Culminating point

After spending a bit of time recently in the various battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, this topic has been much on my mind. It’s one of those simple but non-obvious military ideas that explains a lot more than you’d expect. Basically, the culminating point is the furthest that the attacker can go while still remaining superior to the defender. From the attacker’s point of view, you need to plan to reach your objective before you hit the culminating point, while the defender wants to do one of two things: bring the culminating point forward or move the objective backward, in order to be able to counterattack against an inferior attacker.

Which is all very dry and rather tricky to follow. Put it this way: if you are invading somewhere, then the further you advance, the more of your troops you’ll have to leave behind to guard your supply lines; and the more of your fuel will be used up simply maintaining said supplies. (Fuelling trucks carrying fuel to fuel more trucks, and so on.) Pretty soon, you’ll run out of fuel or troops. Or, rather, you’ll no longer have more than the enemy does, and you’ll probably be defeated. Here’s a chart, the Minard chart, that explains, graphically, how this happened to Napoleon. Take a moment to have a look at how his army dwindles away on the advance towards Moscow.

This is one way of understanding why it is, as I found, so tragically easy to visit most of the battlefields of the Western Front in a weekend – they’re all so close together because the culminating point of each offensive was so close to its start line.  The only way to bring troops and supplies forward to continue a push was on foot, under constant fire, while the defending side massed for a counterattack using railways and roads, or under cover of trench networks. An offensive’s momentum would be gone within a mile or two.

What do you do, as a defender, to make sure your enemy hits the culminating point? The obvious answer is that you build up your strength (remember, the culminating point is when the attacker is outmatched). The slightly less obvious answer is that you move the objective back – you retreat, if you can, trading space for time. The third answer is that you steepen the slope – if you can hasten the decline of the attacker’s strength then he’ll hit the culminating point sooner and simply be unable to continue the advance. In Malaya, not a conventional war but a counterinsurgency campaign, the British kept up constant patrolling and ambushes in the jungle; they didn’t catch many Communist guerrillas doing so, but the guerrillas spent a crippling amount of time abandoning camps and moving around to avoid the patrols, and less and less time actually pursuing their own objectives. Frustration and disillusionment brought down far more guerrillas than firepower.

This seems a rather lacklustre approach to people who like to think of great big decisive battles. But great big decisive battles don’t happen very often. A lot more often, failure happens because you end up spending far too much time and effort simply maintaining yourself – what the army generally refers to as “admin”. Or, to put it another way, you win simply because the opposition runs out of steam.

In fact, what generally happens is that the attackers don’t notice the culminating point until it’s past – they go on devoting more and more of their strength to just keeping themselves going. As they used to sing in Flanders: “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.”

It’s all the more dangerously easy to do when you think your cause is just. Military theorist Basil Liddell Hart wrote :

“Peaceful nations are apt, however, to court unnecessary dangers, because when once aroused they are more inclined to proceed to extremes than predatory nations. For the latter, making war as a means of gain, are usually more ready to call it off when they find an opponent too strong to easily overcome. It is the reluctant fighter, impelled by emotion and not by calculation, who tends to press a fight to the bitter end.”

Win or lose, that end, in Flanders, was bitter enough.

6 thoughts on “Culminating point

  1. Nice post, Ajay, but I disagree with BLH. Again.

    Big mistake one: the continential miltarists cock it up at the Marne and with the Ludendorff offensives. OK, the Brits do it in Iraq and perhaps Turkey – but not in the decisive theatre.

    Moving on to BM2: once more the ‘European War as an instrument of policy’ crowd got it wrong: twice in 1942, once in the decisive theatre and once in a sideshow. I’ll grant you that in the same sideshow the Brits over-extended themselves three times (Africa x2, Aegean), but van Kreveld credibly claims that at the main event, SACEUR was actually pessimistic to the extent that the Allies could have taken the Ruhr in November 1941 if they’d noticed.

  2. Is this a metaphor for the bailout/stimulus? Spending ever more money to stem the decline of GNP by ever small amounts.

  3. Gah. B.H. Liddell-Hart is one of the blights on military history. In an odd coincidence, I have a series of posts up on this very subject, though you have to wade through all sorts of banal crap about finance to find them.

  4. Actually, it was _September_ 1944. And van Creveld did not place the responsibility on Eisenhower’s pessimism, but instead on Montgomery, who managed to prejudice his own plan by loose talk and vague proposals.

    van Creveld also argued that even if Eisenhower had shown the green light for the action against the Ruhr, there’d have been no way for the supply apparatus to reorient itself for such an undertaking. He cites the fact that the SHAEF logisticians were notably over-prudent and conservative, and had previously insisted that Patton’s operations were “logistically impossible” even when they were already being carried out.

    I don’t know if this is what Chris was talking about; as usual, as someone who’s not a native English-speaker, I have serious difficulty in interpreting his comment.


    J. J.

  5. Sorry, Jussi – the comment I posted was a replacement for a much longer and more thought-out one, which got eaten by the browser when I forgot the spamtrap. As is usual in such situations, the replacement was not as good.

    The original was written in standard English, rather than in the slang I have come to think of as ‘Blood and Treasure English’, in which extreme brevity, cultural references, and private jokes (many dating to soc.history.what-if, so it’s not _all_ designed to keep you out) are all combined.

    I will concede that while this is a very good way for a group of about 20 people (all men as far as I know, which is probably a bad thing) to communicate with one another, but it’s a bit opaque for people who don’t speak English as first language and share the same sub-cultural background.

    So – that _is_ what I was trying to talk about. We agree on SACEUR, and I think that you’re right about the dates – my copy of _Supplying War_ is in the office right now so I didn’t check.



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