To Wage War by Withdrawing into the Interior of One’s Country

Russia is not known for brilliant generalship or first class armies.  Carl Von Clausewitz once labeled the Russian Army as “probably the least advanced” in Europe.  Yet historically, while most of Europe has fallen to countries such as France and Germany, Russia has not only survived, but even destroyed vast armies set forth to conquer her.  How could more advanced countries with better-led and equipped armies fail to stop such juggernauts as La Grande Armée or the Wermarcht, while a nation as backward as Russia with ill-trained and disorganized forces destroy them?  It is because the Russian Army did not really defeat them, the vastness of Russia itself did.  An effective way of defeating a significantly stronger enemy is luring it into the interior of one’s country.

Despite military rhetoric, there are situations in warfare when standing one’s ground and fighting the enemy is unwarranted and foolish.  Hitler’s decision to forbid the German 6th Army from retreating from Stalingrad and Custer’s Last Stand come to mind.  As Sun Tzu once remarked, “one must know when to fight, and when not to fight.”  Sometimes the only sensible option open to a commander is to retreat.  After all an orderly retreat is preferable to the complete destruction of one’s force.  If an army stood its ground and was destroyed, the best that could be hoped for would be to hurt the enemy sufficiently to force it to temporarily halt, which is extremely unlikely.  However, when an army retreats it can fall back on its own lines of communication while luring the enemy away from its Base of Operations.

In such a case, the advantage usually lies with the defender.  While the defender usually grows stronger by falling back and procuring more reinforcements and supplies, the attacker grows weaker from leaving troops behind to secure his communications, as well as to garrison fortresses and cities.  Additionally, the more the enemy advances, the further he will be from his Base of Operations and his Lines of Communication will be continuously stretched.  Eventually he will suffer from shortages and all they entail.  Therefore the attacker will likely suffer more casualties from sickness and noncombat injuries than the defender, and with fewer reinforcements and supplies, more equipment will likely be written off as well.  Also, the attacker will probably have to deal with partisans, who will harass them whenever they can.  Finally, as Clausewitz constantly reminds us “the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive,” which means more likely than not, the attacker will have higher combat injuries and deaths than the defender.  When all these factors are taken into account, it is not difficult to see how at the end of a long advance into the heart of an alien country, the attacker, who likely held a comfortable superiority at the beginning, will in many cases be significantly weaker than the defender.

Once the invader has reached the culminating point of his offensive and failed to destroy his adversary, he will be in a very vulnerable position indeed.  He will probably be weaker than the defender and have vulnerable Lines of Communication.  Meanwhile the defender, assuming he has retreated in an orderly fashion and has suffered less casualties and hardships and has been constantly reinforced with men and supplies, will be in a very advantageous position.  Now would be the obvious time for him to counterattack.

With his new-found superiority, the defender’s success in a counterattack is almost guaranteed.  However, if in spite of all the advantages the defender failed to score a significant victory, imagine what would have been the result against the enemy at the beginning of the campaign when the defender had none of the advantages, yet decided to fight instead of retreating?  However, it is more likely that the invader will lose the engagement and have to retreat.  How much men and equipment he will lose and how far he will have to retreat will of course depend on the circumstances.

Either way, as Clausewitz points out “There is an enormous difference between losing a battle on one’s frontier and losing it in the very heart of enemy territory.”  While losing a battle on the frontier is bad enough, at least you can retreat into friendly territory where you will have easy access to reinforcements and supplies.  However, losing a battle deep inside enemy territory is much more dangerous.  Not only would it be harder to procure reinforcements and supplies, but you would also be far away from your base of operations, the populace would probably be against you, and the subsequent retreat would be much more painful than had it been made on the frontier.  Of course, while it goes without saying that if the attacker managed to decisively defeat the defender in the heartland of his own country he would probably win the war the whole premise of this paper implies that the best chance of defeating a vastly superior invading army is to let it wear itself down until its superiority wanes.

While luring a superior enemy into your heartland can be a very successful strategy, there is no guarantee that it will work.  As Winston Churchill once told Field Marshal Wavell, “no one can guarantee success in war, but only deserve it.”  Like any situation in warfare, the circumstances and the resources one has at their disposal will probably dictate what course of action is taken more so than vague and often contradicting rules written down by theorists.  Therefore it is necessary to look at some limiting factors which could either limit the effectiveness of the strategy, or render it impractical.

Firstly, it is obvious that a small country could never adopt such a strategy.  The whole country would probably be occupied and its army would no longer have the means left to sustain it.  Even if the enemy did not occupy the whole country, it is probable that he would not suffer enough hardships to wear him down to give the defender a chance of defeating him, assuming that was the defender’s goal.

Secondly, the strategy would also be ineffective if the retreating army had to leave behind areas which were vital to its nation’s continuation of the war.  Such areas would include a capital city, vital industries, or a significant amount of one’s population.  Some good examples would be Paris to the French and the Ruhr to the Germans.  Not only is Paris the capital of France, but it also has a big proportion of France’s population, and at least during both world wars, most of its war production.  The Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War and World War 2 demonstrate that the fall of Paris inevitably leads to the fall of France.  As for Germany, while the Ruhr does not house the German capital, or a significant portion of the country’s population, it was undoubtedly the most important industrial area in Germany during both world wars as well.  Once the allies seized it in early 1945 Germany simply lacked the potential to significantly produce weapons from then on, not that it would have made much of a difference by then anyway.

Finally, the strategy might not work if a nation’s populace was not loyal.  In a grave situation where your army must evacuate large portions of your country, it is vital that the people are on your side.  A retreat never bodes well for public opinion, as it implies that the war is going badly.  If the populace was dissatisfied with their leaders and sensed that their demise was inevitable, they would certainly question their legitimacy to rule.  For example, one of the principle reasons Marshal Kutuzov fought Napoleon against his better judgment at Borodino was that the Russian people were angry the Russian army kept retreating instead of fighting the French.  Also, during the Second Punic War, the Roman peoples’ dismay at the delaying tactics used by Fabius Maximus Cunctator to buy time for the Republic against Hannibal’s forces eventually led to the slaughter of perhaps 50,000 Roman soldiers at Cannae.  It is bad enough fighting another country without having to constantly appease public opinion.

Therefore, there are at least three prerequisites for a country to be able to adopt the strategy in question.  1)  The country must be fairly large, or at least big in relation to the enemy’s nation.  2)  The Army can retreat far enough to wear down the enemy without sacrificing areas which are necessary to continue the war.  3)  The populace must remain loyal.

While the conditions above have to be available in order to enact the strategy, other conditions are necessary to ensure that the strategy is implemented effectively.  After all, it is not simply a matter of retreating and assuming the enemy will just waste away.

To begin with, a retreat does not have to be a passive and disorderly affair.  It can be calculated and aggressive.  Obviously a retreat by an undefeated and organized force is much different than a retreat by an army that has just been routed in battle.  The former can inflict much damage on the pursuer, while the latter would be lucky to avoid losing the war.  That is why it is better to retreat than to fight a battle you have little hope of winning.  The retreating army controls the terrain and if he is skilful he can set up traps and ambushes.  As Frederick the Great showed many times during the 7 Years’ War, it is possible for the defender to be more aggressive than the attacker.

Therefore, it is vital that the rearguard of the retreating army inflict as much damage as possible without risking open battle.  A strong and active rearguard can make the difference between the invader surging arrogantly ahead in contempt of his enemy, or cautiously pursuing him out of fear or respect.  In the case of the latter, the invader would advance slowly and buy the defender more time.

It is not only vital to be aggressive while you are retreating in the face of a superior enemy, it is just as important to be aggressive once the enemy has reached the culminating point of his offensive.  If one managed to defeat the enemy in battle and the enemy retreated, the only plausible course of action would be a forceful pursuit.  This is necessary, for as Clausewitz noted “it is usually only then that the trophies tend to be taken which will embody the victory.” In other words, it is during the pursuit, and not the battle itself, that the enemy usually disintegrates.  This is when the winner will really amass the prisoners and equipment that represent victory.  While both sides usually fight hard and brave during the battle itself, once it has been decided the victor will likely be emboldened while the loser will probably lose faith and start to collapse.  However, if the loser is not pursued vigorously he can often regain order in a relatively short amount of time.  That is why it is absolutely necessary to pursue the enemy as fast and as strong as possible.  It is the only way to reap all the benefits from the battle, as well as routing the enemy.

Another crucial condition for the successful execution of the strategy in question is enacting a scorched earth policy.  Put simply, a scorched earth policy involves destroying or removing anything that could help the enemy during his advance.  Whatever resources and supplies that can be saved are withdrawn when the army retreats, and whatever remains is destroyed.  Cities are evacuated, and along with crops, they are usually burned.  Wells and lakes may be poisoned, and what is left of the livestock will be butchered.  Munitions and supplies should be destroyed before they fall into the enemy’s hands.  Roads can be damaged and bridges should be blown up.  If there is a case in war where there is a fine line between military necessity and barbarism, it is not here.

Scorched earth is very costly to any nation that implements it.  The populations of the abandoned cities become refugees, valuable crops and resources are destroyed, and infrastructure is severely damaged.  Not only that, but the people become embittered.  Even if they would not rebel, the pressure they would put on the government would be considerable.  They would question the strength and will of both the government and the army.  They would wonder why their soldiers were retreating before the enemy instead of standing their ground and protecting the nation.

Given their plight, it would be hard not to sympathize with their view.  However, given their situation they would not see the necessity of the decisions made by those in charge.  They probably would not realize, or care, that their army would be no match for the enemy’s, nor that to defeat the opposing army it would be necessary to first wear it down, and that scorched earth would be a very important means to that end.  While it is easy to sympathize with civilians who are innocent and should never have to deal with the harsh realities of war, such emotions should not obstruct what has to be done in order to defeat the enemy.

This leads to the final condition that makes withdrawing into the interior of the country a viable and effective strategy.  The Government and the Army, or more specifically the Head of State and the Field Commander must have the courage, the resolution and above all the stubbornness to adopt this strategy and see it through to the end.  Countless politicians, soldiers and civilians will criticize the plan and try to derail it every time something goes wrong.  The resulting pressures coupled with such enormous responsibility can easily push any leader to change the plan.  Therefore, it is up to those in charge to ignore all criticism, stomach every setback, inspire confidence where needed, and to stick to the plan no matter what.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 he led an army that had conquered nearly all of Europe and numbered more than half a million men.  Not only did he vastly outnumber his opponent, but in general his troops were of superior quality as well.  However, the more he advanced and suffered from casualties, shortages and disease, the more the Russians retreated and gained more reinforcements and supplies.  Although Napoleon eventually defeated the Russians in the Battle of Borodino and took Moscow, the Russian Army managed to recover and Napoleon’s strength had been so abated that he had little choice but to halt his advance at Moscow.  Soon afterwards he was forced to retreat, during winter, and in the debacle that followed only a small shadow of La Grande Armée eventually crossed the Berezina River back to safety.

Ironically the Russians had not planned to retreat, or at least to withdraw as far as they did, but their involuntary withdrawal into the interior of their country can be seen as a near perfect example of how to implement the strategy in question.

Luring a superior army into the interior of one’s country can be a very effective strategy during wartime.  A retreating army can get more reinforcements and supplies by falling back on its lines of communication while an attacking army usually gets weaker due to severe casualties, having to garrison cities and forts and the continuous stretching of its communications.  In order to enact such a strategy one’s country must be relatively big, can afford to sacrifice a considerable amount of its territory, and its populace must remain loyal.  To make this strategy work one would need an aggressive vanguard, adopt a scorched earth policy, and firm resolution by the country’s leaders to ignore every hardship and see the strategy through to the end.  In the case of a relatively weak, but big, country threatened by a relatively small, but strong, country, this strategy is often the only realistic option.

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  Their Finest Hour.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Clausewitz, Carl Von.  On War.  New York:  Everyman’s Library, 1993.
Clausewitz, Carl Von.  The Campaign of 1812 in Russia.  Washington D.C:  Da Capo Press, 1995.
Goldsworthy, Adrian.  The Fall of Carthage.  London:  Cassell, 2004.
Marston, Daniel.  The Seven Years’ War.  Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2001.
Rothenberg, Gunther.  The Napoleonic Wars.  London:  Cassell, 1999.
Tzu, Sun.  The Art of War.  Boston:  Shambhala Publishing, 1991.
Warner, Philip.  World War Two:  The Untold Story.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *