Anecdote 6: The so-called 'Battle' of Karansabes - for when you want to talk about teamwork or there has been a lot of in-fighting within the company/department
In 1788 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, jealous of the military reputation of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, determined to establish himself as a great military leader, and calling himself 'the avenger of mankind', set off against the Turks in Transylvania. One evening, while crossing a river at the town of Karansebes, some of his cavalrymen who'd crossed the bridge fell out of the line of march to buy liquor from some local peasants. But when some of the infantry tried to do the same, the cavalry drove them away.
Infuriated, the infantry tried to frighten the cavalry, firing some shots into the air and shouting 'Turks! Turks!', pretending they were being attacked.
The rear columns of the army, hearing the shots and shouts, began to panic and fire at each other in the darkness. Officers began to shout 'Halt!', which in German can sound like 'Allah!', thousands began to flee in panic and a flood of men swept the Emperor's carriage off the road into the river. Heavy fighting broke out on both sides of the bridge, and by first light the Austrians had lost over ten thousand dead and wounded, every one self-inflicted and without a single member of the enemy even being sighted.
Sometimes . . . . . . armies can be their own worst enemy. And the same a be true in business. Sometimes companies throw away massive advantages through infighting, internal strife and lack of teamwork. Sometimes they forget who the real enemy is and literally hand business over to the competition because they're too busy fighting among themselves.
Nothing is more appalling, more wasteful, or more unforgivable . . . . . .
Anecdote 7: The battle of New Orleans - for when you're being attacked by a stronger competitor
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the British redcoats were regarded as the toughest and steadiest troops in the world. And their reputation was justified. The French army had long been regarded as invincible, but under the inspired leadership of the Duke of Wellington the British had defeated them and time again during the Peninsular war in Spain.
Wellington's veterans were shipped across the Atlantic under the command of General Sir Edward Packenham to finally put an end to the Anglo-American War of 1812. Packenham sought battle with the American commander, General Andrew Jackson, at New Orleans. This wasn't the same army that had lost the Revolutionary War 35 years earlier. He had 11,000 battle-hardened, seasoned, highly motivated troops who'd just soundly beaten some of Napoleon's best generals. This was going to be a walkover for the British.
With only 5,000 men, Jackson was outnumbered almost 3:1. Some were professional soldiers, but the vast majority were freebooters, pirates, militiamen and civilian volunteers with little training. They wouldn't stand five minutes against Packenham's seasoned veterans.
In hand-to-hand fighting, maybe not. But Jackson had no intention of letting that take place. He chose a strong defensive position only 1,000 yards wide, anchored on the left by a swamp and the right by a river. With strong artillery and 4,000 muskets covering a 1,000 yard front, a frontal attack from the redcoats would be suicidal.
But fortunately for Jackson, Packenham wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He believed his seasoned troops could could take the position with the bayonet, and personally led them forward into a withering hail of fire. Packenham and his second-in-command were both killed, along with 2,100 of their men. Balanced against this were American casualties of 13 killed and 39 wounded. For the Americans it wasn't so much a battle as a turkey shoot. Britain's seasoned veterans had been humiliated by a bunch of semi-trained amateurs.
How? Because all other things being equal, defence will always beat offence. As another example, just think about anything you've ever heard, read or seen about the First World War.
It's true in war, it's true in (American) football . . . and it's true in business as well. Now we've always dominated our sector of the market. But we've recently been attacked by competitor X. Let's be honest for a moment - they're bigger than us, they're stronger than us, and they have deeper pockets than us. But what they haven't taken into account is the fact that WE are fighting defensively. And that's why we're going to win . . .
Anecdote 8: The Danger Of Getting Caught Sleeping - for when you've underestimated the competition or the competition is complacent and you're about to attack them
Most students of history know 1066 as the year William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded - and conquered - England. But most people don't know that he was almost beaten to it by someone else - the Norwegian king Harald Hadrada.
Hadrada had an unrivalled reputation as the most experienced and skilled Viking warrior alive. He'd spent a long career fighting for the city of Byzantium in the famous Varangian Guard and had an experience against all kinds of different enemies that nobody could match.
He invaded the north of England in 1066 before William, and soundly defeated the English militia at the battle of Fulford. The new English king Harold Godwinson's army was still camped on the southern coast awaiting the Normans, so he allowed his victorious troops to have a bit of eleventh century 'R&R.' The weather was unseasonably hot and most of the vikings stripped off their armour and laid out in the sun alongside Stamford Bridge, near York.
But unknown to him, King Harold wasn't on the south coast. He'd force-marched his army north, covering almost 200 miles in only 4 days. So unexpected was his arrival, that even the clouds of dust his army created and the glistening of the sun on their weapons and armour were misinterpreted as a detachment of vikings returning from a raid on a local town.
Unarmoured, unprepared and unready, many of the Norwegians were overrun before they could even arm themselves. Harold Hardrada was killed, along with almost all his army, in a massacre. So many died in such a small area that the field was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones 50 years after the battle.
Everything was on the vikings' side. Numbers, experience, preparation. Harald Hardrada made one mistake - over confidence. And that was enough. Corporate graveyards are littered with the bones of companies who were complacent and thought they couldn't be beaten. Until someone came along who thought otherwise. Competitor X has been complacent about its market leadership for years. And we are about to teach them the error of their ways ........
Anecdote 9: The Battle of Austerlitz - for when you want to stress the importance of attention to detail
In 1805, Austria and Russia had agreed on a combined approach to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte of France. They arranged for their two armies to meet on October 20, and together they would crush the French. Numbers would be on their side. Together they'd have about 145,000 men against Napoleon's70,000. They'd be unstoppable. They couldn't fail.
But Napoleon force marched his army across Europe and by the time the Austrian General Mack realized what was happening, it was too late. The French had them surrounded. On October 20, the date of the supposed rendezvous, the Austrians surrendered, with hardly a shot having been fired, bringing the total of prisoners taken by the French to 60,000 men.
What had happened to the Russians? Well, in a staggering display of ineptitude, the joint Austro-Russian staffs had failed to recognize that while the Austrians followed the Gregorian calendar, the Russians still employed the older Julian calendar. And in 1805 the difference between the two was 12 days. So while both armies planned to meet on what they regarded as October 20, the Russians didn't arrive until November 1st, which enabled Napoleon to deal withem one at a time, forcing Mack's surrender and then defeating the Russians (and the remainder of the Austrian army) at the Battle of Austerlitz on November 2nd.
Sometimes . . . it's all in the details. The tiniest of things, easily overlooked, can mean the difference between glorious victory and disastrous defeat. One slip, one oversight, one mistake can mean the difference between success and failure. And I want you to remember this when you're planning how you're going to approach your customers about the launch of our new product X . . . . . .
Anecdote 10: The Ardennes Offensive: For when you want to change people's beliefs about something
In 1940, the French commander General Maurice Gustave Gamelin believed that when the Germans attacked, they'd attempt a re-run of what they did in 1914, i.e. invade through Belgium. Because the massive French defences along the German border - called the Maginot Line - meant they had no other option. And if they advanced and met them in Belgium, it would mean France itself wouldn't be invaded.
There was only one spot that wasn't heavily defended - the thickly forrested, hilly region of the Ardennes. But it didn't need to be. It was impenetrable, there was no way the Germans could get through it with armour. It just couldn't be done.
Gamelin held this belief despite the fact that:
1) France had been invaded through the Ardennes ten times in the previous 200 years;
2) The French intelligence services had reported a huge build-up of German troops the other side of the Ardennes (Gamelin dismissed this as a feint);
3) The Swiss told the French that the Germans had built 8 new bridges across the Rhine;
4) The French military attache in Switzerland even forecast the exact date of the attack.
The Germans did attack through the Ardennes, as we all know, and France was completely overrun, soundly defeated and humiliated in a matter of days. This debacle was completely avoidable; the French blundered to defeat purely because they weren't prepared to change long-held beliefs based on outdated information.
The reason I tell you this is to make a serious point. The same thing happens in business. Strongly held beliefs . . . . are often based on out-of-date information. Companies often formulate plans and strategies based on what used to be true rather than what is true.
For example . . . . . . we've long known that the products our overseas competitors manufactured were less expensive than ours, but we always thought that didn't matter too much because they were of inferior quality. We knew . . . . . . they weren't a serious threat. Well, I have to tell you today . . . . . .that that is no longer the case. With the introduction of their new product the ABC, competitor X now has a product that is less expensive and matches our quality . . . . . .
If you've enjoyed this article, you'll also enjoy Military Anecdotes and Military Anecdotes (3)
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