The Principles of War

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

Given the title of the post I suspect many of you are expecting a diatribe on strategy, well not quite. I spent yesterday going through the papers of Air Marshal Stephen Strafford, who in 1944 served as Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory‘s Chief of Operations and Plans at the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

In his papers I came across an interesting pamphlet entitled, More Asp Ad Astra: The Lighter Side of Ten Years ‘Hard’, 1938-1948. This is a collection on light-hearted poems and verses written by various officers including Air Chief Marshal Dowding. In it I found this great poem on the principles of war.

By day and night we sit and plan,

Devising means whereby we can,

Forget all we have learned of yore,

And flout the principles of war.

Napoleon, at the crucial spot,

Might concentrate all he had got,

Napoleon’s dead; his teaching’s worse;

Disperse, we say, disperse, disperse,

The why should we maintain the aim

And think on Monday just the same

As we had thought on Friday night?

Variety is always right.

Mobility to us implies

Some wild and hare-brained enterprise.

Wherein our meager forces are

Sent furthest from the real war.

‘The air force weapon is the bomb’;

So says our manual, but from

Such horrid thought we always shrink

And only of the fighter think

One principle alone we heed –

To mystify and mislead;

The only folk we don’t surprise

Are those we term our enemies

This was written by Air Vice Marshal E B C Betts and despite it lighthearted nature it actually really explores the problems of strategy and the confusion it brings to even those at the highest levels. His comments on the importance of the bomb seem especially pertinent.

By Ross Mahoney

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4 Responses to “The Principles of War”


  1. 1 Jay August 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Reading through the poem reminded me of a joke which made the rounds more years ago than I like to remember. Some things just never change:

    In the beginning, there was the plan.

    And then came the assumptions.

    And the assumptions were without form.

    And the plan was completely without substance.

    The planners told the Chief of Plans: “It’s a crock of shit and it stinks!”

    The Chief of Plans then told the G3: “It’s a pail of dung and none may abide by the odor.”

    The G3 then told Chief of Staff: “It’s a container of excrement and it is very strong such that none may smell it.”

    The Chief of Staff then told the ADC(M): “It is a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide by its strength. It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong.”

    The ADC(M) told the CG: “It promotes growth and it is very powerful. It will promote the efficiency in the system and victory for the future.”

    And the CG reviewed the plan and said: “This is good.”

    And the plan became an order.

    And this is how shit happens

  2. 2 Ross August 19, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I like that Jay. I supect most of the services have their own version somewhere.


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