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Battle-history... Story-global 1/2

General Tactical Review - The Battle
History & strategy
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The "battle-history", i.e. the narration of "war events", sometimes tedious, in chronological order, with more or less forceful details, has in the past undergone1 a kind of disqualification from academic circles.2. Yet, with its simple, clear and moving facts, it has made it easier to teach history to "our blond heads".

Indeed, it is easier to interest Godefroy de Bouillon, Joan of Arc and Bonaparte than Etienne Marcel, Colbert or Turgot. Similarly, it has always been easier to captivate an audience's attention by recounting the feats of arms of a genius.a general rushing to the head of his troops with a standard in his hand, rather than by making a study on the fall of the Sarraut ministry.3.

But this event story has given rise to a poor popular history. The school of annals (1929), then the school of the new history of the seventies, was opposed to this trend.4. This led to a virtual denial of any interest in the "event" in general and even in military matters, especially when battles were involved.

This lack of interest is not to the credit of the military. Often confronted with armed protagonists, the latter have, on the contrary, always studied the maneuvers of their elders. By creating the War School after the disaster of 1870, they even embarked on a "science of war", encompassing "the atmosphere in which strategists acted": i.e. the geographical conditions, the hazards and even the accidents that served and sometimes completely transformed the leader's action in combat, without leaving aside the demographic, industrial, social and political aspects of the moment, making the "history of battles" a global history. The conflicts of the twenty-first century, which now give battle a minor role in the resolution of a conflict, confirm the importance of considering the battle environment, in its broadest sense.

The charge: the academic world view

The scarcity of sources is a first argument in the mouths of the detractors of "battle-history". In antiquity, in fact, it is difficult to know how battles were fought. The stories are very literary. They are written to seduce an audience that listens to the reading of these texts. In fact, they appear more like propaganda praising the exploits of a military leader. The Gallic War is known in a largely one-sided way thanks to Caesar's account, which has most certainly obscured whole sections of it.5. We have no figures, few diagrams, let's not talk about the losses, which are always very approximate. Subsequent reconstructions by strategists are therefore distorted. Indeed, one cannot seriously study a battle if one does not know the terrain. Thus, how to study the battle of Carrhes, lost in 53 B.C. by the Romans against the Parthians; one does not know exactly where it takes place6. Another example, we are still shared today on the site of Alesia (52 BC): in Burgundy or in the Jura? Moreover, the circumstances of the surrender of Vercingetorix are still subject to doubt. For the period of the Middle Ages, we find the same problems. The chroniclers take many liberties: characters mentioned not present, speeches that have never been made, etc.. For the Battle of the Catalauniques Fields (451 AD), historians are divided between a geographical location that would be in Troyes or Châlons-sur-Marne. Moreover, if the knights testify, there is no account of the "manants" (archers, pikemen and other pedestrians). Thus, the absence of sources makes the battle of Azincourt (1415) an unreliable account. The plans studied are therefore, once again, more or less false, since we do not have a precise knowledge of most of the battlefields. These different events are therefore treated and analysed according to non-scientific procedures. The examples could be repeated over and over again.

There is also criticism of this vision of history which sows, by glorifying them, the military virtues and cultivates the cult of the hero. It is said to be designed to maintain a warlike spirit in the nation and there is a revolt against this culture of war and this vengeful history. The question is asked whether the time of misfortune should take precedence over the rest of the evolution of civilizations. It is stressed that the history of humanity cannot be reduced to the study of chaos, the analysis of the technical inventions that have civilized the world must find its place...

Criticism finally goes to the historian himself. The seriousness of an author consists in giving proof of what he advances: testimonies, supporting documents. This is called Positivism. But, one can object that, just as in the judicial field, a proof is fragile, contestable, uncertain. Two pitfalls lie in wait for the historian. Upstream of his work, he is confronted with sources that will serve as the "architecture" of his subject. But which sources should he choose? Does he have all the sources at his disposal? Let's take a historical example.

On the night of 20-21 December 1813, violating Swiss neutrality, the coalition crossed the Rhine at Basel and entered Alsace. An order from Berthier on 26 December ordered Marshal Marmont (6th army corps and 1st cavalry corps) to leave his positions (region of Coblence-Spire) and head for Strasbourg. The Ricard division moves southwards. But, in its movement, the tail of its column is attacked. General's comment: he reports to Berthier the passage of the enemy on the left bank of the Rhine and its withdrawal inland to the town of Saarbrücken. Comment of the squadron leader of Freytag de Bellancourt (1st regiment of honour guards): " ... we gathered a few troops to meet a party that approached us ...7». Comment from a soldier: "... we were directed to Trier. It was almost like retracing our steps. By the way, it often seemed extraordinary to us that we were made to take so many steps and risers ... perhaps it was necessary, but it seemed suspicious to us.8 ». The reality: the Prussian York Corps crossed the Rhine at Kaub on 1 January 1814 and cut the French column in half before falling back on Mainz Square.

Thus, for the same fact, we have three different testimonies. One understands the difficulty of approaching reality through three authentic sources. The second danger lies in the downstream criticism of the use of the document. The use of the archive can be biased by the historian, according to his experience, his personality and his desire to "prove". Let us take another example.

On 5 January 1814, General Ricard's rearguard had "a light engagement" at Saint Wendel with General York's vanguard head. This qualification of "light" appears in the report he sent to Berthier. But for the last five days, the French army has suffered setbacks after setbacks and its morale is at its lowest. We are eager for good news. In the course of the hierarchical reports, the "light engagement" becomes a great success. In his report to the Emperor on 8 January, the Major General wrote: "I receive a letter from the Duke of Ragusa... He announces that at Wendel (sic), the honour guards have been engaged with a Prussian vanguard and that the advantage has been on our side...9 ». However, all of the French army is in retreat, the number of the guards of honour on this point is about 180 sabres and the head of the York vanguard counts, at the very least, 1,000 men (sabres and bayonets)!

So what is left of objectivity? Positive history is therefore oriented and biased from the outset. This is what allowed Paul Valéry to point out after the Second World War that "history is the master of errors".10 " and to an American author quoted by Colonel Fox: "God can't change the past, historians can"...11 ». Marc Bloch in his notes on his Apologie pour l'histoire, métier de l'historien claims : "any history book worthy of the name should have a chapter... ...roughly entitled: How do I know what I'm going to write?12 ». For the latter, the conditions in which war is fought are always new. So it seems that when we talk about war, we are moving in a very fleeting element, always variable. Consequently, why waste time studying things that will never happen again?

1 Today, there seems to be renewed interest in "battle history".

2 Mignet (François-Auguste), for example, in his "Histoire de la Révolution française", which runs from 1789 to 1814, mentions "en passant" (in passing) the campaigns of Bonaparte-Napoleon, sometimes without naming the battles, whose successes would be mainly attributed to his army of citizens, rather than to his genius.

3 Sarraut replaced Daladier on 4 November 1933 and fell on the 24th of the same month.

4 Under the influence of the works of John Keegan, "Anatomy of Battle", and Georges Duby, "Le dimanche de Bouvines".

5 This problem affects history as a whole. How many files have been "de-loused", arranged... in some cases, there is no doubt that there is official documentation. The Battle of the Pont d'Arcole (September 15, 1796) is an example. Far from the image of Épinal, the reality is as follows: Bonaparte, who has thrown a flag in his hand, is jostled and falls into a marsh from which he is removed with difficulty. His column retreats... The real Battle of Arcole takes place the day after and the day after the bridge affair, to tell the truth, marginal. "Dictionnaire Napoléon", edited by Jean Tulard, Aubin, Poitiers, 1987.

6 Moreover, his account dates from several centuries after the event! But nothing is redhibitory. Military archaeology is a means of filling 'historical gaps'. For example, an inscription was recently discovered in Pompeii that dates from two months after the commonly accepted date of the destruction of the city.

7 Individual fileSeries 2YE.

8 Garceau (E.M.), " Le carnet de route d'un garde d'honneur ", aux carrefours de l'histoire, N° 44, sd.

9 National Archives AFIV 1667.

10 Valéry (Paul), " Regards sur le monde actuel ", Paris, Stock, 1931.

11 Fox (colonel), "Introduction à l'étude de l'histoire militaire", École d'Étatmajor, années 19521953, XIVe promotion, Cours d'Histoire militaire.

12 Marc Bloch, who was mobilized in 1939-40, undertook to deceive idleness during the "funny" war by writing the book that was the subject of this study. Shot in 1944, his papers contain only a few notes, notably his introduction to his work, which was barely sketched out.

Title : Battle-history... Story-global 1/2
Author (s) : Lieutenant-colonel Georges HOUSSET, CDEC, pôle études & prospective