Over-Rated Military “Geniuses”
Chief Joseph (Hinmatóowyalahtq’it) (1840 – 1905 C.E.) is best known for being the leader of the Nez-Perce Indians during their war with the U.S. in 1877.
During this rebellion the Nez Perce Indians in a desperate effort to get into Canada out marched and out fought several U.S. military forces out to get them and were stopped and forced to surrender just south of the Canadian border by U.S. military forces. The Nez Perces marched over 1,600 miles and various army units marched up to 1,200 miles in pursuit of them.1
The campaign is indeed remarkable and contains many examples of Nez Perce ingenuity and cleverness. Since various U.S. forces were so completely out classed and out marched and in the end caught the Nez Perce more by sheer luck than anything else and still didn’t stop several hundred from escaping to Canada there had to be a reason and so one was provided.2
The reason given was the Chief Joseph was a first class military genius; a ‘Red Napoleon”! Since in the Western tradition in military affairs orders are given by a commander whose orders are obeyed, it was assumed that that was true of the Nez Perce and since Chief Joseph was the most important, indeed paramount leader that he was the “genius” commander.
After all some explanation had to be concocted to explain why the Nez Perce continually out fought, out marched and out smarted U.S. government forces even though out-numbered and burden with lots of non-combatant women and children.
Battles like White Bird Canyon (1877), in which a force of a little over 100 U.S. soldiers tries to attack Chief Joseph’s camp and is cut to pieces by a force of c. 70 warriors. And remember the warriors are not trained soldiers but basically armed civilians. And what about the Battle of Big Hole (1877) in which an army unit under General Gibbon surprises the Nez Perce in a surprise attack and despite complete surprise and the advantage of position is driven back and surrounded and nearly destroyed. Fortunately for the U.S. Army the Indians were more interested in getting away than annihilating the unit.3
That is only some of the embarrassments that have to be explained in this campaign. So the solution is that Chief Joseph was a military “genius”. Thus we get stuff like:
Chief Joseph must be ranked among the great American military leaders.4
Yes the campaign was indeed remarkable and the Nez Perce displayed remarkable, indeed at times, incredible military skills. But was this the result of being led by a single leader of genius? The answer is a definite no!
Chief Joseph never made any claim to military leadership of the Nez Perce. He did indeed claim to lead his people and represent them, but his duties were those of a camp leader and a “peace” chief. Euro-American writers unaware of how Nez Perce society was organized assumed that Nez Perce war making was organized like that of Western armies. They did not know, or more often ignored, that Indian society prized individuality. Warriors could be led and advised but not “ordered”. They were perfectly free to leave at any time. Leaders led by example and suggestion not by giving orders.
Further has mentioned above Chief Joseph was not a “war” chief he was a ‘peace” “camp” chief. Decisions regarding war and fighting were outside his purview. The actual war leaders of the Nez Perce were a number of war chiefs who tried to reach decisions by consensus and taking in input from the other members of the band and warriors.
In other words decisions were made collectively not in top down manner of a commander issuing orders. There was no single commander issuing commands and exercising ‘generalship”. Instead decisions were made collectively, and obedience was voluntary, and Chief Joseph was not even among the “war” chiefs whose opinions and suggestions regarding war and related matters had especial importance. As a warrior Chief Joseph had an opinion that was listened too but it was no greater in war related stuff than another warrior and was certainly vastly less influential than that of a “war” chief.5
The bottom line was that the Nez Perce generalship that made fools of several U.S. commands was a collective enterprise not the result of a lone “genius”, and certainly not the result of Chief Joseph exercising command. Something he was in no position to do at all.
Chief Joseph, has I mentioned above never claimed to have commanded the Nez Perce militarily. His greatness was that of a peace leader. It was the inability / refusal of Euro-American society to understand how Nez Perce society actually worked that elevated him to military “genius”.
Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976 C.E.) The most celebrated English commander of World War Two is also an overrated general and he was not a military “genius”. Now he certainly was competent and at times highly competent, but a “genius” no.
Montgomery’s reputation was made from his victory in the Desert war in North Africa in 1942 /
1943. In which he revealed
himself to be a competent, methodical and generally unimaginative commander. It
also revealed him to be something of an ass concerning his predecessor Auchinleck,
who had defeated Rommel in the First battle of El Alamein. Montgomery stated
that Auchinleck was planning to withdraw to the Nile delta. That was false.
Further Montgomery took over Auchinleck’s
plan for the defence of the El Alamein position and took full credit for the
plan. All in all a pretty petty and disgraceful performance.6
Churchill had relieved Auchinleck because Auchinleck had said it would take months to prepare for and then launch an attack against Rommel’s forces at El Alamein. Montgomery then took longer than Auchinleck had envisioned to prepare for and launch his attack. Montgomery’s plan was similar to Auchinleck’s plan.
By late October 1942 Montgomery hugely outnumbered Rommel and further his forces were by a wide margin superior in quality, since the majority of Rommel’s forces were of at best medium quality, poorly equipped Italian forces. Further Rommel was suffering from a severe fuel shortage and even problems with ammunition. By this time the British had ample fuel, ammunition and far more tanks, which were over all qualitatively and quantitatively superior to the German / Italian tanks that Rommel had. In other words the odds were decidedly, indeed overwhelmingly against Rommel.7
Not surprisingly Rommel lost the Second Battle of El Alamein. What was a surprise was how long it took for Montgomery to win. His plan was methodical and unimaginative and during much of the battle Rommel repeatedly thwarted Montgomery’s thrusts. In the end Montgomery won through sheer force of material advantage. Montgomery did not, in the slightest, out general Rommel.8
Montgomery was however given a chance to destroy Rommel’s army, to a large extent due to Hitler’s foolish stand fast order, but Montgomery through over caution let it slip away. In fact Montgomery’s entire pursuit of Rommel was slow, cautious and unimaginative. Allowing Rommel to slip away again and again. If the odds had been even it is virtually certain Rommel would have thrashed Montgomery.9
None of the above reveals military “genius” at all. What it reveals is a methodical general who wins through use of crushing material superiority.
During the Normandy campaign we see again Montgomery’s efforts to win through sheer crushing material superiority. This had the effect of drawing away from the Americans the chief German Panzer divisions which greatly aided the Americans in achieving the breakout. Montgomery’s attacks were methodical, but plodding and gained ground by sheer might. Some of the attacks were spectacularly, ineptly planned and carried out. Most notably Operation Goodwood. Which was badly planned and incompetently carried out with poor direction by Montgomery. The result was a failure that was a near disaster.10
Finally we get Montgomery’s great effort at being imaginative and daring. Operation Market Garden in the late summer of 1944. This was an effort to break through over the Rhine in an effort to outflank the German forces defending Germany and end the war by Christmas. To call this a failure is a euphemism it was a defeat. The planning was slipshod and the whole operation was far too dependent on mere chance to work. That it failed is hardly a surprise. But then given how poorly planned it was failure was far more likely than success. Montgomery’s conduct of the actual operation was lazy and ineffective.11
Aside from taking credit for other peoples work Montgomery was in the habit of saying things went according to plan when they did not; refusing to accept any responsibility for failure and claiming failures as successes. Thus claiming, amazingly that Market Garden was 90% successful!
Like McArthur Montgomery made sure he was surrounded by a well-oiled propaganda machine that served to glorify him. For like McArthur Montgomery devotedly believed in the legend he created about himself.
Thus was created the legend of the military “genius” who beat Rommel through sheer brilliance. The reality was the methodical, cautious general who won through material superiority and careful, if cautious planning and operations. Montgomery was competent and not a genius, except at self-publicity.
At another time I may talk about some more overrated military “geniuses”.
1. For Part One of Over-Rated Military “Geniuses” see Here. Chief Joseph’s native name means thunder rolling over mountains. Chief Joseph, Wikipedia Here. Beal, Merrill D., “I Will Fight No More Forever”, Ballantine Books, New York, 1963, pp. 265-266, 273-274.
2. Beal, pp. 265-291, Greene, Jerome A., Nez Perce Summer 1877, Montana Historical Society Press, Helena MONT, 2000, pp. 225-232.
3. Beal, pp. 61-65, 124-160, Greene, pp. 35-44, 128-140, West, Elliot, The Last Indian War, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, pp. 133-136, pp. 186-198.
4. Dupuy, Ernst R., and Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper & Row Pub., New York, 1977 p. 907.
5. Beal, pp. 277-285, Greene, pp. 349-351.
6. For a book celebrating Bernard Montgomery has a military “Genius” see Hamilton, Nigel, Monty, (Three Volumes), Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London, 1985-1990. Barnett, Correlli, The Desert Generals, Second Edition, Phoenix, London, 2007, (Electronic Version), Part 6, ch. 1. And Commentary.
7. Barnett, Part 6, ch. 2, Liddell-Hart, B. H., History of the Second World War, Cassel, London, 1970, pp. 297-307.
9. Barnett, Part 6, ch. 3., Liddell-Hart, pp. 307-309.
10. See McKee, Alexander, Caen: Anvil of Victory, Souvenir Press, London, 2012, chapter Goodwood. Liddell-Hart, pp. 353-357.
11. Liddell-Hart, pp. 560-561. See also Ryan, Cornelius, A Bridge Too Far, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974, for a caustic look at the whole battle including Montgomery’s role.