On War #262: Pyrrhic Victory

William S. Lind
June 9, 2008

Robert Doughty’s Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, published in 2005, completes his trilogy on the French Army from 1914 to 1940. Both of his other books, The Seeds of Disaster, which is the definitive history of French Army doctrinal development between the wars, and The Breaking Point, the story of the French defeat at Sedan in 1940 when the Second and Third Generations of modern war met head-on, are in the canon. For those new to 4GW literature, the canon is the list of seven books which, read in the correct order, take the reader from the First Generation into the Fourth. It can be found as an appendix to FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation War, on the DNI website.

Those who characterize the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” would do well to read Pyrrhic Victory. France bore the main burden of World War I on the Western Front, the weight of which would have crippled any country. France lost almost 1,400,000 men killed or missing in action from a population of only 39 million, plus another 4,000,000 wounded. On average, she lost 890 soldiers killed every day from August of 1914 to November, 1918. Adjusting for population, that would roughly equal America suffering 7000 soldiers killed daily for more than four years. Does anyone think today’s American society could stand that?

Pyrrhic Victory is relevant to the American armed forces today on several grounds. First, it is the story of the development of methodical battle, which was largely a creation of General Petain (who comes across in this book as France’s most thoughtful general). The U.S. armed services learned methodical battle from the French Army during and after World War I, and it remains the heart of American military doctrine today. As Doughty writes, “Within the constraints of the methodical battle, rigid centralization and strict obedience — not decentralization, initiative, or flexibility — became the bywords of the officer corps.” So they remain today. Several years ago, an instructor at the U.S. Army Armor School at Ft. Knox began his first lecture by saying, “I don’t know why I have to teach you all this old French crap, but I do.”

The answer to that captain’s question is also illustrated in Pyrrhic Victory. Militaries have enormous continuity over time. Prior to World War I, the French Army’s doctrine was to take the offensive under all circumstances. That doctrine killed almost half-a-million French soldiers in the four months from August to November of 1914 and nearly cost France the war then. Nonetheless, it kept rearing its head again and again throughout the war, despite Petain’s bitter and justified resistance. Reincarnated in the Nivelle offensive in April, 1917, it failed again so disastrously that the French Army mutinied.

The common picture of World War I is of dunderheaded inability to learn on the part of all participants. It was certainly not true of the Germans, but Doughty’s book tends to confirm the image for the Allies. The French, for all their slowness is giving up the offensive á outrance, nonetheless learned faster than the British, Russians or Americans, all of whom seemed to measure success in own casualties. In the AEF’s appallingly bad staff work lies the origin of another outdated habit of the U.S. military, the fixation of its schools on developing staff officers rather than commanders. The astounding degree to which the early 21st century U.S. armed forces still revolve around World War I is evident to historians but apparently invisible to American soldiers and Marines.

There is also a lesson about learning in the Germany Army in Pyrrhic Victory, though it must be read between the lines. Doughty makes clear just how close the great German offensive of 1918 came to success. Why did it fail? As General Max Hoffman, one of the best operational minds in the First World War German Army, hints in his memoirs, German operational reserves were mal-deployed. That, I think, was at least in part a consequence of Germany’s fixation of developing the tactics that broke the deadlock of the trenches. Focusing on just one aspect of the challenge, the Germans neglected and thereby forgot some of their expertise at operational art — fatally, since in war a higher level dominates a lower.

These lessons are all relevant to the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan today, because they are lessons about how militaries learn, or fail to, or learn one thing but forget another. Could someone someday write a book about our current wars with the title Pyrrhic Victory? No, because we are not going to win those wars. Is there such a thing as Pyrrhic defeat?

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind

Free Congress Foundation
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Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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