Strategy Of The Belgian And The French Campaigns A Parallel And A Contrast
( Originally Published 1918 )
THEIR factors being equal, strategy in modern warfare is largely determined by the size of the armies, by the technical equipment and armament, by the configuration of the theatre of war, by the facilities of roads and railways, and by the resources of the country. In this respect there are very great differences between the three theatres of operations in France, Russia, and Belgium. To take the two extremes : in Russia the armies are large, the roads are few, and the country is poor ; in Belgium the army is small, the roads are innumerable, and the country is rich.
The differences which result from those conditions may be most clearly and briefly defined by saying that the methods of the French campaign are those of extensive warfare ; in the Belgian campaign they are those of intensive warfare. In the French campaign the methods are mainly defensive ; in the Belgian they have been mainly offensive. The fighting in France has been deliberate, scientific. The allied armies have been in the grip of a tremendous machine. In Belgium we are still concerned with old methods of warfare, where each man retains his full value, where man is pitted against man, battalion against battalion, where we still hear of frontal attacks, of cavalry charges, of incidents and surprises.
IN surveying the French campaign, the first point which must, of course, strike us is the huge size of the forces. So far as we can estimate the numbers, there must be at present confronting each other in France between two and a half and three million soldiers. Those unwieldy masses have created entirely different conditions. There has never been anything even remotely approaching those figures. In some of his greatest battles Napoleon did not have 100,000 men!
The first consequence is the immense development of the battle-front, which extends from two to three hundred miles in a thin, loose line, where the units are so widely separated that each man is very much left to his own resources, and it is almost impossible to transmit orders. That extension of the battle-front is not only due to the difficulties of the commissariat, it is mainly due to the impossibility of moving such masses within a restricted space. A million men in arms must have elbow-room to deploy and to manoeuvre.
Nor must we forget that the extension of the battle-front is still further rendered necessary by the deadly effect of modern weapons. To advance in serried ranks in close formation would be simply collective suicide. The Germans have tried frontal attacks in close formation at Liége and elsewhere, but the slaughter has been appalling, and before many weeks were over the Germans had to give up their antiquated methods.
A SECOND consequence of the huge size of the armies is the extreme slowness of any combined movement, and in sound strategy all important movements must needs be combined. As Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach. If this was true of an army of 100,000 men, how much more true of armies of a million. Movements must necessarily be slow. Firstly, because the supplies for a million men must be drawn from a very wide area ; secondly, because ammunition has to be brought up from a distance of hundreds of miles ; and, thirdly, because it is extremely difficult to ensure close co-operation between the different parts of a huge army moving on a two-hundred-mile front. Those enormous masses must move together. The right wing must proceed at the same pace as the left wing two hundred miles away. It is the slowest which shall needs regulate the pace. As the line must be made up in a loose formation, there is all the greater danger to the whole army that the advancing line may be cut in two by the enemy because the line is very thin. Slow and cautious advances are therefore essential to safety. Any undue hurry would spell disaster.
The advance of the Russian armies on the Prussian frontier may be taken as typical of the slow rate of a large modern army. Armchair strategists have been prophesying for a good many weeks the arrival of the Russian hosts at Berlin and Vienna. They have wondered at the tardy progress of the Russians. They forget that the problem in Prussia and Galicia is largely one of provisions and ammunition, and that in those countries roads are few and supplies are scarce. On the other hand, it would seem as if the rapidity of the German advance in Northern France is in striking contradiction to our principles. The Germans moved their huge masses from the Belgian frontier to the neighbourhood of Paris in less than a week. Whether the initial strategy of the Germans will ultimately end in disaster or not, it must be admitted that this rapid advance is one of the most prodigious achievements of modern times. But already the results of the progress of the German armies through Northern France have been more brilliant than substantial. The advance has been a striking spectacular display and a convincing demonstration of the efficiency of the military machine. At the same time, the Germans have over-reached themselves, and at the most critical moment their progress has been suddenly arrested. The Prussian armies arrived near Paris in a state of utter exhaustion, and were compelled to retreat just when they were arriving near the goal. The obvious conclusion is that in their advance towards Paris the German armies simply ignored one fundamental law of modern warfare. C'était magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre ! It was magnificent, but it was against the laws of war.
ANOTHER consequence of the huge size of modern armies, of their extensive formation and of their slow movement, is the alarming predominance of artillery. That predominance is no doubt partly due to the amazing progress in the science of destruction. The German howitzer guns of 42 cm. have been a revelation to the world, and they have largely changed the conditions of the campaign. But, even apart from the scientific progress of modern artillery, its predominance is also a direct result of the conditions which regulate the march of a large army.
When day after day a large army has to wait for both supplies and ammunition, when the right wing has to wait until the left wing is ready for a general advance, the other parts of the army cannot remain indefinitely on exposed ground, open to any surprise attack. They will instinctively seek the protection of a strong position, and they will try to make that position stronger by artificial earthworks. And the enemy will have to dislodge them from those fortified positions. In other words, the modern battle tends more and more to be a siege " battle. No more is it the classic encounter finished in a few hours, begun at dawn and culminating at dusk. The titanic siege battle of the Rivers, which has now lasted for months, and which is not yet completed at the moment of writing, is entirely typical of modern warfare. The battles of the present may be even more deadly than in the past, but they give little scope for active heroism. The soldier does not go out to meet his death. He has to wait for it in the trenches with passive and stoical resignation.
ANOTHER consequence of the modern conditions of warfare is the subordinate part played by cavalry. No doubt the cavalry still has an important rôle to play. It still has to reconnoitre. It still has to screen the movements of the infantry. It still has to cut the lines of communication. But even there the aeroplane, the dirigible balloon, and especially the motorcar, armoured or unarmoured, have largely supplied the part of the cavalry. And what is more significant, the strict co-operation of the cavalry with the infantry and artillery during the battle has almost entirely ceased. We shall hear no more of the pomp and circumstance of war, so far as cavalry is concerned. We shall hear no more of Charges of the Light Brigade. Cavalry charges on the classical lines are almost as antiquated as the rousing music of the battle-field. Even in Belgium in four weeks on the theatre of war I did not once see a single cavalry attack in support of infantry or artillery, just as I did not once hear the beat of the drum or the flourish of the clarion.
THE final consequence of the modern methods and of the huge masses engaged is that war tends to be indefinitely protracted and indecisive. In this connexion again the present war presents a striking contrast to previous wars, even to that of 1870. The French campaign of 1870 was practically decided in three weeks. In the present campaign of 1914 the battle of the Rivers alone has lasted longer than the whole decisive stage of the war of 1870. A siege battle is necessarily a slow business, and before the enemy is dislodged from one strong position he has had time to establish himself in another. It must therefore be obvious in the present war that if military considerations alone had to decide the issue, the war might be protracted for years, however deadly the campaign might prove to be. It is not easy even in a long succession of battles to kill off 15,000,000 human beings. But most certainly the final result will not be settled by military, but by economic and political factors. Long before Germany is finally beaten she will be threatened with starvation, which will probably result in a political revolution.
SUCH, then, are the general lines of the French campaign. How very different has been the strategy of the Belgian campaign ! Its strategy has entirely falsified the theories which had been previously held. The Belgian campaign was expected to be a war of fortresses. On the contrary, it has developed mainly into a guerilla warfare. The French campaign was expected to be mainly offensive in conformity with the impetuous French character, with the furia francese. It has developed mainly into a defensive strategy.
To the most casual observer it must be apparent that the conditions of the Belgian campaign have little in common with the conditions of the French campaign. The Belgian Army is small, and, therefore, distances can easily be covered. The country possesses a unique network of roads and railways, therefore troops can easily be moved. The country is rich and fertile, therefore troops can easily be fed.
In the first place, the small size of the Belgian Army has determined the size of the Belgian battlefields. The frontage of a Belgian engagement has never exceeded more than a few miles. I was present at the battle of Malines, in which from 130,000 to 150,000 were engaged. From beginning to end I could easily survey all the operations of the battlefield.
Further, the Belgian armies have been much more mobile. They have never to wait for supplies. They do not even require to depend on the railway. They have been able to resort to the motor-car. At the military headquarters in Louvain one of the most striking sights were the motor-cars starting every morning and afternoon with provisions for the fighting line.
Owing to its extraordinary mobility, the Belgian army has been continually shifting its ground from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour. And just as this mobility has made the Belgian army much more active, it has also made it more efficient as a fighting force. All the arms infantry, artillery, and cavalry could co-operate. It could not remain on the defensive. It could not entrench itself. Its very safety lay in attacking. But while continually attacking, it could fight great battles. It had to wage a perpetual guerilla warfare. It had to harass the enemy. It had to make surprise sorties. It had to cut the enemy's lines of communication. Briefly, in such guerilla warfare the cavalry played a much more important part.
As I have just said, continuous fighting and the perpetual mobility of the Belgian Army kept it at the highest pitch of efficiency and brought out the full value of the soldier. But the wear-and-tear of such guerilla warfare is appal-ling. Casualties in the Belgian campaign may not have been unduly severe in proportion to those of the French campaign. But the expenditure of energy has been very much greater. The Belgian soldier has always been on the qui vive. He has been given no rest. He has always been in danger of being cut off from his main base. Where there is only one single army, where an army is entirely thrown on its own resources, it must combine the contradictory qualities of constant activity and of extreme caution. Further, because it is the sole army there are no reserves to draw upon. It cannot renew itself, nor recuperate, nor fill in its losses.
There lay the danger for the Belgian forces. Heroism could achieve much, but even heroism could not indefinitely resist the physical and psychological strain to which the Belgian Army was being put. Heroism may defy death it cannot change the laws of Nature.