The Offensive in War (Liddell Hart)
Topic: Military Theory
The Offensive in War
Defence the Best Strategy—True Strategy in the West
By Captain B.H. Liddell Hart
The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, 11 October, 1939
[In the following article, Captain Liddell Hart, who has for long been regarded as one of the most brilliant military critics in Britain, examines the basic problem of modern warfare with results which both illuminate and vindicate the course taken by the Allied High Command on the Western Front.]
The idea of an irresistible offensive dominates the official doctrines of the Continental military machines which admit no aim less than that of victory achieved by the complete destruction of the opposing forces in battle.
German military literature is lit up with the theme of the "blitzkrieg"—the lightning war. The Italian military authorities made the pronouncement only a few years ago that "trench warfare is obsolete"—because "the first onslaught of tanks and fast-moving vehicles would break through trench-lines, force fighting into the open and make movements so rapid that nothing would be gained by digging new trenches." Their experience in Spain may have disillusioned them—but the military hierarchy everywhere has hitherto shown a much greater capacity for explaining away its mistakes than for overcoming more concrete obstacles.
The new Field Service Regulations of the Russian Army, issued after the Spanish War had been in progress for some time, declare: "the fundamental aim of the Soviet Union in any war which is forced upon it will be to secure a decisive victory and utterly overthrow its enemy … The enemy must be caught throughout the whole depth of his position and there encircled and destroyed. Modern technical means make possible the simultaneous defeat of the enemy along the whole of his battle front and throughout the whole depth of his position." The steam-roller of 1914 has become, in theory, the mechanized avalanche of 1939.
Limits of the Offensive
The case for the offensive is so obvious that it can be expressed briefly. Indeed, it can be epitomised in a single sentence—only by the offensive can an enemy country, or position be occupied, and its surrender compelled. It is thus the only way in which a war, or a battle, can be won in the precise sense of the term. Furthermore, the offensive has great psychological advantages as a means towards this end—because it keeps the initiative over the opposing command, and acts as a tonic to one's own troops so long as it produces result proportionate to the effort expended.
The offensive, however, is the more exhausting form of action. Nothing does more to ruin any force, or nation, then offensives which show no profit commensurate with their cost. The sands of history are littered with the wrecks of kingships which set their compass on an offensive course. Napoleon is the greatest of all these wrecks. Yet his career came to its disastrous end before the tide of the attack itself was on the ebb.
While recent wars have provided abundant examples of offensives failing, they have provided a few examples of these succeeding—up to a point. But it is difficult to find any cases where the attacker has not had an immense superiority of armament or the defender has not been in a state of declining morale from other causes. Even the best offensive technique developed from prolonged experiment in the course of the last war required a quantitative superiority of nearly three to one to make an offensive effective. There appears little likelihood of such favourable odds in the Western theatre of war. To organise and train an army primarily for the offensive is therefore to stake the national fortunes on a very dark horse.
Lessons of 1870
Soldiers who oppose the idea of defence by defence commonly support their abstract argument against it by citing the experience of the 1870 war as proof of its dangers. They assert that the French suffered defeat by adopting the defensive as a deliberate policy on the assumption that it would enable them to profit by their superior firearms, the needle-gun in particular. Even if such a belief were well founded the argument from it would not be a credit to the mental adaptability of those who employ it. For, in view of the immense development in weapons, a failure of the tactical defensive more than half a century back, even if it were true, would not be a reasonable ground for dismissing all the evidence of the power of defence under modern conditions. The weapons of 1870 were not the weapons of 1914, still less the weapons of 1939. But it is not even true that the French doctrine was defensive.
The notion that the French came to disaster by relying on the tactical defensive is merely a myth which gained currency by constant repetition on the part of the French advocates of the "offensive a outrance" during the generation which preceded the last war. The myth does not stand examination. While the German successes mere maintained merely due to strategic manoeuvre, helped by their great superiority of numbers, the French vied with them in attempting attacks—which were crushed by the superior German artillery. The actual policy which the French adopted was the tactical offensive combined with the strategic defensive—if what was really strategic paralysis caused by epidemic incompetence can be thus described. This combination was the opposite of what I suggest. Only on rare occasions did the French take up a defensive position proper, and then repulsed attacks with striking success. The disregard of these lessons by the "offensive" zealots of the next generation showed how often military theory is built on faith instead of a dispassionate analysis of facts. Likewise, the repetition of this 1870 myth as an argument to-day shows how far the case against the defensive is based on emotional repugnance rather than on scientific investigation.
A National Nightmare
Under present conditions it would be unwise for Britain and France to attempt an offensive strategy in the West, at any rate, in the early stages of the war. This should become clear when the potential strengths of the rival armies is considered, since no skill of general ship would be likely to achieve a local concentration of sufficient superiority.
In the West, the ratio of space to force is such as to offer no adequate scope for an offensive strategy against opponents who are at least equal in equipment. Battering rams also, are out of date. In face of such conditions, nothing could be more dangerous to the capacity of Britain and France than to indulge in a combined general offensive which suffered a costly repulse. In the tactical sphere, the costliest fiascoes of the last war were the attempt to carry out the old conception of a "holding attack"—in which more slender resources are used than those required for a decisive attack. By 1918, all the armies had learnt by hard experience the uselessness of this method. It would be madness to reproduce it on a greater scale in the strategic sphere.
On the other hand, the advantage of the general defensive could be enhanced, its risks diminished, and its common value increased by combining it with a "harassing offensive." This could be pursued by:—
(1) Carrying out local or limited attacks, carefully mounted as a surprise, and with the maximum fire-power, against weak points on the main front;
(2) Utilising artillery fire and air bombing to harass the enemy's routes of supply and rest camps;
(3) Utilising sea power to isolate, and then to concentrate a decisive superiority of land force against detached bases and territories which the opponent cannot reinforce. As regards this, it must be appreciated, however, that a landing on a hostile shore has become almost impossible unless the defender's air force can be dominated.
(4) Utilising sea power and air power combined to cause a general disturbance of the enemy's system of supply and internal life. So far as there is any scope for the offensive in modern war between more or less evenly matched opponents it seems it lie in developing such a super-guerrilla form of warfare.
Defence as Attack
Above all, it should be realised that defence is a psychological attack—on the mind and morale of the enemy's peoples. Now that professional armies have been superseded by nations in arms, these have to be convinced of the justification for the war aims of their Governments and High Commands. Nations contain far more discordant elements than professional armies, and are inherently more susceptible to internal disruption. It is easier to launch a nation into an aggressive war than to hold together its multitudinous components in a prolonged struggle, and maintain their will to continue fighting for palpably aggressive aims. If such an attack is met by attack the aggressor Government is enabled to consolidate its people by representing to them that they are fighting to defend their homes.
Such misrepresentation becomes far more difficult to maintain if the attack is met by defence. This tends to weaken the will of the enemy people, and foster unrest among them, by making it clear that their rulers are the aggressors and are responsible for keeping alight the cauldron in which the nation's manhood is consumed. This state of mind, and loss of spirit, will develop all the sooner if the offensive campaign produces no results comparable with its cost. There is nothing more demoralising to troops than to see the corpses of their comrades piled up in front of an unbroken defence, and that impression soon filters back to the people at home. Locally, where conditions are favourable, it may still be true that "attack is the best defence." But, on the whole, in a modern war of peoples a new truth is becoming apparent—that defence is the best attack.
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