Strategic applications, Pt 17

(This is Part 17 of a series. Go back to Part 16.)

The eleventh sub-principle for concentrating strength against weakness is to:

11. Attack when the enemy is divided.

This method, which military historians sometimes call "the central position," has only been used by the greatest generals because it can be highly effective but also has the potential for great danger.

It is used when a general is up against two or more armies at the same time, which would greatly outnumber his own army if they combined. The challenge is to defeat them individually before they can do so.

To do this, the general inserts his army between the two enemy armies. The danger is that if the enemy armies coordinate their attacks in a convergent assault they will almost certainly win a lethal victory.

To prevent this, an able general must achieve surprise in arriving at the central position. To achieve surprise, he must move with extreme rapidity—arriving unexpectedly and defeating the first army before the second one can aid it, then defeating the second one in turn.

The French Revolution occurred in 1793, and by 1796 France was in grave peril. Her economy had collapsed, her treasury was depleted, her new government was ineffectual, and militarily she was defending against a coalition of European nations determined to restore the monarchy. She badly needed a victory.

In that same year the French government, in an act of some desperation, appointed a 28-year old general named Napoleon Bonaparte to command the Army of Italy. It was his first major command.

Napoleon's army in Italy was dilapidated, unpaid and disorganized. An even more pressing problem was that there were two armies in the field against him—one Piedmontese, one Austrian—whose combined numbers would greatly exceed his own. To defeat them, he must prevent them from combining.

With extreme rapidity Napoleon pulled this army into shape and suddenly appeared between the two enemy armies at the town of Carcare in northern Italy, with the Piedmontese on his left and the Austrians on his right.

He struck a rapid blow at the Piedmontese; then before they could recover struck a blow at the Austrians, causing them to retreat temporarily. In this slight breathing room Napoleon struck again at the Piedmontese, defeating and signing an armistice with them before the Austrians could get over their surprise.

Through a series of adroit actions, Napoleon then pushed the Austrians back to Lake Garda in northeast Italy, where he was faced by a total of three armies against him.

In what could fairly be described as a series of balletic maneuvers, Napoleon whirled back and forth, hitting first one then another army—using constant flank attacks—keeping them surprised and off-balance and defeating all of them by April of 1797.

As another example, the greatest Union general of the U.S. Civil War, William T. Sherman, used a kind of variation of this method in his famous "march to the sea."

By 1864 the U.S. Civil War had come to a standstill. General Ulysses Grant, appointed by Lincoln to command the Union armies, had essentially fought a series of frontal battles with General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy.

The result was staggering casualties on both sides along with exhaustion and stagnation. Sherman, whom Grant had appointed to command the Army of the West, decided on a bold stroke to end the war.

After capturing Atlanta, Sherman followed a strategy first proposed by the French theorist Pierre-Joseph Bourcet in the eighteenth century called "a plan with branches." The idea was to keep the enemy in doubt as to exactly where you were going, so that he would have to defend two or more places at once.

Marching east from Atlanta, Sherman could have headed for either Augusta on his left side or Macon on his right. Instead, Sherman's multiple columns marched on a path that took him between them, so that the Confederate defenders weren't sure which city he was aiming for and had to keep both of them defended.

Sherman described this maneuver as putting the enemy "on the horns of a dilemma."

Passing between the two cities, Sherman quickly captured Savannah instead. Now turning north, instead of heading for Augusta on his left or Charleston on his right, he took a course northward between them. Unable to discern his intentions, the Confederacy had to keep its divided forces defending both cities.

Sherman's movements constituted a gigantic "maneuver on the rear" by which he gradually cut Lee's vital supply lines to his army in Virginia. Lee's army, starving and desperate, finally collapsed and the long war was over.

(This is the end of Part 17. Go to Part 18.)

—jim sloman, 8.29.03 for 7.28.04

Strategic applications Pt17 stappt17
Click here or on webtitle at top to return home.
Copyright © 2000-2013 by james m. sloman

Information is for educational purposes.