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CHAPTER VII. DECISION OF THE COMBAT
No battle is decided in a single moment, although in every battle there
arise moments of crisis, on which the result depends. The loss of a battle
is, therefore, a gradual falling of the scale. But there is in every
combat a point of time (*)
(*) Under the then existing conditions of armament
understood. This point is of supreme importance, as
practically the whole conduct of a great battle depends on a
correct solution of this question—viz., How long can a
given command prolong its resistance? If this is incorrectly
answered in practice—the whole manoeuvre depending on it
may collapse—e.g., Kouroupatkin at Liao-Yang, September
when it may be regarded as decided, in such a way that the renewal of the
fight would be a new battle, not a continuation of the old one. To have a
clear notion on this point of time, is very important, in order to be able
to decide whether, with the prompt assistance of reinforcements, the
combat can again be resumed with advantage.
Often in combats which are beyond restoration new forces are sacrificed in
vain; often through neglect the decision has not been seized when it might
easily have been secured. Here are two examples, which could not be more
to the point:
When the Prince of Hohenlohe, in 1806, at Jena,(*) with 35,000 men opposed
to from 60,000 to 70,000, under Buonaparte, had accepted battle, and lost
it—but lost it in such a way that the 35,000 might be regarded as
dissolved—General Ruchel undertook to renew the fight with about
12,000; the consequence was that in a moment his force was scattered in
(*) October 14, 1806.
On the other hand, on the same day at Auerstadt, the Prussians maintained
a combat with 25,000, against Davoust, who had 28,000, until mid-day,
without success, it is true, but still without the force being reduced to
a state of dissolution without even greater loss than the enemy, who was
very deficient in cavalry;—but they neglected to use the reserve of
18,000, under General Kalkreuth, to restore the battle which, under these
circumstances, it would have been impossible to lose.
Each combat is a whole in which the partial combats combine themselves
into one total result. In this total result lies the decision of the
combat. This success need not be exactly a victory such as we have denoted
in the sixth chapter, for often the preparations for that have not been
made, often there is no opportunity if the enemy gives way too soon, and
in most cases the decision, even when the resistance has been obstinate,
takes place before such a degree of success is attained as would
completely satisfy the idea of a victory.
We therefore ask, Which is commonly the moment of the decision, that is to
say, that moment when a fresh, effective, of course not disproportionate,
force, can no longer turn a disadvantageous battle?
If we pass over false attacks, which in accordance with their nature are
properly without decision, then,
1. If the possession of a movable object was the object of the combat, the
loss of the same is always the decision.
2. If the possession of ground was the object of the combat, then the
decision generally lies in its loss. Still not always, only if this ground
is of peculiar strength, ground which is easy to pass over, however
important it may be in other respects, can be re-taken without much
3. But in all other cases, when these two circumstances have not already
decided the combat, therefore, particularly in case the destruction of the
enemy's force is the principal object, the decision is reached at that
moment when the conqueror ceases to feel himself in a state of
disintegration, that is, of unserviceableness to a certain extent, when
therefore, there is no further advantage in using the successive efforts
spoken of in the twelfth chapter of the third book. On this ground we have
given the strategic unity of the battle its place here.
A battle, therefore, in which the assailant has not lost his condition of
order and perfect efficiency at all, or, at least, only in a small part of
his force, whilst the opposing forces are, more or less, disorganised
throughout, is also not to be retrieved; and just as little if the enemy
has recovered his efficiency.
The smaller, therefore, that part of a force is which has really been
engaged, the greater that portion which as reserve has contributed to the
result only by its presence. So much the less will any new force of the
enemy wrest again the victory from our hands, and that Commander who
carries out to the furthest with his Army the principle of conducting the
combat with the greatest economy of forces, and making the most of the
moral effect of strong reserves, goes the surest way to victory. We must
allow that the French, in modern times, especially when led by Buonaparte,
have shown a thorough mastery in this.
Further, the moment when the crisis-stage of the combat ceases with the
conqueror, and his original state of order is restored, takes place sooner
the smaller the unit he controls. A picket of cavalry pursuing an enemy at
full gallop will in a few minutes resume its proper order, and the crisis
ceases. A whole regiment of cavalry requires a longer time. It lasts still
longer with infantry, if extended in single lines of skirmishers, and
longer again with Divisions of all arms, when it happens by chance that
one part has taken one direction and another part another direction, and
the combat has therefore caused a loss of the order of formation, which
usually becomes still worse from no part knowing exactly where the other
is. Thus, therefore, the point of time when the conqueror has collected
the instruments he has been using, and which are mixed up and partly out
of order, the moment when he has in some measure rearranged them and put
them in their proper places, and thus brought the battle-workshop into a
little order, this moment, we say, is always later, the greater the total
Again, this moment comes later if night overtakes the conqueror in the
crisis, and, lastly, it comes later still if the country is broken and
thickly wooded. But with regard to these two points, we must observe that
night is also a great means of protection, and it is only seldom that
circumstances favour the expectation of a successful result from a night
attack, as on March 10, 1814, at Laon,(*) where York against Marmont gives
us an example completely in place here. In the same way a wooded and
broken country will afford protection against a reaction to those who are
engaged in the long crisis of victory. Both, therefore, the night as well
as the wooded and broken country are obstacles which make the renewal of
the same battle more difficult instead of facilitating it.
(*) The celebrated charge at night upon Marmont's Corps.
Hitherto, we have considered assistance arriving for the losing side as a
mere increase of force, therefore, as a reinforcement coming up directly
from the rear, which is the most usual case. But the case is quite
different if these fresh forces come upon the enemy in flank or rear.
On the effect of flank or rear attacks so far as they belong to Strategy,
we shall speak in another place: such a one as we have here in view,
intended for the restoration of the combat, belongs chiefly to tactics,
and is only mentioned because we are here speaking of tactical results,
our ideas, therefore, must trench upon the province of tactics.
By directing a force against the enemy's flank and rear its efficacy may
be much intensified; but this is so far from being a necessary result
always that the efficacy may, on the other hand, be just as much weakened.
The circumstances under which the combat has taken place decide upon this
part of the plan as well as upon every other, without our being able to
enter thereupon here. But, at the same time, there are in it two things of
importance for our subject: first, FLANK AND REAR ATTACKS HAVE, AS A RULE,
A MORE FAVOURABLE EFFECT ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE DECISION THAN UPON THE
DECISION ITSELF. Now as concerns the retrieving a battle, the first thing
to be arrived at above all is a favourable decision and not magnitude of
success. In this view one would therefore think that a force which comes
to re-establish our combat is of less assistance if it falls upon the
enemy in flank and rear, therefore separated from us, than if it joins
itself to us directly; certainly, cases are not wanting where it is so,
but we must say that the majority are on the other side, and they are so
on account of the second point which is here important to us.
This second point IS THE MORAL EFFECT OF THE SURPRISE, WHICH, AS A RULE, A
REINFORCEMENT COMING UP TO RE-ESTABLISH A COMBAT HAS GENERALLY IN ITS
FAVOUR. Now the effect of a surprise is always heightened if it takes
place in the flank or rear, and an enemy completely engaged in the crisis
of victory in his extended and scattered order, is less in a state to
counteract it. Who does not feel that an attack in flank or rear, which at
the commencement of the battle, when the forces are concentrated and
prepared for such an event would be of little importance, gains quite
another weight in the last moment of the combat.
We must, therefore, at once admit that in most cases a reinforcement
coming up on the flank or rear of the enemy will be more efficacious, will
be like the same weight at the end of a longer lever, and therefore that
under these circumstances, we may undertake to restore the battle with the
same force which employed in a direct attack would be quite insufficient.
Here results almost defy calculation, because the moral forces gain
completely the ascendency. This is therefore the right field for boldness
The eye must, therefore, be directed on all these objects, all these
moments of co-operating forces must be taken into consideration, when we
have to decide in doubtful cases whether or not it is still possible to
restore a combat which has taken an unfavourable turn.
If the combat is to be regarded as not yet ended, then the new contest
which is opened by the arrival of assistance fuses into the former;
therefore they flow together into one common result, and the first
disadvantage vanishes completely out of the calculation. But this is not
the case if the combat was already decided; then there are two results
separate from each other. Now if the assistance which arrives is only of a
relative strength, that is, if it is not in itself alone a match for the
enemy, then a favourable result is hardly to be expected from this second
combat: but if it is so strong that it can undertake the second combat
without regard to the first, then it may be able by a favourable issue to
compensate or even overbalance the first combat, but never to make it
disappear altogether from the account.
At the battle of Kunersdorf,(*) Frederick the Great at the first onset
carried the left of the Russian position, and took seventy pieces of
artillery; at the end of the battle both were lost again, and the whole
result of the first combat was wiped out of the account. Had it been
possible to stop at the first success, and to put off the second part of
the battle to the coming day, then, even if the King had lost it, the
advantages of the first would always have been a set off to the second.
(*) August 12, 1759.
But when a battle proceeding disadvantageously is arrested and turned
before its conclusion, its minus result on our side not only disappears
from the account, but also becomes the foundation of a greater victory.
If, for instance, we picture to ourselves exactly the tactical course of
the battle, we may easily see that until it is finally concluded all
successes in partial combats are only decisions in suspense, which by the
capital decision may not only be destroyed, but changed into the opposite.
The more our forces have suffered, the more the enemy will have expended
on his side; the greater, therefore, will be the crisis for the enemy, and
the more the superiority of our fresh troops will tell. If now the total
result turns in our favour, if we wrest from the enemy the field of battle
and recover all the trophies again, then all the forces which he has
sacrificed in obtaining them become sheer gain for us, and our former
defeat becomes a stepping-stone to a greater triumph. The most brilliant
feats which with victory the enemy would have so highly prized that the
loss of forces which they cost would have been disregarded, leave nothing
now behind but regret at the sacrifice entailed. Such is the alteration
which the magic of victory and the curse of defeat produces in the
specific weight of the same elements.
Therefore, even if we are decidedly superior in strength, and are able to
repay the enemy his victory by a greater still, it is always better to
forestall the conclusion of a disadvantageous combat, if it is of
proportionate importance, so as to turn its course rather than to deliver
a second battle.
Field-Marshal Daun attempted in the year 1760 to come to the assistance of
General Laudon at Leignitz, whilst the battle lasted; but when he failed,
he did not attack the King next day, although he did not want for means to
For these reasons serious combats of advance guards which precede a battle
are to be looked upon only as necessary evils, and when not necessary they
are to be avoided.(*)
(*) This, however, was not Napoleon's view. A vigorous
attack of his advance guard he held to be necessary always,
to fix the enemy's attention and "paralyse his independent
will-power." It was the failure to make this point which, in
August 1870, led von Moltke repeatedly into the very jaws of
defeat, from which only the lethargy of Bazaine on the one
hand and the initiative of his subordinates, notably of von
Alvensleben, rescued him. This is the essence of the new
Strategic Doctrine of the French General Staff. See the
works of Bonnal, Foch, &C.—EDITOR
We have still another conclusion to examine.
If on a regular pitched battle, the decision has gone against one, this
does not constitute a motive for determining on a new one. The
determination for this new one must proceed from other relations. This
conclusion, however, is opposed by a moral force, which we must take into
account: it is the feeling of rage and revenge. From the oldest
Field-Marshal to the youngest drummer-boy this feeling is general, and,
therefore, troops are never in better spirits for fighting than when they
have to wipe out a stain. This is, however, only on the supposition that
the beaten portion is not too great in proportion to the whole, because
otherwise the above feeling is lost in that of powerlessness.
There is therefore a very natural tendency to use this moral force to
repair the disaster on the spot, and on that account chiefly to seek
another battle if other circumstances permit. It then lies in the nature
of the case that this second battle must be an offensive one.
In the catalogue of battles of second-rate importance there are many
examples to be found of such retaliatory battles; but great battles have
generally too many other determining causes to be brought on by this
Such a feeling must undoubtedly have led the noble Bluecher with his third
Corps to the field of battle on February 14, 1814, when the other two had
been beaten three days before at Montmirail. Had he known that he would
have come upon Buonaparte in person, then, naturally, preponderating
reasons would have determined him to put off his revenge to another day:
but he hoped to revenge himself on Marmont, and instead of gaining the
reward of his desire for honourable satisfaction, he suffered the penalty
of his erroneous calculation.
On the duration of the combat and the moment of its decision depend the
distances from each other at which those masses should be placed which are
intended to fight IN CONJUNCTION WITH each other. This disposition would
be a tactical arrangement in so far as it relates to one and the same
battle; it can, however, only be regarded as such, provided the position
of the troops is so compact that two separate combats cannot be imagined,
and consequently that the space which the whole occupies can be regarded
strategically as a mere point. But in War, cases frequently occur where
even those forces intended to fight IN UNISON must be so far separated
from each other that while their union for one common combat certainly
remains the principal object, still the occurrence of separate combats
remains possible. Such a disposition is therefore strategic.
Dispositions of this kind are: marches in separate masses and columns, the
formation of advance guards, and flanking columns, also the grouping of
reserves intended to serve as supports for more than one strategic point;
the concentration of several Corps from widely extended cantonments, &c.
&c. We can see that the necessity for these arrangements may
constantly arise, and may consider them something like the small change in
the strategic economy, whilst the capital battles, and all that rank with
them are the gold and silver pieces.
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CHAPTER VIII. MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING AS TO A BATTLE
NO battle can take place unless by mutual consent; and in this idea, which
constitutes the whole basis of a duel, is the root of a certain
phraseology used by historical writers, which leads to many indefinite and
According to the view of the writers to whom we refer, it has frequently
happened that one Commander has offered battle to the other, and the
latter has not accepted it.
But the battle is a very modified duel, and its foundation is not merely
in the mutual wish to fight, that is in consent, but in the objects which
are bound up with the battle: these belong always to a greater whole, and
that so much the more, as even the whole war considered as a "combat-unit"
has political objects and conditions which belong to a higher standpoint.
The mere desire to conquer each other therefore falls into quite a
subordinate relation, or rather it ceases completely to be anything of
itself, and only becomes the nerve which conveys the impulse of action
from the higher will.
Amongst the ancients, and then again during the early period of standing
Armies, the expression that we had offered battle to the enemy in vain,
had more sense in it than it has now. By the ancients everything was
constituted with a view to measuring each other's strength in the open
field free from anything in the nature of a hindrance,(*) and the whole
Art of War consisted in the organisation, and formation of the Army, that
is in the order of battle.
(*) Note the custom of sending formal challenges, fix time
and place for action, and "enhazelug" the battlefield in
Now as their Armies regularly entrenched themselves in their camps,
therefore the position in a camp was regarded as something unassailable,
and a battle did not become possible until the enemy left his camp, and
placed himself in a practicable country, as it were entered the lists.
If therefore we hear about Hannibal having offered battle to Fabius in
vain, that tells us nothing more as regards the latter than that a battle
was not part of his plan, and in itself neither proves the physical nor
moral superiority of Hannibal; but with respect to him the expression is
still correct enough in the sense that Hannibal really wished a battle.
In the early period of modern Armies, the relations were similar in great
combats and battles. That is to say, great masses were brought into
action, and managed throughout it by means of an order of battle, which
like a great helpless whole required a more or less level plain and was
neither suited to attack, nor yet to defence in a broken, close or even
mountainous country. The defender therefore had here also to some extent
the means of avoiding battle. These relations although gradually becoming
modified, continued until the first Silesian War, and it was not until the
Seven Years' War that attacks on an enemy posted in a difficult country
gradually became feasible, and of ordinary occurrence: ground did not
certainly cease to be a principle of strength to those making use of its
aid, but it was no longer a charmed circle, which shut out the natural
forces of War.
During the past thirty years War has perfected itself much more in this
respect, and there is no longer anything which stands in the way of a
General who is in earnest about a decision by means of battle; he can seek
out his enemy, and attack him: if he does not do so he cannot take credit
for having wished to fight, and the expression he offered a battle which
his opponent did not accept, therefore now means nothing more than that he
did not find circumstances advantageous enough for a battle, an admission
which the above expression does not suit, but which it only strives to
throw a veil over.
It is true the defensive side can no longer refuse a battle, yet he may
still avoid it by giving up his position, and the role with which that
position was connected: this is however half a victory for the offensive
side, and an acknowledgment of his superiority for the present.
This idea in connection with the cartel of defiance can therefore no
longer be made use of in order by such rhodomontade to qualify the
inaction of him whose part it is to advance, that is, the offensive. The
defender who as long as he does not give way, must have the credit of
willing the battle, may certainly say, he has offered it if he is not
attacked, if that is not understood of itself.
But on the other hand, he who now wishes to, and can retreat cannot easily
be forced to give battle. Now as the advantages to the aggressor from this
retreat are often not sufficient, and a substantial victory is a matter of
urgent necessity for him, in that way the few means which there are to
compel such an opponent also to give battle are often sought for and
applied with particular skill.
The principal means for this are—first SURROUNDING the enemy so as
to make his retreat impossible, or at least so difficult that it is better
for him to accept battle; and, secondly, SURPRISING him. This last way,
for which there was a motive formerly in the extreme difficulty of all
movements, has become in modern times very inefficacious.
From the pliability and manoeuvring capabilities of troops in the present
day, one does not hesitate to commence a retreat even in sight of the
enemy, and only some special obstacles in the nature of the country can
cause serious difficulties in the operation.
As an example of this kind the battle of Neresheim may be given, fought by
the Archduke Charles with Moreau in the Rauhe Alp, August 11, 1796, merely
with a view to facilitate his retreat, although we freely confess we have
never been able quite to understand the argument of the renowned general
and author himself in this case.
The battle of Rosbach(*) is another example, if we suppose the commander
of the allied army had not really the intention of attacking Frederick the
(*) November 5, 1757.
Of the battle of Soor,(*) the King himself says that it was only fought
because a retreat in the presence of the enemy appeared to him a critical
operation; at the same time the King has also given other reasons for the
(*) Or Sohr, September 30, 1745.
On the whole, regular night surprises excepted, such cases will always be
of rare occurrence, and those in which an enemy is compelled to fight by
being practically surrounded, will happen mostly to single corps only,
like Mortier's at Durrenstein 1809, and Vandamme at Kulm, 1813.
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CHAPTER IX. THE BATTLE(*)
(*) Clausewitz still uses the word "die Hauptschlacht" but
modern usage employs only the word "die Schlacht" to
designate the decisive act of a whole campaign—encounters
arising from the collision or troops marching towards the
strategic culmination of each portion or the campaign are
spoken of either as "Treffen," i.e., "engagements" or
"Gefecht," i.e., "combat" or "action." Thus technically,
Gravelotte was a "Schlacht," i.e., "battle," but Spicheren,
Woerth, Borny, even Vionville were only "Treffen."
WHAT is a battle? A conflict of the main body, but not an unimportant one
about a secondary object, not a mere attempt which is given up when we see
betimes that our object is hardly within our reach: it is a conflict waged
with all our forces for the attainment of a decisive victory.
Minor objects may also be mixed up with the principal object, and it will
take many different tones of colour from the circumstances out of which it
originates, for a battle belongs also to a greater whole of which it is
only a part, but because the essence of War is conflict, and the battle is
the conflict of the main Armies, it is always to be regarded as the real
centre of gravity of the War, and therefore its distinguishing character
is, that unlike all other encounters, it is arranged for, and undertaken
with the sole purpose of obtaining a decisive victory.
This has an influence on the MANNER OF ITS DECISION, on the EFFECT OF THE
VICTORY CONTAINED IN IT, and determines THE VALUE WHICH THEORY IS TO
ASSIGN TO IT AS A MEANS TO AN END.
On that account we make it the subject of our special consideration, and
at this stage before we enter upon the special ends which may be bound up
with it, but which do not essentially alter its character if it really
deserves to be termed a battle.
If a battle takes place principally on its own account, the elements of
its decision must be contained in itself; in other words, victory must be
striven for as long as a possibility or hope remains. It must not,
therefore, be given up on account of secondary circumstances, but only and
alone in the event of the forces appearing completely insufficient.
Now how is that precise moment to be described?
If a certain artificial formation and cohesion of an Army is the principal
condition under which the bravery of the troops can gain a victory, as was
the case during a great part of the period of the modern Art of War, THEN
THE BREAKING UP OF THIS FORMATION is the decision. A beaten wing which is
put out of joint decides the fate of all that was connected with it. If as
was the case at another time the essence of the defence consists in an
intimate alliance of the Army with the ground on which it fights and its
obstacles, so that Army and position are only one, then the CONQUEST of AN
ESSENTIAL POINT in this position is the decision. It is said the key of
the position is lost, it cannot therefore be defended any further; the
battle cannot be continued. In both cases the beaten Armies are very much
like the broken strings of an instrument which cannot do their work.
That geometrical as well as this geographical principle which had a
tendency to place an Army in a state of crystallising tension which did
not allow of the available powers being made use of up to the last man,
have at least so far lost their influence that they no longer predominate.
Armies are still led into battle in a certain order, but that order is no
longer of decisive importance; obstacles of ground are also still turned
to account to strengthen a position, but they are no longer the only
We attempted in the second chapter of this book to take a general view of
the nature of the modern battle. According to our conception of it, the
order of battle is only a disposition of the forces suitable to the
convenient use of them, and the course of the battle a mutual slow wearing
away of these forces upon one another, to see which will have soonest
exhausted his adversary.
The resolution therefore to give up the fight arises, in a battle more
than in any other combat, from the relation of the fresh reserves
remaining available; for only these still retain all their moral vigour,
and the cinders of the battered, knocked-about battalions, already burnt
out in the destroying element, must not be placed on a level with them;
also lost ground as we have elsewhere said, is a standard of lost moral
force; it therefore comes also into account, but more as a sign of loss
suffered than for the loss itself, and the number of fresh reserves is
always the chief point to be looked at by both Commanders.
In general, an action inclines in one direction from the very
commencement, but in a manner little observable. This direction is also
frequently given in a very decided manner by the arrangements which have
been made previously, and then it shows a want of discernment in that
General who commences battle under these unfavourable circumstances
without being aware of them. Even when this does not occur it lies in the
nature of things that the course of a battle resembles rather a slow
disturbance of equilibrium which commences soon, but as we have said
almost imperceptibly at first, and then with each moment of time becomes
stronger and more visible, than an oscillating to and fro, as those who
are misled by mendacious descriptions usually suppose.
But whether it happens that the balance is for a long time little
disturbed, or that even after it has been lost on one side it rights
itself again, and is then lost on the other side, it is certain at all
events that in most instances the defeated General foresees his fate long
before he retreats, and that cases in which some critical event acts with
unexpected force upon the course of the whole have their existence mostly
in the colouring with which every one depicts his lost battle.
We can only here appeal to the decision of unprejudiced men of experience,
who will, we are sure, assent to what we have said, and answer for us to
such of our readers as do not know War from their own experience. To
develop the necessity of this course from the nature of the thing would
lead us too far into the province of tactics, to which this branch of the
subject belongs; we are here only concerned with its results.
If we say that the defeated General foresees the unfavourable result
usually some time before he makes up his mind to give up the battle, we
admit that there are also instances to the contrary, because otherwise we
should maintain a proposition contradictory in itself. If at the moment of
each decisive tendency of a battle it should be considered as lost, then
also no further forces should be used to give it a turn, and consequently
this decisive tendency could not precede the retreat by any length of
time. Certainly there are instances of battles which after having taken a
decided turn to one side have still ended in favour of the other; but they
are rare, not usual; these exceptional cases, however, are reckoned upon
by every General against whom fortune declares itself, and he must reckon
upon them as long as there remains a possibility of a turn of fortune. He
hopes by stronger efforts, by raising the remaining moral forces, by
surpassing himself, or also by some fortunate chance that the next moment
will bring a change, and pursues this as far as his courage and his
judgment can agree. We shall have something more to say on this subject,
but before that we must show what are the signs of the scales turning.
The result of the whole combat consists in the sum total of the results of
all partial combats; but these results of separate combats are settled by
First by the pure moral power in the mind of the leading officers. If a
General of Division has seen his battalions forced to succumb, it will
have an influence on his demeanour and his reports, and these again will
have an influence on the measures of the Commander-in-Chief; therefore
even those unsuccessful partial combats which to all appearance are
retrieved, are not lost in their results, and the impressions from them
sum themselves up in the mind of the Commander without much trouble, and
even against his will.
Secondly, by the quicker melting away of our troops, which can be easily
estimated in the slow and relatively(*) little tumultuary course of our
(*) Relatively, that is say to the shock of former days.
Thirdly, by lost ground.
All these things serve for the eye of the General as a compass to tell the
course of the battle in which he is embarked. If whole batteries have been
lost and none of the enemy's taken; if battalions have been overthrown by
the enemy's cavalry, whilst those of the enemy everywhere present
impenetrable masses; if the line of fire from his order of battle wavers
involuntarily from one point to another; if fruitless efforts have been
made to gain certain points, and the assaulting battalions each, time been
scattered by well-directed volleys of grape and case;—if our
artillery begins to reply feebly to that of the enemy—if the
battalions under fire diminish unusually, fast, because with the wounded
crowds of unwounded men go to the rear;—if single Divisions have
been cut off and made prisoners through the disruption of the plan of the
battle;—if the line of retreat begins to be endangered: the
Commander may tell very well in which direction he is going with his
battle. The longer this direction continues, the more decided it becomes,
so much the more difficult will be the turning, so much the nearer the
moment when he must give up the battle. We shall now make some
observations on this moment.
We have already said more than once that the final decision is ruled
mostly by the relative number of the fresh reserves remaining at the last;
that Commander who sees his adversary is decidedly superior to him in this
respect makes up his mind to retreat. It is the characteristic of modern
battles that all mischances and losses which take place in the course of
the same can be retrieved by fresh forces, because the arrangement of the
modern order of battle, and the way in which troops are brought into
action, allow of their use almost generally, and in each position. So
long, therefore, as that Commander against whom the issue seems to declare
itself still retains a superiority in reserve force, he will not give up
the day. But from the moment that his reserves begin to become weaker than
his enemy's, the decision may be regarded as settled, and what he now does
depends partly on special circumstances, partly on the degree of courage
and perseverance which he personally possesses, and which may degenerate
into foolish obstinacy. How a Commander can attain to the power of
estimating correctly the still remaining reserves on both sides is an
affair of skilful practical genius, which does not in any way belong to
this place; we keep ourselves to the result as it forms itself in his
mind. But this conclusion is still not the moment of decision properly,
for a motive which only arises gradually does not answer to that, but is
only a general motive towards resolution, and the resolution itself
requires still some special immediate causes. Of these there are two chief
ones which constantly recur, that is, the danger of retreat, and the
arrival of night.
If the retreat with every new step which the battle takes in its course
becomes constantly in greater danger, and if the reserves are so much
diminished that they are no longer adequate to get breathing room, then
there is nothing left but to submit to fate, and by a well-conducted
retreat to save what, by a longer delay ending in flight and disaster,
would be lost.
But night as a rule puts an end to all battles, because a night combat
holds out no hope of advantage except under particular circumstances; and
as night is better suited for a retreat than the day, so, therefore, the
Commander who must look at the retreat as a thing inevitable, or as most
probable, will prefer to make use of the night for his purpose.
That there are, besides the above two usual and chief causes, yet many
others also, which are less or more individual and not to be overlooked,
is a matter of course; for the more a battle tends towards a complete
upset of equilibrium the more sensible is the influence of each partial
result in hastening the turn. Thus the loss of a battery, a successful
charge of a couple of regiments of cavalry, may call into life the
resolution to retreat already ripening.
As a conclusion to this subject, we must dwell for a moment on the point
at which the courage of the Commander engages in a sort of conflict with
If, on the one hand the overbearing pride of a victorious conqueror, if
the inflexible will of a naturally obstinate spirit, if the strenuous
resistance of noble feelings will not yield the battlefield, where they
must leave their honour, yet on the other hand, reason counsels not to
give up everything, not to risk the last upon the game, but to retain as
much over as is necessary for an orderly retreat. However highly we must
esteem courage and firmness in War, and however little prospect there is
of victory to him who cannot resolve to seek it by the exertion of all his
power, still there is a point beyond which perseverance can only be termed
desperate folly, and therefore can meet with no approbation from any
critic. In the most celebrated of all battles, that of Belle-Alliance,
Buonaparte used his last reserve in an effort to retrieve a battle which
was past being retrieved. He spent his last farthing, and then, as a
beggar, abandoned both the battle-field and his crown.
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CHAPTER X. EFFECTS OF VICTORY (continuation)
ACCORDING to the point from which our view is taken, we may feel as much
astonished at the extraordinary results of some great battles as at the
want of results in others. We shall dwell for a moment on the nature of
the effect of a great victory.
Three things may easily be distinguished here: the effect upon the
instrument itself, that is, upon the Generals and their Armies; the effect
upon the States interested in the War; and the particular result of these
effects as manifested in the subsequent course of the campaign.
If we only think of the trifling difference which there usually is between
victor and vanquished in killed, wounded, prisoners, and artillery lost on
the field of battle itself, the consequences which are developed out of
this insignificant point seem often quite incomprehensible, and yet,
usually, everything only happens quite naturally.
We have already said in the seventh chapter that the magnitude of a
victory increases not merely in the same measure as the vanquished forces
increase in number, but in a higher ratio. The moral effects resulting
from the issue of a great battle are greater on the side of the conquered
than on that of the conqueror: they lead to greater losses in physical
force, which then in turn react on the moral element, and so they go on
mutually supporting and intensifying each other. On this moral effect we
must therefore lay special weight. It takes an opposite direction on the
one side from that on the other; as it undermines the energies of the
conquered so it elevates the powers and energy of the conqueror. But its
chief effect is upon the vanquished, because here it is the direct cause
of fresh losses, and besides it is homogeneous in nature with danger, with
the fatigues, the hardships, and generally with all those embarrassing
circumstances by which War is surrounded, therefore enters into league
with them and increases by their help, whilst with the conqueror all these
things are like weights which give a higher swing to his courage. It is
therefore found, that the vanquished sinks much further below the original
line of equilibrium than the conqueror raises himself above it; on this
account, if we speak of the effects of victory we allude more particularly
to those which manifest themselves in the army. If this effect is more
powerful in an important combat than in a smaller one, so again it is much
more powerful in a great battle than in a minor one. The great battle
takes place for the sake of itself, for the sake of the victory which it
is to give, and which is sought for with the utmost effort. Here on this
spot, in this very hour, to conquer the enemy is the purpose in which the
plan of the War with all its threads converges, in which all distant
hopes, all dim glimmerings of the future meet, fate steps in before us to
give an answer to the bold question.—This is the state of mental
tension not only of the Commander but of his whole Army down to the lowest
waggon-driver, no doubt in decreasing strength but also in decreasing
According to the nature of the thing, a great battle has never at any time
been an unprepared, unexpected, blind routine service, but a grand act,
which, partly of itself and partly from the aim of the Commander, stands
out from amongst the mass of ordinary efforts, sufficiently to raise the
tension of all minds to a higher degree. But the higher this tension with
respect to the issue, the more powerful must be the effect of that issue.
Again, the moral effect of victory in our battles is greater than it was
in the earlier ones of modern military history. If the former are as we
have depicted them, a real struggle of forces to the utmost, then the sum
total of all these forces, of the physical as well as the moral, must
decide more than certain special dispositions or mere chance.
A single fault committed may be repaired next time; from good fortune and
chance we can hope for more favour on another occasion; but the sum total
of moral and physical powers cannot be so quickly altered, and, therefore,
what the award of a victory has decided appears of much greater importance
for all futurity. Very probably, of all concerned in battles, whether in
or out of the Army, very few have given a thought to this difference, but
the course of the battle itself impresses on the minds of all present in
it such a conviction, and the relation of this course in public documents,
however much it may be coloured by twisting particular circumstances,
shows also, more or less, to the world at large that the causes were more
of a general than of a particular nature.
He who has not been present at the loss of a great battle will have
difficulty in forming for himself a living or quite true idea of it, and
the abstract notions of this or that small untoward affair will never come
up to the perfect conception of a lost battle. Let us stop a moment at the
The first thing which overpowers the imagination—and we may indeed
say, also the understanding—is the diminution of the masses; then
the loss of ground, which takes place always, more or less, and,
therefore, on the side of the assailant also, if he is not fortunate; then
the rupture of the original formation, the jumbling together of troops,
the risks of retreat, which, with few exceptions may always be seen
sometimes in a less sometimes in a greater degree; next the retreat, the
most part of which commences at night, or, at least, goes on throughout
the night. On this first march we must at once leave behind, a number of
men completely worn out and scattered about, often just the bravest, who
have been foremost in the fight who held out the longest: the feeling of
being conquered, which only seized the superior officers on the
battlefield, now spreads through all ranks, even down to the common
soldiers, aggravated by the horrible idea of being obliged to leave in the
enemy's hands so many brave comrades, who but a moment since were of such
value to us in the battle, and aggravated by a rising distrust of the
chief, to whom, more or less, every subordinate attributes as a fault the
fruitless efforts he has made; and this feeling of being conquered is no
ideal picture over which one might become master; it is an evident truth
that the enemy is superior to us; a truth of which the causes might have
been so latent before that they were not to be discovered, but which, in
the issue, comes out clear and palpable, or which was also, perhaps,
before suspected, but which in the want of any certainty, we had to oppose
by the hope of chance, reliance on good fortune, Providence or a bold
attitude. Now, all this has proved insufficient, and the bitter truth
meets us harsh and imperious.
All these feelings are widely different from a panic, which in an army
fortified by military virtue never, and in any other, only exceptionally,
follows the loss of a battle. They must arise even in the best of Armies,
and although long habituation to War and victory together with great
confidence in a Commander may modify them a little here and there, they
are never entirely wanting in the first moment. They are not the pure
consequences of lost trophies; these are usually lost at a later period,
and the loss of them does not become generally known so quickly; they will
therefore not fail to appear even when the scale turns in the slowest and
most gradual manner, and they constitute that effect of a victory upon
which we can always count in every case.
We have already said that the number of trophies intensifies this effect.
It is evident that an Army in this condition, looked at as an instrument,
is weakened! How can we expect that when reduced to such a degree that, as
we said before, it finds new enemies in all the ordinary difficulties of
making War, it will be able to recover by fresh efforts what has been
lost! Before the battle there was a real or assumed equilibrium between
the two sides; this is lost, and, therefore, some external assistance is
requisite to restore it; every new effort without such external support
can only lead to fresh losses.
Thus, therefore, the most moderate victory of the chief Army must tend to
cause a constant sinking of the scale on the opponent's side, until new
external circumstances bring about a change. If these are not near, if the
conqueror is an eager opponent, who, thirsting for glory, pursues great
aims, then a first-rate Commander, and in the beaten Army a true military
spirit, hardened by many campaigns are required, in order to stop the
swollen stream of prosperity from bursting all bounds, and to moderate its
course by small but reiterated acts of resistance, until the force of
victory has spent itself at the goal of its career.
And now as to the effect of defeat beyond the Army, upon the Nation and
Government! It is the sudden collapse of hopes stretched to the utmost,
the downfall of all self-reliance. In place of these extinct forces, fear,
with its destructive properties of expansion, rushes into the vacuum left,
and completes the prostration. It is a real shock upon the nerves, which
one of the two athletes receives from the electric spark of victory. And
that effect, however different in its degrees, is never completely
wanting. Instead of every one hastening with a spirit of determination to
aid in repairing the disaster, every one fears that his efforts will only
be in vain, and stops, hesitating with himself, when he should rush
forward; or in despondency he lets his arm drop, leaving everything to
The consequence which this effect of victory brings forth in the course of
the War itself depend in part on the character and talent of the
victorious General, but more on the circumstances from which the victory
proceeds, and to which it leads. Without boldness and an enterprising
spirit on the part of the leader, the most brilliant victory will lead to
no great success, and its force exhausts itself all the sooner on
circumstances, if these offer a strong and stubborn opposition to it. How
very differently from Daun, Frederick the Great would have used the
victory at Kollin; and what different consequences France, in place of
Prussia, might have given a battle of Leuthen!
The conditions which allow us to expect great results from a great victory
we shall learn when we come to the subjects with which they are connected;
then it will be possible to explain the disproportion which appears at
first sight between the magnitude of a victory and its results, and which
is only too readily attributed to a want of energy on the part of the
conqueror. Here, where we have to do with the great battle in itself, we
shall merely say that the effects now depicted never fail to attend a
victory, that they mount up with the intensive strength of the victory—mount
up more the more the whole strength of the Army has been concentrated in
it, the more the whole military power of the Nation is contained in that
Army, and the State in that military power.
But then the question may be asked, Can theory accept this effect of
victory as absolutely necessary?—must it not rather endeavour to
find out counteracting means capable of neutralising these effects? It
seems quite natural to answer this question in the affirmative; but heaven
defend us from taking that wrong course of most theories, out of which is
begotten a mutually devouring Pro et Contra.
Certainly that effect is perfectly necessary, for it has its foundation in
the nature of things, and it exists, even if we find means to struggle
against it; just as the motion of a cannon ball is always in the direction
of the terrestrial, although when fired from east to west part of the
general velocity is destroyed by this opposite motion.
All War supposes human weakness, and against that it is directed.
Therefore, if hereafter in another place we examine what is to be done
after the loss of a great battle, if we bring under review the resources
which still remain, even in the most desperate cases, if we should express
a belief in the possibility of retrieving all, even in such a case; it
must not be supposed we mean thereby that the effects of such a defeat can
by degrees be completely wiped out, for the forces and means used to
repair the disaster might have been applied to the realisation of some
positive object; and this applies both to the moral and physical forces.
Another question is, whether, through the loss of a great battle, forces
are not perhaps roused into existence, which otherwise would never have
come to life. This case is certainly conceivable, and it is what has
actually occurred with many Nations. But to produce this intensified
reaction is beyond the province of military art, which can only take
account of it where it might be assumed as a possibility.
If there are cases in which the fruits of a victory appear rather of a
destructive nature in consequence of the reaction of the forces which it
had the effect of rousing into activity—cases which certainly are
very exceptional—then it must the more surely be granted, that there
is a difference in the effects which one and the same victory may produce
according to the character of the people or state, which has been