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Captain Seafort

A few thoughts on frontal attacks

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It's been a while since anything happened here, so I'll add my two-penneth and see what happens.


Brian's latest two videos, on the frontal attacks that comprised the best-known aspects of the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, make key claims - that frontal attacks are inherently stupid and doomed to failure, and that the frequent success of frontal attacks in science fiction, with Brian exemplifies with the Siege of AR-558, the Battle of Babylon 5, and the capture of the Tantive IV, was due to the absence of artillery. He also has a few cracks at Lee vis a vis a certain obnoxious little corporal.  I disagree on all three points.


First, the general issue of frontal attacks.  Yes, they are frequently extremely bloody, but they have the advantage of having the most straightforward route to the objective, and thereby allow the maximum possible force to be applied in the minimum amount of time.  For this reason, they are both common, and frequently successful.  The key is to ensure proper coordination of all arms and, if possible,  making the final push is against a weak sector of the enemy position.  By applying these principles, frontal attacks have achieved some of the most famous victories in history - Blenheim, Ramillies, Austerlitz, the Alma, Amiens and Second Alamein.  Indeed, the successful Anglo-French attack at the Battle of the Alma bore striking similarities to the failed US attack at Fredericksburg less than a decade later - across a river, up a hill, and into enemy forces behind a solid earthwork.  The failures Brian uses as examples were largely caused by inadequate artillery support, and in the case of Pickett's charge the unavoidable delay between Lee's attacks on the union flanks on the second day, and the final assault on the second day had given ample time for reserves to be moved to meet the charge.  The grand tactical scheme was sound in principle, but it would have had to have been applied far quicker than was possible for it to have worked.


Second, the issue of why the frontal assaults shown in sci-fi have worked.  First of all, if the Jem'Hadar attack on 558 was a success then so was Pickett's Charge - both attacks reached the enemy position before being driven back in hand-to-hand combat.  More generally I feel that the key difference was one of range - in all three sci-fi actions, the defenders, while having the advantage of a choke point, had their first chance to engage the enemy at very close range.  This meant that, even with semi-automatic weaponry, they could only get off two or three shots before the enemy was on them, and could therefore be overwhelmed by superior numbers.  An artillery piece, in the unlikely event that it could be fired without causing as many friendly casualties as enemy, would probably only get off a single shot.  At both Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, on the other hand, the attackers were advancing over a wide open field.  This allowed the defenders to fire on them for a considerable period of time before the enemy reached them.  Pickett's Charge would have been under artillery fire for over fifteen minutes, allowing some 20-30 rounds per gun, and rifle fire for 2-3 minutes, allowing for approximately 10 rounds per man.


Finally, the minor issue of Lee vs Napoleon.  It's true that, where possible, Napoleon would launch attacks around his opponents flanks, to get in behind the main enemy line. This was not, however, intended as his main attack - that was Frederick the Great's style.  The ideal Napoleonic battle would consist of three main phases: frontal assaults to fix the enemy and force him to commit his reserves, with enough strength to break through if he didn't, a flanking attack to get behind the enemy and force him to strip troops from his main line to counter it, and a final frontal assault to break through the weakened sector.


Two of the three key phases of this ideal battle therefore consisted of frontal assaults.  Moreover, in practice Napoleon repeatedly relied purely on such attacks, successfully, for example, at Wagram and Borodino (at the cost of extremely high causalities - approximately 75000 combining those of both sides in each case), and famously unsuccessfully at Waterloo.  At least Lee didn't try sending Longstreet's Corps forward in massed columns as Napoleon did - it's unlikely they would have got anywhere near the union line.

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