The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

Mobile Compatible • 


To the First Golden Age of Clausewitz Studies in English, 1874-1914

The standard interpretations of Clausewitz's reception in Great Britain and the United States between 1873 and 1914 are somewhat contradictory: First, there is the belief that the study of Clausewitz began only after the German triumph over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Second, there is an assumption that Moltke's praise of Clausewitz then led to intense study of his work; the publication of Graham's translation in 1873 is taken as evidence of this development. Third, there is the rather contrary assumption that Clausewitz remained largely unappreciated until the First World War, a view stated emphatically by Michael Howard's student Azar Gat in 1989. In the United States and Great Britain "on the eve of the First World War," said Gat, "Jomini's dominance remained unchallenged."(*1) Russell Weigley traced British and American interest in On War only to the period of World War One itself.(*2) Finally, and in contrast with Gat's opinion, is Basil Liddell Hart's view:

One is inclined to find [the source of Britain's errors leading to the carnage of the First World War] ... in the military mode of thought inspired by Clausewitz. That we adopted it is only too clear from an analysis of our pre-war military textbooks, of the strategical memoranda, drawn up by the general staff at home and in France during the war, and of the diaries and memoirs of the dominant military authorities published since the war. They are full of tags that can be traced to Clausewitz, if often exaggerated in transfer.(*3)

Liddell Hart's views were echoed more recently by Weigley: "The first English-speaking generation to read Clausewitz got the impression that he believed victory is the only object of war, that when the guns begin firing, diplomacy abdicates to military strategy."(*4)

Several of these assumptions were challenged in the previous chapter. The first is obviously inaccurate. There is little evidence to support the second; there is no sign that the 1873 translation was motivated by Moltke's comments or of a significantly heightened interest in Clausewitz before the 1890s. Gat's view that Jomini was unchallenged—and that his theories were dominant in 1914—is flatly wrong. Clausewitz was well known in Great Britain in the decade and a half before World War One, and a good case could be made that his theories had come to dominate British military thought after the South African War of 1899-1902. Liddell Hart's statement, however, is at best misleading. He confused the broad impact of the German military model (and the ideas of certain French thinkers) with the direct influence of On War in Britain. Many of the French and German theorists most influential in Germany, Britain, and the United States before 1914—and those most directly involved in the kind of thinking that Liddell Hart condemned—had explicitly rejected key aspects of Clausewitz's thought. Weigley's argument is disputable on two counts: The World War One generation was not the first to read Clausewitz, and those who read On War (rather than only secondary sources) seem to have gotten no such false impression.

In the United States, it was primarily the German military model, rather than Jominian thought, that dominated American military thinking after 1871. Still, direct references to Clausewitz by American soldiers were few, far between, usually at second hand, and generally unclear, although On War seems to have been known to intellectual circles in the American navy.(*5)

Part II is therefore concerned almost exclusively with Great Britain.

NOTES to the Introduction to Part II

1. Azar Gat, Origins of Military Thought (1989), 130, citing Spenser Wilkinson (one of the greatest proponents of Clausewitz studies in this period), The French Army before Napoleon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1915), 15. On the same page, Wilkinson launched into a discussion of Clausewitz. In his "Note" to Murray's Reality of War, viii, Wilkinson said "When Clausewitz died, the two books on war which were thought the best were those of the Archduke Charles of Austria and General Jomini. To-day the book of Clausewitz, "On War," easily holds the first place."

2. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 210.

3. Liddell Hart, Basil H., The British Way of Warfare (London: Faber and Faber, 1932; New York: Macmillan, 1933), 17.

4. Russell F. Weigley, review of the 1976 Howard/Paret translation of On War, date uncertain. This review (from the files of Princeton University Press) appears to be a book club advertisement.

5. Weigley, in his History of the United States Army (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967; enlarged edition 1984), 273, says "Clausewitz was translated into English in 1873, and a general awareness at least of his main ideas spread among American officers soon thereafter." He cites no evidence for this, and I have found none.

Return to the top of this page

Go to next section

Go to Clausewitz in English Table of Contents


Visit the
Clausewitz Bookstores!
Clausewitz BuchhandlungUS UK France Germany

Return to top