Cannae – A Legacy

The modern military image of Cannae as what one modern critic termed “a Platonic ideal of victory” appears to have originated with the obsession of one man, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the Prussian general staff from 1891 to 1905. Schlieffen’s preoccupation with the battle turned on several factors. One was Germany’s strategic position, caught between two potential adversaries, Russia and France, which made a fast decisive victory over one or the other highly desirable. The second factor was the example provided by his predecessor on the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who in 1870 at Sedan surrounded the French and captured Emperor Napoléon III through a double envelopment, making a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War nearly inevitable. Finally, all of this was informed by Schlieffen’s reading of ancient history, specifically the first volume of Hans Delbrück’s History of the Art of War, with its extensive description of Cannae. Metaphorically at least, a bulb switched on above Schlieffen’s head, and suddenly Cannae seemed to beam light on everything.

While this revelation could have taken place as early as 1901, it seems more likely that it came as late as 1909, well after the general’s retirement. This is important because until recently it has been assumed that Hannibal’s victory was the inspiration behind the so-called Schlieffen plan, which was supposedly the strategic basis for Germany’s attack through Belgium and into France during the early stages of World War I. Not only has the very existence of the Schlieffen plan as a comprehensive scheme of battle been questioned, but it is apparent that the chief of staff’s recommendations for a war against France from 1901 to 1905 were based on a concentration of force against one flank of the enemy, an approach that simply did not fit Cannae’s footprint, despite subsequent efforts to shoe-horn the plan into this context.

This is not to argue that Schlieffen was not Cannae-obsessed or that he did not come to measure much of recent military history against what he called this “perfect battle of annihilation;” it is simply a question of timing. Schlieffen’s collected works including his Cannae studies were published in 1913, the year of his death. However, they do not appear to have been very influential until after the end of World War I, when they became a touchstone for those who argued that the German Army had lost the first battle of the Marne (and thus the war) because they had failed to keep faith with Schlieffen’s commandments—in the process conflating Cannae and the general’s actual advice. This set the tone for a subsequent generation of German military thinkers, a key segment of whom followed Schlieffen “like Thurber’s owl” and dreamed of future Cannaes made all the more plausible by the advent of armored vehicles.

Schlieffen’s Cannae studies were also influential in military circles outside of Germany during the interwar years. In 1931, for instance, they were translated into English and published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, availing a new cadre of American officers the opportunity to consider the possibilities.

Hence, World War II would feature a cavalcade of Cannae-savvy military luminaries, a number of whom, especially among the Germans, were looking to inflict such a fate on their adversaries. Heinz Guderian conceptualized his tanks as motorized equivalents of Hasdrubal’s cavalry sweeping around the enemy to seal their fate. Similarly, in 1941, while in the process of chasing the British army in the direction of Tobruk, Erwin Rommel noted in his diary that “a new Cannae is being prepared.”

Even in the face of disaster, the Germans stuck to the theme; thus Erhard Raus, commander of the 6th Panzer Division near Stalingrad, less than three months before his army’s surrender, dubbed a successful day’s fighting around an obscure village “the Cannae of Pakhlebin.” Seven months later, in July 1943, the German assault on the Kursk salient was intended to achieve a gigantic Cannae—only to result in a disastrous attrition of their attacking armored vehicles on both flanks by the well-prepared defensive-minded Russians. The German Army having been bled white by the dream of Schlieffen’s “perfect battle of annihilation,” Kursk marked the last time the Wehrmacht was able to mount offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Defeat beckoned.

Yet the Germans were not alone in responding to Cannae’s siren song. While the British were more cautious, American commanders were offensive-minded and therefore open to Hannibalic feats of arms. In particular, Dwight Eisenhower had nurtured a lifelong dream of emulating the Carthaginian general’s envelopment of the Romans. And for the initial Allied invasion of Germany, Eisenhower envisioned a huge Cannae-like maneuver, employing a double envelopment of the Ruhr. George Patton, the most audacious of the major American commanders in Europe, was also a student of military history and very much aware of Hannibal’s feat. Yet his outlook was hardly predictable, and reflects the contingent nature of even so decisive a victory. Writing in 1939, Patton notes: “There is an old saw to the effect that: ‘To have a Cannae you must have a Varro’ … in order to win a great victory you must have a dumb enemy commander. From what we know at the moment, the Poles qualified …”

World War II ended and was replaced by inconclusive combat in Korea, the standoff of the cold war, and amorphous insurgency in Vietnam; yet the American dream of Cannae lived on, apparently nurtured primarily by forays into ancient military history at U.S. service academies. So it was that after the 1991 Gulf War, victorious General Norman Schwarzkopf was able to proclaim that he had “learned many things from the Battle of Cannae which I applied to Desert Storm.” In fact, the general’s famous “left hook in the desert” more resembled the opening German moves in World War I, but no public-relations-conscious war hero was likely to announce that he had prepared another Schlieffen plan, so Cannae it was.

The future remains ambiguous. Given the predominance of anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency, the possibility of maneuver warfare seems, for the moment, distant. Also, given the sophistication of modern intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, the kind of deception necessary to produce truly Hannibalic results may prove very difficult to achieve. But as long as men dream of killing other groups of men in very large numbers, we can rest assured, Cannae will not be forgotten.