Combat Studies Institute
Command & General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 
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“Great Campaigns”: A Reexamination

MAJ Evan A. Huelfer

            While today’s officer corps combs through history to extract valuable models to emulate, those fortunate few in the Command and General Staff College wise enough to enroll in “A698: Great Campaigns,” are treated to five different case studies scattered over the past three centuries.  But as students cull through the historical records, examining each campaign at the three levels of war, the most curious are nagged by shades of ambiguity.  What exactly defines a “great campaign”?  Why were these five chosen?  And are there better ones to dissect and analyze?  This essay will address those questions by establishing criteria for a “great campaign,” negating seemingly plausible choices, evaluating the current course selection, and then propounding several viable alternatives that meet the criteria and may work successfully in future iterations of A698.

            Structuring a course obviously must target its audience, and the curriculum at CGSC is designed to instruct officers about operational art.  Bearing that in mind, the campaigns scrutinized in A698 should reflect that end.  To merit the status of “great campaign,” it should meet certain key criteria.  By no means an all-inclusive and definitive solution, each campaign should have: a decisive outcome with significant regional impact; relevance to today’s officer corps; as many military lessons learned as possible (joint, combined, logistics, generalship); and if possible, a clear delineation of the three levels of war.

Based upon the above guidance, we can illustrate many well-known campaigns that do not measure up to the criteria.  For example, although bloody stalemates, sieges, and protracted quagmires provide ample lessons learned for many purposes, they do not adequately illuminate an understanding upon what leads to victory or defeat.  For that reason, the cauldron at Stalingrad, the bloody slugfests of World War I such as Verdun and the Somme, the buzz saw at Shiloh, and the skirmishes of Vietnam can all be eliminated.  Likewise, there are many highly popular campaigns in American history and literature that most are familiar with, yet are lacking in some aspect to be considered as a “great campaign.”  Among those are Saratoga, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Iwo Jima. 

History is also replete with spectacular campaigns led by the great captains.  Napoleon once advised:  “Read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turrene, Eugene, and Frederick.  This is the only way to become a great captain and to master the secrets of the art of war.”  Unfortunately, many of the campaigns of antiquity no longer merit a place in A698 because of their irrelevance to modern warfare.  While they still hold value in the study of military history and provide excellent examples in strategic and personal leadership, they do not address the complexities of modern warfare.  Therefore, campaigns such as Hastings, Crecy, and Agincourt would not fulfill the purpose of A698.  Numerous other relatively recent examples of brilliant generalship emerge, such as Frederick at Leuthen, Lee at Chancellorsville, and MacArthur at Inchon, but none of those campaigns were decisive in their own right.  The wars in which they were fought dragged on for years after each of those operational masterpieces.  One cannot denigrate the leadership value of studying the campaigns conducted by some of history’s great captains, because as B.H. Liddell Hart once proffered, “It is only possible to probe into the mind of the commander through historical examples.”  However, A698 focuses on the overall campaign, not merely the leaders.

After negating a plethora of campaigns that failed to meet the established criteria, how do the five campaigns offered currently in A698 measure up?  Each one will be evaluated in turn.  Eugene and Marlborough’s combined victory at Blenheim in 1704 highlights successful coalition warfare and exceptional generalship; they pinned a decisive defeat upon the French.  Their efforts overcame the nearly stagnant form of warfare seen in the early 18th Century and demonstrated how one side could achieve victory despite the appearance of parity in numbers, tactics, and technology.  Likewise, Napoleon’s crushing victory over the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 serves as the model of a thoroughly decisive victory and showed Napoleon at the apogee of his power and his Grand Armee at its peak.  The Gallipoli campaign, although not decisive, shows how the British undertook a peripheral operation to attempt to restore decision to the stalemated Western Front.  Joint and combined operations, as well as logistics, played an important role in the campaign’s conduct.   In all three cases depicted above, the levels of war were clearly discernable, and all are relevant and instructive to today’s officer corps and serve as justifiable selections to study in A698.

The campaign at Guadalcanal does not merit as high a rating as the previous three, although there certainly were lessons learned and experience gained there in joint operations.  Guadalcanal did not clearly distinguish itself from other island campaigns in the Pacific such as Tarawa, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa; none of them ended the war in the Pacific. Military students assuredly can acquire relevant and useful lessons from the French experience in North Africa, especially regarding counter-insurgencies and guerrilla warfare.  Some would argue that the Algerian campaign does not meet the established criteria because it drags on too long to be considered a campaign—and it certainly was not “decisive.”  While the last two examples may have only been mediocre for instructive value, we can now examine some alternative proposals that do meet the previously established criteria.

Napoleon’s Austerlitz campaign in 1805 draws raves from all corners as the emperor’s absolute masterpiece.  It highlighted operational brilliance, combined operations, and rendered a decisive victory.  Winfield Scott’s campaign into Mexico is another fine case study of joint operations and a successful expeditionary venture against heavy odds.  Sherman’s campaign to and around Atlanta exemplifies flexibility and mobility and demonstrates the linkage of battlefield success to political victory in the 1864 presidential election.  The Prussian victory over Austria at Konnigratz was decisive and highlighted the value of von Moltke’s reforms in the officer corps.  Study of the Prussian military education system, which valued military history, staff rides, and campaign analyses, should be essential reading for today’s officer.  The Schlieffen Plan of 1914, in its planning and execution, would also make an exemplary campaign study.  Any of the early three German campaigns in WWII—Poland (1939), France (1940), and Russia (1941)—would suffice as “great campaigns” in which officers could deduce essential military lessons.  Finally, in the near future, when most of its veterans have passed into retirement, Desert Storm capably meets all of the requirements to be considered a “great campaign.”

J.F.C. Fuller cautioned that to fully understand warfare, “a deep and impartial knowledge of history is essential.”  Officers in A698 studying some of time’s most monumental campaigns are exercising their historical skills in order to hone their professional abilities.  General George S. Patton, an avid student of military history, once  remarked, “When a surgeon decides in the course of an operation to change his objective, he is not making a snap decision, but one based on knowledge, experience, and training.  So am I.”  This course offers an intellectual laboratory in which exploring campaigns of the past provides some useful tools for the future—tools that assist in making appropriate decisions.  There are a multitude of campaigns one can study—some better than others.  The most important thing for today’s officer is to approach the study of military history as a professional requirement to further enhance self-development.  After all, as Frederick the Great reminded in his Instructions for His Generals, “War is not an affair of chance.  A great deal of knowledge, study, and meditation is necessary to conduct it well.”  And that is our chosen purpose—to gain a deeper understanding of our profession in order to successfully win our nation’s wars.

   Contact the Combat Studies Institute   Updated:  16 Apr 2003