Battle of annihilation
A battle of annihilation is a military strategy where an attacking army seeks to destroy the military capacity of the opposing army in a single planned pivotal battle
Generally, a battle is a conceptual component in the hierarchy of combat in warfare between two or more armed forces, or combatants. In a battle, each combatant will seek to defeat the others, with defeat determined by the conditions of a military campaign...

. This is achieved through the use of tactical surprise, application of overwhelming force at a key point, or other tactics
Military tactics
Military tactics, the science and art of organizing an army or an air force, are the techniques for using weapons or military units in combination for engaging and defeating an enemy in battle. Changes in philosophy and technology over time have been reflected in changes to military tactics. In...

 performed immediately before or during the battle.

The intention is that the opposing government will then be forced to sue for peace to prevent the unopposed capture of his capital or other core areas.

It is not necessary to kill or capture all, or even most, of an opposing army's soldiers to annihilate him in the sense used here. Rather, the destruction of the enemy army as a cohesive military force able to offer further meaningful resistance, even if temporarily, is the objective.

Significance of the term

In ancient and classical times, many battles ended with the annihilation of one of the forces, the battles of Cannae
Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War, which took place on August 2, 216 BC near the town of Cannae in Apulia in southeast Italy. The army of Carthage under Hannibal decisively defeated a numerically superior army of the Roman Republic under command of the consuls Lucius...

, Zama
Battle of Zama
The Battle of Zama, fought around October 19, 202 BC, marked the final and decisive end of the Second Punic War. A Roman army led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus defeated a Carthaginian force led by the legendary commander Hannibal...

 and Adrianople
Battle of Adrianople
The Battle of Adrianople , sometimes known as the Battle of Hadrianopolis, was fought between a Roman army led by the Roman Emperor Valens and Gothic rebels led by Fritigern...

 being famous examples. From the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 onward, however, the battle of annihilation became rare, at least in Europe. The greatest exception is seen in the battles of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon I
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

, and it is with Napoleon that the battle of annihilation in the modern sense is most closely associated, so that term "Napoleonic battle of annihilation" is sometimes used, and the Battle of Austerlitz
Battle of Austerlitz
The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of Napoleon's greatest victories, where the French Empire effectively crushed the Third Coalition...

 is often cited as the apotheosis of the modern battle of annihilation.

Alternatives to the battle of annihilation

At first blush, it might seem that annihilation of the opposing army is the obvious object of any military campaign
Military campaign
In the military sciences, the term military campaign applies to large scale, long duration, significant military strategy plan incorporating a series of inter-related military operations or battles forming a distinct part of a larger conflict often called a war...

. This is not true, however. Many battles have been fought to cause an enemy army simply to retreat
Withdrawal (military)
A withdrawal is a type of military operation, generally meaning retreating forces back while maintaining contact with the enemy. A withdrawal may be undertaken as part of a general retreat, to consolidate forces, to occupy ground that is more easily defended, or to lead the enemy into an ambush...

, or to suffer attrition
Attrition warfare
Attrition warfare is a military strategy in which a belligerent side attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and matériel....

; and many campaigns have been waged to avoid rather than seek such a battle.

Reasons for not seeking a battle of annihilation include:
  • Avoidance of the risk and cost associated with such a battle.
  • Lack of means to attempt such a battle.
  • Ability to achieve desired objectives through other means.
  • Accepted practice.
  • Political concerns.

Risk and cost

A successful battle of annihilation usually requires exposing one's own army to loss in a way that more conservative tactics do not. For example, attempting to turn an enemy's flank generally requires one to separate the flanking force from one's main body. This exposes the attacking force to defeat in detail
Defeat in detail
Defeat in detail is a military phrase referring to the tactic of bringing a large portion of one's own force to bear on small enemy units in sequence, rather than engaging the bulk of the enemy force all at once...

. Attempting to pierce the enemy's center is usually costly in itself, and also exposes the vanguard force to a destructive counterstroke.

This was an especially important consideration during the pre-Napoleonic era, when armies were relatively small forces composed of professional career soldiers and losses were difficult to replace.

Lack of means

From the Renaissance until the advent of military mechanization, armies were slow on the battlefield (not necessarily slow operationally). This was due to the declining efficacy of cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

 and to the advent of artillery
Originally applied to any group of infantry primarily armed with projectile weapons, artillery has over time become limited in meaning to refer only to those engines of war that operate by projection of munitions far beyond the range of effect of personal weapons...

, which is difficult to move. This made it difficult to move quickly enough to prevent an enemy from countering a battle stratagem, or, failing that, to withdraw safely.

Using other means

If the object of war is to destroy the enemy's ability to resist politically, this may be achieved by other, less expensive, methods.

For example, one may attempt to maneuver
Military exercise
A military exercise is the employment of military resources in training for military operations, either exploring the effects of warfare or testing strategies without actual combat...

 one's army in such a way as to cut off the enemy from his base of supplies. If this done successfully, the enemy may be forced to seek terms with his army intact. This sort of campaign was typical of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 armies, and is especially associated with the campaigns of Frederick the Great.

The French Campaign of 1940 offers an example. After the Germans broke into the French rear at Sedan
Battle of Sedan (1940)
The Battle of Sedan or Second Battle of Sedan was a Second World War battle fought during the French Campaign. The battle was part of the German Wehrmacht's operational plan codenamed Fall Gelb , to encircle the Allied armies in Belgium and north-eastern France...

, they were able to surround the main Allied armies and render their position untenable. No great battle of annihilation was required. (Alternatively, the Germans considered instead striking toward Paris. Capture of the French capital might have broken the French morale and political will to resist.)

Accepted practice

In warfare, as in many avenues of human endeavor, the optimal application of material means is sometimes limited by the failure of imagination. A successful battle of annihilation generally requires great skill and daring on the part of the attacking commander. If a commander's training, experience, and peer relationships have not prepared him to expect a battle of annihilation, this alone may prevent him envisioning such a battle.

Political considerations

If a war has limited political objectives, this may require the adoption of limited military strategy, including the disinclination to pursue a battle of annihilation.

In the Gulf War
Gulf War
The Persian Gulf War , commonly referred to as simply the Gulf War, was a war waged by a U.N.-authorized coalition force from 34 nations led by the United States, against Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait.The war is also known under other names, such as the First Gulf...

, the Allied forces could have sought and won a battle of annihilation against the Iraqi Republican Guard
Iraqi Republican Guard
The Iraqi Republican Guard was a branch of the Iraqi military during the presidency of Saddam Hussein. It later became the Republican Guard Corps, and then the Republican Guard Forces Command with its expansion into two corps....

. It was decided, however, that the annihilation of the Republican Guard might have led to the dissolution of the Iraqi state, which was not a desired political objective.

Some historians have speculated that Hitler declined to seek the destruction of the British army at Dunkirk in 1940 for political reasons: to show magnanimity by allowing the British to withdraw, facilitating a political end to the war. (This is, however, disputed—other historians feel that Hitler simply wanted to avoid the risk to his armored formations that a battle of annihilation would have required, and Alexander Procofieff de Seversky
Alexander Procofieff de Seversky
Alexander Nikolaievich Prokofiev de Seversky was a Russian-American aviation pioneer, inventor, and influential advocate of strategic air power.-Early life:...

 in Victory Through Air Power
Victory Through Air Power
Victory Through Air Power is a 1942 non-fiction book by Alexander P. de Seversky. It was made into a 1943 Walt Disney animated feature film of the same name: Victory Through Air Power.-Theories:...

inferred that the cover of land-based Royal Air Force aircraft allowed the army at Dunkirk to escape.)

After Napoleon

Napoleon's victories at Austerlitz
Battle of Austerlitz
The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of Napoleon's greatest victories, where the French Empire effectively crushed the Third Coalition...

 (1805) and Jena (1806) are often cited as the classic battles of annihilation. Napoleon himself was unable to again achieve such decisive results, partly due to his enemies' adjusting to his tactics. For example, Borodino
Battle of Borodino
The Battle of Borodino , fought on September 7, 1812, was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the French invasion of Russia and all Napoleonic Wars, involving more than 250,000 troops and resulting in at least 70,000 casualties...

, while a victory, did not result in the desired destruction of the Russian army.

Nevertheless, strategists, influenced by those of the Napoleonic era, most notably Antoine-Henri Jomini
Antoine-Henri Jomini
Antoine-Henri, baron Jomini was a general in the French and later in the Russian service, and one of the most celebrated writers on the Napoleonic art of war...

, held the Napoleonic battle of annihilation to be the proper objective of modern military campaigns. This interpretation was later mis-accredited to the more renowned Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz
Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier and German military theorist who stressed the moral and political aspects of war...

, initially by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke was a German Field Marshal. The chief of staff of the Prussian Army for thirty years, he is regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter 19th century, and the creator of a new, more modern method of directing armies in the field...

 who supported arguments for strategies of annihilation with quotes from Clausewitz. Clausewitz, who disliked Jomini personally, as well as his concepts, instead emphasized the primacy of the political in warfare, and remained indifferent to theories arguing for any absolute solutions via the application of military force. Nevertheless, this set the stage for mass confusion down the line of strategic thinkers. Clausewitz's trilogies (albeit used out of context) are contested, by Liddell Hart, who claims in Strategy that a poor choice of words by Clausewitz led his interpreters to overestimate the value of annihilation battles.
Consequently, at the beginning of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, many top military commanders expected a battle of annihilation to quickly end the war. This did not occur. Already, the size and firepower of armies was making the battle of annihilation harder to achieve.

A contrast may be seen between the Confederate general Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee
Robert Edward Lee was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War....

 and the Union general Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

. Lee, when on the offensive, usually maneuvered with the intent of forcing a battle of annihilation. His archetypal attempt was at the Battle of Chancellorsville
Battle of Chancellorsville
The Battle of Chancellorsville was a major battle of the American Civil War, and the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign. It was fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville. Two related battles were fought nearby on...

, where a classic Napoleonic flanking maneuver defeated but was not able to destroy the Union Army under Joseph Hooker
Joseph Hooker
Joseph Hooker was a career United States Army officer, achieving the rank of major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Although he served throughout the war, usually with distinction, Hooker is best remembered for his stunning defeat by Confederate General Robert E...


Lee may be faulted for attempting to achieve a battle of annihilation, particularly at Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg , was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War, it is often described as the war's turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac...

, in an age when this strategy was becoming obsolete.

In contrast, Grant was noted for waging campaigns of maneuver. In the Vicksburg
Battle of Vicksburg
The Siege of Vicksburg was the final major military action in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. In a series of maneuvers, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River and drove the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. John C...

 campaign, he forced Pemberton
John C. Pemberton
John Clifford Pemberton , was a career United States Army officer who fought in the Seminole Wars and with distinction during the Mexican–American War. He also served as a Confederate general during the American Civil War, noted for his defeat and surrender in the critical Siege of Vicksburg in...

's army into a siege position where it was forced to surrender without a battle.

In the Virginia campaign of 1864 against Lee, he continually maneuvered around Lee, forcing him to withdraw further and further south until he had to choose between abandoning the Confederate capital of Richmond or withdrawing into siege lines.

William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman was an American soldier, businessman, educator and author. He served as a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War , for which he received recognition for his outstanding command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the "scorched...

 may also be cited. Rather than pursuing the chimera of destroying Hood
John Bell Hood
John Bell Hood was a Confederate general during the American Civil War. Hood had a reputation for bravery and aggressiveness that sometimes bordered on recklessness...

's army, he chose to operate directly against the Confederate economy. His famous march through Georgia
Sherman's March to the Sea
Sherman's March to the Sea is the name commonly given to the Savannah Campaign conducted around Georgia from November 15, 1864 to December 21, 1864 by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army in the American Civil War...

, directly away from Hood, was basically the opposite of a Napoleonic strategy.

The Napoleonic ideal was still alive at the beginning of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. In fact, the Germans were able to execute a battle of annihilation against the Russian 2nd Army at the Battle of Tannenberg
Battle of Tannenberg (1914)
The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian Empire and the German Empire in the first days of World War I. It was fought by the Russian First and Second Armies against the German Eighth Army between 23 August and 30 August 1914. The battle resulted in the almost complete...

 in the war's opening weeks. But attempts to create such a result on the Western Front
Western Front (World War I)
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by first invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France. The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne...

 resulted in great slaughter to no effect. Armies were now too large to have flanks to turn, and had too much firepower and too much defensive depth to be broken by assault.

During Operation Uranus
Operation Uranus
Operation Uranus was the codename of the Soviet strategic operation in World War II which led to the encirclement of the German Sixth Army, the Third and Fourth Romanian armies, and portions of the German Fourth Panzer Army. The operation formed part of the ongoing Battle of Stalingrad, and was...

, Soviet forces launched a counter-attack on Axis forces at Stalingrad. The Soviets enveloped the Axis forces in a double pincer, then began a battle of annihilation that resulted in the destruction and subsequent surrender of the German Sixth Army of 250,000 soldiers.

During the Pacific War
Pacific War
The Pacific War, also sometimes called the Asia-Pacific War refers broadly to the parts of World War II that took place in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in East Asia, then called the Far East...

, the Imperial Japanese Navy
Imperial Japanese Navy
The Imperial Japanese Navy was the navy of the Empire of Japan from 1869 until 1947, when it was dissolved following Japan's constitutional renunciation of the use of force as a means of settling international disputes...

's strategy was fixated on the goal of luring the numerically superior United States Pacific Fleet into a single decisive battle of annihilation, which would force the United States to sue for peace. This was at least partially the motivation behind the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
Attack on Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike conducted by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941...

 and the Battle of Midway
Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway is widely regarded as the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign of World War II. Between 4 and 7 June 1942, approximately one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea and six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy decisively defeated...

, but was loosely followed for as long as the IJN was capable of offensive operations. This goal was never achieved for several reasons. First, the US Navy was wary of committing all of its forces to one major battle. Further, the IJN concentrated so much of its efforts on preparing for a single massive showdown (which never truly occurred) that it neglected devoting resources towards protecting its naval supply lines, which soon fell prey to a Fabian strategy
Fabian strategy
The Fabian strategy is a military strategy where pitched battles and frontal assaults are avoided in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoiding decisive battles, the side employing this strategy harasses its enemy through skirmishes to cause...

 when they were extensively targeted by US submarines. Finally, IJN strategic thought was still heavily based on Mahan's outdated theory of naval supremacy which was based on battleships, failing to realize that aircraft carriers were growing into a position of dominance in naval warfare. Even Japanese victories such as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Santa Cruz or in Japanese sources as the , was the fourth carrier battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II and the fourth major naval engagement fought between the United States Navy and the Imperial...

 failed to utterly annihilate their opponents. The hoped-for "decisive battle" against the US Navy never came, and the IJN was gradually ground down through attrition.

Since World War II, the paradigm of armies maneuvering in the empty countryside for weeks and then meeting in a battle lasting (usually) a single day no longer applies (at least to wars between major powers). Instead, armies are deployed in more-or-less continuous lines stretching perhaps hundreds of miles. Thus, the battle of annihilation may be considered to be mainly of historical interest, except for secondary campaigns.
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