How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander
Book Excerpt - Introduction: The Rules of War Are Simple but Seldom Followed
by Bevin Alexander
My understanding of how great generals win commenced with realizing how
not-so-great generals don't win. This learning process started on a hot day in
August, 1951, when, as a young combat historian, I stood in a valley of the
Taebaek mountains of eastern Korea and watched American artillery pulverize
Hill 983 about a thousand yards in front of me.
This mountain and the similar one just to the north had not then attained the
names---Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges---by which they would go down in history
as the quintessential battles of the Korean War. But those of us standing there
on that summer day watching the artillery shells methodically obliterate all
traces of vegetation from 983 already knew what was in store.
The attack was to be direct---straight up the steep slopes of the mountain,
climbing 3,600 feet above sea level. The attack was also to be without
surprise: the assemblage of a dozen artillery battalions in the valley south of
the mountain had told the North Korean defenders that the top American
commander in Korea, Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet, had singled out
their bastion for assault.
Thus the gruesome battle that followed, and the even more gruesome battle to
capture Heartbreak which came directly on its heels, were programmed from the
outset, as if both sides had been handed a script and told to follow it
The American artillery destroyed all the vegetation but could damage only a
tiny fraction of the dirt-, rock- and timber-covered bunkers in which the
Communist soldiers hid. Thereafter, American, South Korean and, on Heartbreak,
French infantrymen climbed the steep fingers leading up to the peaks, the only
avenues available to root the enemy out of their bunkers and drive them away.
The North Korean and Red Chinese soldiers knew these avenues of approach as
well as the United Nations troops and they carefully zeroed in their automatic
weapons and mortars on them and created fields of fire to decimate the climbing
United Nations infantry.
It all worked out as programmed: the superior UN firepower at last wrested the
peaks from the Communists but the cost was staggering. UN casualties, the vast
bulk of them American, totaled 6,400, while Communist losses may have reached
40,000. Yet the UN command gained nothing. Its strategic position in Korea was
not affected one iota and there were almost no tactical gains: behind
Heartbreak loomed another ridgeline equally pitted with bunkers. And behind
this third ridge rose many more ridges which could have been armored with
bunkers as well.
The only thing achieved by the Battles of Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges---and by
all of the numerous other battles for ridgelines that the 8th United States
Army in Korea ordered during the fall of 1951---was that the American command
finally realized the futility of frontal attacks against prepared positions.
There was no great intellectual awakening as to the foolhardiness of the
policy. The reason was simply that the cost of further attacks was too high.
The period between the start of the "peace talks" in July and the cessation of
the ridgeline assaults at the end of October, 1951, had produced 60,000 UN and
an estimated 234,000 Communist casualties.
It is incredible that it took such bloodletting to teach an obvious lesson.
From the beginning of organized warfare, frontal attacks against prepared
defenses have usually failed, a fact written large in military history for all
generals to see. Even more pertinent, because it was part of the active-service
experience or training of the senior generals in Korea, was the trench warfare
of World War I---which this phase of the Korean War copied almost exactly. The
first World War had showed conclusively that frontal attacks could not succeed,
except at such an enormous human cost that the term victor became derisory,
since no one emerged a winner from those rendezvous with death at the disputed
barricades of the Western front.
Yet the lesson had not been learned. The men who had seen or studied the trench
warfare of World War I ordered it anew in the Korean War. And the results in
Korea were identical to what they had been in Europe: enormous human losses and
no appreciable tactical or strategic gains.
* * * * * * * * * *
The lesson I learned from Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges was that great generals
do not act as did the generals who ordered the ridgeline battles in Korea.
Great generals do not repeat what has failed before. They do not send troops
directly into a battle for which the enemy is prepared and waiting. On the
contrary, great generals strike where they are least expected against
opposition that is as weak and disorganized as possible.
The tremendous advances in military technology since the Korean War have not
changed this fundamental truth. Technology governs only what methods we use to
achieve military decisions. Advances in weaponry actually increase the need for
generals to avoid the most heavily defended and dangerous positions and to seek
decisions at points where the enemy does not anticipate his strikes.
Especially since the Vietnam War astonishing improvements have occurred in the
accuracy and deadliness of rocketry and conventional (nonnuclear) weapons by
use of satellites to navigate with precision and radar, infrared, laser and
other sounding devices to guide "smart" bombs and missiles onto targets. These
advances have brought forth predictions of future "automated battlefields"
where weapons will be so effective that human beings will be unable to survive
on them and battles will be fought by robots and all sorts of unmanned
aircraft, vehicles and weapons.
But there is a significant countertrend which portends warfare depending less
on overwhelming firepower and more on movements of small bodies of unobtrusive
individuals who achieve their goals by surprise, ambushes and unanticipated
The reason war may be moving in this seemingly contradictory direction is that
the technology which has produced main battle tanks, assault aircraft, ships
and rockets has also produced weapons which can destroy many of these offensive
weapons. Defensive weapons are much cheaper than offensive weapons and some can
be held in the hands of a single defender. One such is the Stinger missile
which Afghan rebels used effectively to knock down helicopters during the
Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Patriot missile,
which destroyed Iraqi Scud missiles in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and can
knock down attacking aircraft, costs only a fraction of a Scud's price and
about 1 per cent of a fighter-bomber's.
If, as a number of technologists believe, the tank is already obsolete and
manned aircraft and large warships too expensive, complicated and vulnerable to
survive for long against defensive missiles, then future war may be fought less
by unmanned weapons and robots on an "automated battlefield" and more by small
bodies of dispersed, well-trained and armed troops who move deceptively and
inconspicuously around obstacles, conducting war more like what we associate
today with guerrilla or semiguerrilla forces. The Soviet Union lost such a war
It is unlikely that mankind will resort to nuclear war. Any use of a nuclear
bomb will bring an instant nuclear reprisal which can accelerate beyond human
capacity to control and can result in making most of the earth uninhabitable.
No sane ruler wants to sentence his own people to death. Even if a mad dictator
secures a nuclear device and uses it, sensible world leaders almost certainly
will destroy him and his scientists with a surgical blow but will not succumb
to nuclear holocaust.
The future is not ours to see. But it will probably bring to war the same
challenges that have burdened generals since the beginning of armed conflict:
how to avoid the enemy's main strength and how to strike a decisive blow
against him. War will change but the principles of war will remain the same.
* * * * * * * * * *
The English strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart says the goal of the great captain
is the same as that of Paris in the Trojan War of Greek legend 3,000 years ago.
Paris avoided any obvious target on the foremost Greek champion, Achilles, but
instead directed his arrow at Achilles's only vulnerable point, his heel.
The outstanding Confederate cavalry raider Nathan Bedford Forrest encapsulated
the secret of great generals when he said that the key to victory is "to get
there first with the most."
However, the true test of the great general is broader than this: it is to
decide where "there" is, where the Achilles's heel can be located. For the
point where the successful commander concentrates his forces must be a point
that is vital or at least extremely important to the enemy. To get there first
with the most, the military commander must understand and practice the aim of
another great Confederate leader, Stonewall Jackson, to "mystify, mislead and
surprise" the enemy.
This is because no intelligent enemy commander will willingly uncover a point
or place that is vital or important to him. He will do so only if forced or
deceived. To achieve such force or deception, the great captain will nearly
always act in one of two manners. He will move so as to make the opposing
general think he is aiming at a point different than what he is actually aiming
at. Or he will operate in such a way that the enemy commander must, in the
words of the greatest Union general in the American Civil War, William Tecumseh
Sherman, find himself "on the horns of a dilemma," unable to defend two or more
points or objectives and thus forced to cede at least one in order to save
One of the remarkable facts about great generals throughout history is
that---except in cases where they possessed overwhelming power---practically
all their successful moves have been made against the enemy's flank or rear,
either actual or psychological. Great generals realize that a rear attack
distracts, dislocates and often defeats an enemy physically by cutting him off
from his supplies, communications and reinforcements and mentally by
undermining his confidence and sense of security. Great generals know a direct
attack, on the other hand, consolidates an enemy's defenses and, even if he is
defeated, merely forces him back on his reserves and his supplies.
These concepts have been accepted in principle in many armies for a long time.
Against a weak or incompetent enemy they are easy to apply. In the 1991 Gulf
War, for example, U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf applied this classic
doctrine to defeat the 500,000-man Iraqi army in a hundred hours. While
"fixing" the main Iraqi force in Kuwait in place by threatening an amphibious
invasion from the gulf and by launching two U.S. Marine divisions and other
forces directly on Kuwait, he sent two mobile corps nearly two-hundred miles
westward into the Arabian desert. These corps then swept around behind the
Iraqi army, cutting off its line of supply and retreat to Baghdad and pressed
it into a tight corner between the Euphrates river, the gulf and the marines
advancing from the south. Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the thousands and
Not all wars are so one-sided as the 1991 Gulf War and not all opponents so
ready to surrender. In war the one great incalculable is human resistance.
Because enemy response is so unpredictable, commonplace or mediocre generals
often do not understand the full significance of flank or rear attacks and,
usually because of strong enemy resistance, find themselves drawn or provoked
into a direct strategy and frontal attacks which are rarely decisive.
One of the factors which makes a general great, and therefore makes him rare,
is that he can withstand the urge of most men to rush headlong into direct
engagements and can see instead how he can go around rather than through his
One reason such generals are few is that the military profession, like society
as a whole, applauds direct solutions and is suspicious of personalities given
to indirection and unfamiliar methods, labeling them as deceptive, dishonest or
underhanded. A big cause of American hatred of the Japanese in World War II was
that they launched a "sneak" attack against an unexpected point, Pearl Harbor
in Hawaii. The military profession and the public have idealized rather the
"manly" virtues of the straightforward hero who confronts his opponent in the
open, a type romanticized in the cowboy of the American West who never draws
his six-shooter until his opponent has already reached for his gun.
Soldiers for generations have drawn analogies between war and sports. The Duke
of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of
Eton. It is common in the U.S. Army today to equate war with American football.
This is no accident. Football---not baseball---has become a symbol of war
because football consists primarily of a direct challenge by an attacker
against a defender. Although football can have indirect aspects, it is
decidedly less a game of subtle ploys, surprise and deception than baseball.
Until the mid-1970s, U.S. Army doctrine resembled the straightforward,
grind-it-out, pounding, "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" game played at Ohio
State University in the Woody Hayes era in mid-century. Although teaching since
then has emphasized maneuver, direct solutions and head-on attack are engrained
in military psychology and will be difficult to eradicate.
The sincere, candid, unsecretive leader has always been an ideal. As a
consequence, the successful great general must possess a Janus-faced
personality, conveying honesty and openness to his troops and subordinate
leaders while hiding or dissembling those parts of his character which permit
him to "mystify, mislead and surprise" the enemy.
Some great generals have found this a difficult assignment and have suffered
for it. Stonewall Jackson was notorious for his secrecy and his reticence in
telling plans to subordinates. Although his men idolized him for bringing them
victories, they looked on him as strange and unapproachable and his major
commanders found him difficult, demanding and uncommunicative. His answer to
the charges was enlightening: "If I can deceive my own friends I can make
certain of deceiving the enemy."
Few individuals are able to assume the double-faceted, contradictory persona
required of great captains. The military system, moreover, tends to promote the
direct person over the indirect. Consequently, most generals are guileless,
uncomplicated warriors who lead direct campaigns and order frontal assaults.
The resulting heavy casualties and indecision that characterize most wars are
* * * * * * * * * *
Even some generals who enjoy high reputations or fame have actually been
predominately direct soldiers who brought disaster to their side. One such
general was Robert E. Lee, the beau ideal of the Southern Confederacy who
possessed integrity, honor and loyalty in the highest degree and who also
possessed skills as a commander far in excess of the Union generals arrayed
against him. But Lee was not, himself, a great general.
Lee generally and in decisively critical situations always chose the direct
over the indirect approach. For example, when the 1862 invasion of Maryland
proved to be abortive, Lee did not retreat quickly into Virginia but allowed
himself to be drawn into a direct confrontation at Antietam which he had no
hope of winning and which proved to be the bloodiest single battle in American
history. Since the Confederacy was greatly inferior to the North in manpower,
any such expenditure of blood should have been exchanged only for great
strategic gains. Standing and fighting at Antietam offered no benefits, whereas
a withdrawal into Virginia would have retained the South's offensive power.
Antietam also gave Abraham Lincoln the Northern victory he needed to issue the
Emancipation Proclamation which insured that Britain and France would not come
to the aid of the Confederacy.
In 1863 Lee allowed himself to drawn into an identical battle of attrition at
Gettysburg. When his direct efforts to knock aside the Union army failed, Lee
compounded his error by destroying the last offensive power of the Army of
Northern Virginia in Pickett's charge across nearly a mile of open, bullet-and
shell-torn ground. This frontal assault was doomed before it started. James
Longstreet and other commanders recognized this and Lee himself acknowledged
the blunder at its disastrous end, when only half of the 15,000 men in the
charge returned to Confederate lines.
Yet Lee was not in a dangerous position when he bumped into the Federal Army of
the Potomac at Gettysburg. He was north of the Union forces and, since supplies
were far more plentiful in this direction than back in Virginia, he could
easily have swung past the Federal force blocking his path and swept on to
Harrisburg or York, thereby putting the Union army on "the horns of a dilemma"
by threatening Philadelphia in one, Baltimore in another and Washington in a
third direction. If the bulk of the Army of the Potomac had pulled back to
defend the nation's capital, Lee could have moved southeast along the
Susquehanna river, threatening Philadelphia or Baltimore. If George G. Meade,
the Union commander, had kept his main army shielding Washington, Lee could
have captured Baltimore, where all of the rail lines to the north met, thereby
cutting Washington off from reinforcements and supplies. If Meade had moved his
troops to defend Baltimore, Lee could have crossed the Susquehanna and seized
Philadelphia, the second-largest American city and a point disastrous for the
North to lose.
Another Civil War general who enjoys fame but who came close to losing the war,
this time for the North, was Ulysses S. Grant. In his 1864 campaign in
Virginia, Grant threw his army into one direct assault after another against
emplaced Confederate forces. Grant's aim was to destroy Lee's army. But he
nearly destroyed his own, losing half of his total strength between the
Wilderness in the spring and the stalemate in front of Petersburg in midsummer.
By the late stages of this campaign, Grant's troops no longer were willing to
press their attacks, because they knew they would be defeated. Indeed at Cold
Harbor the Union soldiers were so certain of death that, before the assault,
they pinned their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their
families could be notified after the battle.
Grant achieved his only strategic success not by battle but by maneuver. He got
across the James river and close to the main railway supplying Richmond from
the south because he elected not, once again, to attack Lee directly in another
defensive emplacement, but to slip across the James and try to capture
Petersburg before it could be defended. He barely failed and the war in
Virginia turned into a stalemate which Sherman, not Grant, broke by his move on
the Confederate rear.
Direct moves intellectually similar to those of Lee and Grant contributed to
German defeats in two world wars. In the opening stages of World War I, the
German commander, Helmuth von Moltke, undermined the famous plan of Count
Alfred von Schlieffen to send the great bulk of the German army on an "end run"
to the west and then south of Paris. This main German "hammer" was to turn back
north and shatter the French and British armies against the German "anvil"
positioned in fortresses along the Franco-German border. Moltke turned the wide
indirect sweep intended to cross the Seine river west of Paris into a direct
attack to the north of the river and squarely on Paris. This permitted the
French to block the army's path and achieve the "miracle of the Marne" by
stopping the German offensive and creating the trench-war stalemate that lasted
In late 1942 Adolf Hitler's insistence upon a direct assault on Stalingrad
instead of withdrawing German forces while there was still time resulted in the
destruction of a large German army and the loss of initiative in the east---and
ultimately the war---to the Russians and other Allies.
* * * * * * * * * *
This book is intended to show, by specific examples, how great generals in the
past have applied long-standing rules or principles of war that nearly always
will secure victory---if only because they have used them when their opponents
have not. These rules are not rigid prescriptions, like algebraic formulas, but
are concepts which must be applied artfully as circumstances call for. They are
not esoteric abstractions understandable only to military experts and advanced
students in command and general staff colleges. Rather, they are applications
of common sense to the ever-present problems which emerge when two nations or
groups of nations range against each other in mortal combat.
The purpose of every belligerent is to impose his will on his opponent. Trying
to induce others to abide by one's wishes is a common human aim, applicable to
individuals and groups as well as nations. The only distinction between
ordinary human disputes and war is that war is an act of violence in which one
side exerts force against the other side. If a side could attain its purpose
without force it, of course, would do so, since no nation will attack unless
there is resistance. For this reason the nineteenth-century Prussian theorist
Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of national policy by other
It may appear obvious that every individual, group and nation engaged in any
conflict should always apply the policy of Paris in the Trojan War and strike
only at the Achilles's heel. Yet the history of human relations, as well as of
war, shows conclusively that human beings more frequently ignore or do not see
the opportunities for getting around an enemy or opponent and instead strike
straight at the most obvious target they see.
It is uncommon for a person to achieve his goals by moving on his opponent's
rear, either literally or figuratively. Human beings have been conditioned by a
million years of culture to cooperate within a group. This conditioning makes
us loyal to our group and bellicose to the enemy of our group. Our tendency in
each case, whether cooperating with our friends or fighting our enemies, is to
be direct, not devious or circuitous.
It is only the unusual person who can separate his primeval desire for direct
confrontation of his enemies from the need to disguise and hide his actions so
as to catch the enemy off guard and vulnerable. Yet this is the only route to
great generalship. Sun Tzu, the celebrated Chinese strategist, wrote about 400
B.C. that "all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we
must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are
near, we must make the enemy believe that we are away; when far away, we must
make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign
disorder and crush him." Sun Tzu also wrote that in war "the way to avoid what
is strong is to strike what is weak."
Many people have a misconception as to the true objective in war. It is not, as
numerous military and civilian leaders alike believe, the destruction of the
enemy's armed forces on the battlefield. This concept, generally rendered into
shorthand as "Napoleonic doctrine," dominated the writing of military textbooks
and regulations and the teaching in general staff colleges for well over a
Napoleon himself was not the author of this "doctrine," although, as Liddell
Hart points out, it emerged from Napoleon's practice after the Battle of Jena
in 1806 of relying on mass rather than mobility, which had governed his
strategy until then. After Jena Napoleon was concerned exclusively with battle,
confident he could crush his opponent if brought to close grips.
Later Napoleonic campaigns based on sheer offensive power obscured the lessons
of earlier campaigns in which Napoleon combined deception, mobility and
surprise to achieve tremendous results with great economy of force. Clausewitz
was most impressed with Napoleon's later campaigns and became the "prophet of
mass" focusing attention on great battles. This doctrine suited the Prussian
system of mass conscription to create a "nation in arms." The concept achieved
its triumph in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when superior Prussian numbers
won an advantage. Thereafter other powers hurried to imitate Germany's model.
World War I showed that the generals' lust for battle combined with the
recently developed machine gun reduced war to mass slaughter. Though the result
was to kill or maim much of Europe's youth, the idea that war is to destroy the
enemy's main force in battle has continued to influence---and in many cases
guide---our thinking to this day.
Yet the purpose of war is not battle at all. It is a more perfect peace. To
attain peace a belligerent must break the will of the enemy people to wage war.
No nation goes to war to fight. It goes to war to attain its national purpose.
It may be that a nation must destroy the enemy's army to achieve this purpose.
But the destruction is not the end, it is only the incidental byproduct or
means to the end.
If a commander looks at the peace he is seeking at the conclusion of war, he
may find numerous ways of attaining it by avoiding the enemy's main force and
striking at targets that may destroy the enemy's desire or ability to wage war.
The great Roman leader in the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, weakened the
Carthaginian hold on Spain by ignoring the enemy's armies and unexpectedly
seizing the main enemy base, present-day Cartagena. In the final stages of the
Napoleonic wars in 1814, the Allies forced Napoleon's surrender by turning away
from his army and capturing Paris, thereby causing the French people to lose
heart and give up. Sherman's army fought very few military engagements in late
1864 and early 1865 but, by marching through Georgia and the Carolinas,
destroyed the will of the Southern people to wage war and caused many Rebel
soldiers to desert the army and go home to aid their families.
Clausewitz understood that the purpose of war is political and not military and
actually expressed this in his writings. But his syntax and logic were so
obscure and difficult that the soldiers who drew their inspiration from
Clausewitz heeded less his qualifying limitations and more his sweeping
phrases, like the "bloody solution, destruction of enemy forces, is the
first-born son of war" and "let us not hear of generals who conquer without
bloodshed." Clausewitz's emphasis on battle likewise demonstrated a
contradiction in his theory. For if war is a continuation of policy, the goal
to be achieved in the war is the primary purpose. But, in emphasizing victory
in war, Clausewitz looked only to the end of the war, not the subsequent peace.
Although Clausewitz was actually saying that battle is the most usual way of
achieving a nation's goal in war, generations of direct soldiers---unable to
weigh his contradictions or decipher his obscurities---read that it is the only
* * * * * * * * * *
We now can define the purpose of military strategy, or the broad conduct of
war. It is to diminish the possibility of resistance. The great general
eliminates or reduces resistance by means of movement and surprise. As Sun Tzu
says, "Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without
fighting." To achieve this, Sun Tzu recommends that the successful general
"march swiftly to places where he is not expected." By appearing at points the
enemy must hasten to defend, the enemy is likely to be distracted and to weaken
or abandon other points, thereby contributing to or ensuring his defeat. Speed
and mobility are the basic features of strategy. Napoleon said: "Space we can
recover, time never."
In the chapters ahead we will examine how great generals like Napoleon have
carried out the principles of war. It may be of help to summarize here briefly
a few of the most salient principles so as to make the actions of great
generals easier to follow.
B.H. Liddell Hart epitomizes much military wisdom in two axioms. The successful
general, he says, chooses the line or course of least expectation and he
exploits the line of least resistance.
Although these two admonitions may seem self-evident, generals rarely follow
them or understand when these axioms are employed against them. The Battles of
Bloody and Heartbreak Ridges were fought on the lines of maximum expectation
and of maximum resistance. When the Germans invaded the Low Countries in May,
1940, the British and French commanders could conceive of no response but to
race into Belgium to counter frontally what they believed was the principal
German assault, which they also thought was frontal. This permitted the Germans
to follow the line of least expectation and drive through the "impassable"
Ardennes and break out at Sedan. Now behind the Allies, they were able to rush
to the English Channel along the line of least resistance. Likewise, American
leaders in December, 1941, were expecting an assault in the East Indies and
perhaps the Philippines and were unprepared for the Japanese aerial descent on
Genghis Khan and his great Mongol general Subedei Bahadur practiced another
principle of war, shown to perfection in Subedei's invasion of eastern Europe
in 1241. We don't know the name the Mongols used for it but the early
eighteenth-century French army strategist Pierre de Bourcet conceived the same
principle independently and called it a "plan with branches."
Subedei sent four separate columns into Europe. One rushed into Poland and
Germany north of the Carpathians and drew off all European forces in that
direction. The three others entered Hungary at widely separated points,
threatening various objectives and keeping armies from Austria and other states
from combining with the Hungarians. The three Mongol columns then converged on
the Danube river near Budapest to deal with the now-unsupported Hungarians.
Bourcet recommended that generals spread out their attacking forces into two or
more advancing columns that could reunite quickly when necessary but take lines
threatening multiple or alternative objectives which the enemy had to defend,
thus forcing him to divide his strength and prevent his concentration. If the
enemy blocked one line of approach, the general could instantly develop another
to serve the same purpose. Union General Sherman used this method in his march
through Georgia and and the Carolinas in 1864-65. His widely separated columns
threatened two or more objectives, forcing the Confederates to divide their
forces to defend all---and therefore were unable to defend any. This forced the
Rebels in most cases to abandon their weakly held positions without battle.
Like Sherman and Subedei, the attacker using the "plan with branches" is often
able to reunite his columns to seize one objective before the enemy can react
and concentrate against him. A variation is for part of an army to converge on
a known objective while the rest descends on its rear.
Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862 practiced a
modification of the plan by using pure deception: he advanced directly on the
main Federal force along the principal approach, then secretly shifted across a
high mountain to descend unexpectedly on the Federal flank and rear.
Napoleon embellished Bourcet's plan with branches by spreading separate
advancing columns wide like a weighted fishing net. These columns could
concentrate quickly and close around any isolated enemy unit that fell in the
Napoleon also owed much to another eighteenth-century French theorist, the
Comte de Guibert, who preached mobility to concentrate superior strength
against a point of enemy weakness and to maneuver against the flank or rear of
the enemy. Using great mobility, Napoleon maneuvered his waving net, stretched
wide over a large region. This greatly confused his foes, unable to fathom
Napoleon's real purpose. They usually spread out their own forces, hoping to
counter these mystifying movements. Napoleon then quickly coalesced his
separate columns to destroy a single enemy force before it could be reinforced
or he descended with his army as a "grouped whole" on the enemy's rear.
The most deadly of Napoleon's strategic methods was this manoeuvre sur les
derrières. His method embodied the injunction of Sun Tzu: march unexpectedly
away from the enemy's main strength and concentrate one's own strength against
an enemy point that is weak, yet vital or important to the enemy. The art of
war is to create this strength at the point of weakness.
Napoleon added another element by frequently seizing a terrain feature in the
rear, like a mountain range, defile or a river, where he established a
strategic barrage or barrier which prevented the enemy from retreating or
getting supplies and reinforcements. Among others, he achieved victory with
strategic barrages in the Marengo campaign in Italy in 1800 and in the Ulm
campaign leading up to his victory at Austerlitz in 1805. By the time of the
American Civil War it no longer was necessary to seize a terrain feature.
Armies were relying on railroads for their supplies and new troops. A strategic
barrage could be established merely by blocking a railway line in the enemy's
rear. General Grant did this at Jackson, Mississippi, in 1863 and thereby
isolated the Confederate forces at Vicksburg. This led to the surrender of the
city, opening of the Mississippi river to Union boats and loss of the
trans-Mississippi states to the Confederacy.
Attacks on an enemy's rear are devastating for a number of reasons. By forcing
the enemy to change front, he tends to be dislocated and unable to fight or to
fight effectively. An army, like a man, is much more sensitive to menace to the
back than to the front. For this reason a rear attack induces fear and
distraction. In addition, a move on the rear often disturbs the distribution
and organization of enemy forces, may separate them, threatens the retreat
route and endangers delivery of supplies and reinforcements. A modern army can
exist for some time without additional food but it can't last more than a few
days without ammunition and motor fuel.
An attack on the enemy's rear has grave psychological effects on enemy
soldiers, but especially on the enemy commander. It often creates in the
commander's mind the fear of being trapped and of being unable to counter his
opponent's will. In extreme cases this can lead to paralysis of the commander's
decision-making powers and the disintegration of an army.
A rear or flank attack must be a surprise to be wholly successful. This applies
both to tactics, or actual battle, and to strategy. If an enemy anticipates a
rear attack, he can often move to counter it and will usually be prepared to
defend against it. In addition, a rear attack normally succeeds only when the
enemy is "fixed" or held in place by other forces on his front and is unable to
switch troops in time to meet the surprise blow.
The Prussian king, Frederick the Great, did not fully understand this principle
and suffered such severe battle losses that he nearly forfeited his state.
Frederick always employed tactics of indirect approach but his flank and rear
assaults were made on a narrow circuit and did not fall unexpectedly. In 1757,
for example, he found the Austrians strongly entrenched on the heights behind
the river at Prague. Leaving a detachment designed to mask his design, he moved
upstream, crossed the river and advanced on the Austrian right. The Austrians
saw the maneuver and had time to change front. The Prussian infantry fell in
the thousands when they attempted a frontal attack across a fire-swept gradual
slope. Only the unexpected arrival of the Prussian cavalry turned the scales.
* * * * * * * * * *
The essential formula of tactics or actual battle is a convergent assault. A
commander achieves this by dividing the attacking force into two or more
segments. Ideally each segment attacks the same target simultaneously and in
close coordination, but from a different direction or approach, thereby holding
all enemy elements in the grip of battle and preventing any one from aiding
others. Sometimes one part of a force fixes the enemy in place or distracts him
while the other part maneuvers to gain surprise and break up the defense.
A true convergent assault is vastly different from a feint or "holding" attack
by one force with the aim of diverting the enemy from the main blow. Unnumbered
commanders over the centuries have wrecked their hopes with such obvious feints
which an astute enemy has recognized or they have tried to hit an objective so
divided or spread out that the enemy is not distracted and can bring up forces
to repel each blow.
A premier example of a convergent assault took place in 1632 during the Thirty
Years War when Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus set up guns and burned straw to
create a smokescreen while forcing one point on the Lech River in Bavaria. This
held the Austrian Marshal Tilly in place while another Swedish force crossed
the Lech on a bridge of boats a mile upstream. Assailed from two directions
simultaneously, Tilly was unable to defend either point. His troops fell back
and Tilly was mortally wounded.
Napoleon's characteristic battle plan was "envelopment, breakthrough and
exploitation." He tried to rivet the enemy's attention with a strong frontal
attack to draw all enemy reserves into action. Napoleon then moved a large
force on the enemy's flank or rear next to his line of supply and retreat. When
the enemy shifted forces from the front to shield against this flank attack,
Napoleon broke a hole in a weakened section of the main front with suddenly
massed artillery, sent cavalry and infantry through this hole to create a
breakthrough, then used cavalry to shatter and pursue the disordered enemy.
In the Korean War advancing Communist Chinese troops employed a somewhat
similar formula. Since they could not counter United Nations air power and
artillery, they shifted their main assaults to nighttime. Their general method
was to get a force to the rear of enemy positions to cut off escape routes and
supply roads. Then they sent in both frontal and flank attacks in the darkness
to bring the enemy to grips. Chinese soldiers generally closed in on several
sides of a small enemy troop position until they made a penetration, either by
destroying it or forcing the defenders to withdraw. The Chinese then crept
forward against the open flank of the next small unit and repeated the process.
None of the axioms employed by great generals is difficult. Indeed, once they
have been employed successfully they reveal their innate simplicity and appear
to be the obvious and sometimes only logical solution. Yet all great ideas are
simple. The trick is to see them before others. This book is about generals who
possessed the vision to see the obvious when others did not.
. Regarding notes. In notes below and throughout the book, some references
are given only by the last name of the author or editor. These references are
cited in full in the Selected Bibliography. References not listed in the
bibliography are cited in full where they appear in the notes. Numbers in notes
refer to pages. Sun Tzu, 11, 29.
. Ibid., 15, 25.
. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 341, 348.
. Ibid., 114.
- - -
Copyright © 1986-2005 Bevin Alexander • All rights reserved
This excerpt is the "Introduction" chapter from How Great Generals Win and
is reprinted with Bevin Alexander's permission.
Written by Bevin Alexander. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Bevin Alexander at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please visit
Bevin Alexander's website at: http://bevinalexander.com/.
About the Author:
Bevin Alexander is the author of nine books on military history. He commanded
the 5th Historical Detachment in the Korean War, 1951-52, and received three
battle stars for service at the front. He holds a bachelor's degree with honors
in history from The Citadel, and a master's degree with distinction from
Northwestern University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Longwood
University, Farmville, Virginia.
Published online: 12/18/2005.