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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Element of Surprise


Surprise can be a highly effective tactic. The runner in a marathon who stays steadily in the pack, and with a last minute surge suddenly takes the lead and wins the race, is often successful because the lead runners were caught off guard. In The Art of War, the 6th century B.C. Chinese military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, discussed the element of surprise in warfare: "In conflict, direct confrontation will lead to engagement and surprise will lead to victory. Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win. Such tacticians are as versatile as the changes in heaven and earth."* Often, but not always, surprise tactics have changed the course of a battle, sometimes of a war. But occasionally they backfire, and sometimes they simply do not supply the goods.


The Battle of the Somme commenced on Saturday, 1 July 1916 with a series of nineteen enormous explosions. They were caused by the detonation of underground explosive charges planted by British Royal Engineers, tunnelling under no-man's land to positions beneath the German line along the Western Front. The mine at Beaumont-Hamel beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt (seen above), was one of the two largest mines ever detonated, and the sound of the blast was so great that it was said to have been heard in places more distant than London. Following the explosion the British began a heavy artillery bombardment on the German line, and British troops moved in to occupy German positions. But this, and the entire series of explosions, while devastating to the German positions that were destroyed, did not achieve the expected success. The early detonation of the mine was a mistake which gave the Germans the opportunity to recover control over the rear of the mine crater. Under their fire, only a handful of British soldiers managed to reach the crater, from where the Germans later ejected them in a counter-attack. The failure at Beaumont-Hamel contributed to the overall failure of the British attack on the rest of the German front, and led to the stalemate that followed.


But when it is carefully thought out, and carefully carried out, surprise can bring about a major victory. History is full of examples of successful surprise attacks, from Hannibal at Lake Trasimene to the Japanese air force at Pearl Harbour. An example of the use of surprise from the Middle Ages that was apparently very effective, was the siege of the Templar fortress of Safed in the eastern Galilee. In 1266, riding the wave of his victorious invasion into Frankish territory the previous year, and the occupation of the smaller coastal towns of Arsur and Caesarea, the Egyptian sultan, Baybars, appears to have decided to take out the major crusader fortifications before going after the largest of the fortified cities further north. It seems that in the case of Safed he chose to use the element of surprise, by carrying out diversionary tactics before attempting to attack this vast and powerful fortress. He began by attacking other distant sites from the region around Arsur, to Acre, Tyre, Sidon and as far north as Tripoli. But perhaps most important for understanding his motives, he besieged the German castle of Montfort.


The idea that by these actions he was trying to distract attention from his real target, Safed, was suggested by historian, Christopher Marshall.** The multiple attacks of numerous targets over a large area would have confused the Latins, and would have left them with no idea as to where he was going to strike next. The fact that a heavy attack (as we now know it was from archaeological evidence) on the German castle of Montfort, failed to force it to capitulation, is perhaps the best proof we have that this entire action was indeed a diversionary tactic. It is hard to believe that Baybars with the vast power at his disposal would have been unable to occupy a comparatively small and weak castle, particularly in the light of his subsequent and fairly swift conquest of Safed, perhaps the largest and most formidable castle in the Latin East, just a few weeks later. The "failure" at Montfort in 1266 only makes sense if, in fact, it was not a failure at all.


* Sun, Tzu, The Art of War, edited and translated by Thomas Cleary, Boston, 1991.

**Christopher Marshall, Warfare in the Latin East, Cambridge, 1992, p. 203.

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