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], which is a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it.

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.


Attack on a Theatre of War without the View to a Great Decision


1. ALTHOUGH there is neither the will nor the power sufficient for a great decision, there may still exist a decided view in a strategic attack, but it is directed against some secondary object. If the attack succeeds, then, with the attainment of this object the whole falls again into a state of rest and equilibrium. If difficulties to a certain extent present themselves, the general progress of the attack comes to a standstill before the object is gained. Then in its place commences a mere occasional offensive or strategic manœuvring. This is the character of most campaigns.

2. The objects which may be the aim of an offensive of this description are:—

(a.) A strip of territory; gain in means of subsistence, perhaps contributions, sparing our own territory, equivalents in negotiations for peace—such are the advantages to be derived from this procedure. Sometimes an idea of the credit of the army is attached to it, as was perpetually the case in the wars of the French Marshals in the time of Louis XIV. It makes a very important difference whether a portion of territory can be kept or not. In general, the first is the case only when the territory is on the edge of our own theatre of war, and forms a natural complement of it. Only such portions come into consideration as an equivalent in negotiating a peace, others are usually only taken possession of for the duration of a campaign, and to be evacuated when winter begins.

(b.) One of the enemy's principal magazines. If it is not one of considerable importance, it can hardly be looked upon as the object of an offensive determining a whole campaign. It certainly in itself is a loss to the defender, and a gain to the assailant; the great advantage, however, from it for the latter, is that the loss may compel the defender to retire a little and give up a strip of territory which he would otherwise have kept. The capture of a magazine is therefore in reality more a means, and is only spoken of here as an object, because, until captured, it becomes, for the time being, the immediate definite aim of action.

(c.) The capture of a fortress.—We have made the siege of fortresses the subject of a separate chapter, to which we refer our readers. For the reasons there explained, it is easy to conceive how it is that fortresses always constitute the best and most desirable objects in those offensive wars and campaigns in which views cannot be directed to the complete overthrow of the enemy or the conquest of an important part of his territory. We may also easily understand how it is that in the wars in the Low Countries, where fortresses are so abundant, everything has always turned on the possession of one or other of these fortresses, so much so, that the successive conquests of whole provinces never once appear as leading features; while, on the other hand, each of these strong places used to be regarded as a separate thing, which had an intrinsic value in itself, and more attention was paid to the convenience and facility with which it could be attacked than to the value of the place itself.

At the same time, the attack of a place of some importance is always a great undertaking, because it causes a very large expenditure; and, in wars in which the whole is not staked at once on the game, this is a matter which ought to be very much considered. Therefore, such a siege takes its place here as one of the most important objects of a strategic attack. The more unimportant a place is, or the less earnestness there is about the siege, the smaller the preparations for it, the more it is done as a thing en passant, so much the smaller also will be the strategic object, and the more it will be a service fit for small forces and limited views; and the whole thing then often sinks into a kind of sham fight, in order to close the campaign with honour, because as assailant it is incumbent to do something.

(d) A successful combat, encounter, or even battle, for the sake of trophies, or merely for the honour of the arms, sometimes even for the mere ambition of the commanders. That this does happen no one can doubt, unless he knows nothing at all of military history. In the campaigns of the French during the reign of Louis XIV., the most of the offensive battles were of this kind. But what is of more importance for us is to observe that these things are not without objective value, they are not the mere pastime of vanity; they have a very distinct influence on peace, and therefore lead as it were direct to the object. The military fame, the moral superiority of the army and of the general, are things, the influence of which, although unseen, never ceases to bear upon the whole action in war.

The aim of such a combat of course presupposes; (a) that there is an adequate prospect of victory, (B) that there is not a very heavy stake dependent on the issue.—Such a battle fought in straitened relations, and with a limited object, must naturally not be confounded with a victory which is not turned to profitable account merely from moral weakness.

3. With the exception of the last of these objects (d) they may all be attained without a combat of importance, and generally they are so obtained by the offensive. Now, the means which the assailant has at command without resorting to a decisive battle, are derived from the interests which the defensive has to protect in his theatre of war; they consist, therefore, in threatening his lines of communications, either through objects connected with subsistence, as magazines, fertile provinces, water communications, etc., or important points (bridges, defiles, and such like,) or also by placing other corps in the occupation of strong positions situated inconveniently near to him and from which he cannot again drive us out; the seizure of important towns, fertile districts, disturbed parts of the country, which may be excited to rebellion, the threatening of weak allies, etc., etc. Should the attack effectually interrupt the communications, and in such a manner that the defender cannot re-establish them but at a great sacrifice, it compels the defender to take up another position more to the rear or to a flank to cover the objects, at the same time giving up objects of secondary importance. Thus a strip of territory is left open; a magazine or a fortress uncovered: the one exposed to be overrun, the other to be invested. Out of this, combats greater or less may arise, but in such case they are not sought for and treated as an object of the war but as a necessary evil, and can never exceed a certain degree of greatness and importance.

4. The operation of the defensive on the communications of the offensive, is a kind of reaction which in wars waged for the great solution, can only take place when the lines of operation are very long; on the other hand, this kind of reaction lies more in accordance with the nature of things in wars which are not aimed at the great solution. The enemy's lines of communication are seldom very long in such a case; but then, neither is it here so much a question of inflicting great losses of this description on the enemy, a mere impeding and cutting short his means of subsistence often produces an effect, and what the lines want in length is made up for in some degree by the length of time which can be expended in this kind of contest with the enemy: for this reason, the covering his strategic flanks becomes an important object for the assailant. If, therefore, a contest (or rivalry) of this description takes place between the assailant and defender, then the assailant must seek to compensate by numbers for his natural disadvantages. If he retains sufficient power and resolution still to venture a decisive stroke against one of the enemy's corps, or against the enemy's main body itself, the danger which he thus holds over the head of his opponent is his best means of covering himself.

5. In conclusion, we must notice another great advantage which the assailant certainly has over the defender in wars of this kind, which is that of being better able to judge of the intentions and force of his adversary than the latter can in turn of his. It is much more difficult to discover in what degree an assailant is enterprising and bold than when the defender has something of consequence in his mind. Practically viewed, there usually lies already in the choice of the defensive form of war a sort of guarantee that nothing positive is intended; besides this, the preparations for a great reaction differ much more from the ordinary preparations for defence than the preparations for a great attack differ from those directed against minor objects. Finally, the defender is obliged to take his measures soonest of the two, which gives the assailant the advantage of playing the last hand.


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