Courtesy Reuters

The Armies of Europe

NAPOLEON delivered himself of the saying that "Providence marches with the big battalions." He was often careless about contradicting himself and also about the way his sayings might be misinterpreted. This one was not altogether borne out in his practice, although he certainly relied on weight of numbers more than most of the great Captains. It was inevitable that this should be so owing to his disregard of the possibilities of making his forces qualitatively decisive through superior training or superior weapons. It was fostered by his unlimited resources -- until the man power of France was exhausted. Even so, his victories were obtained more by manœuvring power as a result of massing superior numbers at the decisive point than by a mere total superiority.

His words, however, made a deep impression. And they were read in the more obvious sense. A generation later his famous German interpreter, Clausewitz, expressed the conviction that "superiority in numbers becomes every day more decisive." He at any rate had more excuse than the military authorities who, in all countries, have repeated his creed for a century. For when Clausewitz wrote the mechanical age was only dawning; whereas his followers persisted in the same delusion during the time that mechanical weapons were continually multiplying in nature and effect. They forgot how Alexander conquered Asia, how Hannibal defeated the Roman armies in their own land, how Belisarius reconquered the Roman Empire, how Jenghiz Khan swept over Asia and Europe, with forces far smaller than those opposing them. They forgot the still clearer proof of the value of superior armaments which was provided when Strongbow conquered Ireland with a few hundred knights, an astonishing lesson in the power of a technically decisive handful which was repeated by Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and Clive in India.

When the World War came in 1914 the fallacy of the "big battalions" theory was exposed by the mechanical progress which enabled one man sitting behind a machine-gun to account

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