 Russia launched what would be by far its most successful offensive of the war - arguably one of the most successful operations by any army. While the Germans retained an advantage in combat effectiveness, Russia did manage to essentially crush the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1916 and bring it to the verge of collapse. In the end, Russian defeat was brought about by the rot and collapse of the political system, not by battlefield defeat - for at the time the Tsarist regime fell in 1917, the Russian army was fighting better than it had in 1914.

This temporary Russian comeback was owed largely to one specific officer - General Alexei Brusilov. As a result of churn in the Russian command hierarchy (with a series of indecisive or incompetent generals being dismissed), Brusilov was finally put in command of Russia's Southwestern Front (a front being the Russian/Soviet equivalent of an Army Group). In this position, he would prove to be by far Russia's most competent and innovative commander of the war.

General Alexei Brusilov

In 1916, the Russian Stavka (high command) began to conceive of a broad offensive aimed at achieving two goals. The first was to relieve the pressure on France (which was engaged in a horrific battle at Verdun) by forcing the Germans to redeploy forces to the east, and the second was to achieve a breakthrough which would allow Russia to recapture the Baltic coastline. Accordingly, Russia's northern and western fronts were to be the main striking forces. Brusilov, in command of the Southwestern front, was to launch a diversionary offensive simply to ease the pressure on the other two fronts.

Brusilov could have simply thrown forces into a massed frontal attack, achieving his diversionary task with minimal creativity and high loss of life. Instead he pursued an innovative approach which turned his "diversionary" attack into the most successful Russian offensive of the war and shattered the Hapsburg Army for good.

Brusilov's innovations were both operational and tactical, and can be broadly grouped into two categories: force dispersion and the use of artillery in a suppressive, rather than destructive role.

One of the first critical decisions that Brusilov made was that his attack would have no center of gravity or schwerpunkt. Instead, he instructed all five of the field armies in his Southwestern Front (again, the Russian term for an army group) to plan offensives in their own sectors, and furthermore each Corps was ordered to prepare its own attack. Thus, rather than concentrating reserves and firepower to hammer on a single section of the frontline, Brusilov planned to activate virtually his entire front, attacking along a line some 200 miles wide, practically from Pinsk in the north (modern Belarus) all the way to the present day border between Ukraine and Romania.

This dispersal of effort required Brusilov to abandon longstanding notions of generalship - transitioning from what we will call a push to a pull model of the attack, and eschewing conventional wisdom about the necessity of concentrating forces.

An elaboration:

Generalship, as archetypically practiced by Napoleon, conventionally featured the general making operational decisions like a chess player, deciding where to commit his main effort and then feeding reserves and firepower into these key positions. The general impression of such battle consisted of a top-down information flow - the general observing the course of the battle and "pushing" his reserves in at the place of his time and choosing. Brusilov, in contrast, created a broad front with greatly dispersed effort - the commitment of reserves and exploitation would therefore be determined by a bottom-up information flow. Not every attack along the entire 200 miles would succeed, but reserves would be "pulled" into reinforcing successful breaches. Thus, the guiding animus for the continuation of the assault became on the ground feedback in the lower echelons of the command hierarchy, rather than the premeditation of the overall commander.

Brusilov's decision to attack in a dispersed manner across his entire front ran in direct contravention of the conventional wisdom of the day. Virtually all armies in this period aimed to accumulate massive reserves (of men, guns, and ammunition) in relatively narrow sectors. Both the allied offensive at the Somme and the German operation at Verdun targeted sections of front less than 30 miles wide.

It had furthermore become customary for generals to pout, threaten, complain, and otherwise do everything possible to cajole high command to assign them every single man, gun, and shell possible before actually attem.pting an offensive. Brusilov's counterpart, General Alexei Evert, was in command of the Russian Western Front and was tasked with the primary thrust of Russia's offensive. As the focal point of the operation, Evert endlessly demanded more men, more munitions, more guns, and more time - delaying the attack by weeks in the process. Brusilov, however, being tasked with a mere diversion, had to make do with what he had.

Therefore, at a time where standard operating procedure was to amass the absolute maximum possible combat power on a small and targeted section of front, Brusilov - despite being a low priority for reinforcements and material - planned to attack everywhere in his sector, with every corps in his command planning its own attempted breach of the Austrian lines.

The operational choice to favor dispersion over concentration had a brilliant synthesis with Brusilov's other innovation, which occurred on the tactical level. Given that his task was diversionary in nature, his southwestern front was a low priority for shell deliveries relative to Evert's forces. Brusilov therefore had to think carefully about how to conduct the attack with limited resources. On the whole, Brusilov enjoyed a narrow advantage in manpower over the Austrians in his section of front (perhaps 500,000 Russians against 440,000 Austrian troops) and a similar number of artillery pieces, though Brusilov was working on a shoestring budget of heavy artillery shells.

Russian Infantry run through their drills

Brusilov's solution was to conduct extensive reconnaissance and use his artillery in a suppressive, rather than overtly destructive role. He assigned his air forces (perhaps 100 planes) exclusively to reconnaissance duty, making extensive flyovers of the Austrian lines and creating thorough sketches of the enemy defenses.

Brusilov's attack finally began on June 4. Troops on all fronts of the war were by this time accustomed to agonizingly lengthy artillery bombardments precipitating attacks. It was not uncommon for defenses to be barraged for a week or more before infantry attacks began, with the intention of simply smashing the frontline of the defense to bits with thousands upon thousands of indiscriminate shells. Brusilov, working on a tight ration of shells, instead targeted specific hardpoints, with careful coordination to end the barrage just as his infantry arrived at the enemy trenches - a span of time which was itself shortened by his ambitious program of digging trenches and tunnels into no-man's land, so that in many cases Russian troops only had to cover 40 yards or so to reach the Hapsburg defenses.

The synthesis of all this was complete confusion and panic on the Austrian side. The Russian bombardment was focused and short lived, and the defining experience of the Hapsburg troops was bewilderment when the shelling abruptly stopped and Russian troops began to spill into their trenches. Many frontline Austrian troops were captured still huddling in their shelters - they did not even have time to come out and re-man the lines after the end of the artillery preparation.

Hapsburg officers loitering aimlessly

The decision to attack across a widely dispersed front had the further effect of paralyzing Austrian command, as it was not immediately clear where the main point of Russian effort was directed - and by extension, where they should send reserves.

The results seemed to portend a decisive Russian victory. This was a war where offensive attempts generally defined success as a matter of only a few kilometers. At the Somme, for example, 141 days of combat and some 600,000 casualties managed to gain the allies a salient in German lines that was only 10 kilometers deep. In contrast, Brusilov's offensive managed to bash huge breaches in the Austrian line (in some sectors, the entire first belt of defenses was captured on the first day) so that by the middle of June the Russians had already pushed 60 kilometers into Austrian lines in some places.

The rapidity and the breadth of the Russian advance left Austrian units overwhelmed, disoriented, and frequently cut off from both neighboring units and command. Thus, Russian success in taking territory quickly spiraled into outright collapse among many Austrian units, and the Russians began to take a huge number of prisoners. The Austrian 7th Army, for example, lost 100,000 men in just two weeks, many of them captured. It looked as if the Hapsburg force was on the verge of total failure.

Unfortunately, several factors conspired to prevent Brusilov from leveraging his tremendous tactical success into a true strategic victory.

The first such factor was the utter uselessness of Brusilov's counterpart to the north - General Evert, commander of the Russian Western Front. Evert repeatedly postponed and delayed his own offensive (frequently to demand more men and more shells from Stavka), to the effect that there was absolutely no pressure elsewhere on the eastern front. This allowed the Germans to allocate some of their own reserves to backstop the Austrians and help them stabilize the front. Had Evert's offensive been launched roughly concurrent with Brusilov's attack, the Germans may have been unable to assist and Brusilov could possibly have cracked the entire Austrian front beyond repair.

The other problem, broadly speaking, was that Brusilov simply did not have a clear vision for how to exploit his success. The ideal operational target would have been Kovel - a major railroad intersection which would slice the Central Powers' transit in the theater in two if it were captured. Unfortunately Brusilov did not receive clear direction from Stavka, and he opted to spend the crucial days of mid-June consolidating his gains rather than exploiting the hole that he had created.

As a result of Evert's inactivity and a lack of exploitation, the Central Powers were able to restore the integrity of their front and launch a counterattack (with the Germans doing all the heavy lifting) which stopped Brusilov's advance towards Kovel. Further attempts to keep the advance going failed - by this time, Brusilov's army group was simply at its limits, owing to mounting losses, exhaustion of munitions stocks, and the strains from fighting so far from Russian railheads.

A Russian artillery battery prepares for action

So, what to make of all this? Brusilov's offensive was by far Russia's most successful operation of the war. It pushed the entire front with Austria some 50 to 60 kilometers to the west, and inflicted huge casualties on the Central Powers. The Austrians alone lost some 600,000 men, the majority of whom were captured. When German losses are taken into account, Central Powers casualties were well over 850,000. Unfortunately, Brusilov's failed efforts to continue the offensive through the late summer months caused his own losses to balloon as well, and the entire operation became essentially a manpower wash, with both sides taking similar total losses.

In the end, Brusilov definitively succeeded in two major achievements. The entire point of his attack had, in the first place, been diversionary - and what a spectacular diversion it became. Brusilov's front ended up sucking in 30 extra divisions in German and Austrian reinforcements, denuding the Central Powers on other fronts and finally taking the pressure of the French at Verdun. Secondly, the huge losses taken by the Austrians essentially broke their ability to function independently - they were forced to enter into joint command with the Germans, and for the rest of the war they were unable to conduct operations independent of German oversight and assistance.

For us, Brusilov offered early hints that there was, indeed, a tactical solution to the trenches. While he was unable to convert his tactical success into a true strategic breakthrough, Brusilov demonstrated that careful tactical preparation could indeed break through fortified defenses, and in particular that artillery could have better success being used in a precision role, rather than as a brute instrument for mindlessly clubbing enemy lines. Furthermore, his broad dispersion and operational ambiguity prevented the Austrians from rushing reserves to the front. In contrast, the other two Russian front commanders, Evert and Kuropatkin, would concentrate their offensives on narrow sectors (8 to 10 km wide) and both attacks collapsed with heavy loss of Russian life.

Ultimately, the fairest assessment of Brusilov is that he was a competent officer who successfully solved the tactical problem of breaching prepared defensive belts, but was neglectful and indecisive on the operational level - that is to say, leveraging a tactical success into meaningful objectives. Or, as a contemporary Russian general put it:

The command of the Southwestern Front gave its particular attention to the irresistible completion of the first part of its task - completing a breakthrough - but did not sufficiently value the second part -the best use of that breakthrough to put our army in a better strategic position… when we got out in the open, when we broke out from the trenches of the enemy's fortified belt, when we needed to maneuver… our strategy suffered from its neglect and led us to a dead end at Kovel.

Brusilov had done better than anyone before him, but even so, three years into the war maneuver and decisive operations seemed as elusive as ever. Soon, however, it would be Germany's turn to shake things up.

The Kaiserschlacht

For Germany, 1917 was an agonizing year of missed opportunities at the highest levels. This was, at the same time, the year that Germany gained the best opportunity to win the war while also making egregious decisions that guaranteed her defeat. In 1917, Germany was victorious in the east - pursuing a sort of hybrid warfare against Russia by mixing battlefield action with destabilizing political intrigue - arranging for the transportation and financing of an anti-war Russian pamphleteer named Vladimir Lenin. This mixed strategy worked. The Russian home front (in particular the political sphere in Petersburg) collapsed before the Russian army did, and by early 1918 Russia had completely dropped out of the war.

The collapse of Russia afforded Germany a real opportunity to win the war. They were now mercifully freed from the burden of the two front war, freeing up troops which gave the German Army a substantial numerical advantage in the west for the first time in the war. Unfortunately for Berlin, this advantage was squandered by one of the all-time great strategic misfires. Also in 1917, the Germans made the unwise decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against allied shipping, which necessarily entailed sinking American vessels and trigging American entry into the war.

Thus, the Germans found themselves at the end of 1917 in the peculiar position of enjoying a powerful but temporary military advantage in the west. The defeat of Russia gave them an edge in both manpower and firepower, but this advantage would last only until American units began to arrive in Europe. The order of the day for Hindenburg and Ludendorff, therefore, was to contrive a way to win the war during this narrow window of opportunity.

Ludendorff had neither the facial structure nor the technical means to sustain a mobile operation

The ensuing German offensive is known by many names. Formally designated Operation Michael, it is also variably called the German Spring Offensive, the Ludendorff Offensive, or - most cinematically, the Kaiserschlacht: the Kaiser's Battle.

This final roll of the dice by Germany was characterized by two notable deviations from prior offensives.

The first was the return to classically Prussian plans for operational level maneuver. After the failure of the Moltke Plan in 1914, German operations in the west had become very limited in scope and were largely limited to contrived attempts to attrit allied forces. With Operation Michael, however, Ludendorff aimed to return to mobile operations targeted at army level allied targets. More specifically, the German plan was to attack the "hinge" in the allied line between the British and French sectors. The German offensive would target the connective front between the British 5th Army and the French 6th; having breached this gap, they would attempt to swing northward, cutting the French and British off from each other and hopefully pinning the British against the Channel. An added benefit of this plan was that the sector slated for attack was also directly on the path to Paris. Paris was not the operational target - the British Expeditionary Force was. But the attack, simply by virtue of creating a threat in the direction of the French Capital, contained within it the prospect of misdirecting the French.

The second great deviation in the spring offensive was on the tactical level. Germany, like all combatants, had come to understand that massed attacks with stereotyped formations were simply too costly to be a viable way to breach fortified defensive belts. Cognizance of this fact led the Germans to steadily develop their infamous Stormtroopers, or Shock Troops.

Stormtroopers were trained in methods which were colloquially called Infiltration Tactics, but the reality was less sinister than it sounded. We can enumerate the changes of these new infantry tactics as follows:

  • Devolution of tactical tasks to smaller units

  • Irregular pace of advance

  • Heavy use of fire and movement tactical maneuver

This is much less complicated than it sounds. First, the base tactical unit shifted from the company (several hundred men) to smaller units like the platoon (perhaps 50 men). These smaller groups would then conduct their advance irregularly, that is to say, more spread out and making proper use of cover. This was the end of the "charge", as such. Rather than units of many hundreds attempting to rush across open ground to assault the enemy position, smaller units would work their way forward at a judicious and measured pace.

Storm units were trained in recognizably modern small unit tactics

The final point in particular - the use of fire and movement - is where the German infiltration tactics clearly showed themselves to be the precursor of modern infantry combat. Fire and movement is, to this day, an absolutely essential and basic infantry tactic. It involves the cooperative action of the unit (be it a squad or a platoon) split into two elements. A "firing element" suppresses the enemy position by firing upon it, covering the approach of the "maneuvering element." In Operation Michael, the first echelon of assault troops were liberally equipped with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and grenades, enabling them to effectively suppress and destroy enemy positions.

Possibly, this seems very rudimentary and obvious to the modern reader. At the time, however, this was a rather significant shift in thinking, because it required surrendering the centralized control that had long characterized armies. By their very nature, infiltration tactics gave unprecedented importance and initiative to junior officers by turning small units, like platoons and squads, into maneuvering and dynamic forces. In the armies of Napoleon's day, lieutenants simply did not make decisions. They existed to keep discipline in the lines and call out repetitious and formulaic orders to march, reload, and fire. For a stormtrooper unit in 1918, however, a lieutenant would be expected to make vital and creative decisions about an assault on the spot. In other words, we might say that the tactical changes which occurred during the war led to an expansion and a deepening of the thinking, decision making officer corps.

The German storm or shock troopers clearly foreshadowed the future of infantry tactics, with their ability to function in small units, their cooperative use of arms like machine guns and mortars, and their professional, task oriented conduct led by officers like lieutenants. Crucially for the Germans, however, in 1918 only a small portion of the infantry had been trained and equipped according to these new standards and tactics. Therefore, the Germans adopted a mixed solution - each standard infantry regiment (still fighting in a more traditional, stereotyped way) was paired with a single storm platoon, which would lead the charge. This made the German army something of a diamond tipped spear. The point was very deadly indeed, but the strength of the shaft was questionable.

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Big Serge Thoughts
20 Jan 2023 | 8:22 pm

2. Russo-Ukrainian War: The World Blood Pump

Iron, Ash, and Blood

Since Russia's surprise decision to voluntarily withdraw from west bank Kherson in the first week of November, there has been little in the way of dramatic changes to the frontlines in Ukraine. In part, this reflects the predictable late autumn weather in Eastern Europe, which leaves battlefields waterlogged and clogged with mud and greatly inhibits mobility. For hundreds of years, November has been a bad month for attempting to move armies any sort of significant distance, and like clockwork we started to see videos of vehicles stuck in the mud in Ukraine.

The return of static positional warfare, however, also reflects the synergistic effect of increasing Ukrainian exhaustion along with a Russian commitment to patiently attriting and denuding Ukraine's remaining combat capability. They have found an ideal place to achieve this in the Donbas.

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It has gradually become apparent that Russia is committed to a positional attritional war, as this maximizes the asymmetry of their advantage in ranged fires. There is an ongoing degradation of Ukraine's warmaking ability which is allowing Russia to patiently maintain the current tempo, while it organizes its newly mobilized forces for offensive action in the coming year, setting the stage for cascading and unsustainable Ukrainian losses.

In Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises, a formerly wealthy, now down on his luck character is asked how he went bankrupt. "Two ways", he replies, "gradually and then suddenly." Someday we may ask how Ukraine lost the war and receive much the same answer.

Verdun Redux

It is safe to say that western regime media has set a very low standard for reporting on the war in Ukraine, given the extent to which the mainstream narrative is disconnected from reality. Even given these low standards, the way the ongoing battle in Bakhmut is being presented to the population is truly ludicrous. The Bakhmut axis is being spun to western audiences as a perfect synthesis of all the tropes of Russian failure: in a nutshell, Russia is suffering horrible casualties as it struggles to capture a small town with negligible operational importance. British officials, in particular, have been highly vocal in recent weeks insisting that Bakhmut has little to no operational value.

The truth is the literal opposite of this story: Bakhmut is an operationally critical keystone position in the Ukrainian defense, and Russia has transformed it into a death pit which compels the Ukrainians to sacrifice exorbitant numbers of men in order to hold the position as long as possible. In fact, the insistence that Bakhmut is not operationally significant is mildly insulting to the audience, both because a quick glance at a map clearly shows it at the heart of the regional road network, and because Ukraine has thrown a huge number of units into the front there.

Let's take a step back and consider Bakhmut in the context of Ukraine's overall position in the east. Ukraine began the war with four operable defensive lines in the Donbas, built up over the last 8 years both as part and parcel of the simmering war with the LNR and DNR, but also in preparation for potential war with Russia. These lines are structured around urban agglomerations with road and rail links between each other, and can be roughly enumerated as follows:

Ukraine Defensive Lines in the East (Map by me)

The Donbas is a particularly accommodating place to construct formidable defenses. It is highly urbanized and industrial (Donetsk was the most urban oblast in Ukraine prior to 2014, with over 90% of the population living in urban areas), with cities and towns dominated by the typically robust Soviet buildings, along with prolific industrial complexes. Ukraine has spent much of the last decade improving these positions, and the frontline settlements are riddled with trenches and firing positions that are clearly visible on satellite imagery. A recent video from the Avdiivka axis demonstrates the extent of Ukrainian fortifications.

So, let's review the state of these defensive belts. The first belt, which ran roughly from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to Popasna, was broken in the summer by Russian forces. Russia achieved a major breakthrough at Popasna and was able to begin the full rollup of this line, with Lysychansk falling at the beginning of July.

At this point, the frontline sits directly on what I have labeled as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian defensive belts, and both of these belts are now heavily bleeding.

The capture of Soledar by Wagner forces has severed the connection between Bakhmut and Siversk, while around Donetsk, the heavily fortified suburb of Marinka has been almost completely cleared of Ukrainian troops, and the infamous keystone Ukrainian position in Avdiivka (the place from which they shell Donetsk city's civilian population) is being flanked from both directions.

The frontline around Avdiivka (map courtesy of MilitaryLand)

These positions are absolutely critical for Ukraine to hold. The loss of Bakhmut will mean the collapse of the last defensive line standing in the way of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, which means Ukraine's eastern position will rapidly contract to its fourth (and weakest) defensive belt.

The Slavyansk agglomeration is a far worse position for Ukraine to defend than the other belts, for several reasons. First and foremost, as the belt farthest to the west (and thus the farthest from the February 2022 start lines), it is the least improved and least fortified of the belts. Secondly, lots of the, shall we just say "good stuff" around Slavyansk is to the east of the city, including both the dominating high ground and the major highways.

All this to say, Ukraine has been very anxious to hold the Bakhmut line, as this is a vastly preferable position to hold, and accordingly they have been pouring units into the sector. The absurd levels of Ukrainian force commitment in this area have been well noted, but just as a quick refresher, publicly available Ukrainian sources locate at least 34 brigade or equivalent units that have been deployed in the Bakhmut area. Many of these were deployed months ago and are already shattered, but over the full span of the ongoing battle this represents an astonishing commitment.

Ukrainian units around Bakhmut (Map courtesy of MilitaryLand)

Russian forces, primarily Wagner PMC and LNR units, have been slowly but surely collapsing this Ukrainian stronghold by making liberal use of artillery. In November, now former Zelensky advisor Oleksiy Arestovych admitted that Russian artillery on the Bakhmut axis enjoyed roughly a 9 to 1 tube advantage, which is turning Bakhmut into a death pit.

The battle is being presented in the west as one where Russians - usually stereotyped as convict soldiers employed by Wagner - launch frontal assaults on Ukrainian defenses and take horrible casualties attempting to overwhelm the defense with pure numbers. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Russia is moving slowly because it irons out Ukrainian defenses with artillery, then pushes forward cautiously into these pulverized defenses.

Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to funnel units in to more or less refill the trenches with fresh defenders. A Wall Street Journal piece about the battle, while trying to present a story of Russian incompetence, accidentally included an admission from a Ukrainian commander on the ground who said: "So far, the exchange rate of trading our lives for theirs favors the Russians. If this goes on like this, we could run out."

The comparisons have been liberally made (and I cannot take credit for them) to one of the most infamous battles of World War One - the bloody catastrophe at Verdun. While it does not do to exaggerate the predictive value of military history (in the sense that a thorough knowledge of the first world war does not allow one to predict events in Ukraine), I am, however, a great fan of history as analogy, and the German scheme at Verdun is a useful analogy for what's happening in Bakhmut.

The Battle of Verdun was conceived by the German high command as a way to cripple the French army by drawing them into a preconfigured meatgrinder. The notion was to attack and seize crucial defensive high ground - ground so important that France would be forced to counterattack and attempt to recapture it. The Germans hoped that France would commit their strategic reserves to this counterattack so that they could be destroyed. While Verdun failed to completely sap French combat power, it did become one of the most bloody battles in world history. A German coin commemorating the battle depicted a skeleton pumping blood out of the earth - a chilling but apt visual metaphor.

"The World Blood Pump" - commemorating the meatgrinder at Verdun

Something similar has indeed occurred in Bakhmut, in the sense that Russia is pressing on one of the most sensitive points on the front line, drawing Ukrainian units in to be killed. A few months ago, on the heels of Russia's withdrawal from west bank Kherson, the Ukrainians talked ecstatically of continuing their offensive efforts with a strike southward in Zaparozhia to cut the land bridge to Crimea, along with continued efforts to break through into northern Lugansk. Instead, forces from both of these axes have been redirected to Bakhmut, to the point where this axis is actively draining Ukrainian combat strength in other areas. Ukrainian sources, previously full of optimism, now unequivocally agree that there will be no Ukrainian offensives in the near future. As we speak, Ukraine continues to funnel forces into the Bakhmut axis.

At the present moment, Ukraine's position around Bakhmut has badly deteriorated, with Russian forces (largely Wagner infantry supported by Russian army artillery) making substantial progress on both of the city's flanks. On the northern flank, the capture of Soledar pushed Russian lines to within spitting distance of the north-south highways, while the near simultaneous capture of Klishchiivka on the southern flank has propelled the frontlines to the dootstep of Chasiv Yar (firmly in Bakhmut's operational rear).

The contact line around Bakhmut, Jauary 20, 2023 (Map by me)

The Ukrainians are not presently encircled, but the continued creep of Russian positions ever closer to the remaining highways is easily discernable. Currently, Russian forces have positions within two miles of all the remaining highways. Even more importantly, Russia now controls the high ground to both the north and south of Bakhmut (the city itself sits in a depression surrounded by hills) giving Russia fire control over much of the battle space.

I am currently anticipating that Russia will clear the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line by late March. Meanwhile, the denuding of Ukrainian forces on other axes raises the prospect of decisive Russian offensives elsewhere.

At the moment, the front roughly consists of four main axes (the plural of axis, not the bladed implement), with substantial agglomerations of Ukrainian troops. These consist, from south to north, of the Zaporozhia, Donetsk, Bakhmut, and Svatove Axes (see map below). The effort to reinforce the Bakhmut sector has noticeably diluted Ukranian strength on these other sectors. On the Zaporozhia front, for example, there are potentially as few as five Ukrainian brigades on the line at the moment.

At the moment, the majority of Russian combat power is uncommitted, and both western and Ukrainian sources are (belatedly) becoming increasingly alarmed about the prospect for a Russian offensive in the coming weeks. Currently, the entire Ukrainian position in the east is vulnerable because it is, in effect, an enormous salient, vulnerable to attack from three directions.

Two operational depth objectives in particular have the potential to shatter Ukrainian logistics and sustainment. These are, respectively, Izyum in the north and Pavlograd in the South. A Russian thrust down the west bank of the Oskil river towards Izyum would simultaneously threaten to cut off and destroy the Ukrainian grouping on the Svatove axis (S on the map) and sever the vital M03 highway from Kharkov. Reaching Pavlograd, on the other hand, would completely isolate the Ukrainian forces around Donetsk and sever much of Ukraine's transit across the Dneiper.

The Big Serge Plan (Map by me)

Both Izyum and Pavlograd are roughly 70 miles from the start lines of a prospective Russian offensive, and thus offer a very tempting combination - being both operationally significant and in relatively manageable reach. Beginning yesterday, we started to see Russian advances on the Zaporozhia axis. While these consist, at the moment, mainly of reconnaissance in force pushing into the "grey zone" (that ambiguous interstitial frontage), RUMoD did claim several settlements taken, which could presage a genuine offensive push in this direction. The key tell would be a Russian assault on Orikhiv, which is a large town with a genuine Ukrainian garrison in it. A Russian attack here would indicate that something more than a probing attack is underway.

It is difficult sometimes to parse out the difference between what we predict will happen and what we want to happen. This, certainly, is what I would choose if I was in charge of Russian planning - a drive south along the west bank of the Oskil river on the Kupyansk-Izyum axis, and a simultanious attack northward past Zaporozhia towards Pavlograd. In this case, I believe simply screening Zaporozhia in the short term is preferable to getting bogged down in an urban battle there.

Whether Russia will actually attempt this, we do not know. Russian operational security is much better than either Ukraine's or their proxy forces (Wagner and the LNR/DNR Milita), so we know significantly less about Russia's deployments than we do about Ukraine's. Regardless, we know that Russia enjoys a strong preponderance of combat power right know, and there are juicy operational targets within range.

Please Sir, I Want Some More

The bird's eye view of this conflict reveals a fascinating meta-structure to the war. In the above section, I argue for a view of the front structured around Russia progressively breaking through sequential Ukrainian defensive belts. I think that a similar sort of progressive narrative structure applies to the force generation aspect of this war, with Russia destroying a sequence of Ukrainian armies.

Let me be a bit more concrete. While the Ukrainian military exists at least partially as a continuous institution, its combat power has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times at this point through western assistance. Multiple phases - life cycles, if you will - can be identified:

  • In the opening months of the war, the extant Ukrainian army was mostly wiped out. The Russians destroyed much of Ukraine's indigenous supplies of heavy weaponry and shattered many cadres at the core of Ukraine's professional army.

  • In the wake of this initial shattering, Ukrainian combat strength was shored up by transferring virtually all of the Soviet vintage weaponry in the stockpiles of former Warsaw Pact countries. This transferred Soviet vehicles and ammunition, compatible with existing Ukrainian capabilities, from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, and was mostly complete by the end of spring, 2022. In early June, for example, western sources were admitting that Soviet stockpiles were drained.

  • With Warsaw Pact stockpiles exhausted, NATO began replacing destroyed Ukrainian capabilities with western equivalents in a process that began during the summer. Of particular note were howitzers like the American M777 and the French Caesar.

Russia has essentially fought multiple iterations of the Ukrainian Army - destroying the pre-war force in the opening months, then fighting units that were refilled from Warsaw Pact stockpiles, and is now degrading a force which is largely reliant on western systems.

This led to General Zaluzhny's now-famous interview with the economist in which he asked for many hundreds of Main Battle Tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and artillery pieces. In effect, he asked for yet another army, as the Russians seem to keep destroying the ones he has.

I want to note a few particular areas where Ukraine's capabilities are clearly degraded beyond acceptable levels, and observe how this relates to NATO's effort to sustain the Ukrainian war-making effort.

First, artillery.

Russia has been prioritizing counterbattery action for many weeks now, and seems to be having great success hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery.

It seems that this partially coincides with the deployment of new "Penicillin" counterbattery detection systems. This is a rather neat new tool in the Russian arsenal. Counterbattery warfare generally consists of a dangerous tango of guns and radar systems. Counterbattery radar is tasked with detecting and locating the enemy's guns, so they can be destroyed by one's own tubes - the game is roughly analogous to enemy teams of snipers (the artillery) and spotters (the radar) attempting to hunt each other - and of course, it makes good sense to shoot the other side's radar systems as well, to blind them, as it were.

The Penicillin system offers potent new capabilities to Russia's counterbattery campaign because it detects enemy artillery batteries not with radar, but with acoustic locating. It sends up a listening boom which, in coordination with a few ground componants, is able to locate enemy guns through seismic and acoustic detection. The advantage of this system is that, unlike a counterbattery radar, which emits radio waves that give away its position, the Penicillin system is passive - it simply sits still and listens, which means it does not offer an easy way for the enemy to locate it. As a result, in the counterbattery war, Ukraine currently lacks a good way to blind (or rather, deafen) the Russians. Furthermore, Russian counterbattery abilities have been augmented by increased use of the Lancet drone against heavy weapons.

The Penicillin acoustic boom listens for the sound of enemy guns

All that to say, Russia has been destroying quite a bit of Ukrainian artillery lately. the Russian Ministry of Defense has made a point of highlighting counterbattery success. Now, I know at this point you're thinking, "why would you trust the Russian Ministry of Defense?" Fair enough - let's trust but verify.

On January 20, NATO convened a meeting at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, against a backdrop of a massive new aid package being put together for Ukraine. This aid package contains, lo and behold, a huge amount of artillery pieces. By my count, the aid announced this week includes nearly 200 artillery tubes. Multiple countries, including Denmark and Estonia, are sending Ukraine literally all of their howitzers. Call me crazy, but I seriously doubt that several countries would just spontaneously decide, at the exact same time, to send Ukraine their entire inventory of artillery pieces were Ukraine not facing crisis levels of artillery losses.

Furthermore, the United States has taken new, unprecedented steps to supply Ukraine with shells. Just in the past week, they have dipped into its stockpiles in Israel and South Korea, amid reports that American stocks are so depleted that they will take more than a decade to replenish.

Let's review the evidence here, and see if we can make a reasonable conclusion:

  1. Ukrainian officials admit that their artillery is outgunned by 9 to 1 in critical sectors of the front.

  2. Russia deploys a cutting edge counterbattery system and increased numbers of Lancet drones.

  3. The Russian MoD claims that they have been hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery systems in large numbers.

  4. NATO has hurried to put together a massive package of artillery systems for Ukraine.

  5. The United States is raiding critical forward-deployed stockpiles to supply Ukraine with shells.

I personally think it is reasonable, given all of this, to assume that Ukraine's artillery arm has been largely shattered, and NATO is attempting to rebuild it yet again.

My kingdom for a tank

The main point of contention in recent weeks has been whether or not NATO will give Ukraine Main Battle Tanks. Zaluzhny hinted at a badly depleted Ukrainian tank park in his interview with the Economist, in which he pleaded for hundreds of MBTs. NATO has attempted to provide a stopgap solution by giving Ukraine various armored vehicles like the Bradley IFV and the Stryker, which do restore some mobility, but we must unequivocally say that these are in no way substitutes for MBTs, and they fall far short in both protection and firepower. Attempting to use Bradleys, for example, in the MBT role is not going to work.

Good Morning

Thus far, it appears that Ukraine is going to receive a small handful of Challenger tanks from Britain, but there is also talk of donating Leopards (German make), Abrams (American), and Leclercs (French). As usual, the battlefield impact of Ukraine receiving tanks is being both greatly overstated (by both Ukrainian shills and pessimistic Russians) and understated (by Russian triumphalists). I suggest a middle ground.

The number of tanks that can be reasonably given to Ukraine is relatively low, simply because of the training and sustainment burden. All of these tanks use different ammunition, special parts, and require specialized training. They are not the sort of systems that can simply be driven off the lot and directly into combat by untrained crew. The ideal solution for Ukraine would be to receive only Leopard A24s, as these might be available in decent numbers (perhaps a couple hundred), and at least they would be standardized.

A burned out Turkish Leopard in Syria

We should also note, of course, that these western tanks are not likely to be game changers on the battlefield. The Leopard already showed its limitations in Syria under Turkish operation. Note the following quote from this 2018 article:

"Given that the tanks are widely operated by NATO members - including Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Norway - it is particularly embarrassing to see them so easily destroyed by Syrian terrorists when they are expected to match the Russian Army."

Ultimately, the Leopard is a fairly mundane MBT designed in the 1970's outclassed by the Russian T-90. It's not a terrible piece of equipment, but it's hardly a battlefield terror. They will take losses and be attrited just like Ukraine's prewar tank park was. However, that doesn't change the fact that a Ukrainian army with a few companies of leopards will be more potent than one without them.

I think it's fair to say that the following three statements are all true:

  1. Receiving a mixed bag of western tanks will create a difficult training, maintenance, and sustainment burden for Ukraine.

  2. Western tanks like the Leopard have limited combat value and will be destroyed like any other tank.

  3. Western tanks will raise the combat power of the Ukrainian army as long as they are in the field.

Now, with that being said, at this point it does not appear that NATO wants to give Ukraine main battle tanks. At first it was suggested that tanks from storage could be dusted off and given to Kiev, but the manufacturer has stated that these vehicles are not in working order and would not be ready for combat until 2024. That leaves only the possibility of dipping directly into NATO's own tank parks, which thus far they are reticent to do.

Why? My suggestion would simply be that NATO does not believe in Ukrainian victory. Ukraine cannot even dream of dislodging Russia from its position without an adequate tank force, and so the reticence to hand over tanks suggests that NATO thinks that this is only a dream anyway. Instead, they continue to prioritize weaponry that sustains Ukraine's ability to fight a static defense (hence, the hundreds of artillery pieces) without indulging in flights of fancy about a great Ukrainian armored thrust into Crimea.

However, given the intense war fever that has built up in the west, it's possible that political momentum imposes the choice upon us. It is possible that we have reached the point where the tail wags the dog, that NATO is trapped in its own rhetoric of unequivocal support until Ukraine wins a total victory, and we may yet see Leopard 2A4s burning on the steppe.

Summary: The Death of a State

Ukraine's military is extremely degraded, having taken exorbitant losses in both men and heavy weaponry. I believe Ukrainian KIA are approaching 150,000 at this point, and it is clear that their inventories of both artillery tubes, shells, and armored vehicles are largely exhausted.

I expect the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line to be cleared before April, after which Russia will push towards the final (and weakest) defensive belt around Slavyansk. Meanwhile, Russia has significant combat power in reserve, which can be used to reopen the northern front on the west bank of the Oskil and restart offensive operations in Zaporozhia, placing Ukrainian logistics in critical danger.

This war will be fought to its conclusion on the battlefield and end in a favorable decision for Russia.

Coda: A Note about Coups

Feel free to ignore this segment, as it's a little more nebulous and not concretely related to events in Ukraine or Russia.

We've seen lots of fun rumors about coups in both countries - Putin has foot cancer and his government will collapse, Zelensky is going to be replaced with Zaluzhny, on and on it goes. Patriots in control and all that good stuff.

In any case, I thought I would just generally write about why coups and revolutions never seem to lead to nice and cuddly democratic regimes, but instead almost always lead to political control passing to the military and security services.

The answer, you might think, is simply that these men have the guns and the power to access the important rooms where decisions are made, but it is not only that. It also relates to a concept in game theory called Schelling points.

A Schelling point (named after the gentleman that introduced the concept, an economist named Thomas Schelling) refers to the solution that parties choose given a state of uncertainty and no ability to communicate. One of the classic examples to illustrate the concept is a coordination game. Suppose that you and another person are each shown four squares - three are blue and one is red. You are each asked to choose a square. If you both select the same square, you receive a monetary prize - but you are unable to talk to one another about your choices. How do you choose? Well, most people rationally choose the red square, simply because it is conspicuous - it stands out, and you therefore presume that your partner will also choose this square. The red square isn't better, per se, it's just obvious.

In a state of political turmoil, or even anarchy, the system works itself towards Schelling points - obvious figures and institutions that radiate authority, and are therefore the conspicuous choice to assume power and issue commands.

The Bolsheviks, for example, understood this very well. Immediately after declaring their new government in 1917, they dispatched commissars to the various office buildings in Saint Petersburg where the Tsarist bureaucracies were headquartered. Trotsky famously turned up at the foreign affairs ministry building one morning and simply announced that he was the new Foreign Minister. The employees laughed at him - who was he? how did he presume to be in charge? - but for Trotsky the point was to insinuate himself on a Schelling point. In the state of anarchy that began to spread in Russia, people naturally look for some obvious focal point of authority, and the Bolsheviks had cleverly positioned themselves as such by claiming control over the bureaucratic offices and titles. On the other side of the civil conflict, political opposition to the Bolsheviks clustered around Tsarist army officers, because they too were Schelling points, in that they already had titles and position within an existing hierarchy.

All of this is to say that in the event of a coup or state collapse, new governments are virtually never formed sui generis - they always arise from preexisting institutions and hierarchies. Why, when the Soviet Union fell, did political authority devolve to the Republics? Because these Republics were Schelling points - branches that one can grab for safety in a chaotic river.

I simply say this because I am tired of phantasmagorical stories about liquidation of the regime in Russia and even territorial dissolution. The fall of Putin's government will not and cannot lead to an acquiescent, western-adjacent regime, because there are no institutions of real power in Russia that are thus disposed. Power would fall to the security services, because they are Schelling points, and that's where power goes.


Big Serge Thoughts
18 Jan 2023 | 12:27 am

3. The Failure of Maneuver: The Great War

Author's Note: I apologize for the delay between articles. This particular piece took longer to publish than I had hoped due to illness and the sheer length of the piece, which is at this point nearly 8,000 words. As you will see, however, the fact that this article grew into an oversized and slow-moving creature is fitting for the subject matter.

The First World War was an unparalleled civilizational catastrophe for the peoples and powers of Europe. In the span of just over four years, nearly twenty million people would be killed, and a great deal more wounded or displaced. Over thirty million soldiers would become casualties. The war directly precipitated state collapse in four of Europe's great powers, destroying the Ottoman, Hapsburg, German, and Russian Empires. Only two of the six European powers - Britain and France - would survive the war politically intact, but even so the conflict left them scarred with millions of dead and disabled men and crushing debt. For many, it felt as if the world was ending, and the continent was left embittered, disoriented, shocked, and angry.

From a military perspective, however, the course of the Great War was anything but an aberration. It was, in fact, the culmination and logical endpoint of a system of warfighting that had been flashing warning signs for decades. The use of stereotyped infantry formations animated by attacking elan had become progressively more costly and less decisive throughout the post-Napoleonic century. Examples were numerous, from the American Civil War, to the midcentury Crimean War (which devolved into little more than a long siege), to the carnage at Gravelotte, where the French and Prussians threw long lines of corps against each other in an artless scrum.

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Soldiers in 1914 were trapped in a terrible interplay between technology, tactical orthodoxy, and operationally minded leadership. These factors conspired to make battle fundamentally indecisive and bloody - which is to say, attritional. The warrior was trapped in the belly of a horrible machine - and the machine was bleeding to death.

Failure in the West: Schlieffen and Moltke Jr

Few figures in military history have been scrutinized as closely as Count Alfred von Schlieffen - a peculiar fact, considering Schlieffen's tenure as Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906 did not include a single actual war. To many of his contemporaries and subordinates, Schlieffen was a bona fide genius - a singular intellect whose thought gave Germany a chance at victory in the Great War. To his critics, Schlieffen was the architect of the operational scheme that doomed Germany by bringing Britain out of neutrality and into the war on the side of Germany's enemies. Still others criticize Schlieffen as simply an old-school Prussian general who was blind to the effects that industrialized war would have on the traditional attacking style.

Count Schlieffen - the man with the plan (allegedly)

Much of this debate centered around a thing that did not actually exist - the so-called "Schlieffen Plan." Supposedly, this was Germany's secret operational scheme to win a two front war against both France and Russia. The concept, as such, was for a rapid, all out attack on France to knock her out of the war in the opening weeks - aiming to take advantage of Russia's slower mobilization timetables by resolving the western front before Russia's armies could arrive in the east. The crux of the alleged Schlieffen Plan was a massive sweep through Belgium, bringing the mass of the German Army down on the top of France and scooping up the French armies in a huge encirclement.

Therein lay the crux of the argument. Schlieffen's disciples argued that the plan was operationally sound, and the failure of the 1914 campaign against France was ultimately the fault of German commanders failing to follow Schlieffen's instructions correctly. In particular, they blame the Chief of Staff in 1914 - the great Helmut von Moltke's nephew, Helmut von Moltke the Younger - for supposedly watering down Schlieffen's scheme. An apocryphal story about Schlieffen muttering advice with his dying breath only helped to dramatize this version of events. For others, however, the plan was fundamentally flawed in that it required an invasion of Belgium - a neutral country under the protection of the British. By invading Belgium, critics argue, the Schlieffen Plan forced Britain into the war against Germany and created a strategic problem which simply could not be solved.

In fact, there is another version of events - the true one. The truth is that there was no Schlieffen plan at all. Schlieffen wrote a variety of memoranda concerning a war with France, many of them entirely hypothetical thought experiments. Combing through German documents would reveal no secret master plan handed down by the old general. The best one could do is find a mobilization and deployment scheme - what the Germans called an Aufmarch - a design for how to get the armies deployed on the border. The idea that Schlieffen, who retired in 1906, had somehow bequeathed a foolproof plan eight years in advance stretches credulity, and mainly originates with embittered German officers who wanted to blame Moltke Jr. for the failure of the campaign. The intense drive to blame Moltke inevitably led many to gripe that things would have been different if Schlieffen had been in charge.

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger's generalship left much to be desired, but he was not entirely to blame for German defeat

So what actually happened in France in 1914? It was not the botched implementation of some secret plan for victory. Rather, it was the cumbersome, bloody, and indecisive result of two armies attempting to control the largest collision of massed infantry in history. The scale of the forces involved had ballooned to colossal proportions.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the French Army had made significant improvements in the period since the Franco-Prussian war, in particular in the department of mobilization. The French had made it a point to develop a deep pool of reservists with an intensive conscription program, to the point where in 1914 they were able to put some 2 million men in the field (though only half were engaged in the opening weeks). Germany, which had to man two fronts, was able to deploy 1.7 million to the French theater. The French had also worked hard to streamline their mobilization scheme and railway timetables, allowing them to actually complete their mobilization two days before Germany.

When war began in the first week of August, the two armies set in motion titanic operational schemes that would hurl these millions of men against each other in an unparalleled scene of violence. The schemes cohered together in a way that represented a giant revolving door. German planning called for a massed right wing to sweep down from the north through Belgium, while the French scheme - "Plan XVII" - dictated a direct thrust eastward into German Alsace-Lorraine.

The French were determine to redeem themselves of the Franco-Prussian War, where they had frittered away the campaign with inactivity. They were therefore maniacally focused on maintaining an attacking élan - mobilizing quickly and moving decisively to attack. Unfortunately, their conception of a direct eastward strike into Germany played directly into German hands. The motion of the German sweep through Belgium was to come down on the northwestern flank of the French army, creating what would be, on paper, the largest encirclement in history. By striking eastward, the French were inadvertently attacking deeper into this potential encirclement.

Idealized August 1914 Maneuver Schemes

The French deserve credit for the improvements they made to their mobilization system. They managed to deploy five colossal field armies in the space of only a few weeks. Unfortunately - and rather bafflingly - France had done nothing to rectify the predominant tactical determinant of the past war: German artillery superiority. While the French artillery park consisted almost completely of the 75mm field gun, German units enjoyed organic batteries of 105mm, 150mm, and 210mm howitzers. This firepower disparity would prove devastating in the opening clashes of the war.

The French dutifully implemented Plan XVII, and on August 14 they sent two of their colossal field armies hurtling eastward into Germany. These attacks quickly failed with heavy losses, mostly courtesy of the powerful German artillery in Germany's 6th and 7th Armies, which anchored the southern end of the German line. While this "battle of the frontier" did not destroy the two French armies, they did maul them sufficiently to make the French offensive collapse and force a withdrawal back into France.

Krupp Steel

Meanwhile, the great German hammer was beginning to swing down from the north. On August 16th, the German 1st and 2nd Armies - on the far right wing of the German line - invaded northeastern Belgium and began their sweep over the top. Meanwhile, German 3rd, 4th, and 5th Armies - the center of the German line - began a tighter sweep around the corner, moving through Luxemburg and southern Belgium through the forested region known as the Ardennes.

The situation for the French supreme commander, Joseph Joffre, was not exactly encouraging. His offensive into Lorraine had made it barely ten miles into Germany before it collapsed, leaving two of his field armies bloodied. Now, it was apparent that there was some sort of great German mass climbing over the top of his head. The fog of war was heavy, but even without knowing the details of the German disposition, it was clear that there was serious danger coming in from the north. Joffre still had three untouched field armies in his order of battle, and he sent two of them - the 3rd and 4th - into the Ardennes to meet the incoming Germans.

These two French field armies collided (almost literally) on August 22 with two German armies (the 4th and 5th) in the heart of the Ardennes. The French again learned a painful lesson about the power of the German howitzers, and on the 23rd they too withdrew back into France.

What to make of all this? The initial French deployment had put five field armies in the field. Four of these were now bloodied - the 1st and 2nd in Lorraine, and the 3rd and 4th in the Ardennes. These battles had gone well for the Germans - their advantage in heavy artillery left them definitively on the right side of the loss ratios, with French casualties outnumbering German losses by 2 to 1. But these were not decisive battles. All four French armies were able to break contact and withdraw intact back into France. There was no encirclement, no big war winning victories. There was no Metz or Sedan.

There was, however, one remaining intact French army - the 5th, currently probing its way into central Belgium. Here was Germany's chance to win a big victory: to not only maul, but destroy wholesale an entire field army. The 5th Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, moved into Central Belgium and took up a position near the Belgian fortress of Namur, at the bend where the Sambre and Meuse rivers confluence. This seemed like a cozy position, with defensible lines on the rivers, and directly to the east of the British Expeditionary Force, which had now arrived in theater. Inadvertently, however, Lanrezac had wedged himself in directly between the German 2nd and 3rd Armies.

Germany now had a chance to destroy the French 5th Army - potentially taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and creating an opportunity to destroy the BEF in the follow up. To achieve this, the 2nd Army (facing the French across the Sambre) needed to engage and attempt to hold the French in place while the 3rd army crossed the Meuse further to the south and cut off the avenue of retreat back to France.

This opportunity slipped through German fingers. The culprit was not Moltke the Younger, nor Schlieffen, nor any single decision or commander on the German side. The blame lay at the feet of the mass army - that bloated, sluggish, clumsy monster, as capable of dishing out horrible violence as it was incapable of moving elegantly. This sector of the front was under the direction of General Karl von Bülow - in direct command of 2nd Army, but with operational control over 1st Army (on his right) and 3rd Army (on his left). This put Bülow in command of no fewer than 19 Corps, or a whopping 39 Divisions, strung out across some 70 miles of front. Controlling this colossus with any degree of precision was impossible given the communications technology of the day.

On the map, a glorious opportunity beckoned. This enormous army was simply not nimble enough to grasp it. It took nearly a full day for the Germans to get a handle on just how exposed the French were, as the battle began largely because screening units ran into each other and started firing. Moltke sent frantic orders demanding that 3rd Army get troops - any troops - across the Meuse to the south to cut off the retreat, but by this point much of 3rd Army had already begun attacking directly across the river. 3rd Army's commander, General Hausen, had to scrape together a zombie division (comprised of various available sub-components) and send it off to the south to look for a crossing. However, on August 23rd Lanzerac realized the pickle he was in and began a withdrawal. By the time 3rd Army got units of any reasonable size across the Meuse, the French were long gone, and only an empty pocket remained.

The Namur bend was Germany's best chance to win a decisive battle in the opening weeks of the war. It was, in fact, a very good chance - but the difficulties of controlling the mass army made waste of it, and so the French 5th Army, like the other four, was able to withdraw bloodied but intact. France suffered some 260,000 casualties in the battles of August (including 76,000 dead), but her armies were not destroyed, and managed to conduct the so-called "Great Retreat" to take up a new position on the Marne.

Germany's failure to destroy at least one of the French field armies during the opening weeks set up the infamous Battle of the Marne - a supposedly miraculous Allied victory which saved Paris and set up the ensuing stalemate of trench warfare by denying the Germans a decisive victory.

The iconic image of industrial warfare

But what was the Battle of the Marne, from an operational perspective? The preview had been clearly seen 44 years prior, at Gravelotte - parallel lines had simply hammered each other all day until one army had had enough. The Marne was Gravelotte on a continental scale. Where Gravelotte had lined up exactly five Prussian corps against five French corps, the Marne pitted parallel lines of seven field armies each. Germany alone brought some 44 corps to the Marne. Whereas Gravelotte had been fought on a front that was at most 15 miles wide, the Marne campaign stretched the contact practically from the Swiss border to Paris - a frontage of more than 200 miles.

There exists a traditional narrative as to why Germany lost at the Marne. Generally, analysis points to General von Kluck (in command of First Army, on the far right of the German line) turning right as he approached Paris. The goal of the campaign was to crush the French Army, not to capture Paris (the French government having evacuated anyway), and so "Kluck's Wheel" was designed to bring him into contact with French forces. By turning, however, he exposed his own right flank to attack from freshly mobilized French forces. This, in combination with stiff French resistance and counterattacking elsewhere along the line, was enough to make Moltke nervous, and he ordered a withdrawal to form a new defensive line farther north.

The general notion here is that Germany still had a decent chance to win at the Marne, but the French did just enough to spook Moltke into pulling back. Generally, therefore, the outcome of the battle is chalked up to a combination of French resilience and Moltke's apparent caution and lack of fortitude.

I argue that it was once again the nature of the armies that was to blame. German 1st and 2nd Armies - those crucial and powerful formations on the right wing - spent the battle mostly out of contact with each other. Their commanders, Kluck and Bulow, did not communicate either with each other or with Moltke, who had established his headquarters a whopping 150 miles away in Luxemburg. During the crucial days of the battle (from September 5 to 9) Supreme Headquarters neither issued a single order nor received a report from 1st and 2nd Armies. In the end, Moltke had to send a subordinate officer to visit the various field commanders, with instructions as to what orders he should give based on what he learned at the front. Needless to say, this was simply an inadequate method for successfully controlling such an enormous force. Meanwhile, most German artillery units were beginning to run short of ammunition, and commanders continued to fight in a vacuum without a clear sense of what was happening in their neighbor units.

German infantry at the Marne

Ultimately, this was a footsore army fighting hundreds of miles from home on an enormous front, which had left its railheads and telegraph stations behind weeks ago. It was simply beyond the capabilities of the time to effectively supply and control such an enormous force at such enormous distances. The body of the army had outgrown the nervous system.

Perhaps Schlieffen had been clairvoyant after all. In 1901, the old general had written the following:

According to current theory, modern means of communication have made the command of million-man armies as easy and sure as an earlier corps of 15,000 to 20,000 men. While this may be true in one's own land, the telegraph will not suffice in enemy territory; it has already proven itself unreliable in maneuvers. Wet weather and difficult roads stop the cyclist; automobiles are subject to endless difficulties... It is to be hoped that improvements in these areas will make the distribution of orders easier and simpler. At present, however, the armies consist of masses that are ever more difficult to control and ever less maneuverable.

It seems that this, and not some secret operational plan, was the true wisdom that he had left behind, and in 1914 Moltke found it every bit as difficult to manage his enormous armies as Schlieffen had predicted. Germany had brought a steamroller to the battlefield. Steamrollers are very good at crushing things and very bad at turning.

This, moreso than any miraculous French stand at the Marne or deficient generalship by Moltke bears most of the blame for Germany's failure to achieve a rapid victory in 1914. To be sure, Moltke the Younger left much to be desired and did not live up to the name of his famous uncle, but the larger issue was that he simply lacked the mechanisms to control the army effectively, even if he had been a more capable general. Both at the Namur bend and at the Marne, the Germans simply could not get their operations level units (divisions and corps) to move as quickly as they wanted.

By the time the Germans withdrew from the Marne on September 12, both sides had taken some 250,000 casualties just since the beginning of the month. German withdrawal precipitated the transition to the trench warfare that became the stereotype of the war, as both sides began an intensive effort to dig in and consolidate a defensive line.

It must be emphasized, however, that trench warfare did not cause the failure of maneuver. Rather, the causality was reversed: the failure of maneuver led to trenches. Having failed to win a rapid victory in 1914, trenches were dug to consolidate positions and preserve manpower. Despite multiple attempts to restart proactive offensive warfare, no viable solution would be found in the west until 1918.

Meanwhile, in the east, the German army was fighting a very different sort of war.

Mobile War in the East

The two German fronts in 1914 could hardly have been more different from each other. Indeed, in many ways they were almost complete opposites. In the west, Moltke struggled to coordinate and maneuver a colossal force of seven field armies, operating on enemy terrain without adequate supply, communications, or intelligence. In the east, in contrast, a single field army was tasked with defending the backdoor into Germany against a potential invasion from a vastly superior Russian force - albeit with the benefit of the German rail lines and communications infrastructure. Thus, while the enormous western armies lumbered about, in the east the Germans were able - and indeed, forced - to fight a mobile war.

From the outset, the Eastern Front promised to be a lively place. German prewar assumptions were frustrated from the outset, when the Russians managed to significantly overperform expectations on their mobilization timeframe (while Germany's ally, Austria-Hungary, performed poorly). German planning had optimistically assumed that Russia, with its vast internal distances and low population density, would require multiple weeks before it could put armies in the field. It was hoped, therefore, that Germany might be blessed with a short time of quiet in the east while it finished off France.

Russia, however, defied such expectations by putting two armies into the field in East Prussia by August 17, roughly simultaneous with the first week of clashes on the western front. These two Russian armies - the 1st, under General Paul von Rennenkampf and the 2nd under General Alexander Samsonov, hardly represented the full scope of Russia's mobilization powers (at least four other armies being committed against Austria-Hungary), but they had 27 full divisions between them, and given the fact that only a single German army with 11 divisions was in the theater to stop them, they had the potential to affect a decisive blow at the opening whistle of the war.

Their objective was a pincer movement into East Prussia. One of the idiosyncrasies of the eastern front in 1914 was the fact that, due to the peculiarities of the winding borders, all the combatants began with the war with a major salient - that is, a position vulnerable to invasion from at least two directions. At the center of this was Russia's Polish holdings, which jutted out in between Germany and Austria Hungary. The Polish Salient was both a glaring vulnerability (in that the Central Powers could invade it from three directions), but it also offered an advance position deep in the German belly.

The Russian operational notion was straightforward and conceptually sound. 1st Army would advance directly westward into East Prussia on an axis from Vilnius, while 2nd Army would move to the northwest out of Poland. The German 8th Army (numbers 1 through 7 being in France) would be caught in between two enormous slabs of iron, inexorably pressing it towards the sea.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Russian plan. This was a fairly straightforward, even textbook pincer movement, maneuvering two armies towards each other to catch the enemy in the middle. Several factors, however, conspired in Germany's favor. The two Russian armies would be separated by the Masurian lakes - a morass of more than 2,000 small lakes, impassable to the modern mass army. This meant that the two Russian bodies would be unable to support each other until they had bypassed the lakes, leaving them operationally isolated for the first sixty miles of advance. Secondly, the Russians suffered from inadequate communications and reconnaissance - making no real use of surveillance aircraft (despite having them in the inventory) and little use of cavalry screens. Meanwhile, Samsonov and Rennenkampf communicated with unencrypted radio transmissions which the Germans were able to intercept and decipher.

Russian soldiers march to war

Perhaps the most important factor, however, was the decision by German high command to remove the commander of 8th Army, General Maximilian von Prittwitz. Prittwitz was an unimaginative officer who saw that he was sitting in the crosshairs of two giant Russian pincers, and promptly wired Moltke at headquarters for permission to retreat from East Prussia altogether. Giving up German home territory without a fight in the first month of the war was, for understandable reasons, unappealing to Moltke, and on August 22 Prittwitz was removed from command and replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, who arrived in East Prussia the following day with his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff.

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Big Serge Thoughts
31 Dec 2022 | 6:57 pm

4. The Moltke Mirage

Prussian Infantry on the Attack

No country dominated both the practice and theory of warfare in the 19th Century like Prussia. The century between the fall of Napoleon and the beginning of the Great War was, in many ways, a sort of classical era or golden age for the Prussian military establishment. This was the era in which Prussia fought a series of tremendously successful wars, decisively defeating the two powerful neighbors - Austria and France - who had traditionally been the check on her power. In doing so, the Prussian minister Otto von Bismarck at last solved the "German Question" and achieved the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. This created the embryo of the German superpower that would torment Europe in the 20th Century - a state whose formidable powers were based on marrying the industrial potential of a united Germany with the military prowess of the Prussian army.

This golden age of the Prussian military was dominated, above all, by Helmuth von Moltke. Amid a tradition which produced many of the most famed commanders in history - Frederick the Great, Blucher, Ludendorff, Manstein, Guderian, Rommel - Moltke in many ways stands apart and above the rest. He was certainly the most successful - decisively winning all of his wars and reestablishing Prussia's reputation as the preeminent military in Europe.

Moltke's thirty years as Chief of the Prussian General Staff correspond to the greatest heights of Prussian military success and the ascent of Prussia to the apex of the geopolitical food chain. While great credit is given (and rightfully so) to Prussia's master statesman, the "Iron Chancellor" - Bismarck himself was not shy about the fact that Prussia's fortunes were ultimately tied to the success of the army in battle - what he called "the iron dice". In one of his most famous and endlessly quotable speeches, he said:

"The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power… Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood."

Iron and blood were Moltke's domain, and for thirty years he embodied Prussian military acumen and destroyed every army that opposed him. It was indeed the apogee of the Prussian Army.

And yet.

In an unbroken sequence of glorious Prussian victories, the discerning eye could see the horrors of the Great War looming. Despite Moltke's artful handling of his armies and the stunning results on the strategic level, there were unsettling developments on the ground. Casualty rates among attacking infantry units were disturbingly high. Command and control frequently became something of a snarl. The army was consistently forced to lean on massed artillery to break open enemy positions.

Moltke was without a doubt an eminently skilled commander, and his battlefield successes had titanic ramifications. His admirers could certainly have persuaded themselves that the great Moltke had proven that Prussia could successfully prosecute its classically fluid and aggressive brand of maneuver warfare, with bold and sweeping offensive operations designed to crush the enemy army. Molkte, it could be said, had brought Frederick the Great's aggressive operational elan into the modern era - combining Prussia's ancestral attacking spirit with railroads, the telegraph, and explosive shells.

It was, sadly, a mirage. Moltke's sublime skills notwithstanding, the technological changes of the age were moving warfare indelibly towards the horrific conclusion of the Western Front. The trenches, barbed wire, endless artillery barrages, and mass casualties were not an aberration, but the most logical (some might even say inevitable) outcome of industrialized war, given the particular set of technologies that emerged in the 19th century. Indeed, the grinding attrition of Verdun and the Somme could be clearly seen in Moltke's wars, looming on the horizon. It was the brilliance of this man that he could transcend this gory attrition, if only for a little while.

Soul Searching

Moltke dominated the Prussian military establishment at a time when armies were still groping their way forward into the age of industrial war. Armies were becoming ever larger and wielding ever more powerful weaponry. The size of these armies increasingly made it impossible for campaigns to be improvised the way Napoleon did. Successfully making war required filing cabinets full of railway timetables, maps, and statistical analyses - a level of detail and micromanagement which offended many traditionalists, who still viewed war as an "art" that should be conducted according to the instincts of field commanders.

For Prussia, in particular, this new era of increasingly bureaucratized war seemed problematic, because Prussian commanders were conditioned to fight with a preternatural level of aggression and attacking energy. Blucher, the hero of the Napoleonic Wars, was the platonic ideal of the Prussian commander. Nicknamed Marschall Vorwärts - "Marshal Forward" - by his men due to his battlefield aggression, Blucher was not a particularly sophisticated operational practitioner. His "operational art", as such, consisted of finding the enemy army and attacking it as quickly as possible.

For Molkte, the challenge was merging and creating some level of synergy among these two diametrically opposed notions of command - calculation and rational planning, and the instinctual aggression of field commanders who wanted simply to march to the enemy at top speed and attack him. Institutionally, this tension was represented by the difference between the staff officers - command and control functionaries who provided the planning, analysis, intelligence, and communications expertise which allows modern armies to function - and the commander - a man who instantiates action and aggression.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

In a more metaphysical sense, the same tension was presented by Clausewitz in his model of warfare as a tension between opposing forces. These forces, according to Clausewitz, were rational planning, violent emotion, and random luck. War, according to Clausewitz, was always subject to each of these forces to some extent. While luck cannot be controlled, a well run army would seek to balance between rational strategy (the staff officers) and emotive aggression (the field commander).

Moltke, perhaps as well as any commander in history, successfully mediated these forces because he perfectly well understood that both had their role in a successful campaign. He understood perfectly well that war had become far too complex to wage spontaneously, on the basis of instinct and improvisation, and dutifully nurtured a suitably robust planning apparatus and an army nervous system packed with highly trained staff officers. Nevertheless, even as Chief of the General Staff, Moltke was never overly wedded to obsessive planning. He famously quipped that "no plan survives contact with the enemy's main body", and was adamant that overly detailed and rigid planning could be fatal. He accordingly tried to keep his own plans and orders acceptably vague and generalized:

"One does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situations one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution."

Moltke viewed his role as that of a mediator between planning, luck, and aggression. His task was not exactly to control armies in the field, only to steer them - bending them, sometimes with great difficulty - to follow a general maneuver scheme and react in a timely manner to the enemy's movements. His campaign in the Austro-Prussian War was a classic example of this. Moltke's operational plan was rather vague. Moltke very generally planned to disperse his armies and draw them together around the Austrian army, but he had no strict notions about where the Austrian army might be or where it would be brought to battle. The "plan", as such, was more of a sketch or an outline, which was only given full substance once the campaign began.

One campaign above all highlights all of these issues - the tension between planning and aggressive instinct, Moltke's own preternatural gifts, and the growing bloodiness of offensive warfare. This campaign was Moltke's last, and his greatest: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A war of great mistakes and great violence, which Moltke bent to his will to forge a great victory.

The Prussian Army Always Attacks

Prussia's war with France began with a few classic Moltke motifs. Moltke was a great proponent of the railroad as a tool for rapidly mobilizing and concentrating armies for action, and sure enough the run up to war saw Prussia concentrating three massive field armies on the French border - quickly assembling them using the prodigious internal German railway system. The war was, if we are being technical, more of a Franco-German War, as Prussia enjoyed the support of several of the smaller German states, especially Bavaria. However, the war is known as the Franco-Prussian War, and the Prussians - in particular Moltke - ran the show.

The second classic Moltke motif was the suitably ambiguous nature of Moltke's initial operational scheme. As in the case of the Austrian war, he put out a mere sketch or framework for the operation. Three armies (from northwest to southeast, so that 1st Army was the furthest to the northwest and 3rd Army was on the bottom) would advance into France on a sort of southeasterly axis, winding their way towards the French field army. Moltke's idea was probably something similar to the Austrian campaign - whichever army found the French first should attack and pin them in place while the other armies converged to smash them.

If this was Moltke's plan, the ensuing debacle highlights the complexity of war, and would surely have Clausewitz nodding his head sympathetically. The entire Prussian scheme very nearly came apart, due to two complicating factors - the instinctive aggression of Moltke's field commanders, and the fact that the French also had a say in the progression of the war.

The French suffered from a variety of deficiencies in this particular war. Their commanders were, by and large, incompetents, and they were hamstrung by the on and off meddling of the Emperor, Napoleon III (named after his more famous and competent uncle). This lesser Napoleon never really felt politically secure, and decided that he would stiffen French opinion of his fighting quality by ordering an attack. Thus the war strangely began with the main French field army, the Army of the Rhine, attacking eastward into Germany without a clear objective. Their goal, as such, was simply to attack so that Napoleon could tell Parisians that he had attacked.

The French initially moved towards the town of Saarbrücken, thinking that they could get the jump on Prussian mobilization and strike a blow before the Prussians were ready. To their surprise, they discovered that three Prussian field armies were already mobilized and in the theater. The speed of Prussian deployment was surprising, because France's own mobilization system was archaic and lethargic. Lacking a coordinated railway mobilization plan, French troops had to compete with civilians for train tickets, or else walk to their bases. Prussia's hyper-efficient deployment therefore took the French aback, and forced them to scuttle their opening offensive and withdraw back into French Lorraine.

The French attack was brief, but sufficient to create irritating complications. In the first action of the war, a French platoon bumped into and routed an entire Prussian company. This was Prussia's first introduction to France's Chassepot rifle. Unlike in the Austrian war, where the Prussian needle gun had been the superior infantry weapon, the French wielded the bolt-action Chassepot which outclassed the needle gun in every way - accuracy, firepower, and especially range. In that first little discovery skirmish, a platoon of less than 50 French riflemen managed to shred and rout a 200-strong Prussian company.

A French soldier with his Chassepot

The superiority of the Chassepot would become Prussia's main tactical problem in this war. There was, however, a bigger problem. An operational problem.

The French made a bumbling, groping move into Germany, fighting with variegated Prussian and Bavarian units around Saarbrucken, then inexplicably withdrew back into France. The French offensive had never really been thought out, and Napoleon III evidently felt he'd done enough to satisfy domestic audiences (newspapers in Paris spoke of a great victory), so it was time to pull back. Prussian commanders watched this with a mixture of confusion and bemusement.

Moltke now ran into one of his most obstinate problems: the aggression of his field commanders. His plan was for the three armies to concentrically converge on French Army of the Rhine, hopefully trapping and destroying it. The 1st Army, at the north of the line, was intended to move on a southwestwardly basis to come down on the northern flank of the French force. However, the commander of the 1st Army, General Karl von Steinmetz, thought that this was silly. He was a classically Prussian commander who only wanted to attack as quickly as possible. He therefore decided to instead move his army directly to the south, on the direct route to the French main force.

General Steinmetz

Steinmetz's logic was fairly straightforward - the French, as he saw it, were trying to slip away, and so somebody needed to act decisively to grab hold of them and keep contact. Therefore, he moved as fast as he could to do so himself. The problem with Steinmetz moving south was that it carried him directly into the marching path of Prussia's 2nd Army. Remarkably, Steinmetz's 1st Army actually marched directly onto the roads reserved for the 2nd Army and severed the 2nd from its forward units. This not only obstructed the 2nd (the largest of the three Prussian field armies, and the schwerpunkt of the operation) but also threatened to create a colossal traffic jam as the two armies' massive supply trains (miles upon miles of horse drawn carts) turned into a snarl.

Let us allow historian Geoffery Wawro to succinctly describe this bizarre and potentially catastrophic incident:

Thus began a ludicrus episode in the Franco-Prussian war: the smallest of the three armies, never intended to play more than a supporting role, blocked the principal army's way forward and ventured off to do battle with 60,000, potentially 120,000 French troops. To Moltke's amazement, Steinmetz was risking a large fraction of the Prussian army and ruining the attempted Kesselschlacht [encirclement] on the Saar.

A Major in Moltke's staff made a measured remark in his diary that "Headquarters is beginning to regret Steinmetz's appointment." One can only imagine the swearing from Moltke and his team - surely there was a great deal of scheisse in the air. As for Prince Friedrich Karl - the commander of the 2nd Army, who now had to wait in agony for Steinmetz to get out his way - he was apoplectic, and allegedly wept that "Steinmetz has ruined my beautiful plans."

With the chance at a clean, cohesive maneuver wrecked by Steinmetz's imprudent move directly into 2nd Army's line of advance, the first week of the war collapsed into a series of disjointed, but nearly identical discovery battles on the frontier. These battles elucidated the emerging pattern of this war.

Prussian units would veritably bump into the French, and their commanders would eagerly launch an attack without having a good sense of the French disposition or strength. Prussian commanders would hurl their entire unit into the attack without knowing whether they were facing a French brigade, division, or even a whole corps. As a result, the Prussians usually started the day badly outnumbered and ended it with the situation reversed, as more and more Prussian units spilled onto the field.

At Worth, for example, General Hugo von Kirchbach threw his 10th Division in against the entire French 1st Corps (containing no less than 5 divisions). Casualties were enormous on the Prussian side thanks to the exorbitant range of the French Chassepot rifles; Prussian infantry were shredded from what they considered to be impossible distances. However, the battle slowly turned against the French as that single Prussian division turned into a whole corps, and eventually four corps, which poured artillery fire on the French and forced a withdrawal. This had a quintessentially Napoleonic quality to it - the first unit on the scene attacks, and every other unit in the vicinity marches at high speed to join the fight, creating a battle that swells in size throughout the day.

The frontier battles fought in the first week of the war were something of a mixed bag. Moltke was deprived of a single decisive battle, as he had wished, but he did succeed in mauling several French corps - in the wake of their withdrawal, the door into France was open. Tactically, these frontier engagements had revealed that the Chassepot gave the French a disturbing firepower advantage. French rifle fire was effective at 1000 yards, while the Prussian needle guns could scarcely achieve half that. This problem could only be counteracted by massing Prussia's superior artillery - steel, breach loading Krupp guns that hilariously outclassed France's aging bronze artillery arsenal. This odd technological disjoint created a unique tactical incongruity, which resulted in the vast majority of Prussian casualties (upwards of 70%) being inflicted by rifle fire, while artillery did most of the damage against the French. After-battle casualty reports from the French noted that nearly two thirds of those wounded or killed by artillery were hit in the back - implying that they were laying face down, trying to shelter from the barrage when they were struck.

Prussian infantry attack - painted by Ernst Zimmer

With the first week providing inconclusive results, the war entered a brief lull as the French withdrew to lick their wounds, and the Prussians sorted themselves back out into marching columns to resume the plunge into France. It was at this point that Prussia's true advantage became manifest - decisiveness.

The French had two main field bodies at this point. The main mass of the Army of the Rhine under Marshal François Achille Bazaine had consolidated and anchored itself on the fortress at Metz, while the 1st Corps under Marshal Patrice MacMahon, which was chewed up after its action on the frontier, had withdrawn deper into the French interior. French command wasted an entire week in indecision. Eventually, MacMahon's corps retired west to Chalons, where it was designated to be reinforced and become the foundation of a new "Army of Chalons", while the Army of the Rhine was inexplicably allowed to sit idly at Metz, doing absolutely nothing.

This was a curious moment. The correct thing for the French to do at this point was to more or less write off Metz and the entire eastern rimland, pull the Army of the Rhine back to the west and anchor it either on Chalons, Riems, or Paris, where it could receive reinforcements, sensibly defend from behind a river, and stabilize its supply lines. Moltke could hardly believe that the French would let 160,000 men simply sit in such an exposed position, but it was good luck that they had. All the intelligence suggested that Bazaine and his enormous force were, in fact, simply parked at Metz. Moltke quickly ordered the entire army to turn as fast as they could and converge on Metz - but as they rushed to the scene, on August 15, Bazaine finally, at long last, began to stir his army to withdraw from Metz and retreat towards the west. The Prussians were too late.

But not entirely. One Prussian Corps - the III Corps, of 2nd Army - was within range. Operating on typically vague intelligence, the commander of III Corps, General Constantine von Alvensleben, observed French columns moving away from Metz towards the west. Presuming that this was merely the French rearguard (he rationally assumed that the French could not possibly have only just begun their retreat), he ordered an attack at once. In fact, III Corps had not bumped into the French rearguard, but the main body of the enormous Army of the Rhine.

The Battle of Mars-la-Tour, by Emil Hünten

Thus began one of the strangest battles of the war, and indeed of the modern era. A single Prussian corps, with no solid sense of the enemy's strength and location, animated only by the instinctive attacking spirit of its commander, launched an attack on an entire French field army. Alvensleben had naught but two infantry divisions in his command, and here he was beginning a battle against a French army that had no fewer than sixteen divisions in the immediate vicinity. As if to underscore the disparity, Alvensleben began the battle by flinging his 5th Infantry Division directly at the enemy, inadvertently attacking the three division strong French II Corps. One division against three; a single corps against five. This was the Battle of Mars-la-Tour.

Bazaine had a real chance to completely crush a Prussian corps and then resume his withdraw to the west. Instead, he exhibited the same passivity and inactivity that had led him to sit idly at Metz for an entire week. Alvensleben's two infantry divisions - being generous, a combined 30,000 men - both attacked, each one ramming into an entire French corps. Bazaine had at least 120,000 men at his disposal - two of his corps (III and IV) were not even engaged. It would have been trivially easy for the French to launch a counterattack and annihilate the lonely Prussian corps. Instead, the French were content to simply sit in their positions and shoot back at the attacking Prussians. Their rifle fire, as ever, was murderously effective, but they squandered an ideal opportunity. The spectacle of an entire army sitting in a defensive stance against a single corps would come to haunt the French soon.

Alvensleben and his stoic divisions managed to hold on for most of the day, until the timely arrival of X Corps - the closest Prussian unit when the day began - managed to provide some modicum of stability. But even so, the passivity of the French was inexcusable, and they wasted a golden opportunity.

Mars-la-Tour was an extremely bloody battle. Both sides took something like 15,000 casualties - again, French rifles and Prussian artillery doing the most damage. It was, however, an unmitigated disaster for France. At the end of the day, Bazaine withdrew back to the fortress at Metz. Alvensleben had acted in the purest sort of Prussian tradition, impetuously attacking a force at least four times larger than his own, but in doing so (with the help of Bazaine's complacency and lethargy) he had disrupted the French retreat to the west and created the time needed for the remainder of the army to arrive.

After fighting the bloody battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16 and withdrawing to Metz, the French now had to fight what was more or less a rematch two days later - only this time, instead of facing only the Prussian III Corps, Bazaine would have to face the combined mass of Prussia's 1st and 2nd Armies, which arrived in full during the intervening period.

Needless to say, Bazaine's decision to retire back into Metz has been roundly criticized. The absolute priority had to be extracting his army to the west - to save it from being trapped, but the Marshal, for reasons that remain unclear even to this day, remained lethargic, uncertain, and - dare we even say - afraid. Some of his subordinates would later even accuse him of treason. He certainly had ample opportunities to leave Metz. He had an entire week (roughly from August 8-15) in which he could have withdrawn without a fight, then after Mars-la-Tour on the 16th he could have withdrawn westward toward Verdun, rather than going back into the Metz fortress. Even as late as the 17th, with the Prussians closing in, the road to Sedan to the northwest was wide open. Instead, he simply sat, uselessly, pathetically, hiding under the protection of the Metz fortress, until 180,000 Prussians had arrived on his doorstep.

The situation was seemingly clear to everyone except the Bazaine, who has marveled both contemporaries and historians with his utter inadequacy for command. Moltke, for his part, could not believe that the French were languishing at Metz for so long. The Austrian military attaché in Paris reported to his superiors in Vienna that "France can win only if Bazaine avoids decisive battle in Lorraine [Metz] and retreats to Paris." The British attaché in France agreed, and wrote that "The importance of the French being able to concentrate at Chalons is enormous… if Bazaine is cut off, it would be a regular disaster, for there would be no force left to rally round, and nothing could then stop the march of the Prussians on Paris."

Everyone understood except Bazaine. So, he found himself on August 18 fighting another battle on virtually the exact same ground where Mars-la-Tour had been fought two days earlier, this time against the mass of the Prussian 1st and 2nd Armies. This rematch is called the Battle of Gravelotte, after a village a mere 6 miles east of Mars la Tour.

Gravelotte was horrific. It pitted parallel, symmetrical lines against each other. Five Prussian corps against five French corps; 200,000 Prussians supported by 730 artillery pieces against 160,000 French with their 520 cannon. Moltke began with a notion of some sort of pinning and flanking maneuver, but the battle quickly devolved into brutal frontal assaults. The impetuous aggression of Prussia's field commanders once again resulted in costly attacks in the face of deadly Chassepot fire, but once again Prussia's superior artillery helped to even the odds. Some 270 Prussian guns were hauled up into a massive battery, which fired over 20,000 shells at the center of the French line. All the familiar motifs were there, and even some familiar characters. In fact, Moltke's plan for a flanking maneuver broke down almost instantly because none other than General Steinmetz (who else?) ignored Moltke's instructions and launched a frontal attack almost immediately, like an attack dog with a broken leash.

Gravelotte was artless, brutal, and ugly. I shall not even bother to map it, as a diagram would simply insult the intelligence of my readers. Simply picture two giant rectangles colliding. The Prussians came out rather the worse for wear, suffering 20,000 casualties against perhaps 13,000 French losses, but in the end concentrated artillery fire and persistent attacks managed to crack a hole in the French line, which forced Bazaine to retreat - yet again - into Metz. One French officer ruefully described the battle thusly:

We were the superior infantry, but that made no difference, for throughout we were just cannon meat for the Prussian batteries.


The Cemetery of St. Privat by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

Murderously effective Chassepot fire had certainly done its part, and the Prussians paid dearly for the battle. Among their casualties were nearly 50% of the elite Guards Corps. In fact, upon learning of the damage done to his beloved Guards (where many of his cousins had become casualties serving as officers), King Wilhelm lamented what he believed to be a defeat and initially refused to believe it when Moltke told him that the battle had been a success. In fact, they had won the war.

Bazaine's army was bloodied but intact. The larger problem, however, was that they had nowhere to go. Having retreated yet again into the fortress of Metz, they were now trapped. Those 20,000 Prussian casualties had been the price to block the French line of retreat and bottle up the Army of the Rhine for good. Bazaine and his army would spend the rest of their war besieged within Metz - a fortress with barely enough supplies to last a month. In fact, Metz was decidedly understocked on both food, rifle ammunition, and artillery shells. This fact made Bazaine's conduct of the campaign all the more confusing - given the parlous state of the Metz supply depots, the fortress obviously threatened to be a trap rather than an indominable stronghold.

Tasked with the command of France's primary field army, Bazaine had accomplished exactly nothing - he sat idly during the crucial weeks of the war as the Prussians moved in on him, then made a lethargic, half-hearted attempt to withdraw to the west, allowing himself to be blocked by a single Prussian corps. Then at Gravelotte, he traded blood with the Prussians and retreated yet again into his fortress to fester. On October 27, after exactly 39 days under siege, Bazaine would surrender along with his remaining 150,000 men.

For Moltke, the opening campaign had been an adventure, equal parts exhilarating, frustrating, and fortuitous. His comments about the impossibility of accurately planning out an entire operation were strongly prescient, as the unlikely and unpredictable decisions of both his own field commanders and the enemy threw the entire campaign into chaos. First came the questionable French decision to launch a half-hearted attack at the opening bell for propaganda purposes - this offered up much of the French field army in a vulnerable position. An attempt to capitalize then came off the rails due to Steinmetz's unfortunate choice to march his forces directly into the path of 2nd Army, jamming up the Prussian advance. Stymied by Steinmetz, Moltke was then given a second chance to bag the Army of the Rhine when Bazaine decided to lay at Metz like a weak willed slug, marinating in his own indecision.

Marshal Bazaine - a cowardly, indecisive, utterly inadequate man

All the complicating elements were at play here. Moltke had to contend with confounding decisions by both the enemy and his own subordinates, all layered in the uncertainty and confusion of command and control in the 19th century. Yet he managed, just barely, to bend the battlefield to his will. Desperately wheeling the army as quickly as he could towards Metz, he succeeded - with the help of Bazaine's spineless wavering - in trapping the French in the fortress and bottling up France's main field army after only a few weeks of campaigning.

Above all, this opening campaign illustrated the deep tension undergirding this increasingly modern way of war. Moltke vs Steinmetz; rational planning vs violent emotion; the best laid plans of the general staff vs the instinctive aggression of field commanders who wanted to attack anything in their path. Even more disturbingly, however, the Chassepot had begun to raise questions about the efficacy of attacking at all. Entire battalions were shredded by French rifle fire, and it was only the might of those wonderful Krupp howitzers that was able to equalize things. For a Prussian army that lived and died by the attack, this was troubling indeed.

For the time being, however, Moltke - with generous help from Bazaine and Krupp - was still able to make the whole thing hum. His field commanders remained committed to the preternatural aggression of their forebears - keeping in mind that simple adage of Frederick the Great: "The Prussian army always attacks." That remained as true as ever, with commanders at the division, corps, and army level all eagerly throwing themselves at French units far above their weight class. Moltke was never able to constrain this impulse - but he could steer it on the operational level and exert just enough control over it to win decisive victories, proving that Prussia's hyper-aggressive style was still in business.

Unfortunately for France, Napoleon III was determined to prove that the French Army was still in business too.


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Big Serge Thoughts
16 Dec 2022 | 10:15 pm

5. The Failure of Battle in the American Civil War

The Battle of Antietam

The Napoleonic Wars subjected Europe to prolonged warfare of an intensity and geographic scope that was, at the time, without precedent. The Thirty Years War had offered a foretaste of the damage that general continental conflict could inflict, but the scale was far more limited, with much smaller armies fighting with less destructive weaponry in more confined theaters. The Napoleonic Wars, on the other hand, generated battles of hundreds of thousands of men, with major campaigns taking place from Iberia to Moscow, and from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. After 23 years of nearly continuous warfare, some five million Europeans had died, and many millions more were impoverished and destitute. Armies on all sides exacted a horrible economic toll on the civilian populations of the theaters - stripping barns and larders bare, consuming livestock, conscripting young men, requisitioning horses and wagons, and levying taxes. Trading economies were devastated by the British blockade of the economy and Napoleon's counter-blockade.

If anyone thought that the end of war would bring a return to stability and safety, they were tragically mistaken. In the April of 1815, as Napoleon was enjoying his brief return to power prior to his final battle at Waterloo, a volcano called Mount Tambora began erupting in the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia). The conflagration threw an enormous dust cloud into the sky, along with a tremendous amount of sulfur, which clouded the atmosphere globally and reduced summer temperatures by several degrees across much of the world the following year. As a result, Europe's first year without war, 1816, was also "the year without a summer". Crop yields across Europe were both poor (as little as a quarter of normal harvests in some places) and late. Disease and bread riots followed famine, as they always do.

Little wonder, then, that the 19th century was a time of tremendous change in Europe. The pressure on European institutions was enormous. It would be difficult to enumerate all the ways that Europe was transformed between the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the beginning of the next continental war in 1914 - mentioning only the end of serfdom, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of mass literacy and mass politics should suffice to hint at the profundity of the change.

Military affairs were hardly exempt from the fundamental transformations that swept across the world in the post-Napoleonic years. For military thinkers and planners, the challenge lay in coping with one revolution as another was taking place. Warfare had changed in fundamental ways during Napoleon's wars, in large part due to Napoleon's own operational art and organizational concepts. Military staffs sat down after the war to digest these changes - studying and systematizing Napoleonic methods - yet while they worked at this task, the emergence of railroads, the telegraph, rifled firearms, and explosive artillery shells threatened to dump yet another military revolution on their heads.

Military affairs in the 19th century, therefore, were subject to countervailing forces pulling armies in two different directions. Military planners dutifully examined the past, even as industrialization pulled them into the future. Armies were caught between two revolutions.

As generals struggled to cope with these changes, they remained wedded to Napoleon's core vision of a climactic set piece battle, using the offensive to pin and destroy the enemy's main field army. The dream of decisive battle remained as seductive as ever, even as it became ever more elusive. Two military systems in particular would remain committed to fluid, mobile, set piece battles - those of Prussia and the United States of America. In this entry, we will examine America's futile search for decisive battle in the 19th Century, before taking up the Prussian case in the next essay.

Jomini in Mexico

Apart from Clausewitz, none of the post-Napoleonic military theorists are as prominent as Antoine-Henri Jomini. A curious social relic in many ways, Jomini was one of the last notable members of the pre-nationalistic aristocratic military class - professional officers who could flexibly move about, offering service to one army after another. Swiss by birth, Jomini served first in Napoleon's Grande Armee (as a protege of Marshal Ney) before transferring his service to the Russian Army in 1813, to the effect that he held the rank of general on both sides.

While Jomini, like Clausewitz, was a veteran officer who became a post-war military theorist, the similarities essentially end there. While Clausewitz was focused on the transcendent philosophical essence of battle, and could be abstract to the point of borderline mysticism, Jomini was intensely practical, and his seminal work, Summary of the Art of War, reads like a user's manual.

Antoine-Henri Jomini

Jomini was intensely interested in creating a systematic framework for war; reducing the enterprise as much as possible to a structured taxonomy with a system of governing principles. His notion of war was intensely scientific and rational, and it aimed to discover procedural rules that might "solve" warfare, in that the precisely correct course of action could be almost formulaically determined in any situation.

Much of Jomini's specific analysis has aged poorly, in that (unlike Clausewitz) he was focused on the specific systems and principles accruing to war in the 19th century. However, one area where Jomini's impact has endured is in his taxonomy and language of war. Jomini famously devised an exhaustive set of terminology to describe the geometric dynamics of the battlespace. In particular, he is famous for his preoccupation with "lines".

As Jomini saw it, the Theater of Operations (he was one of the first to use this phrase) was a geographic space that mediated between two critical points. The first was the Base of Operations, which is the origin of the armed force - the place from which it receives supplies, reinforcements, and direction. The second critical point is the Objective Point, which marks the critical point upon which the army aims to direct fighting power - this could be the enemy's capital, his own field base of operations, or some other decisive point.

Jominian thinking frames a military operation as a projection of force which comes out of the Base of Operations and moves towards the Objective Point. As the armed force projects farther from its Base of Operations, it weakens, because its connection to supplies and reinforcements becomes longer and more tenuous. This connection is what Jomini calls the Lines of Communication (and now everybody else calls it that too). Because Lines of Communication become weaker the longer they are, it becomes necessary for the army to establish a Pivot of Operations, which is some held point that magnifies force projection farther away from the base of operations (think of a Pivot as forward basing - the supply dumps that power forward operations).

Running through Jomini's entire lexicon can be exhausting. He has seemingly endless verbiage, much of which is so alike that it ends up confusing, moreso that clarifying (Jomini, for example, distinguished between the Pivot of Manuever, Pivot of Operations, Strategic Point of Manuever, and Geographic Strategic Point). In all, this makes him something of a dense, overly technical, jargon-obsessed author.

On the whole, however, Jomini's system of war was essentially Napoleonic. He strictly emphasized decisive battle, particularly the motif of bringing concentrated fighting power to bear on a decisive point (Schwerpunkt). To support this aim, he demanded meticulous attention to supply lines and basing, so that maneuver could be supported across large spaces. This thinking gave priority to offensive action, the spacial arrangement of the operation, and set piece battles in the Napoleonic style. Jominian warfare is a top down and battle-centric system, which idealizes regularized columns and formations fighting decisive battle in the Napoleonic style.

Jomini, who was born in Switzerland, served in the French and Russian armies, and participated in battles all across Europe ended up becoming particularly influential in a place that he never visited - the United States. This fact is owed largely to one of America's greatest military men of all time: General Winfield Scott.

The Undefeated and Indefatigable Winfield Scott at age 76 (Portrait taken in 1862)

Winfield Scott's military and political careers could hardly have been more different. As a political figure, he was a perennial loser, failing on three different occasions to win the Whig Party's presidential nomination before finally succeeding, only to lose the election to Franklin Pierce. Despite decades in American public life, he never won a single election to public office. In direct contrast, he also never lost a single battle in his career as a commanding officer, in a career which spanned a variety of frontier disputes, the War of 1812, and most famously the Mexican American War.

The pinnacle of Scott's military career was his famed campaign to capture Mexico City in 1847. The campaign marked the climax and conclusion of the Mexican-American War, and was, inasmuch as such a thing is possible, nearly a perfect military operation. Scott's army was transported across the Gulf of Mexico and landed near the fortress port of Veracruz on March 9, 1847, in the first amphibious operation in American history. Artillery was hauled ashore, and a battery was prepared under the instruction of a young artillery officer named Robert E Lee. On March 29, the fortress at Veracruz fell.

Scott would lead his army on 200 mile march into the Mexican heartland, fighting several pitched battles with the Mexican army and winning each one decisively. At the Battle of Cerro Gordo, the infamous Antonio López de Santa Anna (America's much detested villain of the Alamo) entrenched his army in a mountain defile, in conditions not dissimilar to the ancient battle of Thermopylae. Facing a numerically superior enemy defending a natural chokepoint, and operating on unfamiliar and hostile terrain, Scott contrived a way to haul cannon up a ridge to fire down on the Mexican positions. Normally, attacking a larger enemy force in an entrenched position is a costly endeavor, but Scott shattered the Mexicans, killing over 1,000 and capturing 3,000 more at a cost of a mere 63 American lives.

The rest of the campaign followed a similar pattern. Scott blasted his way directly into the Valley of Mexico, cleaned up what remained of the Mexican Army in a series of battles around the capital, and entered Mexico City victorious on September 15. In less than six months, leading an expeditionary force of a mere 20,000 men, Scott had waltzed right into the Mexican heartland and swatted aside every attempt to obstruct him with relative ease.

Scott enters Mexico City in Triumph

While it is easy to dismiss the campaign as a superpower crushing a weaker neighbor, Scott's operation was a genuinely outstanding military achievement. Operating far from home in an era long before America perfected the logistical apparatus needed to support expeditionary warfare, Scott solved a variety of different military problems, showing off a full operational playbook: an amphibious landing, reducing a fortress, set piece battles, and assaulting major urban areas. The campaign made him an acclaimed military hero at home, and the de facto revered elder of the American military establishment.

What matters for our conversation here, however, is the fact that Winfield Scott was a disciple of Jomini and Napoleon. Scott was a vocal advocate of what he called the "French School" of military doctrine, and he was known to bring a copy of Jomini's book with him on deployment. The campaign in Mexico, furthermore, represented fastidious adherence to Jominian principles (a fuller reading may be obtained here). Meanwhile, at West Point, Jomini's book was the only work on military strategy used in the curriculum, and officers spent a full year under the tutelage of Professor Dennis Mahan learning Jominian principles and studying Napoleon's art of war. Mahan even hosted a "Napoleon Club" dedicated to analyzing Napoleon's campaigns, and in one of his teaching texts noted the following:

The systems of tactics in use in our service are those of the French; not that opinion is settled among our officers on this point; some preferring the English. In favor of the French, it may be said, that there is really more affinity between the military aptitude of the American and French soldier, than between that of the former and the English; and that the French systems are the results of a broader platform of experience, submitted to the careful analysis of a body of officers, who, for science and skill combined, stand unrivalled.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy drew their senior commanders from more or less the same institutional pool of officers. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, James Longstreet, Joe Hooker, Ulysses S. Grant - all of these men were graduates of West Point's Jominian curriculum and veterans of the Mexican American War. As a result, there was a shared pseudo-Napoleonic presupposition as to how war was fought, which placed decisive battle, maneuver of large, stereotyped units, and the offensive at the center. Thus, both Union and Confederate generals entered the war prepared to fight large set piece battles featuring bayonet charges and massed columns of infantry, just as Napoleon had four decades prior.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the officers of the Civil War were explicitly thinking about Jomini and Napoleon as they fought the war. Certainly, we should not say that Grant and Lee were consulting Jomini's Art of War as they conducted their campaigns, or that they were marking their maps up with Jominian labels and terms. But the victory in Mexico and the curriculum at West Point conditioned them to think about war a certain way, and as a result the Civil War was undeniably recognizable as a Napoleonic conflict on the tactical level, with massed blocks of infantry in close order, clouds of skirmisher screens, lines exchanging volleys, and officers willing to take recourse to the bayonet charge. The result of these "French School" tactics, as Winfield Scott would say, when implemented with newer forms of weaponry and by ever larger masses of men, would be a level of carnage previously unthinkable for Americans.

Robert E Lee's "Perfect Battle"

Few figures in American history provoke such vociferous debate as the legendary Confederate General Robert E Lee. To some, he is the scion of America's gentile aristocratic class, the personification of honor and duty, and one of America's greatest field commanders. To others, he represents carnage wrought over the right to own another human being.

The great fortune of being interested in military history is that one is able to forgo such fruitless debates. Warfare retains a technical dimension above and beyond its moral aspects, in a manner akin to engineering. Of course it would be foolish to deny that warfare involves moral adjudication, but in examining the campaign as a technical exercise we are free to put aside the question of whether or not Robert E Lee was a "good man" and simply think about how he and his adversaries attempted to destroy each other on the battlefield.

A Complicated Man

Incidentally, Lee's legacy as a commander is nearly as muddled and difficult to parse out as is his standing as a moral actor. This is due to the huge number of confounding factors. Lee was ultimately defeated, but this seems to have been largely inevitable due to the generally impossible strategic situation that faced the South, which was hilariously, insurmountably outgunned by the North's much larger economy and population. It is generally agreed that Lee conducted himself bravely and, overall, skillfully in the face of an unsolvable strategic problem. However, it is argued in turn that much of Lee's battlefield success was owed to the rank incompetence of his foes. Abraham Lincoln famously tried and failed for the first three years of the war to find even a modestly competent and ambitious commander, and in the process burned through several failed generals.

One battle in particular, however, may serve to distill a great deal of the Civil War's military dimension and make apparent the larger issues. This battle reveals Lee's undeniable skill, imagination, and aggression as a commander, but it also demonstrates why the type of war that he was attempting to fight was fundamentally unworkable.

The Civil War's military dynamics were shaped by a geographic idiosyncrasy - namely, that the capitol cities of the combatants (Washington DC and Richmond Virginia) were only 90 miles apart. Much of the war was fought, therefore, with major armies (the Union's Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia) loitering in close proximity to each other, making repeated efforts to reach the other's capital. In the broadest sense, the narrative structure of the Union's war effort was Abraham Lincoln's frustrating search for a general who could get the powerful Army of the Potomac to Richmond. The Union would make four failed attempts to take Richmond in the first two years of the war (1861 and 1862). The final failure, led by General Ambrose Burnside, came to a horrific end when the Union army was mauled at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December, 1862.

Only too happy to be done with what had been a disastrous year, Abraham Lincoln made two significant changes as 1863 began. The first was to change the strategic objectives in Virginia. Instead of aiming to capture Richmond, Lincoln chose to prioritize the destruction of Lee's Army - a thoroughly Napoleonic conception. The second change was to assign this task to Major General Joe Hooker, who took command of the Army of the Potomac on January 25.

"Fighting Joe" Hooker

Hooker earned high marks for his capable administration of the army in the early months of the year, giving his troops much needed rest and discernably restoring morale (which had been very low by the time Burnside left his post). This is an entirely different thing than meeting Lee's army in battle and destroying it, but by the spring months Hooker had successfully restored the army to potent fighting shape.

The general disposition of forces strongly favored the Union. Hooker had just over 130,000 men at his disposal - more than twice Lee's force, which numbered a mere 60,000. The two armies began the year staring each other down across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, right where Burnside's offensive had been stopped the previous year. The gap between the two armies' main camps was less than ten miles.

Hooker devised what was, on paper, an excellent operational scheme. He planned to leave 40,000 men on the contact point at Fredericksburg to pin Lee's army in place. This would allow him to take a powerful grouping of over 50,000 men, march some seven miles east, and cross the Rappahannock behind Lee. This flanking march would be complicated somewhat by the presence of an immensely thick wooded area (simply called "The Wilderness"), but once Hooker emerged from the wilderness at the hamlet of Chancellorsville, he would have Lee firmly trapped in a double envelopment.

The plan was simple and sound, and would leverage the Union's overwhelming numerical superiority to swallow Lee's overmatched force in a steel clamp. Hooker was confident. "My plans are perfect", he said. "May God have mercy on General Lee for I will have none."

Hooker's flanking force crosses to the east of Lee's position

The opening of the Chancellorsville campaign went off without a hitch for the Union. Leaving a powerful pinning force at Fredericksburg under General John Sedgwick, Hooker successfully moved his flanking force across the river and concentrated them on Chancellorsville, setting up his headquarters in the mansion there. With Sedgwick's own powerful grouping of 40,000 men keeping up the pressure across the river, Hooker was confident that Lee would be unable to escape the trap which was now prepared.

Instead, Lee violated every apparent rule of military orthodoxy. Conventional wisdom dictated that it was suicidal to divide one's forces when outnumbered, as this would merely dilute an already outmatched army. Lee, however, did precisely this. Faced with a 40,000 strong Union pinning force at Fredericksburg, he left his own smaller pinning force (a single division under General Jubal Early) to hold back Sedgwick, and wheeled the entire remainder of his army - some 53,000 men - westward to confront Hooker's flanking force.

Lee's response to Hooker's flanking maneuver was one of the most audacious and risky decisions in the annals of warfare. Having divided his force to fight a double battle in the face of Hooker's attempted envelopment, Lee now divided his force yet again. He sent II Corps, under the command of the legendary Stonewall Jackson, on an enveloping march of its own - snaking around Chancellorsville to Hooker's own unprepared right flank.

Lee's force was now divided into three separated bodies, the largest of which was Jackson's corps at 26,000 men. These three forces, fighting independently, were all at risk of being crushed if they were caught by Hooker's much larger bodies. However, Hooker at this point displayed appalling indecision. Having taken the initiative with his flanking march across the river, and despite possessing much larger and better armed forces, he inexplicably withdrew into inaction, holding his forces in a defensive shell around Chancellorsville. This pathetic inactivity allowed Jackson to complete his march and slam into Hooker's dangling right flank. Jackson's counterattack built up tremendous momentum due poor communication among Union units, and left Hooker's position irretrievably mangled.

Lee had stolen the initiative back from Hooker, but the day was not without blemish. On the night of May 2, General Jackson went out to conduct personal reconnaissance without properly informing his men and was shot by his own picket lines. He would die from the wounds the following week. The loss greatly affected Lee, who valued Jackson's battlefield aggression and his instinctive ability to understand Lee's operational thinking, but there was little time to mourn at the time. The battle was still ongoing.

A dramatized painting depicts the fatal wounding of Stonewall Jackson

The situation was still operationally very difficult for Lee, even if the counterattack on the 2nd had helped to stabilize the situation. Now, the more immediate problem was that the other large Union force - the 40,000 strong pinning force at Fredericksburg under General Sedgwick - was now forcing its way across the river. General Early had a mere 10,000 men to hold the line, and Lee had given him orders to withdraw if he was heavily attacked. After several costly assaults, Sedgwick finally broke Early's line and forced a retreat on May 3.

The basic problem for the Confederates was Mathematical. The Union force consisted of two bodies of sufficient size to engage Lee's entire force. Had these two bodies moved together, Lee could have been crushed between them. Unfortunately for the Union, Hooker was not proving to be substantially more competent than his predecessors. After the mauling that he took on May 2nd and 3rd, he again withdrew into passive defense and inactivity. This allowed Lee to once again break off contact and wheel back in the other direction to attack Sedgwick's force. Hooker had boasted that he would show Lee no mercy, but his indecisiveness and passivity in combat was merciful indeed, as it allowed Lee to engage the two Union bodies one at a time.

With Hooker sitting behind his defenses, Lee was free to peel off multiple divisions to block Sedgwick's advance and drive him against the river. By May 5, the Union forces were both reduced to a pair of separated semicircular defensive shells with their backs against the river. Facing a vicious Confederate attack, and receiving neither clear orders nor assistance from Hooker, Sedgwick decided he'd had enough and withdrew back across the river. Hooker, in a fitting end that encapsulated his indecision and cowardice, decided to take a vote from his senior commanders as to whether they should retreat or continue the operation. The officers voted to fight, but Hooker retreated anyway.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was, in hindsight, a rather odd affair. Hooker, who was literally nicknamed "Fighting Joe", devised what was in fact a bold, decisive, and potentially unstoppable operational plan, then fumbled the entire battle away because he proved incapable of decisive action once guns were actually fired. The opening movement was successful and put Lee's force right in the middle of two powerful bodies that could have crushed him. Instead of doing so, Hooker withdrew into a defensive position on May 1, giving Lee the opportunity to regain the initiative. Lee, who unlike Hooker was gifted with clear headed decisiveness under pressure, took this opportunity and used it to bash the much larger Union army.

Chancellorsville has long been considered Robert E Lee's signature battle. This was the battle in which he was the most outnumbered, in which he took the most operational risk, and in which he was challenged by the most sophisticated Union operational scheme to date. He demonstrated lighting quick decision making in the face of Hooker's flanking maneuver, refusing to allow himself to become paralyzed by the enemy's movements (as Hooker did). It has been described by some as "Lee's Perfect Battle", and the appellation is probably fair. Certainly, there is a certain sublimity to Lee's movement. Hooker planned to pin him in place and flank him, and Lee repulsed this by in turn pinning and flanking Hooker's flanking force. The flanker became the flanked, and the rest is history.

And yet… Chancellorsville was a disaster for Lee's army.

The movement of the units on the map is stunning. From the perspective of operational planning and wargaming, it is hard to conceive of a better scheme than what Lee put together under fire. Yet, when one looks at the colored blocks moving around on the map, one must consider what happened on the tactical level when those blocks smashed into each other.

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Big Serge Thoughts
6 Dec 2022 | 7:02 pm

6. Napoleon's Art of Warfare

"The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries", by Jacques-Louis David

Who is the greatest general in history?

The question, while fun to contemplate, is indeed a thorny one, as it presumes that the figure of the "general" takes a consistent form that can be compared fairly across the ages. Upon reflection, this is not immediately obvious. One can hardly imagine Konstantin Rokossovskiĭ or Erich Manstein personally leading the charge of the Macedonian cavalry the way Alexander the Great did - but it is equally difficult to imagine Alexander sitting dutifully in a command post, pouring over situation maps and directing the movements of dozens of divisions from afar. The commander traded his lance and sword for maps, pencils, and telephones.

To be sure, the role of the general has changed throughout the ages, from the heroic battlefield commanders of the ancient world who fought and killed in the melee with their men, to ever more cerebral and technical maestros of the map. Generals still face danger and may be killed by deep striking weapons like artillery, missiles, and aircraft, but the days have long since come and gone where a general might be expected to intentionally engage in combat.

Despite these radical shifts, certain qualities of the successful military leader remain eternal and transcendent: decisiveness, steady nerves, properly balanced aggression and prudence, and leadership.

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This last quality has become something of a trite and cartoonish concept for many people today. "Leadership" has been stripped down into a quality that many people genuinely believe can be taught in a classroom or acquired from reading droll business books, or (God forbid) watching motivational YouTube videos with manipulative soundtracks. It is a transcendent quality that many are eager to strip of its transcendence so that it can be bureaucratized, systematized, and monetized.

This is nonsense. Leadership, genius, decisiveness, these are qualities that emerge organically from the process of collective struggle and effort. The first kings and chieftains were the men who killed the wolves and tigers terrorizing the camp, not the graduates of pedantic leadership academies. Genghis Khan was acclaimed the ruler of all the steppe tribes because he killed his enemies and rewarded his friends, not because he read the latest Simon Sinek book. And above all, the Duke of Wellington said that Napoleon's presence at a battle was worth 40,000 men because the latter innately possessed the indefinable and irresistible quality of genius, not because of his Enneagram type. One must not confuse leadership with power or greatness with titles.

The duties of the general have changed throughout history, but the archetype remains timeless, if indefinable. The great fighting man, in any age, is something that we recognize when we see it, and few better fulfill the archetype than Napoleon.

Napoleon, by any counting, commanded more major set piece battles than any other man in history, and he almost always won. At the peak of his powers, between his Italian campaign of 1796 and the beginning of his downfall in Saxony in 1813, he fought 53 major battles and suffered defeat in only 4 of them. He won victories repeatedly when fighting at a numerical disadvantage, and he won in summer and winter, deserts and mountains, from France to Egypt to Russia.

Napoleon did, of course, lose his wars in the end, but it must be recognized and acknowledged that this was a man so prodigiously skilled at warfare, commanding such a finely machined army, that his defeat required the cooperative work, without exaggeration, of essentially all of Europe. The so-called War of the Sixth Coalition, which finally brought about his defeat, pitted Napoleonic France against Russia, the United Kingdom, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and eventually almost all of the Germanic principalities. A formidable alliance - but Napoleon still somehow made it close.

So who is the greatest general? We can defer to Napoleon's great British nemesis, the Duke of Wellington. He was asked the same question once, and answered without hesitation: "In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon."

Let us dwell with Napoleon and learn his art of war.

How to Move an Army

Napoleon practiced a discernable system of warfare, with motifs, techniques, and principles that are clearly identifiable. However, this system or art of war must be teased out of Napoleon's battles, because he himself never wrote out any sort of systematic methodology of warfighting. His military acumen was intensely practical, and the Napoleonic system was created from doing, rather than from institutional study and methodology. This stands, for example, in sharp contrast to the Prusso-German way of war in the 19th century, which was created through an intentional program of reform and theorizing by their General Staff. Napoleon had no time for this - he simply fought battles. To the extent that he left meaningful quotes about war making, they take the form of aphorisms, rather than a single systematic treatment of war.

Two overarching principles are clearly visible in the Napoleonic system, and in Napoleon's own words. These are, namely, the absolute priority of offensive action, and the criticality of movement that is both rapid and ambiguous. Napoleon was adamant that the central aim of warfare was the destruction of the enemy's fighting mass, and that all other concerns were subordinate to the need to find and destroy the enemy's main field army. In 1797, he explained it thusly:

"There are in Europe many good generals, but they see too many things at once. I see only one thing, namely the enemy's main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves."

Napoleon eschewed the dance between diplomacy, position, and battle, and instead gave primacy to battle, preferring to negotiate only after the enemy's main fighting force had been vaporized. He also strongly shied away from siege warfare, preferring to seek decision through the direct clash of the main field armies. Insofar as he moved towards enemy supply depots and cities, he did so because threatening them would force the enemy to offer up their field army for battle. It was all well and good to drive towards the enemy's capitol, but this was because doing so would force them to put their army in the way, allowing it to be attacked and destroyed.

With this goal in mind, Napoleon was manically focused on the offensive. He believed fundamentally that decisive offensive action was crucial in that it allowed him to dictate the tempo of operations and force the enemy to become a reactive entity, granting him full initiative. "Make war offensively;", he said, "it is the sole means to become a great captain and to fathom the secrets of the art."

Napoleon fought battles across the breadth of Europe and beyond for nearly two decades, and he almost always won.

Napoleon executed his attacking style of war with an army that was able to move both quickly and efficiently while disguising its movements. As he himself famously said, "Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less chary of the latter than the former; space we can recover, time never." The Grande Armee could move at shocking speed for the era, but it did so in a dispersed and concealed manner that left enemies at great pains to guess where it was going. This combination of speed and deception repeatedly left Napoleon's opponents disoriented and wrongfooted before a musket was ever fired.

Three particular ingredients were crucial for granting Napoleon's army its characteristic speed.

  1. The Corps System: The organization of Napoleon's army into self-sufficient combined arms corps allowed the army to disperse and travel on independent lines of advance. This made the army both faster, by distributing it on many different roads, and more ambiguous by disguising its intentions.

  2. The Officers: By dispersing his corps, Napoleon also by definition dispersed his command system. Unlike Frederick or Hannibal, he could not personally travel with and command the mass of his army, because there was no single mass. Therefore, the precise movement of the army required Napoleon to delegate to competent officers who could be entrusted with the independent command of a significant force. This was a monumental step towards a recognizably modern command and control system and professional officer corps. At the apex of this system were Napoleon's famed Marshals.

  3. The roads and towns of Europe: The Grande Armee was able to move at great speed thanks to the density of the roads and settlements throughout Europe. The road system allowed for not only the rapid travel of the main bodies of men, but also communication between the dispersed units via messengers on horseback. Furthermore, the population density allowed the army to move without supply chains by requisitioning food from local civilians as they passed through.

Napoleon's armies could move very fast indeed, but the pace of this advance would vary widely depending on the phase of the operation. At the outset, the army was widely dispersed and marched at a (relatively) leisurely pace. Most of the time, Napoleon's forces moved at between 10 and 12 miles per day. During this opening phase, the army would also be maximally dispersed, with some of the opening fronts being quite colossal. In 1796, Napoleon's invasion of northern Italy began with his forces spread out across a 75 mile front; the 1805 Ulm campaign began on a 125 mile front, and the famous invasion of Russia began with the Grande Armee arrayed across a 250 mile front.

Dispersing the army across a wide starting line allowed Napoleon to capitalize on an important asymmetry: his army could move faster and more precisely than the enemy. Therefore, by stretching out the theater of operations, he created an advantage for himself, because the faster party will always have the edge in a wider arena. The dispersion of the army both disguised his intentions from the enemy and created maximum flexibility for the French by allowing them to maneuver towards wherever the enemy decided to concentrate his forces. In some cases, the wideness of the front compelled the enemy to split up his own forces, in which case Napoleon could destroy the enemy army in pieces.

As the Grand Armee advanced on the enemy, it was obscured behind a dense screen of cavalry. The cavalry screen had both intelligence and counterintelligence functions. Riding ahead of the mass of the army, the cavalry would scout and scour for intelligence about the enemy's position and movements, but they were also tasked with detecting and chasing away the enemy's own cavalry scouts. With the movement of the army obscured behind this moving screen, the enemy could never get more than a vague sense of Napoleon's forces and intentions. The screen formed a curtain, behind which the French mass was shrouded in fog. In most cases, the cavalry screen was the only portion of the French army that enemy scouts would actually be able to physically see.

In general, as the French got closer to the enemy force, the front narrowed as the corps gradually drew closer together, preparing to concentrate for the decisive battle. The movement of the army was less like a monolithic column and more like a net that was slowly drawn close as they moved nearer to the enemy. Then there came a critical moment, when Napoleon would pull the proverbial trigger. At that point, the corps would begin to rapidly snap together into position for battle. The pace of the march would radically increase as the army drew together. In one of the most famous and celebrated examples, Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout marched Third Corps nearly 80 miles in about 48 hours to reach the battlefield.

This, then was the idealized form of maneuver in Napoleon's system of warfighting. A divided army comprised of self sufficient corps marching across a widely dispersed front, with a cavalry screen obscuring its precise movements from the enemy. This left enemy commanders disoriented and in the dark, as they perceived only vaguely the French fighting mass snaking its way forward like a many headed hydra. Only once the enemy army had been decisively located would the dispersed army suddenly snap together on the enemy, forcing him into decisive battle.

Napoleonic Combat

Napoleonic battle was a fluid interplay between the three arms: infantry, cavalry, and cannon. Notwithstanding Napoleon's many famous quotes about the preeminence of artillery on the battlefield (his fondness for cannon originating in his early career as an artillery officer in the Bourbon army), there was no single arm that was more important than the other. All three arms interacted with the others in unique and important ways, and successful battle required a synergistic application of the whole.

The Cornerstone: Napoleon's Infantry

The most numerous type of soldier in the armies of both Napoleon and his adversaries was the humble line infantryman, equipped with musket and bayonet. His was a brutal, terrifying existence.

Napoleonic combat was bloody and terrifying. Casualties dwarfed previous European wars. Seen here: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers, by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

The musket was, in retrospect, a rather curious weapon. Its range and accuracy were extremely limited. In a famous experiment conducted by the Prussian army, a canvas target 100 feet wide and six feet tall was set up for a battalion of line infantry to test fire upon. The size of the target created the generous condition of simulating a volley fired at an entire enemy battalion. The results therefore approximated the odds, not of hitting a single specific enemy soldier, but of hitting anybody in the entire enemy unit. The results were not encouraging. From 150 yards out - well within the advertised range of a musket - only 40% of the test shots hit the canvas at all, while from 75 yards the rate was only 60%.

From even these modest distances, a tremendous amount of shot would be wasted. However, when units closed to point blank range - within fifty yards, or so - casualties could be horrific, as the narrow distance finally mitigated the weapon's unreliable accuracy, and the sheer volume of a battalion volley threw huge amounts of lead into the air. Units that had to stand at close range and exchange repeated volleys with the enemy could be vaporized. At Austerlitz, one particularly miserable regiment stood in the line exchanging fire until it was completely destroyed, losing 95% of its men. Therefore, on balance, one might say that although an individual musket was not a particularly reliable or accurate weapon, a mass of musketeers fighting in close order was a very powerful and lethal military system.

Backbone of the army

Within the infantry, there were shades of specialization. Famously, armies fielded units of "Grenadiers." Originally, the name was a literal description - primitive grenades were heavy and unstable, and so it was common practice to select only the tallest and strongest soldiers for grenadier units, making them the physical elite of the army. By Napoleon's time, however, dedicated grenade units had fallen out of favor, and so the term grenadier ceased to refer to their weaponry and was instead a status label used for elite infantry, making the various guards grenadiers regiments simply the most prestigious and experienced musketeer units. Thus, in the Grande Armee, a grenadier was equipped identically to any other line musketeer, but he was taller, more experienced, better paid, and had more cachet with women. A typical infantry battalion might have a single company of grenadiers, who would serve as the battalion's shock troops and lead unit.

A second particular subset of French infantry were the Voltigeurs, or skirmishers. These were men with particular skill as sharpshooters, whose basic task was to screen the deployment of their comrades by harassing the enemy line with musket fire, usually directed at officers.

While Napoleon did tinker with the precise organization of the army over time, an idealized example may illustrate how the infantry deployed to fight, supported by skirmishers. A typical French infantry battalion would be made up of nine infantry companies of 120 men each, typically aligned 40 wide and three deep for line combat. Eight of these companies would be line infantry, and the ninth would be skirmishers. As they marched on the battlefield, the objective was to remain in column (for quick marching) as long as possible, before deploying smoothly into firing lines. Successfully managing the pivot from marching column to firing line was a crucial aspect of battlefield effectiveness.

Upon nearing the contact point, the lead company (the skirmishers) would jog ahead and disperse, kneeling down to harass and screen the enemy with targeted fire. Screened by these skirmishers, the column would begin to fan out, with each company slotting into line as they closed the final distance, before they began the bloody process of exchanging volleys.

Thus, what appeared at a distance to be a narrow column would first give way to a cloud of skirmishers opening fire, behind whom advanced a terrifying line of musketeers, 320 wide and 3 deep, ready to give fire. This would make an unbroken line of men 200 or more yards wide, able to fire up to 1280 rounds per minute (only the front two lines being able to fire, each man firing at a rate of up to two rounds per minute). This would make one battalion, advancing to contact, and when fighting in full force Napoleon could bring upwards of 200 battalions to the field. Little wonder, then, that many battles had front lines that stretched many miles, or that tens of thousands of men could be killed in a single day under such conditions.

The basic art of the Napoleonic infantryman, aside from marching, reloading, and firing his musket in the volley, consisted in shifting between three various types of formation based on battlefield circumstances. These were, respectively, the column, the line, and the square. Each formation offered some particular situational advantage, in the form of either mobility, firepower, or defense, but with potentially offsetting drawbacks.

The column was the formation for marching - not just on the road, but during the approach on the actual field of battle. It offered the fastest and most agile movement, and it also offered the most density and shock value for bayonet charges. In contrast, the line formation was immobile and sluggish, but provided maximum firepower. In the Grande Armee, line infantry regiments usually lined up three ranks deep, with the first two ranks offering fire and the third rank stepping forward to fill holes in the line as men fell - this was a ruthlessly efficient, shallow formation designed to make use of every possible musket. The final base formation, the square, was the doctrinal response to cavalry attack. A square provided 360 degrees of protection, with at least three ranks of men facing in every direction. Typically, the front ranks would kneel with fixed bayonets while the second and third ranks offered musket fire. This created a dense formation bristling with bayonets and gunfire that could ward off cavalry attack, but at the expense of sharply reduced firepower and greater vulnerability to ranged fires, owing to how closely the men were crowded together. In particular, a densely packed square of infantry could be ravaged by cannon fire.

Louis-François Lejeune's painting of the Battle of the Pyramids depicts Napoleon's infantry forming a square to ward off a cavalry attack

Much of the tactical art of Napoleonic warfare revolved around mediating the transition between these formations - not only properly moving your own infantry into the correct formations, but also attempting to force the enemy into moving into formations that were disadvantageous to him and to disrupt his own synergistic use of arms.

The infantry square provides a potent example of this. During the early phases of battles, it was common for cavalry squadrons to skirmish with each other. If the enemy's cavalry could be defeated and forced to withdraw, then it became possible to directly threaten the enemy's infantry with a cavalry attack. This would compel them to form squares. Infantry in a crowded square were well defended from cavalry, but at this point they could be pummeled, either with one's own infantry (infantry in a line having four times the firepower of the equivalent men in a square), or - even more devastatingly, attacked with horse drawn artillery, which could gallop up and unleash devastating close range barrages on the packed squares of musketeers.

This was a standard battlefield tactic which emphasizes the synergistic, back and forth logic of the era's combat. Cavalry alone cannot simply crush a battalion of infantry - the infantry will simply form squares and become impenetrable hedgehogs. But cavalry can force the infantry to form these squares so they can be punished with musket or cannon fire. All the arms must work together to create advantage.

Similar synergistic warfare was required for the successful use of stacked charges. Given the horrific casualties that could result from extended exchanges of musket fire, it was common to seek a decisive result by launching a shock action bayonet charge with infantry in columns. This did offer the potential of breaking through the enemy line and shattering his formation, but charging head on into musket fire was a problematic concept. Therefore, column charges needed support by intense artillery bombardment, with cannons brought forward to hammer on the spot where the charge was intended to land. Napoleon, personally, was emphatic that bayonet charges could not succeed without artillery support.

The God of War: Napoleon's Artillery Arm

Napoleon's great regard for artillery is well known. In his early military career, he had served as an artillery officer in the Bourbon army, and deeply internalized the importance of cannon. He famously quipped that "God favors the side with the best artillery".

Artillery in Napoleon's era had already become an extremely potent weapons system. Two changes, in particular, had enhanced its deadliness. The first was the universal adoption of pre-packed ordnance, which greatly increased the rate of fire by freeing the gunners from having to individually load the propellant charge and cannonball. The second great advance was one of Napoleon's personal organizational priorities: the move to militarized transportation.

A French "12 pounder" artillery piece. A similar design was later used in the American Civil War, and was nicknamed "Napoleon" by American troops

In the 18th century, it had been typical practice for cannons to be hauled to the battlefield by hired civilian drivers and horse teams. Because these civilians were loathe to put themselves in danger (and skittish and unreliable under fire), artillery was generally unhitched in the rear areas and then manually dragged to firing positions. Napoleon ditched the civilian contractor system and adopted militarized transport, with dedicated horse teams and drivers within artillery battalions, including and especially the deadly "horse artillery". These were light cannon that could be dragged nearly at full gallop into battle along with the gunnery crew, who were also mounted.

A precursor to self-propelled artillery, horse cannon could be brought up to critical points at lightning speed, rapidly unhitch, and provide close fire support. The speed at which these cannon and their crews could rush to the front, deploy, and open fire recalls the pit crews of modern car racing - an impressive display of rehearsed coordination and precision. Horse artillery completely changed the nature of cannon, from clumsy, lumbering systems that sat mostly immobile in their batteries, to responsive, flexible, mobile weapons that could be deployed at specific points in response to specific needs. This greatly enhanced the deadliness of the artillery arm. There was little as terrifying for an infantry battalion as being forced to form a square by attacking cavalry, only to see the horse artillery come galloping up to the front to discharge canister shot right into the square.

Canister shot was a particularly nasty innovation that gave artillery an added level of firepower against closely packed infantry. While traditional round shot was used at longer ranges, against close order infantry it was typical to use canister - more or less a thin walled can filled with iron or lead balls, perhaps an inch across. Upon firing, the flimsy canister disintegrated, blasting the contents out in action that resembled nothing less than a giant shotgun. At close ranges, canister shot could quickly vaporize infantry and created horrific carnage.

Canister shot from the American Civil War (from the Atlanta History Center)

Artillery was used in battle from the very first moment. Barrages were laid down to cover the first advance of the infantry onto the field (more likely than not, the first men to die in any given battle would fall to cannon balls crashing in from far beyond musket range), and then continuing to pummel the enemy throughout. Once a position in the enemy line seemed to be weakening, artillery fire would be concentrated on that point to fatally weaken it, so that it could be pierced by a shock action charge. In this way, the action of the batteries on the field resembled the movement of the corps system - dispersed and lower intensity at first, then concentrating and intensifying greatly at the decisive moment.

Shock and Awe: Napoleon's Cavalry

The final and most cinematic arm of the Napoleonic army was the cavalry. The uses of cavalry were threefold: reconnaissance and screening during the advance to battle, shock and mobility in combat, and exploitation and punishment against a defeated enemy. Or, as Napoleon himself put it, "Cavalry is useful before, during, and after the battle."

Notwithstanding his eternal love of artillery, Napoleon was equally clearsighted about the absolute necessity of a strong cavalry arm. Most importantly, as he understood it, cavalry was the arm that allowed for decisive victory, because it was the cavalry that would run down and exploit a compromised enemy army. Without a strong cavalry force, a defeated enemy could simply withdraw from the field. While cannon and musket killed the most men during the set piece phase of the battle, it was cavalry that inflicted terrible damage once the defeated army broke and attempted to flee. On this subject, Napoleon wrote:

"I say that it is impossible to fight anything but a defensive war, based on field fortification and natural obstacles, unless one has practically achieved parity with the enemy cavalry; for if you lose a battle, your army will be lost."

Accordingly, Napoleon and his staff exerted great effort regularizing and organizing the cavalry arm, which had suffered neglect during the revolutionary period. Each of the Grande Armee's corps had an organic cavalry element, as did Napoleon's elite Imperial Guard, and the army also retained an independent cavalry reserve for handling special tasks and emergencies. Allowing for some slight variation and special units, French cavalry fell into three broad categories.

Cuirassiers formed the heavy cavalry - in this case, "heavy" being not merely a military designation but also a literal description. Cuirassiers were, to put it succinctly, huge men, riding huge horses, wearing huge armored breastplates (the Cuirass, after which they were named) and swinging long swords. They formed the core shock element of the cavalry, deriving their combat effectiveness from the literal weight and power of their charges. Although generally equipped with a pair of pistols as well, they generally did their damage with their swords, which could cut down exposed infantry like a scythe through grass.

An 1843 illustration of a Napoleonic Cuirassier

The second cavalry form, the Dragoon, was a general purpose problem solving soldier. More lightly armored than the heavy Cuirassiers, the Dragoons were instead more versatilely equipped, carrying not only a sword and pistol, but also a shortened musket. Trained for both mounted and dismounted combat, they had suitability for nearly limitless different tasks, and could operate in cavalry screens, protect the army's flanks, go on raids or other special missions, or - in a pinch, dash to vulnerable positions and dismount to bolster infantry forces.

The final arm (and the most numerous) were the Light Cavalry, including the famous Hussars. The Light Cavalry instantiated the swagger, braggadocio, and daring of the archetypical cavalryman. Armed with pistols, carbines, and sabers, their tasks were screening, scouting, harassing, and - especially - exploitation. During the advance to battle, they were expected to be the lead elements, harassing the enemy and disrupting his deployment, nipping at his flanks and points of exposure, and screening the French deployment. In the (frequent) case of victory, it was the light cavalry that pursued the fleeing enemy, running down retreating infantry, capturing baggage and artillery trains, and generally doing everything possible to turn a tactical victory into a total rout.

Well did Napoleon say, "Without cavalry, battles are without result."

Édouard Detaille's "Vive l'Empereur!" depicts Napoleon's light cavalry in pursuit

All in all, the French army under Napoleon was a versatile and well drilled machine capable of astonishing battlefield dexterity. Time and time again, it demonstrated methods for seamlessly integrating cavalry, artillery, and infantry operations in response to shifting battlefield conditions. At the Battle of Auerstadt (discussed in detail below), one infantry division went through the entire range of tactical arrangements in a single day - approaching the battlefield in column, deploying into lines to deliver volley fire, withdrawing back into squares to beat off an incoming cavalry charge, and then redeploying into columns to deliver a finishing bayonet charge.

No method of warfighting is perfect. Napoleonic warfare always threatened to devolve into horrific attrition battles, and over time the British in particular evolved ways to mitigate French tactics. Yet on the whole, these basic doctrines and methods worked nearly seamlessly, and they brought France well over a decade of continuous battlefield victories.

Blueprint of Strategic Destruction

Given the sheer volume of battles that Napoleon fought over his career, it becomes possible to identify patterns and systems that are quintessentially Napoleonic, despite the fact that he never actually wrote down anything like a system or handbook for warmaking. As a practitioner, rather than an author, we might say that Napoleon's theory of battle was implicit, rather than explicit. Still, we can with reasonable confidence identify what we might call Napoleon's idealized approach to battle. This was an idiosyncratic battle scheme which fit Napoleon's maniacal desire to destroy as much of the enemy's fighting power as possible in a set piece field battle.

Let us walk through an idealized variant of Napoleonic battle, and then examine a few specific instances where it was implemented most perfectly.

To begin, we should note that the innovative system of corps allowed Napoleon to take battle with relative ease. To begin with, the dispersed and rapid movement of the corps usually left the enemy in a state of confused inactivity, allowing Napoleon to bear down on him and force a battle. The individual corps, however, were also valuable tools for forcing the enemy to take the fight.

Time and time again, upon locating the main enemy mass, Napoleon would bring the entire army to converge on it. The first corps to arrive was tasked with ensuring that the enemy army did not slip away, by attacking it and pinning it in place. Napoleon's enemies almost always obliged and took the battle, because they saw in front of them not the entire Grande Armee, but a single corps of perhaps 30,000 men. Seeing an opportunity to destroy an isolated portion of Napoleon's force, enemy generals could rarely resist temptation. However, upon engaging the lead corps, they found themselves in an escalating battle as more and more of the French corps arrived, drawing more and more of the enemy force into the battle.

We can put it another way - if Napoleon simply appeared on the horizon with his entire force, well over 150,000 men, most generals would have thought twice about engaging him in pitched battle. But if, instead, the enemy general found himself attacked by a mere 30,000 men, then he would rationally take the battle and attempt to crush this manageable French force - only for the entire mass to arrive one corps at a time, bringing him into a totalizing battle that he had not bargained for. In this way, Napoleon could bring his enemy into battle by escalating the engagement, rather than beginning all at once.

Upon engaging the enemy army, Napoleon's priority was to draw as much of the enemy force directly into the front lines as possible. He achieved this by making a direct frontal attack with massed infantry lines, in essence creating the impression of an attritional line battle. With the enemy fixated on the frontal attack, two maneuvering forces were held in reserve: a flanking force, which would be sent on a turning march toward the enemy flank, and the crucial ingredient, a reserve force which would be held until the last moment to launch a decisive attack.

Once the enemy was fully committed to the battle, Napoleon would unleash his maneuvering force against the enemy flank. This was a moment of great danger for the enemy army. No elaboration is needed to explain the danger of a flank being turned - Frederick demonstrated the principle fully at Leuthen. However, unlike at Leuthen, for Napoleon the flank attack was rarely and end unto itself. Rather, it served the purpose of stretching out the enemy line - forcing him to pull forces off the line and commit whatever reserves he had remaining to shore up his flank.

Napoleon rarely fought battles aimed at encirclement. Rather, his flanking and turning moves were designed to stress the enemy's battle line by forcing them to stretch it ever further to keep their flank secure.

Any halfway decent general, without question, would react with great urgency to the French flanking move. Units would be pulled off the line, reserves committed, and all effort would be taken to shore up the flank. But in doing so, the front line would be denuded of strength, and a weak point or hinge would arise. Napoleon called this stretching and thinning of the enemy front "the event" - the precise purpose of the battle. This was the moment where Napoleon's indefinable sense of battle was most apparent - he would stand, scrutinizing the field, watch in hand - waiting to give the order.

At the moment of Napoleon's choosing, the artillery batteries would lay a massive barrage on the selected weak point in the enemy's line, and the reserve assault force would rush forward. The selected point of contact was assaulted with a concentrated mass of both heavy cavalry and infantry columns, blasting a hole and pouring into the enemy rear. Light cavalry rushed through behind the assault force, and the entire battlefield came to resemble a dam bursting, or a river spilling its banks. Napoleon himself likened this decisive attack to "the one drop of water which makes the vessel run over."

This basic approach to battle, though modified and adapted endlessly depending on circumstances, was the rough blueprint that Napoleon used to defeat enemy after enemy for well over a decade. In the simplest sense, his goal was to methodically stretch out the enemy force, tinkering with the geometry of the field so that the enemy was forced to denude and weaken some point of his line, and then send a reserve force smashing through that weak point. This is a conceptually simple approach to battle - but the difficulty (and by extension the practical display of Napoleon's skill) lay in successfully predicting which portion of the enemy line would be weakened, and "feeling", as it were, the correct moment to launch the decisive attack.

Austerlitz: Napoleon's Immortal Battle

Napoleon's most famous victory, at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, serves as an eternally useful demonstration of the Napoleonic art of war, because it illustrates the two synergistic elements of Napoleon's success: his system of warfighting, and his preternatural gift for sensing and comprehending the battlefield - for predicting what his enemies would do, cajoling them into acting the way he wanted, and punishing them for their mistakes at the opportune moment. In many ways, Austerlitz was a fairly straightforward variation on his classic approach to set piece battle, displaying all the basic motifs, but with several delightful and brilliant twists.

As always, Napoleon was under intense pressure to force and win a battle. His virtuoso Ulm campaign had wiped an Austrian army off the board and left the road to Vienna wide open, but new problems quickly arose in the form of Russian armies arriving in theater and linking up with the remaining Austrian forces. Strung out deep in enemy territory, with the combined Austrian and Russian armies lurking, Napoleon needed to find, fight, and destroy as much of their fighting mass as possible to bring a resolution to the campaign.

There were, however, two problems. The first was the classic numerical discrepancy, with the Austrian and Russian coalition force outnumbering Napoleon about 90,000 to 72,000. This manpower edge was not completely overwhelming, but the allies did have a potentially catastrophic advantage in artillery, with 318 cannons to Napoleon's 157. Furthermore, Napoleon could ill afford to get involved in a costly attritional struggle, because there was a looming threat of Prussian involvement in the war. He therefore needed to engage and destroy the coalition army without unduly draining his own fighting power, to preserve combat capabilities to deal with the Prussians, should the need arise.

The second problem was that it was Napoleon who needed to force a battle, and the Russian commander - Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov - knew it. Kutuzov was a cautious general who wanted to slow walk the campaign, and was not overly eager to get into a set piece battle with the French. Napoleon therefore needed to contrive a way to force a battle with a numerically superior opponent.

The solution, as always, was to use the speed and ambiguity of the corps system to force a battle. Napoleon flew ahead, advancing to the town of Austerlitz in direct proximity to the enemy coalition's staging areas - but because the corps arrived one at a time, his force appeared weaker than it was, drawing the enemy in with feigned weakness. Napoleon further dramatized the notion that he was weak and fearful of battle by requesting negotiations and making a show of trepidation and hesitancy with the Russian envoy. To sweeten the deal and fully cajole the enemy into giving battle, Napoleon decided to grant them a powerful positional advantage. The field of battle at Austerlitz was dominated by a formidable hill called the Pratzen heights. In the approach to battle, Napoleon had intentionally abandoned the heights to the Russians for the purpose of feigning weakness and drawing the enemy in. The ruse worked insofar as it convinced the Austro-Prussian force to give battle, but the French now faced an army with a significant advantage in firepower, anchored on high ground.

Napoleon prepares on the eve of Austerlitz, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune. The Pratzen heights are clearly visible in the background.

A French flanking maneuver was ill advised in this situation. In control of the Pratzen heights, the Russians were in position to spot any move towards the flank. Napoleon, therefore, contrived a different way to achieve his goal of stretching and thinning the enemy center. In this case, he deliberately created the impression of a weak right wing. Tempted by the possibility of crushing Napoleon's wing and cratering in his position, the Russians began moving forces towards the right to reinforce the attack there, denuding their center and creating a dangerously thin line.

Napoleon's decision to use the right wing as bait to draw the enemy mass across was well thought out and cleverly implemented. The right wing was a natural target for the allied coalition, because the road to Vienna lay to the southwest - that is to say, on the French right. This meant that rolling up the French right flank would not only collapse Napoleon's army, but also cut off his line of communication and retreat. All of this made the right wing a juicy target, and Napoleon put it on a silver platter by using a single infantry division - a mere 10,000 men, to defend more than two miles of of front.

Napoleon's plan was predicated on two concealed concentration of troops. The first was Marshal Davout's force of some 6,600 men, who came up behind the right wing to strengthen it once the enemy attack landed. Davout's forces were out of the enemy field of vision, creating the impression that the right wing was weaker than it really was. The second concealed concentration, however, was the mass that Napoleon intended to use to win the battle. Cleverly concealed on the transverse side of hills, Napoleon massed two infantry divisions (17,000 men) under Marshal Soult, along with a cavalry reserve, a crack grenadier division, and the Imperial guard - all in all, something like 30,000 men, massed in the center but out of the enemy field of vision.

The paradox of Austerlitz, then, was that although the Russians and Austrians were perched atop a hill with an extensive field of vision, they began the battle without any realistic sense of Napoleon's deployment. They could see the thin right wing and not much else, and immediately began moving troops away towards the French right without any clue in the world that Napoleon had a powerful mass in the center, just waiting to strike.

Tempted by the apparently easy prospect of smashing Napoleon's right wing and rolling up his entire line, the allies began moving much of their fighting mass off the Pratzen Heights in the center to attack the right. In the end, nearly 60,000 allied troops - a full two thirds of their force - were allocated to the right wing, leaving their center precariously weak. Napoleon could see them moving off from his command post - he watched through his spyglass as column after column streamed away towards his right wing. Watching from a distance as the enemy center slowly thinned out, he famously predicted "One sharp blow and the war is over", and ordered the attack.

Russian command on the Pratzen Heights was manically focused on overwhelming what they perceived to be a fatally weak French right wing. They were therefore quite surprised when they looked up and saw French columns charging up the hill towards them. With all the allied reserves in the process of streaming off towards Napoleon's right, there were simply insufficient forces on hand for the allies to stabilize their line, and the French broke apart the allied center, precipitating a total rout.

It is easy for us to dismiss Austerlitz as some sort of very obvious trap. Of course Napoleon was planning to attack the center, we say. Of course the weakened right wing was just bait. Could it be more obvious? And yet, the scheme utterly confounded a staff of Russian and Austrian generals with extensive military experience. Surveying the battlefield from their lofty command post atop the Pratzen Heights, they had good reason to assume that they had a comprehensive look at the field and knew what was going on. It was their own bad luck that Napoleon had hidden his assault force in an impression on the transverse side of a hill - perhaps the only suitable place where they could be hidden from the enemy's view. We can say, perhaps, that the coalition force badly mismanaged the Battle of Austerlitz, and we would probably be right. And yet in the final analysis, here was Napoleon, after years of war, still a step ahead of his opponents, confounding them yet again, destroying yet another army and forcing yet another frenzied retreat. What more needs to be said?

Napoleon called Austerlitz the finest battle that he ever fought. It was, to be sure, a decisive victory. The allied army lost over 35,000 men killed and captured, at the cost of less than 2,000 irretrievable French casualties. Yet, from a schematic perspective, what made it so wondrous was how delightfully simple it was, following Napoleon's general system of battle perfectly: stretch them out, then attack the thin part with a force held in reserve specifically for that purpose. What made the entire scheme work so perfectly was Napoleon's preternatural sense for battle. At virtually every phase, the enemy did precisely what he expected them to. He abandoned the Pratzen heights, knowing that it would lure them into accepting battle, and then he created an impression of weakness on his right wing, knowing that this would in turn lure them away from the center. Once again, Napoleon was seemingly the only man on the field that day who could see everything, account for all the pieces in his head, and weave an accurate and prescient mental picture of the battle as it was fought.

Many people are capable of reading the schematics in hindsight and of understanding the geometry of the battle. In the same way, we can be walked through famous chess games and have the openings and mating concepts explained to us. That is the easy part. Much rarer is the man who can see it as it is happening, amid confusion and adrenaline, much less see it in advance. This is why many people can enjoy chess, but relatively few can be grandmasters, and even fewer can be world champions. Similarly, Austerlitz has many admirers but only one practitioner - only one who could sense, as if supernaturally, the entire unfolding situation, and synthesize the many moving parts into one seamless whole.

Le Bataillon Carre

Austerlitz was an exemplary application of Napoleon's preferred system for fighting set piece battles - drawing the enemy into pitched battle with the full mass of his army, distorting the enemy line with positional manipulation, and then launching a heavy attack directly at a weak position. This was the general shape of Napoleonic battle whenever he managed to engage the enemy mass.

On occasion, however, this system was not applicable, because it was not possible to engage the enemy mass in a conventional field battle. This could occur for multiple reasons - either because the enemy army could not be located and pinned down for a static battle (perhaps because the enemy was also in motion), or because the enemy force was divided.

In other words, we have spoken thus far of the way Napoleon used movement and ambiguity to bring the enemy to battle - but what was the Napoleonic response when the enemy himself was in motion and ambiguous?

In these instances, the wonderful flexibility of the Napoleonic corps system became apparent. Napoleon expertly utilized a formation known as Le Bataillon Carre. Literally, the Square Batallion, this referred to a maneuver formation which spaced the corps out in at balanced distances so that each was no more than a day or two's march from its neighbors. Kept in communication with each other via cavalry, this allowed the entire army to assume a sort of searching posture when the enemy's exact location and path of movement was unknown.

The equidistance of the corps was vital, as it meant that whichever corps managed to locate the enemy mass could be assured that the others would be able to quickly join it in battle. The roughly square formation also allowed the entire army to turn quickly - if the enemy was detected on the left, for example, the entire army would simply pivot, so that the left hand corps became the advance unit.

The movement of the Bataillon Carre is visualized thusly:

Flexible and balanced spacing of the corps allows the army to wheel towards contact in any direction - even backwards!

This was Napoleon's standard method of moving the army towards contact when the disposition, location, and direction of the enemy's movement were unknown. The corps remained sufficiently dispersed to allow the army to move quickly, but lines of communication and marching distances between them were narrow enough that the army could wheel and respond effectively upon discovering the enemy.

This method of strategic maneuver was put on brilliant display during Napoleon's 1806 campaign against Prussia. The Prussians, broadly speaking, were habitual bunglers during Napoleon's heyday - remaining aligned as cautious neutrals during Napoleon's war with Austria and Prussia in 1805, then declaring war on Napoleon only *after* Austria had surrendered, because they were alarmed on Napoleon's new levels of influence in Germany. The Prussian King, Frederick William III, attempted to time his entry into the war in such a way as to maximize his leverage, but Napoleon managed to crush the coalition at Austerlitz before Prussia could get in on the action. After Napoleon's great victory, a war party in the Prussian court - led, allegedly, by the Prussian Queen, Louise - pushed the King to declare war on Napoleon anyway.

Queen Louise was a famous beauty, and her personality was so strong and made such an impression that Napoleon called her "the only real man in Prussia."

In short - and drastically simplifying the complex diplomatic and territorial issues - Prussia opted to watch passively as Napoleon crushed Austria, then jumped to declare war on him after he'd won. So, instead of fighting Napoleon as part of a coalition in 1805, Prussia found itself more or less one on one with Napoleon in 1806. Hardly ideal.

Prussia's military deployment was almost as confused as their diplomatic choices. The Prussian army, by this time, was a fossil from the days of Frederick the Great. Its formations, tactics, and weapons were unchanged, and at a time when armies were following Napoleon's lead and organizing division and corps commands, the Prussians still had no staff or permanent order of battle structure higher than the regimental level. This was an army that was nearly fifty years out of date on every level. As if to punctuate its thoroughly archaic nature, more than half of Prussia's generals were over 60 years old.

Having an un-modern force is bad enough, but the Prussians compounded on the problem because they still possessed the instinctive sense of aggression that Frederick had drilled into them in the 1750's. They began their war against Napoleon with a somewhat disorderly advance into Saxony, putting over 100,000 men beyond Prussia's main defensive line (the Elbe River) without clear intentions.

Napoleon, meanwhile, had massed six full corps to the southeast of the Prussian army. He had initially expected the Prussians to keep their forces behind the Elbe, but information began to trickle in that the Prussians had advanced in force and were loitering in Saxony. It proved difficult for Napoleon to extract meaningful information about Prussian intentions. This was, in part, because the Prussians as yet had no intentions - on October 5, they convened a war council which devolved into a multi day shouting match, as the disorganized command debated the merits of various offensive plans.

(This elucidates a fairly straightforward principle of warfare: make your plans before you assume an aggressive posture and march your main field army out into the open country).

Unclear as to where exactly the Prussians were or where they might be going, Napoleon drew up a bataillon carre. This provided maximum operational flexibility. The plan was to march the army in equidistant columns of two corps each and drive straight towards Berlin. If the Prussians did as Napoleon expected and tried to block the French at the Elbe, they would be engaged and destroyed. If the Prussians instead came forward to fight (as indeed they already had) the army could simply wheel in the necessary direction and wrap them up.

As the colossal French army came pounding up towards Berlin, the Prussian army - in a display of passivity that surely made Frederick spin in his grave - simply sat idly in place, paralyzed with indecision as the Grande Armee marched past. Meanwhile, Napoleon continued to receive bewildering intelligence informing him that a large Prussian army was on the left, doing nothing. It was simply… there.

Matters finally came to a head on October 9 when one of Napoleon's corps - the fifth, under Marshal Lannes - fought a discovery battle (so called because the armies more or less bump into each other) with a Prussian advance guard at Saalfeld. The Prussian force numbered barely 8,000 men and were absolutely crushed by Lannes' corps, and a Prussian prince was killed in the fighting. The small battle at Saalfeld seems to have jolted the Prussians into action (finally). Suddenly realizing that Napoleon was marching uninhibited towards Berlin, they hastily began to decamp and pull back towards the northeast to take up a defense along the Elbe (as Napoleon had expected at the beginning).

The following events took place so quickly and precisely that they serve as an idealized demonstration of the dexterity of Napoleon's army, the skill of his corps commanders, and the flexibility of the bataillon carre formation. On October 11, French intelligence finally confirmed for Napoleon that the full Prussian mass was indeed on his left (to the west). On October 12, the orders went out for the entire army to make a left hand turn towards the Prussians. Four corps were to move directly westward to attack the Prussian mass, while the remaining two - under Davout and Bernadotte - were to continue north before wheeling left to come down on the Prussian flank. On October 14, Lannes' corps led off the attack on the Prussians near the town of Jena.

Napoleon at the Battle of Jena, by Horace Vernet (1836)

The Prussians got a full taste of Napoleon's new way of war, and found that their own style was simply no longer competitive. Lannes came on first with his fifth corps, and the Prussians learned how it felt to watch the battlefield suddenly fill up with French as the other corps arrived - the Seventh under Marshal Augereau arrived on the left, followed by the Sixth under Ney. By the afternoon, the Prussian lines were riddled with holes and formally collapsed.

None of this was particularly surprising. What was surprising, however, was that Napoleon had smashed the wrong Prussian army.

The force that he caught at Jena was not the main Prussian mass - it was a subsidiary force covering the flank, numbering only 38,000 men. Napoleon crushed it, of course, but he also badly outnumbered it. So where was the main Prussian army?

A much larger body - some 60,000 men under the Prussian supreme commander, the Duke of Brunswick - was in fact a ways to the northwest, retreating hastily back towards Berlin. They never got there, because they ran right into Napoleon's Third Corps, under Marshal Davout, who was executing his orders to flank the Prussians from the north. In short, Napoleon mistakenly pounced on the Prussian rearguard with four full corps, while his flanking force - a single corps of perhaps 27,000 men - mistakenly ran into the main Prussian body near the village of Auerstadt.

Outnumbered by more than 2 to 1, Davout utterly smashed the Prussian army. Davout was himself Napoleon's best corps commander, and he adroitly demonstrated the full French inventory of skills. The Prussians - who had been attempting to withdraw when they crashed into Davout - stumbled one unit after another onto the field and never put together any sort of concentrated or cohesive battle, allowing the French to simply move through their textbook tactical elements: clouds of skirmishers harassing and disorienting the Prussian infantry; French infantry drifting from column to line as they moved up; artillery pounding away nonstop. When the Prussians attempted an unsupported cavalry charge, the French simply formed squares and bashed them, before moving back to columns for their own attack. Davout handled himself brilliantly all day, slotting his divisions dutifully into a solid line and anchoring himself on the village of Hassenausen. The Prussians, meanwhile, were disoriented from the start, and it only got worse when the Duke of Brunswick was shot through the eye. After wasting their numerical advantage with uncoordinated piecemeal attacks, the Prussians at Auerstadt, like their comrades at Jena, could do nothing but flee.

The dual battles of Jena-Auerstadt, fought on the same day only twelve miles apart, decided the Prussian campaign barely two weeks after it began. What remained of the Prussian army broke apart and was ridden down by the French cavalry, which conducted a legendary pursuit - Prussian morale was so broken that fortresses were surrendered without a fight to detachments of cavalry.

The battle is largely famous for solidifying the reputation of Louis-Nicholas Davout as Napoleon's greatest Marshal. When Napoleon was told that Davout had crushed a massive Prussian army at Auerstadt, the Emperor (who believed that he had engaged the main Prussian force at Jena) allegedly replied that the Marshal was seeing double. Once the truth was made known, Napoleon was effusive in his praise of Davout - while some claim that Napoleon was resentful of his subordinate's great victory, publicly this was not the case. One thing that is not up for debate, however, was his great dissatisfaction with Bernadotte, who loitered aimlessly with his First Corps, failing to aid Davout and missing out on both of the day's battles.

Louis-Nicolas Davout - greatest of the Marshals

More broadly, the Jena-Auerstadt campaign encapsulated everything that made Napoleon's military system peerlessly lethal. The bataillon carre and maneuverability of the corps allowed the French to operate efficiently under conditions of extreme ambiguity and uncertainty - without knowing exactly where the Prussians were or where they were going, they were able to advance confidently on a decisive axis, free to flex and turn as needed to take battle. Once Napoleon knew that the Prussians were on his left, he simply turned the army that direction and got his battle only a few days later. The self sufficiency of the combined arms corps furthermore allowed the French to fight a double battle, with Lannes attacking and pinning the Prussians at Jena while he waited for the other corps to arrive, and Davout putting on a clinic by mauling a Prussian force that outnumbered him decisively.

For Prussia, the defeat of course meant subordination to Napoleon, but it also provoked a profound sense of humiliation and existential despair from a county that, as little as two weeks before, still believed it had one of the best armies, if not the best, in Europe. The indignity and shock of defeat would provoke the institutional reforms that led to Moltke, Schlieffen, and Manstein - but that is a story for a different day.

Central Position and Double Battle

One of the peculiar twists of the Jena-Auerstadt campaign is the fact that Napoleon accidentally implemented an operational scheme that he frequently used intentionally. The key is that, at Jena, Napoleon did not know that the Prussian force was divided into two large masses. He believed he was attacking the entire consolidated Prussian army. However, despite not understanding this, the battles mirrored the standard Napoleonic response to facing a divided enemy force.

Napoleon always wanted to attack and destroy the enemy's main field army - so how could this be achieved when the enemy army was divided into multiple centers of gravity? Of course it was always possible to just choose one and attack, but this raised two possibilities, both of which were concerning: either the second army might converge on the field to aid the first (potentially flanking the French), or the second army might escape, saving much of the enemy's manpower.

It was therefore important both to keep the second enemy army pinned in the theater, so that it could be attacked as well, while also keeping it at a distance, so the two armies could be destroyed one at at time.

To meet these goals, Napoleon favored an operational concept that we will call the strategy of double battle and central position. This was an approach that he utilized on many occasions throughout his long career.

On the approach to battle, Napoleon would attempt to keep his army (perhaps in a bataillon carre) in a central position. This maximized the army's freedom of movement and flexibility, by permitting it to attack either enemy body. Once the army advanced to within striking distance, it capitalized on the fighting power and mobility of the corps. A single corps would strike at one of the enemy's bodies, engaging it with modest intensity so that it could be kept pinned in place and paralyzed, while the remainder of the army swarmed the second body to destroy it. After destroying it, the army would wheel back to rescue the pinning corps and attack the first body.

The use of a single corps to pin and paralyze one of the field armies allowed Napoleon time and time again to handle larger, variegated fronts. The key, as always, was that the French were almost always far more mobile and precise in their movements, which would allow them to pounce on the enemy armies before they could unite.

The strategy of double battle, however, suffers a systemic difficulty. Because the plan centers around wheeling quickly off the first battle to attack the second enemy army, it lacks the energy to pursue and exploit the first victory. In other words, having defeated and chased off Army B, the French immediately turn towards Army A - potentially giving Army B the time and space to reorganize.

One of Napoleon's most famous battles demonstrates how great this potential danger could be. We speak, of course, of the Battle of Waterloo.

During the Waterloo campaign, Napoleon faced two dispersed enemy forces - the British under Wellington, and the Prussians under Blucher. He responded by attempting to implement the strategy of double battle almost precisely as we described it above. Viewing the Prussians as the greater threat, Napoleon attacked and beat Blucher at the Battle of Ligny, while ordering Marshal Ney to pin the British near Waterloo. This describes Phase 2 of the above graphic precisely.

Two things went wrong, however. First, the French were too slow in wheeling away from Ligny to attack Wellington. Napoleon spent a day in indecision, and the beginning of the French attack at Waterloo was inexcusably delayed. Secondly, there was no proper pursuit of the defeated Prussians after Ligny due to insufficient French cavalry. The Prussians were able to retreat from the field with much of their force intact, and Blucher was able to appear at Waterloo two days later with a reconstituted and reainforced army. Thus, instead of defeating the two coalition armies separately as the strategy of double battle suggests, Napoleon was himself defeated when they managed to unite and concentrate on a single field.

Why Napoleon was Defeated

Napoleon's historical legacy remains a matter of debate. In his lifetime, he was the subject of intense caricature and propaganda by his enemies, who portrayed him as a diminutive and petty tyrant. This is the image that has survived to this day, and the one thing that most people think they know about Napoleon is that he was short.

Given his ambitions of establishing a continent spanning empire, Napoleon has at times been compared to Adolf Hitler, but the comparison is a poor one. While Napoleon was no saint, and certainly prone to megalomania, there was nothing intrinsically criminal about him. He generally tried to bring stability, rational laws, and security to the lands he conquered, and it is a testament to his reasonableness that his enemies left most of his reforms in place after his defeat.

The crucial factor to consider, when evaluating Napoleon as a moral agent, is the fact that he did not start his wars. Republican France had been at war for a decade by the time he came to power, and indeed he came to power precisely because the country was destabilized and exhausted. Napoleon was not a man who sought political power so that he could unleash war - he was given political power to bring resolution to a war that was already unleashed. He thus saw himself as the man who could bring security to France and finally bring peace to Europe through his own prodigious skill on the battlefield. This was megalomaniacal and egotistical to be sure, but motivated by the quest for stability, not a lust for bloodshed.

The heir of Caesar and Alexander

In the end, Napoleon ran into a problem - he kept winning battles. Every victory seemed to push French power further and further out, creating more resentment and stretching resources ever thinner. Yet, because Napoleon was in the final analysis a military man, for whom battle was the motivating animus of political life, there was no other way to resolve geopolitical problems.

By 1812 Napoleon had pushed French power to its absolute limit. He had won a stunning series of titanic victories, but those victories brought burdens. Namely, Napoleon now had to contend with three different geopolitical strains:

  1. The financial-naval power of Britain

  2. The military-logistical power of Russia

  3. The diplomatic strain of maintaining control over Germany and Italy.

In particular, France simply lacked the resources to wage a protracted struggle with both Russia and Britain, especially because these two enemies required very different forms of power projection to combat.

In the Russian campaign, Napoleon's military system reached its limit. Predicated on rapidly attacking and destroying the enemy's main field army, the system broke down when confronted with an enemy that could simply retreat for hundreds of miles before giving battle. After being drawn deep into the Russian interior, Napoleon could achieve no political objectives. The Battle of Borodino bloodied the Russian army, but did not force a Russian surrender. Napoleon was the master of battle, but here at last - deep in the Russian heartland - battle betrayed its master, and would yield no decisive result.


The withdrawal from Russia devastated Napoleon's military capacity - not in manpower, but in horses and cannon. French horses died by the thousands due to hunger on the winter road out of Russia, and as they died the cannons that they pulled had to be left behind. By 1813, Napoleon had rebuilt his infantry force to acceptable levels, but his cavalry and artillery arms were left in a permanent state of weakness that crippled the Grande Armee.

Even so, bloodied and weakened, Napoleon remained the best commander in the world. His enemies approached him with trepidation and uncertainty. He only suffered genuinely decisive defeats when outnumbered by prohibitive margins, as at the Battle of Leipzig, where he was outnumbered at 2 to 1 by the combined armies of Prussia, Austria, and Russia. His final act at Waterloo required a combined Prussian-British army to finish him off - and even at the very end he made his enemies sweat. At the climax at Waterloo, Wellington told his aides that either night or the Prussians needed to arrive soon to prevent yet another French victory.

In the end Napoleon was undone because France simply could not bear the geopolitical burdens that it had assumed. There were not enough horses, not enough cannons, and not enough men. Still, his legacy as a military practitioner is without equal. He was not infallible, of course, but across multiple decades of war, in disparate environments and frequently outnumbered, he almost always won, and even in defeats his enemies usually suffered more casualties than he did.

Perhaps no figure since Alexander the Great was so centered on battle, deriving all of his political fortunes from the iron dice. Even from a distance of nearly 200 years, Napoleon is a captivating figure, and a peerless general. He remains the favored son of Ares, and the very incarnation of the spirit of battle.

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Big Serge Thoughts
29 Nov 2022 | 12:21 am

7. The History of Battle: Maneuver Part 4

"Death of Gustavus at Lützen" by Carl Wahlbom

It is easy to point to a variety of inventions that "revolutionized" warfare. From the exploding shell, to the telegraph, to the railroad, to the internal combustion engine, to the airplane, warfare and battle are continually reinvented to the point where they exist in an essentially fluid state. Nevertheless, if one were to point to a single technological development which marks a clear "before and after" watershed moment in the history of war, it would have to be the widespread introduction of standardized firearms, specifically muskets and cannon.

The use of muskets and field artillery drastically changed both the face of battle and society. Armies were suddenly able to bring to bear a level of firepower hitherto unimaginable, which swept equipment that had been the mainstay of war - mail and plate armor, pikes, and the bow and arrow - irrevocably from the field.

Two armies of the medieval era - the Mongols and the English - had at times enjoyed a decisive battlefield edge in the form of superior ranged firepower. But these advantages had come from their possession of unique cultural artifacts (the steppe cavalryman's recurve bow, and the English longbow) which took a lifetime of training to master and could not be easily imitated. No German prince could simply decide that he wanted an army of Mongol style cavalry archers. Musket and cannon, however, could theoretically be available to any state, if it had the fiscal and bureaucratic machinery to acquire the weapons and recruit and train the men.

The Musketeer: living foundation of European modernity

If firearms changed the face of battle, then they also changed the nature of the warrior. Armies were transformed into bureaucratic institutions and genuine arms of the state. The ancient prerogatives of the warrior classes and armed subcontractors - the knights and mercenaries of the world - were destroyed, and the descendants of the knights became the officers in professional, standardized armies, fundamentally transforming the relationship between the state, the elites, and the citizenry. The great British military historian, J.F.C Fuller, famously wrote that "The musket made the infantryman and the infantryman made the democrat" - foreshadowing that as armies grew in size and necessarily recruited ever larger proportions of the young male population, popular political participation with the state necessarily grew as well. As the Romans well knew, there are few forms of participation in political life as intense and meaningful as military service.

The military transformation of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries would indeed change virtually all aspects of political life. For military planners, however, it merely complicated and added new difficulties to the ancient problem of battle. Firearms radically altered the geometry of battle - changing not just the way individual soldiers fought, but also how they were arranged, moved, and governed on the field. In this entry of our series, let us contemplate the changing geometry of battle in the early era of massed firearms, and discover how commanders coped with the new technology, marrying the growing firepower of their armies with the ancient quest for asymmetry through maneuver.

Swedish Supernova

Few topics can make even dedicated students of history shudder so easily as the Thirty Years War. This conflict, although one of the most significant events in European history, presents a nightmarishly tangled affair. Fought between 1618 and 1648, the war was a morass of seemingly disparate and marginally connected sub-conflicts with a headache inducing roster of belligerents. Even 400 years later, the conflict still militates against clean narration.

The entire structure of the war is rather odd to contemporary readers. It was an intensely religious conflict, with the central structure of the war, broadly speaking, appearing to be an alliance of Protestant states against Roman Catholics under the broad leadership of the Hapsburgs. Yet the war also had more recognizable great power aspects to it, notably the fact that Bourbon France, although a firmly Catholic country, sided with the Protestants. There is thus a strange duality, with a more ancient sort of religious war layered on top of a classic great power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Hapsburgs.

Another reason the Thirty Years War is something of a nuisance to write and read about is the somewhat unfamiliar - and extremely long - roster of warring parties. The war can properly be called the first of five continent-scale wars in modern Europe, the others being the Silesian Wars (1740 - 1763), the French Wars (1792-1815), and the First (1914-1918) and Second World Wars (1939-1945). Yet, unlike the following conflicts, the Thirty Years War was not fought by the usual suspects. Neither Britain nor Russia participated, while states that are largely unfamiliar to us, particularly German states like Saxony, Hesse, and the Palatinate, played prominent roles. The war also saw the heyday of formerly great powers that were either in, or about to enter their decline phases, like the Dutch Republic and Hapsburg Spain. It is, to be sure, slightly odd to read about a cataclysmic European war where England did not participate but the Dutch played a central part, and to this is added the infuriatingly complex internal geography of the Holy Roman Empire.

The unmitigated aesthetic disaster that was Central Europe circa 1648. Map Credit: William Shepherd's 1923 Historical Atlas

All things considered, then, the Thirty Years War was an ambiguous sort of dual religious-geopolitical struggle fought between somewhat unfamiliar and confusing alliances, across a wide and disconnected theater, through a huge number of relatively small and indecisive battles. The armies involved were generally small (rarely more than 20,0000), but because the war dragged on for so long, with these armies rampaging back and forth across central Europe literally for decades, the demographic toll was quite substantial. The war's foremost contemporary historian, Peter Wilson, puts total battlefield deaths at just under 500,000, with disease and malnutrition pushing total military dead up to perhaps 1.8 million. The years of campaigning, with armies foraging and pillaging endlessly, also put horrific stress on rural populations across Central Europe. By one estimate, the rural population in Germany fell by 40%, and the urban populations by 33%, due to broad social disruptions that led to widespread hunger, disease, and flight.

Truly, this was a strange war. It was a genuine continental conflict with titanic consequences which did a great deal to shape both the geopolitical and religious shape of modern Europe as we know it. And yet, few people truly enjoy reading about it, because it was simply a slow burning and complicated mess. A disaster, and not even the entertaining kind.

Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch" was completed in 1642, at the apex of the Thirty Years War. It depicts a company of Dutch pikemen and arquebusiers.

And yet, amid the general crisis and misery, there were several key advances in the military arts, a few stars rising in the black night, and a few men of great ability flashing their talents for the history books. Among the greatest of these was the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus.

The Thirty Years War was fought during the era of transition from early modern armies, which heavily emphasized pike squares, to more recognizable linear formations of muskets. A Dutch prince named Maurice of Orange was the first to recognize the potential of massed musket fire, if soldiers could be trained and drilled to reload and fire in sequence at a rapid pace. Maurice's infantry drills (complete with an instruction booklet and handy illustrations) sparked the movement towards the professional musket armies that we recognize from the following centuries, with coordinated and synchronized volleys, standardized weaponry, a combined arms trio of musketeers, cavalry, and field cannon, and the bureaucratization of training and procurement.

Illustrations from an English translation of Maurice's drill handbook

During the Thirty Years War, however, this emerging European military system was still in embryo. The many belligerents deployed a variety of different formations, weapons, and military systems, which varied widely in their battlefield efficacy. It was Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedes, however, who fielded one of the most recognizably modern musket armies, and it was precisely this army that won Sweden its brief golden age as one of Europe's great powers.

Sweden's involvement in the war came on rather late. It was not until 1630 - a full twelve years into the conflict - that Sweden, coaxed by the ever persuasive French, was cajoled into intervening in the conflict. As a Lutheran, Gustavus Adolphus had clear religious sympathies with the struggling German Protestants, but he also had traditional, earthly reasons for putting his thumb on the scale, aiming to enhance Sweden's position in Germany for standard purposes of state aggrandizement.

Swedish intervention took the rather bizarre form of Gustavus and his army (a modest force of barely 20,000 men) simply landing on the Baltic coast in Germany and beginning a march south, looking for a fight. The ensuing clash with the Catholic Hapsburgs would happen at a time and place that was largely the result of geographic accident. The Hapsburg army tasked with corralling and defeating the Swedes (under the command of one Johan, Count of Tilly - usually just called Tilly in the histories) took the shortest march route towards Gustavus and his army. It just so happened that the shortest route, in this case, involved a march through Saxony, which had hitherto remained neutral and aloof from the conflict. With the Hapsburgs more or less invading Saxony simply because it was on the way to the Swedish Army, the Saxons were forced into an alliance with Sweden. If Tilly had simply taken the long way around, Saxon neutrality may have held.

In any case, Tilly's decision to take the direct route and invade a neutral state led to a set piece confrontation when the Catholic Hapsburg force and a Swedish-Saxon coalition army more or less ran into each other near the town of Breitenfeld, just to the northwest of Leipzig. Tilly was about to be on the receiving end of the first demonstration of Gustavus Adolphus's new look Swedish army.

Breitenfeld is a very peculiar battle when it comes to comparing the field strengths of the armies. In terms of pure accounting, the forces were fairly close in numbers - just under 36,000 Imperial troops against perhaps 39,000 Protestants, with the Protestant coalition more heavily weighted towards cavalry. However, the quality of forces varied wildly across the different arms, and especially within the coalition army.

The Saxon force, which contributed some 16,000 men, or 40% of the total Protestant strength, was overwhelmingly comprised of poorly trained militia or brand new conscripts. Within the Saxon force, 16 of the 22 regiments were either militia or "raw", meaning they were seeing combat for the first time after minimal training. The Saxon infantry also had perilously few muskets, and were armed primarily with pikes and lighter, older firearms like the arquebus. In contrast, the Swedish army was quite professional and had a very heavy concentration of muskets.

On the other side of the field, the Imperial army was a professional, if aging force. Virtually all of the Hapsburg infantry were professionals, which meant that - despite the Protestants having a slight edge in total numbers - the Imperial force fielded more regular, trained infantry. The crucial question, however, was what function these men were trained for.

The Hapsburg army in 1631 was still organized around units called "Tercios". These formations had long been the mainstay of Hapsburg armies, especially in Spain and the Netherlands. They were flexible units of between 1,000 and 2,000 men which organized a combined force of pikes and ranged infantry (first crossbowmen, then arquebusiers, then musketeers) into a composite formation. The anchor of the tercio was a mass of pikemen, around whom "sleeves" of musketeers and arquebusiers could be arranged. This gave the tercio fighting flexibility, with a heavy pike mass capable of close combat with the enemy, and ranged "sleeves" that could be brought around to exchange fire. This unit enjoyed great battlefield success for nearly a century, but what the Hapsburg military establishment did not understand was the extent to which muskets had rendered the concept increasingly shaky.

A sample tercio of 1,000 men. At Breitenfeld the Hapsburgs used both 1,000 and 2,000 man tercios, for a total of 17 tercios averaging roughly 1,5000 men each.

The Tercio suffered two substantial drawbacks after the widespread introduction of muskets. The first, obviously, was that the huge number of pikes and arquebus created a unit with lower ranged firepower density. The second disadvantage was the relatively deep arrangement of the unit (up to twelve rows deep), which necessarily implied that a smaller share of the musketeers could fire at once. In contrast, the Swedish army had by now transitioned to more linear, elongated battalion of musketeers (the type more familiar to us), which meant that the Swedes could offer an equivalent amount of firepower with far fewer men.

All in all, this was a strange sort of battle, with three armies of widely varying quality. An Imperial Catholic army, professional and competent, but fighting in an aging style, against a coalition comprised of an amateurish and poorly armed Saxon force and a cutting edge Swedish army that was armed to the teeth with modern muskets and cannon.

The opening phase of the battle displayed the disparate fighting quality of the belligerent parties. Breitenfeld began, after an exchange of cannon fire, with the Imperial army launching two fairly unimaginative, but ferocious cavalry attacks on the wings. On the left wing, the attack went disastrously, with the Catholics stonewalled by a tough Swedish cavalry wing supported by musket fire. All told, the Imperial cavalry would regroup and launch a grand total of six attacks on the Swedish cavalry, but they were repulsed and worn down each time. In total contrast, the charge on the Imperial right wing smashed right into the Saxon cavalry and routed them from the field entirely.

The situation on the two flanks could not have been more different. The attack on the left was bogged down, but the right wing - manned by the lousy Saxon force - seemed to have been cracked wide open. Tilly made what was, all things considered, the natural decision, and decided to move the mass of his infantry against the Saxons, with the aim of blowing the Protestant flank wide open and rolling up their whole army.

This was a textbook maneuver, and a cursory glance would have supported the move. Tilly was moving his mass to a point of great leverage, hoping to turn the Protestant flank. Who could disapprove of such a maneuver?

There were two problems with Tilly's flank attack. The first was intrinsic to the formulation of the armies: Sweden's linear musket units simply had far more firepower than the tercios. By simply rotating to keep their lines of fire oriented towards the Hapsburg infantry, they exposed Tilly's tercios to devastating musket and cannon fire.

The second problem related to the failed Imperial cavalry attack on the opposite flank. After launching a wave of charges and being repeatedly repulsed with heavy casualties, the Hapsburg cavalry on the left wing had had enough and were driven from the field. This left a powerful Swedish cavalry grouping on the far side of the field with nothing to do. So, they attacked.

Fundamentally, the Imperial Army now had nothing operationally that they could do to salvage the battle. Tilly's gambit, moving the weight of his force towards the Swedish flank, had come up bust because the Swedes refused to sit statically and allow him to complete his maneuver. Instead, they simply pivoted along with him. Even more importantly, the linear Swedish formations were able to present more concentrated musket fire than the pike-heavy Hapsburg tercios.

Even more pressing than the Swedish muskets, however, were the Swedish cavalry units on the far side of the field who now had total freedom of action after repulsing the Imperial attacks. They now came sweeping across the field into the Imperial rear area. One detachment got all the way behind the main infantry mass and captured the bulk of the Imperial cannon; they then turned these guns on the catholic infantry. Much of Tilly's army was now caught in a crossfire, taking musket and cannon fire from the Swedish army in front of them while being raked from behind with fire from their own captured artillery.

Caught strung out in a failed lunge for the flank, with the Swedes now in control of literally all the cannon on the battlefield, the disintegration of the Imperial army was now a foregone conclusion.

The crushing of the Imperial army at Breitenfeld had far reaching impacts, and was crucial in prolonging the devastating conflict of the 30 Years' War. It was, in fact, the first battlefield victory of substance for the Protestant side - and what a victory it was. Tilly's formidable force of over 35,000 men was entirely crushed. Some 7,000 men were killed, and nearly 10,000 captured - but a significant number also simply dissipated and fled. After the battle, Tilly could reconstitute a cohesive army that numbered less than 8,000 men - far too meager to give battle to the Swedes. This decisively altered the trajectory of the war, reinvigorating the Protestant cause and ensuring further years of bloody attrition.

As for the battle itself, the spectacular destruction of the Imperial force elucidates several principles. In the broadest sense, the problem with Tilly's conduct of the battle is as follows - simply getting to the enemy flank is not enough if it does not create an asymmetry, either by delivering superior firepower to a decisive point on the field, or by disrupting the enemy's ability to make decisions. Tilly's oblique move to the flank accomplished neither of these objectives. The Swedes, by simply pivoting their line towards the Imperial line of movement, retained a firepower superiority, and by moving the bulk of his infantry off their start lines, Tilly exposed his own left flank to a devastating counterattacking.

Breitenfeld may seem, at first glance, to be an odd battle to choose to demonstrate maneuver principles, seeing as how the army that attempted the decisive maneuver was the one that was smashed. In this, however, the battle demonstrates the requisite for maneuver to succeed. In our first entry in this series, we spoke of maneuver as a way to create an asymmetry on the field, by bringing superior fighting power to a decisive point. In this case, however, Tilly's move to the flank did not achieve this; it was simply an aimless march into Swedish fire. The Imperial formations were not equipped or oriented properly to achieve anything once they had reached the flank, while the Swedish army pivoted expertly around and reversed the logic of the flank attack; before long, it was the Imperial formation that was being torn apart by the physics of the battlefield.

"Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld" by Johann Walter

Through his clever counter-maneuver, Gustavus Adolphus demonstrated the emerging geometry of musket armies. The move from dense, square shaped Tercio style formations to the long, thin lines of musketeers employing volley fire created a definitive axis of firepower which was perpendicular to its direction of movement. Musket armies moved in a column formation, but maximized their firepower from a line. Mediating the relationship between vertical movement and horizontal firepower became one of the foundational problems for early modern armies.

Basic Geometry of a Musket Army

At Breitenfeld, the Imperial army was smashed in cinematic fashion because the Swedes kept their axis of maximum firepower directly on Tilly's forces at all times with an artful and gentle pivot, forcing the Imperials to stand under withering musket and cannon fire right up until the cavalry counterattack delivered the coup de grâce.

The military system deployed by Gustavus Adolphus was immature, but even in its nascent form it showcased the hallmark characteristics of early modern warfare. Like the broader political scheme of the Thirty Years War, the military arts dimly foreshadowed, as if through a foggy window, the great continental wars to come. At Breitenfeld in particular could be seen the devastating impact of massed musket and cannon fire, the shift from dense squares to long lines of infantry, and the synergistic use of cavalry as a weapon of shock, disorientation, and exploitation.

Gustavus Adolphus himself possessed a blend of characteristics both archaic and modernizing, personifying this peculiar proto-modern war. Like great modern commanders, he understood the criticality of combined arms warfare, deploying cannon, musket and cavalry in a synchronous symphony of destruction. He was an ambitious and visionary modernizer that gave form to the emerging Swedish power. And yet he was, in many ways, a very ancient sort of commander, who led from the front and liked to personally lead cavalry charges, as if he was Alexander the Great. At Breitenfeld, he led the decisive cavalry attack from the wing and won a great victory. At the Battle of Lutzen, in 1632, he was shot off his horse and killed. He embraced and lived the totalizing experience of battle, where victory and death constantly and simultaneously loom.

Gustavus burned brightly, but shortly. He fought for only two of the war's thirty long years, yet is still remembered as one of the dominant personalities, chief defenders of Protestant prerogatives, and greatest military practitioners of the era. The sudden eruption and extinction of the man mirrored Sweden's larger experience as a great power - emerging in short order as the dominant power on the Baltic Sea, only to be crushed less than a century after Gustavus's death by the rising power of Peter the Great's Russia. The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.

How to roll up a flank

Some 170 years separated Gustavus Adolphus, who helped usher in the age of professional European musket armies, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who signified the apogee of this military system. In that intervening period, few commanders earned such enduring fame as Frederick II, King in Prussia - or as we know him, Frederick the Great.

Frederick is something of an archetype for stereotypically German qualities - dutifulness, industriousness, administrative efficiency, rationality, and battlefield aggression. Even after filtering out the idealized man glorified by patriotic German historians, there is no question that Frederick (or "Old Fritz", as his soldiers called him in his later years) was both a skilled military practitioner and a man that operated within hard, defined limits.

The central event of Frederick's life was a series of wars fought against what seemed like an overwhelming coalition of enemies, pitting tiny Prussia against the Austrian Hapsburgs, France, and Russia. Given these stacked odds, it is somewhat natural to lump Fredrick into a category with Napoleon or even Hitler, as a sort of "man against the world", but this would be wrong. Napoleon fought a war for total continental supremacy. Frederick fought a series of wars for Silesia - an industry rich Hapsburg province (in modern day Poland) roughly the size of Slovenia or Israel today. With such modest prizes at stake, to cast Frederick as a would-be world conqueror is a gross misrepresentation.

A Portrait of Frederick by Anton Graff

Furthermore, Frederick's legacy as a military man was clouded by efforts from the later German General Staff to portray him as the inventor and first practitioner of German "annihilation battle". This, of course, helped to validate their own doctrines and planning, by positing that they were dutifully following in the footsteps of Prussia's most famous king. A study of Frederick's battles, however, calls this interpretation into question.

Frederick, as a king and as a general, was a man who operated rationally within a set of difficult and constraining parameters. Throughout his wars, he found himself on the wrong end of an overwhelming demographic and economic disadvantage, against enemies that could perennially field multiple armies larger than his own. The saving grace - the only thing that even allowed Prussia to attempt to fight such a war - was the geographic dispersal of his enemies around him. Prussia occupied the central position, with enemies arrayed in a broad semicircle around him - France to the west, Austria to the south, and Russia to the east. This prevented the anti-Prussian coalition from coordinating or concentrating their forces, and allowed Frederick to dash around Central Europe, frantically marching from front to front, fighting one enemy army at a time.

The growth of Prussia from a tiny and disconnected diminutive into a nascent military superpower. Map Credit: The Cambridge Modern History Atlas

Frederick's wars resembled a back and forth walking tour of Germany, with a battle at the end of each march. The nature of the enemy coalition, however, meant that Frederick faced genuine urgency to take battle. Because there was always another enemy lurking on another front, always another predator to swat away, the Prussians could not afford to dither, marching back and forth in that irritating dance of armies that are hesitant to roll the dice. Instead, Frederick and his generals needed to find the enemy army and immediately attack it, with the intention of mauling it badly enough to send it scurrying back, so the next enemy could be confronted and given the same treatment.

This manifested itself in an extreme degree of battlefield aggression which put battle itself at the center of the campaign, rather than pesky incidentals like logistics and position. Frederick had no time for these things. He only wanted to know where the enemy army was so that he could attack it. Famously, he expressed his art of war in a single sentence: "The Prussian Army always attacks."

This was not always a recipe for success. Two of Frederick's early battles, at Prague and Kolin, turned into bloody debacles that cost the Prussians enormous casualties. In both instances, Frederick attempted to march the main mass of his army to the enemy flank, but in both cases they - like the Imperials against the Swedes at Breitenfeld - were unable to fully turn the enemy flanks, and ended up simply hurtling their men at the main enemy fire axis, creating unimaginative carnage. Frederick had an almost instinctive urge to get to the enemy flank, but this was always more difficult than it sounded. Nevertheless, the basic recipe for Frederician warfare was clear - find the enemy army, march to his flank as fast as possible with as much firepower as possible, and then attack immediately. It was only as question of perfecting the implementation.

The Prussians finally achieved the idealized display of this scheme in the December of 1757, at the Battle of Leuthen.

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Big Serge Thoughts
22 Nov 2022 | 6:16 pm

8. The History of Battle: Maneuver, Part 3

John Trumbull's "The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae"

Author's Note: In response to a query I received from several people, and for clarification's sake, all battle diagrams, maps, and schematics in this series are by me unless explicitly noted otherwise.

In the opening entries of our study of battlefield maneuver, we looked at two diametrically opposed maneuver concepts and how, despite being opposite ideas, both can lead to victory when implemented correctly. In the first entry, we looked at the concentration of fighting power in a single attacking mass, and in the second we looked at the dispersal of fighting power into independently maneuvering bodies.

The fact that two completely antithetical force deployment schemes can both lead to stunning victory speaks to the intensely unpredictable nature of battle - there is no single formula or recipe for success, as everything ultimately depends on both the fighting qualities of the armies involved and the reaction of the enemy force. In both of our previous entries, we examined victories that could have very easily become catastrophes if the enemy had reacted more effectively. If the British had launched a concentrated armored counterattack on Rommel while he was withdrawn in the cauldron, for example, or if the Austrian army had moved decisively against the Prussian 2nd Army at the onset of war, then Gazala and Konnigratz would not have been exemplary victories.

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In our third entry in this series, let us shift gears a bit, and instead of examining a particular maneuver pattern, contemplate the idealized goal of fluid battle - a goal which can be achieved a variety of ways. This goal is the battle of annihilation - a condition which occurs when the enemy is so operationally compromised that the entire enemy army is destroyed as a cohesive unit capable of giving battle.

In archaic warfare, annihilation battles were relatively rare, simply because armies were slower moving, command and control was unsophisticated, and battles tended to be fought in a linear manner - set piece affairs with opposing armies dutifully lining up opposite each other on a nice big field. In these conditions, and with most of the army moving at a modest marching pace, true encirclement was difficult.

Nevertheless, the era of pre-gunpowder set piece battles does offer a few idealized examples of annihilation battle - where these battles did occur, they offer ideal archetypes for the maneuvers in question, because archaic battles were fought in a relatively small and defined space, making it relatively easy to map and understand the movements involved (unlike, say, the German invasion of Poland, which took place across many hundreds of square miles with arrows pointing every which way). Even more significantly, these battles represent the idealized form of warfare as such, and embody the elysian vision of battle: to destroy the entire enemy army in one brilliant encounter, in one day, on one field. No general can aim for anything higher.

Hannibal's Prototype

The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca is a historical character of some ambiguity for many. He is perhaps best known for crossing the Alps with war elephants - certainly a cinematic and stunning achievement, but devoid of context for most people. The elephants, while certainly the element of the story which stands out the most (and looks best in paintings) in the end were a fairly minor tactical footnote.

Notwithstanding the oddity of war elephants in the snows of the Alps, Hannibal's audacious march represented an attempted solution to a rather classic military problem.

Carthage had already suffered a costly defeat at Roman hands, only a few decades previously in the First Punic War (the first of three) which cost Carthage its position on the strategically crucial island of Sicily. In that war, Rome demonstrated extensive powers of military force generation - building enormous fleets, and sustaining large military forces in action across a wide theater. When war broke out again (this time over Carthaginian expansion in Spain encroaching on Roman interests), Hannibal faced the classic conundrum of planning for a war against an enemy with superior powers of force generation and sustainment. This was a strategic quandary that any Prussian or Mongol planner would have been familiar with.

Map Credit: "Historical Atlas", by William R. Shepherd, 1923

Hannibal's operational solution was fairly simple - he would march his army over the Alps and invade Italy directly from an overland route. This would not only eliminate Roman naval power from the equation, but also threaten to shake Roman control over satellites and allies in the Italian peninsula. Even more importantly, from a military perspective, bringing the war directly to Rome's doorstep would make it possible to force decisive battle.

In the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal and his army burst out into Italy and began stomping about in Etruria, burning and breaking things with impunity. Rome, shrewdly understanding that it was not good to allow the Carthaginians to smash up their core territories, quickly wheeled an army under the command of one Gaius Flaminius to pursue Hannibal and come to grips with his army. The ensuing battle would become a one-sided affair of a sort which to this day has never been replicated.

Flaminius and his legions caught up with Hannibal on June 20 near Lake Trasimene (today Lake Trasimeno). The scene presented a perfectly idyllic Italian lakeside: a charming line of rolling hills lay just to the north of the lake, and the main road wound along the narrow stretch of flat ground between the shore and the hills. It was here on the road that Hannibal pitched his camp, in full view of the pursuing Romans. Flaminius, seeing Hannibal stop in such a visible spot along the shore, presumed that the Carthaginians would offer battle the next day, and pitched his own camp just up the road, intending to close the distance and initiate combat the following morning (the 21st).

The Idyllic Shoreline of Lake Trasimeno

Hannibal did intend to fight a battle the next day, but not in the way Flaminius expected. That night, as the Romans rested snugly in their camp, Hannibal dispatched his forces on a march in the dark to form up on the transverse side of the hills, where they could not be seen from the road. A night march was a tricky enterprise in the ancient world, especially when torches were prohibited for fear of giving away their movements, and especially when the army is moving off road, but the Carthaginians managed to get cleanly into position. The following morning, when the Romans came marching up the road in column formation towards Hannibal's camp, they had absolutely no notion that the mass of the Carthaginian force was directly on their left, just over the crest of the hills.

When Hannibal sprang his ambush, the outcome of the battle was a forgone conclusion. A Roman army in a marching column would take hours to deploy into battle formation even under ideal circumstances, and the situation at Lake Trasimene was far from ideal. The Carthaginian strike was preceded with a sequence of trumpet blasts ordering the attack. The Romans could hear these trumpets blowing behind them, but could not see their enemy yet, leading to general confusion which metastasized into full on panic when Hannibal's army crested the hills and began to rush at their flank. Pinned against the lake, the Romans could not form even a rudimentary battle formation and soon collapsed into isolated groups of men desperately trying to organize themselves.

Most of the Roman army was cut down or surrendered right there against the lake - those that managed to escape and flee were run down by Hannibal's pursuit and met the same fate. Flaminius's army - some 25,000 men in all - was completely liquidated. The Greek historian Polybius - a key contemporary source - claimed that 15,000 Romans were killed and entire remainder was taken captive, marking the total annihilation of the army. Against this horrific toll, the Carthaginians could weigh less than 2,000 casualties of their own.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was truly unique. It probably marks the earliest definitively documented battle of encirclement and annihilation, where the enemy force is not just badly mauled, but wiped out in its entirety after being cut off from all avenues of retreat. What is more, the battle remains to this day the only known example of complete operational ambush. Traps and ambushes of various kinds have been utilized throughout the ages, but at Trasimene Hannibal became the first and only commander to successfully ambush the enemy with the entire main body of his army.

Hannibal achieves history's first and only total ambush

A small detachment of cavalry scouts could have spared Rome the catastrophe, but Flaminius could not be bothered to do any reconnaissance whatsoever. After all, he could see Hannibal's camp in front of him - he thought, therefore, that he knew exactly where the Carthaginians were. A stunning moment of carelessness and hubris which cost him his own life and the lives of 25,000 legionaries.

Trasimene was a singular military achievement. Modern surveillance and reconnaissance technology has relegated the possibility of total operational ambush to the annals of history. Unless mankind regresses back to a more primitive state, Hannibal's gambit on the lakeshore will never be replicated. It will remain a unique example of clever planning and calculated risk taking - and it was, to be sure, a risk. Hannibal deliberately dispersed his army off road in the dark with a large Roman force loitering only a few miles away. A risky maneuver, to be sure, but skillfully executed for stunning results.

The annihilation of a formidable Roman army in a single afternoon serves as the prototype for an idealized form of battle - whether we call it encirclement, double envelopment, or, in the Prussian idiom, "Kesselschlacht" or Cauldron Battle - we know it when we see it: the enemy force is swallowed whole and destroyed.

As for Hannibal, his campaign of annihilation was just getting started.

Hannibal's Masterpiece

The loss of an entire army along with its commander right in the heart of Italy naturally raised alarm in Rome. The immediate political fallout was the election of one Quintus Fabius Maximus to the post of Dictator (still holding its original meaning of a specially appointed magistrate endowed with emergency powers).

Fabius had a shrewd grasp of the strategic situation. As he saw it, Hannibal was a formidable foe, but operating far from home with no reliable access to supply or reinforcement. Time, therefore, was on Rome's side. Fabius conceived of a campaign of asymmetrical attrition - avoiding pitched battle with Hannibal, but harassing his foraging and scouting parties, waging a guerilla war of resource denial while Rome rebuilt its legions.

Quintus Fabius - "The Delayer"

The strategy was probably sound from a military perspective, but it was politically poisonous in the context of Rome's hyper-belligerent and masculine political system, which demanded direct confrontation and the ostentatious smashing of enemies. The so called "Fabian tactics" were roundly denounced, most famously by Fabius's political rival Marcus Minucius Rufus, who is recorded by Livy lambasting the dictator in front of the army:

"Are we come here as to a spectacle, that we may gratify our eyes with the slaughter of our friends and the burning of their homes? If nothing else can awaken us to a sense of shame, do we feel none when we behold these fellow citizens of ours whom our fathers sent as colonists to Sinuessa to secure this frontier from the Samnite enemy? It is not our Samnite neighbours who are wasting it now, but Phoenician invaders, who have been suffered to come all this way, from the farthest, limits of the world, by our delays and slothfulness.

Predictably, Fabius's emergency powers were not renewed by the Senate, and the decision was made to pursue a more direct course of action. This suited Hannibal perfectly - he had spent the better part of a year moving around Apulia with Fabius declining to offer him battle. Determined to force the Romans to meet him in a set piece battle, Hannibal seized the citadel of Cannae in Apulia. This was a valuable asset, as it served as the supply depot that housed much of the grain harvested in the region. The grain was nice, of course, but the real purpose was to force the Romans to give battle.

The ploy worked. The loss of a key supply hub, after a year of frustrating avoidance under Fabius, provoked an outcry in Rome, and the Senate resolved to muster an unprecedently large army to dislodge and destroy Hannibal once and for all. Polybius wrote:

The Senate determined to bring eight legions into the field, which had never been done at Rome before, each legion consisting of five thousand men besides allies… Most of their wars are decided by one Consul and two legions, with their quota of allies; and they rarely employ all four at one time and on service. But on this occasion, so great was the alarm and terror of what would happen, they resolved to bring not only four but eight legions into the field.

The army that Rome brought to Cannae was indeed massive. The core of the army was some 40,000 legionaries, augmented with a roughly equivalent number of allied troops contributed by Rome's subsidiary Italian city states. Ancient troop counts are always tricky, but a force of roughly 80,000 is considered credible, of whom perhaps 6,000 were cavalry. Hannibal's army was markedly smaller - on the order of 50,000 men. Notably, however, the Carthaginian cavalry probably numbered close to 10,000, giving Hannibal a decisive edge in this crucial arm, even if his infantry were woefully outnumbered.

The fields of Cannae today (Photo Credit: Patrick Shrier of Battles and Book Reviews)

Hannibal not only faced a foreboding numerical disadvantage, he also had to contend with the organizational and troop quality issues that were idiosyncratic of Carthaginian armies. Carthage was a polyglot mercantile empire whose core Phoenician metropolis represented only a tiny fraction of the population. Accordingly, Hannibal's army was a diverse assembly of mercenaries, allies, and subcontractors - Gauls, Numidians, Lybians, Iberians, and more. These were competent troops whose commanders had strong personal attachment with Hannibal, but commanding and deploying a variegated force like this was intrinsically harder than wielding the more coherent Roman-Italian mass.

Notwithstanding the long odds, Hannibal would annihilate the Roman army.

The initial deployment of the armies did not suggest that anything particularly wild was coming. The Romans arrayed in a straightforward formation, with their infantry massed up in the center and their 6,000 cavalry split into roughly equal forces on the wings. Hannibal's infantry formed a slight wedge formation which was slightly wider than Rome's central mass, but significantly more shallow and fragile. The most noteworthy aspect of the deployment was the fact that Hannibal's cavalry, which already outnumbered the Romans, was unevenly distributed, with a full 6,000 horsemen placed on Hannibal's left flank under the command of his brother Hasdrubal.

The canvas upon which Hannibal would paint the eternal masterpiece

Hannibal's entire concept revolved around the cavalry arm being his single point of strength. He could be reasonably sure that his cavalry, which were both more numerous and qualitatively much better, would rout Rome's own cavalry - the question then was how to A) leverage this fact, and B) survive the onslaught of the Roman infantry mass while the cavalry battle unfolded on the wings.

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Big Serge Thoughts
13 Nov 2022 | 12:10 am

9. Surovikin’s Difficult Choice

General Armageddon

In January, 1944, the newly reconstituted German Sixth Army found itself in an operationally cataclysmic situation in the southern bend of the Dnieper River, in the area of Krivoi Rog and Nikopol. The Germans occupied a dangerous salient, jutting out precariously into the Red Army's lines. Vulnerable on two awkward flanks, and facing an enemy with superiority in manpower and firepower, any general worth his salt would have sought to withdraw as soon as possible. In this case, however, Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht hold the salient, because the region was Germany's last remaining source of manganese - a mineral crucial for making high quality steel.

A year prior, in the opening weeks of 1943, Hitler had intervened in another, more famous battle, forbidding the previous incarnation of the Sixth Army from breaking out of a pocket forming around it at Stalingrad. Prohibited from withdrawing, the Sixth was annihilated wholesale.

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In both of these cases, there was a clash between pure military prudence and broader political aims and needs. In 1943, there was neither a compelling military nor political reason to keep the 6th Army in the pocket at Stalingrad - political intervention in military decision making was both senseless and disasterous. In 1944, however, Hitler (however difficult it is to admit it) had a valid argument. Without manganese from the Nikopol area, German war production was doomed. In this case, political intervention was perhaps warranted. Leaving an army in a vulnerable salient is bad, but so is running out of manganese.

These two tragic fates of the Sixth Army illustrate the salient issue today: how do we parse the difference between military and political decision making? More specifically, to what do we attribute the shocking Russian decision to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnieper in Kherson oblast, after annexing it just a few months ago?

I would like to parse through this issue. First off, one cannot deny that the withdrawal is politically a significant humiliation for Russia. The question becomes, however, whether this sacrifice was necessary on military or political grounds, and what it may signify about the future course of the conflict.

As I see it, the withdrawal from west bank Kherson must be driven by one of the four following possibilities:

  1. The Ukrainian Army has defeated the Russian Army on the west bank and driven it back across the river.

  2. Russia is setting a trap in Kherson.

  3. A secret peace agreement (or at least ceasefire) has been negotiated which includes giving Kherson back to Ukraine.

  4. Russia has made a politically embarrassing but militarily prudent operational choice.

Let us simply run through these four and examine them in sequence.

Possibility 1: Military Defeat

The recapture of Kherson is being fairly celebrated by Ukrainians as a victory. The question is just what kind of victory it is - political/optical, or military? It becomes trivially obvious that it is the first sort. Let's examine a few facts.

First off, as recently as the morning of November 9 - hours before the withdrawal was announced - some Russian war correspondents were expressing skepticism about the withdrawal rumors because Russia's forward defensive lines were completely intact. There was no semblance of crisis among Russian forces in the region.

Secondly, Ukraine was not executing any intense offensive efforts in the region at the time the withdrawal began, and Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism that the withdrawal was even real. Indeed, the idea that Russia was laying a trap originates with Ukrainian officials who were apparently caught off guard by the withdrawal. Ukraine was not prepared to pursue or exploit, and advanced cautiously into the void after Russian soldiers were gone. Even with Russia withdrawing, they were clearly scared to advance, because their last few attempts to push through the defenses in the area became mass casualty events.

Overall, Russia's withdrawal was implemented very quickly with minimal pressure from the Ukrainians - this very fact is the basis of the idea that it is either a trap or the result of a backroom deal that's been concluded. In either case, Russia simply slipped back across the river without pursuit by the Ukrainians, taking negligible losses and getting virtually all of their equipment out (so far, a broken down T90 is the only Ukrainian capture of note). The net score on the Kherson Front remains a strong casualty imbalance in favor of Russia, and they once again withdraw without suffering a battlefield defeat and with their forces intact.

Possibility 2: It's a Trap

This theory cropped up very soon after the withdrawal was announced. It originated with Ukrainian officials who were caught off guard by the announcement, and was then picked up (ironically) by Russian supporters who were hoping that 4D chess was being played - it is not. Russia is playing standard 2D chess, which is the only kind of chess there is, but more about that later.

It's unclear what exactly "trap" is supposed to mean, but I'll try to fill in the blanks. There are two possible interpretations of this: 1) a conventional battlefield maneuver involving a timely counterattack, and 2) some sort of unconventional move like a tactical nuclear weapon or a cascading dam failure.

It's clear that there's no battlefield counter in the offing, for the simple reason that Russia blew the bridges behind them. With no Russian forces left on the west bank and the bridges wrecked, there is no immediate capacity for either army to attack the other in force. Of course, they can shell each other across the river, but the actual line of contact is frozen for the time being.

That leaves the possibility that Russia intends to do something unconventional, like use a low yield nuke.

The idea that Russia lured Ukraine into Kherson to set off a nuke is… stupid.

If Russia wanted to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine (which they don't, for reasons I articulated in a previous article) there's no sensible reason why they would choose a regional capital that they annexed as the site to do it. Russia has no shortage of delivery systems. If they wanted to nuke Ukraine, very simply, they wouldn't bother abandoning their own city and making that the blast site. They would simply nuke Ukraine. It's not a trap.

Possibility 3: Secret Deal

This was sparked by the news that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been in contact with his Russian counterpart, and specifically the sense that the White House has been pushing for the negotiations. Under one rumored variant of the "Sullivan Deal", Ukraine would acknowledge Russia's annexations east of the Dnieper, while west bank Kherson would revert back to Kiev's control.

I find this unlikely for a variety of reasons. First off, such a deal would represent an extremely pyrrhic Russian victory - while it would achieve the liberation of the Donbas (one of the explicit goals of the SMO) it would leave Ukraine largely intact and strong enough to be a perennial thorn in the side, as an inimical anti-Russian state. There would be the problem of probable further Ukrainian integration into NATO, and above all, the open surrender of an annexed regional capital.

On the Ukrainian side, the issue is that the recovery of Kherson only enhances the (false) perception in Kiev that total victory is possible, and that Crimea and the Donbas can be recovered entirely. Ukraine is enjoying a string of territorial advances, and feels that it is pushing its window of opportunity.

Ultimate, there seems to be no deal that satisfies both sides, and this reflects that the innate hostility between the two nations must be resolved on the battlefield. Only Ares can adjudicate this dispute.

As for Ares, he has been hard at work in Pavlovka.

While the world was fixated on the relatively bloodless change of hands in Kherson, Russia and Ukraine fought a bloody battle for Pavlovka, and Russia won. Ukraine also attempted to break Russia's defenses in the Svatove axis, and was repulsed with heavy casualties. Ultimately, the main reason to doubt news of a secret deal is the fact that the war is continuing on all the other fronts - and Ukraine is losing. This leaves only one option.

Possibility 4: A Difficult Operational Choice

This withdrawal was subtly signaled shortly after General Surovikin was put in charge of the operation in Ukraine. In his first press conference, he signaled dissatisfaction with the Kherson front, calling the situation "tense and difficult" and alluding to the threat of Ukraine blowing dams on the Dnieper and flooding the area. Shortly thereafter, the process of evacuating civilians from Kherson began.

Here is what I think Surovikin decided about Kherson.

Kherson was becoming an inefficient front for Russia because of the logistical strain of supplying forces across the river with limited bridge and road capacity. Russia demonstrated that it was capable of shouldering this sustainment burden (keeping troops supplied all through Ukraine's summer offensives), but the question becomes 1) to what purpose, and 2) for how long.

Ideally, the bridgehead becomes the launching point for offensive action against Nikolayev, but launching an offensive would require strengthening the force grouping in Kherson, which correspondingly raises the logistical burden of projecting force across the river. With a very long front to play with, Kherson is clearly one of the most logistically intensive axes. My guess is that Surovikin took charge and almost immediately decided he did not want to increase the sustainment burden by trying to push on Nikolayev.

Therefore, if an offensive is not going to be launched from the Kherson position, the question becomes - why hold the position at all? Politically, it is important to defend a regional capital, but militarily the position becomes meaningless if one is not going to go on the offensive in the south.

Let's be even more explicit: unless an offensive towards Nikolayev is planned, the Kherson bridgehead is militarily counterproductive.

While holding the bridgehead in Kherson, the Dnieper River becomes a negative force multiplier - increasing the sustainment and logistics burden and ever threatening to leave forces cut off if Ukraine succeeds in destroying the bridges or bursting the dam. Projecting force across the river becomes a heavy burden with no obvious benefit. But by withdrawing to the east bank, the river becomes a positive force multiplier by serving as a defensive barrier.

In the broader operational sense, Surovikin seems to be declining battle in the south while preparing in the north and in the Donbas. It is clear that he made this decision shortly after taking command of the operation - he has been hinting at it for weeks, and the speed and cleanliness of the withdrawal suggests that it was well planned , long in advance. Withdrawing across the river increases the combat effectiveness of the army significantly and decreases the logistical burden, freeing resources for other sectors.

This fits the overall Russian pattern of making harsh choices about resource allocation, fighting this war under the simple framework of optimizing the loss ratios and building the perfect meatgrinder. Unlike the German Army in the second world war, the Russian army seems to be freed from political interference to make rational military decisions.

In this way, the withdrawal from Kherson can be seen as a sort of anti-Stalingrad. Instead of political interference hamstringing the military, we have the military freed to make operational choices even at the cost of embarrassing the political figures. And this, ultimately, is the more intelligent - if optically humiliating - way to fight a war.


Big Serge Thoughts
10 Nov 2022 | 1:09 am

10. The History of Battle: Maneuver, Part 2

Mongolia remembers when the thunder of their horses' hooves shook the world

In the first entry in this series, we examined what may be termed the absolute fundamentals of maneuver warfare - the concentration of fighting power, penetration into the enemy rear, and the envelopment of some or all of the enemy force. A single envelopment scheme of this sort, whether achieved through an asymmetrical deployment like the Thebans at Leuctra or a flanking movement like Rommel at Gazala, represents a sort of basic, stock model maneuver scheme - a potent, but relatively textbook design.

In this entry, we will expand the scope of our study to look at maneuver on a larger scale, and in so doing demonstrate a countervailing principle to the schwerpunkt that we introduced last time. Schwerpunkt denotes the concentration of massed fighting power to allow maximum effort to be exerted at a decisive point. This is a powerful battlefield tool, but it is not without risks and downside - the accumulation of a concentrated mass, if unveiled by the enemy's intelligence, will reveal the attacking intention and alert the enemy to vulnerabilities in other positions.

What we are speaking of here is the great benefit of operational ambiguity. All military decisions are intrinsically wrapped up in the basic game of intelligence (learning what your enemy is up to) and counter-intelligence (hiding what you are up to). One of the paradoxes of strategy, therefore, is that actions that may have benefits in the form of battlefield asymmetries - such as concentrating forces - may generate negative asymmetries by communicating one's intention to the enemy.

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Anyone who has played chess (or any strategy game, really) is aware of this paradox. Developing pieces for an attack brings with it the intrinsic possibility of your opponent recognizing your intention and reacting optimally - because he is always afforded the opportunity to react. Therefore, in chess as in war, maintaining some level of ambiguity is absolutely necessary.

One way that this can be achieved is through what we call the dispersion of forces. This is the opposite of schwerpunkt and concentration, and correspondingly it reverses both the positive and negative asymmetries of force concentration. The concentration of forces offers a high level of combat power, but a very low level of strategic ambiguity. Dispersion, in contrast, offers dissipated and weakened combat power, but maximum ambiguity. The difficulty lies in managing the relationship between the two.

Throughout history, some of the most successful commanders have been those that were able to maintain a high degree of force dispersion - spreading units out and maneuvering them in a way that left the enemy paralyzed by ambiguity, only to bring them together at the crucial moment for maximum combat effectiveness. The ideal is for the dispersed army to maneuver independently, but fight together - pivoting seamlessly from dispersion to concentration at the correct moment. This is materially a difficult thing to do, because it requires not only mobility but also an effective command and control system to synergistically move large units across a wide theater, bringing them together for concentrated battle at the optimal time.

Let us examine a few of the preeminent examples from history of this dispersion-concentration duality, and the skillful movement of large units across vast spaces. Unsurprisingly, these examples come from three of history's preeminent military geniuses, beginning with one of the most iconic men in all of history - the illiterate world conqueror and lord of all who dwell in felt tents.

The Apogee of Genghis Khan

Everybody knows of Genghis Khan. His name continues to carry some of the strongest cachet and instant recognition of any historical figure - though the name itself is something of a point of debate. Probably, it should be spelled and pronounced something closer to "Chinggiz Khan" - a title that meant something like "universal ruler", which is thought to derive from the Turkic word "Tengiz" which means "sea" - implying that he ruled from sea to sea. But in any case, whether he is Tengiz, Chinggiz, or Genghis Khan, everybody knows him as the ruler of that cinematic Mongol horde that swept across Eurasia, conquering the largest contiguous land empire that the world has ever seen.

The World Conqueror

Ironically, however, Genghis is most famously known for something that he did not actually achieve in his lifetime - the conquest of China - while his genuine military masterpiece is significantly less famous.

Let us begin with a brief comment on the actual scope of Genghis's achievements. Before he could conquer the world, he had to conquer Mongolia - a feat that was much harder than it sounds. The Mongol world was one of tribal pastoral nomads - clans eternally wandering the steppe, herding their goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and horses from pasture to stream in seasonal patterns. This was an intrinsically harsh existence which kept the nomads in a permanent state of vigilance - disaster was only one step away. This promoted a deeply myopic political system - that is, focused on the immediate term and immediate needs, with khans constantly under pressure to deliver results and rewards in a steppe society that was constantly in a state of low intensity inter-tribal and inter-clan war.

Taming this politically fluid and unstable steppe - populated not just by the Mongol tribe, but also other peoples like the Niaman, Taichiud, and Khereids who are now mostly forgotten to us, required a long and dedicated program of both military conquest and political intrigue, both of which Genghis Khan (born Temujin) was a master of. It was not until 1206, when Genghis was in his mid-40's, that he could call himself the undisputed ruler of the Mongol steppe, and take his famous title.

Genghis then spent most of the rest of his life at war, deploying his newly consolidated steppe confederation against a host of foreign states - many of which now seem like passing, meaningless names to gloss over as they go by on the page, like the Xia (a small Chinese state ensconced in the defiles of Outer Mongolia), and the Qara Khitai in western China. While Genghis did subdue these states and break the military back of northern China, the core Chinese states (the Jin and Song Dynasties) were simply too large and too populated to be conquered quickly. Like an elephant eaten one bite at a time, China would not be fully conquered by the Mongols until 1279, more than fifty years after Genghis's death.

Cradle of the World's Largest Empire

In one of history's tantalizing twists, Genghis's greatest military achievement was one that he never planned on at all.

In the early 13th century, much of Central Asia was under the dominion of a polity known to us as the Khwarazmian Empire. This state is frequently identified as a Persian Empire - in that its rulers and military establishment were largely comprised of Persianized Turks. At its Zenith, it was a genuinely colossal and prosperous Islamic state, encompassing most of modern day Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. This was one of those cobbled together Central Asian Empires, made up of disparate political and cultural pieces - the lingua franca was Persian, the liturgical language of the mosques was Arabic, and the ruling dynasty was Turkic.

Unfortunately, the Khwarazmian Shah committed one of the greatest blunders in human history and brought wrath on a biblical scale down upon his realm.

Genghis had no military intentions in the Khwarazmian realm. He was hard at work eating the great elephant that was China, but he did view the Persian realm as a potentially lucrative trading partner, and dispatched a caravan with envoys to trade in the Khwarazmian markets. Unfortunately, the Shah's governor in Otrar accused the Mongols of being spies, looted the caravan, and killed many of Genghis's men. When Genghis sent three ambassadors to the Shah to demand restitution, the Shah had one of them beheaded and sent the others back to Genghis with their heads shaved.

The murder of an envoy acting in the Khan's name was perceived as a grievous insult to the Khan's own honor and person, and so there was nothing to be done but to destroy the Khwarazmian Empire entirely. Hell was coming on horseback.

Genghis's Khwarazmian campaign, though entirely unanticipated and predicated entirely on the surprise Persian crimes against his traders and envoys, would prove to be the great Khan's seminal military achievement. More importantly for us, it demonstrates Mongol skill in the operational domain, beyond simply their combat effectiveness.

Most people know that the Mongol army was fundamentally a cavalry army which derived a huge combat advantage from the skill of nomadic horse archers. The signature Mongol weapon was the recurve composite bow. Though neighboring civilizations dismissed the steppe nomads as primitives, the composite bow was a complicated and extremely powerful weapon. Made of a mix of layered materials including wood, horn, and animal sinew, and lacquered to protect it from drying, the Mongol bow was both powerful and light enough to use in the saddle. The Mongol horse archer was able to fire his bow with both accuracy and a stable rate of fire while also steering the horse through coordinated maneuvers with his feet. This was the basic weapons system that conquered most of Eurasia. A horse, a bow, and a man that could control them simultaneously

Horse. Man. Bow. The Pregunpowder Superweapon.

These skills, however, are tactical in nature - they correspond to Mongol combat effectiveness in pitched battle with the enemy. The invasion of the Khwarazmian Empire, in contrast, demonstrates Mongol operational skill - meaning the maneuver of military units across large distances with extreme precision and coordination.

The Mongol lifestyle inculcated a variety of skills that made them extremely skilled at the rigors of long distance campaigning. As nomads, they were accustomed to living on the move and traveling long distances in the saddle, with mobile food supplies in the form of their flocks. More than that, however, the logistics of moving large herds around the steppe - comprised of animals with different water and food requirements - naturally developed impressive skills at coordinating movements and actions in vast spaces. These skills were honed and demonstrated most potently during the Mongol hunt.

Mongols practiced a unique and impressive form of hunting, sometimes called the Nerge or Battue. This was a ring hunt - thousands of men would begin the hunt in a vast circle, up to 80 miles in circumference. Over the course of a full month, they would slowly move towards the center, driving all the game animals in the area inexorably towards the middle, until at the very end all the prey was trapped in a small killing zone. This practice could bag hundreds of animals, but it was logistically very difficult and required skilled coordination and discipline.

All of these skills made the Mongols the transcendent operational practitioners, as would be apparent in 1219 when the war against the treacherous Shah began. Genghis's army was divided into divisions called Tumens - units of 10,000 men, which were further subdivided into units of 1,000, 100, and 10. The adopted invasion plan would send these Tumens on separated lines of advance across the breadth of the Shah's realm, before bringing them together for the killing blow - even 800 years later, it remains a nearly perfect example of force dispersion and timely concentration.

Genghis began his masterpiece by immediately deploying a force of 3 tumen (30,000 men) into the Fergana Valley in the winter of 1219, in the eastern reaches of the Persian realm. This caught the Shah and his generals by surprise, as it called into question longstanding assumptions about the empire's natural defenses. The Khwarazmian realm was shielded from Genghis by a variety of natural defenses, including the apparently impassable Kyzylkum Desert and the Tien Shan Mountains. The Shah assumed that these barriers would slow Genghis's deployment and allow him to defend the key access points.

Instead, Genghis immediately sent his oldest son, Jochi, and an experienced general named Jebe do make a rapid crossing of the Tien Shan and burst into the Fergana. Their mission was to avoid a pitched battle and instead break as much stuff and burn as many fields as they could, staying out of range and generally infuriating the Persian forces that tried to grapple with them. Meanwhile, Genghis brought his main force across to the northern periphery of the Persian borderlands and besieged the city of Otrar.

At this point, the Mongol army was divided into two main wings - one breaking things in the Fergana Valley, and the other destroying the city of Otrar in the north. These two bodies then subdivided further. The Fergana division split - Jochi took a portion of the army westward towards the Syr Drya River, while Jebe moved south. The main body in the north likewise was divided, with a smaller force under Genghis's sons Chagatai and Ogedei staying at Otrar to finish the city off, and the main army - under Genghis's personal command - seemingly disappearing.

The Shah commanded numerically superior forces and had the advantage of fighting on home turf, but Mongol force dispersion across the breadth of his realm created total paralysis. With at least four large Mongol forces now operating independently within his borders, and total ambiguity as to their intentions, the Shah was operationally frozen and could offer nothing but passive resistance from within the walls of his cities. The larger Khwarazmian army became an entirely passive participant in the war, unable to maneuver or take any proactive action whatsoever. The Mongols, though outnumbered, seemed to be everywhere.

Even so, the single largest body of the Mongol army was unaccounted for. Where was Genghis? In March, 1220, he suddenly appeared in the Persian rear, outside the city of Bukhara. The Khan had crossed the un-crossable Kyzylkum desert, hopping from oasis to oasis, riding in a 300 mile arc to take Bukhara completely by surprise.

The end was not long in coming. Bukhara fell swiftly, and the dispersed Mongol forces now rapidly concentrated on the Shah's capital at Samarkand, where the Persian reserves were assembled. In a climactic finish to the masterpiece, Genghis feigned retreat from the capital's formidable fortifications and slaughtered the defending army when it came out the gates to pursue.

In the space of less than six months, Genghis completely destroyed an enormous and stable empire with armies that greatly outnumbered his own. All that would remain after the fall of Samarkand was a manhunt to chase down the fleeing Shah, and a leisurely stroll through the remainder of his shattered realm, sacking cities one after another. The military back of the Empire was shattered.

The operational brilliance of Genghis's campaign against the Shah is difficult to understate. The theater was more 250,000 square miles. From Bukhara to Genghis's staging area north of Lake Balkhash is nearly 800 miles. Across this vast distance, using nothing more sophisticated than signal flags and couriers, the Mongols coordinated four large military bodies, completely paralyzing the Shah's armies with their range, mobility, and precision, before converging to deal the killing blow to at the capital.

The technology of the Mongol armies - a recurve bow and the hardy Mongolian horse - are now artifacts of history, but the brilliant display of dispersion, operational ambiguity, and maneuver are timeless, and it is fair to question if they have ever been surpassed. What Genghis demonstrated with this masterful campaign, eternally, is the power of dispersed maneuver to intellectually paralyze the enemy. The Shah's empire was destroyed without his army ever attempting a single proactive action. This was a bewildering, disorienting, almost otherworldly way to die - no wonder many of Genghis's enemies believed he had come from hell to punish them.

Napoleon's Bloodless Masterpiece

Napoleon Bonaparte is widely understood by acclaim to have been one of the greatest military minds in history. But what was it about his system of warfare that was so effective? Was their something systematic - something that could be copied? Or was Napoleon simply blessed with that undefinable and inimitable gift of genius? To be sure, Napoleon was endowed with tremendous gifts – a prodigious memory that bordered on the photographic, quick decision making, and an instinctive, practically preternatural grasp of the battlefield situation. But Napoleon's success as a military leader was not only due to his own gifts as a battlefield commander, but also thanks to his redesign and restructuring of the French Army. Napoleon not only wielded the army masterfully in action, but he also rebuilt it into a more powerful force on an organizational level. In his case, genius, doctrine, and weapon worked synergistically.

In the earliest phases of the wars of the French Revolution, republican France deployed massive, bloated armies that tended to overwhelm enemies through sheer mass. These were the armies of the levee en-masse – the mobilization of virtually the entire young male population. This overwhelming amount of armed human biomass successfully defended France, but was too large, undisciplined, and unwieldy to be the basis of a permanent military system, and in any case a nation that is perennially mobilized en-masse is unlikely to be socially or economically stable. The silver lining, however, was that such a massive army made changes to the organizational scheme a necessity.

When Napoleon came to power, he undertook an organizational renovation of the army, creating his famed Grand Armee. The central innovation was the organization of the army into units known as corps. The corps was a brilliant organizational development: a force, usually of around 30,000 men, with its own cavalry and artillery components. The size and composition of the corps made it self-sufficient, it could fight on its own if need be, while still being small enough to maneuver at great speed and live off the land. Napoleon's corps could subsist largely by foraging (really, requisitioning or stealing food from civilians as they passed through) removing the need for cumbersome supply trains, and freeing them to advance quickly ; during a forced march, a corps could cover up to thirty miles a day – a truly impressive speed for such a large formation.

The Grand Armee's Order of Battle (Credit: Thomas Shoffner, US War College)

It is difficult to understand how revolutionary the corps was. Before Napoleon, European armies virtually never had standing formations larger than a battalion, and there had never been a systematic combined arms formation before. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the modern order of battle was invented by Napoleon. In his effort to slim down the bloated revolutionary army, he first conceived of the balanced combined arms maneuver unit - equipped for any battlefield task, large and strong enough to have real heft on the battlefield, but not so large that it could not move at speed and feed itself from the local populations.

In short, Napoleon's corps were the perfect units for a war of maneuver. They could move quickly and independently through the countryside, and if a single corps encountered the enemy force it was large enough to hold on alone while the other corps converged on the battlefield to rescue it. This ability to disperse large units, maneuver them around the countryside, and then bring them together for the decisive clash was the foundation of Napoleon's operations - a simple but powerful recipe which has been summarized as "march divided, fight united."

The corps system of the Grand Armee received its first major field test in 1805, with the eruption of the War of the Third Coalition. An alliance comprised of Britain, Austria, and Russia declared war on Napoleon, aiming to reduce France to her pre-revolutionary borders. Napoleon conceived of a rapid campaign against Austria, to destroy as much of the Austrian army as possible – or even knock Vienna out of the war – before Russian armies could be deployed to Central Europe. This would be the setting for a stunning demonstration of the power and speed of the Grand Armee.

At the Height of His Powers

In autumn, 1805, Austria's objective was primarily to stall for time. Aware of how dangerous Napoleon could be, Austrian commanders were hardly anxious to rush into an unfavorable fight. Their notion rather was simply to prevent Napoleon from penetrating deep into the Hapsburg heartland while they awaited the arrival of their Russian allies. Austrian armies were deployed along several axes that were viewed as likely candidates for a French attack. One such force – an army of over 70,000 men – was anchored on the city of Ulm under the command of General Karl Mack, with the goal of blocking a French advance directly from the west into Bavaria.

Mack believed that the French intended to advance on a direct east-west axis. Napoleon demonstrated an excellent principle in military deception, by showing his enemy what he expected to see. A large cavalry force, supported by a full corps, was dispatched to move conspicuously about to the west of Ulm, dispersing into numerous formations, moving ostentatiously about and literally making as much noise as possible to give the impression of major activity. Mack's scouts were convinced that a large French army was marching east. This seemingly confirmed Mack's suspicion that Napoleon was advancing from the west, and supported his decision to cluster his forces around Ulm.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had deployed five corps to the northwest, which were now unleashed to display their potent combination of mobility and fighting power. On September 28, this main French body began a rapid march to the southeast, toward the Danube River to the east of Ulm. By October 8, Napoleon's 5th corps fought a brief skirmish with Austrian forces at Wirtingen – a city 30 miles to the east of Ulm, in the Austrian rear. Mack now went into a near total operational paralysis, vainly sending probes out in several directions. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he was on the verge of being surrounded, but unable to decide on a potential escape path. The dispersement of the French corps created (you know what I am about to say) ambiguity which left Mack reeling in a loop of confusion.

Napoleonic Warfare = LOTS of Walking

Napoleon, having marched directly into the Austrian rear, did not fully understand what Mack was doing – largely because Mack was doing nothing. As late as October 13th, Napoleon did not realize that the Austrians remained anchored on the city of Ulm – he expected that they had retreated across the Danube to the south. So certain was he that the Austrians had abandoned Ulm that he ordered Marshal Ney to push through Ulm with his 6th Corps and pursue the Austrians southward. It was only after Ney more or less ran into Mack's languishing army and was repulsed that Napoleon realized the entire Austrian force remained parked at Ulm.

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