The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

UK flag

Portrait of Clausewitz

US flag


Table of Contents

Mobile Compatible • 

Chapter 12. Assessment, 1873-1914

The reputations of Britain's World War One military leaders have lately been emerging from under the cloud cast by the "Colonel Blimp" caricature that developed during and after the war. It seems increasingly possible even to accord them enough sophistication to have appreciated Clausewitz at some level. The performance of Britain's small professional army in 1914, as personified in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was impressive. Its leaders, with a few notable exceptions, were certainly not stupid men, and whatever errors they made were matched or exceeded by their counterparts in virtually every other European army. It was the British army and nation that stood up best to the moral, political, and military stresses of the long struggle, and it was British arms that led the victorious campaign of late 1918. After all, in "ninety-five electrifying days from 8 August to 11 November 1918, the British army in France fought nine great battles, equal to or exceeding any of its operations in the Second World War, capturing as many guns and prisoners as the French, Americans and Belgians put together."(*1)

That Britain's professional military leaders were exposed to Clausewitz's thought, and quite heavily at that, has been demonstrated already in our discussions of Maude, Murray, Maguire, and Wilkinson, by the uses made of Clausewitz by men who were instructors and commandants at the influential Staff College at Camberley, like Chesney, Maurice, Henderson, and Kiggell, by general staff officers like Repington and Edmonds, and by navalists like Colomb, Thursfield, and Corbett. Lord Roberts clearly had some familiarity with Clausewitz, and it can be demonstrated that at least one wartime chief of the Imperial General Staff (Robertson) had read On War. Given the frequency with which Clausewitz was cited by officers of the general staff and in the theoretical literature of the period, it is odd that he remains unmentioned in major examinations of British war planning.(*2) Perhaps this area needs to be reexamined. Such an examination remains, however, outside the scope of this book.

It is certainly incorrect to assert, as did Azar Gat, that in the United States and Great Britain "on the eve of the First World War,... Jomini's dominance remained unchallenged."(*3) By the beginning of World War One, the importance of Clausewitz was well established among British staff officers and military theorists, although significant references by Americans remained scarce. The attention paid to Clausewitz by crammers like James and Maguire is perhaps the surest proof that Clausewitz was widely discussed. This is not to say that Britain's military writers—much less her soldiers—should be characterized as "Clausewitzians," for all of these writers remained far more eclectic than their continental counterparts. It does mean, however, that Britain was by no means the military-intellectual backwater that it is widely assumed to have been.

It is true that many of the British writers just cited complained at great length about the ignorance of—and hostility to—military theory in Britain. Although this accusation is almost certainly correct when applied to Britain's political leadership, it becomes more problematical when applied to the military leadership. It is true that theory was always suspect in British eyes, a point frequently noted by both natives and foreigners.(*4) This is not necessarily a bad thing, given the usefulness of most of the military theory that has appeared over the years. Many of the complaints, however, were motivated by ignorance of—and hostility to—the particular theories held by the complainer. In any case, military theory is rarely popular reading in any country, even among military professionals.

The relationship of theory to practice is always problematical, but Britain's military errors during the war can probably be better ascribed to organizational weaknesses (i.e., the newness of the general staff, the influence of class and the old-boy network on promotions, the disruption in leadership occasioned immediately before the war by the "Curragh mutiny," and the smallness of Britain's professional military cadre in the face of massive wartime expansion) than to either stupidity or theoretical naiveté.

What role did Clausewitz's theories play in Britain's conduct of the war? Throughout his writing career, Basil Liddell Hart argued that Clausewitz had had a deep and pervading influence on British military thought: "Our pre-war military textbooks,... the strategical memoranda, drawn up by the General Staff at home and in France during the war, and ... the diaries and memoirs of the dominant military authorities published since the war ... are full of tags that can be traced to Clausewitz."(*5)

There are, however, several problems with this interpretation. The first is the problem of correctly identifying those "tags." It is all too easy to see Clausewitz behind every doctrinal bush, and so I have rejected that approach. Clausewitz specifically refused to create a strategic jargon of the sort that makes Jomini's influence so easy to detect, and his complex phrasing does not lend itself to quotation. Many of Clausewitz's British students sought with varying degrees of success to express his ideas in their own terms; often one has to be very sensitive to detect the echoes of Clausewitz even in the writing of so thoroughgoing a Clausewitzian as Wilkinson. If one listens too hard, however, one can hear Clausewitz's voice in almost any argument. Clausewitz's own particular terminology would occasionally appear in wartime writing. For example, Repington's fervent insistence on the "Westerner's" point of view, that is, that resources should not be dribbled away in peripheral operations in places like Gallipoli and Syria, would be couched in terms of the "centre of gravity." His analysis of operations on the Western Front discussed "continuity of operations, tensions and rest."(*6) These are analytical terms, however, not strategic prescriptions. Those peripheral operations could equally be described in a positive manner using Clausewitz's definition of "economy of force." Corbett, an avid Clausewitzian, was an Easterner, the position later approved by Liddell Hart.

Second, Liddell Hart grossly overestimated the extent to which Clausewitz was read and the degree to which his ideas were accepted. He claimed that following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, Clausewitz's "gospel was accepted everywhere as true—and wholly true. All soldiers were quick to swallow it."(*7) Such was certainly not the case.

Liddell Hart himself systematically misrepresented the ideas of Clausewitz and refused to distinguish clearly between the ideas of On War and its alleged misinterpretation by the author's "disciples." Why and how he did so is a problem for Part III of this book. What seems clear, however, is that what Liddell Hart was referring to was the broad influence of the German model and of Foch's school, not that of the native British readers of Clausewitz. He claimed to see Clausewitz in the ideologies of total war and of the offensive as expressed by writers like Goltz, and he refused to acknowledge that in these matters Goltz (and British thinkers like Maude, Haig, and Thursfield) had neither "wholly accepted" nor misunderstood On War. Instead, they had consciously and explicitly rejected key aspects of Clausewitz's teachings. Liddell Hart's comments on Wilkinson, foremost of the native British Clausewitzians, were always positive, and his own views of British strategy were suspiciously similar to Corbett's.

To what extent then, can the mind-set with which Britain and America entered the slaughterhouse of World War One be attributed to the specific influence of On War? This is an exceedingly complex problem, and one that I frankly think is beyond the historian's ability to determine. Beyond the fundamental question of the influence of any military theory on actual practice and the fact that the most widely accepted ideas are those most rarely explicitly discussed, Clausewitz's direct influence must be distinguished from the broad influence of German military writing, organization