What is absolute superiority

From the first edition of from the war


Third book:

From the strategy in general

Eighth chapter:
Superiority of number

In tactics as in strategy it is the most general principle of victory and should first be considered by us in this generality, for which we allow ourselves the following development.

The strategy determines the point on which, the time, in which, and the armed forces, With which one is to be fought; Through this threefold determination it has a very important influence on the outcome of the battle. If the tactic has fought, the success is there, whether it be victory or defeat, then strategy makes use of it whichever can be made of it according to the purpose of the war. This purpose of the war is, of course, often a very distant one, and in the rarest cases an obvious one. A number of other ends are subordinate to it as means. These ends, which are at the same time means for higher ends, can be of many different uses; even the ultimate end, the goal of the whole war, is different in almost every war. We shall become acquainted with these things as we become acquainted with the individual objects which are touched by them, and it cannot be our intention here by a complete enumeration of them, although it might be possible to encompass the whole object. So we leave the use of combat for the time being.

Even those things by which strategy has an influence on the outcome of the battle by stipulating the same (in a sense decreeing) are not so simple that they could be included in a single consideration. As strategy determines time, place, and strength, it can do so in practice in a number of ways, each of which determines the outcome and success of the battle differently. So we will only get to know this little by little, namely with the objects that determine the application in more detail.

If we thus strip the combat of all modifications that it can get according to its purpose and the circumstances from which it emerges, if we finally abstract from the value of the troops, because this is a given, then only the bare concept of combat remains, d. H. an informal struggle left in which we distinguish nothing but the number of people fighting.

So this number will determine victory. From the multitude of abstractions that we have to make in order to get to this point, it follows that the superiority of numbers in a battle is only one of the factors from which the victory is formed, that therefore, far away, with the superiority of the number to have won everything or even only the main thing, perhaps very little is achieved with it, depending on the circumstances involved in one way or another.

But superiority has degrees; it can be thought of as twice, three, four times as great, etc., and everyone understands that with this increase it must overcome everything else.

In this regard, it must be conceded that number superiority is the most important factor in the outcome of a battle, only it must be great enough to balance the rest of the factors involved. The immediate consequence of this is that the greatest possible number of troops must be brought into battle at the crucial point.

Whether these troops are sufficient or not, everything has been done on this side that the means allowed. This is the first principle in the strategy. As general as it is pronounced here, it would suit Greeks and Persians or English and Mahratti as well as French and Germans. But we want to turn our gaze to our European war conditions in order to be able to think of something more specific.

Here the armies are much more similar to one another in terms of armament, arrangement, and craftsmanship of every kind; there is only an alternating difference between the military virtue of the army and the talent of the general. If we go through the war history of modern Europe, we will find no examples of marathons.

Frederick the Great defeated 80,000 Austrians with about 30,000 men at Leuthen, some 50,000 men at Roßbach with 25,000 men; But these are also the only examples of a victory won against the enemy twice and more than twice as strong. Charles XII. we cannot reasonably lead in the battle of Narva. At that time the Russians were hardly to be regarded as Europeans, and even the main circumstances of this battle are too little known. Bonaparte near Dresden had 120,000 against 220,000, so it wasn't double that. Frederick the Great did not want to succeed with Kolin with 30,000 men against 50,000 Austrians, and neither did Bonaparte in the desperate Leipzig battle, where he was 160,000 men against 280,000, so the superiority was far from double.

From this it can be seen that in today's Europe it is very difficult for the most talented general to win victory from an enemy power of double strength; If we see the double armed force against the greatest generals put such a weight in the balance, we must not doubt that in ordinary cases in large and small battles a significant superiority, which, however, need not exceed twice as much, will suffice To bestow victory, however detrimental the other circumstances may be. Of course, one can imagine a passport where even ten times that would not be enough to overcome; but in such a case there can be no longer any question of combat. We believe, therefore, that in our circumstances, as well as in all similar ones, the strength on the decisive point is a great main thing, and that in the generality of cases this object is the most important of all. The strength at the decisive point depends on the absolute strength of the army and the skill of its use.

So the first rule would be: to field an army as strongly as possible. That sounds a lot like a common saying and it really isn't.

In order to prove how, for a long time, the strength of the armed forces was by no means regarded as the main thing, we may only note that in most of the wars of the eighteenth century, even in the more detailed war histories, the strength of the armies was either not given at all or only in passing No particular value is ever placed on them, Tempelhoff in his history of the Seven Years' War is the earliest of the writers who gives it regularly, but nevertheless only very superficially.

Even Massenbach in his various critical observations on the Prussian campaigns of 1793 and 1794 in the Vosges speaks a lot about mountains, valleys, paths and footbridges, but never says a syllable of mutual strength.

Another evidence lies in a wonderful idea that haunted the minds of some critical writers that there was a certain size of an army, which was the best, a normal size beyond which the surplus forces would be more troublesome than useful. *


* Tempelhoff and Montalembert first come to mind; the one in a passage in his first part, page 148, the other in his correspondence on the occasion of the Russian plan of operations for 1759.


Finally there are plenty of examples where not all the armed forces that could be used in battle or in war were actually used, because the superiority of number was not believed to be as important as it was in the nature of things.

If one is quite permeated by the conviction that everything can be forced with a considerable superior force, then it cannot fail that this clear conviction has an effect on the preparations for war so that they can act with as much force as is always possible either to get the excess weight yourself, or at least to protect yourself from an enemy. So much for the absolute power with which the war is to be waged.

The extent of this absolute power is determined by the government, and although with this determination the actual military activity begins and it is a very essential, strategic part of it, in most cases the general who is to lead this armed force in war has to be the general to regard its absolute strength as a given, whether it was that he had no part in its destiny, or that circumstances prevented it from being given sufficient extension.

The only thing left is to use skillfully to obtain a relative weight on the decisive point, even where absolute preponderance could not be achieved.

The most essential thing here appears to be the calculation of space and time, and this has led to the fact that this subject has been considered in strategy as a fairly comprehensive one for the whole use of the armed forces. Yes, one has gone so far as to include a specially created internal organ in the strategy and tactics of great generals.

But this comparison of space and time, even if it is fundamental everywhere and to a certain extent the daily bread of the strategy, is neither the most difficult nor the decisive thing.

If we go through the history of war with an unbiased look, we will find that the cases in which the errors in such calculations would have actually become the cause of significant losses are extremely rare, at least in terms of strategy. But if the concept of a skilful combination of space and time should represent all the cases where a determined and active general defeated several of his opponents by quick marches with one and the same army (Frederick the Great, Bonaparte), then we uselessly confuse ourselves in a conventional one Language. For the clarity and fruitfulness of the ideas it is necessary to always call things by their right names.

The correct assessment of their opponents (Daun, Schwarzenberg), the risk of allowing them to face only small armed forces for a while, the energy of reinforced marches, the audacity of rapid attacks, the increased activity that great souls gain at the moment of danger: these are them Reasons for such victories - and what do they have to do with the ability to correctly compare two things as simple as space and time!

But even that ricocheting game of forces, where the victories of Roßbach and Montmirail give the momentum to the victories of Leuthen and Montereau, and which the great generals in defense have often trusted, is, if we want to be clear and precise, only a rare occurrence in history.

Much more often, the relative superiority, i. H. the skilful leadership of superior armed forces to the decisive point, their reason in the correct appreciation of these points and the appropriate direction which the forces inherently receive thereby; in the determination required to drop the unimportant for the sake of the important, d. H. to keep his forces united to a great extent. Frederick the Great and Bonaparte are characteristic of this.

Herewith we believe that we have given the superiority in numbers the importance which it is due; it should be regarded as the basic idea, and sought everywhere first and whenever possible.

To regard it as a necessary condition of victory would be a complete misunderstanding of our development; on the contrary, there is nothing in the result but the value which one should place on the strength of the armed forces in battle. If this strength is made as great as possible, then the principle has been done enough, and only a look at the totality of the circumstances decides whether the battle may be avoided due to a lack of armed forces or not.


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