I’ve often wondered about the “right” way to conduct a battle. It seemed important to at least know the basics of strategy for my stories and when The Principles of War came up on my required reading list, I found out that it was a great resource for just that. So here are a few important highlights, the parts that seemed most relevant to fantasy writing.
Pawns go first
Clausewitz: We must not be easily led to use [the cavalry] in open combat. Only when the enemy’s disorder or his rapid retreat offer the hope of success, should we use our cavalry for an audacious attack.
While cavalry charges make for dramatic openers to conflict scenes and are very popular in literature and film, they are impractical as an organized infantry force could repel horsemen with devastating consequences (as proven by the Scots). But if the infantry is in disarray, cavalry can easily be the fatal blow.
Wait for daylight—or don’t
Clausewitz: The regular surprise attack (by night as at Hochkirk) is the best way to get the most out of a very small army. But the aggressor, who is not as well acquainted with the terrain as the defender, is open to many risks. The less well one knows the terrain and the preparations of the enemy, the greater these risks become. In many instances, therefore, these attacks must be considered only as a desperate means.
So, to sum up, you shouldn’t attack at night unless you know the battleground well enough that the dark won’t be a problem.
Surrounding them may not be a good idea
Clausewitz: Encirclement of the enemy necessitates a greater deployment of forces in the front line for the aggressor than the defender
Clausewitz: To surround an army completely is possible only in rare cases and requires tremendous physical or moral superiority.
Encircling an enemy spreads the attacking forces thinner and means the surrounded army will be able to draw up into tighter, more stable formation. And we’ve all heard of the (insert preferred nationality) firing squad.
Do not let them get away
Clausewitz: Next to victory, the act of pursuit is the most important in war.
If I remember correctly, one of his general’s failure to follow this rule was what ultimately did Napoleon in. Letting the enemy regroup is a bad idea because it is possible for them to reorganize and renew their attack. Clausewitz also gives a small how-to on this, but that’s for another time.
Always have a way out
Clausewitz: Only when we cut off the enemy’s line of retreat are we assured of great success in victory
Getting cornered will either force a surrender or enable a massacre and has led to the destruction of armies since the days of the ancient Greeks. This might seem a little obvious, but it’s still important enough to mention.
And there you have it—the bare bones of the great Prussian colonel’s advice. I would certainly recommend the whole book itself (whether you’re a fantasy writer or not), but until you can, here’s the crash course.