Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Way They Did It: Manuever Warfare

By José Martinez                             

In the year 1757, an army directed by Frederick the Great that confronted the Austrian army commanded by Count Leopold von Daun. In the book Great Military Leaders and their Campaigns the book states Von Daun was “an expert of positional warfare” (pg 167). The battle of Leuthen proved this was not the right approach to warfare. There are numerous reasons for which maneuver warfare is better than positional.

First, that maneuver warfare gives the chance of maintaining the offensive. Numerous campaigns in military history prove that this is true. One example of this can be found in the Thermopylae Campaign in which the Spartans, lead by Leonidas, used the Thermopylae pass as their defensive position. Their counterpart, the Persians, had the offensive. They had trespassed a great part of Greece until the intervention of the Greeks. This was most likely caused by the will of the Spartans to find a place in which the fleet and the army could defend themselves at the same place. If the Spartan fleet fell, the Persians would be able to disembark behind the Spartans and take them in the front and back simultaneously. The Spartans where trying to find a place in which there defense would be indestructible. That is there problem; no defense is indestructible. The defender (the Spartans) is waiting for the attack to cover the point that is attacked but even so the attacker (the Persians) has the advantage because he always has a head start. In addition, the defender has a large difficulty to know how many troops the enemy will be able to mass in that point being all the points in his line sensible to an attack.

Similar to the battle of Thermopylae is the battle of Somossiera in the year 1808. In this battle the Spanish where on the defensive. As usual, Napoleon was on the offensive. Before launching an assault with the cavalry, General Ruffin, along  with his division, tried to capture the heights of the Somosierra Pass. Since he was unable, to, Napoleon decided to launch an assault to penetrate the Spanish position by using the brave Poles as the spearhead. Napoleon broke though the Spanish positions; however, this was not the case in the battle of Thermopylae. This battle was won by a tactic known as flanking. This tactic was also used in other battles, such as the battle of Leuthen. The Greeks noticed that they had committed a mistake using defensive warfare. They redeemed themselves in the battle of Salamis in the year 480 B.C.  In this battle they tricked the Persians and by pretending to escape and hiding a part of their fleet behind the Persians and surprising them. This is one of the properties of maneuver warfare.

The second reason for which it is for which it is important to maintain the offensive is that they (the attackers) can chose the battle site. Being able to choose the battle site is important because it gives more time to learn about the terrain, it gives you more time to create more complex and successful maneuvers and gives you a chance to perfect your position. One example of this battle selection can be found in the battle of Austerlitz. In the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon perfected his position by weakening his right flank. The right flank was mostly covered by the IV Corps of Nicolas Soult. His corps was covering two thirds of the total line. This proved to be decisive since this would cause the Allies to move troops to this flank from their center and weakening it which later Napoleon would destroy allowing him to capture the Pratzen Heights. This would have not been possible if Napoleon had not been on the offensive because then he might have reinforced his right flank with some of the forces  that were in the center.

Secondly,  maneuver warfare permits the maneuvering army to placee the best of itself in a place where the enemy is weak. One example is the battle of Leuthen. Frederick, the commander and king of the Prussians, used his superior marching speed and fire potential against the more numerous Austrians. Maneuver warfare gave him a chance to use his army in a place in which the number of the enemy would not be great: the flank. Hills were used as  natural barriers to hide his troops while marching towards the Austrian flank. As in most flanks, they were unprotected, but especially because this attack was unexpected. This attack gave Frederick the chance of being able to fire while the Austrians prepared to face the true threat.

Another example in which maneuver warfare gives a chance to have the best of your army while confronting the worst of the opponent can be found in the year 1807,  at the battle of Friedland. Napoleon had been maneuvering to try to force the Russians to make a mistake. When the Russians made a mistake of separating their army by a river and not having enough bridges to cross in case of defeat,  Napoleon did not wait to attack even thought he was in numerical inferiority. The Russian mistake had been caused by a maneuver or trick. This trick consisted in drawing Bennigesen, the Russian commander, to attack a supposedly unsupported corps commanded by Lannes. This temptation forced him to cross the River Alle when he only had four bridges to cross if he had to retreat. This mistake gave Napoleon the chance to attack when he apparently was in inferiority.  A similar situation occurred during the Jena campaign. On 12 October 1806,  Lannes crossed the Saale River. The Prussian Hohenlohe thought he was “fighting an isolated flank of the army of Napoleon” (pg.235 David Chandler).  However, he did not know that all the parts of Napoleons army supported each other mutually so the next day when Hohelohe disposed himself to attack he encountered a much larger French army.

Another example in which it can be observed that maneuver warfare is better than positional or defensive can be found in the battle of Trafalgar. Lord Horatio Nelson used two attack columns to concentrate in one place. This place could be supposed by the Spanish and Frenchmen but never with much certainty and without weakening one part of their fleet. But this might be considered for some a place to stop, but certainly it is not since it does not gives us a chance to evaluate why Lord Horatio Nelson followed this attack method, which exposed him initially to massive fire. The reason for this was that he trusted that his ships could defeat the less trained and experienced French and Spanish in a one to one combat. Therefore, the attack in columns can be considered the way in which Horatio Nelson achieved superiority over a weak enemy position by attacking where he was strong. Nelson used maneuver warfare as away to gain an advantage when the situation was against him.

Maneuver warfare might perhaps be the only way to get out a very unfavorable situation with a very positive outcome not just to save the day but also to attain a decisive victory. There where three occasions in which the war turned unfavorable for the French: in 1812 during the retreat from Russia, in 1814 During the defense of France and in 1815 during the Hundred days campaign in each of these unfavorable moments Napoleon at least once caused a defeat decisive to the enemy. In the year 1812, Napoleon was able to escape Russia because of the Battle of Berezina. This was decisive because without this victory Napoleons army would have been trapped. In 1814, Napoleon certainly was in a very poor situation. With superior numbers, the Coalition’s forces had begun to enter Frances original frontiers. In this desperate situation, once again Napoleon gave his chances to maneuver warfare as he used it in Italy during his first years.  In this campaign, frequently called the defense of France, Napoleon achieved four consecutive victories, although they where unable to stop the Coalition it certainly gave out the message that Napoleon was still the commander he had been before Russian campaign and the battle of the Nations. In these four battles Napoleon fought with superiority and always tried or accomplished the destruction of his enemies. Finally, in the campaign of 1815, at the battle of Ligny, Napoleon used maneuver warfare to gain his last but probably one his most beautiful victories, although not decisive, this victory was like a hammer to the stomach of the allies. Some victories where possible thanks to the ability of maneuver warfare of opening doors to the use of tactics and the creation of new ones.

One other reason for which defensive warfare is useless is because it does not permit the use of other tactics, either innovating or not. For example, in the battle of Thermopylae the Spartans could not employ any tactics because they where constantly under attack. The only thing they did was stand there ground until they could. Then look at the Persians, who were on the offensive and they used the tactics of outflanking the Spartans. Therefore what defensive warfare does not give to you maneuver warfare provides, the possibility of using various tactics.  One example of this can also be found in the battle of Issus. Darius (Persian king and commander) stayed on the defensive since he was surprised by enemy troops. Therefore he could not employ any maneuver tactics, but Alexander employ two tactics: destruction and penetration  of a line. Darius can only be attributed the correct use of land; such as the use of rivers, coast and the construction of fortifications. During the critical part of the battle Darius had assumed the offensive near the coastline with his cavalry he knew this terrain was favorable for them. To counter this Alexander counted on Parmenion to remain on the defensive; this was not for long. Soon after, Alexander restarted the offensive along the whole of his line but especially with his “Companions” on the right. In this flank, Alexander routed most of the Persian units and he then turned his units on the left. The Greek mercenaries attempted to stop his attack on their flank when Alexander attacked again to their front with the whole of his phalanx.

Another example of what offensive warfare gives you a chance to do can be found in the battle of Tel-El-Kebir on the 13 of September of 1882. In this battle the English general, Garnet Wolseley, conducted a risky night march and surprised the men in the fortified position in Tel-El-Kebir. If Garnet Wolseley had not done that risky march he could not have surprised the enemy and therefore his victory would not have been as astounding.  In this battle, you can also compare the utility of fortifications versus maneuver.  Clearly, in this battle it was demonstrated that maneuver is more useful than defensive warfare. Another advantage of maneuver warfare over defensive warfare is its effectiviteness.

During the Ulm campaign it can be observed that the effectiveness of maneuver was much greater that defensive warfare. During this campaign, Napoleon forced the Austrians to surrender through the incredible use of maneuver. His casualties where only one percent of his army while the Austrians casualties were sixty percent of their army. This operation certainly is model of future ones because of its planning and coordination. However, most defensive operations are also planed and coordinated so then what is the difference? The quick movement of coordinated troops to achieve surprise or confusion within the enemy is one of the differences. Another example of this can be found in the battle of Wagram in which the Archduke Charles, of which I previously stated his like for positional warfare and Napoleon, which clearly preferred maneuver warfare, had an encounter. In this battle Napoleon outflanked the Austrian defensive position and turned on their flank. By doing this, he separated them from their reinforcements. This shows another weakness of positional warfare the defender is in a position so therefore the defender can’t be in two positions and this make you very vulnerable to attacks similar to this one done by Napoleon in the battle of Wagram. The counterpart of maneuver warfare, defensive warfare has shown to not be effective in the key battle the battle of Zama. This battle closed a series of wars, called the Punic Wars. During this battle, the Carthaginian commander, Hannibal, fought the Roman Scipio. The critical point of the battle arose when Hannibal’s veterans, like Napoleons Old Guard or Spain’s Old Tercios, did not move to charge on the disordered Roman ranks. It is unknown why this occurred but the result was that Hannibal could not maneuver, and therefore lost this battle. Notice that Hannibal won all the other battles in which he was the commander except in the one he could not maneuver.

Similar to the situation of Hannibal in Zama was the situation of Napoleon at Waterloo. Some of the similaries are that both commanders could not maneuver and that at the end of the battle the veterans of both where routed. The reason for which Napoleon could not employ maneuver warfare was because of the heavy rain of the previous days were not helpful to the movement of artillery, the key component of Napoleon’s armies. Therefore as in other Napoleonic battles with large casualties, such as the battle of Moscova (Borodino), Napoleon disposed his army to launch a frontal assault. Unlike the battle of Wagram, with the use of maneuver, the battles of Zama and Waterloo are examples of one of the ways in which defensive warfare is not effective. The battle of Wagram also shows another of the advantages of maneuver warfare, dependence on your own tactics.

As show in the battle of Wagram, defensive tactics are completely dependant on the offensive tactics employed there; for defensive warfare is very sensible to maneuver. The best example for this once again might be the battle of Thermopylae in which the Persians outflanked the Greeks. This defensive position was so sensitive to this weakness, that Leonidas order the retreat of the other Greek contingents until only the 300 Spartans where left. Most kind  of warfare are sensible; for example, in numerous battles of the Napoleonic Era one of the armies had to change their disposition because there was an outflanking move, such as Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. However, with defensive warfare the situation is completely different,  the whole disposition has to be change if there is a defeat. This happened to Napoleon during the first weeks of his campaign to defend France. After the disaster of the battle of the Nations, Napoleon had to defend the frontiers of France. At the beginning of the invasion, Victor was in Strasbourg and retreated to Nancy but then he decided to abandon Nancy, which forced the other troops in the defensive line to retreat. This detail has great importance. The whole French line was obligated to retreat because of one man, that is the real sensitiveness of defensive warfare. Furthermore, when Napoleon was able to detain the army of Bohemia and notice the weak position of  Blücher he was able, though the use of maneuver, to gain a victory over the coalitions forces three consecutive times. This campaign also demonstrated that the only element that can make a defensive position successful is maneuver.

In three very clear occasions, defenses where conducted successfully though the use of maneuver warfare: Austerlitz, the siege of Hamburg, and Dresden. In the battle of Austerlitz the villages of Telnitz and Solnitz where scarcely defended.  Only the careful planning by Napoleon and his great maneuver were able to make this defense a success. Napoleons’ system of corps divided the army in a way that permits the interaction of the corps for support and their rapid concentration for battle. The Corps of Marshal Davout arrived just on time to support the flank of the French army. This maneuver made the defense of this flank successful and therefore fully contributed to the victory in the battle of Austerlitz. The second example, is the battle of Dresden, also explains how a defensive position needs the support of maneuver to be successful. During the battle of Dresden Napoleons goal was to not let Dresden fall into the hands of the Army of Bohemia therefore, he had to defend the city using maneuver warfare. This battle lasted two days. During the first day, the French army was forced to retreat but regained its positions when three e\special columns counterattacked and recuperated terrain. By the night of the first day, reinforcements had arrived and the battle was going to get on its decisive course. On the next day, the offensive was assumed all along the “defensive” line. However, with much more importance on the left because the night rain had made the Weissertitz  River a large obstacle and only one bridge joined it to the rest of the army. Therefore, the offensive was assumed there with more vigor than in other sector.  This resulted in the capture of the bridge to cross the river and the destruction of the left wing of the Army of Bohemia. Notice that the defense was successful and effective as the amount of casualties shows: 10.000 French and 38.000 of the Army of Bohemia.

The third and final example of how defense needs maneuver warfare can be found in the siege of Hamburg in 1813 and 1814. During the siege, Davout was besieged by Bennigesen. Bennigesen tried to capture Hamburg three times but failed in each. He then laid siege to Hamburg. The reason for which Davout succeeded was that he had a reserve and a system of alarm.s By this system, Davout could concentrate the necessary force in the place that was being attacked. This was a system of maneuver since all of the troops where within the walls. Davout lasted through the end of the war. This defense was successful because of the defender’s ability to maneuver.

Maneuver warfare was the only way in which separated groups of an army could operate together to achieve a goal. Most of Napoleon’s battles are examples of this. The system of corps consisted in that concept. Therefore, Napoleon’s army was a maneuver army in which all the pieces where of equal strength. In contrast in the 1807 campaign Napoleon confronted a army that did not have in all its parts an equal amount of men in each corps. Before the Napoleonic era armies where “a unitary mass lumbering around the battlefield searching for a decisive battle.”(David Chandler) After Napoleon’s armies were more organized and could seek battle where they wanted.

Napoleon said that “Strategy is the art of using space and time.”(Técnicas Bélicas pg. 150 ) The only way to effectively use space and time would be maneuver warfare. The reasons above resume the ways in which defensive warfare is inferior to maneuver warfare. However, perhaps there is another way to look at this: is defensive warfare another end to maneuver or are they different? What are there similarities? This certainly is another story.


Anglim, Simon. Técnicas Bélicas Del Mundo Antiguo, 3000 A. C - 500 D. C: Equipamiento, Técnicas Y Tácticas De Combate. Alcobendas, Madrid: LIBSA, 2007. Print.

Duffy, Christopher. Prussia's Glory: Rossbach and Leuthen 1757. Chicago: Emperor's Pr., 2004. Print.

Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. Grandes Generales Del Ejérrcito Romano: Campañas, Estrategias Y Tácticas. Barcelona: Ariel, 2006. Print.

Nosworthy, Brent. With Musket, Cannon, and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies. New York: Sarpedon, 1996. Print.

Quesada, Sanz Fernando., and Del Castillo, Carlos. Fernandez. Armas De Grecia Y Roma: Forjaron La Historia De La Antigüedad Clásica. Madrid: La Esfera De Los Libros, 2008. Print.

Tecnicas Belicas De La Epoca Napoleonica/ War Technique of the Napoleonic Era Equipamiento, Tecnicas Y Tacticas De Combate/ the Equipment, Techniques and War Tactics. Editorial Libsa, 2008. Print. 

Organization Index ]

© Copyright 1995-2011, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]