Gisgo and his Enemies

John Bayley

  • The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo by Russell Weigley
    Indiana, 608 pp, £22.50, June 1991, ISBN 0 253 36380 2

War and sport were once much the same thing: Homer understood the strategies of morale as well as any modern team manager. Polybius tells an anecdote about Hannibal and his staff just before the Battle of Cannae. When an officer called Gisgo commented on the large number of Romans opposite, Hannibal remarked that at least there was no one over there whose name was Gisgo. Obsequious mirth at the general’s not very brilliant joke, and the troops were reassured by the spectacle of the brass hats laughing. They might well have felt nervous, for at the last minute Hannibal had led his front ranks forward to make a convex line that bulged towards the enemy. These front-line men were Gauls, always, and with justice, apt to suspect that the Carthaginian command regarded them as expendable. So odd is battlefield psychology that their morale was probably raised even by this sense of resentment: they would show a thing or two to the high-ups who had been heard enjoying a joke. And so they did. They were pushed back, but their stubborn resistance acted like a cushion punched by the force of the Roman attack. Its convexity became concave; the legions were drawn into the cleft between the retreating Gauls and the heavy-armed Africans on the flanks, and tightly compressed. With no room to fight or even to breathe, they were suffocated like the crowd in a football stadium.

At Cannae, a straight confrontation on an open plain, the Roman command had been confident that Hannibal could not spring one of the cunning traps which had lost them two previous battles. He would have to fight them man to man, and so he did, but the trap was there none the less, in full view. The Union generals presumably felt equally confident when they saw Jackson’s corps manoeuvring in the open before the battle of Chancellorsville, and paid no attention until Jackson suddenly hit them at one end of the battlefield and achieved a crushing local superiority. The Russians tried to do the same at Austerlitz, and the French at Salamanca, but Napoleon and Wellington were speedily alert to tricks of that sort: as he took his countermeasures Wellington is said to have observed to his Spanish colleague: Mon cher Alava, Marmont est perdu. Whether in games or battles, devices that are seen to be devices seldom come off. At Zama Hannibal tried the cushion trick again, combining it with a charge of elephants. Scipio countered by opening out the checkerboard of his front maniples, so that lanes were left through which the prudent beasts scampered off. And his advancing troops then had plenty of room in which to attack.

Such at least are the kind of tales old Kaspar told little Wilhelmine and Peterkin in Southey’s ballad. Like Blenheim, Zama was a famous victory for someone or other. Tolstoy would have been sceptical, maintaining that no general ever had any control over a battle, in which determined and contingent factors worked themselves out higgledy-piggledy. His model for the process was Borodino, about which Russell Weigley also writes at some length in his highly scholarly and wonderfully absorbing study. (One would so much rather read about battles and games than fight or play in them.) Weigley’s main thesis is that military science, formerly relied on to win battles, ceded in the 19th and 20th centuries to an overall strategy of attrition. Your opponent was welcome to win all the battles provided that he lost the war. Economic resources and the big battalions would always win in the end. But Weigley’s interest is in the quest for victory by tactical means, in new formations and surprise developments which would enable a weaker but more agile and professional army to impose its will, and secure the discomfiture of an army or nation with more men and resources. This was what the English achieved at various times in the Hundred Years War, though in the end they lost. Indeed a possible weakness of Weigley’s thesis is that the attrition factor seems to operate with fair consistency throughout history, not just in the last two centuries. In a sense, however, Weigley anticipates this conclusion in making his book a survey of attempts at turning tactical into strategic decision, between Gustavus Adolphus’s first victory in the Thirty Years War at Breitenfeld in Saxony, and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Highly trained and organised into formidable clumps or wedges of pikemen and musketeers called tercios, the Imperial troops under their veteran commander Tilly fought rather like a Greek or Macedonian phalanx. Their opponents, Gustavus’s Swedes, borrowed the more flexible formation of Roman cohorts and maniples, presenting a composite front of foot, cavalry and light artillery – the famous Swedish ‘leather guns’ which, as Weigley observes, were more of a novelty sensation, the latest thing to raise your own morale and alarm the foe, than of any great practical deadliness. (The German 88 of the Desert War had the same sort of fearsome reputation, as well as being lethal in fact.) A self-educated monarch of the Late Renaissance, Gustavus had studied the rediscovered military treatises of Vegetius and Leo the Isaurian, and he was quite capable of taking a tip or two from the warfare of the ancients. After he was killed winning the battle of Lutzen the long war evened out, and the process of attrition took over: ‘Infantry advanced on the enemy to deliver its fire at close range, with reasonable accuracy impossible much beyond fifty yards, but attacks were only infrequently driven home. With the cavalry generally refraining from headlong charges as well, battle degenerated into an indecisive contest.’ Wallenstein’s mercenaries would much rather pillage than take risks in battle, and the commanders, too, preferred not to lose rather than to win: profits could be good, and they had no wish to be put out of business by definitive victory. Only in the 19th century did the profits pass from the commanders in the field – from those who ran the ‘free companies’ in Medieval France to Napoleon’s marshals – and become the perks of the munition-makers and stay-at-homes. War always paid somebody, but it went on for a hundred years, or thirty years, when there were rich pickings for the men on the spot, who were actually in charge.

Weigley suggests that one man more than any other put an end to late 17th-century stalemate. ‘Lieutenant-General Lord John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, resolved to change all that. In military history, unlike most other branches of history, the individual who by his own will and accomplishments alters the course of events still strides across the record.’ Tolstoy would have been sceptical, but Weigley has little trouble proving his point. His account of Fontenoy is a masterpiece; and he is learned about the significance of French military thinking before the Revolution and the impact of Guibert’s Essai général de tactique. The French colonel recommended a revival of the ordre profond, the column in depth to punch through a line of battle: the tactic that was to win victories for the revolutionary armies and for Napoleon but which, ironically, had been the downfall of the Romans at Cannae. Very different men though they were, Marlborough and Charles XII, Napoleon and Wellington, shared the same dedicated professionalism and the same will to win. Charles of Sweden was in his own mad way the most remarkable of the lot, and the one who in the end did most damage to his own country. Like Hannibal long before him, he took Alexander as his inspiration and exemplar, but the great Carthaginian doomed his own city by his victories: Sweden may have been ruined and diminished by the Great Northern War, but at least the country survived. Brilliant commanders are not necessarily egomaniacs – neither Marlborough nor Wellington deserves the term – but in some degree they are bound to be absorbed in the game for its own sake. Like Maradona or Danny Blanchflower, their deepest compulsion is to dominate the field of conquest, rather than to think in terms of the larger end and a historic goal. ‘Note,’ says Weigley, in his engaging style, which sometimes resembles jottings or despatches from the front, ‘Marlborough restored tactical decisiveness to the battlefield; he did not achieve strategic decisiveness in war.’

But who did? Grant and Sherman were not the equals of their Southern counterparts, Jackson and Lee, as tactical commanders; but they had the will and the determination to use the overwhelming preponderance of men and material which President Lincoln had put at their disposal. Once such a use was made, the issue of the American Civil War could not be in doubt. Napoleon was often a surprisingly ineffectual tactician on the battlefield – as Wellington remarked after Waterloo, ‘he just came on in the old style and was driven off in the old style’ – but he had unparalleled capacity to lead men, to raise their morale, and to take strategic decisions. He had luck too, the quality he most demanded of his subordinates, and it came to his aid on the Berezina in 1812, when all the probabilities indicated that he would himself be taken prisoner by the Russians together with his whole army. His luck ran out eventually of course, as luck usually does, but it beckoned him like a will of the wisp, and continued to beckon him during the 1814 campaign in France, when he made skilful use of every mistake and clumsiness on the part of his opponents, hoping against hope for the strategic victory which would induce them to abandon the struggle. He could have had such a victory, in a sense, if he had accepted their terms a little earlier, which would have given France the Rhine frontier and a permanent Napoleonic dynasty. But gamblers want to win the game, not own the future.

The art of generalship seems to be a negative one: making use of your opponent’s errors and intuiting the difficulties he would rather conceal from you. Napoleon did this brilliantly at Austerlitz, his greatest tactical triumph, where his opponents obligingly made all the wrong moves. Davout, by far the ablest of his marshals, won the Jena campaign for him the next year, and if his advice had been followed might have made Borodino a decisive victory at least. It is significant that he was absent at Waterloo, where the loyal bumblers like Ney helped to ruin everything. Five years earlier the French Army was the most peerlessly professional in the world, on a par with the compact hordes of the Mongols, or the small and expert English force that won at Crécy and Poitiers. They, too, depended on the continued and predictable mistakes of their enemies, most often the charge of feudal chivalry which could be massacred by archers. The English Army was like an orchestra of rapacious violinists under an aristocratic Anglo-Norman conductor: no one but them could use the longbow, which required incessant practice from boyhood on. As Arthur Bryant remarked, they regarded France as their oyster, and the longbow as the instrument to open it up, so that they could come home with a king’s or at any rate a prince’s ransom. It didn’t last. The fatal weakness of an army of bowmen was that it had to wait to be attacked, and Constable du Guesclin soon saw this and declined to attack it, while the Bureau brothers began to produce field guns which could disablingly bombard a static force. We may have Crécy and Agin-court, but the French schoolboy knows about Formigny and Castillon, the victory that definitively ejected the English goddams from France. Perhaps our only tactical weapon to which the French had no answer was the ‘Nelson touch’, the pincer attack in two columns on a fleet in line, and that only worked because French gunnery and seamanship had never recovered from the Revolution. A few more years of war with Napoleon and the verdict of Trafalgar might possibly have been reversed. Tactical advances are soon caught up with by the other side. But today all these considerations may well have become theoretical, an aspect of history which is all the more comfortable for being pretty well over. The future of warfare is now probably all the more nasty because perennial, local, terroristic, internecine. The age of battles is over, and gone are the days when armies fought if not like sportsmen then at least like footballers: the days when you could be sure there was no one named Gisgo over there on the other side.