Everyone knows Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” This humorous and pithy book takes Murphy’s Law further, applying it to military history and maxims, along with detailed illustrations from real battles from ancient history to modern warfare and lessons to be learned.
While serving as a tactics instructor at the U.S. Army Command &
General Staff College, I was mindful of the adage that the “mind can only absorb what the ass can endure.” As such, in the effort to minimize my students suffering from long-winded lectures I often relied upon using the humorous, simple illustrations contained in this book to reinforce their understanding of the proven maxims of the great military leaders such as Sun Tzu, Caesar and Napoleon, as well as the pitfalls associated with poor planning and execution.
For those who are academically inclined, I have also provided a list of suggested books that will equip them with greater insight as to how to minimize their exposure in becoming a victim of that pesky character known as Murphy.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
The Russian victory over the French army in 1812 marked a huge blow to Napoleon’s ambitions of European dominance and similarly revealed that he was not, in fact, invincible, thus ending his reputation as a military genius. Of the initial 690,000 men of the Grande Armée that assembled on June 24, 1812 to cross the river Neman to head toward Moscow, only 40,000 frost-bitten and starved soldiers managed to return to France.
In 1627, near Dirschau in Prussia, King Gustavus II Adolphus was shot in the upper shoulder by a Polish soldier. When his doctors proved unsuccessful in removing the bullet, he from that point thereafter, elected to never again don his cuirass, claiming that the weight of it only served to exacerbate his injury. On November 16, 1632, he was reported to have entered the Battle of Lützen without wearing any armor, proclaiming, “The Lord God is my armor” and was later mortally wounded.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
Major General John Sedgwick – Civil War Union VI Corps Commander – was mortally wounded while directing artillery placements at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania on May 9,
1864. After witnessing both his staff officers and artillerymen seeking cover from sporadic Confederate sniper fire from approximately 1,000 yards away, he openly paraded on the battlefield and reportedly exclaimed, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire on the whole line? I am ashamed of you. Nonsense, they couldn’t hit an elephant from this distance!” Minutes later, he was struck by a bullet below his left eye. General Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
In Greek mythology, Achilles (the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus, king of the Myrmidons in Thessaly) was arguably the greatest hero of the Trojan War (most scholars date the war to the 12th or 13 th century BC) and the central character of Homer’s epic poem Iliad. While a child, Achilles’ mother sought to make her son immortal by dipping him into the river Styx, by which his whole body became invulnerable, except that part of his heel by which she held him, whence came the proverbial “heel of Achilles.” After the death of his friend Patrocles, Achilles avenged his death by killing Hector, the Trojan champion, and forever sealed his legacy as one of history’s greatest warriors. However, despite Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield, it was ultimately his amorous nature that led to his tragic demise. After killing Prince Troilus, the son of King Priam, in a duel occurring at the sanctuary of Apollo, he was lured by the vengeful but beautiful Trojan Princess Polyxena (Troilus’ sister) to Troy, where her other brother, Paris (history’s great lover) ambushed him and shot a fatal arrow that pierced his exposed heel.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne –The Vicomte de Turenne was one of France’s greatest marshals who served during the reign of Louis XIV. He began his military career in the Thirty Years War (from 1625) and subsequently commanded the royal armies in the civil war of the Fronde (1648–53) in the French invasion of the Spanish Netherlands (1667), and in the third Dutch War (beginning in 1672). He possessed a strategic grasp of the principles of fire and maneuver and typically positioned himself where he could best influence the battle. While examining a position at the battle of Salzbach on 27 July, 1675, Turenne was killed by a cannon shot and upon being hit exclaimed, “I did not mean to be killed today.” He was buried with the kings of France at Saint-Denis but later, Napoleon, who deemed him one of history’s greatest military leaders, had his remains transferred to the Invalides in Paris.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
1 Samuel 17 – New International Version (NIV)
David and Goliath
Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them. A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span (roughly 9’9”). He had a bronze helmet and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels (125 lbs. or 58 kilograms). On his legs he wore bronze greaves and he slung a bronze javelin on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels (15 lbs or 6.9 kilograms) His shield bearer went ahead of him.
Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand and issued his insults. Ultimately, David, a young shepherd boy dressed in a simple tunic and equipped with his shepherd’s staff, slingshot and a pouch full of stones responded to the challenge of the Philistine champion. As Goliath moved in to kill David, the boy reached into his bag and slung one of his stones at the giant’s head. Finding a hole in the armor, the stone sank into his forehead and he had fallen face down to the ground. David then ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath and cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they retreated with the Israelites pursing and killing them and eventually plundering their camp.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
Marshal of France, Michel Ney
January 10, 1769–December 7, 1815
Michel Ney was a French soldier and military commander during the Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original eighteen Marshals of France promoted by Napoleon. He was known as Le Rougeaud (“red faced” or “ruddy”) by his men and later nicknamed le Brave des Braves (“the bravest of the brave”) by Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow in 1812, when he commanded the rear guard and was reputed to have been the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil.
In 1815, when Paris fell, and the Bourbons reclaimed the throne, Ney pressured Napoleon to accept his first abdication and exile and was promoted and made a peer by the newly enthroned Louis XVIII. Later, upon hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Ney organized a force to stop Napoleon’s march on Paris, pledging to bring Napoleon back alive in an iron cage. Napoleon, aware of Ney’s plan, sent him a letter which said, in part, “I shall receive you as after the Battle of the Moscow.” Despite Ney’s promise to the King to arrest Napoleon, he joined his beloved commander at Auxerre on March 18, 1815.
On June 15, 1815, Napoleon appointed Ney commander of the left wing of the Army of the North. On 16 June Napoleon’s forces split up into two wings to fight two separate battles simultaneously. Ney attacked Wellington at Quatre Bras while Napoleon attacked Blücher’s Prussians at Ligny.
Shortly thereafter, at Waterloo, Ney again commanded the left wing of the army and ordered a mass cavalry-charge against the Anglo-Allied line. Ney’s cavalry overran the enemy cannons, but found the infantry formed in cavalry-proof square formations. Ney, without infantry or artillery support, failed to break the squares and his cavalry also failed to spike enemy cannon while they were under French control (during the cavalry attack, the crews of the cannon retreated into the squares for protection, and then re-manned their pieces as the horsemen receded). Ney was seen during one of the charges beating his sword against the side of British cannon in furious frustration. During the battle, in keeping with his audacious leadership style, he had five horses killed under him.
When Napoleon was ultimately defeated, dethroned, and exiled for the second time in the summer of 1815, Ney was arrested on August 3, 1815 and tried on December 4, 1815 for treason by the Chamber of Peers. On December 6, 1815 he was condemned and executed by a firing squad in Paris on December 7, 1815. When offered a blindfold, he summarily refused and requested that he be allowed the right to give the order to fire. His last words purportedly were “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, Fire!”
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
Richard I, king of England from 1189 to 1199, was the personification of the “Warrior King.” His fierceness in battle during the Third Crusade won him the title of Lionheart and even his most formidable enemy, Saladin, respected Richard and feared his army. Saladin’s own emirs were terrified of the warrior they called Malek Rik. For decades following Richard’s crusade, Muslim mothers called upon his name to frighten their children into behaving.
Despite his legendary heart of a lion in battle and his seeming invincibility, he ultimately met his untimely death while suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. More specifically, after devastating the viscount’s land with fire and sword, he besieged a small and virtually unarmed castle of Chalus-Chabrol because a local peasant had claimed to uncover a treasure trove of Roman gold which Richard now claimed as Aimar’s feudal overlord.
In the early evening of March 25, 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Although arrows were occasionally shot from the castle walls, Richard paid little attention except to one defender in particular, who was standing on the castle walls with a crossbow in one hand and the other clutching a frying pan as a shield to deflect incoming missiles. While applauding this man for both his temerity and persistence, he was ultimately struck in the left shoulder near the neck by another crossbowman. He then retreated to the privacy of his tent in order to extract the arrow himself but failed to do so. His surgeon, referred to by one of his chroniclers as a “butcher,” carelessly removed it but managed to mangle his arm in the process and the wound eventually became gangrenous.
After the castle was taken, Richard asked to have the crossbowman that inflicted the soon fatal blow brought before him. To his astonishment, his enemy happened to be merely a boy who honorably sought revenge for Richard’s troops killing his father and two brothers and the lad then indicated that he was prepared to be executed. Richard, as his last act of mercy and abiding respect for the boy’s moral and physical courage, forgave him of the crime and famously rejoined, “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day,” before ordering him to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings. Richard then set his affairs in order, bequeathing all his territory to his brother John and his jewels to his nephew Otto and then died on April 6, 1199.
Because of the nature of Richard’s death, he was later referred to as ‘the Lion (that) by the Ant was slain.’ According to one chronicler, Richard’s last act of chivalry proved fruitless; in an orgy of medieval brutality, the infamous mercenary captain Mercadier had the crossbowman flayed alive and hanged as soon as Richard died.
YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN
Michael Wittman (April 22, 1914–August 8, 1944) was a German Waffen-SS tank commander during the Second World War and rose to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain). He was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords and Oak Leaves of the Iron Cross.
He was credited with the destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armored vehicles, making him one of Germany’s top scoring panzer aces.
Wittman, a serious practitioner of Blitzkrieg (Lighting War) commented the following after observing the Allied landing at D-Day in June 1944, “… the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy.”
Accordingly, on June 13, 1944, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage, Wittman, while in command of a single Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger, ambushed elements of the British 7th Armored Division and destroyed 14 tanks, 15 personnel carriers and 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes.
Wittmann was killed on August 8,1944 while taking part in a counterattack ordered by Colonel Kurt Meyer of the 12th SS Panzer Division to retake tactically important high ground near the town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. The town and surrounding high ground had been captured a few hours earlier by Anglo-Canadian forces during Operation Totalize. Wittmann had decided to participate in the attack as he believed the company commander who was supposed to lead the attack was too inexperienced.
A group of seven Tiger tanks from the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, supported by several other tanks, was ambushed by tanks from A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, A Squadron, the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, and B Squadron, the 144 Royal Armoured Corps.
The killing shots originated from a Sherman Firefly of ‘3 Troop,’ A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire which was positioned in a wood called Delle de la Roque on the advancing Tigers’ right flank. It appears the shells penetrated the upper hull of Wittman’s tank and ignited the Tiger’s own ammunition, thereby causing a fire which engulfed the tank and then blew off the turret. Upon hearing of his untimely death, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich best summarized his accomplishments as a gallant, audacious warrior by stating, “He was a fighter in every way, he lived and breathed action.”
1 LESSON LEARNED
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” –
Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The Grim Reaper does not discriminate when claiming his victims, no matter how bold and courageous. Humility coupled with judicious prudence may be the critical factor in surviving the horrors of combat and ultimately securing your military objective.