Military history

Chapter 9

Annihilation or Exhaustion

Git thar fustest with the mostest.

—General Nathan B. Forrest, quoted (probably incorrectly) on strategy

AT the start of the twentieth century, the military historian Hans Delbrück argued that all military strategy could be divided into two basic forms. The first, conforming to the majority view of the day was Niederwerfungsstrategie, the strategy of annihilation, which demanded a decisive battle to eliminate the enemy’s army. The second drew on Clausewitz’s note of1827 which recognized the possibility for another type of war when the available military means could not deliver a decisive battle.1 This Delbrück described as Ermattungsstrategie, the strategy of exhaustion, sometimes translated as attrition. Whereas with a strategy of annihilation there was just one pole, the battle, with exhaustion there was another pole, involving a variety of ways to achieve the political ends of war, including occupying territory, destroying crops, and blockading. In the past, these alternative approaches, for want of better options, had often been used and could be effective. What was important was to be flexible when deciding upon a strategy, to attend to the political realities of the time, and to not rely on a military strategy that might be beyond practical capacity.

Delbrück did not intend to imply that the strongest was bound to be attracted by annihilation whereas the weak were fated to do what they could through exhaustion. Exhaustion was not about a single decisive battle but about an extended campaign that would wear the enemy out. He mocked the idea of a “pure maneuver strategy that allows war to be conducted without bloodshed.” There was always a possibility of battle. His view of a strategy of exhaustion was more operational than an anticipation of the later concept of attritional war. This placed more emphasis on how underlying economic, industrial, and demographic factors would sustain warfare.

Delbrück’s analysis led him into furious arguments with the historians of the German general staff, especially when Delbrück argued that Frederick the Great had practiced limited war rather than decisive battle. The history was on his side, in that Frederick had become wary of battle and careful in his ambition, but there was still a problem with the dichotomous presentation of complex options.2 The problem was to suggest that a fundamental choice had to be made in advance about how to comport an army for a coming war, a tendency that remained evident in strategic debate over the coming century. The challenge for Delbrück at this time, however, was to get German generals to contemplate anything other than a swift offensive leading to the annihilation of the enemy army in a decisive battle.

The American Civil War

The complex relationship between theory and practice in strategy was revealed by the American Civil War (1861—1865). At one level, the outcome of the war was the result of the North enjoying twice the population and far greater industrial strength than the South. For much of the war the Confederacy could claim more imaginative generals. As the weaker side it might have been tempted to rely on defensive tactics, but instead often took the military initiative, perhaps in the hope that the North would respect the outcome of a truly decisive battle. President Lincoln saw clearly that the Union’s strategy required an offensive, but to his exasperation his generals seemed to be unable to mount one successfully until quite late in the war.

Clausewitz had no discernible influence on these events. That was not so with Jomini. The leading teacher at West Point, Dennis Mahan, had spent time in France studying the Napoleonic Wars and was an avowed Jominian, while his star pupil, Henry “Old Brains” Halleck, who became President Lincoln’s general-in-chief, had gone so far as to translate Jomini’s Life of Napoleon into English. Mahan celebrated Napoleon’s military art, by which an enemy is broken and utterly dispersed by one and the same blow. No futilities of preparation; no uncertain feeling about in

search of the key point; no hesitancy upon the decisive moment; the whole field of view taken in by one eagle glance; what could not be seen divined by an unerring instinct; clouds of light troops thrown forward to bewilder his foe; a crashing fire of cannon in mass opened upon him; the rush of the impetuous column into the gaps made by the artillery; the overwhelming charge of the resistless cuirassier; followed by the lancer and the hussar to sweep up the broken dispersed bands; such were the tactical lessons taught in almost every battle of this great military period.3

Halleck was a senior general at the start of the war and soon became general in chief. His specialty as an engineer, however, was fortification, and that gave him a regard for defenses that was never wholly in keeping with Mahan’s call for “vigor on the field and rapidity of pursuit.” A combination of expertise in defensive methods, including digging trenches and deadly rifled muskets, was bound to inhibit frontal assaults. This caution was also evident in the Union’s first general-in-chief, George McLellan.

Jomini’s influence among the generals is evident in their focus on lines of communication and their opposition to Lincoln’s proposals to mount a series of concurrent attacks against the South, including coastal operations. This they judged to be an affront to the principles of war as it would require divided forces. It was just the sort of proposal to be expected from an untutored civilian.4 Lincoln, who never doubted that this would be a long, wearing battle, was reluctant to press his own views but was ready to replace his generals in the hope of finding someone who would take the fight to the enemy. The generals were wary of the defense’s potential and were so enamored with the idea of a decisive battle that they were reluctant to risk their forces in anything else. As General McClellan put it: “I do not wish to waste life in useless battles, but prefer to strike at the heart.” Lincoln became increasingly frustrated by a preference for maneuvers over assaults. This he described disparagingly as “strategy.” “That’s the word—strategy!” he exclaimed in 1862, “General McClellan thinks he is going to whip the rebels by strategy.”5 It described a form of warfare that did everything with an army but fight. Feints, maneuvers, and other clever moves might win the occasional battle, but it was brute force, relentlessly applied, that made the difference. When the South was eventually penetrated, exposing the limits of the Confederacy’s defenses, Lincoln was prepared to accept the benefits: “Now, gentleman, that was true strategy because the enemy was diverted from his purpose.”6

Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy had made his own studies of Napoleon and was totally convinced of the need to go on the offensive to annihilate enemy forces. He knew that he could not mount a successful passive defense and so had to take the initiative, using maneuvers to get into the best position but then accepting battle. But this involved high casualties, and the Union side did at least understand defenses. Lee had set a goal for victory that he could not realize, and he suffered the consequences. The rival armies were “too big, too resilient, too thoroughly sustained by the will of democratic governments” to be destroyed “in a single Napoleonic battle.” Ulysses Grant saw the logic clearly and brutally. The terrible loss of life in both armies had achieved little, observed Grant, but he understood that the North could survive the losses better than the South and so he decided to embark on “as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed,” locking Lee’s forces in constant combat until he barely had an army left.7 Meanwhile, Grant sent General Sherman to make life miserable for the people of the South, bring home the costs of the war, and make it harder to sustain an army in the field.

Lincoln’s own contribution was to press ahead in January 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the areas under rebellion, a move described as a “necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” This not only further unsettled the South but reinforced the Union army. By 1865, former slaves counted for 10 percent of its army. In the end this was a war of exhaustion. The leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, observed how the war’s “magnitude” had exceeded his expectations. “The enemy have displayed more power and energy and resources than I had attributed to them. Their finances have held out far better than I imagined would be the case . . . It is not possible that a war of the dimensions that this one has assumed, of proportions so gigantic, can be very long protracted. The combatants must soon be exhausted.”8

The Cult of the Offensive

Industrialization was expanding the numbers of men who could be organized for war, while steam and electricity were making it easier to mobilize and transport them. Firepower was also steadily improving in its range and lethality. All this challenged commanders. The geographical scope of operations and the numbers involved were expanding, while the limitations of weather were easing. The implications for logistics and the actual conduct of battle were uncertain. The politics of war was also changing. Because it drew on whole societies and national sentiments it was much harder to separate the military from the civilian spheres.

The fact that individual battles in the American Civil War were not decisive and that the French continued to resist even after the apparently decisive battle of Sedan in 1870 warned of the limits to the established view of how to achieve victory in war. Yet so ingrained was the idea of a decisive battle that the urge was still to find ways to force a satisfactory conclusion. Even those who sensed their own weakness in the face of superior numbers did not look so much to guile as to superior spirit. After the defeat of 1870—1871, French theorists glorified the “offensive” and celebrated moral strength as the key to persuading their men to charge against enemy firepower.9 If the material balance of power was not going to guarantee victory, then the vital factor had to be found in something more spiritual—what British field marshal Douglas Haig called “morale and a determination to conquer.” The key text was that of Ardant du Picq, who argued that everything depended on the emotional and moral state of the individual soldier. He was killed in the 1870 war but his work was published posthumously in 1880 as Etudes sur le combat (Battle Studies). Its influence reached the French high command. Ferdinand Foch, who became supreme allied commander during the Great War, was convinced that the question of losing was about a psychological state of mind. Du Picq insisted that the physical impulse was nothing, the “moral impulse” everything. This lay “in the perception by the enemy of the resolution that animates you.” By the time the attack arrived, the defenders could be “disconcerted, wavering, worried, hesitant, vacillating.”10 The doctrine of the offensive became official French policy. It later came to be described as a “cult.”

German policy started from a different basis. Von Moltke had no doubt that if Germany could not achieve a quick victory in a future war, its position would soon become dire. The key premise accepted by all German strategists was that if the country was subjected to attack from both east and west it could soon be squeezed, unless one of the belligerents could be removed from the fight early on. After 1871, von Moltke became progressively more pessimistic about Germany’s ability to achieve this. As plans were developed for a war against both France and Russia, he realized the need to scale down political expectations even as the military demands became greater. He wanted to get Germany into the optimum position from which to negotiate a political settlement. That required going on the offensive (so as to acquire territory to be used in the eventual bargaining) rather than absorbing the offensives of others.

The intensity of the debate reflected von Moltke’s successors’ determination to avoid exhaustion. They could not bring themselves to prepare for an inevitable stalemate. They held to the conviction that when it came to the crunch, the new political order could and should be created through force of arms. As chief of the German general staff at the turn of the century, Alfred von Schlieffen epitomized this view. The secret, he believed, was to be found in combining a grand and compelling concept with meticulous attention to detail. In 1891, he described the “essential element in the art of strategy” as bringing “superior numbers into action. This is relatively easy when one is stronger from the outset, more difficult when one is weaker, and probably impossible when the numerical imbalance is very great.”11 In the most probable contingencies for Germany, facing France from the west and Russia from the east, one enemy must be destroyed before the other was engaged. A frontal assault would cause excessive casualties, leaving insufficient capacity for future battles. It would therefore be necessary to take the initiative, first outflanking the enemy force and then destroying it. Von Schlieffen sought to address the challenge of friction and anticipate the enemy counterstrategy by insisting on careful planning. The whole campaign was choreographed from mobilization to victory. The enemy would have no choice but to follow the German script rather than its own. Contrary to the precepts of von Moltke, this allowed little scope for individual initiative or for much going wrong. Von Schlieffen was aware that there were few margins for error. He was therefore prepared to take political risks, in particular by violating the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg, in order to reduce the military risks.

An intense debate has developed among military historians as to whether there really was ever a Schlieffen Plan, prepared just before von Moltke’s nephew (known as the Younger) took over as chief of the general staff in 1906. The German records are incomplete and whatever was bequeathed undoubtedly was amended as circumstances changed.12 At times the general staff looked to the east rather than the west and adjusted force levels. The thinking in 1914, nevertheless, did follow an ingrained strategic concept, using envelopment to remove one enemy from the war at maximum speed with minimum losses. This strategy was outlined by von Moltke the Younger in December 1911, when he recommended that in all circumstances, Germany should open the campaign by directing all available resources against France.

In the battle against France lies the decision in the war. The Republic is our most dangerous enemy, but we can hope to bring about a rapid decision here. If France is beaten in the first great battle, this country, which possesses no great manpower reserves, will hardly be in a position to conduct a long-lasting war. Russia, on the other hand, can shift her forces into the interior of her immeasurable land and can protract the war for an immeasurable time. Therefore, Germany’s entire effort must be focused on ending the war, at least on one front, with a single great blow as soon as possible.13

The German offensive of August 1914 was the culmination of a century of developments in military thought and practice, updating the received wisdom of the Napoleonic period for recent developments in communications and logistics. It broke from the Clausewitzian model by assuming, without evidence, that the offense could be the stronger form of warfare. As Strachan notes, the war plans of all European armies in 1914 were Jominian: “operational plans for single campaigns, designed to achieve decisive success through maneuver according to certain principles.”14 The enemy defenses would be circumvented and then engaged with a strength and momentum that would leave them reeling. This assumed high levels of commitment, skill, élan, and willpower; and an enemy that would fail to rise to the challenge.

This was a strategy that had been decided upon well in advance and to which all planning had been geared. To ensure that the plan was properly executed, troops who could follow commands obediently and precisely were required. Instead of a Tolstoyan army of individuals shaping outcomes through numerous individual choices, this was a group turned by discipline and drill into instruments of the commander’s will. Where latitude was required for local initiatives in the face of unforeseeable developments, these would still reflect the commanders’ intent, conveyed not only through direct communications but indirectly through a shared institutional culture and agreed doctrine. The systems of hierarchy and control, of specialized functions and their coordination, appeared as the highest stage of modern bureaucratic development. The general staff had the pick of the brightest military brains. It set the standards for comprehensive planning and preparation of individuals to follow straightforward commands in trying conditions.

But none of this could guarantee success. Ensuring victory required that military imperatives take precedence over any diplomatic considerations. Most seriously this entailed violating Belgian neutrality, which made it more likely that Great Britain would enter the war and crush any actual or potential civilian resistance. Even then, promises of success depended on the assumed superiority of the army, whose resolute will would crush weaker nations that had inferior plans, poorer tactical grasp, and less-disciplined troops. Besides, there was no obvious alternative: there was neither the appetite nor the resources for a prolonged war of exhaustion, and there could be no other way of executing a war of annihilation. Other than the one most feared by the military, a progressive demilitarization and softening of the state, the only alternative was to use threats of war to get a better diplomatic settlement. As so much depended on getting in an effective first blow, once mobilization began the political situation was soon out of control.

After Napoleon’s fall, the presumption that the great issues that divided states could be resolved through force of arms was taken for granted yet only tested on a few occasions. Though these occasions left the presumption reinforced they also pointed to reasons for caution: the huge developments in transportation, in particular the railroads, which facilitated complex movements to encircle opponents and catch them unawares also made it possible to get fresh reserves to the front; industrialization had led to improvements in the weight, range, and accuracy of both artillery and small arms, making it possible to blast holes in defensive lines but also to make defending fire against an onrushing army quite murderous. The basic lesson from the Napoleonic Wars, that there was only so much one country’s army, whatever the brilliance of its operations, could do against a much stronger alliance, remained in place. So was the lesson of 1871 that the stresses of war on a country could lead to popular anger and revolutionary surges. War was a radical instrument. It threatened to upturn the international order and unleash wild political forces at home. It was one thing to have a strategy for swift military action that would deal the enemy a knockout blow. But if the enemy survived then there were no compelling strategies for what came next.

Mahan and Corbett

While these debates about land offensives and decisive victories preoccupied continental powers, Great Britain, was content to rely upon its maritime strength. Naval strategy was a minority interest and was largely concerned with whatever Britain had done and was still doing to maintain its sprawling empire and its intercontinental trade. The dominant concept was command of the sea, which could be traced back to Thucydides. This essentially meant being able to move men and materiel wherever you wished without interference while being able to prevent the enemy’s attempt to do the same. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain enjoyed the command of the sea. It had managed to extract the maximum benefit out of its naval assets, creating an aura of irresistible strength, despatching warships to remind lesser powers of the country’s interests, conveying menace, providing assurance, and creating a bargaining position or inflicting blows on an upstart, all the while ensuring that the imperial lines of communication could be sustained and reinforced.

This had not required consideration of how to beat an equivalent power in battle, the main preoccupation of land warfare, because for much of the nineteenth century, Britain did not face such a power. The French might once have mounted a challenge, but British naval superiority had been reasserted at Trafalgar in 1805. Since then, there had been no shortage of naval actions but also no serious challenge to Britain’s naval predominance. To maintain this happy state, the British concluded that they must always have a navy twice the size of any other. Only at the turn of the century, with the conversion to steam underway and Germany growing in industrial strength, was this standard threatened. Prior to the Great War, Britain maintained its top position, but only with a considerable effort.

It was late in the nineteenth century when naval power gained a theorist with a compelling thesis. Alfred Thayer Mahan, after an unhappy and indifferent naval career, found himself unexpectedly in charge of the new U.S. Naval War College in 1886. There he developed a series of lectures on the influence of sea power in history. This turned into his two most important books, the first concluding with the French Revolution and the second in 1812. His writings were both prolix and—once retired from the Navy in 1896 until his death in 1914—prolific.15 His focus was not so much on principles of strategy but on the relationship between naval and economic power, particularly how Britain’s ascent as a great power had depended not “by attempting great military operations on land, but by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe.”16 As an American he was seeking to encourage his country to follow the British example, not to challenge Britain but to provide extra support so that the two countries could keep the seas open for trade.

His work was acclaimed in Britain. His central thesis, focusing on the failure of France to become a naval power while Britain succeeded, was congenial. Aspiring powers accepted the premise that the British experience told of the necessity for countries dependent on the sea to have large navies composed of large ships. While it has been argued that Mahan’s historical and geopolitical judgments deserve serious consideration, his views on the actual deployment of naval power were far less developed.17 He repeatedly insisted that the principles of land and sea war were essentially the same, and for illumination of these principles he turned to Jomini, from whom he claimed to have “learned the few, very few, leading considerations in military combination.” His father, Dennis, had been instrumental in ensuring that Jomini had such a positive reception in the United States. 18 This led to the stress on the decisive battle. The organized forces of the enemy must be the “chief objective.” This was “Jomini’s dictum,” piercing “like a two-edged sword to the joints and marrow of many specious propositions” and demanded a concentration of force (the “ABC” of any strategy) in preparation for battle. By following these principles, naval officers could achieve the same level of strategic maturity as their army counterparts.19 Unfortunately, the “development of the Art of War at sea has been slower, and is now less advanced, than on shore,” Mahan observed. In “the race for material and mechanical development, sea-officers as a class have allowed their attention to be unduly diverted from the systematic study of the Conduct of War, which is their peculiar and main concern.”20 He was, however, primarily a historian. When he tried to pull together his ideas on naval strategy into a single volume he confessed that it was the worst book he had written.21

While Mahan was a great booster for naval power and gained countless admirers among American and British naval circles for doing so, his lasting theoretical contributions were limited. As with others who believed that history offers timeless principles, he was unable to accommodate into his basic framework the massive changes in naval power resulting from the new technologies exemplified by steam power. As with others who sought to promote the virtues of one type of military power, he was nervous about it being seen as subordinate to another type, and so he dismissed the idea of using the navy to guard shore positions, to prevent it becoming a branch of the army. The role of navies was to compete with other navies for the command of the sea. As with others who were focused on decisive battles, Mahan showed little interest in more limited forms of engagement and was dismissive of engaging in commerce destruction until after the decisive naval battle, for victory would put enemy commerce at your mercy.

Very similar ideas were being developed in Germany by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who was responsible in the late nineteenth century for turning the navy of the recently unified Germany from a second-rate force into a serious challenger to British naval supremacy. His vision was both ambitious and unimaginative. It was similar to Mahan’s except that while Mahan took his inspiration from Jomini, Tirpitz took his from Clausewitz. He was preparing for a future war at sea that would look very much like war on land, the “combat of fleets against fleets” to gain command of the sea. The model was explicitly derived from land warfare—he even wrote of the “battle of armies on water.” He argued that the navy’s “natural mission” was a “strategic offensive,” to seek victory in an “arranged mass battle.” Other possibilities, such as coastal bombardments and blockades, were impossible so long as “the opposing fleet still exists and is ready for battle.” All this was despite the evident difficulty of imposing on an enemy a naval battle he wished to avoid.22

While Mahan and Tirpitz sought to promote their countries as rising naval powers using remarkably similar concepts of the likely objectives and methods of war at sea, Britain lacked a naval strategist of note. As Winston Churchill observed after the Great War, the Royal Navy had made “no important contribution to naval literature.” Its “thought and study” were devoted to the daily routine. “We had brilliant experts of every description, brave and devoted hearts; but at the outset of the conflict we had more captains of ships than captains of war.” The standard work on seapower had been written by an American admiral. The best that Britain had to offer was written by a civilian.23 The civilian in question was Sir Julian Corbett. Measured and moderate in his analysis and prose, he provided the most substantial critique of the dominant ethos of the time, asserting the possibilities of limited war, raising questions about the focus on concentrating forces for a decisive battle on land, and suggesting why this was an inadequate way to think about war at sea. An occasional novelist with a background in law, Corbett lacked practical naval experience. This was often held against him, along with his skepticism regarding decisive battles and naval offensives and his readiness to challenge the great myths of British naval history (for example, those surrounding the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar).

Yet despite all of this, he was given a central role in naval education as a lecturer at the staff college. He also played a role in policymaking as an Admiralty insider, even during the Great War. He was then given the responsibility for overseeing the official histories of the naval war. He was on the side of the reformers, trying to modernize the attitudes and culture of the Royal Navy. This made him a natural target for conservative elements in the maritime community. Although he was actively consulted during the war, the impact of his broad theories has been doubted.24 During the Great War, one senior figure commended Corbett for having written “one of the best books in our language upon political and military strategy” from which all sorts of lessons, “some of inestimable value, may be gleaned.” But no one had time to read it. “Obviously history is written for schoolmasters and arm-chair strategists. Statesmen and warriors pick their way through the dark.”25

His efforts to accommodate the views of those he was challenging made his work at times unnecessarily convoluted. Whereas Mahan was in some respects a polemicist writing for a receptive audience, Corbett was in a trickier position, a civilian writing for a skeptical audience. While Mahan sought to apply Jomini, Corbett began with Clausewitz, but with greater subtlety than Tirpitz.26 Like Delbruck, Corbett picked up on those aspects of On War that allowed for the possibility of something other than decisive battle in an absolute war. The wisdom of Britain’s naval strategy, demonstrated by achieving so much with limited resources, was the result of a succession of limited engagements for limited purposes. It had managed to combine “naval and military action” to give the “contingent a weight and mobility that are beyond its intrinsic power.”27 The potential of limited war at sea was compared to the potential for absolute war in continental Europe. There compact, nationalistic, and organized states bordered each other. If war came, popular feeling was apt to be high and it was possible to commit extra resource into the campaign if battles went badly. The further away from borders, the lower the political stakes and the greater the logistical problems. This made limitation and restraint more likely. The destruction of the enemy’s armed forces was a means to an end and not an end in itself. If the end could be achieved by different means, so much the better.

The vital question for strategy was not how to win a battle but how to exert pressure on the enemy’s society and government. This argued for consideration of blockade and attacks on commerce (“guerre de course”) as much as seeking out the enemy fleet. Major or grand strategy was about the purposes of war, taking into account international relations and economic factors, to which the strategy for the actual conduct of war should be subordinate. As it was highly unlikely that a war would be decided solely by naval action, except possibly over time as a result of blockade, armies and navies should not be considered separately. “Since men live on the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by fear of what the fleet makes possible for your army to do.” The relationship between land and sea forces was the business of maritime strategy, from which the fleet’s specific tasks would emerge. That would be the business of a purely naval strategy.

The key to success on land was control of territory; at sea it was control of communications. This was because the sea did not lend itself to possession. Offensive and defensive operations would tend to merge into one another. Because of this, the loss of command of the sea, which meant that passage might be opposed, did not necessarily imply that another power enjoyed command. “The command is normally in dispute. It is this state of dispute with which naval strategy is most nearly concerned.” Corbett could see why it would be desirable to seek out and destroy the enemy fleet to gain command of the sea—the equivalent of a Napoleonic decisive battle—but he also understood why it might not be possible. Trafalgar, he noted, was “ranked as one of the decisive battles of the world, and yet of all the great victories, there is not one which to all appearance was so barren of immediate result . . . It gave England finally the dominion of the seas, but it left Napoleon dictator of the continent.”

By exalting the offensive “into a fetish,” the defensive was discredited. Yet at sea the defensive was stronger because of the ease with which battle could be avoided. A fleet that knew it was weaker would have every incentive to avoid the stronger. Unlike Mahan, Corbett saw great advantages in dispersal, such as avoiding a stronger fleet, luring a weaker fleet into danger under the illusion that it enjoyed local strength, and producing a winning combination of ships. In this respect, the “ideal concentration” was “an appearance of weakness that covers a reality of strength.” The worst concentration, by the same token, would limit the area of the sea that could be controlled, leaving other parts vulnerable for any use. “The more you concentrate your force and efforts to secure the desired decision, the more you will expose your trade to sporadic attack.”28 The Great War gave far more support to Corbett’s views rather than Mahan’s. The one great naval battle, at Jutland in 1915, was inconclusive and in Corbett’s eyes unnecessary, because the Royal Navy was still able to sustain a blockade that would have weakened Germany over time. Meanwhile, submarine warfare against British merchant shipping found Britain unprepared and only belatedly able to cope after adopting a convoy system.


I t may well be that other great powers would have followed Britain into building large navies if Mahan had never written a word, but he certainly gave these efforts legitimacy and credibility. They were bound up with what was essentially a mercantilist vision of economic strength, protected and enhanced through the exertion of military power. Presenting the oceans as containing their own sea lanes, pathways for commerce that could be guaranteed by a naval hegemon, Mahan introduced a concept that took hold among maritime enthusiasts. His thesis was vigorously championed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was something of a naval historian himself in an earlier life, and led to a major expansion in the U.S. fleet after 1907.

Perhaps because the British were aware that their days of naval superiority were numbered, it was not only Corbett who provided an important qualification to Mahan’s thesis. A quite different perspective was provided by the geographer, adventurer, and politician Sir Halford Mackinder. Mahan was addressing what he assumed to be a real choice for the United States: whether to be a continental or a maritime power. For that reason he bemoaned the fascination with developing the country’s interior to the detriment of its seaboards. Mackinder did not accept this dichotomy. In an essay delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, he explained why it was possible for a land power to acquire strength from the interior which could then be applied to create a navy.29 A maritime power, and certainly a small island such as Britain, lacked this option. New forms of transport, particularly rail, would make it possible to exploit interior resources in a way that would have been impossible when movement depended on horses. He looked at the great Eurasian landmass and saw how either Germany or Russia (or the two in combination) could come to control it all, from which they would gain such economic power that it would be a comparatively small matter to project it out to sea. Mackinder explained in 1905: “Half a continent may ultimately outbuild and outman an island.”30 On this basis he saw an increasing vulnerability, which Britain could only address by closer integration with her empire.

His theory was given a more mature expression in a book published just after the First World War in which he gave the Eurasian interior its name, the “heartland.” This was the “region to which under modern conditions, sea-power can be refused access.”31 He divided the world into a core “World-Island”—which was potentially self-sufficient, comprising Eurasia and Africa—with the rest of the islands—including the Americas, Australia, Japan, the British Isles, and Oceania—around the “periphery.” These smaller islands required sea transport to function. Despite Germany’s defeat in 1918, Mackinder saw the basic danger remaining of “ever-increasing strategical opportunities to land-power as against sea-power.” This resulted in the advice to keep “the German and the Slav” apart. Three maxims flowed from his analysis: “Who rules East Europe controls the heartland; Who rules the heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”32 The importance of distance, which Mackinder saw being transformed by railways and motorized transport, was eventually affected even more by the ability of aircraft to fly over both land and sea. Surprisingly, Mackinder paid little attention to the possibilities of air power though it was only a few weeks before he gave his seminal paper in 1904 that the Wright brothers made their historic first flight.

There was much that Mackinder shared with Mahan. International relations were understood in terms of relentless competition among naturally expansive great powers. What Mackinder introduced was a way of thinking about the geographical dimension that showed how the land and sea could be understood as part of the same world system, and as a source of continuity even as political and technological change affected its relevance. He was not a geographical determinist, accepting that power balances would also depend on “the relative number, virility, equipment, and organization of the competing peoples.”33 What Mackinder offered was a way of rooting the higher- level strategic discourse in the interaction between states and the enduring features of their environment.

Mackinder never used the term “geopolitics.” It was coined by the Swede Rudolf Kjellen, who was a student of Friedrich Ratzel, the first geographer to focus on political geography. Kjellen’s works were translated into German and picked up by Karl Haushofer, a former General who founded the German geopolitical school.34 Although he was not a Nazi, Haushofer reflected a world view that thought naturally in terms of distinctive ethnic groups occupying sufficient space to exercise economic independence (autarky). The logic of “lebensraum” (the need to expand living space) became part of Nazi ideology. Such associations left geopolitics discredited.35 Mackinder’s more nuanced approach provided a context for the parochial concerns of individual states but also reinforced anxieties that there might be a route for a hostile power (for this option was not available to Britain) to eventual world domination. This idea influenced the titanic struggles of the coming century. It encouraged the view that there were a number of timeless imperatives arising out of the structure of international politics that states ignored at their peril. These encouraged a focus on the more conservative notions of nationality and territory and played down considerations of ideology and values, though these might well have been the most important factors when it came to deciding what was worth fighting for and with whom it was desirable to forge and maintain alliances. So, while geopolitics appeared to move strategy to a higher plane than one which concentrated solely on the operational art, it suffered from the same defect of failing to attend to the wider political context.

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