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Subject: Wot No Plan B? rss

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Steve Pole

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One of the things which most fascinates me about Napoleon's invasion of Russia is the absence of any contingency planning if La Grande Armee's carefully choreographed manoeuvres to trap and destroy the Russian armies close to the border were unsuccessful. Which, of course, they were. The Emperor had no Plan B. As a result, instead of a quick and decisive war the French found themselves sucked into the very thing that they had intended to avoid and had little prospect of winning: a war of attrition.

Recently I read a little about the War in the Pacific (1941) in preparation for umpiring a game covering that topic. The lack of contingency planning on the part of the Japanese high command if they were unable to subdue America quickly, and the predictable consequences of that failure seemed eerily familiar.

This got me wondering whether there are any examples of a state instigating a war by launching an attack intending to bring about a decisive victory through "shock and awe", failing to do so and, rather than continuing a long war with little chance of success, cutting its losses by quickly suing for peace?
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    To some extent I think every war in history has fit into one of those two categories. Wise commanders set a survivable limit on their conquests and stop, allowing a few generations of time to reset the boundaries permanently. Bismark may be the best recent example of that, who was being advised to continue his consolidation of the German states, but chose to stop where he did while he was still victorious and still in control. But that wasn't a plan B. That was A all the way.

    The problem with pushing "too far" and then suing for peace is that it's not your choice. The definition of that state is that you're on your heels, you no longer hold the initiative. Your opponent, who is on a hot streak, gets to set the agenda for the remainder of the conflict. And offers of peace don't make a whole lot of sense to them anymore.

    Had Japan in the South Pacific set a more reasonable boundary on their expansion and stopped they very likely could have ended the war controlling much of central Asia. I don't think they had anyone with Bismark's level of wisdom in their government.

             S.


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suPUR DUEper
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How about the French in Vietnam as/after Dien Bien Phu blew up?
 
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marc lecours
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TedW wrote:
How about the French in Vietnam as/after Dien Bien Phu blew up?

It is my impression that the french were on the defense by that point. It was a desperate attempt to catch up. Sort of like the German battle of the bulge in WW2. A last try to get an acceptable end to the war.
 
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Jason Cawley
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Napoleon wasn't trying to avoid a war of attrition - he wasn't a German from 1941. His army outnumbered the Russian army by a factor of two. He was well placed to fight and win an actual war of attrition.

The attrition Napoleon actually encountered reduced his army by half before any major engagement with the Russian army. He was not gradually worn down by a series of major fights, nor reduced by winter weather (it happened in the summer - it was in fact unusually hot that year), nor by gradual small war and cossack actions away from the main battles. Several of those did feature in the retreat, but not in the reduction of his army which forced said retreat.

It was instead two other factors, medical first, and logistical second.

The medical was a typhus epidemic, spread by lice. It was particularly deadly, mortality among those infected reaching 90%. It swept through his army in the first month or two of the campaign, and did its damage before the first major fight at Smolensk. It was furthered by crowding, unsanitary camp conditions (men living in the open for weeks in the same infested clothes, without baths, on top of each other, etc), and the like, but it was simply a plague, at bottom. Shaving heads, burning clothes and issuing new ones, showers - those are the items his army needed but didn't get, in the urgency of the press of operations. He was invaded from below by an "army" of small parasites, which took at least a third of his army. That's right, at least a third, from this one cause alone, a viral fever spread by lice.

The second was logistical, and compounded by the previous. Napoleon had arranged storehouses of food to feed his half million men, and wagons to shift it to the army. Traditionally the French foraged for over half their supplies, but in the then sparsely populated forest and swamp regions of northwestern Russia there was precious little forage to be had. So he was more than usually reliant on supply from the rear by wagon.

This had three main problems. One, the army was moving and opening the distance from its depots at least as fast as the wagons moved. Which meant it only received anything if it halted and paused and let some of the wagons catch up to the men. Then those got to go back for more, doubling the distance and (with the army moving still) tripling or quadrupling the time to fetch up the next load.

The second problem was that the roads were abysmal to non-existent, and the better ones couldn't take to volume of traffic sent over them without serious delays. The army was too large and too concentrated for the road network and carrying capacity of the countryside, in other words. The army corps had been created to keep road columns managable in size, and spread logistic load more widely through parallel movement. But in Russia the French had an army 4 times the usual size, and to stay more concentrated, for lack of parallels to spread over. This stressed the very factors that needed corps in the first place - and broke them.

And the third was that the horses were dying. Both in the army force itself and all along the supply train, overworked horses in the high summer heat were dropping like flies. Napoleon had a veternary crisis as well as a medical one, in other words.

The right response to all of the above was to divide the army and pause operations to enable its easier supply, master the epidemic, and save the horses. But that left no ability to chase Russians, so Napoleon did not adopt it until the damage was done.

Meanwhile, men and horses fell out in droves, to get away from those conditions, to carry sick to the rear or tend them in place, to forage farther from the line of march (which was completely picked over and a wasteland in consequence, as far as food and supplies went). Probably half as many, to as many, simply dropped out of the march as actually went down to the typhus.

After winning the battle of Smolensk - handily - Napoleon should have paused and saved his army there, going into winter quarters early and gathering in supplies. He had already lost half the army, less than 10% of those losses from enemy action.

He gambled instead that he could win a decisive battle, occupy Moscow, and force a favorable peace, as he had e.g. in 1805 in Austria after Austerlitz. He did get and won his decisive battle - Borodino - and did take Moscow. But Alexander didn't make peace, and the Moscow was burned practically to the ground while his army was quartered inside it.

That was the actual final blow. Before winter and not by military action, attritionist or otherwise. Supply and shelter and logistics were decisive throughout the entire campaign. Those, and medicine. Napoleon was defeated by a plague virus spread by insects and by a staggering disregard for logistics.
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Severus Snape
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Marshall Davout offered at least two plan "B's." One was during the Battle of Borodino, when Davout proposed a flanking move in place of Napoleon's "straight at 'em" approach. Second was Davout's recommendation for the retreat route from Moscow. Davout wanted to go through territory that had not already be stripped bare of supplies. This was also rejected. Still, Davout was among the officers most loyal to the Emperor, even risking his life--he could have been shot by the new French regime after the Waterloo debacle, as Ney was--for his beloved Napoleon.

goo
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Steve Pole

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Jason,

Many thanks for this.

Your view of the campaign mirrors mine (more or less). In particular, it was the losses suffered through disease and underestimating the horrendous logistical problems during the intense heat, punctuated by intense rain, of the early months of the campaign - rather than the adverse weather during the famous Winter retreat - which "did for" La Grande Armee. (See, for example issue No. 2 of the "War Diary".) Men could be replaced, but even as late as 1814 Napoleon was still short of horses.

For what it's worth, in my view Napoleon's best chance of success would have been to cultivate those territories in the far west of Russia which had been subsumed into her empire during the previous 20 years or so, perhaps by granting them a measure of independence. This would have had the double benefit of providing a pool of willing recruits and shortening the French lines of supply. (The Germans may have also benefited from such an approach 129 years later.)

Other than this, I agree that Napoleon's best chance of avoiding defeat would have been to move to Winter Quarters after Smolensk, and resume the campaign in 1813.

Sorry, I digress.

Even though, as you say, the vast majority of French losses were brought about by disease and starvation, rather than direct enemy action, I would still describe the war as one of "attrition". This is because these losses came about as the consequence of a deliberate strategy on the part of the Russians to trade space for time in order to wear down the French.

However, irrespective of whether it is correct to categorise the war in this way, the main point is that Napoleon hadn't drawn up an alternative strategy (a Plan B) which was likely to bring success if he was unable to pin and destroy the Russian armies along the border. The "invasion", or rather the decision to march on to Moscow, appears to have been taken "on the hoof" as a consequence of considering his somewhat limited options only following the victory at Smolensk and the defeat at Polotsk.


Severus,

Again, I agree with what you say (although Maloyaroslavets may have put pay to the second suggestion); but, by that stage the French had effectively lost the war. The Russians had no intention of reaching a negotiated peace. Why should they? Sooner or later Napoleon and what was left of his army would have to retreat back to the West.

Regards,



Steve
18.10.15


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Robert Stuart
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One of the earliest examples I can think of is Julius Caesar's first invasion of Britain. He had a Plan B and adopted it after his victorious battles failed to result in the complete destruction of the British forces. He returned to Gaul with his entire force and declared success for his mission, which had been a 'reconnaissance in force'.
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Øivind Karlsrud
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If you go back in time, wars used to be a lot more limited, at least in Europe. The idea of total war was more or less invented in the Napoleonic Wars, wasn't it? IIRC, it is one of the ideas which comes from Clausewitz. I think it is easier to think of contingency plans when wars are limited, and one does not mobilize all of society for it. When you have gambled everything, you don't even want to consider the possibility of losing.

I would think Britain had a 'limited war' mindset during The Napoleonic Wars period, but I guess Napoleon didn't.
 
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Michele Cafagna
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bentlarsen wrote:
Marshall Davout offered at least two plan "B's." One was during the Battle of Borodino, when Davout proposed a flanking move in place of Napoleon's "straight at 'em" approach. Second was Davout's recommendation for the retreat route from Moscow. Davout wanted to go through territory that had not already be stripped bare of supplies. This was also rejected. .....

:goo:

Flanking move at Borodino could have worked, and could have avoided losses suffered by French army that were not replaceable, at that stage of the campaign. But let's not forget the limits of command and control doctrine at that time: Davout required that two Corps went into the woods on the right flank with no option to control and coordinate it with the rest of the army. I'm not saying it was not possible, but quite difficult to carry out without losing control of many batallions in the woods, even with token resistance (Russians had scattered militia units on that side). It was a tactical option, not a strategical plan and could not have altered the outcome of the Russian campaign.

Napoleon did agree to follow another route, as suggested by Davout, but the option was negated by the Battle of Maloyaroslavets. It was a French victory (well, maybe an Italian victory as most of the troops involved were Italian....) but after the last time the town changed hands Kutuzov had his army ready to counter Napoleon's move, forcing him on the way of retreat to the north of the Luhza river, through Mozhaisk and Smolensk, the route of his advance that he had wished to avoid.

As regarding to going to winter quarters to resume the campaign in 1813 it was not a an option at that time. Napoleon needed a political victory to retain his reluctant allies and to counter threats in Paris itself. Stopping in Smolensk with 300.000 troops to support was a losing gamble as well, for his political objectives.
 
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