1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 35
“It might be a ploy, sir,” said Colonel Carl Bose.
Hans Georg von Arnim continued to examine the peculiar maneuver being undertaken by the enemy’s right wing. He’d lowered the eyeglass, though, after he’d confirmed that the commander was the newly-made general Michael Stearns.
“A trap, you mean?” Von Arnim had spent the past few minutes pondering the same problem. But now, he shook his head.
“I don’t believe Torstensson would be so reckless. Stearns is a complete novice. If he loses his head — not even that; simply becomes confused and loses control — this could turn into a complete disaster for them.”
He wasn’t entirely certain of his conclusion, but… What choice did he really have, with the odds so heavily against him?
“Tell von der Pforte to move up his troops. But before all else, we have to get Hofkirchen’s cavalry engaged.” Von Arnim pointed to a creek in a distance, barely visible because it was so narrow. “If at all possible, we have to keep Stearns’ division from anchoring its flank on the Pleisse.”
“He might decide it’s a trap,” said Colonel Schonbeck. He was leaning forward in his saddle, intently studying the center of the Saxon lines where von Arnim was stationed.
Torstensson, who was almost slouched in his own saddle, gave his head a little shake. “I’m sure he’s considering the possibility. The key is Stearns. I wouldn’t have tried this maneuver with Brunswick-Luneburg or Knyphausen. But I’m betting von Arnim will decide I wouldn’t have chanced it with such a novice as Stearns.”
His aide eyed him sidewise. “It is a bit risky, General.”
Torstensson shrugged. Like the headshake, the gesture was minimal. “Stearns may be new at this, but his soldiers aren’t. Most of the units in the Third Division were at Ahrensbök. So were the flying artillery companies I lent to him. As long as Stearns doesn’t panic, they’ll be able to fend off the counter-attack. Long enough, anyway, which is all that matters.”
Schonbeck was still eyeing him sidewise. Torstensson smiled. “I’ve seen Stearns in a crisis, Colonel.”
“The unrest in Magdeburg after Wismar? But there was no real fighting there, sir.”
Again, the USE commander shook his head. The gesture, this time, was not minimal at all. “That’s not really what matters. The great danger in a crisis is not that a commander collapses from fear of being hurt or killed. Most men are not cowards, certainly not most soldiers. No, the real danger is that they simply can’t think clearly. Their brain freezes. They exude uncertainty — and that’s what begins to create panic in their subordinates and soldiers. Relax, Colonel Schonbeck. Stearns won’t lose his head.”
Losing his head never even occurred to Mike Stearns.
Although he had no experience with military battle, he had been a prizefighter for a time when he was a young man. Young and stupid, as he liked to say. He’d been quite good at it, too, especially the mental side of fighting. He’d won all eight of his professional bouts. The reason he’d quit — other than a sudden and unexpected lapse of youthful imbecility — was because he’d come to realize that his reflexes simply weren’t good enough. Mike was very strong and had superb reflexes. Even now, despite spending the last several years as a sedentary executive, he was still in far better physical condition than most men half his age. But “very strong” and “superb reflexes” were one thing, measured against normal values. Measured against the values of professional boxers, they were something else entirely.
So, he’d quit. Almost twenty years ago, now. But as he moved toward his first battle, Mike felt the familiar mindset closing back in.
The key thing was not to lose your head. To stay in control of the adrenaline rather than letting the adrenalin control you. Ignore the blows. Accept them as inevitable. Concentrate on the enemy. Above all, watch. The natural response of a man in a fight was to flail away. To let the fear and rage fuel his physical abilities, so that he might overpower his foe. In essence, to let the animal try to save the man.
Against a capable opponent, that was a recipe for failure. You had to watch. Never lose control. Whatever else, stay calm.
The officers and soldiers within eyesight were watching him. Quite closely. They knew just as well as Torstensson and von Armim that their commanding officer was a neophyte general. And they knew just as well what the calamitous results might be.
They were reassured. He might not really know what he was doing, but he seemed confident and relaxed. He had good advisers. All he had to do was listen to them.
“The key thing right now, sir, is to anchor ourselves on that river.” Colonel Long pointed ahead of them and to the right.
That was the Pleisse, Mike thought. Like most so-called “rivers” in the area, it was really just a creek — and not a particular large one at that. By North American standards, all the rivers he’d seen in Europe were on the small side. Even major rivers like the Elbe — the Rhine and Danube too, he’d been told, although he hadn’t yet seen them himself — were far smaller than the Mississippi.
But while Mike hadn’t been in a battle yet, by now he’d had a fair amount of experience in the seemingly simple task of getting an army to move. He’d also read a copy of von Clausewitz’s On War that Becky had obtained for him. So he’d already learned just how cruelly accurate the military theorist had been.
War is very simple, but in War the simplest things become very difficult.
Now, looking at the little river that his aide Long was pointing to, Mike could see how important it would be for his division to place its right flank against it. Even a creek ten feet wide and probably not more than a foot or two deep could serve as a significant protection against a possible flank attack. It didn’t look like much — and, indeed, to a man enjoying a hike through the countryside, it wasn’t much. He could cross it quite easily. At worst, get his boots wet.
But crossing that same creek during a cavalry charge, with bullets and cannonballs flying, would be something else entirely. Horses were big animals and like all big animals the prospect of falling made them very nervous, especially falling on a run. An eight-year-old boy weighing fifty pounds would race across that creek without a second thought, shrieking gleefully the whole while. A warhorse weighting a thousand pounds and carrying an armored man weighing another two hundred pounds might balk. Or, if they did wade across, might trip and fall if the bottom was soft or stony or simply uneven.
A balked or spilled cavalryman is likely to be a dead or maimed cavalryman, and nobody knew that better than cavalrymen themselves. So the mere fact that an opponent had his flank anchored against a creek, be that creek never so modest, would automatically shape the battle. Whether or not that creek could be forced was likely to become a purely theoretical exercise, because no general wanted to take the risk of finding out.
“Makes sense to me, Christopher. See to it, if you would.”
That lesson, Mike had not learned from an aristocratic Prussian military theorist at the age of forty. He’d learned it from his hillbilly mother, at the age of four. A none-too-gentle slap accompanied by the words be polite!