On War - title image

Carl von Clausewitz

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NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the  standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.

Book Cover, ON WATERLOOOn Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it. Clausewitz's Der Felzug von 1815 was written late in his life and its findings were never incorporated into On War, so most readers will find it new material.

Jolles translation, book coverBuy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.

On War, Princeton ed.Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret  (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.

Book coverDecoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (University Press of Kansas, 2008). By Jon Tetsuro Sumida. ISBN: 9780700616169. *This is perhaps the most important recent book for anyone seeking to understand Clausewitz's thinking. Sumida contends that Clausewitz's central value lies in his method of reenacting the psychological difficulties of high command in order to promote the powers of intuition that he believed were essential to effective strategic decision-making. Sumida also correctly notes Clausewitz's argument that the defense is a stronger form of war, and goes on to explore the implications of that fact.


Relation of Power


IN the eighth chapter of the third book we have spoken of the value of superior numbers in battles, from which follows as a consequence the superiority of numbers in general in strategy. So far the importance of the relations of power is established: we shall now add a few more detailed considerations on the subject.

An unbiassed examination of modern military history leads to the conviction that the superiority in numbers becomes every day more decisive; the principle of assembling the greatest possible numbers for a decisive battle may therefore be regarded as more important than ever.

Courage and the spirit of an army have, in all ages, multiplied its physical powers, and will continue to do so equally in future; but we find also that at certain periods in history a superiority in the organisation and equipment of an army has given a great moral preponderance; we find that at other periods a great superiority in mobility had a like effect; at one time we see a new system of tactics brought to light; at another we see the art of war developing itself in an effort to make a skilful use of ground on great general principles, and by such means here and there we find one general gaining great advantages over another; but even this tendency has disappeared, and wars now go on in a simpler and more natural manner.—If, divesting ourselves of any preconceived notions, we look at the experiences of recent wars, we must admit that there are but little traces of any of the above influences, either throughout any whole campaign, or in engagements of a decisive character—that is, the great battle, respecting which term we refer to the second chapter of the preceding book.

Armies are in our days so much on a par in regard to arms, equipment, and drill, that there is no very notable difference between the best and the worst in these things. A difference may still be observed, resulting from the superior instruction of the scientific corps, but in general it only amounts to this, that one is the inventor and introducer of improved appliances, which the other immediately imitates. Even the subordinate generals, leaders of corps and divisions, in all that comes within the scope of their sphere, have in general everywhere the same ideas and methods, so that, except the talent of the commander-in-chief—a thing entirely dependent on chance, and not bearing a constant relation to the standard of education amongst the people and the army—there is nothing now but habituation to war which can give one army a decided superiority over another. The nearer we approach to a state of equality in all these things, the more decisive becomes the relation in point of numbers.

The character of modern battles is the result of this state of equality. Take for instance the battle of Borodino, where the first army in the world, the French, measured its strength with the Russian, which, in many parts of its organisation, and in the education of its special branches, might be considered the furthest behindhand. In the whole battle there is not one single trace of superior art or intelligence, it is a mere trial of strength between the respective armies throughout; and as they were nearly equal in that respect, the result could not be otherwise than a gradual turn of the scale in favour of that side where there was the greatest energy on the part of the commander, and the most experience in war on the part of the troops. We have taken this battle as an illustration, because in it there was an equality in the numbers on each side such as is rarely to be found.

We do not maintain that all battles exactly resemble this, but it shows the dominant tone of most of them.

In a battle in which the forces try their strength on each other so leisurely and methodically, an excess of force on one side must make the result in its favour much more certain. And it is a fact that we may search modern military history in vain for a battle in which an army has beaten another double its own strength, an occurrence by no means uncommon in former times. Buonaparte, the greatest general of modern times, in all his great victorious battles—with one exception, that of Dresden, 1813—had managed to assemble an army superior in numbers, or at least very little inferior, to that of his opponent, and when it was impossible for him to do so, as at Leipsic, Brienne, Laon, and Belle-Alliance, he was beaten.

The absolute strength is in strategy generally a given quantity, which the commander cannot alter. But from this it by no means follows that it is impossible to carry on a war with a decidedly inferior force. War is not always a voluntary act of state policy, and least of all is it so when the forces are very unequal: consequently, any relation of forces is imaginable in war, and it would be a strange theory of war which would wish to give up its office just where it is most wanted.

However desirable theory may consider a proportionate force, still it cannot say that no use can be made of the most disproportionate. No limits can be prescribed in this respect.

The weaker the force the more moderate must be the object it proposes to itself, and the weaker the force the shorter time it will last. In these two directions there is a field for weakness to give way, if we may use this expression. Of the changes which the measure of the force produces in the conduct of war, we can only speak by degrees, as these things present themselves; at present it is sufficient to have indicated the general point of view, but to complete that we shall add one more observation.

The more that an army involved in an unequal combat falls short of the number of its opponents, the greater must be the tension of its powers, the greater its energy when danger presses. If the reverse takes place, and instead of heroic desperation a spirit of despondency ensues, then certainly there is an end to every art of war.

If with this energy of powers is combined a wise moderation in the object proposed, then there is that play of brilliant actions and prudent forbearance which we admire in the wars of Frederick the Great.

But the less that this moderation and caution can effect, the more must the tension and energy of the forces become predominant. When the disproportion of forces is so great that no modification of our own object can ensure us safety from a catastrophe, or where the probable continuance of the danger is so great that the greatest economy of our powers can no longer suffice to bring us to our object, then the tension of our powers should be concentrated for one desperate blow; he who is pressed on all sides expecting little help from things which promise none, will place his last and only reliance in the moral ascendancy which despair gives to courage, and look upon the greatest daring as the greatest wisdom,—at the same time employ the assistance of subtle stratagem, and if he does not succeed, will find in an honourable downfall the right to rise hereafter.


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