By Cathal J Nolan
Published by Oxford University Press
How important are ‘decisive battles’ in the history of war? This is the central question addressed by Cathal Nolan in this magisterial survey of more than 2,000 years of military history.
His argument is controversial and compelling. Political and military leaders have been fixated on the idea of ‘decisive battle’, he tells us, because it appears to offer easy, cheap, clear-cut victory. But it is a delusion.
The concept has proved especially seductive among leaders of weaker states or alliances, where the imperative has been to avoid a long war of attrition against more powerful enemies.
The ‘allure of battle’ is the allure of the quick fix: the sudden Blitzkrieg, the rapid war of manoeuvre, the sweeping brilliance of the great captain, the annihilation of the enemy on a field of blood and iron, followed by a victor’s peace. It is, argues Nolan, the mirage of a Cannae, an Agincourt, a Blenheim, a Waterloo, a Gettysburg.
Mirage? So it would seem: for ‘decisive battle’ is rarely anything of the sort.
The concept has been promoted since the very beginning of historical writing. The Greek historian Herodotus – sometimes dubbed ‘the father of history’ – started it all with his account of the Persian Wars, where the emphasis is on pitched-battle triumphs like Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.
The Roman historians underlined the lesson, largely because they found the high drama of pitched battle irresistible – in contrast to the more prosaic business of siege warfare, let alone the dreary calculations of military logistics.
But drill down, and ‘decisive battle’ dissolves into mirage, for it usually turns out to have decided very little. Take Cannae, Hannibal’s greatest victory over the Romans, a battle widely admired in modern military academies as a tactical masterpiece. It may have been. But so what exactly?
The Second Punic War was a 16-year war of attrition that ended in catastrophic defeat for the Carthaginians. Why was this? Because, Nolan reminds us, the Romans enjoyed exceptional ‘strategic depth’. Theirs was a social system based on a wide common citizenship that made hundreds of thousands of Italians into stakeholders. Whereas Hannibal commanded an army of mercenaries.
One Cannae in reverse would have ended Hannibal’s campaign. The Romans, on the other hand, could have endured a succession of Cannaes and still continued to fight. In the event, they opted to avoid battle and wear the enemy down in a long war of position and siege.
Take another example: the famous triplet of English victories in the Hundred Years War: Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). It is not that these battles had no impact: it is that the impact was temporary and limited; it was never ‘decisive’.
Agincourt, in particular, has been blown out of all proportion in British popular history (thanks in large part to the proto-nationalist propaganda of Shakespeare’s Henry V). In world-historical terms, this small-scale collision in a muddy field in northern France does not register. The French went on to win the Hundred Years War a generation later.
In part, this was because French resources of wealth and manpower were far greater than English. But it was also because the English succumbed to what Nolan calls ‘victor’s disease’ – a conservative clinging to a tried-and-tested military system because it had delivered victory in the past, even as the world changes and modernisation is called for.
The French monarchy created a modern centralised state, cut a deal with the traditional nobility, and enrolled new social groups in a struggle for national unity and independence. It was symbolised by artillery and a new class of infantry. The English castles fell to French cannon, and the old English array of ‘bill and bow’ was shot away by hand-gunners and crossbowmen at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453).
Nolan’s point is that the Hundred Years War was a long war of attrition, and it was won by the state with greater military resources, once that state had created an efficient, flexible, innovatory organisation.
THE COST OF DELUSION
Come forward to the last 250 years of military history – and this is Nolan’s main focus in The Allure of Battle – and we have carnage piled upon carnage in deference to a delusion: the pursuit of ‘decisive battle’. He explains it thus:
[The book’s] goal is to help correct distorted public memory of battle’s place in modern war, to start to replace popular images of the decisive battle with sombre appreciation of larger material and national commitments in wars decided by prolonged fighting that killed many hundreds of thousands in the 18th century, millions in the 19th, and tens of millions in the 20th. In these modern wars, fought on ever more massive scales to increasingly total ends by whatever means industrial technology and science provided, attrition nearly always proved the path to victory and defeat.
Modern history is the main focus of the book. Nolan charts the ‘return’ of the great captains, with modern commanders like Marlborough, Frederick, and Napoleon seen as reincarnations of figures of Classical antiquity like Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar.
He critiques the focus on ‘decisive battles’, emphasising the role of organisation, logistics, economic output, manpower reserves, and siege warfare. He again draws attention to the limited significance of spectacles like Blenheim, Leuthen, and Austerlitz.
Marlborough’s ten-year long campaign in the War of the Spanish Succession was dominated by positional warfare, and it was sheer military exhaustion that finally brought Louis XIV to the negotiating table. Frederick may have been a strategic and tactical genius, but his victories were made possible by the fact that he had turned Prussia into ‘the Sparta of Europe’. Napoleon won at Austerlitz in 1805, but the French Empire crumbled to nothing between 1812 and 1814.
Nolan repeatedly finds fault with lopsided readings of the historical evidence. On the one hand, the exceptional Blitzkrieg campaigns of the German Wars of Unification – Austria defeated in six weeks, France in six months, the outcome signposted by the battlefield triumphs of Sadowa (1866) and Sedan (1870) respectively – came to be regarded as models. On the other, the lessons of the Crimea and the American Civil War – wars of attrition that culminated in long sieges – were sidelined.
This lopsidedness infected especially the political and military leaderships of Germany and Japan in the first half of the 20th century. The Schlieff en Plan – designed to knock France out of the war in six weeks in 1914 – was one consequence. It failed, of course, and locked Germany into a four-year war of attrition on two fronts.
Hitler was more successful in 1939-1941, but even the stunning victories of his Panzer divisions in the first two years of the Second World War could not alter the global balance of power. His initial victories merely increased the size and resources of the Third Reich, enabling it to withstand the war of attrition subsequently imposed on it for longer, but without altering the inevitable outcome.
The leadership of Imperial Japan was equally seduced by ‘the allure of battle’. But, of course, war against an alliance of Nationalist China, the British Empire, and the United States meant a mincing machine of men and matériel – an attritional war of mass – that Japan could not possibly win.
The consequences for the world were catastrophic: 15 million dead in the First World War, 60 million dead in the Second, with the people of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan among those who paid the highest price.
And now, have the lessons been learned? It would seem not. We have the so-called ‘War on Terror’, launched by George Bush and Tony Blair, who mixed dodgy dossiers and ‘short war’ optimism as they projected a quarter of a million Western troops into the Middle East. The result has been two decades of mayhem that have transformed Islamic jihadism into a global force.
The ‘allure of battle’ endures. Nolan gives the last word to opposing commanders on one of the world’s current fault-lines: Kashmir.
In September 2015, Indian Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag declared that his forces were fully prepared for the ‘swift , short nature of future wars’. Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif boasted back: ‘Our armed forces stand fully capable to defeat all sorts of external aggression… short or long.’ So the illusion abides. So the next war looms.
There are quibbles. The historical analysis can be shallow when we stray from the safe ground of military history. Nolan seems to take Europe’s 16th- and 17th-century ‘wars of religion’ at face value, for example, apparently without any appreciation that these were revolutionary conflicts that pitted a ‘middling sort’ of Protestant radicals against the old feudal elites.
But such matters are quibbles: they have no bearing on the core argument, the energy and vigour with which it is presented, and the sharpness of the critique of so much traditional military history.
In short, anyone interested in the longue durée of military history should read this book. The effect is likely to be a thorough intellectual shakedown. It may be a long haul – 600 pages – but it never flags, and it is one of those books that is guaranteed to have a permanent impact on the way you think about history.
Review by Neil Faulkner
This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.