The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

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Chapter 10. German, French, and British Interpretations

Translations of various French and German writings, particularly Colmar von der Goltz's The Nation in Arms (translated in 1896) and Rudolf von Caemmerer's The Development of Strategical Science During the Nineteenth Century (1905), were widely read in Britain and the United States. Virtually all of these German works contain numerous references to On War and a great degree of influence by Clausewitz. Those French and German writers who rejected Clausewitz (Lewal, Rüstow, Willisen) were rarely translated. Caemmerer was particularly sophisticated and balanced in his understanding of Clausewitz's work.(*1) Goltz was probably the most widely read. Friedrich von Bernhardi's two-volume On War of Today, another heavily Clausewitzian tome, was translated and published in England in 1912 and 1913.(*2)

Hans Delbrück, whose important theories on strategic analysis were based on an extrapolation from Clausewitz's work, was known in England and occasionally lectured there. Little of his work was translated before the war, however, and reviews in English of his German-language works did not do much to connect the two theorists. Delbrück was rarely cited in prewar discussions on military affairs.(*3)

The translated writings of Goltz, Meckel (the German adviser to the Japanese army general staff),(*4) Blume, Bernhardi, Verdy du Vernois, and even Boguslawsky (who held on to Jomini longer than most) are permeated by the words and ideas of Clausewitz, to the point that they either did not bother to list him in their indexes or, like Bernhardi, merely wrote "Clausewitz, Karl von, passim." They sought not to extend the scope of Clausewitz's theory but to apply what they conceded to be the universally valid precepts of On War to the specific political, social, and technological situation in which they found themselves. As Goltz stated,

Everything important that can be told about the nature of war can be found stereotyped in the works which that great military genius has left behind him.... I have, accordingly, not attempted to write anything new, or of universal applicability about the science of warfare, but have limited myself to turning my attention to the military operations of our own day.(*5)

This does not mean that they all agreed with one another, of course, or even that they accepted every aspect of the master's thought. The two areas in which they were most prone to disregard Clausewitz's views were, first, the relationship between military strategy and policy and, second, the relationship between the attack and the defense.

Most of the translated German military writers followed Moltke in rejecting the idea that Clausewitz's subordination of strategy to policy meant the complete domination of the military by the political leaders. Caemmerer, however, rejected Moltke's argument and actually sided with Bismarck on the famous issue of the bombardment of Paris in 1870/71.(*6)

Caemmerer also had an interesting interpretation of what Clausewitz was talking about when he discussed "limited war."(*7) His analysis was based on Clausewitz's memorandum, written during the winter of 1830/31, on the then-imminent possibility of a war with France under circumstances far less favorable than those described by "The Plan of a War Designed to Lead to the Total Defeat of the Enemy," in Book 8, Chapter 9, of On War.(*8)

In Caemmerer's view, the purpose of "war with a limited object" was not to pursue limited policies but, rather, to enable a state lacking the resources to overthrow its enemy to seek instead an achievable alternative military objective. The purpose was still the destruction of the enemy's will to fight through the destruction of his armed forces, but an attack with a limited object sought to encounter those forces in a way that would minimize their strength, even though this would also minimize the immediate gains to be won. The idea of Clausewitz's 1830 war plan against France—which would necessarily have had to be undertaken with much smaller forces than those envisioned in On War's "Plan of a War Designed to Lead to the Total Defeat of the Enemy"—was to defeat the French in Belgium. There the French would be unable to draw on the great resources available to any nation defending its own territory. Victory over the French army in Belgium, however, would not be an end in itself. By weakening the French army, it would prepare the way for greater victories.

Caemmerer's views on Clausewitz's meaning for the term "limited war" tied into his conception of what it was that Clausewitz had been trying to achieve in writing On War. Caemmerer denied that the philosopher had sought to produce a historical theory that could encompass all historical modes of warfare. He particularly disagreed with Delbrück's attempt to apply Clausewitz's limited war concept to the maneuver warfare of the eighteenth century. (Delbrück had developed the ambiguity of Clausewitz's unlimited-/limited-war dichotomy into a theory of the "two poles" of war, annihilation and attrition, using the latter "pole" to reinterpret (while still justifying) the strategy of Frederick the Great.) Caemmerer argued instead that Clausewitz—first and above all a practical soldier and only secondarily a historian—had had a purely didactic purpose. In this view, Clausewitz had in fact sought to write a prescriptive manual on war and had had no intention of rehabilitating the often indecisive warfare of the earlier era.(*9)

This interpretation of limited war has been adopted by rather few others and is decidedly out of fashion today, but it was the view that Spenser Wilkinson and Stewart Murray chose to follow in The Reality of War.(*10)

Caemmerer was again in the minority among German military writers in upholding Clausewitz's analysis of the dynamic relationship between attack and defense: "The defensive is the stronger form with the negative object; the attack is the weaker form with the positive object."

It is strange! We Germans look upon Clausewitz as indisputably the deepest and acutest thinker on the subject of war; the beneficial effect of his intellectual labors is universally recognized and highly appreciated; but the more or less keen opposition against this sentence never ceases. And yet that sentence can as little be cut out from his work On War as the heart from the body of man. Our most distinguished and prominent military authors are here at variance with Clausewitz. General Meckel says: "The resolution to act on the defensive is the first step to irresolution."(*11) General von Blume declares: "The strategic offensive is therefore the most effective form of conducting war; it is the form which alone leads us to the final aim, whatever may be the political object of the war, whether positive or negative." General von der Goltz thinks, in his The Nation in Arms, that "the idea of the greater strength of the defense is, in spite of all, only a delusion"; and he concludes that part of his work with the sentence: "To make war means attacking."(*12)

Goltz's views were essentially those of an even more important German soldier, Alfred von Schlieffen.(*13) Even Clausewitz's own editors railed against him on this point:

We can scarcely help putting a large question mark after [Clausewitz's description of the weaknesses of the offensive mode].... Clausewitz, the man of `moral forces' par excellence, quietly ignores ... that high spirit of enthusiasm, that self-assured, manly pride, that instinctive confidence of the common soldier, all of which, spurring him to extraordinary achievement, spring from the consciousness of belonging to the attacking party.(*14)

Caemmerer thought that the most telling point in favor of the defense, reflecting Clausewitz's belief in the efficacy of the balance-of-power mechanism and his essentially conservative views on the nation-state system, was that the nation defending its native soil can far better reckon on allies than the strategic assailant can.(*15) This was obviously not the German general staff's opinion.

British students of Clausewitz were also divided, albeit more evenly, over his views on attack and defense, particularly at the tactical level. That the British should better appreciate the power of the defense is not too surprising, given their experience in South Africa and their interest in the American Civil War. Henderson was a strong believer in the spade even before the Boer War, as Maurice had been. Repington's views on attack and defense, forcefully expressed both before and during World War One, are those of On War.(*16) Wilkinson and Murray cited Caemmerer approvingly on the subject of defense, although they emphasized (as did Clausewitz) the active defense (or "defensive offensive") and were more convinced of its superiority in strategy than in tactics.(*17) F.N. Maude, on the other hand, was an unremitting proponent of what has been called the "ideology of the offensive."

Douglas Haig was an important—perhaps crucial—example of the latter view, insisting on the superiority of the attack because it alone could yield positive results. In general, Haig held Clausewitz in high regard. In 1910 he wrote Kiggell complaining that few at the War Office or Camberley itself understood either "what war really is, nor Clausewitz's fundamentals."(*18) The extent to which Haig (the "educated soldier")(*19) had actually studied Clausewitz is hard to determine, although he appears to have had more than a passing knowledge of On War. His occasional references to the Prussian writer seem to indicate that his knowledge was indirect or at least that he did not have ready access to a copy of Clausewitz's book: "Clausewitz describes Napoleon's conception of war somewhat as follows...."(*20) Haig clearly had read Caemmerer, however, and quoted him frequently and precisely in the same work.

On the subject of attack versus defense, however, Haig was evidently most impressed by a short study done by Captain (later Brigadier-General and Haig's intelligence chief in France, 1916-17) John Charteris, R.E., at the Indian Staff College in 1907, "The Relative Advantages of Offensive and Defensive Strategy."(*21) Charteris had been assigned to answer a question phrased as follows: "Clausewitz says `The defensive is the stronger form of war than the offensive.' Mahan says `War once declared must be waged offensively, aggressively. The enemy must not be fended off but smitten down.' Reconcile these apparently contradictory maxims."

Charteris's answer was a curious one. He understood Clausewitz's argument quite well—better than that of Mahan (whose name he misspelled throughout). He agreed that, despite changes in technology, the task of the invader was still more difficult than that of the defender. Assuming that policy would demand positive results, however, he nonetheless fixated on the weaker form with the positive aim. Charteris reconciled Clausewitz and Mahan by stating that "a rapid mobilization and a prompt assumption of the offensive leads most directly to decisive results." Given the writer's clear understanding of Clausewitz's argument, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this was "the school solution." Haig's failure to grasp the subtlety of Clausewitz's own argument may be a symptom of shallow reading—or no reading—or merely of a psychology that insists on a clear hierarchy of values.

At the strategic level, aggressive wars of conquest on the continent (i.e., against European defenders) had few if any proponents in Britain, and the strategic value of the moral high ground was generally assumed. Wilkinson stated the argument most explicitly when he argued that Britain's very existence as a great power depended on the rest of the world's acceptance that the Pax Britannica, maintained by the Royal Navy on the high seas, was for the benefit of all. He saw morality as a fundamental aspect of morale: "A nation cannot be called to arms except for the assertion of some cause which appeals to the hearts and consciences of the mass of its citizens. For a nation, therefore, to go to war, except in behalf of a cause which makes that appeal, is to court defeat."(*22)

In the British military community as a whole, there was great disagreement over the issue of attack versus defense. On balance, the majority probably held to the inherent dominance of the offensive, although Tim Travers has argued that this view was shifting in the period after 1912. "It seems possible that, if the outbreak of war had been delayed for another two years or so, the British army might well have moved toward both more realistic and more imaginative tactics."(*23) This debate was driven by differing views on the nature of discipline, morale, and the impact of technology, and, on the side of the inflexible partisans of the attack, a belief that a defensive stance must "paralyse the spirit of enterprise."(*24) A better understanding of the dynamic relationship between attack and defense would certainly have contributed to a better appreciation of the tactical problems that were to appear on the Western Front, but the Clausewitzian interpretation appears to have been more widely accepted by theorists in Britain than elsewhere.

In regard to war and policy, it is difficult to find a British writer willing to divorce strategy from rational political calculation, although Henderson's contempt for Lincoln (and, by extension, all politicians) somewhat belies his explicit acceptance that war is "a political act, initiated and controlled by government." He lamented, of course, that the political authorities in England were so habitually ignorant of the military component of their responsibilities. Most British writers merely accepted as a given the right of political leaders to meddle in operations, while bemoaning their excessive tendency to do so.(*25)

The narrow range of opinions on this matter in the army's leadership was demonstrated at the 1908 conference at Camberley cited earlier.

Stewart Murray provided one of the few extended British discussions of this topic in The Reality of War. He and Wilkinson attempted to carve out a "middle way," which conceded that Moltke's fears of political meddling were understandable and held that "during actual operations the statesman should exercise the greatest possible restraint, and avoid all interference, except when demanded by overwhelming political necessity." This is, in essence, to side with Clausewitz against Moltke, since it is the statesman who must exercise the restraint, not the soldier.(*26)

About the same time that Caemmerer was translated into English, Ferdinand Foch was publishing his Des principes de la guerre in France; this was certainly influenced by Clausewitz, albeit with considerable distortion in line with the extreme French emphasis on morale and on the offensive à outrance. There has been much debate concerning Foch's influence on the controversial Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. Foch's book was not, however, published in English until 1918.(*27)

A more scholarly voice was that of Jean Colin (1864-1917), commandant of the École de Guerre. Considered by Paret as "the most knowledgeable and profound student of Napoleonic war,"(*28) Colin was also a profound student of Clausewitz. It was he who translated Clausewitz's Der Feldzug von 1796 in Italien into French in 1899. (The next year saw five more of the campaign studies published in French.) Colin's most influential book was probably Les transformations de la guerre (1911), which was translated by L.H.R. Pope-Hennessy in 1912 (and dedicated to Spenser Wilkinson).(*29) In it, Colin noted Clausewitz's skepticism regarding surprise and complex maneuvers and speculated that his attitude concerning these points had underlain the successful Prussian strategy in 1866 and 1870/71. He saw this as an important predictor of German behavior on the battlefield:

Clausewitz, who reminds men continually of the dangers, the uncertainty, the friction amidst which decisions are taken and operations carried on, advises men to avoid everything that is complicated, fragile, or ambitious. His disciples will deliberately avoid the wide Napoleonic manoeuvres; they will seek neither to prepare turning movements from afar, nor to combine their marches skillfully so as to conceal their object or to be able to change their dispositions according to circumstances.... [E]verything is of the most extreme simplicity.(*30)

Although Clausewitz appears throughout the book, the most interesting discussion comes under the heading "War and Policy" in the chapter "War in the Twentieth Century," in which Colin discussed Clausewitz's ideas on limited war. "Can a war undertaken with serious chances of success have a more or less limited object? Is it possible to fix a restricted objective for a general? Can any general propose to himself anything short of the ruin of the enemy's armies?"(*31) Although he accepted the concept as one with theoretical validity, he doubted that limited war had been a real possibility even in the era when On War was written. "At all events it no longer seems to be possible in the twentieth century for European wars." The national passions of Europe and the material conditions of modern war made victory the only issue in war. "Therefore, the indications which a government should give to a general on the political object of war are reduced to a very small affair."

Although Colin rejected the limited-war aspects of Clausewitz's theories, he was a careful student of On War. He and Foch correctly understood Clausewitz's definition of "economy of force," which states that all portions of a nation's available military power should be employed simultaneously, in some manner, against the enemy. None should be idle. This concept is sometimes referred to as a "concentration in time."(*32) Referring directly to Clausewitz's definition but perhaps taking it too literally, Colonel Foch said in 1900 that "we must make use of all our troops, whatever their kind. What folly to reserve the less good men for the despairing struggle of the last hour!... In future, as in the past [a reference to the levée en masse], we must employ all the living forces of the nation ... together and in the same battle."(*33)

Colin also accepted Clausewitz's arguments concerning the relationship of the attack and defense: "It is absolutely certain, as Clausewitz and Moltke say so clearly, that the defender derives a very real superiority from his form of action." The attacker must therefore seek sources of countervailing strength. Such strength could come from numbers or additional artillery. More ominously, Colin found another, ultimately more important source of offensive superiority in morale: "If the defender and the assailant differ notably in moral worth, success is to the more energetic, and this without it being necessary to call in the help of a flank attack." In a manner very similar to that of Clausewitz, Colin noted that "we shall rarely, if ever, find very marked differences in moral qualities and technical skill between European armies," but for Foch and others among the French commanders of 1914 this wish became father to the belief.(*34)

For these views, rooted in the acceptance of some aspects of Clausewitz's theory and the rejection of others, it is these French thinkers who most deserve the sobriquets later bestowed by Liddell Hart on Clausewitz: the "Mahdi of Mass" and the "apostle of the offensive."

NOTES to Chapter 10

1. Rudolph von Caemmerer, Development of Strategical Science during the Nineteenth Century.

2. Friedrich von Bernhardi, trans. Karl von Donat, On War of To-day, 2 vols. (London: Hugh Rees, 1912-13); reviewed (unfavorably in comparison to Clausewitz and Goltz), Times Literary Supplement, 8 August 1912, 314.

3. Apparently the only work by Delbrück to appear in English in this period was Numbers in History: Two Lectures Delivered before the University of London ["How the Greeks Defeated the Persians, the Romans Conquered the World, the Teutons Overthrew the Roman Empire, and William the Norman Took Possession of England"] (London: University of London Press, 1913), lectures were given on 6 and 7 October, 1913.

4. On Meckel, see Ernst L. Presseisen, Before Aggression: Europeans Prepare the Japanese Army (Tucson: University of Arizona Press [for the Association for Asian Studies], 1965), 79-88.

5. Cited in Murray, Reality of War, 6.

6. Caemmerer, 32-33.

7. Caemmerer, 29, 42-47.

8. Caemmerer, 42-47; Clausewitz, "Betrachtungen über den künftigen Kriegsplan gegen Frankreich" (1830), in Hahlweg, ed., Verstreute kleine Schriften, 533-563.

9. This is also the view of Azar Gat in Origins of Military Thought, esp. 251-252.

10. Murray, Reality of War, 42-44.

11. Meckel was among the most extreme in his offensive-mindedness, extremely suspicious of popular warfare and of the extended order in tactics, motivated by distrust of the individual soldier based on his experiences in the Franco-Prussian War.

12. Caemmerer, 36.

13. See Wallach, Dogma, 49-50, 75-76.

14. Karl von Clausewitz, ed. W. von Scherff, Vom Kriege (Berlin: Dümmlers Verlag, 1880), 312.

15. Caemmerer, 38.

16. See Imperial Strategy (1906), 52, and "The War Day by Day: Clausewitz and the Moderns," Times, 11 March 1915, 6.

17. Murray, Reality of War, 96-98.

18. Haig to Kiggell, 14 July 1910, cited in E.K.G. Sixsmith, Douglas Haig (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), 60.

19. John Terraine, Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1963).

20. Douglas Haig, Cavalry Studies, Strategical and Tactical (London: Hugh Rees, 1907), 142.

21. Travers, Killing Ground, 87; Captain Charteris, "The Relative Advantages of Offensive and Defensive Strategy," Public Record Office, WO 79/61.

22. Wilkinson, The University and the Study of War, 20.

23. Travers, "Technology, Tactics, and Morale," 277.

24. Caemmerer, cited in Murray, Reality of War, 97.

25. One exception: Lt.-General Sir Gerald Ellison (1861-1947), The Perils of Amateur Strategy (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1926), thought the idea preposterous, an attitude highly colored by Gallipoli and hostility to Churchill. His pre-war views are unknown.

26. Murray, Reality of War, 66.

27. Ferdinand Foch, Des principes de la guerre (Paris, 1903); trans. J. de Morinni [Major, Canadian Expeditionary Force], The Principles of War (New York: H.K. Fly, 1918). For arguments on Foch and H.W. Wilson, see Bernard Ash, The Lost Dictator: A Biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (London: Cassell, 1968); Brian Bond, Victorian Army; Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon (London: Faber, 1933), 138.

28. Peter Paret, "Napoleon," in Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 127.

29. Jean Lambert Alphonse Colin, trans. L.H.R. Pope-Hennessy, The Transformations of War (London: Hugh Rees, 1912; reprinted, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977). See also Jean Colin, trans. "under the supervision of Spenser Wilkinson," The Great Battles of History (London: Hugh Rees, 1915).

30. Colin, Transformations, 304.

31. Colin, Transformations, 341.

32. Colin, Transformations, 334.

33. Cited in Colin, Transformations, 334-335.

34. Colin, Transformations, 71-72.

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