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.

Book Cover, ON WATERLOOOn Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it. Clausewitz's Der Felzug von 1815 was written late in his life and its findings were never incorporated into On War, so most readers will find it new material.

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 coverDecoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (University Press of Kansas, 2008). By Jon Tetsuro Sumida. ISBN: 9780700616169. *This is perhaps the most important recent book for anyone seeking to understand Clausewitz's thinking. Sumida contends that Clausewitz's central value lies in his method of reenacting the psychological difficulties of high command in order to promote the powers of intuition that he believed were essential to effective strategic decision-making. Sumida also correctly notes Clausewitz's argument that the defense is a stronger form of war, and goes on to explore the implications of that fact.





THE conception of strategy has been settled in the second chapter of the second book. It is the employment of the battle to gain the object of the war. Properly speaking it has to do with nothing but the battle, but its theory must include in this consideration the instrument of this real activity—the armed force—in itself and in its principal relations, for the battle is fought by it, and shows its effects upon it in turn. It must be well acquainted with the battle itself as far as relates to its possible results, and those mental and moral powers which are the most important in the use of the same.

Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war; it must therefore give an aim to the whole military action, which must be in accordance with the object of the war; in other words, strategy forms the plan of the war, and to the said aim it links the series of acts which are to lead to the same, that is to say, it makes the plans for the separate campaigns, and regulates the combats to be fought in each. As these are all things which to a great extent can only be determined on conjectures, some of which turn out incorrect, while a number of other arrangements pertaining to details cannot be made at all beforehand, it follows, as a matter of course, that strategy must go with the army to the field in order to arrange particulars on the spot, and to make the modifications in the general plan which incessantly become necessary in war. Strategy can therefore never take its hand from the work for a moment.

That this however has not been always the view taken, generally, is evident from the former custom of keeping strategy in the cabinet and not with the army, a thing only allowable if the cabinet is so near to the army that it can be taken for the chief head-quarters of the army.

Theory will therefore attend on strategy in the determination of its plans, or, as we may more properly say, it will throw a light on things in themselves, and in their relations to each other, and bring out prominently the little that there is of principle or rule.

If we recall to mind from the first chapter how many things of the highest importance war touches upon, we may conceive that a consideration of all requires a rare grasp of mind.

A prince or general who knows exactly how to organise his war according to his object and means, who does neither too little nor too much, gives by that the greatest proof of his genius. But the effects of this talent are exhibited not so much by the invention of new modes of action, which might strike the eye immediately, as in the successful final result of the whole. It is the exact fulfilment of silent suppositions, it is the noiseless harmony of the whole action which we should admire, and which only makes itself known in the total result.

The inquirer who, tracing back from the final result, does not perceive the signs of that harmony is one who is apt to seek for genius where it is not, and where it cannot be found.

The means and forms which strategy uses are in fact so extremely simple, so well known by their constant repetition, that it only appears ridiculous to sound common sense when it hears critics so frequently speaking of them with high-flown emphasis. Turning a flank, which has been done a thousand times, is regarded here as a proof of the most brilliant genius, there as a proof of the most profound penetration, indeed even of the most comprehensive knowledge. Can there be in the book-world more absurd productions?

It is still more ridiculous if, in addition to this, we reflect that the same critic, in accordance with prevalent opinion, excludes all moral forces from theory, and will not allow it to be concerned with anything but the material forces, so that all must be confined to a few mathematical relations of equilibrium and preponderance, of time and space, and a few lines and angles. If it were nothing more than this, then out of such a miserable business there would not be a scientific problem for even a schoolboy.

But let us admit: there is no question here about scientific formulas and problems; the relations of material things are all very simple; the right comprehension of the moral forces which come into play is more difficult. Still, even in respect to them, it is only in the highest branches of strategy that moral complications and a great diversity of quantities and relations are to be looked for, only at that point where strategy borders on political science, or rather where the two become one, and there, as we have before observed, they have more influence on the "how much" and "how little" is to be done than on the form of execution. Where the latter is the principal question, as in the single acts both great and small in war, the moral quantities are already reduced to a very small number.

Thus, then, in strategy everything is very simple, but not on that account very easy. Once it is determined from the relations of the state what should and may be done by war, then the way to it is easy to find; but to follow that way straightforward, to carry out the plan without being obliged to deviate from it a thousand times by a thousand varying influences, that requires, besides great strength of character, great clearness and steadiness of mind, and out of a thousand men who are remarkable, some for mind, others for penetration, others again for boldness or strength of will, perhaps not one will combine in himself all those qualities which are required to raise a man above mediocrity in the career of a general.

It may sound strange, but for all who know war in this respect it is a fact beyond doubt, that much more strength of will is required to make an important decision in strategy than in tactics. In the latter we are hurried on with the moment; a commander feels himself borne along in a strong current, against which he durst not contend without the most destructive consequences, he suppresses the rising fears, and boldly ventures further. In strategy, where all goes on at a slower rate, there is more room allowed for our own apprehensions and those of others, for objections and remonstrances, consequently also for unseasonable regrets; and as we do not see things in strategy as we do at least half of them in tactics, with the living eye, but everything must be conjectured and assumed, therefore the convictions produced are less powerful. The consequence is, that most generals when they should act, remain stuck fast in bewildering doubts.

Now let us cast a glance at history—it lights upon Frederick the Great's campaign of 1760, celebrated for its fine marches and manœuvres: a perfect masterpiece of strategic skill as critics tell us. Is there really anything to drive us out of our wits with admiration in the king's first trying to turn Daun's right flank, then his left, then again his right, &c.? Are we to see profound wisdom in this? No, that we cannot, if we are to decide naturally and without affectation. What we rather admire above all is the sagacity of the king in this respect, that while pursuing a great object with very limited means, he undertook nothing beyond his powers, and just enough to gain his object. This sagacity of the general is visible not only in this campaign, but throughout all the three wars of the great king!

To bring Silesia into the safe harbour of a well guaranteed peace, was his object.

At the head of a small state, which was like other states in most things, and only ahead of them in some branches of administration; he could not be an Alexander, and, as Charles XII., he would only like him have broken his head. We find, therefore, in the whole of his conduct of war, a controlled power, always well balanced, and never wanting in energy, which in the most critical moments rises to astonishing deeds, and the next moment oscillates quietly on again in subordination to the play of the most subtil political influences. Neither vanity, thirst for glory, nor vengeance could make him deviate from his course, and this course alone it is which brought him to a fortunate termination of the contest.

These few words do but scant justice to this phase of the genius of the great general; the eyes must be fixed carefully on the extraordinary issue of the struggle, and the causes which brought about that issue must be traced out, in order thoroughly to understand that nothing but the king's penetrating eye brought him safely out of all his dangers.

This is one feature in this great commander which we admire in the campaign of 1760—and in all others, but in this especially—because in none did he keep the balance even against such a superior hostile force, with such a small sacrifice.

Another feature relates to the difficulty of execution. Marches to turn a flank, right or left, are easily combined; the idea of keeping a small force always well concentrated to be able to meet the enemy on equal terms at any point, to multiply a force by rapid movement, is as easily conceived as expressed; the mere contrivance in these points, therefore, cannot excite our admiration, and with respect to such simple things, there is nothing further than to admit that they are simple.

But let a general try to do these things like Frederick the Great. Long afterwards authors, who were eye witnesses, have spoken of the danger, indeed of the imprudence, of the king's camps, and doubtless at the time he pitched them, the danger appeared three times as great as afterwards.

It was the same with his marches, under the eyes, nay often under the cannon of the enemy's army; these camps were taken up, these marches made not from want of prudence, but because in Daun's system, in his mode of drawing up his army, in the responsibility which pressed upon him, and in his character, Frederick found that security which justified his camps and marches. But it required the king's boldness, determination, and strength of will to see things in this light, and not to be led astray and intimidated by the danger of which thirty years after people still wrote and spoke. Few generals in this situation would have believed these simple strategic means to be practicable.

Again, another difficulty in execution is that the king's army in this campaign was constantly in motion. Twice it marched by wretched cross roads, from the Elbe into Silesia, in rear of Daun and pursued by Lascy (beginning of July, beginning of August). It required to be always ready for battle, and its marches to be organised with a degree of skill which necessarily called forth a proportionate degree of exertion. Although attended and delayed by thousands of wagons, still its subsistence was extremely difficult. In Silesia for eight days before the battle of Leignitz it had constantly night marches, defiling alternately right and left in front of the enemy:—this costs great fatigue, this requires great privations.

Is it to be supposed that all this could have been done without producing a great friction in the machine? Can the mind of a commander elaborate such movements with the same ease as the hand of a land surveyor uses the astrolabe? Does not the sight of the sufferings of their hungry, thirsty comrades pierce the hearts of the commander and his generals a thousand times? Must not the murmurs and doubts which these cause reach his ear? Has an ordinary man the courage to demand such sacrifices, and would not such efforts most certainly demoralise the army, break up the bands of discipline, and, in short, undermine its military virtue, if firm reliance on the greatness and infallibility of the commander did not compensate for all? Here, therefore, it is that we should pay respect; it is these miracles of execution which we should admire. But it is impossible to realise all this in its full force without a foretaste of it by experience. He who only knows war from books or the drill ground cannot realise the whole effect of this counterpoise in action; we beg him, therefore, to accept from us on faith and trust all that he is unable to supply from any personal experiences of his own.

We wished by this illustration to give more clearness to the course of our ideas, and in closing this chapter briefly observe that in our exposition of strategy we shall describe after our fashion those separate subjects which appear to us the most important, whether of a moral or material nature; we shall proceed from the simple to the complex, and shall conclude with the inner connection of the whole act of war, in other words with the plan for a war or campaign.



In an earlier manuscript of the second book are the following passages endorsed by the author himself to be used for the first Chapter of the second Book: the projected revision of that chapter not having been made, the passages referred to are introduced here in full.

By the mere assemblage of armed forces at a particular point, a battle there becomes possible, but does not always take place. Is that possibility now to be regarded as a reality and therefore an effective thing? Certainly, it is so by its results, and these effects, whatever they may be, can never fail.

1.—Possible combats are on account of their results to be looked upon as real ones.

If a detachment is sent away to cut off the retreat of a flying enemy, and the enemy surrenders in consequence without further resistance, still it is through the combat which is offered to him by this detachment sent after him that he is brought to his decision.

If a part of our army occupies an enemy's province which was undefended, and thus deprives the enemy of very considerable means of keeping up the strength of his army, it is entirely through the battle which our detached corps gives the enemy to expect, in case he seeks to recover the lost province, that we remain in possession of the same.

In both cases therefore, the mere possibility of a battle has produced results, and is therefore to be classed amongst actual events. Suppose that in these cases the enemy has opposed our corps with others superior in force, and thus forced ours to give up their object without a combat, then certainly our plan has failed, but the battle which we offered at (either of) those points has not on that account been without effect, for it attracted the enemy's forces to that point. And in case our whole undertaking has done us harm, it cannot be said that these positions, these possible battles, have been attended with no results; their effects, then, are similar to those of a lost battle.

In this manner we see that the destruction of the enemy's military forces, the overthrow of the enemy's power, is only to be done through the effect of a battle whether it be that it actually takes place, or that it is merely offered, and not accepted.


2.—Twofold object of the combat.

But these effects are of two kinds, direct and indirect; they are of the latter, if other things intrude themselves, and become the object of the combat—things which cannot be regarded as the destruction of enemy's force, but only leading up to it certainly by circuitous road, but with so much the greater effect. The possession of provinces, towns, fortresses, roads, bridges, magazines, &c., may be the immediate object of a battle, but never the ultimate one. Things of this description can never be looked upon otherwise than as means of gaining greater superiority, so as at last to offer battle to the enemy in such a way that it will be impossible for him to accept it. Therefore all these things must only be regarded as intermediate links, steps as it were, leading up to the effectual principle, but never as that principle itself.



In 1814 by the capture of Buonaparte's capital the object of the war was attained. The political divisions which had their roots in Paris came into active operation, and an enormous split left the power of the Emperor to collapse of itself. Nevertheless the point of view from which we must look at all this is, that through these causes the forces and defensive means of Buonaparte were suddenly very much diminished, the superiority of the Allies, therefore, just in the same measure increased, and any further resistance then became impossible. It was this impossibility which produced the peace with France. If we suppose the forces of the Allies at that moment diminished to a like extent through external causes;—if the superiority vanishes, then at the same time vanishes also all the effect and importance of the taking of Paris.

We have gone through this chain of argument in order to show that this is the natural and only true view of the thing from which it derives its importance. It leads always back to the question, What at any given moment of the war or campaign will be the probable result of the great or small combats which the two sides might offer to each other? In the consideration of a plan for a campaign or war, this question only is decisive as to the measures which are to be taken all through from the very commencement.


4.—When this view is not taken, then a false value is given to other things.

If we do not accustom ourselves to look upon war, and the single campaigns in a war, as a chain which is all composed of battles strung together, one of which always brings on another; if we adopt the idea that the taking of a certain geographical point, the occupation of an undefended province, is in itself anything; then we are very likely to regard it as an acquisition which we may retain; and if we look at it so, and not as a term in the whole series of events, we do not ask ourselves whether this possession may not lead to greater disadvantages hereafter. How often we find this mistake recurring in military history.

We might say that, just as in commerce the merchant cannot set apart and place in security gains from one single transaction by itself, so in war a single advantage cannot be separated from the result of the whole. Just as the former must always operate with the whole bulk of his means, just so in war, only the sum total will decide on the advantage or disadvantage of each item.

If the mind's eye is always directed upon the series of combats, so far as they can be seen beforehand, then it is always looking in the right direction to the aim, and thereby the motion of the force acquires that rapidity, that is to say, willing and doing acquire that energy which is suitable to the matter, and which is not to be thwarted or turned aside by extraneous influences.


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