The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

Khalid Elhassan - February 25, 2022

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Napoleon inspects the terrain and battlefield. Extra

8. Napoleon’s Great Organizational Innovation

Early in his military career, Napoleon spent time in the Bureau of Topography, where he developed an instinct for the ground and terrain. One of the secrets behind his success as a general, routine now but often overlooked before Napoleon, was to simply study the terrain in advance to select the best battlefield. His maxim “know your enemy and know your battlefield better than your enemy“, is as valid today as it was back then. Another of his great innovations was the development of the corps system.

Napoleon organized his divisions into corps of 20,000 to 40,000 men, which were essentially mini armies that contained infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery. In his campaigns, the different corps, each headed by a marshal, would march on a broad front, likened to the outstretched fingers of a hand. When one corps made contact with the foe, it would give battle and try to fix him in place. In the meantime, the other corps closed in on the enemy and turned the outstretched fingers into a closed fist.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Citizen soldiers of the French revolutionary army. Wikimedia

7. How This General Made a Virtue Out of Necessity

On the battlefield, Napoleon overthrew the linear warfare that had dominated battlefields since the days of Gustavus Adolphus, above. That process had begun early in the French Revolutionary Wars and was perfected by Napoleon. When the Revolutionary government enacted the levee en masse and conscripted the entire French population into the war effort, French armies were suddenly swollen by hundreds of thousands of new recruits. France was invaded on multiple fronts by her neighbors’ professional armies, and it lacked both the time and resources to train up the new citizen armies to professional levels. As seen below, they made the best of it and turned lemons into lemonade.

Swamped with massive numbers of untrained recruits, Revolutionary France lacked the time or resources to train and drill them as well as other European armies. So French military doctrine, as perfected by Napoleon, made a virtue out of necessity. It was changed to deemphasize linear tactics whereby soldiers lined up in neat rows opposite enemy forces to exchange volleys of musket fire. Such contests were usually won by the more professional army. Instead, the French emphasized attacks by massed troops in dense columns. That required relatively little training. As seen below, it worked even better than expected.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
General Napoleon Bonaparte leads French revolutionary soldiers across a bridge at Arcole. Foundation for Economic Education

6. The General Who Made His Men Love Him

The dense French column formations turned out to be effective in more ways than one. In addition to their core function of getting a heavy mass of troops to the enemy lines, their very density proved to be a psychological comfort to poorly-trained troops under fire. They were also psychologically exhilarating and enabled the French soldiers to feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and elan in an attack. Napoleon mastered the art of terrain selection and good timing to throw such columns at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, to overwhelm and break them with sheer mass. The soldiers’ spirits were further raised by the measures Napoleon took to make them not only respect him, but love him.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, by Jacques-Louis David. Wikimedia

He went out of his way to eschew the comforts of a general, and share his men’s hardships and speak their language. A master propagandist, he issued bombastic army bulletins to boost his soldiers’ morale. He praised their prowess, as well as his own brilliance in order to solidify their confidence in him. It was effective back then when such propaganda was still new. Napoleon’s armies were also a meritocracy in which commendable behavior was rewarded with decorations and promotions. It was often said of Napoleon’s soldiers that “inside every private’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton“, to describe the potential for rapid promotion and advancement. And indeed, more than one of Napoleon’s marshals had started off as a lowly private.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. String Fixer

5. The Badass German General Who Created a Command Template Used to This Day

One of the most brilliant military minds in the generations that followed Napoleon Bonaparte was Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800 – 1891). His military philosophy was to distill Napoleon’s innovations and precepts and adapt them to contemporary conditions. An example was his realization that the defensive power of modern firearms had rendered the frontal attacks of Napoleon’s days, whether in dense columns or in line, impractical. So he focused instead on the development of tactics to secure victory with envelopment attacks instead of head-on assaults.

Moltke viewed strategy through the pragmatic lens of adapting the means available to the ends sought. As a general, he avoided the pursuit of ends when the means to secure them were unavailable. He also realized that things almost never go as planned in war. His most famous statement to summarize that was the military gem: “no plan survives contact with the enemy“. So he emphasized extensive preparations for all possible scenarios. In 1857, Moltke was promoted to Chief of the Prussian General Staff – a position he would hold for the next three decades. He revolutionized warfare with his innovations to that institution, renamed the Great General Staff after the establishment of the German Empire.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The German General Staff, originally the Prussian General Staff and officially Great General Staff , was a full-time body at the head of the Prussian Army and later, the German Army. Imgur

4. Adapting to the Massive Increase in Numbers and Scope of Modern Warfare

Helmuth von Moltke is often known as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who led Germany’s army at the start of World War I. The elder Moltke made the commander’s staff a professional and permanent body. He created an infrastructure to handle basic matters such as logistics and supply, transport, intelligence, and coordination. The commander, relieved of such chores, was thus freed to concentrate on strategy and tactics. Moltke’s Great General Staff concept was copied by armies the world over, all of which eventually established their own general staff.

Moltke was one of the first to realize that the days when a commander could exercise complete control over an army, such as in the Napoleonic Wars, were over. By the second half of the nineteenth-century armies had simply gotten too big. Their fields of battle and theaters of operations had also grown massive, to such an extent that an army commander could no longer see all his forces from a command post atop a hill. In this new environment, senior commanders had to explain their intent to subordinates, then grant them autonomy and trust them to use their own initiative to realize the commander’s intent.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Prussian soldiers march to the front during the Franco-Prussian War. Reddit

3. The Most Efficient Military Machine of its Day

Rather than give his subordinates detailed orders, Helmuth von Moltke gave them clearly defined goals, the forces needed to accomplish them, and a time frame in which to fulfill their tasks. How to accomplish the goal was largely left to the subordinate’s discretion. That required major changes in officer training to encourage initiative and independent thought. It is ironic, in a way, because German soldiers are often thought of as robotic automatons. Since Moltke’s day, however, few if any armies have allowed their soldiers as much discretion, or trusted them to use their own initiative, as much as Germany’s.

Moltke’s innovations made the Prussian army the world’s most efficient military machine. It demonstrated that in a series of swift and successful wars en route to the unification of Germany under Prussia’s leadership. First, it defeated the Danes in 1864. Next, it crushed the Austrians in 1866, in accordance was plans drawn by Moltke. Then Prussia took on France, whose army was reputedly the world’s best. Moltke drew the plans for the Franco-Prussian War, 1870 – 1871, and led the army in the execution of his design. The result was a stunning Prussian victory, capped by the creation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirror in Versailles.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao and Chinese communist guerrillas in the 1930s. BBC

2. The Chinese Commander Who Revolutionized Guerrilla and Insurgency War

Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), the communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China, was one of the most original military minds of the twentieth century. He literally wrote the book on the modern theory of insurgency, On Guerrilla Warfare. In it, he described a revolutionary methodology to defeat Japanese invaders, based on strategies and tactics honed during Mao’s struggle against China’s Nationalist government. Mao developed a Theory of People’s War that divided popular insurgencies into three stages. Stage One sets out to win popular support with the distribution of propaganda, and attacks against the organs of an unpopular government. Stage Two sees an escalation, with attacks directed against the government’s military forces and vital institutions.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Chinese communist guerrillas of the 8th Route Army. Imgur

In Stage Three, things are further ratcheted up with a turn to conventional warfare. This is when the revolutionary general and his forces make a bid to capture the cities, overthrow the government, and seize control of the country. It was a flexible doctrine, and shifts between stages can go in either direction, depending on circumstances. Also, the stages need not be uniform throughout the entire country but could vary based on local conditions. Mao’s insurgents fought both the Japanese and the Nationalist Chinese, and ultimately prevailed. They used small groups of combatants in raids and ambushes to defeat bigger and less mobile armies. The discomfited the Japanese, and eventually secured the communists’ victory in China.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao addresses a group of his followers in 1944. Flickr

1. A Guerrilla Warfare Model Followed by Insurgents to This Day

Mao Zedong summarized his revolutionary guerilla methodology as: “When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy rests, we harass. When the enemy tires, we attack. When the enemy retreats we advance“. His methods became a model followed by numerous insurgencies around the world, as they fought against colonialism and oppressive native regimes. To win hearts and minds, Mao’s insurgents treated the peasants with a respect that stood in stark contrast with the contempt meted them by their rulers. Be those rulers Japanese invaders or Chinese landed gentry and government officials. Revolutionaries also tied the peasants’ economic interests to the success of the revolution, via a redistribution of land, and the abolition of feudal-type dues.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao Zedong in his younger days. Wikimedia

At a visceral level, as Maoists and their emulators discovered, the peasants and the disadvantaged craved simple respect. They craved it even more than the economic benefits promised by revolution. They also harbored significant resentment against the upper classes who had exploited and looked down upon them for so long. Such stored resentments are a powerful resource that Mao urged revolutionaries to tap. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the communists went on to win control of China in 1949, and Mao’s insurgency model was later utilized to great effect throughout the Developing World. The Viet Minh in particular successfully adapted Maoist methods to local conditions and used them to defeat Vietnam’s French colonial masters. They then waged a protracted war to unify a divided Vietnam and succeeded despite massive American support for and direct intervention on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Biography – Philip of Macedon

Bucholz, Arden – Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871 (2001)

Chandler, David G. – The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (1966)

Davis, Burke – Sherman’s March (2016)

De Groot, Gerard J. – The Bomb: A Life (2004)

Duffy, Christopher – Frederick the Great: A Military Life (1985)

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt – The Military Life of Gustavus Adolphus, Father of Modern War (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gonzalo de Cordoba, Spanish Military Commander

Encyclopedia Britannica – Maurice, Stadholder of the Netherlands

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox (1974)

Hanson, Victor Davis – The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (2001)

History of Macedonia – Philip II of Macedonia

History Net – Frederick the Great: The First Modern Military Celebrity

Forster, Stig, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 10, 1987, Issue 2 – Facing “People’s War”: Moltke the Elder and Germany’s Military Options After 1871

History Collection – 12 Generals You Won’t Believe Switched Sides and Defected to the Enemy

Lamb, Harold – Hannibal: One Man Against Rome (1958)

Livius – Hannibal Barca

Marxists Internet Archive – On Guerrilla Warfare

Nimwegen, Olaf van – The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588 – 1688 (2010)

Purcell, Mary – The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1962)

Searching in History – Military Innovation: Gustavus Adolphus

Sherman, William T. – Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (2019 Wentworth Press Edition)

Short, Philip – Mao: A Life (2001)

Thompson, James Matthew – Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (1952)

Thrillist – The Most Badass Generals in US History

World History Encyclopedia – Epaminondas

Worthington, Ian – Philip II of Macedonia (2008)

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