Some thoughts on doctrine, the Indirect Approach and Russia...
My friends at the Land Warfare Centre last week published the first major rewrite of the Army Doctrine Publication since, I think, the first version came out in the mid-1990s. I’ve now finished reading it: it is a first class document of which the authors should be proud. It is pleasing to see that the fundamental tenets of manoeuvre have been succinctly reiterated, with a very helpful analogy to simplify matters for those without the time to read Robert Leonhard’s fabulous The Art of Maneuver (1991), which in my view is still the best treatment of the subject.
I am, of course, also delighted that Bill Slim’s masterstroke on the Irrawaddy in 1945 has been highlighted as an example of the indirect approach.
The first modern writer and thinker to articulate this philosophy of warfighting was, of course, Basil Liddell-Hart. Many years ago I was having a discussion with my friend, the late Alex Danchev, when he asked me whether I’d read Liddell-Hart’s Strategy: The Indirect Approach. Alex was writing his biography of Liddell Hart at the time (Alchemist of War, 1998). I had to admit that I hadn’t. As I was about to go to Staff College he suggested that the best preparation for the course was to read this book. I will be forever grateful for this advice, as it was some of the best I’ve ever received. As I read it the proverbial light bulb came on. At the heart of Liddell-Hart’s proposition was the idea that the basis of success in battle is always to destroy the enemy's equilibrium, both physically and psychologically. It made complete sense and enabled me to think much more clearly than hitherto about the application of doctrine to success on the battlefield. Indeed, a direct result of reading this book was to begin my study of Slim’s approach to war, which led to my book Slim, Master of War in 2004.
Along with J.F.C. Fuller, Basil Liddell Hart was a fervent disciple of the view that military doctrine was the product of a study of the past. If soldiers were to understand the lessons of history it would enable them to frame the principles of war – and military doctrine – for future war. Accordingly, Liddell Hart's book examined thirty wars in European history comprising more than 280 campaigns. In only six of these did he conclude that a decisive result followed ‘a plan of direct strategic approach to the main army of the enemy.’ He argued:
With the exception of Alexander, the most consistently successful commanders when faced by an enemy in a position that was strong naturally or materially, have hardly ever tackled it in a direct way. And when, under pressure of circumstances, they have risked a direct attack, the result has commonly been to blot their record with a failure.
What did this mean for doctrine? Liddell Hart came to two simple conclusions:
The first is that, in face of the overwhelming evidence of history, no general is justified in launching his troops to a direct attack upon an enemy firmly in position. The second, that instead of seeking to upset the enemy's equilibrium by one's attack, it must be upset before a real attack is, or can be successfully launched.
Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading Antony Beevor’s impressive new account of the war in Russia between 1917 and 1921. His book reminded me of the power of the indirect approach – and of the virtues of military history in an officer’s education – in the classic manoeuvre at Riga in September 1917. It’s worth re-telling, briefly. The Russian commander of the 12th Army, Klembovsky, expected to be attacked by the advancing Germans on the River Dvina but judged that the enemy would attack the primary bridgehead over the river, which he defended with his best troops. However, the German commander of the 8th Army, General Oskar von Hutier, ignored this target and crossed the Dvina elsewhere, far from the primary Russian defences, bypassing Klembovsky and rushing on to capture Riga, leaving the Russians without an enemy to fight. Klembovsky had made the mistake of thinking that the immediate battle in front of Riga was the critical operation of war for the defence of the capital. Von Hutier, however, recognised that it was the capture of Riga that was strategically vital, and that it was the advance to the city that was critical, not the battle: the Russian 12th Army could be bypassed and dealt with later, away from the ground of its choosing. Klembovsoky had committed the cardinal error of many soldiers throughout history in thinking that the purpose of war was to engage and defeat the enemy’s army. It isn’t. The primary task of war is to secure your strategic objective. Battle, if necessary, is something you might have to undertake on the way. Von Hutier (below) had the nous to understand this, and won a great victory as a result.