Strategy and Combat Effectiveness


In my last post, I explored the relationship between the performance of British Second Army in Northwest Europe, 1944 to 1945, and three variables – levels of morale, the weight of firepower used, and the operational level approach employed. The blog concluded that there was a weak correlation between these variables and metrics that could be associated with success in battle. Instead, I argued that victory depended on the ability of individuals and units at every level of the military organisation to balance means available (be they material, tactical or morale) with the objectives and ends at hand. This interactive, dynamic process required a nuanced, flexible, and, dare I say it, a ‘strategic’, approach to combat performance.

Further consideration, therefore, of the relationship between combat performance and strategy might be worthwhile.

The challenge of devising a successful strategy to achieve a goal dominates military theory and practice. Strategy was the central and unifying theme of Clausewitz’s On War. The great man defined strategy as the ‘use of the engagement for the purpose of the war’. More recently, Colin Gray defined strategy as ‘the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy’, while Liddell Hart described strategy as ‘the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy’. Thus, it appears clear that the relationship between military means and policy objectives (or ends) is at the heart of the strategic process. Military decision makers have constantly to align their means to coincide with policy; vice versa, policy makers have to create policy in line with the available means.

To achieve policy by use of violent means, a belligerent has typically to match his effort against what Clausewitz referred to as an enemy’s ‘power of resistance’. This he expressed as ‘the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will’. To put it another way, all belligerents in a conflict engage with strategy and attempt to balance ends with means. Military means are a product of the interplay between the material capability to fight and the will to fight (morale, as defined in a previous post). When a belligerent can no longer continue to fight, because their material strength has been whittled away through attrition, or they are no longer willing to fight, and they desert or surrender en masse, that belligerent must eventually, by engaging in the strategic process, also alter policy (ends must reflect means). Victory ensues when a belligerent comes to the conclusion that they no longer have the means, either physical or psychological, or both, to resist the will of the enemy and they alter policy (to for example surrender or enter negotiations for a cease fire).

While strategy, in the current dominant usage, focuses on making war useable by the state, so that it can use force to fulfill its political objectives, it can also be used in the sense that one might have a ‘strategy’ to cross the fireswept zone and capture, for example, a pill box on the other side of a field. Militaries tend to refer to this type of activity as ‘tactics’ or ‘drill’. However, ‘tactics’ or ‘drill’, it can be argued, represent nothing more than formalised pre-packaged strategy. They provide junior leaders with ready-made solutions to balance ends and means in oft-repeated military scenarios. Strategy, understood as a process appears, therefore, to play a key role, in different guises, at different levels of military activity and may be understood to increase in complexity as one climbs the levels of war. Strategy at the tactical level can almost always be formalised in drill. Strategy at the operational level can be formalised in operational doctrine. However, at the military strategic, grand strategic or political levels, strategy becomes so complex and contingent that it is beyond formalisation or doctrine and becomes truly the art of the military or political genius.

Thus, it is fair to argue that decision makers at all levels in war have to act strategically (balance ends with means). As the strategies devised by political leaders and senior officers influence the goals and objectives and means available to those below them, strategy cascades in an interactive fashion from the top of the state apparatus to the activities of junior officers on the front line. In turn, the effectiveness of strategies employed by junior officers feed back up the levels of war, impacting on the goals and means of more senior officers and politicians.

We begin to see, therefore, the inadequacies in ‘narratives’ that explain combat performance as the product mainly of one element of strategy (morale, firepower or tactics), rather than the emergent outcome of a complex multidimensional process. Strategy can, and perhaps should be understood as an iterative multi-level decision-making continuum where decisions on means and ends at each level can affect decisions on means and ends at all other levels. While all-encompassing theories that focus on one or two variables to explain combat effectiveness may be attractive, the challenge for scholars trying to search for patterns is to recognise complexity and embrace its challenges rather than shy away from it in the search for simplicity. Indeed empiricism demands such a scholarly approach.

These ideas are explored further in my recent chapter in Anthony King’s new edited collection, Frontline: Combat and Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). An earlier version of the chapter can also be found online here.

Image: British Firefly tank patrolling the Meuse near Namur, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

The British Army and the Northwest Europe Campaign of the Second World War


In a previous blog post, I argued that by assessing rates of sickness, battle exhaustion, desertion, absence without leave and self inflicted wounds (SIW) in an army, morale can be accurately, and in a statistically robust way, measured. This methodological innovation makes it possible to assess and graph levels of morale in British Second Army during the Northwest Europe campaign of the Second World War.


Figure One: Second Army, Weekly Admissions per 1,000 to General Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations for Sickness, Battle Exhaustion and SIW, 11 June 1944 to 5 May 1945. Morale scale equivalents are presented on the right hand Y-axis.

The picture of morale that emerges from Figure One shows clearly that, while morale was, on the whole, high to excellent for much of the campaign, it did dip at some critical moments in July and November 1944 and January and February 1945. It could barely be described as ‘good’ during operations in the first half of August 1944, notably during Operation ‘Bluecoat’ and the attempt to close the Falaise pocket, and was seriously problematic on one occasion, during Operation ‘Goodwood’ in July 1944.

This analysis of morale supports the conclusions of much of the recent historiography on the British Army in Northwest Europe; morale was a necessary component of combat effectiveness (morale in Second Army was broadly speaking high throughout the victorious campaign); however, morale was not a sufficient explanation for Second Army’s successes and failures on the battlefield. For example, morale would appear to have been at its highest before and during Operation ‘Market Garden’. But ‘Market Garden’ was a failure. It is likely, as John Buckley has argued, that ‘Market Garden’ was a conceptual failure rather than a morale one. Morale would also appear to have been mostly high during operations in the Low Countries and Germany, but these operations were beset with setbacks and delays.

One of the key advantages of the quantitative assessment of morale presented here is that it allows the relationship between levels of morale and combat effectiveness to be quantitatively evaluated. Because the ‘Colossal Cracks’ operational approach employed by Second Army was essentially attrition based, an assessment of German casualties would be an excellent proxy for combat effectiveness. However, while such figures are available in ten day periods for the German Army as a whole, they do not differentiate between casualties inflicted by Allied nationality e.g. British, Canadian or American, making an accurate assessment of Second Army’s effectiveness on this basis problematic. As the number of enemy prisoners captured by Second Army per week is available, it may be used as a crude but useful alternative proxy for combat success. Once the numbers are crunched, we find that there was a weak negative correlation between the level of morale in each week of the campaign and the number of enemy prisoners captured per week.

So, how can we explain Second Army’s success in Northwest Europe? Any suggestion that Second Army’s combat performance was the product primarily of the application of overwhelming firepower appears to be undermined also by the available evidence. Army Operational Research Group Memorandum No. E20, ‘Some Statistics on the North West Europe Campaign’, clearly states that there ‘was no significant correlation between German casualties and either Allied [Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group and US 12th Army Group] casualties or Allied ammunition expenditure’. Furthermore, there was not a strong relationship between the firepower employed by 21st Army Group, of which Second Army was a key component, and the area of ground captured from the enemy (again, a crude but useful proxy for combat success). In fact, there was a similarly weak correlation between the firepower employed by 21st Army Group and the number of enemy prisoners captured.

Furthermore, any suggestion that the performance of Second Army was driven primarily by conceptual considerations appears to be ill founded. David French, Stephen Hart, and Stephen Biddle have all argued that Montgomery employed a systematic, or even formulaic, approach to battle in the Northwest Europe campaign. However, both theoretically and practically, there are limits to the effectiveness of systematic approaches to battle. Both Buckley and Terry Copp have argued that by 1944, German tactics had become so predictable that the Allies were able to devise their own strategies around them. The same can be said for the British approach. By 1944, the Germans were fully aware, for example, that the direction of creeping barrages indicated the thrust lines of impending advances. This made it easy for the Wehrmacht to place reserves at the decisive point at the key moment. Normandy did not go exactly according to plan; no military plan ever survives first contact with the enemy unchanged. In fact, as Buckley and Copp have intimated, the Northwest Europe campaign was characterised far more by adaptation and innovation than heretofore recognised. It can be argued, therefore, that British success was not built primarily on an operational, or conceptual, approach to the problem (however much this may have helped), but rather on the ability of individuals (including Montgomery) and units at every level of the military organisation to balance the available means (be they material, tactical or morale) with the objectives and ends at hand, as indeed they did over the course of the successful campaign. This interactive, dynamic process required a nuanced, flexible and strategic approach to combat performance – a challenge I explore in a recent chapter in Anthony King’s new edited collection, Frontline: Combat and Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). An earlier version of this article can be found here.

Image: General Montgomery stops his car to chat to troops during a tour of 1st Corps area near Caen, 11 July 1944, courtesy of The Imperial War Museum (photo B 6934).

‘They can’t kill us all’: Morale and the Study of Strategy


‘What are they going to do’, said one young man protesting in Hong Kong this week, ‘they can’t kill us all’. While one may admire the confidence and determination of youth, two points spring to mind. First, the Chinese authorities certainly could have killed the thousands of protestors massed in downtown Hong Kong; but, second, it was highly unlikely that the Chinese would have to do so.

It was far more probable that those ordinary citizens, courageous as they were, would have lost the will to continue the protest and negotiated a compromise settlement or have folded under pressure from the Communist party. Thousands of miles away in the Middle East, Islamic State fighters have recently precipitated the collapse of the Iraqi Army. War may be slaughter, but few Iraqi troops demonstrated a determination to fight to the last man or the last bullet for the Iraqi state.

In fact, rarely does one side have to kill everyone to subdue an enemy. Herein lies a fundamental truth in war and conflict: matters of morale and motivation are often central to outcomes.

Although the maintenance of morale has long been recognised in military circles as an important factor in war, ‘outside these circles’, as John Baynes has pointed out,  ‘there is sometimes difficulty in appreciating why this is so.’ Morale is a nebulous and difficult to define concept and is not obviously amenable to quantification.

General Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant General of the British Army during the Second World War, said that morale could only be ‘painted with the impressionistic brush of a Turner and not with the microscopic detail of a Canaletto.’ More recently, André Loez has gone so far as to say that ‘le “moral” des soldats n’existe pas’. Without a clear and reliable definition of morale, or an accepted approach to assess or ‘measure’ morale, it is extremely difficult to make connections between military outcomes and morale. As Millet, Murray and Watman have argued, one must include in the analysis of military effectiveness ‘non-quantifiable’ factors as well as those more readily amenable to measurement. ‘A more limited method only provides equally limited conclusions’.

In an attempt to make a contribution to the understanding of morale in military affairs, I argue, in a new article, ‘In Search of the ‘X’ Factor: Morale and the Study of Strategy’, that the concept of military morale remains ill defined, inconsistently used and poorly understood.

The article proposes that the concept of morale has no place in a critical analysis of the past unless it is clearly differentiated from definitions associated solely or primarily with mood or cohesion and the group. Instead, for morale to have explanatory value, particularly in a combat environment, a functional conceptualisation is proposed, which, while not excluding the role of mood or group cohesion, focuses its meaning and relevance on motivation and the willingness to act in a manner required by an authority or institution.

By drawing on studies made across the social sciences and on primary archival evidence from the British and Commonwealth Army’s experiences in North Africa in the Second World War, the article generates a multi-dimensional model of morale.  It suggests that morale can best be understood as emerging from the subtle interdependencies and interrelationships of the many factors known to affect military means. This perspective on morale allows the interaction between morale and policy to be explored in a manner that facilitates insight into the art of war (strategy).

The article explores methodologies to ‘measure’ and assess morale and argues, through the use of a case study on the North African Campaign of the Second World War, that the theories, models, definitions and methodologies explored can be employed by policy makers, military leaders and scholars to better understand and develop strategy.

Photograph: A soldier from 5 Platoon, 2 Mercian Regiment fires a 66mm HEAT L1A1 Rocket at insurgents during heavy fighting in Operation Panchai Palang near Babaji, Helmand, Afghanistan. (Courtesy