The morale component in battle

Terribly much writing about warfare is technology-centric (and I'm guilty of this as well). Those seems largely justified in the naval and air war realms (though it's been humans who keep not having ship air defences ready when a missile is incoming), but it's also inappropriate in the realm of land warfare.

Let's revisit the bayonet charge in 18th century topic: There was hardly ever any mass bayonet melee fight between opposing forces. One line of infantry either broke and ran under the impression of fires or under the impression of a determined bayonet charge - and they ran before the melee started.
Battle of Poltava, 1709, painted 1726
Yet, few soldiers [meant: infantrymen] actually fought each other with cold steel. At Austerlitz, the Russian Guards made a classic 300-yard charge, but were exhausted after breaking through the first French line and driven back by fire. Generally, it was the threat of the bayonet, and not the actual clash that decided an issue. After studying the casualties suffered by units in a number of hand to hand combats, Surgeon General Larrey of the Grand Army found only five bayonet wounds and concluded that the effect of the weapon was primarily psychological. And one of Wellington's senior medical officers, George J. Guthrie, asserted that formed regiments 'charging with the bayonet never meet and struggle hand to hand and foot on foot; and this for the best possible reason, that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief.'
 "The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon",
G.E.Rothenberg, 1979, p.69

18th century field battle tactics were thus not about killing, but about breaking the opponent's morale by either impressing them with firepower (as preferred by Frederick II) or a bayonet charge (as preferred by Suvorov). Many if not most battle deaths happened after the defeat, during pursuit. What mattered was the expected killing rather than the killing that already happened.* Firepower's greatest utility was to convince that worse was about to happen.
Both approaches were very successful, and I suppose either could be the more promising one depending on terrain, own forces, opposing forces and weather (rain reduced firepower). Battles were mostly fought on open terrain in Europe, so this was almost a constant.

Let's apply modern approaches to how websites, journals and even some book authors write about land war: They would obsess about the design of the flintlock musket, about the design of the boots (primary tool of transportation), about the design of bullets, the various types of cuirasses (heavy cavalry plate torso armour) and even about the design of sidearms (infantry sabres). And I kid not when I say they would probably be distracted by uniform design and even perukes design.

Most of that would be relevant, but none of it is directly about what's really interesting:

How can we break them with minimum own casualties? 

To break organised resistance is important because a disorderly opposition can be destroyed with much less effort. The pursuit of a defeated enemy was historically and is in mobile warfare almost certainly still more devastating than the battle that made him disorderly.** Napoleon's pursuit after the in themselves hardly decisive battles of Jena and Auerstädt defeated Prussia in entirety.

Nowadays we still value the human or moral factor highly, but not so much in regard to land warfare itself. Civilised countries strive to dissuade potential enemies from starting a war. They don't prepare to win a war any more. The breaking of the others' intent to fight was moved to the pre-war time.

This works best if you are impressively capable of carnage. The focus is thus on kill, kill, kill, destroy, destroy, destroy. We don't talk about how terrifying things are nearly as much as we talk about how well they hit and penetrate.

Exercises in NATO are famously exaggerating the kill and destroy part. Participating troops do not really fear anything but disappointment during a simulated battle, so they keep fighting till almost their whole force is annihilated or 'victorious' or the exercise ends for some other reason. Historically, anything from company to army usually broke after taking 20...30% of casualties and sought to get at least a break by running.
Our procurement of arms is first and foremost about projected lethality, not about scariness.

This ill-advised focus on the obvious things may be part of why Western forces fails so completely (and expensively) at winning wars where the opposing force is elusive. Officer corps and arms industries focused on breaking the opponent's will rather than breaking things and perforating organisms might fare better in actual warfare.



*: Compare to this /2012/04/decision-making-aid-for-strategic-air.html, the part about a dominant rational enemy.
**: Battles of encirclement are the main exception, which explains their appeal. Encirclement battles are the one widely applicable method to fully destroy the enemy on the field of battle.


  1. Scariness can also be achieved by getting behind the enemy.

  2. Better still, in unknown and rapidly changing locations.

  3. The arrival of hostile reserves (even anticipated ones) was generally considered to be disheartening.
    Nowadays this might be fairly irrelevant because the modern battlefield is "empty", so you don't see them arriving.

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