On Friday, 1 September 1939, the German armies invaded Poland. On Sunday, the 3rd, the British government declared war on Germany, in fulfilment of the guarantee it had earlier given to Poland. Six hours later the French government, more reluctantly, followed the British lead.
Within less than a month Poland had been overrun. Within nine months most of Western Europe had been submerged by the spreading flood of war.
Could Poland have held out longer?
Could France and Britain have done more than they did to take the German pressure off Poland?
On the face of figures of armed strength, as now known, the answer to both questions would, at first sight, seem to be “yes.”
The German army was far from being ready for war in 1939. The Poles and French together had the equivalent of 150 divisions, including thirty five reserve divisions, and from which some had to be kept for French overseas commitments, against the German total of ninety-eight divisions, of which thirty-six were in an untrained state. Out of the forty divisions which the Germans left to defend their western frontier, only four were active divisions, fully trained and equipped. But Hitler’s strategy had placed France in a situation where she could only relieve pressure on Poland by developing a quick attack – a form of action for which her army was unfitted. Her old-fashioned mobilisation plan was slow in producing the required weight of forces, and her offensive plans dependent on a mass of heavy artillery which was not ready until the sixteenth day. By that time the Polish Army’s resistance was collapsing.
Poland was badly handicapped by her strange strategic situation – the country being placed like a “tongue” between Germany’s jaws, and Poland strategy made the situation worse by placing the bulk of her forces near the tip of the tongue. Moreover, these forces were out of date in equipment and ideas, still placing faith in a large mass of horsed cavalry – which proved helpless against the German tanks.
The Germans at that time had only six armoured and four mechanised divisions ready, but thanks to General Guderian’s enthusiasm, and Hitler’s backing, they had gone farther than any other army in adopting the new idea of high-speed mechanised warfare that had been conceived twenty years earlier by the British pioneers of this new kind and tempo of action. The Germans had also developed a much stronger air force than any of the other countries whereas not only the Poles, but the French also were badly lacking in air power, even to support and cover their armies.
Thus Poland saw the first triumphant demonstration of the new Blitzkrieg technique by the Germans, while the Western allies of Poland were still in the process of preparing for war on customary lines. On 17 September the Red Army advanced across Poland’s eastern frontier, a blow in the back that sealed her fate, as she had scarcely any troops left to oppose this second invasion.
The rapid overrunning of Poland was followed by a six months’ lull – christened the “Phoney War” by onlookers who were deceived by the surface appearance of calm. A truer name would have been the “Winter of Illusion.” For the leaders as well as the public in the Western countries spent the time in framing fanciful plans for attacking Germany’s flanks – and talked about them all too openly,
In reality, there was no prospect of France and Britain ever being able, alone, to develop the strength required to overcome Germany. Their best hope, now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates, and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward instead, instead of westward. That happened a year later, and might well have happened earlier if the Western Allies had not been impatient – as is the way of democracies.
Their loud and threatening talk of attacking Germany’s flanks spurred Hitler to forestall them. His first stroke was to occupy Norway. The captured records of his conferences show that until early in 1940, he still considered “the maintenance of Norway’s neutrality to be the best course” for Germany, but that in February he came to the conclusion that “the English intend to land there, and I want to be there before them.” A small German invading force arrived there on 9 April, upsetting the British plans for gaining control of that neutral area – and captured the chief ports while the Norwegian’s attention was absorbed by the British naval advance into Norwegian waters.
Hitler’s next stroke was against England and France and the Low Countries on 10 May. He had started to prepare the previous autumn when the Allies rejected the peace offer he had made after defeating Poland – feeling that to knock out France offered the best chance of making Britain agree to peace. But bad weather and doubts of his generals had caused repeated postponements from November onwards (1939). Then on 10 January a German officer who was flying to Bonn with papers about the plan missed his way in a snowstorm and landed in Belgium. This miscarriage caused the offensive to be put off until May, and it was radically recast meanwhile.That turned out very unfortunately for the Allies, and temporarily very lucky for Hitler, while changing the whole outlook for the war.
For the old plan, with the main advance going through the canal-lined area of central Belgium, would in fact have led to a head-on collision with the best part of the Franco-British forces, and so would probably have ended in failure – shaking Hitler’s prestige. But the new plans suggested by Manstein took the Allies completely by surprise and threw them off their balance, with disastrous results. For while they were pushing forward into Belgium, to meet the Germans’ opening assault there and in Holland, the mass of the German tanks – seven panzer divisions – drove through the hilly and wooded Ardennes, which the Allied High Command considered impassable to tanks. Crossing the Meuse with little opposition, they broke through the weak hinge of the Allied front, and then swept on westward to the Channel coast behind the back of the Allies’ armies in Belgium, cutting their communications. This decided the issue – before the bulk of the German infantry had even come into action. The British army barely managed to escape by sea from Dunkirk. The Belgians and a large part of the French were forced to surrender. The consequences were irreparable. For when the Germans struck southward, the week after Dunkirk, the remaining French armies proved incapable of withstanding them.
Yet never was a world-shaking disaster more easily preventable. The panzer thrust could have been stopped long before reaching the Channel by a concentrated counterstroke with similar forces. But the French though having more and better tanks than their enemy, had strung them out in small packets in the 1918 way.
The thrust could have been stopped earlier, on the Meuse if the French had not rushed into Belgium leaving their hinge so weak, or had moved reserves there sooner. But the French Command had not only regarded the Ardennes as impassable to tanks but reckoned that any attack on the Meuse would be a set-piece assault in the 1918 style, and would take nearly a week to prepare after arrival there, thus allowing the French ample time to bring up reserves. But the panzer forces reached the river early on 13 May and stormed the crossing that afternoon. A “tank time” pace of action bowled over an out of date “slow motion.”
But the Blitzkrieg pace was only possible because the Allied leaders had not grasped the new technique, and so did not know how to counter it. The thrust could have been stopped before it even reached the Meuse if the approaches had been well covered with minefields. It could have been stopped even if the mines were lacking – by the simple expedient of felling the trees along the forest roads which led to the Meuse. The loss of time in clearing them would have been fatal to the German chances.*
*A French friend of mine, then in charge of a sector on the Meuse, begged the High Command for permission to do this, but was told that the roads must be kept clear for the advance of the French cavalry. These cavalry duly pushed into the Ardennes but came out more rapidly and routed, with the German tanks on their heels.
After the fall of France, there was a popular tendency to ascribe it to the poor state of French morale, and to assume that the fall was inevitable. That is a fallacy, a case of “putting the cart before the horse.” The collapse of French morale only occurred after the military breakthrough- which could so easily have been prevented. By 1942 all armies had learned how to check the Blitzkrieg attack – but a lot would have been saved if they had learned before the war.
This catastrophic conflict which ended by opening Russia’s path into the heart of Europe was aptly called by Mr. Churchill “the unnecessary war.”
In striving to avert it, and curb Hitler, a basic weakness in the policy of Britain and France was their lack of understanding of strategical factors. Through this they slid into war at the moment most unfavourable to them, and then precipitated an avoidable disaster of far-reaching consequences. Britain survived by what appeared to be a miracle – but really because Hitler made the same mistakes that aggressive dictators have repeatedly made throughout history.
The Vital Pre-War Phase
In retrospect it has become clear that the first fatal step for both sides was the German re-entry into the Rhineland in 1936, For Hitler, this move carried a two-fold strategic advantage – it provided cover for Germany’s key industrial vital area in the Ruhr, and it provided him with a potential springboard into France.
Why was this move not checked? Primarily, because France and Britain were anxious to avoid any risk of armed conflict that might develop into war. The reluctance to act was increased because the German re-entry into the Rhineland appeared to be merely an effort to rectify an injustice, even though done in the wrong way. The British, particularly, being politically-minded tended to regard it more as a political than as a military step – failing to see its strategic implications.
In his 1938 moves Hitler again drew strategic advantage from political factors – the German and Austrian peoples’ desire for union, the strong feeling in Germany about Czech treatment of the Sudeten Germans; and again there was widespread feeling in the Western countries that there was a measure of justice in Germany’s case on both issues.
But Hitler’s march into Austria in March laid bare the southern flank of Czecho-Slovakia – which to him was an obstacle in the development of his plans for eastward expansion. In September he secured – by the threat of war and the resultant Munich agreement – not merely the return of the Sudetenland but the strategic paralysis of Czecho-Slovakia.
In March 1939 Hitler occupied the remainder of Czecho-Slovakia, and thereby enveloped the flank of Poland – the last of a series of “bloodless” manoeuvres. This step of his was followed by a fatally rash move on the British government’s part – the guarantee suddenly offered to Poland and Rumania, each of them strategically isolated, without first securing any assistance from Russia, the only power which could give them effective support.
By their timing, these guarantees were bound to act as a provocation; and, as we now know, until he was met by this challenging gesture Hitler had no immediate intention of attacking Poland. By their placing, in parts of Europe inaccessible to the forces of Britain and France, they provided an almost irresistible temptation. Thereby the Western powers undermined the essential basis of the only type of strategy which their now inferior strength made practical for them. For instead of being able to check aggression by presenting a strong force to any attack in the West, they gave Hitler an easy chan e of breaking a weak front and thus gaining an initial triumph.
The only chance if avoiding war now lay in securing support of Russia, the only power that could give Poland direct support and thus provide a deterrent to Hitler. However, despite the urgency of the situation, the British government’s steps were dilatory and half-hearted. But beyond their own hesitations were the objections of the Polish government, and the other small powers in Eastern Europe, to accepting military support from Russia – since these feared that reinforcement by her armies would be equivalent to invasion.
Very different was Hitler’s response to the new situation created by the British backing of Poland. Britain’s violent reaction and redoubled armament measures shook him, but the effect was opposite to that intended. His solution was coloured by his historically derived picture of the British. Regarding them as cool-headed and rational, with their emotions controlled by their head, he felt that they would not dream of entering a war on behalf of Poland unless they could obtain Russia’s support. So, swallowing his hatred and fear of “Bolshevism,” he bent his efforts and energies towards conciliating Russia and securing her abstention. It was a turnabout more startling than Chamberlain’s – and as fatal in consequences.
On 23 August, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, and the pact was signed. It was accompanied by a secret agreement under which Poland was to be partitioned between Germany and Russia.
This pact made war certain – in the intense state of feeling that had been created by Hitler’s rapid series of aggressive moves. The British, having pledged themselves to support Poland, felt that they could not stand aside without losing their honour – and without opening Hitler’s way to wider conquest. And Hitler would not draw back from his purpose in Poland, even when he came to see that it involved a general war.
Thus the train of European civilisation rushed into the long, dark tunnel from which it only emerged after six exhausting years had passed. Even then, the bright sunlight of victory proved illusory.
Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (9 April 1865 – 20 December 1937) was a German general, the victor of the Battle of Liège and the Battle of Tannenberg.From August 1916, his appointment as Quartermaster general made him the leader (along with Paul von Hindenburg) of the German war efforts during World War I. The failure of Germany’s great Spring Offensive in 1918 in quest of total victory was his great strategic failure and he was forced out in October 1918.
Quick Facts: Born, Died … After the war, Ludendorff became a prominent nationalist leader, and a promoter of the Stab-in-the-back myth, which posited that the German loss in World War I was caused by the betrayal of the German Army by Marxists, Bolsheviks, and Jews who were furthermore responsible for the disadvantageous settlement negotiated for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. He took part in the failed Kapp Putsch (coup d’état) with Wolfgang Kapp in 1920 and the Beer Hall Putsch of Adolf Hitler in 1923, and in 1925, he ran unsuccessfully for the office of President of Germany against his former superior Hindenburg.
From 1924 to 1928, he represented the German Völkisch Freedom Party in the Reichstag (legislature). Consistently pursuing a purely military line of thought after the war, Ludendorff developed the theory of Total War, which he published as Der totale Krieg (The Total War) in 1935. In this work, he argued that the entire physical and moral forces of the nation should be mobilized, because peace was merely an interval between wars. Ludendorff was a recipient of the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite.
Early life Ludendorff was born on 9 April 1865 in Kruszewnia near Posen, Province of Posen, Kingdom of Prussia (now Poznań County, Poland), the third of six children of August Wilhelm Ludendorff (1833–1905). His father was descended from Pomeranian merchants who had achieved the prestigious status of Junker.
Erich’s mother, Klara Jeanette Henriette von Tempelhoff (1840–1914), was the daughter of the noble but impoverished Friedrich August Napoleon von Tempelhoff (1804–1868) and his wife Jeannette Wilhelmine von Dziembowska (1816–1854), who came from a Germanized Polish landed family on the side of her father Stephan von Dziembowski (1779–1859).
He had a stable and comfortable childhood, growing up on their small family farm. Erich received his early schooling from his maternal aunt and had a gift for mathematics, as did his younger brother Hans who became a distinguished astronomer. He passed the entrance exam for the Cadet School at Plön with distinction, he was put in a class two years ahead of his age group, and thereafter he was consistently first in his class. (The famous World War II General Heinz Guderian attended the same Cadet School, which produced many well-trained German officers.) Ludendorff’s education continued at the Hauptkadettenschule at Groß-Lichterfelde near Berlin through 1882.
At age 45 the old sinner, as he liked to hear himself called, married the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, Margarethe Schmidt (1875–1936). They met in a rainstorm when he offered his umbrella. She divorced to marry him, bringing three stepsons and a stepdaughter. Their marriage pleased both families and he was devoted to his stepchildren.
Pre-war military career
In 1885, Ludendorff was commissioned as a subaltern into the 57th Infantry Regiment, then at Wesel. Over the next eight years, he was promoted to lieutenant and saw further service in the 2nd Marine Battalion, based at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and in the 8th Grenadier Guards at Frankfurt on the Oder. His service reports reveal the highest praise, with frequent commendations. In 1893, he entered the War Academy, where the commandant, General Meckel, recommended him to the General Staff, to which he was appointed in 1894. He rose rapidly and was a senior staff officer at the headquarters of V Corps from 1902 to 1904.
Next, he joined the Great General Staff in Berlin, which was commanded by Alfred von Schlieffen, Ludendorff directed the Second or Mobilization Section from 1904–13. Soon he was joined by Max Bauer, a brilliant artillery officer, who became a close friend. By 1911, Ludendorff was a full colonel. His section was responsible for writing the mass of detailed orders needed to bring the mobilized troops into position to implement the Schlieffen Plan. For this they covertly surveyed frontier fortifications in Russia, France and Belgium. For instance, in 1911 Ludendorff visited the key Belgian fortress city of Liège.
Deputies of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which became the largest party in the Reichstag after the German federal elections of 1912, seldom gave priority to army expenditures, whether to build up its reserves or to fund advanced weaponry such as Krupp’s siege cannons. Instead, they preferred to concentrate military spending on the Imperial German Navy. Ludendorff’s calculations showed that to properly implement the Schlieffen Plan the Army lacked six corps.
Members of the General Staff were instructed to keep out of politics and the public eye, but Ludendorff shrugged off such restrictions. With a retired general, August Keim, and the head of the Pan-German League, Heinrich Class, he vigorously lobbied the Reichstag for the additional men. In 1913 funding was approved for four additional corps but Ludendorff was transferred to regimental duties as commander of the 39th (Lower Rhine) Fusiliers, stationed at Düsseldorf. I attributed the change partly for my having pressed for those three additional army corps.
Barbara Tuchman characterizes Ludendorff in her book The Guns of August as Schlieffen’s devoted disciple who was a glutton for work and a man of granite character but who was deliberately friendless and forbidding and therefore remained little known or liked. It is true that as his wife testified, anyone who knows Ludendorff knows that he has not a spark of humour… He was voluble nonetheless, although he shunned small talk. John Lee, states that while Ludendorff was with his Fusiliers, he became the perfect regimental commander … the younger officers came to adore him. His adjutant, Wilhelm Breucker, became a devoted lifelong friend.
Liège At the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 Ludendorff was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to the German Second Army under General Karl von Bülow. His assignment was largely due to his previous work investigating defenses of Liège, Belgium. At the beginning of the Battle of Liège, Ludendorff was an observer with the 14th Brigade, which was to infiltrate the city at night and secure the bridges before they could be destroyed. The brigade commander was killed on 5 August, so Ludendorff led the successful assault to occupy the city and its citadel. In the following days, two of the forts guarding the city was taken by desperate frontal infantry attacks, while the remaining forts were smashed by huge Krupp 42-cm and Austro-Hungarian Skoda 30-cm howitzers. By 16 August, all the forts around Liège had fallen, allowing the German First Army to advance. As the victor of Liège, Ludendorff was awarded Germany’s highest military decoration for gallantry, the Pour le Mérite, presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself on 22 August.
Command in the East German mobilization earmarked a single army, the Eighth, to defend their eastern frontier. Two Russian armies invaded East Prussia earlier than expected, the Eighth Army commanders panicked and were fired by OHL, Oberste Heeresleitung, German Supreme Headquarters. OHL assigned Ludendorff as the new chief of staff, while the War Cabinet chose a retired general, Paul von Hindenburg, as commander. They first met on their private train heading east. They agreed that they must annihilate the nearest Russian army before they tackled the second. On arrival, they discovered that General Max Hoffmann had already shifted much of the 8th Army by rail to the south to do just that, in an amazing feat of logistical planning. Nine days later the Eighth Army surrounded most of a Russian army at Tannenberg, taking 92,000 prisoners in one of the great victories in German history. Twice during the battle Ludendorff wanted to break off, fearing that the second Russian army was about to strike their rear, but Hindenburg held firm.
Then they turned on the second invading army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes; it fled with heavy losses to escape encirclement. During the rest of 1914, commanding an Army Group, they staved off the projected invasion of German Silesia by dextrously moving their outnumbered forces into Russian Poland, fighting the battle of the Vistula River, which ended with a brilliantly executed withdrawal during which they destroyed the Polish railway lines and bridges needed for an invasion. When the Russians had repaired most of the damage the Germans struck their flank in the battle of Łódź, where they almost surrounded another Russian Army. Masters of surprise and deft maneuver, they argued that if properly reinforced they could trap the entire Russian army in Poland. During the winter of 1914–15 they lobbied passionately for this strategy, but were rebuffed by OHL.
Early in 1915 they surprised the Russian army that still held a toehold in East Prussia by attacking in a snowstorm and surrounding it in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. OHL then transferred Ludendorff, but Hindenburg’s personal plea to the Kaiser reunited them. Erich von Falkenhayn, supreme commander at OHL, came east to attack the flank of the Romanian army that was pushing through the Carpathian passes towards Hungary. Employing overwhelming artillery, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians broke through the line between Gorlice and Tarnów and kept pushing until the Russians were driven out of most of Galicia, the Austro-Hungarian southern part of partitioned Poland. During this advance Falkenhayn rejected schemes to try to cut off the Russians in Poland, preferring direct frontal attacks. Outgunned, during the summer of 1915 the Russian commander Grand Duke Nicholas shortened his lines by withdrawing from most of Poland, destroying railroads, bridges, and many buildings while driving 743,000 Poles, 350,000 Jews, 300,000 Lithuanians and 250,000 Latvians into Russia.
During the winter of 1915–16 Ludendorff’s headquarters was in Kaunas. They occupied present-day Lithuania, western Latvia, and north eastern Poland, an area almost the size of France. Ludendorff demanded Germanization of the conquered territories and far-ranging annexations, offering land to German settlers; far reaching plans envisioned Courland and Lithuania turned into border states ruled by German military governor commanders answerable only to the German Emperor. He proposed massive annexations and colonisation in Eastern Europe in the event of the victory of the German Reich and was one of the main supporters of the Polish Border Strip. Ludendorff planned to combine German settlement and Germanisation in conquered areas with expulsions of native populations; and envisioned an eastern German empire whose resources would be used in future war with Great Britain and United States. Ludendorff’s plans went as far as making Crimea a German colony. As to the various nations and ethnic groups in conquered territories, Ludendorff believed they were incapable of producing real culture.
On 16 March 1916 the Russians, now with adequate supplies of cannons and shells, attacked parts of the new German defenses, intending to penetrate at two points and then to pocket the defenders. They attacked almost daily until the end of the month, but the Lake Naroch Offensive failed, choked in swamp and blood.
The Russians did better, attacking the Austro-Hungarians in the south; the Brusilov Offensive cracked their lines with a well-prepared surprise wide-front attack led by well-schooled assault troops. The breakthrough was finally stemmed by Austro-Hungarian troops recalled from Italy stiffened with German advisers and reserves. In July, Russian attacks on the Germans in the north were beaten back. On 27 July 1916 Hindenburg was given command of all troops on the Eastern Front from the Baltic to Brody in the Ukraine. They visited their new command on a special train, and then set up headquarters in Brest-Litovsk. By August 1916 their front was holding everywhere.
Military duumvirate with Hindenburg In the West in 1916 the Germans attacked unsuccessfully at Verdun and soon were reeling under British and French blows along the Somme. Ludendorff’s friends at OHL, led by Max Bauer, lobbied for him relentlessly. The balance was tipped when Romania entered the war, thrusting into Hungary. Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of the General Staff by Field Marshal Hindenburg on 29 August 1916. Ludendorff was his chief of staff as first Quartermaster general, with the stipulation that he would have joint responsibility. He was promoted to General of the Infantry. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg warned the War Cabinet: You don’t know Ludendorff, who is only great at a time of success. If things go badly he loses his nerve. Their first concern was the sizable Romanian Army, so troops sent from the Western Front checked Romanian and Russian incursions into Hungary. Then Romania was invaded from the south by German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman troops commanded by August von Mackensen and from the north by a German and Austro-Hungarian army commanded by Falkenhayn. Bucharest fell in December 1916. According to Mackensen, Ludendorff’s distant management consisted of floods of telegrams, as superfluous as they were offensive.
When sure that the Romanians would be defeated OHL moved west, retaining the previous staff except for the operations officer, blamed for Verdun. They toured the Western Front meeting —and evaluating— commanders, learning about their problems and soliciting their opinions. At each meeting Ludendorff did most of the commander’s talking. There would be no further attacks at Verdun and the Somme would be defended by revised tactics that exposed fewer men to British shells. A new backup defensive line would be built, like the one they had constructed in the east. The Allies called the new fortifications the Hindenburg Line. The German goal was victory, which they defined as a Germany with extended borders that could be more easily defended in the next war.
Hindenburg was given titular command over all of the forces of the Central Powers. Ludendorff’s hand was everywhere. Every day he was on the telephone with the staffs of their armies and the Army was deluged with Ludendorff’s paper barrage of orders, instructions and demands for information. His finger extended into every aspect of the German war effort. He issued the two daily communiques, and often met with the newspaper and newsreel reporters. Before long the public idolized him as their Army’s brain.
The Home Front Ludendorff had a goal: One thing was certain— the power must be in my hands. As stipulated by the Constitution of the German Empire the government was run by civil servants appointed by the Kaiser. Confident that army officers were superior to civilians, OHL volunteered to oversee the economy: procurement, raw materials, labor, and food. Bauer, with his industrialist friends, knew exactly what should be done, beginning by setting overambitious targets for military production in what they called the Hindenburg Program. Ludendorff enthusiastically participated in meetings on economic policy— loudly, sometimes pummelling the table with his fists. Implementation of the Program was assigned to General Groener, a staff officer who had directed the Field Railway Service effectively. His office was in the War Ministry, not in OHL as Ludendorff had wanted. Therefore, he assigned staff officers to most of the government ministries, so he knew what was going on and could press his demands.
War industry’s major problem was the scarcity of skilled workers; therefore 125,000 men were released from the armed forces and trained workers were no longer conscripted. OHL wanted to enroll most German men and women into national service, but the Reichstag legislated that only males 17–60 were subject to patriotic service and refused to bind war workers to their jobs. Greener realized that they needed the support of the workers, so he insisted that union representatives be included on industrial dispute boards. He also advocated an excess profits tax. The industrialists were incensed. On 16 August 1917 Ludendorff telegraphed an order reassigning Groener to command the 33rd Infantry Division. Overall, unable to control labour and unwilling to control industry, the army failed miserably (actually the government did control industry with its edicts and orders — and the result was disaster). To the public it seemed that Ludendorff was running the nation as well as the war. According to Ludendorff, the authorities … represented me as a dictator. He would not become Chancellor because the demands for running the war were too great. The historian Frank Tipton argues that while not technically a dictator, Ludendorff was unquestionably the most powerful man in Germany in 1917–18. OHL did nothing to mitigate the food disaster: despite the blockade everyone could have been fed adequately, but supplies were not managed effectively or fairly. In Spring 1918 half of all the meat, eggs and fruit consumed in Berlin were sold on the black market.
In government The navy advocated unrestricted submarine warfare, which would surely bring the United States into the war. The Kaiser asked his commanders to listen to the warnings of his friend, the eminent chemist Walther Nernst, who knew America well. Ludendorff promptly ended the meeting, it was incompetent nonsense with which a civilian was wasting his time. Unrestricted submarine warfare began in February 1917, with OHL’s strong support. This fatal mistake reflected poor military judgment in uncritically accepting the Navy’s contention that there were no countermeasures, like convoying, and confident that the American armed forces were too feeble to fight effectively. Ultimately Germany was at war with 27 nations.
In the spring of 1917 the Reichstag passed a resolution for peace without annexations or indemnities. They would be content with the successful defensive war undertaken in 1914. OHL was unable to defeat the resolution or to have it substantially watered down. The commanders despised Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg as weak, so they forced his resignation by repeatedly threatening to resign themselves, despite the Kaiser’s admonition that this was not their business. He was replaced by a minor functionary, Georg Michaelis, the food minister, who announced that he would deal with the resolution as in his own fashion. Despite this put-down, the Reichstag voted the financial credits needed for continuing the war.
Ludendorff insisted on the huge territorial losses forced on the Russians in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, even though this required that a million German soldiers remain in the east. During the peace negotiations with the Romanians his representative kept demanding the economic concessions coveted by the German industrialists. The commanders kept blocking attempts to frame a plausible peace offer to the western powers by insisting on borders expanded for future defence. Ludendorff regarded the Germans as the master race and after victory planned to settle ex-soldiers in the Baltic states and in Alsace Lorraine, where they would take over property seized from the French. One after another OHL toppled government ministers they regarded as weak.
“Peace Offensive” in the West In contrast to OHL’s questionable interventions in politics and diplomacy, their armies continued to excel. The commanders would agree on what was to be done and then Ludendorff and the OHL staff produced the mass of orders specifying exactly what was to be accomplished. On the western front they stopped packing defenders in the front line, which reduced losses to enemy artillery. They issued a directive on elastic defence, in which attackers who penetrated a lightly held front line entered a battle zone in which they were punished by artillery and counterattacks. It remained German Army doctrine through World War II; schools taught the new tactics to all ranks. Its effectiveness is illustrated by comparing the first half of 1916 in which 77 German soldiers died or went missing for every 100 British to the second half when 55 Germans were lost for every 100 British.
In February 1917, sure that the new French commander General Robert Nivelle would attack and correctly foreseeing that he would try to pinch off the German salient between Arras and Noyon, they withdrew to the segment of the Hindenburg line across the base of the salient, leaving the ground they gave up as a depopulated waste land, in Operation Alberich. The Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 was blunted by mobile defense in depth. Many French units mutinied, though OHL never grasped the extent of the disarray. The British supported their allies with a successful attack near Arras. Their major triumph was capturing Vimy Ridge, using innovative tactics in which infantry platoons were subdivided into specialist groups. The Ridge gave the British artillery observers superb views of the German line but elastic defense prevented further major gains. The British had another success in June 1917 when a meticulously planned attack, beginning with the detonation of mines containing higher explosive than ever fired before, took the Messines Ridge in Flanders. This was a preface to the British drive, beginning at the end of July 1917, toward the Passchendaele Ridge, intended as a first step in retaking the Belgian coast line. At first the defense was directed by General von Lossberg, a pioneer in defense in depth, but when the British adjusted their tactics Ludendorff took over day by day control. The British finally took the Ridge, it was impossible to stop determined attacks that inched forward for preset, limited gains, but the British paid a heavy price.
Ludendorff worried about declining morale, so in July 1917 OHL established a propaganda unit. In October 1917 they began mandatory patriotic lectures to the troops, who were assured that if the war was lost they would become slaves of international capital. The lecturers were to ensure that a fight is kept up against all agitators, croakers and weaklings.
Following the overthrow of the Tsar, the new Russian government launched the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 attacking the Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia. After minor successes the Russians were driven back and many of their soldiers refused to fight. The counterattack was halted only after the line was pushed 240 kilometres (150 mi) eastwards. The Germans capped the year in the East by capturing the strong Russian fortress of Riga in September 1917, starting with a brief, overwhelming artillery barrage using many gas shells then followed by infiltrating infantry. The Bolsheviks seized power and soon were at the peace table.
To bolster the wobbling Austro-Hungarian government, the Germans provided some troops and led a joint attack in Italy in October. They sliced through the Italian lines in the mountains at Caporetto. Two hundred and fifty thousand Italians were captured, and the rest of Italian Army was forced to retreat to the Grappa-Piave defensive line.
On 20 November 1917 the British achieved a total surprise by attacking at Cambrai. A short, intense bombardment preceded an attack by tanks which led the infantry through the German wire. It was Ludendorff’s 52nd birthday, but he was too upset to attend the celebratory dinner. The British were not organized to exploit their break-through, and German reserves counterattacked, in some places driving the British back beyond their starting lines. The local German commander had not implemented defence in depth.
At the beginning of 1918 almost a million munition workers struck; one demand was peace without annexations. OHL ordered that all strikers fit to bear arms be sent to the front, thereby degrading military service.
With Russia out of the war, the Germans outnumbered the Allies on the Western Front. After extensive consultations, OHL planned a series of attacks to drive the British out of the war. During the winter all ranks were schooled in the innovative tactics proven at Caporetto and Riga.
The first attack, Operation Michael, was on 21 March 1918 near Cambrai. After an effective hurricane bombardment coordinated by Colonel Bruchmüller, they slashed through the British lines, surmounting the obstacles that had thwarted their enemies for three years. On the first day they occupied as large an area as the Allies had won on the Somme after 140 days.
The Allies were aghast, but it was not the triumph OHL had hoped for: they had planned another Tannenberg by surrounding tens of thousands of British troops in the Cambrai salient, but had been thwarted by stout defence and fighting withdrawal. They lost as many men as the defenders; —the first day was the bloodiest of the war. Among the dead was Ludendorff’s oldest stepson, a younger had been killed earlier. They were unable to cut any vital railway. When Ludendorff motored near the front he was displeased by seeing how: The numerous slightly wounded made things difficult by the stupid and displeasing way in which they hurried to the rear. The Americans doubled the number of troops being sent to France.
Their next attack was in Flanders. Again, they broke through, advancing 30 km (19 mi), and forcing the British to give back all the ground that they had won the preceding year after weeks of battle. But the Germans were stopped short of the rail junction that was their goal.
Next, to draw French reserves south, they struck along the Chemin de Dames. In their most successful attack yet they advanced 12 km (7.5 mi) on the first day, crossing the Marne but stopping 56 kilometres (35 mi) from Paris.
But each triumph weakened their army and its morale. From 20 March 1918 to 25 June the German front lengthened from 390 kilometres (240 mi) to 510 kilometres (320 mi).
Then they struck near Reims, to seize additional railway lines for use in the salient but were foiled by brilliant French elastic tactics. Undeterred, on 18 July 1918 Ludendorff, still aggressive and confident, traveled to Flanders to confer about the next attack there.
A telephone call reported that the French and Americans led by a mass of tanks had smashed through the right flank of their salient pointing toward Paris, on the opening day of the Battle of Soissons. Everyone present realized that surely they had lost the war. Ludendorff was shattered.
OHL began to withdraw step by step to new defensive lines, first evacuating all of their wounded and supplies. Ludendorff’s communiques, which hitherto had been largely factual, now distorted the news, for instance claiming that American troops had to be herded onto troop ships by special police.
On 8 August 1918 they were completely surprised at Amiens when British tanks broke through the defences and intact German formations surrendered. To Ludendorff it was the black day in the history of the German Army. The German retreats continued, pressed by Allied attacks. OHL still vigorously opposed offering to give up the territory they desired in France and Belgium, so the German government was unable to make a plausible peace proposal.
Ludendorff became increasingly cantankerous, slating his staff without cause, publicly accusing the field marshal of talking nonsense, and sometimes bursting into tears. Bauer wanted him replaced, but instead Oberstabarzt Hochheimer was brought to OHL, he had worked closely with Ludendorff in Poland during the winter of 1915–16 on plans to bring in German colonists, before the war he had a practice in nervous diseases. The doctor spoke as a friend and he listened as a friend, convincing Ludendorff that he could not work effectively with one hour of sleep a night and that he must relearn how to relax. After a month away from headquarters his patient had recovered from the severest symptoms of battle fatigue.
Downfall On 29 September 1918 Ludendorff and Hindenburg told an incredulous Kaiser that they must have an immediate armistice. A new Chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, approached President Woodrow Wilson but his terms were stiff, and the Army fought on. The chancellor told the Kaiser that he and his cabinet would resign unless Ludendorff was removed, but that Hindenburg must remain to hold the Army together. The Kaiser called his commanders in, curtly accepting Ludendorff’s resignation and then rejecting Hindenburg’s. Ludendorff would not accompany the field marshal back to headquarters, I refused to ride with you because you have treated me so shabbily.
Ludendorff had assiduously sought all the credit, now he was rewarded with all of the blame. Widely despised, and with revolution breaking out, he was hidden by his brother and a network of friends until he slipped out of Germany disguised in blue spectacles and a false beard, settling in a Swedish admirer’s country home, until the Swedish government asked him to leave in February 1919. In seven months, he wrote two volumes of detailed memoirs. Friends, led by Breucker, provided him with documents and negotiated with publishers. The memoirs testify to his capacity for work, his intellectual brilliance, and the sweeping range of his involvement: We regarded ourselves as the leaders of the whole nation in arms. Greener (who is not mentioned in the book) characterized it as a showcase of his Caesar-mania. He was a brilliant general, according to Wheeler-Bennett he was certainly one of the greatest routine military organizers that the world has ever seen, but he was a ruinous political meddler. The influential military analyst Hans Delbrück concluded that The Empire was built by Moltke and Bismarck, destroyed by Tirpitz and Ludendorff.
After the Great War In exile, Ludendorff wrote numerous books and articles about the German military’s conduct of the war while forming the foundation for the Dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the-back theory, for which he is considered largely responsible. Ludendorff was convinced that Germany had fought a defensive war and, in his opinion, that Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed to organize a proper counter-propaganda campaign or provide efficient leadership.
Ludendorff was extremely suspicious of the Social Democrats and leftists, whom he blamed for the humiliation of Germany through the Versailles Treaty. Ludendorff claimed that he paid close attention to the business element (especially the Jews), and saw them turn their backs on the war effort by — as he saw it — letting profit, rather than patriotism, dictate production and financing.
Again, focusing on the left, Ludendorff was appalled by the strikes that took place towards the end of the war and the way that the home front collapsed before the military front did, with the former poisoning the morale of soldiers on temporary leave. Most importantly, Ludendorff felt that the German people had underestimated what was at stake in the war; he was convinced that the Entente had started the war and was determined to dismantle Germany completely.
By the Revolution the Germans have made themselves pariahs among the nations, incapable of winning allies, helots in the service of foreigners and foreign capital, and deprived of all self-respect. In twenty years’, time, the German people will curse the parties who now boast of having made the Revolution — Erich Ludendorff, My War Memories, 1914–1918
Political career in the Republic
Ludendorff returned to Berlin in February 1919. Staying at the Adlon Hotel, he talked with another resident, Sir Neill Malcolm, the head of the British Military Mission. After Ludendorff presented his excuses for the German defeat Malcolm said you mean that you were stabbed in the back? Ironically coining a key catchphrase for the German right-wing.
On 12 March 1920, 5,000 Freikorps troops under the command of Walther von Lüttwitz marched on the Chancellery, forcing the government led by Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Bauer to flee the city. The putschists proclaimed a new government with a right-wing politician, Wolfgang Kapp as new chancellor. Ludendorff and Max Bauer were part of the putsch. The Kapp Putsch was soon defeated by a general strike that brought Berlin to a standstill. The leaders fled, Ludendorff to Bavaria, where a right-wing coup had succeeded. He published two volumes of annotated —and in a few instances pruned — documents and commentaries documenting his war service. He reconciled with Hindenburg, who began to visit every year.
In May 1923 Ludendorff had an agreeable first meeting with Adolf Hitler, and soon he had regular contacts with National Socialists. On 8 November 1923, the Bavarian Staatskomissar Gustav von Kahr was addressing a jammed meeting in a large beer hall, the Bürgerbräukeller. Hitler, waving a pistol, jumped onto the stage, announcing that the national revolution was underway. The hall was occupied by armed men who covered the audience with a machine gun, the first move in the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler announced that he would lead the Reich Government and Ludendorff would command the army. He addressed the now enthusiastically supportive audience and then spent the night in the War Ministry, unsuccessfully trying to obtain the army’s backing.
The next morning 3,000 armed Nazis formed outside of the Bürgerbräukeller and marched into central Munich, the leaders just behind the flag bearers. They were blocked by a cordon of police, firing broke out for less than a minute. Most of the Nazi leaders were hit or dropped to the ground. Ludendorff and his adjutant Major Streck marched to the police line where they pushed aside the rifle barrels. He was respectfully arrested. He was indignant when sent home while the other leaders remained in custody. Four police officers and 14 Nazis had been killed, including Ludendorff’s servant.
They were tried in early 1924. Ludendorff was acquitted, but Heinz was convicted of chauffeuring him, given a one-year suspended sentence and fined 1,000 marks. Hitler went to prison but was released after nine months. Ludendorff’s 60th birthday was celebrated by massed bands and a large torchlight parade. In 1924, he was elected to the Reichstag as a representative of the NSFB (a coalition of the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP) and members of the Nazi Party), serving until 1928. At around this time, he founded the Tannenberg League, a German nationalist organization which was both anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and published literature espousing conspiracy theories involving Jews, Catholics – especially Jesuits – and Freemasons.
As his views became more extreme under the influence of his wife, Mathilde von Kemnitz, Ludendorff gradually began to part company with Hitler, who was surreptitiously working to undermine the reputation of his one serious rival for the leadership of the extreme right in Germany. Nonetheless, Ludendorff was persuaded to run for President of the Republic in the March 1925 election as the Nazi Party candidate, receiving only a pitiful 1.1 per cent of the vote; there is some evidence that Hitler himself persuaded Ludendorff to run, knowing that the results would be humiliating.
No one had a majority in the initial round of the election, so a second round was needed; Hindenburg entered the race and was narrowly elected. Ludendorff was so humiliated by what he saw as a betrayal by his old friend that he broke off relations with Hindenburg, and in 1927 refused to even stand beside the field marshal at the dedication of the Tannenberg memorial. He attacked Hindenburg abusively for not having acted in a nationalistic soldier-like fashion.
The Berlin-based liberal newspaper Vossische Zeitung states in its article:
Ludendorff’s hate tirades against Hindenburg — Poisonous gas from Hitler’s camp that Ludendorff was, as of 29 March 1930, deeply grounded in Nazi ideology.
Tipton notes that Ludendorff was a social Darwinist who believed that war was the foundation of human society, and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized. The historian Margaret L. Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshipper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.
Retirement and death Ludendorff divorced and married his second wife Mathilde von Kemnitz (1877–1966) in 1926. They published books and essays to prove that the world’s problems were the result of Christianity, especially the Jesuits and Catholics, but also conspiracies by Jews and the Freemasons. They founded the Society for the Knowledge of God, a small and rather obscure esoterical society of Theists that survives to this day. He launched several abusive attacks on his former superior Hindenburg for not having acted in a nationalistic soldier-like fashion.
By the time Hitler came to power, Ludendorff was no longer sympathetic to him. The Nazis distanced themselves from Ludendorff because of his eccentric conspiracy theories. On 30 January 1933, the occasion of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor by President Hindenburg, Ludendorff sent the following telegram to Hindenburg:
I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.
To regain Ludendorff’s favour, Hitler arrived unannounced at Ludendorff’s home on his 70th birthday in 1935 to promote him to field marshal. Infuriated, Ludendorff allegedly rebuffed Hitler by telling him:
An officer is named General Field-Marshal on the battlefield! Not at a birthday tea-party in the midst of peace.
He wrote two further books on military themes, demonstrating that he still could think coherently about war despite his political and social prejudices.
Ludendorff died on 20 December 1937 at the age of 72. He was given — against his explicit wishes — a state funeral organized and attended by Hitler, who declined to speak at his eulogy.
Decorations and awards Knight of the Military Order of Max Joseph (Bavaria) Grand Commander with Star of the House Order of Hohenzollern Pour le Mérite (Prussia) Grand Cross of the Iron Cross Knight of the Military Order of St. Henry (Saxony) Knight of the Military Merit Order (Württemberg) Knight Grand Cross of the House and Merit Order of Peter Frederick Louis with Swords and laurel Military Merit Cross, 2nd class (Mecklenburg-Schwerin) Military Merit Cross, 1st class with war decoration (Austria-Hungary) Gold Military Merit Medal (Signum Laudis, Austria-Hungary) Cross for Merit in War (Saxe-Meiningen)
The copyright holder of this file, David Liuzzo, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted. Attribution: David Liuzzo
By courtesy of Wikipedia.org
The Art of War
Erich Ludendorff understood what modern war was like at the top. He did not regard it as field game – as he wrote, having lost two sons, the war has spared me nothing. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors. Ludendorff’s post war dabbling with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and anti-Freemasonry (he could never make up his mind which of the three international forces posed the greatest danger to Germany) bordered on the paranoid and has been rightly condemned. However, this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that his vision of future armed conflict was awesome and, what is more important, more nearly correct than any of the rest.
Having spent over two years in charge of the war effort of the most powerful belligerent in history until then, Ludendorff did not believe that a first-class modern state could be brought to its knees rapidly and cheaply by aircraft dropping bombs on its civilian population. Nor could this be achieved by fleets of tanks engaging in mobile operations, however indirect and however brilliant. In part, Ludendorff merely continued the work of some pre-1914 militarist writers, such as Colmar von der Goltz and Friedrich von Bernhardi, who had advocated total mobilization and mass armies. Up to a point, too, Der totale Krieg ( the English translation is called The Nations at War) both recounted his own experience, and also, by attacking many of his less cooperative colleagues, sought to explain why Germany (with himself as its head) has had lost the war. Whatever the book’s precise origins and purpose, Ludendorff’s main thesis was that the developing technologies of production, transportation and communication made modern war into much more than merely a question of armed forces maneuvering against each other for mastery of some battlefield. Instead it was total – the title of his book – basing itself on all the forces of the nation, and requiring that the latter be mobilized to the last person and the last screw.
To be sure, the next war would make use of all available modern weapons, including poison gas. Civilians as well as the armed forces would be targeted, and the resulting number of casualties, the destruction and suffering would be immense. Therefore, it would be all the more important to mobilize not only all material resources but also the people’s spirit, a point on which, the way Ludendorff and many of his countrymen saw it, Imperial Germany with its old-fashioned authoritarian system of government and its neglect of the working classes had been sadly deficient. The implication of such mobilization was an end to democracy and the liberties it entailed, including not only freedom of the press but capitalist enterprise as well. For either industrialists or union leaders (during the war Ludendorff had had his troubles with both) to insist on their own privilege was intolerable; they, as well as the entire financial apparatus available to the state, were to be subjected to a military dictatorship. Nor was Ludendorff under any illusion that the nation’s spiritual and material mobilization could be quickly improvised. Hence the dictatorship which he demanded, and for which he no doubt regarded himself as the most suitable candidate, was to be set up in peacetime and made permanent.
The next war would not be a gentlemanly fight for limited stakes to be won by the side with the swiftness and sharpest sword. Instead it would be a life and death struggle won by the belligerent with the greatest resources and the strongest will power – which incidentally disposed of any childish illusions concerning small, professional and highly mobile, let alone chivalrous, armed forces. Anything not serving the war effort would have to be ruthlessly discarded, and this specifically included playing at politics. Politics would, in effect, be swallowed up by the war; the two would become indistinguishable. All the theories of Clausewitz should be thrown overboard . . . Both war and policy serve the existence of the nation. However, war is the highest expression of the people’s will to live. Therefore politics must be made subordinate to war. or, to the extent that it was not, it was superfluous and, indeed, treasonable.
After 1945 Ludendorff’s military thought was often attacked by featherweight commentators. In addition to taking a justified dislike to his racism and his early support of Hitler, they mistook their world – in which nuclear weapons had made total war as he understood it impossible – for his. During these years it was Liddell Hart and Fuller who, rightly or not, were celebrated as the fathers of the Blitzkrieg (whether Liddell Hart in particular had as much influence on its development as he later claimed has recently become the subject of an entire literature). Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not their vision of the Second World War but Ludendorff’s which turned out to be only too horribly true.
To be sure, fleets of aircraft did overfly fronts and bombed cities on a scale which, had he only been able to envisage it, might have made even Ludendorff blanch. Other air raft, cooperating more closely with the tanks, helped carry out spectacular mobile operations on the ground. The combination of amour, mobility and wireless restored operational, laying the groundwork for some spectacular victories in which countries the size of Poland and France were knocked down at a single blow. It also did much to re-establish the balance between offense and defense, although events were to show that both tank and aircraft (the latter, thanks to the introduction of radar) were as capable of operating on the defense, and preventing a breakthrough as they were of helping it to take place.
Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was on insisting that the Second World War – a term, of course, which he did not use – would be broadly like the first. As with its predecessor, it would develop into gigantic struggle and a prolonged one. It would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources under a regime which, even in democratic countries, came close to doing away with politics while putting everybody and everything under its own control (in 1945 the British Ministry of Food alone had no fewer than 30,000 employees). Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and between forty and sixty million lay dead. As the coming decades were to prove, the history of (conventional) military theory had run its course.
Courtesy of: The Art of War by Martin Van Creveld, Cassel & Co London
The escape of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 was largely due to Hitler’s personal intervention. After his tanks had overrun the north of France and cut off the British army from its base, Hitler held them up just as they were about to sweep into Dunkirk – which was the last remaining port of escape left open to the British. At that moment the bulk of the B.E.F. was still many miles distant from the port. But Hitler kept his tanks halted for three days. His action preserved the British forces when nothing else could have saved them. By making it possible for them to escape he enabled them to rally in England, continue the war, and man the coasts to defy the threat of invasion. Thereby he produced his own ultimate downfall, and Germany’s five years later. Acutely aware of the narrowness of the escape but ignorant of its cause, the British people spoke of the miracle of Dunkirk. After cutting the lines of supply to the Allied left wing in Belgium, Guderian’s panzer corps had reached the sea near Abbeville on the 20th. Then he wheeled north, heading for the Channel ports and the rear of the British army – which was still in Belgium, facing the frontal advance of Bock’s infantry forces. On Guderian’s right in this northward drive was Reinhardt’s panzer corps, which was also part of the Kleist’s group.
On the 22nd, Boulogne was isolated by his advance, and on the next day Calais. This stride brought him to Gravelines, barely ten miles from Dunkirk – the British Expeditionary Force’s last remaining port of escape. Reinhardt’s panzer corps also arrived on the canal line Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. But there the continuation of the drive was stopped by orders from above. The panzer leaders were told to hold their forces back behind the line of the canal. They bombarded their superiors with urgent queries and protests, but were told that it was the Fuhrer’s personal order.
Before probing deeper into the roots of that saving intervention let us see what was happening on the British side, and follow the course of that grand-scale escape. On the 16th General Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief, brought the B.E.F. a step back from its advanced line in front of Brussels. But before it arrived in its new position on the Scheldt, that position had been undermined by Guderian cutting the B.E.F.’s communications far to the south. On the 19th the Cabinet heard that Gort was examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk if that were forced upon him. The Cabinet, however, sent him orders to march south into France and force his way through the German net that had been flung across his rear – though they were told that he had only four days’ supplies and ammunition sufficient for one battle.
These instructions accorded with the new plan which Gamelin, the French Commander-in-Chief, had belatedly made and issued that morning. In the evening Gamelin was sacked and replaced by Weygand, whose first act was to cancel Gamelin’s order, while he studied the situation. After three days’ further delay he produced a plan similar to his predecessor’s. It proved no more than a paper plan.
Meanwhile Gort, though arguing that the Cabinet’s instructions were impracticable, had tried an attack southward from Arras with two of his thirteen divisions and the only tank brigade that had been sent to France. When this counterstrike was launched on the 21st it had boiled down to an advance by two weak tank battalions followed by two infantry battalions. The tanks made some progress but were not backed up, the infantry being shaken by dive-bombing. The neighbouring French First Army was to have cooperated with two of its thirteen divisions, but its actual contribution was slight. During these days the French were repeatedly paralysed by the moral effect of the German dive-bombers and the swift manoeuvring tanks.
It is remarkable, however, what a disturbing effect this little armoured counterstroke had on some of the German higher commanders. For a moment it led them to think of stopping the advance of their own tank spearheads. Rundstedt himself described it as a critical moment, saying: For a short time, it was feared that our armoured divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them. Such an effect showed what a vital difference to the issue might have been made if this British riposte had been made with two armoured divisions instead of merely two tank battalions.
After the flash-in-the-pan at Arras the Allied armies in the north made no further effort to break out of the trap, while the belated offensive from the south that Weygand planned was so feeble as to be almost farcical. It was easily baulked by the barricade which the German motorised divisions had quickly built up along the Somme, to keep out interference, while the panzer divisions drove northward to close the trap. With such slow-motion forces as Weygand commanded, his grandiloquent orders had no more chance of practical effect than Churchill’s adjurations to the armies to cast away the idea of resisting attack behind concrete lines or natural obstacles and regain the mastery by furious, unrelenting assault.
Whilst the highest circles continued to debate impracticable plans, the cut-off armies in the north were falling back on a slant closer to the coast. They were under increasing frontal pressure from Bock’s infantry armies – though they were spared a deadly stab in the back from the panzer forces.
On the 24th Weygand bitterly complained that the British Army had carried out, on its own initiative, a retreat of twenty-five miles towards the ports at a time when our troops moving up from the south are gaining ground towards the north, where they were to meet their allies. In fact, the French troops from the south had made no perceptible progress and the British were not yet retreating – Weygand’s words merely showed the state of unreality in which he was living.
But on the evening of the 25th Gort took the definite decision to retreat to the sea, at Dunkirk. Forty-eight hours earlier, the German panzer forces had already arrived on the canal line only ten miles from the port. On the 26th the British Cabinet allowed the War Office to send him a telegram approving his step and authorised him to carry out such a retirement. Next day a further telegram told him to evacuate his force by sea.
That same day the Belgian Army’s line cracked in the centre under Bock’s attack, and no reserves were left at hand to fill the gap. King Leopold had already sent repeated warnings to Churchill through Admiral Keyes, that the situation was becoming hopeless. Now, at a stroke, it was so. Most of Belgium had already been overrun and the army had its back close to the sea, penned in a narrow strip of land that was packed with civilian refugees. So, in the late afternoon the King decided to sue for armistice- and ceasefire was sounded early the next morning.
The Belgians’ surrender increased the danger that the B.E.F. would be cut off before it could reach Dunkirk. Churchill had just sent King Leopold an appeal to hold on, which he privately described to Gort as asking them to sacrifice themselves for us. It is understandable that the encircled Belgians already aware that the B.E.F. was preparing to evacuate, did not see that appeal in the same light as Churchill. Nor was King Leopold willing to follow Churchill’s advice that he should himself escape by aeroplane before too late. The King felt that he must stay with his Army and people. His decision may have been unwise in the long view, but in the circumstances of the time it was an honourable choice. Churchill’s subsequent criticisms of it were hardly fair, while the violent denunciations made by the French Prime Minister and press were grossly unjust – considering the way that the Belgian downfall had been produced by the collapse of the French defence on the Meuse.
The British retreat to the coast now became a race to re-embark before the German trap closed – notwithstanding bitter French protests and reproaches. It was fortunate that preparatory measures had begun in England a week before – although on a different assumption. On the 20th Churchill had approved steps to assemble a large number of small vessels in readiness to proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast, with the idea that they might help in rescuing bits of the B.E.F. that might be cut off as it tried to push south into France, under the existing plan. The Admiralty lost no time in preparing. Admiral Ramsay, commanding at Dover, had been placed in operational control on the previous day, the 19th. A number of ferry-craft, naval drifters and small coasters were at once collected for what was called Operation Dynamo. From Harwich round to Weymouth, sea transport officers were directed to list all ships up to a thousand tons. In the days that followed the situation became rapidly worse, and it was soon clear to the Admiralty that Dunkirk would be the only possible route of evacuation. Dynamo was put into operation on the afternoon of the 26th – twenty-four hours before the Belgian appeal for an armistice, and also before the Cabinet had authorised the evacuation.
At first it was not expected that more than a small fraction of the B.E.F. could be saved. The Admiralty told Ramsay to aim at bringing away 45,000 within two days, and that it was probable the enemy would by then have made further evacuation impossible. Actually, only 25,000 were landed in England by the night of the 28th. It was fortunate that the period of grace proved considerably longer. For the first five days the rate of evacuation was restricted by an insufficiency of small boats to carry troops from the beaches to the ships waiting offshore. This need, though pointed out by Ramsay originally, had not been adequately met. But the Admiralty now made more extensive efforts to provide them and to man them, the naval personnel being reinforced by a host of civilian volunteers – fishermen, lifeboatmen, yachtsmen, and others who had some experience in handling boats. Ramsay recorded that one of the best performances was that of the crew of e fire-float Massey Shaw from the London Fire Brigade.
At first, too, there was much confusion on the beaches, owing to the disorganised state of the troops waiting to embark – at that time largely base personnel. Ramsay considered that it was aggravated by the fact that Army officers’ uniform is indistinguishable from that of other ranks, and found that the appearance of Naval officers in their unmistakable uniforms, helped to restore order . . . Later on, when troops of fighting formations reached the beaches these difficulties disappeared. The first heavy air attack came on the evening of the 29th and it was only by good fortune that the vital Dunkirk Harbour channel was not blocked by sinking ships at this early date. Its preservation was the more important because the majority of the troops were embarked from the harbour and less than one-third from the beaches.
In the next three days the air attacks increased and on June 2 daylight evacuation had to be suspended. The fighters of the R.A.F. from airfields in southern England, did their utmost to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, but, being outnumbered and unable to stay long over the area because of the distance, they could not maintain anything like adequate cover. The oft-repeated bombing attacks were a severe strain on the troops waiting on the beaches though the soft sand blanketed the effects. Far more material damage was done over the sea where the losses included six destroyers, eight personnel ships, and over two hundred small craft- out of a total 860 British and Allied vessels of all sizes employed in the evacuation. It was very lucky that the German Navy made very little attempt to interfere, either with U-boats or E-boats. Happily, too, the evacuation was favoured by extremely good weather.
By May 30, 126,000 troops had been evacuated, while all the rest of the B.E.F. had arrived in the Dunkirk bridgehead – except for fragments that were cut off during the retreat. The defence of the bridgehead against the enemy’s encircling advance on land now became much firmer in consequence. The Germans had missed their opportunity. Unhappily the French higher commanders in Belgium, still conforming to Weygand’s impossible plan, had hesitated to retreat to the sea and to do so as quickly as possible along with the British. As a result of that delay nearly half of what left of the French First Army had been cut off on the 28th near Lille and were forced to surrender on the 31st. Their gallant three-day stand, however, helped the escape of the remainder, as well as the British.
By midnight on June 2 the British rear-guard embarked and the evacuation of the B.E.F. was complete-224,000 men had been safely brought away, and only some 2,000 were lost in ships sunk en-route to England. Some 95,000 Allied troops, mainly French, had also been evacuated. On the next night every effort was made to bring away the remaining Frenchmen, despite increasing difficulties, and 26,000 more were saved. Unfortunately, a few thousand of the rear guard were left – and this left sore feelings in France. By morning of the 4th when the operation was broken off, a total of 338,000 British and Allied troops had been landed in England. It was an amazing result compared with earlier expectations, and a grand performance on the part of the Navy.
At the same time, it is evident that the preservation of the B.E, F. to fight another day would have been impossible without Hitler’s action in halting Kleist’s panzer forces outside Dunkirk twelve days before, on May 24.
At that moment there was only one British battalion covering the twenty-mile stretch of the Aa between Gravelines and St Omer, and for a further sixty miles inland the canal line was little better defended. Many of the bridges were not yet blown up, or even prepared for demolition. Thus, the German panzer troops had no difficulty in gaining bridgeheads over the canal at a number of places on May 23 – and it was as Gort said in his Despatch, the only anti-tank obstacle on this flank. Having crossed it, there was nothing to hold them up – and stop them establishing themselves astride the B.E.F. lines of retreat to Dunkirk- except the halt that Hitler imposed.
It is clear, however, that Hitler had been in a highly strung and jumpy state ever since the breakthrough into France. The extraordinary easiness of their advance, the lack of resistance his armies had met, had made him uneasy – it seemed too good to be true. The effects can be followed in the diary that was kept by Halder, the Chief of the General Staff. On the 17th, the day after the French defence behind the Meuse had dramatically collapsed, Halder noted:
Rather unpleasant day. The Fuhrer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would pull the reins on us.
That was the day when Guderian was suddenly pulled up when in full stride for the sea.
Next day, Halder noted: Every hour is precious . . .Fuhrer HQ sees it quite differently . . . Unaccountably keeps worrying about the south flank. He rages and screams that we are on the best way to ruin the whole campaign. Not until late that evening, when Halder was able to assure him that, follow-up infantry was wheeling into line along the Aisne as a flank shield, did Hitler agree to let the panzer forces sweep on.
Two days later these reached the coast, cutting the communications of the Allied armies in Belgium. That brilliant success seems to have temporarily drowned Hitler’s doubts. But they revived as his panzer forces swung northward, especially after the momentary alarm caused by the British tank counterattack from Arras, slight as this was. His panzer forces, which he regarded as so precious, were now heading towards the zone occupied by the British, whom he looked on as particularly tough opponents. At the same time, he was uneasy as to what the French in the south might be planning.
On the surface it appears to have been unlucky for Hitler that he chose to visit Rundstedt’s headquarters on the morning of May 24, a crucial moment. For Rundstedt was a wary strategist, careful to take full account of unfavourable factors and avoid erring on the side of optimism. For that reason, he was often a good corrective to Hitler, by providing a coolly balanced estimate – but it did not benefit German chances on this occasion. In his review of the situation he dwelt on the way that the tank strength had been reduced in the long and rapid drive, and pointed out the possibility of having to meet attacks from the north and south, particularly the latter.
Since he had, the night before, received orders from Brauchitsch, the Army Commander-in-Chief, that the completion of the encirclement in the north was to be handed over to Bock, it was the more natural that he should be thinking of the next phase in the south. Moreover, Rundstedt’s headquarters were still at Charleville, near Sedan – close behind the Aisne, and in the centre of the German front facing south. That location fostered a tendency to focus on what was in front and give less attention by what was happening on the extreme right flank, where victory seemed to be assured. Dunkirk came only into the corner of his eye.
Hitler agreed entirely with Rundstedt’s reservations and went on to emphasise the paramount necessity of conserving the panzer force for future operations, On his return to his own headquarters in the afternoon, he sent for the Commander-in-Chief. It was a very unpleasant interview, and ended in Hitler giving a definite halt order –
Halder that evening mournfully summarised its effect in his diary: The left wing, consisting of armoured and motorised forces, which has no enemy before it, will thus be stopped in its tracks upon direct orders of the Fuhrer, finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Luftwaffe!
Was Hitler’s order inspired by Rundstedt? If Hitler had felt that his halt order was due to Rundstedt’s influence, he would almost certainly have mentioned it, after the British escape, among the excuses he gave for his decision, for he was very apt to blame others for any mistakes. Yet in this case there is no trace of his ever having mentioned, in the course of his subsequent explanations, Rundstedt’s opinion as a factor. Such negative evidence is as significant as any.
It seems more likely that Hitler went to Rundstedt’s headquarters in the hope of finding further justification for his own doubts and for the change of plan he wanted to impose on Brauchitsch and Halder. In so far as it was prompted by anyone else, the initial influence probably came from Keitel and Jodl, the two chief military members of his own staff. There is particular significance in the evidence of General Warlimont, who was in close touch with Jodl at the time. Astonished on hearing a rumour of the halt order, he went to ask Jodl about it:
Jodl confirmed that the order had been given, showing himself rather impatient about my enquiries. He himself took the same stand as Hitler, emphasising that the personal experience that not only Hitler but also Keitel and himself had in Flanders during the First World War proved beyond doubt that armour could not operate in the Flanders marshes, or at any rate not without heavy losses – and such losses could be borne in view of the already reduced strength of the panzer corps and their tasks in the impending second stage of the offensive in France.
Warlimont added that if the initiative for the halt order had come from Rundstedt, he and the others at O.K.W. would have heard of it; and that Jodl, who was on the defensive about the decision, certainly would not have failed to point out to Field Marshall von Rundstedt as the one who had initiated or at least supported the order – as that would have silenced criticism because of Rundstedt’s undisputed authority in operational matters among all senior general staff officers’:
One other reason, however, for the halt order was revealed to me at the time- that Goring appeared and reassured the Fuhrer that his air force would accomplish the rest of the encirclement by closing the sea side of the pocket from the air. He certainly overrated the effectiveness of his own branch.
This statement of Warlimont’s gains significance when related to the last sentence in Hallder’s diary note of the 24th, already quoted. Moreover, Guderian stated that the order came down to him from Kleist, with the words:
Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe. If the conquest of Calais should raise difficulties that fortress likewise is to be left to the Luftwaffe.
Guderian remarked: I think that it was the vanity of Goring which caused that fateful decision of Hitler’s.
At the same time there is evidence that even the Luftwaffe was not used as fully or as vigorously as it could have been – and some of the air chiefs say that Hitler put the brake on again here.
All this caused the higher circles to suspect a political motive behind Hitler’s military reasons. Blumentritt, who was Rundstedt’s operations planner, connected it with the surprising way that Hitler had talked when visiting their headquarters:
Hitler was in very good humour, he admitted the course of the campaign had been a decided miracle, and gave us the opinion that the war would be finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain. He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilisation that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh but ‘where there is planning, there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church – saying they were both essential, elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the Continent. The return of Germany’s lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer support to Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics.
He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.
In subsequent reflection on the course of events, Blumentritt’s thoughts often reverted to this conversation. He felt that the halt had been called for more than military reasons, and that it was part of a political scheme to make peace easier to reach. If the B.E.F. had been captured at Dunkirk, the British might have felt that their honour had suffered a stain which they must wipe out. By letting it escape Hitler hoped to conciliate them.
Since this account comes from generals who were highly critical of Hitler, and admit that they themselves wanted to finish off the British Army, it is of the more significance. Their account of Hitler’s talks at the time of Dunkirk fits in with much that he himself wrote earlier in Mein Kampf-and it is remarkable how closely he followed his own testament in other respects. There were elements in his make-up which suggest that he had a mixed love-hate feeling towards Britain. The trend of his talk about Britain at this time is also recorded in the diaries of Ciano and Halder.
Hitler’s character was of such complexity that no simple explanation is likely to be true. It is far more probable that his decision was woven of several threads. Three are visible- his desire to conserve tank strength for the next stroke; his long-standing fear of marshy Flanders; and Goring’s claims for the Luftwaffe. But it is likely that some political thread was interwoven with these military ones in the mind of a man who has a bent for political strategy and so many twists in his thought.
By courtesy: History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddell Hart, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The battle involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often described as the war’s turning point. Union Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia ending Lee’s attempt to invade the North.
After his success at Chancellorsville in Virginia in May 1863, Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North—the Gettysburg Campaign. With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the summer campaign from war-ravaged northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Major General Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved of command just three days before the battle and replaced by Meade.
Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brigadier Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of the town to the hills just to the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, Confederate demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
On the third day of battle, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great loss to the Confederate army.
Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history.
On November 19, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.
Shortly after the Army of Northern Virginia won a major victory over the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863), Robert E. Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North (the first was the unsuccessful Maryland Campaign of September 1862, which ended in the bloody Battle of Antietam). Such a move would upset U.S. plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly reduce the pressure on the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg. The invasion would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich Northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much-needed rest. In addition, Lee’s 72,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and possibly strengthen the growing peace movement in the North.
Initial movements to battle Thus, on June 3, Lee’s army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Following the death of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee reorganized his two large corps into three new corps, commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet (I Corps), Lt. General Richard S. Ewell (II), and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill (III); both Ewell and Hill, who had formerly reported to Jackson as division commanders, were new to this level of responsibility. The Cavalry Division remained under the command of Major General J.E.B. Stuart.
The Union Army of the Potomac, under Major General Joseph Hooker, consisted of seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps, and an Artillery Reserve, for a combined strength of more than 100,000 men.
The first major action of the campaign took place on June 9 between cavalry forces at Brandy Station, near Culpeper, Virginia. The 9,500 Confederate cavalrymen under Stuart were surprised by Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s combined arms force of two cavalry divisions (8,000 troopers) and 3,000 infantry, but Stuart eventually repulsed the Union attack. The inconclusive battle, the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the war, proved for the first time that the Union horse soldier was equal to his Southern counterpart.
By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was poised to cross the Potomac River and enter Maryland. After defeating the U.S. garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, Ewell’s IInd Corps began crossing the river on June 15. Hill’s and Longstreet’s corps followed on June 24 and 25. Hooker’s army pursued, keeping between the U.S. capital and Lee’s army. The U.S. crossed the Potomac from June 25 to 27.
Lee gave strict orders for his army to minimize any negative impacts on the civilian population. Food, horses, and other supplies were generally not seized outright, although quartermasters reimbursing Northern farmers and merchants with Confederate money were not well received. Various towns, most notably York, Pennsylvania, were required to pay indemnities in lieu of supplies, under threat of destruction. During the invasion, the Confederates seized some 40 northern African Americans. A few of them were escaped fugitive slaves, but most were freemen; all were sent south into slavery under guard.
On June 26, elements of Major General Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s Corps occupied the town of Gettysburg after chasing off newly raised Pennsylvania militia in a series of minor skirmishes. Early laid the borough under tribute but did not collect any significant supplies. Soldiers burned several railroad cars and a covered bridge, and destroyed nearby rails and telegraph lines. The following morning, Early departed for adjacent York County.
Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed Jeb Stuart to take a portion of the army’s cavalry and ride around the east flank of the Union army. Lee’s orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals share the blame for the long absence of Stuart’s cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. Stuart and his three best brigades were absent from the army during the crucial phase of the approach to Gettysburg and the first two days of battle. By June 29, Lee’s army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg (28 miles (45 km) northwest of Gettysburg) to Carlisle (30 miles (48 km) north of Gettysburg) to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.
In a dispute over the use of the forces defending the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to get rid of him, immediately accepted. They replaced Hooker early on the morning of June 28 with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, then commander of the V Corps.
On June 29, when Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac River, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles (13 km) west of Gettysburg.On June 30, while part of Hill’s Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill’s brigades, North Carolinians under Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg. In his memoirs, Major General Henry Heth, Pettigrew’s division commander, claimed that he sent Pettigrew to search for supplies in town-especially shoes.
When Pettigrew’s troops approached Gettysburg on June 30, they noticed Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Bufordarriving south of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them. When Pettigrew told Hill and Heth what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial U.S. force in or near the town, suspecting that it had been only Pennsylvania militia. Despite General Lee’s order to avoid a general engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a significant reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, July 1, two brigades of Heth’s division advanced to Gettysburg.
Union–Key commanders (Army of the Potomac)
Major General George G. Meade, (Commanding)
Major General Winfield Scott Hancock; Major General John F. Reynolds
Major General Oliver O. Howard; Major General John Sedgwick
Major General George Sykes; Major General Daniel E. Sickles
Major General Henry W. Slocum; Major General Alfred Pleasonton
The Army of the Potomac initially under Major General Joseph Hooker (Major General George G. Meade replaced Hooker in command on June 28), consisted of more than 100,000 men in the following organization:
I Corps, commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds, with divisions commanded by Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, Brigadier General John C. Robinson, and Major General Abner Doubleday.
II Corps, commanded by Major General Winfield S. Hancock, with divisions commanded by Brigadier Generals John C. Caldwell, John Gibbon, and Alexander Hays.
III Corps, commanded by Major General Daniel E. Sickles, with divisions commanded by Major General David B. Birney and Major General Andrew A. Humphreys.
V Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Sykes (George G. Meade until June 28), with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. James Barnes, Romeyn B. Ayres, and Samuel W. Crawford.
VI Corps, commanded by Major General John Sedgwick, with divisions commanded byBrigadier General Horatio G. Wright, Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, and Major General John Newton.
XI Corps, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, with divisions commanded by Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow, Brigadier General Adolph von Steinwehr, and Major General Carl Schurz.
XII Corps, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, with divisions commanded by Brigadier Generals Alpheus S. Williams and John W. Geary.
Cavalry Corps, commanded by Major General Alfred Pleasonton, with divisions commanded by Brigadier Generals. John Buford, David McGregg, and H. Judson Kilpatrick.
Artillery Reserve, commanded by Brigadier General Robert O. Tyler. (The preeminent artillery officer at Gettysburg was Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery on Meade’s staff.)
During the advance on Gettysburg, Major General Reynolds was in operational command of the left, or advanced wing of the Army consisting of I, III, and XI Corps.
Note that many other Union units (not part of the Army of the Potomac) were actively involved in the Gettysburg Campaign, but not directly involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. These included portions of the Union IV Corps, the militia and state troops of the Department of the Susquehanna, and various garrisons, including that at Harpers Ferry.
Confederate–Key commanders (Army of Northern Virginia)
General Robert E. Lee, (Commanding)
Lieutenant General. James Longstreet; Lieutenant General. Richard S. Ewell; Lieutenant General. A. P. Hill; Major General J.E.B. Stuart
In reaction to the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson after Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized his Army of Northern Virginia (75,000 men) from two infantry corps into three.
First Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, with divisions commanded by Major Generals Lafayette McLaws, George E. Pickett, and John Bell Hood.
Second Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, with divisions commanded by Major Generals Jubal A. Early, Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, and Robert E. Rodes.
Third Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, with divisions commanded by Major Generals. Richard H. Anderson, Henry Heth, and W. Dorsey Pender.
Cavalry division, commanded by Major General J.E.B. Stuart, with brigades commanded by Brigadier Generals Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, Beverly H. Robertson, Albert G. Jenkins, William E. “Grumble” Jones, and John D. Imboden, and Colonel John R. Chambliss.
First day of battle
Overview map of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863 Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge
Anticipating that the Confederates would march on Gettysburg from the west on the morning of July 1, Buford laid out his defenses on three ridges west of the town: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge. These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small cavalry division against superior Confederate infantry forces, meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of town at Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill. Buford understood that if the Confederates could gain control of these heights, Meade’s army would have difficulty dislodging them.
Heth’s division advanced with two brigades forward, commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis. They proceeded easterly in columns along the Chambersburg Pike. Three miles (5 km) west of town, about 7:30 a.m. on July 1, the two brigades met light resistance from vedettes of Union cavalry, and deployed into line. According to lore, the Union soldier to fire the first shot of the battle was Lt. Marcellus Jones. In 1886 Lt. Jones returned to Gettysburg to mark the spot where he fired the first shot with a monument. Eventually, Heth’s men reached dismounted troopers of Col. William Gamble’s cavalry brigade, who raised determined resistance and delaying tactics from behind fence posts with fire from their breechloading carbines. Still, by 10:20 a.m., the Confederates had pushed the Union cavalrymen east to McPherson Ridge, when the vanguard of the I Corps (Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds) finally arrived.
North of the pike, Davis gained a temporary success against Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s brigade but was repulsed with heavy losses in an action around an unfinished railroad bed cut in the ridge. South of the pike, Archer’s brigade assaulted through Herbst (also known as McPherson’s) Woods. The U.S. Iron Brigade under Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith enjoyed initial success against Archer, capturing several hundred men, including Archer himself.
General Reynolds was shot and killed early in the fighting while directing troop and artillery placements just to the east of the woods. Shelby Foote wrote that the Union cause lost a man considered by many to be “the best general in the army.” Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command. Fighting in the Chambersburg Pike area lasted until about 12:30 p.m. It resumed around 2:30 p.m., when Heth’s entire division engaged, adding the brigades of Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough.
As Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade came on line, they flanked the 19th Indiana and drove the Iron Brigade back. The 26th North Carolina (the largest regiment in the army with 839 men) lost heavily, leaving the first day’s fight with around 212 men. By the end of the three-day battle, they had about 152 men standing, the highest casualty percentage for one battle of any regiment, North or South. Slowly the Iron Brigade was pushed out of the woods toward Seminary Ridge. Hill added Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender’s division to the assault, and the I Corps was driven back through the grounds of the Lutheran Seminary and Gettysburg streets.
As the fighting to the west proceeded, two divisions of Ewell’s Second Corps, marching west toward Cashtown in accordance with Lee’s order for the army to concentrate in that vicinity, turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg roads toward Gettysburg, while the Union XI Corps (Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard) raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the U.S. line ran in a semicircle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg.
However, the U.S. did not have enough troops; Cutler, whose brigade was deployed north of the Chambersburg Pike, had his right flank in the air. The leftmost division of the XI Corps was unable to deploy in time to strengthen the line, so Doubleday was forced to throw in reserve brigades to salvage his line.
Around 2 p.m., the Confederate Second Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Jubal Early assaulted and out-flanked the Union I and XI Corps positions north and northwest of town. The Confederate brigades of Col. Edward A. O’Neal and Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson suffered severe losses assaulting the I Corps division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson south of Oak Hill. Early’s division profited from a blunder by Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, when he advanced his XI Corps division to Blocher’s Knoll (directly north of town and now known as Barlow’s Knoll); this represented a salient in the corps line, susceptible to attack from multiple sides, and Early’s troops overran Barlow’s division, which constituted the right flank of the Union Army’s position. Barlow was wounded and captured in the attack.
As U.S. positions collapsed both north and west of town, Gen. Howard ordered a retreat to the high ground south of town at Cemetery Hill, where he had left the division of Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr in reserve. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock assumed command of the battlefield, sent by Meade when he heard that Reynolds had been killed. Hancock,commander of the II Corps and Meade’s most trusted subordinate, was ordered to take command of the field and to determine whether Gettysburg was an appropriate place for a major battle. Hancock told Howard, “I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” When Howard agreed, Hancock concluded the discussion: “Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field.” Hancock’s determination had a morale-boosting effect on the retreating Union soldiers, but he played no direct tactical role on the first day.
General Lee understood the defensive potential to the Union if they held this high ground. He sent orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken “if practicable.” Ewell, who had previously served under Stonewall Jackson, a general well known for issuing peremptory orders, determined such an assault was not practicable and, thus, did not attempt it; this decision is considered by historians to be a great missed opportunity.
The first day at Gettysburg, more significant than simply a prelude to the bloody second and third days, ranks as the 23rd biggest battle of the war by number of troops engaged. About one quarter of Meade’s army (22,000 men) and one third of Lee’s army (27,000) were engaged.
Second day of battle
Robert E. Lee’s plan for July 2, 1863
Throughout the evening of July 1 and morning of July 2, most of the remaining infantry of both armies arrived on the field, including the Union II, III, V, VI, and XII Corps. Two of Longstreet’s brigades were on the road: Brig. Gen. George Pickett, had begun the 22 mile march from Chambersburg, while Brig. Gen. E. M. Law had begun the march from Guilford. Both arrived late in the morning. Law completed his 28-mile march in eleven hours.
The Union line ran from Culp’s Hill southeast of the town, northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles (3 km) along Cemetery Ridge, terminating just north of Little Round Top. Most of the XII Corps was on Culp’s Hill; the remnants of I and XI Corps defended Cemetery Hill; II Corps covered most of the northern half of Cemetery Ridge; and III Corps was ordered to take up a position to its flank. The shape of the Union line is popularly described as a “fishhook” formation.
The Confederate line paralleled the Union line about a mile (1,600 m) to the west on Seminary Ridge, ran east through the town, then curved southeast to a point opposite Culp’s Hill. Thus, the Union army had interior lines, while the Confederate line was nearly five miles (8 km) long.
Lee’s battle plan for July 2 called for a general assault of Meade’s positions. On the right, Longstreet’s First Corps was to position itself to attack the Union left flank, facing northeast astraddle the Emmitsburg Road, and to roll up the U.S.line. The attack sequence was to begin with Maj. Gens. John Bell Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’s divisions, followed by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division of Hill’s Third Corps.
On the left, Lee instructed Ewell to position his Second Corps to attack Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill when he heard the gunfire from Longstreet’s assault, preventing Meade from shifting troops to bolster his left. Though it does not appear in either his or Lee’s Official Report, Ewell claimed years later that Lee had changed the order to simultaneously attack, calling for only a “diversion”, to be turned into a full-scale attack if a favorable opportunity presented itself.
Lee’s plan, however, was based on faulty intelligence, exacerbated by Stuart’s continued absence from the battlefield. Though Lee personally reconnoitered his left during the morning, he did not visit Longstreet’s position on the Confederate right. Even so, Lee rejected suggestions that Longstreet move beyond Meade’s left and attack the Union flank, capturing the supply trains and effectively blocking Meade’s escape route.
Lee did not issue orders for the attack until 11:00 p.m. About noon, General Anderson’s advancing troops were discovered by General Sickles’ outpost guard and the Third Corps- upon which Longstreet’s First Corps was to form- did not get into position until 1:00 p. m.
Hood and McLaw, after their long march, were not yet in position and did not launch their attacks until just after 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.
Attacks on the Union left flank
Overview map of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863
As Longstreet’s left division, under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, advanced, they unexpectedly found Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’s III Corps directly in their path. Sickles had been dissatisfied with the position assigned him on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Seeing ground better suited for artillery positions a half mile (800 m) to the west, he advanced his corps—without orders—to the slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road. The new line ran from Devil’s Den, northwest to the Sherfy farm’s peach orchard, then northeast along the Emmitsburg Road to south of the Codori farm. This created an untenable salient at the Peach Orchard; Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’s division (in position along the Emmitsburg Road) and Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s division (to the south) were subject to attacks from two sides and were spread out over a longer front than their small corps could defend effectively. The Confederate artillery was ordered to open fire at 3:00 p. m. Meade was with Sickles at the time, urging Sickles to return to his assigned position.
Meade was forced to send 20,000 reinforcements: the entire V Corps, Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell’s division of the II Corps, most of the XII Corps, and portions of the newly arrived VI Corps. Hood’s division moved more to the east than intended, losing its alignment with the Emmitsburg Road, attacking Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. McLaws, coming in on Hood’s left, drove multiple attacks into the thinly stretched III Corps in the Wheatfield and overwhelmed them in Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. McLaws’s attack eventually reached Plum Run Valley (the “Valley of Death”) before being beaten back by the Pennsylvania Reserves division of the V Corps, moving down from Little Round Top. The III Corps was virtually destroyed as a combat unit in this battle, and Sickles’s leg was amputated after it was shattered by a cannonball. Caldwell’s division was destroyed piecemeal in the Wheatfield. Anderson’s division, coming from McLaws’s left and starting forward around 6 p.m., reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge, but could not hold the position in the face of counterattacks from the II Corps, including an almost suicidal bayonet charge by the 1st Minnesota regiment against a Confederate brigade, ordered in desperation by Hancock to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.
As fighting raged in the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den, Col. Strong Vincent of V Corps had a precarious hold on Little Round Top, an important hill at the extreme left of the Union line. His brigade of four relatively small regiments was able to resist repeated assaults by Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law’s brigade of Hood’s division. Meade’s chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, had realized the importance of this position, and dispatched Vincent’s brigade, an artillery battery, and the 140th New York to occupy Little Round Top mere minutes before Hood’s troops arrived. The defense of Little Round Top with a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine, initiated by Lt. Holman S. Melcher, was one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War and propelledCol. Joshua L. Chamberlain into prominence after the war.
Attacks on the Union right flank
Union breastworks on Culp’s Hill
Ewell interpreted his orders as calling only for a cannonade”. His 32 guns, along with A. P. Hill’s 55 guns, engaged in a two-hour artillery barrage at extreme range that had little effect. Finally, about six o’clock, Ewell sent orders to each of his division commanders to attack the Union lines in his front.
Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s Division “had not been pushed close to [Culp’s Hill] in preparation for an assault, although one had been contemplated all day. It now had a full mile to advance and Rock Creek had to be crossed. This could only be done at few places and involved much delay. Only three of Johnson’s four brigades moved to the attack.” Most of the hill’s defenders, the Union XII Corps, had been sent to the left to defend against Longstreet’s attacks, leaving only a brigade of New Yorkers under Brig. Gen. George S. Greene behind strong, newly constructed defensive works. With reinforcements from the I and XI Corps, Greene’s men held off the Confederate attackers, though giving up some of the lower earthworks on the lower part of Culp’s Hill.
Early was similarly unprepared when he ordered Harry T. Hays’ and Isaac E. Avery’s Brigades to attack the Union XI Corps positions on East Cemetery Hill. Once started, fighting was fierce: Col. Andrew L. Harris of the Union 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, came under a withering attack, losing half his men. Avery was wounded early on, but the Confederates reached the crest of the hill and entered the Union breastworks, capturing one or two batteries. Seeing he was not supported on his right, Hays withdrew. His right was to be supported by Robert E. Rodes’ Division, but Rodes–like Early and Johnson–had not been ordered up in preparation for the attack. He had twice as far to travel as Early; by the time he came in contact with the Union skirmish line, Early’s troops had already begun to withdraw.
Jeb Stuart and his three cavalry brigades arrived in Gettysburg around noon but had no role in the second day’s battle. Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s brigade fought a minor engagementwith newly promoted 23-year-old Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan cavalry near Hunterstown to the northeast of Gettysburg.
Third day of battle
Overview map of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
Lee’s plan General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the U.S. left, while Ewell attacked Culp’s Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Union XII Corps troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp’s Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works. The Confederates attacked, and the second fight for Culp’s Hill ended around 11 a.m. Harry Pfanz judged that, after some seven hours of bitter combat, “the Union line was intact and held more strongly than before.”
Lee was forced to change his plans. Longstreet would command Pickett’s Virginia division of his own First Corps, plus six brigades from Hill’s Corps, in an attack on the U.S. II Corps position at the right center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Prior to the attack, all the artillery the Confederacy could bring to bear on the U.S. positions would bombard and weaken the enemy’s line.
Much has been made over the years of General Longstreet’s objections to General Lee’s plan.In his memoirs, Longstreet described their discussion as follows:
[Lee] rode over after sunrise and gave his orders. His plan was to assault the enemy’s left centre by a column to be composed of McLaws’s and Hood’s divisions reinforced by Pickett’s brigades. I thought that it would not do; that the point had been fully tested the day before, by more men, when all were fresh; that the enemy was there looking for us, as we heard him during the night putting up his defences; that the divisions of McLaws and Hood were holding a mile along the right of my line against twenty thousand men, who would follow their withdrawal, strike the flank of the assaulting column, crush it, and get on our rear towards the Potomac River; that thirty thousand men was the minimum of force necessary for the work; that even such force would need close co-operation on other parts of the line; that the column as he proposed to organize it would have only about thirteen thousand men (the divisions having lost a third of their numbers the day before); that the column would have to march a mile under concentrating battery fire, and a thousand yards under long-range musketry; that the conditions were different from those in the days of Napoleon, when field batteries had a range of six hundred yards and musketry about sixty yards.
He said the distance was not more than fourteen hundred yards. General Meade’s estimate was a mile or a mile and a half (Captain Long, the guide of the field of Gettysburg in 1888, stated that it was a trifle over a mile). He then concluded that the divisions of McLaws and Hood could remain on the defensive line; that he would reinforce by divisions of the Third Corps and Pickett’s brigades, and stated the point to which the march should be directed. I asked the strength of the column. He stated fifteen thousand. Opinion was then expressed that the fifteen thousand men who could make successful assault over that field had never been arrayed for battle; but he was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.
The “High Water Mark” on Cemetery Ridge as it appears today. The monument to the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment (“Baxter’s Philadelphia Fire Zouaves”) appears at right, the Copse of Trees to the left.
The largest artillery bombardment of the war Around 1 p.m., from 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Jackson Hunt, at first did not return the enemy’s fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 U.S. cannons added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position.
Pickett’s Charge Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1,200 m) to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as “Pickett’s Charge”. As the Confederates approached, there was fierce flanking artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and musket and canister fire from Hancock’s II Corps. In the Union center, the commander of artillery had held fire during the Confederate bombardment (in order to save it for the infantry assault, which Meade had correctly predicted the day before), leading Southern commanders to believe the Northern cannon batteries had been knocked out. However, they opened fire on the Confederate infantry during their approach with devastating results. Nearly one half of the attackers did not return to their own lines. Although the U.S. line wavered and broke temporarily at a jog called the“Angle” in a low stone fence, just north of a patch of vegetation called the Copse of Trees, reinforcements rushed into the breach, and the Confederate attack was repulsed.
The farthest advance of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division at the Angle is referred to as the “High-water mark of the Confederacy“, arguably representing the closest the South ever came to its goal of achieving independence from the Union via military victory. Union and Confederate soldiers locked in hand-to-hand combat, attacking with their rifles, bayonets, rocks and even their bare hands. Armistead ordered his Confederates to turn two captured cannons against Union troops, but discovered that there was no ammunition left, the last double canister shots having been used against the charging Confederates. Armistead was wounded shortly afterward three times.
There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the U.S. right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called “East Cavalry Field” (not shown on the accompanying map, but between the York and Hanover Roads), Stuart’s forces collided with U.S. cavalry: Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s division andBrig. Gen. Custer’s brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer’s charge, leading the 1st Michigan Cavalry,blunted the attack by Wade Hampton’s brigade, blocking Stuart from achieving his objectives in the U.S. rear. Meanwhile, after hearing news of the day’s victory, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick launched a cavalry attack against the infantry positions of Longstreet’s Corps southwest of Big Round Top. Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth protested against the futility of such a move, but obeyed orders. Farnsworth was killed in the attack, and his brigade suffered significant losses.
“The Harvest of Death”: Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5 or July 6, 1863, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.
The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), while Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate. Many authors have referred to as many as 28,000 Confederate casualties, and Busey and Martin’s more recent 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing). Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured. The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225.
In addition to being the deadliest battle of the war in terms of casualties, Gettysburg also had the highest number of Generals killed in action of any battle in the war. TheConfederacy lost generals Paul Jones Semmes, William Barksdale, Richard Garnett, and Lewis Armistead, as well as J. Johnston Pettigrew during the retreat after the battle.
The Union lost Generals John Reynolds, Samuel K. Zook, Stephen H. Weed, and Elon J. Farnsworth, as well as Strong Vincent, who was posthumously promoted to general after being killed in the battle. Additional senior officer casualties included the wounding of Union Generals Dan Sickles (lost a leg) and Winfield Scott Hancock.
For the Confederacy, John Bell Hood lost the use of his left arm, while Generals James Kemper and Isaac R. Trimble were severely wounded during Pickett’s charge and captured during the Confederate retreat. General James J. Archer, in command of a brigade that most likely was responsible for killing Reynolds, was taken prisoner shortly after Reynolds’ death.
The following tables summarize casualties by corps for the Union and Confederate forces during the three-day battle.
Bruce Catton wrote, “The town of Gettysburg looked as if some universal moving day had been interrupted by catastrophe.” But there was only one documented civilian death during the battle: Ginnie Wade (also widely known as Jennie), 20 years old, was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen in town while she was making bread. Nearly 8,000 had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench.
Confederate retreat (Gettysburg Campaign (July 5 – July 14, 1863)
The armies stared at one another in a heavy rain across the bloody fields on July 4, the same day that the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee had reformed his lines into a defensive position on Seminary Ridge the night of July 3, evacuating the town of Gettysburg. The Confederates remained on the battlefield, hoping that Meade would attack, but the cautious Union commander decided against the risk, a decision for which he would later be criticized. Both armies began to collect their remaining wounded and bury some of the dead. A proposal by Lee for a prisoner exchange was rejected by Meade.
Lee started his Army of Northern Virginia in motion late the evening of July 4 towards Fairfield and Chambersburg. Cavalry under Brigadier General John D. Imboden was entrusted to escort the miles-long wagon train of supplies and wounded men that Lee wanted to take back to Virginia with him, using the route through Cashtown and Hagerstown to Williamsport, Maryland. Meade’s army followed, although the pursuit was half-spirited. The recently rain-swollen Potomac trapped Lee’s army on the north bank of the river for a time, but when the Union troops finally caught up, the Confederates had forded the river. The rear-guard action at Falling Waters on July 14 added some more names to the long casualty lists, including General Pettigrew, who was mortally wounded. General James Kemper, severely wounded during Pickett’s charge, was captured during Lee’s retreat.
In a brief letter to Major General Henry W. Halleck written on July 7, Lincoln remarked on the two major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He continued:
Now, if General Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.
Halleck then relayed the contents of Lincoln’s letter to Meade in a telegram. Despite repeated pleas from Lincoln and Halleck, which continued over the next week, Meade did not pursue Lee’s army aggressively enough to destroy it before it crossed back over the Potomac River to safety in the South. The campaign continued into Virginia with light engagements until July 23, in the minor Battle of Manassas Gap, after which Meade abandoned any attempts at pursuit and the two armies took up positions across from each other on the Rappahannock River.
Union reaction to the news of the victory The news of the Union victory electrified the North. A headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed “VICTORY! WATERLOO ECLIPSED!”
New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote: The results of this victory are priceless. … The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures. … Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. … Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.— George Templeton Strong, Diary, p. 330.
However, the Union enthusiasm soon dissipated as the public realized that Lee’s army had escaped destruction and the war would continue. Lincoln complained to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it!” Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb wrote to his father on July 17, stating that such Washington politicians as “Chase, Seward and others,” disgusted with Meade, “write to me that Lee really won that Battle!”
Effect on the Confederacy In fact, the Confederates had lost militarily and also politically. During the final hours of the battle, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was approaching the Union lines at Norfolk, Virginia, under a flag of truce. Although his formal instructions from Confederate President Jefferson Davis had limited his powers to negotiate on prisoner exchanges and other procedural matters, historian James M. McPherson speculates that he had informal goals of presenting peace overtures. Davis had hoped that Stephens would reach Washington from the south while Lee’s victorious army was marching toward it from the north. President Lincoln, upon hearing of the Gettysburg results, refused Stephens’s request to pass through the lines. Furthermore, when the news reached London, any lingering hopes of European recognition of the Confederacy were finally abandoned. Henry Adams wrote, “The disasters of the rebels are unredeemed by even any hope of success. It is now conceded that all idea of intervention is at an end.”
Compounding the effects of the defeat would be end of the Siege of Vicksburg, which surrendered to Grant’s Federal armies in the West on July 4, the day after the Gettysburg battle.
The immediate reaction of the Southern military and public sectors was that Gettysburg was a setback, not a disaster. The sentiment was that Lee had been successful on July 1 and had fought a valiant battle on July 2–3, but could not dislodge the Union Army from the strong defensive position to which it fled. The Confederates successfully stood their ground on July 4 and withdrew only after they realized Meade would not attack them. The withdrawal to the Potomac that could have been a disaster was handled masterfully. Furthermore, the Army of the Potomac had been kept away from Virginia farmlands for the summer and all predicted that Meade would be too timid to threaten them for the rest of the year. Lee himself had a positive view of the campaign, writing to his wife that the army had returned “rather sooner than I had originally contemplated, but having accomplished what I proposed on leaving the Rappahannock, viz., relieving the Valley of the presence of the enemy and drawing his Army north of the Potomac.” He was quoted as saying to Maj. John Seddon, brother of the Confederate secretary of war, “Sir, we did whip them at Gettysburg, and it will be seen for the next six months that that army will be as quiet as a sucking dove.” Some Southern publications, such as the Charleston Mercury, criticized Lee’s actions in the campaign and on August 8 he offered his resignation to President Davis, who quickly rejected it.
Gettysburg became a postbellum focus of the “Lost Cause”, a movement by writers such as Edward A. Pollard and Jubal Early to explain the reasons for the Confederate defeat in the war. A fundamental premise of their argument was that the South was doomed because of the overwhelming advantage in manpower and industrial might possessed by the North. However, they claim it also suffered because Robert E. Lee, who up until this time had been almost invincible, was betrayed by the failures of some of his key subordinates at Gettysburg: 1. Ewell, for failing to seize Cemetery Hill on July 1
2. Stuart, for depriving the army of cavalry intelligence for a key part of the campaign;and 3. Especially Longstreet, for failing to attack on July 2 as early and as forcefully as Lee had originally intended. In this view, Gettysburg was seen as a great lost opportunity, in which a decisive victory by Lee could have meant the end of the war in the Confederacy’s favor.
After the war, General Pickett was asked why Confederates lost at Gettysburg. He replied “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”
Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and etc., with a red arrow indicating Abraham Lincoln.
Gettysburg National Cemetery The ravages of war were still evident in Gettysburg more than four months later when, on November 19, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated. During this ceremony, President Abraham Lincoln honored the fallen and redefined the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address
Historical assessment The nature of the result of the Battle of Gettysburg has been the subject of controversy for years. Although not seen as overwhelmingly significant at the time, particularly since the war continued for almost two years, in retrospect it has often been cited as the “turning point”, usually in combination with the fall of Vicksburg the following day. This is based on the observation thatafter Gettysburg Lee’s army conducted no more strategic offensives—his army merely reacted to the initiative of Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 and 1865—and by the speculative viewpoint of the Lost Cause writers that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg might have resulted in the end of the war.
[The Army of the Potomac] had won a victory. It might be less of a victory than Mr. Lincoln had hoped for, but it was nevertheless a victory—and, because of that, it was no longer possible for the Confederacy to win the war. The North might still lose it, to be sure, if the soldiers or the people should lose heart, but outright defeat was no longer in the cards.
Bruce Catton, Glory Road It is currently a widely held view that Gettysburg was a decisive victory for the Union, but the term is considered imprecise. It is inarguable that Lee’s offensive on July 3 was turned back decisively and his campaign in Pennsylvania was terminated prematurely (although the Confederates at the time argued that this was a temporary setback and that the goals of the campaign were largely met). However, when the more common definition of “decisive victory” is intended—an indisputable military victory of a battle that determines or significantly influences the ultimate result of a conflict—historians are divided. For example, David J. Eicher called Gettysburg a “strategic loss for the Confederacy” and James M. McPherson wrote that “Lee and his men would go on to earn further laurels. But they never again possessed the power and reputation they carried into Pennsylvania those palmy summer days of 1863.“
However, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones wrote that the “strategic impact of the Battle of Gettysburg was … fairly limited.” Steven E. Woodworth wrote that “Gettysburg proved only the near impossibility of decisive action in the Eastern theater.” Edwin Coddington pointed out the heavy toll on the Army of the Potomac and that “after the battle Meade no longer possessed a truly effective instrument for the accomplishments of his task. The army needed a thorough reorganization with new commanders and fresh troops, but these changes were not made until Grant appeared on the scene in March 1864.”
Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote that “Lost opportunities and near successes plagued the Army of Northern Virginia during its Northern invasion,” yet after Gettysburg, “without the distractions of duty as an invading force, without the breakdown of discipline, the Army of Northern Virginia [remained] an extremely formidable force.“
Ed Bearss wrote, “Lee’s invasion of the North had been a costly failure. Nevertheless, at best the Army of the Potomac had simply preserved the strategic stalemate in the EasternTheatre …” Furthermore, the Confederacy soon proved it was still capable of winning significant victories over the Northern forces in both the East (Battle of Cold Harbor) and West (Battle of Chickamauga).
Peter Carmichael refers to the military context for the armies, the “horrendous losses at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, which effectively destroyed Lee’s offensive capacity,” implying that these cumulative losses were not the result of a single battle. Thomas Goss, writing in the U.S. Army’s Military Review journal on the definition of “decisive” and the application of that description to Gettysburg, concludes: “For all that was decided and accomplished, the Battle of Gettysburg fails to earn the label ‘decisive battle’.” The military historian John Keegan agrees. Gettysburg was a landmark battle, the largest of the war and it would not be surpassed. The Union had restored to it the belief in certain victory, and the loss dispirited the Confederacy.If “not exactly a decisive battle“, Gettysburg was the end of Confederate use of Northern Virginia as a military buffer zone, the setting for Grant’s Overland Campaign.
Lee vs. Meade
George G. Meade
Prior to Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had established a reputation as an almost invincible general, achieving stunning victories against superior numbers—although usually at the cost of high casualties to his army—during the Seven Days, the Northern Virginia Campaign (including the Second Battle of Bull Run), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Only the Maryland Campaign, with its tactically inconclusive Battle of Antietam, had been less than successful. Therefore, historians have attempted to explain how Lee’s winning streak was interrupted so dramatically at Gettysburg. Although the issue is tainted by attempts to portray history and Lee’s reputation in a manner supporting different partisan goals, the major factors in Lee’s loss arguably can be attributed to: (1)his overconfidence in the invincibility of his men; (2) the performance of his subordinates, and his management thereof; (3) his failing health, and (4) the performance of his opponent, George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac.
Robert E. Lee
Throughout the campaign, Lee was influenced by the belief that his men were invincible; most of Lee’s experiences with the Army of Northern Virginia had convinced him of this, including the great victory at Chancellorsville in early May and the rout of the Union troops at Gettysburg on July 1. Since morale plays an important role in military victory when other factors are equal, Lee did not want to dampen his army’s desire to fight andresisted suggestions, principally by Longstreet, to withdraw from the recently captured Gettysburg to select a ground more favorable to his army.War correspondent Peter W. Alexander wrote that Lee “acted, probably, under the impression that his troops were able to carry any position however formidable. If such was the case, he committed an error, such however as the ablest commanders will sometimes fall into.” Lee himself concurred with this judgment, writing to President Davis, “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public—I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valor.”
The most controversial assessments of the battle involve the performance of Lee’s subordinates. The dominant theme of the Lost Cause writers and many other historians is that Lee’s senior generals failed him in crucial ways, directly causing the loss of the battle;the alternative viewpoint is that Lee did not manage his subordinates adequately, and did not thereby compensate for their shortcomings. Two of his corps commanders—Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill—had only recently been promoted and were not fully accustomed to Lee’s style of command, in which he provided only general objectives and guidance to their former commander, Stonewall Jackson; Jackson translated these into detailed, specific orders to his division commanders. All four of Lee’s principal commanders received criticism during the campaign and battle:
James Longstreet suffered most severely from the wrath of the Lost Cause authors, not the least because he directly criticized Lee in postbellum writings and became a Republican after the war. His critics accuse him of attacking much later than Lee intended on July 2, squandering a chance to hit the Union Army before its defensive positions had firmed up. They also question his lack of motivation to attack strongly on July 2 and 3because he had argued that the army should have maneuvered to a place where it would force Meade to attack them.
The alternative view is that Lee was in close contact with Longstreet during the battle, agreed to delays on the morning of July 2, and never criticized Longstreet’s performance.
(There is also considerable speculation about what an attack might have looked like before Dan Sickles moved the III Corps toward the Peach Orchard.)
J.E.B. Stuart deprived Lee of cavalry intelligence during a good part of the campaign by taking his three best brigades on a path away from the army’s. This arguably led to Lee’s surprise at Hooker’s vigorous pursuit; the meeting engagement on July 1 that escalated into the full battle prematurely; and it also prevented Lee from understanding the full disposition of the enemy on July 2. The disagreements regarding Stuart’s culpability for the situation originate in therelatively vague orders issued by Lee, but most modern historians agree that both generals were responsible to some extent for the failure of the cavalry’s mission early in the campaign.
Richard S. Ewell has been universally criticized for failing to seize the high ground on the afternoon of July 1.Once again the disagreement centers on Lee’s orders, which provided general guidance for Ewell to act“if practicable.”Many historians speculate that Stonewall Jackson, if he had survived Chancellorsville, would have aggressively seized Culp’s Hill, rendering Cemetery Hill indefensible, and changing the entire complexion of the battle. A differently worded order from Lee might have made the difference with this subordinate. A.P. Hill has received some criticism for his ineffective performance. His actions caused the battle to begin and then escalate on July 1, despite Lee’s orders not to bring on a general engagement (although historians point out that Hill kept Lee well informed of his actions during the day). However, Hill’s illness minimized his personal involvement in the remainder of the battle, and Lee took the explicit step of temporarily removing troops from Hill’s corps and giving them to Longstreet for Pickett’s Charge.
In addition to Hill’s illness, Lee’s performance was affected by heart troubles, which would eventually lead to his death in 1870; he had been diagnosed with pericarditis by his staff physicians in March 1863, though modern doctors believe he had in fact suffered a heart attack. He wrote to Jefferson Davis that his physical condition prevented him from offering full supervision in the field, and said, “I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled.”
As a final factor, Lee faced a new and formidable opponent in George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac fought well on its home territory. Although new to his army command, Meade deployed his forces relatively effectively; relied on strong subordinates such as Winfield S. Hancock to make decisions where and when they were needed; took great advantage of defensive positions; nimbly shifted defensive resources on interior lines to parry strong threats; and, unlike some of his predecessors, stood his ground throughout the battle in the face of fierce Confederate attacks.
Lee was quoted before the battle as saying Meade “would commit no blunders on my front and if I make one … will make haste to take advantage of it.” That prediction proved to be correct at Gettysburg.
Stephen Sears wrote, “The fact of the matter is that George G. Meade, unexpectedly and against all odds, thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.”
Edwin B. Coddington wrote that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac received a “sense of triumph which grew into an imperishable faith in [themselves]. The men knew what they could do under an extremely competent general; one of lesser ability and courage could well have lost the battle.”
Meade had his own detractors as well. Similar to the situation with Lee, Meade suffered partisan attacks about his performance at Gettysburg, but he had the misfortune of experiencing them in person. Supporters of his predecessor, Major General Joseph Hooker, lambasted Meade before the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, where Radical Republicans suspected that Meade was a Copperhead and tried in vain to relieve him from command. Daniel E. Sickles and Daniel Butterfield accused Meade of planning to retreat from Gettysburg during the battle. Most politicians, including Lincoln, criticized Meade for what they considered to be his half-hearted pursuit of Lee after the battle. A number of Meade’s most competent subordinates—Winfield S. Hancock,John Gibbon, Governor K. Warren, and Henry J. Hunt, all heroes of the battle—defended Meade in print, but Meade was embittered by the overall experience.
Courtesy of: By United States, War Department. – United States, War Department. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891 (2 vols.)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49068657 By United States, War Department. – United States, War Department. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891 (2 vols.)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49095926
If for a start we inquire into the objective of any particular war, which must guide any military action if the political purpose is to be properly served, we find that the object of any war can vary just as much as its political purpose and its actual circumstances. If for the moment we consider the pure concept of war, we should have to say that the political purpose of war had no connection with war itself; for if war is an act of violence meant to force the enemy to do our will, its aim would have always and solely to be to overcome the enemy and disarm him. That aim is derived from the theoretical concept of war, but since many wars do actually come very close to fulfilling it, let us examine this kind of war first of all.
Later, when we are dealing with the subject of war plans, we shall investigate in greater detail what is meant by disarming a country. But we should at once distinguish between three things, three broad objectives, which between them cover everything: the armed forces, the country, and the enemy’s will.
The fighting forces must be destroyed: that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight. Whenever we use the phrase ‘destruction of the enemy’s forces,’ this alone is what we mean.
The country must be occupied; otherwise the enemy could raise fresh military forces. Yet both these things may be done and the war, that is the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken: in other words, so long as the enemy government and its allies have not been driven to ask for peace, or the population made to submit. We may occupy a country completely, but the hostilities can be renewed again in the interior, or perhaps with allied help. This of course can also happen after the peace treaty, but this only shows that not every war necessarily leads to a final decision and settlement. But even if hostilities should occur again, a peace treaty will always extinguish a mass of sparks that might have gone on quietly smouldering. Further, tensions are slackened, for lovers of peace (and they abound among every people under all circumstances) will then abandon any thought of further action. Be that as it may, we must always consider that with the conclusion of peace, the purpose of the war has been achieved and its business is at an end.
Since of the three objectives named, it is the fighting forces that assure the safety of the country, the natural sequence would be to destroy them first, and then subdue the country. Having achieved these two goals and exploiting our own position of strength, we can bring the enemy to the peace table. As a rule, destroying the enemy’s forces tends to be a gradual process, as does the ensuing subjugation of the country. Normally, the one reacts on the other, in that loss of territory weakens the fighting forces, but that particular sequence of events is not essential and therefore does not always take place. Before they suffer seriously, the enemy’s forces may retire to remote areas, or even withdraw to other countries. In that event, of course, most of all of the country will be occupied. But the aim of disarming the enemy (the object of war in the abstract, the ultimate means of accomplishing the war’s political purpose, which should incorporate all the rest) is in fact not always encountered in reality, and need not be fully achieved as a condition of peace. On no account should theory raise it to the level of law. Many treaties have been concluded before one of the antagonists could be called powerless–even before the balance of power had been seriously altered. What is more, a review of actual cases shows a whole category of wars in which the very idea of defeating the enemy is unreal: those in which the enemy is substantially the stronger power.
The reason why the object of war that emerges in theory is sometimes inappropriate to actual conflict is that war can be of two very different kinds. If war were what pure theory postulates, a war between states of markedly unequal strengths would be absurd, and so impossible. At most, material disparity could not go beyond the amount that moral factors could replace; and social conditions being what they are in Europe today, moral forces would not go far. But wars in fact been fought between states of very unequal strength, for actual war is often far removed from the pure concept postulated by theory. Inability to carry on the struggle can, in practice, be replaced by two other grounds for making peace: the first is the improbability of victory; the second is its unacceptable cost.
War, if taken as a whole, is bound to move from the strict law of inherent necessity towards probabilities. The more the circumstances that gave rise to the conflict cause it to do so, the slighter will be its motives and the tensions which it occasions. And this makes it understandable how an analysis of probabilities may lead to peace itself. Not every war need to be fought until one side collapses. When the motives and tensions of war are slight we can imagine that the very faintest prospect of defeat might be enough to cause one side to yield. If from the very start the other side feels that this is probable, it will obviously concentrate on bringing about this probability rather than take the long way round and totally defeat the enemy. Or even greater influence on the decision to make peace is the consciousness of all the effort that has already been made and of the efforts yet to come. Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.
We see that if one side cannot completely disarm the other, the desire for peace on either side will rise and fall with the probability of further successes and the amount of effort these would require. If such incentives were of equal strength on both sides, the two would resolve their political disputes by meeting half way. If the incentive grows on one side, it should diminish on the other. Peace will result so long as their sum total is sufficient–though the side that feels the lesser urge for peace will naturally get the better bargain. One point is purposely ignored for the moment–the difference that the positive or negative character of the political ends is bound to produce in practice. As we shall see, the difference is important, but at this stage, we must take a broader view because the original political objects can greatly alter during the course of the war and may finally change entirely since they are influenced by events and their possible consequences.
The question now arises how success can be made more likely. One way, of course, is to choose objectives that will incidentally bring upon the enemy’s collapse–the destruction of his armed forces and the conquest of his territory; but neither is quite what it would be, if our real object were the total defeat of the enemy. When we attack the enemy, it is one thing if we mean our first operation to be followed by others until all resistance has been broken; it is quite another if our aim is only to obtain a single victory, in order to make the enemy insecure, to impress our greater strength upon him, and to give him doubts about his future. If that is the extent of our aim, we will employ no more strength than is absolutely necessary. In the same way, conquest of territory is a different matter if the enemy’s collapse is not the object. If we wish to gain total victory, then the destruction of his armed forces is the most appropriate action and the occupation of his territory only a consequence. To occupy land before his armies are defeated should be considered at best a necessary evil. If on the other hand we do not aim at destroying the opposing army, and if we are convinced that the enemy does not seek a brutal decision, but rather fears it, then the seizure of a lightly held or undefended province is an advantage in itself; and should this advantage be enough to make the enemy fear for the final outcome, it can be considered as a short cut on the road to peace. But there is another way. It is possible to increase the likelihood of success without defeating the enemy’s forces. I refer to operations that have direct political repercussions, that are designed in the first place to disrupt the opposing alliance, or to paralyze it, that gain us new allies, favourable affect the political scene, etc. If such operations are possible, it is obvious that they can greatly improve our prospects, and that they can form a much shorter route to the goal than the destruction of the opposing armies.
The second question is how to influence the enemy’s expenditure of effort; in other words, how to make the war costly to him. The enemy’s expenditure of effort consists in the wastage of his forces—our destruction of them; and in his loss of territory—our conquest. Closer study will make it obvious that both of these factors can vary in their significance with the variation in objectives. As a rule the difference will be slight, but that should not mislead us, for in practice, when strong motives are not present, the slightest nuances often decide between the different uses of force. For the moment all that matters is to show that, given certain conditions, different ways of reaching the objective are possible and that they are neither inconsistent, absurd, not even mistaken. In addition, there are three other methods directly aimed at increasing the enemy’s expenditure of effort. The first of these is invasion that is the seizure of enemy territory; not with the object of retaining it but in order to exact financial contributions, or even to lay it waste. The immediate object here is neither to conquer the enemy country nor to destroy its army, but simply to cause personal damage. The second method is to give priority to operations that will increase the enemy’s suffering. It is easy to imagine two alternatives: one operation is far more advantageous if the purpose is to defeat the enemy; the other is more profitable if that cannot be done. The first tends to be described as the more military, the second the more political alternative. From the highest point of view, however, one is as military as the other, and neither is appropriate unless it suits the particular conditions. The third, and far the most the most important method, judging from the frequency of its use, is to wear down the enemy. That expression is more than a label; it describes the process precisely, and is not as metamorphic as it may seem at first. Wearing down the enemy in a conflict means using the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance. If we intend to hold out longer than our opponent we must be content with the smallest possible objects, for obviously a major object requires more effort than a minor one. The minimum object is pure self-defence; in other words, fighting without a positive purpose. With such a policy our relative strength will be at its height, and thus the prospects for a favourable outcome will be greatest. But how far can this negativity be pushed? Obviously not to the point of absolute passivity, for sheer endurance would not be fighting at all. But resistance is a form of action, aimed at destroying enough of the enemy’s power to force him to renounce his intentions. Every single act of our resistance is directed to act alone, and that is what makes our policy negative.
Undoubtedly a single action, assuming it succeeds, would do less for a negative aim than it would for a positive one. But that is just the difference; the former is more likely to succeed and so to give you more security. What it lacks in immediate effectiveness it must make up for it in use of time that is by prolonging the war. Thus the negative aim, which lies at the heart of pure resistance, is also the natural formula for outlasting the enemy, for wearing him down.
Here lies the origin of the distinction that dominates the whole of war: the difference between attack and defence. We shall not pursue the matter now, but let us just say this: that from the negative purpose derive all the advantages, all the more effective forms of fighting, and that in it is expressed the dynamic relationship between the magnitude and likelihood of success. All this will be gone into later.
If the negative aim—that is, the use of every means available for pure resistance—gives an advantage in war, the advantage need only be enough to balance any superiority the opponent may possess.: in the end his political object will not seem worth the effort it costs. He must then renounce his policy. It is evident that this method, wearing down the enemy, applies to the greater number of cases where the weak endeavor to resist the strong,
Frederick the Great* would never have able to defeat Austria* in the Seven Year War*: and had he tried to fight in the manner of Charles XII* he would unfailingly have been destroyed himself. But for seven years he skillfully husbanded his strength and finally convinced the allies that far greater efforts were needed than they had foreseen. Consequently they made peace.
*Frederick the Great: Frederick II Hohenzollern, king of Prussia (1712-86) who used a series of wars, mainly against Austria, but also against France and Russia, to increase the Hohenzollern possessions, notably to include Silesia and large parts of Prussia.
*Austria: the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, uniting many territories including Austria, Hungary, and Croatia under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty. The emperor was also, in personal union, king of Hungary. Napoleon forced Emperor Francis Joseph II to resign the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which was dissolved; henceforth the Habsburgs were reduced to being emperors of Austria and kings of Hungary.
*Seven Years War: this war (1756-63) pitted Prussia, Britain, and Hanover against Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Spain. Britain fought France for supremacy overseas and the British captured French Canada and ousted the French from India. Prussia, under Frederick the Great, fought Austria for domination of Germany the war ended in 1763 by the treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg, leaving Britain the supreme European naval and colonial power and Prussia in a much stronger position in central Europe..
Charles XII: king of Sweden (1682-1718), Charles fought various wars against Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and was defeated by Russia at the famous battle of Poltava that ended Swedish predominance in the Baltic, replacing it with an ascendant Russia (1790).
We can now see that in war many roads lead to success, and that they do not all involve the opponent’s outright defeat. The range from the destruction of the enemy’s forces, the conquest of his territory, to a temporary occupation or invasion, to projects with an immediate political purpose, and finally to passively awaiting the enemy’s attacks. Any one of these may be used to overcome the enemy’s will: the choice depends on circumstances. One further kind of action, of shortcuts to the goal needs mention: one could call them arguments.is there a field of human affairs where personal relations do not count, where the sparks they strike do not leap across all practical considerations? The personalities of statesmen and soldiers are such important factors that in war above all it is vital not to underrate them. It is enough to mention this point: it would be pedantic to attempt a systematic classification. It can be said, however, that these questions of personality and personal relations raise the number of possible ways of achieving the goal of policy to infinity. To think of these shortcuts as rare exceptions, or to minimize the difference they can make to the conduct of war, would be to underrate them. To avoid that error we need only bear in mind how wide a range of political interests can lead to war, or think for a moment of the gulf that separates a war of annihilation, a struggle for political existence, from a war reluctantly declared in consequence of political pressure or of an alliance that no longer seems to reflect the state’s true interests. Between these two extremes lie numerous gradations. If we reject a single one of them on theoretical grounds, we may as well reject them all, and lose contact with the real world.
So much then for the ends to be pursued in war, let us now turn to the means.
There is only one: combat. However many forms combat takes, however far it may be removed from the brute discharge of hatred and enmity of a physical encounter, however many forces may intrude which themselves are not part of fighting, it is inherent in the very concept of war that everything that occurs must originally derive from combat. It is easy to show that this is always so, however many forms reality takes. Everything that occurs in war results from the existence of armed forces; but whenever armed forces that are armed individuals are used, the idea of combat must be present. Warfare comprises everything related to the fighting forces—everything to do with their creation, maintenance, and use. Creation and maintenance are obviously only means; their use constitutes the end.
Combat in war is not a contest between individuals. It is a whole made up of many parts, and in that whole two elements may be distinguished, one determined by the subject, the other by the objective. The mass of combatants in an army endlessly form fresh elements, which themselves are parts of a greater structure. The fighting of each of these parts constitutes a more or less clearly defined element. Moreover, combat itself is made an element of war by its very purpose, by its objective. Each of these elements which become distinct in the course of fighting is named an engagement.
If the idea of fighting underlies every use of the fighting forces, then their employment means simply the planning and organizing of a series of engagements. The whole of military activity must therefore directly or indirectly to the engagement. The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time.
If all threads of military activity lead to the engagement, then if we control the engagement, we comprehend them all. Their results are produced by our orders and by the execution of those orders never directly by other conditions. Since in the engagement everything is concentrated on the destruction of the enemy, or rather of his armed forces, which is inherent in its very concept, it follows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces is always the means by which the purpose of the engagement is achieved. The purpose in question may be the destruction of the enemy’s forces, but not necessarily so; it may be quite different. As we have shown, the destruction of the enemy is not the only means of attaining the political object, when there are other objectives for which the war is waged. It follows that those other objectives can also become the purpose of particular military operations, and thus also the purpose of engagements. Even when our subordinate engagements are directly intended to destroy the opposing forces, that destruction still need not be their first, immediate concern.
Bearing in mind the elaborate structure of an army, and the numerous factors that determine its employment, one can see that that the fighting activity of such a force is also subject to complete organization, division of functions and combinations. The separate units t obviously must often be assigned tasks that are not in themselves concerned with the destruction of the enemy’s forces, which may indeed increase their losses but do so only indirectly. If a battalion is ordered to drive the enemy from a hill, a bridge, etc., the true purpose is normally to occupy the point. Destruction of the enemy’s force is only a means to an end, a secondary matter. If a mere demonstration is enough to cause the enemy to abandon his position, the objective has been achieved; but as a rule the hill or bridge is captured only so that even more damage can be inflicted on the enemy. If this is the case of the battlefield, it will be even more so in the theatre of operations, where it not merely two armies that are facing each other, but two states, two [peoples, two nations. The range of possible circumstances, and therefore of options, is greatly increased, as is the variety of dispositions; and the gradation of objects at various levels of command will further separate the first means from the ultimate purpose.
Thus there are many reasons why the purpose of an engagement may not be the destruction of the enemy’s forces, the forces immediately confronting us. Destruction may be merely a means to some other end. In such a case, total destruction has ceased to be the point; the engagement is nothing but a trial of strength. In itself it is of no value; its significance lies in the outcome of the trial.
When one force is a great deal stronger than the other, an estimate may be enough. There will be no fighting: the weaker side will yield at once. The fact that engagements do not always aim at the destruction of the opposing forces, that their objectives can often be attained without any fighting at all but merely by an evaluation of the situation, explain why entire campaigns can be conducted with great energy even though actual fighting plays an unimportant part in them. This is demonstrated by hundreds of examples in the history of war. Here we are only concerned to show that it is possible; we need not ask how often it was appropriate; in other words consistent with the overall purpose, to avoid the test of battle, or whether all the reputations made in such campaigns would stand the test of critical examination.
There is only one means in war: combat. But the multiplicity of forms that combat assumes leads us in as many directions as are created by the multiplicity of aims, so that our analysis does not seem to have made any progress. But that is not so: the fact that only one means exists constitutes a strand that runs through the entire web of military activity and really holds it together.
We have shown that the destruction of the enemy’s forces is one of the many objects that can be pursued in war, and we have left aside the question of its importance relative to other purposes. In any given case the answer will depend on circumstances; its importance to war in general remains to be clarified. We shall now go into this question, and we shall see what value must necessarily be attributed to this object of destruction.
Combat is only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy’s forces as a means to a further end. That holds good even if no actual fighting occurs, because the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed. It follows that the destruction of the enemy’s force underlies all military actions; all plans are ultimately based on it, resting on it like an arch on its abutment. Consequently, all action is undertaken in the belief that if the ultimate test of arms should actually occur, the outcome would be favourable. The decision by arms is for all major and minor operations in war what cash payment is in commerce. Regardless how complex the relationship between the two parties, regardless how rarely settlements actually occur, they can never be entirely absent.
If the decision by fighting is the basis of all plans and operations, it follows that the enemy can frustrate everything through a successful battle. This occurs not only when the encounter affects an essential factor in our plans, but when any victory that is won is of sufficient scope. For every important victory—that is, destruction of opposing forces—reacts on all other probabilities. Like liquid, they will settle at a new level.
Thus it is evident that destruction of enemy forces is always the superior, more effective means, with which others cannot compete. But of course, we can only say destruction of the enemy is more effective if we can assume that all other conditions are equal. It would be a great mistake to deduce from this argument that a headlong rush must always triumph
Our discussion has shown that while in war many different roads can lead to the goal, to the attainment of the political object, fighting is the only possible means. Everything is governed by a supreme law, the decision by force of arms. If the opponent does seek battle, this recourse can never be denied him. A commander who prefers a different strategy must first be sure that his opponent either will not appeal to the supreme tribunal–force–or that he will the verdict if he does. To sum up: of all possible aims in war, the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces always appears as the highest.
At a later stage and by degrees, we shall see what other kinds of strategies can achieve in war. All we need to do for the moment is to admit the general possibility of their existence, the possibility of deviating from the basic concept of war under the pressure of special circumstances. But even at this point we must not fail to emphasize that the violent resolution of the crisis, the wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces, is the first-born son of war. If the political aims are small, the motives slight and tensions low, a prudent general may look for any way to avoid major crises and decisive actions, exploit any weaknesses in the opponent’s military and political strategy, and finally reach a peaceful settlement. If his assumptions are sound and promise success we are not entitled to criticize him. But he must never forget that he moving on devious paths where the god of war may catch him unawares. He must always keep an eye on his opponent so that he does not, if the latter has taken up a sharp sword, approach him armed only with an ornamental rapier.
These conclusions concerning the nature of war and the function of its purposes and means; the manner in which war in practice deviates in varying degrees from its basic, rigorous concept, taking this form or that, but always remaining subject to that basic concept, as to a supreme law; all these points must be kept in mind in our subsequent analyses if we are to perceive the real connections between all aspects of war, and the true significance of each; and if we wish to avoid constantly falling into the wildest inconsistency and even with our own arguments with reality.
Attack and Defence
The Concept of Defence
What is the concept of defence? The parrying of a blow; what is its characteristic feature? Awaiting the blow.
It is this feature that turns any action into a defensive one; it is the only test by which defence can be distinguished from attack in war. Pure defence, however, would be completely contrary to the idea of war, since it would mean that only one side was waging it. Therefore, defence in war can only be relative, and the characteristic feature of waiting should be applied only to the basic concept, not to all its components. A partial engagement is defensive if we await the advance, the charge of the enemy. A battle is defensive if we await the attack–await, that is, the appearance of the enemy in front of our lines and within range. A campaign is defensive if we wait for our theatre of operations to be invaded. In each of these cases the characteristic of waiting and parrying is germane to the general idea without being in conflict with the concept of war; for we may find it advantageous to await the charge against our bayonets and the attack on our position and theatre of operations. But if we are really waging war, we must return the enemy’s blows; and these offensive acts in a defensive war come under the heading of ‘defence’– in other words, our offensive takes place within our own positions or theatre of operations. Thus, a defensive campaign can be fought with offensive battles, and in a defensive battle, we can employ our divisions offensively. Even in a defensive position, awaiting the enemy assault, our bullets take the offensive. So the defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows.
Advantages of Defence
What is the object of defence? Preservation. It is easier to hold ground than take it. It follows that defence is easier than attack, assuming both sides have equal means. Just what is it that makes preservation and protection so much easier? It is the fact that time which is allowed to pass unused accumulates to the credit of the defender. He reaps where he did not sow. Any omission of attack- whether from bad judgement, fear, or indolence–accrues to the defender’s benefit. This saved Prussia from disaster more than once during the Seven Years War. It is a benefit rooted in the concept and object of defence: it is the nature of all defensive action. In daily life, and especially in litigation (which so closely resembles war) it is summed up by the Latin proverb beati sunt possidentes. Another benefit, one that arises solely from the nature of war, derives from the advantage of position, which tends to favour the defence.
Having outlined these general concepts, we now turn to the substance.
Tactically, every engagement, large or small, is defensive if we leave the initiative to our opponent and await his appearance before our lines. From that moment on we can employ all offensive means without losing the advantages of the defensive- that is to say the advantages of waiting and the advantages of position. At the strategic level the campaign replaces the engagement, and the theatre of operations takes the place of the position. At the next stage, the war as a whole replaces the campaign, and the whole country the theatre of operations. In both cases, defence remains the same as at the tactical level.
We have already indicated in general terms that defence is easier than attack. But defence has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest. The latter increases one’s own capacity to wage war; the former does not. So in order to state the relationship precisely, we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive. This is the point we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again, it is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.
If defence is the stronger form of war, yet it has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object. When one has used defensive measures successfully, a more favourable balance of strength is usually created; thus, the natural course in war is to begin defensively and end by attacking. It would therefore contradict the very idea of war to regard defence as its final purpose, just as it would to regard the passive nature of defence not only as inherent in the whole but also in all its parts. In other words, a war in which victories were used only defensively without the intention of counterattacking would be as absurd as a battle in which the principle of absolute defence- passivity, that is- were to dictate every action.
The soundness of this general idea could be challenged by citing many examples of wars in which the ultimate purpose of defence was purely defensive, without any thought being given to a counteroffensive. This line of argument would be possible if one forgot that a general concept is under discussion. The examples that could be cited to prove the opposite must all be classed as cases in which the possibility of a counteroffensive had not yet arisen.
In the Seven Years War, for instance, Frederick the Great had no thought of taking the offensive, at least not in the final three years. Indeed, we believe that in this war he always regarded offensives solely as a better means of defence. This attitude was dictated by the general situation; and it is natural for a commander to concentrate only on his immediate needs. Nevertheless one cannot look at this example of defence on a grand scale without speculating that the idea of a possible counteroffensive against Austria may have been at the root of it, and conclude that the time of such a move had not yet come. The peace that was concluded proves that his was not an empty assumption: what else could have induced the Austrians to make peace but the thought that their forces could not on their own outweigh the genius of the King; that in any case they would have to increase their efforts; and that any relaxation was almost bound to cost them further territory? And, indeed, is there any doubt that Frederick would have tried to crush the Austrians in Bohemia and Moravia, again in Russia, Sweden, and the Army of the Empire had not diverted his energies?
Now that we have defined the concept of defence and have indicated its limits, we return once more to our claim that the defence is the stronger form of waging war.
Close analysis and comparison of attack and defence will prove the point beyond all doubt. For the present, we shall merely indicate the inconsistencies the opposite view involves when tested by experience. If attack were the stronger form, there would be no case for using the defensive, since its purpose is only passive. No one would want to do anything but attack: defence would be pointless. Conversely, it is natural that the greater object is bought by greater sacrifice. Anyone who believes himself strong enough to employ the weaker form, attack, can have the higher aim in mind; the lower aim can only be chosen by those who need to take advantage of the stronger form, defence. Experience shows that, given two theatres of operations, it is practically unknown for the weaker army to attack and the stronger stay on the defensive. The opposite has always happened everywhere, and amply proves that commanders accept defence as the stronger form, even when they personally would rather attack.
The Military Genius
“Determination in a single instance is an expression of courage; if it becomes characteristic, a mental habit. But here we are referring not to physical courage but to the courage to accept responsibility, courage in the face of a moral danger. This has often been called courage d’espirit,because it is created by the intellect. That, however, does not make it an act of the intellect: it is an act of temperament. Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that most intelligent people are irresolute. Since in the rush of events a man is governed by feelings rather than by thought, the intellect needs to arouse the quality of courage, which then supports and sustains it in action.
Looked at in this way, the role of determination is to limit the agonies of doubt and the perils of hesitation when the motives for action are inadequate. Colloquially, to be sure, the term ‘determination’ also applies to a propensity for daring, pugnacity, boldness, or temerity. But when a man has adequate grounds for action—whether subjective or objective, valid or false—he cannot properly be called be called ‘determined’. This would amount to putting oneself in his position and weighing the scale with a doubt that he never felt. In such a case it is only a question of strength or weakness.
Determination, which dispels doubt, is a quality that can be aroused only by intellect, and by a specific cast of mind at that. More is required to create determination than a mere conjunction of superior insight with the appropriate emotions. Some may bring the keenest brains to the most formidable problems, and may possess the courage to accept serious responsibilities, but when faced with a difficult situation they still find themselves unable to reach a decision. Their courage and their intellect work in different compartments, not together, determination, therefore, does not result. It is engendered only by a mental act;the mind tells man that boldness is required, and thus gives direction his will. This particular cast of mind, which employs the fear of wavering andhesitatingto suppress all other fears, is the force that makes strong men determined. Men of low intelligence, therefore, cannot possess determination in the sense in which we use the word. They may act without hesitation in a crisis, but if they do, they act without reflection;and the man who acts without reflection cannot, of course, be torn by doubt. From time to time action of this type may even be appropriate; but as I have said before, it is the average result that indicates the presence of military genius. The statement may surprise the reader who knows some determined cavalry officers who are little given to deep thought: but he must remember that we are talking about a special kind of intelligence, not about great powers of meditation.
In short, we believe that determination proceeds from a special type of mind, from a strong rather than a brilliant one. We can give further proof of this interpretation by pointing to the many examples of men who show great determination as junior officers, but lose it as they rise in rank. Conscious of the need to be decisive, they also recognize the risks entailed by a wrongdecision; since they are unfamiliar with the problem now facing them; their mind loses the former incisiveness. The more used they had been to instant action, the more their timidity increases as they realize the dangers of the vacillation that ensnares them.
Inflammable emotions, feelings that are easily roused, are in general of little value in practical life, and therefore of little value in war. Their impulses are strong but brief. If the energy of such men is joined to courage and ambition they will often prove most useful at a modest level of command, simply because the action controlled by junior officers is of short duration. Often a single brave decision, a burst of emotional force, will be enough. A daring assault is the work of a few minutes, while a hard-fought battle may last a day, and a campaign an entire year.
Their volatile emotions make it doubly hard for such men to preserve their balance; they often lose their heads, and nothing is worse on active service. All the same, it would be untrue to say that highly excitable minds could never be strong—that is, could never keep their balance even under the greatest strain. Why should they not have a sense of their own dignity, since as a rule they are among the finer natures? In fact, they usually have such a sense but there is not time for it to take effect. Once the crisis is past they tend to ashamed of their behaviour. If training, self- awareness, and experience sooner or later teaches them how to be on guard against themselves, then in times of great excitement an internal counterweight will assert itself so that they too can draw on great strength of character.
Lastly, we come to men who are difficult to move but have strong feelings—men who are to the previous type like heat to a shower of sparks. These are men who are best able to summon the titanic strength it takes to clear away the enormous burden that obstructs activity in war. Their emotions move as great masses do—slowly but irresistibly. These men are not swept away by their emotions so often as in the third group, but experience shows that they too can lose their balance and be overcome by blind passion. This can happen whenever they lack the noble pride of self-control, or whenever it’s inadequate. We find this condition mostly among great men in primitive societies where passion tends to rule for lack of intellectual discipline. Yet even among educated peoples and civilized societies men are often swept away by passion, just as in the Middle Ages poachers chained to stags were carried off to into the forest.
We repeat again: strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion, judgment and principle must still function like a ship’s compass, which records the slightest variations however rough the sea.
We say a man has strength of character, or simply character if he sticks to his convictions, whether they derive from his own opinions or someone else’s, whether they represent principles, attitudes, sudden insights, or any other mental force. Such firmness cannot show itself, of course, if a man keeps changing his mind. This need not be the consequence of external influence, the cause may be workings of his own intelligence, but this would suggest a peculiarly insecure mind. Obviously, a man whose opinions are constantly changing, even though this is in response to his own reflections would not be called a man of character.The term is applied only to men whose views are stable and constant.This may be because they are well thought-out, clear, and scarcely open to revision; or in the case of indolent men, because such people are not in the habit of mental effort and therefore have no reason for altering their views, and finally because a firm decision, based on fundamental principle derived from reflection, is relatively immune to changes of opinion. With its mass of vivid impressions and the doubts which characterize all information and opinion, there is no activity like war to rob men of confidence in themselves and in others, and to divert them from their original course of action.
In the dreadful presence of suffering and danger, emotion can easily overwhelm intellectual conviction, and in this psychological fog it is so hard to form clear and complete insights that changes of view become more understandable and excusable. Action can never be based on anything firmer than instinct, a sensing of the truth. Nowhere, in consequence, are differences of opinion so acute as in war, and fresh opinions never cease to batter one’s convictions. No degree of calm can provide enough protection: new impressions are too powerful, too vivid, and always assault the emotions as well as the intellect.
Only those general principles and attitudes that result from clear and deep understanding can provide a comprehensive guideto action. It is to these that opinions on specific problems should be anchored. The difficulty is to hold fast to these results of contemplation in the torrents of events and new opinions. Often there is a gap between principles and actual events that cannot always be bridged by sa succession of logical deductions. Then a measure of self-confidence is needed, and a degree of skepticism is also salutary. Frequently nothing short of an imperative principle will suffice, which is not part of the immediate thought-process, but dominates it: the principle is in all doubtful cases to stick to one’s first opinion and to refuse to change unless forced to do so by a clear conviction.A strong faith in the overriding truth of tested principles is needed; the vividness of transient must not make us forget that such truth as they contain is of a lesser stamp. By giving precedence, in case of doubt, to our earlier convictions, by holding to them stubbornly, our actions acquire that quality of steadiness and consistency which is termed strength of character. It is evident how strength of character depends on balanced temperament; most men of emotional strength and stability are therefore men of powerful character as well.
Strength of character can degenerate into obstinacy.The line between them is often hard to draw in a specific case; but surely it is easy to distinguish them in theory. Obstinacy is not an intellectual defect;it comes from reluctance to admit that one is wrong. To impute this to the mind would be illogical, for the mind is the seat of judgment. Obstinacy is a fault temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates before everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow.It might also be called vanity, if it were not something superior: vanity is content with the appearance alone; obstinacy demands the material reality.
We would therefore argue that strength of character turns to obstinacy as soon as a man resists another point of view not from superior insight or attachment to some higher principle, but because he objects instinctively.Admittedly, this definition may not be of much practical use; but it will nevertheless help us avoid the interpretation that obstinacy is simply a more intense form of strong character. There is a basic difference between the two. They are closely related, but one is so far from being a higher degreeof the other that we can even find extremely obstinate men who are too dense to have much strength of character.”
“The art of war in the narrower sense must now in its turn be broken down into tactics and strategy. The first is concerned with the form of the individual engagement, the second with its use. Both affect the conduct of marches, camps, and billets only through the engagement; they become tactical or strategic questions in so far as they concern either the engagement’s form or its significance. The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled. Tactics and strategy are two activities that permeate one another in time and space but are nevertheless essentially different.
Strategy is the use of an engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft he plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact shape the individual campaigns and , within these decide, decide on the individual engagements. Since most of these matters have to be based on assumptions that may not prove correct, while other, more detailed orders cannot be determined in advance at all, it follows that the strategist must go on campaign himself. Detailed orders can then be given on the spot, allowing the general plan to be adjusted to the modifications that are continuously required. The strategist in short, must maintain control throughout. This has not always been the accepted view, at least so far as the general principle is concerned. It used to be the custom to settle strategy in the capital, and not in the field—a practice that is acceptable only if the government stays so close to the army as to function as general headquarters.
Strategic theory, therefore deals with planning; or rather, it attempts to shed light on the components of war and their inter-relationships, stressing those few principles or rules that can be demonstrated. A prince or a general can best demonstrate his genius by managing a campaign exactly to suit his objectives and his resources, doing neither too much nor too little. But the effects of genius show not so much in novel forms of action as in the ultimate success of the whole. What we should admire is the accurate fulfillment of the unspoken assumptions, the smooth harmony of the whole activity, which only becomes evident in final success.
The student who cannot discover this harmony in actions that lead up to a final success may be tempted to look for genius in places where it does not exist and cannot exist. In fact, the means and forms that the strategist employs are so very simple, so familiar from constant repetition that it seems ridiculous in the light of common sense when critics discuss them, as they do so often, with ponderous solemnity. Thus, such a common place maneuver as turning an opponent’s flank may be hailed by critics as a stroke of genius, of deepest insight, or even of all-inclusive knowledge. Can one imagine anything more absurd?
It is even more ridiculous when we consider that these very critics usually exclude all moral qualities from strategic theory, and only examine material factors. They reduce everything to a few mathematical formulas of equilibrium and superiority, of time and space, limited by a few angles and lines. If that were really all, it would hardly provide a scientific problem for a school boy. But we should admit that scientific formulas and problems are not under discussions. The relationship between material factors is all very simple; what are more difficult to grasp are the intellectual factors involved. Even so, it is only the highest realms of strategy that intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships occur. At that level, there is little or no difference between strategy, policy and statesmanship, and there, as we have already said, their influence is greater in questions of quantity and scale than in forms of execution. Where execution is dominant, as it is in the individual events of a war whether great or small, then intellectual factors are reduced to a minimum.
Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy. Once it has been determined, from the political conditions, what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course. But great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not to be thrown off course by thousands of diversions. Take any number of outstanding men, some noted for intellect, others for their acumen, still others for boldness or tenacity of will: not one may possess the combination of qualities needed to make him a greater than average commander.
It sounds odd, but everyone who is familiar with this aspect of warfare will agree that it takes more strength of will to make an important decision in strategy than in tactics. In the latter, one is carried away by the pressures of the moment, caught up in a maelstrom where resistance would be fatal, and, suppressing incipient scruples, one presses boldly on. In strategy, the pace is much slower. There is ample room for apprehension, one’s own and those of others, for objections and remonstrations and, in consequence, for premature regrets. In a tactical situation one is able to see at least half the problem with the naked eye, whereas in strategy everything has to be guessed at and presumed. Conviction is therefore weaker. Consequently most generals, when they ought to act, are paralyzed by unnecessary doubts.
Now a glance at history. Let us consider the campaign that Frederick the Great fought in 1760, famous for its dazzling marches and maneuvers, praised by critics as a work of art—indeed a masterpiece. Are we to be beside ourselves with admiration at the fact that the King wanted first to turn Daun’s right flank, then his left, then his right again, and so forth? Are we to consider this profound wisdom? Certainly not, if we are to judge without affectation. What is really admirable is the King’s wisdom: pursuing a major objective with limited resources, he did not try to undertake anything beyond his strength, but always just enough to get him what he wanted. This campaign was not the only one in which he demonstrated his judgment as a general. It is evident in all the three wars fought by the great King.
His object was to bring Silesia into the safe harbor of a fully guaranteed peace.
As the head of a small state resembling other states in most respects, and distinguished from them only by the efficiency of some branches of its administration, Frederick could not be Alexander*. Had he acted like Charles XII*, he too would have ended in disaster. His whole conduct of war, therefore, shows an element of restrained strength, which was always in balance, never lacking in vigour, rising to remarkable heights in moments of crisis, but immediately afterward reverting to a state oscillation, always ready to adjust the smallest shift in the political situation. Neither vanity, nor ambition or vindictiveness could move him from this course; and it was this course alone that brought him success.
*Alexander: Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia (356-323BC), conqueror of Greece, Asia Minor, Persia, and the regions up to India, held up by successive generations as a great military example.
*Lacy: Franz Moritz, count of Lacy (1725-1801), Imperial field marshal who had fought Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War.
*Liegnitz: at the battle of Liegnitz in Silesia on 15 August 1760 during the Seven Years War, Frederick II managed to avoid encirclement by Austrian and Russian forces under Daun and Laudon along the Katzbach River.
*Frederick the Great:Frederick II Hohenzollern, king of Prussia (1712-86) who used a series of wars, mainly against Austria, but also against France and Russia, to increase the Hohenzollern possessions, notably to include Silesia and large parts of Prussia.
*Austria: the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, uniting many territories including Austria, Hungary, and Croatia under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty. The emperor was also, in personal union, king of Hungary. Napoleon forced Emperor Francis Joseph II to resign the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which was dissolved; henceforth the Habsburgs were reduced to being emperors of Austria and kings of Hungary.
*Seven Years War:this war (1756-63) pitted Prussia, Britain, and Hanover against Austria, France, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Spain. Britain fought France for supremacy overseas and the British captured French Canada and ousted the French from India. Prussia, under Frederick the Great, fought Austria for domination of Germany the war ended in 1763 by the treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg, leaving Britain the supreme European naval and colonial power and Prussia in a much stronger position in central Europe..
Charles XII: king of Sweden (1682-1718), Charles fought various wars against Denmark, Poland, and Russia, and was defeated by Russia at the famous battle of Poltava that ended Swedish predominance in the Baltic, replacing it with an ascendant Russia (1790).
How little these few words can do to appreciate that characteristic of the great general! One only has to examine carefully the causes and the miraculous outcome of this struggle to realize that it was only the King’s acute intelligence that led him safely through all hazards. This is the characteristic we admire in all his campaigns, but especially the campaign of 1760. At no other time was he able to hold off such a superior enemy at so little cost.
The other aspect to be admired concerns the difficulties of execution. Maneuvers designed to turn a flank are easily planned. It is equally easy to conceive a plan for keeping a small force concentrated so that it can meet a scattered enemy on equal terms at any post, and to multiply its strength by rapid movement. There is nothing admirable about the ideas themselves. Faced with such simple concepts, we have to admit they are simple. But let a general try to imitate Frederick! After many years eye-witnesses still wrote about the risk, indeed the imprudence, of the king’s position; and there can be no doubt that the danger appeared three times as threatening at the time as afterward.
It was the same with the marches undertaken under the eyes, frequently under the very guns, of the enemy. Frederick chose these positions and made these marches, confident in the knowledge that Daun’s methods, his dispositions, his sense of responsibility and his character would make such maneuvers risky but not reckless. But it required the King’s boldness, resolution, and strength of will to see things in this way, and not be confused and intimated by the danger that was still being talked and written about thirty years later. Few generals in such a situation would have believed such simple means of strategy feasible.
Another difficulty of execution lay in the fact that throughout this campaign the King’s army was constantly on the move. Twice in early July and early August, it followed Daun while itself pursued by Lacy*, from the Elbe into Silesia over wretched country roads. The army had to be ready for battle at any time, and its marches had to be organized with a degree of ingenuity that required a proportionate amount of exertion. Though the army was accompanied, and delayed, by thousands of wagons, it was always short of supplies. For a week before the battle of Liegnitz* in Silesia, the troops marched day and night, alternatively deploying and withdrawing along the enemy’s front. This cost enormous exertions and great hardship.
Could this be done without subjecting the military machine to serious friction? Is a general, by sheer force of intellect, able to produce such mobility with the ease of a surveyor manipulating an astrolabe? Are the generals and supreme commander not moved by the sight of the misery suffered by their pitiful, hungry, and thirsty comrade in arms? Are complaints and misgivings about such conditions not reported to high command? Would an ordinary man dare to ask for such sacrifices, and would these not automatically lower the morale of the troops, corrupt their discipline, in short undermine their fighting spirit unless an overwhelming belief in the greatness and infallibility of their commander outweighed all other considerations? It is this which commands our respect; it is these miracles of execution that we have to admire. But to appreciate all this in full measure one has to have had a taste of it through actual experience. Those who know war only from books or the parade ground cannot recognize the existence of these impediments to action, and we must ask them to accept on faith what they lack in experience. In itself, the deployment of forces at a certain point merely makes an engagement possible; it does not necessarily take place. Should one treat this possibility as a reality, as an actual occurrence? Certainly. It becomes real because of its consequences, and consequences of some kind will always follow.
Possible engagements are to be regarded as real ones because of their consequences
If troops are sent to cut off a retreating enemy and he thereupon surrenders without further fight, hus decision is caused solely by the threat of a fight posed by those troops. If part of our army occupies an undefended enemy province and thus denies the enemy substantial increments to his strength, the factor making it possible for our force to hold the province is the engagement that the enemy expects to fight if he endeavors to retake it. In both cases results have been produced by the possibility of an engagement; the possibility has acquired reality. But let us suppose that in each case the enemy has brought superior forces against our troops, causing them to abandon their goal without fighting. This would mean that we had fallen short of our objective, but still the engagement that we offered the enemy was not without effect—it did draw off his forces. Even if the whole enterprise leaves us worse than before, we cannot say that no effects resulted from using troops in this way, by producing the ;the effects were similar to those of a lost engagement.
This shows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces and the overthrow of enemy’s power can be accomplished only as the result of an engagement, no matter whether it really took place or was merely offered bot not accepted.
The twofold object of the engagement
These results are of two kinds: direct and indirect. They are indirect if other things intrude and become the object of the engagement—things which cannot in themselves be considered to involve the destruction of the enemy’s forces, but which lead up to it. They may do so by a circuitous route, but all the more powerful for that. The possession of provinces, cities, fortresses, roads, bridges, munitions dumps, etc., may be the immediate object of an engagement, but can never be the final one. Such acquisitions should always be regarded merely as means of gaining greater superiority, so that in the end w are able to offer an engagement to the enemy when he is in no position to accept it. These actions should be considered as intermediate links, as steps leading to the operative principle, never as the operative principle itself.
With the occupation of Bonaparte’s capital in 1814, the objective of the war had been achieved. The political cleavages rooted in Paris came to the surface, and that enormous split caused the Emperor’s power to collapse. Still, all this should be considered in the light of the military implications. The occupation caused a substantial diminution in in Bonaparte’s military strength and his capacity to resist, and a corresponding increase in the superiority of the allies. Further resistance became impossible, and it was this which led to peace with France. Suppose the allied strength had suddenly been similarly reduced by some external cause: their superiority would have vanished, and with it the whole effect and significance of their occupation of Paris.
We have pursued this argument to show that this is the natural and only sound view to take, and this is what makes it important. We are constantly brought back to the question: what, at any given stage of the war or campaign, will be the likely outcome of all the major and minor engagements that the two sides can offer one another? In the planning of a campaign or a war, this alone will decide the measures that have to be taken from the outset.
If this view is not adopted, other matters will be inaccurately assessed
If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves,we are liable to regard them as windfall profits. In so doing, and in ignoring the fact that they are links in a continuous chain of events, we also ignore the possibility that their possession may later lead to definite disadvantages. This mistake is illustrated again and again in military history. One could almost put the matter this way: just as a businessman cannot take the profit from a single transaction and put it into a separate account, so an isolated advantage gained in war cannot be assessed separately from the overall result. A businessman must work on the basis his total assets, and in war the advantages and disadvantages of a single action could only be determined by the final balance.
By looking on each engagement as part of a series, at least in so far as events are predictable, the commander is always on the high road to his goal. The forces gather momentum, and intentions and actions develop with a vigour that is commensurate with the occasion, and impervious to outside influences.”
Courtesy of : On War-Carl Von Clausewitz, Oxford University Press Oxford, New York 1976