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Is defending harder than attacking?

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Initial post: Feb 23, 2012 4:52:05 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
Is defending harder than attacking?

I'm not sure if it's harder but it's definately a poorer military position. The Great Captains seemed to attack whenever possible. Even with Caesar at Alesia, in the "tactical donut" he occupied, he still went on the offensive against the Gauls attacking his outward facing entrenchments.
The Mongols were always on the attack, even faking a retreat to pull the enemy out of position in their "attack" then turn and destroy them.

Alexander was all ways on the offensive. In his maxims:

Always attack. Even in defense, attack. The attacking arm possesses the initiative and thus commands the action. To attack makes men brave; to defend makes them timorous. If an officer has assumed a defensive posture in the field, that officer will never hold command again.

No advantage in war is greater than speed. To appear suddenly in strength where the enemy least expects you overawes him and throws him into consternation.

A static defensive line is always vulnerable. Once penetrated in force at an point, every other post on the line becomes moot. It's men cannot bring their arms to bear and in fact can do nothing except wait in impotence to be overrun by their own comrades fleeing in panic as our penetrating force rolls them up from the flank.

Fight with a holding wing and an attacking wing. The purpose of the former is to paralyze in place, by it's advance and its posture of threat, the enemy wing opposed to it. The purpose of the latter is to strike and penetrate.

Don't punch, counterpunch. The purpose of an initial evolution-a feint or draw- is to provoke the enemy into committing himself prematurely.
Once he moves, we counter move.

Any thoughts or insights?

Posted on Feb 23, 2012 5:37:29 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 23, 2012 5:38:57 PM PST
The answer to this has shifted back and forth throughout history. It also depends on whether you are talking the tactical or strategic level.

I don't have a lot of time to answer this right now, but just one quick example. During the War for Southern Independence aka the American Civil War, the advantage had largely shifted to the defender. The mass adoption of rifles (which was enabled by the invention of the Minie Ball) greatly extended the lethal range of the average infantry unit. Attacking a position armed with accurate rifles that can start causing casualties at 800-1,000 yards if you are tightly massed, and that will probably get a chance to fire as many as 12-16 volleys before the attacking unit reaches the defender's lines is a recipe for disaster. Repeating and breechloading weapons that started to show up throughout the war in some units made this equation even more in the defender's favor. Tactically, there were very few attacks that succeeded in the entire war.

Now a caveat. This only applied to prepared defensive positions. There were surprise attacks against unprepared positions, and these frequently suceeded as surprise attacks do in any war. The principle that Alexander espouses about speed and maneuver was just as valid in the ACW as any other. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a master at quickly moving his troops and attacking with overwhelming local force. Gen "Stonewall" Jackson understood the difference. He frequently moved his troops rapidly to new positions to surprise his enemy, and attacked with great success in these circumstances. However, he was opposed to attacking prepared positions, and once said when asked about the chances of winning a certain battle something along the lines of, "My men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one, never!"

The French didn't learn the lessons readily available from the ACW and other late 19th century conflicts, and developed what is sometimes called the "Cult of the offensive", and lost untold numbers of men because of this blind adherence to a failed doctrine in WWI.

On the other hand, trusting in supposedly "impregnable" defensive positions doesnt have a great history of success either. From the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line to the fortress at Eben-Emael to the British positions at Singapore in WW2, these types of defenses, no matter how strong have fallen and sometimes very quickly.

The bottom line is that there are times when offense if appropriate and times when defense is. Whether attacking or defending is harder is so situational that no one can say that one is always harder or easier than the other. It depends on the time in history when it occurs, and it depends on the circumstances in play in the particular situation.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2012 5:41:39 PM PST
I miss W says:
Depends. In a war of attrition against defense in depth, it would take ten attackers to overwhelm one defender.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2012 5:54:43 PM PST
Rachel says:
Miss W:

This is not totally clear to me. Can you expand?


In reply to an earlier post on Feb 23, 2012 8:32:48 PM PST
TN says:
yes defending is always harder than attacking because an attack is focused. Good defense needs to be applicable to ALL attacks, hence its difficulty.

Posted on Feb 24, 2012 8:34:00 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
Thank you for the excellent response. You got me wondering again about the battle of Gettysburg, where, for once, thanks in many ways to Buford, the Union had the good ground, and yet Lee chose to attack prepared positions on both the 2nd and 3rd day of battle. I've always thought that Lee was overrated. Although worshiped by his men, it seemed that he was prepared to march his troops through Hell's gates. Like Napoleon with his marshals, Nelson with his "band of brothers," Temujin with Subutai and Jebe, Alexander with Phillip's generals, Lee had the right men at the right time for half the war. He had Jackson, his offensive genius, Longstreet his defensive expert, and JEB Stuart as his reconnaissance master. At Gettysburg Jackson was dead, Stuart was off somewhere in the country side, and Lee didn't listen to Longstreet, perhaps because of his heart condition. Longstreet begged him not to attack, to slip away, and find their own good ground somewhere between the Union army and Washington, forcing the Union to abandon their positions and come after the Confederates. Lee refused saying the Union Army was here, in front of him and he would destroy it. And he spiked his own army on the Union rifles and artillery, losing men the South could never replace. Did he not learn the lesson he gave to the Union at Marye's Heights? As you mentioned, fighting with 50 year old Napoleonic tactics with modern rifles is terrible tactics, and though all war is murder, this was madness.

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 3:57:50 AM PST
I have never understood it either. There were men there that understood that it wouldn't work (like Longstreet). Gen Lee is one of my most revered historical characters, but this decision I have never understood.

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 6:08:57 AM PST
Dan and Pete,

General R.E. Lee is also one of my more revered historical public figues, but as much for who he was as what he did.

In my opinion, Gen'l Lee must have thought he must attack or at least hold an unfavorable position for political or "country/army morale" reasons as much as military reasons in some circumstances. In the Seven Days, he directed some very tough offensives which were very costly in manpower because the Confederate capital was at stake, and at least in 1862 defending a capital was seen as representing the integrity of a country overall.

At Antietam, where he was heavily outnumbered, I believe he felt he must defend a tough situation (lost orders) and fight a major (even climatic) battle on Northern territory because European recognition stood in the balance. I'm one of those that believe European recognition in 1862 was key for any chance of ultimate Confederate survival.

At Gettysburg, Lee once more was on Northern soil, and I personally believe Lee thought this was the last realistic chance to roll the dice of battle and win Southern independence (although I also believe this chance had past by December, 1862). Plus, on Day 3 at Gettysburg (Pickett's Charge), I suspect Lee felt to some extent that there was truly no Northern army his Army of Northern Virginia couldn't defeat with sufficent pressure and more or less a "one-on-one thunderbolt" to the heart. Alas, the parade-ground charges of men in the open against massed cannon and emplaced infantry armed with rifles was no contest by 1863.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2012 7:04:35 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2012 7:09:30 AM PST
Smallchief says:
Lee may have been suffering from "victory disease." He had scored a victory two months earlier at Chancellorsville against a Union army that outnumbered him two to one. At Gettysburg, he underestimated his foe -- attacking uphill, head-on, and across broad open fields.

Personally, I think Lee was lucky at Chancellorsville. Seven out of ten times I think he loses that battle. Perhaps, if he had regarded his victory at Chancellorsville as lucky, he would have been more careful at Gettysburg.

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 10:21:42 AM PST
Hi SmallChief,

I tend to agree with you about Chancellorsville (except 7 out of 10 may be generous!). Spitting an inferior force in the face of a superior one (with a very large force [Sedgwick]in the rear) is a recipe for disaster. Particularly when Jackson (executing the flanking move) showed his right flank to Hooker during most of the march! I think 9 out of 10 times a general loses with this tactic.

Early in the war, before he was Lee's chief of artillery, E.P. Alexander asked Colonel Joe Ives upon Lee taking charge of the eastern army: "Has General Lee the audacity that is going to be required for our inferior force to meet the take the aggressive, and to run risks and stand chances?"

Ives replied, "Alexander, if there is one man in either army...head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee. His name might be Audacity! He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it too."

That sums up Chancellorsville...

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 11:56:45 AM PST
briefcandle says:
in modern war, I think the real watersheds were the breech loader, which allowed a man to reload, while lying down, and smokeless powder, which made him harder to detect, was the main battlefield advantages which tipped it in favour of defense. It made sense to dig yourelf in or look for some form of fortification in the field especially when you consider that other C19th invention- HE from breechloading artillery. The C19th started with solid muzzle loaded shot as the ubiquitous missile for artillery. It ends with rapid fire accurate and better ranged artillery from which infantry need to instantly scatter and hide from. But how do you classify such an innovation? instantly both a boon to assault and defence?

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 2:03:34 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2012 2:04:47 PM PST
Also, another thing that tipped the balance greatly in the favor of a defender, completely dooming the charge across open ground, was the machine gun, which in various forms started appearing right about the time of the ACW, but wasn't really effective until the brass cartridge was invented. By WWI they were in pretty much all major armies, yet the generals had not realized the implications of this huge increase in firepower. It took almost all of WWI before it seemed to sink in for most of the higher ranking leaders that attacking in the face of machine guns that are dug in, with interlocking fields of fire, and obstacles such as barbed wire, mines, and trenches blocking the approaches to them was a near impossible task.

Field Marshal Allenby was one of the few WWI leaders who seemed to get that this was hopeless. He used a maneuver style of combined arms warfare that hinted at things to come (although strangely enough, actual horse mounted cavalry played a key role in his victories in Palestine).

Regarding artillery, they didn't just use solid shot throughout the 19th century. Various forms of grape and canister, not to mention exploding shells were ubiquitous throughout, and had been for quite awhile. In the Napoleonic wars, artillery had a significant range advantage over the muskets carried by your average infantry unit. By the ACW, infantry rifles actually had close to the same effective range as many cannons. Cannons could ultimately fire further overall, but as far as the accurate range of the most common cannons (such as the 12 pounder Napoleon), they didn't outrange infantry by much. The somewhat less common rifled cannons, like the Union 3" rifles and the Parrott rifles, and the rarer Whitworth breechloading rifled gun were accurate out to a mile or more. These were commonly employed for counter battery fire though, and not as much in an anti-infantry role.

Most of the rifles used by infantry on both sides in the ACW (such as the very common Springfields and Enfields) were accurate against individuals at 200-300 yards in the hands of an average shot. In the hands of an expert, they could score hits out to 800 yards or more sometimes (although the substantial bullet drop made this a real challenge for the marksmen of the day). However, firing against say a company or better yet regiment sized mass of men, such as was used in the tactics of the era, even a fairly average riflemen could probably score hits with reasonable frequency at 1,000 yards.

The advent of rapid fire breechloading cannons like the ones used in WWI made them much more lethal, but the big advance in artillery was the ability to use it as indirect fire. This kept the artillery back where it was relatively safe (at least until indirect fire counterbattery methods were developed). Even as early as WWI, this type of fire could be very accurate, and by WWII artillery was again one of the leading killers on the battlefield.

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 2:09:33 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2012 2:10:12 PM PST
Overall, I think the advances in artillery were more of an advantage to the defender. In WWI, they used sometimes nearly a million shells per battle, but quickly realized that even after a bombardment like this, the defenders were capable of a fierce resistance. Most of more common field pieces, such as the rapid firing French 75mm, could not penetrate enough earth to effectively reduce a prepared defensive position most of the time. Even in WW2 with huge guns like the 14-16" battleship guns used in shore bombardment in the Pacific, they couldnt always completely wipe out resistance. Many of the amphibious assaults on islands in the PTO were bloodbaths, even though the island in question had been previously subjected to vicious bombardments from the sea and air for extended periods before soldiers and marines were landed.

Used against attackers though, who are going to be out in the open, artillery is devastating.

So I would say that while it benefited both, advances in artillery were more of an advantage to the defense for the most part.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2012 2:43:02 PM PST
John M. Lane says:
In reply to the original post, a good defense can be anchored on fixed strongpoints. Vauban demonstrated that. So did Rommel in his plans for the defense of the French coast.

I agree with you about the value of speed and shock. Those can be used to break up an offense, however, as well as to mount one.

Posted on Feb 25, 2012 4:14:07 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2012 4:14:55 PM PST
. If an officer has assumed a defensive posture in the field, that officer will never hold command again.

Many brave and loyal soldiers both military and citizen died in the action of "defending the position at all costs",even when it was known that those expendable bodies were worth the costs in human lives.Logistics are the major concern in both offense and defense,both requiring substantial and sustainable materials and personnel.The lack of that supply line has caused most major defeats-one can't throw rocks at machine guns while on an empty stomach and in rags with holes in the soles of their shoes.Many have tried and some successful.

"Land warfare is the mission of the U.S. Army, and army forces are divided into three categories according to their function on the battlefield: combat, combat support, and combat service support. Combat forces engage in direct confrontation with enemy forces to kill or capture them, to break their will to continue the fight, and to seize and hold terrain or to deny it to the enemy. Combat support forces provide direct support of the forces on the battlefield by providing intelligence, communications, engineering, and chemical warfare services of immediate impact on the course of the battle. Combat service support forces provide administrative and technical (logistical) services to ensure that the combat and combat support forces are adequately manned, armed, fed, fueled, maintained, and moved as required. This division of forces into three functional groups applies specifically to the army, but navy, Marine Corps, and air force units and personnel fall into the same general categories.With the exception of general officers, every officer, soldier, and unit of the army is assigned to one of the army's twenty‐five basic and special branches. The basic branches are: Armor, Artillery, Air Defense Artillery, Aviation, Infantry, Military Intelligence, and Special Forces; the Corps of Engineers; and the Adjutant General's, Chemical, Finance, Military Police, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Signal, and Transportation Corps. The special branches include the Chaplain's and Judge Advocate General's Corps and the six branches of the Army Medical Service (the Medical, Dental, Veterinary, Army Nurse, Army Medical Service, and Medical Specialist Corps). The Adjutant General's, Chaplain's, Finance, Judge Advocate General's, and Military Police Corps are considered administrative services. Technical services include the Corps of Engineers, Army Medical Service, and the Chemical, Ordnance, Quartermaster, Signal, and Transportation Corps. One additional special branch, Civil Affairs, is found only in the reserve components. The General Staff Corps and the Inspector General's Corps are not in fact separate branches at all, even though they have distinctive insignia. Rather, officers and enlisted personnel are detailed to the General Staff Corps or Inspector General's Corps for limited periods and then return to their basic branch.

The combat service support forces form the "tail" in the often‐cited "tooth‐to‐tail" ratio. In fact, the analogy is a poor one. A somewhat better characterization of a field army as a living organism would be to consider the staff the brain; the combat arms, the arms and legs; the com‐bat support branches, the eyes, ears, and nervous system; and the combat service support forces as the heart and circulatory system, which provide nourishment to the other elements."

Read more:

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Posted on Feb 25, 2012 10:53:53 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
I believe one of the greatest examples of successfully attacking a prepared position is Alexander vs Darius at Gaugamela, a battle that ended up destroying the great Persian Empire.

Alexander was outnumbered two to one, not counting the Persian's 200 scythed chariots and 15 war elephants.

Darius had chosen the battleground, not Alexander. The persians had the time to level out the battlefield, smooth out the field and set up stacks to assist their scythed chariots. This also seems to be the first time where caltrops were used, the field strewn with them to limit Alexander's calvary.

Alexander's great general, Parmenion, thought the battle was folly, and begged Alexander to at least stage a surprise night attack, to reduce the Persian's advantages. Alexander refused, saying he wouldn't "steal" his victory. (Darius was afraid of a night attack and kept his men awake all night at their positions, while Alexander's men got a full nights rest.)

Before the battle Alexander had his camp followers raid the field, collecting most of the caltrops, and paid them for each one they captured. He had already planned counters to the Persian's "super weapons." He gave orders to his Agrianian javelineers, the best in the world, to focus on the chariot's teams, and his men had practiced shifting in formation to avoid the chariots that did reach the infantry. He had earlier captured a couple of elephants, and had accustomed his cavalry horses to their smell.

His attack was one of the greatest tactical victories in military history, destroying the Persian army both in the battle and esp. in the pursuit where, as in many battles, the real slaughter happened. And a strategic victory as the battle led to the destruction of the great Persian Empire.

Alexander's attack worked so well, acting and improving as the battle commenced that Steven Pressfield wrote that it seemed as if Alexander won the battle on will alone.

Posted on Feb 26, 2012 5:37:29 AM PST
Hip O Critic says:
Look at Pearl Harbour, it was very hard to defend especially with a false sense of superiority. London was only saved from the killer blow during the blitz by good luck (fog) which prevented the Luftwaffe from delivering the knockout punch. Attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Iraq definitely seemed easier.

Posted on Feb 27, 2012 10:26:26 AM PST
patrick says:
the Japanese posture across the pacific in the face of island hopping is interesting..Ive often wondered, did each island garrsison fully realise that the one in front of it had fallen?
Did they believe that the eventual outcome would be any different when their turn came, or all that mattered was holding as long as possible and killing as many of the enemy as possible?
Tactics did seem to change slightly between say Tarawa and Okinawa..didnt they stop defending the beach itself directly very strongly, and rely on marshalling their force against the enemy beachhead and advance?

Posted on Feb 27, 2012 12:14:45 PM PST
briefcandle says:
As did the nazis the japanese preached victory to those who would believe it, particularly domestically. The soldier's lot was obedience. Most likely they believed that they would personally not survive regardless of the outcome or kill ratio against the US. Avoiding shame was paramount. Nevertheless, on at least one occasion I know of the troops were not told the truth. In the resistance to soviet attack on the kurils in aug45 the garrison ha the news of hiroshima and nagasaki witheld from them. In such isolation things can be kept secret, but ofcourse not for long.

Posted on Feb 27, 2012 2:41:49 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
One of my dad's friends fought with the 1st Marines and was severly wounded at the Battle of Peleliu. He didn't talk about it much but when he did there was a trace of bitterness that he lost so many friends on that island. He had studied the battle at length in his elder days and still couldn't figure out what the strategic importance was. He talked about the heat and humidity, how the Japanese fought with such dedication, how the Marines matched them in determination to carry out their orders. ("ours is not to wonder why") He ended up not being a total fan of the "Island Hopping" strategy. Iwo and Okinawa he agreed with, but esp. Peleliu seemed to him as a criminal waste of irreplaceable, unmatchable men.

The reason I'm writing this is because I talked to my dad today and he told me his friend died last week. Semper Fi till the end.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2012 2:47:46 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 27, 2012 2:48:34 PM PST

chess grandmasters say so

as a one time soccer fullback, i say it is even

pickett certainly found out that it was harder at gettysburg

so maybe the context is more important

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2012 2:49:09 PM PST
i think you are fighting the last war

Posted on Feb 27, 2012 2:51:40 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
And that makes me remember about 2 years ago when my best friends son got back from 2 tours with the 101 in Afghanistan. He was out in the boonies at some firebase and was also mildly wounded, but lost a lot of his hearing in one ear. He told me that when they had a general come to give them a "pep" talk, he and a half dozen other soldiers were chosen to ask questions. When his time came he asked the general this: "Sir. What is our mission, Sir." He told me the general hemmed and hawed and tapdanced for about 3 minutes, eventually coming back to "saving America from Terrorism." He got into a little trouble from that honest question.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2012 2:57:25 PM PST
Confusing a General ( usually an easy thing to do), is never a good idea for an enlisted man and a worse idea for an officer. Flag Officers never like being put on the spot.

Posted on Feb 27, 2012 8:05:00 PM PST
1874Sharps says:
Whomper, you are a poet!

Patrick, I've wondered those same questions. I've also wondered why the Japanese attacked Pearl. I would have thought that the Japanese would have looked at their own naval triumphs from the past. They could have attacked the Phillipines, just as they did, kept the US-Phillipino soldiers in siege on Batann , then would have waited for the inevitable (very likely soon) arrival of the pristine US Pacific Fleet that would be forced by public appeal and the military's need to strike back. In 1941, even after Pearl Harbor, the US public and military believed the Japanese were inferior both racially and militarily. The Japanese would have the Islands to prepare their counter punch, bring in their amazing flying boats for recon, mass their subs, set up a line of picket boats, lay mines, load up the airfields with their G3M and G4M bombers (that made short work of both the Prince of Wales and the Repulse) and other land based Army planes. And it might have been Tushima #2, a repeat of their great naval victory against the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. The US Fleet would have sailed to the rescue, confident in their military superiority, and run into, in effect, prepared positions just as the Russians had in 1905.

I've also wondered if things would have gone differently at either Pearl or Midway, if the Japanese would have struck at the Panama canal. The image of the Yamato's 18" guns pounding the Canal with CV's bombers smashing the locks is a frightening one. Or raids based out of Singapore to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Another scary thought is a Japanese fleet sailing through the Suez canal.

Richard, Karl ended up having a hassel as to the status of his discharge even though distinguishing himself in battle and losing hearing.(he was the driver of an M1117 Guardian with the M4 grenade launcher and Ma Duece, going off in his right ear.)
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Discussion in:  History forum
Participants:  14
Total posts:  29
Initial post:  Feb 23, 2012
Latest post:  Feb 28, 2012

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