Military history

Chapter 10

Brain and Brawn

Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead— dripping death—dripping death!

—H. G. Wells, The War in the Air, 1908

Few episodes revealed the limitations of military planning more than the German offensive of August 1914. The general staff controlled what they could, but their plans had paid insufficient attention to what France might do to disrupt these plans—especially as logistics and communications lines became extended. The plan’s schedule soon proved impossible to meet, especially as Belgium put up some resistance. This led to brutal dealings with civilians (a pattern which continued through the war), including forced labor, denial of food supplies, and wanton destruction.1 Within weeks, the offensive had been halted. Yet the failure to knock France out of the war and the need to then cope with the Russians and the British (because of the attack on Belgium) did not lead to a fundamental reappraisal of war aims or strategic principles. The search was still on for a decisive victory, relying on superiority in temperament, refusal to countenance a hint of timidity, and faith in some new technique that could turn the tide. The first of these was the use of gas warfare. The next drastic move was unrestricted submarine warfare, reflecting optimistic views about the inability of civil shipping to cope with the threat. This had the predictable effect of bringing the United States into the war. The final gamble was the offensive of March 1918 that left the army extended and exposed.

Delbrück had applauded the initial offensive and thought it would succeed, but once it stalled he quickly revised his thinking. If Germany could not annihilate it would have to exhaust the enemy, although Delbrück struggled to assess the relative economic impacts on the belligerents. He argued for a deal with Britain and France in order to concentrate on Russia. The uncompromising political and military stance led him to despair. Germany had “in a sense the whole world leagued against us,” he wrote in 1917, adding that “fear of German despotism is one of the weightiest facts with which we have to reckon, one of the strongest factors in the enemy’s power.”2

In the middle of this great stalemate, when there seemed to be few obvious means of breaking the deadlock other than by persevering with the costly and futile combination of artillery bombardment and infantry charges, plans began to be drawn up for more daring strategies. In each case the intention was to realize the potential of a new technology—the tank on the ground or the airplane in the air—to break the will of the enemy. In both cases the presumed impact of the new weaponry was assumed to be psychological as much as physical. The aim was to cause what would in effect be a collective nervous breakdown on the enemy side. This directly challenged the assumption that a decisive victory had to involve the annihilation of the enemy army. In neither case were the plans realistic: the technologies were still in their infancy, the production capacity limited and the tactics underdeveloped. Nonetheless, in both cases these early plans set the terms for the intense postwar debates about future strategy.

Air Power

The Germans were early converts to the value of long-range bombardment and to the view that its success would lie less in the amount of physical injury caused and more in the enemy’s willingness to continue to prosecute the war. When the first Zeppelin raids occurred in 1915, the actual results were meager, though in London the ability of the Zeppelins to fly overhead was considered humiliating in itself and bad for morale. As the British learned to deal with the Zeppelins, German aircraft took over with greater effect. In the summer of 1917, a time when morale was already fragile, the first attack on London killed 162 people and injured 432. Up to this point, the British had concentrated their own aircraft in support of the army in France. This remained the priority, but after the London raids the government promised revenge and a degree of protection to the public. At the time, the Royal Flying Corps’ main interest beyond the French trenches was the German lines of supply that fed the front. The commander General Hugh Trenchard was trying to develop a vision of how best to use a still scarce resource as an independent force that could mount concentrated attacks against chosen targets in sufficient numbers and with sufficient continuity to make a decisive impact. Although he judged that bombers of greater range could eventually target Berlin, the only initial response to the attacks on England was some very limited and rather indiscriminate bombing of Germany.

Trenchard’s vision had a strong influence on the group of American airmen who arrived just after the German raids, as their country entered the war. Captain Nap Gorrell, one member of this team whose task was to set out requirements for American aircraft production, began to develop a plan for an air campaign. In line with Trenchard’s thinking, Gorrell argued that “a new policy of attacking the enemy” was needed. This he described as “strategical bombing” geared to impeding the flow of supplies from Germany to the front. The assumption was that there was a linked industrial complex, involving a limited number of vital targets, upon which Germany’s war effort depended. Gorrell also assumed that civilians would be demoralized and reluctant to return to work in the aftermath of such attacks. They might even find air attack so unendurable that they would pressure their governments to seek terms. To achieve this he envisaged a massive armada of thousands of aircraft, flying night and day, moving systematically from one set of targets to another. The plan did not prosper. It was too visionary in the light of the pressing demands to protect and support the armies at the front, and far too ambitious in terms of production capability.3

The importance of Gorrell’s plan was that it drew upon the views of the key figures who were all to become vociferous advocates of strategic airpower after the war. These included not only Trenchard but also the American General Billy Mitchell, whose campaigning for an independent air corps would lead to his court-martial, and Giulio Douhet, then struggling to get the Italian military to accept his futuristic views of air power. The connection with Douhet was through his friend, the Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni. It was Mitchell’s stridency in pursuit of institutional independence more than his innovative ideas that got him into trouble with his superiors. Against the backdrop of America’s industrial strength, he was less worried about “tactical” missions distracting from the “strategic.” Douhet reported for the Italian army on the first known combat use of aircraft, in Libya in 1911, and published his landmark book Command in the Air in 1921.4 The ideas he expressed were by no means unique to him, but he provided the most systematic—and the most strident, especially by the time of the book’s second edition in 1927—presentation of the apparent strategic logic of air- power.5 This logic was really a continuation of Mahan’s, which was in turn a continuation ofJomini’s. Mahan assumed a decisive naval battle would allow for command of the sea; Douhet applied this to the air and assumed that decisiveness there would produce command of the air.

As Azar Gat has demonstrated, behind the enthusiasm for the new engines of war, whether on land or in the air, was a modernist fascination with the possibility of a rationalist, technocratic super-efficient society built around machines, linked to elitism in political theory and futurism in art, and feeding naturally into fascism.6 This did not mean, however, that those who developed new strategic theories around these weapons adopted the whole package. Many did not. They were imagining a future not necessarily far away but still well beyond current capabilities. Their theories developed around a combination of optimism about technology and pessimism about humanity.

With some variations, postwar airpower advocates relied on five core propositions. First and most important was the conviction that appropriately deployed airpower provided an independent route to victory. The corollary of this was that it needed its own independent command and should not be subordinate to the needs of either armies or navies. This was reflected in the references to “strategic” aviation, which suggested that long-range bombardment missions were superior to merely “tactical” auxiliary applications. They could on their own attain the purposes of war.

Second, the defense was likely to remain dominant in land warfare, which meant that defeating the enemy army in battle—the classical route to victory—was now prohibitively expensive in terms of blood and treasure. Fortunately, it would no longer be necessary to defeat the enemy army because aircraft could fly right over the front lines to reach the heart of the enemy. Trenchard explained: “It is not necessary, for an air force, in order to defeat the enemy nation, to defeat its armed forces first. Airpower can dispense with that intermediate step.”7

Third, in contrast to surface warfare, in the air the offense would be stronger than the defense. As Douhet put it, the aircraft was “the offensive weapon par excellence.” This thought was later most graphically expressed in 1932 by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin when he warned the “man in the street” that there was “no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.” As late as 1937, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, commander of the Royal Air Force fighter command, stated that bombing attacks on London would cause such panic that defeat could occur “in a fortnight or less.”8

Fourth, these potentially decisive effects would be achieved less by the actual destruction of people and property than by the consequences of this destruction on the ability of governments to function and prosecute a war. Popular pressure would oblige the enemy to sue for peace. Trenchard wrote in 1928 how the goal of air action was “to paralyse from the very outset the enemy’s production centres of munitions of war of every sort and to stop all communications and transportation.” More could be achieved by attacking the enemy’s “vital centres” than attacking the forces that sought to protect them.9 In this, the more people-friendly version, it was the loss of vital infrastructure that would make it progressively difficult to feed the nation’s war machine. In the less people-friendly version, it was assumed that the effects would come through popular demoralization, demotivation, and even panic on such a scale that the government would have to abandon the war.

Fifth, the advantage would go to the side that attacked first. For Douhet, the “command of the air” would come when it was possible to “prevent the enemy from flying while retaining the ability to fly oneself.” This would be achieved by aggressively bombarding the enemy’s air bases and factories (“destroying the eggs in their nest”), a tactic that favored attacking as soon as possible—even preemptively, before the enemy air force was already on its way. There would be no time for a formal declaration of war. As we have seen with land warfare, the main reason to take this sort of risk would be the expectation that the first blows could be translated into a decisive victory.

There were practical issues connected to all these propositions. Offensive long-range bombers would have to carry fuel as well as ordnance and could be vulnerable to faster, more agile fighter aircraft. If they flew in daylight these bombers were more likely to be spotted en route to their targets. They might be safer flying at night but would find it harder to hit targets with accuracy. Then there was the risk of retaliation. Douhet assumed that a war would start with a competition to inflict as much as damage as possible on the enemy society, and the victor would be the first to pound the other into submission. That was a dire prospect, especially if neither side managed a decisive blow. The logic of this prospect of mutual destruction was mutual deterrence, since both sides would presumably be anxious to protect their people from revenge attacks. Even during the Allied discussions of a long-range bomber offensive in 1917, French enthusiasm waned as they contemplated their own vulnerability to German retaliation. Unless it was assumed that first blows could lead to the physical collapse of the war economy, which was unlikely, a lot was resting on the assumption that an early victory would result from the impact on civilian morale.

Unlike soldiers who were trained to deal with attack, Douhet assumed that civilians would be helpless.

A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country being subjected to . . . merciless pounding from the air. The time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war.10

Douhet was dismissive of anything that detracted from the most massive early offensives—there was no point in investing in air defenses or keeping anything in reserve, let alone preparing for auxiliary missions in support of the army or navy. He recognized that this would put a premium on getting the targeting right, yet he was strikingly vague on targeting priorities. There could be no “hard and fast rules” because much would depend on the “material, moral, and psychological” circumstances.11

Nor did he or the other advocates have much evidence upon which to base their claims, other than extrapolations from the first responses of Britain and France to German bombs. This led to some curious social theory on the general softness of the lower classes, the respective resilience of British and German workers, and the consequence of the presence of panicky aliens. Prior to the war there had been a lot of interest in crowd psychology, inspired in particular by the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon. He provided a quasi-scientific basis, taken extraordinarily seriously at the time, for those who feared the entry of the masses into political life and also those who became excited by the possibility of harnessing popular emotions. Chapter 22 considers this more carefully. For the moment all that is important to note is Le Bon’s claim that individuals lost their distinctive personalities in crowds, and that this collective was highly suggestible. There was no particular reason, however, why an essentially irrational crowd would demand surrender. The mood might push in the opposite direction. In 1908, the British author H. G. Wells, who was well aware of Le Bon’s work, wrote War in the Air. His assumption was that the crowd (in this case, New Yorkers) would not so much panic as turn extremely belligerent. The authorities in his novel wanted to surrender but the people, roused to anger, disagreed. With the head “conquered and stunned,” the body was “released” from its rule.

New York had become a headless monster, no longer capable of collective submission. Everywhere it lifted itself rebelliously; everywhere authorities and officials left to their own initiative were joining in the arming and flag-hoisting and excitement of that afternoon.

The result was that the Germans were forced to make good their threats. New York was wrecked “because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction.”12 The actual mechanisms through which a government would be forced to abandon a war were left unexplained by Douhet and his colleagues. In this respect, the advocates of this approach suffered from combined psychological and democratic fallacies by which they assumed that elites would be obliged to respond to hysterical mass opinion. There were always a variety of possible scenarios short of a panicked surrender. As the Second World War demonstrated, a population might be stunned into fatalism with no options other than resigned stoicism, adjusting to the new conditions, turning anger against the enemy. If they truly wished to stop the war they would need an effective political opposition. Otherwise they were likely to be cowed into silent suffering by a repressive regime. Basic factors of social cohesion and political structure, as well as more specific ones relating to the extent of the understanding of and support for the war policy and its execution, were just as crucial. To replace a government or get an existing one to change its mind required both political means and an alternative policy.

These issues illustrated a feature of any approach to conflict that did not attempt to achieve its objectives by physically occupying the enemy society. Such an approach required a construct of the enemy’s socioeconomic and political system that provided reliable indicators of its vulnerabilities and potential pressure points. If this was going to lead to a decisive act, rather than contribute to a form of deadly bargaining, the assumption had to be that if the right points could be found—whether in industrial production, political control, or popular morale—the system as a whole could be brought down. This hypothesis continued to have an influence, but its foundations were speculative at best.

Armored Warfare

A possible theoretical basis for the assumption was developed by a British army officer, John Frederick Charles “Boney” Fuller. Fuller joined the Tank Corps in 1916, at the start of what he immediately recognized to be a revolutionary development. At the time armored vehicles were having an impact, but they were too cumbersome and unreliable to be the basis of an offensive.

During 1918, Fuller developed a plan for a war-winning offensive, known as “Plan 1919.” The plan depended on a new tank coming into large-scale production the next year. As with Gorrell and his proposed air campaign, Fuller was overly optimistic about the capabilities becoming available to support his ambition. The real importance of his ideas, like Gorrell’s, lay in their relevance for the conduct of future wars.

Although Fuller played no role in the development of the tank and was not the first to conceive of it developing an offensive role, he was the preeminent figure in formulating the new Tank Corps doctrine. Once convinced that tanks offered much more than support to the infantry, Fuller began to describe what might be achieved when tanks could be deployed in larger numbers, at greater speeds, and over longer ranges. Mechanical warfare, he observed, was about to replace muscular warfare. The days when firepower would have to be carried by men or pulled by horses into battle were passing. The petrol engine was going to revolutionize land warfare just as surely as steam had revolutionized naval warfare. He knew that the first steps would be tentative, perhaps not much more than raids against German lines, but he envisioned a future army of one thousand tanks, dividing for a standard attack on enemy defensive lines and another attack directed at the enemy’s command structure. His ideas were refined following the Allied retreat during the German offensive of spring 1918. He attributed the retreat to the paralysis of the high command. As “the potential strength of a body of men lies in its organization,” he concluded, “if we can destroy this organization, we shall have gained our object.” Fuller became an advocate of “brain warfare,” that is, attacks aimed at disorganizing the enemy’s mental processes and ensuring the collapse of the enemy’s will to resist. There was no need to target the enemy army; better to target the command structure. In his plan, the German army headquarters was the major objective. The aim was to shoot the enemy through the head rather than force death through many wounds to the body. Literally brainless, the enemy would be confused and its forces would turn into a rabble. Later in his life he reflected that Plan 1919 promised victory with a “stupendous drama, the only satisfactory way to win a war.”

In this metaphor of the army as a body, the headquarters was the brain and the lines of communication the nervous system, leading into the muscular forward forces. The whole system required constant supply. It was, however, still an analogy. As Brian Holden Reid noted, the army was not the same as an organism because the component parts could exist independently of each other. “Brains, courage and fighting power are not compartmentalized, and a crisis can throw up a relatively junior officer who can provide the guidance formerly given by higher authority.” It was the case that the German collapse in 1918 was accelerated when the divisional headquarters was overrun by tanks, but this was at the end of a long and exhausting war, when morale on both sides was fragile. This encouraged the view that shock always resulted in a form of panic, and a tendency emerged to play down the other factors that might wear down an enemy. Again we can see the similarities with the early air power theorists, with whom Fuller had an affinity. He wrote in 1923 about an air attack that would transform London into a “vast raving Bedlam” so that the government at Westminster would be “swept away by an avalanche of terror.”13 Fuller had also read Le Bon closely. His innovation was to use notions of crowd psychology to consider how not only civilians but also armies might buckle under pressure.

The odd thing about Fuller’s military theories was that they drew upon and developed a wider set of ideas that had been gestating for some time and reflected his wide but idiosyncratic reading. Fuller dabbled in mysticism and the occult, had an enthusiasm for modernism and a contempt for democracy, and eventually developed a commitment to fascism. His readiness to challenge conventional religion led naturally, he judged, to a readiness to challenge conventional military thinking. In addition to Le Bon, social Darwinism and philosophical pragmatism had also influenced his thinking. He made the familiar claim that his approach to the study of war was scientific. His actual method belied this but did reflect his belief that he had identified patterns that would recur irrespective of time and place. He had little doubt that his analysis compared more than favorably with what he considered to be exasperating, amateurish, and doltish senior British officers. Their incompetence, fully demonstrated during the Great War, was now revealed fully in their failure to appreciate Fuller’s insights. Yet his approach was based on grandiose claims and a romantic urge to find a form of battle that avoided the mass slaughter he had witnessed in France. Somehow this flawed and unappealing, arrogant and authoritarian character, whose theorizing beyond military matters was eccentric and often barely intelligible, hit upon an original conception of armored warfare that turned what was widely viewed as an interesting but limited specialist tool into the basis of a new type of warfare. Fuller became one of the first to focus on the possibility of disorienting the enemy’s “brain” rather than eliminating his physical strength.14

After the war, reflecting on the fate of what he described as “pot bellied and pea brained” armies fixated on firepower, Fuller sought to develop further the possibility of using tanks and aircraft in a battle that would be decisive as a result of psychological dislocation rather than physical destruction. As with many of the technological optimists of the time, he underplayed the logistical difficulties inherent in his vision and overplayed the extent to which it would not require the enormous armies of the Great War or the vast resources of industrial societies.15 His theories depended on a dim view of humanity. His first major book, The Reformation of War, made a crude elitist distinction between the masters (super-men) and the slaves (super-monkeys), with the latter mentally challenged, naturally fearful, and tending to the feminine (a common reference of the time to emotional, hysterical personalities). In his next major theoretical statement, The Foundations of the Science of War,16 he ruminated more on the nature of crowds. This was central to his view of an army and society at large as an organism which could be swayed by strong leadership. Fuller saw a grasp of crowd psychology as the “foundation of leadership.” Crowds, whether they started as heterogeneous or homogeneous, tended toward a single “mind” controlled by a “soul” which was in itself dominated by instincts. It was Le Bon’s story of a crowd acting like an irrational individual rather than a mass of separate rational individuals. Fuller’s crowd was “a mere automaton under the will of the suggester, and, through lack of intellect, its acts [were] always unbalanced and extreme-lower or more exalted than the individual’s, according to the nature of the suggestion it has received.”

To Fuller, crowds were pathologically mad, credulous, impulsive and irritable, and ruled by sentiments. To challenge the crowd, the “man of genius,” refusing to “swim with the stream,” must instead divert “the stream from its course by compelling it to swirl forward in his own direction.” If, as Napoleon put it, the moral was superior to the physical by three to one, the genius was more important than the normal by ten to one. A normal man should be considered a piece of machinery. Fuller urged that it was necessary to devise for such a man an “accurate system” that could be presented in “so simple a form, that without thinking, without perhaps knowing what we intend, he with his hands will accomplish what our brains have devised.”17 In this he was probably influenced by Frederick Taylor, whose system of scientific management is discussed in Chapter 32.

Fuller described a “military crowd” by reference to Le Bon’s “mass of men dominated by a spirit which is the product of the thoughts of each individual concentrated on one idea.” Hopefully this would be the will to win, but should it become disorganized by surprise or some calamity, then an urge to self-preservation would take over. An army was an organized crowd, held together and directed through training and common purpose, but it was a crowd nonetheless and so could turn when stressed. With strong “mind” and “soul,” an army could endure, but once it faced heavy losses, morale could suffer and fear take over.

As the battle bursts into flame, creative reason holds control or is lost; imagination rattles the dice of chance and the man obeys, or, like an animal hunting another, acts on his own intuition. Self-sacrifice urges men on; self-preservation urges men back; reason decides; or, if no decision be possible, sense of duty carries the will to win one step nearer to its goal. So the contest is waged, not necessarily by masses of surging men, but rather by vacant spaces riddled by death.18

In battle, an army shocked and bereft of leadership could lose its discipline and readiness to go forward. In civilian life, there was no real contest. The emotional, impulsive crowd was doomed to panic.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!