The three faces of cohesion

Cohesion was understood to be of great importance for combat units' abilities long before Martin van Creveld added it to the more academic debate with his book "Fighting Power" in 1982.

The many different remarks, observations and descriptions of cohesion and its role from different sources didn't fit together in my mind, though. Something was missing, it was more an ill-defined cloud than something well-understood.

Well, yesterday I remembered how Franz Uhle-Wettler in his (recently re-read) book "Gefechtsfeld Mitteleuropa" favoured the USMC rifle squad of 13. He had remarked (also about 30 years ago) how the fire teams in this U.S. style squad were the embodiment of the much-praised "kleine Kampfgemeinschaft" (~small combat companionship), after all. "Kleine Kampfgemeinschaft" is a German keyword for the pursuit of small unit cohesion.

Not sure why, but this was the final trigger for me to understand the whole thing (or to believe I do), and I want to share it:

There are -according to my impressions from literature and practice - three different faces of cohesion. They exist on different levels and serve different purposes. "Cohesion" as an over-arching buzzword is being used for all three, in many sources only for one or two. This explains why it was such a foggy thing to me.

The low-level cohesion is really the "kleine Kampfgemeinschaft". This applies to buddy team (2), fire team (4) and squad (6-13) levels.
This low-level cohesion helps against the stress stemming from hardships. Hardships of field work, environment, sleep deprivation, the dangers of combat and the horrors of combat and its aftermath.

The middle-level cohesion applies to platoon and company levels.
This kind of cohesion is for social cohesion. The troops eat together, have common low-level administration, the same company sergeant ("Spieß") - this forms a small community.
The best example for this kin of cohesion that I know is the observation that lightly wounded or sick soldier preferred to stay with their company whenever possible, trying to avoid the social isolation in a field hospital.

Finally, there's the high-level cohesion. This applies to the range from battalion up to corps. It's often being built by having military recruitment districts. The old German army system knew "Wehrkreise", each of which raised a corps. The Italian mountain troops (Alpini) regiments recruited their personnel from their very own Northern Italian recruitment area until a couple years ago.
The utility of this kind of friction is very different; it's about reducing friction and reducing the tendency towards harmful egoism.
Common nationality (ethnicity), language, training, methods, terminology and (regional) culture are its drivers.

I hope this will help readers to navigate through whatever they'll read about cohesion in the future, allowing for more clarity and utility.



  1. Sorry, but your boy franz is wrong. A squad of 13 men IS NOT ideal. What you may theoretically gain in companionship, you loose in actual performance. One must really read the document, the infantry rifle sqaud: Size is not the only problem, to get the proper scope of this issue.

    Dividing the squad into fireteams is what prevents it from functioning as a flexible, combat capable unit. Doing this made it too vulnerable to combat attrition (in smaller sqauds), or increased its span of command too greatly (in larger sqauds). A squad must not be organised to execute fire and manuever at the same time: That is a mission that must be carried out at the platoon level.

  2. I've read that book (but I have the much cheaper paperback version instead of the hardcover), it was interesting to read.

    Afaik american divisions weren't recuited from specific regions and keep together, but units like the 79th division that had its own version of the german field replacement battalions did well enough to be copied by others, page 78 in the paper back version of the book copy i have. I have (wrongly or not) been under the impreesion that the french foreign legion has at least ok cohesion, even though they are from all over the world. Most of the officers are from the French army though. Do you think regional cohesion is more a matter of not putting two groups that hate/dislike each other into units. Language is important for many reasons, but in the legion you learn french as you go., but instead of regional culture might legion culture (or unit culture) be able to replace it well enough to give cohesion benifits?

    Recuiting by region can have benifts like terrian. Mountain troops from the alps would have grown up in the mountains and have lots of pratice living in that kind of climate, terrian, etc...


  3. Kesler; the leader of a 13-man squad has three men to lead. They lead each three men in turn. Easier than to lead 7 or 8 directly. A WIA is a German squad leader's problem, while a fire team organisation can turn it into a fire team leaders' or fire team's problem. Besides, such official TO&Es are theory only anyway. A 13-man squad would enter its first battle most likely with 10 or 11 men, a 8 men squad with 6 or 7 men. Second fight, they could be down to 7 or 4 respectively.

    USMC and Foreign Legion put a huge emphasis on esprit de corps of the whole organisation, with a lot of irrational stuff including fancy uniforms.
    This can also work with army subsets such as rangers, paratroopers, Alpini, Bersaglieri as well, but it ceases to work if many ground forces bureaucracies attempt to indoctrinate their (wo)men that they're elite soldiers.

  4. Might a 13-man squad be able to get more of its casualties back to the squad after they have been treated helping cohesion? With more men in the squad wouldn't they be able to wait longer before having to get new men in? They could lose 4 men who had to be treated for a month or so and still have 9 men to fight. This would allow time for them to return to the same squad.

    You don't need to tell people they are the elite to have good esprit de corps, pride in the unit's past or maybe even type (we are all infantry, marines, armor, etc...)can help. Feeling like you belong to the best unit even if the other units think they are the best can also help.

    What do you think should make an elite soldier elite? I hear many units called elite, but what kind of criteria should be used to say who really is elite? Should it be the level of danger, training (having more training than others), missions they are to preform, preformance of soliers in the unit, etc...?


  5. Elite troops are irrelevant to national or collective defence unless they reach about 10% share and are primarily employed in operational Schwerpunkt actions or in actions with disproportionate diversion effect.

    Today's elite (or "special") forces are not meant for either and thus largely toys for wars of choice and horribly inefficient and over-rated for actual defence.

    As a consequence, I am not interested in such a definition.

    1. Elite troops today seem to be in the commando business. They can have a disproportional effect on information by either obtaining valuable enemy information as well as timely destruction of information sources that would be difficult to achieve by other means.

      Another definition could be elite troops in a broader sense for troops who due to their outstanding training can have a very significant disproportionate effect in comparison to their numbers and thus required logistics. Less logistics requirement would give them outstanding capabilities in a military world with an increasing and vulnerable tail in order to run a few machines.

      I would beg to differ with Sven, some wars of choice are smart choices and many aren't.

  6. 'Kesler; the leader of a 13-man squad has three men to lead. They lead each three men in turn. Easier than to lead 7 or 8 directly.'

    Conclusions made at the 1946 U.S. army infantry conference (at fort benning) do not agree with you. The participants combined combat records had clearly indicated that an average squad leader could not control the WW2 twelve man squad - even with an assistant squad leader and internal team organisation. Based on their own observations, the majority of combat leaders felt that the maximum number of men in the squad should be nine (and such a small squad, when divided into fireteams, is incapable of sustaining casualtys, as I previously stated. You have to do away with fireteams to make it work). Simply put, the introduction of assistant leaders does not bridge the command gap, much less in the commensurate fashion you assume.

    'A WIA is a German squad leader's problem, while a fire team organisation can turn it into a fire team leaders' or fire team's problem.'

    There is no basis for this belief whatsoever. The issue here is the ability to incur casualtys and sustain normal operations, not shuffling off the responsibility of a wounded man to your subordinates. A WIA in a 4 man fireteam equals 25% of its capacity lost, while it is only 11% capacity lost for a 9 man squad (which is not divided into fireteams). Who is more adversely affected in this equation, sven?

    BTW, in your response to anon, how exactly do you define a 10% contribution from special forces? Don't misunderstand me, I agree with you on how highly overated they are, of course. SF and snipers.

  7. I was thinking of personnel %.

    Regarding the fire teams etc; keep in mind I mentioned the msuings of a German general. There's little reason to assume that German would adopt a 13 man squad and run it the same way the Americans did. They adopted much from us and do it very differently, too.

  8. Your assertion about the 13 man squad shortcomings also imply that what the Americans did was the full potential of it. That's usually no good assumption at all.

  9. Span of control, whether by a squad leader or a Division Commanding General, can vary greatly depending on terrain and type of combat. The fire team arrangement reduced the span of control, it did not expand it as mentioned above.

    The rule-of-three worked extremely well for the Marines in the Pacific and later in Korea. Of course at that time there were only three automatic rifles in a squad, one per fire team. So it was important to have intermediate leaders below the sergeant squad leader. As I recall during the 60s and 70s the Marines added a 14th, a grenadier, that was changed back later I think.

    Not sure why Kesler thinks that fire and maneuver should not be executed below the platoon level, that is a suicide pact IMHO. Do not think that the squad leader had an easy go of it, placement of an automatic rifle and its field of fire were a joint responsibility of both the squad leader and fire team leader. The fire team arrangement also also provided for a smoother succession as all corporal fire team leaders were expected to be able to take over the job of squad leader, or even higher in emergencies.

    Different situations of course call for a different span of control. Intelligently designed task organization tailored to a specific venue is critical. Perhaps the rule-of-three was not needed in cases that Kesler cites and you could let small unit leaders, or even division commanders, have direct control over five to nine. Perhaps in the desert? Or perhaps in COIN??? Certainly it could be done in a static defense role, yes? Or maybe in units where every trooper has an automatic weapon?? I do not pretend to know these answers. But I would recommend not throwing away lessons learned in blood.

    1. In regards to the infantry squads organization, the 1946 infantry conference identified four essential factors which would prove timeless. First, in terms of command and control, a squad leader has difficulty in controlling an element larger than nine men, even when assisted by another NCO. Second, because of attrition, the infantry squad in combat will operate routinely at less than its authorized strength.

      Consequently, a squad must be small enough for the squad leader to control, yet large enough to absorb casualties. The 1946 conferees felt a nine man squad was the optimum size to meet this need. Third, despite peacetime expectations, the nature of infantry combat precludes the effective use of subordinate teams. As a result, a squad can be expected to either fire or maneuver, but it can not do both. Fourth, to effectively fire or maneuver, the squad needs the suppressive firepower of an organic LMG. Rifle fire alone is inadequate.

      This is yet another reason why american infantry were getting their butts whooped against the germans in WW2 (in addition to inferior NCOs, as sven mentioned previously): Their opposition had an excellent GPMG for every squad, and they didn't have ANY.

    2. Kesler -

      I don't know much about US Army infantry organization and weapons either during the war or later after the 46 conference you speak of.

      I believe though that the USMC in their first combat in 42 had a nine-man infantry squad with eight M1903 Springfields and one M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. Squad leader was a Corporal. This changed fast. By the end of the war the squad was as I mentioned above: 13 men, three BARs (I know that a BAR is not a match for the MG42, but three maybe?, nine semiauto Garands, six with grenade launchers, led by a sergeant who carried an SMG or a carbine, with three Corporals for fireteam leaders. During an assault each Squad was given access to a man pack flamethrower and a demolition kit. Occasionally a light MG section and Bazooka team from Company were attached at squad level.

      Fire and maneuver at the squad level was done on a regular basis. And it was done effectively.

      As far as inferior NCOs, maybe so. It was a citizen Army. Most of the NCOs were farmboys and factory hands just two or three months before they pinned on corporal and sergeant stripes. And the were led by 90-day wonder lieutenants.

  10. I served in the Foreign Legion and i have to say it has an excellent cohesion, although not nearly as high as its legendary reputation, which in my opinion is caused by diminishing the hardships during the basic training period and afterwards, which formed the corp d'esprit of the old legion.

    Nevertheless, i think a cohesion concept based on regional unity is nowadays outdated in most western countrys, since there just aren't really valid differences any more.

    Good cohesion up to company level is the result of hard, demanding basic training.