Front Page Titles (by Subject) BOOK VII: THE ATTACK - On War, vol. 3
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BOOK VII: THE ATTACK - Carl von Clausewitz, On War, vol. 3 
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. 3.
Part of: On War
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THE ATTACK IN RELATION TO THE DEFENCE
If two ideas form an exact logical antithesis, that is to say, if the one is the complement of the other, then, in fact, each one is implied in the other; and when the limited power of our mind is insufficient to apprehend both at once, and, by the mere antithesis, to recognise in the one perfect conception the totality of the other also, still, at all events, the one always throws on the other a strong, and in many parts a sufficient light. Thus we think the first chapter on the defence throws a sufficient light on all the points of the attack which it touches upon. But it is not so throughout in respect of every point; the train of thought could nowhere be carried to a finality; it is, therefore, natural that where the opposition of ideas does not lie so immediately at the root of the conception as in the first chapters, all that can be said about the attack does not follow directly from what has been said on the defence. An alteration of our point of view brings us nearer to the subject, and it is natural for us to observe, at this closer point of view, that which escaped observation at our former standpoint. What is thus perceived will, therefore, be the complement of our former train of thought; and it will not infrequently happen that what is said on the attack will throw a new light on the defence. In treating of the attack we shall, of course, very frequently have the same subjects before us with which our attention has been occupied in the defence. But we have no intention, nor would it be consistent with the nature of the thing, to adopt the usual plan of works on fortification, and in treating of the attack, to circumvent or upset all that we have found of positive value in the defence, by showing that against every means of defence, there is an infallible method of attack. The defence has its strong points and weak ones; if the first are even not unsurmountable, still they can only be overcome at a disproportionate price, and that must remain true from whatever point of view we look at it, or we get involved in a contradiction. Further, it is not our intention thoroughly to review the reciprocal action of the means; each means of defence suggests a means of attack; but this is often so evident, that there is no occasion to transfer oneself from our standpoint in treating of the defence to a fresh one for the attack, in order to perceive it; the one issues from the other of itself. Our object is, in each subject, to set forth the peculiar relations of the attack, so far as they do not directly come out of the defence, and this mode of treatment must necessarily lead us to many chapters to which there are no corresponding ones in the defence.
NATURE OF THE STRATEGICAL ATTACK
We have seen that the defensive in War generally—therefore, also, the strategic defensive—is no absolute state of expectancy and warding off, therefore no completely passive state, but that it is a relative state, and consequently impregnated more or less with offensive principles. In the same way the offensive is no homogeneous whole, but incessantly mixed up with the defensive. But there is this difference between the two, that a defensive, without an offensive return blow, cannot be conceived; that this return blow is a necessary constituent part of the defensive, whilst in the attack, the blow or act is in itself one complete idea. The defence in itself is not necessarily a part of the attack; but time and space, to which it is inseparably bound, import into it the defensive as a necessary evil. For in the first place, the attack cannot be continued uninterruptedly up to its conclusion, it must have stages of rest, and in these stages, when its action is neutralised, the state of defence steps in of itself; in the second place, the space which a military force, in its advance, leaves behind it, and which is essential to its existence, cannot always be covered by the attack itself, but must be specially protected.
The act of attack in War, but particularly in that branch which is called Strategy, is therefore a perpetual alternating and combining of attack and defence; but the latter is not to be regarded as an effectual preparation for attack, as a means by which its force is heightened, that is to say, not as an active principle, but purely as a necessary evil; as the retarding weight arising from the specific gravity of the mass; it is its original sin, its seed of mortality. We say: a retarding weight, because if the defence does not contribute to strengthen the attack, it must tend to diminish its effect by the very loss of time which it represents. But now, may not this defensive element, which is contained in every attack, have over it a positively disadvantageous influence? If we suppose the attack is the weaker, the defence the stronger form of War, it seems to follow that the latter cannot act in a positive sense prejudicially on the former; for as long as we have sufficient force for the weaker form, we should have more than enough for the stronger. In general—that is, as regards the chief part—this is true: in its detail we shall analyse it more precisely in the chapter on the culminating point of victory; but we must not forget that that superiority of the strategic defence is partly founded in this, that the attack itself cannot take place without a mixture of defence, and of a defensive of a very weak kind; what the assailant has to carry about with him of this kind are its worst elements; with respect to these, that which holds good of the whole, in a general sense, cannot be maintained; and therefore it is conceivable that the defensive may act upon the attack positively as a weakening principle. It is just in these moments of weak defensive in the attack, that the positive action of the offensive principle in the defensive should be introduced. During the twelve hours’ rest which usually succeeds a day’s work, what a difference there is between the situation of the defender in his chosen, well-known, and prepared position, and that of the assailant occupying a bivouac into which—like a blind man—he has groped his way, or during a longer period of rest, required to obtain provisions and to await reinforcements, &c., when the defender is close to his fortresses and supplies, whilst the situation of the assailant, on the other hand, is like that of a bird on a tree. Every attack must lead to a defence; what is to be the result of that defence depends on circumstances: these circumstances may be very favourable if the enemy’s forces are destroyed; but they may be very unfavourable if such is not the case. Although this defensive does not belong to the attack itself, its nature and effects must react on the attack, and must take part in determining its value.
The deduction from this view is, that in every attack the defensive, which is necessarily an inherent feature in the same, must come into consideration, in order to see clearly the disadvantages to which it is subject, and to be prepared for them.
On the other hand, in another respect, the attack is always in itself one and the same. But the defensive has its gradations according as the principle of expectancy approaches to an end. This begets forms which differ essentially from each other, as has been developed in the chapter on the forms of defence.
As the principle of the attack is strictly active, and the defensive, which connects itself with it, is only a dead weight, there is, therefore, not the same kind of difference in it. No doubt, in the energy employed in the attack, in the rapidity and force of the blow, there may be a great difference, but only a difference in degree, not in form.—It is quite possible to conceive even that the assailant may choose a defensive form, the better to attain his object; for instance, that he may choose a strong position, that he may be attacked there; but such instances are so rare that we do not think it necessary to dwell upon them in our grouping of ideas and facts, which are always founded on the practical. We may, therefore, say that there are no such gradations in the attack as those which present themselves in the defence.
Lastly, as a rule, the extent of the means of attack consists of the armed force only; of course, we must add to these the fortresses, for if in the vicinity of the theatre of War, they have a decided influence on the attack. But this influence gradually diminishes as the attack advances; and it is conceivable that, in the attack, its own fortresses never can play such an important part as in the defence, in which they often become objects of primary importance. The assistance of the people may be supposed in co-operation with the attack, in those cases in which the inhabitants of the country are better disposed towards the invader of the country than they are to their own Army; finally, the assailant may also have allies, but then they are only the result of special or accidental relations, not an assistance proceeding from the nature of the aggressive. Although, therefore, in speaking of the defence we have reckoned fortresses, popular insurrections, and allies as available means of resistance; we cannot do the same in the attack; there they belong to the nature of the thing; here they only appear rarely, and for the most part accidentally.
OF THE OBJECTS OF STRATEGICAL ATTACK
The overthrow of the enemy is the aim in War; destruction of the hostile military forces, the means both in attack and defence. By the destruction of the enemy’s military force the defensive is led on to the offensive, the offensive is led by it to the conquest of territory. Territory is, therefore, the object of the attack; but that need not be a whole country, it may be confined to a part, a province, a strip of country, a fortress. All these things may have a substantial value from their political importance, in treating for peace, whether they are retained or exchanged.
The object of the strategic attack is, therefore, conceivable in an infinite number of gradations, from the conquest of the whole country down to that of some insignificant place. As soon as this object is attained, and the attack ceases, the defensive commences. We may, therefore, represent to ourselves the strategic attack as a distinctly limited unit. But it is not so if we consider the matter practically, that is in accordance with actual phenomena. Practically the moments of the attack, that is, its views and measures, often glide just as imperceptibly into the defence as the plans of the defence into the offensive. It is seldom, or at all events not always, that a General lays down positively for himself what he will conquer, he leaves that dependent on the course of events. His attack often leads him further than he had intended; after rest more or less, he often gets renewed strength, without our being obliged to make out of this two quite different acts; at another time he is brought to a standstill sooner than he expected without, however, giving up his intentions, and changing to a real defensive. We see, therefore, that if the successful defence may change imperceptibly into the offensive; so on the other hand an attack may, in like manner, change into a defence. These gradations must be kept in view, in order to avoid making a wrong application of what we have to say of the attack in general.
DECREASING FORCE OF THE ATTACK
This is one of the principal points in Strategy: on its right valuation in the concrete, depends our being able to judge correctly what we are able to do.
The decrease of absolute power arises—
(1) Through the object of the attack, the occupation of the enemy’s country; this generally commences first after the first decision, but the attack does not cease upon the first decision.
(2) Through the necessity imposed on the attacking Army to guard the country in its rear, in order to preserve its line of communication and means of subsistence.
(3) Through losses in action, and through sickness.
(4) Distance of the various depôts of supplies and reinforcements.
(5) Sieges and blockades of fortresses.
(6) Relaxation of efforts.
(7) Secession of allies.
But frequently, in opposition to these weakening causes, there may be many others which contribute to strengthen the attack. It is clear, at all events, that a net result can only be obtained by comparing these different quantities; thus, for example, the weakening of the attack may be partly or completely compensated, or even surpassed by the weakening of the defensive. This last is a case which rarely happens; we cannot always bring into the comparison any more forces than those in the immediate front or at decisive points, not the whole of the forces in the field.—Different examples: The French in Austria and Prussia, in Russia; the Allies in France, the French in Spain.
CULMINATING POINT OF THE ATTACK
The success of the attack is the result of a present superiority of force, it being understood that the moral as well as physical forces are included. In the preceding chapter we have shown that the power of the attack gradually exhausts itself; possibly at the same time the superiority may increase, but in most cases it diminishes. The assailant buys up prospective advantages which are to be turned to account hereafter in negotiations for peace; but, in the meantime, he has to pay down on the spot for them a certain amount of this military force. If a preponderance on the side of the attack, although thus daily diminishing, is still maintained until Peace is concluded, the object is attained.—There are strategic attacks which have led to an immediate Peace—but such instances are rare; the majority, on the contrary, lead only to a point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive, and to wait for Peace.—Beyond that point the scale turns, there is a reaction; the violence of such a reaction is commonly much greater than the force of the blow. This we call the culminating point of the attack.—As the object of the attack is the possession of the enemy’s territory, it follows that the advance must continue till the superiority is exhausted; this cause, therefore, impels us towards the ultimate object, and may easily lead us beyond it.—If we reflect upon the number of the elements of which an equation of the forces in action is composed, we may conceive how difficult it is in many cases to determine which of two opponents has the superiority on his side. Often all hangs on the silken thread of imagination.
Everything then depends on discovering the culminating point by the fine tact of judgment. Here we come upon a seeming contradiction. The defence is stronger than the attack; therefore we should think that the latter can never lead us too far, for as long as the weaker form remains strong enough for what is required, the stronger form ought to be still more so.*
DESTRUCTION OF THE ENEMY’S ARMIES
The destruction of the enemy’s armed forces is the means to the end.—What is meant by this—The price it costs—Different points of view which are possible in respect to the subject.
(1) Only to destroy as many as the object of the attack requires.
(2) Or as many on the whole as is possible.
(3) The sparing of our own forces as the principal point of view.
(4) This may again be carried so far, that the assailant does nothing towards the destruction of the enemy’s force except when a favourable opportunity offers, which may also be the case with regard to the object of the attack, as already mentioned in the third chapter.
The only means of destroying the enemy’s armed force is by combat, but this may be done in two ways: (1) directly, (2) indirectly, through a combination of combats.—If, therefore, the battle is the chief means, still it is not the only means. The capture of a fortress or of a portion of territory is in itself really a destruction of the enemy’s force, and it may also lead to a still greater destruction, and therefore, also, be an indirect means.
The occupation of an undefended strip of territory, therefore, in addition to the value which it has as a direct fulfilment of the end, may also reckon as a destruction of the enemy’s force as well. The manœuvring, so as to draw an enemy out of a district of country which he has occupied, is somewhat similar, and must, therefore, only be looked at from the same point of view, and not as a success of arms, properly speaking.—These means are generally estimated at more than they are worth—they have seldom the value of a battle; besides which it is always to be feared that the disadvantageous position to which they lead will be overlooked; they are seductive through the low price which they cost.
We must always consider means of this description as small investments, from which only small profits are to be expected; as means suited only to very limited State relations and weak motives. Then they are certainly better than battles without a purpose—than victories, the results of which cannot be realised to the full.
THE OFFENSIVE BATTLE
What we have said about the defensive battle throws a strong light upon the offensive also.
We there had in view that class of battle in which the defensive appears most decidedly pronounced, in order that we might convey a more vivid impression of its nature;—but only the fewer number are of that kind; most battles are “demi-rencontres” in which the defensive character disappears to a great extent. It is otherwise with the offensive battle: it preserves its character under all circumstances, and can keep up that character the more boldly, as the defender is out of his proper sphere. For this reason, in the battle which is not purely defensive and in the real rencontres, there always remains also something of the difference of the character of the battle on the one side and on the other. The chief distinctive characteristic of the offensive battle is the manœuvre to turn or surround, therefore, the initiative as well.
A combat in lines, formed to envelop, has evidently in itself great advantages; it is, however, a subject of tactics. The attack must not give up these advantages because the defence has a means of counteracting them; for the attack itself cannot make use of that means, inasmuch as it is one that is too closely dependent upon other things connected with the defence. To be able in turn to operate with success against the flanks of an enemy, whose aim is to turn our line, it is necessary to have a well-chosen and well-prepared position. But what is much more important is, that all the advantages which the defensive possesses, cannot be made use of; most defences are poor makeshifts; the greater number of defenders find themselves in a very harassing and critical position, in which, expecting the worst, they meet the attack half-way. The consequence of this is, that battles formed with enveloping lines, or even with an oblique front, which should properly result from an advantageous relation of the lines of communication, are commonly the result of a moral and physical preponderance (Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena). Besides, in the first battle fought, the base of the assailant, if not superior to that of the defender, is still mostly very wide in extent, on account of the proximity of the frontier; he can, therefore, afford to venture a little.—The flank-attack, that is, the battle with oblique front, is moreover generally more efficacious than the enveloping form. It is an erroneous idea that an enveloping strategic advance from the very commencement must be connected with it, as at Prague. (That strategic measure has seldom anything in common with it, and is very hazardous; of which we shall speak further in the attack of a theatre of War.)
As it is an object with the Commander in the defensive battle to delay the decision as long as possible, and gain time, because a defensive battle undecided at sunset is commonly one gained: therefore the Commander, in the offensive battle, requires to hasten the decision; but, on the other hand, there is a great risk in too much haste, because it leads to a waste of forces. One peculiarity in the offensive battle is the uncertainty, in most cases, as to the position of the enemy; it is a complete groping about amongst things that are unknown* (Austerlitz, Wagram, Hohenlinden, Jena, Katzbach). The more this is the case, so much the more concentration of forces becomes paramount, and turning a flank to be preferred to surrounding. That the principal fruits of victory are first gathered in the pursuit, we have already learnt in the twelfth chapter of Book IV. According to the nature of the thing, the pursuit is more an integral part of the whole action in the offensive than in the defensive battle.
PASSAGE OF RIVERS
(1) A large river which crosses the direction of the attack is always very inconvenient for the assailant: for when he has crossed it he is generally limited to one point of passage, and, therefore, unless he remains close to the river he becomes very much hampered in his movements. Whether he meditates bringing on a decisive battle after crossing, or may expect the enemy to attack him, he exposes himself to great danger; therefore, without a decided superiority, both in moral and physical force, a General will not place himself in such a position.
(2) From this mere disadvantage of placing a river behind an Army, a river is much oftener capable of defence than it would otherwise be. If we suppose that this defence is not considered the only means of safety, but is so planned that even if it fails, still a stand can be made near the river, then the assailant in his calculations must add to the resistance which he may experience in the defence of the river, all the advantages mentioned in No. (1) as being on the side of the defender of a river, and the effect of the two together is, that we usually see Generals show great respect to a river before they attack it if it is defended.
(3) But in the preceding book we have seen, that under certain conditions, the real defence of a river promises right good results; and if we refer to experience, we must allow that such results follow in reality much more frequently than theory promises, because in theory we only calculate with real circumstances as we find them take place, while in the execution, things commonly appear to the assailant much more difficult than they really are, and they become therefore a greater clog on his action.
Suppose, for instance, an attack which is not intended to end in a great solution, and which is not conducted with thorough energy, we may be sure that in carrying it out a number of little obstacles and accidents, which no theory could calculate upon, will start up to the disadvantage of the assailant, because he is the acting party, and must, therefore, come first into collision with such impediments. Let us just think for a moment how often some of the insignificant rivers of Lombardy have been successfully defended!—If, on the other hand, cases may also be found in military history, in which the defence of rivers has failed to realise what was expected of them, that lies in the extravagant results sometimes looked for from this means; results not founded in any kind of way on its tactical nature, but merely on its well-known efficacy, to which people have thought there were no bounds.
(4) It is only when the defender commits the mistake of placing his entire dependence on the defence of a river, so that in case it is forced he becomes involved in great difficulty in a kind of catastrophe, it is only then that the defence of a river can be looked upon as a form of defence favourable to the attack, for it is certainly easier to force the passage of a river than to gain an ordinary battle.
(5) It follows of itself from what has just been said that the defence of a river may become of great value if no great solution is desired, but where that is to be expected, either from the superior numbers or energy of the enemy, then this means, if wrongly used, may turn to the positive advantage of the assailant.
(6) There are very few river-lines of defence which cannot be turned either on the whole length or at some particular point. Therefore the assailant, superior in numbers and bent upon serious blows, has the means of making a demonstration at one point and passing at another, and then by superior numbers, and advancing, regardless of all opposition, he can repair any disadvantageous relations in which he may have been placed by the issue of the first encounters: for his general superiority will enable him to do so. It very rarely happens that the passage of a river is actually tactically forced by overpowering the enemy’s principal post by the effect of superior fire and greater valour on the part of the troops, and the expression, forcing a passage is only to be taken in a strategic sense, in so far that the assailant by his passage at an undefended or only slightly defended point within the line of defence, braves all the dangers which, in the defender’s view, should result to him through the crossing.
But the worst which an assailant can do, is to attempt a real passage at several points, unless they lie close to each other and admit of all the troops joining in the combat; for as the defender must necessarily have his forces separated, therefore, if the assailant breaks up his in like manner, he throws away his natural advantage. In that way Bellegarde lost the battle on the Mincio, 1814, where by chance both Armies passed at different points at the same time, and the Austrians were more divided than the French.
(7) If the defender remains on this side of the river, it necessarily follows that there are two ways to gain a strategic advantage over him: either to pass at some point, regardless of his position, and so to outbid him in the same means, or to give battle. In the first case, the relations of the base and lines of communication should chiefly decide, but it often happens that special circumstances exercise more influence than general relations; he who can choose the best positions, who knows best how to make his disposition; who is better obeyed, whose Army marches fastest, &c., may contend with advantage against general circumstances. As regards the second means, it presupposes on the part of the assailant the means, suitable relations, and the determination to fight; but when these conditions may be presupposed, the defender will not readily venture upon this mode of defending a river.
(8) As a final result, we must therefore give as our opinion that, although the passage of a river in itself rarely presents great difficulties, yet in all cases not immediately connected with a great decision, so many apprehensions of the consequences and of future complications are bound up with it, that at all events the progress of the assailant may easily be so far arrested that he either leaves the defender on this side the river, or he passes, and then remains close to the river. For it rarely happens two Armies remain any length of time confronting one another on different sides of a river.
But also in cases of a great solution, a river is an important object; it always weakens and deranges the offensive; and the most fortunate thing in this case is, if the defender is induced through that danger to look upon the river as a tactical barrier, and to make the particular defence of that barrier the principal act of his resistance so that the assailant at once obtains the advantage of being able to strike a decisive blow in a very easy manner.—Certainly, in the first instance, this blow will never amount to a complete defeat of the enemy, but it will consist of several advantageous combats, and these bring about a state of general relations very adverse to the enemy, as happened to the Austrians on the Lower Rhine, 1796.*
ATTACK OF DEFENSIVE POSITIONS
In the book on the defence, it has been sufficiently explained how far defensive positions can compel the assailant either to attack them, or to give up his advance. Only those which can effect this are subservient to our object, and suited to wear out or neutralise the forces of the aggressor, either wholly or in part, and in so far the attack can do nothing against such positions, that is to say, there are no means at its disposal by which to counterbalance this advantage. But defensive positions are not all really of this kind. If the assailant sees he can pursue his object without attacking such a position, it would be an error to make the attack; if he cannot follow out his object, then it is a question whether he cannot manœuvre the enemy out of his position by threatening his flank. It is only if such means are ineffectual, that a Commander determines on the attack of a good position, and then an attack directed against one side, always in general presents the less difficulty; but the choice of the side must depend on the position and direction of the mutual lines of retreat, consequently, on the threatening the enemy’s retreat, and covering our own. Between these two objects a competition may arise, in which case the first is entitled to the preference, as it is of an offensive nature; therefore homogeneous with the attack, whilst the other is of a defensive character. But it is certain, and may be regarded as a truth of the first importance, that to attack an enemy thoroughly inured to War, in a good position, is a critical thing. No doubt instances are not wanting of such battles, and of successful ones too, as Torgau, Wagram (we do not say Dresden, because we cannot call the enemy there quite War seasoned); but upon the whole, the danger is small, and it vanishes altogether, opposed to the infinite number of cases in which we have seen the most resolute Commanders make their bow before such positions. (Torres Vedras.)
We must not, however, confuse the subject now before us with ordinary battles. Most battles are real “rencontres,” in which one party certainly occupies a position, but one which has not been prepared.
ATTACK OF AN ENTRENCHED CAMP
It was for a time the fashion to speak with contempt of entrenchments and their utility. The cordon lines of the French frontier, which had been often burst through; the entrenched camp at Breslau in which the Duke of Bevern was defeated, the battle of Torgau, and several other cases, led to this opinion of their value; and the victories of Frederick the Great, gained by the principle of movement and the use of the offensive, threw a fresh light on all kinds of defensive action, all fighting in a fixed position, particularly in entrenchments, and brought them still more into contempt. Certainly, when a few thousand men are to defend several miles of country, and when entrenchments are nothing more than ditches reversed, they are worth nothing, and they constitute a dangerous snare through the confidence which is placed in them. But is it not inconsistent, or rather nonsensical, to extend this view even to the idea of field fortification, in a mere swaggering spirit (as Templehof does)? What would be the object of entrenchments generally, if not to strengthen the defence? No, not only reason but experience, in hundreds and thousands of instances, show that a well-traced, sufficiently manned, and well-defended entrenchment is, as a rule, to be looked upon as an impregnable point, and is also so regarded by the attack.* Starting from this point of the efficiency of a single entrenchment, we argue that there can be no doubt as to the attack of an entrenched camp being a most difficult undertaking, and one in which generally it will be impossible for the assailant to succeed.
It is consistent with the nature of an entrenched camp that it should be weakly garrisoned; but with good, natural obstacles of ground and strong field works, it is possible to bid defiance to superior numbers. Frederick the Great considered the attack of the camp of Pirna as impracticable, although he had at his command double the force of the garrison; and although it has been since asserted, here and there, that it was quite possible to have taken it; the only proof in favour of this assertion is founded on the bad condition of the Saxon troops; an argument which does not at all detract in any way from the value of entrenchments. But it is a question, whether those who have since contended not only for the feasibility but also for the facility of the attack would have made up their minds to execute it at the time.
We, therefore, think that the attack of an entrenched camp belongs to the category of quite exceptional means on the part of the offensive. It is only if the entrenchments have been thrown up in haste, are not completed, still less strengthened, by obstacles to prevent their being approached, or when, as is often the case taken altogether, the whole camp is only an outline of what it was intended to be, a half-finished ruin, that then an attack on it may be advisable, and at the same time become the road to gain an easy conquest over the enemy.
ATTACK OF A MOUNTAIN RANGE
From the fifth and following chapters of the sixth book may be deduced sufficiently the strategic relations of a mountain generally, both as regards the defence and the attack. We have also there endeavoured to explain the part which a mountain range plays as a line of defence, properly so called, and from that naturally follows how it is to be looked upon in this signification from the side of the assailant. There remains, therefore, little for us to say here on this important subject. Our chief result was, that the defence must choose as his point of view a secondary combat, or the entirely different one of a great general action; that in the first case the attack of a mountain can only be regarded as a necessary evil, because all the circumstances are unfavourable to it; but in the second case the advantages are on the side of the attack.
An attack, therefore, armed with the means and the resolution for a battle, will give the enemy a meeting in the mountains, and certainly find his account in so doing.
But we must here once more repeat that it will be difficult to obtain respect for this conclusion, because it runs counter to appearances, and is also, at first sight, contrary to the experience of War. It has been observed, in most cases hitherto, that an Army pressing forward to the attack (whether seeking a great general action or not), has considered it an unusual piece of good fortune if the enemy has not occupied the intervening mountains, and has itself then hastened to be beforehand in the occupation of them. No one will find this forestalling of the enemy in any way inconsistent with the interests of the assailant; in our view this is also quite admissible, only we must point out clearly a fine distinction here between circumstances.
An Army advancing against the enemy, with the design of bringing him to a general action, if it has to pass over an unoccupied range of mountain, has naturally to apprehend that the enemy may, at the last moment, block up those very passes which it proposes to use on its march: in such a case, the assailant will by no means have the same advantages as if the enemy occupied merely an ordinary mountain position. The latter is, for instance, not then in a position extended beyond measure, nor is he in uncertainty as to the road which the assailant will take; the assailant has not been able to choose his road with reference to the enemy’s position, and therefore this battle in the mountains is not then united with all those advantages on his side of which we have spoken in the sixth book; under such circumstances, the defender might be found in an impregnable position.—According to this, the defender might even have means at his command of making advantageous use of the mountains for a great battle.—This is, at any rate, possible; but if we reflect on the difficulties which the defender would have to encounter in establishing himself in a strong position in the mountains just at the last moment, particularly if he has left it entirely unoccupied before, we may put down this means of defence as one upon which no dependence can be placed, and therefore as one, the probability of which the assailant has little reason to dread. But even if it is a very improbable case, yet still it is natural to fear it; for in War, many a thing is very natural, and yet in a certain measure superfluous.
But another measure which the assailant has to apprehend here is, a preliminary defence of the mountains by an advance guard or chain of outposts. This means also will seldom accord with the interests of the defender, but the assailant has not the means of discerning how far it may be beneficial to the defender or otherwise, and therefore he has only to provide against the worst.
Further, our view by no means excludes possibility of a position being quite unassailable from the mountainous character of the ground: there are such positions which are not, on that account, in the mountains (Pirna, Schmotseifen, Meissen, Feldkirch), and it is just because they are not in the mountains, that they are so well suited for defence. We may also very well conceive that positions may be found in mountains themselves where the defender might avoid the ordinary disadvantages of mountain positions, as, for instance, on lofty plateaux; but they are not common, and we can only take into our view the generality of cases.
It is just in military history that we see how little mountain positions are suited to decisive defensive battles, for great Generals have always preferred a position in the plains, when it was their object to fight a battle of the first order; and throughout the whole range of military history, there are no examples of decisive battles in the mountains, except in the Revolutionary Wars, and even there it was plainly a false application and analogy which led to the use of mountain positions, where of necessity a decisive battle had to be fought (1793 and 1794 in the Vosges, and 1795, 1796, and 1797 in Italy). Melas has been generally blamed for not having occupied the Alpine passes in 1800; but such criticisms are nothing more than “early notions”—we might say—childlike judgments founded on appearances Buonaparte, in Melas’s place, would just as little have thought of occupying the passes.
The dispositions for the attack of mountain positions are mostly of a tactical nature; but we think it necessary to insert here the following remarks as to the general outline, consequently as to those parts which come into immediate contact with, and are coincident with, Strategy.
(1) As we cannot move wide of the roads in mountains as we can in other districts, and form two or three columns out of one, when the exigency of the moment requires that the mass of the troops should be divided; but on the contrary, we are generally confined to long defiles; the advance in mountains must generally be made on several roads, or rather upon a somewhat broader front.
(2) Against a mountain line of defence of wide extent, the attack must naturally be made with concentrated forces; to surround the whole cannot be thought of there, and if an important result is to be gained from victory, it must be obtained rather by bursting through the enemy’s line, and separating the wings, than by surrounding the force, and so cutting it off. A rapid continuous advance upon the enemy’s principal line of retreat is there the natural endeavour of the assailant.
(3) But if the enemy to be attacked occupies a position somewhat concentrated, turning movements are an essential part of the scheme of attack, as the front attacks fall upon the mass of the defender’s forces; but the turning movements again must be made more with a view to cutting off the enemy’s retreat, than as a tactical rolling up of the flank or attack on the rear; for mountain positions are capable of a prolonged resistance even in rear if forces are not wanting, and the quickest result is invariably to be expected only from the enemy’s apprehension of losing his line of retreat; this sort of uneasiness arises sooner, and acts more powerfully in mountains, because, when it comes to the worst, it is not so easy to make room sword in hand. A mere demonstration is no sufficient means here; it might certainly manœuvre the enemy out of his position, but would not ensure any special result; the aim must therefore be to cut him off, in reality, from his line of retreat.
ATTACK OF CORDON LINES
If a supreme decision should lie in their defence and their attack, they place the assailant in an advantageous situation, for their wide extent is still more in opposition to all the requirements of a decisive battle than the direct defence of a river or a mountain range. Eugene’s lines of Denain, 1712, are an illustration to the point here, for their loss was quite equal to a complete defeat, but Villars would hardly have gained such a victory against Eugene in a concentrated position. If the offensive side does not possess the means required for a decisive battle, then even lines are treated with respect, that is, if they are occupied by the main body of an Army; for instance, those of Stollhofen, held by Louis of Baden in the year 1703, were respected even by Villars. But if they are only held by a secondary force, then it is merely a question of the strength of the detachment which we can spare for their attack. The resistance in such cases is seldom great, but at the same time the result of the victory is seldom worth much.
The circumvallation lines of a besieger have a peculiar character, of which we shall speak in the chapter on the attack of a theatre of War.
All positions of the cordon kind, as, for instance, entrenched lines of outposts, &c. &c., have always this property, that they can be easily broken through; but when they are not forced with a view of going further and bringing on a decision, there is so little to be gained in general by the attack, that it hardly repays the trouble expended.
(1) We have already touched upon this subject in the thirtieth chapter of the sixth book. It is one which concerns the defence and the attack in common; nevertheless it has always in it something more of the nature of the offensive than the defensive. We shall therefore now examine it more thoroughly.
(2) Manœuvring is not only the opposite of executing the offensive by force, by means of great battles; it stands also opposed to every such execution of the offensive as proceeds directly from offensive means, let it be either an operation against the enemy’s communications, or line of retreat, a diversion, &c. &c.
(3) If we adhere to the ordinary use of the word, there is in the conception of manœuvring an effect which is first produced, to a certain extent, from nothing, that is, from a state of rest or equilibrium through the mistakes into which the enemy is enticed. It is like the first moves in a game of chess. It is, therefore, a game of evenly balanced powers, to obtain results from favourable opportunity, and then to use these as an advantage over the enemy.
(4) But those interests which, partly as the final object, partly as the principal supports (pivot) of action, must be considered in this matter, are chiefly:
(a) The subsistence from which it is our object to cut off the enemy, or to impede his obtaining.
(b) The junction with other columns.
(c) The threatening other communications with the interior of the country, or with other Armies or columns.
(d) Threatening the retreat.
(e) Attack of isolated points with superior forces.
These five interests may establish themselves in the smallest features of detail belonging to any particular situation; and any such object then becomes, on that account, a point round which everything for a time revolves. A bridge, a road, or an entrenchment, often thus plays the principal part. It is easy to show in each case that it is only the relation which any such object has to one of the above interests which gives it importance.
(f) The result of a successful manœuvre, then, for the offensive, or rather for the active party (which may certainly be just as well the defensive), is the possession of a piece of land, a magazine, &c.
(g) In a strategic manœuvre two converse propositions appear, which look like different manœuvres, and have sometimes served for the derivation of false maxims and rules, and have four branches, which are, however, in reality, all necessary constituents of the same thing, and are to be regarded as such. The first antithesis is the surrounding the enemy, and the operating on interior lines; the second is the concentration of forces, and their extension over several posts.
(h) As regards the first antithesis, we certainly cannot say that one of its members deserves a general preference over the other; for partly it is natural that action of one kind calls forth the other as its natural counterpoise, its true remedy; partly the enveloping form is homogeneous to the attack, but the use of interior lines to the defence; and therefore, in most cases, the first is more suitable to the offensive side, the latter to the defensive. That form will gain the upper hand which is used with the greatest skill.
(i) The branches of the other antithesis can just as little be classed the one above the other. The stronger force has the choice of extending itself over several posts; by that means he will obtain for himself a convenient strategic situation, and liberty of action in many respects, and spare the physical powers of his troops. The weaker, on the other hand, must keep himself more concentrated, and seek by rapidity of movement to counteract the disadvantage of his inferior numbers. This greater mobility supposes greater readiness in marching. The weaker must therefore put a greater strain on his physical and moral forces—a final result which we must naturally come upon everywhere if we would always be consistent, and which, therefore, we regard, to a certain extent, as the logical test of the reasoning. The campaigns of Frederick the Great against Daun, in the years 1759 and 1760, and against Laudon, 1761, and Montecuculis against Turenne in 1673, 1675, have always been reckoned the most scientific combinations of this kind, and from them we have chiefly derived our view.
(k) Just as the four parts of the two antitheses above supposed must not be abused by being made the foundation of false maxims and rules, so we must also give a caution against attaching to other general relations, such as base, ground, &c., an importance and a decisive influence which they do not in reality possess. The smaller the interests at stake, so much the more important the details of time and place become, so much the more that which is general and great falls into the background, having, in a certain measure, no place in small calculations. Is there to be found, viewed, generally, a more absurd situation than that of Turenne in 1675, when he stood with his back close to the Rhine, his army along a line of fifteen miles in extent, and with his bridge of retreat at the extremity of his right wing? But his measures answered their object, and it is not without reason that they are acknowledged to show a high degree of skill and intelligence. We can only understand this result and this skill when we look more closely into details, and judge of them according to the value which they must have had in this particular case.
We are convinced that there are no rules of any kind for strategic manœuvring; that no method, no general principle can determine the mode of action; but that superior energy, precision, order, obedience, intrepidity in the most special and trifling circumstances may find means to obtain for themselves signal advantages, and that, therefore, victory will depend chiefly on those qualities.
ATTACK OF MORASSES, INUNDATIONS, WOODS
Morasses, that is, impassable swamps, which are only traversed by a few embankments, present peculiar difficulties to the tactical attack, as we have stated in treating of the defence. Their breadth hardly ever admits of the enemy being driven from the opposite bank by artillery, and of the construction of a roadway across. The strategic consequence is that endeavours are made to avoid attacking them by passing round them. Where the state of culture, as in many low countries, is so great that the means of passing are innumerable, the resistance of the defender is still strong enough relatively, but it is proportionably weakened for an absolute decision, and, therefore, wholly unsuitable for it. On the other hand, if the low land (as in Holland) is aided by inundations, the resistance may become absolute, and defy every attack. This was shown in Holland in the year 1672, when, after the conquest and occupation of all the fortresses outside the margin of the inundation, 50,000 French troops became available, who,—first under Condé and then under Luxemburg,—were unable to force the line of inundation, although it was only defended by about 20,000 men. The campaign of the Prussians, in 1787, under the Duke of Brunswick, against the Dutch, ended, it is true, in a quite contrary way, as these lines were then carried by a force very little superior to the defenders, and with trifling loss; but the reason of that is to be found in the dissensions amongst the defenders from political animosities, and a want of unity in the command. Nothing, however, is more certain than that the success of the campaign, that is, the advance through the last line of inundation up to the walls of Amsterdam, depended on a point of such extreme nicety that it is impossible to draw any general deduction from this case. The point alluded to was the leaving unguarded the Sea of Haarlem. By means of this, the Duke turned the inundation line, and got in rear of the post of Amselvoen. If the Dutch had had a couple of armed vessels on this lake the Duke would never have got to Amsterdam, for he was “at the end of his resources.” What influence that might have had on the conclusion of peace does not concern us here, but it is certain that any further question of carrying the last line of inundation would have been put an end to completely.
The winter is, no doubt, the natural enemy of this means of defence, as the French have shown in 1794 and 1795, but it must be a severe winter.
Woods, which are scarcely passable, we have also included amongst the means which afford the defence powerful assistance. If they are of no great depth then the assailant may force his way through by several roads running near one another, and thus reach better ground, for no one point can have any great tactical strength, as we can never suppose a wood as absolutely impassable as a river or a morass.—But when, as in Russia and Poland, a very large tract of country is nearly everywhere covered with wood, and the assailant has not the power of getting beyond it, then, certainly, his situation becomes very embarrassing. We have only to think of the difficulties he must contend with to subsist his Army, and how little he can do in the depths of the forest to make his ubiquitous adversary feel his superiority in numbers. Certainly this is one of the worst situations in which the offensive can be placed.
ATTACK OF A THEATRE OF WAR WITH THE VIEW TO A DECISION
Most of the subjects have been already touched upon in the sixth book, and by their mere reflection, throw sufficient light on the attack.
Moreover, the conception of an enclosed theatre of War, has a nearer relation to the defence than to the attack. Many of the leading points, the object of attack, the sphere of action of victory, &c., have been already treated of in that book, and that which is most decisive and essential on the nature of the attack, cannot be made to appear until we get to the plan of War; still there remains a good deal to say here, and we shall again commence with the campaign, in which a great decision is positively intended.
(1) The first aim of the attack is a victory. To all the advantages which the defender finds in the nature of his situation, the assailant can only oppose superior numbers; and, perhaps, in addition, the slight advantage which the feeling of being the offensive and advancing side gives an Army. The importance of this feeling, however, is generally overrated; for it does not last long, and will not hold out against real difficulties. Of course, we assume that the defender is as faultless and judicious in all he does as the aggressor. Our object in this observation is to set aside those vague ideas of sudden attack and surprise which, in the attack, are generally assumed to be fertile sources of victory, and which yet, in reality, never occur except under special circumstances. The nature of the real strategic surprise, we have already spoken of elsewhere.—If, then, the attack is inferior in physical power, it must have the ascendancy in moral power, in order to make up for the disadvantages which are inherent in the offensive form; if the superiority in that way is also wanting, then there are no good grounds for the attack, and it will not succeed.
(2) As prudence is the real genius of the defender, so boldness and self-confidence must animate the assailant. We do not mean that the opposite qualities in each case may be altogether wanting, but that the qualities named have the greatest affinity to the attack and defence respectively. These qualities are only in reality necessary because action in War is no mere mathematical calculation; it is activity which is carried on, if not in the dark, at all events in a feeble twilight, in which we must trust ourselves to the leader who is best suited to carry out the aim we have in view.—The weaker the defender shows himself morally, the bolder the assailant should become.
(3) For victory, it is necessary that there should be a battle between the enemy’s principal force and our own. This is less doubtful as regards the attack than in regard to the defence, for the assailant goes in search of the defender in his position. But we have maintained (in treating of the defensive) that the offensive should not seek the defender out if he has placed himself in a false position, because he may be sure that the defender will seek him out, and then he will have the advantage of fighting where the defender has not prepared the ground. Here all depends on the road and direction which have the greatest importance; this is a point which was not examined in the defence, being reserved for the present chapter. We shall, therefore, say what is necessary about it here.
(4) We have already pointed out those objects to which the attack should be more immediately directed, and which, therefore, are the ends to be obtained by victory; now, if these are within the theatre of War which is attacked, and within the probable sphere of victory, then the road to them is the natural direction of the blow to be struck. But we must not forget that the object of the attack does not generally obtain its signification until victory has been gained, and therefore the mind must always embrace the idea of victory with it; the principal consideration for the assailant is, therefore, not so much merely to reach the object as to reach it a conqueror; therefore the direction of his blow should be not so much on the object itself as on the way which the enemy’s Army must take to reach it. This way is the immediate object of the attack. To fall in with the enemy before he has reached this object, to cut him off from it, and in that position to beat him—to do this is to gain an intensified victory.—If, for example, the enemy’s capital is the object of the attack, and the defender has not placed himself between it and the assailant, the latter would be wrong in marching direct upon the capital, he would do much better by taking his direction upon the line connecting the defender’s Army with the capital, and seeking there the victory which shall place the capital in his hands.
If there is no great object within the assailant’s sphere of victory, then the enemy’s line of communication with the nearest great object to him is the point of paramount importance. The question, then, for every assailant to ask himself is, If I am successful in the battle, what is the first use I shall make of the victory? The object to be gained, as indicated by the answer to this question, shows the natural direction for his blow. If the defender has placed himself in that direction, he has done right, and there is nothing to do but to go and look for him there. If his position is too strong, then the assailant must seek to turn it, that is, make a virtue of necessity. But if the defender has not placed himself on this right spot, then the assailant chooses that direction, and as soon as he comes in line with the defender, if the latter has not in the meantime made a lateral movement, and placed himself across his path, he should turn himself in the direction of the defender’s line of communication in order to seek an action there; if the defender remains quite stationary, then the assailant must wheel round towards him and attack him in rear.
Of all the roads amongst which the assailant has a choice, the great roads which serve the commerce of the country are always the best and the most natural to choose. To avoid any very great bends, more direct roads, even if smaller, must be chosen, for a line of retreat which deviates much from a direct line is always perilous.
(5) The assailant, when he sets out with a view to a great decision, has seldom any reason for dividing his forces, and if, notwithstanding this, he does so, it generally proceeds from a want of clear views. He should therefore only advance with his columns on such a width of front as will admit of their all coming into action together. If the enemy himself has divided his forces, so much the better for the assailant, and to preserve this further advantage small demonstrations should be made against the enemy’s corps which have separated from the main body; these are the strategic fausse attaques; a detachment of forces for this purpose would then be justifiable.
Such separation into as many columns as is indispensably necessary must be made use of for the disposition of the tactical attack in the enveloping form, for that form is natural to the attack, and must not be disregarded without good reason. But it must be only of a tactical nature, for a strategic envelopment when a great blow takes place is a complete waste of power. It can only be excused when the assailant is so strong that there can be no doubt at all about the result.
(6) But the attack also requires prudence, for the assailant has also a rear, and has communications which must be protected. This service of protection must be performed as far as possible by the manner in which the Army advances, that is, eo ipso by the Army itself. If a force must be specially detailed for this duty, and therefore a partition of forces is required, this cannot but naturally weaken the force of the blow itself.—As a large Army is always in the habit of advancing with a front of a day’s march at least in breadth, therefore, if the lines of retreat and communication do not deviate much from the perpendicular, the covering of those lines is in most cases attained by the front of the Army.
Dangers of this description, to which the assailant is exposed, must be measured chiefly by the situation and character of the adversary. When everything lies under the pressure of an imminent great decision, there is little room for the defender to engage in undertakings of this description; the assailant has, therefore, in ordinary circumstances not much to fear. But if the advance is over, if the assailant himself is gradually passing into the defensive, then the covering of the rear becomes every moment more necessary, becomes more a thing of the first importance. For the rear of the assailant being naturally weaker than that of the defender, therefore the latter, long before he passes over to the real offensive, and even at the same time that he is yielding ground, may have commenced to operate against the communications of the assailant.
ATTACK OF A THEATRE OF WAR WITHOUT THE VIEW TO A GREAT DECISION
(1) Although there is neither the will nor the power sufficient for a great decision, there may still exist a decided view in a strategic attack, but it is directed against some secondary object. If the attack succeeds, then, with the attainment of this object the whole falls again into a state of rest and equilibrium. If difficulties to a certain extent present themselves, the general progress of the attack comes to a standstill before the object is gained. Then in its place commences a mere occasional offensive or strategic manœuvring. This is the character of most campaigns.
(2) The objects which may be the aim of an offensive of this description are:
(a) A strip of territory; gain in means of subsistence, perhaps contributions, sparing our own territory, equivalents in negotiations for peace—such are the advantages to be derived from this procedure. Sometimes an idea of the credit of the Army is attached to it, as was perpetually the case in the Wars of the French Marshals in the time of Louis XIV. It makes a very important difference whether a portion of territory can be kept or not. In general, the first is the case only when the territory is on the edge of our own theatre of War, and forms a natural complement of it. Only such portions come into consideration as an equivalent in negotiating a peace, others are usually only taken possession of for the duration of a campaign, to be evacuated when winter begins.
(b) One of the enemy’s principal magazines. If it is not one of considerable importance, it can hardly be looked upon as the object of an offensive determining a whole campaign. It certainly in itself is a loss to the defender, and a gain to the assailant; the great advantage, however, from it for the latter, is that the loss may compel the defender to retire a little and give up a strip of territory which he would otherwise have kept. The capture of a magazine is therefore in reality more a means, and is only spoken of here as an object, because, until captured, it becomes, for the time being, the immediate definite aim of action.
(c) The capture of a fortress.—We have made the siege of fortresses the subject of a separate chapter, to which we refer our readers. For the reasons there explained, it is easy to conceive how it is that fortresses always constitute the best and most desirable objects in those offensive Wars and campaigns in which views cannot be directed to the complete overthrow of the enemy or the conquest of an important part of his territory. We may also easily understand how it is that in the Wars in the Low Countries, where fortresses are so abundant, everything has always turned on the possession of one or other of these fortresses, so much so that the successive conquests of whole provinces never once appear as leading features; while, on the other hand, each of these strong places used to be regarded as a separate thing, which had an intrinsic value in itself, and more attention was paid to the convenience and facility with which it could be attacked than to the value of the place itself.
At the same time, the attack of a place of some importance is always a great undertaking, because it causes a very large expenditure; and, in Wars in which the whole is not staked at once on the game, this is a matter which ought to be very much considered. Therefore, such a siege takes its place here as one of the most important objects of a strategic attack. The more unimportant a place, or the less earnestness there is about the siege, the smaller the preparations for it, the more it is done as a thing en passant, so much the smaller also will be the strategic object, and the more it will be a service fit for small forces and limited views; and the whole thing then often sinks into a kind of sham-fight, in order to close the campaign with honour, because as assailant it is incumbent to do something.
(d) A successful combat, encounter, or even battle, for the sake of trophies, or merely for the honour of the arms, sometimes even for the mere ambition of the Commanders. That this does happen no one can doubt, unless he knows nothing at all of military history. In the campaigns of the French during the reign of Louis XIV., most of the offensive battles were of this kind. But what is of more importance for us is to observe that these things are not without objective value, they are not the mere pastime of vanity; they have a very distinct influence on Peace, and therefore lead as it were direct to the object. The military fame, the moral superiority of the Army and of the General are things, the influence of which, although unseen, never ceases to bear upon the whole action in War.
The aim of such a combat of course presupposes; (α) that there is an adequate prospect of victory, (β) that there is not a very heavy stake dependent on the issue.—Such a battle fought in straitened relations, and with a limited object, must naturally not be confounded with a victory which is not turned to profitable account merely from moral weakness.
(3) With the exception of the last of these objects (d) they may all be attained without a combat of importance, and generally they are so obtained by the offensive. Now, the means which the assailant has at command without resorting to a decisive battle are derived from the interests which the defensive has to protect in his theatre of War; they consist, therefore in threatening his lines of communications, either through objects connected with subsistence, as magazines, fertile provinces, water communications, &c., or important points (bridges, defiles, and such like), or also by placing other detachments in the occupation of strong positions situated inconveniently near to him and from which he cannot again drive us out; the seizure of important towns, fertile districts, disturbed parts of the country, which may be excited to rebellion, the threatening of weak allies, &c. &c. Should the attack effectually interrupt the communications, and in such a manner that the defender cannot re-establish them but at a great sacrifice, it compels the defender to take up another position more to the rear or to a flank to cover the objects, at the same time giving up objects of secondary importance. Thus a strip of territory is left open; a magazine or a fortress uncovered; the one exposed to be overrun, the other to be invested. Out of this, combats greater or less may arise, but in such case they are not sought for and treated as an object of the War but as a necessary evil, and can never exceed a certain degree of greatness and importance.
(4) The operation of the defensive on the communications of the offensive is a kind of reaction which in Wars waged for the great solution can only take place when the lines of operation are very long; on the other hand, this kind of reaction lies more in accordance with the nature of things in Wars which are not aimed at the great solution. The enemy’s lines of communication are seldom very long in such a case; but then, neither is it here so much a question of inflicting great losses of this description on the enemy, a mere impeding and cutting short his means of subsistence often produces an effect, and what the lines want in length is made up for in some degree by the length of time which can be expended in this kind of contest with the enemy: for this reason, the covering his strategic flanks becomes an important object for the assailant. If, therefore, a contest (or rivalry) of this description takes place between the assailant and defender, then the assailant must seek to compensate by numbers for his natural disadvantages. If he retains sufficient power and resolution still to venture a decisive stroke against one of the enemy’s bodies, or against the enemy’s main Army itself, the danger which he thus holds over the head of his opponent is his best means of covering himself.
(5) In conclusion, we must notice another great advantage which the assailant certainly has over the defender in Wars of this kind, which is that of being better able to judge of the intentions and force of his adversary than the latter can in turn of his. It is much more difficult to discover in what degree an assailant is enterprising and bold than to decide whether the defender has something of consequence in his mind. Practically viewed, there usually lies already in the choice of the defensive form of War a kind of guarantee that nothing positive is intended; besides this, the preparations for a great reaction differ much more from the ordinary preparations for defence than the preparations for a great attack differ from those directed against minor objects. Finally, the defender is obliged to take his measures soonest of the two, which gives the assailant the advantage of playing the last hand.
ATTACK OF FORTRESSES
The attack of fortresses cannot of course come before us here in its aspect as a branch of the science of fortification; we have only to consider the subject, first, in its relation to the strategic object with which it is connected; secondly, as regards the choice among several fortresses; and thirdly, as regards the manner in which a siege should be covered.
That the loss of a fortress weakens the defence, especially in case it forms an essential part of that defence; that many conveniences accrue to the assailant by gaining possession of one, inasmuch as he can use it for magazines and depôts, and by means of it can cover districts of country cantonments, &c.; that if his offensive at last should have to be changed into the defensive, it forms the very best support for that defensive—all these relations which fortresses bear to theatres of War, in the course of a War, make themselves sufficiently evident by what has been said about fortresses in the book on the Defence, the reflection from which throws all the light required on these relations with the attack.
In relation to the taking of strong places, there is also a great difference between campaigns which tend to a great decision and others. In the first, a conquest of this description is always to be regarded as an evil which is unavoidable. As long as there is yet a decision to be made we undertake no sieges but such as are positively unavoidable. When the decision has been already given—the crisis, the utmost tension of forces, some time passed—and when, therefore, a state of rest has commenced, then the capture of strong places serves as a consolidation of the conquests made, and then they can generally be carried out, if not without effort and expenditure of force, at least without danger. In the crisis itself the siege of a fortress heightens the intensity of the crisis to the prejudice of the offensive; it is evident that nothing so much weakens the force of the offensive, and therefore there is nothing so certain to rob it of its preponderance for a season. But there are cases in which the capture of this or that fortress is quite unavoidable, if the offensive is to be continued, and in such case a siege is to be considered as an intensified progress of the attack; the crisis will be so much greater the less there has been decided previously. All that remains now for consideration on this subject belongs to the book on the plan of the War.
In campaigns with a limited object, a fortress is generally not the means but the end itself; it is regarded as a small independent conquest, and as such has the following advantages over every other:
(1) That a fortress is a small, distinctly defined conquest, which does not require a further expenditure of force, and therefore gives no cause to fear a reaction.
(2) That in negotiating for Peace, its value as an equivalent may be turned to account.
(3) That a siege is a real progress of the attack, or at least seems so, without constantly diminishing the force like every other advance of the offensive.
(4) That the siege is an enterprise without a catastrophe.
The result of these things is that the capture of one or more of the enemy’s strong places is very frequently the object of those strategic attacks which cannot aim at any higher object.
The grounds which decide the choice of the fortress which should be attacked, in case that may be doubtful, generally are:
(a) That it is one which can be easily kept, therefore stands high in value as an equivalent in case of negotiations for Peace.
(b) That the means of taking it are at hand. Small means are only sufficient to take small places; but it is better to take a small one than to fail before a large one.
(c) The strength of its defences, which obviously are not always in proportion to its importance in other respects. Nothing is more absurd than to waste forces before a very strong place of little importance, if a place of less strength may be made the object of attack.
(d) The strength of the armament and of the garrison as well. If a fortress is weakly armed and insufficiently garrisoned, its capture must naturally be easier; but here we must observe that the strength of the garrison and armament are to be reckoned amongst those things which make up the total importance of the place, because garrison and armaments are directly parts of the enemy’s military strength, which cannot be said in the same measure of works of fortification. The conquest of a fortress with a strong garrison can, therefore, much more readily repay the sacrifice it costs than one with very strong works.
(e) The facility of moving the siege-train. Most sieges fail for want of means, and the means are generally wanting from the difficulty attending their transport. Eugene’s siege of Landreci, 1712, and Frederick the Great’s siege of Olmütz, 1758, are very remarkable instances in point.
(f) Lastly, there remains the facility of covering the siege as a point now to be considered.
There are two essentially different ways by which a siege may be covered: by entrenching the besieging force, that is, by a line of circumvallation, and by what is called lines of observation. The first of these methods has gone quite out of fashion, although evidently one important point speaks in its favour, namely, that by this method the force of the assailant does not suffer by division exactly that weakening which is so generally found a great disadvantage at sieges. But we grant there is still a weakening in another way, to a very considerable degree, because—
(1) The position round the fortress, as a rule, is of too great extent for the strength of the army.
(2) The garrison, the strength of which, added to that of the relieving army, would only make up the force originally opposed to us, under these circumstances is to be looked upon as an enemy’s corps in the middle of our camp, which, protected by its walls, is invulnerable, or at least not to be overpowered, by which its power is immensely increased.
(3) The defence of a line of circumvallation admits of nothing but the most absolute defensive, because the circular order, facing outwards, is the weakest and most disadvantageous of all possible orders of battle, and is particularly unfavourable to any advantageous counterattacks. There is no alternative, in fact, but to defend ourselves to the last extremity within the entrenchments. That these circumstances may cause a greater diminution of the Army than one-third, which, perhaps, would be occasioned by forming an army of observation, is easy to conceive. If, added to that, we now think of the general preference which has existed since the time of Frederick the Great for the offensive, as it is called (but which, in reality, is not always so), for movements and manœuvres, and the aversion to entrenchments, we shall not wonder at lines of circumvallation having gone quite out of fashion. But this weakening of the tactical resistance is by no means its only disadvantage; and we have only reckoned up the prejudices which forced themselves into the judgment on the lines of circumvallation next in order after that disadvantage because they are nearly akin to each other. A line of circumvallation in reality only covers that portion of the theatre of War which it actually encloses; all the rest is more or less given up to the enemy if special detachments are not made use of to cover it, in which way the very partition of force which it was intended to obviate takes place. Thus the besieging Army will be always in anxiety and embarrassment on account of the convoys which it requires, and the covering the same by lines of circumvallation is not to be thought of if the Army and the siege-supplies required are considerable, and the enemy is in the field in strong force, unless under such conditions as are found in the Netherlands, where there is a whole system of fortresses lying close to each other, and intermediate lines connecting them, which cover the rest of the theatre of War, and considerably shorten the lines by which transport can be affected. In the time of Louis XIV. the conception of a theatre of War had not yet bound itself up with the position of an Army. In the Thirty Years’ War particularly, the armies moved here and there sporadically before this or that fortress, in the neighbourhood of which there was no enemy’s force at all, and besieged it as long as the siege equipment they had brought with them lasted, and until an enemy’s Army approached to relieve the place. Then lines of circumvallation had their foundation in the nature of circumstances.
In future it is not likely they will be often used again, unless where the enemy in the field is very weak, or the conception of the theatre of War vanishes before that of the siege. Then it will be natural to keep all the forces united in the siege, as a siege by that means unquestionably gains in energy in a high degree.
The lines of circumvallation in the reign of Louis XIV., at Cambray and Valenciennes, were of little use, as the former were stormed by Turenne, opposed to Condé, the latter by Condé opposed to Turenne; but we must not overlook the endless number of other cases in which they were respected, even when there existed in the place the most urgent need for relief; and when the Commander on the defensive side was a man of great enterprise, as in 1708, when Villars did not venture to attack the Allies in their lines at Lille. Frederick the Great at Olmütz, 1758, and at Dresden, 1760, although he had no regular lines of circumvallation, had a system which in all essentials was identical; he used the same Army to carry on the siege, and also as a covering Army. The distance of the Austrian Army induced him to adopt this plan at Olmütz, but the loss of his convoy at Domstädtel made him repent it; at Dresden in 1760, the motives which led him to this mode of proceeding were his contempt for the Army of the Holy Roman Empire, and his desire to take Dresden as soon as possible.
Lastly, it is a disadvantage in lines of circumvallation, that in case of a reverse it is more difficult to save the siege-train. If a defeat is sustained at a distance of one or more days’ march from the place besieged, the siege may be raised before the enemy can arrive, and the heavy trains may, in the meantime, gain also a day’s march.
In taking up a position for an Army of observation, an important question to be considered is the distance at which it should be placed from the besieged place. This question will, in most cases, be decided by the nature of the country, or by the position of other Armies or forces with which the besiegers have to remain in communication. In other respects, it is easy to see that, with a greater distance, the siege is better covered, but that by a smaller distance, not exceeding a few miles, the two Armies are better able to afford each other mutual support.
ATTACK OF CONVOYS
The attack and defence of a convoy form a subject of tactics: we should, therefore, have nothing to say upon the subject here if it was not necessary, first, to demonstrate generally the possibility of the thing, which can only be done from strategic motives and relations. We should have had to speak of it in this respect before when treating of the defence, had it not been that the little which can be said about it can easily be framed to suit for both attack and defence, while at the same time the first plays the higher part in connection with it.
A moderate convoy of three or four hundred waggons, let the load be what it may, takes up a couple of miles, a large convoy may be ten miles in length. Now, how is it possible to expect that the few troops usually allotted to a convoy will suffice for its defence? If to this difficulty we add the unwieldy nature of this mass, which can only advance at the slowest pace, and which, besides, is always liable to be thrown into disorder, and lastly, that every part of a convoy must be equally protected, because the moment that one part is attacked by the enemy, the whole is brought to a stop and thrown into a state of confusion, we may well ask, How can the covering and defence of such a train be possible at all? Or, in other words, why are not all convoys taken when they are attacked, and why are not all attacked which require an escort, or, which is the same thing, all that come within reach of the enemy? It is plain that all tactical expedients, such as Templehof’s most impracticable scheme of constantly halting and assembling the convoy at short distances, and then moving off afresh; and the much better plan of Scharnhorst, of breaking up the convoy into several columns, are only slight correctives of a radical evil.
The explanation consists in this, that by far the greater number of convoys derive more security from the strategic situation in general than any other parts exposed to the attacks of the enemy, which bestows on their limited means of defence a very much increased efficacy. Convoys generally move more or less in rear of their own Army, or, at least, at a great distance from that of the enemy. The consequence is, that only weak detachments can be sent to attack them, and these are obliged to cover themselves by strong reserves. Added to this the unwieldiness itself of the carriages used makes it very difficult to carry them off; the assailant must therefore, in general, content himself with cutting the traces, taking away the horses, and blowing up powder-waggons, by which the whole is certainly detained and thrown into disorder, but not completely lost; by all this we may perceive that the security of such trains lies more in these general relations than in the defensive power of its escort. If now to all this we add the defence by the escort, which, although it cannot by marching resolutely against the enemy directly cover the convoy, is still able to derange the plan of the enemy’s attack; then, at last, the attack of a convoy, instead of appearing easy and sure of success, will appear rather difficult, and very uncertain in its result.
But there remains still a chief point, which is the danger of the enemy’s Army, or one of its fractions, retaliating on the assailants of its convoy, and punishing it ultimately for the undertaking by defeating it. The apprehension of this puts a stop to many undertakings, without the real cause ever appearing; so that the safety of the convoy is attributed to the escort, and people wonder how a miserable arrangement, such as an escort, should meet with such respect. In order to feel the truth of this observation we have only to think of the famous retreat which Frederick the Great made through Bohemia after the siege of Olmütz, 1758, when the half of his Army was broken into a column of companies to cover a convoy of 4000 carriages. What prevented Daun from falling on this monstrosity? The fear that Frederick would throw himself upon him with the other half of his Army, and entangle him in a battle which Daun did not desire. What prevented Laudon, who was constantly at the side of that convoy, from falling upon it at Zischbowitz sooner and more boldly than he did? The fear that he would get a rap over the knuckles. Fifty miles from his main Army and completely separated from it by the Prussian Army, he thought himself in danger of a serious defeat if the King, who had no reason at that time to be concerned about Daun, should fall upon him with the bulk of his forces.
It is only if the strategic situation of an Army involves it in the unnatural necessity of connecting itself with its convoys by the flank or by its front that then these convoys are really in great danger, and become an advantageous object of attack for the enemy, if his position allows him to detach troops for that purpose. The same campaign of 1758 affords an instance of the most complete success of an undertaking of this description, in the capture of the convoy at Domstädtel. The road to Neiss lay on the left flank of the Prussian position, and the King’s forces were so neutralised by the siege and by the troops watching Daun, that the partisans had no reason to be uneasy about themselves, and were able to make their attack completely at their ease.
When Eugene besieged Landrecy in 1712, he drew his supplies for the siege from Bouchain by Denain; therefore, in reality, from the front of the strategic position. It is well known what means he was obliged to use to overcome the difficulty of protecting his convoys on that occasion, and in what embarrassments he involved himself, ending in a complete change of circumstances.
The conclusion we draw, therefore, is that however easy an attack on a convoy may appear in its tactical aspect, still it has not much in its favour on strategic grounds, and only promises important results in the exceptional instances of lines of communication very much exposed.
ATTACK ON THE ENEMY’S ARMY IN ITS CANTONMENTS
We have not treated this subject in the defence, because a line of cantonments is not to be regarded as a defensive means, but as a mere existence of the Army in a state which implies little readiness for battle. In respect to this readiness for battle, we therefore did not go beyond what we required to say in connection with this condition of an Army in the thirteenth chapter of the fifth book.
But here, in considering the attack, we have to think of an enemy’s Army in cantonments in all respects as a special object; for, in the first place, such an attack is of a very peculiar kind in itself; and, in the next place, it may be considered as a strategic means of particular efficacy. Here we have before us, therefore, not the question of an onslaught on a single cantonment or a small body dispersed amongst a few villages, as the arrangements for that are entirely of a tactical nature, but of the attack of a large Army, distributed in cantonments more or less extensive; an attack in which the object is not the mere surprise of a single cantonment, but to prevent the assembly of the Army.
The attack on an enemy’s Army in cantonments is therefore the surprise of an Army not assembled. If this surprise succeeds fully, then the enemy’s Army is prevented from reaching its appointed place of assembly, and, therefore, compelled to choose another more to the rear; as this change of the point of assembly to the rear in a state of such emergency can seldom be effected in less than a day’s march, but generally will require several days, the loss of ground which this occasions is by no means an insignificant loss; and this is the first advantage gained by the assailant.
But now, this surprise which is in connection with the general relations, may certainly at the same time, in its commencement, be an onslaught on some of the enemy’s single cantonments, not certainly upon all, or upon a great many, because that would suppose a scattering of the attacking Army to an extent which could never be advisable. Therefore, only the most advanced quarters, only those which lie in the direction of the attacking columns, can be surprised, and even this will seldom happen to many of them, as large forces cannot easily approach unobserved. However, this element of the attack is by no means to be disregarded; and we reckon the advantages which may be thus obtained as the second advantage of the surprise.
A third advantage consists in the minor combats forced upon the enemy in which his losses will be considerable. A great body of troops does not assemble itself at once by single battalions at the spot appointed for the general concentration of the Army, but usually forms itself by Brigades, Divisions, or Corps, in the first place, and these masses cannot then hasten at full speed to the rendezvous; in case of meeting with an enemy’s column in their course, they are obliged to engage in a combat; now, they may certainly come off victorious in the same, particularly if the enemy’s attacking column is not of sufficient strength, but in conquering, they lose time, and, in most cases, as may be easily conceived, a Corps, under such circumstances, and in the general tendency to gain a point which lies to the rear, will not make any beneficial use of its victory. On the other hand, they may be beaten, and that is the most probable issue in itself, because they have not time to organise a good resistance. We may, therefore, very well suppose that in an attack well planned and executed, the assailant through these partial combats will gather up a considerable number of trophies, which become a principal point in the general result.
Lastly, the fourth advantage, and the keystone of the whole, is a certain momentary disorganisation and discouragement on the side of the enemy, which, when the force is at last assembled, seldom allows of its being immediately brought into action, and generally obliges the party attacked to abandon still more ground to his assailant, and to make a change generally in his plan of operations.
Such are the proper results of a successful surprise of the enemy in cantonments, that is, of one in which the enemy is prevented from assembling his Army without loss at the point fixed in his plan. But by the nature of the case, success has many degrees; and, therefore, the results may be very great in one case, and hardly worth mentioning in another. But even when, through the complete success of the enterprise, these results are considerable, they will seldom bear comparison with the gain of a great battle, partly because, in the first place, the trophies are seldom as great, and in the next, the moral impression never strikes so deep.
This general result must always be kept in view, that we may not promise ourselves more from an enterprise of this kind than it can give. Many hold it to be the non plus ultra of offensive activity; but it is not so by any means, as we may see from this analysis, as well as from military history.
One of the most brilliant surprises in history is that made by the Duke of Lorraine in 1643, on the cantonments of the French, under General Ranzan, at Duttlingen. The Corps was 16,000 men, and they lost the General commanding and 7000 men; it was a complete defeat. The want of outposts was the cause of the disaster.
The surprise of Turenne at Mergentheim (Mariendal as the French call it), in 1644, is in like manner to be regarded as equal to a defeat in its effects, for he lost 3000 men out of 8000, which was principally owing to his having been led into making an untimely stand after he got his men assembled. Such results we cannot, therefore, often reckon upon; it was rather the result of an ill-judged action than of the surprise, properly speaking, for Turenne might easily have avoided the action, and have rallied his troops upon those in more distant quarters.
A third noted surprise is that which Turenne made on the Allies under the great Elector, the Imperial General Bournonville and the Duke of Lorraine, in Alsace, in the year 1674. The trophies were very small, the loss of the Allies did not exceed 2000 or 3000 men, which could not decide the fate of a force of 50,000; but the Allies considered that they could not venture to make any further resistance in Alsace, and retired across the Rhine again. This strategic result was all that Turenne wanted, but we must not look for the causes of it entirely in the surprise. Turenne surprised the plans of his opponents more than the troops themselves; the want of unanimity amongst the allied Generals and the proximity of the Rhine did the rest. This event altogether deserves a closer examination, as it is generally viewed in a wrong light.
In 1742, Neipperg surprised Frederick the Great in his quarters; the whole of the result was that the King was obliged to fight the battle of Mollwitz before he had collected all his forces, and with a change of front.
In 1745, Frederick the Great surprised the Duke of Lorraine in his cantonments in Lusatia; the chief success was through the real surprise of one of the most important quarters, that of Hennersdorf, by which the Austrians suffered a loss of 2000 men; the general result was that the Duke of Lorraine retreated to Bohemia by Upper Lusatia, but that did not at all prevent his returning into Saxony by the left bank of the Elbe, so that without the battle of Kesselsdorf, there would have been no important result.
1758. The Duke Ferdinand surprised the French quarters; the immediate result was that the French lost some thousands of men, and were obliged to take up a position behind the Aller. The moral effect may have been of more importance, and may have had some influence on the subsequent evacuation of Westphalia.
If from these different examples we seek for a conclusion as to the efficacy of this kind of attack, then only the two first can be put in comparison with a battle gained. But the forces engaged were only small, and the want of outposts in the system of War in those days was a circumstance greatly in favour of these enterprises. Although the four other cases must be reckoned completely successful enterprises, it is plain that not one of them is to be compared with a battle gained as respects its result. The general result could not have taken place in any of them except with an adversary weak in will and character, and therefore it did not take place at all in the case of 1742.
In 1806 the Prussian Army contemplated surprising the French in this manner in Franconia. The case promised well for a satisfactory result. Buonaparte was not present, the French Corps were in widely extended cantonments; under these circumstances, the Prussians, acting with great resolution and activity, might very well reckon on driving the French back across the Rhine, with more or less loss. But this was also all; if they reckoned upon more, for instance, on following up their advantages beyond the Rhine, or on gaining such a moral ascendancy that the French would not again venture to appear on the right bank of the river in the same campaign, such an expectation had no sufficient grounds.
In the beginning of August 1812, the Russians from Smolensk meditated falling upon the cantonments of the French when Napoleon halted his Army in the neighbourhood of Witepsk. But they wanted courage to carry out the enterprise; and it was fortunate for them they did; for as the French Commander with his centre was not only more than twice the strength of their centre, but also in himself the most resolute leader that ever lived, as further, the loss of a few miles of ground would have decided nothing, and there was no natural obstacle in any feature of the country near enough up to which they might pursure their success, and by that means, in some measure make it certain, and lastly, as the War of the year 1812 was not in any way a campaign of that kind which draws itself in a languid way to a conclusion, but the serious plan of an assailant who had made up his mind to conquer his opponent completely—therefore the trifling results to be expected from a surprise of the enemy in his quarters appear nothing else than utterly disproportionate to the solution of the problem, they could not justify a hope of making good by their means the great inequality of forces and other relations. But this scheme serves to show how a confused idea of the effect of this means may lead to an entirely false application of the same.
What has been hitherto said, places the subject in the light of a strategic means. But it lies in its nature that its execution also is not purely tactical, but in part belongs again to Strategy so far, particularly that such an attack is generally made on a front of considerable width, and the Army which carries it out can, and generally will, come to blows before it is concentrated, so that the whole is an agglomeration of partial combats. We must now add a few words on the most natural organisation of such an attack.
The first condition is:
(1) To attack the front of the enemy’s quarters in a certain width of front, for that is the only means by which we can really surprise several cantonments, cut off others, and create generally that disorganisation in the enemy’s Army which is intended.—The number of, and the intervals between, the columns must depend on circumstances.
(2) The direction of the different columns must converge upon a point where it is intended they should unite; for the enemy ends more or less with a concentration of his force, and therefore we must do the same. This point of concentration should, if possible, be the enemy’s point of assembly, or lie on his line of retreat, it will naturally be best where that line crosses an important obstacle in the country.
(3) The separate columns when they come in contact with the enemy’s forces must attack them with great determination, with dash and boldness, as they have general relations in their favour, and daring is always there in its right place. From this it follows that the Commanders of the separate columns must be allowed freedom of action and full power in this respect.
(4) The tactical plan of attack against those of the enemy’s troops that are the first to place themselves in position must always be directed to turn a flank, for the greatest result is always to be expected by separating the several Corps, and cutting them off.
(5) Each of the columns must be composed of portions of the three arms, and must not be stinted in cavalry, it may even sometimes be well to divide amongst them the whole of the reserve cavalry; for it would be a great mistake to suppose that this body of cavalry could play any great part in a mass in an enterprise of this sort. The first village, the smallest bridge, the most significant thicket would bring it to a halt.
(6) Although it lies in the nature of a surprise that the assailant should not send his advance-guard very far in front, that principle only applies to the first approach to the enemy’s quarters. When the fight has commenced in the enemy’s quarters, and therefore all that was to be expected from actual surprise has been gained, then the columns of the advance-guard of all arms should push on as far as possible, for they may greatly increase the confusion on the side of the enemy by more rapid movement. It is only by this means that it becomes possible to carry off here and there the mass of baggage, artillery, non-effectives, and camp-followers, which have to be dragged after a cantonment suddenly broken up, and these advance-guards must also be the chief instruments in turning and cutting off the enemy.
(7) Finally, the retreat in case of ill success must be thought of, and a rallying-point be fixed upon beforehand.
According to the ordinary use of language, under the term diversion is understood such an incursion into the enemy’s country as draws off a portion of his force from the principal point. It is only when this is the chief end in view, and not the gain of the object which is selected as the point of attack, that it is an enterprise of a special character, otherwise it is only an ordinary attack.
Naturally the diversion must at the same time always have an object of attack, for it is only the value of this object that will induce the enemy to send troops for its protection; besides, in case the undertaking does not succeed as a diversion, this object is a compensation for the forces expended in the attempt.
These objects of attack may be fortresses, or important magazines, or rich and large towns, especially capital cities, contributions of all kinds; lastly, assistance may be afforded in this way to discontented subjects of the enemy.
It is easy to conceive that diversions may be useful, but they certainly are not so always; on the contrary, they are just as often injurious. The chief condition is that they should withdraw from the principal theatre of the War more of the enemy’s troops than we employ on the diversion; for if they only succeed in drawing off just the same number then their efficacy as diversions, properly called, ceases, and the undertaking becomes a mere subordinate attack. Even where, on account of circumstances, we have in view to attain a very great end with a very small force, as, for instance, to make an easy capture of an important fortress, and another attack is made adjoining to the principal attack, to assist the latter, that is no longer a diversion. When two States are at War, and a third falls upon one of them, such an event is very commonly called a diversion—but such an attack differs in nothing from an ordinary attack except in its direction; there is, therefore, no occasion to give it a particular name, for in theory it should be a rule only to denote by particular names such things as are in their nature distinct.
But if small forces are to attract large ones, there must obviously be some special cause, and, therefore, for the object of a diversion it is not sufficient merely to detach some troops to a point not hitherto occupied.
If the assailant with a small detachment of 1000 men overruns one of his enemy’s provinces, not belonging to the theatre of War, and levies contributions, &c., it is easy to see beforehand that the enemy cannot put a stop to this by detaching 1000 men, but that if he means to protect the province from invaders, he must at all events send a considerably larger force. But it may be asked, Cannot a defender, instead of protecting his own province, restore the balance by sending a similar detachment to plunder a province in our country? Therefore, if an advantage is to be obtained by an aggressor in this way, it must first be ascertained that there is more to be got or to be threatened in the defender’s provinces than in his own. If this is the case, then no doubt a weak diversion will occupy a force on the enemy’s side greater than that composing the enterprise. On the other hand, this advantage naturally diminishes as the masses increase, for 50,000 men can defend a province of moderate extent not only against equal but even against somewhat superior numbers. The advantage of large diversions is, therefore, very doubtful, and the greater they become the more decisive must be the other circumstances which favour a diversion if any good is to come out of such an enterprise upon the whole.
Now these favourable circumstances may be:
(a) Forces which the assailant holds available for a diversion without weakening the great mass of his force.
(b) Points belonging to the defender which are of vital importance to him and can be threatened by a diversion.
(c) Discontented subjects of the same.
(d) A rich province which can supply a considerable quantity of munitions of war.
If only these diversions are undertaken, which, when tested by these different considerations, promise results, it will be found that an opportunity of making a diversion does not offer frequently.
But now comes another important point. Every diversion brings War into a district into which it would not otherwise have penetrated; for that reason it will always be the means, more or less, of calling forth military forces which would otherwise have continued in abeyance, this will be done in a way which will be very sensibly felt if the enemy has any organised militia, and means of arming the Nation at large. It is quite in the natural order of things, and amply shown by experience, that if a district is suddenly threatened by an enemy’s force, and nothing has been prepared beforehand for its defence, all the most efficient official functionaries immediately lay hold of and set in motion every extraordinary means that can be imagined, in order to ward off the impending danger. Thus, new powers of resistance spring up, such as are next to a people’s War, and may easily excite one.
This is a point which should be kept well in view in every diversion, in order that we may not dig our own graves.
The expeditions to North Holland in 1799, and to Walcheren in 1809, regarded as diversions, are only to be justified in so far that there was no other way of employing the English troops; but there is no doubt that the sum total of the means of resistance of the French was thereby increased, and every landing in France would have just the same effect. To threaten the French coast certainly offers great advantages, because by that means an important body of troops becomes neutralised in watching the coast, but a landing with a large force can never be justifiable unless we can count on the assistance of a province in opposition to the Government.
The less a great decision is looked forward to in War the more will diversions be allowable, but so much the smaller will also certainly be the gain to be derived from them. They are only a means of bringing the stagnant masses into motion.
(1) A diversion may include in itself a real attack, then the execution has no special character in itself except boldness and expedition.
(2) It may also have as an object to appear more than it really is, being, in fact, a demonstration as well. The special means to be employed in such a case can only suggest themselves to a subtil mind well versed in men and in the existing state of circumstances. It follows from the nature of the thing that there must be a great fractioning of forces on such occasions.
(3) If the forces employed are not quite inconsiderable, and the retreat is restricted to certain points, then a reserve on which the whole may rally is an essential condition.
Almost all that we have to say on this subject consists in an explanation of the term. We find the expression very frequently used by modern authors and also that they pretend to denote by it something particular. Guerre d’invasion occurs perpetually in French authors. They use it as a term for every attack which enters deep into the enemy’s country, and perhaps sometimes mean to apply it as the antithesis to methodical attack, that is, one which only nibbles at the frontier. But this is a very unphilosophical confusion of language. Whether an attack is to be confined to the frontier or to be carried into the heart of the country, whether it shall make the seizure of the enemy’s strong places the chief object, or seek out the core of the enemy’s power, and pursue it unremittingly, is the result of circumstances, and not dependent on a system. In some cases, to push forward may be more methodical, and at the same time more prudent than to tarry on the frontier, but in most cases it is nothing else than just the fortunate result of a vigorous attack, and consequently does not differ from it in any respect.
ON THE CULMINATING POINT OF VICTORY*
The conqueror in a War is not always in a condition to subdue his adversary completely. Often, in fact almost universally, there is a culminating point of victory. Experience shows this sufficiently; but as the subject is one especially important for the theory of War, and the pivot of almost all plans of campaigns, while, at the same time, on its surface some apparent contradictions glitter, as in ever-changing colours, we therefore wish to examine it more closely, and look for its essential causes.
Victory, as a rule, springs from a preponderance of the sum of all the physical and moral powers combined; undoubtedly it increases this preponderance, or it would not be sought for and purchased at a great sacrifice. Victory itself does this unquestionably; also its consequences have the same effect, but not to the utmost point—generally only up to a certain point. This point may be very near at hand, and is sometimes so near that the whole of the results of a victorious battle are confined to an increase of the moral superiority. How this comes about we have now to examine.
In the progress of action in War, the combatant force is incessantly meeting with elements which strengthen it, and others which weaken it. Hence it is a question of superiority on one side or the other. As every diminution of power on one side is to be regarded as an increase on the opposite, it follows, of course, that this double current, this ebb and flow, takes place whether troops are advancing or retiring.
It is therefore necessary to find out the principal cause of this alteration in the one case to determine the other along with it.
In advancing, the most important causes of the increase of strength which the assailant gains, are:
(1) The loss which the enemy’s Army suffers, because it is usually greater than that of the assailant.
(2) The loss which the enemy suffers in inert military means, such as magazines, depôts, bridges, &c., and which the assailant does not share with him.
(3) That from the moment the assailant enters the enemy’s territory, there is a loss of provinces to the defence, consequently of the sources of new military forces.
(4) That the advancing Army gains a portion of those resources, in other words, gains the advantage of living at the expense of the enemy.
(5) The loss of internal organisation and of the regular action of everything on the side of the enemy.
(6) That the Allies of the enemy secede from him, and others join the conqueror.
(7) Lastly, the discouragement of the enemy who lets the arms, in some measure, drop out of his hands.
The causes of decrease of strength in an Army advancing, are:
(1) That it is compelled to lay siege to the enemy’s fortresses, to blockade them or observe them; or that the enemy, who did the same before the victory, in his retreat draws in these troops to his main body.
(2) That from the moment the assailant enters the enemy’s territory, the nature of the theatre of war is changed; it becomes hostile; we must occupy it, for we cannot call any portion our own beyond what is in actual occupation and yet it everywhere presents difficulties to the whole machine which must necessarily tend to weaken its effects.
(3) That we are removing further away from our resources, whilst the enemy is drawing nearer to his; this causes a delay in the replacement of expended power.
(4) That the danger which threatens the State, rouses other powers to its protection.
(5) Lastly, the greater efforts of the adversary, in consequence of the increased danger; on the other hand, a relaxation of effort on the side of the victorious State.
All these advantages and disadvantages can exist together, meet each other in a certain measure, and pursue their way in opposite directions, except that the last meet as real opposites, cannot pass, therefore mutually exclude each other. This alone shows how infinitely different may be the effect of a victory according as it stuns the vanquished or stimulates him to greater exertions.
We shall now try to characterise, in a few words, each of these points singly.
(1) The loss of the enemy when defeated may be at the greatest in the first moment of defeat, and then daily diminish in amount until it arrives at a point where the balance is restored as regards our force; but it may go on increasing every day in an ascending ratio. The difference of situation and relations determines this. We can only say that, in general, with a good Army the first will be the case, with an indifferent Army the second; next to the spirit of the troops, the spirit of the Government is here the most important thing. It is of great consequence in War to distinguish between the two cases in practice, in order not to stop just at the point where we ought to begin in good earnest, and vice versâ.
(2) The loss which the enemy sustains in that part of the apparatus of War which is inert, may ebb and flow just in the same manner, and this will depend on the accidental position and nature of the depôts from which supplies are drawn. This subject, however, in the present day, cannot be compared with the others in point of importance.
(3) The third advantage must necessarily increase as the Army advances; indeed, it may be said that it does not come into consideration until an Army has penetrated far into the enemy’s country; that is to say, until a third or a fourth of the country has been left in rear. In addition, the intrinsic value which a province has in connection with the War comes also into consideration.
In the same way the fourth advantage should increase with the advance.
But with respect to these two last, it is also to be observed that their influence on the combatant powers actually engaged in the struggle is seldom felt so immediately; they only work slowly and by a circuitous course; therefore we should not bend the bow too much on their account, that is to say, not place ourselves in any dangerous position.
The fifth advantage, again, only comes into consideration if we have made a considerable advance, and if by the form of the enemy’s country some provinces can be detached from the principal mass, as these, like limbs compressed by ligatures, usually soon die off.
As to six and seven, it is at least probable that they increase with the advance; furthermore, we shall return to them hereafter. Let us now pass on to the causes of weakness.
(1) The besieging, blockade, and investment of fortresses generally increase as the Army advances. This weakening influence alone acts so powerfully on the condition of the combatant force, that it may soon outweigh all the advantages gained. No doubt, in modern times, a system has been introduced of blockading places with a small number of troops, or of watching them with a still smaller number; and also the enemy must keep garrisons in them. Nevertheless, they remain a great element of security. The garrisons consist very often in half of people, who have taken no part in the War previously. Before those places which are situated near the line of communication, it is necessary for the assailant to leave a force at least double the strength of the garrison; and if it is desirable to lay formal siege to, or to starve out, one single considerable place, a small Army is required for the purpose.
(2) The second cause, the taking up a theatre of War in the enemy’s country, increases necessarily with the advance, and if it does not further weaken the condition of the combatant force at the moment, it does so at all events in the long run.
We can only regard as our theatre of War, so much of the enemy’s country as we actually possess; that is to say, where we either have small bodies in the field, or where we have left here and there strong garrisons in large towns, or stations along the roads, &c.; now however small the garrisons may be which are detached, still they weaken the combatant force considerably. But this is the smallest evil.
Every Army has strategic flanks, that is, the country which borders both sides of its lines of communications; the weakness of these parts is not sensibly felt as long as the enemy is similarly situated with respect to his. But that can only be the case as long as we are in our own country; as soon as we get into the enemy’s country, the weakness of these parts is felt very much, because the smallest enterprise promises some result when directed against a long line only feebly, or not all, covered; and these attacks may be made from any quarter in an enemy’s country.
The further we advance, the longer these flanks become, and the danger arising from them is enhanced in an increased ratio, for not only are they difficult to cover, but the spirit of enterprise is also first roused in the enemy, chiefly by long insecure lines of communication, and the consequences which their loss may entail in case of a retreat are matter of grave consideration.
All this contributes to place a fresh load on an advancing Army at every step of its progress; so that if it has not commenced with a more than ordinary superiority, it will feel itself always more and more cramped in its plans, gradually weakened in its impulsive force, and at last in a state of uncertainty and anxiety as to its situation.
(3) The third cause, the distance from the source from which the incessantly diminishing combatant force is to be just as incessantly filled up, increases with the advance. A conquering Army is like the light of a lamp in this respect; the more the oil which feeds it sinks in the reservoir and recedes from the focus of light, the smaller the light becomes, until at length it is quite extinguished.
The richness of the conquered provinces may certainly diminish this evil very much, but can never entirely remove it, because there are always a number of things which can only be supplied to the troops from their own country—men in particular; because the subsidies furnished by the enemy’s country are, in most cases, neither so promptly nor so surely forthcoming as in our own country; because the means of meeting any unexpected requirement cannot be so quickly procured; because misunderstandings and mistakes of all kinds cannot so soon be discovered and remedied.
If a Prince does not lead his Army in person, as became the custom in the last Wars, if he is not anywhere near it, then another and very great inconvenience arises in the loss of time occasioned by communications backwards and forwards; for the fullest powers conferred on a Commander of an Army are never sufficient to meet every case in the wide expanse of his activity.
(4) The change in political alliances. If these changes, produced by a victory, should be such as are disadvantageous to the conqueror, they will probably be so in a direct relation to his progress, just as is the case if they are of an advantageous nature. This all depends on the existing political alliances, interests, customs, and tendencies, on princes, ministers, &c. In general we can only say that when a great State which has smaller Allies is conquered, these usually secede very soon from their alliance, so that the victor, in this respect, becomes stronger with every blow; but if the conquered State is small, protectors much sooner present themselves when his very existence is threatened, and others, who have helped to place him in his present embarrassment, will turn round to prevent his complete downfall.
(5) The increased resistance on the part of the enemy which is called forth. Sometimes the enemy drops his weapon out of his hands from terror and stupefaction; sometimes an enthusiastic paroxysm seizes him, every one runs to arms, and the resistance is much stronger after the first defeat than it was before. The character of the people and of the Government, the nature of the country and its political alliances, are here the data from which the probable effect must be conjectured.
What countless differences these two last points alone make in the plans which may and should be made in War in one case and another. Whilst one, through an excess of caution, and what is called methodical proceedings, fritters away his good fortune, another, from a want of rational reflection, tumbles into destruction.
In addition, we must here call to mind the supineness which not unfrequently comes over the victorious side when danger is removed; whilst, on the contrary, renewed efforts are then required in order to follow up the success. If we cast a general glance over these different and antagonistic principles, the deduction doubtless is, that the profitable use of the onward march in a War of aggression, in the generality of cases, diminishes the preponderance with which the assailant set out, or which has been gained by victory.
Here the question must naturally strike us: If this be so, what is it which impels the conqueror to follow up the career of victory to continue the offensive? And can this really be called making further use of the victory? Would it not be better to stop where as yet there is hardly any diminution of the preponderance gained?
To this we must naturally answer: the preponderance of combatant forces is only the means, not the end. The end, or object, is to subdue the enemy or at least to take from him part of his territory, in order thus to put ourselves in a condition to realise the value of the advantages we have gained when we conclude a peace. Even if our aim is to conquer the enemy completely, we must be content that, perhaps, every step we advance, reduces our preponderance, but it does not necessarily follow from this that it will be nil before the fall of the enemy; the fall of the enemy may take place before that, and if it is to be obtained by the last minimum of preponderance, it would be an error not to expend it for that purpose.
The preponderance which we have or acquire in War is, therefore, the means, not the end, and it must be staked to gain the latter. But it is necessary to know how far it will reach, in order not to go beyond that point, and instead of fresh advantages, to reap disaster.
It is not necessary to introduce special examples from experience in order to prove that this is the way in which the strategic preponderance exhausts itself in the strategic attack; it is rather the multitude of instances which has forced us to investigate the causes of it. It is only since the appearance of Buonaparte that we have known campaigns between civilised nations, in which the preponderance has led, without interruption, to the fall of the enemy; before his time, every campaign ended with the victorious Army seeking to win a point where it could simply maintain itself in a state of equilibrium. At this point, the movement of victory stopped, even if a retreat did not become necessary. Now, this culminating point of victory will also appear in the future, in all Wars in which the overthrow of the enemy is not the military object of the War; and the generality of Wars will still be of this kind. The natural aim of all single plans of campaigns is the point at which the offensive changes into the defensive.
But now, to overstep this point is more than simply a useless expenditure of power, yielding no further result, it is a destructive step which causes reaction; and this reaction is, according to all general experience, productive of most disproportionate effects. This last fact is so common, and appears so natural and easy to understand, that we need not enter circumstantially into the causes. Want of organisation in the conquered land, and the very opposite effect which a serious loss instead of the looked-for fresh victory makes on the feelings, are the chief causes in every case. The moral forces, courage on the one side rising often to audacity, and extreme depression on the other, now begin generally their active play. The losses on the retreat are increased thereby, and the hitherto successful party now generally thanks providence if he can escape with only the surrender of all his gains, without losing some of his own territory.
We must now clear up an apparent contradiction.
It may be generally supposed that as long as progress in the attack continues, there must still be a preponderance; and, that as the defensive, which will commence at the end of the victorious career, is a stronger form of War than the offensive, therefore, there is so much the less danger of becoming unexpectedly the weaker party. But yet there is, and keeping history in view, we must admit that the greatest danger of a reverse is often just at the moment when the offensive ceases and passes into the defensive. We shall try to find the cause of this.
The superiority which we have attributed to the defensive form of War consists:
(1) In the use of ground.
(2) In the possession of a prepared theatre of War.
(3) In the support of the people.
(4) In the advantage of the state of expectancy.
It must be evident that these principles cannot always be forthcoming and active in a like degree; that, consequently, one defence is not always like another; and therefore, also, that the defence will not always have this same superiority over the offensive. This must be particularly the case in a defensive, which commences after the exhaustion of an offensive, and has its theatre of War usually situated at the apex of an offensive triangle thrust far forward into the country. Of the four principles above named, this defensive only enjoys the first—the use of the ground—undiminished, the second generally vanishes altogether, the third becomes negative, and the fourth is very much reduced. A few more words only, by way of explanation, respecting the last.
If the imagined equilibrium, under the influence of which whole campaigns have often passed without any results, because the side which should assume the initiative is wanting in the necessary resolution—and just therein lies, as we conceive, the advantage of the state of expectancy—if this equilibrium is disturbed by an offensive act, the enemy’s interests damaged, and his will stirred up to action, then the probability of his remaining in a state of indolent irresolution is much diminished. A defence, which is organised on conquered territory, has a much more irritating character than one upon our own soil; the offensive principle is engrafted on it in a certain measure, and its nature is thereby weakened. The quiet which Daun allowed Frederick II. in Silesia and Saxony, he would never have granted him in Bohemia.
Thus it is clear that the defensive, which is interwoven or mixed up with an offensive undertaking, is weakened in all its chief principles; and, therefore, will no longer have the preponderance which belongs to it originally.
As no defensive campaign is composed of purely defensive elements, so likewise no offensive campaign is made up entirely of offensive elements; because, besides the short intervals in every campaign, in which both sides are on the defensive, every attack which does not lead to a peace must necessarily end in a defensive.
In this manner it is the defensive itself which contributes to the weakening of the offensive. Thus is so far from being an idle subtlety, that on the contrary, we consider it a chief disadvantage of the attack that we are afterwards reduced through it to a very disadvantageous defensive.
And this explains how the difference which originally exists between the strength of the offensive and defensive forms in War is gradually reduced. We shall now show how it may completely disappear, and the advantage for a short time may change into the reverse.
If we may be allowed to make use of an idea from nature, we shall be able sooner to explain ourselves—the time which every force in the material world requires to show its effect. A power, which if applied slowly by degrees would be sufficient to check a body in motion, will be overcome by it if time fails. This law of the material world is a striking illustration of many of the phenomena in our inner life. If we are once roused to a certain train of thought, it is not every motive sufficient in itself which can change or stop that current of thought. Time, tranquillity and durable impressions on our senses are required. So it is also in War. When once the mind has taken a decided direction towards an object, or turned back towards a harbour of refuge, it may easily happen that the motives which in the one case naturally serve to restrain, and those which in the other as naturally excite to enterprise, are not felt at once in their full force; and as the progress of action in the meantime continues, one is carried along by the stream of movement beyond the line of equilibrium, beyond the culminating point, without being aware of it. Indeed, it may even happen that, in spite of the exhaustion of force, the assailant, supported by the moral forces which specially lie in the offensive, like a horse drawing a load uphill, finds it less difficult to advance than to stop. By this, we believe, we have now shown, without contradiction in itself, how the assailant may pass that point where, if he had stopped at the right moment, he might still, through the defensive, have had a result, that is equilibrium. Rightly, to determine this point is, therefore, important in framing a plan of a campaign, as well for the offensive, that he may not undertake what is beyond his powers (to a certain extent contract debts), as for the defensive, that he may perceive and profit by this error if committed by the assailant.
If now we look back at all the points which the Commander should bear in mind in making his determination, and remember that he can only estimate the tendency and value of the most important of them through the consideration of many other near and distant relations, that he must to a certain extent guess at them—guess whether the enemy’s Army, after the first blow, will show a stronger core and increasing solidity, or, like a Bologna phial, will turn into dust as soon as the surface is injured; guess the extent of weakness and prostration which the drying up of certain sources, the interruption of certain communications will produce on the military state of the enemy; guess whether the enemy, from the burning pain of the blow which has been dealt him, will collapse powerless, or whether, like a wounded bull, he will rise to a state of fury; lastly, guess whether other powers will be dismayed or roused, what political alliances are likely to be dissolved, and what are likely to be formed. When we say that he must hit all this, and much more, with the tact of his judgment, as the rifleman hits a mark, it must be admitted that such an act of the human mind is no trifle. A thousand wrong roads, running here and there, present themselves to the judgment; and whatever the number, the confusion, and complexity of objects leaves undone, is completed by the sense of danger and responsibility.
Thus it happens that the majority of Generals prefer to fall short of the mark rather than to approach too close; and thus it happens that a fine courage and great spirit of enterprise often go beyond the point, and therefore also fail to hit the mark. Only he that does great things with small means has made a successful hit.
[* ]Here follows in the MS. this note: “Development of this subject after Book III. in the essay on the Culminating Point of Victory.”
[* ]Gravelotte, St. Privat, August 18, 1870, is a modern instance of groping. The position of the French right wing was not definitely ascertained till a couple of hours after the fighting began. The apparently premature attack of the Prussian Guard corps on St. Privat was brought about by the imperative necessity of obtaining a decision before darkness.—Editor.
[* ]In connection with this chapter, Napoleon’s defence of the Elbe in 1813 should be carefully studied.—Editor.
[* ]It must be remembered that when Clausewitz wrote, artillery did not possess anything approaching its modern shell-power or range which gives convergence.—Editor.
[* ]See Chapters IV. and V.