Discover more from The Tactical Notebook
Maneuver Warfare as a Tradition
A Blast from the Past
I wrote this article in the early 1990s, while teaching at the School of Advanced Warfare and doing whatever else I could to promote maneuver warfare within the United States Marine Corps. Since then, while my commitment to the philosophy of maneuver warfare remains as strong as it ever was, some of my ideas about historical events, processes, and personalities have changed. Thus, while the essay is a little more than thirty years old, the footnotes and links belong to 2023.
The doctrine recently adopted by the United States Marine Corps and promulgated by its cornerstone manual, FMFM 1, Warfighting, may be relatively new to the Marine Corps. It did not spring, however, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully grown, fully clothed, fully armed, and ready for battle. Rather, modern maneuver warfare is the accomplishment of a tradition that goes back over two hundred years.
A tradition is very much like a river. While the water at no two points is ever the same, the continuity between one point and another is easy to trace. As is also the case with rivers, a tradition often has an identifiable source.
In the case of the maneuver warfare tradition, that source is Frederick the Great, the 18th century warrior-king of Prussia. Frederick based his campaigns on two insights that would later become key elements of maneuver warfare - a keen appreciation of the importance of operational tempo and a willingness to take risks in order to be strong at the decisive place and time.1
Unfortunately for Prussia, Frederick the Great’s art of war was not inherited by his immediate successors. It was not until the upheavals that followed the disaster of Jena-Auerstadt (1806) brought a group of self-conscious and deliberate reformers into positions of authority that the maneuverist aspects of Frederick’s system were revived.
Students of both Frederick the Great and his French disciple Napoleon Bonaparte, the Reformers realized that the Corsican had taken the ideas of tempo and focus of effort one step further. Because of limited resources, Frederick had to be satisfied with incomplete victories. Napoleon, on the other hand, could fight battles of “annihilation” (Vernichtung) That is to say, in a single battle or closely related series of battles he was able to kill, wound, capture, or disperse enough the enemy’s main army that further resistance became futile.
Strengthened by the raising of a national militia (the Landwehr), bolstered by the arrival of substantial allied contingents, and motivated by an ambitious policy that included driving Bonaparte from Europe, the Reformers made the “annihilation concept” (Vernichtungsgedanke) a key part of their style of war.2
Unfortunately for the Reformers, the glory that they had earned at Leipzig and other battles of the “Wars of Liberation Against Napoleon” would not last for long. Napoleon had barely landed on St. Helena when an ungrateful Prussian government began undermining the very military reforms that, and marginalizing the very reformers who, had enabled it to stay in power.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, conditions were once again ripefor a revival of the Prussian tradition of operational maneuver. This explosion in the “demand” for operational maneuver was met, on the “supply side,” by Helmuth von Moltke. Just as the campaign of Leipzig was the fruit of the reformer’s efforts, the fruits of Moltke’s work were the two victorious “seven weeks” campaigns of 1866 (againstAustria) and 1870 (against France.)
Indeed, as late as 1917, German armies led my Moltke’s disciples continued to win victories reminiscent of Moltke’s battles of annihilation. These victories - against the Russians in 1914, against the Serbs in 1915, against the Rumanians in 1916, and against the Russians again in 1917 - could, however, be won only as long as the two essential pre-conditions enjoyed by Moltke in 1866 and 1870 continued to hold. On the Eastern Front of World War I, where all of these German victories were won, there were open areas in which corps and armies could maneuver. In the rear areas, moreover, there was a rail system that allowed the Germans to move units and supplies to various parts of the theater far faster than their enemies could move their resources.
In the West, however, these conditions no longer existed. In 1914, France and her allies were able to do what France had not been able to do in 1870: form a continuous front. Even if this front was temporarily pierced the highly developed French network of railroads and motor routes allowed the French to move reinforcements to the breech far faster than the Germans could move through the gap they had made.
This change in the operational environment made the “war of grand maneuvers” as obsolete as the battle tactics of massed battalions that had coexisted with it. If the Germans were to win victories of the type won by Napoleon, the Prussian reformers, and Moltke they would have to find ways of overcoming these operational disadvantages. Their first attempt to regain operational mobility - the Stormtroop tactics of World War I - failed. Their second attempt - the mechanization of Stormtroop tactics that we now know as the Blitzkrieg - succeeded. Neither of these attempts would have been possible, however, without another major element of the
German maneuver warfare tradition - the tradition of tactical flexibility associated with Jäger (elite light infantry) units. Recruited from the ranks of professional hunters, German Jäger units had been raised since the late 17th century for the purpose of fighting the “small war” of patrols, raids, and ambushes that took place in the “no man’s land” between the main bodies of armies.
Drawing largely on habits developed in hunting, the Jäger developed a style of fighting that put a premium on fast movement, stealth, individual initiative, small unit leadership, and fieldcraft. In a sense, they were doing with small patrols what Frederick, Napoleon, the Reformers, and Moltke were doing with much larger forces.
The Jäger had a strong influence on the Reformers. Their greatest contribution, however, came in World War I. When maneuver on a large scale became impossible, they taught the rest of the German infantry to maneuver on a much smaller scale. The result was the “infiltration” or “Stormtroop” tactics that came so close to bringing victory to Germany in the spring of 1918.
These tactics influenced the Blitzkrieg tactics of the early years of World War II in two important ways. First of all, they provided the “Panzer leaders” with a working model of combined arms tactics at the lowest level. Second, they were an important source of inspiration to the English military writers J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart, both of whom, in turn, provided the German armor enthusiasts with both encouragement and ideas. (It is also worthy of note, that many of the early Panzer generals - Balck, Rommel, and Guderian, for example - had strong connections with Jäger units.)
Beginning in the 1950s, the memoirs of the German tank generals, brought the public’s attention by the efforts of Liddell Hart, dominated the serious literature of conventional warfare. The growing field of military history was likewise heavily influenced by LiddellHart. These two literary phenomena laid the ground-work for the transplant of the maneuver warfare from its native soil of Germany to the United States.
Informed by this literature, the American reformers of the late 1970s and early 1980s - John Boyd, William S. Lind, Michael Wyly, Alfred Gray, Huba Vass de Czege and John Schmitt, fashioned the key concepts and documents of what we now know as maneuver warfare: the concept of the O.O.D.A. loop, the 1982 edition of FM 100-5: Operations, the Maneuver Warfare Handbook, and FMFM-1.
This article is an edited (for grammar, spelling, and style) of an essay that was first published in 1992 in the original (ink-and-paper) Tactical Notebook. A longer version of that essay appeared, as “The German Tradition of Maneuver Warfare,” in Richard Hooker, editor, Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology (Novato: Presidio Press, 1993.)
For a recent defense of this characterization of Frederick, see “The History of Battle: Maneuver: Part 4” on the reliably splendid Substack of Big Serge. For a very different view, see the discussion about Frederick’s strategy in the fourth volume of Hans Delbrück’s, The History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.)
Readers interested in a counterweight to my enthusiasm for the Vernichtungsgedanke will find much of interest in Jehuda Wallach, The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989.)