Friday, 24 December 2010


When Napoleon launched his lightning attacks against the European powers between 1796 - 1810, his opponents felt that they had been hit by a whirlwind. Napoleon seemed unstoppable despite various coalitions that came against him. That is until he entered the vast horizons of Russia. From that time on, in 1812, the defeat of Napoleon was certain.

What is so important about this? Namely the major ASSUMPTION that took hold of the consciousness of military strategists. That assumption was, ATTACK IS SUPERIOR TO DEFENCE. Despite the check on Napoleon in Russia, this assumption was not seriously shaken.

It is so vital that one regularly challenges assumptions. As I shall briefly discuss, holding on to unchallenged assumptions can lead to horrendous, and needless loss of life. I will even go so far as to say that deeply held, unconscious assumptions are rarely shaken except by trauma.

I intend to look at three examples: the strategy at the Battle of Gettysburg; the foolhardiness of the conflict at Passchendaele during the First World War;  and the final shaking of the the 'attack is better than defence' assumption, ironically once more in Russia.  Commenting on  the virtual destruction of the Wehrmacht in the attack on Russia, from 1941 onwards,  I shall propose a reason why the Napoleonic assumption was exposed as faulty.

On the left is the COUNCIL OF WAR planning the shattering campaign.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the  most famous and most important Civil War Battle occurred over three hot summer days, July 1 to July 3, 1863, around the small market town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I shall concentrate only on the final battle to illustrate the point I am trying to make concerning unconscious assumptions. I definitely believe that General Robert E Lee had absorbed the Napoleonic assumption. In spite of the protests of General Longstreet, his deputy commander, Lee would not allow any challenge to his view. The result was disaster.

Let us see how this unchallengeable assumption led to total catastrophe.

As the day for the final battle approached, the Union commander General Meade decided his army would remain in place and wait for Lee to attack. It is important to appreciate the layout. Meade's army held the HIGH GROUND behind a stone wall and fortified by cannons.

To carry out an attack Lee's army would have to cross a slightly rising OPEN FIELD and be strung out in a line. Obviously a target for the Union Cannon and rifle fire.

General Longstreet tried to unlock Lee's dogmatism protesting the folly of attacking such a strong position. However, Lee would not be shaken. He  thought the battered Union soldiers were nearly beaten and would collapse under one final push. In short, 'attack will prevail over defence.'

Lee decided that by attacking the Union line at the centre he could at one stroke win the Battle of Gettysburg and in effect win the Civil War. 

When the time for the final push arrived Longstreet again protested vigorously. Lee estimated that by launching 15,000 men across the open field and charging against Meade's entrenched defenders he would win the day. Longstreet has been recorded as saying, 

     "It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." 

But Lee was unmoved. He would not let go of his Napoleonic assumption. The charge would take place  as ordered.

Reminding one of similar barrage tactics of World War One, around  1 p.m. 170 Confederate cannons opened fire on the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. This was in preparation  for the Rebel charge. Although this was the heaviest artillery barrage of the entire, war many of the artillery shells missed their targets and flew harmlessly overhead. The Union cannons also opened up in response from the high ground.

When a lull in the firing from the Union canons occurred General Picket, who was to lead the charge, approached Longstreet and asked, "General, shall I advance?" Longstreet, now overwhelmed with emotion, did not respond, but simply bowed his head and raised his hand.

The order was given and the fatal charge across the mile long stretch of open territory began. "Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia!" yelled Pickett at the head of  around 12,000 Confederate soldiers. These  formed an orderly line that stretched a mile from flank to flank. 

Slowly the Confederate army advanced.  As they  got within range, Union cannons using grapeshot (a shell containing iron balls that flew apart when fired) and deadly accurate rifle volleys ripped into the massed Confederate line. The slaughter was horrendous. The line was smashed to pieces. Undaunted the battered Confederate army pushed on. 

Almost at the stone wall, the Confederates  stopped and fired their rifles at the Union troops, lowered their bayonets and commenced a running charge while screaming the Rebel yell. A fierce battle raged for about an hour characterised by  brutal hand to hand fighting, shooting at close range and stabbing with bayonets. Eventually Union reinforcements arrived and and opened fire on the melee of Confederate soldiers.

Finally, the blooded Confederate  troops  began to give way and  drifted back down the slope. Lee's army had been smashed and left over 7,000 men dead on the field of battle. 

Lee was psychologically devastated, bitterly blaming the outcome upon himself. 

With this disaster  the tide of the war was now permanently turned against the South. As a result of Lee's assumption the Confederate causalities in dead, wounded and missing were 4,708 killed, 12693 wounded and around 5,830 missing. The Union suffered similar casualties.

Such was the hold of this Napoleonic assumption that it dominated the strategy of World War I. Even when the German armies and their opponents, the Allies were bogged down in the trenches, the command issued again and again was, "over the top" The field commanders of both sides, holding to the assumption, 'attack is better than defence,' exposed their troops to withering machine gun fire. The trauma of casualties was still not strong enough to shake the assumption.

Nor did the military strategists learn from history. Even though the Battle of Passchendaele (31 July to November 1917) had many features in common with the Civil War conflict, already discussed, the parallels were either ignored or rationalised away. The Napoleonic Assumption was too strong.

The battle of Passchendaele in Belgium was a horrendous sacrifice of men and animals. The situation is fairly easy to describe.

On the right is the STRUGGLE THROUGH MUD ON OPEN GROUND under withering German Artillery.

The Germans occupied the high ground complete with heavy artillery. This area came to be known as the Passchendale Ridge. Down below was a valley which the German artillery could easily rake with shellfire. Because of the flatness of the plain any attempt at surprise attack was impossible.

In fact, the Germans had prior warning of an attack on the ridge when in the middle of July the allied bombardment began. It lasted for two weeks with nearly 5 million shells expended from 3,000 guns. As at Gettysburg this horrendous barrage failed to destroy the well fortified positions or to dislodge the Germans from the Ridge. 

Nevertheless, Haig, the commander of the British and Allied forces influenced by the same assumption, which had dominated General Lee, ordered an infantry attack. This began on July 31. Unfortunately for the attackers, the heavy shellfire had  churned up the clay soil and damaged the drainage systems. But there was worse to come. Within a few days the rain began, the heaviest rainfall for thirty years. This immediately turned the plain, over which the infantry must advance, into a swamp. The thick mud clogged the rifles, bogged down the tanks and drowned many of the men and horses that were hauling the gun carriages.

All under the withering fire of the German defenders.

Without going into too much detail, the attacks went on through August, September and October  with the same result. Meanwhile casualties mounted. Haig's assumption 'attack will always overcome defence'  was being severely tested and found wanting.

Eventually, a combined force of British and Canadian troops captured the Passchendaele village after the Germans had withdrawn from the Ridge. Haig proudly boasted that his strategy had been a success. This is not the opinion of all military strategists. For, the Passchendaele village, the object of this murderous campaign was only five miles beyond his starting point. It had also taken over three months to achieve this object. Worst of all was the cost in human life and other casualties was horrendous. The Allies under Haig's command suffered some 325,000 killed or injured. The Germans also sustained 260,000 casualties.

Once more such assumptions held by commanders in the First World War needed to be seriously challenged. What Napoleon advocated was not in the same context as a major war in the 20th century. Technology for one thing had moved on. It was easier to kill or maim a soldier at a distance in the First World War. 

Even so, the assumption, 'Attack is superior to Defence" had not been shaken sufficiently. 

In 1939 German strategists, and Hitler's Generals, holding fast to this assumption, launched the Blitzkrieg tactics that propelled the Nations into World War One. Initially, this assumption seemed to have merit. The German Panzers swept through Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Denmark, and Norway in just over a year. No defence could stand against them.

Then came the fatal blow to this assumption. The Wehrmacht took on the might of Russia. Several factors were responsible for the crushing defeat of the German arms. Not simply the Russian Army, but the vast distances that seemed to go on for ever, the terrible Russian Winter, the difficulties involved in supplying the German forces, and even preventing  the tanks and artillery from seizing up.

On the left a Russian soldier attacks the fleeing German Army.

However, what shook the Napoleonic assumption to its core was that the Russians had learned how to DEFEND IN DEPTH and to RESIST the invader who attempted to capture their cities. Again and again the Wehrmacht bludgeoned itself to death against the Russian defences. 

Suffering a humiliating defeat, the Wehrmacht crawled out of Russia.

What is the point of this discussion, one thing and one thing only: CHALLENGE THE ASSUMPTIONS THAT ARE FOISTED UPON YOU, no matter where they come from. It may mean the difference between Life or Hardship and Suffering.

Hope you liked this blog.

Any comments?


Picture Credits 

1. www.picture art-catalogue
2. engelisk wikipedia
3. Library and Archives Canada
4. German Federal Archive

1 comment:

  1. We might think about Koutuzov and Napoleon in terms of 2 symbols. Koutuzov is retreat and Napoleon is attack.These are 2 principles, 2 choices - while retreating you're gradually fortifying, if you are weak morally, then retreat. Koutuzov is retreating and the deeper he retreats, the evil is remoting from its basis.
    When society attacks you - this is Napoleon. Be Koutuzov then. Retreat.And retreating get fortified.Become stronger.
    You will burn Moscow - another symbol, means you will sacrifice everything until you win the freedom of Russia, this is our spiritual freedom, the Divine hidden in us. And we should keep the freedom. Retreat is only a way.
    Tolstoi "discusses" the problem - Oppose not the evil.
    Peter Dounov /Beinsa Douno/ adds - You cannot oppose the evil until you don't become stronger.