“The Practice of Strategy: Two Case Studies from British History” by Kenton White

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A presentation to the Mackinder Forum Seminar #26, “Colin S. Gray: Master of Strategy and Geopolitics,” February 28, 2021


In his book Strategy and History Colin wrote, ‘Strategy is the bridge between military power and political purpose. Its state of repair is highly variable. Moreover … it is a bridge that must allow two-way traffic between tasking from policy and evidence from military feasibility ….’[1] Strategy is unique to each situation, but it consists of common practice and structure which can be seen throughout history. 

Strategy is composed of several levels, each enmeshed with the others to varying degrees. It is composed of ends, ways and means. Two additional factors should be added to this triumvirate – risks and assumptions. It is composed of operational (or theatre) command, doctrine and tactics. It is directed by policy.

Colin was a great advocate of the use of history to inform current strategy, viewing that history through the lens of strategic theory. He wrote of the historical continuity and discontinuity of strategy: he questioned what changes and what does not. In this short lecture I will discuss exactly that theme. I will focus on the land components of the campaign to liberate Portugal between 1810 and 1811, and compare that to the concepts for defeating a Soviet invasion of Western Europe by the British Army of the Rhine. 

The political continuity between my chosen examples is striking. Similarities between the two strategic environments are clear. Both British governments, 170 years apart, committed their main army to the defence of Europe against domination by a single nation. The geopolitical view from Britain was that there was sense in stopping any one country from dominating Europe, and this would enable Britain to continue to trade with the rest of the world without fear.

The military continuity, at first glance, might be less obvious. On closer examination we see some connections which overshadow the technological differences and changes in the character of warfare between the studies.

Colin cautioned that one cannot take a successful strategy from the past and apply it, unchanged, to a current or future circumstance. However, examples from history are central to illustrating the use and validity of theory when practice is analysed.  We can compare different periods of history to see continuity or disparity between successful and unsuccessful strategy.

Wellington in the Peninsular

The British Government’s policy was of continued opposition to Napoleon’s rule of France and his waging of aggressive war throughout Europe. The objective for Wellington was the defence of Portugal. In 1810 Viscount Wellington commanded the main field army Britain had.

The ends for Wellington were clearly stated. Keep the French out of Portugal if possible. Should the French invade, stop them from permanently occupying the country. Wellington had set out his own plans with clarity. He also predicted with great accuracy the operations of the enemy. In the early stages of 1810 political support at home was shaky. But with the support of the Royal Family, Wellington was given almost complete control of the fight against France in Portugal. This included control of the Portuguese Regency Government, despite some objection from certain parts of Portuguese society, and direction of the Portuguese economy and society.

Wellington was provided with significant means to achieve his aims. Large amounts of money were provided to retrain the Portuguese Army; he commanded 30,000 British and German troops; the civil population was put under British military control; and there was dedicated support from the Royal Navy. 

Wellington’s plan was what might be termed ‘indirect’, or as he called it, his ‘cautious system’.[2] He would avoid battle if possible, withdrawing his forces in the face of an enemy advance and hopefully lure the French towards the prepared positions around Lisbon. If he had to offer battle, or the opportunity arose of doing so in a secure location, Wellington was satisfied he could do so without risking the army. He was insistent that he would not be drawn from his cautious system.[3]

Colin identified, with Clausewitz and Jomini amongst others, that the concentration of force at a particular point can be the turning point in a campaign, or more importantly the key to final victory.[4] Wellington understood the limitations of the forces available to him, and the environment, both physical and political, in which he was to campaign. He chose the points at which he was able to concentrate force, at the battle of Buçaco and then at the defensive lines around Lisbon. In the first he fought and won a tactical victory. At the second he decided the outcome of the entire campaign, which led ultimately to the allied victory over the French in Portugal and Spain.

Wellington’s concept was to fight a battle only if he was confident of victory and the opportunity presented itself. Britain’s strategy in NATO had a slightly different emphasis, not of avoiding battle, but of using counter-attacks to stop an invasion of West Germany. 

Britain and NATO

The NATO strategy of ‘Flexible Response’ was adopted in 1967 with the intention of raising the nuclear threshold should a war be fought between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This new strategy demanded increased conventional force sizes and capabilities, and an improved speed of response from NATO.

The British Army of the Rhine was larger than anything Wellington commanded in his entire career, and with far greater resources. It was the only army Britain had.

The British Government had repeatedly stated its commitment to NATO dedicating the entire RAF and Royal Navy and more than 100,000 soldiers to the defence of Western Europe in time of war. The majority of the reinforcements to the British army in time of war were made up by reservists and territorials, essentially civilians who were part-time soldiers.

The commander of the British Army in Germany in 1980, General Bagnall, devised a new doctrine of mobile, aggressive defence. The plan for the British Army for the defeat of a Soviet attack was known as the Counterstroke. This relied on the concentration of force on the flank of the advancing Warsaw Pact troops. A successful attack depended on mobile reserves to hit the flanks, stopping their advance. This replaced the linear, static defence previously adopted. Bagnall was discomfited in his strategy by the inadequacies of policy and the hope of avoidance of war. Policy did not provide the means and ways to apply military action as imagined in NATO’s strategy. However, Bagnall’s ideas would bear fruit in the campaign to liberate Kuwait in 1991. 


There are several significant similarities which influence the application of the chosen strategy. Both commanders led the only large field army Britain had at the time. Failure would mean disaster not only for the army but for the nation.

Both armies would be dogged by logistical problems. In both cases much of the logistical tail of the army was reliant on reservists or civilians rather than regular troops. Neither had sufficient transport for their needs. In Wellington’s case, ammunition was plentiful, but transporting food was problematic, and at times his men went hungry. For Bagnall, the opposite was the case. Whilst hungry men can fight, well fed men without ammunition are useless for the prosecution of a war. Although Bagnall’s men had weapons, they lacked stockpiles of ammunition. Some main ammunition such as anti-tank missiles would last no more than two days in a high intensity conflict. 

Both armies faced a numerically superior enemy and relied on allies to balance the numbers. Some allies were more reliable than others. In both cases the commanders had to compensate for allies who talked a good fight. 


A good strategy can accommodate poor troops, and even some poor campaigns: Wellington demonstrated this. Despite the setbacks in his campaign to defend Portugal, the overall strategy was robust enough to succeed. The ways and means given to Wellington were adequate, barely in some cases, to achieve the desired political and military ends.

But a poor strategy cannot be saved by excellent troops or even dynamic operations. NATO strategy hoped for the best and planned for the best too. 

Britain was by no means the only nation to miss easy cost-savings. The armies of the allies were not equipped to fight the expected war. Far from being a flexible strategy, in the event of a war it was likely to fail in its objective of raising the nuclear threshold. Only under a narrow set of circumstances could NATO be mobilised in time, but once mobilised NATO did not have the staying power to fight for more than a few days. Bagnall’s Counterstroke would be fruitless through lack of ammunition and reserves. The ways and means were not available to provide for the desired end.

We see today, with the approaching British Strategic Defence and Security Review an example of ignoring history. Reducing one’s capacity to fight has never worked out well.

Summing up the contrast between the two examples, I will finish with Colin’s comment regarding Strategic History. ‘Since the future is unforeseeable … we must use only assets that can be trusted. Specifically, we plan to behave strategically in an uncertain future on the basis of three sources of practical advice: historical experience, the golden rule of prudence (we do not allow hopes to govern our plans), and common sense. We can educate our common sense by reading history. But because the future has not happened, our expectations of it can only be guesswork. Historically guided guesswork should perform better than one that knows no yesterdays. Nonetheless, planning for the future, like deciding to fight, is always a gamble.’[5]

[1] Colin S. Gray, Strategy and History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Cass Series Strategy and History 15 (London: Routledge, 2006), 1. Introduction, Holding the strategy bridge.

[2] Wellington to the Earl of Liverpool, Celorico, 19th August 1810, The Dispatches of the Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington. An Enlarged Edition in Eight Volumes, ed. by John Gurwood, 8 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), iv, p. 234.

[3] Wellington to the Right Honourable C. Arbuthnot, Alcobaça, 5th October 1810, The Duke of Wellington, vi, p. 612.

[4] Gray, Strategy and History, 75, Cass Series Strategy and History 15, (London: Routledge, 2006).

[5] Ibid., 80.