The Allure of Battle

A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost



Cathal J Nolan

Oxford University Press UK,    2019

Paperback    728pp   RRP $33.95


Reviewer: Bob Hart, May 2020


The Decisive Battle is the Holy Grail of military thinking. This is the battle that will end the war on your terms and right now! And if it can be done at the outset of the war, then even better. The Japanese always sought the Decisive Battle against the USN during WW2. This was to be the one battle that would make the Americans give up and ask for a peace treaty. It never happened.

Many battles are the turning point of a war. El Alamein is one, Jutland another. Gettysburg springs to mind. Midway and Milne Bay, Guadalcanal. Yet in none of these cases was the result immediate capitulation. Rather it was merely the precursor to further fighting that eventually wore down the other side. They are often referred to as decisive but that is using the term rather loosely.

The author postulates that military genius attracts attention and distorts reality. People write them up, try and identify the key aspects of their success and then apply them. Their success mesmerises their supporters and opponents alike. Witness Jomini and Clausewitz. Yet every situation is different. And , as one general said, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Nolan’s conjecture is that the siren call of the Decisive Battle has mislead and deceived leaders both military and political as well as the public for centuries. The Decisive battle does not exist. Yet, if wishing made it so, then Decisive battle must exist!

Nolan works his way through history, examining warfare through the ages and identifying the apparent military geniuses of the various eras. He then shows that their Big Battles lead to ongoing war, not peace.

Hannibal defeated the Romans. Canne, Trasimene, etc. But the Romans simply shrugged their shoulders and kept fighting. Hannibal could not be everywhere, and when the Romans started sending forces not just against him in Italy, but also to Spain to cut off his supplies, he suffered. Although they never managed to beat him in Italy, they did win the war. Where is Carthage now?

Malborough fought four supposedly decisive battles but the war kept going on and he was eventually removed from command.

Frederick the Great was ‘saved by the bell’ when the Tsar died, and his successor decided he liked Frederick. There was no decisive battle that ended the war overnight.

Napoleon kept on fighting and fighting and fighting but in the end was defeated and his regime was dismantled.

The American Civil War had Lee in Virginia where he did great things, while the rest of the Confederacy was collapsing elsewhere.

The Franco-Prussian war dragged on after Sedan, with the siege of Paris.

The Crimean War was a slugfest that ultimately came down to a stalemate.

World War I was close but no prizes. Even as the Germans were swinging through Belgium, Austria-Hungary was suffering in the East.

In the Second World War the French mainland fell, but the British Commonwealth and the other Free nations fought on. Germany seems to have lost that one.

The Korean War became a stalemate. As was Vietnam. The various Indo-Pakistan clashes seem to go nowhere.

The Iraq-Iran war was supposed to be a walkover for Saddam but he got bogged down in an eight-year war. Iraq 2003 was not Mission Accomplished, it just dragged on. Most wars these days are People’s Wars, thus not really seeking a decisive battle. In fact, a Decisive Battle is one thing most People’s War proponents don’t want. There is a chance they may lose.

The number of successful battles that ended wars at a stroke can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 may be one.

Nolan’s proposition is that Attrition is a war winner – if you have the bigger economy and/or population. The question we then have to ask is, ‘If after an examination of economies and populations is made, why do nations with an obvious deficit in this area start wars?’ Is it because the myth of the Decisive Battle still exists? Unfortunately Nolan seems to suggest the answer is ‘Yes’.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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