29 MARCH 1940, Page 17


[Correspondents are requested to keep their letters as brief as is reasonably possible. Signed letters are given a preference over those bearing a pseudonym, and the latter must be accompanied by the nume and address of the author, which will be treated as confidential.—Ed. THE SPECTATOR] NUMBERS IN WAR SIR,—May a student of the Art of War, more humble than captain Liddell Hart and speaking with less authority than Sir James Edmonds, intervene in their polemic to suggest that in their respective approaches to the problem on which they differ they seem to agree in disregarding certain essen- tial factors which lead them both to conclusions so misleading as to call for refutation?

For an attack under modern conditions to have any prospect of success Captain Liddell Hart contends that the lesson of the last war is that a general superiority of three to one on the whole front is necessary, while General Edmonds main- tains that a local superiority of three to one on the sector or portion of the front attacked is sufficient. Thus they both commit themselves to a numerical factor, comprising men and weapons, as if an operation of war were a laboratory experiment governed by such laws as science for the moment approves.

I suggest that all that any student of the war of 1914-18 should venture to affirm is that, so far as our present informa- tion goes, a certain superiority of force, including in that term morale and skill as well as numbers and weapons, is necessary to give a_ reasonable prospect of success to an attack on a well-entrenched enemy, organised in depth, whose flanks cannot be turned. The factor of surprise (which may be surprise in time-space AV surprise by a new weapon or both) will modify the factor of numerical or weapon pre- ponderance according to the degree of skill and good fortune which has attended its use. If the surprise, however achieved, involves not only the troops but also the hierarchy of com- mand, up to and including the mind and nerves, of the supreme commander, its effect may be so vital that numerical preponderance becomes of minor importance. If the surprise is less complete or less far-reaching, obviously greater material resources will be needed to make good the deficiency, for which the penalty may even be a battle of attrition—a Passchendaele, instead of a Fourth Army Battle of Amiens.

The relative strengths of the forces not engaged in the area or sector of active operations are irrelevant to the ques- tion under discussion, whether their total strength gives the assailant a general superiority of three to one or any other figure. If they are not used for the purpose of preparing or furthering operations by either side in the active sector, they are only of use to frame that sector and to supply reinforce- ments or reliefs to maintain either the pressure of the attack or the resistance of the defence, as the case may be—that is to say, as potential -reserves to facilitate or prevent exploita- tion of such success as the active operations may have achieved. In considering this aspect of their role numerical availability is important, but to make that numerical avail- ability effective where and when required, the quality, quantity and security of lateral and other communications available become a determining factor. This important factor of communications availability, like the factor of surprise, cannot be estimated in terms of numerical ratios.

So much for basing on some numerical factor of prepon- derance the offensive in the special case of position warfare. Where flanks are not secure, and a war of movement is possible, the fallacy of doing so needs no commentary: from Cannae to Finland it has been written in the actions of the great commanders, from Hannibal to Mannerheim, who have used the mobility, courage and devotion of their soldiers to crown with tactical victory the conceptions of their own active minds in fulfilment of resolute purpose.—I have the honour