STRIKE SWIFTLY AT THE CRITICAL TIME
Just as you must concentrate force at the critical point, so, too, must you concentrate force at the critical time.
You must strike the moment a vital point presents itself: a vital point may be vital or exposed only a short while.
You must strike before your opponent has time to organize his resistance (as when Caesar scattered Pompey’s levies in northern Italy).
Napoleon said: “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less chary of the latter than the former. Space you can recover, lost time never.”
Had Pompey attacked Caesar at the height of the Gallic rebellion, when Vercingetorix had united almost all the tribes against him, he might very well have prevailed; but he waited until Caesar had pacified Gaul and could turn his full attention to his Roman opponents.
The historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote: “A capacity which Richelieu possessed to an unusual degree was the sense for ripeness; ripeness in men, in times, in circumstances; he never intervened until the moment was ripe.” Richelieu was forced to stay his hand for years against many of the French aristocrats he was bent on striking, until they should make some mistake; the moment they did, he was upon them.
Only by combining his self-contained corps at precisely the right moment could Napoleon hope to win: a bit too early, and the enemy would be frightened away; a bit too late, and he would crush the French. Once battle was joined, Napoleon would carefully observe the action, noting the precise moment to do this or that; only “at the decisive moment, which lies between the winning and losing of a battle,” for instance, would he send in the Imperial Guard. All was a question of precise timing.
Once the moment is ripe, you must strike swiftly. The French essayist Montaigne wrote that Caesar “repeated on several occasions that the most sovereign qualities in a commander are knowing how to seize opportunities at the right moment…and acting with speed.”
Caesar was celebrated for his Celeritus Caesaris, for his lightning marches and strikes. Suetonius tells us that Caesar “often arrived at his destination before the messengers whom he had sent ahead to announce his approach,” Plutarch that Caesar slept in carriages and litters more often than in beds.
Rarely would Caesar wait until all his forces were assembled; he would more often march out with whichever forces he had, hoping the others would soon catch up.
Striking swiftly will, like surprising your opponent, also confound and confuse him.