The Fabian strategy is a military strategy where pitched battles and frontal assaults are avoided in favour of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection.
While avoiding decisive battles, the side employing this strategy harasses its enemy through skirmishes to cause attrition, disrupt supply and affect morale.
Employment of this strategy implies that the side adopting this strategy believes time is on its side, but it may also be adopted when no feasible alternative strategy can be devised.
This strategy derives its name from Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the dictator of the Roman Republic given the task of defeating the great Carthaginian general Hannibal in southern Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). At the start of the war, Hannibal boldly crossed the Alps in wintertime and invaded Italy. Due in part to Hannibal’s skill as a general, he repeatedly inflicted devastating losses on the Romans – quickly achieving two crushing victories over the Romans at the Battle of the Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene. After these disasters the Romans appointed Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius initiated a war of attrition fought through constant skirmishes and limiting the ability of the Carthaginians to forage for food.
Hannibal suffered from two weaknesses. First, he was commander of an invading foreign army on Italian soil, effectively cut off from the home country by the difficulty of seaborne resupply. His only hope of destroying Rome was by enlisting the support of her allies. As long as the Italians remained loyal to Rome, then there was little Hannibal could win. Hannibal planned to convince Rome’s allies that it was more beneficial for them to side with the Carthaginians through a combination of winning battles and negotiation. Therefore, Fabius calculated that the way to defeat Hannibal was to avoid engaging with him in pitched battles, so as to deprive him of victories. He determined that Hannibal’s extended supply lines, and the cost of maintaining the Carthaginian army in the field, meant that Rome had time on its side.
Rather than fight, Fabius shadowed Hannibal’s army and avoided battle, instead sending out small detachments against Hannibal’s foraging parties, and manoeuvring the Roman army in hilly terrain, so as to nullify Hannibal’s decisive superiority in cavalry. Residents of small villages in the path of Hannibal’s army were ordered to burn their crops and take refuge in fortified towns. Fabius used interior lines to ensure that at no time could Hannibal march on Rome without abandoning his Mediterranean ports, while at the same time inflicting constant, small, debilitating defeats on the North Africans. This, Fabius had concluded, would wear down the invaders’ endurance and discourage Rome’s allies from going over to the enemy, without having to challenge the Carthaginians to a decisive battle. Once Hannibal’s Carthaginians had been sufficiently weakened and demoralised by lack of food and supplies, Fabius and his well-fed legions would then launch the decisive battle and crush Hannibal once and for all.
Hannibal’s second weakness was that much of his army was made up of Spanish mercenaries and Gaulish allies, whose loyalty to Hannibal was dubious, even though they disliked Rome. Being mercenaries, they were unsuited for siege-type battles, having neither the equipment nor the patience for such a campaign. The mercenaries desired quick, overwhelming battles and raids of villages for plunder, much like land-based pirates.
As such, Hannibal’s army was virtually no threat to Rome, a walled city which would have required a long siege to reduce, which is why Hannibal never attempted it. Hannibal’s only option was to beat Roman armies in the field quickly before plunder ran out and the Gauls and Spaniards deserted for plunder elsewhere. Fabius’s strategy of delaying battle and attacking supply-chains thus hit right at the heart of Hannibal’s weakness. Time, not energy, would cripple Hannibal’s advances.
Fabius’s strategy, though a military success, was a political failure. His indirect policies, while tolerable among wiser minds in the Roman Senate, were unpopular, because the Romans had been long accustomed to facing and besting their enemies directly in the field of battle. The Fabian strategy was, in part, ruined because of a lack of unity in the command of the Roman army. The magister equitum, Marcus Minucius Rufus, a political enemy of Fabius, is famously quoted exclaiming,
Are we come here to see our allies butchered, and their property burned, as a spectacle to be enjoyed? And if we are not moved with shame on account of any others, are we not on account of these citizens… which now not the neighbouring Samnite wastes with fire, but a Carthaginian foreigner, who has advanced even this far from the remotest limits of the world, through our dilatoriness and inactivity?
As the memory of the shock of Hannibal’s victories grew dimmer, the Roman populace gradually started to question the wisdom of the Fabian strategy, the very thing which had allowed them the time to recover. It was especially frustrating to the mass of the people, who were eager to see a quick conclusion to the war. Moreover, it was widely believed that if Hannibal continued plundering Italy unopposed, the terrified allies, believing that Rome was incapable of protecting them, might defect and pledge their allegiance to the Carthaginians.
Since Fabius won no large-scale victories, the Roman Senate removed him from command. Their chosen replacement, Gaius Terentius Varro, led the Roman army into a debacle at the Battle of Cannae. The Romans, after experiencing this catastrophic defeat and losing countless other battles, had at this point learned their lesson. They utilised the strategies that Fabius had taught them, which, they finally realised, were the only feasible means of driving Hannibal from Italy.
This strategy of attrition earned Fabius the cognomen “Cunctator” (‘The Delayer’).
During the Roman campaign against Persia prosecuted by Julian in 363 AD, the main Persian army under Shapur II let the numerically superior Romans advance deep into their territory, avoiding a full-scale battle at the expense of the destruction of their fortresses. As the Romans declined to take the Persian capital, they were lured into Persia’s interior, where the Persians employed scorched earth tactics. Shapur II’s army appeared later and engaged in continuous skirmishes only after the starving Romans were in retreat, resulting in a disastrous Roman defeat.
The strategy was used by the medieval French general Bertrand du Guesclin during the Hundred Years’ War against the English following a series of disastrous defeats in pitched battles against Edward, the Black Prince. Eventually du Guesclin was able to recover most of the territory that had been lost.
The most noted use of Fabian strategy in American history was by George Washington, sometimes called the “American Fabius” for his use of the strategy during the first year of the American Revolutionary War. While Washington had initially pushed for traditional direct engagements and victories, he was convinced of the merits of using his army to harass the British rather than engage them, both by the urging of his generals in his councils of war, and by the pitched-battle disasters of 1776, especially the Battle of Long Island. In addition, given his background as a Colonial officer who had witnessed Indian warfare, Washington predicted that this style would aid in defeating the traditional battle-styles of the British Army.
However, as with the original Fabius, Fabian strategy is often more popular in retrospect than at the time. To the troops, it can seem like a cowardly and demoralising policy of continual retreat. Fabian strategy is sometimes combined with scorched earth tactics that demand sacrifice from civilian populations. Fabian leaders may be perceived as giving up territory without a fight, and since Fabian strategies promise extended war rather than quick victories, they can wear down the will of one’s own side as well as that of the enemy. During the American Revolution, John Adams’ dissatisfaction with Washington’s conduct of the war led him to declare, “I am sick of Fabian systems in all quarters.”
Later in history, Fabian strategy would be employed all over the world. Used against Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Fabian strategy proved to be decisive in the defence of Russia. Sam Houston effectively employed a Fabian defence in the aftermath of the Battle of the Alamo, using delaying tactics and small-unit harrying against Santa Anna’s much larger force, to give time for the Army of Texas to grow into a viable fighting force. When he finally met Santa Anna on the fields of San Jacinto, Houston chose the time for attack equally well, launching his forces while the Mexican Army was lounging in siesta. The resulting victory ensured the establishment of the Republic of Texas. With the victory at San Jacinto, Houston’s detractors were able to see the validity of his delaying tactics. During the First World War in German East Africa, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and General Jan Smuts both used the Fabian strategy in their campaigns.
During the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese independentists used the Fabian strategy by utilising delaying and hit-and-run tactics and scorched-earth strategy against the better-equipped French forces, which prolonged the war but later made both the French high command and home front weary against it, much worsened by the eventual Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu.
Fabian socialism, the ideology of the Fabian Society (founded in 1884), significantly influenced the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. It utilises the same strategy of a “war of attrition” in the society’s aim to bring about a socialist state. The advocation of gradualism distinguished this brand of socialism from those who favour revolutionary action.