Carl von Clausewitz
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.
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.
Buy 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.
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.
Vanya 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.
BOOK 4 • CHAPTER 10
Effects of Victory
JUST according to the point from which our view is taken, we may feel as much astonished at the extraordinary results of some great battles as at the want of results in others. We shall dwell for a moment on the nature of the effect of a great victory.
Three things may easily be distinguished here: the effect upon the instrument itself, that is, generals and their armies; the effect upon the states interested in the war; and the particular result of these effects as manifested in the subsequent course of the war.
If we only think of the trifling difference which there usually is between victor and vanquished in killed, wounded, prisoners, and artillery lost on the field of battle itself, the consequences which are developed out of this insignificant point seem often quite incomprehensible, and yet, usually, everything only happens quite naturally.
We have already said in the seventh chapter that the magnitude of a victory increases not merely in the same measure as the vanquished forces increase in number, but in a higher ratio. The moral effects resulting from the issue of a great battle are greater on the side of the conquered than on that of the conqueror: they lead to greater losses in physical force, which then in turn re-act on the moral, and so they go on mutually supporting and intensifying each other. On this moral effect we must therefore lay special weight. It takes an opposite direction on the one side from that on the other; as it undermines the energies of the conquered so it elevates the powers and energy of the conqueror. But its chief effect is upon the vanquished, because here it is the direct cause of fresh losses, and besides it is homogeneous in nature with danger, with the fatigues, the hardships, and generally with all those embarrassing circumstances by which war is surrounded, therefore enters into league with them and increases by their help, whilst with the conqueror all these things are like weights which give a higher swing to his courage. It is therefore found, that the vanquished sinks much more below the original line of equilibrium than the conqueror raises himself above it; on this account, if we speak of the effects of victory we allude more particularly to those which manifest themselves in the vanquished army. If this effect is more powerful in an important combat than in a smaller one, so again it is much more powerful in a great general action than in a second-rate battle. The great battle takes place for the sake of itself, for the sake of the victory which it is to give, and which is sought for in it with the utmost effort. Here on this spot, in this very hour, to conquer the enemy is the purpose in which the plan of the war with all its threads converges, in which all distant hopes, all dim glimmerings of the future meet; fate steps in before us to given answer to the bold question.—This is the state of mental tension not only of the commander but of his whole army down to the lowest wagon-driver, no doubt in decreasing strength but also in decreasing importance.
According to the nature of the thing, a great battle has never at any time been an unprepared, unexpected, blind routine service, but a grand act, which, partly of itself and partly from the aim of the commander, stands out from amongst the mass of ordinary works, sufficiently to raise the tension of all minds to a higher degree. But the higher this tension with respect to the issue, the more powerful must be the effect of that issue.
Again, the moral effect of victory in our battles is greater than it was in the earlier ones of modern military history. If the former are as we have depicted them, a real struggle of forces to the utmost, then the sum total of all these force, of the physical as well as the moral, must decide more than certain special dispositions or mere chance.
A single fault committed may be repaired next time; from good fortune and chance we can hope for more favour another time; but the sum total of moral and physical powers cannot be so quickly altered, and, therefore, what the award of a victory has decided over it appears of much greater importance for all futurity. Very probably, of all concerned in battles, whether in or out of the army, very few have given a thought to this difference, but the course of the battle itself impresses on the minds of all present in it such a result, and the relation of this course in public documents, however much it may be coloured by twisting particular circumstances, shows also, more or less, to the world at large that the causes were more of a general than of a particular nature.
He who has not been present at the loss of a great battle will have difficulty in forming for himself a living or quite true idea of it, and the abstract notions of this or that small untoward affair will never come up to the perfect conception of a lost battle. Let us stop a moment at the picture
The first thing which in an unsuccessful battle overpowers the imagination—and we may indeed say, also the understanding—is the diminution of the masses; then the loss of ground, which takes place always, more or less, and, therefore, on the side of the assailant also, if he is not fortunate; then the rupture of the original formation, the jumbling together of divisions, the risks of retreat, which, with few exceptions, may always be seen sometimes in a less sometimes in a greater degree; next the retreat, the most part of which commences at night, or, at least, goes on throughout the night. On this first march we must at once leave behind a number of men completely worn out and scattered about, often just the bravest, who have been foremost in the fight, who held out the longest: the feeling of being conquered, which only seized the superior officers on the battle field, now spreads through all ranks, even down to the common soldiers, aggravated by the horrible idea of being obliged to leave in the enemy's hands so many brave comrades, who but a moment since were of such value to us in the battle, and aggravated by a rising distrust of the chief commander, to whom, more or less, every subordinate attributes as a fault the fruitless efforts he has made; and this feeling of being conquered is no ideal picture over which one might become master; it is an evident truth that the enemy is superior to us; a truth of which the causes might have been so latent before that they were not to be discovered, but which, in the issue, comes out clear and palpable, or which was also, perhaps, before suspected, but which in the want of any certainty, we had to oppose by the hope of chance, reliance on good fortune, Providence or bold attitude. Now, all this has proved insufficient, and the earnest truth meets us harsh and imperious.
All these feelings are widely different from a panic, which in an army fortified by military virtue never, and in any other only exceptionally, follows the loss of a battle. They must arise even in the best of armies, and although long habituation to war and victory and great confidence in a commander may modify them a little here and there, they are never entirely wanting in the first moment. Also, they are not the pure consequences of lost trophies; these are usually lost at a later period, and the loss of them does not become generally known so quickly; they will therefore not fail to appear even when the scale turns in the slowest and most gradual manner, and they constitute that effect of a victory upon which we can always count in every case.
We have already said that the number of trophies intensifies this effect.
How much now an army in this condition, looked at as an instrument, is weakened! How can we expect that when weakened to such a degree that, as we said before, it finds new enemies in all the ordinary difficulties of making war, it will be able to recover by fresh efforts what has been lost! Before the battle there was a real or assumed equilibrium between the two sides; this is lost, and, therefore, some external assistance is requisite to restore it; every new effort without such external support can only lead to fresh losses.
Thus, therefore, the most moderate victory of the chief army must tend to cause a constant sinking of the scale, until new external circumstances bring about a change. If these are not near, if the conqueror is an eager opponent, who, thirsting for glory, pursues great aims, then a first-rate commander, and in the army a true military spirit, hardened by many campaigns, are required, in order to stop the swollen stream of prosperity from bursting completely through, and to moderate its course by small but reiterated acts of resistance, until the force of victory has spent itself at the goal of its career.
And now as to the effect of the victory, out of the army, upon the nation and government! It is the sudden collapse of hopes stretched to the utmost, the downfall of all self-reliance. In place of these extinct forces, fear, with its destructive properties of expansion, rushes into the vacuum left, and completes the prostration. It is a real shock upon the nerves, which one of the two athletes receives by the electric spark of victory. And that effect, however different in its degrees here and there, is never completely wanting. Instead of every one hastening with a spirit of determination to aid in repairing the disaster, every one fears that his efforts will only be in vain, and stops, hesitating with himself, when he should rush forward; or in despondency he lets his arm drop, leaving everything to fate.
The consequences which this effect of victory brings forth in the course of the war itself depend in part on the character and talent of the victorious general, but more on the circumstances from which the victory proceeds, and to which it leads. Without boldness and an enterprising spirit on the part of the general, the most brilliant victory will lead to no great success, and its force exhausts itself all the sooner on circumstances, if these offer a strong and stubborn opposition to it. How very differently from Daun, Frederick the Great would have used the victory at Collin; and what different consequences France, in place of Prussia, might have given a battle of Leuthen!
The conditions which allow us to expect great results from a great victory we shall learn when we come to the subjects with which they are connected; then it will be possible to explain the disproportion which appears at first sight between the magnitude of a victory and its results, and which is only too readily attributed to a want of energy on the part of the conqueror. Here, where we have to do with the great battle in itself, we shall merely say that the effects now depicted never fail to attend a victory, that they mount up with the intensive strength of the victory—mount up more the more the battle is a general action, that is the more the whole strength of the army has been concentrated in it, the more the whole military power of the nation is contained in that army, and the state in that military power.
But then the question may be asked, Can theory accept this effect of victory as absolutely necessary?—must it not rather endeavour to find out counter-acting means capable of neutralising these effects? It seems quite natural to answer this question in the affirmative; but heaven defend us from taking that wrong course of most theories, out of which is begotten a mutually devouring Pro et Contra.
Certainly that effect is perfectly necessary, for it has its foundation in the nature of things, and it exists, even if we find means to struggle against it; just as the motion of a cannon ball is always in the direction of the terrestrial, although when fired from east to west part of the general velocity is destroyed by this opposite motion.
All war supposes human weakness, and against that it is directed.
Therefore, if hereafter in another place we examine what is to be done after the loss of a great battle, if we bring under review the resources which still remain, even in the most desperate cases, if we should express a belief in the possibility of retrieving all, even in such a case; it must not be supposed we mean thereby that the effects of such a defeat can by degrees be completely wiped out, for the forces and means used to repair the disaster might have been applied to the realisation of some positive object; and this applies both to the moral and physical forces.
Another question is, whether, through the loss of a great battle, forces are not perhaps roused into existence, which otherwise would never have come to life. This case is certainly conceivable, and it is what has actually occurred with many nations. But to produce this intensified reaction is beyond the province of military art, which can only take account of it where it might be assumed as a possibility.
If there are cases in which the fruits of a victory appear rather of a destructive nature in consequence of the reaction of the forces which it had the effect of rousing into activity—cases which certainly are very exceptional—then it must the more surely be granted, that there is a difference in the effects which one and the same victory may produce according to the character of the people or state, which has been conquered.
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