Tolstoy and The Battle of the Will

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On audiobook, I’ve been wrapping up re-reading War & Peace, while in print I’ve been reading David Herrmann’s The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, which is about the developments in military technology, army organization, tactics and the arms race in Europe during 1904-1914 and to what extent these led to the outbreak of World War One.

One of the things for which World War One is well known is that, at the opening, generals on both sides were deeply convinced that the essential means of winning a battle was the spirited attack. Making spirited attacks in the face of machine guns and rapid firing artillery could have deeply horrific results, and the resulting learning process has led, in retrospect, to the view of the Great War as being typified by useless slaughter.

French officer machine gunned down in a counterattack at Verdun – 1916
Bilderdienst Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich
Stepan, Photos that Changed the World, p. 31

The common wisdom is that in 1914 military leaders did not realize how much these new weapons had changed the modern battlefield. In actuality, staff colleges and military theorists had spent a great deal of time thinking about the impact of magazine fed rifles, quick firing artillery and machine guns on infantry tactics, but because there had not been a major European war since the wars of German unification in the 1860-70s, there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what these changes would actually look like.

The American Civil War was nearly unstudied in Europe, partly because it was fought at almost exactly the same time as the very different Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, and partly because tacticians believed that the conditions in America (which lacked the universal conscription and large trained armies of Europe and had a theater of operations far more vast than Western Europe) would not apply in a European war. Based on the European wars of 40 years before and on the recent Russo-Japanese war, European military leaders were convinced that the key to victory on the modern battlefield was to have a well trained army imbued with sufficient national zeal to carryout a rapid attack even in the face of murderous fire, under which the natural human reaction was to hunker down under cover.

The Japanese suffered terrible casualties in 1904 and 1905, but ultimately their assaults went in to decide the day. Against the almost incomprehensible passivity of the Russian command, the Japanese won repeated victories with an aggressive strategy and a willingness to sacrifice men at decisive points. The victors throughout the second half of the nineteenth century had accomplished all this in spite of a continual increase in the lethality of weapons. The results tended to silence critics of the offensive, and to confirm the axiom that only the attack could bring victory.

Military theory provided a continuous accompaniment to this development. Not only did it enthrone the virtues of the offensive; it tended increasingly to transfer the debate from the realm of the material, technical considerations to that of morale, will, and the interaction between people. The wars of the French Revolution had shown what an influence popular enthusiasm and political ides could have, not only upon recruitment and mobilization of society for war, but also upon fighting effectiveness. Napoleon himself had said that in war the moral is to the material as three is to one, a maxim that his disciples never tired of quoting…. The visionary French officer, Charles Jean-Jacques Joseph Ardant du Picq, took up this theme in the 1860s, writing that a battle was more a contest of will than anything else, and that it was much less important to inflict material losses than to persuade the enemy that he was beaten. To achieve this, du Picq believe in sacrificing everything to the aw-inspiring momentum of an attack. Colmar von der Goltz, the influential German author of many works on strategy after the wars of unification, perpetuated these ideas. For him, to defend was to let the enemy decide where, when and how the battle would be fought. It was also to sacrifice the inestimable advantage in morale that an advancing army enjoyed over a retreating one. All of these ideas conformed well with those of popular nationalist writers in the Mazzinian and later Trietschkean traditions, who placed voluntarism and the power of feelings, especially experienced as a community, above mundane material constraints. The sociological, political and psychological theory of thinkers like Nietzsche, Sorel, Weber, Durkheim and Freud contributed to this preoccupation with will and emotion in a world that seemed to many by the turn of the century to have fallen prey to dehumanizing materialism.
The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, pages 22-23

(If it seems disconnected from the everyday to cite Nietzsche in a discussion of battlefield tactics, here’s an interesting fact I’ve run into: The second most frequently carried book, after the bible, by German soldiers in World War One was Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.)

The day after reading this section, I read the following section in War & Peace, and suddenly all Tolstoy’s criticisms of the “German rationalism” of Russia’s generals back in 1812 fell into place. War & Peace was published in 1869, just as the thinking above was coming into currency. And to Tolstoy, the emphasis placed fifty years before on tactics and movement was absurdly theoretical and failed to realize that battle was primarily a contest of wills. Here is Prince Andre (in the online translation, Andrew) presenting what from the narration elsewhere seems clearly to be Tolstoy’s view of how war works in Book 10, Chapter 25:

Pierre looked at him in surprise.

“And yet they say that war is like a game of chess?” he remarked.

“Yes,” replied Prince Andrew, “but with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please and are not limited for time, and with this difference too, that a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company. The relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone. Believe me,” he went on, “if things depended on arrangements made by the staff, I should be there making arrangements, but instead of that I have the honor to serve here in the regiment with these gentlemen, and I consider that on us tomorrow’s battle will depend and not on those others…. Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, or equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position.”

“But on what then?”

“On the feeling that is in me and in him,” he pointed to Timokhin, “and in each soldier.”

Prince Andrew glanced at Timokhin, who looked at his commander in alarm and bewilderment. In contrast to his former reticent taciturnity Prince Andrew now seemed excited. He could apparently not refrain from expressing the thoughts that had suddenly occurred to him.

“A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours, but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could. ‘We’ve lost, so let us run,’ and we ran. If we had not said that till the evening, heaven knows what might not have happened. But tomorrow we shan’t say it! You talk about our position, the left flank weak and the right flank too extended,” he went on. “That’s all nonsense, there’s nothing of the kind. But what awaits us tomorrow? A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed, but all that is being done at present is only play. The fact is that those men with whom you have ridden round the position not only do not help matters, but hinder.”

As with many a wrong theory, this is of course quite a bit of truth in this, the problem is in seeing it as the whole truth. Most certainly, morale matters in war. And yet, the will of an army, expressed in an aggressive charge, will seldom find itself winning out over machine guns and artillery barrage. Although it is battles such as Verdun and the Somme which provide the popular perception of World War One, the highest rate of casualties in the entire war was during the first four months, as both the French and the German armies attempted to fight mass battles of offensive maneuver in the battles of the Frontiers and Marne, before both dug in and trench warfare began. In those four months, the idea that modern battles could be won through nothing but offensive will died a horrifically bloody death. In those four months, the idea that modern battles could be won through nothing but offensive will died a horrifically bloody death. It was developments in tactics (the creeping barrage, attack and defense in depth, storm tactics) and in technology (tanks, motor transport, air supremacy) which ended up being the key to victory in the Great War.

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  1. World War I trench warfare presented a considerable military problem: what to do when the defense is so much stronger than the offense? Two solutions were ultimately arrived at: one by the Allies and one by the Germans. The Allied solution was technological, notably the tank. If the War had gone on into 1919 the Allies would have disposed of a huge armored force which would have crushed the Germans. The Allies also became experts in rolling artillery barrages and the use of other artillery tactics which proved effective in breaking through trench lines. (The Germans also developed similar artillery tactics.) The German solution was non-technological. They developed special storm trooper divisions, carrying lots of machine guns and mortars, and trained to avoid enemy strong points. These troops had high morale and were taught to use their initiative down to the squad level. The storm trooper tactics proved quite successful and almost won the War for Germany in the spring of 1918. I have always found it fascinating that two solutions to a massive military conundrum were developed so swiftly. It is hilarious that World War I is regarded in the popular mind as simple slaughter with cannon fodder led by unimaginative generals. The reality was quite different as the War demonstrated yet again that in War any technology has a short shelf life of military dominance: defeats and disasters tend to light the way forward more than victories in the painful process of military learning and progress.

  2. One tends to forget how very nearly the German offensive of 1914 succeeded. My great-uncle, a member of the BEF, was attached as a liaison officer to a French cavalry regiment bivouacked in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, on the Marne and his patrol encountered von Klück’s scouts. That is only 11 kilometres from Paris. The German advance guard was only some 10 or 15 kilometres behind. They were within 4 or 5 hours walking distance from the heart of Paris.

    Coincidentally, his family, the Scottish Seymours originally came from Saint-Maur-des-Fossés some nine hundred years earlier.

  3. Donald, technical and technological advances were only the basis of the Western Allies’ victories in mid-to-late 1918. The essential element, I think, was Foch’s decision to implement a new strategy of limited but continuous offensives, each sector of the front in turn starting to move before the previous offensive had ran out of steam, compelling the Germans to fight all the time and wearing down their numerically inferior resources. The tanks and the rolling barrages were the instruments of this novel, more methodical system of “taking down the enemy castle one stone at a time”, and for that matter you might say that the enormous flat or lightly hilly expanse of France was the ideal place to enact it, since every spot from the North Sea to the Swiss border was equally suited for sudden attacks (unlike, say, the Italian Alps).

  4. I agree Fabio that the continuous attack idea was essential in 1918. It was a fairly obvious plan, but until the Wehrmacht had shot its bolt in the Spring of 1918 I doubt if it would have succeeded. However Foch was able to sense that the enemy army had lost its fighting edge, an essential attribute of any good general.

  5. Donald R. McClarey

    A miracle, indeed.

    My great-uncle always maintained that, had it not been for the eleven days during which the Belgian fortresses held out in what came to be known as the Battle of Liège, the Germans would have been in Paris in September 1914. Without that delay, there would have been no BEF in France and, understandably, he was not inclined to underestimate the rôle of the Old Contemptibles in preventing an Allied route.

  6. I have always thought that there was something legend-like about that. Leopold II, the worst king in Europe’s whole nineteenth century – if murdering people by the ten of million to line one’s pocket makes a man bad – succeeded by his nephew, who is quite literally the type of a hero king married to a heroine queen. One wonders whether, had he lived to see the second frolic, he would have surrendered his country like his successor Leopold III did. And on the other hand, I have absolutely no doubt that if Leopold II had still been alive in August 1914, he would have made the deal with Germany, and perhaps also have taken advantage for a bit of comeback against the Parliament that had taken his murder fields of Congo away from him merely because he’d killed a few locals.

  7. Fabio, King Albert was indeed a legend come to life. The Kaiser tried to bribe him by saying that Belgium would be entitled to a share of the spoils after a victorious war by Germany if it cooperated and allowed the German troops to march through it unobstructed on their way to France. Albert responded, “What does he think I am?” just before ordering that the bridges between Belgium and Germany be blown.

  8. Some people really fit their roles. Abraham Lincoln was one. King Albert was another. Giuseppe Garibaldi was another – did you know (and this is a proven and certified fact) that in his civilian work as shipmaster, he saved at least twelve people from drowning in separate accidents? You could not make it up, Nor could you make up the kind of love Albert and his wife had for each other, the clarity of his vision for his country, his totally sincere faith, and last but not least that resolution that probably saved Europe. (For had the King not turned his whole country into the Thermopylae of the twentieth century, the Germans would probably have made it to Paris and knocked France out of the war. Let alone that, if Belgium had not declared war and called on the treaty signers to defend it, Britain would probably not have entered the war. Albert, like Charles Martel, like Jan III Sobieski, like Field-Marshal Pilsudski, and probably no other person, saved Europe. Nothing greater could be said.

  9. If Belgium had not fought, the OCs would probably never even have been sent, for Britain would have had no compelling legal reason to enter an obviously horrible war. And without despising their contribution, Joffre and Gallieni would never have had the time to bring together up to a million French troops and swarm them through Paris and to the front by any means available – the famous taxis being the ultimate example. Even more to the point, had Belgium not fought, the obvious crime of its invasion would not have silenced what were potentially very strong pro-German parties in the USA, Italy and Spain. The USA would have remained neutral through what was left of the war, and Spain and Italy would probably have intervened on Germany’s side.

  10. In the conditions of 1914 it is unlikely that the (modified) Schlieffen Plan would have succeeded. However, with further modifications it succeeded spectacularly in 1940.

  11. Are you paying attention? The Schlieffen plan came within an inch of working in the conditions of 1914. We are postulating a situation where Belgium did not hold up Germany for eleven days, where Britain might not have intervened and certainly might have done so more hesitantly than it did, and where Italy and Spain might well be visibly considering intervention on the German side. Not succeeded? In such conditions, it would have been a miracle had it not succeeded.

  12. Fabio P.Barbieri

    It in no way diminishes King Albert’s greatness to recall that he undoubtedly had the complete support of the Belgian people. A generation earlier, in 1870, Catholic Europe had been stunned by the fall of the capital of civilisation to the barbarians from beyond the Rhine; nothing like it had happened since the sack of Rome by the Goths. The Belgians were prepared to resist at all hazards.

    Italy would never have sided with Germany. Too many Italians welcomed a war with Austria to liberate Italia irredenta. However, that is academic; one only has to look at a map of the French railway system, radiating from Paris like the spokes of a wheel to see that, had the capital fallen, the war would have been over in weeks. Not only that, but the whole of the country’s heavy industry was located in the North East.

  13. Michael – I am WRITING a history of Italy as we speak, so that is not the right ground to challenge me. Italia Irredenta included Nizza (Nice), birthplace of Garibaldi himself, a city that had never had any notion of being French until taken by force and fraud, and which actually rose up against the French in 1872; Corsica (read Pasquale Paoli on Italian patriotism); and Malta. Italy also had an angry claim to Tunisia, which the French had literally snatched under our noses in spite of the fact that it was and is a natural Italian area of interest and that even throughout the French protectorate Italian settlers there outnumbered French; and it might, as Mussolini later did, have discovered a claim to Savoy – which was not Italy, but was not France either, to the point where the great anthropologist Van Gennep went there in 1904 when he needed to study a society that was really as alien to France as any Third World country. Finally, Italy might have been offered access to the Atlantic – via Tangier – and to the Red Sea, via the French shareholding in the Suez Canal, thus solving the great Italian strategic conundrum of being a natural naval power locked into the Mediterranean. What is more, Italy hated Austria – as much as they hated France – but they warmly admired Germany. Financially, Italy was a German protectorate, with its leading and only respected bank, Banca Commerciale, set up and staffed by Germans. The universities were centres of German influence, thanks to the natural admiration of struggling Italian academics for the immensely successful galaxy of academic bodies due north, where most Italian academics went for advanced studies. As it is, Italy did not declare war on Germany until some time in 1917. Had Italian public opinion not been revolted by the invasion of Belgium, Italy might well have decided to join Germany’s party. And so might Spain, whose king was pro-German throughout.

  14. Darwin

    Good points.

    At the beginning of the war both the Germans and the British (I do not know enough about the Frenc to say.) While agreeing that an attack should be spirited, also insisted that one does not make frontal assaults. The British had earned a hard lesson in the Boer War. For the Germans Erin Rommels book “Attacks” tells of platoon level fighting in the first week and months of the war. The standard training was to look for flanks and bypassing.

    However, the development of the Switzerland to Channel trench system eliminated any flanks. The massive casualties amoung the career soldiers compromised the the ability to properly train new conscripts.

    On the large scale the there was disagreement, but at the small unit level both those armies were doing what the US Army would later call fire and and maneuver.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  15. Italy did not declare war on Germany “sometime in 1917” but on 28 August 1916. Problems with logistics and communications would probably have thwarted the Schlieffen plan anyway. Had Schlieffen’s advice to keep the right wing strong been heeded, the logistical problems would have been compounded. There was a big gap between theory and practice.

  16. In defense of Will (or perhaps, willful ignorance) there’s John Mosier’s The Myth of the Great War.

    And then of course, there’s Hanson, who argued that the willingness to accept casualties in pursuit of a decisive victory was intrinsic to the way we fight. At least in the West.

    For whatever it’s worth.

  17. John Nolan, solvitur ambulando. “Problems with logistics and communications” did not prevent the German infantry to come within human sight of Paris, and that after the French had had the extra eleven days afforded by the sacrifice of Belgium to bring up everything they had through their very efficient railway service. “Problems with logistics and communication” are the mediocre general’s bugbear; the real generals know that, if once they get enough men moving in the right, direction, l’intendance suivra. And as someone else pointed out, if Paris had fallen, there would have been an end of trying to develop a coherent defence strategy for the rest of France, because there were no routes which bypassed the capital. All that would have been left for the Germans to do, if the French insisted on resisting, would have been to liquidate the resistance piecemeal, with the likely assistance of Spain and Italy.

  18. “As with many a wrong theory, this is of course quite a bit of truth in this, the problem is in seeing it as the whole truth.”

    Definition of heresy…

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