Above: The Battle of Gaugamela, by Jan Brueghel the Elder
Before collapsing, declining empires often give themselves a respite in the form of a Saint Martin’s summer. This quiet period is usually followed by a desperate offensive. This movement will bring about a brutal collapse if it fails, but if by chance it succeeds, then a spectacular recovery can be expected. This remote possibility conditions the violence of that last effort.
After the swift offensive of Alexander, the Persian Empire gathered its last strength and confronted the Macedonians in Gaugamela in 331 BC. The military effort was such that the Persians outnumbered the Greeks. This did not prevent them from being defeated. The Battle of Alesia (52 BC) also illustrates the ultimate military effort of the Gallic tribes against the Roman offensive. This defeat accelerated the collapse of the Celtic tribes. The reaction of Vercingetorix is not isolated in the Roman world and can be compared to the sea battle of Actium, the final attempt of the Ptolemy dynasty to prevent the Romanization of Egypt. Let us also remember the desperate offensives of Western Christians, during the last crusades, to regain the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem that had cracked under the blows of the Arabs.
These desperate offensives find a contemporary echo in Waterloo, a battle waged by a defeated Emperor preferring annihilation to humiliation. Sometimes, the final battle is not waged by a man but rather by a caste, so the last battle of the Samurai (1877), which marked the end of the Japanese military aristocracy. At the end of the Second World War, the Battle of the Ardennes, like Okinawa, hastened the end of the Axis Powers. For France, the Algerian military operations represent the ultimate offensive before the loss of the colonial empire. For Russia, the first Afghan war (1979-1989), also represented the ultimate effort before the breakdown of the USSR.
None of these desperate attacks would have taken place if the possibility of a victory had not been considered. Indeed, the ultimate gathering of the last troops sometimes forces destiny. The offensives of Belisarius, the Battle of Orleans led by Joan of Arc, or that of Stalingrad, are there to testify.
The mechanism of desperate offensive in decaying empires has never been the object of a comprehensive study. It is all the more regrettable that the current economic crisis has weakened many powers.
Whether carried out by Russia or other weakened states, we can expect desperate offensives in the coming years. At least, this possibility cannot in any case be entirely excluded.