By Marius J. Bester

Part One

In this article Marius Bester discusses the development and history of tactics from the earliest times to the present day. The second part follows in the next issue.


Military strategy and tactics are essential to the conduct of warfare. Broadly stated, strategy is the planning, coordination, and general direction of military operations to meet overall political and military objectives. Tactics implement strategy by short-term decisions on the movement of troops and employment of weapons on the field of battle.

The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it another way: "Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war."

Strategy and tactics, however, have been viewed differently in almost every era of history. The change in the meaning of these terms over time has been basically one of scope as the nature of war and society has changed and as technology has changed.

Strategy, for example, literally means "the art of the general" (from the Greek strategos) and originally signified the purely military planning of a campaign. Thus until the 17th and 18th centuries strategy included to varying degrees such problems as fortification, manoeuver, and supply. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, with the rise of mass ideologies, vast conscript armies, global alliances, and rapid technological change, military strategy became difficult to distinguish from national policy or "grand strategy," that is, the proper planning and utilization of the entire resources of a society--military, technological, economic, and political. The change in the scope and meaning of tactics over time has been largely due to enormous changes in technology.

Tactics have always been difficult - and have become increasingly difficult- to distinguish in reality from strategy because the two are so interdependent. (Indeed, in the 20th century, tactics have been termed operational strategy.) Strategy is limited by what tactics are possible; given the size, training, and morale of forces, type and number of weapons available, terrain, weather, and quality and location of enemy forces, the tactics to be used are dependent on strategic considerations.

Strategic and Tactical Principles of Warfare

Military commanders and theorists throughout history have formulated what they considered to be the most important strategic and tactical principles of war. Napoleon I, for example, had one hundred and fifteen such principles. The Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest had but one: "Get there first with the most men."

Some of the most commonly cited principles are the objective, the offensive, surprise, security, unity of command, economy of force, mass, and maneuver. Most are interdependent.

Military forces, whether large-scale or small-scale, must have a clear objective that is followed despite possible distractions. Only offensive operations seizing and exploiting the initiative however, will allow the choice of objectives; the offense also greatly increases the possibility of surprise (stealth and deception) and security (protection against being surprised or losing the possibility of surprising the enemy).

Unity of command, or cooperation, is essential to the pursuit of objectives, the ability to use all forces effectively (economy of force), and the concentration of superior force at a critical point (mass).

Maneuver consists of the various ways in which troops can be deployed and moved to obtain offensive, mass, and surprise. A famous example that illustrates most of these principles occurred during World War II when the Allied forces eventually agreed on the objective of defeating Germany first with a direct offensive against the European continent. Under a combined command headed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, they effectively massed their forces in England, deceived Germany regarding the point of invasion, collected intelligence on the disposition of German forces, and set the vast manoeuver called Operation Overlord into motion.

Unthinking rigid attention to a principle of war, however, can be unfortunate. In the face of two Japanese naval forces, Adm. William J. Halsey's decision at Leyte Gulf not to divide the fleet (the principle of mass) led to the pitting of the entire enormous American naval force against a decoy Japanese fleet. Division of the fleet (manoeuver) would still have left Halsey superior to both Japanese forces.

Strategic and Tactical Maneuvers

Classification of actual military types of manoeuvres and their variations have long been a part of military science. New technology and weapons have not drastically altered some of the classical types of offensive manoeuver: penetration, envelopment, defensive-offensive manoeuvres, and turning movements.

The penetration one of the oldest manoeuvres is a main attack that attempts to pierce the enemy line while secondary attacks up and down the enemy line prevent the freeing of the enemy reserves. A favourite manoeuver of the duke of Marlborough (early 18th century), it was also used by Gen. Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein (1942).

The envelopment is a manoeuver in which a secondary attack attempts to hold the enemy's center while one (single envelopment, or both flanks double envelopment) of the enemy are attacked or overlapped in a push to the enemy's rear in order to threaten the enemy's communications and line of retreat. This forces the enemy to fight in several directions and possibly be destroyed in position. New variations include vertical envelopments (Airborne troops or airmobile troops) and amphibious envelopments. Noted single envelopments were accomplished by Alexander the Great at Arbela (or Gaugamela, 331 BC), Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville (1863), and Erwin Rommel at Gazala (1942; leading to the capture of Tobruk); famous double envelopments include those of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC), the American Revolutionary War Battle of Cowpens (1781), and the destruction of the 7th German Army at the Falaise Gap (1944).

Defensive-offensive manoeuvres include attack from a strong defensive position after the attacking enemy has been sapped in strength, as in two battles of the Hundred Years' War, Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), or feigned withdrawals that attempt to lure the enemy out of position as performed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).

Turning manoeuvres are indirect approaches that attempt to swing wide around an enemy's flank to so threaten an enemy's supply and communication lines that the enemy is forced to abandon a strong position or be cut off and encircled. Napoleon was a master of the turning movement, using it many times between 1796 and 1812. Robert E. Lee used the manoeuver at the Second Battle of Bull Run (1862); the German drive to the French coast in 1940 was another example.

The Historical and Theoretical Development of Strategy and Tactics

The historical roots of strategy and tactics date back to the origins of human warfare and the development of large-scale government and empire. The dense tactical infantry formation of overlapping shields called the phalanx, for example, existed in an early form in ancient Sumer (c.3000 BC).

The development of strategy and tactics parallels to some extent the growth, spread, and clash of civilizations; technological discoveries and refinements; and the evolution of modern state power, ideology, and nationalism.

Early Strategy and Tactics

The Mediterranean basin saw the dawn of modern military strategy and tactics. It was under such leaders as Philip II (382-336 BC) and Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) of Macedonia and Hannibal (247-183 BC) of Carthage that the first great strides were made in military science. Philip combined infantry, cavalry, and primitive artillery into a trained, organized, and manoeuvrable fighting force backed up by engineers and a rudimentary signalling system. His son Alexander became an accomplished strategist and tactician with his concern for planning, keeping open lines of communication and supply, security, relentless pursuit of foes, and the use of surprise. Hannibal was a supreme tactician whose crushing victories taught the Romans that the flexible attack tactics of their legions needed to be supplemented by unity of command and an improved cavalry.

The Romans eventually replaced their citizen-soldiers with a paid professional army whose training, equipment, skill at fortification, road building, and siege warfare became legendary. The Byzantine emperors studied Roman strategy and tactics and wrote some of the first essays on the subject.

The Middle Ages saw a decline in the study and application of strategy - with the exception of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.

Medieval tactics began with an emphasis on defensive fortifications, siegecraft, and armoured cavalry. The introduction, however, of such new developments as the crossbow, longbow, halberd, pike, and, above all, gunpowder began to revolutionize the conduct of war.

mailto: BesterMJ@global.co.za