Could be me

Balashev found Davoust seated on a barrel in the shed of a peasant’s hut, writing – he was auditing accounts. An adjutant stood near him. Better quarters could have been found for him, but Marshal Davoust was one of those men who purposely make the conditions of life as uncomfortable for themselves as possible in order to have an excuse for being gloomy. For the same reason they are always hard at work and in a hurry. ‘How can I think of the bright side of existence when, as you see, I sit perched on a barrel in a dirty shed, hard at work?’ the expression of his face seemed to say. The chief satisfaction and requirement of such people is to make a great parade of their own dreary, persistent activity, whenever they encounter anyone enjoying life. Davoust allowed himself that gratification when Balashev was brought in. He buried himself more deeply than ever in his work when the Russian general entered, and after a glance through his spectacles at Balashev’s face, which was animated by the beauty of the morning and his talk with Murat, he did not rise, did not stir even, but scowled more bleakly than before and smiled malignantly.

Okay, the title is a bit of an exaggeration, but, when I read this passage aloud to my girlfriend, she exclaimed “it’s you!” I took most of Tolstoy’s characterizations in War and Peace with a grain of salt, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Iron Marshal. This passage just feeds that fondness.

Leuctra and Waterloo; The transience of invincibility

Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon by the joint Prussian and British forces was an incredibly well-orchestrated defense by the Duke of Wellington, who bore the brunt of the French assaults until the Prussian army arrived and finalized the defeat. But before the Prussians arrived Wellington drove off multiple charges of the French cavalry, defended Hougoumont all day, and held La Haye Sainte for most of the battle.

Mistakes were made on both sides, and at several points Napoleon probably could have routed the British Army and then turned to deal with the Prussian Army. Most importantly for Napoleon, his second in command was Marshal Ney, not nearly the same calibre officer as Marshal Davout, who was left in charge of Paris during this fateful campaign. Napoleon’s final move at Waterloo was to dispatch the Middle Guard, not the Old Guard, but a terrifying unit nonetheless, and one of his elite. The British Foot Guards broke this charge, prompting the disintegration of the French Army and end of Napoleon’s Hundred Days.

Spartan training was the stuff of legends in Ancient Hellas and from the days of Thermopylae and Plataea an aura of invincibility arose, not unlike that which Napoleon would enjoy. Before Thermopylae Spartans were feared, but not considered invincible (ironic that a defeat would do so much to further an aura of invincibility). Throughout the next hundred years or more Spartans were nigh undefeated on land, the major exception being on the island of Sphacteria off of Pylos, where a group of Spartans ignominiously surrendered. Then came Leuctra.

Thebes waxed while Sparta waned, became softer, more materialistic and lazy. In 371 the Spartan king Cleombrotus led the army up into Boeotia where a smaller force under Epaminondas caught it at a disadvantage and crushed it. In one fell swoop the Spartan predominance and invincibility disappeared.

In both situations armies were mismanaged and the loser could easily have emerged victorious; but in neither did they. Spartan hoplites could have held and the Imperial Guard could have kept advancing, but they didn’t. Both groups broke, both groups ran, auras of invincibility irreparably shattered. It took just one instance, one flight, one complete defeat.

Greatness and Reputation: opportunity vs action

Warning: little in the way of direction binds the following thoughts together.

Where to begin?

“Greatness” in generalship seems to be composed of a series of complementary pieces: tactics and strategy; dogged defense and speedy assaults; and then capacity for inspiring troops. Most often successful commanders exhibit multiple of these traits and the higher in rank they are, the more likely to require multiple of them, though the actual honorific “great” is a product of success more than any particular brilliance of operation.

In the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E Lee made extensive use of two men: James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson. Both men were capable of inspiring their men, though Jackson may have beenslightly better in this regard simply based on the feats of endurance his men accomplished, and both were tactical visionaries. Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall” because of a dogged defense at Manassas I, but his greatest asset was the speed with which he attacked, while Longstreet’s was defensive tactics fifty years ahead of his time (he helped pioneer trench warfare used in World War I).

Does this mean that neither possessed superior strategic sense? No, but it is impossible to superimpose a situation because it was not something they dealt with and therefore would be supposition at best.

Two thousand years earlier, Alexander is considered the complete package, although in his own time there was some question of his overall strategy. But he won, so it is a bit hard to debate it. Phenomenal success rate, yes, but Alexander never really dealt with any situation that called for desparate defense, and validates the theory that the best defense is a good offense, but then it is hard to know the outcome if he was thrust into such a situation. Lastly, Alexander only had to subject people, he did not then have to rule them.

At the other end of Alexander’s battle line was Parmenion, who did not exhibit the attacking flair, but did the defense. At Issus and Gaugamela Parmenion’s Thessalian cavalry, 2,500 strong, held off five or ten times their number of Persian cavalry wit ha series of squadron level charges and counter-charges. Just as the strengths of Jackson and Longstreet were complementary, so, too, were those of Alexander and Parmenion. Perhaps they would have been able to take the other role, perhaps not.

Then there is Richard the Lionhearted, whose strategic failures overcame tactical success; Agesilaos, whose strategic grandiosity helped bring down Sparta; Alcibiades, whose bedroom and social antics doomed strategic and tactical brilliance, etc.

In these so-called great ones there are two factors: opportunity and personality. Do the great attackers have the patience for defense of who they launch an ill-advised attack? Would the defenders have that touch of impetuosity and recklessness to make the bold, unexpected charge? Or, if put in the right circumstance, would they adapt to the situation.

Is one more valuable than the other? Should a debate about ‘greatest general’ include that most were considered spectacular for one or two specific things? should generals be considered less “great” because they did not have to deal with certain aspects of military brilliance? Should there be a handicap for the culture and systems they are in (for example, with a traditional Phalanx, glorious charges were limited and it is much easier to be considered exceptional if you have the best army the world has ever seen).

I have my thoughts, but I would like to know what others think.