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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Generals Fail

This article was written in 1991 by Bruno (the club editor at the time).

Psychologist and former army officer Norman Dixon writes that the very qualities that get a military man to the top are often also the ones that contribute to defeat in battle. Generals lose battles and/or campaigns not because of stupidity, rather because of the way they have been socialized in the peace-time army. The syndrome (a group or pattern of symptoms) of incompetence follows a well established pattern. It involves :
* Ignoring or misusing military intelligence.
* Underestimating the enemy.
* Clinging to traditions.
* Indecision and procrastination, (i.e., fear of failure).
* A preference for the straightforward frontal assault.
* A tendency toward blaming and scapegoating.
* A tendency to conceal unpleasant facts from oneself and others.
The fog of war contributes to the complexity of the battlefield situation, as well.
Lord Raglan, commander of the British army in the Crimea, was a successful peace-time leader and a disastrous war-time chief. He was for consensus and hated conflict and doubtful, uncertain situations. A new staff officer taking up his appointment was advised : "Never trouble Lord Raglan more than is absolutely necessary with details, listen carefully to his remarks, try to anticipate his wishes and at all times make light of difficulties." Between October 1854 and April 1855, there was a lull in the fighting. During this time, because of neglect, Raglan's army lost 35% of its fighting strength. It could muster only 11,000 able-bodied men; its sick and wounded totalled 23,000!

At the Battle of the River Modder, during the Boer Wars, General Methuen's 8,000 men advanced across flat, open veldt, against 3,000 Boers armed with bolt-action Mausers. Methuen had failed to carry out a reconnaissance and attempted a costly frontal assault. 
A few days later, not having learnt from his mistakes, he attempted the same kind of attack against the Magersfontein hills. He bombarded the deserted slopes causing only three (3) Boer casualties, then the following day, he executed a frontal assault which was bloodily repulsed.
In the same war, General Featherstonehaugh rode up and down in front of his men exhorting them to greater efforts. The Austro-Prussian and the Franco-Prussian Wars had established that a mounted man could survive no more than a few minutes in the firing line. Old Feathers was shot off his horse.
At Colenso, General Hart gave his brigade thirty minutes of parade-ground drill, then he marched them in close formation, (to keep them in hand), across the open toward the Boer riflemen.He lost 1,138 men and 10 guns to the Boers 6 dead and 21 wounded.
Botha at Colenso
Nevertheless, the British learnt something from the Boers which they put into practice against Kaiser Wilhelm's troops, in the Great War. The German units caught manoeuvring in the open in close order by British riflemen thought they were under machine-gun fire, and suffered high casualties.

Note that the Germans had had observers on the Boer side during the Second Boer War.

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