Napoleonic Wars

Why was Waterloo important?


200 years ago, almost to the hour, the battle of Waterloo commenced. The dramatic final showdown of 22 years of war, Waterloo had all the makings of a swashbuckling drama. It was the only occasion when Wellington and Napoleon encountered each other. Having escaped from the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba in March, Napoleon gambled everything to restore himself to the glory he had lost when abdicated the year before. Wellington, as the allied commander, represented a union of the Great Powers that had sworn to remain in the field until Napoleon was permanently exiled.

This great battle has been feted by history as one of Britain’s greatest military victories. Napoleon’s attack on Wellington’s line on the ridge of Mont St Jean near the village of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was indeed a close run thing. On several occasions, the ‘thin red line’ nearly buckled. But Wellington, commanding a melange of veterans and raw recruits drawn from armies across Europe, held firm until Blücher’s Prussian Army arrived on Napoleon’s right flank. Outnumbered and outflanked, a final assault by the Imperial Guard failed for a final time to break Wellington’s line, and the French Army, once the conquerer of Europe, collapsed.

But for all that, to a dispassionate (and believe me it is hard to be dispassionate) military historian, Waterloo is something of an anticlimax. Wellington himself commented shortly after the battle that ‘Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.’

Indeed, Napoleon’s tactical decisions at Waterloo are highly questionable. Why commit so many troops (some 13,000 throughout the day) to capturing the farmhouse of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank? Napoleon’s original plan was to force Wellington to reinforce his right flank and so weaken his centre. Napoleon would then launch a major assault on this weakened part of the British line. Wellington, though, saw through the deception, did not reinforce Hougoumont and instead Napoleon pumped more and more men into the Hougoumont vicinity in an effort to take the farm.

Similarly, later in the day, why did the French launch repeated cavalry charges without infantry or artillery support? The initial charge is understandable. Marshal Ney mistook a reorientation of Wellington’s position to be a sign of retreat. Believing he was on the brink of destroying Wellington’s army, Ney launched a cavalry attack. Instead, the French cavalry met some 36 well-disciplined infantry squares which successfully repulsed the French charge. But why follow this up with a further 12 charges, and waste the cavalry in such a fashion. Napoleon had previously illustrated his prowess for combined arms battle, but Waterloo represents the failure of combined arms, at least on the French part.

Finally, why, when he ordered the final attack by the Imperial Guard, did Napoleon distribute the attack en echelon, thereby dissipating its lethal power along the British line? Why not concentrate the attack in one place, the weakest point of Wellington’s position after the fall of the central farmhouse of La Haye Sainte? As it was, each battalion of the Imperial Guard encountered a strongly defended position, and were repulsed.

Waterloo, then, is a story of Wellington holding firm with a sub-optimal army, and Napoleon blundering badly on at least three occasions. And yet it is this battle that we collectively remember as Britain’s greatest military triumph. Of course, the odds were long, and the stakes high, but in reality, even if Napoleon had beat Wellington at Waterloo, he would have eventually faced a Austro-Russian army numbering in the region of 400,000, when he himself would have had by that stage fewer than 100,000 troops.

Wellington himself did not view Waterloo as his greatest victory. In later life, he referred to his first battle in command of an army in India – the battle of Assaye – and the battle of the Nivelle – a Peninsular War battle in the foothills of the Pyrenees – as his greatest battles. And it is easy to see why. Assaye was a fraught battle, fought in extreme conditions, in which the young Arthur Wellesley, a newly promoted General, demonstrated extraordinary courage and tactical skill. The Nivelle, meanwhile, is an illustration of a great practitioner of operational art at the height of his powers. Waterloo was neither of these. You can read more about these battles in an article published today in the British Journal of Military History, along with several other great pieces of historical research on the Peninsular War, Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo.

Why, then, was Waterloo important? It was important because it secured the peace the allies had fought so hard for the previous year. The map of Europe had been re-drawn and Waterloo prevented another war that would tear it up. On 20 November 1815, Louis XVIII of France signed the second peace of Paris, which reaffirmed the accords decided on in Vienna, and added in a new concept – the Concert of Europe, which would hold the peace of Europe for the next century. All of these things were possible because Napoleon was stopped at Waterloo.

The Road to Waterloo


‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me’. With these words, uttered in an anteroom at a ball famously hosted by the Duchess of Richmond three days before Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, commanding an allied army composed of Dutch, Belgian, German, and British troops ordered his force to concentrate at a small strategic crossroads south of Brussels, called Quatre Bras.

Napoleon had, indeed, fooled Wellington. Over the days preceding, Wellington had received conflicting intelligence about French intentions. Napoleon was attempting to convince his enemy that he would attack through the town of Mons, and then outflank Wellington’s position on the right and cut off the British line of retreat to the channel ports of Antwerp and Ostend. This was Wellington’s greatest fear, but he also offered him an opportunity to act as the principal instrument of Napoleon’s demise.

Tensions existed within the alliance that had assembled itself to resist Napoleon’s return from exile in Elba. Following Napoleon’s initial abdication in April 1814, representatives of the victorious powers congregated at Vienna to re-draw the map of Europe. Difficulties arose of the fate of Poland and Saxony. Russia wanted control of Poland, including its sizeable population, and Prussia control of Saxony. Britain, Austria and Royalist France were concerned about the growth of a powerful Russo-Prussian power bloc in Eastern Europe and resisted this move. Tensions flared until a new European war seemed a genuine prospect.

Eventually Russia accepted partial control of Poland, and Prussia made do with a third of Saxon territory. When news of the climb-down reached Berlin, the Prussian Army viewed the eventual treaty as insufficient recompense for the contribution it had made to the defeat of Napoleon in 1813-1814.

When Napoleon escaped Elba, the allies quickly set aside their differences and renewed the Treaty of Chaumont, under which each of the Great Powers committed at least 150,000 troops to the fight against Napoleon, and promised to stay in the war until Napoleon was defeated and either dead or once again under lock and key.

The two armies closest to Napoleon’s expected route of invasion (or in a position eventually to invade France if the opportunity presented itself) were the Anglo-Dutch Army commanded by Wellington and the Prussian Army commanded by General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

But tensions still existed, and the Prussians saw an opportunity to avenge their treatment at Napoleon’s hands in 1806, and re-write the treaty signed in Vienna. To do this, they would have to be able to claim a significant stake in the battle that defeated Napoleon. Wellington, who had been present in Vienna at the climax of the negotiations, was aware of this, and was keen to prevent such an event, since it might jeopardise Britain’s war aims.

To some extent, then, Wellington was hoping that Napoleon would outflank him, and he would be forced into a situation where the Anglo-Dutch force would take the brunt of the fighting against Napoleon. Blücher and the Prussians would play a secondary role in the battle, and therefore acquire fewer chips to cash at the peace table following Napoleon’s defeat. In so doing, Wellington was mirror-imaging – he was assuming Napoleon would act as he would in the same circumstances.

In fact, Napoleon decided to attack the central position, the weak point linking Wellington’s and Blücher’s army, in the hope of splitting the two and defeating them in detail. It was news of this that Wellington received at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. Humbugged, indeed.

The battles that took place on 16 June 1815 would, had they not been followed by the great encounter two days later, have stood out themselves as great engagements. Wellington deployed his forces into a line running east to west across the Quatre Bras crossroads. As units arrived on the field, they were deployed into position, plugging gaps that had developed. It was a mark of Wellington’s generalship that he got his army to concentrate from such a widespread distribution as he had on 15 July.

By contrast, Blücher received an onslaught from Napoleon’s army in an exposed position centred on the village of Ligny. Wellington advised him to deployed behind a slope north of Ligny near Sombreffe, but Blücher preferred to meet Napoleon head on. His army paid a high price, suffering considerably as a result of Napoleon’s well-positioned artillery.

By the end of the day, Wellington had managed to hold off a persistent challenge from Marshal Michel Ney, whilst the Prussians, temporarily commanded by Blücher’s chief of staff, August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, were forced out of their positions.

Although victorious at Ligny and achieving a score-draw at Quatre Bras, the French had undoubtedly under-performed. Twenty-two years of war were beginning to show. Ney, an extremely brave but impetuous soldier, behaved erratically, and was probably suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a particularly intense three years of warfare in Russia, Eastern and Central Europe and Germany. But Napoleon’s greatest weakness was the absence of his right hand man, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who had died suddenly in Vienna after falling through window on 1 June.

Berthier had been Napoleon’s chief of staff, and he was exceptionally skilled at translating Napoleon’s sometimes erratic and wild plans into recognisable and realisable orders. All dispatches were prepared in triplicate, two sent out (to ensure at least one was received) and the third held in a ‘Sent’ tray. Upon confirmation the dispatch had been received by its intended recipient, this copy was transferred to a ‘Received’ tray. The system was simple but it ensured Berthier, in an age of slow and unclear communication, knew precisely who knew what.

During the Waterloo campaign, Berthier’s shoes were inadequately filled by Marshal Nicolas Soult, a fine tactician, but ineffective staff officer. Gone were the clear articulation of Napoleon’s intent, and gone was the clear-sighted communications system. The result was close to chaos. Marshal D’Erlon, marching to support Napoleon at Ligny, was presented with order and counter-order, such that he marched and counter-marched between Quatre Bras and Ligny. At either he would have had a decisive effect, but his corps never entered action.

Despite intense suspicion of the British, Gneisenau ordered a retreat northwards rather than eastwards from Ligny, understanding that Blücher’s intent was to support Wellington in a second engagement. Blücher himself had briefly gone missing after being trapped under his horse which had been shot from under him. His soliders had covered him in a cloak to prevent his discovery by French cavalry. Returning to command he was pleased to find Gneisenau had ordered the retreat northwards, and sent word to Wellington that the Prussian army would support the Anglo-Dutch army if it fought a second battle.

Wellington himself withdrew in good order from Quatre Bras and through the 17 June his rear-guard, particularly the cavalry fought several successful actions to keep the French at bay.

Three days earlier, at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, when he had first received news of Napoleon’s attack through Charleroi and on towards Ligny and Quatre Bras, Wellington had anticipated he could not stop Napoleon at Quatre Bras. ‘We shall not stop him there’, he had muttered, and pointing to a ridgeway on the map, said ‘If so I must fight him there’.

Wellington’s destination was the ridge of Mont St Jean, a strong defensive position that he had reconnoitred the previous year, and which the Duke of Marlborough had even identified over a hundred years earlier as a good location from which to defend Brussels. The scene was set for the the climactic Battle of Waterloo.

Image: Cruicksank: Old Blucher banging the Corsican Drum.

Mechanisms of Knowledge Exchange in the Eighteenth Century British Army


Over the last few months, I have written on a number of occasions about how the British Army learned from its experiences – successful and unsuccessful – during the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is important because accepted historiographical analysis has it that the British Army was anti-intellectual, incapable of sharing ideas, and rooted in an anachronistic purchase system that saw the rich and wealthy able to buy promotion over and above more capable but poorer individuals.

The merits and pitfalls of the purchasing system can be set aside, because it is rather more interesting to question the premise of the assumption. Was the British Army institutionally incapable of learning the lessons of its failures and successes? And if not, how did this learning process occur? More generally, when viewed across a large canvas, the British Army learned from experiences and encounters right across the world. Between 1750 and 1850, British soldiers fought on almost every continent (all except Antartica), and it is clear that knowledge and experience was transferred from one theatre to the next.

But before we can come to a conclusion about what affect this global experience of warfare had on the British ‘way of war’, it’s necessary to explain how this knowledge was exchanged. I’ve already explored how British officers learned from exploring battlefields of previous campaigns and learning from the terrain of their predecessors.

Elsewhere I have also discussed what books British Army officers spent their time reading, whether it was treatises and polemics on the art of war, more systematic advice for officers, or military histories. The future Duke of Wellington, for example, had a healthy interest in military history, from Caesar to Marlborough and Saxe. Wellington also engaged in specific reading on the politics and history of the countries he was deployed to fight in. On his voyage to India in 1797, he read general histories of the subcontinent, as well as memoirs of recent military campaigns fought there.

Journals and diaries were one way in which knowledge was exchanged, albeit to a very selective audience. An even more select group might learn lessons and gain knowledge from correspondence with serving officers and soldiers. But in trying to prove a more widespread process of knowledge exchange and learning, neither of these are very satisfactory.

Perhaps the most systematised form of knowledge exchange occurred at one of the few military training camps. In 1803, a new training establishment was created at Shorncliffe in Kent, under the command of American and Egyptian veteran, General John Moore. He was tasked explicitly with creating and training an experimental rifle corps.

Shorncliffe was one of a number of innovative training establishments, some permanent, some temporary. At Shorncliffe, newly raised (or newly re-badged) Light Infantry regiments were trained in the art and practice of their new role. Moore was placed in command of the newly formed ‘Light Brigade’. Commanding the various regiments were Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Mackenzie, commanding the 52nd; Colonel Coote Manningham, commanding of the 95th; and Lieutenant-Colonel William Stewart, commanding I/95th.

All three were veterans of the petite guerre or Light Infantry campaigns in North or South America. Manningham gave a series of lectures on the role of Light Infantry in the order of battle, whilst Mackenzie drafted a new drill manual, perhaps taking inspiration from Regulations for the Exercise of Riflemen and Light Infantry, and their Conduct in the Field, by Baron de Rottenburg a Hessian officer with experience from America and Europe.

Shorncliffe was founded in the wake of one of the most successful British expeditions of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Egyptian expedition of 1801, which I wrote about in my last post on Defence-in-Depth. This campaign was remarkable more than for the success it achieved. The year prior to the amphibious landings at Abukir Bay, this expeditionary force had been floating around the Mediterranean in search of suitable target. A hand drawn map of the expedition’s progress accompanies this post. It records in meticulous detail the location of the expeditionary force at regular intervals.

Eventually alighting on Egypt, the GOC, General Sir Ralph Abercromby set about preparing his force for an amphibious assault with a month training on the Turkish coast. This much we know. But what interests me is what we don’t know. Cooped up on vessels for months on end, veterans of Britain’s past imperial campaigns, glorious and inglorious ,broke bread with the future leaders of the British Army, men who would go on to achieve success under Wellington’s command in the Peninsular War.

We’ll never know what conversations they had, of what experiences were shared and what knowledge was exchanged, but it is interesting to speculate, and I have written more on this subject here. As I write this, I have just returned from a study evening with 1 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade as they prepare for their Battlefield Study of Salamanca next week, exploring in more detail the role of Wellington’s intelligence networks, and the lessons the study of this history can provide the modern soldier.

Learning will take place during that trip, and knowledge will be exchanged and experiences, good and bad, will be talked about. An informal learning process will continue, as it always does. The process began in front of my eyes. I witnessed conversations between individuals who barely knew each other, but who were excited to discuss their experiences and pass on their knowledge. History cannot record everything. Few, if any of them will record a journal entry tonight and mention those conversations, and so this informal learning process will be lost to the historian.

Forgotten Battles: The Anglo-Ottoman Campaign in Egypt, March-September 1801


In 1799, the British Government assembled an expeditionary force for use in a joint operation with the Russians against French held Dutch ports. The campaign, commanded by the Duke of York, was a dismal failure, blighted by poor intelligence, inter-service friction and competing agendas on the part of the allied commanders.

Fought to a standstill, the 30,000 strong British force was withdrawn, and the campaign came to an ignominious conclusion. Although the campaign was a strategic failure, the British forces had nevertheless demonstrated some tactical flair on the battlefield. The British government now had a substantial and somewhat impressive expeditionary force at its disposal, and cast around for a suitable target.

Initially, the expeditionary force was deployed to the launch several attacks against targets of opportunity on the French coast and in the Mediterranean, but after several disastrous assaults against Isle de France, Vigo and Cadiz, Ministers in Whitehall were at a loss as to what to do with the 30,000 troops.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte had landed an army in Egypt with the intention of expanding French control into the Middle East, and possibly as far as India. Although his supporting naval force had been lost at the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798), Napoleon was still able to conquer Egypt and march into Syria. Eventually his army ran out of steam and proved unable to take the city of Acre, Turning back, the French retreated Egypt and Napoleon himself abandoned his army to return to France.

In late 1800, the British government decided to use its expeditionary force to liberate Egypt, aware that a French presence in on the coast of the Red Sea represented a threat, however remote, to the security of India. The commander of the expeditionary force, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, received orders to prepare his army for an amphibious assault on the Egyptian coast.

Having experienced serious difficulties launching amphibious attacks in the Netherlands, France and Spain, Abercromby ordered the expeditionary force to the coast of Turkey for intensive training. Previous attacks had been marred by poor inter-service relations and communications, and over the course of a month, these were improved.

Meanwhile, a systematic plan for the deployment of units ashore was devised, and a beach master appointed and trained to oversea preparations for the assault. At the same time, one of Abercromby’s brigadiers, General Sir John Moore, visited the Ottoman Army with which the British were to cooperate. Moore found an army totally unprepared for allied operations, viewing it at best as an irregular force, at worst as undisciplined. Nevertheless, preparations were made for conjoint operations once the British and established a foothold on the Egyptian coast.

In early March 1801, the decision was taken to launch the invasion. On 8 March, the British landed in Abukir Bay, facing relatively light resistance. As the British pressed along the coast towards Alexandria, on 13 March they encountered a French force drawn up in a strong defensive position. In a hard fought battle, the British managed to dislodge the French. Seven days later, Abercromby was preparing to attack the French outside Alexandria, when they beat him to it. The battle of Alexandria was a desperate battle, but the British were able to prevail by utilising a combination of infantry tactics, some based on European methods, others on experiences gained fighting in the Americas.

Unfortunately, Abercromby was shot in the thigh and died a few days later. His second-in-command, John Hely-Hutchinson, was less decisive that Abercromby, but his methodical planning enabled him to take his army successfully south down the Nile and, in combination with the Ottoman Army, force the surrender of the French garrison of Cairo.

Returning to Alexandria by August, which had been besieged since 21 March, Hely-Hutchinson decided to attack and capture the city. He broke several damns that had prevented the Nile flooding a shallow lake to the south of the city. After a few days, the water was deep enough to bring in a fleet of gunboats to transport troops under cover of darkness to the rear of the city – a position the British had previously been unable to attack. Confronted by British forces on all sides, the French garrison surrendered. Egypt had been liberated and cleared of French troops in little over six months.

The Egyptian campaign of 1801 is increasingly forgotten as the British Army achieved more impressive successes in the later years of the Napoleonic Wars. But the campaign is important and interesting for several reasons.

First, it marked a turning point for the British Army which has previously been seen as an incapable and incompetent force. The success in Egypt clearly demonstrated that although small, it was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Secondly, and more importantly, the campaign was a watershed moment. It was commanded by veterans of Britain’s eighteenth century campaigns in America and Europe. Abercromby was a veteran of European campaigns during the Seven Years War and later in the Caribbean, Moore had cut his teeth in the American Revolutionary War, and had likewise served with Abercromby in the Caribbean. But the mid-ranking officers in Egypt would go on to achieve startling successes under the command of the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War.

It seems highly unlikely that in an two-year period spent floating around the Mediterranean, that Abercromby, Moore, and other veterans of America and Europe did not pass on their experiences and knowledge to their subordinates. You can read more about my research into the Egyptian campaign here.

Hot Potatoes for 2015


This month marks the conclusion of my first decade teaching at Staff College. In that time, I can think of two years that stand-out as containing fundamentally unexpected events, that have caused quite drastic adjustments to what I talk about when I teach. Those years were 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – and 2014 – the year of the rise of ‘Islamic State’ and the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

I’m no fan of making predictions at the arbitrary moment most humans have decided is the beginning of a new 365-day long period of time. And I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I am going to highlight important issues that I think will dominate global affairs for the year ahead.

The Oil Price

Like most, I’m delighted to be able to fill my car with petrol for less than £50, but I find it simultaneously odd that I able to do so when there are so many international crises ongoing. Traditionally, unrest in the Middle East and/or Russia have elevated oil prices, yet, at the time of writing, the oil price is $52.69 per barrel, which is nearly half what it was a year ago.

Whilst this will make the average person feel much richer in the short-term, it will surely continue to have a terrible impact on oil-dependent economies. Of those, the most worrisome remains. The Ruble has recovered somewhat from its December low, but it still remains very weak ($1 will buy R58.51 at time of writing).

The Russian economy now looks as though it will enter a prolonged recession – if not a depression – as GDP is expected to contract in 2015 by 0.8%. This is at least in part the result of Western sanctions over Russian military activity in Eastern Ukraine, but prolonged economic malaise is likely to drive President Vladimir Putin to take drastic action to shore up his own popularity in Russia. So, a continued low oil price will likely have significant implications for Russian military aggression in 2015.

Moreover, Russia is not alone in suffering as a result of the low oil price. Should oil continue to fall, then the gas price will surely follow suit, and eventually, the cost of ‘fracking’ will outweigh the benefits of the controversial technique for extracting shale gas. A low oil price might well have implications for Iran, as the new regime seeks to improve relations with the West.

Afghanistan: Confluence, not Graveyard, of Empires

The end of 2014 saw the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, although a significant Western presence remains in the country. Having said that, the notion of an Indo-Pakistani proxy war commencing in Afghanistan has long been mooted amongst experts and armchair strategists. It seems entirely possible in 2015 that such a proxy war might well emerge. Pakistan remains deeply troubled by the prospect of India gaining economic and political precedence in Afghanistan.

In such light, the strategic significance of Afghanistan can be more easily witnessed. Inaccurately portrayed as the ‘graveyard of empires’, the country has long been the confluence of several major empires and this remains the case today. Afghanistan is not just in Pakistan and India’s ‘backyard’, but shares a border with Iran and China, and is also a strategic concern for Russia.

Although Afghanistan might recede in importance for the West, its stability – or lack thereof – will likely remain a critical concerns for a number of global powers in 2015. In this sense, Afghanistan will re-capture the geopolitical importance it possessed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This should mean that economic investment comes to the fore, but if competing powers vie for dominance in the region then the sort of proxy war envisaged for the last decade might take hold.

Islamic State

This time last year, only regional experts had heard of what was then known as ISIS, and few would have appreciated its potential to wrest control of large areas of Iraq and Syria. Military intervention by an alliance of Western and Arab states have arrested the expansion of IS, but the prospect remains for similar ideological expansion in 2015 as occurred in the second half of 2014.

The infamous Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram recently declared their own caliphate, and there are increasing concerns that the separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang province of China might follow a similar route.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq and Syria will remain a cause for concern. It is difficult to see how Iraq can continue as a stable political entity, and many experts perceive the break-up of the state in the near future, with an independent Kurdistan likely to emerge as a result. How Turkey will react to such a situation is also troubling.


On a different note, 2014 was an important year for the historical commemoration of past conflicts. 2015 sees just as many significant anniversaries. The 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated with a re-enactment of the writing and delivery of the famous Waterloo Dispatch, along with a special service of commemoration in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 18 June. On the battlefield itself, the biggest ever re-enactment of the battle will take place, to which an estimated 60,000 spectators are expected to attend.

The ongoing remembrance of the First World War will see commemorations of the Battle of Loos and Gallipoli, among others. After the initial hope that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, this was the year that saw the settling in to bloody trench warfare. Having said that, considerable innovation and adaptation was to take place on both sides of no-man’s land. For British forces, in particular, the idea of a ‘land-ship’ began to germinate.

Although the hundredth anniversary of the First World War will undoubtedly dominate thoughts, it is also important to remember that 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and with it, the emergence of the world into the Nuclear Age.

These are just some of the hot potatoes that Defence-in-Depth will be tackling in the year ahead, as part of the Defence Studies Department’s efforts to bring you cutting-edge research and expert analysis, both historical and contemporary, on the issues behind and influencing Defence.

Learning and Innovation in the Eighteenth Century British Army


Hidden away in a tiny archive in Connecticut, I found, to my surprise, a diary of a Grand Tour of Europe conducted in the 1770s. I might not have looked at it, had the catalogue not specified its author as a cavalry Captain in the British Army. With nothing left to do one afternoon, I called it up, and found an immaculately written journal of a Grand Tour with a twist.

The unnamed captain was not just visiting the usual sights of cultural significance, but was also visiting militarily significant locations – most commonly fortresses, but occasionally the odd battlefield from recent and more distant campaigns. Apart from the surprising revelation that battlefield tours and staff rides are not the sole preserve of twentieth and twenty-first century staff colleges, the journal also suggested that the captain was eager to learn from past military campaigns.

The British Army has an historical reputation for being anti-intellectual. A separate discussion about whether this is true or not can be had elsewhere, but if this was the case, then I believe it to be a product of Victorian sensibilities, of coming to terms with Pax Britannica, and the moral and ethic quandaries that accompanied imperial expansion and climax. This imposed anti-intellectualism was the retroactively superimposed on the eighteenth century, and forwards into the twentieth century.

The cavalry captain’s journal is one piece of evidence that suggests a rather different outlook on intellectualism existed, at least in the eighteenth century. Travel was widely considered to be an excellent education for the wealthy, and the journal indicates that military tourism also occurred, although it is difficult to judge how extensive this was. Then, as now, military practitioners could learn much about their profession by visiting the sites of previous engagements and sieges. Knowledge and experience was therefore transmitted by interpreting the terrain itself.

I’m writing this blog-post in Brussels. I’m about to engage on a similar, though much shorter, expedition, visiting the battlefield of Waterloo and explaining its significance to twenty-first century military professionals. Waterloo is strategically significant not just because it is the sight where Wellington, Blucher and the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian Armies stopped Napoleon in his tracks, but because the battle itself was operationally unnecessary. A far larger army, composed of Austrians and Russians was gathering to the East, and Napoleon realistically faced very difficult odds in any battle against them.

But Waterloo was strategically vital for the British. Vital in securing British war aims early and decisively, and preventing Napoleon from cutting off British access to the channel. For these reasons, Wellington fought at Waterloo, and because his Prussian counterpart, General Blucher promised his assistance as soon as he could deliver it.

But, like the unnamed cavalry captain, Wellington was a student of history. As I wrote about a few weeks ago on this Blog, on his journey to India in 1797, the then 28-year old Arthur Wellesley had read a ‘Military History of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough’ published in 1736. In 1705, Marlborough had established his headquarters just to the south of what would become the battlefield of Waterloo. Then, he had commented that if Brussels needed to be defended from a French attack to the south, the ridge of Mont St Jean would be the place to do it.

Whilst travelling to Paris in 1814, Wellington had reconnoitred the terrain to the south of Brussels. ‘The face of the country is generally open, and affords no feature upon which reliance can be placed to establish any defensive system,’ Wellington had written. The terrain was ‘intersected by roads, canals and rivers, running in all directions.’ Despite this, there were a number of strong defensive positions, Wellington observed, ‘between Tourney and Mons; … about Nivelle; … and the ridgeway of Mont St Jean.’

A keen observer of terrain, Wellington had clocked the defensive significance of ridge of Mont St Jean, and it was here that he chose to fight a defensive battle on 18 June 1815. Like the cavalry captain four decades earlier, Wellington used a combination of military history, terrain analysis and clear-sighted strategic thinking to help him prepare for an uncertain future.

I will be talking more about learning and innovation in the eighteenth century British Army as a Research Seminar in JSCSC on Wednesday 3 December. Click here for details of the event, and check our YouTube Channel shortly afterward for a podcast of the seminar.

Image: The Battlefield fo Waterloo from the position of Napoleon’s Grand Battery.

What did officers read before Clausewitz?


A few weeks ago, I visited Stratfield Saye, the Berkshire country estate of the Duke of Wellington. Acquired in 1817 as a reward for the decisive victory he gained at Waterloo two years earlier, grand plans were drawn up to knock down the old house and erect an enormous palace on the scale of Blenheim. As ever, Wellington refused to let good money go to waste, and insisted on retaining the beautiful old house, and with it a beautiful library.

My purpose in visiting was to access the Duke’s personal library. My question: was there anything among these dusty old tomes that might have sparked the genius he demonstrated in India, the Peninsula and finally and decisively at Waterloo? In advance, I had found a considerable quantity of early eighteenth century treatises on the art of war and military operations, usually written in peacetime by officers on half-pay kicking their heels and looking for something to supplement their income. None of these were apparent (although I only got as far as D in the immense two volume catalogue).

Unexpectedly, I found possible new dimensions being added to a man about whom I had only investigated the military side. Was he really that interested in birds? And fishing? Amongst the volumes of non-military material I did find several books on military operations, army field regulations and the like, but the earliest was dated 1811, and most originated after Wellington retired from active military service. I did find ‘Military Instructions for Young Officers Detached in the Field’ dating from 1774, and a ‘A Treatise on Military Discipline’ dating from 1759.

However, what caught my eye was a clear interest in military history. There was ‘The Commentaries of Julius Caesar’ published in 1677; a ‘Military History of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough’ published in 1736, and ‘Reveries, or Memoirs Concerning the Art of War’ by Maurice, Comte de Saxe.

The latter is particularly interesting. It’s not the first time I have encountered Saxe whilst researching where British Army officers got their ideas about tactical and operational innovation in the eighteenth century. One explanation is the new and challenging terrain and means of fighting that the British encountered between the 1750s and the 1790s. The other is previous experience, and reading about the experience of others.

Saxe had a long and distinguished career in the French Army, eventually receiving his marshal’s baton in 1743. Among his many military exploits, he fought the Ottoman Empire in his early twenties. This exposed him to irregular warfare and the use of loose and light troop formations. He adapted these ideas and deployed them in combination with regular infantry formations against the British at the Battle of Fontenoy on 11 May 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

Saxe’s enemy at Fontenoy was the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II. Cumberland observed the innovative use of varying troop deployments and adapted the technique for use against the Scottish Highlanders in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745/6.

In an interesting book entitled Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire published in 2005, Geoffrey Plank analyses how following the suppression of the rebellion, Cumberland’s subordinates were appointed to key positions across the British Empire. They took with them the knowledge and experience of fighting the Highlanders. Among them was John Campbell, the Third Earl of Loudoun. He was appointed in 1756 to succeed Edward Braddock as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, following Braddock’s death during a catastrophic defeat against a joint Franco-Indian force on the river Monongahela in 1755. Out of the defeat, new ideas emerged about how to fight in the dense terrain in America. These closely resembled the approach favoured by Cumberland in Scotland and Saxe in Germany. Small wonder that Loudoun helped foster these reforms.

Unfortunately, Loudoun’s reforms did not take effect swiftly enough to prevent a series of further British defeats in 1756 and 1757. Loudoun was relieved of his command and succeeded first by his second, James Abercromby, and then Jeffrey Amherst. In 1758, the reforms instituted by Loudoun began to have their effect, leading to the year of victories in 1759, which saw the capture of Ticonderoga, and other lake forts on the American-Canadian border, and eventually the capture of Quebec, the capital of New France.

This swift canter through British and French military history serves to illustrate, at least in part, how ideas were transmitted. Saxe, arguably the progenitor of these ideas, also committed his thoughts on war to paper, and it is this book that once resided on Wellington’s book shelves. We’ll likely never know if Wellington read the book – although I am inclined to speculate that he did.

Let’s take a look at what Saxe had to say about fighting in enclosed countries:

It must be laid down down as one invariable maxim on all marches, to have parties, consisting of 100 men, always advanced in front, and upon the flanks, which must be sustained by others of double the same force … in order to be effectually guarded against all attempts whatever of the enemy… A partisan of enterprise and spirit, with 3 or 400 men, will find means to attack an army on its march, and to occasion a great deal of disorder and inconvenience. If he seizes an opportunity, at the close of the day, to cut off your baggage, he will be able to carry away a considerable part of it, without exposing himself to much danger; because, if he retreats between two passes, and makes a vigorous opposition in his rear, he will thereby check your pursuit… A stratagem of this nature must be attended with dreadful confusion. It is for these reasons therefore that advanced parties ought to cover all the avenues of your march; but they must never be too weak in numbers; for unless they are sufficient to oppose any attack, nothing less than ruin and disgrace can be the consequence…

In 1800, when he was just thirty years old, Arthur Wellesley fought an insurgency in Mysore, India. The way in which Wellesley configured his 8000-man force bears a striking resemblance to that described above by Saxe. You can read more about Wellesley’s counterinsurgency – his first independent command – in an article I wrote for Modern Asian Studies in 2010, as well as in my book Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius.

Wellesley might not have read Saxe prior to his encounter with Indian insurgents. But the parallels are striking, whilst small but important pieces of evidence are starting to come to light that suggest military knowledge was passed from generation to generation, across continents and wars. Books, then, as now, were one way in which these ideas, experience and knowledge were transmitted.

The Concert of Europe: The Rise and Fall of the First United Nations


Two hundred years ago, diplomats from the Great Powers of Europe were redrawing the map of Europe. In April, Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated, the French Empire defeated. Now it remained for Great Britain, Royalist France, Austria, Prussia and Russia to determine the fate of Europe. Napoleon’s escape from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the commencement of the Hundred Days Campaign ended the negotiations, as hostilities were renewed, and the old alliance that had defeated Napoleon in 1813-14 was reborn.

This new war culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and new negotiations commenced in Paris. For the British, the balance of power in Europe was paramount. The British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, the Duke of Wellington, worked hard to ensure that the Great Powers of Europe were evenly matched so as to prevent a new war breaking out on the continent.

Altruistic as this agenda might seem, Britain required a balance of power in Europe, so that she could turn her attention to imperial expansion. Every time war broke out in Europe, Britain was inevitably drawn into the conflict, and precious resources and energy was expended fighting, or more likely paying others to fight, to restore the precarious balance.

In 1815, Castlereagh proposed a new and ambitious project, which would see the Great Powers come together to discuss issues that might otherwise spark a regional and eventually a European-wide war. ‘Let the Allies then take this further chance of securing that repose which all the Powers of Europe so much require,’ he wrote in a memorandum at the end of August, by ‘renewing their meetings at fixed periods … for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests, and for the consideration of the measures … considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and for the maintenance of the peace of Europe’.

This became known as the Concert of Europe, and I discuss its foundation, effectiveness and decline in an essay entitled ‘The Legacy of Waterloo: War and Politics in Europe in the Nineteenth Century’, published this week. Castlereagh envisaged regular meetings of Europe’s leaders, to forestall looming crises and prevent future wars. All of this was guaranteed by a perpetual alliance of the Four Powers. Although the formal congress system broke down in 1822, the Great Powers continued to reconvene on an ad-hoc basis when new crises emerged.

In total, 26 meetings occurred between the first Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and the final meeting in London in 1913. In that period, the Ottoman Empire was admitted in 1856, newly united Italy joined in 1867, and the German Reich replaced Prussia in 1871. The United States and Japan also began to participate towards the end of the century.

To suggest that the Concert of Europe was an unmitigated success would, of course, be misleading. No continent-wide conflict engulfed Europe between 1815 and 1914, but numerous wars between European states occurred, not least of which were the Italian Risorgimento (three wars of independence between 1849 and 1866), the Crimean War (1854-56), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Concert framed these wars, and fed the development of European political ideas during the nineteenth century.

The system worked on moral rather than legal grounds, and any such system needed to demonstrate flexibility. The Concert proved inadequate at dealing with crises within (as opposed to between) Great Powers’ sphere of interests. Thus, Great Britain acted with impunity in South Asia; Russia did so in Central Asia and the Far East; and latterly France and Britain did so in Africa. But in Europe, crises that in the eighteenth century might have produced regional conflicts that spiralled into general European war, were resolved within the framework of the Concert.

Thus, the Greek Revolution between 1821 and 1832; the Belgian Revolution that began in 1830; and the Italian Revolution of 1848, were all settled without Great Power conflicts. This is not to say that blood was not shed, or that violence was ended as a result of Great Power intervention. The Great Powers acted so as to contain the violence and prevent the eruption of a general conflict. This was a step-change in European affairs, which, in the eighteenth century had seen conflicts breakout over similar regional challenges to prevailing authority.

Nevertheless, in 1854, a war between the Great Powers threatened the stability of Europe. Although the Crimean War did not erupt into a general conflict, it served critically to undermine the Concert of Europe. Why, then, in circumstances where the Great Powers had sought to avoid conflict at all costs, did the Crimean War break out? The answer is quite simple: the extra-European spheres of interest of two of the Great Powers began to collide, and no diplomatic mechanism within the Concert offered a solution to a problem born entirely outside the boundaries of Europe.

Ostensibly, the Crimean War erupted between Russia on one hand, and Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain, on the other, because of Russian aggression against the slowly declining Ottoman Empire. The prospect of Russian control of Constantinople was too great a strategic threat to Austria, France and Great Britain. Yet, if this was the sole cause, a diplomatic solution would have been found through the mechanism of the Concert. The problem was that Russian encroachment into the Caucasus and Central Asia began directly to threaten British extra-European interests, namely those in South Asia.

A diplomatic solution proved impossible in 1853-4, because Britain did not want a diplomatic solution: Britain wanted to threaten, undermine and humiliate Russia. By the early 1850s, Russia had emerged as a new France, a power that sought hegemonic power. The key difference was that Russia did not seek (at least for the time being) hegemonic power in Europe, but in Asia, and this directly threatened Britain’s own imperial ambitions. Britain had already fought a costly war in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 over the perceived threat of Russian expansionism in Central Asia. Although an operational disaster, the war had nevertheless achieved its strategic objectives: a buffer zone to the north-west of British India that would, for the time being at least, prevent any Russian encroachment into Britain’s sphere of interest.

In the Crimea, however, Britain perceived a different but related threat from Russia. The growth of Russian naval power in the Black Sea represented a clear threat to British grand strategy. The prospect that Russia might gain control of Constantinople, and therefore the eastern Mediterranean, and be within striking distance of Egypt, the Red Sea, and therefore India by a different route, was too much for Britain to stomach.

True, Russian naval power was nowhere near so strong as to pose such a threat, but it would be easier to squash Russian naval plans when they were still embryonic. Britain did not want a diplomatic solution to the crisis in 1853-4, because a diplomatic solution would not see the neutralisation of Russian sea power. The war in the Crimea was designed to destroy Russian sea power.

At that point, the Concert of Europe ceased to perform its central function, although it continued to exist until the outbreak of the First World War. Arguably, the transformation of European politics commenced in the 1840s, and culminating in the unification of Germany in the 1870s, had already undermined the Concert. Critically, though, and one potential lesson, is that the Concert ceased to be effective when two of the Great Powers believed that they could no longer utilise its mechanisms to resolve their differences. So long as the present incarnation of the Concert of Europe, the United Nations, can offer the nations of the world the opportunity to resolve their differences, then it is at least achieving part of what Castlereagh set out to create.

Image: Congress of Vienna CC BY-SA 3.0

The Instrumentalisation of History


History is a dangerous thing. Parallels between contemporary events and history are all too easy to arrive at. In unskilled hands, historical events can be manhandled to seemingly deliver lessons and solutions to apparently intractable contemporary problems. This is ‘instrumentalising’ history. In reality, history can be misleading, its so-called ‘lessons’ proving counter-productive if their context is not properly understood.

In the last decade, numerous such ‘lessons’ have been bandied around as a means of resolving some of the more stubborn issues facing the West. Historians, armchair strategists and soldiers alike have looked to Britain’s long and turbulent history in Afghanistan as a means of suggesting solutions to the ongoing Taliban insurgency.

Similarly, Lawrence of Arabia has been held up as a panacea of how to resolve the newly emerged threat from Islamic State. Imperfect parallels have been drawn between the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era and the rise of IS. Hawkish politicians cannot help but draw ill-fitting analogies between the actions of Hitler toward Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s, and Vladimir Putin and Russia’s recent entanglements in Georgia and Ukraine.

In part, this is a media-generated hyperbole, as seemingly easy parallels lend themselves to sensational stories. But used as a means of detecting a way forward, as an influence on policy-making, history incorrectly understood is very dangerous.

The first casualty of instrumentalising history is almost invariably the context in which that history occurred.

Comparison of Revolutionary France with the rise of the Islamic State is an interesting proposition. Sure, it is fascinating to note the rise of a revolutionary organisation bent on the transformation and subjugation not just of one country but an entire continent, and which uses gruesome public beheadings as a means of creating terror and provoking war.

But the extended argument is basically a call to arms, in favour of the use of Western ground forces in the developing campaign against IS militants. I find this a difficult thesis to agree with, and one that reflects the instrumentalisation of history for subjective ends.

Britain’s strategy in the war against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon, so the argument goes, saw the British initially try to defeat France by means of seapower alone. But although British command of the sea was virtually unassailable after 1805, Britain was eventually forced to deploy ground troops in a war in the Iberian Peninsula. Britain also assembled no fewer than seven coalitions of the Great Powers of Europe in order to defeat Napoleon.

The parallel invoked here is that the United States is the only power capable of, or willing to, assemble an international coalition to defeat IS. That coalition would lack moral backbone if the US, and by extension her western allies, did not deploy ground forces to Iraq and Syria.

The only way to defeat a land-power, whether Napoleonic France or the Islamic State, is on land. The truth of this assertion is unchallengeable, but the context in which these decisions were taken is.

But the parallel, and therefore the lesson, falls apart when the context in which Britain fought the Napoleonic War is understood. Until 1807, Britain hoped to contain Napoleonic France – hence the use of maritime power to isolate France economically.

But in 1807, it became apparent to the British government that Napoleonic France represented an existential threat to the British monarchy. The serious deployment of troops to the continent was not really an effort to defeat Napoleon directly – the British Army was no where near big enough or capable enough to do that. Rather, the use of ground troops was a political tool to enable to construction of an international coalition, and to give Britain sufficient diplomatic weight for forthcoming peace negotiations.

More generally, however, this was a European war, that required a European solution. The eventually peace negotiations – the famous Congress of Vienna – was not imposed by outside powers, but the coming together of the Great Powers of Europe in a settlement that would also see the creation of the Concert of Europe – the first attempt at international governance, and one that would essentially keep global peace for a century.

So, when compared with the situation in Iraq and Syria, the parallels now seem threadbare. First, the Islamic State do not represent an existential threat to either the United States or her Western allies. Secondly, by leading an intervention in Iraq and Syria, the United States is not mirroring the British role of building an international coalition in the war against France, which was, in essence, a Western solution to a Western problem. Instead, the US is intervening in a socio-political conflict with a strong religious dimension – a Western attempted solution to a Middle Eastern/Islamic problem. A better (although still imperfect) historical parallel is the Peace of Westphalia, which saw the war-torn countries of Europe agreeing the principles of the nation-state that still persist to this day.

Similarly, the actions of Lawrence of Arabia are usually spoken of with little regard for the context in which they occur. Lawrence was able to raise an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire because of widespread discontent with Ottoman rule, set within the wider context of the global schism that was the Great War.

Moreover, by focussing on Lawrence alone – and his famous Pillars of Wisdom – the contribution of other, less media savvy – and Hollywood friendly – characters are overlooked. Indeed, Lawrence was not being particularly original. Similar pithy expressions have been uttered down the ages, from Sun Tzu to Maurice de Saxe, both of whom faced irregular threats during extensive military careers, and thought long and hard about how to capture their ideas for posterity.

This issue speaks to a second problem with the instrumentalisation of history: namely the role and value of the great men of history. The two examples discussed here focus on the fame or infamy of two great historical figures: Napoleon Bonaparte and T. E. Lawrence.

Yet the notion that individuals wield sufficient power to alter the course of history has been widely discredited. Rather their actions have greater impact because of the historical accident of living in interesting times. Napoleon took advantage of enormous socio-political currents that were transforming society and politics, as well as warfare, across Europe. The impact he had was certainly not all his own making, whilst many of the adaptations and innovations in warfare that Napoleon allegedly introduced were in fact devised by others, such as Lazare Carnot and Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert.

Having illustrated the problems with instrumentalising history, how can history be of use in understanding contemporary events?

The first victim of the instrumentalisation of history is also its first lesson. Historical study can provide valuable context.

One does not really understand the strong-arm tactics of Vladimir Putin and his desire for a secure and strong buffer between Russia and the West without understanding Russia’s long and turbulent history.

The societal and religious divisions that are coming to the fore now in Iraq and Syria are themselves products of a bygone colonial era.

The nature of the international system, and the history of the norms and behaviours between Western states and the international community is the product of the West’s own turbulent history: from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to the Concert of Europe in 1814.

Contextualising events helps to unpack their causes and potential consequences. History provides the tools to understand properly contemporary events. Deploying poorly understood historical parallels in order to justify or argue for a certain course of action only degrades the value of history.

The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art


In recent years, particularly since difficulties have been encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq, military thinkers and practitioners have begun questioning the existence of the operational level of war. Some argue that the articulation of the concept was a distraction from adequate attention to the tactical and strategic levels of war.

Here, two historians, with interests in different periods of military history, outline the relevance of the concept to the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, and the Second World War.

The Operational Level During the Napoleonic Wars

The ‘operational level’ was first articulated as a level of war by Alexander Svechin, and conceptually employed by the Soviets during the war on the Eastern Front in 1944-5. This commonly leads to an assumption that the operational level didn’t exist before then. But that’s a bit like arguing the Earth really was at the centre of the Universe until Galileo and Copernicus theorised otherwise. The Earth always orbited the Sun, and the Operational Level of War has always existed.

As a nineteenth century military historian, the way in which Napoleon planned operations, utilising comparatively vast spaces, and articulating complex manoeuvres was a clear example of operational level planning: that is to say, planning that was somewhere between strategic and tactical in nature. Take the Ulm Campaign of 15-20 October 1805. Napoleon deployed his Grande Armée for the first time in a corps-level organisation.

Each Corps was able to operate independently, whilst a strong centralised General Staff orchestrated swift communications between each corps. When one of Napoleon’s corps found the Austrian Army near the southern German town of Ulm, it fixed the enemy in place, whilst the remaining corps manoeuvred to encircle the Austrians. In the subsequent battle on 19 October 1805, the Austrians were completely enveloped and forced to surrender.

Napoleon’s success lay at least in part in his ability to delegate command to his marshals and their ability to understand his intent. The operation itself saw nearly 120,000 French soldiers utilise both time (the campaign lasted six days) and space (Napoleon’s army was deployed across several hundred miles) to achieve a decisive tactical result.

Over the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria followed Napoleon’s lead and developed variants that played to national strengths. British operational art depended on its mastery of the seas and its superior ability to bring global resources to bear. When Wellington was fighting in the Iberian Peninsula, he was able to plan operations on multiple fronts, directing and redirecting naval assets as required.

Small wonder, that this period spawned two of the greatest military thinkers: Baron Antoine de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, both of whom, in different ways described war in terms that were similar to what Svechin would later articulate as the ‘operational level of war’.

The Operational Level of War and German Military Thought, 1866-1918

As the previous section has mentioned, the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ as we understand the terms today did not exist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, this does not mean that military theorists of the period did not grapple to come to terms with the same problems that led to the articulation of operational art in the Interwar period, namely the rise of mass armies and the resultant geographical expansion of the ‘battlefield. In particular, German military writers and planners developed new concepts to address the challenges of modern war.

Indeed, the Imperial German army was the first to use the term ‘operativ’ in a military context, and some have argued that the Soviets derived much of their understanding of the concept from the works of Sigismund von Schlichting, which were used as textbooks in the Imperial Russian staff colleges. For the Germans of this time, however, the adjective operativ was used to denote movement off the battlefield. Increasingly, though, this movement off the battlefield was recognized as important to what happened on the battlefield. Authors, such as Rudoph von Caemmerer (a protégé of Schlichting), argued that the successes of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the German Wars of Unification (1864-1871) were the result of maneuvering German forces, usually by the new technology railways, to enable battle under the most favorable conditions for the German force and the least favorable conditions for the enemy force.

At the same time that there was a growing appreciation within the German army of the importance of maneuver in modern battle, there was also recognition that the size of modern armies created new problems in command. The largest army commanded by Moltke was about 550,000 men. By the early twentieth century, the German army was intending to deploy more than two million men across several hundred miles of separate fronts in the west and the east. Although emerging radio and telegraph technology might assist the ‘modern Alexander’ to conduct wars of the future, two new important concepts of warfare emerged to address the problems of the burgeoning size of armies and scale of combat.

The first of these put the army and the army corps at the heart of future battlefield action. Between 1892 and 1914, the German army trained extensively in what it termed Truppenführung, a new level of combat and command between the low-level tactics of division and below (Gefechtsführung) and the higher level of strategy (Kriegführung). They put this training to good use in the early stages of the First World War, particularly in the battles of Tannenberg and the Frontiers.

The second important concept to emerge in German military thought before 1914 was Alfred von Schlieffen’s idea of a Gesamtschlacht. While better known today for his eponymous plan, this plan was really designed to tie together a series of battles fought over different spaces and at different times, a point generally lost in recent analysis. These Teilschlachten, as Schlieffen termed them, would be welded together into something more than the sum of the parts by the commander’s plan. This plan would give meaning to the disparate battles sometimes fought by independent armies and victory in the war would be assured by victory in the Gesamtschlacht.

Although Schlieffen’s plan failed in 1914, the concepts of Truppenführung and Gesamtschlacht were at the heart of the much more successful German invasion of France in 1940 and Russia in 1941. Indeed, what later historians have termed ‘Blitzkrieg’ and have attributed to the Interwar Reichswehr or the Second World War Wehrmacht was, in fact, simply a mechanized and motorized version of what the Kaiserheer attempted over the same ground in 1914.

Operational Art and Russian/Soviet Military Thought, 1918-1945

It is perhaps unsurprising that what we understand today as the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art’ had their direct origins in Russia. In common with their western neighbours, Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union wrestled with the expansion of warfare driven by modern mass armies. The scale of the issue, however, was all the greater for this great eastern empire. In the big western powers – France and Germany – each mobilized around 4 million men at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Russia, on the other hand, mobilized some 9 million. On top of this, the Eastern Front stretched for some 1,000 miles from north to south.

The size of forces mobilized combined with the vast scale of the area over which the war was fought pushed the Russian army to develop a new level of command – the army group or front, as it was known to the Imperial and later Red armies – comprised of numerous distinct armies. Each front was expected to fight within its own resources battles that were usually distant from each other in space and time.

The experience of the First World War and the subsequent wars of the Russian revolution heavily influenced Red Army theorists in the Interwar period. Indeed, the Soviet theorists of the Interwar period were drawing upon their own considerable practical experience of warfare between 1914 and 1939. Alexander Svechin has already been mentioned, but other experienced officers, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafilov, and Nikolai Varfolomeev, devised a workable doctrine for combat at the operational level.

Indeed, by the early 1930s, the concept of glubokaya operatsiya, or deep operations, had become enshrined in Soviet doctrine and training. Tying new emerging technologies of aircraft, tanks, and motorization together with the idea of using large-scale mobile forces (Fronts) on separate axes of operations in the enemy’s rear, deep operations looked to disrupt rather than simply destroy the enemy’s defence. The Soviets put this doctrine to good use, particularly in 1944 and 1945. Faced with large-scale offensives on widely separated fronts, the Germans were unable to be strong at every point, and the cohesion of the overall German defence broke down.

The Operational Level in the Age of Mass Armies

What ties these different periods of history together is the nature of their armies. With the levée en masse of the August 1793, Revolutionary France began a period in which armies increasingly drew upon the growing populations of their nation states to form large armies comprised of citizen soldiers. These mass armies created problems of size and scale unseen by previous generations of military commanders. How would these large armies be commanded and controlled? How could the results of disparate battles be combined to achieve political goals?

The answers to these questions were found in the creation of new levels of command (army corps, armies, and army groups); in creating a plan that gave focus to battles separated in space and time; in the increasing importance of disruption of an enemy’s cohesion over his physical destruction; and in operating independently over even greater areas. In other words, this period of mass armies gave rise to the development of the ‘operational level’ and the ‘operational art.’