The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

Mobile Compatible • 

Chapter 13. Clausewitz during World War One

During World War One, Clausewitz continued to be discussed, although many sophisticated military thinkers were soldiers who now had little time for theoretical meditation. General Colmar von der Goltz, for example, probably the most widely read commentator on Clausewitz, died in Baghdad in 1916 pursuing an "Eastern solution" to the struggle. There were some exceptions to this rule; Repington's and Wilkinson's wartime references to Clausewitz have already been mentioned. It is difficult, however, to detect any particular trends in the reception of Clausewitz during the war.

One thing that does seem clear is that the war brought about the virtual eclipse of Jomini. This was partly because the latter's maneuver orientation and rather regressive attitude toward popular national warfare had relatively little relevance to the problems at hand and partly because of the obvious dominance of the German military model.

Nonetheless, the urge to apply Clausewitz's writings in a prescriptive, Jominian fashion did not disappear; indeed, it lingers to the present day. Most representative of the efforts in this direction was Robert Matteson Johnston's Clausewitz to Date (1917), published in a handy, pocket-sized version designed for reading under trench conditions.(*1) Johnston thus became the first American to publish a significant commentary on Clausewitz.

Robert M. Johnston

Robert M. Johnston (1867-1920) was the son of the Ohio State Journal's foreign correspondent, an American of old family who arrived in Paris in 1852 and remained there until his death thirty-four years later.(*2) Young Robert was educated in America, France, and Germany and received a master's degree from Cambridge in 1889. His first historical writing was on Roman politics and religion, but his travels in Italy excited an interest in Napoleon. He wrote a series of books on the French emperor that were well received in Europe, and then he turned to apply the military lessons learned to the study of the American Civil War. In 1902, he began lecturing in European history at Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his life except for his military service in World War One.

Johnston represented in large measure the new "scientific" spirit then sweeping the historical profession in America, and he was active in the American Historical Association. His interest in military history was quite unusual among the new breed of professional historians, however. In the century between 1820 and 1920, approximately nine thousand Americans matriculated at German universities. Germany was particularly popular between 1870 and 1900: In 1895, there were two hundred American students in Berlin and only thirty at the Sorbonne in Paris. After 1870, the preponderance of these students were in the liberal arts and social sciences, including history. Despite their fascination with the scientific approach of German historians like Otto von Ranke, however, America's new professional historians appear to have specifically ignored military matters.(*3) Since the focus of this book is on military commentators, it would be digressing to consider why this should be so, but the broad disinterest of American scholars in military affairs is nevertheless worth noting.

In 1911, Johnston began lecturing at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and was lecturing at the Army War College by 1914. Although he was impressed by Arthur Conger's efforts at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas,(*4) he grew to be very critical of the American military educational system: "We are grateful to Mr. Root for founding the Army War College, even if, as an institution of learning, it remains a joke; we are grateful to Mr. Root for founding the General Staff, even if, as the brains of the army, it remains a farce."(*5)

In 1918, the overweight Johnston managed to overcome medical objections and obtained a commission as a major in the U.S. Army. He soon became chief of the historical section of the general staff in France, having been one of the major proponents for the creation of such a section.(*6) In this capacity he worked himself sick. Posted back to the United States to organize the military archives in Washington, he worked himself to death, dying of a heart attack in January 1920.

Johnston was a strong believer in the interplay of tactics, strategy, and economics. Together, he and Arthur Conger founded a high-quality (if short-lived) journal at Harvard with the goal of stressing that interplay, The Military Historian and Economist (1916-18). Despite his strong interest in economics, which Clausewitz had ignored, Johnston's attitude toward military history and theory was distinctly compatible with the Prussian's: "We shall ... view war in an evolutionary sense, with theories fitting the conditions of any given epoch and open to continuous modification."(*7)

Johnston has not, however, been considered much of a Clausewitz enthusiast. Russell Weigley remarked that Johnston "remained in the American professionalist tradition where Clausewitz had yet to become a major prophet, and he was skeptical of Clausewitz's dicta. He was not convinced that moderation in war is absurd, especially when the abandonment of moderation meant the levying of mass and necessarily unskilled armies."(*8)

Weigley's implied description of Clausewitz is itself a distortion, of course, and Johnston's opening statement in Clausewitz to Date is hardly consistent with Weigley's argument: He wrote that the "supremacy of Clausewitz in the domain of military theory remains unchallenged." He went on to say:

To what ... does he owe this supremacy? Wholly to the solidity of his foundation stones; it would be useless to search for their equivalents in any other military writer. These foundation stones were three: his emphasis on psychology; his philosophic breadth; his constant subordination of theory to the will to fight.... Could Napoleon have read Clausewitz, he might not have repeated what he said to Balatcheff of another author: "You all think you understand war because you have read Jomini's book! Is it likely that I should have permitted its publication if it could accomplish that?"(*9)

Of course, editors of books and writers of forewords are customarily kind to the authors they introduce, and it is uncertain at what date Johnston first became personally familiar with the German writer's work. Still, Weigley's statement disassociating Johnston and Clausewitz appear to be rooted in Weigley's views of the philosopher, not in Johnston's. In his analysis of the battle of Bull Run, published in 1913, Johnston praised Clausewitz's understanding of the relationship of war and politics.(*10) His assessment of that battle hinged on his views of the inherent relationship between the offense and defense, on which point he was both well aware of and in agreement with Clausewitz's argument. The World War only confirmed him in this attitude.(*11) His brief essay on the study of Napoleon's generalship, published in 1914, seems to condone Clausewitz's criticisms of Jomini. His journal, The Military Historian and Economist, frequently carried references to Clausewitz.(*12) Discussing Clausewitz's Campaign of 1812 in Russia in 1918, he said "We find Clausewitz in the field of criticism and theory rising to the same height of conception and boldness that was Napoleon's in the field of action."(*13)

In 1919, Johnston's discussion of the peace settlement was based on one of Clausewitz's "best-known distinctions, that between limited and unlimited war." His only complaint was that On War's discussion of this topic did not pursue the matter as far as it could have, certainly a legitimate gripe. Johnston's interpretation of Clausewitz's limited war ideas varied, sometimes based on a literal reading of On War and sometimes derived—like Caemmerer's—from Clausewitz's examination of the military situation in 1830.(*14) In any case, Johnston's treatment of Clausewitz was both sophisticated and positive.

Weigley's conception of Johnston as anti-Clausewitzian may stem from Johnston's objections on a rather minor point, Clausewitz's comments on the dubious efficacy of surprise in war. Even there, however, Johnston's comments were hardly condemnatory: He merely noted that Clausewitz's remarks seemed "a little sweeping."(*15)

The contrast between Johnston's belief in a professional army and Clausewitz's discussion of the nation in arms is more important, but raising this issue is a little like comparing apples and oranges.(*16) Clausewitz was a professional officer, and he certainly recognized the value of professional preparation for war. He saw mass armies as inevitable (and therefore necessary) under the historical circumstances brought about by the French Revolution. He suspected that those circumstances would be repeated, and he was right, although he acknowledged that a reversion to eighteenth century-style limited warfare was also a possibility.(*17)

It is certainly true that Johnston preferred the professional to the amateur army. He may occasionally have wavered somewhat on the subject, since in 1920 he stated, "I have considerably modified my own views on this matter. I no longer believe in the advisability of improvising soldiers on short terms of training ... and so forth." It is not clear when, if ever, he had held these other views.(*18) Before World War One, he had argued that a large, disciplined, standing federal army would have made short work of the Confederacy and thus precluded the mass destruction of the Civil War. Recognizing that all of the armies in the Great War itself were formed from masses of minimally trained citizen soldiers, Johnston believed that "the German army in defeat was still the best army in the field [in late 1918] in everything except its psychology."(*19) In 1920 he argued that a "force of 100,000 highly trained professional troops could have marched through many places in the Western front, and in either direction." His description of such troops was, however, somewhat utopian:

By highly trained soldiers I have in mind enlisting men as boys, at sixteen, passing into the ranks three years later, thoroughly competent in another five years, and serving eight years thereafter. With such a soldiery every man would be capable of individual decisions and action, always harmonizing with the general plan and with the tactical situation.(*20)

Johnston's stated opinion on this matter was largely wishful thinking. Insofar as it was a hard prescription, it was based on speculation—similar to Clausewitz's—that another generation might see war in different terms. Despite his wishful thinking, Johnston's speculation on this matter did not constitute a fundamental challenge to the Prussian writer's theories, and he did not see it as such.

Johnston's disdain for amateur armies may, however, explain why his book was based largely on Clausewitz's "Instruction for the Crown Prince," an essay that had been written for the edification of a child with the object, as Clausewitz put it, of not "taxing the Prince's mind too much."(*21) Johnston strove to apply even Clausewitz's observations on tactics (e.g., his discussion on night fighting). He acknowledged, however, that circumstances on the Western Front had forced him to abandon any attempt to use Clausewitz's offensive tactics.

Weigley, with a view of Clausewitz evidently influenced by the complaints of Liddell Hart, asserted that "Johnston did not accompany the disciples of Clausewitz in their devotion to battle as the overwhelmingly preeminent object of strategy. He recognized that battle is the military pay-off," he wrote, and quoted Johnston as saying that "whatever strategical advantage an army may obtain, there always comes the moment when the tactical decision must be fought for." Nonetheless, Weigley noted, Johnston understood that "strategic advantage could prejudge the tactical decision." Why this should be seen as a contrast with Clausewitz is somewhat mystifying, as it hardly contradicts Clausewitz's argument.

Like many other participants in the war, Johnston was shocked and disgusted by what he had seen. Unlike some British survivors, however, he did not blame Clausewitz. His comments in 1919 were no less complimentary than in 1913: "But to old Clausewitz, as usual, we can all, whether in Germany or not, still turn with profit."(*22)

Thus it appears that Johnston's reception of Clausewitz was, in fact, a positive one, but whether he did in fact profit from his familiarity with the philosopher's works is another question. Despite his sharp intellect and historical sophistication, Johnston was at heart a military romantic. Although he was likely to cite Clausewitz with approval when dealing with war in the abstract, his practical suggestions seem always to have been a trifle unrealistic. Although he acknowledged that "war is the continuation of policy by other means," he had a profound contempt for civilian politicians. He always portrayed Lincoln as a military buffoon and argued that war could be waged effectively only by professionally trained military leaders. He saw military history as the story of generals and their battles, and he was uninterested in the motivations driving the common soldier and society at large.

One of the most curious aspects of Johnston's attitude toward Lincoln is its contrast with that of most other self-professed Clausewitzians. Although G.F.R. Henderson had similarly despised the American president, writers like John McAuley Palmer and F.N. Maude thought him a genius. Johnston's own close collaborator, Arthur Latham Conger, considered Lincoln's political-military handling of the war to be brilliant.(*23)

Even though Russell Weigley's 1962 views of Clausewitz and of Johnston's attitude toward him were incorrect, he was certainly right in believing that Johnston's concept of a small but highly professional American army was no answer to the problems that the nation faced in his time. By failing to appreciate the "spirit of the age," Johnston failed in his application of theories he acknowledged to be supreme.

T.D. Pilcher

One Englishman who retained his faith in Clausewitz was Major-General Thomas David Pilcher (1858-1928). A veteran of numerous colonial wars and the conflict in South Africa, Pilcher became aide-de-camp to the king in 1901 and was promoted to major-general in 1907. He held various commands in India until 1914. He fought with the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 as a division commander (Seventeenth Division) and was wounded in 1916. In 1918 he undertook to publish a condensation of the first volume of On War,(*24) based on a comparison of the Graham translation with the newer fourth German edition.

Pilcher's editorial comments on Clausewitz's work were unexceptionable, and it is noteworthy that despite the antagonisms of the war he remained an admirer of Clausewitz's generation of military reformers in Prussia. He also stressed the possibility of both limited and unlimited wars. His major concern, however, was the immediate problem of 1918 (i.e., the German offensives in the spring and the successful Allied counteroffensive), and his work was clearly aimed at the man in the street as well as at policymakers. Pilcher emphasized that the ongoing war was of the unlimited, life-or-death variety; the argument that the exploitation of victory requires a vigorous pursuit; the necessity of fighting to the end of one's resources; and the recognition that decisions in war are not necessarily final.(*25)

Pilcher made this last point with an evident eye on the armistice negotiations: "Whilst on this subject the remark [by Clausewitz] that the object of a combatant may sometimes be to bring about an inconclusive peace with the object of again starting hostilities on a more favourable opportunity is very pregnant at the present moment."

Pilcher was criticized for the obvious haste of his work,(*26) but he felt his hurry justified because at the time of publication "the matters dealt with are of special importance." Whether his hopes were realized in the harshness of the armistice terms or dashed in the Allied failure to pursue the German army to Berlin is uncertain.(*27)

NOTES to Chapter 13

1. Robert Matteson Johnston, Clausewitz to Date (Cambridge, Mass.: Military Historian and Economist, 1917).

2. Alexander Baltzley, "Robert Matteson Johnston and the Study of Military History," Military Affairs, Spring 1957, 26-30; Colonel Arthur Latham Conger, "Robert Matteson Johnston, 1867-1920," Journal of the American Military History Foundation, Summer 1937, 45-46.

3. Jurgen Herbst, The German Historical School in American Scholarship: A Study in the Transfer of Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965), 1, 8-9. Herbst's book covers primarily the period 1876-1914. Significantly, it makes no reference to Clausewitz or Delbrück either.

4. Reardon, Soldiers and Scholars, 67.

5. Military Historian and Economist, II, No.2 (April 1917), 261.

6. Reardon, Soldiers and Scholars, 146.

7. Military Historian and Economist, I, No.1 (January 1916), 80.

8. Russell F. Weigley, Towards an American Army, 179.

9. Johnston, Clausewitz to Date, 9-11.

10. Robert M. Johnston, Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), ix.

11. Johnston, Bull Run, 269; R.M. Johnston, "War and Peace, Limited or Unlimited?" Nineteenth Century, July 1919, 34-39.

12. E.g., A.L.C. and R.M.J. [Conger and Johnston], "A Prospective Theory of the Conduct of War," April, 1917, 133-139; unsigned [presumably Conger or Johnston], review of P. Roques, Le Général de Clausewitz (Paris, 1912), October, 1917, 452-454; unsigned "Comment," January, 1918, 52-53; "General Palat" [pseud. for P. Lehautcourt], "German Military Theory at the Outbreak of the War," October, 1917, 357-371; Émile Laloy, "French Military Theory, 1871-1914, July 1917, 267.

13. R.M. Johnston, "An Approach to the Study of Napoleon's Generalship," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1914 (Washington, 1916), v.1, 223-27; "Napoleonic Notes," Military Historian and Economist, January, 1918, 55-64.

14. Johnston, "War and Peace"; R.M. Johnston, First Reflections on the Campaign of 1918 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), 24. The 1830 campaign appears prominently in Johnston's "Germany and Belgium," Military Historian and Economist, April, 1916, 153-165.

15. Johnston, Clausewitz to Date, 44.

16. Hoffman Nickerson, The Armed Horde 1793-1939: A Study of the Rise, Survival and Decline of the Mass Army (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1942), 337-40, first noted these divergences between Johnston and Clausewitz, but implied no fundamental antagonism. Hans Rothfels evidently derived his view of Johnston from Nickerson, then, in "Clausewitz," Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 94, lumped Johnston with Liddell Hart as Clausewitz's Anglo-Saxon opponents.

17. On War, Book Eight, Chapter 3.

18. Johnston, 1918, 34-35.

19. Johnston, Bull Run; 1918, 16.

20. Johnston, 1918, 68. Nickerson, Armed Horde, 337, compared Johnston's ideas to Hans von Seeckt's for the Reichswehr, but that force was always intended as the nucleus for a new mass army.

21. Johnston drew also on On War, the 1812-15 campaign studies, "other fragments," and commentaries on Clausewitz by writers like Blume and Mikhail Dragomiroff.

22. Johnston, "War and Peace," 34.

23. Of all American military educators of the WWI era, Conger's approach to war, politics, military education, and military history seems the most "Clausewitzian." Circumstances suggest Conger must have been exposed to Clausewitz: he studied with Delbrück in Berlin in 1910, and ran a seminar in military history at Harvard in 1915. There he co-founded and -edited The Military Historian and Economist with Johnston. It made frequent references to Clausewitz, but never clearly under Conger's name. His "President Lincoln as War Statesman," State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Proceedings, 1916 (v.64, separate no.172), takes a very sophisticated look at the interrelationship of military and political strategy, sneers at Jomini, and uses the terms "friction" and "center of gravity" (albeit not in a clearly Clausewitzian manner). Its view of the inherent odds against Union victory is rooted in a Clausewitz-like view of the interrelationship between attack and defense. There is, however, no direct mention of Clausewitz, thus no "smoking gun" to justify a larger discussion here of Conger's intellectual influence on the U.S. Army.

24. Clausewitz, ed. T.D. Pilcher, War According to Clausewitz (London: Cassell, 1918).

25. Cf., On War, Book One, Chapter 1, section 9.

26. Review, "Clausewitz Abridged," Times Literary Supplement, 18 April 1918, 179.

27. Pilcher, ed., War According to Clausewitz, 256, 258.

Return to the top of this page

Go to next section

Go to Clausewitz in English Table of Contents


Visit the
Clausewitz Bookstores!
Clausewitz BuchhandlungUS UK France Germany

Return to top