Paul K. Davis, Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders from the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp vii + 607. $34.95 (hardcover).
What makes a great military leader? The present volume seeks to answer this question and grew out of an earlier work by Davis, One Hundred Decisive Battles, at the request of Oxford University Press. Davis contends that command and leadership "matter deeply" (ix) in the outcome of a battle to the extent that Alexander, not Greece, conquered Asia, and Napoleon, not France, conquered Europe, echoing Napoleon's humble comment that the general is "the all" of the army.
After surveying sixteen of history's most successful (though not necessarily most famous) commanders, Davis argues that the general provides the brains and the morale of the army. Soldiers, while essential, are just extensions of commanders at the operational level - where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Those overseeing grand strategy are too far removed from combat, while those at the tactical level effectively cannot see the forest for the trees. It is at the operational level where commanders have the bulk of an army at their disposal; tactics weigh as heavily as morale, and split-second decisions have to be made that cannot wait for a committee review. It is here, and only here, Davis asserts, that the "masters" of the battlefield emerge.
"Masters of the battlefield," according to Davis, are those men who understand and effectively apply the principles war that have been studied and compiled by military theorists and scholars for centuries. To the nine principles enumerated in the current US Army training manuals (objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, simplicity), Davis adds a tenth that he drew from the British field manual (morale). Each chapter (with one exception) examines one general and analyzes his use of these principles in becoming an effective field commander. In addition to demonstrating these principles, each of Davis's subjects also tested or perfected new weapons and tactics, were skilled at motivating their men and commanding intense devotion, and most important of all, his subjects possessed the coup d'oeil – the ability to survey a battlefield (including terrain, armies, weather, and morale) and know almost instantly what needed to be done and where, almost as if by instinct.
Lastly, Davis's introduction justifies the limited scope of his survey and the study ends with the Napoleonic Wars. Readers eager for a discussion of Lee, Grant, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel, Bradley, or Westmorland will be disappointed. According to Davis, this limitation in chronology is due to the fact that after the Napoleonic Wars, the ability to command the bulk of a nation's armed forces from the center of the field itself "became less and less possible" (xiii). Tipping his hat to the Civil War, Davis makes the curious comment that "had I included that war, I would have discussed Nathan Bedford Forrest" leaving out Grant and Lee, two generals who most definitely commanded the bulk of their respective armies and did so from a central command on the battlefield as well as satisfying a hefty portion of his ten principles (xiv). It is an odd an unsatisfying omission that Davis does little to explain. One wonders if limits on chronology were tied less to limits on command and more to limits on page numbers. And to use a modern military manual, but skip the two centuries of warfare and command between the last of his subjects and production that manual, seems disappointing. The last concern that the introduction leaves the reader with is uncertainty as to what exactly Davis is hoping to prove. Davis provides two theses that, while not contradictory, are somewhat exclusive. On the one hand, Davis explains in detail the ten principles of war, suggesting that great leaders are those who master those principles – making war something that can be studied and learned, but his comments about the coup d'oeil turn generalship into a trait one is born with; a knack that some generals simply have. Davis's study would be an excellent place to address this most fascinating of questions: is war a science or an art? Unfortunately he courts both, and never declares for one or the other. Nor does he argue that a synthesis of the two is the actual answer. Is the thesis that generals matter? That the principles of war are the best yardstick of generalship? That the coup d'oeil is really what separates good generals from great ones? The introduction does not explicitly state the thesis.
The body of the text, sadly, does not make the thesis clearer. Each chapter is broken into five sections: a brief biography, an overview of warfare in that time (tactics, weapons, order of battle, etc.), a description of the enemy generals, a detailed discussion of the battle(s) in which the subject had command, and final evaluation of the general under the lens. At a macro level it is a solid approach; all the pieces are laid out, then assembled, and finally analyzed in comparison to the principles of war. The devil, however, is in the detail (sometimes in overabundance, other times in the lack thereof). For example, Davis points out that Alexander was raised learning war and combat and was ready to take command at an early age, whilst Han Xin had no training and grew up in poverty. So what then is the point of including a biography in hopes of making connections between upbringing and later leadership? It would be one thing to show how these great generals all grew up in a military setting and learned some of their skill by osmosis, or the reverse -- show that their talent was actually something they were born with. But Davis fails to show that either was the case. So if upbringing does not play a deciding factor in generalship, then the author should simply mention that in a sentence in the introduction and then leave the biographies out of each chapter. Furthermore, several chapters readily admit that there is a dearth of information about the formative years of its respective subject, again making it difficult to argue the case for including biographies.
The "Warfare of the Time" sub-chapter was much more useful. In a few pages Davis was able to summarize weaponry, organization, tactics, and even the philosophy that armies of the period espoused, which was essential for then showing how the figure of focus for that chapter changed, altered, or exemplified the conventional wisdom and went a long way to proving that leaders can indeed make a big difference in a battle. Likewise, the "Opponents" section was also helpful because it gave a contrast, showing the actions and tactics of the "loser." This too was essential in showing that leadership can be central to victory by giving the counter example. The battle description sections were a double-edged sword. Some made for a ripping good read, but others were excessively long and contained more detail than was necessary, though the maps included became invaluable when the prose became an overload of flanks, feints, and maneuvers.
The last section—the evaluation—is a puzzle due to the fact that the overall thesis of the book was not clear. Davis discusses how the general exemplified the principles of war in his campaign, but seldom does any one subject demonstrate more than half of them. Davis listed ten in the introduction, but not one of his subjects every exhibited more than half of them: he mentions Caesar demonstrated five, Oda Nubunaga four, Napoleon six, and Jan Ziska a meager three. The only "general" to have ten is the "two-headed general" (Genghis Khan and Subedei), but even then one of the principles discussed in that chapter's conclusion (exploitation) is not a principle from Davis's introduction. So the only general to come close was actually two generals. If the principles are the yardstick, then why does only one measure up? If these generals were so great, but did not live up to the principles, why bother with the principles at all? If Alexander was able to conquer the known world using only half of the principles, then were the other half necessary? Was the purpose of each chapter to prove that each general possessed the coup d'oeil through application of some of the principles? If so, it was not stated in the introduction. Davis has the pieces for building a really fascinating study of command, but is building without a blueprint.
Additionally, defeats lacked sufficient attention. The book examines Napoleon at Wagram, but not Leipzig, Waterloo, or Borodino. Subedei "had an almost unbroken string of victories; only a defeat by the Bulgars on the way home from the Great Raid marred a stellar career" (215). Nothing else is said about that defeat. Other generals get a little more attention to some of their less glorious moments, but a study of command ought to examine failures, especially when the subject is heralded as a genius tactician. Why did he lose? What did he learn? Did his opponent grasp the principles of war better in that battle? This of course risks making the book too long, but the study could be better served with a complete analysis of a smaller sample rather than a semi-analysis of a large sample. In the concluding chapter, rather than return to his ten principles he discusses the coup d'oeil, but in relation to yet another set of principles, this one by Montgomery Megis (and this after quoting Megis's argument that you cannot conclusively determine what makes a great general).
To be fair, the book compensates in the specifics what it lacks in the broad strokes. Each chapter is concise enough to provide a thorough overview of warfare in its respective time period. The book could easily be broken into weekly readings for a course on military history, or used in more general Western and World Civilization courses to give students a deeper look at what made some of the figures they study "great." The book would also be a valuable reference for graduate students in military history. The thesis may be weak, but Davis has done his homework in surveying the available literature. The general reader will benefit from its easy reading style and the armchair general will appreciate the attention to detail. The book could also be used in a graduate seminar to give students a chance to discuss the connections that Davis has revealed. Davis took on a large task, and while he may not have shed any light on "what makes a good general?" he has saved students, teachers and historians a whole mountain worth of reading by providing an accessible synthesis.
Chris Thomas holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from Texas A&M. He currently teaches at Reynolds College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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