Home Forums General General Defence is not king!

Viewing 14 posts - 1 through 14 (of 14 total)
  • Author
  • #199265
    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    A friend of mine writes school textbooks. About five years ago he did one in war and society for the UK history curriculum. I reviewed the chapter on 1750-1914 for him. I thought I was doing him a favour but in fact I caused him a problem. I found two bones of contention in it.

    One was the claim that war did not change significantly between 1750 and 1850. Napoleon and Clausewitz might disagree with that.

    The other debatable claim was this (I paraphrase): ‘the foolish WW1 generals had not learned the lesson of the previous 50 years that, because modern weapons had become so lethal, the defence was king’.

    I pointed out that (a) the attacker gets to shoot too and (b) the lesson from virtually every war of the previous half-century was that the attacker wins. The Crimea; Italy in 1859; Denmark in 1864; the ACW; the Austro-Prussian War; the Franco-Prussian War; the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars, with the latter two being proto-WW1 warfare with WW1 weapons: the attacker wins, the attacker wins, the attacker wins. The difficulty for Paul was that the debatable claim was not his, but he was required to make it because it was actually in the curriculum …

    Which brings us to this week’s wargame, our Monday night entertainment at Oxford Wargames Society. This was the largest European battle between 1870 and 1914. In the game, as in history, the attacker won.

    It was tough going for the attackers at first, advancing into the teeth of the defenders’ fire. However, on days 2 and 3, when gaps started to appear in the defensive line and flanks were exposed, the attack made inroads and finally cracked it. Full AAR here if you’re interested to know which battle it is. Have a brownie point if you already know.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    It takes a particularly brilliant and prescient mind to realise in advance that everything that has happened to date will no longer win a battle.

    ‘Foolish Generals’ indeed!

    What happened to the last 44 years of academic work from Terraine (more a screenwriter I suppose than a historian but he saw through the myths), via Paddy Griffith to Gary Sheffield and Nick Lloyd amongst others?

    Might as well stream ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ for them as the history module and get on with it.

    No offence to your friend, he was after all, only obeying orders.

    Good game by the way. Sounds as if it would repay several replays at another time. I guessed the war but couldn’t remember the battle. :^(

    Like the brown rivers – and so many!

    Did the special rule re rivers and shooting cause you any broader thoughts about los and ranges in general?

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Cheers, Guy.

    LOS and ranges: it confirmed the thought I’d already expressed in my reflections on the Kirkkilise game. When a 12″ grid square is 10km across, that’s really the limit of BBB’s elastic scale. At that scale, you definitely need to limit LOS to limit ranges. Otherwise, artillery becomes too much like airpower and the balance between fire and manoeuvre becomes distorted. In the present Lule Burgas game, the special rule made sense because of the particular shape of the terrain and the battle and the game worked well. In other cases, simply limiting visibility to 12″ has worked fine too.

    Avatar photoJustin Swanton

    Things have rather changed since WW2. Defence is not king nor is attack. Factories are.

    This is really becoming clear in the Ukrainian war. Artillery, using guided shells, is now really lethal, and combined with missiles, drones and glider bombs, ensures that any concentration of troops and equipment will be destroyed before it even reaches enemy lines (which are about 10km away at other end of the grey zone).

    Which obliges both sides to disperse their forces: infantry in groups no larger than a platoon; artillery as single pieces or pairs, tanks well out of the way. “Attack” now means simply hitting the enemy lines constantly with standoff weapons: artillery shells, missiles, drones and glider bombs.

    The side that has the most of these will eliminate its opponent at a faster rate, until the opponent cannot properly man that section of the lines, permitting the attacker to send in troops (in relatively small numbers) to take those positions and mop up any surviving defenders.

    It’s pure attritional warfare and everything depends on who has the most men and produces the most military hardware. Here, the Russians win hands down, producing over three times more artillery shells than the West combined (and they are still ramping up military production). Their production of tanks, drones, missiles and the rest likewise is far greater than that of the West. Ukraine of course doesn’t produce anything in significant numbers – if it tries to its factories get bombed.

    WW2 was like that in its latter phase. Blitzkrieg worked fine against smaller countries that did not have time to adapt to it before being overrun, but against Russia it did not work. The Russians took huge casualties but had enough strategic depth, manpower reserves and military production to absorb the losses and keep an army in the field. Once they understood blitzkrieg and adapted to it, the war became a pure matter of attrition, and then the Germans stood no chance.


    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    “Every person who lived before me was an idiot” is a pretty insidious mindset in pop history I find.

    Avatar photoJustin Swanton

    “At 17 I thought everyone was an idiot. At 50 I realise I was exaggerating, very slightly.”

    Now who said that?


    Avatar photobobm

    I think the volume of casualties the winning attacker takes to achieve victory is what changes.

    There's 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary and those who don't.....

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    It’d be interesting to do some work unravelling casualties from army sizes.

    Gravelotte in 1870 has less casualties than Waterloo, with larger armies, despite the reputation for the Prussians getting shot to bits on the hills.

    The battle of Mukden in 1905 are three times as big as Waterloo and about 3 times the losses for each side (very roughly).

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Good comments, thanks, chaps.

    My tentative theory: % casualties are a function of troop density and technology.

    That is to say, technology (and other things) being equal, opposing armies with a given number of troops will inflict more % casualties on each other on a narrow frontage than on a broad frontage.

    As weapon range and lethality increases, if troop density and frontages remain the same, the effective density increases, so % casualties increase.

    The cases I studied for this were comparing Napoleonic battles (often very dense) with battles in the Hungarian War of Independence 1848-1849 (still essentially Napoleonic weapons and tactics, some quite large battles, but usually with rather fewer troops per km and with much lower % casualties).

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    You may be on the something.

    It always fascinated me that single day battles in f.x. the Napoleonic wars had casualty rates that were comparable or often very high compared to “per day” casualties in many much larger battles in the industrial age.

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    IIRC Clausewitz says you’ve lost a battle either when you’ve committed your last reserve or when your line of communications is threatened. When troop density is high, that means lots of reserves to throw in and no room to get round the flanks and threaten LOC. Thus battles last longer and casualties are higher. Hence the attritional warfare in WWI, and in the latter part of WWII, and (per Julian’s point) in Ukraine now.


    A couple of things

    1) As in Kirkilise & Kumanovo the Ottomans opted for the operational offense in the battle. So not exactly a  classical defensive battle  Chataltza and 1-3  Bizani which were pure defensive battles were Ottoman victories. 4th Bizani was a Greek victory only because the doubling of greek manpower permitted outflanking the fortified position.

    2. The big problem imho with 1905-1917 commanders was not foolishness ideas about defense and offense (exceptions exist).  The operational defense was overcome many times in 1914-1917 with first lines collapsing. It was underestimating the power of the strategic defense in industrial warfare. And overestimating the capabilities of their armies. Asking their armies to do things that were beyond them.

    In the case of 1912, Petrev-pasha’s operational plans are exceptional,  worthy of the kriegsacademie. The combination of strategic defense with  operational offense was wise. But it was beyond the capabilities of an agrarian partly literate army with no NCO corps of worth.

    I am sure similar misconceptions can be seen in 191r-1917.

    So perhaps not donkeys, but nor paragons of wisdom.


    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    William Philpott in “War of Attrition” makes the observation (from memory, its been a bit since I read the book) that attritional warfare was a pretty rational solution to the problem, given the resources that were available.

    It’s worth noting that the Axis took more casualties during Barbarossa than the combined German casualties of Verdun and the Somme. I suppose point 2 above applies here as well.


    Showalter in his Tannenberg argues that officers had a good grasp of the deadliness of modern firepower. And that led them to expect a short decisive war. They thought a couple of big blloody battles would break any country. They just could not imagine the massive mobilization capacity of industrial major powers, or the strength of national morale. Who could had? Even the “fanatical” 1871 French and 1905 Japanese were ready to give up after several.mknths to a year of high intensity warfare.


Viewing 14 posts - 1 through 14 (of 14 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.