Photo courtesy of Dr. Huw Davies

Trials and Tribulations Translating Policy into Strategy

Two weeks ago, Kings of War joined the Professional Discussion of military affairs on Twitter. We are quite pleased to continue our participation in this endeavour, sparking and helping to moderate discourse on important topics and issues to defense and national security. We have begun well with participation on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily representing the Anglo-American armies and their interested scholaras. This is a great start, but we do wish to invite and welcome professional officers (active duty or retired but still concerned) and scholars from other services and nations to join the conversation. Finally, as for today’s post, I am very happy to introduce Dr. Huw Davies from KCL Defence Studies to Kings of War, particularly as he is bringing us back to the French and Indian, Peninsular, and Crimean Wars with timely and relevant cases and questions. — JSR

. . .

Continuing the Twitter-based Professional Discussion on military affairs and education, I’m this week suggesting we explore the relationship between the political and military levels, and how this impacts on command and priorities in war.

‘Tactics make the steps from which operational leaps are assembled: strategy points out the path’. Aleksandr Svechin (1878-1938) This is a phrase commonly used to encapsulate the relationship between the different levels of war. But in practice, it rarely appears this simple.

Through my own research, discussions at the UK’s Staff College and on Staff Rides with the British Army, I am constantly reminded that military commanders are frequently presented with vague or (sometimes and) contradictory objectives, that serve different political ends. To explore this in more detail, I will briefly describe three case studies from the century between c.1750 and c.1850. They’re all British (I’m a British military historian), but they all occur in different parts of the world, in somewhat different geo-strategic circumstances, and present commanders with different decision and operational challenges.

1. British Strategy in the French & Indian War (1754-63)

This was in many ways an accidental war. It broke out as mutual fears over British and French expansion in North America spiralled out of control. The initial British war aims focussed on preventing French control of the Ohio Valley, and therefore establishing riverine access between Canada and Louisiana.

Within 3 years, the British war aim had clearly evolved from containing French expansionism, to eliminating the French imperial presence in North America. This was largely a response to the tactical and operational problems the British faced in North America: unable to defeat the French outright because of the logistical difficulties presented by the wilderness terrain in the Virginia and Pennsylvania back-country, they engaged in parallel tactical and strategic transformation.

At the tactical level, the British developed and refined the use of Light Infantry, and logistical depots to counteract the irregular threat posed by France’s Native American allies and the terrain. At the strategic level, the government drastically expanded the war effort to isolate French power and set the conditions for a three-pronged dismantlement of the French position in North America. Operations were launched against French strongholds in the Ohio Valley (1758), the Great Lakes region (1758-9), and the St Lawrence (1758-60).

The British commander on the ground, John Campbell, the Fourth Earl of Loudoun, made tremendous advances in transforming the British Army at the tactical level, but he could not keep-pace with the transforming strategic picture. Sacked in 1757, he was succeeded by his second in command, who was in turn replaced with General Jeffrey Amherst, who went on to achieve great strategic success with the army Loudoun had painstakingly reformed.

2. The Peninsular War (1808-14)

Commonly seen as a sideshow to the main party happening in Central Europe, the Peninsular War was nevertheless a huge strategic commitment for the British. Politically, the deployment of Wellington’s 40,000 British troops to the Iberian Peninsula absolved the government of its common characterisation as ‘Perfidious Albion’. Britain was no longer paying others to do its bidding in Europe, but was shedding her own blood in the fight against Napoleon.

But the deployment carried enormous risk. This was Britain’s only deployable field army, and if it was lost, British participation in the war against Napoleon would end. Therefore, Wellington was presented with four contradictory priorities. The first was the security of the British Army itself; second, the successful defence of Portugal; third, this invasion of Spain; and fourth (and only fourth), the outright defeat of France. Yet for the continued smooth-running of the campaign in political terms, all of these objectives had to be satisfied – a difficult prospect when the French army in Spain numbered in 1810 nearly 300,000, compared to the comparably meagre 80,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops Wellington had under his command.

Wellington adopted a long-term strategy, designed to weaken French strength by attriting his enemy whilst preserving his own force. Such a strategy sacrificed crowd-pleasing battles in favour of prolonged campaigns of attrition, a strategy that did not play well in results-focussed Whitehall. Similar concerns existed in the Spanish and Portuguese governments, whose countries were being laid waste to by occupying French forces. Only after four years (1808-12), was Wellington able to go decisively on the offensive, and brought his enemy to battle at Salamanca in July 1812, commencing a process that would result in the liberation of Spain by the end of 1813, and the defeat of France in 1814.

3. The Crimean War (1854-56)

Ostensibly a European War over the independence of the Ottoman Empire, this was in reality a conflict generated by British politicians with the aim of humiliating Russia, whom Britain had come to regard as a threat to her imperial possessions in South Asia. Central to the war effort, and frequently forgotten, was the destruction of Russian naval power in the Black Sea.

This is an example of a war where the commander was unable to translate strategic objectives into realisable operational and tactical goals. The British were in alliance with France and Austria, and when it came to attacking the Crimean Peninsula, Lord Raglan found it difficult to come to a sensible compromise with his French counterpart, Marshal Saint-Arnaud.

Raglan became bogged down in a lengthy and costly siege at Sebastopol, while the campaign as a whole cost the British 16,000 casualties (including Raglan himself). The French lost 75,000, mostly to disease. In strategic terms, the Crimean War was a success – Russian naval power in the Black Sea, and therefore the Mediterranean, was paralysed. Raglan’s main problem was that he lacked the political and strategic understanding that would have enabled him to explain to his political masters what an army, primarily interested until that point in colonial punitive operations, was capable of achieving.

Some questions for the professional discussion then:

How can military commanders anticipate changing strategic goals?

How can military commanders operationalize contrary strategic objectives?

Turn this around: how can military commanders successfully influence the strategic priorities of government?


Join the discussion at #CCLKOW


2 thoughts on “Trials and Tribulations Translating Policy into Strategy

  1. davidbfpo says:

    Huw asks three questions and I am happy to comment on his first.

    So Q1: How can military commanders anticipate changing strategic goals?

    A: By following Lord Peter Hennessey’s advice ‘ The first-order duty of people to speak truth unto power’. From his testimony to the 2013 Defence Committee hearings : ‘a strategic inquiry, Towards the Next Defence and Security Review’. Link:

    Having a situational awareness that reaches beyond officialdom and national boundaries BEFORE a crisis appears. Alongside a honest, even forthright PRIVATE dialogue with politicians of all parties AND with other decision-makers, yes the “grey men & women” of Whitehall feature there.

    Lord Hennessey also refers to ‘Quinlan’s Law': A theorem: In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected. Rationale: What we expect, we plan and provide for; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter; what we deter does not happen. What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it, because we did not expect it.

    As a concerned citizen sitting in my armchair I am not convinced the UK’s current track record in these matters is satisfactory. Recently influenced by holiday reading of ‘Dead Men Risen’ by Toby Harnden and ‘Death of a Soldier: A Mothers Story’ by Margaret Evison.

    I do wonder in the UK context only if the assumed national concensus over strategic goals during the ‘Cold War’ has now evaporated. Has the UK got the national, as distinct from the political-military, capability and will to have a presence ‘East of Suez’?

  2. Neutral says:

    Speaking of Crimea, I would be very interested in the KOW view on France selling helicopter carriers to Russia, and on whether the UK should buy those ships instead so France is not out of pocket and the UK regains aircraft carrier capability.

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