The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

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Chapter 8. In the Wake of the South African War

The event that cleared the way for Clausewitz's real rise to eminence in Britain was the South African War of 1899-1902. The poor British performance in this war led to many important military improvements, most notably the famous "Haldane Reforms" of Richard Burton, first Viscount Haldane, appointed secretary of war in 1905. Undertaken were such important and concrete reforms as the creation of a true general staff, replacement of the old post of commander in chief by a genuine chief of the general staff, integration of the old "volunteers" with the regular army in a new "territorial" force, and the creation of a modern and deployable field army, which appeared in 1914 as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. The widespread reformist mood included serious dissatisfaction with prevailing military theories. Both the nature of war itself and the particular matter of "strategy" became prime subjects of debate.(*1)

The resulting interest in Clausewitz was soon reinforced by praise for the Prussian thinker issuing from Britain's allies in the Far East, the Japanese commanders victorious over Russia in the war of 1904/5. Clausewitz was well known in Japan. Vom Kriege's publisher, Dümmlers Verlag, sent an advanced copy of the fifth edition to the Japanese general Count Tamemoto Kuroki (1844-1923) in 1904. Kuroki, victor over Russia in the battle of the Yalu, responded that Clausewitz's work had already been translated into Japanese and had been a significant influence on Japan's conduct of the war. Just which work of Clausewitz—and which translation—Kuroki was referring to is problematical. Some Japanese officers being trained in Germany became familiar with Clausewitz around 1887.(*2)

Indications of the Japanese faith in Clausewitz reached England by a number of routes, but probably the most widely read report appeared in the London Times on 23 March 1905, written by the Times's military correspondent and entitled "À la Clausewitz."(*3)

The correspondent was Colonel Thomas à Court Repington, a former student of Maurice's at the Staff College. Spenser Wilkinson later characterized him as "the best staff officer in the Army." A soldier of great promise, he had been widely seen as a potential chief of staff.(*4)

Repington seems to have been more than a bit rash and indiscreet, however. In particular, he had the poor sense to get involved with a married woman. The ensuing scandal led to his resignation in 1902, after which he found his new niche as one of Britain's best-informed—and-best connected—military correspondents. It would be Repington who would break the news of the "shell shortage" in May 1915.

In the 1905 article, Repington lavished praise on Clausewitz. It is clear that he was referring to Clausewitz's "Instruction for the Crown Prince" rather than On War. Most Britons did not make much distinction, since the "Instruction" appeared as an appendix in the Graham translation. Repington's works of the next few years, however, show a great familiarity with On War and with Clausewitz's report on the catastrophe of 1806.(*5) Repington traced the influence of Clausewitz in Japan to the training provided to the Japanese army by the German military scholar Major (later Major General) Klemens Wilhelm Jakob Meckel (1842-1906), who served in Japan from 1885 to 1888.

The broad interest in Clausewitz reached into some unlikely places. The future "Lawrence of Arabia," T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), read On War in 1906 or 1907. At the time, he was a civilian student of archaeology at Oxford. Although he later expressed disillusionment with the Prussian's theories, he felt at the time that "Clausewitz was intellectually so much the master of them all that unwillingly I had come to believe in him."(*6)

In this, Lawrence was hardly unique. Another example: Claude Auchinleck (1884-1981), commissioned a junior officer in 1904 and eventually to be a Field-Marshal, victor at the first battle of Alamein (1942), later recalled having read Clausewitz in about 1910. "I had a notebook full of [notes] culled out of his book which I read with avidity!"(*7)

Clausewitzian terms and ideas came to abound in British military literature. The United Service Magazine began a monthly series on Clausewitz that ran from March 1907 to March 1909. The Graham translation of On War was reissued in 1908 with an introduction by Maude. In contrast with the poor sales of Graham's original edition, however, the new version sold 573 copies in its first year.(*8)

There was a veritable avalanche of publications on Clausewitz in the following year. Clausewitz finally got an Encyclopædia Britannica article of his own in 1910 (unsigned, probably Spenser Wilkinson's work), in which On War was described as "an exposition of the philosophy of war which is absolutely unrivalled." (Interestingly enough, the same period saw several translations of the Sun Tzu, at least one of which was characterized as "equivalent to a précis of Clausewitz—and infinitely more interesting.")(*9) In August 1914, the Times Book Club tried to cash in on the war fever through prominent ads for "war books." The first one listed was "Clausevitz (sic) On War." The next four were by Goltz, E.A. Altham, and W.H. James. Each of these books contained discussions of Clausewitz. Jomini appeared nowhere on the list.(*10)

This post-Boer War burst of enthusiasm for Clausewitz in Britain is interesting because its motivation by the embarrassments in South Africa creates a definite parallel with the interest in Clausewitz and German military ideas in general that is so evident in the post-Vietnam War United States. Second, it is useful to note the particular aspects of Clausewitz's thought that drew attention. These were primarily his pedagogical ideas, his moral/psychological emphasis, and his views on the dynamics of war (friction, chance, and the interplay of attack and defense). The famous line that "war is a continuation of policy by other means" was discussed but was not the major focus of concern.

The relationship of war and politics was, however, the subject of a short but sharp curricular debate within the general staff that occurred at a meeting at the Staff College in 1908.(*11) The meeting was attended by the chief of the general staff, General Sir Neville Lyttelton, and by such luminaries as Major-General Douglas Haig and Brigadier-General Henry Rawlinson. The source of the dispute was Assistant Director of Military Operations Colonel Count Gleichen's perception that Sir Henry Wilson, then head of the college, was encouraging the students to debate issues of politics and policy that were outside their competence and, indeed, outside the proper interests of any British soldier. These issues "could really only be decided after a very long study by the higher political people." He suggested that "it would be better to turn the students into good Staff officers than to make excursions into the realm of politics."

Rawlinson, a former head of the Staff College himself, defended the inclusion of political aspects, which, he said, antedated his own administration of the school. He had, in fact, extended the practice "in order to encourage students to think out large questions, partly, perhaps, political, but chiefly military and naval." Brigadier-General (later Field-Marshal) William R. Robertson sided with Gleichen, arguing that students "ought ... to keep clear of political matters. In practice, the policy to be adopted in any given contingency, was usually furnished by the Foreign Office to the War Office, and if not furnished it was assumed[!], but it was never discussed by the general staff. Their duty was to consider and advise how a certain policy could best be carried out."

He noted, however, that "strategy must be in harmony with policy, and therefore the policy ... must be laid down ... before a useful strategical paper can be prepared."

Colonel Launcelot E. Kiggell (who would be the Staff College commandant in 1913/14 and Douglas Haig's chief of staff in 1917) then defended the school's practices by saying that he "had for some time past tried to study war and had tried to teach it, and the more he had tried, the more he had become convinced that politics were at the back of all strategical problems." It was "not possible to separate strategy from politics, and indeed Clausewitz based his whole theory of war on the fundamental principle that strategy must be based on policy."(*12)

Since Wilson's training methods went unchanged,(*13) it might be said that this Clausewitzian argument prevailed.

"Wully" Robertson (1860-1933) was a most unusual character. The son of a village tailor, he rose by dint of sheer hard work to become chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) from 1915 to 1918. His nickname was derived from his conspicuous lower-class accent, which he intentionally retained despite his rise in the army and in society. He evidently had cause later to reconsider the rather passive conception of the relationship of soldiers to political leaders that he had expressed in 1908. After the war, Robertson said:

There can be no question that, with us, whatever may be the case with other countries, the supreme control in war must be civil.... [The responsibilities of the national war leadership] cannot be properly discharged unless those holding ministerial office have, by previous study, made themselves acquainted with the principles upon which the business of war should be conducted.... It follows that soldiers who exercise high command should, without in any way becoming what are termed political generals, know something about politics and try to understand the way in which ministers look, and must necessarily look, at political things.

The time may come when a policy is proposed which ... [military leaders] feel convinced will, if pursued, have disastrous results, and they then have to choose between acquiescing in it, thereby jeopardizing the interests of the nation, and saying in unmistakable terms that they can be no party to it.... A minister once tried in the course of conversation to persuade me that the duty of a professional adviser begins and ends with giving his advice.... I was unable to agree with him as to the chief professional adviser, holding that he had a duty to the country as well as to ministers, and I said so, though I admitted that only special circumstances would justify the conclusion that duty to ministers conflicted with duty to country and must accordingly take second place.(*14)

Robertson (a "Westerner") attributed his removal as CIGS in February 1918 (by Lloyd George, an "Easterner") to his perseverance in these principles. Robertson's argument nicely balances Clausewitz's subordination of strategy to policy against his requirement that politicians respect the nature of the military instrument.(*15)

Whether this change of heart can be ascribed to Clausewitz's influence or simply to Robertson's war experience is unknowable, but Robertson's familiarity with Clausewitz is demonstrable, as his private papers include a set of notes from On War. These six typescript pages appear among the texts of several lectures that Robertson gave at the Staff College before 1914, where he was commandant from June 1910 to October 1913. They consist of extracts and summarizations of sizeable portions from On War and address the role of military theory, the nature of military genius, and friction in war.(*16) Robertson had clearly read at least these sections with some care, in the period between his two rather different statements on the relationship of military to political leaders.(*17)

A number of other prominent general staff officers actually published discussions of Clausewitz in the years leading up to World War One. Repington has already been mentioned. Colonel (later Brigadier-General) J.E. Edmonds (1861-1956) was another staff officer and later author of the official histories of operations in France and Belgium. Only months before the outbreak of World War One, he published an intelligent, positive article on Clausewitz and the Jena campaign in the general staff's periodical, Army Review.(*18) Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. James published Modern Strategy (an examination crammer) in 1903. It provided, among other points, a short but perceptive discussion of Clausewitz's views on the relationship of attack and defense.(*19) Major-General Edward A. Altham had been head of the Strategical Section at the War Office. His 1914 The Principles of War Historically Illustrated (which Michael Howard describes as giving "a clear account of the strategic and tactical thinking of the British General Staff on the eve of the First World War")(*20) cited Clausewitz four times; Jomini's name did not appear (though Hamley's did, once). Altham used only bits and pieces of Clausewitz's thought. Still, since he was a general staff officer and had at one time been head of the Strategical Section at the War Office, his references to Clausewitz must be regarded as significant. The works of other general staff types like Repington, Edmonds, and James show a much broader and deeper understanding of Clausewitz.(*21) Douglas Haig quoted Clausewitz on occasion.(*22)

The British concern with Clausewitz in this period was only one aspect of a much wider concern with the German military model which, in turn, was only a part of a larger debate over the impact of modern technology and political organization. In most cases, Clausewitz was a distinctly secondary issue. Mixed in with—and usually eclipsing—strictly Clausewitzian ideas was a continuing concern with organizational issues like the problem of a general staff, the reserve system, and—in another striking parallel with the present American reform debate—a lively and acrimonious discussion of what we now hear called Auftragstaktik, the German system of decentralized tactical responsibility and mission-oriented orders.(*23) The issue of personnel stability and cohesion, a hot topic in the U.S. Army since Vietnam, was also a component of this British debate. In the British case, however, it appears only in reference to the higher staffs that would have to be created on mobilization; stability at unit level has always been the norm in the British regimental system. This aspect of the debate was a major consideration in the eventual creation of the British general staff, which was in place by 1906.

Jehuda Wallach has suggested that the British interest in Clausewitz, which he says developed only on the very eve of World War One, was aimed narrowly at understanding the German conduct of war.(*24) Although this certainly was a motivation, it is clear that British readers of On War tried as well to apply its concepts to Britain's own situation.

It is much harder to find contemporary evidence of any American interest in Clausewitz, although there were many indirect sources of his influence. For the most part this indirect influence came through the writings of German authors, who dominated the curriculum at the Command and General Staff School and the Army War College. The most important such writer was General (later Field Marshal) Freiherr Colmar von der Goltz (1843-1916), whose 1883 Das Volk in Waffen was translated in England in 1887. A later work, The Conduct of War, was translated in 1896 by the American lieutenant Joseph T. Dickman, then an assistant instructor in the art of war at the U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.(*25) Both books are thoroughly permeated by references to Clausewitz, but Goltz differed from the earlier writer in some key areas (to be discussed below).

The few actual references to Clausewitz by Americans in this period are, for the most part, unenlightening. John Bigelow (who graduated from West Point in 1877) listed On War in the bibliography of his essentially Jominian The Principles of Strategy (1894), but there is no internal evidence of its influence.(*26) The United States' war with Spain, successful though it was, sparked reform efforts culminating in the establishment of the Army War College and a general staff, but the reformers made scant mention of Clausewitz. The newly commissioned Lieutenant (later Brigadier General) John McAuley Palmer found Graham's On War on his commander's shelf in 1892. He later recalled his immense surprise at reading that war is a continuation of politics by other means. "This truth was so startlingly simple that I could not grasp it at first. But it gradually dawned upon me that here was a fundamental military concept which I had never heard about in my four years at West Point."(*27)

There was, however, at least some interest at the level of individual officers. George Patton purchased a copy of On War during his honeymoon trip to England in 1910 and finished reading it the same year. Unfortunately, Patton chose T. Miller Maguire's peculiar and truncated translation, either by mischance or because the more accurate but much longer Graham version might have interfered with more pressing honeymoon pursuits.(*28) He wrote a letter to his wife complaining that it was "as full of notes of equal abstruceness as a dog is of fleas."(*29)

Patton would persevere in his pursuit of Clausewitz, however, and in 1926 he would finally acquire the Graham/Maude edition.

NOTES to Chapter 8

1. Clausewitz's chief proponents at the time, Henderson, Maude, and Spenser Wilkinson, thought so. Wilkinson's critique, "Puzzles of the War," Monthly Review, October 1900, 87-97, does not name Clausewitz but refers to specifically Clausewitzian ideas, including "centres of gravity" and the need to "estimate the character of the war." Wilkinson Papers, 13/47.

2. Michael Howard (citing Hahlweg's introduction to the 16th German edition, 52), introductory essay to On War, 37-38. A Japanese translation of the Principles of War was made, based on a French translation: Taisen gakuri, published by the Gunji Kyiku Kai (Association for Military Education) in 1903. On War itself was translated by Mori Ogai (a medical oficer in the Imperial Army better known as a novelist and poet), as Sens ron beginning in 1899. It appears in Mori's collected works. See also Yôichi Hirama, "Sun Tzü's Influence on the Japanese Imperial Navy," which also discusses Clausewitz and Mahan.

3. Times Military Correspondent, "à la Clausewitz," Times, March 23, 1905. See also Military Correspondent of the Times, "Clausewitz in Manchuria," The Times History of the War in the Far East (London: 1905). Mori Ogai translated Repington's Times reports and published them in the newspaper Jiji Shimpo.

4. Wilkinson, Thirty-five Years, 237; Bond, Victorian Army, 141; Luvaas, Education of an Army, 291-330; J.E. Edmonds's article on Repington, Dictionary of National Biography. W. Michael Ryan defends Repington, whose reputation is rather odious, in Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à Court Repington: A Study in the Interaction of Personality, the Press, and Power (New York: Garland, 1987).

5. See Military Correspondent of the Times [Repington], Imperial Strategy (London: John Murray, 1906), esp. "1806 and 1906 — A Parallel," and The Foundations of Reform (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company, 1908); [Repington's memoirs] Vestigia (London: Constable, 1919), 293.

6. T.E. Lawrence, "Evolution of a Revolt," (October 1920), in Stanley and Rodelle Weintraub, eds., Evolution of a Revolt: Early Postwar Writings of T.E. Lawrence (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 103-4; T.E. Lawrence to His Biographer, Liddell Hart (New York: Doubleday, 1938), 50; Liddell Hart, Colonel Lawrence: The Man behind the Legend (New York: Dodd, Meade and Company, 1934), 128.

7. Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck to B.H. Liddell Hart, 20 November 1950. Liddell Hart Papers, I/30/30.

8. Archives, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Henry S. King, C33, 151.

9. Review of Calthrop, The Book of War, United Service Magazine, no.961, December 1908, 332-333.

10. Advertisement "War Maps and War Books," Times, August 7, 1914, 2.

11. Haig Papers, National Library of Scotland, Report on a Conference of General Staff Officers at the Staff College, 7-10 January, 1908, MS ACC 3155, No.81, 36-37.

12. Kiggel, as editor of Hamley's Operations of War, inserted the single reference to Clausewitz, which appeared only in editions after 1907.

13. Bond, Victorian Army, 266.

14. William Robertson (1860-1933), Soldiers and Statesmen, 1914-1918 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), 300-303; From Private to Field-Marshal (London: Constable, 1921), 255.

15. See also Soldiers and Statesmen, v.2, 299-304.

16. "Clausewitz, vol.1," Robertson Papers I/3/6, corrections in Robertson's hand.

17. For Robertson's later willingness to criticize government policy, see "Wasting Our Army: Objectionable Military Commitments," Morning Post, 1 March 1923, pp7-8.

18. J.E. Edmonds, "Clausewitz and the Downfall of Prussia in 1806," Army Review, April 1914, 403-416.

19. Walter Haweis James, Modern Strategy (London: Blackwood, 1903, 1904; revised 1908), 172 in the revised edition. James sought to balance Jomini and Clausewitz.

20. See bibliographical essay to "Men against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914," in Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 909.

21. Edward A. Altham, The Principles of War Historically Illustrated (London: Macmillan and Company, 1914).

22. John Gooch, The Plans of War: The General Staff and British Military Strategy c. 1900-1916 (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974), 124, says ambiguously that "Haig ... was deeply critical of the failure [of General Staff educational policy] to encourage and develop what Clausewitz had called `skill in sagacious calculation', and suggested new and broader-based policies to overcome what was likely to be a factor of very serious consequence in the field." Tim Travers, in "Technology, Tactics, and Morale: Jean de Bloch, the Boer War, and British Military Theory, 1900-1914," Journal of Modern History, v.51 (June 1979), characterized Haig (along with F.N. Maude and Stewart Murray) as a "supporter of Clausewitz." See also Travers, The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900-1918 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1987), 49, citing references to Clausewitz in Haig's Cavalry Studies, Strategic and Tactical (London, 1907), 142, 174-175. Haig's emphasis throughout was on "moral[e]."

23. See, for example, Maude, Letters on Strategy (1895), 40; G.F.R. Henderson, The Battle of Spicheren (London: Gale and Polden, 1891), 287-91. Henderson strongly stressed junior officer initiative in articles "War" and "Strategy," Encyclopædia Britannica, Supplement for 1902.

24. Jehuda Wallach, Dogma, 9.

25. [Wilhelm Leopold] Colmar von der Goltz, trans. Philip A. Ashworth, The Nation in Arms (London: W.H. Allen and Company, 1887; revised editions, Hugh Rees, 1903, 1906, 1913); trans. Joseph T. Dickman, The Conduct of War: A Brief Study of its Most Important Principles and Forms (Kansas City, MO.: Franklin Hudson, 1896).

26. John Bigelow, The Principles of Strategy: Illustrated Mainly from American Campaigns, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1894; reprinted, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1968). "Jominian" is Weigley's characterization of Bigelow's argument. Weigley, Towards an American Army: Military Thought from Washington to Marshall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 94-95; Carol Reardon, Soldiers and Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 96, says Bigelow "relied upon some of the more sophisticated ideas of Prussian theorist Karl von Clausewitz" but offers no evidence.

27. I.B. Holley, Jr., General John M. Palmer, Citizen Soldiers, and the Army of a Democracy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 66.

28. Steve E. Dietrich, "The Professional Reading of General George S. Patton, Jr.," Journal of Military History, v.53, no.4 (October 1989), 387-418. The West Point Library special collection contains Patton's copies of On War.

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