Enough of the heavy stuff. We covered battles from 216 BC to 1916 here, but not a lot thus far about some of the personalities who made these battles, the generals and admirals of military history. Let us change direction and talk about somebody everyone thinks they know: General George S. Patton.
Now a word about heroes…from a man who has worked for a few who are thought of as such, and calls several others “friend.” Almost no man or woman who becomes known as a “hero” can live up to that title. With a vanishingly few exceptions none can withstand the scrutiny, just as most of us could not. The majority demonstrate that they are, or were, quite human, and often the products of their own eras. This occurs, if not in their own time, then in the long decades that come later where young historians working on their PhDs swarm like sharks induced into a blood-based frenzy.
Once I was one of those sharks. Sorry. But at least now I have something interesting to pass to you.
One more word about heroes: Those flaws, be they infidelity or anger-management or racism or misogyny, may well be real. They may also be irrelevant to the events that gained them a place in history. In a few cases they can also be both distasteful and a key component to their later actions. Patton is one of the latter. He was a suck-up of the first order, but that was just a component of the massive ego that allowed him to succeed as a battlefield commander. It was also a behavior that was not frowned upon, and indeed was a part of the military culture at the time that he came into service, so understand that what you are about to read about is a product of both of those factors. Neither takes away from the successful military operations he later conducted.
Many readers doubtless understand the vital importance of training for future military success. That is a no-brainer, because obviously the better trained a military force, the more likely it is to succeed if and when it is ever committed to combat. But there is another reason to conduct training, and that is for the purpose of experimentation. Over the past couple of essays I pointed out the concept of the “Revolution in Military Affairs”, aka the RMA. Well, at the outset of WWII the Nazis unleashed a new one: Maneuver Warfare.
This was a new vision of war at the operational level. Maneuver Warfare was not just rapidly moving light forces, like Napoleonic or Civil War cavalry sweeping around the flank on a battlefield. No, this was the heaviest possible combat forces, the tanks and mechanized artillery and infantry, that could now move faster than any foot-bound infantry force. These maneuver forces, with their supporting air forces, were tied together through their unconstrained use of radios. They were not seeking to win one battle, but to drive so deeply and rapidly into their opponent’s “rear area” (hold the giggles) that they completely unhinged their enemy. There never would be one huge climatic Waterloo-like battle because through this cataclysmic maneuver these forces utterly unhinged their opponents before the latter could even get set for such an event.
In 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland and the declarations of war by France and England, the United States woke up and realized it needed to do some serious catching up on the military side of things. Planning began immediately and quite quickly one of the biggest elements recognized by the planners in the War Department was that we needed to figure out how to organize and equip our own forces to deal with this quite obvious RMA. Should we be heavy and strong but relatively slow? Should we create forces that were lighter but more nimble? Should we emphasize airpower to counteract ground power, or should we design our forces to defend against tanks? Perhaps we should go with tanks ourselves, and fewer infantry? The questions, at that point, were nearly endless.
So in late 1939 we started planning a series of major exercises to experiment with the various options sitting before us. The result was a series of massive U.S. Army maneuvers that took place in the period just before America’s entry into the Second World War. Perhaps the best known of these were the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940.
Maneuvers such as this one, as well as those that took place later in North Carolina and Tennessee, were used to test certain emerging tactical ideas and organizations. As this was to be a test, not “training” per se, certain elements had to be kept secret from the participants until the exercises actually started. The conditions of the maneuvers—who would be where doing what, the organizational structures—were all closely guarded secrets. After all, everyone understood that revealing the situation to the units involved before the “exam” would convey an unfair advantage to the unit with knowledge beforehand and invalidate the results of the test overall.
The cost of such false test returns would be measured by only one metric of course, human lives. Specifically, American lives.
Some, however, took these exercises merely as an opportunity to curry favor with their superiors. Among those was the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. Now read this:
To clarify what you are reading, Major General Kenyon Joyce was the commander of the vaunted First Cavalry Division at this time. As such he was one of the most important generals in the Army, at least among the officers of the Cavalry Branch of the Army. His unit was about to participate in those very same Louisiana Maneuvers that were to experiment with solutions to the problem of how to beat the Germans should we go to war with them as everyone expected. Thus the very worst thing that could happen would be for one of the commanders of the estimated 300,000 American soldiers who would participate in that vast experiment, to gain advanced knowledge about the exercise. That would, potentially, invalidate some or all of the critical lessons we would learn and as a result put American lives in greater danger.
Yet that is exactly what you are seeing right there.
The Third Cavalry Regiment was a lower rung on the ladder, since two or three regiments combined to make a single division. A regiment is commanded by a Colonel, but a division has a two-star general. While the commander of a prestigious unit like the 3rd Cavalry was doubtless “rising,” he was not yet at the top. So like the lowest creature in “The Office,” he was doing all he could to make the top brass love him.
As can be seen in the letter, the 3rd Cavalry itself was not slated to participate in the upcoming maneuvers. But the commander of the Third Cavalry previously served under General Joyce and considered Joyce something of a patron. Now to be absolutely clear, when we are talking “cavalry” here we mean, literally, men on horseback. Yea. In 1940 the United States Army still fielded entire Divisions and separate Regiments made up of men riding fricking horses, and officers in the Cavalry were quite insistent that horses were important in the future of warfare. Even if that meant cheating in the upcoming experimental maneuvers in order to “beat” the advocates of mechanized warfare. (Those are the commanders noted in the letter, “Chaffee,” etc.)
As you can read for yourself in this document pulled from the archives of the United States Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, this officer, the commander of the 3rd Cavalry, has just compromised what may be considered the most important maneuvers ever conducted in all of American military history. And his reason? Purely to suck up to his patron.
I leave it to you to determine for yourselves the degree to which this invalidates the resulting “lessons” the Army believed that it learned from those maneuvers. However, it remains to be seen just what this officer himself thought of his actions. Perhaps, after all, he did not believe that what he was doing was wrong. Perhaps he was unaware of the stricture of secrecy surrounding the upcoming maneuvers. Maybe he did not know that he was breaking the rules.
I think not.
If you cannot read the handwritten postscript it says this:
“PS~ Please keep this dope secret so I can get more.”
What a slimebag.
And there you have the signature block and personally written post-script to nail George S. Patton down precisely.
Not surprisingly, this letter is nowhere to be found in any of his own papers, though he obsessively kept copies of his correspondence with senior, if not junior, American officers. No, it must have been purged from those files. The only extant copy resides in Kenyon Joyce’s personal papers, over which Patton had no control.
As always I can be reached at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com