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.


Ends in War More Precisely Defined

Overthrow of the Enemy


THE aim of war in conception must always be the overthrow of the enemy; this is the fundamental idea from which we set out.

Now, what is this overthrow? It does not always imply as necessary the complete conquest of the enemy's country. If the Germans had reached Paris, in 1792, there—in all human probability—the war with the Revolutionary party would have been brought to an end at once for a season; it was not at all necessary at that time to beat their armies beforehand, for those armies were not yet to be looked upon as potent powers in themselves singly. On the other hand, in 1814, the allies would not have gained everything by taking Paris if Buonaparte had still remained at the head of a considerable army; but as his army had nearly melted away, therefore, also in the year 1814 and 1815 the taking of Paris decided all. If Buonaparte in the year 1812, either before or after taking Moscow, had been able to give the Russian army of 120,000 on the Kaluga road, a complete defeat, such as he gave the Austrians in 1805, and the Prussian army, 1806, then the possession of that capital would most probably have brought about a peace, although an enormous tract of country still remained to be conquered. In the year 1805 it was the battle of Austerlitz that was decisive; and, therefore, the previous possession of Vienna and two-thirds of the Austrian States, was not of sufficient weight to gain for Buonaparte a peace; but, on the other hand also, after that battle of Austerlitz, the integrity of Hungary, still intact, was not of sufficient weight to prevent the conclusion of peace. In the Russian campaign, the complete defeat of the Russian army was the last blow required: the Emperor Alexander had no other army at hand, and, therefore, peace was the certain consequence of victory. If the Russian army had been on the Danube along with the Austrian, and had shared in its defeat, then probably the conquest of Vienna would not have been necessary, and peace would have been concluded in Linz.

In other cases, the complete conquest of a country has not been sufficient, as in the year 1807, in Prussia, when the blow levelled against the Russian auxiliary army, in the doubtful battle of Eylau, was not decisive enough, and the undoubted victory of Friedland was required as a finishing blow, like the victory of Austerlitz in the preceding year.

We see that here, also, the result cannot be determined from general grounds; the individual causes, which no one knows who is not on the spot, and many of a moral nature which are never heard of, even the smallest traits and accidents, which only appear in history as anecdotes, are often decisive. All that theory can here say is as follows:—That the great point is to keep the overruling relations of both parties in view. Out of them a certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed.

The little always depends on the great, the unimportant on the important, and the accidental on the essential. This must guide our view.

Alexander had his centre of gravity in his army, so had Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII., and Frederick the Great, and the career of any one of them would soon have been brought to a close by the destruction of his army: in States torn by internal dissensions, this centre generally lies in the capital; in small states dependent on greater ones, it lies generally in the army of these allies; in a confederacy, it lies in the unity of interests; in a national insurrection, in the person of the chief leader, and in public opinion; against these points the blow must be directed. If the enemy by this loses his balance, no time must be allowed for him to recover it; the blow must be persistently repeated in the same direction, or, in other words, the conqueror must always direct his blows upon the mass, but not against a fraction of the enemy. It is not by conquering one of the enemy's provinces, with little trouble and superior numbers, and preferring the more secure possession of this unimportant conquest to great results, but by seeking out constantly the heart of the hostile power, and staking everything in order to gain all, that we can effectually strike the enemy to the ground.

But whatever may be the central point of the enemy's power against which we are to direct our operations, still the conquest and destruction of his army is the surest commencement, and in all cases, the most essential.

Hence we think that, according to the majority of ascertained facts, the following circumstances chiefly bring about the overthrow of the enemy.

1. Dispersion of his army if it forms, in some degree, a potential force.

2. Capture of the enemy's capital city, if it is both the centre of the power of the State and the seat of political assemblies and actions.

3. An effectual blow against the principal ally, if he is more powerful than the enemy himself.

We have always hitherto supposed the enemy in war as a unity, which is allowable for considerations of a very general nature. But having said that the subjugation of the enemy lies in the overcoming his resistance, concentrated in the centre of gravity, we must lay aside this supposition and introduce the case, in which we have to deal with more than one opponent.

If two or more States combine against a third, that combination constitutes, in a political aspect, only one war, at the same time this political union has also its degrees.

The question is whether each State in the coalition possesses an independent interest in, and an independent force with which to prosecute, the war; or whether there is one amongst them on whose interests and forces those of the others lean for support. The more that the last is the case, the easier it is to look upon the different enemies as one alone, and the more readily we can simplify our principal enterprise to one great blow; and as long as this is in any way possible, it is the most thorough and complete means of success.

We may, therefore, establish it as a principle, that if we can conquer all our enemies by conquering one of them, the defeat of that one must be the aim of the war, because in that one we hit the common centre of gravity of the whole war.

There are very few cases in which this kind of conception is not admissible, and where this reduction of several centres of gravity to one cannot be made. But if this cannot be done, then indeed there is no alternative but to look upon the war as two or more separate wars, each of which has its own aim. As this case supposes the substantive independence of several enemies, consequently a great superiority of the whole, therefore in this case the overthrow of the enemy cannot, in general, come into question.

We now turn more particularly to the question, When is such an object possible and advisable?

In the first place, our forces must be sufficient,—

1. To gain a decisive victory over those of the enemy.

2. To make the expenditure of force which may be necessary to follow up the victory to a point at which it will no longer be possible for the enemy to regain his balance.

Next, we must feel sure that in our political situation, such a result will not excite against us new enemies, who may compel us on the spot to set free our first enemy.

France, in the year 1806, was able completely to conquer Prussia, although in doing so it brought down upon itself the whole military power of Russia, because it was in a condition to cope with the Russians in Prussia.

France might have done the same in Spain in 1808 as far as regards England, but not as regards Austria. It was compelled to weaken itself materially in Spain in 1809, and must have quite given up the contest in that country if it had not had otherwise great superiority both physically and morally, over Austria.

These three cases should therefore be carefully studied, that we may not lose in the last the cause which we have gained in the former ones, and be condemned in costs.

In estimating the strength of forces, and that which may be effected by them, the idea very often suggests itself to look upon time by a dynamic analogy as a factor of forces, and to assume accordingly that half efforts, or half the number of forces would accomplish in two years what could only be effected in one year by the whole force united. This view which lies at the bottom of military schemes, sometimes clearly, sometimes less plainly, is completely wrong.

An operation in war, like everything else upon earth, requires its time; as a matter of course we cannot walk from Wilna to Moscow in eight days; but there is no trace to be found in war of any reciprocal action between time and force, such as takes place in dynamics.

Time is necessary to both belligerents, and the only question is: which of the two, judging by his position, has most reason to expect special advantages from time? Now (exclusive of peculiarities in the situation on one side or the other) the vanquished has plainly the most reason, at the same time certainly not by dynamic, but by psychological laws. Envy, jealousy, anxiety for self, as well as now and again magnanimity, are the natural intercessors for the unfortunate; they raise up for him on the one hand friends, and on the other hand weaken and dissolve the coalition amongst his enemies. Therefore, by delay something advantageous is more likely to happen for the conquered than for the conqueror. Further, we must recollect that to make right use of a first victory, as we have already shown, a great expenditure of force is necessary; this is not a mere outlay once for all, but has to be kept up like housekeeping, on a great scale; the forces which have been sufficient to give us possession of a province, are not always sufficient to meet this additional outlay; by degrees the strain upon our resources becomes greater, until at last it becomes insupportable; time, therefore, of itself may bring about a change.

Could the contributions which Buonaparte levied from the Russians and Poles, in money and in other ways, in 1812, have procured the hundreds of thousands of men that he must have sent to Moscow in order to retain his position there?

But if the conquered provinces are sufficiently important, if there are in them points which are essential to the well-being of those parts which are not conquered, so that the evil, like a cancer, is perpetually of itself gnawing further into the system, then it is possible that the conqueror, although nothing further is done, may gain more than he loses. Now in this state of circumstances, if no help comes from without, then time may complete the work thus commenced; what still remains unconquered will, perhaps, fall of itself. Therefore, thus time may also become a factor of his forces, but this can only take place if a return blow from the conquered is no longer possible, a change of fortune in his favour no longer conceivable, when therefore this factor of his forces is no longer of any value to the conqueror; for he has accomplished the chief object, the danger of the culminating point is past, in short, the enemy is already subdued.

Our object in the above reasoning has been to show clearly that no conquest can be finished too soon, that spreading it over a greater space of time than is absolutely necessary for its completion, instead of facilitating it, makes it more difficult. If this assertion is true, it is further true also that if we are strong enough to effect a certain conquest, we must also be strong enough to do it in one march without intermediate stations. Of course we do not mean by this without short halts, in order to concentrate the forces, and make other indispensable arrangements.

By this view, which makes the character of a speedy and persistent effort towards a decision essential to offensive war, we think we have completely set aside all grounds for that theory which in place of the irresistible continued following up of victory, would substitute a slow methodical system as being more sure and prudent. But even for those who have readily followed us so far, our assertion has, perhaps after all, so much the appearance of a paradox, is at first sight so much opposed and offensive to an opinion which, like an old prejudice, has taken deep root, and has been repeated a thousand times in books, that we considered it advisable to examine more closely the foundation of those plausible arguments which may be advanced.

It is certainly easier to reach an object near us than one at a distance, but when the nearest one does not suit our purpose it does not follow that dividing the work, that a resting point, will enable us to get over the second half of the road easier. A small jump is easier than a large one, but no one on that account, wishing to cross a wide ditch, would jump half of it first.

If we look closely into the foundation of the conception of the so-called methodical offensive war, we shall find it generally consists of the following things:—

1. Conquest of those fortresses belonging to the enemy which we meet with.

2. Laying in the necessary supplies.

3. Fortifying important points, as, magazines, bridges, positions, etc.

4. Resting the troops in quarters during winter, or when they require to be recruited in health and refreshed.

5. Waiting for the reinforcements of the ensuing year.

If for the attainment of all these objects we make a formal division in the course of the offensive action, a resting point in the movement, it is supposed that we gain a new base and renewed force, as if our own State was following up in the rear of the army, and that the latter laid in renewed vigour for every fresh campaign.

All these praiseworthy motives may make the offensive war more convenient, but they do not make its results surer, and are generally only make-believes to cover certain counteracting forces, such as the feelings of the commander or irresolution in the cabinet. We shall try to roll them up from the left flank.

1. The waiting for reinforcements suits the enemy just as well, and is, we may say, more to his advantage. Besides, it lies in the nature of the thing that a State can place in line nearly as many combatant forces in one year as in two; for all the actual increase of combatant force in the second year is but trifling in relation to the whole.

2. The enemy rests himself at the same time that we do.

3. The fortification of towns and positions is not the work of the army, and therefore no ground for any delay.

4. According to the present system of subsisting armies, magazines are more necessary when the army is in cantonments, than when it is advancing. As long as we advance with success, we continually fall into possession of some of the enemy's provision depots, which assist us when the country itself is poor.

5. The taking of the enemy's fortresses cannot be regarded as a suspension of the attack: it is an intensified progress, and therefore the seeming suspension which is caused thereby is not properly a case such as we allude to, it is neither a suspension nor a modifying of the use of force. But whether a regular siege, a blockade, or a mere observation of one or other is most to the purpose, is a question which can only be decided according to particular circumstances. We can only say this in general, that in answering this question another must be clearly decided, which is, whether the risk will not be too great if, while only blockading, we at the same time make a further advance. Where this is not the case, and when there is ample room to extend our forces, it is better to postpone the formal siege till the termination of the whole offensive movement. We must therefore take care not to be led into the error of neglecting the essential, through the idea of immediately making secure that which is conquered.

No doubt it seems as if, by thus advancing, we at once hazard the loss of what has been already gained. Our opinion, however, is that no division of action, no resting point, no intermediate stations are in accordance with the nature of offensive war, and that when the same are unavoidable, they are to be regarded as an evil which makes the result not more certain, but, on the contrary, more uncertain; and further, that, strictly speaking, if from weakness or any cause we have been obliged to stop, a second spring at the object we have in view is, as a rule, impossible; but if such a second spring is possible, then the stoppage at the intermediate station was unnecessary, and that when an object at the very commencement is beyond our strength, it will always remain so.

We say, this appears to be the general truth, by which we only wish to set aside the idea that time of itself can do something for the advantage of the assailant. But as the political relations may change from year to year, therefore, on that account alone, many cases may happen which are exceptions to this general truth.

It may appear perhaps as if we had left our general point of view, and had nothing in our eye except offensive war; but it is not so by any means. Certainly, he who can set before himself the complete overthrow of the enemy as his object, will not easily be reduced to take refuge in the defensive, the immediate object of which is only to keep possession; but as we stand by the declaration throughout, that a defensive without any positive principle is a contradiction in strategy as well as in tactics, and therefore always come back to the fact that every defensive, according to its strength, will seek to change to the attack as soon as it has exhausted the advantages of the defensive, so therefore, however great or small the defence may be, we still also include in it contingently the overthrow of the enemy as an object which this attack may have, and which is to be considered as the proper object of the defensive, and we say that there may be cases in which the assailant, notwithstanding he has in view such a great object, may still prefer at first to make use of the defensive form. That this idea is founded in reality is easily shown by the campaign of 1812. The Emperor Alexander in engaging in the war did not perhaps think of ruining his enemy completely, as was done in the sequel; but is there anything which makes such an idea impossible? And yet, if so, would it not still remain very natural that the Russians began the war on the defensive?


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