Section 117

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” -John 8:32

Alexander Phoenix is a tired and misanthropic intelligence officer working for the American military mission in Saudi Arabia. Embittered by the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2009 and Iran's subsequent annexation of it, Alexander leads a seemingly mundane existence - analyzing threats to American interests by day and binge drinking at night. Yet he is also the last chance to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program.

Ordered to coordinate efforts with the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a mysterious and controversial resistance group dedicated to overthrowing the Theocratic regime in Tehran, Alexander enters a world far more exciting, and dangerous, than his usual routine of pushing paper in Riyadh. Receiving little aid from feuding superiors, incompetent colleagues, and questionable allies, Alexander races against the clock to stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and prevent all out war between America and Iran. But can he succeed in time?

The Italian Front in “World War 1”

Posted By on December 3, 2016

img_0718Much like its equivalent in the “Second World War” the Italian Front in “World War 1” has been generally forgotten, downplayed and usually only mentioned as an example of a supposedly wasteful and pointless campaign. With horrible climate and conditions, terrain and infrastructure that favoured the defence, prohibitive casualties and few decisive results the Italian campaign from 1915-18 was hardly destined to be popular, let alone remembered, compared to the titanic struggle on the Eastern Front, the ongoing naval contest between Germany and Britain, and the Western Front where the war was ultimately won. However, despite all of this Italy’s presence did more good than bad for the Entente powers in “World War 1.” By adding considerably more manpower, military power, and resources to the Entente, and increasingly wearing down Austrian forces and diverting them from other fronts, Italy made an important contribution to allied victory.

Italy was a relatively new power in the early 20th Century. Used to being a battleground between Europe’s Great Powers for centuries, much like Prussia and the German states, the individual Italian powers and states had been invaded, overrun, and devastated by continuous warfare. During the 19th Century these states mostly merged together to form Italy.

However, Italian nationalism, driven on by the Italy’s irredentism movement, was unsatisfied as they wanted to annex neighbouring territories with Italian majorities (and in many cases minorities) for Italy. Meanwhile Italy had also signed military alliances with Germany, and ironically since it controlled much of the land Italians coveted, Austria.

Yet this alliance eventually made little sense for Italy, both because of her territorial aspirations and due to geopolitical realities which made such an alliance redundant such as Italy’s vulnerability to a blockade by the Entente and that she was also dependent upon Britain for coal. Since Austria controlled the Italian speaking provinces Italy wished to acquire, and since England and France could do more damage to Italy with their superior land and naval forces, versus a weakened Austria and far away Germany, it made sense for Italy to ally with the Entente instead of the Central Powers during the war.

However, initially Italy hedged her bets seeing if the Entente’s promises for entering the war were better than Central Powers’ attempts at bribery to guarantee her neutrality. Unsurprisingly the Entente was willing to offer more territorial spoils from an enemy like Austria while the latter was hesitant to appease Italy. While Germany, desperate to avoid adding another significant power to her growing list of enemies, pressured Austria to surrender significant territories to avoid war it was a futile effort. Considering the Austrians were unwilling to surrender as much territory as the allies offered in turn, and since the Austrians offered only to cede the territory once the war was over, it was inevitable that Italy declared war against Austria in May 1915 (she would only declare war against Germany in August 1916).

By joining the war Italy added more manpower and resources to the Entente, which already enjoyed significant advantages in manpower, resource and money versus the Central Powers, thus giving the former a better chance to win what was obviously going to be a war of attrition. On paper at least Italy was formidable with 850,000 soldiers in 36 divisions to throw against the Central Powers who were already significantly outnumbered. Another advantage was that with Italy in the war the Entente could complete the blockade of Austria thanks to Italian domination of the narrow Strait of Otranto. Much like the blockade against Germany the one against Austria would prove decisive overtime.

However, while Italy’s entry in the conflict was an overall gain for the Entente the Italian army was not prepared for war. The army was short of machine guns, high trajectory mortars, heavy artillery (Italy had a mere 125 heavy guns) and countless other equipment necessary for trench warfare. The shortage of heavy artillery would especially prove to be a major limiting factor in Italy’s offensives and this would never be solved effectively until 1918 when a combination of improvements in Italy’s munitions industry, and material aid from allies like France and Britain, remedied the matter. For Italy’s weak industrial base, and relatively small economic potential versus not only countries like Germany, Britain and France, but even Austria, would damn her again and again.

Besides material factors Italy’s soldiers, officers and generals also suffered from significant flaws. Peter Hart has suggested that Italian officers had a “lack of professionalism in their general approach,” and once one remembers Napoleon’s maxim that “there are no bad soldiers, just bad officers,” it is easy to see where this inevitably leads. The lower ranks themselves were a mixed lot, being mostly of peasant stock from the countryside. While they would prove to be extremely resilient against harsh climate and conditions, as well as heavy casualties, they suffered from high illiteracy rates which made it hard to make them into effective NCOs, which are essentially the middlemen between officers and privates which ultimately win battles. Yet perhaps the worse criticism belonged to the Italian high command, especially its head General Luigi Cadorna.

The Generals of “World War 1,” fairly or not, are usually a criticized, and unpopular, lot in military history and Cadorna is far from being an exception. In theory he should have been ideal to lead his country to war with 50 years of military experience, steadily advancing through the ranks, having studied the military art carefully and publishing several tactical studies before the war. Yet against this he had no significant combat experience, often had strained relationships with politicians and other officers, was an overly strict martinet and harsh disciplinarian, and many of his ideas about warfare (like many of his contemporaries) were out of date by the “First World War.” Certainly many of the high ranking generals who started the war were eventually overrun by events, the changing nature of warfare, or even the eventual exposure of their inadequacies, and Cadorna was just as oblivious as them when Italy went to war.

However, despite the shortage of Italian modern arms or the questionable quality of Italy’s soldiers, officers and generals, perhaps the biggest disadvantage Italy faced was the geography of the battlefield she was condemned to fight in.

Regarding the 400 mile frontier Italy shared with Austria all but 20 miles was mountainous. During “World War 1,” where most weaponry favoured the defence, communications were ill-equipped to control forces in a quick, efficient manner, and where there was no effective weapon of exploitation to turn a tactical victory into a strategic rout, it was hard enough to succeed in the offence even in open plains. It would be, with a few exceptions, nearly impossible to due so in mountainous terrain. Worse for Italy was that Austria all but controlled all the mountains on, or near, the frontiers and quickly fell back to them at the outbreak of war to give her the best chance of holding out against Italy’s inevitable attacks. The Austrians themselves had been busy building powerful defences in the area, using terrain to its advantage and literally blasting strong dugouts, trenches and gun-pits from the rocks. To defeat the Austrians and drive them from these formidable positions the Italians would need considerable firepower (especially heavy artillery), competent leadership and NCOs, and effective tactics suited to such warfare. It would take Italy a long time to reach this point.

The Italian Front, situated around north eastern Italy, resembled the letter S. Austria controlled the Trentino salient which jutted into Italian territory towards Padua and ultimately threatened the Adriatic coast. Yet this threatened territory also pointed towards the heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire via Gorizia, to Trieste, then Vienna. Among most of the frontline, especially the Trentino, and Julian Alps, communications were undeveloped, especially roads and railways. The best communications existed on the extreme south eastern section of the front, between Venice and Trieste, which perhaps un-coincidentally also had the least mountainous terrain. However, this was relative as the terrain here was still tough, forbidding and ultimately held up the Italians for years.

It was in this area, around the Isonzo River, that Cadorna concentrated his efforts against Austria. Strategically this made sense for as noted above it had the least restrictive terrain and best communications on the front and also provided a route to Trieste and eventually Vienna. While countless historians criticize Cadorna for launching battle after battle along the Isonzo he really had no better options. Any offensive aimed at reducing the Trentino Salient, or scaling the Julian Alps, would not only have been ridiculously difficult but offered no legitimate strategic rewards regarding the capture of important communications, territory, or a route to the Austrian heartland. Outside of Italy Cadorna’s forces could not have had a decisive effect either. It is dubious what results the resource starved and poorly equipped Italian soldiers could have helped to accomplish in Palestine, Salonica or other Mediterranean theatres which took years to show any gain given the poor infrastructure in these places, or the excessive shipping that was necessary to sustain them. Even if these issues had not existed it was out of the question Italy would have devoted considerable resources to these foreign adventures since her geopolitical interests and territorial aspirations lay squarely across the border against Austria.

Therefore, whatever Cadorna’s faults attacking along the Isonzo, and repeatedly at that, was not strategically flawed. It was not just the only area where Italy could significantly threaten Austria but also the sole place where the Italians could realistically deploy most of her forces. Meanwhile even if Cadorna’s offensives in the Isonzo sector failed, and suffered prohibitive casualties for minor territorial gains, they still helped the Entente’s cause indirectly.

For “World War 1” was the ultimate war of attrition where the contest was eventually won by bleeding the Central Powers of resources, morale and especially manpower. While the Entente actually suffered more casualties and devastation as a whole it also severely outnumbered the Central Powers to the extent that it could afford such losses. Attrition is often seen as a poor military strategy, as well as an extremely immoral one, but unfortunately given the military technology of the age (which produced unreliable communications between generals and men in the field, as well as the lack of an effective weapon of exploitation) and the considerable industrial, economic, and manpower potential of the opposing sides, a war of attrition was inevitable. That such warfare is immoral and extremely wasteful there is no doubt, yet it is absurd when historians and armchair generals suggest that “World War” 2 was a supposedly nobler conflict because military technology generally, though sometimes not often enough, produced quicker battles and campaigns (though a longer war). Somehow they forgot that the faster and more reliable tanks and advanced planes allowed the combatants to kill countless more soldiers, and especially civilians, than in the “Great War.” Wars of maneuver look better on TV and maps but they are unequivocally more risky than attrition, and certainly just as bloody.

The point of all of this is that during a war of attrition like “World War 1” inflicting enemy casualties, sinking ships and wearing down an opponent’s home front via blockade, and gradually destroying the enemy’s morale are what matters, even if it takes exceedingly long. It is simply a case of seeing who gives up first. Since the Entente had vastly more resources and men, and since her core nations proved resilient enough not to lose hope and give up she inevitably won.

In Italy’s case despite her military shortcomings during the war she still fulfilled her role of aiding attrition, even if she did so unwittingly. Despite suffering often 2 times as many casualties as Austria it still paid off (while Austria itself had more population, and thus manpower, than Italy the Entente as a whole had much more than 2 times the manpower as the Central Powers) as Italy ultimately could afford such losses fighting just Austria while the latter had to fight debilitating wars against Russia, Serbia, Romania as well as Italy. Italy’s dominance of the Strait of Otranto also helped the blockade of Austria which eventually led to general starvation, and economic woes, for Austria. Finally, the never ending Italian offensives helped lead to the moral collapse of Austria’s armies at the end of the war.

However, none of this was obviously planned. Just like her enemies Germany and Austria, and allies Russia and France, Italy expected and hoped for decisive battles and quick victories. Like all of them Italy failed to accomplish this. While attrition became the main determinant of the war it was not intentional.

Which leads us to the battles waged along the Isonzo. Whatever the strategic sense of attacking there or the ultimate beneficial results it accomplished, the fact remains that Cadorna’s 11 “Battles of the Isonzo” were mostly unequivocal operational and tactical failures. It is at this level where the Italian army in general, and Cadorna in particular, deserves censure.

To be fair the sheer difficultly of the battlefield Italy had to attack in should be noted again. Much is made in military literature of the high ground during the “Battle of the Somme” or the ridges and hills during the “Third Battle of Ypres” but compared to the Italian Front these were laughable. Perhaps the best comparison would be the Turkish assaults in the Caucasus mountains early in the war which resulted in perhaps the most bloody repulse the Turks suffered during the conflict. Regarding harsh climate, forbidding terrain, and problems of tactics and logistics, the Italian Front probably deserves the dubious award of being the worst front during “World War 1.” Not only was it harder to advance or support troops in this region but it was also potentially more deadly. The prospect of suddenly falling to one’s death or the fact that shellfire in such rocky terrain caused 70% more casualties per round expended than on the soft ground in Belgium and France, due to the resulting rock splinters effectively becoming shrapnel, are telling factors.

Italy goes to war:

After declaring war Cadorna hoped to exploit Austria’s precarious situation, breakthrough on the Isonzo sector, and advance on Vienna. Initially at least Italy made some territorial gains as the Austrians wisely abandoned weak points and open ground to fall back on her mountainous defences. Yet Cadorna was hopeful despite such defensive advantages Austria could be beaten relatively quicker since not only was she now fighting on 3 fronts, but Austrian forces had received terrific blows against the Russians and Serbs during the past year.

Unfortunately for Cadorna Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, like Romania’s in 1916, came at a bad time. Italy declared war on Austria on May 23, 1915. During the first month Italy pursued Austrian forces falling back to their main defences and after meeting significant resistance prepared for the first major offensive along the Isonzo. For the Italians this should have been their finest hour. However, factors on other fronts told against her.

Instead of Russia keeping pressure on Austria the Central Powers had beaten Italy to the punch and had launched a major offensive against Russia in early May 1915 before Italy declared war. This campaign, the “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive,” was probably the most impressive of the war and captured more territory, and inflicted more casualties on the enemy, than any other during the entire conflict. The next most impressive offensive of the war would occur on the Italian Front in late 1917. Russia lost perhaps 2 million casualties, all the territory she had conquered during the war so far, as well as Poland, and had been thoroughly beaten and humiliated. This would buy Austria a year of relative ease on the Eastern Front.

Serbia was also disappointing. Instead of helping Cadorna by attacking the Austrians, who they had been thrashing since the beginning of the war, the Serbs, who were rivals with Italy regarding territory in the Balkans and along the Adriatic, sent their cholera stricken army to invade Albania instead.

This allowed the Austrians to devote enough troops to hold the Italians during the “First Battle of the Isonzo” although the latter still outnumbered them 2 or 3 to 1. This battle, the first of 11 along the Isonzo, began June 23rd, 1915. Cadorna hoped to cross the Isonzo, seize the Carso Plateau, and then move onto open country towards Vienna. Despite the confidence of Cadorna and the eagerness of his soldiers the results proved to be less than satisfactory.

It was not just that Italy had to attack against forbidding terrain and strong defences while receiving no worthwhile support from the Russians or Serbians. Or that the Italian army had neither the firepower, equipment, or frankly competence to prevail in such a battlefield environment. There was also the fact that on this front at least the Austrians were relatively well led, motivated and experienced. Austria’s main commander on this front during the conflict was General Svetozar Boroevic, a well experienced soldier who would prove to be an extremely competent defensive general. Meanwhile the divisions under him had already fought in Serbia and knew mountain warfare and understood its nature.

Therefore the results were unsurprising. Italian forces ordered to conduct frontal attacks against strong Austrian positions, and expected to succeed via courage, élan and numbers, were easily defeated by the Austrians who had most of the advantages and re-captured Italy’s small gains during their counter-attacks. The Italians suffered disproportionate casualties, did not advance much across the river, and the offensive failed. Cadorna was unfazed from this setback; blaming the defeat on the supposed lack of determination of his officers and soldiers, rather then the shortage of adequate weaponry, a poor military system that had failed to produce efficient officers or motivated soldiers, or even failings regarding the Italian high command including himself. While it would be unfair to suggest Cadorna never learned anything from the ongoing struggle on the Italian Front, or that he failed to attempt to improve his army, with the benefit of hindsight there is little doubt that his learning curve as a general was too slow to suggest he belongs amongst the list of great military leaders in history. Meanwhile the human cost was approximately 15,000 Italian casualties to 10,000 Austrian ones.

Cadorna launched the “Second Battle of the Isonzo” only 11 days after the conclusion of the first. To his credit he amassed more artillery for this offensive and tried organizing a shorter, sharper artillery bombardment (foreshadowing later effective artillery methods in the war) to hopefully surprise and quickly overrun the Austrians. Yet this innovation was offset by the fact that Italy still lacked sufficient heavy artillery to smash the Austrian positions and that her gunners were generally unskilled, and inexperienced, compared to German and French ones, and perhaps even the British despite the latter’s small army in 1915. Additionally, the Italians also lacked adequate numbers of war materials such as rifles, artillery shells and even shears to cut barb wire. Finally, the offensive was launched by the same 18 Italian divisions that had just launched the “First Battle of the Isonzo” and unsurprisingly they were perhaps not as well rested or motivated given their recent defeat as they should have been. In fact Cadorna pushed his soldiers ruthlessly during his command, launching offensives every three months on average from May 1915 to August 1917. This was more often than the supposedly offensive obsessed French and British Generals on the Western Front managed during the war, and helped wear down the Italian army both physically and mentally and partially explains the disaster which it experienced in late 1917.

However, given that Italy still outnumbered Austria 3 to 1 (roughly 250,000 to 80,000) there was still hope that with its new artillery advantages the Italian army could succeed and breakthrough. Initially the Italians enjoyed some success by capturing 4000 Austrians but their territorial advances were meagre. There was severe, often hand to hand, fighting on the Karst plateau which produced no decisive results. Mount San Michele was captured but then later taken back by the Austrians. Mount Sei Busi was captured and held, giving Italy a foothold on the plateau, but a subsequent advance from it failed. The Italians also took Cappuccio Wood, south of San Michele, which dominated a big area including Austria’s bridgehead at Gorizia, which Italy needed to decisively push eastwards. However, despite capturing these few features which threatened Austrian positions on the front the Italians lost overall; failing to breakthrough to Gorizia and Trieste.

Cadorna halted the offensive in early August when it was clear his army was running out of artillery shells, highlighting Italy’s infant munitions industry and her general lack of war readiness. This second battle cost Italy between 42,000-62,000 casualties and the Austrians 45,000-48,000. Austria suffered more casualties than was perhaps expected considering her arguably foolish policy of holding onto, or recapturing, all frontline positions (an error the Germans repeated at the Somme in 1916) instead of adapting defence-in-depth or other more imaginative defensive means. They also apparently suffered heavily in their poorly fortified rear positions from Italian artillery. Thus despite Italy’s second failure along the Isonzo there seemed to be hope for the future if Cadorna and Italian industry could give their soldiers the tools to finish the job.

A few months later the “Third Battle of the Isonzo” began in October 1915. Realizing he was still severely deficient in artillery Cadorna managed to concentrate 1200 artillery pieces by taking guns from forts and naval assets, giving Italy a 2-1 advantage in artillery on the front. He also still outnumbered the Austrians at least 2-1 in troops and decided to limit the scope of the offensive to taking bridgeheads across the Isonzo, especially Gorizia, rather than hoping for an unlikely breakthrough. However, Cadorna erred in spreading his attacks too widely instead of focusing on a more limited portion of the front. While it was not a bad idea to attack on a wider front per se (especially since it was easier for a defender to attack a relatively narrow salient produced by an limited attack versus a larger bulge created via a wider attack) the fact remains that at this point in the war Italy did not have the artillery, let alone other resources or combat experience, to successfully execute a widespread offensive on this front. Therefore, just like the British at the Somme in 1916 the Italians may have had more artillery then before but it was wasted by having to be disproportionately deployed over more territory. The fact that many were of a relatively lighter calibre, and thus could not effectively smash Austrian trenches or barb wire, only compounded this.

On October 18th, 1915 the Italians began an unprecedentedly strong artillery bombardment which lasted 3 days. Like the lead up to the “Battle of the Somme” in 1916 it was hoped this would lead to victory. Yet also like the Somme it led to disappointment and tragedy as the attackers were caught on the barb wire and slaughtered. Italy made limited gains before being forced back. Mount Sabotino was temporarily seized but recaptured by the Austrians. Mount San Michele, another key objective, was also ultimately retained by Austria. Perhaps the only real result was the capture of the trenches on Mount Sei Busi. Either way Cadorna’s attempts to initially out flank Gorizia, and having failed this to overrun it directly with brute force, did not succeed.

With Cadorna spreading out his forces, especially artillery, on the front against strong defences, the Austrians having a perfect view of Italy’s preparations (given their command of the high ground) and since Austria adopted better defensive tactics during this battle (keeping their front lines, which would be overly exposed to Italy’s bombardments, light so that their second lines would be strong enough to counterattack any Italian advance) than the last Italian offensive doomed Cadorna’s third battle. Yet again Italy had accomplished little territorial gains for disproportionate casualties with 70,000 to 40,000 Austrian ones.

Before 1915 ended Cadorna fit in one more attack, “the Fourth Battle of Isonzo,” which began November 10th, 1915. By this point Italy had increased her forces from 19 divisions to 28, and Austria 11-15, while the artillery balance was approximately 1375 to Austria’s 625 (which effectively meant the overall balance of forces remained the same for this battle). The majority of the fighting occurred near Gorizia and the Carso plateau, although there was fighting along the entire Isonzo sector. The usual problems with insufficient Italian artillery and experience existed but there were some small advances including terrain overlooking Gorizia as well as the capture of Trincea dan Razzi which gave Italy a foothold on the Carso plateau. However, once more another ambitious offensive by Cadorna failed. Besides again running low of artillery shells, and other equipment, as well as the mutual exhaustion of Italian and Austrian forces, winter arrived and took a deadly toll. Snowfall blocked many of the narrow mountainous roads and disrupted the logistics of both armies. Frostbite also rendered countless soldiers hors de combat.

The “fourth battle of Isonzo,” along with it any significant fighting on the Italian Front for 1915, was over. Italy suffered approximately 50,000 casualties to Austria’s 32,000.

How should Italy’s 1915 campaign be summed up? For Italy and Cadorna the first four battles of the Isonzo were obviously disappointing as all attempts at breakthrough, let alone securing important territory, ended in failure. The casualties were also worrisome with Italy suffering perhaps 250,000 casualties (66,000 dead) to 128,000 Austrian (28,000 dead) ones. Not only were these disproportionate losses they also represented more than 25% of the Italian army’s strength at the beginning of hostilities. On the one hand this was not un-beneficial to the Entente since it enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in manpower. Even regarding Austria and Italy it was not unfavourable for even though Austria had more population than Italy the latter only had to fight on one front whereas the Austrians had to fight on four during the war (usually several at a time) including against Russia, Serbia, Romania and Italy. While the casualties Austria suffered against Italy in 1915 were bad enough they was nothing compared to the slaughter of her armies against Russia which produced significantly more than a million casualties by the end of 1915. Casualties would only increase for both sides on the Italian Front during subsequent years.

Although Italy had a bad year in 1915 her entry into the war was still a plus for the Entente and likewise a net loss for the Central Powers. Already struggling against Serbia and Russia the Austrians had been desperate to deploy enough troops to the Italian Front to hold out. It also forced Germany to devote more troops to the Eastern Front to ease the Russian pressure off Austria and attempt to knock Serbia out of the war. Italy’s not inconsiderable army of 35 divisions and blockade of the Strait of Otranto also placed more pressure on the Central Powers. Italy’s army would continue to expand, growing to 48 divisions by the end of 1915, and she would slowly acquire more weapons and artillery, even if there never seemed to be enough for such a harsh front. Unfortunately her leadership, especially Cadorna, who was proving to be excessively harsh regarding discipline, and seemingly uncaring to the brutal conditions facing his troops, would still prove to be relatively backwards regarding tactics and innovations which were being formulated much quicker on the Western Front. This old fashioned and lackadaisical approach to warfare would eventually lead to disaster on the Italian Front even as Italy amassed more troops, weapons and equipment, and slowly bled the Austrians white.

Austria herself had a mixed year. Given the thrashing she suffered in her fighting against Serbia and Russia, Austria’s desperate defence against Italy, resulting in Italy suffering twice as many casualties and no significant territorial gains, can only be seen as a notable strategic defensive victory. Meanwhile a joint German-Austrian offensive in mid-1915, Gorlice-Tarnow, routed the Russians on the Eastern Front, conquered Poland, forced the Russian army to fall back significantly and inflicted arguably 2 million casualties on the enemy. Probably the most impressive battlefield victory of the war it gave Austria a much needed year of breathing space on the Eastern Front. Austria also benefited from a combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian offensive against Serbia in late 1915 which overran the latter and therefore closed down at least one front for Austria. Therefore a case could be made that at the end of 1915 Austria’s strategic situation had improved. However, this has to be balanced against Italy’s continued militarily growth, the naval blockade that would slowly starve Austria of food and resources, and the horrendous casualties the Austrian army had already taken in 1914-15.

Cadorna used the winter interlude, its harsh conditions prohibiting offensives anyway, to train and equip his forces more thoroughly in the hope that his army would accomplish better results in 1916. This was not in vain as some progress was made. New tactics for mountain and trench warfare were being adopted and much of the equipment necessary to fight it was arriving in significant quantities. This included machine guns, mortars, wire cutters, grenades but unfortunately even at this point not enough heavy artillery. Italian industry still lagged behind regarding its production and Britain and France were too busy equipping their own expanding armies themselves with heavy artillery to spare any for Cadorna. Yet despite this disappointment Italy was, theoretically at least, better prepared for its next offensive than the costly ones of 1915.

During the winter the Entente and Central Powers formulated allied strategy for the upcoming year. The Entente, motivated mostly by Joffre, the commander of the French army, decided to launch synchronized offensives sometime in mid-1916 to hit Germany and Austria all at once. On paper this made sense given since Germany, and her allies, enjoyed interior lines of communications and a central position; they had been able to reinforce their threatened points along their fronts quicker than their enemies and had thus defeated Entente offensives that had been launched separately instead of at the same time. Thus even though the Entente had more soldiers, artillery and weapons than the Central Powers the latter’s shorter communications, and close proximity to each other, allowed Germany to defeat Entente offensives one at a time. By launching offensives at the same time the Entente hoped to stretch their enemies’ forces, and their reserves, so thin that eventually the Central Powers would collapse at one point which hopefully began a rout.

Strategically it made sense except that it assumed Germany would sit back and do nothing. Once again a battle plan did not survive contact with the enemy. Germany and her allies had their own plans for 1916 and the German army preempted the Entente by attacking French forces at Verdun in February 1916. General Falkenhayn, Germany’s military leader, understanding the attritional nature of the war, strove to bleed the French army white in 1916 by initiating a brutal battle at Verdun where it was hoped that superior German artillery, and French pride in defending the city, would wear down the French and force her to leave the war. Unfortunately for Germany while her offensive did much to diminish the chances of the Entente’s plan for 1916 to succeed by distracting the French army, the most reliable allied army in 1916, it was perhaps misguided: Not only as an attritional fight since Verdun resulted in almost even casualties for both sides, which benefited the Entente and not Germany, but because Falkenhayn assumed the French would simply throw in the towel despite how dedicated they were to continuing the war.

Then there were the distinct plans for 1916 regarding Italy and Austria. Italy’s was easy, predictable, and also conveniently overlapped with Joffre’s strategy by seeking aggressive attacks against Austria to produce more decisive results on the Isonzo than in 1915.

Austria’s was more controversial. As the Serbian front had been eliminated, the Russians bloodied and pushed back, and Italy’s attacks stymied in 1915 Austria had some leeway regarding what strategy to adopt in 1916. Since Italy was weaker and easier to contain (given the terrain of the front) than Russia which was still in the war, it arguably made sense that Austria’s priority for 1916 should have been to reinforce the Eastern Front and hold the Russians. While it gave the initiative to Russia and Italy with hindsight at least it would have been the better choice. Instead Austria’s leading soldier, the militaristic and temperamental Conrad von Hotzendorf, decided to try knocking Italy out of the war with an audacious offensive. He would get his chance but before then Italy renewed major fighting on the front in 1916 by launching the “Fifth Battle of the Isonzo” on March 9th, 1916.


Ironically Cadorna, among the most offensive minded generals of the war, launched this offensive somewhat reluctantly. He would have preferred to wait until the snow melted and weather improved but pressure from France, which was suffering horrifically due to the German attack at Verdun, pressured him to launch an attack to take heat off the French army. The preparations for this offensive were rushed and perhaps less thorough than the earlier ones along the Isonzo. Therefore despite enjoying probably a 3-1 advantage in men and artillery the Italians pushed forth against not only mountains and machine guns but snow, rain and fog, and the results were limited as usual.

Limited attacks were launched against Tolmino, Gorizia and the Carso plateau. Generally they were conducted more to show the Entente Italy was responding to Verdun than Cadorna actually trying to accomplish anything notable. The offensive lasted less than 10 days, saw Italian forces move little farther than a few 100 meters in some areas, and cost Italy and Austria roughly 13,000 casualties each. It was quickly called off due to the terrible weather and because Cadorna realized the Austrians were preparing a major offensive of their own. As for its ostensible objective of taking pressure off the French at Verdun it failed considering it likely did not force a single German soldier to depart from there.

The next major offensive on the Italian Front was launched by Austria. Named the “Strafexpedition” (Punitive expedition) by Conrad von Hotzendorf, who had wanted to punish Italy for entering the war against Austria for the past year, its objectives were no less ambitious than Cadorna’s initial offensives in 1915. Conrad hoped to breakout from the Trentino Salient onto the coastal plain of north east Italy, seize Padua (Italy’s main railhead supplying the Isonzo front), and hopefully cut off and destroy the majority of the Italian army. The Austrians failed to get support from the Germans as Falkenhayn saw the offensive as a foolish distraction. No doubt he thought the scheme was unrealistic given the poor communications in the Trentino, the difficulty of the terrain, and the grandiose ambitions of the Austrian army which had barely survived the last two years of war. Undeterred Conrad found the necessary troops for his offensive by withdrawing significant forces from the Galician front, gambling the Russians would be too weak to conduct a major offensive during the summer.

Launched May 15th, 1916 the Austrians outnumbered the Italians on the Trentino sector more than 2-1 in artillery and perhaps 4-1 in infantry. Additionally, despite the fact Italy had some advance warning of the offensive, and had therefore sent reinforcements to this sector, the Italians had deployed their forces poorly to meet the attack. Rather than having significant forces for defence in depth, or to counter-attack, the Italian commander in the Trentino, General Roberto Brusati, had his front lines grossly overmanned. This deployment showed how little Italy had learned of defensive warfare during the past two years as the various armies on other fronts had abandoned such a poor defensive stratagem. Essentially if the Italian front lines could be pierced the Austrians could potentially breakthrough rather easily as there would be few forces farther back to stop them.

Indeed Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” initially went quite well, especially compared to Cadorna’s thus far five failures along the Isonzo. With the Italian front lines dangerously overcrowded Austria’s artillery, which had considerably more heavy guns than Italy’s forces, wrought havoc and took a severe toll on the defenders. Attacking on a 50 km front the Austrians were held on the flanks but broke through in the center and thus pushed the Italians back and began taking considerable territory and prisoners. In two weeks the Austrians advanced 12 miles on a 20 mile front (which admittedly was more impressive than what France and Britain had accomplished on the Western Front since 1914 and obviously superior to anything Cadorna had done), occupied the Asiago plateau and captured at least 50,000 prisoners. The Austrians even came close to breaking onto the open plains of northeast Italy but they would not reap strategic success from their operational victory.

Cadorna reacted calmly to the debacle and ordered reserves from the Isonzo sector to help the Italians falling back in the Trentino sector. These moved via railways and reached the threatened area quicker than follow up Austrian troops who had to proceed on foot. The Austrian offensive also began to lose momentum as their lines of communication, already tenuous in the Trentino, became increasingly stretched. Yet perhaps the real death knell to Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” was due to the spectacular success enjoyed by the “Brusilov Offensive” launched by the Russians in early June.

After pleas by Cadorna to begin their offensive early to aid the Italian army the Russians launched an extremely effective attack against Austrian forces on the Galician front. As the attack was unexpected, given that the Austrians in Galicia were relatively weak because Conrad had withdrawn troops from here to launch his attack in the Trentino, and since the Russians frankly usually beat the Austrians anyway, the “Brusilov Offensive” was one of the more brilliant victories of the entire conflict. In a matter of a few months Austria suffered nearly one million casualties, almost half of them prisoners. In fact during this short period Austria lost almost as many casualties against Russia than it would against Italy during 3 and a half years. This disaster not only forced Conrad to withdraw half of the divisions attacking in the Trentino but also made the Germans send many from the Western Front as well.

Needless to say, the “Strafexpedition” was over. Looking at a balance sheet the results seem impressive (if the sheet doesn’t include the effects of the “Brusilov Offensive” of course) with Austrian forces advancing relatively far by “World War 1” standards, taking 50,000 prisoners and inflicting another 100,000 casualties on the Italians. The price was 80,000-100,000 Austrian casualties. That Austria managed to inflict more casualties on Italy when it was attacking is certainly damning to the Italian forces considering most of Italy’s offensives had resulted in disproportionate casualties for themselves. In fact Italy would continue to suffer, with some exceptions, significantly more casualties than the Austrians during the rest of the battles during the conflict.

How should the “Strafexpedition” be judged? At a tactical and operational level Austria certainly beat Italy and managed a greater victory on the Italian Front than the latter had accomplished so far. It even led to the fall of the Italian government, though ironically not the dismissal of Cadorna. Yet strategically it was a Italian defensive victory considering it had eventually been stopped and gave the Austrians no decisive gains. Even the territory Austria conquered was mostly recaptured or abandoned in the aftermath. It also helped the “Brusilov Offensive” since Conrad had had to take troops from Galicia to conduct his attack. While it is questionable how much better the Austrians would have weathered the Russian attack had they not withdrawn these troops at least part of the subsequent disaster would have been mitigated by their presence. Finally, the “Strafexpedition,” along with the “Brusilov Offensive” it helped indirectly, weakened Austria so much that Germany essentially had to bail her out and would now dominate Austrian major strategic decision making during the war.

After surviving the Austrian offensive and pushing back most of its gains Cadorna prepared for his latest attack along the Isonzo. This offensive, the “Sixth Battle of the Isonzo,” began August 6th, 1916. Thanks to the near debacle in the Trentino Cadorna scaled down expectations for this offensive. However, Italy had some advantages during the attack. Despite heavy losses suffered by the Italians during the “Strafexpedition” the Austrians had had a much worse summer given their losses during that attack and especially the mauling they took by the Russians. Meanwhile Conrad had previously withdrawn troops from the Isonzo front to help stem the Russian advance. Taking advantage of this Cadorna used his railways to move significant troops from the Trentino to the Isonzo to attack the Austrians while they were still falling back on the Eastern Front.

Meanwhile this Italian offensive arguably benefited from more thorough preparations then the earlier ones, especially regarding aerial reconnaissance and better cooperation between infantry and artillery. Additionally, having scaled down his ambitions Cadorna concentrated his forces on a smaller area, mostly against Gorizia, which meant his superiority in men and artillery could be focused on a more limited, and realistic objective, instead of attempting a fantasy breakthrough.

The main attack was launched by 16 divisions supported with 1250 artillery guns and 750 mortars. After a 2 day preliminary bombardment half of the artillery and six Italian divisions, focused on a single Austrian division. This proved decisive as Italy managed to take Mt. Sabatino and 8,000 prisoners very quickly. More gains followed in the next few days as Austrian positions on San Michele and Podgora, forbidding heights in front of the Isonzo which had held earlier Italian offensives, were taken. Gorizia itself was captured and the Italians finally gained a foothold on the east bank of the Isonzo. Much of their success was due to the fact that unlike previous offensives the Austrians had no reserves to counter-attack against the Italian advance. However, while they could not reverse Cadorna’s initial gains the Austrians simply retired to a line of even higher hills to the rear and then entrenched and waited until Austrian reserves arrived to stabilize the situation.

Cadorna then launched a general attack along the whole Isonzo front on August 14th. However, this attack did not benefit from the conditions which had made the earlier part of the offensive a success: Thorough preparations, weak Austrian forces, and overwhelming concentration of troops and artillery on a narrow front. With his forces making no real progress Cadorna called off the offensive on August 17.

Many historians view the “Sixth Battle of the Isonzo” as the most successful one of the entire war. Certainly Italy’s quick capture of the territory dominating Gorizia, establishing a foothold on the east bank of the Isonzo, and capturing 8,000 prisoners are noteworthy. Much like Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” Cadorna’s offensive was a significant tactical and operational victory. Unfortunately, also like the “Strafexpedition” it did not result in decisive strategic results. Italy may have finally conquered the first major line of Austrian defences from her enemy but there plenty of more for Conrad’s forces to fall back to and slowly bleed the Italian forces. Just as it was a long way from the Somme to Berlin the road from Gorizia to Vienna was hardly a more accommodating route.

This offensive also changed how Cadorna conducted his offensives, with him abandoning broad front offensives (which severely dissipated his strength) in favour of more limited and focused assaults hoping to seize important objectives with mass and firepower. Indeed this formula had done much to make Cadorna’s 6th offensive somewhat a success. It remained to be seen how well this new offensive approach worked.

However, perhaps the main benefit for Italy was psychological with her gains in the offensive giving the Italians a much needed morale boost. Italy was so emboldened by her victory that she finally declared war on Germany on August 28th, 1916; however Italian and German troops would not effectively clash until much later in the next year. Meanwhile the human cost of the battle, as usual, was disproportionate as the Italians lost approximately 50,000 casualties (20,000 dead) versus 40,000 Austrian ones (10,000 dead).

The “Seventh Battle of the Isonzo” began September 14th, 1916. After their victory in the last engagement the Italians hoped for another success. Cadorna was encouraged by the fall of Gorizia, as well as the entry of Romania into the war against the Central Powers in August 1916 which pushed Austria to her limits. He not only hoped the Austrians were weakened on the Italian Front but that Austria’s soldiers were so spread out having to deal with yet another belligerent that he could defeat the enemy forces deployed near the Isonzo.

Believing the same formula which had shown results during their last offensive would work again the Italians concentrated their firepower and soldiers on a relatively narrow avenue of attack expecting to enlarge the bridgehead at Gorizia by attacking to the southeast along the Kras plateau. However, while their artillery bombardment did significant damage to the Austrian front lines it was hampered by poor weather that limited observation of enemy defences, as well as Austrian attempts to carefully camouflage their positions. Meanwhile, unfortunately for Cadorna, the Austrians were not as spread out due to Romania entering the war as he hoped and Austria managed to scrape enough men and artillery to hold out.

As such Cadorna’s 7th battle was anti-climatic after his last victory. Attacking with 14 divisions against perhaps 8, and enjoying at least a 2-1 advantage in artillery at the point of attack, the Italians made some minor gains but were generally defeated by the Austrians who beat the main attack with the help of tear gas and flamethrowers. After conquering some limited territory, and taking 4500 Austrian prisoners, the attack failed and Cadorna called it off after a few days. The relevant casualties were 17,000 for the Italians and 15,000 for the Austrians.

The unflappable Cadorna shrugged off this latest failure and prepared for the next offensive. The objective was the same as the last one, mainly enlarging the Gorizia bridgehead across the Isonzo. Supported by 1300 guns to Austria’s 500, and enjoying the usual superiority in infantry, the Italians began their bombardment on October 9th and launched their attack the next day during heavy rainfall.

Despite the weather the Italians made some progress by capturing large parts of the Austrian front line, and took Mt. Sober and Nova Vas, as well as 5000 prisoners, the first day. However, operations were halted on October 11th due to heavy fog. Renewing the attack on the 12th the Italians managed to push the Austrians east of the Isonzo but then Cadorna called off the attack. During this short lived offensive Italian gains were not negligible, having advanced several kilometres, capturing 8000 prisoners and even seizing a number of Austrian artillery pieces. In fact the Austrians were surprised Cadorna halted the attack; they had been hard pressed and believed the Italians could have gained a major victory had they launched another strong attack.

In lieu of the battle Austria’s commander on the front, General Boroevic, pushed his soldiers to prepare new defensive positions and pleaded with Conrad to send him reinforcements he knew were necessary to hang on in case of another Italian attack. Both sides suffered roughly 25,000 casualties each which at least showed that Cadorna and the Italians were starting to suffer less disproportionate casualties against the Austrians. Therefore despite another overall failure for Italy this battle gave little solace for Austria.

Before the end of 1916 Cadorna managed to squeeze in one more offensive. At the beginning of November the “Ninth Battle of the Isonzo” began with more Italian attacks to the east of Gorizia and on the Carso Plateau. The Italians managed to advance despite wet weather that often produced waist deep mud and the fact that with only 1400 artillery guns to Austria’s 1000 they did not enjoy as much of a firepower advantage as customary. With 200,000 men concentrated on a very narrow front the Italians overwhelmed the first line of defence and forced the Austrians to retreat a few kilometres. The Austrians tried to recover the initiative by launching a counter-attack but it failed.

At this point the situation was critical for the Austrians. With the Italians advancing towards the second line of defence General Boroevic had literally only one battalion, less than 1000 men, left in reserve to hopefully stop the enemy. Sent to defend height 464, a key point in the Austrian defence, it managed to hold out against an Italian force six times stronger and this temporarily stabilized the front and shook the resolve of the Italian soldiers. After this one Austrian division arrived from Galicia and Boroevic and his soldiers hoped they might have enough luck to counter a further attack.

However, Cadorna, shaken by the setback on height 464 and having reluctantly accepted that his soldiers were exhausted and demoralized, instead ended the offensive. Like the previous battle Italy ended the fight when it was arguably on the cusp of decisive results. Instead a respectful, if not strategically beneficial, advance of 3 kilometres on a 5 kilometre front was made which took some further ground around Gorizia and on the Carso Plateau. The Austrians had held again but it was becoming questionable how much more pressure they could take.

Meanwhile protests and criticism was mounting on the Italian side regarding not only the tactics and methods being used to fight but also the often harsh treatment meted out to the common soldier. Predictably rather than addressing such concerns Cadorna responded by tightening censorship and instituting even harsher measures for those who expressed any pessimism or negativity regarding the war effort. Cadorna and his army would pay a terrible price one year later for the neglect of his men’s conditions and morale. Casualties for this offensive included 39,000 Italians to 33,000 Austrians, of which 9000 of the latter were captured.

What is the verdict on Italy’s 1916 campaign? Unfortunately Cadorna’s army failed to accomplish a breakthrough, let alone decisive results, despite trying 5 more times along the Isonzo. After another year of sacrifice and heavy losses the Italians had little to show for their efforts besides the ruins of Gorizia and a few mountainous heights of strategic dubious value. Much like the Germans at Verdun and the British and French at the Somme Italy paid a high price for undervalued real estate.

However, there is another way to view the situation. While far from producing a first class fighting force Cadorna had at least learned some lessons and his armies in 1916 had been better equipped, took more territory, and inflicted more proportionate casualties on the Austrians, than those of 1915. In fact his armies had arguably been close to accomplishing significant results in the last two offensives before they were halted. Attrition, as always, benefited Italy and the Entente.

For whatever the sufferings of the Italians in 1916 the Austrians endeared much worst, even if the latter had still inflicted more casualties on the former on their mutual front. Conrad’s “Strafexpedition” had done damage to Italy but this gain had been more than nullified by the gargantuan losses Austria suffered due to the “Brusilov Offensive,” not least because Austrian forces had been severely weakened on the Eastern Front to allow Conrad his foolish vendetta offensive against Italy. Meanwhile, although Romania’s entry into the war had been parried by intervention by the Germans and Bulgaria it potentially could have been crushing for Austria, especially had Romania joined during the success of the “Brusilov Offensive” instead after it had been largely contained. Additionally, since Italy was slowly improving her military prowess and considering more and more Austrian divisions had to be devoted to the Italian Front, ultimately 36 out of 65 of their total in 1916, meant Austria had a worse year in 1916 than 1915. Meanwhile another year of blockade starved and wore down ever more Austrians while Italy suffered no such inconvenience.

During the winter of 1916-17 the Entente and the Central Powers debated strategy for the upcoming year. Unlike the previous winter this was less simple. Regarding the Central Powers, Falkenhayn, the author of Verdun, had been replaced mid-1916 when his strategy to bleed the French white had clearly failed. Replacing him was the duo of Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, who had enjoyed considerable success on the Eastern Front. Realizing the Entente had come close to breaking the Central Powers in 1916 (at one point during the summer the Germans had a single reserve division on the Western Front) and that attrition favoured the enemy they adopted an unorthodox, and very un-Prussian, strategy for 1917.

Prussian military strategy since the time of Moltke the Elder had emphasized quick, decisive battles of maneuver against enemy forces, preferably either via encirclements or battles of annihilation. The Germans had tried this in 1914 against France and to a more limited extent against Russia in 1915, and failed. Falkenhayn, employing a less popular Prussian strategy of attrition using the strategic attack via the tactical defence against France in 1916, failed as well.

Having dismissed Tsarist Russia as relatively backwards and close to revolution, and France as a strong military power though not on the same par as themselves, Germany believed England was now the main enemy. With the Royal Navy strangling the German economy and home front, British money financing the Entente’s war effort, and the realization that the British army in France was slowly becoming the Entente’s best sword, the Germans pondered how to defeat the British. Realizing England was an island nation dependent upon merchant shipping to survive and noting the success German submarines were having against British commerce, Germany hoped to starve Britain into submission. As such she adopted unrestricted submarine warfare which meant Germany would sink any merchant vessel, Entente or Neutral, trying to supply England. The gamble was whether or not German subs would sink enough ships to force England to surrender before neutral countries, especially America, became indignant enough to declare war on Germany.

Meanwhile on land Germany planned to build a strong defensive line on the Western Front, the Hindenburg Line, and weather the British and French attacks in the spring and summer long enough to hopefully allow her naval campaign to succeed.

The Entente’s strategy was more of the same as before: Simultaneous offensives on all major front with one odd difference. General Nivelle, France’s new top General, promised to deliver a war winning offensive on the Western Front in the spring. Perhaps unsurprisingly the war wearied French and even British political leaders supported this fantasy despite the considerable reservations of many French and British military leaders. Unfortunately for Nivelle his spring offensive would be diluted by a few factors. The Russians deposed the Tsar in march and in the ensuing upheaval the Russian army could not support the attack in France. Cadorna also let Nivelle down and did not launch an Italian offensive in time to support him. Finally, the Germans unexpected withdrawal on the Western Front in early 1917, and their construction of the Hindenburg Line, did much to throw off the preparations for Nivelle’s offensive.

While Germany and France made their plans Italy and Austria continued with theirs. Yet again Cadorna would attempt to badger away along the Isonzo hoping for results whereas the Austrians planned to hold out praying Germany would somehow win the war or come to their aid.


The “Tenth Battle of the Isonzo,” taking place more than half a year after Cadorna’s last major offensive, began in May 1917. Originally Cadorna had wanted to start his attack at the same time as the French and British effort in the spring but he had to delay for a few weeks. Cadorna was also worried about the potential of the Germans intervening on the Italian Front, as they had already done so against the Russians, Serbs, and Romanians; crushing their armies decisively during the past few years. To safeguard against this Cadorna had met with Ferdinand Foch, one of France’s best generals. However, rather than send any allied reinforcements to Italy the French and British merely promised to send help in the event of an emergency, arguably a strategy of reinforcing failure instead of preempting it. On the plus side Cadorna finally received some heavy artillery from his allies including several batteries of 6 inch howitzers from the British.

This latest offensive was the biggest one launched so far on the Italian Front, included approximately 400,000 Italian soldiers backed by 2400 heavy and field guns against perhaps 200,000 Austrians with 1400 guns of all calibre. This time Cadorna switched up his operational planning once more. Whereas in the latter offensives in 1916 where he had focused on narrow front attacks against limited targets (usually to expand the Gorizia bridgehead) he reverted back to a broad based offensive on a front of 40kms hoping to achieve a breakthrough toward Trieste. Another objective was to take Mount Skabrijel to open the way to the Vipava valley.

After a two day bombardment the main thrust was made towards the east of Plava and north of Gorizia. Later attacks were made to the south on the Carso plateau. Initially some ground was taken such as the capture of Monte Kuk and Vodice Ridge. On the coast Italian forces also took Duino and two Austrian counter-attacks in May failed to stymie the Italian advance. However, Mount Hermada, guarding the approaches to Trieste, was held.

Then the Austrians, reinforced by 3 fresh divisions, launched a successful counterattack against the wearied, exhausted Italians and reconquered most of the territory the latter had taken. The Italian advance had again been minuscule and they suffered 157,000 casualties (including 27,000 prisoners and 35,000 dead) versus 75,000 Austrian ones (including 23,000 prisoners and 17,000 dead). Therefore, not only had the Italians again failed to take significant territory but they had also suffered disproportionate casualties as in 1915; the total casualties for both sides during the last 3 battles in 1916 had been 75,000 for the Italians versus 63,000 for the Austrians respectively. After two years of war this must have been a bitter blow to Cadorna and his soldiers.

Meanwhile there were major strategic fluctuations occurring in the spring and summer of 1917. The Italian offensive had failed and harshly at that. Much worse the “Nivelle Offensive,” foolishly promoted to win the war, had failed to inflict a decisive defeat on the Germans on the Western Front. In its wake the French army, up until now the main sword of the Entente, became infected by disobedience and mutiny. While it did not collapse the French army effectively remained on the defensive for the rest of 1917. The Russians were also teetering towards quitting the war, especially after the failure of their last offensive of the conflict in July. The Entente’s initial strategy for 1917 had failed.

As for the Central Powers Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign did not knock Britain out of the war despite taking a terrible toll on the latter’s shipping. However, her submarine campaign had finally alienated and angered America, the strongest industrial as well as soon to be primary financial power of the world, enough to declare war against Germany. Additionally, the British army in France, having learned quickly from its trials on the Somme, and finally receiving abundant weapons from British industry, had inflicted impressive defeats on the German army during the “Battle of Arras.” Therefore while the Germans had effectively neutralized the Russians, brought the French to mutiny (though this remained hidden from the Germans), and her ally Austria had again contained the Italians, the future still looked bleak for the Central Powers. Not only was the Entente’s naval blockade still in effect, and the British army becoming a more formidable foe, but now there was the prospect of an American army with millions of soldiers being shipped across the Atlantic to face the Germans. As usual manpower, resources, money, industry, and now especially time, was against the Central Powers.

However, much of the Entente’s advantages were in the future as Britain’s main army was still relatively small compared to the German army and the Americans would probably take at least a year to arrive in sufficient strength to effect the overall balance in Europe. It was in these circumstances that Cadorna launched the “Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo” which would turn out to be his last offensive.

Beginning August 18th, 1917 the “Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo” was conducted by more than 500,000 Italian soldiers in 51 divisions supported by 5200 guns. Launched on a broad front from Tolmin in the upper Isonzo valley to the Adriatic Cadorna hoped to conquer the Bainsizza plateau, expand the Gorizia bridgehead, conquer the high ground defending Trieste and finally take the city which had eluded him since 1915. Additionally, like the British offensive in Flanders it was also intended to be a diversionary offensive to take heat of the mutinous French army and the Russians who were on the brink of revolution.

While little progress was made in the south in the north the Italians did quite well. Advancing 10 kilometres they took the Bainsizza plateau, along with five mountain tops, and 20,000 Austrians were captured. In fact Italian forces had arguably advanced too quickly and their offensive became stalled as they had to move their heavy weapons and supplies across the rough terrain of the Bainsizza plateau. In the meantime the Austrians withdrew to a new defensive line including Mount Saint Gabriel and Mount Hermada which guarded access to Trieste. During the next part of the offensive the Italians launched several costly assaults trying to take these strategic points but ultimately failed and Cadorna ended the battle in mid-September.

Once more Italian forces had arguably been on the brink of a major victory but this time they had been frustrated by the terrain at the front which frustrated their logistical efforts. The Austrians again survived the onslaught but they no longer felt as though they could survive on their own. As such they appealed to the Germans for help telling their ally they would not be able to hold out against another major Italian offensive. Meanwhile Cadorna, perhaps bitterly and reluctantly, told his allies there would be no more offensives on the Italian Front for the rest of the year. Casualty figures for this battle are less certain than others along the Isonzo, with estimates for the Italian side running from 150,000 to 165,000 against 85,000 to 100,000 or even 140,000 for the Austrians.

In the lieu of this latest offensive the Germans finally became involved on the Italian Front. Having been asked by the Austrians for help against the Italians, General Ludendorff, the de-facto head of the German army, agreed to send half a dozen German divisions to the front. However, the overly aggressive, and battle-centric General made it clear he would only do so if they were used to spearhead a strong Austro-German offensive attempting to crush the Italian army. With little choice the Austrians agreed thus setting the stage for the “Battle of Caporetto.”

During September members of the German Imperial General Staff toured the Isonzo sector looking for a good place to launch an offensive; especially one aided by gas (which had not been used much on this front). They settled on the quiet Caporetto area where a decent road went west though a mountain valley towards the Venetian plain. Ironically the Italians aided the German efforts by giving weather information over the radio.

The Germans and Austrians, despite being slightly outnumbered in soldiers, and having perhaps the same amount of artillery as the Italians, planned to break through Italian lines and crush Cadorna’s army to give Austria the breathing space it desperately needed. In order to accomplish these goals they hoped to rely on a relatively short, brutal bombardment (with an emphasis on gas) accompanied by elite storm troopers using infiltration tactics which would find weak points in the Italian defences and push through Italian lines to hopefully generate a quick, widespread collapse of enemy forces. The Germans also emphasized seizing, and advancing along, the high-ground and peaks in the battlefield to support their soldiers as well as putting the Italian forces below at a terrible disadvantage. These concepts and ideas had been the result of the horrible battles Germany had endured on the Western and Eastern Fronts, and after being tested successfully against the Russians at Riga in late 1917 the Germans were confident they could use them to a decisive effect against Cadorna’s army.

Meanwhile Cadorna and his army did little to help themselves against the gathering storm. Thanks to enemy deserters and aerial reconnaissance Cadorna realized the Germans and Austrians were preparing for an offensive. However, he obviously underestimated its scale and while he did tell his army commanders to adopt defensive dispositions he failed to stress this as well as touring the front to make sure his army was prepared for an attack. As such the Italian front lines were heavily manned with some Italian commanders actually still hoping to launch attacks of their own while their secondary or rear lines were weakly held. Perhaps worst of all Cadorna kept the bulk of his men on the right bank of the Isonzo, no doubt because it would be detrimental for Italian morale had they abandoned the hard won gains they had bled for since 1915. However, the Austrians still held bridgeheads across the Isonzo to the north and these could potentially be used to cut off the Italian army in the Isonzo valley in the event of an Austro-German offensive.

The Austrians and Germans began the offensive October 24th, 1917 with a devastating bombardment of Italian command posts, strong points and batteries with gas, smoke shells and heavy explosives. The bombardment was not lengthy and was designed more to disrupt Italian communications rather than causing widespread damage. Meanwhile it was hoped the Italians would not be used to gas and that a heavy gas attack would facilitate a sudden breakthrough.

After an initial bombardment the Italian trenches were overwhelmed by poison gas and the defenders fled knowing their unreliable gas masks would only protect them for a short period. A few hours later the Italian wire and trenches were hit by mortars and soon afterwards the rest of the Austro-German artillery opened up, much of it targeting a valley road where Italian reserves were moving along to plug the hole in the front. Finally, an hour later 2 great mines were detonated under Italian strongholds on the heights bordering the valley and then the infantry began to attack. In general the Italians held the offensive on the flanks but in the center the Germans quickly broke through and began the rout of Cadorna’s army. Helped by the mist storm troopers bypassed centres of resistance and cut off Italian positions and formations to be dealt with by follow up troops. The Austro-German advance was stunning and inexorable moving forward perhaps 25kms on the first day at some points.

It did not take long for the Italians to fall apart. Realizing the potential disaster unfolding before him the commander of the Italian 2nd army, Luigi Capello, told Cadorna that Italian forces should fall back to the Tagliamento River many miles to the rear to regroup. Capello, who was currently bedridden with fever, and whose poor defensive deployments did much to contribute to the Italian defeat, was still correct in this recommendation. However, Cadorna, perhaps unaware of the Germans progress or how close his army was to being bypassed and destroyed, and no doubt hesitant to abandon all his hard earned gains along the Isonzo for the past few years, overruled Capello hoping the Italians could hold out and retrieve the situation. It is difficult not to sympathize with Cadorna here: His field commander was asking him to abandon all Italy’s gains so far in the war after a single day of combat against the Germans and certainly experience suggested that most offensives started well but quickly petered out.

Despite these arguably sensible points with the benefit of hindsight Cadorna was wrong. The Italian Front did not hold but instead collapsed after 3 days. With enemy forces getting behind them (often surrounding Italian forces via the high ground around them), few mobile reserves available to help them, and morale quickly plummeting the Italian 2nd army began disintegrating. The 3rd army to its south conducted a more respectful defence but became in danger of being cut off due to the collapse of the 2nd army to its left. Finally, Cadorna, who remained remarkably calm, reluctantly ordered his soldiers to fall back behind the Tagliamento River.

Unfortunately this retreat came too late and the Italians fell back in disarray against the Germans and Austrians pursuing them ruthlessly. Despite blowing up all the bridges on the Tagliamento the enemy quickly got across, allowing the Italians no time to rest and regroup, and as such a further withdrawal was made to the Piave River much farther to the south. The Germans and Austrians, who did not expect such success or the comprehensive defeat of the Italian army, struggled to keep pace with the retreating Italians. Cadorna’s response to the debacle was predictable; sacking senior officers and summarily executing soldiers instead of trying to win hearts and minds or showing inspired leadership.

The Germans and Austrians reached the Piave River in early November. Exhausted after one of the most impressive advances of the war, their supplies lines stretched to the utmost, and feeling the effects of hunger and privation after years of the Entente’s blockade, they tried and failed to force the river and defeat the Italians again. Realizing it was too late in the year to accomplish more results, knowing their men were worn out, and wanting to withdrew his German troops for the upcoming offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 anyway, Ludendorff ended the battle.

Meanwhile France and Britain had sent 11 divisions to the Italian Front to help their ally. Ironically, instead of being deployed earlier in the year to prevent such a defeat they arrived after the Italians managed to hold the line on the Piave. Thus instead of helping the Italians during Caporetto France and Britain had instead denied the Western Front crucial divisions which arguably could have made the “Battle of Cambrai” into a significant victory. However, even if the allied divisions came too late to participate in the battle their subsequent presence and influence would do much to turn the war around for Italy.

Either way the “Battle of Caporetto” was undeniably a crushing defeat for Italy. Regarding casualties, the loss of military equipment, and territory overrun, it was perhaps the second greatest defeat (Gorlice Tarnow being the first) the Entente suffered during the war. Cadorna’s army suffered nearly 700,000 casualties in less than a month including between 30,000-50,000 dead and wounded, at least 300,000 captured, and more than 300,000 that simply deserted and ran away. Italy lost 3000 artillery pieces, half of its divisions (33 of 65) and retreated 80 miles in perhaps 3 weeks! Combined German and Austrian casualties were between 50,000-70,000. While the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli, and the bloodletting on the Eastern Front dominates most “World War 1” literature Caporetto, in terms of casualties per day and in relation to the capabilities of a nation, was much more damaging for Italy than these other battles were for their respective nations. Italy did not have the manpower or territory like Russia to sacrifice, or the money or resources as the French and British Empires to squander.

Cadorna’s army lost the battle despite having more men, the same amount of artillery, and enjoying the natural defensive advantages of mountainous terrain which had repulsed so many of its own offensives. The reasons for this include the poor defensive preparations of the Italians despite three years of war which should have made defence in depth an obvious option over forward defence. Additionally, Cadorna’s harsh, uncompromising style of command, which tended towards punishments, sackings and firing squads versus hearing his officers out, encouraging initiative and innovation, as well as improving conditions for his soldiers, obviously did little to mould the Italian army into an effective, let alone cohesive, fighting force. Moreover, the German soldiers and officers were simply better than their Italian equivalents: In terms of training, motivation, equipment, leadership, and pretty much every other category the Germans had the Italians beat. The Italians found it hard enough to fight the Austrians, who had been consistently bested by the less than stalwart Russian and Serbian armies. It is no surprise they floundered against a first rate army that knew no equal during the war until perhaps late 1917 or 1918 when the British army matured enough to finally beat the Germans at their own game.

Cadorna would have ample time to ponder his, and his armies’, failings as he was finally relieved of command in November 1917. Not only had his generals, officers and men lost confidence in him but even his allies as well. One condition the French and British stated for sending divisions to Italy’s aid in the lieu of Caporetto was that Cadorna had to go. The Italian government, who Cadorna had often ignored and treated with derision, gladly complied.

How should Cadorna be judged by history? In his defence he started his war with insufficient equipment, especially heavy artillery, and had to deal with perhaps the worst terrain an attacker had to deal with in “World War 1.” Cadorna also had few options of where, and how, he could launch his offensive. The Isonzo valley, with its high ground and poor logistics, was bad enough, but it was the logical place to attack on the Italian Front versus the Julian Alps or the Trentino. Meanwhile, given the mountainous terrain which the Austrians held and thus could always view Italian preparations, there was little chance Cadorna could surprise his enemy or accomplish a great military feat without attrition or lengthy offensives. Strategically Cadorna was probably mostly correct in his approach: Attacking the Austrians, hard pressed and worn down on other fronts, as strongly and as much as possible hoping they would collapse sooner or later. Considering the Italians came close in certain offensives to overwhelming the Austrians, and that the latter appealed to the Germans in late 1917 to help them claiming they were close to breaking, suggests Cadorna’s approach was working better than many would like to admit.

However, whatever his difficulties or strategic foresight Cadorna generally failed not only at the operational and tactical level of warfare, but regarding leadership and the welfare of those under him as well. While he did learn how to conduct battles more effectively as he went on his learning curve compared to most successful generals in the war was exceedingly long. On one hand it is fair to note that Italy’s finance, industry and technology was hard pressed to produced the weapons and techniques necessary to succeed in such a conflict compared to Britain, France and Germany. However, Italy’s army never really developed the competency, professionalism, tactics, and confidence until after Cadorna was sacked, not least because he never encouraged the kind of open, innovative, team-like atmosphere where officers and men felt comfortable solving the problems of trench warfare and collaborated with leaders who welcomed their ideas that was adopted in countries like Germany and Britain. As such Cadorna observed lessons but only slowly on his own, not because of feedback from his men who generally feared and hated him.

Therefore Cadorna was never poised to be at the forefront of military technology, doctrine or innovation and his army never developed sufficiently under him to manage impressive feats like the British at Neuve Chapelle, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Cambrai, the French at Malmaison and Soissons, or the Germans at Riga or Caporetto. The capture of a ruinous Gorizia along the Isonzo after 6 battles was the best he did.

Regarding Cadorna’s leadership his mantra should have been Machiavelli’s quip that “it is better to be feared than loved.” Certainly Cadorna was universally feared but rarely loved in his army. However, his harsh discipline and punishment, which was unique in “World War 1,” did not improve his army. Infamous for his bad relationships with the Italian government and his Generals, having sacked 217 generals, 255 colonels, and 355 battalion commanders, and executing significantly more Italian soldiers than the more numerous German and British armies combined, Cadorna was more than feared… he was hated. Machiavelli may have suggested it is better to be feared than loved but he also wrote it was better to be feared and loved. Yet perhaps most damning for Cadorna Machiavelli stressed that it was good to be feared and not hated. Having fought for him for 3 years in terrible conditions, coupled with ruthless discipline and seeing few signs their leaders cared about their welfare, is it really surprising the Italians fell apart during Caporetto? While his draconian behaviour was certainly nothing compared to the heartless Soviet, or exceedingly obedient German, generals of “World War 2” Cadorna deserves to be censured as perhaps the most martinet, callous and harsh disciplinary general of the “First World War.”

Versus the best generals the conflict arguably produced: Foch, Ludendorff and Haig, Cadorna pales in comparison. Foch may have often been too offensive minded and caused excessive casualties early on in the war for his pre-war theories, but he learned really quickly and his confidence, unparalleled strategic mind, and temperament, made him the best candidate to be the Supreme Allied Commander in 1918 when it seemed the Germans were on the verge of winning the war. General Ludendorff was arguably a bad strategist but his brilliant tactical mind not only held the Entente’s offensives in check in 1917 but nearly produced a German victory in 1918. Sir Douglas Haig, the much maligned British commander who is criticized for mistakes from Loos, to the Somme and Passchendaele, nurtured the British army from a force of 6 divisions to an army of millions which by the end of the war was not only more innovative, and better equipped, than any other but which decisively defeated the German army on the Western Front in 1918 to effectively end the war. Against this Cadorna has nothing. When it comes to renown his only claim is that he executed more of his own soldiers than any other commander in “World War 1.”

In his place General Armando Diaz took command of the Italian army during the dying days of Caporetto. Diaz had risen up through the ranks and proven himself a competent commander. Showing that he had learnt from Cadorna’s poor example Diaz set about improving his soldier’s conditions much as Petain did for the French army after the ill-fated “Nivelle Offensive.” Many would later criticize Diaz as overly cautious; only willing to commit his army after the most thorough preparations, yet considering the black shadow of Cadorna’s influence, and given the brutal defeat at Caporetto, Diaz was probably correct to take as much time as possible to correct the many failings of his army.

1917 was a harsh year for Italy. She had supposedly been more ready for war than before and although she had came close to overwhelming Austria during Cadorna’s last attack at the end of the year the Italian army had been brutally defeated, pushed backed, and humiliated by the Germans. All the hard won gains from 1915-17 had been quashed by Caporetto and Cadorna had been sacked. However close Austria was to collapse or starvation the average Italian soldier could have been forgiven for pessimism after the retreat to the Piave.

Seen at a higher level the strategic picture for the Entente was mixed. Germany had brought the French to near mutiny, the Russians were on the path to revolution, Italy had nearly been knocked out of the war, and Britain’s promising offensives on the Western Front had been contained. On the plus side America was now in the war and would potentially provide inexhaustible amounts of troops and resources, but this was negated by the potential of Germany, now freed from fighting on the Eastern Front, being able to concentrate her full potential against the Western Front. Thus in 1918 there would be a race between Ludendorff’s attempt to win the war in the west before American intervention became overwhelming.


For the first half of 1918 Italy and Austria, both exhausted and de-moralized, sat out the conflict while the French and British fought against the Germans to determine the outcome of the war on the Western Front. Eventually the Germans, being worn down by the French and British, demanded the Austrians conduct a do or die offensive against the Italians. This offensive, the “Battle of the Piave River” began in mid-June 1918.

On paper at least the Austrians had many advantages. With Romania and Russia knocked out of the war the Austrians for once outnumbered the Italians on this front with nearly 60 divisions against a few less Italian and allied ones. Austria also had 5000 artillery guns for this battle versus perhaps 4500 for the Italians. Meanwhile the Austrians had been trained by the Germans in the latter’s latest offensive tactics and it was hoped Italian morale would still be questionable after the rout during Caporetto. However, on the other side Diaz had done much to improve his army, not only physically and morally, but regarding its doctrine and tactics. Thanks to improving his soldiers’ conditions and giving them better rations and pay their morale gradually improved. Italy’s munition industry, along with help from the Entente, finally began equipping the Italian army with good weapons in plentiful quantities. Meanwhile the French and British divisions deployed to Italy influenced the Italian army and the latter’s fighting proficiently was greatly improved.

Austria’s offensive was controversial from the start. Rather than impose a simple, realistic plan on his subordinates, Austria’s main General, Arthur Arz von Straussenburg, allowed his principle subordinate commanders to turn it into a complicated plan which was arguably doomed to fail. Straussenburg’s main commanders on the Italian Front, the venerable defensive General Svetozar Boroevic, and Conrad von Hotzendorf, the supposed military genius who turned out to be a poor Chief of Staff in practice (and whom Straussenburg had indeed replaced in 1917) were bitter rivals with strong personalities and rather than reign them in Straussenburg appeased them by assigning each of them an equal portion of the army. Theoretically they were supposed to collaborate by each launching strong attacks, Conrad from the Trentino, Boroevic in the east along the Piave, on the wings of the Italian armies to hopefully inflict another Caporetto on the Italians. However, this plan would be frustrated due to the enmity between both commanders and the fact that the Austrian attacks were ultimately spread out along the entire front instead of concentrating a strong, decisive blow as had been done at Caporetto.

General Diaz and his army were more in unison and better prepared than the Austrians for the upcoming battle. Firstly, Diaz strongly fortified the defensive line along the Piave. Diaz and his staff had also learned from the failures of the Italian army during Conrad’s Trentino Offensive and Caporetto where the Italians had overmanned the front lines, failed to prepare for defence in depth, and where there were few mobile reserves to respond to a potential crisis. Therefore, instead of relying on an inflexible defensive system Diaz used elastic defensive techniques allowing his men to fall back onto strong defences in the rear to wear down the enemy and give time for reinforcements to arrive. Meanwhile 13 divisions supported by 6000 trucks was held back as a mobile reserve to reinforce any faltering points and/or deliver strong counter-attacks.

The “Battle of the Piave River” started with an Austrian diversionary attack close to the Tonale Pass on June 13 named “Lawine” which was defeated by the Italians without much effort after two days. After this inauspicious beginning the Austrian main attack, launched from the Trentino and along the east part of the Piave River, was scheduled to begin June 15th. However, Austrian deserters had already betrayed the plan of the offensive to the Italians and this allowed Diaz to concentrate his forces against the main Austrian thrusts. Moreover, knowing the timing of the Austrian offensive Diaz ordered a strong artillery barrage against the Austrian front lines across no man’s land. This inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrians who were overcrowded in the trenches and in some cases this bombardment delayed, or even stopped, Austria’s offensive at certain points along the front.

The assault in the Trentino on the Asiago plateau broke into the Italian defences, and initially made some advances, but was checked by the end of the first day. Conrad, who turned out to be no better as a field commander than a chief of staff, compounded this failure by continuing to attack in this region instead of sending reinforcements to the Piave where Boroevic was doing better against the Italians. As such Conrad reinforced failure instead of helping his hated colleague attempt to accomplish some notable results for the Austrians. However, it is debatable how useful such reinforcements would have been to Boroevic since Italy had the advantage of interior lines, and mobile reserves, in this battle and could probably have moved enough troops to meet such a threat. Indeed once Conrad’s part of the offensive was contained Diaz quickly shifted forces against the more successful attack being conducted along the Piave by Boroevic.

While Conrad’s offensive stalled quickly it at least occupied a lot of the Italy army’s attention and Boroevic’s forces managed to get 100,000 soldiers across the Piave and eventually occupy a bridgehead 15 miles wide by 5 miles deep. However, the Italians managed to stop the Austrian advance with their improved defensive tactics and deployments, along with help from reinforcements after the Austrian thrust from the Trentino had been thwarted. Perhaps worse Italian artillery, and even air power, took a terrible toll on Austria’s bridges on the Piave and the Austrian forces across the river were severely denuded of reinforcements and supplies. Realizing it had passed the culminating point of its offensive, being battered by Italian artillery and counter-attacks, and knowing it was all but cut off from support, the Austrian army was ordered to retire back across the river. However, given the destruction of many of the Austrian bridges, and the swollen state of the Piave, thousands of Austrian soldiers drowned. By June 23rd when the battle ended the Italians had reconquered all territory the Austrians had taken south of the river.

The casualties were roughly 85,000 for the Italians versus between 120,000-150,000 Austrian ones. This was one of the few battles where Italy inflicted more casualties on Austria then she received. Besides a better butcher’s bill Italy’s soldiers and generals had displayed much more competence than in earlier battles, having adopted better tactics and ideas (with some help from their British and French allies). It is difficult to find fault with Diaz, or his army, regarding the “Battle of the Piave River” which can only suggest that whatever the flaws of Italian arms from 1915-17 that the Italian army had turned itself around to become an effective instrument of war in a relatively short period of time (much like the British had done after the Somme in 1916). After so many disappointments and disasters Italy’s soldiers could feel some pride and confidence.

On the other side this battle was devastating for Austria. Not only had the Austrians failed to beat the Italians despite concentrating the biggest army on this front during the entire war but they had been thoroughly defeated by an army that not only proved to be far from broken but was now extremely well led and competent. Whereas Austria had little left to give after years of blockade, bloodletting, and countless setbacks Italy seemed to be getting stronger. Thus the “Battle of the Piave River” destroyed what remained of the heart of the Austrian army. Austria’s last hope was that Germany somehow won the war on the Western Front. Yet Ironically Austria’s defeat in the battle actually severely demoralized the Germans with even General Ludendorff saying he “had the sensation of defeat for the first time.”

In fact Ludendorff’s offensives on the Western Front during the spring and summer of 1918 failed to beat the French and British armies before significant American forces arrived in France. Germany’s final gamble to win the war had failed. Thereafter the best the Germans could do was hold out for the rest of the year on the Western Front hoping the war wearied French and British would agree to a negotiated peace. However, this was not to be as the Entente forces in France, spearheaded by the British army, decisively defeated the German army during the “Hundred Days Offensive” which would lead to the unconditional surrender of Germany and the end of the war. During this offensive the back of the German army was broken and it lost over 300,000 prisoners and 4000 artillery pieces.

While this was happening Germany’s allies, realizing the war was lost, bowed out of the contest one by one. With the German army being concentrated and crushed on the Western Front there were insufficient German forces to help the Bulgarians, Turks and Austrians when the Entente put extreme pressure on them during the autumn of 1918. German divisions had always been the fire brigades of the Central Powers and once they could no longer help their allies the latter collapsed.

Bulgaria was the first to go after the Entente launched a strong offensive from the Salonica bridgehead in September 1918. In general the Salonica campaign had been a futile and wasteful campaign during the war but now it paid off to some degree as this offensive put enough pressure on Bulgaria to surrender by the end of the month. The collapse of Bulgaria put neighbouring Turkey in an untenable position. With Turkish troops falling back in Mesopotamia and being routed in the Levant there were too few to guard Constantinople which was now vulnerable to an advance by the Entente forces on the Salonica Front. As such Turkey surrendered at the end of October.

Austria would be next. In late October 1918 General Diaz was finally prepared to attack the Austrian army across the Piave. While he had been pressured by his allies to attack in the aftermath of the failed Austrian offensive in June, especially considering Austrian deserters reported widespread privation and demoralization among their forces, the Italian army had become too spread out during the battle and Diaz still wanted more time to train and equip his soldiers to make sure they were ready. It was one thing to defeat a poorly planned Austrian attack using sophisticated defensive tactics, quite another to improvise an offensive at short notice with an army that had enjoyed seldom success on the attack.

The last offensive on the Italian Front during the war, the “Battle of Vittorio Veneto,” was more of a mop up operation than a pitched battle. Italy and her allies had 57 divisions, 7700 artillery pieces, and air superiority versus 61 Austrian divisions and 6200 guns. However, such numbers were immaterial little since the Austrians had little morale left, were deserting in droves, starving and infected by revolutionary sentiment, all while the various ethnic groups in their empire were poised to declare independence. Conducted along the length of the Trentino and Piave fronts Diaz’s objective was to advance on Vittorio Veneto to drive a wedge between Austria’s armies in the west and east and cut their communications; hopefully producing a general rout.

Launched on October 24, 1918, exactly a year after Caporetto, the Italians made quick progress. After some initial progress the Austrian army dissolved. On October 27th the Austrian commander, the reliable General Boroevic, ordered counter-attacks against the Italian bridgeheads on the west bank of the Piave. His forces refused to obey and thus began the disintegration of an empire that had lasted many centuries. Czechoslovakia declared independence from Austria-Hungary on the 28th of October while the South Slavs did so on the 29th. The Hungarians withdrew from the Empire on the 31st and considering the Italians were “more likely to encounter white flags than machine guns” at this point according to one notable scholar it was obvious the war was over. Taking advantage of the collapse of the Austrian army the Italians conquered as much territory before the German capitulation in November ended the conflict. Among other prized objectives, Trieste, the city Cadorna could never take, was seized via a naval operation in early November. Italy had supposedly been completely liberated and redeemed.

Casualties for this final battle included between 35,000 to 40,000 Italians versus a staggering 400,000 to 500,000 Austrians, mostly prisoners, illustrating perhaps a Caporetto in reverse. Austria surrendered November 3rd, 1918 leaving Italy the victor on this harsh, forbidding and usually forgotten front.


What did Italy gain by participating in the “First World War?” Certainly she conquered enough territory to satisfy “Italy redeemed” and beat her long time rival Austria whose empire was completely dismembered after the war but otherwise her rewards could be summed up as “less than satisfactory.” Despite the lavish promises Britain and France had given Italy in 1915 for joining the Entente the former powers let Italy down during the subsequent peace process. Italy received no territory from former German colonies, little regarding the coast of Dalmatia, and was robbed of her supposed gains from Turkey when the French and British favoured Greece instead. Certainly Britain and France had done considerably more to win the war than Italy, and perhaps harshly still had enough prestige, money, and military power despite the horrors of war to dictate such an unfavourable outcome to Italy, her ally. However, even if Italy had often failed to live up to expectations she still deserved a better share in the Entente’s victory.

Yet according to realpolitik “might is right” so Britain and France took most of the spoils from the war and left Italy relatively angry, bankrupt, and unstable during the war’s aftermath. A few years later a relatively unknown malcontent named Benito Mussolini came to power in Rome and eventually turned Italy’s democracy into a Fascist state which would ally itself with Nazi Germany in “World War 2” and lead Italy to defeat and despair. Maybe this result was inevitable given Italy’s turbulent history but perhaps a more generous attitude by Britain and France after 1918 could have alleviated this to some extent.

As for the human cost of the war Italy did not escape lightly. Regarding absolute numbers Italy lost less soldiers compared to Germany, Austria, France and Britain, but she also had a significantly smaller population base versus these nations or empires. Compared to her main antagonist Italy at first glance did well suffering perhaps 2,200,000 casualties (dead, wounded, prisoners or missing) versus a staggering 7,000,000 for Austria. However, when one remembers Austria had to fight Serbia, Romania, Italy and Russia this looks less impressive, especially since Italy only had to fight on one front. Then again Austria suffered perhaps close to one third of her total casualties on the Italian which suggests both sides came off even regarding casualties versus each other. Yet Italy’s war deaths were obviously higher on the Italian Front versus the Austrians and it is certain the latter had countless more captured on the Eastern Front then against Italy. Ultimately though it does not matter if Austria accomplished a better casualty ratio overall against Italy. Italy, supported by the Entente, could afford lopsided casualties and it is obvious that the Italian Front hurt Austria more than Italy despite the latter’s heavier losses. Kill ratios are not everything: Killing 20,000,000-27,000,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians did not save Nazi Germany from defeat.

Whatever Cadorna’s failings, the countless Italian defeats along the Isonzo, or the pathetic rout with Caporetto, Italy made an important contribution for the Entente during the “First World War.” Italy’s control of the Strait of Otranto completed the blockade of Austria which helped starve and wear down the latter decisively by 1918. Moreover, the addition of Italy’s resources, industry, and especially her manpower, to the Entente placed ever more pressure against the already strained Central Powers. In the summer of 1915 one third of Austria’s army faced Italy, a year later it was close to 40% and by Caporetto it was perhaps 60%. In 1918 with the collapse of Russia the proportion was even higher as Austria gambled on beating the Italian army and lost. By distraction so much Austrian manpower Italy helped her allies on other fronts. In 1916 it helped facilitate the “Brusilov Offensive” that gutted the Austrian army, and by putting considerable pressure on the Austrians the Italian army forced the Germans to either intervene directly (as at Caporetto) or at least deploy German divisions to the Eastern Front to allow the Austrians to move divisions from there to the Italian Front. Meanwhile too many Austrian divisions remained stuck on the Italian Front when they could have proven more useful against Russia, Serbia, or Romania (all of whom Austria needed significant German help to contain and defeat). During the war every front had an impact on the others but only a few (the Western, Eastern, Italian, and naval ones) were decisive in regards to wearing down enemy manpower and resolve, distracting and straining their divisions, and eventually leading to the collapse of their armies and war efforts. Italy’s victory against Austria was slow, clumsy and disproportionately bloody, but in many ways so was France’s and Britain’s against Germany. Italy did more good than bad for the Entente during the war and deserves more credit for her part in the allied victory than she has generally received.


Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Keegan, John. The First World War. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000.

Philpott, William. War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War. New York: Overlook Press, 2014.

Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson.  The First World War.  London:  Cassell, 1999.

Strohn, Matthias. World War 1 Companion. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2013.

Terraine, John. The Great War. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1999.

Article from “1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War”: Warfare 1914-18 (Italy) by Filippo Cappellano. [2015]

Articles from “”: The Battles of the Isonzo, 1915-17 by Michael Duffy. [2009]

Articles from “”: Battles of the Isonzo by John Rickard. [2007]

Articles from “Itinerari della Grande Guerra”: The Battles of the Isonzo. [2006]

Articles from “”: The Isonzo 1915-1917 by Michael Hanlon. [2000]

Wikipedia articles on the “Battles of the Isonzo”: [July, 2016]

Wikipedia article on the “Italian Front (World War I)”: [November, 2016]

Why ISIS will Lose the Battle for Mosul and probably Quicker than many think

Posted By on October 29, 2016

img_0642For the past 3 years ISIS has instilled fear in Syria, Iraq, the Middle East and even in Europe and North America. Having risen out of the ashes of the all but defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq thanks to the foolish, and callous, policies of the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad, which marginalized the Sunnis of Iraq after American forces withdrew from the country in 2011, ISIS exploded and expanded across Iraq in 2014. After taking Iraqi cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Radama, Fallujah, and then threatening even Baghdad itself, ISIS quickly proved herself not only as a potent terrorist group, but a relatively strong political movement as well. ISIS also expanded into Syria (ironic given how Assad’s secular, Baathist regime did so much to support Al-Qaeda in Iraq) conquering, and consolidating, considerable Sunni territory and cities which had been left vulnerable after years of civil war between the Syrian regime, and a managerie of different rebel and terrorist forces.

If that were not enough, ISIS also managed to accomplish several notable terrorist attacks in major western cities. While the actual death toll, and damage, of these attacks were relatively small it nevertheless refocused western, and American, attention back to the Middle East after the relative conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the decline of Al-Qaeda had seemingly reduced the chances of any real threat from terrorism reaching them.

ISIS was indeed, and in some cases still is, an impressive threat and potent force of terrorism. That it could capture Mosul in Iraq despite being hugely outnumbered, and outgunned, by the Iraqi army, or that it could capture vast swathes of territory in Syria against a ruthless Assad regime that is not above using chemical weapons, or that it not only expanded, made considerable money, and attracted countless recruits for 2 years despite being opposed by most of the world, suggests that ISIS is a formidable terrorist entity to be respected.

However, despite all of this it is easy to see that the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” has not only passed its watermark of expansion, but that it is quickly declining and after its all but certain loss of Mosul, and inevitable loss of Raqqa, it will probably be extinguished sooner than later.

For looking at centuries of resistance, and terrorist groups, ISIS is doomed. It doesn’t matter what ISIS’s religious, or ideological, foundations or practices say, or promotes, because the rules of history always wash such nonsense away. Facts on the ground are more important in deciding wars, and conflict, than misguided rhetoric and ideas blindly followed after reading religious texts.

Simply put the facts on the ground in Iraq suggests Mosul will fall, and arguably a lot quicker than many analysts and people believe.

In order for rebel, or terrorist, groups to survive, let alone succeed, they need either foreign or domestic backing. Such backing includes not only weapons, supplies and recruits, but also political and diplomatic support. Besides this they usually need to win the battle of the narrative, as in media and public opinion. None of this even includes the military situation.

Breaking it down such groups usually need to have the locals backing; to gain recruits, intelligence, or legitimacy for their cause to even begin an effective resistance. Foreign backing is a bonus, and often a decisive one. Sympathetic nations, or self-interested bordering countries, can vastly increase resistance groups chances, and capabilities, by offering money, weapons, political and diplomatic support, or even safe zones across the border to help resistance groups survive and hopefully thrive. Finally, media influence can win over people at the national, or international, level to their cause and pressure unfriendly nations and forces to restrain themselves or even give up the struggle.

There are countless examples of domestic, and/or foreign, backing of resistance groups, and even the influence of media to explain the fate of small wars, insurgencies, and terrorist entities. Obviously the lack of internal support will destroy such groups relatively quickly, as Che Guevara discovered in Bolivia, and similar communist movements discovered in Malaya, Thailand, and other nations. Meanwhile foreign backing has often shown to be decisive in helping resistance groups succeed, as well as fail. Regarding the former there is no doubt that China’s help to Vietnam helped defeat the French, that American aid to the Mujahideen wore down the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Tunisia and Morocco support arguably defeated the French in Algeria instead of the FLN. Regarding the latter Tito’s decision to quit helping the Greek Communists, Iran’s leaving Iraqi Kurds to their fate, and even Britain’s policy to stop supporting native resistance in North America after the “War of 1812” illustrates the importance of having foreign backers for a resistance group.

Then there is the media, which after the battles waged on land, sea, the air, and even space and cyber warfare, can be seen as the 6th dimension of warfare. While the media obviously predates many of the other forms of war, in the 21st century it is arguably among the most decisive. Ever since the “Vietnam War” western countries in general, and America in particular, have understood the necessity to win the media battle. While it would be assumed that a relatively free, and open, media would somehow balance the good and bad of both sides in war somehow, perhaps perversely, liberal democracies have benefitted less from this medium then vapid dictators, bloodthirsty rebels, and fanatical terrorists.

In other words, western countries, and America, have had to fight mostly defensive battles against the media during the past few decades of war whereas dictatorships, and cruel resistance fighters, are usually allowed to get away with murder… literally.

Simply throwing out a few statistics can prove this. Everyone knows America nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing over 100,000 civilians. How many know that Japan killed over 10,000,000 Asians, created 100,000,000 war refugees, or committed mass rape in China in “World War 2?” Likewise, America’s My Lai massacre, her bombing campaign in Vietnam, or her support of dictatorship which fought communism from Korea to Chile are well known. Yet how many remember that Stalin killed 14 million people, Mao countless more, or that Communism killed perhaps 80-100 million people. Then there is the Israel versus the Arabs. Israel, which undoubtedly is no paragon state, killed probably less than 100,000 Arabs and Palestinians during her long wars and conflicts. Meanwhile the Arab world has killed several million of its own, and probably more Palestinians than Israel by the way, from the 8 Year Iran-Iraq War, to the countless coups, civil wars, insurgencies and other horrific conflicts.

While America, Israel and Western countries often have selfish, hypocritical, goals it is simply astounding that so many people often blindly see despotic nations and cruel resistance groups as non-entities at best, or victims at worse.

Looking at internal and foreign support, as well as media influence, it is obvious that ISIS enjoys none of these in any notable degree. That in itself is a huge mark against it. Whatever internal support ISIS had among the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria has all but faded. Initially they had much support from the Sunnis in Iraq thanks to the Shiite masters in Baghdad marginalizing, and oppressing, the Sunnis after America withdrew her last forces in 2011. Meanwhile the Sunnis in Syria also initially supported ISIS thanks to Assad’s favouring his Alawis sect, as well as Christians and other groups, over the more numerous yet increasingly disenfranchised Sunnis. Much like Al-Qaeda ISIS championed itself as a protector of the Sunnis and promised stability, and social assistance, to people who were understandably war wearied and scared.

However, the honeymoon period soon ended and instead of moderating their ideology to keep the relatively secular Sunnis of Iraq and Syria happy, and committed to its cause, ISIS instead meted out a brutal regime of persecution, harsh punishments, rape, torture, death and fear. Perhaps people need to remember what terrorist movements are formed to do; as Lenin famously said “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.” ISIS is simply not a resistance group trying to save the Sunnis: It is in fact a harsh fundamentalist group with no respect for human rights, gender equality, gays or different religious nominations, or frankly the dignify and advancement of mankind.

ISIS kills people for not being Muslims (and it has to be their exact type of Islam), for being gay, or for breaking trivial laws or rules. It kidnaps countless women and uses them as sex slaves. Smoking, drugs, alcohol, and other luxuries, are banned and people are punished if they don’t pray 5 times a day, if their beards are not long enough, or if they can’t recite Qu’ran verses properly. This is hardly a brave new world for the Middle East.

Not surprisingly this has alienated all but a tiny minority of the Sunni population which had initially welcomed ISIS. Now ISIS rules via fear, coercion and terror, which of course suits it since it is an unabashed terrorist movement. For terrorism is an effective means of controlling a vast population. By using cruel, calculating, and often random acts of terror against their subjects ISIS, like countless groups before it, has easily cowed her people into obedience. This is how a group of 5000-7000 fighters can control a city of more than a million like Mosul.

Yet the downside of this sort of regime can be seen by how Iraqi forces were able to liberate Ramadi, Tikrit, Fallujah and other cities from ISIS. The people of these cities had no love for ISIS after being terrorized by them and thus left the group to its fate instead of helping it hold onto power. Given the reports of ISIS executing people, or using them as human shields, in Mosul, or that many civilians are already fleeing from the city (the UN and other relief groups are expecting 100s of 1000s will flee) it is obvious ISIS will not be able to rely on internal support during this battle.

ISIS has even less foreign support. No notable country in the region, or the wider world, supports them with money, arms, supplies or diplomatic support. Most terrorist, or resistance, groups find ISIS’s cruelty too heinous even for them (Al-Qaeda itself disowned them). ISIS is a willing enemy of all countries, not a particularly smart strategy when you are trying to create a multinational caliphate. It has united a menagerie of nations which share no real geopolitical goals, or interests, except for the elimination of ISIS. Russia and America, rivals across the globe are both fighting ISIS. The autocratic kingdoms of the Gulf and Jordan, as well as secular Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are fighting ISIS. The Fundamentalist regime in Iran, and her proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon are fighting ISIS. NATO is also in the fight after several notable ISIS attacks in Europe. The only foreign support ISIS has is the foreign fighters they have recruited from Chechnya, Europe and other places who have come to fight for a multitude of reasons.

Despite this isolation ISIS initially thrived; gaining territory, creating the semblance of an economy, and giving social assistance to the people under its control. However, fighting the whole world never really works out (look at the Germans and Japanese in “World War 2”) and ISIS’s enemies have slowly worn down its manpower, money and territory after a few years of attrition.

As for media influence ISIS again fails. Certainly they have used media successfully to the extent that they have spread terror, and panic, across much of the Middle East, Europe and America. They have also used it effectively to recruit a lot of fighters to the cause. However, they have failed abysmally to garner any international, or even local, sympathy for their cause. ISIS might be the one resistance group throughout history that hasn’t won over a significant amount of public opinion in liberal democracies. Whereas communist groups, who collectively murdered 100 million people, always had supporters, especially during the “Vietnam War,” and terrorist groups in the Middle East have usually garnered more sympathy on campuses, and in the media, than democratic Israel or America, ISIS has no such following. There are no western “useful idiots,” or naive intellectuals, who promote ISIS’s ideology, or western reporters, or celebrities, who defend its regime whilst ISIS itself routinely murders these sorts of people in Iraq and Syria.

Perhaps this is because ISIS, unlike other resistance groups, not only fails to hide its cruelties, but actually parades them proudly. It doesn’t realize like groups before it that the battle of the narrative matters in winning small wars because ISIS simply believes in its crooked faith, and ideals, that it will win because it is supposedly on the right side of history. ISIS doesn’t hire, or nurture the type of soft spoken, clean-shaved, well dressed and articulate spokesmen that other groups have used to show a supposedly more civilized, and progressive side of their organization.

Thus in the fight for Mosul ISIS enjoys no notable internal, foreign, or media support. As for the military situation ISIS is likewise doomed. The number of ISIS fighters in Mosul is estimated at 5000-7000. Meanwhile it is opposed by 100,000 which includes nearly 50,000 Iraqi army troops, and a menagerie of Kurdish soldiers, Shiite militias, other groups and some American advisors. However, the brunt of the assault will be borne by the Iraqi army which is the only force being allowed to enter the city; most likely to prevent potential sectarian conflict.

The Iraqi force is backed by significant airpower and heavy equipment while ISIS has none of the former and little of the latter. However, numbers and firepower aren’t everything, especially when one remembers how ISIS itself conquered Mosul against a stronger Iraqi force 2 years ago. However, much has changed since then; mostly against ISIS’s favour.

Iraq’s army is better prepared than it was two years ago. With American advisors (who presumably left Iraq in 2011) helping Iraq again, the Iraqi army first slowed ISIS, and then rebuilt and re-equipped themselves, and finally went back onto the offensive; going onto liberating most of ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq. This has been a slow painful process, but it is clear on the ground that ISIS is losing. Looking at the 3 battles where the Iraqi army liberated Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah we can see that Iraqi forces have the capacity to engage and defeat ISIS in urban warfare. These battles were lengthy, often lasting 1-2 months, but in all of them ISIS forces were first surrounded, then systematically squeezed, and finally overrun, destroyed or expunged.

While Mosul is indeed a bigger prospect than these other cities the Iraqi forces outnumber ISIS here more than in the other cases, and the strategic situation facing ISIS is actually worse in this situation. Not only is ISIS severely outnumbered, and outgunned, but they will soon be completely encircled by the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces, and other allies. Meanwhile the Iraqi army is becoming more competent, and efficient, while ISIS is struggling to gain, let alone keep, recruits and its morale must be faltering. Increasing instances of desertions, supposed maladies, and evidence that some ISIS forces are readying to flee Mosul reinforce these signs of ISIS degeneration. Besides losing territory and troops, ISIS is also losing money and resources, thanks to the ever decreasing ground they hold, and the significant efforts of Iraqi forces and coalition airpower.

ISIS has no allies coming to its aid, no reinforcements strong enough to relieve Mosul, and no weapons strong enough to defeat a strong determined Iraqi assault against the city. ISIS has no chance of winning the battle of Mosul on its own. The best it could hope for is to somehow inflict enough casualties on the Iraqi army to give them reprieve, or hope the potential humanitarian crisis which will probably engulf Mosul soon to dissuade western support for the offensive. They could even pray American, and Iraqi forces, cause enough collateral damage to weaken the coalition.

These factors have had effects on earlier American, or Israeli, operations in the region. However, none of them are likely to occur in this case. High Iraqi casualties in earlier battles in Tikrit, Radami, and Fallujah did not stop these offensives, and it’s hard to see ISIS doing a better job in Mosul given that the Iraqi army enjoys even more superiority in this battle, that it is better prepared, and that ISIS fighters probably have less motivation and morale than before. A humanitarian, or refugee, disaster probably wouldn’t stop the offensive either. America, and Europe, frankly never cared enough about the millions of refugees in Iraq, and Syria, which resulted from these conflicts, to do anything meaningful. They didn’t even punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people; despite suggesting they would if he did so.

As for collateral damage from American, Iraqi, or coalition forces western, and American, public opinion probably won’t be overly effected. No considerable indignation resulted from the costly Iraqi liberation of Ramadi, Tikrit, or Fallujah, where much of the cities were destroyed, nor has any come from the considerable coalition bombing campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There are many reasons for this; not least of all the significant terrorist coups ISIS accomplished in Belgium, France and other western countries. Then there is the odd phenomenon where western opinion is much more likely to criticize Israelis killing Arabs, or American soldiers killing Arabs on the ground, than criticizing Arabs or Muslims killing each other.

This may seem controversial but each time Israel kills a few thousand Palestinians, or Lebanese, such as in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2014, there has always been world wide protests, condemnations, severe outrage and passionate anger. Likewise, most American invasions, or interventions, in the region, causes the same things, though obviously the death tolls are higher, perhaps 10s of 1000s instead. Meanwhile Arabs killing Arabs, or frankly non-Israelis or westerners killing Muslims like Russia in Chechnya (and recently in Syria) never arouses even a small portion of the outrage, anger, or protests versus the former kind despite frankly killing vast more scores of Arabs and Muslims.

Look at the numbers: Israel has killed less than 100,000 Arabs and Palestinians, combined in the past 70 years whereas Assad’s civil war has cost almost 400,000 Syrian lives in 5 years. America’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has been very costly, and while the higher estimates of closer to a million are ludicrous a case can be made that at least 200,000 Iraqis, and Afghans, have died in these wars since 2002. Yet Arabs, and Muslims, have killed perhaps millions of each other since 1945 from civil wars in Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen (the list goes on), conventional wars from the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Egyptian-Libyan war, the Jordan-Syrian war (the list goes on again), and brutal insurgencies, and terrorism from multiple Muslim Brotherhood insurgencies across the region, Al-Qaeda ones against multiple nations, Palestinian terrorism against Arab countries, Taliban excesses and ISIS’s atrocities (the list still goes on). Because frankly despite all the supposed altruistic nonsense emanating from people who chastise America and Israel, who claim they are fair and objective, they almost always know nothing about Arabs and Muslims killing other Arabs and Muslims, and certainly don’t know most of the wars and conflicts just stated, and often just don’t care as much if people in the Middle East are dying horrible deaths as long as it isn’t Americans or Israelis doing it.

As such coalition airstrikes against a universally despised entity such as ISIS, and potential war crimes, or excesses, by the Iraqi army or its allies, probably wouldn’t motivate world opinion, especially western, to stop the fight. The Iraqi army could probably summarily execute every single ISIS personnel captured during the battle and the West wouldn’t blink.

Therefore ISIS won’t win this battle of Mosul (like many major cities in the Middle East there have been multiple battles for it), and will lose it sooner than later. Maybe it will be a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, but it is unlikely it will fester on like Stalingrad or Sarajevo. ISIS no longer enjoys internal support amongst Sunnis in Iraq, or Syria, certainly has no significant foreign backing among nations, or powerful groups, and the world media is generally against her. Militarily ISIS in Mosul is severely outnumbered and outgunned, close to being completely surrounded and cut off, and is perhaps finally outclassed by Iraqi forces. Meanwhile any chance to stop, or delay, her defeat in Mosul will not succeed due to her pariah status, and the fact that global opinion won’t care enough to stop the battle despite significant casualties, humanitarian disasters, or potential Iraqi or allied war crimes.

ISIS’s stranglehold of Mosul is over… It just doesn’t know it yet.

However, what will an Iraqi government victory in Mosul accomplish? On the plus side it will deprive ISIS of her last major stronghold in Iraq, and probably relegate ISIS back to a traditional resistance group which focuses on terrorism, and guerrilla tactics, instead of hoping to hold onto territory, and populated areas, in a vain attempt to maintain an illusory caliphate. It could even potentially lead to a collapse, sooner or later, of ISIS in Iraq if their leadership concludes they should cut their losses in Mesopotamia and focus the struggle in Syria. Either way ISIS, as a potential government, or state as a whole, is doomed as America and her allies in Syria are already advancing plans to take Raqqa in Syria (ISIS’s de-facto) capital, and since defeating ISIS is perhaps the only thing Assad, Russia, America, and Syria’s other rebel groups can agree on, there is no doubt that even ISIS’s strongholds in Syria will collapse in time.

As for her status as a terrorist/resistance group, ISIS’s future is uncertain. Despite its wickedness and uncompromising views, ISIS deserves respect for what it accomplished against considerable odds. Conquering vast swaths of territory in two counties, managing significant terrorist attacks against Europe and elsewhere, and rejuvenating terrorism as a whole ISIS definitely proved itself a cut above even proven terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. However, her great victories also probably guaranteed her likely defeat. Whereas the former 3 organizations often knew when to hold back, hesitate, or not alienate everyone, ISIS attacked everyone, and everything, and as a result has the whole world against her. ISIS may survive for some time to come, especially if copy-cat organizations pay homage, and loyalty, to her. However, ISIS’s major successes are now in the past and it will inevitably decline to either destruction or irrelevance.

The real question is what will replace it. This is perhaps the most important point to consider. Battles are won, and lost, in the Middle East all the time; what matters is what happens afterwards.

For the region in general, and Iraq in particular, things rarely change for the better. In Iraq stagnant Ottoman rule was replaced by opportunistic British rule between WW1 and WW2. Thereupon Iraq alternated between corrupt monarchies, rubber stamp parliaments, and finally a mafia style regime under Saddam Hussein until the 21st century (all of which emphasized using the better off Sunni tribes to dominate the Shiites and Kurds). Americans entered this mix idealistically, if foolishly, trying to turn Iraq into a legitimate democracy within 10 years when America itself took centuries to do so herself.

Despite horrific losses, setbacks, and sectarian warfare America had, by the time it left Iraq in 2011, left a relatively fair balance of power between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in the country, as well as a fledging democracy. Had she continued to watch and help Iraq maybe ISIS and all of its suffering would not have flourished. However, with Americans tired of war, casualties, and increasing economic woes, the American administration washed its hands regarding Iraq and adopted a stand off policy.

This allowed the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad to oppress the Sunnis (as the Shiites had been oppressed by them before), back the latter into a corner, and help lead to the creation of ISIS. Which of course led to American intervention again, without ground troops this time, and the slow battle to combat ISIS which has come to Mosul right now.

Which again begs the question “Where do we go from here?” Sometimes it seems as though nothing works in the Middle East. While most problems are blamed on European, or American, intervention their major issues predate this. Few debate that the Ottoman Empire (which ruled and had a more direct impact on Muslims and Arabs much longer than western influence) was a stagnant, and morally bankrupt entity by its dying days; the Armenian genocide in WW1 can attest to that. Meanwhile, unlike considerable differences between western states and democracies, Arab countries have almost inevitably had the same issues, and problems, no matter who’s in charge, or what systems they have. Since WW2 the Middle East has gone through Pan-Arabism, Communism, Socialism or Baathism, and then more and more fundamentalist and violent ideologies. Notice how liberalism and democracy aren’t included; because with a few exceptions such as Iran in the early 1950’s, and notably Israel and Turkey, these are not popular ideas in the region.

Democrats, and liberals, tend to be moderates, and non-violent ones at that. They are typically, though not always, educated, reasonable, and even tempered. In a region where many people are considerably illiterate, or at least poorly educated, and where the government, and often society, encourages them to not only be angry at outside and foreign influences, but to fight them as well, it is hardly a surprise that moderates in the Middle East are as hard to find as Waldo.

Therefore while it is easy to see that the liberation of Mosul will probably result in the slow downfall of ISIS, it is hard to see what the long term ramifications will be. Will the Iraqi government in Baghdad finally see that Iraq’s core problems will only be solved by earnest reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, or will it pretend to play nice until America and the West lose interest once more? Will the Iraqi people in general, and the Arabs in particular, stop playing the blame game against outside forces and attempt to look seriously at their own problems, or will they succumb to anger and bitterness and continue the lesser Jihad again and again? Will America, and the west, finally realize its better to back freedom in the Middle East, whatever the short term inconveniences, or continue to support backward dictators or corrupt monarchs despite the long term perils?

There are no easy answers of course. However, it goes without saying that a military victory in Mosul against ISIS would be limited, if not shallow, without a subsequent political domestic one in Iraq. Despite ISIS’s evil ways the Sunnis supported them for a reason; that being that the government in Baghdad not only neglected them, but actively persecuted them. People across the Middle East enjoy lamenting how westerners, and Americans, are ignorant about history. But if the leaders in Baghdad knew their own history well they would never have oppressed the Sunnis after 2011, or allowed a terrorist organization so base and wicked as ISIS to begin or expand. America, or the West can’t fix the Middle East; it’s up to the people living there.

Lets us pray they are finally up to it.

Great Generals that Lost their Wars: Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee and Rommel

Posted By on September 3, 2015

imagePart 1: Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert E Lee and Erwin Rommel are often considered the greatest generals of their respective wars. At the tactical level they were usually the best and they all achieved incredible battlefield victories despite fighting against considerable odds. However, despite being military geniuses all of them lost their wars in the end. Factors such as inadequate resources and manpower, deficiencies in naval power and logistics, underestimating their opponents and the failure to adequately attacked their enemies’ centres of gravity, as well as their propensity to gamble ultimately doomed these generals to defeat.

In many ways these men were different, one being from ancient Carthage, another from France, yet another from America and the last from Germany. They also lived in different times; Hannibal in the late 3rd Century B.C, Napoleon during the early 19th Century A.D, Lee the latter half, and Rommel during the 20th Century. Their societies were equally unique; Hannibal from a mercantile and maritime empire, Napoleon from a French Monarchy and then Republic, Lee from a society based on slavery and exploitation, and Rommel from a society that went from being cultured and intelligent to the epitome of hatred and cruelty. All of them were motivated by different things: Hannibal to avenge his country’s, and his father’s, humiliation by Rome in a previous war, Napoleon by an unabashedly desire to dominate Europe, Lee by the genuine desire to protect his state from harm, and Rommel by the desire to be great and famous.

Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian who became a soldier at the age of 9 and remained undefeated in Italy after 16 years of war, his army surviving despite being usually outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements and supplies from the outside. Napoleon Bonaparte was a career soldier who came to prominence after the “French Revolution” and exploited the political atmosphere in France to become Emperor and came close to dominating Europe over the course of a generation. Robert E Lee was a southern gentlemen who hated slavery yet fought for the South anyway during the “American Civil War” and kept at bay the much larger and stronger forces of the North for several years. Erwin Rommel was an opportunistic and almost reckless German general in “World War 2” who defeated the British time and time again in North Africa despite having few resources and being all but ignored from his leaders at home.

However, besides these differences they had several key commonalities. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they were all military geniuses. They all had a good grasp of warfare; the theory, how it worked in practice, and how to lead and motivate men under the most arduous of circumstances. They were not armchair generals but men who had risen up from the ranks and had experienced danger, hardship and squalid conditions first hand. This led to another commonality; they all led by example. They commanded from the front, shared their men’s suffering and difficulties and were willing, in fact striving, to do anything they asked their subordinates to do. Livy’s description of Hannibal emphasizes this clearly:

“The power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united…..Under his leadership the men invariable showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once it was upon him. Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold, he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength. His time for waking, like his time for sleeping, was never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then, and then only, he rested, without need, moreover of silence or a soft bed to woo sleep to his eyes. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground amongst the common soldiers on sentry or picket duty. His accroutement, like the horses he rode, was always conspicuous, but not his clothes, which were like those of any other office of his rank and standing. Mounted or unmounted he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field.”

Another similarity is that they were brilliant at the tactical level of warfare, as in they were experts at knowing how to win battles. For them winning battles was the most important thing in war. As Clausewitz noted in his masterpiece “the wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces, is the first-born son of war.” Whatever faults can be ascribed to these men, they were probably the best military tacticians of their day. Yet winning battles, especially those that did not produce decisive strategic or political results, is only one part of warfare and as will be shown the disproportionate focus shown by these men towards winning battles ultimately proved counter-productive in certain instances.

All of them were also masters at maneuver in warfare and seeking quick victories. Part of this was due to their aggressive nature and part due to their respective strategic positions during their wars. Maneuver in warfare and seeking quick, decisive results is risky and uncertain whereas attrition and prolonged warfare is more safe and predictable. However, even if these men had not been naturally bold and aggressive their strategic predicaments during their conflicts dictated they could not afford to be cautious. Generally these men fought for countries and led armies that had less men, weapons, resources and money than their enemies. Keeping in mind Sun Tzu’s maxim that “no nation has ever benefited from protracted war” it would have been suicidal for these generals to fight long and attritional wars against enemies who could outlast them in men and resources.

Thus as noted earlier they emphasized on winning battles and the quickest and usually most decisive means of winning decisive victories involved maneuver. If you look at the greatest battlefield victories of Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee and Rommel they never consisted of lines of infantry meeting each other head on and wearing each other down until one ultimately prevailed. Rather they involved bold maneuvers that either overwhelmed an enemy’s flank, such as “Austerlitz,” threatened their lines of communication, such as “Gazala,” or encircled or trapped them completely such as “Cannae.” Such moves often compensated for inferior numbers due to the fact that success in war is often more of a result of psychological than physical factors considering soldiers who are outflanked and encircled are more likely to panic and flee (even if they enjoy numerical superiority) then if they face them straight ahead in a slugging match. Ultimately the hope was that decisive victories based on maneuver would quickly defeat the enemy before they had a chance to allow their superior resources and manpower to overwhelm the other side. While these generals and their countries sometimes accomplished this in the end they all failed.

This meant that these generals were gamblers. As Napoleon once said “if the art of war consisted merely in not taking risks glory would be at the mercy of very mediocre talent.” However, once again it should be stated that considering their unfavourable strategic situations they often had little choice but to gamble. Time, money, manpower, and resources were ultimately against them so being cautious was usually not an option. A lot of the time their gambles produced some of the greatest military victories in history. However, these men were not infallible and whereas sometimes they had to gamble because they had no choice at other times they gambled prematurely, or foolishly, when they had the advantage and it cost them dearly; Rommel’s “dash to the wire” in 1941 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia being poignant examples.

Then there were some commonalities amongst these men that can unequivocally be labelled as faults rather than virtues. Perhaps the most obvious was that eventually they tended to underestimate their enemies. This is not hard to understand considering these men were perfectionists and were extremely intelligent, competent and ruthless. Given that they often faced amateurs and fools who had no business being generals and armies that were poorly trained and inexperienced it is no surprise that they sometimes succumbed to hubris and complacency. Yet Clausewitz cautioned to “never engage the same enemy for too long or he will adapt to your tactics,” and it is often the case in war that the initial victors fail to change and adapt whereas the initial losers learn from their mistakes and inevitably triumph.

Another flaw was that these generals either misunderstood, or underestimated, naval power. These men were all land generals who excelled at destroying their adversaries on land and gave little thought to naval affairs. Once again some of this was due to circumstances (none of them enjoyed naval superiority during their conflicts) but it seems that none of them took serious interest in naval warfare. As will be seen these generals won battle after battle on land but their deficiencies in naval power ultimately produced negative strategic results against them.

Underestimating certain logistical considerations was also to be another fatal flaw for these men. However, it should be noted that none of these men were ignorant about logistics in general. Hannibal could not have crossed the Pyrenees, the Alps and survived 16 years in Italy without hardly any resupply from Carthage had he being ignorant regarding logistics. Napoleon also initially excelled at logistics, mostly by being ruthless and letting his army live off the enemy via pillaging and stealing every resource that came within their reach. Lee deserves credit for moving and supplying his forces effectively so often despite the backwards state of the South’s infrastructure. Even Rommel, the supposed quartermaster’s nightmare, pulled off several coups such as hastily organizing a refuelling operation at night while he was almost surrounded by British forces in May 1942.

However, whereas all of them excelled at logistics in the short term they failed in the long term. This would eventually prove to be disastrous for them.

Finally, an additional flaw was that despite their military genius these men, with some notable exceptions, failed to realize and exploit their enemies’ true centres of gravity regarding their war efforts. An enemy’s “centre of gravity” is the thing, be it their capital city where policy is made, their industrial or economic heartland where their resources or financial wealth is created, or their armed forces that protects their territory, that more or less keeps them in the war. For example, capturing an enemy’s capital might crush their will to resist and they may surrender. Or securing the enemy’s industrial heartland (such as Germany’s Ruhr valley) could cripple their capacity to produce enough weapons and resources to continue the war. Finally, destroying, or at least neutralizing, the enemy army can allow the invader to overrun enough territory or even the whole country and force them to surrender. As was noted earlier these generals were extremely focused on winning battles and while that admittedly often led to decisive results it also resulted in them occasionally ignoring potential opportunities that could have won their conflicts for good, or offered better results in the long run, and even led them to gambles that seem reckless and foolish with hindsight.

Yet to be fair these common flaws; underestimating the enemy, neglecting naval power, misunderstanding certain logistical considerations, and failing to identify and neutralizing their enemy’s true centres of gravity often had as much to do with their relative strategic situations as their own personal dispositions. It is true that these men were aggressive, tended to gamble, focused on land battles that promised quick, tactical victories and often dismissed their enemies and deemed that things such as logistics, naval, economic and industrial factors were of secondary importance. However, as already stated these men usually had the disadvantage in these latter categories and while this is not to suggest that they could have done more to even out, or alleviate, these disadvantages, it does make sense that these generals focused on their strengths (maneuver, speed, tactics and cunning) to win decisive victories instead of investing more in areas they had little chance of prevailing in. Yet regarding underestimating the enemy these generals deserve more censure. Sun Tzu wrote that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” It is true that while these generals often knew both their own capabilities and those of the enemy, as time went on they tended to form a less accurate picture of their opponents and this led to major mistakes on their part.

It is necessary to analyze the wars, campaigns and battles that these generals fought as well as the various strategies, tactics and methods of commands they used to understand not only why they were great generals, but also why they ultimately lost. The geopolitical circumstances of each conflict, as well as how their enemies conducted themselves and then adapted after their initial defeats are also relevant in this regard.

Let us start with Hannibal Barca and his war against Rome.

Hannibal Barca was the main Carthaginian commander during the “Second Punic War.” His strategy during this war between Rome and Carthage was to invade Italy overland via Spain and France to fight the Romans on their own soil. He did this both because he wanted to fight the war in Italy instead of letting it be waged against his own territories in Spain and North Africa and because he believed Rome could only be beaten in Italy. Rome’s biggest advantages versus Carthage was its vastly superior manpower, and better navy, and Hannibal felt his only chance to win the war was to invade Italy, destroy Roman armies, force Rome’s allies to defect to Carthage and thus rob Rome of her superiority in manpower. It was hoped that this would force, or convince, the Romans to sue for peace.

Hannibal was arguably the greatest general in antiquity, perhaps better than Alexander and Caesar. He was the best tactician of the war, a model leader and a shrewd trickster. He always led by example; sharing his men’s toils, getting in the thick of the fight and ate and dressed the same as even the lowest soldier. Hannibal was a master at maneuver in warfare, always utilized terrain to his advantage, and was adept at ambushes and surprise attacks. He effectively coordinated the considerably different contingents under his command to allow their various strengths to be used against the Romans who were generally predictable and beaten by him time and again. He was so effective as a commander that he maintained himself in Italy for 15 years even though he received almost no reinforcements from Carthage, was inadequately bolstered by some Gallic tribesmen and defecting Italians, and was almost always outnumbered (often incredibly so) by the Romans.

Like our other generals Hannibal had, initially, a better trained and more professional army that benefited from superior leadership, doctrine and tactics. Eschewing attrition and lengthy sieges (usually at least) he sought out decisive battles against the Romans to smash their armies to hopefully alter the unfavourable strategic situation between Rome and Carthage. In battle he focused on maneuver, deception, terrain and the various capabilities of his multinational forces versus the Roman legions who were generally homogeneous and over-reliant on brute force methods at the expense of maneuver.

Yet before he even got to Italy to inflict the many reverses he did on Rome he had to travel a long and hazardous trek across rivers, mountain-chains, and areas filled with hostile tribes. During these marches Hannibal lost roughly 50% of his army from desertions, battle, the elements and attrition. When he finally arrived in Italy he had perhaps 26,000 sick, tired and hungry men and cavalry to fight Rome. It should be noted that Polybius estimated that Rome and her allies could mobilize up to 700,000 infantry and 70,000 for any potential conflict at this time and as such Hannibal’s small army represented a mere 3% of this gigantic figure! No wonder his strategy involved recruiting Gallic tribes and to pressure Rome’s Italian allies to defect; this was the only chance he had in such a lopsided war.

For the first few years of the war we see Hannibal trying, and generally succeeding, in provoking the Romans into battle to both destroy their armies as well as motivate the Gallic tribes in Italy, and Rome’s Italian allies, to desert to him. After crossing the Alps his forces were very weak and he needed quick support from the Gallic tribes before the Romans would overwhelm him. The first battle between Hannibal and Rome occurred at the Ticinus river which was predominantly a skirmish between Hannibal’s cavalry and Roman light infantry and calvary. The battle is easy to describe as Hannibal used his cavalry to outflank and outmaneuver the more cumbersome Roman force and won the battle with few losses. This is turn motivated most of the Gallic tribes in the area to join his side and gave him enough strength to win the subsequent battle at the Trebia River.

Hannibal’s greatest victories in Italy would include Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae.

At the river Trebia in late 218 B.C. Hannibal’s weak infantry in the centre absorbed the main Roman assault while his superior calvary, and elephants, on the flanks routed their Roman equivalents and then turned to attack the Roman infantry from both flanks. Then Hannibal threw in an elite force that had been hiding near the battlefield to attack the Romans from behind. The latter became surrounded and while some of them broke through Hannibal’s centre the lion share were slaughtered.

Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C. was Hannibal’s next great victory. Here he had marched through a narrow passageway near the lake that was was flanked by hills to the north. As his Roman opponents pursued him he doubled back during the night and placed most of his forces in the hills. The next morning he lured the Romans into the narrow defile by posting units at the far end of the pass to get the Romans to advance. As the Romans advanced into the defile they could not see much of the hills above because there was a great mist blanketing the area. Once they were in the trap Hannibal threw his army down the hills and slaughtered the Roman army that was surrounded on all sides and was still vulnerable in marching formation. The Romans lost perhaps 20,000-30,000 men, Hannibal lost 1500-2500 casualties.

Yet Cannae in 216 B.C. would be Hannibal’s masterpiece, a battle where although he was outnumbered by perhaps 50% he still managed to encircle and completely destroy the opposing army. Hannibal had his outnumbered and inferior Spanish and Gallic infantry in the centre slowly withdraw in the face of Rome’s vastly superior infantry. Meanwhile Hannibal posted the majority of his cavalry, who were superior to the Roman calvary on the left flank to quickly defeat the Roman cavalry there and then move on behind the Roman infantry and attack the Roman allied calvary on the other flank. Meanwhile the Roman infantry in the centre inevitable burst through the weak Carthaginian centre.

However, by then the Roman infantry was very disorganized. Even worse for them was that Hannibal had wisely posted his Libyan infantry behind his main infantry lines and on their left and right flanks. These were his best soldiers, they were still fresh as they had not yet joined the battle and were now in a position to advance on both flanks of the advancing Roman infantry. They quickly hit the Roman formations and halted their advance, which also allowed Hannibal’s Gallic and Spanish infantry to reorganize after their initial rout and go back over to the attack.

Finally, most of Hannibal’s calvary returned from routing the Roman and Latin calvary and sealed the victory by attacking the Roman infantry from behind and completing their encirclement. This was followed by hours of butchery as the vast majority of the Roman army of perhaps 75,000 was killed or captured in a single day of combat. Cannae would go down in history as the perfect battle and countless generals would attempt to imitate it.

We see in these battles Hannibal’s strengths as a general. At Cannae he was personally involved in the most desperate fighting in the centre of the line where his inferior infantry were hard pressed. He used brilliant maneuvers at Trebia and Cannae to encircle numerically superior enemy forces. He used the river at Trebia to weaken the Romans, as well as the flat plains near Trebia and at Cannae maximize the use of his calvary. He used elite forces to ambush the Roman rear at Trebia and launched perhaps the most successful surprise attack in history at Lake Trasimene. He used his different contingents to the best of their abilities: His Numidian cavalry to provoke, harass and maneuver, his close order Gallic and Spanish cavalry for both shock effect and decision, his Libyan infantry as elite troops and frankly his Gallic infantry as cannon fodder.

After Cannae Hannibal expected the Romans to sue for peace considering he had bested all the forces they had sent against him for the past 3 years, had moved across the Italian peninsula with impunity, and Rome no longer had significant forces left in Italy to oppose him. Yet Rome refused to surrender and would not even negotiate. Rather she raised more troops and generally refused to fight Hannibal directly in Italy for the remainder of the war.

Instead Rome used her superiority in manpower and naval power, and generally better leadership (besides of course Hannibal) to take the fight to Carthage and her allies in Sicily, Sardinia, Illyria, Spain and finally to North Africa and Carthage itself. Using these advantages Rome conquered Sicily and Spain, retained Sardinia, neutralized Carthage’s Macedonian ally in Illyria, and brought the Carthaginians to the verge of defeat in their homeland. She also used delaying tactics to eventually neutralize, if not defeat, Hannibal in Italy and improved the capabilities of her army so that Scipio would eventually defeat the former in battle and win the war.

Thus in 202 B.C. the Roman commander in North Africa, Scipio, brought the Carthaginians to terms. While Hannibal had never been defeated in Italy he was forced to evacuate Italy with his army during an uneasy armistice between Rome and Carthage. However, this armistice broke down and Hannibal’s army marched to confront Scipio’s and met him at Zama to attempt to save Carthage from unconditional surrender.

Zama is an interesting battle. Whereas in most battles Hannibal was generally outnumbered, at Zama he had numerical superiority. Additionally, while he generally had better and more numerous cavalry, here he did not. This was a combination of him having to leave behind, or kill, considerable horses in Italy, the Roman ability to recruit disenchanted Numidian forces in North Africa, as well as the failure of Carthage’s remaining loyal Numidian allies to get to Zama in time for the battle. Perhaps worse for Hannibal was that his troops composed of differing formations that had not fought and trained together. They compromised of mercenaries from Liguria and elsewhere, levies raised among the Carthaginians in North Africa, and his veterans from Italy. These forces differed considerably in quality and were, with the exception of Hannibal’s veterans, no match for Scipio’s legions.

Meanwhile, Scipio’s forces may have been outnumbered in infantry but at least his infantry were better trained and had fought together for years. Additionally, Scipio had trained them in sophisticated maneuvers, mimicking Hannibal’s success in Italy. Perhaps most decisive was that Scipio held a significant numerical advantage in cavalry which would prove decisive at Zama.

Hannibal’s plan at Zama was to first use his elephants (of which there were 30-80 based on differing sources) to sow panic and confusion among the Roman legions, then use his inferior cavalry to lure Rome’s calvary from the field (as Hannibal’s cavalry had no chance of beating their equivalents) and finally to use his numerically superior infantry to beat Scipio’s legions. Hannibal placed his infantry in 3 different lines one after the other with his mercenaries in the first line, the Carthaginian levies in the second, and his veterans in the last. He did this to hopefully wear down Scipio’s legions with his first two lines and then deliver the coup de grace with his veterans. He also used this deployment so that if Scipio attempted to use any of his legions to envelope his army Hannibal could use his forces behind the main line to counteract, if not destroy, any Roman enveloping force.

The battle began with the elephants charging and Scipio unequivocally won this first engagement by opening lanes in his ranks to allow the elephants to run harmlessly through his lines, by using a variety of light infantry to harass and kill several of them, and using trumpets and horns to disorient the elephants. These had a decisive influence as the elephants inflicted little harm on the Romans and some of them even panicked and retreated to Carthaginian lines and caused some chaos there.

The next part of the battle seemingly went well for the Romans as their calvary quickly charged and forced Hannibal’s calvary from the field, following them as they fled. However, this was actually a victory for Hannibal as he had purposely ordered them to lure the superior Roman and Numidian cavalry away from the battle so that he could hopefully win the infantry contest before they returned. Thus the battle quickly became an infantry slog between Scipio’s legions and Hannibal’s ad-hoc force. The battle see-sawed as the Roman infantry inevitably pushed back Hannibal’s first two lines after some vicious fighting. However, by deploying his forces one after the other Hannibal neutralized Scipio’s plans to envelop his lines and after being initially routed Hannibal ordered the mercenaries and the Carthaginian levies to deploy on the flanks of his veterans, who were Fresh as they had not yet joined the battle, and prepared for a final showdown with Scipio’s infantry that now formed a solid line confronting him.

This last infantry engagement was particular savage and hard fought and it is debatable which side would have prevailed had they been left alone to fight it out. However, the Roman cavalry had in the meantime finally chased down its Carthaginian equivalent, decisively beaten it, and then returned to the battlefield to take Hannibal’s infantry from the rear. The similarity with this end result as at Cannae was extremely ironic. This last maneuver doomed Hannibal’s armies and his force was ruthlessly cut down and he made good his escape, conceding to Scipio victory in the battle. The statistics of the battle were grim for Carthage as Hannibal’s forces lost 20,000 dead and 20,000 prisoners (mostly inflicted after the Roman cavalry trapped Hannibal’s infantry) whereas Scipio’s losses were more modest, estimated between 1500-6500.

The “Battle of Zama” ended the war decisively in Rome’s favour. Despite Hannibal’s unequalled genius during the conflict there were several factors which allowed the Roman’s to recover from their near crippling defeat after Cannae and gave them victory in the end.

Firstly, the Romans had vastly superior manpower. Even with Gallic allies, the defection of some of Rome’s southern Italian allies, as well as Syracuse and King Phillip V of Macedonia entering the war on Hannibal’s side Carthage never came close to matching Roman manpower. Since the Romans usually absorbed their former enemies who then became allies with rights and privileges and then received the protection of Rome the Romans were always able to recruit troops from a significantly large pool of loyal citizens who had a stake in the outcome of the war. Meanwhile Carthage, with a similar population to the Roman Republic as a whole, could only mobilize a much smaller force from reluctant subjects with little rights in Spain and North Africa while her own citizens usually cared more about commerce than fighting.

This advantage not only allowed the Romans to fight against Hannibal in Italy with usually superior numbers, but also take the fight to Spain, Greece, Sicily and finally North Africa, beating the Carthaginians and their allies in the theatres of war outside Italy. Ironically the Romans never had to beat Hannibal in Italy as their success in North Africa threatened Carthage enough that he had to evacuate from Italy to try to save his country.

Yet the Romans only managed to accomplish this due to her naval superiority, which was her next main advantage. The Romans had won the “First Punic War” against Carthage over Sicily by building a superior fleet than the Carthaginians and beating them at sea. After that conflict Rome had opportunistically annexed Corsica and Sardinia while Carthage had been preoccupied with putting down a rebellion by her former mercenary army. Rome thus controlled the main islands between Carthage and herself and maintained a superior fleet than the Carthaginians in between the wars as well.

Roman naval superiority enabled her to transport and supply her legions to fight and beat the Carthaginians and her allies in Spain, Sicily and North Africa. It also forced Hannibal to undertake his risky and costly invasion of Italy that had resulted in the defection, or destruction, of half of his initial army. Finally, it more or less effectively cut Hannibal off from being reliably, and regularly, supplied in Italy by Carthage during the war. Except for briefly in 215 B.C. Hannibal would never receive more supplies for his army in Italy again.

Hannibal was further denied victory in Italy by Roman efforts to refuse battles under conditions that would be advantageous to him, as well enacting scorched earth methods. This had initially been adopted after the disaster at Lake Trasimene when Quintus Fabius Maximus had been elected dictator of Rome. He had wisely noted that Hannibal and his army clearly outmatched the Roman legions so his strategy was to avoid battles and focus on skirmishes where his forces had the advantage, as well as harassing Hannibal’s foragers and destroying crops and supplies in his path to prevent the Carthaginians from being adequately supplied in an already hostile enemy land. However, this strategy had limitations. Firstly, while his capabilities were restricted due to his supply situation, Hannibal was never effectively starved out. Secondly, the strategy was initially abandoned in 216 B.C. due to Roman impatience and indignation which led to the disaster at Cannae later in the year. Finally, in the years after Cannae Hannibal may have been slowly hemmed into Southern Italy and reduced as a threat, but he was never defeated outright. However, given that Hannibal constantly strove to inflict major battlefield defeats and facilitate the defection of enough Roman allies to make her concede defeat, and given that this strategy in effect denied this outcome, and given that it allowed the Romans to prevail in other theatres of war and force Hannibal to return home, it is safe to say that it was the right strategy for the Romans to have adopted.

Another key in the Roman recovery was the learning curve of her armies. Whereas Rome had started the conflict with the usual practice of raising relatively inexperienced legions annually she started keeping much of her legions together for longer periods of time. Rome also kept its military leaders on for longer periods of command. This allowed both to gain more experience and confidence in fighting the Carthaginians and their allies. Eventually it allowed some Roman commanders, such as Marcellus, to even beat Hannibal in a few major skirmishes in Italy. Yet perhaps the best innovations were produced by Scipio who learned from Hannibal how to use surprise, speed and maneuver effectively to defeat enemy forces. Thus he took New Carthage in a quick assault in 209 B.C. and used maneuvers to decisively defeat the Carthaginians and end their influence in Spain after the battles of “Baecula” in 208 B.C. and “Ilipa” in 206 B.C. Then he destroyed several Carthaginian armies in North Africa, once by launching a surprise attack on one of their camps at night. Finally his veteran army defeated Hannibal at Zama, admittedly with the help of disaffected Numidian cavalry.

A final Roman advantage was that with the exception of Hannibal and his army the Romans were generally superior to other Carthaginian leaders, forces and allies. In Spain Hasdrubal Barca and his forces admittedly beat the Romans decisively in 211 B.C, however he had benefitted immensely from superior numbers after the latter were abandoned by their Spanish allies and was also fortunate enough to catch the Romans in isolated forces and crushing them piecemeal. Yet Hasdrubal Barca also lost most of the major engagements before 211 in Spain as well as all the subsequent ones. In 207 B.C. Hasdrubal took a force from Spain and crossed the Alps in an attempt to reinforce Hannibal. However, it was caught by a stronger Roman force at the Metaurus river and crushed.

Likewise Syracuse held out for a few years until it was brutally sacked in 212 B.C. and the Carthaginian contingent in Sicily was always bested by the Romans. Phillip V’s efforts in Illyria did little to harm Roman interests and Scipio easily beat the hastily conscripted and poorly trained Carthaginians in North Africa prior to Hannibal’s arrival. Seen from this perspective Hannibal’s risky strategy to take the fight to Italy seems reasonable considering Carthage and her allies constantly faltered elsewhere.

Bedsides these Roman advantages Hannibal made mistakes that contributed to his ultimate failure.

Firstly, he both misunderstood and underestimated the Romans. His major strategic premise of the war was that to beat Rome he had to convince enough of its allies to defect until she was either wiling to surrender or be unable to continue the war. As Richard Gabriel noted in his biography on the great general Hannibal misunderstood Roman culture as well as Rome’s relationship with her allies. He thought that Rome would behave as a rational Hellenistic like state and concede defeat after being bested in the field several times. Yet the Romans did not see war as limited and rational but as a fight to the death and refused to come to terms even after coming close to collapse after Cannae. He also believed that he could get what he thought were disenfranchised Roman allies to defect. Yet most of these allies were not reluctant bedfellows with Rome but genuine friends who enjoyed several rights, privileged and perks under Roman rule. While some did in fact defect after Cannae most of them stayed loyal, not least because they were suspicious of Carthaginian motives as well as being afraid of potential Roman reprisals.

Hannibal also clearly underestimated Roman capabilities and resolve. Certainly he was shocked by their refusal to come to terms after Cannae, and must have held their generalship in contempt much of the time considering how he kept besting them in the field constantly. He must have been surprised that instead of concentrating on facing him in Italy after Cannae that the Romans instead sought to defeat him indirectly by securing Sicily, seizing Spain and then invading North Africa. Perhaps a classic example of Hannibal underestimating the Romans was his march towards Rome in 211 B.C. in an attempt to relieve the siege of Capua. Instead of raising the siege and coming to Rome’s rescue the Roman’s called Hannibal’s bluff and continued besieging Capua while Hannibal dallied before the walls of Rome.

Hannibal also paid little attention to naval affairs. As listed above Roman naval superiority was decisive in cutting off Hannibal from supplies in Italy, projecting Roman military power abroad, and bringing the war to Carthage and ending the conflict. While it is true that Hannibal had little chance to improve the naval balance between Rome and Carthage it is obvious that he was predominantly a land general who clearly underestimated how Roman naval power could decisively affect the conflict. While it could be argued that with the primitive communications of his age it was hard to coordinate Carthaginian naval and land forces in a hostile war zone such as Italy it is obvious Hannibal should have cared more about naval power.

This ties into Hannibal’s failure to appreciate certain logistical considerations. While Hannibal’s conquest of the Alps is often glamorized the fact remains perhaps more than half of his army was lost crossing them and he never received significant supplies from Carthage or Spain in Italy except for once in 215 B.C. Hannibal was overly dependent on recruiting Gallic tribes and disaffected Italians in Italy and was constantly on the move due to usually operating in hostile territory where his supply situation was uncertain. On the strategic level he never achieved a truly reliable logistics situation in Italy due to these considerations as well as the fact that once he did secure allies in Italy he was forced to defend these as well as simultaneously trying to beat Roman armies in the field, as well as launching operations to secure other Roman cities or allies. However, this can be contrasted to his success in logistics at the operational level as he somehow managed to fight in Italy without being destroyed for 16 years against a vastly superior enemy and a mostly hostile population. Perhaps the argument can be made that Hannibal’s only chance was to invade Italy to win the war there and that he had to take risks regarding logistics due to his circumstances, but clearly Hannibal never found, or even seriously attempted to create, an effective way to master his supply situation.

One factor was whether or not the Carthaginian navy could have effectively, or regularly, supplied Hannibal in Italy, and even if it could have if it would have made a decisive difference given Rome’s superiority regarding manpower. Another consideration is that Hannibal failed to secure a sizeable port in Italy, and yet another that the Carthaginians did in fact reinforce their garrisons in Sicily and Spain relatively easily during the conflict. Yet Spain and Sicily were closer to Carthage and Roman naval power was often too far away to seriously interdict their supply lines much of the time. Meanwhile Southern Italy was farther away from Carthage, the Roman navy was closer and it is obvious the Romans would have made major efforts to interdict Carthaginian plans to resupply Hannibal in Italy had the decision been made to seriously supply him there. Ultimately there seems to have been a failure by the Carthaginians to at least try to adequately supply their forces in Italy and it would be folly to suggest that Hannibal bore no responsibility in this regard.

Finally, Hannibal seems to have either misidentified, or at least failed to attack, Rome’s true centre of gravity in the conflict. There was arguably only 2 ways to bring the Romans to their knees; seizing Rome or destroying the Roman political will to continue the war. The first most likely would have ended the war, whereas the second would be hard to effect as it was a more psychological consideration. Hannibal clearly focused on the latter by attempting to quash Roman political will by destroying Roman armies, causing the defection of her allies, as well as isolating her in the Mediterranean.

It should be noted that Hannibal did enjoy considerable strategic, operational and tactical success regarding these means. Hannibal destroyed nearly every army Rome sent to confront him with from 218-216 B.C. He inflicted other notable battlefield reverses on the Romans such as the two battles at Herdonea. In 208 B.C. he ambushed and killed two consuls. He captured, or won over, most of Southern Italy including the major cities of Capua and Tarentum. His successes convinced Syracuse to join Carthage’s side as well as Philip V of Macedonia to declare war on Rome.

In 16 years of war Rome lost perhaps 50% of her available manpower and at several crucial points her allies refused to provide her with more troops. Yet despite these considerable achievements Rome’s political will to continue the fight never wavered; the Romans saw the contest as a battle to the death and never considered ending it by negotiation.

The city of Rome was the Roman’s true centre of gravity for their war effort and Hannibal never made a serious effort to either capture it by either direct assault or siege. There has been considerable debate among historians and experts not only whether or not Hannibal should have tried to take Rome, but even if he had the means to do so as well. The common belief is that Hannibal had little prospect of success given that he did not have enough troops to assault the city, that he had little siege equipment, and that it would have been difficult to stay in one place for the necessary length of time for a successful siege due to logistical difficulties while operating in a hostile country. However, some historians argue that these factors are either exaggerated, or mistaken, and that Hannibal may have actually had a good chance of capturing Rome.

According to Richard Gabriel after the battle of “Trasimene” Hannibal had enough troops to assault the city, that contrary to popular belief he had, or could have easily constructed, siege equipment, and that he could probably have taken enough risks with logistics that he may have been able to take the Roman capital. At this point the Romans had few troops in the city, her other consular army in Italy was well to the north and occupied fighting the Gauls, and Rome’s city walls were not that impressive. Ironically though Richard Gabriel suggests that the chances of taking the city after “Cannae” were less favourable considering how much farther away Rome was from Cannae versus Lake Trasimene, that Hannibal’s army was weaker at this point, and that Rome could have had more troops available versus a year earlier. However, there is also the argument that the Romans could have potentially been so shocked and demoralized after Cannae that a bold march on Rome by Hannibal might have made them panic and sue for peace. Yet given the fact that the Romans were committed to a fight to the death and given that they were not unduly worried when Hannibal actually marched towards Rome in 211 B.C. it is hard to fathom the Romans throwing in the towel without a fight for the city.

Ultimately though there is no way to know whether or not Hannibal would have succeeded if he had made a serious effort to take Rome but it is certain that taking the city would have been his best chance of winning the war. Considering Hannibal was an avid gambler and since the odds in the conflict were usually against him it may very well have made sense for him to throw the dice and attempt it. Yet he did not and while he had considerable success in his strategy of wearing down the Romans via other means he never convinced the Romans to change their policy and discontinue the war.

So much for Hannibal.

(To be continued)

An Opinion Piece on Why America was Justified Dropping Nuclear Weapons on Japan

Posted By on August 10, 2015

HiroshimaThis last week was the 70th anniversary of America dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Naturally there was the typical criticism, and moral outrage, by countless people which usually drowns out those who offer a more informed and sober analysis as to why dropping nukes on Japan was necessary.  It is often said that “history is written by the victors” yet for some reason a sizeable segment of at least Western opinion, perhaps the majority, sees the Japanese as victims and the Americans as the aggressors.  Such a perception is exceedingly false.

Japan was the aggressor in the “Pacific War,” overrunning much of China, South East Asia and the Pacific while America had been initially an isolationist country which became reluctantly involved in the war after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour.  Japan brutally enslaved and slaughtered millions of people in Asia from China to Burma, the Philippines to Indochina, and from Korea to Hong Kong.  They were so cruel, exploitive and feared that the inhabitants of these countries were actually grateful when the British and Americans returned to their countries and the inhabitants generally aided them rather than collaborate with the Japanese.  Think about this; most asians preferred British imperialists and paternalistic Americans to their fellow asians, the Japanese!  To this day countries such as China, both Koreas, Vietnam and Taiwan hold considerable grudges against Japan both for her conduct during the war as well as her misguided and shameful efforts to negate responsibility for, let alone admit, Japanese war crimes.

While well meaning people can rightly be shocked by nuclear attacks that killed between 125,000 and 250,000 Japanese civilians it is rare that world opinion, especially Western and Japanese, expresses outrage by the infinitely worse crimes committed by the Japanese during the war.  I remember in high school being taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki but hearing nothing about the at least 10 million Chinese killed by Japan during her occupation of China, not to mention the literally 100 million Chinese war refugees created by the conflict.  The almost 20 million Asians killed during the war, the “Rape of Nanking,” the “Bataan Death March,” the “Death Railway,” the indiscriminate slaughter of remote islander inhabitants during Japanese training exercises, and the atrocious death rates of POWs under Japanese care are also barely addressed and seldom remembered by the naive, biased people who hate America but almost eagerly let Japan off the hook.

Certainly next to no one knows about the sick medical experiments Japan conducted in Manchuria on human beings, that her army coerced thousands of Korean females into being comfort women who were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, her plans to use biological weapons against American civilians, or the fact that Japan was the only county to use chemical weapons in “World War 2” (not even Nazi Germany did that!).

This is the context in which Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan:

The worst war in human history which had been going on for nearly 6 years was not yet over.  More than 50 million people had died, and countless more were wounded, became war refugees or were psychologically devastated due to their wartime experiences or seeing loved ones maimed or die.  Some military experts believed the war with Japan could have continued for another 2 years if nukes had not been used.  Thousands of allied soldiers were dying each week fighting Japan while countless other civilians across Asia were dying as well.  Indeed, the editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, concluded that for every month of 1945 while the war continued the Japanese were causing the deaths of somewhere in between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians.  Finally, people across the globe were war wearied and just wanted the conflict to be over.

America was faced with perhaps 3 options to defeat Japan.  The first involved starving the Japanese into submission over an indefinite period of months in which case countless more allied soldiers, asian civilians, and especially Japanese people would have died vs. the 125,000 to 250,000 which resulted from the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Considering how callously the Japanese leaders sent their soldiers to die and how little they seem to have cared about their own civilians during the fighting in Saipan and Okinawa it is very probable that they were willing to lose millions of Japanese in a vain effort to hold out.

The next option involved invading Japan, which would have required an operation so massive it would have made the “Normandy Invasion” in 1944 appear as child’s play.  The American estimates as to how many of their soldiers would die, or be wounded, was between a few hundred thousand and a few million, with considerably more casualties inflicted upon the Japanese.  Once again this would have been a larger number of casualties than those suffered due to the atomic attacks, and does not even include the countless asian civilians who would still be dying under the Japanese yoke.

It should also be noted that when the Americans landed in Japan after the war and saw the defences the Japanese had constructed to defend against invasion they were considerably more impressive than the former had imagined.  Additionally, American intelligence had been mistaken about how many planes the Japanese had left, especially Kamikaze fighters.  Keeping these two factors in mind it is possible that even higher casualties could have resulted from an invasion than a few million for the Americans and Japanese!

The third option was of course using nuclear weapons on Japanese cities in an attempt to shock the Japanese leadership into surrender.  After being implemented this caused considerable suffering for the peoples’ of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed scores of innocent people and could definitely be labelled a war crime.  However, it had certain advantages.  It ruled out a costly naval blockade that would have killed perhaps hundreds of thousands of Japanese and prolonged the war considerably.  It also ruled out a costly invasion that would probably have resulted in millions of American and Japanese casualties.  Finally, it had the chance to immediately end the war.

And it did!  It instantly ended the most destructive and brutal war in history.  It ended it for America without a single American soldier setting foot on the Japanese mainland.  People love throwing “World War 2” statistics around such as the 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust, the more than 20 million Soviets killed during the war, or even the 90,000 Japanese killed during the firebombing of Tokyo.  Yet perhaps another statistic proves how effective the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was:  0 American or allied soldiers, sailors or airmen were killed or wounded in an attempt to invade Japan.

This should not be dismissed out of hand.  Harry Truman would have known that 400,000 Americans had already died in the war (including over 100,000 in the pacific) and that an invasion of Japan would have potentially exceeded this already significant number.  From modern standards it is even more incredibly as Americans could not stomach 60,000 dead in Vietnam, and barely tolerated 5000 dead in Iraq.  Meanwhile Canada with a significantly smaller population tolerated 45,000 deaths in “World War 2” but could not take much more than 150 in Afghanistan in the 21st Century.  America even pulled out of Somalia after suffering 18 deaths in a single day.  How can modern society blame Harry Truman for trying to save countless American lives when it is willing to tolerate so few military deaths itself?

There is of course the argument that the Americans could have nuked an uninhabited island to show the Japanese the effects of the bomb.  Maybe it would have worked, but most likely it would have not.  It is all but certain that the admittedly cruel, but shocking effect of destroying 2 cities with a single bomb each was the only way to motivate the intensely militaristic and die hard zealots that comprised the Japanese leadership to surrender.

Finally, there is another argument that Japan would have surrendered anyways within a few months.  Yet how does anyone know this would have happened without blockade, invasion or nukes, or even if they did surrender how long it would have taken?  Weeks, months, half a year?  And how many more allied soldiers, asian civilians and Japanese would have died during that period?  By far a lot more than the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagaski.

False paragons can argue a warcrime is a wartime and preach morality when they have never had to make decisions that affect the lives of millions or lived in a time where people sacrificed themselves so that future generations could have a better way of life.  Most people today cannot even sacrifice putting down their cell phones for more than 2 minutes at a time to engage in a real life conversation.  Yet in the real world, and especially warfare, not everybody wins, or can be saved, and thus decisions should be based on practical considerations regarding how to minimize how many people will be lost.  In the case of the nuclear attacks on Japan it resulted in the deaths of perhaps 125,000-250,000 vs. the considerably more deaths that would have resulted from any other option including blockading, or invading, Japan or simply waiting for them to surrender.

Additionally, people can criticize, or even hate America for dropping the nukes on Japan if they want to because it is a democracy that allows freedom of speech and rarely hides its crimes, mistakes or controversial acts throughout history.  Countless American authors, citizens and even school curriculums are allowed to debate and criticize the decision to drop the bombs without any interference of the U.S. Government.  Meanwhile Japan seldom admits its considerably worse atrocities committed during the war while its society in general, and her school system in particular, has attempted to portray the Japanese as the victims in the conflict.

This is historically, morally, and factually incorrect.  Japan started the war, did so to conquer and subjugate Asia, and killed countless more people than America or her allies in the Pacific.

Japan was unequivocally the aggressor in the Pacific during “World War 2” and not the victim.  However tragic and sad the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they destroyed and were thus justified.

An In-Depth Review of “Arabs at War” by Andrew Wright

Posted By on April 13, 2015

imageArabs at War” is among the great books on conflict and history regarding the modern Middle East. In this work Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, sets out to answer a simple question; “why have Arab armies since 1948 generally performed so poorly in warfare compared to Western, Israeli, and even Iranian and African armies?” He studies the performance of Six Arab armies (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria) in countless conflicts over the last 5 decades and tries to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using traditional theories as to why Arab armies are generally ineffective he breaks down Arab combat effectiveness according to certain criteria. These include generalship, tactical leadership, unit cohesion, cowardice, morale, information management, technical skills and weapons handling, logistics and maintenance of weapons, and training. Analyzing these military conflicts to see how these factors influence Arab combat effectiveness, or lack of it, is how Pollack tries to answer “why Arab armies fight so poorly?”

The result is a brilliant, informative, and enlightening work that effectively answers what it sets out to and also doubles as an authoritative, if brief, military history of the Middle East since 1948. Being a former CIA analyst Pollack is skilled at delving into the most important details as well as coming back to the bigger picture when needed. Yet whereas some would perhaps criticize this work as overly academic and dry his arguments and points are simple enough for anyone with basic knowledge of military matters and the Middle East. While admittedly it is not the easiest, or shortest, of reads, anyone with a mediocre level of patience can navigate through it. If the campaigns and battles can sometimes seem confusing Pollack compensates by listing the main points at the end of each conflict as well as relating them to the criteria he uses to assess Arab military effectiveness.

As for the case studies themselves they include a menagerie of well known and lesser well known conflicts, and combat ranging from conventional wars, to counter-insurgency, to low scale skirmishes and aerial combat. The “Arab-Israeli Wars” the “Iran-Iraq War” and the “Gulf War” are all here while more forgotten conflicts such as the “Chadian-Libyan Conflict,” Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and Jordan’s suppression of the PLO in 1970-71 are covered as well. Aerial combat has not been neglected either; the surprise attack that crippled the Egyptian Airforce in 1967, the slaughter of the Syrian Airforce over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and the hopeless plight of the Iraqi Airforce during the “Gulf War” are all vividly detailed.

Pollack does a great job of showing how the Arab armies learned, or didn’t, from their mistakes and the methods they used that increased, or once again didn’t, their military efficiency. Obvious methods included switching the primary task of the armed forces from regime protection (often the preference for illegitimate authoritarian governments) to focus on fighting actual wars, to selecting officers and generals on the basis of merit and competency instead of political loyalty, and to encourage initiative, flexibility and innovation among the junior officers in their armies. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, these and other reforms usually resulted in only marginal improvements in Arab military effectiveness.

While it is never directly stated, and thus remains one of the main faults of the book, it is implied that certain cultural or organization factors in Arab society somehow prevents Arab military leaders, despite their best efforts, to create and maintain effective armed forces. Whether or not this is due to the lack of separation of Church and State (or at-least downplaying the former’s role in society) in the Arab world, the inherent mistrust among differing levels of society that precludes harmonious working in organizations, the result of poor education systems, the supposed Arab psyche to save face and avoid confrontations or competition, or all of these and more in combination we are not told. While the author suggests that he was originally going to write a book that included such insights and factors he claims that such a book was not allowed to be written due to how long it would have been (more than twice as long as the 600 page book that “Arabs at War” became).

Perhaps this is reasonable enough in itself; certainly a book of over 1200 pages is a real trial for even the most dedicated reader, and arguably unbearable for such a complicated work that would include such seemingly diametrically opposing fields as military matters and sociology. However, are we to believe that in a 600 page work the author could not have devoted a single chapter, or even 5 pages to the supposedly crucial cultural or organizational factors in Arab societies that arguably are responsible for the poor showing regarding the criteria he sets out to prove how Arab armies have performed so poorly in combat? More likely commenting critically on such hot topics as Arab culture and Islam would have been met with being labelled as politically incorrect at best, or having Pollack threatened with violence at worst. Given how even a cartoon in a Danish newspaper can inflame the masses in the Middle East and lead to bloodshed this consideration should not be discounted.

Anyway, putting this aside Pollack does a great job narrowing down which of the criteria he initially selected is primarily responsible for the poor showing of Arab arms since 1948. While not always universal in all Arab armies, and it varied at certain times, the following could reasonably be stated:

Regarding unit cohesion, logistics and cowardice the Arab armies rarely suffered from such issues. Generally their units held together despite considerable pressure, being flanked or even surrounded. There were countless examples from the Egyptians in the Falluja pocket to the Jordanians at Ammunition Hill of Arabs fighting and dying instead of retreating, or surrendering, despite hopeless odds. Additionally, Arab logistics were almost always outstanding. Egyptian forces fighting in the hostile Negev or Sinai deserts rarely suffered shortages while the Libyans adequately supplied their forces not only more than 2000 kilometres away from Tripoli to the interior of Chad, but as far away as Uganda! Finally most Arab forces could never be considered cowardly; few forces would have continued to advance to certain suicide as Iraqi tanks did on the Golan Heights in 1973 or few pilots would have kept coming as the Syrians did in 1982 when the Israelis slaughtered their jets so brutally that they lost nearly 100 planes to none against the Israeli Air Force.

Regarding morale, training and generalship Pollack suggests that the Arabs were generally mediocre in these categories; being quite capable sometimes and very poor at others. Morale is difficult to gauge but certainly the Arab armies fluctuated from intense optimism to fatalistic defeatism. In 1948 the Arabs were enthusiastic in their goal of eradicating the nascent Jewish state, and in 1973 the Egyptians and Syrians were well motivated after intense training and preparations for war. Yet there were just as many low points for the common Arab soldier such as the tired, and confused, Egyptian soldiers being constantly moved around the Sinai in 1967 before the “Six Day War” to no apparent purpose, or the thoroughly demoralized Shiite conscripts of Saddam’s army in 1991 that had being abused by the Sunnis in power, bloodied by the Iranians in the recent “Iran-Iraq War” and psychologically devastated by the Coalition air campaign.

Training was generally the same story, with the Jordanian army in particular being praised. Apparently the average Jordanian soldier, tank crew and pilot were often as good as their Israeli counterpart. Factors which influenced the quality of training generally included if the political leadership wanted the army to focus on regime protection or fighting real wars, whether the officer and generals were more selected due to competency than political loyalty, if the soldiers were allowed to train in large groups with live ammunition (Arab regimes were afraid these forces could overthrow them), how often and how thorough the soldiers were trained in a particular task, etc. When these conditions were met Arab training could produce above average results.

Certainly Jordanian units consistently inflicted more casualties proportionately on Israeli forces than other Arab forces in 1948 and 1967 as well as in other smaller skirmishes. Likewise the constant Egyptian training leading up to the “Yom Kippur War” lead to perhaps the greatest tactical reverses the Israeli army has ever received in battle. Finally, improved Iraqi training late in the “Iran-Iraq War” helped their army inflict quick and decisive victories in 1988 which broke the stalemate and ended the conflict.

Yet Arab training has been just as often, or more often, atrocious and poor. Regarding the overly politicized army the Egyptians sent to the Sinai and their comprehensive defeat in 1967 Egyptian General Zaki remarked “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.” The Syrian army on the Golan heights in the same war had been so decimated by years of coups, of its officer corp being purged repeatedly and of its lower formation being neglected and forgotten that few soldiers had any idea of what war was supposed to be like. Libyan forces were probably the worse off with Gaddafi refusing to allow live fire training exercises or establishing formations larger than brigades. How else could you explain his considerable army of tanks, planes and half-tracks being defeated by Chadian rebels with Toyota pick up trucks, a few anti-tank weapons and no air force in the late 1980s?

The Arabs have also had an uneven track record with generalship. Yet again much of this had to do whether or not they were chosen due to competency or political loyalty. Another factor was whether or not competent generals were given leeway to do their jobs versus being subject to unnecessary political constraints, and at least as was often the case in the Iraqi or Syrian armies, the fear of summarily execution. While they never produced any Alexanders, Napoleons or Rommels the Arabs surprisingly had a decent amount of competent, and sometimes brilliant, generals. Egypt’s generals arguably would have won the “Yom Kippur War” had they not being overruled by Sadat to overreach themselves and get clobbered by the Israelis in the open Sinai desert. The Iraqi generals, once freed from Saddam’s paranoia, also performed well in first stopping the Iranian offensives in the middle part of the “Iran-Iraq War” and then leading Iraq to victory at the end of the conflict. Even in such a lost cause as the “Six Day War” the Jordanian leadership was competent, correctly identifying the Israeli axes of attack as well as the enemy’s intentions.

As for bad Arab generalship the poorly planned and dismissive way the Egyptian generals fought Yemeni rebels, the Iraqis generals fought the Kurds, and Jordanian generals initially attacked the PLO in 1970 all make America’s conduct in Vietnam appear credible. Iraq’s initial strategic conduct of the “Iran-Iraq War” was also subpar, being excessively slow, not focusing on any critical objectives, and not effectively using the various numerical and material advantages the Iraqi army possessed. Not surprisingly the worst showing, given that the Egyptians had significant advantages in both the quantity and quality of equipment, and could concentrate against Israeli whereas the latter was forced to watch 3 fronts, was probably the Egyptian generals during the “Six Day War.”

Despite the fact they were poor at maneuver warfare they deployed their forces in areas with poor static defences and concentrated far too close to the Israeli border which meant that once the Israelis broke through the Egyptians would have to retreat and fight the kind of war they were ill-disposed at. They also decided to retreat too early and did so in such a poor fashion that it quickly turned into a rout. Perhaps most unforgivable is how many of their generals simply abandoned their troops and were the first to flea across the Sinai.

Finally, regarding maintenance of weapons, technical skills and weapons handling, information management, and tactical leadership Arab armies more often than not did poorly. Arab maintenance of sophisticated weapons such as tanks and warplanes were so bad that such units generally operated at 50-67% operational readiness levels, which were considerably lower than in Western, or Israeli, forces. While once again Jordan was an exception and her weapons generally well maintained, the other Arab countries not only neglected such maintenance but often relied on foreign contingents, such as Cubans and East Europeans to do what they considered dirty and demeaning tasks.

Technical skills and weapons handling were also generally subpar. American and Western military advisors noted that Arab soldiers, tank crews and pilots took much longer to familiarize, or master (if they ever did) their equipment versus Western or even third world soldiers in other armies. Additionally, much of the time Arab soldiers used their weaponry inefficiently. Marksmanship and accuracy seems to have been generally poor even when they had better tanks such as Jordan’s Pattons in 1967 or superior artillery as some as Iraq’s were in 1991. In aircraft most Arab pilots were notoriously poor at close air support and aerial combat. According to many sources during the “Arab-Israeli Wars” the Israelis shot down at least 20 warplanes for every 1 they lost in dog fights (which doesn’t even count the 100s of Arab planes that the Israelis destroyed on the ground). Artillery was also a constant problem for Arab forces; while it did well if they had considerable time to pre-register their targets, as in 1973, it was hopeless whenever it had to fight a fluid and unscripted battle.

Regarding information management the Arabs misuse of information has been sometimes laughable and other times tragic. Such misuse has included the lack of sharing, or even gathering, intelligence, exaggerating the strength of enemy forces, and down right lying.

Arab forces have generally proven reluctant to gather intelligence by patrolling on the ground while their airforces have proven unable, or unwilling, to gather much from aerial reconnaissance. Sharing information is also difficult as knowledge is often seen as power by higher officials and due to the often complicated communications networks set up by Arab leaders to keep their armed forces fragmented and easy to control. This can be contrasted by the American practice in network centric warfare where information is shared among rank and file and allowed to move quickly wherever needed in order to facilitate quicker decision making on the battlefield. Decisions that could be made quickly, and on the spot, by lower officers in Western or Israeli forces were usually made at the highest level in Arab Armies after they had first been passed all the way up and then later pushed all the way down in a process that often lasted hours. How could this ever be an effective way to wage war?

The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly new in military history, but the Arab armies in the last few decades arguably perfected the art. Nearly every time units fled or were defeated in battle they said they had been grossly outnumbered, which is amusing considering most of the time Arab enemies such as the Israelis, Chadians, or even the Iranians, were usually the ones who were outnumbered.

Yet nothing is more comedic than when Arab leaders have lied to each other with disastrous results. Instead of admitting that the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the first day of the war in 1967 Nasser told the Jordanians and Syrians that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed and this fooled them into joining the war and sharing Egypt’s defeat. The Egyptians lied again during the run up to the 1973 War telling the Syrians they would advance deep into the Sinai when they merely intended to occupy a small part of the East Bank of the Suez Canal. They even made fake plans and showed them to the Syrians in order to get the latter to attack Israel. The Syrians also lied during the 1967 war when they claimed that the city of Quneitra had fallen which caused their forces in the Golan Heights to flee and allowed the Israelis to secure the heights before the ceasefire.

Yet according to the author it was the poor showing of Arab armies at the tactical level more than any other factor which explains why they did so poorly in warfare. In general Arab NCO’s were poor regarding initiative, innovation, using maneuver in warfare, executing combined arms operations, and found it nearly impossible to adapt to unforeseen circumstances on the battlefield. As such the strategic leadership of Arab armies could not rely on their smaller tactical formations to gain them success in order to accomplish their goals during warfare.

Typical occurrences included a tendency to conduct costly frontal assaults (such as the Iraqi tanks on the Golan Heights or Syrian tanks in Jordan in 1970), to fight off attacks from fixed positions even when launching a counterattack was the best option (such as the Syrians on the Golan heights in 1967 and the Jordanians fighting around Jerusalem during the same war), and an inability to effectively coordinate tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower as a team (often tanks and infantry would fight separately while artillery and air support would be notoriously inaccurate).

However, this was not always the case. The Jordanian Arab Legion had brilliant tactical leadership during the 1948-49 war and stopped the Israelis from conquering the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yet Pollack shows us that this was actually the result of the Arab Legion having seasoned British officers and that once these officers had been kicked out of Jordan in 1956 Jordanian forces slowly degenerated and suffered from the same tactical handicaps as other Arab armies.

These key flaws, especially lack of effectiveness in tactical leadership have proven so detrimental that it has caused the Arab armies to lose many battles and wars despite having considerable advantages in numbers and quality of equipment. In the Sinai in 1967 the Egyptians had 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks and 450 planes vs. Israel’s 70,000, 700 and 200 respectively. Regarding quality the Egyptians also generally had better tanks, APCs (armoured personnel carriers), artillery and even infantry weapons. Yet during the war Egypt lost perhaps 15,000 casualties and 500 tanks while the Israelis lost 1400 and 60.

Likewise during the same conflict the Syrians on the Golan Heights outnumbered the Israelis at least 2-1 in troops, and the same in tanks. Additionally they had formidable defences built into the excellent terrain of the heights as well (and the Israelis had no other option than to launch a frontal assault). Regarding quality the Syrian tanks were also more modern than the Israeli ones. Yet the Israelis took the the heights in a mere 2 days and inflicted a 10-1 casualty ratio on the Syrians.

Iraq also failed to make significant gains against Iran in 1980 despite the chaotic state of the latter country after the Iranian revolution and enjoying a 5-1 advantage in tanks, a 4-1 advantage in artillery, and 3-1 advantage in aircraft. The Iranians also had significant problems with personnel and equipment as many of their soldiers and pilots had been arrested and embargoes by Western powers denied Iran crucial supplies for their weaponry. Yet Iraqi forces were slow, indecisive and failed to secure any notable objectives in the first year of the war and were eventually thrown out of Iran by mostly ill-equipped Iranian forces of fanatical soldiers who enjoyed few modern weapons.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is in describing how certain Arab leaders recognized the flaws of their officers and soldiers and developed plans and means that led to some improvement in their tactical prowess, and thus more success in war.

The first step, as constantly noted above, was a gradual de-politicization of the armed forces, where generals began to be selected more by merit than by political loyalty. This worked better in Egypt and Iraq than in Syria. This allowed better generals to take command and formulate war plans that took into account the inherent flaws of the NCOs and soldiers in their armies. The main problems according to the generals was that the lower officers were unskilled in combined arms operations, had little initiative and flexibility, were atrocious at managing information (as in they constantly lied or exaggerated) and poor at maneuver or fluid battles where they had to adapt quickly to unseen difficulties.

It is fascinating how Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian generals found ways to compensate for these flaws. In essence they micromanaged set piece assaults that were suppose to be quick, decisive, and last no longer than a few days. The battle plans, the preparations and even the most tedious and small tactical movements to be executed by privates were planned down to the lowest details. The generals did their best to plan combined arms operations and maneuver into the NCOs’ and soldiers’ orders to compensate for their inefficiency in these matters. The obvious flaw in this was that as Moltke the Elder said “A battle plan never survives contact with the enemy.” In other words in a fluid and unpredictable endeavour such as warfare it is nearly impossible to plan for everything and unforeseen circumstances will always unravel the best preparations.

Yet the Arab generals understood this and they tried to compensate using a few stratagems. To them the keys were establishing complete surprise, attacking in overwhelming numbers and to launch and finish their operations in a short time. Obviously the former two considerations would keep the Arab’s enemies off balance and on the defensive while the latter one would hopefully deny the enemy the chance to regroup and regain the initiative.

They also realized that given how poorly their lower formations collected intelligence that they needed to make a sincere and collective effort at the higher end to do so in order to be able to have enough information on the enemy’s strength and disposition, and the battlefield to plan quick, local and decisive attacks.

The best examples of such attempts by Arab generals to win wars by compensating for the inefficient tactical leadership of their lower officers were demonstrated by the Egyptians, and to a lesser extent the Syrians, during the 1973 war and the Iraqis during the final stages of the “Iran-Iraq War.”

These campaigns featured the best means by which Arab forces found a relatively effective way to wage conventional warfare in modern times.

This included:

-the micromanagement of lower formations to guarantee they could accomplish basic tactical procedures with an acceptable degree of competency
-constant and thorough training of troops down to the lowest level regarding even the simplest of task in order to guarantee they could execute their tasks by familiarization and memorization
-quick, limited and decisive operations to allow their forces the best chance of success before the enemy had time to regroup and attack and because longer offensives were simply too unrealistic to plan given the limited means of Arab tactical leadership
-robust intelligence gathering to allow adequate planning
-establishing strategic surprise and attacking with overwhelming numbers so that the enemy was kept off balance and had little chance to upset the delicate micromanagement of the Arab war effort

The first instance, that of the Egyptians in the 1973, is perhaps the best known and the most celebrated, especially by the Arabs. Not only did the Egyptians quickly seize the East Bank of the Suez Canal, but they also thoroughly bloodied the Israeli army during the latter’s initial inept counterattacks as well as bringing the Israeli Air Force close to the red line by shooting down and damaging a disproportionate amount of their planes. As stated above the Egyptians probably could have held onto their initial gains and won the war if Sadat had not ordered the army to overreach themselves and get slaughtered in the open desert.

The Syrians also managed a better than average showing of Arab arms in 1973 when they nearly succeeded in re-conquering the Golan Heights. While they did not show the same tactical prowess or thoroughness of the Egyptians they did manage to achieve strategic surprise and overwhelming numerical supremacy at the point of attack. In fact the Israelis managed only stem a Syrian breakthrough into Northern Israel by incredible bravery, brilliant tactical leadership and luck.

Finally, the Iraqis managed to end the 8 year “Iran-Iraq War” by a series of well planned and executed set piece assaults. These offensives were designed to be local, just over the Iranian border, to last a matter of days, and to focus on destroying what remained of the heavy equipment of the Iranian army. Iraqi intelligence and staff work was impeccable and the Iraqi forces followed the detailed instructions from their generals to the letter and routed the Iranians forces time and again until the latter, being war wearied, low on weapons and internationally isolated, agreed to a ceasefire.

This was the best that Arab arms, with the aforementioned exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948-49, ever accomplished. There were to be no brilliant Blitzkriegs like the “Battle of France in 1940,” no spectacular coups such as “Inchon” in 1950, or innovative ad-hoc efforts such as the British re-conquest of the Falklands in 1982. Arab military performance from 1948-91 (the period Pollack covers in his work) in general was below average with a few notable instances of slightly above mediocre results.

If I can be forgiven for going off topic and going beyond Pollack’s work for a while events in the 21st Century would suggest that Arab armies have continued to stagnate. Syria and Iraq, arguably the two Arab countries with the most experience of warfare, are currently on the brink of collapsing to a menagerie of Al-Qaeda diehards, ISIS zealots and other terrorist or guerrilla groups all with different motives and capabilities. Despite Syria’s experience with crushing internal dissent and insurgencies, most notably the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Hama in 1982, her army seems destined to lose the war in the end. Iraq’s situation is more shocking given all the money, aid, weapons and training (in billions of dollars)
given to it by the United States. Apparently most of this was for naught considering a very small force of ISIS fighters has repeatedly beaten Iraqi forces who have had massive advantages in numbers, weapons and firepowers. It cannot help but make any rational person wonder what all the American money, blood and effort in Iraq was for?

Given the poor showing of Arab armies it is not surprisingly that there has been a transition from confronting Israeli, American or even Arab regimes with conventional warfare to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. While such groups have rarely succeeded in winning militarily they have scored several political victories such as briefly establishing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, forcing the Israelis to withdraw from Southern Lebanon in 2000 due to public fatigue, and have arguably brought the regimes in Iraq and Syria to the brink as of 2015.

Yet it is doubtful whether this switch to reliance on unconventional means will ever yield decisive results for the Arab states or insurgent or terrorist groups. Their best accomplishments are in fact far behind them as Arab rebels in Algeria, Aden, and Lebanon forced colonial or western nations with little political capital for their Middle Eastern adventures to pack up and leave but unfortunately for guerrilla fighters and terrorists across the region the Arab regimes and Israel have no where to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender to them. As Norvell B. DeAtkine noted in a smart piece about Arab insurgencies “while the success of Arab insurgents against Western armies or those assisted by Western powers has been minimal, the success rate against their own governments has been zero.” This follows the logic that insurgents and terrorists rarely win, especially against domestic regimes (such as the Arab ones) or prosperous democracies (like Israel), that their victories are usually the result of a foreign occupier losing political will, and that it is extremely rare that they physically overthrow their oppressive government by military means.

This last point is especially true if the government has considerable foreign backing. Indeed South Vietnam and the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan were never close to collapse as long as the superpowers supported them but quickly did once they stopped doing so. Given that the Russians are still propping up Assad and the Americans are still supporting the small minded politicians in Baghdad there is no reason that ISIS should triumph any time soon.

However, and while all of this has nothing to do with Pollack’s work (though he suggested near the end of his book that “someone else will have to write the long history of Arab unconventional forces in combat since 1948”) there is little doubt that Arab insurgents and terrorists have shown much more success in warfare than their conventional brethren; generally prolonging conflicts, eroding Western, Israeli and even Arab political will, and costing their enemies more money, blood and effort than the best Arab armies managed to.

Certainly even the traumatic experiences of “Israel’s War of Independence” and the “Yom Kippur War” have not been as divisive or caused as much soul searching for the Israelis as their long occupations of Lebanon and the Palestinians territories along with all the terrorism, counter-terrorism and questionable methods that have come with it. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of all battles” in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was quick, cost America less than 500 deaths, resounded in an outstanding victory and was not economically ruinous for the United States. Yet the proceeding “Iraq War” was much longer, much more costly in financial and human terms and so far the overall results would seem to be… less than satisfactory. Finally, it is obvious that Arab leaders have always been more afraid of their own people and subversive groups than being toppled by the Israelis or Americans considering whereas the only time any of them were overthrown by the latter was in 2003 whereas there have been too many revolutions, popular uprisings and coups in the Arab world to count on even 20 pairs of hands.

“Arabs at War” is a key book to understanding the modern Middle East. Besides the obvious way in which it shows why the Arab armies have consistently failed to beat American, Israeli or other armed forces it also raises important questions as to the legitimacy of Arab leaders and governments given the underlying problems that plague the Arab world which prevent it from attaining political, economic or societal success (though this is done mostly indirectly). While the Arab world enjoys mocking Americans and Westerners for failing to learn from history Pollack shows the reader convincingly that given how Arab armies have consistently and irredeemably made the same mistakes since 1948 that the Arab World doesn’t exactly merit an A+ in history itself.

Yet despite the brilliant way Pollack uses his case studies and criteria to analyze Arab military effectiveness, no matter how accurate and damning are his conclusions, and no matter how vital his work is there are some notable flaws.

The most blatant, as noted above, was the failure, or reluctance to either thoroughly, or even cursory articulate the underlying cultural or organization factors in Arab society which facilitates the poor showing of their armed forces. This has already been explained but it is a significant hurdle nonetheless.

Perhaps a more annoying flaw of the book is its repetitiveness. While military history buffs will find the back to back case studies fascinating the casual reader could be forgiven if they quickly got bored of the same formula in each chapter of describing war after war and battle after battle and then describing how things more often than not went wrong for the perennially hapless Arab soldiers.

More amusing is that it is obvious halfway through the second chapter (regarding Iraq) not only what the main constraints on Arab military effectiveness probably are but that these will also be (and they are) the same in each country for the subsequent chapters. Chapter 3, regarding Jordan, is a bit of an exception as the Jordanian forces were generally more competent than their peers, but in the end Pollack reminds us that Jordanian’s better performance was ultimately not decisively better vs. the Arab average.

Frankly some readers will get so tired of the Arabs being beaten again and again that they will begin cheering for them to beat the more qualified Israelis and Americans at least once. There is something inherently perverse of wanting to see illegitimate, backwards and non-democratically regimes triumphing in wars that more often than not they provoked, or started for reasons of grandeur and vanity, instead of self-defence or legitimate grievances. No one likes America or Israel more than myself but at certain points in reading the book even I wanted the Arabs to win an outstanding victory and humiliate their enemies. Surely this is not what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he wrote this book.

One personal pet peeve I have is Pollack’s portrayal of General Sa’d ad-Din Shazli, the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces during the 1973 war. Whereas most Western and Arab accounts of the war generally credit him as one of the key architects of the planning and execution of Egypt’s war effort that nearly defeated Israel Pollack diminishes him ruthlessly. Instead of being one of the few Egyptian generals who acquitted himself well in 1967 he apparently was among the first to run. Instead of being a good strategist and a methodical planner he was actually picked to be Chief of Staff due to his charisma. Instead of opposing Sadat’s I’ll-fated offensive into the Sinai in 1973 he supposedly endorsed it. While I would never suggest that after having read a few dozen books on Middle Eastern Military History that I am in a better position to make a judgement on a key commander during one of the conflicts versus an ex-CIA analyst such as Pollack it is confusing that that his is the only book, indeed the only source, I have read that has questioned General Shazli’s competency.

Yet all of these flaws are minor compared to the considerable strengths of the book. Ultimately his main arguments are unchallengeable, his criteria and minute details are exhaustingly thorough and his case studies are both simple and illuminating. This work, along with Michael Oren’s “Six Days of War,” are arguably among the top 5 most important books on modern Middle Eastern conflicts to be written in the last 15 years.

“Arabs at War” is vital towards understanding the armed forces of the Arab nations in the Middle East. It proves, almost singlehandedly, that for all the significant numbers and quality of their soldiers, equipment and weapons platforms, for all the money and effort spent on training and maintaining their armies, and even with the almost unparalleled experience these forces have had in warfare, that in the end the Arab conventional military threat towards America, the West, Israel, and often even among themselves, is ultimately small and negligible. As Mao would say, Arab armies are like a “paper tiger.”

One can only imagine how different things could have been if they had decided to invest in education, healthcare, social programs and stable, inclusive and democratic institutions instead of waging pointless and debilitating wars that inevitable ended in defeat. After “World War 2” several former colonial possessions in the Far East, later nicknamed the “Four Asian Tigers,” did this and in 2 generations generally caught up to the West in regards to democracy, economic prosperity and standard of living instead of relying on incessant warfare and unnecessary confrontation. It is obvious which method of statecraft is superior.


Why the Soviet Union could Not have Won “World War 2” Without the Western Allies

Posted By on January 28, 2015

imageThe Soviet Union unequivocally did the most of any power to defeat Nazi Germany during the “Second World War.” It fought the lion-share of the German army, and her European allies, for the majority of the conflict while the Western Allies usually faced significantly smaller numbers of Axis forces in Europe. Likewise the Soviet Union also destroyed perhaps 80% of the German armed forces and suffered a disproportionate amount of losses vs. the Western Allies, having much of its territory overrun and losing at least 20 million soldiers and civilians. Because of this there is a view that the Soviet Union could have beaten Nazi Germany without the Western Allies. This view is false. Without the considerable amount of lend lease equipment and supplies, the strategic bombing campaign, and the often critical intervention of western allied forces it is likely that the Soviet Union was doomed to lose a war on its own against Nazi Germany.

It is obvious that the Soviet Union did most of the fighting in Europe during “World War 2” and that it destroyed much more German forces than the British and Americans did. However in the case of production, strategic bombing, lend lease, and western allied campaigns in Europe one could argue that America and Britain tipped the scales in favor of the Allies to win. While it would be unfair to denigrate the important contribution to victory of the Red Army in “World War 2” it is likewise unfair to downplay the roles of Britain and America during the conflict.

The first, and perhaps most blatant, decisive western allied influence would be regarding production. America itself produced nearly 50% of all weapons and supplies during “World War 2,” including perhaps 66% of total allied weapons and supplies. While some of this equipment has been described, perhaps unfairly, as subpar, including the Sherman tank, there is no doubt that much of it including the P-51 Mustang and America’s jeeps and aircraft carriers, were first rate. It should be evident that suggesting that America producing 50% of all weapons and supplies during the war would not be decisive to victory would be completely absurd.

While some have argued that despite this the Russians did most of the fighting to win the war the fact remains that American production was also decisive in this regard as well considering lend lease arguably kept the Russians in the war at best, or gave the Soviet forces the capabilities to effectively defeat the German army, at worst. Whereas some skeptics of lend lease point to the relatively few weapons the western allied powers gave to Russia vs. the weapons produced by the Russians themselves (for example 12,000 tanks they gave them vs. 100,000 the Russians made) it is sometimes forgotten that the best supplies the Russians received from the Western Allies were not tanks, planes or artillery. However, such supplies of weapons themselves were not insignificant and included 20,000 armored vehicles including 12,000 tanks, perhaps 18,700 aircraft for the Soviet Air force, and it seems enough equipment to field perhaps 60 Divisions was given to the Soviets through the Persian corridor alone.

Yet perhaps the most important assets sent to Russia were non-military supplies which the militarized soviet economy could not produce in abundance, and were decisive in giving the Red Army the means to effectively defeat the German army. While combat operations tend to dominate historical narratives there is little doubt that the Red Army owed much of its logistical and communications capabilities to the Western Allies. Regarding logistics the Western Allies provided perhaps two thirds of all trucks and jeeps for the Russians, roughly 400,000. This is what gave the Red Army its incredible mobility which it used from 1943 onwards to breakthrough German lines and encircle and destroy numerous armies. Western aid was also decisive in rehabilitating soviet railways. Regarding locomotives and train cars the Western Allies provided the soviets with 2000 and 11000 respectively while Soviet industry made a mere 92 of the former and 1000 of the latter. They even provided 56% of Soviet rails during the conflict.

Regarding communications the Western Allies provided the Russians 35,000 radio stations, 380,000 field telephones and 956,000 miles of telephone cables which was instrumental in allowing the Red Army to control its massive forces.

Other important supplies given included 57% of all aviation fuel requirements for the Red Air Force, 53% of all explosives, and almost half of the Soviets aluminum, copper and rubber all of which were vital for Soviet industry). Finally some have argued that the 1.75 million tons of food provided was decisive in staving off famine in the Soviet Union during the winter of 1942-43.

Besides such statistics some of the Soviet leaders admitted the crucial importance of lend-lease. According to Khrushchev Stalin himself privately stated “if we had had to deal with Germany one-to-one we would not have been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry.” Marshal Zhukov, perhaps the most important allied General of the war and arguably the 2nd most influential man regarding the Soviet war effort likewise said that without the aid (lend-lease) the Soviet Union “could not have continued the war.”

Then there is the argument that the Soviet Union, despite its supposedly inferior position towards Nazi Germany, managed to consistently outproduce the latter in weapons throughout the war. Indeed, after the “Fall of France” in 1940 the Germans had more population, resources and industry in Europe than both the Soviet Union and Great Britain combined. This situation became worse in the summer and fall of 1941 as the German advance in Russia overrun perhaps 40% of the Soviet population, more than half of its coal and steel output, and the Ukrainian breadbasket which produced a disproportionate amount of food. As Richard Overy has noted Germany became at this point “an enemy with four times more industrial capacity at its disposal” vs. the Soviets. Yet despite this the Soviet economy, being smaller, less sophisticated, and enjoying fewer resources (save for oil), and industry than Nazi Germany, outproduced its enemy in weaponry throughout the war.

The reasons for this are not complicated, and while there is no denying the statistics a case can even be made here that the Russians were eventually doomed to lose without the intervention of Britain and America, or at best to get a stalemate. There is the fact that whereas at the outbreak of the Nazi invasion in June 1941 the Soviet economy immediately, and ruthlessly, devoted itself to total war and geared everything towards war production the Germans were considerably more lax in this regard. It took until the defeat at “Stalingrad” to finally convert the Germany economy to total war and for much of the conflict most German industry operated on single shift basis per day instead of two or three (which means they could have produced twice, or three times, as much weaponry had German industry been fully mobilized) The Russians were also more progressive in employing women in war industry (and thus benefited from increases at production) whereas the Nazis were more traditional, wanting women to stay at home and thus did not benefit from the considerable amount of female labour that could have been industrially decisive until later in the war.

Additionally, whereas the Russians were content to allow its industry to produce a few reliably models of tanks, artillery pieces, and planes, with relatively simple designs, the Germans had considerably more models and infinitely more complicated characteristics which of course meant more specialization. For example while the Soviets had perhaps 2 main tank types and 5 main aircraft ones the Germans at one point had 425 aircraft models,150 lorries models and 150 motorcycle ones. Obviously the German system with its complications and specializations was not a recipe for effective mass production. In the Soviet case it resulted in producing much more weapons and the German one a smaller number of weapons but of better quality. Of course the debate here is whether or not the Soviet numbers offset German quality. The general historical consensus seems to be yes but it ignores a few notable considerations.

Firstly, it ignores that whereas the Soviets vastly outproduced the Germans in 1941 and 1942, and also outproduced them in 1943, that by 1944 the Germans caught up to Soviet production. Secondly, considering that German weapons were generally superior to Soviet ones it can fairly be said that equal production would have given the Germans the advantage. Thirdly, the Germans, from 1943 onwards had to deploy more and more divisions and weapons against the Western Allies. While obviously most of their weapons and forces still faced the Red Army the Germans increasingly had to divert more important forces against the British and Americans. Finally, it is generally accepted that the western allied strategic bombing campaign in 1944 either destroyed, or diverted towards air defense, 50% of the German war economy.

Simply put had Britain and America not been in the war the Germans could have outproduced the Russians in weapons 2-1 by 1944 and considering that their weapons were generally better, considering they had a bigger pool of manpower (as they had most of Europe whereas the Russians had lost 40% of their manpower base in 1941), considering the Germans always had a superior kill and destruction ratio vs. the Germans, and considering the Germans could have concentrated all their forces against Russia as the Western Allies would not have been in the war, it is obvious that the Germans would have had a decisive advantage over the Russians.

Simple war production statistics and kill/destruction ratios during the war confirm this. Despite the fact that the Germans had control of significantly more people, industry and resources for most of the war than the Russians, the latter managed to consistently outproduce them until the former came close to catching up in 1944. Either way during the war the Germans managed to produce perhaps 50,000 full tracked armored fighting vehicles (tanks, self propelled guns, tank-destroyers, etc.) whereas the Russians produced roughly 100,000. While on the surface this seems decisive the German AFV’s, especially in the latter years, were generally of better quality (most vividly seen by the Panther and Tiger tanks). Perhaps even more important was the disproportionate destruction ratio German AFV’s inflicted on their Russian counterparts. In 1941 the Germans on the eastern front managed to destroy 7 AFV’s for every 1 they lost. In 1942 the ratio was 6-1, in 1943 and 1944 it was 4-1 and only in 1945 it came close at 1.2-1 (although this statistic is misleading as the losses in 1945 counted as lost the huge number of German AFV’s that were surrendered at the end of the war).

Ultimately the Russians lost 96,000 AFV’s during the war on the eastern front (while they produced 100,000 during wartime they had started with 23,000 at the beginning of the German invasion) while the Germans lost 32,000 fighting the Russians. This represents a 3-1 destruction ratio in favor of the Germans and therefore it is obvious that Russian production alone would not have been able to beat the Germans. In fact it would not even have been able to prevent the Russians from losing. Considering that the Russians would not have benefited from the strategic bombing campaign that drastically cut down German production (in other words the Germans would have eventually significantly outproduced the Russians themselves), considering that the Russians would not have had access to the 20,000 AFV’s the western allies gave them, and considering they would not have had the logistics and communications assets provided by the Americans and British to give the Red Army the mobility and capacity to wage armored warfare effectively there is little doubt that Russia, despite its impressive industrial feats during the conflict, was doomed to lose a one on one battle of economics and industry against Germany in the end.

Putting production and lend lease and aside, it is arguable that the western allied military forces often provided enough distraction for the Red army to survive at crucial times. While it is hardly surprising that the German navy was concentrated against the Western Allies and the German army against the Russians the German air force was often also devoted disproportionately agains the Western Allies, even during critical moments on the eastern front. Considering German air power was as important, perhaps even more so, then her armored forces, for their success in warfare this was not inconsequential.

In 1941 and 1942 most of the Luftwaffe was devoted against the Russians. However from late 1942 onwards the proportion of German Airpower was decisively shifted against the Western Allies. Much of this was due, at least in 1942-43, to the considerable demands of the Mediterranean theatre of war including attempting to neutralize the British base at Malta and supporting Rommel’s campaign in North Africa, but most of it was ultimately due to the combined western allied bomber offensive which moved from being a relatively manageable nuisance in 1942 to a decisive threat by mid 1944.

By the summer of 1942, at least regarding fighter aircraft, the majority of German Airpower was either deployed in the Mediterranean, guarding Western Europe against invasion, or protecting the German skies against allied bombers. This was when the Germans were launching their risky summer campaign in Russia to try to seize the Caucasus oilfields, and later Stalingrad, in a last ditch attempt to knock Russia out of the war before the Western Allies gained too much strength. While it cannot be stated with certainty that having the lion-share of the German Air force on the eastern front would have been decisive there is little doubt that given the close result at Stalingrad that it could have made a difference.

The same could be said in 1943 when perhaps 70% of German fighters were deployed against the Western Allies while the Germans and Russians arguably fought the most decisive battle of the war on the eastern front at Kursk. In 1944 the Western Allies, especially the Americans, were even more decisive as they effectively destroyed the German Air force as an effective fighting force by engaging and destroying it over the skies in Germany prior to the invasion of Normandy.

Just as important as distracting and destroying German Airpower were the effects of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany led by Britain and America. As stated above the western air forces eventually distracted most of the German Air Force, often at crucial times for the Soviets, and even destroyed the bulk of German Airpower. Also noted above were the effects of the bombing campaign which considerably lowered German production. For example in 1944 the campaign resulted in 31% less aircraft, 35% less tanks and 42% less lorries being produced by the Germans than they had planned for. Finally, the resources the Germans had to devout to combatting the strategic bombing campaign were incredible including two thirds of the German air force, 55,000 anti-aircraft guns (including 75% of the deadly 88mm guns that doubled as anti-tank weapons and could have reaped havoc on Russian tanks on the eastern front), and 2 million Germans who had to man defences, or repair damage, from the bomber attacks. The final result being as Richard Overy has stated “the combined effects of direct destruction and the diversion of resources denied German forces approximately half their battle-front weapons and equipment in 1944. It is difficult not to regard this margin as decisive.” Albert Speer, the man tasked to fix German war industry woes regarded the western allied bombing campaign against Germany as “the greatest lost battle on the German side.”

Besides German Airpower the Western Allies also either tied down powerful German land forces from going to the eastern front at key moments, and even forced the Germans to transfer significant forces from the east to the west, as well. While the numbers of German tanks and soldiers stationed in North Africa and Western Europe may have seemed poultry to the all out war on the eastern front in 1941and 1942 it could be argued that given the close results near Moscow in 1941 or the earlier stages at Stalingrad in 1942, that such forces fighting the Western Allies arguably could have been enough to turn the tide towards a German victory on the eastern front.

Certainly at key times western allied intervention did much to alleviate considerable pressure for the Russians on the eastern front. The American and British descent on North West Africa in November 1942 forced the Germans to not only deploy scare troops and tanks to Tunisia, but also to occupy Southern France, thus seriously spreading German forces even more thin just right before the Russians launched their powerful counter-attack at Stalingrad.

Likewise the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 was extremely problematic for the Germans as they were attempting their last great offensive on the eastern front at Kursk to regain at least some initiative against the Russians. It was in fact the reason why Hitler halted the offensive, which marked the point in the war where the Russians seized and retained the initiative for the rest of the conflict. Hitler ordered significant formations from the eastern front to the Mediterranean, and while ultimately much of them were not sent, the Germans lost any chance, however small, of winning at Kursk, and thus it could be argued the Western Allies had a significant effect on the result of the battle.

Even the much criticized invasion of Italy had appreciable effects for the Russians. The Germans rightly feared the Italians were poised to switch sides to the allies and they deployed perhaps 20-25 divisions in Italy from mid-1943 to the end of the war. The invasion also forced the Germans to disarm countless Italian divisions which ultimately amounted to nearly 1 million soldiers in Italy, the Aegean, Greece and Yugoslavia. These soldiers had to be replaced, by German ones, and it is obvious that having to disarm and replace 1 million Axis soldiers, along with considerable amounts of tanks, planes, artillery and other equipment, could be nothing but beneficial to the Russians who fought the lion-share of the German army.

Finally, the ever increasing threat of a western allied invasion of Western Europe in 1944 forced the Germans to keep significant forces, perhaps 60 divisions and a disproportionate amount of armor, in the west. Hitler was so obsessed with defeating such an invasion that he drained reinforcements to the eastern front and the lack of such forces helped the Russians to inflict perhaps the biggest defeat the Germans suffered during the war in the summer of 1944. As Nigel Davies noted in a piece regarding misleading statistics for the war “in sheer combat power, the removal of ten percent of divisions (say 20 divisions) from the Eastern Front to face the Western Allies (happened 3 times – Tunisia/Mediterranean 1942, Sicily/Italy 1943, and France 1944) looks a lot more significant if it involves moving 50% of the available Panzers and 70 or 80% of the high quality, full strength, specially equipped, Paratroop or Mountain or Waffen SS divisions.”

The Soviet Union could not have beaten Nazi Germany during the “Second World War” without the Western Allies. Lend lease was decisive in giving the Red Army the mobility, the communications, and logistics to wage modern war, considerable resources to help her faltering economy, and even significant amounts of weapons which helped tip the balance in their favor fighting Germany on the eastern front. Despite the fact the Russians generally outproduced the Germans during the war they would have ultimately been outproduced by them had it not been for the western allied bomber offensive which destroyed, or distracted, perhaps 50% of the German war effort by the end of 1944. Considering German weapons were generally of better quality, and considering the Germans had a significantly higher kill and destruction ratio vs. Soviet Forces the Russians would have been eventually hard pressed to hold out. The Western Allies also helped the Russians by distracting German Airpower at critical times during the war, notable in late 1942 while the Germans were fighting the Stalingrad campaign, during 1943 as the Germans were fighting at Kursk, and especially in 1944 when they effectively destroyed the German Air Force as a fighting force. Even on land western allied interventions were often decisive. Critical forces that could have been decisive at Stalingrad were distracted by the occupation of Southern France and the Torch Landings, the invasion of Sicily made Hitler stop the offensive at Kursk, and having to mass forces in Western Europe prior to the invasion of Normandy left the Eastern Front dangerously exposed in mid-1944. While the Soviet Union rightfully deserves the credit as the power which did the most to defeat Nazi Germany during the “Second World War” it could not have won the conflict without the Western Allies.


Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little Brown, 2012.

Neillands, Robin. The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany. New York: Overlook, 2001.

Overy, Richard. Russia’s War. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: Norton, 1995.

Richards, Denis. RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War: The Hardest Victory. London: Penguin, 2001.

Warner, Philip. World War Two: The Untold Story. London: Cassell, 2002.

Article from “Operation Barbarossa”: The T-34 in WWII: The Legend Vs. the Performance by Nigel Askey, 2014.

Article from “Rethinking History”: Statistical confusion – whose troops actually did the fighting in World War Two by Nigel Davies, 2011.

Paper on “Industrial mobilisation for World War II: a German comparison” by Mike Harrison, 2000.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report by Franklin D’Olier,1945.




A Brief History of the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”

Posted By on September 30, 2014

dbpIn the spring of 1954 a climactic battle was fought between the French, with their empire forces, and the Vietminh around Dien Bien Phu in North West Vietnam.  This battle was the culminating point of France’s efforts since the end of “World War 2” to reclaim her status as a great power by holding onto what was left of her empire.  Desperate to win a significant victory against the Vietminh, an elusive communist revolutionary movement that sought to outlast French political will to win independence, the French army in Vietnam gambled on setting up a major confrontation between the two sides by luring the Vietminh into open battle.  However, while the Vietminh took the bait and fought the French around Dien Bien Phu it was the Vietminh who won the battle and the war.  The Vietminh won the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” due to their advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities and political will.

The origins of Dien Bien Phu go back to the mid to late 19th Century when France invaded, colonized and ultimately annexed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into what would become French Indochina.  Without going into considerable detail it is fair to say that the French regime was, like most imperialistic ones, exploitative, autocratic and harsh.  However, with considerable military might and effective counter-insurgency methods France remained firmly in power until the 1940s.

At this point French fortunes in Indochina began to decline.  With the “Fall of France” in 1940 France became a puppet of Nazi Germany.  However, France still had enough military and overseas assets to control her empire and the Germans generally did not interfere with the French continuing to run her colonies.  One exception was French Indochina, which Japan, Germany’s ally, wanted for various reasons.

French Indochina held considerable strategic significance for the Japanese.  Firstly, while the Japanese had occupied or blockaded China’s (with whom Japan was engaged in a major war) ports to prevent her from getting external supplies the French and British had been supplying China from Indochina and the Burma Road.  Taking over Indochina would deny considerable outside assistance to China as well as giving Japan bases to operate against Southern China. 

Secondly, Japan was also considering war against the western powers and having French Indochina would give them a huge advantage in attacking Malaya and Singapore, Britain’s main line of defense against Japanese expansion in Asia.  Indeed it was Japanese warplanes and convoys from French Indochina that sealed the fate of the British forces during the ill-fated “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942.

As such, after the “Fall of France” the Japanese pressured the French administration in Indochina to allow them to occupy strategic points in the country and the French, given their weakness, had little choice but to acquiesce.  The Japanese then increased their presence significantly in 1941 which was one of the factors that led America to enforce an embargo on Japan which ultimately led to “Pearl Harbor” and American involvement in “World War 2.”

During most of the rest of the war the Japanese were content to let the French administer much of Indochina and retain their titular role as masters of the colony.  However, this changed abruptly in March 1945 when the Japanese feared the French regime in Indochina was debating switching allegiance to the Free French and Allies so the Japanese quickly, and violently, overthrew the French regime.  The Japanese massacred French troops and murdered, or humiliated, several officers and officials and this, like the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942 did much to quash the myth to the native peoples of european colonies in East Asia that the white man was supposedly superior to other races. 

While French fortunes had been lowered by the war those of the Vietnamese Communists, or the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, had increased significantly.  While they did not do much damage to the Japanese occupying forces they did expand their forces significantly and began to politically mobilize much of the population.  By the end of the war they had enough support among the people of Vietnam, and enough weapons (not least because the surrendering Japanese gave them much of their weaponry), to claim to be a legitimate party to govern the nation.

After the Japanese surrender at the end of “World War 2” Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North of Vietnam and disarmed the Japanese soldiers while British forces did the same in South Vietnam.  Meanwhile France, keen to re-establish herself as a great power, was desperate to send forces to reoccupy Indochina.

Initially Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh, avoided fighting the French, even signing a 5 year cease fire (which obviously did not last) with them.  His first priority was, along with the French, of getting Chinese forces out of Vietnam.  China has a long history of involvement in Vietnam and when his subordinates criticized the cease fire Ho Chi Minh said “The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

Eventually the Chinese withdrew from Vietnam, not least because Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader of China, was focused on a showdown with the Communists in his own country.  However, before the Chinese left Chiang Kai-shek forced the French to renounce the concessions they held in China’s ports such as Shanghai.

This left the Vietminh and the French, both suspicious of each other, in control of various parts of country.  Any chance of compromise to share power was unlikely due to the irreconcilable goals of both parties; France wanting to maintain her remaining colonies at all costs, while the Vietminh wanted legitimate independence for Vietnam.

Either way the various details and catalysts that led to war are ultimately unimportant and in late 1946 fighting broke out in the port city of Haiphong and the French decisively defeated the Vietminh with superior firepower and technology and the latter were forced from the cities and fled to the country side.  As in plenty of other insurgencies in plenty of other wars (such as the “Chinese Civil War”) the occupiers would generally enjoy control of the urban centers while the insurgents would have the initiative, and much of the control, in the rural areas.  

This was especially the case in Vietnam, and during the “First Indochina War” the French would never effectively control the countryside due to a lack of numbers, faulty doctrine, and the forbidding terrain of the country.  Indeed the country is covered in dense jungles and considerable mountains.  While the French dominated the coastal cities, urban areas, and open terrain like the Red River Delta the Vietminh generally held sway in the rural areas and the interior of the country.

However, despite having little control of the interior of the country the French arguably had the upper hand in the conflict for the first few years as they shipped in more troops and equipment while the Vietminh were isolated from outside assistance and had to rely on what they could capture or stocks of old Japanese weapons.  Unfortunately for the French they squandered their advantages by trying to destroy the Vietminh by military means and coercing the population instead of attempting to enact effective counter-insurgency methods such a securing the population, winning their support, and separating them from the insurgents.  While the French did inflict considerable casualties on the Vietminh, and even came close to capturing Ho Chi Minh during a daring airborne operation, their heavy handed tactics were ultimately counterproductive. 

With the routine practice of murder, rape, torture, and pillaging, most of it done indiscriminately, the French alienated the majority of the Vietnamese and pushed them into the arms of the Vietminh.  This is not to say that the Vietminh were incapable of considerable war crimes and excesses themselves.  They routinely shot, or mutilated, French prisoners, ruthlessly murdered anyone who was seen as a threat or collaborated with the French, and also made enemies of Catholic Vietnamese and other minorities who decided to back the French instead.  However, there is little doubt that with the Vietminh’s effective political indoctrination and social assistance to the masses, combined with France’s refusal to grant independence to Vietnam, that the Vietminh were destined to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the population.

The turning point in the war for the Vietminh was probably the victory of the Chinese Communist forces over Chiang-Kai shek’s Nationalists in 1949 which ended the “Chinese Civil War.”  While Chiang-Kai shek, an ardent anti-communist, gave the Vietminh no support while he was in power, the Chi-Coms (Chinese Communists) gave overwhelming support to their fellow Reds in Vietnam once they secured the border.  This support included countless weapons and supplies, military training, and even safe havens for the Vietminh across the border in China.

The consequences of this would be drastic as Chinese, and Soviet, support would allow much of the Vietminh guerrilla force to transition into a considerable conventional army that had a much better chance of beating the French in open battle.  In fact General Vo Nguyen Giap’s regular divisions initially had much success in their conventional attacks launched against the French outposts near the Chinese border.  These were seized, many French soldiers were killed or captured and much military equipment was taken.

However, despite the Vietminh’s new capabilities and early successes the French generally still had the advantage in firepower, training and technology and when Giap launched an all-out offensive to clear the Red River Delta to throw the French out of Vietnam in 1951 his forces were decisively beaten back with heavy losses.  It was one thing to take out isolated fortresses with superior numbers in broken terrain, it was quite another to face the bulk of the French army in open terrain.  Just as he would later do in 1968 regarding the “Tet Offensive” and in 1972 regarding the “Easter Offensive” Giap had underestimated his opponents’ morale and material advantages and believed that victory was in sight.  However, Giap was also patient and learned from his mistakes and the Vietminh reverted back to guerrilla warfare more or less from 1951 to Dien Bien Phu.

Meanwhile the French, having defeated Giap’s offensive, were unsure on how to proceed.  French policy during the war was remarkably ill-coordinated, ad-hoc and confusing.  Not least was the fact that during the conflict the unstable Fourth Republic back in France went through an astounding 19 different governments.  The French command in Vietnam also went through 6 commandersduring the war.  Obviously the constant shake up of politicians and generals was a not a recipe destined to produce coherent, decisive and continuous policies that pointed the way to victory.  With the political turmoil back in France precluding clear guidelines for action the generals in Vietnam were often left on their own.

Not surprisingly the conventionally minded soldiers again sought conventional militarily solutions.  Emboldened by their victory against Giap in 1951 the French believed they would inevitably beat him in open battle.  The French thus sought to find a way to bring Giap’s regular divisions to battle and destroy them.  How this was supposed to win a protracted guerrilla war, or even affect a reasonable political solution to the conflict, was not clearly articulated.

Either way the problem with the French strategy was how to lure, or fix, Giap’s forces into battle and destroy them.  Having reverted back to guerrilla warfare, combined with the Vietminh’s advantages in mobility and local intelligence, meant that it was easy for them to avoid superior French forces if they wanted to.  As such the French resorted to taking strategic points in the hopes it would coerce the Vietminh to attack them and suffer prohibitive casualties.

Therefore in 1951 the French took Hòa Bình, and in 1952 they took Nà Sn.  While in the former instance both sides took comparable casualties and thus cannot be seen as a French victory in the latter the French were more successful.  At Nà Sn the French established a base and airstrip, covered by all around defense with strong points surrounding the valley and hills around it.  It was supposed to be supplied completely by air and positioned to provoke the Vietminh to attack it.  In the event Giap attacked the smaller French garrison there with 3 divisions.  His forces suffered heavy casualties (3000 versus 500 French), did not occupy the high-ground and never interdicted French supplies landing at the airstrip.  Giap was forced to withdraw and the French later left unimpeded.

Yet despite this French success the legacy of Nà Sn would prove to be more sinister.  The successful defense of the base and their ability to supply the garrison completely by air led the French to once again underestimate the Vietminh.  This meant that they did not note certain crucial lessons regarding the battle.  These included the importance of occupying the high-ground, the vulnerability of a garrison completely dependent upon one airstrip for supply, or the fact that the French supply planes were stretched to their limit during the battle.  As for Giap, having seen his forces slaughtered he wisely learned the key lessons of the battle.  This would have decisive consequences when the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” started two years later.

The immediate origins of Dien Bien Phu was the successful French effort at Nà Sn and a directive by the French Premier to the newly appointed French Commander in Vietnam in 1953, Henri Navarre, telling him to create military conditions that would lead to an “honorable political solution.”  Additionally, since the independence of Laos the Vietminh had been violating its neutrality (as it would continue to do for more than 20 years) to use its territory for movements and supplies.  These factors would motivate Navarre to launch the operation at Dien Bien Phu.

Essentially the French plan was to parachute into the valley of Dien Bien Phu, set up a strong garrison to cut the Vietminh supply lines into Laos, and lure them into battle and slaughter them.  This would have to be done quickly as there was an upcoming diplomatic conference in Geneva which had as one of its main objectives ending the war in Vietnam; hence the French Premier’s directive to using military means to create an “honorable political solution.”  This they would do via the Nà Sn method of using hedgehog (all around) defense combined with artillery and airpower.  It was hoped that France’s supply planes in Vietnam and the airstrip at Dien Bien Phu would be enough to keep the garrison supplied.

While the French launched the operation at Dien Bien Phu in part to lure the Vietminh into a decisive battle before the Geneva Conference it could be argued that they could not have found a worse place to do so.  Certainly regarding terrain, logistics and topography the French at Dien Bien Phu were at a distinct disadvantage.

Regarding terrain they set up their garrison in a narrow open valley surrounded on most sides by mountains covered in jungles.  This meant that they Vietminh could easily see what they were doing while the French could not see what the Vietminh were doing.  This would especially be detrimental for artillery as the Vietminh artillery could be well concealed, and its spotters could easily observe and find targets, whereas the French artillery was in the open and its spotters were relatively blind in locating the enemy. 

Why the French allowed this was because they erroneously believed the Vietminh did not have the logistics to transport a significant quantity of artillery to the mountains around Dien Bien Phu, and even if they did that the French artillery could easily silence the Vietminh artillery.  The French commander of artillery at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth even boasted that no Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.”  Perhaps more absurd was the fact that the French had 100s of artillery pieces in reserve in Hanoi that could have been deployed to the valley but were never sent as it was felt they were unnecessary.  Whether or not all of this occurred due to French racism, simple underestimation of the enemy, or pure ignorance does not matter; in the end it would prove decisive in battle.

From a logistics point of view Dien Bien Phu was problematic as well.  The French had determined it unlikely to be able to relieve overland, the site was at the end of the range of their supply planes and the key to re-supplying the garrison was the airstrip in the main base area.  If this were shut down the only way of re-supplying the garrison would be parachuting air supplies over the valley which was unreliable at best.  Just like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944 such supplies often landed behind enemy lines.  One scholar even makes the case, perhaps tenuously, that the French parachuted enough supplies of 105mm artilleryrounds to keep the Vietminh artillery functioning during the battle. 

While the French did recognize some of these defects at Dien Bien Phu they also expected that the Vietminh would encounter similar problems.  As noted above they assumed, mistakenly, that the Vietminh would not be able to place, let alone supply, artillery in the mountains above Dien Bien Phu.  Likewise, the French felt the Vietminh did not have the capabilities to supply a significant force around Dien Bien Phu for a protracted siege or battle.  The French estimated that perhaps 20,000 Vietminh soldiers could be supplied for a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately they had once again underestimated their adversaries.  Employing perhaps 100,000 coolies with pack mules and donkeys the Vietminh eventually deployed close to 60,000 soldiers, as well as supplying both them and their artillery for a protected siege and battle that lasted several months.  General Giap, the commander of the Vietminh forces, described the support network as “an endless, linked human chain.”

Finally, the French erred at Dien Bien Phu in setting up the base in a low valley close to the monsoon season.  Apparently the Dien Bien Phu Basin has the heaviest rainfall of anywhere in Northern Indochina with five feet of rain between March and August on average.  Remarkably several French, British and American officers and generals toured the site and found it reasonably secure and had little to criticize the French positions.  However, one French officer, General Blanc did voice some criticisms regarding the area during the Monsoon season.  He was ignored.

Despite these disadvantages the initial phase of operation “Castor” (the code name for the operation at Dien Bien Phu) went well for the French as they parachuted over Dien Bien Phu, swept the relatively weak Vietminh presence aside, and secured the area.  After clearing the valley the French established their main base, which also had the airstrip which was supposed to be the lifeline for the garrison.  Then the French proceeded to construct several different strong points which surrounded the main base.  Four were constructed nearby to the south, south east, east and west, while others were further away to the north, the south, north west and north east.  All had female names and it was rumored that they were named after mistresses of the commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Christian de CastriesHowever, the truth is likely more mundane as the names were probably just female names selected alphabetically as the names Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine and Dominique would suggest. 

These strong points were supposed to provide all around defense, and with the garrison’s artillery, be mutually supporting.  They were located on the hills which covered the likely entrances into the valley and their smaller posts provided interlocking fields of fire.  They were also supposed to be littered with barbed wire, mines, and other powerful defenses.

All of this sounded promising.  In theory it should have given the French a good chance of beating the Vietminh in open battle.  However, as with other assumptions the French made at Dien Bien Phu their system of fortifications would prove to be woefully inadequate. 

Firstly, while the strongpoints around the main base were close enough to offer each other assistance, the more outlying ones, especially Gabrielle in the far north and Isabella in the far south, were essentially on their own. 

Secondly, the garrison’s artillery, on which much of Dien Bien Phu’s fate was dependent upon, was remarkably inept.  In his work “Fire Power in Limited War” Robert Scales exposes the less than distinguished record of the French artillery during the battle.  The French only had 28 artillery guns (24 105mm and 4 155mm howitzers) in the whole camp, which represented a mere third of what a usual French contingent of that size would enjoy.  As stated above the French had 100s of reserve guns in Hanoi but the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth, felt they were not needed.  Of the 28 guns only 4 were used for counter-battery fire to hit the Vietminh artillery, which incidentally ended up outnumbering the French in artillery 3 or 4 to 1.  Scales suggests that “there is no evidence these guns destroyed, or silenced a single VM gun.”  Additionally, the placement of the guns was poor and they could not provide support among distant positions.  Moreover, apparently the fire coordination and control was poor and the French artillery often failed to intervene against enemy attacks and sometimes its fire landed on friendly troops.  However, to be fair it is often thought that the French artillery did inflict the lion-share of the casualties on the Vietminh and it is well documented that they did suffer disproportionate casualties vs. the French.

Thirdly, the strongpoints suffered from a serious lack of resources.  The French engineers at Dien Bien Phu estimated they needed 36,000 tons of supplies for a siege, much of it barbed wire, concrete, mines and other assets for defense.  Ultimately they received a mere 4000 tons, 75% of it barbed wire.  The lack of resources meant that defenses were not close to being ideal.  Worse would come in Aprilwhen the Monsoon season began and defenses began to crumble and trenches flooded.   A key reason for the lack of adequate supplies was the small amount of transport planes the French had available, about 80, and once the airstrip was shut down they were reduced to parachuting in supplies.

Amusingly, despite the serious lack of supplies and a shortage of aircraft the French made sure to airlift in two mobile field brothels and a considerable amount of dehydrated wine, which if anything at least shows the French were not uncaring towards their soldiers’ morale.  However, it does make one question their priorities; a similarly comedic episode occurred after the “Battle of Rossbach” in 1757 when a French prisoner told Frederick the Great “Sir, you are an army – we are a traveling whorehouse.”  The French army at Rossbach indeed had been a microcosm of excess and luxury while Frederick’s army had a more spartan existence. 

Either way the French had cleared the landing zone, set up their base, and constructed their strong points in a relatively quick fashion with few losses.  Between the French parachuting into Dien Bien Phu in November 1953 and the main battle which began in March 1954 there were some skirmishes between French and Vietminh forces.  The French did not fare well in these exchanges due to their lack of local intelligence and the forbidding terrain around Dien Bien Phu.  Along with intermittent artillery fire these skirmishes cost the French perhaps 1000 dead or wounded, amounting to 10% of the garrison, before the main battle started.

While the French were setting up their base and strongholds the Vietminh were busy planning how to defeat the French garrison and deploying, and supplying, their forces in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu.  As stated above the French not only believed that the Vietminh did not have the ability, or logistics, to deploy more than 20,000 soldiers in the area, but would not be able to place significant artillery in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu as well.  However, also stated above, the Vietminh had 100,000 or more coolies backed by pack horses and mules and made super human efforts to deploy nearly 60,000 men backed by considerable artillery in the area and supply them for a long siege.

The Vietminh were to enjoy most of the advantages in the upcoming battle.  Whereas the French had deployed in a valley and all of its positions could be seen by the enemy the Vietminh had the cover of mountains and jungles.  Whereas the French were far away from effective support and suffered from poor logistics the Vietminh massed its strength at Dien Bien Phu and were well supplied.  Whereas the French artillery were few in number and poorly used their Vietminh equivalents had a prodigious amount and used them efficiently.  Finally, whereas the French, including the French Public, the French Government, the empire forces from other colonies, and the French army, all had different degrees of motivation and belief in their mission the Vietminh were solidly committed to their cause.

Regarding the conduct of the battle the Vietminh advantages in terrain, artillery, and anti-aircraft were obviously their greatest assets.  The terrain was good for the Vietminh as the mountains and jungles masked their positions, as well as absorbing much of the French firepower (including napalm). 

Much of the rationale for Dien Bien Phu was to lure the Vietminh into battle and destroy them with superior French firepower.  This plan was not completely without merit as was noted earlier when the French had been able to accomplish such feats before, notable in 1951 against Giap’s regulars in the Red River Delta when they assaulted the “De Lattre Line.”  The French also successfully defended the base at Nà Sn that could only be supplied via air and inflicted significant losses on the Vietminh.  Unfortunately Dien Bien Phu did not have the open terrain of the Red River Delta which gave the Vietminh little cover, and this time the Vietminh had the high ground and artillery superiority the French had enjoyed at Nà Sn.

As for artillery the Vietminh had a significant numerical advantage at Dien Bien Phu, perhaps 3 or 4 to 1 against the French.  While the latter amassed around 30 artillery pieces and perhaps another 30 heavy mortars the Vietminh managed to deploy over 200 artillery pieces and heavy motors.  The Vietminh also deployed 30 recoilless rifles and 12 Katyusha launchers, the same rapid fire rocket launchers that had terrified the Germans on the Eastern front more than a decade before Dien Bien Phu.

Besides sheer numbers the Vietminh held other advantages in artillery.  Whereas the French artillery could easily be seen in the bottom of the valley (which the Vietminh eventually called “the rice bowl”) the Vietminh artillery was hidden among the mountains and jungles.  Their artillery was also well dug in, camouflaged, and a series of dummy sites were made to confuse the French.  The Vietminh gunners were also well trained, having gone to China to learn from the Chinese Communists (a rare advantage for an underground army) and their spotters, who could see all the French positions in the valley, were adept at controlling the artillery’s fire.  Finally, whereas the French counter-battery fire was an unequivocal failure the Vietminh artillery managed eventually to take out all French guns during the battle. 

The considerable amount of Vietminh anti-aircraft guns would also prove to be decisive.  For the siege the Vietminh deployed 36 Anti-Aircraft guns around Dien Bien Phu that were supplied by the Soviets while the crews were trained by the Chinese.  Given the small layout of the battlefield (the valley itself was only 10 miles by 4 miles)this number of guns was enough to give the Vietminh a good density of anti-aircraft fire over the battlefield.  Anthony James Joes in “Resisting Rebellion” points out that the anti-aircraft over Dien Bien Phu was more thick than that over Germany in “World War 2.”

Besides the number and concentration of such guns in such a small area the Vietminh also benefited in how Giap deployed them.  Given that Dien Bien Phu is mostly surrounded by mountains, and that the clouds were low due to the monsoon season it was difficult for the French combat and transport planes to provide ground support and resupply the garrison.  As such Giap wisely chose to deploy most of his AA guns along the only 3 narrow corridors at which the French planes could approach.  It was even more pitiful during bad weather when the French could only use one narrow corridor to the north east.

This deployment of anti-aircraft made low level bombing and strafing unrealistic and thus the French combat planes could not effectively intervene in the battle on the ground.  The situation was even worse for the supply planes, of which 48 were shot down during the siege.  Once the Vietminh artillery made the French airstrip unusable the French aircraft were forced to resort to dropping supplies via parachute.  However, the intense anti-aircraft fire from the Vietminh which damaged and destroyed countless French planes forced the remaining ones to fly higher at 8000 feet instead of the usual 2000 and this made it much harder to drop supplies accurately to the French garrison.  As noted above, like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944, much of the supplies dropped from the air landed behind enemy lines instead. 

When one looks at the poor choice of Dien Bien Phu as a battlefield for the French, as well as the French lack of resources and their remarkable hubris, and finally how many advantages the Vietminh had regarding the battle it is actually surprising how long the contest lasted and how many casualties the French inflicted upon the Vietminh.

The main battle at Dien Bien Phu began on March 13 with a massive artillery bombardment by the Vietminh guns the French assumed could never be deployed in the mountains surrounding the valley.  The initial focus of the attack was on the stronghold named “Beatrice” to the north east of the main base area.  The Vietminh had some luck with their artillery as a shell hit the French command post and killed Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot along with his whole staff.  Remarkably a similar coup occurred a few minutes later and another notable officer, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the whole northern sector, was killed by Vietminh artillery as well.

This had a negative effect regarding the French command of the battle at Beatrice and the Vietminh had considerable success using human wave assaults to overwhelm the outnumbered French defenders.  Besides their considerable artillery the Vietminh also used sappers with bangalore torpedoes to eliminated obstacles such as minefields and barbed wire.  The Vietminh captured Beatrice just after midnight and managed to kill perhaps 500 French legionaries, while the French later estimated they killed 600 Vietminh and wounded 1200 more.  Before French resistance collapsed a captain radioed to headquarters “it’s all over-the Viets are here.  Fire upon my position.  Out.”  A French counterattack to retake Beatrice was attempted the next morning but was easily defeated by Vietminh artillery.

The French were given no reprieve as the Vietminh then quickly moved against Gabrielle, the stronghold to the north of the main French base area.  However, in the initial assault the defenders, an elite Algerian battalion, managed to repulse the Vietminh attack.  The latter decided to regroup and later launched a concentrated artillery bombardment in the afternoon of March 14 which had some effect on the defenders and there was serious fighting throughout the rest of the day and during the next morning.  Like at Beatrice the Vietminh artillery scored another coup when a shell hit the battalion headquarters and wounded the battalion commander and most of the staff.

The Vietminh managed to take many of the posts in the Gabrielle strongpoint but did not inflict a decisive victory or drive the defenders out.  However, the latter where in bad shape and the French launched a counterattack to reinforce them.  The French sent their Vietnamese paratroopers, which although excellent troops were tired from jumping into the French base the day before.  While some of these soldiers reached Gabrielle most were stopped by Vietminh artillery and the force took severe losses.  Either way the French abandoned Gabrielle as the remainder of the base was found to be too badly damaged to offer a viable defense.  Thus the Algerians and the French Vietnamese forces pulled back and the Vietminh moved into what was left of Gabrielle.  The assault had cost the French forces 1000 casualties while the Vietminh suffered between 1000-2000.

In a matter of days the Vietminh had managed to secure two of the French garrison’s strongpoints at Dien Bien Phu.  While the Vietminh had taken more casualties than the French these were not prohibitive and the former had significantly more troops at their disposal than the latter.  Perhaps worse than the loss of the strongpoints and casualties for the French was the fact that with the loss of Beatrice and Gabrielle the Vietminh were now close to the main French base and could now shell enemy positions with considerable accuracy. 

Perhaps the most important consequence of this was that the Vietminh artillery now made it impossible for the French to land planes via the airstrip at the main base and now they were dependent upon parachuting supplies into the base to survive.  Of the supplies that were parachuted a significant amount ended up in Vietminh hands.  Either way, and in a remarkable parallel to the 6th Army at Stalingrad, of the 400 tons of supplies the French estimated they needed to keep the garrison fed and supplied daily only 120 tons was dropped on average, and of that 20 tons usually fell behind Vietminh lines. 

The ability of the Vietminh guns to help seize the two French strongpoints, its breaking up of the French counterattacks, and the closing down of the French airstrip both confirmed the effectiveness of the Vietminh artillery and the inadequacies of the French artillery.  Indeed the French artillery efforts at counter-battery fire completely failed and French guns did little to prevent the fall of both strongpoints.  Colonel Piroth, the French artillery commander, was so ashamed of the poor showing of his artillery that he retired to a bunker, pulled the pin out of a grenade and held it to his chest until it exploded.

The French also began to suffer from a problem of desertions.  While their elite parachute, legionnaire, and Moroccan forces were loyal and confident to the end much of the French empire forces, composed of Vietnamese, Algerians, Thais, etc, began to desert in considerable numbers.  It is estimated that there were 17 different nationalities among the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and apparently half of the total number were Vietnamese.  Just feeding the troops became a logistical nuisance as the French had to airlift in 6 different types of food.  According to the Vietnam War Notebook” Muslim troops would not eat pork, Vietnamese troops required fish sauce, the French soldiers demanded cheese and wine rations,” etc.

As for effects the first notable instance of desertions occurred on March 16 when several hundred North African and Vietnamese forces deserted.  Even worse was what happened at Anne Marie, a stronghold to the north west of the main French base.  Garrisoned mostly by Thai soldiers, Giap had continuously sent them leaflets telling them that Dien Bien Phu was not their fight and that they should go over to the Vietminh.  This coupled with the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, which had thoroughly demoralized the Thais, convinced the majority of them to desert.  Thus on March 17, under the cover of fog most of the garrison defected to the Vietminh.  This forced the few remaining Thais and French to withdraw and Anne Marie was occupied by the Vietminh.

The French garrison would suffer disproportionately both from desertions to the enemy, as well as internal desertions by other soldiers who simply sat the battle out near the Nam Yum river.  The number of overall desertions were not inconsequential as many studies have suggested that out of the 13-15000 man garrison at Dien Bien Phu perhaps only 6500 were effective combatants against the Vietminh.  Once again this suggests that despite all the disadvantages the French had at Dien Bien Phu it is to their credit they held out so long and inflicted such disproportionate casualties on the Vietminh.

After the Vietminh seizure of Beatrice and Gabrielle, and the desertion of the garrison at Anne Marie, there was a brief interlude regarding major fighting for the next two weeks.  The French at this point were desperate to neutralize the Vietminh’s advantage in artillery and devoted considerable resources, including dropping 10,000 gallons of Napalm in one day, in an attempt to do so.  However, the inefficiencies of the French counter-battery fire, as well as the deception efforts of the Vietminh and the jungle terrain doomed these efforts. 

More successful was a French counterattack on March 28 led by Major Marcel Bigeard, a distinguished paratrooper who had fought in “World War 2,” developed his reputation in Indochina and later served in Algeria.  He was ordered to take a Vietminh anti-aircraft position west of the French base that was dominating the airstrip.  After explaining to his superiors he could succeed but that he would only be able to do so at great cost he quickly organized the assault overnight.  The plan relied upon surprise and sophisticated artillery support. 

In fact Bigeard achieved complete surprise and the assault was a brilliant tactical success which killed 350 Vietminh soldiers and destroyed 17 anti-aircraft machine guns.  This significantly boosted the morale of the French garrison after its previous defeats.  Unfortunately this was to be the only tangible effect the French would gain since they had to abandon the position as they did not have enough men to hold it.  The action also did little to prevent the Vietminh from continuing to stop the French from effectively resupplying the garrison.  Yet the worst consequence of the assault was the loss of 20 dead and 97 wounded French soldiers, many of them the best junior officers among the garrison.  The French may have inflicted more casualties on the Vietminh than they had received, but unlike the latter they were hard pressed to replace them.

The next major Vietminh attack occurred on March 30 and was mostly directed towards the strongholds of Dominique and Eliane.  However, instead of the usual human wave tactics that had resulted in heavy casualties taking Beatrice and Gabrielle Giap decided to build approach tunnels to get as close as possible to the new strongholds which were close to the heart of the French base.  Not surprisingly the French did not remain passive but used mortars extensively to try to thwart the Vietminh who were digging the tunnels. While the latter took a considerable pounding they continued to work unabated.  The Vietminh plan was to use a heavy bombardment at night with the tunnels to provide as much cover as possible.

While the plan seemed sound the French command had recently reviewed the defenses in the area and had ordered in reinforcements, to be commander by Major Marcel Bigeard, the same venerable soldier who had successfully led the counterattack on March 28.  Marcel and his men arrived in time to join the beginning of the battle. 

After a powerful artillery bombardment the Vietminh jumped out of their approach trenches and assaulted several positions at the Dominique, Eliane and Huguette strongholds.  Despite the recent French reinforcements the Vietminh captured the first two outposts at Dominique and only the 3rd remained between the Vietminh and the French headquarters.  While much of the Algerian defenders here ran the situation was saved by two groups, one a group of Senegal gunners who, according to the Vietnam War Notebook, “dropped their guns to zero elevation, cut the fuzes to zero delay, so that the shells would explode as soon as they cleared the muzzles, and opened up when the charging Vietminh were almost on top of them and shredded the better part of two regiments.”  The other was a group of French who used their anti-aircraft machine guns to push back Vietminh who came near the airfield.  It was the NCOs, and Major Bigeard, who had saved the situation that their overconfident superiors had put them in.

Indeed Bigeard with French paratroops, and other trustworthy units, counterattacked again and again throughout the battles at Dominique and Eliane and prevented a rout.  In another notable instance it appeared the French would collapse at Eliane but a group of French tanks arrived just in time.  Ultimately Bigeard, his initial reinforcements, and the stubbornness of the French forces held onto both strongpoints despite ending up dangerously low on reserves.

On April 5 the Vietminh attacks began to wind down.  The French intercepted signals from the enemy asking for more reinforcements and supplies.  While Giap was disappointed his attack had not succeeded he knew that with the French supply situation becoming worse that time was on his side and that he could be patient and build up more strength.  Additionally, despite failing to take the Dominique and Eliane strongholds they had inflicted significant casualties on the French which would be difficult to replace and they had also done considerable damage to the French defenses.

Between these attacks and the final Vietminh assaults in May the tempo of operations decreased around Dien Bien Phu.  While the French had been battered and were running low on supplies the Vietminh had troubles of their own.  Despite their considerable efforts at supplying their forces around Dien Bien Phu the Vietminh were having supply woes, especially regarding artillery ammunition.  Additionally, they had taken considerable casualties and Giap began bringing in reinforcements from Laos.  Perhaps most troubling was that there was a morale crisis among some Vietminh forces.  After having sustained significant casualties many units began to refuse to advance.  In a parallel to the Soviet army in “World War 2,” the Vietminh soldiers were told to advance or they would be shot by their officers or NCOs.  Another reason for the poor morale was that the Vietminh medical system was rudimentary and the wounded had little hope of being cared for.

This led to fewer battles during April while Giap consolidated his forces and launched smaller attacks using more careful measures to limit casualties among his force.  Much of this again involved digging more approach trenches and this period was marked by the Vietminh closing in on the French centre and strangling the garrison.  Eventually the Vietminh would dig trenches to within 800 yards of the main French command post.  The monsoon season was also well underway and the rain turned the area around Dien Bien Phu into a sea of mud and French defenses crumbled, trenches were filled with water, and air support, which was already ineffective, was more restricted.  The French hoped that the mud would at least slow down the Vietminh’s resupply efforts and maybe even allow the reopening of the airstrip but none of this occurred. 

However, there were a few notable engagements during this period, not least some significant French counterattacks.  On April 10 Bigeard tried to recapture the Eliane post 1 after a short, massive, artillery bombardment and the use of small unit infiltration tactics.  This position changed hands several times but the French ultimately secured it.  A Vietminh assault to try to take it back was repulsed on April 12.  Apparently this French success had an adverse effect on Vietminh morale and only considerable efforts by the political commissars prevented a crisis.

A less successful operation was launched by the French to resupply Huguette 6 with assaults launched on April 11, 14 and 16.  While the French managed to get some supplies through they also suffered heavy casualties and it was decided to abandon Huguette 6.  The garrison attempted to breakout on April 18 but most of them failed to reach French lines.  This failure was followed by a successful Vietminh assault against Huguette 1 on April 22 which secured them 90% of the airstrip and strangled the already inadequately French resupply efforts to Dien Bien Phu even further.  A French counterattack to retake Huguette 1 later that day failed.

The end for the French garrison was in sight.  With the Geneva Conference about to begin Ho Chi Minh pressured Giap to finish the battle.  When the Vietminh began their final offensive on May 1st the French were down to 3 days of rations and a mere 20,000 rounds of artillery ammunition.  They were also strangled by the Vietminh on all sides with the latter’s trenches uncomfortable close to the French forward positions.  They were so close in fact that the initial attacks were launched without an artillery barrage and much of the fighting was done with grenades and bayonets.  By the end of the first day the Vietminh had conquered two strongholds.

The fighting during the last few days was brutal and attritional with the Vietminh alternating between massed infantry attacks and heavy mortar fire.  The last desperate assault on the garrison began on May 6.  The French managed to defeat the first wave with artillery, using an innovation called “time on target” where all rounds fired from different positions across the garrison would all land at the same place at the same time (perhaps suggesting that the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was more effective than sometimes thought) which decimated an entire Vietminh regiment. 

However, the Vietminh had some innovations of their own.  The Katyusha rockets were finally unleashed against the French for the first time in the battle.  A more effective stratagem was the detonation of a mineshaft full of explosives under Eliane 2 (much like the British use of mines during the “Battle of Messines” in “World War 1”) which effectively destroyed the position and allowed the Vietminh to continue to advance.  This they did, slowly but surely, overrunning positions one at a time while the French ran out of space and ammunition.

On May 7 Giap initiated an all-out assault with 25,000 Vietminh regulars against the 6000 remaining soldiers of the French force.  At this point the French were doomed as their artillery had been knocked out, their ammunition was all but depleted and the Vietminh were within 100 yards of the main French command post.  During the last few days there was some hope that the Americans would intervene with B-29 Bombers, and according to some accounts even nuclear weapons, but President Eisenhower refused to act.  The garrison was abandoned to its fate.

Dien Bien Phu fell on May 8, 1954, the ninth anniversary of “Victory in Europe Day.”  As the French Prime Minister reported its fall to the French National Assembly all the deputies rose to show respect, all except for the Communist members.  Incredibly the Communists in France had spent the war fighting the French effort and even had their labor unions sabotage supplies sent to Vietnam.

As for the cold statistics regarding the battle the French lost their whole garrison, roughly 13,000 men at its height.  Perhaps 2-3000 were killed, 6-7000 wounded, and the rest (including much of the wounded) taken prisoner, including those who deserted.  Of the estimated 10,000 French forces taken prisoner only 3000 would be freed later while the rest either died during captivity or were kept prisoner as was the probable fate of the French Vietnamese contingent at Dien Bien Phu.  Among the lucky that returned home was Marcel Bigeard who was far from finished his long, distinguished and controversial military career.

Despite winning the battle, and the war, the Vietminh suffered disproportionate casualties versus the French.  While the Vietminh had most of the advantages during the battle the French forces, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, were generally better trained, and the French had the benefit of fortifications and defenses, if of variable quality, while the Vietminh constantly had to expose its ranks to considerable firepower attacking over open ground, often employing human wave tactics.  Like the British Navy at Jutland in 1916 the Vietminh won strategically despite certain questionable methods while the French had considerable tactical success until they were overwhelmed.  The price was not insignificant, costing the Vietminh perhaps 8000 dead and 12-15000 wounded, coming close to 25,000 casualties and representing nearly 1/4 of Giap’s total regular forces.  The French losses at Dien Bien Phu by contrast represented a mere 4% of their manpower in Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu was the catalyst which led to the end of French dominion in Indochina.  While the French lost 4% of its manpower in Vietnam against 1/4 of the Vietminh’s regular troops the French public, and politicians, had had enough and decided to pull out and cut their losses.  However, the Vietminh would not win an outright victory as the country would be divided in half with a communist north and an independent south backed by the Americans, who had supported and bankrolled the French during the war, and would now inherit the burden of fighting communism in South East Asia.  Elections were supposed to take place in a few years to try to unify the two countries.  These elections never occurred.

Instead the end result is well known as the Americans initially propped up the south regime against incursions from the communist north, and eventually entered the conflict themselves in a desperate bid to save the nation from falling to communism.  While the Americans meant well for Vietnam and won every battle of consequence during the conflict they ultimately lost the media battle at home, did not invest enough in securing, or winning over, the population of South Vietnam, and could not save the regime in Saigon from its own corruption and incompetence.  America ended its military involvement in Vietnam in 1973 and soon afterwards cut off most of its military and economic aid to South Vietnam.  Meanwhile the Soviets and Chinese propped up the North Vietnamese with Billions of dollars of aid and in 1975 the North Vietnamese Army decisively conquered South Vietnam ending a protracted conflict that had been going on and off for nearly 30 years.

Yet despite the Vietnamese Communists’ impressive victories versus the French, and later the Americans (albeit with considerable backing of the Soviet Union and Communist China), there is a big myth regarding the “Vietnam War” where the people of South Vietnam were supposedly overall sympathetic to the communist cause and only American intransigence prevented them from joining their brothers in the north much sooner. 

In reality while the South Vietnamese were not particularly fond of the Americans they had no wish to be communists either.  North Vietnam was always more rural, agrarian and pro-communist whereas South Vietnam was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned more towards the West.  During the “First Indochina War” most of the battles, fighting, and support for the Vietminh had been in the north and this is one of the reasons that after the conflict the country was divided in two rather than simply being handed over to Ho Chi Minh.  Additionally, after the war nearly a million Vietnamese fled south while perhaps a tenth of this number fled north.  The final proof was that in 1975 with the fall of the South almost 2 million South Vietnamese eventually fled the country rather than live under communism, perhaps another 1-2.5 million were sent to “reeducation camps” and the NVA generals estimated that maybe a third of the population supported them.  The inconvenient truth regarding the “Vietnam War” was that whatever faults and excesses the Americans were guilty of they were legitimately fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese.

Besides the ensuing “Vietnam War” another result of Dien Bien Phu was the accelerated descent of european imperialism that had already been weakened by the reduction of French and British influence since “World War 2.”  Given the weakness of the British and French, the strength of the Soviets and Americans, and the aspirations of oppressed peoples in western colonies, european colonialism was doomed.  However, while Dien Bien Phu was an important, perhaps quintessential, event in this regard it still took the ill-fated “Suez Crisis” in 1956 and the “Algerian War” from 1954-62 to finally convince the policymakers in London and Paris that european imperialism was dead.

Then there was the influence that Dien Bien Phu had on military thought.  To some it seemed to vindicate Mao’s view of “people’s war” whereby political mobilization of the masses would lead to opposition to the government, and then later to guerrilla warfare which would wear down the opposing army while strengthening the people’s army and finally lead to all out conventional warfare where the oppressive government would be physically overthrown.  Yet despite the well-earned victory the Vietminh accomplished at Dien Bien Phu this was an exaggeration.

Since Mao’s writing on the subject only his own army in China managed to accomplish this feat, and only then due to extraordinary circumstances.  Indeed by the mid-1930s the Communists had all but been defeated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and had not the Japanese invaded China in 1937 they probably would have been wiped out.  During the war the Nationalists had been severely weakened while the Communists gained in strength due to the cruelty of the Japanese and the perceived impotence of the Nationalists.  After the war the Communists also benefited from significant aid from the Soviet Union whereas the Americans gradually cut off the Nationalists from military and economic aid.  Finally, the Communists benefited from the fact that the Nationalists were never a truly united, strong, or technologically advanced government.  These unique circumstances allowed Mao to triumph over Chiang Kai-shek and it began the myth that insurgent forces had a good chance of overthrowing governments by conventional military means.  Needless to say such circumstances did not duplicate themselves in other conflicts. 

No other insurgent movement in the 20th Century ever became strong enough to physically defeat and overrun the government it was fighting.  Efforts by insurgents in Greece after “World War 2,” in Algeria during the 50s and 60s, and against America in Vietnam in 1968 and 1972, all failed unequivocally.  The only ways insurgents succeeded was either out-waiting foreign powers as in Vietnam, Lebanon, or Afghanistan, or putting enough pressure on domestic governments to give them a share in power or the right to contest elections such as in Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, and even the brief establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s. 

Dien Bien Phu itself was no exception.  As stated above while the Vietminh won the battle fairly they had suffered prohibitive losses and had barely dented French manpower in Vietnam, let alone physically overthrown their presence in the country.  They won the conflict by quashing French political will to continue the war, not by liberating the nation via military means.  The fact that the Vietminh only secured Northern Vietnam instead of the whole country after 1954 confirms this.

In fact Dien Bien Phu would be a stand-alone case study where a rebel army (albeit one provided with significant conventional capabilities by donor states) defeated a modern, western conventional army.  The specific circumstances that combined many French weaknesses and Vietminh strengths that led to the result at Dien Bien Phu would never occur again (just as the same factors which led to Mao’s victory in the “Chinese Civil War” never did either).  Much like the dream of inflicting another “Cannae” was a hopeless dream for conventional soldiers the attempt to create another “Dien Bien Phu” would be an unfulfilled aspiration for many insurgents as well.

The French lost the battle of “Dien Bien Phu” because the Vietminh had the advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities, and political will.   The French chose a battlefield that was too remote to be supplied effectively and had terrain that favored the Vietminh instead of their forces.  The terrain concealed the Vietminh hiding in the mountains around the valley, negated much of the effects of French firepower, and also allowed the Vietminh to clearly view the French positions in the open valley (not to mention the effects of the Monsoon season).  The Vietminh supply system became strained during the battle but continued to function whereas the French supply system broke down early in the battle and never recovered.  The French artillery was also outnumbered and inefficiently used whereas the Vietminh artillery was considerable in both numbers and effects, managing to adequately support Vietminh ground assaults and shutting down the French airstrip.  The Vietminh’s anti-aircraft guns were also decisive in limiting the effectiveness of the French combat and supply planes by shooting down, or damaging, many planes, or forcing them to fly too high or abandon their missions, which greatly decreased French firepower and the amount of supplies the French garrison received via parachute.  Finally, the Vietminh were united in their determination to win, despite a temporary crisis in morale at Dien Bien Phu, whereas the various levels of motivation among the differing components of the French effort in Vietnam ranged from excessive dedication to lethargic apathy.  It is hard to see how a nation like France whose population generally disapproved of the war, which went through 19 governments and 6 commanders in the field during the conflict, who fought with a disproportionate amount of empire forces whose loyalty and motivation were suspect, was likely to triumph over a ruthless, disciplined and popular mass movement such as the Vietminh.

Yet despite fighting an unpopular war, despite being forgotten by politicians at home, despite being placed in perhaps the most unfavorable circumstances to fight a battle by arrogant generals, and despite being abandoned by many of their colonial comrades, much of the French garrison, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, maintained their composure until the end.  The last message from Dien Bien Phu before the surrender was “we’re blowing everything up.  Adieu.”  For France the goodbye was more than a lost battle, it was the farewell to her status as a great power.


Beckett, Ian.  Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies.  New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Boot, Max.  Invisible Armies.  New York:  Liveright, 2013.

Joes, Anthony.  Resisting Rebellion.  Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Lewis, Jon.  The Mammoth Book of Battles.  London:  Robinson, 2000.

Moran, Daniel.  Wars of National Liberation.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Polk, William.  Violent Politics.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2007.

Scales, Robert.  Firepower in Limited War.  Novato:  Presidio, 1995.

Van Creveld, Martin.  The Age of Airpower.  New York:  Public Affairs Books, 2011.

Wiest, Andrew.  Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2006.

Windrow, Martin.  The French Indochina War.  Oxford:  Osprey, 1998.

Article from “Parallel Narratives”:  Vietnam Notebook: First Indochina War, Dien Bien Phu (1953-1954) by R. Filippelli, 2014.

Study for the “Air Command and Staff College”:  A Description and Analysis of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh by Major Roger Purcell, April 1986.

Study for the “Joint Services Command and Staff College”:  The battles of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh An analysis of the influence of airpower by Wing Commander J M Whitworth, July 2012.

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”: [September, 2014]

Wikipedia article on the “First Indochina War”: [September, 2014]

An In-Depth Review of “Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq”

Posted By on July 14, 2014

GroznySun Tzu, the great philosopher of war, was not a fan of urban warfare.  When listing off different ways to wage war he suggested that “the worst policy is to attack cities, attack cities only when there is no alternative.”  Indeed it seems like an almost unchallenged theory that urban warfare is inherently long, costly, indecisive and ruinous.  In “Concrete Hell” Louis DiMarco, a former Lt. Colonel in the American Army, challenges this theory and offers some surprising conclusions.

Instead of being an aberration urban warfare is constant throughout history.  Instead of being pointless and costly it is often decisive and no bloodier than other forms of warfare.  Instead of being a refuge for guerrilla fighters and terrorists soldiers are more likely than not to triumph.  Yet perhaps the biggest myth he quashes is that tanks, rather than being a liability in urban warfare, are actually a vital asset.

Starting with a general history of urban warfare since ancient times the author then focuses on 9 case studies since “World War 2.” Beginning, unsurprisingly, with Stalingrad he moves from conventional wars such as Korea, to what could be called “internal pacifications” such as the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland and finally to Chechnya and Iraq in what he describes as “hybrid war.”

In the conventional war case studies, Stalingrad, Aachen, Inchon and Seoul, and Hue respectively, the fighting was between standing armies while seizing, and retaining, the city was the paramount objective.  Considerations such as collateral damage and political blow back, while not completely absent (especially at Hue), were generally secondary to the military objective of taking the city.

Regarding “internal pacifications” the fighting was between government troops on one hand and terrorists or revolutionaries on the other.  These case studies include the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland.  Here the military contest was not as vital and political considerations came to the fore.  As government forces were fighting not just to take cities but to pacify rebel groups and establish legitimacy to rule, the successful seizure of urban areas, if done so at the cost of significant civilian losses and violating the rule of law, often led to a pyrrhic victory.  Indeed the widespread use of torture used by French forces during the “Battle of Algiers” alienated enough of the French public, who had suffered similar abuses under the nazis, to eventually convince the French government that holding onto Algeria was politically impossible.  Likewise, while the British never lost Northern Ireland, the often heavy handed conduct of the British army against the Catholics, as well as the lack of political considerations to address their grievances until later in the conflict, meant that the war in Northern Ireland went on for more than 30 years until a relatively satisfactory peace settlement was reached.

As for so called “hybrid warfare” the author describes the Russians in Grozny in the “First Chechen War” and Ramadi during the “Iraq war.”  In these cases the soldiers were facing guerrilla opponents who were not as strong as regular forces, yet not as weak as terrorist or revolutionary forces (as in the case of Algeria and Northern Ireland). The opponents in these instances were guerrilla forces fighting against foreign intruders and had considerable benefits in local intelligence, motivation and unit cohesion.  In such situations the conventional forces are still likely to win but they are once again constrained by numerous political factors. 

In Grozny the Russians eventually won and captured the city, though not before they suffered horrific casualties, bombed the city to the ground, and lost most of the legitimacy of their cause.  In Ramadi the Americans adopted a different philosophy, the so called “population-centric” approach, and eventually won over the population, neutralized the enemy insurgents, and secured the city without suffering heavy casualties or inflicting significant collateral damage.

Finally there is the case study regarding “Operation Defensive Shield” in which the Israelis moved into the West Bank in 2002, but focuses primarily on Nablus and Jenin.  This operation was neither a conventional approach, a counter-insurgency effort, nor designed to permanently neutralize the enemy, but simply to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups attacking Israel.  As it was a limited operation, both in time and scope, it never addressed the root causes of terrorism against Israel.  However, as its objective was limited only to reducing terrorist capabilities, and as it did so effectively, it can be classified as a success.

As for why these battles begin, as in why fighting occurs in cities despite Sun Tzu’s warnings, the author presents a few solid arguments along with some common sense.  For starters cities are centers of government, economics, culture and industry.  As such seizing them can disrupt governance, trade, industrial production, and other vital assets in order to wage war.  They are also where the masses reside and nothing is more ruinous for morale than being occupied.  Additionally some cities, especially capital ones, are what Clausewitz refers to as “the centre of gravity” for the enemy, the fall of which will neutralize his capacity, or at least his will, to fight.  Indeed the seizure of the enemy’s capital has often been decisive in war, as it was in the case of Rome regarding the fall of the Roman Empire, and for Paris in the “Napoleonic Wars,” the “Franco-Prussian War” and the “Battle of France.”  Moreover, the “Battle of Berlin” was the last major operation in Europe in “World War 2,” the seizure of Saigon ended the “Vietnam War” and the fall of Baghdad ended Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003.

Additionally, urban warfare also occurs when there are important enemy forces stationed in cites, such as the F.L.N. in Algiers, or if enemy forces are too strong to bypass.  Then some cities are captured to facilitate further operations.  These are usually important communications centers such as a city that lies along major converging rail lines such as Moscow, which dominates all communications in European Russia, or a vital port, such as Cherbourg or Antwerp (which the Allies both wanted to ease their logistical constraints after landing in Normandy).  The author even cites the example of the British capturing Louisbourg in the “7 Years War” prior to their attack on Quebec showing that despite the typical stereotype this American author has a good grasp of Canadian, as well as American, history.

Finally there is the point that urban warfare offers significant defensive advantages for weaker conventional forces, insurgents and terrorists that none of them would enjoy fighting a strong conventional force in open terrain.  Usually the defender uses urban landscape, with its countless places to both conceal themselves and ambush enemy forces, as well as the presence of civilians, to compensate for inferior numbers, lack of equipment, or simply to being less competent than their enemies.  The presence of civilians has mostly been a boon with the rise of media, and when fighting democracies, as most collateral damage is usually blamed on the attacking force.  For some reason people in the Western world always seem to blame conventional armies, who generally try to avoid civilians casualties as much as they can, versus terrorist and insurgent groups who purposely put civilians in harms way. 

Even though it is a well-documented practice for terrorists and insurgents to put civilians at risk so that any deaths will result in subsequently higher recruitment and political capital for their cause the majority of people in liberal democracies somehow end up sympathizing for these irregular groups, few of whom ever support freedom, tolerance of all religions, or gender and racial equality.  While the author always remains detached and objective there is little doubt that such sentiments of frustration towards the home front would find considerable sympathy among soldiers who have engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

Either way the value of urban areas to the enemy is relative.  The author suggests that it is necessary to know the enemy’s military, geopolitical, economic and cultural considerations, as well as the roles, and importance, of his cities before attacking them.  For just as there are no lack of examples of the fall of major cities ending wars there are plenty of other examples to suggest that it is not inherently decisive either.  The Persians may have captured Athens but later lost the naval battle at “Battle of Salamis” and had to evacuate Greece.  The Japanese took Nanking in 1937, and Napoleon took Moscow in 1812, but their enemies still had plenty of space to retreat and considerable resources and people to fight them.  The Russians may have taken Grozny in 1995 and the Americans Baghdad in 2003 but their wars were far from over and did not end how they had wanted.  Yet it is still a general consideration that a modern society based on conventional fighting forces is still more vulnerable to the loss of its major cities than a backwards one based on irregular forces.

However, such factors aside there are some generally accepted principles regarding urban warfare.  First is that to decisively capture a city the enemy combatants inside need to be cut off from outside support.  In other words the city needs to be surrounded, or at least all the lines of communications going in and out, need to be secured.  This may sound so blatantly obvious but being a serious student of military history myself I am shocked by how many accounts of the “Battle of Stalingrad” don’t even acknowledge the fact that one of the key reasons Stalingrad never fell to the Germans was that they never managed to either secure the east bank of the Volga River, or at least effectively interdict the traffic across it.

An extension of this principle is that the fighting to surround a city, or to cut it off, is often more time consuming, and costly, than the fighting inside the city itself.  Certainly this makes sense; the “Battle of Berlin” was essentially a giant mopping up operation once it was encircled, the Communists at Hue began to retreat after they were cut off, and the Americans found it much easier to conquer Aachen compared to the vicious fighting to effect its encirclement.  Essentially it comes down to morale and logistics.  Warfare is generally a costly exercise, and once you run out of bullets, food, and equipment you can no longer effectively engage in it.  As for morale nothing is worse for the psychology of soldiers than knowing they are surrounded and cut off from supplies. 

Then there are basic principles for the actual fighting inside of cities.  While there are differences between fighting conventional forces (or at least decently equipped guerrilla forces) vs. poorly equipped rebel and terrorist groups the main lessons seem the same.  The most important is that given how inherently complex urban battlefields are it is necessary to adopt an all-arms approach.  This includes infantry, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, engineers, and often heavier weapons such as artillery and airpower.  The infantry especially have to be well equipped with mortars, snipers, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns, and other weapons to suppress various enemy targets in cities.

Tanks, as noted above, are not a wasted asset in urban warfare but usually essential.  The difference is that unlike its principle uses in maneuver warfare, a combination of shock action and mass, in urban warfare tanks are divided up into small groups to help infantry suppress enemy forces as well as taking out strong points.  Tanks were even vital in Stalingrad, for both sides, despite the popular myth that the rubble in the streets severely limited their mobility.  Where tanks fail in urban warfare is when they are not properly screened by protective infantry, or when they are too exposed in open areas that have not been secured.

The American forces attacking Aachen in 1944 developed very effective tactics to protect Tanks in urban warfare including:

1).  Limited the exposure of tanks on main streets.

2).  Moved tanks down side streets as much as possible.

3).  Having them constantly screened and protected by infantry.

4).  Used buildings as cover (having tanks shoot around corners).

5).  Suppressing enemy positions with fire whenever tanks had to move from one firing point to another.

This was in stark contrast to the initial Russian moves into Grozny in late 1994 when mechanized and armored forces advanced down the streets in long columns, without any reconnaissance, and much of their soldiers sleeping in their trucks.  The result was predictable as one Russian regiment was ambushed by Chechen forces using RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) machine guns and snipers who initially attacked the leading and trailing vehicles of the convoy first, knocking them out and trapping those in the centre.  The RPGs in particular were used to devastating effect, being shot from high up to hit tanks and armored vehicles at the top where they were thinly armored.  These Chechen forces ambushed the column on both sides from buildings and alleyways and effectively neutralized the convoy’s combat power.  The Russian tank crews discovered that their turrets could neither elevate high enough to hit the Chechens on the roofs, or depress low enough to hit those in the basements.  One can probably not find a better textbook example on how to ambush a convoy than this.

Returning to the proper use of tanks in city fighting the point about dividing tanks up into smaller groups is a vital consideration.  Whereas all out conventional fighting in maneuver warfare tends to reward speed and concentration urban warfare requires smaller groups attacking more systematically.  Given the countless buildings, alleyways and other urban terrain that offers multiple ways to kill soldiers it is generally advisable to proceed more cautiously and to conquer cities street by street.  Thus as stated above tanks should be divided into smaller groups to suppress enemy fire and to take out strong points.

However, the author does mention that there are times when it is possible to take a city relatively quickly.  Certainly his case study regarding Inchon and Seoul during the “Korean War” illustrates that a combination of surprise, a speedy advance, as well as a shortage of enemy troops and the lack of time for the defenders to prepare adequate defenses can result in a short urban campaign.  He also asserts that the only possible means to effect such successes are quick amphibious assaults, as at Inchon, airborne attacks, such as various German operation in “World War 2” (though it should be noted the Germans often suffered prohibitive casualties and sometimes failed to take their objectives) or daring armored thrusts, such as the British seizing Antwerp in 1944 or the American advance that captured Baghdad in 2003.

Of course the other alternative to fighting a street by street battle would be to subject a city to siege.  This requires sufficient forces to surround and cut off an entire city for a considerable length of time.  It also requires considerable patience, usually months, and a good logistical system to maintain the army during a drawn out siege (much of Sun Tzu’s opposition to sieges is regarding the strain it places on logistics).  The object is usually to force the enemy to surrender via starvation, or running out of important supplies.  Curiously the author devotes little content to sieges, maybe because they are no longer that prevalent, the “Siege of Sarajevo” in the 1990s being the most memorable in recent times. 

Yet perhaps another factor is that our author, having previously been a colonel in the American army, and one who has written doctrine manuals for troops, has realized that sieges are not a realistic option for the American army in the 21st Century.  Firstly, the American public and policy makers are generally hesitant to back operations that last months on end, preferring quick solutions which hopefully lead to decisive results, which of course precludes long drawn out sieges.  Secondly, sieges, given that they rely on starvation as a strategy, inevitable lead to humanitarian crises and this is also politically unacceptable to the American public.  Indeed the Israelis, who are arguably more accepting of harsher methods towards civilians than Americans, were ultimately forced to let in convoys of food and aid to Hamas occupied Gaza Strip to prevent such a crisis due to being pressured by international opinion.  Therefore unless America was locked in a fight for survival her army would likely not be allowed to subdue a significant urban center via siege.

Coming back to the various arms needed in urban warfare engineers are vital for demolition work, as well as disarming IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).  They are especially useful when fighting today’s generation of terrorists, as the Israelis in Jenin and Nablus, and the Americans in Iraq had to neutralize literally thousands of small IED’s in urban areas that were spread between doorways, windows, alleys, inside furniture and closets, near roads, etc. 

Artillery and airpower is used for very tough opponents, usually against conventional forces, or stubborn insurgents.  It is also used by relatively inexperienced, or incompetent forces, such as the Russians in Grozny in late 1994, who lack the skill and training to take urban areas without incurring prohibitive casualties.  However, it is obvious that the use of heavy firepower in cities usually results in significant civilian casualties.  The Germans killed nearly 40,000 Russian civilians in one day of heavy bombing at Stalingrad.  Likewise the Russian conquest of Grozny in the mid-90s probably killed 30,000 civilians and wounded 100,000 more.

Yet airpower and artillery are often restricted for military commanders, especially in democracies, by political masters at home.  This leads us to another key consideration, at least in modern times, regarding urban warfare.  The rise of television and media, beginning with the “Vietnam War,” has given the public a more realistic picture of war.  Additionally, in the past decade with the rise of cell phones, cheap cameras, and social media, information has been passed along almost instantaneously giving governments and militaries no significant time to put their spin on events.  This has lead to more micromanagement of military force by politicians, as well as to more cautious behavior by militaries themselves, to limit not only their own casualties, but civilian ones as well.  An infamous example of this was the “Battle of Mogadishu” where U.S. policy makers restricted the use of airpower, which forced American forces to rely on helicopters instead.  Unfortunately two were shot down and this led to a significant firefight in the city, a political fiasco for the American government, and ultimately the withdrawal of American forces from the U.N. backed mission in Somalia. 

These two concerns, limiting military as well as civilian casualties are often contradictory as it is generally true in warfare that keeping military casualties down requires firepower to be used more liberally and for the rules of engagement to be loosened.  Unsurprisingly these practices generally result in more civilian casualties in urban warfare.  Likewise restricting firepower and tightening the rules of engagement saves more civilians but exposes soldiers to more risks and results in more military casualties.  However this is not win all, or lose all, situation and more professional forces using specialized equipment and proper tactics can still triumph with relatively few casualties, soldiers or civilians, as will be shown by the case studies of Nablus and Ramadi.

Either way political considerations have come to the fore since Vietnam and they are not likely to recede so willingly or not militaries have to adapt.  Of course how many political factors will matter depends on the type of war.  As Clausewitz notes in “On War” in unlimited war, which is all out conventional warfare between states, military considerations generally dominate while political ones often retire to the background.  However, in limited war, especially one which is not waged for vital interests of the state, political factors dominate.

Thus in “World War 2” during the battles of Stalingrad and Aachen both sides cared less about collateral damage then winning the military contest.  By Vietnam this began to change as the fighting in Hue saw the Americans triumphant but the temporary occupation of Hue by the North Vietnamese, as well as the general shock of the “Tet Offensive,” demoralized the American public and slowly led to their discontinuation of the war.  Fighting terrorists and putting down insurgencies, especially in foreign lands, is even more political as taking territory and destroying armies are not as vital, or not as common, and the public finds it hard to gauge progress and gets upset when things such as collateral damage, war crimes, and instances of torture and prisoner abuse surfaces.

Yet besides political machinations for the home front there are also political factors regarding the urban battlefield.  While winning hearts and minds obviously is not a key consideration when invading a hostile country it is paramount when the objective is counter-insurgency.  Here soldiers and policy makers have to work in tandem to address the population’s grievances, create infrastructure and economic opportunities, as well as protect the people from reprisals from insurgents or terrorists.

Another vital asset for urban fighting, at least regarding counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, is a comprehensive intelligence system that understands and analyses the human component of the environment.  Essentially the army needs to know the people, where they live, their neighbors, who they associate with, their occupations, etc.  This allows the army to understand the neighborhoods they live in, control the population, and notice when something has changed. 

The French accomplished this in the “Battle of Algiers” by detailed census work which allowed them to know where the population lived and where they worked.  They also got their bearing by painting numbers and letters on buildings (the advent of GPS obviously makes this seem antiquated).  This made it simple to pick people up for questioning or launch operations quickly as they could easily pinpoint where they were.  The French also got additional Humint (human intelligence) from high stress interrogations and torture.  Despite the naive view that torture is ineffective to get information it worked for the French, and combined with an efficient intelligence system that quickly collected, corroborated and then passed information to ready strikes teams it allowed them to quash the FLN terrorist cells in Algiers and win the battle. 

However, this is where political factors resurface, as was noted above when the French army’s brutality in Algiers alienated the French public and turned them against the war.  Yet Humint in urban warfare is absolutely necessary and the French army were not wrong to make detailed censuses or even using high stress interrogations (providing they followed international law) but the extensive use of torture on tens of thousands of Algerians, and the summary executions of thousands more afterwards unequivocally was.  As a comparison, according to Max Boot, the author of “Invisible Armies,” the much maligned President George W. Bush was responsible for ordering “enhanced interrogation methods” against a mere 28 high value detainees and these interrogations were closely monitored to ensure none of them were seriously hurt.  While no doubt there were more controversial occurrences during Bush’s presidency such as the practice of rendition and scandals such as Abu Ghraib, American conduct towards civilians and combatants, terrorists or soldiers, has generally been more humane compared to most other nations facing similar threats.

Returning to the importance of intelligence the British in Northern Ireland and the Americans in Iraq benefited from “census patrols” where their armed patrols would mingle with the population, explain their intentions to put the civilians at ease, and then learn about their neighborhoods.  This combined with protecting civilians from reprisals, and helping to build government infrastructure and economic opportunities for the people, slowly built trust between the army and the people and encouraged the latter to give intelligence to the former which helped them fight the insurgents.  Even the Israelis, who generally do not even pretend to try winning over the Palestinians, are experts at Humint and use a system of informants (recruited by a combination of coercion and greed) and interrogation teams near the front lines to quickly interrogate, though usually not via brutal means, civilians in the war-zone to get information about their enemies.  The recent use of UAV’s in the past decade has also given modern armies real time intelligence regarding fighting inside cities.

However, if there is one major lesson to take away from DiMarco’s book it is that urban warfare is not necessary bound to be long or bloody.  Certainly the chapters regarding Nablus and Ramadi demonstrate what well trained and equipped forces are capable of in urban settings.  Israeli forces in Nablus in 2002 for example, lost a single military casualty and caused relatively few civilian casualties at 8 dead.  Likewise the American forces pacifying Ramadi from 2006-7 lost perhaps 80 dead and caused light civilian casualties in 9 months of operations.  According to the author the attacker often does not need a prodigious amount of infantry.  American forces secured the city of Ramadi, with a population over 400,000 with 5000 soldiers and two understrength Iraqi brigades.  Additionally, the Israelis secured the major towns in the West Bank (with a significantly higher population) with less than 30,000 soldiers. 

It is worthwhile describing what methods and tactics the Israelis used in Nablus and the Americans used in Ramadi.  In the case of Nablus the Israelis used a mechanized infantry force backed by bulldozers in one prong of their attack and their elite paratroopers in the other.  The former force used infantry, armor, engineers and snipers as a team.  Heavily armored D-9 Bulldozers, which were effectively imperious to IED’s and small arms fire, led the way by setting off IED’s, as well as shielding Israeli units behind them, and even knocking down walls so that the Israelis could quickly strike inside buildings.  It also gave the Israelis the option of simply using the bulldozers to knock down buildings on top of terrorists who refused to surrender.  Meanwhile the infantry and tanks had their usual roles in urban warfare, while the snipers were used to attack terrorist units that tried to flee or against others that tried to move against the Israeli attacking forces’ flanks.  This “equipment centric approach” as the author calls it protected the Israeli forces effectively, allowed relatively fast advances, and gave the terrorist forces few instances to inflict damage on Israeli units.

The other prong in Nablus was led by Israeli paratroopers.  The objective was to limit exposure on streets and to advance via buildings.  However they did not use doorways, windows or stairs (all obvious entry points) but used pick axes and explosives to advance through walls, floors and ceilings.  This kept them off the street and did not expose them to fire by going through obvious choke points.  The keys were speed and surprise and terrorist units had to continuously fall back until they had suffered significant losses, or ran out of space.  The paratroopers also used snipers in the same role as the other Israeli force did.

In Ramadi from the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2007 the Americans used the “population centric approach” to counterinsurgency as well as the methods of “clear, build and hold” to win the contest with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.   Switching from their usual policy of heavy handed attacks which although inflicted significant casualties on the insurgent groups also caused prohibitive civilian casualties, the Americans focused on securing the population by establishing combat posts in the middle of densely populated areas.  After beating off the expected counterattacks by AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) forces the Americans would build government infrastructure, gain the trust of the Iraqi people, and create opportunities for the Iraqi people to give them a stake in the struggle.  This was simply another version of the “Oil Spot” strategy that the French sometimes used to win over native peoples in their empire. 

The American military methods in Ramadi were essentially a combination of strategic attack and the tactical defense.  By moving into populated centers the Americans provoked AQI (who needed the support of the people for intelligence, recruitment and supplies) into attacking their combat outposts to chase the Americans out or otherwise lose their control over the people.  However, this played into the American’s plan as while insurgents are effective at hitting isolated patrols and convoys they are generally not equipped to attack strongly manned and properly prepared defensive positions.  The result was predictable as most AQI attacks against American combat outposts in Ramadi never made it past elite American snipers who neutralized the terrorist units much as the Israeli snipers had done in Nablus.  After the Americans had finished clearing, building and holding one outpost and securing the population around it they simply moved onto another area and did the same thing.  Eventually their outposts dominated the city, and as other coalition forces controlled all traffic coming in and out of the city, the insurgents became strangled and ultimately neutralized.

However, another key consideration which led to the American victory was that the combination of coalition progress in neutralizing AQI, as well as them protecting the Iraqi people and giving them a stake in the conflict, along with the increasingly atrocious conduct of AQI (who killed and mutilated anyone who stood in their way) convinced most of the Sunni insurgent groups in Ramadi to change their allegiance to the Americans and the government in Baghdad instead of backing AQI.  Once again this illustrates the importance of coordinating military and political efforts in counter-insurgency.

Additionally, it is significant that the Israelis and Americans won both of these contests without excessive use of firepower, especially artillery or airpower.  This was partly because their forces were well trained and sufficiently equipped enough to accomplish their objectives without brute force, and partly because as liberal democracies their populaces, as well as international opinion, would not tolerate excessive civilian casualties.  Indeed the American forces at Ramadi were specifically warned not to create another Falluja, which with its significant military and civilians casualties, and indecisive ending, was a political disaster for America.

Besides these various lessons the author asserts that in the future urban warfare will be more, not less, prevalent.  This is based on simple demographics, the reality of military power in the 21st century, and on the record of conflict during the last decade. 

Regarding demographics the author notes the population explosion of the last few decades, which is not slowing down.  This explosion has also resulted in a mass influx of people into cites from rural areas.  In 1800 a mere 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 2000 this was about half, and by 2030 the U.N. Projects it will be 60%.  Likewise there are now nearly 500 cities in the world with populations over 1 million people.  But perhaps the quintessential point is that much of this, if not most, population growth has occurred in less developed nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  These nations, which generally have less prosperity, democracy, and opportunities than Western nations have not been able to accommodate urban populations as effectively as the latter have.  The result has been the rise of massive urban ghettos full of inequality, crime, disease and resentment.  All of this creates fertile recruiting grounds for revolutionary and violent ideologies and not surprisingly often leads to terrorist and guerrilla groups.

As for the realities of military power in the 21st century given the inherent dominance of western militaries, and strong ones in China and Russia, and given that these nations will likely not be fighting each other, means that most wars will be small wars waged between nation states and small terrorist or insurgent groups.  As urban areas gives these groups some measure of an even playing field, a chance for significant media coverage (as well as the chance to take advantage of collateral damage) and as the population of the developing world is becoming more concentrated in these areas, it is natural that cities will became the major battlefields of the 21st century.

Finally there is the record of warfare during the last decade.  The “Iraq War” was dominated by urban warfare, as was the recent conflict in Libya in 2011.  The fighting in Syria, and the recent violence in Iraq, has also revolved around cities.  Afghanistan and Chechnya have admittedly seen less fighting in this regard but it is obvious that whenever possible insurgent groups willtry to use any chance they can to make highly advertised attacks in urban areas to get publicity as the “Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis,” the “Boston Marathon Bombings,” and the recent bombings in Volgograd attest.  Ask the average Russian and American about countless battles and skirmishes in Chechnya and Iraq and they will not remember them.  Ask them about attacks launched on their own soil in major cities they will not only remember them but express shock and dismay (Lenin was only pointing out the obvious when he said “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize”).

Louis DiMarco has produced a very excellent and concise book on urban warfare.  He gets the main ideas right, goes into considerable depth regarding strategy and policy, but does not get bogged down into the smaller details which belong to military manuals.  Having read several reviews of this book online which criticize the author for not providing more details regarding the finer infantry tactics on the ground I would suggest that like the greater theorists of war DiMarco focuses more on strategy and the bigger picture, which generally does not change from war to war, vs. armchair generals who focus too much on small matters on the ground which change quite frequently.

Indeed would the modern world really take Sun Tzu seriously if half of “The Art of War” consisted of detailed tactics regarding chariot battles and outdated warfare in 4th century B.C. in China?  Would Clausewitz’s “On War” have generated the same adulation if he went into detail about how to mount a cavalry charge, or how to best use line and column formations which were prevalent in the early 19th century?  The same goes for the great naval theorists; Alfred Mahan would look very foolish if he had concentrated on tactics for steam ships once submarines and aircraft carriers were developed, and Julian Corbett, despite being correct about the primacy of securing sea communications was dead wrong when he predicted that submarines would be of little use to navies.  All of these theorists devoted some of their works to tactics but they were wise to limit it and wisely chose to concentrate on strategy which has always been more lasting.

Besides getting the main ideas right DiMarco also deserves credit for readability.  A lot of military books, especially ones emphasizing a supposedly neglected form of warfare, are either overly detailed, are too preachy or somehow fail to stimulate enough interest as they are too busy promoting doctrine and ideas.  Having tried, and failed, twice to read Heinz Guderian’s “Achtung Panzer,” the epitome of an overly detailed and dogmatic book, I can tell you that DiMarco’s work is much simpler, and more enjoyable, to read.

Few of his chapters are over 20 pages (sadly a key consideration in an age where reading is not held in high esteem) and all are good as stand-alone case studies for those who do not want to read the entire work.  His chapters on Algeria, Northern Ireland, Jenin and Nablus, and Ramadi are especially good and offer solid strategy and tactics for dealing with insurgents and terrorists.  The chapter on Stalingrad is disappointingly limited but given the considerable amount of literature already devoted to it there is no big loss in this.  

As for criticisms, which for this book I have few, I would suggest that this is not a book for corporals and privates on the ground but for generals, politicians, and enthusiasts of military history.  While soldiers obviously could benefit a lot from this work it is not a detailed manual describing every little tactic of urban warfare.

Arguably though the book sometimes becomes overly descriptive of the actions of platoons, companies and battalions on the ground, especially in the Aachen and Hue chapters, which does little more for the general reader than to illustrate how complex urban warfare can be.  But considering the author is an ex colonel in the United States Army it is hardly surprising that he would go more into detail regarding these case studies versus others.

Perhaps a more valid criticism regarding this book would be what it does not cover.  The fact that DiMarco, who surely heard of Sun Tzu, never even mentions the great philosopher, let alone his objections to urban warfare, is odd.  While the author’s arguments does more than enough to convince readers that urban warfare is a legitimate means of warfare his omission of Sun Tzu is puzzling.  Likewise, many soldiers and scholars would probably wonder why the author chose Ramadi, instead of Falluja, to describe the “Iraq War.”  However, considering Ramadi was a case study for effective urban pacification while Falluja was obviously a fiasco for American policy in Iraq, it is not hard to see why the author focused on the former.

In the end DiMarco’s book does an excellent job of explaining the quintessential context of urban warfare, as well describing the basic strategy, tactics, and political considerations that are needed to succeed in it.  His lessons are solid, his objectivity is impeccable and he still manages to both enlighten and entertain.  Certainly there are few books analyzing a particular form of warfare that accomplish all of this.  I give Louis DiMarco’s “Concrete Hell” a solid 9 out of 10 for getting to the crux of the matter that is urban warfare and not wasting time on sentiment or complex details.  This book is a must read for any military officer, policy adviser, or politician who contemplates waging warfare in the 21st century.

A Brief History of the “Fall of Singapore”

Posted By on April 23, 2014

malaya1The “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” were among the most influential events of “World War 2.”  Despite being significantly outnumbered and confronted by considerable logistical constraints the Japanese forces under Lieutenant General Yamashita won a quick and decisive victory over their British counterparts.  Not only did the campaign result in the worst military disaster in British history, it also undermined the myth of white supremacy in the colonial world as Japan, an Asian power, had thoroughly defeated, and discredited, the European system of imperialism.  A combination of superior Japanese leadership, training, equipment and boldness allowed the Japanese to defeat a numerically superior enemy who showed no shortage of arrogance, passiveness and indecision. 

The “Malayan Campaign” had its roots in the aftermath of “World War 1” when Britain, alarmed by the growing power and expansion of its erstwhile ally Japan, decided in the early 1920s’ to construct a powerful naval base at Singapore to give its massive fleet a base to fight a potential war in the Pacific Ocean, as well as safeguarding the sea lines separating the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Once construction was completed Singapore was seen as one of the most powerful fortresses in the world; on the same level as Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium, the Czech defenses in the Sudetenland and the Maginot line in France.  However, Singapore would suffer the same inglorious fate to the Japanese as these other defensive works would suffer to the Germans.

While the fortress at Singapore was supposedly impenetrable there were a few unpleasant realities in late 1941 which limited its effectiveness.  Firstly, the initial British plan, made during the 1920s’ when Germany was weak and Japan was seen as more dangerous, was that the lion-share of the Royal Navy would quickly be deployed to Singapore during wartime.  However, in the event Singapore had few naval assets in late 1941 as the Royal Navy was stretched to its capacity in the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean fighting the Nazis and Italians.  Perhaps worse was the fact that due to such commitments Singapore could not expect adequate reinforcements for several months.  There was also a design flaw in the construction of the fortress at Singapore where the emphasis was towards repelling a naval assault, while the possibility of attacking Singapore overland via Malaya was largely discounted; this would have dire consequences towards the end of the campaign.  Then there was the fact that none of the Royal Navy’s carriers, few of its capital ships, and a small number of the RAF’s squadrons (including none of the modern Hurricanes and Spitfires) were deployed in Malaya and Singapore and thus the Naval and Aerial advantages were ceded to the Japanese. 

There were other disadvantages as well.  Not surprising considering the British were busy fighting the Germans in Europe and North Africa was the fact that their troops in Malaya and Singapore were generally less seasoned and well trained.  This would be prove to be especially detrimental considering most of the Japanese troops committed to the campaign would be hardened veterans from Japan’s war of conquest in China, which included their Imperial Guards Division.  Additionally, the Jungle terrain in Malaya was hardly beneficial to defenders, especially those reliant on roads, as lightly armed forces could easily infiltrate behind them.  The Japanese would make considerable use of bicycles, at-least 6000 of them, in Malaya to this effect.  Japanese naval supremacy would also give them another bonus as they could simply land troops from the sea behind British forces at will. 

Japan also benefited from the use of more than 200 tanks during the campaign whereas the British command had concluded, erroneously, that tanks were unsuited to the terrain in the Malayan peninsula.  The French had made a similar calculation about the wooded Ardennes sector in France and during the “Battle of France” German tanks had flooded through the area and unhinged the whole allied defensive line.  Incredibly enough the British command in Malaya did not even pass around manuals detailing how enemy tanks could be knocked out without anti-tank weapons, which had been stored at headquarters for months, until the eve of the campaign.

Japan also had the advantage regarding leadership.  While much of the case against Lieutenant General Percival (the British commander in Malaya and Singapore) regarding the British conduct of the “Malayan Campaign” can be dismissed as scapegoating there is little doubt that he, and most of his colleagues and subordinates, were out lead and outfought by Lieutenant General Yamashita and his men.  Finally, there is no doubt that the British were not helped by their false sense of racial superiority towards the Japanese.

However, the Japanese did not enjoy all the advantages.  The British had a considerable numerical advantage in troops, if not in quality, as well as an advantage in artillery.  However, from Lieutenant General Percival’s perspective the resources at his disposal were far from adequate to execute his mission.  Percival’s predecessor in Malaya had written up a paper in 1940 estimating what resources and forces he would need to hold Malaya and by the time of the Japanese invasion the British were severely short in all categories.  Instead of the recommended 600 modern planes the British had less than 200 relatively obsolete ones (which did not satisfy the request that at minimum they needed 330 modern ones).  Instead of the 4 recommended divisions they had 3 understrength ones.  Instead of two tank regiments and anti-tank guns they had absolutely none.

To be fair though most of the reasons that the British forces were so handicapped during the campaign, and suffered from such poor resources can be explained by the fact they were busy fighting a life and death struggle against Germany in Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.  In fact, in his war memoirs Churchill bluntly listed what were considered the strategic priorities for Britain’s war effort in 1941.  Not surprisingly, the defense of Britain, against both German invasion and the U-Boat menace which was devastating British convoys, was the first priority.  After that, the fighting in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to safeguard the vast oilfields and put pressure on the Axis from the southern front, was the second priority.  Once Russia was in the war after June 1941, giving as much support to her as possible, mostly in the way of weapons, equipment and supplies, to keep her in the conflict became the third.  Resistance to Japan, including the defense of the multiple British colonies in the Far East, not just Malaya and Singapore, was unequivocally the last priority at number four.

This is a consideration that is remarkably absent, or at least downplayed, in many histories regarding the “Malayan Campaign.”  While, with hindsight, it is obvious that Percival did not have nearly enough resources to succeed it is foolish to suggest that the defense of Britain, the retention of the oil fields of the Middle East, or the support of Russia (which would ultimately do the vast majority of the fighting against Germany) should all have taken a backseat to Malaya and Singapore, none of whose loss would, or ultimately did, cause the collapse of Britain’s war effort, or give the Japanese a decisive advantage.

In late 1941, Churchill and his generals in Britain, faced with a brutal war in Europe, gambled that economic sanctions, the show of force, and American diplomacy would be enough to deter the Japanese from going to war.  Given the significant geopolitical disadvantages in population, resources and industry Japan suffered compared to the allies it was thought by the western leaders that it would be suicidal, as it ultimately was, for Japan to attack them.  It was unreasonable for the British, especially without hindsight, to invest significant resources for the defense of the Far East for a war that “might happen” while an active and potentially fatal war was currently being fought against Germany. 

Of course there is another view, one that often borders on conspiracy theory, where the British and Americans supposedly deliberately provoked the Japanese to go to war by placing them in an impossible economic situation, and worse were willing to sacrifice 1000s of American and British servicemen from Pearl Harbor to Malaya to accomplish their aim.  Much like the 9/11 conspiracy critics have pointed out the fact that American and British intelligence community had advance warning of an impending attack. 

However, in the case of the Americans the warning was vague and U.S. intelligence officials were almost unanimous in believing that the Far East was the real target and that Pearl Harbor was not threatened.  Additionally, it does not make sense that the Americans would deliberately sacrifice their 8 battleships at Pearl Harbor, which at the time was seen as the main-stay of their forces in the Pacific, to then enter a war at which they would be at a huge initial disadvantage.  That would be like saying the Egyptians had deliberately provoked the Israelis in 1967 and had sacrificed their air force (which was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force on the ground) to have an excuse to go to war.  It is the same for the British, why would they want to provoke a war, knowing the weakness of their forces, and the likelihood that not only would they lose some of their best colonies, but also their Imperial credibility when the Japanese, a supposedly inferior race, would conquer them.

At best the argument could be made that the Americans had gambled that either Japan would back down or that they would go to war and that in the end the Americans would not only beat Japan, but would also be able to help Britain directly in her fight against Germany.  The same applies to the British.  While they did not count on war with Japan, they also gambled that either the Japanese would back down, or at-least a Japanese assault across the Pacific would bring the Americans into the war.  In his war memoirs Churchill said “I confess that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight… If, on the other hand, Japanese aggression drew in America, I would be content to have it.”  It is one thing to suggest that the British and Americans were willing to take a significant risk provoking Japan, it is quite another to suggest that they knowingly sacrificed 10 capital ships (the 8 at Pearl Harbor and the 2 off Malaya), Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines and thousands of their soldiers’ lives to deliberately start a war.

As for the immediate causes of the “Malayan Campaign”, Japan’s aggression in China, her alliance with Germany, her seizure of French-Indochina and the Anglo-American decision to level an embargo on Japan, all propelled Japan, Britain and America to war in the Pacific in late 1941.  Japan’s brutal and in-humane war against China both alienated world opinion and showed Japan’s true colors as an expansionist nation trying to change the world order in an exceedingly violent way.  Japan’s alliance with Germany obviously placed her on the side of Germany and Italy and potentially set her against Britain and Russia (the former who was fighting with Germany, while the latter had already fought many skirmishes and battles against the Japanese).  Meanwhile the opportunistic takeover of Indochina by Japan furthered her status as a pariah nation and convinced Britain and other western powers Japan was bent on conflict with them.  Finally, the Anglo-American embargo against Japan especially placed significant pressure on the Japanese.

Not least of all was that the embargo included oil which until then America had been providing Japan with 80% of her supplies.  As oil was then, and still is, the driver of industry and war making, the Anglo-American embargo, along with the political demands London and Washington made with it forced upon Japan a simple binary choice:  Either abandon Indochina and the war against China or run out of oil.  Needless to say Japan took a third option and gambled on war.

Faced with the choice of accepting an ignominious loss of face, or going to war, the Japanese decided on war.  Despite Japan being relatively modern and possessing  considerable military power she was still weak in several aspects.  Above all, she was deficient in natural resources, hence why she had embarked upon a war of conquest against China.  She was also deficient in industrial output, especially against America who could out produce her by a factor of 10 to 1. Winston Churchill, in an attempt to forestall war had sent the Japanese a letter in April 1941 listing the relative disadvantages the Japanese would suffer during any potential war, including how the naval dominance of Britain and America would allow them to eventually overwhelm the Japanese in the pacific and how whereas the Americans and the British produced 90 million tons of steel a year the Japanese produced a meager 7 million tons.  

However, the Japanese were also fatalistic and believed in their martial skills and staying power.  Put simply, they believed their supposedly superior military skill and morale would allow them to inflict enough reverses upon their enemies and then they could either negotiate a settlement from a position of strength, or at least wear down American and western resolve in a long war of attrition and hope the latter would quit.  Unfortunately for the Japanese that while such similar sentiments would help the Vietminh triumph during the “Vietnam war,” the opposite occurred during the “Pacific War.”

Yet whatever miscalculations the Japanese made regarding natural resources, industrial potential and morale, they were quite efficient in estimating their military possibilities in late 1941.  Although they had always considered the Soviets as enemies, they had rightly dismissed them as a threat due to the deadly pressure the Germans were then putting on them in Europe, and the severe mauling Japanese forces had suffered against Soviet forces in the summer of 1939 did not encourage them to fight the Soviets again so soon.  The front in China had also more or less stabilized and Chiang Kai-Chek’s nationalist forces, and Mao’s even weaker communist forces could easily be kept in check.  This left the Americans, the Dutch forces in Indonesia, and the British possessions in South East Asia.

Regarding the British and the Dutch, the Japanese were confident they could overwhelm them as they both had few military resources in the area and fewer to send as reinforcements given the fighting in Europe.  They also possessed significant strategic and economic territories in the area which would be important for the Japanese war machine.  While the Dutch East Indies would be able to supply much needed oil, the occupation of Burma would cut off supplies to the Chinese via the Burma road, the occupation of Malaya would rob the allies of one third of the world’s supply of rubber and one half its supply of tin, and the occupation of Singapore would secure sea communications between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

America posed another problem.  While she was far away, and while the conquest of the American occupied Philippines would not give the Japanese any significant economic advantage, America’s navy, the second biggest in the world, and her industrial production which could out produce the Japanese 10-1, posed to Japan perhaps her only significant threat.  Of course the small U.S. military presence in the Philippines was negligible, and as of yet the American public was still dominated by isolationist sentiment and not keen on war.  However, the Americans had given much military and economic aid to Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Germans as part of “Lend Lease.”  Additionally, the Americans had given considerable support to the Chinese and had also inflicted the potentially crippling embargo on Japan which many historians have argued gave the Japanese no choice but to go to war.

Yet it was possible that the Japanese could have attacked the British and Dutch in the Far East and left America alone and that America once again would not involve herself in a foreign war.  This was indeed one of Churchill’s gravest fears and between the time he heard about the Japanese landings in Malaya and Pearl Harbor he was worried it was being realized. 

However, the Japanese leaders, being keen militarists, looked at the problem from a military point of view and in Clausewitzian fashion looked at their enemies and determined their centre of gravity, the focal point of their military resistance.  Realizing the American fleet was the gravest threat to Japanese ambitions, and perhaps taking a note from Alfred Mahan’s works which emphasized the destruction of the enemy fleet, the Japanese decided to launch a brutal surprise attack against the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

The idea for the coming war was simple.  Cripple, or temporarily neutralize, the U.S. Pacific fleet, seize the necessary strategic, economic or defensive assets in the Far East and the Pacific in a few quick and daring campaigns, fortify these against attack, and then either negotiate a peace treaty from a position of strength, or wage a war of attrition against the west until they gave up.  Curiously, the Japanese do not seem to have planned for a long war, or seriously debate what course of action they should take if the Americans and their allies did not give up the struggle.  Perhaps this was a product of wishful thinking, perhaps it was due to their belief that America was not willing to wage total war, or perhaps it was because the Japanese believed they were being provoked and could not afford to back down and lose face.

Anyway, despite their optimism there were some in the Japanese camp who knew the odds were ultimately destined to be stacked against them.  Admiral Yamamoto, the foremost Japanese strategist and the planner of Pearl Harbor and Midway suggested that in the event of war “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory.  But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”  With considerable bitterness his prediction would prove exceedingly accurate.

As for the planning of the “Malayan Campaign” itself the Japanese benefited greatly from intelligence captured by the Germans about British intentions regarding their defenses for Malaya and Singapore.  The story was quite remarkable as the British high command had sent a reply to Percival’s predecessor in Singapore, the same commander who had asked in vain for adequate forces, aboard a merchant vessel called the Autonedan, which was neither well-armed, nor part of a convoy.  By an incredible fluke it was found and crippled by a heavily armed German raider.  In the ensuing struggle all the British officers were killed and the Germans managed to board and find many confidential papers regarding Singapore and Malaya.  The Germans turned the intel over to the Japanese.  The British high command’s reply to Percival’s predecessor, which the Japanese now had access to, bluntly told him that his requirements to defend Malaya and Singapore by land, sea and air, could not be met and that Japan would be dealt with via mild appeasement. 

Japan also had the advantage of numerous Japanese placed in sensitive positions in Malaya and Singapore and, incredibly enough, several British spies.  Countless Japanese tourists prowled the countryside to take photographs of all jungle paths, crossroads and landing sites.  Japanese nationals also set up photograph shops where British soldiers could get there photographs taken cheaply, and countless massage parlors, and dance halls employed Japanese women, who said they were of different nationalities.

All of this gave the Japanese an excellent appreciation of British defenses, troop strengths, and topographical details of Malaya and Singapore.  Sun Tzu had written centuries ago about the importance of “knowing the enemy.”  While Japan had done a thoroughly good job of figuring out the British, the British had done a lousy job of estimating Japan. 

Typical assessments of the Japanese smacked of racist sentiment.  At one briefing of newspaper correspondents in Singapore a British intelligence officer suggested the Japanese were incapable of flying at night.  During the fateful voyage of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales a CBS reporter had overheard a British naval officer say, after hearing that a Japanese Battleship, 3 Cruisers, and several Destroyers were supposedly in the area, “They are Japanese, there is nothing to worry about.”  Even when more enlightened sources made more sensible estimations of Japanese capabilities they were usually dismissed.  When the British military attaché in Tokyo suggested to British troops that the Japanese forces were well trained, well led and had good morale he was immediate contradicted, incredibly, by the then commander of British troops in Malaya and Singapore, Lieutenant General Lionel Bond who stated “You can take it from me that we have nothing to fear from them.”  These views were stated not by inexperienced men drafted to be common foot soldiers, but by an intelligence officer, a naval officer, and the head of British forces in Malaya!  Such views and statements were in fact extremely common and it bred in the British forces in Malaya and Singapore an air of complacency and arrogance. 

On the night between December 7th and 8th, but before the attack on Pearl Harbor due to the time zone differences, the Japanese began bombarding positions in northern Malaya.  In the morning they began to land at Kota Bharu and other positions in nearby Thailand.  While the British had considered pre-empting the Japanese by moving into Thailand to cover such landing points they were afraid of the potential hostile American reaction by invading a neutral country.  Such occurrences were common during the campaign where the Japanese would be aggressive and imaginative whereas the British conduct would generally be passive and uninspiring.

During the same day, Japanese aircraft bombed British airfields in northern Malaya and damaged and destroyed significant numbers of the R.A.F’s already outnumbered and outclassed contingent in Malaya.  The Japanese used bombs that were designed to destroy planes and kill soldiers but would not damage the runways of the airfields.  Within four days of the initial attack on Malaya the Japanese had conquered all the airfields in northern Malaya and had effectively neutralized the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya and won air supremacy over Malaya, and the waters around it.

In fact, by December the 11th the R.A.F contingent in Malaya had been so battered that the British decided to husband their Airpower to protect Singapore as well as the convoys of troops and reinforcements that would eventually be arriving.  While the British did receive 50 Hurricanes in mid-January after which they tried to stage a comeback, they were soon overrun by the better trained and numerically superior Japanese pilots and fighters.

One of the first notable effects of Japanese air supremacy occurred on December 10th when Japanese bombers found and destroyed the British battleship Prince of Wales as well as the battle cruiser Repulse.  The British naval commander at Singapore, Rear Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, had hated keeping his ships at port while the Japanese were landing in Malaya and had decided to use his force of two capital ships and four destroyers to intercept and destroy the Japanese naval convoys in the region.  Phillips had requested air cover for his force but the R.A.F. commander could not guarantee support, partly due to the multiple commitments his planes had to fulfill, and partly due to the mauling his airfields and planes had taken.

Thus in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral Philips boldly went forward, despite the risk, hoping cloudy weather and surprise would see his forces through.  However bold, it was also foolish.  Before his force could find and destroy Japanese ships the weather cleared up and the Japanese sent multiple waves of bombers that ultimately sank both the British capital ships in a series of actions lasting 90 minutes, effectively destroying British naval power in the Far East and giving the Japanese naval, as well as aerial, supremacy.  The sinking of both of Britain’s Far East fleet’s Capital ships also inflicted a considerable psychological blow on the British.  Even Winston Churchill, the model of British resolve, noted in his memoirs that “In all of the war I never received a more direct shock…  Over this vast expanse of water (the Indian and Pacific Oceans) Japan was supreme, and we everywhere weak and naked.” Coupled with the destruction, or at least temporary neutralization, of the 8 American battleships in lieu of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor the British and Americans must have felt very weak and naked indeed.

The Japanese would use their naval power brilliantly during the campaign.  As the Japanese advanced in 3 prongs from their initial landing sites in northern Malaya and Thailand their main force advanced via railroad from Indochina to Thailand and then Malaya.  While these forces moved down the coasts and interior of Malaya, the Japanese navy allowed the army to bypass any areas of significant resistance by landing behind it.  On land, the Japanese also often bypassed British positions by going through the supposedly impenetrable jungle terrain. This coupled with Japanese airpower, tanks, and their superior experience and training, prevented the British from establishing and maintaining an effective defensive line across the Malaya peninsula throughout the campaign.

As for the chronology of the campaign, the battles generally consisted of British holding actions which sometimes inflicted significant casualties, but more often the Japanese either outflanked them through the jungle, or by sea, or broke through with superior airpower and/or tanks.  The first significant clash occurred during the Japanese landings at Kota Bharu where a British brigade managed to inflict considerable casualties on the Japanese.  Meanwhile two other Japanese landings in southern Thailand were made unopposed.  After a few days of fighting around Kota Bharu the Japanese threw back the British, established their beach heads, and seized the airfields in northern Malaya.  This would have serious consequences for the campaign ahead as Japanese air power would continuously harass the British and dominate the war zone. 

The Japanese advantages in airpower during the campaign included both the numbers, and quality, of their planes and the training of their pilots.  Their Nakajima Ki-43 and Zero fighters were more than a match for the obsolete fighters the British had in Malaya.  As for numbers, the Japanese had over 500 modern aircraft versus less than 200 obsolete ones for the British.  As stated above, the British did fly in 50 Hurricanes during the campaign, but they were significantly outnumbered by the Japanese and the force was quickly worn down and neutralized.  Additionally, while the Japanese did not benefit from carriers during this campaign, French bases seized in southern Indochina gave the Japanese the range to attack northern Malaya, and once the Japanese captured British airfields in northern Malaya they were free to attack across the whole peninsula and Singapore.  In reality the Japanese maintained the initiative in the air, as everywhere else in the campaign, from day one the British were constantly on the back foot, struggling hard to fight back.

Besides the opposed landing at Kota Bharu during the initial Japanese landing in Malaya, there were two other notable struggles at Kuantan and later Endau on the east coast.  However, this was not the focus of the campaign as the railroads, communications, and population of the east coast were not as developed as in the west.  Rather the main actions of the campaign occurred on the west coast and the territory just to its the interior where there were better communications, more population centers (like the capital Kuala Lampur) and a better route towards the ultimate objective of Singapore.  The most notable events on the western side included Jitra, Penang, Kampar, the Slim River, and at Segamat and Muar.

After the Japanese had successful secured their beachhead at Kota Bharu and conquered the nearby area and airfields some of their troops descended the eastern coast of the Malayan peninsula while the lion-share marched in land towards the west coast.  The first British attempt to stop the Japanese advance in the west occurred at Jitra. 

Here the defenses were inadequate, partially due to the fact that the original British plan had been to pre-empt the Japanese by occupying part of Thailand instead of falling back, and partially due to the fact that defensive works were generally not encouraged in Malaya.  The British also had faulty communications during the battle as many of their cables were lined along watery ground and failed to work.  The battle lasted from Dec 11th to the 13th, and eventually the British were swept aside by Japanese tanks supported by their artillery.  The British withdrew having suffered the loss of nearly 3 battalions and the chance of defending northern Malaya had effectively been lost.  A further blow was suffered when the Japanese overran Alor Star airfield and took it, along with fuel, bombs and significant supplies, intact.

A similar disaster occurred on the island of Penang off the coast of north west Malaya.  Once again defenses and precautions were inadequate and Japanese bombers took a dreadful toll on civilians from December 8th until the British abandoned it on December 17th.  Unfortunately, just like at Jitra, the British botched the scorched earth policy and the Japanese captured substantial quantities of oil supplies and launches.  The loss of the launches was particularly troublesome for the British as the Japanese would use them, and other amphibious assets brought across the Malayan peninsula, to land troops behind the British on the west coast whenever they encountered serious opposition.

The next significant engagement in western Malaya occurred near Kampar.  The British attempt to halt the Japanese at the Kampar position from late December to early January was initially successful and provides an example of how the “Malayan Campaign” was not as one-sided as is generally assumed.  The terrain at Kampar was hilly and did not allow the Japanese to use tanks or airpower, their main advantages on land, effectively.  In fact the terrain was more ideal for the British artillery (one area where the British had the advantage in the campaign) which took a brutal toll on the Japanese during the four day battle.  Frustrated by the lack of an early victory the Japanese tried to outflank the Kampar position by the east but were checked by British patrols.  The next few days saw the Japanese trying to breakthrough at several points by brute force but all efforts were stopped by the British and their considerable artillery, albeit at a significant cost.  Special mention should be made of the Gurkha and Sikh formations which bore much of the heavy fighting and repeatedly drove the Japanese back.

Yet however impressive were the gains by the British forces at Kampar they were ultimately made irrelevant, and not for the last time during the campaign, by Japanese landings behind British positions along the coast.  Thanks to the substantial river craft stolen from the British at Penang, thanks to the industrious Japanese methods of transporting amphibious assets across one side of the Malayan coast to the other, and thanks to Japanese aerial supremacy, the Japanese were able to outflank the British by the sea again and again.  While the British had not broken and had inflicted significant casualties upon the Japanese they were forced to withdraw by the threat of encirclement and fell back to the Slim River.

The Battle at Slim River from January 6-8th was a more one sided affair.  The British forces, who Churchill in an almost pleading tone suggests in his memoirs, had been fighting non stop for 3 weeks were quickly brushed aside by Japanese forces, supported by their tanks.  Indeed the terrain here was more ideal for armor, the Japanese attacked during moonlight and quickly broke through and effectively destroyed 2 British brigades, taking 3000 prisoners and considerable supplies.  Apparently there was a communications breakdown among the British where their rear forces were not alerted to the Japanese attack.  Besides the loss of substantial troops and supplies the fighting at Slim River also convinced the British of the futility of trying to save central Malaya.

In lieu of the defeat, General Wavell, who had been sent to Malaya by Churchill to review the situation, ordered Percival to withdraw his forces to Johore province at the bottom of the Malayan peninsula.  This meant giving up the capital of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, which the Japanese occupied on January 11th.  The next great engagement, and effectively the last ditch effort to save Malaya occurred at an ad-hoc defensive line including Segamat and Muar running from the mountains in central Malaya to the west coast.

The engagements around Muar and Segamat lasted from January 14th-22nd.  Most of the British troops, who were predominantly Australian, were deployed to cover the approaches to Segamat while a smaller force of four British battalions guarded the lower reaches of the Muar River.  The battle began well for the British due to two successful ambushes they unleashed on the Japanese; one as they crossed the Gemencheh River bridge, and the other as they approached near Gemas.  In the former they allowed nearly 800 Japanese to cross the bridge before detonating it and then from well concealed positions decimated the Japanese who had crossed.  In the latter they managed to hold off the Japanese attack and destroy several tanks.  Both actions cost the Japanese perhaps 1000 casualties, most of them dead, while only costing the Australians involved perhaps 80 in total.  Having successfully executed their ambushes they pulled back to the main defense line.  However, despite winning a brilliant tactical victory the Japanese were only temporarily inconvenienced and delayed by these actions.

However, the fighting in the west near Muar did not go nearly as well for the British.  Here the 4000 Indian and Australian troops were confronted by the whole Japanese Imperial Guards division.  The first Japanese attempt to cross the Muar River was stopped by British forces firing point blank at Japanese small craft.  Unfortunately, during the night Japanese used the cover of darkness to land on the south side of the river, inflict significant losses on the British and causing them to do a small withdrawal.  Further landings by the Imperial Guards behind the British left flank ultimately convinced Percival that the defensive line could not be held and that Malaya would have to be abandoned.  Once again Japan’s ability to outflank the British from the sea proved decisive.  Except for some sporadic fighting in Johore the “Malayan Campaign” was effectively over as the priority was now to get as many of the British forces across the causeway linking Malaya to Singapore.

After the remaining British forces had crossed, and then destroyed, the causeway connecting Singapore Island to Malaya, the “Battle of Singapore” began.  For the Japanese, the fighting in Malaya had been a great triumph whereas for the British it had been an unequivocal disaster.  The British had suffered more than 50,000 casualties, most of them taken prisoner, and while there was still perhaps 85,000 British troops in Singapore their morale was atrocious after the mauling British forces had received in Malaya.  The British policy, which in the event of realizing the futility of stopping the Japanese advance had turned into one of slow withdrawals, scorched earth, and wearing down the Japanese in Malaya, had clearly failed.

Additionally, the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya had been effectively destroyed, as well as British naval power due to the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in early December 1941.  In sum, the Japanese had the indisputable advantage in morale, airpower and sea power.  This should be kept in mind given the subsequent surrender of significantly numerical superior British forces to their Japanese counterparts.

However, there were other considerations to the subsequent disaster as well.  Perhaps most important of all was that the northern shore of Singapore Island was pathetically short of defenses to repel an attack from southern Malaya.  That the defenses guarding the north shore were inadequate were the result of several factors, none of which gives much credit to the British. 

Firstly, was the consideration that the focus of building defenses for Singapore was to repel a naval assault, instead of an attack across the narrow waters separating southern Malaya and Singapore.  Secondly, was the assumption that any potential attack from Malaya towards Singapore could be neutralized by the British holding onto Jahore province in southern Malaya.  Thirdly, was that the Japanese should theoretically, according to the British plan, have been worn down from the fighting in Malaya and that even if they reached Johore province they would have been severely weakened and that the British would have been adequately reinforced to hold Singapore.  Fourthly, was the absurd conviction, perhaps out of naively sparing civilian and military morale, among the British command in Malaya and Singapore that defenses were bad for morale.  According to the chief engineer for Malaya and Singapore, Generals Simsons, Percival had refused his efforts to construct defenses across the peninsula in general and the northern shore of Singapore Island in particular by quipping that “defenses of the sort you want to throw up are bad for the morale of troops and civilians.”

Finally, there was the ignorance of officials, including in London, of how poor such defenses were. Churchill himself, when informed of the pitiful state of the defenses, was shocked and characteristically sent a long and detailed memorandum to the commanders on the spot urging them to action and even giving them advice regarding how to layout defenses on the north shore.  While with hindsight there were many cases of Churchill interfering with operations to a detrimental effect, in the case of Singapore it would have been well if the commanders had heeded his advice.

Either way, the results of British wishful thinking, neglect, and ignorance meant that when the Japanese reached southern Malaya and looked across at Singapore they were not confronted by an impregnable fortress but a relatively defenseless coastline.  While Percival still had a healthy numerical superiority regarding soldiers their morale was shaky and their numbers were spread out thinly having to man the north coast of the shore.  While it is true that the British had the ability to redeploy the massive guns that had been pointing south and east to thwart any potential invasion by the sea they had an insufficient amount of high explosive shells necessary to attack infantry as they were mostly supplied with armor piercing ammunition to take down ships.

Perhaps Percival’s deployment of his forces was ultimately the worse factor in the situation.  He believed that the main Japanese attack would be made in the east where the terrain was open and had thus stationed the lion-share of his forces there.  This was also influenced by deception efforts by Yamashita to convince the British the Japanese would attack there.  However, Yamashita decided to launch the main effort in the west where the terrain may have been less favorable (it was considerably swampy), but where there were much fewer British troops.  General Wavell told Percival that he expected the Japanese to attack the west side but had ultimately relented to Percival’s judgement in an attempt not to interfere with the man on the spot.  While the principle to give initiative to the men closest to the fighting is generally beneficial in wartime, like all supposed rules of war it should depend more upon the circumstances and in this case Wavell was wrong not to insist upon his view.

However, none of this was necessarily doomed to failure if there had been sufficient reserves in place to reinforce either forces in the west or east to give them enough punch to throw the Japanese back into the sea.  Unfortunately, out of a force that theoretically numbered 85,000 Percival deployed a single brigade (at best 5000) to act as a reserve.  This was simply too weak a force to deploy against the Japanese, who had the advantage in morale and firepower, who were not confronted by adequate defenses, and who would launch more than 30,000 men across the strait in a short time while the British were hopelessly dispersed across the island.  In the event, due to confusion, the breaking down of communications, and hesitation this reserve was not used effectively once the Japanese began their assault on the west coast of Singapore Island on February 8, 1942.

Regarding the initial assault, the Japanese, as part of the deception plan, had previously concentrated their bombardment on the eastern shore, then suddenly switched the focus of it towards the western portion to aid the attack.  The first attempts at landing were repulsed, but the Japanese sought to find gaps in the British defenses, and given how spread out the British were it did not take long.  Once ashore the Japanese sought to encircle the British positions and then bypass them and undermine the whole defensive line.  Whatever chance the small reserve Percival had at his disposal to save the situation was wasted due to poor communications, as the Japanese bombardment had severed the line from the front to H.Q, and the fact that Percival, unsure whether or not the Japanese assault in the west was the main attack, hesitated to release the brigade.

Yet despite this success, the Japanese were still dependent upon securing another beachhead near the original causeway linking Malaya and Singapore which had been destroyed a week earlier.  They needed to take this area to expand their initial lodgment as well as to rebuild the causeway to move in enough troops and supplies to overcome resistance in Singapore. 

This assault occurred by the Kranji Peninsula.  Unlike the relatively easy victory on the west of the island this attack nearly resulted in disaster.  While the Japanese successfully landed in the area, the Australians decimated them with mortar and machine gun fire.  Even worse was that as the British had begun blowing up their oil stocks in Singapore there were considerable oil slicks in the water and the considerable fighting ignited much of these and burnt many of the Japanese alive.  The casualties were so bad that the commander of the Japanese Imperial Guards division asked Yamashita to abandon the operation.  However, Yamashita refused and told his men to “Do your duty!”  In the end, Yamashita’s stubbornness paid off as the British commander at the front, concerned of becoming encircled, and misinterpreting an order from Percival, withdrew and allowed the Japanese to secure this vital beachhead.

From here on, Singapore was doomed.  Given that the Japanese had the advantages in firepower and morale it was necessary for the British to defeat the Japanese on the waterline before they were established.  Just like later on in 1944 once the allies had a firm beach head in Normandy they had essential won.  In fact, Percival knowing his weaknesses, had planned for this, but ironically the positioning of his forces to cover as much of the waterline as possible had defeated this purpose as there were not enough troops in a ready reserve to throw back the Japanese assault once it had been discovered.  As Frederick the Great once said “He who defends everything defends nothing.”

In the next few days the British fought a losing battle, first in trying to contain the beach head, and then trying to establish an effective defensive line in front of Singapore city.  Yet what inevitably forced the British to surrender was the Japanese conquest of the water reserves.  It is no coincidence that Yamashita emphasized the capture of these as they were among the most likely means to force a British capitulation.  Coupled to this was the sad state of British forces by this time.  Ammunition was about to run out for anti-aircraft, artillery and tanks, the oil supply was low and the morale of British forces was atrocious as significant amounts of British forces succumbed to looting. 

However, on the other side the Japanese had vulnerabilities too.  The Japanese had used the remainder of their artillery shells in the operations crossing the strait, their supplies were very low and they were still significantly outnumbered by the remaining British forces.  Yamashita also did not look forward to a protracted street battle in Singapore, perhaps remembering the toll battles such as Shanghai in 1937 had taken on Japanese forces.

Not surprisingly, Yamashita tried cajoling and bullying Percival into surrendering immediately, urging him to end pointless resistance and spare further suffering for the civilian population in Singapore.  The latter point was not so much an attempt by the Japanese to protect civilians, as the well documented brutal atrocities they inflicted on the Chinese and other peoples they conquered provides adequate proof about their  conduct towards civilians, but an attempt to guilt the British conscious into surrender.  Initially, while Percival was urged by his subordinate commanders to capitulate he was pressured by both Wavell and Churchill to continue the struggle.

Churchill’s plea was especially uncompromising.  In a cable to Wavell Churchill wrote that “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.”

Faced with such pressure Percival delayed surrendering until another meeting with his subordinates on February 15th.  During the meeting he plainly told them that the only two options were to either launch a counterattack to secure water and food supplies or surrender.  When all of his subordinates told him a counterattack was impossible Percival sought out Yamashita, who immediately demanded unconditional surrender.

The capitulation at Singapore was the worst, and arguably the most humiliating, event in British military history.  Combined with the losses in Malaya, the British lost approximately 130,000 men, mostly captured, along with the loss of two economically and strategically important colonies.  It also severely degraded Britain’s military assets in the Far East and gave Japan a considerable naval base (albeit one that had been significantly demolished by the British before the surrender), as well as the control of the area connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans.  Total Japanese casualties in Malaya and Singapore were roughly 10,000.

The reduction of the British threat from Malaya and Singapore also allowed the Japanese to consolidate their conquest of the oil rich Dutch East Indies, which were vital for Japan’s survival, as well as giving the Japanese the ability to operate in the Indian Ocean.  This they did in early 1942, attacking Sir Lanka, and harassing British shipping in the area.  The above, in combination with the successful Japanese attack against British held Burma, effectively quashed Britain’s potential as a serious threat against the Japanese, at least for a few years.

However, what the Japanese successes in Malaya and Singapore did not do was to gain them a strong enough position to win the war.  Much like the countless German tactical successes in Russia and North Africa, the Japanese military victories in early 1942 never resulted in exploitable strategic successes.  While Britain had been thoroughly humiliated, she was not disheartened.  In fact, like the Americans after Pearl Harbor she was incensed, angry, and keen on revenge.  Japan’s whole strategy for the Pacific war was to win quick, overwhelming victories, against her enemies, and hope that they would be demoralized enough to end the war on Japan’s terms.

Yet the treacherous way Japan had gone to war, and the inhumane way she treated those she conquered, both civilians and western soldiers, enraged the British and Americans and convinced them to do whatever it took to defeat the Japanese.  This was  unfortunate for the Japanese as the allies, as noted above, had much more population, resources and industry, than the Japanese.  The allies, especially the Americans, would ultimately use these advantages to overwhelm Japan; sinking her navy, shooting down her Air Force, fire-bombing her cities, occupying islands across the Pacific to get into a position to invade the Japanese home islands, and finally dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For despite Japan’s incredible victories in 1942 this should have been expected.  In 1939 Japan had attacked Russia, the world’s biggest country and lost, but had always planned on fighting Russia again.  From 1937-45 Japan fought China, the world’s most populous country, and despite winning many victories never effectively beat the Chinese.  Then in late 1941, Japan had attacked Britain and America, the former who had the world’s greatest empire, the latter who had the world’s greatest industrial capabilities.  In the span of a few years Japan, a small island nation, with little resources and limited population and industry had attacked the world’s biggest country, the world’s most populous country, the world’s biggest empire, and the world’s greatest industrial power.  For a country that supposedly embraced militarism and studied Clausewitz and Sun Tzu extensively Japan displayed considerable ignorance regarding both warfare and common sense.

The end result being that instead of becoming the foremost power in Asia, Japan was, by late 1945, impoverished, starving, bombed out and occupied by American forces.  However, the American occupation was an enlightened one and the Japanese, now focused on commerce and economics instead of war, and ultimately became one of the top economic powerhouses in the world.  In the 1920’s the Japanese had the choice of whether or not to invest in imperialism or in commerce and free trade.  Unfortunately for both Japan and Asia she had invested in the former instead of the latter.

As for the British, perhaps the biggest loss regarding the disasters in Malaya and Singapore was not in military or economic terms, but in prestige.  The British, like other European imperialists, had justified their empires, along with all the brutal ends and means to maintain them, upon the supposed theory of the superiority of the white races versus the colored ones.

In the 10 weeks from Pearl Harbor to Singapore this myth had been irrevocably quashed.  The British Empire, supposedly the most powerful and influential power in the world, had been humbled by numerically inferior forces of Asian descent.  The path ushered in from Russia’s defeat during the “Russo-Japanese War” had reached its crescendo.  While Britain’s failure at Singapore convinced most that european colonialism based on racial superiority was false it would still take the French defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, as well as their later defeat in Algeria in the early 1960s’ to finally bury the outdated and discredited ideas of racial dominance and imperialism, at least in their most direct and blatant forms.

Regarding the respective commanders in Malaya and Singapore, Yamashita and Percival, neither of them enjoyed a particularly good end.  Despite gaining perhaps the most impressive victory Japan won during “World War 2” Yamashita was sent to a distant post in Manchuria by jealous superiors where he would see no fighting for several years.  He was recalled in 1944 to direct the doomed Japanese defense of the Philippines and was later tried, and executed, for war crimes committed under his command in Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines.  Percival surrendered with his men and spent the next four years in captivity.  After the war he was generally disparaged by the British, perhaps unfairly given the inadequate resources he was given, as the man who lost Singapore and who presided over Britain’s worst military defeat in history.  While modern scholarship is more sympathetic to Percival, and while no one can question his courage (given the many decorations he received in World War 1), the case can be made that he was neither ruthless, nor decisive, enough to be a successful military commander.  Comparing Yamashita’s execution to Percival’s unenviable place in military history it is difficult to know which one had the worst fate.

Japanese boldness, Yamashita’s decisive leadership, and Japan’s superior air and naval power in the Far East allowed her to triumph over British led forces in Malaya and Singapore which, despite being numerically superior, were poorly led, poorly equipped, yet also remarkable complacent and arrogant.  The Japanese victory at Singapore was both the greatest military defeat suffered by the British Empire as well as perhaps the most significant catalyst towards the ending of european imperialism.  However, at the end of the war Japan had lost the war and her independence.  Meanwhile Britain had lost her credibility, her paramount position in the world, and would soon lose her empire.  While the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” provides a great case study of how one nation used boldness and innovation to defeat one that suffered from arrogance and complacency, it is also a case study about how the Japanese and British, the former due to their excessive militarism, the latter due to their paternalistic racism, both ultimately failed to accomplish their self-serving goals of dominating the Far East. 



Barber, Noel.  Sinister Twilight:  The Fall of Singapore.  London:  Cassell, 1968.

Beevor, Antony.  The Second World War.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  The Grand Alliance.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  The Hinge of Fate.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.

Deighton, Len.  Blood, Tears and Folly:  An Objective Look at World War 2.  New York:  Castle Books, 1999.

Horner, David.  The Second World War:  The Pacific.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2002.

Keegan, John.  Churchill’s Generals.  London:  Abacus, 1999.

Nalty, Bernard.  The Pacific War.  London:  Salamander Books, 1999.

Warner, Philip.  World War 2:  The Untold Story.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Wragg, David.  Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory:  20th Century Military Blunders.  Phoenix Mill:  Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Article from “Britain At War”:  Chronology of Malaya and Singapore by Ron Taylor. [1997]

Article from “Britain at War”:  Chronology of Singapore by Ron Taylor. [1997]

Wikipedia article on the “Malayan Campaign”: [March, 2014]

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Singapore”: [March, 2014]

Documentary on the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Battle of Singapore:”  Nicholas Rowe, Alistair Irwin (21 September 2009).  Generals At War.  National Geographic Channel.

Cannae in Military History and Theory

Posted By on December 11, 2013

imageCannae holds an unique place in military history and theory. It was arguably the most brilliant tactical victory of all time. It was also among the few cases where a significantly outnumbered opponent not only defeated, but completely annihilated, the opposing army. It was so successful that more than 2000 years later soldiers still dream about using a double encirclement to inflict an overwhelming defeat upon an enemy in battle. However, despite the undoubted tactical success Hannibal achieved against Rome at Cannae many of these same soldiers seem to have ignored other less savory lessons from the battle. Indeed Hannibal’s victory at Cannae did not lead to decisive strategic results and ultimately Carthage lost the war. Cannae’s tactical results have tended to overshadow the fact that strategically it accomplished nothing significant for Carthage in the long term.

The “Battle of Cannae” was a pivotal moment during the “Second Punic War” fought between Carthage and the Roman Empire to determine which power would dominate the Central and Western Mediterranean. This conflict was waged a generation after the “First Punic War” where Rome had ultimately triumphed over the Carthaginians. During this earlier conflict the Romans, despite being predominantly a land power, had built up a significant navy and eventually defeated the Carthaginians, who had been the major naval power in the Central and Western Mediterranean. This resulted not only in the Romans becoming the major naval power in the region, but also in the Romans annexing Carthaginian territory in Sicily, and later Sardinia and Corsica, and nearly reducing Carthage to a second rate power. While the Romans basked in the glory of their new power and expansion, the Carthaginians yearned for revenge and decided to seek expansion in Spain where Roman naval power could not impede them.

The main Carthaginian General in Spain was a man named Hamilcar Barca who was, arguably, Carthage’s most skilled commander and one of the few Carthaginian leaders not defeated by the Romans during the “First Punic War.” Hamilcar and his soldiers effectively annexed most of Spain for the Carthaginian Empire and raised and trained an army that would later inflict many impressive defeats upon Roman forces during the next war between the two states. After he died, power in Spain rested first with his son-in-law Hasdrubal, and later with his son Hannibal, who would be both the instigator, and dominant personality, of the “Second Punic War.”

While much of what has been written about Hannibal is suspect due to obviously biased sources and the sheer passage of time, there is no doubt that he was a brilliant general; capable of impressive maneuvers, possessing considerable foresight, and instilling respect from friends and foes alike. He belongs in the same category as Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel, two other commanders who were generally more tactically astute than their opposite numbers, but who were doomed to lose due to their nations’ inferior resources and corrupt political systems. Just like Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel, Hannibal produced the most impressive tactical victories during his respective war and is generally more popular in military history than his opponents who actually won in the end.

The catalyst for the “Second Punic War” occurred at Saguntum, a city allied to Rome south of the Ebro River in Spain. While the Romans accepted Carthage’s dominant position in Spain they had somewhat brusquely limited Carthaginian expansion to south of the Ebro River. This, along with the previous opportunistic Roman annexations of Carthaginian territory in Sardinia and Corsica while Carthage was preoccupied during the “Mercenary War,” provoked considerable anger and indignation in Carthage. The final insult to Carthage occurred when the Romans became allies with Saguntum, a city well below the Ebro and obviously within Carthage’s sphere of influence. From the Carthaginian point of view such a move was insulting and seemed as though Rome viewed them as a second rate power.

In 219 B.C, Hannibal, having seized control of the Carthaginian army in Spain after the assassination of Hasdrubal in 221 B.C, sacked Saguntum after a lengthy siege in open defiance of Rome. Initially, the Romans, in an attempt to prevent war, requested that the Carthaginians condemn the behavior of Hannibal and to turn him and his senior officers over to their custody. When Carthage refused to do so Rome declared war and the “Second Punic War” began.

Whether or not Hannibal attacked Saguntum to provoke war with Rome is questionable, but what is not debatable is that he was well prepared to attack Rome once hostilities commenced. As Roman naval power was more than double of Carthage’s (roughly 220 quinqueremes to Carthage’s 105) there was little chance of landing troops in Italy via ships with a reasonable degree of success. As such, Carthage could either march most of its forces through Spain, Southern France, and then Italy to attempt to defeat Rome on its own territory, or stay on the defense and try to wear Roman forces down and bring them to the negotiation table. In the case of invading Roman territory the Carthaginian forces would have many handicaps including having to march long distances over unforgiving terrain inhabited by often unfriendly inhabitants, as well as the fact that the Romans would have a significant advantage in manpower and resources once they got to Italy. While this would seem to suggest that it would have been wiser for Carthage to adopt a more defensive strategy there are two good reasons they did not.

Firstly, during the “First Punic War” the Romans waged an extremely aggressive war. Even though the war was technically a limited conflict, as it was predominantly over the control of Sicily, the Romans treated it as what would be called, in the 20th Century, a “total war” and mobilized massive forces and sought decisive battles to impose its will upon Carthage. This was in contrast to the Carthaginian conduct during the war which was more cautious and limited as they merely sought to gain advantages to ultimately negotiate from a position of strength. In the end, Roman resources, persistence and boldness prevailed and the Carthaginians realized that in any future conflict that the Romans would either fight until they won or were put in a position they could no longer continue to wage war.

Secondly, Hannibal, the de-facto instigator of the war, was an offensive minded soldier, and preferred risk, decision, and initiative to caution, attrition and waiting. Like all great captains from Alexander to Napoleon he preferred going for total victory, however risky, instead of taking solace in the advantages of the defense.

On paper the odds were heavily stacked in Rome’s favor. Rome had more manpower, more military and naval power, more economic strength, and better political cohesion. Much of this had to do with the respective political systems in Rome and Carthage. The Roman republic, though far from what would today be called a “liberal democracy,” allowed its citizens considerable freedom and the right to choose their leaders. Even more, it usually allowed defeated powers the same rights as Romans and thus often turned conquered subjects into loyal, and productive, citizens. In contrast Carthage was a more authoritarian state and non-Carthaginians were either treated as slaves or second class citizens. The end result being that while Carthage viewed much of its population with suspicion and often had to resort to using mercenary soldiers of variable quality, the Romans had a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of manpower from a generally loyal population base. According to Polybius, the Romans had the potential manpower of 700,000 infantry and 70,000 Cavalry on the eve of war, numbers which the Carthaginians theoretically had little chance of beating in a prolonged war of attrition.

This, in fact, figured into Hannibal’s calculations. With insufficient naval power to land enough troops directly into Italy, faced with the likely prospect of losing a considerable portion of his forces passing both the Pyrenees and Alps to reach Italy, and confronting numerically superior forces given the Roman system of governance Hannibal adopted a very deliberate strategy. He aimed to gain quick and decisive victories over Roman forces to gain favor among Roman enemies such as the Gauls as well as motivating Roman allies to desert in favor of Carthage. The idea being that if he could convince Rome’s enemies and allies that Carthage could beat the Romans in battle that they would join his cause and change the balance of power between Rome and Carthage enough to either defeat Rome outright or enable him to negotiate peace from a position of strength. After Cannae, he arguably came close to doing so.

Hannibal and his army left New Carthage in Spain in the late spring of 218 B.C. and had to cross mountain chains, treacherous rivers, and hundreds of miles of territory filled with generally hostile inhabitants. Of the nearly 100,000 soldiers he left with less than 30,000 successfully crossed the Alps. While Hannibal was focusing on Italy, the Romans decided to send one army to Spain to fight Carthaginian interests there and another one to Sicily to prepare for the invasion of Carthage. This left them relatively weak in Northern Italy when Hannibal appeared in late 218 B.C. While, with hindsight it is easy to censure Rome for its clumsy attempts to stop Hannibal from 218-216 B.C. it is fair to point out that given the incredible distances and horrible attrition Hannibal’s forces suffered from the march from Spain to Italy it is perhaps easy to see why the Romans considered such a strategy as both unlikely and desperate.

Yet unlikely or not, Hannibal’s forces crossed the Alps and soon met a strong Roman army near the Trebia River in December 218 B.C. The “Battle of Trebia” was similar to the “Battle of Cannae” in many ways. The Romans were superior in infantry while Carthage was superior in cavalry, utilized the terrain to their utmost advantage, and had roughly 30 elephants. Hannibal also placed a small force of 2000 infantry and cavalry in broken terrain to the left flank of where he anticipated the Roman line would be once its army crossed the Trebia River. The Romans had close to 38,000 infantry, heavy and light, while the Carthaginians had 28,000. Likewise, the Romans had 4000 cavalry while the Carthaginians had 10,000, evenly distributed along both flanks of their army.

Despite having numerical superiority the Romans were helplessly outclassed at Trebia. Hannibal’s cavalry were both superior in numbers and quality than the Roman’s, his elephants produced a disproportionate psychological effort on the enemy, and the Romans had their backs to the river. The Romans were also tired, hungry and cold (having to cross the Trebia River in icy conditions) as they spent most of the day deploying on the West Bank of the Trebia while Hannibal wisely used his light cavalry and light infantry to delay the Romans and allowed his infantry to rest as long as possible before being deployed on the field of battle.

The battle itself does not take long to describe; the Carthaginian cavalry on both flanks quickly quashed the Roman and allied calvary at which point Hannibal’s Numidian horses turned to harass the flanks of the Roman infantry while his Iberian and Gaulish horses pursued the defeated Roman and allied cavalry. Meanwhile the Carthaginian light infantry and elephants joined in the attack on the Roman centre and the 2000 Carthaginians hiding behind the Roman lines rushed to attack the Roman centre from behind; effectively encircling the Roman army. The only setback to Hannibal’s plan was when 10,000 heavy Roman infantry managed to break through the numerically inferior Carthaginian infantry in the centre and escaped the battlefield in good order. However, this was a minor inconvenience for Hannibal as the Carthaginians managed to kill or capture the lion-share of the nearly 45,000 Roman soldiers and allies at Trebia.

After his unequivocal victory at Trebia Hannibal rested his forces. Unfortunately for him many of his soldiers, and all but a few of his elephants, died in the cold conditions after the battle. However, he soon marched south again, ravaging the countryside to provoke the Romans into battle and trying to recruit Gauls in the area and convince Roman allies to desert by showing Roman impotence by their failure to stop his advance. At the same time the Romans, who were not unduly shaken by their defeat at Trebia, raised another two consular armies to find and destroy Hannibal’s force. The Romans once again elected two consuls for the coming year and the one who would next face Hannibal in battle was Gaius Flaminius.

According to ancient sources Flaminius was a rash and aggressive man who recklessly sought the quick annihilation of the Carthaginian army in Italy as soon as possible, whatever the conditions. Whether or not this is a fair appraisal is questionable as many of the sources of this period were biased, or owed patronage to Roman families who wanted to denigrate their rivals. However, the actual outcome of the next battle between Hannibal and Rome showed that Flaminius was anything but cautious or thorough. But to be fair to Flaminius his predecessors were no less circumspect or unlucky when they charged in blindly to attack Hannibal at Tacinus and later Trebia in 218 B.C. Indeed, Roman commanders and soldiers were by nature bold and aggressive and Flaminius can arguably be considered as a scapegoat for what was at the time a Roman military system that was very slow to adapt to Hannibal’s methods.

As Hannibal marched down the Italian peninsula he was pursued closely by Flaminius, who was eager, and no doubt pressured by Roman public opinion, to bring the Carthaginian commander to battle as soon as possible. The site of the battle between these two antagonists would be on the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. Hannibal had scouted the area and found a perfect area to trap and destroy the pursuing Roman army. The path along the northern shore was generally narrow and dominated by hilly terrain overlooking the lake. The geography was such that it would be easy to seal off the entrance, and exit, of the path near the shoreline, as well as hiding an army in the heights above.

Hannibal’s plan was to march through the pathway during the day, and then double back at night and occupy the high ground before the Roman army arrived the next day. He placed his Spanish and Libyan veterans on the ridge dominating the far exit of the pass where the Romans could see them once they entered the passage (thus trying to lure them into battle). He also placed his Gauls and light troops in the centre to fall on the Roman army once it had advanced sufficiently into the trap, while his cavalry were placed at the rear, ready to cut off the Roman escape route.

At dawn on June 21st, 217 B.C, despite the fact it was misty, and without bothering to send out a reconnaissance force to scout ahead, Flaminius ordered the Roman army to march through the pass. Advancing through the passage his lead troops eventually saw the Spanish and Libyan soldiers holding the ridge commanding the exit of the route and Flaminius ordered his soldiers, still in marching formation, to prepare for battle. However Hannibal’s forces soon descended the hills and fell upon the Roman ranks, who were still generally not formed up to fight, and who were now trapped between the entrance and exit of the pass. The Carthaginians attacked from high ground, and the Romans had the lake to their backs. Under these circumstances; surrounded, in poor fighting formations, and up against Hannibal’s elite forces, there is little doubt that the Roman army was doomed to an unpleasant fate.

In fact the battle was a comprehensive victory for Hannibal who killed or captured all but 6000 Roman soldiers who had been part of the vanguard and managed to escape. However, even this small consolation for Rome was lost when Hannibal’s forces found, surrounded and captured this force the next day. For the price of perhaps 1500 to 2500 casualties Hannibal had more or less crushed a Roman army and inflicted between 25,000-30,000 casualties. The genius of Trasimene was perhaps best described by Robert O’Connell as “the biggest ambush in history, the only time an entire large army was effectively swallowed and destroyed by such a maneuver.”

If this were not enough, Rome suffered a further disaster when the cavalry from the other Roman army in Italy, which had not yet learned of the defeat at Lake Trasimene, was sent to make contact with Flaminius’s force. The cavalry, like Flaminius’s army before it, was ambushed and destroyed by Hannibal’s forces. With one army left and devoid of calvary the Roman republic’s chances of victory against the Carthaginians suddenly appeared slim indeed.

After Rome’s defeats at Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, and the recent loss of its cavalry, the Roman people finally sobered up to the possibility that Hannibal represented a mortal threat to the Republic. In the near panic, after these setbacks, the Roman senate appointed a dictator to coordinate Rome’s response to Hannibal. Usually the Roman republic was mainly run by two consuls (as the Romans were afraid of giving any man too much power), and the Senate, along with some collaboration with the Tribunes and the masses. However, in emergencies, much like modern day war measures acts in liberal democracies, the Roman republic often resorted to appointing dictators for 6 month terms to quickly and decisively accomplish what needed to be done. Dispensing with long winded debate, and eschewing yellow tape and petty procedures, the Romans generally entrusted the title of dictator to a man of known ability, and integrity, to use all means necessary to save Rome from whatever impending disaster confronted it. In the summer of 217 B.C. the Romans chose Quintus Fabius Maximus to be the savior of Rome. In the event, he was an unorthodox, but fortunate, choice.

He had an impressive enough resumé; having served in the “First Punic War” and having also held the Consulship twice. However, he was also old for a Roman general, at 58, and was not generally popular before, or during, his dictatorship. Either way Fabius Maximus wisely adopted cautious strategy and tactics against Hannibal and ultimately allowed Rome to not only recover from her potentially fatal position in the summer of 217 B.C, but to face Hannibal with considerable, though with hindsight perhaps foolish confidence, the next summer.

Realizing that Hannibal’s strategy involved bringing Roman armies to battle as quickly as possible (and on the ground of his choosing) to destroy them, Fabius Maximus generally avoided battle, stuck to strong positions and high ground, and only engaged Hannibal’s forces in smaller skirmishes whenever the Romans held the advantage. Aware that Hannibal’s weaknesses were his lack of food, supplies and a secure base, Fabius Maximus destroyed, or removed food stocks, along Hannibal’s route, attacked his foragers, sought to wear down his forces via skirmishes and small scale ambushes, etc. Fabius’s objective was simple; either starve Hannibal enough to force him to abandon his campaign in Italy, or give Rome time to amass enough forces to confront Hannibal in battle with sufficient numerical superiority to offer a reasonable chance of victory.

Such a strategy; slow, defensive and attritional, was, and has generally been, unpopular in military history from Darius II’s refusal to enact it during Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire to the Russian’s equivocation during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. It is not surprisingly that the Romans, being by nature aggressive, offensive minded, and straightforward in their military methods, despised Fabius’s cautious methods. Ultimately, the Romans rewarded Fabius’s efforts with the nickname the “Cunctator” or the “Delayer,” an obvious insult given the inherently bold nature of Roman society. While it is hard to blame the Romans for their displeasure as the Carthaginians burned, looted, and moved across the Italian peninsula with apparent impunity, there is no doubt that Fabius’s strategy was the best option at the time as the Romans could not face Hannibal in open battle with a likely degree of success.

An incident during this time confirms this. Fabius’s second in command, Marcus Municius Rufus, whom he often had a strained relationship with, and who generally urged a more aggressive stance against Hannibal, managed to win a significant skirmish against Hannibal’s forces near Gerunium. The Roman people, not surprising given their displeasure at Fabius’s methods, took the unprecedented step of voting Marcus equal powers as Fabius. Thereupon Marcus openly sought battle with Hannibal with his forces while Fabius continued on the defense with his own. Soon Marcus clashed with Hannibal’s forces and was only rescued by the timely intervention of Fabius’s troops, after which Marcus relinquished ultimate power to Fabius once again. By this time the Romans generally realized the wisdom of Fabius’s policies and the next great clash between the Romans and Carthaginians would not occur until Cannae in 216 B.C.

In the end Fabius’s strategy did not force Hannibal to withdraw from Italy or seriously impact his army’s capabilities. However, it did allow the Romans and their allies the breathing room, from the summer of 217-216 B.C, to amass what was at that time the strongest army ever raised by the republic. Having considerable numerical superiority over Hannibal’s army, and moving against what was hoped to be an increasingly starved and isolated Carthaginian force in Southern Italy, the Romans had more reason to be confident of winning since Hannibal had passed through the Alps two years earlier.

After Fabius’s term of dictator was over the Roman people elected two new consuls; both of whom promised to quit the vacillation of the war effort and bring Hannibal’s army to battle and defeat it. This was understandable as even though Fabius’s tactics had saved Rome from early defeat Roman society, naturally impatient and aggressive, found them weak and indecisive. Yet without the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to judge that the Romans, having survived long enough to amass a clearly superior army, on paper at least, to Hannibal’s, voted to end the rape and pillage his forces were inflicting in Italy.

Given the sheer size of the Roman and allied army amassed this force was clearly meant to find and destroy the Carthaginian army in Italy; a much smaller force would have sufficed to harass, or observe, Hannibal. Once again, without hindsight, the Romans had many reasons to adopt an aggressive strategy in 216 B.C. Their resources, given the time to accumulate after Fabius’s cautious strategy, allowed them to field a significantly numerical superior army to Hannibal’s. Meanwhile, Hannibal, despite winning over much of the Gauls, had still failed to convince Rome’s many allies in the Italian peninsula to desert her. Finally, while not yet at a critical point for supplies or recruits, Hannibal and his forces were intruders in a hostile country, without a secure base of operations or the means to consistently support their needs. Indeed Hannibal’s forces maintained their long and seemingly confusing march since arriving in Italy because they had to keep moving to pillage food and supplies in order to continue operating.

Thus, from a strategic point of view, the Roman objective of 216 B.C. cannot be faulted. Hannibal’s army was the Carthaginian centre of gravity in the war and its destruction would both secure Italy and allow the Romans to take the fight to the Carthaginian homeland as well as their possessions in Spain. Hannibal’s army in Italy was relatively isolated and suffering from supply woes while the Romans could amass a superior army. Finally, the political pressure from allies and Roman citizens upset from Carthaginian excesses on Roman soil could not be easily ignored. The Roman defeat of Hannibal’s army in Italy offered the best strategic results for Rome in the war. Unfortunately for Rome, when the great contest of arms occurred at Cannae it seriously underestimated the tactical sophistication of Hannibal and his army.

The campaign in 216 B.C. from the election of the Roman consuls to the “Battle of Cannae” was not nearly as momentous, or descriptive, as Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy in late 218 or 217 B.C. Suffice it to say once Rome’s policy changed from attrition to decision after the end of Fabius’s term as dictator the Roman army pursued the Carthaginian army until it found a reasonable time and place to engage it. That place was just outside Cannae.

The Roman and allied army at Cannae was massive, with perhaps 86,000 infantry, calvary, and garrison troops. Hannibal’s army was significantly smaller, with arguably 50,000 in all. The Romans enjoyed a clear numerical superiority, especially in infantry. However, the Roman and allied cavalry were numerically weaker than Hannibal’s heavy and light cavalry, at approximately 6000 to 10000 respectfully. Additionally, Hannibal’s cavalry were also better trained and motivated than their Roman opponents who they had consistently beaten in battle since the beginning of the war. As for the infantry balance while Rome’s scores of heavy legions were generally better equipped than their Carthaginian counterparts, Hannibal’s 8-10,000 Libyan soldiers at Cannae were the best infantry on the field. Perhaps more important was how each side deployed their soldiers on the battlefield. As will be seen, Hannibal deployed his forces in the most efficient means possible whereas the Romans used their numerical superiority in a wasteful fashion.

The terrain at Cannae favored Hannibal’s army. Varro, the Roman consul who was in charge of the army during the battle, chose to deploy in the area because he thought the hills near Cannae on one flank, and the Aufidius River on the other, would offer his outnumbered and outclassed Cavalry a chance to hold their ground as the infantry battle would be decided. Without hindsight this was not unreasonable; at Trebia the Roman centre had burst through the Carthaginian centre and even at Lake Trasimene the Roman vanguard had punched through the trap and initially escaped. In both of these battles the Roman cavalry had been either outflanked or surprised but at least at Cannae they had a chance to hold out. Yet unfortunately the ground at Cannae, though narrow enough to prevent the Roman and allied cavalry from being outflanked, was also ideal for maneuverability and Hannibal’s more nimble and sophisticated forces used it to defeat the more cumbersome Roman army.

The Roman army at this time was led by two consuls, who shared command by exercising control of the army on alternate days. During the battle itself command was exercised by Gaius Terentius Varro, who was stationed with the allied cavalry, while his co-consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus was stationed with the Roman cavalry. The Romans typically placed their leaders in positions that were considered critical and it is no surprise that both consuls were placed on the flanks where the Romans were outnumbered and outclassed by the Carthaginians. Likewise Hannibal positioned himself in the centre, with his hard pressed infantry, to motivate them to hold out long enough for his cavalry to turn the tide of battle.

On August 2, 216 B.C, Varro, who was determined to bring Hannibal to battle, and who held command of the Roman army that day, decided to cross the river and deploy his army for battle. Hannibal, who had been hoping for a chance to decisively destroy another Roman army since Fabius’s days of delaying, took up Varro’s challenge and met the Romans on the field. As stated above, Varro deployed his army between the Aufidius River and the hilly terrain near Cannae in the hopes that his inferior cavalry would not be outflanked and would be able to hold out long enough until his massive Roman infantry force would overwhelm the significantly outnumbered Carthaginian infantry in the centre. Likewise, Hannibal’s plan was for his infantry in the center to fight a delaying action long enough for his cavalry to rout their opposite numbers, and then with the help of his Libyan infantry, completely destroy the Roman infantry.

As such the Romans deployed with their allied cavalry on the left, their infantry in the centre, and the Roman cavalry on the right. While it is hard to determine precise figures, most sources suggest the Romans had perhaps 3600 allied cavalry, 70,000 infantry and, 2400 Roman cavalry on the field itself, and perhaps 10,000 leftover or garrison troops in the camps nearby. Simultaneously, Hannibal deployed his army opposite the Romans and had his Numidian (or light cavalry) on the right to oppose the allied cavalry, his infantry (Gauls, Spanish and Libyans) were in the centre, and his Spanish and Gaulish (or heavy cavalry) were on the left to oppose the Roman Cavalry. As for numbers, most accounts suggest Hannibal had 40,000 infantry and 10,000 Cavalry (the lion-share of which were with the heavy cavalry on the left). If these figures are correct Hannibal fought the battle at Cannae outnumbered by 50%.

A few important considerations should be noted. Firstly, as stated many times above, the Carthaginian cavalry on the flanks both outnumbered and outclassed their Roman equivalents. Secondly, despite the fact the Roman infantry significantly outnumbered the Carthaginians they were hamstrung by several handicaps. While the Carthaginians were deployed in loose and flexible formations the massive Roman legions were deployed in a dense phalanx formation where soldiers were simply deployed in ranks, one after another, with little room. Usually the Romans deployed in looser maniples and in 3 main lines (the Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii). Generally the first line was composed of greener troops and there were spaces in between for the Principe line, composed of more seasoned soldiers, to advance into if and when the battle demanded. Finally, the last line was composed of the most experienced troops who could reinforce the first two lines if things became critical.

The Romans choose the phalanx formation for Cannae because it was ideal for a slogging match as it was close, dense, and had considerable staying power. However, it also allowed little maneuverability and only the men fighting at the front, or if they were in contact with the enemy on the sides, the flanks, could engage the enemy while the rest would be stuck behind their comrades waiting for them to fall in order to advance and fight the enemy. The phalanx would win in a slow battle of attrition if whomever used it had numerical superiority and could not be outmaneuvered on the battlefield. Unfortunately for the Romans at Cannae they enjoyed the former, but not the latter. Indeed, despite the fact his infantry were considerably outnumbered Hannibal, as will shortly be described, deployed and maneuvered them in perhaps the most economical means possible.

While both sides deployed on the field, the skirmishers and light infantry fought in the centre. Like most battles in this age the skirmishers inflicted little casualties and had little, if any, impact on the subsequent battle. As already stated the cavalry of both armies were stationed on the flanks, with the Roman cavalry facing Hannibal’s heavy cavalry and the Latin cavalry facing the light Numidian cavalry. Likewise the Roman infantry deployed in a dense, but unwieldy, Phalanx formation. However, Hannibal deployed the bulk of his infantry (composed of Gauls and Spaniards) in a looser, more maneuverable, formation. This was shaped as an ark, or arrow, pointed towards the centre of the Roman infantry. Finally his Libyan infantry, his best soldiers, were deployed as two phalanxes both behind, and on the flanks, of his central infantry force. The purpose of these unorthodox deployments will be described shortly.

The main battle opened with the Carthaginian heavy cavalry rushing its Roman equivalent while the Roman infantry pushed towards the front of the Carthaginian ark in the centre. Hasdrubal’s cavalry fought the Romans in close order rather than mounting a charge that was typical in this era. While his force did outnumber the Roman cavalry this advantage was not apparent as the narrow space of the battlefield only allowed him to deploy his advance forces against the Romans. However, in the event, his advance forces were enough as his better trained and motivated forces defeated the Roman cavalry, who were probably used to losing against the Carthaginians after 2 years, in a short but vicious fight that was fought significantly on foot. After routing his opposite number Hasdrubal, much to his credit, began to reform his cavalry forces for the next stage of the battle rather than pursuing the Roman cavalry. However, before this brief but decisive engagement ended, the Roman infantry in the centre met the advanced Carthaginian forces which were deployed at the centre of the ark pointing towards them.

Unlike the quick and decisive engagement between Hasdrubal and the Roman cavalry on the left flank the battle between the infantry in the centre would prove to be a slow, brutal, and attritional struggle. The Romans, being generally better equipped and enjoying superior numbers, inexorably pushed back the weaker Carthaginian forces who were both deployed and ordered to fall back as slowly as possible to allow their cavalry counterparts time to turn the tide of battle. Hannibal himself was in the centre with his brother Mago to motivate his men to hold out as long as possible. Trying to delay the Romans from bursting through the centre Hannibal ordered his echelons stationed back on both sides of his centre ark to not advance, but to wait until the ark pulled back and then fight the Romans at the same time. Thus, the Romans would have to fight harder and harder as it came up against a Carthaginian line that became stronger and stronger as it retreated and absorbed its rear echelons. The added benefit, of course, was that the rear echelons would be more fresh than the Romans who would become increasingly tired from advancing and fighting.

However, despite Hannibal’s brilliant deployment of his infantry, and his inspirational leadership, Roman numbers began to tell as their massive force first pushed the Carthaginian ark back until its echelons formed into a straight line, then pushed it outwards in the opposite direction, and then finally managed to break Hannibal’s Spanish and Gaulish infantry in the centre and began to rout the Carthaginian forces. But while the Roman infantry finally broke the Carthaginian centre and began pouring through, its legions were no longer organized fighting units, but a massive mob intent on pursuing what they thought was a defeated enemy. In the end they would be sadly mistaken, but meanwhile another decisive engagement was occurring on another flank of the battle.

The battle on the right flank between the Latin cavalry, led by Varro, and Hannibal’s Numidian light cavalry was generally a less exciting affair than the great clashes occurring on the left and centre flanks. Ironically, both sides had been ordered to merely hold their enemies long enough until the battle would be won at another point on the field. The fighting on this flank, unsurprisingly, developed into a stalemate as neither side had the ability, or the will, to decisively defeat their opposite numbers. Most of the combat on this flank initially consisted of the Numidians using their superior speed and maneuverability to quickly ride up to their Latin enemies, throw their javelins and retire before their enemies could close in and attack them. Given that Rome and Carthage saw this flank as a sideshow both sides saw such an indecisive exchange as acceptable.

This ancient version of a “phony war” ended abruptly when Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry, having been wisely reformed for another decisive attack instead of pursuing the already routed Roman cavalry, descended upon the rear of the Latin cavalry. Varro and the Latin cavalry, seeing this new unpleasant development promptly fled the battlefield before Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry managed to close in and inflict a single blow upon the enemy. While history has generally judged Varro’s conduct in a less than kindly manner, a few considerations should be noted before adopting an overly harsh view towards his actions.

Firstly, one should consider his position when the Latin cavalry fled; his forces were caught in between the hilly terrain at Cannae to his left, the Roman infantry to his right and the Numidian cavalry to his front. Had he not retired sooner his forces would also have been confronted by Hasdrubal’s cavalry to the rear. In effect, he and his forces would have been surrounded, encircled, and likely destroyed in a very short time. Given the actual developments currently, or soon to occur on the battlefield, it is all but certain that any delay an alternative decision to stand, fight, and die, made by Varro would not have given any meaningful advantage to Rome, or result in any less of a victory for Hannibal in the battle.

Secondly, it is probable that much of the criticism Varro has received throughout history is because Polybius, one of the main historians of the battle, was a benefactor of Varro’s co-consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus’s family. Considering the latter died in the battle (while Varro escaped and survived), and considering Paullus’s family had more status and power in Roman society than Varro’s it is no surprise that they could afford to find scholars and historians to put a good spin on Paullus’s conduct at the obvious expense of Varro’s reputation. While none of this suggests Varro’s conduct at Cannae was impressive or that he should not shoulder much of the blame for its outcome, to place all of the responsibility on him for Rome’s failure would be both unfair and academically dishonest.

Either way the result of the fleeing of Varro and the Latin cavalry was another important victory for Hannibal’s forces and ultimately proved decisive at the end of the battle. Hasdrubal allowed the Numidian cavalry to pursue the Latin cavalry and once again focused on reforming his disorganized heavy cavalry for one last purpose which would seal the fate of the Roman army at Cannae.

Meanwhile, the Roman infantry in the centre were still confident in their initial rout of the Carthaginian centre and pouring through the gaps in an attempt to destroy their enemies against the back of the river. As stated above, by this time the Roman legions breaking through in the centre were no longer organized fighting units but mostly a blood lusting mob advancing towards what was thought to be a defeated opponent. Unfortunately for them Hannibal had been expecting such an outcome and had placed his Libyan infantry, his equivalent to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, in positions both behind, and to the flanks, of the Carthaginian centre in two extended phalanx formations.

These Phalanxes were perfectly positioned to counterattack the Romans in the centre as they were deployed in considerable depth (as opposed to the regular Carthaginian infantry that had been deployed in a linear fashion to face the Romans) and the Roman forces passing in between the two flanks were now disorganized, well forward and exposed. Not only were the Libyans Hannibal’s best infantry, but they were also better equipped than their Carthaginian colleagues, having looted the Roman dead from Trebia and Trasimene. This likely played in their favor as many of the Romans were confused that similarly dressed soldiers as themselves were advancing towards them via the flanks.

Once the Romans in the centre had moved sufficiently into the trap the Libyan formations on both their flanks turned and advanced to attack. The Libyan phalanxes soon made contact with the Romans pouring through the centre and quickly stopped what had been the latter’s considerable momentum. This result was hardly surprising as the Libyans were veterans, in good order, and were still fresh as they had not yet been involved in the fighting, while much of the Romans were composed of greener troops, were hopelessly disorganized, and were considerably tired after heavy fighting. This latest maneuver by Hannibal regained the initiative for the Carthaginian infantry as it allowed the erstwhile retreating Spanish and Gallic infantry in the centre the chance to reform and re-join the battle line, as well as putting the Roman infantry, now surrounded on 3 sides, onto the defensive. The Romans were now gripped in a metaphorical vise, and having no effective reserves (having thrown all available forces towards the centre to accomplish their initial breakthrough) struggled to form coherent lines of defense.

If this were not enough, Hannibal’s army was now poised to unleash its last impressive maneuver upon the hapless Romans. By now Hasdrubal, having sent the Numidian cavalry to pursue the Latin cavalry, had once more reformed his heavy cavalry and proceeded to launch it in several devastating charges against the exposed Roman rear. This sealed the fate of the Romans as they were now more or less surrounded and had no room, or time, to organize their massive mob of fighting men into effective formations.

At this point the conduct of the battle became nothing more than a protracted, and attritional, slaughter. There were to be no more brilliant maneuvers, feigned withdrawals or major tactical decisions; just organized butchery. Apparently, this final stage of the battle was anything but brief and lasted most of the day until a very small portion of the original Roman army decided, or was allowed, to surrender.

Perhaps it is not surprising that most scholars of Cannae have focused predominantly on Hannibal’s amazing maneuvers and have usually glossed over this last part of the battle where in fact the vast majority of Romans were killed. No doubt it was more convenient to look at a map and think of the battle in terms of arrows and statistics than to imagine the sheer hell it must have been for the hapless Romans as they were trapped, stalked and hacked to death. Such scholars probably find it unsettling when historians such as Robert O’Connell describe how “at the end of the fight, at least forty-eight thousand Romans lay dead or dying, lying in pools of their own blood and vomit and feces, killed in the most intimate and terrible ways, their limbs hacked off, their faces and thoraxes and abdomens punctured and mangled.” However it would be foolish and dishonest to deny that Cannae’s enviable place in military history was bought, like all other feats in military history, without considerable human misery, suffering and death.

All of this suggests that Cannae would be a model of Clausewitiz’s school of military thought and not Sun Tzu’s. Admittedly, Hannibal was a master of maneuver, deception and knowing the enemy, three things constantly emphasized by Sun Tzu. However, Hannibal’s focus on destroying the enemy army, his deliberate use of maximum violence, and his primary focus on winning battles, are all staples of Clausewitizian doctrine. Sun Tzu, who cared more about maneuver and attempting to win without fighting wrote that “a surrounded army must be given a way out.” Unfortunately, for the Romans, Hannibal had no intention of letting them escape at Cannae and instead slaughtered them in a more Clausewitizian fashion. Hannibal’s maneuvers during the battle were simply means by which he could later kill as many Romans as possible, not to win the war with as little violence as possible.

As for results, Hannibal, despite operating with few supplies in a hostile country, and despite being outnumbered by 50% had not only defeated, but virtually surrounded and destroyed, a considerably superior enemy force. Cannae would prove to be Hannibal’s greatest battlefield victory and turn him into a legend.

The statistics regarding the battle are staggering to look at, especially if we remember that Cannae occurred nearly 2200 years before the horrors of the “First and Second World Wars.” In one day, the Roman army lost between 50,000 and 80,000 men and horses. Such discrepancies depend upon the sources, the difference between counting Romans who were captured on the battlefield versus those captured the next day at the Roman camps, estimations between wounded and dead, etc. Yet despite such varying estimates there are a few telling points.

Firstly, it seems as though the majority of Roman casualties were deaths; as in most of their army did not surrender. Secondly, including those who were killed, captured, wounded, or escaped, the vast majority of the Roman army was effectively eliminated at Cannae. In fact, in the end the Romans managed to scrape together perhaps 10,000 men (out of what originally may have been 86,000) who had not been killed or captured by Hannibal’s forces at Cannae, or in the surrounding area. Finally, as will be shortly noted, the casualty ratio was vastly in favor for the Carthaginian forces. All this Hannibal accomplished against a force that outnumbered him by 50%. If Roman losses from 218-216 B.C. including the disasters at Trebia, Trasimene, and other skirmishes and fighting are added the potential Roman military casualties thus far in the conflict ranged between 100,000-150,000. Considering Rome and her allies supposedly had 700,000 men available for war, and considering many of Rome’s allies would in fact shortly defect to Hannibal, it looked as though the Romans would eventually be bled to death.

To put it bluntly the Roman army at Cannae was destroyed as a fighting force, in both numbers and capabilities. In their long history Rome would suffer maybe one of two military disasters on such a scale. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian casualties have been estimated between 6500 and 8000, although this is unsatisfactory as there is no confirmation if these are total casualties, including wounded, or just deaths.

A few mores statistics help illustrate Hannibal’s victory at Cannae. No less than 1 consul (Paullus) 1 pro-consul, 2 Quaestors, 29 military tribunes, 80 senators, and a number of ex-consuls, praetors and aediles perished in the battle. Besides the slaughter of such a significant number of soldiers the Roman defeat at Cannae also deprived the republic of a high proportion of its military and political leadership. To put it in perspective imagine what would have happened if Hitler had not halted outside of Dunkirk but instead captured and destroyed the bulk of the B.E.F. in France in 1940. As most of Britain’s subsequently best generals escaped as well, it is interesting to wonder how different the war would have been had they been captured.

Why did Hannibal win the “Battle of Cannae?” Certainly there are no lack of factors that led to his victory. The terrain, though initially chosen by Varro to offer some protection for his outclassed cavalry forces, ultimately favored Hannibal’s cavalry instead. Additionally, Hasdrubal, the Commander of Hannibal’s heavy cavalry, deserves much credit for not only quickly dispatching first the Roman and then the Latin cavalry, but wisely refraining from pursuing either of them and focusing instead on quickly reforming his forces for more important purposes on the battlefield.

Hannibal himself correctly anticipated how the Romans would deploy and act and deployed his own forces in perhaps the most economical means possible to give his outnumbered forces the best possible chance to succeed. His use of forward echelons for his Spanish and Gallic infantry to give them staying power and time, the deployment of the majority of his cavalry on the left flank to quickly overwhelm the weaker Roman cavalry vs. the stronger Latin cavalry on the right, and his placement of the Libyan phalanxes behind his main infantry line to trap the Roman infantry as they burst through his centre were all brilliant stratagems.

On the other side, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Romans did much to hurt their chances of prevailing. As already stated, Varro’s decision to fight at Cannae due to the terrain was theoretically sound but proved to be disastrous in practice. Likewise, while the Roman decision to deploy in a colossal phalanx formation was both simpler for their inexperienced army and gave them much staying power, it was wasteful (as most of the troops would be deployed too far back to do any fighting) and offered little chance for maneuver; which ultimately reduced the Roman legions into little more than a rambling mob when confronted by Hannibal’s maneuvers. Additionally, the Roman plan for the battle was anything but subtle: Hold on the flanks with the cavalry long enough for the massive infantry force in the centre to crush its weaker Carthaginian equivalent.

It was a simple, and obvious, plan and while Adrian Goldsworthy in his brilliant books on Cannae and the “Punic Wars” reminds us that there were many ways that Hannibal could have lost the battle it is hard not to contrast the Carthaginian’s complex maneuvers with Rome’s frontal assault and the sheer imbalance of casualties and conclude that a potential Roman victory at Cannae was both unlikely and undeserved. There are plenty of examples of simple battle plans triumphing over elaborate ones in military history but Cannae was not among them.

Finally, besides the terrain, deployments and maneuvers, it is fair to suggest that at Cannae the Carthaginians generally had the advantage in leadership and experience. There was simply no Roman equivalents to Hannibal and Hasdrubal, men who had been engaged in constant warfare in Spain for years while the nature of Rome’s system of governance precluded its leaders would command for more than a short period of time. Likewise, while many of his troops had perished from the march from New Carthage to across the Alps the cream of Hannibal’s army, once again veterans from years of campaigning in Spain, were clearly superior to the generally green militias Rome mobilized infrequently. While it should be noted the Roman army at Cannae did have some experienced legions that had fought against Hannibal, or served under Fabius Maximus, there is no doubt that Hannibal’s forces were generally better led and more seasoned.

As for the strategic results of Cannae these can be categorized between what Hannibal’s victory accomplished in both the short and long term. In the short term it finally accomplished what Hannibal had been seeking since his descent of the Alps in late 218 B.C; the desertion of several Roman allies and a secure base of operation. Rome was further weakened by the entry of Macedonia into the war on the Carthaginian side, as well as defections to Carthage in Roman occupied Sicily and Sardinia. Theoretically such a defeat, and subsequent shifts in the strategic situation should have either resulted in a Roman surrender, unconditional or negotiated, or ultimate Roman defeat in the war.

However, it did not. Instead of coming to terms Rome shrugged off its losses and revitalized its war effort. Finally realizing the folly of engaging Hannibal’s superior forces head on Rome adopted an indirect strategy to combat Carthage. This involved wearing down Carthage by winning the military context in Spain and Sicily and then invading North Africa and bringing the war to Carthage itself. This was ironically helped by Hannibal’s new position after Cannae where he was responsible for guarding his new allies in Italy. This limited his mobility as he had to ward off sieges and attacks against Rome’s deserting allies and while he still managed to inflict some impressive defeats against Roman forces he never again achieved the decisive results gained from 218-216 B.C.

While Hannibal remained undefeated in Italy, in the end the worsening situation of Carthaginian forces in North Africa forced him to return home in a last ditch attempt to stave off defeat in 202 B.C. Here he faced Roman forces under Publius Cornelius Scipio, who had emerged as Rome’s best general of the conflict. The last great battle of the war occurred at Zama and while not as memorable, or sophisticated, as Cannae it was still similar to it in a notable way. While Scipio and Hannibal’s infantry fought a mostly attritional battle the Roman cavalry, supplemented by deserting Numidians routed Hannibal’s army and effectively won the day. This battle sealed the fate of Carthage and Rome triumphed in the “Second Punic War.” Thus in the long term, Cannae did not result in a Carthaginian victory.

There has been some controversy as to whether or not Hannibal wasted his victory at Cannae by camping near Capua and securing his gains instead of marching directly on Rome after the battle. While this seems like an attractive “what if scenario” it was both unlikely and unrealistic. It was unlikely because Hannibal’s set strategy from the beginning was to isolate Rome from its allies, and unrealistic because not only was Rome too far away from Cannae (perhaps 250 miles) to warrant the likelihood of a successful march, but his army was also considerably weakened from its losses in the battle and finally Hannibal did not have the means to launch an effective siege of Rome. Some authorities on the subject have suggested that the mere presence of Hannibal at the gates of Rome after Cannae may have been enough to scare Rome into surrender but this ignores both the stubborn nature of Roman society and the fact that a later Carthaginian incursion near Rome in 211 B.C. had little effect on Roman morale. It is possible that an all out effort against the city of Rome by Hannibal after Cannae may have won him the war, but the odds were considerably against it.

As for Hannibal himself, while he remained in Carthage for sometime after the conflict and held high office in an attempt to re-establish Carthaginian power and prestige, a combination of Roman antagonism and political rivalry eventually forced him into exile. However, this was not enough for the Romans who were terrified of Hannibal and constantly paranoid that he would somehow raise another army to attack them again. Therefore he spent the last years of his life pursued by Roman agents until he was finally cornered in modern day Turkey more than 3 decades after Cannae. Rather than face capture and the potential ridicule of being paraded in Rome Hannibal poisoned himself and left a note which read “let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.” This was the fate of Rome’s greatest enemy.

Then, there is the disproportionate affect Cannae has had upon subsequent military theory. Needless to say, and given Carthage’s eventual defeat in the conflict, the predominant focus of subsequent generations of military theorists has been upon explaining, and codifying, the reasons for Hannibal’s unequivocal tactical victory at Cannae versus the final strategic results of the war. Soldiers are generally practical and straightforward by nature and not surprising given the threat of death usually look at solutions that provide immediate results. Perhaps it is no secret that victory in battle is often the key to victory in war, but such a narrow focus on the tactical and operational levels can cheat soldiers when even overwhelmingly tactical results on the battlefield do not transform into decisive political or strategic effects with the potential to end the war on their side’s terms. Hannibal himself was a shrewd politician and strategist, and the fact that he ultimately lost despite being a master of war at all levels should have been a sober reminder to succeeding generations of soldiers.

Unfortunately, the most important lesson of Cannae, that even a perfect tactical victory does not necessarily lead to decisive political effects to end hostilities, has been lost upon countless soldiers, and politicians, throughout history.

A look at some of the more brilliant military tactical victories of the last 2 centuries confirms this. The German encirclement of Soviet armies at Kiev in 1941 may have netted the greatest number of prisoners in the history of war up to that point in time, but it also meant that the subsequent effort against Moscow would be frustrated due to the arrival of the Russian winter. Likewise, the completely one sided victory Israel achieved against Syria’s SAM (surface to air missile) batteries and Air Force in 1982 in the Bekaa Valley did not allow her to pacify Lebanon and secure her northern border. Even Nelson’s famous triumph at Trafalgar had limited strategic success; while it secured England against invasion it did not stop Napoleon from gaining his greatest victory at Austerlitz, or dominating most of Europe for another decade.

Tactical triumphs that have led to decisive political successes are even rarer in unconventional warfare. The unequivocal American success against the “Tet Offensive” in Vietnam in 1968, France’s harsh methods that all but destroyed the F.L.N. insurgents in Algeria, and Israel’s countless tactical victories against Palestinian and other irregular groups since 1948 all failed to lead to a satisfactory peace, let alone victory. While it is easy for historians, or armchair generals, to cite a few examples and imply they prove their point, military history, especially the last 200 years, suggests that tactical victory does not determine political, or strategic success, on its own.

Yet despite this unpleasant truth, Cannae has been used as a model, or template, for soldiers for generations to find and seek a supposedly perfect battle to win their respective conflicts. Unsurprisingly, the Prussians, and later the Germans, who placed perhaps too much emphasis on winning the tactical contest in battle have shown the most interest in Cannae. Frederick the Great, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Alfred von Schlieffen, and countless German soldiers in both world wars fantasized about inflicting another Cannae. With a few exceptions, they failed.

Frederick the Great had his master-pieces at Rossbach and Leuthen but it was diplomatic luck, as in the death of the Russian Tsaritsa, and not battlefield prowess, that saved Prussia in the “Seven Years’ War.” Moltke’s victory at the “Battle of Königgrätz” during the “Austro-Prussian War” is admittedly both a tactical and strategic success as it quickly won the war, but victory would end up being more prolonged and costly for him in both the “Second Schleswig War” and the “Franco-Prussian War.” Alfred von Schlieffen is said to have been obsessed with Cannae, making countless diagrams and studying it in minute detail. Not surprisingly his plan to defeat the French in 1914 at the beginning of the “First World War” was said to be heavily based upon it. Unfortunately for Schlieffen his meticulous study of train schedules and tactics he hoped would grant him total victory floundered against political considerations (such as Britain’s entry into the war) and unforeseen circumstances (such as the sheer logistics of the endeavor and Russia’s surprisingly quick mobilization). Perhaps he would have been wise to heed Moltke the Elder’s dictum that no plan “survives contact with the enemy.”

Likewise, military history from both world wars shows a remarkable tendency on the part of the Germans failing to secure political and strategic success from considerable tactical victories. Somehow it did not matter how many Russians they killed, how many ships they sunk or how much territory they overran; the Germans still lost both conflicts. Certainly in “World War 2” the Germans had a few windows of winning, such as after the “Fall of France” or during “Operation Barbarossa,” but in general any objective strategist in their position would probably have questioned how much tactical success it would have required to win when they were fighting the whole world.

However, the legacy of Cannae was not limited to Germany. Its influence was so widespread among military circles that Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested that “every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.” Even as late as “Desert Storm” General Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of Coalition forces that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces, said “I learned many things from the ‘Battle of Cannae’ which I applied to Desert Storm.” While Schwartzkopf’s execution of the liberation of Kuwait was indeed a tactical equal of Cannae and led to a satisfactory peace in the short term, many of the seeds of the modern “War on Terrorism” were sown in that conflict that it could almost be suggested that the Coalition’s triumph over Iraq was a “pyrrhic victory.”

Yet not all great commanders fantasized about Cannae. Ironically, given his aggressive nature, General Patton seems to have been more realistic about the likelihood of duplicating Hannibal’s great feat. He once wrote “there is an old saw to the effect that: ‘To have a Cannae you must have a Varro’…in order to win a great victory you must have a dumb enemy commander.” While the controversial case against Varro has been discussed above, there is no doubt that the greatest military victories in history have usually been as much of a result of incompetence on one side as brilliance on the other.

None of this is to suggest that Cannae was not a decisive victory, that Hannibal was an ineffectual commander, or that tactical success should be underestimated in war. Obviously wars are generally won by success on the battlefield. Hannibal’s victory at Cannae against superior forces was indeed a rare, and imaginative, phenomenon in military history and there was nothing wrong with succeeding generations of soldiers studying and trying to imitate it. However, despite such a lopsided victory Hannibal eventually lost the war and it merits questioning why the reasons for his ultimate failure have never been studied by soldiers with the same degree of thoroughness or enthusiasm as they have regarding his tactical successes. War is a comprehensive activity and as Clausewitz noted “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” Tactical victory on the battlefield is an important, usually critical, factor for victory in war, but if it does not lead to favorable strategically or politically results its greatest legacies usually remains in books instead of favorable outcomes at peace conferences. Unfortunately for Hannibal, this was to be the fate of his greatest triumph at Cannae.


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Fields, Nic. Hannibal. Oxford: Osprey, 2010.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Cannae. London: Cassell, 2001.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Fall of Carthage. London: Cassell, 2004.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000.

O’Connell, Robert. The Ghosts of Cannae. New York: Random House, 2011.

Article from “Roman Empire”: The Battle of Cannae.

Article from “The Romans”: Battle of Cannae.

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Cannae”: [December, 2013]