Lessons of Military History


By COL. ROBT. R. McCORMICK, Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Tribune; on Gen. Pershing's AEF Staff and Authority on Military Affairs

Delivered over Station WGN, Chicago, September 6, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 753-755.

WHEN I began these talks no more than a year ago, my real purpose was to make myself one of the workers on WGN, so that I could understand the other workers and they could understand me. The last thing in my mind or in anybody's mind was that I would make a musical contribution to the program as I did tonight.

The Preobraschenski regiment, one of the oldest Russian regiments, was in the war in 1915 and for some weeks I was its guest in the bloody battle of Warsaw. Every day some of my friends were killed or wounded. But the battle on our part of the front was successful. Afterward, between the war and the revolution, the regiment was practically exterminated. I don't know of any single living member of that regiment that I knew 26 years ago.

Those of us who have been thru the horrors of war and revolution are not easily aroused to excitement. Now, apparently, a bloodier battle is going on, but what aspect it may be taking I don't know. There are no American newspaper men in either army, nor any American military attaches. All we receive are the official government communiques and they are, of course, utterly untrustworthy.

Turning from the horrors of war to the science of war: I spoke last week on the development of the military art from the beginning about up to the time of the coming of gunpowder. Gunpowder first came in the form of cannon at the battle of Crecy to scare the French forces. But for a long time almost its only use was in the reduction of fortifications.

Back in the days when horsemen predominated, obviously they were not very good at capturing cities behind stone walls—horses couldn't jump high enough. Going way back, cities were practically safe before the coming of the Romans. The Roman engineers could take them, but the medieval horsemen could not. When cannon came in, they beat down the walls and this changed not only the aspects of war, but, of course, the entire political form of life and civilization.

The first great artillery officer was the earl of Warwick, known as the "kingmaker" in England. He was the first man to have an artillery park of his own. His army and his opponent's army, being about equal in all other forms of warfare, the artillery tipped the scales, and he won battle after battle, changing the dynasties in England one way and another, until finally, like most military geniuses, he went to the well once too often and was broken.

After Warwick there was very little development in artillery in the open field until King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Before him in the Thirty Years' war, Austria had dominated. Austria had two great generals; one was named Tilly, and the other Wallenstein.

Wallenstein commanded the Austrian army at the battle of Lützen, and he knew all that anybody knew about the art of war up to that day. He had his troops drawn up on top of a hill; he had the sun behind him; he had the wind behind him; he thought he was unbeatable. And then the new light cannon of the Swedes were brought forward beyond the range of Austrian pieces, and calmly shot the Austrians down. They had no maneuver to counter that, fell in confusion, and were defeated.

Cannon gradually improved, taking a more and more important part in war, and reached their apex under a Frenchman named Senarmont, a general of Napoleon, who developed the art of massing cannon side by side so that they absolutely blasted the enemy off the face of the earth. Senarmont was killed, but Napoleon learned his tactics and carried them out to the end of his career.

There was a time, I told you last week, when bowmen dominated the battlefield. They were put together in compact masses of archers, firing their arrows in a deadly shower. They were finally driven out by the horsemen, and when the muskets came in they came a few at a time, mixed in with the spearmen.

Now in the art of war, the Greeks never got beyond the spear, with just a short point on it. In the Middle Ages pikes were developed, and then halberds. Halberds were spears but also had axes on them so they could strike down. They had hooks on them so they could pull a man off a horse and the muskets were scattered in among them to fire after the halberds had stopped the cavalry charges.

Little by little more and more muskets were put in the infantry and less and less halberds or pikes. Finally, in the great English civil war, General Monk abandoned the pikes entirely, and armed his infantry only with muskets. His muskets were very clumsy. It took a great many of them to keep up a sustained fire.

Charles XII. of Sweden ranked his men 12 or 16 ranks deep with muskets so there always would be some left with loaded muskets, while others were going thru the cumbersome method of reloading.

When we come down to the time of our own Revolutionary war, the Austrian army was lined up four ranks deep, but Frederick of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great, was able to reduce the number of ranks in his army to three ranks deep. He was able to do this because, instead of using wooden ramrods, which had to be used carefully not to break them, he gave his men iron ramrods.

That simple expedient was one of the greatest developments in the art of war. Frederick was a man of extraordinary qualities. The first thing he did as a soldier was to run away from the battlefield at the age of 29. Then for another 20 or so years, he was unbeatable on the battlefield.

He left behind him a book of instructions for generals which you can read in an hour, one of the most important books in military science, and incidentally and unmistakably, the first written doctrine that we now call Nazism.

After Frederick, the great general was Napoleon, supposed to be the greatest general who ever lived. Napoleon was a great student. He tried everything that had been written by all the other great generals of history, mastered it, and used their methods better than they had ever used them.

But he was not an original man. The massing of artillery, as I said, was created by his general, Senarmont.

His final opponent, the Duke of Wellington, was an original man, and muskets having been improved still further, he reduced the depth of his infantry line to two lines so that, with the same number of men, you can see that his line was half again as long as Napoleon's line.

By such simple things as these the immutable rules of warfare are revolutionized. At this time there came into existence, I suppose, the supreme soldier of all history, the American frontiersman. He depended upon his rifle for his food; therefore he was an accurate shot. He had a hard time getting supplies; therefore he husbanded them. He had to march long distances for his daily existence. He had to fight with the savages in forest warfare. Wherever the American frontiersman came into battle, he was supreme.

Our regular troops in the Revolutionary war were certainly no more than a match for the British regular troops. But our frontiersmen exterminated their opponents whenever they met, notably at Freeman's farm, at King's mountain, at Cowpens. And again, in the War of 1812, at the battle of New Orleans.

After Napoleon, his battles were written up by a horde of pedants who didn't understand him. They made into rules everything that Napoleon did wrong. For instance, the three rank line of infantry, and the attack in heavy columns which Wellington had defeated.

A man of very inferior intelligence, a Swiss, wrote up strategic rules, and these in turn were translated by an American of inferior intellect named Halleck. And under these rules, the army of the Potomac, which was a well trained army of the Civil war, was utterly unable to do anything.

On the other hand, however—on the northern side in the west, and in the south—the frontier spirit still prevailed. They fought their own way. The southern troops always beat the army of the Potomac and western troops had to be taken east before the Civil war was won.

The same thing took place in Europe. The Crimean war and the Franco-Prussian war were fought on lines entirely outdated.

But in our Civil war, great innovations took place. General Grant used steamboats on the rivers, much as tanks have been used in the last 25 years, to outflank his opponents. Long-street's corps was transferred from the army of Virginia to Tennessee to win the battle of Chickamauga. I suppose the credit is due to President Davis.

General Grant used the railroads to move the army of the James to cut off General Lee's retreat at Appomattox.

But the strangest thing in this war—and I think it's the only incident of its kind in all of history—was Sherman's march to the sea. I have never seen a book that did not instruct the commander to fight the enemy in front of him. General Sherman turned his back upon his enemy, and marched to Savannah in one of the most effective campaigns in the history of the world, and the most original one.

The Boer war brought in smokeless powder, or rather smokeless powder had been in for some time but was used for the first time in the Boer war. Again, too, we have the frontiersman element. The sharpshooting Boers—with their smokeless powder, their long range rifles, firing in a country almost devoid of cover, and the utmost clearness of light—sometimes won their battles five to six to eight hundred yards away from their enemy, who could not approach them.

When the World war came on the generals were far behind their weapons. By that time machine guns and rapid fire cannon were coming in, but the generals tried to maneuver as their forbears had done in the days of flintlocks and black smoke. The consequence was that their troops weremowed down by the thousands. It became a siege which was partly broken by the introduction of tanks, an English adaptation of an American machine. But the generals were so unwilling to accept the new weapon that they never used it to its full effect.

There were some new things brought into that war, however. At Tannenberg in 1918, a German general named Von Francois succeeded in getting in the rear of the Russian army, and in laying out a long thin line of fortified infantrymen. He proved that troops engaged in front in serious battle, once they were cut off in the rear, became practically helpless.

In 1918, by the use of infantry tactics known as infiltration, the Germans almost broke thru our lines in France. The consequence was that when they were stopped, their lines were in the form of a bulge, called a salient. I wrote about this 21 years ago as follows:

"Salients have been well recognized weak points for the reason that the adversary could concentrate a heavy fire upon them from several directions and confuse the defenders by simultaneous attacks on the different fronts.

"In the early part of this war (that is, in the war of 1917), altho ranges had increased enormously, the length of fronts had increased in greater proportion; and many salients were created and held with impunity. However, by the spring of 1918 the Allies had armed themselves with a great number of mobile guns, ranging nearly 20,000 meters. With these they would surround a salient. The divisional artillery fired at extreme range. From there on, the 155 mm. longs took up the mission. A small semicircle, which the longs could not reach, was attacked with special cannon of still greater range, and with aerial bombardment.

"Nowhere in the salient was there safety or rest for the Germans. Advancing to the front or returning to rest, they were compelled to pass over mile after mile of road subject to artillery fire. General Hindenburg and General Ludendorff were far to the rear, and did not know the ordeal thru which their troops were passing, the ordeal which reduced them finally to surrender."

But the German generals of today were in those salients, and they learned from them some of the tactics they are now using. During the war our general, William Mitchell, my old friend, devised a theory of landing troops back of the enemy's lines with parachutes.

But our old generals couldn't see it. Shortly after the war in England, I saw airplanes built for the British Indian army to carry air infantry. Not so long after that, Major Al Williams, an American, invented dive bombing, and about the same period Brigadier-General John T. Thompson, a retired army officer, invented the hand machine gun. Then Walter Christie, also an American, devised the modern tank.

Now let's see how the German successes have been achieved in the present war. First they had an air reconnaissance where men flew over the opposing lines and saw everything that was going on. Then came the attack. First the dive bombers, invented by the American, Williams. Then the parachutists, devised by the American, Mitchell. And the air infantry, devised by the British Indian army. Then the tanks, product of American and British ingenuity, were used to the fullest extent, accompanied by the infantry tactics of infiltration of German origin and assisted by the Tommy gun of Thompson. Then when the penetrations had been made, came the surrounding tactics of Von Francois.

Those are the tactics which have won all these many victories. All have been well known for many years. The Germans' opponents used not one of these tactics. In all the other armies officers did not come into positions ofauthority until they were approaching the age of retirement. There was no future ahead of them. There was no incentive for them to go on.

They were old men, merely wanting to enjoy the high rank they had achieved for the little time that remained to them. And the saddest thing of all, the one young arm of the service—aviation—went astray on an utterly erroneous theory—the theory of the Italian General Douhet.

He evolved the theory that ground troops were no longer necessary; that aviation could fly over the ground troops and bomb the factories and civilians in the rear. That is what the British aviation was doing while their armies were being destroyed in Flanders.

Now in America today we are making rather small efforts to get rid of the old men, and our ground troops are trying to learn modern warfare. But as to our aviation, I must read from a recent newspaper:

"No bombardment or attack aviation will be available for the use of the 2nd army in the new and vital phase of its maneuvers. The air force assigned consists of 52 observation planes, most of which were outmoded months ago by rapid advances in European fighting craft since the war began.

"Just how the troops are to be trained in modern warfare when the bombardment and attack aviation so vital to them are missing, is a matter for conjecture. Even the lone squadron of 13 dive bombing planes which took part in the preceding phase of the maneuvers was ordered back to its base at Savannah, Georgia, last Thursday. An officer says 360 planes is the minimum required by the 2nd army for light operations in this phase of the operation. It only has 52."

Are we to conclude from this, even after the lessons of Poland, of Norway, of Flanders, of France, of Serbia, of Greece, and of Crete, that our aviation still clings to the fatal Douhet theory? It is terrible to contemplate.

Are we to think that the relations between the ground troops and the aviation still are so bad that aviation will not cooperate with the ground troops? That would be even worse. But this much is certain:

If the ground troops are not maneuvered in the presence of enemy aviation they will never learn to take cover, and without that knowledge, they will be lost.

If they are maneuvered without the assistance of friendly aviation, they will never know how to attack in modern war and they will be lost a second time.

If aviation does not maneuver with ground troops it will not know how to act with them if called upon, and we are three times lost.

It is sad to think that a year after conscription the army has not yet begun to learn how to conduct itself in modern war.