Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/October 1900/Some Scientific Principles of Warfare

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1406771Popular Science Monthly Volume 57 October 1900 — Some Scientific Principles of Warfare1900William J. Roe



AS in boxing, fencing, saber and bayonet exercises, there are comparatively few postures, guards, thrusts and strokes, so in warfare, whether the numbers be large or small, the arms most modern or ancient, there are just a few principles to whose steady adherence and skilful manipulation all success is due. In order that these may become apparent without irksome study of military details, let us imagine a command of say a thousand men, fairly well drilled, of good ordinary intelligence and engaged in a cause worthy of being fought for. We have been in camp for some time, but an order has now come to join the main army. This is a long distance off, the railway communications have been broken, and the intervening country, though possessed of good roads, is more or less in the hands of the enemy.

Our scouts have kept us informed as to the condition of the country for several miles around; our first day's march is, therefore, not hampered with any especial dread of surprise. We move quickly and at ease. Safe as everything appears to be, the commander relaxes none of the needful precautions; at least fifty men, under command of an experienced officer, are sent quite far to the front, the distance varying with the nature of the country—the farther, the more broken it may be. The best roads are followed; the men are allowed to march at ease, though always preserving their company organization, while the officers are always more or less on the alert. There is a small rear guard, but it is upon the advance that the main responsibility falls. Of the fifty thrown forward, about half will remain together; the rest are scattered; some far to the front along the highway; others on either side of the route, riding up the hills on either hand, making sure that no deep gorge, dense growth of forest or thicket, nor even a field of grain conceals an enemy. It is upon the alertness of those vedettes on front and flanks that the safety of the force in great measure depends. History records many relaxations of this principle of precaution, and for lack of it sudden ambushes and deplorable disasters. It was thus, in spite of Washington's repeated warnings, that Braddock fell into a cunning ambuscade, and thus (not to multiply examples) that Custer and his command were massacred to a man among the high Rockies.

On the annexed map the men may be located at 'A' marching from 'D' in the direction of the village, 'F'. The advance is at 'B', the rear guard at 'C'. The commander rides with the main column, near the front. The black dots, with pennons, indicate the general position of the vedettes at this point, though, of course, they are continually advancing. The commander has noted on his map a foot path, beginning at *D', leading over the rugged hills. By taking this path a considerable distance could be saved; but it is quite impracticable for the wagons, and the troops, therefore, continue along the high road. The valley is gently undulating, with a gradual slope from the low hills towards the stream.

The projecting hills near the head of the column form an especially dangerous point. What easier than for an enemy to plant batteries here on either side of the road. A sudden, heavy fire would throw a negligent force at once into disorder; a situation to be taken instant advantage of by a vigorous adversary; a charge of horse concealed behind the hill at c O', and nothing might be left except flight, with great loss of life, and surrender with loss—if not of honor, at least of reputation as a safe leader.

Happily, we shall avoid both alternatives. Our scouts have explored most thoroughly every possible vantage ground. They have not been content with any mere glances; their instructions are to take nothing for granted. That field, marked 'G', looks innocent enough, but the tall, thick rye or corn may cover a skilfully placed battery. The plot marked 'M' may be simply a vineyard; but it does no harm to inquire. The inhabitants of the country are friendly, and, therefore, the chances are not favorable to this sort of surprise; but in war it is often not the likely, but the unexpected that happens; the commander who knows his business guards against the remote possibility.

Though we have imagined a force of a thousand, it must not be lost sight of that the same kind of precautions should be employed for very much larger numbers; indeed, you need only alter the scale of the map, imagine additional roads, a railway line or two, increase to thousands, if necessary, the fifty of our vanguard, and the result is but an application of the very first principle of warfare: Eternal vigilance is the price of safety as well as of liberty.

The troops have been in camp for some time; their condition is excellent for a long march. As the corn and rye are not yet gathered, the time is early summer. The roads are in prime condition. They set out by sunrise and halted for perhaps two hours at noon. It is by thus sparing his troops during the heat of the day that the colonel will have a body of men fresh enough at nightfall to march, if necessary, all night. But no such urgency exists; it is nearing sunset, and preparations are now being made to encamp. By his map the colonel has informed himself in the matter of distances, and has decided that they shall pitch their tents somewhere in the vicinity of the village ('F'). The scouts report an eligible location for camp at 'S', and this is finally chosen. It has several advantages, being comparatively level, and yet upon high ground, and has in close proximity several wells of good water. The train containing provisions and ammunition is parked in the safest locality, the horses picketed, and the guns—perhaps two or three field pieces and machine guns—placed where they can be most easily handled.

By all means, give the men as good a supper as the neighborhood affords. It will be wise not to encroach upon the rations, but rather draw supplies from the village; there are, no doubt, purveyors of one sort or another to be found ready enough to supply us, the more so that they will be amply paid.

Refreshed by their supper the men are ready to turn in at tattoo; by the time 'taps' have sounded most are soundly sleeping. But some are awake; if doing their full duty, wider awake than ever they are likely to be in times of peace. The same attention to the bodily comfort of his men which impelled the colonel to give them a long rest at mid•day and a comfortable meal, applies with increased force to those detailed early in the morning for the night's guard; during the march these have been spared as far as possible, even being allowed a lift now and then in an ambulance. Such privileges are not granted by a commander who knows his craft as a concession to the laziness, but rather as a preparation for the effectiveness of his men. This is a principle of action, and may apply to business as well as war, that the strong head never withholds reasonable and proper indulgence; the better, it may be said, to enforce at needful times reasonable and proper exertions.

As soon as the camp is established the guards are posted. If great precautions were needed during the day, much more are they by night. If fifty were sufficient on the march we need a hundred during the hours of darkness. In the case of a large army an elaborate system of night guards is necessary: First, 'advanced guards', occupying strong positions at some distance from the main body; beyond these are the picket guards; further still towards the front what are called 'grand guards', from which are thrown forward the outposts, to which the line of sentinels is directly attached. In case of alarm, the sentinels fall back upon the outposts; these upon the grand guards; they, in turn, if necessary, upon the pickets; the necessities of the case and the strength of the enemy's demonstration determining the movements of the defense, even perhaps to the 'long roll' and rousing of the entire army.

In our case, no such elaborate system is possible; we content ourselves with outposts and the line of sentinels, all that will be needed, if vigilant, to guard against surprise. The colonel, attended by the officer in command of the guard, will select the sites for outposts. These, five in number, are marked by stars upon the map. The direction from which an attack is most probable is from the ridge ('R', 'R').

The men are usually on the sentinel line for two hours at a time, with opportunity for four hours' sleep; that is, with shifts, or, as they are called, 'reliefs' of three parties, two hours on and four off. This is not, however, invariable, it being sometimes wiser to relieve the men oftener or not so often, this being regulated by circumstances—the state of weather, distance of posts apart, fatigue of the men, etc., etc. The sentinels will be posted on clear nights generally upon high ground; in bad or foggy weather the foot of the slope is preferable. The officer will see that no obstacle prevents the sentinel from retreating upon his outpost if attacked. The men will be directed to take advantage of any cover that offers, always to keep in easy touch with one another and watchful, never to raise a false alarm, but quickly and decidedly a real one, and while not failing to discover the meaning of anything unusual in their front, never to expose themselves from mere bravado.

What measures shall be taken in case of an attack in force must, of course, depend entirely upon circumstances. A night attack, intended merely as an annoyance, or 'feeler', or at most to stampede some of the cattle, or to gather information as to strength, resources, etc., is quite a different affair from one planned for the purpose of complete victory, either the destruction, dispersal or capture of the command.

A mere night foray is generally executed by comparatively few. The opposing chief may be desirous of getting information concerning the force that his scouts have reported is advancing down the valley. A little expedition like ours sometimes serves as a disguise for a momentous strategical movement. The chief determines to find out all he can as to our purpose. He has found us vigilant by day; he resolves to try what the night may disclose. This sort of surprise is apt to produce better results than the project of some dashing subaltern, anxious for the bauble reputation.

For such an attack an hour near midnight is usually selected, that the information may be gathered or the mischief done and a retreat effected under cover of darkness. A dark, wet, blustering, or—if the time be winter—an especially cold night is chosen. The degree of success to be attained depends naturally upon the element of surprise. Unless this be complete the attacking party will find their attempt usually quite futile.

The other sort of attack—that which has for its object the capture of the position—is usually planned to take place during the extreme darkness just preceding daybreak. The enemy has perhaps crawled on hands and knees up the slopes towards the line of sentinels. The van of this force is composed entirely of picked men, officered by the coolest heads. Signals are agreed upon, exact times for action arranged, and everything calculated to a nicety to insure that suddenness which is the very soul of success.

It is in the planning of such an expedition that true qualities of generalship are shown. It is the fashion rather to decry the military merits of Washington; yet I know of few events in history that show more sagacity than the swift crossing of the wintry Delaware and the surprise of Trenton. It was sagacious chiefly for the accurate comprehension of the probabilities. Washington knew the convivial habits of Rahl's Hessians, especially at Christmas-tide; he reckoned upon finding them in the midst of carousals, and the result proved the value of his forethought.

Under ordinary circumstances, on the march, to quarter a command inside four walls is never advisable. The men are not as readily under the eye of their officers; in case of surprise they cannot be called into the ranks as quickly; discipline insensibly relaxes, and the machine (for an armed force ought to be that, however intelligent its units) fails to respond instantaneously to the word of the chief. In case of a serious attack, however, the village may serve a most important purpose. Should the houses be substantial ones of stone or brick, each may become a most efficient, if temporary fortification. One consideration which might have prevented its occupation has now no longer any weight. Apart from any natural feeling of good will for our fellow citizens, how unwise it would be to unnecessarily exasperate them. But now in the face of the enemy, it will be surprising if any soul is churl enough to grudge a patriotic hospitality. Most of the denizens will, indeed, make haste to hide their precious persons in the cellar, but will seldom grumble at the necessity.

With the utmost celerity the baggage and horses are moved to the most sheltered spot; the guns, under strong guards, posted where they may be best utilized; some of the men, previously detailed for just such an emergency, are engaged in throwing up earthworks, piling logs, stones, anything that can be utilized for barricades. The officer charged with that duty, if possible a skilled engineer, goes quickly from place to place, hurriedly indicating the lines of defense; these connecting the several buildings in such a manner as to enclose the entire command within lines of quite formidable intrenchments. All this time the troops, having taken possession of the houses, have poured an uninterrupted fire upon the assailants, obliging them to retire, or at least giving the diggers—or sappers, as they are called—time to complete their labor of defense. Surrounded by a force sufficiently large to make resistance in the field quite hopeless, we are at least in position to protract the struggle, and one capable of defense, except against an assault in overwhelming numbers, or against heavy artillery. The latter they are not provided with, or the measures we are taking might all go in the end

for nothing. Several assaults are attempted during the day, but are easily repulsed with no small loss. The enemy at last withdraws, and we now see that he is busy throwing up intrenchments. Meanwhile, we have not been idle. To facilitate communication, and to enable us to concentrate our forces under cover, passageways have been constructed between the various buildings, inner partitions preventing free access from room to room within the houses have been broken through, and the debris, together with beds broken up, mattresses and 'any old thing 5 capable of arguing with a bullet, piled in the window embrasures, leaving loopholes here and there, as occasion offers, while galleries may be constructed with loopholes in the floor to fire downwards.

One of the most important matters to be attended to is the securing of as many good positions as possible, from which fire may be concentrated upon exposed points. In a regular siege the points of attack selected will always be those most exposed, on account of their projecting beyond the line of defense. In the case of a village like this resisting an attempt at capture the principles are identical; it will certainly be the points that project that will be danger spots and which will therefore require especial attention.

You observe on the enlarged map of the village that there are double lines between the outer buildings; these are the improvised intrenchments. Notice that they have not been constructed flush with the face of the outer walls in any instance; but always considerably retired. The object of this arrangement is more effectually to defend the barricades. In the annexed sketch (No. 3) 'A' and 'B' represent the two adjacent buildings and the lines 'CD' the breastwork. In the buildings are windows—'E' and 'F'—from which a heavy fire can be concentrated upon the assailants, as may be seen from the direction of the arrow heads. On the outer line are several projecting, and, therefore, especially exposed points; such as those at 'A', 'B' and 'C'. The arrow heads show the direction of protective fire. As additional protection, it might be wise to hold the two buildings ('H’, 'K’) outside the village. If not held, they ought, if possible to be destroyed, as also those marked ’JJ', not included in the defensive lines, as they offer excellent cover

for the enemy. The utmost care should be taken to provide a safe magazine for the ammunition and to cover well the place selected for a hospital. The wagons and horses would be best protected in the space marked 'LLL'.

Should our defense prove too obstinate for direct assault, it may be that the enemy will construct regular intrenchments from which to dig a trench deep enough to protect, and large enough to hold a body of troops, thus enabling them to approach sufficiently near to assail some weak point, without too great risk. The modern repeating rifle, dangerous at a thousand yards, and fatal at a hundred, has given the defense so great preponderance that it requires quick work indeed to capture a stronghold. Observe the broken lines 'OF’ and 'PF'; these show the direction of possible trenches dug by the enemy. But 'OF' would be raked by the fire from the outlying house, 'H'; the other is, therefore, the only feasible mode of approach.

The principle of defense, shown by the direction of the arrow heads in the case of the beleaguered village, is applicable to all conditions where ramparts are used. Suppose the command whose fortunes we have followed had been attacked while on the march at the point 'A' on Map 1. The opposing force was manifestly too strong for resistance in the field; they retreat to the rocky eminence 'K' and there proceed to fortify the position. A glance at Diagram 4 will show what they will try at least to accomplish. In military language that shaded portion of the work to be constructed is called a bastion; it consists of two faces ('AX' and 'AY'), and the two flanks ('JY' and 'HX'). The faces of this bastion are defended (as the arrow heads indicate) by the flanks of adjacent bastions; that is, the face 'AY' is swept by a raking fire from

'ZE', and the face 'AX' from 'FG'. Reciprocally, 'HX' rakes the face 'BG', and 'JY' the face 'ED', and so on round the intrenchment.

All that has been said as to protecting the ammunition and stores will apply to this work as it did to the village. If a spring of water can be included, as at '0', this will be found of incalculable advantage. Of all forms of defensive ramparts the straight line is the worst; if time does not permit a work with bastions, however irregular, an enclosure shaped somewhat like a star is serviceable (shown in Diagram 6, Figs. 'A', 'B' and 'C'). Should an enclosed work be impracticable, the line should have its ends (or 'flanks') strongly guarded, and be broken up, as in Diagram 5 'D' into short straight lines nearly at right angles, to serve for mutual support. This principle of mutual support, however achieved, is called that of 'defensive relations', and is capable of adaptation to all kinds of defensive works, whether of a few men beleaguered in an improvised fortification, a considerable number in a scientifically constructed work—permanent or field fortification—a fortress with an

entire army behind its ramparts, or a cordon of forts surrounding a great city.

The ground plan of the work having been decided upon and staked out the men start in with pick and shovel, digging, if possible, a ditch, and throwing the material into the shape of the shaded portion of Diagram 7. The ditch, outside the fort, indicated by the figure 'FGHJ', serves the twofold purpose of getting material for the parapet 'ABCDEF', and for embarrassing an enemy in any attempt at assault. To further

embarrass him every sort of obstacle that may be at hand should be put to use—trees, butts turned our way, boughs interlacing; stakes driven deep into the soil close together; barbed wires wound in and out; in short, every expedient that may delay his advance and keep him as long as possible exposed to our most effective fire.

The drawing (7) was made with no attempt at exactness of proportion, and simply to show the essentials; the slope 'EF' is made as steep as the nature of the soil will permit; 'DE' slopes enough to enable a soldier standing upon 'RC to fire upon an enemy entangled among the obstacles at 'J', but never enough to weaken the mass of earth at and near 'D'.

Observe how common-sensible all these arrangements are; not one too many or too few; just the things that a practical man, if he could think as he felt, would do if suddenly called to command with an enemy advancing upon him. Unfortunately, perhaps, for the purposes of a patriotic and peaceful people, men are inclined, even though brave as courage itself, to get nervous or nerveless in the immediate presence of danger. This is the reason, rather than for any especial erudition involved in war's art, that we need trained soldiers—men trained to think mechanically and to act automatically amid the uproar of battle.

We have carefully, if briefly, considered the requirements of the first maxim of strategy—caution—the need of it, and the practical methods of securing it; and also of the second maxim—defensive relations—their necessity, and how to secure them. It now remains to consider the meaning of that phrase, 'turning a position', or 'flanking* an enemy, as to which of late we read so much in the daily press. The map (marked 8) gives an idea of a section of country where two armed bodies meet under conditions that permit one flank to be completely

guarded from attack; these are the left flank of the force 'A', and the right flank of 'B'. Both rest upon a lake or broad river. A steep precipice or deep morass, as at 'H', would serve as well. Suppose our force has advanced from the direction 'C, the enemy down the road from 'E' to 'G'. Soon they form opposed lines facing each other, the reserve somewhat to the rear and sheltered by some inequality of ground, the 'thin blue line', almost, but not quite, touching elbows, stretched along the crest of the ridge in front, taking advantage of every chance to protect themselves—trees, stone walls, ditches; kneeling, crawling, lying face down, eyes along the rifle barrel, finger on trigger, keen and murderous, but prudent, and parsimonious of life. The solid formations, such as went out of vogue with old-time weapons, would melt away before machine guns and Krag-Jörgensens like frost before an August sun. It seems as if all chivalry had departed; it has but changed its ways.

The object of 'flanking' a position is to so manage as to turn that attenuated line into a mass of men upon which to let loose with dire effect either the quick-firing guns or the sharp edges of our horsemen's sabers.

Notice those long, bent, black lines, bending like fish hooks. The arrow heads indicate the direction of a flanking attack; from 'F', through the woods, up the ravine, to fall upon the exposed end of the enemy's front at 'K'. Such would be our most feasible method of flanking; the foe might, however, have anticipated us, either by providing a bloody hospitality somewhere in that ravine, or by a flank movement of his own, as the bent black line shows, around the woods, to fall upon our right flank at 'F'. Such an operation, if successful for them, would be utterly disastrous to us.

Surprised by a sudden and unexpected attack upon the weakest point and unable to change front in time, men lose heart, forget discipline, huddle in masses, confused and disorganized, or fly like sheep, in either case food for firearms, gluttonous of such occasions. It requires sometimes but a very small force upon a flank to produce great results; the appearance upon the field, even at a distance, of Joseph E. Johnston's corps at the first Bull Run was sufficient to demoralize the whole Union army, and at the battle of Arcola, Bonaparte completely flanked the Austrians with a few flourishes of his trumpets.

So we have for a third maxim of war the necessity of protected flanks. If we know or think that a Johnston lurks on either hand, we ought to be sure of our Pattersons; if we apprehend an unfriendly visit from a Blucher, we should see to it that our Grouchy is trustworthy.

Let us now broaden our view of operations, that we may see how the principles established for a limited number of men on the march, in the field, or behind fortifications, may apply upon a larger scale. To this end a brief study of the map (9) will show four contiguous countries—'A', very populous, powerful and wealthy, having a navy capable of control of the high seas, and a large and efficient army; 'C' represents a country even more populous, but not aggressive, 'D' an insignificant power, while 'B' is a country considerable in extent, but largely mountainous, and sparsely inhabited by a rude but warlike people.

A cause of war comes up between 'A' and 'B'. In ancient times the ruder nation would have been the aggressor, tempted by the wealth and invited by the enervated populace of the larger civilization. Now the conditions are likely to be reversed. However, war begins; the forces of 'A' move hastily towards the frontier, while his fleet blockades 'B's' solitary seaport at the point 'E'. The maxim of caution now naturally expands; instead of information culled by a few daring riders from a narrow circuit, it should be made to embrace the widest area of country and the utmost latitude of information—the condition of the enemy as to armament, resources, position of forces, possible disaffection among the people—everything. In war no item comes amiss. The wealthier country will here have a manifest advantage; it can afford to hire spies, and can even (as England did during the Revolution) purchase the treason of some disaffected chief. Caution for the lesser country will—if good generalship prevails—take the shape of occupying and strengthening the natural strategic positions. These are nothing but flanks of a bastion on a large scale. Upon the map round black dots represent strategic positions along the frontier. They are points

susceptible of thorough fortification which control the several passes in the mountain range between the two nations; also heads of valleys, where several meet, and from which attacks could be made at will in a number of directions. This entire frontier, which may be hundreds of miles broad, is mountainous, capable of being fortified at countless points, and having natural 'defensive relations' needing only the art of warcraft to render them almost impregnable. Modern murderous arms lend their services more readily to defense than to offense. It is even possible that the country 'B', warned in due season of the purposes of her powerful rival, may have plotted out each rod of ground among those mountain passes, and that artillery service, once a matter of gunnery, has now become a matter of mathematics.

We now come to the fourth maxim of war; it is that of efficient supply. An army, as the saying is, moves on its belly. An invading force must ordinarily provide for all its needs from some safe place in the rear, called a 'base of operations'; it must also provide that the line of transit of its provisions and ammunition to the front shall not be liable to interference. Assuming that at 'F' is a strongly fortified city, the railway line or the adjacent rivers would furnish 'A' with a practical base; his line of advance would be in the direction 'FG', called the 'line of operations'; 'G', a fortified pass, the proximate, and 'J', the capital of 'B', the ultimate objective point of the campaign. But it will be noted with what facility a determined enemy could fall upon 'AY communications from the point 'H', which would also be the case were the advance made from 'K' towards 'L'.

Of course, in the end, the larger resources will prevail; but it may be that 'A', baffled and exasperated by a stubborn resistance, and finding that 'B' is being supplied through the neutral and insignificant country 'D', may finally conclude, "in the interests of a higher civilization," to violate their territory, seize the port 'M', and thus, by a far-reaching and bold flank movement, gain entrance into 'BY country. Such devices are not unknown in the history of war. Such a course 'would be a distinct violation of the 'law of nations'; but there would be apologies and ample indemnity to 'D', with which, doubtless, she would be satisfied.

In imagining such a campaign no account has been taken of the attitude of the country 'C, or of that of any foreign nation. In war these things must be reckoned with. Neutral nations are always liable, however disposed to maintain neutrality, to be touched at some sensitive point by one or the other of the contending parties.