Leaders are measured and tested every day—against metrics, accomplishments, standards, and values. To assume the mantle of command and its responsibilities at any level is important, and something that should not be taken lightly. Yet some leaders have in their hands the fate of their organizations, missions, and sometimes nations. They face decisions that they alone can make, sometimes very quickly, upon which success or failure, or even survival, turn. Those times test leaders and their moral courage, and how they react (or fail to react) depends upon the sum of their character, experience, and powers of judgment. Whether they rise to the occasion or fumble is an important measure of that leader.
We have two sterling examples of this moral courage, one from 75 years ago today, and one from 78 years before that.
Today in 1940, General John S. S. P. Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, faced a major crisis. Five days before, German armor completed a 10-day sweep to the sea, cutting off the BEF and neighboring French forces from other French armies to the south and leaving their backs to the sea. Worse, this armor was now cutting north into the BEF’s rear, threatening to sever Gort’s connection with the coast. A counterattack to reconnect with the French forces to the south had failed, and French generals in Paris were begging Gort to try again. Meanwhile, other parts of the BEF’s front wavered under German pressure and threatened to give way. At 6 P.M., 25 May 1940, one of his corps commanders advised Gort that the French could not attack northward to meet his forces, which doomed another southward push before it started. The BEF had two uncommitted divisions, the 5th and 50th, which could attack southward or shore up the line. Gort faced a key decision, upon which rested the fate of a quarter million British soldiers – the only major field army Britain had in action.
78 years before, on New Year’s Eve 1862 outside Murfreesboro Tennessee, Union Major General William S. Rosecrans deployed his Army of the Cumberland opposite Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. Expecting to hold with his right wing, Rosecrans planned an offensive for that morning with his center and left to start at 8 A.M. He heard firing at 6:30 on his right, but thought little of it. At 7:30, as his troops deployed, he received a report that the right wing was “heavily pressed,” but did not let it distract him. Just before 8, stragglers appeared, the sounds of battle had moved toward the Union rear, and a more detailed report explained that the right wing had virtually collapsed under a Confederate offensive. The Federal center wing and left wing troops were about to attack, but they also could be called back and used to shore up the right wing. General Rosecrans now faced a choice, upon which rested the fate of his 46,000-man army (second largest in the Union) and a nation reeling from a series of defeats.
Both men made the same decision in a matter of seconds: save the army. Gort abandoned all plans for an attack, and sent the two divisions to help defend. He next focused on getting to and across the English Channel. The BEF fought its way to Dunkirk, the last open port on the Channel coast. Over several days in late May and early June, 338,221 British and French soldiers escaped to England, despite ferocious German air attacks. This Miracle of Dunkirk saved the British Army to fight another day. Without these men and their leaders, Britain could not have carried on.
Rosecrans grew pale, and then recovered his composure and called off the attack. He set his troops in motion to reinforce the right wing, and personally rode for the front. Throughout the rest of the day his visible and active presence sustained his men, and by nightfall the Federals had narrowly averted defeat. After two more days of failed maneuvers and attacks, the Confederates retreated and the Battle of Stones River ended as a Union victory. President Lincoln later wrote that Rosecrans’ success, “had it been a defeat instead, the nation could have scarcely lived over.”
Gort and Rosecrans faced the crucible of crisis, as their plans faced unexpected challenges that raised the specter of catastrophic failure. They responded with great moral courage, which required unusual clarity of vision and strength of character to both understand the situation and make the appropriate decision. Only they could make the call, and both men had the fortitude to make it – thus altering the war for their respective countries.
Top image: Viscount Gort in 1940.
Bottom, right: The Battle of Stones River at 8 AM, 31 December 1862.
Bottom, left: The BEF and retreat to Dunkirk, 25-31 May 1940.