In ancient and classical times, many battles ended with the annihilation of one of the forces, the battles of Cannae, Zama and Adrianople being famous examples. From the Renaissance onward, however, the battle of annihilation became rare, at least in Europe. The greatest exception is seen in the battles of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is with Napoleon that the battle of annihilation in the modern sense is most closely associated, so that term "Napoleonic battle of annihilation" is sometimes used, and the Battle of Austerlitz is often cited as the paragon of the modern battle of annihilation.
Napoleon's victories at Austerlitz (1805) and Jena (1806) are often cited as the classic battles of annihilation. Napoleon himself was unable to again achieve such decisive results, partly because his enemies subsequently adjusted to his tactics. For example, Borodino, while a victory, did not result in the desired destruction of the Russian army.
Nevertheless, strategists, influenced by those of the Napoleonic era, most notably Antoine-Henri Jomini, held the Napoleonic battle of annihilation to be the proper objective of modern military campaigns. This interpretation was later mis-accredited to the more renowned Carl von Clausewitz, initially by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who supported arguments for strategies of annihilation with quotes from Clausewitz. Clausewitz, who disliked Jomini personally, as well as his concepts, instead emphasized the primacy of the political in warfare, and remained indifferent to theories arguing for any absolute solutions via the application of military force. Nevertheless, this set the stage for mass confusion down the line of strategic thinkers. Clausewitz's trilogies (albeit used out of context) are contested by Liddell Hart, who claims in Strategy that a poor choice of words by Clausewitz led his interpreters to overestimate the value of annihilation battles. Consequently, at the beginning of the American Civil War, many top military commanders expected a battle of annihilation to quickly end the war. This did not occur. Already, the size and firepower of armies were making the battle of annihilation harder to achieve.
A contrast may be seen between the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Lee, when on the offensive, usually maneuvered with the intent of forcing a battle of annihilation. His archetypal attempt was at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where a classic Napoleonic flanking maneuver defeated but was not able to destroy the Union Army under Joseph Hooker. Lee may be faulted for attempting to achieve a battle of annihilation, particularly at Gettysburg. In contrast, Grant was noted for waging campaigns of maneuver. In the Vicksburg campaign, he forced Pemberton's army into a siege position where it was forced to surrender without a battle. In the Virginia campaign of 1864 against Lee, he continually maneuvered around Lee, forcing him to withdraw further and further south until he had to choose between abandoning the Confederate capital of Richmond or withdrawing into siege lines. William Tecumseh Sherman may also be cited. Rather than pursuing the chimera of destroying Hood's army, he chose to operate directly against the Confederate economy. His famous march through Georgia, directly away from Hood, was basically the opposite of a Napoleonic strategy.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians (and later Germans) made their own version of the battle of annihilation by destroying entire armies in a relatively short time by means of rapid troop movement and rapid encirclement of the enemy. This tactic has come into fruition during the decisive battles of Metz and Sedan where two main French armies were completely annihilated at the same time and in a relatively short span of time, rendering France almost completely defenseless against the German invasion. This tactic later served as an inspiration for the blitzkrieg during World War II where highly mobile formations would execute a battle of annihilation by charging straight into the enemy's weak point and attempt to encircle and destroy separate enemy pockets; this tactic became spectacularly successful during the German invasions of Poland, France and the Soviet Union until they themselves became annihilated by the Soviets in battles such as Stalingrad, Belorussia and Berlin.
The Napoleonic ideal was still alive at the beginning of World War I. In fact, the Germans were able to execute a battle of annihilation against the Russian 2nd Army at the Battle of Tannenberg in the war's opening weeks. But attempts to create such a result on the Western Front resulted in great slaughter to no effect. Armies were now too large to have flanks to turn, and had too much firepower and too much defensive depth to be broken by assault.
During the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Navy's strategy was fixated on the goal of luring the numerically superior United States Pacific Fleet into a single decisive battle of annihilation, which would force the United States to sue for peace. This was at least partially the motivation behind the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, but was loosely followed for as long as the IJN was capable of offensive operations. This goal was never achieved for several reasons. First, the US Navy was wary of committing all of its forces to one major battle. Further, the IJN concentrated so much of its efforts on preparing for a single massive showdown (which never truly occurred) that it neglected devoting resources towards protecting its naval supply lines, which soon fell prey to a Fabian strategy when they were extensively targeted by US submarines. Finally, IJN strategic thought was still heavily based on Mahan's outdated theory of naval supremacy which was based on battleships, failing to realize that aircraft carriers were growing into a position of dominance in naval warfare. Even Japanese victories such as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands failed to utterly annihilate their opponents. The hoped-for "decisive battle" against the US Navy never came, and the IJN was gradually ground down through attrition.
Since World War I, the paradigm of armies maneuvering in the empty countryside for weeks and then meeting in a battle lasting (usually) a single day no longer applies (at least to wars between major powers). Instead, armies are deployed in more-or-less continuous lines stretching perhaps hundreds of miles. Thus, the battle of annihilation may be considered to be mainly of historical interest, except for secondary campaigns.
Initially, it might seem that annihilation of the opposing army is the obvious object of any military campaign. This is not true, however. Many battles have been fought to cause an enemy army simply to retreat, or to suffer attrition; and many campaigns have been waged to avoid rather than seek such a battle. Reasons for not seeking a battle of annihilation include:
Avoidance of the risk and cost associated with such a battle
Lack of means to attempt such a battle
Ability to achieve desired objectives through other means
The enemy might declare fight to the death
Fear of repercussions
A successful battle of annihilation usually requires exposing one's own army to loss in a way that more conservative tactics do not. For example, attempting to turn an enemy's flank generally requires one to separate the flanking force from one's main body. This exposes the attacking force to defeat in detail. Attempting to pierce the enemy's center is usually costly in itself, and also exposes the vanguard force to a destructive counterstroke.
This was an especially important consideration during the pre-Napoleonic era, when armies were relatively small forces composed of professional career soldiers and losses were difficult to replace. Besides, weakening own's army might expose to other enemies, or political struggles, and even internal enemies: a pretender to the throne or a coalition of nobles might challenge the king, a province might rebel to the central government or a third nation could exploit the situation, while the main army suffered heavy casualties after the battle.
Winning a battle with a high cost is commonly referred to as a Pyrrhic victory. Pyrrhus of Epirus obtained a decisive battle against the Romans, but suffered so heavy casualties that was unable to continue the campaign and went instead to Sicily, trying to raise new forces and form a coalition of greek cities. Later the Romans were able to train new levies and avenge the battle by defeating Pyrrhus.
From the Renaissance until the advent of military mechanization, armies were slow on the battlefield (not necessarily slow operationally). This was due to the declining efficacy of cavalry and to the advent of artillery, which is difficult to move. This made it difficult to move quickly enough to prevent an enemy from countering a battle stratagem, or, failing that, to withdraw safely.
If the object of war is to destroy the enemy's ability to resist politically, this may be achieved by other, less expensive, methods.
For example, one may attempt to maneuver one's army in such a way as to cut off the enemy from its base of supplies. If this is done successfully, the enemy may be forced to seek terms with its army intact. This sort of campaign was typical of Enlightenment armies, and is especially associated with the campaigns of Frederick the Great.
The French Campaign of 1940 offers an example. After the Germans broke into the French rear at Sedan, they were able to surround the main Allied armies and render their position untenable. No great battle of annihilation was required. (Alternatively, the Germans considered instead striking toward Paris. Capture of Paris might have broken the French morale and political will to resist).
During antiquity, an example is the Battle of the Caudine Forks. Although the name, it was not a battle: the Samnites managed to trick and deceive a roman army, leading it inside a valley surrounded by mountains. The Romans were trapped and could only surrender.
In warfare, as in many avenues of human endeavor, the optimal application of material means is sometimes limited by the failure of imagination. A successful battle of annihilation generally requires great skill and daring on the part of the attacking commander. If a commander's training, experience, and peer relationships have not prepared him to expect a battle of annihilation, this alone may prevent him envisioning such a battle.
For example, during the American Civil War, several Union Army generals were not able to imagine a battle of annihilation even during opportunities when the Union Army of the Potomac had sufficient strength in forces and the material means to conduct such a battle.
If a war has limited political objectives, this may require the adoption of limited military strategy, including the disinclination to pursue a battle of annihilation.
During the above mentioned Battle of the Caudine Forks, the Samnite commander Gaius Pontius was persuaded to send a letter to his father, Herennius, asking what to do with the trapped roman forces. The reply came back that the Romans should be sent on their way, unharmed, as quickly as possible, because were they to set the Romans free without harm, they would gain the Romans' friendship. However, his advice was rejected, and Herennius then proposed to kill the entire Roman army, so that Rome would be so weakened that they would not pose a threat for many generations. He insisted that any middle way would be utter folly and would leave the Romans smarting for revenge without weakening them.
The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains is commonly referred to as a victory of the coalition led by the Roman general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I against the Huns and their vassals commanded by their king Attila. However, the battle was tactically inconclusive: although the Romans stopped the Huns' attempt to establish vassals in Roman Gaul, and installed Merovech as king of the Franks, the defeated Hunnic army had still a large portion of its manpower and the Huns successfully looted and pillaged much of Gaul and crippled the military capacity of the Romans and Visigoths. It has been speculated that Aetius didn't want to destroy the Huns, in order to settle down an agreement with Attila and pacify the horde, maybe even drafting mercenaries from it, while maintaining order among his Germanic allies with the threat of a common enemy. Without the Huns, the Germans would later turn against the Romans. However, Aetius' death prevented such a plan to develop, if sought.
In the Gulf War, the Allied forces could have sought and won a battle of annihilation against the Iraqi Republican Guard. It was decided, however, that the annihilation of the Republican Guard might have led to the dissolution of the Iraqi state, which was not a desired political objective.
Some historians have speculated that Hitler declined to seek the destruction of the British army at Dunkirk in 1940 for political reasons: to show magnanimity by allowing the British to withdraw, facilitating a political end to the war. (This is, however, disputed—other historians feel that Hitler simply wanted to avoid the risk to his armored formations that a battle of annihilation would have required, and Alexander Procofieff de Seversky in Victory Through Air Power implied that the cover of land-based Royal Air Force aircraft allowed the army at Dunkirk to escape).
If a side in a war is willing enough, as through religious zeal, nationalism or ideological belief, defeat or surrender to the enemy can be seen as worse than death and thus being rejected. Humiliation and war honor are a common reason, but also fear of torture, pillaging, enslaving or other crimes might convince that fighting to the end is a better result than surrendering. This can be especially true when the opposing side is seen as ultimately untrustworthy or despisable, and bloodshed in a merciless battle can feed this opinion. Suffering such a defeat might rise up morale and determination in the defeated side, which, instead of surrendering, might spend all its manpower and resources into war seeking revenge and ultimate victory. If surrounded and without means of recover, the defeated side might force the enemy to lay siege to an important fort or city before claiming victory, leading to unwanted casualties, attrition and delay. This can turn the aftermath of a victorious battle of annihilation into a slow strategic and political defeat.
The Punic wars are a common example of war fury and obstinacy especially after a ruining defeat. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian commander Hannibal was able to defeat the Romans in four major battles, the latter of which was the Battle of Cannae where an army of 80.000 roman legionaries was annihilated with a huge amount of deaths from soldiers to important officers and senators. However, Hannibal proposals of peace were rejected and the Romans started to raise levies among the youngs and fortified the city for the supposed final assault. Hannibal forces never laid siege to Rome and instead moved to Capua. Many historians agree that this decision was due to the hannibalian army not having enough manpower and machines to lay siege, while promised reinforcements from Carthage never came. The Romans later recovered and defeated Hannibal in Zama, winning the war in the end.
During the Texas Revolution, Mexican troops launched an assault to a fort in the Battle of Alamo killing all of the Texian defenders and annihilating the whole militia and garrison forces. General Santa Anna's cruelty during the battle inspired many Texians, both Texas settlers and adventurers from the United States, to join the Texian Army. Buoyed by a desire for revenge, the Texians defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, ending the revolution.
During Operation Barbarossa, German forces encountered friendly partisans and volunteers, called Hilfswillige, from countries under Soviet Union (like Ukraine or Lithuania who were historically in attrition with Russia, but also Russian political oppositors to the communist party) who joined them in order to overthrow soviet rule and get freedom from Stalin's dominion. An example is the Russian Liberation Army. However, the nazist policy of occupation and colonization with exploitation, pillaging, massacre of eastern civilians seen as slaves and inferior beings (Generalplan Ost), the acts of the Einsatzgruppen and the lack of mercy against prisoners and defeated enemies, ultimately alienated any definitive support they could have both from Russians and other ethnicities in Soviet Union against their leaders. This behaviour led Stalin to proclaim the Great Patriotic War, gaining consensus in the face of the enemy invader and raising population and morale against the enemy.