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Attack And Defense

Military Handbooks: The Plattsburg Manual

The European War has demonstrated more clearly than ever before two

points in attack and defense. First, no people, or group of people, can

claim a monopoly on bravery. They all move forward and give up their

lives with the same utter abandon. Courage being equal, the advantage

goes to him in the attack who possesses superior leaders, greater

training, and better equipment. Second, a man's training and courage,

his cle
r eye and steady nerve, his soul's blood and iron, constitute a

better defense than steel and concrete.

A soldier has little business attacking or defending anything in this

day unless he is an athlete, unless he is skilled in the technique of

manoeuver, unless he is a good shot, unless he knows the value of many

features of the terrain (which means the nature of the country--its

hills, rivers, mountains, depressions, etc.--considered from a military

point of view), unless he is disciplined to a splendid degree, and

unless his training has imbued him with an irresistible desire to push

forward, to get at his opponent. Assuming, at least, as much as this, we

are prepared to consider the subject of the attack (the offensive).

To have your troops superior in number, condition, training, equipment,

and morale to that of your enemy; to be at the right place, at the right

time, and there to deliver a smashing, terrific blow--this is the

greatest principle of the attack. And history shows that victory goes

more often to him who attacks.

Initiative in war is no less valuable than in business life. Become at

once imbued with the desire to put the other fellow on the defensive.

That makes him somewhat dependent upon your own actions. That gives you

opportunities to fool him that he does not so fully enjoy. Your

commander can elect to attack any point of the defensive line. Your dead

and wounded--always a demoralizing element--are left behind. Your target

is stationary. Your side is closing in. The enemy is straining every

nerve to fire faster and more effectively, and still your side is

closing in. There is the thrill of motion.

To attack, you will usually require a greater number of troops than the

defense. Why so? Because you will be more exposed. You will have to move

forward, however dangerous the ground. Your enemy, for his protection,

will be certain to utilize and improve every advantage of cover. Your

losses will be greater. You should have a greater number of reserves to

fill the depleted ranks. If the defensive can maintain a better

(superior) fire, that is to say, a fire that kills and wounds a greater

number than the opposing fire (this we call fire superiority), he will

stop the advance of the attacking force unless that force is so superior

in numbers that it can send forward reinforcements after reinforcements

as an ocean sends shoreward its series of waves.

Suppose that you were in command of a group of men and that you were

ordered to attack. Just what principal points should you weigh? First,

you should avail yourself of every opportunity to obtain all information

of military value, such as the enemy's strength, his position, and

intentions. For this you would have to send out groups of reconnoitering

patrols exceptionally skilled in woodcraft, or trained to gather

information. As soon as such information as is available is reported to

you, you should at once begin the consideration of all the important

elements that affect your problem. You must not lose sight of what you

were sent out to do (your mission). Consider how this and that fact bear

upon your course of action (estimate the situation). For instance: the

enemy's force is reported to be greatly inferior to your own. He is out

of supplies. He is greatly fatigued with forced marches. His morale is

shattered on account of recent and frequent reverses. His camp is

disorganized. It is poorly guarded. Certain roads are in fine condition.

Others are very poor. Your troops are in splendid shape and excellent

spirits. They believe that they can crush the enemy and want to attack.

As you easily see, all such points have great significance in sizing up

the case (estimating the situation).

Having estimated the situation, you should investigate and consider all

possible courses of attack that are open to you. Don't ask any advice

from any one. Select the course that appears to offer the greatest

chance of success. Make up your mind what you are going to do (come to a


Having come to a decision, stick to it, right or wrong. Your next and

final thing to do is to put your decision into action. To do that, give

your subordinates the information they should possess; tell them what

you are going to do and how you are going to do it; i.e., issue your


A study of the orders of successful generals in history teaches us that

we will be greatly aided in issuing them, if we will observe a system.

We understand an order more easily and quickly if it conforms to some

plan with which we are familiar.

In order to give your group an opportunity to act with a greater degree

of teamwork, and intelligence in case of an emergency, it is necessary

to give it data (information) concerning the enemy. Your men should know

where there are friendly troops. Now tell them what you are going to do

(your plan), whether it be to attack, retire, or assume the defensive.

And then order the execution of that plan by assigning to each group its

task. Next tell (direct) what is to be done with the wagons (trains),

and last, state where you may be found at any time in case of need or

where messages may be sent to you.

Having issued the order, let us now observe the progress of the attack.

You are probably three or four thousand yards from the enemy. His

position is invisible. His artillery has opened fire. Your artillery is

replying. The troops must advance cautiously over exposed ground. They

are not firing. They are not deployed for action (in battle line). They

are waiting to get within as short a distance of the enemy's line as

possible, for their ammunition is limited; and after troops are actually

launched in the attack, control over them, for ordinary purposes, is

practically lost. The farther from the enemy the attack is launched, the

longer the exposure to their fire and the greater the number of

casualties, so the leaders of the different groups are taking advantage

of all the accidents of the ground, of all cover in advancing. They are

using one formation here, another there, with a view to minimizing the

losses and reaching an advantageous position as soon as possible where

they can open an effective fire on the enemy.

Now the enemy's fire is severe. Casualties are becoming heavy. The men

are growing restless. It is necessary to return the fire. Fire

superiority should be gained at once. Don't move forward until you gain

it. If difficult to gain, use every means at your disposal. When you

have it, keep it. Part of your men can advance when your side has fire

superiority. The remainder of the firing line should fire faster to

maintain that superiority. If you lose fire superiority, regain it. If

necessary, troops from the rear will generally be sent forward.

Now you are approaching the point where the charge is to be made.

Bayonets are fixed; not all at one time, for that would affect the

advantage that you possess with your fire. Groups that have been held

back in support are advanced. These are to be used at decisive moments.

They are held well in hand. The firing line is lost in noise and

confusion. Not so the supports; control is exercised over them. If they

are not used in the attack they can be used to great advantage to

complete the discomfort of the enemy after the clash (shock).

There is at last, if the enemy remains in his position, the clash.

Bayonet against bayonet, man against man, nerve against nerve. Apply the

great principle of attack and decide for yourself who the victor will

be. If successful, then organize your men and prepare for the pursuit or

for the return (counter attack) of the enemy.

Now you are to handle groups on the defense. You must bear in mind that

there are two kinds of defense: first, where you do nothing but defend

(passive defense); second, where you defend, but temporarily, with the

idea of attacking the enemy as soon as a favorable opportunity arises

(active defense). Let us assume that you have been ordered by superior

authority to locate and prepare a definite position to check the advance

of an enemy. Just what main points should you bear in mind? Suppose you

have found an ideal position; what conditions should it fulfil? You

should be able to see the enemy long before he arrives at your position.

Intervening objects and trees would make that impossible. You should be

hidden from his view. The ends of your lines (your flanks) should rest,

if possible, on ground easy to defend; for instance, a high mountain, a

large body of water, or an impassable swamp. A few acres of ground will

not hold tens of thousands of men. Therefore the extent of the ground

must be suitable for the size of your group (force or command). It would

be of great advantage to have such cover that one group (for instance, a

support) could move from this position to that without danger of being

fired upon or observed. A wise general has plans for any contingency. He

is either going to win or he is not going to win. If he loses, he should

have a means of escape (retreat). In selecting his position he should

place it where the enemy must attack or give up his mission. Verdun had

to be attacked before the advance on Paris from the east was


In defense there is a generous allowance of advantages. Usually you have

time to select and prepare your position. By preparing a position we

mean, you can dig trenches, destroy intervening objects that obstruct

the view of what you should see, construct obstacles that will embarrass

the enemy in his advance, estimate (or determine) distances to important

places. You have opportunities for collecting ammunition, arranging

wires for communication, establishing stations for the wounded. Troops

in motion are easier to see. You are not called upon for as much

physical strain as the attacking troops. You are less fatigued. Your

machine guns are better concealed and the gunners know the ranges better

than those of the attack.

But it is most distressing to a man on the defense to see the enemy,

regardless of everything he can do, advance step by step. He begins to

question within himself the efficacy of his fire, which is to doubt his

own ability. The more he questions and worries, the less effective his

aim becomes. His comrades are dead and wounded about him. Their cries of

distress are heard above the noise and confusion of battle. He becomes

less methodical and deliberate in his actions. His shooting becomes high

and wild. This becomes generally true. The attacking force gains fire


Suppose that it is actually your business to construct a defensive

position. Just how will you assign the tasks? What are the important

things to be done at first, and what, if time is pressing, may with

least hardship be omitted? You would first cut down trees, blow up

buildings, destroy crops that prevented you from seeing in any direction

of danger. Next you should provide protection (concealment and cover),

so that there will be as few casualties as possible. Then do what is in

your power to make it most difficult for the enemy to arrive at your

position; i.e., construct some barbwire fences (entanglements) that he

will be unable to cross. Have your expert range finders determine and

make notes of the distances to important points from which the enemy

must advance. Next, dig ditches (trenches) so that your groups (supports

or reserves) may pass from one point to another without danger. Now

take steps to protect your most vital and vulnerable points, your

flanks. Have them so strong, if practicable, that the enemy will leave

them alone. Assign to each group of men a section of the ground to

defend. Having done these important things, then go about those things

that will make you more comfortable in the trenches.