The Hydra: Maneuver or Attrition

I call it the hydra because it seems to crop up in almost everything written about war: the maxim that maneuver is superior to attrition.

More broadly, the following views seem to be concomitant:

  • That attack is preferable to defense.
  • That maneuver-driven strategies and tactics are superior to attrition-based strategies and tactics.
  • That economy of force is admirable.
  • That spontaneity is more valuable than central planning (Auftragstaktik, or mission command).
  • That initiative is the heart of operations, and can be won or lost.
  • That morale is the paramount force in war.

Likewise, that:

  • The Mongol, Napoleonic French, and early-twentieth-century German armies are the most proficient on record.
  • Cavalry, then armour, and now airpower was and is the queen of the battlefield.
  • The best troops and commanders are aggressive, flexible, and decisive.

I’d like to argue that most of the above is mistaken or overemphasized, and likely to lead to heavy casualties and eventual defeat. This is a high ridge to storm; for the sake of a short post, I will make some general remarks, followed by one case study.

Main Thrust: A Doctrinal Alternative

The first thing to be said is that wars and battles never repeat, so that it is almost axiomatic to say that no axioms can be applied to war, save the very simple, like ‘kill them first,’ ‘destroy the enemy’s will to fight,’ and ‘destroy the enemy’s means to do battle.’

More precisely, the same doctrines, strategies, and tactics are not appropriate for every scenario. War is never a solved game.

I think there’s an additional danger, and that is the allure of shock action, battlefield finesse, and success against the odds. These things impress, stamp themselves on the mind, and quicken the pulse of the fighter. But they are not the whole of fighting.

Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson, via Wikipedia.

There is another school of warfighting that emphasizes obtaining supremacy over the enemy before engaging him, running the odds rather than rolling the dice. This school acknowledges that most fighting, however conducted, is ultimately attritional, and seeks to impose a favourable casualty rate on the opponent. This isn’t a callous choice to spend lives before trying other options, but a choice to confront the cost of battle head-on and try to minimize it.

As often as possible, a competent commander in this school will seek to obtain such a favourable rate by maneuver. Just as often, though, such a victory will not be possible except by weight of fire – coordinated, intelligently applied fire.

This battlefield surgeon knows how to anaesthetize an area before wielding the scalpel.

There is more to say, but I think the contradictions of the opening tenets become apparent.

Supporting Fire: The Case of 1914

The Western Front of the First World War represents a protracted case of failure for maneuver-based, offensively oriented doctrine, strategically, operationally, and tactically.

As the majority of readers will know, both principal adversaries adopted offensive strategic policies heading into the war. The French advanced frontally into Belgium and Germany and were repulsed in a series of meeting engagements. The Germans audaciously drove their right wing forward to envelope the French army in front of Paris, but were parried. The French pursued the Germans to the Aisne, whereupon each side attempted successive northward flanking maneuvers that terminated at the English Channel. Thenceforth, with fieldworks stretching from coast to mountain border, attack became Pyrrhic and maneuver died in the mud.

The Western Front, 1914, courtesy the United States Military Academy via Wikipedia.

The same was not true on the Eastern Front, where forces were less concentrated. Nevertheless, the Western Front represents a kind of epitome of warfare, where troops were deployed in extreme density with escalating firepower at their disposal. In this situation, maneuver was difficult to impossible and aggressive commanders were liable to annihilate their own commands. Gradually effective offensive techniques were developed, involving flexible small units and armour, yes, but more importantly extensive central planning, often-rigid artillery fireplans, and eternal drumfire. Units employing these tactics became able to drive forward, seize important terrain, sometimes inflict disproportionate casualties, and occasionally overcome superior numbers.

It is possible to argue that the commanders of 1914-17 lacked adequate or sufficient tools, but that does not change the fact that they were fighting a real war at the height of contemporary technology: a war in which maneuver and aggression were not the solutions strategically, operationally, or tactically, until enabled by larger methods.

Barrage Map, Vimy Ridge, 1917. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

If you’d like, envision yourself there. You face a stretch of absolutely bare, flat (or slightly rising) terrain, wormed across by successive lines of trenches. The enemy’s works are strongly manned by reserve units to a great depth, and protected on the flanks by neighbouring formations out to vistas unending. Do you attack? If so, why? If so, how?

This is as true a puzzle of war as Cannae or Tannenberg or Sedan or Austerlitz. It demands a different doctrine than those battles, and proposes maxims about war at variance with accepted wisdom. It reinforces, furthermore, that by whatever method, the commander’s ultimate duty, after and in victory, is the conservation of life.


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