Deception and Maneuver


Maurice, Prince of Orange, (Maurits van Nassau). Successfully led the Dutch Revolt over the Spanish. Modernized battlefield techniques, had his officers train not just lead infantry.

The only work published during his lifetime by Niccolò Machiavelli – one of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance – was The Art of War. Like that of most of his contemporaries, Machiavelli’s military work was inspired by the ancients, particularly Polybius and Vegetius. It rejected the values that underpinned medieval warfare and took an entirely practical view of the subject, with victory as the sole criterion for success and an acceptance of every type of trickery as legitimate. Machiavelli described the ideal commander as one capable of constantly devising new tactics and stratagems to deceive and overpower the enemy. But although this was a time when firearms were starting to appear in quantity on battlefields all over Europe, it was not gunpowder that underpinned this change in approach so much as the need to introduce discipline and training of a sort unknown in medieval armies.

Machiavelli’s writing inspired Justus Lipsius, who in turn inspired Maurice of Nassau. Lipsius said that whoever could combine the troops of the day with the discipline of the Roman art of war would be able to dominate the earth, and it was the development of drill and the formation of the modern infantry company requiring professional officers and soldiers by Maurice and, later, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, that formed the true basis of the military revolution that accompanied the Renaissance. At the same time each introduced a higher proportion of musketeers to pikemen in their regiments, and with the invention of the bayonet at the end of the seventeenth century the role of firepower increased, so that the cavalry (and its associated chivalric ideal) was no longer master of the battlefield. Along with this transformation in the nature of warfare came a transformation in the political patterns that produced it, with the development of nation states. By the beginning of the eighteenth century most states possessed standing armies officered by professional soldiers for whom deception was a natural part of war.


Such modern concepts as coalition warfare began to appear, along with the division of warfare into the tactical, operational and strategic levels (which we might simplify as the direction of armies on the battlefield, between battlefields or between theatres of war). During the War of the Spanish Succession John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, provided a magnificent example of strategic deception. In the spring of 1704 the French and their Bavarian allies seemed poised to capture Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and strike a strategic blow that would end the Grand Alliance, of which Great Britain was part. With a revolt taking place in Hungary, there were only 36,000 Imperial troops under Prince Lewis of Baden in a position to defend the city, menaced by the same number of Bavarians in the vicinity of Ulm and as many French again under the command of Maréchal Tallard, waiting to march through the Black Forest and join the Bavarians for an advance along the Danube. On returning from England to resume his command of the Anglo-Dutch forces in the Netherlands, Marlborough devised an audacious plan to save Vienna. He would march across Europe to the Danube across the face of two French armies and remove the threat to the Austrian capital – a plan that could only succeed through deception.

Facing Marlborough in Flanders were 90,000 French troops under Maréchal Villeroi. It was obvious that the Dutch government, the States-General, would never agree to Marlborough abandoning the north. He therefore had to persuade them that he was planning to advance down the Moselle, a logical extension of the previous year’s campaigns. At the same time he put in train a complex scheme to ensure his administrative requirements would be catered for along his real route. After setting out from Bedburg on 19 May with 21,000 men, he collected a reinforcement of 5,000 Hanoverian and Prussian troops at Koblenz and crossed over to the right bank of the Rhine on the 26th. The march continued, now seeming to threaten the great city of Strasbourg (about which King Louis XIV of France was especially sensitive, since it had only passed into French possession in 1681). Marlborough threatened it by ordering the governor of Philippsburg to build a large bridge of boats and amass supplies as if for a crossing. Tallard was partially deceived by this and delayed marching on Ulm while awaiting new instructions from Versailles. Instead, Marlborough was able to cross two major obstacles, the rivers Main and Neckar, and then swing away from the Rhine towards the Danube. He only informed the Dutch of his true intentions on 6 June. As Villeroi had been shadowing Marlborough, the Dutch remained safe from an offensive and Marlborough promised to return immediately in barges along the Rhine at eighty miles a day should it prove necessary. As a result, the States-General voted him their full support on 10 June and agreed to release the Danish contingent of 10,000 men as a reinforcement. It was a truly brilliant feat, covering 250 miles in five weeks with only a tiny loss by the wayside, the result of foresight, superb planning and, in an age when security was practically unheard of, secrecy. The campaign culminated in the decisive defeat of Tallard at the Battle of Blenheim and the removal of the threat to Vienna.

In the days when information could only be passed as fast as a horseman could ride, and when armies could expect to march at little more than ten miles a day, the opportunities for deception on such a scale were very rare. Marlborough had not only to plan for such contingencies as the issue to each man of new shoes at Heidelberg, but to make all the necessary diplomatic arrangements with the various German princes through whose territory he had to pass, organizing credit with bankers and the laying-in of provisions. These arrangements could not be kept secret from the French, but what could be kept secret was the true intention behind them and this formed the basis for the deception.

At the start of the war in 1701, the other great general of the age, Prince Eugène of Savoy-Carignan, demonstrated similar skill at what would now be called the operational level. Following a meeting of the Austrian war council, Emperor Leopold gave orders for the Habsburg army to enter Milan, but there were to be long delays before they could begin. Meanwhile, in February 1701, the French were permitted into Savoy and King Louis XIV sent forces to strengthen the French garrison of Milan and to occupy the famous fortresses of the ‘Quadrilateral’ – Verona and Legnago on the River Adige, and Peschiara and Mantua on the River Mincio – control of which ensured strategic control of Italy. The Duke of Mantua allowed the French to assume control of the Po valley under Maréchal Catinat, so that Eugène’s first problem would be simply to get into Italy. With the French in occupation from Savoy to the borders of Venice and the passes blocked from the Tyrol into Lombardy, Catinat boasted that in order to enter the country the ‘Imperial army would have to grow wings’.

Eugène commanded a force of 30,000 men assembled at Rovereto in South Tyrol. ‘Let us only start marching and we will soon find allies,’ he boldly declared; but finding allies was the least of his problems, given that the French outnumbered him by at least 10,000 men and blocked the gorge of the Adige leading from Rovereto to Verona, the only apparent approach route into Italy. According to local legend, neither cart nor horse had been able to reach the plain by any other route, so savage were the mountains around about, so it seemed that Catinat’s boast was no idle one. But Eugène understood that the legend also served to provide a cover plan, and simulating preparations for a frontal assault on Catinat, he chose instead to take his troops over the mountain tops eastward toward Vicenza, even though this would infringe Venetian neutrality. Hundreds of Tyrolean peasants were conscripted to shovel away the snow and cut paths through the wild Terragnolo and Fredda valleys before the troops could begin the march on 26 May. Fifteen pairs of oxen were harnessed to each gun and a total of 6,000 horse and 16,000 infantry scrambled over Monte Baldo into Italy. So effective was his deception that as late as 30 May Catinat was issuing warnings of an attack from the north along the Adige. It was a truly remarkable feat and immediately captured the public imagination. Eugène was compared to Hannibal and his name became forever linked to the region: a mountain stream from which he drank is known to this day as the Fontana del Principio Eugenio. Catinat was taken completely by surprise and never regained the initiative.

Marlborough also went on to create clever deceptions at the operational and tactical levels, and managed to repeat one particular trick on two opponents. In Flanders in 1705 Maréchal Villeroi was defending a formidable defensive position called the Lines of Brabant. On the evening of 17 July Marlborough’s engineers built a series of twenty pontoon bridges across the stream of the Mehaigne, suggesting a move to the south to join up with the Dutch, who at the same time advanced towards Namur in the south-west. That night Marlborough broke camp and (literally ‘stealing a march’) instead turned north, ordering the Dutch to follow up over the pontoons while Villeroi was moving to cover Namur. At dawn the following day Marlborough crossed through the lines unopposed at Wanghe, forcing Villeroi to abandon his position and retire on Louvain.


In 1711 Marlborough repeated the process on the plain of Lens. His intention was to capture Bouchain but first he needed to secure the area around Arleux, just in front of the main line of fortifications. Aware that a French reaction to its capture would be inevitable, he dispatched a force to take and fortify it. Sure enough his opponent, Maréchal Villars, sent out a sally to retake the town. Despite sending his superb and trusted quartermaster-general William, Earl Cadogan, to its aid, Arleux fell. It was at this point that Villars gave the court in Versailles repeated assurances that his lines were the non plus ultra (‘nothing further is possible’) of the Duke of Marlborough. In fact, Cadogan had secretly been instructed to allow the fall of Arleux, and Marlborough’s rare display of public rage at the news was undoubtedly for the benefit of the French spies he believed were all around. As if to make up for the ‘affront’ he claimed to have suffered, he moved his main camp to Villers Brulin in the west, making a clear show of planning to attack the lines in their strongest section by ostentatiously riding out on 4 August to reconnoitre them, while Villars responded by bringing up all available reinforcements.

Meanwhile, the guns and pontoons needed were moving in dead ground behind Vimy Ridge to the east. The troops were formed into four columns and moved quietly away by 2100 hours, leaving their camp fires burning behind them. By the time Villars realized what was afoot it was too late. When Marlborough received a report that Arleux and the lines behind it were deserted, he passed the news along the column and asked it to make an extra effort. The soldiers responded magnificently: the 18th Regiment of Foot completed thirty-nine miles in eighteen hours, and by 0800 hours on 5 August the Duke and his cavalry advance guard were pouring through the lines near Arleux. Villars was forced to retire to Cambrai.

Such a manœuvre, where a commander makes a show without intending actually to engage the enemy, is known as a demonstration. A show which does engage the enemy with a portion of one’s force is known as a feint, and was a favourite ruse of the Francophile philosopher King Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great). ‘You reap greater benefit from the skin of a fox than from the hide of a lion,’ he wrote, and went on to describe how ‘we endeavour to conceal the real plan and to create an illusion for the benefit of the enemy by feigning views we do not hold.’ Frederick’s voluminous writings include his Secret Instructions to his generals and the Military Testaments of 1752 and 1768. Although he never synthesized his ideas into a single treatise, these and other works give an insight into his thoughts at various times. Since ‘a ruse might succeed where brute force might fail,’ he made frequent use of double agents, planted messages, showy concentrations of troops or transport, or deceptive arrangements of his forces in camp. While not an innovator in the fashion of Maurice or Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick did devise the Attack in Oblique Order. This was designed to maximize the effectiveness of Prussia’s numerically inferior armies by feinting against one part of the enemy’s line before concentrating by rapid manœuvre to roll it up from the flank, a tactic used most notably at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757.



Following defeat by the Austrians at Kolin on 18 June, which enabled them to relieve Prague, Frederick was forced onto the defensive. After defeating the French at Rossbach on 5 November he rushed his small army of 36,000 men back to Silesia, determined to attack the combined 70,000-strong Austro-Russian army commanded by Prince Charles of Lorraine and Marschall Leopold von Daun, which was blocking the road to Breslau. With only half the numbers of his opponents it was a bold move indeed; but Frederick felt that boldness aided by deception would make up for the disparity. After rising at 0400 hours, the army was soon on the march in two great wings of infantry flanked by cavalry with a powerful advance guard to the fore. By a stroke of fortune the ground over which the battle was fought was the Prussian army’s peacetime training area. Near the village of Borne, Austrian outposts were quickly driven in and Frederick made a reconnaissance. The Austrian right wing was anchored on an oak forest, but the left fell short of Lake Schweidnitzer-Wasser. Most importantly, he could see that the high ground of the Schleier-Berg and the Sophien-Berg offered a covered approach towards the Austrian left at Sagschütz. He therefore made a deployment as if to attack directly to his front, convincing Charles that he would hit the Austrian right and prompting him to bring forward nine battalions from the reserve to the area of Nippern, well over an hour’s march from Sagschütz. Meanwhile, the marching Prussian columns had disappeared from view, thanks to Frederick’s intimate knowledge of the terrain.

As the main body moved to assault the Austrian left, the advance guard continued forward in a feint towards the right-centre. Shortly after noon the main body was in position to assault from the south through the village of Leuthen, heavily supported by artillery. At first, Charles sought to send individual battalions to meet this new threat, but with his cavalry driven from the field, he was forced to realign his entire defence to face south. At about 1530 hours the Prussians opened a concerted attack against this new line, taken in the flank by Prussian artillery fire. Leuthen fell after thirty minutes and, with the light rapidly fading, the Austrians fell back in total disorder, which quickly turned to rout. The Prussians lost a little over 6,000 men but they inflicted 22,000 casualties on the Austrians (including around 12,000 prisoners). It was probably the greatest victory of the century.

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