Carl von Clausewitz: Book IV, Some Comments

The emphasis for Book IV is the tactical, that is for Clausewitz, “the engagement”.  What separates war from other types of social activity is fighting, that is in this context organized violence in the pursuit of a political purpose.  So while the emphasis is the tactical, the whole must always be considered since tactical victory is the means of strategy.

Clausewitz’s emphasis here is on the pure concept, the principle of destruction, which is the prime tactical mission.  One need only remember the stated mission of the Marine Corps as learned by this writer as a volunteer in the mid 1970s, that being, “to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or to repel their assault by fire and close combat”. The means of tactics is the destruction of the enemy.  The end is military victory.

So Clausewitz isn’t saying anything particularly new or insightful here.  Rather he is attempting to argue against those of his contemporaries who saw maneuver as an end in itself with the intention of establishing “base lines” or seizing “key ground” which it was thought would preclude the necessity of a bloody decision, make war a thoroughly civilized affair among a closed community of princes who respected each other and saw it as their common interest in maintaining the status quo resulting in wars of low tension and little movement to borrow the terms from Book III, Chapter 18.  However there was no guarantee that future wars would return to the form of the 18th Century.

Throughout this book Clausewitz keeps the principle of destruction close to this ideal type of absolute war, since it is at the tactical level where the violence actually occurs.  As Antullio Echevarria has pointed out Clausewitz’s concept of the engagement parallels his pure concept of war:

1.  Destruction of the enemy’s armed forces is the main aim.

2.  Destruction is attained through the means of the engagement.

3.  Only major engagements produce major results.

4.  Results are greatest when combined into a single battle.

5.  The commander is best able to control events in a major battle.

In addition to this main point I would like to point out two other important aspects of this book.  As Clausewitz writes there is a dialectical relationship between tactics and strategy (Chapter 2).  Success at the tactical level providing the means and basis for strategic success, but also that changes in the tactical situation  affect the strategic situation.  The nature of battle can change over time with “identical organizations and methods” and the presence of “great national interests” influencing the character of engagements.  Thus differences in organization and methods as well as disproportionate national interests on each side would have a fundamental influence on the nature of combat.  What we describe as “battle” changes over time, but not just in obviously material ways.

Also in Chapter 2 we have this, Gradually, the units engaged are burned out, and when nothing is left but cinders, they are withdrawn and others take their place. One could argue that Clausewitz is speaking in favor of the great bloodletting of the First World War in this passage, which would be essentially the view of Basil Liddell Hart who referred to Clausewitz as the “Mahdi of Mass”.  This would be also committing the cardinal sin of reading On War, that is taking quotes out of context (that is rejecting the whole) to support one’s own views: in other words creating a self-serving strawman.

So, is Clausewitz guilty as Liddell Hart charges?

No.  First Clausewitz assumes an interaction between tactics and strategy.  Tactical combat as an end in itself, that is massive material battles waged to grind the enemy down, is a poor means to a strategic end.  As Clausewitz reminds us in Chapter 3, the subject that concerns us here is strategy, not tactics.  The center of gravity present would indicate the military aim and this center of gravity need not necessarily be the enemy’s army in the field.  Second, if one side is on the strategic defensive it makes no sense to waste troops in retaking ground that has been lost in defensive action especially given that one is entrenched on enemy territory with significant amounts of highly defensable enemy territory to one’s rear.  What caused the German Army to suffer horrific losses at the Battle of the Somme was the constant counterattacking, which was absurd from a Clausewitzian perspective.  Third, as mentioned in Chapter 4, it is the pursuit, the widening of the victory’s sphere of influence to its limit (See Book VI, Ch 29), which causes the victory to take on the nature of a major victory which can mean the end of the war.  This disintergration is largely moral (loss of morale the major decisive factor, and loss of moral equilibrium must not be underestimated).  Once again we have the distinction between a strategy of destruction (which Clausewitz is referring to) as opposed to a strategy of attrition (Liddell Hart’s indirect approach is another name for a strategy of attrition which does not preclude bloodletting and in the long run would cost more than a successful strategy of destruction).  This possibility of pursuit however is dependent on the political and material conditions present.  Successful strategies of destruction are rare in history.

I would argue that the German Army in 1914-18, and in fact all the European militaries were not following Clausewitzian strategic theory.  Rather they were following more the (military) culture of their times which put a high value on notions of national superiority, sacrifice (Opferbereitschaft), and attaining a decisive decision even if the military victory had been divorced from the political purpose and had become an unrealistic end in itself, in effect war became almost autonomous.  This is not to say that the general theory does not provide us with a rich and useful tool of historic analysis since I think it clearly does.

The decline of strategic thought after Clausewitz was not inevitable but was conditioned by social and political conditions.  Could that be the same problem today?

To close I have several minor points:

In Chapter 5, Clausewitz seemingly reverses himself from what he had stated in the previous book, that is  deception becomes the fourth objective of an engagement.

In Chapter 6, Clausewitz mentions that the duration of an engagment is a strategic element and its effects can be quite different.

In Chapter 9 do we have a connection with non-linearity, in that the shape of battle is decisively determined by its preliminary dispositions?  What Alan Beyerchen describes as “sensitive to initial conditions” in his Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and Unpredictability of War?

7 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz: Book IV, Some Comments”

  1. “I would argue that the German Army in 1914-18, and in fact all the European militaries were not following Clausewitzian strategic theory.”

    “The decline of strategic thought after Clausewitz was not inevitable but was conditioned by social and political conditions.”

    I do not agree. The commanders in World War I in the West (not so much in the East) were confronted with a set of problems — strategic, tactical and technical — were virtually insoluble. The confrontation took on the character of a gigantic linear battle with no flanks, with overwhelming firepower and the attacker at a historical low in terms of his power to penetrate the enemy line and exploit an penetration.

    However, both sides were aware of the challenge, and tried to innovate. The Germans tried to modify their artillery tactics and tried to use the so-called Hutier tactics, to effect penetrations. The British tried to use tanks, as well as tactical changes in the equipping and use of infantry, as well as refinements in the use of artillery. By the end, the Western Front had entered the final “pursuit” phase, with the 100 days campaign.

    I do not see anything which makes me think the problem was intellectual deficiency on the part of the commanders. Haig and his subordinates were not donkeys.

    The situation was tragic in the strict sense. There was no way to overcome the circumstances of the Western Front without trial and error, and developing tactics and equipment which could not be conceived of until the demands of the war made the particular needs apparent.

  2. Lexington Green commented,

    “I do not agree. The commanders in World War I in the West (not so much in the East) were confronted with a set of problems — strategic, tactical and technical — were virtually insoluble.”

    I think this was precisely the problem from a strategic theory perspective, that is they were focused on tactics and not on strategy. Since the strategic problems seemed overwhelming (and brought up very difficult political questions best avoided) they focused on tactics, and we know the rest of the story.

    Both sides saw a complete military victory as the military aim, providing the situation where the victors could dictate peace to the vanquished. However neither side had or could achieve operational mobility which would have allowed for the type of decisive victory necessary for a strategy of destruction (we would only see this much later, in 1939). Instead a strategy of attrition would have been necessary, and this strategy would have dictated a quite different approach. I can provide two examples of this:

    First, Erich von Falkenhayn in 1915-6 wished to go over to a strategy of attrition knowing that Germany could not win a war based on a strategy of destruction. Successfully ending to war on good terms for Germany required a political settlement with one side or the other. Verdun was meant to be a battle on these terms with the intention of wearing down the French with the purpose of making them more amendable to a separate peace. The intention was not to break through and capture Verdun, but rather capture the heights around the city and force the French to defend it at an unacceptable cost, breaking their moral will to continue the fight. The problem was that rain delayed the initial offensive robbing the Germans of operational surprise and allowed the French to reinforce. More importantly, the German field commanders could not break with the old strategy of destruction, breaking through and capturing the city in a massive victory. Falkenhayn recognized the right strategy, but was unable to implement it and left his position as Chief of the General Staff in disgrace, to the disaster of Germany. Robert Foley describes this very well in his book, “German Strategy and the Path to Verdun”.

    Second, from this perspective the best option for the Allies would have been a Balkan strategy in 1915 rather than conducting a series of fruitless “local battles” on the Western Front. Local battles is a term for engagements in which the tactical considerations are played out as not part of a broader operational plan or strategy, but rather simply devolving into contests of mutual material destruction.

    Had the French and British landed significant forces in Greece and pushed north into Bulgaria they could have turned Bulgaria into an ally, brought Romania into the war a year earlier, isolated Turkey and threatened Austria-Hungary and kept Serbia in the war. The route to defeating Germany was not through the Western Front, but via the Balkans and to Vienna, knocking Austria out of the war in 1916 would have made Germany’s position untenable. This is btw Svechin’s argument.

    I didn’t refer to them as “donkeys”, rather just well-intentioned men of their epoch who could not consider “the whole” which seems far from a unique situation.

  3. If strategy is the use of battles to win wars, per Clausewitz, there was no scope for strategy in the West. The failure was political. The war should not have been started in the first place, by the Germans. Once it had been started, they should not have conducted it in a political and diplomatic vacuum.

    Falkenhayn’s failure was deeper than you suggest. He should not have attacked in the West at all. No matter what his supposed strategy was, the reality was going to attritional warfare at enormous cost. The Germans were holding a big and valuable chunk of France. They should have stood on the offensive in France and driven Russia out of the war in 1916. That may have opened up the prospect of a negotiated peace. I do not think the Balkan alternative you propose was workable. the Balkans, which were known as the Near East, and had been part of the Ottoman Empire only a few years before, were a dirt-poor area with bad or nonexistent road and rail and river transport. If “Belgium is freedom”, then “the Balkans are a prison cell.” The Germans could have gotten in there from the North and blocked up the few avenues out, just as the (less skillful, less well-equipped) Turks blocked up the landings on the Dardennelles.

    It was not up to the generals to see “the whole”, it was up to the politicians to do that. The generals fought the war they were given. Even then, the Generals, particularly the British Generals, fought with the “whole” in mind more often than they are given credit for. For example the otherwise unaccountable persistence in the Ypres offensive, is usually dismissed as boneheaded butchery. But it only looks that way if it is looked at in isolation. The explanation lies in the French Army mutinies and the Revolution in Russia and the brewing disorder there, and with even the Italians being broken like sticks. Haig is looking at his all of his allies crumbling to nothing, and the Americans nowhere to be seen yet. The war is on the verge of being lost. All he can do is draw off the Germans by attacking. So he did. I see no other way of looking at it. Could it have been handled better? From the comfort of my chair 92 years later it is easy to say so. Still, Haig knew how much his army could stand. Only his never broke. The French, Russians and Germans all broke. Clausewitz tells us that the successful General must be hard enough to demand inhuman hardship, depriviation, suffering, wounds and death from his men. Haig did that, and ultimately his army took the offensive and won the war.

  4. Falkenhayn inherited the situation of 1915 from the younger Moltke. Germany’s strategic dilemma was being surrounded by hostile states which required her defeat or at the least inaction to achieve their war goals. France wanted the return of Alsace-Lorraine (along with “great power status”) and the Russians wanted the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary. In 1914 the Germans had had the option of waiting for the Russians to complete the extension/modernization of their railways allowing for quicker mobilization and deployment, which would have been completed in 1917.

    In retrospect a defensive strategy in the West and limited movements in the East, attempting to come to terms with first Russia, and then France, probably would have been Germany’s best strategy, the military playing a secondary role to diplomacy, this in line with Clausewitz since the simultaneous defeat of France, Britain, Russia and a host of other states was beyond Germany’s military capabilities, that is was not a rational military aim (as recognized by Falkenhayn). Unfortunately strategic theory influencing policy did not fit the nature of the times (does it ever?). All major belligerents (with the exception of Britain) started the war on the offensive, since the quest for decisive victory was universal. Falkenhayn never had much of a chance of changing Germany’s war strategy in mid-stream although he tried. As to the responsibility of the politicians, Moltke had refused the Kaiser’s order to stop the Western offensive as “impossible” in 1914 and Ludendorff was essentially the military dictator of Germany by 1917 . . .

    As I mentioned the Balkans strategy is not mine, but rather Alexander Svechin’s who served as a Russian General Staff officer in the Great War and wrote perhaps the best art of war of the 20th Century, that of course seen from the perspective of the general theory.

  5. By 1914 Germany was already far down the road toward strategic insanity and self-destruction.

    There was no good military solution to Germany’s problem of being “surrounded”.

    Building the High Seas Fleet was an act of absolute madness. Germany was facing a hostile France and a hostile Russia — this last also their own fault, since they let their treaty with Russia lapse. Yet there was a solution. Create an entente, or even an alliance with their enemies’ enemy: Britain. Britain was afraid of Russian encroachment in central Asia and Persia, and of France in Africa and in Southeast Asia. Britain was facing a rising USA and Japan. Britain wanted a diplomatic resolution in Europe. This opportunity was squandered by outrageous stupidity and half-witted social-Darwinian thinking. Germany could have become an economic colossus in alliance with Britain. It chose instead to make enemies out of everyone. That is what you get when you have a hereditary monarchy with actual rather than ceremonial power, amongst other major deficiencies.

    By the time the Summer of 1914 rolled around, it would have taken a miracle to get Germany’s head out of the noose. Yet, even then, if the military actions had been accompanied by hard terms, but terms commensurate with Germany’s military successes, it probably could have pulled off a bloody but limited war for limited gains and called it a “victory”. In particular, if it had stood on the defensive with its gains in France, and hammered Russia to death, it might have been able to gain major annexations in the East, and get the status quo ante bellum in the West.

    But, no.

    Clausewitz surely looked down on the pitiful scene, with Bismarck and the Elder von Moltke and sadly concluded that their successors had forgotten all the most important things about waging war: That it is not an end in itself, that it can gain nothing of value out of its own course and its own logic, that it must have an achievable aim, that if conditions change, then aims must change so that a resolution can be achieved.

    The Germans displayed something like genius from time to time on the tactical level, something like competence on the operational level, mediocrity to stupidity on the strategic level, and outright stupidity at the highest levels of decision-making.

    The penalty for stupidity is often death in the real, hard world.

  6. Lexington Green-

    I think you overstate the case. Why pick on Germany since there was plenty of “strategic insanity” to go around? Had Germany had a stable political system, had the German middle class been prepared to take power from the Junkers over the course of the 1870s to 1910, had the Pan-German movement not had as much political influcence as it did, had Germany not built a High Seas Fleet, or made a series of diplomatic blunders prior to 1914, that would have only removed one set of causes of the First World War. We would still have to deal with those associated with Russia, Austria and France, not to mention Britain which usually comes out of this line up looking pretty sound, that is in comparison.

    We would have to consider what exactly was the political purpose behind Britain’s policy of conquest in the Middle East under Allenby in Palestine and Syria, (not to mention Iraq which came under the command of the “Indian Army”) – a series of moves the consequences of which we are still dealing with today.

    I think the tendency is to look at the Great War not in terms of what happened prior to 1914, or during the conflict, but rather in terms of what happened after 1918. . .

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