Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cathal J. Nolan's "The Allure of Battle"

Cathal J. Nolan is Associate Professor of History and Executive Director of the International History Institute at Boston University. His books include a two volume Concise History of World War II; Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, and a two-volume study of The Age of the Wars of Religion. He consults on military history to the PBS series NOVA and various other films.

Nolan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, and reported the following:
From page 99:
...militarily significant in itself, this first check to the great Swedish general’s campaign in Germany scarred his reputation for invincibility.

The effect reverberated through the strategic calculations of Europe. Because this made the Swedish position less secure politically, and therefore ultimately also militarily, Gustavus felt compelled to draw Wallenstein out of his trenches and defeat him in an open battle between the main armies. He thought he could entice Wallenstein from his fortified earthworks by moving south into Bavaria to once more ravage territory allied to the Habsburgs and threaten a dash toward Vienna. To draw Wallenstein out of his fixed position, but also desperate to feed his own army, Gustavus pulled out of the trenches and marched off to threaten Vienna again. The Imperials were now free to come out to forage, too. This was the moment when Wallenstein showed a superior strategic ability. He declined the bait and invitation to battle dangled by Gustavus in the south and instead struck out northward. Rather than follow the Swedish king, Wallenstein marched back into Saxony to again threaten Swedish lines of supply and eat out a southern Protestant state and Swedish ally. The main armies thus separated, hungry herds of armed men marching off in mutual feints and to gnaw at the other’s allies. Gustavus was again halted by a brilliant strategy of maneuver that avoided battle yet twice pulled the Protestant army back north by threatening its strategic rear. The two greatest generals of the Thirty Years’ War were proving their worth as commanders not in battle but in the main warcraft of their era: in campaigns of strategic movement, maneuver and supply.

Wallenstein had partly adopted Swedish tactics when he reformed the Imperial Army after its defeat at Breitenfeld, marginally increasing the flexibility of the tercios and significantly increasing their firepower by multiplying the number of musketeers they presented. Moreover, while the Swedes retained a clear qualitative edge, they were a reduced force in numbers and quality from the crisp professional army that crossed the Baltic two years before. Two years of marching and fighting, of disease and desertion, and Sweden’s limited manpower reserves and small population, meant that its army in Germany by 1632 was actually close to 80% foreign mercenary. However, it was still commanded by Swedish generals and was organized and trained to make war in the Swedish style. Also, its critical field artillery was still predominantly Swedish. It was also the turn of the “Lion of the North” to display his own advanced command skills. Making use of the markedly superior training and maneuverability of his Swedish regiments, joined now by thousands of mercenaries and allies he had trained to make war in the Swedish way, Gustavus took the great mercenary general’s bait and marched...
War is too complex to be reduced to a parlor game of ranking generals, too important to indulge armchair nationalism about a putative genius on horseback who supposedly imposed his superior will on history in a bloody morning or afternoon of “decisive battle.” War is far more than the history of generals or battles, even the very grandest. Cannae, Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Midway, Dien Bien Phu, all invoke powerful images with a word, recalling in the name of an obscure village in France or Vietnam decades or centuries of war. Yet, many who won famously lopsided battles went on to lose bigger wars: Hannibal won at Cannae; Napoleon at Marengo and Ulm; Hitler’s panzer armies took 650,000 prisoners at Kiev and tore across the steppe. Yet all three ended in catastrophic defeats, as strategic losses mounted in long attritional wars against enemies who refused to accept that one afternoon’s or summer’s tactical outcome would decide the far greater and deeper conflict of matériel and collective will and resolution we call war.

Page 99 touches on several of these themes: how whenever they could even the two greatest generals in the Thirty Years’ War fought wastage campaigns against each other rather than actively pursuing battle; how armies survived through long wars of attrition by training and reserves and logistics, more than by superior generalship over a day or two or three of combat. In the wider chapter and book it is shown how wars among major powers were shaped by a balance of forces that threw up coalitions against fast aggressors; how those who sought quick victory via a battle or campaign too far suffered short-war delusions born of material weakness, not strength. How retributive passions all major wars arouse ensured that most were 15-round title fights, not knock-outs. The book lays out and illustrates these major themes across time, from Rome to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance to Louis XIV and Napoleon, to the obliteration of “genius” and of battle in two total wars of attrition that remade the 20th century and are still shaping the 21st.
Learn more about The Allure of Battle at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue