Monday, June 29, 2015

Elastic Defense

An elastic defense was used by most notably by Hannibal at Cannae, Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, and then polished by Ludendorff late in WW-1.  Many call it ’flexible defense’ (CvC??), or ’resilient defense’.  Or sometimes it is referred to as ’defense in depth’ although dummy that I am, I do not see for sure that the latter fits perfectly.  A defense in depth can certainly be part of an elastic defense and vice versa.  But I am stumped as to how they would fit into Venn diagrams.  Zhukov at the Battle of Kursk is probably the best example of defense in depth.  Petain reportedly pushed for defense in depth up to and during the 1918 Ludendorff Spring Offensive, but could not always get his subordinate generals to go along.
One French General who did use an elastic defense in WW-1 was Henri Gouraud, the one-armed Commanding General of the Fourth Army.

In 1918 during the 2nd Battle of the Marne the Fourth Army held a line 50 kilometers long from the Argonne Forest to Rheims.  And by-the-way in addition to French troops the Fourth Army included the 42nd Rainbow Division (whose CofS was young Colonel Douglas MacArthur), also the 369th Infantry aka the Harlem Hellfighters (formerly the 15th New York National Guard Regiment), and later the American Railroad Artillery (Naval).

Here is a quote from Col William Hayward, Commander of the 369th Infantry:

"This is what Gen. Gouraud—Pa Gouraud we called him—did: He knew the Boche artillery would at the appointed hour start firing on our front lines, believing as was natural, that they would be strongly held. So he withdrew all his forces including the old 15th, to the intermediate positions, which were at a safe distance back of the front lines. Then, at the point where he expected would be the apex of the drive he sent out two patrols, totalling sixteen men.”

Those sixteen split up and sent up rockets when the German attack started, mimicking signals from regimental size units, which the Germans were assumed to know as well.  They also set up unmanned machine guns all along the line that continued to fire automatically after being started off.  They had also placed gas canisters in all the bunkers and dugouts along the line --- and then initiated the gas flow before retreating. Meanwhile the artillery had pre-registered directly on those frontline trenches.
NOTE:  16 would not be enough for a 50-kilometer front, so I am assuming there were many such units perhaps for each regiment at the supposed apex?  

Hayward continues:

"Five minutes before the Germans started their artillery preparation for the drive Gen. Gouraud started his cannon going and there was a slaughter in the German lines. Then when the German infantry crossed to our front line trenches (now entirely vacant) they were smashed up because the French guns were firing directly upon these positions, which they knew mathematically. And those of the Boche who went down in the dugouts for safety were killed by the gas which the Frenchmen had left there for them.

"This battle—the supreme German drive—raged over eighty-five kilometers (51 miles). West of Rheims the enemy broke through the line, but they did not break through anywhere in Gen. Gouraud's sector.  Stonewall Gouraud stopped them.

"That was the turning point of the war, because soon thereafter began Marshal Foch's great counter thrust, in which the 1st and 2nd American Divisions participated so wonderfully about Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry and that district.  Gouraud in my belief, turned the tide of the war.”

High praise in those underlined passages.

So did General Gouraud get the idea for such tactics from observing Ludendorff's empty battlefield technique?  Most probably.  But he possibly also got it from his 15 years experience in Africa where he served in the Mandingo Wars in what is now Mali and Guinea, and against Berbers, Tauregs, Hausa and other native people in Morrocco, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania.   

In any case, as Wilhelm Balck is supposed to have said:  “Bullets quickly write new tactics.”  Too bad the butcher Field Marshals Sir John French 1st Earl of Ypres and Sir Douglas Haig 1st Earl Haig never understood that.  Amazing that their nation bestowed honors and earldoms on them for their murderous incompetence.


  1. I suppose that account has inaccuracies, but here's a document detailing elastic defence:
    first chapter

  2. Thanks for the link Sven. I have seen that document from the Combat Studies Institute. I don't understand why Hitler never understood about an elastic defense. Especially as he served at Arras and Passchendaele, as I believe the policy of "unyielding defense" had already been discarded by then.

    As far as inaccuracies in Colonel Hayward's account, who knows? He was obviously biased towards Gouraud. But then I would opine that almost all eyewitness accounts may have some minor inaccuracies, especially if written months or years after the event.

  3. Hitler was first a mere message runner in WWI, and later a propaganda soldier. He had no clue about anything above platoon level.

    Elastic defence doesn't work on the divisional level with the poor ration of troops to frontage on the Eastern Front. It didn't work where troop densities were high (siege of Leningrad) because yielding ground was considered unacceptable there. It did not work during the winter 1941/42 because troops outside shelters froze to death in clothes suitable to fall weather at most and their mobility was negligible.

    Mobility-based defence did work better on higher levels, such as army and army group, though (keywords "mobile defense", "Schlagen aus der Nachhand").

  4. Mike,
    perhaps it's wise to realize that a mobile defense and a defense in depth are 2 different critters.

  5. jim -

    agreed for my part. Although they can sometimes be used in conjunction with one another. I was trying to state that in the original post.

  6. The big issue with elastic/mobile defence is that the commander needs to be (mentally and politically) able to yield some ground. Today's news organisations would interpret any such yielding of ground as a setback.
    This is the same problem as during the world wars; the not totally competent people don't get that ground can be traded away advantageously and intentionally.

    The consequences are far reaching; this even includes wars of occupation:

  7. Sven - You are right on about the beating the press would give to commanders and politicians for yielding ground no matter if it was part of their strategy. And thanks for the link, interesting! Something akin to that was used in Vietnam but generally on a much smaller scale. Generally only a platoon or company size fast reaction force, but occasionally multi-battalion. They worked well in I Corps anyway, but not always. The bigger the unit size the slower the reaction time. And being too late looses lots of hearts and minds. Could be done today, but very expensive, plus the pressure from the press you mention.

  8. Jim - No mention at all about Defense-in-Depth by ADP (Army Doctrinal Publication) 3-90 Offense and Defense'. I found that strange.

    By the way, regarding General Gouraud: I am reading MacArthur's book 'Reminiscences'. Mac claims Gouraud was the best Commander of all the allies in WW1.

    1. FM 3-90 "Tactics", edition of 2001, entire chapter 10 is called "The Mobile Defense":

      "The mobile defense is a type of defensive operation that concentrates on the destruction or defeat of the enemy through a decisive attack by a striking force (FM 3-0). It focuses on destroying the attacking force by permitting the enemy to advance into a position that exposes him to counterattack and envelopment. The commander holds the majority of his available combat power in a striking force for his decisive operation, a major counterattack. He commits the minimum possible combat power to his fixing force that conducts shaping operations to control the depth and breadth of the enemy's advance. The fixing force also retains the terrain required to conduct the striking force's decisive counterattack."

    2. ADP 3-90 (2012):
      53. There are three basic defensive tasks—area defense, mobile defense, and retrograde. These apply to both the tactical and operational levels of war, although the mobile defense is more often associated
      with the operational level (...) For the Army, the mobile defense is a defensive task that concentrates on the destruction or defeat of the enemy through a decisive attack by a striking force (ADRP 3-90). Mobile defenses orient on the destruction of the attacking force by permitting the enemy to advance into a position that exposes the enemy to counterattack by the striking force"

      55. (...) In a mobile defense, the commander employs the fixing force in a mix of static defensive positions and repositions the fixing force to help control the depth and breadth of an enemy penetration and ensure retention of ground from which the striking force can launch the decisive counterattack. In the
      retrograde, commanders likewise maneuver their security forces to protect the main body from any enemy offensive actions. Defending commanders conducting all three tasks use static elements to delay, canalize, and ultimately halt the attacker and dynamic elements (spoiling attacks and counterattacks) to strike at and destroy enemy forces. The balance among these elements depends on the mission variables of METT-TC."

  9. S O -

    There has been speculation by some that abandonment of Ramadi by the Iraqi Army and police units was in fact deliberately inspired by Iranian advisors in order to provoke a risky Daesh offensive where they and their allies in the city could later be trapped. Sort of like the "Schlagen aus der Nachhand" COIN mobile defense that you mentioned in your 2013 link you provided above. I don't go along with that myself. Aren't the commanders who gave the order to leave Ramadi being investigated and put on trial??

    1. IIRC the Iraqis fled under attack when they ran out of ammo after wasting their ammo. It was no delaying action or orderly withdrawal. An intentional retrograde action would have looked differently, I suppose.