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The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 3

The Canon and Four Generations of Warfare – Part 3

The Land Power Forum papers, The canon and four generations of warfare Parts 1 and 2,[1] note that in June 2004, the writer William S. Lind published an article titled Two Marine Corps [one the manoeuvre warfare Marine Corps, the second the programs, budgets and policy Marine Corps], which introduced the idea of the canon to military professionals:

…the seven books [that]…take the reader from the first generation of modern war through the second and third generations and into the fourth.[2]

This paper examines the fifth and sixth books of the canon.

The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940
, examines the violent clash of France’s second-generation Army with Germany’s third-generation Army. Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945, employs statistical analysis comparing the fighting power of the United States second-generation and German third-generation armies.

The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940  

Robert Doughty’s The Breaking Point is the canon’s fifth volume. If members of the Australian Army seek to read only one book of the canon ­– this is the book. Doughty meticulously examines German and French battle-reports providing lessons in the application and misapplication of ‘time, surprise, deception, frontline leadership, mission command, exploiting enemy weaknesses, employing terrain, small-unit preparation and tactical acumen – he reminds us that company actions win battles’. Importantly, this book offers:

…one of the finest opportunities available to study the operational level of war and to analyse deep attack by a corps (XIXth Panzer Corps, Guderian), as well as a prepared defence by a corps (Xth Corps, Grandsard and later XXIst Corps, Flavigny).

The first half of The Breaking Point concentrates on General Heinz Guderian’s XIXth Panzer Corps fighting from 10 and 16 May 1940. Significantly, the XIXth Panzer Corps’ attack at Sedan was, at that time, one of three Panzer Corps attacks across the Meuse River – to the north were Reinhardt’s XLIst Panzer Corps, at Monthermé, and Hoth’s XVth Panzer Corps, at Houx. In rehearsing the Meuse crossing, Guderian employed ‘war games to test different courses of action and to develop a better understanding among his officers of his intentions’. For the Germans, ‘hard work, detailed analyses, and rehearsals left little to chance’. 

The second half of The Breaking Point ‘devotes greater attention to the French than the Germans’ mainly because ‘since the Germans have the initiative, the French must react to their actions … [and] therefore the “French” chapters delve deeper into issues relating to the operational and strategic levels of war’.

The goal of the French strategy was the ‘avoidance of defeat, rather than the immediate gaining of victory’ and was ‘decisively influenced by geographic, resource and manpower considerations’. In May 1940, the French sent a ‘significant portion of mobile reserves toward Belgian and Holland’ and left their ‘most capable forces behind the Maginot Line’ which ‘proved particularly vulnerable to a German attack south through the Ardennes … to then pivot west and then turn northwest … enveloping the [allied forces in Belgium] from the south’.

French second-generation doctrine ‘emphasised the defensive and strength of firepower’ – ‘the attack is the fire that advances, the defence is the fire that halts [the enemy]’. Doctrinally, this methodical battle meant ‘a tightly controlled battle in which all units and weapons were carefully marshalled and then employed in combat’. The French ‘prized preparation rather than improvisation [and actively] suppressed innovation’.

In defence, the French channelled attacking forces through porous principal positions of resistance, into carefully selected zones or fields of fire and a stopping line. This processes was known as colmater or filling. A French commander expected to ‘meet a penetration by having reserves … move in front of attacking units and gradually slow them down until they were halted’. A counter attack would follow.

This system mandated French commanders to remain at their command post and keep their hands ‘on the handle of the fan’ controlling ‘movement and allocation of men and material’, ensuring a ‘dangerous degree of rigidity [and strict obedience] in the French system of command and control’. The entire command system ‘propelled forces forward by pressure from above, rather than being pulled from below’ - command push displacing reconnaissance pull. This system meant the French ‘could not respond to unanticipated demands [or] capitalise on an important gain made by a lower-level unit’. Command post bound, French commanders could not ‘lead by personal example’.

In contrast, German third-generation doctrine stressed ‘the offensive and the importance of mobility and flexibility … surprise and speed’ and the ‘continuous battle’. German doctrine ‘emphasised manoeuvre more than fire’ and a ‘willingness to attack in a hasty and improvised manner’ enabling ‘not destruction of enemy soldiers; rather, [seeking] penetration by attacking the weak spots of the enemy’s resistance’. Continuous battle retained the initiative where the penetration, break-in and breakthrough of enemy defences were only ‘preparatory moves, which ultimately led to operations of encirclement [and annihilation]’ - kesselschlacht or cauldron battle.

German doctrine emphasised ‘decentralisation and initiative’ where ‘simplicity of conduct, logically carried through, will most surely attain the objective’. This system originated with from the German tradition of auftragstaktik or mission command. Mandating commanders remain well-forward to support ‘independence of action of lower commanders…as of decisive importance at all times’ enabled the Germans to, later in the war, rely ‘strongly on counterattacks while they were on the defensive’. 

Auftragstaktik enabled a ‘commander to act according to the circumstances of the moment and perhaps ignore a directive or control measure’ if the mission required. The Germans taught their officers to ‘take the initiative and make decisions’ and to ‘continue fighting despite the loss of key leaders’.

Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945

Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power is the canon’s sixth volume. Van Creveld asserts that ‘within the limits set by its size, an army’s worth as a military instrument equals the quality and quantity of its equipment multiplied by its Fighting Power. He defines Fighting Power as:

…resting on mental, intellectual, and organisational foundations… manifesting, in one combination or another, as discipline and cohesion, morale and initiative, courage and toughness, the willingness to fight and the readiness, if necessary, to die.

Fighting Power, in brief, is defined as the sum total of mental qualities that make armies fight.

Van Creveld argues that in war ‘though the relative proportion of the individual qualities listed may vary from time to time, the qualities themselves, for the most part, are the same today as they were for Caesar’s veterans 2,000 years ago.’ He contrasts fighting power with business life which is ‘based on self-interest and the reason serving it; armies, on the other hand, cannot be based on either’.

In Fight Power, van Creveld compares the third-generation German and second-generation United States armies of World War II. In particular, van Creveld seeks to understand Colonel Trevor Dupuy’s 1977 and 1979 findings from studying 78 World War II engagements that:

… German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances.

…the German [army] was 20 to 30 percent more effective than the British and American forces facing them. To put it a different way: even after all the material factors affecting the outcome of an engagement have been taken care of by [Dupuy’s] model, there still remains between the German and Allied units a gap that must be explained.  

Employing historical records and statistics, van Creveld’s chapters systematically examine German and American Fighting Power, commencing with ‘the role of national character’ concluding that ‘there is no reason to believe that German national character [is] more or less suitable to war than the American one’. Fighting Power then examines ‘armed forces and society’ and ‘doctrine and the image of war’ finding that German doctrine, almost exclusively emphasised operations while American doctrine balanced operations, organisation and logistics.

The chapter on ‘command principles’ compares German Auftragstaktik (mission command) and American scientific management or Taylorism ‘that tried to foresee and dictate the operative’s every movement’. 

Under ‘army organisation’, Fighting Power concludes that the German ability to focus on ‘the purpose of the army’ enabling destruction of the enemy, while ‘striking a balance between combat (output-related) and administrative (function-related) tasks, was superior to the American Army’. In emphasising the balance between output-related and function-related armies, van Creveld states:

Under no circumstances should function-related tasks be allowed to equal, much less exceed, the output-related ones in importance.

…the cardinal virtues of any organisation are simplicity, consistence and interchangeably of parts.

The German ‘task forces were tactically and administratively independent and were never made to depend on other units to carry out their missions’. German units of all sizes consisted of five organic component parts:

  1. The commander and staff.
  2. Headquarters troops, including military police and signals troops.
  3. The unit proper, always consisting of three subunits.
  4. Special troops such as engineers, antitank, artillery and bridging.
  5. Support troops including troop trains, supply columns, administrative units, sanitary and veterinary services.

In contrast, American commanders ‘were more reluctant to use specialist and line-of-communication troops in missions for which they had not been intended, with the result that manpower was allowed to stand idle’.

Van Creveld finds that on Headquarters staffs ‘American officers were employed on numerous tasks which, in the German Army, were carried out by non-commissioned officers and enlisted men’.

The ‘army personnel administration’ chapter is scathing of the American personal replacement system of World War II. The American system, recruiting nationally, controlled by the Army Service Forces – and not the Army Ground Forces (or fighting forces) – meant that ‘normally the young, the not-so-bright or the socially disadvantaged, became the fighting men’. The reason for this disparity was that the Army Service Forces competed with the Army Ground Forces for the same manpower.

In contrast, the German Army, recruiting regionally, ‘concentrated on quality [of people] rather than quantity, subjecting specialists (including pilots, drivers, operators of optical and acoustical apparatus and radio operators) to the most rigorous of tests while leaving everything else in the hands of the field commanders’.

The German’s deployed reinforcements in marching battalions (Marschbattalione), ‘armed and equipped to cover long distances on foot and capable, if necessary, of looking after themselves in combat’. American reinforcements, spent ‘four to five months’ in the replacement system ‘travelling individually’ overseas to a theatre depot. Upon arrival, they were distributed to divisions without any system of ‘receiving or absorbing them’ into units.

For medical casualties, the Germans ensured that ‘wounded personnel, upon their recovery, should be sent to the replacement unit affiliated with their last field unit’. For the Americans, ‘to prevent “excessive overstrengths” [in units], men were seldom allowed to return to their own units [unless] that unit had an appropriate vacancy and had submitted a requisition’. Van Creveld notes that therefore ‘the psychological needs of the [US] soldier were sacrificed to the administrative convenience of higher headquarters’.

In relationship to ‘leadership and the officer corps’ van Creveld explains that:

…an officer corps requires long tradition and broad experience in order to function effectively. The American officer corps, expanding fortyfold during World War II, did not and could not have this tradition and this experience.

To overcome this disadvantage, the American Army modified the German troop-leading doctrine, 1936, Truppenführung, as FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations. Despite this replication of doctrine, the ‘general effect remains slightly different’, and for the Americans:

…there is more emphasis on knowledge as the first of the commander’s attributes [the Germans preferred ‘willpower, a sense of responsibility and character’]. Loyalty to one’s superiors is given a more prominent place, independent action, a lesser one. Discipline – [for the Germans the central pillar on which the army is built] – is hardly mentioned in the American regulations. Instead of, like the German officer, being told to keep his troops well in hand, the American officer is exhorted to treat his men justly.

Van Creveld summarises the advantage resident in the German officer corps in World War II:

  1. A single, all-embracing military academy.
  2. A long probationary period of officers.
  3. Emphasis on tactical and operational expertise, to the neglect of strategy.
  4. Importance of an officer’s character as opposed to their knowledge and competence.
  5. Reliance on intimate knowledge of officers by their instructors rather than written examinations.
  6. Emphasis on practical work and teaching in peace and war.
  7. The exclusiveness and separateness of the General Staff corps.

Van Creveld concludes that:

…while an organisation as specialised for operations as the German Army is inconceivable under modern conditions, the opposite extreme [of] overemphasising the role of technical and supporting services, should also be avoided. An army’s first and overriding function, after all, is to fight; it is not primarily to administer personnel, gather intelligence, or even bring up supplies and repair vehicles. To the extent that the German Army’s selection, training and promotion system took this fact into account, something might still be learnt from it today.


1. The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940  

Robert A. Doughty

Stackpole Military History Series, 2014, 416 p

ISBN-10: 0811714594

ISBN-13: 978-0811714594

US $18.00

2. Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945

Martin van Creveld

Praeger; Reprint edition, 2007, 198 p

ISBN-10: 0313091579

ISBN-13: 978-0313091575

US $20.00

[1]Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 20 October 2016, </the-canon-and-four-generations-of-warfare> [accessed 26 June 2017] and Chris Field, The canon and four generations of warfare – Part 2, Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 22 June 2017, </the-canon-and-four-generations-of-warfare-part-2> [accessed 26 June 2017]

[2] William S. Lind, Two Marine Corps, 04 June 2004

<,13190,Lind_060404,00.html> [accessed 26 June 2017]

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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