Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.—: GENERAL PRINCIPLES - On War, vol. 3
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1.—: GENERAL PRINCIPLES - 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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FOR THE DEFENCE
(1) To keep troops on the defensive under cover from fire as long as possible. As we may be attacked, consequently may have to defend ourselves at any moment, except when we are ourselves acting on the offensive; we must therefore always take up a position as much under cover as possible.
(2) Not to bring the whole force into action at once. If this fault is committed, all rational guidance of the combat is at an end; it is only with disposable troops that we can turn the course of a battle.
(3) To trouble ourselves little about the width of our front, as it is a matter of little consequence in itself, and the depth of the position (that is, the number of troops placed one behind the other) is diminished by an extension of the front. Troops which are in rear of the front line are disposable; they can either be used to restore the combat at that point or be brought forward at other adjacent points. This principle follows from the preceding.
(4) As the enemy, whilst he attacks some part of the front, often seeks to outflank and envelop at the same time, therefore the troops placed in rear are available to repel such attempts, and accordingly supply the want of local obstacles on which to rest the flanks. They are better placed for that purpose than if they stood in line and extended the width of the front, for in such case they themselves would be easily turned by the enemy. This point also further establishes the second.
(5) If there are many troops to be posted in the rear, only a part should be placed directly behind the front, the rest are placed in an oblique direction (in echelon) to the rear, beyond either flank.
From this last position, the enemy’s columns approaching to turn our flank can in turn be taken in flank.
(6) It is a first maxim never to remain perfectly passive, but to fall upon the enemy in front and flank, even when he is in the act of making an attack upon us. We adopt the defensive therefore on a certain line only to compel the enemy to develop his forces for the attack of that line, and we then pass over to the offensive with troops which have been kept in reserve. As your Royal Highness once justly remarked, The art of field fortification is not to serve the defender like a wall behind which he can stand in greater security, but to aid him in attacking the enemy with more success,—the same applies to every passive defence: it is always only the means of attacking the enemy with advantage on ground that we have looked out and prepared for ourselves, and where we have drawn up our troops.
(7) This attack, belonging to the defensive, may be made either at the moment the enemy opens his attack on us, or whilst he is on the march to do so. It may also be arranged so that, when the enemy commences his attack, we draw back and thus lure him on to ground of which he is ignorant, in order to fall upon him on all sides. For all dispositions of this kind, the deep formation of an Army, that is, an order in which only two-thirds or the half, or even less, are in front, and the rest posted directly and obliquely in rear, under cover if possible, is very well suited; and, therefore, this order of battle is a point of infinite importance.
(8) Therefore, if we have two Divisions, it is better to place one behind the other than to place them in line; with three Divisions, one at least should be placed in rear; with four, probably two; with five, at least two, in many cases, three, &c. &c.
(9) At the points where we remain passive, we should make use of field fortification, but only in separate enclosed works of bold profile.
(10) In forming a plan of battle, we should have a great object in view, as, for example, the attack of a strong column of the enemy, and a complete victory over it. If we only choose a small object, whilst the enemy pursues a great one, we shall evidently be the losers. We play with thalers against pfennings.
(11) If our plan of defence is aimed at some great object (the destruction of a column of an enemy, &c.), we must follow it up with the utmost energy, expend upon it all our forces. In most cases, the efforts of the assailant will be in some other direction; whilst we fall upon his right wing, he will be seeking to gain an advantage with his left. If we slacken our efforts sooner than the enemy, if we follow up our object with less energy than he does, he will attain his object, he will gain his advantage completely, whilst we shall only half reach ours. Thus the enemy obtains the preponderance, thus the victory becomes his, and we must give up even our half advantage gained. If your Royal Highness reads attentively the account of the Battles of Ratisbonne and Wagram, you will see both the truth and importance of this.
In both these battles the Emperor Napoleon attacked with his right wing, standing on the defensive with the left. The Archduke Charles did the same. But the one did it with full resolution and energy, the other was undecided, and always stopped half-way. The successes gained by that portion of the Archduke’s Army which was victorious were unimportant; those which the Emperor Napoleon gained in the same time at the opposite point were decisive.
(12) If I may be allowed to bring forward once more the two last principles, the combination of them yields a maxim which, in the modern Art of War, may be regarded as the first among all causes of victory, that is: to follow up a great and decisive object with energy and perseverance.
(13) Danger in case of failure is increased thereby, it is true; but prudence increased at the cost of victory is no Art; it is a false prudence which, as already said, is opposed to the very nature of War; for great ends we must venture much. True prudence is, if we risk anything in War, to select and apply carefully the means to our end, and to neglect nothing through indolence or want of consideration. Of this kind was the prudence of the Emperor Napoleon, who never followed great objects timidly and with half measures through over-prudence.
Among the few victorious defensive battles that are noted in history, you will find, noble Sir, that the greatest were fought in the spirit of these principles, for they are principles derived from the study of history.
At Minden, the Duke Ferdinand suddenly appeared on a field of battle on which the enemy did not expect him, and proceeded to the attack; whilst at Tannhausen he defended himself passively behind entrenchments.
At Rossbach, Frederick II. threw himself on the enemy at a point and at a time where his attack was not expected.
At Leignitz, the Austrians found the King in the night in quite a different position from that in which they had seen him the day before; he fell upon a column of the enemy with the whole weight of his Army, and defeated it before the others could take part in the engagement.
At Hohenlinden, Moreau had five Divisions in his front and four behind him, either directly or obliquely to the rear; he turned the enemy, and fell upon the right-flank column before it could carry out its intended attack.
At Ratisbonne, Marshal Davoust defended himself passively, while Napoleon with the right wing attacked the fifth and sixth Austrian Corps, and completely defeated them.
At Wagram the Austrians were, in reality, on the defensive, still as they attacked the Emperor on the second day with the greater part of their force, we may look upon the latter as acting on the defensive. With his right wing he attacked the Austrian left, turned and beat it, not troubling himself meanwhile about his weak left wing (consisting of a single Division), resting on the Danube; but by means of his strong reserves (deep position) he prevented the victory of the Austrian right wing from having any influence on the victory he had gained on the Rossbach. With these reserves he re-took Aderklaa.
All the foregoing principles are not plainly exemplified in each of the battles enumerated, but all are examples of an active defensive.
The mobility of the Prussian Army under Frederick II. was a means to victory for him, upon which we can no longer build, as other Armies are as capable of moving as ours now.* On the other hand, at that time the turning a flank was less generally in vogue, and, therefore, the deep order of battle was less imperative.
FOR THE ATTACK
(1) We try to fall upon a point in the enemy’s position; that is, a part of his Army (a Division, a Corps), with a great preponderance of force, whilst we keep the other parts in unce tainty, that is to say, occupy them. It is only in this way that when our forces are equal or inferior we can fight with the superiority on our side, that is, with a probability of success. If we are very weak, then we can only spare very few troops to occupy the enemy at other points, that we may be as strong as possible at the decisive point. Unquestionably Frederick II. only gained the battle of Leuthen because he had his small Army on one spot and well concentrated, as compared with the enemy.
(2) The principal blow is directed against a wing of the enemy’s force by an attack in front and flank, or by completely going round it and attacking it in rear. It is only if we push the enemy off his line of retreat by the victory that we gain a great success.
(3) Even when in strong force we often choose only one point for the great shock, and give the blow against that point the greater strength; for to surround an Army completely is seldom possible, or supposes an immense preponderance both physically and morally. But the enemy may also be cut off from his line of retreat by an attack directed against a point in one of his flanks, and that is generally sufficient to ensure great results.
(4) Generally the certainty (high probability) of the victory—that is, the certainty of being able to drive the enemy from the field of battle, is the principal point. Upon this, as an object or end, the plan of the battle must be formed, for a victory once gained, even if it is not decisive, is easily made so by energy in pursuit.
(5) We endeavour to make our attack concentrically on that wing of the enemy which is to receive the shock of our main body, that is, in such a form that his troops find themselves engaged on all sides at once. Allowing that the enemy has troops enough to show a front in all directions, still the troops, under such circumstances, become more easily discouraged; they suffer more, are sooner thrown into disorder, &c.; in short, we may expect to make them give way sooner.
(6) This turning of the enemy compels the assailant to develop a greater force in front than the defender.
If the units a, b, c are to fall concentrically (or by converging lines) on the part e of the enemy’s force, they must naturally stand on lines contiguous to each other. But this development of our force in front must never be carried so far that we do not retain strong reserves. That would be the greatest error possible, and would lead to defeat, if the enemy is only in some measure prepared against being out-flanked.
If a, b, c are units intended to attack e, a part of the enemy’s Army, then the units f, g must be kept in reserve. With this deep formation we can incessantly renew our attacks upon the same point, and if our troops are repulsed at the opposite extremity of the enemy’s position, we are not obliged to give up the day at this, because we have a set-off to any success the enemy may have gained. It was thus with the French at Wagram. The left wing, which was opposed to the Austrian right resting on the Danube, was extremely weak and was totally defeated. Even their centre at Aderklaa was not very strong, and was obliged to give way to the Austrians on the first day. But that did not signify, because the Emperor’s right, with which he attacked the Austrian left in front and flank, had such a depth that he brought a heavy column of cavalry and horse artillery to bear upon the Austrians in Aderklaa, and if he did not beat them, was able, at all events, to stop their progress.
(7) As in the defensive, so in the offensive, that part of the enemy’s Army which, in its destruction, will yield decisive advantages should be the object of attack.
(8) As in the defensive, so here, we must not relax our efforts till we have attained our object, or that our means are entirely exhausted. If the defender is also active if he attacks us at other points, we have no chance of the victory except by surpassing him in energy and boldness. If he remains passive, then, in that case, we run no great danger.
(9) Long, continuous lines of troops are to be particularly avoided, they only lead to parallel attacks which are now no longer to the purpose.
Each Division makes its own attack, although in conformity with the plans of higher authority, and consequently so that they accord with each other. But one Division (8000 to 10,000 men) is never now formed in one line, always in three or four; from this it follows that no long, continuous lines can be used any more.
(10) The attacks of Divisions or Corps in concert must not be combined with the intention of their being under one guidance, so that, although at a distance from each other and perhaps even separated by the enemy, they still remain in communication, even aligning themselves on each other, &c. . This is an erroneous method of carrying out a co-operation, which is liable to a thousand accidents, through which nothing great can ever be effected, and by which one is almost certain to be well beaten if we have to deal with an active, vigorous enemy.*
The true way is to give each Corps or Division Commander the general control of his march, to give him the enemy as the point on which his march is to be directed, and the victory over the enemy as the object of his march.
Each Commander of a column has, therefore, the order to attack the enemy where he finds him, and to do so with all his strength. He must not be made answerable for the result, for that leads to indecision; he must be responsible for nothing more than that his Corps joins in the fight with all its energies and makes any sacrifice that may be necessary.
(11) A well-organised independent Corps can resist the attacks of a vastly superior force for a certain length of time (some hours) and is, therefore, not to be destroyed in a moment; therefore, if it has even been engaged too soon with the enemy and is beaten, still its action is not lost on the whole; the enemy must have deployed his forces, and expended a certain portion of them on this Corps, and thus given our other Corps a favourable opportunity for attack.
Of the organisation of a Corps for this purpose, we shall speak hereafter.
We ensure the harmonious action of the whole in concert when each Corps has in this manner a certain independence, and seeks out the enemy and attacks him at any cost.
(12) One of the most important principles for offensive War is the surprise of the enemy. The more the attack partakes of the nature of a surprise, the more successful we may expect to be. The surprise which the defender effects by the concealment of his dispositions, by the covered position in which he places his troops, the offensive can only effect by the unexpected march to the attack.
This is an occurrence which rarely happens in modern Warfare. This is partly owing to better measures for the security of an Army; partly owing to campaigns being now prosecuted with more vigour, so that there are not now those long pauses in the operations which lulled the one party to sleep, and gave the other a favourable opportunity to make a sudden attack.
Under these circumstances, except by a regular night-surprise (as at Hochkirch), which is always possible, the only way now to surprise an enemy is to make a march to the flank or the rear, and then suddenly return upon him; or if we are at a distance, then by forced marches, and by great efforts, to reach the enemy’s position sooner than he expects.
(13) The regular surprise (by night, as at Hochkirch), affords the best chance of doing something when our Army is small; but it is attended with more risks for the assailant, if the defender knows the country better than he does. The less we know of the country and of the enemy’s arrangements the greater these risks are; therefore, such attacks, in many instances, can only be regarded as desperate means.
(14) In such attacks, all the arrangements must be more simple, and we must keep still more concentrated than by day.
[* ]Curiously in 1866 the Prussians marched nearly twice as fast as the Austrians, in 1870 nearly three times faster day for day as the French. This superior mobility in both instances conditioned their success. The French had forgotten the secret of marching. The Prussians had learnt it.—Editor.
[* ]The field telegraph and signalling have of course, modified all this.