The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

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Chapter 16. Clausewitz's British Proponents

Liddell Hart's attacks on Clausewitz may not have convinced all of the military intellectuals, but they provided the conventional wisdom among nonintellectual soldiers and many nonmilitary writers. Apart from Wilkinson's critique of Liddell Hart, there were few voices raised against him in direct defense of Clausewitz. George Orwell found the description of Clausewitz given in Liddell Hart's The British Way in Warfare to be unconvincing, but whether Orwell himself had read Clausewitz is uncertain. He did note, however, that "a theory does not gain ground unless material conditions favor it," a comment that reflects a historicist view similar to Clausewitz's.(*1)

The American writer Hoffman Nickerson lambasted Liddell Hart for "criticizing the great Clausewitz" but did so near the end of the war when the British theorist's prestige was at its lowest ebb.(*2)

Fuller's critics included Major-General H. Rowan-Robinson, who questioned both Fuller and Liddell Hart for making excessive claims for mechanization.(*3) Like Fuller, Rowan-Robinson drew freely and selectively on Clausewitzian arguments, but he made no specific defense of or attack on Clausewitz himself. Rowan-Robinson's use of Einsteinian space-time imagery, like Fuller's "science of war," marked an attempt to recast military theory in the image of the most modern physical sciences, an attempt fundamentally at odds with Clausewitz's view of war as a social phenomenon.(*4) He accepted that war was essentially social in nature but held that this was irrelevant to its conduct, which depended on a mastery of scientific techniques—logistics, engineering, gunnery, and the like. Leadership was indeed an art, but the practical business of war was rooted in science: "Napoleon was a consummate artist. Berthier, his chief of staff, was a scientist."(*5) The difficulty with this partial acceptance of Clausewitz's definition is that it essentially equates the war leader's problem with the engineer's: War remains a passive thing to be manipulated (whether through "science" or "art"), rather than a conflict between active and sentient wills, with a dynamic of its own.

One of the more solid British treatments of Clausewitz in the early 1940s came from Cyril Falls (1888-1971). An army captain (Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) and a general staff officer in the Great War, Falls was an official historian of the war from 1923 to 1939. In 1939 he became military correspondent for the Times, as had Repington and Liddell Hart before him. Following in Wilkinson's footsteps, he served as Chichele Professor of Military History at Oxford from 1946 to 1953, a post that Liddell Hart craved but failed to win. Falls wrote at least one novel and dabbled in literary criticism, but he was primarily a nuts-and-bolts military historian, writing unit histories, broader histories of the world wars, and general treatments of the art of war.

Falls's two most interesting books from our point of view were discussions of the contemporary problems of the Second World War: The Nature of Modern Warfare (a collection of his Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge in 1941) and Ordeal by Battle (1943).(*6) Falls's anguish over the barbarization of war led him into some moral arguments similar to Wilkinson's, and his wartime books were to some extent attempts to explain that barbarization, to estimate to what extent Britain must adjust to it, and to determine to what degree she could safely resist it. It is uncertain when Falls first read Clausewitz, but it was probably in the very late 1930s and certainly before he wrote these two books.

In The Nature of Modern Warfare, Falls drew heavily on Clausewitz. Given Falls's frequent lamentations about the barbarity of war, it is surprising that he was so comfortable with a military philosopher so coldly logical on the subject. Nonetheless, his attitude was entirely positive: "If I frequently cite Clausewitz, it is because his is the only great mind that I know of which has ever made a study of warfare wherein profound philosophical conceptions are allied with wide practical experience." (Falls suggested that only Sun Tzu might be placed in the same league.)(*7) In order to distinguish the "general elements of war" from the shifting impressions wrought by current events, he attempted to approach Clausewitz's philosophical goals. He did connect Clausewitz ("honourable and high-minded man though he was") to the steady deterioration in German military behavior, but did not hold him responsible for it. He distinguished clearly between Clausewitz's "absolute war," which is never attained in reality, and Ludendorff's "total war." Falls went to considerable lengths to explain the theoretical superiority of the defense despite the events of 1940. Rather oddly, although he raised the old idea of pursuing a strategical offensive while relying on the tactical defensive (as J.F. Maurice did), he rejected the concept of a strategic defensive carried out through offensive tactics (which is much closer to Clausewitz's original discussion). Falls's discussion of mountain warfare made much the same argument as had On War, but his discussion was based on the work of Pierre de Bourcet (1700-1780), one of Clausewitz's French predecessors and a favorite of Spenser Wilkinson.(*8)

Although he was a solid and earnest writer, Falls lacked the penetrating brilliance of Wilkinson. He was, of course, immensely pleased by the praise that Herbert Rosinski bestowed on his book in a review focused almost entirely on its Clausewitzian elements. A close reading of Rosinski's review will nonetheless show that, despite his free use of adjectives like "brilliant," "vivid," and "striking," he took a rather condescending view of Falls's work.(*9) (In fact, nearly all of Rosinski's reviews tended to gush a bit, probably because of his rather desperate personal situation, which mandated caution and an energetic search for allies. The condescension was also typical.) He concluded, however, by saying: "It is high praise for Captain Falls that his work can be discussed in the light of the thought of that master of military thinking."

Falls responded to Rosinski's compliments with another heavily Clausewitzian book, Ordeal by Fire. A more ambitious work than its predecessor, it did not differ materially in its treatment of Clausewitz. With this work he clearly sought, as he put it, to be placed at least on the same shelf with Clausewitz, and at least one of his reviewers put it there. This was not necessarily a compliment. Though impressed by Falls, the reviewer was not particularly fond of the Prussian philosopher, identifying him as a Pole and complaining of his "ponderous, tiresome" book.(*10)

Falls's inaugural lecture as Chichele professor in 1946 made positive references to Clausewitz, and its key theme was the human factor in war, but he also stressed the economic component that Clausewitz had generally ignored. Falls argued that economics is just as important to war as policy is, but seemed to think that the two were somehow completely distinct from each other. By this point, Falls had ceased to quote Clausewitz so frequently. Not, it appears, because he had begun to doubt but because he thought he had pretty well absorbed On War and it was time to push on.(*11) Falls's later book, The Art of War: From the Age of Napoleon to the Present Day (1961) makes several references to Clausewitz.(*12) The treatment is basically positive, but there are some caustic phrases; for example, "The cloudy, diffuse, and repetitive Clausewitz, master of the obvious, yet ever and anon giving out sparks of genius, is never likely to be deposed from the office of high priest in the temple of Mars." I would speculate that this was a defensive reflex in reaction to Liddell Hart, then in his ascendancy. More curious is Falls's criticism of Corbett's "belittlement of the doctrine of `seeking out and destroying the enemy,'" especially given Falls's strong support of Clausewitz's position on the strength of the defense.(*13)

Another positive treatment of Clausewitz came from old Frederick Maurice's son, Major-General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice (1871-1951). Maurice had an interesting military career, including service in the Boer War, a stint as instructor at the Staff College under "Wully" Robertson (1913), service in France (1914/15), and a long assignment as director of military operations at the War Office (1915-18), again under Robertson. This career was terminated rather abruptly when he resigned and went to the newspapers with accusations that Lloyd George was deceiving Parliament about the strength of the British army in France. Lloyd George prevailed (evidently by lying), and Maurice was retired without inquiry by the Army Council. Later, he became one of the most thoughtful critics of the theories of Fuller and Liddell Hart.(*14)

In his frequently cited 1929 book, British Strategy, Maurice said of Clausewitz that his "three volumes On War ... are still today the best general study of its art."(*15) Maurice drew heavily on Clausewitz, Henderson, and Foch, comparing their differing interpretations on the "principles of war" with Fuller's.(*16) On the principle of "economy of force," he correctly understood Clausewitz's use of the term, "which may be put in colloquial language as taking care that all parts of an army are pulling their weight."(*17) His overall analysis, however, emphasized Clausewitz's view that war was a development of social life, stressing the role of public opinion.

Maurice also addressed the problem of interpreting Clausewitz's famous statement that "war is a continuation of policy." To him it meant that "the function of the state was to decide on the policy which was in its best interest, to be strong enough to enforce that policy, and in the last resort to use war to carry it through." This view, said Maurice, had gained general acceptance in Europe before 1914. He criticized the Germans, however, citing Freiherr von Maltzalm (sic) in particular, for getting carried away with the idea: "War has for its aim [said Maltzahn] to compel peace on our conditions. Armed peace aims at preparing the means for war in such strength and in such a state of readiness that the enemy, the State with whose interests our interests conflict, will remain at peace under our conditions." Like Clausewitz and Moltke, Maurice had great faith in the workings of the balance of power, and he observed that that system could not tolerate such a policy. The Great War was the result, but the war proved that in a contest between the Great Powers even the victors would suffer material losses. "There has, therefore, been a revulsion against the doctrine that war is the continuation of policy." Perhaps overly optimistic about the power of world opinion, Maurice argued that "no great Power, no General Staff, will henceforth openly assert that war is a continuation of policy in the sense in which that phrase was interpreted in Germany. Therefore, as a principle of war it is dead."

Still a realist, he added, "None of which alters the fact that war is a political act." The pursuit of inimical policies by competing states would again, inevitably, lead to war. Maurice felt that the change in public attitudes in Europe as a whole would, however, have the advantage for Britain that the next war, when it did come, would likely find all of the belligerents as ill prepared for it as Britain habitually was.(*18) This was a view which that have had some validity had it not been for the rebirth of militarism in the virulent form of fascism.

While Maurice was critical of Corbett for his speculations on the possibility of limited wars between the Great Powers, he was hopeful that the League of Nations, using the weapon of blockade, could enforce a version of collective security "without employing any other form of military action."(*19) This faith in the League of Nations was unusual among military theorists (those in uniform, at least) and was probably transitory; British Strategy was written in the unrealistic international atmosphere that surrounded the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928. The pact specifically called for the renunciation of "war as an instrument of policy," the use of this term being perhaps its only concession to Clausewitzian theory.

Rowan-Robinson, however, viewed the creation of the League in a somewhat similar manner and described it in explicitly Clausewitzian terms:

[Clausewitz] intended to convey to the mind of his readers that a government in pursuit of a policy, if unable to overcome opposition by other means, such as friendly consultation, diplomatic and economic pressure, would eventually turn to war for the achievement of their purpose.... There is a prospect that the pressure of states, whose interests are not immediately engaged, will deflect the continuation of policy from the direction of war to that of conciliation and arbitration. To this end, the nations, harrowed by the ghastly tragedy of the Great War and desperately anxious to avoid the possibility of another such catastrophe, created the League of Nations.... [T]he experiment has not proved an unqualified success; but the lessons learnt from its failures may enable the League to be rebuilt on firmer foundations and thus eventually achieve its noble aims. At the moment, however, war—not arbitration—remains the continuation of policy."(*20)

In this case, Maurice's and Rowan-Robinson's analyses seem to have taken them close to Clausewitz's essentially conservative views on the workings of the balance of power.

On War was thus by no means unread in the British Empire in this period. Beyond Falls's and Maurice's positive treatments in dealing with contemporary issues, classicists like F.E. Adcock and the Australian W.J. Woodhouse made extensive use of Clausewitz's historical philosophy in their investigations of ancient campaigns.(*21) F.N. Maude corresponded with various other writers, British and American, concerning Clausewitz's putative influence on Lincoln during the American Civil War.(*22) Clausewitz continued to exert an influence through prewar British writings, through translated German military writings, and through his impact—denied, disguised, or distorted though it was—on the thinking of Fuller and Liddell Hart. Many British officers important in World War Two but quite junior during the pre-World War One craze for Clausewitz had read his major work. For example, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck (1884-1981), victor in the first battle of Alamein, told Liddell Hart of a youthful infatuation with On War.(*23)

Auchinleck's letter indicated that he had gotten over this infatuation, but such comments made to Liddell Hart are always suspect. Nonetheless, the image connected with Clausewitz's name drifted away from the reality and is probably best summed up by Liddell Hart's nickname for him: "the Mahdi of Mass and mutual massacre." One seeks in vain for any meaningful reference to Clausewitz in writings by or about such significant British figures as Churchill (despite Churchill's reported interest in Corbett) or the air power theorists (discussed next).

NOTES to Chapter 16

1. George Orwell, "Perfide Albion" (review, Liddell Hart's British Way of Warfare), New Statesman and Nation, November 21, 1942, 342-343; Liddell Hart's reply, December 19, 1942, 409-410.

2. Hoffman Nickerson, Arms and Policy, 1939-1944 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1945), 54-57.

3. Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1966), rather inconsistently characterized Rowan-Robinson as both critic of Fuller and Liddell Hart (39) and "Fullerite" (109).

4. See Higham, Military Intellectuals, 39, 40, 109-110; H. Rowan-Robinson, Security?: A Study of Our Military Position (London: Methuen, 1935), 46, 52; Imperial Defence: A Problem in Four Dimensions (London: Frederick Muller, Ltd., 1938), 3, 7, 64. Rowan-Robinson cited as a prominent source of inspiration A.S. Eddington, Space, Time and Gravitation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920). Similar imagery appears in Harold W. Nelson, "Space and Time in On War," Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, 134-149, although Nelson acknowledged (134) that "Clausewitz did not see these factors as the central elements...."

5. Rowan-Robinson, Imperial Defence, 7.

6. Cyril Falls, The Nature of Modern Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941); Ordeal by Battle (London: Methuen, 1943).

7. Ordeal by Battle, 8.

8. Wilkinson discussed Bourcet frequently. See for example "The Soul of an Army," Army Review, July 1911, and French Army before Napoleon. Wilkinson's The Defence of Piedmont, 1742-1748: A Prelude to the Study of Napoleon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927) is largely a study of Bourcet's ideas.

9. Herbert Rosinski, "IMS: Captain Falls on Modern Warfare," Infantry Journal, v.L, no.1 (January 1942).

10. Unsigned, "Strategy and Tactics: Lessons from Modern Methods," Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1943, p496.

11. Cyril Falls, The Place of War in History: An Inaugural Lecture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947).

12. Cyril Falls, The Art of War: From the Age of Napoleon to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press).

13. Falls, Art of War, 6-7, 44, 218-219, 157.

14. See Maurice's Foreword to Victor Wallace Germains, The Mechanization of War (London: Sifton Praed, 1927).

15. Major-General Sir F. [Frederick Barton] Maurice, British Strategy: A Study of the Application of the Principles of War (London: Constable, 1929), 48.

16. Maurice concluded (39) that Clausewitz, Colin, Fuller, and the British Field Service Regulations agreed on only two "principles": that the object was the overthrow of the enemy's armed forces, and that the most effective means to this end was concentration of superior physical and moral strength at the decisive point.

17. Maurice, British Strategy, 113.

18. Maurice, British Strategy, 44-47.

19. Maurice, British Strategy, 42-43.

20. Rowan-Robinson, Imperial Defence, 3-4.

21. W.J. Woodhouse, King Agis of Sparta and His Campaign in Arkadia in 418 B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933; New York: AMS Press, 1978), cites On War on virtually every page of the main narrative, referring to the translation by J.J. Gordon (sic). His approach is strikingly similar to Delbrück's, but his single reference to him is critical. F.E. Adcock, The Roman Art of War Under the Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940) drew on Clausewitz via Delbrück.

22. On Maude's correspondence with Ballard and Palmer, see Chapter 4 above. Maurice compared Clausewitz and Lincoln, but drew no direct connection. Like Ballard, his view of Lincoln was much more positive than Henderson, who Maurice, Statesmen and Soldiers of the Civil War: A Study of the Conduct of the War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1926), vi, 152-161, criticized on this point.

23. Auchinleck to Liddell Hart, 20 November 1950; reply, 23 November 1950. Liddell Hart Papers I/30/30,31.

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