Strategy and Tactics: 1910-1939

American military strategy during the first half of the 20th century was an outgrowth of the Civil War campaigns of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman who brought superior force and resources to bear on the enemy, wearing them down by attrition. It was termed by historian Russell F. Weigley as a "strategy of annihilation," the purpose of which was to engage and exterminate the armies and resources of the enemy. It meant massive losses of men and material. (15)

As World War I began in 1914, the debate that raged in European military circles was whether advantage rested with offensive or defensive stances. The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War, the first instances where the more accurate magazine-fed, small-bore rifles, and machine guns had been employed, had taught that even thinly held defensive positions could turn back frontal assaults with deadly effect. But not all military thinkers took that lesson to heart. Many clung to the idea of the offensive. N.P. Mikhnevich, chief of the Russian general staff from 1911 to 1917, wrote, "Offensive action reaps greater benefits, but can only be undertaken when the army has completed its strategic deployment, and is fully prepared with sufficient forces.... Thus time is the best ally of our military forces, and for that reason it is not dangerous for us to follow 'a strategy of attrition and exhaustion,' initially avoiding decisive engagements with the enemy on the border when the superiority of forces may be on its side." French Army regulations, the work of Colonel Louis de Grandmaison, were published promulgating that the key to victory was the offensive. Grandmaison wrote that "It is far more important to develop a conquering state of mind than to cavil about tactics." The French Regulations for the Conduct of Major Formations was published in October and affirmed, "The French Army, returning to its traditions, recognizes no law save that of the offensive."(16)

Clausewitz, since first having been translated into English in 1873, was the voice heard by most American officers. He would win increasing reverence and adherents as the 20th century rolled along. But that was for the classroom or for officer's club discussions of abstract theory. In his everyday life of drill and maneuver, the Huachuca soldier was guided by his Army's manuals.

Field Service Regulations for 1914 contained in a thin, pocket-sized edition the fundamentals of soldiering in the U.S. Army, ranging from entries on Flank guards, Use of machine guns, Sanitary service, Requisitioning military railways, to Signals and codes. This article on "Combat principles" will serve to show the succinctness with which the lessons were set down.

Combat is divided into two general classes, the offensive and the defensive. The defensive is divided into the purely passive defense and the temporary defense, which has for its object the assumption of the offensive at the first favorable opportunity.

Decisive results are obtained only by the offensive. Aggressiveness wins battles. The purely passive defense is adopted only when the mission can be fully accomplished by this method of warfare. In all other cases, if a force be obliged by uncontrollable circumstances to adopt the defensive, it must be considered as a temporary expedient, and a change to the offensive with all or part of the forces will be made as soon as conditions warrant such change. [This would be the American position for the entire 20th century.](17)

The following principles apply to both offensive and defensive combat:

Fire superiority insures success, [This was another favorite theorem of the American Army, which always emphasized obtaining superior firepower through technology rather than committing large numbers of men to the battle.]

Unity of command is essential to success. The regiment united in combat has greater force and fighting power than have three separate battalions. A battalion acting as a unit is stronger than are four companies acting independently. All the troops assigned to the execution of a distinct tactical task must be placed under one command.

The task assigned any unit must not involve a complicated maneuver. Simple and direct plans and methods are productive of the best results in warfare. [This principle has long been subscribed to by the American Army and was expressed in the latter half of the 20th century by the acronym "KISS" or "Keep it Simple Stupid,"]

All the troops that are necessary to execute a definite task must be assigned to it from the beginning. Avoid putting troops into action in driblets.

Detachments during combat are justifiable only when the execution of the tasks assigned them contributes directly to success in the main battle or when they keep a force of the enemy larger than themselves out of the main battle. When combat is imminent all troops must be called to the probable field of battle. A force is never so strong that it can needlessly dispense with the support of any of any its parts during combat.

Too many troops must not, however, be committed to the action in the early stages, no matter what be the nature of the deployment or the extent of line held. Some reserves must be kept in hand.

Use the reserve only when needed or when a favorable opportunity for its use presents itself. Keep some reserve as long as practicable, but every man that can be used to advantage must participate in the decisive stage of the combat.

Flanks must be protected either by reserves, fortifications, or the terrain.

Flank protection is the duty of the commanders of all flank units down to the lowest, whether specifically enjoined in orders or not. This applies to units on both sides of gaps that may exist in the combat lines.

Reconnaissance continues throughout the action.

The purely passive defense is justified where the sole object is to gain time, or to hold certain positions pending the issue of events in other parts of the field. Its results, when it accomplishes its mission, can never be other than negative.(18)

In the forward to the Army's Field Service Regulations for 1914, Army Chief of Staff, Major General Leonard Wood, said:

Success in war can be achieved only by all branches and arms of the service mutually helping and supporting one another in the common effort to attain the desired end.

The basic principles of the combat tactics of the different arms are set forth in the drill regulations of those arms for units as high as brigades. It is the function of higher troop leading to so combine and coordinate the combat tactics of all the arms as to develop in the combined forces the teamwork essential to success.

While the fundamental principles of war are neither very numerous nor complex, their application may be difficult and must not be limited by set rules. Departure from prescribed methods is at times necessary. A thorough knowledge of the principles of war and their application enables the leader to decide when such departure should be made and to determine what methods should bring success.

Officers and men of all ranks and grades are given a certain independence in the execution of the tasks to which they are assigned and are expected to show initiative in meeting the different situations as they arise. Every individual, from the highest commander to the lowest private, must always remember that inaction and neglect of opportunities will warrant more severe censure than an error in the choice of means.(19)

So we see the Army's leader placing emphasis on combined arms cooperation, teamwork, flexibility in applying fundamental principles, independence of action down the chain of command, and initiative.

Drill regulations for each combat arm combined, in a single volume, all the soldier needed to know about tactical mechanics. Hugh L. Scott, Army Chief of Staff in 1916, declared that the War Department's Cavalry Drill Regulations were issued "with a view to insure uniformity throughout the Army." It was an instruction manual that included such topics as: Manual of the rifle, Saddling and Unsaddling, Forming, aligning and leading the squad, The rally, The Charge, The pistol attack, Reconaissance before combat, Inspections, Training remounts, Care of horses, Ceremonies, Marches, and Bugle signals.

In the 1916 edition, there were 269 such topics. Little was left to the imagination. But by today's standards, the soldier's common tasks of 1916 were comparatively few and straightforward.

Instructions in drill were to take place year round so that the regiment was "at all times ... prepared to take the field." And, "the system must be such as to bring the regiment to a proper state of preparation for participation in the annual maneuvers or field exercises." The commander monitored the results by conducting personal inspections.(20)

After the first World War, American military leaders increasingly rejected the idea that maneuver could win battles. They stuck to the strategy of annihilation, calling for the defeat of the enemy's army, and prized courage and endurance more than strategic skill. In his 1928 textbook, The Fundamentals of Military Strategy, Lieut. Col. Oliver P. Robinson said simply, "War means fighting, it has only one aim, to crush the enemy and destroy his will to resist."(21)

For the first time in 1921, the American Army ennunciated the "principles of war" in War Department Training Regulations No. 10-5. These generalized premises were thought to be useful tools in simplifying the training of officers. They were: The Principle of the Objective, of the Offensive, of Mass, of Economy of Force, of Movement, of Surprise, of Security, of Simplicity, and The Principle of Co-operation. Principles would be added, subtracted, and combined over the years as part of the Army's Operations field manual, today called the Airland Battle doctrine.
In 1923 Acting Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. J.L. Hines, in the forward to the Field Service Regulations for that year, said virtually the same thing that Leonard Wood had said in 1914. But the General Principles of combat were expanded:

The ultimate objective of all military operations is the destruction of the enemy's armed forces by battle. Decisive defeat in battle breaks the enemy's will to war and forces him to sue for peace.

Concentration of superior forces, both on the ground and in the air, at the decisive place and time, creates the conditions most essential to decisive victory and constitutes the best evidence of superior leadership.(22)

Decisive results are obtained only by the offensive. Only through offensive action can a commander exercise his initiative and impose his will on the enemy.

A defensive attitude is never deliberately adopted except as a temporary expedient or for the purpose of economizing forces on a front where a decision is not sought in order to concentrate superior forces at the point of decisive action.

Numerical inferiority does not necessarily commit a command to a defensive attitude. Superior hostile strength may be overcome through greater mobility, higher morale, and better leadership. Superior leadership often enables a numerically inferior force to be stronger at the point of decisive action.

A strategically defensive mission is frequently most effectively executed through offensive action. It is often necessary for an inferior force to strike at an early moment in order to secure initial advantages or to prevent itself from being overwhelmed by a growing superiority in the hostile forces.

All combat action must be based upon the effect of surprise...

The necessity for guarding against surprise requires adequate provision for the security and readiness for action of all units.

Each unit takes the necessary measures for its own local security as soon as the next higher unit has developed for action.

Provision for the security of the flanks is of especial importance in combat.

The effect of surprise must be reinforced and exploited by fire superiority.

The attack can dispense with fire protection only when covered by darkness, fog, or smoke.

The defense can not ordinarily gain fire superiority through superiority in the means which it puts into action. It must rely for fire superiority on better observation for the conduct of fire, on the more methodical organization of its fire, especially its flankings, more accurate knowledge of ranges and the terrain, the concealment of its dispositions, and the disorganization, which movement and accessory defenses produce in the attacker's dispositions.(23)

Not everyone in the U.S. military establishment thought that principles or rules of warfare were worthy of the overemphasis they seemed to accrue. A distillation of World War experiences was prepared in 1939 for the Infantry Journal under the, supervision of Colonel George C. Marshall. The handbook contained a caution that should be heeded by all those who expect from history detailed instructions for conduct in specific situations:

The art of war has no traffic with rules, for the infinitely varied circumstances and conditions of combat never produce exactly the same situation twice....

It follows, then, that the leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formula that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory. To master his difficult art he must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types, long practice in making clear, unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind, are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war.

The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on a well-traveled road to ruin.

...Every situation encountered in war is likely to be exceptional. The schematic solution will seldom fit. Leaders who think that familiarity with blind rules of thumb will win battles are doomed to disappointment. Those who seek to fight by rote, who memorize an assortment of standard solutions with the idea of applying the most appropriate when confronted by actual combat, walk with disaster, Rather, it is essential that all leaders---from subaltern to commanding general---familiarize themselves with the art of clear, logical thinking. It is more valuable to be able to analyse one battle situation correctly, recognize its decisive elements and devise a simple, workable solution for it, than to memorize all the erudition ever written of war.(24)

The American Army's call for the use of imagination, backed up by a knowledge of history, may well be what accounts for its repeated successes.


15 .Weigley, Russell F., The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1973.

16. Pinter, Walter, "Russian Military Thought: The Western Model and the Shadow of Suvorov," p. 373, and Porch, Douglas, "Bugeaud, Gallieni, Lyautey: The Development of French Colonial Warfare," p. 407, both in Paret, Peter, Makers of Modem Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1986.

17. The wording in FM 100-5, Operations, May 1986, would be altered in style only. "The offensive is the decisive form of war - the commanders ultimate means of imposing his will upon the enemy. While strategic, operational, or tactical considerations may require defending, defeat of an enemy force at any level will sooner of later require shifting to the offensive."

18. Field Service Regulations, U.S. Army, 1914, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1914, 73, 97.

19. Field Service Regulations, 1914.

20. Cavalry Drill Regulations, U.S. Army, 1916, Military Publishing Co., New York, 1916.

21. Weigley, Russell F., "American Strategy from its Beginings through the First World War," Paret, Peter, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Priceton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1986,442.

22. This is the earliest articulation of the Airland Battle concept.

23. Field Service Regulations, United States Army, 1923, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1924, 77.

24. Weigley, 1973, 215.

7. Lifestyles Along the Border

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