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Why Terrain Matters

By David T. Zabecki
5/24/2018 • Military History Magazine

Beyond the monuments and memorials, the world’s legendary battlefields hold valuable lessons for modern military leaders and historians.

Battlefield tours are big business these days. From the ancient parched ground of Megiddo in northern Israel, site of history’s first recorded battle, to Vietnam extensive Tunnels of Cu Chi, more people than ever are visiting the sites of battles ’s that altered the course of human affairs. Winston Churchill once described battles as “the principal milestones of secular history,” and many people feel a visceral urge to connect with these great events by standing on the very ground upon which they played out.

Some battles are more significant and better memorialized than others, and some battlefields are better preserved than others. For a soldier who marches off to war, however, no battlefield holds more significance than the one on which he gives his life. Sometimes he makes the supreme sacrifice in a famous battle that determines the outcome of a war. But more often than not a soldier dies on an obscure piece of ground preserved only in the memory of his immediate survivors, and when they pass from the scene, both the battle and the battlefield are forgotten.

Of America’s national military cemeteries, none is more poignant than the one at Ball’s Bluff Battlefield, just north of Leesburg, Va., where on Oct. 21, 1861, a Union raiding force of nearly 700 men under Colonel Charles Devens crossed the Potomac River and was promptly cut to ribbons by Confederate troops occupying high ground on the opposite shore. Ball’s Bluff is among the smallest of the 100-plus national cemeteries. Fifty-four Union casualties are buried there—all but one unknown. They were unknown when they were buried, and today they are all but forgotten, surrounded by a quiet wooded battlefield almost no one has heard of and few ever visit. But is a soldier who died in that battle any less significant than one who fell during the famous carnage at Antietam?

People take battlefield tours for many reasons, from curiosity to serious historical inquiry. The most intense and analytical of such tours is the Battlefield Staff Ride, or BSR, conducted for and by professional soldiers.

General Helmuth von Moltke developed the staff ride in the late 19th century as a primary training tool for the German General Staff. Moltke and selected officers would spend days at a time on a particular historic battlefield, examining in detail the movements and actions of opposing armies and analyzing the decisions of their respective commanders. They often traveled on horseback to various vantage points to analyze the terrain, hence the expression “staff ride.” The term remains in use today, though on smaller battlefields the term “terrain walk” may be more accurate.

Many laymen have a hard time understanding the value of the BSR as a modern training tool. What relevance could an old battle fought with outdated weapons and ancient tactics possibly have for modern soldiers? And the older the battle, the greater the gulf between the warfighting realities of then and now. So what’s the point? The answer, well understood by experienced military leaders, is that old battlefields do hold relevant lessons for the modern soldier, and understanding the technical and tactical differences, as well as the similarities, between then and now is a crucial part of the learning process.

 Military history is like an algebra equation, comprised of constants and variables. Some of the variables are independent, some dependent. You can’t really address an algebra problem without understanding which is which, nor can you extract relevant lessons from military history without understanding those distinctions.

The biggest variable in military history is technology, namely weapons and gear. Technology is an independent variable, and tactics —the way soldiers and units fight on the ground —the dependent variable that changes continually in response to advances in technology. Two-hundred-year-old tactics will not work against today’s weapons. That is easy enough to grasp, but it’s also important to understand exactly why certain tactics did work in the past and why they won’t work today.

When I was a grade-schooler in the 1950s, almost every history lesson about the American Revolution assured us that we beat the British because we were smart and they were dumb. They stood up in nice straight rows, wore red uniforms and made easy targets. We took cover behind rocks and picked them off one by one with well-aimed shots. It’s an appealing explanation, but it’s also nonsense. The smoothbore, muzzle-loading muskets of the 1700s were so inaccurate that the only way for infantry to achieve effective firepower was to stand in densely packed formations and deliver disciplined volley fire toward the enemy.

The British were masters of those tactics; we were not. Thus the Continental Army got pushed off one battlefield after another until it finally crawled into Valley Forge to lick its wounds during the winter of 1777–1778. Fortunately for us, a Prussian officer named Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben came along and taught them how to fight with similar tactics. From then on the Americans increasingly were able to hold their own against the British on the battlefield. The outcome of the revolution was ultimately decided by the strategic realities of Britain fighting a ground war thousands of miles from its national base.

What about the constants of military history? What does not change? One thing that endures is the nature of war. We have heard endless blathering over the past decade or so about “the changing nature of war,” but such talk borders on the absurd. What changes are the tools of war, the ways they are fought and perhaps the reasons for which they are fought. But to those who do the fighting, the nature of war remains the same: It is and was a hard and brutal business whose primary activity consists of human beings killing other human beings. There is no such thing as a clean war with “surgical strikes” that shock and awe an enemy into surrender. The belief in such fairy tales, despite overwhelming historical evidence, is one of the factors that got the United States mired in Iraq.

One constant in warfare, then, is the human factor. The psychological forces acting on a soldier in battle at any point in history are very similar, whether he is a Roman legionary armed with a short sword and fighting an enemy shield to shield or a machine gunner on a Humvee rolling through Fallujah, wondering when the next IED will go off. Veterans of the Napoleonic Wars never heard of posttraumatic stress disorder, but it is certain many of them suffered from it long before that became an official name for the psychological aftereffects of combat.

Leadership is another of those intangible yet powerful human constants. Time and again a single leader doing the right thing in the right place at the right time has changed the course of a battle—and with it, history. Whether it is Henry V on horseback galloping up and down his front line to rally the English troops at Agincourt in 1415 or George Patton skidding along the icy roads of the Ardennes more than five centuries later to direct his Third Army by radio from the front seat of his jeep, leaders make a difference. As a profound student of history and battlefields, Patton would have understood exactly the similarities and differences in the challenges facing the commanders in both battles.

 The most important constant of land warfare? Despite vast differences in tactics and technology, terrain forever imposes its realities on the course of battle. Terrain. Two battles fought on the same piece of ground centuries apart will still be shaped by the character of that ground. Flat, open terrain like the desert favors the attacker. It always has. What soldiers call “compartmentalized terrain,” such as dense forest or an urban area, favors the defender. And the law of gravity always confers an advantage on the side that holds the high ground.

What soldiers call “key terrain” is any piece of ground the seizure or retention of which will give a marked if not a decisive advantage to one side or the other. A prominent geographic feature—a mountain, a canyon, a swift river— that represented key battlefield terrain hundreds of years ago is likely to remain key terrain today. Bad weather compounds the effects of bad terrain. A piece of ground that a century ago might have been classified as “no-go terrain,” like a marsh, today might be only “slow-go terrain,” given improved mobility. But swamps and rivers remain difficult to cross in force, and those crossing remain vulnerable. Of course, today we have the capability to simply fly over such terrain— but only if we enjoy local air superiority. In certain ways technological advances make it easier to overcome the difficulties of bad terrain. In other ways it complicates the problem, as for every new military technology, there is a developing counter-technology.

While such aspects of battlefield topology might be lost on a busload of tourists, a group of soldiers on a staff ride would consider them from every possible angle. Nor would tourists elect to spend hours on a battlefield in a freezing rain, yet such conditions often produce the most effective BSRs. For example, December is the best month to study the Battle of the Bulge. After all, if the weather closely resembles that experienced during the actual battle, that contributes to a better understanding of the conditions in which the soldiers fought.

Terrain was a crucial factor at Gettysburg. No one recognized this more quickly than Brig. Gen. John Buford, the first Union commander to reach the field on July 1, 1863. His 1st Division held off Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s approaching Confederate division long enough to allow Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds’ Union I Corps to reach the area and further slow the Rebel advance. All that fighting permitted the Union to occupy and hold Cemetery Ridge. When the Confederate main body finally reached the battlefield, it was forced to occupy inferior positions on the parallel but lower Seminary Ridge. Lee’s army fought the rest of the battle at a distinct disadvantage.

A typical battlefield tour at Gettysburg might start on Seminary Ridge, tracing the line of departure for Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s famous charge and observing his objective across the valley on Cemetery Ridge, which is marked by the Copse of Trees. Tourists would then board a bus and drive to Cemetery Ridge. Standing where Capt. Alonzo Cushing’s guns were positioned at The Angle, just to the right of the copse, visitors would overlook the ground across which Pickett’s men charged.

On a BSR with soldiers, however, this ground would tell a more nuanced story: Starting at Seminary Ridge, the group would walk across the fields toward Cemetery Ridge while trying to keep oriented on the Copse of Trees. It’s easy to lose one’s bearings as the ground dips and folds. But the low ground also represents dead space for enemy gunners, thus minimizing— albeit briefly—an advancing soldier’s chances of getting hit. Terrain affects both sides in a battle, but not in the same ways.

If you are conducting a staff ride at Gettysburg on a hot summer day—as it was on the third day of battle—your troops will be sweating profusely before they even reach Emmitsburg Road, which bisects the valley between the two ridges. At that point you would remind them that at least they are not wearing thick wool uniforms and carrying heavy equipment, that no one is shooting at them, and that there are no wounded to tend.

Despite its stature as a revered national shrine, however, Gettysburg is not necessarily the best battlefield for a BSR, though it boasts some advantages. For one, it’s an easy battle to get one’s arms around. Most people have heard of Gettysburg, and many know something about it. Even though the national military park comprises some 6,000 acres, it is relatively small by 20th century standards. And the battlefield is readily visible from many vantage points, making it easier to understand the full scope of combat and how the various actions fit together. But the terrain is not pristine. The nearly 1,400 monuments and memorials at Gettysburg indicate how important this ground is to Americans but make it difficult to visualize the terrain conditions and the ebb and flow of battle 145 years ago.

The battlefield I have used the most for staff rides is the Hürtgen Forest, just south of Aachen along the German- Belgian border. A huge battlefield at some 50 square miles, the Hürtgen was the setting for a fight that dragged out over three agonizing months, from early September through Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans launched their Ardennes Offensive immediately to the south. Battlefield tourists almost never visit the Hürtgen Forest, and few people today know anything about the battle. It was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Army. By the time it was over, the Americans had sustained more than 33,000 casualties and had nothing to show for it. The Germans too suffered heavy losses, but they fought a brilliant defensive battle, thus diverting attention from their nearby massive buildup for the Battle of the Bulge.

The Hürtgen remains one of the world’s great “teaching battlefields.” Unlike Gettysburg, the forest contains few monuments, and those are almost impossible to find unless you know exactly where to look. Even with good maps, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the locations of key tactical actions. But the best thing about the Hürtgen is that the terrain today remains almost exactly as it was during the war. Soldiers who fought there in 1944 would have no trouble finding traces of their foxholes or bunkers.

The Hürtgen offers a stark lesson on how terrain can dominate a tactical action. It covers textbook defender’s ground. The exposed ridgelines and steep, heavily wooded ravines make maneuver almost impossible and channel movement through a few predictable corridors. To make matters worse, the streams, rivers and few trafficable roads run perpendicular to the axis of advance, further hindering attackers while allowing defenders good lateral communications. And despite their reputation as masters of offensive warfare, the Germans also fielded some of the most skillful and tenacious defenders in the history of warfare.

When conducting a staff ride through the Hürtgen, I usually concentrate on the central sector, through which the U.S. 28th Infantry Division tried to capture the town of Schmidt in early November, sustaining 6,184 casualties in just six days of fighting. Throughout that phase of the battle the Germans controlled a huge knob of ground called Hill 400, which dominated almost every zone the 28th ID was trying to penetrate—a clear example of “key terrain.” As long as the Germans had observers atop Hill 400, the division’s attack was doomed.

After several days on the battlefield, seeing Hill 400 every time you look up, its importance seems painfully obvious. But evidently it was not so obvious at the start of the battle, and comprehending how American commanders and operational planners in 1944 failed to see that is a crucial lesson. Long after the failed 28th ID attack, the 2nd Ranger Battalion finally took Hill 400 on Dec. 7, 1944. Even then it was two more months before the Americans took Schmidt, as the Allies spent much of that intervening time focused on the Battle of the Bulge.

I’ve never taken a group to the Hürtgen Forest that didn’t come away from the visit with more questions than when it started. The great thing about a battlefield staff ride is that it is applicable to training at all levels: I’ve been out with groups comprising all sergeants, all general officers and every rank in between. All such groups draw different lessons from the same battle—and I never fail to pick up something new myself, every time.

 

For further reading, David T. Zabecki recommends: War Walks: From Agincourt to Normandy, by Richard Holmes, and A Guide to the Battlefields of Europe, by David Chandler.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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