Chapter 12 - Attack by Fire | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.

Laon, France, 986-987AD

Hugh Capet led his men to besiege the town of Laon in France. One night Capet’s troops were resting at their camp just outside the town and became drunk. Duke Charles and his men who were protecting the town took advantage of this by being prepared. They had already assembled the tools and materials needed to start large fires and left the town with this equipment to hand. They torched Capet’s camp and by setting fire to it, forced him to abandon the siege altogether.

Fire is a resource that can be used for an opportunistic attack. Use the environment to your advantage by having your resources prepared, available and always ready to be used.


In attacking with fire, one should be prepared to meet five possible developments:

When fire breaks out inside the enemy's camp, respond at once with an attack from without.

Mayenne, France, 1063

When William of Normandy attacked a castle in Mayenne, he ordered his army to shoot fire into it, in an attempt to alarm the enemy inside. As this was taking place and panic was setting in among his opponents, William sent two boys to sneak into the castle from the outside. Their aim was to start another fire, which they did, and resulted in the castle garrison soon surrendering.

If soldiers are forced to put out fire in their own camp, they are more vulnerable to external attack. This principle can be utilised in business by attacking your competitors when they are distracted.


If there is an outbreak of fire, but the enemy's soldiers remain quiet, bide your time and do not attack.

World War II, USA, 1944-1945

In the Second World War, Japanese Major General Kusaba’s men devised the concept of using fire balloons to float over and attack the U.S. mainland. The balloons were inflated with hydrogen and carried bombs and sandbags, with the aim to incite fear and terror throughout America. There was a strong danger that these balloons could create forest wildfires on impact.

The psychological effect on the American people could have been huge, so U.S. authorities ordered the media to keep quiet about any balloon incidents. They did not want to let their enemy know of their potential effectiveness.

Despite a low success rate, U.S. authorities were still worried and didn’t even know where the balloons were coming from. They took some of the sand from the sandbags to a Geology Unit for investigation. There they discovered the sand came from Japan and even pinpointed the specific part of the country it came from. Reconnaissance of the area revealed two hydrogen plants, which were then soon destroyed as a result of American bombing. General Kusaba was forced to stop his balloon operations soon afterwards.

The normal response to being disturbed by fire is action. A lack of action is unnatural. If the enemy behaves this way they maybe acting cunningly. When competitors act strangely around you, be suspicious.


When the force of the flames has reached its height, follow it up with an attack, if that is practicable; if not, stay where you are.

Battle of Red Cliffs, China, 208AD

The Northern Warlord Cao Cao took on his Southern counterparts, Liu Bei and Sun Quan in the Battle of Red Cliffs. In an attempt to reduce seasickness in his navy, Cao Cao chained all his ships together. Seeing this, the Southern warlords sent a letter pretending to surrender and prepared a squadron of ships to sail over to Cao Cao’s larger forces.

The squadron actually consisted of fire ships carrying kindling and oil. As they approached, the ships were set on fire and the sailors jumped off onto smaller boats. The fire ships crashed into Cao Cao’s fleet causing a large blaze and the loss of several men.

After this initial shock of the impact, the Southern allies sent an armed force to capitalise on the fire attack. There was confusion amongst the Northern troops and their army was completely defeated, causing Cao Cao to order a retreat.

When flames are at their highest, the chaos within the enemy will also be at its peak. The best time to attack is when there is the most confusion. However, it is not always a good idea to attack after fire, especially when entering an unknown environment.


If it is possible to make an assault with fire from without, do not wait for it to break out within, but deliver your attack at a favourable moment.

Battle of La Rochelle, France, 1372

The Castilians took on the English in a naval battle during the Hundred Year’ War and waited for the perfect time to attack. When the tide was low, English ships were left aground. The following morning, the Castilians used this tactical advantage by spraying oil onto the English ships and then, from some distance away, set fire to the ships by shooting flaming arrows onto the decks. The whole fleet was destroyed and the English were defeated.

You do not always need to enter an enemy’s camp to set fire to it. Time your attacks to coincide with the moments where you have the greatest advantage.


When you start a fire, be to windward of it. Do not attack from the leeward.

England, 651AD

The King of Mercia, Penda, unable to capture a castle by force, decided to set the city ablaze instead. Building a pile of flammable material such as wood, straw and branches at the bottom of the caste, he then set fire to it. However, the wind changed direction and blew the fire into his own men, causing the attack to be abandoned.

Fire travels in the same direction as the wind. If the wind or other environmental factors are unpredictable, starting an attack may be dangerous for you. Take action where the outcome will be more certain.


Hence those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence; those who use water as an aid to the attack gain an accession of strength.

Siege of Motya, now Italy, 398BC

Fire can be used as a form of attack and defence. When the Athenians attacked the city of Syracuse in Sicily, they lost many of their siege engines to fire when trying to break down the city walls. Two decades later, Dionysius I had taken note of what had occurred to the Athenians. When he was besieging the nearby city of Motya, he organised groups of men to act as fire brigades and douse any flames when his own siege engines were attacked.

Make sure you understand all the elements of your environment. In business, resources used to compete are found all around you. Use creative thought to utilise them and gain a competitive advantage.


Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation.

The Byzantines invented the weapon now known as “Greek fire”. The machine, that was often positioned on board ships, would release liquid fire in a similar way to a modern flamethrower, destroying enemies that approached alongside. What made this interesting idea for a weapon even more intriguing was that the flames continued to burn on the water. To this day, it is not known which ingredients were used to create the flammable mixture used by the machine.

Innovate and use the ingenuity and ideas of people around you. Leverage people’s talents by actively encouraging them in others, rather than suppressing them.


Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

Napoleon Bonaparte used many examples from the Art of War in his military campaigns and added his own thoughts on when to use his men: "You must avoid countermanding orders: unless the soldier can see a good reason for benefit, he becomes discouraged and loses confidence.

Action without advantage is a waste. By acting without seeing any possible advantage, you greatly risk disadvantage.


No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.

Battle of Cold Harbor, USA, 1864

General Ulysses Grant’s temper got the better of him at the Battle of Cold Harbor after the trench fighting became a long and drawn out affair. After arguing with the other officers, Grant made it known that he was going to break through the enemy lines that day. The resulting head-on assaults on the enemy (who were in fortified positions) led to the death of thousands of Grant’s men.

Pride comes before the fall. If you are overconfident or too arrogant, you are likely to fail. Ensure you are ruled by your head rather than by your emotions. Don’t rely solely on gut feeling when making decisions.


Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.

In World War II, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was appointed as a commander in North Africa by Winston Churchill, to take on German General Erwin Rommel. Rommel had been successful and pushed back allied troops but Montgomery restored the Allied men’s confidence and forced Rommel to retreat, leading to the German’s eventual surrender in Africa.

Montgomery achieved this feat by being a cautious and thorough strategist. Before any attempt at an attack, he demanded that his men were completely ready and all the required equipment was fully available. This resulted in very slow, but steady success. It also confirmed his popularity with his troops.

Ensure you fight only when you need to and avoid unnecessary harm.


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Adam Holownia

Adam Holownia

Adam Holownia loves reading and writing about successful people from history. He has spent the last five years sharing what he's learnt online. He is the creator of educational YouTube channels Eudaimonia and The Art of Improvement which together have over 400,000 subscribers.

His first book, Mastering Machiavelli, is a collection of essays, breaking down key concepts and themes from the highly influential work, The Prince, written by Niccolò Machiavelli. It is almost everything he knows about Machiavelli, packed into a short digital book.