1902 Encyclopedia > Battle


BATTLE, an engagement between two armies, as distinguished from the skirmishes, or minor actions, fought between their smaller sections. A battle is said to be general, where the whole, or the greater part, of each army is brought into action; and partial, where only brigades, divisions, or some corps d’armée out of several upon the ground, are engaged. However the numbers may vary, the great principles to be applied in delivering battle are at root in all ages the same. It is no doubt true that, in the circumstances under which battles are fought, there is nothing invariable; on the contrary, it is scarcely possible to suppose two cases alike in every particular, or even resembling each other in all their leading features. From the very nature of things, the minor data of the problem are variable; but the grand principles—those which depend on moral elements—continue immutably the same. On the other hand, the material elements which enter into the calculations of a general are constantly changing; and it is this circumstance which affords scope for the exercise of his genius, his sagacity, and his military science. But it would be manifestly absurd to maintain that, because the lesser conditions are so frequently altered, the great principles of the art are changed with them. The issue of battle is indeed always uncertain,—because the calculations of the general may be defective, his combinations unscientific, his foresight limited, or his temperament rash and impetuous; and because, even where none of these causes of failure exist, events which no human sagacity could have divined or provided against may occur to defeat the wisest plans. But all this implies that if every contingency could have been foreseen and properly met, the result would not have been doubtful, and that the grand chances are always on the side of him who, being provided with sufficient means for his end, forms his plan with the greatest sagacity, and executes it with corresponding vigour and ability. For, variable as the results of battles appear, decisive success has in all ages followed the combinations of great commanders; and victory in the long-run has seldom failed to pay homage to science. And this is because those principles which science has established as universally applicable depend on certain fixed laws in human nature, which ages have not changed since history was first written. That undisciplined forces, for example, are easily shaken by panic arising out of any such sudden disaster as the fall of their general, was as true in the day when Ahab, for this reason disguised himself at Ramoth-Gilead as it is now. That infantry, thoroughly broken up and exposed on open ground, may be taken or destroyed by a very inferior number of cavalry, was illustrated no less by Hannibal at Cannae than by Murat’s charge round the allied right at Dresden. The feeling that there was no safe retreat open in case of disaster was as fatal to the Persians at Marathon as to the French at Leipsic [Leipizig]. The crushing effect of heavy columns pressing against a line (which, as only the outer part of the column can act, is purely moral) was quite as conspicuous in the victory of Epaminondas at Mantinea as when Napoleon cut his enemy’s centre through at Austerlitz. Above all, military history, from the earliest times, proves two facts of prime importance to commanders in every action: the one, that the best troops become unsteady when their flank is gained, just as a single man in a struggle desires to face fairly the adversary about to rush on him; the other, that a comparatively small body coming fresh into action with troops exhausted by the exertions and nervous tension of a battle, has an advantage over much larger numbers. And being thug fixed, these principles obviously yield certain general rules, to which every prudent commander of any age strives to conform. Circumstances may lead him to violate them, but the examples of Leipsic and Waterloo are there to prove that, even with the greatest of generals, the result may be ruinous. In the first case, the French were forced to fight with their backs to a river; in the second, by a combination they were not prepared for their flank was struck by the Prussians when they were fully engaged with Wellington in front; and total defeat ensued in both.

A battle is not only the most imposing, but also the most important event in war. It is the consummation to which all previous combinations necessarily tend; it is that grand act which may decide the fate of empires as well as armies. The highest and dearest interests of nations, nay, even of humanity itself, may be involved in its issue. It cannot, therefore, be uninstructive to look briefly at the theory of those received principles by the skilful application of which the fate of battles has in all ages been determined.

All the methods in which a battle can be fought may be reduced to three for abstract purposes, each governed by a distinct principle. The first, the purely defensive, consists in waiting for the enemy, in a position chosen for the purpose, the object being simply that of maintaining it successfully against him. Theorists almost universally condemn this, and that with good apparent reason; for there is something peculiarly trying to the moral endurance of even the best troops in feeling that they are pinned to one spot to await the assaults of the enemy without any prospect of retaliation. But the rule is not without exceptions, as is plainly proved by comparing the two great examples of purely defensive actions fought during the campaigns of 1862-63 in America,—Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. The defender in each case was perfectly successful, beating off his assailant with tremendous loss; but the results were very opposite. Lee’s victory at Fredericksburg stopped, indeed, the advance upon Richmond for the time, but did not seriously affect the course of the war. Meade, on the other hand, by beating the Confederates off at Gettysburg, completely turned the tide of the campaign, and compelled Lee to abandon all idea of invading the North and commence a difficult retreat to Virginia; while thenceforth Washington was saved from all danger of being separated from the states that supported the union. This was because the position maintained at Fredericksburg was no more than one point on a single line of advance direct upon Richmond, whereas that of Gettysburg was so completely the key to the whole of the campaign of Maryland, that, whilst it was held by Meade, it was impossible for Lee to advance beyond it or any part of the northeastern states. The failure to carry it therefore paralyzed the whole scheme of the Confederates for transferring the burden of the struggle to hostile soil. And from a comparison of the varying consequences of these actions, so similar in their course, it will be seen that the defensive battle is justified only when the position to be maintained is one of vital consequence for the enemy to seize in order to carry on further operations with success. Lee has been fairly condemned by even friendly critics for not turning his defensive attitude at Fredericksburg into an offensive on the repulse of the enemy’s attack. No one blames Meade for the like conduct at Gettysburg, because his holding his ground fully accomplished all that it was necessary for him to do. But such an instance as this last, it should be added, can but rarely occur.

The second system is the entirely offensive,—in plain words, the attacking the enemy wherever found, with all force available. As it carries with it the moral power which in all ages is found to accompany, until some decided check occur, bodies of disciplined men moving freely forward to the assault, and as it gives the leader the power of choosing the weaker points of his adversary’s line on which to concentrate his blows, so it has ever been the favourite with bold and skilful generals leading good troops. Frederick and Napoleon alike preferred it, and won some of their chiefest victories by using it freely. Wellington employed it with marked success in the latest phases of the Peninsular War in 1813-14. Grant adopted it avowedly in his great struggle with Lee in Virginia in 1864. And the Prussians fought on this principle throughout the two great wars of 1866 and 1870-71. History, however, shows that it is only fully justified when the attacking general has a force decidedly superior either in numbers or in moral power; or when, as in the famous case of Frederick at Leuthen, he possesses such extraordinary skill in manoeuvring as to give him all the advantages of long odds, although engaged against superior numbers. It has the serious defect that if the defence prove more successful than was expected, the assailant may have to bring up successively and exhaust all his forces, and thus leave himself without any reserve to meet a sudden onset from the opposite side. In such case defeat probably entails the complete wreck of the hitherto offensive army, and with it possibly the loss of the campaign.

It is for this reason that prudent commanders are wont, where the choice lies with them, to select the third mode, the defensive-offensive, or a combination of the two preceding. This consists in taking up a position with the design of awaiting the adversary’s attack on it, but also of watching the opportunity afforded by the exhaustion of his army in its assaults, or by his extending it too widely in choosing the best points from which to make them, in order to pass suddenly to the offensive. Wellington is justly famous for the success with which he employed this form of action. But it is one of the highest tests of generalship to know exactly when most fitly to use either. And as Napoleon won three at least of his most striking victories,—Marengo, Austerlitz, and Dresden,—by passing at the right moment suddenly from an apparently passive attitude of defence to a vigorous offensive, so Wellington, after all the world had come to regard him as great only on the defensive, used the strictly offensive form, with the like success, at Vitoria, Orthez, and Toulouse, the last of these three actions being one of such apparent temerity as can hardly be paralleled in modern history, and yet perfectly justified by his instinctive knowledge of the demoralized state of the enemy whose position he undertook to force. Marlborough, who as a fighter of great battles has never been surpassed, and who, like Wellington, led a mixed army of English and allies, appears to have always had a decided preference for the offensive;—so little does nationality supply any just rule for selecting either. Marlborough’s choice, in all probability, was adopted from the comparatively passive attitude of his various adversaries at Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet, which tempted a bold offensive on his part. Lee, though certainly addicted to the strictly defensive, which was suited to his inferiority of numbers and to the strong nature of the ground he usually occupied, had the true instinct (as was especially shown in his great victory at Chancellorsville) of seizing any special opportunity offered by the carelessness of an adversary who brought against him apparently overwhelming forces. And in the late war, although the German generals elsewhere continually took that bold offensive which was justified at first by superior numbers, and later by the increasingly high spirits of their troops, yet in the most important and bloodiest action of the whole, Mars-la-Tour, they were content, after it had been well begun by their own attack, to pass to the completely defensive,—it being evident that by merely maintaining the position they had taken up across the French line of retreat from Metz, all the immediate advantage possible from victory would be won.

On the whole, therefore, it may be affirmed that no theory is sound which prescribes or forbids the use of any of the three methods, or lays down strict rules for the application of any of them. Defence is, however, the natural attitude of the weaker party, as Clausewitz, the greatest of all theoretical writers on war, has carefully pointed out. Under what conditions it is to be accepted, or how long adhered to when once assumed, are problems which it requires true genius to grapple with successfully; for they can only be solved rightly according to the circumstances of the hour, perhaps of the moment. To see a crucial instance illustrated by a failure, we may look at Gravelotte. There Bazaine was forced by the case to fight on the defensive. An opportunity occurred in the day, on the decided repulse of the German right-wing under Steinmetz, of striking such a counterblow as, from Napoleon’s hand, would probably have forced a victory over even the great odds possessed by the German commander. But Bazaine had no spark of the instinctive genius needed. He lost the opportunity, and with it the battle,—the loss entailing the last hope of rescuing his host from the dangerous and indeed ignominious position in which previous errors of judgment had placed it.

In conclusion, in order to demonstrate the undying truth of the main principle of battle, which is that, the general conditions being equal, the moral advantage is invariably at the outset with the offensive rather than the defensive,—with the army that feels itself moving forward rather than that which stands still,—it is well to refer to the recent discussion on the effect of breech-loading arms. It was almost universally assumed by theorists, especially by those of Prussia herself, when she first put the needle-gun into her soldiers’ hands, that the power of the new weapon would be most perceptible in defence, for which its more rapid fire seemed so specially adapted. The Prussian instructions, drawn up before 1866, avowedly followed this view. Those who compiled them overlooked the fact that the moral power of the weapon would of itself tend to carry those who bore it forward, and add an additional advantage to those the assailant had before in his greater show of vigour and activity, and his power of searching out the weaker parts of his enemy’s position and throwing his troops in force upon them. History has reversed the Prussian theory, and proved afresh how powerful for victory is the moral element in the soldiers’ character. For, out of the opening events of 1866, and the vast encouragement the Prussians experienced in their first collisions with Benedek’s army, has been evolved the most audacious and aggressive series of actions any nation ever fought. Certain Prussian writers have since the war of 1870-71 gone almost to the opposite extreme, and claimed absolute superiority for the offensive under all circumstances, forgetting that, against a stronger army, or even one perfectly equal in all other respects and well posted, it must inevitably be as dangerous as it proved when confidently tried by Napoleon’s marshals against British troops under Wellington.

The various so-called "orders of battle" of which theoretical writers treat, believing that they see a close similarity in the dispositions of well-led armies from the days of the Grecians down to our own, are, so far as such similarity really exists, founded entirely on one or other of the moral elements already mentioned, above all, on the desire to gain the enemy's flank. The late General Winfield Scott, one of the few commanders who could boast that he had more than once seen the back of English infantry in fair fight, declared that this desire is so instinctive that it is impossible to array two bodies of disciplined troops against each other without one at least soon striving for this advantage. But so far as this and other like universal principles are applied to the actual drawing up of an army at any period in a special order of battle, the arrangements must in practice vary with the arms and discipline. This subject, in fact, forms part of that special art which treats of the handling of troops in the presence of the enemy, and falls under the head of "tactics," for which see the article WAR. The mechanism of battles must vary continually; the great leading principles we have spoken of cannot change.

See Jomini, Traité des Grandes Opérations Militaires; The Archduke Charles’s Strategy (2nd and 3rd vols.) ; Rogniat, Considérations de l’Art de la Guerre; Clausewitz’s work On War; Boguslawski’s Tactical Deductions from the War of 1870-71; Scherff’s Studien, "Die Schlacht;" above all, Napoleon’s criticisms on other generals in his Memoirs. (C. C. C.)

The above article was written by Brevet-Colonel Charles Cornwallis Chesney, R.E.; Professor of Military History at Sandhurst from 1858; member of the Royal Commission on Military Education, 1868; author of Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, Waterloo Lectures, and Essays in Modern Military Biography.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries