Man does not enter battle to fight

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

In his Battle Studies, Colonel Ardant Du Picq argues that man does not enter battle to fight, but for victory.

He does everything that he can to avoid the first and obtain the second.

War between savage tribes, between Arabs, even today, is a war of ambush by small groups of men of which each one, at the moment of surprise, chooses, not his adversary, but his victim, and is an assassin. Because the arms are similar on both sides, the only way of giving the advantage to one side is by surprise. A man surprised, needs an instant to collect his thoughts and defend himself; during this instant he is killed if he does not run away.

The surprised adversary does not defend himself, he tries to flee. Face to face or body to body combat with primitive arms, ax or dagger, so terrible among enemies without defensive arms, is very rare. It can take place only between enemies mutually surprised and without a chance of safety for any one except in victory. And still … in case of mutual surprise, there is another chance of safety; that of falling back, of flight on the part of one or the other; and that chance is often seized. Here is an example, and if it does not concern savages at all, but soldiers of our days, the fact is none the less significant. It was observed by a man of warlike temperament who has related what he saw with his own eyes, although he was a forced spectator, held to the spot by a wound.

A darkly humorous anecdote:

During the Crimean War, on a day of heavy fighting, two detachments of soldiers, A and B, coming around one of the mounds of earth that covered the country and meeting unexpectedly face to face, at ten paces, stopped thunderstruck. Then, forgetting their rifles, they threw stones and withdrew. Neither of the two groups had a decided leader to lead it to the front, and neither of the two dared to shoot first for fear that the other would at the same time bring his own arm to his shoulder. They were too near to hope to escape, or so they thought at least, although in reality, reciprocal firing, at such short ranges, is almost always too high. The man who would fire sees himself already killed by the return fire. He throws stones, and not with great force, to avoid using his rifle, to distract the enemy, to occupy the time, until flight offers him some chance of escaping at point-blank range.

This agreeable state of affairs did not last long, a minute perhaps. The appearance of a troop B on one flank determined the flight of A, and then the opposing group fired.

Surely, the affair is ridiculous and laughable.

Or is it?

Let us see, however. In a thick forest, a lion and a tiger meet face to face at a turn in the trail. They stop at once, rearing and ready to spring. They measure each other with their eyes, there is a rumbling in their throats. The claws move convulsively, the hair stands up. With tails lashing the ground, and necks stretched, ears flattened, lips turned up, they show their formidable fangs in that terrible threatening grimace of fear characteristic of felines.

Unseen, I shudder.

The situation is disagreeable for both: movement ahead means the death of a beast. Of which? Of both perhaps.

Slowly, quite slowly, one leg, bent for the leap, bending still, moves a few inches to the rear. Gently, quite gently, a fore paw follows the movement. After a stop, slowly, quite slowly, the other legs do the same, and both beasts, insensibly, little by little, and always facing, withdraw, up to the moment where their mutual withdrawal has created between them an interval greater than can be traversed in a bound. Lion and tiger turn their backs slowly and, without ceasing to observe, walk freely. They resume without haste their natural gaits, with that sovereign dignity characteristic of great seigneurs. I have ceased to shudder, but I do not laugh.

There is no more to laugh at in man in battle, because he has in his hands a weapon more terrible than the fangs and claws of lion or tiger, the rifle, which instantly, without possible defense, sends one from life into death. It is evident that no one close to his enemy is in a hurry to arm himself, to put into action a force which may kill him. He is not anxious to light the fuse that is to blow up the enemy, and himself at the same time.

Who has not observed like instances between dogs, between dog and cat, cat and cat?


  1. Spandrell says:

    Bad link! Good stuff though.

  2. Isegoria says:

    That’s odd. If you try to follow that link to Chapter 1, it flips out, but if you wait for the book to load, that chapter link will then take you right to the beginning of Chapter 1.

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