by Christopher Bassford
Oxford University Press, 1994
Mobile Compatible •
Chapter 15. J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart
It is ironic that the war that so damaged Clausewitz's reputation also produced the first true military theorists in British history—since Henry Lloyd (c. 1720-1783), at least. By far the most prominent British theorists who emerged after the war were Captain Basil Liddell Hart and General J.F.C. Fuller. Both men were controversial in their lifetimes (and have remained so); both left important memoirs; and both have been the subjects of major biographies. Their attitudes toward Clausewitz have been discussed in some detail, in both the biographies and articles especially devoted to that topic.(*1)
In fact, it has been widely assumed that the discussions of Clausewitz by these two men mark the parameters of his British reception.
Captain Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970), the junior of the two, probably had more readers, but his reputation has not weathered well. He was born in Paris, the son of an English Protestant minister. In 1913 he entered Corpus Christi College at Cambridge to read modern history; he joined the Officer Training Corps upon the outbreak of war. In 1915 he was commissioned in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and, after three relatively short tours in the front lines, was badly gassed on the Somme in July of the following year. A pamphlet on platoon tactics that he wrote during his convalescence was issued to the army in 1917. Later, he wrote the tactical half of the army's official infantry manual, a work "which was promptly de-written by anonymous hands in the War Office."(*2) He remained in the army after the war but was invalided out in 1924 and placed on the retired list, as a captain, in 1927.
Unable to afford a return to academia, Liddell Hart gravitated into journalism. In 1925, he succeeded the Clausewitzian Colonel Repington in the prestigious post of Times military correspondent, where he remained for the next ten years.
Along with Fuller, Liddell Hart became known as one of the leading proponents of mechanization, although his actual influence, particularly in Germany, is a matter of some dispute. Somewhat paradoxically, but as a natural outgrowth of his experience on the Western Front in World War One, he also became a strong believer in the superiority of the defense. He was most closely associated with the doctrine of "limited liability," the purpose of which was to avoid or minimize Britain's commitment to combat on the continent. In practice, his policy proved untenable under the circumstances of coalition warfare.
Limited liability was a natural expression of Liddell Hart's broader strategic theory, which he characterized as the "indirect approach" or "the British way in war." His overarching goal was to find some indirect way to strike at an enemy's strategic vitals, bypassing his main strength and thus avoiding the head-to-head confrontation that had led to the bloodbaths of the Great War.
Liddell Hart enjoyed considerable influence in the later 1930s through his advice to Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha. Unfortunately, his suggestions on policies and personnel alienated much of the army establishment, and his personality was ill suited for participation in practical government. As one French admirer observed, "It is odd that Liddell Hart never realized that in peace, as in war, it is usually necessary to employ the strategy of indirect approach."(*3) Discredited by the events of 1940, Liddell Hart painfully rebuilt his reputation after the war. In this he was aided by the advent of nuclear weapons, which made his limited approach to war seem more applicable, and by a gift for shameless self-promotion. Acclaimed by such luminaries as John F. Kennedy, who called him "the Captain who teaches Generals," he was knighted in 1966.
A charming man who had many enemies but far more friends, Liddell Hart's reputation as a military thinker stood very high at his death in 1970. Postmortem assessments, however, have been more ambivalent. His long-term place in military history is not yet settled, but he was clearly a man of both great talents and perhaps greater limitations.(*4)
Throughout his writing career, Liddell Hart was persistently and bitterly critical of Clausewitz, portraying him as the "evil genius of military thought," as the "apostle of total war," and as a relentless advocate of mass and the offensive.(*5) In his view, Clausewitz and/or his "disciples" were responsible for the bloodbath on the Western Front, 1914-18. In his more temperate comments, he placed the blame for the disasters of the Great War not on Clausewitz himself but on disciples who had "misinterpreted" the subtleties of On War. He may have gotten this idea from Maude, a writer also very selective in his appreciation of Clausewitz, who claimed before the war that "it is to the spread of Clausewitz's ideas that the present state of more or less immediate readiness for war of all European armies is due."(*6)
Liddell Hart greatly overestimated, however, the extent to which Clausewitz's work had been read and accepted. He believed that Moltke's successes and praise of Clausewitz had "brought an immense extension of Clausewitz's influence. Henceforth his gospel was accepted everywhere as true—and wholly true. All soldiers were quick to swallow it, although few were capable of digesting it."(*7)
Liddell Hart freely credited Clausewitz with keen perceptions on the moral and psychological elements in war, and cited him in support of his own arguments whenever it seemed useful. In 1951, for example, he fell back on the authority of Clausewitz's views on the defensive form of war when trying to justify his pre-1939 predictions that the defense would triumph.(*8) Ultimately, however, he held that "the responsibility [for World War One] lies heaviest on Clausewitz" because—and here Liddell Hart made the same complaints that Jomini did—his "metaphysical" approach and his "abstract generalizations" so readily led people into error.
Not one reader in a hundred was likely to follow the subtlety of his logic, or to preserve a true balance amid such philosophical jugglery. But everyone could catch such ringing phrases as—"We have only one means in war—the battle." "The combat is the single activity in war." "We may reduce every military activity in the province of strategy to the unit of single combats." "The bloody solution of the crisis, the effort for the destruction of the enemy's forces, is the first-born son of war." "Only great and general battles can produce great results." "Let us not hear of generals who conquer without bloodshed."
By the reiteration of such phrases Clausewitz blurred the outlines of his philosophy, already indistinct, and made it a mere marching refrain—a Prussian "Marseillaise"—which inflamed the blood and intoxicated the mind. In transfusion it became a doctrine fit to form corporals, not generals. For, by making battle appear the only "real warlike activity," his gospel deprived strategy of its laurels, reduced the art of war to the mechanics of mass slaughter, and incited generals to seek battle at the first opportunity, instead of creating an advantageous opportunity.(*9)
Apart from his stylistic objections, which were in fact his fundamental complaint, Liddell Hart's critique of Clausewitz's theories concentrated largely on five points. First, he objected to the theory of absolute warfare and the nation in arms. He ignored the facts that the term "absolute war" was a philosophical abstraction and that the "nation in arms" was a historical reality rather than a product of Clausewitz's fevered imagination. On War was, of course, inconsistent in determining whether Napoleonic warfare had in fact attained the form of "absolute war." Nonetheless, it is certain that Clausewitz's "absolute war" and Ludendorff's "total war" were unrelated concepts.(*10) Clausewitz's use of the former term was not the source of the war that embittered Liddell Hart.
Second, Liddell Hart objected to Clausewitz's alleged dictum that the strategic objective must be the destruction of the enemy's armed forces. This was, in fact, the objective that Clausewitz had concentrated on most heavily, but his discussion of the "center of gravity" in On War made clear that the focal point could be elsewhere, depending on social, political, and historical circumstances. Indeed, the term makes no sense unless it can be used to distinguish among a variety of different possible objectives.
Third (and it is a connected point, since it too relates to the concept of the "center of gravity"), Liddell Hart objected to Clausewitz's concentration on the destruction of the main enemy. He believed that this prescription was responsible for the "Westerners'" fixation on the battle of attrition in France, as opposed to the more creative "Easterners'" attempts to get at the Central Powers' alleged weak points on other fronts.(*11) The frustration of Eastern projects that were undertaken at Salonika and Gallipoli and in Syria, in which a third of all British casualties were suffered, did not dissuade Liddell Hart from this view, nor did the fact that Corbett, a dyed-in-the-wool Clausewitzian, was an Easterner.
Fourth, Liddell Hart argued that Clausewitz, whom he nicknamed the "Mahdi of Mass," had reduced strategy to the simplistic act of bludgeoning the enemy to death with overwhelming numbers. The question, however, is not whether Clausewitz believed in the advantages of numbers (for he clearly did) but, first, whether he was right and, second, whether his theory could account for contrary historical examples. Regardless of what Clausewitz had said concerning the specific example of European armies at the close of the Napoleonic wars, his theoretical discussion of numbers made it clear that numerical superiority was only one of many factors deciding any particular contest.
Fifth, Liddell Hart complained that Clausewitz had focused on war to the detriment of the subsequent peace. This was probably his most legitimate charge, although considerations of the peace would fall naturally under the heading of "policy," which Clausewitz had assumed—for the purposes of theoretical discussion—would be designed with the best interests of the nation in mind. This assumption was perhaps the weakest link in Clausewitz's theory, or at least the most easily misunderstood, but then, Clausewitz was writing a book about war, not about policy.
Although containing considerably more than a grain of truth, Liddell Hart's condemnations of Clausewitz must be rejected as fundamentally wrongheaded. First of all, no writer can be held responsible for his readers' allegedly sloppy reading of his work, a doctrine that would paralyze creative thought. That would be rather like holding Christ responsible for the Inquisition. Second, it is clear that Clausewitz's most prominent readers and popularizers did, in fact, understand him accurately. Those who went on to promulgate the philosophy of war that Liddell Hart condemned were quite conscious and open in rejecting key aspects of the philosopher's analysis. Liddell Hart's argument is both contemptuous of other readers and misleading in claiming that Clausewitz's "ringing phrases" were somehow set apart from his "qualifications," which, he said, "came on later pages, and were conveyed in a philosophical language that befogged the plain soldier, essentially concrete minded."(*12) As Michael Howard has pointed out, "the `qualifications' are very emphatically set out, as an intrinsic part of Clausewitz's argument, not `on later pages,' but [in] the very first chapter."(*13)
In failing to respect the fact that Clausewitz had sought to create a dynamic, descriptive theory applicable under changing historical circumstances, Liddell Hart often committed the very mistakes of which he accused the philosopher's disciples. Like most of the prewar writers he condemned, he tailored his own efforts to purely contemporary circumstances and to forecasting the nature of the next war.
More important, Liddell Hart's blurring of the distinctions between Clausewitz and his later "disciples" led him into some impossible contortions. For example, he characterized "the narrow concept that war was purely the province of the armed forces, and that once war began the statesmen ought to abdicate from its direction in favor of the generals" as "pseudo-Clausewitzian."(*14) It was, in fact, a blatant rejection of Clausewitz. He also criticized Clausewitz's definition of strategy because it "intrudes on the sphere of policy, or the higher conduct of the war, which must necessarily be the responsibility of the Government and not of the military leaders it employs as its agents."(*15) In his critique of Erich Ludendorff, Liddell Hart opened with an attack on Clausewitz and then blasted Ludendorff for failing to appreciate the wisdom of Clausewitz's views.(*16)
The Liddell Hart view of Clausewitz had a great influence on the views of many of his readers. In 1946, for instance, the U.S. Marine Corps historian Lynn Montross wrote that
in the long run a military theorist must be judged not only by his writings but also by the interpretation of them on future battlefields.... [I]f Clausewitz fathered the most bloody and wasteful era of warfare in modern times, it is because lesser minds accepted his philosophy rather than his tactics [?], his flashing phrases rather than his sober modifications.
Montross's book remains on the reading list for the Marine Corps's Command and Staff course, which is somewhat amusing, since the newest Marine Corps doctrinal works draw so heavily on Clausewitz.(*17) As another example, Russell Weigley's 1962 assessment of Robert M. Johnston (discussed earlier) appears to bear the Liddell Hart stamp. Barbara Tuchman's popular 1962 book on the outbreak of World War One, The Guns of August, relied on Liddell Hart's description.(*18) Liddell Hart himself persisted in his criticisms of Clausewitz to the very end: His foreword to Samuel Griffith's 1963 translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War repeats the charges.(*19)
Bernard Montgomery was very enthusiastic about Liddell Hart, a personal acquaintance of forty years. (He also read a lot of Henderson's work.) In 1968, Montgomery stated: "I did make attempts to read the writings of Clausewitz, a Prussian, and Jomini, a Swiss ... but I couldn't take them in, and I turned to historians of my own nation and language." Montgomery was not, however, hostile to Clausewitz. Indeed, he considered the Prussian's insights into the moral, psychological, and political elements of war to be profound, especially in contrast with Jomini's. Although he found Clausewitz's language to be "exceedingly difficult to understand," he perceived that Liddell Hart's criticisms had been aimed at the philosopher's misinterpreters rather than at his concepts. In any case, he was satisfied with Liddell Hart because "whereas [Clausewitz and Jomini] were often wrong, Liddell Hart has proved to be generally right."(*20)
Liddell Hart's success in distorting Clausewitz's legacy and reputation was unfortunate, and it raises some disturbing questions. That he was himself very interested in his Prussian predecessor is clear. He even acquired an original German edition of Vom Kriege and some writings in Clausewitz's own hand.(*21) Indeed, in his own decision to make his name as a writer, Liddell Hart saw Clausewitz as something of a model: In a note to himself, he said
to influence man's thought is far more important and more lasting in effect than to control their bodies or regulate their actions.... The men who have influenced thought by their words, especially their written words, are engraved more deeply in history ... than the host of conquerors and kings, of statesmen and commercial magnates.... Even in the realm of war, which has covered so great a part of human activity, and affected so greatly human life and history, the name of Clausewitz stands out more and is better known to soldiers, who as a class are of limited education, than any of the generals of the 19th century, save perhaps Lee and Moltke.(*22)
That he had read and in many respects understood the philosopher very well indeed is apparent in many of his references to On War, which are often quite perceptive.(*23) Many writers have made the point that much of what Liddell Hart had to say was simply a restatement of Clausewitz. Much was also suspiciously similar to Corbett. (Wilkinson's views on this matter are discussed later.)
Further, Liddell Hart's criticism of Clausewitz's "disciples" is, in fact, a form of praise for their master, and Liddell Hart himself believed that he had clearly distinguished between the two. Responding privately to a review of his book Strategy, a review that strongly criticized his attacks on Clausewitz, Liddell Hart noted that the reviewer had "evidently read my analysis of Clausewitz rather superficially, for he fails to see that what I am attacking is the normal interpretation of Clausewitz, in contrast with the later trend of Clausewitz's own thought."(*24)
Perhaps the reason that readers did not get this point was because Liddell Hart's idea of the "normal interpretation" was so wrong and because the positive aspects of his outlook on Clausewitz never came through clearly in his published writings. Extending the interpretation of John Mearsheimer, we might almost be tempted to describe his attacks on the philosopher as a symptom of careerism, of consciously distorting Clausewitz's message in order to make his own seem fresh.(*25)
This is probably too Machiavellian a view. If Liddell Hart was deceiving anyone it was most likely himself. He was contemptuous of the mental faculties of the British military leadership, sometimes absurdly so. He and Fuller were among the principal architects of the "Colonel Blimp" image that has so distorted our conception of British military behavior in World War One and the interwar period. On the other hand, he was himself touched by the anti-intellectual traditions of the British army. His most virulent attacks on Clausewitz reflected resentment of the mental effort that the philosopher demanded from his readers, and it was the alleged complexity of the ideas expressed, not their content, that really incensed him. Further, as even his friendliest biographers have acknowledged, he tended to get tangled in his own prejudices and was never receptive to criticism.(*26) Liddell Hart's attacks on Clausewitz are symptomatic of the curious blind spots in his often brilliant intellect that his biographers have often noted.
Liddell Hart's biggest blind spot was probably caused by his conception of himself as an original thinker. If that self-image was to be maintained, the power of Clausewitz's vision would have to be denied. If one were to delve into the murky waters of "psychohistory," one might speculate that Liddell Hart's subconscious mind accomplished this by blurring the distinction between Clausewitz and his "misinterpreters."
Toward the conclusion of his career, Liddell Hart's stated views did soften somewhat. He began to stress the idea that Clausewitz had, at the very end of his life, begun to develop a wiser attitude toward war. He nonetheless took a rather extreme position in the debate over how nearly finished a book On War is, lamenting that the German philosopher-soldier had been able to put down so very little of his newfound wisdom before his untimely death in 1831. The most balanced treatment that Liddell Hart ever gave Clausewitz appeared in his 1960 chapter on warfare in the New Cambridge Modern History. In it, he had much to say that was positive, but he also repeated in toto his customary attack.(*27)
Curiously, Clausewitz's modern German editor, Werner Hahlweg (1912-89), wrote Liddell Hart and praised a draft version of this chapter, saying,
I was especially interested in your thoughts on Clausewitz. After having carefully read all what you have written in your chapter here about the German philosopher of war, I must say, that I agree with you; and think, it will be valuable that your chapter will appear in the Cambridge modern history. Especially I agree with your pointing out the misinterpretation of Clausewitz, and people should be indebted to you, that you have given such instructive description of Clausewitz's main ideas and made clear the tension between idea and reality.(*28)
Of course, Hahlweg was writing to Liddell Hart as a personal friend and at a time when the British writer was at the height of his prestige.(*29) Perhaps Hahlweg simply realized that Liddell Hart could not be moved by a frontal attack and sought to move him by degrees to a more reasonable attitude. Also, his positive treatment of Liddell Hart in his discussion of "Clausewitz in the Anglo-Saxon World" cleverly served the double purpose of pacifying Liddell Hart and enlisting his support for the greatness of the Prussian philosopher.(*30) That Liddell Hart went along with this is further evidence of his own belief that he had indeed given Clausewitz his due.
Hahlweg's approach may have had some effect for, ironically, Liddell Hart later participated at least nominally with him in the "Clausewitz Project" at Princeton. Organized in the early 1960s and involving such scholars as Gordon A. Craig, Bernard Brodie, John Shy, Peter Paret, Michael Howard, and Klaus Knorr, the project eventually resulted in the 1976 Howard/Paret translation of Vom Kriege.
This involvement came too late in Liddell Hart's career to have any impact on his legacy, however, and he remained opposed to giving Clausewitz a position in military studies that might rival his own. Peter Paret asked him in 1962 to write a letter in support of Paret's grant application for research and writing on Clausewitz. Liddell Hart graciously complied, but privately he wrote Paret that
I am inclined to question a sentence in your descriptive note which suggests that "Clausewitz was one of the intellectual ancestors of the whole family of present-day doctrines of unconventional war." I shall be very interested to see how you fit him into the family tree in such a top position.(*31)
Major-General J.F.C. (John Frederick Charles) Fuller (1878-1966) is often associated with Liddell Hart, but the men were in many ways quite different. Fuller belonged to an older generation; his practical military experience was much greater; his interests were until a rather late date more narrowly tactical and technological; and his view of Clausewitz was much less static, undergoing considerable evolution.
On the other hand, they shared a tendency toward contempt for the intelligence of others and for that of the British officer corps in particular. Fuller once remarked that "putting over the truth is rather like giving a puppy a bolus, it has got to be wrapped in something the little creature likes, [and] I am afraid I am not very good at sugaring pills."(*32) The title page of his memoirs quotes Herakleitos: "Asses would rather have refuse than gold." Fuller made it quite clear that this line was directed at the British military leadership. Someone skeptical of Fuller's approach might observe that the asses in this case were simply being sensible, preferring the digestible to the merely ornamental.
Both men were also profoundly shaken by the experience of the First World War; both made their reputations as advocates of mechanization; and both suffered an eclipse in reputation during the Second World War (Fuller for his prewar connections with British fascism and for his alleged advocacy of an all-armored, tank-heavy force, universally rejected by 1943). Once out of uniform, each made his living through journalism, a profession that greatly affected the style, if not necessarily the content, of their writings. Both ended their days as rehabilitated military prophets, with considerable honor in their own countries as well as abroad.
Fuller came from a solidly middle-class background. Like Liddell Hart, he was the son of a churchman. His mother was French, although she had been raised in Germany. Her son was known as Fritz until the Great War made it advisable to seek a new nickname, and his wife Sonia was German. His new sobriquet was Boney, descriptive of both his physical appearance and his Napoleonic stature, knowledge, and behavior. His biographers have made much of his small size and its impact on his sometimes bellicose personality.
Intelligent and highly literate, Fuller entered Sandhurst in 1897, was commissioned in 1898, and was immediately posted to Ireland. In late 1899 his regiment left for South Africa and arrived at Capetown at the hour of one of Britain's major military embarrassments. Fuller had been in the country long enough to determine that the British army had no idea what it was doing when he was struck down by appendicitis. He was evacuated to England but returned in time to participate in the last phases of the war. After some desultory regimental combat duty, he wangled a more exciting assignment as chief of a largely native reconnaissance company. This was an exciting, educational, and dangerous job (since the Boers put a death sentence on white officers leading black troops). The independence and intensity of this position made it a formative experience for young Fuller.
His next formative experience soon followed. He was posted to India, where his combat experience was slight but he took the opportunity to delve into Hindu mysticism. Fuller also became acquainted with the English mystic Aleister Crowley, who—aside from his frankly bizarre influence on Fuller's private life—introduced Fuller to Maude and thence to Clausewitz. Although the latter connection proved fruitful, Fuller's mystical interests became a source of embarassment for both Fuller and his acolytes: J.E. Edmonds (as bitter a critic of Fuller as of Clausewitz) was brutally sarcastic in his reviews of Fuller's work, assailing him not onlyfor the shallowness of his attempts at universal military theory but also for his unfortunate essays into mysticism. In particular, Fuller's obsession with the number 3 brought down a devastating barrage. To Fuller's trinities of "earth, water, and air" and "men, women, and children," Edmonds suggested adding "coat, trousers, and boots" and "knife, fork, and spoon."(*33) (Curiously, Fuller seems never to have picked up on the mystical significance of a number of three-part arguments and trinities in On War.)
Posted back to England in 1906, Fuller served as the adjutant (and only regular officer) of a volunteer regiment. This assignment was important in a couple of ways: first because it gave him experience with the sort of citizen soldiers who would fight the coming world wars and second because it gave him time to do—for the first time in his military career—some serious military reading. He entered Camberley in January 1914 and was saved from the initial slaughter of junior BEF officers by his subsequent assignment to the general staff.
During this same period, Fuller began to write seriously on military topics. (He had already published some works on mysticism.) These articles generally concerned troop training and tactics. He also began developing his ideas on the "Principles of War," that is, the objective, mass, offensive, and so forth (the list went through several evolutions). As familiar as that sort of list may seem to soldiers today, it originated (insofar as any such idea "originates") with Fuller.
As a corps staff officer in France by 1915, Fuller soon became involved in setting up and running a series of highly successful rear-area courses for frontline officers, many of them quite senior to Fuller. Thus began his habit of lecturing to his superiors.
In mid-1916, Fuller was introduced to the weapon with which his name is usually linked, the tank, the development of which was entirely out of his hands. Its tactical employment, however, bore his stamp. By December he was a member of what became the Tank Corps. He was involved in planning most of the major tank attacks, particularly those on Cambrai in November 1917 and on Amiens in 1918. Functioning always as a staff officer rather than a commander, Fuller was known as the "brain of the Tank Corps," a job that made his reputation.
Fuller's most famous scheme was one that was never executed, "Plan 1919." Developed in May of 1918, this plan has been hailed as the precursor of the blitzkrieg. It was based on the ideas of massive armored attacks, tactical air support, and the aim not of physically destroying the enemy but of paralyzing his command system.
After the war, Fuller (a colonel in 1919) held a series of interesting and important jobs. He was chief instructor at Camberley from 1923 to 1926, then military assistant to the chief of the Imperial General Staff, and then commander of the Experimental Mechanized Force. Unfortunately, he quit the last job in a huff, proceeded to antagonize the army's leadership on a number of often peripheral issues, published several controversial books, and was retired in 1933 as a major-general. Thereafter he made his way primarily as a military journalist. He also fell in with Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of British fascism, a serious error that damaged his relationship with Liddell Hart and probably precluded (if his feud with the military leadership had not already) his active employment in the war of 1939-45.
It would be impossible to summarize Fuller's military thinking here, and the interested reader should consult A.J. Trythall's and Brian Holden Reid's capable biographies.(*34) In regard to his views on Clausewitz, Fuller appreciated the philosophy of On War, albeit in a creative, erratic, and typically idiosyncratic manner. It is questionable whether Fuller's early outlook on war was directly shaped by it, although he was a member of the prewar generation of thinkers and he undoubtedly absorbed a great deal indirectly through other reading or through the influence of F.N. Maude, who introduced him to On War around 1906. For all his enthusiasm for Clausewitz, however, Maude was one of those who rejected key aspects of his argument.
In contrast with Liddell Hart's, Fuller's attitude toward Clausewitz shows a steady evolution. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was likely to use Clausewitz to make or support a point, but he ignored him on the most basic issues. In 1926, he dismissed On War as "little more than a mass of notes, a cloud of flame and smoke." Fuller's attempt to create a "scientific" theory of war was fundamentally alien to the message of On War; he called Clausewitz's comment on the absurdity of the term "science of war" a "preposterous assertion."(*35) In The Dragon's Teeth (1932), although he gave the philosopher credit for his insight into the political nature of war, he portrayed Clausewitz as obsolete, a "general of the agricultural period of war." Clausewitz's experience and mode of thought described a system of absolute war that "was waged not to create a better peace but utterly to destroy the enemy." "In spite of these defects," his book On War had gone on to become "the military bible of Europe." "We must dethrone Napoleon the prophet and his high-priest Clausewitz, and must breathe into war the spirit and energy of science, and so militarily try and catch up, by a process of rapid transformation, with the position industry has arrived at today." Fuller quoted Liddell Hart's assault on Clausewitz approvingly.(*36)
Shortly afterward, in War and Western Civilization, Fuller quoted at length from On War, but his purpose was to accuse Clausewitz of "democratizing" war, part of the larger condemnation of democracy that accompanied his movement into authoritarian ideologies and the British fascist movement. The connection is understandable, but the accusation is not. As Michael Howard put it, "The transition to democracy, as Clausewitz was the first thinker to recognize, so far from abolishing war, brought into it an entirely new dimension of violent passion to which advances in technology could, unfortunately, give free rein."(*37) Fuller's attitude toward the Prussian's contribution was now rather schizophrenic; he was sweepingly critical in places yet spoke elsewhere of "the solid rock of Clausewitz." (Liddell Hart, in contrast, called Clausewitz's theories "a house built on sand.")(*38)
In his Memoirs (1936), all of Fuller's few references to Clausewitz are positive, although often used in humorous reference to his own frustration with the British army: "Though Clausewitz said that `in war the simple is difficult,' he should have added `in peace it is generally impossible.'"(*39)
By 1943, in Machine Warfare, Fuller took a much more positive attitude, seeking now to condense On War for the enlightenment of his readers. His summary, however, which was similar to that given in War and Western Civilization, still presented only the extremes in Clausewitz's theories. Fuller thus—unintentionally at this point—lent support to Liddell Hart's caricature.(*40)
In 1945, Fuller wrote a brief introduction to the British edition of the American colonel Joseph I. Greene's condensation of On War. Although his stated purpose was to spread a better understanding of the German military mentality, he noted unequivocally that "as a philosophy of war it still remains unrivalled." Considering Fuller's own attempts to produce a coherent "science" of war, this is a remarkable admission, although his endorsement of Clausewitz's view that war belongs to the province of social life rather than art or science was carefully hedged.(*41)
After 1945 and Hiroshima, Fuller's attitude toward Clausewitz became still more enthusiastic. This change accompanied his personal evolution from a mere contemporary-oriented military critic to a genuine military historian with considerable claim to academic status. The references in his 1949 The Second World War, a book that played an important role in the reestablishment of his reputation, are penetrating and entirely positive, save for a justifiable lamentation on the briefness of Clausewitz's discussion of limited war. (He also discussed, briefly, Delbrück's extrapolations from Clausewitz's theories.)(*42) In his last major book, The Conduct of War (1961), Fuller noted that "had the statesmen and generals of the two world wars heeded [Clausewitz's] words, they could not have blundered as they did."(*43) He repeated Liddell Hart's criticisms, saying that Clausewitz "indirectly was responsible for the vast extension of unlimited warfare in the twentieth century," but he added:
On the other hand, his penetrating analysis of the relationship of war and policy has never been excelled, and is even more important today than when first expounded. Strange to relate, its lack of appreciation was an even more potent factor in the extension of unlimited warfare than his absolute concept."
He devoted a whole chapter to Clausewitz's theories, producing a much more balanced treatment than ever before. This included intelligent if sometimes cranky understandings of the discussion of "real" as opposed to "absolute" war, the dynamic relationship of attack and defense, and the "centre of gravity." Most remarkable, perhaps, was Fuller's final surrender on the issue of war as art or science: Clausewitz "was the first, and remains one of the few, who grasped that war `belongs to the province of social life.'"
In sharp contrast with Liddell Hart, Fuller embraced Clausewitz's conception of the decisive battle, which is perhaps not too surprising in the case of the author of "Plan 1919." Following his original mentor on the subject, Maude, Fuller insisted vehemently (despite his earlier reference to Clausewitz as Napoleon's "high-priest") that Clausewitz did not grasp Napoleonic warfare. His own final criticism remained:
But of all Clausewitz's blind spots, the blindest was that he never grasped that the true aim of war is peace and not victory; therefore that peace should be the ruling idea of policy, and victory only the means to its achievement. Nowhere does he consider the influence of violence on eventual peace; actually, the word "peace" barely occurs half a dozen times in On War. In Napoleon he found the past-master of his theory of absolute war; yet to where did absolute war with its maximum of violence lead him? Not to the peace he aspired, but to St. Helena. Violence pushed to its utmost bounds ended in absolute failure. Better the advice of Montesquieu: "That nations should do each other the most good during peacetime and the least harm during wartime without harming their true interests," if peace is to be anything more than a temporary suspension of arms.
Fuller's criticism is based on the impact of the Versailles settlement after 1918 rather than the experience in Europe after Vienna in 1815 or in Germany and Japan after World War Two. Both of the latter experiences indicate that ruthless violence in war is much more easily forgiven than is inequity in peace. In actuality, the word peace appears in On War at least one hundred times. It shows up twenty-seven times in Book 1, five times in Chapter 1 alone. Clausewitz also said of ends and means in war that "the original means of strategy is victory—that is, tactical success; its ends, in the final analysis, are those objects which will lead directly to peace."(*44) Fuller's criticism of Clausewitz's alleged adoration of Napoleon also misses a crucial point: Clausewitz, of course, regarded Napoleon's failure as a virtual inevitability, given the workings of the balance of power.
It would be easy to arrive at the conclusion that Fuller sought [to prevent future warfare] by extending Clausewitz's view of war as a rational extension of a state's legitimate policy and his assumption that the balance of power would always work to counteract a would-be conqueror. It is interesting to note in this regard that in one of his earliest essays on Clausewitz, Michael Howard concluded by noting precisely the message that Fuller and Liddell Hart had found missing: "It is salutary to re-read Clausewitz and to learn again that though victory may be the proper object of a battle, the proper object of a war can only be a better peace."(*45)
In a 1961 exchange with his editors at Rutgers, one of them suggested to Fuller that his Conduct of War had
given the impression that your intention is nothing less than to outmode Clausewitz.... Having made extensive use of Clausewitz myself during the Second World War when I was on tap as a speaker about the relationship between books and the conduct of war, I take this intention of yours with perhaps undue seriousness. Neither of us will be around forever but I should very much like that your book should be.
As regards Clausewitz, my intention is not to outmode him, but—were there such a word—to in-mode him; to bring him into fashion [and] get people to read him instead of quoting him. The unfortunate thing about "On War" is that about nine-tenths of it is now obsolete, and the one-tenth, which is pure gold, gets lost in the rubble. In Chapter IV I have panned out the latter in some five or six thousand words. If statesmen [and] generals cannot digest that much, then they had better pack up.
In my opinion, Clausewitz's level is on that of Copernicus, Newton, [and] Darwin—all were cosmic geniuses who upset the world. They could not help doing so, and the same may be said of Gautama, Christ [and] Mahomet. If my [Conduct of War] follows suit, it will not be because of what I have written, but because my study of Clausewitz has compelled me to write it.(*46)
Fuller's obeisance to Clausewitz did not, however, come across very clearly in his published work. His impact on Clausewitz's image and reputation is hard to trace or to judge, but his attempts to summarize Clausewitz for those who were in his view too boneheaded to read or understand On War for themselves often backfired. In "panning out" Clausewitz's essence, Fuller reduced On War's philosophy to its extremes, tending unintentionally to support the image projected by Liddell Hart.(*47) Fuller's American disciple Hoffman Nickerson certainly picked up much of his early ambivalence toward Clausewitz and, along with Fuller, grew more respectful during World War Two. That Fuller was unable to take a more consistent position and to be more critical of his own work in light of Clausewitz's example was a function of Fuller's eccentric personality and constant drive to assert his own individuality. Nonetheless, his assessment was clearly more positive and sophisticated than Liddell Hart's.
Wilkinson on Liddell Hart and Clausewitz
Ironically, Fuller's own attempts to create a "scientific" military theory were fundamentally incompatible with Clausewitz's, whereas the ideas of Liddell Hart could, with relatively little effort, have been restated in Clausewitzian terms. Such at least was the argument made by Spenser Wilkinson in 1927.(*48) Wilkinson was personally fond of Liddell Hart but skeptical of him as an original theorist: "Liddell Hart is a keen fellow whom I am disposed to like," but "a little too much the slave of his own theories, which he makes into dogmas."(*49)
The title of Wilkinson's critique, "Killing No Murder," was a clever double entendre based on Liddell Hart's advocacy of gas warfare and indiscriminate bombing against defenseless enemy cities. According to Liddell Hart, obviously influenced by the ideas of the Italian air theorist Giulio Douhet, such a policy could hardly be a crime if it led to the speedy conclusion of the war and a consequent minimization of overall casualties. Wilkinson's counterargument, based on his own views on the strategic value of the moral high ground, was that killing off a harebrained proposal of this nature was no crime either.
Wilkinson's article was basically a rebuttal of Liddell Hart's The Remaking of Modern Armies, which contained the usual attacks on Clausewitz.(*50) In his chapter "The Napoleonic Fallacy," Liddell Hart had denounced the "orthodox schools" of military thought. Wilkinson, although attracted to aspects of his approach, rejected Liddell Hart's claims to theoretical originality.
I should like to persuade Captain Liddell Hart that he is himself a disciple, in my sense, of the orthodox school, and that in this chapter he is propounding a paradox.... The doctrine which Captain Liddell Hart denounces as erroneous and mischievous, and which he calls Napoleonic, is attributed by him not to Napoleon but to "his great German expositor, Carl von Clausewitz." The classical interpreter of Napoleon's methods was not Clausewitz, but one of Napoleon's generals, Jomini. Clausewitz is the representative of the ideas not of Napoleon, but of his chief German adversaries, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.... This being the theory of Clausewitz, what is according to Captain Liddell Hart the true doctrine to be contrasted with it? I give it in his own words: "The aim of a nation in war is to subdue the enemy's will to resist, with the least possible human and economic loss itself.... [O]ur goal in war can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will.... [A]ll such acts as defeat in the field, propaganda, blockade, diplomacy, or attack on the centres of government and population are seen to be but means to that end; we are free to weigh the respective merits of each, and to choose whichever is most suitable and most economic, i.e., that which will gain the goal with the minimum disruption of our national life during and after the war.... The destruction of the enemy's armed forces is but a means—and not necessarily an inevitable or infallible one—to the attainment of the real objective."
With the best will in the world I fail to see that this is anything more than a repetition of Clausewitz.
In arguing that Liddell Hart's arguments bore more than a passing resemblance to Clausewitz's, Wilkinson was by no means alone.(*51)
Wilkinson also took Liddell Hart to task for his contradictory attitude toward violence in war. Despite his evident willingness to bomb defenseless civilians, "it turns out that he is after that old will o' the wisp, victory without battles or bloodshed." Wilkinson brought up Liddell Hart's selective quotation from Maurice de Saxe (T.E. Lawrence's alleged mentor): "I am not in favor of giving battle.... I am even convinced that a clever general can wage war his whole life without being compelled to do so."(*52) Liddell Hart contrasted this sensible attitude with Clausewitz's and Foch's bloody-mindedness. Unfortunately, as Wilkinson pointed out, Saxe had gone on to say "but for all that I do not pretend to say that when you find the chance of crushing the enemy you ought not to attack him ... and, above all, [you] must not be satisfied with merely remaining master of the field." That is, one must pursue, à la Clausewitz. Such pursuits are bloody by definition. Saxe had, after all, built his own reputation on three victorious battles.
Wilkinson's defense of Clausewitz has something of the quality of a rearguard action. Liddell Hart certainly read it but, to judge by his reply and subsequent writings, failed to heed most of it. Citing Wilkinson, Liddell Hart subsequently provided a more balanced assessment of Saxe in The British Way of Warfare (1932) and also one of his most subtle appreciations of Clausewitz's own (as opposed to his "misinterpreters'") argument.(*53)
He soon returned, however, to his customary broadside attack.
Nonetheless, it is clear that both Liddell Hart and Fuller found a great deal of inspiration in On War.
NOTES to Chapter 15
1. Jay Luvaas, "Clausewitz, Fuller and Liddell Hart," in Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy; Captain [USAF] Kenneth L. Davison, Jr., "Clausewitz and the Indirect Approach—Misreading the Master," Airpower Journal, Winter 1988. Howard, "Influence of Clausewitz," 38-41, discusses Liddell Hart's interpretation.
2. Michael Howard, "The Liddell Hart Memoirs," Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, February 1966, 58-61.
3. Quoted in Howard, "The Liddell Hart Memoirs."
4. On permutations in Liddell Hart's reputation, see John Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, 1-5. Mearsheimer's overall interpretation, however, is controversial.
5. See discussions of Clausewitz in Liddell Hart, "The Napoleonic Fallacy," Empire Review, May 1925; Foch: The Man of Orleans (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932), 23-26; Ghost of Napoleon, esp. Part III, Ch.2, "The Mahdi of Mass"; Strategy [(New York: Praeger, 1954), 352-357. British Way of Warfare provides his substitute for "Clausewitzian" thinking; Strategy provides the best statement of his strategic thought.
6. Graham/Maude, On War, v.I, xi.
7. "Armed Forces and the Art of War: Armies," in Bury, ed., New Cambridge Modern History, 320.
8. Liddell Hart to radio commentator E.H. Carr, 22 August 1951. Liddell Hart Papers I/150/1.
9. Liddell Hart, Ghost of Napoleon, 125-126.
10. Wallach, Dogma, 15; 31, n.28; 241-246, discusses contrasts between the two ideas. Lauterbach, "Roots and Implications of the German Idea of Military Society," attempts to equate them. See also Peter R. Moody, Jr. "Clausewitz and the Fading Dialectic of War," World Politics, v.31 (1979), no.3, 417-433.
11. A point he made often, e.g., Liddell Hart, Colonel Lawrence, 30, 56.
12. Liddell Hart, Ghost of Napoleon, 123.
13. Michael Howard, "Influence of Clausewitz," 40.
14. Liddell Hart, Memoirs, v.1 (London: Cassell, 1965), 142.
15. The Decisive Wars of History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1929), 147.
16. Liddell Hart, Europe in Arms (New York: Random House, 1937), 218-221. In The German Generals Talk, 194, Liddell Hart passed on without comment General Kleist's regrets that the Nazis had not better understood Clausewitz, esp. on the relationship between war and politics and on the difficulties of conquering Russia.
17. Montross, War Through the Ages, 585. Listed on the Commandant's Reading List, ALMAR 127-89 (111500Z Jul89). Headquarters United States Marine Corps, FMFM 1: Warfighting (Washington, D.C.: 1989). See also André Beaufre, trans. R.H. Barry [Foreword by Liddell Hart], Introduction to Strategy (New York: Praeger, 1965 [Paris, 1963]), 20.
18. Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan, 1962), esp. 36, 38, 350-351.
19. Griffith wondered if Clausewitz had ever read Sun Tzu. He asked Werner Hahlweg if the 1772 Amiot translation had been in Clausewitz's personal collection. Liddell Hart, seeing the letter, said "It seems doubtful ... for Clausewitz's own "On War" would have been better if he had." Liddell Hart to Griffith, 16 July 1959; letter Griffith to Hahlweg, 13 July 1959. Liddell Hart Papers I/333/61,60b.
20. Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, A History of Warfare (New York: World Publishing Company, 1968), 20, 414-15.
21. Discussed in Liddell Hart's correspondence with Hahlweg, October 1958. Liddell Hart read no German, but Hahlweg translated the letters.
22. Liddell Hart to himself, "Thoughts on philosophy, politics & military matters," 7 June 1932. Liddell Hart Papers II/1932/20.
23. British Way of War (1932), probably owing to Wilkinson's criticisms, shows a subtle understanding of Clausewitz's approach.
24. Review, Strategy, Colonel Harold D. Kehm, Army Combat Forces Journal, v.5, no.3 (October 1955), 62-63; Liddell Hart to Major John H. Cushman (USA), 5 January 1955; reply, 6 March 1955. Liddell Hart Papers I/215/14, 15a.
25. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History. Discussion of Liddell Hart and Clausewitz is minimal.
26. Brian Bond, Liddell Hart: A Study of His Military Thought (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977), esp. 77, 113.
27. Bury, ed., New Cambridge Modern History, 302-330.
28. Werner Hahlweg to Liddell Hart, 6 November 1958, Liddell Hart Papers I/342/10.
29. Michael Howard recalls Hahlweg as "being intensely deferential to Liddell Hart, as indeed all Germans were at that time...." Howard to Bassford, 26 September 1990. Hahlweg's letters to Liddell Hart are embarrassingly obsequious, e.g., Hahlweg to Liddell Hart, 30 October 1958.
30. Hahlweg, "Clausewitz und die angelsächsische Welt."
31. Liddell Hart Papers, Paret to Liddell Hart, 11 January 1962; reply, 19 January 1962.
32. Letter, Fuller to William Sloane, Rutgers University Press, undated but in reply to letter, Sloane to Fuller, January 30, 1961. Fuller Papers, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College London, IV/6/5; IV/6/6a.
33. [J.E. Edmonds], review of Fuller's Foundations of the Science of War (London: Hutchinson and Company, 1926), Army Quarterly, 12 (1926), 165-66.
34. Brian Holden Reid, J.F.C. Fuller; A.J. Trythall, Boney Fuller: Soldier, Strategist, and Writer, 1878-1966 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1977).
35. J.F.C. Fuller, Foundations of the Science of War, 20.
36. J.F.C. Fuller, The Dragon's Teeth: A Study of War and Peace (London: Constable and Company, 1932), 66-67, 210-211, 255-256.
37. Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (London: Temple Smith, 1978), 131.
38. J.F.C. Fuller, War and Western Civilization, 1832-1932: A Study of War as a Political Instrument and the Expression of Mass Democracy (London: Duckworth, 1932), 46-49, 111. Liddell Hart, The Remaking of Modern Armies (London: John Murray, 1927), 93.
39. J.F.C. Fuller, Memoirs of an Unconventional Soldier (London: I. Nicholson and Watson, 1936), 429.
40. J.F.C. Fuller, Machine Warfare: An Inquiry into the Influence of Mechanics on the Art of War (Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal, 1943), 2-3.
41. Greene, ed., Living Thoughts of Clausewitz.
42. J.F.C. Fuller, The Second World War, 1939-45: A Strategical and Tactical History (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949), 32-33.
43. J.F.C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961: A Study of the French, Industrial, and Russian Revolutions on War and Its Conduct (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), 12, 59-76.
44. Howard/Paret, On War, Book Two, Chapter 2. Graham/Maude is obscure on this point, the Jolles version clear.
45. Michael Howard, "Clausewitz and His Misinterpreters," Listener, March 22, 1956, 279-80.
46. Letter, Fuller to Sloane, undated but in reply to letter, Sloane to Fuller, January 30, 1961, Fuller Papers IV/6/5; IV/6/6a.
47. Paul Kennedy, War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, made only one significant reference (p17) to Clausewitz, citing Fuller. "After all, even Clausewitz had admitted that `the subordination of the political point of view to the military would be contrary to common sense' because `policy is the intelligent faculty, war only the instrument.'" [Emphasis added.]
48. See Spenser Wilkinson, "Killing No Murder: An Examination of Some New Theories of War," Army Quarterly, October 1927; Liddell Hart's response, January 1928.
49. Wilkinson to Colonel (USA) Marius Scammell, 18 January 1928; 9 February 1932. Wilkinson Papers 13/68.
50. Liddell Hart, Remaking of Modern Armies.
51. A similar argument was made later by LTC (USA) Marshall H. Armor to Major (USA) John H. Cushman and brought to Liddell Hart's attention (letter Cushman to Liddell Hart, 6 March 1955). Liddell Hart Papers I/215/14, 15a. Armor had criticized Liddell Hart's "deprecation of Clausewitz" in a review of Liddell Hart's Strategy, Military Review, February 1955, 110. Armor explained to Cushman privately that he liked the book but thought Liddell Hart's arguments essentially the same as Clausewitz's. Others have perceived similarities between Liddell Hart's arguments and Clausewitz's, e.g., Raymond B. Furlong [Lieutenant General, USAF], "Strategymaking for the 1980's," Parameters, March 1979, 9-16. Jehuda Wallach argued in Dogma, 7, that Liddell Hart's interpretation of military history, particularly the psychological nature of "victory," was the same as Clausewitz's. Liddell Hart was willing to ackowledge that Sun Tzu had anticipated him, but not Clausewitz; see his "Foreword" to Griffith's translation.
52. Saxe, quoted in Liddell Hart, Remaking of Modern Armies, 95-96.
53. British Way of Warfare, 21-22.
Visit The Clausewitz Homepage
US • UK • France • Germany
|Return to top|