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The Enduring Mystique of Cannae

By Douglas Hill
Summer 1990 • MHQ Magazine

In February 1914, as his son prepared for the War Acade­my entrance examination, General Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) sent him a book and a word of advice: Study Cannae. The book was not an eyewitness account of the battle (though Hannibal’s own narrative was thought to exist); rather, it was the high­ly regarded masterwork of General Alfred von Schlieffen, the former chief of the Ger­man general staff.

Schlieffen’s studies of en­circlement battles had led to his “Cannae concept,” the idea that envelopment and annihilation are the highest aims in battle, and subse­quently to the Schlieffen Plan, the basis for German strategic doctrine on the eve of World War I.

But why Cannae? Why had a battle fought in antiquity fired Schlieffen’s imagination? The answer lies in the romance of Cannae, in the history of the German army, and in the experiences of Alfred von Schlieffen.

Hannibal’s victory over Rome is the stuff of legend. There is the leader: a young man marked by brilliance. There is the foe: a superior army motivated by crisis. There is the tactic: a double envelopment choreographed to perfection. Finally, there is the result: total annihilation. This is the sequence that ap­pealed to Schlieffen (as it has to military leaders through the ages); and it was particu­larly appealing because it of­fered, in a single afternoon, a model for German military experience.

Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86), the em­bodiment of that experience, was a man of Hannibalic dar­ing. More to the point, his tactics resembled the Cartha­ginian’s–tactics that, more than anything, gave structure to the Cannae concept.

Frederick often coupled as­tonishing speed with the oblique order, a staggered ad­vance that placed the extrem­ities of his wings at the most forward positions. The ma­neuver is best illustrated by the Battle of Leuthen, in December 1757. It resembled Cannae in that Frederick, outnumbered, drew the Aus­trians forward and then launched a flank assault, ulti­mately inflicting eight times as many casualties as he suffered. He won with envelop­ment, not Cannae-like double envelopment, but Leuthen and other victories still sup­ported the Cannae concept.

The next pillar for Schlief­fen’s ideas was erected by the elder Helmuth von Moltke. With Frederick’s spirit, Napo­leon’s example, and industrial Prussia’s resources, Moltke conceived of war on an unprecedented scale. His doc­trine, strategic envelopment, combined rapid mobilization, concentrated force, and re­lentless mobility to encircle and annihilate the enemy.

Strategic envelopment bore fruit at Koniggratz in July 1866, when a ponderous Aus­trian unified command was beset by three smaller, more mobile Prussian armies. Ma­neuver was impossible for the quarter-million Austrians–as it was for the Roman mani­ples at Cannae–and the war ended before (experience said) it should have begun.

Four years later, against the French at Sedan, Moltke repeated his success. But whereas the double envelop­ment at Koniggratz was reminiscent of Cannae, Sedan was a greater achievement–a Cannae-like encirclement, a victory that the official Ger­man history called “unprece­dented.” Of course, its precedent was Cannae. And in du­plicating Hannibal’s victory so thoroughly, Moltke’s doctrine became the irrefutable truth of the German general staff Schlieffen couldn’t help but be impressed. As a cadet he had studied Frederick. As an officer he had witnessed Ko­niggratz. And in 1900, nine years after becoming chief of the general staff, he read his­torian Hans Delbrück’s ac­count of the Battle of Cannae. It was Delbrück who thought he had discovered Hannibal’s personal account of the battle–embedded in the narrative of the Greek his­torian Polybius. “I have no doubt,” he wrote, “that….we are holding in our hand, in the account of his greatest victory, a direct expression of the mind of this hero….” Delbrück argued that Cannae was the watershed battle of ancient history, not because of Hannibal ‘s victory but because of Rome’s defeat: It was so catastrophic that Rome changed her military struc­ture–and conquered the world. Delbrück claimed that Hannibal’s success was due entirely to the cavalry attack from behind; that the infan­try’s double envelopment served as a sort of caldron, containing the Romans while the cavalry exerted pressure.

When Schlieffen read this, he ordered the general staffs history section to prove that Cannae was the prototypical Western battle–and then he set about duplicating it. He had already developed a plan for an offensive against France in a vast wheeling ma­neuver through Belgium. But Cannae gave him new confi­dence in his plan, and he set down its specifics as though they were the “direct expres­sion” of Hannibal’s mind.

In 1910, at the War Acade­my ‘s centennial, an aged Schlieffen announced: “In front of every…commander lies a book [on] military his­tory…. [In it] one  finds the heartwarming reality, the knowledge of how everything has happened, how it must happen, and how it will hap­pen again.”

The Schlieffen Plan called for the German army to focus everything on a northern sweep so broad that it took in Paris. The French would be rolled up from behind, like the Romans at Cannae.

But important features of Cannae were absent. Missing was the shock of the double envelopment. Although Del­brück had regarded the infantry as a simple barrier, he had not denied that the enormity of Hannibal’s victory was due to multiple shocks. Yet Schlieffen understood him to mean that any obstacle, be it a river or a neutral country, could replace the infantry en­velopment. Also missing, of course, was Hannibal, Del­brück’s heroic figure, re­placed by a timetable. Can­nae’s single afternoon had stretched to a grueling month; its contained field to exhausting distances; its bold risks to foolhardy gambles. Hannibal had not had to con­sider lunch, or railroads, or the Belgian border. MHQ

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Enduring Mystique of Cannae

 

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