Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXX: DEFENCE OF A THEATRE OF WAR ( Continued ) WHEN NO DECISION IS SOUGHT FOR - On War, vol. 2
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CHAPTER XXX: DEFENCE OF A THEATRE OF WAR ( Continued ) WHEN NO DECISION IS SOUGHT FOR - Carl von Clausewitz, On War, vol. 2 
On War, trans. Col. J.J. Graham. New and Revised edition with Introduction and Notes by Col. F.N. Maude, in Three Volumes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & C., 1918). Vol. 2.
Part of: On War
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DEFENCE OF A THEATRE OF WAR (Continued)
Whether and how far a War is possible in which neither party acts on the offensive, therefore in which neither combatant has a positive aim, we shall consider in the last book; here it is not necessary for us to occupy ourselves with the contradiction which this presents, because on a single theatre of war we can easily suppose reasons for such a defensive on both sides, consequent on the relations of each of these parts to a whole.
But in addition to the examples which history furnishes of particular campaigns that have taken place without the focus of a necessary solution, history also tells us of many others in which there was no want of an assailant, consequently no want of a positive will on one side, but in which that will was so weak that instead of striving to attain the object at any price, and forcing the necessary decision, it contented itself with such advantages as arose in a manner spontaneously out of circumstances. Or the assailant pursued no self-selected end at all, but made his object depend on circumstances, in the meanwhile gathering such fruits as presented themselves from time to time.
Although such an offensive which deviates very much from the strict logical necessity of a direct march towards the object, and which, almost like a lounger sauntering through the campaign, looking out right and left for the cheap fruits of opportunity, differs very little from the defensive itself, which allows the General to pick up what he can in this way, still we shall give the closer philosophical consideration of this kind of warfare a place in the book on the attack. Here we shall confine ourselves to the conclusion that in such a campaign the settlement of the whole question is not looked for by either assailant or defender through a decisive battle, that, therefore, the great battle is no longer the keystone of the arch, towards which all the lines of the strategic superstructure are directed. Campaigns of this kind (as the history of all times and all countries shows us) are not only numerous, but form such an overwhelming majority, that the remainder only appear as exceptions. Even if this proportion should alter in the future, still it is certain that there will always be many such campaigns; and, therefore, in studying the theory of the defence of a theatre of war, they must be brought into consideration. We shall endeavour to describe the peculiarities by which they are characterised. Real War will generally follow a mean between the two different tendencies, sometimes appearing nearer to one, sometimes to the other, and we can, therefore, only see the practical effect of these peculiarities in the modification which is produced, in the absolute form of War by their counteraction. We have already said in the third chapter of this book, that the state of expectation is one of the greatest advantages which the defensive has over the offensive; as a general rule, it seldom happens in life, and least of all in War, that all that circumstances would lead us to expect does actually take place. The imperfection of human insight, the fear of evil results, accidents which derange the development of designs in their execution, are causes through which many of the transactions enjoined by circumstances are never realised in the execution. In War where insufficiency of knowledge, the danger of a catastrophe, the number of accidents are incomparably greater than in any other branch of human activity, the number of shortcomings, if we may so call them, must necessarily also be much greater. This is then the rich field where the defensive gathers fruits which grow for it spontaneously. If we add to this result of experience the substantial importance of the possession of the surface of the ground in War, then that maxim which has become a proverb, beati sunt possidentes, holds good here as well as in peace. It is this maxim which here takes the place of the decision, that focus of all action in every War directed to mutual destruction. It is fruitful beyond measure, not in actions which it calls forth, but in motives for not acting, and for all that action which is done in the interest of inaction. When no decision is to be sought for or expected, there is no reason for giving up anything, for that could only be done to gain thereby some advantage in the decision. The consequence is that the defender keeps all, or at least as much as he can (that is as much as he can cover), and the assailant takes possession of so much as he can without involving himself in a decision (that is, he will extend himself laterally as much as possible). We have only to deal with the first in this place.
Wherever the defender is not present with his military forces, the assailant can take possession, and the advantage of the state of expectation is on his side; hence the endeavour to cover the country everywhere directly, and to take the chance of the assailant attacking the troops posted for this purpose.
Before we go further into the special properties of the defence, we must extract from the book on the attack those objects which the assailant usually aims at when the decision (by battle) is not sought. They are as follows:—
1. The seizure of a considerable strip of territory, as far as that can be done without a decisive engagement.
2. The capture of an important magazine under the same condition.
3. The capture of a fortress not covered. No doubt a siege is more or less a great operation, often requiring great labour; but it is an undertaking which does not contain the elements of a catastrophe. If it comes to the worst, the siege can be raised without thereby suffering a great positive loss.
4. Lastly, a successful combat of some importance, but in which there is not much risked, and consequently not much to be gained; a combat which takes place not as the cardinal knot of a whole strategic bond, but on its own account for the sake of trophies or honour of the troops. For such an object, of course, a combat is not fought at any price; we either wait for the chance of a favourable opportunity, or seek to bring one about by skill.
These four objects of attack give rise to the following efforts on the part of the defence:—
1. To cover the fortresses by keeping them behind us.
2. To cover the country by extending the troops over it.
3. Where the extension is not sufficient, to throw the Army rapidly in front of the enemy by a flank march.
4. To guard against disadvantageous combats.
It is clear that the object of the first three measures is to force on the enemy the initiative, and to derive the utmost advantage from the state of expectation, and this object is so deeply rooted in the nature of the thing that it would be great folly to despise it primâ facie. It must necessarily occupy a higher place the less a decision is expected, and it is the ruling principle in all such campaigns, even although, apparently, a considerable degree of activity may be manifested in small actions of an indecisive character.
Hannibal as well as Fabius, and both Frederick the Great and Daun, have done homage to this principle whenever they did not either seek for or expect a decision. The fourth effort serves as a corrective to the three others, it is their conditio sine quâ non.
We shall now proceed to examine these subjects a little more closely.
At first sight it appears somewhat preposterous to protect a fortress from the enemy’s attack by placing an Army in front of it; such a measure looks like a kind of pleonasm, as fortifications are built to resist a hostile attack of themselves. Yet it is a measure which we see resorted to thousands and thousands of times. But thus it is in the conduct of War; the most common things often seem the most incomprehensible. Who would presume to pronounce these thousands of instances to be so many blunders on the ground of this seeming inconsistency? The constant repetition of the measure shows that it must proceed from some deep-seated motive. This reason is, however, no other than that pointed out above, emanating from moral sluggishness and inactivity.
If the defender places himself in front of his fortress, the enemy cannot attack it unless he first beats the Army in front of it; but a battle is a decision; if that is not the enemy’s object then there will be no battle, and the defender will remain in possession of his fortress without striking a blow; consequently, whenever we do not believe the enemy intends to fight a battle, we should venture on the chance of his not making up his mind to do so, especially as in most cases we still retain the power of withdrawing behind the fortress in a moment, if, contrary to our expectation, the enemy should march to attack us; the position before the fortress is in this way free from danger, and the probability of maintaining the status quo without any sacrifice, is not even attended with the slightest risk.
If the defender places himself behind the fortress, he offers the assailant an object which is exactly suited to the circumstances in which the latter is placed. If the fortress is not of great strength, and he is not quite unprepared, he will commence the siege: in order that this may not end in the fall of the place, the defender must march to its relief. The positive action, the initiative, is now laid on him, and the adversary who by his siege is to be regarded as advancing towards his object, is in the situation of occupier.
Experience teaches that the matter always takes this turn, and it does so naturally. A catastrophe, as we have before said, is not necessarily bound up with a siege. Even a General, devoid of either the spirit of enterprise or energy, who would never make up his mind to a battle, will proceed to undertake a siege with perhaps nothing but field artillery, when he can approach a fortress without risk. At the worst he can abandon his undertaking without any positive loss. There always remains to be considered the danger to which most fortresses are more or less exposed, that of being taken by assault, or in some other irregular manner, and this circumstance should certainly not be overlooked by the defender in his calculation of probabilities.
In weighing and considering the different chances, it seems natural that the defender should look upon the probability of not having to fight at all as more for his advantage than the probability of fighting even under favourable circumstances. And thus it appears to us that the practice of placing an Army in the field before its fortress, is both natural and fully explained. Frederick the Great, for instance, at Glogau, against the Russians, at Schwednitz, Neiss, and Dresden, against the Austrians, almost always adopted it. This measure, however, brought misfortune on the Duke of Bevern at Breslau; behind Breslau he could not have been attacked; the superiority of the Austrians in the King’s absence would soon cease, as he was approaching; and therefore, by a position behind Breslau, a battle might have been avoided until Frederick’s arrival. No doubt the Duke would have preferred that course if it had not been that it would have exposed that important place to a bombardment, at which the King, who was anything but tolerant on such occasions, would have been highly displeased. The attempt made by the Duke to protect Breslau by an entrenched position taken up for the purpose, cannot after all be disapproved, for it was very possible that Prince Charles of Lorraine, contented with the capture of Schwednitz, and threatened by the march of the King, would, by that position, have been prevented from advancing farther. The best thing he could have done would have been to refuse the battle at the last by withdrawing through Breslau at the moment that the Austrians advanced to the attack; in this way he would have got all the advantages of the state of expectation without paying for them by a great danger.
If we have here traced the position before a fortress to reasons of a superior and absolute order, and defended its adoption on those grounds, we have still to observe that there is a motive of a secondary class which, though a more obvious one, is not sufficient of itself alone, not being absolute; we refer to the use which is made by Armies of the nearest fortress as a depôt of provisions and munitions of war. This is so convenient, and presents so many advantages, that a General will not easily make up his mind to draw his supplies of all kinds from more distant places, or to lodge them in open towns. But if a fortress is the great magazine of an Army, then the position before it is frequently a matter of absolute necessity, and in most cases is very natural. But it is easy to see that this obvious motive, which is easily overvalued by those who are not in the habit of looking far before them, is neither sufficient to explain all cases, nor are the circumstances connected with it of sufficient importance to entitle it to give a final decision.
The capture of one or more fortresses without risking a battle, is such a very natural object of all attacks which do not aim at a decision on the field of battle, that the defender makes it his principal business to thwart this design. Thus it is that on theatres of War, containing a number of fortresses, we find these places made the pivots of almost all the movements; we find the assailant seeking to approach one of them unexpectedly, and employing various feints to aid his purpose, and the defender immediately seeking to stop him by well-prepared movements. Such is the general character of almost all the campaigns of Louis XIV. in the Netherlands up to the time of Marshal Saxe.
So much for the covering of fortresses.
The covering of a country by an extended disposition of forces, is only conceivable in combination with very considerable obstacles of ground. The great and small posts which must be formed for the purpose, can only get a certain capability of resistance through strength of position; and as natural obstacles are seldom found sufficient, therefore field fortification is made use of as an assistance. But now it is to be observed that, the power of resistance which is thus obtained at any one point, is always only relative (see the chapter on the signification of the combat), and never to be regarded as absolute. It may certainly happen that one such post may remain proof against all attacks made upon it, and that therefore in a single instance there may be an absolute result; but from the great number of posts, any single one, in comparison to the whole, appears weak, and exposed to the possible attack of an overwhelming force, and consequently it would be unreasonable to place one’s dependence for safety on the resistance of any one single post. In such an extended position, we can therefore only count on a resistance of relative length, and not upon a victory, properly speaking. This value of single posts, at the same time, is also sufficient for the object, and for a general calculation. In campaigns in which no great decision, no irresistible march, towards the complete subjugation of the whole force is to be feared, there is little risk in a combat of posts, even if it ends in the loss of a post. There is seldom any further result in connection with it than the loss of the post and a few trophies; the influence of victory penetrates no further into the situation of affairs, it does not tear down any part of the foundation to be followed by a mass of building in ruin. In the worst case, if, for instance, the whole defensive system is disorganised by the loss of a single post, the defender has always time to concentrate his corps, and with his whole force to offer battle, which the assailant, according to our supposition, does not desire. Therefore also it usually happens that with this concentration of force the act closes, and the further advance of the assailant is stopped. A strip of land, a few men and guns, are the losses of the defender, and with these results the assailant is satisfied.
To such a risk we say the defender may very well expose himself, if he has, on the other hand, the possibility, or rather the probability, in his favour, that the assailant from excessive caution will half before his posts without attacking them. Only in regard to this we must not lose sight of the fact, that we are now supposing an assailant who will not venture upon any great stroke, a moderate sized, but strong post will very well serve to stop such an adversary, for although he can undoubtedly make himself master of it, still the question arises as to the price it will cost, and whether that price is not too high for any use that he can make of the victory.
In this way we may see how the powerful relative resistance which the defender can obtain from an extended disposition, consisting of a number of posts in juxtaposition with each other, may constitute a satisfactory result in the calculation of his whole campaign. In order to direct at once to the right point the glance which the reader, with his mind’s eye, will here cast upon military history, we must observe that these extended positions appear most frequently in the latter half of a campaign, because by that time the defender has become thoroughly acquainted with his adversary, with his projects, and his situation; and the little quantity of the spirit of enterprise with which the assailant started, is usually exhausted.
In this defensive, in an extended position by which the country, the supplies, the fortresses are to be covered, all great natural obstacles, such as streams, rivers, mountains, woods, morasses, must naturally play a great part, and acquire a predominant importance. Upon their use we refer to what has been already said on these subjects.
It is through this predominant importance of the topographical element that the knowledge and activity which are looked upon as the speciality of the General Staff of an Army are more particularly called into requisition. Now, as the Staff of the Army is usually that branch which writes and publishes most, it follows that these parts of campaigns are recorded more fully in history; and then again from that there follows a not unnatural tendency to systematise them, and to frame out of the historical solution of one case a general solution for all succeeding cases. But this endeavour is futile, and therefore erroneous. Besides, in this more passive kind of War, in this form of it which is tied to localities, each case is different to another, and must be differently treated. The ablest memoirs of a critical character respecting these subjects are therefore only suited to make one acquainted with facts, but never to serve as principles governing conduct.
Natural, and at the same time meritorious, as is this industry which, according to the general view, we have attributed to the Staff in particular, still we must raise a warning voice against usurpations which often spring from it to the prejudice of the whole. The authority acquired by those who are at the head of, and best acquainted with, this branch of military service, gives them often a sort of general dominion over people’s minds, beginning with the General himself, and from this then springs a routine of ideas which causes an undue bias of the mind. At last the General sees nothing but mountains and passes, and that which should be a measure of free choice guided by circumstances becomes mannerism, becomes second nature.
Thus in the year 1793 and 1794, Colonel Grawert of the Prussian army, who was the animating spirit of the Staff at that time, and well known as a regular man for mountains and passes, persuaded two Generals of the most opposite personal characteristics, the Duke of Brunswick and General Mollendorf, into exactly the same method of carrying on War.
That a defensive line parallel to the course of a formidable natural obstacle may lead to a cordon War is quite plain. It must, in most cases, necessarily lead to that if really the whole extent of the theatre of war could be directly covered in that manner. But most theatres of war have such an extent, that the normal tactical disposition of the troops destined for its defence would be by no means commensurate with that object; at the same time as the assailant, by his own dispositions and other circumstances, is confined to certain principal directions and great roads, and any great deviations from these directions, even if he is only opposed to a very inactive defender, would be attended with great embarrassment and disadvantage, therefore generally all that the defender has to do is to cover the country for a certain number of miles or marches right and left of these principal lines of direction of his adversary. But again to effect this covering, we may be contented with defensive posts on the principal roads and means of approach, and merely watch the country between by small posts of observation. The consequence of this is certainly that the assailant may then pass a column between two of these posts, and thus make the attack, which he has in view, upon one post from several quarters at once. Now, these posts are in some measure arranged to meet this, partly by their having supports for their flanks, partly by the formation of flank defences (called crochets), partly by their being able to receive assistance from a reserve posted in rear, or by troops detached from adjoining posts. In this manner the number of posts is reduced still more, and the result is that an Army engaged in a defence of this kind, usually divides itself into four or five principal posts.
For important points of approach, beyond a certain distance, and yet in some measure threatened, special central points are established which, in a certain measure, form small theatres of war within the principal one. In this manner the Austrians, during the Seven Years’ War, generally placed the main body of their Army in four or five posts in the mountains of Lower Silesia; whilst a small almost independent detachment organised for itself a similar system of defence in Upper Silesia.
Now, the further such a defensive system diverges from direct covering, the more it must call to its assistance—mobility (active defence), and even offensive means. Certain bodies are considered reserves; besides which, one post hastens to send to the help of another all the troops it can spare. This assistance may be rendered either by hastening up directly from the rear to reinforce and re-establish the passive defence, or by attacking the enemy in flank, or even by menacing his line of retreat. If the assailant threatens the flank of a post not with direct attack, but only by a position through which he can act upon the communications of this post, then either the troops which have been advanced for this purpose must be attacked in earnest, or the way of reprisal must be resorted to by acting in turn on the enemy’s communications.
We see, therefore, that however passive this defence is in the leading ideas on which it is based, still it must comprise many active means, and in its organisation may be forearmed in many ways against complicated events. Usually those defences pass for the best which make the most use of active or even offensive means; but this depends in great part on the nature of the country, the characteristics of the troops, and even on the talent of the General; partly we are also very prone in general to expect too much from movement, and other auxiliary measures of an active nature, and to place too little reliance on the local defence of a formidable natural obstacle. We think we have thus sufficiently explained what we understand by an extended line of defence, and we now turn to the third auxiliary means, the placing ourselves in front of the enemy by a rapid march to a flank.
This means is necessarily one of those provided for that defence of a country which we are now considering. In the first place the defender, even with the most extended position, often cannot guard all the approaches to his country which are menaced; next, in many cases, he must be ready to repair with the bulk of his forces to any posts upon which the bulk of the enemy’s force is about to be thrown, as otherwise those posts would be too easily overpowered; lastly, a General who has an aversion to confining his Army to a passive resistance in an extended position, must seek to attain his object, the protection of the country, by rapid, well-planned, and well-conducted movements. The greater the spaces which he leaves exposed, the greater the talent required in planning the movements, in order to arrive anywhere at the right moment of time.
The natural consequence of striving to do this is, that in such a case, positions which afford sufficient advantages to make an enemy give up all idea of an attack as soon as our Army, or only a portion of it, reaches them, are sought for and prepared in all directions. As these positions are again and again occupied, and all depends on reaching the same in right time, they are in a certain measure the vowels of all this method of carrying on War, which on that account has been called a War of posts.
Just as an extended position, and the relative resistance in a War without great decisions, do not present the dangers which are inherent in its original nature, so in the same manner the intercepting the enemy in front by a march to a flank is not so hazardous as it would be in the immediate expectation of a great decision. To attempt at the last moment in greatest haste (by a lateral movement) to thrust an Army in front of an adversary of determined character, who is both able and willing to deal heavy blows, and has no scruples about an expenditure of forces, would be to go half way to meet a decisive disaster; for against an unhesitating blow delivered with the enemy’s whole strength, such running and stumbling into a position would be most dangerous. But against an opponent who, instead of taking up his work with his whole hand, uses only the tips of his fingers, who does not know how to make use of a great result, or rather of the opening for one, who only seeks a trifling advantage but at small expense, against such an opponent this kind of resistance certainly may be applied with effect.
A natural consequence is, that this means also in general occurs oftener in the last half of a campaign than at its commencement.
Here, also, the General Staff has an opportunity of displaying its topographical knowledge in framing a system of combined measures, connected with the choice and preparation of the positions and the roads leading to them.
When the whole object of one party is to gain in the end a certain point, and the whole object of his adversary, on the other hand, is to prevent his doing so, then both parties are often obliged to make their movements under the eyes of each other; for this reason, these movements must be made with a degree of precaution and precision not otherwise required. Formerly, before the mass of an Army was formed of independent Divisions, and even on the march was always regarded as an indivisible whole, this precaution and precision was attended with much more formality, and with the copious use of tactical skill. On these occasions, certainly, single Brigades were often obliged to leave the general line of battle to secure particular points, and act an independent part until the Army arrived: but these were, and continued, anomalous proceedings; and the aim in the order of march generally was to move the Army from one part to another as a whole, preserving its normal formation, and avoiding such exceptional proceedings as the above as far as possible. Now that the parts of the main body of an Army are subdivided again into independent bodies, and those bodies can venture to enter into an engagement with the mass of the enemy’s Army, provided the rest of the force of which it is a member is sufficiently near to carry it on and finish it—now such a flank march is attended with less difficulty even under the eye of the enemy. What formerly could only be effected through the actual mechanism of the order of march, can now be done by starting single Divisions at an earlier hour, by hastening the march of others, and by the greater freedom in the employment of the whole.
By the means of defence just considered, the assailant can be prevented from taking any fortress, from occupying any important extent of country, or capturing magazines; and he will be prevented, if in every direction combats are offered to him in which he can see little probability of success, or too great danger of a reaction in case of failure, or in general, an expenditure of force too great for his object and existing relations.
If now the defender succeeds in this triumph of his art and skill, and the assailant, wherever he turns his eyes, sees prudent preparations through which he is cut off from any prospect of attaining his modest wishes: then the offensive principle often seeks to escape from the difficulty in the satisfaction of the mere honour of his arms. The gain of some combat of respectable importance, gives the arms of the victor a semblance of superiority, appeases the vanity of the General, of the Court, of the Army, and the people, and thus satisfies, to a certain extent, the expectations which are naturally always raised when the offensive is assumed.
An advantageous combat of some importance merely for the sake of the victory and some trophies, becomes, therefore, the last hope of the assailant. No one must suppose that we here involve ourselves in a contradiction, for we contend that we still continue within our own supposition, that the good measures of the defender have deprived the assailant of all expectation of attaining any one of those other objects by means of a successful combat! To warrant that expectation, two conditions are required, that is, a favourable termination to the combat, and next, that the result shall lead really to the attainment of one of those objects.
The first may very well take place without the second, and therefore the defenders’ detachments and posts singly are much more frequently in danger of getting involved in disadvantageous combats if the assailant merely aims at the honour of the battle-field, than if he connects with that a view to further advantages as well.
If we place ourselves in Daun’s situation, and with his way of thinking, then his venturing on the surprise of Hochkirch does not appear inconsistent with his character, as long as we suppose him aiming at nothing more than the trophies of the day. But a victory rich in results, which would have compelled the King to abandon Dresden and Neisse, appears an entirely different problem, one with which he would not have been inclined to meddle.
Let it not be imagined that these are trifling or idle distinctions; we have, on the contrary, now before us one of the deepest-rooted, leading principles of War. The signification of a combat is its very soul in Strategy, and we cannot too often repeat, that in Strategy the leading events always proceed from the ultimate views of the two parties, as it were, from a conclusion of the whole train of ideas. This is why there may be such a difference strategically between one battle and another, that they can hardly be looked upon as the same means.
Now, although the fruitless victory of the assailant can hardly be considered any serious injury to the defence, still as the defender will not willingly concede even this advantage, particularly as we never know what accident may also be connected with it, therefore the defender requires to keep an incessant watch upon the situation of all his troops and posts. No doubt here all greatly depends on the leaders of those bodies making suitable dispositions; but any one of them may be led into an unavoidable catastrophe by injudicious orders imposed on him by the General-in-Chief. Who is not reminded here of Fouqué’s corps at Landshut, and of Fink’s at Maxen?
In both cases Frederick the Great reckoned too much on customary ideas. It was impossible that he could suppose 10,000 men capable of successfully resisting 30,000 in the position of Landshut, or that Fink could resist a superior force pouring in and overwhelming him on all sides; but he thought the strength of the position of Landshut would be accepted, like a bill of exchange, as heretofore, and that Daun would see in the demonstration against his flank sufficient reason to exchange his uncomfortable position in Saxony for the more comfortable one in Bohemia. He misjudged Laudon in one case and Daun in the other, and therein lies the error in these measures.
But irrespective of such errors, into which even Generals may fall who are not so proud, daring, and obstinate as Frederick the Great, in some of his proceedings may certainly be termed, there is always, in respect to the subject we are now considering, a great difficulty in this way, that the General-in-Chief cannot always expect all he desires from the sagacity, goodwill, courage and firmness of character of his Corps-Commanders. He cannot, therefore, leave everything to their good judgment; he must prescribe rules on many points by which their course of action, being restricted, may easily become inconsistent with the circumstances of the moment. This is, however, an unavoidable inconvenience. Without an imperious commanding will, the influence of which penetrates through the whole Army, War cannot be well conducted; and whoever would follow the practice of always expecting the best from his subordinates, would from that very reason be quite unfit for a good Commander of an Army.
Therefore the situation of every detachment and post must be for ever kept clearly in view, to prevent any of them being unexpectedly drawn into a catastrophe.
The aim of all these efforts is to preserve the status quo. The more fortunate and successful these efforts are, the longer will the War last at the same point; but the longer War continues at one point, the greater become the cares for subsistence.
In place of collections and contributions from the country, a system of subsistence from magazines commences at once, or in a very short time; in place of country waggons being collected upon each occasion, the formation, more or less, of a regular transport takes place, composed either of carriages of the country, or of those belonging to the Army; in short, there arises an approach to that regular system of feeding troops from magazines, of which we have already treated in the fourteenth chapter (On Subsistence).
At the same time, it is not this which exercises a great influence on this mode of conducting War, for as this mode, by its object and character is in fact already tied down to a limited space, therefore the question of subsistence may very well have a part in determining its action — and will do so in both cases — without altering the general character of the War. On the other hand, the action of the belligerents mutually against the lines of communications gains a much greater importance for two reasons. Firstly, because in such campaigns, there being no measures of a great and comprehensive kind, Generals must apply their energies to those of an inferior order; and secondly, because here there is time enough to wait for the effect of this means. The security of his line of communications is therefore specially important to the defender, for although it is true that its interruption cannot be an object of the hostile operations which take place, yet it might compel him to retreat, and thus to leave other objects open to attack.
All the measures having for their object the protection of the area of the theatre of War itself, must naturally also have the effect of covering the lines of communication; their security is therefore in part provided for in that way, and we have only to observe that it is a principal condition in fixing upon a position.
A special means of security consists in the bodies of troops, both small and large, escorting convoys. First, the most extended positions are not sufficient to secure the lines of communication, and next, such an escort is particularly necessary when the General wishes to avoid a very extended position. Therefore, we find, in Tempelhof’s “History of the Seven Years’ War,” instances without end in which Frederick the Great caused his bread and flour waggons to be escorted by single regiments of infantry or cavalry, sometimes also by whole brigades. On the Austrian side we nowhere find mention of the same thing, which certainly may be partly accounted for in this way, that they had no such circumstantial historian on their side, but in part it is also to be ascribed just to this, that they always took up much more extended positions.
Having now touched upon the four efforts which form the foundation of a defensive that does not aim at a decision, and which are at the same time altogether free upon the whole from all offensive elements, we must now say something of the offensive means with which they may become more or less mixed up, in a certain measure flavoured. These offensive means are chiefly:—
1. Operating against the enemy’s communications, under which we likewise include enterprises against his places of supply.
2. Diversions and incursions within the enemy’s territory.
3. Attacks on the enemy’s detachments and posts, and even upon his main body, under favourable circumstances, or the threat only of such intention.
The first of these means is incessantly in action in all campaigns of this kind, but in a certain measure quite quietly without actually making its appearance. Every suitable position for the defender derives a great part of its efficacy from the disquietude which it causes the assailant in connection with his communications; and as the question of subsistence in such operations becomes, as we have already observed, one of vital importance, affecting the assailant equally, therefore, through this apprehension of offensive action, possibly resulting from the enemy’s position, a great part of the strategic web is determined, as we shall again find in treating of the attack.
Not only this general influence, proceeding from the choice of positions, which, like pressure in mechanics, produces an effect invisibly, but also an actual offensive movement with part of the Army against the enemy’s lines of communication, comes within the compass of such a defensive. But that it may be done with effect, the situation of the lines of communication, the nature of the country, and the peculiar qualities of the troops must be specially propitious to the undertaking.
Incursions into the enemy’s country which have as their object reprisals or levying contributions, cannot properly be regarded as defensive means, they are rather true offensive means; but they are usually combined with the object of a real diversion, which may be regarded as a real defensive measure, as it is intended to weaken the enemy’s force opposed to us. But as the above means may be used just as well by the assailant, and in itself is a real attack, we therefore think more suitable to leave its further examination for the next book. Accordingly we shall only count it in here, in order to render a full account of the arsenal of small offensive arms belonging to the defender of a theatre of War, and for the present merely add that in extent and importance it may attain to such a point, as to give the whole War the appearance, and along with that the honour, of the offensive. Of this nature are Frederick the Great’s enterprises in Poland, Bohemia, and Franconia, before the campaign of 1759. His campaign itself is plainly a pure defence; these incursions into the enemy’s territory, however, gave it the appearance of an aggression, which perhaps had a special value on account of the moral effect.
An attack on one of the enemy’s detachments or on his main body must always be kept in view as a necessary complement of the whole defence whenever the aggressor takes the matter too easily, and on that account shows himself very defenceless at particular points. Under this silent condition the whole action takes place. But here also the defender, in the same way as in operating against the communications of the enemy, may go a step further in the province of the offensive, and like his adversary may make it his business to lie in wait for a favourable stroke. In order to ensure a result in this field, he must either be very decidedly superior in force to his opponent—which certainly is inconsistent with the defensive in general, but still may happen—or he must have a method and the talent of keeping his forces more concentrated, and make up by activity and mobility for the danger which he incurs in other respects.
The first was Daun’s case in the Seven Years’ War; the latter, the case of Frederick the Great. Still we hardly ever see Daun’s offensive make its appearance except when Frederick the Great invited it by excessive boldness and a display of contempt for him (Hochkirch, Maxen, Landshut). On the other hand, we see Frederick the Great almost constantly on the move in order to beat one or other of Daun’s Corps with his main body. He certainly seldom succeeded, at least, the results were never great, because Daun, in addition to his great superiority in numbers, had also a rare degree of prudence and caution; but we must not suppose that, therefore, the King’s attempts were altogether fruitless. In these attempts lay rather a very effectual resistance; for the care and fatigue, which his adversary had to undergo in order to avoid fighting at a disadvantage, neutralised those forces which would otherwise have aided in advancing the offensive action. Let us only call to mind the campaign of 1760, in Silesia, where Daun and the Russians, out of sheer apprehension of being attacked and beaten by the King, first here and then there, never could succeed in making one step in advance.
We believe we have now gone through all the subjects which form the predominant ideas, the principal aims, and therefore the main stay, of the whole action in the defence of a theatre of War when no idea of decision is entertained. Our chief, and, indeed, sole object in bringing them all close together, was to let the organism of the whole strategic action be seen in one view; the particular measures by means of which those subjects come to life, marches, positions, &c., &c., we have already considered in detail.
By now casting a glance once more at the whole of our subject, the idea must strike us forcibly, that with such a weak offensive principle, with so little desire for a decision on either side, with so little positive motive, with so many counteracting influences of a subjective nature, which stop us and hold us back, the essential difference between attack and defence must always tend more to disappear. At the opening of a campaign, certainly one party will enter the other’s theatre of War, and in that manner, to a certain extent, such party puts on the form of offensive. But it may very well take place, and happens frequently, that he must soon enough apply all his powers to defend his own country on the enemy’s territory. Then both stand, in reality, opposite one another in a state of mutual observation. Both intent on losing nothing, perhaps both alike intent also on obtaining a positive advantage. Indeed it may happen, as with Frederick the Great, that the real defender aims higher in that way than his adversary.
Now the more the assailant gives up the position of an enemy making progress, the less the defender is menaced by him, and confined to a strictly defensive attitude by the pressing claims of a regard for mere safety, so much the more a similarity in the relations of the parties is produced in which then the activity of both will be directed towards gaining an advantage over his opponent, and protecting himself against any disadvantage, therefore to a true strategic manœuvring; and indeed this is the character into which all campaigns resolve themselves more or less, when the situation of the combatants or political views do not allow of any great decision.
In the following book we have allotted a chapter specially to the subject of strategic manœuvres; but as this equipoised play of forces has frequently been invested in theory with an importance to which it is not entitled, we find ourselves under the necessity of examining the subject more closely while we are treating of the defence, as it is in that form of warfare more particularly that this false importance is ascribed to strategic manœuvres.
We call it an equipoised play of forces, for when there is no movement of the whole body there is a state of equilibrium; where no great object impels, there is no movement of the whole; therefore, in such a case, the two parties, however unequal they may be, are still to be regarded as in a state of equilibrium. From this state of equilibrium of the whole now come forth the particular motives to actions of a minor class and secondary objects. They can here develop themselves, because they are no longer kept down by the pressure of a great decision and great danger. Therefore, what can be lost or won upon the whole is changed into small counters, and the action of the War, as a whole, is broken up into smaller transactions. With these smaller operations for smaller gains, a contest of skill now takes place between the two Generals; but as it is impossible in War to shut out chance, and consequently good luck, therefore this contest will never be otherwise than a game. In the meantime, here arise two other questions, that is, whether in this manœuvring, chance will not have a smaller, and superior intelligence a greater, share in the decision, than where all concentrates itself into one single great act. The last of these questions we must answer in the affirmative. The more complete the organisation of the whole, the oftener time and space come into consideration—the former by single moments, the latter at particular points—so much the greater, plainly, will be the field for calculation, therefore the greater the sway exercised by superior intelligence. What the superior understanding gains is abstracted in part from chance, but not necessarily altogether, and therefore we are not obliged to answer the first question affirmatively. Moreover, we must not forget that a superior understanding is not the only mental quality of a General; courage, energy, resolution, presence of mind, &c., are qualities which rise again to a higher value when all depends on one single great decision; they will, therefore, have somewhat less weight when there is an equipoised play of forces, and the predominating ascendency of segacious calculation increases not only at the expense of chance, but also at the expense of these qualities. On the other hand, these brilliant qualities, at the moment of a great decision, may rob chance of a great part of its power, and therefore, to a certain extent, secure that which calculating intelligence in such cases would be obliged to leave to chance. We see by this that here a conflict takes place between several forces, and that we cannot positively assert that there is a greater field left open to chance in the case of a great decision, than in the to al result when that equipoised play of forces takes place. If we, therefore, see more particularly in this play of forces a contest of mutual skill, that must only be taken to refer to skill in sagacious calculation, and not to the sum total of military genius.
Now it is just from this aspect of strategic manœuvring that the whole has obtained that false importance of which we have spoken above. In the first place, the whole genius of a General has been supposed to consist in this skilfulness; but this is a great mistake, for it is, as already said, not to be denied that in moments of great decisions other moral qualities may have power to control the force of events. If this power proceeds more from the impulse of noble feelings and those sparks of genius which start up almost unconsciously, and therefore does not proceed from long chains of thought, still it is not the less a free citizen of the Art of War, for that Art is neither a mere act of the understanding, nor are the activities of the intellectual faculties its principal ones. Further, it has been supposed that every active campaign without results must be owing to that sort of skill on the part of one, or even of both Generals, while in reality it has always had its general and principal foundation in the general relations which have turned War into such a game.
As most Wars between civilised States have had for their object rather the observation of the enemy than his destruction, therefore it was only natural that the greater number of the campaigns should bear the character of strategic manœuvring. Those amongst them which did not bring into notice any renowned Generals, attracted no attention; but where there was a great Commander on whom all eyes were fixed, or two opposed to each other, like Turenne and Montecuculi, there the seal of perfection has been stamped upon this whole art of manœuvring through the names of these Generals. A further consequence has then been that this game has been looked upon as the summit of the Art, as the manifestation of its highest perfection, and consequently also as the source at which the Art of War must chiefly be studied.
This view prevailed almost universally in the theoretical world before the Wars of the French Revolution. But when these Wars at one stroke opened to view a quite different world of phenomena in War, at first somewhat rough and wild, but which afterwards, under Buonaparte systematised into a method on a grand scale, produced results which created astonishment amongst old and young, then people set themselves free from the old models, and believed that all the changes they saw resulted from modern discoveries, magnificent ideas, &c.; but also at the same time, certainly from the changes in the state of society. It was now thought that what was old would never more be required, and would never even reappear. But as in such revolutions in opinions two parties are always formed, so it was also in this instance, and the old views found their champions, who looked upon the new phenomena as rude blows of brute force, as a general decadence of the Art; and held the opinion that, in the evenly-balanced, nugatory, fruitless War game, the perfection of the Art is realised. There lies at the bottom of this last view such a want of logic and philosophy, that it can only be termed a hopeless, distressing confusion of ideas. But at the same time the opposite opinion, that nothing like the past will ever reappear, is very irrational. Of the novel appearances manifested in the domain of the Art of War, very few indeed are to be ascribed to new discoveries, or to a change in the direction of ideas; they are chiefly attributable to the alterations in the social State and its relations. But as these took place just at the crisis of a process of fermentation, they must not be taken as a norm; and we cannot, therefore, doubt that a great part of the former manifestations of War will again make their appearance. This is not the place to enter further into these matters; it is enough for us that by directing attention to the relation which this even-balanced play of forces occupies in the whole conduct of a War, and to its signification and connection with other objects, we have shown that it is always produced by constraint laid on both parties engaged in the contest, and by a military element greatly attenuated. In this game one General may show himself more skilful than his opponent; and therefore, if the strength of his Army is equal, he may also gain many advantages over him; or if his force is inferior, he may, by his superior talent, keep the contest evenly balanced; but it is completely contradictory to the nature of the thing to look here for the highest honour and glory of a General; such a campaign is always rather a certain sign that neither of the Generals has any great military talent, or that he who has talent is prevented by the force of circumstances from venturing on a great decision; but when this is the case, there is no scope afforded for the display of the highest military genius.
We have hitherto been engaged with the general character of strategic manœuvring; we must now proceed to a special influence which it has on the conduct of War, namely this, that it frequently leads the combatants away from the principal roads and places into unfrequented, or at least unimportant localities. When trifling interests, which exist for a moment and then disappear, are paramount, the great features of a country have less influence on the conduct of the War. We therefore often find that bodies of troops move to points where we should never look for them, judging only by the great and simple requirements of the War; and that consequently, also, the changefulness and diversity in the details of the contest as it progresses, are much greater here than in Wars directed to a great decision. Let us only look how in the last five campaigns of the Seven Years’ War, in spite of the relations in general remaining unchanged in themselves, each of these campaigns took a different form, and, closely examined, no single measure ever appears twice; and yet in these campaigns the offensive principle manifests itself on the side of the allied Army much more decidedly than in most other earlier Wars.
In this chapter on the defence of a theatre of War, if no great decision is proposed, we have only shown the tendencies of the action, together with its combination, and the relations and character of the same; the particular measures of which it is composed have been described in detail in a former part of our work. Now the question arises whether for these different tendencies of action no thoroughly general comprehensive principles, rules, or methods can be given. To this we reply that, as far as history is concerned, we have decidedly not been led to any deductions of that kind through constantly recurring forms; and at the same time, for a subject so diversified and changeful in its general nature, we could hardly admit any theoretical rule, except one founded on experience. A War directed to great decisions is not only much simpler, but also much more in accordance with nature; is more free from inconsistencies, more objective, more restricted by a law of inherent necessity; hence the mind can prescribe forms and laws for it; but for a War without a decision for its object, this appears to us to be much more difficult. Even the two fundamental principles of the earliest theories of strategy published in our times, the Breadth of the Base, in Bulow, and the Position on Interior Lines, in Jomini, if applied to the defence of a theatre of War, have in no instance shown themselves absolute and effective. But being mere forms, this is just where they should show themselves most efficacious, because forms are always more efficacious, always acquire a preponderance over other factors of the product, the more the action extends over time and space. Notwithstanding this, we find that they are nothing more than particular parts of the subject, and certainly anything but decisive advantages. It is very clear that the peculiar nature of the means and the relations must always from the first have a great influence adverse to all general principles. What Daun did by the extent and provident choice of positions, the King did by keeping his army always concentrated, always hugging the enemy close, and by being always ready to act suddenly with his whole Army. The method of each General proceeded not only from the nature of the Army he commanded, but also from the circumstances in which he was placed. To extemporise movements is always much easier for a King than for any Commander who acts under responsibility. We shall here once more point out particularly that the critic has no right to look upon the different manners and methods which may make their appearance as different degrees on the road to perfection, the one inferior to the other; they are entitled to be treated as on an equality, and it must rest with the judgment to estimate their relative fitness for use in each particular case.
To enumerate these different manners which may spring from the particular nature of an Army, of a country, or of circumstances, is not our object here; the influence of these things generally we have already noticed.
We acknowledge, therefore, that in this chapter we are unable to give any maxims, rules, or methods, because history does not furnish the means; and on the contrary, at almost every moment, we there meet with peculiarities such as are often quite inexplicable, and often also surprise us by their singularity. But it is not on that account unprofitable to study history in connection with this subject also. Where neither system nor any dogmatic apparatus can be found, there may still be truth, and this truth will then, in most cases, only be discovered by a practised judgment and the tact of long experience. Therefore, even if history does not here furnish any formula, we may be certain that here as well as everywhere else, it will give us exercise for the judgment.
We shall only set up one comprehensive general principle, or rather we shall reproduce, and present to view more vividly, in the form of a separate principle, the natural presupposition of all that has now been said.
All the means which have been here set forth have only a relative value; they are all placed under the legal ban of a certain disability on both sides; above this region a higher law prevails, and there is a totally different world of phenomena. The General must never forget this; he must never move in imaginary security within the narrower sphere, as if he were in an absolute medium; never look upon the means which he employs here as the necessary or as the only means, and still adhere to them, even when he himself already trembles at their insufficiency.
From the point of view at which we have here placed ourselves, such an error may appear to be almost impossible; but it is not impossible in the real world, because there things do not appear in such sharp contrast.
We must just again remind our readers that, for the sake of giving clearness, distinctness, and force to our ideas, we have always taken as the subject of our consideration only the complete antithesis, that is the two extremes of the question, but that the concrete case in War generally lies between these two extremes, and is only influenced by either of these extremes according to the degree in which it approaches nearer towards it.
Therefore, quite commonly, everything depends on the General making up his own mind before all things as to whether his adversary has the inclination and the means of outbidding him by the use of greater and more decisive measures. As soon as he has reason to apprehend this, he must give up small measures intended to ward off small disadvantages; and the course which remains for him then is to put himself in a better situation, by a voluntary sacrifice, in order to make himself equal to a greater solution. In other words, the first requisite is that the General should take the right scale in laying out his work.
In order to give these ideas still more distinctness through the help of real experience, we shall briefly notice a string of cases in which, according to our opinion, a false criterion was made use of, that is, in which one of the Generals in the calculation of his operations very much underestimated the decisive action intended by his adversary. We begin with the opening of the campaign of 1757, in which the Austrians showed by the disposition of their forces that they had not counted upon so thorough an offensive as that adopted by Frederick the Great; even the delay of Piccolomini’s Corps on the Silesian frontier while Duke Charles of Lorraine was in danger of having to surrender with his whole Army, is a similar case of complete misconception of the situation.
In 1758, the French were in the first place completely taken in as to the effects of the convention of Kloster Seeven (a fact, certainly, with which we have nothing to do here), and two months afterwards they were completely mistaken in their judgment of what their opponent might undertake, which, very shortly after, cost them the country between the Weser and the Rhine. That Frederick the Great, in 1759, at Maxen, and in 1760, at Landshut, completely misjudged his enemies in not supposing them capable of such decisive measures has been already mentioned.
But in all history we can hardly find a greater error in the criterion than that in 1792. It was then imagined possible to turn the tide in a national War by a moderate sized auxiliary Army, which brought down on those who attempted it the enormous weight of the whole French people, at that time completely unhinged by political fanaticism. We only call this error a great one because it has proved so since, and not because it would have been easy to avoid it. As far as regards the conduct of the War itself, it cannot be denied that the foundation of all the disastrous years which followed was laid in the campaign of 1794. On the side of the Allies in that campaign, even the powerful nature of the enemy’s system of attack was quite misunderstood, by opposing to it a pitiful system of extended positions and strategic manœuvres; and further in the want of unanimity between Prussia and Austria politically, and the foolish abandonment of Belgium and the Netherlands, we may also see how little presentiment the Cabinets of that day had of the force of the torrent which had just broken loose. In the year 1796, the partial acts of resistance offered at Montenotte, Lodi, &c., &c., show sufficiently how little the Austrians understood the main point when confronted by a Buonaparte.
In the year 1800 it was not by the direct effect of the surprise, but by the false view which Melas took of the possible consequences of this surprise, that his catastrophe was brought about.
Ulm, in the year 1805, was the last knot of a loose network of scientific but extremely feeble strategic combinations, good enough to stop a Daun or a Lascy but not a Buonaparte, the Revolution’s Emperor.
The indecision and embarrassment of the Prussians in 1806, proceeded from antiquated, pitiful, impracticable views and measures being mixed up with some lucid ideas and a true feeling of the immense importance of the moment. If there had been a distinct consciousness and a complete appreciation of the position of the country, how could they have left 30,000 men in Prussia, and then entertained the idea of forming a special theatre of War in Westphalia, and of gaining any results from a trivial offensive such as that for which Rüchel’s and the Weimar corps were intended? and how could they have talked of danger to magazines and loss of this or that strip of territory in the last moments left for deliberation?
Even in 1812, in that grandest of all campaigns, there was no want at first of unsound purposes proceeding from the use of an erroneous standard Scale. In the headquarters at Wilna there was a party of men of high mark who insisted on a battle on the frontier, in order that no hostile foot should tread on Russian ground with impunity. That this battle on the frontier might be lost, nay, that it would be lost, these men certainly admitted; for although they did not know that there would be 300,000 French to meet 80,000 Russians, still they knew that the enemy was considerably superior in numbers. The chief error was in the value which they ascribed to this battle; they thought it would be a lost battle, like many other lost battles, whereas it may with certainty be asserted that this great battle on the frontier would have produced a succession of events completely different to those which actually took place. Even the camp at Drissa was a measure at the root of which they lay a completely erroneous standard with regard to the enemy. If the Russian Army had been obliged to remain there they would have been completely isolated and cut off from every quarter, and then the French Army would not have been at a loss for means to compel the Russians to lay down their arms. The designer of that camp never thought of power and will on such a scale as that.
But even Buonaparte sometimes used a false standard. After the armistice of 1813 he thought to hold in check the subordinate Armies of the Allies under Blücher and the Crown Prince of Sweden by forces which were certainly not able to offer any effectual resistance, but which might impose sufficiently on the cautious to prevent their risking anything, as had so often been done in preceding Wars. He did not reflect sufficiently on the reaction proceeding from the deep-rooted resentment with which both Blücher and Bulow were animated, and from the imminent danger in which they were placed.
In general, he underestimated the enterprising spirit of old Blücher. At Leipsic Blücher alone wrested from him the victory; at Laon Blücher might have entirely ruined him, and if he did not do so the cause lay in circumstances completely out of the calculation of Buonaparte;* lastly, at Belle-Alliance, the penalty of this mistake reached him like a thunderbolt.
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[* ]During the critical day of Laon, Blücher was confined to a dark room by ophthalmia. Vide Müffling’s Diary.—Ed.