Battle of annihilation
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A battle of annihilation is a military strategy in which an attacking army seeks to destroy the military capacity of the opposing army in a single planned pivotal battle. This is achieved through the use of tactical surprise, application of overwhelming force at a key point, or other tactics performed immediately before or during the battle.
The intention is that the opposing government will then be forced to sue for peace to prevent the unopposed capture of its capital or other core areas.
It is not necessary to kill or capture all, or even most, of an opposing army's soldiers to annihilate it in the sense used here. Rather, the destruction of the enemy army as a cohesive military force able to offer further meaningful resistance, even if temporarily, is the objective.
Significance of the term
In ancient and classical times, many battles ended with the annihilation of one of the forces, the battles of Cannae, Zama and Adrianople being famous examples. From the Renaissance onward, however, the battle of annihilation became rare, at least in Europe. The greatest exception is seen in the battles of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is with Napoleon that the battle of annihilation in the modern sense is most closely associated, so that term "Napoleonic battle of annihilation" is sometimes used, and the Battle of Austerlitz is often cited as the apotheosis of the modern battle of annihilation.
Alternatives to the battle of annihilation
At first blush, it might seem that annihilation of the opposing army is the obvious object of any military campaign. This is not true, however. Many battles have been fought to cause an enemy army simply to retreat, or to suffer attrition; and many campaigns have been waged to avoid rather than seek such a battle. Reasons for not seeking a battle of annihilation include:
- Avoidance of the risk and cost associated with such a battle
- Lack of means to attempt such a battle
- Ability to achieve desired objectives through other means
- Accepted practice
- Political concerns
Risk and cost
A successful battle of annihilation usually requires exposing one's own army to loss in a way that more conservative tactics do not. For example, attempting to turn an enemy's flank generally requires one to separate the flanking force from one's main body. This exposes the attacking force to defeat in detail. Attempting to pierce the enemy's center is usually costly in itself, and also exposes the vanguard force to a destructive counterstroke.
This was an especially important consideration during the pre-Napoleonic era, when armies were relatively small forces composed of professional career soldiers and losses were difficult to replace.
Lack of means
From the Renaissance until the advent of military mechanization, armies were slow on the battlefield (not necessarily slow operationally). This was due to the declining efficacy of cavalry and to the advent of artillery, which is difficult to move. This made it difficult to move quickly enough to prevent an enemy from countering a battle stratagem, or, failing that, to withdraw safely.
Using other means
If the object of war is to destroy the enemy's ability to resist politically, this may be achieved by other, less expensive, methods.
For example, one may attempt to maneuver one's army in such a way as to cut off the enemy from its base of supplies. If this is done successfully, the enemy may be forced to seek terms with its army intact. This sort of campaign was typical of Enlightenment armies, and is especially associated with the campaigns of Frederick the Great.
The French Campaign of 1940 offers an example. After the Germans broke into the French rear at Sedan, they were able to surround the main Allied armies and render their position untenable. No great battle of annihilation was required. (Alternatively, the Germans considered instead striking toward Paris. Capture of the French capital might have broken the French morale and political will to resist).
In warfare, as in many avenues of human endeavor, the optimal application of material means is sometimes limited by the failure of imagination. A successful battle of annihilation generally requires great skill and daring on the part of the attacking commander. If a commander's training, experience, and peer relationships have not prepared him to expect a battle of annihilation, this alone may prevent him envisioning such a battle.
For example, during the American Civil War, several Union Army generals were not able to imagine a battle of annihilation even during opportunities when the Union Army of the Potomac had sufficient strength in forces and the material means to conduct such a battle.
If a war has limited political objectives, this may require the adoption of limited military strategy, including the disinclination to pursue a battle of annihilation.
In the Gulf War, the Allied forces could have sought and won a battle of annihilation against the Iraqi Republican Guard. It was decided, however, that the annihilation of the Republican Guard might have led to the dissolution of the Iraqi state, which was not a desired political objective.
Some historians have speculated that Hitler declined to seek the destruction of the British army at Dunkirk in 1940 for political reasons: to show magnanimity by allowing the British to withdraw, facilitating a political end to the war. (This is, however, disputed—other historians feel that Hitler simply wanted to avoid the risk to his armored formations that a battle of annihilation would have required, and Alexander Procofieff de Seversky in Victory Through Air Power implied that the cover of land-based Royal Air Force aircraft allowed the army at Dunkirk to escape).
Napoleon's victories at Austerlitz (1805) and Jena (1806) are often cited as the classic battles of annihilation. Napoleon himself was unable to again achieve such decisive results, partly because his enemies subsequently adjusted to his tactics. For example, Borodino, while a victory, did not result in the desired destruction of the Russian army.
Nevertheless, strategists, influenced by those of the Napoleonic era, most notably Antoine-Henri Jomini, held the Napoleonic battle of annihilation to be the proper objective of modern military campaigns. This interpretation was later mis-accredited to the more renowned Carl von Clausewitz, initially by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who supported arguments for strategies of annihilation with quotes from Clausewitz. Clausewitz, who disliked Jomini personally, as well as his concepts, instead emphasized the primacy of the political in warfare, and remained indifferent to theories arguing for any absolute solutions via the application of military force. Nevertheless, this set the stage for mass confusion down the line of strategic thinkers. Clausewitz's trilogies (albeit used out of context) are contested by Liddell Hart, who claims in Strategy that a poor choice of words by Clausewitz led his interpreters to overestimate the value of annihilation battles. Consequently, at the beginning of the American Civil War, many top military commanders expected a battle of annihilation to quickly end the war. This did not occur. Already, the size and firepower of armies were making the battle of annihilation harder to achieve.
A contrast may be seen between the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Lee, when on the offensive, usually maneuvered with the intent of forcing a battle of annihilation. His archetypal attempt was at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where a classic Napoleonic flanking maneuver defeated but was not able to destroy the Union Army under Joseph Hooker.
Lee may be faulted for attempting to achieve a battle of annihilation, particularly at Gettysburg, in an age when this strategy was becoming obsolete.
In the Virginia campaign of 1864 against Lee, he continually maneuvered around Lee, forcing him to withdraw further and further south until he had to choose between abandoning the Confederate capital of Richmond or withdrawing into siege lines.
William Tecumseh Sherman may also be cited. Rather than pursuing the chimera of destroying Hood's army, he chose to operate directly against the Confederate economy. His famous march through Georgia, directly away from Hood, was basically the opposite of a Napoleonic strategy.
The Napoleonic ideal was still alive at the beginning of World War I. In fact, the Germans were able to execute a battle of annihilation against the Russian 2nd Army at the Battle of Tannenberg in the war's opening weeks. But attempts to create such a result on the Western Front resulted in great slaughter to no effect. Armies were now too large to have flanks to turn, and had too much firepower and too much defensive depth to be broken by assault.
During Operation Uranus, Soviet forces launched a counter-attack on Axis forces at Stalingrad. The Soviets enveloped the Axis forces in a double pincer, then began a battle of annihilation that resulted in the destruction and subsequent surrender of the German Sixth Army of 250,000 soldiers.
During the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Navy's strategy was fixated on the goal of luring the numerically superior United States Pacific Fleet into a single decisive battle of annihilation, which would force the United States to sue for peace. This was at least partially the motivation behind the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, but was loosely followed for as long as the IJN was capable of offensive operations. This goal was never achieved for several reasons. First, the US Navy was wary of committing all of its forces to one major battle. Further, the IJN concentrated so much of its efforts on preparing for a single massive showdown (which never truly occurred) that it neglected devoting resources towards protecting its naval supply lines, which soon fell prey to a Fabian strategy when they were extensively targeted by US submarines. Finally, IJN strategic thought was still heavily based on Mahan's outdated theory of naval supremacy which was based on battleships, failing to realize that aircraft carriers were growing into a position of dominance in naval warfare. Even Japanese victories such as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands failed to utterly annihilate their opponents. The hoped-for "decisive battle" against the US Navy never came, and the IJN was gradually ground down through attrition.
Since World War I, the paradigm of armies maneuvering in the empty countryside for weeks and then meeting in a battle lasting (usually) a single day no longer applies (at least to wars between major powers). Instead, armies are deployed in more-or-less continuous lines stretching perhaps hundreds of miles. Thus, the battle of annihilation may be considered to be mainly of historical interest, except for secondary campaigns.
- J. Nagl, (2005), p. 19.
- Hart, B. H. Liddell, (1991), p. 319.
- J. Nagl. (2005). Learning to eat soup with a knife. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Hart, B. H. Liddell. (1991) Strategy, Second Revised Edition. New York, Meridian.