Churchillian Maxims: “Take the Enemy into Consideration”

Churchillian Maxims: “Take the Enemy into Consideration”

“Take the Ene­my into Con­sid­er­a­tion”: Excerpt­ed  from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Accounting for the enemy

No mat­ter how enmeshed a com­man­der is in his thoughts, it is some­times nec­es­sary to take the ene­my into account. Churchill was a strong pro­po­nent of under­stand­ing the enemy’s inten­tions, before plung­ing ahead with a mil­i­tary cam­paign, Can you please con­firm whether and where Churchill said this? —C.S.

A: More or less correct

Like the “Curate’s Egg,” parts of this ver­sion are excel­lent. The cor­rect word­ing is: How­ev­er absorbed a Com­man­der may be in the elab­o­ra­tion of his own thoughts, it is nec­es­sary some­times to take the ene­my into con­sid­er­a­tion.” It occurs in Churchill’s mem­oir of the Great War, The World Crisis, one of his three best war books.

Churchill empha­sized tak­ing ene­my think­ing into account many times to his mil­i­tary com­man­ders. Being human, he also occa­sion­al­ly ignored the con­cept. One thinks of how he brushed away objec­tions to forc­ing the Dar­d­anelles (1915), or advanc­ing on Vien­na through the Ljubl­jana Gap (1944). The lat­ter, of course, helped him get his way over the Ital­ian cam­paign. But his com­man­ders were aware of, and per­suad­ed him about, ene­my abil­i­ties to con­strict that Ljubl­jana with an enfilade.

Churchill’s peerless writing

Aside from ver­i­fy­ing the quo­ta­tion, your ques­tion involves a vivid exam­ple of Churchill the lit­er­ary styl­ist. He makes com­plex strat­e­gy easy to under­stand. He tells us what real­ly mat­tered.

In this pas­sage, he explains how the French artillery com­man­der Gen­er­al Robert Niv­elle was frus­trat­edPlan­ning to attack the vul­ner­a­ble Arras-Noy­on salient in 1917, Niv­elle failed “to take the ene­my into con­sid­er­a­tion.” By the time the he attacked, the ene­my com­man­der Erich Luden­dorff had with­drawn. Churchill writes:

“General Nivelle’s Experiment”

Gen­er­al Jof­fre‘s plan for the cam­paign of 1917 was sim­ple. It was to be a con­tin­u­a­tion of the Bat­tle of the Somme…. The salient formed by the Ger­man line was to be crunched by con­ver­gent assaults of the British and the French.

At this moment an unex­pect­ed event occurred. Luden­dorff inter­vened, and the Ger­mans act­ed. The great mil­i­tary per­son­al­i­ty which Ger­many had dis­cov­ered in her need, armed in the panoply and under the aegis of Hin­den­burg, by one sure stroke over­turned all the strat­e­gy of Gen­er­al Niv­elle…. Leav­ing a screen of troops to occu­py the aban­doned posi­tions and fire off their guns and rifles, the Ger­man Army with­drew 50 miles from the threat­ened area of the salient, and with unhur­ried deliberation….

Nor does Churchill fail to men­tion the unnec­es­sary dev­a­s­tation the Ger­mans left in their wake:

The Ger­man Gen­er­al Staff called this long-pre­pared oper­a­tion by the code name Alberich, after the mali­cious dwarf of the Nibelun­gen leg­end. They left their oppo­nents in the crater fields of the Somme, and with a sever­i­ty bar­barous because far in excess of any mil­i­tary require­ments, laid waste with axe and fire the regions which they had surrendered.

No enemy to attack

The ret­ro­grade move­ment, rumoured for some days, was first detect­ed on the front of the British Fifth Army. On Feb­ru­ary 24…British patrols found the hos­tile trench­es emp­ty. The Fifth Army Oper­a­tions Order of that same night said, “The ene­my is believed to be with­draw­ing. Immense clouds of smoke and the glare of incen­di­ary fires by night pro­claimed the mer­ci­less depar­ture of the ene­my. On the 25th he was report­ed to be retir­ing on a front of 18,000 yards, and on Feb­ru­ary 28 the British Intel­li­gence spoke of a retire­ment to the Hindenburg Line.

He then offers the max­im you allude to:

How­ev­er absorbed a Com­man­der may be in the elab­o­ra­tion of his own thoughts, it is nec­es­sary some­times to take the ene­my into con­sid­er­a­tion. Joffre’s plan had been to bite the great Ger­man salient in Feb­ru­ary; and whether it would have suc­ceed­ed or not, no man can tell. The Niv­elle plan was to bite it with still larg­er forces in April.

But by March the salient had ceased to exist. Three out of Nivelle’s five armies, which were to have been employed in the assault, were now sep­a­rat­ed by a gulf of dev­as­tat­ed ter­ri­to­ry from their objective…. 

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