Pursuit to the Point of Failure — Catastrophic turning points in war and business

In a recent posting about Adlertag, we discussed the dangers in letting something else than meritocracy guide hiring, firings, demotions, and promotions in our business, using the historic context of the airwar of the early part of World War II to illuminate the issue. In this posting, we will attempt to understand the danger of pursuing a business goal doggedly to the point that it causes our business to hit a catastrophic turning point, using the events that lead to the Napeolonic Empire’s down-fall as an illustration.

September 14th, 1812

200 years ago today, September 14th, 1812, marked a decisive turning point in the fortune of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grande Armée when both entered the evacuated city of Moscow.

In a move that would be replicated by Adolf Hitler in 1941, a full 129 years later, Napoleon had ignored repeated advice against an invasion of the Russian heartland, and, in a timing that was almost to the day replicated by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, in Fall Barbarossa, commencing on June 22nd of 1941, the Grande Armé had, on June 23rd of 1812, invaded Russia.

With Napoleon having re-established the hereditary monarchy in France, having crowned himself as emperor of France in 1804, and being crowned King of Italy, Rex Italiae,  in 1806, and the Grande Armée reaching its maximum size of 600,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia in the Summer of 1812, there was limited or no evidence that the entry into Moscow on September 14th would mark the beginning of the end of both, culminating in the defeat at Waterloo on June 18th of 1815, just 3 years later.

Napoleon and the Grande Armée

Until the invasion of Russia, the Grande Armée, under Napoleon’s leadership, had handily defeated a range of European and non-European armies, and in the cases where victory were not achieved — or the achievement of a victory condition was not entirely clear-cut, as it was the case in Egypt — Napoleon had demonstrated a knack for spinning a military defeat or stalemate into a political victory.  

The military wins against almost consistently numerically superior enemy forces were achieved through the tactical and strategic use of velocity, the application of overwhelming force against weak points, and distributed command and control, an approach that Napoleon had gleaned from Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Genghis Khan, and that the Großer Generalstab, the German General Staff, would perfect in the inter-war years from 1918 through 1938.

The objective of the Grande Armée when it crossed the Niemen river on June 23rd was to use velocity to split two army groups of the Imperial Russian Army, catching each army group in the open and annihilating it before enemy reinforcement could be brought to bear, achieving an overwhelming victory that would force the Alexander I, the Czar or Russia, to sue for peace.

What from the outset was a dicey proposition with extended communications and supply line across indefensible and hostile territory, was made untenable when the Imperial Russian Army denied Napoleon his decisive battles, instead falling back towards Moscow while fighting strong rearguard actions, eventually forcing the extension of the French communications and supply line to a point where they were more than 500 miles long.  When the Imperial Russian Army finally made its stand at Borodino, outside Moscow, the Grande Armée was exhausted, depleted, and at the end of an exceptionally thin and fragile life line, while the Imperial Russian Army was within easy reach of supply depots and large forces of militia being conscripted from the depths of Russia.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow — 1812

Boridono — the trap snaps shut

The single-day engagement at Borodino on September 7th, which would go down in history as the bloodiest day in the annals of warfare until surpassed or equaled by the battle of Waterloo 3 years later,  was technically won by the Grande Armée who captured the main positions on the battlefield.  

However, in failing to destroy the opposing army group, which retreated from the battlefield in good order at the end of the day and, ultimately, over the next days abandoned Moscow while applying a scorched-earth tactics, denying the French critical supplies and shelter for the upcoming winter, the Grande Armée effectively sealed its own faith.

While the Imperial Russian Army was busy denying the French the possibility to forage, organizing harassing actions against the exposed French life line stretching back West across the steppes, and re-building its army group to achieve the strength necessary to annihilate its opponent, the Grande Armée and Napoleon on September 14th of 1812 moved into Moscow, an abandoned, partly burned-down city containing no supplies, and waited for the Russian surrender that would never come.

Simply put, the Grande Armée, the greatest military force the world, lead by Napoleon Bonaparte, the greatest tactician and strategist in the world, had been drawn into an elaborate trap involving the endless Russian steppes and General Winter, and the moment they entered Moscow, the trap snapped shut.

Napoleon quickly recognized the mounting danger and immediately opened peace talks with the Czar, which — in a stroke of genius, by the Imperial Russian Army, which very well knew the impact of the impending winter on an unprepared field army — dragged on for a while,before it failed — ultimately, probably not a great surprise to Napoleon or anyone on the French general staff, since it was clear to them that it was evident to the Russian Imperial Army that the trap had snapped shut and the only issue at hand was the speed and the degree of totality of destruction which would be inflicted on the already mortally wounded Grande Armée.

In October, during the Russian mud season and facing the emerging lethal Russian winter, Napoleon ordered the retreat and in November when the Grande Armée crossed the Berezina river, near the Russian border, the effective fighting force had been reduced to approximately 25,000 troops, with the crossing of the Berezina river, a natural choking point fully capitalized on by the pursuing Imperial Russian Army, in itself having given rise to catastrophic losses for the Grande Armée — causing forever the term “Berezina” in French language to be synonymous with catastrophe, as when used in the sentence “C’est la bérézina!”

The estimated French casualties for the Russian campaign exceeded 400,000 men, many of them veterans that could never be replaced. Interestingly, in line with combat up until the time of the Second World War, far more casualties were incurred from illness than for combat.

In particular the Grande Armée appears to have been plagued by dysentery and pneumonia, as well as trench fever and epidemic typhus, which are both transmitted via lice. Dr. Didier Raoult, of Université de la Méditerranée, Faculté de Médecine, has examined bodies recovered from a recent excavations of a mass grave of Grande Armée soldiers in Vilnius, Lithuania, and concluded that the soldiers buried in Vilnius were exposed to body lice containing the bacteria Bartonella quintana (the agent of trench fever) and that 29% of the soldiers had evidence of infection with either R. prowazekii (the agent of epidemic typhus) or Bartonella quintana.

Records in local archives confirmed that the graves contained French troops, which were garrisoned in Vilnius from December 1812, during the retreat of the army. The disposition of the bodies were interesting. As noted by Dr. Raoult:

The remains of 717 individuals were found in the first area studied, at a density of 7 corpses per m2. Similar densities of corpses were found at other sites along the excavation trench, and this suggested that the site contained a total of 2,000 to 3,000 corpses…. The skeletons were in close proximity to one another (0.2 to 0.5 m), indicating that they had been buried at the same time. They were not in a position associated with rigor mortis, suggesting that the soldiers had been buried soon after death and that the intense cold had frozen them in the position in which they had been placed. Analysis of fragments of uniforms and buttons revealed that soldiers and officers from 40 different regiments were buried in the trench.

If you are interested you can read Dr. Raoult’s paper, Evidence for louse-transmitted diseases in soldiers of Napoleon’s Grand Army in Vilnius, here. You can also read the scientific paper, Discovery of a mass grave of Napoleonic period in Lithuania (1812,Vilnius), by Michel Signoli et al here, describing the excavation of the site, containing much interesting information, including information about how the position of some skeletons suggests that the intense cold had frozen victims in the position of their death, kept there by the rapid burial of corpses in December of 1812, and how the army traveled with females, cantinières, blanchisseuses et vivandières, who amazingly survived the 1,000 km journey across Russia, without rest or sufficient warm clothing, short of supplies, and constantly harassed by Cossacks.

Bad News from France


When the last remnants of the Grande Armée left Russia on December 14th, the extent of the catastrophe was clear to not only the French leadership, but to all other nations across Europe, breaking the French hegemony and emboldening an allied force consisting of Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal to engage the French and through a concerted effort taking Paris in March of 1814 and causing the abdication of Napoleon on April 6th, 1814, and in June of 1815 decisively beating Napoleon and the Grande Armée at Waterloo, ensuring that neither would ever again be a factor in European politics.

In effect, an unforced error, the dogged pursuit of the Imperial Russian Army — in itself a minor objective ironically originating from Napoleon’s desire to compel Russia to remain involved in a French led blockade of the British Empire that Alexander the First had expressed his interest in abandoning, and, also, a recation to a hypothetical plan drawn up by the Imperial Russian Army for invasion of Warsaw and Danzig, areas in the French sphere of influence — across 500 miles of hostile territory and the loss of the battle-hardened veterans of Grande Armée, ended the Empire Français, the First French Empire, the dominant power of much of continental Europe during the early 19th century.

Surrender of German Troops at Stalingrad

Recycling History

Napoleon and the Grande Armée’s folly in 1812 would be mirrored in astonishing detail by Hitler and the Wehrmacht in 1941, with the culminating battle, a part of Fall Blau, being fought from August 1942 through January 1943 around and in Stalingrad on the Volga river — almost 1,400 miles from Berlin and with enormously long and strained supply and communications lines across hostile territory– ending with the wholesale destruction of the German 6th Army, a multi-national Axis force, and involving Axis power casualties of anywhere between 500,000 and 850,000 men, and, as it was the case with Moscow for the Russian Imperial Army 130 years earlier, Stalingrad would become the rallying point for the Red Army in 1943, ultimately leading to the sacking of Berlin in 1945.

Business Implications

There are many business lessons to be learned from September 14th. Principally, how dangerous it is to let series of rapid-fire competitive engagements deteriorate into grinding attrition, how dangerous it is to continously extend your supply and communications lines and expose your core business to enemy assault, how dangerous it is to ignore historic precedent, how dangerous it is to assume that achieving a particular victory point will cause your competitors to surrender the field, and how dangerous it is to give your competitors a rallying point.  Moreover, we can learn about the true meaning of a pyrrhic victory, such as the one that Napoleon and his veteran army experienced at Boridono.

IBM, for instance, learned these lessons the hard way, fighting a mostly irrelevant battle with Unisys and Digital in the server field, while allowing Microsoft to raid its operating system business, Oracle to raid its database and application business, Intel to raid its CPU business, and Sun, EMC, and Cisco to raid its server and networking business.

Rarely, if ever 1) should mobility be abandoned in the pursuit of particular, large victory points; 2) should wholesale and all-consuming investments and all-in bets be made; and 3) should your competitors be allowed to lure you into a potentially deadly trap. In fact, if you find yourself pursuing an ever-retreating enemy, getting further and further away from your core business, and this enemy shows no sign of disintegrating, but, rather, appear to be strengthening in each of its rear-guard actions, you should start looking for ways to disengage.

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