Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 5: sound advice for small armies

“God is on the side of the biggest battalions”, or so the maxim goes. It was an article of faith for Clausewitz, who wrote that

“The best strategy is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point….there is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated.”

This quote brings together three ideas that are key to understanding Clausewitz’s view of how battles are won: concentrating superior numbers at decisive points.

So, did Clausewitz believe that only big armies have a hope in hell on the battlefield? Largely yes, but in Book 5, which deals with the organization and deployment of military forces, Clausewitz comments that war is not always impossible for a markedly weaker army:

“The more restricted the strength, the more restricted its goals must be; further, the more restricted the strength, the more limited the duration. These two directions form escape routes, so to speak, for the weaker side.” [5.3]

This idea can be adapted as sound advice for politicians of small countries with small armies and/or politicians who have allowed their armies to run down. If you don’t prioritize defence spending, and if you allow your military to wither, don’t expect those forces to be up for much, either in a crisis or in multiple deployments. Keep operations short and simple.

Sadly, politicians tend to run-down military forces and hope that they will work miracles when crisis hits, with the inevitable results. As Thucydides said in History of the Peloponnesian War, “hope is by nature an expensive commodity”.

1 thought on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 5: sound advice for small armies”

  1. It sounds like he’s not championing the larger army as much as overwhelming numbers at the point of contact.
    “Hit ’em where they ain’t”, in other words.
    I’m a little rusty on my WWI history. Wasn’t the German plan to break the French by inserting more troops into the front than the French could counter? And that the fatal flaw was that they lacked the rail stock to get the troops there?

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