A history and analysis of the most devastating tactic
Most students of military history will be familiar with the works of George Bruce Malleson; he was a prodigious author on the subject and his scholarship has always been regarded as of the highest standard. This excellent book will be of much interest to those concerned with the practice of military craft. It examines critically and in detail that most desired of circumstances, which is when a battle is won, where the victorious outcome is all but certain instead of fought, where the potential for defeat is always possible. The unseen attack to the flank, the ambuscade and the sudden appearance of the enemy whose presence was unknown is not new to warfare. Indeed its principle is universal, since it is the method employed by every carnivorous creature that runs, flies or swims, in order to secure its meal and avoid injury in the process. Malleson provides eight examples of the tactic employed at its most devastating. We learn among others, of the defeat of the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest, the destruction of Roland, knight of Charlemagne in the high passes of the Pyrenees and of Braddock and his column slaughtered in the dense forests of America during the French and Indian War. What makes this work particularly interesting is Malleson’s decision to include two pieces, from the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, where against the odds the surprised force under inspired leadership has managed, in measure, to prevail. This excellent examination of ambushes and surprises considers examples spanning two thousand years of warfare and will be fascinating to everyone interested in the field of battle at its most extreme.
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There are two kinds of pursuit: the one, careful and well-considered, which never loses sight of or imperils the plan of the campaign; the other, a pursuit reckless and neglectful of all precautions. Had Haddick stopped his pursuit of the French at Wasen, he would have achieved a marked success and have seriously alarmed the French general for his right. For the fleeing troops of Loison would have certainly exaggerated the number of their enemies, and Masséna might well have imagined that Lecourbe was left to struggle against thirty instead of only ten thousand. The reckless continuance of the pursuit beyond Amsteg greatly neutralised the effect of the victory at Airolo. Lecourbe, always on the watch, had, on the first intimation of the defeat of Loison, marched with his whole force towards Amsteg. Three miles from that place he came upon the pursuers, tired and in disorder. His own men were fresh and eager for revenge. He attacked the Austrians with great fury, drove them in disorder through the gorge of the Schöllinen, and across the Devil’s Bridge. It was only by cutting an arch of that bridge that Haddick saved his army from utter defeat.<br>
The termination of the attack of the 29th of May left Masséna secure, for the moment, respecting his right. Haddick had been taught caution. But in front of Masséna there was still an army double in numbers to his own, and the general of that army meant mischief. On the 4th of June desultory attacks and skirmishes presaged the coming storm. On the following day it burst.<br>
At daybreak of the morning of the 5th June, in fact, the archduke attacked the French intrenchment at all points. The defence was as vigorous as the attack. “Few actions,” wrote the impartial chronicler of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, Count Mathieu Dumas, “have cost so much blood.”<br>
Four Austrian and two French generals were wounded. When night fell Masséna still remained master of the intrenchment. Never had he more distinguished himself. Where danger was, there, with the calm, cool, self-reliant mien which never deserted him on the battlefield, was the spoiled child of victory. He repulsed the enemy, but his losses had been enormous. A fresh attack would ruin him; and that the archduke contemplated such an attack was certain. Masséna felt strongly that the safety of the country required him to preserve to France the one army available to cover her eastern frontier. That night, then, be defiled over the bridges of Zurich and Wettingen, and took post on the Albis range, between Zurich and Zug, a position so strong as to be impregnable. His retreat was conducted without opposition. He had to abandon, however, the great arsenal of Zurich.<br>
In that secure position Masséna resolved to await the future movements of the archduke. Vainly did the Directory, terrified by the news that Korsakoff was advancing with thirty thousand men to co-operate with the Austrians, urge Masséna to assume the offensive, promising even to strengthen him with twenty thousand men, so that he might overwhelm the archduke before Korsakoff should arrive! Masséna felt that a defeat where he was would be fatal; that the safety of France depended upon his guarding her eastern frontier. One movement, however, and that a very important movement, he did order. He directed Lecourbe to regain the St. Gothard, by recovering Airolo and the Stalvedro defile, and to reoccupy the Orisons.<br>
Lecourbe executed these orders with skill and success. Early on the 14th August he embarked with his own corps on board a flotilla he had collected to seize Brunnen and Schwytz, on the eastern shore of the lake, thence to sustain three other columns which he had despatched, at the same time, in well-chosen directions. Acting upon his orders, Gudin, with five battalions, forced the ridge of the Grimsel, and, joining Thureau in the Valais, drove the Austrians from the source of the Rhone and the Furka; similarly, a second column, led by the intrepid Loison, traversed the Sisten passes and descended on the enemy at Wasen; a third marched from Engelberg upon Erstfelden; a fourth upon Altdorf. All these attacks proved successful.<br>
After a fierce contest Loison gained Wasen. Altdorf having been also successfully occupied, the Austrians, who had been expelled thence by Lecourbe, were assailed in front and rear, and were compelled to seek a hasty flight by the Maderaner Thal, in the direction of Tavetsch. Meanwhile Thureau had attacked the Austrians near Brieg, and had forced them to retire by the gorges of the Simplon to Duomo d’Ossola; this defeat had enticed from his position on the Grimsel and the Furka, Colonel Strauch, who, leaving but fifteen hundred men to guard those passes, had rushed with the remainder of his corps to the aid of his countrymen in the Valais.<br>
This action, though it checked the French advance in the upper Valais, lost for Strauch the important passes which it had been his special duty to protect; for Gudin, debouching from the Aar valley, forced the higher ranges of the Grimsel and drove the slender Austrian defenders down the other side. Strauch himself, placed between two fires, was glad to escape by the Nufenen pass, eight thousand nine feet above the sea-level—a pass which has suffered more, almost, than any other pass in the Alps from avalanches—to Faido, on the Ticino, whence he rejoined the scattered remnants of his force who had made their way to the Italian side by paths only known in those days to chamois hunters.<br>
Such was the result of Lecourbe’s splendid action on the first day. Disposing of nearly thirty thousand men on five different points, he had been victorious, though the distances were too great for him to be certain of the full nature of his success the same day, on all. But Lecourbe was a master of that self-reliance which is the greatest strength of a general. He was prudent because he knew when to be bold; because he knew that a blow not followed up is only a blow with a padded glove. Though still uncertain of the amount of success achieved by Gudin and Thureau, he determined to push that gained by Loison and the two other corps he now had united under himself to the utmost.