The Anatomy of Military Incompetence

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Indecision Breeds Defeat

Failure to make any decision is almost as bad as making a poor decision. Decisiveness, one way or another, is a quality generally valued on the battlefield, whereas ditherers seldom get a good press. The heat of conflict can often turn previously clear-minded men into stumbling wrecks.

Napoleon’s mastery of the battlefield in the early years of the 19th century needs no introduction. Nevertheless, he often received help from bungling opponents whose lack of co-ordination and muddled thinking gave him the advantage over larger Allied armies.

For instance, prior to the Battles of Jena-Auerstadt in October 1806, confusion in the Prussian high command allowed the French to seize the initiative in the campaign. Critical delays were caused by the fact that no less than three different officers held the position of chief-of-staff, and they produced three different battle plans. The resulting inaction and confusion were as much of a hindrance as the fog that rolled across the battlefield on 14 October 1806.

George B McClellan had all the credentials necessary for command in the field – a superb record at West Point and a military lineage that could be traced back to the War of Independence. Nevertheless, despite being a brilliant organiser, he was hopelessly unwilling to take any risk on the battlefield. During the Seven Days Battles of June-July 1862, McClellan regularly exaggerated enemy strength, withdrew from strong positions, and then advanced again to retake the ground just vacated.

The Seven Weeks War, fought between Prussia and Austria in 1866, pitted the decisive von Moltke against the reluctant Benedek. The latter refused to be rushed into concentrating his forces and taking advantage of his central position in relation to converging Prussian armies.  Instead, he awaited developments and attended to the finer details of uniform design. When he finally made it to the battlefield, Benedek again failed to seize the initiative. Instead of attacking immediately against part of von Moltke’s army, he did nothing until the entire Prussian force had concentrated, and suffered decisive defeat at Sadowa.

Stalin could hardly be regarded as a leader who did not know his own mind. Yet in the run-up to – and during the opening stages of – Operation Barbarossa, he displayed a remarkable inability to act. The days before the German invasion in the summer of 1941 were littered with reliable and mounting intelligence that an attack was imminent. Stalin refused to believe it. Indeed, as the Panzer armies began their rampage eastwards, the dictator retreated to his dacha, apparently expecting arrest by his own henchmen.

Tales of Incompetence

Think of a screen portrayal of a military commander and what images come to mind? Blackadder’s mad General Melchett? perhaps Bruno Ganz’s hitler raving in his bunker in Downfall? neither conjures a picture of competence. But from our vantage-point, looking back over more than two centuries of modern warfare, we tend to like stories of cock-up on the part of commanders rather more than tales of ruthless efficiency and lucid decision-making. Several trends can be picked out in the long annals of military incompetence: indecisive individuals, commanders stuck in the last war, and instances where ego is the most troublesome adversary.

Fighting the Last War

Learning the lessons of previous conflicts is a crucial part of any commander’s training. Nevertheless, an inability to see that the art of war has moved on has brought down many a general.

The vast majority of officers in the early years of the American Civil War had learnt their trade at West Point Military Academy. Fed on a steady diet of ideas largely drawn from Antoine-Henri Jomini, they were led to expect a short war in which Napoleonic tactics would prevail. This was reflected in the methods they employed. At Gettysburg in 1863, for instance, General Lee ordered a full-frontal infantry attack – known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ – against strong Union positions at the top of a long slope devoid of cover. By the time stragglers returned, less than an hour later, more than half of the 15,000 men thrown into the failed attack had become casualties.

Similarly, after the attritional slog of the Western Front during the Great War, Allied commanders in 1940 based their strategy on expectations of a repeat performance. Hence the positional approach represented by the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line and the ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes Forest. But the Germans had not read the script, and, despite having inferior numbers and quality of armour, they smashed their opponents in a ‘lightning war’.

Egos Serve the Enemy

Sometimes history reveals military commanders doing the enemy’s job for them. When ego and personality become factors in battlefield decision-making, happy outcomes are hard to find.

The story of the Charge of the Light Brigade is etched deep in the annals of incompetence, but the background to the story is perhaps less well known. Lord Cardigan, commanding the Light Brigade, and Lord Lucan, commanding the cavalry as a whole, despised each other. So instead of ignoring an absurd order to attack from their elderly and incompetent commander-in-chief, they went ahead, neither wanting to lose face.

While the tale of Great War Russian commanders Rennenkampf and Samsonov having a fist fight on a railway platform in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War might be apocryphal, the hatred between them was very real. It was strange, then, that the two were selected to command the invasion of East Prussia in 1914. The complete lack of co-operation between them – coupled with the fact that not all Russian radio transmissions were encoded – enabled the Germans to destroy Samsonov’s Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg.

As dangerous as squabbling commanders can be, the delusions of a man with absolute power can cast an army into even greater peril. Both Stalin and Hitler were supreme commanders of their armed forces. Nevertheless, one crucial difference emerged as the war dragged on: Stalin accepted advice from his generals, while Hitler continued to issue it.

Stalingrad is perhaps the best example of the Führer’s ego getting the better of military sense – the Austrian corporal relentlessly obsessed about capturing the city and sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers to his vanity.


  1. Bonsoir,
    Are Commanders-in-chief supposed to lead attacks themselves? Like Alexandros who used to rush fiercely and climb the walls of a long series of enemy cities…..
    Napoleon’s ridiculous fall in the mud (((TWICE))) at “£a Battaglia del ponte di Arcola” (1796) is a typical Tale of Incompetence.
    N was protected, and saved, by General £annes, who suffered severe injuries. And, then, protected and saved by Colonel Muiron, his aide-de-camp and close friend, who died bravely.
    NO ONE followed N.
    The glamorous painting by Antoine-Jean Gros is mere propaganda, one the most famous FAKE NEWS in History.

  2. Check out General Zhao Gua. His ineptness led his entire command of 400,000 men to their death. Coincidentally, led to the creation of Imperial China.

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