Why a Battle of the Center Works
If we must fight, we would all prefer to attack our enemy either from the sides or from behind, not from the front. This is true for combat between armies or between two individuals. This essence of flanking maneuvers is that they attack our foes where their sight is poorer and where their means to direct force is reduced. For this reason, most commanders have attempted to outflank their enemies in combat, assuming outright defense is not already the main idea. Even then, defensive strategies often rely on the hope that an enemy will expose their flanks. Nevertheless, some commanders in history have decided to strike their enemies in the center, occasionally with resounding success.
Why the center, though? Even Hannibal, when confronted at Cannae with a Roman army twice the size of his own, chose for a double envelopment on both flanks. The advantage of attacking the center, however, is not in its ability to entrap and destroy the enemy, as is often desired in other contexts. The real advantage comes from its ability to create disruption within the opposing system.
Chaos is a ladder
The famed fantasy novels and television series A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin feature a poignant observation by the character known as Littlefinger. When challenged by Varys on the danger of creating too much disorder, who described chaos as a “pit,” Littlefinger retorted: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”
Both men are correct. For most, chaos is a pit, but for the more clever among us, chaos is an opportunity to climb. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote deeply about the concept the “Fog of War” and how much uncertainty exists within the conduct of a war, a campaign, and even a single battle. A genius in the art of war — he said — had the ability to make use of this chaos to achieve victory. It is by creating disruption that a battle of the center stands out from other stratagems. It allows a clever leader an opportunity to derail an otherwise superior enemy and clinch victory.
The Battle of Gaugamela
In his greatest victory, Alexander of Macedon faced against a Persian army led by their King, Darius. They were deep in modern-day Iraq, far from the Greek society that young Alexander and his soldiers knew. Darius, still with vast resources to summon, fielded an army almost twice the size of Alexander’s. In a fairly open field, encirclement and defeat by the Persians seemed inevitable. Alexander knew he could not extend his line enough to prevent this, so he delayed as much as possible. When the Persian center found itself awkwardly placed from trying to surround him, Alexander launched a rapid cavalry assault down the center. This put Darius in grave danger, and he was forced to flee the battle.
The king and commander gone, command and control among the Persians broke down. They were not only physically divided in half; they had no sense of direction for how to continue the fight. Alexander had attacked the king, understanding Darius to be the Persian weak point. While he did not succeed in eliminating Darius, forcing him from the battle unraveled the system that held the Persians together. Though there were still more Persian warriors on the scene, they now had lost their ability to coordinate and, thus, their ability to fight at all. Disrupted, the Macedonians then herded and hunted them down with ease.
The Battle of Austerlitz
Napoleon’s greatest victory also featured a battle of the center. Staring down a larger force of Austrians and Russians allied against him, the French Emperor also had to dismiss the possibility of winning on the flanks. Like Alexander two millennia before him, Napoleon was able to invite an attack on his right flank. This, in turn, weakened the Allied center on the Pratzen heights, which Napoleon then attacked.
While there was no Darius that Napoleon targeted, he still enjoyed the high ground and had also driven a wedge between the Russians and the Austrians. While larger than the French together, they naturally would face differences in discipline, culture, language, and other similar things. Thus, splitting these armies apart would disable them more comprehensively than if they were the army of a single nation. As in the case of the Persians, soldiers that cannot work together also cannot fight. The French easily killed and captured thousands of their enemies, who were now crippled by the chaos imposed upon them.
The Battle of Trafalgar
Even at sea, a battle of the center can work wonders. Horatio Nelson, commander of a British fleet, encountered a larger fleet of Spanish and French ships near the coast of southern Spain. Convention at the time was for fleets to fight in horizontal lines against each other because these were easy to manage. Nelson realized that his numerical disadvantage required something different. He organized his fleet into two columns and sailed them directly into the middle of the enemy line.
This gave the British a numerical advantage at the point of attack that allowed them to make up for their overall disadvantage in that regard, as the Allied ships on the flanks would need to re-position to engage the British. Moreover, it deprived the less-experienced, Franco-Spanish sailors of the stability that a single line of battle offered. While this made things more chaotic for the British as well, their more experienced crews could adapt better to this highly dynamic situation. With the fleet fractured and unable to organize, chaos was again a ladder for the smaller force, resulting in one of the greatest military victories in British history.
The Battle of France
Having conquered Poland in 1939, Germany now faced a threat of British and French forces (as well as the officially neutral forces of the Low Counties). These Allied forces, like in previous scenarios, outnumbered the German Army. Since this was also in the era of total war, the line of battle was not simply outside of a single town. It stretched all the way from the Alps to the North Sea. Outflanking would be hard, just given the reality of the map. An attritional campaign would, similarly, favor the larger side. The Germans, therefore, needed to find a central weakness that would disrupt the allies.
They found this weakness in the town of Sedan, France. Realizing the distance they could cover with new, vehicular technology, they noticed that Sedan not only lay in front of wide, flat plains that led into the heart of France, they also saw that it was one of the most lightly defended parts of the Allied line. If they could penetrate this defense, they would have almost no terrain features to impede the advance of their tanks and jeeps. The attack went as intended, and the Germans hurried along, capturing a large strip of land between Sedan and the English channel.
Like the previous cases, this exacerbated the operational differences that naturally occurred among multinational allies. The British, Dutch, and Belgians were separated from the fight with the French. Moreover, this deprived these Allied units of key supply lines that allowed them to maintain fighting ability. This was not just a tactical disruption; the German assault on Sedan disrupted the infrastructural and economic system that supported the Allied war effort. Because they had penetrated deep into French land, thousands of civilians hopped into their cars and attempted to flee the Germans. This only congested the roadways that the French forces to the south dearly needed to respond to the German attack. Disruption, through a battle of the center, created a domino effect that rendered France incapable of preventing the capture of Paris and the fall of their nation.
Systems are fragile
While astonishing victories for their times, the outcomes above are what one might expect, given the nature of systems. An army fights when the individuals that compose it work together, by becoming something larger that then has new properties. This is true of atoms that come together to form a molecular compound. The molecule is capable of things that the atoms themselves were not. This is why the immensely complex DNA molecule is capable of something like information storage. Similarly, when the DNA molecule is compromised, the effects are devastating, resulting in medical issues such as cancer or birth defects. A single virus, properly placed, can have a cascade of terrifying effects. The same is true of an army that loses its cohesion.
We see it also in chess, where the board is confined to eight squares across. There is no chance of extending the line to flank an enemy in such predefined space. The established rule in chess theory, understood by every grandmaster, is therefore to dominate the center of the board. Even in more abstract scenarios, a battle of the center can offer advantages for the same reasons. In a piece that I wrote two years ago for Cosgrrrl!, I positioned myself in the center of the informational system, between the Majority and Minority Leaders and operated with the most knowledge, exploiting the chaos under which both leaders found themselves. This allowed me to force the Majority Leader’s hand and demand the return of my chairmanship.
Many have sought to emulate Hannibal’s example of Cannae, where a double envelopment on the flanks overcame the Roman assault on the center. Still, a battle for the center holds opportunities for those who lack the luxury of breadth and maneuver. By striking in the middle, swiftly and precisely, a seemingly more powerful system can be exposed for the fragile thing that it is.