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Battle-history... Global Story 2/2

General Tactical Review - The Battle
History & strategy
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The defence rests

Unlike the academic world, "battle-history" has never been treated with disdain by the military institution. On the contrary, the study of past operations has always been of great interest to the great captains, most of whom have studied it passionately. Gustave Adolphe, Turenne, Condé and Napoleon are examples.

On 14 October 1813, in the middle of the Saxony campaign, Napoleon wrote to Marshal Marmont: "I'm sending you a report on the battle of Gustave Adolphe13whichdeals with the positions you occupy".

"... Knowledge of war can only be acquired through the study of the history of the wars and battles of the great captains and through experience," Napoleon explained. Napoleon, who was only First Consul, did not hesitate to have the 1770 General Essay on Tactics by the Count of Guibert reprinted at his own expense.14. One only has to go through the Emperor's correspondence, or the St. Helena Memorial, to discover how meticulously the great man had, from his adolescence, analysed the campaigns of previous centuries, particularly those of Turenne and Frederick II. Why this interest?

When studying a battle, one realizes, as in all social facts, that there are certain laws. Certain relationships between acts and their effects often remain constant, while certain circumstances and causes are always decisive. On the other hand, other elements of the battle carry the seeds of change or chance. The aim is to discern these two groups of laws. The first suben seems to represent the permanent rule of all action in warfare, the second groups together the consequences of material progress or particular circumstances. It is not a question of asking the "battle-history" of "recipes", which are the work of regulations, very often described as provisional, but of determining the constant magnitudes with which one must and always has had to reckon.15.

Thomas-Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, observed that irregular troops were unable to defend a position against a regular troop and that their impotence was evident in attacking a heavily held position. From this he deduced six principles for the insurgency to prevail16 :

  • the insurgency must be equipped with bases that are impregnable to direct attacks and psychological attacks;
  • the guerrillas must have a technologically advanced enemy, making them vulnerable in communications and logistics;
  • the regular adversary must be small enough in numbers not to occupy the entire territory in its depth;
  • the guerrilla must have at least the support of the population, at worst passive support;
  • the guerrilla must have basic qualities of endurance, presence, speed and logistical autonomy;
  • the guerrilla must have the weapons to hit the communications and logistics of the regular enemy.

Giap will admit that he was influenced by the principles on insurgent warfare evoked by Lawrence of Arabia.

The great danger may come from a misanalysis which would consist in confusing the immutable fundamental laws with the procedures which depend, to a large extent, on the progress of technology. The latter create new conditions which must be taken into account in practice.

Study the battles, yes, but, what battles? The systematic reference to conflicts close in time can be misleading. Indeed, the evolution of military art is not rigorously linear. The First World War, for example, offers a very clear break with those that immediately preceded it. On the other hand, we also see a return to the past. For example, the Renaissance brings back into fashion the legion model and consequently the model of shock and manoeuvre (Antiquity), while the use of gunpowder develops the use of fire, the successor of projection weapons (bows, catapults).17. The Battle of Stalingrad (17 July 1942 - 2 February 1943), has often been compared to the siege of Zaragoza (20 December 1808 - 21 February 1809) for the fierce street fighting. After the Second World War, General Halder, Hitler's Chief of Staff, regretted that despite his immense readings, the Führer did notHe regretted that despite his immense readings, the Führer did not take into consideration Stalin's victory over Denikin at Tsaritsyne (1919), because the Stalingrad manoeuvre was only a repetition of it twenty years later.18. In the 1980s, Hissène Habré's Chadian troops were equipped with new equipment, but used old tactics: "swarm attacks", which go back to the way the Turks operated in the High Middle Ages.19At the time of the French intervention in Mali, France's long experience of colonial wars (19th and 20th centuries) could be a subject of interest.20.

Battle history" become global history?

In reality, the analysis of the "battle", however important it may have been for the military, was never really limited to the strict study of the event in the military. Already in the First Empire, military writings go well beyond armed conflict. One need only consult the History of the French of the various states over the last five centuries to be convinced of this.21de Monteil, history teacher at the military school of Fontainebleau and, in 1814, librarian at the school of Saint Cyr. In this work, the author completes what he calls "the battle-history, that of the facts of war and the actions of kings, toldIn this work, the author completes what he calls "the battle-history, that of the facts of war and the actions of kings, told by other historians", by writing the history of peoples, that is to say of all classes of society. With this aim in mind, he studies each state in particular, in its "education", its customs, its works and what he calls its "special genius". Men of every rank and profession come successively to show themselves to the reader, accompanying the changing conditions that have marked their existence over the centuries.

The creation of the School of War after the defeat of Sedan, is part of the military's desire to make "battle-history" a global history. Commander Bonnal22From 1892 to 1896 he was in charge of the course on strategy and general tactics and studied the Napoleonic campaigns. His intention was to learn from them from the point of view of grand tactics and strategy, but he was less concerned with execution than with design, that is to say the idea of manoeuvre. It tends not only to expose the facts of history, but to reason, discuss and compare them, so as to develop the intellectual qualities and decision-making ability of officers. Foch, who succeeded him, speaking to officers, was fond of emphasizing: "My friends, study, not the history of facts, but the history of men. Indeed, a military event is the product of several series of "causes", not all of which are technical and military. To understand war is also to know the means that a power can use to defend or attack, be they human, material, financial or administrative. We cannot therefore ignore the history of the people, its military organization (conscription army/trade army) from which a doctrine is derived. In the same way, one cannot ignore its economy, on which its technology will depend, the political context (a totalitarian state/ a free state). In 1924, Camon remarked: "by plotting on a map the railroads built by the Germans in the last years (before the Great War) around Holland, the new bridges over the Rhine, the docks on the river Rhine, the docks on the river Rhine and the docks on the river Rhine.barquement, it would have been easy to predict the shape of the manoeuvre and the passage of the mass of the manoeuvre, if not through Holland, at least through central Belgium.23 ». However, war is also part of the history of relations between States and in particular the interplay of alliances. It is therefore appropriate to study international relations ... The "field" of battle is therefore extended to several auxiliary disciplines of history.

In modern warfare, according to Foch, the complete destruction of the adversary is the means to victory. Today, the battle is no longer an end for the armed forces. Until recently, the destruction of "the other" was the appropriate response to the conflict situation. This is no longer the case. The role of the battle is now reduced. The idea is not new and is now inspired by Gallieni and Lyautey.

"A country is not conquered and pacified when a military operation has decimated the inhabitants and bowed all heads...24 ».

The battle is necessary, it may be violent, but it must be brief. From a finality, it has become a condition for strategic success, which can be broken down into a stabilization phase, the new decisive phase. Finally, a phase of normalization must promote a return to peace. Now more than ever, evolving within peoples, it is of paramount importance to know them well. Today, victory today means above all conquering the hearts and minds of local populations. This vision of things, which minimizes the event without obscuring it, leads to new disciplines introduced by the legitimacy of action and the legal aspect of interventions.

The following sketch, which schematically characterizes the battle over the ages, is intended to put into perspective "the ingredients" whose mastery is indispensable for the military in order to win victory. It can be seen that :

  • knowledge of the "event" has always spilled over into factors peripheral to the battle;
  • the operational environment that must be mastered grows with time;
  • the intensity of the battle is not related to this increasingly complex operational environment.

In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that today the battle is only considered as part of a "global history", that of peoples and techniques. In recent decades, we have witnessed globalisation and geopolitical upheavals that have profoundly shaped warfare. It is more than ever this chameleon, as Clausewitz said. Today we are also witnessing a dilation of the battlefield which is upsetting the classical models. Distances are exploding, new dimensions are appearing: cyberspace and outer space. To this must be added the field of perceptions: the adversary, allies, political opinion, the opinion of the people, the media, etc. - the issues at stake and the actors in crises and wars. The classic battle is now giving way to a "new armed intervention". While its study is still necessary in order to identify principles, its teaching must, more than ever, encompass a whole series of peripheral parameters.

13 Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632), King of Sweden, died in a battle at Lützen.

14 Jacques-Antoine Hippolyte, Count of Guibert (17431790).

15 Already in antiquity, Cato advocated "the economy of means", de Guibert defended the need for "the economy of means". for the chief to preserve "his freedom of action", Napoleon stuck to "initiation, concentration of forces and surprise".

16 Quoted by Gérard Chaliand, "Anthologie mondiale de la stratégie", Robert Laffont, 1990; regularly updated.

17 In the same vein, the equipment of the forces of law and order (helmets with visors, shields and bullet-proof vests), is it not a resurrection of the defensive armament of the Middle Ages?

18 Lieutenant-Colonel de Cossé-Brissac, "Inaugural conference in the course of military history", 19471948.

19 Wanty (Emile), "L'art de la guerre de l'Antiquité chinoise aux guerres napoléoniennes", Gérard & Co, Verviers, 1967. (Battle of Dorylée in 1097).

20 One need only consider the excellent feedback from the PEP's recent writings on "L'armée des dunes" to be convinced of this.

21 Monteil (AmansAlexis), Histoire des Français des divers états aux divers derniers cinq siècles, Paris, 1827-1844.

22 GuillaumeAugusteBalthazarEugèneHenri Bonnal (1844-1917).

23 Camon (General), "L'étude des campagnes napoléoniennes estelle encore de quelque utilité", Revue militaire française, volume 2, April/June 1924.

24 Lyautey (colonel), "Du rôle colonial de l'armée", Paris, Armand Colin & Cie, 1900.

Title : Battle-history... Global Story 2/2
Author (s) : Lieutenant-colonel Georges HOUSSET, CDEC, pôle études & prospective