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"Defence is not king!" Topic

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ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP04 Jun 2024 3:28 a.m. PST

A friend of mine writes school textbooks. About five years ago he did one in war and society for the UK history curriculum. I reviewed the chapter on 1750-1914 for him. I thought I was doing him a favour but in fact I caused him a problem. I found two bones of contention in it.

One was the claim that war did not change significantly between 1750 and 1850. Napoleon and Clausewitz might disagree with that.

The other debatable claim was this (I paraphrase): 'the foolish WW1 generals had not learned the lesson of the previous 50 years that, because modern weapons had become so lethal, the defence was king'.

I pointed out that (a) the attacker gets to shoot too and (b) the lesson from virtually every war of the previous half-century was that the attacker wins. The Crimea; Italy in 1859; Denmark in 1864; the ACW; the Austro-Prussian War; the Franco-Prussian War; the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars, with the latter two being proto-WW1 warfare with WW1 weapons: the attacker wins, the attacker wins, the attacker wins. The difficulty for Paul was that the debatable claim was not his, but he was required to make it because it was actually in the curriculum …

Which brings us to this week's wargame, our Monday night entertainment at Oxford Wargames Society. This was the largest European battle between 1870 and 1914. In the game, as in history, the attacker won.

It was tough going for the attackers at first, advancing into the teeth of the defenders' fire. However, on days 2 and 3, when gaps started to appear in the defensive line and flanks were exposed, the attack made inroads and finally cracked it. Full AAR here if you're interested to know which battle it is. Have a brownie point if you already know.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP04 Jun 2024 6:11 a.m. PST

In terms of winning wars the invading army may win most of the time but plenty of battles went the other way.

After the Alma all the battles around Sebastopol had Russians attacking unsuccessfully, also the Turks at Kurudere lost when attacking.

The attackers failed to win the first Schleswig war too. Considering Russia as the aggressor in 1854 (they invaded Turkish territory) they also lost.

Even in your battle the Ottomans successfully defended the line they retreated to against a number of attacks and still held it at the end of the war.

Neither extreme is wholly correct and putting it down to 'attacker wins' is radically simplifying the situation both strategically and tactically.

TimePortal04 Jun 2024 7:19 a.m. PST

Defense is king when the opposing forces are equal in nature. Planners use the factor of at least three times larger in force strength. The use of the nine principles of war is crucial for planners.

As a person with a college degree in Military Science, I enjoy such discussions.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP04 Jun 2024 9:48 a.m. PST

In WW1: Trenchard, in charge of the RFC decided early on to pursue an aggressive posture, crossing the lines to engage the Luftstreitkräfte, even though he was condemned for it as it meant he lost a lot more Pilots. The Germans pursued a defensive posture throughout the war.

As in Sun Tsu: 'Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.'

42flanker04 Jun 2024 12:20 p.m. PST

Isn't there a distinction to be made, in some of those examples, between the attacker and the aggressor?

TimePortal04 Jun 2024 2:25 p.m. PST

Attacker is a tactical term denoting a force conducting operations to secure a specified objective which started the operation under enemy control.
When designing scenarios it is good to remember that an objective can be considered under their control even if they are not occupying a position but also if you can put effective fire or interdicting fire onto it.

TimePortal04 Jun 2024 3:01 p.m. PST

Oh yes, the term aggressor in US military terms has been used since the 1950s to denote enemy troops. They even had their own uniform, helmet and flag or vehicle insignia.

In the 1970s, the term shifted to OPFOR which meant Opposing Forces. Again they had their own insignia. Based on Soviet forces, Each post or Division had a unit. At First Infantry division the MI Battalion controlled it. I had to inventory a lot of equipment. The Opfor insignia was a red star in a circle. I still have the document stamp in my collection. Lol.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP04 Jun 2024 10:41 p.m. PST

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'm glad I've prompted this interesting discussion.

@GildasFacit: I wasn't pretending the attack always won, only rebutting the implication that attack was futile and pointing out that it won more often than not.

True, the Crimea is therefore a bad example apart from the Alma.
1st Schleswig war doesn't count as it is before the 'modern weapons' the book referred to (it saw the Crimea as the turning point because of multiple technological innovations).
1st Balkan War: the Bulgarian attackers won at Kirkkilise and at Lule Burgas. Yes, they then bounced off the well fortified line at Chataldja. But two out of three ain't bad. The Greek and Serbian offensive battles were also successful.
APW, FPW and most pertinently RJW are also dominated by the attacker winning battles.

@TimePortal: yes, 'defence is the stronger form of war', but its tactical advantages can be outweighed by the attacker's advantages, be they superior numbers, superior morale, surprise, etc. Being stronger doesn't make it king.

@Herkybird: interesting example. But do casualties make Trenchard wrong?

@42flanker: yes, I did conflate [strategic] aggressor and [tactical] attacker, hence the flawed Crimea case. But in most cases, strategic offensive is congruent with tactical attack, so it's a legitimate conflation.

Chancellorsville is an interesting exception. Hooker intended to act offensively at the operational level but fight on the tactical defensive. Nice idea, could have worked, but he lost badly.

Martin Rapier04 Jun 2024 11:46 p.m. PST

There is a bit more nuance to the original assertion. I believe it was John Keegan who first asserted that Nelson was a successful Admiral as he realised that the (tactical) offensive had the advantage in naval warfare, whereas Wellington was a successful General as he realised the (tactical) defence had the advantage in land warfare.

It certainly doesn't mean that attacks always fail, but that the defence acts as a force multiplier, when armed with ranged weapons. When odds of 6:1 or more are required for a successful attack, as in WW1, it indicates that the defence may have something going for it.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP05 Jun 2024 1:15 a.m. PST

But do casualties make Trenchard wrong?
Of course not! The Sun Tsu quote is key. Trenchard knew to ensure the safety of his artillery spotting aircraft he needed air superiority over the front lines, and an aggressive posture was the only way to achieve this.
Although the concept of air supremacy and air superiority are concepts born after WW1, he knew that these conditions had to be constantly striven for so long as the Central Powers had any aircraft left.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP05 Jun 2024 2:19 a.m. PST

@Herkybird: OK, now I get your point. Good one.

@Martin: I agree, of course. But a suitably organised and prepared attack with the necessary odds beats the defence. Undoubtedly there were WWI generals, especially in the early years, who did not organise or prepare their attacks suitably with the necessary odds. Hence costly failures and "lions led by donkeys".

But by mid-war, people had largely worked it out and there was the period of the "mathematics of destruction": X guns + Y trainloads of ammo firing for Z days + N divisions will destroy x miles of defensive line. "If defence is king, attack is the regicide"?

Mollinary06 Jun 2024 9:01 a.m. PST

Interesting analysis. Not sure I would agree with you on the APW. In most of the battles the Austrians assumed the tactical offensive, and were soundly driven off. At Koniggratz, where the Prussians assaulted the Austrian lines from the Holawald, they too failed to cover the beaten ground of the Austrian artillery.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP06 Jun 2024 1:42 p.m. PST

Hmm. It's about 50/50, isn't it?

Austrian failed offensive battles: Nachod, Trautenau, Skalitz
Prussian successful offensive battles: Burkersdorf, Muenchengraetz, Gitschin, and the big one, Koeniggraetz (local reverses notwithstanding).

I suggest this tells us less about the primacy of attack or defence and more about which was the better army.

Murvihill08 Jun 2024 5:53 a.m. PST

There are huge advantages to attacking. The attacker gets to decide where, when and how to conduct the attack. The defender is stuck counterpunching. Because of table size and time limitations and the helicopter view it's hard for wargamers to collect those advantages.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP09 Jun 2024 2:06 p.m. PST

@Murvihill: you know that. I know that. The people commissioning Paul's textbook didn't.

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