Application of Force in the Age of Sail

I am not sure what book I read it in, but it may have been The Price of Admiralty where the strategies of Wellington and Nelson were compared. Nelson preferred the attack, deciding the flow of battle to an extent and using their superior sailing to place the inferior British ships in advantageous positions, be it between ships or on the shoreward side; Wellington was a defender, preferring to create hard points a la La Haye Sainte, and bringing up troops to support the larger battle line. At first glance these two plans could be no more different. In fact, Napoleon could be considered the Nelson of the land, with a preference for sharp application of force in a column, breaking through the opposing line; other Field Marshals, such as Davout often adopted the semi-static defense when pressed. In fact each military commander was taking advantage of their own forces and doing exactly the same thing: maximizing their potential force.

Nelson is the clearest example of this because he was not fighting on terrain. The seas provided their own challenge, but they were flat. No hills, no rivers. While his ships were smaller and of lower quality than their opponents, the British were better gunners and better sailors, which allowed them to place their ships in the most advantageous position and limit the ability of the French to fight back. The captains also knew what they were about, willing to take chances and assured of victory. This last was felt in the French navy. The French were afraid of Nelson, even while out gunning and out manning him. Nelson commanded the British equivalent of the Imperial guard and when he sailed towards the French, he did so in full view; everyone knew the greatest admiral alive and his elite fleet were bearing down on them. Not very reassuring.

Up until Waterloo Napoleon had the same advantage of fear. The Imperial Guard was loyal, strong, well trained and boasted never having fled. Further, they, as with the rest of the French army, attacked in columns, narrow, but deep, so that they could break through and then exploit this gap. This was even their intent when Napoleon sent forward the Imperial Guard at Waterloo.

Wellington proved himself a master of what I termed above “semi-static defense.” What I mean is that he chose a defensive position that covered some expanse of ground, relying on ridges, hills, farms, and whatever other landscape options were available to shelter his forces. He could then bolster his forces at the point of attack, with mobile reserves and pulling from unassailed portions of the line that his opponent couldn’t see. This was by far the most economical use of force, and would remain so through the American Civil War and was in some ways the precursor of trench warfare. It was also difficult to win a decisive victory with this stratagem as the attacker could simply withdraw. This would have been the case at Waterloo had the Prussian Army not attacked Napoleon’s flank. Strategic marches and defenses could win a campaign, but individual battles would more aptly be characterized as stalemates.

Wellington used this to keep his forces together and intact, something even more pressing for him because his troops largely did not have the elan of the French. They were not professionals, and their arrival did not inspire fear the way the Imperial Guard did. Wellington also knew that the French would attack. If he could hold, bolstering his line at the point of attack, using the farm houses, artillery, and even a surprise volley from the Foot Guards to maximize his own force, the way that Nelson crossed the French navy at Trafalgar, Aboukir and the Danes at Copenhagen, and the way that the French army attacked in columns and supported by massive artillery barrages. The key difference between the sea and the land is that while both offense and defense could concentrate force at the point of attack on land, this was much more difficult to do at sea; Nelson found that only in attack could force be concentrated.

It should also be noted that while the above is a quick overview of the strategy during this period and a few specifics, the concept is pretty much the same throughout history in that the first basic principle is to maximize your force and concentrate the attack. The real difference is whether that happens in the form of Nelson crossing between the French ships, Napoleon’s columns, Epaminondas’ oblique-heavy left, the Greek bottlenecks at Salamis, Artemesium and Thermopylae, Subodei’s diffusion and swarms of arrows in feigned retreats or swift moving tank columns of Rommel and Sherman.

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