Generals Win Battles, Resources Win Wars
The period between 1792 and 1919 was one of massive fluidity and change in terms of the structure of society, the military, and economics in both Europe and America. These changes, individually of no small weight, would combine to dramatically alter the way that war was waged across the world. The Industrial Revolution, begun in Britain in the 18th Century, would completely change the production capacity of those nations which evolved to embrace its principles of mass production and mechanisation.
Arguably the greatest revolution of the era, it lead to huge social changes as the dominance of the aristocracy was brought into question by the rising middle-class industrialists and the voice of the people gained greater power – socialism had been born. The individual desire to achieve coupled with the swelling of the pool of collective inventive thought and the principles of mass production would lead to a rapid increase in the development and production of new technological innovations – much of which could be applied to and would change the nature of war.
As the population grew and more was produced, so to were armies expanded and more readily equipped. This dramatic birth of what is still today a popular political philosophy in the work houses of Britain would lead almost inevitably to the only challenger to industrialisation as the greatest revolution of its era – the French Revolution. Occurring at the end of the 18th Century, it swept away nearly all vestiges of the old order, establishing the ancien regime in its stead. Chaos and bloodshed were the rule as the oppressed united to overthrow those they perceived as the instigators of their misery.
What seems to have been a predecessor to the ideals of modern communism had emerged kicking and screaming into an unwelcoming world – which in 1792 in the form of the First Coalition moved swiftly to stem its growth and silence it forever. But the uniting of the working classes lead by ‘a bourgeois animated by the spirit of revolution’ had created a new concept in warfare that the traditional armies of the era were ill equipped to combat and that the high productivity of industrialisation was initially well suited to support – that of the ‘nation at arms. The armies of France literally swelled with soldiers zealous in their cause and equipped with the tools of war necessary to carry their revolution to the corners of Europe. The traditional resources of war coupled with those of an industrial and revolutionary world would combine with the soldiers of the era and the advent of the railway to form the wide scope of resources available to the commanders of the period in their efforts to emerge triumphant from conflict.
The increasing need for a general to understand how resources could now more than ever affect the course of war would lead to the advent of the philosophy that whilst generals were responsible for individual victories, it was the availability and masterful usage of resources that would win a war. To analyse the question that is the core of this essay, we must first define both resources and the generals who make use of them.
The existence and role of the General Staff must be discussed before the ‘general’ can be defined. First established in Prussia in the middle of the 19th Century, its task was to establish plans for the execution of war should it occur, analysing and preparing the resources needed to carry out these plans. They were then to oversee – and in the case of Moltke personally command – the execution of these plans.
As a collective group the General Staff will be considered a ‘general’ for whilst they have little direct command over the troops in the field, they establish the aims of the commanders and oversee the distribution of resources and mobilization of troops – and are as such as responsible for victories as are those in direct command of men in conflict. Otherwise, a ‘general’ is one who commands a force of men. He need not necessarily hold the named rank, but is the one who makes the decisions that directly affect the course of war, managing resources and being obeyed by all others on and off the field.
At their simplest level, resources required by a general consist of essential equipment and an adequate supply of food. The methods by which troops are mobilized and brought to the theatre of war, especially the railway, are also a resource to any general who has access to them, often forming as they do an essential element in battle plans and the execution of military manoeuvres. Supply ships, horses, transportation vehicles – all are resources of as great an importance as the basics of food and weapons.
In most cases, soldiers themselves are also a resource to be manipulated – it is a strange general indeed who would not plan a battle without assigned the roles of battalions and estimating the price of victory in human blood. The careful management and availability of resources to a commander can and will dictate whether he will be able to emerge victorious from a campaign. With them he has the opportunity to apply his skills as a tactician and leader of men to the winning of his battles; without them he might not be able to give battle at all.
The success of military operations depends upon supplies… ” said Wellington when referring to his campaigns in both India and Spain, “… to gain your objectives you must feed. ” Without an appropriately equipped and well-nourished force, even the best of generals would be hard pressed to fulfil his role on the battlefield. Wellington knew this, and also recognised that merely having supplies was of no benefit unless sufficient transport was available to distribute them to the needy – it is said that he “… woke and slept with the search for ‘good bullocks’ on his mind… ” on his march across Spain.
Meanwhile, the devastating condition of the Allied armies at the siege of Sevastopol bears mute testimony to the fate of an army deprived of supplies, with the blunders at Balaclava a prime example of the importance of transportation to a general’s battle plans. Napoleon himself experienced these most disastrous of problems in combination in his campaign against Russia in 1812. His army, well accustomed to ‘living off the land,’ found itself defeated not by the tactical supremacy of the opposing army – which the Emperor crushed at every opportunity – but by the ‘slash and burn’ retreat tactics adopted by that army.
Napoleon’s campaign ended in defeat due to a lack of food supplies as a result of the combination of enemy defence policy, the cutting of his supply lines by Wellington and the Cossacks, and the unforgiving Russian winter. Superior generalship had lost to resources in the hierarchy of important factors that would lead to final victory. In comparison to Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, Wellington’s Peninsula War seems to have gone spectacularly well indeed, conquering as he did the entirety of Iberia and then making headway into France itself – all from a mere foothold in Portugal.
His continual ability to defeat Napoleon’s marshals is both recognition of his prowess as a tactician and leader of men, but also the adequacy with which he was supplied from home. Indeed, Keegan feels that “… few other commanders have been so well provided… ” as was Wellington during the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars. That Wellington was a skilled commander, who won his battles due to his own good merits, is beyond doubt. Whether he would have been able to do so if he faced the logistical nightmares of the revolutionary armies is questionable.
Although Wellington did emerge victorious from his campaign, his success must be at least partly if not wholly attributed to the fact that he was well resourced. The odds against him at the beginning of the Peninsula conflict were considerable indeed, outnumbered and outgunned as he was, odds he was only able to overcome due to the combination of adequate supplies and his ability to distribute those supplies prior to his careful direction of battle. Britain’s broad industrial production and capable navy were more than sufficient to supply their own, whilst those selfsame fleets and distance from home denied Napoleon the same privilege.
Success… depends upon supplies… “- the phrase seems more than appropriate when one considers the horrific defeat inflicted upon Napoleon in Russia, the catalyst for the collapse of his empire, without them and the victories won by Wellington with them. Both were great commanders capable of defeating most anyone who stood before them, but each was reliant on resources for lasting victory. One need not look any further for evidence regarding the effects of a lack of resources upon the outcome of conflict than that which rent asunder America in the early 1860s.
Lee is the epitome of a general who could win his battles, always against overwhelming odds, yet knew he could never win the war due an eventually crippling lack of resources. In comparison, northern commander McClellan was confident that victory lay not so much in masterful tactics, but in good supply management and the use of overwhelming logistical force to sweep away resistance in a single Clauswitzian blow, the flawed epitome of which is seen in the in the battles of Manassas and Antietam where it was made clear the Union approach was not one that would lead to victory.
Superior logistics would not win the war for the North unless properly managed and applied to that aim in combination with appropriate good leadership. Hence the success of the Confederacy in the opening phase of war, where quality of generals and troop morale were a greater deciding factor in the outcome of battle. The resource juggernaught of the Union was not yet ready to throw its full weight behind assuring secession’s defeat – so the superior commander in Lee would rule for the time being.
That said however, the American conflict makes it clear that”… logistics impinge on the warmaking even of the most care taking and talented general. ” Surrounded as the Confederates were on all sides and bereft of sustainable industry and resources, this sad fact would bring about the end of Lee and Southern dreams of independence. What is evident from Lee’s early victories is that “… logistic supremacy rarely wins a campaign against a determined enemy… ” unless accompanied by an appropriately skilled commander.
Lee was able to take advantage of this fact, and drive the more numerous yet poorly lead Unionist forces almost to submission in his counter-invasion of 1862. However, when quality of generals began to equalise with the arrival of Meade, Sherman and Grant in the Northern ranks the tide of war was turned inextricably against the southerners who now faced a large, better-equipped and equally well lead force, which would begin an overwhelming spiral of defeat after defeat that proves well the adage that whilst a general will win battles, resources will eventually win a war.
The factor of time is of the essence here, the American conflict clearly demonstrating that the longer a war was waged the more likely it was that the adequately supplied would triumph – regardless of the commanders involved. Following the difficulties experienced by both the French and British during the Napoleonic conflicts, it seems inconceivable that a more effective method of transportation would not have been developed for supplying soldiers in the field prior to the advent of the railway.
Yet Crimea is the embodiment of a conflict where commanders did not learn from past experiences, despite the fact that all those involved had seen service in the Napoleonic Wars some forty years earlier, and should have learnt from Russia that mismanagement of resources leads to disaster. Napoleon learned through his own unsuitable and inflexible tactics that, much to his detriment, “… few commanders… could campaign outside their home territories with a freedom unconstrained by logistical consideration… but this would not appear to have been taken into account when the British and French launched their invasion of Crimea, which they did with a flamboyant disregards for the climatic conditions they would face if the conflict became protracted – as it did. That this lesson had not been learned was sadly exposed during the siege of Sevastopol where logistical blunders would see thousands of allied soldiers freezing to death in the harsh Crimean winter.
Although not the worst of generals, Raglan is condemned in that he did not establish an efficient system to transport the readily available, yet much needed, supplies of winter clothing and blankets from the base at Balaclava to those who desperately needed them. The lack of effective resource management, combined with the lack of co-ordination and expertise in the chain of command that lead to the Alma debacle and the tragic charge of the light brigade, have resulted in Crimea long being considered a byword for poor generalship and logistical incompetence.
That the war was eventually won by the allied British, French and Turkish forces is not so much a tribute to their superior leadership or logistical skills, but is in fact due more to the efficiency of the Royal Navy – a resource in itself – in preventing aid from reaching a beleaguered Russian army that was fast running out of supplies. They were eventually forced to capitulate not to the quality of the opposition leadership, whose performance at Alma had allowed the siege to go on for so long in the first place, but to the fact that only the opposition was in a position to continue the conflict.
Although a clear example of a mismanaged war, Crimea also epitomises the theory that a side without resources is a side defeated. Yet this theory is rejected at least in part when one considers the siege of Mafeking in the Second Boer War. Outnumbered six to one, inadequately equipped and completely cut off from reinforcements and supplies, it seems implausible that the beleaguered British soldiers could have maintained their position, no matter how skilled their commander.
However, that they did so for the year and more it took for relief to arrive is testament not to the resources available to them, but to the inspirational leadership of Colonel Baden Powell. The morale effect that a general can have upon an army, whether his own or that of the opposition, has throughout the period under scrutiny been one of the most crucial factors behind an army’s success, inspiring it to victory in the face of any opposition. It is said that Wellington thought Napoleon’s presence to be “… worth an additional 20,000 men… so great was the affect he had upon the participants on both sides. Commanders in Prussia advised their subordinates that “… if you face Napoleon, flee. If you face the marshals, do not concern yourself… ” despite the fact that marshals like Soult were of near equal quality in generalship to Napoleon himself. But they simply did not share his flare for charismatic leadership that would make troops under his personal command continue to fight when any other force, even that of the marshals, would have admitted defeat.
The whirlwind success of the Grand Army is due more than in part to the awe-inspiring reputation of their commander. A general’s very presence could save a battle when otherwise it would have been lost – the very epitome of which is seen in the staunch defence of Mafeking. But inspirational leadership such as Napoleon’s is, perhaps unfortunately, incapable of winning in the long term unless accompanied by logistical support and good tactics.
Good leadership does however allow for those two crucial elements to come together to form a potentially war winning combination, as was struck in the commander that was Wellington, and was so clearly lacking in the Napoleon’s Russian offensive. It is clear that whilst resources were of vital importance for success in the long term, a general’s personal magnetism, charisma and tactical ability were often of far greater importance when it came to the winning of individual battles.
The success of Lee’s campaigns demonstrates this to the full, as does Wellington’s estimation of Napoleon’s worth in battle. But generals can also have the opposite effect if they incompetent, or considered as such. During the Boer War, Ladysmith commander White was nicknamed “Invisible White” for his lack of correspondence with his men, and historians have highlighted this as an important reason for the lethargic nature of the troops under his command.
Indeed, the dilution of inspirational leadership seen in World War One was clearly in part responsible for the discontent that existed in the ranks, a discontent that would delay effective victory on the Western Front in the uprisings in the French army, and would defeat the Tsarist armies altogether. But these uprisings were due more so in part to the conditions in which the soldiers fought, conditions brought about – certainly in the case of Russia – by a lack of supplies due to inefficiencies in transport when away from the existing rail network.
The advent of the railway was to have a great impact on the way that successful logistical management was viewed and achieved by commanders. Following Moltke’s outstanding success in Austria and France, attributed by him to the realisation of more efficient manoeuvrability that the railway allowed, every state that valued its military future would establish both a general staff and a railway department. It had been shown that without a general staff body to “… integrate its transport and mobilisation policies… ” a state must “… isk defeat at the hands of another that did… ” as a result of the railway’s arrival. This fast method of transportation offered speed of victory over opponents that no general had ever been able to consider before, and could not possibly emulate if restricted to traditional methods to move armies – that generals like Moltke relied on the railway implicitly and even established military rail departments is a clear indicator that for a war to be won, a general must work in tandem with the best resources available to him.
The apparent ease with which Prussia was able to defeat Austria and France is a clear indicator that pre-preparation of resources would eliminate the time it had taken in previous conflicts, a prime example being the wars of succession, for the pressure of resource superiority to come into effect – thus significantly shortening the war in the favour of the prepared. As it took a general to prepare for war, can we not thus theorise that with the advent of the railway, the role of the general grew to encompass not only the successful winning of battles but also the winning of war itself?
If the usage of resources is pre-planned so that under no circumstances in the war will a general ever be bereft of supplies, then who is responsible for final victory – the general or the resources? This situation would possibly never have come into being without the presence of the appropriate talent of Moltke, and is so rare in its occurrence that not even Napoleon – as evidenced by his apparently lacking logistical ability – can be accredited with it.
The incredible speed with which troops were transported during the Seven Weeks War in particular allowed for the Clauswitzian theory of decisive warfare to be realised as it was finally combined with the need for manoeuvrability emphasised by Jomini as a perquisite for victory. The stunning nature of Moltke’s victories in 1866 and 1871 can be nearly wholly attributed to rail transportation. Moltke won the battles when he arrived, but the railway allowed him to fight – and therefore to win – his wars.
Indeed the railway can be seen as rewriting the rules of effective engagement to such an extent under Moltke, that subsequent wars would often involve battles over rail connections becoming central to success as was seen at Ladysmith. Instantly recognising the important implications the use of rail transportation had for the manoeuvrability of armies, commanders from the American Civil War onwards would place as great an emphasis upon its role in warfare as they did troop tactics, epitomised by the pre-war plans of the First World War.
The railway, and the general staff that came with it, would be instrumental in changing the role of generals and resources in war to such an extent that responsibility for victory fell more heavily on the former, but yet relied more stringently on the latter. The Great War is quite possibly the best example of a pre-planned war in European history, and is also a clear example of a war won “… not by any discovery or application of new military technique by the high commands, but by the relentless attrition of manpower by industrial output. It was a war of resources, fought by resources in a variety of forms, and won by resources. That those resources were directed in battle by commanders shows that resources still needed direction, or stalemates such as those at Verdun would ensue, but is also firmly backs the hypothesis that whilst generals will win battles “… it was supply and logistics… which ensured victory…. ” in war.
Warfare throughout the period under study has clearly been a thing of change, but one theme has remained intact throughout – the conflicting role of resources and generals in the winning of battles and wars. The fact that it commonly takes a good general to win both confuses the issue, with the campaigns of both Napoleon and Lee supporting the view that generals can and will win battles without the supposedly necessary resources, but the eventual defeat of each also epitomises the fact that war cannot be made sustainable in a manner that leads to victory without adequate resources.
The logistical skills and ability to inspire troops that were and remain the role of the general, when compared with the ability to wage war provided by resources, makes it fair to conclude that battles cannot be won without skilled generals, but that the final victory which success in battle represents cannot be achieved without proper logistical support and presence, handled by an able commander.