Anecdote 11: The fall of Douaumont, 1916 - for when you want to stress the importance of attention to detail
During the First World War, the French fort at Douaumont (pronounced Doo-oh-mon) was regarded as the strongest fort in the world. It had been stripped of men prior to the German attack on Verdun, but in February 1916 the French General Chretien was ordered to reoccupy it and defend it to the last man.
Chretien was about to go on leave, and unfortunately simply . . . forgot to tell his second-in-command. As a result, when the Germans attacked, it was defended by only 56 men. A German sergeant called Kunze climbed through one of the gun embrasures and roamed the corridors, unchecked and unopposed. He stumbled into a room where a lecture was taking place and took 20 Frenchmen prisoner, locked them in the room and made his way to the officers' mess, where he sat down and had breakfast.
The capture of the fort was completed by 3 German officers who had been told what was happening by Kunze's men and who followed in his footsteps. To cover the shame of what had happened, the French claimed the fort's fall had cost the Germans thousands of lives, something the ermans didn't contradict. It wasn't retaken until 6 months later at a cost of tens of thousands of French lives.
All because General Chretien . . . forgot.
Sometimes . . . it's all in the details. The tiniest of things, easily overlooked, can mean the difference beween glorious victory and disastrous defeat. One slip, one oversight, the difference between sucess 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 12: The Battle of Trenton - for when you've underestimated the competition or the competition is complacent and you're about to attack them
By December 1776 the American revolt was on its last legs. George Washington had abandoned New York and retreated to Philadelphia, and assuming there'd be no more fighting that winter the British commander Sir William Howe had ordered his troops into winter quarters.
But needing a victory to restore confidence, Washington decided to cross the partly frozen River Delaware and attack the city of Trenton. The city was occupied by a regiment of German mercenaries, Hessians commanded by Johann Gottlieb Gall, an obstinate man of limited intelligence who was convinced the American rebels were no match for his men. He'd refused to build earthworks to fortify the city of Trenton, New Jersey, saying he only needed bayonets as a defence.
On Xmas Eve he received a letter from an American loyalist warning him of the attack, but he was too busy drinking and didn't read it. Big mistake. His second mistake was 2 days later, when he refused to get out of bed to listen to an officer who had heard shots.
When he eventually did get out of bed, hungover from his Xmas celebrations, his first act - believe it or not - was to summon the regimental band. And to the sound of fife and drum, his half-dressed, half-awake, half-sober Hessians were shot down in droves. Shortly afterwards he was shot himslef and almost 1,000 of his men surrendered to the rebels. American casualties were reported at 5.
General Howe was horrified. He said he couldn't believe that "three old established regiments of a people who make war a profession should lay down their arms to a ragged and undisciplined militia."
Everything was on the Hessians' side. Experience, discipline, training. But Johann Rall made made one big 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 . . . . . . . . .
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