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], which is a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it.

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 coverVanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN: 0190225432. A rich biography of Countess Marie von Clausewitz that also sheds enormous light on the life, ideas, influences upon, and character of the great military thinker himself.


Limited Object—Defence


THE ultimate aim of defensive war can never be an absolute negation, as we have before observed. Even for the weakest there must be some point in which the enemy may be made to feel, and which may be threatened.

Certainly we may say that this object is the exhaustion of the adversary, for as he has a positive object, every one of his blows which fails, if it has no other result than the loss of the force applied, still may be considered a retrograde step in reality, whilst the loss which the defensive suffers is not in vain, because his object was keeping possession, and that he has effected. This would be tantamount to saying that the defensive has his positive object in merely keeping possession. Such reasoning might be good if it was certain that the assailant after a certain number of fruitless attempts must be worn out, and desist from further efforts. But just this necessary consequence is wanting. If we look at the exhaustion of forces, the defender is under a disadvantage. The assailant becomes weaker, but only in the sense that it may reach a turning point; if we set aside that supposition, the weakening goes on certainly more rapidly on the defensive side than on that of the assailant: for in the first place, he is the weaker, and, therefore, if the losses on both sides are equal, he loses more actually than the other; in the next place, he is deprived generally of a portion of territory and of his resources. We have, therefore, here no ground on which to build the expectation that the offensive will cease, and nothing remains but the idea that if the assailant repeats his blows, while the defensive does nothing but wait to ward them off, then the defender has no counterpoise as a set off to the risk he runs of one of these attacks succeeding sooner or later.

Although in reality the exhaustion, or rather the weakening of the stronger, has brought about a peace in many instances that is to be attributed to the indecision which is so general in war, but cannot be imagined philosophically as the general and ultimate object of any defensive war whatever, there is, therefore, no alternative but that the defence should find its object in the idea of the 'waiting for,' which is besides its real character. This idea in itself includes that of an alteration of circumstances, of an improvement of the situation, which, therefore, when it cannot be brought about by internal means, that is, by defensive pure in itself, can only be expected through assistance coming from without. Now, this improvement from without can proceed from nothing else than a change in political relations; either new alliances spring up in favour of the defender, or old ones directed against him fall to pieces.

Here, then, is the object for the defender, in case his weakness does not permit him to think of any important counterstroke. But this is not the nature of every defensive war, according to the conception which we have given of its form. According to that conception it is the stronger form of war, and on account of that strength it can also be applied when a counterstroke more or less important is designed.

These two cases must be kept distinct from the very first, as they have an influence on the defence.

In the first case, the defender's object is to keep possession of his own country intact as long as possible, because in that way he gains most time; and gaining time is the only way to attain his object. The positive object which he can in most cases attain, and which will give him an opportunity of carrying out his object in the negotiations for peace, he cannot yet include in his plan for the war. In this state of strategic passiveness, the advantages which the defender can gain at certain points consist in merely repelling partial attacks; the preponderance gained at those points he tries to make of service to him at others, for he is generally hard pressed at all points. If he has not the opportunity of doing this, then there often only accrues to him the small advantage that the enemy will leave him at rest for a time.

If the defender is not altogether too weak, small offensive operations directed less towards permanent possession than a temporary advantage to cover losses, which may be sustained afterwards, invasions, diversions, or enterprises against a single fortress, may have a place in this defensive system without altering its object or essence.

But in the second case, in which a positive object is already grafted upon the defensive, the greater the counterstroke that is warranted by circumstances the more the defensive imports into itself of positive character. In other words, the more the defence has been adopted voluntarily, in order to make the first blow surer, the bolder may be the snares which the defender lays for his opponent. The boldest, and if it succeeds, the most effectual, is the retreat into the interior of the country; and this means is then at the same time that which differs most widely from the other system.

Let us only think of the difference between the position in which Frederick the Great was placed in the Seven Years' War, and that of Russia in 1812.

When the war began, Frederick, through his advanced state of preparation for war, had a kind of superiority, this gave him the advantage of being able to make himself master of Saxony, which was besides such a natural complement of his theatre of war, that the possession of it did not diminish, but increased, his combatant force.

At the opening of the campaign of 1757, the King endeavoured to proceed with his strategic attack, which seemed not impossible as long as the Russians and French had not yet reached the theatre of war in Silesia, the Mark and Saxony. But the attack miscarried, and Frederick was thrown back on the defensive for the rest of the campaign, was obliged to evacuate Bohemia and to rescue his own theatre from the enemy, in which he only succeeded by turning himself with one and the same army, first upon the French, and then upon the Austrians. This advantage he owed entirely to the defensive.

In the year 1758 when his enemies had drawn round him in a closer circle, and his forces were dwindling down to a very disproportionate relation, he determined on an offensive on a small scale in Moravia: his plan was to take Olmutz before his enemies were prepared; not in the expectation of keeping possession of, or of making it a base for further advance, but to use it as a sort of advanced work, a counter-approach against the Austrians, who would be obliged to devote the rest of the present campaign, and perhaps even a second, to recover possession of it. This attack also miscarried. Frederick then gave up all idea of a real offensive, as he saw that it only increased the disproportion of his army. A compact position in the heart of his own country in Saxony and Silesia, the use of short lines, that he might be able rapidly to increase his forces at any point which might be menaced, a battle when unavoidable, small incursions when opportunity offered, and along with this a patient state of waiting-for (expectation), a saving of his means for better times became now his general plan. By degrees the execution of it became more and more passive. As he saw that even a victory cost him too much, therefore he tried to manage at still less expense; everything depended on gaining time, and on keeping what he had got; he therefore became more tenacious of yielding any ground, and did not hesitate to adopt a perfect cordon system. The positions of Prince Henry in Saxony, as well as those of the King in the Silesian mountains, may be so termed. In his letters to the Marquis d'Argens, he manifests the impatience with which he looks forward to winter quarters, and the satisfaction he felt at being able to take them up again without having suffered any serious loss.

Whoever blames Frederick for this, and looks upon it as a sign that his spirit had sunk, would, we think, pass judgment without much reflection.

If the entrenched camp at Bunzelwitz, the positions taken up by Prince Henry in Saxony, and by the King in the Silesian mountains, do not appear to us now as measures on which a General should place his dependence in a last extremity because a Buonaparte would soon have thrust his sword through such tactical cobwebs, we must not forget that times have changed, that war has become a totally different thing, is quickened with new energies, and that therefore positions might have been excellent at that time, although they are not so now, and that in addition to all, the character of the enemy deserves attention. Against the army of the German States, against Daun and Butturlin, it might have been the height of wisdom to employ means which Frederick would have despised if used against himself.

The result justified this view: in the state of patient expectation, Frederick attained his object, and got round difficulties in a collision with which his forces would have been dashed to pieces.

The relation in point of numbers between the Russian and French armies opposed to each other at the opening of the campaign in 1812 was still more unfavourable to the former than that between Frederick and his enemies in the Seven Years' War. But the Russians looked forward to being joined by large reinforcements in the course of the campaign. All Europe was in secret hostility to Buonaparte, his power had been screwed up to the highest point, a devouring war occupied him in Spain, and the vast extent of Russia allowed of pushing the exhaustion of the enemy's military means to the utmost extremity by a retreat over a hundred miles of country. Under circumstances on this grand scale, a tremendous counterstroke was not only to be expected if the French enterprise failed (and how could it succeed if the Russian Emperor would not make peace, or his subjects did not rise in insurrection?) but this counterstroke might also end in the complete destruction of the enemy. The most profound sagacity could, therefore, not have devised a better plan of campaign than that which the Russians followed on the spur of the moment.

That this was not the opinion at the time, and that such a view would then have been looked upon as preposterous, is no reason for our now denying it to be the right one. If we are to learn from history, we must look upon things which have actually happened as also possible in the future, and that the series of great events which succeeded the march upon Moscow is not a succession of mere accidents every one will grant who can claim to give an opinion on such subjects. If it had been possible for the Russians, with great efforts, to defend their frontier, it is certainly probable that in such case also the French power would have sunk, and that they would have at last suffered a reverse of fortune; but the reaction then would certainly not have been so violent and decisive. By sufferings and sacrifices (which certainly in any other country would have been greater, and in most would have been impossible) Russia purchased this enormous success.

Thus a great positive success can never be obtained except through positive measures, planned not with a view to a mere state of "waiting-for," but with a view to a decision, in short, even on the defensive, there is no great gain to be won except by a great stake.


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