by Rob Johnson, Michael Whitby, and John France
The title of the book makes a big claim. Taken literally, it is in fact rather misleading. How to achieve victory in battle cannot be learnt from a book. Commanding an army on the battlefield requires far more than knowing a list of manoeuvres. What this book actually does is described by its sub-head the 25 key tactics of all time. And this it does very well. Using historical battles as a backdrop, the basic methods of the general are explained in an accessible format that makes a start at lifting the veil of mystery surrounding the art of war.
Although divided into stand-alone chapters, the book works well read from cover to cover. Starting at the basics, it draws on the principles laid out in Baron de Jomini’s Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War as the foundation on which further chapters expand.
After a short introductory chapter, the book gets stuck straight into the action with chapters on attacking the enemy’s centre of gravity, counter attack, ambush, and flank attack – the staple diet of the military commander. We then move on to more complicated ideas: Terror and Psychological warfare; Strategic Offence and Tactical Defence; and Off-Balancing and Pinning.
Finally, the book explores the subject that predominantly occupies the minds of today’s strategic planners, that of Insurgency and Guerrilla Warfare, and more importantly how to counter it. Land warfare is the main focus, though there is a whole chapter devoted to Trafalgar. The importance of air power is underplayed. Well illustrated throughout, the book has plenty of the vital battle-plans without which so much of the text would a challenge to fathom.
For the tactician, this book provides a solid synopsis or a recapping of the tools of their trade. It is for the military historian, however, that it comes in to its own. There are no hypothetical scenarios where tactics are explained in sanitised ‘dry run’ situations. Each uses at least two, if not three or four historic examples to show the variance and nuances of each tactic, or how they can be combined to meet their aim. For example, to illustrate its point, the chapter on concentration of firepower uses Carrhae in 53 BC and Omdurman in 1898 as case-studies, two battles separated by 2,000 years, yet fundamentally similar. Even our perception of ‘terror’ and ‘psychological warfare’ as very much 20th century phenomena are challenged by the use of an ancient example, that of Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes in 335 BC.
If a book were ever published that could teach one how to apply what is laid out here, the author would soon become very wealthy. Sadly, it is impossible to recreate in words and pictures what a lifetime of practical experience and an innate sense of the battlefield imparts to a general. Theory is grey, but the tree of life is green. Applying military principles in practice is the real art.
Even if it fails in this respect, what the book does achieve with great success is to reveal the field-craft of the commander, the options he has in his arsenal, and how they have been applied in the past. The unexpected triumph is the way the book highlights the timelessness of military tactics. War may have changed beyond recognition in the past two millennia, but the art of war described by Sun Tzu in 6th century BC China bears a remarkable resemblance to that proclaimed by Clausewitz writing in early 19th century Prussia.
Review by Will Perkins, Officer Cadet, Sandhurst
Thames & Hudson, £16.95