It is a fair bet that many readers have noticed a reference to ‘Clausewitz’ in the history books they are reading, or even in novels; it is a name they know, though they are not sure why. Nor are they one hundred percent sure who he was or what it was he did to receive so many mentions in literature, especially war literature. Well, Clausewitz was a specialist in wars, in which he personally fought certainly, but principally he was a theorist in how wars should be fought.
He was born in 1780, a Prussian, and fought in the French Revolutionary Wars (q.v.) in 1793 and 1794, as a drummer boy presumably, given that he was only thirteen. He got captured in 1806 while fighting properly at Jena and Auerstadt. His enemies’ commander was no less than Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1812 he had enough experience and rank to assist Scharnhorst in the reform of the Prussian army, but, following the example of other Prussian officers, he refused to accede to current politics and fight for Napoleon against Russia. He was therefore not present in the Emperor’s Moscow Campaign.
In 1818, at the age of thirty-eight, and though he had never held a command, he was made Director of the Berlin Military Academy, which was sinecure enough to allow him the time to write most of his classic book On War. The work was unfinished because he unfortunately died of cholera in 1831. He was fifty-one.
His famous theories, which have influenced military planning and philosophy ever since, were based on his own experiences in the Revolutionary Wars, and the European calamities perpetrated by the wars Bonaparte imposed on the Allies – Britain, Austria, Russia etc. between 1792 and 1815. Among his better-known quotations is this one: ‘War is only a continuation of state (peace) policy by other means.’
He also said that wars should not be limited but should aim at the complete destruction of the enemy’s main force in a decisive battle; ‘to achieve this’ (he went on) ‘it is necessary, if an absolute superiority of forces is unavailable, that a relative superiority must be attained at the decisive point. Surprise is the most powerful element of victory.’ The tremendous success of the Blitzkrieg offensives at the beginning of the 2nd World War, when Hitler’s German armies blazed across continental Europe in a matter of weeks, prove Clausewitz’ point.
He never failed to recognise that Bonaparte was the greatest offensive general, which is why he won the majority of his set-piece battles, yet he also maintained that ‘the defensive was the stronger form of warfare’. On War was published in incomplete form after his death, in 1832, and contained material that was already out of date, as it was composed before the introduction of railways and the breech-loading rifle, both of which transformed traditional warfare. The work might have been forgotten were it not for Von Moltke’s claim after the Franco-Prussian War (q.v. 1870 – 71) that he had been inspired and influenced mostly by On War. After this declaration by Moltke, it seems that Clausewitz affected all military thinking. His name and his theories appeared everywhere. Marshall Foch’s Principles of War appeared in 1903 but the influence of Clausewitz is obvious. But the generals in charge of the First World War ignored his view that defence is stronger than attack. The devastating figures of casualties on both sides should make one wish, forlornly, that the generals had followed Clausewitz more closely. But the fact is that they did choose another of his ideas: the need for a decisive battle to overwhelm the enemy, whatever the cost. The cost was so great as to be almost incalculable, the Great War changed everything, and Europe remained almost manless throughout the insanities and pointlessness of the Twenties.