The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

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Chapter 6. Assessment, 1815-1873

The publication of On War in English was one small reflection of the broad new interest in the German military system motivated by the outcomes of the wars of 1864 and 1866, and especially the humiliation of France in 1870/71. There may be some truth to the view that it was Moltke's praise that drew British attention to Clausewitz, but this translation was also the logical outcome of a long-standing interest in Clausewitz in Britain. Nonetheless, the publication of Graham's work did not immediately lead to any noteworthy surge in Clausewitz studies.

Most of the occasional bursts of enthusiasm for Clausewitz, like most bursts of military reform, have been motivated by military embarrassments or defeats. Certainly this has been the case in the post-Vietnam War United States. Why did the specifically British humiliations of the Crimean War (1853-56) not stimulate a British interest in Clausewitz? To this I would answer speculatively that the relatively low military prestige of Prussia in the 1840s and 1850s and the continuing active self-promotion of Jomini, who lived on until 1869, would have helped keep Clausewitz in the background. In any case, with the exception of the Crimean War there was little enough stimulus for any British interest in military writing. As Egerton put it in 1851, "The literature of England has been pronounced to be scantily supplied with the article of military history. The deficiency may be traced to an absence of demand arising from causes by no means to be regretted, and which every Englishman must wish should be perpetual."(*1) Of course, Ellesmere was dismissing in a rather cavalier fashion the constant colonial warfare waged by Victorian Britain, which kept its unit-level officers the most experienced soldiers in Europe.

Works in French were also much more accessible to British military men than were works in German, and On War was available in French after 1851. It is worth noting here that almost all of the English translations of Jomini's works were done by Americans, among whom a knowledge of any foreign language would have been less common. That German was still an exotic language even to the British editors who ran the 1835 review may be evidenced by the fact that both words of the book's title were misspelled, as "Von Kiege."

It would be an error, however, to overstress the respect in which Jomini was held in England. Much of what is frequently considered Jominian is in fact derived from Archduke Charles's work. A committee of the Corps of Royal Engineers, writing in the 1840s, took Jomini severely to task for a perceived anti-British bias.(*2) Certainly Jomini was much better known and more widely read than Clausewitz, but even though the Swiss theorist took Wellington's side in the debate over Waterloo,(*3) Egerton--writing on behalf of and evidently at the instigation of the duke--referred to "the pompous charlatanerie of Jomini." John Mitchell also expressed disappointment in Jomini's works, which, he noted, were "very far below" his reputation.(*4) Neither Egerton nor Wellington (nor any other pre-World War One British writer that I am aware of) ever sounded any similar note concerning Clausewitz, even when disputing his conclusions or complaining of the mental effort required to read his major work.

The fact is that most British writers on war were extremely eclectic, drawing freely on their own experiences and on whatever authors they happened to have read. They were most impressed by their own homegrown heroes: Marlborough, Wellington, and Napier, who were themselves by no means unsophisticated. They were skeptical of any "theoretical" approach to the study of war for many of the same reasons that Clausewitz was skeptical of Jomini and his less advanced predecessors, Lloyd and Bülow. Given the confusion that has always arisen from Clausewitz's own work, perhaps they had a point.

Jomini did, however, make considerable efforts to come to terms with the question of sea power and with Britain's unique strategic role, sharing an appreciation of those factors with Napoleon III. Since Clausewitz almost completely ignored these concerns, his work may not have seemed as relevant. (A number of later writers--most notably the Englishman Julian Corbett, the German Baron Curt von Maltzahn, and the American George Meyers--would nevertheless find it profitable to adapt Clausewitz's ideas to the naval arena.) Although there was a tremendous amount of interest in Britain in the land campaigns of the American Civil War,(*5) it would be the major British effort on land in South Africa (1899-1902) that would modify this navalist orientation. (British strategy naturally remained predominantly maritime). Beside that, the greatest British failures in the Crimea were largely logistical and managerial in nature. Tactical and strategic mistakes were less striking, even if they prompted some stirring poetry. The need for a Clausewitz simply was not widely felt in Britain before the humiliations in South Africa.

Another factor that might have made Clausewitz less interesting to British military men was his concern with the "nation in arms." It is ironic, of course, that an officer of the conservative king of Prussia should be the one to base his theories on the most radical legacy of the revolutionary period, whereas Napoleon's own staff officer and interpreter, Jomini, should aim his theories at the professional officer corps of essentially eighteenth century-style armies. Most of the Britons who cited Clausewitz showed some streak of social radicalism. Wellington was obviously an exception (although his friends Ellesmere and Liverpool showed at least some openness to both On War and reform arguments), but his interest in Clausewitz's work stemmed from essentially personal concerns. The sources of the duke's military conservatism are complex, however. It certainly was not rooted in any blind faith in the military capacity of the British officer corps, as his own sardonic comments show: His greatest hope was that the list of British generals would be as frightening to the enemy as it was to himself.

These various factors may account for the dominance of conservative military thought in Britain before 1870. On the other hand, we have seen that there was, in fact, a fair degree of attention paid to Clausewitz in England between 1835 and 1873. His work certainly was known within Britain's small and close-knit military community, and in important places like Wellington's circle and the Staff College, well before the Franco-Prussian War. Clausewitz's studies of the campaigns of 1812 and 1815 (not to mention the "free rendering" of his work on the campaign of 1813) appeared in English long before they were translated into French. These studies were by no means free of their author's more abstract theoretical concepts, some of which were discussed quite explicitly. As historical works they were praised by Mitchell, Liverpool, Ellesmere, and Chesney and were given a somewhat more ambiguous endorsement by Wellington himself. They clearly had an influence on Chesney's historical writing and teaching at the Staff College. Given the importance of Clausewitz's pedagogical and historical views to his overall military theory, these campaign studies must be considered significant, but On War was known also.

Thus Clausewitz may have played a greater role in British military thinking than has been recognized, particularly in terms of the writing and teaching of military history.

Why then is it the conventional wisdom that Clausewitz's work was ignored? I suspect that there are two fundamental sources of this misperception. The first is the eclectic nature of British military thought and its skepticism regarding "theory." As Mitchell said, "Had Clausewitz written in England, indeed, the chances are that not five copies of his work would ever have sold, and that he himself would have been abused as a theorist by persons of such high intellect as to suppose the word a term of reproach."(*6) There was as well perhaps a nationalistic reluctance of British authors to align themselves too closely with any foreign thinker on war, especially the militarily unfashionable Germans. No clearly "Clausewitzian" influence appears because Clausewitz was rarely cited by name and his influence was thoroughly diluted and always transformed by each writer's particular experience and idiosyncrasies. This, rather than slavish acceptance and repetition, is, after all, what Clausewitz had prescribed.

Detecting the actual influence of Clausewitz remains a problem even when dealing with modern writers. It is hard enough to pinpoint Clausewitz's impact on British authors whom we know to have read him; it would be harder still to find it in the work of those who kept this fact to themselves. Although Clausewitz is more frequently mentioned by name today, most references are very general. It is rare to find any actual quotation from his works other than the ubiquitous (and often misunderstood or misrepresented) "War is a continuation of policy by other means."

Today, of course, Clausewitz is a name to conjure with. Such would not have been the case in England before the Franco-Prussian War. Most writers on the British army in this period have noted its intense parochialism and anti-intellectualism. Reference to any foreign book, especially a theoretical work like On War, might have raised hackles in many quarters. A failure to name it does not necessarily, therefore, imply a lack of reading. It is hardly likely, however, that any intelligent man could read On War without picking up something from the experience.

Second, modern students of war have tended to impose their own preconceptions concerning the nature of any likely Clausewitzian influence on a period before these conceptions had jelled. Strachan, for instance, writes that the evident British lack of interest stemmed from the "unacceptability of Clausewitz's emphasis on battle as strategy's central object and his belief that generals, far from embracing limited warfare as the Jominians wished, were only restrained from total war by political expediency." I would argue that this is a view of Clausewitz that is based on only one facet of his work, and a selective perception of that. (In any case, battle is only the means, not the object, in Clausewitz's view of strategy.) This attitude is derived in some measure from Basil Liddell Hart's later misrepresentation of Clausewitz as the "Mahdi of Mass" and the apostle of total war. The tendency to seek Clausewitz's influence in this or that "strategy" betrays a curiously lingering desire to use his theories in a prescriptive, Jominian manner. On War prescribes no strategy.

British rejection of the centrality of battle in Clausewitz's definition of strategy might simply be due to a failure to grasp the subtlety of that theorist's view of the role of violence in war: Clausewitz postulated no requirement for decisive battle, demanding only an awareness of the possibility. On the other hand, it may result from the fact that British military operations--owing to the maritime form of British power projection, the nature of the coalition warfare in which Britain was usually involved, the salient economic elements thereof, and the scarcity of British military manpower--almost always emphasized delay and attrition over offensive combat. (Marlborough was an exception, of course, but the high human cost of his victories was also a factor in his political demise.) Placing battle at the center of their definition of strategy would have called for a greater degree of subtlety than is usual--or wise--in practical doctrine. British definitions would not reflect Clausewitz's until after the South African War.

One of the central themes in Clausewitz's works is their emphasis on the specific: To be useful, all military analysis must be based on local, temporary, personal, and political factors and placed firmly in the context of what Clausewitz called "the spirit of the age." Most of the early British writers who paid attention to Clausewitz also demonstrated a strong sensitivity to Britain's unique strategic situation. Certainly Mitchell did, and the 1835 reviewer strove to find Clausewitz's relevance to Britain. To see Clausewitz in this recognition of Britain's peculiar military position would be unjustified, but no more so than many other writers' attempts to find a Clausewitzian influence in this doctrine or that strategy. The predispositions of his readers are probably the major element in any theorist's popularity. Still, the same recognition appears clearly in later British writers who were definitely influenced by On War, notably Colonel G.F.R. Henderson (1854-1903), General Sir Frederick Maurice (1841-1912), and the historian and journalist Spenser Wilkinson (1853-1937), in an age when there were stronger pressures to adapt to continental military models.

In contrast, the relationship between war and policy--today considered so central to Clausewitz's thought--was accepted as such a commonplace by British thinkers that this aspect of the theory in On War drew little attention. Mitchell's and Wellington's discussions demonstrate some of the reasons why. Although they seldom thought to challenge the constitutional subordination of the military to the political authorities, the disdain, contempt, and sometimes outright hostility of Britain's soldiers concerning politicians and politics tended for a long time to dampen interest--or at least public discussion among soldiers--concerning this facet of Clausewitz's thinking. It would not become a major focus in the English-speaking world until civilian strategists (like Spenser Wilkinson, Liddell Hart, and Bernard Brodie) began to play a larger role in the development of military theory. Nonetheless, Wellington's critique of Clausewitz's Campaign of 1815 shows that the duke had as subtle an appreciation of the relationship of war and policy as the philosopher ever developed.

In any case, Clausewitz was clearly known and discussed in Britain. There is no corresponding evidence of any American interest in Clausewitz. Indeed, it is difficult to find any significant American reference to him before World War One. One can only speculate on the reasons for this, but they may lie in the differing ethos of the British and American officer corps. British army officers tended to play the role of enthusiastic amateur. They were often men of affairs with outside interests and often outside incomes. The small coterie of American West Pointers, on the other hand, tended toward a very narrow professionalism. For them, the "cookbook" approach of Jomini must have seemed much more utilitarian, and Clausewitz's insistence on bringing politics into strategy would have been even more repellant to the American soldier than to the British. Clausewitz's interest in popular warfare would have stimulated the suspicions of a small professional officer corps whose interests (both patriotic and selfish) were always threatened by the widespread but largely fallacious American faith in the militia tradition.

To seek such explanations may be digging too deep, however. The language barrier, the military obscurity of Germany before 1866, Jomini's rude comments, and the anti-intellectualism general among military officers may well have been the decisive factors.

In any case, the slowness with which Anglo-American military thinkers came to appreciate Clausewitz should not be taken as proof of their backwardness. Even in Germany, Jomini's approach would remain dominant until the era of Moltke. The original printing of fifteen hundred copies of Vom Kriege had still not sold out twenty years later.(*7) Such diverse German military thinkers as Karl Wilhelm von Willisen and Friedrich Wilhelm Rüstow were disciples of Jomini, and as late as the 1880s, Albrecht von Boguslawsky was arguing that there was no essential conflict between the thought of the French theorist and that of Clausewitz.(*8) Boguslawsky was still publishing German translations of the Summary in 1885. Otto von Bismarck, that seemingly most Clausewitzian of statesmen, observed in 1889 that "to my shame I have to confess that I have never read Clausewitz and have known little more about him than that he was a meritorious general."(*9)

NOTES to Chapter 6

1. Translator's preface to Ellesmere, trans., Military Events in Italy, v.

2. Aide-Mémoire to the Military Sciences, v.1, 1.

3. Jomini, Art of War, 183, rejected Napoleon's criticism of Wellington's choice of battlefield.

4. [Francis Egerton], "Marmont, Siborne, and Alison," Quarterly Review, 76 (June and September 1845), 204-247; John Mitchell, The Fall of Napoleon (London: G.W. Nickerson, 1845), vol. 2, 203.

5. Jay Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p229.

6. John Mitchell, United Service Gazette, June 20, 1840, 4.

7. Michael Howard, "The Influence of Clausewitz" in the Howard-Paret edition of On War, 27.

8. John Shy, "Jomini," 178.

9. Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 458, citing Lucius von Ballhausen, Bismarck-Erinnerungen (Stuttgart, 1921), 502. Whether Bismarck is to be believed is another matter.

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