Winning a battle, losing the war

There was a recent online discussion about the undue importance given by some Americans to their victory at the Battle of New Orleans (1815), an action which took place towards the end of War of 1812[1]. Given that the war saw Great Britain defeat the USA, thwarting their invasion of Canada, then later routing an American army outside Washington, and setting fire to the US Capitol, Treasury and White House[2], someone made this interesting observation:

There is a fascinating schism between those who study battles and those who study wars.

History for the masses is written in a succession of battles (Hastings 1066, Bannockburn 1315, Agincourt 1415, Marignano 1515, Waterloo (and New Orleans) 1815) but the shifting sands of power are written in wars.

Plenty of battles are won by people who lost wars – Napoleon (and Madison) being prime examples.

When you come across someone extolling the unique virtues of a single battle, isolated from what came before or after they are usually explaining away failure elsewhere: the Battle of Britain; 3rd Kharkov; Kursk; Market Garden; Bulge being the most common.

The people who will bang on about Manstein being the ultimate in warrior generalship point to his solid performance at Kharkov III and yet usually fail to mention it was but one of five stages of complete disaster for his Army Group South. The other four went against him.

The Battle of New Orleans was a solid piece of soldiering, good ground work and commendable leadership, it gave small succour to US arms at the very end of three years crushing defeat and failure to achieve their primary aims.

We remember the war of 1812 as an unfortunate distraction to real events in Europe, but for those who need to see it, it becomes all about the crushing victory of superior US arms. The short-lived success of their super-frigates being another such example.

Explaining away failure by creating a Hollywood shaped dose of adjective.

Though Apartheid-era propaganda is much more to blame than Hollywood when it comes to South African history, there are, of course, plenty here who also prefer to laser-in on specific battles, and hammer out a self-serving narrative entirely based on them too. Thus the British defeat at Isandlwana has somehow become bizarrely emblematic of the Zulu War as a whole, while the British defeats at Colenso and Magersfontein are often held up to represent a comforting, if ludicrously distorted, version of the Boer War.

Indeed, the way that a handful of South African battles have been blown-up out of all proportion (in terms of their impact) has left many with the passionately-held belief that, of the three ‘tribes’ (the British, the Boers and the Zulus) who famously each fought one another, the British were the ones who always came off worse… this despite the British army actually being by far the most successful and effective of the three, and the one which ultimately vanquished the other two.

With mind-numbing predictability, battles which go against ‘the run of play’ are squealingly described by the usual suspects as ‘humiliating defeats’ – the Little Big Horn, Spion Kop, Kut, or Operation Market Garden for example – but such reverses generally prove to be meaningless in due course, and in the greater scheme of things. However, it is only by obsessively focusing on certain battles, rather than wars (or, at least, campaigns), that some Generals can be talked-up as ‘greats’ by the selective cherry-picking of their victories, and the studious ignoring of any and all defeats. And so Rommel emerges (in the minds of many) as ‘the Greatest General of WW2’… despite the fact that his forces were shattered by the British 8th Army[3], with 250,000 Axis troops ultimately taken prisoner in Tunisia[4] after being chased pell-mell across North Africa.

Similarly, in the Boer War, it is only by frantically ignoring the bigger picture entirely that some attempt to put certain Boer commanders up on pedestals. His violently anti-British bias clear for all to see, and displaying his trademark complete ignorance of military matters, Thomas Pakenham sagely declared that ‘The great generals of this war were to prove exclusively Boer’.[5] Again, this baseless, self-serving nonsense can only be trotted out if one thinks in terms exclusively of specific, individual, carefully selected battles, not campaigns – and certainly not the war as a whole.

Pakenham (and his equally ignorant and blinkered ilk) will happily declare Botha was a ‘great General’, for example, thanks almost entirely to his defensive victory at Colensoa battle which did not win him a single inch of territory, and in which his plans went wrong, meaning only 143 British troops were killed. And even then, his wide-eyed fanboys have to completely ignore Botha’s subsequent defeat at the Tugela Heights and the raising of the Siege of Ladysmith, the fact that he was then driven out of Northern Natal by Buller, then defeated by him yet again at Bergendal, and not to mention his farcically unsuccessful attempt to re-invade Natal during the Guerrilla War – an invasion which was so stupidly conceived, and which failed so spectacularly badly, that it was defeated before his men even set foot in Natal. When presented with the bigger picture, there is no logical reason why Botha should be considered to have been in any way a ‘great General’ – and certainly no more so than, for example, Roberts, French, Hamilton, Plumer – or even the much-maligned Buller.

But as was mentioned earlier, talking-up an individual battle – and completely ignoring the bigger picture – is not an honest or rational way to study history, though nor is it ever intended to be. Instead, ‘explaining away failure by creating a Hollywood [or Apartheid propaganda?] shaped dose of adjective’ is the real aim, and continues to be the aim of many in South Africa today. Just as the Battle of New Orleans ‘provides a reassuringly crushing victory of superior US arms’ to a small number of Americans who desperately need to see it as such, so victories like Colenso or Magersfontein ‘give small succour to Boers arms’ to those South Africans of a similarly infantile persuasion, and are trotted out to paper over the complete failure of the Boers to achieve the aims of their invasions, and their overall defeat.


[1] It was not, as some claim, the final action of the war. A month after their defeat at New Orleans, the British army stormed and captured Fort Bowyer, which controlled Mobile Bay in Alabama.

[2] Commonly known as ‘The Presidential Mansion’ at the time, the remains were later painted white to cover up the scorch marks. Though private property was spared, the British expedition commander, Rear Admiral Cockburn, had intended to make an exception in the case of the buildings of the National Intelligencer newspaper, but relented after several local ladies persuaded him not to burn it down as they feared the fire would spread to their houses. A mouthpiece for the Madison administration, the newspaper had previously mocked Cockburn’s name in a crude, schoolboy fashion, so instead he had his troops tear the building down brick by brick, and ordered all the letter ‘C’s in the type case destroyed “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name”.

[3] One should, of course, never forget that Monty’s 8th Army contained formations from all over the Empire and beyond.

[4] More, indeed, than the 235,000 captured at Stalingrad.

[5] Pakenham’s truly God-awful ‘The Boer War’, p.457

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