1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tactics
TACTICS (Gr. τακτική, sc. τέχνη, from τάσσειν, to arrange in order of battle). It may perhaps seem superfluous at the present time to emphasize the distinction *between strategy and tactics. Moreover, definitions are rarely quite satisfactory, for they can seldom be perfectly clear and at the same time perfectly comprehensive. Yet, since it is necessary that the parties to any discussion should have some common starting point, it will be as well to begin by stating exactly what is meant to be included under the heading of this article.
Strategy (q.v.) is the art of bringing the enemy to battle on terms disadvantageous to him. Combined, or to use the phraseology of the Napoleonic era, “grand” tactics are the
methods employed for his destruction by a force of all arms,
that is, of infantry (q.v.), artillery (q.v.) and cavalry (q.v.).
Each of these possesses a power peculiar to itself, the full
development of which depends to a greater or less degree upon
the aid and co-operation of the other two. Now it is quite
evident that the only force which can ensure this co-operation,
and can produce harmonious working between the various
components of that complex machine, a modern army, is the
will-power of the supreme commander. It is, then, the sphere
of the higher commander on the day of battle which is generally
expressed by the term “combined tactics,” and which will be
dealt with in this article. Yet it must not be understood that
because the term higher, or supreme, commander is used that
the theory of combined tactics may be safely neglected by those
soldiers whose ambitions or opportunities do not seem to lead
to that position. In the British Army more than
of study. in any other, as the South African war showed, a comparatively junior officer may at any moment find himself placed in command of a mixed force of all arms, without any previous practical knowledge of how it should be handled. It will not then be possible to make the best use of such opportunities by the uneducated light of nature, and such theoretical knowledge as may have been gleaned from books and matured by thought will be of great value.
It is of the first importance that the commander of a mixed force should know exactly the powers and limitations of the units under his control. Should he not be a master of his profession, he will at times demand more from his subordinates than they can reasonably be expected to perform; at other times he will miss his chances by ignorance of their capabilities. An uneducated commander may indeed be likened to an indifferent mechanic, who sometimes places an undue strain upon the engine he is supposed to control, and sometimes allows its precious powers to run to waste.
There is, however, a still stronger reason why all officers should study the art of grand tactics. In every battle situations arise of which the issue is decided by the promptitude and efficiency of the co-operation between the three arms. At such moments, an officer in charge of a battery of artillery, or of a squadron of cavalry, may find an opportunity of rendering valuable aid to his own infantry; and a knowledge of the tactics and training of the other arms may then be essential, for it will probably be necessary to act without instructions from superior authority.
But although the importance of studying tactics may be
readily allowed, there would appear to be considerable diversity
of opinion as to the best method of conducting that study. It
is often confidently asserted that tactics cannot be learnt from
books; and in support of this theory it is customary to adduce
Napoleon's well-known statement that tactics change every
ten years. But if we examine the matter more' closely, it will
become evident that the changes which the great captain had
in his mind were those of formations, due principally to improved
weapons, rather than of the principles upon which
combined tactics are based. Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise,
for military history furnishes many instances of great
battles which have been fought out on exactly the same lines,
although separated in point of time by many centuries. The
great similarity between Rossbach (q.v.), Austerlitz (q.v.) and
Salamanca (q.v.) has often been quoted since Napoleon first
drew attention to it, but a great deal more remarkable and
instructive is the similarity between the battle on the Metaurus,
which dealt the final blow to the hopes of Carthage in Italy, and
Marlborough’s masterpiece, the battle of Ramillies (q.v.). In
both cases the battle was lost through faulty dispositions before
of military history. it had been begun. In both cases the ultimate loser took up a position behind a stream thereby losing his mobility and voluntarily surrendering the initiative to an enemy who was not slow to take advantage of it. Precisely the same error was committed time after time by the Austrian generals who fought against Frederick, notably at Leuthen (see Seven Years’ War), a battle closely resembling both Ramillies and the Metaurus. Coming to a later date, we find the same error committed, with of course precisely the same result, in Manchuria, where the Russian generals repeatedly surrendered the initiative to their enterprising opponents, and allowed them to dictate the course of battle. It must not, however, be understood from this that no commander should ever stand upon the defensive; rather it is meant that we should learn from history the proper method of doing so. This we cannot do better than by studying Wellington's battles in the Peninsula, for never have tactics been brought to higher perfection. Although frequently compelled to adopt the defensive, he never surrendered the conduct of the battle to his enemy. Even when surprised and taken at great disadvantage by Soult at Maya (see Peninsular War), it can be seen how, while lesser men would have been content to reinforce the threatened points, Wellington's one thought was to discover where he could deal the most effective blow. Nearly a hundred years later and in a theatre of war many thousands of miles away, a very similar battle was fought out by Kuropatkin and Oyama, though on a vastly greater scale.
But history teaches us more than the methods of the great captains; for from it we may learn those changes which have been introduced into both organization and tactics by the improved weapons which science has placed in our hands, and thence the tactician may deduce the changes of the future. Just as the “Old Dessauer” foresaw the advantage which the iron ramrod would give to the Prussian infantry, and as Wellington perceived that improved firearms would render possible the extended lines he adopted, so may the great generals of the future learn those lessons which are only brought home to others through the dire ordeal of battle. From the days of the long-bow to those of the Lee-Metford riHe, the changes in tactics have been brought about by the development of Ere. It is therefore only natural that the introduction of small-bore rifles, quick-firing artillery, and smokeless powder should have revolutionized many of our ideas. Before the invention of the breech-loader and the rified cannon, the three arms of the service employed very different methods of combat. The infantry depended principally on the bayonet, the cavalry on the lance or sabre, the artillery on fire. Now there is practically but one method common to all arms whether in attack or defence. The bayonet and the sabre still have their part to play; but in almost every phase of the combat their importance is diminishing, and infantry and cavalry must depend more and more upon fire to compass the enemy’s overthrow. All the preliminary movement and manoeuvres have but one end in view, the development of fire in greater volume and more effectively directed than that of the opposing force; for it is “superiority of fire” that prepares the ground for the final decision.
Side by side with the improvement in firearms there has come another great change which, on the continent of Europe at all events, has had a marked effect on modern tactics. This is the improvement in communications, which has alone made it possible to use the vast numbers with which great battles have recently been fought. Without railways the power which universal service has placed in the hands of the generals of the zoth century could never have been fully developed, for the men could neither have been conveyed to the theatre of operations, nor could they have been fed even supposing they had been got there. Now all this is and the first step towards the attainment of superiority of fire will be to bring as many men as possible on to the field of battle; the second step will be to place them in the position from which they can use their weapons to the very best advantage. From these premises it is not difficult to foresee the type of battle which will prevail, until some new discovery changes the military systems of the world. In the future, as in the past, it will be the duty of the strategist to mass superior numbers at the decisive point; but so soon as this has been effected there is only one method by which the tactician will be able to follow up the advantage. That is by bringing
more rifles into action than his opponent is able to do. From this it follows that the enveloping action will be the usual form of battle; and that although the extent of front may not always be so great, in proportion to the numbers engaged, as on the battlefields of South Africa or even of Manchuria, the general tendency of modern invention will undoubtedly be to increase the area of the battlefield.
If then we are right in supposing that the front of an army in action will cover many miles of country, it necessarily follows that in approaching the field many roads will be used. Here the duties of the cavalry will begin; for the commander who can discover earliest the approaches by which the flank detachments of his opponent are moving, is obviously in the best position to form his plans for envelopment. Here we are verging upon the strategic use of cavalry; but under modern conditions the tactical use of that arm is almost merged in the strategical use. No doubt it has always been the object of the wise commander to attain his enemy's flank; yet, since, owing to the increased range of small-bore rifles, turning movements like those which formed such a marked feature of Frederick the Great's battles can no longer be made after the infantry troops have come into contact, they must be prepared as soon as the necessary information has been obtained. Moreovei, nothing must be left to chance, for it can hardly be denied that if the battle of Gravelotte were to be fought again to-morrow, the failure to locate the right flank of the French army would have even more serious consequences than were actually the case (see METZ: Battles of 1870). Such mistakes can only be avoided by obtaining good information, and thus it will be seen that the chances of bringing off a successful converging attack are greatly in favour of the commander who is best served by his cavalry. But, as the opposing forces draw near, a gradual change comes over the duties of the mounted arm, for it must then protect the troops in rear from observation, so that the preparations for envelopment may be concealed. To this end the occupation of points of tactical vantage, such as hills, woods and villages, behind which the main army can deploy or the outflanking columns march in security, becomes its chief aim. In the next stage, i.e., when one or other army is forced to stand on the defensive, reconnaissance of the position held will be the duty of the cavalry of the attack. So far its functions are clear enough, but when the preparations for the infantry attack have been completed we have practically nothing to guide us. Unfortunately the two most recent wars, in South Africa and Manchuria, have taught us but little of the handling of cavalry in battle. In South Africa the peculiar characteristics of the Boers gave no scope for cavalry action; while in Manchuria the theatre of operations was practically a defile between the mountains and the Liao river, which afforded no room for manoeuvre. With regard to the handling of cavalry in conjunction with the other arms there is, therefore, more room for diversity of opinion than is the case with either infantry or artillery. Time alone will show the real capabilities of the cavalry of to-day, and the opening battles of the next great campaign in Europe will bring about many changes. Meanwhile such experience as we have to guide us seems to indicate that the development of fire has rendered cavalry, even when highly trained in the use of the rifle, less capable of acting independently against infantry than it was formerly. Throughout the war in Manchuria, we constantly find the Russian cavalry reconnaissance checked by Japanese infantry; and on the other hand the weak japanese cavalry closely supported by infantry was fairly effective. The circumstances were of course peculiar, but the inference appears to be that unsupported mounted troops cannot be expected to achieve important results except when acting against similar bodies of the enemy; that is to say, under conditions which fall outside the province of combined tactics. Moreover, 'since well-posted infantry can easily hold in check greatly superior numbers of cavalry, it would certainly seem that wide tactical movements, intended to threaten the enemy's line of retreat, are more likely than not to result in prodigal waste of strength. This being the case it Cavalry.
would seem that the best use of cavalry on the battlefield will be on the flanks of, and in closing touch with, the infantry, where each arm can render support to the other. On the defensive the tactical action of cavalry is not less important than on the offensive. Accompanied and strengthened by horse artillery it may occupy tactical points either on the flanks of the main position or thrown out well to the front. Aided by smokeless powder, magazine rifles and quick-firing guns, numbers may be concealed and the attacking enemy may be induced to deploy his troops and to reveal his movements prematurely. Should he do so, much of his advantage will be gone, for the defender will be greatly helped in his preparations for the counter-attack, the most effective weapon at his command.
But when at last the slower moving bodies of infantry and artillery come into contact, the battle enters upon a new phase. It has long been recognized that the first step towards the attainment of fire superiority over a vigilant enemy is a vigorous artillery bombardment. For many years this action of the artillery was regarded merely as a preliminary to the infantry attack; and it was not until the rude awakening of the early battles of the Boer war, that it was realized in England that unless the infantry co-operate, the artillery is not likely to produce any result. If the attacking infantry is kept I at such a distance from the position that it cannot fgioffy pass quickly to the assault, the enemy will retain his troops under cover during the cannonade, perhaps even leaving his trenches unoccupied, and present no target to the guns. Indeed, a most instructive instance of this very line of action is furnished by the battle of Ta-shih-chiao. There the right of the Russian line was held by the infantry of the 1st Siberian army corps, supported throughout the greater part of the day by only two batteries of artillery. So heavy was the fire of the Japanese artillery in this portion of the field that General Stakelberg, the commander of the Russian corps, sent word to his superior officer that he had not considered it advisable' to occupy his trenches, and that should he be compelled to do so his troops must suffer very heavy loss. As things turned out the Japanese infantry did not deliver any attack against the Russian right, the defenders remained under cover, and the losses inflicted by the bombardment were almost negligible. Other instances might be quoted, but enough has been said to prove that to render the artillery bombardment effective the infantry must co-operate; for by this means only willthe enemy be compelled to man his defences, to show himself above his parapets, and to expose himself to shrapnel fire. Here arises one of those questions which are the outcome of modern science, but which have not been finally answered by modern war. As a result of improved ballistics, better methods of observation, and perfected methods of communication, it is now possible for field artillery tomake use of indirect fire from behind cover. Against stationary objects, such as a battery in action, the results achieved by this method are as good as those which are obtained by firing directly over the sights. At the same time the control of indirect fire is slow, and it still remains to be proved whether it can be used satisfactorily against quickly moving targets. If it should be found that, in spite of scientific aids, the artillery of the defence can be made to leave its cover and to disclose its position by the advance of the infantry, the importance of the aid which one arm can render to the other needs no demonstration. After all, however, the silencing of the guns of the defence is but a means to an end, and the principal aim of the guns of the attack is to enable the infantry to get sufficiently close to the position to deliver an assault; for the infantry assault is the crowning act of battle. Similarly the gunners of the defence must never forget that their great object is to repel this same assault. The artillery duel, therefore, is but a phase. Sooner or later one side will gain the upper hand. Then it must be decided whether the inferior artillery can best serve the interests of the infantry by continuing the duel, or by ceasing to fire until it can rind some more vulnerable target.
Should the guns of the defence have proved inferior to those
of the attack, it will probably be wise for them to wait until the advancing columns of infantry have deployed; should the positions be reversed, it will be well for the gunners of the attack to leave their weapons and to remain under cover until such time as their opponent is compelled to turn his attention to repelling the infantry. So great is the power of the modern rifle and quick-firing gun that infantry, unsupported by artillery, has but little chance of carrying a position held by determined men, and it is for this reason, and not with a view to saving their own lives, that the gunners must reserve themselves until the last moment. They must be ready and alert when their services are most required; moreover their final positions should be selected with a view to keeping up their fire until the last possible moment. Indeed they must often run the risk of injuring some of their own troops when nring over their heads. Sometimes a favourable position may be found for the artillery upon the flank of the attack. Such positions have a double advantage. Not only do they bring enfllade or oblique fire to bear upon the enemy's trenches, but they are able to continue the bombardment much longer than is possible when posted directly in rear of the assaulting columns. But whatever the position of the artillery may be, one thing is certain: namely, that the infantry of the attack can hardly hope to succeed if its own guns have been disabled while striving to maintain an unequal duel. Thus in the earlier stages of battle the action of the artillery will be characterized by a certain degree of prudence. The commanders on either side will strive to conceal the numbers and positions of their batteries, and will not employ more guns than are absolutely necessary for the attainment of any particular object they may have in hand. But when the preliminary stages are over, and the infantry is finally committed to the assault, a change must come over the conduct of the artillery. In this final phase there is no longer room for prudence. Indirect fire is out of place, and the duty of the guns cannot be better described than in the words of the French text-books, “ to follow the infantry in a series of rapid advances, by échelons, without hesitating to come into action within the shortest range of the hostile infantry.” But when the time comes to follow up the infantry the skill and knowledge of the battery commander are most highly tried. Concealment is no longer his object, and he must trust all to his offensive power. To make the most of this power it is of the first importance that his guns should be brought at once into positions whence they can be effectively used; for, quoting again from the French instructions, “ considerations of concealment lose their importance for artillery that is told off to follow up the movements of the infantry. In this case artillery must not fear to come into action in the open, although in this situation a battery usually forfeits its freedom of manoeuvre.”
Even the introduction of shielded guns will not affect this loss of mobility, for batteries which are brought to within effective rifle range of the defence must expect to lose a considerable proportion of their horses. Hence it follows that although the position into which they are brought in support of infantry may prove to be unsatisfactory it cannot be changed; their assistance will be lost at the most critical moment, with the result that the attack, deprived of their support, will probably fail. In France, where artillery tactics have perhaps received even more attention than in other countries, the necessity for this close support by guns has been so far recognized that the batteries of the attack have been divided into two distinct portions. The duties of one section have already been described. Those of the second are:-(I) To continue to shell the enemy's position as long as possible without danger to the advancing infantry; (2) To engage the hostile infantry “ avec la derniére énergie ”; (3) To watch carefully for counter-attack. It is perfectly clear that the performance of these duties, in fact, the application of the whole principle of co-operation between infantry and artillery, is intimately connected with the use of ground. The art of utilizing ground to the best adva.ntage must therefore be deeply studied. If we look back upon history, we cannot but be struck by the important part that the appreciation or neglect of the capacities of the ground has played in almost every battle. The most brilliant victories have been won by manoeuvres which, if not suggested by the physical features of the battle held, were deprived by the nature of the groundof half their risk. What was true of Austerlitz and Leuthen is true of Liao-yang and Mukden. Now, as in the past, battles resolve themselves into a series of struggles for certain localities, a methodical progression from point to point, each successive capture weakening the enemy's position until at last an overwhelming fire can be brought to bear upon some vital point. This method of attack is most distinctly seen in siege operations, such as those round Port Arthur, where the attack closed gradually in upon the defence until the possession of one or two points rendered the capture of the place a matter of time alone. Now the difference between the attack of a fortress and of a defended position is, in the main, one of degree rather than of kind. But there is no doubt that the chief point of difference is often overlooked, both by the amateur and by the uneducated professional soldier.
In staff rides and in war games, occasionally even in peace manoeuvres, it is usually assumed that the-party who starts upon the defensive must remain in that unenviable position throughout. This, however, is not the teaching of history. If there is one lesson in tactics which stands out more clearly than all the others which may be learnt from the campaigns of the great commanders, it is that a defensive attitude should never be assumed except as a means of passing to the offensive under more favourable conditions than those which present themselves at the moment. In siege operations the roles of the ' t rival forces are more clearly defined; and until the operations are brought to a conclusion the relations of the two commanders remain unchanged. In the open field of battle, except in the case of a purely delaying or of a rearguard action, this is not the case. There both generals, if they understand their duties, are always striving to secure the offensive, for no battle has ever yet been won by purely defensive tactics. The defensive attitude is, therefore, only a phase of that manoeuvring to secure the upper hand which begins with the strategic concentration, almost, one might say, with the peace organization.
In spite of Moltke's oft-quoted saying that the combination of the tactical defensive with the strategical offensive is the strongest form of war, the very fact of one side adopting the defensive proves, in at least ninety-nine cases out of every hundred, that in earlier stages of the campaign the enemy has gained an advantage, either by his numbers, his strategy, or his readiness to act, which can only be counterbalanced by success in battle. Other things being equal, the side which is numerically the weaker is naturally the first to be forced to relinquish the initiative. But, whatever the cause, the aim of the commander will be to retrieve his fortunes by a tactical success. Perhaps the most striking example in history of its accomplishment is furnished by the campaign and battle of Salamanca. There, after weeks of marching and counter-marching, Wellington was finally out-manoeuvred by Marmont and forced to stand and fight under circumstances by no means favourable to the defence. His line of communication was in danger, and his trains were already being hurried to the rear. Then Marmont made a mistake; and in a few hours the French army was in full retreat. Never was the tactical genius of a commander more dramatically displayed; but we may well ask ourselves whether under modern conditions similar results would be possible. The point is, however, that to the true general the purely defensive battle is unknown; and in place of a single movement directed by a master mind we shall see in future a series of combats, each with its stroke and counter-stroke, taking place upon a front extending over many miles of country. Of this type of battle the Sha-ho is at present the best example. There the operations opened with an attack against the japanese right, which was met by a similar attack delivered by the Japanese centre and left. A less able commander than Oyama might have attempted to check Kuropatkin's offensive movement by reinforcing his own threatened flank; that is to say, that he would have conformed to the movements of his adversary and permitted him to dictate the course of events. This was not the Japanese system.:Oyama had no intention of fighting a purely defensive action. He knew that his opponent had massed his strength upon his left, and it was only reasonable to assume that if one portion of his line was strong, some other portion must be weak. The actual point first selected by Oyama for decisive attack was the centre of Kuropatkin's line. This effort failed, and the scales were ultimately turned by an almost unexpected success against the Russian right. The resulting victory was certainly less complete than would have been the case had the japanese commander been able to carry through his original plan, but it is obvious that a force operating against the centre of a hostile line must itself be in danger of envelopment; and in this case it is interesting to note that the battle was really decided by an outflanking movement by a weak force, while the central attack in considerable strength achieved but little. Oyama's conduct of this battle has been much criticized. By some writers he has been blamed for leaving his own defensive line too weak; by others he has been accused of attempting too much. These are difficult questions, requiring detailed examination; for the present it is sufficient to note that, although inferior in numbers, he succeeded in accomplishing an enveloping movement which forced his enemy to retire. The fact is that by superior skill, although actually inferior in numbers, he succeeded in placing more rifles in the firing line than did his opponent. During a great part of this struggle, which lasted for five days, it would be difficult to say which side was on the defensive and which on the offensive. N0 doubt at the commencement Kuropatkin was the assailant; it is equally certain that in the end it was Oyama who attacked; yet it would be impossible to say, as at Austerlitz and Salamanca, exactly at what moment the roles were exchanged.
If then we are justified in assuming that in the great battles of the future neither army will be acting entirely on the offensive or entirely on the defensive, it may seem idle to speculate as to whether the recent improvements in firearms and ballistics are in favour of one side or the other. In this connexion the lessons which may be learned from the South African and the Russolapanese wars are most instructive. After the former it was often urged that the conditions of modern battle are distinctly in favour of defensive tactics; in other words, that the force which awaits attack can develop the full power of each arm with greater facility than that which delivers it. This contention had much to support it, but it was not always realized that anything which gives new strength to the defence must at the same time add something to the advantages of the army which attacks. The outcome of the improvements in rifles, guns and powder is that far fewer men are required to hold a definite position than of old. To a certain extent this favours the defence. A much larger proportion of the available troops can be set free to act in reserve, and to deliver the counter-stroke, i.e. a much larger number than formerly can be employed by the defenders in attack. This is to the good. But the assailant profits in almost equal ratio. His strength has always lain in power of manoeuvring, of hiding his movements, and of massing suddenly against some weak point. To-day this power is greater than ever before. The increased power of the rifie renders it comparatively easy for him to form an impenetrable barrier with part of his force, perhaps with his cavalry supported only by a small proportion of his infantry, behind which the remainder can move unobserved. Moreover, the object of the assailant's manoeuvres will be to place portions of his forces on the flank or flanks of the position he is attacking. If he can accomplish this, the effect, moral and physical, of the enfilade fire which is brought to bear upon the enemy's front will be far greater than that which attended a similar operation when fire was of less account. In addition to this increased facility for manoeuvre, the great strength of the local defensive confers upon the assailant the power of .denuding certain portions of his line of troops, in order that he may mass them for offensive action elsewhere. Here again the study of ground and a true knowledge of the capabilities of the various arms are of supreme importance. Wellplaced artillery, aided by machine guns, may enable a comparatively weak force of infantry to hold a wide extent of front, provided that each arm is able to use its strength to the fullest extent. In this way the skilful commander can turn each feature of the battlefield to account and can release a greater number of his troops for the all-important enveloping movements. It was just this power which enabled Oyama to outflank the Russian XVII. Corps at the battle of Sha-ho, for he was able to weaken his own right to an extent which a very few years ago would have been impossible. In short, the process of envelopment is more easy than it used to be; and envelopment, which means that the enemy is under fire from several directions, is much more effective now than in the past.
In Germany this fact has long been recognized, and it was for this reason that German soldiers refused to accept the conclusions at which many English military critics arrived after the South African war. Under the influence of their German teachers the Japanese never hesitated to attack, even with inferior numbers, and to make the envelopment of the enemy more certain they went into battle practically without reserves. In this respect the war in Manchuria marks an epoch in the history of tactics; and for that reason, if for no other, it should be carefully studied. Moreover, it emphasizes an important difference in the handling of large and small armies which is of quite recent origin. Until a few years ago all continental armies were organized in army corps. These corps were composed of two or three infantry divisions with a large body of corps troops, principally artillery. Now the raison d'étre of this artillery was to form the nucleus of a reserve which could be retained under the hand of the corps commander to be used as required. That is to drive home the infantry attack, to deliver or repel a counter-attack, or, but very sparingly, to strengthen a weak point in the defensive line. With the development of the enveloping battle, it was soon realized in Germany that corps artillery was an anachronism, for the distances are now so great that reserve artillery can hardly i°';P? ""; be moved to the particular part of the battlefield, ,.:, ;e':;: where its services are required in time to be of any use. Thus the corps artillery was first split up among the divisions, and soon a number of divisional reserves took the place of the great central body, while the corps commander retained a comparatively small number of troops under his own hand. In this way the control of the supreme commander over the course of the battle is greatly weakened and the chance of correcting any error in the original plan is diminished. It had long been realized that errors in the strategic deployment of troops were almost impossible to correct; and now it came to be seen that this was equally true of the tactical deployment. lust as under modern conditions even Napoleon could hardly have recovered from errors like those which marked the opening phases of the Eckmiihl campaign (see NAPOLEONIC CAMPAIGNS), so the most brilliant genius will no longer be sufficient to win battles if the original plan is not correct. It was upon this theory that the Japanese commanders planned their battles, and it was very soon proved that they had the courage of their convictions. For the first time it was seen that battles were no longer won by the general who husbanded his reserves, but by him who first got every available man into the firing line. But, while giving Oyama, Kuroki, Oku and the others every credit for the strength of mind which enabled them to divest themselves of reserves when their battles were far from being won, we must also remember that they were fighting an enemy who, like the Boers, were incapable of organizing a really decisive counter-stroke. For English soldiers this point 'has a peculiar interest, as it has a very distinct bearing upon the tactics of our own army. From what has already been said it is, or should be, clear that the value of numbers upon the battlefield is greater now than formerly; for, granting that the leadership on either side is equally skilful, the chances of envelopment are in favour of him who commands the greater number of men. Owing to our geographical position and to the conditions under which we live, the number of British troops available for employment in any war against a continental Power will almost certainly be inferior to that which can be employed against us. It is of course true that we should never engage in operations on the continent of Europe except in alliance with some other Power; but it is quite possible that the British army might be entrusted with the execution of some definite task which, while part of a general strategical scheme, would involve completely independent action. It is under such circumstances as these that we must be prepared to encounter troops which in leadership and training will be at least the equal of our own, and in numbers will probably be superior to them. In these circumstances our chances of envelopment will not be great, but this must by no means be taken to mean that our chances of success are to be despaired of. Far from it. In the first place strategy may induce 'the enemy temporarily to divide his forces, and thus to afford favourable opportunity for an effective blow. Failing this, it remains to be considered how a general may best employ inferior numbers with a reasonable hope of gaining a tactical victory. To this the answer must be that his best, indeed his only, chance of victory lies in the counter-stroke.
In France this fact has received due recognition, and since
that country is in the unfortunate position of having to be
prepared to encounter superior numbers, the training and
organization of her armies differ essentially from those of her
most formidable neighbour. Acknowledging that at the outset
of a war she must be placed at a grave disadvantage, she strives
to develop her power of manoeuvre and of delivering
stroke. a strategic counter-stroke. With this object her armies move in deep formations on a comparatively narrow front, covered by strong advanced guards. Thus, in the earlier stages, they are much less committed to a definite line of action than are armies moving upon a widely extended front, and, provided intelligence is received in time, they can be massed quickly against the enemy’s flanks. Similarly in the later stages she trusts to the tactical counter-stroke, and hence the corps artillery, which has been abandoned in Germany for reasons which have already been given, is still retained in France.
In the foregoing pages the question was raised as to whether the great tactical counter-strokes of the past are still possible under modern conditions. Unfortunately the battles in Manchuria afford no instance of a successful counter-stroke, for the Sha-ho is more an example of an encounter action than of a carefully conceived counter-attack. In these circumstances we are forced to rely upon theory; but theory based upon a correct understanding of the past should form no uncertain guide to the practice of the future. What then are the principles upon which our theory is to be based? First, that the defensive battle is only a step towards assuming the offensive. Secondly, that the only means of assuming the offensive with success is the counter-stroke. Thirdly, that the counter-stroke, in at least nine cases out of every ten, should aim at the envelopment of the attack. From these premises it follows that the most effective form of the defensive battle will be that which compels the enemy to deploy his forces and then uses the reserve to envelop one or both of his flanks. Since, however, modern battles are fought over a very wide extent of front, it necessarily follows that the possibility which the defence possesses of successfully enveloping the attack must depend to a very great extent upon the correct disposal of the reserves when drawing up the original line of battle. Just as the chances of making the best use of superior number in the attack depend upon a correct strategical deployment at the commencement of a campaign, so the chances of a successful counter-stroke depend upon a correct distribution of troops at the commencement of an action. Hence we see that the most important point which a general who finds himself compelled to take up a defensive position has to decide is where to place those troops by whose aid he hopes eventually to seize the offensive. One thing is clear, namely, that the worst place for men who are destined to envelop one or other flank of the attack must be behind the centre of the defensive line. Time alone must render such a position unsuitable, for it must entail a march of many hours, if not of days, before the troops can reach the point from which they are to be launched to the attack. This being so, it would seem that the right place for the general reserve of the defending army under modern conditions must be on one or other of the flanks; and, always bearing in mind that the chief object to be attained is regaining the initiative, we are driven to the conclusion that the best place is that flank from which an effective blow can be dealt at the assailant’s most vulnerable point, that is to say, at the flank through which his line of communication may be most easily attained. If this theory be correct, yet another point has been established, namely, that the main plan of the decisive counter-stroke must be decided before, and not after, the first shot in the general engagement has been fired. Under the conditions which obtain to-day it is no use waiting for the enemy to make a mistake, for the odds against it being detected are great. A hundred years ago armies manoeuvred in full view of one another, and mistakes could be perceived by every company officer on either side. Now all this is changed, and the difficulties of the defence are increased by the fact that although the attack may make many blunders, it will do so at such a distance from the defence as to render them comparatively secure from detection. Having prepared his counter-stroke, the chief point towards which the commander of the defence must direct his attention after battle has been joined, is the exact moment at which it should be delivered. Needless to say that the chances of success will be enormously increased if the counter-stroke is unexpected, for in war the demands which surprise makes upon moral are quite out of proportion with the physical danger which men are called upon to undergo. If then defence is ever to be converted into attack, it would appear: (I) That the counter-stroke must be carefully planned, and must form an integral part of the original scheme of defence. (2) That it must be properly directed. (3) That it must be correctly timed. (4) That if possible it must come as a surprise. Of these conditions, the first three are dependent for their fulfilment upon good information, careful preparation, and correct appreciation of the enemy's plans; but it is in the fourth that the inspiration of the really great commander will be most conspicuously displayed on the day of battle, and the greater the numbers under his command the more difficult his task must be.
When, as at the Sha-ho and Mukden, the troops on either
side are numbered by hundreds of thousands, the commander-in-chief
cannot hope to keep the direction of events in his own
hands for very long; but when tens of thousands only are
engaged, the whole battle can be controlled as well now as in
the past. The extent of front will certainly be greater than it
was formerly, but against this may be set the fact that improved
communications by telegraph and telephone enable the commander
to keep in touch with events in a manner which until
recently was quite impossible. It is for this reason that the
earlier and smaller battles of the Russo-Japanese War contain
many lessons which are of more use to British soldiers than are
those which may be learned from the great struggles which took
place later on. But in all battles, whether great or small, the
first requirement is a commander who possesses sufficient steadfastness
of character to carry out on the day of battle the plans
he has formed beforehand. War is like a game of bridge, for the
most successful player is not he who best remembers the fall
of the cards or who knows the correct leads by heart, but he
who can decide upon and carry out the plan best suited to the
strength of his hand. In both cases a bad plan is better than
none, and vacillation even between two good plans is fatal.
In both cases side issues are constantly arising which an
tend to obscure the main issue. On the battlefield Economy
of force. these side issues take the form of appeals for assistance from various quarters, all of which must tempt the supreme commander to weaken the general reserve -which has been set aside for his decisive stroke. To such appeals he must tum a deaf ear, confident in the knowledge that the best way of assisting his sorely-pressed troops is by a vigorous blow at his enemy's weakest spot. Hence it follows that the force which is to deliver the blow must be kept perfectly distinct from the local reserves under subordinate commanders, which are held in readiness to strengthen weak places in the defensive line, or to deliver local counter-attacks. It also follows that this force must comprise every man who can be spared from the passive portion of the defence, and that to produce the fullest results there must be complete co-operation between the three arms. It is here, in all probability, that cavalry will find its opportunity. On the one hand, the cavalry of the attack will strive to locate the hostile reserve which is preparing to deliver a counter-attack; failing this it will protect the flanks of its own infantry, ready to move to any threatened point and to assist with dismounted fire in repelling the advancing lines when the necessity arises. On the other hand, the cavalry of the defence will strive to conceal the movements of its own general reserve and will locate the flanks of the infantry against which the counter-attack is to be directed. The share of the artillery in this stage of the battle is sufficiently apparent, and it is obvious that the chances of success of one side or the other must depend largely upon the skill and self-sacrifice of the gunners. Should the commander of the defence, aided by his cavalry, have been successful in effecting a surprise, his chances of victory will be further increased if his infantry is supported closely by the artillery. Much also must depend upon the handling of the artillery which has suddenly been thrown upon the defensive. If the battery leaders are quick to realize the changed situation and to pick up new targets, perhaps leaving covered positions and firing over the sights, all may yet be well; but it is certain that if the surprise has really been complete the infantry will require all the assistance it can possibly derive from the other arms in order to avert defeat.
One more point remains to be noted. Since the object of tactics is to win battles, every effort should be directed to that single end. If certain formations are adopted with a view to avoiding losses, it must only be in order that more men may be brought up to the decisive point. The same principle holds good with regard to what are known as holding, or secondary, attacks whose role is frequently misunderstood. Indeed the names themselves are misleading, for they inevitably convey the impression that the duty of winning has been entrusted to some other body. For this reason the commander is apt to consider that he has fulfilled his task if he succeeds in getting to within reasonably close range of the enemy's position, where he can remain without suffering undue loss. Far from this being the case, the fact is that against an able opponent an attack of this nature is useless, for he will very soon detect Holding attacks.which is the real and which is the secondary attack, and unless the two are pushed with equal vigour he will disregard the one and turn all his attention to the other. It may even happen that he will be able to take troops from that portion of his line which is only threatened and place them where he is really pressed, or even utilize them in counterattack. In such a case it may happen that the so-called “holding” attack may itself be held by less than its own numbers while the main attack is suffering defeat in some other quarter of the field. Here again there is much to be learnt from the past; and for the true conduct of these feint attacks we need not go outside the history of our own army. Many instances might be quoted, but none are more to the point than that of the assaulting columns at the capture of Badajoz. On that memorable occasion the British troops were divided into five columns, three of which were vainly hurled against the great breaches which had been made in the walls. But what the main assaults failed to do was accomplished by the attacks from which least had been expected; and Philippon with his gallant defenders was forced to surrender by the loss of the San Vincente bastion and the castle of San Roque, which had been considered to be impregnable. This is the spirit which must imbue the infantryman, the cavalryman, and the artilleryman alike. For without the fighting spirit, neither generalship, formations, nor weapons can prevail. (N. M.*)
- Unlike the French tactique, the German Taktik, and indeed all other forms, the English word is invariably treated as a plural noun.