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
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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4 Responses to “On War #262: Pyrrhic Victory”

  1. Maxon 13 Jun 2008 at 8:06 am 1

    “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?”

    Very Powerfull analogy and point, (trust Mr. Lind he’s still got so much on the ball) moreover we’ve scarcly have even heard the end of the 9-11 catastrophie wailing in the popular media. And
    that’s still being used to scare and beat Americans over the head with, in justification for military
    expansionisim, decline of civil liberties, etc,etc.

    Having said that, battles like Verdun, and the Somme, where conducted so increadibly inanely and on a scale never seen before or since, and on the stratigic and tactical levels litterally not far removed from opposing ant collonies.

    Only tactical nuclear tactics may surpass in the future.

    Something we can all look forward to, (sarc).


  2. Dr_Vomacton 16 Jun 2008 at 1:31 pm 2

    It’s a good question: “What causes an institution to learn”? In the case of a military, we can probably say that defeat is one of the necessary conditions. If a military wins a war, few will ask how it could have been done better. It was the defeat of the Prussians by Napoleon that stimulated the great Prussian military reform which laid the foundation for one of the greatest land armies of all time.
    As implied by Mr. Lind’s review, the reason the Allies learned so little from the slaughter of World War I is that they did not perceive it as a defeat. In fact, the outcome seemed to vindicate the tactics used by the Allies. A “Phyrrhic” victory is, by definition, something that only appears to be a victory. (I’m not saying the Germans won—I think it’s pretty clear that everyone “lost” that war.)
    Mr. Lind seems to be asking what events might prompt the U.S. military to adapt to the new realities. He seems to think (and I agree) that the U.S. is not going to be winning any conflicts in the near future. I think he’d probably agree with me also when I say that the chances of the U.S. military learning from these defeats is very slim. The problem with having “the greatest military in the world” is that it can’t be defeated. That is, it can’t ever be forced to admit that it was defeated. That makes our military pretty well immune to learning.
    The capacity of people and of institutions to persist in patterns of behavior that are demonstrably disastrous simply can’t be underestimated. Consider the case of French tactics during the Hundred Years War.

    The English pretty much proceeded in the same fashion during every battle, as did the French. As they did first at Agincourt, the English would set up their position—preferably at a topographical choke point that would funnel the heavy French cavalry into a confined space where they had no room to maneuver. Then, they would set up alternating squares of longbowmen and heavily armored dismounted cavalry (i.e., dragoons). Meanwhile, the archers would whittle pointy sticks and set them into the ground in front of their formations. This palisade would divert the French onto the well-armored English dragoons, instead of the vulnerable archers. The French knights would then charge the English position, to be slaughtered first by the arrows, then by the English dragoons, with the remainder dispatched at leisure by bored archers using mallets to drive spikes through the armor of the survivors, who were by now lying in the mud in their heavy armor, too exhausted to rise.
    This pattern continued for seventy five years, until a 17 year old peasant girl turned the tables on the English by “thinking outside the box”. Not only did The Maid break the English siege of Orleans by taking out the English forts piecemeal, but she showed the depth of her tactical wisdom when, as a last resort, the English set up one of their longbow/dragoon positions for her. She simply refused to charge, leaving the English no choice but to march away in high dudgeon.

  3. Maxon 18 Jun 2008 at 8:29 am 3

    ” the U.S. is not going to be winning any conflicts in the near future. SNIP I say that the chances of the U.S. military learning from these defeats is very slim. The problem with having “the greatest military in the world” is that it can’t be defeated. That is, it can’t ever be forced to admit that it was defeated. That makes our military pretty well immune to learning.”

    Good assesement.
    And a very dangerous situation overall.

    A we have studied, several factors come into play.

    In a blessing, but also having turned into a curse,
    Let’s face it, the US military has not been really seriously tested, in well over a generation, basicaly since Vietnam. This ill concieved and failed campain was written off by those who stood to critisism and blame as an anomoly.

    Trouble is, it wasn’t, it’s become the standard.

    Many more contributing factors can be tied
    to US political and scocial mindset, and
    overwhelming Hubris.

    We recognise how it all kind of accumulates in a “perfect storm” sort of way.

    links to good critical analysis, specificaly related;




  4. Barryon 01 Sep 2008 at 12:34 pm 4

    J. Mosier in The Myth Of The Great War says the the WW1 US army benefited greatly, being trained by the French, from their hard won expertise. This emphisized use of grenades over rifle ect..

    The Germans were shocked at the quality of US troops they encountered at Belleau Wood referring to them as “a very good division …an assault division”

    He agrees that German forces started with better artillery (heavy HE rather than Sharpnell) and adapted faster with artillery methods and Stormtroop tactics. The British are seen to be slow on the uptake and unwilling to shoulder a proportionate burdento the French He suggests the US war turned the war mainly by numbers He points out the high casualties that were sustained by the allies right up to the end.