Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fall of France, V: The French, II: Why "Manoeuvre" Instead of "Maneuver," apart from me trying to hit you over the head with how Canadian I am?

I'm going to double down on this whole "[Prussian*-]German way of war" thing today. Two contexts, the historiographic being Robert Citino's recent book, The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years War to the Third Reich and the historic one Pappa Joffre kicking Potsdam United's butt  in a test match  held between the 5th and 12th of September, 1914. If you've read Citino, you know that his argument is that Prussia-Germany, as an often weak, central power, sought the rapid resolution of its wars in pre-emptive, decisive battles, an argument not to be rejected solely because it suffers from being advanced by morons (context; more context). This is pretty deep military historiography that could get us talking about Clausewitz (j/k!), even if the immediate callback is to good old Jomini.

Citino, however, takes it at a different level. The pursuit of decisive battle determines the conduct of the "operational" level of war, as well: seeking decisive battle, Prussian-German armies specialised in the war of manoeuvre, Bewegungskrieg, using daringly swift and fluid operations to set up decisive battles that ended wars before they started. Attention to the "operational" level of battle is something else altogether. I would, for the moment, trace it to Mellenthin's Panzer Battles, a 1948/1955 book that celebrated the nimble, outnumbered Germans in their victories over their stolid Russian (and British, if you want to talk about the DAK) enemies.

I've used some links here that suggest that I don't take all of this too seriously. It's true that my sympathies lie with Joffre, and that the whole "I'm more anti-Nazi than you" thing is an easy out when you're talking about the Wehrmacht, but I present these concerns upfront because I think that there are very real problems with the Citino thesis. It's not that the masters of Bewegungskrieg kept losing wars of manoeuvre, or that we really do glamourise Nazis, or that Mellenthin often overstates the Russian numerical superiority in bog-standard callbacks to the worst of Orientalising military history.

It's that things are more complicated, and that by pursuing the complicated, we go delicious places. I see the "German way of war" is a heuristic. It is simply not-self evident that the Prussian-German armies were about manoeuvre. They conducted sieges, fought colonial wars, conducted amphibious operations, and served as corps within larger coalitions, and fought many other kinds of wars, as well. One can findexamples of Prussian-German armies conducting daring manoeuvres, and examples where steady and stolid battle discipline was so much their forte that their Habsburg enemies had to resort to their superiority in ...the war of manoeuvre. (Also.)

You don't however, argue against a heuristic with counter-examples. It is not to be preferred logically. It is an analytical tool that allows us to say something more relevant. Citino wants to explain how the Germans won the battles they did win without making an essentialist argument. I want to explain the same victories with my "substructural history of strategy" approach. So I say that, "on the contrary, it was the French, with their fortresses and their railways and their guns, who were, of the two armies facing each other on the Marne, the true masters of manoeuvre war," So I'm making a claim, too. 

And since this is  my blog, I'm going to go historiographic on Citino, and then get historical on my claim.

 Well, historiographic by a very generous stretch going back to the fall of 1987, and a young man's encounter with

Courtesy of Boardgamegeek

Back in the day, before it dissolved in 1996, after what I am sure was one final, cathartic, soul-satisfying group atomic wedgie,* Game Designer's Workshop was one of the leading  marquees in table top boardgaming, and in 1983, it released Assault, Frank Chadwick's game of platoon-level tactical combat in modern Europe. Like the better-known Squad Leader before it, Assault used isomorphic hex maps, standard orders of battle, and lovingly detailed weapon effect charts to allow players to pit onrushing Soviet Red Army forces against Americans, and latterly German, British and Dutch (whatever) forces in "typical" central German terrain. As long as you could handle autobahns and rivers going in circles, it was a lot of fun. Unlike Squad Leader, Assault is a historical curiosity nowadays, on account of that whole World-War-III-Not-Happening thing. (I know. I'm as disappointed as you are, and I don't think that the Gulf Wars were a satisfactory substitute.) 

On the other hand, the platoon level action allows for less tortuous detailed counters and tables while still giving a good impression of what Frank Chadwick thought a war with Abrams, Challengers, Leopards and T-80s would be like. That's Assault, and we'll leave it be, because I'm talking about Boots & Saddles.

The second module in the series  introduced rules for rotary wing aviation and provided a new set of counters. Division 86, the paradigm ("doctrine," whatever; I'm linking to the 1993 revision, anyway) with which the United States Army entered the 1980s, puts a lot of rotary wing combat aviation into the standard United States Army corps, and that's what this game supplies. The concept overlaps that of providing the "cavalry" formations of the main American army, because there were supposed to be two squadrons of attack helicopters in the divisional cavalry regiment plus two attack aviation regiments to form a full divisional cavalry brigade, plus a corps-level armoured cavalry brigade to screen American mechanised corps, each with an attack aviation regiment as one of its four manouevre elements, plus one full attack aviation brigade allotted per corps, although these units did not  have "cavalry" traditions. That's a lot of attack helicopters --and a lot of "cavalry."

Tradition isn't destiny. These guys don't dig many saps these days. It's some kind of metaphor, but the cover art for the game took the implicit metaphor to town. And so did I. Cavalry, the game and the doctrine suggested, existed for a reason. Cavalry has a mission, or rather, missions. It screens, reconnoiters, and provides flank security. A general may throw masses of cavalry at the decisive point, and, it's a lot more exciting to throw a regiment of AH-64s at a Red Army column on the move than to try to plot an artillery stonk on them. Mobility, perhaps to a jaunty cavalry air, has its appeal. I know that some guys think that Everything Went Wrong with armoured warfare once we start thinking of tanks as "cavalry," but for that Pole, I can always cite another who thinks that the problem with Allied tankers in WWII was that they didn't have enough cavalry spirit. Richard, meet Roman. Fight now! 

The next module in the series was

The basic concept of the series was that each module added significant new units and important new rules, with a little editorial to add fluff. Taking these in reverse order, Chadwick's introduction introduced this young blogger to the concept of Bewegungskrieg. I think it might have mentioned Auftragstaktik, too. If he'd just brought up Trevor Dupuy and James Hittle, he would have pushed arguments for (Prussian)-German military excellence back to 1914, and we'd hit the trackless jungle of the Nineteenth Century's "Protestants Rule!!1!" argument. Which association is intended as a driveby smear of Dupuy and Hittle, by the way.

So the next part of the module is the actual Bundeswehr, taking the equipment-centric perspective essential to the project. Looking at fire effect tables and vehicle ratings does not illuminate "doctrine" as much as one might think. Still, once the hugely disappointing Chieftain*** appeared, you could make  certain comparisons. Chadwick's editorial comment characterised the BAOR's doctrine as stolid and slow, and at least implicitly criticised it by comparison to the fluidity and imagination of German manoeuvre war. Then he presented statistics and orders of battle that suggested that the British, if anything, were better equipped for fire-and-manoeuvre tactics than the Germans. While both fell hugely short of the American standard. As a Soviet commander, I would be bolder in breaking cover and moving in the face of Germans than of the British, though that may just be an artefact of the high rating given the RARDEN cannon. 

Blah blah, you don't care: the key point here is that the British and Germans are pretty much of a piece, while the Americans are swimming in Apaches. Any Red Army commander facing an American formation would be well advised to fort up and tunnel forward. Trying to move aboveground is just going to get you Hellfired to death. It took a while for me to formalise this insight, but it ain't rocket science. Rich armies beat poor armies in manoeuvre, because I mean rich in the sense of having better access to chariots/horses/light infantry/tanks/air power/helicopters or whatever might be the recce, screen, and security technology of the day. That, I think, neatly covers the Germans versus the French in 1870, in 1914 during the Battle of the Frontiers, and 1940 at Sedan. That doesn't explain the Miracle of the Marne, though. And no repurposed "sunken road of Waterloo" crap, either. 

But that's only the first two elements of this module. Drawn on by the concept of the series, Chadwick wrote new rules for a crucially important aspect of modern operations, added them to Bundeswehr, and inadvertently dressed "Bewegungskrieg" and "Division 86" up in clown shoes and a big red nose and then sent them out onto the stage. To wit: he gave us perhaps the most comprehensive, seriously-intended-to-be-used combat engineering rules that I have ever seen in a tactical war game. They're neat rules, although one aspect of their simplicity (you have to prepare the banks of a river with bulldozers, but they generate "earthmoving points" that you can also use to dig trenches, build bunkers, and whatnot) is that no-one had ever done it before. NATO units --all NATO units-- include organic bridging assets, and just by giving us the counters and including a few rules, Chadwick allowed us to use them to launch military bridges of all kinds, in all sorts of places.

This really was a novelty, but for reasons that helped spell the doom of the series. Wargamers tend to ignore the problem: go watch miniature gamers play anywhere that you know that they gather, and you will see that their terrains, when they include water barriers at all, provide convenient bridges. Many tactical game rule sets ignore bridge building rules. When they're included, the players ignore them. They are a pain in the ass. No-one uses them. The great ruleset sank like a mid-80s IFV trying to use its nominal amphibious capacity.

In real life, or at least real military history (and, gosh, I wish I could remember where I get these points from, so they wouldn't be just factoids), the British army found pursuing the Germans to the Hindenburg Line a purgatory because they couldn't get their 9.2" guns across their prewar bridging sets, and therefore had to advance without counterbattery assets, illustrating the weaknesses of both their bridging sets and their counterbattery artillery. Worse, at least for the Germans, the  "Mackensen-Phalanx's" advance through Russian Poland was delayed a whole year when the Russians blew up the bridges over the Vistula. This combination of scratch infantry units and the entire German siege artillery could roll up the Russians wherever they found them (range for counter-battery, not weight of fire, again), but the pieces were too big to get across the rivers. NATO has learned that lesson. The old Red Army learned that lesson. Everyone has learned that lesson. It's why the guns of 1940 had so much more range than the guns of 1914, in spite of often being pretty much the same guns, and it's why all those river-crossing units exist that Chadwick included in Bundeswehr. who hasn't learned this lesson?

Oh, right. Military historians. And here's the specific thing that I think that we've forgotten. I haven't been spelling "maneuver" as "manoeuvre" out of some weird Canadian pretentiousness here. Well, not entirely out of weird Canadian pretentiousness. Mostly out of weird Canadian pretentiousness. But my residual point is the mightily-well-buried point of this post: "manoeuvre"= "main d'oeuvre." 

Manoeuvre is the work of the hand. We think of manoeuvre as this, the triumph of technique over brute force:

In reality, the noble knight can`t just deliver a boot to the head. To win Belgrade for the emperor, he must launch a bridge, and bring guns and wagons across the Danube flood.****

There is as much, if not more, technique in building a floating bridge than in booting someone in the head. But it's the antithesis of the idea that mobility is just an exciting cavalry ride over a congenial terrain. Armies do make free on the land; but they do so on the back of vast amounts of technique. It isn't enough for your tanks to go fast, or for your infantry to attack relentlessly. You have to be able to get your counterbattery artillery across the river.

What has this to do with Robert Citino? This is still the historiographic bit, even if I've wandered into drawing conclusions that are only implicit in these old war games that I liked. The history will have to wait, so  you won't get your Clausewitz till next time. That doesn't mean that I've come to the end of the discussion, however, because historiography has yet to make the single most damning point about the whole Bewegungskrieg-as-(Prussian)-German-way-of-war camp. (Which is to say, I disagree with Citino on the strength of this great book that someone else wrote.)

No-one in the real world forgets that armies have to cross rivers. If they're led places they don't want to go, it is, above all, by huge procurement programmes that gain a life of their own. (Recommended.) In his absolutely brilliant book, The Tank Debate, John Stone follows the ongoing conversation in the Anglo-American world that has led us to veer from light armour to  heavy armour and back to light over the last century, from Elles to tankettes to the Main Battle Tank to Eric Shinseki and back. Stone offers us a brilliant example of how historians should talk about tanks and modern warfare. He covers a lot of ground in the process, most notably NATO's annual Reforger Exercises, and the way that these annual fall wargames influenced the American/German convergence on the M1/Leopard II generation of huge, fast, heavily-armoured, heavily-gunned tanks. Paradoxically, he notes, these tanks originated in a paradigm of reactive anti-armour warfare, in which small packets of very big tanks, operating in much the same way as the Germans operated their Tigers in Normandy, stopped Red Army offensives. The idea was the antithesis of "fluid" manoeuvre or Bewegungskrieg, because big tanks make for slow-deploying columns. You can't launch sudden, daring cavalry charges if your cavalry takes forever to form up. Your daring charge becomes the counteroffensive at Avranche, in which four German armoured divisions fell on American units that didn't know they were being attacked because, given how long it takes to funnel that many Tigers down a single approach road, they actually weren't. (Some exaggeration for effect possible.)

Arguably this is exactly what Reforger began to show when the Americans and the Bundeswehr began to field their new tanks. Doctrine had moved in the opposite direction from weapons.  Were the two armies crazy? No: it was all window dressing. The real NATO doctrine has always been "the defence of built-up localities." Rich countries that face long-anticipated attacks by numerous enemies built fortresses on the line of advance. You can't do that in the nuclear era, but, fortunately, modern, heavily-built-up urban areas make great improvised fortresses once they've been blown up a bit. (At the risk that the Reds will, in fact, end up using tactical nukes against German cities to break up the defences.) NATO prefers not to explain this in lingering detail to German public opinion, and Bewegungskrieg, which is important as the way in which the mobile elements of the German army will wear down the Red Army as it makes its way through fortress zones defended by the national guards of Europe, makes a great cover story as an account of the whole of NATO operational warfare.

Eh. It's a theory, anyway. I'm throwing it out here to make clear the contrast between the idea of a light-footed army moving quickly on the terrain and a heavy army moving through it. Because I think that unpacking this contrast and understanding how it came about will help us understand the way that Joffre (a military engineer!) beat Moltke the Younger and the different outcome of 1940. I'm tempted to say that there's a military engineer approach to mobility and a cavalry approach to mobility, and that the former is the French way, the latter the German, that neither is more about "manoeuvre" than the other; that building fortresses, moving guns, launching bridges is just as much "manoeuvre" as a beau sabreur at the gallop, or a regiment of AH-64s cresting the rise. It's just that that wouldn't do proper justice to the Germans. As I've already suggested, Germans were just as much about forts and bridges and guns as they were about cavalry. Indeed, more so, I think. What not nearly enough people have asked is: "What did German engineers think about the war plan of 1914?" Eric Dorn Bose has an answer. It's awesomely intriguing and surprising, and it will point us directly at 1940.

*"There are more Hessians than almost any other ethnic group in the European Union," the Hessian graduate student complained into his beer. "No one cares. We just aren't glamorous."

 I helpfully pointed out the Hessian mercenaries in the American Revolution, and did a little goose step for him. (Hard to do when you're sitting at benches in the beer cellar under the Palais Esterhazy.) He brightened for a second, then sighed. "That's just the Prussian stereotype transported to Hesse." I had to agree. What did Hessians do that was so special, I asked? He said, "I could tell you, but you wouldn't care. No-one cares."

He was right. At least with Swabians and Bavarians you can make fun of the accent. Rhinelanders aren't real Germans. Lower Saxony? The accent again. But Hessians? I got nothing. There's a whole book about the wars of the Frankische Reichskreis in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. You can read it, if you deeply, profoundly, care about the fate of the Imperial fortresses along the Rhine. Unfortunately, a second's attention to Montecuccoli versus Turenne aside, you don't. Germany: it's a big, complicated place. But you can ignore that, and focus on Frederick the Great, instead!

**I don't want this to be understood as a general endorsement of atomic wedgies. It's an endorsement of  giving Marc Miller an atomic wedgie.

***Still waiting for my errata, dudes.

****It makes for a mighty weird WWI-era patriotic postcard when you see the painting of the fresh-faced k.u.k officer launching himself, sabre in hand, into the Russians singing, `he launched a bridge/he brought the wagons..."


  1. Another great article.

    One minor comment, I think that this link:

    Would be better than your link to Operation Cobra. The Cobra one only has about three sentences on the counter-attack, the Luettich one is much more informative.

    But I love your stuff. Thanks for writing it!

  2. You're right, Chris. That is a better link. Would "the very lack of material about the counterattack in the Operation Cobra demonstrates the difference between what the reality and the imagined outcome of four Panzer divisions with lots of Tigers delivering a concentrated counterattack?" fly as a defence?

    I didn't think so.

  3. Well, it might work as a defense. Just not a defence.

    Pretentious Canadian indeed. :-)