On War - title image

Carl von Clausewitz

[Table of Contents]

NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the  standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.

cover image Vom Kriege, by Carl von Clausewitz, ed. Werner Hahlweg.
From Gebundene Ausgabe - Dümmler, Bonn. Erscheinungsdatum: 1991, 19. Auflage, Nachdruck.fl.
ISBN: 342782019X.

This is the 19th German edition published by Dümmlers, Clausewitz's original publisher. It was edited by the esteemed German scholar Werner Hahlweg and is considered the standard and most accurate edition.

Jolles translation, book coverBuy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.

On War, Princeton ed.Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret  (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.

Book coverVanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN: 0190225432. A rich biography of Countess Marie von Clausewitz that also sheds enormous light on the life, ideas, influences upon, and character of the great military thinker himself.




IN order to explain ourselves clearly as to the conception of method and method of action which play such an important part in war, we must be allowed to cast a hasty glance at the logical hierarchy, through which, as through regularly constituted official functionaries, the world of action is governed.

Law, in the widest sense strictly applying to perception as well as action, has plainly something subjective and arbitrary in its literal meaning, and still expresses just that on which we and those things external to us are dependent. As a subject of cognition, Law is the relation of things and their effects to one another; as a subject of the will it is a motive of action, and is then equivalent to command or prohibition.

Principle is likewise such a law for action, except that it has not the formal definite meaning, but is only the spirit and sense of law in order to leave the judgment more freedom of application when the diversity of the real world cannot be laid hold of under the definite form of a Law. As the judgment must of itself suggest the cases in which the principle is not applicable, the latter therefore becomes in that way a real aid or guiding star for the person acting.

Principle is objective when it is the result of objective truth, and consequently of equal value for all men; it is subjective, and then generally called Maxim if there are subjective relations in it, and if it therefore has a certain value only for the person himself who makes it.

Rule is frequently taken in the sense of Law, and then means the same as Principle, for we say "no Rule without exceptions," but we do not say "no Law without exceptions," a sign that with Rule we retain to ourselves more freedom of application.

In another meaning Rule is the means used of discerning a recondite truth in a particular sign lying close at hand, in order to attach to this particular sign the law of action directed upon the whole truth. Of this kind are all the rules of games of play, all abridged processes in mathematics, &c.

Directions and instructions are determinations of action which have an influence upon a number of minor circumstances too numerous and unimportant for general laws.

Lastly, Method, mode of acting, is an always recurring proceeding selected out of several possible ones; and Methodicism (Methodismus) is that which is determined by Methods instead of by general principles or particular prescriptions. By this the cases which are placed under such methods must necessarily be supposed alike in their essential parts. As they cannot all be this, then the point is that at least as many as possible should be; in other words that Method should be calculated on the most probable cases. Methodicism is therefore not founded on determined particular premises, but on the average probability of cases one with another; and its ultimate tendency is to set up an average truth, the constant and uniform application of which soon acquires something of the nature of a mechanical appliance, which in the end does that which is right almost unwittingly.

The conception of Law in relation to perception, is not necessary for the conduct of war, because the complex phenomena of war are not so regular and the regular are not so complex that we should gain anything more by this conception than by the simple truth. And where a simple conception and language is sufficient, to resort to the complex becomes affected and pedantic. The conception of law in relation to action cannot be used in the theory of the conduct of war, because owing to the variableness and diversity of the phenomena there is in it no determination of such a general nature as to deserve the name of law.

But principles, rules, prescriptions, and methods are conceptions indispensable to a theory of the conduct of war, in so far as that theory leads to positive doctrines; because in doctrines the truth can only crystallise itself in such forms.

As tactics is the branch of the conduct of war in which theory can attain the nearest to positive doctrine, therefore in it these conceptions will appear most frequently.

Not to use cavalry against unbroken infantry except in some case of special emergency; only to use firearms within effective range in the combat; to spare the forces as much as possible for the final struggle, these are tactical principles. None of them can be applied absolutely in every case, but they must always be present to the mind of the chief, in order that the benefit of the truth contained in them may not be lost in cases where that truth can be of advantage.

If from the unusual cooking by an enemy's corps his movement is inferred, if the intentional exposure of troops in a combat indicates a false attack, then this way of discerning the truth is called rule, because from a single visible circumstance that conclusion is drawn which corresponds with the same.

If it is a rule to attack the enemy with renewed vigour, as soon as he begins to limber up his artillery in the combat, then on this particular fact depends a course of action which is aimed at the general situation of the enemy as inferred from the above fact, namely, that he is about to give up the fight, that he is commencing to draw off his troops, and is neither capable of making a serious stand while thus drawing off, nor of making his retreat gradually in good order.

Regulations and methods bring preparatory theories into the conduct of war, in so far that disciplined troops are inoculated with them as active principles. The whole body of instructions, for formations, exercise, and field service, are regulations and methods; in the exercise instructions the first predominate, in the field service instructions the latter. To these things the real conduct of war attaches itself; it takes them over, therefore, as given modes of proceeding, and as such they must appear in the theory of the conduct of war.

But for those activities retaining freedom in the employment of these forces, there cannot be regulations, that is, definite instructions, because they would do away with freedom of action. Methods, on the other hand, as a general way of executing duties as they arise, calculated, as we have said, on an average of probability, or as a dominating influence of principles and rules carried through to application, may certainly appear in the theory of the conduct of war, provided only they are not represented as something different to what they are, not represented as the absolute and necessary modes of action (systems), but as the best of general forms which may be used as shorter ways in place of a particular disposition for the occasion at discretion.

But the frequent application of methods will be seen to be most essential and unavoidable in the conduct of war, if we reflect how much action proceeds on mere conjecture, or in complete uncertainty, because one side is prevented from learning all the circumstances which influence the dispositions of the other, or because, even if these circumstances which influence the decisions of the one were really known, there is not, owing to their extent and the dispositions they would entail, sufficient time for the other to carry out all necessary counteracting measures—that therefore measures in war must always be calculated on a certain number of possibilities. If we reflect how numberless are the trifling things belonging to any single event, and which therefore should be taken into account along with it, and that therefore there is no other means but to suppose the one counteracted by the other, and to base our arrangements only upon what is of a general nature and probable; if we reflect lastly that, owing to the increasing number of officers as we descend the scale of rank, less must be left to the true discernment and ripe judgment of individuals the lower the sphere of action; and that when we reach those ranks where we can look for no other notions but those which the regulations of the service and experience afford, we must help them with the methodic forms bordering on those regulations. This will serve both as a support to their judgment and a barrier against those extravagant and erroneous views which are so especially to be dreaded in a sphere where experience is so costly.

Besides this absolute need of method in action, we must also acknowledge that it has a positive advantage, which is that, through the constant repetition of a formal exercise, a readiness, precision, and firmness is attained in the movement of troops, which diminishes the natural friction, and makes the machine move easier.

Method will therefore be the more generally used, become the more indispensable, the further down the scale of rank the position of the active agent; and on the other hand, its use will diminish upwards, until in the highest position it quite disappears. For this reason it is more in its place in tactics than in strategy.

War in its highest aspects consists not of an infinite number of little events, the diversities in which compensate each other, and which, therefore, by a better or worse method are better or worse governed, but of separate great decisive events which must be dealt with separately. It is not a field of stalks which, without any regard to the particular form of each stalk, will be mowed better or worse, according as the mowing instrument is good or bad; but large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.

How high up in military activity the admissibility of method in action reaches naturally determines itself, not according to actual rank, but according to things; and it affects the highest positions in a less degree, only because these positions have the most comprehensive subjects of activity. A constant order of battle, a constant formation of advanced guards and outposts, are methods by which a general ties not only his subordinates' hands, but also his own in certain cases. Certainly, they may have been devised by himself, and may be applied by him according to circumstances; but they may also be a subject of theory, in so far as they are based on the general properties of troops and weapons. On the other hand, any method by which definite plans for wars or campaigns are to be given out all ready made as if from a machine are absolutely worthless.

As long as there exists no theory which can be sustained, that is no enlightened treatise on the conduct of war, method in action cannot but encroach beyond its proper limits in high places, for men employed in these spheres of activity have not always had the opportunity of educating themselves, through study and through contact with the higher interests: in the impracticable and inconsistent disquisitions of theorists and critics they cannot find their way, their sound common sense rejects them, and as they bring with them no knowledge but that derived from experience; therefore, in those cases which admit of, and require a free individual treatment, they readily make use of the means which experience gives them, that is an imitation of the particular methods practised by great Generals, by which a method of action then takes place of itself. If we see Frederick the Great's Generals always making their appearance in the so-called oblique order of battle, the Generals of the French Revolution always using turning movements with a long extended line of battle, and Buonaparte's Lieutenants rushing to the attack with the bloody energy of concentrated masses, then we recognise in the recurrence of the mode of proceeding evidently an adopted method, and see therefore that method of action can reach up to regions bordering on the highest. Should an improved theory facilitate the study of the conduct of war, form the mind and judgment of men who are rising to the highest commands, then also Method in action will no longer reach so far, and so much of it as is to be considered indispensable will then at least be formed from theory itself, and not take place out of mere imitation. However preeminently a great Commander does things, there is always something subjective in the way he does them; and if he has a certain manner, a large share of his individuality is contained in it, which does not always accord with the individuality of the person who copies his manner.

At the same time it would neither be possible nor right to banish subjective methodicism or manner completely from the conduct of war: it is rather to be regarded as a manifestation of that influence which the general character of a war has upon its separate events, and to which satisfaction can only be done in that way if theory is not able to foresee this general character, and include it in its considerations. What is more natural than that the war of the French Revolution had its own way of doing things? and what theory could ever have included that peculiar method? The evil is only that such a manner originating in a special case, easily outlives itself, because it continues whilst circumstances imperceptibly change. This is what theory should prevent by lucid and rational criticism. When in the year 1806 the Prussian Generals, Prince Louis at Saalfeld, Tauentzien on the Dornberg near Jena, Grawert before and Ruchel behind Kappeldorf, all together threw themselves into the open jaws of destruction, with the oblique order of Frederick the Great, and managed to ruin Hohenlohe's army in a way that no army was ever ruined, even on the field of battle. All this was done through a manner which had outlived its day, together with the most downright stupidity to which methodicism ever led.


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