Brawn is useful, but is not always sufficient on its own: sometimes a healthy dose of bull, or bluffing, is needed. Getting creative and deceiving an adversary about one’s intentions and plans has often been a shortcut to success, and from the dawn of history, bluffing and deception have been integral components of conflicts and warfare. Early examples date as far back as Pharaonic Egypt and Ancient China, and a significant portion of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is devoted to the importance of deception and bluff.
Commanders from Thutmose III in the 1400s BC to Norman Schwarzkopf in the late 20th century AD have benefited from successful bluff. Whether via psychological manipulation, concealment, camouflage, denial of information, misinformation, disinformation, deceptive maneuvers, or the use of decoys and dummies, wrong-footing an opponent has often spelled the difference between triumph and disaster.
Following are twelve interesting bluffs from history, where the margin between victory and defeat, survival and doom, hinged upon the ability to mislead an adversary.
Pharaoh Thutmose III’s March to Megiddo
The Battle of Megiddo, 1457 BC, is the earliest recorded battle for which we have reliable details. It took place between an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and a coalition of rebellious Canaanite states seeking to free themselves of vassalage to Egypt. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, an important hub at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Thutmose advanced from Egypt at the head of a strong army to Yaham.
From Yaham, he had the choice of three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map above). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, entailing passage through narrow ravines in which an approaching army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear.
Thutmose realized that the central route was so obviously dangerous that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also guessed the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to be so foolhardy as to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. So Thutmose took the central route. As he had guessed, it was unguarded, and the Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, caught the Canaanites flat-footed, and won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony over the region for centuries.
3375 years later, in WWI, General Allenby, an avid student of ancient history, was confronted with the same choice as Thutmose III as he led a British army advancing from the south against Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpectedly in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.